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The Dragon’s Scion Part 148

The crystal bottle that had once held the Phoenix Flame lay still lay in the grass where Tythel had dropped it as she left this valley. It was now home to a small mouse and her pups, who apparently didn’t mind that predators could see them. Not when they were safely in a bottle that had contained liquid hot enough to burn a dragon’s lifeless body to ash. Tythel hopped out the Skitterer and began to walk towards where that ash had been left – her father’s last resting place.

In her grief, she hadn’t thought about Phoenix Flame and what that would mean. The phoenix were a race of dragonkin that had gone extinct during the era of her great grandsire, the necromantic dragon Grejhak that had created the lair Armin was now delving into. The timing was no coincidence – Grejhak had waged a genocidal campaign against these creatures that could defy death. Their name, in the old Draconic tongue, meant “Second-Born,” a reference to their phenomenal regenerative prowess. Aside from that, Karjon had spoken only little of them, save that their flames had been opposite those of normal dragons – a Phoenix could breathe Heartflame from birth, and only later would learn Ghostflame. Their third flame was similar to Dragonflame, but for two key differences.

Phoenix Flame lacked the sheer destructive potential of Dragonflame. It was hotter than any flame mankind could produce, and hot enough to burn a dragon’s scales, but it was still dwarfed by the heat their scaled cousins could produce.  However, unlike Dragonflame, it did not just leave behind ash. It helped decompose that which it burned, accelerating years of natural breakdown into a handful of seconds.

And dragon bodies fueled plant life unlike anything else in the world.

In the year since she’d been gone, the spot where her father had been cremated had transformed. It was awash with Drakebloom. The flowers grew taller than even the Sunflowers that sometimes lined the roads, their stalks twisted and arched to look like a dragon rearing up to let loose its breath weapon. Their petals were red and orange and gold and glistened with morning dew. Bees, stripped green and black, flitted among them. When the Drakebloom was ready to reproduce, the flower would rise up until it was facing the sky, then spray its seeds. It was said to look like a dragon flaming as the red and gold seeds caught the air to be carried away.

Tythel had to swallow to process the implications. Drakebloom could breed true with other flowers though some process Karjon had not been able to explain. It was still rare because dragons normally incinerated their dead, and much of the nutrients gained through normal breakdown were lost. Where they weren’t incinerated, they would decompose only slowly.

But Tythel had incinerated Karjon with Phoenix Flame. Everything in his body had been returned to the earth in an instant.

The Drakebloom would spread throughout the valley. Eventually, enough seeds would crest over the wall to spread into the rest of the world. The normal yellow honey bees outside would take over from the green bees of Karjon’s valley, and they would spread the Drakebloom further.

Dragons may be gone, but Drakebloom would one day be as common as lilies.

Tears threatened to well in Tythel’s eyes. She hadn’t meant to, but she’d given Karjon a legacy even better than the cold stone she’d carved for him. It was still there, although she had to brush away some vines that had begun to creep their way up the mass of rock. She traced her fingers along the letters of the message she’d written, so long ago.

Here lies Karjon the Magnificent

Who battled the Wizards of the 9th Circle

Dueled the dread necromancer Gix

Sat upon the Council of Twelve

And was the greatest Father to have lived.

Behind her, she could hear Eupheme and Tellias dismount from the Skitter. They spoke briefly amongst themselves – “Is that her father-” Tellias started to say, but before he could finish, Eupheme interrupted.

“I think so. Help me unpack this? I think she needs a moment.”

“I imagine she needs more than that,” Tellias said, but not in an argumentative tone. He sounded somber, and at that moment, Tythel could have hugged them both.

She didn’t. Instead, she savored the moment here, pressing her hand against the cold stone as she once had against her father’s warm scales. I’m sorry I didn’t come back sooner, Father, she thought, and in the twilight shadow she could almost imagine the Drakebloom formed his profile perfectly. It’s been a long year. I’ll tell you all about it once we’re done. But…right now, I need your protection again.

Tythel knew her father well. He would have hunkered down, bringing himself eye-level with her, and cocked his head just slightly. He would have said “What trouble you, my child?” Or something along those lines. Immediate concern for her, the rest to be considered later.

The Alohym – Those From Above – have a new thing. A thing that is half human and half of them. It hunts me and my friends. I don’t…I don’t know if I’m strong enough to beat it. The feeling of tears continued to build, and her nictitating membranes began to flash in reflex.

This time, she could practically hear him. “Of course you are. You are my daughter, after all.”

I’m still human. I’m still too weak. I think I lead us all to our deaths. 

“Oh, really? Then tell me, my beautiful human daughter – why don’t you weep?”

Tythel knew the voice wasn’t real. Knew it was her filling in what he would be saying – but also realized he was right. She brought her hand up to her cheek and found it dry. Her nictitating membranes were still flashing – the way dragons relieved sadness, their version of a human’s tears – but tear ducts were human things. Dragons shed no tears.

Tythel shed no tears.

Finding one more thing in common with her father made her smile even through the flashes of her membranes. She slid her hand down the stone and stepped back.

Even if they died here, she’d do so with the knowledge she’d taken on one more draconic trait before she passed.

Tythel turned to help Eupheme and Tellias unload the Skitter. She could sense their desire to comfort but their uncertainty about doing so. When she met Eupheme’s eyes, she shook her head, but made herself smile.

Knowing they cared was enough.

In the distance, Tythel heard the buzzing of Catheon’s wings, and knew that soon this valley would be a battleground once again.

She glanced at her father’s grave one last time as they moved to pick the point where they would engage the enemy, and silently made a vow.

No matter what happened here, the Drakebloom would be unharmed.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 147

I never thought I’d be coming back here, Tythel thought as the Skitter broke free of the forest and the entrance to Karjon’s valley loomed above them. Once upon a time, this had been her entire world. Those stone walls that rose up from the floor of the valley had been the edge of reality, the furthest she’d even gone. They were as she remembered them, large and spiked and imposing. The morning sun had started to rise behind them, changing them from black shapes rising in the darkness to dark gray. Tythel’s memory of these stones only had them a few shades lighter than what she was seeing now. Once they passed through the gap she’d exited through all those months ago, they’d be back in twilight for another thirty minutes, until the sun managed to crest over their peaks.

As imposing as they were, they also seemed smaller than she remembered. Her memory held them as these huge, imposing, structures. Completely impassible and as implacable as if they’d been wrought of iron. Now, however? They were formidable, but Tythel had seen Alohym Warmongers annihilate forests in a single shot. She’d seen their Chrysopods shatter walls twice the height of this with beams of Unlight. She’d seen things she never could have imagined. The walls that had once been the border of her world now lacked…something. Like the walls had shrunk in the year she had been gone.

What made you? She wondered, bringing her eyes up to look at the grey stone. It was a question she’d meant to ask her father, when time had permitted. The valley was a crater, the stones that surrounded it where primordial stone had splashed up like water from some immense impact and then frozen in place. It was beyond the power of dragons, men, Sylvani, Alohym, and even the Small Gods to make such a thing.

If Karjon had known, he’d taken that secret to the grave with him. Their secret had not been recorded in any of his notebooks that she’d been able to recover.

“Share your thoughts?” Eupheme asked quietly. She’d wrapped herself fully in her cloak and looked like a blob of shadow that had taken residence in the pilot seat of the Skitter.

“I’m being morose,” Tythel admitted, forcing herself to smile. She’d gotten better at that since she’d left the valley, but this one felt faker than usual to her. “Thinking about what made this valley. The mountain used to be volcanic. Dad formed his lair in the old caldera. But the valley itself was the result of something before even his records.”

