The Dragon’s Scion Part 86

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moments later, the aeromane flapped into view.

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

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

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

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

With a final roar, it dove from them.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 84

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Far too long,” Poz agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Dragon’s Scion Part 83

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No coin,” Poz said warily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And how he could best use it.

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 82

Tythel felt Eupheme’s weight vanish from her back as the ground grew closer. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her friend reappear in the shadow of a shrub and roll out of it. Tythel heard a sickening snap, like a twig being broken in half, followed by a sharp scream by Eupheme. The only thing that assured Tythel that her friend was alright was that the scream was followed by a series of curses. Please don’t be her leg, Tythel asked the Light, and then the time for worrying about Eupheme was past.

It was time to worry about her own safety.

The instant she was close enough to the ground, Tythel dropped her feet and and started to run along the ground. As fast as the Skimmer was moving, she accomplished little more than tapping her feet against the ground at first, but with each footstep she robbed the creature of a bit of its momentum. Finally it was enough for her to dig her heels into the ground, dragging the Skimmer to a stop. It’s flame sacs were still running, and Tythel had to grit her teeth to wrestle it to the ground.

She got it on its back, and removed one claw to slam the creature between its stalk eyes. As she hoped, that seemed to be where it kept its brain, and it fell still, either unconscious or dead. Tythel hoped for the former, but didn’t have time to check. The second Skimmer was coming up fast. Tellias was somewhere behind it, and Eupheme was still recovering from her roll. And I still can’t breathe or speak.

The remaining Skimmer drew closer. Tythel heaved up the one she had taken down, putting it between herself and the approaching attacker, and sunk her claws into the unconscious creatures skin just below its throat. A trickle of blood rose up from around her talons, letting her know it was still alive.

The Skimmer still in the air curved away. It had gotten the unspoken message – come any closer and this one dies. It started to circle the air around Tythel, keep it’s whiplike tail pointed towards her. Standoff, Tythel thought. If it shot her, she’d kill the one she had captured. If she killed the captured one, it’d shoot her.

Tythel had one hope she could hold onto. She just had to stand on the ground. The Skimmer was airborne. As tired as she was, as much as her legs shook from the sheer effort of supporting her weight and the creatures, she had hope she’d tire out long before her adversary did.

The Skimmer was clearly intelligent by the way it had backed off when she’d grabbed its companion. It was doing the same analysis Tythel was – or at least, she hoped it was. You can’t win, she thought. So back off.

Instead, its flight began to slow down. It brought itself near a tree and wrapped its tail around a branch, swinging its body so the eye stalks were facing Tythel. Tythel fought back an urge to swear. Now it just had to wait for her to get tired, for her attention to slip. Then it could drop off the tree, swing that tail around, and…

Tythel fought back an image that rose to mind, of what unlight beams that could sear stone would do to her face.

She could hear Tellias in the distance, but he’d fallen far behind the chase. How fast were we moving? Tythel wondered, not taking her eyes off the Skimmer. Imperiplate could cover a league in seven minutes when at a dead run. For Tellias to be so far behind, they had to have been moving at least twice as fast, if not more. Crawlers could outpace Imperiplate, but not by that much.

Tythel shook some of her hair out of her good eye. It was clingy and wet with sweat. Focus, she chided herself. She had no help coming any time soon, and didn’t doubt the other Skimmer would try something when Tellias arrived. With Eupheme injured, possibly out of the fight…

“Release him,” the Skimmer said in a wet, burbling voice. Tythel nearly jumped out of her skin. It can speak? She thought, her mind racing furiously.

Tythel shook her head, then shifted the unconscious Skimmer to free up one of her hands and gesture towards her throat. “Can’t,” she said, letting the Skimmer hear how raspy her voice was, hear the wet coughs she made as she tried to speak. It was a risk, letting it see how weak she was, but she still had a claw to its companion’s throat.

“You cannot release him, or you cannot speak?” it asked, fixing those stalk eyes more firmly on her.

