“You’re almost there. Keep going!”
Sola heeded her leader’s words and resisted looking behind her as she charged down the hallway of the castle’s central tower. She ignored the flashes of reddish light that illuminated the hallway behind her. She felt the claws of the dayhawk on her shoulder dig in tighter, just as her boots had dug into his flanks when she had been riding atop him. He flapped his sun-yellow wings, but thankfully did not cry out. The potion that protected Sola from the dayhawk’s strident call had worn off only moments ago. She nearly blacked out when he screamed at the guards that confronted them when they landed on the bridge that led into the tower.
Those guards should have been distracted away. Too much had gone wrong once they had reached the central tower of the castle. If she didn’t know any better, Sola would have wondered if their enemy had been warned. But she did know better. Their enemy was just that daunting.
“This would be a most hilarious failure of a mission if I wasn’t in the middle of it,” the dayhawk said.
Sola slowed as she neared a junction and ducked into the right corridor. “I think there are mages after us!”
The crystal that hung around Sola’s neck vibrated again and her leader’s voice spoke through it.
“Don’t worry about the mages. The dragons are occupying the mages. Just do your part. You’re almost there.”
From inside the central tower, Sola couldn’t hear anything of the battle that raged at the castle walls. She and her companion, Remi, had swept past all resistance without being noticed, thanks to the dayhawk’s special talents. The leaders of the resistance had believed that the mages would never suspect a dayhawk and they were right. Still, Sola was surprised that their enemy, who seemed so suspicious of everything, hadn’t prepared for everything.
“Cardinals,” Remi said.
“Those red flashes. They are sending cardinals after us.”
“What are those?”
“They are red and winged enchantments. They fly where they are thrown or directed and when they hit something, they burst into flame.”
“So much for slipping in and out of the archive undetected.”
“You didn’t truly hope for such, did you?” Remi said, pushing off from her shoulder and flapping his wings. There were traps ahead as there were traps behind. And Sola was no match for the mages, but the tools she had been given, trusted with, would be. Or so she hoped. And it was not just her own hope she carried.
Illusions they would encounter, of sound and sight. And for these she had been given lenses to wear. Poisons and venoms would assault her and for those she had drunk potions and antidotes. Curses she would trip over, and for those she had been hung with every talisman and protective amulet that the leaders could muster and forge.
And she had Remi.
Brute force could harm him as it could any other animal, but he was immune to enchantment. Before reaching the corridor where they were now bombarded with cardinals, Sola had suffered cuts, bites, and boils. Her eyes and nose stung from foul compounds and hexes. But she made it past them alive and mostly hale. There was some childishness left in her still, and she had hoped she was past the worst. But the thought of being burned to death seemed worse than poison and hex.
She pushed aside the worry that gnawed at her. She had encountered no mages so far. Even in the areas that were free of traps and curses. The mages could not have been foolish enough to leave their greatest treasure unguarded. It was their most sacred task to protect the book.
At last, she saw it, the door that lay ahead matched the one she sought from the map in her mind. No traps or curses lay in the hallway ahead, but deadly fire chased from behind.
Sola dashed toward the door, pushed it open, twisted around as Remi flapped past her, and looked down the corridor. Three red blurs were bearing toward her. She pushed the door closed and barred it. She heard the thuds of the cardinals hitting the other side of the door. And she felt the heat of the fire they had started. But she wasn’t concerned with what was outside the chamber now.
She turned to face the chamber. It was small, as they had expected. At most the chamber could fit a dozen people comfortably. There were volumes and scrolls upon shelves on the walls. A few stone tables and wooden chairs. But in the center of the chamber was a stand upon which sat a heavy tome. Its brown cover and its spine bore no markings. But Sola knew that was the book she sought.
Sola glanced around the chamber. It was empty. That too was expected. No mage was allowed to be alone with the book. She crept forward anyway, glancing about her, glancing at the shadows in the corners. Remi returned to her shoulder.
Sola wanted to ask him if he could sense anything, but she held her tongue. It would do no good but to comfort her to break the uneasy silence. Remi had no power to sense any enchantments. For his strength was also his weakness. As magic was senseless to him, he was senseless to it. His cry and his other talents arose from some other energy, an even greater mystery than magic.
Suddenly, a shadow shifted and swirled and thickened. Sola pulled out her dagger and Remi left her shoulder to perch on a nearby shelf as a mage stepped out of the shadow, cloaked in blue.
“Turn away, thieves,” the mage said.
Sola held out her dagger. “It will take more than words to deter us.”
“Kill him, Sola.” The voice came from the crystal at Sola’s throat. The mage noticed.
“We haven’t killed a single one of you,” he said. “To our great harm. Only mages have fallen in this battle.”
“Kill him before he enchants you with his words.”
“We only want one book,” Sola said, slipping her free hand into a pocket. “We will return it to your keeping once we have finished with it.” She pulled out a pouch and threw it at the mage. The pouch broke and the spell within struck the mage. She didn’t know what it was. The mage cried out and crumpled to the ground.
He looked up and glared at her. “You have proven yourselves unworthy of it.”
“This knowledge belongs to everyone and you’re hording it and all the power that comes from having it for yourselves.”
“Your leaders are misguided. Yours in particular. I believe he is using you.”
