On the path between a dying city and a mountain, a dying guardsman rode with a precious bundle in his arms. This was not the first horse the guardsman had ridden since leaving the city. The others had perished on the journey. He hadn’t even purchased this horse. Having long ago discarded his tabard and armor, this guardsman wore thick furs to keep out the bitter cold. Between that and the wild look in his eyes, he looked less like a guardsman and more like a bandit. It was fitting, in a way, that the third and final horse he rode was stolen.
His name was Comber, and he had been part of the troop assigned to protect the royal family against all threats. For ten years he had stood his post, alongside the royal family’s Umbrists. Comber didn’t have the Shadow-infused powers of the Umbrist. He had armor that had been forged with steel mixed with light, and a sword that had been blessed millennia ago with a dragon’s breath.
That was in the past.
He had a vow to protect the royal family against any and all threats. He’d fought when the minions of a necromancer had snuck in through the sewers. He still had a scar on his thigh from an assassin’s crossbow bolt meant for the King. He was not a coward, and he had thought himself beyond fear.
That was also in the past.
Comber looked over his shoulder. His pursuers weren’t there. He was alone here. There was nothing but a path through the woods, a path that had been cleared by game hunters who would head this way. It took a bold man to hunt in these woods, given what guarded them. The same being that drew Comber deeper within. His last hope for salvation.
The skies darkened, and Comber risked a glance upwards. There it was. That hole in the sky. The sun had passed behind it, casting a momentary shadow across the world. It was like the eclipse Comber remembered from when he was a child, but there was still light coming from the center. Small points showing stars unlike any he had seen before.
A few tiny dots broke off from the main circle. Comber shuddered at the sight. He’d seen what those dots could do when they got lower.
The bundle in his arms stirred when he shivered again, and looked up at him with bright green eyes. Awake now, the child’s face was placid for just a moment, those beautiful eyes flickering about. Then hunger set in, and the child started to wail.
“Shhh, little one,” Comber whispered, stroking the side of the child’s face. “Shhh.”
Still the child cried. She was just old enough to eat mashed food. Comber grimaced and looked around again. There was no one present. “Shhh,” Comber said, pulling on the reins of the horse. He reached into his pack. He still had some berries from the last town, and got to work mashing them into a paste with a mortar and pestle. At her age, the child had just enough understanding of what that smell and sound meant, and her cries turned to excited cooing as she reached towards his hands. “Almost there, little one,” Comber said. Or at least, he started to say. Halfway through the wound in his side reminded him of why he’d abandoned his sword, and Comber hissed in pain. Even the simple motion of grinding berries was too much for him.
He set the mortar down carefully. He hadn’t been able to get a spoon in his mad flight. The child was able to suckle the paste off his finger, and that would have to be good enough. Once she’d been fed, Comber held her with one hand and pulled the other inside his coat. He ran his fingers over the hasty bandage. It was damp. He wanted to look at the injury, but didn’t dare. He knew what he’d find. Black veins sprawling outwards from under the bandage, creeping along his skin. Last night, the veins had been halfway to his chest. Soon they would reach his heart.
He’d die then. Comber didn’t need to be a Physician to know that.
The child reached up and grabbed for his nose with hands wrapped in mittens. Comber let her grab it, then pressed his forehead to hers. “Soon, you’ll be safe,” Comber whispered to her.
Then it was time to transition the child to the straps wrapped around his chest, freeing his hands, and Comber resumed his ride to the mountain.
The horse – Comber had never bothered giving it a name – came to a stop, and the jolt rocked Comber awake. He blinked around blearily. He’d fallen asleep in the saddle somehow. Everything felt like it had been coated in a layer of wool. Comber worked one of his hands free of the glove and pressed it against his forehead. In spite of the cold, heat radiated from the touch. “Fever,” he muttered to the child.
“Bah-bah-bah-bah,” she said, which Comber took as affirmation. He smiled down at her, then looked around again. They’d reached the mountain.
“We go no further together,” he said to the horse. Comber had never been one to speak to his mounts, aside from commands. He preferred to make noises at them, reassuring ones. But in the grip of fever, Comber felt irrationally sorry for abandoning an animal he’d only had for a day. A stolen one, at that. “You’ll be able to find your way back to town, won’t you? Or maybe you’ll be able to run free now, without the need…the need…” Comber trailed off. What had he been doing? Talking to a horse, that’s what.
