Dragon’s Scion Part 164

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Tythel climbed a tree to prepare herself for Catheon’s assault, burrowing as close to the trunk as she could go. It was easier to climb than she remembered, aided by her thick talons biting into the bark and giving her purchase her fingers never could have managed before. She smiled at the thought.

When she’d been younger, she’d used these trees as her own personal highway, leaping from branch to branch and giving Karjon daily heart attacks. She’d always known that being gifted with Heartflame would give her the ability to climb like she’d had back then. Well, she’d always hoped. It was wonderful to have that childish hope confirmed.

Everything had been so…terrible since Karjon’s death. War and death and fear and loss. Nicandros had abandoned her. She’d seen more death than she’d ever imagined seeing. She’d lost her eye. It hadn’t all been bad – she’d made friends – but she’d rarely taken the chance to just revel in being a dragon. The thing she’d wanted most her entire life, and she’d barely taken a second to enjoy it.

When I’m done here, I will. The first moment I get. 

Exactly what form that would take had to be considered later, however. Catheon’s wings were growing so loud that they had to be almost here. Tythel strained her ears to listen.

“I’m telling you, there’s an illusion over this valley,” a male voice said in a frustrated growl. It didn’t have the buzzing quality that Tythel had come to associate with Catheon. That must be their Lumcaster. 

“Then what’s beneath it?” Catheon hissed. His voice was distinct – the blend of Alohym buzzing and human speech that made it both alien and familiar. It was somehow worse than the Alohym’s voice, as if the fact that it was recognizable as something that a human throat could produce but also not made it more alien than the Alohym’s native speech.

Of course, it probably didn’t help that his voice was thick was something between arrogance and pure hatred.

“I can’t see through it,” the Lumcaster said, his voice harsh. “That’s veilflame. I’m a lumcaster.”

“You speak pretty boldly to a Scion, Daetor,” a woman’s voice said. That must be the Umbrist. Leora Dimici. The Thirteenth Forsworn, one of the Umbrists that had betrayed their calling. The only one, if Eupheme was correct. Tythel wondered, not for the first time, who Leora was to Eupheme, and why her betrayal had hurt her so much. “Perhaps you could tell us what you can do with the illusion?”

“Well, if you drop me into it, I can fall through it. If you press my face against it, I can see sparkly lights. If you kill me, I could probably haunt it. I can do about as much to Draconic magic as I could to your Umbra, Leora. But trust me, it’s there.”

“I didn’t doubt that it was,” Catheon said in a low purr. “But I’d like more details. Can you tell me at least how close to the ground it is?”

“Fifteen spans,” the Lumcaster – Daetor, Tythel now knew – said promptly.

Whatever was said next was partially cut off by the sound of the Skimmers roaring past. “-be sure?” Catheon said.

“Because that’s the height Karjon stood in life,” Daetor said in the careful tones one would speak to a particularly dense child that’s prone to dangerous tantrums. “I’d be a waste of his power to make it higher, and it’d be pointless to make it lower.”

“You’re certain Karjon made this?” Leora said, “and not that half-dragon bitch?”

“Of course I am.” Daetor scoffed at the question. “If she had access to the deeper draconic mysteries, we’d have died in that fight. She had Dragonflame and Ghostflame. At best, she might have Heartflame. But Veilflame? Warpflame? Strangefire? If she knew how to use those, the only one of us who might have survived would have been Catheon, and only if he flew away very fast.

Tythel heard the wood begin to crack as she tightened her hands into fists and forced them to relax before she tore apart her perch. Karjon had barely mentioned the deeper mysteries, and Tythel had barely even considered them. Especially not now. It was impossible to learn the deeper mysteries without another dragon to assist you. Another part of her heritage that was lost forever thanks to the Alohym. It galled her to hear Daetor talk about them, but more importantly…how did Daetor know this much about how dragon’s magic worked?

Her anger caused her to miss part of the conversation. Leora was speaking. “-overstated. If you were so skilled-”

“I was chosen for this because I fought in the Conquest for the Alohym,” Daetor said harshly. “I’ve faced dragons before. That’s more than some murderer hiding in the shadows can ever claim.”

“You face dragons as part of our army,” Catheon said coolly.

“As part of the Alohym’s army, yes,” Daetor conceded, and Tythel noted that he refused to acknowledge Catheon’s use of the possessive there. She filed it away but didn’t think it would be useful. They were long past the point of clever words saving them. “But I still have seen them.”

The sound of Catheon’s wings was growing louder. He was descending. Tythel tensed up for a reason besides anger. It was almost time.

