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 91

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tellias flashed her a smile of his own.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Remember that flying Alohym from the fight?”

Tellias grimaced. “How can I forget?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No promises,” Eupheme muttered.

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

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

“Where?” Tellias asked.

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

The Dragon’s Scion Part 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 71

“Be not afraid,” Anotira said, motioning Haradeth towards a chair that awaited the building she had brought them to. “I do not intend you harm this day, Haradeth, son of Lathariel.”

Haradeth swallowed what felt like a lump of cotton. “You know my name?”

“Of course. I heard the argument with Shaaythi, after all. I hear all that happens within this dome.”

Lorathor stood silently against the wall, letting Haradeth take the lead. Haradeth did so by sinking into the chair he was offered.

“What are you?” he finally asked.

“I’m a goddess. Like your mother,” Anotira said.

Haradeth shook his head firmly. “You’re not alive.”

Lorathor gasped, but Anotira laughed. This time, the sound came from her mouth, not the air around Haradeth, and it felt more natural – although the lack of life coming from Anotira was still unsettling. “What makes you say that?”

“It’s the truth,” Haradeth said simply. “I can sense life. I know life. You are not a living thing.”

“Interesting. I wonder what that says about me. Are you certain I’m not just too alien for your experiences to process?”

Haradeth shook his head. “The Alohym are alive. I can feel it off them. If I can sense it from them, I surely can from you.”

“Haradeth,” Lorathor said firmly. “She is our goddess. You should not speak to her so.”

Haradeth did not take his eyes from Anotira. “She may be that, my friend, but she is certainly not alive.”

Lorathor opened his mouth to object again, but before he could, Anotira sighed, and again she flickered into motes of light. “I suppose there’s not point arguing it.” She turned to face Lorathor for a moment. “Lorathor. Spawn of Galithin, Chessae, and Corvi. I bind you to speak no word of what you learn here to the others. No clever tricks, no loopholes. If you share what I say here, you will be cast out. If you find some way to subvert the spirit of this order, you will be cast out. Am I clear?”

Lorathor nodded mutely, and Anotira turned back to Haradeth.

“You are correct. I am not alive. Not in the strict, organic sense of the word. Although I’d argue that I can exhibit many of the traits of life. I can replicate, I consume, I grow. I just do so through a different mechanism.”

“I don’t understand,” Lorathor burst in, and Haradeth nodded in agreement.

“How does a Skitter know where to put its claws at it moves?” Anotira asked.

Haradeth frowned. “There’s a lattice inside the Skitter. It controls the legs. It’s sort of like…well, I guess it’s like an insect’s mind.”

Anotira nodded. “It’s exactly like that, in fact. And if a lattice could be built to emulate the mind of an insect, could it be scaled up? To the mind of a wolf? Or a human? Or…something more?”

Haradeth gaped at her. “You…you’re a lattice? So there’s some Sylvani controlling you?”

Anotira shook her head. “No Sylvani controls me. I was built to be self controlling, self aware.”

If Haradeth hadn’t already been sitting down, he would have fallen to the floor. “That’s impossible.”

“If the Alohym had not come, you would have said a web that functions like an insect brain was impossible.” Anotira said gently.

Haradeth could only stare at her mutely.

“I am the guiding intelligence of this city,” Anotira explained. “I am the beginning of the Sylvani’s story on this world, and I am its end.”

After a minute, Haradeth found his voice. “You…what do you mean you’re the beginning of the Sylvani’s story? Did something else make you?”

Anotira shook her head. “I said I was the beginning of the Sylvani’s story on this world.

Lorathor had turned a pale blue. “What…what are you saying?”

“You are not of a people native to his world, Lorathor,” Anotira said. “Your ancestors came here thousands of years ago. Each of the spires that make up this city was once a ship that traversed the same voice the beings you now know as Alohym traveled.”

“Now know as Alohym?” Haradeth said, his voice firm and demanding. “What were they called before?”

“I do not know.”

Haradeth’s eyes narrowed. “You claim to be as old as the Sylvani on this world, yet you don’t know the name of the beings you fled to come here?”

Anitoria flickered again. “No. I do not. My lattice…when we first arrived here, there were twelve of us.”

“The Twelve Luminous Gods,” Lorathor said, still looking so pale Haradeth feared he might faint. “The others died to preserve your life, facing off against the Dark One Eylohir, so that you could guide us for the rest of time.”

“Is that what they say?” Anitoria smiled. “It’s…close to the truth. Eylohir is a word that your language has lost, Lorathor. In the ancient tongue of the Sylvani, it meant…” Anitoria frowned. “I cannot find a good synonym. A loose translation would be ‘catastrophic system failure.’ She sighed again, and Haradeth noted for the first time the sigh was identical to the others. The way her head tilted, the way her arms moved, wasn’t just similar to previous sighs. She was going through the exact same motion each time.

“Our power cores were damaged when we arrived here. To maintain all twelve would have resulted in our shutdown within one hundred years local time. It was decided that the other eleven would go into hibernation. I would be able to access their memories, but since I was the simplest of the Lattice Minds on this ship, I could run with the lowest power drain. Even then, to extend my lifespan, I was to run only when absolutely needed, and pass the important parts of the Sylvani culture and history down through organic, memetic methods, and prepare for the Alohym’s arrival on this world.”

Lorathor and Haradeth shared a look of confusion. “Organic, memetic methods?” Haradeth asked.

