Somewhere above, as if waiting, the loversuns still shone.
Below that — past all the ash, dust and smoke — the two suns’ light became a vague hint, offering the lake’s surface to the shadows. And they accepted, waving their shadow tongues, swishing their shadow tails, and enveloping.
Trudging over the crumbly shell of this molten glass lake, you’d tire of the lack of light or company in your first breath cycle. The Berwem was vast and empty; there was only me and — somewhere I couldn’t see — my companion, Hinte.
Without dropping my prize, I hugged my wings a little closer to myself, and pouted. I had lost her again… but it was the lake’s fault, not mine.
I sighed, my tongue flicking out in starless habit, and, traitor it was, brushing the vomer on the roof of my mouth. I scented despite myself.
The lake could have smelled worse. Its ash just tasted… ashy, but its dust tasted like aluminum and copper, with little hints of electrum. If that were all, well, I think anyone could stand to scent precious metals all evening, if maybe without the mouthful of ash and dust it came with. Pervading them both, though, was a vog that choked and stung and reeked of smoke and sulfur like a horribly burnt dish of festering eggs.
The image gave me a little giggle. Maybe some frilly god had prepared the lake Berwem as a little bowl walled in by cliffs, turning up the heat with volcanic vents, adding in some weird crabs and weirder stones, and then sprinkling in so much ash and metal, all as some big joke.
The silliness lifted my thoughts off the vog that slithered down my panting throat, and off the wriggling, constricting shadows.
So I started forward like that, giggling, every step of my four night-blue legs cracking the lake surface. It opened glowing breaks in the lake’s gray skin, like slit eyes that stared. I peered back at them.
Writhing under the skin, molten glass split the ground into brittle plates. Those plates rattled as they ground against each other, and the burning glass underneath hissed as the air vitrified it. Those rattles and hisses, taken together with the scaly plates and cracked eye slits, only completed the image.
I could imagine the lake as a meal all I wanted, but it would never stop feeling like it had swallowed me instead.
After that thought, I wasn’t laughing; the giggly tongue-clicking stumbled in my throat and turned into a choked cough that bit into me, and — determined to drag up a yelp or a groan with it — stretched and overstayed itself for ten heartbeats, long after I’d gotten tired of it.
Coughing filled the air, and even when it waned it left my breaths wheezing. Its only accompaniment was the lake’s dim rumbling. The sound — the emptiness of it — stilled me. Fangs wet, I looked left and right, forward and backward, listlessly up and then finally down at my scaled blue feet.
I’d lost Hinte again, and now I was alone in the lake.
It wasn’t my fault. I’d tasted an opportunity scuttling along unawares and leapt for it. But we shouldn’t have lost each other so quickly.
Last time — every other time — she’d only gone as far as the edge of my sight, and it was a matter of leaping over to her. Now, I couldn’t see or hear her — I could smell her, but that was awash in everything else, nothing but a tinge. Hinte had been more than enveloped, she’d been swallowed, just like me.
My fangs dewed with a little bit more… saliva. It wasn’t sour, and it was only a few drops. They dripped onto my muzzle and slid and fell to the ground by my black-covered feet. I looked up.
It’d be a bit easier to forgive the friend-swallowing shadows if they hadn’t come from this stinking, sulfuric, vog-stuffed air, or if they were at least thin enough to see farther than six strides ahead in.
I was glaring at the shadows now, but stopped myself with a cringe. Hinte would see me before I saw her. Would she catch me glaring and think I hated sifting? I couldn’t seem unappreciative.
From behind, a smell of boiled meat reached me, reminded me, and I squeezed the glasscrab held between my night-blue wings — my prize. The dead gray form swung over my back, then bounced and fell into a bag opposite my lunch. I had gained something from getting lost, at least.
Glasscrabs. They were some weird lake creature said to have alchemical blood — disease-purifying alchemical blood. And I would know, with how many long rings I’d lost poring over old, smelly scrolls about them, expecting Hinte to be impressed.
What the scrolls hadn’t mentioned was how flighty and stinky they were. Or how silly… though maybe that was just the one I’d found. Dumbly, it had scuttled right by me and Hinte as if we didn’t exist. So I’d pounced on it. A long-sought alchemy ingredient walking right past? A chance to do something besides walk and ask unanswered questions? It should have been worth it. Instead, I’d lost Hinte again.
All four of my feet were digging into the ground, biting into it, as if the clinging would keep me from sliding swallowed down into the lake’s fiery maw — even though they would crack it open instead. Breathe, Kinri. The breath came clearly, but that was easier than relaxing my feet.
Confused, I breathed again, and the breath came just as clearly, as though the coughs had crawled further down my throat, into my breast, where they were just a faint wheezing. Maybe they’d rush back out any moment — but for now? They were gone.
I didn’t smile, but I spat out some dust. It left as a wet and cloudy spray, turning my mouth into a little volcano. I did it a few more times, making a little swirl in the air around me. You had heard of the legendary heroes that could breathe fire, but I could breathe dust. Tremble before me!
At that, I did smile a little. I didn’t dare laugh again, though. But I smiled. Because you had to stare at the silly side of things, keep everything positive. If I stopped, then the dewing would start.
Suddenly, a crack beneath me! I jumped. Dustone was shattering in my feet, and a storm of glowing cracks was ripping around me. I didn’t like how the ground was sinking.
I hadn’t been walking. I’d stilled on the spot, alone, swallowed up just like my companion, and laughing and coughing in that aloneness.
I breathed again, through my mouth, letting my tongue focus on just that haughty electrum smell. Releasing the shattered dustone in my feet, I stepped forward. Hinte hadn’t been swallowed by the vog and I wouldn’t be either. I just needed to find her. She knew the Berwem like a favorite scroll.
Below, furious molten glass burned beneath a façade of hardened dust and glaze. The heat of the lake’s blood rose and animated the air, driving it upward. I found it curious, as that same heat wore me down, draining my energy with every step I took toward… with every aimless step forward. No sign of Hinte.
As the lake clouds rose, they became a gray-black ceiling above me. Looking up at that blackness, sunslight still filtered down in vague blotches, keeping their promise to the coiling shadows of the lake. At the sight, the white-speckled frills on either side of my neck folded and sagged; I missed the suns.
