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City of Air (Lost Cities Saga 1)

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A teenage magician born with a rare ability becomes caught up in the deadly feud between two powerful magicians.

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With the reverence of a celebrant at service, the young magician gently lowered the candle flame to the south-facing side of elaborate summoning circle he had poured in the centre of the study's painstakingly polished hardwood floors. It caught immediately, flaring to life so quickly that had not he and his three eager-eyed friends jumped away in fright their eyebrows would have been burned clean off. In the dim light of the study, with the curtains drawn so as to keep out both prying eyes and the brilliant sunlight that would distort the air of mystery around the magical act they were about to witness, the circle glowed a rich vermilion making their grins practically ghoulish. The circle was ready, now came the hard part.

The young magician made a show of setting down the candle and reaching for the grimoire he had been given solely for study and absolutely not, never under any circumstances unsupervised practice. Clearly the Master had no idea who he was dealing with if he felt that the young magician was not going to try at least one summoning on his own. After all, how else had the other great magicians attained success? And the young magician had every intention of joining the Zodiac Society the day he went away to London so he needed all the practice he could get as soon as possible.

More importantly, his three friends—boys who he had known since infancy when they were first introduced at some social event or the other hosted by his parents—were already in awe of him and he had barely begun the summoning. He certainly could not miss an opportunity to show off his skills as a magician—though the Master called him "apprentice"—to boys whose families' wealth far surpassed his own.

When he began to recite the incantation for summoning the fire elemental, a tiny lizard-like creature no bigger than the usual to be found around the house, or so the book claimed, the other three boys seemed to collectively hold their breath. It helped, of course, that the young magician added in a few gestures here and there to give the summoning the atmosphere it needed. Of course, if the Master was here, in addition to him never doing the summoning in the first place, he would have insisted that they were practicing real magic not sleight-of-hand and "parlour tricks". Real magicians did not need gestures of any kind to carry out their work, simply Will and Power. In fact, the Master had an entire list of things "real magicians" did not need that would probably be thicker than the old ledgers in the attorney's office. It was just another sign that the Old Master, like most people in the Indies, were so out of touch with the modern life in the metropolis that it was inevitable really that the young magician would have to learn everything all over again once he got to London.

Take the summoning incantation for example. It was ancient, written in Latin of all languages, and in addition to being word-perfect, the pronunciation had to be correct too or the young magician would have to go over the same line at least one hundred times until he didn't dare say it wrong again. As far as the young magician was concerned, as long as he said all the words that needed to be said it was fine by him for it was more his will that bound the elemental to him and not the words he said to do so.

He was barely halfway through the incantation when suddenly the circle flared crimson and seemingly went out. Stunned, he paused, mouth hanging open as he tried to figure out why the fire had died out. A moment later his unspoken question was answered when it reappeared in the middle of the circle as an egg-shaped ball.

One of the boys released the breath he'd been holding to ask then, "What… what's going on? Is that supposed to happen?"

Confused himself, the young magician snapped, "Be quiet!" Then collecting his thoughts and realising that it would not do to offend the boy further should anything go disastrously wrong, he said, "It is. But it isn't over yet." And with this he continued the incantation, hoping that his guess would turn out to be accurate.

It did. The little fire egg at first just sat there in the midst of the ashen lines of the circle. Then, as the young magician started up the incantation again it began to shake and roll around the inner circle as if something within was trying to break free. A moment later it split open and a tiny lizard made of solid fire fell out. The young magician could barely contain his glee. It had worked! He had summoned a fire elemental all by himself!

His three friends gasped in surprise in unison and then drew in even closer to stare at the creature that had actually been summoned out of fire before them. They would never have believed it possible if they had not seen it with their own eyes and even now they were still having trouble. Magic was a wondrous thing; it was a great shame that none of them had the talent for it.

The young magician could barely contain his satisfaction. If only the Master was here to have seen this! If only his parents and siblings, no, the entire plantation, everyone in the community were here to see this! At the serious age of eleven years, five months and twenty days, he, Cedric David Francis Miller, had just successfully summoned his first elemental, and having had barely any instruction on the art of summoning by his master, John Opal, a forgotten exile from the metropolis who would be even more forgotten after this! Of course, Cedric could be content with just his audience of three at the moment until he was sure enough of himself with summoning before showing it to others. Now that Cedric had achieved success, now that he knew that he could do it, he could sit back and let the Old Master earn some pocket change until the young magician was of age to dismiss him and head to England.