“Stories. Legends. Religion. Myths. Things the Sylvani would pass to each other. I made sure to run long enough enough to correct any absolutely flawed assumptions, but-”

“-you let us think we were from this world!” Lorathor burst in, unable to contain himself anymore. “You kept that secret from us! How is that not an ‘absolutely flawed assumption?’”

“It would have availed you nothing,” Anitoria said firmly. “I was to care for the Sylvani. Would you have me force you to feel like outsiders, constantly aware of the fact that you did not belong on this world? Would you have me force upon your an apocalyptic prophecy that the Alohym would arrive, when a hundred times a hundred generations have passed since we arrived on this world? A hundred times a hundred generators burdened by the knowledge of a fate that could arrive at any time? What would that have done to you? You accused Shaaythi earlier of forgetting that humans were worth saving, and that’s without feeling apart and separate from them.”

“What of our tools?” Lorathor demanded. “Of our weapons? We could have shared them with humanity!”

“We did,” Anitoria said firmly. “We gave humanity the tools we had, we gave them our science, we showed them how to channel the light within their world – the same light the Alohym stole from us.”

Lorathor looked a mixture of confused and hurt right now, so Haradeth picked back up the conversation. “If you did, what happened?”

“I can no longer access those records,” Anitoria said, her simulated voice full of bitterness. “I know there was a war. I do not know who fired the first shot. I do not know whom is to blame. I only know that since that war, I cannot access the memories of my siblings. I know my data has become corrupted in places. The older the memory, the harder it is to obtain, and the more likely it is to be riddled with errors. I was supposed to prepare us to face this enemy, and because of a war that was fought with the weapons we granted humanity, I cannot.”

“Surely you have some ideas-” Haradeth began, but Anitoria cut him off.

“I was created to record entertainment, not to formulate plans. When I could access the memory banks of the others, I could use them to simulate intelligence in areas I did not have. Invention. Strategy. Synthesis. Hypothesis.” She gave that sigh again, the same as every other sigh. “Now I am limited. Severely limited. I cannot even access the information I need to restore my connection with the others!”

“So you cannot help us?” Haradeth asked, softly.

“I cannot,” Anitoria confirmed, her voice sad. “I am sorry to have wasted your time. But what power I have left must be dedicated to maintaining the Sylvani’s safety.”

“But-” Haradeth begin.

Anitoria sighed that identical sigh one last time. “No, Haradeth, son of Lathariel. There is no but. I have one purpose I can still fulfill. These people are that purpose.”

Haradeth could see the resolve in her eyes, and realized that no words he could say would persuade this goddess.

Lorathor finally broke the silence, an ugly note to his voice. “Come on, Haradeth. I think we should be going.”

With that, they turned to leave Anitoria’s chamber, and Anitoria once again dispersed into cloud of lights.

The Dragons Scion Part 1

bonus

Prologue

On the path between a dying city and a mountain, a dying guardsman rode with a precious bundle in his arms. This was not the first horse the guardsman had ridden since leaving the city. The others had perished on the journey. He hadn’t even purchased this horse. Having long ago discarded his tabard and armor, this guardsman wore thick furs to keep out the bitter cold. Between that and the wild look in his eyes, he looked less like a guardsman and more like a bandit. It was fitting, in a way, that the third and final horse he rode was stolen.

His name was Comber, and he had been part of the troop assigned to protect the royal family against all threats. For ten years he had stood his post, alongside the royal family’s Umbrists. Comber didn’t have the Shadow-infused powers of the Umbrist. He had armor that had been forged with steel mixed with light, and a sword that had been blessed millennia ago with a dragon’s breath.

That was in the past.

He had a vow to protect the royal family against any and all threats. He’d fought when the minions of a necromancer had snuck in through the sewers. He still had a scar on his thigh from an assassin’s crossbow bolt meant for the King. He was not a coward, and he had thought himself beyond fear.

That was also in the past.

Comber looked over his shoulder. His pursuers weren’t there. He was alone here. There was nothing but a path through the woods, a path that had been cleared by game hunters who would head this way. It took a bold man to hunt in these woods, given what guarded them. The same being that drew Comber deeper within. His last hope for salvation.

The skies darkened, and Comber risked a glance upwards. There it was. That hole in the sky. The sun had passed behind it, casting a momentary shadow across the world. It was like the eclipse Comber remembered from when he was a child, but there was still light coming from the center. Small points showing stars unlike any he had seen before.

A few tiny dots broke off from the main circle. Comber shuddered at the sight. He’d seen what those dots could do when they got lower.

The bundle in his arms stirred when he shivered again, and looked up at him with bright green eyes. Awake now, the child’s face was placid for just a moment, those beautiful eyes flickering about. Then hunger set in, and the child started to wail.

“Shhh, little one,” Comber whispered, stroking the side of the child’s face. “Shhh.”

Still the child cried. She was just old enough to eat mashed food. Comber grimaced and looked around again. There was no one present. “Shhh,” Comber said, pulling on the reins of the horse. He reached into his pack. He still had some berries from the last town, and got to work mashing them into a paste with a mortar and pestle. At her age, the child had just enough understanding of what that smell and sound meant, and her cries turned to excited cooing as she reached towards his hands. “Almost there, little one,” Comber said. Or at least, he started to say. Halfway through the wound in his side reminded him of why he’d abandoned his sword, and Comber hissed in pain. Even the simple motion of grinding berries was too much for him.

