The Dragon’s Scion Part 123

Poz hated Horseflesh. For such large and powerful animals, one would think it would be a sure and confident form. That was not the case. Horses were still prey animals, and their flesh carried the memory of that fear. He would jump and want to run at sudden loud noises. Movement in his peripheral vision sent a surge of fear down his spine. It was also a dull flesh, as was the case with most animals that fed upon grass. Nowhere near as dull as grubflesh, but after so long with the sharpness of crowflesh, it felt like a cloud over his mind. There was one thing Horseflesh was good for, and the reason he endured the dullness and fear.

Horseflesh was for running.

Poz’s feet pounded on the ground, his legs longer and stronger than they had been. They thundered in his ears, a steady beat like a drum line. The landscape flew past his vision, and Poz felt as if he could gallop his way to that horizon. His hair, now grown halfway down his back in a pitch black mane, flowed behind him like a flag. His heart was pounding in his chest, but his breathing remained steady and even. Horseflesh knew how to maintain its breathing for long runs. He could cross a dozen leagues in an hour at this pace.

The flying Alohym was not close by. Not that Poz could tell at least. He had last seen it in Fetanial, the day before. Hunting for him. Always hunting for him. It had been getting to the point that Poz was considering repeating his sin, consuming manflesh, and letting the bones fall in the darkness. Had he been certain that manflesh would allow him to best the flying Alohym, he would have broken that night in Fetanial, with the flying Alohym buzzing over the town, hunting for him.

Two things had stayed Poz from delving into that forbidden act. First had been his fear that it would not work. Manflesh gave him some great abilities, but he could not be certain it would allow him to overcome such a deadly foe.

The second was that his journey was coming to an end.

He remembered the meeting well.

The inn was the Screaming Baron, built a century ago on the spot where a rebellious Baron had allegedly been tortured to death for unspeakable crimes. Poz found that hard to believe. Crimes so horrific they were called unspeakable were usually the ones that people spoke of most frequently. He’d gotten some odd looks upon entering, and muttering had started.

This far away from any of the major caverns, his people had not exactly been common, but most would go more than sixteen years between sightings. Some of these patrons had been mere children when the Underfolk had slunk beneath the surface. The youngest of them, on the cusp of adulthood, might not have been born.

“I hear they eat the dead,” one of the younger men whispered to an older man beside him. “They eat the flesh of things that had once been alive.”

The man nodded grimly. “It’s true, lad. The Underfolk feast exclusively on the flesh the dead. It’s terrible, nasty thing to do.”

“Oh yes,” said the young woman sitting across from the two of them, her face turning downward in a scowl. “Terrible thing to do, tear the flesh and sinew off an animal and eat of it.” She held up the turkey leg she was eating and, without breaking eye contact with the older man, bit into it. “I can imagine how terrible a people must be to engage in such a barbaric practice.”

The older man scowled in response. “Listen here, you smart mouthed little wench. If you want to keep travelling with us-”

“I shall beat myself round the head with a plank of nails, for clearly I have taken leave of my senses,” the woman responded, standing up. “And lad? The Underfolk eat the flesh of the dead, same as mankind does. They just eat more dead things than you prissy lot can handle.” She whirled and stalked over to the bar, sitting next to Poz. “Flathing humans, am I right?”

Poz eyed her with growing concern as she finished the large tankard in her hand. He was still full on Crowflesh, so knew his confusion was not the result of a dull form. “Forgive me, but are you not human?”

“Sure am,” she said with a bright smile. “But I’m not proud of it. Being human is easy. You just have to survive birth and have parents that didn’t kill you for being a ‘smart mouthed little wench.’ No input into it. If someone had given me a choice, I certainly wouldn’t have chosen human.”

Poz blinked. “That is…certainly an interesting way of looking at the world.”

“I imagine it is for you. After all, you do get a choice, don’t you? Depending on what flesh you eat, you get to be a little bit of something else. I think if someone had given me a choice, I would have chosen to be one of you. Then I could be something else whenever I want.” She offered her hand. “Call me Cyd if you want. If you don’t, then come up with something else.”

“Cyd is fine,” Poz said, taking the proffered hand. “Poz.”

“Poz what?” She asked. She was tall and slender, with dark skin and black hair that was held back in a ponytail that poofed out behind her head.

“Uh…that’s my name. Poz.”

Cyd nodded thoughtfully. “Poz. Pozzz. Interesting choice of name. What brings you to a hole in the dirt like this, Poz?”

“I’m looking for someone,” Poz admitted. “An old friend. Someone who’s help I dearly need.”

“Ahh, the truest sort of friend. One you turn to when times are their worst. Perhaps I am your friend, Poz.”

Poz laughed. Something in this young woman’s absurdity was infectious. “I doubt it. He’s far older, and more grizzled, than you. Also, his name is Nicandros, not Cyd.”

“Oh,” Cyd said, looking thoughtfully into her empty mug. “You’re looking for him.”

Every muscle in Poz’s body tensed up. The idea that this coincidental meeting had something to do with his quest strained the bounds of credibility to their breaking point. “You know him?”

“Knew him,” Cyd said. “Once. Some time ago. He was a different man then. Life and Light have not been kind to old Nicandros.” There was a sadness in her voice that seemed beyond her years.

“They have been kind to few of us,” Poz said, choosing his words carefully. This could easily be a trap. She could be an Alohym agent, sent to entrap him. Although…if they knew he was here, why would they permit him any time at all? They’d come in, their unlight beams darkening the room, and leave him a corpse before he could take the warning and run.

“Oh, aye, that they have. But to him more than most.” She put her glass down and sighed. “You should let him rest, Poz. Find someone else to aid you. I do not think you’ll like the aid he could provide.”

“It’s the only aid I have,” Poz said earnestly. “Please, if you know something…”

Cyd shook her head. “Time grows short. I advise against it, but we do not have time for you to beg, for me to hem and haw and debate, and eventually succumb to my better nature. I last saw him drowning his sorrows in the Gleaming Gullet in Edgeminster. If you survive the next part, you might still find him there.” She reached over and patted his head. “Try some flesh that’s better for running. And with stronger bones.”

Poz opened his mouth to ask her what she meant by that, but at that moment his attention was drawn by the door slamming open. He whipped his head over to face them. Three Alohym soldiers were walking into the Inn.

He looked back to his companion, but Cyd was gone.

The next few hours had been harrowing. He’d barely managed to escape with his life. But now he had a destination. Edgeminster. The Gleaming Gullet.

So he ran, and even though the dullness of horseflesh, he felt hope.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 122

At some point, Tythel had fallen asleep leaning against Tellias’ armor. When she woke up, there was no more light coming in from the hole above, and the crackling sound of flames had died down. The only thing she could hear was Tellias gently snoring and a pair of heartbeats. The second heartbeat was in the shadows that were too deep for Tythel’s eyes to pierce. “Eupheme?” she said hopefully.

“Of course,” Eupheme said, stepping forward into the light and rubbing her eyes. She looked exhausted and haggard, and parts of her dark cloak were burned away. “I was hoping one of you would wake up so you could take a turn at keeping watch.”

Tythel gently extracted herself from under Tellias’ arm. He murmured something in his sleep and shifted, but didn’t awaken. “Are you alright?”

Eupheme sighed. “Close enough, I suppose. Uninjured at least. They lost track of me pretty quickly.” She settled herself down on a flat stone, stretching her back. “How’d you know there was a cave down here?”

“I didn’t,” Tythel admitted. “It was the only place I could think of that might be safe from the flames – I was planning to tunnel a bit to keep us out of sight from above. Having to crawl away a bit was…well, the next best thing. I thought you were going to the rendezvous?”

