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Dragon Secrets

(Part of Magic Zero)
By Thomas E. Sniegoski, Christopher Golden

Read an Excerpt

Dragon Secrets

CHAPTER ONE


Images

Timothy Cade stood on the ocean floor, rocked by the rhythm of the water, and he gazed around at the wondrous undersea landscape. It was so peaceful beneath the waves. He had always found a cool serenity there, as though it were a dream. Reeds flapped like banners, pushed and pulled by the deep tide. Dozens of breeds of fish swam in these waters, a kaleidoscope of colors in motion. Burrow crabs skittered from beneath clumps of prickly plants into the warrens of coral that jutted from the ocean bottom, pale castles that looked as though they had been carved of bone.

He wore a tunic into which he had sewn pockets that were filled with enough sand to weigh him down. In his hands, Timothy carried a speargun, a device that had been simple for him to construct. All he needed to do was pump the barrel several times to increase pressure inside the chamber and then pull the trigger, and the short spear would fire, its flint-rock tip slicing the water. In his first excursions below the waves, he had quickly learned that though some fish were good to eat and some served other purposes, none of them was easy to catch. And some of them were truly dangerous.

Timothy breathed slowly, hearing his inhalations inside his head, and he was careful not to disrupt the air tube that trailed behind him, leading up to the surface and then to the shore. At his end the tube had a mouthpiece he fastened to his face with Yaquis tree sap and straps that tied behind his head. On the other end, back on the shore, was the air pump, a device that used the crash of the waves, the pull of the tide, to drive the bellows that sent air down the tube. As a young boy, Timothy had been single-minded when an idea for a new invention struck him. At the age of eight he had discovered that a hollowed-out length of Lemboo plant was pliant, durable, and waterproof. Weeks later, he had laid enough of it end to end—connections wrapped in an elastic sheath of boar skin—that he could walk a full minute straight out from the shore into the water and still have air.

The combination of his speargun and the air tube made it simple to catch fish or to scavenge other things off the ocean floor. Yet it was not fishing that had drawn him beneath the waves to begin with. He still preferred the calming, almost meditative experience of fishing off the jetty to submerging himself in search of dinner. No, what he loved best about the underwater world was the sense of discovery.

Until recently, Timothy had spent his entire youth on the tiny Island of Patience, which sat in the vast ocean of an unknown world. There might have been other islands, entire continents, species of intelligent creatures, on that world, but Timothy had never encountered them. The island had been his only home, and it was small enough that he could have walked all the way around it in a day and a night. It was so small, in fact, that when he had realized he could venture into the ocean, it was one of the happiest days of his young life.

Timothy had found a mystery to explore.

In time, of course, he came to know the ocean floor all around Patience as well as he knew the island itself. But with the surge of the tides and the migrations of the ocean life, the sea changed far more than the land. And so he returned from time to time to explore the waters, examine a plant he had not studied before, or capture a fish whose flavor he had not enjoyed when cooked over a fire, wondering if his tastes had changed with age. More Lemboo tubes were added, to give him greater range in his marine exploration, but he knew that his crude breathing apparatus would never let him explore as deeply as he wished.

The ocean remained a mystery that he had only begun to investigate.

Now, as he walked along the spongy bottom, speargun in hand, eyes long since grown immune to the sting of salt water, he recalled the lingering sadness of curiosity. He had been curious about what lay beyond the island, above and below the water. But he had been far more curious about the world of his birth and about the city of Arcanum where his father was still living—his father, the great mage Argus Cade.

A whiskerfish darted past Timothy, only inches from his face. He smiled, catching himself before the smile grew too wide. If he stretched his face too much, it could unseal the sap he had used to glue the mouthpiece to his skin.

Troublemaker, he thought, glaring at the whiskerfish, which paused and then came back toward him, dancing in the water, wanting to play. Several others came out from the cover of the reeds and soon they were flitting about, chasing one another.

Then all of them froze, sensing the arrival of something else, something they feared.

The small school of whiskerfish scattered, hiding, and a moment later a muck eel sliced through the water, shimmying to the ocean floor and snaking along the bottom in search of prey. It ignored Timothy completely. He was so alien to this place that most of the predatory marine life did not seem to take an interest in him. Most. Poison sponges and bladefins could be very dangerous, but they rarely came into shallower waters when the sun shone brightly above.

Most of the marine life Timothy had been forced to name himself. Some of them were similar to creatures from the world of his birth, and those he had named based upon the pictures he had seen in books his father had brought.

Father. Once more his mind turned to Argus Cade.

All through Timothy’s youth, his father had visited him regularly. A magical doorway would appear above the red sands of the island’s shore, and his father would arrive to bring him supplies—food and fabric and books—and sit with him and talk of love and magic and of his mother, who had died giving birth to Timothy. His father had taught him to read and to write and the basics of numbers and science. But by the age of four, the boy had already learned much of what could be taught from those books, and he had yearned for more, longed to explore with his mind just as much as with his body.

