The Dragon’s Scion part 107

It only took Armin two hours to decide that, of all the hellish places he’d visited working for the Resistance, the swamps that had once been Dor’nah were the absolute worst, and the reasons for that were so numerous that Armin was able to pass the time by listing them to himself. It was an exercise he kept private – venting to his cohorts would do nothing for morale, and for some reason that idiot Duke had put Armin in charge of this thing. I shouldn’t be leading anyone anywhere, Armin thought, and with that thought came fear, and with that fear came distraction.

Stop it, he chided himself. You’re being childish. 

So instead, he took the very mature and adult route of mentally categorizing everything he hated about this swamp.

The first was the smell that had assailed them when they’d still been outside the swamp. Now that they were actively passing through it, their skimmer kicking up brackish water, it was almost overwhelming. A combination of cow dung and spoiled meat mixed with the sulfurous stench of rotten eggs. Claricia and Guiart had each thrown up once from the stench, and Ossman looked ready to join them. Armin was keeping his stomach from emptying through sheer force of will alone. Only  Aildreda seem untouched by the smell, although that was because she was being plagued by the next item on Armin’s lists of gripes.

The bugs. The light damned, shadow forsaken insects that swarmed around them. Every step of the Skitter stirred up more of them, and they seemed to find Aildreda and Armin particularly delicious. Armin was taking advantage of his attachment to the Lumwell right now to keep a number of them repelled, warming his skin to be less appealing to the little pests, but Aildreda had no such defense. She slapped her arm again as Armin watched.

“If you want, I could try to shield you,” Armin said.

Aildreda shook her head. “It’s a pointless waste of Light, but thank you. I’ve dealt with worse than these biters before.” She slapped her neck and grimaced. “Although not so many of them.”

Armin nodded and let the silence return. It was needed right now. None of them really knew what they could be dealing with.

That was the worst on the list of complaints. The tension, the all encompassing knowledge that they had left behind the world they knew, the world of grass and field and trees and woods and lakes and beaches and seas. They’d entered an utterly alien domain, one that was ruled over by horrors beyond their reckoning, and they were grotesquely unprepared for it. Claricia was the only one of them who could lumcast, at least properly. Armin could deflect flows of light when they were right on top of a lumwell, but that wouldn’t do any good out here. Outside of her, they were all just good with arc weapons.

“Movement to the right,” Aildreda whispered.

All eyes, save Claricia, went to that direction, and Ossman raised his arcwand as he sought out the source of the motion. “There,” he whispered.

Armin followed the arcwands point to see what Ossman had seemed. It was just a shape in the mist and vaguely humanoid, although far too large and far too hunched to meet the description fully. It looked like there were vines or lichens hanging from it, and its clawed hands were bringing something unidentifiable up to its lips. It tore and chew, a grotesque sound that cut through the sound of insects and the Skitter’s gentle sloshing through the water.

“Hold fire,” Armin said, watching the shape. It seemed intent on its meal, and had given no indication so far it was even aware of their presence. How could it not be? It should be able to hear the Skitter at least. 

Ossman kept the arcwand trained on the creature but obeyed Armins order. For a few tense seconds, Armin thought that would be the end of it. The creature would continue to eat, and they would pass by unmolested.

Then the creatures head whipped towards them, and they could see its eyes glow in reflected light, wide and bright as will-o-whips.

Ossman didn’t hesitate. He pulled the trigger immediately. A beam of light lanced from the arcwand towards the creature. It bellowed in sudden surprised pain, and scampered away.

Armin let out a sigh and a relieved laugh. “It wasn’t something undead,” he said, taking deep breaths to calm himself.

“How can you be sure?” Aildreda asked, every muscle in her neck standing out from tension.

“Because the undead don’t feel pain,” Clarcia said. The entire time, she’d kept he vigil on the left side of the bank. “Not from light or flame or broken bone. Pain is something reserved for the living.”

Armin nodded in agreement. “We just need to-”

“Turn left,” Claricia said, interrupting him. She pointed out into the fog. “We’re here.”

At first Armin couldn’t see it, nodded for Guiart to turn the Skitter. As they grew closer, a shape began to form in the fog, one that resolved itself into clarity with each step. It was a stone structure, a tower that was probably once immensely tall but had sunken deep into the mud of the swamp. It loomed out of the fog, its open windows watching them like the eye sockets of an accusatory skull.

Atop the tower was the skeleton of a dragon, an immense shape covered in moss and dangling with vines. It was draped across the tower, somehow held together against the eons, but even from here Armin could tell that, in life, those teeth were each as long as his hand.

Grejhak Armin thought. The great dragon died atop his tower, alone and forgotten.

“Take us in,” Armin said, fighting a wave of fear. “We’ll find what we’re looking for over there.”

From his tower, the skull of Grejhak watched them mockingly.

The Dragon’s Scion part 106

“This place reeks,” Ossman grumbled, peering out over the landscape.

Armin clapped him on the back. “It’s a swamp, my friend. I have a feeling it would be a failure and offense to the Light if it smelled like roses and perfume.”

Ossman just grunted in response, although he did give Armin a small smile of thanks. Any bit of levity was needed. The swamp that had once been Dor’nah stretched before them as far as the eye could see, clouds of fog rising sullenly from the foetid water. Armin swatted absently at some stinging insect that took a bite out of his neck. They’d become increasingly prevalent as their little group had approached the swamp.

“I thought the princess said this was a forest,” Clarcia said from Armin’s other side, wrinkling her nose. “A dark and dismal woods or something like that.” The young Lumcaster had pretty much demanded to come, and since the they were possibly dealing with undead monstrosities created by an ancient dragon, Armin certainly wasn’t going to complain about having someone who could do more than use an arcwand.

“It probably was a forest when whatever book she was operating from was written,” Armin said, trying not to sound too defensive. From Clarcia’s grin, he wasn’t doing particularly well. “Landscapes change a lot, especially near a corrupted Lumwell.”

Clarcia grimaced. “You’re sure this is safe to pull from?” she asked, looking up at Armin. “I mean, you nearly died when you pulled from one that was tainted with unlight.”

Ossman grunted in agreement.

“It’s fine,” Armin said. “Necromancy doesn’t involve anything otherworldly like Unlight. You just stick a shadow in a body and bind it in chains of light so it has to animate the corpse. All that near a single lumwell, plus all the death that happened here…well, we’ll want to be careful because it’ll warp our casting, but it won’t harm us.

Clarcia nodded, though she still looked doubtful. Armin was once again reminded she’d never had the benefit of collegium education. She had to learn pretty much everything through scraps of lore and folktale, and had done damn well with just that. Once you’re properly trained, you’ll be the strongest Lumcaster to walk this era. Armin thought.

Then again, that wasn’t as big an accomplishment as it had once been. Most powerful Lumcasters were long since dead.

“I think we should all just take a moment to thank the Light that we took this Skitter.” Armin fought the urge to sigh. Guiart Botsaris was one of finest Skitter pilots the Resistance had, and having him along to drive their commandeered vehicle was a relief. However, now that he’d said it, if they all didn’t pause to actually thank the LIght he’d be sullen for the rest of the day.