They were close to the base of the mountain, but not quite there. He could see it. Perhaps he could ride the horse a little bit further? He dug his heels in. The horse let out a huff of air and shook its head, instead backing up a few paces. “Of course,” Comber said, shaking his head. “Of course. A horse. A horse of course.” He laughed a bit. It wasn’t funny, but the child joined in the laughter. He patted the side of the horse’s neck again. “You smell it, don’t you?”
The horse shook its head violently and took another step back. That was all the confirmation Comber needed. The horse would go no further. “You know,” Comber said, getting ready to dismount. “I should have known. They eat you, don’t they?”
The horse did not respond this time, for it was a horse, and all it cared about was that it didn’t need to go any further.
Comber got one foot out of the stirrup, but the world started to spin. Instead of dismounting gracefully, Comber swung drunkenly, and collapsed into the snow. He had just enough presence of mind to turn around as he fell, landing on his back to keep the child safe. Comber growled in pain as the impact lanced through his back. The shock did wonders for clearing his head. The child, jostled by the fall, poked her head up and giggled.
“That’s right,” Comber grunted. “I’m silly, aren’t I?”
The child reached up for him, grasping for him. Comber put his finger out for her to hold onto.
He’d abandoned his station, and he knew he should feel guilty about that, but…the beings that had come from that hole in the sky were beyond anything that could be fought. Arrows bounced off their gleaming carapace. Swords were deflected with swipes from their unnatural hands. He had a duty, and he could only save one person.
He’d chosen her.
Comber rose to his feet and turned the horse around. It only took a nudge to get the horse trotting away from the mountain.
It would live. The child would live. That would have to be enough.
Comber made himself walk towards the mountain. Every footstep was like lead. He spotted a trail in the snow – someone else had come this way and left. They were human, or at least walked like one. It could be an Underfolk or Sylvani. It wasn’t the invaders. That much was certain. No one could mistake their skittering legs for human footsteps.
The mountain, at least, was free of snow. Impossibly free, and impossibly warm. A fire burned in the heart of this mountain. Not the molten fire of a volcano. A living flame. A hungering flame.
Had the fever started sooner than Comber realized? He’d been so certain of this plan. He’d heard tales of the flame that lived in this mountain. The tales had made it out to be one of the ones that did not feast on the flesh of Man or the other Intelligent Races. They said it had stood alongside the forces of the Light and Shadow against dread powers in the past. They said it was not to be disturbed, but would not slay – except for those that came to attack it.
But still…could he trust it?
It was too late now. There was nowhere else he was certain would be safe for the child. Not with that locket, secured carefully in a pouch in the swaddling. Even without it…would anywhere be safe from the invaders? Would anything? They hadn’t been killing innocents. They’d killed armies, they’d slaughtered guards, but any who did not pick up blade or spear against them was spared their wrath. Yet…Comber didn’t trust them to stop there. It was possible – nay, it seemed likely – that they were just starting with those that posed a threat to them.
“Not that we did,” he said to the child, who paused in her attempts to gum his finger to look up at him. “I hope, if you remember nothing else, you remember that we tried. We tried.”
“Burrrbl,” the child said happily.
“We tried,” Comber repeated. And they had. Nicandros, the captain of the royal guard, had commanded them perfectly. However, no strategy could overcome the fact that their weapons did no harm to the invaders. That was when Comber realized the only option was saving what he could. That there would be no victory here. Still, Comber had fought, until his wound. Then…he’d been even more useless in battle.
Time became unstable. Comber kept walking up the warm mountain and its bare stones. It was a gentle slope, which was the only reason he could progress at all. Ahead, he saw his goal.
A hole, high up the mountain. One far larger than would be needed for a man to pass through, and one too smooth and round to be the result of nature. This was not a cave. It was a lair.
Comber stumbled and dropped to his knees. The child started to wail again, startled by the jostling. Comber tried to shush its cries, but he was too late. Something was stirring in the lair, dragging itself forth from the depths. Comber saw golden eyes peering out of the darkness, followed by red scales and immense, bat-like wings.
Comber had never seen a dragon in person. Only flying overhead, and even then, such sights were rare. He’d expected them to crawl across a ground, like a lizard, but this one slunk with a cat’s grace. An older cat, one that was past its prime hunting days, but still possessing enough energy to move about. The dragon flapped its wings and took to the air, circling around Comber once before landing.
