Chapter III: Cullet

iiiiii

i.*

Up above, past the lake’s shroud, there were birds, clouds and stars.  I looked at the gray blackness above, hunting for something outside the mind-numbing tedium of the lake.  My last canteen had drained to a half.  We hadn’t encountered any rockwraiths.
At one point I’d scribbled flat, imagined monsters in the dust while Hinte wrenched at an uncooperative cryst.  My scribbled rockwraith had snarled with massive claws dripping gore, mouth agape with angled sword-teeth and streams of caustic venom flying forth.  I’d smiled but not laughed, and that kept my throat satisfied.
By now I wouldn’t complain to see a real rockwraith.  As long as it prowled far in the distance, downwind of us, and with no chance under the sky of eating me.  But no.  Instead I sifted, seeing the same three things over and over again.  The ash clouds were still cloudy.  The glass crags were still craggy.  And Hinte was still Hinte.
We’d found another stone.  Well, I did, not Hinte⁠ ⁠—⁠ even if she wouldn’t accept that.  We had argued up and down about it awhile before I tried making my argument with a thrown rock.  She retorted with a bigger rock and we did that again before she uncovered another cryst that way.
I dug up a messy red gemstone, too!  Hinte hadn’t taken it, so I kept it.  It looked a wrinkly raisin, red-streaked and translucent.  So maybe not the kind of raisin you’d want to eat.  We saw another glasscrab too!  But it ran off when we approached and  I couldn’t catch it with my tired, hurt legs and by the time Hinte looked over at me it had fled.
That’d deflated me, and it lasted until I found another stone, one which was my find, with no quibbling from Hinte.  I’d preened and wagged my frills at the dark-green wiver.  That lasted until she decided we should check again for another.
My stomach growled, my forefeet looked⁠ ⁠—⁠ and felt⁠ ⁠—⁠ like a tornado passed through, and my legs were sagging.
Hinte was peering at me, and I put my wings under my snout and shrunk my frills in my closest to a pleading hatchling.
She didn’t even twitch a frill.  “Well?”  The dark-green wiver frowned beneath amber goggles, head snaking forward and tilted.
I sighed and said, “No, I don’t think⁠ ⁠—⁠ there are no more stones down there.  I don’t see the point.”  My voice tended hoarse and small.  My throat was about to melt, at this point.  Even my saliva tasted coppery.
Hinte bared her fangs, unfolded her wings and spread them, and she already was bigger.  When she growled I slumped.  I wouldn’t have another fight with her so soon.  I twisted my head toward the hole.
Waves of heat swelled out and crashed into my face, my scales rawer and tenderer.  I stared at the molten maw, my eyes seeking out currents, flows or anything that might move other crysts, if any others existed.  The cracks clawing out from the hole had the lake skin crumbling or trembling.  Under my claws the ground wobbled.  I shifted my footing, and winced when weight fell on my gashed foreleg.
Crouching down, I doomed my sore but gashless foreleg to that hungry maw.  The lake had eaten, devoured, my lunch, and that hadn’t sated it.  Hinte stepped me, frills swiveling as she plopped down a few strides away, punching her own hole in the dustone with a single hit.
A few moments, and my claw grazed something hard dragging along in the currents.  Toes traced it in the sand.  It felt about the size and shape of a ring, but larger by a notch.  Not holding out for anything of note, I pulled the hard loop out and shook away glass. I poked and ripped at the glass on the loop.
I peered at the melty thing. Glass sloughed off the hot gray metal, and revealed was an iron loop twisting deeply around itself, lousy with pointy barbs and a rough all around.  I gave a secret smile and rolled the loop into my sole, and held that foreleg out to Hinte.  A moment passed before she glanced over.  The wiver flicked her tongue and looked up at me, head atilt.
I let my expression turn solemn.  “It reminded me of you,” I said.
Wrenching a foot out she took the loop of metal, and regarded it for all of breath, and then glared at me, bared her fangs.  From them the wiver spat at my my sole, venom projecting out in twin streams.  They splashed on my foot, leaving a faint salty smell.
“Eww!” I squeaked, driving my foot into the molten sand, waving it wildly around.  More glass creapt into splits and lines of my foot, but I forget that for the act.
And it worked!  A small smile had lighted on Hinte’s face, until she hid it.  She brushed it off with a glance away, to the lake.  I glanced around with her.  As I shifted, the move tore a crack.  The plate beneath me sunk. Glass flowed onto it.
In heartbeats, the glass had crept to me.  Because it had cooled even as it flowed, it crawled like so many toes.  Still, some of it got onto the bright white fabric at my hindlegs or belly.  With the sand cool enough to spare the stuff, it threatened less than it just annoyed.  Still, I squirmed and talked reason to my companion:
“Hinte,” I said, and waved a wing at her, “I told you there’s nothing else down there.”  My hoarse voice was faltering.
She said nothing, still peering at the lake surface.  I glared at her.  Why did she have to be so difficult?  She looked over the ground again.  Her focus settled on a spot a few strides away.  She lay down there, and again had her foreleg in the lake with a single punch.
