I’d learned hunting from my tutors, but some details were different on the surface. In the sky you could exhaust yourself and fall to your death, or drop your prey and lose it forever. But the basics hadn’t changed: every predator had its own unique skills, own way of hunting its prey. Without a lot of strength, or any deadly venom or really big claws, you had to rely on teamwork and better senses — your eyes, frills, and above all else, your tongue.
Hunting on the ground was so much safer, so much more secure, than what I grew up on; the surface had a ton of flightless prey, like so many easy pickings.
For example: the ape I now hunted. Not just injured and exhausted, it also lugged around a corpse, and there was no thought at all in tracking the fear and sweat. How could these creatures survive in the first place?
I flew low and slow, in a bounding flight, holding my breath for the ape to relax or stop moving — and for Hinte to finish bandaging her tail. It was only one wound — the first fight with the apes was worse. I couldn’t help the knot of worry in my stomach, but I could think. Hinte would be okay. She had to be.
The beating of my wings filled the air around me, and clear venom bedewed my fangs. There was a faint tinge to it, but I couldn’t taste what. I let the thought light and felt the beating of my wings. I was alone again. But that didn’t matter as much as the lightning flutter in my heart, flashing through my veins.
I flicked my tongue, waving it in the air before pressing it to my vomer. Moving my head to either side, I built a sense of direction, of scent gradients. A new smell had appeared: urine, off to the side of the ape’s old path.
Was it that scared? It should be. That flightless monkey had hurt my friend. I would hurt it.
The mixed scent of urine and blood didn’t move in the next few moments. Was it tired at last? Did it think I lost its trail?
I flapped my wings, harder, anger straightening my slow bounding flight. I could keep waiting for Hinte, or I could catch the human myself and show her. I was swooping down to the spot, growling.
On the ground, I only saw a wet puddle and scraps of torn, bloody cloth. I landed, flicking my tongue again. Near the puddle sat a circular human canteen, black and smelling of sharp, dead leather. And around it there were other splashed waet spots, like water pour out, that smelled slightly of sweat. I tilted my head before jerking it up. It had rinsed its scent, even if partially. I should have gone after it with the chance.
I smelled drops of blood on the ground here, leading off in a kind of trail. There were footprints too, vague things, and they seemed to stop suddenly with the urine puddle. I leapt up, flying low along where the blood pointed, waiting for the urine scent to fade, the distant blood and sweat to come clear again.
Soon came distant flapping, closing in on me. I kept flying, but slower. I started, “Is your tail —”
She caught up and cut me off in moments, her voice a sharp growl: “Tongueless! What are you doing over here?”
“Following the ape’s trail?” I said.
“The urine was a misdirection. The same trick it pulled to escape. And you fell for it again.”
She flipped away then, flying opposite me. I flew after her, catching up in a few beats. Flying was something I did better than her, at least. I slowed my pace to fly beside her, and smiled at her.
“Go,” she said. “This is not the time to talk. You can fly faster, then catch the ape. Do not show off.”
With a crinkling of my frills, I did as she said.
The smell found me again, coming from the distance, the other side of the spot where we left our bags. Hinte had been right. This human was tricky.
Without waiting for Hinte or for the human to tire, I winged low after them until I could see the human jogging over the dustone. It moved fast, even with its weight. Had it kept that pace the entire time? At least we can fly. It might have escaped us if we had to chase it on foot.
Fanning my frills, they caught a familiar skittering crunch. Below me, a dozen glasscrabs scurried in pursuit of the human! I needed to be quick. The human looked back as it ran. It held a glowing pink cryst in its mouth and there was a similar glow in its forefeet.
What was it up to? Would it try to use the crysts to make the glasscrabs attack me? The crabs were scurrying behind it. I could land in front of the human, trap it between the crabs and me.
Threshing my wings, I overtook the human. After twisting in the air and crashing in front of the ape, I glared, fangs out, wings spread. The ape flinched, and clutched its hold on the corpse slung over its shoulder.
I growled and stepped forward. “Got you,” I said. From my fangs, I spat a stream of weak venom at its face. It would only irritate, but it’d buy me a few seconds.
The ape brought its free leg to its eyes, and my venom splattered on its armored sleeve, dripping and soaking and useless.
Its other foreleg moved to its mouth, and there came a quick dissonant whistle. It repeated the notes, three times, and never lowered its foreleg.
And then, the ape spoke. “No.” Its voice sounded garbled. “Get you.” In its mouth, The hisses and growls of our language felt forced and alien.
The ape threw the pink cryst at my feet; then it reached into a pocket. A foot-sized clay orb was in its forefeet before flying at my face. The clay orb fell short, and cracked apart on the ground.
The contents exploded!
My world became blinding white light that mocked the suns and stars. My frills fell over my eyes — but when I moved them, only suffocating blind darkness was there.
Somewhere near me a wet rag smacked onto the ground, stinking of the musky scent the crab had marked me with earlier. After this came cracking footfalls sprinting away from me. The skittering crunches came upon me in heartbeats. I flapped my wings to scare them, to give me space to leap up and land a few strides away.
I was backpedaling from the crunches, and calling, “Hinte!”
The reply was as a crash on the dustone. “What now, stone-frills?”
