The dragons and Incanter Council had been talking for hours. Across the street from the council hall was the Incanter Academy’s library, a tall square tower marking each of its corners. The tower was also the best place to cast a listening spell from. Adarthan’s wand barely peeped over the tower’s parapet. He was crouched down behind it, his arms and back and legs cramped from sitting for so long. He had spent almost all of their meeting trying to listen to every word that passed between the two groups.
All Adarthan wanted to know was whether or not the incanter academy was going to send anyone to help fight. The Rentig and Serav dragon tribes in Calun in the north were now in the middle of a fierce civil war over many things, but mostly land and revenge. So far, their talk was mainly comprised of haggling over how many incanters could go, payment amounts and currency, how long they had to fight, and other such politicking when suddenly one of the dragons boomed: “Enough!” so loudly it broke Adarthan’s listening spell. He quickly cast another and resumed his eavesdropping.
“I know of the indecisiveness of the dvergar, but this is insulting,” Davel continued. What little semblance of civility he had shown earlier crumbled away just as his thundering voice threatened to do to the room. “You sit here squabbling idly while my dragons are being slaughtered by our enemy. Make your decision, or stop wasting my time.”
Adarthan held his breath as he strained to hear the quiet murmurs of the council members. Their brief discussion felt like ages to him, as he wondered how much longer he could hold his breath. Finally, Mathul, the leader of the incanter academy, spoke, “We sympathize with your plight, but some of us have reservations about our involvement. Thus, we have decided that since this is not our war we can send only those who volunteer.”
“You have the council’s final answer,” said Arli, one of the other council members, sternly.
“We need good dvergar with solid magic skills, not young ones looking for glory or riches.” Davel growled. “This is real war, not some play time for your pupils.”
“We will make sure only the best incanters are allowed to join.” Mathul seemed unflustered by the dragon's growing impetuousness.
“I’ll be the judge of that,” said Davel.
“The amount you suggested earlier seems fair compensation for each person, so that settles that,” continued Mathul, drawing out his speech far more than he normally did. Incanters were manipulators of words to use them for magic, but they were also debaters, orators, mediators, and occasionally flatterers. None of this had worked so far on Davel. Adarthan noticed too that Mathul at least had long ceased trying to be charming to the dragon, who only grunted in agreement to Mathul’s statement. “However, we would rather have them under the command of the other soldiers you are employing.”
At this Davel started forward towards the council's dais. “What? Why? What’s wrong with my dragon commanders?”
Mathul pulled out his wand and with a few words raised himself up more than a dozen feet into the air. He steadied himself at the level of the dragon's eyes. Mathul was at least a few thousand years old, tall, and broad shouldered, and well known as someone not to be trifled with. Yet Davel was bigger than most dragons, and before him Mathul looked like a pet being held by his master. “You have made your favoritism for the dvergar race, as opposed to all the other races that practice magic at the academy, quite clear. We’ve worked with the elves before and know they will show no such bias. Forgive me if I cannot say the same of you and your dragons.”
“You think we would be reckless with the incanters?” Davel’s tail tossed about like an agitated cat’s.
“I think you want to win this war, whatever the price,” said Mathul, his voice rising.
A low growl emanated from Davel’s throat. “And here I thought the dvergar were the masters of words. Very well. They’ll answer to the fae.”
Adarthan did not wait any longer to hear the rest of Mathul’s directives, or Davel’s objections, or whether or not the dragon had a change of heart and killed Mathul then and there, as he had actually dared to prod an angry and very desperate dragon. No, instead Adarthan was trying not to trip down the narrow and winding stone staircase as he ran. When he reached the bottom, he carefully pushed the door to leave, but found it locked. He knew it was probably one of the librarians, and hoped they hadn’t put an alarm spell on it as well, like the last time he had sneaked up onto one of the towers. It wasn’t his fault all the best places were restricted areas.
He tested the door for any magic, but soon decided it really was simply locked. As he began a spell to unlock it, the door swung open from the other side. A short woman, with glowing cheeks and bright eyes that glared at Adarthan, stood on that other side.
“Thiran! So good to see you,” said Adarthan with a grin. He quickly stepped past her and out of the tower doorway.
“Adar, did you get lost again?” She took hold of his wrist gently, but firmly.
