Sifting IV: Melt

i – ii – iii

i.*

Kinri.  Do you smell that?  I smell blood.
I flicked my tongue and whirled its forks.  After a beat it was pressed against the roof of my mouth, and I only smelled the evil sulfur of the Berwem.  I ignored it and grasped for the tastes at the fringes.  Grape and chamomile?  No.  Boily crab meat?  No. Faint sweat and blood blowing in from the distance⁠ ⁠—⁠ there it is.
What had happened?  The lake was stingy with life.  And for what it did allow, none were mammals.  Was it something wandered and lost in the lake?  Had it come here on purpose?  Why here, and what did it want?  Was it dead?  Had something attacked it?  But why⁠ ⁠—
“Follow me.”  Hinte’s voice stole into my fluttering mess of questions.  The command to do something felt so simple, so commonsense, almost not worth giving.  But it worked.
Then I waved my tongue.
“Hinte?”  I saw her turn back to me, fangs bared.  “Are we going toward the blood?  It might be⁠ ⁠—⁠ it’s dangerous.  We should head back to town and⁠ ⁠—”
“You can go back.”  The wiver stalked off.
I hissed. Really, I could handle this⁠ ⁠—⁠ whatever this was, right? If Hinte could handle it, if I had Hinte there with me, things would go fine.
And if I did go back, what would she think? That I had no wind under my wings? That I really was useless?
I strode into step beside her, unfolding my wings and stalking forward.
As we went, the smell loomed more hauntingly, danger limned in scent.  The closer we went, and the surer I was that even when I held my tongue the stink clung.  Shadows were twisting into shapes suggesting what monster lay at the source⁠ ⁠—⁠ a dying furless wolf, lethally pursued by an angry, hungry pack⁠ ⁠—⁠ a towering, lumbering gorilla injured and overready to kill just to quietly recover⁠ ⁠—⁠ some horse-like creature hunted by strange primitive dragons whose language I didn’t speak and⁠ ⁠—
I licked my eyes.
I was walking over the empty lake, sheltered in glairy lantern light; Hinte was right beside, and nothing moved in the dark, dirty mist of the lake.  The only sound was the lake rumbling and the wind almost laughing.  The smell that had stood so salient to me still wafted faint, distant.

