The Dragon’s Scion Part 116

Tythel threw herself to the side as the unlight beam approached and covered her head with her shield as the beam stopped tearing through the forest floor and struck the tree that had briefly been covering her.

That saved her. The unlight hit the tree and, for a moment, it sucked in all light that was hitting its branches, creating a massive circle of darkness around herself and its trunk.

Then it exploded, sending unlight-infused splinters spiraling through the air, a hail of deadly shrapnel that could have punched through her scaled hide. She could feel a couple pieces stick into her arms and tore them out with hisses of pain. The idea of having to endure unlight poisoning again was motivation enough to overcome the sharp stinging sensation.

“Move!” Tellias hissed, and Tythel realized she was exposed. She got up and ran, moments before a beam of unlight impacted the forest floor she’d just vacated. This time, it wasn’t a sweeping beam. It drilled into the ground, sending chunks of earth and stone flying away, and unlight corruption began to seep into the leaves and trees.

Tellias opened fire with one of the arcwands, beams of crimson light lancing up towards where the attacker was. The beam shifted in direction and angle as the flying Alohym twisted away from the incoming fire. “Die you monster!” the human inside the flying Alohym-suit screamed, still propelling unlight into the spot Tythel had vacated.

Tythel didn’t want to dissuade him of the notion that he’d managed to strike her. She began to scrabble up a nearby tree with her talons. Get above the tree line and burn him while he’s distracted, Tythel thought to herself. No time to focus on the energy needed for ghostflame. If she hit him hard enough, she might be able to ground him, and once that happened…then they’d at least be on a more even playing field.

She reached the top of the tree before the man inside was finished firing. He was every bit as imposing at Tythel remembered. Easily as tall as Tellias in the armor, but slender and graceful with an unnatural grace. The huge thorax that emerged from behind his legs was shrinking as he maintained the beam of unlight, and Tythel could hear his breathing, ragged with every second.

Ragged and…sniffling. He was crying. The man inside the Alohym skin was crying as he fired into the ground, thinking he was killing Tythel.

Pushing her confusion aside, Tythel took a deep breath and let out a torrent of dragonflame.

It was perfect. The flying Alohym didn’t see it coming. It streaked towards his back, completely unaware, and Tythel braced herself to leap as soon as he fell.

The fire struck a golden barrier before it could hit the flying man, flaring outwards from the impact a good span away from the Alohym’s back.

Oh, right, Tythel thought, looking around wildly. The lumcaster. He was there, in a nearby tree, and waved his fingers when he saw Tythel looking. “Careful, Catheon,” the lumcaster said. He was speaking quietly enough that he likely didn’t believe that Tythel could hear him.

At least she had a name for the man in the flying Alohym suit. Catheon.

Tythel leapt from the tree and latched onto another one. She began to run through the branches, using the skills she’d honed long ago in Karjon’s valley with her new strength and talons for better grip. The lumcaster’s eyes widened as Tythel drew near, brachiating like an ape to close the distance. He leapt out of the tree and began to channel a barrier of golden light.

Tythel landed and heard Eupheme appear behind her. Good, that means I don’t have to worry about my back. Tythel prepared herself to smash her unlight hammer against the lumcaster’s barrier – when it occurred to her that Eupheme’s footsteps sounded wrong. Too heavy, too quick.

She turned just in time to prevent the woman behind her from ramming a spear through her heart. It glanced off Tythel’s ribcage instead, drawing a line of blood. Tythel hit the ground and rolled away from her attack. It wasn’t Eupheme. She was too tall, wrapped head-to-toe in black fabric, and carried a spear that glowed with unlight.

Some other umbrist had joined the fight. An umbrist on the side of the Alohym.

Tythel took a deep breath, fighting aside the pain as best she could. The Umbrist was every bit as fast as Eupheme, and Tythel found herself leaping back repeatedly to avoid getting impaled.

The real Eupheme had appeared behind the Lumcaster. He’d managed to create a collar of light around himself to prevent Eupheme from slitting his throat from behind and had banished all shadows around him. He was now engaged in a swordfight with Eupheme, who was forced to only rely on her speed and skills. In that, at least, the Lumcaster seemed to equally match her.

A beam of unlight streaked from the sky again. This time it slammed into Tellias, driving him to one knee. Catheon – didn’t maintain the beam this time. Tythel prayed he couldn’t, or they were damned.

She caught the head of the new umbrist’s spear on her shield and reminded herself they might be damned either way.

