The Dragon’s Scion Part 98

-PART 2-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This flesh just made that endurance painfully difficult.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You could stay for a couple more-”

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

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

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

 

The Dragon’s Scion part 96

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

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

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

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

Haradeth just stared at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haradeth and Lorathor nodded. The Tainted One smiled.

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

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

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 88

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“From a distant star,” a voice said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I just…flath it. It bothers me.”

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

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

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

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

The Dragon’s Scion Part 86

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moments later, the aeromane flapped into view.

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

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

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

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

With a final roar, it dove from them.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 85

Tythel found Eupheme tangled in a bush nearly a mile back. She still had no idea how far they’d flown with the Skimmers. The twisting path of the canyon had long ago hidden the plateau from view. Eupheme grimaced at Tythel a she approached. “You’re alright?”

Tythel nodded. “You?” she said. The walk back to Eupheme, with repeated stops to drink, had given her throat some time to heal. Talking still hurt, but she could get through more than a single word without falling prey to a violent coughing fit.

Eupheme shook her head. “Think I broke my wrist. The Skimmers?”

“Gone,” Tythel assured her, walking the rest of the way over. Eupheme’s wrist was already swollen to twice its normal size. Tythel didn’t know medicine but was sure that was a bad sign. “I can start tearing?” she asked, motioning to the branches.

“Don’t bother,” Eupheme said. She was white with pain. “Just get the blanket out of my pack?”

Tythel looked around. The pack was caught in a tree branch a little way back, just too high for her to reach without climbing. One of the fluttering birds was pecking at it curiously. It flapped away with a startled squawk as Tythel drew near. Tythel looked at the pack more closely. Her hammer was attached to it, dangling from a thin strap.

She kicked the tree as hard as she could. The branches shook, and the hammer fell free. Tythel picked it up off the ground, activated it, and swung for the tree as hard as she could. The combined force of her swing and the force that activated when she struck cracked the truck in half, and with a groan the tree collapsed to a chorus of splintering branches.

From there, it was easy to pick the pack off the branches.

“Did you really need to break the tree?” Eupheme asked, a strained smile breaking through the pain. That’s a smile I’m getting all too good at recognizing, Tythel thought as her nictitating membranes slid closed in a moment of sadness. Spending as much time as she had around soldiers, the sickly grins of the injured trying to put on a brave face were seared into her mind.

“No,” Tythel admitted. “When all you have is a hammer…” She didn’t finish the idiom. It was enough to get a laugh out of Eupheme as Tythel rummaged through pack for the blanket. “What now?” Tythel asked, holding it up for Eupheme to see.

“Throw it over me.”

Tythel blinked in confusion. “Cold?” she asked.

Eupheme shook her head. “Please,” she asked.

Tythel’s eyes widened as she grasped it and tossed the blanket over Eupheme. It collapsed onto an empty bush, and Eupheme stepped out from behind a nearby tree. “Oh yeah,” she hissed. “That’s…that’s broken. Flath that hurts. Do you know how to do a splint?”

Tythel shook her head. “Talk me through it?” she asked. The idea of helping set a bone was uncomfortable, but the idea of letting Eupheme’s pain get worse was intolerable.

Eupheme nodded and sat down with Tythel’s help. “We’re going to need some sticks. Ones about as thick as my finger, and as straight as you can find. Ones that will run the entire length of my arm.” Eupheme managed another one of those pained smiled. “The good news is, someone just created a whole mess of sticks for us.”

Tythel looked over to the tree she had just felled and flushed. “Right.”

As many options as she had, Tythel felt it should have been easy to find some that met their requirements. However, most of the sticks Tythel was finding were too thin, or too thick, or too bent and twisted. She tossed another pair aside in irritation. “These?” she asked, holding a couple up for Eupheme.

Eupheme regarded then critically. “The one on the left will work,” she finally said.

Having a template of what to look for speed things up a bit. By the end of it, Tythel had gathered one stick that was perfect for their needs, and three that would work when bundled together. From there, the rest was relatively simple. The blanket that provided a way for Eupheme to get out from the bush was shredded, strips wrapped around the sticks to prevent splinters and around Eupheme’s arm to keep the pressure from being too great. “It’s still going to hurt,” Eupheme explained, “but it will hurt less, and heal better in the long term. The whole goal is to immobilize everything.

