The Gray had yet to be stopped.
Although the Mystics were now safe in the Human domain, light years away on Earth, many other creatures had fallen into absolute extinction. While it is true that Magical creatures cannot die, their very life force, Magika, can be extinguished or suppressed, leaving them without form or consciousness. Their Magika disperses and falls to the winds like ashes of the oak once it is consumed by fire.
The Gray had crept through the forest with a startling patience, oozing toward any place it sensed Magika, whereupon it ensconced and devoured it until it was nothing but a brittle, colorless land devoid of any Magical creature.
Only Mortals can study the Gray, as only Mortals can enter the Gray without dispersing. Thus, Doran and his colleagues, Rhazgul, Aria, and Xarian, traveled from the Magic Academy into the deepest part of the Darkmere Forest, where nothing was left but dense fog, cold grey trunks, and a sickening black sheen that lay upon it all. Although the sun shone high in the afternoon sky, the Forest was dark and uncomfortably silent. Xarian could not summon his Flametok spirit to guide them, and so they walked slowly, their path lit only by mundane lanterns. Making do with what they had, they wound their way through thorny paths and beneath heavy, rotting canopies to a small clearing. There, a day’s journey into the Forest, they took samples of the air, the sludge-clotted stream nearby, the weary foliage, and the dried soil. To understand the behavior of the Gray, they knew they must understand its composition.
It would be accurate to say that to walk in Darkmere called up an overwhelming sense of mourning. No one spoke a word as they conducted their research. The sounds of pencils scratching paper were at times the only sound in all the world. The aftermath of what had occurred there, in that lush forest once bounding with Magic creatures and vibrant life, was undeniable.
Upon returning to the Magic Academy with their materials, Tobee met them with a tray of Wittleberry tea and they quickly began their examinations. Doran examined rocks with his loupe while Rhazgul severed bits of wood to search for any remnants of life. Aria sifted through dried leaves and foliage for any foreign debris. However, it was Xarian, analyzing the tarry sludge from the streambed, who found something unusual.
It appeared at first merely like a small chipping from an Arymethis geode, one no bigger than the whole of his fingertip. With a cloth, he wiped away the oily black residue that clung to it, and he felt it thrum with a gentle pulse. In all his years, he hadn’t seen anything quite like it.
He twisted and turned it curiously between his fingers, carefully looking for any jagged areas or familiar signs, but there were none. It was a perfect sphere. For a moment, he entertained the idea that it was a seed. Just as quickly, he dismissed the thought: due to its translucent shell, he could see that it was hollow.
“Would you like me to top off of your tea, Consul Xarian?” A small synthesized voice broke the silence. Xarian looked down upon Tobee, who stood beside him and carried a teapot on a tray.
And then, like puzzle pieces, thoughts began to snap into place.
Xarian reached down and snatched up Tobee from the floor, the Machine’s little mechanical legs whirring anxiously as he dropped his tray onto the floor. “Oh no. A mess,” he quavered as Xarian hauled him onto the desk and held him down with a long-fingered hand. The clamor attracted the attention of everyone in the room, and the three Magicians hurried over to see what was happening.
“What are you doing?!” Aria asked sharply, seeing his manhandling of Tobee. “Let him go at once!” she commanded. Aria was not typically authoritative, but she regarded Tobee as something of a child, and Xarian more akin to a curmudgeon.
Xarian ignored her and twisted the knob to Tobee’s chest cavity, exposing his internal gears and wires – along with that heart-shaped stone and the gem that sat within it. That stunning pearl had been bestowed upon Aria in the Siren’s cavern. Indeed, this newfound stone was similar, if smaller, and shared that same strange pulse. Xarian held it up beside the one in Tobee’s heart.
“Oh,” Aria said, quietly surprised, realizing the similarities herself.
Doran adjusted his loupe and moved closer. “Where did you find this?” He asked.
Xarian turned it so the light glinted from the surface. “In the water sample, such as it was, from the streambed.”
Rhazgul stood on his toes. “What is it?”
Tobee looked down at his open chest. “I can tell-“
Xarian interrupted him and shot a look to Aria. “What did the Siren say to you regarding this stone in Tobee’s chest?”
She clutched her own chest with her hand. “I don’t remember exactly. She placed it in my hand before she sacrificed herself to the Portal.”
Tobee nodded and said, “It was-“
But again, he was interrupted by Doran. “She manifested it by her own hand and offered it to you. I watched her.”
