Ultimas Drake

MIchael Young

48 min.

Meckule fidgeted in his ceremonial attire, wondering whose name he needed to curse for coming up with such fickle clothing. Not for the first time, he wished he had been born in the Dorian Clan instead of the Scarlatti. Then, he would have been brought up as a master of disguise, and there would be no need for so much fuss about actual clothing.
He closed his eyes and breathed out, releasing a bit of Essence into the air. Working quickly before it dissipated, he exerted his will upon it, casting a subtle spell that would straighten his clothing. The high collar stiffened, the brightly embroidered gold and scarlet jacket smoothed, and his knickers and tights lost every blemish. Even his obscenely expensive wig managed to reclaim all its stray hairs.
Now, he was ready to face the public.
With a white-gloved hand, he pushed away the heavy blue drape in front of him and stepped out into the open. The flash of a dozen recording crystals nearly blinded him as he put on his best benevolent-benefactor-of-the-public face. He left one hand close to the deep pocket that contained the blackmail note, a mere scrap of parchment he had found last night affixed to his desk with a bloody dagger.
Behind him, several of his servants waited with their hands on an enormous black cloth, waiting to unveil at a moment’s notice. Meckule did not like holding public announcements in the mine, though in this case, there had been no choice. He had to let them see for themselves.
Still playing the part, he basked in the adulation from the assembled crowd for a few moments longer, before waving a hand for silence. “Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends,” he began, infusing his voice with officious enthusiasm. “It is with great personal satisfaction and delight that I have assembled all of you here today. I promised a revelation of staggering proportions, and I’m not just talking about the impressive spread my chefs have prepared for you all afterwards. Do not fear, my friends, for I have compensated for Lord Hampton’s presence by doubling the usual order. Rest assured, there shall be enough for all.”
A ripple of laughter passed through the crowd, Lord Hampton himself joining in and patting his ample stomach.
Meckule cleared his throat, wondering if he should not cast the straightening spell again. Any sort of movement, no matter how small, seemed to introduce wrinkles into this fabric. If only he had a spell to suspend his need for breath while he spoke.
“And so, without further pontification on my part, I wish to present, the largest fossil discovery in the history of our realm!”
He gestured to his employees, who pulled back the black cloth to reveal an enormous vein of transparent stone stretching into the bowels of the earth. Embedded deep below, lay the corpse of an Ultimas Drake, the largest of all known dragons. The crystal had preserved it in remarkable fashion, keeping all of the scales, skin, horns, teeth, wings, and even eyes intact, as though the creature might spring to life again at any moment and rain fiery retribution on its captors.
The crowd gasped and cheered as Meckule spread his arms wide in triumph and endured another furious round of crystal flashes. It took much longer this time to quiet the crowd, and Meckule could feel a headache threatening its way into the base of his skull.
“As you know, our company mostly deals with bones and processing their magical power. With such a find as this, however, we will be able to process every part of the drake, with the scales and the membranes of the wings providing a level of unprocessed Essence hitherto unknown. We shall begin right away with the excavation and hope to have it complete before year’s end.”
He posed and preened, answered dozens of questions, and finally gracefully bowed out, anxious for his senses to be free.
Back in concealment, Meckule sat in the darkness for moment, collecting his thoughts. With his Reserve dry, he felt the emptiness, sort of a hollow pain that most called the Hunger. The spell had drawn even more than he thought, making the Hunger more severe than usual. He would truly have to visit the dispensary soon.
He had stepped out of the chamber to do just that when a lithe figure crossed in front of him, moving gracefully in the dark. In the low light, he could see she wore only a silky shift that left her arms bare and granted a full view of her slender, sculpted legs. Torrents of bright red hair fell around her head, curling and twisting so that the entire thing looked more like a waterfall that had been frozen in an instant. The cloying scent of fruit and spices wrapped around him even as slender arms wrapped around his neck.
“So, how is the soon-to-be richest man in all the realm?” she whispered close to his ear.
Normally, such a display from his mistress would have him more intoxicated than the most potent magical diversion. Sarhah was not his first mistress, but was by far the most alluring. She was the type who only used enough magic to sustain her body, but still she wove a different kind of spell around him, one that did not require a trip to the dispensary.
But today, he felt colder than the dead dragon enclosed in the mine. He would be no good with her when he felt so wretched and preoccupied. Especially because he had used up all of his Reserve. He was no longer the young man he had once been and usually required spells that enhanced this realm of his life. He never told Sarhah, and, thankfully, she never asked.
She pressed close, gently kissing his neck.
He grunted, the sensation uncomfortable instead alluring as usual. He gently pushed her away. “Not now, Sarhah. It’s not you.”
As she pulled away, he noticed a strange pattern on her neck, imprinted in her skin in light brown ink, made up of geometric shapes. It appeared too faint to be new, and he wondered briefly why he hadn’t noticed it before.
He pushed past her in the darkness feeling his way down the hall. The magical lights that lined the hallway would require more power than he had. And, with his headache, he preferred the darkness anyway. He could hear Sarhah’s quiet pursuit as he reached the door to his office.