“What should we expect then?” Catheon said.

“Given the terrain? She can’t fly and thank Your Father for that. She knows the area, though, and will probably try to hit us with flame the moment she can. Dragons almost always open with a burst of fire to try and pick a few targets off. She’s saved her Ghostflame for you.”

“Leave the Umbrist for me,” Leora said. “I can handle her.”

“And I can take care of that bastardization of Imperiplate,” Daetor said. “The war proved Alohym could defeat dragons, Catheon. By the same logic, I’m certain that a half-Alohym can beat a half-Dragon.”

Then they were in view. Catheon’s…whatever it was he war. Alohym skin refit for a human. It was bulkier than before, covered in gleaming black carapace as opposed to the brown he’d had before. Leora was dressed in a bodysuit of dark greens and greys, tight enough to avoid catching but loose enough to avoid restricting her movement. Daetor wore a Lumcaster’s robe that had been divided between the legs and re-woven into loosely flowing pants. “Call me that again,” Catheon said harshly, “and I’ll ensure you regret it.”

“Apologies. I meant no offense,” Daetor said, sounded not even slightly apologetic. “I thought you’d take pride in both parts of your heritage.”

Catheon stiffened, and Tythel realized this was it. This was her moment. She’d never get a better shot on all three of them.

Taking a deep breath and focusing her hatred on Catheon, Tythel took a deep breath and fed that loathing into the fire in her stomach. When she let loose, it was with a beautiful wave of blue ghostflame.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 159

Sorry for the delay with this! Double update time! Read this part then click over to get part 160 right away. Patreons, part 160 and 161 are up over there. Thank you for the patience!

Armin kept the arcwand trained on Theognis as the Lumcaster clenched his fist. Tendrils of unlight were stretching across the wound. “Don’t move or the next bolt goes through your skull,” Armin said, spitting the words.

Theognis looked up at him, and although his face was twisted into a mask of pure hatred, he didn’t budge from where he was. Every line of his body was tight with tension, and the dark web didn’t stop its progress, but he didn’t move.

“Good. Glad we have an understanding.”

Haradeth was looking at him in disbelief. Synit’s mandibles were hanging open. Even the strange automaton had ceased her attempts to break free of the unlight cage to peer at him with narrowed lenses that Armin assumed must be her eyes, or at least function as them. He couldn’t see Ossman and Aldredia and Lorathor, but he could imagine they were giving him similar expressions. A single question hung over the room, one that no one was saying aloud. “How did you do that?”

Armin really hoped no one would ask it, because the truth was, he had absolutely no idea.

He played back the last few in his head, trying to figure out what had happened.

***

Lorathor didn’t need keys to the other cells. Now that he was more open about how far his shapeshifting prowess could be pushed, it was easy to watch him shove his fingers into the keyholes and let them run like wax before the door unlocked.

“I should go first,” Armin said quietly as the first door clicked open. “Ossman knows you, but Aldredia might respond poorly to an unknown person coming in.”

“I can’t imagine why,” Lorathor said, his voice thick with sarcasm, and he pulled the door open, stepping back to remain hidden behind the wood.

Aldredia screamed and lunged from the room, her fists raised. They hadn’t chained her to a wall. Armin leapt back, holding up his hands. “It’s me! It’s me!”

“Armin?” Aldredia asked, coming to a halt. “How’d you get out?”

“My friend behind the door. We have to move. We need to get Ossman free.”

“Just Ossman?” Aldredia’s eyes narrowed. “What about Guiart? And Clarcia.” Armin tried to find the words, but they were thick on his tongue. He settled for just shaking his head. Aldredia’s face collapsed inwards, like she’d been punched in the gut. “I see. You’re sure?”

“I saw Clarcia’s body,” Armin said. Lorathor stepped out from behind the door and moved to the next cell. He knew the urgency of the situation but let them have their moment in silence.

“Where?” Aldredia asked.

“I’ll…I’ll explain later.” Armin said. Aldredia gave him a sharp look, one that softened when she met his eyes. The horror he felt must have shown through, and Armin tried to suppress it. Don’t burden her with it. Not right now. After we’re done. 

Assuming he didn’t get anyone else killed.

Ossman and Lorathor were having a quiet conversation. Armin didn’t hear any rattling chains. It appeared Theognis had spared the only cell with a chain for Armin. Of course he did, Armin thought bitterly. He was probably going to kill them if he ever opened their cells again. 

“Any idea where our weapons are?” Aldredia asked.