“I told Lathariel I would not be disturbed,” the dragon growled, and Comber was certain he’d made a mistake. Tears started to form in his eyes, unbidden.
“Please…” Comber said, but the dragon shook its head.
“I will not fight.” The dragon looked up, seeing the hole in the sky, and its nostrils flared. For a moment, Comber could see it considering…then it shook its head again. “I will not fight,” it repeated. “Leave this threat for younger drakes. Ones that have hotter flames.”
“Please…” Comber said again, then coughed. Flecks of something black came with the cough, and Comber moved with speed he didn’t know he still had, pulling the child free of the path of whatever those were. He groaned in pain and nearly blacked out.
“You are injured,” the dragon said, leaning down. “And you are ill.”
“I can heal your injuries,” the dragon said, after considering for a moment. “But my flames will make the disease spread quicker.”
“Not…me.” Comber coughed again. “Her.”
The dragon looked at the child. “She’s uninjured,” he said.
“Care…protect.” Comber’s vision grew dark. “She…she…is.” Comber’s vision narrowed. “She is…everything….” The dragon was barely visible now. The world was barely visible. The child stirred, looking from the dragon to Comber and back again, starting to make distressed noises. She didn’t fear the dragon. That was good. But she could tell something was wrong.
“I’m sorry,” Comber said to the child. He looked back up at the dragon. His vision was barely there anymore. He’d gone so far. It felt like part of his mind had been set on fire, to hold back death, and now that he was here, that flame had gone out. “Tell her…” Comber said, and then he started to cough again. “She is…”
“What should I tell her she is?” the dragon asked, after Comber had been silent for too long. When he got no response, the dragon Karjon leaned down. The man’s heartbeat had been so faint when he’d approached, Karjon could barely hear it. Now, though? Now there was nothing.
And the child started to cry.
Karjon looked at it. He’d never dealt with human children before. He knew they needed more comfort than hatchlings. Uncertain, Karjon reached out with one claw and retracted his talon, then brushed his scales on the child’s cheek.
Quick as a viper, the child grabbed Karjon’s finger tightly, trying to seek some comfort in a world that had abandoned her.
Karjon sighed. He had not had children of his own. He hadn’t planned on doing so. But…if nothing else, he could not leave this child to starve on his mountain. He carefully bit on the swaddling, making certain to only let his fangs touch the fabric.
Once these invaders had been dealt with, Karjon would take the child to the nearest humans. They would know how to handle her. He’d keep her safe until then. It shouldn’t be long. There had been many threats over his nine hundred years of life. They’d always been defeated.
There was no reason to believe this would be any different.
“I have lived for centuries,” Karjon growled. “I dueled the Necromancer Gix and his army of undead. I was on the Council of Twelve, battling the Lichborne. When the mad Lumcaster sought to blind the world, I doused him in my flames. How is it that nothing has vexed me as much as you, little one?”
Tythel looked up at the dragon with eyes wide in feigned innocence. Sixteen years had passed since the mountain and the snow. She didn’t remember it, of course. Just as she did not remember what her name had been before coming here. Tythel was a dragon’s name, not a human name. For all Karjon’s bluster, she was not worried. In sixteen years, Karjon had never raised a claw in anger. “Father, have you considered that it is just because you love me so dearly?”
Karjon huffed and shook his head. “That cannot be it. I think it must be because I did not know how vexing your unique subspecies of humans can be.”
“Subspecies?” Tythel asked.
“Yes. Those strange beings humans call ‘adolescents.’ Or perhaps it is just a trait unique to daughters.”
Tythel beamed at him. The expression only came through with her eyes. In her books, humans would use their mouths to do things like smile and frown. Tythel understood, in theory, what those were, but the expressions didn’t come to her naturally. From what Karjon had said, she’d smiled and frowned at first…but with time, those had stopped. Now, she blinked rapidly to show her excitement. “Which would only matter because you love me. Therefore, I am still correct. And, since I am correct, I see no reason I should not be allowed to go.”
Karjon sighed heavily. “Tythel…”
“You said I could,” Tythel reminded him, trying her best not to sound sullen.
“I told you that, yes,” Karjon said. “I said you could go when it was safe.”
“I want to see other humans,” Tythel said. “Why can’t I go?”
Karjon sighed again, a sound that filled the entire cave that was his lair and their home. “When, exactly, did ‘because I said so’ become insufficient?”
“When I stopped being a child,” Tythel said. “You said when I was sixteen, I could go and see other humans.”
