A Magician's Silver
A night breeze ruffled the silks draping the bedchamber, but it did little to abate the odor of a lingering death.
Adel Blackwood knelt and bowed to the ancient man reclining on the divan. It was best to appear humble, especially when Adel had to deliver ill tidings with gold still in the balance. A coughing fit racked Homas Dreeve, the man once known as the Fire of Sheapool. The wasting disease had left him sunken, his flesh shriveled. Silver chains dangled from his neck, and bands of silver adorned his fingers. Adel pitied the old conjuror and his choice of ornamentation. Silver interfered with enchantments, but all the silver in Sheapool could not ward against the oldest magic of all, the kind that came for all in the end.
Dreeve motioned with a gnarled hand. "Rise. You've taken long enough." Despite his withered body his voice still commanded attention. "I have no time for details. Tell me what you've found."
"Your apprentice . . ." Adel began. But then, where does one begin with such a tale?
He could tell Dreeve of the windswept atoll where he'd tracked his quarry, the former apprentice absent for so many years, and how the man had pulled back the sleeve of his tattered robe and showed the pitted scar where the bloodmark had been carved away. Most telling of all was the silver plate he kept banded over the scar, meant to ensure a fully broken bond between master and apprentice. When Adel asked why he would do such a thing, the sunken-eyed apprentice said only, "He took of my body, but not of my mind." The words had left Adel cold.
But Dreeve had asked to avoid the details, after all. Adel said, "He remains unwilling to return."
"No heir." Dreeve stared at a silver windup at his bedside, a dragonfly. He turned the spring and the toy flapped its wings. "A lifetime's work and they'll get it."
A man standing with the servants smiled. He wore the midnight blue cloak of the League of Brother Magicians. In the city of Sheapool, magic was still practiced in the old way, where one master took one apprentice. Beyond the practical knowledge of the craft passed down, so too went any goods-books, artifacts, lost cities contained within flasks-when the master died. Rumor had it that Dreeve had the greatest library in the city, and if there was no heir, anything left would transfer to the League, a glorified social club whose coffers the members took great liberties with.
After his apprentice left, Dreeve never appointed another, a move most strange considering he was the last of the Clan of the Two Stars left alive.
"Give it all away," Adel said. "I know others would take up your work if you let them. A library as legendary as yours deserves--"
"Do you presume to counsel me?" The fire returned to Dreeve. As a younger man, he'd developed a reputation as a wizard with a temper, quick to let a grudge blossom into a bloody duel. "One born of the Barrio tells me how to order my affairs. Yes, wouldn't you like that? Perhaps even get a bit for yourself. Greedy as the League, you are." He cackled, and the merciless laughter turned into a coughing fit that left his bedclothes dappled with a mist of blood. "You have your tricks, unmaker of the true magic. You fetch for me, dog, but that is all."
"A thousand pardons," Adel said. "My work complete, I take my leave."
A servant led him into the hallway. Green fairy fire ensconced in glass vessels kept the shadows at bay. In the time of kings the hallway had been part of a grand palace, with delegates and mages from distant lands strolling the grounds, but now it was home to one dying man. Dust collected on statues. Water dripped from the cracked ceiling. Adel felt as if he were alone in a vast tomb.
Vyncent, the palace's curate, slipped into the hall. He removed a gilded bowl of the smokeless fairy fire and motioned for Adel to follow. Tapestries and sculptures loomed in the pale glow a moment before sliding back into darkness.
"There is the matter of my lord's payment to discuss," Vyncent said.
"We reached terms before I departed," Adel said. The old magician was still able to walk then, and they'd spent a long morning on a sun-drenched veranda haggling. Adel would receive three hundred gold crowns-not a lifetime's fortune, but well beyond a fair price-for finding the wayward apprentice, half paid in advance, from which Adel could finance his expedition. The other half along with expenditures would be paid upon his return. "The only thing pressing is that I asked many favors and had more expenses than anticipated."
"I see." Vyncent smirked.
"Do you think I'd cheat? I have a detailed account of every crown spent and why. Your master asked not to be bothered with details. You will take that burden for him." Adel took a deep breath before plunging in. "The trail went cold no less than five times. There were cities where I knew only the name of the road I traveled in on. When I ran out of land I took to the sea, buying passage all the way to the Bayfall Islands. Gold is what kept me moving forward, so much so that I am now in debt to the goblins of Hillermeran for my entire advance. So yes, I would like this pressing matter attended to."