He set the mortar down carefully. He hadn’t been able to get a spoon in his mad flight. The child was able to suckle the paste off his finger, and that would have to be good enough. Once she’d been fed, Comber held her with one hand and pulled the other inside his coat. He ran his fingers over the hasty bandage. It was damp. He wanted to look at the injury, but didn’t dare. He knew what he’d find. Black veins sprawling outwards from under the bandage, creeping along his skin. Last night, the veins had been halfway to his chest. Soon they would reach his heart.

He’d die then. Comber didn’t need to be a Physician to know that.

The child reached up and grabbed for his nose with hands wrapped in mittens. Comber let her grab it, then pressed his forehead to hers. “Soon, you’ll be safe,” Comber whispered to her.

Then it was time to transition the child to the straps wrapped around his chest, freeing his hands, and Comber resumed his ride to the mountain.

***

The horse – Comber had never bothered giving it a name – came to a stop, and the jolt rocked Comber awake. He blinked around blearily. He’d fallen asleep in the saddle somehow. Everything felt like it had been coated in a layer of wool. Comber worked one of his hands free of the glove and pressed it against his forehead. In spite of the cold, heat radiated from the touch. “Fever,” he muttered to the child.

“Bah-bah-bah-bah,” she said, which Comber took as affirmation. He smiled down at her, then looked around again. They’d reached the mountain.

“We go no further together,” he said to the horse. Comber had never been one to speak to his mounts, aside from commands. He preferred to make noises at them, reassuring ones. But in the grip of fever, Comber felt irrationally sorry for abandoning an animal he’d only had for a day. A stolen one, at that. “You’ll be able to find your way back to town, won’t you? Or maybe you’ll be able to run free now, without the need…the need…” Comber trailed off. What had he been doing? Talking to a horse, that’s what.

They were close to the base of the mountain, but not quite there. He could see it. Perhaps he could ride the horse a little bit further? He dug his heels in. The horse let out a huff of air and shook its head, instead backing up a few paces. “Of course,” Comber said, shaking his head. “Of course. A horse. A horse of course.” He laughed a bit. It wasn’t funny, but the child joined in the laughter. He patted the side of the horse’s neck again. “You smell it, don’t you?”

The horse shook its head violently and took another step back. That was all the confirmation Comber needed. The horse would go no further. “You know,” Comber said, getting ready to dismount. “I should have known. They eat you, don’t they?”

The horse did not respond this time, for it was a horse, and all it cared about was that it didn’t need to go any further.

Comber got one foot out of the stirrup, but the world started to spin. Instead of dismounting gracefully, Comber swung drunkenly, and collapsed into the snow. He had just enough presence of mind to turn around as he fell, landing on his back to keep the child safe. Comber growled in pain as the impact lanced through his back. The shock did wonders for clearing his head. The child, jostled by the fall, poked her head up and giggled.

“That’s right,” Comber grunted. “I’m silly, aren’t I?”

The child reached up for him, grasping for him. Comber put his finger out for her to hold onto.

He’d abandoned his station, and he knew he should feel guilty about that, but…the beings that had come from that hole in the sky were beyond anything that could be fought. Arrows bounced off their gleaming carapace. Swords were deflected with swipes from their unnatural hands. He had a duty, and he could only save one person.

He’d chosen her.

Comber rose to his feet and turned the horse around. It only took a nudge to get the horse trotting away from the mountain.

It would live. The child would live. That would have to be enough.

Comber made himself walk towards the mountain. Every footstep was like lead. He spotted a trail in the snow – someone else had come this way and left. They were human, or at least walked like one. It could be an Underfolk or Sylvani. It wasn’t the invaders. That much was certain. No one could mistake their skittering legs for human footsteps.

The mountain, at least, was free of snow. Impossibly free, and impossibly warm. A fire burned in the heart of this mountain. Not the molten fire of a volcano. A living flame. A hungering flame.

Had the fever started sooner than Comber realized? He’d been so certain of this plan. He’d heard tales of the flame that lived in this mountain. The tales had made it out to be one of the ones that did not feast on the flesh of Man or the other Intelligent Races. They said it had stood alongside the forces of the Light and Shadow against dread powers in the past. They said it was not to be disturbed, but would not slay – except for those that came to attack it.

But still…could he trust it?

It was too late now. There was nowhere else he was certain would be safe for the child. Not with that locket, secured carefully in a pouch in the swaddling. Even without it…would anywhere be safe from the invaders? Would anything? They hadn’t been killing innocents. They’d killed armies, they’d slaughtered guards, but any who did not pick up blade or spear against them was spared their wrath. Yet…Comber didn’t trust them to stop there. It was possible – nay, it seemed likely – that they were just starting with those that posed a threat to them.

“Not that we did,” he said to the child, who paused in her attempts to gum his finger to look up at him. “I hope, if you remember nothing else, you remember that we tried. We tried.”

“Burrrbl,” the child said happily.

“We tried,” Comber repeated. And they had. Nicandros, the captain of the royal guard, had commanded them perfectly. However, no strategy could overcome the fact that their weapons did no harm to the invaders. That was when Comber realized the only option was saving what he could. That there would be no victory here. Still, Comber had fought, until his wound. Then…he’d been even more useless in battle.

Time became unstable. Comber kept walking up the warm mountain and its bare stones. It was a gentle slope, which was the only reason he could progress at all. Ahead, he saw his goal.

A hole, high up the mountain. One far larger than would be needed for a man to pass through, and one too smooth and round to be the result of nature. This was not a cave. It was a lair.

