The Fall (Citadel of the Last Gathering Supplemental #4)

The Fall
By: Erin L. Snyder

There was no mortal wizard in all the world more powerful than Cayalox, not in the earthbound kingdoms, the islands that floated above them, or the tunnels underneath. Only the deathless ancients, if they even truly existed, were greater.

Hecvasile knew this. He would be outmatched in this duel, and he doubted there were any in his order who expected him to survive. But there is more to a battle than power, and he hoped that Cayalox, in his arrogance, might underestimate him.

Still, his thoughts turned in unpleasant ways as he approached the ancient arena. He did not come alone - his three greatest students flew at his side, carried on currents of conjured air. Hecvasile did not need to look to them to know they were uneasy. There were situations in which he might live and they might die, but the reverse was not true. Their lives depended on his success.

It was nearly dusk when they reached their destination. The stone arena was flat on top and rested on a bulky wedge of land drifting far above an ocean of clouds. It was smaller than Hecvasile had imagined, less than two hundred feet from side to side.

Cayalox was already there, joined by his three chosen apprentices. They stood on one side of the expanse, so Hecvasile landed opposite, taking care to control his descent. The last thing he wanted was to look as if he were showing off.

His students landed behind him and followed as he walked towards the center. Cayalox did so, as well, moving steadily, despite his age. When they reached the middle, they paused to look each other over. It had been decades since they’d last met in person.

One of Cayalox’s apprentices spoke up. “I am Sebharo Dari, servant to the great Cayalox. My master has learned arts thought lost to this world. He has vanquished dragons and giants alike and has turned deserts into fields of paradise. Any man who has battled him has died. Out of compassion, I ask you to turn from this place and leave.”

Hecvasile did not respond. He simply stared silently at Cayalox and waited. After a moment, one of his own students spoke up. “I am Rutzemer Bilikind, servant of Hecvasile, the wise. With a single finger, he has torn mountains in half. It is out of admiration that I tell you to depart. The world will be a sadder place if Cayalox is killed.”

Were they not honor-bound to remain stoic, Hecvasile was certain his opponent's apprentices would have laughed at the boast. But it was well understood that respect was to be paid here.

“I will not yield,” Cayalox said, after a few more seconds had passed. “But I will hold no grudge if you abandon this pursuit.”

Hecvasile was horrified to discover he was tempted by the offer. Greater wizards than him had died facing Cayalox in this place, and though he truly believed he had a chance, he knew it was only that. If he fought, he might die.

But if he were to yield, his place on the council would be forfeit. He would be branded a coward and a reckless fool. A minor mage who’d been shown his place by a true master.

“I gave you two chances,” he said to Cayalox. “One to give me access to the knowledge you’ve hidden away and a second here.”

“The tomes you seek are beyond your understanding,” Cayalox said. “You would go mad trying to understand them. It is a kindness to deny them to you, and - since you’ve pressed - a mercy to kill you rather than allow them to devour your mind. If you will not yield, the rites must progress.”

“Then they must,” Hecvasile replied curtly.

“Since it is your first time, I offer you the choice of position. Stand where you like, knowing it will be the place you shall fall.”

Hecvasile bowed his head. He felt as if he should have volunteered to stand his ground and fight there, but it was a foolish notion. His magic was better at range, so he turned and moved halfway to the edge. His students followed, of course.

“It begins when the sky is truly black,” he heard Cayalox whisper, using some incantation or another to carry his words the distance.

“I know,” Hecvasile said aloud. He used no spell to magnify his words, so it was unlikely Cayalox heard, which was almost certainly for the best.

“What now?” Rutzemer asked.

“Now we must prepare the land beneath us,” Hecvasile replied. “Cayalox is doing the same, and in this, we need to aid him. This place has lasted a thousand years, and I would not be remembered as the wizard who failed in his duty to protect it.” The four men began casting a spell to reinforce the island beneath them, to protect it from whatever elements, forces, and horrors might be unleashed.

The next hour passed slowly. It was cold here, but Hecvasile made no effort to counter this, nor did he see Cayalox using his powers to make himself or his apprentices more comfortable. Once there was no question that the sky was truly dark, things grew more tense. The two groups stood quietly, staring at each other and waiting.