“No, you are fine. I have seen that effect before, from ignited kakaros leaves. It overstimulates the eyes to impair vision. The effect vanishes in seconds.”
I looked around, breathing, breathing until the world started to clear.
“Oh, okay,” I said, my voice small. Some tartness came to my fangs, and a twist to my voice as I added, “This ape has too many tricks under its wings!”
Hinte tilted her head. “Apes do not have wings.”
“It’s a saying — my point is that the ape is crafty, okay? We might have to work together to catch it.” I looked to the writhing mass of crabs. They’d ripped the ape’s wet rag to shreds, and were climbing over each other to chance at the cryst.
“It only has time for all of these ploys because you fall for the most apterous tricks. Let me handle this.” Hinte turned around, crouching.
“Can we at least try my plan?” A tiny bit of pleading entered my tone.
Hinte didn’t take off.
“It’s simple, I’ll–I’ll distract the ape, and you can attack where it isn’t expecting.”
“How will you do that?”
“It spoke to me earlier — it sounded like a horrible monster, but it speaks and understands. We can use that.”
My frills were dancing beside my head. My plan is going to be awesome — Hinte will taste it. After waving my own tongue in the air, I leapt up again, and raced after the apes’ scent. As I flew after it, I heard whistles resounding across the lake. The notes sounded complex, cacophonous, unmusical. Then came another complex whistling, from far behind me. That couldn’t be good.
As I drew in on the ape, my frills folded and I prayed the endless stars my plan would work.
I yelled, “Hey ape!” It felt like a leap.
The reply was more whistling, the human not even glancing up — then, it spoke. “Betrayer,” was the distorted answer, its tongue garbling our sibilants. It sounded like it had a lisp.
“Can we just talk? I’m so tired of chasing you.”
“You betray.” Another whistle, a single note response.
“Hey, we’re only here for the crysts. The little glowy stone things. You have another. I know you do.” I prayed you did.
Its whistling held for longer, with another short response.
This time the human was leading no glasscrab attack force; I overtook and crashed down in front of it again. I could lunge, bite its neck, end it all
right now. What stopped me was the image of Hinte crashing to the ground after
fighting the apes — wings punctures, legs slashed at — and she was better then
me. She’d had more of a surprise.
right now. What stopped me was the image of Hinte crashing to the ground after
fighting the apes — wings punctures, legs slashed at — and she was better then
me. She’d had more of a surprise.
I prayed the endless stars my plan would work, because it had to expect a
direct fight on some level.
direct fight on some level.
The human was clutching the corpse on its shoulder tighter, and had managed a single step backward. Breathing in massive pants, its body swayed with exhaustion. It recovered like molten glass turning to brittle dustone, and at length slowly spoke, maybe tasting that I didn’t attack it, or move at all, really.
“I no want death dragon.” Its words came out sounding deliberated, yet it must have a weak grasp of y Draig, as told by its word choice.
“Me neither,” I said, not sure how to respond or even what it meant. The ape stared at me, eyeing every inch of my body for motion. It spoke again after breaths and breaths.
“My friend,” it said, patting the corpse. “Dearest friend. Comrade. I bury comrade. Is all. Please.”
I raised a foreleg, and the ape started back and lifted its other limb, toes splayed.
“Please. I want no death.”
“I want cryst. Glowy stone, please.”
The ape stared. But its face shifted, eye-cover things squeezing together. Maybe it tasted my meaning? It reached again into a pocket.
Now I tensed, wary of another blinding orb. But it produced the pink stone, holding it out.
It didn’t step closer, so I stepped forth. The foreleg holding its friend shifted. I reached for the cryst. That other foreleg stabbed at my neck.
“Death!” it yelled. Its friend was falling to the ground beside it.
I screamed out of the way. The blade was slicing the scales of my neck.
A bright-white figure swooped from the sky, growling. Hinte dropped onto the human, claws slashing its neck. Blood gushed. Hinte ripped at the human’s stomach.
Already exhausted, the human crumbled. To the ground it fell beside its comrade. Its forefoot felt along the ground, seeking and finding that of its dearest friend. The human coughed, chest wounds and vog catching up to it. In between its death coughs, the ape yelled its last words.
“You–you monster.” It gave one last sputter and moved no more.
“That took long enough,” Hinte said.
I stared at the human. I didn’t look at the slick knife, I didn’t feel my neck. I was looking at Hinte. I was saying, “Um. We–we’re not monsters, right? They had this coming?”
The wiver glanced at me, goggles sparing me her withering look. She spoke, sounding practiced. “Yes. The apes are trespassing on Gwymr/Frina’s land. They attacked us. We were escorting them to the faer, and they resisted.” She whisked a wing. “We need to return to town, now. While the faer is awake.”
“Can —” I sputtered, and stopped a moment to compose my words. “Can we just leave? Let the Frinan guard handle all of this. We aren’t cut out for any of this. We’ll get hurt. We’ll get killed! It’s not worth it, Hinte,” I pushed word and sentence from my mouth, and it felt like breaths against a bonfire. Her face was passive, though — she only watched me. “Please, Hinte. Let’s just leave.”