“Any idea what made it?” Tellias asked. It was a relief to have him join the conversation unprompted. The tension between them had been fading over the course of the ride, although there was still a gap between them that Tythel could still feel. It was, oddly enough, something on his face. Some expression she couldn’t quite place, but an expression she could still read on some level below the conscious.

“Logically, the easiest explanation was some huge stone falling from the sky, out of the void the Alohym came from. If there can be other worlds up there, it stands to reason that the myths of flaming stones that fall from the heavens are based on reality.” Tythel shook her head.

“But you don’t believe that,” Tellias said, shifting forward slightly. To conserve power, his arcplate wasn’t active, meaning he had nothing but his own muscles to move the dozens of stones worth of steel encasing his body.

“No, I don’t.” Tythel said. They were at the gap now, the one break in the wall that surrounded the valley. The space between the stones was not as mysterious as the stones themselves. Karjon had deliberately shattered the barrier there, to allow animals to travel in and out on their own. At least, that was the reason that Karjon had given her back then. But if that had been why, wouldn’t he have shattered it in the hundreds of years before her life?

No, it seemed most likely he’d done it in case anything were to happen to him, to make sure Tythel wouldn’t be trapped within the crater.

“I think it was the ancient Alohym. If it was a skystone, there would be more like this valley, but I’ve never seen anything like it. This…the stone cooled in an instant to form like this. That’s not how anything else works, other than the Light, but we have no lumwell here.”

“Light and shadow, that’s quite the thought,” Tellias muttered.

“It’s also good for us,” Eupheme said, pulling down the hood of her cloak. “The nearest Lumwell is back in Hillsdale, and it’s a small one. Their lumcaster won’t be able to pull much power from it. He’ll be limited.”

Tythel nodded. “We’ll also have shadows all day long around the edge, at least on this side.”

“We’ll need to get out of them,” Eupheme said, her shoulders stiffening. “If Leora shows up with them…she’s better in the shadows than I am. I think I can match her if we stay in the sunlight, but in a shadow that large, she’ll tear me apart. All of us, really.”

“You’re a bright little lumwell, aren’t you?” Tellias muttered.

“I’m a realist,” Eupheme snapped, with far more vitriol than Tellias teasing had called for.

“The important thing,” Tythel interjected, trying to get the words in before the argument between the two could ignite, “is that the illusion my father had woven over the valley will mean we can negate the biggest advantage Catheon has over us.”

The Skitter went silent at the mention of Catheon. Having a name for the human that wore an Alohym skin like a suit of arcplate should have made him less intimidating, less mysterious. He wasn’t some strange figure; he was a person with a name.

But instead, his name just raised more question. It wasn’t a human name. It sounded akin to Rephylon or Metymon or other named Alohym. Yet the voice inside was human.

“Even on the ground, can we really beat him?” Tellias asked.

Tythel shrugged. “I don’t know. But we can try. I’m sure of that much. And if we can manage to pull it off…we’ll have taken down a real threat.”

“And if we die, the drop I set up in Hillsdale will make sure d’Monchy learns of our fate.” Eupheme said. The tension was fading from her shoulder some. “At least he’ll be warned of what’s coming – and that we won’t be.”

Tythel nodded. She opened her mouth to say something, but then they were past the wall and in the valley.

Ahead, she could see her father’s tomb, and the sight tore the words from her.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 146

Edgeminster had become a prison with a thousand guards and a single prisoner. Poz pressed his back against the bell tower he had escaped too. Those strange flying monsters of the Alohym screamed through the air, their stalk-eyes scanning the ground for any sign of Poz’s huddled form. Alohym troops patrolled the street, relaying their orders through song stones built into their helmets. The worst was the omnipresent buzzing sound that flitted about the sky on gossamer wings.

Poz’s pursuer, the human that wore the skin of an Alohym, had arrived in Edgeminster.

Ratflesh was not the kind of flesh that was given over to hatred. Ratflesh was fear and cunning and curiosity, not love and hate. Those were the emotions of the High Flesh, of Crowflesh and Squidflesh and Apeflesh. Ratflesh was the cleverest of the Low Flesh, and still the most useful for right now.

This bell tower was well hidden from the ground. If Poz had crow, he could go for Crowflesh. Right now a Middle Flesh might fit better – cat or fox or hound – but the difference wouldn’t make enough of an impact to be worth the risk of trying to acquire the meat.

Also, those fleshes could know hatred. Right now, if Poz could know hatred, he would be distracted by feeling it for that flying bastard. He’d followed Poz across the continent twice, from the battlefield where he’d found the deathegg to the Barony of Axburg in the north and then again to the south at Edgeminster.

This thing had hounded Poz, and Poz strongly suspected that it was ultimately responsible for Nicandros turning against them.

If I could kill him…

Poz pushed the thought down. Ratflesh made it easy. Rats did not think of harming their predators to scare them away. Rats hid and only bit if cornered. It was the correct call to make here. That man could fly in the sky and fire beams of unlight from his hand. He was as dangerous as a true Alohym, and with the cunning of a human. Poz had no hope of defeating him.

Unless…

Poz reached into his pouch. The egg was still there, but he pushed that aside. There was something else there, a leather tube, tightly wound. He’d been carrying it since Axeburg.

No. Poz thought firmly, pulling his hand out of the pouch. It would be the height of folly to take that risk. There was no guarantee it would even give him what he needed to defeat the flying Alohym.

It would be enough to escape, though. 

That though stopped him cold. The temptation…Poz leaned over to peer out of the bell tower. There were Alohym soldiers along the walls, and imperipods watching each of the gates. There was no escape for him, not right now.

He leaned back before a flight of Skimmers could pass by again.

It couldn’t be all about the egg, Poz realized with growing horror. The egg couldn’t possibly be that valuable. Even if it was, the Alohym had sent an entire battalion down to Edgeminster to claim it. There had to be something else they wanted, and Poz was gradually becoming certain he knew what it was.

The last remaining deathegg would be an appealing target, especially if the Alohym knew better than Poz what it could do. Even if they didn’t, it would be a useful lever to have over the Dragon Princess that sought to reclaim her throne, the one that had killed one of their own. Yet…that couldn’t be everything. Not for this much.

Why did they pull the rest of my people back? Poz asked, for what had to be the hundredth time. Like the previous ninety-nine times he’d wondered that, he had no answer. As far as Poz knew, he was the only one of the Underfolk to remain on the surface. He’d thought it was because the Underfolk had feared the Alohym, but now…now he had to wonder if the Alohym might want some other prize.

The only sample of the Underfolk they could reach.

Poz shuddered and curled up into a ball around himself. Tears began to well in his eyes. It was too much. Too much. An entire army was waiting to keep him from breaking free of the city, and the only thing he could provide were more questions. Questions he couldn’t answer because he was not smart enough.

Not right now…

Poz reached into the pouch again, drying his eyes with his free hand. His fingers brushed against the leather pouch and, delicately, he removed it. He nearly dropped it from how badly his hands were shaking, terrified at the thought of what he was contemplating. Breathing slowly and steadily, Poz focused to forcing his hands to obey his commands as he unwound the twine that held the leather pouch shut.

Back when the flying Alohym had attacked him in Axeburg, Poz had been forced to crawl along the ground, searching for an exit. The Baron had already been hit by shards of glass and sliced to death. He’d been bleeding a few feet away.

Poz hadn’t been able to ask before taking one the Baron’s discarded fingers.

For weeks now it had been in his pouch, wrapped in leather and covered with salt so it wouldn’t turn or spoil. The finger was a brown and shriveled thing by now, the color of a mummified corpse. There wasn’t much flesh on it, but large quantities of flesh weren’t needed to trigger a transformation.