“I said that you could go into the village when you were sixteen, Tythel. I did not say you could do so the very next day.” Making that promise, back when she was nine, had been a mistake. He’d done it to get her to cease her incessant questions. He didn’t think humans of that age could remember things for so long.
“You’re splitting scales and you know it.” She folded her arms across her chest and glowered at him.
Karjon, who weighed in at just over six tons and had battled some of the greatest foes the world had ever seen, broke the staring contest first. Tythel tried not to blink when she realized that meant she was getting through to him. For all his fury and might, Karjon had always struggled to deny her anything. Still, he was not caving like he usually did. “Tythel, there are reasons for the choices I make. They are for your safety.”
“You always hide behind that, father. Are you planning on keeping me here the rest of my life? What are you hiding me from?”
“There are those out there that would see you dead. Is that not enough explanation?”
She glowered at him again. “You know I can’t do anything if you don’t tell me. But if you want me to leave it alone, you’ll need to give me more than that.” Her expression softened. “Please, father.”
Karjon settled down onto the pile of coins that made his seat. Tythel took the cue and walked over to her own, smaller pile. She didn’t have a hoard of her own. Not yet. But she would one day, although she was less than eager for that day. Dragons did not share a hoard. She’d have to leave that day, never to live here again.
“Perhaps…” Karjon started to say, then held up a claw to forestall her before she got too excited. “It is time you know of the dangers beyond this lair. Why I keep you hidden here. And tomorrow…” he studied her critically for a moment, then nodded. “You are old enough.”
“To go visit?” Tythel asked hopefully.
“Not yet,” Karjon said, shaking his head. “But tomorrow, I think you are ready for the one thing I know you want more than to leave.”
Tythel sat up straighter, her eyes sparkling with excitement. “You mean…you’ll finish the adoption?”
Karjon nodded, and Tythel leapt up to run over and wrap her arms around her father’s neck. “Thank you thank you thank you!” There were tears forming in her eyes, a human reaction she hadn’t shed with age, but these were tears of joy and not sadness.
“It’s past time,” Karjon said. “I just worried about how your body would react to the transformation.”
“I know,” Tythel said, although deep in her heart, she’d worried that he wouldn’t do it. That she wasn’t good enough. She’d never told Karjon that. If it wasn’t true, it would have broken his heart. If it was true…she couldn’t have handled that. Now, though, she was practically vibrating with anticipation.
Karjon put one of his claws around her, in his version of a hug. From what he’d said, dragons did not engage in touch the way humans did, but one of his books had told him a lack of touch and affection could kill human infants. Deep down, Tythel suspected he had grown to like it himself. “Now. Will you listen, and will you wait?”
Tythel nodded firmly.
“Then do so,” Karjon said, and Tythel settled back onto her coins. “Sixteen years ago, just days before you were brought to me…the skies let loose monsters.”
“Monsters?” Tythel asked.
Karjon nodded. “I do not know if they have a name. I know what Lathariel told me they were being called ‘Those From Above.’ They had weapons that sucked in light and spewed forth their own unnatural energy. Unlight, she called it.”
“And you fought them?” Tythel asked, excitedly.
Karjon shook his head, and in his eyes Tythel could see sorrow she’d never imagined from her father. “I am old,” Karjon said. “I thought they could be defeated without me. Even when I was told dragonflame was all that would harm them…I still thought they could be defeated. There were other dragons. By the time I realized…it was too late. Those From Above had secured power over humanity. They rule down there now. As far as I know, they only fear dragonflame.”
Tythel held up a hand and focused. A ball of flame formed between her fingers. “They fear this?” she asked. Dragonflame was similar to normal fire, but more vibrant. The transition from white to yellow to orange to red that happened in a normal flame was marked by clearer lines. Hers was weak. Not close to the true power of a dragon. She could barely call upon it, and couldn’t even touch the greater fires of ghostflame or heartflame. But it was not nothing.
“Yes,” Karjon said, and there was a somber note to his voice that Tythel couldn’t ignore. “By healing you when you injured yourself…you already formed the gift. They will hunt you. For that and…for other reasons.”
“What other reasons?”
Karjon shook his head. “Not yet. There is much I have kept from you. You are old enough now, but…before that there’s something you need to understand.” He put one claw carefully on her knee. “Tythel…tomorrow, after the Ascension, the number of dragons in the world will go from one to two.”