It’s not like he doesn’t have a point, Armin said as he bowed his head, hoping Ossman and Clarcia would do the same. Guiart took a moment to beam at all of them as they did before bowing his head himself. The man was two years Armin’s senior but with his round face and oversized ears looked four years his junior, an appearance not aided by his innocent devotion to the Light that Armin hadn’t even seen from an adult since the Alohym arrived.

But it didn’t hurt to thank the Light, especially since Guiart being with them had been unintentionally fortuitous. The plan had been to take horses the entire way here, but Ossman’s had broken its leg and Clarcia’s had taken sick. Duke d’Monchy had given them Guiart to them in large part, Armin suspected, because even he found the man’s relentless proselytizing tiring.

However, when they were down two horses, having someone who could operate a Skitter had been fortuitous. Now that they were faced with a swamp the Skitter could traverse easily but likely would have sucked horses down to their deaths, it was hard not to see it as a direct divine blessing.

Of course, if we were really blessed, we wouldn’t need to raid the lair of Tythel’s great-great-great however many times flathing great ancestor, the terrible necromantic dragon Grejhak. We wouldn’t need to because I would have figured out that flathing translation by now. 

That was the real reason Armin hadn’t fought d’Monchy harder on this expedition. The idea that somehow, Grejhak’s horde had been unmolested for nearly ten thousands years was nearly impossible to countenance. But the idea they might find some of the ancient writings of Dor’nah to aid him in translating Theognis’ cypher…that, at least, Armin could be sure of.

“Enough silence,” said another voice. “We’ve given thanks to the Light, and I’ll thank it again when we’ve started moving.”

Armin smiled in response to this voice. It belonged to Aildreda Kollias, the last member of their little expedition, and Armin was glad to have her here. She was one of the most dangerous human women in the Resistance, a Woodwalker whose grandfather had trained with Lathariel herself, or so they said. Armin couldn’t speak to her grandfather’s skills, but could speak to Aildreda. She could track a mouse after it had been plucked off the ground in a hawk’s talons. Armin had seen her do it.

Oh, granted, the hawk had still been in sight, but she’d sold it well enough too fool him for a full minute, which was every bit as good in Armin’s view.

“Aildreda is right,” Armin said to Guiart. “Let’s get moving again. We’ve got a lot of swamp to cover.”

Guiart pouted – a grown man, pouting! – but he put his hands on the Skitter’s lattice mind and began to walk into the swamp. The long, thin legs that gave the Skitter its name sunk down into the swamp, but the filthy water was shallow enough to allow them to pass. The lattice mind was constantly scanning through the water, looking for solid patches of ground where the narrow legs wouldn’t sink – far better than a horse would have done.

“Alright, everyone,” Armin said as Guiart focused on guiding the lattice mind, “we don’t know exactly what we’re looking for, and Tythel’s directions – what little of them there are – were based on this being a forest, not a swamp. We have to assume missing landmarks, at the very least. Aildreda, I want you sitting up front with Guiart. Try and find anything that might have been a path.”

Aildreda nodded and gave Armin a wink before sliding into the seat next to Guiart.

“Clarcia, I want you on the left. Ossman, on the right. If either of you see anything move out there, give it just a few seconds to prove its not hostile, then light it up and burn it to a cinder. We won’t start any forest fires out here, and I don’t want anyone dying because we decided to be nice.”

Claricia followed without delay, but Ossman gave Armin a raised eyebrow. “And what will you be doing, oh fearless leader?”

Armin gave Ossman the most disarming grin he could manage. “I’ll be fulfilling my most vital role. I’ll be sitting in the back, charging our arccells.”

He wished that had sounded less bitter than he felt.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 105

The sun was setting over Emerita, sinking below the horizons and casting long shadows over the town. It glowed red as it dipped, and illuminated the sky with bands of color from red all the way to indigo. Strips of unlight sapped the color along the edge of each band, ugly breakages of the normally beautiful sunset. Tythel wondered if they were new, or if she was just now noticing them. Surely they hadn’t been there back when she was living with Karjon. She’d watched the sunset numerous times from the edge of the lair, staring as intently as she dared as day bled into night.

Dusk and dawn had always been evil times, when the world was between the Light and the Shadow and not fully under the protection of either. Now that they were revealing unlight corruption that stretched even into the sky, they showed exactly what evil was lurking between the two. The Alohym had taken the domain that had once been filled with demons and fel spirits, and unlike their predecessors, they walked Alith whenever they wished.

They were back in Tythel and Eupheme’s room. Tellias was perched on the edge of the table, slicing off chunks of an apple with a book open across his knees. It was this year’s almanac, and he was trying to figure out if they should be wary of any storms on their path. Tythel had been laying back in her bed, Karjon’s notebook open in her lap, when the setting sun had caught her attention. She was just about to ask Tellias how long ago he’d started noticing those unlight bands, or if he even had, when they were interrupted.

“I think I know what had Eliert so spooked,” Eupheme announced, stepping out of the shadow behind the dresser. Tellias nearly fell off the edge of table he was sitting on. At least his stumbling covered up Tythel starting at the sudden sound.

“Is it because you popped out of flathing nowhere?” Tellias asked, shooting Eupheme a glare. “You keep that up, you’re going to send me to the Shadow early.”

“I’ve never managed to send someone to the Shadow just by showing up, so that would be a treat,” Eupheme said with a smile. “But I doubt it. Usually when I send someone to the shadow, I need to be a bit more direct with it.”

Tellias sighed. “Has it ever occured to you how unfathomably rude that is?”

“Of course,” Eupheme said brightly. “Several times a day. But then I remember that I could not possibly care any less about rudeness, and I push it aside. Now, m’lord, do you want to hear what I learned or chastise me for being infinitely more amusing than you give me credit for?”

“Of course we want to hear,” Tythel said before Tellias could needle her further. “Or at least, I want to hear, and Tellias is going to listen.” Anything’s better than the two of them bickering, Tythel added, although she kept the thought to herself. Ever since they’d left Hallith, Eupheme and Tellias had found reasons to snipe at each other at every opportunity. Tellias thought that Eupheme should give him the respect his station deserved, and Eupheme thought Tellias was a stuck up prig that could handle being brought down a peg or twelve hundred.

At least, that’s what each of them told her. Tythel had hoped that the tension between herself and Eupheme had been the root of the Umbrist needling Tellias at every opportunity, but it seemed that the Light didn’t favor her in that regard. Eupheme gave Tellias a deliberately childish smirk – at least, Tythel thought that’s what it was – before pulling something out of her pocket.

“This has been going around.” She showed it to Tythel first.

It was a Death Writ, the kind that was used in the days of the old kingdom. Tythel had seen them in history books before. They were used for the most despicable of criminals, monsters the crown could not capture or find, making sure they had no safe haven in any law abiding town or villiage – turning the entire kingdom into a weapon against a single individual. Anyone who managed to bring back proof of death for the subject of a Death Writ would find themselves elevated to the rank of Minor Baron – or if already of the nobility, elevated even higher – and given land and wealth to support that rank.

