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She probably would have got him, had she not tried her ambush while he was actively siphoning mana.
It was a very small ley nexus in the middle of the woods, of course; even in a backwater country like Thacaar any nexus of significance would already be claimed by some wizard and likely the site of a tower. It would do, however, to recharge his power crystals and replenish his powder supply. Macraigh had spent a cold night camped in the forest, not daring a fire, before laboriously navigating to this spot via pendulum, his charmed compass having been broken in a recent tussle with the Inquisitor’s forces. Now, having laid out the siphoning circle (a design he himself had innovated, enabling him to both gather dust and charge crystals simultaneously at the cost of slowing both processes), he was hunched over the collection hourglass in which ambient arcane energy was coalescing into enchantment-ready powder, holding a coarse breakfast of hardtack in one hand and a brass rod in the other. The rod was for regularly tapping the hourglass to loosen dust as it formed and prevent clumps.
So far he had only forgot himself and smacked it with the hardtack twice. It had been a long night.
Macraigh paused in chewing, frowning at the hourglass. The dust had begun drifting notably against the side nearest him, and just as he lifted the rod to tap it loose, the thin stream of glittering blue powder materializing from the upper chamber shifted. As if nudged by a breeze, which of course was impossible inside the glass.
Carefully not moving anything but his eyes, he glanced around the circle at the three quartz chunks he had set up to charge, two of which were only barely within his peripheral vision. Those two gleamed brighter than the third, and were also flickering subtly. Coupled with the direction of the powder’s drift—there it came again—they revealed the direction of whatever was disrupting the ley lines.
There was very unlikely to be a fairy closing in on him from the front; the kind of fairies who charged at arcane workings did not hide their approach. More likely the ley lines were being tugged from the other direction. That meant either a warlock or demon absorbing power, or a subtle use of divine magic causing a slight natural vacuum toward which loose arcane energy would be drawn.
And he certainly knew which was most likely to be hunting him.
Carefully avoiding any sudden moves, Macraigh dropped his hardtack to the dirt and reached as slowly as he dared into the front of his robes, where he had a pouch of charms at the ready for just such occasions as these. Enchanting it to deliver to his fingers specifically the one he desired with no need for rummaging had been a major working that took him the better part of half a year, and which he had not once regretted.
Especially not now, as the two crystals suddenly gleamed brighter just as a particularly strong surge splattered the dust practically sideways within the hourglass. He half-spun, half-flopped backward (even mages who led lives as active as his rarely had time for athleticism) and hurled the slow charm in the direction of his attacker.
By Salyrene’s grace, he caught her mid-leap. Macraigh lay sprawled on his side, panting with adrenaline and staring up at her. There had been no sound, not even a quieting of the birds and cicadas nearby. If only she had waited for him to finish, that would have been the end of his quest. She was good; this was one of his closest scrapes by far.
The Silver Huntress hovered a foot off the ground, one leg extended gracefully behind her from her leap and an arm upraised with a knife ready to strike downward. Omnu’s breath, had she been planning to kill him? Even the Inquisitor was insistent on bringing him in alive, but this one might not have been fully briefed. He’d never seen her before; she was a local Thacaari, her tea-brown skin making her silver eagle tattoo seem even more luminous.
“Oh!” he said suddenly, eyes widening in alarm, and scrambled up to a kneeling position, reaching into his charm pouch again. This time there was some short fumbling, as he hadn’t a specific charm for what he needed, but making do on the fly was the mark of a skilled wizard, which Macraigh considered himself to be. A couple of seconds’ frantic thought brought him a small square of enchanting vellum and his pre-dusted quill, with which he scrawled a hurried set of runes before hurling the scrap at the Huntress.
It zipped forward as if caught in a wind to adhere to her chest. She drew in a loud, desperate gasp, able to take her first breath in real time since being hit by the slow trap.
“Nemitoth’s quills, I’m sorry about that,” Macraigh said nervously. “I usually use that for demons and the like, wasn’t expecting a real person. You all right there? You can breathe okay? Please say something if you feel any numbness or tingling in your extremities, I think I prevented that but—”
“Release me, warlock!” she spat. In Pashu, of course, but his language pendant translated adequately as always. To his knowledge, the Inquisitor spoke Tanglic; either she had significant local contacts or…what? By Vesk’s own fiddle, he was not cut out for all this skulduggery.