My wings had drooped, and my stalking faded to a march, then a simple low-walk, and now I just slinked after Hinte.  At least the smell had grown stronger.
With the suns cast away, only the ground beneath us could hint at any true movement⁠ ⁠—⁠ and dustone covered the lake to the shores and then some.  Now, though, no more molten glass burst up, and the murky veins grew fainter; we must have come to another shore.
When my next breath didn’t try to burn my throat, I couldn’t help but laugh: Free of the lake once more!
Far away from this shore, a rising cliff wall dipped and split along its length; and in the split a little narrow gully snaked into the wall, and wound upward.
I looked up at the cliff, then across, as far as the faint glairy rays illumed. If it weren’t night, this would make a fun place to fly around.  Imagine leaping from one of the tall⁠ ⁠—⁠ but not too tall⁠ ⁠—⁠ heights of the cliff and trying to glide back into the gully!  I wiggled my wings.
We approached, and you could see that the gully was just a big, steep dip in the cliff wall: it had a sheer face that met that ground at what wasn’t a right angle.
The bright-white figure leapt and lighted onto the face. Her claws dug into the gnarls and crags, and she walked up the wall.  I lighted and walked after her.  My feet held tight to the cliff face, and my wings fluttered at my sides. Yes, climbing clouded next to flying, but it beat walking like an olm beat a glasscrab.
At the top, the gully narrowed enough I had to follow behind Hinte, instead of slinking beside her.  I crinkled frills and pouted, but marched on.
Another knot was knitting in my stomach, stinking of anxious dread. I stretched out my wings, and let my alulae trail against the gully walls.  Even at the widest parts, my wings could only unfold halfway.  Gliding in here would be a trick, then.  You’d have to balance gliding in and wrecking your wings with falling in and wrecking your legs.
I waved my tongue. What sort of awful creature awaited us at our destination? Would we have to face down whatever monster had attacked?  Would we find we weren’t the only things lured in?  They might eat you.
The pressing heat waned and dusty air grew clearer, deigning me the privilege of seeing a dozen strides ahead, instead of six.  Still the air was bone-dry, and I licked droplets out of my canteen.  Our path wound higher, and at the top the cliff wall rolled above, being a small overhang.
The smell grew stronger than ever. Was this the source?
I licked spicy venom from my fangs.
Hinte slinked forward, close to the ground. The path became a plateau as it wound upward and overlooked a hill rolling down to another, deeper gully.  The dark-green wiver walked to very edge of the path, stopping at the ledge.
Standing beside her, I followed her gaze. There, under the ledge, in a flat stretch of the hill dotted with boulders, lay a creature on its back.
The head looked flat, without a snout, and the trunk of the creature looked long, yet stocky.  Not as long as a dragon, but the proportions didn’t make it easy to tell.  Was it the shoulders?  The high placement of the forelegs?  The way the hindlegs flowed out from the torso?
Then my eyes cleared. It only had four limbs!
The scales gleamed silver⁠ ⁠—⁠ no, they weren’t scales.  Some kind of outfit covered the skin.
My legs were tensed and my claws gripped the ground. I looked behind me, at my escape route.
Hinte’d bared her teeth, and inched forward with clear brilles and fanned frills. Was it dangerous?  Before I could ask, she leapt from the ledge, and landed away from the body.  Corpse?  It didn’t flinch or react at all.
I snapped my tongue at the wiver. What if it had been dangerous? She had called me careless.
I leapt down after her.
One of the creature’s forelegs had three slashes running down its length, and bleeding holes ran in an almost-circle on its outfit⁠ ⁠—⁠ armor?⁠ ⁠—⁠ like something had tried taking a bite out of it.  Its blood pooled underneath, draining into the undisturbed, sandy gravel all around it.  In the pool lay a bladed weapon, held in a worn, beat-up sheath.
The head lolled as we approached, but it didn’t react beyond that. It looked… familiar.  Some creature I’d learned of from my tutors, but never encountered.
“Uh… what is this thing, Hinte?” I asked as I landed in front of her, so as not to spook her. As Hinte glanced at me, I added, “It looks⁠ ⁠—⁠ it looks like some kind of… ape?  I’ve never seen one outside of textbooks.  Or zoos, maybe.”  My tongue wriggled in my mouth, some strange taste tickling the edges.
“Yes,” she said, peering at the blood. “It is an ape. A sentient species. They cannot survive the heat of the Berwem, without our alchemy and preperation.  So they stay away. This pitiful creature will expire soon. If it has not already.”
As if in response, the ape gave a cough and a struggled movement.  I flinched, but Hinte stepped forward, standing above the ape.  Her weight shifted a bit to the side.  Then, a claw flew, ripping out the ape’s throat.  I jumped, but the knot in my stomach unraveled.  It couldn’t do anything now.
“What–what was it doing here?”
“I do not know,” Hinte said, an unbloodied foot falling over the other.  “But we will return to town and inform the faer.”
“Why?” I flicked my tongue, glancing at the ape and its pool of blood.
The dark-green wiver peered at me.  “Imagine if this were an unmarked sky-dweller instead of a human.  Do you see why that would be a problem?”
A frill brushed against my headband. “But that’s different, the sky-dweller probably fell.”  I looked again at the pool of blood, then up above us, at the overhang.
“My point flies. Imagine it were a Pteroni, then. What would you think?”
“That they were up to something?  Pteroni are drafty,” I said, still peering at the overhang.
“This ape is up to something. Humans are not just exotic creatures. They can war and plot like dragons.”
“Okay,” I said. Then, “Hey, does this pool of blood look off to you?”
Hinte looked to the corpse, tilting her head.
“There’s no blood trail leading anywhere, and the scent trail starts here and doesn’t go anywhere.”
“And there are no footprints leading here.” She looked at me. “You think it fell.”
“I do.” I looked up at the overhang. “Do you think there might be more of them?” Waving my tongue, I added, “I can smell more sweat⁠ ⁠—⁠ and cooked crab meat.”
“Yes. We can fly up and investigate.”
“Um, can you?  I can, uh, stay and watch the body.”
Hinte watched me a long moment before humming and saying, “As you wish.” As she said this, she stepped away, her tail unstrapping her bag and lantern, then offering them out to me.  “Hold these.”
“Okay,” I said, getting the bag’s strap loose around my neck. “Ow. Why is there so much weight in this?”  Holding the bag for one instant was enough to steal all my wondering about why she never flew while looking for stones.
“Emergencies,” she said. “And I can fly just fine with it.”
“If you like going slow, maybe.”  I peeked in the bag.  “Hey, your canteens are in here.”
“Yes, they are.”
“Well, my canteens are a little empty and I ran out, so uh… can I⁠ ⁠—”
“Yes,” she snapped, already turning around and unfolding her wings.  “Do not drink more than half of one.”
She was unfolding her wings to their full extent, only three strides in either direction.  After running for a few beats, she flapped her wings, and leapt high.  The bright-white figure rose with heavy beats of her wings, looking a silhouette, then a shadow, then a vague hint in the smoky night air.  She reached the overhang, and disappeared.