Manflesh. He was contemplating committing the great sin and eating on Manflesh. Again.

There were three Forbidden Fleshes. Man, Sylvani, and Dragon. Poz suspected that if they had not fled underground, the elders would have declared Alohym flesh forbidden as well. The flesh of other beings that were on part with the Underfolk in intellect.

He’d tasted it once before. It had been the most incredible experience he’d even encountered. It had also been terrifying. He’d understood why it was forbidden, understood so much he’d fed on Ratflash to stop the terrible, unstoppable understanding.

And now he was considering tasting it again. Of turning into…that again.

Poz wanted to scream. He wanted to be sick. The idea of that was…monstrous. If it was just his own survival at stake, he’d never even been contemplating this before. Yet there was something that the Alohym wanted. Something they wanted so badly they’d dispatched an entire army to retrieve it, turned Nicandros against his former friends with the promise of a resurrection, and sent the man who wore an Alohym to retrieve it.

Maybe it was the egg. Maybe it was his flesh. Maybe it was both.

It did not matter. The Alohym could not be allowed to have whatever they were after.

Even if it meant committing this sin.

The finger tasted of salt as it passed his lips.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 145

Glass shattered over the streets of Edgeminster as Poz went hurtling through a window. The sheet he’d wrapped around his hands was torn to ribbons by the impact, but his skin was untouched. Poz tossed it aside and rolled as he hit the ground.

Nicandros followed, his black coat fluttering behind him like the wings of a falcon descending upon a hare.

Or, more appropriately, a rat.

Poz sprung to his feet, his hands trembling with terror. The tail ratflesh provided lashed behind him, slicing through the air like a whip. Poz heard the sound of Nicandros hitting the ground behind him, and the rustle of cloth that had accompanied his descent was joined by the pounding of feet on the cobblestones of the street.

This ratflesh knew well. The hunter pursued, and the flesh ran. Poz gave himself over to the instincts of this form, instincts honed over countless generations of survival against predators more fearsome to it than Nicandros was to Pox. Rats knew how to escape cats and foxes and even the lesser cousins of dragons, the lesser drakes.

Nicandros had no fangs or claws. He had knives and swords. He had no fire breath. Instead, he had an arcwand.

Move! It wasn’t really a word. It was an impulse. Poz leapt to the side, and a bolt of unlight arcfire cut through the air, mere fingers from where he had been. The skin on his arms raised in gooseflesh, and his breathing came in ragged, harried gasps.

“Poz, wait!” Nicandros shouted.

Poz did not. He bolted out of the alley and skittered into the street.

People started to scream and shout as Poz emerged onto the street. A woman and man clutched to each other, and a food vendor overturned one of his carts in surprise. Cabbages spilled out in front of him, and Poz had to scramble to avoid slipping on the wet leaves. Poz’s tail lashed out as he passed and wrapped around the remaining cart, deliberately dragging it over as he passed. More cabbages fell onto the street, creating a carpet of slick vegetables.

The merchant bellowed in a combination of dismay and outrage as Nicandros rounded the corner, sighting his arcwand on Poz as his feet pounded the pavements.

Nicandros hit the cabbages, and his feet went sliding out from under him. Poz felt a thrill of relief. Poz had the advantage of the claws granted by ratflesh to keep himself balanced. Nicandros had nice leather boots. There was no comparison – at these speeds, he could not have hoped to maintain balance.

Poz’s relief was short lived. He couldn’t fight the compulsion to look over his shoulder and see that Nicandros was rising to his feet, already taking aim. Did I misjudge you so badly, old friend? Poz wondered, desperately hoping he had not been incorrect.

Nicandros swore and lowered his arcwand, forcing himself to his feet. Poz stumbled forwards as his legs went weak with sudden relaxation, and he had to force himself to keep moving. He’d been certain that Nicandros wouldn’t fire into a crowd of humans, but for a moment he’d honestly wondered if he’d been wrong.

Poz ducked into the next alley, out of Nicandros’ sight. Still weak from the realization that he’d managed to escape, Poz had to struggle to keep climbing as he made himself climb up the wall.

Nicandros entered the alley just moments after Poz pulled his tail over the roof. Heart still pounding, Poz curled himself around the chimney and waited for his body to stop shaking as Nicandros shouted his name below.

One thing Poz had learned in his time interacting with Nicandros was that humans were fiercely devoted to their offspring. Nicandros was worse than most in that regard. The boy’s mother had died not long after giving birth, and that grief had driven Nicandros to an almost slavishly loyal to his child.

Once, in an effort to get information out of Nicandros, a group of Alohym soldiers had abducted Tomah. The boy had been little more than four, and given the slow aging of humans, Poz thought it was very likely he had completely forgotten about it.

Poz had been bound to a wall while Nicandros had been chained to a chair when they’d interrogated him. He’d watched, helpless to say anything, as Nicandros had been subject to their torture. They’d sliced away strips of flesh. They’d shoved hot pins under his fingernails. They’d beaten him with blunt instruments. He’d endured it all.

Oh, sure, he had screamed in pain and writhed in agony. He’d cursed them with every vulgarity he knew, from the new oaths of the Alohym to the old oaths of the faith of the Light, and even a few Underfolk curses. Nicandros had even given them false locations, sending them down rabbit holes and chasing shadows.

They’d tried interrogating Poz too, but Poz had been deep in grubflesh at that point. He’d barely known the answers to the questions they’d be asking.

But Nicandros…he’d held it together. Almost perfectly. Poz had wondered if anything they’d done to him would have broken his resolve.

But in a moment of weakness, Nicandros had slipped out. He’d cried out for his son.

They’d brought Tomah the next day and tied the young boy to a chair across from his father. Nicandros was given a simple choice – begin talking, or his son would endure what he had endured.

Nicandros had told them everything. Locations, deployments, plans. Everything. Poz still shuddered to remember the desperate, wild fear in Nicandros eyes, the way he’d wept as he’d begged them to spare his son’s life. Even in grubflesh, it had broken Poz’s heart to see.

The Alohym soldiers had left them. Nicandros had sat there, in the chair, shuddering. Tomah had been frightened and confused, but they’d left them alone, and they hadn’t tied the boy’s bonds tightly enough to keep him from wriggling free. With some coaxing and urging from Nicandros, Tomah had brought his father the knife he needed to cut free. Nicandros had freed Poz.

They’d escaped and gotten back to the resistance. Nicandros had warned de’Monchy of his failing before the Alohym could wipe them out.

Then he’d left his son in the care of the resistance and left. Poz had followed.

Together, they’d hunted down every single human that had held Nicandros captive, every single human that had been involved in taking Tomah hostage. Nicandros had slaughtered them all, one by one. In their homes, in their places of work, at one point even raiding a barracks.

The last one had, while having hot pins jammed under his fingernails, gave up the name of their commander, the man who had ordered they use Tomah as a hostage.

It had been terrifying to watch what Nicandros did to the man. He’d spent days dying, begging for mercy, pleading for Nicandros to free him – pleas that eventually turned to begging for death.

Yet under that torment, he’d maintained the actual Alohym that commanded him had not known of the ploy. Finally, Nicandros had been convinced that the man was telling the truth, that the decision had ultimately come from this broken down husk that had once been human, and granted him his final wish.

Before Nicandros had killed the man, he’d told the commander that he’d be killing his wife and daughter as well. The man had gone to the Shadow believing his family would die like he would. Screaming.

