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 108

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” Armin asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dragon’s Scion Part 104

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His eyes widened, and Eliert clenched his teeth.

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

“Kill them,” Eliert hissed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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The Dragon’s Scion Part 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.

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 77

Tellias and Tythel fled the airborne Alohym, beams of unlight searing the ground behind them and to the sides. An unsettling realization settled into Tythel like a maggot worming into meat. He’s toying with us. The creature was too fast, too lethal. It should have been able to strike one of them by now. Instead it was baiting them, leading them on, herding them. As long as they kept running, he could keep playing with them.

Terror and fury mixed in Tythel’s mind, each one fueling the other. Tythel focused on those emotions, feeding them and hardening them until they held an almost diamond clarity in her mind. “Get ready,” she said to Tellias.

“For what?” he asked, but Tythel didn’t bother to explain. If she could see the Alohym, it could hear here. She could only hope that Tellias would pick up on her plan. Still running, she waited until the Alohym aimed to fire again, then whirled and let loose a gout of pure dragonflame the moment the Alohym let loose its next attack.

Unlight and dragonflame met in the sky, and Tythel could hear him let out a startled shout. The impact of the two forces raced back to their respective wielders. The Alohym was pushed higher into the air, and Tythel was knocked back onto the ground.

It was painfully similar to how Karjon’s flame had caught the warship’s unlight in mid air. Tythel took hold of that pain and funneled it into the flame, using the still dull pain of loss to put more force behind the fire. The point of impact caused Tythel’s flame to expand further, a wide swath of flame filling the sky, obscuring vision of the Alohym. She knew he was still there, however, the pressure pushing back against her dragonflame an unrelenting wall of force. She felt herself start to get pushed into the soil of the ground beneath her, but the flames that were fanning out from the impact with the unlight began to grow more distant.

For a moment, the flame provided more light to the battlefield below than the still-rising sun, throwing everything into sharp relief. Yet Tythel could still see the fire was darker near the point of impact, the unlight eating the natural light being put off the flame.

“You mongrel fahik,” the Alohym hissed in that too human voice. Tythel didn’t know the word, but it was clear from the way the Alohym spat it that it was anything other than a compliment. Still, her heart leapt to note the strain she heard in that voice, mirroring the one she was feeling in her throat and neck.

Tythel grabbed onto that hope and funneled it with the other emotions into her flame, using the hope like a lense to focus the anger and fear and pain to the point where they shone white hot within her. She watched as the dragonflame shifted colors to the wispy blue of ghostflame.

Ghostflame was insubstantial, passing through all solid objects to sear at the very souls of its target. Tythel had hoped that meant it wouldn’t be blocked by impacting with unlight, but it seemed that had been a false hope. The light the ghostflame put out was unearthly in ways entirely different from the unlight, but it was still light, and it seemed that was what mattered. Tythel risked a glance around without moving her head, hoping to see Tellias. Unfortunately, the man had been on the side of her bad eye when the fight started, and therefore out of her vision. She did notice something odd, however.

In the blue light of the ghostflame, she could see her bones through her skin, with the skin a translucent blue superimposed over the skeleton beneath. It was so unsettling it almost broke her concentration. However, The Alohym wasn’t letting up its beam, any more than Tythel was letting up on the dragonflame. In this, at least, Tythel held an advantage, and the ghostflame continued to push its way against the unlight towards the Alohym. Her heart was still pounding with fear. She knew she couldn’t keep this up for much longer, and that was confirmed when a warm, coppery taste began to well up from her throat, Tellias, where in the shadow are you?

As if on cue, the Alohym screamed in pain. Abruptly the pressure against Tythel’s head stopped, and the ghostflame was able to streak on unimpeded. The Alohym managed to dodge a direct hit, but it did sear one of his wings. He started to tumble to the ground. Tellias was standing against a broken pillar, an arcwand pointed at the Alohym. He took a few more shots at the falling Alohym, but his target shifted his arms again, turning them into a pair of barriers to absorb the blows.

“We’ve got it on the ground! It’s hurt!” Tellias shouted. “We need to-”

Tythel cut him off with a hoarse whisper. “No.” She had to spit blood onto the ground.

“Then I’ll go-” Telias started to say, but Tythel was shaking her hand. It burned to speak, more painful than any other time she’d used her fire.