Then all hell broke loose.

The tiny salamander that had at first just sat staring at each of the boys in turn once it had gathered its bearings after falling out of its "egg", suddenly reared up and levelled Cedric with a look that would be considered smug if it had a more human face. Then, with a saucy shake of its tail and a trail of fire in its wake, it darted out of the circle charging towards Cedric's three friends. The boys scattered immediately, scrambling atop the nearest furniture and yelling in fright. But this was only a mock-charge, for at the last moment the salamander changed direction and headed to the window, scampered up the precious imported French curtains and dove out into the sunny back garden that had been the pride of Cedric's grandmother.

A prolonged stunned silence fell over the quartet gathered in the study in the aftermath of the salamander's departure.

Cedric did not have to look at his friends to know that all trace of excitement and awe in them for him had left with the fire elemental. As they quietly dismounted the furniture, still staring out the window that the salamander had dove through to freedom, their silence was most telling. As for himself, Cedric found that he suddenly could not speak, or think, or breathe very well for that matter. The salamander had gotten away. Somewhere there must have been a break in the circle. Perhaps one of the others had broken it when he had allowed them to come closer to observe the summoning? Surely he hadn't left out anything? Surely the Old Master hadn't been correct about the pronunciation?

Cedric was jolted from his thoughts then, when one of the other boys shrieked in horror, "Fire! Fire! The curtains are on fire!"

His mother's imported lace! Cedric snapped to his senses immediately, sprang to his feet, rushed to the window, ripped the curtains from the rods and began stamping them out. One of the other boys snatched up a vase from a side table and threw the entire thing, flowers and all, at the magician's feet. There went an antique that had supposedly made the journey to Trinidad with an ancestor after the British claimed the colony, but the fire died almost at once. That done, it was best to get rid of the evidence.

Making haste just in case anyone had heard the commotion in the study and were on their way to investigate, the four boys set to work cleaning the room. The precious imported curtains, now soggy and forever ruined by the fire, were used to wipe away as much of the circle as they could. Then this, along with the candle, grimoire and broken vase were thrown into an old captain's chest in one corner of the room and quietly set back into place. To get rid of the smell of smoke they threw open all the windows, flooding the room with light and the sounds from outside, as yet peaceful, and throwing into harsh relief the circle that now forever stained the floor. A side table concealed it well enough though, and so the boys set about righting their clothes and hair.

And that was when they heard the screams from the cane fields…

Merely twelve acres away, though it could have been an entire ocean apart, in the largest of the former slave huts that had become a freedman shantytown on the northern edge of the Miller plantation, a little girl was jolted from her early afternoon nap by the sounds of her neighbours screaming.

Save for the duppy of the old woman who had starved to death in the hut after her neighbours shunned her as an obeah-woman, thus making way for the girl's family the year before, there was no one else around. This wasn't unusual, almost everyone in the little girl's family worked, including her younger brother who was only three, and so she often found herself at home alone. No one wanted to work near the little girl that spoke to the spirits of the dead and could turn one into a zombi if they crossed her. But someone was screaming, and there was shouting and other sounds of activity as her neighbours desperately rushed off somewhere that could only be the fields.

Rolling off of the pile of old rags that had been packed together on one end of the dirt floor of the hut to serve as her bed, the little girl stumbled sleepily to the single door to take a peek. The old woman reached for her as she passed, as she always did, begging the child for some of what little there was for any of her eight other family members to eat. Months of practice and her mother's scolding kept the child's face forward until she reached the doorway, unlatched the door and looked out. What she saw shook her wide awake. At some point after her family had left that morning for the fields and she had lain down for her afternoon nap, her world had caught fire.

Everywhere she looked was dark grey and bright red-orange as the fire danced through the fields and huts in the shantytown like children at play. Embers floated on the wind or fell like rain and set ablaze almost everything it touched, aided by the weeks of drought that had begun with the end of the rainy season. Of the people rushing to and fro trying to salvage what they could of their months of labour or their homes, none looked like her family. Considering that they were all covered in ashes, soot and mud though, it was impossible to tell who they were unless they came running towards her. It was also very hot, unbearably so that the little girl quickly shut the door again and retreated to her rag-bed in the corner to wait until someone came to retrieve her.

Her mother had warned her not to go to the door unless to let in a family member anyway and since everyone would be very upset if she tried to help them it was best she remained in the house.

