Freebie Mondays: Inches from Success (Story 8 of 22 Stories in 2022)

Freebie Mondays: Inches from Success (Story 8 of 22 Stories in 2022)

Since I write roughly 22 stories every year, I thought it might be fun to do a project for 2022.

In 2022, the 22 shorts I write for my blog will be taken from prompts related to the 31 stories in 31 days project from January of 2022. Each will relate to the multiverse that all of my stories take place in, and I will try to keep the main characters that appear on my blog to the background (unless I get a super cool idea).

I’ve written each of these stories on stream. If you want to witness this installment as it was crafted, the VOD is on youtube!

The prompt for this one was: a grave situation leads to hope.

This story takes place in the same world as my Aruvalia Chronicles series (the novels I primarily work on during streams). Learn more here!
. . .

The key to a lifetime of research was mere inches from his fingertips. It should be so easy to simply reach out and close his fist around the cool metal, then he could celebrate every long, harsh moment that brought him to this place.

His last obstacle was a mere few inches of metal alloy, and he never imagined it would prove the most difficult puzzle he ever encountered.

Karis Drathmore had opened a fair number of safes in his time. Magic made many things easy, and when he couldn’t discern a lock combination or hire someone with enough skill to spirit an object from a sealed container, it served him well.

He was used to having unlimited reserves of power waiting at the tips of his fingers for even the slightest indication of desire. Under any other circumstances, he would merely have had to twitch to work his will upon the cold, uncaring metal boxes that loomed before him.

But this was the Badlands, the one place where magic could not serve him, no matter how deep his desire ran. Ever since he crossed the threshold, his magical senses had become a distant buzzing sensation, a static where once crystal clear music used to play. If he opened his inner eye, if he reached for the power that had filled the space around him since puberty, he sensed a yawning emptiness, an opening so vast and deep it threatened to swallow his very essence.

One taste of it had been enough to make him shudder and lock his secondary senses up tight. He wouldn’t even peek this deep into the blighted territory that magic had abandoned. It wouldn’t be worth the dizzying strain.

But it meant he had to find some other way through the final barrier between him and his ambitions.

Peeling the padded leather gloves from his hands, Karis set his long fingers against the weathered surface and traced the smooth outline of tiny vaults, lone survivors of a cataclysm that had not only leveled the surrounding countryside, but twisted and melted it into an unrecognizable, almost alien landscape.

Many hours he had spent imagining the civilization that must once have dwelt here. They must have built spectacular towers, not to mention cities that spanned hundreds of miles if the ruins of their civilization were so vast they stretched several days’ journey in all directions. The contents of their libraries must have been extensive; more had probably been lost during the fall of this civilization than modern studies had yet rediscovered. His mind went wild at the possibilities, imagining entire cavernous rooms stuffed floor to ceiling with leather-bound tomes.

The destruction of this once grand dynasty was so complete, it was impossible to glean information from the weathered stones left behind. Whatever obliterated them, it must have been powerful. Not only were there no traces of magic left within the land, airships couldn’t fly here. Cars could skirt the edges, but venturing too deeply into the hardpacked desert often drained batteries. Jets could pass above, but only at extremely high altitudes.

It was sheer dumb luck, some odd twist of fate that these two tiny vaults survived what had obviously eradicated the structure that originally held them. And while he was thrilled beyond measure that their seals remained intact, protecting their precious contents from the destructive forces wrought upon the rest of these ancient ruins, it was somewhat annoying that no part of the metal was twisted or warped, leaving no easy leverage to gain access to what lay beyond.

“Brute force it will have to be then,” he murmured, withdrawing his hand from the seamless structure and returning it to the protection of its glove.

He spun and gestured at the vaults. The small crowd milling behind him jumped into action like the good little soldiers they were. He liked to think they had spent the last ten minutes with baited breath just waiting for a command, though he could tell by the way several brushed dust from the pant legs that they had been lazing about, taking advantage of the lull.

Thus was illustrated the difference between the good and the great.

But Karis had done his research well. He brought with him on this journey the best that money could buy; hearty soldiers able to survive whatever dire circumstances this wasteland threw at their feet. They had heavy cutting tools with them, sharp blades and insulated power generators.

It would take a divine act to prevent them from breaching those vaults within the hour.