Several beats of sweeping her leg through the glass, then she pulled out a stone flickering green and blue.  I made myself cringe and glance at her as she stood, but it held no hint of smugness.
She cracked the stone, and this time she let the scuttling fragments fall to the dustone.  They skittered about there for a bit, and not long afterward faltered motionless.  Hinte walked forward without me, not quite waiting for me, but not striding off.
It took moments to stand up.  The gashed foreleg was folded under the weight, and even the other foreleg was bruised, and only good in contrast.  Wounds ached.  Like that, I took care trotting after her.  I was a few steps away, and she turned to me.  The wiver looked to my foreleg.
“It still hurts?” she asked.
I tried to say ‘it does,’ but it came out an alien croak.  I lowered my head instead.  She said nothing else, turning around, walking on.
My canteen dwindled to a third as we roamed straightly the surface of the lake.  The glowing cracks in the dustone shrunk or fell away.  Were we walking toward a shore of the lake?  I let my hopes well up.  Would I finally get a break?

In the distance, the gray-black vog gave way to a grayer, blacker wall of crumbling dustone.  Sprawling cliffs sheltered, the Berwem, on three sides.  On the last side, there was also a cliff⁠ ⁠—⁠ that one opened to a ravine.  As far as I knew, through that ravine wound the usual route into the Berwem.
We’d taken a different route: a long, winding detour through the farmlands and emptiness on the outskirts of town, doubling back through caves and trenches in the cliffs, climaxing in a glide down from the top of the cliffs right into the lake!
The vog thinned here on the shore, and I had a better view of only the gnarled crags and crevices.  Covering all the ground and piling like waves, the gravel here looked the lake’s exiles, half tough clinker rocks and half wild-looking lapilli fragments.  In the troughs of those waves, you sometimes saw glimpses of the fire clay insulating the lake bottom and encircling cliffs; or sometimes you only saw gyras of built up volcanic hair, glassy and brittle.  Things calmed and flattened the farther you got away from the lake, and by the cliffs walls it was proper ground again.
If that sounds all very lake shore, like no particular places as much as a kind of place, well, you’d be right.  You couldn’t even tell which edge of the lake this was.
Hinte walked up to the wall, slowing to a stop at the base.  She lay and without looking to me unstrapped her bag.  Setting it in front of her, she withdrew her canteen⁠ ⁠—⁠ a blue and pink bit of leather bright even in the dark⁠ ⁠—⁠ and a roast the size of my foreleg, wrapped in greasy leaf-paper.  Unwrapped with haste, it was six-legged squirrel with each limb splayed.
They were everywhere down here, but I hadn’t heard of them back home, in the sky.  There, the closest we’d dealt with were winged rats, pests that climbed the skywires to glide from there down to every corner of the cities.  We raised nets everywhere to keep them out.  Sometimes it worked.
Hinte finished unwrapping and ripped into the squirrel roast.  I turned away.
The ground here grew more solid than the mix of dustone and glass covering the lake itself.  I crouched to lay down, and as I lowered myself, a wave weary lightheaded throbbed.  Lying down fully, I settled a strides away from the eating wiver, and snaked a tail into my bag for my trout lunch.
My tail curled around air, even after I’d remembered.
Hunger roiled in my belly, and it had been long rings of exertion already.  I couldn’t ignore it.  I looked around, my gaze still avoiding Hinte, and I glared at the voggy lake.
Could I eat a raw glasscrab?  Maybe not the highest idea.  Even besides all the glass and weird soot on it.  No scuttling fragments would remain on the any of the stones, either.  I scratched my belly, and just scowled down at the ground.
Dust crunched.  A wing prodded my side, and I looked up.  The dark-green wiver stood above me, holding her squirrel between her alula and pinion.  Taking the squirrel in both forefeet, she ripped.  It was two halfs.  One leg was already eaten, and she offered the half with three legs.
“Thank you,” I whispered
She didn’t say anything, just stepped away, returned to her spot.  I looked at the squirrel.  It was no trout, but I had gotten hungry.  I bit into it and ripped out a chunk of meat.
The taste was lighter than I’d like, but I savored it, and took care to grind the smaller bones with my teeth and suck the marrow.  I almost let out a hum of enjoyment.  But that sort of thing annoyed Hinte.  It would be rude.  I liked messing with her, but she had just given me some of her lunch.  She didn’t have to do that.  So I reigned myself in, aimed at my meal.
Knowing the pace Hinte liked, I tore the rest of the roast to pieces as I chewed.  And that was what my feet did while I ate, mixed with dusty swallows from my glass canteen.  When I finished, a quarter of my last canteen remained.  If I listened, I couldn’t hear Hinte eating.  Had she finished before me?
A tap on my withers.  I turned.  Hinte held out a small glass bottle, half-full of water.  I took it, bemused, before she grabbed a blotchy blue vial in the thumb of her wing.  Passing that to me as well, she explained, “Pour that into the bottle, then shake it.  It will help your headache.”