They needed a plan, desperately. They were out maneuvered, out armed, and running short on time. Tythel couldn’t even use her greatest weapon here, not without…

A horrible, dangerous, and beautiful plan occurred to Tythel. She took a deep breath between the umbrist’s strike and let loose a stream of flame. The umbrist ducked into the shadow of a tree and vanished, reappearing on the other side of Tythel, but Tythel wasn’t aiming for her. Tythel spun around, maintaining the flame as she did.

The flame nearly caught the Umbrist mid-leap. She twisted her body in the air, the flames just barely missing her, and the daggers that had been aimed for Tythel’s back went wide. She landed with a curse and rolled to the side, and Tythel chased her with the flame. “You’re going to burn us all!” she shouted at Tythel.

No. I won’t, Tythel thought grimly as she maintained the stream of fire and pivoted in a full circle.

Around her, the forest burst into flame.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 114

Dawn was cresting over the horizon as they broke off the road and prepared to make camp. The rest of the trip out of the town had been conducted in silence. Every muscle in Tythel’s body ached from being carried over Tellias’ shoulder for hours, and she’d had to fight the urge throughout to try and shift and make herself comfortable. You’re pretending to be a corpse; she reminded herself, a mantra that was repeated over and over again.

Leaving the Inn had been easier than Tythel had expected. Far too easy. There were bound to be Writ Hunters trailing them, looking to claim the ‘prize.’ Eupheme has whispered that, so low that only Tythel could hear her, and the entire time they’d traveled from town, Tythel had been able to confirm that with the distant sound of footsteps dogging their heels. No more than five of them, as far as Tythel could tell.

A far more manageable number than what they’d had in the inn, but still too many for Tythel’s liking.

Tellias dumped her unceremoniously onto the ground, muttering an apology as she hit the forest floor. There was no reason for him to treat her as anything other than a dead body, after all. She was valuable, but it wouldn’t make sense for him to keep her in pristine condition.

Knowing that didn’t help her desire to kick Tellias in the back for tossing her.

Tellias and Eupheme dragged some downed branches to cover Tythel, then they got to work setting up camp. Tythel took advantage of the time and cover to surreptitiously work out the kinks in her arms and legs. She couldn’t resist anything that might cause rustling, but flexing her toes and fingers wouldn’t show from above. Once feeling had returned to her hands and feet, she started rhythmically tensing and untensing her arms and legs, as well as her stomach and neck.

I’d kill for the chance to stretch properly, Tythel thought. The little bit of flexing was helping with some of the tension from being carried like a sack of potatoes over an armored shoulder for four or five leagues, but she desperately wanted a chance to get up and move about properly.

Also, her bad eye itched. Her eye had itched for the last hour. Tythel swore that as soon as she could move, she’d rub the thing out of its shadow-damned socket, so it would never bother her again. It was maddening to have an itch like that, one where her very survival depended on refusing to scratch.

Patience, Tythel, she reminded herself. Their pursuers had stopped as soon as they’d diverged from the path, making their own camp further down the forest. They were far enough away that without Tythel’s ears, they could have remained completely unheard. She didn’t know how they were remaining unseen – or, more concerning, how they were doing their observation.

“You think we’re being followed?” Tellias asked Eupheme. His voice was still echoing in the helmet, but underneath it, Tythel could hear a measure of strain.

“I think we’d know if we weren’t,” Eupheme said. “I think someone would make it very clear if that was the case.”

Tythel didn’t need to think too hard to read the subtext there. Fortunately, it seemed that was true for Tellias as well, who grunted in acknowledgment of the point. If Eupheme hadn’t been right, Tythel would have seized the opportunity to inform them. If just to get the chance to move.

“We can’t sleep,” Tellias said, his voice low. “Or at least, one of us can’t.”

Again, a veiled meaning, one Tythel didn’t have too much trouble following. She was capable of remaining motionless and breathing shallowly so long as she was awake. Asleep-

“Yes. One of us snores quite loudly.” There was a joking edge to Eupheme’s voice, and Tellias snorted in amusement.

Tythel had to frown. This was a veiled meaning, but she was absolutely lost. Tellias and Eupheme both didn’t snore in their sleep, so it couldn’t be they were talking about either of them. Was snore perhaps a coded phrase of some kind? Tythel turned it over in her mind. It could refer to a roar, although that didn’t quite add up. That could be about the difficulty of getting Tellias out of his armor without her aid…although Tythel had no idea how that would be a snore. Perhaps they meant…

Or, just perhaps, they mean you snore, Tythel thought, suddenly flushing with indignation. Which is absolute rubbish. They’re just taking advantage of the fact that you can’t retort, light forsake them! 