My scaled feet, still slick with a black slime, scraped the ground as I walked on, leaving short lines above my footprints. More dust worked into my nails and between my toes. Despite the slime, I felt all of it.
I’d resigned myself to the sensation, but it still needled me. And there was nothing to distract from it. Every single step forward pressed more and more dust and glass bits into my soles! I shuddered. If only I could shed on command, and just my forelegs…
Maybe walking with bare forefeet wasn’t the absolute worst part of sifting, but the feeling crawled over me, always worming its way into my awareness. A pair of sandals, at least, spared my hindfeet.
Breathing, I wrenched my focus to other things. Like the drifting smell of my lunch, caught by an idle flick of my tongue. So faint, yet I savored the briny, acrid aroma of trout charred almost black — my favorite. Saliva moistened my mouth, and the smell twisted the waxing hunger in my belly into a mean knot.
I hadn’t eaten today, and the toil of sifting hatched an appetite I might go days before working up otherwise. My first canteen had already emptied itself, and we still hadn’t taken a break. And now, I could take one, and I needed to find Hinte instead.
“Hinte!” I called, as loud as I could, loud enough I felt a burning return to my throat.
She hadn’t wanted to bring me with her to the lake at all. But, after all my incessant prodding and pleading — which went nowhere — and after her rejections saying I would only slow her down or I would injure myself, I still kept asking to join her. I didn’t have anyone else.
“Hinte!” I called, lower, rubbing my throat with a wing.
After that, the cycles had danced by, and the moons had wound in their paths; in a word, the gray season approached, promising ash clouds and vog. I faltered then. The gray season would have definitely grounded her trips into the cliffs, and grounded any chance of mine to learn what she did there.
“Hinte?” My voice was barely above conversational, and that was the best I could do, now.
But the weather had done neither, because then she relented all asudden, leaving me slack-tongued and wondering what changed. “Two days,” was what she told me, “and I will not wait.” With two days to prepare, I brought along a lunch, some light-shielding goggles and my excitement, some thrill of adventure.
“Hinte,” I said, and it could have been called a whisper.
Now, after an evening spent in this stinking lake, I only had the lunch.
I opened my mouth to call again, and my voice didn’t cooperate. Instead, a cough. I tried covering my mouth, I tried breathing slower, I tried drinking more water from my limited supply. They all helped some, but my throat still hurt.
Now silent and slowing to a stop, I spread my wings and waved them around, bouncing a little and looking even sillier than it sounded. The ground buckled and cracked beneath me, but I prayed the stars it would hold… I was only bouncing a little bit. After a while of this, it was embarrassment and not tiredness that stopped me.
I was walking forward again with a sigh that sounded more like a growl. As I marched, on, I took pants, breathed calm, and tried focusing on other things. Like the little cracks that followed me everywhere. The ground was flexing and cracking all over, more than it had before I’d hopped around. I stopped again, frowning.
Then molten glass spurted up! Huge waves of heat struck me! My legs tensed, and my wings bristled. At that sudden flash of molten glass my scaly frills snapped open and covered my eyes. I still saw burning afterimages, but without my goggles there was nothing to be done.
The spurts caught me surprised every time, though they’d never touched me; but the heat waves exploding from the cracks singed my face. I hissed, and brought a wing to my head. That only made it worse, and I flinched back.
Only the top of my head was unsinged, as it was covered by a black headband. It always was.
The searing light waned, receding into a distant crack, and I moved my frills from my eyes and cleared my eyescales. Draw breaths, Kinri. Don’t think about the crawling pain on your face, focus on something else.
And I did. Even though it burned in more afterimages, I stared at the crack where the glass had spurted up. A new hole had been ripped open in the lake skin, and it wasn’t my fault, at all — that would be silly.
As I watched, the lake skin was healing itself, erasing the crack. When the molten glass met the air, it had cooled and vitrified, and the crack sealed. But dust — both floating in the air and piled on the ground — had fallen in, caked on, sintering with the cooling glaze as it hardened, creating brittle dustone instead of glass.
Here the Berwem healed itself; but it didn’t always. In places, the dustone skin would break naturally and stay that way, maintaining a kind of portal into the lake’s chaos and heat. Where these little spurts would only singe my scales, the breaks would burn, even from strides away. Hinte and I could avoid them — we did — but I only learned that after Hinte snatched me from the path to one. I hadn’t known about them then, and Hinte hadn’t told me anything.
I was learning now, of course. Before today, I hadn’t known all that much about the lake that had put my new home on the maps. And I admit, learning about the lake might have been fascinating, if it didn’t stink; if it wasn’t so hot; if the air wasn’t so dark and spooky; if the ground wasn’t the worst of lousy desert sand and ice-covered water combined; if, honestly, if I just wasn’t here.
Maybe Hinte had been right to not want me joining her.
For all I missed having Hinte around, it didn’t really change that much. You were still sifting, in spirit: trudge warily over a flimsy skin; pray the stars it doesn’t smash open beneath you; bear the heat, and dryness, and dust; drink your water, but not too quickly; get used to the rumbling quiet, because Hinte definitely wasn’t going to make any talk.
And you know what? “I hate sifting.” My lips had already moved before I’d startled and covered them.
A jagged voice then came from the shadows. “Kinri?” it called
It stopped me between steps, and I seemed to burst, my legs punching me up, my wings spreading. I might have squeaked. But the voice sounded like Hinte, fearless Hinte, determined Hinte. So I hadn’t squeaked at all — I wouldn’t squeak with her watching. She’d brought me with her for a reason, and that reason couldn’t have been making pathetic sounds when she called my name. Even if it were completely out of nowhere, with no warning at all.
“Kinri?” she called again, from somewhere unseen. When she said it, my name sounded different; the stops came out a little harder, and the vowels came out a little higher. It made me pause before calling out — would she hear a garbled transmutation of her own name? The thought stopped me only for a second.
“Hinte!” I said, a smile lighting on my face and a coughing giggle crawling from my mouth. “I found you!” I was spreading my wings and waving them around again while I waited.
Down on the surface, where no one spoke my native Käärmkieli, I’d met with all manner of mispronunciations of my name. And, while the differences shone out, they didn’t needle me like other things did. It sounded like a new name, and the new name was exotic, the name of someone related to but distinct from who I had been. And that smiled me every time I heard it.