“Huh?”
“The clouds,” she pointed her wing toward the vog over the lake, then added, “They are noxious.  Breathing them in is harmful.  This solution will heal your lungs.”  She paused.  “But only if you breathe in the fumes.  It cannot do that from your blood.  Drinking would only heal your throat as you swallow.”
“What?  My throat is about to turn to ash and you waited until now to give me this?”  My fangs unfolded as I said this, but I retracted them.
She snapped her bag shut with her tail.  “I have a limited supply of this mixture.”  Pointing to herself, she said, “I can wait until I leave the lake before I use it.”
Then pointing to me, the wiver added, “But you are handling the fumes poorly”⁠ ⁠—⁠ her head darted forward⁠ ⁠—⁠ “because you decided to slink to the center of the lake without thinking.”  She looked away.  “So I am letting you use the mixture now.  Unless you will wait until we leave the lake.”  Her tone on the last sentence floundered.  It sounded a statement, but it seemed a question.
If Hinte could wait until we leave the lake, I could too!  I wasn’t weak or impatient.  When I tried to voice my indignant, ‘Of course!’  It came out a voiceless croak that grew into a coughing fit.  A coppery taste touched my tongue, but I might have been imaging it.
“No…” I squeezed out several beats later.
My forelegs found the top and uncorked the bottle as I glared at the lake’s gravelly shore.  After following the instructions, I passed the vial back.  The blue substance settled at the bottom of the bottle.  I shook it, dissolving and mixing up the stuff.  The liquid settled, waning to a muddy blue with misty vapors rising and congealing into clouds at the top.
My foreleg hesitated as I brought the bottle to my mouth⁠ ⁠—⁠ as it should when drinking unknown mixtures; but I had already tried some of Hinte’s concoctions, and her grandfather was Ushra.  She wouldn’t make some novice mistake that could ground me or worse.
“Give it some time to settle.”
I lowered my head and waited.  My thoughts drifted to the vog, then to the lake, and then to the stone we came here to retrieve.
“How many did those last two give us?”
“Those were ten and eleven,” she said.  “We will collect three more and then we will head back.”
Three more?
“What?  But I’ve been out here for so long!  Why don’t we collect one more, while we head back?”  Hinte didn’t reply, as always⁠ ⁠—⁠ she didn’t argue, she just stated her will and let the world march in step.
I growled.  Spending a whole evening with Hinte wore on my nerves.  My claws scored the lapilli gravel as I crouched, my wings spreading on their own.  I could really go for a nice, relaxing flight in the southern cliffs.  Maybe even sit on the highest peak far in the southwest, where the red-beaked pterosaurs made their nests, and you could watch cloud fortresses drift by.
I rubbed my headband.  The sleek and floaty architecture of the sky inspired in a way that escaped the silly squatness and heavy sprawlingness of cliff-dweller buildings.  Feeding little scraps of meat to those pterosaurs, sitting under wind-warped clouds, I could cloud my eyes and imagine the little peak I lay on didn’t connect to the ground.
The dustone scales back there, floating over a lake of glass, didn’t connect to the ground either.  I sighed.  As comfortable as I would be there, I would be alone.

ii.*

My gaze fell from the sky to the dark lake shore, roaming a bit before lighting on the green wiver beside me.  Peering at her, I replied, late and disconnected, “Well, does my red gem thingy count as a cryst?”  I tried to smirk a bit.
“I told you, no.”  Hinte had a page of fernpaper in a claw, held so that I couldn’t see, and with her other claw she traced something across the page.
“How do you know?  It looks like a sweet raisin, maybe it’s a new type of those weird fragments.”  I brought the gem to my mouth and bit.  The hard gem resisted and slipped and scraped against my gums.  “Ow.”
Hinte muttered something.  I didn’t hear it, but it was two syllables and I could guess the sounds.
“Fine, maybe it isn’t a cryst.  I’ll bribe you, then.”  I affected my voice, bringing it closer to what I might use selling something in the Llygaid Crwydro, but exaggerated.  “Listen up!  One priceless, legendary gemstone, right here, yours today for an escort out of this awful, horrible lake.  What do you say?”
Hinte lowered her page and looked at me.  I only saw her lips, and they couldn’t decide what expression to take.  The lines of her eyes hinted at behind the goggles a blank stare, and in the end the blankness infected her lips, forcing them into a line.
I smiled at her anyway⁠ ⁠—⁠ maybe my smile could infect her too.  “Fine.  What if I told you it held the secret to eternal life, then?  You’re an alchemist, you can’t resist.”
“I could,” she said, her tone seeming to walk away from me, “I have enough gyras in front of me to rediscover it if you had, and you haven’t.”  After that she looked away, and after that she said something that started with, “And it doesn’t matter regardless, as I…” but trailed into a mutter fast enough to hide the ending.
“What was that?”
