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.

 

The Dragon’s Scion part 91

“Sounds like you two are having fun,” Eupheme said as she walked out of the cave where they’d made camp for the night.

“For once, I am,” Tythel replied honestly, throwing the last stone at the river. It splashed with a resounding thunk, not even skipping a second.. “Even though I am terrible at skipping stones.”

“The score is thirty-seven to zero,” Tellias said.

“I still think hitting the wall on the other side of the canyon should be worth something,” Tythel muttered, turning her attention to Eupheme. “How’s your arm?”

Eupheme held it up. The improvised splint was now wrapped in a dark cloth that seemed to absorb the sunlight. It’s not cloth, Tythel realized with a start. It’s darkness. “This should give me some use of it,” Eupheme explained. “Though I have to be careful for a bit or I’ll hurt it worse.”

“I didn’t think the shadow could heal,” Tellias said, sounding as impressed as Tythel felt.

Eupheme smirked. “You thought right. Healing is the domain of Lumcasters. For us Umbrists, we can bind, and we can remove the pain. That’s why I have to be careful – I won’t realize I’m hurting it.”

“That still sounds like…well, I’ll be honest Eupheme, I can think of a few times I would have liked to just have the pain stop,” Tythel said, trying her best not to sound cross, but remembering being impaled on the sword. Or the burning in her throat. Or cracking her ribs. Or losing her eye. How am I not dead? Tythel wondered as she stopped the tally of injuries before it became truly depressing.

“I can’t maintain it on someone else,” Eupheme said with an apologetic shrug. “Not without special materials. If we can get a Priestess of the Shadow to infuse silk, I can work with that. Otherwise, I’m limited to using it personally, and I need it to be night, and I need an hour.” She flashed them a grin. “On the positive side, there’s absolutely no risk of it turning me into a mutant.”

“It’s definitely better than light in that way,” Tythel agreed.

“Which reminds me,” Tellias said. Tythel had to fully move her head to see him, since he was standing on her blindside. “Have you considered using the light to regrow your eye?”

“No,” Tythel said, unable to keep the bitter note out of her voice. “I was too close to a lumwell for too long. If I attempted to use light to regrow, the risk of mutation…it’s too high, I absorbed too much. It’ll eventually be safe, but by then the eye will be fully healed. From what Armin explained, the healed spot will be my new ‘default’ state.”

Tellias winced. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to-”

Tythel shook her head and forced herself to smile. From Tellias’ reaction, it looked more like a grimace, and Tythel stopped before she disturbed him with her expression. “It’s alright. I had a great time this morning, I’m not going to let this ruin it.”

Tellias flashed her a smile of his own.

“I heard from Armin,” Eupheme said. “He said that Duke d’Monchy wants us to meet him at the rendezvous point. No help’s coming for us, we’re too spread out. Armin and a few others are going to hunt down the lead you gave, your highness. He’s also cutting off songs for the next week. We don’t want to risk the Alohym overhearing.”

“Wait, what?” Tythel asked, feeling her blood run cold. “Armin is leading an expedition into the wastes of Dor’nah?”

Tellias frowned at Tythel. “It was your suggestion,” he said hesitantly.

“I expected to be going when I made the suggestion!” Tythel was shouting, but she couldn’t help herself. “It’s…flath it, that place is overrun with creations of draconic necromancy. Grejhak reigned there for nearly a millennia and had all that time to permeate the land with his power. There’s no way to know what’s waiting for them in there. All for what, the possibility of treasure? I said it was only possible! I didn’t even get to find the maps, or write what I knew!”

“There’s no way to be sure there’s not a hoard there,” Tellias said, his tone as placating as possible. He looked more startled than anything else. Of course he is, Tythel thought, her nictitating membranes blinking in rapid anger. He doesn’t know you gave the suggestion just to keep their hands away from Karjon’s hoard.

“Sing back to him,” Tythel said to Eupheme, ignoring Tellias. “Tell him to call it off. Tell him to-”

Eupheme cut her off with quick, hard gesture before Tythel could go any further. “He cut off all songs. There’s no way to get messages right now. And before you say it, we’ll never catch up to them in time.”

Tythel took a deep breath to steady her anger. “There’s nothing you can do?”

Eupheme shook her head. “I’m sorry, your highness.”

Tythel sighed. “Damnit. And on top of that, we can’t even go to the rendezvous.”

“What?” Tellias and Eupheme asked in near perfect unison.

“Remember that flying Alohym from the fight?”

Tellias grimaced. “How can I forget?”

“Well,” Tythel said, “I could hear it during the fight, as high up as it was. It was coming after me. It called me a monster. It said I wouldn’t escape. Called me a mongrel fahik. Which, incidentally, I’ve never heard before. Do either of you know what it means?”

Tellias coughed and looked down awkwardly. “It’s a portmanteau of fahid and phik, two words in the Alohym’s tongue. Fahid means flesh or meat. Phik means pit or hole. Put together, they’re an insult specifically geared towards women.”

Tythel cocked her head. “How is that an insult? ‘Meat-hole?’ I don’t understand how that could be used as an insult.”

Tellias looked at Eupheme, who gave him a smile. “Yes, please, Baron Tellias, explain to the princess how meat-hole could be an insult to a woman.”

