The Burning Epoch Part 5

When the helicopters had arrived, Candice and Diane hadn’t stuck around in the living room to see what happened. They’d ran into Diane’s room, the one furthest from the wall, and taken refuge. It seemed like such a pathetic hiding spot, but they couldn’t think of anything else to do. It was better than saying close to the wall and hoping for the best.

Plus, Diane had a television in her room. They could watch the news from here.

“We should go the stairwell,” Diane said. “We should go to the stairwell so we’re not near windows anymore.”

“No,” Candice wasn’t certain of a lot right now – there was very little to be sure of at the moment – but she was certain of that.

The news was still showing Kurt’s livestream. Some other people in other buildings had started streaming as well, and people in other areas, but Kurt was the first and was getting the most attention still.

“So, the helicopters are down,” he said through the television. “The…oh God, the helicopters are down.” He’d relocated to his bedroom and shoved the camera up to the window. “We still don’t know what…wait, I’m seeing movement.”

The camera shifted to put the hole back into focus. More of those scaled arms appeared over the lip. These were smaller, spindlier. The creatures that crawled out, one after another, were about the size of a human, but other than that looked like the bigger ones. They were ganglier, and their eyes wider.

“I think those are…baby Kaiju. They’re baby version of the big Kaiju.” Kurt said. Real insightful commentary there, Kurt, Candice thought. Knowing this was happening right outside her apartment gave the whole thing an air of unreality that was hard to process. Like she was watching from a dream, only the dream was alive and directly in front of her eyes.

“The babies – or juveniles, or whatever they are…they’re going towards the helicopters,” Kurt said, and there was an unmistakable dread in his voice as he turned the camera. “The big Kaiju is…shepherding them towards it.”

Candice hit mute and turned away from the television. Diane was pale and shaky. “They’re going to eat the soldiers alive,” she said, her voice hoarse.

Candice shook her head firmly. “The soldiers…I mean, no one could have survived those crashes.”

“Oh, that makes it so much better,” Diane said, her voice sharp.

“Yes, it does,” Candice said, snapping every word. “Dying in a crash is something I happen to think is better than being eaten alive.”

Diane stared at her for a moment, then looked away. “Fine. Whatever.”

Candice sighed. “Sorry. I’m tense.”

“Gee, can’t imagine why.” Diane gave her a weak grin. “I mean, it’s not like there’s anything going on right now that could be making either of us tense, right?”

Candice responded with a shaky laugh and risked a glance back at the screen. Kurt had turned his camera away from the helicopters, focusing on the Kaiju that was atop 215. It is staring at 213, cocking its head. From outside, Candice could hear it making chirping noises.

She reached out with a trembling hand and turned up the volume.

“- not sure what it’s going to do,” Kurt was saying. “It looks too big to jump down from that height, and I’m not sure how it would climb. It might-oh God, it’s tensing up, it’s getting ready to-”

Kurt’s voice was drowned out by the sound of the Kaiju leaping. It didn’t clear the distance between 215 and 213’s roof. It landed on the side of 213 and latched on with its talons. Candice could hear screaming from inside the building. Diane grabbed a stuffed bear from her bed and held it against her chest.

The Kaiju’s tongue lashed out, bursting through windows. It came out with a screaming woman desperately slapping against the appendage wrapped around her. Candice couldn’t look away as the Kaiju flicked its head and letting go.

The woman screamed the whole way down, landing amidst the young Kaiju on the ground.

Kurt pulled the camera from the window, focusing it on his face. “Okay. Okay. That was…that was horrifying,” he said. His eyes were wide and sweat beaded on his forehead. “I’m going to relocate. I’m going to…I have a friend in the complex. I’m going to go up to her apartment. Candice, if you’re watching, I’m going to be coming up to you. Get a better angle. Everyone else…stay tuned. I’ll be back soon.” He sniffed. “If I don’t sign back on…I didn’t make it. I’m sorry. Jessica, if you’re watching…I love you.”

For a moment Candice felt bile rise in her gullet. How dare he? Coming up here, drawing attention to her and Diane? It was so shitty of him.

But those tears were real. Candice could see that and reminded herself Kurt lived alone. Was he coming up because he wanted a better angle? Or was he coming up because he didn’t want to be alone?

That matched better with the man she knew.

Didn’t mean she wouldn’t kick him in the shin when she saw him.

Right before the feed cut out, there was a pounding on her door. Diane shrieked, which let Candice cover up her own surprised gasp. She ran to the door and poked her eye up to the peephole. For a second, she was convinced it would be one of those big Kaiju out there, or a younger one.

It was Kurt, shaking and pale.

Candice opened the door. “How the hell did you get up here so quick?”

Kurt blinked at her owlishly. “I guess the news has me on a delay,” he said after a moment. “So, they can…so they can cut if I bite the dust.” He chuckled, a sound that turned into a sob halfway through. “Can I…can I come in?”

“You can,” Candice said, holding up a finger. “But if you think I’m letting you record-”

Kurt cut her off. “Ten thousand dollars. I’ll give you ten grand if you let me stream from up here.”

Candice’s mouth clamped shut. That was what she’d make in a month of customer body work. Before the cost of car parts. “You can’t afford that,” she said, almost defensively.

“I couldn’t afford that,” Kurt said, almost sheepishly. “I…have gotten a lot of donations. A lot. I can definitely afford it.”

Candice frowned. “The money won’t do me any good if I get eaten,” she said, knowing how hesitant she sounded.

“Fifteen thousand. For both you and your roommate.”

“Let him in!” Diane said, shouting from her bedroom. Fifteen grand was half a year’s pay for her. Apparently, as frightened as she was, she wasn’t immune to avarice. Candice stepped aside and let him enter.