Hinte kept her head turned.  It was ten breaths before she said, “I’m in the cliffs.  Immortality doesn’t matter anymore.”
My head tilted.  “But… Chwithach-sofran said the reason forest-dwellers came to the cliffs in the first place was the hunt for eternal life.”
She said silence for a beat, then turned back around, snapping her tongue.  “If I wanted your immortality raisin, I could have kept it.”  She spat at the gem I still held up, but I whipped it out of the way before the venom could land.
“No way⁠ ⁠—⁠ I dug this one up for sure.  You aren’t taking credit for this too.”
Hinte tossed her head, looking back at her paper.  “Check the bottle,” she said.
Blowing my tongue at her, I checked the bottle⁠ ⁠—⁠ the blue liquid had grown opaque.  A thick cloud of vapors whirled at the top.  I uncorked it again.
The vapors erupted from the bottle!  I pushed my snout toward them and breathed them in.  It smelled like chemical mint, and it felt like my nose and throat froze and quivered.  I inhaled as much as I could manage.  But I overdid it, and I choked a little… yet the raw melting evil biting cough didn’t rise in my throat.  I breathed again, and sighed a nice, relieved sigh.
After a few seconds to gather my breath, I inhaled the remainder of those merciful fumes.  When the liquid didn’t look to be emitting any more vapor, I took a final, deep breath of it.
“Drink it.”  Hinte’s voice came from beside me.
“What?  You said it wouldn’t do anything if I drank it.”
“No, it will not heal your lungs if you drink it.  Respira is two sibling mixtures.  One to heal the lungs.  The other to alleviate sinus headaches.  One evaporates to fumes.  The other remains a liquid.  Drink the liquid,” she said, making chopping motions with her wing like she explained it for the fifth time to a hatchling.  …This was my first time hearing it.
“Okay, okay.”  I drank the solution.  The freezing feeling came again, as the liquid slid down my throat.  I choked in surprise!  Where the last had felt a breath of freezing, shuddering surprise, this one felt a deep, dancing relief washing down my throat.  Where it flowed, my throat felt twice as big, and every last trace of raw numbness melted, in a good way.
After a few more swallows the bottle emptied and I sucked down breath in deep pants.  The relieving sensation followed the liquid’s path, flowing down to my stomach and settling.  The feeling lingered, slow to leave, but when it did, my throat was electric and amazing.
I looked to Hinte’s dark-green frowning face with a smile.  “Thank you, Hinte!”  I said, drawing my wings together and curling their alulae into each other.  Her frown only flattened, but between her relaxing brow and expanding frills, in her face lurked a smile held just below the surface.
I worked the bottle into my left bag.  Though smaller than Hinte’s, it didn’t hold as much, only the three crysts from earlier and the jagged, uncut red gemstone we dug up.  While I had thought it looked high pretty, Hinte said it was a dud.  In the other bag, I had the three glasscrabs.
“Hey, Hinte,” I said.  She turned to me, head tilting.  “Do you have any empty glasses?”
She nodded, and dipped into her bag.  Now I had a glass I could almost fit my claw into.  I reached my tail into my bag, and clenched it around nothing.
“…And a knife?” I whispered.
Inscrutable yellow lenses stared at me.  I could imagine the withering look hidden there.  I cringed, turning away.  In a moment, a knife slid over the dusty ground.  It was in my feet.
The blade of the knife cooled my toes.  It was night black and streaked with white⁠ ⁠—⁠ was it obsidian?  But the streaks weren’t pure white; they seemed almost glassy.  The knife’s hilt was leather, instead of the schizon that made up the rest of her things, and the hilt’s base was very concave in a way that looked like it would fit perfectly on a ball.  Looking closer, there was an odd hole in the center of the base.  What for?  I flicked my tongue, and peered at it.
This knife had glowed when Hinte’d wielded it, but it seemed just like an ordinary knife, now.  Was it the same one?  I turned it over.  Near the hilt black oleaginous blood gelled, and it smelled like the silvery white things.  More black blood was streaked up the blade⁠ ⁠—⁠ had Hinte tried to wipe it clean?
“What were those things, Hinte?” I said, rubbing my leg where the creature had scraped glass away.  “The silvery ones.  Were they rockwraiths?”
“I told you no,” she said, squeezing her frills as if the notion were ridiculous.  She whisked a wing, and finished, “Those were glazed olms, and they shouldn’t have been awake this late in the day.”  She said it staring at me, frills narrowed.  It sounded like an accusation.  What had I done?
Clicking my tongue, laughing it off, I searched and said, “Glazed olms?  Really?  I thought you were joking.  It–it sounded like some kind of exotic cuisine.  Or maybe a perfume.”  I said it, and looked down.  My feet were turning the knife over and picking at the blood.  Hardened and sticky, when I poked the blood with a claw, it scraped off.
She was folding the wrapper of her roast and placing it in her bag.  “Olms taste awful.  Their meat is gamey and breeds rot and disease.  Only fit for alchemy.”