“Is it?” she asked, not completely masking the hurt in her voice. “Do you truly feel nothing for me now? I might as well be your wife.”
At that, Meckule turned and drew a deep breath, letting it out slowly before responding. “I said, it’s not you. I am not well. Had I my full faculties, I would no more be able to resist you then the moons can resist the pull of our planet.”
“Now that is a relief,” Sarhah said. “Though I’m sure that being the actual wife of the richest man in the realm would have its advantages.”
Meckule sighed, thinking how many times they had discussed this very subject. “Oh, as much as you think you want that, you truly don’t. There are many responsibilities that come with being an actual Scarlatti. The business of the clan would occupy your time almost entirely.”
Meckule reached out and brushed back a stray lock of fiery hair from her face, gently caressing it back over her ear. “And neither of us want that, do we?”
Sarhah shook her head. “Is there anything I can do?” She asked after a moment.
“Perhaps,” Meckule said, searching his mind. He needed to do something to take his mind off things, whether or not it was good for business. “See if you can get the box seats at the opera. I hear Carvanni is debuting his first new piece since Twilight for Marinello. I suppose Carvanni will do.”
Sarhah chuckled slightly. “Yes, it is called The Red Sword of the Mal King. Perhaps something with a few more swords clashing will draw your interest better than his last work.”
“Perhaps,” Meckule said. “But it will have to have more swordfights and fewer were cadenzas. It just isn’t practical to sing for two minutes straight before delivering the fatal blow in a duel.”
She laughed again, the sound stirring a spark of their usual attraction. “Go, my dear,” Meckule said. “Perhaps the opera will calm my nerves and we can resume the activities you had planned for this afternoon later this evening.”
She reached out and let her hands slowly trail the back of his neck and vanished into the darkness.
***
He waited for a few moments and then turned to open the door to his office.
He made his way to the plush chair behind the massive desk made of wood and stone, and jumped back as he saw the slender blade sticking out from the desk, pinning a scrap of parchment to the center of it. With trembling fingers, he ripped the parchment free and leaned close so he could see the scrawled writing.

A good first step-but do not drag your feet.
When next Azure shines, you must be complete.

Meckule lowered the note, sinking into his chair, clutching its sides to keep from trembling. The Azure Moon had shone full just the night before, and would do so again in only thirty days after the other two moons had taken center stage in the sky. Thirty days, for a job that should take months. Something told him that not even the opera tonight would be enough to lighten his mood.
II.
Meckule leaned his head back against the plush cushioned headrest in his magical carriage and sighed. The intricately patterned carpet on which the carriage was based rolled gently under his feet as he navigated the switchbacks that led to his brother’s base of operations.
History had long forgotten exactly how the World Fissure had been formed, but it was the deepest fissure in the earth anywhere in the land. It leaked a steady stream of magical energy that his brother harvested through a series of collection points set up all along its length.
Meckule spotted his brother’s short stocky frame and ridiculous floppy hat only a short way down next to the Fissure. The carriage interpreted his will and brought him to a stop not far from where his brother worked. The side door, made of polished gold, bore the family crest of Scarlatti—a red rose with curling flames.
Tailon turn immediately and raised a hand greeting, waving his hand in frantic rhythm. “Hello there, brother! How do you fare today?”
“To tell Rahim’s honest truth,” Meckule said, glancing over at the fissure, “I have half a mind to cast myself screaming into the pit. It would be a fitting end for a day such as this, and I wouldn’t be burdened with having to worry about tomorrow.”
To Meckule’s surprise, Tailon threw back his head and laughed, holding his sides, his face flushing. “Oh, how you carry on, brother. Surely, it couldn’t have been half as bad as all that. Wasn’t there some important meeting you had today?”
Meckule sniffed. “Yes, the unveiling. It was very important. So important in fact, that you should have been there. I don’t run this business by myself, at least in theory.”“
Tailon’s jolly expression fell suddenly as though he remembered something important he’d forgotten to attend to. “I probably shouldn’t laugh at talk of falling into the pit,” he said. “My poor apprentice. That promising young lad fell to his doom a few days ago while calibrating one of the collectors. Turns out that he did not properly anchor the harness that’s supposed to keep him from things like that.”
Tailon sighed and looked back at the fissure. “Who knows? Some say there’s a whole other world down there. I’d like to hold out hope that’ it’s possible he’s now living a happy subterranean life, and not broken, battered, and decomposing.”
“In any case, I’m not here to berate your lack of attendance, brother dear,” Meckule said. “I’m here because I require assistance.”
A smile returned to Tailon’s ruddy face. “You’ve come to me about your fossil problem,” he said. “How is it you think I can help you? Don’t you have the resources you need?”
Meckule pursed his lips and drew in a deep breath through his nose before answering. “Of course, I do, dear brother. It is not so much a matter of how, but a question of when. I’m sure you’ve heard the news on the street. There’s war on the horizon and you know how good war is for business. A mother lode like this one could turn the tide. But if we do not act quickly, we may not be able to process it in time to aid in the conflict.”