Hinte had inclined her head, almost thoughtful. She had the look of someone unlistening and determined, and already building her answer.
When the wiver snapped her gaze down, I followed — she was looking at the pink cryst by my feet, and said, “That is one of our crysts.”
I snapped my tongue. “I don’t —”
“Did you listen while you flew? The whistling was call and response, a code.”
“So? You left the apes alive.”
“I left one ape alive.”
Dustone cracked hard as I dropped to my belly and lay there. “Then the apes can raise the dead and I really don’t want to help you fight them.”
“Not even Ushra could raise the dead. Not even —” Hinte stopped. “Apes play tricks, Kinri. It pretended to die.”
My back was to the bright-white figure, now.
“My bags are back there. My crysts. Your crysts, that you worked so hard for.”
I picked up the pink cryst, shook my head. “I don’t care about crysts. I just got them so that you’d think I was actually worth something for once. That I was helpful.” I dropped the cryst.
“You would be helpful standing against the humans with me.” A wing snapped open, pointing at the human. “Look at what we have already done.”
“Look at what almost happened!” I finally touched the wet sting at my neck as I lifted to show the dark-green wiver. “That knife cut my neck! A little more pressure, and I would be dead!.” I finally looked down, because I knew my fangs smelled sour, but at least it didn’t have to look it. “What was that you were saying earlier?”
She said, “I cannot raise the dead.”
I didn’t have to say anything else.
Hinte inclined her head, and left.
I lay there and dewed for a bit.
I couldn’t stay. The heat, my thirst, the stinking vog, everything awful about this lake would get to me eventually. I don’t know why I lay there — but if I moved, where would I go?
I’d wanted things to be simple. When I came to the land of glass and secrets, it wasn’t for anything big — there were my brother’s plans, looming, but those were nothing but an excuse, a chimerical hope. I’d thought I wanted the simple life, somewhere small and cozy to live, maybe find a cute drake, maybe lay a few eggs.
All my life, I never really worried about death. It was something only the nadir had to worry about, something only my sister had to understand.
I — didn’t like it.
The sound of beating wings found me then, coming back around. I found the dark figure in the distant vog. Her flight looked faltering and lopsided. Why? Because her wing membrane is bandaged, because her wing was stabbed, because she fought the humans, because I had let her fly to the overhang alone, just like I was letting her fly to the last ape alone.
What difference would I make, anyway?
I’d bravely flown to the center of the lake for crysts — and got my lungs poisoned. I needed Hinte to save me from the glazed olms. I bravely slinked after a strange sound in the lake — and let the human escape. I needed Hinte to save me from that human.
I wanted Hinte to finally admit I was useful, and she didn’t because I wasn’t. She’d even warned me that being loud in the lake would wake rockwraiths. I was probably the reason the first human had been attacked at all.
This was all my fault. Maybe if I left the lake entirely, things would go right for once.
I stood up. This wasn’t giving up. I still had the crab blood, I could still brew the Munditi Sieve. I leapt in the air, and started winging back to where this mess started, where my bags still sat.
I flew my lonely flight through the vasty lake. The plates still rumbled beneath me, and the wind still seemed to laugh in my inner ear. In the distance, distorted by endless echoes, the last ape was whistling. It repeated the same sequence of notes, again and again. The spaces between them grew shorter and shorter, and the notes faster and frantic.
Then, it stopped.
Time wound longer, and I didn’t count ghost-swallows, after what happened last time I tried to drink while flying. At last, I came near where we’d left our bags.
All around circled a moat of molten glass, only a few strides wide. The glass revealed blasted the air above it, stirring it into a vortex of swirling dust. A wave of heat barreled into me like an angry varjotuoksu player with one last chance to win.
The swirling clouds here concealed whatever behind the moat with our bags — the clouds looked even darker than usual, an inky blackness.
At my pace, Hinte had to have already flown into the vortex, but I stayed, landing with only a small, light flex of the lake skin, and peering long into the swirling clouds.
You could hope it was just my bags and Hinte on the other side, but it was a windless hope. Who’d dug the moat?
My head twitched. I shook it a few times, the muscles of my neck seeming to have a mind of their own. Had the wuthering excitement of the day already caught up to me? Steady as I tried to be, the twitching in my neck grew worse, and burning.
I was pacing around the moat. The human had to know Hinte had another dragon with her. They’d expect me. But would they expect me to run? I just need to slip in the moat, grab my bags and get out of here. That’s all.
My looping around the moat continued. Could I enter on a side they wouldn’t expect? Maybe if I flew in, or crawled in, or covered myself in dust —
I needed to step in. My nerve was strongest now. If I flagged, maybe it’d never be done.
I took a breath, then leapt over the moat.
First thing you saw was my crab stabbed and discarded on the fringe.
I had its blood, but still felt some kind of loss. I fluttered my wings to soften my landing, but I still crashed onto the dustone island.
A twang sounded, followed by jagged voice shrieking. My gaze snapped up.
The dark-green wiver faltered low in the air. Her right wing half-folded and she rolled to the ground, landing rough.
“Hinte!” I called. My eyes traced the path of the projectile back to a alien figure hobbled on the ground steps from our bags.
The ape turned to me, whipping around a gray weapon. The bow!
