The Dragon’s Scion Part 108

The entranceway of Grejhak’s lair was littered with the long rotten bones of the dead. They were scattered about with the careless hand of a macabre child’s toys, strewn without any rhyme or reason that Armin could see. He could feel the thrum of necromantic power in the air, like a wire drawn taught and plucked by a foul hand, but none of it seemed to emanate from the bones itself. You’re being absurd, he reminded himself. Without a necromancer present, the bones would remain bones, as inanimate and lifeless as the stones they lay upon.

He still gave them a wide berth and told himself he was doing it to respect the dead. He even almost believed it.

The others were giving the bones the same distant respect that Armin was, as if there was an unspoken agreement that none of them wanted to be the one to disturb whatever horror the bones represented. Claricia’s eyes shone with the light she was holding onto, and she held her hands outstretched, as if ready to unleash a torrent of raw light the moment something even twitched.

Armin approved of that mentality. Guiard and Ossman had their weapons unsheathed, with arclight glowing the blades of both Guiard’s sword and Ossman’s axe. Only Aildreda kept her weapon sheathed, to avoid giving away her position as she scouted ahead. She was a dim shadow at the mouth of the next room and was waving for Armin to come to her position.

“What is it?” Armin asked.

Instead of answering, Aildreda pointed deeper down the tunnel. It took Armin’s eyes a moment to adjust to the gloom. There were vague shadows there, slightly deeper spots against the grey stone. Armin looked a question at Aildreda, who nodded. He held up his hand and formed a globe of light around his fingers.

Five dead bodies sat propped up against the end of the hall. These had not laid here for countless millennia like the ones in that grim foyer. For starters, their flesh was still intact, although flies swarmed around and on them in a nauseating cloud. More importantly, they wore the imperimail of the Alohym foot soldiers. These men had worked for their enemy and had been here recently.

Armin’s black and orange eyes, so like an eclipse, met her emerald green gaze. “Have they moved?” he asked, his voice shaking.

Aildreda shook her head. “Can you feel anything?”

Armin focused on the rays of energy that swirled around him. They had the same sickly taint of death that Armin had been feeling since entering the swamp, like the very power of life and warmth had grown ill. This wasn’t the shadow, which was beyond his ability to touch and even if it hadn’t been, was no fell or foul thing, no was this the repelling power of unlight. This was a more natural phenomena, although it was natural in the same way parasitic wasps were natural.

This is what happened to a lumwell if a slaughter occurred within its dominion. It was twisting the land and air, it was what had turned a forest into a decaying swamp, and it was choking the flows of light with the taint of necromancy. Armin could no more distinguish the source than he could find a candle flame at a hundred yards in a sun-scorched desert. “I can’t tell,” Armin said, although he’d learned one thing.

The flow of corrupt light was stronger here than it was in the entranceway. The only way it could be this much stronger only a dozen feet ahead was if they were directly over the lumwell itself.

He glanced back to Ossman, who had almost caught up with them. His hair had never fully grown back from his early exposure to a lumwell. Armin hated seeing his baldness. Ossman claimed he didn’t mind, but…I should have been strong enough to stop it. “Ossman,” Armin said, stepping away from the rest of the group. “I think we need a rearguard. There are Alohym soldiers in the hall – I want an advance warning if they send more.”

Ossman nodded. “Agreed.” Armin was ready to leap for joy. He was certain this was going to be a fight, but Ossman saw the wisdom and- “Send Aildreda. She has the best eyes and can catch up with us quickest.”

Shadow forsake it. “Actually, I was thinking-”

“Guiard. Also a good call. He can use the Skimmer to escape if he can’t get to us at least, let command know what happened.”

Armin pursed his lips. “Ossman, I wasn’t going to send either of them-”

“Well, you certainly weren’t going to send Claricia, because you need her Lumcasting,” Ossman said, talking over Armin without hesitation. “And I know you weren’t going to send yourself, because you’re in command of this operation. And you definitely aren’t sending me, because if you keep treating me like I am a ceramic doll I’m going to break your flathing neck to prove I’m not fragile, so I’m not sure what you had in mind.”

Armin stared at Ossman, shocked into silence by the fury in his voice.

“Stop blaming yourself, Armin,” Ossman said, his voice low and harsh. “You did what you could to protect me. You didn’t do anything wrong. I’m fine. I only hear things sometimes, and I know damn well you want to send me away because we’re near a lumwell and you’re afraid. I understand that. I know guilt. But you did your best.”

