The Dragon’s Scion Part 181

Otis worked in silence for a bit. “He’ll live,” Otis said after a bit. “I’m sorry, your highness, but that’s all I can say. He’ll likely never wake up again, and he’ll certainly never be the same.” He gave her a sidelong glance. “At least, not without the Heartflame. You’re certain it will work?”

Tythel did her best not to look at how dangerously collapsed parts of Tellias’ skull looked, tried her hardest not to listen to how ragged his breathing was. “No,” she whispered. “But I have to try.”

Otis nodded and began to pack up his medical equipment. “I don’t…I can’t afford to cover the tax after the two months,” Otis said. “Not without bankrupting myself quickly.”

“It won’t be a problem,” Tythel said. “Light and Shadow, my father’s horde is…it won’t be a problem.”

“Good.” Otis sighed. “I’m surprised to find you back here. After everything that happened in Edgeminster, I figured you’d want to be with the resistance. Reclaiming your throne.”

“We were separated in the ruins of Hallith,” Tythel said. It felt like years ago. “And we were leading away a monster that was chasing us. What happened in Edgeminster?” The question was an afterthought. She was so worried about Tellias, she’d missed the dour turn to his eyes, the way the word came out as a harsh whisper.

“You haven’t heard? Then…I’m sorry to be the one to inform you. There was a massacre. Hundreds are dead. Maybe thousands.”

Tythel stared at him, her eyes growing wide, and Eupheme gasped in surprise. “Tell me everything. Please.”

Otis sat back down. “What I’ve heard was mostly rumor and hearsay. The Alohym have not released a statement, and when they do it will probably be full of lies. There was…someone in Edgeminster. An Underfolk. That much, most of the rumors agree on. The Alohym arrived hunting him, including a thing that looked like a human encased in the carapace of an Alohym. And…someone else.”

Tythel nodded, feeling numbness creeping in. Another like Catheon, she thought. The same kind of being that had nearly killed all three of them. And there were more of them. What if the Alohym had an army of those things? They couldn’t fight that. No one could fight that. If they were waiting…wait. Her brain started to catch up to what Otis had said. And, more importantly, how he had said it. That hesitation, the way his eyes had gone to the window, a mixture of fear and anger creeping into his voice… “Someone else?”

“The hunt for the Underfolk became dangerous,” Otis said, like she hadn’t spoken. “A bell tower exploded. Everyone agrees on that. Then, somehow, the Underfolk hijacked the song network. He or she or…I never learned a good word for the Underfolk maharim, but it probably wasn’t one of them, since they never leave the caves. Although these days, none of the Underfolk do, so who knows?” Otis shook his head. “Anyway, the Underfolk takes over the song network in Edgeminster and starts playing what the Alohym and the…other person were talking about.”

There it is again. “Someone else.” “Other person.” Each time like he was avoiding speaking the name for fear of invoking some terrible curse. “Otis…who is it?”

“They were willing to destroy the town to get the Underfolk. Made it very, very clear that…that they didn’t care what happened to the people in there.” Otis’ voice cracked on the word care, and Tythel knew he was thinking about his wife, and how well the Alohym’s ‘mercy’ had gone for him. “They made it abundantly clear that the town was nothing to them, that Edgeminster could burn, even their own soldiers could burn. The entire town heard it, including the Alohym’s troops. No one knows who shot first. Some say it was the soldiers. Some say it was the townspeople. Some say it was the soldiers shooting at each other, or at the Alohym, or at…at her guest. No one’s positive. But…the Alohym shot last. That much is certain. They’ve got some of their ships hovering over the town all day round right now, and they say there’s a dozen Alohym personally on the ground, hunting down rebels. They say that the rebels include their own soldiers. They also say you’re there, fighting alongside them, or that you were there and died, or that there was no Underfolk and it was you instead, but…” Otis gestured to Tythel. “At least I know that rumor is a lie.”

Tythel took a deep breath. “Eupheme. We…we can’t sleep tonight. We have to get back up the mountain, get my father’s horde. The resistance will need it, and Tellias will need it so Otis can keep him alive.”

“All of it?” Eupheme asked, her voice carefully neutral.

“All we can carry,” Tythel said, giving Eupheme a slight nod. The Alohym slaughtered an entire town. She couldn’t wrap her head around that. It was too big. Armies clashed. People died. But cities…cities were wiped out in wars, but this felt different. Worse. In the past, it was done with swords and arrows and fire. Now it’s done with unlight and from ships that fly too high for anyone to fight against. 

In their initial invasion, the Alohym had avoided damaging civilian centers. It seemed those days were past. As dead as what passed for peace these days.

“Understood,” Eupheme said, and Tythel could practically feel the relief radiating off her.

Otis, likewise, looked relieved, and Tythel hated to shatter that relief, but she had to know. “Otis…who was it? The person you don’t want to name, I mean.”

“I don’t know for certain,” Otis said. “But some people claim to have heard the Alohym speaking to him, and some of the descriptions of him match…they match.”

“They match what?”

The next word was like a dagger straight to her heart.

“Nicandros. I’m sorry, your highness, but it sounds like Nicandros.”

“Impossible,” Tythel said, although she knew even as the word left her lips she was saying it not because it was impossible, but because she didn’t want it to be impossible. “Nicandros gave up everything to fight the Alohym. Everything. He only stopped when his son signed up with them. He wouldn’t…he would never betray us. He’d never work with them.”

“Never?” Otis said. “He was…he was close to Freda. Not me. But from what she told me, from what I saw, Nicandros was a man who would do whatever he thought was necessary. His hatred of the Alohym was only eclipsed by his love for his son, and he would do anything to protect his Tomah.”

“Tomah is dead,” Tythel said, the words coming out far harsher than she intended. “I should know. I killed him with my own hands.” As if their mention reminded them they existed, her hands started to shake. “There’s nothing else Nicandros can do for Tomah. All he has left is hating the Alohym.”

“No,” Eupheme said quietly, putting a hand on Tythel’s shoulder. “Tythel…he has someone else he can convince himself to hate.”

Tythel didn’t mean to let the sob out. Without tears, it was a harsh, ragged sound, and she clamped it down before it could be followed by more. Eupheme’s hand on her shoulder tightened, and Otis looked at her with eyes full of sorrow.

“There’s something else,” he said. “Some of the rumors carry the exact words. One in particular…he was demanding the Alohym give him his son back. Just like they offered…pardon the language. Just like they offered “that bitch her father.”

Sorrow is a powerful emotion, but it has little it can offer to hold off the advance of dread. Rephylon had offered her Karjon. Had offered her Karon returned to life with Alohym technology. Nicandros…what would Nicandros do if it meant he could have Tomah back?

Shadow take me, that’s the wrong question, Tythel thought, the fear taking root in her heart. It would be much better to ask what he wouldn’t do to get Tomah back? 

For the life of her, Tythel couldn’t think of a single thing for that list.

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 180

I’m very sorry for another silence after the last one – I had a family crisis, and that plus my continued illness left me unable to write. The family crisis is resolved and the individual is doing much better as of today, and I can breathe through my nose, which is goddamn amazing at this point. Thank you all for your patience and understanding. Especially to my patrons – I admit I was dreading seeing how much pledges had dropped in my absence, and I was rendered speechless to see no one had unsubscribed. You all absolutely blow my mind and I cannot thank you enough.
As I get back into the groove, updates will not be on a set schedule, but I’ll be shooting for an average of 3 updates to all stories every two weeks. I’ll have a set schedule by February, barring yet another crisis. 

If Tythel had any doubt about Catha’s honesty when it came to Freda’s fate, those doubts were erased upon seeing Otis. The man Tythel remembered was large and full of life and bluster. This man was half the man she remembered. He was thinner, his clothes hanging loosely like they were still sized for the man he’d been before. There were dark circles under his eyes, and his hair had turned the color of ash. The last few months had aged him decades, and Tythel wanted to hug him and tell him they would find the people responsible for his suffering and make them pay.

Unfortunately, the woman in question stood behind Otis. Catha looked as worried as Tythel felt. How dare you pretend to care for him? You did this to him. Tythel again had to restrain herself from leaping at the woman across from her and putting her talons to use. Eupheme’s hand on her shoulder reminded Tythel she needed to constrain herself.

Otis gave them both slight nods and got to work inspecting Tellias. It was clinical and detached, the examination of a man who had seen too many horrors to let one more nightmare bother him. 

“Can I be frank with you?”

Tythel nodded.

“Your friend here isn’t alive. Not in any meaningful sense of the word. He has a pulse, he’s breathing, but his pupils aren’t dilating to light, he shows no responses to external stimuli. If there’s anything of the man you knew still in there – which I quite frankly doubt – he’s lost in a private world of agony.”

