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Apparently, Elend couldn't even walk down the street without getting captured these days.

The Martials were bad enough. Who could have guessed some Golds would have Etherite—the strongest material in the known universe? In hindsight, he should have tried breaking these cuffs before he put them on. But no, he'd tried to help the Martials and prove he wasn't a threat.

Ironically, he might have killed fewer people with some good old-fashioned violence.

But this time wasn't Elend's fault. He'd thought about it all night, suspecting everyone from Hector to the guards outside Costa Liberta. Any of them could work for the Dragonlord in theory, but Elend had sensed no deception.

Besides, If Hector had wanted to betray him, the lad would have lured him into an actual trap. Not a random city street filled with witnesses. And if the Dragonlord had known the situation in Costa Liberta, he would have struck there first. No sense in playing divide and conquer with a Grandmaster and a bunch of teenagers.

Elend's reputation would still suffer, though. After yesterday, he'd be known as that absent-minded professor who kept stumbling into traps. Relia would never let him live it down.

He sat cross-legged in his cell now, gathering mana in his palms. The cell was a simple room with steel and impedium walls, polished to a mirror shine. A twin-sized bed sat in one corner, with a toilet, a sink, and a shower on the opposite side.

It wasn't so bad as far as prison cells went, and they'd clearly meant for it to detain someone important. It wouldn't hold a Master at his full strength, but it could certainly hold an Apprentice or an Artisan.

Elend continued cycling, pushing more mana into his palms. This would be the most expensive technique he'd done since he woke from the ice chamber. It would be painful, yes, but it was the best way to gain an advantage over his enemies.

Besides, he'd been alone for the past twelve hours, and he could use the company.

Elend stretched out his arms, and blue light streaked through the air, taking the form of a young woman in the bathroom mirror.

"Good morning, Glim." Elend forced himself to his feet and strode over.

Glimmar was, for lack of a better word, an imaginary friend. He'd been twelve years old the first time he'd made her, but she'd grown stronger since then, taking on a mind of her own. Sapient mana was an anomaly, even among Dream Artists, but no one had told him that back then. He'd been too young to realize how impossible this should have been.

Glim stared at her own hands for a moment. She was made entirely of pale blue mana, from her shoulder-length hair to her knee-length dress.

Slowly, her transparent face rearranged itself into a scowl. "What the hell, Elend?"

"My apologies." Elend held up his wrists, showing her the cuffs. "They bottlenecked my mana."

She made a show of crossing her arms. "So that's why you haven't summoned all this time?"

Elend raised an eyebrow. "You can tell how long it's been?" She'd made comments like this before, expressing her discomfort with nonexistence. Elend didn't blame her for that, but he also doubted her sense of time. They'd conducted experiments, and she seemed to make educated guesses based on sensory input. Either that, or she pulled the answers directly from his thoughts.

"You look old," Glim said.

"You've been saying that for forty years." She'd aged with him until his mid-twenties, then she'd stopped. Quite stubbornly, he might add. Who was she trying to impress?

"Well, I mean it this time."

He nodded, then gave her the short version of their predicament. Glim's eyes slowly widened as he told her about the island, the Martials, Creta, and the Dragonlord.

"Wow."Glim flashed around the cell, appearing on every reflective surface. "You are so screwed."

"We're so screwed," Elend corrected. "I can't conjure you without mana."

"Yeah." She raised her hands to her head. "Is that why I feel half-drunk?"

"Impedium is painful," Elend said. "And it suppresses more than ninety percent of my power."

"Cry me a waterfall." Glim crossed a pair of slender blue arms. "Some Artists train with impedium on purpose."

"Aye," Elend said. "But they're training their precision. Expensive techniques like you are far more painful."

"I thought you could ignore pain?"

That was true—he had a Cloak technique that allowed him to do exactly that. He'd used it to avoid the day-to-day discomfort of the cuffs and collar. But physical discomfort was one thing—he was far more concerned about actual pain in his channels.

"Pain serves a purpose," he told her. "It tells us when we're pushing our bodies too far. If I stress my channels too hard, the damage could be permanent.