Armin shook his head. “I’m an absolute failure, it seems. Maybe Lorathor-”

What he had been about to say was cut off. Aldredia stepped forward and raised her hand. For a moment Armin thought she was going to slap him. For an instant, it looked like she thought the same thing. Then she took another step forward and grabbed him by the shoulder. “You develop the ability to see the future when your eyes went weird?” she asked.

Armin blinked at the question and shook his head.

“Then you can’t blame yourself for not predicting the unpredictable. No one I’ve served under would have seen that coming.”

“Thank you,” Armin said. Ossman and Lorathor exited the other cell. Armin met Ossman’s eyes, and saw they glistened in the faint light provided by arcglobes. Lorathor must have given him the details. Everyone keeps telling you it’s not your fault. If you freeze right now, though…that would be your fault. “Alright. Lorathor, do you know where our weapons are?”

“I saw a few thrown in an unlocked cell on my way in. If they’re not yours, they’re still weapons.”

“Good enough. Let’s move. We’ve got a Lumcaster to send straight to the Shadow.”

They were their weapons; a stroke of luck Armin hadn’t expected to get. Re-armed, they followed Lorathor down the hallway towards where Theognis waited.

As they ran, Armin opened his eyes.

It was wrong. He knew that. Mortals were not meant to see the flow of Light. Such things were forbidden, in the same sense that attempting to fly by flapping your arms or breathing underwater or swimming through the ground were forbidden – no actual law was needed to forbid them, because natural laws made them impossible. It was blasphemous, something that perhaps the little gods could do, but not a mortal. Yet Armin could now, and he certainly was not a god. He knew he should keep this power locked away and never utilize it.

Yet if he had kept his eyes open, he might have seen the unnatural strands of unlight that signaled Theognis’s presence. He might have known sooner that they were coming.

That was the failure. That was what he could have done differently. He could have watched with his new sight, and if he had, Clarcia and Guiart might still be alive.

Never again would he shut himself off from their flow, and if he was damned to the darkest parts of the Shadow for his blasphemy, he’d accept that torment as a price for saving even a single life.

So, when they’d rounded the bend and seen Theognis closing in on Synit, unlight prisons trapping Bix and Haradeth, Armin had known what to expect. Theognis’s hands were wrapped in a cocoon of unlight, strands of it so densely packed the man’s hands were merely an outline. It was invisible to the naked eye, a pre-cast weaving that would activate if it was triggered. It was how he was absorbing the unlight, and any true light that was sent his way would be twisted into unlight before it reached his barrier and only strengthen it.

Even knowing it wouldn’t work, Armin had pulled the trigger. Pure instinct had driven the reaction. He had to do something, anything. And then he’d felt something. A sensation not unlight the buildup of light when he was charging an arcell, but somehow different. He’d pushed out with that sensation, and Theognis’s barrier had flickered out of existence.

It had lasted only a moment. It had given Armin’s blast all the time it needed. But now Theognis was protected again, and Armin had no idea how to replicate the feat.

He doesn’t know that. Light and Shadow, don’t let him figure it out. “Bring down the unlight cages, Theognis. Now.”

“I have to move if that’s what you want,” Theognis said, growling through the pain. The hole in his hand was now full of unlight.

“I know that’s a lie. You don’t need to use your hand to undo your own lumcasting.”

Theognis gave him a thin smile. “So, you did pay attention sometimes. I’ll admit to being surprised. Yet unlight is different.”

“You’re lying,” Armin said, pushing his finger against the trigger.

Theognis shrugged slightly. “You don’t know. You never studied it, Armin. Unlight requires the motion to undo, as it does to put in place.”

Armin hesitated.

That was a mistake. It gave Theognis a chance to think. “Hmmm…a question, before you kill me?”

“I don’t care-” Armin started to say, but Theognis wasn’t interested in his opinion on the matter.

“If you believe they work the same, then you would believe killing me would end the traps. Yet you chose not to. And now I’m forced to wonder…why?”

Armin pulled the trigger. Theognis’s hand intercepted the blast, and Armin didn’t feel that pressure this time. The arclight was corrupted into unlight and merged with the barrier. Theognis smiled cruelly.

Screaming in desperation, Armin started to fire again.

In this moment, he was certain this would be the last act of his life.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 156

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“Lorathor, behind you!” Armin shouted.

Thankfully, Lorathor didn’t wait to turn to look at what had Armin shouting. He dove forward, and Clarcia’s outstretched hand passed through the open air. Clarcia let out a low hiss and began to shamble forward.