“Thanks,” Kurt said, letting out a sigh. “I like what you’ve done with the place.”

Candice raised her eyebrow at him. “Really? There’s monsters in the parking lot, but you like what I’ve done with the place.” The last time Kurt had been here had been when she’d moved in, invited a bunch of people she could find on social media up to a housewarming party. A house warming party that had really been about networking and getting clients for her shop, but a housewarming party nonetheless. They’d talked a couple times after then, when he’d been having car problems and brought his car in, and the one time she’d asked for his help with her computer.

Friend was a generous term for what they were. Outside of those interactions, they liked each other’s Facebook posts now and then and bitched about the rent a couple times.

“Okay, yeah, that was stupid,” Kurt said, moving over the window. Candice tensed up. She’d been ignoring the sounds coming from outside, trying her best to push aside whatever horror awaited them out there. “Sorry. I…well, I think that someone needs to show what’s going on here. And from up here it’ll be less…be less visceral.”

“And you realized those small ones are the right size to leap through your window,” Candice said, her voice flat.

“No, why would you think that?” Kurt said, his voice rising about three octaves with the lie. He coughed and flushed. “I mean…okay, yes.”

“We’re not safe up here,” Candice said, her voice low. Diane hadn’t come out of her room yet, and the last Candice had seen her, she’d been ready to go into a full-blown panic attack. Yet she let Kurt in for money…

Kurt shook his head. “I know. The moment they start climbing, I’m running. I’m running, I’m screaming, and I’m probably blubbering. I might even wet myself. I won’t pretend otherwise.” Kurt gave her a grin that shook. “By the way…do you know how to use a gun?”

Candice nodded, and Kurt reached into the back of his pants and pulled one out. “I, uh…”

“Jesus, point that thing somewhere else!” Candice said, stepping away from him. “In fact, give it to me!”

“What?” Kurt said, “I was trying to!”

“Okay, look,” Candice said, trying and failing not to snap. “Your finger is on the trigger. You’re hold a live, loaded gun, with your finger on the trigger. Point that damn thing at the ground and take your finger off the trigger.”

His hand still shaking, Kurt did. Candice stepped forward and, with the care she’d use to remove a live wire, took the gun from his hand. The safety was off. “You could have shot your ass off,” she said.

“Oh.” Kurt looked very small. “Uh…I’m sorry.”

“Me too,” Candice said, thumbing the safety into place and checking the chamber. There was a round in there, as she expected. It was a Desert Eagle .45, what Candice thought of as the Overcompensator. Mostly bought by people who had heard in books and movies it was the most powerful handgun in the world and wanted to make themselves feel big and strong because they were packing serious heat.

“This isn’t your gun,” Candice said flatly.

Kurt shook his head and looked down at the ground. Candice remembered him bending over and picking something up when he’d been in the parking lot.

She decided not to press further. “Fine. Go to the balcony. I’m coming with you. If you draw the Kaiju’s attention, I’m throwing you off.” Kurt started to laugh, and Candice cut it off with a sharp shake of her head. “I’m not sure I’m kidding. You shouldn’t be either. Come on.”

Kurt swallowed hard and followed Candice to see what new horrors awaited them.

The Burning Epoch Part 4

 

The Emergency Room at Mercy Hospital was never a boring place to work. Even on slower nights, like tonight had been, there was always a tension in the air. It was the anticipation, the expectation, that at any moment someone could come through those doors on an ambulance, barely clinging to life, and it would be up to Brenda Newman and her team to keep them from shuffling off this mortal coil and heading into whatever came next.

At the moment, they didn’t have anyone like that. At the moment, the only people waiting for attention weren’t the true emergencies, but the people for whom emergency care was their only option. These were the people who only went to the hospital when they absolutely had to, and all of them knew that it would mean months of calls from bill collectors for bills they couldn’t pay.

There were a few repeat visitors Brenda – Dr. Newman to her colleagues – recognized out there. Robert Burnham was shifting uncomfortably, and Brenda sent a silent prayer to whatever Saint cared for overworked trauma doctors that Mr. Burtham did not need anything removed from his colon this time – or if he did, it was something easier than another damn action figure. Karen Gillman was holding her son Chuck on her lap, shushing tears he wasn’t actually shedding. He looked more annoyed than anything. Ms. Gillman was going to insist her son had a serious injury, and when they talked to him, he’d roll his eyes and say he bumped his shin on a coffee table, or pinched his finger in a book binder, or something equally absurd. Probably. You always had to assume it was serious but based on how Chunk looked more annoyed than anything else, Brenda assumed that was the case.

Those were the repeat visitors she could smile and shake her head about. They were frustrating, and they sucked up resources that could have been used for patients with actual emergencies, but on slow nights like tonight, they weren’t hurting anyone.

Then there were the other returns that made her want to tear her hair out. Shannon O’Dowell’s cough was back, a cough that wouldn’t respond to treatment for long, a cough that required tests that Ms. O’Dowell couldn’t afford. She’d managed to quit smoking, but even at forty, Brenda was afraid it was too late. Mike Gallant had a black eye again, and his speech was slurred. He wasn’t a belligerent drunk, and he didn’t need his stomach pump this time, but he was going to drink himself into an early grave if things didn’t change. Brenda wanted to do more to help them, but there were limits. Shannon especially – Brenda had seriously considered pushing her into an MRI and bribing the techs not write it down if it came back negative. If they could get a diagnosis, they could get coverage for the treatment – but it was a catch 22, because Shannon couldn’t afford an MRI that ended up coming back negative and didn’t believe that she was a sick as Brenda was sure she was.