Tythel held up two fingers to indicate the second option.

“Release him or die.”

Tythel just rolled her eyes at this one. The Skimmer was intelligent enough to speak. Surely it was intelligent enough to understand why that was a stupid option for her.

“You are weak,” it burbled. “Your posterior limbs shake. Your skin excretes saline. You vocal apparatus is damaged. You have no projectile weapons. You cannot win.”

Tythel gave a slight shrug, and tightening her grip on the unconscious Skimmer. The one in the tree let out a sound like a dribbling snot that Tythel took for anger.

“Do not!” it croaked.

Tythel took a deep breath. She pointed to the Skimmer in the tree, then to the sky, then to the unconscious Skimmer, and then to the sky again.

“I fly away. You release him. Is that claim?”

Tythel nodded.

“Lies. You will not release.”

Tythel pointed to the stump where the injured Skimmer’s tail had been. “No,” Tythel said, then had to pause to cough again. She took a deep breath and swallowed. The taste of blood was a bit less strong this time. Am I healing? Or am I just getting used to it? “Threat,” Tythel managed to choke out, finishing the thought from earlier.

“You claim you will do this thing because he is no threat?”

Tythel nodded. The Skimmer studied her with those eye stalks. “If you do not release, I will come back. I will slay.”

Tythel nodded again to indicate her understanding.

“Bring him to water. Put him in. He will endure there. I will find him down stream. Or I will slay.”

She gave the creature one last nod, and after a long moment, the Skimmer unfurled its wings and begin to spray flame from those sacs on its wings. It held onto the tree until the force of the flame pulled it horizontal. Just before the tree branch snapped, the Skimmer released itself, and took off into the sky. It kept its eye stalks on her as it flew away.

Tythel let go of the unconscious Skimmer and stepped towards the stream. She cupped some of the water in her hands and held it to her lips, wanting to weep with relief as the cool water flowed down her throat. She gathered up the Skimmer and drug it back to the river, pushing it in.

As soon as it touched the water, it began to move, its eye stalks coming alive and alert. It began to swim away from her as quickly as it could, waving its fins to propel itself. It was strangely beautiful to watch, now that it wasn’t trying to kill her.

Tythel watched it go, then took another drink of water. It’s over, she thought numbly. It had felt like weeks since the battle had started, and it was finally over.

Now it was time to gather Eupheme and Tellias and figure out what they were going to do next.

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The Dragon’s Scion Part 81

“Jump!” Eupheme shouted as her arcwand blazed.

Tythel leapt to the side without a moment’s hesitation, grabbing onto a rock that jutted out a bit further from the cliff face. A beam of unlight scored the stone she had just vacated, sending chunks flying free from the wall to crash into the valley below. Her remaining talons bit into the rock. A lance of pain threatened to black out the vision in Tythel’s good eye as her bloodied finger slammed into the rock, but she forced it aside. The rock was beginning to crack under their combined weight, and Tythel had to scramble with her feet and remaining hand to find purchase. “Flath, that was close,” Eupheme hissed. “They’re getting ready for another pass.”

Tythel nodded and took a moment to make sure her grip was firm. Then, taking a deep breath to calm her nerves, Tythel shifted away her talons.

For a terrifying moment, all that was holding her in place was the strength of her grip on the rocks and the tiny footholds barely under her toes. Even her enhanced strength could barely support the two of them. Tythel waiting there for a moment, then tentatively lowered her injured finger onto the rock.

The pressure wasn’t painful. Although the digit was still streaked with blood from the earlier injury, without a talon Tythel didn’t have any injury to cause her pain.

“They’re coming back around,” Eupheme said in a warning tone. “Whatever you’re doing, mind hurrying it up just a bit?”

Nodding again, Tythel shifted her talons back into place. She let out a sigh of relief at having them grip into the stone again, and almost wept for joy when her damaged talons grew back with the uninjured ones. It wasn’t much – she could only heal injuries to the parts of her body she grew – but it was something. “Tythel! Move!” Eupheme shouted.

