Small villages like Delna, once home to just under five hundred people, had gone down one of two paths in the wake of the Alohym’s arrival. In some cases, they’d began to boom as Alohym machines meant less labor was needed to maintain farms. New tasks began to arise in Alohym factories, and people had migrated inwards. Delna had gone down the other path. Being close to a large city, it had withered like fruit on a vine that severed from its root as the people had migrated away. The last human had left Delna three years prior. Nature had begun to creep in, gardens turning to dense clumps of weeds and roads into fields. Vines crept up walls and were cracking stone. A tree was growing under a collapsed roof, and in a few more years it would emerge through the rotting thatch, birthing new fruit. It was quiet and still, for most of the time. Just a week ago, Delna had seen a brief flurry of activity when a pack of wolves had cornered a deer against one of the walls. Although the wolves had captured their prey, one of their number had been mortally wounded by the deer’s antlers.
Two days later, that wolf had found itself fed upon in turn.
In the basement of what had been Delna’s town hall, a cocoon ruptured, and Poz crawled out with shaking hands that ended in curved claws, stepping forward on back bent legs. HIs jaw was distended forward, and fur covered his skin. Wolfflesh was something he rarely partook in, since it was rare to come across and dangerous to hunt for itself. But it was smart flesh, clever flesh, and the senses it provided were second to none.
It also was flesh that belonged to an animal that could mourn the dead. And right now, Poz desperately needed to mourn. Something welled up in his throat, and driven by the instincts of this flesh, Poz threw back his head and howled. The sound was long and mournful, and was picked up by other wolves until it echoed across the valley.
Poz let the sound fade away into the distance. The grief didn’t vanish with it. I did that. How could I do that? The worst part of manflesh wasn’t the way it ate away at his body, and it wasn’t the way it tore away his ability to empathize. It was the way he couldn’t understand his own thoughts afterwards. Everything was hazy and twisted from his thoughts moving so quickly. He could remember what happened, but not why.
He could smell oil nearby. While in manflesh, he’d had the sense to leave himself a torch for just this moment. Of course I did. I think of everything except for people.
He groped along the floor. The torch was easy to find by scent in the darkness of the basement, but the flint and steel he’d set aside were not so easily located. His fingers closed in around something that struggled on six wriggling legs.
Grubflesh. Shadow, but it tempted him. The ancient punishment for manflesh was, in a way, a kindness. Grubflesh could barely feel anything except fear and base needs. It wasn’t the borderline sociopathy of manflesh, emotions were still there, just…muted. Last time he’d taken Manflesh, with Nicandros all those years ago, he’d freed himself from it with Grubflesh before turning himself in to be exiled and bound by law to eat nothing but grubs. It had spared him the pain of facing what he’d done in Manflesh.
Poz felt his fingers tense, and forced himself to open his hand. The insect, confused, skittered away from the lumbering creature that had grabbed it. They called the Grubflesh after one feasted upon forbidden forms the Coward’s Exile. Poz had always thought that it was because it was punishment for taking the cowardly way out of a problem. Now, he had to wonder if perhaps the cowardly part was eating Grubflesh to hide from the pain of what you’d done.
Not this time. Poz ran his fingers along the stone floor of the basement carefully, inch by inch. Something had scratched the floor in regular patterns, and the cuts were too fresh to have been worn away by the rain. Poz could feel jagged bits of stone scratch at his fingers.
In Manflesh, Poz must have decided that was the true meaning of the Coward’s Exile. That was why he’d changed his mind to eat Wolfflesh. Flesh that could feel the full weight of what he…no, that didn’t make sense. Manflesh didn’t care for that kind of thing. Then why?
Why any of it? Why had he chosen to eat from the dead wolf? Why had he engaged Nicandros so directly? And for the love of the Light, why had he thought it was acceptable to sacrifice all those people for his escape? He remembered doing it, but the chain of thought that led to doing so wasn’t something this flesh could follow.
Something clattered under his fingers. The flint. His movements sent it skittering away, and Poz swore under his breath as he groped after the sound.
The egg was a factor. He was certain of that. He’d known he had to protect it, and even even vaguely remembered having some kind of realization about what it was and how it worked. There was some reason it was vital that it didn’t fall into Alohym hands, and it had involved that half-Alohym woman who had been fighting alongside Nicandros. It was…damn it to shadow. He couldn’t make the connection anymore. It didn’t fit.
The flint finally in his grasp, Poz struck it against the stone floor a couple times. The brief flashes of illumination created by the the sparks let him find the steel he’d left behind, and threw the scratches on the floor into sharp relief. They weren’t just random markings caused by some animals. They had patterns, regularity.
Barely daring to breathe, Poz lit the torch.
He was blind for a moment, and had to blink rapidly as his eyes adjusted. Wolfflesh had better night vision than other fleshes, but took longer to adjust to light because of that. It wasn’t quite the same as Catflesh, but if he’d had access to that, he wouldn’t have needed to bother with the torch in the first place.
The flickering light of the flame gave everything an unstable appearance as Poz’s vision cleared, but it was still clear enough. The floors of this basement had been scored with a knife, over and over, the scratches forming words and equations. Characters written in Poz’s own handwriting.
He didn’t even remember writing this. He’d been so deep in the fever of Manflesh, even memory of his actions escaped him. In that fevered state, he’d sent a message to himself. A message that detailed everything he’d put together about the Alohym, about the dragon egg, and why it was so vital the egg not fall into their hands and instead reached Tythel. Some of it, even now, Poz couldn’t fully understand.
It ended in a single phrase. You can buy your way into her good graces with these words – ‘they might yet live again.’
Poz took a deep, ragged breath, and reached for his pack, pushing down his grief. He’d copy down what he’d written. He’d puzzle over it all later. For now, at least, he knew his path lead him to the Dragon Princess.
At least he’d been kind enough to write down where he could find her.