Maybe Hinte didn’t share that experience; she still had her native-speaking grandparents. And I’d been learning foreign tongues — including hers — almost as soon as I could speak.
Lost in my thoughts, I jumped when a shadow glided beside me, and landed with a dusty crack. After a few beats the shadow resolved to figure clad in bright white and stalking forth. Hinte. I could hug her — she wouldn’t let me, but I could. I wanted to.
The dark-scaled alchemist clutched something between her wing’s opposable alula and its membraned pinion, and it gave her strides purpose, and that was definitely what held me back.
You couldn’t make out whatever it was, but it brought along that same scent of glaze and metal, with the same hint of half-boiled meat, like a creature slow-cooked all its life. When she threw it toward me and eyestalks were whirling in the air, I knew it must be another glasscrab.
I reached to catch it — and the crab smacked against my foreleg. It fell on the dustone with another crack. I flinched, and wrinkled my frills: Would it have been so hard to just pass it to me? Smile gone, I snapped my tongue and aimed a glare at Hinte.
After barely stopping to sheath a knife that glinted a bright-green, Hinte was already stepping away. Like usual.
Scowling, I snatched up the crab, then waved my tongue as I peered at it, thinking how I’d never expected a glasscrab to grow this big.
The crab had grown half as long as my foreleg, and its hard sooty flesh clung taut to a curling frame, with a half-shattered glass carapace colored murky-yellow and bulging along its tapered length. Taken all together, it looked a lost shard of the lake skin, ripped away and brought to life.
A deep hole pierced right in the middle of the crescent-shaped head: the spot where Hinte’s knife had grounded it. The flesh inside the wound wasn’t bloody. It was dry and seemed tinted vaguely green.
Below the head, spindly limbs still writhed, twitching and contracting, until they faltered still. Horned eyestalks crawled out from the head, and pupils wavered with a sickly blue light just like the glowing stones we came to sift. Eyestalks stopped moving last of all, and glowing eyes faded in three heartbeats.
I shoved the crab into the bag at my side — but it caught on the hem and teetered out. Another crack of crab on dustone came and Hinte paused in her stride. My fangs burned. Before I dared glance at the bright-white-clad figure again, the crab had flown in the air and been knocked clacking into my bag.
When I looked over Hinte was striding on as though nothing had happened. And it hadn’t. I’d sat the crab in my bag without issue. I didn’t drop it. I wasn’t that useless.
The crab, parts hanging floppingly over the hem, might have disagreed. I pushed again, with a wing, forcing it in. But it was too big, its legs still flopping out and its horned eyestalks staring accusations at me. I sighed. At least they stopped glowing.
In my bag, that glasscrab joined the first and smaller crab in lifeless flopping, both well away — a whole me away — from my delectable lunch, a charred trout sitting alone, wiggling in the empty space of the bag slung over my other side.
My gaze moved forward, finding the bright-white figure stalking forward alone, not looking back. Maybe Hinte had been so reluctant to bring me here because I wasn’t worthy, in her estimation. But I would bleed these crabs, brew her the purification mixture as a gift, and it would prove I could be an alchemist just like her. She would finally tell me why she came to the lake.
In the time it took me to pick up and bag the crab, the bright-white figure had faded in the vog. When I flicked my tongue, there was her scent, minty grapes. The smell found her somewhere — not far — to my left. A leap and a short glide brought me along the scent gradient — some strides behind her, if I had to guess.
Was that grapey smell her perfume? Or something else? She wasn’t the type to use perfume, but that scent still outdid everything I had! It smelled better than my honey chamomile, at any rate.
Flicking for the smell again, slinking forward in a low-walk, my mind was in my tongue’s whirling forks, my neck-frills were folded, and my eyescales were flushed and cloudy. Then the scent of grapes sharpened at once. Sharp, like I was right next to her.
My frills flapped open and my eyescales cleared, but not fast enough. That was how my head met Hinte’s side, followed my haunches meeting the ground, then Hinte’s glass-covered foot meeting the air just in front of my face.
That foot held her knife, and it had stopped just as the scowling wiver jerked her head around and saw that it was bumbling me, not anything dangerous.
“Ground yourself,” she said. With that and nothing else Hinte turned away. Around her, two dark frills waved and wrinkled, circling her head like scaly fans. All the while, her head was jerking around, looking for — or at — something outside the six strides I could see.
This was Hinte. Time with her had never been pleasant, not the way it had been with my brother. She didn’t make it so, and I wasn’t waiting for it. But I had to stop and stare at how silent and scowly she was this evening. Maybe she was shedding?
As I peered at her, though, and caught how her face relaxed when she looked away — the scowl dropped, her frills bent and twisted instead of standing straight — I frowned. There was still a slight clench in her jaw, as if from a distant irritation; but that had lingered all evening, and between everything else, there was obviously something more hiding there.
Was I the problem?
“Hinte-gyfar?” I said, laying special non-emphasis on the honorific.
She snapped her head back to me, lips curling into a frown, forked tongue slipping into her mouth — details I noticed only from being so close. Her face looked dark in the lake, her scales almost black. You could imagine they were anything — even a night-blue — but in the light they would gleam a deep, dark-green, the color of the forest-dwellers.
Hinte’s eyes hid behind amber-lensed goggles. Their straps looped around her head, made of a pitch-black schizon that added a poisonous tinge to her scent. When the light hit the goggles just right, the wild, iridescent lenses turned her eyes into a chameleon’s.
I had to look up to meet her gaze, and when I did, those goggles bored into me, and I flinched.
“Sorry.” My voice drowned in the sound of the lake.
Hinte looked away again, and I breathed relief, but it was tiny.
When I followed her gaze — or tried to — some shadows moved. I tilted my head at nothing and might have looked silly, darting my eyes all around — but it was just ash, stuck onto my brilles, the clear scales covering both my eyes.
With my wing’s alula, I unhooked the glass canteen at my foreleg and swung it up to wet my tongue. Flicking up to my brilles, I licked the ash off and spat out. The taste stuck around, but I was used to it. I let some blood flow into the scales, and they clouded. I stopped the flow, and they cleared up.
Now I could see… better, I guess. At least I’d grounded the gritty feeling on my eyes.
Hinte was moving again, and I missed it. At the very edge of my sight, she was turning and looking back at me.
