The Dragon’s Scion Part 139

“They’re coming,” Tythel said.

The Skitter had been running for the last hour, an hour spent in tense silence, waiting for the very real risk that at any moment a patrol would intercept them. It was a chance worth taking, a risk they were aware of, but so far it hadn’t happened.

None of them had been speaking for that hour. It had stretched on interminably. On more than one occasion Tythel had considered breaking the silence, but the fear of making sound that would cover the sound of pursuit or a waiting ambush had kept her mouth shut. She could only assume the same held for Tellias and Eupheme.

Now, however, they were both looking at her with wide eyes. “What do you hear?” Eupheme asked.

“The sky is screaming,” Tythel said. She’d just picked up on it, and it did what it always did – took her back to the first sound her improved hearing had been able to detect as the Alohym’s tentacled ship descended from the sky to slaughter her father and her. “Screams of iron and cracks of rivulets. It’s one of their ships.”

“Flath. We weren’t expecting that,” Tellias said, spitting out the word. “This is a mistake.”

Tythel shook her head. She wanted to agree with him but had no better plan. The trio that hunted them was too dangerous to fight any other way, and the fact that they were bringing an entire vessel didn’t change that. “I was able to hide in the illusion over the valley after my father died. They couldn’t penetrate it then, and that was…a year ago.”

With a start, Tythel realized she’d turned seventeen a couple days ago. Or she would in a couple of days. Maybe a week in either direction. Dates had never been something she’d focused on too hard – Karjon had been the one to keep track of dates, but he’d used the draconic calendar. Between her sessions of unconsciousness, the long marches that seemed to stretch ahead endlessly, the dull months in hiding at Hallith, and the random days of panic that had each seemed like a week, she’d lost track of the human calendar in comparison.

“Who knows what they might have discovered in the last year?” Tellias asked, his voice thick. “What if they’ve uncovered a way to see through it?”

“Then we die,” Tythel said simply, looking out over the road ahead. She didn’t recognize this stretch of roadway. It was likely a couple more hours before they reached the point where Freda and…Tythel found she couldn’t recall her husband’s name. It didn’t matter. They’d soon reach the point where she’d been rescued.

“That’s all you have to say? ‘Then we die?’” Tellias’ eyes hardened. She could see his hands clench into fists in the arcplate. Would you be this angry if I hadn’t rejected you? Or would you have regretted my acceptance now if I had?

“Yes.” Tythel growled the word. “Tellias, we have a humanoid Alohym, an Umbrist who has been doing this longer than Eupheme, and a true Lumcaster after us. I’m a half-reborn half-dragon, you’ve got arcplate Armin threw together in a cave with a crate of scraps. Eupheme is the only one with a chance of escaping if this goes bad this time, and she’ll die before she escapes without me.”

Eupheme nodded to confirm what Tythel was saying, though she focused on steering the Skitter down the road.

“Light and shadow,” Tythel continued, “we’re massively overmatched. The presence of a ship just adds more Alohym soldiers, and we can cut through those easily enough. They’ll be a distraction, nothing more. If it has flathing Skimmers or weapons of its own, if it’s more than a transport vessel, then the illusion is the only thing keeping us safe. If they can suddenly see through it, we’re flathing dead, and we can’t do anything about that.”

Tellias gave her a stricken look, and Tythel felt immediately guilty. It was hard to remember that he had no more idea what he was doing in this than she did. They both had to go off their best instincts and their training – his in politics, her in history, neither of which was particularly well suited to battle strategies. History is probably better at least, Tythel thought. “I just…feel like we should have a plan other than ‘we die.’”

Tythel sighed heavily. “Well, we have the next few hours to come up with one. If we don’t, we can’t plan for every contingency. This was the best option.”

Eupheme, who had been silent so far, nodded in agreement. “We lead those three back to the others…can you imagine what they’d do? Especially if they came back with an army, and maybe an actual Alohym on the field as well, and a few Skimmers? We’d be slaughtered by the dozens, and Leora would cut our leadership to ribbons. We Umbrists aren’t best as front-line fighters. We’re our best as assassins no walls can keep out. It’d be a massacre, and it would be the end of us.”

“And if we die trying to stop them?” Tellias asked, his voice soft.

“Then we take Leora down with us,” Tythel said, coming to a sudden decision. “The Resistance has fought against Lumcasters before, and Catheon isn’t that much more dangerous than a normal Alohym. She poses the greatest threat – something they won’t know is coming or how to fight.”

Eupheme’s nod was grim, and Tellias could only shake his head – not in negation, but in disbelief. “Well, as long as we have a plan.” He grinned as he said it, but it was a sickly expression even to Tythel’s eyes, and he quickly put on his helmet before they could stare at his face too long.

Behind them, the rending steel sound of the Alohym vessel grew closer. Its progress was faster than theirs, but not by much. In a couple of hours, Tythel would be able to hear the hum of its unlight engine and weaponry. It might give her an idea of this was a gunship or one of their transports. Either would be bad, but the transport would likely be worse.

“I’ve never gone in with a chance the mission would be impossible,” Tellias said quietly. “I always assumed that there was some way out – that if I hadn’t thought of it, de’Monchy had, or my aunt, or Master Armin, or you, your highness. I’ve never known there was a chance it was hopeless.”

“There’s always that chance,” Tythel said, trying to make her voice as gentle as possible. “Have faith, Tellias. We made it this far when you didn’t see the flaws. Light and shadow, most of the time I don’t realize how large the flaws are until afterwards.”

“Well, I feel greatly comforted,” Tellias said, but he laughed after he did, so Tythel assumed it wasn’t meant in anger.

“What I mean is…just because you’re aware of it doesn’t mean it’s any more dangerous. We survived impossible odds before. Somehow. We can do it again. We will do it again.”

Tellias nodded, and his posture seemed to relax some. Tythel was grateful for that.

She wished she had the confidence she was projecting.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 138

If you missed it, book 4 of Small Worlds has wrapped up in serial format. Click here for more information. Book 2 will be out this summer, so now’s a good time to pick up Weird Theology if you’ve been waiting. If you want to dip your toes into Small Worlds for free, check out Rumors, a prequel story

The common room of the Inn was as quiet as a grave. At this hour, it was too early for even the innkeeper to be up and going about his duties, too late for the most drunken lout to still be snoring into a pile of vomit on the tables. The only living thing down here was a mouse, and it twitched its nose as Tythel, Eupheme, and Tellias slipped into the room. It seemed unconcerned for a moment, certain these huge, lumbering oafs would pose no threat to it – then it turned those tiny little eyes towards Tythel.

All living things on Aelith that could smell knew the scent of dragon, and even the beasts that had no fear of humans knew to fear the smell of the greatest hunters that had ever roamed the world.

Tythel wondered if that would change in time. If over the centuries and millennia to come, creatures would lose their fear of that smell. There would be no more dragons roving the sky, and their hunts would be forgotten by men and beast and even Alohym. Dragons would become only legends they would tell their children, a reason for a tingle in the spine at a passing shadow, and then would be forgotten.

No. Tythel thought, tightening her face with resolve. Dragons wouldn’t be forgotten. She would learn Heartflame. One day she would have a daughter or a son herself, the heir to the kingdom…and to Karjon’s legacy. She would teach them the Three Flames, and they would do the same for their children. They would carry the legacy of the dragon throughout history, and although some would forget that dragons truly existed as her father had, it would be part of her family legacy.

For now, however, this mouse had not forgotten, and skittered silently across the hardwood floor away from a smell it knew to fear.

Silently. That was the problem. Tythel bumped against a chair to create a clatter, but it wasn’t enough.

“Eupheme, you’re being too quiet,” Tythel hissed. The whisper was deliberately far too loud. Anyone in nearby rooms would be able to hear her, though not enough to make out the words. It was a careful sound, one she’d considered after the awkward conversation with Tellias.

“Blood and shadow, Tythel, I’m an Umbrist.” Eupheme’s whisper was perfectly pitched to just reach Tythel’s ears, modulated so no one else would have the slightest idea she was even speaking. It wasn’t even really a whisper, barely a breath. “Besides, you two are loud enough for all of us.”