“Well,” Tellias said with another cough. “It, erm, is used to imply a woman is…liberal. With her favors.”

Tythel cocked her head to the other side. “I don’t understand…Oh, wait! I understand.” Then her eyes widened as she properly comprehended it. “Nevermind, moving back to the original topic, let us never discuss this again.”

“No promises,” Eupheme muttered.

“Anyway,” Tythel said, dragging the word out to give herself time to recover from the embarrassment. “The point is that it…it was personally interested in killing me. I think it’s going to keep trying to find me. If we lead it back to the resistance, I don’t think they could shoot it out of the sky. I think we need to lure it away.”

Tythel took a deep breath. “And I think I know exactly where we can lead it. Where we might have a chance to beat it.”

“Where?” Tellias asked.

“We need to lure it back to my father’s valley,” Tythel said, wishing she had another answer – any other answer – to that question.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 88

“Duke d’Monchy,” Armin said, as firmly as he dared to a member of the nobility. “I understand the urgency to leave this tunnel. However, we’ve heard from Eupheme. There’s an aeromane out there.”

Armin folded his arms to hide the way his hands clenched in frustration. Breaching the plateau had happened just a few minutes before Eupheme’s song came through. Armin and his fellow lumcasters found themselves trying to hold an entire army from trying to pour out into the fresh air. To make matters worse, Armin wanted to do exactly that. He’d been starting to fear that they’d remained trapped under here forever, slowly dying of asphyxiation, never realizing they had miscalculated and were just tunneling deeper into the earth.

“You think a beast is going to attack an army?” The Duke asked incredulously. “Surely you jest, Master Armin.”

“I wish I was. I’ve studied the creatures, m’lord. Aeromanes have, throughout history, risked attacks on armies. They can get out of bow range quickly enough after grabbing prey.”

“We don’t rely on bows anymore,” Dutchess d’Monchy was less dismissive than her husband, but no less insistent. “Surely arcwands could slay the beast if bows once worked.”

“They absolutely could, you ladyship,” Genevia interjected, putting the stately grace that had come with age behind her words. She fixed the Dutchess with her three eyed gaze, and Armin wanted to cheer in thanks. Genevia’s gaze was unnerving as the blackest reaches of the Shadow, but when it was employed against someone else Armin appreciated it. “What’s less certain is, in the dark, we’ll be able to slay it before it manages to kill any of our men.”

The Duke and Dutchess shared a look, and Duke d’Monchy sighed. “Very well. What word, then? Is the princess alright? And the others?”

Armin nodded. “They are well, m’lord. They are also thirty leagues from here. It might be wisest to meet them at the rendezvous.”

“Impossible,” the Duke said with a scowl. “Tellias in that arcplate could cover that distance in a single day. How did the princess and her umbrist keep pace?”

“By riding some new Alohym creation,” Armin said grimly. “They’re called Skimmers. They can fly faster than the Alohym’s vessels. Shorter range, most likely, but they’re smaller and more agile and…”

“And the perfect flathing scouts,” Lord Devos spat the words. “Where did the Alohym get the flathing things?”

“From a distant star,” a voice said.

Everyone turned to look at the speaker. Ossman. Armin winced at his voice. Ever since the incident at the mage tower, Ossman had been…different. Prone to unusual outbursts like that. He was normal the overwhelming majority of the time, and then would say something like that. “What do you mean?” Adenot asked, his voice gentle. Armin resisted the urge to shoot the other Llumcaster a glare. Adenot meant well, Armin was sure, but ever since learning what had happened to Ossman, Adenot had treated him more like an experiment than a person.

Ossman frowned in thought, and shrugged sheepishly. A red flush began to creep up his neck. “I don’t know. Just an idle thought, I guess?”

Adenot took out a piece of parchment and began to scribble on it, nodding to himself as he did. Armin wanted to go over, give Ossman some words of reassurance, but what could he say? “I know the light addled your mind, but it’s okay, you’re giving my colleagues some very useful data?”

Somehow, Armin doubted that would do much to make Ossman feel any better.

“Lord Devos raises an excellent point,” the Duke said, mercifully pulling attention off Ossman. “These things…how do we handle scouts that fly that quickly?”

“There is good news there, m’lord,” Armin said, glad to keep the conversation off of Ossman. “Though they fly like ships, Eupheme confirmed they can be felled like animals. If we see them, I suggest our best course of action is to fire every arcwand we have to bring them down before they can report back to their masters. She said they didn’t have any songstones that she could see, so they’d have to report in person.”

“That’s something at least. How long do we have to wait here, Master Armin?”

I shouldn’t be in charge! Armin wanted to shout. I didn’t even finish my apprenticeship! Genevia is eldest. Or Adenot. Flath it, even Clarcia is more equipped to lead a group of Lumcasters. I’m an ambulatory power source, I’m useless. Stop treating me like I’m in charge. “Until dawn, m’lord,” Armin said out loud. “With sunlight, we’ll be able to see it coming – if it’s still even in the are.”

The Duke nodded and turned to leave, the Dutchess and Lord Devos following. Of the noble council, only Lady Von Bagget, who had been silent up until then, remained.

“What of Tellias?” she asked Armin, her voice low and urgent. “Is he well?”