It had been a lie. Nicandros had explained later. “I just wanted the flathing bastard to go to the Shadow thinking his family would be joining him.” And yet…perhaps it had been grubflesh, but Poz had – at the moment the threat was made – believe Nicandros meant it.

That was the most terrifying Nicandros had ever been, up until the day he’d learned the family Tomah had gone to stay with had allowed him to join the Alohym’s ranks.

That was the man Poz was up against, and Poz was standing between that man and his son’s resurrection.

Below Poz, Nicandros shouted his name in a voice that was born with the rage and sorrow of a grieving parent.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 144

“Alright, hold your-” Armin started to say, peering around the column to look for the aggressors. An explosion rocked the room before he could even get out the word ‘posistion.’ Shards of stone flew into the room, shrapnel knives that spun through the air and were embedded in pillars and treasure. Armin staggered back. His forehead stung, and he brought up a hand to touch his temple. It came away wet with blood.

Already? He thought, dazed by the injury happening so quickly into the fight. Ears ringing, he dared to look again at the entrance, his heart pounding with fear for Aldredia and Ossman.

The gold throne, the scepters that had been supporting it, and the treasure that lay atop them all had been mangled beyond the point of recognizability by the unlight blast. Tiny bolts of unlight danced along their surfaces, but they had been reduced to a golden slag that formed a small hill in the entranceway. The barrier they had struggled over, reduced to rubble in mere seconds.

Ossman was standing up. His eyes had an unfocused look, but he was alive, and Armin couldn’t see him bleeding. Aldredia hadn’t lost her feet, but she was bleeding from her left arm, and her excitement had given way to a grimace of pain.

The only blessing Armin could see was that the Alohym soldiers had needed to pull back to detonate the arccell and blast their way into the room. That gave everyone time to recover from the shock of the explosion.

The passage was wide enough for the Alohym soldiers to approach in groups of six. Armin could see them coming out of the darkness in the hallway, clad in imperimail. Their suits were black with glowing unlight lines running along the arms and down to their gauntlets and greaves, lines that converged in the center of their back where the arccells rested. Their helmets were large and wedge-shaped, a look Armin had always thought made them look like cheap imitations of their masters.

Armin gritted his teeth as he took aim at one of the approaching soldiers and pulled the trigger. A beam of crimson light leapt from his arcwand and streaked across the room to the lead soldier. The hit was direct, the helmet exploding under the impact. The soldier blessedly crumpled to the ground before Armin could see what the beam had done to the man’s face.

He was a traitor, Armin reminded himself, pointing the arcwand at another soldier. Guiart’s blast came from above, dropping a soldier to his knees but not stopping him outright.

The Alohym soldiers began to return fire. They weren’t taking the time to carefully aim, instead spraying unlight beams in the direction of their aggressors. It wasn’t an attempt to actually kill them. Armin pressed his back against the pillar as an unlight bolt cleaved a chunk of stone away from where he’d been a moment ago. Covering fire. Just enough to keep them from being able to take return fire as the soldiers entered the room.

“Clarcia, now!” Armin shouted.

The young Lumcaster poked her head out from over the pile of treasure she’d taken refuge behind. Her hand spread outwards, and a screen of light cut off the soldiers that had managed to breach the chamber from their reinforcements.

Ossman and Aldredia were free to act now. Moving almost as a single entity, they stepped out from behind the doorframe, axe and blade raised.

Two Alohym soldiers fell before they even realized they were under attack, Ossman’s unlight axe flashing through the air to sever one’s arm at the shoulder. The free limb flopped to the floor as the soldier screamed and clutched at the stump. Aldredia’s arcblade slashed parallel to the ground, a soldier barely turning as she attacked. It spared his spine from her attack. Unfortunately for him, he blocked the blow with his throat.

Then Armin had sighted his target, and he was pulling the trigger on his arcwand again, and the battle raged on.

Armin was dimly aware of the soldiers outside the barrier placing arccells. If they broke through Clarcia’s wall of light before they were done in here…

An unlight beam brought Armin’s attention back to the immediate problem. It cut through his sleeve, tugging at the cloth and burning a neat hole less than a knuckle from his arm. He fired back in the direction it had come from. Shock made his shot go wild. His hands were shaking. Armin was a sniper. He was used to battles where he was high and overseeing the whole battlefield, and rarely was in danger himself.

Guiart managed to down another soldier, and Aldredia and Ossman killed two more. The soldiers weren’t armed for close quarters combat. At least, not these soldiers. The ones outside the barrier were pulling out their own unlight blades, getting ready to charge.

The last soldier that had made it inside dropped with Ossman’s axe in his skull.

There were easily two or three dozen outside. Possibly more, Armin could tell. Ossman had been injured in the fight, an unlight burn across his left thigh. Aldredia had gained no new wounds, but her hair was plastered to her head with sweat. Armin glanced over at Clarcia.

“On my mark, invert the barrier’s curve.”

Clarcia’s eyes widened with Armin thought was surprise, but she nodded. He glanced back at the soldiers outside. “Everyone, get back to your positions. Now. Clarcia, move three spans to your left. Aldredia, Ossman, move further back from the door. Nice shooting, Guiart.” He did his best to sound flippant. This was just a fight. No big deal. They’d been through worse.

He lowered his hands so they wouldn’t see how they trembled. The troops outside began to back up. “Now!” Armin said.

Clarcia held out her hand, and the barrier she had erected turned into a crescent shape that bent with its points facing towards the soldiers outside. The unlight explosion was shaped along the barrier’s curve, the brunt of the shockwave shaped to travel down the hallway and into the Alohym’s troops.

Screams reached Armin’s ears. Screams that didn’t belong to his friends or allies, so welcome screams. A few more troops injured, a few more hopefully out of the fight or dead.

The next group began to charge in. Armin fired off a few more beams of light as he got behind cover. “Clarcia, now!”

Clarcia popped up again to erect the barrier anew. Armin saw her, her eyes narrow with determination, her fingers curled as she began to weave light into a wall that would keep the soldiers out.

Those eyes widened when an unlight beam struck her in the forehead. Clarcia’s head snapped back, and a spray of blood rose from her forehead in an arc to follow the motion. She slumped to her knees and for a moment Armin dared hoped she was alright, that she just needed time to recover.

Then her body finished its collapsed, and Clarcia died.

Armin remembered screaming. He remembered turning to fire into the oncoming forces, wild beams that were not aimed, just desperate attempts to kill someone, anyone, for what they had done to Clarcia.

He remembered the unlight wave spreading out from a hand that appeared out of the darkness, old and wizened. A hand that was attached to a face Armin knew, a face Armin had expected to find waiting for them.

Theognis was here.

The unlight wave struck Ossman and Aldredia first. They were thrown into the air. Ossman bellowed in rage and anguish. Aldredia fell silent, her blade slipping from between her fingers. It hit the cauldron where Synit hid and sent it rolling along the floor. It scooped up Clarcia’s lifeless body and sent it tumbling like a ragdoll.

Then it hit Armin, and he was tumbling through the air himself. He saw Guiart raise his hands in a pathetic attempt at defense against the onrushing force, and then Guiart had joined them in their flight.

Armin struck the opposite wall. The impact drove the air out of his lungs, and only then did he stop screaming.

Theognis smiled. “Chain them up. I have questions for the survivors.”

After that, Armin only remembered blackness.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 143

The sound of footsteps were close enough for Armin’s ears to hear them now. They sounded like the rolling of an approaching thunderstorm. Now you’re just being maudlin. They sound like flathing boots. “How many?” he asked, looking at Synit.