Tythel took a moment to gather her wits, and find the least amount of words needed to explain her objection. “Flame. Sky. Target,” she managed after a couple seconds.

Tellias nodded to show he understood, although he swore under his breath as he did. They’d lit up the entire plateau with that display. Every Alohym and Alohym soldier would know where they were, and with most of the resistance already fled into the tunnels, they’d have little to keep them busy.

Eupheme appeared besides them. “Light and shadow,” she whispered, stepping up to Tythel and helping her to her feet. “What happened?”

“Later,” Tythel croaked. Her voice failed her halfway through the word, and the ‘er’ at the end came out as a gasping wheeze. Eupheme paled at her voice. Tythel put a hand on Eupheme’s shoulder in thanks, then began to head towards the tunnel.

It seemed between the arcwand blasts, Tythel’s flames, and falling close to two hundred feet, the Alohym was no longer interested in pursuing them. Tythel hoped he was dead, but didn’t think that too likely. He had stood against an entire army to cut his way to them. Surely a little fall wouldn’t kill him.

Tythel pulled out her waterskin and began to drink from it as they ran, hoping to alleviate the pain in her throat. The entire plan hinged on her being able to breath flame again. If she couldn’t, she’d just gotten the resistance slaughtered.

Light, please, don’t let that be the case, she thought as they reached the tunnel’s mouth.

And not a moment too soon. Behind her, Tythel could hear the pounding feet of the Alohym’s soldiers charging their way.

“This plan of yours…I hope it works,” Tellias said gently beside her.

If Tythel could risk speaking, she would have assured him she felt the same.

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 76

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The books had always described retreat like it was a neat, sterile thing. “The armies of Cesus were forced to retreat.” One army defeated another, and the other ran away. Nice, clean, and over. Clearly, that was where the killing ended. That was where the horror stopped. It was the end of the story.

Tythel was learning that it was anything but that.

She leapt over another wall, a soldier slung over her shoulder. Tythel hadn’t bothered to get his name, had just scooped him up and leapt. Unlight lanced through the air to strike at the spot they had just vacated, digging a furrow in the canyon floor. Too close. She landed, her feet shifting to talons as she slid across the ground. “It’s okay, I got you,” she said to the man, pulling him off her shoulder to set him on the ground.

He collapsed bonelessly, a neat hole carved into his head. Tythel fought back bile as it rose in her throat and turned away.

Before she could let the death sink in, before the fact that she had just carried a corpse to safety could really get its hooks into her, Tellias came slamming through the wall she had just leapt over, locked in a grapple with a Imperiplate trooper. Tythel ran towards the two struggling shapes, her hammer at the ready.

Before she could reach them, Tellias sunk his arcblade into a gap in the man’s neck armor. The imperiplate trooper fell, his head and helmet rolling away from his body. They separated as the roll, the man’s head coming to rest staring up at the sky with unseeing eyes.

Tythel couldn’t fight the bile this time. She turned and was messily sick against the wall. “Tythel, what’s wrong?” Tellias asked.

“What’s wrong? How can you- did you see what just happened?” Tythel snapped. “How can you ask what’s wrong?”

Tellias didn’t seem to know what to say to that. Tythel didn’t know what to say either, instead striding over to scoop up the vacant helm. “We’ve lost a quarter of our forces, your highness.”

“Then we need to keep fighting.” She turned and took a deep breath to steady herself, attaching the helm to her belt. It would hang there awkwardly, but it was worth it.

It would make what happened next slightly less suicidal.

Eupheme chose that moment to reappear in a rush of air, stepping out of the shadow of the wall. “Orders are going out. We’re falling back to the tunnels,” she said simply.

“Okay,” Tythel said, taking another deep breath. The taste in her mouth was terrible, and her enhanced senses were filled with the sounds and smells of the dying and the dead. “Tellias, take your men back to the tunnel. We’ll be right behind you.”

“Right behind me? Your highness, no. Absolutely not. You’re coming with us.”

“Damn it to shadow and sear it in light, Tellias, I have a plan. You and your men go into the tunnel first. Trust me.”

“Trust you?” Tellias’ voice was firm. “You just lost your stomach in the middle of the battle. I’m not letting you out of my flathing sight.”

Tythel looked at Eupheme, who shook her head. “If you did…” Eupheme said, trailing off without finishing the thought.

“Fine.” Tythel snapped the word more firmly than was needed. “You can stay, but get your men into the tunnel. Or do you want to keep arguing while they die?”