“I suppose I did ask you to be frank.” Tythel said. “I just didn’t expect…”

Otis gave her such a forlorn look that Tythel closed her mouth. “Miss, I don’t want to pretend this is something other than it is. The best thing you can do for your friend right now is let me fill the bloodwetters with poppy milk. If there’s anything left of him, his pain will stop.”

“Along with everything else,” Tythel said, clenching her hands into fists.

Otis nodded. “I’m sorry. As much as the…as the Alohym have advanced what we can do for patients – and Light help me, it is infinitely better than what we did for them before – he is beyond our ability to help. A lumcaster’s too, though there are precious few of them left around. It would require far too much Light to heal him.”

“There’s a way,” Tythel said.

She expected Otis to protest, to try and convince her she was wrong. She didn’t expect him to close his eyes tightly, taking a deep breath. “I understand that hope, miss. I do. And I know how hard it can be to let go. But right now, your friend is just suffering. Let me do what I can for him. Let me spare him that pain.”

“No,” Tythel said. “You have to keep him here. You have to keep him alive.”

Otis took another slow, deep breath. It wasn’t anger, like Tythel had initially thought. He was holding back tears of his own. “Alohym law means that, unless his family makes a claim and funds his survival, I cannot prolong it longer than two weeks. After that, if no family has come forward-”

“What right does his betrothed have?” Tythel asked, snapping the question.

“She…would have the same right as family, although their claim would supersede hers if they came forward. Upon her instructions, I can prolong his life for two months. After that, I’m required to take a tax to fund the treatment of patients with a hope of survival.”

“Then I have two months to get you the money.”

Otis’s expression made it clear he didn’t believe her hasty lie, but didn’t care enough to protest. Or maybe that was too harsh. Maybe he just couldn’t bring himself to crush her hope. “I hope in two months, you’ll reconsider. The tax is…designed to discourage needless suffering.”

Designed to make sure only the wealthy can keep their loved ones alive, binding their hope to the Alohym and their machines, Tythel translated, though she held her tongue. “How much?”

“Two thousand keys a month.”

“I’ll pay it,” Tythel said, without flinching. A single jewel from her father’s horde would buy Tellias ten months of life. A dozen of them…if she couldn’t learn Heartflame in that time, then maybe it would be time to admit that Tellias was gone.

“Catha, can you check on the other patients?” Otis asked, looking over his shoulder at her.

Catha nodded and exited. Otis turned back to Tythel. “So it really is you?”

Tythel’s heart stopped beating for a moment, then started up again at a runner’s pace. “Really is who?”

Otis snorted. “Your disguise is not a good as it could be. Makeup covers a great deal, but your voice…I remember your voice. I remember how cavalier you were about money then too. A dragon’s view.”

“Otis…” Tythel reached out and took his hand. “I’m sorry about Freda.”

“Thank you,” Otis said. He paused for a moment, and a bitter smile spread across his lips. “Your highness.”

“You don’t…you don’t need to call me that.” Tythel’s nictitating membranes flashed, clearing away tears that weren’t coming. She’d lost her tear ducts at some point, and her eyes just burned instead. 

“He should,” Eupheme said, speaking up softly. “He is one of your subjects, after all.”

“She’s right,” Otis said, before Tythel could protest. “My father always claimed one day I’d treat the illnesses of dukes. I never expected to skip straight to the royal family. I certainly never expected to do it without knowing that’s what I was doing.”

Tythel winced. “I didn’t know either.”

“I believe that.” Otis squeezed her hand one more time. “You…have some dragon magic that can save your friend?”

“I will,” Tythel said. “I just have to learn it. Heartflame.”

“I’ve heard of it,” Otis said. “Heals like light. But instead of turning people into monsters, too much…too much makes them into dragons.”

“I’d say just enough,” Tythel said.

“Is that what your friend – your betrothed – wants?”

Tythel sniffed. “I don’t know. And he’s not…” Otis gave her a warning glance, and Tythel cut off her denial. “I don’t know.”

“Some would say you shouldn’t do that to him without his permission.”

Tythel had to rub her eyes to dispel the itch, the nictitating membranes not doing enough to relieve the need to cry. I’ll be past that one day. I’ll be like my father. My sorrow wont burn my eyes. “If he prefers death to being a dragon, he can fall on a sword once he’s healthy enough to make that choice. But I’ll be damned to the blackest Shadow if I don’t do everything I can to let him choose.”

Otis nodded. “I did say some would say. I wouldn’t be one of them.”

“Otis…you should know. Catha…she called the Alohym on me. What happened to Freda…”

Otis looked at her with eyes that had stared through a thousand torments and shook his head. “Catha wanted to. I agreed, your highness. I thought…I thought they’d spare us if I did.” The tears he had fought for so long finally began to mist his eyes. “I should have known better. That’s not how the Alohym show mercy. They only spared me.”

Tythel found herself unable to speak as the man who had saved her life and doomed the woman he loved collected himself. It took some time. 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 179 (Start of Book 3)

And, after far too long, we return to Tythel and co. I’m going to be holding off on trying to keep a regular update schedule until after the holidays to give myself time to keep recovering from illness and all that, and that also is delaying the release of early access chapters on Patreon slightly – but that will be coming as soon as possible. I’m so excited to bring this back. Enjoy.

Tythel felt like she’d never fully escape Hillsdale. Her entire life she’d wanted nothing more than to explore the town, be among the people so far below her father’s lair, see what they did and how they lived. She hadn’t thought of them as her fellow humans – she was far too much her father’s daughter to feel like other humans would be her kin – but she’d wanted to understand their lives, see the stories they lived with her own eyes instead of reading about them in tomes her father had gathered over centuries. 

It was darkly amusing how much she’d come to hate this place. 

Maybe if she had come here under better circumstances at at least one point in her life. If her first visit hadn’t been because she was clinging to life after being shot with an unlight beam and ended with her fleeing for her life alongside Nicandros. If her second visit hadn’t been because she and her friends were trying to lure a monster to her father’s valley for a battle to the death, a fight she had half expected to end with her dying in her father’s home. 

If her third visit hadn’t been because Tellias was clinging to life, a life she could save if only she’d been able to master Heartflame.

“Freda!” Tythel hissed, banging on the door once again, hoping the woman would be the one to answer the door. This was the place she’d recovered once before, through the kindness of Otis and Freda, and anyone could save Tellias it was them – or they would know where to take him. 

“Are you sure they slept here?” Eupheme asked. Her voice was quiet, and although Eupheme knew better than to whisper when trying to avoid notice, Tythel could still hear the tightness in her voice. She was standing next to the litter they’d built to carry Tellias off the Skitterer and to this place. Tythel could hear his breathing, wet and ragged. He’s not suffering. Not with his skull damaged like that. If Tellias was still in there in anything resembling awareness, his brain was far too broken for him to feel any physical sensation. But that didn’t mean his body was flourishing. It was barely clinging to life.

The slow death. That’s what they called these injuries these days. The mind was damaged beyond the repair of even Alohym medicine, too damaged to be healed with light without causing mutation. There was one thing that could heal an injury like this, and it was something beyond Tythel’s current powers. Yet if they could get him to the machines in time, he could be stabilized. Kept alive until Tythel could learn how to heal him.

If only Freda would answer the flathing door.

“I hear someone in there,” Tythel growled, and she raised her hand again. To knock, although she was a moment away from bashing down the door with brute force and dragging whoever was in there out to help.

She didn’t need to. The person inside finally began to move towards the door with hesitant steps, and Tythel could hear the scrape of a latch being undone. “Who’s there?” someone said, opening the door a fraction.

“Someone who desperately needs healing,” Tythel said, trying not to sound too angry. It was a woman speaking, and her voice was strangely familiar.  It wasn’t Freda, that was certain.

The figure on the other side opened the door. “What happened…oh, Light and Shadow.” The swear came as soon as she saw Tellias’s form, and her distraction helped her not notice the way Tythel’s eyes widened when she saw the speaker.

Catha Lambright. The woman who had sold Tythel to the Alohym, and had almost gotten her killed in the process.

Tythel was glad Eupheme had insisted on the disguise. Tythel’s wings had been a huge problem for getting into town unnoticed, but if she draped them across her her shoulders they could hide – barely – under a cloak. Add to that some modifications Eupheme had down with powder and charcoal, both to hide Tythel’s scales and alter how her features looked, and Catha was unlikely to recognize her. 

That didn’t stop Tythel’s hands from twitching in a reflexive clawing motion. Thankfully, Catha was far too focused on Tellias to notice.

“Bring him in, bring him in,” Catha said, motioning them frantically. “Careful with that litter, if you jostle him it could damage his spine…”

The way she trailed off made it clear Catha was already putting together how little that would matter with the injury to Tellias’s skull, but she was still clearly a professional if nothing else. Under her instructions, Tythel and Eupheme were able to carry Tellias up to one of the cots they had here for the most serious cases. “I’ll get him on a bloodwetter right away, and some medicine to kill off infection,” Catha said. “Then I’ll get Otis. He’ll be able to tell you more.”