Synit’s antenna twitched. “Oh, somewhere between a dozen and ten million.” She saw their disbelieving looks and narrowed her eyes. “If you want an accurate count, I could go out and look. Footsteps all sound the same, even without an echo.”

Armin scowled at the door. They’d spent the time since they’d heard the footsteps moving as much of the larger pieces of treasure in front of the doors as they could. A solid gold throne belonging to some king that had died millennia ago had required all of them to even shift it. It had been a sluggish affair, and if not for Guiart’s knowledge of levers and some wheeled devices they’d found buried in the gold coins, it would have been impossible. Even then, the fact that it was close to the door allowed them to tip it over and block the entranceway. It had fallen with such an accursed clamor, it had cracked the stone with its impact. The throne was now was braced with scepters of a dozen kings and queens and princesses, and further weighed down by crowns and coins.

All in all, Armin estimated at least seven hundred stone was bracing the door right now. More gold than he’d ever imagined seeing gathered together in one place.

It would hold the immense doors for a bit. The Alohym soldiers outside wouldn’t be able to force the doors open quickly.

Maybe they’ll give up and go back. Armin thought, knowing it was a faint hope. The chair had been needed, but the sound had made it clear there was someone inside. “Alright, everyone,” Armin said, turning around to face the group. “Here’s the plan.”

Aldredia had a hungry look in her eyes, a wolf on the prowl. She’d seemed to come alive in battle, and now that she had a new fight to look forward to Armin could see how eager she was to be in the fray. They faced impossible odds, but when was that not true? When were they not fighting against an enemy they had no hope to defeat?

Clarcia didn’t look like she was excited for the battle. Her lips were drawn in a thin line, her forehead furrowed. Her eyes were already glowing from the light she was calling to herself from the Lumwell that had to be directly below them. Armin’s blasphemy could see the way the lines of energy curled out between the stones of the floor to race up to her fingertips.

Synit was as enigmatic as she had been since Armin had arrived here. Her movements were still stiff, and now that Armin had gotten used to reading her eyes, he could see her pain was omnipresent. She’d assured Armin she could fight, that she would fight, but there had been no time to assess her. He had to trust that she knew her own abilities.

Guiart was shaking at the knees, his skin sallow, and he was swallowing more frequently than was required. Of all of them, he seemed to be the most aware of the reality – there was a very good chance they weren’t going to survive what came next. Their strength had always come from being able to hit and run and withdraw. Right now they were trapped, and Guiart knew that.

Ossman’s face was outright grim. Armin wasn’t surprised. They were both remembering a different doorway, at the end of a different hallways. This one had been barred with wardrobes and chairs, not gold and regalia. They hadn’t known that the aggressors back then had been appropriating the name Alohym – they’d still only been referred to by the enigmatic name ‘Those From Above.’

Clarcia had been there too, but she’d been a child. Armin didn’t suppose she remembered that. The good memories seem to have stuck with her – the speech, the victory, the escape. Not this part. Not huddling behind a door stacked with debris. Light and Shadow, what am I saying. We were children. Just older children. Children huddled behind furniture waiting to see if the monsters would break through – or if it would be the men who served them.

Armin felt his face tighten. “Guiart, I want you up on that plinth. Anything that comes through, shoot it with so much arcfire it sees the Light before you send it to the Shadow.”

His knees still knocking, Guiart nodded and began to head towards the space Armin indicated. He might be a coward, but in a way that made him braver than the rest of them – his terror clutched him, shook him, but it never broke him.

“Clarcia, get behind that pile of coins and wait. The moment the first group bursts through, I want a barrier to stop them. They’ll break through, but I want you to force them to come in waves. Let’s break them into manageable chunks.

Clarcia nodded and raised her hands. She held prisms they’d found among the treasure, ones made of diamonds as large as her fists. They would help her focus her power enough to avoid wasting too much light.

“Aldredia, Ossman, flank either side of the door. Once Clarcia drops the barrier in place, drop everyone on our side of it, then get back. They’ll expect the attack for the second wave, but knowing you’re coming won’t prevent you from cutting them down.”

Aldredia ran to her side with that fierce grin still on her face. Ossman walked up and clasped hands with Armin. “Damn me to shadow, I can’t believe I’m listening to you.”

Armin grinned at him. The same words he’d said back behind the other door. There wouldn’t be Duke de’Monchy riding in at the last minute this time. There was no cavalry ready to charge. But it was good to know Ossman thought this time would go as well as the last time they’d done something this stupid.

“Synit, I want you inside that cauldron,” Armin said, pointing to an enormous brass basin. It would come up to Synit’s shoulders, and had tiny holes around the bottom. She’d be able to see out, but you’d have to have your face pressed to the ground to see in. “You know what you can do. If it looks like we’re going to lose but you can turn the tide, join the fight. If it looks like we’re going to win, stay down. The information you could give is too valuable to risk.”

“And you don’t trust me,” Synit said. There was no malice or accusation in her voice.

“And I don’t trust you,” Armin confirmed. He shrugged and gave her a helpless gesture. “This whole thing is still too convenient. But if you’re on our side, it’s also the best way to deploy you.”

Synit seemed to agree with his words. Or she was just not interested in arguing.

Everyone else deployed, Armin took his own position, behind a pillar that was embedded with images of the ancient Alohym. He readied his arcwand.

Now, he thought, safely behind the pillar where no one could see the way his own hands trembled, let’s see how horribly wrong this goes.

The sound of hands banging against the door made it clear he wouldn’t have to wait long.

Dragon’s Scion Part 142

The interior of Bix’s laboratory was more chaotic than the last time that Haradeth had seen it. There were springs scattered across the floor. On the shelves, a variety of faintly glowing crystals had been strewn with the careful placement employed by a bored cat rampaging through a kitchen. Scattered here and there were pieces of machines that Haradeth couldn’t even identify, half torn open and left with their wires exposed like the entrails of sacrificial animals.

He wasn’t certain, but Haradeth would wager a good amount of money that some of those devices hadn’t needed to be dismembered. It wouldn’t surprise him in the slightest to learn that Bix had done it because it amused or, or she was frustrated, or bored, or because the sun had risen that day.

“Now that I’ve gotten the boogers working, they’re connected to the other ones in their web. The ones that are still functional. Take a moment to stare upon me in wonder and offer me praise for my greatness.” Bix turned to look at Lorathor and Haradeth. Her mechanical eyes whirled when the godling and Sylvani smiled, narrowing to thin lines. “You have about two seconds before I feed you your own hearts.”

Haradeth and Lorathor practically fell over themselves with attempts to praise her. The seriousness of Bix’s threats was high on the list of things Haradeth wasn’t certain about. He still didn’t know what the diminutive automaton could actually do if she decided to get murderous, but he was certain that his abilities of having better endurance than the average human and being able to command animals would do little to save him unarmed against a woman of steel and glass and blades.

“That’s better,” Bix said. “You get to keep your entrails today. For now. I might change my mind.” She pressed her fingers into some empty slots on a console. They whirred and one of those light projections of the Sylvani appeared in the air in front of her.

It was a globe, showing all of Alith. Points of light began to appear on the landmasses. “These are the ones we activated. And by ‘we’ I of course mean me, because you two did absolutely nothing to aid me in this endeavor.”

“Was there something we could have done?” Haradeth asked, honestly curious.

“Oh no, you’d be absolutely useless. Although I could have stabbed you and saved some of my servitors. That would have made me feel better.”

“But then I’d be dead,” Haradeth said.

Bix looked at him like he’d just announced he’d have turned into a giraffe and flown to the moon. “I didn’t say fatally stabbed you. I’ve only ever stabbed you in the finger. I wouldn’t kill you.”