“That’s what you told me to do,” Eupheme said, bringing her hand up to work her neck. “I decided that was a fine thing for you to want, but there was no way I was abandoning you for that long.”

Tythel bit back her initial retort. She was struggling to read Eupheme right now, more than usual. She was tense, that much was clear at least. “Are you-”

Eupheme shook her head before Tythel could even finish the question. “That was different. You made a heat of the moment call, and it wasn’t suicidally stupid. You didn’t deliberately shove me to safety and then poison the air so I could jump back, you just told me to leave – which meant I could ignore you if I wanted to. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not thrilled with it, but…well, we were well and truly flashed if you hadn’t done that.”

Tythel blinked in sudden relief. “How did you find us?”

Eupheme shrugged slightly. “While you were pretending to be dead, I stuck a sliver of shadow to your foot. It’ll fade with next sunrise, but it seemed prudent.”

Tythel’s eyes crinkled with understanding, followed by a surge of guilt. Something was clearly bothering her friend and Tythel was busy basking in the relief that Eupheme wasn’t angry with her. “What’s wrong? Does it have anything to do with that other Umbrist?”

Eupheme nodded mutely. For a moment, she only stared at the cave floor, so long Tythel was about to break the silence when Eupheme spoke. “I…I saw her in the Inn. I knew she was a Writ Hunter, but I never imagined she…I didn’t expect her to attack you. Shadows damn her for making me…she knows what this means!”

“Making you what?” Tythel asked.

“I am sworn to deal with any threat to you, your highness,” Eupheme said. The anger from her last sentence was starting to fade, replaced with a creeping numbness. “No matter who she is.”

“I’m so sorry,” Tythel said, walking over and putting an arm around Euphemia’s shoulders. She could feel the other woman shaking, and a terrifying realization crept over her. Eupheme was silently crying. Eupheme. It was as if she’d seen an Alohym binding an injured child’s scraped knee while cooing tender words. Alien, unnatural, and deeply disturbing. Tythel thought she was better equipped to see Nicandros return and start crying then she was for Euphemia’s tears.

At least she knew what to do here. She wrapped her arms around Eupheme and pulled her in close, so Eupheme could cry into her shoulder. She waited until Eupheme finally wound down. “Who is she?” Tythel asked gently.

Eupheme shook her head against Tythel’s shoulder. “I know it’s hypocritical, I know I should tell you…but I can’t. Not yet. I can tell you what you need to know about her, but who she is…I’m not ready for that.”

“It’s okay,” Tythel said. “Light and shadow, I’m the last person to judge someone for keeping secrets.”

Eupheme laughed, a desperate, choking sound, and pulled her head away. “I guess I can’t argue that.” She wiped her eyes. “Her name these days is Leora Dimici. She’s an Umbrist. You know that, you figured that part out already. But she’s not like me – she chose to forsake her vows. Said that even if the Royal Family returned, they failed to protect us from the Alohym. They didn’t deserve our protection.”

Eupheme started to fiddle with the hem of her cloak, winding her fingers through the frayed threads. “She started using our gifts for profit. Theft for her own gain, murder for hire, and Writ Hunting for the Alohym. It’s an abomination. We fought about it. She said one day I‘d see the truth. Then she…then she left. I haven’t seen her since then.”

Tythel blinked sadly. “I’m sorry,” she said, knowing how weak the words sounded.

Eupheme seemed to appreciate them. “There’s a reason we have our oaths,” Eupheme said with renewed vigor. “I can go virtually anywhere. No wall can bar my passage; no gate can hold me back. Even without my cloak, the only reason the Alohym cell held me was because shadows had not yet formed. When night had fallen, I would have been free. Any wound that does not kill me will heal in time with no permanent damage. Only death will stop me, and given how close we are to the Shadow, sometimes it declines to claim us when it otherwise would a normal man.

“Maybe you can understand where no one else did. The castles and walls of mankind could no more stop a dragon than it could an Umbrist.” Eupheme gave Tythel a hopeful look.

Tythel didn’t even need to consider. “Absolutely. It was why we withdrew from the world for so long, only emerging to defend humanity.”

“Exactly,” Eupheme said, snapping her fingers in excitement. “So you get it. However, we didn’t want to withdraw from society. We also didn’t want to stop teaching our gifts to those willing and able to learn. So we made the Oath – to serve a power greater than us. Many of us chose the Crown. Some swore to other kingdoms, or to the Church of The Cycle. A few even swore to the Deep Lords of the Underfolk.

“It didn’t matter who we swore to serve, so long as we swore our service. It leashed us, so we went from wolves among the sheep to faithful hounds guarding them. We were still feared, but we were also respected. What my – what Leora is doing – goes against that. It’s abhorrent. In times past, every Umbrist would have taken a Leave to hunt her down and kill her. It had happened a dozen times in our history.”

“I’m surprised I never heard of it,” Tythel admitted. “Every Umbrist…”

“We keep our history secret. Especially those traitors. We had them purged from the annals of history so they would be forgotten for their crimes. Only we know their hidden names. And Leora will be…she has already claimed her title. Leora Dimici. In the Hidden Tongue, it means ‘Thirteenth Forsworn.’ I had thought…” Eupheme took a deep, ragged breath. “I thought that I’d never need to find her. Never need to administer the Shadow’s Embrace to her. But…but now she’s working with the Alohym. The same ones that hunted most of us down.”

Euphemia’s tears started to come again, and Eupheme gave her another fierce hug. She imagined if there was still another dragon, and that dragon was serving the Alohym.

Tythel made a promise to herself, right then. If someone had to slay this Leora, Tythel would take up that burden – if Eupheme would allow it.

For now, she allowed Eupheme to sleep and took watch over her companions.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 121

The fall into the darkness had been far longer than Tythel had expected. She’d managed to dig her talons into the side of the hole, slowing her descent.

Tellias had not been so lucky. She’d heard him hit the ground below with a clatter of metal on stone. His armor was still glowing at the bottom. Tythel climbed down as quickly as she could manage. If Tellias was unharmed, any sound he was making was hidden by the roaring fire above. Please be alright, please be alright, Tythel thought frantically.

Then her foot caught empty air, and Tythel started to fall as well. She twisted her body in the air, catching herself on her hands and feet. The twisting path that Catheon had dug into the forest floor had punched through to a small cavern beneath the earth. The light provided by Tellias armor was just enough to illuminate the caverns walls, covering them with twisting shadows. A few points of the cavern were beyond the reach of that weak light, and Tythel had no idea how far they stretched. It could be a few feet. It could be miles.

It also wasn’t important right now. She scrambled over to Tellias. “Please be alright,” she said out loud, finally voicing her internal monologue.

Tellias’ response was a low groan of pain. “Did we make it? Is this the Shadow?”

Tythel sobbed out a laugh. “You absolute jerk. I thought you were dead!”

“So did I,” Tellias said. “But the Shadow is supposed to be without pain, without suffering. If that’s true, I definitely am not in the Shadow.”

Tythel shook her head and took a moment to look him over. His armor was, against all odds, mostly intact. There were cracks and dents along various points in it, but the armor hadn’t really lost any of its integrity. “Well, the suit’s fine.”

“Oh, that’s just…that’s just flathing wonderful. The suit is fine. Light forsake us all, so long as the suit remain fine.” Tellias groaned again.

“And if you are feeling well enough to be sarcastic, you’re feeling well enough to stand up.” Tythel said, not bothering to hide her amusement. Even though the situation was dire, at least he was joking.

“That,” Tellias said after a moment of silence, “has to be the worst logic I’ve ever heard. I can absolutely employ sarcasm with two broken legs.”

“Something my father used to say,” Tythel admitted. “I think it was just a way to get a smart mouthed child to not impose on him more than she had to.”