Comber stumbled and dropped to his knees. The child started to wail again, startled by the jostling. Comber tried to shush its cries, but he was too late. Something was stirring in the lair, dragging itself forth from the depths. Comber saw golden eyes peering out of the darkness, followed by red scales and immense, bat-like wings.

Comber had never seen a dragon in person. Only flying overhead, and even then, such sights were rare. He’d expected them to crawl across a ground, like a lizard, but this one slunk with a cat’s grace. An older cat, one that was past its prime hunting days, but still possessing enough energy to move about. The dragon flapped its wings and took to the air, circling around Comber once before landing.

“I told Lathariel I would not be disturbed,” the dragon growled, and Comber was certain he’d made a mistake. Tears started to form in his eyes, unbidden.

“Please…” Comber said, but the dragon shook its head.

“I will not fight.” The dragon looked up, seeing the hole in the sky, and its nostrils flared. For a moment, Comber could see it considering…then it shook its head again. “I will not fight,” it repeated. “Leave this threat for younger drakes. Ones that have hotter flames.”

“Please…” Comber said again, then coughed. Flecks of something black came with the cough, and Comber moved with speed he didn’t know he still had, pulling the child free of the path of whatever those were. He groaned in pain and nearly blacked out.

“You are injured,” the dragon said, leaning down. “And you are ill.”

Comber nodded.

“I can heal your injuries,” the dragon said, after considering for a moment. “But my flames will make the disease spread quicker.”

“Not…me.” Comber coughed again. “Her.”

The dragon looked at the child. “She’s uninjured,” he said.

“Care…protect.” Comber’s vision grew dark. “She…she…is.” Comber’s vision narrowed. “She is…everything….” The dragon was barely visible now. The world was barely visible. The child stirred, looking from the dragon to Comber and back again, starting to make distressed noises. She didn’t fear the dragon. That was good. But she could tell something was wrong.

“I’m sorry,” Comber said to the child. He looked back up at the dragon. His vision was barely there anymore. He’d gone so far. It felt like part of his mind had been set on fire, to hold back death, and now that he was here, that flame had gone out. “Tell her…” Comber said, and then he started to cough again. “She is…”

“What should I tell her she is?” the dragon asked, after Comber had been silent for too long. When he got no response, the dragon Karjon leaned down. The man’s heartbeat had been so faint when he’d approached, Karjon could barely hear it. Now, though? Now there was nothing.

And the child started to cry.

Karjon looked at it. He’d never dealt with human children before. He knew they needed more comfort than hatchlings. Uncertain, Karjon reached out with one claw and retracted his talon, then brushed his scales on the child’s cheek.

Quick as a viper, the child grabbed Karjon’s finger tightly, trying to seek some comfort in a world that had abandoned her.

Karjon sighed. He had not had children of his own. He hadn’t planned on doing so. But…if nothing else, he could not leave this child to starve on his mountain. He carefully bit on the swaddling, making certain to only let his fangs touch the fabric.

Once these invaders had been dealt with, Karjon would take the child to the nearest humans. They would know how to handle her. He’d keep her safe until then. It shouldn’t be long. There had been many threats over his nine hundred years of life. They’d always been defeated.

There was no reason to believe this would be any different.

Chapter 1

“I have lived for centuries,” Karjon growled. “I dueled the Necromancer Gix and his army of undead. I was on the Council of Twelve, battling the Lichborne. When the mad Lumcaster sought to blind the world, I doused him in my flames. How is it that nothing has vexed me as much as you, little one?”

Tythel looked up at the dragon with eyes wide in feigned innocence. Sixteen years had passed since the mountain and the snow. She didn’t remember it, of course. Just as she did not remember what her name had been before coming here. Tythel was a dragon’s name, not a human name. For all Karjon’s bluster, she was not worried. In sixteen years, Karjon had never raised a claw in anger. “Father, have you considered that it is just because you love me so dearly?”

Karjon huffed and shook his head. “That cannot be it. I think it must be because I did not know how vexing your unique subspecies of humans can be.”

“Subspecies?” Tythel asked.

“Yes. Those strange beings humans call ‘adolescents.’ Or perhaps it is just a trait unique to daughters.”

Tythel beamed at him. The expression only came through with her eyes. In her books, humans would use their mouths to do things like smile and frown. Tythel understood, in theory, what those were, but the expressions didn’t come to her naturally. From what Karjon had said, she’d smiled and frowned at first…but with time, those had stopped. Now, she blinked rapidly to show her excitement. “Which would only matter because you love me. Therefore, I am still correct. And, since I am correct, I see no reason I should not be allowed to go.”

Karjon sighed heavily. “Tythel…”

“You said I could,” Tythel reminded him, trying her best not to sound sullen.

“I told you that, yes,” Karjon said. “I said you could go when it was safe.”

“I want to see other humans,” Tythel said. “Why can’t I go?”

Karjon sighed again, a sound that filled the entire cave that was his lair and their home. “When, exactly, did ‘because I said so’ become insufficient?”

“When I stopped being a child,” Tythel said. “You said when I was sixteen, I could go and see other humans.”

“I said that you could go into the village when you were sixteen, Tythel. I did not say you could do so the very next day.” Making that promise, back when she was nine, had been a mistake. He’d done it to get her to cease her incessant questions. He didn’t think humans of that age could remember things for so long.

“You’re splitting scales and you know it.” She folded her arms across her chest and glowered at him.