“You threatened to feed me my own heart earlier.”

Bix sighed, a sound like steam flowing out of a teapot. “That was twenty-three seconds ago. Ancient history. You can’t live in the past, godling. The knives lurk in the future.”

Haradeth found he had nothing to say to that. “What about the portals within the kingdom?” He asked, trying to turn Bix’s attention back to the matter at hand.

“There’s seven. The one in Hallith you know about. The other six are here, here, here, over there, up here, and down there.” The three-dimension image zoomed in on a map of the kingdom, each point highlighting with her words. “The one down there is beneath the ground in the Underfolk’s land. You probably don’t want to use that one because the Underfolk were all ‘oh no, we’re going to die, let’s go eat bugs in the dark’ when the Alohym arrived. A bunch of bug-eating Underfolk would be more useless than the Sylvani.”

“Hey, we’re Sylvani,” Lorathor objected.

“No, you’re Sylvani. I’m a sentient if slightly deranged automaton. And it’s true that the Underfolk would be more useless, because the only Sylvani being useful is you. That gives the Sylvani exactly one useful member, which is more than the Underfolk. So, congratulations, you elevate how useless our people are.”

Lorathor clamped his mouth shut.

“We go back to Hallith,” Haradeth said. “We can rejoin the army and let de’Monchy know about these portals. When we have those-”

“Nope,” Bix said. “That’s not an option.”

Haradeth rocked back in surprise at the interruption. “I beg your pardon?”

“Don’t beg for pardon. It’s beneath you. Beg for your life. That’s more fitting. And your little army has been driven out of Hallith and the Alohym scorched the entire plateau to glass.”

“What?” Haradeth said, his voice tight.

The image Bix was showing changed to show the plateau of Hallith. It was worse than Bix had described. The plateau’s top was a cracked sea of glass, with tiny bolts of unlight lightning hopping between the shards. “The drones found this when I sent them to check. There’s nothing there anymore. But also, very few dead people which is sad for me because dead bodies are fun but are good for you because that means most of your people got out alive.”

Haradeth closed his eyes tightly. The entire resistance was on the run again. They had been for some time – this clearly hadn’t happened recently. The glass didn’t glow with any remaining heat, and that much being melted would have left some residual. The Sylvani drones had arrived long after…

Haradeth snapped his eyes open. “Your machines. The ones that can fly about and take images of anything.”

“Hmm?” Bix asked. It was an innocent sound, one that clearly meant to convey that she didn’t know what he was getting at, but her body tensed with eagerness.

“You could use them to find the Resistance. You could use them to find the Alohym. Report troop movements. Find weak points. You could use them to watch the world.”

“Oh, very good Haradeth.” Bix beamed at him. “It took you weeks to figure it out, but you finally got there. We were beginning to think you never would.”

“Why didn’t you-”

“We’re automatons, Haradeth. We have directives we have to obey.” Bix’s voice didn’t have its usual manic edge to it. “We can find loopholes in that directive that allow us something like freedom – loopholes that let us stab people, or convince an entire race we are a goddess…”

“You’re saying Anortia was involved in this?” Lorathor asked.

“It was her idea,” Bix said. “But we can’t do it without a directive. That’s also why I made you promise to take me with you when you go. That means it’s going to be her job to run the drones and relay information to me, and it’s my job to stab people and share what she says. Otherwise I would have been stuck on monitor duty.”

Lorathor looked like the rug that had been pulled out from under his feet days ago had suddenly reappeared beneath his bruised tailbone. “Then find them,” Haradeth said. “Find the resistance, and the others, and find what portals are nearest. We’ll go as soon as we know where we’re most needed.”

Bix’s eyes glowed brighter. “Finally. You had a good idea. We’ll begin now. Pull up a chair you two – we’ll have a location soon enough. Don’t stab yourselves on the spikey bits. That’s my job.”

Haradeth carefully cleared off a chair and sat down to wait. Lorathor sat next to him, his skin a bright yellow of excitement. “Soon,” Lorathor said.

Haradeth could only nod and fight the urge to try and hurry Bix. He didn’t think she’d appreciate the effort. She might get cross.

The last thing he wanted was to be impaled for his impatience.

Dragon’s Scion Part 141

Perhaps it was a case of familiarity breeding complacency, but the trek down to Bix’s dwelling seemed less ominous to Haradeth than before. There were still the flickering lights that barely could illuminate the passageways that had given the whole thing an aura of menace before, but they seemed less like something unnatural and more like the sun peeking in and out from behind clouds. The wretched creatures the Sylvani descended into as they aged were still present, muttering to themselves as they skulked from shadow to shadow, but instead of unnerving Haradeth he felt a surge of empathy towards them.

Humans revered their ancestors as their age claimed them. Some were revered for their wisdom, others were cared for because of their senility, and in the worst cases they were abandoned, but they were not feared. The idea seemed terribly unnatural to Haradeth. No species of Alith born showed disgust towards their elders. How could the life cycle of the Sylvani be so different?

“Haradeth, what are you doing?” Lorathor asked.

Haradeth wasn’t certain himself. He had diverted from the path and was walking towards one of the elder Sylvani, that much was clear. “I’ve got a feeling,” was all he could say.

“Be careful,” Lorathor cautioned, walking behind Haradeth at a distance that grew with every step.

“Be careful be afraid be weak be strong be nothing at all,” the elder Sylvani said in a sing-song voice. Haradeth knew there was a term for them, one Lorathor had told him, but he’d forgotten it. He was so intent on forgetting they existed because they made him uncomfortable that he’d forgotten their names.

“I will be something,” Haradeth said. He adopted a conversational tone, as if discussing the idea of being nothing was the most natural thing in the world. It was the way he’d seen humans talk to their infants when they babbled, as if the noises made some sense to them. Given that it eventually helped those infants learn to speak, perhaps there was some wisdom in the idea.

This particular elder had adopted a form not unlike a starfish, although it did not hug the floor. It rose up on smaller starfish as hands, and a single eye peered up at Haradeth from the center of its mass. As he approached, the skin of one of its arms stretched to reveal the Sylvani beak. It wasn’t moving but the elder was still muttering an endless string of things Haradeth should be. The sound seemed to come from the underside, and Haradeth had to wonder if there was another mouth under this…man? Woman? Did Sylvani even make such distinctions, or was that just an artifact of speaking their language?

Haradeth stretched out his hand towards the elder. Its eye grew larger and split into two, then three and four and five, but it did not shy away.

“Haradeth, be very careful,” Lorathor cautioned. “They can be unpredictable.”

“I think it’s going to be alright,” Haradeth said, extending a sliver of his power with his hand.

All of the small gods had a gift. His mother could make plants grow just with her touch. His uncle, the forge god Vinania, had been able to shape metal with only his will and contact, purifying iron to steel and making it into the finest blade without need for heat to touch it. He’d almost destroyed an Alohym vessel as he died, turning the hull of the thing into spikes that protruded inwards to slaughter the inhabitants. Gianna-o-Zan, a goddess of Xhaod that Haradeth had met once, had been able to ride the winds as if she was a bird. He’d heard it had taken three Alohym to cut her out of the sky, zipping between the clouds and raining iron projectiles down atop their soldiers’ heads.

His gift – the gift of the last of the small gods that was still whole and healthy – was the ability to influence the minds and bodies of animals. The mental influence did not work on beings that were both sentient and sapient – humans, Sylvani, Underfolk. Their free will was too great. Among beings that came close – dolphins, crows, elephants, and others – it allowed him something akin go speech. But these Sylvani elders were more creatures of instinct than their normal counterparts. If Haradeth was right-

The Sylvani elder extruded a tendril so quickly Haradeth couldn’t reach. It wrapped around his wrist and began to constrict. Haradeth could feel the bones in his wrist begin to grind against each other and gritted his teeth against the pain. The sliver he had been extending became a torrent containing a single command. Calm. I mean you no harm.

