The Dragon’s Scion Part 192

It was worse than Tythel had feared.

The newsheets were products of Alohym technology, and Tythel had never paid them much mind. She hadn’t been in a town long enough to really bother perusing one. She now wished she had paid more attention.

THE DRAGON CON – THE LIES OF THE ALLEGED DRAGON PRINCESS

In a statement released by the Crawling Citadel, it has been revealed that Tythel, the woman who claimed to be the last heir of the nobles that we were so kindly liberated from the Alohym, is not only attempted to resurrect an archaic institution that so long oppressed our people, is a fraud. Analysis of her blood conducted while she was the captive of the Alohym – before her escape and subsequent murder of over three dozen brave soldiers – has been compared to the bones of the former King and Queen. Through study of the blood-lexicon that makes up all life, the Alohym have determined that Tythel’s bloodline shares no markers in common with the royal family. 

It should come as no surprise about her lies. After her brutal murder of Great Rephylon, she…

Tythel stopped reading there, and handed over the sheet to Eupheme wordlessly. Eupheme’s eyes skimmed over. “What a pack of nonsense. There were a half dozen guards there, at most, and I hardly call what happened a murder. I’m pretty sure we didn’t kill all of them, anyway. It’s more Alohym propaganda, and… and why are you looking like that?”

Tythel had gone ashen, and her nictitating membranes were flashing. “‘Everything will collapse. Your people will call you a monster, a liar, a child, they will turn’…I’m guessing it was supposed to be against you, but I tore out his throat before he could finish.”

“What?” Eupeheme asked.

“Rephylon. The last thing ever said. I figured the monster was because I am a dragon, and child because of my age, but liar…I just assumed he was hurtling any insult he could think of at me. But now…he knew. He knew when we fought. The Alohym were just sitting on it until…”

“Tythel…are you believing this?” Eupheme asked.

“I…I don’t know. That medallion I showed Lathariel that proved to her I was the heir? Karjon said it was from my parents, but what if it wasn’t? He had dozens of treasures in his horde, it could have come from there. That was…that was the only proof I had.”

“Would you father lie to you like that?”

Tythel’s nictitating membranes tried to wipe away tears that still wouldn’t come. “I don’t…I don’t know. I don’t think so. But…maybe he was lied to? Or maybe he had a plan to…to use me to flush out the real heir? I don’t know.” Tythel shook her head, more to clear the dark thoughts than in any kind of negation. “But people are believing it,” she said. “That’s…that’s the real problem. Even if we don’t, it’s created a doubt to my legitimacy, and the only way to prove it one way or another requires the Alohym blood reading technology and the bones of the Royal family. Of…of my parents.”

Eupheme grimaced. “So it’s impossible to prove?”

Tythel nodded slowly, still staring at the paper. The words ran in her vision.

Eupheme placed a hand carefully on Tythel’s shoulder. “So…what are you going to do?”

“I’m going to take a deep breath,” Tythel said, doing exactly that. “You know my father taught me history, right?”

“I might have picked up subtle hints in that regard,” Eupheme said, her voice as dry as salt.

“Do you know what makes nobles nobility?”

Eupheme hesitated. “They are blessed by the Light, and guarded by Shadow?”

“Of course,” Tythel said. “At least, that’s what they say. Blessed by Light, Guarded by Shadow. By people like you. But I mean originally. How the first noble houses came to be, how they rose, how they secured their places. What made them different from everyone else?”

Eupheme shook her head.

“When the Cardomethi empire fell, there was almost no order on the continent. Various bands of warlords rose up from the ashes of the empire’s collapse. Some claimed to be headed by the lost heir of the Emperess. Some claimed to be blessed by the Light. Some claimed to be godlings. Some even were godlings. Some claimed to trace their lineage back to the ancient Alohym.” Tythel sniffed and wiped her eyes. It helped clear away the cloud that was growing on her vision. “At the end, when the dust had settled, everyone who was able to carve out territory had one thing in common. Do you know what it was?”

“They were all blessed by the Light?” Eupheme guessed.

“No. One could argue they were all favored by the Light – they certainly did – but only two of those warlords was able to claim they were descended from people who had made that claim at the start. One of them became the Royal family. That’s why they said they were favored by the Light. But before they unified the country under their rule through marriage and conquest, all those warlords called themselves nobility, even those that never claimed a blessing from the Light. No, the one thing they shared in common was they were all better at warfare then their opponents. That seems to be what distinguishes nobility from the common person.”

Eupheme looked hesitant. “I’m not sure…what are you saying?”

“I’m saying it doesn’t matter if my blood is royal.” Tythel felt her jaw clench in determination. “I’m saying if I win, everyone will say my blood was royal. That the counter claim was another Alohym lie. And if I lose, everyone will say the Alohym told the truth. That I was never royal. There are so many lies flowing from Alohym mandibles, it won’t matter what is said anymore – only what happens.”

“You’d start your reign off with a lie?” Eupheme said. “If you truly believe it’s not royal blood…”

“I’ve got plans for that. For the reign, I mean. I think it’s important that I have exactly much power once it’s time for me to reign as I do in the resistance – because I’d be about as good as leading a nation as I have been at fighting a war. Seeing as the two missions I’ve been involved in have resulted in the capture of the entire unit and then the permanent incapacitation of one member of a three person team, that tells you exactly how good I think I’d be at leading a nation. But my point is…my point is, there’s no way to prove the lie one way or another right now. So I’m going to keep acting like I have a claim, and history will decide if I did. Trace any royal family back long enough, and what you’ll find is some bastard who was very good at killing people. If what the world needs is for me to be that bastard, I’ll be that bastard. And if history damns me for it, then history damns me.” 

“Why do you want it?” Eupheme asked. “If you believe you might not be of royal blood, why on earth would you put yourself in that danger? You could renounce your claim and pursue your vengeance in peace. Well, relative peace. The Alohym wouldn’t need to kill you specifically anymore – if you renounce your claim, you’d just be another soldier.”

Tythel shrugged. “Someone has to stand up to the Alohym and take the arcfire. As long as I’m a target, the Alohym will focus on me and not the people actually leading the rebellion. I can do that. Better someone with dragonscale than a normal human. Besides, people have started rallying around the idea of me. Not me the person. I think the resistance would shatter at that. But the idea had power. I’ll let the Resistance use that idea. If it puts me in danger…well, a martyr can be a better thing to rally around than a person. Light knows it’ll stop me from doing something stupid and breaking that idea to peices.”

Eupheme was looking at her carefully.

“I know your oath is to the royal family. I know this puts that in question.”

“It does,” Eupheme said, her voice small. “But…in all the time I’ve known you, this might be the first time you’ve actually sounded like a royal. Like a royal should be. You’re my friend, and I don’t care what Alohym science proves. You are my princess. And that’s enough.” 

Tythel smiled at her, hoping it looked at least somewhat natural, and Eupheme returned the expression.

“So,” Eupheme said. “What now?”

“Now?” Tythel said, squaring her jaw. “Now I’m going to get on that Light-Forsaken horse. Come on and make sure the beast doesn’t kill me in the process.”

The Dragon’s Scion Part 191

“This is going to work,” Eupheme said firmly.

Tythel shook her head and took a step back, eyeing the target of Eupheme’s gaze. They were still upwind, and the beast had not caught Tythel’s scent yet. “These things and I don’t get along,” Tythel said. “They don’t like my smell, and the feeling is very mutual.”

Eupheme shook her head. “Tythel, it’s just a horse. This one has grown up in the shadow of your father’s mountain, and it’s familiar with the scent of dragon. It’s not going to spook on you.”

“How can you be sure?”

“Because I asked the seller. Sheress the Wise, last of the Greenkeepers? This horse was ridden by knights fighting alongside her in the last charge. And before you ask,” Eupheme held up a finger, stifling Tythel’s objection before it could even form, “I checked the paperwork to ensure that claim was legitimate. It’s not going to run from you.”

Tythel grimaced. “I just don’t see why we can’t ride a Skitterer,” she grumbled, taking a hesitant step towards the animal. The horse was munching on some kind of grain, completely oblivious to Tythel’s approach.