She’d been about to approach Shannon about that when the EAS started. That had completely changed the demeanor of the hospital. Everyone went from the sleepy tension of a slow shift with minor problems to the high tension of waiting, expectation. Rooms filled with non-critical cases were emptied, their patients moved to other parts of the hospital if they still needed attention. If they didn’t, they were placed in waiting rooms and told not to try to leave yet. Alerts were sent to all on call personal, making sure they were awake and alert and prepared. They wouldn’t be called in yet, not until it was clear it was safe for them to travel in, but they were now ready. The helicopter was checked and made sure it was ready to support emergency services.

She’d been so busy preparing for the emergency, Brenda had actually missed what it was about. The first she realized it wasn’t a normal emergency, that it wasn’t a nascent tornado or impending flood or something worse was during the President’s speech. It took her a moment to understand what she was hearing when she walked in near the end. “-I have been informed another term is being preferred – Kaiju. A Japanese word that existed in popular culture for decades and means ‘strange beast.’ I think this term truly is the best, because while they are indeed strange and dangerous, they are also just that. Beasts. Animals.”

“What the hell?” she said to one of her nurses. Clint Oberman was one of the best damn nurses Brenda had ever worked with, which – given that his stated reason for choosing his career was the male to female ratio – was a source of constant amazement, but that was only if you didn’t know that he said that because he was covering. He didn’t think he could have cut it in med school, but actually wanted to help people. His disapproving father had torn into him for working a ‘sissy job,’ so Clint had built the act carefully to justify his job to his father and himself.

He was good in a crisis, and aside from the ratio jokes, was never inappropriate. He could do his job well, and right now, the skill Brenda most valued was his ability to summarize quickly, concisely, and without emotion. “Monsters came out of sinkholes. Saw footage of one. Here in town. Dinosaur looking things. Thousands. Maybe more.”

Brenda did not stare at him and demand to know if he needed to do a drug test. Clint would never joke about something like this, not when it matched so well with the President’s speech. “Clint, grab two of the EMTs. I want them to go over to the emergency veterinary clinic down the street. Tell them we’re going to need their help.” It was a risk, but it was a calculated one. Clint’s forehead furrowed, but he nodded and ran towards the door.

She could justify the costs to her boss afterwards. Veterinarians knew animal bites better than anyone, they knew how to treat them, and were used to saving lives on a tenth of the budget Brenda operated with. If anyone would come in handy for the surge they were about to face, it would be the veterinarians.

“We will endure, and we will triumph. And again, I assure you, if you are in an impacted area – do not panic. Help is coming. God bless.”

The President’s speech closed, and the TV station cut to the footage of the kaiju attack here in town. The analysts were talking about his speech, but Brenda couldn’t hear them. Not over the pounding in her ears. Not over the sudden weakness in her knees.

That was Sunny Grove apartments. Where her sister and nephew lived. Sunny Grove. The kaiju were in Sunny Grove.

Brenda took a deep breath, and then another one. The nurses were looking at her. The other doctors were looking at her. This was her team, her people. They needed her to hold it together. You can do this, she assured herself. “Alright everyone,” she said, her voice carrying a confidence she didn’t feel. “You heard the President. Help is coming. We have to hold the line until then. If this is happening across the city, we’re going to see-”

Screams echoed from the waiting room. Speech time was over. Brenda joined the rush to see what was happening.

Karen of the fragile son was staring out the window, her boy clutched tightly to her, backing away. One hand was outstretched, pointing, and she was still screaming, a long, unbroken wail. Brenda followed her arm to see what she was pointed at.

A reptilian eye the size of a grapefruit with glowing golden veins was staring through the window, attached to a creature that looked like it had stepped out of myths and legends. Its scales were white with gold accents, its body was long and serpentine, and its wings…it had wings. Large, leathery appendages like a bat’s currently hugged close to its body.

Dangling from its teeth were a pair of blue scrubs, and a human arm, an arm with a barbed-wire tattoo, a tattoo that Brenda had last seen on Clint as he rushed out of the room.

The dragon – there was no other word for it – arced its head back and tossed the rest of Clint’s remains into its mouth. Karen had stopped screaming, although she was still pointing, her mouth open, frozen in a silent shriek of terror.

You killed him, Brenda thought, frozen to the spot. She wasn’t sure if she was blaming Clint or the dragon.

Overhead, she heard the whirring sound of helicopters. The dragon did too, whipping its head to the side, and it hissed a challenge that Brenda could feel in her bones. It extended those immense wings, and Brenda could see her initial impression they were wrong. They weren’t quite like a bat wings. Large sacks hung under the wings, close to the body.

Then the helicopter opened fire. “Get down!” Brenda screamed, following her own advice and throwing herself to the floor. The sound of shattering glass and the roaring of the minigun drowned out the screams inside. Brenda could barely even hear herself over the torrent. Some of the bullets found their mark and struck the dragon. A strange, glowing gold liquid began to flow from the injuries.

The dragon roared, and those sacks under its wings contracted. A blue light filled the hospital and a burst of heat, as the dragon launched itself into the air like a rocket. The gust of wind they created sent shards of glass flying in a deadly hail.

In the aftermath, the dragon was gone. Shannon would never have to worry about her medical bills again, not with the foot-long shard of glass wedged into her throat. She kicked a couple times, her eyes wide with terror, and then the light in them went out. People were screaming, people were crying, and there was so much blood.

She pushed the earlier guilt aside. At least Brenda knew what to do here. She began to bark orders, taking command of the situation. She couldn’t save Clint. She couldn’t save Shannon. But she would be damned if another person died because she made the wrong call. She’d assign blame later. She’d hate herself later. Right now, she had to care for the living.

It was time to hold the line.