The final step was the worst, tightening the cloth around both wrist and stick to hold them in place. Even with everything they had done to reduce pressure, there was no way for it to not send lances of pain through Eupheme’s wrist whenever Tythel tried to tighten it.

“I’m sorry,” Tythel whispered as she let go of the cloth when Eupheme cried out in pain.

Eupheme grunted and blinked away tears of pain. “It’s going to hurt me, your highness,” she said softly. “The only way it’ll get better is if you set it properly. Temporary pain now means health in the future.”

Tythel nodded, gritted her teeth, and handed Eupheme a leather strip to bite down on. This time, she forced herself to not let go when Eupheme grunted in pain around the strip, forced herself to keep going until it was securely in place.

When they were done, Eupheme let out a low groan and held up the splint. She couldn’t move her wrist now, even if she’d wanted to. “I’m just…I’m just going to lay here for a bit.” Her eyes were half lidded. Tythel couldn’t even imagine how bad the pain must have been to wear Eupheme out to this degree and wish she could let the woman rest. Right now, that wasn’t an option.

“No,” Tythel said, forcing herself to stand up. “Night’s coming. Predators.”

Eupheme glanced in the direction of the sun and blinked. The sun was almost below the edge of the canyon. They’d have some hours before night once that passed, but they’d be plunged into darkness soon. “Okay. And we need to find Tellias.” Eupheme grimaced. “Once true night hits, I can push myself to reinforce this bond. It’ll give me some mobility back. Until then, I’ll only slow you down.”

“Not leaving you behind.” Tythel said firmly. “You’ll get on my back again. Won’t slow me down at all.” That proved to be a bit too many words at once, and the last word came out in a harsh wheeze. Tythel found herself coughing again, turning away to cough into her hand. No blood came up this time, which she decided to take a good sign.

Eupheme grimaced but nodded in agreement.

It had been some time since Tythel had last heard the clang of arcplate approaching. Tellias wasn’t coming for them. Tythel had to hope they hadn’t taken too long caring for Eupheme.

Once Eupheme was secure on Tythel’s back, she took off as quick as she dared move back up the river.

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 84

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Far too long,” Poz agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Dragon’s Scion Part 83

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No coin,” Poz said warily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And how he could best use it.

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 80

The climb down started off easily enough. Eupheme had rigged up several clamps to the ropes, so she wasn’t reliant on her muscle power to take them down the side of the plateau, instead able to squeeze them for a slow descent. Tythel had grown up on a mountain and ridden Karjon’s back since she was a child. The heights didn’t bother her. The jerking, halting way they were descending was doing a number on her stomach, however, and she had to fight to keep herself from being sick. At one point it got to be too much, and bile rose up in her throat. The stomach acid hitting the sores on her throat was a whole new agony, and Tythel almost blacked up as she let out a pained rattle that passed for a scream.

Eupheme did glance over her shoulder when that happened. “What’s wrong?” she asked, a worried note in her voice.

Tythel shook her head.

“Right, you can’t speak. Is there anything that I can do?”

Tythel again shook her head.

“Okay. Is it injuries from the battle?”

Tythel nodded firmly at that.

Eupheme paused for a moment to consider. “Okay. If you need me to stop, reach over and pat me on the head. Don’t touch anything else, I don’t want to risk slipping. Can you reach?”

Tythel nodded again. I hate communicating like this, she thought bitterly. She’d already had enough time to figure out what she’d tell Eupheme – the truth. She wasn’t sure it was going to be enough, but it would at least be honest.

An ugly, nasty voice rose up in the back of her mind. Honest? Like you were with Nicandros? It sneered. She’s going to leave, you know. She’s going to abandon you. Same as he did. Or she’ll die, like Karjon. Maybe it’s better  you keep her angry. At least she’ll leave now, before it hurts more.

