|Credit: Roy Lathwell|
Who are you, mage? Everyone heard that voice of grinding boulders, even the first strike clattering down the stairs.
“I am Protector Jira, of the Northern provinces,” she replied. The Bronze Circle parted before her, but the strike flanked her, retreating no further. Brave soldiers, she thought, knowing that the Cave Wyrm could blast the skin from their bones in an eyeblink.
What is your purpose here?
“We seek the Eye of Byula that was in the keeping of the First Protector. If we find the remains of the First Protector, we will mourn him and lay him to rest.”
What you seek is gone. The Eye I swallowed, along with the First Protector, when the mad fool demanded I do so. Now dispell me, mage, if you would save yourself and your companions. I will respect your weak binding while you do your work, in accordance with the commands of the one who awakened me.
Jira bit back the questions she had, as the dragon was unlikely to answer them. A little searching along the Cave Wyrm’s flanks turned up a darker splash of brown, the dried blood of the mage who had awakened it. “A cloth, and water,” she commanded the Bronze Circle, and they were brought. Awakening an Elemental Dragon was simple enough—even a fresh apprentice could do it, given good Talent—but the binding spells, needed to keep the dragon from killing the mage and rampaging about, were more complex. It was said that pure motives were as effective as binding, but who had those?
Nevertheless, the Principle of Closure held. Blood and intent awakened an Elemental Dragon, and removing that blood dispelled it. Jira took the wet cloth, wiped the blood from the rocky skin, and the Cave Wyrm dissolved into a pile of stone and sand. Still, the floor swayed; the Cave Wyrm’s growth had come at the cost of the Keep’s foundations.
“Quickly.” Jira followed the Captains, following the Bronze Circle, down the long staircase. Their footing became more stable as they descended, but the rumbling continued.
“Will the building hold together much longer?” Anlayt shouted above the noise. Below them, soldiers shouted as a piece of the outer wall fell away.
“I have bound the stairs, from here to the ground,” said Jira. “We will reach the ground. After that, if the Keep falls, it falls where it will.”
Soldiers, men and women, spilled from the stairs and onto the ground floor. Strikers urged them forward, urged themselves by the Captains.
The Captains burst into daylight, then whirled about. “Protector Jira!” Phylok shouted. “Captain Anlayt, get the others away from here!” He bolted back into the crumbling Keep as Anlayt gave orders.
“Protector!” Phylok bellowed.
“Here!” Jira pelted over the rubble. Above her, rubble fell over but not upon her—she had raised a fender, a spell of protection. “Phylok, go!”
A large stone glanced off Phylok’s helm; he shook his head to clear it and stumbled toward the light. He felt a hand on his arm, pulling him forward, a voice urging him to move, move. Dim changed to bright, yet the hand and the voice pulled and pushed. He shook his head again, quickly, and lucidity returned. “Which way did they go?” Jira asked.
Phylok shook her arm away, but smiled and pointed. “That way. Protector, what happened?”
“I was rescuing an important piece of our history,” she said. “It has no power like the Eyes, but we need to remember a time when Camac and magic were both thought omnipotent.” She showed him the faded painting, of a man standing atop a vast monolith, itself hovering above a waterfront. Ancient script read: When Protector Thurun bringeth the Great Pier to Camac Harbor. MCLGPE.
“What’s that last part?” Phylok pointed at the letters.
“The apprentice closed his message the same way,” she said. “May the Creator and the Lesser Gods Preserve the Empire.” She sighed. “And we’ll need all their aid, I fear.”