“Oh,” Tellias said. “I…I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to insult-”

Tythel let out a huff of air. “Tellias, you did not insult my father by pointing out the logic he used against me as a child. I’ve heard some of the things parents tell children to get them to behave. They’re all equally, if not more, absurd.”

Tellias nodded and held out a hand. “Still, should think before I speak more often. Want to see if you can help me up? I’d like to be on my feet if something comes flying down that hole.”

Tythel wasted no time taking the proffered  hand and helping Tellias stand. She kept the weight as much as she could on her good ankle. The bad one groaned in protest at even the light pressure she was putting on it.

Once Tellias was upright, Tythel sat on the floor and folded her legs into a lotus, the injured ankle on top. She poked it gently. The pressure didn’t hurt, confirming her earlier suspicion that it was just twisted, not sprained or – worse – broken.

The light pressure did, however, make her aware of the other aches and pains across her body from the earlier fight. She’d been cut, battered, and was overall just sore in places she hadn’t been aware could get sore. “I think we’re safe,” Tythel said.

Tellias looked over her. “Why are you certain of that?”

“I made sure their Umbrist saw me walk through flame. They won’t suspect that we’d dive into a hole to survive. They’ll be more worried we’re hiding in the fire, ready to strike the moment they enter.” Tythel sighed. “And with that many dried leaves, the fire will spread far.” She couldn’t help but keep the bitter edge out of her voice with those last few words.

“You’re worried,” Tellias said, sitting down next to her. Tythel nodded in the darkness. “That they’ll find us?”

“No,” Tythel said. “I…I had to set some fields ablaze so we could escape. Before I met you. Now I’ve set an entire forest on fire, not knowing how far it could spread. People could be in those woods. Animals definitely are. And I…torched the whole thing to ensure we survive.”

“Forest fires happen. Animals are good at evading them. A dragon unleashing flame is probably no more surprising than a flash of lightning igniting it. They’ll be fine. And Alohym regulations require that no buildings be built within thirty spans of intact woodland for that exact reason. I think you’re morally in the clear this time.”

Tythel scowled at one of the patches of shadow, just to avoid looking directly into Tellias’ eyes. “I suppose,” she admitted. “I just…”

“Worry that our fight against the Alohym is a pointless struggle over who gets to rule the world, when we should be seeking peace?” Tellias asked.

Tythel snapped her head towards him. “Of course not,” she said, her voice harsh. “They’re murderers and monsters. Why? Do you think that?”

“I wonder sometimes,” Tellias admitted. “The Alohym…what they’ve done is terrible. But they aren’t a monolithic group. Different Alohym have different goals, and different desires. We’ve seen it in their action. You pointed out the fact that they fight amongst themselves. Isn’t it possible there are some among them that could live peacefully among us, if we could get them to the negotiation table to talk terms? That even among alien invaders, there might be some good Alohym?”

Tythel looked away from Tellias, hiding her anger behind her hair. “I’ll believe it when I see proof of it,” Tythel said. “It seems an odd topic of conversation when an Alohym nearly killed us.”

“A human working for the Alohym, you said. Three of them.” Tellias shook his head and sighed. “I”m…you know, you’re right. This is a poor topic of conversation right now.”

“Glad we agree on that,” Tythel said, and then took a deep breath, softening her anger. “I’m sorry, Tellias. I just…you caught me off guard.”

“And interrupted you,” Tellias said, “what were you going to say before I rudely butted in?”

Tythel nodded in appreciation of the change of topic. “I just grow tired of needing to cause damage to the landscape to survive. Destroying to ensure my own survival…it’s not what we do.”

Tellias flipped up his faceplate so that Tythel could see him. He had a growing bruise of his left eye, and his face was turned down in a frown. “Which we are you referring to?”

“Dragons,” Tythel said.

“Uh…I’m no historian, but I’m pretty sure that…well, I mean, there are plenty of accounts of-” Tellias looked nervous.

“Burning the countryside, kidnapping heirs, razing kingdoms for their treasure? That was the old way. The ways of the ancient dragons, like Grejhak the Necromancer and Selevij the Voracious and Infernal Sjackix. We know it left an impression on humanity, and was part of why we preferred out isolation.”

Tythel reached down and began to idly scrape the stone beneath her with her talon, the way she’d used to run her fingers through the dirt when thinking as a child. “We only really ever exited our lairs to help defeat the evils that plagued mankind. Figured it was a good way to rebuild trust. And one of those tenants was that we don’t do that sort of thing anymore. That we were better than that.”

Tythel’s nictitating membranes flashed, fighting back tears that were starting to form. “And here I am, torching yet another countryside for my own benefit. I wonder what they’ll call me? Tythel the Scorcher? Tythel the Vicious?”

“Tythel the Regal, perhaps,” Tellias said, putting an armored hand on her shoulder. Tythel leaned into the gesture, taking comfort in the touch. “I won’t let you think of yourself as a monster. Being in this fight means that we have to do things that go against our nature for the sake of the greater good. You are no worse than any of us, Tythel.”

Tythel took another deep breath and nodded, leaning back against Tellias’ armor. He looked surprised, but wrapped the arm around her.

They sat there like that for a time, letting the fire rage overhead.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 120

The corpses that had been forcibly reanimated by foul necromancy mixed with unlight exploded into clouds of dust. That lost shadow, bound by unlight chains, dissipated in the surge of power to flow from Claricia’s hands. It was pure brightness in a way Armin had never experienced before. When they’d been digging the tunnel was the most light Armin had ever seen channeled at any one time, and in those cases, he’d been able to avoid looking directly into it. This time it had been impossible to avoid.

He could see through it without any difficulty.

I’m surprised Clarcia had the control for that, Armin thought. Managing to manifest that might light while still remaining visible for human eyes was advanced Lumcasting, and he’d thought it was far beyond her-

“I think I’m blind,” Ossman said. Armin recognized that voice. It was Ossman trying to fight back fear.

“Me too,” Guiart said in a plaintive tone.

“I think we all must be then,” Aildreda said. Her voice sounded like Ossman’s, tightly controlled. “Clarcia, I’m assuming you can see? Since you manifested the light?”

“Nope,” Clarcia said with what was obviously forced cheer. “I’m blind as a bat that’s had his eyes burned out. And then thrown in a well. At midnight. It’s temporary though. Unless I aim for the eyes, which I obviously wasn’t.”

“So we’re all blind?” Ossman said. There was a low note in his voice, one most people knew anyone else would have missed. It was Ossman’s version of panic. “We’re blind in the lair of a dead dragon and necromantic constructs and possible Alohym soldiers and-”

“Oh, so the possible danger is bad, but the actual danger of the undead that were trying to claw your face open? I don’t get any thanks for removing them,” Clarcia said, her voice thick with anger. “I just did a feat most Masters couldn’t manage. You’re lucky I didn’t burn your skin from your bones! But sure, a little temporary blindness?”

Ossman’s voice was a low growl. “What if there’s more of them?”

“Then at least you won’t be a corpse for them to feast on!” Clarcia snapped.

“It’s flathing inconvenient timing,” Ossman responded, clenching his fists.

Clarcia rolled her sightless eyes. “I’m so sorry saving your life inconvenience you. Next time I’ll make sure to ask permission before I destroy a dozen monsters your axe couldn’t-.”

“I can see,” Armin said firmly before the argument could get more heated. Everyone turned their heads in the direction of his voice. None of them quite managed to pinpoint him, although Aildreda proved closest.

“Why didn’t you say so?” she asked.

“Because I…” Armin swallowed what he had been about to say. The truth was, it was because it was another sign of the fact that he’d become a walking blasphemy. No human eyes should still be functioning after the amount of light Clarcia had unleashed. Armin should have been as blind as the rest of them.