Tythel opened his mouth to object, but the objection died on her lips before it could even pass between her teeth. She wasn’t incorrect about that, especially with Tellias in the arcplate. He hadn’t spoken since she’d laid out the plan, and barely spoken even when she was laying it out for them. He still wasn’t speaking, but the heavy clomp of the arcplates greaves caused the floor to shutter loud enough to draw plenty of their attention on their own.

He’ll be fine, Tythel assured herself. Their discussion had only happened an hour ago. Of course he was still upset. Tythel was still upset.

Tythel reminded herself of the importance of staying focused. The goal was to attract attention, but not too much attention.

Eupheme reached the door, then motioned towards Tythel. “I’d hate to open it too quietly.”

Tythel rolled her eyes and closed the distance. She slid the door open a few digits to glance into the lot. A road lead to it, one covered with hoofprints and the triangle shaped clawprints left behind by Skitters. The woods behind the lot were dark and shivered in the early morning wind, a wind that carried the snorts of horses back to Tythel’s ears. Three Skitters sat out there among the horses. Giving Eupheme a smug smile, she closed the door with exaggerated care. “Ready?”

Eupheme nodded.

Tythel stood in front of the door and took a deep breath before kicking it as hard as she could. A thunderclap of sound filled the Inn, and confused shouts began to erupt from above. She could hear shrieks of shock and fury. Eupheme rolled her eyes. “Think we have their attention?” she asked.

“I hope so. Move,” Tythel said by way of response. Tellias nodded, the first sign he’d given that he was anything other than an automaton designed to look like arcplate. Tythel had no time to worry anymore about his feelings. That was something that could be mended later, when the world was safe – or at least when the current crises was dealt with.

For now, what mattered was the feel of the barren dirt lot beneath her feet, the sound pounding in Tythel’s ears with every footstep.

“Someone sing to the guards!” A woman shouted from an upstairs window. Tythel leapt the rest of the distance to land in the cabin of one of the Skitters.

“Move yourselves! We have to get to my father’s lair!” Tythel shouted. Eupheme swung herself up to the cabin of the Skitter, followed by Tellias with a single heave.

“A little bit too obvious, don’t you think?” Tellias muttered.

Tythel was just relieved to have him speaking again. “Even if they think it’s a trap, they have to follow up on the lead,” she muttered, reaching down to pull open one of the panels on the Skitter.

Tellias shoved the gauntlet of his arcplate into the spot Tythel had opened. The energy expelled was more than enough to kickstart the Skitters cells even without the benefit of a key to activate them. The Skitter began to hum to life.

Tythel moved aside to give Eupheme access to the Skitter’s controls. She began to work the levers and start the legs moving.

Not a moment too soon. Tythel could hear the pounding footsteps of guard drawing near, Alohym soldiers that would see their departure. “Go!” she shouted.

Eupheme didn’t need additional encouragement. The Skitter began to veer away across the lot, pulling onto where the dirt road met the pavement.

Tythel turned around for the final nail in the coffin. As they passed the guards that were moving to block the road, Tythel took a deep breath and let loose a torrent of dragonflame. Men shouted and scattered, diving to the ground to evade the impressive heat.

There was no doubt they’d know where she was going now.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 137

The death of Rephylon had been a chaotic time. Armin hadn’t even been present in the fight itself – he’d been helping with the evacuation and re-armament of the former prisoners, frantically watching for some sign that Theognis had returned. He’d known Tythel had stood against Rephylon…and had expected that he’d come back to her body.

Afterwards, she’d told them about what had happened. Rephylon’s terrifying speed and strength, Tythel’s realization of how she could channel ghostflame, and the things Rephylon had said to taunt her. One of those had been that the Alohym had been raising humans. “She said that humans are good at imprinting, and they were able to raise humans directly. Her exact words were…” Tythel had trailed off here, scratching at her milky eye. Armin had been pushing her to accept an eye-patch, but she’d been resistant. “It was ‘Your species is unusually fragile in infancy, there was an adjustment period. But I can say we are quite pleased with the results.’

Armin had a terrible feeling that Synit was what Rephylon had meant by an “adjustment period.” The end result of an attempt to fuse the Alohym’s organic suits with human flesh. Now that he was looking at her with less animosity, he could see that every motion Synit made was slow and deliberate, her limbs trembling with pain at every action. “Rephylon raised you?” He asked. It was a stupid question, one she’d already answered, but sometimes a question needed to be asked because the truth was so unbelievable that it bore repeating.

“Yes. Almost as long as I can remember.” There was a melancholy that underlined her every word. It wasn’t completely obscured by the unnatural sounds her throat and mouth made as she spoke, although they did mask it well. “I have the faintest memories of my first mother. A laugh, a song in the dark, and the tears as they ripped me from her arms. I remember that all too well. Rephylon thought I would bond with her in spite of those memories.”

“It appears she was mistaken,” Ossman said. He still had his axe drawn, was still standing protectively in front of Clarcia, but the tension had left his grip. He was no longer a wolf waiting to spring, but a hound trying to decide if it was looking at an intruder or a guest. Ready to bite if needed, but not certain of the need.

“She was.” Synit spat the words.

Armin had bought himself time to think, but it had proved to be of little benefit. He still was adrift at how to respond. “How long have you been free?” he finally managed, uncertain if it was the right question to ask this madwoman.

Synit tapped her mandibles together, an expression Armin couldn’t read. It was even harder than understanding Tythel’s expressions. The princess could speak volumes with a tilt of her head or the blink of an eye, but at least she had the same anatomy as a human. Synit was only partially that, and the alien structures made reading her a challenge Armin didn’t think he’d be overcoming anytime soon. The eyes. Focus on the eyes. 

Before he could, or Synit could respond, or one of his companions could chime in with a more sensible question, the slowly expanding ring of light finally reached the walls, dispelling the last of the darkness to slink into the shadows where it lay, coiled like a serpent. The moment it touched the edges of the room, it was reflected back. No darkness impeded its path this time, and in an instant the light’s intensity doubled. The walls were covered in gold and gems, and shone so brightly it gave the room the luster of daylight.

Everyone – even Synit – gaped at the sight. This was not a king’s ransom in gold. This was a kingdom’s ransom. Gold and silver and platinum, studded with gems from across the world.

“Since Rephylon died” Synit said, breaking the silent awe. Armin had to fight back a sudden, irrational surge of resentment. “Her death plunged a great deal into chaos. I came here as quickly as I could. I…hadn’t shone light here yet. Light and Shadow, I had no idea what to expect.”

“We’ll need to come back,” Aldredia said, her voice almost hoarse in its hushed reverence. “We can’t hope to carry enough.”

“Carry enough?” Synit asked. Her mandibles parted, and Armin wondered if that was a frown, or if it was some other expression.

“We came here for this,” Armin said, gesturing towards the treasure that surround them.

Synit’s eyes narrowed. “You came here…to remove treasure from a dragon’s horde?”

“Is that a problem?” Armin asked, tension creeping back into his shoulders.

“Surprising,” Synit responded. “I was under the impression that dragons viewed such things as anathema. Perhaps the scrolls were inaccurate.”

Her eyes were narrowed, and she still radiated tension. Armin took a deep, careful breath to buy himself time to think. Choose your next words carefully, Armin. If you make a misstep here, you could start a fight, and you still don’t know what she can do. “So Rephylon was your mother? I can only imagine how bizarre that was.” Brilliant. 

“I do not hear a refutation in that statement,” Synit said. Her antennas started to twitch in…excitement? Anger?

“I don’t know,” Armin admitted. “Only that the princess told us we would find treasure here. And…well, our coffers run near empty. And-”

“Silence!” Synit said, the word coming out as a cold hiss. “Someone has entered the upper chamber.”

“Who?” Ossman asked, tightening his hands around the handle of his axe again.

“My corpses were destroyed somehow,” Synit said, glaring at Clarcia. “I do not have sentries anymore. I have no way to know. But there are many of them.”

“Is there another way out of here?” Armin asked, unslinging his arcwand.

“Not that I’ve discovered in the weeks I’ve been here.”

“We’re trapped?” Guiart asked, his voice high with sudden terror.

Armin felt that same fear racing through his veins.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 136

Light spilled sullenly into the room that had once housed the hoard of the dread necromantic dragon. The power within was so great, it slowed the spread of radiance to a crawl, as if the light itself was molasses spilling across the floor. Yet where it touched, it found more surfaces to amplify its glow. Piles of golden and silver coins from empires that had died generations before Armin’s great grandsires’ own great grandsires had been birthed were strewn across the floor. The long-dead kings and queens and emperors and princesses emblazoned on the metal stared mutely at the sudden intrusion of light, and at the edges where radiance flickered against darkness, Armin could almost imagine those rulers of dust trying to blink to clear their eyes of the luminosity.