At least, that was how it had been. Tythel wasn’t certain what the Alohym awarded those who managed to fill the Death Writ, and the Writ didn’t make it clear what would be awarded.

Looking down at the paper, seeing her own face – complete with eyepatch – Tythel was left to wonder what the person who killed her would be given.

“Why would this have made him nervous?” Tythel asked, fighting against the sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach. “He didn’t see my face.”

“But the veil didn’t hide the eyepatch,” Eupheme said as Tellias glowered at the paper. “Eliert may be a worm, but he’s not a stupid worm. A Xhaod warrior maiden showing up wearing an eyepatch? With these floating around? It doesn’t take a vast intellect to determine that you were the same.”

“We have to get moving,” Tellias said, his voice hoarse. “Even if Eliert doesn’t turn on us…how many people saw you?”

Tythel blinked rapidly as she thought. “There was the meat vendor, and there was Eliert and his thugs, and there were several dozen people in the market, and the innkeeper, and…” Tythel sighed. “Too many. Far too many.”

Eupheme nodded, her humor from earlier gone. “We leave after the sun has finished setting, under the domain of the Shadow. I wanted to see if we could purchase a Skitter, but…”

Tythel agreed. “Even if we could afford one, which is questionable, it’s too big a risk. The cart will have to do.”

“What about horses?” Tellias asked.

“If we can’t steal any,” Eupheme said, “We’ll have to drag the cart. Now that we have a cell and mind for your armor, you and Tythel can share the burden.”

Tellias looked like he wanted to object to being a beast of burden, but before he could, Tythel held up a hand to silence him. “Sounds from downstairs,” she said.

The sound of arccells charging.

“I don’t think we can wait until nightfall,” she said, her voice tense. “Writ hunters are here already, in the common room.”

No more words were spoken as they scrambled to grab what they could before they had to choose between fight and flight.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 104

The sound of the Skimmers reversing course never reached Tythel’s ears. The Skimmers carried on, flying off to wherever they had been heading in the first place. Tythel’s heart still pounded in her chest. They might have sent a song to some soldiers in the area, they might have…

Might have said what? All they would have seen is a group of people, gathered in an alley. The crate could have just been closed with the warning she had given. Even without it though, a group of people lunging into a building is hardly something worth dispatching a squad of soldiers to investigate. Probably, at least, Tythel reminded herself. She didn’t want to second guess the Alohym too hard – they’d surprised her before, and it could easily happen again.

“What the flath is a Skimmer?” Eliert hissed, emphasizing the curse.

“A new thing of the Alohym,” Eupheme explained in hushed terms. “They’re flying creatures, far faster than the Alohym’s vessels.”

Eliert’s eyes narrowed. “I’ve never heard of a Skimmer before. How did you?”

“We’ve encountered them. I think they’re new – we barely got away last time.” Eupheme shrugged.

Tythel took a moment to look around the room. They were in the back of some store, from the sounds on the other side of the wall. In here were a large variety of crates, though none were as big as the one Tythel carried, and all were labeled with glyphs that indicated they were shipped through proper channels. She didn’t need her nose picking up whiffs of fresh paint to inform her that some of those glyphs were forgeries.

Light came from a single arcglobe that hung near a door that lead into the back of the shop. Tythel could hear a couple people talking out there, haggling over the price over a heat extractor.

“Awfully convenient,” Eliert said, drawing Tythel back to the problem in front of her. “An Alohym invention no one else has heard of, and we get warned of by the veiled maiden who – somehow – heard them before anyone else did.” He reached to the single hand arcwand that hung at his side.

“Eliert, what are you suggesting?” Tellias asked, tensing up himself.

Eliert’s eyes were taking on the wild look of a trapped animal. “How in the shadow is she still holding that crate? It’s over twenty-five stones, and she’d holding it like it’s full of feathers!”

“Just stay calm,” Eupheme said, taking a half step back, placing her foot in one of the shadows cast by the shelves that surrounded them. “Eliert, I’ve worked with you before. You know me.”

Eliert let out a laugh that held an edge of hysteria. “Do I? Do I really, ‘Grendella’? That’s not even your real name, is it?”

“Of course not,” Eupheme said, putting on her best soothing voice. “I’m not a flathing idiot, tossing around my real name for these kinds of purchases. Light, it’s not like Eliert’s your real name.”

His eyes widened, and Eliert clenched his teeth.

“Oh, shadow forsake me,” Eupheme swore, her hands going to her daggers. “It is your real name.”

“Kill them,” Eliert hissed.

Tythel dove forward before he even finished the word, bringing the heavy crate down to collide with his face. The impact hit the moment Eliert got the word out of his mouth, and he rocked back, the arcwand tumbling from his fingers. Something cracked under the impact, and a small part of Tythel hoped it was Eliert’s face and not some of their goods. She lashed out with her foot and kicked it away from the fight. It set her off balance, and she stumbled to the side, barely righting herself before the weight sent her tipping over.

The two bruisers Eliert had hired had pulled out their clubs. “Don’t, you idiots,” Tythel snapped, pitching her voice as low as she dared. Eliert lay on the ground, clutching his nose and groaning in pain. “Do you want to bring the Alohym down on us?”

“And more importantly,” Eupheme said from behind one of the thugs, “do you want to still be breathing?” There was a dagger pressed to the man’s throat, and his eyes widened. She’d taken advantage of the distraction Tythel had provided to step through the shadows, which made her usual vanishing trick even more unnerving than usual.

The man with the dagger to his throat dropped the club, and his companion followed suit. “Good choice,” Eupheme said, not moving her dagger.

“She broke my nose!” Eliert growled from the floor. “She broke my flathing nose!”

“You pulled an arcwand,” Tellias said, walking over to bend down and look at the man. “You pulled an arcwand in the middle of a crowded chamber when the Alohym could have spotted us. Light, how have you survived this long selling black market goods?”

Eliert responded with a string of curses that Tythel didn’t understand, but they sounded incendiary. “What do we do with him?” Tythel asked.

Eupheme and Tellias shared a look, and Tythel fought down a curse of her own. This wasn’t a look she’d seen before, but it seemed to have weight and gravity behind it. I am getting better, she reminded herself, but it was a cold comfort when it seemed like everyone else on the planet could share looks that seemed to hold entire conversations in a glance.

“We leave him,” Tellias said, and Eupheme gave a reluctant nod. “He has as much to lose as us if he goes running to the Alohym.”

“More, really,” Eupheme amended. “As dimly as the Alohym look on people who purchase goods illegally, they take an even more unkind view to those that sell them.” That last sentence was for Eliert’s benefit, Tythel was sure. It didn’t make sense for the Alohym to prioritize the sellers of weapons over the buyers, especially with an active rebellion.

Eliert went pale, and Tythel hoped that meant he got the message. “Fine,” Eliert spat. “But don’t come around to me anymore, you hear me? We’re done!”

Eupheme gave Eliert a tight-lipped smile as she stepped out from behind the thug. “Believe me, Eliert, I wouldn’t dream of it.”

With that, the three of them exited the dark back room.