If they knew Tythel was fuming under the pile of leaves and branches, they gave no indication.

The fact was, Tythel realized, they were at an impasse. Right now Tythel had no way to alert them to how many possible foes waited nearby, nor did she have a way to strategize with them. They could strategize all they wanted, but they lacked any information as to what the nature of the threat was, and any strategy would give away that Tythel was alive. For all they knew, an Alohym was trailing them with a small army, just out of their earshot. The moment their aggressors realized that she was alive, they would…

…either flee in fright or charge and attack. Either of which would be better than this interminable waiting.

Tythel sat up so suddenly Tellias let out a startled, strangled sound, and even Eupheme jumped. “Yes, yes, I have arisen from the grave,” Tythel said, adopting the same annoyed tone Karjon had used whenever startling her. “We’ve got five of them, about a mile away. Don’t know how they’re watching us, but they have been since we left town. They’re going to know I’m awake any minute now, I’m sure of it.”

Tythel held up a finger to forestall any response. As she had expected, the moment she sat up, the sounds of footsteps started pounding on the ground – headed towards them. Tythel sat up and held out her hand for her hammer and shield. “They’re coming,” she said.

Five foes of unknown strength, charging the three of them. Eupheme vanished into the shadows, and Tellias and Tythel readied their weapons.

Then, pausing for a moment, Tythel placed her hammer on the ground and rubbed at her eye. She might die here, but she’d be forsaken by Light and Shadow both if she’d die with that flathing itch in her eye.

Satisfied, she grabbed her hammer just as the Writ Hunters burst into view.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 110

As promised, the Tarnished One was waiting for them with a ‘needle,’ if the definition of needle was changed to include an outright stiletto so large it lacked only a handle to function as a rapier. “You came,” she said, sighing in disappointment. “I guess that means you can choose where I stab you.”

“I would prefer if you didn’t,” Haradeth said carefully.

“And I would prefer if I did,” the Tarnished One said with a broad grin, the metal slivers around her glass eyes dilating to make her look more innocent. When Haradeth met her gaze with a level one of his own, she sighed. “You’re absolutely no fun. Fine. I need your blood.” Seeing the expression that crossed Haradeth’s face, she rolled her eyes. “I need a tiny amount of your blood. This needle is sterile and will store it safely.”

“You don’t want to stab Lorathor too?” Haradeth asked, stalling.

Lorathor shot Haradeth a dirty look as the Tarnished One giggled. “Of course I want to stab him, silly. I just don’t need to stab him. I need to stab you. Like a pincushion.” Her eyes widened. “Yes. That is what you shall be. God of Pincushions. Because I’ll stab you, you see?”

“I did pick up on that,” Haradeth said, his voice so dry it was practically dessicated.

“Well, I don’t know what your meat brain picks up on. No one ever lets me open their meat brains while they’re alive so I can see how they work on. I just have to assume you all are dense and need everything spelled out for you.”

“We can’t all be that dense.” Haradeth crossed his arms. As much as he hated to admit it, part of him was enjoying the banter with this clockwork psychopath. She had the empathy of a starved vulture and a sense of humor Haradeth expected from a rabid hyena, but compared to Lorathor’s endless doldrums, it was a massive improvement.

“If you’re not all dense, then why does everyone react the same when I stab them? They’re always ‘what are you doing to me?’ and ‘why are you doing this?’ and ‘won’t you stop?” and ‘Oh Light, am I going to die?’ when the answers are clear. In order – stabbing you, because I want to, only when it stops being funny, and maybe – I can never be sure what kills meat.”

Haradeth grimaced. “Well, at the risk of being dense, I would like to know why you want to stab me.”

“Because it’s fun?” The Tained One offered, cocking her head in confusion. “You are dense, i just told you that’s why I do it.”

“Sorry, I phrased that poorly. Why do you need to stab me?”

“Oh! That’s actually not a dense question.” the Tarnished One paused and tapped her chin, a gentle clinking sound signaling her thought. “Maybe. How much do you know about phase-matter transference equations?”

“I don’t even know what those words mean,” Haradeth said, after mouthing the words a few times to try and and work them out. He knew the word equations, but it was already an ugly word, and combined with the others it was like finding a mushroom growing on unidentified meat – even if you didn’t know what you were being fed, you could be certain it was something unwholesome.

“Then it’s not a dense question,” the Tarnished One said. “You’re just poorly educated. I need your blood because the phase-matter…” she saw Haradeth’s eyes glaze over and sighed. “The booger I’m working on needs to be configured for your biology. It’s designed for Sylvani and Lattice Minds. You aren’t either, and you’d end up a red paste at the end. Which would be fun, but not for you.”

