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Mystic QuestBook two of the Broze Canticles
By Tracy Hickman Laura Hickman
Warner BooksCopyright © 2005 Tracy and Laura Hickman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFool's Errand
Near the close of the 492nd year of the Dragonkings, the revolt of the mystics on the Election Fields shattered the pact that for over four hundred years had limited the conflict between the dragons to a grotesque organized amusement. Satinka-Dragon-queen of Ost Batar-believed she had been betrayed in the Battle of the Election Fields and drove her remaining troops with blind rage to annihilate her retreating enemy. The broken lines of Vasska's warriors fled northeast, scrambling down the Dragon's March Road with Satinka's warriors at their heels. It was not until they reached the River Serphan that Vasska's insane Elect turned to make their final stand.
There, at Dragon's March Bridge, the battle raged for eight days before reinforcements from Vasskhold and its surrounding provinces bolstered the sagging and tired lines at the riverbank. Satinka's own reinforcing column was met as they moved north across the Vestron Marches by a second force under Vasska's banner that was marching westward from the coastal cities. They met at Waystead Gap, denying Satinka her reinforcements at the river but exacting a heavy price from Vasska's forces in blood.
Panas, Dragonking of Enlund,convinced the Grand Duke in Pantaris that these events were a sign from heaven and that his own troops must march down the Enlund Plain against Satinka's western flank. Her forces split, Satinka pulled back, but the Enlund troops smelled victory. The Grand Duke sent a second army south across the Plain of Umath in an effort to cut off Satinka's western retreat. But the Enlund royalty had not counted on the Thanes of Urlund, who under direction and support of their own dragon-Ormakh-rode their battle torusks against both Satinka's western retreat and the Emperor's troops from the north. It was then that the dragon Jekard saw his chance and drove his own warriors deep into the soft flanks of Satinka's lands.
The Five Domains had played at war for four hundred years-now their toys had broken and the struggle had become, for each of them, viscerally vital. To the common peasant, little had changed; the war before and the war now were one and the same. Sons and daughters went to battle. Sons and daughters died. That their numbers were no longer limited to the Elect was something of which no one spoke aloud. Yet in the halls of power the sad acceptance of ritual human sacrifice in the name of the common good had been replaced by something more desperate. The order of the world itself was now uncertain, and for the powerful atop their suddenly teetering thrones, the stakes could have gotten no higher.
By the 519th year of the Dragonkings, the escalation of the War of Scales ground into its twenty-sixth year with no end imagined. The memory of dragons has ever been long and the price of Satinka's insult on the Election Fields continued to be paid in human blood. It gushed from the wound of a dragon's pride that would not be healed. Open warfare between the Five Domains had settled into a dreary cycle of battle without conquest, sacrifice without purpose, and loss without victory. Battle lines swept back and forth across the same scarred patches of land that stank from death. War itself became the consuming preoccupation for the Dragonkings who perpetuated it, the Pir who struggled to end it, and the mystics who fought for their own survival because of it.
So it was that as all eyes cast their fearful glances toward one another, the doom of the world crept unnoticed even by the mystics, who alone were prepared to see it.
Yet all that would change in a single, fateful year.
BRONZE CANTICLES, TOME III, FOLIO 2, LEAF 23
"You!" a voice rings out from the darkness.
I peer through my conjured mask, an ornate facade of white and red painted leather in which I may hide. I squint into the void, trying to shield my eyes from the glare of the lights.
"Yes, you on the stage! Are you ready?"
"I don't know," I answer. "What am I to do?"
"Amateurs! All they send me are amateurs!" The voice bellows. "Just get off the stage and watch."
I can already hear an enormous thick curtain rising behind me. I glance awkwardly about, then jump gingerly over the unsteady flames of the footlights, landing on a giant plain that stretches to the twilight horizon.
The curtain vanishes into the sky, revealing a sparse setting. Painted wooden mountains hang from cords at the back of the stage, waving uncertainly in a breeze that drifts across the plain. There are several statues of metal warriors swinging at one side, while on the other side a false sea hangs just above the stage. All three of these pieces are suspended from an ornate bronze globe overhead, the sphere itself also suspended from the darkness. Each piece drifts slowly in the wind, sometimes circling forward on the stage while the other two circle back under the orb.
Then the players enter from either side of the stage. The footlights are inexplicably working against me, shining off the edges of the eyeholes in my mask. I cannot see the players clearly. My mask is supposed to hide me from them-not the other way around.
One of them is a woman with paper wings mounted to her back who dances beneath the false waves suspended over her head. I cannot see her face but she reminds me of my own mystic twin, the winged woman through whom the power of my Deep Magic is made real. She looks awkward as she dances across the stage, her faux wings bouncing unnaturally.