 

Small Worlds part 211

No one spoke on the walk out of Officium Mundi. Ryan couldn’t say what was going through Nabu and Dianmu’s heads, but for his part, it was a mixture of lingering rage at the Curators and shock at Nabu’s about-face. He didn’t know what to say to the man – if that was even the right word.

Thankfully, once they were back in his nanoverse, Dianmu took over the silence. “What was that glowing orb you were given?” she asked.

Nabu gave her a small smile. “It’s all the power I had before, condensed. I can access it to a point, but I’m far more limited now – and it’s a finite resource. Once it’s gone, so am I.”

“Thank you,” Ryan said, finally finding the words. “I…I didn’t expect that. Or anything like that.” Ryan motioned to raise some chairs from the staging area floor for the three of them. “Thank you,” Ryan repeated, knowing how weak it sounded.

“I’ve been considering it for a few hundred thousand years,” Nabu said. “We – or I supposed when talking about the curators I should say ‘they’, now – lost our way at some point. I knew that protocol allowed for rules to change when the Council was in recess. When I realized that’s exactly what they were doing, it was the final straw.”

“And you didn’t warn us?” Ryan asked, careful to keep any accusation out of his voice. Nabu had just given up true immortality, beyond what even gods had, for their sake. The last thing he wanted to do was act like an asshole. Am I even still angry at him anymore? Ryan wondered.

Nabu shook his head. “I still had hope that I was wrong. I filled out the form to make sure I was ready, but I still held hope.” Nabu’s lips curled for a moment into a bitter grimace. “It was a foolish hope.”

No, I’m not, Ryan realized. Thirty years of being followed by Nabu had done damage to Ryan’s life, sure. It had cost him any chance at anything close to normality, and now Ryan had a terrible burden looming over him. But…but the later part hadn’t been Nabu’s fault. Nabu did nothing to guide Ryan to the nanoverse. And having a normal life wouldn’t have left Ryan any better prepared for what he was dealing with now.

“Well,” Ryan said, “foolish hope is pretty much our entire stock and trade, so you’ll fit right in.” He gave Nabu a lopsided grin.

Dianmu nodded and smiled. “I don’t think, since I’ve started working with Ryan, I’ve experienced any hope that wasn’t foolish. It’s worked out in the end each time in the end, though.”

“Thank you,” Nabu said, settling into one of the chairs. It was still weird for Ryan to see Nabu doing anything even remotely normal, like sit in a chair, or have his tie loose, or look tired. “Tell me. Is hunger a sharp pain in your stomach, followed by a rumbling sensation?”

Ryan couldn’t help but laugh. “Yeah, that sounds like it. I’ve got some emergency food for if my Hungers flare up – what sounds good to you.”

“I have no idea,” Nabu admitted. “I’ve never eaten anything before.”

“Never?” Ryan asked, freezing and looking at Nabu with incredulous eyes. “I mean…you have a cafeteria in Officium Mundi, right?”

“For visiting gods,” Nabu said, raising one hand to rub at his stomach. “The last thing we want is hungry gods running around Officium Mundi. You all can cause all sort of problems when you get up in your needs.”

“He’s not wrong,” Dianmu said.

Ryan nodded. “How about an Italian sub, then?”

“I literally have nothing to compare it to, so whatever you suggest,” Nabu said. “I do remember you enjoying those though.”

Ryan got up and went over to the console. Moments later, a refrigerator was rising out of the floor. “Go ahead.”

Nabu grabbed the sandwich and took a bite. His eyes widened. “Hmm. It seems there are unexpected benefits to mortality. Also, my tongue seems to be reporting pain.”

Ryan chuckled. “Peppers.”

“It’s an interesting sensation,” Nabu said. Dianmu motioned Ryan over while Nabu finished his sandwich.

“As amusing as it might be to watch Nabu learn about mortal life, we do have an objective here,” she said, her voice low.

“I haven’t forgotten,” Ryan said, shaking his head. “Was thinking about dropping into my nanoverse fully to give us plenty of time.”

“I don’t think that would be a good idea,” Dianmu said. “He’s not human, and his power source isn’t a nanoverse itself. We don’t know what it would do to him. He might not be able to exist in there – and even if he is, he just lost countless eons of power. Then you want him to give up what little he has left?”

Ryan pursed his lips. “Damn. Didn’t even think about that. But yeah, good catch. Although we probably should figure that out – otherwise we’ll have to know at the worst possible time.”

Dianmu laughed, a light and unamused sound. “I do wish I could tell you that was inaccurate.”

Ryan glanced back at Nabu, who had finished the sandwich in a horrifyingly short amount of time. “Hey Nabu, if we needed to drop into my nanoverse, would that…do anything to you?”

Nabu considered for a moment. “It probably wouldn’t be immediately harmful. Probably. I’d rather not experiment right now.”

Ryan glanced at Dianmu, who gave him the politest ‘I-told-you-so” look Ryan had ever received. “Fair enough. In that case, I hate to rush things, but…”

“But time is running short. You need to know the rules, and you need to know before the sun explodes next week.”

Ryan froze at Nabu’s words. “Next week? Next week?” Ryan shouted, his voice cracking. The old anxiety, so long absent, rose up in his throat like an unwelcome house-guest and threatened to strangle him.

Nabu nodded slowly. “Take a deep breath, Ryan. There’s things we can do to postpone, and I’m hoping that – once you know the rules – you’ll be able to figure out a loophole I’ve overlooked.”

Ryan walked over to one of the chairs and slowly slid into it, taking the deep breath that Nabu recommended. “Alright. Tell me everything.”

Nabu leaned forward and prepared to exactly that.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 66

Tythel leaned back against a wall, looking over the Span of Hallith, an empty notebook in her lap. She wrote idly in it as the wind gently tugged at her hair.