“Because we still don’t know how we were being tracked. It’s possible there’s something in Skitterers the Alohym can use to follow their passengers, and…oh, Light,” Eupheme’s eyes widened. “You’re not worried about the horse being scared. You’re scared.”

“Am not,” Tythel protested.

“Okay, prove it. Walk up to that horse.”

Tythel took a deep breath and steeled herself. As firmly as she could, she took a step forward. The horse heard the motion, and its tail flicked.

Tythel leapt back.

“Oh Light, you are,” Eupheme breathed. “Didn’t you…I’m sorry, I’m confused. You rode one into battle.”

“I clung to Nicandros’ back on one in battle,” Tythel said. “He was controlling the animal. Not me. I don’t even know what I’m doing on one of these things.”

“Tythel…you’ve fought Alohym. You ran up the leg of one of their machines before beating it with a hammer until it cracked. You faced off against a half-Alohym monster, an insane lumcaster, and my flathing sister. And you’re afraid. Of a horse.”

“Those are different. They’re all people.” Eupheme’s eyebrows went up, and Tythel shook her head. “I said people, not human. Even if I don’t understand weird Alohym logic, I can reason with it, and talk with it, and if it attacks me I can set it on fire. A horse though? You can’t reason with it. There’s no coming to an understanding. It’s a horse. It’s an animal. And if it attacks me I can’t set it on fire.”

“You…you think a horse is immune to dragonflame?” Eupheme was looking sympathetic, but Tythel could see the grin threatening to burst out from behind her worried frown.

“No, I mean, it wouldn’t deserve to be set on fire.” Tythel didn’t mean to snap, but the horse was looking over its shoulder now. It snorted. “It’s just an animal. So if attacks me, it means I did something wrong, and it would be wrong. Also do you know how strong a horse can kick? It could kill a person.”

“You’re half dragon,” Eupheme said.

“And I’m half human. Dragon scale is great for stopping blades and arrows, but it bends as easily as human skin. It kicks me I could break bones. I’d have to go get treatment if I didn’t die. And it would be my fault.” Tythel’s breathing was fast and deep now.

“Okay,” Eupheme said, the grin fading. She put a hand on Tythel’s shoulder and gently pushed her away from the horse. “Tythel. You’re overthinking this, and it’s not adding up. What’s really bothering you?”

Tythel took a few slower breaths, trying to calm herself. “I just…what if it kicks me?”

“You mentioned that, but you weren’t that afraid of these when you were with Nicandros. So I don’t buy that it’s just fear of being kicked. So you need to tell me-”
“What if it kicks me in the head?” The words came out in a muted wail.

Eupheme froze, her eyes widening. Tythel hadn’t wanted to say it, but could imagine Eupheme was seeing the same thing Tythel had been seeing ever since she first saw the horse. Tellias’ indented skull, an injury nothing short of heartflame could heal him from unless they wanted to turn him into a twisted mutant. Heartflame that now only had one possible source – Tythel.

“Okay,” Eupheme said, and she led Tythel to a bench by the side of the road. It was light out, and people were walking about their business. While Tythel’s heavy cloak to hide her wings was certainly drawing some attention in the sweltering heat, not so much that anyone was pausing for more than a glance. Eupheme, who had dressed appropriately for the heat, was drawing far more attention, although Tythel didn’t quite understand why. It wasn’t that unusual for a woman to wear pants, and while Eupheme’s were tight, it certainly wasn’t unheard of. Yet so many of the men were looking at her buttocks. Maybe they’re trying to gauge her mobility?

The train of thought, while slightly ludicrous even in Tythel’s estimation, helped her calm down. Eupheme’s arm around her shoulder helped too. “What are you thinking about?” Eupheme asked.

“Actually, I was distracting myself. Trying to figure out why men were looking at your rear.”

Eupheme snorted. “Because humans find that part…you know what, it would take too long to explain. It’s a human sexual attraction thing.”

“Ah,” Tythel said, smiling shakily. “That…does explain why I couldn’t understand it.”

Eupheme’s answering smile was encouraging. “You always were bad at that. At some point we need to have a serious talk about it. So much of what people – sorry, humans – do is explained by our baser urges, and you’ll need to understand that if you’re to rule us.”

Tythel nodded seriously. They sat there for a moment as Tythel gathered herself. “Eupheme, I’m sorry. It just, lately, feels that everything that could possibly go wrong does go wrong. And the horse is just…one more thing that could go wrong.”

“I understand. Truly. And I know it’s….what?”

Eupheme had cut herself off because Tythel raised a hand to silence her. There was a conversation a block away, and Tythel had heard her name. She focused herself, blocking out all other sounds to try and pick up what they were saying in the bustle of the town.

“I always knew it was a lie,” one voice was saying. He sounded male, and absolutely disgusted.

“Don’t try that line,” a woman responded. “You were talking about the return of the rightful heir from the day that she came out to the world.”

The man sputtered. “I didn’t believe it, though. I mean, it was an interesting moment, but everyone knows that the real princess died.”

The woman’s voice dropped several registers, and even with her hearing Tythel could barely make out what was being said. “Or it’s another Alohym lie.”

“Be careful with that,” the man said in what he thought was a whisper but carried far better than his earlier speech. “You never know who might be listening.”

“I’m just saying,” the woman continued, “they need something after the massacre. It’s awfully convenient for them that they are able to release this information right as people are really focused against them.”

“Yes, but they had to admit they had her captive and lost her. That certainly lends credence to their story, don’t you think?”

“What is it?” Eupheme asked. Every line in her body was tense and ready to spring for some threat.

Tythel didn’t even have the energy to sigh. “A problem. Come on. I need to see what’s going on.”

She just had to hope it wasn’t what she feared.

 

The Dragon’s Scion part 190

Poz was able to find a resting place in a ruined building. The windows had long ago been broken and taken away, and the interior was a mess of spider webs and rotting wood. There had once been furniture here, but that had been taken at some point. Only ghostly outlines on the floor marked where it had once been, spots where the sun hadn’t bleached the floor as strongly. It was the kind of place that was abandoned and forgotten.

Poz still sniffed the air, wanting to make sure he was truly alone. There were a faint stench of waste, but it was old and faded. No other evidence of humans remained. The only smell was dust so long undisturbed, it had gone stale.

He crept through the window, careful to ensure no one was watching him move with a spryness that would have betrayed his fake aliments. Once inside he still made sure to listen carefully for a few moments, wanting to make certain there were no footsteps creeping closer, no gentle hiss of knife or sword drawn from scabbard, and no low hum of arcwands charging.

For a half second that felt like an eternity, Poz waited. Only when none of those sounds reached his ears did he dare let himself breathe.

You’ll have to travel at night. Those were the words of Man-Poz, some of the coherent pieces of advice he’d left behind. And sleep during the day. Awaken at dusk, bed at dawn, and avoid grubs. 

Poz grimaced at those last words. There was an erroneous belief among humans that spiders would climb into their mouths while they slept. It was a legend, something with no basis in reality. Only two or three Underfolk had ever gone to sleep in one flesh and awoken in another, and they were so exceptional Pox could recall their names from childhood stories. Ulk, who had fallen asleep after three days march and landed face first on an anthill, Kol, who later discovered the change in flesh was a trick by his brother to ensure Kol would be too stupid to help on the day his brother staged his revolt, and Bon, who had been so near death he could barely breathe and so a spider had felt safe seeking refuge in the open mouth of a predator. 

No, Manflesh Poz wasn’t trying to warn him against the dangers of accidental ingestion. He was, as was often the case, condescending to himself. Don’t do the stupid thing you believe to be noble and self-exile into grubflesh again. That was what those words had meant.

If there hadn’t been a reason to, Poz would have ignored the warning. But he had things to do. Things that required grubflesh. 

Things that were outlined in the book.

Poz settled down to the floor and leaned back against the wall, unwrapping the book from its bindings and unfolding it to the page he’d marked before.

To the north you will find the town of Gildsroot, to the south Gremsburg. Head north. Gremsburg has a larger Alohym contingent, and if Nicandros is expecting you, he’ll send people there first. Gildsroot will fly past his notice because of how long the trek here is. I give this a seventy-three percent probability, based on norms established for Nicandros. Grief may have changed his behavior, and he may now be an adversary, but that shouldn’t have changed his tactical decision making too much. The other twenty-seven percent accounts for the possibility Nicandros will expect that I have outthought him – which I have – and selects Gildsroot based on its unassuming nature or through using some sort of randomized determination factor. 