Armin nodded. “His Arcplate ran out of light. It was one of the first pieces I converted, and I hadn’t gotten a chance to fix the leakage problem.” It took Armin a moment to remember the relation. Tellias was Lady Von Bagget’s second cousin on her mother’s side. She’d been the one to vouch for his allegiance.

The tension in her shoulders faded. “And he’s with the Princess?” she asked. This question was still urgent, but not as fearful.

Being treated like a full Lumcaster had its privileges. Technically all full Lumcasters were minor nobility, although their titles could not be inherited. Still, it meant nobles spoke more freely around him now. In those contexts, Lady Von Bagget had made no bones about her intention to see her cousin the next Prince Consort. Tythel being stranded with that pompous git would only be good for Lady Von Bagget’s plans. “Yes,” Armin answered honestly, fighting a scowl at the calculating smile on Von Bagget’s face. There will have to be a Prince Consort. Tythel will need an heir.

It still rankled him to see Lady Von Bagget so eager.

She left after getting her answers, tapping her chin in thought. Armin rolled his eyes at her back.

“You look like you just swallowed a whole vase of rotflies,” Ossman said quietly.

Armin didn’t bother hiding the grimace this time. “Genevia, would you mind helping Adenot check himself for any new mutations? I know he’s eager to find out if he finally got one, and I think a professional eye would be useful.”

If getting commands from a Lumcaster that had never graduated bothered either Genevia or Adenot, it didn’t show. Armin secretly suspected they wanted command as much as he did. The other two Lumcasters left, leaving Ossman and Armin relatively alone. “It showed that much?” Armin asked.

“A blind Underfolk could see it at noon,” Ossman said with a grin.

“Tythel’s not a pawn in someone’s marriage game,” Armin groused. “We should at least see if we’re going to win and reclaim the kingdom before we start picking out a husband for her. And she should get some say in it.”

Ossman chuckled. “Armin. Do you honestly believe anyone on Alith could force Tythel into a marriage she didn’t wish for?” He emphasized her name, to show exactly how absurd he found the concept.

“No, I just…flath it. It bothers me.”

Ossman’s grin only widened. “Of course it does. I’m surprised it took this long for you admit it does.”

Armin frowned. “What do you mean by that?”

Ossman gave him a look of wide-eye incredulity and sighed. “Nevermind. Just don’t forget that Tythel has the lineage of an entire kingdom to think about – and with how much she knows about history, she probably understands that better than we do.” Ossman stood up, brushing off his pants. “I’m going to see if Lord Devos needs my help.”

Armin watched the larger man go, wishing he could understand what that meant.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 86

The sky above the canyon was growing red and orange with dusk when Tythel heard it. A long, warbling wail cut through the air and echoed along the canyon’s walls. All other animal sounds fell silent in the wake of the noise, and Tythel came to an abrupt halt, diving under a tree. “What-” Eupheme started to say, but Tythel shushed her with a furious hiss.

It was even darker under the tree, to the point where it felt like night beneath its branches. Small insects flew nearby, flashing with momentary bursts of green light to signal for mates. Hands trembling with fear, Tythel lowered Eupheme to the air as gently as she could manage. The entire time she strained her ears, hoping she wouldn’t hear it, that the source of the sound was moving further down the canyon. Maybe even pursuing the Skimmers. Anything but…

And then she heard it, in the distance but growing closer. The gentle rustle of flapping wings. “Aeromane,” Tythel whispered to Eupheme. “If it sees us…”

Eupheme’s eyes widened and she nodded to show she understood. Aeromanes were rare. They tended to prefer the same types of lairs and territories as dragons, but were out competed by the superior intelligence dragons possessed. Or at least, they had been, Tythel thought with grim realization. If it was true, if Karjon had been the last full dragon, there were no more checks on their territory. “Stay to shadows. Flit between them. If it can’t pick up your scent, it won’t hunt you,” Tythel whispered.

Aeromanes weren’t like dragons in another way. They were voracious eaters, and would hunt any game large enough to feed them in their territory. In these canyons, there was unlikely to be easier prey than a human, let alone one with a broken wrist. I have to get her away from it.

“Flath that,” Eupheme whispered back. “If I do that, what are you going to do?”

“Dragonflame. It should scare it off.” Tythel said, hoping Eupheme wouldn’t realize that she wasn’t sure she could manage dragon flame at all right now. And even if it did, the aeromane that was in Karjon’s territory was hardly scared off by dragonflame. Tythel could still see it, that hungry, frightened, furious creature clawing at her as she scooted further back into the lair, it’s claws mere inches from…

“Then it’ll be safest near you,” Eupheme said firmly.

“I need to get to Tellias,” Tythel said. “It’ll be easier to remain hidden if I’m alone.”

“You think I’ll reveal you?” Tythel had never imagined someone could whisper scornfully, but Eupheme proved it was completely possible.

“Eupheme,” Tythel started to object, but the other woman cut her off with a firm shake of her head.

“There’s no pile of boulders to shove me behind this time, your highness.” Eupheme glowered. “I’m staying with you.”

Tythel opened her mouth to object, but shame took the words from her lips. “I thought princesses had some ability to give orders,” Tythel muttered, knowing how sullen she sounded.

“You can absolutely give orders. And I can choose to ignore them. Any idea where Tellias is?”