Meckule stepped a bit closer, holding out both of his hands with the palms facing upward. “Now, I know you’ve been storing all of your energy that you have collected for some time. You even to claim have some higher purpose, which is only known to you. As maddening as that is, it is your prerogative. But I plead with you to think of the greater good here. If our armies fail, the other clans might capture all our facilities, and then where would we be? If you would simply let me to purchase some of your vast store toward the quarrying effort, I assure you I can pay you back a hundredfold for the investment once we process the creature.”
Tailon set his usually jolly face into a firm line. “Brother, you don’t know what you’re asking. And you are acting as though this were a guaranteed return on investment. You and I both know that it isn’t. If you miscalculate even a bit too much energy, you risk destroying the remains. You might set off an explosion that would destroy the entire mine, especially when you’re dealing with the volatile remains of a dragon. Tell me, if you can, where would the return on my investment come from then?”
Meckule knitted his fingers together in front of him and clenched his jaw into a tight smile. His brother was right, of course. These worries had surfaced over and over again, taunting him in his waking hours and whispering their doom to him at night in his sleep.
“Naturally there is some risk involved,” Meckule said, maintaining his tense smile. “But certainly, you are no stranger to risk. It is your daily companion in even greater quantities. Just look where you’ve set up shop!”
Tailon folded his arms across his chest, wagging his head back and forth. “I am too close to achieving my goals. I think you are more than capable of running your half of the business as you see fit and supporting the war efforts, but I must be allowed to run my half in my way. If you would just be patient, you’ll see how much I have to contribute. Even all this gloomy talk of war may disappear, once I have completed my work.”
Meckule could take it no longer. He’d listen to the same excuses for years, both before and after their father died and left them the company to carve up. “I am through with having patience, Tailon! Only Rahim on His throne has shown more patience than I have to you.”
Meckule leaned in closer, his face nearly touching his brother’s. “Let me put it this way. See if you can picture this with perfect clarity. If you don’t help me, people are going to die. And not just a few of them. Thousands, if not tens of thousands will suffer and die, and our company will be in decimated. There will be no possible way for either of us to fulfill any of our dreams, desires, or whims. This is still a request, but just barely. You must see reason before it is painted in blood in front of your sniveling face!”
Meckule stood there, breathing hard, his cheeks flushed and teeth bared. To his astonishment, however, Tailon remained placid, his face taking on a look of contemplation. The expression so unnerved Meckule that he didn’t say anything further.
“I’ll tell you what,” Tailon said. “Find me a suitable apprentice, and I will consider it.” He gestured back toward Meckule’s magical carriage. “Now I’m sure you’ve got some other people to go make speeches at, brother. Perhaps, you would you prefer spending some time in the theater? It seems to me that would be something you’d excel at.”
With that, Tailon turned away and walked off coolly, leaving Meckule to stare at the back of his floppy hat. Meckule felt strangely deflated as he watched the back of his brother’s head bob away. For the first time, he wondered where the man had come from. He certainly didn’t take after their father, the pillar of business and politics, nor after the mother, the imperious, vain, conniving ruler of all she surveyed.
He looked up at the crimson-colored moon and thought that perhaps only Rahim on His throne knew. With a sigh, he plodded back to his carriage and threw himself hard down against the seat.
No sooner had Meckule reached his office door again, than Sarhah reappeared, having donned a dress that incorporated various scarlet hues that mixed into a subtle pattern of flames. It offset her fiery hair perfectly, and Meckule could feel a bit of his usual self returning as he gazed at her.
“How’s the headache?” she asked, leaning up against a doorframe and tilting her head back slightly to accentuate her slender neck. He checked and could not see the strange geometric pattern there anymore. Perhaps, in his fatigue, he had imagined it.
He clamped his eyes momentarily shut and then shook his head. “Raging like a hungry mage bear. I went to my brother, and he spoke to me with astounding insolence. I tried to reason with him, but the man has shut his ears and his mind. All on account of some visions or other he claims to have. I only wish I could have him declared of unsound mind and unfit to govern his part of the company. It would solve so many problems.”
Sarhah’s head lolled forward, her face in a subtle smile. “Don’t you have something you can hold over him? I mean, he is part of your family.”
Meckule only sighed. “There are some days I doubt even that. He is so single-minded that he hasn’t the time to get into mischief. He’s eccentric, but everyone knows that, and it is hardly something to hold against him.”
She advanced, draping one arm around his shoulders and puling herself close. He relaxed a bit as her intoxicating scent wrapped around him. “Then what does he need? Every man needs… something.”
A sudden thought entered his mind, and he stood up straighter. His brother did need something, though it probably wasn’t what she had in mind. “An apprentice,” Meckule said. “His old apprentice died recently in an accident. I don’t suppose you know of a suitable candidate.”
Letting a long breath out through her nose, she relaxed her hold on him. “Well,” she muttered. “I don’t know what makes a good apprentice, but I do know a young, hard-working boy. My dead sister’s son, Fen. I look after him. I could see about it.”
“Perhaps,” Meckule said, wondering why he had never heard of this boy until now. Then again, their liaisons had not left much time for talking about trivial matters. “What can you tell me about the boy?”