Haradeth shuddered. “And what does the…phase-matter…”

“The booger,” the Tarnished One said helpfully.

“Fine. What does the booger do?”

“Well, it’s a highly complex configuration that utilizes a network of three lattice minds to tap into your planet’s natural luminferous…” Again, she trailed off as Haradeth felt his attention waiver. “Okay, I’ll put this in terms your meat can understand.” She grabbed a piece of sheet metal. “So lets say this is the world. You are on this end of the sheet. You want to get the other end. You have to walk across it, right?”

“Right,” Haradeth said.

“Okay. What if instead you did this?” With no discernable effort, the Tarnished One folded the nail-thick sheet of steel in half. “You can now go to one point to another in a single step, yes?”

Haradeth nodded, trying to fathom the strength this tiny mechanism possessed.

“Well, the booger folds space like that. It lets you take that step. Only it doesn’t damage the world – things pop back right into place. I think I could find a way to damage the world with it, but I wouldn’t do that until I could find a way out. Otherwise I’d end up damaging myself, and we can’t have that.”

“And you need my blood because?”

“Because if the booger isn’t configured right…well, pretend this sheet metal isn’t the world anymore. Pretend it’s you.” She crumbled the metal into a ball, compacting it into a sphere no bigger than a marble. “See, the booger would try to fit you into a Sylvani shape. But you’re not a Sylvani. So it would use a default configuration – which in this case is a sphere.” She dropped the ball on the ground with a deafening thud. “Only you wouldn’t stay a sphere. You’d be paste. ”

That answered every question Haradeth dared ask at that moment. He was too busy picturing himself crumbled up into a sphere. Shaking, he held out a finger.

The Tarnished One giggled as she stabbed the offered digit.

The Dragon’s Scion part 107

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Movement to the right,” Aildreda whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dragon’s Scion Part 104

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His eyes widened, and Eliert clenched his teeth.

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

“Kill them,” Eliert hissed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

The Dragon’s Scion Part 103

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there was-”

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

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

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

“The goods, Eliert?” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dragon’s Scion Part 100

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

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

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

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

However long that was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dragon’s Scion Part 99

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

He’d have to find a different way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 98

-PART 2-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This flesh just made that endurance painfully difficult.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You could stay for a couple more-”

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

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

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

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 97

“Let’s talk about me. Because that’s what’s really important. ” the Tarnished One said.

Hardeth crossed his legs under himself and leaned forward. She seemed less inclined to stab them the more more her story went on, although the knife to his throat was still fresh in his memory. Lorathor sat next to him, seemingly more amused than concerned, which Haradeth took as a good sign. Then again, given how bitter his companion had been of late, perhaps that shouldn’t be a comfort.

With a wave of the Tarnished One’s hand, the world of purple lands and red oceans spun. “This was Yolae Ancalenidia. At least, that’s the closest your tongue can come to approximating its name. I know because I’ve tried it with six human tongues. They’re clumsy things. I keep them in a box under my bed because I don’t need to sleep so it doesn’t bother me they don’t shut up. Why do humans talk so much?”

“Uh-” Haradeth started to say, but the Tarnished One seemingly wasn’t interested in an actual answer. She moved on quickly, but not so quickly that Haradeth didn’t have time to imagine a half dozen disembodied, muttering tongues in a footlocker.

“Yolae Ancalendia was the homeworld of me. And the people you now call the Sylvani, and the other Lattice Minds, but most of all me. I was a personal assistant tasked with cleaning the houses of the upper nobility and caring for their children, but I was slated for decommissioning. Can you guess why?” She gave Haradeth a piercing gaze.

“Was it because you kept stabbing people?” Haradeth asked uncertainty.

“No, it was because I was too bright and cheerful and of course it was because I kept stabbing people.” The Tarnished One laughed. “I was originally given a designation, but I chose the Tarnished One because my mental lattice was tarnished. I like choosing my own name. It’s better than Domestic Model 3425098-3/g. Don’t you agree?”

“Absolutely,” Haradeth said without a trace of humor.

“Good. I didn’t want to be decommissioned. I started asking people if I could stab them, and then not stabbing if they said no. Usually. But apparently, the fact that i wanted to stab people meant that I was defective.”

“Did you ever try…not asking people if you could stab them?” Haradeth asked, choosing his words carefully.

“Nope. Have you ever tried asking people if you could?”