The tendril relaxed but did not release its grasp on his wrist. It was enough. Haradeth sighed with relief, and Lorathor sheathed the sword Haradeth hadn’t even seen him draw. “Shadow take you, Haradeth, you are insane.”

“No,” Haradeth said, letting his power pulse through the Sylvani’s body, “he is.”

Haradeth could see it now, peering into the Sylvani’s form, sending waves of calming into the poor person. It made him want to weep, the way the brain had degraded. It took some coaxing to get the Sylvani to release him, and he turned to Lorathor with tears in his eyes as the elder’s muttering resumed.

“What is it?” Lorathor asked in a hushed tone.

“This isn’t your natural life cycle,” Haradeth said. “There’s some nutrient your minds need, some metal or humor that is not native to Alith. Your plants likely leeched it out of the soil when you were on your home world, but here…”

“Here it doesn’t exist,” Lorathor said, his voice growing low. “Here…we cannot get it.”

Haradeth nodded somberly. “It directly impacts your ability to control your form. That’s why these Elders seems so unpredictable, because they aren’t fully in control of what they do. Their shapes warp so often their conscious minds cannot handle it-”

“And they go mad.”

“And they go mad,” Haradeth finished. “But in its absence…whatever is missing is also what causes your bodies to age. That’s why you’re functionally immortal here – but instead, this happens. With this chemical, you’d age like humans, although probably slower. Lorathor…I’m sorry. I thought I could help.”

Lorathor looked at Haradeth, and his eyes were radiant with excitement. “You did help, Haradeth. We could maybe find a way to synthesize this chemical here. We could find a way to recreated it. We all thought…we all thought this was our destiny. But it’s not a destiny. It’s a disease. And diseases can be treated.”

“Sometimes,” a voice said. Haradeth and Lorathor turned to face the speaker. It was Bix, crouched atop the amorphous form of one of the Sylvani Elders, riding it like some kind of inhuman mount. “But often…well, some diseases are best treated with stabbing.”

Haradeth had gotten pretty good with just accepting what Bix said, but he couldn’t help himself this time. “What disease is treated with stabbing?”

“The kind that are just going to kill their victim even if we don’t do anything,” Bix said. “Then stabbing can end their suffering. The kind that are caused by blood building up that needs to be let out. Then stabbing can let the blood out. And the kind that infect entire civilizations. Like the Alohym.” Her glowing eyes glistened brighter than usual. “Then stabbing can cure that disease very well.”

Haradeth nodded. “You said the portal stones were working?”

“The boogers. I said the boogers were working. You’re the ones that keep calling them by that stupid name.” Bix nodded and tapped the Sylvani elder beneath her. It began to roll back towards her home. “Now come. We need to figure out where you’re going.”

Haradeth followed, his step lighter than it had been in sometime. Finally, they’d be able to do something to help.

And maybe, in his lifetime, he’d see the Sylvani’s spared this madness.

Small Worlds Part 176

“We have a problem,” Crystal announced.

The voice almost startled Isabel into jumping. She’d been waiting for Crystal to say something for what had felt like hours, although it had only been a matter of minutes. She’d considered doing something to break Crystal out of her deep contemplation of the door, but hadn’t been sure if it was worth breaking the goddess’ contemplation. So she’d stood there, fighting the jaguar’s instinct to curl up into a ball to wait. Although the moon dust was fine so far, she didn’t like the idea of getting even more of it embedded in her fur. It was starting to oxidize with the air bubble as well, and the smell of gunpowder was filling her lungs. It had the Jaguar on edge.

Isabel whimpered in concern when Crystal spoke.

“Sorry love, I know, you can’t talk. But this door…I can tear it open, but it’s an airlock. I don’t like the idea of leaving you that exposed to the vacuum out here. Remind me to ask Anansi how he managed it last time he was here.” Crystal sighed. “He probably just phased right through the door. Which I could do here too. Except…” Crystal frowned. “I don’t suppose that soulstone thingy means you can phase?”

Isabel shook her head. I should ask her to clean me off so we can talk. Except…crap, I wish we’d set up a signal for that.

“Didn’t think so. Bloody hell.” Crystal stared at the door. “I can open it, if I’m being honest. I just…I don’t particularly like what I have to do to manage it.”

Confused, Isabel cocked her head.

“I know, love, I know, I’m being ridiculous.”

No, I’m just confused.

Crystal glanced at Isabel, then shook her head in irritation. “Okay. I’ll do it. Just…try not to freak out on me, yeah?”

It took Isabel a moment to realize what the problem was. Crystal, the millions of years old goddess that had done some of the most amazing things Isabel had ever seen or heard of…was embarrassed.

Then Crystal began to shift her form. She stopped looking like a human. Beautiful green and red feathers sprouted from her head and arms and spread to cover her body. Her feet spread out into talons. Her face distended to form a beak. With a start, Isabel realized this was the kind of form Moloch had taken during the fight in the Elysian Rest, and had to fight the Jaguar’s urge to flatten her ears against her head. It’s not Moloch, it’s Crystal. You know Crystal.

Crystal bent down towards the door and spoke a few words, words Isabel couldn’t hope to have reproduced – not without shifting into a parrot, perhaps. No human throat had ever made sounds like that. It sounded like a complex series of squacks and caws to Isabel’s ears.

The door opened for the sound, and Crystal hurriedly stepped into the airlock. Isabel slunk after her. Inside there was a control panel that Crystal began to work as she shifted back into human form. “Sorry about that, love. We’ll have air in here in just a moment, then I can clean you off.”

It took a couple minutes, but at the end of it, Crystal and Isabel were both human and standing in a room lit by fluorescent lights, waiting for the air pressure to finish normalizing. “Why did you apologize? You got us in.”

Crystal flushed slightly. “I don’t like going bird around you lot. Nothing personal. It’s just…” Crystal trailed off and shrugged. “Anyway, had to shift so the scanners would recognize me and open the airlock.”

“I’m amazed this place still works,” Isabel said, changing the subject for Crystal’s sake.

Crystal gave her a look that said she knew what Isabel was doing, and appreciated it. “Lemurian technology. We got a bit further along than you all did, yeah? If you humans had been given another hundred years, you probably would have gotten there too.”

“But how does it work?” Isabel asked. “How’d it survive?”

“The solar panels. If they’re running with the base on minimum power, they can store it in cells down below. The cells were…your language doesn’t have a word for it. It exploits a…damn, another thing your language doesn’t have a word for.” Crystal tapped her finger on her chin. “The batteries that they store power in can store massive, massive amounts, and if we manage to save humanity so they can further develop their science, I’ll eventually have the words I need to explain how it works.”

Isabel laughed. “Fair enough. But what about micrometeors? Shouldn’t they have shredded this place? Or is that too much for my pitiful human language.” Isabel gave Crystal a wink to show she was joking.”

Crystal laughed and slapped the wall. “Thankfully, you do have words here. There’s nanites in the hull. They can repair and smooth over pretty much any minor damage. A big hole would have been too much, but those don’t happen as often as you might think. Back in the day-”

Crystal cut off at the sound of a heavy footstep approaching.

“Oh, right,” Crystal said, drawing a sword out of her nanoverse. “The Sphinx.”

Isabel hurriedly shifted into something to fight. In these cramped spaces, the jaguar seemed to be an imperfect fit – they tended to hunt from ambush. Instead, she went with something with some mass behind it.