“Intelligent, hard-working, and easy to get along with,” she said. “Actually reminds me a bit of you. And above all, completely loyal to me. He’ll do anything I tell him, which gives you a person close to your brother who can observe his every move.”
For the first time that day, Meckule managed a genuine smile.
Early the next morning, Meckule sat in his magical carriage, arms folded across his lap, a contented smile on his face. Fen, the boy that Sarhah had recommended, sat across from him, mostly keeping his eyes on the scenery or the floor, pretty much anywhere else but at Meckule.
As they reached the top of the ridge, he realized he had not given the boy the last piece of the plan. He reached into the inside pocket of his overcoat and withdrew a faceted piece of glass that was fashioned in the shape of an eight-pointed star. He cleared his throat to get the boy’s attention and paused for a moment as he got a good look at the lad.
He had dark hair, a firm chin, striking eyes that gave him the look of both compassion and charisma. In fact, when he looked at the boy, he say himself at that age. What he wouldn’t give to have that sort of youthful vigor again.
He held out the glass trinket to the boy, who took it. “Don’t let anyone see you,” Meckule said. “At the beginning of your first day, place it somewhere inconspicuous near one of the collectors. At the end of the day, retrieve it and bring it back to Sarhah. Is that understood?”
Fen nodded, and tucked it away inside his coat pocket. “Yes, sir,” he said. “Are we almost there?”
At that moment, they came over around the bend and the World Fissure stretched out in front of them. Meckule pointed, and the boy turned, starting visibly at the sight.
As the boy strained to see the rift, Meckule noticed a pattern in light ink on the back of his neck, much like the one he had glimpsed on Sarhah’s. Perhaps it was some sort of family symbol or tradition. He made a mental note to ask her about it later.
They rode the rest of the way in silence, the carriage putting them down not far from where Tailon worked. As he exited the carriage, he called his brother in a loud voice. “Tailon, I brought a peace offering.”
He motioned for Fen to follow and stand by him. “This is Fen, an intelligent and hard-working lad, by all accounts. He has agreed to become your apprentice.”
Tailon made a point of finishing whatever he was working on before turning to look at the boy. He held a smug expression as though he were about to move his final piece to crush his opponent in a game of trifecta.
Without a word, he circled Fen, looking him up and down as though he were a mount he wanted to purchase, rather than a prospective apprentice. Then again, in his line of work, it was probably best to have someone with a strong back and a good set of arms.
“How old are you, boy?” Tailon asked, his voice more serious than usual. To someone who didn’t know him, it might seem a bit intimidating, but Meckule was not fooled. To him, it only seemed ridiculous.
“I’m in my 16th year, sir,” Fen said, keeping his eyes forward and his body still.
“And where is it you hail from? Are you of the Scarlatti clan?”
Fen nodded. “I am. My father was killed in combat, my mother in childbirth, and I was raised by my aunt. We hail from a Scarlatti line without mixture.”
Meckule turned away, so they wouldn’t see him rolling his eyes. His brother had never cared about such things as much as he should. He wondered for a moment if Tailon were trying to mock him.
“And why is it you want to be my apprentice? Don’t you understand the risks involved?” Tailon gestured to the enormous pit next to them.
“I understand, sir,” Fen said. “I’ve always been fascinated with magical powers. My father was a trained mage, so I’m told. They said he cast so many spells in defense of his comrades in his final battle that he fell into mage madness before he died. My mother still has the medal he earned that day for heroism, but it doesn’t at all make up for the fact that I never had a father.”
With that, he turned to look directly at Tailon, meeting his gaze. A moment passed, and Tailon’s gaze softened into his normal cheery demeanor, though his eyes still held a glint of sadness.
“Oh, I think you’ll do,” Tailon said. “Come then. Why don’t you join me at this collector? We can get started right away.”
They turned to go, and Meckule cleared his throat. Only when he did it a second time did his brother turn, however. “And what of the consideration you promised?”
Tailon pursed his lips, his head bobbing slowly up and down. “Well, let’s see how he works out first. I will have your answer before the week is out.”
It wasn’t precisely what Meckule wanted to hear, but he figured it would be the best he was going to get, at least for now. He managed to smile at his brother, cast a spell to straighten his clothing, and returned to his carriage, not bothering a single backward glance as it sped away.

III.
Later that night, Meckule awoke, sitting up straight in his bed. The windows in his bedroom faced out to look over the refinery and all he could see out the window were intense shades of blue. A magical explosion the cataclysmic scale mushroomed into the sky from the direction of the refinery. He couldn’t see the buildings through the explosion but he didn’t need to. Likely after an explosion of that magnitude there would be nothing left but a massive crater.
Acting on instinct, he rose to run to the site of the explosion, to see if anything could be salvaged or done, but his rational mind won out quickly. There would be no escaping this and nothing could be done. His mind then fixed question of how. Anywhere there was such a concentration of magical energy it did produce some risk, which is why they had placed so many safeguards on the refinery. In order to produce a reaction such as this, someone would have to lower all of the safeguards at once and then introduce even more energy into the system. He couldn’t think of a single person who could do that.
Tallon.