With each passing moment as she waited the sounds of the fire grew closer. What at first had been muffled shouts and screams in the distance cleared to become thudding footfalls as people raced over the muddying dirt tracks between the huts; the crackling of the fire as it consumed their wood and mud-brick homes and few possessions; the sharp hiss of water as it turned immediately to steam as it was thrown unto the flames in vain, and most frightful of all, the cries of agony of those who were either hurt or had lost everything. Though she could not see what was happening, the little girl could hear and imagine and the more she imagined it the more frightened she became. Her heart raced, her breaths shortened and she wrapped her thin hands around her knees and squeezed herself into a tight ball trying to block out the sounds coming through the walls.

And that was when the roof caved in.

The Old Master couldn't say he was truly surprised at the scene that greeted him when he arrived at the Miller plantation. He had noticed Cedric Miller's crime almost immediately, had been anticipating it even, for this would be the first test of his student's power. It was an ancient rite-of-passage for young magicians-in-training everywhere to attempt their first summoning behind their master's back. No, what surprised Master John Opal as he hopped out of the carriage and raced to the Great House was the scale of the destruction his soon-to-be former student had wrought.

Though the Great House and its gardens appeared untouched, the fields that were the Miller Estate's lifeblood were engulfed in the angry magical flames of a fire elemental unbound. This was beyond disastrous. The foolish boy had summoned the elemental but not bound it to his will, then allowed it to escape into the sunlight where it fed off the heat and grew powerful. And of course he would have chosen to summon a fire elemental for it would have been the most dramatic to control.

That decided it. There was no way Master Opal could keep the boy as a student. For one thing Cedric Miller had just destroyed his family's sole source of income for the foreseeable future. More importantly, Master Opal had no use for a young magician who was content to do only half the research before setting out to work. Like all the others before him, this boy was not worthy of being presented before the Zodiac Society.

"Master Opal! Master Opal! Help us! Oh help!"

The shouts greeted Master Opal as he finally made his way up to the front steps of the Great House. Cedric and his group of friends were nowhere to be seen, but Master Opal had no interest in seeing the boy any further. Still, it would have been rather interesting to see the boy's face as he greeted the master at the scene of the disaster he'd caused.

Instead, it was Cedric's distraught mother—her dress coming undone, hair tumbling from an elegant coiffure, face flushed and wet with tears and sweat, clutching desperately at a stony-faced freedwoman maid—and grim-faced father that would do the greeting. The master acknowledged them with a brief nod on his way to the back gardens and the burning fields. He did not have to look to know that they would follow, or pay them any mind to hear them attempt to explain.

Surprisingly, it was the boy's father who tried to explain.

"It must have been sabotage. The freedmen have been agitating for a wage increase recently that we simply cannot afford. My attorney has explained this many times now but they won't hear of it. Now this? I just don't—"

"—no, of course you don't understand!" Master Opal snapped, cutting him off. "Your son—whom I can no longer train and will reimburse me for the materials he stole mind you—did this. I'm sure you don't believe me but that does not matter. All that I'm concerned with now is getting rid of the fire elemental he summoned before you have an even bigger problem than bankruptcy on your hands."

With that Master Opal stalked off alone to the fields and the desperate struggle of the freedmen to save their livelihood and homes.

It did not take the master long to find the fire elemental. As Master Opal had guessed, and was secretly grateful for, the boy had summoned the smallest of the order of salamanders that he could find. Perhaps some level of common sense and self-preservation had guided Cedric in this decision, for all the good that it did him otherwise. But given that it had been a sunny afternoon on a rather hot day, what had begun no bigger than a lizard had grown into a rather large, fat caiman that scorched the earth wherever it stepped and set ablaze whatever it could with each swish of its tail.

It was just their terrible misfortune that the freedman village had been in the midst of the path the salamander had chosen to make its escape.

Caught up in the chaos of trying to save their homes and fields, none of the freedmen noticed the master's arrival at first. He had been accompanied by a few of the overseers from the house though and they would not allow his presence to be ignored for long. They pushed, kicked and even struck at anyone who ran across the master's path as he made his way to the furthest end of the village. The salamander was heading to the lone hut still standing, untouched by the fire there. Some of the freedmen pushed back, but when they saw that it was the master and then where he was going they cleared the way and stared. They knew the white man was a magician, far more dangerous than their employer and the overseers, and what he had come to do.

Then the old master saw something that made his heart stop. The door of the hut opened, a tiny child peered out, gave a horrified gasp and then promptly retreated, slamming the door shut again. This, for some reason, alerted the salamander and it sped up its pace to the house. If the old master didn't stop it, the child was dead.