Glim huffed, but she didn't press the matter. "So ... where's Relia and the other two?"

"That's what I need to know." Elend pointed a finger to the air vent above his head.

She perked up. "A spy mission?"

"Aye. Priority is making sure they're safe. Then anything that might help us gain an advantage."

"Okay," Glim straightened. "But I need more mana than this."

Elend frowned. "You've worked with less before." In fact, she'd worked with less for a good portion of her life.

"I already feel like I'm drunk," Glim said. "And that grate is impedium. I'll lose even more mana when I go through it."

"You've still made do with less."

"The stakes are higher this time. What happens if I'm caught because I'm too slow and stupid? They'll plug up that vent, then you'll really be screwed."

Elend scratched the stubble on his chin. "Aye, that's actually a good point. Come on, then."

Glim took the shape of a Missile as she leapt out of the mirror, landing in Elend's open palms. He cycled more mana into her, packing it tight like a snowball.

'Much better,' Glim said in his mind. 'Now I feel like I could enslave humanity.'

Elend ignored her.

'Glimmar Gadriel Darklight,' she mused. 'Supreme Empress of the World...'

"That's not your middle name," Elend said as he filled her with another wave of mana.

She made a sound as if she'd just eaten an expensive dessert.

'Actually,' Glim said. 'I was aiming for—'

"I know," he muttered. "But you failed."

He gave her as much as he could manage within his safe limits. Most prudent Artists kept an emergency supply, but Elend was already in another Grandmaster's custody. He couldn't be anymore helpless.

With that done, Elend held up a hand to the air vent and fired the Glimmissle through the grates. She appeared as a blur of blue light against the vent's inner surface, then she zipped off through the darkness.

Elend returned to his bed and closed his eyes, stretching out his perceptions. His own sensations left him, and he saw what she saw—heard what she heard.

'Lots of mating dragons in this tower,' Glim's voice said as she soared through the vents.

Images flashed in Elend's mind, too quick to see. Glim wasn't bound by ordinary laws of physics, and she could move and perceive things far faster than a human.

'Stay on target,' Elend told her.

She made a huffing sound. 'You were way more fun as a kid. You know that?'

'It's called ethics. And you're right. They're only fun when you're the one enforcing them.'

'Ooo. Never heard that joke before. So eavesdropping is fine, but—'

'Eavesdropping is an act of war,' Elend cut in. 'Spying on bedrooms is just plain creepy.'

'You're making up these rules to fit your needs.'

'We humans do that a lot,' he admitted.

She made her way through the tower, descending at least twenty floors through the central vents. Bloody hell. How far up were they? They'd arrived late last night, and he hadn't gotten a good view of the tower's exterior. The elevator hadn't been the best indication either. Elend could've sensed the whole building at his full power, but he hadn't been this blind since Artisan.

Glim stopped moving when she reached the vent above one particular room. Elend couldn't see much from her vantage, but he heard a familiar voice from below.

"What about Darklight's students?" That sounded like Valeria Antano—The Dragonlord's sister and spymaster.

"They got away." The next voice sounded like a younger male, maybe in his early twenties.

Valeria's growl was like grinding stones. "How?"

"We surrounded the hotel, but they escaped through the catacombs. Then they slashed our tires while we weren't looking."

Elend grinned at the last part. That had Akari written all over it.

A pause. "Then the Silver girl killed Enzo. She—"

"I don't care about your friends," Valeria snapped. "Where are the foreigners now?"

"She stabbed him in the back! "

"A Silver stabbed an Artisan in the back? It sounds like he deserved it." Footsteps echoed against the floor as if she were pacing. "And you let a bunch of kids get the better of you?"

Another pause. "I'm sorry, Mother. We—"

"I don't want your apologies. I want their current location."

"They disappeared," he said. "We found the truck abandoned on a back road. They were heading southwest."

Valeria growled again. "Tell me you saw their faces."

An audible sigh escaped the lad's mouth. "They had their heads covered."

"Anything else? Names? Aspects?"

Silence followed.