“What sort of mixtures are they used for?”  I stopped picking the knife. It was clean, or the closest to clean I could manage, so I looked up at my companion, licking my eyes and fanning my frills.
Hinte’s own frills flexed in thought.  “Their slime is used in glazeward.  Their blood is a coolant,” she paused, looking up.  An alula found her cheek, scratching.  “Their integument is pretty.  Some use them for trinkets or shoes or something.  You would.”  The wrinkle in her frills said what she thought of that.
“Yeah!” I said.  “I like silver, it’s a good color.”  My eyes were silver, and what else could they be but the best color?  I put an alulae on both of my cheeks, and mimed Hinte’s thoughtful scratching.  “And glazeward, hmm…  That’s the salve?” I asked.
The dark-green wiver took a drink from her canteen and ignored my question, continuing where she left off.  “The rest of their anatomy is obscure and poorly studied,” she said, making a vague gesture with her wing.
“Well, do you know why’s that?” I scooted closer.
“Glazed olms are vicious and secretive.  They live in the molten glass, so one sees them only when they emerge from the lake.  Luring them out fails half the time, and their internals are unlike other creatures, and that confuses anatomists,” she said.
I lowered my head, humming, then said, “Why do they have to be so dangerous, though?”
Hinte curled her lip.  “They are no danger if you stay away from their territory.  If you had not tromped to the center of the lake, nothing would have happened.  No danger.”
“Will you let up about that already!  I wouldn’t have tried to go to the center if you had told me anything at all.  Why do you keep bringing it up?”
Her tail lashed.  “You asked.”  Lowering her head, staring at me, she asked, “Do you have any other questions?”  The words were growled, her fangs visible.
“No–no.”  I looked away, frills folding back and tail coiling over my leg.  Unstrapping my bag, I took out the crabs and lay them out beside the knife.  I had everything I needed this time.
I gave one last, half-glaring glance to the bright-white figure.  She drank from her blue and pink canteen, clutching it tight, and stared out over the lake.  If I stared at the foot clutching the canteen, I could see the crystalline droplets, still clinging from when she punched the olm.

The smallest glasscrab was the first we’d found⁠ ⁠—⁠ first I’d found.  I grounded it with my own claws.  My foot opened and closed, miming the piercing and ripping that had punctuated the first glasscrab.
I scratched my headband.  In the sky, you couldn’t hunt on your own.  On the surface, it was normal.  I liked it.  The Houses regulated hunting with heavy fines and constant guard patrols, because reckless hunting endangered populations.
After the hatchy, House-less precursors to the Constellation had driven entire species extinct, the Houses declared poaching one of the lowest crimes, and made three great dances of ecology tutoring a prerequisite for any hunting.
And so, our lessons went, we had the foresight of the Houses to thank whenever we had more to eat than skyrats or thornroots.
I snatched up the crab, turning it over in my claws.  The bodies of these ‘crabs’ didn’t look anything like what we had in the skylakes.  Even apart from the glassy shells, they had those flickering eyestalks, those twelve spindly legs that moved when I touched them, and a skeletal underbelly that didn’t look crab-like at all, at all.
They looked more like walking rocks than anything else.  Vicious, relentless walking rocks.  I flicked the crab’s eyestalk.  This one hadn’t given me such an annoying fight, but it still shared blood⁠ ⁠—⁠ precious blood⁠ ⁠—⁠ with that obnoxious little insect!  Ripping out its own eyestalks?  Summoning a bunch of ghostly avengers?  Maybe they grew squalled in this miserable lake.  I wouldn’t stay sane either.
The last drops of water smacked against the glass as I shook my last canteen.  It had emptied, and now I lacked water.
I steadied the knife for a few beats, worried about stabbing myself in the dark of the shore.  Holding the knife steady, I pierced the heart.  Blood oozed out from the long dead crab with lifeless lethargy.  I pressed the dead crab over the glass.
The blood of these crabs allowed one to brew the Munditi Sieve, or ‘the Sieve of Purity.’  One of Chwithach’s scrolls, titled ‘A New Reaction of Crescent Crab Blood and Recipes Thereof,’ had called the Sieve the second most powerful detector of disease and impurity; but still the most powerful non-magical technique.  According to ‘On the Ecology and Distribution of Extant Crescent Crabs,’ glasscrab blood is weaker than the blood of crescent crabs, the rainbow-shelled crabs that infested the rocky shores in the west.
Those shores lay a few long rings’ flight west, but I couldn’t fly out there and bag any unless I bought a new glider to handle the added weight.  I’d already sold the one I had flown down to the cliffs on, because I would stay in Gwymr/Frina.  So I wouldn’t need it.
I’d’ve needed to acquire a writ to leave town, anyway.  The extra inconvenience of finding and bleeding crescent crabs overwhelmed the slight extra effectiveness of their blood.
And with the way Hinte treated me, would I even want to?
The blood dripped like sand through a ringglass, so the underbelly was stabbed once again.
I twisted the knife.  Would it ground her to just tell me even half of why all this mattered?