“Freda,” Tythel said. Otis had vassilated on whether or not to report them. Tythel had far more trust for Freda’s skills – and her discretion.

The mention of the name had an immediate reaction on Catha. Her eyes widened, and began to glisten. She started to get to work on the bloodwetter. Tythel was familiar with the device – it kept you from starving or dehydrating while you were unable to eat or drink. “I’m sorry,” Catha said. “I didn’t…you knew her?”

Tythel noted the past tense and gritted her teeth. “Yes. I did.”

“I’m so sorry,” Catha said.

“What happened?” Tythel asked. 

“She was taken by the Alohym for abetting rebellion. When she wouldn’t tell them…she held on for so long, they say.” 

“She was executed,” Tythel said flatly.

Catha nodded, and Tythel couldn’t help but note that she wouldn’t meet either of their eyes. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

You killed her, Tythel thought, and if they hadn’t needed Catha to keep Tellias alive right then, Tythel didn’t know what she would have done. Freda had saved her life. The first human Tythel had ever met who wasn’t trying to kill her. Freda was dead, and Tythel hadn’t even known. I didn’t even check when I was here last time. There had been a reason for that, wanting to avoid drawing Alohym attention to this place, but now…now Tythel wished she’d tried to stop.

“Thank you,” Tythel managed gruffly.

“Your friend here…what’s his name?”

“Dommo,” Eupheme said, speaking before Tythel could. Tythel wondered if it was because Eupheme didn’t trust her to be able to remember the lie right now, or if she just wanted to speak before Tythel started clawing Catha’s throat out. 

“Dommo. How was he injured? Otis will want to know what to look for.”

Eupheme shook her head, putting on an angry expression. “Flathing idiot had heard rumors there was still a Dragon’s horde up in the mountain. We came along to try to keep him from breaking his fool’s neck. He pushed ahead of us in the climb, and…”

It was the only lie they’d been able to come up with that would explain how badly battered Tellias was. 

“Third person we’ve had try that since the dragon died,” Catha said, shaking her head. “Although I’m sorry to say your friend is the worst injury we’ve seen because of that.”

Eupheme sniffed convincingly. “That’s Dommo. Has to outdo everyone at everything. Even has to fall off a mountain and get more injury than everyone else.”

Catha smiled sympathetically. How can you smile. How can you smile through the weight of your sins? Tythel wanted to scream, but kept her mouth clamped shut. “Did you clean his wounds?” Catha asked.

Eupheme nodded. “Best we could.” There would be enough dirt from the transit where it would look like an amateur job. At least, they hoped. 

“That’s the only reason he’s alive still. No fever from infection yet. You did a good thing there.” Catha finishing putting the needles in Tellias’s arms. “I’ll go get Otis. You two stay with him, but put these on first.” She handed them a pair of fabric masks with strings in the back. “They’ll filter any contagion on your breaths.”

“Shouldn’t you have worn one?” Tythel asked.

Catha’s response was to open her mouth. There was something silver and artificial, a mesh behind her teeth that stretched as she spoke. “Standard for medical work,” she said, and now that Tythel knew to look for it she could see it flex and move. It was a strange thing. “They activate when we need them.”

Tythel just nodded and tied on the mask. “How far away is Otis?”

“He’s just downstairs. I’ll be back in a moment.”

Good. Tythel could hear what happened, and what she said. She gave the woman a slight nod.

Catha exited and there was nothing to do but wait.

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 178 (End of Book 2) (Resumes December 10th)

“An interesting theory Nicandros,” Poz said through the Songstone. Nicandros glared at the stone, trying to figure out how in the Shadow this was happening. “However, I think you have much bigger problems to worry about. See, you are correct about a number of factors, although you underestimate my injury.” That was a lie.

“Damnit, Nicandros, where’s that smithy?” Ashliel said.

“North of my position,” Nicandros said, but his words were cut off by Poz’s voice.

“He can’t speak. I’ve hijacked his song. Apologies, Nicandros, but I can’t have you speaking. Do you remember earlier, Ashliel, when Nicandros warned you there was a risk of a popular uprising incurring in Edgeminster?”

“I have nothing to say to you,” Ashliel began to fly towards Nicandros, and he waved to try to get her attention. Unfortunately, Poz’s voice was continuing in his taunting. As fast as Ashliel was, speech was faster.

“So you do recall. Well, then, did you know that the Alohym’s Songstones link perfectly up to the city-wide song network? Do you know that the Alohym’s Songstones link perfectly up to the city-wide song network? Of course you do, the Resistance used the same thing to broadcast Tythel’s message to the rest of this corner of the empire. But I don’t think that was the best use of that technology. I think it is far more interesting for the people to hear what the Alohym think of them.”

Ashliel crushed her Songstone in her fist, a childish display of frustration. “What does that mean, Nicandros? What is he doing?

Nicandros looked at the Songstone in growing horror. “Ashliel…these things. Do they listen at all times, in cast they are activated?”

Ashliel nodded. “Of course, why wouldn’t they…oh. Oh no.”

Before they could even begin to react, Ashliel’s voice came through Nicandros’s Songstone. Not just his, either. As Poz had promised, Nicandros could hear Ashliel’s words echoed a dozen times over.

“I’m not interested in questions of morality. These people are disposable. Our soldiers are slightly less disposable. The only three beings that matter, in this entire city, are myself, you, and the underfolk. There are millions to replace even the thousands that might die here. This isn’t a police action to protect the citizens, and I swear by my Father’s Holy name, if I must burn every living being in this city to ash to achieve victory, I’ll do so with a smile and a laugh.”

All around them, troops were beginning to slow down. People were staring up at the speakers in growing horror.

“These people are disposable. Our soldiers are slightly less disposable.”

“No, no no no,” Ashliel started to moan the words and took the air on buzzing wings. Shouts began to come from the ground as people spotted her rise into the air.

Nicandros slunk away from where she’d taken off.

“”If I must burn every living being in this city to ash, I’ll do so with a smile and a laugh.”

Somehow Poz was cutting parts out of the conversation as they had happened. Nothing changed the core meaning, however, and people were coming to realize that the flying thing above the city was the source of the words. People were pointing at her, shouting. Soldiers started to move towards the people, but Poz played another segment. Or maybe he had predicted what parts he’d need to play when, for maximum impact.

“Our soldiers are slightly less disposable. The only three beings that matter are myself, you, and the underfolk.”

The soldiers of the Alohym began to hesitate. The crowd began to mutter angrily. Someone shouted. Nicandros couldn’t make out what the shout was, it was too far away, but it began to grow. More people were gathering. Fury was building.

“We deserve to live!”

“She’ll kill us all!” Officers began to bark orders, telling their soldiers to disperse the crowd, shouting at the citizens to go home, adding more chaos to the clamor. Ashliel was circling overhead, and the crowd was pointing at her, their screams getting louder. Nicandros wanted to tell her to leave, to get out before the situation erupted, but she had destroyed her Songstone in a fit of pique and was too high to hear anything.

“Look at her!”

“Burn us to ash?”

“Disposable!”

Arcwands were levelled at the crowd, and Nicandros’s heart began to pound. No. Not this. Please not this. 

The motion only incited more anger from the crowd.

“They don’t care about you either!”

“You’re nothing to them!”

“You think you’re less disposable?”

“Who’s the other one?”

“I think it’s him! He was with her!”

A finger was pointed in Nicandros’s direction, and the crowd began to surge. Soldiers pulled out unlight shields and tried to move to intercept the crowd.

Then everything fell silent again, as Poz’s voice once again came over the Songstone, and now Nicandros knew he was listening in, monitoring the situation, and deliberately pushing things over the edge.

“What was it you said when you were brought before my father? ‘Burn the resistance, burn the princess, burn my very soul to ash if you have to. I know you offered that bitch her father if she served you. Give me back my son, and I’ll be your creature until my last breath.’”

Nicandros took a step back, but there was nowhere to run. The crowd surged again, their screams turning to pure fury, their taunts now aimed at him as well as Ashliel.

“Stop this at once!” The voice cut over the crowd, magnified somehow. Every head turned to look at the source. It was Ashliel, coming down to land on top of a watchtower. “Listen to yourselves! This is a cheap trick, designed to turn you against us. You think that we are the monsters here? We have given you food beyond what you had before us. Medicine that exceeds the greatest works you had. And have we been harsh? Have we been unfair? What have we done that would lead you to believe I would say such things – that I would believe these things? When we came to your world, we did not slaughter your innocent. We only fought the soldiers of the old regimes – the monarchies that forced you into serfdom. Are your lives not better under us? How could you turn on us, after everything we’ve done for you?”