“Light and Shadow!” Lorathor said, bringing up his arcrifle and sighting Clarcia with it. Before Armin could even speak, he fired three short bursts. Arclight flew and struck Clarcia in the shoulder, chest, and forehead. She staggered backwards and fell over. “Thanks for the warning,” Lorathor said, raising the rifle. “I thought she was dead.”

“She is,” Armin said.

“Right, now. But I mean when I came in she looked…” Lorathor trailed off. “Necromancy?”

They both turned back to Clarcia. Her limbs were jerking unnaturally as she started to rise. She reached a crab position and her head turned unnaturally until it was facing them. “Necromancy,” Armin confirmed.

Lorathor shot her again. Beams of light streaked across the small cell. Clarcia barely rocked at the impacts, hissing and scurrying across the floor with preternatural speed. “Flath!” Lorathor shouted, throwing himself to the side as Clarcia’s jaw snapped shut inches from his knees.

Armin backed up, staring at her with wide eyes. It was Clarcia. It was Clarcia. She still looked like herself, even unnaturally twisted like this. “Armin!” Lorathor shouted. “Move!”

Clarcia was closing the gap between them. When she got close, her legs folded up over her body. For a moment she was walking on her hands, then her feet finished their arc and touched the floor, pulling her body and head upright in a swift motion. Armin threw up his hands and caught her on the shoulders. She bowled him over as her head twisted back into place. They hit the floor hard, and Armin wheezed as the wind was driven from his lungs.

Clarcia wasn’t impeded. She was snapping her jaw at him, only inches from his face. There was breath coming with the snaps, each one unnatural hot and reeking of the grave. The smell was enough to turn Armin’s stomach. If not for his hands on her shoulders, she would have torn out his jugular in an instant. Even with his hands in placed, her strength was immense. Armin pushed her upwards, and her fingers dug into his arm. Armin screamed as her fingers began to tear deep furrows on his skin.

An arclight beam struck Clarcia in the back of the skull. It blew straight through, and flesh, bone, and brain matter tore from her face. Clarcia didn’t even flinch at the sensation. The jerking motion tore one of her eyes loose, and it dangled from an optic nerve on the side of the head. “Get her off me!” Armin screamed.

A tentacle wrapped around Clarcia’s neck and began to tear her backwards. Armin stared at it in wide eyed horror as more tentacles join the first, grasping and tugging at Clarcia. Scrambling back and rising to his feet, Armin looked at the tableau, trying to process what he was seeing.

Lorathor was gone. Where he had been was some kind of…thing. Tentacles from an octopus attached to a humanoid torso. The tentacles wrapped around Clarcia as she struggled against the bonds. The creature wrapped a tentacle around her throat and wound it up to her forehead, pulling her head back so her jaw wasn’t able to reach the other parts of the thing. “Armin, get out of here!”

That was Lorathor’s voice. Coming from this monstrosity. Lorathor’s voice, and now that Armin looked, he could see the eyes. Yellow and with oddly-shaped pupil.

Sylvani eyes.

Armin sat down hard, his knees no longer able to support his weight. It was too much by far. He couldn’t process it. This horror, something out of the depths of both the ocean and nightmare, was entangling the undead being that had once been his friend. Clarcia growled and hissed, snapping at the creature, but unable to find purchase. There were dull plates covering the tentacles, flexing with them, and her fingers could not find purchase on their bulk.

“Armin, move!”

Barely able to think, Armin just kicked his leg, letting the thing that had once been Lorathor hear the clatter of the chain. Lorathor snarled and began to tug hard on the Clarcia zombie.

Armin began to hear the cracking of bones. Clarcia’s struggles became more frantic, and flesh began to tear under the force.

Someone was screaming. Dimly, Armin realized it was him.

As he watched, helpless to do more than scream, Clarcia’s arm came out of its socket. Freed from her shoulder, it started to try and wrap around the thing that had been Lorathor. He – some part of Armin was willing to accept that this thing was, in fact Lorathor, although he could not hope to process how that had happened – brought two free tentacles around to grab onto the flailing arm. Bones crunched under the stress, and then the cracking sound turning into a grinding noise.

When Lorathor tossed that arm free, it was still twitching, trying to move and rejoin the attack. However, he’d shattered every bone in the limb, and it couldn’t do anything but flop uselessly on the floor. Bit by bit, Lorathor started to dismantle Clarcia.

She wasn’t helpless though. Lorathor’s grip would slip at time, and her jaws would find purchase. She bit through the strange armor that shifted with Lorathor’s form, cracking both teeth and plate with the force. Lorathor howled in pain, although Armin couldn’t see anywhere for him to be howling from. 