I wrenched the knife and bled the crab into the jar again.  Why even bring me out here if I was nothing more than a drag?
I squeezed the crab, my claws digging in and wasted blood dribbling out over my forefeet.  Why, if we weren’t even friends?
I made my claws loosen their bleeding grip.  Was I of any use at all?
I breathed.
A steady glow appeared, white like the glair around an egg yolk.  I whisked my wings in front of my face, shadowing my eyes as they adjusted to the new light.  In response, the glow waned, now a third as bright.  My wing lowered, and the source, a glowing glairy liquid trapped behind glass, settled onto the ground a few strides away.
Was this my ornery companion being considerate?
“Hinte?”
The bright-white figure standing above the light hitched her wings.  “It is too dark to work with a knife.  Unless you plan to bleed yourself.”
I laughed, faltering and anxious as I stabbed the next crab and placed it over its jar.  “Um.  Do you still think⁠ ⁠—” Do you still think bringing me here was a mistake?  “Do you think I was any help at all today?”
“Aside from almost killing yourself twice?”
I slammed my wings on the ground.  “I wasn’t killing myself!”  I looked down.  “It was the olm thingies.”
“You shouldn’t have wandered off on your own.  What were you thinking would happen?”  She waved her foreleg away.
I looked back at Hinte, frills flattened.  “If it was so dangerous, why didn’t you stop me?”
Lowering her wings, she said, “Do you want to ride on my back like a little hatchling too?”
“No!  I just wanted to help.”
“You would have helped me more by staying with me.”
I looked away.  “I’m sorry.  But I was at least some help, wasn’t I?”
Hinte, on the other side of the light, looked away.  When her face was cast in shadows, she spoke.  “Sure.  We found more crysts today than I have on my own.  But if I have to answer one more of your questions, I will toss you in the lake myself.”
“Really?”  The words had already left my mouth when I ducked.  Lapilli crunched under Hinte’s landing.  “Sorry.  Rhetorical question?  Nevermind!”  I scooted back from the bright-white figure.
She tossed her head.  “No, not really.  I would not save you just to throw it away.  No matter how annoying you are.”
Annoying?
Huffing and leaping again, Hinte flipped back to her side of the lantern.
The drip of the crab’s blood slowed.  I poked into the next crab, widened the hole, and let it flow into the next jar.
I gazed, cloudy-eyed, at the filling jar.  By this point my canteen had been sipped down to a fifth.  After a hundred heartbeats, or thirty breath cycles, or twenty tongue flicks, maybe even a short ring, the blood filled a jar within a scratch of the top.
Another glass.  Another crab.  Another crab.  Another glass.  I kept up like this, almost meditative, filling the last of the glasses to their brims.  As second dusk fell, the shore darkened around our bubble of glairy light, the last rays of Enyswm smoldering on the horizon and stars arriving statelily in the sky above.  My gaze lifted at the thought, frills fluttering; and they fell still and folded back when I saw the lake’s cloud obscuring the starry sky.
My wings found the empty canteen tied to my forelegs.  I shook it again, acting from pure habit, and heard droplets of water hitting the sides of the glass.  I had come to rely on the steady drain of my canteen to tell time. Nothing else to measured long periods like thirst.
The last crab bled into the last jar as I sighed.  When that jar had filled, yet more blood still flowed out of the largest crab.  But I didn’t want to bother Hinte about it, and three jars would work well enough.
I sealed the last glass, and looked at its contents.  Skeletal white filaments reached throughout the baby blue blood.  I sloshed it around.  It didn’t look perfect.  Not at all how it looked in the waxy alchemy scrolls I’d pored over to impress Hinte with my skill and knowledge.
It looked… okay.  I didn’t have any of the special equipment needed to do a fancy bleeding.  No ice-coolers, of course, and no needles to take blood or any of the esoteric alchemical agents to stabilize it.  Though it helped that I didn’t care about farming or keeping it alive, and I didn’t need to deal with a writhing, struggling, alive crab.
A growl slipped out at the memory of those scrolls.  Sifting through them for actionable information was almost a preparation for sifting through this lake.  They had been so full of obscure and technical terminology, pedantry and indirection⁠ ⁠—⁠ and none of it was fun!  I had enough half-remembered trivia from my patchy tutoring, and a little help from Chwithach-sofran, to work through it.
When next my brilles cleared, and I saw the glairy light had left.  I found Hinte and the light, already several strides away and slinking back into the lake’s clouds.
She might have a dewed a drop of consideration, but not for her pacing.  I sighed.

When we entered the lake again, the lake seemed intent on demonstrating, by contrast, how clear and breathable was the shore’s hazy air.  The fumes made threatening gestures as they drew down my throat, but even as we walked right into the burning sulfur, the electricity warded coughs.
So we walked, me taunting the lake with soft clicky laughs.  The vog began to thicken, and the heat began to build.  Ashy clouds drifted as we walked, gusted by some unseen wind.  Strides later, there was no doubting that we were once again over the Berwem.