Instead, here he was, seeing clearly when the rest of his companions were standing stock still in their own personal darkness.

“Because I wanted to make sure,” Armin finished, hoping the argument didn’t sound as weak as it was. “I managed to shield my eyes a bit from it, but it still took a bit for my vision to return.”

“Well…what are we supposed to do now?” Guiart asked, his voice trembling. “There could be more of them. If they come and we’re blind…”

“Then I’ll take care of it,” Armin said, his voice carrying an authority that he absolutely did not feel. Blessedly, no one questioned how he intended to manage that when he’d barely made an impact on the first wave of these creatures. “We obviously can’t walk while you all can’t see. I’m going to…everyone stay where you are. I’m going to come and lead you to a spot so you’re all together until your eyes clear.”

He started with Clarcia, putting a hand on her shoulder to gently guide her. Her back was a mass of tension, muscles so corded that Armin could feel them through even this light touch. “I’m not wrong, am I?” she said quietly to Armin. “I didn’t use enough power to…I’m right about how long it will last, right?”

“Of course not,” Armin said. He had no idea if that was true or not, but at this moment it was what Clarcia needed to hear. Only time would tell if sight would return to the others. He pushed the thought aside. If It didn’t…if it didn’t, he’d have to have Guiart walk him through using the Skitterer and abandon the mission. My first mission in command, and everyone but me is blinded in the first fight. “Just you wait. It’s a matter of time, that’s all.”

Clarcia directed a grateful look in Armin’s general direction as he finished walking her over to the corner of the room and helped her to sit down. “I’ll be right back. There’s stone at your back on both sides, so you’re safe.”

Next up was Aildreda. She was every bit as tense as Clarcia had been, although there was a bitter edge to her tautness that Armin couldn’t quite place. “I should have spotted that,” she said, her voice low and angry. “If I had realized…Clarcia could have done that without having awoken them. I should have warned you to stay back.”

“No, that wouldn’t have changed anything.” Armin smiled at her, then remembered she was blind. He continued with the lie, it falling easily from his lips. “The best thing that would have happened is they would have woken up as soon as Clarcia started lumcasting. It’d still be worth trying next time, but I’m almost positive that would have been the outcome.”

Aildreda sighed, and some of the tension faded from her back. “You’re…probably right.”

“Of course I am. Haven’t you learned by now that ‘correct’ is basically my title? Why do you think d’Monchy chose me for this role? Because of my winning smile.”

Aildreda snorted a laugh. “Well, as far as I can see at this instant, the smile is phenomenal.”

Armin blushed at the compliment, then remembered her predicament. He burst out laughing. “That, my dear Aildreda, has to be the finest backhanded compliment I’ve ever had the pleasure to receive. Like expecting wine and taking a deep draught of pure horse piss.”

Aildreda was smiling when he helped her sit next to Clarcia. She put one arm around the younger woman.

Next was Guiart. Armin wanted to go to Ossman next, but Ossman would punch him for not tending to the others first, and Guiart looked like he was at his wits end. He shrieked when Armin’s hand touched his shoulder.

“It’s me, it’s me!” Armin said.

Guiart drew a deep, ragged breath. “Oh, Light. You must think I’m a coward.”

Armin started to lead him over to the corner with the others. He could feel Guiart shaking under his hand. “Absolutely not. I don’t know how badly I’d be frightened if something happened to my vision in a place like this.” Armin was relieved to be able to tell the truth in this instance. After lying to Clarcia and Aildreda to comfort them, a chance to use the truth was-

Guiart was shaking his head. He wasn’t tense. His shoulders had slumped, and his head hang low. “Not that. I mean…my hands were shaking too much during the fight to aim. You never missed a shot, and I was shaking like a leaf. I’m worse than useless – I’m a liability. If we get our vision back, I should wait here.”

“You ever faced and Alohym?” Armin asked.

Guiart frowned. “I don’t see-no, I haven’t.”

“Well, I did. Once. At the Collegium Rebellion. Do you know what I did when that thing rounded the corner?”

Guiart shook his head.

“I pissed myself,” Armin lied. “Like a child with a bad dream. Promise you won’t tell Ossman – I was able to convince him it was water.”

Guiart looked in Armin’s direction with eyes wide from shock. “You jest.”

“Often, but not about this. I make jokes at other’s expenses, not my own.” He clapped Guiart on the shoulder as they reached the corner. “Bravery is something you forge, like a sword on an anvil. You have to take a beating before it’s strong enough to be useful.”

Guiart nodded thoughtfully and sat down on Clarcia’s other side under Amin’s direction.

One more left. Ossman. He walked over and put a hand on the big man’s shoulder.

“So,” Ossman said, his voice lower than the others had been, “any pretty lies for me?”

Armin nearly stopped cold. “You heard all that?” He asked.

Ossman nodded. “I don’t think the others did, but you walked past me which each of them. You really do have the awareness of a cat trying to find a treat – only able to stare at the pointing finger, not the food. So. What’s my lie to make me feel better?” His voice didn’t sound angry, like Armin had first thought. Ossman sounded more amused than anything else.

“I’m glad I didn’t send you back,” Armin said.

Ossman’s amusement began to fade, “You-”

“-am not going to waste my closest friend’s time with a lie. I’m glad I didn’t send you back. We’d be dead if I had, and I’m sorry I doubted you.”

Ossman walked a few more steps in silence. “I see why d’Monchy chose you for this,” Ossman said when they reached the wall.

Armin chuckled. “Because I have such a winning smile?” he asked.

“You’re already repeating jokes,” Ossman said, settling next to Aildreda. “You used that one already.”

“Well, I’ll figure out some new jests while you all remember how to see. Talk amongst yourselves if you wish – I’ve got first watch. And the rest of them, as well.”

Ossman made a rude gesture, and Armin turned back to watch the hallway the undead creatures had come from. He was glad Ossman understood why the Duke had put him in charge of his operation.

He just wished he could understand it himself.

Dragon’s Scion Part 119

“I need a few more seconds!” Clarcia shouted. Ossman stepped out of range of the nearest undead and swung his axe in a wide arc, the scratches in his chest burning lines of heat from where the undead had drawn blood.  The unlight blade bit into undead flesh, but didn’t sever anything. In the stories he had grown up hearing, he would have paused in the battle and raised his axe towards Armin as a gesture of respect for freeing him from the clutches of the monster. Armin would have given him a solemn nod of camaraderie, and they would have resumed fighting.

Ossman had seen people do such stupid things in battle. Acts of bravado and foolish wastes of time. Saluting while the enemy was still fighting, attempting dramatic speeches, heroic last stands.

Every single one of them was now dead. Heroism, as far as Ossman could tell, was usually used as a synonym for stupidity. True heroes should fight for what matters. Being a moron should not be a prerequisite. So long as it was, Ossman was fine not being a hero. He’d settle for being a soldier with morals.

And what Clarcia didn’t seem to understand was that a few seconds was an eternity in a fight like this. Battles could last for days, weeks, even months. But in the heat of the moment, grappling for life or death with an implacable foe, things were often decided in a fraction of a second.

So he did what he always did. He did what he’d done in those dark days of the Collegium Rebellion, when he’d stood aside Armin and countless others – most of whom were dead now, none of them old enough to have earned the title of ‘adulthood’ yet. He did what he’d done at the Pass of Uramih, when the soldiers of the Alohym had first deployed their unlight weapons against a rebellion still wearing mail and carrying wooden shields and steel blades. He did what he’d done at the battle outside the Alohym factory alongside Armin, and Eupheme, and Tythel.

He did what he’d always done in the face of terrible odds and impossible tasks. He planted his feet on the ground and said “I will not bend.” To avoid giving a lie to his earlier thoughts on heroism, he punctuated each word with a swing from his axe.