Tythel paused to listen. The were no sounds coming to her besides the gentle rushing of the river and the wind through the trees. All animals, the ones supposedly less intelligent than humans and dragons at least, had fallen silent at the sound of the aeromane’s cry. She was about to shake her head when she heard it. Faint, coming much futher down the canyon, a voice, echoing in a metallic shell. “Anyone? I can’t exactly move without power. Is anyone there?”

“Oh light and shadow,” Tythel whispered, turning to Eupheme. “He ran out of power. He’s trapped in his armor.”

“He’ll be safe from the aeromane, right?” Eupheme whispered hopefully.

“I’ve seen an aeromane claw through a boulder,” Tythel responded. “I don’t think that-”

Tythel had pushed her throat too hard. Before she even realized how scratchy her voice was growing, Tythel erupted into a series of coughs. In the silence of the canyon, they echoed repeatedly, sharp rapports that cut through the air. Eupheme looked at Tythel with horrified eyes.

Both of them there sat there in silence, Tythel silently begging Light, Shadow, and all the small gods to keep the aeromane from noticing them. After what felt like hours but was likely only a couple minutes, Tythel let out a sigh of relief.

As if it had been waiting for that, the aeromane roared, and the rushing of its wings resumed, growing closer with every flap.

“On my back,” Tythel growled, all pretense of steath vanishing. “Hurry.”

Eupheme didn’t object, clamoring on Tythel’s back as carefully as she could. Eupheme wrapped her injured arm around Tythel’s neck to hold herself in place, using the crook of her elbow to keep weight off her broken wrist. As Tythel started to run, Eupheme used her good hand to pull out her arcwand. “Can you actually manage dragonflame right now?” Eupheme asked as they started to run.

Tythel let the silence answer Eupheme’s question. It got the message across well enough, and Eupheme swore.

Moments later, the aeromane flapped into view.

The one Tythel had seen as a child was half starved and distorted by the nightmares of youth. This one was well fed, and Tythel was able to get a better look at it.

The aeromane was, technically, a relative of the great cats that roamed the jungles of Aelthor to the south, in the same way a dragon was, technically, a relative of the small drakes that hunted birds in the trees, or mankind was related to the curious monkeys that would steal berries from bazaars. Almost as large as a true dragon, the aeromane had four bat-like wings propelling it through the air, replacing all four of its legs. It could still walk awkwardly on them, but in the air it was a thing of grace and beauty. It was slower than a dragon, although far more manuverable, and as it was proving right now, it was more than fast enough to catch up to a half-dragon running with an Umbrist on her back.

Eupheme fired a few wild shots at the aeromane, but it was able to maneuver around the beams with the same ease Tythel had once seen it evade dragonflame. It let out another one of those caterwauling roars and began to steer itself towards them with lazy flaps of those immense wings.

Tythel rounded a corner just in time to see Tellias laying there, face down in his powerless arcplate. Too far away to reach, and too badly trapped to be helped even if they could reach him. The aeromane was too close, and too hungry.

With a final roar, it dove from them.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 84

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Axburg was not large enough to have a proper library. What it did have, however, was nobility. Poz made his way through the streets to the manor of Baron Xayant. He drew some stares as he did, stares of a different flavor than the ones he’d garnered the night before. Last night he had been a symbol of the towns turned fortunes, a wretched creature. Humans knew little of the Depths, and likely believed by now that most of the Underfolk were like Poz had been, reduced to eating naught but bats and bugs. He had been a symbol of what they saw as the fate of the Underfolk they had once relied upon.

Now, striding through the streets with the regal bearing offered by crowflesh, he was getting a mixture of hope and resentment. He understood both – hope that he meant the return of the Underfolk, and resentment at wondering where they had been for the last sixteen years. You should turn that latter look to your new gods, he thought. We did not flee from you.

At least, Poz assumed. He had to admit to himself that he knew little of what had driven the Underfolk to forsake the sun completely. A mystery for another day. Poz reminded himself.

Ahead of him loomed the Baron’s manor. It had once been a majestic building, a four storied structure with the sloped roofs of the Zhomin dynasty. Poz remembered seeing it during the first days of exile, when his mind still burned with the intelligence granted by his crime. Back then, the walls had been painted in brilliant white inlaid with gold wires that glowed like the sun the humans loved so much.

Now, those white walls were peeling to show the wood beneath. The gold was tarnished, and did not shine at all. You’d think the Alohym would want to maintain the fiction the nobles still held power. Perhaps it was a sign of their displeasure. Rumor was that Xayant’s eldest son had fled to join the Resistance under the Dragon Princess. Poz wasn’t sure how well founded those rumors were. Every time someone went missing, they were said to have joined the Resistance.

To his mind, it was more likely that the majority of them had disappeared into the bowels of some Alohym dungeon.

A guard held up a hand as Poz approached. “State your…”

The final word died on his lip as he looked up and saw Poz standing there, his skin as black as a crow’s feathers. Crowflesh offered narrower eyes than what Poz was forced to rely upon before, closer to the size of the humans of this region, and his massive ears had shrunk down to the long tufts of feathers. Humans often found Crowflesh intimidating, which had always amused him. This guard could likely beat him to death with minimal effort, but fear would keep him from doing so.