The old master had never paid any mind to the freedmen who exceeded his employers' population by the tens of thousands but were at the bottom rung of the society. They were really no different to him than the millions of beggars that littered the streets of London with their poverty and filth. In the colonies at least the government had the means of getting them off the streets and into useful employment. And they were dirt cheap to keep; he had been able to afford a fulltime cook, housekeeper and groundskeeper from the first day he and his son arrived on the island. But that did not mean that they weren't somewhat people, no matter what some of his employers and acquaintances thought, and so it would have been beyond terrible to fail to save that freedman child from burning to death in that hut.

He was then stunned when, as he quickened his pace to the house desperately sorting through his thoughts for a suitable earth elemental to summon (a golem would do it, maybe,) one of the overseers suddenly stepped into his path and shouted, "Wait! Massa! That the house way they have a little jumbie child! The little child you just see, she will curse you!"

Another freedman immediately dragged him away and an ash-covered heavy-set woman came running up to him screaming, "No! Please Massa! That my baby in they! That my baby in that house! Save my baby! Help! Please Massa!"

There was no doubt that this was the child's mother. The master pushed past her without a word and immediately began drawing a summoning circle in the dirt at their feet with an abandoned rake he had found nearby. Then he heard the mother's scream and looked up at the hut again to discover that the salamander had clambered atop its roof and was clawing away it to get in. This was unusual; it was rare for an elemental to go after a human that had not improperly summoned it in the first place and rarer still for the way this one was acting. There was no sound from inside but that hardly mattered, the master very much doubted that this hut came with a backdoor.

A moment later and the worst happened. The roof caved in under the salamander and took the walls with it, levelling the entire house in a matter of moments. That was when the child screamed. And it was a sound that was greeted by relief which quickly turned to horror as the salamander immediately set the rubble ablaze.

The master redoubled his efforts, immediately completing the circle as quickly as he could muster and then beginning the incantation. He never finished.

Just as he began speaking there was a roar, like the sound water would make rushing over a waterfall, which was odd because the only source of running water nearby was a nearly dry stream some yards away from the village. But sure enough that was the sound of rushing water and moments later a leviathan rose up out of the earth and threw itself over the house, washing away the debris and turning the salamander to steam. The master and the freedmen were forced to scatter as the flood of debris came rushing at them, taking out some of the nearby houses as well. But once the mess settled they were stunned to find the child, a little girl, seated in the midst of the ruin staring out at them apparently unharmed save for the dirt and a few scratches.

Her mother and a few others who the master took to be members of her family broke free of the crowd and rushed to her side. Her mother scooped her up and showered her with kisses, while the others all took turns trying to touch her as if to reassure themselves that she was really there. The master just stared.

Behind him, he heard the sound of the Miller family arriving with the head of the local militia. There was still no sign of Cedric, clearly the boy thought it best to hide though it would be a wasted effort on his part. The danger was long past so they were no longer Master Opal's concern. He just stood there staring, and thinking. He had not summoned the water elemental, a Greater Water Elemental mind; he had been trying to call out an earth elemental. So who had summoned the water elemental? There was only one answer and she was now staring straight at him, apparently having had enough of her family's affection.

Mr Miller spoke up then, saying, "We cannot thank you enough, Master Opal. We assure you that Cedric will be punished and far more careful in his studies from now o—"

"—who is that child?" Master Opal asked, cutting off his meaningless platitudes.

"Eh?" asked Mr Miller surprised and a little confused.

"The little girl," clarified Master Opal. Mr Miller looked at the family for the first time since his arrival and said, "I don't-I don't know."

It was an overseer, who said then, "That is the little witch I was telling you about, sir. Her father is Theophilus, sir. Theophilus Ruby, he works in the refinery, sir."

Master Opal had heard enough. With all the authority of the magician that he was he walked up to the family still enjoying their reunion and addressing the child, asked, "What is your name, little girl?"

The child did not so much as blink. Her mother replied, "Leona. Leona Ruby."

The little girl did not look afraid or confused by what had happened. Just tired and irritated by her family's incessant public display of affection. Perfect.

Master Opal extended his hand to the child and said, "Miss Ruby, I am John Opal, a magician in need of an apprentice. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance."

He had no idea if the child understood him or her family for that matter but after a long assessing stare, she tentatively took his extended hand. After years of fruitless effort, the search was over. Master Opal had found the apprentice he was looking for.

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