Silence followed. Nicandros held his breath. That was it. That was what they needed. It would muddle the issue, confuse things. She could have sounded less indignant, could have been more conciliatory, but-

“Your resistance – apologies, your former resistance – relies heavily on support from the populace. Whenever their action results in the deaths of civilians, it reflects poorly on them. Their allies begin to withdraw. Their support begins to dry up. In the meantime, if we enforce quarantine, we are labeled as tyrants and dictators. By allowing the population to engage in normal activities, we are seen as the reasonable actors. If people die…it doesn’t make us look like the antagonistic force.” Ashliel’s voice, once again coming from the Songstones

“You put people’s lives at risk to win a popularity contest?”

It was Nicandros’s voice, and he winced, remembering what came after those words. Ashliel’s damning response.

“Yes. Revolutions aren’t won on battlefields or in back alleys. They are won in the hearts and minds of the people. And, by the same token, that’s also where they are lost.”

For a moment, it felt like time itself was holding its breath.

Nicandros would never forget that moment. That single, frozen moment, where it seemed like everything could still be salvaged.

Then someone threw a stone. It glanced off the helm of a soldier, sending him staggering. The soldier next to him, his comrade, possibly even his friend, snapped his arcwand back up.

Then he opened fire blindly into the crowd. A woman screamed.

And the crowd began to charge. More stones were throne. Soldiers screamed orders, and Arcwands began to fire again, and again, and again. The screams of rage began to mix with screams of agony of the wounded and screams of anguish from those standing near the dead.

Nicandros felt himself being lifted into the air. Ashliel had hooked her hands under his arms and was dragging him skyward. A stone flew in their direction, but she was able to block it with her carapace.

Someone threw a torch. A building caught flame.

Edgeminster began to burn, and the riot turned into a massacre.

And, Nicandros was certain, somewhere far below in the chaos, Poz was able to slip away with his prize.

It would later be called the Edgeminster Slaughter. It would be remembered as the day that seven hundred civilians were killed, and three times that many wounded, by Alohym in their attempt to catch a single individual. It would grow with each retelling as it spread from town to town like a wildfire, Ashliel’s words being twisted further and further.

By the time it reached Tythel and Eupheme, sitting at the bedside where Tellias was hooked up to machines that were his only chance of survival, Nicandros’s name was spoken of in the same tones as the foulest creatures spawned from the Shadow. Tythel hugged her friend, and together they wondered if their battle had somehow pushed the Alohym over the edge into slaughter.

By the time it reached Duke De’Monchy, they said it was seven thousand dead, and the entire city of Edgeminster burned to the ground. He knew that now, the citizens knew the Alohym were as terrible as he’d always feared, and the only window they’d ever have to fight back with a hope of winning was now. He swore a blood oath that those that died in Edgeminster would be avenged, and that tale was spread throughout the kingdom as well.

By the time it reached Poz, emerging from the cocoon in Lizardflesh, he knew he was responsible for the deaths, and wept for nearly three straight days. He too swore that the deaths would not be in vain, although his tale would not spread until far, far later.

It would not reach Armin for longer than the rest. He had the treasure horde of Grejax to deal with, using the Sylvani transporters activated by Bix to carry it where it could be moved to the resistance. By the time he heard it, rumor had been separated from fact, and the true number of dead was established at seven hundred and thirty four, with twenty thousand and ninety three wounded and thirty two soldiers dead.

It was the perfect time for him to receive the terrible news, because he could counter it with hope. With Synit and Bix’s help, he’d decoded Theognis’s ledger. He knew what the Vacuity engine was. He knew what they could do about it.

He did not yet know what to do with the two dozen golden eggs they’d taken from Grejax’s lair. He had questions about them, along with a great deal of other questions forming from what he’d learned in the lair of a long dead monster, questions that could only be answered by a woman who was now being called the Dragon’s Scion.

But that is all in the future.

For now, Edgeminster burned, and with it Nicandros saw hope turn to ash.

-END OF BOOK 2-

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Dragon’s Scion Part 177

Poz could not accurately calculate how long he laid on the floor of the blacksmith, insensible with pain, the stench of his own burned flesh filling his nostrils. The smell should have filled him with revulsion, but instead reminded him of how long he’d been in Manflesh and how long he’d been without food. His stomach was rumbling at the smell of his own burned arm, and the knowledge of that was another fact that he put aside in a box in the back of his mind. When he left Manflesh, when his intellect was sooner, many of these facts and information he’d gleaned while in this flesh would be lost as his intellect diminished to the point where he could no longer make sense of them. He was certain that he would not lose the knowledge that, when desperate and on the border of death, he’d been hungry for his own arm. That seemed like the kind of knowledge that would linger, something he’d recall when he woke up screaming later nights.

For right now, however, he had to ensure those later nights would occur.

The loss of blood he’d suffered when his arm had been burned off was severe. It had left him weak and his thoughts unfocused and muddled. The weakness was something that could be overcome. The difficulty in thinking was a far more serious impairment, since his intellect was the only weapon he had left.

Why did the Alohym care what happened to Nicandros? 

That thought seemed like it might be critical to uncover, but Poz lacked sufficient data to make an accurate prediction. Alohym rarely cared for what happened to the humans under their command. Nicandros was a valuable human, but not so valuable as to be worth endangering whatever their primary mission was. The recovery of the egg. They needed to recover it. It was vital that they did, because if they were able to get the egg then the only hope left for the world would be a young woman more focused on anger and revenge than freeing world from Alohym rule. A young woman who they could control, because the egg would be a tempting prize.

Poz forced himself to stand. It was difficult, and his vision turned black from the effort and from lack of blood. He reached for the Songstone, only to remember it was on the side of his body that lacked an arm now, and all he was doing was waving a stump in the direction of his pocket. He reached across his body with his free hand, his only hand, and awkwardly worked the Songstone out of his pouch. Trousers with pouches sown into them. I must remember it. It is a vast improvement over the current designs.

He flicked on the Stongstone.

His earlier modifications had allowed him to listen in as if he were Nicandros, hear whatever Song Nicandros was being sung and to hear what songs Nicandros was singing. It had allowed for other things, including turning it into a weapon of last resort. Perhaps there would be some insight he could glean.

“You let him get away,” Nicandros said. His voice was thick with pain, but underneath it Poz did not hear anything that sounded like reproach. It sounded more like confusion and wonder.

“I saved your life.” Ashliel’s voice was hard to make out. In addition to its natural buzzing quality, there was also the sound of wind whipping past her, and the background thrummed with the sound of her wings. “Would you prefer I left you to die?”

Nicandros grunted. “Of course not. I just…why?”

How convenient, that they’re discussing the exact information I wish to know. Poz thought it was easy. Too easy. Poz tried to calculate the odds that he would turn on the Songstone at the exact moment to hear what he wanted to hear. They were minimal. He then calculated the odds that this discussion was a bit of theater for his benefit, if they suspected he was listening in. Those odds were still small, but they were more in his favor.

“I’ll explain later.” Ashliel’s voice was curt, and Poz breathed a sigh of relief. If it was theater for his benefit, there was no reason for her not to give a prepared answer. This seemed more natural. They didn’t suspect he was listening in. Of course they don’t. The Alohym don’t understand how dangerous I am to them. 

“Hold on,” Nicandros said. “I think I might have something.”

The line went silent, and Poz tensed. What did Nicandros suspect? What had he seen? Was he outside the door right now, ready to burst in? Poz tried to figure out his chances of survival if he did. They were minimal. Poz walked over to where the anvil was and took out the egg, placing it on the anvil. While Nicandros investigated whatever he’d heard, Poz wrapped his fingers around the blacksmith’s hammer. What he was contemplating was monstrous, but no more monstrous than letting the egg fall into Alohym hands.

“He’s in a smithy about three blocks from me,” Nicandros said. “Or he was. You took off his arm with that last blast. I doubt he’ll have gone far.”

There’s still time. Poz lifted the Stongstone to his lips. It was time for his final gambit.

“An interesting theory Nicandros,” Poz said, setting the hammer back on the floor. “However, I think you have much bigger problems to worry about. See, you are correct about a number of factors, although you underestimate my injury.” That was a lie.

“Damnit, Nicandros, where’s that smithy?” Ashliel said. Three blocks could mean any direction.

“He can’t speak. I’ve hijacked his song. Apologies, Nicandros, but I can’t have you speaking. Do you remember earlier, Ashliel, when Nicandros warned you there was a risk of a popular uprising incurring in Edgeminster?”

“I have nothing to say to you,” Ashliel spat, but Poz could hear the undertones of fear in her voice. He smiled.

“So you do recall. Well, then, did you know that the Alohym’s Songstone link perfectly up to the city-wide song network? Of course you do, the Resistance used the same thing to broadcast Tythel’s message to the rest of this corner of the empire. But I don’t think that was the best use of that technology. I think it is far more interesting for the people to hear what the Alohym think of them.”

He pressed another button, one that would silence Ashliel. Well, it would silence present Ashliel.

The city of Edgeminster would hear what Ashliel of the past had to say. And in the chaos that would follow, Poz would be able to escape.