Necrotized flesh was sent flying, fingers still twitching with an unholy desire to dig into mortal flesh, hands still grasping at throats they could not reach.

If the undead creatures understood his words, they cared about them as little as they did the slow dismemberment he was inflicting upon them. He saw no flicker of recognition on those still human faces, no acknowledgement he’d even spoken. They continued their mindless advance, crawling along the floor with a gait no living creature had ever matched.

It was disquieting. Ossman was used to his axe being the final word in any argument. He’d had it bounce off of imperiplate, only cracking the Alohym-forged armor, but that was expected. Imperiplate had been nigh-indestructible most of his life. It was like expecting his axe to slice through a block of solid granite.

He wasn’t used to slicing the head off a creature and having the creature’s torso continue to advance on him with malign purpose.

And to make matters worse, there were the voices. Twisted wrong don’t belong slice and smash and cut release the wrong cut the wrong holding wrong so much wrong slice their necks turn on flesh free us free us the taint the rot the corrupt kill and maim and slay. They’d been omnipresent every since his near-dunk in the Lumwell, lurking on the edges of his consciousness.

He hadn’t told Armin or Tythel. They would have just worried about him, insisted he sit on the sideline. LIke Armin hadn’t kept fighting when his eyes had turned black and gold. Like Tythel hadn’t kept fighting when she’d been poisoned by unlight. They wouldn’t have seen it that way – they would say it was different. He certainly hadn’t told Eupheme. The idea of the sick concern on her face was too much to bear – almost as bad as the idea that she might think less of him.

They didn’t understand. The three of them were imbued, each, with powers beyond the ken of normal men. Light, Shadow, and Dragonic might. They could recover from injuries that would leave Ossman a broken shell of who he had been.

That did not mean he was made of glass.

Ossman brought his axe down on the headless torso with enough fury that his axe bit into the stone beneath the abomination. He felt a sudden pressure at his back. Kill! The voice demanded.

Ossman ignored the order. A quick glance told him who was there.

Aildreda had managed to reach him. She pressed her back against his, and together they began to dance with the undead that swarmed around them. Ossman’s steps were firm and heavy, hers were light and nimble, yet they found a rhythm. There were so many undead, many of them formed from the pieces of the creatures. There was a hand on the end of a leg, here was a decapitated head striding on three arms. They kept finding each other, forming new horrors to create, and advancing.

Together, Aildreda and Ossman cut them down, as arcbeams from Armin and Guiart flew through the air.

It was too much. They were being overrun. These undead beings were tireless, but Ossman and Aildreda were made of only flesh and blood. They would tire. They were tiring. It was…

..it was getting brighter. Clarcia held up her hand that had been balled into a fist. It glowed like a miniature sun, but Ossman could see through the glow, see how her hand was cracking under the strain.

For the first time in weeks, the voices in his head went silent.

Ossman shut his eyes against the intense surge of light, but it shone through his lids so intensely, he had to cover them with his hands. Even then, the intensity shone through.

Then it started to fade, and with it came the greatest thing for a soldier to hear after a long battle. Silence. Blessed, beautiful, silence.

Calm but wary use and find and kill and kill and kill and…

Ossman sighed, heaving his axe onto his shoulder. At least he’d gotten a little bit of quiet.

He opened his eyes to darkness. Pure, pitch black darkness, far deeper than it had been before. He pulled forward his axe again, and even the unlight did not pierce the darkness.

“I think I’m blind,” Ossman said, desperately hoping the effect was temporary.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 118

The lurching corpses didn’t walk like men, nor did they crawl like beasts. They shambled along the ground, crawling with unnatural motions that stretched their feet too far forwards, their hands too far back. Every motion was jerking and halting, and by all rights the undead should have been moving at a slow, faltering gait. Somehow, however, the motions gave the horrors a sense of fluidity when combined, and their progress was faster than Armin would have expected It was a mockery of human motion, a nightmare symphony composed by someone that wanted to deliberately twist and prevert the very nature of movement itself.

Armin finally got the arccell into place, the satisfying click letting him know it was finally connected. The lines along the side and butt of his arcwand began to glow a bright crimson as it drew power. He took a deep breath to steady his hands then, in a sing swift motion, raised the weapon and took aim.

He wasn’t the only one making preparations. Clarcia had raised her right hand into the air and clenched her left into a fist. Armin recognized the motion – it was meant to draw in light, inviting the energy to flow into the lumcasters open palm and travel through their body so it could condense within their clenched hand. The veins of the closed hand were already starting to glow with the energy trapped within them. Beside her, Guiart had drawn his own arcwand and was raising it towards the approaching monstrosities. His hands weren’t as steady as Armin’s – he was a driver, not a shooter, and it showed in the unease way the tip of his arcwand weaved back and forth.

Aildreda faded into the shadows of a nearby alcove, not yet powering up her weaponry. She would strike when the moment was right, and not an instant sooner. Knowing she was there was a comfort for Armin – it reminded him of fighting alongside Eupheme. Aildreda might not have the umbrist’s ability to walk through the Shadow, but she was more than capable of hiding in darkness and stabbing at the opportune moment.

And Ossman…

Ossman bellowed a wordless challenge and drew his axe, charging the abominations head on.

Armin cursed and fired a beam of unlight into the lead undead. It hit the necrotised flesh and sizzled. The creature was completely unphased by the injury and continued to advance. Of course, Armin thought, and then Ossman was in among them, his axe coming down on the lead undead. It split the creature’s skull in twain, the two halve flopping to the side as Ossman’s arcbladed axe was able to cut it all the way down to the neck.

Ossman stood there for a moment, looking both disgusted and pleased with what he’d accomplished.

Then the undead’s two eyes – now far wider apart than they had been – looked up at Ossman, and the former man reached for him was hands that grasped like claws.

Ossman stumbled back, batting away the grasping arms with the flat of his axe.

Armin opened fire again, this one catching one of the undead in the elbow. It separated the arm from the limb and set the corpse tumbling to the ground. Ossman’s axe flashed, and the creature lost a leg as well.

Somehow, it still managed to lurch towards Ossman. Armin knew his friend well. He could see fear was beginning to settle in, and Ossman took several quick steps back, sweat beginning to bead on his brow. The severed arm began to inch forward along the ground by its fingers, the rest of the limb growing flexible and slithering like a snake.

Armin cursed under his breath. The undead could only be destroyed permanently if they were reduced to ash. Only one person had that power, and Clarcia was still drawing power. Guiart was firing, although he didn’t have Armin’s aim. His shots were mostly those of a soldier – hitting the undead in their torsos. While it managed to cut out huge chunks of flesh, it did nothing to impede them.

They needed to buy more time. As much as he hated doing so, Armin took another deep breath and drew a bit of Light.

In front of him, lines began to emerge along the skin of the undead.

He hadn’t told anyone about this yet. Ever since he’d drawn light directly from the sunstone, ever since his eyes had been changed to glow like the corona of an eclipse, he could use light in one way that he’d never heard before – by holding onto it, he could see the lines of power that flowed with any lumcasting.

It was heretical to even attempt it. Man was not meant to see the flow of light, only its effects. He was playing in the realm of the Little Gods – and even they would surely think twice before such blasphemy.

But what he could see, he could target. Arcwands shot beams of concentrated light. It should be enough to disrupt the field containing the shadow. Free it, allow it to disperse.

He just had to commit blasphemy to allow it happen.

Forgive me, Armin begged as he took aim.

He focused on one of the uninjured undead. The node of light that contained the trapped shadow was located directly under the creature’s right armpit. Armin took aim at the node and let loose a blast.