Vyncent said, "And yet the matter was not resolved. The first payment was more than ample for your services, however paltry the return."
"Dreeve asked me to find the apprentice and try to retrieve him. Try. I spent two months on that coral husk some mapmaker had the humor to call an island, eating only seaweed and boiled fish. Nothing less than killing him, packing his body in salt, and carrying him upon my own back would bring him here. So I left." Adel stopped in the middle of the hallway. A draft fluttered the edges of a tapestry. It reminded him of the way the forlorn apprentice would breathe. He struck Adel as a husk of a man, a living scarecrow. "I still don't know what's between your master and the wreck of a person I found, but whatever drove him to the edge of the world was enough to keep him there."
Vyncent said, "Time for you to go, Blackwood."
"I want what's due me."
The curate blew upon the bowl, extinguishing the green flames.
Adel was in complete darkness for a moment before a faint glow rose before him. He realized he was standing on the hillside outside the palace looking down on the city. Adel sighed. It was always trickery and deceit when dealing with these sorts. It was a cloudless night and the stars were out. The gate blocking the road from the palace's grounds swung open, beckoning Adel away. He marched back to find the curate and get his gold, only to find the ground was uncooperative. Gravel rolled beneath his feet and it pushed him back, casting him beyond the gate, which swung shut with a resounding clang.
An invisible wall slid into place, doubling the one made of stone and mortar. When Adel pressed his hand against it the air tensed around his fingers, barring his path. He admired the magic. It was a thing of beauty, the way the air's nature had been reworked into a solid mass to block his path. It felt as if many had helped craft it, their spells interlocking to where he could not find an edge to the pattern. He'd never seen anything like it, and even with an extra lifetime he didn't think he'd be able to unravel it.
It wasn't anger or hatred he felt. A feeling he'd known since he was a child, struggling to survive in the Barrio, come back to him: a seething sense of disappointment, not in himself but in a world that would let a wizard like Homas Dreeve exist in his hilltop palace.
Adel walked along the magical wall, tracing the barrier with his fingertips. The goblins would have their crowns, and whether Adel paid in gold or flesh mattered little to them. There were still hill tribes that believed eating humans with magical abilities would give them strength and much power in their loins, and Adel had just enough magic to make him tasty. The muscle, ground bones, rendered fat, and fresh blood of mages all commanded a fine price in certain unspoken-of markets. It was mostly Barrio children with the gift, too young to defend themselves, that ended up there. Or wizards with unpaid debts. It would take him a year of his normal work, tracking down the debt-ridden of Sheapool, to make that many gold crowns. The goblins wanted repayment before the next full moon.
Adel came to a place where the magical wall sloped away from the physical one. It slid into a thicket of briarwood trees. The dead leaves covering the ground had been trampled into a path that led to a stone crevice in the hillside. A wooden door sat flush with the rock. A simple magic, one made of fat, durable threads of spellwork, vibrated the air. It was the craft of marketplace enchanters, those that could charm a kettle to brown but never burn or keep the goats in a pen without gate or fence. Adel reached with his mind and found the tangled knot of spellwork holding it shut. He tugged, and the mass unraveled. The door creaked open.
A hallway led under the hillside towards the palace. Wooden pegs held roughspun coats in shades of brown and grey. It was a servants' entrance. The buzz of magic was in the air, whether from a lingering shadow of past works or from a trap Adel could not tell.
The tunnel emptied into the palace's kitchen, a tile-lined room larger than many of the buildings of Sheapool. A dozen fire-blackened cauldrons hung over a cold fireplace. The smell of rot hung in the air.
Adel crept through empty halls. This wasn't the first time one of the noble members of the League of Brother Magicians had swindled him, but this was the first time the consequences were more than an empty pantry until he finished the next job. Every time he told himself never again, that this kind couldn't be trusted, but the lure of gold kept him taking the risky work. Art and trinkets of every variety were scattered about the hallways and bedchambers, but Adel wanted to make a point.
He wanted a spellbook.
If Dreeve's library meant enough to him to hire Adel to travel across the known world to find its heir, there had to be plenty of things within it worth what was owed him. He could think of two dozen wizards he'd worked for who would clamor for some bit of Arcanum from the Dreeve collection.
He stalked the halls, dodging the odd servant, until he came upon a doorway, unassuming to the eye, but vibrating with so much magic it practically shook in its frame. Spell after spell had been laid down, but unlike the outer wall this magic bore a similar pattern, having come from one mage. Adel figured that only a prized collection could lie at the end of such methodical work.