Even though the arcplate helm covering his face, Tythel could feel the intensity of anger in his gaze. He gave the orders, though, which was all Tythel cared about. “Eupheme, make sure his men get in.” Eupheme shot her a glare, but Tythel shook her head. “You can be back in an instant if something goes wrong. Please.”

Eupheme held the glare a moment longer, then gave a curt nod and vanished back into the shadow.

“Care to tell me what this plan is?” Tellias asked.

Before Tythel could respond, shouts began to rise up from further down the line. “Alohym on the field! Alohym on the field!”

One of those shouts ended abruptly in a gurgling scream.

Tythel felt her blood run cold. “Come on,” she shouted to Tellias.

He didn’t argue, which Tythel took as small blessing. She extended her hammer and they burst back through the hole in the wall.

This was only the third Alohym Tythel had seen close and in person. She’d expected it to be virtually indistinguishable from Rephylon, the way telling apart two tigers was difficult when you’d only been mauled by one. To her surprise, that wasn’t the case – in part because this Alohym looked nothing like any other she’d even heard described. Its skin was still a black carapace, its head still the wedge shape she’d gotten used to, but this one walked on two legs and its arms didn’t split at the elbow. If it hadn’t been from the massive thorax extending back from where the legs met the torso, she almost could have taken it for a human wearing armor modeled after the Alohym like some new, sleek imperiplate.

It whirled as they entered. A soldier tried to take advantage of its distraction, standing up to point his arcwand at the creature. Without even looking, this strange new Alohym extended its arm sideways towards the man. The carapace began to run like wax, and that arm was coated with a large growth, the forearm bulging outwards and consuming the hand so all that was left was a vacant hole. Unlight streaked from the new appendage, cleaving the man in twain.

It had done all that in the time it took the man to raise his weapon and take aim. Light, I’ve never seen anything move that fast. It even exceeded Rephylon’s speed – Although, Tythel reminded herself, Rephylon was toying with you.

This newcomer didn’t seem interested in playing game. It sprouted thin, gossamer wings from its back and flew towards Tythel and Tellias, the arm shaping into a wicked blade that glowed with an unlight edge.

“Great, it can flathing fly,” Tellias had time to mutter, and then it was upon them.

It struck for Tellias first, a fury of blows that happened far too quickly for Tellias to even think about parrying individual strikes. He swung his arcwand, forcing the creature to dart back, and Tythel could see the exposed cords of his wire from a dozen cuts the Alohym had broken in the steel. The Alohym flew around, coming back in for another strike, this time focused on Tythel.

Tythel wasn’t going to let it get into melee with her. She turned to follow it, heart pounding. Come at me, you monster, she thought with a savage fury, stroking the fans of ghostflame with her anger and fear. Come on, I’m right here.

As if it heard her, the Alohym dropped its erratic pattern and charged directly for her. She let loose a gout of blue and white ghostflame to meet it.

It dodged like the fire was standing still, flittering away from the flame with preternatural speed. Tythel turned her head to follow its path, the flame swinging towards the Alohym like it was on the end of a massive whip connected to her throat, but it kept ahead of the soul-searing fire with a contemptuous ease. “I won’t be as easy as that, you monster!” it screamed.

The voice surprised Tythel so much she stumbled as her ghostflame cut out. That stumble saved her life – the Alohym’s blade passed through the space where her head had been, and Tythel turned it into a roll to come up behind the Alohym. It was as surprised at the motion as Tythel, which gave her and Tellias a chance to strike. Their attacks missed as the Alohym rocketed back into the air. “No,” Tythel said quietly as it flew upwards. “That’s not possible.”

“What isn’t?” Tellias growled. “This flathing thing being that fast?”

His voice helped snap her out of her surprise. “Later. Won’t impact the fight.”

Tellias just grunted in acknowledgement. “We need to get to the tunnels. It’s too mobile out here. Down there it’ll only have one avenue of attack, only one path.”

“There’s still soldiers out he could kill!” Tythel hissed, watching closely at their opponent circled in the air, getting ready for another strike. Tythel’s voice was raw from the ghostflame, and she could feel her knees begin to shake. Light give me strength. I can’t collapse now.

“I don’t think it is interested in the soldiers. It called you a monsters, your highness. I think it’s going to follow- Get down!”

