Christine's magical life has gained her many friends and a budding romance with her dragon shifter, Tristan. One of those friends, the good Maddock, has come asking for a favor. Trouble brews in the city, and Tristan's intimate knowledge would help solve a puzzling rash of attacks. The catch is that those asking for his help don't really want it, and the mystery behind the attacks is deeper and darker than any of them realize.
Tristan reluctantly agrees to take the case, and Christine and he venture to the big city of Laethion, a metropolis of magic and steam power. There they find more foes than friends, and danger lurks in the shadows of the Alchemical Research School, the preeminent training grounds for alchemists.
As they search for clues to the attacks, Christine finds herself catching hints of Tristan's mysterious past, and even shadowy future. Pieces of the dark puzzle fit together and she begins to understand not only his creation, but her own purpose. A dark purpose that may destroy them both.
Two weeks. Two long weeks since our confrontation with the cursed box. Tristan still wasn't himself, and now he'd gone and locked himself away for three days in his room.
I stood before his door staring at the entrance. I took a deep breath and rapped on the wood. "Tristan, are you okay?" I waited a moment before I rapped again. "Tristan? Can I come in?"
Still no response. I leaned my ear against the wood and listened. There came a strange shuffling sound from inside the room.
I drew away and stiffened my jaw. "Tristan, I'm coming in."
I grabbed the knob and turned it, or tried to. It was locked.
Gwill's head floated out of the door. "It's not polite to enter when you're not welcomed."
"But I want to see if Tristan is okay," I insisted as I frowned at him.
"He's just fine, but not if you keep bothering him with your knocking," Gwill scolded me.
"Is he sick?" I asked him.
Gwill waved his hands at me and scooted me away from the door. "No more questions, just shoo!"
I grasped the banister of the balcony railing and took one last, forlorn look at the door before I proceeded downstairs. Alex's large cat form met me at the bottom of the stairs, and at one look at my face his tail swished. "Something's bothering you."
I scratched the top of his head and shrugged. "I'm just worried about Tristan. After that night with the box he hasn't really been himself."
Alex rubbed his cheek against me and blinked up at me with those beautiful eyes. "I'm sure he'll be fine. Athrylis like to be alone."
I sat down on the bottom step and sighed. "I don't."
Alex sat down beside me and swished his tail. "You're different. No normal athrylis would have wanted to free me. Most wouldn't have seen past the curse."
My face fell as I looked over his feline form. "I wish I could have saved you some other way."
He shook his head. "I don't mind being this way. It reminds me of my old friends, and I never want to forget them."
I looked over my shoulder and at the tell-tale door. "I hope Tristan isn't in there so long that he forgets about all of us."
Alex pushed his shoulder against mine. "Want me to see if I can break down the door?"
I shook my head. "No. I mean, it's tempting, but I think we should leave him alone." I stood and stretched my arms above my head. "I'm sure there's other things I can do until he comes out."
I froze mid-stretch when a knock came from the front door. Chloe hurried out of the dining room with her apron covered in flour. "Now who could that be?"
She opened the door and a smile stretched across my face. Maddock, the doctor who had treated me during my first adventure in Ledrith, stood on the threshold. A shadow of a beard hung about his jaw and his hair was slightly disheveled. His soiled overcoat bespoke a long and messy journey.
He sported a bright, cheery face as he bowed his head to Chloe. "Good morning, Chloe," he greeted her
She curtsied and stepped aside. "Good morning, Mr. Maddock! Won't you come in?"
"Just the idea I had," he teased as he stepped inside. His eyes fell on me and his eyes widened. "My my! What a change from the shy young woman whom I first met not so long ago!"
I stood and looked down at myself. "You really think so?"
He strode over to me and grasped my hands in his gentle but unshakable grip. "Most definitely! And I'm glad to see you have your magicum." His eyes wandered down to the harp that hung on my hip.
I smiled. "It wasn't easy getting it finished."
Doc turned his attention to the furry friend at my side. "And who might this be?" His eyes widened a little as he looked between us. "Well well! A magicum and a familiar? And in such a short time!"
I blinked at him. "How can you tell he's my familiar?"
Doc winked at me. "I have a nose for these things."
Alex turned his face away and scoffed. "It's not too hard to see the connection."
Doc laughed. "A familiar with bold truth! Yes, this one suits you just fine."
Chloe came up behind him and nodded at his soiled clothes. "May I take your coat?"
"If you would," Doc pleaded as he peeled off the overcoat. "But don't let it go too far. I will be in need of it before long."
My face fell. "You won't be staying very long?"
He opened his mouth, but his attention was drawn to a spot above me. I followed his gaze and my heart skipped a beat. Tristan stood at the balcony railing. His face was pale and his bright eyes were a little darker than normal, but otherwise he was himself.
"What brings you so far from Laethion, and so close to the exams?" Tristan wondered as he proceeded down the stairs. "The students must be lost without your sedatives."
"A most urgent matter," Doc answered as he eyed Tristan with a sharp look. "But have I come at a bad time?"
"On the contrary, Christine is in need of company," Tristan assured him as he joined us.
"I'm afraid I can't stay long, and I was wondering if the same might be said of you and your company," he requested.
Tristan arched an eyebrow. "You mean for us to accompany you back to the city?"
Doc nodded. "I mean just that. There's trouble there that I'm afraid I can't settle myself, nor can anyone, really, who is involved in the school."
"What school?" I asked them.
"The Alchemical Research School," Doc revealed. "There have been some rather strange happenings of late that have darkened the halls."
A bitter smile slipped onto Tristan's lips. "Have you forgotten that I am not allowed to step on their grounds?"