Little is known about Hallith, and I hope to have time to delve into the unexplored parts of the ruins while we’re camped here. The Span itself is even more breathtaking than the books described. I wish I had the eyes of an artist – or I suppose I should say “eye” now – so I could sketch it.

She debated taking some time to describe it, and decided against it. If someone one day read her notebooks and wasn’t familiar with Hallith, they’d probably skip this section anyway. Even after a month holed up here, it still took her breath away.

Hallith had been a city-state that predated the Cardometh Empire by over two thousand years. Located on a plateau several miles wide, Hallith was surrounded on all sides by a canyon nearly six hundred feet deep. The only ways into or out of the plateau were two great bridges, each capable of being retracted into the city. Or at least, they had been retractable. The magic that powered that mechanism had long since faded, and the bridges were permanently open. Still, it only took a handful of guards to watch each approach, meaning they wouldn’t be taken by surprise. The barren scrubland that surrounded the canyons also provided plenty of open air to see any approaching Alohym ships.

She returned to her notes.

It’s no wonder Hallith never fell to outside invaders. Even with the benefits of arcwands and their technology, I doubt the Alohym will be able to dislodge us from here. Should they approach from the air, we are already prepared to delve into the ruins below. Armin and a few other Magi who have joined us are hard at work creating an exit point in the canyon below we can use if we have to retreat there. I help when I can, but the molten rock left behind by dragonflame creates fumes that make it too hard for anyone to breathe.

That particular memory gave her a reason to wince. None of them had expected the toxic gasses, although they shouldn’t have been surprised. One of the few things known about Hallith was how it fell – a horrid miasma, created by the Hallithian’s burial customs of tossing the dead into their lumwell, had choked every citizen in their sleep. It seemed that miasma still infused the very stones of the plateau, and burning them released it.

I’m supposed to be the one that knows better. Armin could have died that day. I could have died. She decided not to write that part down, instead pushing forward.

Duke d’Monchy has taken command of the army while Lathariel recovers. Lady Von Bagget has taken command of the civilians. Those that can fight she sends to Lord Devos for training. Ossman’s been working closely with Lord Devos. He’d probably join the Abyssals, if not for the headaches he gets ever since his close exposure to the lumwell. Eupheme watches him closely for any signs of madness. So far he seems to still be sane, but…well, we’re hiding in the ruins of a dead civilization from the creatures that have stolen our world, so ‘sane’ is relative these days.

Tythel heard footsteps approaching, and stifled a sigh. She got time to herself so rarely these days, it was hard not resent any interruptions. Especially this particular one. She had time to finish her final thoughts.

There’s one amazing historical find we’ve made already. The word “Alohym” originates from the Hallithian language. We’ve found Hallithian depictions of the ancient Alohym they worshipped. They look nothing like the invaders that came from beyond the stars, either in their insectoid outer form or their slug-like inner, true form. The Alohym depicted in the Hallithian artworks are wondrous beings. It’s final proof of a theory we had been debating – the Alohym of modern days were never worshipped by humanity. Just as they stole our world, they’ve been trying to co-opt our mythology. Of course, any proof we try to publish we be denounced as rebel propaganda, but it’s satisfying to at least know they are not the gods they claim to be.

“Your Highness!”

Tythel closed her notebook, satisfied to at least complete the passage she was on. “Baron Gobori,” she said, looking down at the man who had approached her. He was a couple years older than her, and despite his low rank claimed to be able to trace his ancestry back to nobel blood. He was handsome and knew it, with a broad grin full of white teeth and an easygoing attitude. At least, around most people. He often seemed uncomfortable around Tythel, which only partially confused her. Most people were uncomfortable around her, besides her close friends.

“Please, call me Tellias,” the Baron responded, flashing her that wide smile.

“As you wish,” Tythel said, as she always did when he asked her to use his first name. He gave her a slightly wide-eyed look that Tythel thought meant he was expecting something, but she was still  unsure what he was.

“So…on the walls again? Looking out for Alohym ships?”

“No. We have sentries that will spot them before I do.” That last bit was partially a lie – her good eye would likely catch the ship first – but since she’d been staring at a notebook it was also partially true. “I was writing.”

She slid off the wall to join Tellias on the ground. “Oh? A diary?”

“Essentially, yes. It’s important to keep track of what’s happening, and my thoughts and feelings during it.”

Whatever response he had been expecting, it hadn’t been that. Tellias  blinked in confusion, a gesture Tythel immensely appreciated since it took no thought to understand. Does he do that for my benefit? Or is it something people do? “Why is it so important?” he asked.

“Primary sources. If our rebellion succeeds, it will be a historic event. Or, if it fails spectacularly enough, it might also be enough. Future historians will be scounging for any record of the times they can find. If they find my notes, it will give them a primary source they can rely upon.”

“I…see.” Tellias recovered his footing. “Well, that’s certainly nobel of you, to provide them with a reliable and unbiased source.”

Tythel tilted her head, careful not to tilt it too far. Humans did tilt their heads to express confusion sometimes, she’d learned, but rarely to the extremes that she was used to. “Nobility has nothing to do with it. I’m a historian myself. I appreciate primary sources, so it’s important to pay that forward. And I’m hardly unbiased. I don’t understand why you would say that – unless you were mocking me?”

“No, no, perish the thought!” Tellias took off his hat and bowed to her. “I knew you were a scholar, and assumed you’d be trying to keep your account unbiased.”

“Oh.” Tythel blinked in thought. “I suppose I should be, but any halfway decent historian will assume I’m biased and account for that. I still will take notes of my own bias, though, for future readers.” She began to walk back to the camp.