Karjon, who weighed in at just over six tons and had battled some of the greatest foes the world had ever seen, broke the staring contest first. Tythel tried not to blink when she realized that meant she was getting through to him. For all his fury and might, Karjon had always struggled to deny her anything. Still, he was not caving like he usually did. “Tythel, there are reasons for the choices I make. They are for your safety.”

“You always hide behind that, father. Are you planning on keeping me here the rest of my life? What are you hiding me from?

“There are those out there that would see you dead. Is that not enough explanation?”

She glowered at him again. “You know I can’t do anything if you don’t tell me. But if you want me to leave it alone, you’ll need to give me more than that.” Her expression softened. “Please, father.”

Karjon settled down onto the pile of coins that made his seat. Tythel took the cue and walked over to her own, smaller pile. She didn’t have a hoard of her own. Not yet. But she would one day, although she was less than eager for that day. Dragons did not share a hoard. She’d have to leave that day, never to live here again.

“Perhaps…” Karjon started to say, then held up a claw to forestall her before she got too excited. “It is time you know of the dangers beyond this lair. Why I keep you hidden here. And tomorrow…” he studied her critically for a moment, then nodded. “You are old enough.”

“To go visit?” Tythel asked hopefully.

“Not yet,” Karjon said, shaking his head. “But tomorrow, I think you are ready for the one thing I know you want more than to leave.”

Tythel sat up straighter, her eyes sparkling with excitement. “You mean…you’ll finish the adoption?”

Karjon nodded, and Tythel leapt up to run over and wrap her arms around her father’s neck. “Thank you thank you thank you!” There were tears forming in her eyes, a human reaction she hadn’t shed with age, but these were tears of joy and not sadness.

“It’s past time,” Karjon said. “I just worried about how your body would react to the transformation.”

“I know,” Tythel said, although deep in her heart, she’d worried that he wouldn’t do it. That she wasn’t good enough. She’d never told Karjon that. If it wasn’t true, it would have broken his heart. If it was true…she couldn’t have handled that. Now, though, she was practically vibrating with anticipation.

Karjon put one of his claws around her, in his version of a hug. From what he’d said, dragons did not engage in touch the way humans did, but one of his books had told him a lack of touch and affection could kill human infants. Deep down, Tythel suspected he had grown to like it himself. “Now. Will you listen, and will you wait?”

Tythel nodded firmly.

“Then do so,” Karjon said, and Tythel settled back onto her coins. “Sixteen years ago, just days before you were brought to me…the skies let loose monsters.”

“Monsters?” Tythel asked.

Karjon nodded. “I do not know if they have a name. I know what Lathariel told me they were being called ‘Those From Above.’ They had weapons that sucked in light and spewed forth their own unnatural energy. Unlight, she called it.”

“And you fought them?” Tythel asked, excitedly.

Karjon shook his head, and in his eyes Tythel could see sorrow she’d never imagined from her father. “I am old,” Karjon said. “I thought they could be defeated without me. Even when I was told dragonflame was all that would harm them…I still thought they could be defeated. There were other dragons. By the time I realized…it was too late. Those From Above had secured power over humanity. They rule down there now. As far as I know, they only fear dragonflame.”

Tythel held up a hand and focused. A ball of flame formed between her fingers. “They fear this?” she asked. Dragonflame was similar to normal fire, but more vibrant. The transition from white to yellow to orange to red that happened in a normal flame was marked by clearer lines. Hers was weak. Not close to the true power of a dragon. She could barely call upon it, and couldn’t even touch the greater fires of ghostflame or heartflame. But it was not nothing.

“Yes,” Karjon said, and there was a somber note to his voice that Tythel couldn’t ignore. “By healing you when you injured yourself…you already formed the gift.  They will hunt you. For that and…for other reasons.”

“What other reasons?”

Karjon shook his head. “Not yet. There is much I have kept from you. You are old enough now, but…before that there’s something you need to understand.” He put one claw carefully on her knee. “Tythel…tomorrow, after the Ascension, the number of dragons in the world will go from one to two.”

Tythel stared at her father for a long moment, processing his words. She’d never met another dragon, but the idea there had been other dragons out there…she’d just assumed it. Realizing they’d been hunted down, there was only one thing to do.

She hugged Karjon again, and her father hugged her back. They sat there for a moment, before both of them could steady themselves enough to speak. “Tythel,” Karjon said. “I…have kept something else from you.”

“It’s so much,” Tythel whispered.

Karjon cocked his head. “Do you need time before the rest?”

Tythel considered for a moment, then shook her head. “A scholar’s first duty is to acquire all information before passing judgement,” Tythel said, repeating one of her father’s lessons back to him.

Karjon gave her a slow blink of amusement. “You listen too well sometimes. Very well. Your locket.”

Tythel’s hands went up to the chain around her neck. She’d worn it as long as she could remember. It was the one piece of her own hoard she had.  “You said it was my parents.”

Karjon nodded. “That locket is the other reason you will be hunted. It is the locket of the royal family.”

There was a moment of silence as Tythel stared at her father. “The…the royal family. But they…I mean…that’s…” Tythel sputtered off into silence. She couldn’t say it. “I’m…”

Karjon nodded, the motion oddly gentle. “You are the heir to the throne of your family. The throne of the kingdom of Dretayne. You are the next queen of this realm. And for that, you will be hunted as one of the barriers to the rule of Those from Above.”