Tythel had seen it at the same moment as Tellias, and they both leaped aside. Their opponent had brought his hands together and they had shifted again, forming a single, massive unlight cannon. A small part of Tythel’s brain noticed how the thorax shrunk when it formed that weapon, but there wasn’t any time to think about that. The creature was firing on them with the force of an Alohym Warship, and Tellias and Tythel were both forced to run for the tunnels, it’s fire dogging their heels.

“Don’t think you can escape me,” he growled, and again Tythel heard his voice. She’d been expecting it this time, but that only made it slightly less shocking.

Somehow, this Alohym spoke with the voice of a man.

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The Dragon’s Scion Part 74

Tythel popped over the wall, raising her arcwand and squeezing off three quick shots in the general direction of the Alohym’s approaching troops. Between their armor and her terrible aim, she was relatively certain it did nothing except make them keep their heads down, but that meant they weren’t shooting back. At least, I hope it’s doing some good.

The warship had taken out their heavy Arcwands, and it was now charging for another shot. The Alohym were keeping it far in the back, so it couldn’t focus on individual soldiers. A small blessing. It was still plenty close to target any building the rebels built up a strong presence inside, cracking centuries old stone like it was rotten wood.

Tythel slid along the wall so she wouldn’t be poking her head over the same spot, and then jumped up to fire again. Another three shots, and she ducked back down.

“Incoming!” one of the soldiers shouted, diving to the ground. A sphere fell out of the sky and exploded in a burst of unlight, sending shards of rock and steel flying among the men. Tythel felt some of the shrapnel bite into her arm and hissed in pain.

“They’re closing in!” Another shouted from a watchtower. “On the lef-”

His warning was cut off with a sudden gurgle, and Tythel watched the man’s body fall limply out of the tower. Cold rage washed over Tythel. She hadn’t even known the man’s name, and he was dead now. Go peacefully to the shadow. Your warning won’t be in vain.

Tythel crawled along the ground towards the left of their position. There was an archway over there, and three Alohym soldiers were running towards it, their unlight weapons raised. They saw Tythel and pointed, starting to charge directly at her.

They clearly didn’t know what she could do. She took a deep breath and let loose a gout of dragonflame, moving her head in an arc to catch as many of them in fire as she could.

Their screams joined the general cacophony of the battlefield, and Tythel turned away, just in time to see the part of the wall she had just vacated explode. A soldier in full imperiplate had hit the wall at a charge and burst through, sliding to a stop across from Tythel with an unlight axe raised.

“Get down!” Tellias shouted, leaping into action before Tythel could even begin to draw breath. His arcplate’s light dimmed as he got closer to the imperiplate, and the battlefield rang with the force of his blow against his opponent.

“Get free so I can breathe!” Tythel shouted, but Tellias was lost in the struggle. The two metal-clad men were now in a grapple, the unlight axe discarded at the moment of impact.

Tythel loosed her hammer and ran to join in their struggle. She leapt as she got close to the fight, using her feet to push off of Tellias’ shoulders and fly over the imperiplate soldier’s head.

Eupheme was on this side of the breach, and she vanished into Tythel’s shadow right before Tythel landed in a roll. Tythel whirled and swung with her hammer. It met the side of the soldier’s hip and the armor cracked where it landed.

Tellias broke free of the grapple, bringing back one gauntleted fist to slam into the soldier’s faceplate. His opponent was fast and more experience with imperiplate. He managed to move out of the way in time, sending Tellias off balance. For a moment Tythel thought Tellias would come stumbling into her, but he caught himself before he did, instead bringing his gauntlet around to hit the spot Tythel had weakened. She could hear something break deep within the imperiplate, and the soldier inside became more frantic.

Eupheme reappeared them, stepping out of the shadow to shove a thin blade into the cracks now splintering the armor’s hip. The man inside screamed in pain.

From there, it took Tythel and Tellias only moments to finish the soldier off. Moments they didn’t have. “Fall back!” Someone shouted further down the line. “Fall back or be surrounded!”

Tythel snatched up the unlight axe and tossed it to Eupheme. Eupheme nodded and stepped back into shadows again. Tythel began to run to the first fallback point, Tellias joining her. “Don’t get between me and plate again,” Tythel hissed at him.

“Then don’t get so close to plate,” Tellias growled. “I don’t want to see you in hand to hand with one of those things.”