Tythel kicked to the side again. There weren’t any safe outcroppings on the side of her head she could see out of, so she leapt blindly into the spot hidden by her bad eye, turning her head and praying to both light and shadow she’d find something to grab into. Unlight again sheared away the rock from the plateau. Beams erupted from the ground as Tellias opened fire, streaking past the Skimmers.

There wasn’t anything to grab onto this time. Tythel was forced to again dig her talons into the stone cliff, scoring the stone with lines as they fell. They hadn’t gone as far this time – her talons held, although it sent lances of pain along her arms and legs as she slowed their impact. Eupheme opened fire again. “They’re so fast…” Eupheme said, ejecting a spent light cell and slamming another one into place. “Tythel, I don’t know if I can hit them.”

Tythel nodded, and swallowed hard as she began to climb. She needed every bit of moisture she could get in her ruined throat. A plan was beginning to form, but it required being able to ask Eupheme a question. “How…” Tythel started to say, but the rest of the sentence died in a series of coughs that tasted of copper.

“Don’t try to speak,” Eupheme said in growing alarm. “Just keep climbing!”

Tythel did, waiting for Eupheme’s warning to jump again, looking out of her good eye with a frantic fear. Have to find another outcropping, she thought. Have to get to safety or-

“Now!” Eupheme shouted.

Tythel leapt again, Eupheme firing wildly. Eupheme let out a whoop of excitement as Tythel managed to sink her talons into a soft spot of dirt that was packed into the side of the plateau. A wave of heat hit Tythel a moment latter, followed by a soft “whump” of an explosion. “Got one!” Eupheme said fiercely.

If Tythel could have spoken, she would have congratulated her friend. Instead she kept climbing, her mind racing. The smell when they are near is like burning gas. They only have one heartbeat. Somehow, these aren’t ships, or some new kind of Alohym skin. They’re creatures in their own right!

Suddenly, her crazy plan seemed even more needed. “Close,” Tythel managed to spit out before another round of coughs sent her vision spinning.

“Close? Ground is another hundred feet,” Eupheme said.

Tythel shook her head.

“The Skimmers? They’re coming around for another pass.”

Tythel shook her head again, still climbing.

“Then what do you…oh. Oh no. You can’t be serious.”

Tythel nodded.

“Light and flathing shadow,” Eupheme swore. “About three heights. You’re sure?”

Tythel didn’t even bother to nod this time, continuing her climb and awaiting Eupheme’s signal.

“Damnit,” Eupheme muttered. “Alright, get ready.”

Tythel stopped her climb.

“And…now!” Eupheme shouted.

Tythel leapt, twisting again in the air to face away from the wall. She found herself face to face with the eyestalks on the underbelly of the Skimmer. Although the eyes were markedly inhuman, they widened in a comically familiar expression of shock.

Then Tythel sunk her talons directly into the creature’s underbelly. The Skimmer let out a sound that Tythel assumed was pain, a sound like someone blowing into a broken flute. The creature staggered in the air, and Tythel’s heart stopped. Oh no. I killed it. I killed it and we’re both going to fall to our deaths.

Then the flames emerging from under the Skimmer’s wings reignited, and they began to accelerate. The Skimmer tried to swing its tail around to take aim at them, but Eupheme shot it off with a quick blast of her Arcwand. “You’re crazy!” Eupheme shouted. “You’re madder than the moon!”

Tythel blinked in amusement at the compliment. The Skimmer began to streak away from the plateau, its eyes wild with pain. She could feel it trying to pull up and gain altitude, but the Skimmer wasn’t meant to support the weight of two humans, especially not while losing blood from its abdomen. With every second, the ground grew closer. Tythel could see Tellias racing to follow them, the remaining Skimmer right behind him.

All that was left for Tythel to do was grit her teeth, and get ready to leap off the bottom of the Skimmer before it scraped her and Eupheme to past on the canyon floor below.

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 80

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

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

Tythel shook her head.

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

Tythel again shook her head.