Elend felt the tension pour out of his body. Despite getting captured, this was the best result he could have hoped for. Their fake marks should let them lie low for a few more weeks, but he had little hope for them after that.

They could find another small town, but they'd stick out like Aeon cultists at an Angel convention. The bigger cities had more foreigners, but they'd also be teeming with Fangs and surveillance cameras.

Elend felt a headache coming on, and he rested his head against the cell's impedium wall. Relia had held her own back on Arkala, but she wasn't ready for this.

Then again, she was still years away from reaching Artisan at her current pace. Her condition would kill her before that happened, so this might be the push she needed.

 


 

Half an hour passed, then a group of armed Fangs led Elend to the tower's top floor. They crested the staircase and stepped into the most ostentatious room he'd ever seen. Obsidian and jade covered the floor in a pattern of diamond tiles. Everything else gleamed with gold, from the furniture to the crown molding.

Things grew more extravagant as they passed through an antechamber into what looked like a throne room. A massive dome of glass stretched over the top of the building, revealing a vast skyline beyond.

Tureko. The capital of Creta, and the home of the Dragonlord.

He'd been impressed by the scope of San Talek, but this city was large enough to swallow it whole. Skyscrapers stretched for miles in every direction, and their shapes made jagged silhouettes against the morning sun.

Something else caught Elend's eye—a massive dragon stretched its wings over the city, casting black shadows over the rooftops. Its body could rival this entire building in size, and its wingspan was as wide as several city blocks.

Footsteps echoed behind Elend as more people joined him in the throne room. He turned to see two dragons he recognized.

The first was General Dario Antano, the Dragonlord's right Wing. His dark features looked more human than the Fangs or Grevandi, and he wore a dark military jacket that gleamed with a dozen metals.

Spymaster Valeria Antano followed him inside. She looked even more human than her brother, with waves of long black hair cascading down her shoulders. Human hair would look ridiculous on most dragons, but Valeria made it look natural—even elegant.

A younger dragon stood a few paces behind the spymaster. This one had an arrogant look about him. The sort of Noble's son you might see in an old Mana Arts movie. The sort who would bully the poor protagonist for the sake of the plot.

A shadow fell over the room as the dragon hovered over the glass-domed ceiling, blocking out the morning sun. He hovered in place for several heartbeats, and his wings sent gusts of wind against the ceiling.

A glass door slid open at the dome's apex. Mana flashed in a burst of green light, and the dragon transformed before Elend's eyes. His entire body shrunk, becoming less than a hundredth of his original size. His limbs transformed into human arms and legs, and his tail vanished completely. But even as his body shifted to human proportions, his wings retained a twelve-foot span.

Finally, Dragonlord Axel Antano closed his wings and fell through the opening, falling twenty feet into the room.

The Wings saluted as he landed, pressing their fists to open palms. The Fangs all dropped to one knee.

Elend inclined his head in a more subtle gesture of respect. They might technically be enemies, but there was no need to be rude. No one had mistreated him yet, and he wasn't supposed to know about the attack on Relia and the others.

Antano stretched out his wings again when he reached the floor, taking up five times more space than an ordinary man. He wore a black and gold Mana Artist's robe that would have been in fashion three centuries ago. The front hung open to reveal a chest of human-like muscles, but his green skin was rough and leathery.

"Ah, Professor Darklight." The Dragonlord's boots clicked against the tile floor as he approached. "What brings an Espirian Grandmaster to my land?"

"A shipwreck, unfortunately.

"A shipwreck," Antano echoed. When he spoke, his voice seemed to fill every corner of the room. "And I suppose the recent storm helped you slip past my blockade?"

"To be honest," Elend said, "I didn't even know about the blockade until after I'd arrived."

He nodded, stepping around Elend to face his Wings. "What of the students?"

Valeria's son saluted again, dipping his head in a bow. "I went to Costa Liberta last night with two Fangs. His students gave us some trouble, but we brought all three back with us."

Elend might have fallen for the act if not for his scouting mission earlier. He could normally read lies like words on a page, but dragons weren't like humans. Everything about the Artisan was calm and confident, from his face to his voice.