Turning her back on them all and taking a deep breath, Aria quickly surveyed her memory. “She said… she said she had seen my thoughts, and that she knew that I…” She paused and struggled. “That we would save them. That was all.” She shook her head quickly and shrugged. “She said nothing of what it was.” Sickening waves of doubt lapped at her heart.
“It is a-” Tobee began.
Rhazgul huffed. “It’s maybe just a rock. The EverMaji well looked just like an old rock to me before it spewed blue goop all over creation. Maybe crack it open and see what’s in it.” He tapped the toolbelt at his waist.
For the first time ever, Tobee raised his small monotone voice.
“No!” He slammed the door of his chest closed, nearly smashing Xarian’s hand. “I am now offended.” He walked to the edge of the laboratory table and looked down. “I want to walk away and be very emotional, but one of you will have to put me on the floor, please.”
Aria urgently rushed toward his side of the table. “What is wrong, Tobee?”
Tobee turned his back on her and walked away again. “That is a precious Lifestone of some poor creature. I will not listen to you speak of breaking a Lifestone.”
“What is a Lifestone, Tobee?” Doran asked.
Rhazghul spat air through his thick mustache. “How come ya didn’t just tell us before?”
Aria met him again and joined the chorus of voices. “Tobee, please…”
The little robot sat down next to a pile of books. “Every Magical creature has a Lifestone, much like a human has a spirit. Magical creatures do not die. Their Magika disperses. Much like a drip falling into the sea. It ripples outward in waves and scatters.” They gathered around him now, listening intently. “The Siren gave you a Lifestone to unlock the information here.” He placed his hand on his metal chest.“In my heart.”
“Why?” Aria inquired, he voice hushed.
“A Lifestone is all that is left behind when Magic is gone. One should never be found unless something unspeakable has happened to the Magical creature. A Lifestone is the only reminder they were ever here at all. Without it, they would be erased, not just from the world, but from the memory of every living thing that remains, as if they’d never been at all. My Mother was very smart, you see.” He continued, his voice fading to a whisper. “She knew it would require a sure sign of death to bring the Chronicles to life. And I am the Chronicles,” he admitted, a quaver of melancholy in his robotic voice. “There was no way you could have found a Lifestone unless a horrific disruption of life had occurred.”
Aria sat in the tall backed chair beside her, her slim hands shaking. “The Siren knew she was going to sacrifice herself. She surrendered her Lifestone beforehand.”
For a few moments, no one spoke.
Pushing his loupe back over his forehead, Doran spoke softly. “A Lifestone is just the empty shell of what once was.”
Tobee looked at him, his eyes blinking. “When aligned with the right elements of nature, that which has dispersed can reconvene, just as the rippling waters close back into themselves after being disrupted.” He stood up again.
Xarian glanced at the Lifestone in his hand, only now grasping its value. “Robot, are you saying that with this Lifestone, we can recover the creature it once belonged to? Recover it even from extinction?”
Tobee simply nodded. “Of course, it would require more hands than yours,” he said, his tone once again pleasant and conversational. “Or even more than all the hands of every student within each House of the Magic Academy. Perhaps you might consider taking on more young magicians,” he said. “There is no way to save Magic without those capable of using it.”
He then turned to Aria.
“What does it mean?” Aria asked the others as she stood before the dire scrawling that obscured the great mural of the Houses. “Did the Skavyns do this?”
Rhazgul, puffed up with indignation, sputtered, “Skavyns are mad. Of course they’d color on the walls, and other such nonsense.”
Doran cast his eyes around the decimated room. It was once impeccably beautiful, with great chandeliers and ornately sculpted marble trimmings. It sat in shambles now, absolute ruins. His heart hung heavy in his chest. “We must leave her. To find her. We must go eastward to the Elestyne Forest, just along the coast. Fe’Lora is there with the others.”
“This journey would take seven crosses of the Burning Star. We do not know what lay between us and them,” Xarian said matter-of-factly.
Rhazgul guffawed. “Don’t suppose you could sprout wings again, Consul Xarian. That’d expedite the trip!” He knew full well that a shape-shifting glamour was only temporary – that they could last only for the short window of time after the target shape had been seen, but before the memory of its intricacies decayed. Even the strongest memory could never hold one for seven days. Still, he enjoyed heckling Xarian and trying to chip away at his impervious, stone-like demeanor.