The chanting continued unfalteringly in those inky depths, the speaker unfazed by the intrusion into his work. For a moment Armin dared hope that somehow he hadn’t heard their entrance, but the voice began to move closer to where they were, a gentle jingle of coins heralding each step. Armin raised his arcwand as his companions similarly readied their weapons, Aldredia moving with greater haste than the sluggish light and vanishing into the darkness.

A shape moved in the shadows at the edge of the expanding ring of light, and Armin set his sights on it. The chanting was rising from that throat, from the speaker here, and Armin pulled the trigger in the hopes of ending it before it could complete whatever it’s dread purpose was.

The arclight beam streamed from his weapon with the unerring accuracy he’d become known for, yet it was swallowed by the darkness before it could hit its mark. The chanting voice hit a final word and then stopped. Armin knew that word, Loruyah. In the tongue of the Alohym, it meant “halt,” and an unlight lumcaster that wove it into their ritual could resume it at a later point without their magic disrupted. Another advantage they have over us, Armin thought with a scowl.

“Don’t fire again,” said the voice. Now that it was speaking a language Armin knew, he could hear how twisted with unlight mutations it was. Familiar words turned alien on those lips, with letters clicking as if forced through mandibles. “We should speak, before you decide if you will slay me or not.”

Armin’s mind was made up, but he still hesitated. Now that they weren’t speaking the Alohym’s language, he could tell it was not Theognis. That man’s voice had not been so far gone as this, and Unlight mutations were like those of the Light in one regard – they warped a man slowly over time. If he had been wrong about that, he might be wrong about other things. “Then step forward and speak, and we will decide.”

The shadow moved, an arm extending to point into the darkness. Armin could see its outline and his stomach lurched as he realized it was bifurcated like the Alohym’s, split at the elbow. Even though just an outline, he could tell the two hands at the end were those of a human. “Call your skulker back from the shadows, and I will. They do not hide you from me.”

“Come, Aldredia,” Armin said, and the silent swordswoman appeared a moment later. Armin gave her a faint nod and half grin, hoping she would take it to mean he had a plan. He didn’t, but right now their lives might hinge on that belief. If nothing else, this talk would buy him time to figure out what his desperate gambit would be. “I’ve done as you bid. Now show yourself.”

The figure stepped into the light, and Guiart retched beside Armin at the sight. Armin could scarce blame him for the reaction. This figure was undeniably that of a human – it stood on two legs covered with pale flesh, it had eyes that were gold and twinkled in the light, and its hair was long and thickly braided. Yet it was also undeniably something else. The face was rent in twain, a mouth that opened both on the horizontal and the vertical. Its arms were both split in the unnatural way of the Alohym, and beneath the silk tunic it wore, Armin could tell its abdomen pinched so inhumanly tight there was no room for the entrails that humans relied upon for life. Of its sex, the inhuman form gave no sign – too far into the alien to even be considered androgynous.

“What are you?” Armin asked, unable to keep the horror from his voice.

“A failure,” the figure said in that voice that cracked like breaking flesh. “You may call me Synit. That is what the told me my first mother named me. My second mother gave me a new name, but I rejected it as she rejected her daughter.”

“Synit,” Armin said. It was a name common to the empire of Xhaod – or at least it had been before the Alohym had annihilated that empire with every other human kingdom. “What…happened to you?”

“That is a fairer question, and one with a more interesting answer. Yet one that seems to be lacking in manners. Courtesy would dictate some pleasantries before such things questions are answered. Such as your names.”

“Courtesy?” Ossman said, bristling. Armin could almost hear his tendons as they closed around the grip of his axe. “You set the undead to guard your path. They nearly slew us, and you dare speak of courtesy?”

Synit sighed, a rasping sound that ground against his ears like a whetstone. Her form – at least, Armin thought that was the correct way to refer to her, given her talk about being a daughter –  was monstrous, but Armin focused on her eyes. They were human, and there he would have a hope of reading her true intention. Just like Tythel, Armin thought. Although the princess was far less inhuman than this creature, the eyes would give answer to her true intention. “I did not set them upon you. Had I known adversaries of the Alohym followed me, I would have instructed them more carefully.”

Armin couldn’t stop the hoarse laugh that escaped his lips. “You would have us believe that you are a foe to the Alohym? You are half one of them to look upon, and you set yourself against them?”

“There are those who are humans in truth who make common cause with them,” Synit said. She reached up to tuck her hair behind the twin antenna that sprouted from her head in place of ears. “Is it so hard to believe that it could go both ways?”

“Yes,” Armin spat. “As hard to believe we just happened upon you in the depths of a dragon’s lair.”

“I’ve been waiting,” Synit answered. “I was certain someone would come here. There are only two dragon lairs left unspoiled, and only a fool would dare approach Karjon’s lair. The Alohym will have it guarded heavily, awaiting the dragon princesses return to her father’s grave. It made sense that she one send someone here. Dragons are as much creatures of instinct as they are of reason.”

“Pretend for a moment I believe you,” Armin said. He wasn’t certain how much or little faith he might have in the words that were spilling from between those twisted mandibles, but he could see no lie in Synit’s eyes. What he saw there was hatred, a hatred that flared every time she spoke the word ‘Alohym.’ While that boded well, what did not was the clear madness of her plan. Armin and the others had only come here out of desperation for gold and translation for Theognis’ notes, not as part of some plan to recover a draconic horde for Tythel. How long would she have waited? Armin wondered. How long chanting in the darkness, hoping that Tythel would send someone here? Armin wanted to ask her what she was doing here in this tomb but feared provoking a fight too soon. Synit was not operating on logic Armin could follow, and he had to tread carefully. “Why were you waiting?”

“Because I wished to make a gift for this dragon princess. She righted a great wrong, and although she did not do it for me, I still owe her a debt. One that I had hoped to repay.”

“What debt is that?” Ossman asked, his voice still thick with loathing.

“She slew my second mother, and in doing so freed me. I wish to repay her for that death. If naught else, I wish to thank her.”

A quiet dread began to creep up Armin’s spine. “And who was that second mother?”

“You knew her,” Synit said, affixing her eyes on Armin’s. Here was that hatred again, a well so deep that Armin could see himself drowning in it. “She was known by a different name, but human tongues can’t form the word properly, so she took on a new name, one stolen from your gods of Light.”

“Name her,” Armin said. The point of his arcwand began to tremble with shock before she even spoke the words and confirmed his deepest fears.

“You knew her as Rephylon,” Synit said.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 135

The pathway winded down into the ground for so long, Armin began to wonder if they’d walk all the way till they passed through the outer stone and reach the sea of light that the scholars said infused the center of Aelith. It was an absurd notion, of course – most theorized that the outer stone was several leagues in depth, and that as one drew close to the sea of light the rocks would take on signs of living things from so much raw light infusing them. Even a dragon would not make their bed among stones that moved like living things.

Yet, the deeper they walked, the more the idea stuck into Armin’s head. That they would hit the depths where the stones moved like living things and crushed men, where just from proximity they would begin mutating from the light pouring through their bodies.

The oppressive weight of it all was pressing on his companions as well. Ossman and Aldreida had ceased their conversation ahead, or were now speaking in tones so hushed that Armin couldn’t hear them. Armin didn’t think that was likely though – if they were just being quiet, he would have heard.

It’s not like the two with him were providing much sound to drown Ossman and Aldreida’s voices out.

Clarcia and Guiart had fallen completely silent at his side. Guiart was clenching and unclenching his fists with every step, the soft creak of his leather gloves echoing his footfalls. Clarcia was staring directly ahead, her back so straight Armin was worried she’d strain something from holding herself so tensely.

He wanted to break the silence. A good leader would break the silence. Give an inspirational speech, talk about honor or glory or some such. A decent leader would at least make a joke to break the tension. At least, that’s what Armin was telling himself.

But he found he didn’t have the words, at least not right now. If only Eupheme and Tythel could see you struck silent. They’d wonder what strange creature had replaced me. 

He considered calling a stop to the march. There was enough treasure along the walls to fund their resistance for weeks.