“You know it’s the best spot to catch shooting stars,” said Adarthan. He knew he’d get penalties for being in a restricted area - again - but while Thiran was serious about her duties, she was also a friend.
Thiran cocked her head to the side. “Were stars the only thing you were looking for?” Thiran was also of the naidoreth race, meaning she could read his emotions like a book, and thus made for an excellent lie detector.
Adarthan sighed and held his hands up. “In my defense, you know I would’ve found out everything that happened in the council soon anyways.”
Thiran shook her head. “I don’t really care what you were doing. Your eavesdropping is Mathul’s problem, not mine. What is my concern is that you were in an unsafe, and thus restricted area, by yourself, at night.” Thiran pointed her finger at Adarthan. “The tower needs repair. Don’t go up there again.”
“Thank you, Thiran, and I won’t. I promise.”
She took a step closer to Adarthan, finger still extended, her brown eyes honed in on his blue. “And if I find you doing it again, double penalties.”
Adarthan bit his lip. He was going to have to be more careful next time. “Understood, lady librarian.”
“No next times either.” Thiran smirked and jabbed her finger into his shoulder. “Now, get out before another librarian sees you and gets us both in trouble. Library closed an hour ago.”
Adarthan kissed her hand quickly. “See you around.” He skidded down the hall, searching for one of the back ways out of the library. When he finally managed to get out undetected he went as fast as he could to the dormitories.
The academy was in the shape of a rectangle, with walls along the edges, and set inside the city of Hazalkhad. The living quarters were on the west end, lining the full length of the wall on that side and stretching on for a few blocks. Tall and unadorned, the odd bits of blue mixed in to the grey stones were the only slightly attractive thing about their living quarters. It was made to be functional, and it had served its purpose for centuries.
Adarthan bounded up the stairs to his friend Pirisel’s room, knocking only once before letting himself in. He found Pirisel in his usual evening position of book in hand and feet on desk. Pirisel’s dark eyes peered over the top of his book at Adarthan, who was gasping for breath from the three flights of stairs he had just ascended.
Adarthan ignored the clenching in his chest from the cold evening air mixed with his running. “Mercenaries. Volunteers,” he exhaled excitedly.
Pirisel’s feet went to the ground and his book to the table. “Really?”
Adarthan sat down on the floor and leaned back on his elbows, his breath steadying. “Really. Of course the dragons are only taking the good ones, but that shouldn’t be a problem for us.” He grinned slyly.
Pirisel leaned back in his chair and stretched out his long legs, crossing them at his ankles. “Do you really think they are going to let you go? Only in your tenth year here and at your age?”
“Yes. If I’m good enough who cares if I’m barely sixty?” said Adarthan. He had finally started to forget he was so much younger than the others in his level and had hoped everyone else had as well.
“The dragons will care. One look at you and they will send you back with the pups.” Pirisel snapped his fingers.
“You’re not exactly old yourself,” Adarthan countered.
“I am not looking to put my life in danger just to show off either. We are immortal. I would like to enjoy some of that.”
Adarthan laughed. “Flying around on cross fire-breathing creatures doesn’t sound like fun to you?”
“Hardly.” Pirisel picked his book back up and tried to find where he had left off.
Adarthan pulled himself onto Pirisel’s bed, his dirty boots hanging off the edge. He faced Pirisel, trying hard to hide a smile. “That’s too bad. I heard they’re putting us under fae command, and I can’t imagine there being a war without Tarel stepping up.”
Pirisel put his hand over his mouth, pretending to clear his throat as he tried to suppress a sudden grin. “Well she is one of the best porters the fae have. The dragon war will soon be over with her involved.”
Adarthan tapped his fingers on his knees rhythmically as he gave his friend a sour look. “You’re not ever going to admit it, are you?”
Pirisel continued to flip through his book to find his last spot. “Nothing to admit. Nothing happened, and nothing will.”
“Because you --”
“Because she is one of the best commanders they have,” Pirisel interrupted. “You know how hard the elves are fighting the sinnach, how much they need people like her. I could not have asked, and regardless, she would not have stayed.”
“Whatever you say.” Adarthan fidgeted with his shirt, the silence between them growing uncomfortable. “Pirisel, I really am set on joining the dragons. I know it’ll be dangerous, but I’m not just wanting to show off. I want to help them.”
“They’ll object, but,” Pirisel paused, “you would make a good asset.”
