The passage out of the valley was long and wound in and out between stones. It wasn’t really a pathway, just a route that the bison took often enough to keep worn clear. Tythel was grateful for it, since it saved her from having to climb yet again. Her shoulder had finally faded from a spike of anguish with every other step as the pack shifted to a dull throb, and she did not want to think what would happen if she tried to exert herself up the mountain again.
Once clear of the main valley she was in the woods that had surrounded the mountain, officially the furthest she had ever been from Karjon’s lair in her life, and the first time she had ever stood amongst trees.
It shocked her how dense they were. She was aware of woods in the academic sense, and many times had seen them from high up on the mountain where they were a thick green carpet of pines beneath her. She had read stories of the woods, but they always made it out as though it was a wide open field spotted with the occasional impediment. In reality, there was little undergrowth, but the trees were packed together so tightly she could not see more than couple hundred feet.
To Tythel’s mind, it was oppressive, something unnatural. Her entire life she had only seen from on high or inside of a cave. The reality of forestry was something wild and untamed, and it set her teeth on edge.
She thanked the Light that the occasional bison had left something like a path through the woods she could follow, their lumbering steps crushing any saplings that tried to grow underfoot. With that she could, at least, see even further, and have a soothing unobstructed view of the sky above.
Her discomfort left her distracted, so much so that she almost missed the crater. It was a bit to the left of the path, not far out of the valley, and if it had not been for the cry of some unknown bird snapping her head in that direction – a deep sound, almost like an inquisitive “who?” – she might have missed it entirely.
Smoke rose from a hole in the ground, and curiosity battled with fear. Anything could be sitting in that pit causing smoke to pour out, and without knowledge her mind began to conjure all sorts of visions of demonic figures and boogeymen from childhood nightmares long forgotten. She pushed those fears aside and walked over to the edge of the crater to look in.
The fears had been correct.
A monster did dwell within, but it was not a monster of fire and fear. It was a monster of recent acquaintance. The suit of flying armor she had knocked from the sky in the battle that had taken her father’s life lay within. Well, mostly. Some chunks of it had broken off in the impact, and she could see skin underneath.
A groan issued from within. Someone, something, was wearing the suit. For a moment Tythel considered running before it could turn on her, but before that thought could get too much traction, a second one rose up in her head. He lives and Karjon died. Not a single one of these shadow-damned monsters died.
Fear gave way to rage and she shrugged off her pack, leaping into the crater to land directly on the chest of the armored figure. Her strength was greater now that she had undergone the Ritual, but not to the point where her impact had much effect on the solid metal that made up the chestplate. The figure inside still let out a surprised noise, and tried bringing up its arm to bear on her, but the gauntlet had been torn away in the crash, and she clutched his wrist.
She could hear it’s heart pounding like a drum within his chest, and now that she held it’s arm she realized how human it seemed. Confusion cut through the rage, and she reached down to to tug at the helmet before finding a seam and pulling it off.
A human was inside, a male, looking up at her. “Please…help me,” he said, and blood was trickling out of the corner of his mouth.
Tythel had never seen a male of her own species before in person, only in paintings. She wondered if all men would fill her with such revulsion, or only those who had helped slaughter her father. She kept her voice as level as she could. “Help you? Are you hurt?”
His eyes widened, and Tythel realized she knew very little of human facial expressions. What did those wide eyes signify? Fear? Outrage? Confusion? Hope? Any and all of them made sense in the context, as did a dozen others. Had it been a dragon within the suit she was certain she could tell, but the only human face she had seen for the last sixteen years had been her own in the mirror, and typically what she had been feeling – if anything – was frustration at her red hair being in tangles until she had finally cropped it short.
“Am I heart? Flath your eyes, do I look unharmed to you?”
She didn’t know what “flath” meant, but from his tone she doubted it was anything pleasant. At least tone is consistent between dragons and humans. I think. She took a moment to study the suit up close.
It looked on the surface much like the full plate the knights wore in the stories Karjon had told her, made of some dark metal she couldn’t place. A trio of gems that looked like the crystals that had powered the unlight beams sat in the center of his chest, although two of the three were cracked. Between the joints ran what appeared to be ropes of woven metal, a theory confirmed by the way they frayed at the broken joints of the suit. If his crash was strong enough to shear metal cords, some magic must have kept him alive. He’s a sky-knight of some kind. He serves them.