 


 

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The Dragon’s Scion Part 103

I’m making a big push to do this full time. Click here for more information – including getting Friday’s post right now, and previously unreleased King of Hell artwork!

Tellias was waiting for them at the end of the alley, dressed in a laborer’s simple white tunic that was slightly damp with sweat from the heat. Three other men were with him. Two were also dressed in simple clothing, large and well-muscled, and had a hard look to their eyes Tythel had seen in the most veteran resistance fighters. The remaining man was dressed nicer, with a black shirt that gleamed with the sheen of silk. His hair was plastered to his forehead with sweat, and his face was turning red. Probably shouldn’t wear black in this weather, Tythel thought, glad that heat didn’t touch her.

“Ahhh,” the man said, “the lovely Grendella returns, and brings her mythical Warrior Maiden companion – not so mythical, though. Tell me, Warrior Maiden, what do you call yourself? Grendella didn’t deign to share your name.”

Eupheme – or ‘Grendella,’ Tythel supposed – barely even flinched. She needn’t have worried. “I am called Zimiri,” Tythel said, her voice casual. “If you wish my true name, you can taste my steel.”

The man studied her for a moment, then nodded to himself. “Sounds enough like what I’ve heard. I don’t like working with people who cover their faces, Ulmar.”

That last comment seemed directed at Tellias, who gave the silk-clad man a casual shrug. “And I don’t like trusting my security to hired thugs. Zimiri’s honor means my wallet stays secure.”

After a moment, the man sighed. “I suppose I can’t argue with that. Or, to be more accurate, I could, but I’d rather be done with the lot of you.” He turned and gave Tythel a low bow. “I may be called Eliert and mean no offense. These are dangerous times for men such as myself, and every caution must be taken.”

Tythel gave Eliert a faint nod of her head. From the look in Eliert’s eyes, she’d passed that test too – the warrior maidens only bowed before initiating combat. Thank you, father, for all your lessons. “And do you have what we need?” Eupheme asked, taking back control of the conversation.

Eliert gave her a broad grin. Tythel wasn’t sure exactly how to read it – was he amused? Frustrated? Something about this man was throwing off her ability to read people. Probably because he’s a liar, Tythel reasoned.  “Grendella. In all the times we’ve worked together, have I ever not had what you needed?”

“There was the time in Queensfall,” Eupheme said with a roll of her eyes.

“Hey, that wasn’t on me, that was on-”

“And the time in Oxhaven,” Eupheme said, crossing her arms.

Eliert held up his hands. “What was I supposed to do, there were a dozen-”

And then there was-”

Eliert threw up his hands. “All right, all right, fine, I see your point. Yes, I have what you need. Do you have the keys for it?”

Eupheme motioned to Tythel, who held up a bag and jingled its contents. “I let the deadly assassin carry the money,” Eupheme said, and Tythel thought she was used to Eupheme’s expressions well enough to see a sparkle of amusement in her eyes.

“Probably a good call.” Eliert held out his hand. Tythel glanced at Eupheme, who’s eyes narrowed.

“The goods, Eliert?” she said.

Eliert sighed and glanced at Tellias. “Your ladies aren’t particularly trusting, Ulmar, are they?”

Tellias gave Eliert a flat look. “I told Zimiri to slit your throat the first time you started to act suspect, Eliert. They’re every bit as trusting, and twice as patient.”

The two men on either side of Eliert tensed and gave Tythel appraising gazes. She met their gaze, wondering what they saw there. Certainly not fear. These two brutes couldn’t threaten Tythel without weapons more advanced than the crude clubs on their sides, and that was if she was alone. With Eupheme at her back, the only thing she had to worry about was getting Tellias to safety before someone crushed his skull.

Whatever they saw, they didn’t like. They tensed up further and the air grew tense. Tythel readied herself to spring, Eupheme’s hands went to her daggers, Tellias reached for his long, thin blade, and the brutes reached for their clubs.

Then Eliert started laughing. “I should have known anyone who could run with Grendella would have the sense of humor of a flathing aeromane that’s been kicked between the legs. I have the goods, no worries.” He stepped back into the doorway behind him.

The tension faded from the air, and the two guards gave Tythel a sheepish grin. “Don’t like the idea of fighting one of you,” he said.

Tythel just gave him a slight nod, remembering Eupheme’s interdiction against speaking too much. Instead, she strained her ears to listen to Eliert as he moved boxes around. “Too damn hot to hold on to anyway. Need to get out of this flathing town for a bit after this, yes I do.”

Eliert dragged a crate out from the room he was in. “Hey, you two!” he barked. “Put those bulging sinews to good use and help me with this.”

The thugs glanced at each other. The one that had spoken shrugged and stepped in to help Eliert with the crate. They came out, struggling to carry the crate between them. “As promised,” Eliert said, putting it down into the dirt where it settled in with a hard thunk. Eliert glanced down the alley to make sure no one was coming, then kicked the lid slightly to slide it, revealing the contents. “Ten weapon arccells – fully charged, so a hundred shots each – two long range arcwands, a close range ringwand, and one Skitter arccell and lattice mind. Don’t know why you want the last two, and don’t care. Now, my keys?”

Eupheme gave Tythel a slight nod, and Tythel tossed the bag of coins to Eliert. He opened it up and shook it a few times next to his ear, listening to the clinks. He then took one of the coins out and bit down on the soft gold. “Alright. Guess our business is-”

Tythel’s eye widened, and she missed the rest of what Eliert had to say. A sound had reached her ears – distant but growing stronger. A low roar, like a fast-moving flame. “Skimmers,” she hissed. “We have to get inside.”

Eliert’s eyes widened. “What? Here? No, no, you are not going-”

Tythel bent down and with a smooth motion, picked up the crate that two men had struggled to carry and brought it to rest on her shoulder. Eliert and his men both gaped at her. “Move!” Eupheme barked, snapping them out of their trance.

They dove into the entrance way just as the Skimmers streaked overhead, Tythel’s heart pounding. Light, please say they didn’t see us.

She listened to the roar of their flames and waited to hear them turning back.

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The Dragon’s Scion Part 102

It was the first time Tythel had been able to walk in a city freely since Hillsdale. No great plan, no hidden agenda, no battle waiting at the end of it. At least, not that you know of, Tythel reminded herself. The veil was a thick, black affair that covered her head and hung back down over her neck. A circlet rested over her eyebrows, and the cloth attached to it in three places – between the nose, and on either side of her eye, leaving them free to see.

At least, it did in theory. Having only one eye remaining made Tythel more aware of the barrier around her eyes than she thought she would have been had she still had both.

It was said that the warrior maidens of Xhaod wore these masks so that when the sent their foes to the Shadow, it would not see their face and take offense at their violence. Others believed that they wore it so their faces were, in fact, covered in Shadow as a sign of respect for where they would send their foes. The Maidens, for their part, would never speak of the veil’s significance.

At least they don’t mind outsiders wearing it, Tythel thought. The last thing she needed was a cult of warrior assassins coming after her – and it allowed her to walk through the streets of Emerita unmolested. More than just that, in fact – people gave her a wide berth, as if she was walking with drawn steel.