He tried to push the thought out of his mind as he rushed down the stairs and worked his way to the courtyard where his magical carriages were kept. He selected the fastest, one with minimal comforts and excellent aerodynamics.
Within a minute, he sped out into the night, for once not caring anything about maintaining his appearance. He pushed the carriage hard, riding more recklessly than he had since he’d been a young man, racing the carriages with his friends, trying to impress any number of noble young women. Particularly making the trips to the Dorian capital to see Evelet, the first woman he could claim truly to have loved.
That all changed on a single, strange night. He’d gone on one of his usual trips, and instead of finding her normal, vibrant self, he knew at once that something was wrong. But when he pressed her about it, she would not say anything to explain.
Despite her reluctance to talk, she gave into him completely, and he reveled in the experience, finally giving expression to the passion he’d felt for so long. He thought it was the beginning of something of an alliance that might bring the clans closer together. In the morning, however, as he stepped into the main room of the Dorian keep, the guards rushed in and promptly threw him out.
At first, he thought it was because their illicit liaison had been discovered, but he soon realized that other things were afoot. The clans were going to war, and after that day, he did not see Evelet again, nor could he get any word of her. He waited years for tensions to cool down and had inquired after her immediately. To his horror, he had been told in no uncertain terms that Evelyn was dead.
It had been some time before he had been ready even to think about giving his heart to another woman again.
His manic pace helped him gain ground and soon he could see the speck indeed was another carriage retreating at high speed. It was a great distance yet to the point where the World Fissure closed again and only a madman would attempt flying a carriage over the rift. All it took was a single magical updraft and the carriage and everything on it would be incinerated in an instant.
As he closed the distance, Meckule lamented the fact that his brother eschewed communication amulets, though he doubted his brother would respond anyway. Within minutes, he managed to pull up alongside the carriage and nodded to Tailon.
“Tailon, where are you off too so early in the morning?” he calls. “Perhaps you are running from your guilty conscience.”
Tailon looked over, his face stricken, but did not slow his carriage. “It wasn’t me. It wasn’t me! I have nothing to do with it!”
“Then why are you running?”
Meckule could she Tailon breathing heavily, his face coated with sweat, his head continuously shaking back-and-forth. “Because, no matter what I say, they will think I was behind it. You probably do. Why else would you run out here half dressed? “
Meckule threw up his arms, barely containing the rage that roiled in him, threatening to burst out. “Well, I’d like to hear it from the mage beast’s mouth. Did you mastermind this and if so why aren’t you much, much farther away by now?”
“By Rahim and all that is holy, by all the moons and mage beasts, I did not do this!”
“Tell me, then, what did you find? Someone tampered with your instruments? How could they take so much and weaponize it without you knowing?”
The shaking of his brother’s head grew more frantic. “I tell you, I do not know. Most of my energy is missing, but I had been checking the Essence all day and didn’t notice anything amiss. I do not know what is going on and why, but this is a catastrophe.”
Meckule raised an eyebrow, having an inkling that his brother defined catastrophe in a far different way than he. “Tell me this one thing and I will believe you.” He leaned closer, directing his chariot so that the two men were almost toe to toe.
“Tell me what you were collecting the magic for. You would only divulge that if you had no other choice.” Meckule stared him down, raising his two fingers with which he could activate his Essence and cast an attack.
Tailon had finally stopped shaking his head. Tailon’s entire body slumped. “It’s wrong,” he said. “All of this, our entire society… it’s wrong. Mankind was not meant to wield magical power alone, but only in conjunction with another race. They were called Ethermen. Only with one Earthmanman and one Etherman could magic be accomplished. A foolish man bound himself to the queen of the Ethermen. He permanently merged both of our races so that all men have the capacity to perform magic. It is an abomination. The visions I had the came from the Etherman trapped inside me. If I could find a way to sever the link, it would show it could be done. I was collecting the power for this process. Otherwise, I fear Rahim’s wrath will not be long in coming. He can only tolerate our insolence for so long.” He glanced back over his shoulder toward the direction of the magical explosion. “Perhaps his wrath is already here.”
Meckule had never heard such nonsense. If his brother was hearing voices from some other creature trapped inside of him, this was certain proof of his insanity.
“Very well, Tailon, I believe you,” Meckule said, unsure whether his actual convictions matches words. “I also believe there is but one thing to be done.” He said nothing for a few moments and Tailon stared anxiously back, his forehead furrowed.
Without another word, Meckule snapped his fingers and released a powerful wave of magic. The wave of crimson magic slammed into the carriage, disassembling it in the moment and sending his brother flying. He immediately released another bit of Essence and caught his brother in a binding spell that let him down gently. He brought his carriage about and lighted off it next to the prone form of this brother. “I’m sorry Tailon, but this really is the only way.”
Meckule collected his brother’s unconscious body and balanced it precariously in the carriage. He could not manage the same speed getting back without allowing Tailon to fall off. Once back, he remanded Tailon to the authorities, who immediately took him away.
As soon as he stepped into the house, he cast a protection spell around himself, hopefully warding off the worst of the magical aftereffects of the blast. He found the house deserted as he ran through it, not even a single servant poking a head around the corner. Meckule reached his office and found that was it expected to see. A note and a knife.