Hours slipped by as Adel picked at the door's edges, undoing the charms. He'd never been particularly good at magic. Most cardsharps working the taverns were better than him at conjurations and disguises. What Adel had that they lacked was that he could see magic as a form of weaving, of drawing disparate threads together to form something new. Adel excelled in finding those threads and picking at the edges until they unraveled, a skill that had served him well throughout his life, especially in his Barrio days when the only thing keeping a cooling pie perched on a window sill from his grumbling stomach was a few home and hearth enchantments.
The door opened, revealing a spiral stairwell. At the bottom, another doorway greeted him, and Adel stepped through, only to hear the distinctive click that reminded him that he should have looked for traps in the temporal world as well as the ethereal.
He leapt forward as something crashed behind him. A solid slab of granite had locked into place where he'd stood. He felt along its edges, his hand coming away with the remnants of a gossamer-thin tripwire. Adel wandered into the library, hoping he wasn't too hasty in thinking he'd made it to safety. If there wasn't another way out, he was trapped.
The space had once been a wine cellar. Wooden racks lined the walls, and each diamond-shaped hole held rolls of age-browned parchment. Bound volumes with worn leather covers filled long shelves dispersed around the room, the wood sagging from the weight. The low rock ceiling was blackened from years of torch use. Decanters of fairy fire gave the room an emerald glow. Adel looked over an open volume, the glyphs and symbols contained on its pages unknown to him. He wished he had learned to read.
Adel's boots left the ground, and he found himself swinging upside down. He'd thought he was alone in the room, but he knew a levitation spell when he felt it.
"Much obliged if you put me down," Adel said.
Adel spun in the air to face a young man holding a wand. The wand twitched in his fingers, and Adel bounced in the air. Mages often employed a rod or pendant to control a continuous spell, and Adel found it difficult to grasp the spell's subtle pattern of vibrations when they were funneled through a point. Being upside down didn't help either.
Adel plucked wildly until the hold on his ankles released. He tumbled, his shoulder taking most of the fall. The joint popped out of place, tearing sinew as it went.
"You want to cripple me?" Adel asked. Throbbing waves of pain rolled from his shoulder.
"Consider it a thief's payment."
The other man was young, but not youthful enough that the several days' worth of dark beard growth covering his cheeks looked odd. His robe was loose and flowing around spindly arms and legs. Ink stained his fingers up to the first knuckle. On his chest were two red stars, marking his allegiance, but he looked more scribe than wizard. The young man flicked the wood, brewing another salvo. Adel guessed at what he might be forming and pulled it away before it was finished. The young man looked taken aback when his spell didn't work.
Adel's shoulder was still aflame. He'd seen a sailor take a drunken tumble down some stairs once, ending with a shoulder much like his own. The old sea dog bashed himself into a wall to get it back in place. Adel did the same, rattling racks of parchment and knocking over an urn that shattered on the floor. His shoulder, while back in place, felt about as put together as the broken urn.
"Keep still," the young man said. "Master Dreeve will deal with you shortly."
Adel saw a stool tucked away beneath a low table. A bowl of apples, most of them wrinkled and half-rotted, sat atop it. "If that's the way you want to go about it, we've got a long wait ahead of us. Take a seat with me."
The young man began to trace another pattern, which Adel pulled away. He guessed at the wrong thread, and a misfired flame bloomed between them, the heat intense but momentary.
Adel raised an eyebrow. "Fire wasn't a good choice with all this kindling about, was it?"
The young man looked around as if searching for a handy weapon.
"I doubt there's a club secreted in here, but even if there was you don't strike me as the type to use it well. You'd just make the fool if you tried."
Adel wondered why Dreeve would send him to the edge of the known world to get back his old apprentice when he had what looked to be a perfectly fine one tucked away beneath his palace.
"There's no other way out, and Master will be here shortly to free the door." He took a seat and looked pleased with himself. "Then we'll see who the fool is."
"No other way out?"
He crossed his arms. "This room is most secure."
Adel took a couple of the better-looking apples. "Not what I'd hoped for a last meal," he said around chews. "But it'll do."
The young man laughed.
"Might as well have one," Adel tossed him one. "It's your last, too."
"You can't kill me," the young man said, the confidence only youth can give backing him.
"Probably true," Adel said. "Your master, however, is dying as we speak, a wasting disease eating him from the inside. After he expires the League will clamor to get at this collection, but with that granite slab blocking the way we'll be half-mummified when they finally chip their way inside."