“As would you,” said Adarthan.
“Like I said, cross fire-breathers, not really one of my interests.”
“If you change your mind,” began Adarthan.
“You will be the first to know,” Pirisel assured him.
Adarthan left Pirisel and started back towards the main academy building. His feet plodded at first. He knew it was a long shot that Pirisel would come. Part of him wanted Pirisel to join simply so he wouldn’t be on his own, but he had also decided Pirisel and Tarel were supposed to be together. Granted, the middle of a war wasn’t the ideal place for blossoming romance, but perhaps it would give them the chance to talk. If nothing else, he hoped getting them talking again would at least give Pirisel some sort of closure as to why Tarel had left her position at the academy so suddenly.
As he walked farther, his thoughts turned to the war itself, and his heavy footfalls were swept into a quickening pace. His heart raced at the thought of going - witnessing a real dragon army, working alongside the fae and galana elves, traveling to faraway lands. The dragons had little time to waste and would likely try to have everyone ready to leave by early the next day.
Pirisel was right about his age though. He was young. He joined the academy at fifty, five years before he even became of age. Mathul had accepted him into the academy with reserve and with the stipulation that he would work as his assistant. It made for hard days and long hours, but this was one time he knew being so close to Mathul would pay off.
Adarthan walked instead of ran this time. He wound his way through several short cut alleys and tiny side streets set between looming stone buildings. Most of the lamps were lit for the night, illuminating his way. As he approached a large rotunda, he looked towards the top of it. Light spilled out from Mathul’s window. Adarthan hurried towards the building. He tried to step quietly as he ran up the winding blue marble staircase. He stopped when he reached a large, intricately carved wooden door. He took a deep breath and knocked.
“Enter,” came Mathul’s voice within.
Adarthan strode into the room, words tumbling out of his mouth before he was even all the way inside. “Sir, I want to volunteer to fight with the dragons.”
“Do you now?” Mathul raised both his eyebrows. He put his hands together, his fingertips lightly meeting. His pointer fingers landed on a faint amused smile that Adarthan did not take the time to notice.
“I know I’m young -”
“And brash, and improper, and a slough of other things that are the exact reason we so rarely allow anyone under sixty to attend the academy,” interrupted Mathul.
Adarthan’s pale skin flushed so deep his face looked as though it was about to bruise. “Sir, I..forgive me, I...” He locked his eyes to the floor in embarrassment.
Mathul let out a hearty laugh. “I never thought I’d see the day when you were at a loss for words!”
Adarthan looked up at Mathul perplexed.
“Sit, boy.” Mathul extended his hand towards a chair. “At least you’re humble, most of the time. Now tell me, why do you want to go with the dragons? You are terribly young to be so casual with your life, for that is exactly what you will be fighting with.”
Adarthan scratched his teeth across his bottom lip. He could still feel the heat in his cheeks. He took a moment to think before he answered. Part of him also hoped that if he took long enough, Mathul would answer his own question, which he had a habit of doing. Mathul knew most of Adarthan’s past and his reasons for joining the academy. Yet after awhile, he realized Mathul wanted to do this the hard way and make him properly answer.
They were not speaking as mentor to apprentice, but as head over an entire university to one of the thousands of students he was responsible for. “Because I know what it’s like to have your home taken from you. When the sinnach attacked my city as a boy, destroying so much and killing so many, I knew I wanted to fight them someday. I think this would help me towards that goal. I also can’t imagine what it must be like to have your own kin and friends commit such atrocities against you. I want to help the Rentig dragons defend themselves.”
“The dragons are a proud and passionate race, Adarthan. They are not to be meddled with lightly. And know that fighting someone else’s wars will not mend the wounds from your own battles.”
Mathul leaned back in his chair. “There is also the fact that many are opposed to this war. If it is not against the sinnach, then it should not be fought. As kalendes, our charge is to fight them, not each other. Any detracting from that is not to be tolerated.”
“But we’re allowed and even supposed to defend ourselves and others who are in danger, regardless of who is attacking,” said Adarthan.
“I would agree. Defending yourself is necessary, yet there are those who say the Rentiges and Seravas have moved far past that now, that this is a matter of pride and greed at this point, not safety or freedom. You must consider whether fighting now would be unnecessarily dividing your focus away from your studies and your ultimate goals.”
Adarthan mulled over Mathul’s words in his head. “What would you suggest I do then?”