Tellias drifted a bit further down beneath them. The arc emitters built into his boots were not strong enough to propel him into flight, but they were enough to slow his fall. He’d tested it by jumping off one of the few still standing buildings. The only question they had was if he had enough power to get all the way to the ground, but they’d decided to take the risk. He was definitely dead if they stayed up top and waited for the Alohym to show back up.

Tythel turned her head to the side and spit out a red globule. They were coming a bit less frequently now, which Tythel hoped meant she was starting to heal. And not that my stomach is filling up with…no, stop it Tythel, don’t think about it.

Eupheme grunted behind her, and some of the rocks began to clatter down the side of the cliff. Tythel sucked in an involuntary breath. Relax, she told herself, trying to unclench her fists from the sudden surge of panic. Eupheme was not supporting them with her arms and legs. The rope was doing most of the work. Thick, sturdy, rope, that wasn’t at all likely to snap and send them plummeting to their deaths hundreds of feet below.

Tythel took her mind off the valley below by focusing her eyes outward, down the canyon. While the land surrounding Hallith might be a desert, the flow of water in canyon had transformed the canyon into a forest. Tythel marveled at seeing how far away from the river proper the trees had grown, their roots stretching like fingers towards the water. A few birds flew among the trees, fat, ungainly creatures that could only fly a short distance. Tythel had read about them, but couldn’t recall their name. They only existed in the isolated ecosystem of the canyon, unable to fly up over the brim.

Tythel caught a shape crawling up one of the walls and focused on it. It was a lizard, easily the size of the man, another of the unique life forms to this valley. This one Tythel remembered. The drayko were six limbed reptiles, making them part of the ancient order of reptiles that had culminated in dragons. Unlike the majestic being that had raised Tythel, the drayko had no wings. Instead, where a dragon’s limbs would be were two claws folded tightly to their backs. As Tythel watched, one of the fat birds flew close to the Drayko. It’s claws shot out, easily fifteen feet long, and speared the bird mid flight.

The drayko brought the creature to its jaws, and Tythel swallowed hard, then risked a glance down. If their path took them past one sunning itself, looking for the birds, it could easily decide Tythel and Eupheme made acceptible pray instead.

No drayko awaited them on the climb down. What was waiting was another two hundred feet of falling and an intense sense of vertigo.

Tythel took her eyes off the drop. You’ve ridden your father’s back amongst the clouds, why does this bother you? Don’t you trust Eupheme? As soon as the thought was in her mind, she was able to answer it to herself. It wasn’t Eupheme she didn’t trust, it was the ropes. If they failed, Eupheme would never have the strength to hold them both to the wall. They would plummet, and all the truth in the would wouldn’t adhere them to the wall.

Flath, why am I letting her climb? I should have insisted on being the one to carry the burden! Guilt welled up in Tythel, and she tried to fight it down again, focusing on the canyon again.

Something was moving through the winding passages of the canyon, something moving with far more grace and agility than the flightless birds. Tythel had never seen these creatures in any of her books. They were flat and wide, shaped like crescent moon. They reminded Tythel of the manta’s she’d seen swimming outside their under sea base. Spots of flame emerged from under their wings, constant jets of fire that seemed to propel them as they used their wings to maneuver.

The drayko spotted them, and its claws lunged out at one of these new creatures. It swerved in the air to involve claws fast enough to catch birds in the air, and then swung its tail towards the lizard.

A beam of unlight went streaming into the confused drayko, cutting it in half.

Light and shadow, Tythel thought with growing horror. Eupheme had mentioned the Alohym were sending something. Skimmers, that had been the word. Apparently, these were them. They flew faster than anything Tythel had ever imagined, faster even that Karjon when he was flapping his wings with full force.

She reached up and frantically tapped Eupheme on the head. The other woman looked over her shoulder. “What is it, Tythel?”

Tythel pointed, and after a few seconds, Eupheme swore. “Get ready. Going to have to speed things up.”

The lead Skimmer banked upwards. The eyes were on the bottom of the creature’s stomach, and they peered at the wall on stalks. Tythel readied dragonflame as soon as the Skimmer came in range.

She spat forth flame, going for a wide gout that would incinerate the creature before it could aim that tail.