“Of course he is using me,” Sola said. “As the universe uses him. We are all pieces of a whole.”
The mage glanced between Sola and Remi. “Are you certain you have placed yourselves where you truly belong?”
He tried to rise. Her heart beating, Sola stepped toward him and thrust her dagger down through his hand and into the soft wood of the floor below. The mage cried out.
“I have killed before,” Sola warned him. “Out of necessity.”
Pain seemed to be draining the mage of his strength, but he raised his head and rolled his eyes up enough to meet her gaze. His furrowed brows relaxed and Sola knew that he must have been using his charms to ease his pain.
“When is there ever a need to kill?” he said.
“In this brutal world? Many a time.” Sola shook her head. “You have the luxury of sparing your enemies lives, for they can never defeat you. I wouldn’t have to kill either, if I had the power you have.” She glanced at the book. “Haven’t you considered that?”
The mage frowned. “Given the choice, many would abuse such powers. Haven’t you considered that we could have killed all of you before you stepped foot, claw, or paw on our grounds? It is our choice that protects you.”
“And that is what frightens me,” Sola said. “That my fate lies in the choices of a mage. You are as fallible as the rest of us. And there are none to watch over your deeds as you watch over ours.”
“That isn’t true. We watch over each other.”
Remi extended his wings. “Ah, well that’s comforting then.”
“Dragons, warlocks, trolls, I understand,” the mage said, his gaze never leaving Sola. “Even this young and passionate scholar, so desperate for a rebellious cause. But you, dayhawk? How did they turn you to this folly?”
“Sola, hear me,” her leader said. His voice deepened. It resonated through her breastbone, rippled through her heart and lungs. For a man so slight that he was called Sprig by those who didn’t know his resolve, or his temper, he had a surprisingly and unnervingly deep voice. Deeper than a dragon’s. As deep as the quaking of the earth. “Do not let him stop you. If you will not kill him, then disable him. I command you!”
Then Sola pulled the weapon from the sheath at her back. When the mage’s eyes widened, she knew he recognized it. It looked little different from the dagger she had used to pin the mage’s hand. But this dagger was a celestial weapon.
Its blade was forged in the heart of an infant star. It was made not of metal but of some material that could cut through any other substance in all the world, even the substances used in magic. One of the dragons had it in her horde for hundreds of years. It was Sprig who had discovered it. It was Sprig who thought to use it to unbind what the mages had shackled.
There were traps around the book. Traps that could not be seen. Traps that were there and then not there. A web of protection so tangled and volatile that no single mage could undo it. And it was forbidden, she had heard, for any one mage to be near the book even when the traps were removed.
The mage in the blue cloak was right. His Order had rules and safeguards. But who was there to assure that every mage followed those rules? Once, in an almost-forgotten age, there were those who did. What happened to those who were powerful enough to stand watch over the mages, the present age did not know. History did not know. Perhaps the mages had made it so. Perhaps they had destroyed their enemies and erased all knowledge of them.
Perhaps Sola and her allies would restore that balance, not by watching the mages, but by sharing in their power.
If I survive this, Sola thought. And if I have trusted and acted wisely.
She took a breath and stepped toward the book. She reached out with the blade. The gloves she wore were enchanted. The leaders had gathered all the magic they had learned from what little trickled out from the vault of the mages. They had gathered all that magic in secret and used it all on this one battle, this one chance.
“Why were you chosen to do this task?” the mage asked as Sola steadied the blade. It shivered and pulsed in her hands. And though her heart hammered, she could not help but to feel pleased by the question. For she was not the chosen one, but she would let him think she was. As she stood there with the celestial blade outstretched, she felt something touch the blade. She saw a shimmer in the air. And she felt something. A snap. One of the traps had been severed.
“Is it working?” Remi asked.
Sola felt another snap and flinched and something whipped past her cheek. She gulped. “It’s working.”
“Even if you kill me, unbind the book, and take it, you will not leave here with it,” the mage said.
Sola ignored him, for it was her life she was worried about. The handle of the celestial dagger burned, even through the gloves. She was sweating. Her arms ached. The bones in her right hand felt strained and twisted. And the gloves she wore began to melt and smolder. But she cut and she cut. And finally, it was done.
Sola removed the burning gloves and dropped them to the ground. Her right hand was mangled, but the pain was gone. With her bare hands, she lifted the freed book. She turned and smiled at the mage.
Remi raised his wings.
The mage blinked.
“You are right,” Sola said. “I will not leave here with it.” She lifted the book up as the dayhawk grew large enough to wrap his claws around the heavy tome. His feathers shimmered, not like gold as some of the legends described, or even like flame. They shimmered like sunlight. Too bright to gaze upon.
Sola saw the mage tear his hand from the ground and rise. Somehow, she knew he had been pretending to be weakened, hoping perhaps that he could convince them with his cunning words. But now he raised his hands. And she raised her celestial blade. She was no match for a mage, especially with her left hand. It was instinct for her to raise her weapon. She was a scholar. And a warrior. And a believer. But she knew what would come next.
Remi would sing now. And no one in that tower would survive his song.
But if he succeeded in his mission, their mission, if he did his part and others did their parts, as Sola had done hers, then all the world would change.
They were almost there.
Copyright © 2014 by Nila L. Patel.