ii.*

Alone, I looked at the ape.  Its snoutless face and lanky limbs seemed squished or distorted, like someone pulled a dragon out of shape and peeled their scales off.  I hissed at it, but seeing the gore below its head relaxed me just a nudge.  It wouldn’t, couldn’t, get back up and haunt me.  Right?
Circling it, inching forward with the lantern, I reached the body. As I neared, a strange taste lit on my tongue, sourly metallic and like a storm.  It called to mind the aluminum lightning rods you saw at the fringes of skylands⁠ ⁠—⁠ only so much stronger and pungent, like a metal dying.
I’d still rather smell it than look at it.
Stopping before it, I looked closer at the silver outfit with dozens of little plates overlapping each other like fake scales.  Gentle, wary prodding gave the feeling of some hard, light metal.  Aluminum?  Where did it get aluminum?  Aglare in the white lantern-light, looking dull and scratched, the plates at least seemed of fitting quality.
I picked up a limb near the head. With a foreleg shorter than mine, with toes thinner, stubbier, and missing a whole digit, with claws that were round and negligible, you could only call this a cheap imitation of a dragon foreleg.
I folded its foot, flicking my tongue at how⁠ ⁠—⁠ useless it seemed. The foot only had one opposable hallux, where I had two sitting on either side of my sole.  Could it even walk up trees or cliff faces without two halluxes?
Elsewhere, the torso was shorter but almost half a forefoot thicker… was even this thing longer than me?  Frills crinkling, I aligned myself to check⁠ ⁠—⁠ but no, it wasn’t.  I smiled.  The weird legs just confused things, again.  With my head next to its, my legs came out well past the end of the belly.
I rolled my head, and forced my gaze higher. Behind its silver outfit was dark skin, nearly black, covering the face, features like stacked slabs.  Two recessed green eyes poked out, orbited by little hairs.  More hairs sprouted out above its head too, long as one of my toes and white.
I stepped back, trying to fit it all together, and couldn’t.
Its forelegs and hindlegs had an alien disparateness.  Maybe my legs were asymmetric, too⁠ ⁠—⁠ hindlegs a little bigger and stronger, to launch me into the air⁠ ⁠—⁠ but I could still walk on both pairs, and all four of my feet could manipulate.
This ape’s oblong hindfeet had to make terrible manipulators. And it couldn’t possibly walk on those forelegs.  Did it walk only on its hindlegs?  How did it not teeter over?  And was its underbelly exposed as it moved?
Why did it only have four limbs? It wasn’t the most baffling — yet even the gorillas or chimps had the full six limbs.
“What a strange creature,” I said to no one. Maybe the gods had created them as a joke.
A black cloth covered its face, so I hooked it in my claw and tore it off. Hidden by the cloth, the ape had a fleshy protrusion with two holes.  A nose?  Below that sat a mouth, circled by light brown lips.
I stuck a claw between its lips and opened its mouth.  Inside, I saw little yellow teeth and a pink tongue blackened down its center.  I gasped.
It had no fangs!
Fangs limned emotion and feeling.  A dragon without fangs was devoid of expression, of life.  Poets called the fangs the wings of the soul⁠ ⁠—⁠ where the heart lurched the body into motion, its pulses nurturing animal feelings like anger or fear, and its warmth expressing comfort or lust, the fangs dewed with scented venom that betrayed your complex, innermost feelings.
And this creature had none! Yet Hinte claimed it was somehow sentient…
I turned around, sitting with the ape firmly out of my sight.  My heart calmed at once.