Tythel took a deep, ragged breath, then nodded slowly. She couldn’t think about it right now. She could barely understand it. So she fell back on the lessons of her childhood. A scholar’s first duty. “Tell me everything.”

***

Tythel did not sleep well that night. She tried to, doing every meditation technique Karjon had taught her over the years, but she spent the entire night tossing and turning. The bed she slept on was one Karjon had gotten as a trophy from the Underfolk, those strange underground folk that were in Karjon’s stories, and it had been perfect for her when she was a child. But for the last two years, she’d been forced to scrunch up on it, leading to the impression the Underfolk were likely quite small.

In truth, Tythel was taller than most humans. Sixteen years of eating a diet of meat cooked in dragonflame and lifting and moving gold on a regular basis had left her with a build that was less princess and more warrior, but since the only humans she’d seen had been in her imagination, she’d had no idea how imposing a figure she could cut when she wasn’t comparing herself to a dragon.

She’d never complained to Karjon about the small bed. Other things, sure, but never that – or any of the other things he’d provided to her over the years. Tythel had known how lucky she’d been to have a dragon for a father. Karjon’s stories were full of tales of the legendary heroes of the past, Calcon the Brave and Rilan the Just and Brigith the Nobel and all the rest of them. All of them had started their lives as humble folk that had heeded the Call, which meant their lives had been the humdrum work of farmers and blacksmiths and other folk, and the stories all made that life out to be terribly dull.

She’d always imagined Karjon had rescued her from that sort of suffering.

Now she knew differently. She would have been a princess, daughter to a king and queen, living a life of luxury and wealth and, if the legends were any indication, would have either ended up spoiled rotten or kidnapped by someone to later be rescued. Other than that her life would have been one of formality and circumstance until she was married off to secure an alliance or to whoever had been strong enough to save her, regardless of their other qualities.

Tythel decided that, small bed aside, she still felt lucky to have been raised by Karjon. That feeling was quickly followed by shame at even considering an alternative.

She got out of bed and pulled her blankets and pillows to the floor, arranging them in a pile like the gold Karjon slept on. It wasn’t as comfortable as the bed, but it did allow her to stretch out, and that was preferable to being cramped into the bed at the moment.

The problem was, it wasn’t the bed keeping her up tonight. It was her mind.

Tythel had been on top of the mountain a few times every year, under Karjon’s careful eye. He had explained that if she didn’t get to see the sky every now and then, she’d probably go mad. The village had always fascinated her, and her entire life she’d wanted to go there, just for a day, to explore and celebrate. She wanted to see horses and soldiers and blacksmiths and maybe even a lumcaster if she was really lucky. Karjon had taught her some magic, the barest flicker of dragonflame, but it was not magic meant for humans.

Of course, that would change tomorrow. Well, her being human – she didn’t know if she’d gain any proficiency with her meager powers in the process. She’d have Karjon’s power running through her veins, becoming half dragon and half human. For most of her life, it had been the one thing she’d wanted more than going to the village.

The village. She turned over again.

From the mountain, it had been hard to make out details. She’d filled in those details in her head with ones stolen from her stories – thatched roofs covering star-crossed lovers, barns harboring hard working folk with wisdom gained from years of honest toil, scholars in cramped quarters trying to unravel the mysteries of the universe, chimneys smoking with fires that were roasting chickens or beef. Never in her life had she imagined the people out there were being subjected to tyrants that had more power than she could imagine. Never, not once, had she imagined that she was their ruler by a mere quirk of birth.

That thought got her turning again. Karjon’s stories had talked about something called “noblesse oblige,” the responsibilities that the nobility had to their people. Protect them, help them, guide them, and care for them. If she was a noble – a royal – didn’t the same thing apply to her?

Stop it, Tythel. Stop it.

But the thought wouldn’t go away. If she stayed here with Karjon, she was failing in her responsibility. The sixteen years leading up to this had not been her fault; she hadn’t known she had duties. After a moment of reflection, she decided they weren’t Karjon’s fault either. They were the fault of the mysterious Those from Above. Now that she knew, however…well, Karjon had always taught her that inaction was still a choice, the choice to do nothing.

Tomorrow, then, after the Ritual. She’d leave, no matter what. And if Karjon tried to stop her…well, then she’d have to do it alone.

And that thought, more than any other, caused Tythel to burrow as deeply as she could into the blankets before sleep finally claimed her.

Chapter 2

Waking up was a slow process, and Tythel had to drag herself out of slumber piece by piece. She’d been having a nightmare, one where the village was being shot by pirate ships in the sky. They’d been begging her for help, but Karjon had been shrunk down to the size of a whelp and she’d been hugging him to her chest to keep him safe.

Let’s…not try and dig into the metaphor there, okay? she told herself as she climbed out of her nest of pillows and blankets. She could hear Karjon already awake, moving through his pile of gold. She dressed hastily in some of the silk garments that were part of Karjon’s treasure.

“Good morning, father,” she said as she entered the main entrance room. She needed a moment for her eyes to adjust to the extra light that was being reflected off of the gold and silver and other precious gems. Once it was adjusted, she reached into the pile and fished out bracelets to wear, as well as a pair of earrings.

Being raised by a dragon did give one an appreciation for the aesthetics of lustrous adornments.

“Good morning, little one. Did you sleep well?”