Eupheme seemed less impressed. “It’s absurd, the way they announce themselves wherever they go. A truly dangerous person shouldn’t need to advertise their presence,” she groused, her voice low enough for only Tythel’s ears to hear it.

Tythel had to fight the urge to blink in amusement. It would give her away in an instant. “So where are we going?”

“We need to get a few more things for the road, and I thought it would be best to bring you along with us when we purchased them,” Eupeheme said. Her voice was full of careful innocence. Too much of it.

“You have heavy things you want me to carry,” Tythel said.

“I’m appalled you would suggest such a thing!” Eupheme said, her eyes sparkling with mock outrage. “I’ll have you know, I have extremely heavy things I want you to carry.”

“Flath a cactus,” Tythel said, getting a strangled, shocked laugh out of Eupheme.

“I’m impressed,” Eupheme said. “I didn’t think you knew what flath meant.”

“Um…well…I don’t. Not really, that is.” Tythel said, glad the veil hid her blush. “I just heard one of the soldiers say it, and then he turned red when he saw me, so I figured it was very offensive.”

Eupheme needed a few more blocks to get her laughter under control, her face quietly scrunched up to contain it. Every time she opened her mouth to say…whatever she wanted to say, the giggles would start up again and she’d have to clamp her mouth shut to contain it. Under the embarrassment, Tythel was overjoyed. It had been too long since Eupheme laughed at her being hopelessly naive, and Tythel welcomed the return to what passed for normalcy in her life these days.

It also gave her a chance to look around the city beyond the scope of that one window. At midday in the hottest month of summer, Tythel would have expected most people to have remained in the shade offered by their houses, with the rich even using arclight powered heat extractors to stay cool. Instead, Emerita bustled with activity. Merchants from the three nearby cities stood on street corners. “Fresh meat! Fresh meat! Untouched by Heat Extraction! Get your fresh meat!” one shouted. He was a portly man with a neatly trimmed beard that came down to his chest, with tiny mirrors woven into its braids. “All its humors still intact!” The man’s gaze passed over to Tythel and Eupheme, and’s grin widened. “You lovely ladies want some fresh meat? Freshest meat in the city.”

Tythel strode over to the man, feeling the coins clinking in her pocket. Eupheme hadn’t mentioned anything about eating yet, and Tythel’s stomach growled to remind her she’d only had cold porridge and leftovers brought up from the kitchen for the last two days. “What kind of meat?” she asked.

“Why, the freshest kind, of course!” the man said proudly, giving her a bow. “And not a trace of horse in it, I can assure you of that.”

Tythel opened her mouth to ask why the horse qualifier was so important, then caught Eupheme’s glance. It took her a moment to think before she remembered – the people of Xhaod thought horse was unclean and refused to eat it. “That is well, then. Yet I still do not know what kind of meat it contains.”

The merchant began to tense up. “As I’ve said, fresh meat.”

Tythel shrugged. It not like it matters much. “I’ll take one fresh meat, then,” she said, handing over a silver lock. The merchant obliged quickly, giving her a suitably unidentifiable hunk of meat on a stick.

As they left the merchant, Eupheme made a face. “I can’t believe you’re eating it when he wouldn’t even tell you what it was.”

Tythel rolled her eye. “I never knew my father to eat anything and get ill from it. As long as it’s meat, I can eat.” Tythel bit into the hunk of meat. It was hot and it was filling, with enough spices to disguise whatever the underlying meat was.

Eupheme made a gagging sound. “We’re out of danger right now. You have the establishments of an entire city to choose from. And you went with ‘fresh meat.’ I bet the vendor doesn’t even know what the meat is from.”

Tythel clenched her lips shut and filled her mouth with dragonflame, then swallowed the charred remains. She remembered eating food Karjon had over-flamed when a child, and how the taste had always bothered her. Now? It was sweeter than any spice. “You aren’t bothered when Lorathor eats insects,” Tythel said.

“Lorathor’s a Sylvani. They eat bugs. You, on the other hand? You are…” Eupheme trailed off and frowned. “Okay, didn’t think that one all the way through.”

Tythel blinked in amusement for a moment before catching herself and stopping the motion. “So where are these heavy things you need me to lift.”

Eupheme motioned to an alley ahead. “Right through here. And…let me do the talking? The people we’re meeting with frighten easily at anything new.”

Tythel nodded, although she couldn’t imagine what kind of people would be frightened by her voice.

After all, in all her books, weapons were simple swords and spears. She’d never even thought to consider how illegal weapons deals happened before.

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 101

“I’m back,” Eupheme said, stepping out of the shadow next to the dresser.

Tythel yelped and nearly tossed her book into the air. “Light and Shadow, Eupheme, have you ever heard of doors?”

“Yes,” Eupheme said with a grin. “They’re something that impedes other people. I am above such paltry concerns.” She casually tossed Tythel a satchel. “One Xhaodi warrior maiden veil, as you requested. It’ll cover your hair if you do it up in a bun, too.”

Tythel blinked at Eupheme slowly. “I…have no idea how to do a bun.”

“Oh.” Eupheme chewed her cheek in thought. “I guess being raised by someone with scales would make it hard to learn the finer art of hair care.”

Tythel flushed. She’d read about everything women did to their hair in her books. None of it had made any sense, except for brushing. Karjon had a brush inlaid with diamonds in his hoard, and Tythel had brushed her hair exactly one hundred times per day, at the suggestion of The Proper Care for Ladies, by Maxiona Balmod. She hadn’t understood why. “He did his best,” Tythel said defensively.

“Of course he did, I didn’t mean any insult,” Eupheme said soothingly, going over to her pack and pulling out a brush and several implements that Tythel couldn’t hope to name. “But, if half of what I’ve heard about dragon sizes is close to accurate, he couldn’t have held a brush except between the tips of his talons.”

“He tried,” Tythel muttered, looking at the devices in Eupheme’s hands with wary suspicion. “He also didn’t understand it. He taught me alot about grooming scales though.”

“And it’s a good thing, too,” Eupheme said. “I’ve heard if you don’t take care of them, it can get bad.”

Tythel strongly suspected that Eupheme was humoring her, but went along with it. “It can. Rotscale, if not properly treated, can cause even worse infections – even the loss of a limb or wing! A lot of young dragons think you can just spray fire all over yourself and call it hygine, but since our scales protect against heat infections and worse, drakemites, can linger under the skin.”

Eupheme sat down on the bed next to Tythel. “I…honestly never considered it. How do you clean it then?”

“Soak in hot water for a quarter hour, using your flames to keep it scalding, then scrubbing with a bristle soaked in mineral oil, never against the scales. Once you get out, then use your flame to turn the water to steam.” Tythel recited the instructions with the same precision she could list the emperors of Cardometh.

“And here I was, assuming you just used the fire to dry off faster.” Eupheme shook her head. “Turn around, let me get to your head. I’ll teach you how to do this later, but for now I know you’re dying to get out.”

Tythel followed Eupheme’s instructions. It was the first time in Tythel’s memory someone had ever touched her hair. She found it oddly comforting. “I saw a Lumrat outside,” Tythel said as Eupheme began to brush her hair with quick, efficient strokes. “Took everything I had not to use it as an excuse not to leap out and take it down.”