It took nearly a minute. Lorathor tore Clarcia bit to bit. At the end of it, Clarcia had been reduced to a collection of twitching flesh, and Lorathor was bleeding from a dozen wounds. The mass of tentacles retracted and reformed into the Sylvani Armin knew.

“Armin, I can get that chain off you,” he said. Lorathor’s skin was paler than its usual vibrant colors, and he took a step towards Armin.

Armin recoiled from the motion, bringing up his hands. “What…what the flath are you?” he shrieked.

“I’m a Sylvani. We’re shapeshifters, Armin. Remember? You saw me slip through that crack in the tower, even though it was barely an inch wide.”

Armin nodded at the memory.

“I usually don’t go that far out of the form you know,” Lorathor continued. “But I needed to. I’m sorry.”

The words were so normal, Lorathor’s tone so calm, Armin was able to start thinking again. “I…I didn’t know you could do that.”

Lorathor grinned. The expression was strained, and Armin could see pain behind his eyes. “I don’t show it off often. An arcwand or blade is usually a better weapon anyway.” He glanced over at the twitching mess on the floor. “Usually. Who was that?”

“Clarcia” Armin whispered.

Lorathor flinched. “I’m sorry you had to watch that. Come on. Let’s get out of here.” He held his finger up towards the lock on Armin’s shackle. The digit protruded into the lock, and it unclasped like he’d turned a key. “Come on, Armin” he said, offering a hand.

Armin took the hand. “Ossman. Aldredia. They-”

“We’ll get them. But first…pull yourself together. You’ve been through the deepest Shadow. But I know we can pull yourself together. We can’t let Bix and Haradeth fight Theognis alone.”

Armin nodded and took a deep breath. I’m not losing anyone else. The thought was firm and he held it in his head like a drowning man clutching driftwood. “Alright. Let’s go. And while we do…I have two questions.”

“Ask away,” Lorathor said, peering out into the hallway.

“How did you get here, and who the flath is Bix?”

Lorathor smiled. “Would you believe me if I told you those answers went together?” And, without waiting for a response, he started to explain.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 153

The Portal Stones – Haradeth refused to think of them as boogers, even if he’d say the word aloud to placate Bix – were objects spread across the world. Myths from various cultures held different significance to them. The Cardomethi had claimed they could access the realm that the ancient Alohym had used when they left. The Dor’nahi had maintained they were gates to the true ancestral home of humanity, and would one day lead them back. The Kingdom, before it’s fall, had believed them to be pagan iconography from a pre-Light religion. The warriors of Xhoa held they were gateways to the Shadow, where their Holy and Eternal War would one day spill out of that realm and into the mortal world. The Underfolk had held the belief that they would lead to a world where there was only darkness above and light below, a sacred land where humanity would be forced to live beneath the Earth.

In hindsight, Haradeth realized it should have been telling that the Sylvani were the only peoples who didn’t ascribe any significance to them. Sylvani travelers, when asked about the stones, would only repeat one of the other culture’s legends. Usually with song and drink, because the Sylvani bought their way into acceptance through entertainment when they could, and getting the locals too drunk to organize a mob when they could not.

To the best of his knowledge, no one had asked the Alohym what they believed the stones would lead o. They might not even be aware of the portal stones’ existence.

He voiced that possibility to Bix as they were gearing up, and she shrugged – an expressive gesture with metallic limbs. “Who knows? But I’m guessing not. If those things could have accessed an interplanetary method of rapid transit, I think they would have lept on it with all four hands.”

“You mean they could have activated it?” Haradeth asked. That thought had never occurred to him, and its implications were disturbing. Were they just handing the Alohym another weapon to use in their domination of the world?

“Not without me stabbing them lots. Even Anoirita would have acted then, I think. The only way to fully control the boogers is from here, and the Alohym would have come here if they knew. Also, if they knew what the boogers were, they probably would have figured out that we hadn’t all died out. They would have come and murdered everyone in the face. Except me. Because I’d be stabbing them, you see.”

Haradeth nodded, a small part of him surprised at how easily he’d come to take the little automaton’s violent nature in stride. “But once we activate them, can they trace it back here?”

“Probably not.” Bix looked uninterested as she worked on the console.

“Probably?” Haradeth asked.

Bix sighed. “Haradeth. We last fought the Alohym like, back when your people were deciding that eating cooked meat was a better long term plan than waging wars with flung feces. Excremental artillery. Shit showers. I think that’s all of them.”