Nearby, a short, demonic little creature attempts a dance of his own beneath the metal statue suspended over him. As he dances, he is trying to carry something in his hands-letters and figures of some strange and unreadable script. He tries to be careful in his movements but the letters fall from his awkward hands, shattering against the hard floor and vanishing at once.
At the back of the stage, however, beneath the shadow of the wooden mountains, stand two tall figures-twins by the look of them, though their faces are hidden behind masks that are in every respect identical to my own. Each holds a sword in his hand. Both of them step forward.
"What do you think of it thus far?" says a voice in my ear.
I turn and find myself staring into the eyes behind another mask. Gasping, I step back.
This creature, too, wears a mask that is identical to my own. Its body, however, is hunched over, leaning on a walking stick clutched firmly in its left hand. A long gash rends its coat from the left shoulder down to the middle of the back, exposing a long, white scar. It gazes back at me with burning red eyes-vertical slits of darkness that are wholly inhuman.
"Who are you?" I ask.
"If you don't pay attention, you'll never get it right," the hunched figure snaps, ignoring my question.
I turn back to the stage, the wind whispering around the edges of my mask. The winged woman lies dead on the stage, her head severed from her body. Her blood seeps across the stage, a growing stain moving inexorably toward me. I shudder, trying to step out of its way as it drips off the stage, but it follows me as I move.
The players on the stage begin applauding, their sparse clapping echoing hollowly throughout the vast hall. I stare up at the masks of the twins-both still rapt in their ovation-knowing that one of them had destroyed this winged woman.
"Not bad for a rehearsal," the stooped figure calls out, his voice trying to carry over the sudden gust of wind. He grabs me by my arm and pushes me up onto the stage. Off balance, I clamber upward, my hands sliding on the winged woman's blood. I stand on the stage, aghast.
The stooped figure is suddenly beside me. It reaches down with its right arm and picks up the sword from the stage. The breeze that once drifted through the room has become a gale, howling around the stage, blowing the scenery overhead to spin and twist from its cables. "Enough rehearsal," he screams over the sudden din. "Let the play begin!"
The body of the winged woman picks itself up off the ground, her hand snatching her head from where it lay and deftly replacing it on her shoulders as she walks off the stage. The demon creature, too, has walked off, pulling a new set of symbols out of a barrel just behind the proscenium of the stage.
I look back toward the twins-but only one figure stands at the back of the stage. I look down at myself and see that we now wear identical costumes.
"I won't do it!" I yell at the stooped man over the roaring of the wind. "I won't play this part ..."
"Everyone's part is his own," he insists.
The hunched figure puts the bloodied sword in my red-stained hands.
BOOK OF CAELITH BRONZE CANTICLES, TOME IX, FOLIO 1, LEAF 52
The winds were unusually cold for late afternoon, even in the early spring. Caelith Arvad awoke with a shiver from his reveries and pulled his hood down closer around his face, his cheeks chilled to a bright, rosy blush. He shivered once more but knew deep within himself that it had little to do with the cold of the approaching night.
He stood in the center of the broad avenue that had been the main thoroughfare of the town known as P'tai-the Jewel of the East. The wind played with a broken door somewhere, for the squeal of its hinge and occasional banging of its remaining planks sounded an uneasy tempo through the town. The wind lent its own mournful low wail to the scene as it wound its way across the jagged edges of broken walls and the vacant blackness of shattered windows. The skittering dry leaves and ashes hissed for silence, but the wind paid no attention and continued to blow through the desolation.
The wind brought one consolation, Caelith thought as he sighed: it rolled down from the northern Enlund Plain, spilling over the Bounteous Hills before it cascaded down into the town. It filled his nostrils with the pungent smell of burnt timbers, blistered paint, and charred stores. It was unpleasant enough but he was grateful for it nonetheless, for the smell, he knew well from experience, could have been much worse.
It certainly would have been much worse had the wind come from the west.
A sharp, distant voice echoed among the fallen walls: "Prince Arvad!"
Caelith looked up in annoyance at the figure running toward him, weaving through the rubble of the fallen walls.
"Prince Arvad!" It was Lovich. He was new to the clan, only rescued from the Election in Waystead four months before. He was a talented mystic who showed promise in a number of areas-if he lived long enough to develop them. He had an enthusiasm and a blind loyal fervor that argued against betting in favor of his survival. Lovich breathlessly skidded to a halt just in front of Caelith. "Prince Arvad, I bring news!"
"Don't call me 'Prince,'" Caelith snapped. "A prince is the son of a king, and last time I checked, my father had not acquired a crown."
"But, sire, everyone calls you the Prince-"
"We are a clan-not a kingdom," Caelith said with a hint of force in his exasperated voice. He was inclined to like Lovich-probably a bad idea considering how easily one's friends die in the course of their work. Better to keep a distance. "Look, I know people back at the clanhold sometimes refer to me as the Prince, but that really isn't a good idea out here, right?"