Somewhere, Hinte’d gained and mastered the skill of glaring with only her frills.
Those wide-eyed, inexpressive goggles should have looked hatchly, or at least neutral. Maybe it was the way they caught the molten glow of the glass, or maybe it was the dark of her face-scales that made them like bodyless eyes floating in the dark; but you knew she was glaring, even with her curling frills half-shrouded.
Even without the goggles, Hinte had a certain intensity of gaze I’d seen before, on a dark-blue-scaled, silver-eyed face like mine; only instead of glinting ice, hers was all fire.
Lifting myself into a striding high-walk, I stepped to the figure with burning amber lenses. This wasn’t a manifestation of the serpentine lake, prepared to swallow me completely; it was my friend.
Hinte, cloaked bright-white in perfect counterpoint to the shadows, was a like a beacon, someone who could guide and reassure me. Even trapped near-blindly in the darkness, even suffocating in the noxious air, the sight of Hinte could ease the awful dewing, just a little.
So why did I feel compelled to return her glare?
I smiled and said, “Thank you for waiting.” It came natural.
Maybe you could hear a sigh, but you couldn’t have seen it. Hinte only said, “Pay attention. You are lost in your thoughts twice a ring. And every time, you get lost in the lake as well.” She curled her frills again.
Cringing, lowering my head, I only saw her turn by the movement of her forelegs. We walked on again. Hinte was slowing now, low-walking, with lots of turns and glancing around — she’d found something, then. With a frown, I followed.
As she walked, Hinte switched between scanning the vog ahead and glancing down at her feet, like a tic. She avoided the crags or holes without a second thought, exuding a certain care that you wouldn’t even know existed if you only looked at me.
Abruptly, Hinte stopped, and I didn’t almost bump into her again. In fact, I backed up several paces, so you could never mistake that.
Meanwhile, the wiver was stopping, crouching and reaching into her bag. What came next was the cracking of punched dustone, the hissing of revealed glass, and a familiar atonal hum like teeth chattering, claws scraping and glass whining.
At an oblique angle, I sat and watched her claw into a sort of thick bump in the lake skin. Hinte would give me funny looks when she saw me watching; but right now, she was so focused on digging out another one of those annoying humming stones, she wouldn’t even notice. I peered at her, sifting her visage for clues.
On her short muzzle, Hinte’s lips rested in what wasn’t quite a frown; her face was set in a way which made that determined, unsmiling line of a mouth look natural. Below her mouth, rows of hornscales spiked her muzzle, and behind her head stabbed two larger horns — as long as my forefeet. They looked masculine. Where I came from, priests would disbud a wiver’s horns a few great dances after she hatched. I touched a frill to the smooth line of my own jaw, and to the flat disks behind my head. It was proper.
They didn’t do it that way in the forests, though. How did they manage there, if both genders looked so similar?
Was I getting lost in my thoughts again?
The plate of dustone I was on shifted again — Hinte’s digging disturbed the flow. Cracks etched out illegible screeds on the lake skin around my companion. Where before the slit eye breaks in the skin looked ravenous, these only looked perplexed.
Not wanting the ground to fall out under me, I stood and started high-walking, over to the wiver foreleg-deep in the burning lake. Maybe you could question my plan of walking toward what was tearing open the lake skin, but the wiver didn’t seem worried; and she’d never given me a choice besides trusting her.
I resisted glaring as I high-walked toward the wiver in bright white, but I could say that was because Hinte’s… masculinity — or image of masculinity — gave her a creeping familiarity. It made it so easy to act like this, like we, were a continuation of — something else…
Suddenly, I unleashed another dust breath attack! The air in front of me filled with dust and I laughed — but it choked as I stumbled, even more blind in my own dust cloud.
Hinte, still digging, didn’t see any of that. I grinned, my brilles flushing triumphant, my frills spreading, and it all lasted until I almost ran into Hinte again, scraping to a stop one step away from her, my fangs dewing with sickly embarrassment.
She didn’t stop digging. “What is it?”
“About earlier… where–where were you? I was looking for you and you’d just… left me. Why?”
“I stopped and killed the glasscrab.” Hinte whisked an idle wing toward my bag. “You did want them, right? I thought you might, and there had been one creeping around.”
“Well…” I looked up. “It’s just, it seemed like you were angry, throwing the glasscrab and all. Did I do something wrong?”
More dustone cracking. During a lull, Hinte asked, “Did you do something wrong?”
I twisted my head, peering at Hinte, then slowly said, “No?”
“Then why are you asking?” Hinte glanced over for just a moment, head atilt.
“I — nevermind.” I looked away. “So um.” I clouded my brilles, tongue working in thought. What to say, what to say. “Do you learn your alchemy stuff from your grandfather?” I’d never met Ushra, but I’d — heard of him.
I watched Hinte. It was something I’d learned early, how to use small talk to test someone’s hidden dewings.
Hinte hummed and said, “When he has the time for it.” I heard a sharper snap than any other. “Not very often. He has duties as a head alchemist and —” Hinte stopped, and peered back at me, before nodding and continuing, “— other projects, which I cannot help him with.” More cracking. “It is the same to me, I’ve learned the generalities and he will only teach me his specialty — medical alchemy. Healing is boring. I have my own projects.”
I breathed small relief. She wasn’t that mad at me, then.
Looking away, I pushed a little farther, adding, “Like these weird stones.” She didn’t stop me, so I asked, “What are the stones for, anyway? And why don’t you sift for shiny volcanic glass or fancy metals like everyone else?”
It’s all supposed to pay really well — the whole town was built around the Berwem for just that reason. Maybe the stones were even more valuable? But then everyone would be digging them up too.
I added, “Is it an alchemist thing?” But even then, I would have heard about it, with all the alchemy scrolls I’d suffered through.
Cracking. “How many times have you asked those questions?” Hinte glanced back again, and didn’t turn away, as if tired of looking back and forth.
I counted on my toes. As we walked to the lake — that’s one. When we found that glowing rainbow-colored stone by the big pit — that’s two. “This is the third time, I think. But you always stay silent or say they’re for your studies or projects or something. Why can’t you tell me the real reason?”
Hinte turned away again. She said, “I am busy. I need to focus.” Like usual.
I huffed and turned away. Like usual. But, unanswered questions or no, at least I was helping my friend like this. That’s — what I wanted, right?