“Should we invoke spells of protection?” Rutzemer asked.

“Not yet. He will give us warning, anyway,” Hecvasile said. If he were fighting a lesser mage, he might be more cautious, but he trusted in the old master to obey the rules of honor.

Finally, Cayalox began chanting, and lightning flashed in the distance, dancing between the clouds beneath them and those far above. The bolts didn’t come close to the floating island - it was, as expected, only a warning. Hecvasile turned to tell his students the time had come, but they were already conjuring fields of protection and pooling pure magic to reinforce whatever spells Hecvasile called upon.

This was all they’d attempt, just as it was all Cayalox’s apprentices would do for him. The code of their order made clear this was a contest between the two masters alone: the others were here to serve and - if necessary - die.

Hecvasile took the elder’s lead, manipulating the electricity Cayalox had summoned. He raised an arm upward and swung it down. In response, a series of bolts struck in quick succession, forming a line approaching their target. But Cayalox was prepared. The last three arched away from him and spiraled around his apprentices. In a stunning display of discipline and concentration, they held the energy around their bodies. Then, in unison, the pointed towards their master, and the energy flowed to his hand. He caught it, and it formed an orb of light. He whispered an ancient incantation, and it shot forward, directly at Hecvasile.

The blast struck the magical barrier his students were maintaining, but the power was astonishing. Worse still, it hit with a deafening explosion. Hecvasile heard a ringing in his own ears, and he suspected it had left his students shaken.

He conjured quickly, calling up a storm of black clouds, which hailed spears of ice, each as long as a dagger, down at Cayalox. But before the ice could reach the old wizard, the area around him was surrounded by waves of heat. The ice was water, and then was steam.

Cayalox waved his arms at Hecvasile, and blue flames fanned out, spreading along the stone floor, as if spreading along spilt oil. Cayalox’s students reacted quickly, summoning shields of frost. But, as the fires approached, Hecvasile felt something was wrong. To the eye, the magic coming at him was no different than any other fire, but a hundred and fifty years of study in the mystic arts had given him greater insight. This was something else.

There was no time to communicate with his students, nor could they have heard him so soon after the thunderclap. Hecvasile acted on instinct, weaving a spell to absorb the energies. His students attempted the simpler task of trying to counter its effects. But that was what Cayalox was counting on.

The fire burned cold instead of hot, and their attempts to undo it merely fed its power. It took all of Hecvasile’s focus to protect himself, and when the immediate effects had worn out, he found his three students were dead, frozen solid where they stood.

Cayalox could likely have finished him then, while he was distracted and trying to recover. But there would have been no honor in the act, so he gave Hecvasile a moment to compose himself. Besides, Hecvasile’s position was nearly hopeless.

Nearly. He’d hoped to lure Cayalox into making a mistake, then finish him quickly with a spell he’d been developing, one the elder wouldn’t be ready for. But Cayalox was proving more crafty than Hecvasile had hoped, and he’d yet to make an error. Still, if there was ever a time Cayalox would underestimate him, surely this was it.

He conjured quickly, connecting his own power to that of the island he was on. It was a spell Hecvasile had discovered by accident while experimenting with a piece of floating clay: metals that flew contained an energy about them, and that energy could be repurposed. He only attempted it with something this large once, not wanting to risk having his magic discovered. In the process, he’d managed to split a small hill in half.

Hecvasile felt the ground beneath him shift as the land began to sink. He reached out towards his opponent, directing the sheer force down at him. Cayalox’s apprentices fell together, pinned to the ground. Their master, however, proved more resourceful, reaching down with one open palm and up with the other to counter the pull. He looked directly at Hecvasile and shouted something. Perhaps the words would have carried if it weren’t for the ringing in Hecvasile’s ears.

He pressed the attack, drawing more energy away and pushing it towards Cayalox. Even at this distance, Hecvasile could see his adversary was growing weak. Just when he thought the wizard might collapse, Cayalox shifted his form, and Hecvasile felt the weight of the island pulling away from him. The land beneath him began to rise, and he stumbled back, thrown off-balance. He could still feel the energy he’d manipulated, but it was beyond his reach.