It’s not about the flathing treasure, he thought, continuing to walk, continuing his silence. That was a bonus. Honestly, given how weak Tythel’s intelligence about the situation had been, Armin was pleasantly surprised there was actually any treasure to begin with. The writings, that was the real treasure, and so far they’d found nothing of use there. They had to press on.

It was almost a relief when he heard Aldreida’s footsteps approaching at a dead run. Even though she was clearly disturbed, it was a welcome distraction from the immense weight of stone above them. “There’s something ahead,” she said, her breathing heavy.

“What is it?” Armin asked, reaching over his back to unsling his arcwand.

“A chamber with a closed door. Ossman’s guarding it. But someone is moving on the other side. Pacing, muttering to themselves.” She motioned for them to get moving again. “Not sure what he’s saying. It’s not in any language I know.”

“But is the tongue human?” Armin asked, his heart leaping up into his throat and threatening to strangle him. He’d known soldiers of the Alohym were present, but it had never occurred to him until this very moment there might be an actual Alohym here. Waiting for them at the end of this deep delve, the five of them against a monster that had only been slain once in history.

“It was human, but it was speaking the Alohym’s language.” Aldreida watched Armin closely. He’d just started to relax when she said. “Armin. You know what that means, yes?”

He’d been so relieved at the realization it wasn’t one of the Alohym that he’d forgotten to think through the full implications of what she’d said.

The Alohym’s language was nearly impossible for most humans to reproduce. Its high trills, rapid clicks, mandible clacks, and disturbingly wet noises simply were outside the range for teeth and tongue to reproduce. Words like “flath” were born out of human approximations of the sounds but were nowhere near how their actual language sounded.

But there were humans that could replicate the Alohym’s language near perfectly. Humans that could manage the trills and the grotesquely wet sounds, although the mandible sounds were still beyond them. Humans that had been mutated by constant exposure.

Lumcasters, those that channeled the Alohym’s unlight instead of the light of their native world, and those that had done so deeply and powerfully enough to begin mutating.

Theognis, Armin thought with a sudden flash of certainty, remembering that strange shadow bound by unlight that had seeped like smoke from the defeated zombie. The man whose tower they had raided in the desperate bid to free the captured members of the Resistance. The man who had corrupted the Lumwell that lay beneath. No other lumcaster had delved so deeply into unlight as he had. He’d been banished years before the Alohym invasion for dabbling in necromancy and had embraced unlight so firmly upon the Alohym’s arrival.

Or maybe it was just fear that drove Armin to that certainty. Fear and hope. If it was Theognis within, they’d likely die. If they could defeat him somehow…then they’d have a hope of getting the translation completed. If is the most toxic word, Armin thought grimly.

Suddenly, the idea that they were delving close to the light see at the heart of the world seemed less absurd. Theognis had managed to corrupt a lumwell already. What if he was down there, doing the same thing to the source?

It was still ridiculous, but Armin couldn’t shake the thought.

Everyone’s waiting for me, Armin realized with a start. He’d been standing there, gathering his thoughts, ever since Aldreida had spoken. “Theognis, or one of his ilk. It has to be.”

Guiart let out a low moan of fear as Clarcia shook her head. “Armin…if you’re right, I can’t defeat a master Lumcaster. None of us can.”

Aldreida was looking at him with expectant eyes. Ossman was still somewhere further down the tunnel, no doubt listening for some meaning in the chanting. “Clarcia’s right,” Armin said, his forehead creasing in thought. “Back when we raided his tower, when we had a half-dragon and godling, I don’t know if we could have stood against him. We don’t have either of those right now.”

Guiart looked like he wanted to throw up, and Aldreida’s mouth curved downwards in a frown. “I don’t claim to be any kind of expert, but typically before a battle, Duke d’Monchy tells us why we’re going to win, not why we’re certainly doomed.”

Armin motioned for them to follow him. “We’re going to win. We absolutely are.”

“Oh thank Light and Shadow,” Guiart said, his voice shaking so heavily it threatened to crack like a boy’s as he approached manhood. “You have a plan. Of course, you do.”

“No,” Armin said. In spite of himself he found his footsteps lighter, a smile spreading across his lips. “Do you know why Duke d’Monchy recruited me?”

“No?” Aldreida said, her voice turning it into a question.

“I was at the Collegium Rebellion. When many of the old masters broke their vows and turned themselves to the Alohym’s service in exchange for access to unlight. When the last hope of the world was snuffed out like a candle in a hurricane. It was supposed to be humanity’s last stand.” Armin shrugged his shoulders back. A weight he hadn’t been aware he was carrying seemed to slide off his shoulders. “A dozen students and some of the servants had gathered in the Stellari. Clarcia do you remember?”

Clarcia nodded slowly, a smile beginning to form on her lips as well. “How could I forget? That gardener’s son was standing there with a bloody shovel and grabbed you by the lapel and demanded you come up with something.”

“Absolutely.” Armin waved as they rounded the corner. Ossman, that gardener’s son, was standing next to the door, his ear pressed to the door. “There were two dozen Alohym soldiers outside, three real Alohym scuttling around the grounds, and an unknown number of masters now fallen or pledged to those creatures. And I looked him in the eye and said…” Armin trailed off as he made sure he had Ossman’s gaze here in the present as he once had in the past. “Shadow take you, we’re going to win. Just shut up and don’t ask me how.”

It was Ossman’s turn to smile and he stepped back from the door.

“What happened then?” Aldreida asked, her voice sounding more certain although still confused.

Ossman answered for him. “The mad bastard threw open the door and charged at the Alohym soldiers, throwing overcharged arcells at them.” Ossman gave Armin a sideways glance. “We doing that again?”

“Like I said, don’t ask me how. I have no flathing clue.” Stepping forward towards the aged door, hinges so darkened by rust stealth never would have been an option, Armin shoved them with all his might. “Just follow me and I’ll figure it out at the last second.”

To punctuate those boldly stupid words, the door swung open with a dying man’s groan, revealing the darkness where death chanted his otherworldly rituals.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 134

The knock on Tythel’s door in the middle of the night startled her out of a deep sleep. Visions of Alohym soldiers bursting into the room, unlight weapons drawn, drove her out of bed with the rapid frenzy of pure panic. It wasn’t until she was on her feet, extending her talons, that her brain registered it had been a gentle rapping, not the hard knock soldiers would make trying to break into her quarters.

“Tythel? Are you awake?” a voice whispered on the other side of the door.

“Tellias?” Tythel asked, blinking to clear her eyes. “Well, I am now.” She walked over and unlocked the door to give him entry. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Tellias said, stepping into her room. He was fully dressed for departure, although the first light of dawn had not yet crested over the horizon. He certainly cut a dashing figure. His coat was as immaculate as possible from months on the road, black with gold inlay, and it looked like he’d taken some time to attend to his hair and trim the stubble he’d been developing of the last few days. “I just wanted…oh.” A bright red blush crept up Tellias’ cheeks, and he turned his back to her abruptly.

Tythel cocked her head in confusion. “Tellias? What is it?”

“Um…you’re still in your smallclothes.” Tellias said, his voice sounding half strangled. “I didn’t mean to…I mean, I wasn’t trying to…”

Tythel felt a blush creeping its way up her own neck. Karjon had told her many times that humans found it shameful to be seen too unclothed, although he’d never been able to explain why. She’d gotten the impression it was because he hadn’t fully understood it.

Up until this moment, Tythel had been as confused as her father. Right now, however, the fact that Tellias had seen her wearing only a night shift filled her with a sense of something like shame. It didn’t feel exactly like it, but she was blushing, and her heart was racing, so it seemed like the most natural reaction. “I’m sorry,” she blurted. “I should have…hold on, let me fix that.”

Tythel had laid the next day’s clothes over the railing of the bed before going to sleep. She pulled them on as hastily as she would have if the Alohym had found them and were pounding up the stairs this instant. “It’s terribly unfair that you woke me up this early and then find the sight of me so offensive,” she said, muttering more to herself than to Tellias.

“I didn’t – I mean, it’s not offensive. Quite the opposite. Er. I mean you aren’t offensive. It’s offensive for me…hang on, I’m terrible at this. I meant it was just – improper.” Tellias said, sputtering between each word.