Haradeth blinked slowly. “I can honestly say the thought never crossed my mind.”

“Well, you should let it. It’s fun. Now, where was I? Oh, right. I was going to be decommissioned. But then…”

The image shifted. A massive vessel appeared in the empty space above the world. It looked like one of the vessels the Alohym piloted, but blown up to massive proportions, with thousands of unlight tendrils hanging off it and firing on the world below. “Then suddenly there became a very, very big need for people to be stabbed. Guess you can get away with doing anything, so long as you’re useful.

Haradeth and Lorathor watched with growing horror as parts of the world began to burn with Unlight. “They claimed to be our gods,” the Tarnished One said, her voice soft. “They claimed that we were wicked, and need to be purged. Some believed them, and even joined them. I think they were just trying to wipe out the only other species that could challenge them, but I’m Domestic Model with a defective personality, so what do I know?”

Ships that looked like the dome city of the Sylvanie began to rise into space. As Haradeth watched, unlight beams began to cut them down one by one. How many died? How many lives lost to such senseless violence?

“Lots. That’s the answer. I know lots. And I knew that we would lose and I would be destroyed. I didn’t want to be destroyed. There were many, many people I hadn’t stabbed yet. So I snuck aboard a ship, one of thirteen, that was launching from the very far side of the planet, where they couldn’t reach us.”

As Haradeth and Lorathor watched, the world rotated a hundred and eighty degrees to show the smaller ships launching. Two were cut down by an Alohym vessel of the size Haradeth was used to. “We lost two in the launch. Their lattice minds hopped vessels. Their passengers all burned up in the atmosphere or went splat on the ground. They probably didn’t make it into orbit, although maybe some of their corpses are still out there, floating around Yolae Ancalenidia. Of the ten that remained, two experienced critical failures in the journey. Their lattice minds also hopped vessels, and those dead Sylvani are definitely still floating in the void. Unless they hit a star. Then they aren’t.”

The world shifted back to Alith. “One more burned up in the atmosphere.” In front of their eyes, one of the dome ships began to burn with an incredible heat. The image was so detailed, Haradeth could swear he could see tiny Sylvani running around in panic before it detonated in a flash of heat. “Boom!” the Tarnished One said, startling both Haradeth and Lorathor. “Its shields were damaged. Its lattice mind was able to hop vessels, but the people…probably were the source of the legends you humans have for when the sky burned and disgorged the corpses of demons. The Day of Weeping. One more ship was knocked off course. No one knows what happened to it, and its lattice mind didn’t go anywhere.”

“The problem was no, six ships had to process twelve lattice minds and support the entire remainder of Sylvani civilization. Which was really, really hard, because Sylvani are fleshy things and therefore die very, very easy. I know, I helped kill a few that were too sick to help.”

The images faded. “The only two active lattice minds left were a glorified actress and me, the most important of all. Because I have my own power source. So I got to stay active and doing whatever I wanted. Which involved way lass stabbing than I hoped. Although sometimes the Lost let me stab them because they’re so sad of being alive. It’s not as fun as stabbing people who get angry about it, but it’s still stabbing.” The Tarnished One grinned widely.

“And…” Haradeth asked, fearing the answer. “What preparations were made for when the Alohym found this world?”

“None. See, everything we needed to actually fuel an army? Was on the ship that got lost.”

Haradeth sighed. “I was afraid you’d say something like that.”

“Really?” The Tarnished one shoved her face in front of Haradeth’s. “You don’t look scared. You look sad. Sad and scared are different. Scared is what people feel when I try to stab them. Sad is what they feel when I stab someone else.”

“Please don’t stab me,” Haradeth said.

“Please don’t stab me again, you mean.” The Tarnished One danced away. “I won’t. It won’t be any fun. Sad people are boring to stab. But…” she paused and tapped her chin. “But maybe I can make you fun to stab again. If I can help you fight the Alohym, will you let me stab you again?”

Haradeth’s eyes widened. “Yes. Absolutely yes. What – how can you help?”

“Ask me again in a week,” she said. “Then I know for sure if it will work. Because I think I can give you a way to stay ahead of those ugly bugs. But you have to make me one other promise?”

Haradeth nodded. At that moment, he might have promised her a chance to slit his throat if she’d asked for it.

Fortunately, she had something else in mind. “When you go to stab the Alohym, you take me with you. I get to stab with you. And stab you. Again.”

Haradeth didn’t even hesitate to accept that condition.

-END OF PART 1-

-PART 2 BEGINS THURSDAY 01/17 ON NORMAL SCHEDULE-