Tythel leapt over the next wall with Tellias, then turned to him to shout, “I was fighting them in hand to hand before you were-”

Eupheme stepped out from the shadow of the wall. “Enough!” she snapped, her voice firm. “This is a battlefield, not a bedroom. Bicker later.”

Tellias turned a deep shade of red, although Tythel could on blink in confusion. What do bedrooms have to do with arguments? Still, properly chastised, she peered through a gap between the stones.

Numbers should have been on their side, yet the Alohym’s forces were pushing them back. That damn warship in the sky was pelting them with unlight beams that could cleave through any barrier they could erect, and they were making good use of their imperiplate, clumping it together in groups of four or five to act like a fist at anywhere resistance was particularly strong. We need something to change the game or we’re done for.

There was no time for clever strategies, however. Soldiers of the Alohym were rushing forwards. Resistance fighters began popping over the walls to open fire, trying to slow their advance. This time, Tythel didn’t bother with an arcwand, instead waiting for them to get closer before leaping out of cover and letting loose a wide arc of dragonflame.

She only caught a few soldiers in her breath, but they fell, screaming in agony as they did. If only there was some way to burn the whole army…Tythel thought.

Then, slowly, a grin began to spread across her face. “Tellias! We need to fall back to the tunnels!”

Tellias gave her an open mouthed stare. “Have you lost your mind? We’ll be trapped like rats down there.”

Tythel nodded. “I have a plan. Well, an idea. Flath it, Tellias, we’re getting picked off from the air anyway! Underground favors us right now.”

As if to punctuate her point, an ancient tower that contained arcwand snipers exploded nearby, shattered by a beam of unlight as thick as a man’s torso. The warship was beginning to slowly advance, its pilot realizing that nothing they had on the ground could oppose them. “Light burn me,” Tellias swore, looking around wildly. “We need to convince the rest of the army, or we’ll just be cowards running.”

Tythel stood up again to let loose another gout of dragonflame at the advancing soldiers. An unlight beam brushed her shoulder, and she dropped back down as she suppressed a hiss of pain. “Eupheme!” Tythel said. “Find d’Monchy. Tell him-”

Tythel didn’t need to finish the explanation. Eupheme gave Tythel a quick nod of her head and vanished again into shadows.

“Are you alright?” Tellias asked, standing up to return fire on the advancing soldiers. From the lack of screams, both from her flame and his shots, neither of them had struck home.

“Are you kidding?” Tythel let out a dark laugh. “I’ve been shot worse than this. I’ll be fine.” She did her best to seem confident, even though every twitch of the injured arm was agony.

Tellias only nodded. “Well, you highness, your Umbrist has gone to try and change the course of an entire army. What do we do until she returns?”

A soldier made it to the wall, leaping over in a swift motion. His eagerness put him directly in Tythel’s arm reach, and she swung her hammer one handed. The man’s chest cavity collapsed under the blow.

“We hold the line,” she said. And Light grant we can hold it long enough.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 72

“So are you going to say anything?”

Tythel didn’t mean to snap when she asked the questions, but she couldn’t help it. Leaving the meeting of the council had her on edge, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that Eupheme was judging her.

If the outburst startled Eupheme, it didn’t show. “Something on your mind, your highness?”

They’d both been silent since leaving the meeting, weaving between the broken stones that were all that remained of Hallith. Eupheme had claimed what seemed to be the upper floors of an inn for their quarters, although for all Tythel knew it was actually a manor of some Hallithian noble, or barracks for some particularly high ranking soldiers. Whatever it had been, it was close to the Reliquary, and only had one room that remained intact enough to sleep in. Perfect for the two of them.

“You know what’s on my mind,” Tythel said, moderating her tone. “I’m sorry I snapped.”

Eupheme shrugged off the apology. “Difficult choices breed anger. It’s natural.”

“Surely you have some thoughts on it, though,” Tythel said as they walked through the doorway of their temporary home. “You’re not made of stone.”

Eupheme smiled, a smile Tythel couldn’t parse. Shadow take me, I wish I’d learned facial expressions sometimes. “No, your highness, I’m not. However…when you spoke of the hoard before, it had a reverence I didn’t understand.”

Tythel sighed. “Eupheme, I’m not sure how to take that.”

“Can I be blunt?”

“Please,” Tythel said as they took seats on the bundles of cloth that served as beds.

“Alright. If you were a human, raised by humans, I’d think you were a selfish bitch.”