Ashliel’s voice was harsh when it came across the entire city, broadcasted so loudly no citizen could hope to not hear it.

“I’m not interested in questions of morality,” Ashliel said, her buzzing voice clearly the product of an Alohym throat. “These people are disposable…”

Poz tucked the egg back into his pouch and waited for the riot to begin.

Dragon’s Scion Part 176

“Give up, Poz,” Nicandros growled from the darkness.

“Question,” Poz said, pressing his back against the stone he’d taken cover behind, his heart pounding in his chest. Keep him talking. It would give Poz time to think, which even with his enhanced intellect he desperately needed. He’d already found an appropriate means of egress from his predicament, but it would high a high probability of resulting in his dismemberment, with a slightly lower risk of death. Slightly. He tore off part of his shirt and wrapped it around the knives to prevent bleeding. “In your experience, how often has demanding someone give up work at this point?”

“At this point?” Nicandros said.

Poz could hear him moving to circle around his cover, but the acoustics of this place made determining his exact location extremely difficult. Perhaps if I were to fashion some sort of amplification device, perhaps utilizing a series of horns linked to spider-web to detect faint vibration, I could pinpoint. The designs were half formed in his head before he reminded himself that doing so would be impossible. He lacked spider-webs, horns, and time. “At the point where it’s certain that defeat means death. What incentive do I have to surrender?”

Nicandros’s movement halted, and in the darkness, Poz could hear a low chuckle. It didn’t sound amused. It sounded more sad than anything. Nicandros was likely feeling sentimental about their time together before. “I forget how much of a pain in the ass you are like this. How long have you been in Manflesh? Clock is ticking, right?”

“Ah, yes. I fully intend to provide you vital intelligence in the middle of an armed conflict.”

“I suppose not. Can’t blame me for trying.”

Poz sighed. “No, I suppose not. I guess I should reward the effort. I have thirty one days, seven hours, and eleven minutes left in Manflesh.”

Nicandros’s movement halted. “You’re lying, Poz. You told me you’d burn out after, at most, half a day.”

“Perhaps I am. Or perhaps I solved that problem already. Perhaps I’ve be sandbagging. I suppose you’ll need to let me survive to test that hypothesis.”

“Sorry, I can’t do that, Poz. If you wanted to survive, you should have handed over the egg when you had the chance.”

“I suppose so,” Poz said, making sure his voice sounded with a bitter irony he didn’t feel. Right now, his only hope of survival depended on Nicandros’s human side. Fortunately, Poz knew exactly where he was most vulnerable. “Can’t blame me for trying.”

The echo of Nicandros’s earlier words drew him up short, and Poz could hear him hesitate again. Poz took the opportunity to pull the two daggers from his arms, clenching his teeth against the pain and moving quickly to staunch the bleeding. Battlefield treatment dictated a puncture wound should not be re-opened like this, but Poz was running low on options. Now, he at least was armed. “It didn’t have to be like this,” Nicandros said. “Light and Shadow, Poz, you could have just given me the damn egg.”

“Yes. And if it had been just you to ask, I would have given it. But you didn’t want it for yourself. You wanted it for the Alohym.”

“I wanted it for Tomah,” Nicandros growled. He was angry now, and his footsteps came quickly.

There’s the opening. Poz rose up, the daggers in his hands. “Then I hope you tell Tomah that Uncle Poz died on his feet.”

Nicandros was in the open, as Poz had predicted, and he stumbled at the words, the reminder of the bond Poz shared with his son. Poz flicked his wrists. The first dagger missed Nicandros by a hair, tumbling past his ear, driven off course by a spasmodic twitch in his injured arm. However, the motion brought Nicandros’s hands up to his face reflexively.

It left him exposed for the second dagger to sink into his gut.

Nicandros doubled over with a quiet grunt of pain. Poz frowned. The plan would not work with just a quiet grunt. He leapt over the barrier. Nicandros lunged for him, his hands outstretched, but the motion was rendered clumsy with pain. Poz wrapped his fingers around Nicandros’s wrist and moved past his bod, twisting as he did. Nicandros’s arm bent so it was stretched behind him, his elbow facing up, and Poz applied pressure to the wrist to drive Nicandros to the floor. “Scream,” Poz said.

“What…” Nicandros gasped. “You’re a sadist now?”

“No. However, the Alohym saved you from the explosion of the bell tower. She has an interest in your survival. Your screams will draw her attention.”

“Never,” Nicandros said, growling the word.

“Then I promise, when I’m back in a more empathetic flesh, I’ll feel terrible about this.”

He drove his free palm into Nicandros’s upturned elbow, bending it almost a perfect forty-five degrees in the opposite direction. To Nicandros’s credit, he didn’t scream at first, not until Poz continued to apply pressure to bend the arm further. However, Nicandros was only human. He couldn’t withstand too much abuse before instinct took over.

At the point his forearm was almost perpendicular to his back, Nicandros started to scream.

Now. Poz released the pressure and dove towards the entrance. The top of the bell tower was being torn apart by some force, a plurality of ink black arms rending stones from stone. “Leave him alive or your screams will echo across a thousand worlds!” Ashliel screamed as she ripped the top of the tower off with greater speed than Poz had calculated would be possible.

She descended towards Nicandros like a comet, one of her arms forming a protective dome to drop around his prone form. Her other arm extended towards Poz, forming an unlight cannon.

Poz dove through the door. The unlight cannon fired. Poz felt something tug on his arm, but he was in the street and running, and Ashliel was sure to waste time checking on Nicandros before she pursued. A simple brace will repair the damage, so long as the stomach wound does not go septic. Alohym medication will likely prevent that. Poz felt lightheaded, and as he ran through the street, people screamed and ran from him.

That surprised him. Humans tended to react with the least fear to his Manflesh form. He glanced at his arm, trying to see what the Alohym had hit him with. Perhaps some brand that marked him as a target, or…

“Oh,” Poz said aloud.

The arm ended in a stump just above the elbow. Shock was the only thing preventing him from keeling over in agony.

Several new variables raced through his head, although he had to remind himself that he couldn’t trust his own calculations. He’d lost a lot of blood already. Have to find Gecko when I’m out of the city. That Flesh can let me regrow the arm. Maybe. He’d be dumb for days, barely better than Grubflesh, but he’d survive if he could get it in time.  The regrowth was uncertain, but worth the risk.

Poz saw a smithy and dove through the open door. The huge man behind the counter bellowed in surprise, and Poz hit him in the throat with his remaining hand to silence him as he vaulted over the counter.

The man had an apprentice, one who raised a hot iron in a defensive pose when Poz burst in. “I’ve crushed your master’s trachea,” Poz said, not certain if he’d actually managed that. “If you get him to a healer in time, you can save him. If you give me that hot iron, I’ll let you go. What is more important, his life or his wares?”

The young man couldn’t have been more than fourteen. He blanched at Poz’s words, and although he likely didn’t understand what a trachea, he understood enough. With a curse, he tossed the hot iron to the ground and ran to the front of the store.

Poz shoved his stump against the red-hot metal. No amount of shock could spare him from the pain of cauterization, and his screams chased the blacksmith and his apprentice into the street.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 175

Poz caught himself on the line he’d secured before detonating the bell, slowing his descent enough to avoid injuring himself when he landed. High probability I killed Nicandros with that explosion. The Alohym hybrid creature, on the other hand, is an unknown variable. The only abilities I’ve seen from it is the ability to fly and shoot unlight from its hand. It might have been able to save itself or Nicandros. Poz considered the thought and shook his head. The idea an Alohym would save another was a variable not worth considering.

You killed Nicandros. 

There should be some emotion attached to that thought. Sadness at killing an old friend, satisfaction at achieving a victory and eliminating the only threat that could educate the Alohym on Poz’s current abilities, but at the moment all he really felt was a need to move to the next stage and prepare for the Alohym’s likely counterattack.

Every time it’s come at me before, it’s done so from the air. It favors rushing in and letting loose with a large burst of Unlight, then follows that up with moving into close combat when I’m exposed. His mind worked furiously, trying to find a way to counteract the advantages the Alohym posed. Forcing it underground would neutralize the advantage it had in flight but doing so would also give him little room to outmaneuver its beams. Engaging it in the open would give him room to evade, but no means of counterattack while it remained in the open. The only remaining option was engaging it within a structure. It would give him some room to maneuver, while limiting its flight. Except it would have no reason to not just bring the structure down around you. Human hostages were considered and discarded. The Alohym would not hesitate to slaughter any humans that stood between it and victory.

And, even if he engaged it in a structure, he currently had no means of injuring it.

Poz grimaced. Assuming the bell hadn’t ended the conflict before it even began, Poz was in an uncomfortable position. Enhancing his intelligence really only served to make sure he knew exactly how low his odds of success were against the Alohym.