A moment later, he felt himself thrown to the ground. For a moment, he thought Cayalox had turned his spell against him, but that wasn’t it. Wind was holding him back; a rudimentary invocation. Why wasn’t he doing more?

Hecvasile hadn’t lost his connection to the island’s power. Now, with a moment to think, he realized he could feel Cayalox’s will imposed on his own, keeping him from acting. It made no sense - if Cayalox had discovered this magic, as well, why wasn’t it widely known among the order? And why wasn’t he using it to full effect?

Hecvasile could think of no better option, so he focused on the spell, trying to retake control. His mind grappled with that of Cayalox, and the elder was stronger. Hecvasile felt himself growing dizzy, and the magic pinning him to the ground increased. He shut his eyes and pulled at the hidden waves of power enveloping the island. He felt them waver, but Cayalox thwarted him.

But as Hecvasile lost control of these waves, he realized something - they weren’t alone. There were other similar waves crossing over. They were fainter, but alike, and they were connected. He reached out and grabbed hold of the nearest with his mind. He had control of these, but they were far weaker. But these, too, were connected to others, which in turn connected to countless more. He felt a sharp pain in his head as he willed them all to his command.

They were the energy of distant islands, circling the world above the clouds. All of them were connected by this strange new magic he’d uncovered. And the combined energy was his now. He felt Cayalox trying to stop him again, but he was like a man trying to block a river. Hecvasile swatted him away like a fly, scattering his apprentices and knocking him to the ground. The winds dissipated at once, and Hecvasile was free to stand.

He reached out to crush Cayalox with his newfound power, only to find the wizard resisting. The elder struck out at him with fire, rain, and lightning, but Hecvasile deflected these with ease. He’d the strength of the world now.

Cayalox chanted, and the air around him began to glow. His apprentices knelt around him, and one by one they were enveloped by the energy. The young mages burst into flame and were reduced to ash, and Cayalox pulled energy and magic from them. In his hands, this became a river of power, which he directed towards Hecvasile.

It was blinding. With a raised hand, Hecvasile invoked a blockade of raw force to shield himself, but the light seemed to burn through. He cried out, pulling more and more power from the world to reinforce his wall. Across the expanse, he could hear Cayalox screaming, too, though he couldn’t tell whether the wizard was calling to him or crying out in pain.

Hecvasile pulled tighter on the currents of energy fueling him. He felt the power of Cayalox’s spell diminishing, so he pressed even harder, until he’d pinned the elder to the ground, as he’d been pinned himself. He yelled in fury, triumph, and rage, and stepped forward. And as he did so, he felt something rip.

For the briefest of moments, Hecvasile didn’t realize what had happened. Even as he felt the sudden sense of weightlessness overtake him, he didn’t understand. Then the reality dawned on him. The force that held up every island, every flying mountain and metal pillar and who knew what else, had been connected by a web of magic. But web wasn’t the right word: it had been a chain. And Hecvasile had broken it.

It wasn’t just the arena that was falling. The southern cities, each home to tens of thousands, were dropping from the sky, as was the entire kingdom of Iveland. And every hill, occupied or wild, that was drifting above towns and villages was tumbling towards the ground.

The sheer weight of it was beyond imagination. He looked up to find Cayalox staring at him, coldly. The elder had known about this magic. Perhaps the whole council had as well, but if so, it was a secret they'd hidden away. Now Hecvasile understood why. Cayalox had tried to warn him, but Hecvasile had been too eager, too angry. He’d wanted access to Cayalox’s libraries too much, and he’d been blinded by dreams of unraveling the secrets of immortality from the tomes hidden away in the elder’s tower.

But none of that mattered now. The world around them was falling. The cities and nations of men and elves would be shattered, and those of dwarves would cave in from the shock.

Either of them could have saved themselves. With a word, they could have flown up off the falling island to safety.

But Cayalox simply stood, watching Hecvasile, daring him to dishonor himself further by surviving the consequences of his actions.

What could Hecvasile do but stay where he was, tumbling towards the ground, and stare back in shame?

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