It’s vital that you do not rest in the wilderness for any period of time. The Alohym have new fliers of multiple varieties, their half-Alohym, half-Human hybrids and some sort of manta-ray like creature that can traverse the air at immense speeds. Given what I’ve seen, and the overall lack of organic Alohym technology, it’s likely these rays are creatures brought from some other world they have conquered. 

This is important. The Alohym must have faced rebellion before. If they are bringing in creatures from across their empire, that means one of two possibilities exist. In the first, they are secure in their knowledge that they have defeated the humans so thoroughly that this world is entirely under their dominion. Given that this occurred after the Princess slew Rephylon, I find that unlikely. More likely, and more important, is they are growing desperate.

On the stone over the firepit – and here Poz had included a note to himself that he’d transcribed the passage that was on that stone on page eighty-three – you’ll find a diagram for a device that should allow you to take one of these creatures down from the sky. You’ll need to get specialized components made from a blacksmith, and the diagrams you’ll need to provide them are there. Engage them in the woods over Mistwafe, and place it among the trees.

Remember. No one thought to forbid the flesh of these strange flyers. 

Poz sighed and settled deeper into a slump. The idea was solid, and the design had carefully been laid out so even Wolfflesh could understand it. However the “specialized components” would require custom blacksmithing that he could not afford, from a blacksmith that would have every reason to kill him and hand his body over to the Alohym, and Man-Poz had not included any ideas for how to lure these fliers into the forest mentioned. 

Plus, there were concerns beyond just the practical. 

These fliers, if they were truly creatures from another world the Alohym had brought with them, could be intelligent. True, they would not be among the Forbidden Flesh, but just because the ancestors had not thought to explicitly forbid creatures from another world did not mean it was something that should be ignored. Intelligence, when added to Intelligence, would override something else. For Manflesh, it was empathy. Poz had never dared taste Dragonflesh or Sylvaniflesh, but he had concerns about what those would do. 

Flesh from another world? What might that do to him?

He turned his eyes back to the book. One of the flaws of our consumption of flesh is that our mass does not change. As such, Crowflesh, Henflesh, and other avian fleshes grant some degree of wings, but they are proportional to the much smaller base forms. We cannot fly with them – even you know this. The only flesh that grants flight is the Aeromane. Likely Dragonflesh as well, although we cannot prove that. These creatures are larger than us, and they fly through the air via some manner of organic combustion that allows them to attain great velocities. Their flesh could grant us flight. It is imperative you seek them out.

Ignore your outdated morality. We are at war, and casualties must be allowed for. The fate of this planet is greater than your sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’

Poz closed the book and sighed. Was that true? Man-Poz was convinced it was, but he had let an entire town be slaughtered to secure his own safety. What point was there to freeing the world from the Alohym if it burned in the process?

A low growl slipped from Poz’s throat, an involuntary reaction born of this flesh. These questions were too much to handle, and he had a sense that no one person should be the one to answer them.

He would have to find the Resistance. They could debate what was right and wrong. He could listen to their arguments and decide for himself.

For now, he had to rest. Sleep came moments after he closed his eyes.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 189

It took Poz a full day to get somewhere with human civilization. He stuck to nuts and berries as he travelled, not wanting to sacrifice the advantages of this flesh. The city of Gildsroot was located at the meeting point between two rivers. It had been a hub for trade even before the Alohym had arrived. Although the advantages offered by air travel could not be denied, for the most part the Alohym’s ships were reserved for military use and transporting goods they deemed essential. For everything else, the river served well enough, especially with the new engines provided by Alohym technology. They would heat the water to a boil and use the pressure to turn great paddles, able to move far faster than any sailing vessel had in the days before the Alohym – and against the current without the effort of rowers to propel them.

They also had steel sides that were nearly impervious to arcfire, and were therefore relatively unguarded this close to a town. In the growing light of the dawn, it was very easy for Poz’s Wolflesh form to swim up and wait for one to pass without being noticed. Then it was a simple matter to grab a rope dangling from the deck into the water below and hang on for an easy trip past the guards on the wall of the town. Thankfully, in Manflesh he’d known this might need to happen, and had thought to leave a warning to himself so Poz could waterproof the pack that held the valuable papers.

What he hadn’t predicted in manflesh was the air of the town when Poz paddled to the shore, abandoning his ride before it would reach the dock and risk drawing the attention of the guards. There was a palpable tension to the air, like the feeling just before a storm came in, but under a sky that was clear of all but a few wispy clouds. People went about their business and talked to each other about what Poz could only assume were the usual topics – how the fishing had been, the latest haul from the docks, how nice it was to have such good weather. The sort of trivial things people discussed when they worked or had nothing more pressing on their minds. A couple walking by was even discussing a Lum Play they had seen the night before, a recreation of the famed tragedy of the last days of the Cardomethi empire.

“Personally, I feel that it was a bit overblown,” the man said, rolling his eyes.

The woman with him smiled, but the way her knuckles whitened where they gripped her shawl belied the expression. “I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it.”

He shook his head. “It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it. It’s just…I understand it’s supposed to be a history, but things certainly couldn’t have actually happened like that. An empire as vast a Cardometh falling in a week? Surely it’s impossible.”

The last two sentences were said slightly louder than the statements preceding it, and the man’s volume increased at the same time as an individual hidden behind the imperimail armor of the Alohym’s soldiers passed by them. The armored individual – behind that much protection Poz could not tell if they were male or female – gave the couple a nod and continued on his way. The man and woman fell silent for a few steps, and the woman let out a soft breath. “So why did you really dislike it?”

The man chewed his lip, and spared a glance over his shoulder. The Alohym soldier was still walking unabated. “We can talk about it at home,” the man said.

The woman’s eyes narrowed, and she nodded curtly. “For the best, I think. It’s nonsense, anyway.”

Like her partner, the woman’s voice grew a bit louder. Not so much that most would register it, but the sensitive ears of Wolflesh let Poz pick up on the difference easily. That wasn’t the only sense that was heightened for him either. The couple passed the crates he was crouched behind, and their passing stirred the air enough to bring their scent to his nose. It was salty and damp. The smell of sweat.

Wolflesh couldn’t sweat. If Poz needed to let off heat in this form, he was forced to pant. In the cool air, he had no need to let his tongue roll loose. It certainly should be far too cool for humans to sweat, dressed as they were.

Considering the implications of what he’d just heard and smelled, Poz slipped into the alley behind the shops. A bit of rummaging through the rubbish back here let him find a discarded burlap sack that had no rotting smell tainting the fabric and a wooden dowel of the right length. Underfolk couldn’t pass a human if they were being watched closely, but with a few careful tears and ties to make the sack into a hood and leaning on the dowel as if it were a cane, Poz could easily use the hunched back of Wolflesh to pass as someone with some unfortunate spinal injury. He made sure the sleeves of his shirt covered his hands so the claws could not be seen, and as long as no one noticed his grey skin, he had the perfect disguise.

It was a horrible truth of Humanity that their eyes would glaze over strangers in suffering, either to spare them the terrible thought that fortune was all that separated themselves from the poor wretch they avoided or to avoid taking on the burden of someone’s pain they had no investment in. The best of them would avoid staring to avoid making Poz feel uncomfortable. No one would look closely at him, and the Alohym soldiers?

They would never imagine someone so afflicted could be worth their notice.

As long as I can avoid anyone who wishes to do me charity, I’ll be fine. It had worked for him before, back when he’d worked with Nicandros in the days before the Alohym’s arrival and in the days after.

For a thousand reason he now felt it would be a very wise decision to avoid openly walking about as an Underfolk. The fact that the rest of his species had retreated beneath the Earth was one of those reasons. The fact that he’d indulged in the sin of Manflesh was another. The remaining reasons, all nine hundred and ninety eight of them, were embodied by the poster offering ten million keys for Poz’s capture or death, and a hundred thousand keys for any Underfolk – dead or alive – that ended up not being him, or if the body was too mangled to identify.