I had never guarded anything before, but I tried what I could.  Which meant idly looking around and up, for all the nothing that it did.  My frills still were fanned, and my tongue flicked out every twelve or thirteen heartbeats, scenting the air.
My tart fangs dried, and less attention left me. There really was nothing else here, and Hinte would return soon enough.  A sigh followed by pacing, by slowly flapping my wings, by sitting back down and fluttering my feet, and another sigh.  Then came some playing in the rocks or dust, and sculpting small figures and inscribing random silliness: glyphs for flowers (a spiked circle) or for love (two tails entwined).
I erased them to make room for more. After all the walking, I decided I wouldn’t move around more than I needed to.  Sitting like this reminded me of the soreness in my legs, but also soothed it some.  I shot a glance at the overhang with clouding eyes and tightening brows.  The moment Hinte returned, we would have to walk back home.
There was a sigh. Hinte and I seemed so different. We had things in common, of course we did⁠ ⁠—⁠ we liked seafood, and scrolls, and hunting; we hated brumating, and how the townsdragons look at us when we pass.  I hadn’t even initiated our relationship; she found me.  I just⁠ ⁠—⁠ couldn’t taste what she saw in me.
A new smell arose as I sat. My tongue waved, and identified the foul stench: feces and urine.  I glanced at the corpse, but I held my tongue and continued looking away.  Nothing to do about it.  Nothing I wanted to do.
All around, you could hear the lake’s distant cracks and grinding, and the soughing of the wind, and the quiet; it didn’t fill the air, it didn’t envelop you, but it remained there in the background, a dark suggestion.
I told myself there were no worries, no rockwraithes or glazed olms or skinhounds or wildcats or anything; and Hinte would return soon and how silly would I look scared of nothing?
I didn’t like how close I felt right now to little hatchling Kinri, flapping at shadows and squalled by monsters.  I really didn’t like how I could almost hear the echoes of a key harp, humming in a time-warped tuning, and over it a deep and stormy voice, restrained into a pitched murmur just for me.  I didn’t like that I wanted to sing along with her.
I looked around again, all around, and made sure no one could hear me but the corpse.
I murmured, and the voice was definitely Kinri, all Kinri. She sung:
From not the calm of night nor court of day
Shall your high course be shadow’d, study’d nor sway’d;
In places lonesome or in midst of noise
Your visage limns naught save the utmost poise.
Till ruin betides the mighty and asqualled
You’ll rise with the mantle of the eld heroes called—
Specter! unseen agents of shadows stark;
Specter! for lofts high and by keen stars mark’d.
Know that when fools had stood atop the world
We wielded light with lucent cloaks unfurl’d;
Know that when dusk at last overrose the Sky
We deigned that peace on wings of words should fly.
Till starless foes above have languishèd,
Our family alone distinuishèd!
House Specter shall overmaster rot and dearth;
House Specter shall unite the heaven and earth!
From out the stars of night and dance of day
Will our high course be but the only way;
In all the world’s woes and in all life’s joys
Our visage limns naught save the Specter poise.
“…Now sleep, O heir of Specter⁠ ⁠—⁠ my Kinri.”
I wiped my fangs. What you just heard, that was the anthem of my family⁠ ⁠—⁠ except for the last, half-breathed line; that was just for me.
It had been gyras and gyras since I’d heard the anthem sung to me, yet only dances since I heard (and not really listened) to it simply being played, for crowds, at gatherings.  And yet, I still remembered it with that long since dried voice and destroyed key harp, because there was something deeply personal, some verity, that the rote recitals⁠ ⁠—⁠ backed instead by high strings and drums⁠ ⁠—⁠ seemed to lack; something that had came aflame when she limned it with her violin and restrained voice.
My fangs had dewed again, and this time it smelled tart; I didn’t wipe them. Instead I just sat like that, letting my past ring out in my mind and clawing more scribbly distractions in the gravel.
Suddenly glass cracked in the distance! My frills flared. I was jumping to my feet, and turning.  A shadow lurched in the darkness!  I leapt away, rolling behind one of the boulders on the hillside.  My forelegs shook, and my wings hugged my body.
The cracks came closer, hurried and heavy. They stopped for a beat before hurrying away just as fast.
I had held my breath. My wings hugged me tight enough I could feel a strain on their membranes.  While my breath stopped, my heart thrashed, its pulse waxing to an unsteady flow of frantic energy to my legs and my wings.