The young man was crestfallen. "You're lying."
"Wish I was," Adel said.
"But he would have told me."
Adel shrugged. "Are you bound to him? Bloodmark, perhaps?"
The young man shook his head. "After I finished cataloguing the scrolls, the magic would release me, let me enter the palace again, and I would become the heir to the Clan of the Two Stars."
"About that . . ."
Adel told him how he'd ended up there, and in turn the young man recited his story. His name was Koerwe Grayson and he'd come from the distant city of Anakben. Dreeve reached out to Grayson's father, an old acquaintance, and implied that it would be worth his while to indenture his son. A mage of Dreeve's standing was not someone to decline, so Grayson traveled to Sheapool, only to find that a trial of endurance awaited his arrival: catalogue the entire collection, then your training will begin. He'd been at it for months, watching his supplies dwindle, never seeing anyone from the palace.
After Grayson stopped speaking, Adel said, "Someone like Dreeve? There's always a second way out. You magician types aren't much for sticking with one thing, like keeping your word."
"This chamber is solid rock. I've catalogued books in every cranny and never came across anything."
"Do you feel the vibrations?"
"The magic? Do you feel it?" Adel held his good arm out and rippled his fingers.
"I feel nothing."
"Help me up," Adel said, holding out his good arm. "There's still a chance there's a hidden exit."
Grayson wavered. Adel could see him spinning out possibilities, figuring what the chances were that Adel was lying. Grayson's eyes set into a cool gaze. He grasped Adel's arm and helped pull him to his feet. It looked like they'd trust each other for now.
Adel found it difficult to get a reading on the room. He followed vibrations to a jagged cranny, only to find a manuscript illuminated in dragon's blood. An out-of-place statue looked promising until he realized it had sat too close to a potion's rack for a long while. Adel had almost given up when the ceiling caught his eye.
He'd thought the chamber had been carved from bedrock at the same time the palace had been built, which would have made it centuries old. The rock looked as though it supported this, with layers of soot from years of torch use. But as Adel looked at it again, he realized the room had the same green fairy-fire glow as the rest of the palace. Fairy fire did not smoke.
"Has the chamber always been like this?" Adel balanced on a stool and began to wipe away a residue coating the ceiling.
Grayson shrugged. "As long as I've been here."
Short, narrow gouges textured the roof. Adel thought they were from the workmen's picks, but as he cleaned more, soot flying, he realized there was a pattern to them. When he held his palm against the roof, a magical ripple came and went, drifting in from far away.
He showed Grayson what he'd found and they worked their way around the spiraling marks, following them to where the gouges coalesced near a back corner of the room. They shifted a bookshelf into place and Grayson held it steady. Adel climbed it like a ladder.
"I don't feel much," he said.
"What spell are you using?" Grayson lifted a bowl of fairy fire to the markings.
"No spells. I just have to find something to untangle." There was the distant thrum, but nothing to grab.
"What if it's mechanical?" Grayson asked.
"It feels like something that has been stripped smooth."
"Maybe we should rough it back up, then." Grayson lifted his wand and muttered a few words.
A white cloud swirled from Grayson's wand and settled into the rough features before it began to bubble and hiss. Cracks formed. A chunk of roof fell, and Adel hit the floor, ducking in time for it to miss him. Shards of rock spiked through books and shelves. The whole thing was coming down. They could be buried alive. They tipped the bookshelf so it offered some protection. A rock slammed into it, splintering the wood and pinning them beneath.
The cascade of rocks slowed and then stopped.
"Heave!" Adel shouted, pushing against the shelf as hard as he could. His shoulder burned and he knew he wasn't strong enough by himself. Grayson got his knees beneath a shelf. His back arched, and with both of them pushing the wood slid away, leaving a clear view of the open chamber above them. Once the roof had fallen it left a clear cavern above them. Adel had time to sigh in relief before he took notice of a sparkle far above them.
A metal man skittered down the wall slow as a spider.
It was massive, its molded arms and legs twice the size of a real man. Its skin shone in the green light of the few remaining fairy fires. Adel reached with his mind, grasping for a thread to yank to get the thing to stop.
He realized the dim magic he'd felt beyond the ceiling had come from that thing all along. Though the metal man looked of machinery, there was a weaving of magic to him, the fibers so slender Adel could not grasp them.