Tythel let out a huff of air in shock. “Well, I did ask for blunt.”

Eupheme nodded. “But you’re not fully human, and you weren’t raised by humans. There are differences between the way you see things and the way I do. Often I think it’s one of your strengths. It would be hypocritical of me to judge you only when it goes against what I think is right.”

Tythel sighed, flopping on her back onto the blankets. “So you think it’s wrong.”

“Yes. But I also don’t think I fully understand the significance. As far as I can see, it’s a collection of treasure and coins. It seems like it’s more than that to you.” Eupheme laid down on her stomach, propping her head up on her arms.

“It’s so much more than that,” Tythel said with another sigh. “It’s…I’m not sure how to explain.” Tythel turned to face Eupheme. “Let me ask you something. If it would help defeat the Alohym, would you eat a handful of live centipedes?”

Eupheme made a face. She’d confided her fear of the creatures during one of their late night talks, when Tythel had complained Eupheme seemed too fearless. “No. I mean, I would try, but I know I’d fail. And I can’t imagine how it would.”

“I can’t see how it would either. But…the idea of plundering my father’s hoard for…for material gain?” It was Tythel’s turn to make a disgusted face. “Even for the good of the world, it’s appalling.”

Eupheme frowned. “I can understand, I think. But…what do dragons do with their hoards?”

“It’s a hoard,” Tythel said. Eupheme looked at her blankly, and Tythel groped for the right words. “It’s just…it’s a hoard. You don’t…do anything with it. You hoard. You have your parent’s hordes, and you divide it among siblings if you have any. Then you add your own treasure to it, and then…and then you have it. A part of your parents you keep with you, and you grow it and care for it and pass it along to your children.”

Eupheme regarded her for a long moment. “It’s like a garden,” she said finally.

Tythel snapped her fingers. “Yes. Exactly like a garden.”

“If it was a garden, then, let me ask you something. If someone came to your garden, starving to death, would you deny them fruit from it?”

Tythel closed her eyes slowly, showing how deeply the question hurt her. From the way Eupheme winced, Tythel thought she understood. “It’s different. Fruit in a garden will regrow on its own.”

“Yes, it will. But if the city was starving, would you let them eat all the fruit, even though it meant you could not plant any more trees?”

Tythel put her face into the cloth in frustration. “I guess it’s not like a garden,” she muttered. “The analogy doesn’t work.”

“It doesn’t? Or you don’t like the analogy because it makes you uncomfortable?”

Tythel sat up fully. “Because it makes me uncomfortable, okay?”

“At least you admit it.” Eupheme said, rising to sit herself. She was frowning as she did. “I wish things had been done properly,” she muttered.

Tythel cocked her head in confusion. “What do you mean?”

“Your books had little about my order, didn’t they?” Eupheme asked.

“I mean…yes.”

“What did they say?”

Tythel was failing to see the relevance to their conversation, but went ahead regardless. “They said you served Royal families. That you were guards against assassins and assassins yourself. Little else in terms of the general.”

Eupheme nodded. “We work hard to keep out of the books. Most authors don’t spend time describing the shadows cast by the figures they follow, and that is what we are.”

Tythel took a moment to regard her own shadow. It flickered in the torch they used for light, dancing on the cloth and stone. “Then…tell me what I need to know.”

“If things had been done properly, I would have been raised alongside you. Myself and at least three others, girls around our age. We would have been like sisters to you, although also not your equal. We would have spent our childhood learning your habits, your whims. The hope is you would have chosen one of us to adopt as a true sister in all but inheritance, your closest companion with whom you share your every thoughts.”

Tythel leaned down to rest her arms on her knees and her head in her hands. “That’s how it always was?”

“Always. It means you have an advisor you can trust implicitly, one who is even more trustworthy than your own siblings would have been, since she never would have a claim to the throne so no reason to betray you. And I – she – would have had a lifetime learning your moods, your thoughts, to the point where she could read your intent without you saying a word.”

“That sound wonderful,” Tythel said. “To have someone who knows you that well.”

Eupheme nodded. “It also would have meant I could have understood where you were coming from with this, Tythel. But I don’t. The wealth in Karjon’s hoard could fund the resistance for months, at least, and the books could be the key for cracking the cipher. I don’t understand how you can keep that to yourself.”