His aim was off. He hit the undead just under the armpit. That arm now hung limply, strands of flesh barely connecting it to the larger body, but it still remained animate. Armin waivered. It gave the undead an opportunity to reach out and wrap brittle fingers around Ossman’s ankles. Another undead surged forward and drew lines of blood along Ossman’s chest with fingers that ended in wickedly curved claws.

Armin took a deep, steadying breath, and fired again.

This time, his aim was true. The beam of arcfire intersected the node perfectly. The undead paused for a moment.

Then darkness exploded outward from it, a long-trapped shadow freed from the creature’s corpse. It swirled in the air like a hungry cloud of smoke, searching for a vessel and finding none.

And it was broken. Webs of something akin to light crisscrossed its mass, spiderwebs binding and containing the darkness, trying to force it into action.

Unlight, Armin thought, his breathing stopping. Ossman cleaved the head from the undead that had attacked him, and stepped back over the broken corpse of the one that Armin had broken. “How did you manage that shot?” Clarcia asked.

“Luck!” Armin said, hoping he didn’t sound as disingenuous as he felt. “Was just trying to finish off the arm.”

The shadow should have dispersed. The shadow would have dispersed if it had been ordinary necromancy. But the unlight trapped the shadow, bound it, and forced it to action. It floated up to the ceiling, where it waited.

Waited for a new body to inhabit.

Guiart screamed in sudden pain. One of the undead had slipped past Ossman while Armin was woolgathering. A beam of arclight shot out, severing the hand that had gripped Guiart’s arm, fingers digging into his bicep.

Aildreda had emerged from the alcove she’d stepped into. She drew her sword and charged in, the blade singing through the air.

“I need just a few more seconds!” Clarcia said, her voice straining from the power she was holding. Armin could see it clearly now. She glowed to his eyes like the sun – warm and painful to look at for more than an instant.

Armin just hoped they could buy her the time she needed.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 117

The new Umbrist leapt back from the expanding circle of fire that surrounded Tythel. The woman considered the flame for a moment. “You are touched in the head,” she said after a moment’s consideration of Tythel’s predicament.

Tythel smiled, collapsed her hammer and shield, and stepped into the inferno that raged around her.

Everything she owned had been treated by Karjon to protect it from flame. A dragon did not keep possessions long without those protections. She was grateful for that – it protected her garments and even the fragile notebooks within her pack. Heat intense enough to sear a human to the bone was comfortable against her scaled hide. She could feel the metal of the hammer and shield growing hot against her back, and reminded herself that this slow, menacing walk had to have an end time.

“The princess just killed herself,” the Umbrist said into a songstone. “I think we’re flathing shadow she’s alive!” 

Tythel came roaring out of the fire, her talons outstretched. The Umbrist fell backwards, and Tythel’s claws only raked across her arms. The Umbrist turned the awkward stumble into a roll, taking herself into the safe shadows of a nearby tree and vanishing.

Tythel whirled, slashing behind herself and downward. The Umbrist was coming up from the shadow, and Tythel’s talons drew lines of blood across her face and torn off the ebon mask she was wearing.

Tythel recognized the woman. The Writ Hunter from the tavern, the one who had seemed to command the others – and the one that Eupheme had seemed so disturbed by. She looked exactly as Tythel remembered her, although with several more bloody lines in her face than she had before.

The Umbrist dove away. The flames had progressed enough that Tythel no longer cast a shadow behind herself, and the woman was caught out in the open. She was still quick as a snake, but Tythel did not need to fear the flames that were penning them in.

Above the treeline, Tythel heard a sudden curse, followed by hacking coughs. The wind had carried the smoke to the lumcaster, it seemed. “Eupheme! Meet at the rendezvous!”

She didn’t know if Eupheme heard her. She didn’t know if Eupheme would listen. Deepest shadow, she might be furious with me for trying to send her away. Tythel brushed the thought away. This was different. Eupheme had a choice this time. Sure, and she could have come out from behind the rocks last time, and she didn’t because it was too dangerous. But that didn’t stop her from being furious with you. Just like she will be for this trick. 

Tythel growled at her own internal monologue. The wind was spreading the flames, and she added to the torrent.

A thick cloud of smoke rose up, obscuring the ground. She could still hear Catheon buzzing up there in the smoke, but he didn’t come any lower – and his unlight beams had ceased for the time.

The Umbrist was gone. Tythel was certain of that, at least. A blazing forest would be a poor battlefield for a woman who relied on shadows for fighting. Just like Eupheme…are you certain you haven’t burned her too? 

It was too late to undo it. Tythel forced the thought down, as she had already, and hoped she’d be able to keep that away for a bit longer.

Tellias was coughing in his armor. The repeated blows from Catheon had cracked his breastplate and driven him to the forest floor. Smoke was gathering around him, and the armor was beginning to glow with heat. Tythel rushed forward and scooped him up in her arms, grunting at the exertion. This armor was heavy. Far heavier than Tythel remembered it – although when they’d been carrying it before, they’d expelled the arccell. And he was storing the weapons they’d purchased.

“Tythel…” Tellias said, coughing roughly before he couldn’t continue. “Get out of here…they’ll be waiting when the fire clears…”

Tellias descended into another round of hacking coughs, and Tythel chose to ignore his protest. He was absolutely right. They’d seen her survive fire, they’d expect her to take refuge in the flame.

Thankfully, that wasn’t her entire plan.

Many of the landmarks she’d been relying on had been burned away in the fire, but Tythel didn’t need to see what she was looking for. She could hear it, the wind whistling by.

Tellias still cradled in her arms, Tythel took a step towards salvation. Each footstep was like walking up a river, and the weight of Tellias in her arms was burning her shoulders. The slice in her side from the Umbrist’s spear was screaming in protest, and Tythel had to grit her teeth against the pain before she could take another step. Then a third. The effort was greater than she’d imagined, and her lungs started to burn – not from heat and smoke and flame, but from the sheer exertion of carrying this much weight.

Halfway there, Tythel told herself. You’re halfway to safety. 

A burning log fell in front of her path, missing her by a tiny distance. She crushed the half-burned wood under her foot, and felt splinters dig into her scales. She wasn’t sure if they broke the skin. Her ankles were in enough pain to make it impossible to tell.

He shouldn’t be this heavy, Tythel thought, but pushed the thought aside. It was extraneous, useless, and needless – and the answer was obvious. Tythel had spent a day draped over a shoulder. She’d been in a fight, she’d burned strength with dragonflame, and she hadn’t slept since yesterday morning. Tellias wasn’t abnormally heavy – she was just exhausted.

She could see her destination ahead, and took a step with renewed confidence.

Her foot landed in a hole belonging to some small, burrowing animal, and she collapsed to the ground. She could feel something in her ankle give, and involuntarily roared at the sudden pain radiating up from her leg. Her ankle was blazing with pain.

“Tythel!” Tellias said, fighting back a cough, his voice more insistent. “You have to go!”

Tythel looked down at him, staring directly into the helmets eye hole. He was right. He was absolutely right. The safest option would be to leave him and run to safety.

“No,” she growled, and she wrapped her hands under Tellias’ ankle. “I’m not losing anyone else.” Gingerly, she put weight on the injured leg. It protested, but it didn’t cave. Just a twist then.

Tythel heaved Tellias along the ground for the last few steps, tears springing to her eyes with each weight on her bad ankle, before they finally reached what Tythel desperately had hoped was safety.

Together, they tumbled into the hole in the earth Catheon had created.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 116

Tythel threw herself to the side as the unlight beam approached and covered her head with her shield as the beam stopped tearing through the forest floor and struck the tree that had briefly been covering her.

That saved her. The unlight hit the tree and, for a moment, it sucked in all light that was hitting its branches, creating a massive circle of darkness around herself and its trunk.