Wishing the blackmailed would find some other form of communication that didn’t involve the destruction of his expensive furniture, he leaned close to read.

What unfortunate tidings,
What unbearable fright,
Have we all to witness
This abominable night.

Though I’m saddened to hear of
This calamitous thing,
Do be sure, in my mind,
This does not change a thing.

He crumpled the parchment and threw it as hard as he could across the room, where it bounced off the wall and settled on the floor. How could this not change a thing? It was going to be a monumental task completing with all his resources. Now, the task was almost impossible.
He looked back at the desk and realized he had not gotten everything. Another piece of parchment still remains by the knife.
He could see right way was not like the other notes. Instead of the scrawling handwriting, it showed a formula, a diagram after the fashion alchemists used to document their creations. He was no expert alchemist, but he knew enough to decipher such formula. This formula in particular contained various kinds of Essence combined after a certain fashion. His breath caught, however, when he spied a certain ingredient. Life Essence. Blood.
He dropped the paper and backed away. This was the most atrocious kind of magic believable. All of the clan had signed a treaty against using blood as a source of Essence. Though it flowed through everyone’s veins, it was the most effective when the subject was killed and the blood used shortly thereafter. In dead creatures, only trace amounts remains compared to what flowed through a living being. As long as the being was alive though, its spirit would use up the Essence at a steady rate. Thus it was best to separate the spirit from the body and quickly collect the Essence from the blood before it had time to dissipate.
Despite its macabre nature, blood Essence was the most powerful kind of all. With the main Essence refinery destroyed, and Tailon’s reserves depleted, this could perhaps be the only way to complete the job within the time allotted him. But could he do such a grisly thing? Also important was the question of even if he could bring himself to do something, could he do it without being observed?
He lay back in his chair, holding his head against the intense throbbing pain. Perhaps he could petition the clan itself. Surely they had scores prisoners they were going to execute anyway. At least they could be used this way and their deaths would serve some greater purpose.
But, then again, there was still the matter of blood Essence being against the treaty. If he were to use it in the open, he would have to convince all the clans he was doing the right thing. Convincing all three of them plans to agree on anything, especially when they stood at the brink of war, would be a near impossible task. For that, Rahim himself would have to swoop down his throne and decree it. And if Rahim we’re going to swoop down to intervene, he might as well get the dragon out himself while he was at it.

IV.
The chamber in the mine did not need additional light, because Essence seeped slowly from the carcass in trace amounts, illuminating the crystal in which the dragon rested.
The air felt heavy here much as it had at the World Fissure. Each breath intoxicated him, bringing with it the heady feeling of absolute dominion. He took each ponderous step as if he were a conqueror, treading down lesser beings before him. As he approached the center of the crystalline floor, he sank to his knees, gazing downward at the once mighty creature.
“How did you fall?” he whispered, not taking his eyes away for an instant. “You must have been great once…a being to be feared, respected, even admired by some. But now, here you lie, dead and frozen in time, waiting for others to dig up your remains and devour them as worms devour flesh.”
He pressed his face closer to the floor, his voice rising. “Tell me! How did you fall? Who did this to you? Was it by your own will, or did another do this to you? I must know! I must!”
Meckule lay there, craving the answer to his question, but finding none.
He started, as something wet flowed past his forehead. Lifting his head slightly, a trail of red, sticky liquid filled his vision. Blood, running through the natural crevasses of the crystalline floor, filling them like sanguine rivers.
At first, he thought the blood must be his own, but as he rose and examined his body, he found that only his knuckles bled, and those only a few drops at a time. This torrent must have another source. Trembling, Meckule stepped forward, following the trail as it led him deeper into the chamber. He made no attempt to avoid the flowing blood, and so left crimson footprints behind him with each step.
A dark shape appeared on the far wall in front of him, unmoving. He thought briefly to call the guards, but found himself transfixed on the sight, unable to tear himself away or to raise his voice to call for help.
As he stepped closer, the dark shape sharpened, and his vision seemed to constrict around it, leaving only it in his sight. He pulse sounded loudly in his ears, making him acutely aware of every rapid beat of his heart.
In a terrible instant, the entire scene snapped into brutal focus: Sarhah pinned against the wall, three spears protruding from her chest and stomach. They formed a perfect triangle with the point facing upward, and each spear bore a shaft of a different color: scarlet, gold, and azure. A ceremonial killing. One eye stared lifelessly back at him, her red hair having fallen so it concealed the other.
Stumbling forward, Meckule could not believe what his eyes told him. An all-too familiar piece of parchment dangled from the end of one of the spears. Choking and sobbing, Meckule ripped the parchment free and read.

Bright Essence flows now from her blood
And now you mustn’t choose.
You have your sacrifice prepared.
Act now, or you will lose.

Blood Essence. His blackmailer had known he’d be reluctant to use it, and so had provided the sacrifice for him. His impeccable memory served him so well that he remembered the instructions for concocting it. He had everything he needed here.