Was Hinte my friend? I liked spending time with her. But sometimes it felt like she only tolerated me.
Were we friends? Were we only companions?
At last, there came a final crack — followed by even more humming.
I still sat behind Hinte, watching, while I twiddled my foot’s halluxes, and fluttered my drooping frills. “So, you found another stone?” I asked.
Hinte glanced back at me without glaring. I might have said she smiled, but the absence of a frown was starting to look like a smile, after so much time alone with Hinte.
As she looked at me, instead of the usual molten glass glow — though there was still that — my companion was now lit up in a wavering blue light. The glow sloughed off the blue rock she’d just ripped from the dustone. The screeching hum had doubled after Hinte freed it — some awful thanks that was.
The dark-green wiver would’ve punished it with a squeeze of her claws, and this would’ve cracked the stone, and caused two dozen tiny creatures that weren’t insects to swarm and panic across the stone’s surface. I hadn’t seen this; I knew from seeing it a half-dozen times before.
Hinte’s mouth moved to answer me, but the noise of the new stone drowned her murmured answer.
Instead of asking for her to repeat, I stood up. After all, communication lay the in asking and answering, not in the question or answer. I’d had it drilled too many times to forget it.
By now the dark-green wiver was finishing her work, and slipping her tongue back into her mouth. She wrapped the stone in stinky black cloth and slipped it into her bag. Her forelegs cracked with vitrified glass as she moved, and dust had kissed the black cloth where she’d held it.
Hinte stood, stood high, her legs vaulting her into an almost vertical high-walk, and I mimed her. Finally, we were moving again. It fledged a small difference — the lake wasn’t any less thought-numbing — but just moving my legs instead of sitting perked my frills up a notch.
Ahead of me, Hinte was padding across the lake skin with quick, purposeful strides. She could hold a high walk longer than me, than anyone I knew.
That was more my fault than any great skill on Hinte’s part — though she had some of that, too. Having spent her whole life on the surface, she had a wealth of adroitness in her gait that had eluded me, not to mention how she walked over the retiring lake skin as if it were actual ground.
I tossed my head at the thought, a frill brushing against my black headband. Where I grew up, walking didn’t matter. If you wanted to get somewhere, you flew there. When you needed to walk, you could slither for all the difference it would make!
When I looked again, Hinte had already stridden away. Not that she tried to, though she wouldn’t try not too, either. I had slowed down, and she hadn’t noticed.
I whipped my tail, and maybe a little growl thrummed in my chest. I walked toward Hinte, measuring words in my throat, peering for reasons not to say them.
A question tried to bubble up. “Why —” was what came out before I stopped. I saw Hinte turning, and now the question had to be finished. Every continuation sung to me: Why are you sifting crysts? Why were we still in the lake? Why wouldn’t you talk to me? Why can’t we be friends?
“— did the fired accountant cross the river?” I finished
I cringed as I said it, but I didn’t break eye with the wiver until she turned back away, wordless and sighing.
Hinte would expect me disappointed, so I hid my relief; but my tail swayed, my wheezing breaths came easier, and there was a slight tug at my lips. Still, it took effort — familiar but unpracticed — to hold my fangs dry and my face unreadable.
The relief soon flowed out of me, and then I could release my hold on myself, and relax. I’d found Hinte, and we were together and doing things again, moving. It was okay.
Maybe I should look around me, watch the six strides I could see. You could call these new sights, after all. I took them all in with a sigh and barely a clearing of my brilles; nothing like the slack-tongued stares I’d given all of this when I first stepped into the lake.
Once, the rugged dustone crags and glowing liquid sand had been novel — impressive, even. But the gnarled ground and glass veins looked the same everywhere, only the distribution ever changed. So as my throat burned and my canteen emptied, the wonder faded.
You could say my eyes glazed over, but I was better than that.
Now, it was either watch the clouds swirl or watch Hinte do her determined sifter thing. It wasn’t much of a choice, honestly. I watched how she flicked her tongue out every few heartbeats — unlike me, who couldn’t bare the stench of this place. Or how her frills still adjusted as she walked along, even though I could hear nothing. I extended my own frills just to check again. Nothing! The lake skin rattled, our footsteps cracked the dustone, and my heart tapped in my breast — except I didn’t need frills to feel that last one.
I stared at her scaly ruffs, as if I could decipher the point of it, what she listened for. It felt like I had all of the pieces in my wings, I just needed to put them together.
But did I have to puzzle out every last thing she couldn’t be bothered to tell me?
My staring turned to gawking at the size of her frills. Even expanded, they extended less than a forefoot’s length from the top of her neck. They made my frills look huge. I folded mine back, pressed mine back until they might as well have merged with my scales.
My gaze shifted, catching her wings folded at her side. Like me, the hands of her wings rested beside her head, with long fingers that creased the membrane between them all along their extent. Her wings jutted back about a leg’s length past her haunches, but mine went further, even with Hinte being longer than me. That difference fledged a smile, my wings twitching and half-spreading, my hindlegs digging a little deeper into the ground.
I didn’t just want to compare our wing lengths. My half-spread wings bristled with an abstract sort of itch I could only scratch in the air.
Flying. I could fly right now. I should. My wings could move me faster, take me farther, than my legs ever would. But… I came here with Hinte. She wasn’t flying, and I would get lost in the lake without her.
“You are staring,” came a jagged voice ahead of me.
I jumped and gave her an indignant lift of my head — but the flush of my brilles and the sick sweetness on my fangs gave me away.
“Focus on the lake, Kinri.”
I bristled my wings, and frowned. After Hinte’d turned back away, I leapt high and flapped my wings until I was gliding in a lazy circle above her. I wasn’t hiding; even if she ignored the crack of dustone, she must hear the beating of my wings or at least see the mad dash of the stirred dust below.
My alulae twirled and my tail swished behind me. I was flying again! That’s what mattered. I bounced in the air a little. And I might have done it twice, if the motion hadn’t sent an awful throb through my skull. Now that I focused, there gnawed a weary ache on the fringes of my mind. It quivered with every flap of my wings. Ignore it.
Hinte’s dark-green frills wrinkled a breath before she turned in full. “What are you doing?” she asked.
I tilted my head. “Um, flying? It’s so much better than trudge-toeing over this lake! Come on, it’s high fun!”