Tellias had to step quickly to keep up with her, which gave Tythel a chance to think. Tellias confused her. He often sought her out to speak to her, but rarely in the company of others. She’d thought he was trying to form a friendship with her, but whenever she invited him to join them, he’d declined. What does he want from me?

She considered asking him directly, but thought that would be too blunt, even for her. Instead, she decided to change the topic. “Have Armin and the rest of the Magi returned from today’s excavations?”

Tellias frowned for half a second, the same way he did whenever she mentioned Armin or Haradeth. Do you not like them? Maybe I should invite him to join Eupheme, Ossman, and I without the other two around. He might appreciate that. “Not yet, your highness. Nor, if I may anticipate your next question, has Haradeth returned from the Sylvani lands.”

Tythel let out a huff of air. “He should have been back by now. Ideally with Lorathor and a small army of Sylvani in tow.”

“Your highness, if I may? I think ideally, he’d return with a large army of Sylvani.”

Tythel chuckled at the joke. “I like to temper my expectations.”

“A wise mindset for a ruler, your highness.”

“I don’t rule anything – and if we don’t get reinforcements, it’s very likely the only kingdom I’ll ever have a chance to rule will be within the Shadow’s embrace.”

That put a damper on the conversation, which hadn’t been Tythel’s intention. Still, it served to keep Tellias quiet for the remainder of the walk to camp. You’re being uncharitable. He’s not bad to talk to. He just confuses you and that makes you uncomfortable.

Before she could open her mouth to apologize, she saw someone walking towards them. Eupheme, who was waving her hands for attention. “Hurry up! Where have you been?”

Tythel picked up her pace, muttering an apology for Tellias. He couldn’t hope to keep up with her now that she was sprinting. “What’s wrong? Is it the Alohym? Is it-”

Eupheme cut her off with a shake of her head and a grin. “No, nothing bad! The Duke was looking for you. They’ve made progress on Theognis’ cypher, and he’s called a meeting. They think they might have a location on the Vacuity Engine.”

Tythel blinked in excitement, and turned to dash towards the center of camp. Tellias was left lagging behind, and Eupheme only kept up by leaping from shadow to shadow.

It was the first good news they’d gotten since the death of Rephylon. Tythel wasn’t going to risk missing it.

Read the rest of the story here! 

Small Worlds Part 169

Horus didn’t bother trying to break the vampire’s grasp. There wasn’t time. He had burned through more than enough power where the need for air was burning at his lungs. Instead of entering a contest of main strength, Horus dropped himself backwards, pulling his legs up as he did. The motion caught Vlad off guard, and the two of them fell to the ground. Horus was able to bring up his feet into the vampire’s stomach and kicked as hard he could.

Vlad had no choice but to release Horus’ neck, not if he wanted his wrists to remain intact. Vlad turned to mist again to save himself impact with the ground, giving Horus’ time to gasp for air. Horus rolled away as Vlad reformed, slamming his heel down on where Horus’ head had been moment’s before.

Concrete cracked under the vampire’s heel. Bits of it flecked up and bit into Horus’ face. Even half burned, Vlad was unimaginably strong. Horus brought his leg up in a kick aimed at Vlad’s knee. Before he could connect, Vlad’s hand lanced down and grabbed Horus by the ankle. Vlad swung Horus over his body, slamming him into the concrete. Horus felt the world spin from the impact, and coughed up flecks of blood. Before he could try to break free of the grip, Vlad lifted Horus back up and swung him in an arc, slamming him into ground on the other side. “I’m going to drain you dry for this,” Vlad snarled, lifting to swing Horus again.

Horus threw his hands out towards the ground on the third swing, twisting reality to give the pavement the consistency of a feathered bed. He sunk into the now soft concrete, then kicked back towards Vlad, taking advantage of the vampire being off balance to free himself. Horus didn’t bother to try and rise, instead twisting to surround himself in a bubble of sunlight. Vlad hissed and recoiled from the field.

“You can’t keep this up forever,” Vlad growled from the doorway he had taken shelter within. “Your power is limited, and you’ve burned a great deal already.”

“I have enough to burn you, vampire,” Horus said, finally rising to his feet. “Your presence has been tolerated on this world for far too long.”

Vlad chuckled, the sound echoing through the courtyard. “Tolerated? You think you are the first god to have delusions about killing me? Please. I’ve survived far worse than you. Do you have any idea how many of our numbers I’ve killed over the centuries?”

Horus peered around, trying to pinpoint the vampire’s voice. Between the acoustics here and his own spinning head, he couldn’t quite place it. “However many it is, the number will not increase today, I can promise you that.”

“Endless void, did you read The Book of Bullshit Cliches? Is this the part where I tell you ‘we’re not so different, you and I’?”

Horus’ eyes flared. “We are nothing alike!”

“Of course we aren’t. You’re a pompous, self obsessed, neckbeard with delusions of grandeur. And I? I’m a survivor.

At that moment, Vlad finished the twist to reality he had been working on. Horus screamed as the ground beneath his feet turned into molten rock, causing his shoes to burst into flames that started to lap up to his ankles. He moved as quickly as he could, before the lava could completely incinerate his feet, but as he landed Horus screamed in pain. The soles of his feet were burned past the point of sensation – the pain seemed to be coming from somewhere around his ankles. The nerves below that had been seared away. Horus didn’t dare look at the mess of charred flesh he knew his feet had become. It was all he could do to maintain his balance, and keep up the field of sunlight that was keeping Vlad at bay.

“Which Hunger are you up to, Horus? I’m sure you’re thirsty by now.” Vlad’s voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. “Probably even feeling the need for food.”