“Terrible, isn’t it?” a voice next to Poz said, startling him. Poz didn’t dare look over at his new companion.

“Yes, terrible,” Poz croaked, coughing with the words to disguise the growling voice of this form as some phlegmatic affliction.

The sound worked. The man who had stepped up took a hurried step to the side. “I mean, I thought they were all gone or dead. And one of them is now walking around, inciting riots?”

Poz swallowed hard. We meant different things with that word. “Terrible,” Poz repeated. “Alohym willing, he’ll be caught soon.”

“Alohym willing,” the man agreed, and when Poz started to cough again, he took a few hasty steps away.

It was a relief. Poz had to take deep breaths, staring at the poster that offered more money than a laborer could make in a decade for any Underfolk corpses brought to the Alohym. If your people hadn’t fled underground, there would be blood in the streets. 

But they had, and they were safe. Poz was the only one that walked the surface freely. And his blood was worth a hundred of his kinsmen.

Terrible indeed.

Making sure to lean on the improvised walking stick as if he truly needed it’s support, Poz headed deeper into the city. He would need to rest here tonight, and he’d have to find somewhere safely hidden away.

Unless, of course, he wanted to make some random stranger a very wealthy individual for the very low price of Poz’s head.

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 188

Small villages like Delna, once home to just under five hundred people, had gone down one of two paths in the wake of the Alohym’s arrival. In some cases, they’d began to boom as Alohym machines meant less labor was needed to maintain farms. New tasks began to arise in Alohym factories, and people had migrated inwards. Delna had gone down the other path. Being close to a large city, it had withered like fruit on a vine that severed from its root as the people had migrated away. The last human had left Delna three years prior. Nature had begun to creep in, gardens turning to dense clumps of weeds and roads into fields. Vines crept up walls and were cracking stone. A tree was growing under a collapsed roof, and in a few more years it would emerge through the rotting thatch, birthing new fruit. It was quiet and still, for most of the time. Just a week ago, Delna had seen a brief flurry of activity when a pack of wolves had cornered a deer against one of the walls. Although the wolves had captured their prey, one of their number had been mortally wounded by the deer’s antlers. 

Two days later, that wolf had found itself fed upon in turn. 

In the basement of what had been Delna’s town hall, a cocoon ruptured, and Poz crawled out with shaking hands that ended in curved claws, stepping forward on back bent legs. HIs jaw was distended forward, and fur covered his skin. Wolfflesh was something he rarely partook in, since it was rare to come across and dangerous to hunt for itself. But it was smart flesh, clever flesh, and the senses it provided were second to none. 

It also was flesh that belonged to an animal that could mourn the dead. And right now, Poz desperately needed to mourn. Something welled up in his throat, and driven by the instincts of this flesh, Poz threw back his head and howled. The sound was long and mournful, and was picked up by other wolves until it echoed across the valley.

Poz let the sound fade away into the distance. The grief didn’t vanish with it. I did that. How could I do that? The worst part of manflesh wasn’t the way it ate away at his body, and it wasn’t the way it tore away his ability to empathize. It was the way he couldn’t understand his own thoughts afterwards. Everything was hazy and twisted from his thoughts moving so quickly. He could remember what happened, but not why. 

He could smell oil nearby. While in manflesh, he’d had the sense to leave himself a torch for just this moment. Of course I did. I think of everything except for people. 

He groped along the floor. The torch was easy to find by scent in the darkness of the basement, but the flint and steel he’d set aside were not so easily located. His fingers closed in around something that struggled on six wriggling legs. 

Grubflesh. Shadow, but it tempted him. The ancient punishment for manflesh was, in a way, a kindness. Grubflesh could barely feel anything except fear and base needs. It wasn’t the borderline sociopathy of manflesh, emotions were still there, just…muted. Last time he’d taken Manflesh, with Nicandros all those years ago, he’d freed himself from it with Grubflesh before turning himself in to be exiled and bound by law to eat nothing but grubs. It had spared him the pain of facing what he’d done in Manflesh.

Poz felt his fingers tense, and forced himself to open his hand. The insect, confused, skittered away from the lumbering creature that had grabbed it. They called the Grubflesh after one feasted upon forbidden forms the Coward’s Exile. Poz had always thought that it was because it was punishment for taking the cowardly way out of a problem. Now, he had to wonder if perhaps the cowardly part was eating Grubflesh to hide from the pain of what you’d done. 

Not this time. Poz ran his fingers along the stone floor of the basement carefully, inch by inch. Something had scratched the floor in regular patterns, and the cuts were too fresh to have been worn away by the rain. Poz could feel jagged bits of stone scratch at his fingers.

In Manflesh, Poz must have decided that was the true meaning of the Coward’s Exile. That was why he’d changed his mind to eat Wolfflesh. Flesh that could feel the full weight of what he…no, that didn’t make sense. Manflesh didn’t care for that kind of thing. Then why? 

Why any of it? Why had he chosen to eat from the dead wolf? Why had he engaged Nicandros so directly? And for the love of the Light, why had he thought it was acceptable to sacrifice all those people for his escape? He remembered doing it, but the chain of thought that led to doing so wasn’t something this flesh could follow.

Something clattered under his fingers. The flint. His movements sent it skittering away, and Poz swore under his breath as he groped after the sound. 

The egg was a factor. He was certain of that. He’d known he had to protect it, and even even vaguely remembered having some kind of realization about what it was and how it worked. There was some reason it was vital that it didn’t fall into Alohym hands, and it had involved that half-Alohym woman who had been fighting alongside Nicandros. It was…damn it to shadow. He couldn’t make the connection anymore. It didn’t fit. 

The flint finally in his grasp, Poz struck it against the stone floor a couple times. The brief flashes of illumination created by the the sparks let him find the steel he’d left behind, and threw the scratches on the floor into sharp relief. They weren’t just random markings caused by some animals. They had patterns, regularity. 

Barely daring to breathe, Poz lit the torch.

He was blind for a moment, and had to blink rapidly as his eyes adjusted. Wolfflesh had better night vision than other fleshes, but took longer to adjust to light because of that. It wasn’t quite the same as Catflesh, but if he’d had access to that, he wouldn’t have needed to bother with the torch in the first place. 

The flickering light of the flame gave everything an unstable appearance as Poz’s vision cleared, but it was still clear enough. The floors of this basement had been scored with a knife, over and over, the scratches forming words and equations. Characters written in Poz’s own handwriting.

He didn’t even remember writing this. He’d been so deep in the fever of Manflesh, even memory of his actions escaped him. In that fevered state, he’d sent a message to himself. A message that detailed everything he’d put together about the Alohym, about the dragon egg, and why it was so vital the egg not fall into their hands and instead reached Tythel. Some of it, even now, Poz couldn’t fully understand. 

It ended in a single phrase. You can buy your way into her good graces with these words – ‘they might yet live again.’

Poz took a deep, ragged breath, and reached for his pack, pushing down his grief. He’d copy down what he’d written. He’d puzzle over it all later. For now, at least, he knew his path lead him to the Dragon Princess.

At least he’d been kind enough to write down where he could find her. 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 187

“So, this is interesting,” Bix said. She was looking at some device that held a small droplet of Haradeth’s blood. He looked over and regretted the motion, as it made the room spin. Losing blood is making you light headed. Who would have thought? Bix had stabbed him with a hollow needle attached to a tube of some material that was as clear as glass but bent like rope. Which meant he could see his blood flowing through the tube and ending in some kind of clear bag made of the same material as the tube. It was profoundly disturbing to watch, and he was grateful for the opportunity to distract himself.

“What is?”

“Your blood. See, I had thought that…arg. The limits of your language. So gods like your mother, they can breed with humans. Obviously. That’s how you exist, so you know your mother boinked a human at some point.”

“Can we not talk about my mother…boiking?”

“Fine. Boffed. Bedded. Lay with. Flathed. What term that means two slabs of meat smacking themselves together until they’ve made baby meat do you prefer?”

Haradeth suddenly wished he could just focus on his blood. “I’d prefer we move on in the conversation?”