My head tilted as I looked around in the darkness.  Murky glass glowed and molten cracks shimmered, illuminating the lake from underneath, enough that I could now see more than I had by the cliff.
I threw slack-tongued glances around.  Then it dawned on me that second dusk had fallen.  So night engulfed the world outside of the cloudy lake.  But inside the lake?  There was scarce difference.
Hinte waved the shining glass lantern as she walked, but the darkness wouldn’t release its coil on the lake just so.  When the light hit out-jutting crags, it cut long shadowy fangs on the skin.  The clouds still swirled and had taken on a cryptic, half-shadowed appearance, seeming to hide something.
I shivered.  We should have finished in the lake by now! Why was Hinte still out here?
Three more crysts.  When we found three more of those blasted stones and left, I would not miss anything about this lake.  My feet curled into the dusty ground beneath me.
Volcanic cobble paved the roads of Gwymr/Frina.  Red and amber lamps lined the roads.  And chiming, insistent bells rang again and again throughout the day.
So much better than cracking, unstable dust.  Better than painfully bright glaze radiating out of distorting, murky glass.  Better than sizzling breaks and rumbling plates.
Had that backwater little town begun to feel like a home?
“The Berwem could make a tornado feel like home,” I murmured.  Hinte glanced at me, tilting.  “Just missing town.”
Why had I convinced Hinte to bring me here, again?  I had wanted to know to where she disappeared every cycle and what she did there.  Both questions had their answers long coming.
Staring up into the sky, gaze sifting for a glimpse of the endless stars or a moon, I dug through my memories and sighed.
I had grown more and more dubious with Hinte after we set off.  We had left from the west gate, yet the Berwem lay east of town.  Our path through the cliffs and badlands wound and doubled back on itself.  We walked.  When we flew, it was low to the ground, shielded by overhangs or through a canyon.  It worried me.
But, with a long ring echoing in our frills, we reached the Berwem.  Hinte answered any questions with growls or terse non-answers.  When the vog appeared and the lake’s heat crept upon us, I decided to voice my second question, albeit without hope of an answer.  “What are we doing here?”  I had asked.
“Sifting,” was all of her answer.
I had learned just what sifting entailed, and that left both my questions answered.  But those answers had only raised two more questions in their end.  Why was Hinte so drafty about entering the lake?  “Avoiding monsters,” she had said.  Which was something, I thought, but I wasn’t sure what.  But she fledged no attempt to answer the second new question.  What was so appealing about these crysts?
But despite my frustration, and her almost deliberate abrasiveness, we still played around, still smiled and had fun.  She shared her lunch with me.  She saved me from that glazed olm!
Maybe we were friends?
And maybe if she didn’t want to tell me what this was all about, she might have a reason that went beyond being mean or difficult.
I had been prying.  I had been maybe a little annoying.  I should respect her privacy.

iii.*

We marched over the surface of the lake, and I shook my canteen again, still hearing droplets pinging against the glass.  If the canteen had water in it, would I have drank a fifth by now?
Hinte fanned her frills again.  My fangs dewed with the ghost of irritation.
I decided to say it.  “Hey Hinte?”  She glanced over.  “I’m sorry for being so⁠ ⁠—⁠ annoying, earlier.  I wanted to know what this is all about⁠ ⁠—⁠ but I guess I never realized you might have good reasons not to tell me.  I promise I won’t ask anymore questions.”
Hinte didn’t glance away for a long moment.  “I do have reasons not to tell you.  That does not mean do not ask questions.  It means do not keep asking the same questions.”
“Got it.  So uh, can I ask one that’s been bugging me for a while?  I kinda
figured it out, but to be sure.”
Hinte held her breath.
“Well, why are you doing that?” I asked, flicking my tongue.  “It’s how you feel the crysts, right?”
“Yes.”
“Aright. And why can’t I feel the crysts humming in your bag?”
“Those are damaged and wrapped in schizon to diminish vibration.  But the others”⁠ ⁠—⁠ she waved a wing over the lake around us⁠ ⁠—⁠ “are neither wrapped nor cracked.  You can hear the vibration from strides away, if you listen closely,” she said.  Her tone sounded deliberate, almost practiced, as if she recited something or echoed someone.
It was obvious, but having my guesses confirmed pulled little drops of excitement onto my fangs.  Perking up, I strained again to feel the telling vibrations.  I failed to find the five stones that Hinte demanded.  Maybe I had another chance to impress her, by helping her here.
My frills filtered the steady cracking of our footsteps and the slow rattling of the lake, hunting again for a telling hum.  Finding it, my frills hitched in excitement.  When I turned, it was only the faint vibration of the crysts already in Hinte’s bag.  Awh.  Still, I kept trying, though there was nothing to show for it.  But I was not discouraged, I mimed Hinte’s patience.
As we walked on, after perhaps another sixth of my imagined canteen, the freezing in my gut began to flow outward and extend across my entire body.  Reaching my head, it sharpened my thoughts to fine points, and grounded the lurching weariness in my head.  I hadn’t even noticed the headache!  I just conflated it with the overall awfulness of sifting.