Confident in the end results of his labor, Karis took advantage of an opportunity to do some lazing himself. Magic might not be present in this blighted portion of continent, but it was one of the few things easily carried on an expedition.

Opening the small pouch kept at his belt, Karis pulled free a tightly wrapped bundle of fabric. When activated, it unrolled into one of the most luxurious settees ever crafted. This was hardly the most relaxing place to make use of it; there was little in the way of a breeze and the sky was a dull shade of steel grey rather than bright blue. But the comfort was such that it allowed him to forget about his surroundings for the moment.

He leaned his head against the soft cushions and listened to the drone of cutting and hammering in the background while his team worked to free his prize from its container. It didn’t take long for the sound to become soothing, and his thoughts drifted away, allowing him to doze slightly.

Even while asleep, Karis never fully allowed his defenses to wane. He might not be able to weave new magic, but the shields that protected his mind and body everywhere else remained strong even while he couldn’t renew them. He was confident he would be aware of any approach, and he expected to be roused long before his exhaustion ran its course.

So it was with some consternation that he drifted back to consciousness amidst resounding silence punctuated only by the occasional harsh whisper.

For a moment, he retained his relaxed sprawl, examining the position of the sun in the sky above. It was late afternoon, and the sun had been near its zenith when he settled down. It might have been three hours since he drifted to sleep, four at most.

The vaults should long since have been opened by now.

Karis sat up slowly, not wanting to betray the sense of alarm that settled in the base of his chest at this assessment. Any fiend who tried to run with his prize would be easy to locate, and it was clear the entire team hadn’t turned on him since several still milled in tight knots between his chair and the vaults.

Several sets of eyes shot in his direction when he stirred, and all the hissing went silent at once. Tension hung thick in the air, a clear indication that there was bad news to deliver and no one wanted to be elected spokesman.

Instantly, Karis’s eyes locked on the vaults. He had wandered some distance from them before settling down, but it was fairly obvious they retained their perfect square shapes. No openings revealed darkness or the contents that might lay within – unless the work had been done to their backs.

His eyes traveled to the foreman. But before he could summon the head of the craftsman to his side, the sharp clearing of a throat sounded over his shoulder.

He turned to purse his lips at Hadariel Langdale, the most faithful of his lieutenants. “What is the hold up?” he demanded curtly.

“My lord,” Hadariel replied, speaking with caution, “we have been unable to pierce the vaults’ protective material.”

Karis’s frown deepened. He swallowed the questions on the tip of his tongue because the answers would be obvious. He had checked the tool kits carried by the craftsman when they set out on this venture. They bore everything from diamond chipped drill bits to chainsaws in their arsenals. He wondered if he would find the discards of several broken tools littering the base of the vault foundation should he venture forward.

“It’s stronger than mythril then,” he muttered.

It was not a question, but Hadariel bowed his head anyway. “And denser than diamond, it would seem. There has been some attempt to dissolve a corner with solvent but…”

Karis grunted. “I suppose we see now why they survived the ravages that devoured the rest of this space.” Luck had nothing to do with it. The original craftsmen had been experts in their field and far more advanced than those Karis had with him. “What about discerning a combination to release the lock?”

“Attempts have been made,” Hadariel confirmed. “But as far as we can tell, there is no means of input. No keypad or dial. It seems…” He hesitated, casting Karis an uncertain look.

“Continue, Hadariel, you know my wrath will not descend on you if it is not warranted.”

With another nod, his faithful guardian relaxed and said, “It seems the lock is entirely magical.”

Karis’s first instinct was to activate his mage sight and check for enchantments. He barely managed to avert the instinctual reaction before he reached for magic that would not answer. If an enchantment did hold those vaults closed, it would be easy to dispel under other circumstances, but now he couldn’t even confirm the suspicion.

Turning away from his guardian, he regarded the two small squares made from the unknown, impenetrable alloy.

If magic had long since abandoned this space, then it was unlikely any enchantment set into these boxes survived. It was more likely the stubborn nature of the strange steel that held them fast against the elements.

But it made a certain amount of sense based on his research that the people who occupied these lands before they fell to ruin had made excessive use of magic. Why else would it have abandoned this space so completely?

The mechanism was not held fast by magic, but it required magic to release.

“Why must such simple things prove so difficult?” he muttered as he rose resolutely to his feet. Without pause or indication of his intent, he marched forward. He shouldered his way passed the frightened work crew, who gave way for his passage. They scrabbled backward as he advanced, giving him and the vaults wide berth.