A chunk of rock lifted off the ground and streaked towards Horus’ head. It took every bit of energy he had to dodge it before it could crush his skull. “You know why I always wear gods down before I kill them?” Vlad whispered from the shadows. “It’s not just because it’s safer to wait until they’ve drained all their power. It’s because I know that last Hunger is waiting for them. The need for socialization. The need for human contact.”

Horus saw his vision waiver, and the sunlight surrounding him dimmed as he dropped to one knee. Have to do something or he’ll kill me, Horus thought, frantically searching for a plan.

“It means that when you die, not only are you terrified, but so you’re painfully lonely. Isolated. I like to imagine that when my fangs sink into your neck, you’ll welcome it. Even though it’s killing you, it’s the last bit of human contact you’ll ever get before the grave.”

“Now…” Horus grunted, struggling to keep his eyes open. “Now who’s spouting the bullshit cliches?”

That actually got a laugh out of Vlad as Horus slumped to the ground, the sunlight going out. “I started monologuing. I am becoming a cliche in my old age, aren’t I?” In an instant, Vlad was on top of Horus, flipping him over with a kick to expose his neck. “At least I don’t sparkle. I hope someone kills me if I start to sparkle.” Horus raised his hand, and Vlad batted it aside. “Please. You have no power left. Accept this death, Horus.”

Vlad brought his fangs down towards Horus’ neck.

At that moment, Horus tapped into the last bit of power he had been holding in reserved as he faked his powerlessness, and erupted in sunlight. Vlad recoiled and howled in agony as his flesh began to fleck away. It was so bright it blinded even Horus.

When his vision cleared, Vlad was still there. He looked more like a corpse than a man now, his skin burned to a blackened crisp across his body. If he’d been a normal god, he would have died from his injures already. As it was, his movements were jerky, uncoordinated.

But he was still moving. Horus raised his hand to try another twist to reality, but he had burned through all his power. Nothing happened. He was, effectively, mortal.

Vlad’s power had to be mostly drained as well, but even with no divine strength left, he was still a vampire. He slammed his hand down onto Horus’ check, and Horus felt bones crack beneath the blow. Horus fell onto his back, and Vlad leaned his, his fangs coming ever closer to Horus’ throat. “Tell me, Horus – do you welcome this?” Vlad whispered.

“I do,” said a voice behind Vlad. The vampire started to turn, but before he could make it far into the motion, his chest bulged outwards. A hand shot through it, clenching the still beating heart of the vampire.

“Why?” Vlad asked, the unholy light in his eyes fading.

“I don’t answer questions from corpses,” Bast said, and then reached around – her arm still through Vlad’s chest – and brought the heart to her lips, biting into it.

Horus watched in as Bast shuddered at the bite, her eyes rolling back in her head in apparent ecstacy. He’d seen her feed since she became this horror, but it had never been like this. After that first bite, she devoured Vlad’s heart so greedily, Horus was certain she caught some of her own fingers in those bites. “I had no idea it would taste that good,” Bast whispered, shuddering in aftershocks of enjoyment.

Vlad, of course, said nothing. His body was falling apart, turning to bones and dust. Bast reached down with a bloody hand and patted Horus’ cheek. “You did well, Horus. Do you want to heal naturally?”

Horus nodded. The pain from his burned feet was pushing through the exhaustion, but the idea of waiting for a resurrection – of letting himself die after fighting so hard to live – sickened him.

Beneath that was a terror of what would happen if he was helpless in front of Bast right now, so close to the ecstacy of eating a divine heart. He didn’t believe she would feed on him, not really…but the hand that had patted his face had been missing bits of flesh.

That terror gave him the strength he needed to crawl his way back to his doorway as Bast watched with apparent amusement until he could seal himself inside.

Then, and only then, he allowed himself to pass out.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 65 (Beginning of Book 2)

In all of Drakan, there was no creature more wretched than Poz Torne, and if anyone had reason to doubt that, Poz would be happy to set them straight on the matter. He had thought he had reached the bottommost point of wretchedness the year before, when he’d been locked up for a little bit of looting. Not much looting, not in Poz’s estimation. They hadn’t been Alohym soldiers he’d been looting from – Poz knew that would mean the gallows for him – just rebels, and it’s not like they were using those boots anymore, on account of them being dead and all. “I was’t doin’ the harm to them, no I was’t,” Poz muttered to himself, crouched a cave with the lichen and the guano.

It darker in this cave than the Shadow’s anus, as near as Poz could reckon, which meant he had some time before he needed to worry about his pursuers catching up with him. Or at least, iffin my luck don’t be doin’ me the bad like what it does, he reminded himself. And since my luck be lovin’ doin’ me the bad, I be doing’ the think that it’s going to turn on me like what it always does.

It could have been worse, Poz reminded himself. He could have been caught looting Alohym soldiers, or committing one of their blasphemies. Looting rebels was just a plain old ordinary crime, as far as the Alohym reckoned, and Poz was glad that was how they reckoned it, else he would have been doing a merry little jig a few feet off the ground. Instead he’d done six months hard labor to set him straight, then gotten released and went right back to looting. Can’t be doing me a blame for looting, can you? Poz has to be doing the eat.

For one brief, shining moment, Poz had believed his luck had finally turned. He’d gone to loot a battle, like always, but this time, he hadn’t even needed to go to where the rebels would be laying dead with their boots just waiting for Poz to snatch them away. Instead, he’d found the packs the rebels had set aside, glorious packs of provisions.

Now, Poz had a rule. Poz had lots of rules, actually,  but the relevant one here was don’t take what will be missed. So he’d taken a bit of food from each pack, and a nice pair of socks, and a pair of new undergarments. He’d planned to check out the battle, see who all else had died, and if the rebels were all dead…well, if they were dead, there wouldn’t miss their packs, now would they?