“As improper as being unescorted in a young lady’s room at this hour?” Tythel asked, cinching the rope on her trousers. “You can turn around.”

Tellias did. “I didn’t think – you care about that?” Tellias asked. He was still bright red, which to Tythel’s mind was perfectly acceptable.

“No,” Tythel admitted. “Just pointing out that propriety isn’t something we normally worry about. I don’t understand why being unescorted around a lady is improper in the first place.”

“Of course you don’t,” Tellias muttered to himself. “I – that is to say – it’s because,”

“Light and shadow, man,” Tythel said, crossing her arms. “I am desperately hoping you did not wake me so  you could stammer at me.”

Tellias glared at her, which seemed to help give him control over is tongue. “Of course not. I wanted to talk to you.”

“Poorly?” Tythel asked.

“Apparently!” Tellias said, far louder than Tythel thought was strictly necessary. “Light, I’m not good at this.”

Tythel bit back an agreement. “I’m not certain what you mean,” she said instead, cocking her head again, although she was starting to suspect. The romances that she’d read in Karjon’s library had be damnably unclear on the nuances of human mating habits, but they were extremely detailed about this kind of interaction.

“I want to court you,” Tellias blurted out.  He took a deep breath and then launched ahead before Tythel could even fully process the directness of it. “I wanted to court you as soon as I knew you existed, before I had even met you. You’re the princess, of course I did. But then I met you. You are utterly unlike any woman I’ve ever met before. I didn’t expect to enjoy your company so much, to find you so intriguing. You’re beautiful too, but it’s – you fascinate me, Tythel. If I could, I would be speaking to your father about this first, even though that would mean asking a dragon to court his daughter. Since I cannot, I find myself not knowing how to properly express it. So, I sputter at you like a boy just noticing women for the first time. But I wish to court you.”

Tythel stared at Tellias for a long moment. “Thank you,” she said quietly, and found she meant it.

Tellias took a step forward, a wide grin spreading across his face. “So you -”

Tythel held up a hand to forestall his advance. “Tellias…I’m honored and flattered. Truly. But…this all very sudden.”

“Is it though?” Tellias asked, although he stopped approaching. “We’ve been travelling together for weeks. You fell asleep against me. We’ve shared battle, we’ve shared secrets. I thought…I thought I’d seen you look at me with interest.”

“I don’t know if I have,” Tythel said, shaking her head.

“How can you not know?” Tellias asked. He didn’t sound offended, which was a relief. Just confused. Tythel couldn’t blame him for that. She barely understood herself.

“Tellias…I’m a dragon.”

Tellias blinked slowly. “Half-dragon, you mean.”

Tythel waved her hand to dismiss the difference. “Dragons don’t experience attraction the way humans do. We don’t fall in romantic love. We have a breeding season, after which the male takes half the clutch and the female takes the other half. They almost never interact again. Sometimes if they’re friends, but-”

“But you’re not just a dragon,” Tellias said. “You’re also human.”

“For now,” Tythel said. She stepped away from Tellias, walking over to the window. “I’m still transforming. I don’t know how far the transformation is going to go. My father died before he could explain it to me. Romantic attraction might be something I won’t be capable of once it’s finished.”

She wasn’t watching him, but she could hear Tellias stiffen. “I…that’s so sad.”

Tythel turned to face him, arching her brows in confusion. “No? I mean…I guess I can see how it would seem that way to you, but I’ve never wanted romantic attraction. I wanted to be a dragon.”

“And what about the kingdom? You’re the princess, you’ll need an heir.”

Tythel shrugged. “Then it’ll be a blessing. Princesses rarely get to marry for romance regardless. It’s my duty to have a politically advantageous marriage after the Alohym are defeated. Preferably someone who knows a single flathing thing about leading a kingdom, since I know nothing.

“I have been schooled in-” Tellias didn’t seem angry – at least, not yet. Or maybe he was. Tythel was trying to read his face, but the emotions on it were not part of the handful she’d learned to recognize easily. His forehead was furrowed, especially between his eyebrows and the corners of his lips were turned downward, but not as deep as a full frown.

“I know,” Tythel said. “And that would be taken into consideration. But Tellias…I don’t know if I can be what you want. I don’t want to be that.”

“You want to be a dragon,” Tellias said, his voice flat.

“I am a dragon,” Tythel said, trying not to bristle.

Tellias was definitely getting angry now. She could see it in his eyes, the way they flashed with an intensity like burning coals. Or maybe that was passion. Tythel assumed the former – she had never seen the latter. That she knew of. Why are humans so confusing? “I don’t understand,” Tellias said.

“I know,” Tythel said, her voice going soft. She took a step towards him and reached out, then withdrew her hand, not sure what she’d been intending to do with it in the first place. “I’m sorry.”

Tellias sighed. “Me too.”

They stood there for a moment, and Tythel realized she was at a complete loss for words. It seemed Tellias was too.

“I should go,” Tellias said, his voice stiff.

“We only have an hour before we are to depart,” Tythel said. She didn’t want him to go, but she didn’t know how to address this anger, this tension, the sudden awkwardness. It wasn’t how things were supposed to go. He was her friend.

Now this.

“You have the right of that,” Tellias said. “All the more reason for me to finish getting prepared.”

Tythel couldn’t find a reason to deny him a graceful exit. He left, and Tythel sat back on the bed.

Sleep hadn’t returned by the time Eupheme arrived to collect her.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 133

They laughed and drank throughout the evening, now that the serious conversations had been taken care of. Although there was still an air of tension, the knowledge that at any moment Alohym soldiers or writ-hunters could show up, for the most part Tythel was able to find herself able to relax and breathe easy for the first time in what felt like months.

“I have a joke,” Tellias said. His cheeks were flushed and he was slurring his words, but the flush was due to a minor irritating Eupheme had given them to rub on their faces, and the slur was an act. No one would believe they would do what came next if they were sober and clear headed, so they had to act that part of drunks to sell the ruse.

“Is it one Tythel will get?” Eupheme asked, giving Tellias a teasing grin.

Tythel hung her head and sighed heavily. Tellias’ last three jokes had fallen flat. One had featured a philandering couple, one had featured a priest of the Light and a brothel, and the final had involved a serpent and a cave. “I understood the jokes,” she objected. “I just don’t understand why they’re funny. I mean, two people having an affair with the same person is an odd coincidence, so I guess I see the humor there. And priests do frown on brothels, so going to one is outside their expected behavior. I don’t know why it’s funny that he tried to preach about a whore’s hidden shadow.”

“It’s a euphemism for her-” Eupheme started to say, but Tythel cut her off.

“I understood that. But why would he preach to her about the sanctity of it. Do priests believe those are holy?”

“Say holy again,” Eupheme said. “But say it slower. Sound out each syllable.”

Tythel took a deep breath. “Fine. Hole…oh, I just understood.” Tythel sputtered as both Tellias and Eupheme laughed uproariously at her discomfort. “I’m beginning to suspect that you’re telling these jokes because it’s fun to laugh at my confusion” she said, pointing an accusing finger at Tellias.

“Me? Take advantage of your naiveite like that? That would hardly be gentlemanly of me.” Tellias said in overblown affront.

“Yes, it would. Which I notice isn’t a denial.”

Tellias gave her a wide grin. “Very observant of you, your high-Tythel.”

That had been the signal. It was time for Tythel to make sure they were noticed. And if Tellias had slipped honestly, she was more than happy to assume it was the signal if it meant they would stop mocking her.

Not that she minded, not really. They weren’t mean about it, and she never felt they were laughing at her. Still, it was good to have an excuse. “Well, gentleman you may not be, but I have doubts of your manhood.” She ignored Eupheme’s snicker and placed her elbow on the table. “Twenty keys say that I can force your arm down.”

She made the announcement loudly enough to draw the attention of a few tables nearby, drawing curious looks from the other patrons. Tellias put down his coins and reach out to take her hand. “I’ll look forward to taking your money,” he said.

Tythel gave him a sweet grin and the contest was begun. Tellias strained to push her arm down with all the strength he could muster. Tythel sat there, letting him struggle. She took time to sigh deeply, covering her mouth with exaggerated mockery. “You can use both hands if you want,” she prompted.

Tellias reached up and strained against Tythel’s hand. He leaned forward out of the seat, deliberately knocking his chair over in the process. The loud clatter drew more attention to the spectacle of a man with a soldier’s muscles leaning with all his might to bring down Tythel’s single outstretched arm.