Tythel stared at her father for a long moment, processing his words. She’d never met another dragon, but the idea there had been other dragons out there…she’d just assumed it. Realizing they’d been hunted down, there was only one thing to do.
She hugged Karjon again, and her father hugged her back. They sat there for a moment, before both of them could steady themselves enough to speak. “Tythel,” Karjon said. “I…have kept something else from you.”
“It’s so much,” Tythel whispered.
Karjon cocked his head. “Do you need time before the rest?”
Tythel considered for a moment, then shook her head. “A scholar’s first duty is to acquire all information before passing judgement,” Tythel said, repeating one of her father’s lessons back to him.
Karjon gave her a slow blink of amusement. “You listen too well sometimes. Very well. Your locket.”
Tythel’s hands went up to the chain around her neck. She’d worn it as long as she could remember. It was the one piece of her own hoard she had. “You said it was my parents.”
Karjon nodded. “That locket is the other reason you will be hunted. It is the locket of the royal family.”
There was a moment of silence as Tythel stared at her father. “The…the royal family. But they…I mean…that’s…” Tythel sputtered off into silence. She couldn’t say it. “I’m…”
Karjon nodded, the motion oddly gentle. “You are the heir to the throne of your family. The throne of the kingdom of Dretayne. You are the next queen of this realm. And for that, you will be hunted as one of the barriers to the rule of Those from Above.”
Tythel took a deep, ragged breath, then nodded slowly. She couldn’t think about it right now. She could barely understand it. So she fell back on the lessons of her childhood. A scholar’s first duty. “Tell me everything.”
Tythel did not sleep well that night. She tried to, doing every meditation technique Karjon had taught her over the years, but she spent the entire night tossing and turning. The bed she slept on was one Karjon had gotten as a trophy from the Underfolk, those strange underground folk that were in Karjon’s stories, and it had been perfect for her when she was a child. But for the last two years, she’d been forced to scrunch up on it, leading to the impression the Underfolk were likely quite small.
In truth, Tythel was taller than most humans. Sixteen years of eating a diet of meat cooked in dragonflame and lifting and moving gold on a regular basis had left her with a build that was less princess and more warrior, but since the only humans she’d seen had been in her imagination, she’d had no idea how imposing a figure she could cut when she wasn’t comparing herself to a dragon.
She’d never complained to Karjon about the small bed. Other things, sure, but never that – or any of the other things he’d provided to her over the years. Tythel had known how lucky she’d been to have a dragon for a father. Karjon’s stories were full of tales of the legendary heroes of the past, Calcon the Brave and Rilan the Just and Brigith the Nobel and all the rest of them. All of them had started their lives as humble folk that had heeded the Call, which meant their lives had been the humdrum work of farmers and blacksmiths and other folk, and the stories all made that life out to be terribly dull.
She’d always imagined Karjon had rescued her from that sort of suffering.
Now she knew differently. She would have been a princess, daughter to a king and queen, living a life of luxury and wealth and, if the legends were any indication, would have either ended up spoiled rotten or kidnapped by someone to later be rescued. Other than that her life would have been one of formality and circumstance until she was married off to secure an alliance or to whoever had been strong enough to save her, regardless of their other qualities.
Tythel decided that, small bed aside, she still felt lucky to have been raised by Karjon. That feeling was quickly followed by shame at even considering an alternative.
She got out of bed and pulled her blankets and pillows to the floor, arranging them in a pile like the gold Karjon slept on. It wasn’t as comfortable as the bed, but it did allow her to stretch out, and that was preferable to being cramped into the bed at the moment.
The problem was, it wasn’t the bed keeping her up tonight. It was her mind.
Tythel had been on top of the mountain a few times every year, under Karjon’s careful eye. He had explained that if she didn’t get to see the sky every now and then, she’d probably go mad. The village had always fascinated her, and her entire life she’d wanted to go there, just for a day, to explore and celebrate. She wanted to see horses and soldiers and blacksmiths and maybe even a lumcaster if she was really lucky. Karjon had taught her some magic, the barest flicker of dragonflame, but it was not magic meant for humans.
Of course, that would change tomorrow. Well, her being human – she didn’t know if she’d gain any proficiency with her meager powers in the process. She’d have Karjon’s power running through her veins, becoming half dragon and half human. For most of her life, it had been the one thing she’d wanted more than going to the village.
The village. She turned over again.