“It wasn’t good enough,” Armin muttered, unable to meet Ossman’s eyes.

Ossman put a hand on Armin’s shoulder. “I stood by you at the collegium revolt. I stood by you in the resistance. I don’t care if your best is good enough, Armin. I only care that you tried. But if you keep treating me like spun glass, you’ll actually manage to offend me. Let me decide what risks I can take. Trust me as much as I trust you.”

Armin noted mutely and turned back to the group. “Let’s go,” he said, taking a step further into the hallway.

The moment he did, the eyes snapped open on the corpses at the end of the hallway, and the rotting husks began to lurch to a shambling semblance of life.

Armin could only stare at them. He’d been so concerned about Ossman, he’d completely forgotten about the danger waiting for them.

Light help me, I’ve damned us all, he thought, fumbling for his arcwand.

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 105

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about horses?” Tellias asked.

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

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

The sound of arccells charging.

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

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

The Dragon’s Scion Part 104

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His eyes widened, and Eliert clenched his teeth.

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

“Kill them,” Eliert hissed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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The Dragon’s Scion Part 103

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there was-”

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

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

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

“The goods, Eliert?” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Dragon’s Scion Part 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 96

“So…” Haradeth swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry. “You’re claiming the Ancient Alohym bred with mortals to create the Little Gods?”

The Tarnished One sighed. “No. No no no no. Do you even listen?” She brandished the dagger at Haradeth. “Maybe I should make your ears bigger so you can hear better.”

“I’d prefer if you didn’t,” Haradeth said, taking a step back.

“Of course you would. You’d be all ‘oh no, why? My ears!? You little psycho, what did you do my ears?’ That’s what everyone says when I stab them in the ears.” The Tarnished One glared at Haradeth. “I don’t understand you fleshy things. What’s a little ear stabbing between friends?”

Haradeth just stared at her.

“Right, the Ancient Alohym bred with mortals. Thus, you got the Little Gods.”

“Wait, I’m confused,” Haradeth said, fighting the urge to clamp his hands over his ears for protection. “I thought you weren’t claiming that?”

“I’m not,” she said, crossing her arms across her chest and glowering. “I don’t claim the sky is blue, I don’t claim water is wet, I don’t claim it would take two hundred stones of pressure to splatter your skull. Those are just facts.” The Tainted One cocked her head in thought. “, since you’re part Alohym, it would take two hundred and twenty-seven stones. I think. I guess that one is a claim.” She glowered at Haradeth harder. “And I know if I ask, you’re going to say “no, I don’t want my skull shattered hard enough to spray my brains across the room.’”

“That’s…true.” Haradeth took another step back and glanced at Lorathor. From the way the Sylvani was grinning, this was expected behavior. “I apologize if I made it sound like that wasn’t a fact. It just…I was under the impression that all of the Little Gods were descended from Arantimah.”

“Arantimah was just the word humans used for Alohym who stayed behind,” the Tainted One said, rolling her eyes. Given her eyes were glass spheres in sockets, it was a rather impressive roll. “That’s like claiming that Eylohir is some kind of dark god as opposed to an appropriation of our ancient foes’ name that was repurposed and degraded into a term systemic corruption to our systems brought about by exposure to Nahrah.

Haradeth glanced at Lorathor for clarification, thinking the Sylvani was less likely to stab him for asking than The Tainted One. “Remember?” Lorathor prompted. “Anortia mentioned Eylohir yesterday. Said it was a name for…wait.” Lorathor’s gaze switched the Tainted One. “It’s a name for what? And exposure to…Nahrah?”

“Oh, Lorathor.” The Tainted One said brightly. “Maybe your ears need stabbing. Eylohir is the term for the corruption to all of the ship’s operational systems. Eylohir was also the name of your gods in ages past, which was later repurposed by the beings you now call Alohym when they decimated your homeworld. It seems that these beings are fond of repurposing gods and presenting themselves as such.”

Haradeth was beginning to feel like he was drowning in new information. “I hear you, oh Tainted One,” Haradeth said carefully, “but I do not understand.”

“It’s a flaw in your brain,” The Tainted One sighed. “I can give you a better brain, but then you’d be all ‘I exist to serve, mistress’ and ‘what is thy bidding, mistress’ and that gets no fun. They don’t even scream when I stab them.”

It was now time for both Haradeth and Lorathor to take steps back in tandem. The Tainted One rolled her eyes again and sat on the floor. “Look. No stabbing. I’d have to stand up to stab you because you’re very tall. I suppose I could stab in you in the shins, but I already stabbed Haradeth once and stabbing Lorathor would just make you leave. Now. Shut up and let me explain.”