Tythel let it go on until beads of sweat began to form on Tellias’ brow. A crowd was beginning to gather, cheering Tellias raucously. “Bored now!” Tythel announced. With a slow, deliberate gesture, she began to lower Tellias’ hand towards the table. He cursed and tried to stop the motion, but Tythel’s strength was far too great for him to overcome.

“I yield!” he shouted when his knuckles gently touched the hard wood of the table. A round of cheers rose up at the display. These people were mostly far too drunk to really think through how the whole process had played out – that what they’d witnessed should have been impossible. They just saw a show, and they appreciated that.

“Who’s next?” Tythel said, raking over Tellias’ money. “Twenty keys say not a man in here is strong enough to bend my arm.”

Chairs began to scrape as a half dozen men stood up. The large fellow she’d seen earlier, drinking all comers under the table, shouldered his way through the crowd. “I could wrap my hand around your bicep, girl,” he growled.

“Yes,” Tythel said, giving the man’s hands an appraising look. “They are rather large. But as mighty as your sinews might be, do you really think you can push down my hand?”

The man reached into his pouch and threw out an assortment of keys. Tythel didn’t bother to count them – there were close enough to twenty. She forced herself to smile, hoping his intoxication would prevent the expression to be too off-putting, and motioned for him to take the seat across from her.

He did so, putting his elbow on the table and raising his massive arm. “I don’t even know what sinews are, but I assure you I am more than strong enough to handle you.”

Tythel reached out and clasped his hand. “Then prove it,” she said.

Immediately, he surged forward, pushing against her hand so hard the veins began to appear in his neck in seconds. His forehead bulged and he clenched his teeth, grunting at the exertion. He was strong, stronger than Tythel had expected.

Her elbow almost wobbled.

She set herself a bit better, strengthening her grip and pushing back just a hair more. “As I said before, you can use both hands-”

The man roared in frustration and lunged forward. With the inaccurate determination only obtainable by the heavily intoxicated, he wrapped his free hand over the other and leaned with all his might against Tythel’s arm.

She let her arm give, bending backwards. In truth, the full force of this behemoth of a man trying to bend her arm was probably more than she could have resisted even if she wanted to, but they’d known going into this they’d have to lose the keys. If Tythel had won the bout, they would have been accused of cheating or playing a confidence game. That would have drawn the attention of the local constabulary, which would have been more attention from the Alohym when they wanted.

The man roared in triumph, pumping his fists into the air, and Tythel made a show of reluctantly pushing her keys across the table towards him. “Almost had you,” she said, making her voice as mournful as possible. “Anyone else want a go?”

Encouraged, more men surged forward to take her challenge. She made a point of losing more than she won, enough to keep the game interesting for them while never seeming like a scam.

By the end of the night, half of the men and a couple of the women in the tavern had sat across from her, staring her directly in the eye and the patch. Some would remember her the next day, and at least one was certain to connect her to the face on the writ posters. Word would reach the Alohym, but not in enough time for them to prevent the trio from leaving the town.

There was a small chance one would send word tonight, but they’d all agreed that was an acceptable risk. Even if they could, it was unlikely that any of their pursuers would be able to arrive in enough time. It was a gamble, but an acceptable one in their estimation.

The three retired when the night was still young. As Tythel curled into the bed, her stomach full, her friends safe, and her eyes sore  from blinks of laughter, she felt content for the first time in far too long. Tomorrow, there was a vehicle to steal, a chase to escape, and a return to her father’s grave not to pay her respects, but to lure her adversaries.

At she drifted into sleep, she was surprised at how little that weighed on her.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 132

Hillsdale was almost exactly as Tythel remembered it, at least in the details. The houses had changed little in the weeks she’d been gone, still spread out to take advantage of how much spare room the village had to grow. People milled about the streets in the evening sun, going home from their daily tasks. At the end of the road was the inn where she’d rested and recuperated under the watchful eyes of Otis and Freda after she’d been injured that first day.

Skitters rested in the lot behind it, as they had when she’d left, and smoke rose from its chimney in gentle puffs. Even though Tythel knew it was no different from the smoke of the burned forest that still hung low on the horizon, it seemed different. This smoke was kind. It was safe.

It was also a lie. Hillsdale wasn’t safe. She and Nicandros had fled here with the Alohym in direct pursuit. They’d found her here because someone had reported Otis and Freda. What was that woman’s name? Catha Lambright, that had been it. The woman who had said she wasn’t human, had told Freda to report that they had found her.

Tythel pulled her cloak in over her head a bit tighter. Catha might recognize her. The veil that had served as a disguise before would stand out too much here – Warrior Maidens coming to a sleepy town on the edge of the kingdom would draw more attention than a cloaked figure. At least Hillsdale was too small to warrant walls that would be guarded along their full length, only along the gates. They had approached off the main road and leapt over the wall – Tythel carrying Tellias – to avoid detection.

The arcplate was stored in a grove nearby, buried under a hasty pile of leaves. It wasn’t the best solution but was infinitely better than trying to sneak it into the town. They’d had a cart last time to hide it in, and no one had been looking for it. After the battle in the forest, everyone would know what to look for.

At least, now that they were past the wall, people didn’t give them much more than the normal glances reserved for strangers in a small town. They were new, they were noteworthy, but since they were inside the wall, clearly, they belonged. Otherwise, the guards would have stopped them.

It was the kind of circular logic that Eupheme had needed to explain to her.

“People are…stupid isn’t the right word. Lazy is a better one, but still not accurate. I think it really boils down to the fact that most people are honest. They stay within the rules, they obey the laws, and they keep out of trouble – so they tend to assume everyone else does too. Which means if you’re breaking those rules, if you’re violating those laws, or you mean to cause trouble, but you act like you aren’t going to…They’ll see what they want to see. Someone who belongs.”

Tellias had agreed with her. “Back in the day, my grandfather was plagued by a thief that robbed him on no less than seven separate occasions. Stole over ten thousand keys worth of goods. When they finally caught him, my father asked him how he’d picked the expensive locks built into the doors. The thief had explained he’d gotten in by knocking and insisting he had important business. Each time wearing a small false-face – a mustache, a beard, clean shaven, longer hair – and an expensive suit. The servants had let him in because he’d clearly belonged.”

Tythel thought that some of those details must have been inflated by years of retelling, but it was gratifying to see that they had been right about. Everyone who bothered noticing them – which was only a small fraction of the residents they saw – was looking at them like they were strange and different, but not out of place.

They made it all the way to the Inn’s entrance without being challenged a single time.

“Told you,” Eupheme said quietly as they slipped in the door.

Tythel rolled her eyes. “I didn’t exactly doubt you. But it’s still hard to believe. How do people manage to be so unobservant?”

“Mmm,” Eupheme said, holding the door for Tellias. “And how many people we passed had served in the Alohym’s army?”

The inside of the common room was a wall of noise, the crowd far denser than Tythel had expected. In one corner, a group of men threw dice in a game of Snakes and Skulls. A cheer erupted from that table as one man cursed loudly. Copper Keys were pulled from their place in front of him and distributed amongst the group. In another, a large man – not overweight, just overall large – sat with his shirt unbuttoned and drunk heavily to the encouragement of a small group that had gathered around him. He finished the drink and slammed the mug down on the table with an impressive belch.

“Your turn!” he growled to the woman in front of him. She wasn’t as large as the man she sat across, but she had a farmer’s build, stocky and strong. She gave him a wolfish grin and grabbed her mug, starting another round of encouragement.

All around them it was like that. People living, talking, laughing, cursing – living. As if they didn’t have a care in the world. As if beings from beyond the stars hadn’t taken over the world. “I don’t know,” Tythel admitted to Eupheme’s question.

“I counted six,” Eupheme said.

Tellias snorted. “And how, pray tell, did  you do that?”

“Alohym soldiers drill on marches six hours a day for their first month of service,” Eupheme said, taking a seat. The general din of the tavern was enough to keep their conversation from prying ears – Tythel could barely make out unique voices unless they were shouting, and no one else here would hear as well as her. “It’s a very specific step, crisp and sharp. After they leave their service, they tend to retain a vestige of the march in their normal walking gait. I saw six people with that walk.”

“So, what’s your point?” Tythel asked.