That was his own type of magic. For though his body was confined to the island, his mind could wander as far as his imagination and his intellect could take him. So he had built his workshop, and he had begun to invent the things that made his life on the Island of Patience more comfortable and more interesting.

Patience. Timothy had given the island that name himself. It was his life, really. Everything he had. He had to have patience between his father’s visits, and patience each time he asked the old mage if he would ever be able to return to the world of his birth.

“Some day, I hope,” his father would say.

But Timothy could hear another answer in his voice. The world of mages, the realm from which he came, was ruled entirely by magic. It was in the air, in the ground, in every structure, and in every man, woman, and child.

All except for Timothy Cade.

He was a freak, a monster, an abomination, who never should have been born. Or, at least, those were the slurs Argus Cade feared would be hurled upon his son. He had been certain that Timothy would be in danger, that there would be those who would want to destroy him, as if this infant un-magician could infect the world with a contagion of un-magic.

So Argus had used his great power to hide his son away, to open a door to another dimension and keep Timothy safe.

Though the boy had been lonely, he had been safe, and he was not without friends. There was Ivar, the last survivor of the Asura tribe, whom Timothy’s father had placed upon the island to save the warrior from those who wished him harm, years before Timothy himself had arrived. And the boy had also constructed a friend. He had built a steam-driven, mechanical man whom he called Sheridan. The warrior and the metal man had taken a very long time to adjust to each other, but they had been courteous because both of them were fond of Timothy. Over the years they had developed a grudging respect for each other. So though the boy was lonely, he was not entirely alone.

Yet he had always longed for more, to explore not only this world, but that of his birth, and any others that might exist. But he had been safe, and that was as his father wanted.

Now Argus Cade was dead.

His father would never visit the shores of Patience again, would never smile and clap him on the shoulder, would never bring him another book, never wrap him in a tender embrace and say those words he had always said upon his departure.

You will see me soon.

But Timothy would not see him soon. Not ever again, except perhaps after his own spirit moved on. His own soul. If he even had a soul. The Order of Alhazred—to which his father had belonged—believed that a person’s magical essence was their soul. This was the part of them that lingered after death, that lived again in a realm of spirits. Many of the other guilds that belonged to the Parliament of Mages believed the same.

If they were correct, then what did that mean for Timothy, who had no magic?

Now, striding across the ocean bottom, he tried to stop the thoughts from coming, stop the questions that came into his mind. Shafts of sunlight knifed down through the warm water and sparkled like a rainfall of gems in the currents. He narrowed his eyes and searched for any sign of a Bathelusk, the fish he had come searching for today. A large, dark shadow moved beyond the columns of sunlight, and he moved toward it.

But ugly thoughts snuck back into his mind. Memories both thrilling and unsettling. Things to celebrate, and others to grieve.

One morning the door had opened on the sand and it had not been his father come to visit, but Argus Cade’s favorite student, a burly, red-bearded mage named Leander Maddox. He not only brought the terrible news that Timothy’s father was dead, but he also brought freedom. Despite Argus’s cautions, Leander had not believed that Timothy would be reviled, that he would be a freak, an outcast in the world. He had convinced the young man to return with him, to enter his father’s house for the first time since birth.

Timothy and his friends had taken up residence in his ancestral home, and Leander had introduced him to Nicodemus, the Grandmaster of the Order of Alhazred. The boy had allowed himself to hope, to become excited over the prospect of investigating the world of his birth, this realm of magic and mages.

The tragedy was that Argus Cade had been correct.

For it was not long after Timothy had left the Island of Patience that the first attempt upon his life had come. Assassins had infiltrated his father’s house and tried to kill him. For his protection, Nicodemus and Leander had suggested he move into SkyHaven, the Grandmaster’s fortress, which floated in the air above the ocean, just offshore from the city of Arcanum.

Yet even there he was not safe. Other assassins came. Nicodemus explained to him that some of the magical guilds wanted him dead because they felt he was an abomination, a blemish on the face of the world. But others wanted to kill him because they feared what he was capable of. Without magic, the Grandmaster had explained, he could be the perfect spy. The spells they used to defend their homes, to sense intruders, would neither notice Timothy, nor keep him out. And the many guilds in the Parliament of Mages were always suspicious of one another, so the idea that such a person existed did not sit well with them.

Afraid for his life, frustrated and angry at having become their target, Timothy decided to become what they feared—a spy for the Order of Alhazred. But in so doing he discovered a terrible truth. Nicodemus had the darkest heart imaginable. He was a killer, and worse. The Parliament of Mages had assigned Leander as a special investigator to look into the mysterious disappearances of a number of mages. Nicodemus had killed them all and trapped their spirits as wraiths, as his ghostly slaves.