“My apologies,” the guard said, recovering from his shock. He touched his fingers to his forehead, a gesture of respect humans had adopted from the Underfolk. When he spoke next, he did so in Poz’s language. Human tongues never could quite form all the sounds, but Poz appreciated the gesture. “I am Calop, watcher of grass. My debt owner will pray to you to bless us with knowledge of why you are.”

“Thank you, Calop,” Poz said, after figuring out the guard had meant I am Calop, guardian of these grounds. My master will wish to know more of the reason for your visit. “We can continue in your language if you wish.”

“Thank you,” Calop said with an appreciative nod.

“You’re most welcome. I know how hard our language is on your throats. And I’m here because I wish to access your master’s book stores.”

Calop nodded and knocked on the guardhouse behind him. “I’m certain he will be happy to allow you to pursue them at your leisure. It’s been some time since your kind walked these lands.”

“Far too long,” Poz agreed.

A few minutes later, Calop was leading Poz through the manor, apologizing profusely that Xayant was unavailable to meet him. Poz assured the man that it was no concern, although his mind turned furiously over the possible causes. Were there Alohym representatives here? That would be the worst possible scenario. Forgotten Gods, I know by breaking your Laws I will never be welcome into the Darkness. But if my work before earned me any remaining credit, I would beg of you; let that not be the case.

Of course, praying at all was blasphemy for Poz. He was damned. Which, as far as Poz could reason, meant there was no risk to further blasphemy. No Forgotten Priests walked the surface to punish him further, and the Forgotten Gods could not double-damn him. In a way, breaking the final restriction and eating crowflesh had liberated Poz. Now he was free from any restrictions of his faith, since he could not be damned further. He could even…no. Not that again. You went too far.

Being so close to the Wilds meant the Barony of Axburg was very concerned with the habits of the creatures that lurked beyond its borders. The next few hours Poz sent in silence, save for when a servant brought him more crow, reading on dragons. The crow was fresh and had been cooked with ginger, which Poz had relished in eating. It was never the same pickled.

The golden egg, it seemed, was left behind by any dragon when it died. Its exact purpose was one of eternal debate by human scholars. Some believed that it was how dragons reproduced, although since other texts referred to it being passed on to a dragon’s children, Poz thought that one unlikely. Others believed it was not truly an egg, in spite of its shape, but rather the actual embodiment of the dragon’s heart. Poz found a reference to a particular scholar, Ghrolid the Mad, who believed that the golden egg allowed the dragon to be reborn. Given that he had earned the appellation “the Mad,” Poz found that theory unlikely. There was a theory by Karlina dav’Ohlim that the egg could be used by dragons to create an elixir of immortality.

Poz rubbed his temples in thought. There was no agreement, no consensus. What was agreed upon was that dragons would protect golden eggs with brutal efficiency. Karlina and Ghrolid agreed that the Immolation Wars had been started when the Black Emperor had obtained a Golden Egg. If dragons had not been near-extinct, Poz would have had an entire flight of young dragons descending upon him days ago.

Now there was only one dragon, a half-human. I don’t believe she’ll not seek me out, Poz thought, feeling some of the despondence that had weighed on him when he’d been relying upon Grubflesh. It was bad enough that the Alohym hunted him with some strange half-man, half-Alohym monstrosity. He’d also have to contend with a dragon’s wrath.

No answers. Only more questions. Poz resolved to stay in the library until the master of this manor would see him. He didn’t need the knowledge stored in dusty tomes to resolve his current predicament.

Right now, what he needed what was happening now. Because as troublesome as the egg was, Poz was beginning to a path to salvation from it. Two possible ones, in fact. One involved giving it to the right people as it was now. The other, however, was far riskier. If it hatches…

Eating Manflesh, even if it had been freely gifted to him, had earned Poz exile from his home. It had also given him unrivaled intelligence for a time, a mind so sharp he could now barely understand his own discoveries during that time.

What would he gain from a creature born of a dragon’s heart? And even if it was freely given, could I ever forgive myself for taking it?

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The Dragon’s Scion Part 83

Poz didn’t know how long he had been running. It had been many, many nights, sleeping during the days, only sometimes he couldn’t. Sometimes he didn’t dare. Every time he stopped for too long, it seemed, the Hunter was back. Always back, always there, always one step behind Poz. Iffin’ I be doing run, I be getting tired. Iffin’ I be doing a sleep, I be getting caught.

It was an impossible situation, as far as Poz could reckon. But Poz couldn’t reckon far. The limitations he had…No. They be doing a forbid. Poz eat bug. That is a law. Poz has to be doing a stay like this.

Would the Mothers have wanted him to die at the hands of an Alohym? They hadn’t even known of the Alohym when he’d been given the decree. Surely they couldn’t have meant for him to die, stupid and unable to figure out how to survive.

It was dealing with this conundrum that Poz found his way into Axburg. It was a large town that had been at the edge of the kingdom and the wild in the days before the Alohym, and was now at the edge of the Alohym dominion and the wild. The people in Axburg had traded with Poz’s people in the days before the Alohym. When the skies had opened up, the Underfolk had gone beneath the dirt, beneath the stone, to their homes deep within Aelith.

All of them except Poz, who had been exiled to the light-blinded world.