Instead, she only managed to spray forth flecks of dark blood. The pain was worse even than having her eye socket broken, and Tythel clutched her neck in sudden agony. Eupheme swore and dropped them a few feet right as the Skimmer shot a beam of unlight, searing the rock where they had been. It missed the two of them.

It didn’t miss the rope.

For a moment, Tythel felt weightless, like she had when Karjon started to dive.

Then gravity began to assert itself, and the ground came rushing towards them. Tythel didn’t hesitate. She swing her shoulders, getting a startled shout from Eupheme as the turned around. Tythel ignored it, instead popping her talons and shoving them into the rock and dirt that crusted the cliff face.

She felt a couple of her talons tear out of her fingers at the first impact. If her throat had not been so ruined, she would have screamed at the sudden agony. Instead she let out a raspy sound that burbled wetly in her throat. The remaining talons held fast, and after digging deep furrows in the rock, they brought Tythel and Eupheme to a halt. Tythel could feel Eupheme struggling to bring out her arclight rifle, could hear Tellias shouting something from the ground below.

The Skimmer crested its body over the canyon, and turned in a wide arc, coming around for another pass. The two below banked upwards towards them.

Tythel made herself begin to climb, ignoring the agony in her fingers, ignoring the way her throat burned like it held a trapped flame. If she didn’t get them to the ground, they were dead.

At least she didn’t have to worry about the rope breaking anymore.

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 79

“Tythel! That’s enough!” Tellias shouted, putting a hand on her shoulder.

He was right, although not for the reason he thought. He thought that it was enough because there were flecks of her blood spraying out with the dragonflame, tiny red motes that burst into steam. That might have been a good enough reason to stop, but the actual reason Tythel was stopping was the only sounds she could hear in the tunnels were the mechanical shuffling of imperiplate in motion.

Tythel tapped her stolen helmet. Tellias reached down and pulled it off her belt, holding it over her head. “I’m ready,” he said.

Tythel nodded, and closed her mouth. Immediately the miasma rushed back towards her, tendrils of vapor hungrily reaching towards her mouth, trying to invade her lungs. Tellias slammed the helmet on her shoulders before they could, flicking a clasp on the side. A soft, rubbery material stretched in to seal around her neck. She had to fight back another round of coughing, not wanting to get blood in the helmet.

She could have sworn the tendrils of miasma slowed when the helmet was clamped into place, almost as if it realized it was thwarted. “You alright in there?” Tellias asked.

Tythel raised her hand and extended the pinky and thumb, a gesture she’d seen soldiers make to indicate affirmation. Tellias grunted from within his imperiplate. “You can’t talk, can you?”

She shook her head. She could feel her throat bleeding. It will heal. I’m sure it will. Or I’m going to choke to death on my own blood. The thought made her want to vomit. The idea of that filling her helmet, and being forced between breathing that and choking to death on miasma, gave her the will to keep it down.

“Their imeriplate troops will still be coming,” Tellias said.

Tythel nodded, and pointed down one of the tunnels. No sounds were coming from it. Tellias nodded and moved to take the lead back to the surface. Tythel didn’t object. She felt the weariness in her bones, and right now wasn’t sure she’d be able to fend off an aggressive sparrow without passing out.

The corpses of the men who had died to the miasma littered the tunnel. They were all completely mummified, and had died trying to flee, scrambling at walls, or clutching at their throats. Tythel shuddered at the sight, of realizing these deaths were all on her head.

It felt different than killing them in battle. That was life or death, kill or be killed. This was the same thing, but…it was also different. It didn’t feel like battle, it felt like murder. They were going to kill you, she reminded herself, but it was a cold comfort. The resistance lives on because of this. That was a bit better, but it didn’t do anything for the empty eye sockets that stared at her in mute horror. “Do you have a songstone?” Tellias asked.

Tythel nodded.

“Just link it to your helmet, then. You’ll be able to contact the resistance. It should be able to read your lip movements, even if you don’t speak.”

Tythel stopped and looked at him, hands splayed out.

“You…don’t know how to do that, do you?”

Tythel shook her head.