Eupheme chuckled. “I’m honestly surprised you didn’t just say “flath the consequences, I’m going to do it.”

At first Tythel blinked rapidly in amusement, but then realized there had been a bitter edge to Eupheme’s voice. Tythel was glad neither of them could see the other one’s face. She didn’t know what hers would give away, and wasn’t looking forward to trying to puzzle out Eupheme’s expression.

“I’m sorry,” Tythel said, quietly. “I don’t…I don’t remember if I’ve said that yet, but I’m sorry.”

Eupheme paused whatever she was doing with Tythel’s hair. Eupheme sat there for what felt like an eternity, then sighed and went back to work on Tythel’s hair. “I know,” she said, quietly.

“We didn’t really talk about it.” Tythel’s nictitating membranes slid closed in sorrow. Flath, I’m not going to cry. I don’t get to make her feel bad about being angry.

“No, we didn’t,” Eupheme said. “Tythel…do you get why I was angry?”

Tythel tilted her head to think. Eupheme pulled Tythel’s head back into place, firmly and gently. “I can see two reason, and I think it was probably a little bit of both?”

“Go on,” Eupheme said.

“Well…part of it is because you – I mean, from what you said – you were trained to protect a royal family that you didn’t think existed anymore. Then you finally do find one, but she’s stubborn and doesn’t care much about the royal thing and keeps sticking her head into a aeromane’s maw without your input. Shoving you down the tunnel and sealing you off was a bridge too far – it wasn’t just putting myself in danger, it was putting myself in danger and protecting you, when you feel like you’re supposed to protect me.”

Eupheme continued to work on Tythel’s hair. “Yes,” she said. That’s part of it.”

Tythel fought the urge to nod as her membranes opened, bringing the room back into focus. “And the other thing is…we’re friends, and I didn’t treat you like a friend. I treated you like someone I was supposed to protect, the same way I had anyone else. I didn’t tell you my plan, I didn’t give you a chance to agree with it or disagree. Light, you didn’t even need to be shoved, you could have just stepped past the barrier once it was up. I…I treated you like you were just someone else.”

“That’s the bigger one.” Eupheme stuck some things into Tythel’s hair, the long pins she’d pulled out of her bag. When she let go, Tythel’s head felt odd with the weight of her hair shifted. “I’m not anyone else, Tythel. I’m your friend. That means I’ll back you on whatever shadow-forsaken fool idea you have in your head to everyone else, and I’ll call you a fool for it in private.”

Tythel nodded. “I promise…” then she bit her lip and held up a hand as she thought through the wording. “I promise as long as it’s not something spur of the moment, I’ll tell you what’s I’m thinking, and give you a chance to tell me I’m being foolish, and I promise I’ll only act to protect you if there’s no doubt I’ll be safe doing it. I can’t promise more than that, not and still be honest.”

She turned around to face Eupheme. She considered Tythel for a long moment, then smiled. “I’ll take that. I’m still a bit raw about the whole thing, but I can live with those promises.”

Tythel didn’t bother to fight the tears now as relief flooded her, her nictitating membranes flashing to keep up with the surge. She hugged Eupheme, and the other woman returned the embrace.

After a bit, they broke the hug, and Eupheme helped Tythel secure the veil in place so she could join them in exploring the city.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 100

Tythel sat in the window of her room in The Witty Herald, overlooking the city of Emerita. It was the largest city in the kingdom that didn’t have its own Lumwell, instead drawing Light from Queensfall to the South, Havenswatch to the North, and the Capitol to the West. Emerita was almost perfectly equidistant between all three cities, and thrived as a trade hub that facilitated commerce between its larger neighbors. It was also close enough to all three that you could tell where in the town someone came from just by their appearance.

With just a glance, Tythel could see a man with dark skin and red hair that mirrored her own, meaning he must have been from the western part of the town. He was in an animated argument with a merchant with with the black hair and golden skin of Havenswatch, marking her as being born in the northern district. What the locals called a Southgater leaned against a post nearby, his hair the same blue as the sky and skin the color of the desert sands near the plateau. I should go out and stretch my legs, she thought, before continuing to sit there.

Emerita, without a Lumwell, didn’t have a strong Alohym presence. This close to the Capitol, however, there was a very real risk of a patrol passing through that could spot her. That meant Eupheme and Tellias were going out to collect the supplies they needed, and Tythel was holed up in this inn, watching from a window.

I really am a princess, Tythel thought with a bitter smile. I’m moping and sighing about sitting in comfortable accommodations. Most people would kill for this luxury. It wasn’t that it was unappreciated. Light and Shadow, she’d learned enough of hard living these past few weeks to last her the rest of her life.

However long that was.

The problem was, she hadn’t really gotten much of a chance to actually live since her father had passed. It had been an endless parade from one crisis to the next. And now that she was finally getting to the point where she could think about his death without being wracked with grief, now that she was finally finding the energy to want to do all the things she’d spent her entire childhood dreaming about…she was spending her time in an Inn she couldn’t leave because of a one hundred thousand key price on her head.

Frustrated, Tythel stalked away from the window and threw herself on the bed, reaching under it for her pack.

At least the Sunstone had been useful. They’d gotten enough money from the sale of it that they’d be able to buy everything they needed for the journey the rest of the way to her father’s lair and have enough left over for that journey to be fairly comfortable. They weren’t going to spend every night in luxury, of course. Every single key they could spare for the resistance would be beneficial. But, as both Tythel and Tellias had argued, the better rested they were, the better prepared they would be for the fight at the end of this journey.

Eupheme hadn’t seemed completely convinced, but she’d acquiesced, so Tythel was counting it as a victory.

Just a few more hours, Tythel reminded herself. A merchant had come into town earlier today, selling the veils that the lower castes of the Xhaod Empire were forced to wear in public. With that and some of the silks in her pack, Tythel could pass as a Xhaod warrior maiden. Well, she could do it well enough to walk around without fearing someone would call the nearest barracks and summon a swarm of soldiers down on their head.

She pulled out one of her father’s notebooks, the one that explained how different types of dragon flames worked. She’d figured out ghostflame in part from studying this, and that had been back when she’d barely able to touch it without starting to choke up. I will master heartflame, Tythel told herself.

Which might be a bit of an overstatement. She could barely manage ghostflame without searing her throat – even enough dragonflame would do it. Heartflame would be an entirely different category. She opened the page to her last marker.

Heartflame cannot be used by a dragon to heal itself. The flame transfers some of their own life essence into the heat. Other beings, even other dragons, can be restored with only some harm being done to the dragon that exhaled. It has the same limits as what light can heal – injuries will mend together, bones will knit, rot will be cleansed. Diseases will grow stronger along with their host, and tumors will grow rapidly. Unlike the light, however, there’s no risk of grotesque mutations. Instead, it only causes a specific mutation, one that grows gradually over time – the transformation into a dragon.

You’ll find the transformation is something you have some control over, my dear. As you push yourself, you’ll find it happens erratically, based in part on what you are feeling an overwhelming need to achieve.