When the energy dragged me into motion again, I peered out from behind the boulder; but as I stared, nothing moved in the vog.
“Hinte?” I called. No response. My heart urged me to move again, but I remained behind my boulder.  After my heartbeat reduced to just racing, instead of thrashing, I heard footfalls approaching.  I flicked my tongue, and found the metallic lightning taste fading.
“Hinte?” I called again, half as loud and a quarter as confident.
A high, throaty laugh came, followed by, “Guess again!”
I peaked from behind the boulder. A figure clad in a ragged-white sifting suit stepped into the circle of glairy light.  There was faint jingling as they wiggled their frills.
The sifter asked, “Got an ax on you?” When I shook my head, they just shrugged.
“Did–did you see anything?” I asked, a quiver in my voice.  “Something was moving in the vog and it came almost right over here by me and gah.”  I ended with something between yell and a groan.
The dragon lifted their head. “Nah, but I heard something stomping around somewhere around here.  Obviously a white one or something in that vein.”  Their voice had an exaggerated highness to it, pitched cynical and saccharine.  It was a voice you had to try to make.
Still, I stepped from the behind my boulder. Strange voice aside, they looked and talked like another sifter, not some lake monster.  I walked back toward the body.  Where the sheathed weapon had sat, only the drying pool of blood remained.
“Whatever it was ran off with a weapon.”
“Did it smell like metal? White ones love to chew on metal.” The dragon was hitching their wings at me.  Withy the lantern you could see her yellow-brown plain-dweller scales and face round like a pear.
Tilting my head, I asked, “Doesn’t everything in this lake smell like metal?”
The yellow-brown dragon hissed a laugh.  “Obviously.”  They flicked their tongue and added, “except you smell like some weird perfume.”
I looked away and scratched the ground.
“Anyway, point is white ones smell like sourness and metal, crabbies smell like dinner and metal, and sifters smell like cheap metal and broken dreams.”  They wiggled a frill, and it faintly jingled.
“Well, I guess.” I glanced back at the sifter. “Aren’t we a little far from the lake?  I think olms⁠ ⁠—⁠ white ones live in the glass.”
“They can walk halfway to Gwymr/Frina when they get hungry, obviously.”
“Okay.”  I was looking up to the gray blackness above.  After a beat, I asked, “You’re a sifter, aren’t you?”
They nodded, pointing to their ragged-white sifting suit and for a moment lifting a rod out of their bag with a tail.
“So, do you know this other sifter out there tonight? They carry around weird necklaces and give advice.  And they’re kinda nice.”
“Ah yeah, that’s my buddy. Bit my flanks to stick with him in the lake, wanting to stick together, then changed his chime as soon as he tasted that scent.”  The yellow-brown dragon stepped forward, jerking a wing at the body.  “I’m reasoning that’s it?”
I poked the corpse. “This is what we found. I thought there might be a few others, so my⁠ ⁠—⁠ companion went to check them out.”
The sifter scratched their neck. “So, why do you think these things are here?”
I looked up again.  “I don’t know.  They’re away from the lake.  Maybe they wandered in the wrong direction before being attacked or something.”
The yellow-brown dragon twisted their head. “I reason that makes sense. Came by to check on that noise, so I’ll be heading back to my buddy⁠ ⁠—⁠ or wait for him, whatever.  Seen what I snuck away to see.”
“Okay. I need to stick around to watch this body. So um, fair winds.”
“Yeah.  Fairer winds to you.”  They turned around but looked back at me.  “And pray don’t tell anyone I’m still in the lake.  My boss would fly down my throat if she knew.  Thanks!”
I waved a wing as they grinned and turned away.
The dragon in ragged-white started to walk off, then spun right back around.  “Oh, and I obviously feel a little shit for this, but it’s drier than my grandma’s vent out here and Dwylla knows I didn’t plan on staying in the fires this long.  You have a swallow of water to spare?”
“Um, yeah. There’s a canteen in this bag right here, just let me find it.” I dug through Hinte’s bag⁠ ⁠—⁠ it had to be near the top, but she had her own system for ordering the pockets.  “Uh, here it is.  Please don’t drink more than half.”
“Obviously. I wouldn’t dare.” They took the blue-and-pink canteen and poured it into her mouth, without touching her lips to it.  “Aah. Thank you, miss.  You’re a savior.” The sifter turned around again, and began stepping away. They glanced back. “Get home safe, alright?”
And with that, the ragged-white figure disappeared into the dark of the lake.