I rolled. My wings curled on their own. The arrow flew over my body. I whipped my head around — but this new island had no cover at all, at all.
A biting spear of pain stabbed into my shoulder. I screamed. My legs scrambled under me. I managed a stand, and faltered in the very next second as I half-leapt, half-stepped away.
The straight bow tracked my movements with precise jerks. I leapt, threshing my wings, and flew up.
From up here, you could see the breaks in the skin, still glowing, where Hinte and I had played around, and steps from the hobbled figure you could see the bags I’d snuck in here to grab; but only in the that single moment of calm before you saw the human and its jerking its gray weapon up at you, its face contorted in some toothy expression.
I swerved and twisted in the air as three more arrows stabbed a course toward me. On the ground, trails of blood streaked all along the moat, and led to and from the spot where the human sat hobbled.
Another spear of pain bit into my wing! My next flap faltered, and the wing was spasming. I spun in the air. Breathless, I made a scream empty and choked.
At the very edge of the island, the lake skin crashed into me. Forelegs, hindlegs, wings, tail, head, all scrambling. It was all I could do to not fall into the lake.
My wings writhed, and pain flooded them to the tips of every finger. The arrow had hit the base of my wing, and not punctured the membrane. My breath drew back into me, and I clamped down on my scream.
Maybe the human would hope I was dead?
Another twang came and went with a splitting pop of the ground beside me, and answered was my question.
But a growl had come with it. Did… did Hinte ruin the ape’s aim at the last moment?
I struggled to my feet. Hinte stood by the human, and in her claws gripped the human foreleg. The human now crouched, gray bow dropped by its side.
The humans other forefoot swung at her, and she backed off just as quick.
Bronze gleamed between them, catching molten light.
The human had a shortsword and waved it at Hinte.
If Hinte pressed the attack, it would stab her. If I flew at it, it could stab or slash either of us. The human looked weak, holding itself in a crouch, supporting with its other leg. If I’d learned anything in the last few minutes, I couldn’t underestimate the ape. It thought it could give one good hit before we killed it, and I would too.
“Put your blade down, ape,” Hinte said between growls. “We will kill you. You cannot win this. Ground yourself, and we will let you live.”
The ape looked to me. When its gaze moved, Hinte stepped forward. The ape jabbed its blade forward. “Smite you dragon. Betrayer,” it said. “Either move I kill.”
Hinte flared her frills in anger. Her bloody wings spread, but she did not step forward again.
I looked to my bag. There had to be a way out of this that didn’t end with us more injured than we already were. “Hinte,” — her wings hitched without her gaze leaving the ape — “that raisin — gemstone we found, it wasn’t a cryst, but is it worth anything?”
“Ja.” Hinte hadn’t even paused. She leapt backward. I wondered why for all of a heartbeat. The ape said it would kill us if we moved, but it now couldn’t even reach either of us.
I leapt without more hesitation, and crashed down beside my bag. Now, both of us stood on either side of the ape. The ape, stepping after Hinte, flinched at my landing.
My forefoot slipped into my bag. Past the crab blood, I grabbed the raisin-looking gem. A third the size of my sole, it slid into my foot.
The ape half-turned, the shortsword still angled at Hinte. But then, it reached to its side, pulling out a long knife and pointed it at me.
What? Wasn’t I worthy of a whole sword? I was a fearsome dragon too! Just because I was smaller than Hinte didn’t mean anything.
I groaned. When I snatched away indignance, worry bubbled. Just how prepared were these humans? “Hinte, how did you even fight these things alone?”
Hinte paused a bit before answering, not looking at me. “They were sleeping.”
The human waved its blade.
Okay. Time for action. “Don’t kill us, please!” I said. The hairs above the human’s eyes shifted, moving closer to its eyes. “We’ll let you go, we don’t want to fight anymore. Look, we’ll even pay you.” I lifted my forefoot, showing the gemstone.
The human stared at me. I outstretched my forefoot, slowly. My toes fell away, freeing the human to pick it up. But it stayed where it was, keeping the two strides between us.
“Hinte, get back.” She looked at me, head tilted. “The human won’t take the payment if you’re right there, free to attack it. Get yourself back.” I injected a little bit of cold authority in my voice, just like mother had taught me. The same tone you’d use to order servants or hatchlings around. I hoped it didn’t sound too condescending.
Scowling, she stepped back, once, twice, thrice. The human stared at the dark-green dragon, nodded its sword toward the ground. Hinte crouched, and her wings folded back. The human stepped toward me, still keeping Hinte in its sight. I folded my frills back, hid my tail, anything to avoid looking threatening, avoid setting it off. When the human grabbed the gemstone, I grabbed its forefoot in return. My other foreleg came up to grab his sword leg, and I yelled, “Now!”
Hinte was already leaping, meeting the human on the other side in heartbeats. She dug her claws into the ape’s neck. Her venom smelled salty. She brought her claw up to rip at the other side of its throat.
Again, a human crumbled under her and died, eyes wide, feet searching for something to hold onto. It coughed and spat up blood, and I didn’t like how much like a grimace that look on its face was.
I breathed. It was over. “We won.” I didn’t mean to say that aloud.