Tythel let out a low, tired breath and looked down at her feet. “It’s…it’s like making blades from his bones, shields from his scales. It’s like desecrating his grave.” She could feel her nictitating membranes wiping away the tears that were forming. “I don’t know of any other way to explain it.”

There was silence for so long, Tythel wondered if Eupheme had slipped away. Finally, the other woman spoke. “I suppose I can understand that.” Eupheme came over and put an arm around Tythel’s shoulder. “I won’t press you on it again. I just want to ask one thing. If he were alive, do you think Karjon would hesitate to spend that entire treasure to keep you safe?”

Tythel opened her mouth to speak, but the sound turned into a sob. She buried her head in Eupheme’s shoulder, and Eupheme held her and let her cry. “How many times do I have lose him?” Tythel choked out. “First to the Alohym, then the egg, and now his hoard…how many times do I have to say goodbye to my father?”

Eupheme didn’t answer her at first, just held her and ran her hand through Tythel’s hair and letting her cry. “Don’t think of it at losing him,” Eupheme said gently. “Think of it as letting him still help you. I wish I had known him so I could say this with certainty, but from what you’ve told me…don’t you think he would have wanted that?”

Tythel gave Eupheme a grateful series of blinks. “Yes. He would have.” She pulled away from Eupheme and wiped her eyes. “Light and shadow, I’m a mess. I hardly seem like a princess or a dragon, do I? Just a whiny girl.”

Eupheme smiled. “Your highness, if things had been done properly, my duty would have been to be the person you could whine to.”

“Well…guess you get to do that anyway.”

Eupheme laughed. “It is my honor to be able to do so.”

Tythel wiped her eyes again, knowing they would be red and raw but feeling as if a great weight had been lifted.. “Thank you, Eupheme.” She took a deep breath. “I’ll do it. Tomorrow. First thing tomorrow, I’ll offer it as an alternative.”

Eupheme smiled. “Wonderful. And what, then, shall we do with tonight? More mournful staring off the walls?”

Tythel did laugh now, and shook her head. “No, not that. I think tonight I’ll spend among the others.”

Eupheme nodded in approval, and the two women headed to find what trouble Armin had gotten himself up to, or see if Ossman was able to step away from his duties. They would drink, and dance, and have altogether a wonderful time.

None of them had any way of knowing it would be the last chance they had time together for quite some time.

Small Worlds Part 174

We’re going to the moon, we’re going to the moon, I’m going to be the first woman on the moon, Isabel thought, practically bouncing in her chair in Crystal’s staging area. She glanced at Crystal and amended that thought. I’m going to be the first mortal woman on the moon who cares I’m going to be on the friggin’ moon.

“Careful, love. You look like you’re about to bounce out of your seat,” Crystal said in a teasing voice. “Nervous?”

“Nervous? Oh hell no. I’m going to be walking on the moon. Are you kidding me? I couldn’t be more excited if it was Christmas, my Birthday, and Graduation all wrapped up into one.”

Crystal let out a chuckle. “I hope it doesn’t disappoint you.”

“Will I be able to see the Earth being massive overhead?”

Crystal glanced at her console, then nodded. “Anansi’s directions take us to the near side, not the far side, so yes. Earth should be right overhead when we step out.”

“Then I’m going to be perfectly happy,” Isabel said.

“You’re not worried about the lack of air?”

“I mean, you’re going to take care of that until we get to the sphynx and the mysterious moon base, right?” Isabel asked with a frown. “Should I be worried?”

“I’ll be maintaining a bubble of air for you, love, so it should be fine, but if something happens to me…” Crystal let that trail off. “Well, you’ll have a bloody short time to get back to the doorway.”

Isabel shrugged. “And if an astronauts suit gets punctured, they’re dead. Honestly, I think it’s safer than a space suit – instead of relying on materials and fabrics, I’ve got literal divine intervention holding me safe, so I should be fine.”

Crystal smiled at Isabel, and Isabel felt herself begin to flush. “Well, I appreciate the confidence in my abilities,” Crystal said.

“I’d be rude if I didn’t have confidence! You’ve survived for this long just fine, I’m pretty sure you could manage a trip across the lunar surface. Besides, you saved my life once before, and that was way more dangerous than this.”

“Don’t be so sure about that, love,” Crystal said, darkly. “We haven’t encountered moonworms yet.”

Isabel froze. “Moonworms?”