“Okay, I just don’t-”

“Wait, no, I have one more. Crap catapults. Okay, now I’m good. What was your most likely stupid question?”

Haradeth waited for a second to make sure Bix was, in fact, done with her jokes. She motioned for him to continue. “I don’t see what that has to do with them being able to hijack the portal stones.”

“Because we’re talking about thousands of years, no matter what world you’re on. I wasn’t just making fun of you for being a bunch of monkeys who developed culture and decided it made you rightful masters of this world. Back then, you had…flath, I used all the good terms. Insert a scatalogical weaponry reference for me okay? Okay. But by the time the Alohym arrived, you’d gone from that to castles and catapults and stabby death, which is a much more refined way of waging war compared to the poop. Even if the Alohym hadn’t shown up, given thousands of years, even you idiots would have figured out arcwands. Technology grows and changes. The Alohym couldn’t crack the Transmatter Warp Platforms back when they invaded us, so they might not be able to crack it now. Or perhaps they’ve figured it out in the millennia in between.”

“Wait, what did you call the portal stones?” Haradeth asked.

Bix pressed a knife against his throat. “Boogers?” Bix asked.

“Boogers,” Haradeth agreed.

The knife vanished, as fast as it had appeared. “It’s a Transmatter Warp Platform. It bends spacetime curviture so the distance between here and there is shorter. It’s their proper name, but I long ago gave up trying to get you people to call them by that. Since you insist on calling them portal stones, I decided to give them an equally stupid name. Thus, boogers. Now, I’m almost ready. What’s the plan?”

“Plan?” Lorathor asked, walking around the corner. The Sylvani was wearing some kind of blue armor that reflected light in a dull manner. It was unlike any metal Haradeth had seen before. He’d told Haradetha bout it. It was a cultural artifact of the Sylvani, but they could be used with special approval. Bix had a suit she could authorize someone to use. The…what was it Bix had called them? The polycarbons in the suit would shift to match the wearer’s natural shapeshifting, allowing Lorathor complete access to his natural talents.

“Yes. Plan.” Bix gave them both a level look. “You don’t have a plan?”

“I didn’t think you’d be in favor of one,” Haradeth said.

“Of course I’m not. It’s no fun messing up someone’s plans if they don’t have one.” Bix crossed her arms and glared at Haradeth.

“Well, that’s part of why I didn’t have one. You can focus on the fact that we’re disrupting the Alohym’s plots?”

“Patronize me again and I’ll…flath, these are complicated equations, even for me. Do me a favor and assume I threatened you and you were truly terrified of it.”

Haradeth thought for a moment and discovered coming up with possible torments Bix could unleash was more frightening than any of the threats she’d actually make. “Done,” Haradeth said.

Bix nodded in approval. “We’ll only have a few seconds. This is some slipshod math. But it will get us there, and there is a ninety-six percent chance we’ll arrive with every body part we left with.”

Bix pushed a button on the console, and the air over the Portal Stone distorted. As Haradeth watched, it folded in on itself, almost like someone pulling a sock inside out, if the sock was the fabric of reality. It hurt his head to watch. “Wait, what was that last thing you said?”

“No time!” Bix said cheerfully and dove through the portal. Haradeth gaped at Lorathor, who laughed and followed. Swearing under his breath, Haradeth jumped through after them.

The portal snapped shut after them. They were in a treasure room lit by dozens of Alohym arcglobes. There were three soldiers in here, staring at them in mute astonishment. “Get Theog-” one of them started to shout.

For his quick thinking, he died first. A dagger sprouted from his throat, moving so quickly Haradeth could barely track it. Bix stood there, grinning at her handwork. The two soldiers remaining began to raise their arcwands.

Haradeth dove for cover as one of them opened fire, unlight ricochetting off a pile of gold. Lorathor closed the distance between them in two great strides, unlight glancing off his armor. The third stepped around and took aim at Lorathor’s back, and Haradeth hurled a gold plate like a discus.

It hit the side of the man’s head and lodged in there.

Bix chuckled. “I knew I kept you alive for a reason.”

“Lorathor.” Haradeth pointed down the cororidor. “Wear one of these faces, and tell Theognis the portal stone activated. Then find Armin and the others.”

Lorathor started to run, his skin and armor already running as he did. Bix gave him a sideways look. “I’m no strategy expert, but why did we just give up the element of surprise?”

“Because we didn’t,” Haradeth said, taking cover. “He’ll be expecting resistance fighters. He definitely will not be expecting a godling, and he can’t possibly be prepared for you.”