“I’m not a warlock,” he said wearily, more for form’s sake than because he thought anything useful would come of starting that argument again. “And don’t worry, I will release you. When I’m a good distance away. Considering you came at me with a knife I think that’s a reasonable compromise.”
Her eyes narrowed—his hasty modification to the slow charm had freed her head and vital organs, that was it—and she showed enough presence of mind not to bother quibbling over the obviously futile. “Warlock, mage, whatever. You dabble in forbidden magics. The Goddess has demanded your end.”
“You know what I find interesting?” he said testily, beginning to gather his equipment back into his Bag of Holding. This was less crystal charge and accumulated enchanting powder than he’d hoped for, but even with her trapped he didn’t fancy finishing his work under her gimlet stare. “I’ve yet to hear a word on this that suggests your goddess is even aware of me. All this comes from people, Huntress, mortals as flawed as you or I. People who decide what magics to forbid without bothering to understand them and then won’t hear discussion on the subject. If anything, your friend the Inquisitor is on shakier footing with the gods than I. Salyrene charges us to seek knowledge and advance understanding, whereas if she’s telling you this business comes down from your goddess she’s taking Avei’s name in vain. To be frank I’ve never heard of an Inquisitor in Avenic lore before she started in on me; the whole thing sounds made up. And I never dabble,” he added haughtily, straightening up to look around for anything he’d forgotten. Ah, yes, his hardtack. Macraigh picked it up and brushed off dirt on the front of his robes. “My research is exhaustive and my precautions exacting. Goddess, spare me the stubbornness of religious people. And yes, I’m aware of the irony.”
She couldn’t seem to think of a response to that, which did not surprise him unduly. Macraigh had accumulated some unfortunate experience with religious fanatics in recent years, and found that when confronted with common sense they would either fly into an incoherent rage or freeze up entirely. More down-to-earth sorts like the Silver Huntresses tended to be in the latter group.
“Anyhow. I am sorry about all this,” he said, pulling a stick of smoothed rowan wood engraved with basic runes and jamming it upright in the ground in front of her. More materials squandered, but at least these were basic enough that they could be replaced without undue onus.
“You’re sorry,” she spat, still frozen in the air before him.
“Yes, I am,” he said simply, winding a length of embroidered ribbon around the stick and carefully balancing a glass bead atop it. Once the assembly was in place the charm ignited, causing the ribbon to twist in a slow spiral around the stick while the bead shone a brilliant arcane blue.
It also produced a tremendously unpleasant buzzing noise, causing both of them to cringe.
“Sorry about that, too,” he added, raising his voice above the racket. “It’ll keep the animals away, though. I’m sure you know there are bears hereabouts, and I wouldn’t want you stuck there helpless. The charm will wear off…well, after a while. Just kick over the stick when you’re free, the noise will stop as soon as it’s disarranged.”
She was frowning at him in familiar puzzlement. Not for the first time, Macraigh considered that he could probably argue his case successfully before the High Commander if the Inquisitor ever succeeded in getting her hands on him; he had certainly left behind a trail of Avei’s minions inconvenienced but very carefully not harmed, or even spoken to harshly. It wasn’t their fault they were being told by a pigheaded extremist that he was some kind of maniac. Unfortunately, the nature of his work kept him moving, which meant there was always a new set of fresh faces for the Inquisitor to hurl at him. It was a shame the Hand of Avei was off crusading at Valgorod. Macraigh rather fancied he could talk sense to her. Soldiers were pragmatic folk.
“If you’d like,” he offered, “I can apply a charm to you that will deaden your hearing for a while. It’ll be less uncomfortable—”
“Don’t you touch me!”
“Right, I thought not,” he sighed, turning away. “Good luck to you, then.”
Macraigh stepped almost to the edge of the small clearing before thinking better of setting off straight. He made a show of taking out and consulting his (broken) compass, then turned and trotted off into the woods in an entirely different direction than he was actually heading.
He finished off the hardtack during the half hour in which he laid a false trail in the wrong direction; it didn’t taste notably worse for having fallen on the ground, and it wasn’t as if this was his first time ingesting trace amounts of dirt. Upon reaching a creek, Macraigh stopped ankle-deep in the water, fishing out another charm from his pouch. Stepping very carefully to the opposite edge of the creek bed, he reached over and laid it upon the mossy bank without personally touching dry ground, then backed away a few steps and retrieved a crystal-tipped rod from his Bag of Holding.