“Okay. Is it injuries from the battle?”

Tythel nodded firmly at that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It didn’t miss the rope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 79

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tythel nodded.

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

Tythel stopped and looked at him, hands splayed out.

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

Tythel shook her head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No time.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m not sure I like-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tythel shook her head.

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

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

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

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

It was a long climb to the bottom.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 78

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And what about you?” he demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t want to die.

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

The Dragon’s Scion Part 77

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 75

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When you work on a major project, you have to manage your duties. It’s like the triage physikers practice. Pick what’s most important, and make that your highest priority. Secondary priorities can follow as you pursue the primary. Armin heard the words of his old teacher, Master Lukanis, as if the old Master was standing next to him. For the most part, it was good advice, although Armin wished they had spent more time on learning to identify primary and secondary priorities. Digging the tunnel, for example. Armin had set expansion of the tunnel and reinforcement so it wouldn’t collapse on anyone’s head as a primary priority, and focused all their efforts in those two fields. Those were good priorities.

However, It meant making sure that the alarms reached them down here was a secondary priority.

So it was that Armin and the other three Llumcasters they’d acquired after their last major confrontation with the Alohym were completely unaware, at first, of an entire battle being fought above. They were deep beneath the ground, checking charts and second guessing their math. If their math was right – and Armin hoped that four Lumcasters working in tandem could manage even complex trigonometry – the tunnel through the plateau had now reached the ground level after winding in a gentle spiral downwards.

Clarcia stood next to him.  “The math looks good to me!” she said brightly, earning a chuckle from Armin and the others. Of the Llumcasters, she had the most raw power. She was also fifteen, and had never set foot in the Collegium or any other school of formal study. She’d figured out how to manipulate light by accident. It made her into a potent force, but when the time came for math and careful planning, she sat at the side of Armin and the others, taking notes with a fervor. The math always looked good to her, and Armin wondered if the joke would ever wear old, or if she’d be making it when she was in her seventies and had finally mastered it.

Light, you’re a fool, Armin thought with no small amount of bitter mirth. You actually believe anyone here is going to make it to seventy? His sour reflection was interrupted by the oldest of the Llumcasters, Genevia. Genevia had been a Llumcaster before the Alohym arrived, one of the few to survive that initial assault. She only had middling talent, but could apply it with the surgical precision of a physikers blade. She was also showing some of the slight mutations that aged Llumcasters developed – in her case, a third eye in the center of the forehead that she swore was nonfunctional, and an extra thumb on each hand. Those did work, Armin knew, though they provided her little benefit. Genevia had joked about developing a new instrument only she could play properly, but admitted she had no ideas for how that would work. “I think Clarcia is right. However, Clarcia, can you tell us why it is ‘good’?”

Armin tuned out as Clarcia began to explain the formulae and how they proved it was safe to burst through the plateau. He knew he should be paying attention, but Genevia and Adenot – the last of their little quartet – were better at math than him. Adenot was, like Genevia, older than Armin, although he’d only been an apprentice when the Alohym invaded. He also wasn’t particularly strong, although he could hold a casting far longer than any of the others, which made it his job to shore up the tunnel until the builders could use some of the stones from the ruins above to keep it supported. Adenot had not begun to mutate at all, although he swore every day it was coming ‘soon.’

Light and shadow, listen to me, judging others for their strength as Llumcasters. I’m a glorified charging cell! That wasn’t entirely fair – since absorbing the Sunstone’s power, Armin had been able to do some minor casting that went beyond mere ‘charging cell charging,’ but since his talent had been so weak, he’d never learned how to manipulate light for anything other than powering Arc devices. In mathematics, logic, and the scholarly arts, he could help teach Clarcia. When it came to Llumcasting, Genevia and Adenot often taught Clarcia by giving her basic lessons to teach Armin. It rankled sometimes. At the collegium, being a glorified charging cell had made him perfect in the eyes of his instructors, who were now of course serving the Alohym. It was only now Armin understood that was because being able to charge Arc devices was all they wanted Llumcasters to do.