Bix nodded at that and headed over to climb into a cauldron. “I’ll pop up when he least expects it. Then I’ll stab him.” She clambered up the side and looked in. “Hey, Haradeth, if someone’s in here, should I stab them? She looks…weird.”

Haradeth ran over to the cauldron and looked in inside.

A half alohym woman was huddled in the bottom, staring at them both with wide eyes.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 151

Armin reeled back from the threat. “I…I don’t even know what you’re talking about,” he said, and hoped Theognis would take his widening eyes for fear, not shock.

“Please,” Theognis said. Just that. Please. It was an archly dismissive word, one that said everything it needed to say about Theognis’ thoughts on Armin’s protest. He gave Armin a level stare before continuing. “We tracked her here. I would love to know how you found her first – and believe me, I fully intend on torturing the information out of you later – but for now, I simply require you to tell me where she is.”

Armin felt his skin go clammy. This couldn’t get any worse. Not only was Theognis asking for something that Armin didn’t want to tell him, he couldn’t tell him. Synit could be anywhere by now. Think, Armin. Think. “We didn’t find her!” Armin protested, deciding that letting the fear show was the best tactic right now. The fact that he couldn’t have held it back even if he wanted to was immaterial. Torture me, you bastard. Rip me apart to prove to yourself that I don’t know. Leave them alone. “I don’t even know who you’re talking about!”

“Then why were you here, hmm?” Theognis tapped his fingers on his chin.

Armin hesitated. There wasn’t any harm in telling him, was there? Not about the Vacuity Engine, of course. If they survived this, it’d be best if the Alohym didn’t know they were looking for it. “Gold,” he said.

“Gold?” Theognis asked, cocking his head to the side. “You came all this way for lucre? You’ve never been the material kind, Armin.”

“It’s…”

And then Armin clamped his mouth shut. Let him think he has to push you. Let him drag it out of you. Give him a lie to disprove, so he’ll accept it as truth. “I know we can’t win,” Armin said, looking down. “But I’ll be damned if I join you all. I was going to take the gold and set up a life somewhere, far away from here.”

Theognis laughed. “So, you brought Ossman? Ossman. You expect me to believe that he was going to abandon your resistance?”

“None of them were,” Armin said, the lies rolling off his tongue more easily now. “But I’d hoped to convince them. Tempt them with the appeal of a better life, one that doesn’t involve…all of this.”

Theognis shook his head. “Armin. You disappoint me, boy. That upstart half-wyrm ‘princess’ of yours killed Rephylon. You claim that after you got your first ever taste of victory is when you betrayed your cause?”

“It wasn’t a victory,” Armin said. His voice was miserable, and at least he didn’t have to feign that. He had plenty to be miserable about, although the death of Rephylon wasn’t one of them. “Everyone was acting like it was, but…it was one Alohym, and it nearly killed her in the process. I think I’d…had it in my head we’d win once we managed to kill one. That it was the big stepping stone, and once we crossed it, victory would be assured. Then you all broke us at Hallith. You had that…”

Armin’s eyes narrowed as he made a connection he’d missed before. “That was that thing in the air! The flying Alohym. That was Rephylon’s daughter!”

Theognis gave him a long, careful look, before chuckling. “You’ve gotten better, Armin. Not quite as dense as you used to be. You’re not quite right, however. Synit was…an early attempt at fusion. The one you saw was much better integrated.” Theognis paused and then shook his head. “Of course, you already knew that, didn’t you? You figured out they were kith and kin long ago. That’s how you tracked her here.”

“I had no idea,” Armin swore, and it was nice to tell the truth here.

Theognis absentmindedly swatted at a fly that was buzzing around his head. It dodged his blow and flew back to the door. “No, you didn’t, did you?” Theognis said, more to himself than to Armin. Armin started to relax, but Theognis wasn’t done. “You didn’t know they were one in the same. I can hardly blame you for that – wretched creature is so badly twisted she doesn’t look a thing like her brother. But if you think for a second that I believe that you came here to fill your own pockets…” Theognis shrugged and stood, finally getting off Clarcia’s back. “I think we’ll start with the eyes. Send her to you, blind, Ossman’s flesh welded over her vision. That will be-”

Armin broke into a cold sweat. The earlier threat hadn’t been an exaggeration – Theognis truly meant to do it. “Wait!”

Theognis paused. “Oh? Decided to tell the truth finally?”