Without trade with the Underfolk, Axburg had begun to wither and rot. There was no more great works from the Underfolk to trade with other humans, no more fine art to sell to Sylvani merchants, no more gold flowing into their coffers. There was a small garrison of Alohym soldiers stationed here, to keep an eye out for anything that might come from the wilds and ensure that spirit of rebellion never took root in the town, but they needed have bothered with the second. Axburg had no spirit left to speak of.

At least they were used to the Underfolk. Poz had gotten some curious looks as he crept into town, but the guards had seen Underfolk like Poz, knew what he was, why he was slow. They challenged him to state his business, and accepted that Poz was just passing through. Even as slow as Poz was, he’d noted the disappointment on their faces. I be doing sorry, humans. I not be doing business. The people, they still be doing hide. Iffin’ they come back, they won’t send a wretch like Poz.

In that spirit, Poz crawled his way to the one Inn that remained open in Axburg, the Goblin’s Gullet. “Ah!” The Innkeeper said, brightening up as Poz entered. “It’s been awhile since we’ve seen one of you lot around. Welcome!”

“Doing a welcome to you, Innsman. Name is Poz. You?”

“Grekor.” The man frowned at Poz. “You…what have you been eating?”

Poz grimaced. Even this man, this Grekor, could tell Poz’s shame. “Doing an eating of bug, Innsman. Nothing but bug and bat and grub for Poz.”

“Oh you poor man,” The Innkeeper said, looking at Poz with eyes that seemed kindly. The man had a face of white whiskers, which Poz thought meant advanced age for a human, but wasn’t sure. “It’s been a long time, but I think I have some pickled crow in the basement still.”

Poz hesitated. It had been so long since he’d tasted crow. So long. But to have crow would be to break the edict. It would be a crime he had sworn never to commit. It would be…

It would be doing you a salvation, Poz thought to himself.

“No coin,” Poz said warily.

The Innkeeper nodded. “I remember the old laws. Will you pay by craft or service?”

“Craft” Poz said, after a long pause. It was another thing he had been forbidden to do, but if he was breaking one law, he didn’t see a reason not to break others as well.

The Innkeeper nodded and helped Poz into a chair. It hurt his back, being slumped in a chair like this. The lights hurt his eyes. But he waited, and prayed to the Forgotten Gods that his sins would be forgiven.

The Innkeeper came up, and with him was a jar that contained a whole bird, feathers plucked. Poz wanted to weep at the sight. Without hesitation, the Innkeeper set it down in front of Poz, as well as key. “The lower rooms are open. You can stay as long as you like.”

Poz nodded his thanks, and shoved the crow into his mouth with a single bite, crunching bones and flesh in his jaws. Then he crawled across the floor the basement, where the rooms for his people were. Tomorrow. Tomorrow I’ll be doing a think. Poz crawled into the sleeping pit, and in moments, he was asleep.

When dusk came again, Poz crawled out of the cocoon that had formed around him in his sleep and stretched, cracking his neck. His mind felt like it was on fire, thoughts racing a thousand times faster than they had the day before. He was able to stand up straight for the first time in years. His skin had gone from mottled green and grey to a beautiful, shining black. Forgotten Gods, it’s been miserable the past…twenty years? Was I that wretch for twenty years? Poz’s eyes were handling the light better, too. One of the many advantages to crowflesh.

Don’t forget the downsides, he reminded himself. Hollow bones break easily, and you’re still being hunted.

He sat on the room’s lone chair to think. Whatever had been chasing him wouldn’t give up so easily. Poz was still in territory firmly under the Alohym’s control, and in his stupidity he’d crawled to a city famous for being friendly to Underfolk – the first place his pursuer would look. Whatever it is.

Finding Nicandros was still the best option. He was sure of that. Nicandros had resistance contacts. Nicandros had allies.

All over a damn egg, Poz thought, pulling out the offending object. Although crowflesh made him smarter, it didn’t give him any knowledge. He knew no more about this egg than he had when he’d been that wretched thing.

Unlike before, however, he could learn. There were books in Axburg.

He wouldn’t be staying long. It would be dangerous. But before he would left, Poz would know exactly he had stolen from the Dragon Tythel.

And how he could best use it.

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 82

Tythel felt Eupheme’s weight vanish from her back as the ground grew closer. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her friend reappear in the shadow of a shrub and roll out of it. Tythel heard a sickening snap, like a twig being broken in half, followed by a sharp scream by Eupheme. The only thing that assured Tythel that her friend was alright was that the scream was followed by a series of curses. Please don’t be her leg, Tythel asked the Light, and then the time for worrying about Eupheme was past.

It was time to worry about her own safety.

The instant she was close enough to the ground, Tythel dropped her feet and and started to run along the ground. As fast as the Skimmer was moving, she accomplished little more than tapping her feet against the ground at first, but with each footstep she robbed the creature of a bit of its momentum. Finally it was enough for her to dig her heels into the ground, dragging the Skimmer to a stop. It’s flame sacs were still running, and Tythel had to grit her teeth to wrestle it to the ground.

She got it on its back, and removed one claw to slam the creature between its stalk eyes. As she hoped, that seemed to be where it kept its brain, and it fell still, either unconscious or dead. Tythel hoped for the former, but didn’t have time to check. The second Skimmer was coming up fast. Tellias was somewhere behind it, and Eupheme was still recovering from her roll. And I still can’t breathe or speak.