“No. I didn’t come here to have fun, I came to sift. And I need to see where I am going, and I need to feel the crysts. On the ground.” She turned away.
“Oh… Well, can I fly, at least? Please?” I held out my forefeet.
“No. You will only tire yourself out. Walking is easier.” She started away.
Would I? In the sky, we’d all been trained to fly for long rings or even days at a time — but that had been soaring and gliding. Flying over the lake, with all the threshing, turning and twisting, just might tire me out.
So I relented, and my frills fell with my body. I crash-landed. My knees bent, but I flapped my wings one last time, lifting me to a high-stand.
Hinte’s pace was slower as I caught up. Slowly, barely, I followed her.
If my feet cracked just a little harder, if my claws dug a little deeper, it was only the strain of high-walking wearing on me.
As I slinked along, my only warning was a sudden lurch. My hindleg tripped on a crag! I stumbled, flew forward. One foreleg buckled. I threw the other out to break my fall. But the leg punched through the ground! Dustone cracked, disintegrating, and a burst of dust sprayed onto my brilles.
Wings blasted out from my sides. A foreleg plunged into the molten sand. Incinerating heat ate at my scales, but I didn’t feel burning pain. Only a prickly, muted feeling. The molten sand’s viscid thickness slowed my fall. My wings spread to their full width. I threshed them.
My foreleg hit a cutting hardness in the lake! I fell right onto it. It ripped through scales, cutting me open. I screamed as the molten sand invaded the wound.
Despite my threshing, I crashed into the lake surface. Cracks rippled for strides around. Pieces of the lake skin broke apart, opening glowing cracks. Cracks that infuriated the air, and blasted heat and wind.
Hinte, just in front of me, had walked on, not noticing my misstep. But she jerked to a stop when I screamed. She leapt into the air, winging over to where I lay slumped on the ground.
I pulled my leg out from the lake. It brushed against the stone before emerging. But I overpulled when the resistance fell away, throwing myself to my side. Something fell out of my bag!
There was a burning hiss, and fear stabbed into my fangs. The crabs? Was the lake eating my crabs? I squeaked. Would I never give Hinte that alchemical gift? Would I never see anything other than that same long-suffering glare in her eyes?
Breathe. You don’t need to care. Maybe it was taking off a mask, maybe it was putting one on, but I dried my fangs and steadied my face.
My foreleg was more important, I was more important, right now. The leg glistened a warm golden yellow. As I watched, it hardened to glass, glazing onto the scales. The new glass grew murky and speckled with flakes of stone and metal, already vitrifying where it met the air.
I flicked my tongue, smelling the sizzly glaze and the crackly dust. Rolling onto my belly, I pressed my glassy foreleg to the ground, and winced as pain raced up the leg. I tried again — less pain.
Convinced I could still walk, I looked to my side, where something had fallen out of my bag. I froze.
Beside where I lay, a gaping maw of burning sand opened, just as terrible as my dread had limned it. I’d avoided falling in by the narrowest margin.
Over that edge, in the burning smolders, my lunch sunk. My lunch, the trout I killed yesterday in preparation for this, incinerated as I stared.
It wasn’t the crabs… but I’d prepared for that, stopped caring about it. The lunch was for me, and that hurt more, right now.
As I watched the lake devour my lunch, a green wing nudged my side. I turned, meeting burning amber goggles. She made two quick motions, lifting her head in negation, then tossing it to the side in indifference. I caught her meaning.
No. It doesn’t matter.
…And she had a point. It could have been me eaten by the lake, instead of my lunch. I could have been maimed. I could have died! Draw two deep breaths. Then four. Then six. Let it go. You lived, that was enough.
I looked at the foreleg again, and groaned. Thanks to the plunge into the lake, my foreleg had gained a new coat of scales. Glass scales.
I pushed the white fabric off the glass. It wasn’t quite a sleeve — these suits didn’t have sleeves — but my leg had plunged almost to the hole in the torso. Any further, and it might have burned the fabric. Or maybe plastered it onto my scales, and that would be even more of a nightmare to clean.
The glass would still take forever to scrape off completely. I would have to wait until we left the lake, as much as it bothered me. But I slid my other foreleg over it, sloughing off some still-liquid hunks of glass.
The pieces clinging to the gash pricked me as I pulled them off. But even the others still stuck to the scales and it was just unpleasant! It felt like peeling off molting scales too soon, before they were ready to shed. Something, I admitted, I did a lot as a hatchling.
I scowled at my attempt to shed these glass scales; it had come to the same result. My legs looked awful! The blackened, burned gash stretched a few claw lengths along my foreleg, bleeding and blistering. Lumps of mottled glass stuck out from my foreleg. And on the clear patches, the protective black slime oozed back, almost glued to my skin. The glass formed almost rubbery the closer it’d glazed to the slime; and the stuff flaked or crizzled more than it shattered.
My fangs dewed with tart frustration. Again, I let it fade. I had lived. I almost died…
Above me, Hinte stared, frills wrinkling as she huffed, sounding both annoyed and exasperated.
“Tongueless!” she said. “Did you hear none of your noise? You walk on the lake, not in it.” She made a walking gesture with four toes.
I cringed, looking down. Bleary dust had settled onto my brilles again, and I licked it away. “What?” I asked, my voice rough and coughing as I spoke. “Why–why is noise even a problem?” I looked at her, folding my frills back.
She snapped her tongue. “It awakens sleeping things, sleeping out the gray season. Rockwraiths,” she said, voice a growl. “They might eat you.”
“Eep!” I squeaked, and heard Hinte click her tongue, snickering. I growled. Why was she laughing at me? I didn’t want to be eaten! “Um. I think there was a rock — a stone down there. It cut me! I’ll grab it — then we can get away from here!”
“Yes, we should get away,” she said, lightness slipping out of her voice.
I focused on the stone.
Where I had almost fell through the ground gaped a still-widening hole. Waves of heat blasted from the uncovered sand, and singed my face even more. If only these suits had masks… I raised a foreleg to cover my snout. But the blazing glass still hurt my eyes to look at, even with clouded brilles. I glanced at my broken goggles again, and sighed.