“You’re bleeding,” she said carefully, still standing on his chest and holding the helmet.
He squinted his eyes at her, and again she wondered what that meant. When Karjon squinted, it had been delight, and somehow she doubted this human was delighted. “Yes, I’m flathing bleeding. Flath me, are you ca’norim?”
Tythel cocked her head to the side like Karjon did when he was confused by her. Used to do. “I do not know that word. Am I?”
“Oh great. You are. Ca’norim – defective in the brain.” He let out a long sigh, and this was another thing humans and dragons shared – she was certain that was a sign of frustration. “Just my flathing luck. I lose contact with my vessel, and get found by a ca’norim girl who jumps onto my chest.”
“Ah. No, I am not kah-nor-eem,” she know she butchered the alien word and didn’t particularly care, “you’re just the first man serving Those From Above I’ve met.”
“Stars and void, you still call them that? Only doddering old timers call them that. They are the Alohym. They are our gods, you idiot. Now get off my flathing chest.”
Beneath the well concealed rage, Tythel was glad to be getting the instruction in human facial express from the man. She was learning all about what faces people made when they were upset. “What is your name?”
“What the flath does it matter! Get off my flathing chest!” He moved to shove her, and she reaquired her grip on his wrist. This time she squeezed with all of her might, and the man turned pale, his mouth forming into a near perfect O, and let out a low groan. This, Tythel was sure, was a sure sign of pain. “It matters because I want to know the name of the man who killed my father.” She screamed those last three words in his face, and another expression cut through the pain. She wasn’t certain what the further widening of his eyes and trembling lip meant, but she thought it was fear.
“I…today was the first time I was involved in a kill. Just police action before that. And it wasn’t your father. It was just some flathing dragon. Probably the last of its kind. The Alohym decreed all of their kind must be eradicated.”
Tythel couldn’t take it anymore. She drove the heel of her foot into his face with all her strength, and he let out a pained groan. “That flathing dragon was my father!” She was still shouting, couldn’t stop, and didn’t want to stop. She called up her meager magic, engulfing her hands in flame. “He was Karjon the Magnificent. And he was not the last dragon. I am.”
“Oh void, it’s you” he whispered, reaching for his side and grabbing a small tube as his other hand grabbed a small metal rectangle, each only slightly larger than his fists. As soon as he held them, however, they blossomed forth – a warhammer with cracking bolts of unlight running between the pieces of its head, and a with a solid field of unlight connecting the various points of metal.
Tythel was so taken aback by this development, she was caught off guard when the man swung with the hammer. It was an awkward swing with her standing on top of him, and caught her on her good shoulder, but the moment it did there was a burst of power from it, and it sent Tythel tumbling to the side.
While her head cleared, the man in the suit clambered to his feet. A voice started to come out of the helmet she had dropped at his side, and that voice was one that no human throat had ever produced, nor dragon tongue. It had never slipped past the teeth of the Underfolk or rode on the lips of the Sylvani. No small god had ever uttered those words. It was something entirely alien and unnatural, and it filled Tythel was a dread too deep to describe. The sky-knight shouted something. “O’malh’ti! O’malh’ti! Hoth’tivath!”
Assuming it was some spell, Tythel pushed past the pain in now both her shoulders and called up a bit of dragonflame again, hurling them at the man. His shield caught the fire and it fizzled against it. “I am Thomah, a soldier in service to the Alohym!” he shouted, advancing. “You are attacking a legal defender of the realm! You are a rebel, a traitor, and somehow claim to be a dragon!” His face was white and his steps uncertain as he stepped onto the thick layer of dead pine needles coating the bottom of the forest floor. “Surrender!”
Tythel clenched and bared her teeth. “I am Tythel, daughter of the dragon,” she said as he approached, his steps picking up speed. Flame lept to her hand again. “You are flammable.” She tossed the flame, not directly at him, but right into the dead pine needles in front of him, which immediately burst into a flash of fire. “Burn.”
Like she had expected, he was took weak and injured to stop his progress. In trying to do so, he fell forward, dropping the shield of unlight and hammer of cracking energy as he did. His face hit the flame, and he started to scream.
Tythel considered the last fireball she threw to be a mercy. Thomah fell silent. The fire dwindled.