by Dan Coleman
It wasn’t always like this.
Saunder closed the heavy tome in front of him, taking care to close his eyes and hold his breath. Its ancient pages spewed forth a cloud of dust he’d grown so accustomed to in the past three days. The last light of day had long vanished from the window of his humble study, the candle he had lit threatening to become nothing more than a puddle of wax upon his desk . He leaned back and pinched his eyes, trying to make sense of the thousands of words he’d spent the day reading. The evidence of this work was scattered about his desk, books old and new from the Capitol Library piled higher than his head, scrolls carefully rolled into vellum tubes, diagrams and illustrations strewn about for constant reference.
And there in the middle of his desk, placed reverently on a pewter dish that half served as a paper weight, sat the object of his studies. A drajule. A translucent stone cut into a prism larger than his hand from fingertip to wrist. It bore four delicate glyphs upon its facets, almost invisible if you didn’t think to look for them, a sure sign that it had served its intended purpose. This drajule was a deep crimson, but Saunder had read that they could be any color of earth-born stone and gems. It threw the light from the candle to make red ghosts upon the wall, sparkling with a regal air as if it should adorn the Emporer’s crown. At first it had made Saunder feel noble, fearful even, knowing what was bound to it. Now, it only brought him anxiety, a red reminder that tomorrow would not be spent among the comfortable safety of his dusty tomes and tattered scrolls.
“No, it wasn’t always like this at all,” Saunder said aloud to the summer night and fireflies outside his window. There was a time, centuries ago, when the men that would forge the first drajules would not be slaves to such mysteries, but masters of them. That was before though. Before things went wrong. That was a time when men did not know they should fear what they created. A time when scholars such as Saunder bore a different title.
Saunder stared into the drajule as the word surfaced to the top of his thoughts. It made him shutter. No one would claim to be a maji today: the words had become anathema, cemented as such throughout the centuries that humanity had struggled to survive. Ever since the last of the maji released terror into the world their practice had been forbidden.
It was the maji who had created the drajules. But they had only made the stones after they had made the Monsters. Saunder had spent countless hours reviewing firsthand accounts from that time, notes from council meetings, diagrams of drajules and glyph seals, documents on the first binding rituals… and the horrible descriptions of what followed. He had unearthed a molding diary of a common farmer, its pages stained with blood and sheared at the corner by the jaws of something awful. The tale they told within was even more terrifying than the book’s appearance. It told of its owner’s first encounter with the Monsters as they ravaged the Old Empire, first losing his wife and eldest son in the jaws of a Monster as he just barely escaped his homestead. It went on to detail the daily torture he suffered on the road looking for safe harbor. The diary ended abruptly without resolution, and Saunder’s thoughts closed in on what could have happened to the man from time to time, especially when his eyes would lock in on the red gem at the center of his desk.
It was dragons that they had claimed to make.
That much was clear from what he could glean from the books around him. The Empire’s records were so confident, so arrogant, Saunder thought mournfully to himself as he shuffled the books he had studied today off his desk, clearing a way for a new pile of tomes and satchel of scrolls. Dragons. The fools were so intent on succeeding that they never once considered what would be the price of failure—one mankind was still paying. Dragons, they called them. They weren’t the dragons he’d studied in his illustrations, but rather the result of natural beasts and magic, warped into something new altogether. Something dangerous. Something… monstrous.
The maji may have wanted to give the world dragons, but instead they gave it Monsters. MajiMonsters, the people called them now, but there was never any confusion in the terms. Monsters with the strength of a score of men each, and skills far beyond that of a common beast. Monsters wrought with magic. Monsters with their own instincts and ambition. Monsters that suffered no fear. Monsters that could cheat death. They were meant to be “the glory of the Empire,” Saunder had read this evening from a scroll laden with seals five centuries old, “a testament to our might and a weapon to usher our dynasty for all days to come.” He winced at the notion as he finished arranging tomorrow’s documents on his desks and wearily eyed the cot in the corner. It was linen stuffed with straw, but this late it felt of goose-down.
Saunder was nearing forty, having spent his entire life in studying the past. He was as respected scholar, even among the great teachers and keepers of history, which were everyday flocking to the Capitol. However, the last few days had troubled him and made him question his own certainty. Even as he lay down to sleep, his thoughts invaded and left him without respite. Every child in these troubled times—Saunder included—had learned to fear and respect MajiMonsters from songs and stories told by well-meaning parents, eager to shield their progeny from a terrible fate. But he had never had to deal with magic or drajules before. Dragon jewels. That’s what the maji had originally named them, before the centuries eroded and reshaped the names of the crystals. Their purpose was as true today as they were before. Jewels to bind the dragons so they ought do our bidding, the books had said.
Saunder shut his eyes and let out a long sigh. It had already been a week since he had met the Emperor. “I’m going to forge a new Empire,” he had said, as Saunder peered feebly up at him from his knees in homage.
“I intend to fight for it,” the Emporer had told him. “I intend to fight for us. If the Monsters are our foes, what weapon can we use to stop them? Steel and fire are no more use than wet leaves or rain drops against them. Tell me, Saunder, are you the scholar that will give me a weapon to defeat them? Will you put a weapon in my hand, humanity’s hand, so that we may survive? So that we may build anew? So that we may cast fear aside for the first time in centuries?”
As the memory flooded him, Saunder’s eyes flashed open. In the dark of night, the drajule emitted a dim red glow that pervaded his chamber, and, though it was as silent as a grave, he thought he heard, or perhaps felt, a gentle thrumming just beyond the range of his senses. Saunder took in the sight of the gleaming stone, but then then rolled over, facing the opposite wall, shaking its image from his mind.
“I am going to lift the ban on magic,” the Emperor had said, placing his hands on Saunders. Saunder felt him place the drajule within his own hands, but the Emporer’s gaze was locked with his own. “I trust you know what this is. I trust you know what it contains.” Saunder had meant to reply to him then, as to not appear a fool, but he could only look agape at what he held. In his silence, the Emperor turned aside and began to leave with his royal escort. From over his shoulder, he addressed Saunder one last time. “Where steel and fire have failed us, perhaps history and knowledge will prevail. I need more, Saunder. Many more. I’d put one in the hands of every able-bodied man, woman, and child that would defend this Empire. Two, if I could. But I need someone that knows how to make them, someone who can teach others how to make them. Someone who can teach others how to use them. I’ll ask again Saunder, are you the scholar that can do so?”
“Yes,” Saunder echoed his own reply aloud to the wall in front oh him, rolling to his other side to glimpe the drajule again before finally shutting his eyes. Tomorrow he would perform a summoning, and he’d be the first to do so in hundreds of years. With it rode the stakes of a new Empire, a renewed hope for humanity. He wondered if his own efforts would prove as foolish as the maji that tried before. He wondered if it even mattered at this point. He took a deep breath, recalling his last reply to the new Emperor.
“The Empire will have its weapon.”