Should have done a stick to the rules, Poz, he admonished himself. Should have done a Shadow-tossed stick to the rules. But in the last pack, he’d seen something too good to pass up. Something that shone greater than any prize Poz had ever imagined stealing. It was the kind of treasure they wrote books about being stolen, usually in great underground vaults surrounded by Light-infused constructs and deadly traps. The people who stole such things weren’t wreches like Poz. They were beautiful people, with perfect hair and teeth that gleamed when they smiled.

Poz should have known better than to steal the thing, but it had been so shiny, so bright, how could he resist?

There was a sound of footsteps near the entrance to his cave, and Poz pressed himself further into the floor, his ears twitching. Being an Underfolk meant Poz could barely see even in normal light, but he could click his tongue and bring himself an image of the world around him. He did that a few times, his heart pounding. His pursurers hadn’t seen the cave yet – or if they hadn’t, they weren’t near the entrance.

Should have done a leaving of the thing, he sighed to himself. But he hadn’t. He’d taken it from the pack and made a beeline for town, seeking out his Riki, his fence.

Riki was a hard woman who had lived a hard life, but she had a soft spot for Poz. Sure, she called him an ugly little bastard, but she always did it with a smile. Or at least, without a grimace. Usually. But when Poz had Sung her and told her that he had something worthwhile, Riki had come running. This had pleased Poz. He’d built up a reputation for whining and moping because…well, because he liked to whine and mope, but also because doing so meant that, when he said he had something good, people knew it had to be true.

“Where’d you find this?” Riki had asked when he’d shown her the thing.

“You don’t want to be doing a know of that, no you do not,” Poz had assured her, getting a smile out of Riki.

“I suppose I don’t. Poz, how hot is this thing?”

“I was doing a wait of a couple weeks before I did a song, yes I was. No one’s been doing a sniffing for it, I can tell you that.”

Riki frowned. “I’ll see what I can find, Poz. You might have just become the richest one of your people on the continent.”

That was when Poz knew something was very, very wrong. Things that good did not happen to Poz, no matter what else was going on. No matter where he went or who he spoke to, the best Poz ever hoped for was to break even.

Even if he did have an egg of solid gold with him.

So he’d put his ear to the ground, as they said. He’d heard things that made him shiver down to his core. One of the Alohym, Rephylon, had met its end. Burned to death by a…by someone. Everyone agreed that Rephylon was dead, but not everyone agreed as to the creature that had killed him. Some said she was a monster, a half dragon, half human that wanted the Alohym gone so she could prey upon humanity freely. Some said she was a pure, true dragon from the old tales, the kind that kidnapped princesses and sat on their great hordes of treasure. Some said she was just a woman, able to weave dragonflame out of Light.  

All the stories, however, agreed on two things. One was her name – Tythel, a name stolen from the long dead princess of the old kingdom. Of course she is not being the princess, Poz thought. Only the very stupid be doing the believing of that. And they agreed she had survived the death of Rephylon, and was now building an army. Rumors said, in the month since Rephylon’s death, she’d been gathering all manner of cutthroats and brigands and all sorts of nasty folk to her banner, or that she was killing the nasty folk and…Poz clicked his tongue again, both to check his surroundings and to clear his head.

The truth was, Poz was sure it didn’t matter if she was wicked or good. Because Poz was increasingly certain that the egg he had stolen had belonged to this Dragon Princess. Which meant she wanted it back, and the Alohym wanted it for themselves. And what is poor Poz supposed to do? Do I be doing a go to the Dragon Princess and say “please don’t be doing a killing? I didn’t know it was yours when I be doing the take of it?” Hah! She’ll probably be putting the burn on me before I even finish a sentence! He’d been ready to give the egg to Riki and run to the hills, he really had. He’d gone to see her to be done with it and run, run far away, but when he’d gone to see her, Riki had been dead, impaled on the wall of her shop by a great sword as long as Poz was tall.

That’s when Poz realized that he was worried too much about the wrong people that wanted the egg. The Dragon Princess would burn him to a crisp if she could find him, but the Alohym…they knew he had it, somehow. They had sent something new after him, something terrifying. Something that fought like an Alohym but stalked like a man. It was what was out there right now, waiting for him.

Maybe if I be doing the leaving of the egg here, they’ll leave me alone, Poz thought, but dismissed the idea immediately. It was a nice, lovely thought, but it wouldn’t be what happened. They’d overlook the egg and hunt him down. Or they’d find the egg and still hunt him down. Or they’d find the egg and leave him be, but then the Dragon Princess would hear of it and she would hunt him down, and he wouldn’t even have the egg to bargain with.

Poz clicked his tongue again, and this time he had to fight back the urge to scream. The thing that was chasing him was in the cave’s entrance. It was as tall as a man, perhaps a bit taller, its form lithe and supple and covered with a rock-hard shell like the skin of an Alohym. Its head was wedge-shaped, like an Alohym, and it moved with preternatural grace.

Poz clicked his tongue a few more times, letting the new thing get further into the cave, then slowly skittering across the walls and hoping, begging the Shadow to keep him safe. He had one hope, as far as he saw it, one person who could set this straight. An old friend who would know what to do.  

A rock fell. The new thing turned towards Poz and started to raise its arm. The clawed hand was running like it was made of wax, forming some new appendage.

A beam of unlight shot from the newly formed tube at the end of its wrist, and Poz cleared the edge of the cave by mere inches before the blast struck. Then he was gone, fleeing into the night, with the new thing hot on his heels.

Just keep doing the running, Poz! Do the run and don’t ever stop! And once you be finding Nicandros, he’ll be knowing what to do with this.

Poz could only pray he would live that long.

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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