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The Glass Dragon

The creature curled around the entire perimeter of the octagonal room, nearly invisible in the dim light. Ceelken the mage tried not to look at it, but every few seconds the flicker of a candle tossed a fragment of color here or there, at the edge of sight, pulling his eye against his will. The result was his glance darted restlessly, making him look like a guilty supplicant.

“You’ve brought serious accusations, Heer Ceelken,” said Maddig Vachon. She stood erect near the center of the room, amid her tables and benches where she worked. Every table was thick with brown and clear bottles, boxes both metal and wood, each arranged in rows, and each labeled with small, careful writing. A score of smells wafted through the room, only some of which were familiar. The dragon wound across the tables, between the boxes, sinuous amid the geometric arrangements.

Ceelken tried to stay focused.

“Serious, yes. I needed to hear from your own mouth the truth of this. I know you could easily deny it, but be warned: I have in my clenched hand a crystal that lets me hear the sound of lies. I will know every word of deception.”

Maddig smiled and spoke as if to a child.

“You don’t need that. There is no reason for me to lie about my plans, for they are my life’s work.” She shifted her weight, striking a pose of easy confidence. “You know—all of you know—my feelings about our kings. They are failing us, even as the crisis nears. We face ancient enemies, but we are moving into new times.”

“It is easy to speak in homilies,” Ceelken said. He did not miss the flare in Maddig’s eyes. “And don’t think you can frighten me with your dark magic. I have more power than you can imagine.” Fire took shape at his shoulders and trickled down both arms.

“You wrong me, sir!” Maddig said, her voice full of hurt. “I have nothing but respect for your power and would never raise a hand against you where I promised safety.”

The fire turned blue and faded away.

“You don’t dare raise a hand, that’s better put. Not even with your glass dragon.”

“You still call her that? She is not made of glass, as I have said a hundred times to a hundred people. To call her glass is an insult, to her and to me.”

“Crystal, then. Or invisible. Ghost dragon.” Ceelken tilted his chin up. “These are only the kinder terms. You’ve heard worse, I’m sure.”

“You pretend not to be afraid,” Maddig Vachon said.

“I’m not afraid. Not of you, not of your pet monster.”

“Please, Heer Ceelken, I beg you to listen. The world’s kings have failed us. They don’t see the threat. The Five Kingdoms of the trolls are dangerous, but they are no more than a distraction. The real danger comes from the orcs. Their power grows from one season to the next. Their shamans call up monsters from the deep and fire from the heavens.”

“I have my own fire,” Ceelken declared. He found he was trying to put a table or maybe a wall against his back. He frowned a little, took a step forward.

“Indeed! That’s my point! What can Philip in Gaul do against that, for all that they call him Augustus? King John is but a shadow of his forefathers. And Otto is still trying to puzzle out how to be an emperor. The elves cannot help and the dwarves will not. Our true defense lies in wizardry, and our only strength lies in unity—all mages standing together!”

“With you at their head?”

“Yes! Of course! Do you see another with both ability and will? We will lead armies of mages against the orcs and destroy them utterly!” She drew a ragged breath, then forced regret into her voice. “You could have done it, Heer Ceelken, but you have refused. You cling to the past. You would sail new waters in an old ship.”

“Don’t try to teach a Frisian how to sail, Maddig Vachon.” His head twitched, distracted by far wall, where something like water rippled the stone. He wondered for the hundredth time how anyone had managed to make a dragon when such knowledge had long gone from the world. He wondered, too, if it had fangs and claws.

The woman chuckled. She read his mind from his face.

“All I’m asking,” she said, her voice calming, “is that you allow me time to bring my plan to completion. Judge by its results, not by what you fear.”

“That is your request,” Ceelken said. He stood with his feet apart, hands at his sides, a man bracing for some danger. “I have something to ask as well.”

“Go on,” she said. She tried another smile, but it was harder to manage. She knew what was coming: the end of one world, the beginning of another.