Doc shook his head. "I didn't forget, which is why I brought this." He reached into his shirt jacket and drew out an envelope which he handed to Tristan.
Tristan opened the envelope and pulled out a folded note. I sidled up to him, and Chloe and Alex crowded around.
This letter surprises both you and ourselves, but we find we are in urgent need of an outside mind, and none can be more so than your own. If you can pull yourself away from your black magic we will accept your company at the School within a fortnight. Any longer and your services will no doubt not be needed. We offer whatever you wish, within the reason of society, and await your reply through our mutual acquaintance.
- The Committee of Alchemists
Alex wrinkled his nose. "That's a lot of backhanded compliments."
I looked up at Tristan's face. There was a little bit of surprise mingled with curiosity. "What's the Committee?"
"They are the arbitrators of the Alchemical school," he explained as he looked up at Doc. "What has made them so desperate that they call upon me for help?"
Doc pursed his lips and sighed. "That is a story long enough that we may find a seat."
Tristan gestured to the parlor and we took our seats on the furniture. All but Chloe who held back. "I'll go get you a nice, warm drink," she offered our guest.
Doc managed a small smile. "That would be wonderful, thank you, Chloe." She curtsied and hurried to get the drink ready.
"What is the problem?" Tristan asked him.
Doc cleared his throat. "As you know, the school, though old, sits upon even older ruins. Excavations have been ongoing for quite a number of years, and they recently discovered a vast treasure-trove of runes hidden in a tomb beneath the basement."
"Those things are just trouble," a disembodied voice piped up, and Gwill made his appearance through one of the walls. He crossed his arms over his chest and frowned. "Just bury them and forget about them."
Doc sighed. "Would that fix the problem, many would gladly acquiesce. Even, I think, the Committee, though they desire the runes to further the influence of the school."
Gwill scoffed. "Typical. They'd sell the soul of their own grandmother to get even an ounce more of magic."
"Then they're athrylis like us?" I guessed.
Tristan shook his head. "They're abilities are greatly limited, and only the craftings of the alchemist are open to them."
"No doubt one of the reasons why they harbor such a disliking for you, old friend," Doc mused as he folded his hands. "But their own ambitions aside, it's the ambitions of another that worries us."
Tristan arched an eyebrow. "Who?"
Doc shrugged. "That's the mystery. We don't know. All we can discover is that some of the more powerful runes were stolen from the tomb, how we cannot even guess, and they have made their power known throughout not only the grounds but among the streets of the city."
"What kind of runes are these?" I spoke up.
"Of a typical nature from that period some two thousand years hence," Doc informed me. "That is, they are cut into clay tablets with several lines of incantations upon them, like a page out of a spell book."
"Except worse than most spell books in Tristan's library," Gwill quipped.
Doc nodded. "Yes, and that is where the trouble lies. Whoever stole them has been using their powers to attack people."
"Can the culprit not be traced from those who were attacked?" Tristan wondered.
Doc shook his head. "As far as we can tell the attacks are random, almost as though the thief is merely testing the powers of the runes."
"What kind of attacks are these?" I asked him.
A dark shadow fell onto Doc's troubled brow. "Of a most heinous nature. People have-well, have had their lives so affected by the magic of the runes that many have been shunned by their friends and families. Others have-" He paused and shuddered. The act from such a cool and collected person gave me the chills. "Then there are those who wish they were dead." He lifted his gaze to Tristan. "You can see now why the Committee wishes the problem to be dealt with in as much speed as possible."
Tristan cupped his chin in one hand and furrowed his brow. "And how many runes were stolen." Doc lifted one finger, and Tristan blinked at him. "Just one? For so many maladies?"
Doc nodded. "Yes. This particular rune stone held only a few words. They were: each to his own desire. Fortunately, the thief hasn't been able to decipher the true meaning of the words."
"How do you know that?" Tristan questioned him.
"Because they don't know that the necessary component for the curses is a touch of the victim's blood," he revealed. "The rune, though stolen rather quickly, was also studied most thoroughly and in secret. The most learned men informed the Committee of this very important detail only the day before the rune was stolen."
"Then I am to travel to the school and discover the identity of the thief?" Tristan guessed.
Doc nodded. "I admit I can't keep an impartial eye, and neither can anyone else. All are suspected, and so we need an outsider to help us." A sly smile slipped onto his lips. "Your presence may even cow the culprit into ceasing or slowing their attacks."
Gwill scoffed. "Or perhaps goad him into attacking Tristan."
Doc sighed. "I admit that some of the Committee members do hope for that outcome, but whoever stole the runes, obviously not well-versed in their translation, shouldn't be difficult for you to overpower."
"And yet they managed to foil the protections the alchemists placed over the tomb," Tristan reminded him.
Alex snorted. "That's easy." All eyes fell on him and he shrugged. "What? It is."
"Have you intimate knowledge of such thievery, Sir Cat?" Doc wondered.
"Even in my time all you needed to do was find the tying point and untwist it with a piece of hawthorne," Alex replied.
Doc's eyes widened. "My god. What a brilliant and so simple trick."
"Tying point?" I wondered.
"The point at which the alchemical spell is finished," Tristan explained. "Hawthorne is known for its ability to ward off evil."
"Then alchemist spells are evil?" I guessed.
Gwill burst out laughing while Doc coughed into his hand. "I would not go so far as to say that, but the idea is intriguing and shows how desperate we are for fresh minds on this puzzle." He looked back at Tristan. "So will you come?"
Tristan looked down at me. "I may be away for quite some time."
My face fell. "Then I couldn't come with you?"
"Would you?" he wondered.
I snorted. "Do you have to ask?"
A ghost of a smile slipped onto his lips. "I am sorry I did." He returned his attention to Doc. "We will go."