“Well, I’ll show you once we’re clear of all this. For now…” Tellias went silent for a moment. “Everyone’s fine,” he said afterwards. “Although they’re worried about running out of air before the lumcasters can cut through. Apparently the base was wider than they expected where they were. They don’t know how long it will take.

If Tythel could speak, she would have sworn. She turned to start heading back down the tunnel. We can wait until the miasma clears, then go in and-

Tellias put a hand on her arm. He didn’t grab her, just a simple gesture to pause her movement. “Your highness. The imperiplate.”

Tythel cocked her head, then pointed down the tunnel urgently. “You still want to go?” Tythel nodded firmly. “You’re worried the imperiplate will get through the rock?” Tythel repeated the nod.

“I wouldn’t be. It will take them hours to dig through the mess you made. As far as they know, the resistance is buried in there and probably dead. I think they’re more a danger to us than to the others.”

Tythel crossed her arms. She didn’t have the words to argue with him, not with her throat like this. But…

“Your highness, please,” he said. “We can’t help them. But we can survive. They’ll be alright. Even if the imperiplate troops cut through…it’s hundreds against a dozen. They’ll win.”

Tythel cocked her head again, this time in thought, and then nodded, turning to head back up the tunnel. She couldn’t hear the imperiplate troops in the other tunnels, not with this much rock between them.

When they broke onto the surface, the sun had risen fully. Harsh sunlight illuminated the battlefield. The corpses of men lay strewn about, and vultures were beginning to circle. The miasma was rising into the air, forming a cloud that tried to reach out towards the scavengers, as if intent on taking as much life as it could.

“The others beat you out of the tunnel,” a voice said, causing both Tellias and Tythel to whirl. Eupheme stepped out from behind a rock, her face a mask of fury. “They got back on the transports and left. I listened to them. They think they’ve won, although they’re sending something called Skimmers to hunt for survivors. We’ll want to be gone by the time they get here.”

Tythel reached out to her, and Eupheme slapped her hand away. “No. After that stunt you pulled, I’m sure you can’t talk. Besides, we’ve got to get out of here.”

“I was going to attach her songstone to her helm-” Tellias started.

“No time.”

Tellias opened his mask, his face hard. “I am still Baron of the Highplains,” he said in a warning tone.

Eupheme stiffened. “And right now, I’m High Queen of not Giving a Damn, your lordship. I’m going to keep the princess alive. It’s what I’m supposed to do.” She shot a venomous glance as Tythel with that word, and Tythel shrunk away from her glare. “And right now, I think it’s very good for the princesses safety that she keeps her mouth shut.”

Without the ability to speak, Tythel could only hang her head. Eupheme nodded curtly. “Come on.”

“Any idea how we’re going to get off this plateau?” Tellias asked.

“We climb,” Eupheme said simply. “At least, the princess and I do. You can use that suit’s arclight to slow yourself down if you jump, right?”

“I’ve never tried it before,” Tellias said.

“No time like the present.” Eupheme said, walking towards the edge. “I scouted the best path down a little while ago.”

“I’m not sure I like-”

“Then find your own way down, your lordship. I’m climbing down with the princess if I have to carry her myself.”

Tellias scowled at Eupheme, but just closed his helmet and continued stalking towards the edge.

“Euph-” Tythel started to croak. The word was cut off, both by the pain of speaking, and from the look Eupheme gave her.

“I said we’ll talk later. Right now, you’re going to listen.” Even as bad as she was at reading human expression, Tythel could not mistake the fury on her friend’s face. “You do not get to decide what is dangerous for me and what isn’t. You do not get to shove me aside. I’ll protect you, your highness. But friends don’t do that to each other.”

Tythel could only nod mutely as they headed towards the edge of the cliff. Eupheme pulled two ropes out of the dirt. They were well buried, and Tythel realized Eupheme had set this up some time ago. “Are you able to climb?” Eupheme asked her, not looking at Tythel.

Tythel held up her hand to show how badly it was shaking. Eupheme nodded. “Then I’m strapping you to my back and we’re going down like that. Any objections?”

Tythel shook her head.

“Good. Oh, and take that flathing helmet off before you run out of air. Miasma’s gone.”