He didn’t slow until he stood in front of the vault on the right. Once again, he drew his hand free of his leather glove and placed it on the flat surface.

In any other place, the answer to this puzzle would have been stupidly simple. But because magic was too distant to reach, the object of all his research and the goal he hoped to achieve lay stubbornly just beyond his reach.

But it was still within inches of salvage.

Most mages would have been stopped here. They would have had to pack up and go home empty-handed. But as an adept, Karis had one last option open to him.

It was dangerous, not something he contemplated lightly. But desperate times called for desperate measures.

Magic might not live here, but he carried some small amount of it with him. It was bound into the shields that protected his mind. It allowed him to summon just a moment or two of mage sight and sense when they neared the edges of the badlands. It was just enough to warn him of imminent danger the few times they nearly triggered long dormant magical traps, and it might just be enough to fulfill his purpose here.

If he could weave just the tiniest of spells, success could be his.

He dropped his defenses and opened his mind to the buzzing that filled the back of his mind. Absence became a presence; that yawning void seemed to open on all sides of him, impossibly huge and oppressive.

It was terrifying. Not just because it was so empty, but because that emptiness was mind-bogglingly vast. Its walls were higher than any natural valley carved by wind or water, and no life occupied its shadows. There was no hint of moisture, fungus or even an inkling of distant light.

There was only himself and the soft aura that surrounded him, a last bastion of hope in a land so devastated it couldn’t possibly hope to survive.

Ignoring the static buzz that plagued his secondary senses, he reached for the small glow that shrouded him, gathering as much of it as he could, hoping to infuse the box in front of him with that small piece of power.

No sooner did he reach for those tiny droplets, however, than did they evaporate like dew beneath the heat of the mid-morning sun.

This land wasn’t just empty, it was thirsty. Long starved of a vital piece of its eco system, it eagerly lapped up anything that wasn’t bound so tightly it couldn’t be diverted. No wonder batteries seemed to die within moments of activation!

His magic didn’t make it halfway through the transfer before it was gone, carried like smoke on a breeze to some distant place.

He tried again, speeding the transition this time, drawing on the depths of his reserve in hopes that adding excess power to the process would allow some of it to reach its destination.

He needed but one drop of magic to reach its destination.

There was no doubt that no spells could ever be woven here. Even the strongest and most capable adept would be drained to a dry husk by the strength of the yawning void’s pull. But his needs were so small that surely he could bridge this one small gap.

He pushed until his heart beat in his skull and his lungs burned for breath. He felt as though he’d just finished running a marathon and, yet, he did not stop.

He couldn’t. If he left this place without his prize, he would be doomed to failure and that simply was not an option, not after all he had suffered to get here.

He pushed until his vision wavered, until the ground swayed beneath his feet. And he was only dimly aware in the last moments before he lost consciousness that the vault beneath his hand remained stubbornly sealed.

*   *   *

Cool air washed Karis’s face, coaxing him gently back to the waking world. He sensed that he had shied away from it for some time, burrowing into the cool darkness of oblivion so that he wouldn’t have to face the burning shame of defeat and the yawning void that nearly swallowed him before he lost track of reality.

But this time, sensations remained insistent. Gentle fabric caressed his skin and a sense of moisture clung to his forehead. Sounds invaded his hearing, sitting stubbornly in the vaults of his skull until, at last, he sighed and shifted, allowing his eyes to open a crack.

He expected to be assaulted by the dust of the road, by the heavy heat of the badlands, the oppressive sky and the endless empty stretches of red-brown rock. Instead, he was greeted by the familiar comfort of his bed chamber. Soft fabric rustled as the curtains surrounding his bed were disturbed. Fresh air flowed from an open window, and a fluffy towel rested briefly on his forehead before drawing away.

Then Hadariel Langdale’s face hovered into view. His eyes widened and blinked, then a relieved smile split his lips.

“My lord!” he breathed. “Thank the gods, you have finally awakened.”

Karis didn’t answer right away, instead running a brief mental calculation. It would take most of a week to travel back to the edge of the badlands. So if he was awakening in his chambers, not one of his enchanted tents, he had been unconscious for some time. He didn’t think any of his retainers would have been bold enough to drug him, not under the watchful eyes of his guardian. So he must have drained himself far more severely than he realized.