A beam of light erupted from the box floating in the center of the room. It crystalized into a globe, an image of the world. Haradeth gasped at the sight.

“This is your world. Most worlds in the cosmos are made of rock and metals – except for gaseous worlds, but those would blow your mind even further, so we won’t talk about them.” She waved her hand, and the image changed. It now showed the world cut in half. It appeared to be layers and layers of rock, over a central chamber nearly big enough to house a second world. “Some time before we arrived on your world, the Ancient Alohym fought a battle with some threat, an immensely powerful being. The Ancient Alohym won, but in the process, this powerful being drank all your molten stuff in the center of your world.”

The Tainted one made a slurping noise to demonstrate, then raised a finger and pointed at the globe. “This is what should have happened.”

Before Haradeth’s eyes, the image of the world collapsed under its own weight, shards of rock shooting outwards. He felt the need to swallow again.

“As awesome as a world collapsing would have been, the Ancient Alohym weren’t okay with that. So instead, they turned their bodies into Nahrah and plunged themselves into the world.” A sudden sphere of light appeared in the center of the hollowed-out globe. “In a few places, the pressure of Nahrah was so great, it pushed through all that rock and poked out of the ground. These are what you call…”

“…Lumwells,” Haradeth finished for her, realization dawning on him. “Nahrah is light.”

“Yay you can think. That’s good. Means I don’t need to fix your brain.” the Tainted One grinned widely at him. “Yes. Your people came to call it light. With a sun above and the world being full of light, it’s no wonder you all worshipped the abstract concepts of Light and Shadow so hard that you attracted their personifications.”

“Wait,” Haradeth started to say, but was cut out by a dagger being pressed to his throat. He hadn’t even seen her move. She was holding herself off the ground on two of her hand tails, and a third one had wrapped around Haradeth’s waist, holding him close to her.

“No. I’m not explaining that. It’ll take too long. Whimper if you understand.” Her voice was a low, rasping sound.

Haradeth couldn’t have stopped himself from whimpering if he wanted to.

The Tainted One grinned and carefully pressed her metal lips to his forehead in something akin to a kiss before bouncing off. “Now, as I was saying,” she said. “The light in the center of the world is the result of an ancient ritual the Ancient Alohym performed to keep your world aloft, by constantly healing and replenishing it. Which is why it mutates life so badly. A few remaining mated with mortals to ensure their bloodlines survived, and those created the Little Gods. Are you following me so far?”

Haradeth and Lorathor nodded. The Tainted One smiled.

“Good. Because this next part is where things start getting really interesting.” The image of the world sealed itself and was again whole. A second world appeared, one with purple lands and red oceans. “Because this is the part where I come in. And I suppose the Sylvani and the beings like Anitoria, but really, it’s the part where I come in, and that’s what matters. Sit down, fleshy friends. We’ve got a bit more story to tell.”

His heart still pounding from the knife to his neck, Haradeth did exactly that.

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 95

It was only a few minutes after their first encounter with the Lost that Haradeth and Lorathor reached where the Tarnished One dwelled. Along the walk they’d encountered a few other of the Lost. One had simply sat with his multiple arms wrapped around himself, muttering Ancient Alohym. Another had seen them and started screaming, a scream that didn’t stop until they were out of sight. So it had gone, every encounter with the Lost something that left Haradeth wanting to weep for what happened to these people. This isn’t right.

That much, Haradeth was certain of. Whatever the natural life cycle of the Sylvani was supposed to be, it wasn’t supposed to end in madness and screams. Every one of the individuals they’d encountered – even the first one, although Haradeth had been too distracted to notice at the time – had a sickness to their aura, like an animal that had been infected with frothmouth. I wish my mother was here. She’d been able to cure even that rabid illness with a brush of her fingers. Haradeth did not yet have any talent for the healing arts, unless they were caused by parasites. Then he could command the creatures to leave the body. Beyond that…beyond that, he could do nothing for these people.

Whatever else happened, Haradeth resolved to drag his mother back here as soon as she was recovered. If she recovers a traitorous thought rose in his mind, one he squashed as quickly as he could.

Instead, he focused on the Tarnished One’s dwelling. It was built out of pieces of the dome city, torn from walls and floors and assembled into its own, smaller, dome that was a ramshackle imitation of the splendor above. A few buzzing things floated in the air around it, shining tiny spotlights. Each one was as large as Haradeth’s fingers and no more alive than the dome itself.