“Oh, bloody hell, did I not mention those? Yes, moonworms. They burrow through the Lunar dust, you see, and they’re attracted to sources of heat. It’s what they feed off of. For living things, they crawl up their legs and try to get as close to the warmth as they can.”

Isabel stared at Crystal with growing horror. “So they…hug your legs?”

Crystal shook her head grimly. “Oh, no, not at all. They have jaws that can cut through lunar regolith, they’ll absolutely try to go as deep into the warmth as possible. Bite. By. Bite.”

Isabel couldn’t contain a frightened “eep.” As soon as she let the sound out, Crystal’s frown vanished to be replaced with laughter. Isabel stared at her for a moment, then crossed her arms as realization settled in. “You were messing with me.”

“Of course I was bloody messing with you,” Crystal said, wiping away tears of laughter. “Moonworms. That’s…I’m sorry, love,  you should have seen your face.”

“That was just mean. How am I supposed to know Moonworms weren’t real? A few days ago I was kidnapped by an archangel and a crazy god from a pre-human race and you all were fighting dragons. Are you going to tell me moonworms are absurd when compared to that?” In spite of her annoyance, Isabel was also flushing. You “eeped.” You were being taunted by a goddess, and you said “eep.” Way to go, Isabel.

Crystal’s laughter began to die down. “Oh, come on love, just a bit of a joke, yeah?”

Isabel sniffed in annoyance. “It wasn’t very funny.”

Crystal held up a hand. “You’re right, you had no way of knowing they weren’t real. If it makes you feel any better, Selene fell for the same thing ages ago.”

Isabel blinked. “Wasn’t Selene a moon goddess?”

“Oh, yeah, absolutely. She was so pissed at me for the moonworms, she decided to stay up here for a few days to prove she wasn’t frightened. By the time she got back, everyone decided she was the moon personified.”

“Now that,” Isabel said with a reluctant smile, “that, I have to admit, is pretty funny.”

Crystal’s grin returned. “I know, right? Bloody brilliant, if I do say so myself.”

“So does your humor always involve telling people lies they couldn’t know were lies without some kind of precognition?”

Crystal shook her head firmly. “Do that too often, and people stop trusting you. Now that I’ve done it to you,  you’re safe for the next millennia. Maybe two, can’t be too predictable. Just do me a favor, yeah? Don’t tell your brother. Haven’t gotten him yet, either.”

Isabel snorted out a breath. “If you’re going to do it to Ryan, I’ll help.

Crystal’s grin returned. “I knew I liked you.”

Still a bit annoyed by the joke, Isabel found it easy to prevent the flush this time. “So, this is old hat for you, isn’t it? Going to the moon, I mean.”

“Kinda, yeah. I don’t come up here often, though.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s the moon. There’s nothing up here, love!” Crystal frowned. “Or at least, I didn’t think there was. Should have known a Trickster would have put something up here.”

“Ahh, so the great Crystal isn’t as omnipotent as she seems?” Isabel said.

“Love, if I was half as omnipotent as I seemed, I’d be twice as omnipotent as I actually am.”

“Did you just make a Tolkien reference?”

Crystal just winked at Isabel instead of answering. “Don’t let me being old and jaded spoil the moon for you though. I may have been here a few times, but I’d hate for you to feel like it was somehow less special. Decided what you’re going to be on the moon?”

“I’m going to start as a human,” Isabel said after a moment’s thought. “I want to see it with my own eyes.”

Crystal nodded approval. “Well then, we’re here. You ready?”

Isabel practically threw herself out of the chair, thrumming with excitement. “Yes, yes, please God yes.”

Crystal smiled and opened the door, waggling her fingers to – Isabel assumed – give her some air to breathe on the lunar surface. “Beauty before age, love.”

Isabel didn’t protest, didn’t even register the comment fully. Instead, she bolted out the door and took her first step onto the surface of the moon.

She didn’t pay attention to how light she felt. She didn’t worry about the temperature of the artificial air brushing against her skin. In fact, she didn’t focus on anything at all, instead craning her head up and looking at the sky.

There, above them, just over the Horizon like it was the rising sun, hung the Earth. It was blue and green and brown and swirled with white streaks, half covered by night. She couldn’t quite make out individual continents, not with the clouds covering part of it, but she didn’t need to. Some part of her recognized that multicolored sphere as “home.”

Isabel felt tears spring to her eyes. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.