“Fine. Anyway, so given that you could interbreed, I assumed little gods and humans were part of similar species. Kind of how you can get a mule from a donkey and a horse, although not sterile so not exactly right. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.” She pointed to the slab of blood. “You have two separate chains of meat words that are spiraled around each other. That shouldn’t be possible naturally. It’s just like Synit’s meat words, only instead of Alohym and Human woven together with crude structures, it’s elegant. Refined. Which either means that you are naturally impossible but still exist anyway, which I suppose makes sense because magic, or you’re naturally impossible because you’re not natural.”

Haradeth grimaced. “I don’t follow.”

“Of course you don’t, you’re a moron.” Bix turned her attention back to the device, but gestured towards Synit. “She is unnatural. We can agree on that, yes?”

“Yes,” Haradeth said.

“Okay. Normally, it’s only possible for two species that are this different to blend together because of something unnatural happening. Like her. Godlings look like they’re the result of someone very intelligent doing very complicated work on meat words. But you aren’t the product of complicated science, you’re the product of uncomplicated rutting. Right? Your mother wasn’t secretly hiding a laboratory in her forest?”

“I’m certain she wasn’t.”

Bix nodded. “Then that means that something that shouldn’t happen naturally did anyway, which is stupid and what a lazy meat brain would use to explain things. A crystal lattice mind, such as myself, can see that would be incredibly unlikely. Which would mean that it’s far more likely that, at some point, someone turned god’s reproductive organs into secret laboratories. Question – do you know of any Godlings that had a divine father?”

Haradeth nodded. “I knew…one.” That memory brought back a host of ones he did his best to keep down, and he had to push them back before tears could well in his eyes. “She had a divine father.”

Bix sighed, and impressive feat for someone with no actual need for air. “Then that means that the secret laboratories aren’t hidden in divine wombs. They must be hidden in your cells. Which would explain these structures I’m seeing drifting along with your mitochondria, and…and I’ve lost you.”

Haradeth did his best to look apologetic.

“I’m not going to teach you biology. Suffice it to say that life is made of tiny pieces of living bricks. Inside those living bricks are very tiny things that house meat words and break down food to turn into energy and all sorts of other stuff. Like pieces of straw that keep a clay brick solid, only far more complicated. Meat has special ones that produce extra energy called mitochondria. Plants have special ones that take energy from sunlight called chloroplasts. You, little Godling, have an extra one. One that doesn’t occur in most meat. I’m guessing it’s the difference between gods and dragons and the rest of meat, and they also are what allow you to interbreed with normal meat.”

“I’m sorry…did you just put dragons and gods in the same category?”

“Of course I did.” Bix rolled her eyes. “Have you seen a dragon?”

“A couple times.”

“Then you should know – or you would know if your meat brain was capable of it – that they shouldn’t be able to fly. The weight distribution for their wings is all wrong. A dragon’s wings would need to be three times their size to allow them to really fly, and if they were that big the energy to flap them would starve the dragon before they could even get up a mountain. Not to mention the flames, which can’t be explained by a biological process. You…flath me, I lost you again, didn’t I?” She didn’t wait for Haradeth to respond. “Dragon heavy. Dragon wings too small. Snap if flap. Don’t snap because magic tiny straws in meat bricks.”

“That…made more sense,” Haradeth said.

“Which is probably what that Heartflame does,” Bix said. “It excites the mitochondria. They work overtime, and biological processes happen faster, thus healing. If you do it for long enough, some of the mitochondria turn into these new structures. Then you get a half dragon as more and more of the mitochondria are converted. Although…that doesn’t explain everything.” Bix sighed and picked up a saw. “I’m going to start cutting up Synit now. We’ve got a lot of your blood. It’s not as fun as stabbing meat, but it needs to happen so I can fix her. And you’re going to promise me something, or I’ll just take all your blood.”

“Okay,” Haradeth said, trying not to think about how weak he felt right now and his inability to parse when Bix’s threats were serious or not. “What’s that?”

“When we get a chance, you’re going to get me a light mutant. A living one, twisted and warped by light. Because I think…I think that might explain how gods and dragons work. And maybe how Alohym work. And perhaps more. Promise?”

“I promise,” Haradeth said weakly.

Bix pinched off the tube that was draining his blood and removed the needle, placing a bandage over the injury. “Just so you know, I wouldn’t have drained all your blood,” she said. “If I was going to kill you, you’d scream a whole lot more.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. Should I stay?”

“Not unless you want to see what Synit looks like on the inside. Which I understand meat gets squeamish about – oh my, you’re turning green. That’s hilarious. Go. Eat lots of sugar and get some sleep. Come back tomorrow to collect Synit. Or her body if this doesn’t work. Your call.”

Haradeth hurried out of her lab as fast as his weak legs would allow.

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 186

Edit: I’m getting an error when logging in to Patreon right now to post the chapter over there as well. Apologies and will try to get it uptomorrow!

After the darkness of the dragon’s lair, Haradeth was glad to be back among the Sylvani. Having spent so much time in human cities, he’d come to associate the word city with harsh lines and straight edges. The organic lines of the Sylvani structures appealed to him on a fundamental level. It was like being back in the forest, but with the overall sense of bustle and life that he did enjoy about human cities. And without the filth. That was nice too.

“Where’s Bix?” Haradeth asked the empty air.

A shimmering image appeared in the air in front of him, an almost perfect recreation of the tiny Automaton if not for its translucency. “Oh, it’s you,” she said. “I was getting ready to stab someone for interrupting me.”

“But you’re…not going to stab me?”

Bix’s mechanical eyes whirred and narrowed. “That depends. Are you wasting my time?”

“You wanted to know when we’d brought everything back from the lair. Everything’s done, you can disable that portal stone now.” It was so remote and far away from everything else, they didn’t need it active. By disabling it, the Alohym wouldn’t be able to use it against them – at least, not without a full day’s worth of effort to reactivate it, which would give them plenty of time to know something was coming.

“Oh, good. Mostly. I did want an excuse to stab you.” Bix’s eyes relaxed. “Come down to my little home, would you?”

“Are you going to stab me?” Haradeth asked, already walking. The image floated alongside him as he moved, although Bix’s feet didn’t move.

“You’re going to let me stab you. Very different.” Bix delivered that in the prim tones of a child correcting a minor misspeak by their parent.

Haradeth stumbled. “Why would I-”

The image vanished. Bix clearly expected him to come, regardless of any objections he might have.

What’s worse is, she’s right. Sheer curiosity would be enough for Haradeth to go visit her right now, even without the very real possibility she’d stab him without permission if he didn’t go down there as soon as he could.

The winding path down to Bix’s lair had less of the elder Sylvani than Haradeth had seen on his previous trip. There were only a couple, their forms morphing constantly in response to stimuli Haradeth couldn’t perceive. “Did you find her?” one asked. “The lady wearing the stars for a gown and with suns in her mouth, she who swallows worlds. Has she been found?”

“Um…no,” Haradeth said. He knew these poor souls were too mad with their condition to properly understand the world around them, the question was so coherent that he felt bad ignoring it.

The elder made a wet sound, like someone sighing their last breath as they sunk beneath a bog. “She will be found, or she will find.”

“Absolutely,” Haradeth nodded in agreement, smiling at one of its eyes.

That seemed to satisfy the Sylvani ender, and its form twisted into an almost perfect sphere so it could roll away. “But who will find her first?” it asked, rolling along the ground.

Haradeth was glad it didn’t seem to want an answer to that. Especially because something was drawing his attention right now, something far more pressing.

The smell of blood.

Haradeth picked up his pace until he was half running in that direction. It was coming from Bix’s sanctum, and the smell was so strong it was almost overpowering. “Oh good,” Bix said when Haradeth threw open the door. “You made it.”

Haradeth stared in openmouthed horror. Synit was down there with her, but had been laid in some kind of glass coffin. She wasn’t moving or breathing. Her eyes were open, and didn’t even twitch at his arrival. “What did you do? For the love of the Light, Bix, you killed her!”

“Did not,” Bix said. “I just halted all metabolic activity and biological action after draining a great deal of her blood. And no more consciousness either.”

Haradeth could feel bile rising in his throat. “Bix, that kills living beings. You…you were supposed to help her.” He’d barely gotten to know the half Sylvani woman, and he’d certainly not been friends with her, but he hadn’t wanted her to die as part of some experiment by Bix.