“I did vote in favor of allowing people to volunteer.”
Adarthan hesitated for a moment before giving his answer. He saw the point Mathul was trying to make, but this would teach him things no class or book could. If he was to go on to fight the sinnach, learning fighting first hand could prove an invaluable lesson. “I think I would still like to volunteer,” he said.
“Very well. The dragons might not like it though. They already think we’re going to just let the ragtags go, but you already know that. Just a note, you might want to go back to some of your magic basics - like how every time you cast a spell, if the receiver is good enough and looking for it, they’ll detect your spell and catch you eavesdropping.”
Adarthan did not respond. He felt his heart race and his face flush again as he wondered if his previous curiosity would now keep him from going.
“I doubt anyone else noticed. Most of the council members seem to completely underestimate our students’ spying abilities and apparently were too boring as students themselves to ever try. But tell me, do you think I was too rude to Davel?” asked Mathul half playfully.
Adarthan thought it best he continue to watch his tongue.
Mathul ignored his silence and continued. “Dragons are so hasty to do anything. I feel it almost my duty to show them that some things are important enough to take a little time over.” Mathul absentmindedly rapped his fingertips on the table, lost in thought for a moment. “But a fiery disposition to match their fiery lungs, I suppose. Something I hope you remember during your time with them.”
“You mean I can go?” said Adarthan.
“Yes, you may go.” Mathul looked back to the papers on his desk.
“Thank you, sir. I swear I’ll make the incanters proud.” Adarthan quickly rose from his chair and bowed to Mathul.
“I’m trusting you to.” Mathul waved him out of the room. “Now be gone before I put you to work.”
Adarthan ran back down the stairs and into the courtyard below. The wind tousled his moppish black hair. He could feel a rainstorm coming, but decided he could risk a walk through the city. The only way in and out of the academy and into Hazalkhad was a large gate on the east wall. Adarthan’s lanky legs took him there quickly.
Once outside the thick stone walls, he let himself walk mindlessly for awhile, enjoying the chill of the night and the bright stars overhead. All the vendors on the street had long since closed, leaving warm lights and cheery voices flowing from inns and taverns the only sign of life around him.
As his feet followed the twisting roads, his thoughts wound back to what Mathul said. This whole time he’d been quieting the part of him saying not to go, that nagging voice in the back of his head. It was usually the one reserved for common sense, which was also likely the case this time too. It told him he had no business meddling with dragons. It was the sinnach he was really against, not any dragons in the north. Yet the elf army was the biggest kalendes opposition to sinnach, and that is who he would be working alongside. Their fighting stretched back nearly to the dawn of time, the sinnach attacking the kalendes, or really anyone not a sinnach, and the kalendes resisting them however they could. The elves were in open war with them, but there were others, silent watchers like the dryads and nymphs, who did their small parts.
Made up of thieves and murderers and worse, the sinnach were cunning, manipulative, and cruel. People from almost every race were part of them, a makeshift band who wandered from place to place, raiding towns along the coastlines. Some lived deeper within the lands, but their groups were smaller and took advantage of people in more subtle, though not less destructive, ways.
There were dvergar using magic for evil ends, manipulating others so they could obtain power and influence; fae who ported in and out of homes in the night, taking what they liked; shen and galana and laquae controlling the elements to destroy farmland or sink vessels; dryads who forced wood spirits out of their trees just so they could uproot them and use their wood wastefully. Hardly any race in Elarenta did not have someone who had taken up with the sinnach to satiate their greed and lusts and craving for power.
The one thing that kept them in check the most was that they were incapable of coming together for a long time except in their sea raids. At times, they worked together to try to break through to the other world, Yerna, but only a few succeeded at a time. The kalendes, made up of the same races as the sinnach, were the watchers, the protectors, not just of Elarenta, but of the humans on Yerna. They were nearly defenseless against the sinnach, yet oblivious to their peril, but it was better that way.
Rain suddenly poured out of the sky, drenching Adarthan. He tried to run without slipping on the wet cobblestones. Just as he made it back to his room, the rain stopped. He hoped it was not a sign of his coming luck. He tossed his muddy boots by the door and stripped off his soaking clothes. The awareness of the late hour and its accompanying fatigue hit Adarthan quickly, only permitting him to curl into a blanket on his bed before sleep overtook him.