“You had a good plan,” she said.
“Not really my idea, the first ape did it first. I guess it was… revenge.” I heard her hum. “Is revenge supposed to feel good?”
“Yes. We gave them what they deserved.”
I look at the human, eyes and mouth widened even in death. “But they’re dead.”
“Yes,” she said, drawing out the word. She waved her tongue.
“It doesn’t feel like we fledged a difference.”
“We didn’t make things better. We stopped them from making things worse.”
“Oh… that makes sense.” I looked up.
Her wings spread and her bandaged tail stood straight, and she asked, half-growling, “What took you so long?”
“Um,” I started. I was leaving you to fight the human alone. “I wasn’t flying right into an obvious trap?” Shift the focus, shift the blame.
Hinte jerked at that, looking to her wing. I followed her gaze. There, an arrow punctured her wing.
That pulled a gasp. “They got your wing again! When did that happened?” I reached at her wing. She didn’t move, and let me wriggle the arrow out.
“That rat shot me as I flew in,” she answered. Then added, “It dumped our crysts in the lake.”
“All the crysts in my bag.” As she spoke, her fangs had unfolded.
“I’m sorry.” I looked down, shuffling over to my bag.
“My plan earlier with the cryst — I told the ape we wanted its stone, so maybe it told this one in its whistling code.”
“The ape was spiteful. It just wanted to destroy something we valued. A hatchling could figure out that the crysts were of value.”
I glanced at her bag. The left side was empty of crysts, only having a folded black cloth, and in the right bag, her mixtures sat knocked over and strewn about. I stepped closer and leaned over. “Hey, where is that flat pink container from earlier?”
Hinte looked down, and cursed. “That ashwitted weasel. Look.”
I followed her pointing wing. The pink container sat open by the ape’s gray bow, almost a third of it scoped out.
“Was it trying to heal itself?”
“It heard me telling you to use it for my wounds.” She snapped her tongue. “No dragon medicine will help the apes, let alone die Wunder. We are of different superclass.” The wiver kicked the ape’s corpse. Her foot hit something, and she flicked her tongue. Digging into the folds of the ape’s corpse, she found another of the blinding orbs.
“Ooh, are you going to study the humans’ alchemy?”
She hummed yes, placing it in her bag before grabbing more rope from it, and slipping the whole bag around her side, straps tightening. Near the bag, one of my glasscrabs lay with a knife sticking out, turned almost inside out.
I asked, “What was it doing with my glasscrab?”
Hinte glanced over, flicking her tongue. “Extracting pheromones from its glands,” she said. “They provoke aggression and cooperative defense in other crabs. It would be needed for its trick with the crabs earlier.”
“So what — did this human extract these… pheromones and then pass it off to the other?”
“Yes, when you fell for its urine bait, it gave it a chance to double back and grab the rag from the other human, scented with the pheromones.”
“All the way back? Stars above. How did they pull this off in less than a long ring?” I reached down to pick up the crab, but Hinte snapped her tongue.
“Leave it for the carrion-eaters. You have two others. That one is nearly ruined.”
I hummed. Stepping back toward my bag, I found a bottle of my crab blood spilled out. Desperation or pointless vandalism? I still had two glasses.
I nosed into my bag, and squeaked a little. Sterk was still alive! Was it because he didn’t glow? The human must have missed him. Hinte had twisted her neck to look at me. I pulled the drab green stone from my bag and set him on my head.
“Look, Hinte! We still have Sterk.”
Hinte’s neck just twisted further.
“He was the first cryst I found when I set off on my own. He was pretty weird, though.”
“You were pretty weird. Talking to yourself, talking to rocks, talking to glasscrabs. Did you shed your sense last cycle?”
“Hey, I talk to apes too! It saved our flanks twice now.”
“Every single ape here died by my claws.”
“And I pointed out the apes on the overhang and distracted the others.”
“You also were too scared to track down the first human, or the last human.”
I thrust the green cryst at Hinte. “Well, is he worth anything?”
Hinte took it with her wing, looking it over with wrinkled frills. “It is underdeveloped. It should have been buried deep in the lake. How did you find this?”
“Um. I sort of… pushed the lake down until I could pull it out.”
Hinte hissed a laugh. “Only you would think of doing something like that.” She turned Sterk around a few times. “Do you want to keep it?”
“Not really? I only found him for you, so you can keep him.”
But Hinte walked over to the two human corpses, leaving me with the cryst.
Watching Hinte heave the humans onto her back, my alula felt my chin. “So. You said only one human was left alive?”
“Ja. And I said the last one feigned death. Its wound was fatal. That is why it went nowhere after I left it here.” She walked over the other bodies.
“Okay, then make sure the last human is dead. I don’t want any more tricks.”
“It is dead. Otherwise it would have done something to help the other.”
“Okay,” I said, reaching into her bag to get some bandages for my neck. She pushed my foreleg away and passed the bandages to me herself. I looked up “You didn’t feel them moving or anything?”
Hinte took a moment to respond. “I felt them shifting. I assumed my steps had jostled them.”
“Alright, I guess.” I tightened my bag straps. “How did it dig the moat?”