The remaining Skimmer drew closer. Tythel heaved up the one she had taken down, putting it between herself and the approaching attacker, and sunk her claws into the unconscious creatures skin just below its throat. A trickle of blood rose up from around her talons, letting her know it was still alive.

The Skimmer still in the air curved away. It had gotten the unspoken message – come any closer and this one dies. It started to circle the air around Tythel, keep it’s whiplike tail pointed towards her. Standoff, Tythel thought. If it shot her, she’d kill the one she had captured. If she killed the captured one, it’d shoot her.

Tythel had one hope she could hold onto. She just had to stand on the ground. The Skimmer was airborne. As tired as she was, as much as her legs shook from the sheer effort of supporting her weight and the creatures, she had hope she’d tire out long before her adversary did.

The Skimmer was clearly intelligent by the way it had backed off when she’d grabbed its companion. It was doing the same analysis Tythel was – or at least, she hoped it was. You can’t win, she thought. So back off.

Instead, its flight began to slow down. It brought itself near a tree and wrapped its tail around a branch, swinging its body so the eye stalks were facing Tythel. Tythel fought back an urge to swear. Now it just had to wait for her to get tired, for her attention to slip. Then it could drop off the tree, swing that tail around, and…

Tythel fought back an image that rose to mind, of what unlight beams that could sear stone would do to her face.

She could hear Tellias in the distance, but he’d fallen far behind the chase. How fast were we moving? Tythel wondered, not taking her eyes off the Skimmer. Imperiplate could cover a league in seven minutes when at a dead run. For Tellias to be so far behind, they had to have been moving at least twice as fast, if not more. Crawlers could outpace Imperiplate, but not by that much.

Tythel shook some of her hair out of her good eye. It was clingy and wet with sweat. Focus, she chided herself. She had no help coming any time soon, and didn’t doubt the other Skimmer would try something when Tellias arrived. With Eupheme injured, possibly out of the fight…

“Release him,” the Skimmer said in a wet, burbling voice. Tythel nearly jumped out of her skin. It can speak? She thought, her mind racing furiously.

Tythel shook her head, then shifted the unconscious Skimmer to free up one of her hands and gesture towards her throat. “Can’t,” she said, letting the Skimmer hear how raspy her voice was, hear the wet coughs she made as she tried to speak. It was a risk, letting it see how weak she was, but she still had a claw to its companion’s throat.

“You cannot release him, or you cannot speak?” it asked, fixing those stalk eyes more firmly on her.

Tythel held up two fingers to indicate the second option.

“Release him or die.”

Tythel just rolled her eyes at this one. The Skimmer was intelligent enough to speak. Surely it was intelligent enough to understand why that was a stupid option for her.

“You are weak,” it burbled. “Your posterior limbs shake. Your skin excretes saline. You vocal apparatus is damaged. You have no projectile weapons. You cannot win.”

Tythel gave a slight shrug, and tightening her grip on the unconscious Skimmer. The one in the tree let out a sound like a dribbling snot that Tythel took for anger.

“Do not!” it croaked.

Tythel took a deep breath. She pointed to the Skimmer in the tree, then to the sky, then to the unconscious Skimmer, and then to the sky again.

“I fly away. You release him. Is that claim?”

Tythel nodded.

“Lies. You will not release.”

Tythel pointed to the stump where the injured Skimmer’s tail had been. “No,” Tythel said, then had to pause to cough again. She took a deep breath and swallowed. The taste of blood was a bit less strong this time. Am I healing? Or am I just getting used to it? “Threat,” Tythel managed to choke out, finishing the thought from earlier.

“You claim you will do this thing because he is no threat?”

Tythel nodded. The Skimmer studied her with those eye stalks. “If you do not release, I will come back. I will slay.”

Tythel nodded again to indicate her understanding.

“Bring him to water. Put him in. He will endure there. I will find him down stream. Or I will slay.”

She gave the creature one last nod, and after a long moment, the Skimmer unfurled its wings and begin to spray flame from those sacs on its wings. It held onto the tree until the force of the flame pulled it horizontal. Just before the tree branch snapped, the Skimmer released itself, and took off into the sky. It kept its eye stalks on her as it flew away.

Tythel let go of the unconscious Skimmer and stepped towards the stream. She cupped some of the water in her hands and held it to her lips, wanting to weep with relief as the cool water flowed down her throat. She gathered up the Skimmer and drug it back to the river, pushing it in.

As soon as it touched the water, it began to move, its eye stalks coming alive and alert. It began to swim away from her as quickly as it could, waving its fins to propel itself. It was strangely beautiful to watch, now that it wasn’t trying to kill her.

Tythel watched it go, then took another drink of water. It’s over, she thought numbly. It had felt like weeks since the battle had started, and it was finally over.

Now it was time to gather Eupheme and Tellias and figure out what they were going to do next.

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The Dragon’s Scion Part 81

“Jump!” Eupheme shouted as her arcwand blazed.