One flick of the wand, and the enchanting vellum disintegrated into a puff of smoke, which streamed off into the woods, leaving behind a damp trail of Macraigh’s footprints. That was a good charm, one he had laboriously devised himself and which ought to fool even expert trackers who knew to be wary of Allister’s False Footsteps. This one even carried his scent and would break twigs and disarrange underbrush in passing. Obviously she’d figure it out when it came to an abrupt stop in the middle of nowhere, but at least that would give him a leg up while she had to double back.
He turned and slogged off down the creek as fast as he could without sacrificing his footing in the running water. Putting miles between himself and pursuit was only part of his need to hasten. Macraigh’s ultimate destination was almost near enough he could taste it, and he had been forced to arrange the most thorough of cover to keep the Inquisitor and her lackeys off his back while he finished his work. It was going to kick the whole country into a furor, not to mention what would happen to him if the great powers he had deliberately poked figured out what he’d done, but the Inquisitor was the single most stubbornly obsessive person he had ever had the misfortune to encounter; nothing short of an act of the gods was going to distract her.
Well, an act of the gods was more than Macraigh could conjure up, but he’d found pretty much the next best thing. He only hoped it would be enough.
Even above the gurgle of the stream, he heard the road long before reaching it; there was an awful lot of traffic, to judge by the shouts of people and bellowing of oxen and donkeys. As he drew closer to the edge of the forest, Macraigh winced guiltily, having heard a moment of audible weeping from someone. It was a safe bet these people were sensibly fleeing from what he had set in motion.
In the end, it would all be worth it. That, or he would be in no position to see the aftermath.
He left the creek bed before emerging from the treeline, deciding not to try sneaking under the bridge up ahead. The road was definitely busier than it ought to be, though it couldn’t be called packed. A steady stream of people were passing by, heading south toward Nijendieu. Locals, all of them, dark-skinned Thacaari in the simple but colorful robes and turbans favored by their peasantry. Nearly all were carrying possessions; over half rode laden pack animals or ox-drawn carts.
Just his luck, there was a small group of actual soldiers in bronze armor crossing the bridge right as Macraigh approached the road, clambering up the incline out of the creek bed. Naturally, they stopped in unison, turning to give him a thorough once-over. He sighed softly, and did not slow. By that point, thanks to the Inquisitor, Macraigh was practiced in not drawing official attention, and he’d learned that the quickest way to make soldiers think you were up to something was by deliberately trying to look innocent. It wasn’t as if he was going to blend in with the locals no matter what he did.
The man in the lead, to judge by the feathers on his helmet, gave him a single long, considering look before coming to the obvious conclusion. “Adventurer?”
Macraigh had denied that out of sheer surprise the first time. Thereafter, he’d embraced it. There was no more convenient excuse for an obviously foreign wizard to be wandering around, and it was one of the least likely to draw suspicion. It was one thing in cities, where heavily-armed profit-minded loners were a serious and recurrent problem; out on the roads, nobody paid attention to adventurers.
“Yep,” he said laconically. “Heard there’s a—”
“Look, it’s your own business,” the officer interrupted, “but this one’s over your pay grade, wizard. I suggest you head south like everybody else. There’s a—”
He was prevented from revealing what there was by a sudden demonstration of it. The roar seemed to split the very skies, and all up and down the road, people screamed and dived for the scant cover of the ditches. Including two of the soldiers.
The titanic shape whipped past directly overhead, hardly more than a dozen yards in the air; even with its immense wingspan, the sinuous form of the dragon was gone almost before its passing shadow could be consciously registered. The sudden wind of its passage grabbed at Macraigh’s robes and then the sapphire behemoth was winding away toward the northwest.
In that direction, he saw for the first time the shape of the tower, just barely visible against the horizon with its massive crystal roof glowing in the sun like a lighthouse. The dragon banked in its direction and exhaled a mighty blast of flame whose roar was audible even at that distance.
The famously well-defended wizardly tower retaliated with a burst of pure arcane energy that lit half the horizon for a split second. Its attacker had adroitly shot upward, escaping the worst of it, though the great beast tumbled slightly from the aftershock before regaining its smooth glide and then circled off toward the west.
“Thank you, gentlemen, but I know what I’m about,” Macraigh said politely, scraping mud off his boots at the edge of the stone bridge.