“That most people are the same in that regard. It requires very specific training to start noticing people. It’s not a flaw – it’s just the way our minds work. You’d be surprised how much you miss too, is all.”

Tythel nodded thoughtfully as one of the serving girls approached. “What can I get for you?” she asked in the friendly polite tones of someone who didn’t particularly care what you answered but had a duty to fulfill.

Food and drinks were ordered. “We strike out for the mountain the morning,” Tythel said after the serving girl was out of earshot. “We should be able to make it by midday.”

“I saw that mountain,” Tellias said doubtfully. “It looks like it’s a good distance away.”

Tythel nodded. “It is. Which is why we’re going to get a Skitter before we leave. Quicker.”

“I don’t know if we can afford a skitter,” Tellias said with a frown.

“We can’t,” Eupheme agreed. “Even if we could find one willing to sell it on such short notice…”

“I never said anything about paying for one,” Tythel said. The return of the serving girl with their drinks interrupted her response. It gave plenty of time for Eupheme and Tellias to give her confused looks.

“Not that I’m opposed to the idea,” Eupheme said once they were again protected by solitude and the wall of noise around them, “but…I figured I’d have to convince you.”

“I don’t like it,” Tythel admitted, her nictitating membranes narrowing with displeasure, “but I don’t see another choice. We have to make sure that our passage is noticed, and there’s no doubt to our destination. That’s the whole point of coming out here. Once we’ve lured them into my father’s illusions, the flyer will have to land to find us. But…even if we’re noticed like we hope, they won’t know for certain where we are going.”

“But if we make a big noise in the theft and make sure we’re seen leaving…” Tellias said thoughtfully, “then it won’t take much of a leap to decide you’re going to your father’s lair.”

Tythel nodded firmly. “And I think I know exactly how to make that big of a noise. I also think I know how to make sure we’re before then. I’ll tell you first thing when we wake. For now…drink lightly. We’re going to have an early morning, Light willing.”

Tellias and Eupheme gave her fierce grins, and Tythel could only hope she wasn’t leading them to their dooms. No, she told herself firmly. You’ve cast that die. They let you cast that die. Trust them and trust the plan. Tonight…try to enjoy yourself.

As the food arrived, mutton that was piping hot and smelled divine, Tythel thought that might be easier than she feared.

Dragon’s Scion Part 131

“I’m so sorry for how I acted when you showed up,” Nicandros said as he re-entered the room.

Poz smiled. “You need not apologize,” he said, his tone genuine.

Nicandros looked like a new man. He’d talked to Poz for hours, and wept, and talked some more. Poz had to do very little speaking of his own. He got the feeling Nicandros had desperately wanted someone to care. Humans were like that – they fiercely protected their pain, right up until someone convinced them it was safe to release it. Then they would share it all. It often made them feel better. It always was better for them.

After they’d talked, Poz had convinced Nicandros to visit a bathhouse and a barber. Being relieved of the matted locks he had before and having the accumulated grime from days of mourning washed away, as well as having his facial hair removed, was a good first step to feeling like a person again. At least, in Poz’s estimation. Even deep in Grubflesh, he’d always been fastidious about his cleanliness. It was a relief to see it had improved Nicandros’ mood as well as Poz had hoped.

“Yes, I do. You were – are – a friend, and you had no way of knowing I wished to be left alone.” Nicandros pulled up the chair and sat down. The pain was still there in his eyes, but it no longer consumed his every glance the way it had before. “And thank you for ignoring those wishes.”

Poz chuckled. “I was happy to do so,” he said.

“Still. You said you needed my help. The least I can do is repay your kindness.”

“Think nothing of it,” Poz said, waving away the thought. His hearts began to pound faster at the reminder of his real purpose here.

One thing had become abundantly clear during Nicandros’ long, rambling retelling of everything that had happened since he’d met the dragon princess. His anger at the girl was still white hot. It ran so deep Poz hesitated to use a term as light as anger.

And Poz’s purpose here was to seek advice about this Tythel. How would Nicandros take that?

“Still,” Nicandros said. “You didn’t come all this way to pull me out of…of that. Why did you?”

“I found something,” Poz said, picking his words with great care. “And since I did, the Alohym have been hunting me for it. That’s why I came through the window.”

“Do you still oppose them?” Nicandros asked, his lips curling down in a frown. Poz could not miss the caution in his voice.

“I left the Resistance shortly after you did,” Poz said. “I wasn’t of much use even at the best of times, and in your absence, I’d lost my patron.”

“I’m sorry for that,” Nicandros said. The tension he’d showed a moment ago started to fade.

“I understood your reasoning. It was hardly something I could fault. I should have taken your offer to leave with you. I believed that I’d still be able to help.” Poz shook his head at his own foolishness. “Grubflesh really did impact my judgment worse than I realized.”

“I should have insisted,” Nicandros said. “Light and Shadow, I knew how badly that was impacting you. I’d seen the difference. It was a terrible thing for them to force upon  you.”

“It was a terrible thing that I did. The punishment fit the crime.” Poz shifted uneasily in his seat. “I regret breaking the terms of my exile.”

“I’m  surprised you did. After how long you held out, I thought nothing would convince you to go against those terms.” Nicandros leaned forward. “What changed?”

“The Alohym were hunting me, personally. I couldn’t…there wasn’t anyone I could hide behind anymore.” Poz held up a hand to forestall another apology. “I don’t mean that as an inditement. Just that it was what it was.”

Nicandros nodded slowly. “Then…what did you find?”

Poz took a deep breath. He still wasn’t certain about this. Quite the opposite, in fact. It was entirely possible that this would send Nicandros back into a spiral or enrage him all over again. “Perhaps we should wait for tomorrow?” Poz suggested. “The day grows late, and you’re still recovering.”

“I appreciate the concern, but I’m not a flathing porcelain doll.” Nicandros grinned. “I understand why you’re worried, I do. But…you helped me see purpose from here again. I think I know what I’m going to do next. But first, let me help you.”

“What are you going to do?” Poz asked. There was an edge to Nicandros’ grin that Poz misliked. Something…not quite manic. He couldn’t quite place it.

He got better too quickly, Poz realized. That was the problem. Nicandros had been wallowing in pity for days. Now one conversation later, and Nicandros had done a complete reversal. He was smiling, he was laughing, he was joking…but his eyes had barely changed at all.

“It doesn’t matter,” Nicandros said.

“You weren’t grieving,” Poz said. “That’s not why you were so drunk. You were trying to make a decision. A hard one. And…you’ve made it now.”

“I remember when you were still allowed to eat other flesh,” Nicandros said, nodding in agreement. “I’d forgotten how sharp you are. Yes. Without a reason to seek revenge against the Alohym, I was considering what I was going to do next. I had no fight. No purpose. Telling you the story…it helped me gain clarity.”

“And?” Poz asked.

“And I’m going to accept an offer that I received some time ago. I’ll tell you about it later.” Nicandros furrowed his forehead. “You seem flathing determined not to tell me what you came all this way for. Why not?”

Poz leaned back and bit his lip. Nicandros was being odd, that much was certain. But…the man had lost his child, had lost his reason for living, and was just recovered from a binge unlike anything Poz had seen before. Of course, he was going to be odd. “Can I still trust you?” Poz asked.

If the words hurt Nicandros, it didn’t show. At least, it didn’t increase the pain Poz could already see in his eyes. “Absolutely,” Nicandros said. “You helped me gain clarity when I’d been floundering, even if it was just by listening.”

Poz reached into his pouch and pulled out that damn golden egg. “I found this. Are you familiar with it?”

Nicandros’ eyes grew wide at the sight. “Where did you get that?” he asked, his voice tight.

“I stole it from a battlefield.” Poz winced at the admission. “It was…how I was supporting myself.”

“You were there that night?” Nicandros asked.

Poz nodded.

“Light and Shadow, I can’t believe it.” Nicandros took a deep breath. “Do you know what you have?”

“A dragon’s death egg. Specifically, the death egg of Karjon the Magnificent, adopted father to…” Poz trailed off.

“Tythel,” Nicandros said, and he spat the word with far more vehemence than he’d ever said ‘flath.’ “Poz, I have wonderful news. We can help each other here. I’ll take the egg off your hand and free you from being chased from the Alohym.”

“How does that help you?” Poz asked, cocking his head. “What will you use the egg for?”