Faint flaps came from high in the air.  A different, familiar shadow glided or fell downward.  Some of my fear slipped away.  Hinte had finally returned!  But her descent looked unsteady, and from her legs swung big forms.
I slinked from the boulder to meet her, her bag banging against my breast. The dark-green wiver hit the graveling rocks with a loud crunch and yelp that turned my slink into a run.  I met her atop what was almost a pile of apes⁠ ⁠—⁠ three of them.
“Are you alright?”
Instead of answering, she tried to stand, and seemed to succeed.  On her feet, she started rolling the apes onto their backs, moving some of them easier than others.
Hinte glanced at me, pointing her wing at the first body⁠ ⁠—⁠ now corpse⁠ ⁠—⁠ whose scent had led us here.
“Carry the body, we are heading back to town now,” she said.
I lowered my head, and licked worry from my fangs, and turned to the corpse, staring, hesitating.  Hinte hurried me with a hiss, and stepped forward.
Setting her bag down, stretching my legs, breathing deeply, I grabbed the body and heaved it over my back.  I sagged with the weight.  With somewhere between two and three good legs, it was a fight to stay on my feet.  After working the body between my wings, I wiggled until it stopped sliding around.  Legs were dangling off behind and beside me.
Blood dribbled onto my sifting suit. Inside, I squirmed⁠ ⁠—⁠ but this was not the time for such things.
Then, Hinte was behind me, and righting the corpse’s placement. She folded the ape’s legs so they didn’t dangle behind me.  My fangs burned⁠ ⁠—⁠ Hinte wasn’t so short to need that.
She had rope, and the ape was tied to my back. Afterward, I was fidgeting, whipping my tail around and wrapping myself in my wings.  I couldn’t fly with this weight!  Hinte could barely glide down with it, and she was bigger…  stronger than me.
When the dark-green wiver snapped her tongue behind me, I quit fidgeting and blew my tongue at her.  Instead of keeping up the exchange, though, she dropped her rope and turned around, crouching, her belly almost touching the ground.
I peered at her for a beat.
Oh, did she want me to place the corpses on her back?  That was… a good idea, really.  I should have thought of it.
Before hefting the bodies, I looked over them, only half-interested. One ape had also had its throat torn out, another having cuts at its stomach and legs, and a last bled from a bite on its shoulders.  They only had a few items: bags smelling of dried food or tanned hide; scabbards sitting empty; a strapped, sheathed weapon hanging and swinging as I grabbed its sliced-up owner.  That human also had a curve of gray wood wrapped around their breast.  A bow?
After placing two bodies on her back, I asked, “Don’t you want me to carry just as many of these creatures?” I said, then added in a thinner, wavering voice, “I’m not that weak!”
“You are injured,” Hinte said, waving a wing. “Now stop wasting time. This is important.”
I cringed, but the last corpse, whose dead forelimb was caught around a unempty scabbard, was on her back.  I needed to mess with the placement again and again to keep the bodies stable.  As I worked, my eye caught a bloody gash in Hinte’s wing.
“What happened to your wing?” I asked.
“Wait until we are with the faer,” she hissed, “I will tell the story once.”
“Should we at least wrap it or something?”
“No, it is not that serious.”  I lifted my head, giving her one incredulous look before snapping my tongue and murmuring, “If you say so.”
I could point out that she was injured too, so her argument didn’t fly anymore; but my injury hurt my walking, and hers didn’t.  She was right.  This was important.  No time for pettiness.
I bent down for the rope, amd saw a large, bloody tear in the sleeve of her right hindleg!  The cut wrapped halfway around her leg and the white sleeve had only caught part of it.  Where it didn’t, the hindleg was red.  I let out an exasperated hiss and stood up.
“Hinte, your hindleg is bleeding.”
“What?  Oh, that.  Does it look so bad?  It felt like nothing.”
“Of course it looks bad⁠ ⁠—⁠ your leg is bleeding!” I said as I stepped closer to Hinte, reaching to get some bandages or something out of her bag.  “Where’d you put that ointment from earlier?”
“No, not that. If it is so bad, grab die Wunderv⁠ ⁠—⁠ grab the flat pink container near the bottom of the bag.”  I followed her words, grabbing the container, opening it.  “Rub a little of it on the surf–” she cut off with a hiss of pain, “–ace…  Not too much, it’s for⁠ ⁠—⁠ ah!⁠ ⁠—⁠ for emergencies.  I do not have much.”  I hesitated, but then she said, “Kinri, you do me no favors by stopping.  Finish.”  So I did.
She said, “Now get the bandage and be done with it.” The bandages were already near the top of the bag.  “You will need to roll up the sleeve some.”  The bandages unrolled onto her leg and had a pin stuck through to hold them.  While I had the chance, I did this all to ripped wing.  She clicked her tongue, but didn’t tell me to stop.
She said, “Now finish placing the bodies. And do not complain about my injury. I won’t untie and retie your knot just so you can feel helpful.”
Ugh. So stubborn! I placed and adjusted the last body without saying anything.  The rope was looped twice around Hinte, and I let her tie the knot.
When she finished, the dark-green wiver looked up to my smiling; and she only peered at me, flicking her tongue.  Her lips might have twitched upward for just an instant before her serious frown won out, and I couldn’t tell if I had even seen anything.
I sighed, and looked up. Shaking the body, feeling the blood dripping onto my suit, I said, “It’s like it’s us versus the rest of the lake, right, Hinte?”
It’s like it’s us versus the rest of the family, right, sis? My headband was uneven.  I straightened it with an alula.
Hinte growled. “Us?”
“Um, nevermind.”
We walked away, and I was behind Hinte.