For that matter, he could sense no life coming from the dome. Whatever the Tarnished One was, she wasn’t alive.

Lorathor approached the door and reached into his pouch, pulling out a dagger. “O Tarnished One, She Who Guards the Tomb, Keeper of our Twilight. I bring you a gift from Outside, a gift of Iron wrought by the hands of Men.”

An apparatus folded out of the top of the dome, a multisegmented arm made of the Sylvani’s green flowing metal. At the end of the apparatus was a glass eye, like the ones built into spy glasses. Slips of metal around the edge of the apparatus dilated as it focused on the dagger, then it retreated into the dome.

“Did she-” Haradeth started to say after thirty seconds of waiting, but Lorathor shook his head.

“Just wait. It can take a bit.”

It was at least a full minute that felt like ten before a hole in the side of the dome creaked open. A brilliant light shone from those depths. A lumwell, Haradeth realized with a start. Lorathor motioned for him to enter.

The interior of the dome was easily a dozen sizes larger than the Exterior. It made Haradeth’s head hurt to look at. What he had taken for a lumwell was actually something different, a box of steel with dozens of glass lenses on it that floated in the center of the room, spinning erratically. The rest of the room was full of an assortment of knick-knacks, random scraps from the world outside. Haradeth saw a child’s doll, a treatise on the Golmiran Federation, and a shield that was dented beyond use.

Then the Tarnished One stepped from behind the box of light. “Oh! Hello!” she said, her voice bright and chipper and undeniably mechanical. The Tarnished One was a mass of woven tendrils of what looked like solid gold that had dark spots of tarnish. Haradeth assumed that’s where she got her name. She was shaped broadly like the small monkeys that dwelled in the jungle to the south, although in place of a prehensile tail she had three additional arms, each one nearly twice as long as she was. Most surprising to Haradeth was her size – she was small, barely coming up to Haradeth’s waist. “Lorathor! You brought a friend. And a present. I like your present. I’ve never seen a stabby-slicey with that shape before.”

Stabby-slicey? Haradeth thought as Lorathor presented the dagger. The Tarnished One took it and made a gentle cooing sound as she cradled it like a newborn. “I’m going to call it Murderface.”

“Why that name, O Tarnished one?” Lorathor asked.

“Because it’s been used to murder someone. In the face.” Her mechanical lips spread in a wide grin. “Can I stab you in the face?” she asked, her tone one of a child asking if she could have an extra helping of sweets.

“I would prefer if you didn’t, Tarnished One.”

“Bah,” she said, crossing her arms across. “No one ever lets me stab them.” She turned those glass eyes on Haradeth. “How about you? Can I stab you?”

Haradeth frowned. “What about a tiny stab, on the tip of my finger?” He extended the digit towards her.

Lorathor gasped in horror as The Tarnished One squealed with glee and thrust the dagger towards Haradeth’s outstretched hand. For a moment he thought he’d made a grave mistake, and that she was about to split his finger in two. Inches from his finger, the strike slowed down, until it pricked the tip and drew a tiny bead of blood. “Huzzah!” she cheered, bouncing up and down. “I got to stab someone!” She repeated the chant in a singsong voice a few times, before putting the tip of the dagger in her mouth. “Ooooh, your blood is tasty. This is a special blend. You’re three fourths mortal-and one quarter Alohym.”

Haradeth’s blood ran cold. “I’m…I’m not a quarter Alohym.”

“Well, of course not,” she said, giving him a conspiratorial wink. Haradeth sighed with relief, before she continued. “Genetics are never that precise. You’re technically nineteen percent Alohym.”

“That’s impossible!” Haradeth fought the urge to shout, but his voice came out sharp and hard. “I was born before the Alohym invaded.”

“No, silly.” The Tarnished One giggled, holding a hand to her mouth. “Not those imposters. They’re not real Alohym. Real Alohym were awesome. Which makes you nineteen percent awesome. That’s a better percent than most people.”

Haradeth stared at her. “You mean…my mother was half Ancient Alohym?”

The Tarnished One giggled again. “Of course, stabby man. Man who got stabbed. I stabbed you.” She grinned up at him. “I mean, where do you think your Little Gods come from?”

Haradeth gaped at her. Less than three minutes into the conversation with this murderous child made of gold and glass, and he’d already learned something about the way the universe worked. Something he’d never imagined.

For the first time since being rejected by Anoritia, Haradeth began to feel something akin to hope.