“Fill the offer I’ve decided to accept,” Nicandros said.

Poz felt himself starting to tense up. The pain was fading from Nicandros’ eyes, being replaced by a hungry gleam that Poz knew too well. He’d seen it in his own eyes before, deep in the grip of Grubflesh, when he’d not eaten for days and was looking in a mirror, considering breaking his oath – as well as his weak mind could consider anything then. Need mixing with desire and blended with the knowledge that what he was considering was unthinkable. “What was the offer?”

Nicandros shook his head. “I’m sorry, a condition was that I don’t speak of the details of what they’re asking me to do.”

Poz swallowed har. “Who made you the offer?”

“That…” Nicandros paused to consider. “That they didn’t forbid me saying.”

“Who?” Poz repeated when Nicandros didn’t elaborate right away. “Who made you an offer?”

“The Alohym,” Nicandros said. “They want me to do a job for them. And if I do it…if I do it, they’ll give me my son back.”

Now Poz was certain.

He’d made a terrible mistake.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 130

“Poz?” Nicandros said, looking up at the window with wide eyes. “What…what are you doing at my flathing window?”

“I need your help,” Poz said. It had been years since he’d last seen Nicandros, but they had fought together. He wasn’t sure what kind of reception he should have expected, but it wasn’t this. Nicandros looked wild, unkempt, and like he’d spent the last few days either drunk or hungover.

Nicandros cursed and stood up, striding over to the window and throwing it open with a violent gesture. “Get in here,” he growled, “before someone sees you.”

Poz’s nose twitched as he slid through the window. The room smelled of ale and wine and sweat. It smelled like the common room of an inn whose keeper spent no time making sure it was well kept, and whose patrons were the kind of surly that didn’t much care either. “You seem to be having a rough time,” Poz said carefully.

Nicandros ran his hand through his hair. It was long and grayer than Poz remembered. Human hair did that, a slow transformation as it lost color with age, but Poz hadn’t expected it to have changed quite this much. He also hadn’t expected Nicandros to allow his beard to grow out so much. “Well, it’s good to know you’re still observant.” Nicandros shook his head and walked back to the table. “What did you want?”

Poz pressed his lips into a thin line of annoyance. “You are less than pleased to see me,” he said, as opposed to directly answering Nicandros’ inquiry.

Nicandros chuckled. It wasn’t a pleasant or friendly sound. The laugh was dark and hoarse. “How hard did you look to find me?” he asked. He motioned for Poz to take a seat on the bed, the first sign of hospitality Poz had noticed.

“I’ve been looking for weeks,” Poz admitted. He took the proffered seat. After all this time searching, he’d been hoping for a warm reception. Or at least one that wasn’t ice cold. “I’ve gone halfway across the kingdom and back. Everywhere I knew you favored. I broke my exile terms and ate Crowflesh, among others.”

“Thought you sounded less like a halfwit than the last time we spoke,” Nicandros said. He opened the wardrobe in the room and pulled out a green bottle. Poz’s nose twitched at the scent that emanated from it. It was the cheapest type of alcohol, and the smell turned Poz’s stomach. “Well, I’m happy you finally decided to stop punishing yourself. Although I thought Crowflesh was supposed to make you smart.

Poz could feel the hair on the back of his neck rise. “It does,” he said, his voice sharper than he intended. He clenched his hands into fists, trying to control the rising anger. “Crowflesh is among the most intelligent forms I can adopt.”

Nicandros took a long swig from the bottle of cheap alcohol. Poz took slow, deep breaths to try to calm himself while Nicandros deliberately insulted him with the delay. Perhaps it’s not deliberate, Poz thought, the anger still white hot in his stomach. Perhaps he just needs alcohol to process-

“Then I must have been wrong before. I assumed that you were a halfwit because you were eating insects. Now I understand. You’re just a halfwit.”

“Nicandros!” Poz snapped, the anger finally boiling over. “I do not know what I have done to insult you, yet I doubt it was enough to deserve this treatment.” Weeks. Weeks looking for you. Weeks desperately hoping that you would be my salvation. And…this is what I get. 

“Well then, let me explain it to you, in terms even you can understand,” Nicandros said, sitting down at the table and putting the bottle in front of him with enough force he nearly broke the glass. “You spent weeks trying to find me, and it never once occurred to you that perhaps your difficulty was that I flathing did not want to be found!” The last few words were shouted, practically screamed.

Poz curled his fingers into claws. Ratflesh had a strong instinct, when confronted with danger, to flee or engage in battle. Normally it opted for flight, but Nicandros hardly seemed like a threat right now. Half drunk and weary, Poz was tempted to pay him back for the insult with a thrashing that Nicandros apparently desperately needed.

Then he saw the tears forming in Nicandros’ eyes, and realizations slept over him. “What happened?” Poz asked, his voice far gentler than it had been before.

“None of your flathing business,” Nicandros said, turning away from Poz’s gaze to stare into the bottle that sat in front of him. “Go. Leave.”

“I can’t do that,” Poz said. “I need your help. Desperately. If I had anywhere else to turn, I would have tried it when you could not be found.” He hesitated before continuing. Nicandros was slouching in the chair. The grey hair…Poz knew that sometimes, humans under immense stress could age prematurely. Was that what was happening to Nicandros? “And, I think, you need my help every bit as badly.”

Nicandros snorted. “I have all the help I need right here,” he said, holding up the bottle and shaking it in front of Poz. “Unless you want to fetch me more, as I’ve started to run low.”

Poz studied Nicandros. The man was definitely under immense strain. That much was painfully obvious. Treating him with comfort and kindness seemed unlikely to penetrate the barriers that Nicandros had erected. “Does the alcohol numb you from how pathetic you’ve become?” he asked.

Nicandros’ eyes hardened, and he put down the bottle with deliberate care. “I’d take that back,” he growled.

“Why? What are going to do? Make your stench more offensive? Drink even harder?” Poz scoffed. “I’d say I’m worried you’d crawl into a hole and die to spite me, but it looks like you’re doing that already.”

Nicandros stood up with careful deliberation. It wasn’t enough to hide the unsteady nature of the gesture, the way his hand trembled as he set it on the table, the way he swayed with the motion. “I’m warning you-”

“And I do not fear the warning,” Poz said. “The man I knew, the man I fought alongside, would not have given me warning. He would not have given me a chance. I would have been cuffed across the face for the insult, as I deserved. Yet you stand there and let me continue to mock you. What happened to you, Nicandros? When did you become a coward?”

Nicandros swung at Poz. It wasn’t the precise strike Poz had seen Nicandros use before. It was a wild throw of the fist, an act of violence without coordination, without direction. Lashing out.

It was far too easy to duck out of the way of the blow and land a precise punch against Nicandros’ ribcage, sending the man reeling backwards. Nicandros stumbled into the chair and went down in a clatter. It would have been comical had it been any other drunk. Seeing it happen to Nicandros, a man who had always moved with the grace of a hunting panther, was almost physically painful. “What happened to you?” Poz repeated. He deliberately kept the sympathy, the concern, the fear out of his voice. Nicandros would reject pity.

But scorn? He’d respond to scorn.

Nicandros started to rise to his feet again. The anger was still there, but the sorrow was overwhelming. “What will it take for you to leave me be?”

“Knowledge,” Poz said simply.

“Fine.” Nicandros spat onto the filthy floor. “You remember why I left the resistance?”

“Because you couldn’t bear the thought that you might one day fight your son,” Poz said.

“That’s right. Well…it stopped mattering. He died. I went back because I wanted revenge for what happened to him. I met the princess. We became close. And then…she told me she was the one to kill Thomah.” Nicandros gave Poz a defiant glare, as if daring him to mock his pain. “She murdered my son in cold blood to avenge the beast she called a father. A flathing dragon. So, leave me be, Poz. I’m done with this world.”

“I’m sorry,” Poz said.

It wasn’t much. They were just words, after all. But Nicandros reacted as if Poz had embraced him. He sat down hard, and the tears finally began to spill out over his cheeks.

“I lost him,” Nicandros said softly. “He was…he was the whole reason I fighting to rid the world of the Alohym. So he could have a future free of them. And the resistance I helped to found is going to put the woman who killed him on the throne.”

Poz sat down to listened as Nicandros told him the full story, an outpouring of words and pain that had been building up inside him like a poison finally being excised.