iii.*

My left foreleg still ached as I walked after her, and the extra weight didn’t help at all.  But I bore it. This was important, wasn’t it?
So we set off, heading to Gwymr/Frina, to the faer.  Along the way Hinte took out a kind of orb.  A yellow-white light shone from the center, past the clear liquid and the two glass shells of the object.  Beneath, four legs sprouted from the orb at wide angles.
The compass had a bunch of colored pebbles on the shell and they rolled as Hinte handled it.  She turned the outer shell of the compass until the glyph for ‘south’ was over the white pebble, the south stone.  Metal guards limited the inner shell’s rotation⁠ ⁠—⁠ without them you could flip east and west, and leave yourself starless and confused.  Well, at least, without the suns to mark east and west you would be.
I peeked at the compass from behind Hinte.  Sky’s compasses could have up to twenty guides, but surface dwellers wouldn’t need as many.  I counted seven.  White south and black north, green Ceiwad and violet Laswaith, blue Oleuni and yellow Enyswm, and a red stone I couldn’t place.
That stone danced across the sphere, at the very bottom, never rising above the horizon.  Was it something below us?  Or maybe something was interfering?  You’d hear of cursed locations that wrecked compasses, like iron-smited caves or yellow mangrove copses.  My brother had told me there even was a maelstrom in the deepest south that sucked skylands right out of the air!  It would totally fit for the Berwem to be cursed.  It would explain so much, really.
Oh! Maybe it was a real cryst detector! That would be great to have, and exactly the sort of thing Hinte would have without telling me.  But it was fine.  I’d let her have her secretes.
While I thought, we were walking on. Again Hinte did not press on at her frantic pace.  Some more ghost canteen-swallows later, and Hinte might have faltered.  She moved on as if nothing had happened, but we walked slower after that.
The pace felt almost relaxing after the brisk marches through the lake. The burden I carried didn’t hurt, but I guessed it might balance whatever soothing the slower stride did for my legs.  We walked back into the dust and smoke and heat of the Berwem, and I groaned.
The sound turned Hinte’s head, and she peered at me, lips pursed. “Why do you still have my bag?”
I looked down. “Oh! Um. I forgot?”
“Give it here.”
I slipped my head through the strap and footed the bag to her.
Taking the bag, the dark-green wiver reached in with one wing, without looking, and pulled out another small glass bottle.  “Here.  You’ll want this.  More respira.  Use it when you need it.”
“Oh, now you think to give it to me before we walk into the lake’s death clouds.” I was joking, but it feel like that didn’t come out in my tone.
Hinte frowned at me, frills flaring. “Only because I had not realized how much weaker your throat was.  I can take it back.”
“No, no, it’s fine. Thank you, Hinte.” I smiled, and Hinte’s frills relaxed, and her frown eased.
We continued on with me walking even further behind Hinte. Somehow, that amazing electric feeling was less amazing, and that awful burden pressed harder into my back.
“Did anything happen while I was gone?” Hinte asked after some time, as if it had slipped her mind.  She slowed even further, and I had to reply face-to-face.
Pray don’t tell.
“Uh…no.  Well, sort of.  There were these footsteps once that ran up the human and took its sword.  I think it was a olm looking for metal or something.”
“You didn’t see it?”
“I… hid?  It happened really quick, I didn’t know what the cracking sound could’ve been.”
Hinte stayed silent for beat.  Then, “Anything else?”
“There was this shadow at the edge of my vision once.  Um, I guess it might have been the size of dragon or less. It was gone when I looked at it. I think it was a shadow or something,” I said, hugging my wings to my body.
“And you ignored it?” She stared at me, eyes unreadable behind her goggles and face stark in the lantern light.
“No? I mean⁠ ⁠—⁠ there is nothing out on the lake here this late at night.”
Hinte continued to stare at me, incredulous, like I said something silly.  I glanced down to my claws.  It wasn’t convincing — I knew it wasn’t convincing.  But I didn’t want it to be.  I was done lying, and the new Kinri was painfully, stutteringly transparent.  I could lie, I just didn’t want to.
Hinte’s fangs were salty.  “Tongueless!” she said. “That could have been something important. Imagine what a dragon out here at the same time as these humans could be up to.”
I said, “I’m sorry.” She said nothing. We walked on, the darkness outside our bubble of glairy light seeming so much more intense, seeming to hide known and unknown terrors.  Staring at it, as I had grown to do in my day in the lake, I saw the darkness was more intense.  Night had fallen long outside of the lake.
What could a dragon out here be up to? Hinte and I weren’t up to anything. And the two sifters seemed nice enough.  I tried to imagine what a dragon out here at the same as these humans could be up to, and couldn’t really think of anything.  I slacked that line of thought, and went back to staring⁠ ⁠—⁠ no, how about ‘meditating?’⁠ ⁠—⁠ I went back to meditating on the blackened vog.