As the truth began to reveal itself, Leander had confronted Nicodemus and been captured. Timothy and his friends had attacked SkyHaven to rescue Leander. During their invasion the boy had come face to face with the Grandmaster—who had been leeching the magical life force from his victims to extend his own life—and destroyed him.

Now the Parliament of Mages was attempting to make sense of it all, and Timothy had retreated to the Island of Patience so that he could center himself, although briefly, before he fulfilled his promise to Verlis.

And every time he allowed his memory to go back to that fateful day, when they had flown across the ocean and stormed SkyHaven’s battlements, one single image lingered: a girl in a long, gauzy green dress with ghostly pale skin and flowing, bright red hair. She had stood atop one of the towers amid that fortress and gestured to him, as if guiding him toward the most strategic, the most vulnerable, place to infiltrate SkyHaven.

Then she had disappeared.

Even after Nicodemus was destroyed and the battle was over, even after the Parliament had taken over SkyHaven and begun to discover its secrets, there had been no sign of this mysterious, beautiful girl. Leander had even suggested that Timothy might have imagined her.

But Timothy knew she was no product of his imagination. He had seen her, and the images of her red hair blowing in the wind, of her graceful form atop that tower, lingered in his mind.

Even here beneath the waves he could not escape her.

He sucked air through the mouthpiece of the tube, and with thoughts of the mystery girl in green flitting across his mind, he smiled.

The sap he had used to glue the mouthpiece in place cracked, and water began to seep in. Timothy’s eyes went wide in alarm and he nearly dropped his speargun. His pulse sped up and he clapped his free hand over the mouthpiece, pressing it into place and pausing to steady his breathing. Time to get back to shore. In his mind he cursed himself for being so foolish. Now he would return to the surface without a single Bathelusk, the fish he had come down here to catch in the first place.

Frustrated, Timothy turned back toward shore and began trudging along the ocean bottom. He had been careful to avoid touching it before because he did not want his vision obscured, but now his feet kicked up clouds of dirt and sand.

Then he froze.

In the brown cloud amid the green water was a pair of fat, yellow fish as big as his head, each of them covered with cruel-looking spikes that would prick anyone foolish enough to try to grab hold.

Bathelusk.

Timothy raised his speargun.

But he did not smile. He prided himself on not making the same mistake twice.

*  *  *

Timothy was in his workshop, surveying the various tables and shelves for anything that might be useful for his trip to Wurm World, as he had come to think of it. Verlis had found a way to slip between dimensions in search of Argus Cade, to plead for the mage’s help in saving his family from the terrible civil war among the Wurm. Timothy’s father was dead, of course, but the young man had promised to do whatever he could to help Verlis. In return, Verlis had offered to help him defeat Nicodemus.

Now that Grandmaster of the Order of Alhazred was no more, Verlis had done his part, and it was time for Timothy to do his.

He scratched his head and looked at a wooden crate he had begun to pack. The speargun was in there, along with a weapon he had built for hunting birds, a crossbow. A smaller box containing two fresh and several dried Bathelusk went in as well. There was a slingshot. Now he stared at his forge and wondered if he would have time to hammer some of the metal in his workshop into armor for his torso, or even a helmet.

It wouldn’t be a terrible idea.

More importantly, though, he wanted to make sure that the saltweed cloak he was making would be ready. The garment would be ugly, but it would also be fireproof.

“Time, time, time,” Timothy whispered to himself, rubbing his mouth where the tree sap was still sticky. “Once all I had was time, and now there isn’t enough of it.”

On another table was a rack of various herbs and potions in Lemboo tubes he wanted to bring with him. There were healing remedies there, as well as other things, tinctures to darken the skin, mixtures that would start a small fire when exposed to air, and—

His thoughts were interrupted by a loud clatter at the reed door of the workshop. It swung open and Sheridan—the mechanical man Timothy had built—clanked in, moving backward. Steam whistled from the pressure valve on the side of his head. Together, he and Ivar were carrying a large barrel into the workshop. The Asura warrior frowned as Sheridan bumped the open door.

Timothy flinched.

“No, no . . . please, you two, be careful!”

He rushed across the workshop. Ivar’s face was stoic as always, the tribal markings on his flesh shifting fluidly, beautifully. The Asura’s skin was covered in pigment that could be changed simply by willing it, so that he could blend into his surroundings and effectively become invisible. Timothy had often been mesmerized by the movements of those marks. Now, though, he was only panicked.

Ivar raised a fleshy brow.

Sheridan’s head turned around halfway, but his body remained forward, holding up his end of the barrel.

“What’s wrong, Timothy?” the mechanical man asked. “We’ve upset you.”