“How long have you been at this?” I wondered aloud.
“Almost sixteen cycles,” she said.  “I pick many of the stones nearest to the surface after a day or two of sifting.  So I wait a cycle for the tides to dredge more crysts to the surface⁠ ⁠—⁠ sometimes longer, if we are busy.”  My frills twisted.  She might trudge back out here tomorrow?
I would refuse if she asked.  I was almost sorry.  But this just wasn’t for me.
She added moments later, “But I do not always come to the lake.  Sometimes I hunt for rare flowers in the cliff’s patches of vegetation.  Or for fungus in the depths of the caves.  It depends on⁠ ⁠—⁠ it varies.”
What!  We could have been out in the cliffs picking flowers and instead you dragged me to this blazing hot lake!  What did I ever do you?”
“Well, we⁠ ⁠—⁠ I needed the crysts most of all right now,” she said “and both moons are out in full tonight⁠ ⁠—⁠ it is a great evening for sifting.”  Her next step faltered, and she looked off in the distant vog.
Huh?  I stargazed every clear night, and I don’t remember Laswaith even waxing yet⁠ ⁠—⁠ and the engulfing blackness of the vog hid both moons, anyway.  Why would we even be sifting in the darkness?
I didn’t voice those objections.  Hinte said she had been doing this for a couple great dances.  I trusted her.
I settled for saying, “We better go flower-picking next time, then.”  I flared my wings in mock aggression.
“Sure.”
Wait, what?  Had someone gone and replaced Hinte with someone reasonable?  I let the issue drop.  What had I said or done to bring out this weird side of Hinte?  She’d always been so guarded whenever I had asked what she did in the cliffs.  It took two whole cycles to get her to bring me along.  This openness only hatched me more questions.  And taking my suggestion just so?  She never let things be that simple.
Could I push her further?
“Oh!  And maybe we could invite Uvidet-cyf and make a day out of it!”
“No.”
“Aw.”  I relaxed my wings.  It was worth a shot, at least.
“I am not trying to ruin your fun, Kinri,” she said, “though it is a nice side-reaction.”
I crinkled my frills.
The dark-green wiver looked away and up before whisking her wing vaguely.  “The cliffs are not more forgiving than the lake,” she said, “they are only another set of dangers.  I can handle myself.  I can guide you.  But hatchsitting two rookies is too dangerous.”
I pressed my frills against the side of my head.  Hatchsitting?
“Well,” I started, not giving her a reaction, “why can’t we just bring along whoever showed you how to navigate the cliffs?”
Hinte remained silent for a bit, frills working. “Quiet, we need to focus,” Hinte said, then strode forward without me, our usual formation.  I sighed and picked at my scales as we walked, scraping clean the glass and sand.  Every few seconds, I glanced up at the ground in front of me, and traced my next few steps.  She might gut me if I stumbled into the lake again.
Another sixth of my imagined canteen would have drained by now.  Let’s call it ghost canteen.  It sounded cooler, like a magical artifact.  Why yes, it is I, Kinri, the dust-breather, bearer of the immortality raisin, wielder of the ancient ghost-canteen of power and mystery.
A faint hum built as I walked along.  I had missed it!  Humming with excitement, I slinked back toward it, a few strides to my left, just two paces behind me.
Breathing twice, I punched through the dustone.  My gashless leg flailed in the muck, blind as it reached for a cryst I could only feel.  Stretching, I felt the tip of my claws graze the stone.  The rest of my foreleg slipped in until I could wrap my claws around it.  Pulling out, it glowed a glimmering purple, oblong and angular.  I passed it to Hinte.  She cracked it, wrapped it and stored it.  I might have seen some new expression on her face, but in shadows cast by the lantern, I couldn’t be sure.
I brought myself to a high-walk, and slipped beside Hinte before she could start off.  This time, we walked off together.  Turning to meet her gaze behind the amber goggles, I smiled at her.  The dark-green wiver just flicked her tongue.  But she smiled back after a beat.
I tried to pick at my scales again, but it was tricky when I was walking in step, instead of shuffling behind and sprinting forward whenever I fell too far behind.
Hinte slowed without stopping, looking at a spot somewhere to her left.  She started forward a little before deciding against it, and regained her pace seamlessly.  Walking beside her like this, I saw how much longer Hinte was than me.  I didn’t look back after that.
We trudged forth for several long moments, silent.  The clouds blew past, the gust redoubling.  But it was no obstacle.  Visibility was as terrible as ever.  After another few moments of steady silence, the dark-green wiver jerked to a stop.  Her tongue flicked out, waving in the air.
“Kinri.  Do you smell that?” Hinte growled, low and wary.  Her wings and tail both rose, tense.  She turned to me, any earlier smiles gone.  “I smell blood.” A quiver of anticipation lighted on her fangs.
Well.  I couldn’t complain of boredom now.
* * *

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