Cracks shot over the dustone and fringe pieces fell meltingly in; but soon the hole would stabilize, and the collapse would reverse. Again dust would cake onto the glass, and mix with the cooling glaze, hardening and creating another dustone scale for the lake’s facade.
Still lying on the ground where I fell, I stood. I shot a glare at Hinte. Would it have been so hard to just help me up?
I faltered on my hurt leg but leant into it. It looked intentional. Hinte would chide me again if she knew I had just injured myself. I wasn’t that useless.
Crouching to secure my footing, I prepared to wrench out the stone. Breathing once, twice, I broke through the new glass surface with my good foreleg, sliding the other in after it.
The prickling engulfed my legs again as I reached into the lake, pushing through with the sluggishness it imposed, and after a beat I grabbed the stone to pull it out — but I misjudged the weight, sending a flare of pain through my bad leg that cost me my grip on the stone; I braced myself before trying again, and this time I used only my good leg, and I managed it out, struggling with the weight and resistance of the lake.
The stone glowed a wavering pink and red, littered with flakes of deep purple. It almost looked pretty, the loathsome thing. Shaped like two jagged spheres welded together, it fit in my sole, but I couldn’t wrap my forefoot around it. It made that atonal, trembling hum and low clicking that and writhed resonatingly in my frills.
The glass coating the stone began to harden, but vibrations cracked the new glass, rattling it off. I turned it over. The stone had a few outjutting edges, and one of them, I suspected, was the one that had cut me! I flicked it with my claw, retalitating.
Vengeance inflicted, silliness restored, I gave the stone the grip of tight carefulness and the look of reluctant respect that it deserved. We had come out here for these stones, after all.
Together, Hinte and I sifted through the molten sand, hunting for these stinking rocks. It seemed easy at first — in the first ring we came across three in a row just poking out of the lake skin. The next few had us dredging through the incinerating glass to gather. For several long rings. I’d spent all evening in the Berwem.
But whatever secret lay behind these stones lifted Hinte. She had flown out into the cliffs every cycle in the few moons I had known her. I wanted to know why, and I wanted to help her.
So I took the stone and passed it to her, seeing how the lines of her face softened as her gaze moved from me to the stone. Watching her, I asked the stars that this time, unlike every other time, it would reveal something of the stones’ secret. I didn’t hold my breath, though.
She regarded the rock for a moment, then clenched her forefoot, digging her claws in. The stone cracked. Broken shards of the stone moved in mindless scuttling along the surface. Its clicking died, but the hum spiked, and became a piercing keen! I flinched.
Hinte shifted her grip, now holding the stone between two toes. She stared at the shards before sliding her tongue over the stone, taking dozens of the skittering fragments into her mouth. There was crunching. The glow of the stone faltered and the remaining flakes fell to the ground, made motionless.
Hinte had shown me this strangeness with the first stone we found, letting me taste the flakes. They had a strange sweetness I wasn’t sure if I liked.
Amber lenses stared at the stone, and you couldn’t make out any eye motions behind the goggles. The dark-green wiver rotated the stone, so I imagined her eyes darting about, examining every angle.
After she placed it in her bag with a hum, I started to walk off, eager to avoid any hungry rockwraiths, but I stumbled. At least I didn’t fall over again.
Hinte looked at my bad foreleg. “You are injured,” said she.
I rubbed my leg. Would she see me as weak? Or think I was incompetent enough to trip into the lake and hurt myself? “No, I —”
“Stone-frills, I said you are injured. Do not lie to me,” she hissed.
Hinte scraped her claws over the ground, beckoning me to come closer. It was one step forward before she snatched my injured foreleg. I pointed a wing at the wound, and she clawed off the coating glass.
The wound screamed and I yelped, but it became a ragged cough. “Hinte!” I rasped.
“Ground yourself. It is only a burn,” she said and kept working.
I spoke through clenched teeth. “I tried to tell you I’m fine,” I said, but even I found it weak.
“This burn will get worse if not treated. Do you want to keep this leg?” She looked at me, teeth flashing and frills only half-folded.
“Yes…” I said, looking away. With the glass gone, she prodded the wound. I hissed. She withdrew a vial of clear ointment from her bag, known by a glyph that read ‘burn,’ but not in the local tongue. “Wait!” I said, “the black slime — it was supposed to prevent these burns.”
“It did,” she said. She uncorked the vial and scooped out a thimbleful in her claw. She rubbed it on the gash, repeating three times to cover the full length. “You cut open your leg in the sand. Your scutes were protected. The flesh underneath was not.”
“That’s so silly,” I said.
Hinte replaced the vial and groped around in her bag for a moment. “That is alchemy.” She produced a bandage, but put it back after a moment. Then, she produced the oozing black salve. “If you watch your step, you cannot fall.” She rubbed the salve over the gash.
The familiar prickling numbness seeped into my leg. The rest of the oily slime oozed between the glass and over the burned flesh, hugging and enveloping the new slime.
I glanced up at the alchemist. She wasn’t frowning, or scowling, or glaring. Instead, she watched the salve settle with intent, and rubbed a dollop more on a thin spot. And… she didn’t have to do that. Maybe she did care?
Hinte stood, about to leave. But before she turned, she pointed behind me. “You dropped a crab.” Then, she stalked off.
I squeaked and grabbed the crab. It was in my foot, and I poked it with a claw, hard; its precious blue blood slicked my toe.
The crabs’ blood would brew a purification mixture for to Hinte. Friends gave each other gifts, right?
Alchemy was one of the things that had brought us together. I… wasn’t an alchemist — couldn’t have been, really — so it wasn’t quite a common interest; but when I’d found her studying and she let it slip that she was an alchemist, I failed to recoil in fear or suspicion. Why would I? I had been in a similar position, once, with my brother as the understanding one. It almost felt like paying him back.
And if it gave me a chance to maybe become an alchemist, after a hatchhood of being told I could only be a Zenith, I’d thank the endless stars.
And that started with the crab’s purification mixture. I would make it, and prove myself. I’d transmute myself from someone Hinte could talk to, to someone she wanted to talk to. We could be friends.
It had made me smile, once. Now it only made me sigh.
For once, something new lay under the blackened ash sky and the fake glass stars shining from below instead of somewhere above me. Here, the crags and pits of the Berwem deepened, becoming troughs and valleys and gorges. Scaly plates of dustone met and hugged each other so tightly they folded together into mountains as high as my withers.