“Oh Light. Your eyes are leaking water. That’s a bad sign.” Bix sighed. “Fine, spoil my fun. She’s not dead. I put her in stasis until you were free, because I think I can fix her. But I need to stab you to fix her.”

“Wait…what?” Haradeth said.

“We – and by we, I mean me, because I’m amazing – can put life forms into a stasis. It’s like sleep as far as your mind is concerned, but it’s more like being frozen solid. No metabolic activity, no growth, no aging, but at the same time no decay or damage occurs. It’s reversible. We do it when our medical…I mean, we did it…” Bix smacked the side of her head. “Faulty driver. It’s something we do when there are too many broken organics to fix you all at once. Let’s us get to fixing others when we have time to focus. Sometimes we also do it for illnesses we don’t know how to fix. So once I’ve stabbed you, I can just reverse it, and she’ll be fine.”

Haradeth stared at Synit. “You…” He shook his head. He didn’t know exactly what faulty drivers meant, but given how his brain was bouncing in a thousand directions, he had a feeling he could empathize with the sensation. “Why do you need to stab me?”

“Because I want your blood.” Bix waited and again sighed when she didn’t get the reaction she was hoping for. “You’re becoming less fun. Maybe I should do some surprise stabbings to keep you interesting.”

“Please don’t,” Haradeth said weakly.

“No promises. But right now I want you to let me stab you so I can take your blood.” Bix stood up on her tails and began to move along the room. “The Alohym rewrote her…you won’t know that word. Or that word. Or that one. Damn it to Shadow. Okay, so organic beings have little words written in their meat. They are what make organic beings work. These little meat words were rewritten by the Alohym to have both human and Alohym meat words. Like a document written with both our language and yours mixed together. Is your brain processing this so far?”

“I think,” Haradeth said. “It would be very hard to read a document written in two languages, though.”

“Yes, it would!” Bix said excitedly, like he’s just grasped an important point. “That’s why she’s so broken. When she was growing, her body was trying to read two different sets of meat words, and that didn’t work well for her. So her body is badly made, like a house that was built by someone who was following instructions written in two languages, and they only knew a handful of words in one of the languages.

“I can fix the damage to her structure, but she will lose a lot of blood. I don’t have access to Alohym meat words, and I’d need a blend of Alohym and human meat words anyway. But you’re a godling, meaning your meat words are in a state of constant flux. I think I can use your blood to keep her alive while I cut her up. And then she’ll be able to function without being in constant pain. Then I can stab her by surprise and it will be fun. Oh, and she’ll be in less pain and all that too, but really, the stabbing is the important part.”

Haradeth sat down on one of the chairs. “So…how are we going to get my blood safely?”

Bix smiled up at him. “See? And you doubted you’d let me stab you.”

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 185

“Do you think we need this, Ossman?” Aldreda asked, picking up a scroll and waving it in his face. “I mean, I’m not expert in ancient gibberish, but apparently I should be able to tell what Armin needs and what he doesn’t.”

Ossman held out his hand for the scroll. “I don’t expect you to be an expert,” he said.

Aldreda rolled her eyes and gave him the scroll. In spite of her frustration, she still was gentle with the relic. “I know you don’t. But you’re not an expert either. Why did Armin give us this job? Shouldn’t we be hauling heavy objects with the others?”

Light, I wish I knew. Aldreda’s frustration mirrored his own, although he didn’t want to admit it. “I’m sure Armin has his reasons, ‘dreda.”

Aldreda brushed back a strand of hair from her face and flushed slightly. Ossman blinked, puzzled. “You’re loyal to him,” she said. “I get it. I’m not saying that he’d wrong, Ossman, I’m just saying it doesn’t make sense. And…flath me sideways, Ossman, you’ve known him longer than me. Are you going to look me in the eye and tell me there’s nothing to worry about?”

Ossman looked down at the scroll first and unrolled it carefully. The glyphs on here were impenetrable to him, but Armin had explained what to look for. The language that he needed samples from had over ten thousand characters, all of them polygons with lines drawn through different segments. This scroll had a couple dozen repeating characters, all of them circles with varying shapes in the middle. 

He put it on the second pile carefully. The tomes and scrolls and other texts that weren’t what they needed, but Armin wanted to keep safe. Aldreda was still staring at Ossman, her arms crossed. “Well?” she asked.

Ossman looked up and met her eyes. “There’s nothing to worry about.”

Aldreda snorted. “You’re a terrible liar.”

Ossman turned to the next document they hadn’t sorted. This one was a fragment of a clay tablet. “Help me look for the other half of this? It’s got a three point break that looks kind of familiar, I think we already saw it somewhere.”

Aldreda sighed and turned to the fragments they had gathered. “He’s not normally like this, is he? Snapping, broody. That’s not the guy I got to know at least.”

“He’s also never lost anyone before,” Ossman said, finally engaging the topic as he joined her in sifting through the fragments. 

“Everyone’s lost someone,” Aldreda said, not looking up.

“No, I don’t mean in general. Bad phrasing on my part. He’s never lost anyone he was commanding before. Ever since the Collegium rebellion, every time he’s taken command, he’s gotten back with everyone alive. I’m not saying I’m not worried.”

“Even though you just did.”

“Well, you called me on that lie. If I’m being honest, I’m not saying I’m not worried. What I’m saying is I don’t think I should be worried. Armin’s dealing with a new kind of grief. Can I really blame him for processing it poorly at first?”

Aldreda grunted, lifting a large chunk of a clay tablet. “Give it here?” she said. She slid it next to the piece that Ossman had found. They looked like they belonged together, but the lettering was too different, and the break didn’t quite line up. “Damn. Thought I had it. And I hear what you’re saying. But…shouldn’t he let go of command until he’s dealt with it? Put Haradeth in charge, or Lorathor, or even you.”

Ossman’s heart rate spiked at the thought. “You’d be better than me,” he said, wiping the back of his arm against his forehead. “Anyone would be better than me.”

“No thank you.” Aldreda shuddered. “I want it about as badly as you do. So Haradeth or Lorathor, then. Until he’s dealt with the grief. There’s no shame in letting someone else take charge when the mission is done.”

“He doesn’t see it that way,” Ossman said, quietly.

“Which part?”

“The mission isn’t done.” Ossman picked up another fragment. This one did fit with the peice they’d found, but only a small fraction of it. “We’re going to need more, but I’ve got part of it. Hand me the sealant?”

Aldreda did so, and bent down to help Ossman hold the pieces in proper alignment when it hardened. “How is the mission not done? We beat Theognis, we’ve got the samples, and we have enough gold to fund the resistance for another year. What is missing?”

I don’t know. Armin was still in mission mode, and it was bothering Ossman. “Probably just won’t count it as complete until he has looked at the fragments and decoded Theognis’ codex. With that, we’ve got everything we came for. Then he can call it done.”

The sealant began to expand, filling the crack so perfectly that it was almost impossible to tell there had ever been a gap there. Only a slight break in the lettering revealed the flaw. 

“Then why in darkest Shadow did he send the two least literate people in the group to retrieve scrolls and tomes? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to pick anyone else?” Aldreda gestured at herself and Ossman. “We know, between us, eleven different weapons and one language, not counting Alohym battle cant.”

“You mean Alohym swears?”

“They’re one and the same, and you’re not going to distract me.” Aldreda wiped her forehead too. Gathering books shouldn’t be hard work, but when half the books were large enough to be one of those eleven weapons, and the other half were written on clay, it was more exhausting than Ossman had expected. “So one language between us, because battle cant doesn’t count as a language. Meanwhile, Haradeth is a godling and fluent in three languages – which I only know because he’s mentioned it a half dozen times. Lorathor is a Sylvani, so he at least speaks their language and ours. Synit…okay, so Synit would probably be worse than us, but I’d wager she at least can speak the Alohym’s tongue, so that still makes her a better linguist than the two of us. And that creepy little automaton has probably forgotten more languages than the rest of the Resistance combined knows. Yet…we are the ones gathering up the scrolls and tomes?”

Ossman rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I don’t know what to tell you, ‘dreda. I’m worried about him. And you’re right, it doesn’t make sense.”

“Because you’re looking at it the wrong way.”