The officer looked at him, then back in the direction of the tower, then shook his head. “Your funeral.” He set off down the road again with no more ado, which suited Macraigh just fine.
He followed the road for a hundred yards or so, winding his way around people and animals heading the other direction—or, in some cases, people trying to coax their terrified animals to behave. It wasn’t strictly necessary, since none of these folk cared enough to give him a second glance, but the last few years had taught him the virtue of caution, and so he made a show of following the road toward the trouble until the soldiers had disappeared to the south before abruptly stepping off it and heading northeast through the patchy tallgrass.
The moment he was out of sight of the road over a small ridge, Macraigh stopped and released another false trail charm, going north parallel to the road, then applied a trail-concealing one to his own boots. He tried not to overuse such measures—that would only make them less effective in the long run as the Inquisitor’s people learned to watch for them—but he was so close to his destination. This was no time to become complacent.
He cringed and hunched his shoulders involuntarily when the dragon passed overhead again, roaring in frustration, but it wasn’t interested in him. In fact, he knew what the great beast was looking for, and a single wandering mage wouldn’t pose a distraction. Macraigh’s only worry was that the blue would recognize him in particular. Unlikely; he had taken every possible precaution. But with a dragon, you never knew.
At any rate, it soon found what it was actually after.
Macraigh had stopped to peruse his map, studying the luminous icons indicating his position and that of his goal. It was a very thorough enchanted map, and warned him of the dragon and the other interested party he had summoned to this area. He was close; it was just up ahead, should be hidden within a little dip in the rolling terrain with no obvious features to mark it. Also, he noted that they were converging on this general area, which made it seem wise to get a move on. And it seemed the Silver Huntress was free again, a few miles back, though so far she was still following one of his false trails. The Inquisitor was closing on him, though. She had followed the road, so he’d inadvertently made her job a little easier by cutting across it and leaving behind a swath of witnesses who wouldn’t even think of lying to a Viridi cleric.
Just as he was stuffing the map back in his Bag of Holding, the dragon arced past directly in Macraigh’s field of view and slammed into an invisible barrier at a speed which folded up its entire length like a spring. The beast tumbled from the sky with an undignified but still mighty squawk.
Macraigh gritted his teeth and set off again at a near-run. Just his luck; they’d finally run across each other, and instead of at the tower they did it practically on top of him and his destination.
The blast of fire which seared a swath of the prairie to his immediate north wasn’t close enough for him to feel the heat, but it started a grass fire that was going to become his problem sooner than later, unless the wind shifted in his favor.
The counterstroke was even more worrying; a colossal sigil appeared in the very sky and spewed forth an indiscriminate volley of arcane missiles around the entire region.
“Sloppy,” Macraigh muttered aloud, and then was hurled off his feet as one smashed into the ground not ten yards distant.
He gathered himself up as quickly as possible, deliberately not staring at the brand new crater, and hustled on. This time he made it almost ten minutes before something, somewhere, impacted a magical barrier with a force that made his subtler senses jangle with alarm exactly three seconds before a massive shockwave flattened the tallgrass—and him.
A wizard persevered. He pulled himself up, double-checked his map, put his head down and pushed onward. All this mess had landed a lot closer than he had anticipated or wished, but at least it would be having the desired effect. Even the Inquisitor wouldn’t be trying to press her hunt through this chaos.
Surely she wouldn’t. Right?
Lightning flashed out of a cloudless sky, peppering the ground not too far away, and Macraigh threw himself flat. Natural lightning would go right toward an upright figure alone on a prairie; fortunately, this had clearly been aimed at someone else. He scrambled back to his feet and redoubled his speed.
On he pressed, on that last harried leg of his years-long journey, while chaos unfolded all around him. He couldn’t even see either of the archmages whose duel he was rushing through, and he couldn’t decide if that made it better or worse. The dragon, at least, he had a general sense of, as the beast kept roaring and emitting blasts of fire—luckily not too close to Macraigh. The pair of them were certainly making a grand mess of the countryside. Fire, lightning, wind, bursts of sheer kinetic force, ice meteors, and those were only the spells he could identify. There was no end of constant noise and light effects whose actual purpose thankfully didn’t hit close enough for him to discern. The constant haze of extremely potent arcane magic practically blinded his own subtler senses.