If he did nothing, her death would be an utter waste. If he acted now, her death might very well save thousands of lives, including his own. In any case, this proved one thing—his blackmailer truly had the upper hand. If his mages thought all was well, there was nothing else to be done. This shadowy figure could strike anyone, anywhere he wished. He did not know how the dragon had fallen, but this is how he would fall. Pierced through the heart by a dart from the shadows.
Howling with equal parts rage and grief, he yanked the spears free and cast them aside. Picking up her bloodied corpse, he took her to the center of the room and lay her directly atop the dragon. He knew he had to work quickly, as each second drained more and more of the Essence away. He released bursts of his own Essence into the blood pooling on the floor.
Blood Essence mixed, forming a dark mist all around the area, swirling and undulating like something that had taken on a life of its own. Still, he could hear voices whispering to him from the shadows, desperate pleas for help.
He rushed to the place where Sarhah had been impaled into wall and removed her, flinging the spears away. He gently cradled her corpse and laid it directly on the crystal above the dragon. Even in death, she maintained an otherworldly sort of beauty, like coming upon a beautiful flower in its prime that had been snipped away in full bloom and crushed underfoot by a careless passerby.
It felt impossible that a mortal woman could possess such beauty.
It was then that he realized he didn’t care what the other clans thought, much less his own. Sarhah’s life would not be given in vain. The dark Essence curled thicker and thicker in the air, not dissipating like normal Essence. Meckule’s rage boiled up though him, threatening to spill out. The blood Essence had been created, mingling blood, Essence, and binding elements in proper proportions, and it waited only for him to exert his will upon and mold it to the task for which it had been created.
“Sarhah,” he whispered, a tear tracking down his face. “I shall not forget you, nor allow your sacrifice to be in vain. When they look back, they will remember that it was you who saved us all.”
Meckule raised a clenched fist and shot it forward at the same time, releasing the final bit of Essence. The blood Essence activated, turning for an instant to a deep lavender, and then settling into emerald green. A great whirlpool opened in up the floor and he jammed the Essence violently downward en masse, obliterating Sarhah’s corpse.
In the instant before Sarhah’s body dissolved, her entire being changed, her hair and skin becoming dark, her face taking on a new form. The vision lasted only an instant before she simply ceased to be.
Meckule screamed, a bestial sound that came from deep within his ravaged soul, exerting his will harder and harder upon the Essence, driving it ever downward. The nearly impenetrable crystal shattered and dissolved as though it is been a lump of sugar dissolving in water.
The Essence spent itself, vanishing bit by bit, until only a small gobbet about the size of his fist remained. This he pressed farther and farther down, until the Essence became size of an eye, then a grain and disappeared completely.
His very soul wrung out, Meckule collapsed to the ground and sensed no more.
V.
That night after Meckule had bathed and changed his clothing, he was sitting in the edge of his bed when the door slammed open and a servant ran into the room. “Your Excellency, I have dire news. Tailon has been murdered in prison. They found his body in his cell with all the doors locked. Nobody can make sense of it.”
Meckule shot up again, ignoring the pain. “How did he die? Who’s done this?”
The servant shook his head. “The wound appears to be magical, sir. Some are saying that it might have been self-inflicted.”
“No!” Meckule cried. “He would never do that.” He swung his legs over the side of the bed, stumbling toward his wardrobe. He fell halfway there, his body racked with pain. Several of the servants attended to him and guided him back to bed. He struggled in their grip, breathing hard and tensing his muscles.
The servants scrambled off to obey orders. Meckule fell back, his head swimming and vision blurring. By Rahim, why did it have to be Tailon? He was the best of them, the noblest, the most intelligent, freest from the corruption and decadence that defined their society. Not once did he claim to have understood his brother, but out of all the people in his family, Tailon was the one for whom he’d always had the most affection.
“You shall be avenged,” he whispered, delirious as he drifted back to sleep. “By Rahim’s throne, I swear it.”
Meckule stayed in his chambers alone all evening, soaking in a warm bath enhanced with minerals salts. Most the time, he stared into the distance. A note pierced with a dagger lay at the water’s edge, but he could not get bring himself to read them.
He sat up, but decided against standing completely. The man slammed the door shut and immediately adopted a groveling position. “Rahim smite me for what I’ve done, sir, but it cannot wait. Punish me if you must, but you are in great danger.”
This was Jacob, his chief legal counsel with whom he’d been acquainted for many years. He was a portly fellow with brown hair to his shoulders and a well-kept beard.
“You have milliseconds to convince me of that before I drown you. What do you mean by barging in like that?”
“Again, I am so sorry, your grace. It’s only that someone has laid a snare for you and the trap is closing. It’s the will, sir. Tailon’s will.”
“What about his will? Who has laid a trap for me?”
“In his will, Tailon said something quite unexpected,” Jacob said. “I and everyone else assumed he would simply leave the rest of the business to you.” The man paused and drew in a deep breath. “He left it to his apprentice.”
Meckule nearly slid under the water in shock. He was saying that the boy now owned half of the company? It was the most absurd thing he’d ever heard. Why would she do it?”