Our footfalls made even bigger cracks in the dustone, and though it held, the ground now flexed with our steps.  My thoughts were drifting; I was pretty bad at meditating.
I shook my empty canteen. My ghost canteen would have half-emptied by now, wouldn’t it?  It sounded frilly, but trust me, it tracked the time better than ‘a while.’
Did dragons working late into the night invent their own ghost rings to track time?  Maybe if you needed to track time for something you shouldn’t need to do it at night anyway.  Nights were for sleeping and star-gazing.
The corpse on my back shifted as I stumbled over some pointed, furrowed ground. “Why are we carrying all these bodies back home?” I asked.
“Proof,” Hinte said. “The faer will believe us, but not everyone. The bodies will assure them.”
“All of them?”
“They will have information and evidence we would not know to check.  One of the apes is still alive, unconscious.  Rhyfel and his⁠ ⁠—⁠ inquirers will investigate them and taste whatever is at the root, here.”
I didn’t say anything else, and followed behind in silence. As I walked, I thought to the ape on my back.  I recalled the blood dripping onto my suit.  Something about that piqued me.
“Hinte,” I said.  Her wings hitched in acknowledgment.  “Why was the creature injured when we found it?  Was it attacked?”
“Yes, that was a rockwraith bite.”
“How can you tell?”
“The behavior is a tell. Almost nothing is active in the cliffs near the gray season. Glasscrabs would not attack unless provoked.  Crawlers would not leave remains.  Only rockwraiths will fly away after you stop moving.”
What!  You said they would eat me!”
She only snickered. I smacked her in the side with my wing. Waving her tongue at me, she shifted onto her hindlegs to retaliate, but faltered, and yelped, and fell toward me, wings flailing.  I caught her.  She got back over her feet and I let her stand on her own.
“Okay, let’s stop.”
She only rolled her head at me, looking away.
“You can’t carry all of that weight with your hindleg injured! You’ll only make it worse!
“I am fine,” she said, high-walking away again.  I followed, reluctant.  Back where we’d just played, an even bigger crack had broken the lake skin.  Glass oozed out in places, but the open veins were small.
I caught up to Hinte, then we walked on a few sips. It reminded me of how boring this was.  I should have brought a kazoo or something.  Hinte would hate it.  Or maybe a flute!  Did I still have that flute I would sneak away to play when I was a fledgling?  I hoped I packed it in one of the bags I hadn’t opened yet.  I’d only brought a few things with me when I left.
Two thumps came from the right of me. I turned to them. A pause. My heart quickened.  The last time something stirred in the vog, I had cowered, disappointed Hinte.
So I bravely slinked after the thumps.
“Kinri!”
I spun back around, almost stumbling. On Hinte’s back, one of the apes moved! It struggled to its feet while Hinte tried to knock it off.  She spread her wings to block it.  But without me following, the ape leapt behind her. She lashed her tail. It wrapped around the ape’s hindleg. The thing tripped over.
It carried another ape corpse on its shoulder, one with its throat torn.  It flopped to the ground with it.  The ape stabbed down with its forefoot.  Hinte groaned, but held fast.  The ape twisted the knife stuck in Hinte’s tail, and dragged it.  Hinte screamed and released her hold.
The thing picked up the corpse, starting away. I was landing behind it. Slash at it. I caught the armor of the corpse.  Pull.  The ape was overpowering me, and I only snapped some links of the armor.
I crouched to leap at it, and then Hinte groaned. Stopping, I turned to her.
She growled, fangs dripping.  “What are you doing?”
“You are injured and⁠ ⁠—”
“And the ape is getting away.”
I stepped closer to her. “It can’t outfly us and it can’t hide from us. If we found them once, we can find them again.”
She flared her frills. “I do not need your help. Go. I will join you.”
“But⁠ ⁠—”
“Stone-frills, listen to me for once. Go.”
I ripped at my rope, the human falling to the lake skin. My bag was unstrapped and left there.
Bravely, I went, waving my tongue in the air, and smelling the sweat and blood of the fleeing ape.
* * *

1 thought on “Sifting IV: Melt”

  1. So humans exist in this world, and have enough of a civilization to craft metal armor, but keep enough distance from dragons to pass unnoticed by many or most of them? They don’t trade, for example, or come into conflict? Interesting. We’re also getting a glimpse of Kinri’s old home in the sky.

    The center of the story–the relationship between Hinte and Kinri–is still an enigma to me, one that I imagine will eventually be sorted out as we learn more about each. Kinri’s desperation for friendship and approval from this one particular dragon, even as she interacts in a normal and friendly way with others, makes me wonder. And Hinte … stern, unflappably competent, emotionally distant, blunt, insistent on self-reliance. Basically the opposite of Kinri. If you could iron out the wrinkles in their relationship, it’s not hard to see how they could help each other.

    Liked by 1 person

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