Tythel stifled a yawn. “Well enough, I think.” They were both being so formal with each other, and Tythel hated it. But today was a formal day, so she put it down to that. It definitely wasn’t some kind of developing gulf between them. It absolutely wasn’t caused by the revelation that Karjon had been keeping from her a deep secret from her.

Certainly not.

Breakfast was bison roasted in dragonflame. As always, Karjon let her eat her fill, then devoured the rest in a matter of seconds. As he did, Tythel frowned. “I don’t understand – if Those from Above are so dangerous, why can you go out and safely hunt?”

Karjon finished crushing the last leg of the animal before answering. “The valley on the other side of the mountain? When I first came here, I had it placed under a powerful illusion by a Lumcaster who owed me a debt. Only dragons of my bloodline can see what is truly in there from above – I imagine after the Ritual, you’ll be able to see it as well. I only hunt within the valley.”

“Oh.” Tythel had seen the valley from above before, but was only now realizing she’d never seen any animals moving within. From further up the mountain, it seemed static and unchanging. “Can you show me how it works after the Ritual?”

Karjon chuckled. “If you feel up to it. Shall we begin?”

“Yes please.”

Dragon magic was vastly different from the magic humans employed. A human doing magic channeled one of two powers. Lumcasters drew from the power of the Light, coalesced in lumwells that were the center points of many human settlements. They could also store that light in specially made implements – their staves, their wands, their words, and their sigils – to focus their will into something that could influence reality. Umbrists couldn’t control the counterpart of Light, the Shadow, but instead could move through it. They often wore cloaks or boots partially made of calcified Shadow to aid their motion. However, a dragon’s body generated and stored its own powers. They were their own implements, and needed no such foci to channel the raw energies of creation. They only needed their knowledge and their will, and they could channel their flame and give it shape.

Which meant that, in spite of its name, the Ritual was a fairly plain affair. No fancy runes were needed upon the ground, no ceremonial vestments, no chanting. All it required was a subject, Tythel, and a donor, Karjon.

However, she did change clothes before the ritual. She liked what she was wearing, and whatever she wore for this would probably be ruined beyond repair. She changed into her least favorite clothes and joined Karjon atop the mountain.

There was a storm overhead, and cold wind whipped through the threadbare wool she wore. No precipitation fluttered from the clouds yet, but it would come. There was always a storm when they went to the mountain, and for the first time Tythel suspected that Karjon was summoning it to shelter them from the prying eyes of Those From Above. The more she thought about it, the more things started to make sense in that context. I’ll have to ask him about it.

But not right now. Now they were at the summit, and it was time to begin. She knelt down before Karjon, looking up at him, and he gazed down at her.

“Are you ready, my child?” he asked, his voice both firm and kind.

“Aye, I am prepared.” In spite of the cold, a warmth reached her. Her father, gathering his flames, and heating it within his gullet.

“Once this is done, it cannot be undone. You will forever be part human, and part dragon. Are you certain you want this?”

Tythel smiled up at him. “Father. You have raised me from the days before my earliest memory, and all that I am – save my form – I owe to you. I want nothing more than this, to be your daughter in blood as firmly as I already am in truth.”

Dragons couldn’t cry, not the way humans did. Their eyes didn’t leak water when they felt an emotion that would bring a human to tears. But that did not mean they did not feel, and Karjon’s nictitating membranes fluttered. It was a distinctive pattern, several flickers then a slight pause before another set of flickers. Happiness, not the sustained flickering of sorrow. “Then,” he said, his voice cracking with pride, “let it be done!”

He opened his mouth wide and let loose a torrent of silver and gold flame. It washed over Tythel. She screamed, but it wasn’t in pain. The sensation wasn’t like anything she’d imagined before. It was like she was being pulled inside out, but not violently. Like she was being snapped into the shape she’d belonged in since birth. A sense of wonder so overwhelming, she had to scream.

This was Heartflame. The flame of the forge, the flame of the stove, the flame of the surgeon. Heartflame did not damage what it burned; it cleansed them of impurities and remade them. A dragon could, if it so wished, breathe Heartflame on a human and clear away any injuries and diseases. It could breathe upon a lump of iron and not just turn it into Drakesteel, but also have it be formed perfectly into weapons or armor or whatever the dragon wished when the flames died down.

And it could engulf a young woman who was a dragon’s daughter in spirit, and remake her into his daughter in body as well.

The Heartflame faded, and with it the sensation. She collapsed forward onto her arms, which shook with an exhaustion her mind did not feel.

Everything was brighter. The snow atop the mountain was clearer, and she almost imagined she could see individual flakes. Then the realization crept up on her that she wasn’t imagining it; she really was seeing the flakes, and she started laughing in amazement. Tears began to well in her eyes, and a film began to flit across her vision – she had eye membranes of her own now, and could properly emote as a dragon. Her hands still looked like her hands, even to her enhanced vision, but when she held them closer she could see the little lines that had marked the back of a human hand were now regularly shaped and smoothed into patterns. Tiny, near invisible scales.

That made her laugh as well. “Oh by Light and Shadow and all the little gods, it’s beautiful!”

She looked up at her father, and although dragons could not smile the way a human did, she knew him well and could see the joy in every line of his face. Sound was flooding in as well. She could hear the gentle ring of snowflakes on the mountain, she could hear the deep and rumbling beat of Karjon’s heart, she could hear the beatings of the wings of a nearby flock of birds, and she could hear, coming from the clouds, the deep sound of metal grating on metal.

That last sound cut through the joy like a dagger through the heart. “Karjon, do you hear that? There’s metal in the sky.”