Luck finally shone upon him, though, as the brawl shifted away to the south just as he arrived at his destination. Macraigh had to spend the last paces of his journey with his map out, watching the icons for himself and his target more than where he was putting his feet, as he paced back and forth, looking for that sweet spot. Both symbols were pretty much on top of each other on the map; he meandered this way and that, all around a small dip in the terrain, until quite suddenly the two combined and began to flash.
He stuffed the map away, his heart thrumming with excitement. This was the spot. There was absolutely nothing to reveal to his eyes that anything was here, but this had to be the spot.
There came a distant roar and a flash of fire, a good distance to the southeast, which he ignored.
Macraigh drew in a deep breath and spread his arms wide. The incantation he had pieced together from two different sources and wasn’t totally certain he had conjugated the dead language of the Elder Gods correctly; his pendant did nothing for a language no living person could speak. Well, if not, there was a lot of digging in his near future.
“Malfermita,” he declaimed to the sky. “Rajtigo. Naiya!”
A distant boom of thunder from the battling wizards. A faint breeze ruffled the tallgrass closer at hand. And that was all.
He lowered his arms. “Oh, bloody hell.”
Then the ground in front of him began to crumble.
Macraigh stumbled back as something rose up through the very dirt, displacing tallgrass left and right. A wedge-shaped protrusion rose up from within the earth, forming a line that seemed to lead right into the side of the tiny hill right in front of him. Sod and grasses tumbled off its sides, revealing a flat panel of pale metal directly facing him, marked with a sigil he had encountered repeatedly in his research.
Macraigh bit his lower lip and practically danced in place. This was it. He was here!
Then the entire earth shook so violently he was thrown off his feet.
Macraigh didn’t know exactly how much a dragon weighed, but he discovered that day that when one hit the ground in a steep dive the results could quite reasonably be described as an earthquake.
He rolled over onto his back and momentarily froze, staring up at the colossal sapphire shape looming above him. Then, propelled by sheer terrified reflex, he began trying to scuttle uselessly backward.
That lasted for about two seconds, and then he was levitated bodily off the ground. Macraigh instinctively reached for his own magic to counter the charm, and found it blocked.
Mana filtration; an analytical portion of his mind couldn’t help being impressed, despite his panic. There weren’t many wizards who could manage that. Then he was rotated about in midair to stare at one of those who could.
She was exactly as he remembered: blonde, green-eyed, sharp-eared, and scowling.
“Yep,” Arachne said sourly, “I remember you, y’little pest. This the one, Zanza?” She twirled a finger, spinning him around in the air to face the dragon.
Macraigh just barely managed not to pee in his robes when the great beast’s head, large enough to make a bite of him, lowered and twisted till he was staring at one smooth sapphire eye from far, far too close.
“Oh, that’s him all right,” the dragon rumbled. “I didn’t see him before, but he smells the same. Right down to that rather pedestrian charm he’s trying to disguise his scent with.”
“Oh, is that what that is? I thought his spell components were going bad.” She twirled him lazily back around, and he noted that her scowl, ominously, had deepened. “Credit where it’s due, boy, that was a nice trick. Hunt down Arachne and Zanzayed, tell each that the other’s found a way into Odomo’s Tower and is planning to seize the treasure. Real cute. In hindsight, I’m a little surprised nobody’s tried something like this before. Of course, now we have to make sure nobody does something this irritating ever again, which means making a truly grandiose spectacle of your demise.”
Macraigh tried to say something in his defense. The shrill croaking noise he produced was not one of his proudest showings.
“We have a little wager going, though,” Zanzayed the Blue added, reaching out with one massive claw and very delicately turning Macraigh back around to face him. The dragon was grinning, and almost certainly did not misapprehend that that was a reassuring sight. “I’m betting that for you to try this, you must be after something that’ll really be worth our time. I have to warn you, though, this is a second wager. In the first place, I bet her that you’d set this up because you’d found a way into the Tower and wanted us good and distracted. Needless to say, it’ll go that much the worse for you if you make me lose two wagers in the space of ten minutes. So for all our sakes, I really hope you’ve got something good—”
“I can unlock the secrets of shadow magic!” Macraigh squealed.
For a few moments, there was only the faint wind over the prairie. He wasn’t at all certain that his heart was still beating. Zanzayed shifted his head to look past the captive mage, sharing a silent communication with the elf.
And then, Macraigh was dumped unceremoniously to the ground, where he blinked up at both of their faces.
“All right,” said the world’s greatest sorceress, folding her arms, “we’re listening.”