"Excellent," Antano said as he turned back to Elend. "Not to worry, friend. Creta can be dangerous for foreigners, but they'll be safe here until our business is concluded."

Elend smiled pleasantly as he turned to the Dragonlord's nephew. "Tell me lad—what do my students look like?"

"Like humans," he said with a casual shrug.

His mother shot him a warning look, but she was too late.

"What about their names?" Elend said. "Or their aspects?"

He didn't reply, but his yellow eyes narrowed.

Elend made a tsking sound. "You've got a terrible paizho face, lad." A joke about slashed tires waited on the tip of his tongue, but that would be telling.

Elend turned his gaze back to Antano. "It appears you don't actually have my students, Dragonlord. I wouldn't blame your nephew, though. They're a slippery lot."

The Dragonlord just smiled as if the joke genuinely amused him.

Elend spread out his hands in a conciliatory gesture. "Truly, I've no quarrel with you or your family. With your leave, I'll gladly be on my way."

"Good." He nodded as if they'd just made a deal. "I've heard you're eccentric. I'm glad to find a reasonable man."

Perhaps the feeling would be mutual, but he wasn't getting his hopes up yet.

"Leave us," the Dragonlord said to the others. The Fangs bowed themselves out, and the Wings followed.

"I accept your offer," Antano said once they were alone in the throne room. "And I'll gladly see you and your students escorted to the western border. My priest, Lena, is an Ethersmith. She can remove those cuffs and collar for you. It will take some time—weeks, perhaps—but I'm confident in her abilities."

Elend saw where this was going. "In exchange, I suppose you want me to leave the cuffs with you?"

Antano's lips curled as he paced the tile floor. "I know you took a boat out of Vaslana four months ago. You headed southeast into the Inner Sea, where you were captured. You were on your way home when a storm hit your boat."

He stopped pacing, and his smile widened. "You never had these cuffs in the first place. You lose nothing by giving them to me."

It was a good deal for both of them, and he knew the Dragonlord would seal it with a soul oath. But Axel Antano was also a tyrant and a conqueror. As a Grandmaster, he was weaker than most Cadrian rulers, but Etherite could shift the scales in his favor. With cuffs, he could overpower a Mystic. And what if his Ethersmith turned the crystals into a blade? He could send an assassin to kill one of them. That would throw Cadria into chaos, killing millions.

No ... Elend would die before he'd turn these over. But he didn't say that aloud. He had to keep stringing Antano along, and he couldn't look too eager or too desperate along the way.

"We'll split the Etherite two ways," Elend said.

His leathery brow furrowed "You realize you have nothing to bargain with? I could kill you now and take it all."

"On the contrary," Elend said, "this only works with my full cooperation." He turned and surveyed the room with its golden furniture. "What happens when news of my death reaches the other rulers? The Espirian prime minister isn't your biggest fan. Neither are the presidents of Vaslana or Tretias. They're just waiting for an excuse to wipe you off the map."

He met Antano's eyes again. "Now, you could take the crystals and set me free, but they'll still come after you when they hear the story. You need me to swear a soul oath to keep quiet."

The Dragonlord considered that. "I'll take the four cuffs. You keep the collar."

Elend opened his mouth to object, but Antano raised a clawed finger. "And my people will leave your students alone. I'll swear that oath today."

Elend deflated. They'd escaped one group of Fangs, but they couldn't keep that up for long. Relia would still have the Grevandi to deal with—they didn't work for the Dragonlord directly—but she could handle them.

"Aye," he finally said. "We have a deal."

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A note from David Musk

Happy New Year, everyone, and thanks for all your support in 2021! It went by quickly, but it's amazing that we managed to finish Aeonica Book 3, start and finish Web of Secrets, and get 25% of the way through Web of Dreams. (Not to mention the Aeonica Book 1 rewrite which is more than half done.)

I logged a total of 185k new words for the year, which was my most productive year ever. Hopefully. 2022 is just as good!

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About the author

David Musk

Bio: Hey everyone. I'm a web developer and fantasy writer from Grand Rapids, MI.

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