Although Tythel was new to her enhanced senses, she was young and her hearing was far better than his. He hadn’t heard it until she pointed it out, and even then it was only the faintest sound at the edge of his senses.

This meant that they were both still processing the sound when the ship breached the cloud like a shark cresting above the waves, a vessel three times Karjon’s size and armed with tentacles that were tipped in violet crystals that hummed with aberrant energies.

Karjon didn’t have time to shout a warning. He turned around as quickly as his bulk would let him and reared back, readying a gout of flame. At the same time, the abnormal crystals began to glow. Although Tythel realized that glow wasn’t the right term. The air around the crystals was growing darker, and they seemed brighter by contrast.

Then both sides let loose their attacks. The beams of unlight that erupted from the tentacles converged into a single beam that raced toward Karjon’s flame, and where they impacted the fire began to split, shattering into individual threads of flame that went wild from their target. Similarly, the Dragonflame seemed to consume the beam like it was kindling, and an unnatural green smoke began to erupt from the impact.

Tythel tried to rise. She could feel energy welling within her, a desire to join the battle, but as soon as she reached her knees she was betrayed by her own muscles. Although she was still feeling fine mentally, energized by the Heartflame, her body had just reworked itself on a fundamental, physical level. It was exhausted, and let her know by driving her back down to the snow.

Karjon’s flame winked out when the beam died down. She could see the ship better now that it was clear of the clouds. It looked like some tentacled monster from the ocean depths, an octopus made of steel and affixed to the sky against all sense and reason. Two transparent spots were mixed in like eyes in the steel, and with her newly enhanced senses Tythel could see figures moving behind them.

Smaller pods began to detach from the main vessel, and their falling was slowed by glowing balls of energy at their – Tythel squinted to make sure she was seeing it correct – feet. Yes, those were feet, and the pods were in fact suits of armor in the shape of men, each one as tall as Tythel. They didn’t fall according the laws of gravity, instead descending down in an arc that was carrying them closer to Karjon.

“The people!” she shouted, but Karjon was busy, because the main vessel was firing its unlight again. This time he could not counter it directly, because they were not aiming for him, but rather at a spot a bit further down the mountain. They were trying to cause a collapse, and it was taking all of Karjon’s effort to keep his flame between the attacker’s beams and their target.

Move! she screamed at herself. Are you going to die in the snow like some helpless princess, or are you going to fight like a dragon?

Somehow, she found the strength within her. It was like a physical thing, a well deep under the surface she had not tapped before. She stood, and when the floating armor began to close she reached into that well to call upon her limited pool of draconic magic.

She did not have the strength to summon a pure flame like Karjon could, even now. But she could call balls of fire to her hands that she could hurl at their attackers, and those did burn hotter than they ever had before. Her hands shook with the effort of standing and using her power, making aiming nearly impossible. Of the twelve she threw, only two found their marks. One enemy raised its hands in defense. The motion sent the suit tumbling end over end. He started to fall like a rock, and with his feet facing the sky, couldn’t right himself.

The other suit was impacted squarely on the chest. It wobbled slightly, but continued to approach.

“I can’t hurt them!” she shouted, turning to see Karjon.

He had found a break in the unlight of the ship, and angled his flame upwards. It raked across the bottom of the vessel, a flame more concentrated than anything she had ever seen Karjon make before, so bright it was nearly white. She had to avert her eyes at the sight. When her vision cleared, the underside of the vessel glowed red from the heat. If it had been normal steel or something comparable, Tythel was certain it would be molten slag.

It wasn’t, however. The ship was heated, but it was not damage, and the crystals were beginning to suck in the light again. They’d fire again soon. Karjon was panting with exertion. His flames were reaching their limit.

“The valley!” Tythel shouted as the idea struck her. Karjon turned his head towards her and just gave a quick, short nod. She hopped onto his back, grabbing onto the spines behind his wings. Karjon kicked off the top of the mountain and began to flap his wings with all his might moments before the beam impacted they space they’d just vacated, shearing off the top of the mountain as easily as Karjon’s talons tore open bison hide.

Then he was diving, and she was holding on as tightly as she could, her aching muscles already screaming in protest.

Beams of unlight began to race towards them from the falling pods. She could see what they were using to launch them, as small tentacles erupted from their suit’s wrists. The large beam from the ship also tracked them, closing the distance faster than Karjon could fly.

A beam of unlight struck her in the shoulder, and she nearly blacked out from the pain. If she hadn’t been reforged in Heartflame, she probably would have lost the arm. As it was, the arm lost all strength, and she had to focus entirely on holding onto Karjon with her remaining limb.

The main beam stopped. For a moment a surge of relief pierced the pain in Tythel’s mind as they dove to the safety of Karjon’s illusionary valley – and he had been right, she could see through the illusion now – but already the tendrils were warming up again.

This time it was not a single beam, but a volley of them, each enemy firing a single beam in a circle around Karjon that snapped shut like a clenching fist. Her father twisted in the air, trying to dive through the gap, but the space might have been too tight, or maybe he was just moving slowly so he wouldn’t throw Tythel from his back. Either way, it had the same effect.

She could do nothing but watch, screaming in horror and rage, as the beam cut Karjon’s right wing in half. He roared in agony, and then they were falling towards the valley below.

Tythel’s only comfort as the irresistible pull of the ground asserted its dominance was that, at the very least, their attackers wouldn’t get to see them die.

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