Tythel leapt to the side without a moment’s hesitation, grabbing onto a rock that jutted out a bit further from the cliff face. A beam of unlight scored the stone she had just vacated, sending chunks flying free from the wall to crash into the valley below. Her remaining talons bit into the rock. A lance of pain threatened to black out the vision in Tythel’s good eye as her bloodied finger slammed into the rock, but she forced it aside. The rock was beginning to crack under their combined weight, and Tythel had to scramble with her feet and remaining hand to find purchase. “Flath, that was close,” Eupheme hissed. “They’re getting ready for another pass.”

Tythel nodded and took a moment to make sure her grip was firm. Then, taking a deep breath to calm her nerves, Tythel shifted away her talons.

For a terrifying moment, all that was holding her in place was the strength of her grip on the rocks and the tiny footholds barely under her toes. Even her enhanced strength could barely support the two of them. Tythel waiting there for a moment, then tentatively lowered her injured finger onto the rock.

The pressure wasn’t painful. Although the digit was still streaked with blood from the earlier injury, without a talon Tythel didn’t have any injury to cause her pain.

“They’re coming back around,” Eupheme said in a warning tone. “Whatever you’re doing, mind hurrying it up just a bit?”

Nodding again, Tythel shifted her talons back into place. She let out a sigh of relief at having them grip into the stone again, and almost wept for joy when her damaged talons grew back with the uninjured ones. It wasn’t much – she could only heal injuries to the parts of her body she grew – but it was something. “Tythel! Move!” Eupheme shouted.

Tythel kicked to the side again. There weren’t any safe outcroppings on the side of her head she could see out of, so she leapt blindly into the spot hidden by her bad eye, turning her head and praying to both light and shadow she’d find something to grab into. Unlight again sheared away the rock from the plateau. Beams erupted from the ground as Tellias opened fire, streaking past the Skimmers.

There wasn’t anything to grab onto this time. Tythel was forced to again dig her talons into the stone cliff, scoring the stone with lines as they fell. They hadn’t gone as far this time – her talons held, although it sent lances of pain along her arms and legs as she slowed their impact. Eupheme opened fire again. “They’re so fast…” Eupheme said, ejecting a spent light cell and slamming another one into place. “Tythel, I don’t know if I can hit them.”

Tythel nodded, and swallowed hard as she began to climb. She needed every bit of moisture she could get in her ruined throat. A plan was beginning to form, but it required being able to ask Eupheme a question. “How…” Tythel started to say, but the rest of the sentence died in a series of coughs that tasted of copper.

“Don’t try to speak,” Eupheme said in growing alarm. “Just keep climbing!”

Tythel did, waiting for Eupheme’s warning to jump again, looking out of her good eye with a frantic fear. Have to find another outcropping, she thought. Have to get to safety or-

“Now!” Eupheme shouted.

Tythel leapt again, Eupheme firing wildly. Eupheme let out a whoop of excitement as Tythel managed to sink her talons into a soft spot of dirt that was packed into the side of the plateau. A wave of heat hit Tythel a moment latter, followed by a soft “whump” of an explosion. “Got one!” Eupheme said fiercely.

If Tythel could have spoken, she would have congratulated her friend. Instead she kept climbing, her mind racing. The smell when they are near is like burning gas. They only have one heartbeat. Somehow, these aren’t ships, or some new kind of Alohym skin. They’re creatures in their own right!

Suddenly, her crazy plan seemed even more needed. “Close,” Tythel managed to spit out before another round of coughs sent her vision spinning.

“Close? Ground is another hundred feet,” Eupheme said.

Tythel shook her head.

“The Skimmers? They’re coming around for another pass.”

Tythel shook her head again, still climbing.

“Then what do you…oh. Oh no. You can’t be serious.”

Tythel nodded.

“Light and flathing shadow,” Eupheme swore. “About three heights. You’re sure?”

Tythel didn’t even bother to nod this time, continuing her climb and awaiting Eupheme’s signal.

“Damnit,” Eupheme muttered. “Alright, get ready.”

Tythel stopped her climb.

“And…now!” Eupheme shouted.

Tythel leapt, twisting again in the air to face away from the wall. She found herself face to face with the eyestalks on the underbelly of the Skimmer. Although the eyes were markedly inhuman, they widened in a comically familiar expression of shock.

Then Tythel sunk her talons directly into the creature’s underbelly. The Skimmer let out a sound that Tythel assumed was pain, a sound like someone blowing into a broken flute. The creature staggered in the air, and Tythel’s heart stopped. Oh no. I killed it. I killed it and we’re both going to fall to our deaths.

Then the flames emerging from under the Skimmer’s wings reignited, and they began to accelerate. The Skimmer tried to swing its tail around to take aim at them, but Eupheme shot it off with a quick blast of her Arcwand. “You’re crazy!” Eupheme shouted. “You’re madder than the moon!”

Tythel blinked in amusement at the compliment. The Skimmer began to streak away from the plateau, its eyes wild with pain. She could feel it trying to pull up and gain altitude, but the Skimmer wasn’t meant to support the weight of two humans, especially not while losing blood from its abdomen. With every second, the ground grew closer. Tythel could see Tellias racing to follow them, the remaining Skimmer right behind him.

All that was left for Tythel to do was grit her teeth, and get ready to leap off the bottom of the Skimmer before it scraped her and Eupheme to past on the canyon floor below.