Xarian did not flinch, but turned to Rhazgul slowly. “What of your house of Grimthane and your instruments of flight?”
With a wistful sigh, Rhazgul replied, “The Skyboat was on the East Platform. But, like everything else, it has been destroyed.” He leaned against an overturned bench. “It would take all the Magika in the world to-“
Throwing up a hand, Doran stopped him. “We have that.” His eyes darted to each of their faces. “The EverMaji well. Yes?” He sat Tobee down upon the floor. “This place remains unaffected by the Gray. Magika here is intact, this is what allowed Aria to resurrect dead leaves, and Xarian to become a dinosaur…”
Disregarding Xarian, Doran moved past them, rushing to the door. “Follow me. Watch.”
Standing on the cobblestone platform, wrapped in the blue ambiance of the pulsing crystals, he picked up a shard of metal flung from a collapsed wall. “If I am wrong, may Spectra strike me down in my shoes.” He knelt down. “But, before I ever arrived here, I witnessed something I never imagined possible.” He began driving the metal against the stone, scraping away the polished surface. “One moment, I was within the ruins of a garden, overgrown with weeds behind a decrepit old tower.” He scraped more aggressively now as flecks of stone chipped away. “I, myself, had grown old and deteriorated from time and consequence. But I sought a source of Magic. I believed it existed in the world once, during an era lost to time and fable. I sought artifacts and relics.” Fine dust rose from around his sharp instrument, billowing out from the stone. “But I had been defeated. I had given up hope. And in that moment when I allowed my determination to exhaust itself, I dumped these artifacts down an old well, where they smashed apart. They must have had just enough Magika in them to activate the Portal within. And from it came a flood so great that it…” He stopped whittling at the stone and stared, expectantly, at the deep line he’d engraved within it. He watched the a stream of glowing blue Magika course over it. And he watched as, in a matter of moments, the stone healed itself, leaving it perfectly polished as it had been a minute before. He concluded with a smile “…. Restored everything.”
His comrades stood in awe. Aria touched the reflective stone, and indeed it had no indication of scratches. “What do we do?”
He looked up at the humming EverMaji well, which was bubbling over from the gouge at the center of the three severed pieces. “We use an explosive.”
“Now you’re speaking me language!” Rhazgul shouted.
“You mean to destroy it?” Aria said with concern.
Doran took her shoulders excitedly, “As with the stone, it will heal!”
It took Rhazgul just a few moments to scour the remains of his old House Quarters in the Grimthane wing to find some sparklepowder and an empty Bloomy Ale container to use. A tattered old drawstring would be his wick, when dipped in lantern oil. and thick wax to seal it tight. They stood around the EverMaji well, mostly with trepidation, except for Doran, who seemed intent that it should work.
Xarian leaned down toward the wick and, with a flick of his finger, ignited it.
Doran hustled Aria away and the others followed. Behind one of the collapsed vestibules, they huddled and took shelter against the flying debris to come. Tobee’s legs wriggled in Doran’s grasp. “I’d like to watch. Can I watch?”
The explosion rang out like thunder in the night, followed by a series of heavy splatters and the thuds and cracks of rubble colliding with the surroundings. The Magicians emerged slowly from their alcove of safety and saw a gash in the platform where the stone once sat. A stream of Magika spiraled high into the air like a geyser, raining down upon the Academy. But the wreckage stayed the same.
Holding out his hand, Rhazgul caught some gleaming droplets in his palm. “It didn’t work,” he murmured, sadness darkening his voice..
Doran shook his head. Had he made a mistake? Had he forgotten the exact course of events that had led him to this very courtyard so long ago?. They were all drenched now in the thick blue liquid. “I don’t understand…” he uttered quietly.
Xarian, expressionless as ever, slowly pulled back his hood. Lightly touching his Myrridian Ore mask, he lifted it away. The warm blue rain pattered on his skin, and he closed his one good eye. The other, fixed and lidless, could only squint. But he did not flinch as the liquid reached his eyes. It did not burn or sting, but rather filled his flesh with a glorious sensation he had never felt before. The mangled pulp of scars were smoothed away. The deep wound within his cheek knitted itself together. The gleaming bone was covered by soft flesh.
Aria watched closely and took her hand to her mouth in what might have been fear or shock, no more could she discern between the two. At last, Xarian’s blind and milky eye cleared, and an iris as brown and warm as summer soil formed at the center. Xarian blinked hard. “Look,” was all that she could say. And they did. And Xarian looked, with both eyes, on them.