From the mountain, it had been hard to make out details. She’d filled in those details in her head with ones stolen from her stories – thatched roofs covering star-crossed lovers, barns harboring hard working folk with wisdom gained from years of honest toil, scholars in cramped quarters trying to unravel the mysteries of the universe, chimneys smoking with fires that were roasting chickens or beef. Never in her life had she imagined the people out there were being subjected to tyrants that had more power than she could imagine. Never, not once, had she imagined that she was their ruler by a mere quirk of birth.
That thought got her turning again. Karjon’s stories had talked about something called “noblesse oblige,” the responsibilities that the nobility had to their people. Protect them, help them, guide them, and care for them. If she was a noble – a royal – didn’t the same thing apply to her?
Stop it, Tythel. Stop it.
But the thought wouldn’t go away. If she stayed here with Karjon, she was failing in her responsibility. The sixteen years leading up to this had not been her fault; she hadn’t known she had duties. After a moment of reflection, she decided they weren’t Karjon’s fault either. They were the fault of the mysterious Those from Above. Now that she knew, however…well, Karjon had always taught her that inaction was still a choice, the choice to do nothing.
Tomorrow, then, after the Ritual. She’d leave, no matter what. And if Karjon tried to stop her…well, then she’d have to do it alone.
And that thought, more than any other, caused Tythel to burrow as deeply as she could into the blankets before sleep finally claimed her.
Waking up was a slow process, and Tythel had to drag herself out of slumber piece by piece. She’d been having a nightmare, one where the village was being shot by pirate ships in the sky. They’d been begging her for help, but Karjon had been shrunk down to the size of a whelp and she’d been hugging him to her chest to keep him safe.
Let’s…not try and dig into the metaphor there, okay? she told herself as she climbed out of her nest of pillows and blankets. She could hear Karjon already awake, moving through his pile of gold. She dressed hastily in some of the silk garments that were part of Karjon’s treasure.
“Good morning, father,” she said as she entered the main entrance room. She needed a moment for her eyes to adjust to the extra light that was being reflected off of the gold and silver and other precious gems. Once it was adjusted, she reached into the pile and fished out bracelets to wear, as well as a pair of earrings.
Being raised by a dragon did give one an appreciation for the aesthetics of lustrous adornments.
“Good morning, little one. Did you sleep well?”
Tythel stifled a yawn. “Well enough, I think.” They were both being so formal with each other, and Tythel hated it. But today was a formal day, so she put it down to that. It definitely wasn’t some kind of developing gulf between them. It absolutely wasn’t caused by the revelation that Karjon had been keeping from her a deep secret from her.
Breakfast was bison roasted in dragonflame. As always, Karjon let her eat her fill, then devoured the rest in a matter of seconds. As he did, Tythel frowned. “I don’t understand – if Those from Above are so dangerous, why can you go out and safely hunt?”
Karjon finished crushing the last leg of the animal before answering. “The valley on the other side of the mountain? When I first came here, I had it placed under a powerful illusion by a Lumcaster who owed me a debt. Only dragons of my bloodline can see what is truly in there from above – I imagine after the Ritual, you’ll be able to see it as well. I only hunt within the valley.”
“Oh.” Tythel had seen the valley from above before, but was only now realizing she’d never seen any animals moving within. From further up the mountain, it seemed static and unchanging. “Can you show me how it works after the Ritual?”
Karjon chuckled. “If you feel up to it. Shall we begin?”
Dragon magic was vastly different from the magic humans employed. A human doing magic channeled one of two powers. Lumcasters drew from the power of the Light, coalesced in lumwells that were the center points of many human settlements. They could also store that light in specially made implements – their staves, their wands, their words, and their sigils – to focus their will into something that could influence reality. Umbrists couldn’t control the counterpart of Light, the Shadow, but instead could move through it. They often wore cloaks or boots partially made of calcified Shadow to aid their motion. However, a dragon’s body generated and stored its own powers. They were their own implements, and needed no such foci to channel the raw energies of creation. They only needed their knowledge and their will, and they could channel their flame and give it shape.
Which meant that, in spite of its name, the Ritual was a fairly plain affair. No fancy runes were needed upon the ground, no ceremonial vestments, no chanting. All it required was a subject, Tythel, and a donor, Karjon.
However, she did change clothes before the ritual. She liked what she was wearing, and whatever she wore for this would probably be ruined beyond repair. She changed into her least favorite clothes and joined Karjon atop the mountain.