Except it’s not an Alohym. It is a hybridization of some kind. Approach the problem from that direction. Also, the stonework on this structure has erosion patterns that indicate it’s at least a century old given average precipitation and weather patterns in this area. I wonder if there would be some way to increase its longevity. It occurred to Poz that some kind of coating over the stone could reduce the weathering from wind and rain, a sealant of some sort. Perhaps something based off of oil. If he could find a way to solidify it, the sealant would prevent water degradation due to oil’s hydrophobic properties…

Poz shook his head, trying to clear away the distraction. There were important things to focus on. His life was in imminent danger, and there was a very real threat of failing to find somewhere safe to feast on new flesh before his brain overheated and left him comatose and dead.

He felt the Songstone in his pocket. He still had a card to play. If he used it properly, it would create just enough chaos to escape. If he did not use it properly, it would result in the pointless loss of human lives and still leave him trapped. Too early, and the chaos would be subdued before he could take advantage of it. Too late, and he’d already be a smear on the cobblestones.

The only possible option for the hybrid is a human. So…what weaknesses does a human have that an Alohym would not cover? That was a more interesting question, because it was solvable. Alohym had a hardened carapace that made up for humans comparably thin skin, inherent sensory dampeners that made up for most of the human sensory flaws, and an extended thorax that provided additional mass…

Mass that has to be supported by the human knee and spin. 

The two major structural weaknesses in the human frame. Knee and spine. The Alohym’s hardened carapace would help protect it against attacks focusing on the spine, but the knee…it was a joint. Joints were weak points. A plan began to form. It would be risky, but it was viable if he could just-

A faint sound reached his ears and reflex drove Poz to leap to the side, rolling with the motion. A beam of unlight lanced down from the damaged bell tower and tore a chunk of cobblestone from where he’d been standing, digging a furrow as wide as Poz was at the shoulders through the streets and sending stone flying into the air. Poz kept moving as the beam started to chase him. He could see the Hybrid above him on the edge of the ruined tower – might as well use its name, Ashliel – and dove into the tower she was standing on before she could catch him in the solid beam of destruction.

He’d been so focused on solving the problem he’d forgotten to move. A flaw of manflesh. An easy one for it to figure out and exploit. Light and Shadow, it probably hadn’t needed to know it was a weakness – all it had to do was check to see if it could see him from the elevated altitude. Now he was in the tower and had blocked his escape path with his own debris. You’ll hear her wings when she starts moving again. Then you can-

A motion in the darkness of the room. Poz leapt back, his mind racing through the possibilities. Before he could figure out the most likely threat, pain blossomed in his left bicep. Sharp pain, sudden warmth. I’m bleeding. There’s a metal object inserted into my arm right now. His attacker had thrown three blades, along the primary assault path and the only two spaces Poz could reasonably move to in evading it.

Poz realized he was shouting in pain and made himself stop. Instead he lashed out with his hand, catching the fourth dagger before it could impact him in the chest. He hurled it back into the darkness but wasn’t rewarded with any sound of pain or drop of a body hitting the floor. Poz pivoted, heading towards the entrance.

A beam of unlight blasted down inches in front of the door before he could exit. If he’d jumped to the other side, he would have been moving through it at that exact instant and would have been vaporized.

Poz leapt into the air. It was an absurd move, one he never would have tried normally, but had the benefit of moving him out of the path of the daggers that were coming out of the darkness.

Another weakness of manflesh. Pitiful vision in the darkness. His attack knew that and was exploiting it.

Poz leapt again, ducking behind some rubble.

“Nicandros,” Poz said. “It appears I had miscalculated your odds of survival.”

A damaged arcell flew over the pile of rubble and landed next to Poz, pulsing and glowing with unlight. Frantic calculations told Poz he had five seconds before it detonated. Four now, it had taken him a second to calculate it. At three seconds, his fingers closed around the arcell. He had to reach out of cover to grab it, and this arm sprouted a dagger as well. He ignored the pain. Two seconds. He tossed it wildly towards the entrance. One second.

It detonated just after passing through the entrance. The explosion rocked the street outside, but Poz was spared from the blast.

Poz had escaped certain death and traded it for an uncertain survival.

It appeared there were other odds he’d miscalculated.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 174

The Songstone sprung to life again in Ashliel’s hands. What came out wasn’t the normal speech Nicandros was used to, but the clipped mishmash language the Alohym had taught their human soldiers. It was where terms like ‘flath’ had originated. The speech was terrible for conveying complex information, abstract ideas, or anything resembling artistry. It was, however, ideally suited for relaying hard data concisely.

In this case, it took the speaker on the other end just fifteen words to inform Ashliel that another squad, a group of three men, had fallen off the song in the same general area as the last five. Squads were preparing to cut off the streets leading into and out of that area, and the soldiers were already starting to search the homes along those blocks to try and flush out the aggressor. Skimmers were en route to begin patrolling the skies above the block to locate any sign of Poz from above.

“He is just a single being, yet he’s already killed eight. This is not some half-dragon or man clad in plate. It is a cave-sucking grub-eater.” The words came out in a hiss from Ashliel’s mandibles, and she whirled to face Nicandros. “Stars forsake us, what is happening?”

Nicandros didn’t look at her directly, instead scanning the ground around them. They were in a courtyard, and with the break of dawn people had begun to spill out into the streets. They all gave the Alohym soldiers a wide berth and curious gazes, but they were still present. Edgeminster was a large enough city that the presence of this many soldiers was not cause for alarm – at least, not yet. “We have to get the civilians out of here,” he growled.

“That’s impossible,” Ashliel said with a dismissive wave of her hands. “A city this large, at this time of day? We’d have to put the entire place under Quarantine.”

“Then put it on Quarantine,” Nicandros said.

“Nicandros, I know you’re new to our way of doing things, but right now no one can leave the city. These people might hide your little friend, but he cannot escape the city. The moment we enforce quarantine, we are going to be faced with possible riots. He could use the chaos to escape – and more importantly, we’ll lose our biggest advantage.”

Nicandros’s eyebrows furrowed. “Advantage?”

Ashliel nodded. “Surely you’ve noticed. Your resistance – apologies, your former resistance – relies heavily on support from the populace. Whenever their action results in the deaths of civilians, it reflects poorly on them. Their allies begin to withdraw. Their support begins to dry up. In the meantime, if we enforce quarantine, we are labeled as tyrants and dictators. By allowing the population to engage in normal activities, we are seen as the reasonable actors. If people die…it doesn’t make us look like the antagonistic force.”

If Ashliel had not been so potentially dangerous, if Nicandros hadn’t needed her so badly, he would have tried to drive his blade through her chest just for that sentence. “So you put people’s lives at risk to win a popularity contest?”

“Yes.” The word was as blunt as it was direct. “Revolutions aren’t won on battlefields or in back alleys. They are won in the hearts and minds of the people. And, by the same token, that’s also where they are lost.”

Nicandros clenched his fingers into fists for a moment, then forced himself to loosen them. “Girl, the normal rules don’t apply here. Poz has eaten manflesh. He was not exaggerating when he said he was the smartest being on the planet currently. The more things there are out there for him to work with, the greater the risk to us. He can exploit any loophole we leave him to grab ahold of. If he has to, he’ll kill thousands of people – morality means very little to him right now.”

“I’m not interested in questions of morality,” Ashliel buzzed the words harshly. “Nicandros, it’s very important you pay attention here. These people are disposable. Our soldiers are slightly less disposable. The only three beings that matter, in this entire city, are myself, you, and the Underfolk. There are millions to replace even the thousands that might die here. This isn’t a police action to protect the citizens, and I swear by my Father’s Holy name, if I must burn every living being in this city to ash to achieve victory, I’ll do so with a smile and a laugh.”

Nicandros did look at her now, fixing her with a glare that carried the full force of his rage. “You…”

“Want nothing more than you do, Nicandros,” Ashliel said, her voice now smooth as silk. “Tomah returned to us. We don’t get what we want if the Underfolk escapes. What was it you said when you were brought before my father?” One of her segmented fingers came up to her chin, and she tapped the space between her mandibles as if in thought. Something in the motion told Nicandros is was a mockery, that she knew exactly what he had said and was merely trying to score some kind of petty point. “I believe it was…yes. ‘Burn the resistance, burn the princess, burn my very soul to ash if you have to. I know you offered her father if she served you. Give me back my son, and I’ll be your creature until my last breath.’ Does that sound familiar?”

Nicandros turned away and began to scan the crowd again. The words hit him like a blow to the stomach. He’d been drunk at the time, drunk and desperate with grief and fury. He hadn’t even known it was Daemryon he’d been speaking to – just that he’d been hauled before an Alohym and thrown on the floor. He’d expected death, and had intended to go out with one final shout of defiance…but then he’d remembered the offer the Alohym had made to Tythel. The rebirth of Karjon. If they could give her that, couldn’t they also give him the same?

