Chapter 1: The Gathering
It was rare for the Seven Master Magi to gather even when the duties of their respective offices demanded it. Once every seven years, they would come together for eight days in solemn conclave to discuss matters of magic and to consider the applications of those desiring admittance into the Grand Order of the Magi. The present gathering of Everlast's most powerful and prominent mages was unprecedented and it had a far more dire agenda.
From my vantage point, I could see clearly only the forms of those closest to me as the late autumn full moon bathed them in pale silver light. Nearest to me, of course, was my master, the Light Mage, Balthazar. He stood along with the others in a loose ring encompassing most of the meadow to form a massive magic circle. A few measure to his right and left respectively, I could just make out Argus the Water Mage, Vespin the Air Mage. Further off, and less viable to me I knew Lilith the Earth Mage stood to the right of Master Argus and Kyros the Fire Mage was to the left of Master Vespin. Zander the Shadow Mage was beyond my vision, but I knew he was on the far side of the circle, directly opposite Master Balthazar. Complementary opposites were always placed in direct juxtaposition to one another for maximum magical effect.
At the heart of the meadow, in the very center of the massive conjuring ring, I could faintly see the leader of Seven Masters; Grand Master Artimus, the Time Mage. This would be his place as the great working commenced; he would act like a magical lighting rod, absorbing and redirecting the power of the working.
Along with him at the heart of the magic circle, nine dark shapes huddled in the center of the the secluded meadow. I could just see them by the silvery light of the full moon. They towered like mountains over Master Artimus as he spoke quietly to them. Getting the creatures to assemble for such a dangerous occasion was almost as monumental as the assemblage of Magi. But then again, what other option did they have; without our aid their existence would be lost forever.
The creatures at the center of the magic circle ... the creatures at the very heart of tonight's great working, represented all that remained of a once noble and powerful race; here were the last nine dragons to live and breathe in all of the Ten Kingdoms of Everlast.
This sad state of dragon affairs had not always been the way of things. Once, according to Balthazar, men and dragons lived side by side in peace and prosperity. That happier time was known as The Age of Harmony. The peaceful coexistence between Dragons and Humans ended, my master told me during a history lesson, under very strange and sad circumstances.
My Master never made it clear what, exactly happened even though I posed the question more than once during my lessons over the years. Always I received the same response; Balthazar's eyes would cloud with sadness and my day's lesson would come to an abrupt end. Bile rose in my throat and my stomach threatened to turn itself inside out as I pondered the the outcome of the mysterious events; the entire race of dragons condemned and hunted to the point of near extinction.
“Quell your thoughts Kerri,” my Master muttered softly, “the negative emotions swirling within you right now are highly distracting. Meditate on the Unity and Light if you must think of anything at all; at least that will add strength to our working.”
“Of course Master,” I replied sheepishly.
At present my master was the only one among the Seven Masters with an apprentice; though admittedly I was an awful one. I could meditate on Unity for hours on end, I could see and feel Unity's Light all around me, and I was moved nearly to tears by its wonder and beauty. Unfortunately, after five years under Balthazar’s tutelage, I had yet to successfully master a single working of Light magic. My heart dreaded the day when Balthazar would finally tire of my ineptitude and send me away; I doubted I could stand life without the Light or the wonders that were reviled daily to me under his tutelage.
“Kerri,” my Master croaked. His slightly raised voice startled me; a shout or a harsh word was nearly unheard of from him. “This is delicate work my girl,” he continued in a more fatherly tone, “and extremely dangerous too, should we be disturbed in the mists of it ….”
“I’m sorry Master, I will try harder,” I stammered the heartfelt apology.
“I’m sure that you are both sorry and sincere,” he corrected
me lightly; “however, I have a more pressing assignment for you to lend
yourself to. I suspect the arrival of the dragons did not go unnoticed in High
Glen and I would wager that the Duke and his men are likely on their way here
“And they will find us and the Dragons too if we don’t get on with this,” barked the Fire Mage, “bridle that whelp of an apprentice of yours Balthazar, or I shall do it for you.” As he finished his threat flames sprang from the mage’s hand to form a bright blazing ball that floated menacingly just above his palm. The thought of him flinging the fire ball my way sent a shiver up my spine.
My master gave me a reassuring wink before turning his attention to the fire mage. “As I recall, Kyros you roasted your last apprentice in a fit of blind rage; he was a pleasant youth and quite promising too, if memory serves me. You will kindly keep your hands and your spells off of my apprentice. Unity knows it’s nigh on impossible these days to find individuals touched by Light.”
The fire mage hissed but said nothing further; as magic went Light and Shadow, were the most powerful of the primordial forces, with the four elemental forces being split more equitably. The aspect of time magic was another matter altogether and the true depths of its power lay shrouded in mystery. If Kyros knew what was good for him, he wouldn’t trifle with Master Balthazar.
“Kerri, my child,” Balthazar called to me softly, “up on the knoll with you; keep watch on the road and warn us if anyone comes.”
“Aye, Master,” I replied obediently as I turned and trotted away.
“Don’t fall asleep, whelp,” Kyros sniped from behind me.
At the top of the knoll I found a tree with comfortably thick bows extending nearly half way up the trunk. After climbing a good ways up into the sheltering branches, I settled in. From my perch I had a good view of both the meadow and the road. The latter was a still blue-grey ribbon weaving its way over the distant hills and valleys, twisting in and out of trees and meadows as it went. The secluded meadow where the Seven gathered was well off the main road and not at all visible unless one left the road and trekked some distance across rugged countryside. In addition to isolation, the valley meadow was protected by powerful spells woven by the Seven Masters.