Tythel reached up to do exactly that. The rest of the arrangements were done in silence, Tythel feeling unable to even meet Eupheme’s eyes right now. Eupheme secured Tythel to her back, letting her face out, and handed her an arcwand. “If those skimmers show up, you’ll keep us alive. I’ll get us down. Okay?”

Tythel nodded, feeling tears well up in her eyes as Eupheme’s tone. The tension she could feel in Eupheme’s back lessened some. “Tythel,” she said, her voice still harsh, but not as acerbic as it had been. Eupheme paused as if considering something, then sighed. “I’m not going to say it’s going to be okay. But I got your pack. It’s secure in the bag we’ll be taking down. So…take from that what you will.”

The tears flowed freely now, guilt mixing with relief. Tythel was glad Eupheme couldn’t see them.

It was a long climb to the bottom.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 78

The tunnel was a winding maze burrowed into the rock of Hallith, twisting downwards to make sure the slope was not too steep. The walls were almost perfectly circular, although they still needed great wooden struts to support them. Armin had been grousing that if they’d carved them as arches, they’d have been able to forgo the supports, but had conceded the extra time needed for that was probably not worth the effort. As it was, the thick beams of wood would prevent the tunnel from collapsing.

There were five entrances upon the main plateau, all of them leading to a junction about a hundred feet down that allowed access to the single tunnel deeper in the earth. That junction, where five tunnels converged into one, was the biggest weak point in the whole structure. The lumcasters hadn’t been able to spare time to worry about structural integrity, and whenever Tythel walked past the entrances she could hear the beams groaning under the pressure. The sound of them was growing louder now as they grew closer. Over that creaking sound, Tythel could hear the voices of soldiers ahead of them, coming from the main tunnel. Ossman’s voice reached her ears, and she smiled to know at least one of her friends was safe.

“We’re the last ones in,” Eupheme said as they continued along, the footsteps of Alohym soldiers pounding behind them.

Tythel nodded. It would make things easier, knowing there was no one behind her that she had to worry about. She had enough concerns as it was.

They rounded a bend and the junction was ahead. It was empty – the soldiers were already proceeding down to the lower levels, where Armin and the other lumcasters had hopefully broken through to the outside. If they hadn’t…but no, Tythel couldn’t think about that, not right now. They would break though, one way or another. Right now, all she needed to do was give them time to get everyone else out.

She tried not to think about the fact that she hadn’t yet figured out how to survive what came next. She was certain she’d figure something out. The Imperiplate helm at her side, banging against her hip with every step, was a good reminder that she at least had some options. I’ll have to risk a songstone afterwards, let them know I’m all right. Assuming she was, of course. That, Tythel had to admit as she finished the last of her water, her throat still raw from the flame she’d poured through it, was seeming much less likely with every moment.

Don’t think about it, she told herself, and recalled something Karjon had once told her. It had been when she was learning to leap among the trees of the valley, wanting to get as close as possible to the awesome flight capable her father was capable of. She’d fallen again, and expressed concern to him that she’d break her leg. “If you think it’s too dangerous, you shouldn’t do it,” Karjon had said gently.

Tythel, at the time only twelve, had protested loudly. “But I want to do it! I love it.”

Karjon had nodded. “Then you accept the risk. Everything you do, Tythel, will carry risks. You could get hurt, physically or emotionally. You have to decide if the risk is worth the reward. And you may, one day, find something that is worth any risk, any danger. When you do, go into it with full knowledge that you accept those risks.”

Leave it to him to turn even a child’s whining into a chance for a lesson, Tythel thought with a rueful grin. They were in the junction now, and Tellias and Eupheme were looking at her expectantly. “Can you tell me the plan now?” Tellias asked, although the question came out as more of a demand.

Tythel winced and rubbed her throat. This was it, the moment of acceptance. I do this with full knowledge of the risks, father, I promise. She took a deep breath. “No,” she whispered, her voice still barely able to raise. She motioned towards the tunnel, trying to indicate she’d tell more when they were deeper in.

Tellias and Eupheme turned and began to head that way. Tythel followed behind, waiting for them to cross the junction, to get under the wooden beams.