“So please, Nicandros, spare me your morality. We both want Tomah. We will have him. But spare me your pitiful attempts to convince me that the methods of conquest that have served the Alohym on a dozen worlds will not work here because you want to keep your hands clean. You will not budge me.”

Nicandros slammed his fist into a wall. Don’t argue. Get her moving, get her acting. That’s how you save these people. “Fine. Then we need to find Poz. Even with his intelligence enhanced the way it is, he’ll want to seek something comfortable to think. Send your soldiers into cellars, send them into sewers. The Underfolk like the dark places of the world, and we’ll either find him or some trace of him when we-”

Nicandros didn’t get to finish the thought. There, on the bell tower. 

He’d been so very wrong. Poz had gone to the last place Nicandros would have dared to suspect – the very place where Ashliel and Nicandros had just been. The same place he’d left his cocoon. It had been so long since he’d last seen Poz in Manflesh, he’d forgotten what it looked like. The Underfolk stood tall and straight, his back almost painfully rigid. His frame rippled with muscles – not the thick cords of a soldier, but thin and lean.

It was the eyes that Nicandros could never forget. Black as pitch and unyielding as stone. There was no familiarity in that gaze, no comradery. No friendship.

Poz slapped something against the side of the bell and leapt away. It detonated afterwards and sent the immense iron bell ringing as it was propelled from the tower by the force. “Move!” Nicandros shouted, lunging for Ashliel.

It was too late. The bell was heavy, and the tower wasn’t built for that kind of strain. As the slab of iron flew through the air, it began to pull the tower down to the side, chunks of masonry flying along with its arc to rain down towards Ashliel and Nicandros.

Ashliel didn’t budge at Nicandros’s shove. Instead, she wrapped one arm around him and drew him close, extending her free arm over her head. The arm began to widen and lengthen, going from a simple appendage to a disc that stretched out and anchored itself to the ground on chitinous tendrils. At the same time her skin pulled away from her face and the arm around Nicandros’s back, revealing a second layer of skin beneath it. Skin that had gone pallid with lack of sunlight, but nonetheless was human skin.

Stone crashed into the barrier Ashliel had erected. It drove the struts of her shield into the stone around them, but not enough to push the full weight of the stone on top of either of them.

Ashliel looked at Nicandros with eyes that were unmistakably human and, equally unmistakably, were in pain. “Why?” Nicandros asked. “You could have flown and-”

“Tomah…would never forgive me…if I let anything happen to you…” the words came out in harsh gasps, like her breathing was labored. Most of her carapace had pulled away to form the barrier, and what human bits of her Nicandros could see were weak and frail. “I can…get us free. But…you need to tell me how to beat…what we’re dealing with.”

Nicandros nodded, and his mind worked furiously as Ashliel’s armor moved like a mass of liquid stone to pull away layers of debris.

Right now, however, he was running terribly short of options.

Dragon’s Scion Part 173

Note: if you read part 172 in the first hour of posting, it was originally this part. Click the back arrow to get the real part 172. Sorry about any confusion!

Poz stood up from where he’d dropped the five men that had found him, sliding the Songstone into his pouch. What if pouches were woven directly into trousers? A sort of self-contained pocket so they could not be cut by sneak thieves? Perhaps sealed by some sort of abrasive cloth – I shall have to investigate the properties of brambles to see if there’s a way to replicate. Poz stepped over a bleeding man. The man would die in another five minutes and thirty five seconds. Poz could end the man’s suffering immediately with a quick strike of the heel to the bridge of the man’s nose, but such an effort didn’t seem important. What seemed far more important, at the moment, was an observation that the blood spatters from the earlier slaughter had produced a fractal pattern on one portion of the wall which implied some interesting things about the air currents in this room.

Manflesh. It was foolish to act like he needed to be reminded of what this state was, but he still felt the need to do so. Manflesh was forbidden for several reasons. The first and foremost of them was, of course, the related decrease in empathy that came with the heightened intellectual state. Most of the Underfolk thought that this decrease was related directly to some inherent property of mankind, an implication that humanity was by its very nature more cruel than any other animal. Having experienced it, however, Poz disagreed with that assessment.

The truth was, suffering was not inherently interesting, and mankind was an inherently curious species. When added to the Underfolks own curiosity and intelligence, things like suffering just had trouble holding Poz’s attention, not when there were so many more interesting things to hold his attention. The interplay of blood on a wall. The theoretical possibilities of sticky fabric on pouches woven into trousers. And, of course, his survival odds over the next twelve hours and thirty minutes.

That timeframe was important. Based on his observation of Alohym ship movements and their proximity, it was the minimum amount of time before a True Alohym arrived with a new deployment of soldiers. Despite his earlier boast to whomever was on the other end of that Songstone, Poz couldn’t actually calculate them that precisely. Boasting that he could however, had a high probability of unsettling has adversary enough into to believe him, especially because he’d convinced Nicandros of that possibility during his last time in Manflesh. However, Poz was quite certain that his odds of survival dropped below twenty-five percent if he was still here when reinforcements arrived.

That timeframe was also important for the second, lesser known reason Manflesh was forbidden to the Underfolk. The Underfolk had evolved to adapt the traits of any animal life they consumed. They had not adapted alongside humans, dragons, or Sylvani. Now that Poz was again in Manflesh, he’d come to the same realization he had during his last bout in this form. Increased intelligence had a byproduct – increased energy required. The Underfolk brain had not adapted to handle the temperatures required to sustain this level of intelligence. In twelve hours and thirty minutes, he would begin to experience critical internal organ failure as the proteins in his body denatured from the heat. In sixteen hours that organ failure would result in permanent damage. In twenty, he would be comatose, and two hours after that he would only be producing heat from the various organisms generating it as they caused his body to undergo decomposition.

I think there must be another actor to produce those heats besides insects. The ‘invisible demon’ theory of hygiene has some merit, although invisibility is unlikely. Perhaps they are as small to insects as insects are to us, and thus invisible to our eyes. Also, you’ve now wasted twelve minutes in contemplation, which is decreasing your survival chances further. 

Poz shook his head. That was another problem of Manflesh. The difficulty in prioritizing focus. Objectively, his survival was more important than the exact mechanisms of decomposition, especially since the decomposition would only directly impact his existence if he failed to survive. Yet part of him was imagining these too-small-to be seen creatures, ones constructed of simple proteins that could be controlled through the same heating mechanism that would slowly turn his brain into a liquid over the next several hours if he failed to shift out of Manflesh before the heat became overwhelming.

Also, while he was thinking this, his hands had taken out the songstone and began to open it. Another subconscious action, trying to tinker with an Alohym device that was millennia more advanced than anything humanity, sylvani, or dragonkind had managed to produce. Or is it? The Sylvani have shown remarkable adaptability to Alohym technology, perhaps it isn’t as unfamiliar as you previously believed. They were the ones to create the first arcells after all, and Sylvani physiology isn’t quite like any native to Alith, sharing more in common with deep sea life than it does with anything of terrestrial origin. Given that, there’s a high probability the Sylvani are, like the Alohym, beings not native to this world. Therefore it would follow that…

That train of thought was derailed by two simultaneous occurrences. The first was that he’d managed to work the back off the Songstone. The second was that three Alohym soldiers burst into the cellar where he’d taken refuge.

Human reaction time allowed them to respond to external stimuli in about a quarter of a second. Underfolk reaction time allowed for a reaction within a similar window of time. When those were amplified by each other, Poz was able to react in a quarter of a quarter of that time. Therefore, while the impending attackers were still taking in the carnage they were witnessing, Poz had already identified their presence, the threat the likely posed, and how swiftly he would have to react to be able to survive before they could begin opening fire with their unlight arcwands. At the same time they were raising their arcwands, Poz was calculating trajectories and force applications. Because, in addition to being exceedingly clever, there was one other things that humans could do better than any other native-born species of this world.

They could throw.

Poz whipped the back of the songstone between two fingers and let the disc fly directly towards the throat of the leading Alohym soldier. It crushed his trachea with a sickening squash of flesh. The man’s hands were flying towards his neck, but Poz was already moving out of the most statistically likely path of the remaining two’s arcwand fire. Their bolts followed their predicted path, bisecting the air Poz had just vacated, and his hand lashed up to snatch the disc out of the air on the rebound. He dropped into a crouch to avoid the next two bolts and hurled the disc again, this time aiming for the bridge of the soldier’s nasal cavity. It cracked the delicate bones there upon impact, and Poz followed its path to jam the heel of his hand into the base of the soldier’s nose. Shattered bones were driven directly into the cranium. For this particular soldier, death would be instant.

The third soldier took a step back, as Poz had predicted, and his action followed Poz’s expected models – to whit, he tripped over the corpse of a man Poz had stepped over earlier, falling on his back. Poz was able to catch the disc from the songstone again and hurled it forwards. It struck the man in his crotch, forcing him to reflexively remove his hands from his arcwand and bring them to the injured member.

Which meant there was nothing to protect him when Poz brought his heel down on the man’s face.