There was a storm overhead, and cold wind whipped through the threadbare wool she wore. No precipitation fluttered from the clouds yet, but it would come. There was always a storm when they went to the mountain, and for the first time Tythel suspected that Karjon was summoning it to shelter them from the prying eyes of Those From Above. The more she thought about it, the more things started to make sense in that context. I’ll have to ask him about it.
But not right now. Now they were at the summit, and it was time to begin. She knelt down before Karjon, looking up at him, and he gazed down at her.
“Are you ready, my child?” he asked, his voice both firm and kind.
“Aye, I am prepared.” In spite of the cold, a warmth reached her. Her father, gathering his flames, and heating it within his gullet.
“Once this is done, it cannot be undone. You will forever be part human, and part dragon. Are you certain you want this?”
Tythel smiled up at him. “Father. You have raised me from the days before my earliest memory, and all that I am – save my form – I owe to you. I want nothing more than this, to be your daughter in blood as firmly as I already am in truth.”
Dragons couldn’t cry, not the way humans did. Their eyes didn’t leak water when they felt an emotion that would bring a human to tears. But that did not mean they did not feel, and Karjon’s nictitating membranes fluttered. It was a distinctive pattern, several flickers then a slight pause before another set of flickers. Happiness, not the sustained flickering of sorrow. “Then,” he said, his voice cracking with pride, “let it be done!”
He opened his mouth wide and let loose a torrent of silver and gold flame. It washed over Tythel. She screamed, but it wasn’t in pain. The sensation wasn’t like anything she’d imagined before. It was like she was being pulled inside out, but not violently. Like she was being snapped into the shape she’d belonged in since birth. A sense of wonder so overwhelming, she had to scream.
This was Heartflame. The flame of the forge, the flame of the stove, the flame of the surgeon. Heartflame did not damage what it burned; it cleansed them of impurities and remade them. A dragon could, if it so wished, breathe Heartflame on a human and clear away any injuries and diseases. It could breathe upon a lump of iron and not just turn it into Drakesteel, but also have it be formed perfectly into weapons or armor or whatever the dragon wished when the flames died down.
And it could engulf a young woman who was a dragon’s daughter in spirit, and remake her into his daughter in body as well.
The Heartflame faded, and with it the sensation. She collapsed forward onto her arms, which shook with an exhaustion her mind did not feel.
Everything was brighter. The snow atop the mountain was clearer, and she almost imagined she could see individual flakes. Then the realization crept up on her that she wasn’t imagining it; she really was seeing the flakes, and she started laughing in amazement. Tears began to well in her eyes, and a film began to flit across her vision – she had eye membranes of her own now, and could properly emote as a dragon. Her hands still looked like her hands, even to her enhanced vision, but when she held them closer she could see the little lines that had marked the back of a human hand were now regularly shaped and smoothed into patterns. Tiny, near invisible scales.
That made her laugh as well. “Oh by Light and Shadow and all the little gods, it’s beautiful!”
She looked up at her father, and although dragons could not smile the way a human did, she knew him well and could see the joy in every line of his face. Sound was flooding in as well. She could hear the gentle ring of snowflakes on the mountain, she could hear the deep and rumbling beat of Karjon’s heart, she could hear the beatings of the wings of a nearby flock of birds, and she could hear, coming from the clouds, the deep sound of metal grating on metal.
That last sound cut through the joy like a dagger through the heart. “Karjon, do you hear that? There’s metal in the sky.”
Although Tythel was new to her enhanced senses, she was young and her hearing was far better than his. He hadn’t heard it until she pointed it out, and even then it was only the faintest sound at the edge of his senses.
This meant that they were both still processing the sound when the ship breached the cloud like a shark cresting above the waves, a vessel three times Karjon’s size and armed with tentacles that were tipped in violet crystals that hummed with aberrant energies.
Karjon didn’t have time to shout a warning. He turned around as quickly as his bulk would let him and reared back, readying a gout of flame. At the same time, the abnormal crystals began to glow. Although Tythel realized that glow wasn’t the right term. The air around the crystals was growing darker, and they seemed brighter by contrast.
Then both sides let loose their attacks. The beams of unlight that erupted from the tentacles converged into a single beam that raced toward Karjon’s flame, and where they impacted the fire began to split, shattering into individual threads of flame that went wild from their target. Similarly, the Dragonflame seemed to consume the beam like it was kindling, and an unnatural green smoke began to erupt from the impact.