The wiver pointed at a long metal rod with a rubber handle and a mesh sieve at the other end. I slinked over, picked it up. The cured-rubber handle slid right into my foot, my halluxes finding their grooves, and my toes wrapping and settling around it.
I waved it around some, and pointed it at Hinte in a challenge, and swung it with a yarl. She peered at me. As the rod swung, it folded limp in the air. A sigh, andI spat disappointed salty venom at it. It was folded further and fell into my bag.
I snapped my tongue at Hinte, daring her to laugh. She did. I crinkled my frills.
“So. Do you think I can dig up crysts with this?”
She nodded slow. I smiled and my frills bounced. After it found my bag, I said “I don’t suppose we can forget about the other corpses?” I held the end of my snout with my wings.
As Hinte stepped over to me, she was shaking her had. Grabbing a green container, she said, “Here.” It wiggled as she opened it. It was scooped in her claws and wiped across my neck. The pain of the bleeding line dimmed, feeling cool and sandy.
Hinte bent her frills a bit when she noticed the arrow sticking out of my wings’ shoulder. When she pulled it out, I yelped and the wing spasmed again; but the green jelly soon grounded the pain.
“Thank you, Hinte.”
She didn’t smile, but her frills relaxed a touch.
After we returned to the other bodies, I’d grabbed last intact crabstone, and Hinte’d placed both of the humans on my back for me. For a few steps, I thought I’d at long won our argument about carrying equal weights.
As we set off again, my legs buckled under the weight and I slumped over. Hinte growled a complaint, and shuffled the bodies between us again.
I was following farther behind her than earlier. As we walked on, I dwelt on the more than two forefeet difference in length between us, the muscled thickness of her legs, and her wider frame. She even stood taller than me! When I sighed, the lake air had begun cracking the numb shell of the respira.
On we marched on all the same, and along the way, we passed the spot where the human had blinded me. The glasscrabs had all left, leaving only the stinking rag and the dim pink cryst. I felt the distant shudder of the other crabstone every few heartbeats, a far cry from what it had felt like before the crabs devoured it.
“Hinte, do you want to get that other cryst? It feels kind of pathetic — but it’s something, right?” I pointed my wing at the cryst. Hinte tossed her head in indifference. I slinked over at the dying cryst, then placed it in my bag. “Oh, and did you want the remains of that other blinding orb thing? It couldn’t hurt to have two to study, right?”
“Okay!” I squeaked. I scooped up clay shards of the orb before putting them in my bag. After I returned to Hinte, she started walking again. I settled into step beside her. Prodding her with a wing, I gave her a smile. “We make a nice team, don’t we?”
She tossed her head, but nodded after a beat. “You aren’t so tongueless when you stop to think.”
I beamed at her compliment.
With my tail, I reached into my left bag, feeling its contents. Only the crysts I gathered, and the gem. “I hate that the only time I come with you everything goes wrong and you ended up with almost no crysts.”
Hinte looked away, wings shifty as she considered my words. A few moments passed before she replied.
“I had a feeling something would go wrong, this time. It is why I allowed you come along.”
I waved my tongue.
“Huh? You knew something would go wrong? How?”
Hinte looked down at the lake skin. Glass gushed up under her feet, but she adjusted her steps. “No, I did not know,” she said. When she looked back to me, her teeth were visible, though her fangs had retracted. “It was… Call it superstition or intuition. Do not worry about it.”
“You… you could have at least told me. You never tell me anything.”
“You never listen. I told you it was dangerous. I told you that you would get hurt.”
“Being dangerous is different from having dangers. There is glass and cliffs and maybe I would get burned or fall or something. But you never said anything about olms, rockwraiths, humans or any of this!” My wing moved to my neck, feeling the bandages over the knife wound. “I could have died. So many times.”
“No, I was right there. I would not let you die.”
I looked up, wings drawing together. There had to be something to say to that. But it never found its way to my lips. The talk frayed apart.
The surface of the lake grew rugged and hilly again. At first it looked like we might have come back to where I met the first sifter, but no blades of dustone stabbed up, and the bands of dustone never grew more pronounced. The winds whipped up again, tossing dust at us and soughing through unseen crevices.
Hinte’s frills expanded, adjusting forward and back. “Do you feel that, Kinri?”
I flared my frills before my eyes cleared and a drop of curdled fear came to my fangs. “More whistling. Hinte! I thought you killed all the humans?”
“I did. This human could not have been above the overhang.”
I looked around, waiting for another monster to jump out of the vog. When I spoke, I hid my fangs and turned away, so Hinte couldn’t smell my fear. “Well, what are we supposed to do now? We can’t fight them like this, with this much weight.”
Hinte punched the ground. “And we cannot leave the bodies when the human might steal one again.”
I looked around. “So we run?”
A high, throaty laugh came from behind, followed by, “Oh! What we running from?”
I yelled, leaping across to land behind Hinte. I crouched on the ground, my head swerving around to find the human.
“It is a dragon, Kinri.”
“Oh,” I said, standing up without looking at Hinte. I looked around until I caught sight of a yellow-brown dragon in ragged-white sifting suit. “Hey, it’s you again.”
“Again?” Hinte turned, waving her tongue at me.
“Um.” I broke eye and lowered my head as I said to the sifter, “Can I tell her? She’s trustworthy.”