Seventeen seconds. I probably could have reduced that by three seconds if I’d dipped to the left instead of the right to reduce the distance between myself and the third man. 

Poz mentally noted that last action and began to look at the exposed back of the Songstone. Metal cables, lenses, and an unlight arcell.

Perfect. I think I can survive what comes next. 

And then there was the egg. It had taken Poz exactly three minutes upon emerging from his cocoon to collate the available data and figure out exactly what the egg’s primary purpose was, what the Alohym wanted to do with it, and why it was both essentially it be kept out of the Alohym’s hands without being destroyed.

However, if it came down to it, the egg’s destruction was preferable to Alohym acquisition.

He’d just have to make sure it didn’t come to that.

Whistling a tune he was composing on the fly, Poz began to work on the back of the Songstone.

Dragon’s Scion Part 172

As a brief recap, last time we saw Poz, he had found Nicandros, learned Nicandros was working for the Alohym now in hopes of getting Tomah resurrected, and had to run and hide…eventually consuming manflesh to try and survive. I tried to write the part where this gets recapped in story – let me know how that works as I keep experimenting with the “longer in one POV” thing. Also, I had to fix something on mobile, and formatting is messed up. I’ll fix when I get back to a pc.

Edgeminster swarmed with the Alohym’s troops. Nicandros scowled at them. It had been almost a day since Poz had escaped him, and so far there was no sign of Underfolk. At this point, it was very likely he’d fled the town completely. You damn fool, Nicandros growled to himself. If Poz had just given him the egg, he could have let Poz walk away. The Alohym would have what they wanted, and wouldn’t have cared about the fate of a single Underfolk.
But no. Poz had felt the need to lead him on a wild chase throughout the town and vanish. Now, if he was still in Edgeminster, there was nothing he Nicandros could do to save him when the Alohym found him.
Don’t say nothing, Nicandros thought. There was still a hope that he could find Poz first. Get the egg, let Poz escape. He didn’t need to die for this.
“You seem concerned, Nicandros,” a buzzing voice said beside him. “Are you worried that one measely little Underfolk could escape us?”
Nicandros shot the speaker a look. He knew what to expect – a form that blended Alohym and human. She called herself Ashliel, and claimed to be the half-human daughter of an Alohym named Daemryon. Nicandros didn’t know what to make of that, but given that Tythel had thought of herself as the daughter of a dragon, it wasn’t the strangest notion. Is there a human under that somewhere? The Alohym were being maddeningly stingy with information. It was almost like they didn’t trust him.
Which shouldn’t be galling. He had every intention of betraying them the moment he had Thomah back. But they shouldn’t be aware of that.
“Girl, there’s nothing measely about Poz. You underestimate him at your own peril. Or did he not lead you on a chase halfway across the continent.”
Ashliel buzzed in displeasure. “Have a care, Nicandros. You serve us, but your leash is short. You’ve yet to prove that you can be useful.”
“I’ve been dodging you people since before you were born. You want me to think like a rebel, and that’s what I’m doing. Nothing in our deal said I had to put up with mealy mouthed girls making vague threats. I had enough of that from Tythel.”
“You…aren’t like most men I interact with. Most bow and scrape at my mere words.”
“Most of them think your father is a god. They liken you and your siblings to the godlings we had before.” Nicandros shrugged. “I’ve seen gods die. I’ve seen godlings die. I’ve seen Alohym die. I don’t think anything can’t be killed. Makes it hard to be overimpressed by anything. Flath me sideways, you couldn’t even catch Poz when he was in Grubflesh.”
Ashliel whirled and closed the gap between her and Nicandros, leaving only a fraction of an inch between her mandibles and his face. Black liquid dripped from her jaws. “You are bound not to speak of that, human.”
“That wasn’t part of our deal,” Nicandros said levelly. The truth was he felt a shiver of fear down his spine from her implied threat. Ashliel was nearly as tough as an Alohym, and could move like lightning. From this distance, she’d have no problem gutting him.
But that would make her ‘father’ unhappy, and gave him a measure of protection.
“I’m willing to deal for that,” he said.
“And what do you want in exchange for your silence?” Ashliel asked. Even with the buzzing in her voice, Nicandros knew the sullen tone of a teenager sulking. He’d heard it enough of his life to be able to place it even through alien tone.
Opprotunity rarely presented itself so well. “If he can be taken alive, I want Poz alive. I have a fondness for him from the old days, and I don’t want to see him die needlessly.”
Ashliel’s wings twitched. “I can only promise to take that to my father,” she admitted. “The Underfolk are…problematic.”
Nicandros’ eyebrows raised. “Oh? And why’s that?”
Before she could answer, an Alohym soldier ran up. “Sir! Ma’am! We’ve found something.”
“What is it?” Ashliel asked.
The soldier pointed up a nearby belltower. “Some kind of organic residue, ma’am. It looks like a cocoon.”
Nicandros swore. “Ashliel, you need to take me up there.”
“You don’t give orders-”
“Please, pride later. The sooner we see what’s in there, the sooner I can tell you what kind of flesh Poz has eaten, and what he can do with that. It could be vital for catching him.”
Ashliel clicked her mandibles in irritation, but turned her scythe-like arms back into hands and scooped them under Nicandros armpits. “Have a care how you speak with me in front of the men. It doesn’t do for them to see mortal speak back to gods,” she said as they took off. Ashliel was moving at a more sedate speed, something that wouldn’t blind Nicandros as they flew.
“Why does it matter, girl?” Nicandros said. “He knows you could gut him in an instant, or blast him with unlight, and the most he could do is give you an earache with his screams. So what if he sees me get mouthy?”
“There is a system to how we handle things. There is a way things work. You…wouldn’t understand. You’ve been on the other side for so long, I can’t imagine you’d possibly understand. But you will learn. After all, Tomah did.”
Nicandros went cold at the name. “How dare you speak of him?”
Ashliel scoffed. “Nicandros. You know so little. Let’s just not say it was an accident I was chosen for this mission.”
He twisted to glare at her, and Ashliel sighed. Her voice lowered a bit so she was whispering the words in his ear. “I was chosen because you’re not the only one with an interest in seeing Tomah returned to the land of the living. I knew your son, Nicandros.”
Light, what does that mean? Surely she couldn’t be implying that…not when she looked like…
His mind shying away from the image, Nicandros was relieved when they reached the top of the belltower. Relief that was quickly quashed when he saw the cocoon.
It was open. Poz had already emerged. That would be a relief normally, but not with what he saw. The Underfolks’ cocoons would have traces of what flesh they consumed. Dark black fur would cover it for ratflesh, thick grey for Wolfflesh, scales for lizardflesh…he’d seen a variety. But this…
“It looks like human skin,” Ashliel said.
“Because it is,” Nicandros said in a hoarse whisper. “Ashliel…Poz has eaten manflesh.”
Ashliel scoffed. “So he’ll get, what, superior throwing ability and the gift of sweating? He’s already intelligent, so it can’t be-’
“Damn it to Shadow, girl, that’s exactly the problem. He doesn’t just become as smart as a human. He adds human intelligence to his own.”
Ashliel cocked her head in frustration. It was so close to Tythel’s gesture of confusion, it was offputting. “What does that mean?”
“It means,” Nicandros said, “we’re all in terrible danger.”
“We’ve found him!” said a voice over the songstones in their ears. “We’ve got him cornered in a cellar. Moving in.”
“No, damn you!” Nicandros shouted. “Fall back. Fall back!”
“Belay that,” Ashliel said. “Move in and eliminate.” She glared at Nicandros. “You do not give orders here.”
Before Nicandros could even begin to explain, screams filled the songstones. Ashliel froze in shock. “Somtimes, it’s best to put your pride aside,” Nicandros said.
“Hello,” said a voice through the Songstone. It wasn’t the person who had been speaking earlier. This voice was Poz’s, but it was smooth and cold in a way Poz had almost never been. “Right now, I’m certain you’ve found my cocoon and Nicandros has told you what that means. You’re likely formulating a vareity of plans to try and detain me. I look forward to your efforts. Based on available variables, there is a eighty-seven point three percent chance that those efforts will fail.”
“I have an army here. You are one man,” Ashliel hissed.
“Correct. That is why it is not a one hundred percent chance of failure.”
“I am a god,” Ashliel responded.
“And I am the smartest being presently on this world. What is a god to a genius? I suppose we will learn. My hypothesis is that you will fail. I look forward to testing that hypothesis. It should yeild some interesting data.”
“You-” Ashliel started to say, but Poz cut off his end of the connection. Ashliel shot Nicandros a look. “Well? This is your area. What do we do?”
Nicandros shook his head. “Hope for the twelve point sevel percent, I think. Let’s get on the ground. We’re in for an ugly time.”
Suddenly, keeping Poz alive seemed much less important.
Nicandros was much more concerned with surviving to the next sunrise.