Meckule sank lower in the water, trying to grasp the situation. He had no inkling as to why Tailon would do such a thing. Was he also part of this conspiracy? He never would have thought it possible.
“Did he change his will recently?” Meckule asked. “Is there any indication that someone persuaded him to change it?”
Jacob shook his head, though he did not raise it from its bowed position. “It has remained the same for years, your grace. As far as I can determine, it remains in its original form.”
“Keep your eyes averted,” Meckule commanded as he rose from the water. In an instant, he had towels whirling around him to dry off his body, and then summoned his clothing. He tromped over to the groveling man and raised his chin with his foot. “Rise, Jacob. You did right to tell me, but if you ever mention this to another soul, I’ll have you fed to starving mage beasts, is that clear?”
Jacob nodded and he rose, keeping his mouth shut.
“Arrange a meeting if you can,” Meckule ordered. “I’ll be in my office.”
Knowing that he must be missing something, he took the latest parchment and found it filled with writing, a letter addressed, written in the same hand that of the blackmail notes.
Years ago, your dishonored my family. My sister, Evelet, became with child by his hand and died while giving birth to a son. The superstitious elders saw this as Rahim’s retribution and declared our entire family line impure. Though I should have been next in line to inherit the family glory and riches, I am now forced into the basest of professions, barely able to sustain myself. I have raised the child as my own, knowing that he, by birth, should lay claim to the vast wealth and prestige of both of our families, but knowing that he will likely be kept from both.
This son will be strong, the beginning of a great dynasty. Rahim has shown it to me. I will do whatever I must.
Lady Sarhah Dorian
A calm determination settled over him. As he searched through his memory, he could see the pieces come together. Dorians were the masters of disguise, using the markings on their skin and imbuing their bodies with magic. He had seen those markings on Sarhah and had foolishly written them off.
The moment before he had destroyed Sarhah’s body, he had broken down the illusion, and he had seen her truly for the first time. Fen must have a similar enchantment transforming his body, concealing his true nature as a dark-skinned Dorian of a royal line. Together, they had conspired against him, fulfilling Sarhah’s desire for vengeance.
Fen now had claim to half of his company. With the dragon fossil nearly uncovered, he might manage to produce enough Essence to save the realm, indebting the other clans to them forever. Without it, they would have nothing. They needed the Essence quickly to fight back against what was surely coming, and they must have some alternate way of refining it for use, or they would not have destroyed the main complex.
In any case, there would be no time to collect it slowly from the World Fissure. This mother lode from the dragon would act as the seed of a new commercial empire, one, it seemed, that did not include him.
He knew what he needed to do.
He took a dagger from where it lay on his desk, raking it across his palm drawing a steady drip of blood. He let this pool on his desk, all the while mixing it with Essence released from his Reserve, and a few binding elements from the stash in his desk. Just in case, he stuffed his pockets with the elements, leaving his hands coated with them for later use.
It would not be as potent as blood used from a recently-sacrificed victim, but much more potent than any normal Essence. He let the blood Essence curl black and gray in the room, and when enough had formed, he used a simple spell to draw it back into his Reserve. His entire body tingled with a sudden influx of power.
Pausing only to take a magical carriage, he drove himself to the mine and burst through the gates. “Let me through!” bellowed Meckule, raising his hand. “If you know what is good for you, leave the mine!”
The guards stood aside, but none took his advice to flee. He made his way to the pit, still clutching the knife in one hand. He spoke in a loud voice, addressing the dead creature.
“Magic is not the savior of mankind, but its abominable curse. You are epitome of evil. You were intended it to give us a new start, but I think instead that shall be the end.”
A blast of searing hot magic launched through the hole through which they had entered and exploded against the back wall. “Meckule, you are hereby ordered to stand down in the name of the Lord Scarlatti. Surrender, and we may spare your life.” The voice came from the head mage in charge of mine security.
Meckule shook his head, thinking that he did not have a life worth saving anymore. “My life is of little value to me anymore…except for how I might spend it.”
“We know you are dealing with blood magic,” the head mage called. “Think about what you are doing. This could turn the Dorians against us. Do you want to be remembered as the one responsible for the downfall of the Scarlatti line?”
Unfortunately, this die had already been cast. He could not undo what was already done. “I am not one to slaughter for the sport of it,” Meckule replied. “I will not survive this day, but I wish the rest of you to. Leave now while you can and tell all of the other workers to do the same. No one must be allowed to possess the dragon’s power. I will make sure of that.”
Meckule stumbled forward, his hand outstretched. As he took a final hesitant step, a burst of intense magic rocketed at him, striking him squarely on the chest and knocking him backward. The pain spread over his body as he lay on his back, one hand touching the crystal at the edge of the pit. He knew the wounds were mortal, thought he felt much less terror then he expected. Perhaps it would be as Evelet had told him: he would soon be under Rahim’s care. Perhaps she would be there also.
With one hand, he reached to where the blood pooled on his chest and released all of his Essence into it at once. He did not wait to act on it. He worked the same spell he had done with Sarhah’s corpse, using the magic to drive down toward the dragon. The barrier shattered and the remains of the mighty beast ignited, bringing the whole world down around it.

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