Grayson fired a spell but it bounced from the metal skin, slamming into the wall lined with stacks of parchment. They burst into flame. The fire spread to the bookshelves, moving with the speed of magic, destroying any hope Adel had of paying back the goblins. Grayson fired another spell. The magic evaporated when it struck.
"It's made of silver!" Adel shouted above the roaring flames.
The silver man lowered himself from the opening in the ceiling and plodded toward Grayson. Where its face should be was a sheet of hammered metal, its only expression the reflected flames.
"Hit it with something!" Grayson shouted back.
Adel kicked over a bookcase, sending the flaming tower onto the mechanical man. Silver arms grasped the sides and shattered the burning wood in a powerful grip. It rose and went for Adel.
Waves of heat scorched Adel's back. The flames made it impossible to retreat into the library. There was only one way to go.
"Climb!" Adel shouted.
He clamored at the pitted rock with his good arm, struggling for purchase. Grayson scampered up the rocks and turned to watch Adel flail about.
The metal man drew closer.
Adel cursed Grayson with strained breath for not giving him a hand. Damn magicians were all the same. Save themselves first, then make sure to kick the ladder over so no one else could climb after. He finally caught hold, his hurt shoulder protesting, and he was able to climb to a landing, a room off the vertical chamber.
It was a workshop of the most arcane sort. Dusty hammers and blown glass cylinders sat unattended. Bellows sat motionless, the forge it fed filled with ashes. A worktable sat in the center of the room, and layers of intricately carved runes spiraled along the floor to align with it. Adel could make out an oval piece of silver on the workbench, an unfinished project.
Smoke rolled into the room, and there was the dull clanking of the metal man scaling the chamber. A passageway led from the end of the room, and Grayson darted through. Adel was desperate to catch his breath.
A chill ran through him as metal hands grasped him before flinging him against a wall. The silver man was upon him. It hefted a foot above Adel's head. He wondered if he would be able to feel it crush his skull before he died. He'd die alone, far underground.
A shower of sparks flew from the silver skin. Grayson flung another spell at the metal man though it did no harm. He'd come back for Adel. The silver man moved with clockwork precision after Grayson.
While the thing might have been strong, smart it was not. It had Grayson in its grasp only to chase the next threat without eliminating the first. It was all body and no mind, powerful but without the ability to reason.
He recalled what the wayward apprentice had told him on that windswept isle, how Dreeve had taken of his body, but not of his mind. Adel could still feel the dull thrum of strange magic coming from the mechanical man . . . only it couldn't be. Magic could never work a machine of silver. That thought gave way to another: a silver shell could trap magic within it. A spell spinning around inside could power gears and give the machine purpose and drive.
The mechanical man flung the worktable out of his way as he went after Grayson. Tools clattered to the ground, and the oval plate slid between Adel's legs. There was a face carved into it, and it held a disturbing resemblance to the wayward apprentice.
It came to him.
Dreeve had begun to trap his former apprentice's life essence within his guardian, and he'd wanted him back so he could finish his little project.
Adel grabbed a stone spire that had fallen from the cavern. His shoulder was weak, and a searing wave of pain let him know there would be only one chance. "Knock it in!" He slammed the rock upon a riveted seam.
Grayson fired a spell and the dim room flashed a searing white.
The metal man stumbled forward, a glowing bit of rock dripping from where it pierced the neck. Steam hissed around the wound. Its limbs shuddered with each step. It lifted its blank face to regard the open cavern before collapsing, an empty shell.
The last wave of steam mixed with the smoke rising through the chamber and disappeared. The tinge of strange magic was gone.
"Never knew that was back here." Grayson considered the fallen machine. "Dreeve loved silver more than any mage I'd ever seen."
"At least I know why he wanted his apprentice back." Adel lifted the faceplate and looked into its dead eyes. He told Grayson what he'd gathered. "Be glad he fell ill before he decided on a new model, one powered by you."
The passage leading away from the forge emptied below the hill in a hidden section of rocks at the edge of the city. They breathed clean night air, untainted by the burning library.
"All that silver . . ." Adel began. "How many gold crowns do you think it would trade for?"
"How should I know?"
"Because you didn't abandon me back there, and that means something." Adel knew he'd judged Grayson too quickly, and that was the same thing Dreeve had done to him. "You'd deserve a cut just for that. But if you help me break that thing apart and carry it out that's worth something too. So come on and let's be quick about it." Adel managed to laugh, the first time in what felt like forever. "I have some impatient goblins to meet."