Tythel tried to rise. She could feel energy welling within her, a desire to join the battle, but as soon as she reached her knees she was betrayed by her own muscles. Although she was still feeling fine mentally, energized by the Heartflame, her body had just reworked itself on a fundamental, physical level. It was exhausted, and let her know by driving her back down to the snow.
Karjon’s flame winked out when the beam died down. She could see the ship better now that it was clear of the clouds. It looked like some tentacled monster from the ocean depths, an octopus made of steel and affixed to the sky against all sense and reason. Two transparent spots were mixed in like eyes in the steel, and with her newly enhanced senses Tythel could see figures moving behind them.
Smaller pods began to detach from the main vessel, and their falling was slowed by glowing balls of energy at their – Tythel squinted to make sure she was seeing it correct – feet. Yes, those were feet, and the pods were in fact suits of armor in the shape of men, each one as tall as Tythel. They didn’t fall according the laws of gravity, instead descending down in an arc that was carrying them closer to Karjon.
“The people!” she shouted, but Karjon was busy, because the main vessel was firing its unlight again. This time he could not counter it directly, because they were not aiming for him, but rather at a spot a bit further down the mountain. They were trying to cause a collapse, and it was taking all of Karjon’s effort to keep his flame between the attacker’s beams and their target.
Move! she screamed at herself. Are you going to die in the snow like some helpless princess, or are you going to fight like a dragon?
Somehow, she found the strength within her. It was like a physical thing, a well deep under the surface she had not tapped before. She stood, and when the floating armor began to close she reached into that well to call upon her limited pool of draconic magic.
She did not have the strength to summon a pure flame like Karjon could, even now. But she could call balls of fire to her hands that she could hurl at their attackers, and those did burn hotter than they ever had before. Her hands shook with the effort of standing and using her power, making aiming nearly impossible. Of the twelve she threw, only two found their marks. One enemy raised its hands in defense. The motion sent the suit tumbling end over end. He started to fall like a rock, and with his feet facing the sky, couldn’t right himself.
The other suit was impacted squarely on the chest. It wobbled slightly, but continued to approach.
“I can’t hurt them!” she shouted, turning to see Karjon.
He had found a break in the unlight of the ship, and angled his flame upwards. It raked across the bottom of the vessel, a flame more concentrated than anything she had ever seen Karjon make before, so bright it was nearly white. She had to avert her eyes at the sight. When her vision cleared, the underside of the vessel glowed red from the heat. If it had been normal steel or something comparable, Tythel was certain it would be molten slag.
It wasn’t, however. The ship was heated, but it was not damage, and the crystals were beginning to suck in the light again. They’d fire again soon. Karjon was panting with exertion. His flames were reaching their limit.
“The valley!” Tythel shouted as the idea struck her. Karjon turned his head towards her and just gave a quick, short nod. She hopped onto his back, grabbing onto the spines behind his wings. Karjon kicked off the top of the mountain and began to flap his wings with all his might moments before the beam impacted they space they’d just vacated, shearing off the top of the mountain as easily as Karjon’s talons tore open bison hide.
Then he was diving, and she was holding on as tightly as she could, her aching muscles already screaming in protest.
Beams of unlight began to race towards them from the falling pods. She could see what they were using to launch them, as small tentacles erupted from their suit’s wrists. The large beam from the ship also tracked them, closing the distance faster than Karjon could fly.
A beam of unlight struck her in the shoulder, and she nearly blacked out from the pain. If she hadn’t been reforged in Heartflame, she probably would have lost the arm. As it was, the arm lost all strength, and she had to focus entirely on holding onto Karjon with her remaining limb.
The main beam stopped. For a moment a surge of relief pierced the pain in Tythel’s mind as they dove to the safety of Karjon’s illusionary valley – and he had been right, she could see through the illusion now – but already the tendrils were warming up again.
This time it was not a single beam, but a volley of them, each enemy firing a single beam in a circle around Karjon that snapped shut like a clenching fist. Her father twisted in the air, trying to dive through the gap, but the space might have been too tight, or maybe he was just moving slowly so he wouldn’t throw Tythel from his back. Either way, it had the same effect.
She could do nothing but watch, screaming in horror and rage, as the beam cut Karjon’s right wing in half. He roared in agony, and then they were falling towards the valley below.
Tythel’s only comfort as the irresistible pull of the ground asserted its dominance was that, at the very least, their attackers wouldn’t get to see them die.