And because I know you, Tythel, do not jump off a cliff trying to sprout wings. They will come in time.

Tythel smiled at that last line. If he hadn’t mentioned it, she wouldn’t have tried jumping off a cliff. Probably. It didn’t get her any closer to understanding Heartflame, but it was nice to feel like Karjon was there, lecturing her with the patient exasperation he always showed when she did something absurdly stupid.

Her eyes danced down to the next line, but were pulled away from the pages by a sudden scream from outside. Tythel rushed to the window, heart pounding. The Alohym? Here? Already? There’s barely been any time, we’re not ready!

It wasn’t an army. It wasn’t a monster, nor was it some alien creature of the Alohym’s making. Instead, it was a creature mutated by lumwell exposure. It took Tythel a moment to recognize the base creature – a rat – as it scurried along the street on eight legs, each as long as a man was tall. It’s body was the size of a man’s torso, and its tail was horribly elongated, covered in tiny, grasping hands. The poor thing’s face bore some resemblance to the rat it had once been, although it was flattened and fixed in an expression of confused terror.

Guards were yelling, calling for arcwands to put the thing out of its misery before it got into the sewers. Lumwell mutants that managed to breed with the local creatures could create entirely new species, and rats bred rapidly. Tythel didn’t want to think what kind of creature would be the result of this thing being allowed to breed with the local rats. I could save it further suffering, Tythel thought.

Instead, she turned away from the window. The rat would run free or be killed by the guards. It wasn’t worth risking exposing herself, no matter how much she wanted to. She chose to return the bed and resume flicking through her father’s notes.

As far as Tythel was concerned, Eupheme and Tellias couldn’t return soon enough.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 99

Poz’s hearts pounded as he dove behind a bookshelf, shards of glass still raining throughout the library. Baron Rainer was screaming, and the coppery scent of blood filled Poz’s nostrils. So this is how the Alohym treat their allies, Poz thought, crawling along the ground. No warning, no time to get clear. The only entrance to the Library was in clear view of the window. If he went for it, he’d be cut down before he could even go two steps.

He’d have to find a different way.

The sound of feet crunching on glass reached his ears, heavy footsteps that were weighted down. He didn’t hear any of the mechanical whirring that accompanied imperiplate, and he didn’t hear the rapid skitter of standard Alohym footfalls. It was the one from earlier, the one that flew and was shaped like a man.

The Baron must have signaled him that the ruse was up, Poz thought with a curse. The footsteps were headed towards the doorway to block his exit. Deepest shadows! I missed it. It was possible that Baron Rainer hadn’t sent a signal, but if not, the timing was too coincidental for Poz’s liking. If the Shadow has set itself against me like that, I am already damned.

“You should just come out and save me the time,” said the creature. Its voice reverberated in the strange way of the Alohym, but it did not speak in the Alohym’s tongue. That was Cardomethi, which told Poz a few things. First, that this creature was not from the region, or it would have likely spoken Zhomi. It was the same one that pursued him from that cave all those weeks ago. Second, this creature – whatever it was – was no Alohym. He’d never heard tell of any of those beings speaking anything other than their own tongue unless forced to. And Alohym don’t travel alone, he reminded himself.

Of course, he didn’t answer the being’s taunt. Instead, he crawled along the ground, keeping himself hidden behind bookcases. A small object, formerly belonging to the Baron, caught Poz’s eye. He didn’t hesitate as he reached out and scooped it up. It would do nothing to save him from his current plight, but later…

Sop that thought, he told himself. Focus on survival. Make sure there is a later to worry about.

“I’m going to find you,” the creature said, “and then I’m going to ask you a few questions. If you come out, I’ll just ask. If you don’t…I’ll have to assume you plan on being uncooperative, and treat you accordingly.” There was an undeniable air of menace in the voice. “You don’t want to find out how I ask uncooperative people questions.”

Poz ignored the threat. If this creature truly was willing to speak with him as equals and simply ask questions, they would not have begun the fight with a barrage of high impact weapons. In fact, Poz doubted if the being really wanted to ask him questions at all. It’s foolish, Poz thought, facts beginning to connect in his mind. A shard of glass could have stuck in my throat and killed me or rendered me incapable of speech. Yet they must be after the egg, and I never told Baron Rainer where I hid it. If I had died…

The only conclusion Poz could draw was that this creature was foolish. He felt his hearts speed up as he began to climb up one of the bookshelves.

“Come on,” the creature said, frustration dripping from every word. It sounded almost petulant to Poz’s ears. “I want to be about my business. I didn’t come to the frozen edge of the world to play hiders and peekers with you.”

Poz settled onto the top of the bookshelves. He could see it clearly now, for the first time since he had abandoned grubflesh. It was smaller than Poz remembered, although give how tall he now stood that was likely a matter of perspective. The creature’s build was overall humanoid, with a distended Thorax extending from where its spine met its hips. Poz couldn’t deny the creature was intimidating, covered in black carapace and spines. “I’m not interested in games either, monster,” Poz said.

He leapt to another bookshelf the moment the words left his lips, and the Alohym shot a beam of unlight in the general direction of Poz’s voice. It didn’t seem to think to aim upwards, instead firing at the bottom of the shelf. Where the beam impacted, a bubble spread outwards to about five feet before violently contracting. Books were condensed into a tight space, but didn’t seem to be crushed. I don’t want to find out what would have happened to me there, Poz thought. Perhaps it would just immobilize him. Perhaps it wouldn’t account for the hollow bones of crowflesh and turn him into a paste. “Yet here you are playing them,” the creature muttered before speaking louder. “Why do you fear to come out, Underfolk? My father told me tales of your people. Your cowardice was something he overlooked.”

Human, Poz thought, tensing. This creature was human. “And what did he tell you?” he asked before leaping again.

He needn’t have bothered. The person in that carapace armor did not fire blindly again, instead looking towards the source of the voice. So far they still hadn’t thought to look upwards, for which Poz was grateful. “That you were greedy, selfish beings that preyed on the generosity of mankind. That you sealed yourself away when the Alohym returned to us so you could cavort with the fiends of the Shadow, and would one day return to be wage war on and then be crushed by the rightful gods of this world.”

“Your father lied to you, then,” Poz said.

Poz had to leap again as the human in Alohym skin opened fire. He barely reached the next bookshelf, and the room filled with the sound of books and shelves clattering to the ground. “You will not speak of my father!” the human screamed. “My brother is out hunting his killer, and I’m stuck here hunting you. I will endure no insult towards his name from the likes of you!”

That’s it. Poz took a deep breath. This particularly trick was one of the benefits of crowflesh, and it was hard to get right. If he pulled it off though… “Your flathing father is a goat-brained liar and you are a coward. I wouldn’t wish his flesh on the worms that are feasting on him.”

The human screamed in rage and rushed to the window to look out – because that’s where they’d heard Poz’s voice come from. There wasn’t time to admire how well throwing his voice had worked. Instead, Poz leapt down and scrambled for the heavy oak doors of the room.