Then it exploded, sending unlight-infused splinters spiraling through the air, a hail of deadly shrapnel that could have punched through her scaled hide. She could feel a couple pieces stick into her arms and tore them out with hisses of pain. The idea of having to endure unlight poisoning again was motivation enough to overcome the sharp stinging sensation.

“Move!” Tellias hissed, and Tythel realized she was exposed. She got up and ran, moments before a beam of unlight impacted the forest floor she’d just vacated. This time, it wasn’t a sweeping beam. It drilled into the ground, sending chunks of earth and stone flying away, and unlight corruption began to seep into the leaves and trees.

Tellias opened fire with one of the arcwands, beams of crimson light lancing up towards where the attacker was. The beam shifted in direction and angle as the flying Alohym twisted away from the incoming fire. “Die you monster!” the human inside the flying Alohym-suit screamed, still propelling unlight into the spot Tythel had vacated.

Tythel didn’t want to dissuade him of the notion that he’d managed to strike her. She began to scrabble up a nearby tree with her talons. Get above the tree line and burn him while he’s distracted, Tythel thought to herself. No time to focus on the energy needed for ghostflame. If she hit him hard enough, she might be able to ground him, and once that happened…then they’d at least be on a more even playing field.

She reached the top of the tree before the man inside was finished firing. He was every bit as imposing at Tythel remembered. Easily as tall as Tellias in the armor, but slender and graceful with an unnatural grace. The huge thorax that emerged from behind his legs was shrinking as he maintained the beam of unlight, and Tythel could hear his breathing, ragged with every second.

Ragged and…sniffling. He was crying. The man inside the Alohym skin was crying as he fired into the ground, thinking he was killing Tythel.

Pushing her confusion aside, Tythel took a deep breath and let out a torrent of dragonflame.

It was perfect. The flying Alohym didn’t see it coming. It streaked towards his back, completely unaware, and Tythel braced herself to leap as soon as he fell.

The fire struck a golden barrier before it could hit the flying man, flaring outwards from the impact a good span away from the Alohym’s back.

Oh, right, Tythel thought, looking around wildly. The lumcaster. He was there, in a nearby tree, and waved his fingers when he saw Tythel looking. “Careful, Catheon,” the lumcaster said. He was speaking quietly enough that he likely didn’t believe that Tythel could hear him.

At least she had a name for the man in the flying Alohym suit. Catheon.

Tythel leapt from the tree and latched onto another one. She began to run through the branches, using the skills she’d honed long ago in Karjon’s valley with her new strength and talons for better grip. The lumcaster’s eyes widened as Tythel drew near, brachiating like an ape to close the distance. He leapt out of the tree and began to channel a barrier of golden light.

Tythel landed and heard Eupheme appear behind her. Good, that means I don’t have to worry about my back. Tythel prepared herself to smash her unlight hammer against the lumcaster’s barrier – when it occurred to her that Eupheme’s footsteps sounded wrong. Too heavy, too quick.

She turned just in time to prevent the woman behind her from ramming a spear through her heart. It glanced off Tythel’s ribcage instead, drawing a line of blood. Tythel hit the ground and rolled away from her attack. It wasn’t Eupheme. She was too tall, wrapped head-to-toe in black fabric, and carried a spear that glowed with unlight.

Some other umbrist had joined the fight. An umbrist on the side of the Alohym.

Tythel took a deep breath, fighting aside the pain as best she could. The Umbrist was every bit as fast as Eupheme, and Tythel found herself leaping back repeatedly to avoid getting impaled.

The real Eupheme had appeared behind the Lumcaster. He’d managed to create a collar of light around himself to prevent Eupheme from slitting his throat from behind and had banished all shadows around him. He was now engaged in a swordfight with Eupheme, who was forced to only rely on her speed and skills. In that, at least, the Lumcaster seemed to equally match her.

A beam of unlight streaked from the sky again. This time it slammed into Tellias, driving him to one knee. Catheon – didn’t maintain the beam this time. Tythel prayed he couldn’t, or they were damned.

She caught the head of the new umbrist’s spear on her shield and reminded herself they might be damned either way.

They needed a plan, desperately. They were out maneuvered, out armed, and running short on time. Tythel couldn’t even use her greatest weapon here, not without…

A horrible, dangerous, and beautiful plan occurred to Tythel. She took a deep breath between the umbrist’s strike and let loose a stream of flame. The umbrist ducked into the shadow of a tree and vanished, reappearing on the other side of Tythel, but Tythel wasn’t aiming for her. Tythel spun around, maintaining the flame as she did.

The flame nearly caught the Umbrist mid-leap. She twisted her body in the air, the flames just barely missing her, and the daggers that had been aimed for Tythel’s back went wide. She landed with a curse and rolled to the side, and Tythel chased her with the flame. “You’re going to burn us all!” she shouted at Tythel.

No. I won’t, Tythel thought grimly as she maintained the stream of fire and pivoted in a full circle.

Around her, the forest burst into flame.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 115

The Writ Hunters didn’t approach like soldiers. They didn’t start with a single barrage of unlight fire designed to cut them down. Instead, uncoordinated beams lancing through the air and cutting swaths of darkness across the woods. Tythel dropped behind her shield and let the beams ricochet off it. Eupheme ducked into the shadow of one of the trees and vanished. And Tellias just stood there, letting the arcplate absorb the beams, an implacable force against the attack.

Just as Tythel was thinking this was going to be too easy, two of them broke out of cover, weapons raised and charging, a howling fury darkened by unlight weapons. They were the two with the ringwands, and when they fired, expanding circles of unlight sliced through branches and shrubs in their path.

Tythel could feel the impact all the way up her arm as one impacted her shield, grunting against the sudden force. She dug her talons into the forest floor before she went skidding away. Tellias took a ring to his chest and was sent tumbling backward. Tythel could hear him cursing in the armor as the dry leaves crunched under his bulk.

I can’t use flame in here, Tythel realized. She gritted her teeth and charged towards one of the shooters. The man fired a couple more rings, each one striking her shield and slowing her for a moment, but her advance was inexorable. He cursed and drew an unlight blade, just in time to block her hammer strike.

The shockwave of the hammers detonation against the shield drove the man to one knee and sent branches snapping nearby. The man’s eyes widened, and he slashed at her with the sword, a frantic, desperate motion. Tythel caught it with the edge of her shield, inches away from her stomach.

He was so focused on her, the writ hunter didn’t see Eupheme step out of his shadow. He didn’t know she was there until her dagger drew a thin line across his throat.

Eupheme was gone before the Writ-Hunter hit the ground.

The three who were still firing from range had been focusing their fire on Tellias, but when their compatriot collapsed, Tythel could hear angry curses. It gave her enough time to bring her shield back up before they could perforate her.

She dropped to one knee, making sure the shield completely covered her body and braced herself as the impacts struck her shield over and over again. The unlight crystal in the back of her shield was drawing in a higher amount of light as it strained to compensate for the repeated impacts.

She was pinned.

Tellias had engaged the ringwand wielder. He didn’t throw his weapon aside as the first one had, instead dropping to one knee under Tellias’ wide strike, shooting an upward blast into Tellias’s chest. That close, the ringwand had enough force to lift him armor up into the air from the impact.  He landed on his back, and the attacker stepped over him, ready to shoot him in the chest again.

Then Eupheme stepped out of the shadows and ran the shooter through with a dagger into his back.

The shooters in the brushes were beginning to panic, firing wildly at any movement they could see. “Run!” Tythel shouted. “Run and live!”

All she managed to do was focus their fire back on her. That…suited her purposes perfectly. With the pressure off them, Eupheme and Tellias were able to dispatch the remaining three with relative ease.

