“Tythel?” Eupheme said, reaching down to gently touch her on her back. Tellias was getting his coughing under control and trying to take deep, rasping breaths to clear his lungs.
Tythel didn’t answer Eupheme, not right away. She could only stare ahead. Directly in front of her was what she vaguely remembered as being a tree yesterday, an immense oak. It had likely stood there longer than Karjon had been alive, and absent Tythel, it would have survived far longer than she would have walked Aelith.
But it had been in a world with Tythel. She’d burned it. She’d burned everything.
“We have to get moving,” she said, her voice hoarse. “We have to…we’re exposed here. We need-”
“There’s no one around,” Eupheme said. Her voice was gentle and soothing, and Tythel could see the worry in her eyes. “I wouldn’t have stood out in the open if there was.”
Tythel’s nictitating membranes flitted open to begin blinking away the tears that were forming. It wasn’t her membranes or the tears that had made the air cloudy. The smoke still hung low in the air, giving the whole scene a haze. To her left was a tree that still stood, although its branches and leaves had been charred away to leave a broken pillar that jutted up to the sky. Between cracks in the bark, she could see deep reds and oranges that showed the flame still raged within the tree’s trunk.
Tythel took a step forward. Eupheme said something, but it was drowned out by the pounding of Tythel’s heart, beating a deep rhythm within her own ears. In front of her a particularly dense cluster of branches still burned under the ash, small tendrils of flame peeking up here and there as smoke still rose from it. Spots like that were everywhere, dotting the landscape like haphazard campfires.
The sun hung in the sky ahead. The dense smoke stripped away much of its glare, and Tythel found she could look directly into it without hurting her eyes. It was the blood-red color that was normally only adopted as the sun sunk below the horizon. Seeing it floating in the air above her made the landscape look weirdly alien. Unnatural.
The ash still swirled around her, disturbed by the slightest breeze into great plumes. She had to breathe carefully. She was dependent on her scales to protect her against flame and ash on her skin. Dragon’s throats were heavily protected against the same, but it was done with a layer of mucus that could easily be dried out with this much ash in the air, same as how pushing through too much flame would evaporate it and burn her throat raw.
Part of Tythel’s mind, clinging to scholarly dispassion, brought up the old Cardomethi view of the afterlife. They didn’t believe all people found their reward or punishment in the Shadow after death. That was true of most people, but oathbreakers, blasphemers, traitors, murderers, and disrespectful children were lumped with enemies of the Empire and sent to a realm that sat between Light and Shadow, a blasted landscape they called Inturfani, which translated to ‘the Char.’ Here, they believed all were shunned by Light and Shadow alike and chewed by beasts for all eternity.
The Cardomethi had believed that dragons were creatures that had managed to escape the Char, monsters from another world that spread the death and torment of that realm. As a child, that had been enough for Tythel to dismiss the idea of the Char out of hand.
Now that Tythel stood here, weeping in an almost perfect recreation of that realm of eternal suffering, she understood how the Cardomethi had come to believe that. If nothing else, dragons could create their own vision of that punishment at a moment’s notice.
“Tythel,” Eupheme said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “We would be dead if you hadn’t done this. I mean that. We were in over our heads. We were barely fighting for our lives. I couldn’t stand against that Lumcaster. Leora would have found a break in your defenses. Tellias was no match for that flying monstrosity. You saved our lives.”
Tythel blinked back the tears. She forced herself to imagine instead the forest, lush and green and whole, but with Eupheme and Tellias’ corpses laying broken in the underbrush.
“Never again,” Tythel whispered hoarsely. “Never again, Eupheme. I can’t…I can’t keep doing this. I have to – I have to find a better way.”
Eupheme shook her head. “No,” she said quietly. “Don’t do that, Tythel. Don’t tell that lie to yourself. Because when it happens again – when the only option to save the people you care about left is to burn the world and salvage what you can from the ashes – you will do it, and you’ll remember that promise. You’ll hate yourself for that promise being broken.”
The tears were flowing faster than her membranes could clear them. “Then what?” she asked, her voice hoarse. “I’ll just keep doing this, over and over and over? Burn the whole world so long as it means the Alohym can’t have it either?”
“No,” Eupheme said. She stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Tythel in a fierce hug. “No, you won’t. You never, ever need to worry about turning into that. Not so long as you still weep to see it. That’s the promise you should make. That you will never do it capriciously, and that you will always morn the need.”
Tythel took a deep, ragged breath and, in spite of the pain, found herself nodding. “You’re right,” she said.
“Of course I am,” Eupheme said, breaking the embrace. “I’m very, very smart. Now. Let’s get moving. The Alohym will eventually think to check back in here, and I’d rather not be exposed when they arrive.”
Tythel blinked and looked back to Tellias. He wasn’t coughing anymore, and gave her a nod of agreement.
She bent down to begin hauling up his armor, careful to avoid letting the rope scrape against the side where it might fray. This, unlike Tellias, was heavy enough where she noticed the effort. After a few seconds, she could feel her heart begin to pound in her chest. Moments after that, a few more hauls in, and her breathing started to come out harsh and ragged.
Never capriciously, and always mourn the need, Tythel repeated to herself.
Tythel’s arms started to burn with the effort. There was a comfort in the repetitive motion, a rhythm and ritual to it, and she started to punctuate every tug with the mantra.
Never capriciously, and always mourn the need. Hand over hand, almost one-hundred stone weight dangling into the pit below her. It was a tool they desperately needed to fight and survive. A weapon that, if it was lost, would increase the chance that Tythel would have to burn the landscape again.
She began to pull faster. Never capriciously, and always mourn the need. Her lungs were burning, not from the ash, but from the deep breaths she needed to keep herself pulling. She could feel her knees begin to tremble from the effort, and dug her talons into the ground beneath her for better purchase.
Never ca- The edge of the armor crested the hole in that final tug. Tythel wasn’t expecting it, and found herself tumbling backwards, falling into the ash.
Or she would have, but Tellias and Eupheme were right behind her. Together they caught her before she could fall and helped her stand again.
“Alright,” Tythel said, taking one last look around the land she had destroyed. Never capriciously, and always mourn the need. “Let’s go.”
Neither of her companions objected.