My clear-eyed gawking clouded into a glare, and I punched one of those mountains. It cracked and crumbled to the ground in five or six pieces, the crack tickling my frills and pulling a hissing laugh from me. If only I could give this entire lake the same treatment…
In the belly of that fallen mountain, there sat a little hollowed-out chamber. Little black sacks of slime and dust writhed inside. Lava slugs? I poked one and flipped it over. Had I interrupted their sleep? I picked up fragments of the tiny once-mountaintop and placed them in something like a shelter.
“Sorry, little icky slugs,” I murmured to myself. Hinte stood a few paces away, watching me. I limped back toward her with a cringe and some whispered apology — it didn’t matter which.
She asked, “What was it?”
“Lava slugs,” I said. When Hinte gave me that frown, I added, “Let me guess: they’re also really dangerous and going to kill me and even a hatchling would have more sense than I do, right?” I didn’t think my tone would fray as much as it did.
She flicked her tongue. “No,” she said, and turned to walk off.
Huffing, I kept behind her. The gash’s bite on my leg loosened with every step, helped along by the ointment. While the bite fell away, its teeth still gnawed at the edges, and my legs’ soreness burned from within.
We walked on like that, at least until my frills wrinkled, catching some faint tickle. I looked ahead, at Hinte. Did she feel it? Her frills still fanned the same as before, tilting but not twitching — as if she knew enough not to be surprised or interested.
Because of course she would. I kicked another, even smaller mountain. She never tells me anything! I mouthed to myself. My imagined voice is deep and stormy, with clarity and anger I’d never allow into my voice otherwise. It’s like she can’t be bothered to explain even the simplest things!
I breathed calm. And again. I was calm.
I fanned my wings, and at this point I didn’t even bother to close my mouth, drawing in deep, refreshing pants. Well, refreshing by the lake’s standards, that is. The panting eased the searing heat to merely blazing, but dragged up another cough. I tried controlling my breath cycle to fan away some of the anger, but my throat still burned tender and summoned more coughs.
So I gave up and licked my eyes, only for them to catch more dust instants later. My gaze was clear enough to see Hinte, at least. Willing calmness into my voice, I spoke at last, doing everything I could to keep my fangs retracted.
“Hey, Hinte,” I said. She hitched her wings in acknowledgment, still walking. “Well… about these stones we are out here, um, sifting for — you still haven’t told me what this is all about.” I measured and weighed my next sentence. “This all seems so…pointless.” The words left me, and there was a certain emptiness where I’d kept them inside for so long.
We walked forward a few moments before Hinte answered, voice low.
“Maybe it is pointless — why do you care?”
“Well, that’s kind of my point? Why do I care about any of this — why should I care?”
“I don’t care if you care or not,” she said. But her tone sounded different, scented with emotion. Tilting my head, I licked my eyes and peered at the figure clad in bright white; I’d never seen Hinte with anything other than her impassive, abrasive mien. After a pause, she added, “I do not need your help. Go get lost in the vog or quit bothering me.”
“Come on! I just want to know what this is all about — I’m curious.” I stepped closer. She looked at me, a frill tensed. When she spoke, I smelled her anger, but I heard a certain note of hesitation.
“I need to focus,” she said, voice now a growl. “Shut up or get lost.”
She kicked me with a hindleg. I stumbled and yelped.
I lunged forward and swiped at her. But that swipe went wide as the bright-white figure leant away. The pairs of her legs crossed, but she wove it into her gait without a hitch, walking forward as if nothing had happened.
But missing threw my balance off. About to teeter over, I threshed my wings and flailed. Between the two motions, I landed upright, but about to stumble again. This time though, I had all four of my feet on the ground.
“How dare you!” My voice came out airy and unwavering. The words hadn’t even left my mouth when my frills widened. I cringed. My legs stiffed, becoming loose and floaty dustone about to crack. As my tail coiled around a hindleg, I brought a wing to my mouth and coughed. It came easily with my throat already burned raw.
Rubbing my headband, I opened my mouth to try again. This time, my voice came out simper and stuttering, “What–what is up with you!”
Hinte paused for a moment before walking on, ignoring me.
My frills flared, and I bared my fangs. I leapt over Hinte. Spinning in the air, I landed in front of her with a crash, and stared up at her. As bold as I dewed, it all evaporated as I stood in front of a wiver a whole head taller than me.
The dark-green alchemist looked even more angry, baring her wings and raising her tail. When I noticed, I averted my gaze, looking instead to her face. Her frills were cupped. She opened her mouth, teeth glinting, growling at me. It sounded more aggressive, less of a warning. As if she had played with me earlier and now, with fangs angled like knives, did not.
“Are–are you going to hurt me?”
She growled low.
“Okay, I get it — I get it. You want me to leave you alone. But I want to know what’s going on and you won’t tell me!”
She lunged at me.
I took a step back. “Gah — let me finish.” When her head snapped forward, I jumped. “Flick — if you want me to get lost so much, maybe–maybe I will.”
The dark-green wiver tossed her head to the side. When I met her amber lenses, she hissed again and stalked off.
I watched her for a few beats before I startled in inspiration, and grinned. Low to the ground, I slinked after her.
“Hey Hinte!” I was shouting. “I’ll find more of these stinking stones than you, on my own — you will taste it!”
The figure in bright white stopped moving, as if torn between walking away and staying. It was like that for a few beats, and she didn’t turn; yet I found myself holding my breath cycle for it. In the distance the dark-green wiver hissed low, and I strained to hear her.
“— fine. Five crysts. If you can find that, I will tell you,” she said before she stepped forward again, walking off… but I heard her speak once more, quietly, “Do not fall in again, Kinri.” And she strode away. Her bright-white suit tended to a silhouette, then a shadow, then nothing in the darkness.
I sighed, seeming to shrink after my half-shouted declarations. With my guide in white gone, the vog redoubled its suffocation. Was this conflict with Hinte inevitable? I had wanted us to be friends. Was that doomed to fail?
I coughed. Evil-smelling vog crawled farther down my throat, promising more to come. Drinking from my canteen and licking my eyes clean, I turned away from my former companion’s path. I marched off into the darkness, one dragon enshadowed by a massive, volcanic lake.
Somewhere above, as if leaving, the lover suns still shone.
* * *