Why did they even allow that? Armin wondered, not the first time. Ever since Tythel’s discovery that the Alohym’s vaunted immunity to harm was a function of every assault against them in the past using Unlight weapons against them,  it had never made sense to Armin that the Alohym allowed the creation of arcwands. He hadn’t come up with an answer, not yet. His best theory was that the Alohym knew humans would figure out the trick, and thought it would be best if they controlled the production of the arcwands.

He didn’t like that theory. It was too clean, too neat, and too easy. Armin didn’t trust anything that made the Alohym seem easy. In his experience, nothing about the Alohym seemed easy.

“Very good Clarcia. Master Armin,” Genevia asked, breaking into his reverie again. “Do you agree we’re ready to breach?”

Armin fought the urge to protest the title. He was nominally ‘leading’ the Llumcasters, but that was only by virtue of of having been with the Resistance far longer and having earned the Duke’s trust. He had never earned the rank of Master, unlike Genevia and Adenot, and having them call him a title he was still years away from being worthy of rankled him. Armin liked people singing his praises, but only when it was deserved. “I do, so long as Master Adenot agrees.”

Adenot nodded in firm agreement. Armin would rarely do anything if the two true Masters didn’t agree, and when they did not, he deferred to Genevia. At least he didn’t need to do that this time. “Excellent,” Armin said. “Then I suppose we should start the breach. Anyone know what time it is up top?”

“Well,” Clarcia said brightly, “judging by the circles under all three of Master Genevia’s eyes, I’d say we were up all night. Again.”

Armin ignored the note of reproach in Clarcia’s voice. Bringing timepeices into the tunnel had also seemed a secondary priority. It was easy to lose track of time away from the sun and stars, especially with work to distract them. And especially because you don’t need to sleep anymore. Or, to be more accurate, he couldn’t sleep anymore. Not since the Sunstone.

It was starting to wear on him.

“Then we’ll call it for now, and break through after we’ve all rest-”

Armin was cut off by the sudden slap of boots on the tunnel, coming towards them rapidly. “Master Armin!” the runner shouted. She was young, no more than eleven or twelve. Children like her were used to run messages within the camp to free up the adults for other work. No one trusted the songstones, not for anything short of dire urgency.

“What is it?” Armin asked, masking his irritation. He was hoping to lay down and at least close his eyes for a few hours.

The girl was panting, and had to rest her hands on her knees. Light. Did she run the entire len “We…you don’t know. Alohym, sir. They’re attacking the upper level. The Duke sent me…oh flath. Sorry, shouldn’t swear.” The girl took a deep breath. “They’re falling back into the tunnels. The Duke says if you can get an opening, we’re going to need it.”

Armin scowled. “Sleep is postponed,” he announced. “We need to break through.”

There was no argument. Clarcia went to the front and began to glow as she sucked in light from the nearby Llumwell. It caused her skin to glow with a golden radiance, and her red and blue hair began to float of its own accord. “Steady now,” Genevia cautioned, her own skin starting to glow as she wove a focus from light.

They’d gotten very good at this. Clarcia would channel raw power from the lumwell, with Genevia focusing her beam. Adenot would shore up the tunnel, and Armin would pull additional light to funnel into whoever needed it.

“How long,” the girl asked. “Begging your pardon, sir, but the Duke will want to know.”

Now Armin wished he’d paid attention to the mathematical discussion earlier. “Genevia?” Armin asked, busying himself with some objects on the table to appear busy, hoping to hide his ignorance.

“Two hours safely. An hour if we rush and take risks.”

The girl nodded. “There’s a warship up there.”

Genevia looked at Armin, who nodded grimly. “We’ll rush, then.”

Light, please let us have enough time, Armin thought, already starting to funnel additional light into Clarcia. Don’t let us all die down here because we were too slow.

If the Light was willing to aid them, it gave no reply.

Weird Theology is now available as an audiobook! Click here to check it out! Or here for Amazon!