“Ahhhaaa!” Rhazgul cheered, “I liked you better ugly, Ugly!”
Losing his balance, Xarian collapsed into the nearby broken pillar. He hadn’t seen out of both eyes in so long that the sudden depth of perspective was dizzying. Aria took his arm to steady him.
Suddenly, things did indeed begin to change. The bend iron bars of the Courtyard gate grew straight again, and the shattered glass from the courtyard cobbles rose and reassembled, like a series of intricate puzzles, then settled back into their sills. The broken walls were rebuilt themselves and reached for their former glory. It was as if time itself were turning backward.
Doran laughed aloud as he watched the Magic Academy restore itself, just as the old tower back home had.
The fountain at the center of the courtyard came together and spouted forth beautiful water once again, and flowers of red and yellow leapt up from the ground and bloomed with life. The slumped bodies of the Skavyn turned into rich earth and blew away on a strong breeze, leaving nothing in their place but strange blue-black ferns with slim blue-black fronds.)
Rhazgul laughed like a child and stuck out his tongue as he tried to catch some drops of Magika upon it. Suddenly he made a sour face. “Ehh, disgustin’! Blah!” He spat twice and then, startled, threw his hand over his mouth as his eyes became wide as saucers. Yanking his hand away he looked into it and saw his wooden dentures. Confused for a moment, he stuck his fingers in his mouth and felt around before declaring, “Me old teeth grew back!”
After the reconstruction of the Academy had been completed and the damage from battles and time had all but been erased, the well, too, recovered its original form. The three severed pieces of the stone shaped themselves around the flow of Magika, stemming it from a massive geyser to a spluttering burble.
Aria stood beside Xarian, now holding his arm as much to support herself as him. Nearly in tears, she pressed her hand to her chest and gazed at the magnificence of the Magic Academy. She felt it was even more beautiful than she’d remembered it, and with a pang in her heart, she realized she’d once taken it for granted. She never would do so again.
Doran made haste for the EverMaji well and began to study the runes carved into the stones along the perimeter. Rhazgul appeared at his side and clapped him on the shoulder. “What now, my lad? Do we take the Skyboat to Elestyn Forest and bring them home?” He rocked back and forth on his heels with delight. “Did ya see me new teeth, too?”
Xarian, now more steady on his feet, approached them, Aria by his side. He looked on Rhazgul with the faintest hint of a smile on his lips. “Just when I was hoping your old ones would soon wear out.” Aria let out a sound somewhere between a laugh and sob and smiled at them both.
Seemingly lost in his own thoughts, Doran paid all of them no mind, but scurried from stone to stone, examining the Portal. “It was done once before,” he muttered.“I believe I can…”
“What are you on about, Doran?” Rhazgul asked, rubbing his head and wondering if one of them had lost their senses.
Looking up at them all with a gleam in his eye, Doran grinned. “Portals! I think I can recreate them! Smaller, of course. But we can deliver them to safety. We can send the Mystics through them!” He scrambled to his feet and gripped Xarian by the vest. Clearly somewhat rattled by all the day’s events, Xarian actually raised an eyebrow in surprise. Doran shook him gently by the lapels. “Can you fly the Skyboat, collect everyone from the Forest, and bring them back here?”
Xarian nodded with acknowledgment, extracted himself from Doran’s grip, and set off, almost chuckling.
Turning his attention to Rhazgul, Doran spoke fast. “I need a delivery instrument, a gadget of some sort. We won’t send the Mystics directly through the portal, because what if no one is on the other end to release them? So we’ll send smaller portals – many, many smaller portals! Infinite portals, crafted from this stone – the Magika will heal it! Can you make me a device to ship them in, Rhazgul?”
His stumpy legs stomped the ground and he gave a salute as straight and true as a spirit level. “Rhazgul, at your command. I’ll get to it now!” and he scurried off toward the workshops.
Quietly, Aria sat upon the edge of the portal wall. “So we’re going to create portals from this stone, with this Magika, and shuttle the Mystics into the stars, with only hope on our side.”
Doran grinned and shook his head. “No, not just any star. We will send portals to only one world. The only place I know where people may be able to help us. The one safe place we can reach where Magika once existed. Where we know it can exist again.”
“Please put me on the floor. I must clean up this mess.”