“We’re broke,” Armin said. The words came out in a babbled rush, and not just because he wanted to convince Theognis he was terrified. He was, of course, but he needed Theognis to believe it. So much for your vaunted moral high ground, you monster.  “Not us, the resistance. We’re running on coppers and prayers. We came here to plunder the horde to fund our operations.”

“Another stupid lie,” Theognis sighed.

Now Armin’s heart started to pound in earnest. “I’m telling you the truth! We didn’t know anything about…about anyone. We needed the funds!”

“You have access to the horde of Karjon the Magnificent. The last of the dragons. The largest horde on all of Alith. And you claim you’ve already exhausted it?”

Armin gaped at Theognis, his mouth hanging open and his eyes wide.

Theognis chuckled. “You do, don’t you? Your vaunted ‘princess’ came to you with piles upon piles of gold, didn’t she? I figured that was why you chose her for the lie, because she’d bought her way into it.”

“What?” Armin asked, his voice high. Theognis had gone from being terrifying to insane.

“Oh yes, we know all about your little ruse.” Theognis sat back down on Clarcia, and the fury helped Armin cut through the confusion. “The Alohym have remarkable devices. One of them is…well, in their tongue it is a throk’lahypth. We haven’t been able to come up with a good Cardomethi translation for it, because we don’t have the words for the concepts it refers to. The best term would be a “hereditary detector,” I suppose. It analyzes little fragments of information we all carry in our blood. Some was taken from the ‘princess’ while she was our captive, and then analyzed against the same information in the bones of the royal family.” Theognis leaned forward. “They didn’t match. Your ‘princess’ is a lie, and we know it.”

“You’re lying,” Armin said, swallowing on a suddenly dry throat.

“Why would I bother lying?” Theognis spread his arms wide. “You’re going to die, Armin. You won’t spread anything I tell you to your peers. I gain nothing by telling you this. I, honestly, thought you were high enough in their ranks to know about the ruse.”

Armin’s mind worked furiously. Her transformation. She’s turning into a dragon. Maybe that fools their machines. She wouldn’t lie to us…except she had, hadn’t she? She’d been in the conversation where they’d discussed resources, and she’d offered this place up for treasure. Hidden in the swamps of Dor’nah, fraught with peril. She’d never even mentioned her father’s hoard. It hadn’t even occurred to Armin.

After all, why would she lie?

“And now I see you know nothing.” Theognis looked almost…disappointed. “You don’t know the ‘princess’ is a lie. You don’t know you were sent here for Synit. You don’t know anything that could be of use to me. And because of that…” Theognis stood up. “I’m still going to drag what information you have out of you. Slowly and painfully. Who knows? You might know more than you realize.  At the very least-”

“Sir!” Someone was pounding on the door. “Sir, we need you. Immediately!”

Theognis frowned and threw open the door. “What is it?” he said with a scowl.

The man outside was dressed in the garb of an Alohym trooper, his eyes hidden behind the green visor they used to see in darkness. “One of the portal stones, sir!” The man’s voice was high with panic. “It was in the hoard. It’s activated! Something…something came through!”

“Impossible!” Theognis shouted, sweeping from the room. It seemed he didn’t believe his own word. “Stay here with this one. I’ll have your corpse slaving in the sewers if he escapes.”

The guard blanched and nodded, turning to face Armin and closing the door behind Theognis.

“Can we get a bit of light, Lumcaster?” the guard asked.

Armin sighed and created a sphere, his mind too occupied with bitter thoughts to care.

Not that stopped him from screaming when the guard’s features melted in the face of the light. “Quiet!” the guard snapped. “This is a rescue mission, Armin.” His features had resolved into Lorathor’s grinning face. “Now, let’s get you out of those chains.”

Armin couldn’t speak from the shock. Relief, confusion, and joy washed over him.

Right up until he saw Clarcia stand up, her dead eyes glowing with unnatural malice.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 148

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here lies Karjon the Magnificent

Who battled the Wizards of the 9th Circle

Dueled the dread necromancer Gix

Sat upon the Council of Twelve

And was the greatest Father to have lived.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tythel shed no tears.

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

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

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

Knowing they cared was enough.

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

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

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

The Dragon’s Scion Part 147

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dragon’s Scion Part 146

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

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

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

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

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

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

If I could kill him…

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

Unless…

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

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

It would be enough to escape, though. 

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

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

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

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

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

The only sample of the Underfolk they could reach.

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

Not right now…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even if it meant committing this sin.

The finger tasted of salt as it passed his lips.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 145

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

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

Or, more appropriately, a rat.

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

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

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

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

“Poz, wait!” Nicandros shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dragon’s Scion Part 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.