At the last moment, the human heard him and whirled, firing a beam of Unlight in a wild arc. It passed over Poz’s head and encased one of the Baron’s guards – Poz wondered with irritation where they had been earlier. The unlight formed a sphere that imploded again, and the guard was forced into the fetal position. He howled with the agony of the desperate and damned, and Poz regretted he didn’t have time to help the man – or put him out of his misery.

Behind him, his pursuer howled, and the sound of footsteps on stone pursued Poz out of the Baron’s manor.

 

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 98

-PART 2-

The library of Axburg’s Baron was not the grandest that Poz had ever seen – that had been the Library of the Enlightened Sands in Hadorim to the southeast, a massive structure that could have housed a small town and boasted meticulous organization. What set the Library of Baron Rainer apart from the others Poz had encountered in his travels was the level of comfort put into it. Immense couches, long enough where two fully grown men could have laid with feet touching and their heads would not reach the armrests. Chairs that seemed to be stuffed with down feathers and covered in the softest velvet. Tables that boasted clever mechanisms allowing them to be adjusted perfectly to suit the reader’s height. All of it was lit by immense windows to allow in natural sunlight.

It was clearly built by and for someone who loved the simple pleasures of reading. That man existed, and Poz found him in one of the overstuffed chairs, his feet up on a stool. The spine of the book was visible. The Adventures of Stellaria Bustil, Volume 2. “Good morning, milord,” Poz said, bowing low. He’d long ago learned it was entire possible to not greet the Baron and remain completely unnoticed,  but Baron Rainer would always be tremendously embarrassed when he came out of is book coma – usually when some servant reminded the Baron he did need to eat.

“Poz! Please, I’ve told you at least five times now, there’s no need for such bowing among scholars.” The Baron carefully selected a bookmark and slid it between the pages of his tome.

Poz nodded and rose. “Apologies, milord.” It was difficult to explain to Baron Rainer the limitations of crowflesh. It was highly intelligent – some of the most intelligent forms Underfolk could take relied on members of the corvid family – and it was also highly social. Poz would find himself getting stressed if alone too long, which made him grateful for the Baron being a fellow lover of books. However, it was not the best at social niceties. When in crowflesh, Poz relied heavily on the trappings of society to interact with humans.

That meant one bowed for a Baron, no matter how much said Baron insisted otherwise.

“I see you’re choosing a less scholarly pursuit today?” Poz’s question was also half a statement. Poz could not see much scholarly use for a series of books about a young woman getting into increasingly unlikely situations that required she either rescue or be rescued by a series of increasingly attractive young men, followed by detailed descriptions of the human mating process. Poz knew humans found such things exciting, although the reasoning eluded him.

It likely has to do with their mating habits, Poz reasoned. Human mating seemed to be a messy process. Underfolk were much more refined. The females waited until breeding season to lay their eggs in a cool cavern pool, and the males would come by to fertilize the eggs later. Only one in a hundred of the larvae would make it to adulthood while the rest cannibalized each other.

One of the maids here had a human larva. It was a weak, squealing thing that the humans doted on. It seemed to Poz that such coddling would allow weak spawn to survive to adulthood and drain resources…but then again, given how few larva humans produced, perhaps that was best for their species. Weak humans were not the drain on resources Poz had feared them to be, and some of them could still contribute to gaining resources.

The Baron had said something, and Poz snapped his mind to attention. One of the drawbacks of Crowflesh was its attention span was limited. No other form was so easily obtained and offered as much intelligence, but it had its drawback. Poz had heard Squidflesh was better focused and every bit as intelligent, but without access to the sea he’d never had a chance to sample it. Perhaps when this is over… “I apologize, milord. I did not catch what you said there.”

The Baron was flushed, which was an unsurprising response. Humans often became embarrassed when confronted with their interest in their own mating habits. “Actually, this is of scholarly interest. While many aspects of these stories are sensationalized, they are based on historical documents from a scholar of Third Era, Estelia Ubistil. This book contained a reference to the Golden Egg you’re so interested in.”

Poz felt two of his three hearts skip at the mention. Finding actual evidence of the Golden Egg had been difficult so far, and most of the accounts in the Baron’s library contained information Poz already knew. It would only ‘hatch,’ whatever that resulted in, when exposed to Heartflame. Dragon’s viewed them as sacred and were lethally protective of them, even more than their normal eggs. “And?” Poz saw the Baron stiffen, and realized how the word had sounded and reminded himself of the social failings of this flesh. At least that, from what I’ve heard, is even worse in Squidflesh. “Apologies, milord. I am…overeager for information, and forgot myself.”

Baron Rainer relaxed at the apology. “In the story, Stellaria uses the Golden Egg to barter with a Dragon. Absolute nonsense, of course – the dragon would have simply incinerated her – but some facts are interesting. These are put in the footnotes of the story, and such footnotes are known to be accurate. Outside of being hatched by Heartflame, the eggs are indestructible to any force known at the time. At the time this tome was written, no Dragon had hatched a Heartflame egg in over two thousand years – which is why information about what they are.”

Poz resisted the urge to grind his teeth. This was new information, but it wasn’t useful information. However, Baron Rainer had a flair for the dramatic, and loved saying the most important information for last. Poz would have to endure the wait.

This flesh just made that endurance painfully difficult.

“Of course, the last footnote was the most intriguing. It contained a reference to a vast hoard of these Golden Eggs, which had the ring of a legendary cache that likely no longer exists, if it ever did. What truly intrigued me about it was a reference to Draconic metempsychosis.” He said the last with a flourish, as if I had expected Poz to leap with joy.

“Apologies, milord. I don’t know what that means.”

The Baron looked a bit put off with his grand reveal going over so flatly. “Of course, of course,” the man said, railing admirably. “Dragons believed that, when a Heartflame egg is hatched, the being that emerges is the spiritual child of the original dragon.”

Poz began to nod in understanding. If dragons did believe that…if the dragon princess did, he could return the egg to immense gratitude. So much so she probably would not investigate his claim that he had killed the original thief. That lie, at least, Poz had settled on a couple days ago. “Thank you, Baron Rainer. This has given me what I needed to know.” He forced himself to smile. “Now that I have what I need, I must be going. I have a great distance to travel.”

The blood drained out of the Baron’s face. “Oh, but you can’t go!” He exclaimed. Poz raised a single eyebrow, and the Baron began to rally again. “Surely you see that there’s still more to learn – after all, we only just found this reference, and-”

Poz tuned out the Baron’s lies. He focused instead on the man’s face, the way his skin turned pale, the way sweat began to form on his forehead and upper lip. Realization struck him. I was a fool. “How long?” Poz asked, cutting off the Baron mid-ramble.

“You could stay for a couple more-”

Poz cut him off with a sharp hand gesture. “No, Baron Rainer. How long ago did the Alohym get to you? How long have you been promising to keep me here, giving me only tidbits to keep me interested?”

“I…I don’t know what you’re…” Baron Rainer studied Poz’s face and saw no mercy in there, no yielding. He sighed. “Two days. For the last two days. I’m sorry. You really were a fascinating conversationalist.”

Before Poz could question further, the window exploded in a flash of Unlight.