“Stop now,” Ceelken said. “Stand down, stand aside, leave be. You are a reckless woman on a dangerous road. I will not face you here, but every Chapter in Europa will oppose you. You have been outrageous, scandalous, even unlawful, but this scheming goes far past all that. If you will not stop, we shall stop you. There is no third path.” Again his eyes flicked aside.

“Oh please do stop doing that with your eyes,” Maddig said. “Don’t fear my darling. I gave you safety so we could have this discussion. I do not violate my word.”

Ceelken made an obvious effort to look into her eyes and not elsewhere. “Your answer?”

“I am disappointed,” Maddig replied. She took three steps forward, the silk of her green robes sussurating. Ceelken clenched and did not run.

“My answer?” she said, her voice rising. “You know my answer! You didn’t have to brave my dragon for that.”

“I’m disappointed,” Ceelken sighed, “but not surprised. I came in hope, not in expectation, at the request of my colleagues. You’re quite right: I know your answer.”

A distortion of the light ribboned between the tables, then pulled up. Was it looking at him? Did it even have a face? He took new hold on himself and spoke as forcefully as he could.

“Very well. As of now, you are done, Maddig Vachon. I, Heer Ceelken of Nimegen declare it, and a hundred Chapterhouses echo my words.”
Maddig waited several breaths. The glass dragon wove to and fro like a viper.

“Finished?” asked the sorceress.

“Yes,” declared the mage.

She noted the slight hesitation, the barest frown. She smiled genially and gestured. Silk whispered.

“Bye then,” the sorceress said.

He had a fast horse waiting. He had thought he might be over-cautious but now, after hours of hard riding, he was glad of it. He wanted to get as far away from her as quickly as he could.

Anything she could throw at him, he could block. And reply with twice the force. He didn’t doubt his own superiority as a wizard. Maddig Vachon was clever and devious more than she was powerful. She did have that dragon, though, which was enough to make any fellow nervous, and no one really knew what it could do.

So he rode hard. Put as much distance as possible between himself and the bizarre, decadent quarters she’d made out of the Baths of Caracalla. He managed nearly twenty miles before it got dark and he didn’t dare risk his fine mount in the dark. He simply pulled off at the side of the Appian Way and made an austere camp. Bread and cheese from his saddlebag. No fire; a heavy cloak for warmth. It had been a good many years since he had camped thus. Oddly , it made him feel young again, even as his bones reminded him he was not.

The stars were coming out in bunches, like an audience assembling before a play. He knew them all well and began naming them to pass the time: Vega, Arided, Altair, his summer friends. Procyon, Denebola. He couldn’t sleep anyway. There’s the orange Aldebaran.

The star winked and changed color then changed again. Ceelken frowned at that. Some trick of his sight. He was not so young as he once was, truly. He squinted, but the star twinkled its usual yellow-orange.

A ripple ran through the thick path of stars that was the Circle of Milk.

Now, that was not at all right. He stood, craning his neck upward. A fear took root in his gut. His eyes darted this way and that. The fear grew; it was centuries old.

There it was again, just a movement of obscuration, a flicker of something invisible. The fear recognized it, even though his mind quailed at giving it a name.

His horse was tired, but it suddenly uttered a terrible sound, broke its tether, and ran. Hoofbeats retreated into the night, and Ceelken was alone.

He peered. The light of the crescent moon seemed insufficient. Then it faded and wrinkled, a distant light seen through bad glass.

The only sound was his own heart pounding against his chest, and a weird whimpering that he realized was coming from his own mouth. He should be running. He longed to run, to hide, but he refused. Ceelken had faced storms on the German Sea, called up spells when everyone around him had thrown themselves to the deck. He would not run.

Long years of training and practice served him well. He gestured, whispering, and fires leaped up from the ground all around him, forming a curtain of yellow and orange that arced high above. He felt the heat, but dared not move his protection any further out. It was all he could do to maintain this much. He had other spells, he thought. What were they? Surely he had other spells, if he could only think for a moment.

The fire was the same color as Aldebaran. This was his last thought.

A hole appeared in the curtain of flame. No face or mouth appeared, just the hole, distorted at the edges. Then there was a hole in him and the fires vanished and Ceelken burst apart.

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