"Yes, sire," Lovich gulped.
Caelith shook his head. Lovich was not that much younger than Caelith in years, but they were ages apart in experience. "You had something to tell to me, Lovich?"
"Yes, sire," the younger mystic replied. "Master Kenth says he's bringing everyone in."
"Let me guess," Caelith said, absently glancing around. "There's nothing left."
"Well, not much anyway." Lovich shrugged. "It looks like Satinka's army came down out of the Thanes' Rift east of here four days ago. They just marched down the road through the night before they got to the town. Master Kenth thinks old Thane Baerthag must have known they were coming, though, 'cause the townsfolk were already heading west with most of the Thane's army when Satinka arrived. He left part of the army behind to hold the town but apparently the Dragonbitch herself showed up two days ago and, well"-Lovich gestured around him-"they didn't hold on much longer after that."
Caelith nodded. Baerthag would have fared better if he had not been a thane in Urlund. All of Hramra, from the Forsaken Mountains to the south to the northern coasts of the Dragonback and from the western Desolation to the Gulf of Palathina on the east had been divided, since the fall of the Rhamasian Empire over four hundred years before, into the Five Domains. Each was ruled by a Dragonking-or, in two cases, Dragonqueens-under entirely different systems of governance depending upon the whim of the dragon who ruled that part of the land. Though each of those lands was touched by the Pentach of the Pir Drakonis and their religion to one degree or another, the actual system of rule varied from domain to domain. Thus, while Vasska ruled Hrunard and much of the Dragonback under a theocracy heavily centered in the Pir Drakonis, Ormakh preferred to rule Urlund through a less centralized collection of local thanes, each with its own militia and arms. Caelith was certain that Ormakh's intention was to keep each of the thanes sufficiently weak so that no one of them could challenge his rule as Dragonking. It may have been caution on the dragon's part, but it often left the individual thanes to fend for themselves, as the other thanes were reluctant to get involved in their neighbor's troubles.
Caelith started slowly down the broken remains of the avenue, Lovich falling into step next to him. "How far did Baerthag get?"
"Ten miles-maybe fifteen," Lovich said evenly. "It was pretty bad; Baerthag left the refugees behind and tried to make a run for it with what remained of his army. EvaLynn-you know, that Wind-talker visiting from Clan Thais-she flew out and saw it. I can go and get her if you want to hear it from her, but she's pretty shook up about it."
"No." Caelith stopped and looked at Lovich as he rubbed his hands up and down the heavily patched sleeves of his tattered robe. "What's done is done. Baerthag brought it down on himself. He tried to push into Enlund through Satinka's lands and thought he could do it without the Dragonqueen noticing." Caelith took a long look at the smoldering fallen buildings around him. "Satinka, however, notices everything-and always balances her books."
"Have you seen one?" Lovich asked quietly.
"Seen one what?"
"A-a dragon?" Lovich breathed.
Caelith saw the look on the boy's face and started walking again. "By the gods!"
"No, really, sire!" Lovich stumbled back into step behind his commander. "I was just wondering ..."
"You were a member of the Pir most of your life, Lovich," Caelith said, chuckling darkly. "Didn't Vasska, the Dragonking of the Pir-the center of your worship-ever deign to make an appearance for you?"
"Well, no," Lovich stammered, stumbling over some paving stones that had broken loose on the ground. "I mean, what with the war going on and all, I figured-"
"Lovich," Caelith said sharply, his anger boiling over. "The war is always going on! It's been fought back and forth across the plains of Enlund and the Urlund Expanse and the Vestron Marches and a dozen other lands you've never heard of since before you and I were even born! It's bled the clans, it's bled the Pir, it's wrung every one of the Five Kingdoms dry of blood, and the dragons go on! I promise you, Lovich, that you'll see your fill of dragons. The first time will be awe-inspiring and you'll feel a thrill at the power those magnificent beasts represent. You may even feel the need to fall down and worship such undeniable authority. But the next time-if you are fortunate enough to live to have a next time-you'll remember the people standing next to you who screamed as they burned under the dragon's flames. You'll remember the thousands of lives that die just to satisfy the hunger of their shredding gullet. You'll remember that the dragons prefer to cripple their prey rather than kill them outright because they like their meals alive when they digest them."
Lovich stopped, the color draining out of his face even in the salmon light of the fading day.
Caelith stopped and paused for a moment, thinking before he spoke again. "You will see far too many dragons, Lovich. I take it that Satinka's troops did a thorough job of ransacking the town?"
"Yes, sire, I'm afraid so," Lovich responded quickly. "There really isn't anything we can salvage for the clan."
Excerpted from Mystic Quest by Tracy Hickman Laura Hickman Copyright © 2005 by Tracy and Laura Hickman. Excerpted by permission.
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