The sudden voice was so unexpected, Ossman nearly dropped the tablet fragment he was holding, and Aldreda whirled, one hand going to her sword. Armin stood there, leaning against the room’s entranceway.

“Armin,” Ossman said. “How long have you…”

“Not long, but sound carries a long way down here.” He walked over to the clay fragments. “I chose you two because you aren’t going to get distracted. If Haradeth finds a copy of The Lineage of the Little Gods, he might stop to read it. If Lorathor finds an account of the early Sylvani’s interactions with humanity, he might stop to read it. If Bix saw a book that looked like it had a face, she might stab it. Then read it. Or maybe the other way around, I can’t figure it out.” Armin reached down and plucked out a fragment. “Sealant?”

Ossman handed it over, and Armin slid it into place. 

“And me,” Armin said, “I’m likely to end up just sitting here and trying to decode the entire damn thing without eating. I picked you two because you can do what’s needed without getting distracted. Maybe Synit could, but she still finds movement painful. I wanted to get her treatment.”

“Armin, I didn’t mean to give offense,” Aldreda said.

Armin looked up at her and smiled. Ossman hated how it didn’t reach his eyes. “I know. And…you’re right. I shouldn’t be in charge of anything dangerous right now. I’ve already talked to Haradeth. If we find ourselves in a fight, he’ll take command. But outside of combat, I’m still leading this mission. Can you trust me with that much, at least?”

Aldreda nodded. Armin looked over at Ossman. “And you?” he said.

“Always,” Ossman responded without hesitation.

“Thank you. Both of you.” Armin stood up. The fragment he’d picked out – from walking into the room, after both Ossman and Aldreda had been looking – fit in place perfectly. “I think this will be enough. Let’s-”

find and grab and break and tear and shred and –

“of here.” Armin glanced over at Ossman, and his forehead furrowed. “You alright? You look like you just saw a ghost.”

“Stray thought,” Ossman said, dismissively. “Distracted me. But I’m with you. Lets get out of here.”

Armin and Aldreda both looked concerned, and Ossman smiled. “You sure you’re alright?” Armin asked.

“Absolutely.” 

“Alright then.” Armin relaxed. “Let me know which of these boxes I can handle? Without throwing out my back, I mean.” 

Aldreda pointed to one of the boxes and gave Ossman a wink. It was nice, in that moment, to be able to prove Aldreda wrong about one thing. 

When he needed it, he was an excellent liar.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 184

Armin nudged the edge of the portal stone with the tip of his boot. He jerked his foot back like the touch had carried an electric shock. Nothing happened. He’d seen portal stones before, going back to his days at the academy. Conventional wisdom held that they’d marked ancient religious sites, where the precursors of the Umbrists would attempt to commune with the Shadow, or perhaps they were a pre-Cardomethi’s civilization attempt to achieve the impossible and create new lumwells. No one had been certain, but there were enough stranger, superstitious rumors about them that even with his education, Armin held the stones in wary reverence. “You’re certain this thing is safe?” he asked.

Haradeth gave him a wry grin and placed another chest on the flat stone. It wasn’t full of gold – it would have been impossible for even the godling to lift that much – but instead the bottom was lined with golden coins and then filled above that with gems, art, lighter metals, and other valuable artifacts. As much as they could carry. That one chest enough probably held enough to sustain the Resistance for a month. It was being placed alongside twelve others like it. This would be the third such load they’d sent through the portal. “You’re afraid of Sylvani magic, lumcaster? I figured your sort would be more comfortable with it.”

Armin grunted and turned away from the stone, reaching down to grab another handful of gems in the chest in front of him. “I lost two people getting in here. I don’t want to lose anyone else getting out.”

There was silence for a moment as Haradeth shifted the chest backwards to make sure it was fully on the platform. One of the chests had been half off the stone, and it had been cleaved neadly in two when they’d activated it. There was still half an empty chest laying next as proof for how dangerous it could be. “Bix says they are,” Haradeth said.

Armin looked around. “And you trust her?” he asked. The little automaton had gone through the portal with Synit and the first wave of chests, saying something about smoothing it over with “That stupid entertainment system we decided was a god when I was obviously the better choice.” Armin hadn’t understood half of what she said, but he’d understood enough to know that it had to do with the Sylvani’s internal politics. “She’s…not exactly stable. And don’t flathing mock me for finding her frightening. I saw the way you looked at her.” 

Haradeth laughed, although it wasn’t directed at Armin. “Light and Shadow, of course I won’t mock you for seeing the threat she poses. I’d call you a fool if you didn’t think she was a threat.” Haradeth grunted as he picked up another chest that was half hanging over the side, placing it on top of a crate they’d found. “But I do trust her. Bix is unstable, strange, has an…abnormal morality, and absolutely will stab you because she finds it amusing…”

“Oh, well, you’re certaintly convincing me of how trustworthy she is now,” Armin muttered.

Haradeth smiled and kept talking as if Armin hadn’t interrupted him, “but she likes us, as far as I can tell. Or at least doesn’t actually wish us harm. And she wants to fight the Alohym. Probably because she finds them more fun to cut into than we are, but that still makes her trustworthy.”

“I think you were in the Sylvani land too long,” Armin said after staring at Haradeth for a moment. “You’ve clearly gone insane. ‘We’d be less fun to stab’ is not a good basis for trust. You do still realize that, right?”

“It’s not for a human, or a sylvani, or…anything made of flesh, really. But you’ll understand once you get to know her. She’s not a threat. She’s just strange and unusual.”

“In my experience, strange and usual is the definition of threatening. Or at least untrustworthy.” Armin said, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice.

Haradeth grimaced. “You’re not talking about the Alohym, are you?”

“No, I’m not talking about the flathing Alohym.” Armin threw the next load of treasure into the chest with more force than was strictly necessary. “She lied to us, Haradeth. She lied about being the princess. She hid her father’s hoard. We came here to get funds for the resistance and Clarcia and Guiart are dead because of it.”

“We dont know that she lied,” Haradeth said. “She might have been lied to about who she was. The Alohym might have taken Karjon’s hoard after his death. It’s a bit too quick to jump to conclusions.”

Armin slammed the lid of the chest shut. “I can’t believe you are speaking in her defense, Haradeth. I thought you trusted her as far as I could throw her.”

Haradeth walked over to take the chest from Armin, but rested his hand on Armin’s shoulder first. “I don’t trust her motivations,” Haradeth said. “She wants to use our Resistance as an outlet for her grief, and weaponize us against our foes. But that doesn’t mean I think she’s a liar, or that she’d do things to deliberately put people in danger with no reason. Least of all you and Ossman.”

“So, you’re going to speak up for her?”

“I don’t like seeing someone mistrusted for the wrong reasons,” Haradeth said with a shrug. “And I don’t believe she was lying about her heritage. Especially since her lying means we’re trusting the Alohym over her.”

Armin wiped at his eyes. They were itching for some strange reason that absolutely had nothing to do with feelings of betrayal or anger. “And the hoard?”

Haradeth sighed and picked up the chest. “Did you love your mother?” Haradeth asked.

Armin blinked at the change of topic. “Of course,” he said. 

“And do you know the tale of Queen Olanni?”

“Every child does,” Armin said. “Queen Olanni, the High Queen of the Necropolis, who steals bad children from their beds and feeds them to zombies. Especially bad children who don’t finish their food, according to my mother.”

Haradeth laughed. “Exactly. So imagine Queen Olanni was real. Imagine, then, to defeat the Alohym the Resistance had to defile a grave. It could be Olanni’s, or it could be your mother’s. Both could be guarded by the Alohym. Which do you choose?”

Armin shook his head. “I see what you’re saying, but I don’t agree with the analogy. I never would have dreamed of suggesting we create dragonscale armor from Karjon’s hide, even though it’s nigh-impervious when properly infused with light. That would be far too much. But his hoard? His things? Who cares about things more than lives? Tythel does, apparently. And that…that’s unacceptable.” Armin held up a hand to forestall Haradeth’s objection. “I’ll hear her out. I know Theognis just told me those things to try to turn me against her. But damn me to darkest Shadow if I’m going to accept a weak excuse. I want to know why Guiart and Clarcia had to die, Haradeth.”