The sifter waved a wing. “Go ahead. She’s obviously on the same road as us.” They still spoke with that odd, artificially saccharine voice. I didn’t know what to make of it.
I gave Hinte my best cloudy-eyed, flatten-frill look. “So um, when I was watching the body, this sifter —”
“Mawla. Miss Mawla.” Her frills folded up, clinking slightly.
“Okay. Mawla came up and we talked for a bit but she told me not to tell anyone.” I did a double take at the yellow-brown dragon. “Wait, you’re a wiver?”
She rolled her head. “Obviously. Do you need to see my vent?”
“Eww, no. Keep it covered, please?”
“Your call. Why is it so surprising?”
“Mawla sounds like a drake’s name,” Hinte murmured.
“What?” Her frills snapped out with a harsh clack.
“Nothing,” was said.
Mawla rolled her neck and looked back to me.
“Its just… your partner. They made it seem you were… you know.”
Mawla’s dark eyes clouded. A wing rose to her face, and she said, “Obviously,” before muttering, “Dwylla’s rotting crotch. You make one sexy joke and they never forget.”
“But why would they, uh, imply…” I twirled my alulae.
“Oh well, you see, I had one of those sifting rods and some salve. So when Lilian had ripped her suit —”
“Nevermind, I don’t want to know.” My tail constricted my leg. I licked my fangs.
“What? Have you never had your cloaca —”
“Gah!” I turned to Hinte. “Save me,” I whispered.
Hinte frowned, but turned to the yellow-brown dragon. “Why are you alone in the lake?” she asked.
“I can handle myself just fine.” Mawla’s frills were contracting.
“But you had a friend, didn’t you? I’d think you two would have reunited by now.”
“Ah yeah. I did, after talking to Kinri like he asked. But the ashwit wouldn’t stop nagging my head off about slinking off on my own earlier. Got tired of hearing it.”
“Oh. That drags.”
“It’s been a while coming. He’s absolutely insufferable, and I obviously couldn’t take any more.”
It sounded familiar. If Hinte had pressed with how sifting on my own was such a bad idea, would I have gotten tired of hearing it, too? Would I have slinked back to Gwymr/Frina alone and friendless?
“You should have stayed together. There are wraiths and apes out in the lake tonight.”
“You can fuck right off with that.” The yellow-brown wiver whisked a wing. “There aren’t wraiths out this season, and you two took care of all the apes.”
Hinte tossed her head. “It’s tongueless.”
“Like I said, fuck right off. I didn’t slough one cat-tongued lout for another.”
Hinte already had her fangs out, and she stepped toward the sifter.
Distract her, unbalance her. I didn’t want a fight. “Hey Hinte,” — she stopped, half-turned — “Don’t you sift alone too when I’m not here?”
“That is different. The lake is less dangerous by day.”
“Then why are we here now?”
“Because of the humans.”
She growled at me.
My cold, airy voice started, “Hinte —”
Walking home alone, friendless.
“— I’m sorry,” my normal, whining voice finished. “You’ve been doing this for longer than I have, you must know what you’re doing.”
Hinte’s frills fanned, and she turned away from me. She turned away from Mawla too, stalking away from the both of us.
Alone, Mawla looked at me, smiling with clear eyes. “I saw that. You were about to bite into her.”
“I don’t bite.”
“I mean with your voice.” She wagged her alulae. “Bare your spirit. Rip into her. You know.”
“I didn’t want to push her away.” I looked over to Hinte walking away.
“You — hey, what’s your name?”
“The sky-dweller? Huh. Small town. Well, Kinri, I don’t see why you don’t call your bets and let her on her way. She’s a fire waiting to burn something.”
“She’s not all bad. We’ve just had a mess of a day.”
“Like a storm. Yeah, I smell you.” The sifter flicked her tongue. “Still, her act reeks. You’re too nice for her.”
“I don’t think so.” I looked up, then over to Hinte. I started after her, but glanced at the sifter. “You want to come with us?”
“Dwylla no. If it were just you, I’d leap at the chance. But I’ve had enough of her for today. Catch you on the wind.”
“Bye!” I said.
And ragged-white figure was gone.
When I caught up to Hinte, she had taken out her compass, righting her path. I spoke before she did, “I’m sorry again. It’s kind of ashy for me fault you for not telling me things when I did the same to you.”
I meant the apology; but a part of me couldn’t help but note just how well this move flew. She either had to forgive me for hiding things, or admit she shouldn’t have hid things from me.
“You kept a promise.”
“Um, I did,” I said.
Hinte had looked away, staring off into the lake’s shroud. Hinte’s lantern had created something of a wall between us and the darkness. In it, it felt like we walked a little closer together.
My ghost canteen dwindled, and after a while I turned to Hinte. She glanced at me once, twice, each a few moments apart. The third time, she spoke, “Kinri.”
I turned to her, head tilted.
“You have not bothered me about why I collect these crysts again.”
“I sort of decided you must have a good reason for being so secretive.”
She paused. “I remember. But we agreed I would tell you if you found five crysts. It was a promise.”
“But I only found three.”