When Isabel’s feet hit the ground, they were the stubby legs of an Diceros bicornis, more commonly known as the Black Rhinoceros.

“Good choice, love,” Crystal said, stepping to make sure she was out of the way if Isabel started to charge.

Well, there’s nothing more serious than a Rhinoceros about to charge your ass, Isabel thought, laughing to herself. It was probably for the best Crystal couldn’t hear her – the reference would probably go over her head.

Then the laugher died down as the Sphinx’s head turned around the corner. It dwarfed even the Rhino, and Isabel saw that the hallway was impossibly bending outward to accommodate its passage. His eyes narrowed when he saw the two of them.

“Explain why you are here, and why you have brought that beast with you,” the Sphinx said firmly. “And then explain why I shouldn’t gut you both.”

There was a cold finality in his tone that chilled Isabel to her bones.

That was the moment Isabel learned that Rhino anatomy, while incapable of speech, is perfectly able to gulp in fear.

Dragon’s Scion Part 140

Haradeth was dreaming of the forest.

It was night in his dream. Even though he remembered the forest best in the daytime, with the sun streaming through the leaves in narrow shafts that illuminated the shrubs and flowers below with beams of light, in his dreams it was always night. The domain of owls that watched from their trees, hooting softly to each other and waiting for some unlucky rodent to dare leave its burrow and venture out for food. The kingdom of the great cats that stalked the dusk, seeking the deer when they were growing drowsy from a day of feeding in relative safety. The realm ruled by the serpents that awaited hares hurrying back to their burrows.

His dominion.

The days had been full of light and life and energy. The constant chirping of the birds seeking mates or to warn away those that would impose on their territory. The rustling of the bears foraging for berries. The humming of the bees flying from blossom to blossom, spreading the pollen and ensuring another generation of flowers would be born to fill the world with color. That had been what his mother had ruled, the realm of sunlight and warmth and peace.

His name, in the old tongue of the ancient Alohym, meant “Moon-Kissed.” He’d been born under a shaft of moonlight. His mother had told him it was like he had waited for that beam of light, refusing to enter this world until the sun had set and the night held dominion.

There was no moon in the dream. There were lights in the sky, but they were too numerous to count – a ring of broken stones that encircled the sky, enclosing the world and creeping back beyond the horizon in both directions. The remnants of the moon shattered by some cataclysm of unimaginable proportions.

In his hammock safely in the Sylvani lands, Haradeth stirred. Had anyone been watching him restlessly toss, they would have seen his forehead furrow and his hands clenched at his side in his sleep.

In the dream those moon remnants were beginning to turn, spinning faster and faster with every passing second until they no longer resembled stones, but orbs of pure light – too bright to be stars.

Haradeth knew what came next. He’d had this dream before. He’d had it over and over since his birth.

The first orb’s glow began to dim until it went black, then began to draw in nearby light, warping it around its spin. Soon it was giving off a negative glow, pulling the surrounding light in on itself. Unlight. Haradeth knew that word, though he once had no phrase to describe it. He knew that word like he had once known these woods.

The unlight stone streaked from the heavens. Its entry into the air caused it to burst into flames, flames that were subsumed by the unlight and turned into flickering fragments of darkness, a trail that annihilated all light it passed forming behind the stone as it plummeted towards the forest.

“No,” Haradeth murmured, rolling over in his sleep. “No, no, no.” The word became a chant, a mystic incantation of denial, as if the word itself would ward away the dream.

Or the reality.

In the dream, the unlight stone struck at the heart of the forest. Haradeth wanted to flee what happened, but in the strange logic of dreams he found himself running towards the thing he feared, his feet crushing leaves and beetles as he passed.

In the dream, time had slowed. To his right flickered a dragonfly, each beat of its wings visible to the naked eye. To the left was an owl, descending on an unlucky lizard with the vicious speed of flowing molasses. The lizard saw the owl coming, and it wasn’t trying to flee. It had turned to face its death with a mouth opened wide in some kind of hiss too high pitched to be heard in the slowed reality of the dream.

Ahead of him, a light was forming. True light, not unlight. Like a sun was rising in the forest ahead, where no sun should be able to form.

Shards of wood reached his dream skin at the same moment as the low rumble, a sound that shook him to his very core. In reality, the sound had been harsh and fast, even though the layers of earth that had separated him from the source of the burst. In the dream, it happened so slowly it sounded more like distant thunder than the explosion.

Haradeth’s dream form was lifted from the ground by a shockwave as his real body began to sweat with fear. The dream-self didn’t feel the impact, except as a dull awareness.

The owl burned. The lizard burned. The dragonfly did not but looked at Haradeth with eyes suddenly human and screamed with lips that should not be.

Haradeth awoke with a scream of terror, sitting bolt upright. Lights began to glow in the room the Sylvani had provided him, casting reality into sharp relief.

It was just a dream, Haradeth told himself, but the words sounded hollow even within the confines of his own head. It was just a dream, but it was one that he’d had before the Alohym had even come, before their weapons had lanced from the sky to destroy all that was beneath them. A godling’s dreams often had the touch of prophesy to them, and he’d been certain this was one of those.

It was a prophecy he’d thought fulfilled with Nicandros had returned, bearing the half-dragon princess, and the Alohym had destroyed his mother’s forest as punishment. The dream had stopped that night and had not returned since.

He’d been certain that was the end of it. He’d foreseen the destruction of their home, and now the future was unwritten before him.

But he’d just had it again.

Which meant it was now a thing that still might come to be. It was something to guard against. It was a pending death, and not the literal destruction of his home.

Or it’s just a dream, you fool, Haradeth chided himself. He sighed and stood up, stretching his back. It was just a dream, or it was so symbolic it would be meaningless to him until it had passed. Either way he would accomplish nothing by worrying over it.

A gentle rapping came at his door, startling him out of his reflection. “Open,” he said.

Lorathor peered in, blinking away sleep. “Haradeth? I thought I heard a scream.”

“Just a bad dream, my friend,” Haradeth said, shaking his head.

“Must have been a dream thrice-damned to Shadow, from the way you were going on.” Lorathor’s forehead crinkled slightly with the faintest hint of amusement. Their last conversation with the Tarnished One – Bix, Haradeth reminded himself –  had seemed to help the Sylvani regain some of his levity. “What was it?”

Haradeth shrugged. “An old friend of a dream, to be honest. One I’d thought I’d left behind with the illusions of childhood.”

“Such dreams – like those illusions – rarely truly vanish.” Lorathor shrugged. “At least, that’s how it works for my people. We retain most of what we absorb as children.”

“And for mine,” Haradeth said. He bit his cheek in thought. Something didn’t add up – Lorathor should have not been able to notice the scream, not as far as his room was from Haradeth’s. “Why were you even here to hear?”

“Bix contacted me.” Lorathor’s eyes did sparkle now, their wavy pupils alive with life, and his cheeks broadened with a smile. “She got the portal stones working. Well, she’s still calling them boogers, but…”

Haradeth nodded, his heart leaping with excitement. Finally, after all this time, they’d be able to re-enter the fray – and with a powerful weapon the Alohym could not predict. If only they could find the other stones, they’d have a network that would change the course of the war. “Let’s go see her, then.”

“You might want to get dressed first,” Lorathor said, eyeing Haradeth up and down. “The less skin to tempt her knife with.”

Haradeth was so happy to have progress, he didn’t even bother to blush at the reminder. Hurriedly, he prepared himself.

Bix was waiting, and with that psychotic little automaton was a different dream.

Hope.