The sky above the canyon was growing red and orange with dusk when Tythel heard it. A long, warbling wail cut through the air and echoed along the canyon’s walls. All other animal sounds fell silent in the wake of the noise, and Tythel came to an abrupt halt, diving under a tree. “What-” Eupheme started to say, but Tythel shushed her with a furious hiss.
It was even darker under the tree, to the point where it felt like night beneath its branches. Small insects flew nearby, flashing with momentary bursts of green light to signal for mates. Hands trembling with fear, Tythel lowered Eupheme to the air as gently as she could manage. The entire time she strained her ears, hoping she wouldn’t hear it, that the source of the sound was moving further down the canyon. Maybe even pursuing the Skimmers. Anything but…
And then she heard it, in the distance but growing closer. The gentle rustle of flapping wings. “Aeromane,” Tythel whispered to Eupheme. “If it sees us…”
Eupheme’s eyes widened and she nodded to show she understood. Aeromanes were rare. They tended to prefer the same types of lairs and territories as dragons, but were out competed by the superior intelligence dragons possessed. Or at least, they had been, Tythel thought with grim realization. If it was true, if Karjon had been the last full dragon, there were no more checks on their territory. “Stay to shadows. Flit between them. If it can’t pick up your scent, it won’t hunt you,” Tythel whispered.
Aeromanes weren’t like dragons in another way. They were voracious eaters, and would hunt any game large enough to feed them in their territory. In these canyons, there was unlikely to be easier prey than a human, let alone one with a broken wrist. I have to get her away from it.
“Flath that,” Eupheme whispered back. “If I do that, what are you going to do?”
“Dragonflame. It should scare it off.” Tythel said, hoping Eupheme wouldn’t realize that she wasn’t sure she could manage dragon flame at all right now. And even if it did, the aeromane that was in Karjon’s territory was hardly scared off by dragonflame. Tythel could still see it, that hungry, frightened, furious creature clawing at her as she scooted further back into the lair, it’s claws mere inches from…
“Then it’ll be safest near you,” Eupheme said firmly.
“I need to get to Tellias,” Tythel said. “It’ll be easier to remain hidden if I’m alone.”
“You think I’ll reveal you?” Tythel had never imagined someone could whisper scornfully, but Eupheme proved it was completely possible.
“Eupheme,” Tythel started to object, but the other woman cut her off with a firm shake of her head.
“There’s no pile of boulders to shove me behind this time, your highness.” Eupheme glowered. “I’m staying with you.”
Tythel opened her mouth to object, but shame took the words from her lips. “I thought princesses had some ability to give orders,” Tythel muttered, knowing how sullen she sounded.
“You can absolutely give orders. And I can choose to ignore them. Any idea where Tellias is?”
Tythel paused to listen. The were no sounds coming to her besides the gentle rushing of the river and the wind through the trees. All animals, the ones supposedly less intelligent than humans and dragons at least, had fallen silent at the sound of the aeromane’s cry. She was about to shake her head when she heard it. Faint, coming much futher down the canyon, a voice, echoing in a metallic shell. “Anyone? I can’t exactly move without power. Is anyone there?”
“Oh light and shadow,” Tythel whispered, turning to Eupheme. “He ran out of power. He’s trapped in his armor.”
“He’ll be safe from the aeromane, right?” Eupheme whispered hopefully.
“I’ve seen an aeromane claw through a boulder,” Tythel responded. “I don’t think that-”
Tythel had pushed her throat too hard. Before she even realized how scratchy her voice was growing, Tythel erupted into a series of coughs. In the silence of the canyon, they echoed repeatedly, sharp rapports that cut through the air. Eupheme looked at Tythel with horrified eyes.
Both of them there sat there in silence, Tythel silently begging Light, Shadow, and all the small gods to keep the aeromane from noticing them. After what felt like hours but was likely only a couple minutes, Tythel let out a sigh of relief.
As if it had been waiting for that, the aeromane roared, and the rushing of its wings resumed, growing closer with every flap.
“On my back,” Tythel growled, all pretense of steath vanishing. “Hurry.”
Eupheme didn’t object, clamoring on Tythel’s back as carefully as she could. Eupheme wrapped her injured arm around Tythel’s neck to hold herself in place, using the crook of her elbow to keep weight off her broken wrist. As Tythel started to run, Eupheme used her good hand to pull out her arcwand. “Can you actually manage dragonflame right now?” Eupheme asked as they started to run.
Tythel let the silence answer Eupheme’s question. It got the message across well enough, and Eupheme swore.
Moments later, the aeromane flapped into view.
The one Tythel had seen as a child was half starved and distorted by the nightmares of youth. This one was well fed, and Tythel was able to get a better look at it.
The aeromane was, technically, a relative of the great cats that roamed the jungles of Aelthor to the south, in the same way a dragon was, technically, a relative of the small drakes that hunted birds in the trees, or mankind was related to the curious monkeys that would steal berries from bazaars. Almost as large as a true dragon, the aeromane had four bat-like wings propelling it through the air, replacing all four of its legs. It could still walk awkwardly on them, but in the air it was a thing of grace and beauty. It was slower than a dragon, although far more manuverable, and as it was proving right now, it was more than fast enough to catch up to a half-dragon running with an Umbrist on her back.
Eupheme fired a few wild shots at the aeromane, but it was able to maneuver around the beams with the same ease Tythel had once seen it evade dragonflame. It let out another one of those caterwauling roars and began to steer itself towards them with lazy flaps of those immense wings.
Tythel rounded a corner just in time to see Tellias laying there, face down in his powerless arcplate. Too far away to reach, and too badly trapped to be helped even if they could reach him. The aeromane was too close, and too hungry.
With a final roar, it dove from them.