Haradeth didn’t try to defend Tythel further, just shook his head and sighed. “I think that’s the last of the chests,” he said as he settled it in place. “If we want more, we’ll need to get them from the Sylvani.”

Armin nodded. “I’ll wait here for Ossman and Aldreda. They’re the last two. You go through.” Lorathor had gone with the second wave of treasure. “I’ve seen you work the stone enough to know how to do it.”

“You were nervous about it a second ago, and now you want to operate it?” Haradeth asked with a furrowed brow.

“The Sylvani know you. The sooner they see you, the better they’ll feel – and the better I’ll feel taking my people through. Go ahead. I’ll be fine.”

Haradeth shrugged and stepped onto the portal stone. He spoke the command word, there was a flash of light, and he and the treasure were gone.

Armin breathed a sigh of relief, then checked to make sure Ossman and Aldreda weren’t coming yet. He’d set them to the task of gathering up texts and tomes he’d need to decode Theognis’ codex fully, although he already knew more than he expected. It had been a pretense to distract them. Same as sending Haradeth through the portal first.

He checked the sack he’d hidden inside a gilded chair. He was now glad he’d kept this secret from Haradeth. The godling couldn’t be trusted not to tell anyone about them. It’s not the same as what Tythel did, Armin thought. No one’s in danger.

But Tythel had been lying to them. Maybe from the beginning. And she’d been desperate to recover a single one of these. Armin couldn’t help but be suspicious as to why. Why did she want to recover the one she’d lost so badly? Was it just symbolic? Or did it have a purpose? For all Armin knew, that single one could be used to destroy the Resistance from within – or a weapon that could destroy the Alohym once and for all?

No, until he knew if he could trust her, it was far safer to keep the cache of dragon eggs safely hidden. With the portal stone working, he could return here whenever he needed. He just needed to move them away from the other treasure so no one would accidentally find them.

Not until he was ready.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 183

Dawn crept over Hillsdale like a thief, slipping into the window and robbing Tythel of a beautiful dream where she was in Karjon’s lair with her father and Eupheme and Tellias and Armin and Ossman, and he was telling her that Nicandros had gotten sweetrolls. Then the lair had turned into a palace and she was sitting on a throne, but it was also Karjon’s horde, and she’d had her own horde of books – somehow recovered from the drowned library of Golmanni. She knew that because a fish was telling her.

The beauty had started to decrease the more logic started to intrude. 

“Good morning,” Eupheme said brightly as Tythel stirred.

Tythel groaned. “Do you ever sleep? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you sleep.”

“I sleep,” Eupheme said. “I just only do it when you aren’t in danger. Or potential danger. Or there is a possibility of danger. No matter how remote.”

Tythel forced herself up. The ache between her wings was less, and Tythel wanted to try to stretch them. As if Eupheme had read her mind, her eyes narrowed and she shook her head. “There’s always a remote possibility of danger,” Tythel murmured, shaking her head to try and clear it. “So when do you sleep?”

“Between moments,” Eupheme said. 

“I don’t know what that means,” Tythel said.

Eupheme smiled. “I know. Now, Otis stopped by. The tailor is willing to work on the unique request, discreetly. There’s a small question that still needs answering. Color.”

Tythel’s nictitating membranes flashed, clearing the last blur of sleep. “I’m sorry, but…color? Does that really matter all that much right now?”

“Well…” Eupheme hesitated, and Tythel motioned for her to go ahead as she settled into a sitting position. Eupheme moved behind her with a brush and began to work on Tythel’s hair. “You have the right to the royal colors. Purple, black, and gold. It would suit you well, I think, and it would send a clear message you are claiming your heritage.”

Tythel frowned in thought. The idea of wearing something so bright to a battlefield was a serious concern, not to mention the audacity of wearing the royal colors when she hadn’t even made a real claim to the throne. It was a step she needed to take, sending her formal claim to the various nobel houses. Assuming Duke d’Monchy hadn’t done that already. No, he can’t. He needs the locket to seal it properly. So that was something she had to do, and it felt wrong to do so before she’d made an official statement. And then…that would be that. She’d officially have declared her intention to rule once the Alohym were defeated.

“Your hair,” Eupheme said, breaking Tythel’s train of thought.

“What about it?” 

“It changed. It’s…coarser. And…well, feel for yourself.”

Eupheme bought some of her hair around, and Tythel ran her hands through it. There were far fewer strands than before, and each one was significantly thicker than it had been. It was like running her hand through thin copper wires. “It’s like scales,” Tythel said after a moment. “I was wondering like that. Hair isn’t something dragons and humans share in common. I guess this is the next closest thing. I figured either this would happen, or it would fall out. Still might, I suppose.”

“You don’t seem bothered by that.”

Tythel shrugged. “Hair is something humans have. I’ve gotten used to it, and it doesn’t bother me enough to cut it off, but I won’t mind if it’s gone.”

“You are a strange woman.” Eupheme said, and Tythel could hear the smile in her voice. “So…the colors?”

“I’m not sure.” Tythel explained her earlier thoughts about claiming the color too soon. 

“Then we could have it made for when you make the claim.” Eupheme said. There was an edge to her voice, one Tythel couldn’t quite place.

“Is something bothering you?”

“Tythel. You’re my friend. I’m here for you and I’m fighting in this resistance. But you’re also my princess and will be queen one day. So far, though, you haven’t done much in that regard. Anything, if I’m being blunt, aside from that one statement in the aftermath of killing Rephylon. I know you’re hesitating on this, but after what Otis told you right now…we need you to be what you are. We need to know there is something after the Alohym are driven back, that we aren’t just going to replace them with more chaos. More riots and death. You can be that symbol.”

“I’m not certain about that,” Tythel said. “I’m…not good at being human. I can’t smile and wave without the expression looking fake. I can’t read people, to try to figure out what’s going on beneath the surface. The only time I’ve ever led anything, the first time it was a raid that ended with everyone getting captured and us barely escaping. The second time Tellias ended up…ended up like that.” Tythel gestured in the direction of Tellias’ bed. It was hidden by a curtain, for privacy, but with her hearing Tythel could hear the faint rasping of his labored breaths.

“What happened to Tellias wasn’t your fault,” Eupheme said.

“Wasn’t it, though?” Tythel asked. “He was there because he was following me. I should have sent him to rejoin with the resistance.”

“And then you and I would be dead. Or do you think we could have handled the three of them alone?”

Tythel shook her head. “I don’t know. Maybe you’re right. But that’s not the point. I didn’t think about the danger I was putting you both in. I was just focused on ending the threat. That’s been me since I started this. Everything I’ve done…I haven’t thought about the consequences. And look where it’s gotten us! Nicandros serves the Alohym. Tellias is in a limbo between life and death. Armin and Ossman went off to a dangerous swamp because I was too afraid of giving up my father’s horde. What right do I have to lead anything?”

Eupheme continued to work the brush through the coarse strands of Tythel’s hair. She was silent for several seconds. “You’re aware of it,” Eupheme said. “You’re aware of it, and you regret it. You’ll do better in the future.”

“And if I don’t?” Tythel said, feeling very small.

“Then I’ll convince you to use your position to create a new government. Abdicate your throne after this is all done, once stability is restored. But right now, we just need a symbol. We can figure the rest of it out later. But with that symbol, we hope. And hope is in very short supply.”

“Promise me,” Tythel said. “Promise me that if I won’t be right, you’ll tell me. Promise me you won’t let me become…I’ve studied history, Eupheme. I know what bad rulers can cause. Even ones that aren’t malicious. Incompetent rulers cause famines, wars. They make plagues worse. They watch their people riot and end up in civil wars and they don’t even understand how it happened. Promise me that you won’t let me become that.”

“That’s the final tasks of the Umbrists,” Eupheme said. “I promise.”

Tythel didn’t need to wipe her eyes. The transformation had taken care of that. Her nicitating membranes were still needed to take care of the burning. “Thank you. Then…I suppose one in the royal colors would be good. The rest should be in practical colors, though. I’m not going into a battlefield dressed like a flower. Browns and greens that will hide me, thank you very much.”

“I’ll get two in the right colors. Just in case.” 

It was nice to hear that the smile was back in Eupheme’s voice.