The heavy warding spells would hide their presence as well as their massive corporate working from most unwanted visitors. In spite of the precautions taken by The Seven, the Duke’s trackers were highly attuned to Dragon magic. The magical essence that exuded naturally from dragons was, according to my Master, nearly impossible to mask. While one dragon’s presence in such a secluded and heavily warded place might elude the attention of the Duke’s dragon trackers, the presence of nine dragons all together would burn like a beacon fire against their senses. The Duke's coming was inevitable. The ward spells would slow their progress, perhaps even kill some of them, but this was a stall tactic at best; designed to facilitate the completion of the great magical working and to give everyone involved a chance to flee.
My skin prickled as power began to swirl all around me; it made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end and I could hear it as a low steady hum that built into a vibrant buzzing. I turned my eyes away from the distant road and watched in awe as power, in the guise of a glowing rainbow hued fog, settle like a blanket over the meadow bellow me. The glowing mist writhed and pulsed as it swirled first around the seven Magi and then it moved to engulf the nine dragons gathered at the heart of the circle.
My heart skipped a beat as the youngest dragon, a lavender and silver hued male named Uriel, fixed me with a wide eyed stair. The other dragons were mated pairs, only Uriel was without a mate. He arrived at my Master’s lonely tower on the jagged coast of the Sea of Isadora some three weeks ago and traveled with us here to the gathering place; it would seem that his sire had known my master and he had inherited a memory of him. He was welcomed, of course, and over the weeks he and I had become fast friends. I learned much of dragons from long evenings spent in deep conversation with Uriel.
“Kerri,” his panicked mind voice brushed at the edge of my thoughts, “I am afraid.”
At his words I thought my heart would break. “Do not fear Uriel,” I returned quietly, “my Master would never harm you.”
“It is not your good Master that I fear,” he replied uneasily, “It is the Shadow Mage and the one who threatened you with fire. Something is not right, I …”
The shouting of men accompanied by the pounding of horse’s hooves broke the still of the night and drew my attention toward the distant road. My eyes widened and my heart became a wild drum at the sight of the Duke of High Glen’s army; they rode as men possessed. I fell more than climbed from my perch, twisting my ankle as I landed. I ignored the pain that erupted from my ankle when I put my full weight on it, and ran toward the circle of Magi.
The glowing mist of power in the circle surge suddenly and illuminated the night as if it were noonday. I closed my eyes against the flaring light even as the wave of energy that radiated outwards from the working lifted me off my feet and tossed me backwards, knocking the breath from my lungs. When I had my breath again, I opened my eyes and struggled to my feet. Luminous power still shrouded the circle and the Magi all stood like statues with their hands stretched towards the night sky; they were lost deep in midst of their working. In the distance I could hear the chaos of men shouting, hooves pounding, and the baying of hounds ; by the sound of them, they would reach the first of the wards soon.
“Master,” I called frantically as I raced towards the circle of Seven, “Master Balthazar, please hear me!”
There was no response from the Light Mage; he and the others were utterly enthralled by the Unity and consumed by the working that they were engaged in. An explosion rocked the woods to the south and a wall of fire leaped up to embrace the night sky; the first of the wards had been triggered by the approaching army. I took a deep breath, muttered an apology, and then flung myself at my Master. The force of my effort sent both of us tumbling towards the grassy earth.
Suddenly the vibrating buzz of power faded and the luminous mist that shrouded the circle lifted.
“Kerri, what in the name of Unity …” my master began, but his words were cut short by another of the wards being triggered. “Indeed, good girl,” he said encouragingly as we rose from the ground together. The others had left their places around the circle to join us.
“The working is incomplete,” Lilith protested; even in her current agitated state the earth mage’s voice resonated with springtime and the promises of new life.
Incomplete, I thought in horror; my eyes went suddenly to the place where Uriel was standing when the swirling luminous mist descended upon the circle. The expanse of ground where nine immense dragons stood only a short time ago was now empty; the night breeze stirred the high grass that had once strained to tickle their scaly bellies.
“Uriel,” I whispered absently as I thought of the pleasant lavender dragon. Pain welled up to grip my heart and I found it suddenly hard to breath. I was about to allow grief to claim me completely when I felt something warm and soft brush against my leg. When I looked down, I found a small gray tabby cat twining affectionately between my legs. “Uriel,” I whispered again and in response, the cat jumped up and I caught him in my arms. He pressed his head into the soft flesh under my chin while the rumble of his purring droned in my ears. It was Kyros’ ugly laughter that broke the spell of the moment.
“Have they all been transformed thusly,” the wispy voice of Vespin the Air Mage inquired.
“Yes,” Master Artimus, answered sadly. I could read the disappointment in his eyes as he continued, “see them scattering into the woods there.”
“I will see to it that the Unity of Earth aids and conceals their escape,” Lilith assured the gathering.
“And we had best follow their example,” Zander insisted, “unless we fancy being the guests of honor in the Dukes’ dungeon.”
A mummer of agreement rose up among the assembly and soon the Seven were at their horses making ready for flight.
“You should go now,” I whispered as my eyes drifted down to the cat in my arms. I limped towards Argo, my own shaggy brown mount, but instead of jumping down and scurrying off Uriel remained still, answering my words by purring even louder.
“Uriel, if the Duke finds you …” my words were cut short by the clasp of my master’s hand upon my shoulder. The sudden added weight made my ankle scream with pain and I nearly fell.
“You neglected to mention your injury,” Balthazar complained sternly. “Never mind, I’ll help you mount and attend to it when we’re safe.”
“But what about Uriel,” I whined; all I could think of was what awful fate might befall him should the Duke get his hands upon him.
“You’ve been chosen,” he grunted as he hauled me up and into the saddle by the back of my dress bodice. He possessed more strength than I imagined. “He can explain better than I can, but that will have to wait.”