The forest was oddly silent in the wake of the short battle. No animal stirred in the wake.

“That was too easy,” Eupheme said, stepping out of a tree behind Tythel.

“Agreed,” Tellias said, walking back their way with the unlight weapons slung over his shoulder. “They might have been arrogant, but that arrogant? I find it hard to countenance.”

“Because they were betrayed,” Tythel said, blinking in thought.

The other two looked at her. Before she could elaborate, Eupheme reached up and smacked her forehead with the palm of her head. “Right, of course. There were five of them.”

“And the sixth never showed,” Tythel said, “which means they were probably counting on him to assist in taking us down – they were arrogant because they had a trump card they thought ensured victory.”

“Someone who could enable them to watch us from afar,” Tellias said, arriving at the same conclusion as Tythel. “You think they had a Lumcaster.”

Tythel nodded. “A powerful one, someone able to bend light to watch us.”

Eupheme vanished into a shadow of the tree without warning. Tythel looked at Tellias, and then stepped behind him, pressing her back to his, her shield raised. I should have thought there might be an attack coming, Tythel thought, cursing herself for the oversight.

Eupheme reappeared a moment later. “He’s gone,” she said. “At least, he’s not with their camp.”

“A single Lumcaster couldn’t fight the three of us alone,” Tellias said as the tension began to drain out of his posture. Tythel was amazed she could feel it through the armor, but he’d been wound tighter than a clock spring. “We’re safe.”

“So…why didn’t he strike?” Tythel asked, stepping away from Tellias so she could see both him and Eupheme. “If he had come with the others…” Tythel didn’t need to finish the thought. A lumcaster could have hampered her, banished the shadows Eupheme relied upon, even restrained Tellias’ armor. It would have completely changed the slaughter they’d just perpetrated against their attackers.

“Do you hear him, Tythel?” Eupheme asked.

Tythel held up a finger to pause the conversation and listen. She could hear in the distance animals that hadn’t been frightened by the fight. She could hear the rustle of leaves on the winds. She could hear heartbeats, but none that sounded human. And she could hear a buzzing on the air, like the wings of a great wasp.

Oh no, Tythel thought, her eyes widening. “They’re here!” Tythel shouted, scrambling for the cover of one of the trees. “The flying Alohym is here!”

Eupheme and Tellias leaped for cover as a great beam of unlight lanced out of the sky and carved a furrow in the earth directly towards where Tythel hid.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 114

Dawn was cresting over the horizon as they broke off the road and prepared to make camp. The rest of the trip out of the town had been conducted in silence. Every muscle in Tythel’s body ached from being carried over Tellias’ shoulder for hours, and she’d had to fight the urge throughout to try and shift and make herself comfortable. You’re pretending to be a corpse; she reminded herself, a mantra that was repeated over and over again.

Leaving the Inn had been easier than Tythel had expected. Far too easy. There were bound to be Writ Hunters trailing them, looking to claim the ‘prize.’ Eupheme has whispered that, so low that only Tythel could hear her, and the entire time they’d traveled from town, Tythel had been able to confirm that with the distant sound of footsteps dogging their heels. No more than five of them, as far as Tythel could tell.

A far more manageable number than what they’d had in the inn, but still too many for Tythel’s liking.

Tellias dumped her unceremoniously onto the ground, muttering an apology as she hit the forest floor. There was no reason for him to treat her as anything other than a dead body, after all. She was valuable, but it wouldn’t make sense for him to keep her in pristine condition.

Knowing that didn’t help her desire to kick Tellias in the back for tossing her.

Tellias and Eupheme dragged some downed branches to cover Tythel, then they got to work setting up camp. Tythel took advantage of the time and cover to surreptitiously work out the kinks in her arms and legs. She couldn’t resist anything that might cause rustling, but flexing her toes and fingers wouldn’t show from above. Once feeling had returned to her hands and feet, she started rhythmically tensing and untensing her arms and legs, as well as her stomach and neck.

I’d kill for the chance to stretch properly, Tythel thought. The little bit of flexing was helping with some of the tension from being carried like a sack of potatoes over an armored shoulder for four or five leagues, but she desperately wanted a chance to get up and move about properly.

Also, her bad eye itched. Her eye had itched for the last hour. Tythel swore that as soon as she could move, she’d rub the thing out of its shadow-damned socket, so it would never bother her again. It was maddening to have an itch like that, one where her very survival depended on refusing to scratch.

Patience, Tythel, she reminded herself. Their pursuers had stopped as soon as they’d diverged from the path, making their own camp further down the forest. They were far enough away that without Tythel’s ears, they could have remained completely unheard. She didn’t know how they were remaining unseen – or, more concerning, how they were doing their observation.

“You think we’re being followed?” Tellias asked Eupheme. His voice was still echoing in the helmet, but underneath it, Tythel could hear a measure of strain.

“I think we’d know if we weren’t,” Eupheme said. “I think someone would make it very clear if that was the case.”

Tythel didn’t need to think too hard to read the subtext there. Fortunately, it seemed that was true for Tellias as well, who grunted in acknowledgment of the point. If Eupheme hadn’t been right, Tythel would have seized the opportunity to inform them. If just to get the chance to move.

“We can’t sleep,” Tellias said, his voice low. “Or at least, one of us can’t.”

Again, a veiled meaning, one Tythel didn’t have too much trouble following. She was capable of remaining motionless and breathing shallowly so long as she was awake. Asleep-

“Yes. One of us snores quite loudly.” There was a joking edge to Eupheme’s voice, and Tellias snorted in amusement.

Tythel had to frown. This was a veiled meaning, but she was absolutely lost. Tellias and Eupheme both didn’t snore in their sleep, so it couldn’t be they were talking about either of them. Was snore perhaps a coded phrase of some kind? Tythel turned it over in her mind. It could refer to a roar, although that didn’t quite add up. That could be about the difficulty of getting Tellias out of his armor without her aid…although Tythel had no idea how that would be a snore. Perhaps they meant…

Or, just perhaps, they mean you snore, Tythel thought, suddenly flushing with indignation. Which is absolute rubbish. They’re just taking advantage of the fact that you can’t retort, light forsake them! 

If they knew Tythel was fuming under the pile of leaves and branches, they gave no indication.

The fact was, Tythel realized, they were at an impasse. Right now Tythel had no way to alert them to how many possible foes waited nearby, nor did she have a way to strategize with them. They could strategize all they wanted, but they lacked any information as to what the nature of the threat was, and any strategy would give away that Tythel was alive. For all they knew, an Alohym was trailing them with a small army, just out of their earshot. The moment their aggressors realized that she was alive, they would…

…either flee in fright or charge and attack. Either of which would be better than this interminable waiting.

Tythel sat up so suddenly Tellias let out a startled, strangled sound, and even Eupheme jumped. “Yes, yes, I have arisen from the grave,” Tythel said, adopting the same annoyed tone Karjon had used whenever startling her. “We’ve got five of them, about a mile away. Don’t know how they’re watching us, but they have been since we left town. They’re going to know I’m awake any minute now, I’m sure of it.”

Tythel held up a finger to forestall any response. As she had expected, the moment she sat up, the sounds of footsteps started pounding on the ground – headed towards them. Tythel sat up and held out her hand for her hammer and shield. “They’re coming,” she said.

Five foes of unknown strength, charging the three of them. Eupheme vanished into the shadows, and Tellias and Tythel readied their weapons.

Then, pausing for a moment, Tythel placed her hammer on the ground and rubbed at her eye. She might die here, but she’d be forsaken by Light and Shadow both if she’d die with that flathing itch in her eye.

Satisfied, she grabbed her hammer just as the Writ Hunters burst into view.