As soon as they were, Tythel reached out, shoving them both with all her strength. Eupheme went tumbling, end over end. Her umbrist’s grace let her turn it into a roll to prevent injury. Tellias was wearing arcplate. If he’d been expecting it, there was no chance she would have been able to push him so easily. She’d caught him with one foot in the air for that very reason, and off balance, Tellias toppled over and began to slide down the tunnel. “What the shadow?” he shouted in surprise.

Tythel didn’t respond. She needed her voice, and she didn’t have the time. Her unlight hammer sprung to her fingers as she extended it, and with two quick blows hit the beams supporting the tunnel. They shattered under the impact, and Tythel had to leap back as the tunnel began to collapse. “Tythel!” Tellias shouted, reaching out towards her. Eupheme shot her a glare full of daggers. Tythel mouthed sorry to her as rocks began to fill in the gap between them. The tunnels were well lit, with few shadows large enough for Eupheme to jump through. Her range was fairly short – Tythel could only hope that it was too short for her to reach back to the junction.

The collapsing rocks didn’t completely fill the tunnel, and Tythel swore. This needed to be airtight or it wouldn’t work. Before she could raise the hammer to collapse it further, Tellias did her job for her, scrambling over the rocks. The arcplate brushed against the ceiling, collapsing the tunnel the rest of the way.“What the flath do you think you’re doing?!” Tellias bellowed at her.

It was Tythel’s turn to glare daggers. “Saving,” she hissed through her ruined throat.

“And what about you?” he demanded.

Tythel ignore the questions. The Alohym soldiers further down had heard the sound of the collapsing tunnels, and were whooping with excitement at being close to their quarry. Instead, she reached up and put her hand on the side of Tellias’ helm. “Airtight?” she croaked.

“Of course,” he answered with a scoff. “I don’t see how that matter…oh. Oh no.”

Tythel gave him a nod and turned to get to work. She took a deep breath and pushed the frustration at Tellias, the fear of how she would survive, the shame for Eupheme’s glare – all of it – into her throat.

Then she let loose dragonflame the moment the first of the soldiers entered the junction. He raised his hand in a reflexive gesture of defense, but Tythel hadn’t been aiming at him.

Her flame was weak, pathetically so. Tythel could immediately feel her throat scream in protest at being forced to burn again so soon after the last blast. She didn’t need to push herself too hard – not so long as she could keep it constant. Still, the pain brought tears to her eyes.

The dragonflame hit the floor of the cavern, and as soon as the rocks began to heat, they released the long ago locked away miasma that infused these stones.

A cloud of purple and green gasses erupted from the point of impact. The hot air coming from the flames pushed the noxious poison away from Tythel and Tellias, and sent it streaking towards the soldiers that were standing in the way of the cloud of death and the air.

When this had happened last time, Tythel had barely released enough gas to do more than frighten everyone and make one man sick. This time, she kept pouring on the flame. The onrushing wall of miasma met the first soldier, who had just started to raise his unlight wand to take aim at her.

He gasped in surprise, and that sealed his fate. The gasses pushed their way into his mouth and nose far quicker than a mere gasp could account for, likt it was something alive and hungry, and his skin began to turn grey. Black veins erupted along his arms and neck and face, spreading downwards towards his chest and lungs. His eyes withered and turned to ash that blew out of empty sockets.

The sight was terrible. Tythel fought back an entirely different set of tears, instead taking her terror and using it to fuel the dragonflame. Soldiers began to scream higher up the tunnel, and she could hear panic set in as they scrambled away.

Tythel fell to her knees as she poured dragonflame into the now molten pool in front of her, a pool that was spreading outwards, releasing more and more gas as it heated the rocks beneath it. She pushed herself away from the fumes, and silently prayed she would be able to survive before the poison crept into her own lungs.

I do this with the full knowledge of the risks, Tythel had told herself, but she’d never imagined the death would be so horrible. This time, the thought was entirely different, fear worming its way into her heart. She threw it into the dragonflame, but it didn’t go away, instead sitting there with one solid thought that betrayed her earlier confidence.

I don’t want to die.

She could only pray those wouldn’t be her last words.