“My lord?” Hadariel’s voice sounded concerned this time.

“I am well, Hadariel. Calm yourself.”

His guardian’s form relaxed and shifted out of the range of his vision, allowing him the space to sigh and shift positions.

How long had he been laying here? What had passed in his absence? How difficult had it been for them to drag his body from the heart of the badlands?

Does it even matter? My venture is without recourse now. And without hope of success, the promises he whispered in the ears of those who served him would soon lose all their value. They would abandon him in droves.

How long, he wondered, would it take Hadariel to follow?

“There has been some concern,” Hadariel’s voice drifted to his ears, halting and uncertain. “In the absence of orders, I thought it best to return you to your Healers so that you could be properly looked after.”

“Yes, Hadariel, you acted correctly. As always.” He almost asked if the vaults had opened at the last possible second, but he bit his tongue against the words, knowing the response would be too bitter a pill to swallow.

Silence reigned for several long moments, and Karis couldn’t help hoping that Hadariel would see himself out of the room and onto some other task.

“There’s been a development.” Again, the words were halting, as if Hadariel Langdale was uncertain he should speak at all.

It was his tone that drew Karis’s attention, causing him to shift his head more quickly and sharply than he should have. Sharp pain momentarily consumed his temples, but he ignored it as he locked his guardian within his focus.

He knew this man well enough to read every small nuance in his voice, and it seemed to him as if Hadariel was worried about offering him false hope after a dire brush with defeat.

“What are you talking about?” he demanded when the man didn’t speak. “Something that happened before you left the badlands?”

Hadariel shook his head. “Something unrelated that happened elsewhere. But I think you might be interested to know about it.”

Karis arched an eyebrow, his interest certainly piqued. Hadariel had worked with him long enough to know the sorts of things he kept an eye out for. It would have to be something big if the man would bring it up at a time like this.

The adept lifted a hand from beneath his covers and twisted a finger to indicate that Hadariel should explain.

He heard shuffling noises as objects were pushed aside. Metal scraped wood and then Hadariel passed a small tablet into Karis’s waiting hand. There was a video file open, waiting for a singular touch to unpause its frozen frame.

The first image was nothing but a blur of muted greens and grays, making it impossible to tell what he might be looking at. But when he flicked a finger along the base of the screen, it quickly resolved into a city street flanked by tall trees and taller buildings.

An elemental loomed near the center of the frame. It wasn’t massive by any means, not compared to many he had seen, but it was still three times the size of a regular man.

The camera shifted on shaky hands and a second, much smaller figure appeared. It was tall, though the elemental dwarfed it. The camera zoomed past the thick, bark-like skin of the magical beast and focused on the man. He was an elf wearing nothing but light leather armor.

He lifted his sword and light flickered along it. Seconds later, it burst into flames.

Karis blinked.

He watched in disbelief as the man engaged the elemental – alone, without backup. The figure was something of a blur, making it hard to discern his identity. But it was clear that he wielded something more than just the steel in his hands.

With the help of his sword, he redirected those flames through the ground, into the elemental’s legs.

The back of Karis’s neck tingled as though he were in the presence of freshly worked magic. But he knew it wasn’t a spell that conjured those flames.

“What is this?” he demanded when the image froze again, indicating the end of the small recording.

“It’s one of the Queen’s Division’s rising stars,” Hadariel replied. “He’s worked there for a few years, but they’ve only just now released the details of his recruitment. It’s no wonder he caught so many people’s attention so quickly.”

“Fighting an elemental alone is suicide,” Karis muttered. Yet that wasn’t what interested him. He backed up the recording and played it again.

“He’s a channeler.” He breathed the words, barely able to believe the truth as he spoke them. “And he’s trained.”

Channeling was an ability so rare that in a world populated by billions, there were perhaps half a dozen alive at the moment. And most of them had no idea how to use their skills, making them all but useless.

A trained channeler, competent and able to make use of their abilities would make a useful tool.

And might just be the answer to his current conundrum.

“His name, Hadariel?” Karis barked, still staring at the blurry figure in the video.

“Domerin Lorcasf,” Hadariel Langdale replied dutifully.

“Keep an eye on him,” Karis commanded.

He wasn’t sunk just yet, it seemed. He just needed to learn all he could about this channeler – including what he wanted most.

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