“No, it’s . . . Look, you should’ve taken that around the front,” the young man said. Then he shook his head. “Go through the shop and out the front door. But whatever you do, don’t drop it. It might be completely safe . . . but it might not be.”

“Not safe?” the Asura warrior asked, one corner of his mouth lifting in amusement. “What will it do? You expect a barrel to attack us?”

Timothy smiled, but his heart was still pounding. “No. But since the barrel is filled with Hakka powder and coal, I can’t promise you it won’t explode.”

Sheridan’s eyes lit up, blindingly bright in the gray light of the workshop, and steam hissed from the side of his head. He swiveled around to stare at Ivar. “Be careful.”

“Oh, yes,” Ivar replied.

He was kind enough not to mention that it had not been him bumping into doors with a barrel of explosive powder.

Timothy turned to make sure their path was clear. Even as he did, a black shape flashed through the open front door with a flutter of dark wings and an excited cry. It was Edgar, the rook that had been the familiar of Timothy’s father, and now of the boy himself.

“Caw, caw!” the bird called. “On the beach! The door. The door has returned!”

Timothy smiled and would have gone straight out the door, but in that moment Sheridan bumped a workbench and nearly dropped his end of the barrel. Ivar muttered an Asura curse that Timothy had heard him use hundreds of times, but that the warrior had never been willing to translate. With a sigh, the boy waited to make sure his friends managed to get the barrel outside without blowing up the workshop, or themselves.

Then he took off, sprinting toward the beach.

He had spent his lifetime with only Sheridan and Ivar for company. Much as he loved them both, in his brief time in the world of his birth he had come to appreciate the companionship of others. Timothy Cade was deeply grateful for the friendship of Leander Maddox, and hoped he would build other friendships as well. Lacking even a single blood relative, he was gathering around himself a different kind of family. One of his own choosing. And in that strange family, Leander Maddox would certainly be counted as his favorite uncle.

Red sand flew up from beneath his feet as he ran toward the shoreline. The surf rolled up the beach, dampening the sand only inches from an ornate door frame that stood impossibly alone. The door hung open, and in front of it was a massive figure in flowing robes of green and gold, a hood shading his face from the suns. Upon his chest, and upon the crest of his hood, was the insignia of the Order of Alhazred, the sleeping dragon.

“Leander!” Timothy shouted.

The man reached up with both hands and slid back his hood so that it cowled about his neck. His shaggy mane of red hair and full bushy beard shone in the sunlight. But that gleam did not reach his expression. His eyes were dark.

Timothy slowed nearly to a stop, as though the breath had been stolen from his chest. He could not keep himself from remembering, all too clearly, the first time Leander had come through that door with an expression much like this one. On that day, the mage had come to tell him his father was dead.

“What?” he asked as Leander strode up the beach to meet him. Timothy shuddered and his shoulders slumped. “What is it?”

Anger passed across the mage’s features like the surf upon the shore, and then receded. Leander collected himself and gazed steadily at Timothy.

“I have not wanted to burden you with bad tidings,” the mage said. “Not here. Not until you returned to the world, to your father’s . . . or rather, to your home. But circumstances force my hand.”

Timothy saw that he was deeply troubled and reached up to lay a small hand upon the thick arm of the burly mage. “What’s happened?”

“Since the truth about Nicodemus was discovered—and I was made acting Grandmaster of the Order—relations amongst the guilds have only worsened. With their greatest enemy gone, you would think otherwise. Unfortunately, the Parliament of Mages has only grown less trusting of one another, fragmenting further. Suspicion is rampant. Accusations of espionage and treason to the Parliament fly daily. A constable has been appointed.”

Timothy frowned. “What is a constable?”

“A peacekeeper. A single mage given far more power than any one person should have and assigned the task of setting things right. A constable is the law.”

“But that sounds as though it should be a good thing.”

“It ought to be,” Leander agreed. “But the man they have appointed, Constable Grimshaw, is cruel and arrogant. He has waited for power most of his life, and now he that he has it, he means to use it. When your father feared that there would be those who considered you a monster, a freak, because you have no magic, Grimshaw was precisely the sort of mage he was worried about.”

Timothy shook his head. “You think he means me harm?”

“Not directly, no. But he will watch you very closely because he sees you and any being who is not a mage—not a member of one of the guilds—as somehow less than other beings. And also, as a threat.”

Leander hung his head a moment and took a long breath. His thick hair cast his face in shadow and curtained his features from the sunlight.

“Wurms, for instance, would be considered quite a threat. Constable Grimshaw has ordered his men to capture Verlis. They have imprisoned him.”

A dark anger passed through Timothy. His eyes narrowed and his nostrils flared. Sadness pierced his heart, but he did not try to fight it, for it only made him angrier.

“Take me to him.”

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