She lifted her head. “No. You found one after you tripped. Three after you decided you were good enough to sift on your own. And one just before we ate my lunch.”
We weren’t only counting the stones I found on my own? “I guess,” I said. “Wait, what about that other crysts I found, after we reunited and before the last one?”
“I found that one, not you.”
“Uh, no. That was definitely me.”
Hinte jerked her head toward me, fangs out.
I squeaked. “Okay, okay, you really totally for-sure found that stone. Can you tell me your secrets now?” I couldn’t help the eagerness in my tone. Would my last question alight for good?
We walked in silence for a few beats before Hinte spoke again in a distant tone. “They are curiosities. They hum like instruments. So musicians will incorporate them in their acts. They glow like lamps. So the wealthy will use them as decorations.”
I hummed an acknowledgment, and she continued.
“But few will seek them out, as they serve neither purpose well. Crushed kakaros leaves are brighter, and milkmoth extract is a more reliable light. Even the hum is fickle, and crysts with pleasant vibrations are rare. And then, their glow and hum fades over time, dying in two or three moons.”
I tilted my head. “Then why bother?” She waited a long moment before responding.
“Certain collectors will buy them, after a property that is — not well known,” she said. Then, in a low whisper, “The idea is that crysts are magical. Anti-magical. Warping energies, disrupting or distorting enchantments.” She waved her wing around.
Staring at her, I said, “What does that mean?”
The dark-green wiver snapped her tongue, and she slipped a wing back to her bag while slowing to a stop. She paused for a moment. “You still have my knife,” she said. “Can you bring it out?” She reached deeper into her bag.
Her knife was held in my alula, and she took it. From her bag, she’d gotten a metallic sphere, and it was pressed against the base of the knife. It came into place with a snap, and it was twisted. Shimmering green crawled up the black knife, emanating from the once-white streaks on the blade.
“This is a magical knife. Its cuts will desiccate and atrophy any organic matter it penetrates. Pay attention.” The dark-green wiver took the limb from one of the apes on her back and sliced deep into it. Blood didn’t rush forth, and the skin around it fell blackened and cracked. The ever-present, ash-stirring wind acted moments later, blowing dust from the limb. In moments, it looked as if she’d carved away flesh some dances ago, instead of a making simple cut breaths before. The only break in the atrophied blackness of the flesh was the white of bone.
“Now, watch this.”
The dark-green wiver held the knife tight in her wings while she fell to her haunches. She pulled out a rod with a glowing tip that looked a cryst someone had bothered to cut and polish. It glowed, but didn’t hum. The wiver held it and did something — maybe a finger shifted, I couldn’t be sure — and then it hummed.
Where the other crysts hummed low and discordant, this — whatever it was — sounded loud and… less discordant? The tones were focused and clearer in a way the others weren’t, without sounding pleasant at all.
The knife reacted an instant later. The glow flickered, and wavered between green and an off blue, and dimmed until, for a moment, it was half-invisible. It was still dimming, slower, and when the green was all gone, Hinte swiped the blade against the ape’s opposite limb. Thick, clotted blood oozed out, but that was it
“That is what it means, Kinri-gyfar.” Hinte pulled the little sphere from the knife, and held it out to me.
“You’re giving it back?”
“For now, you need it more than I do.”
“But I don’t get the little death sphere to go with it?”
“You’d cripple or kill yourself.”
Huffing, I glanced away. Did I want to risk it? That knife could destroy me if I slipped up once.
“Fine,” I said, kicking a pebble. When I looked up, Hinte had started walking again, and was glancing back at me.
I started after her. Scratching my cheek, I said, “So, that’s anti-magic.” I looked up, licking my brilles. “Is that why that other stone in your compass was all wonky?”
“I don’t remember the color. It was the only one that didn’t have anything to do with the poles, or any celestial sphere.”
“The red one,” she said.
“What does it do? Is it some kind of cryst-detector?”
“No,” Hinte said, slapping a frill over a goggle lens. She continued in her lecturing, reciting tone. “It tracks the flow of the earth. It predicts earthquakes and eruptions.”
“You need your compass to do that?”
“No, but it is useful for navigating underground, especially in iron-smited caves. There are many in the cliffs.”
We walked awhile. A sound came in the distance, lost in the rattling and cracks. It might have been flapping or the wind.
So I knew at last why Hinte sifted crysts. And it fledged sense that she wouldn’t tell me. Magic was poisonous and maddening. Whatever freaky reputation alchemists had, mages could be so much worse. I still don’t get why this was worth hiding from me. I was a sky-dweller, a House sky-dweller at that. We didn’t shun magic the same way Gwymr/Frina did.
Looking up, I rubbed my headband. As I did, my mind slinked back over Hinte’s words, picking through implication. Other mages lived in Gwymr/Frina? Collectors, plural?
I poked Hinte. “You were saying something about collectors and magic?”
She lowered her head. “I collect the stones for them. But they are not common. You know the story.” I looked up to the black-dust sky, one phrase on my mind: The Inquiry. Hinte spoke first. “A jewel cutter, Glyster, is our — my only client until the white season passes.”
“But then —” I started, but the words alighted in my mouth as a slender black form flew from the vog toward Hinte.
And like that, we were hunted.
* * *