“Hinte!” I yelled out.
On the other side of the dark-green wiver a slender, black thing shot out from the vog. Like an arrow it plunged into Hinte’s side. I didn’t see the bite — but Hinte growled deep in pain. I was yelling out in fear, in useless warning. My wings twitched but the sight had vitrified me.
Another shadow flew at her neck. The wiver twisted — the creature flew close, belly running along her neck, a near-miss. There was a hissing growl.
Sudden knife-claws raked down my back. They tore into my sifting suit, and left small cuts. The shadow above me yarled, vicious. I felt the impact of more claws — but no pain. Blood flowed down my neck. Not mine.
The human! It’d saved me. Teeth sunk into my side — a fourth shadow. It ripped through the white suit and slashed my scales. I buckled. Head smashed into the ground.
Hinte’s fight came as a mess of yelps and growls, almost in turn. The wiver’s cries tended more frequent and pained. Did she need my help? What could I do?
I flailed my wings at the toothy thing beside me. It growled and backed off. I fled. Above me, one still ripped or slashed at the human. I clawed at the ropes. They split!
I leapt high, the bloody corpse falling to the ground. Dare to look back — the trick worked. The third continued to rip into the corpse.
Below Hinte was fighting her pair of shadows. One gnawed on her right hindleg — ouch. The other circled around to lunge at her neck again. But that was all I glimpsed.
In the air, the fourth shadow still chased me! I smacked it with my tail. It bit my tail! I curled in the air, growling. I grabbed onto the shadow and we crashed into the lake surface. The lake skin fractured and split open fiery gashes.
With a free forefoot, I reached for the mouth of the creature. Force it closed. I reached —
The shadow bit me! Its teeth cracked the glass and pierced the scutes. I grabbed its lower jaw.
Distantly, Hinte screamed.
Holding it in two feet, I swung the shadow. Land in the lake, please! But as I let go, the third thing came. It lunged at a foreleg. Old glass bore the brunt.
It clawed again and I saw it draw blood. I kept swinging — but the other creature ruined my aim! I could only slam the shadow on the lake skin, shattering dustone. I pushed harder, to submerge it. The other shadow was lunging again! At my neck!
I wouldn’t. I dodged away, and it only clawed my face — but it clawed again and again. Blood dripping down my face, I couldn’t submerge the shadow. I gave up.
I wasn’t a fighter. The lake had worn me away. Even with the frenetic, fatal energy in my blood — I could give up. It was what I did. The thought tang out in my head, but its echo was something — different:
Rockwraiths will fly away after you stop moving. Hinte’s voice, the distant wiver who hadn’t seen me stand up to humans.
I feigned death, and fell limp. The two wraiths — what else could they be? — they continued to claw or bite at me. I screamed, but I let the sound falter and die. They stopped, and — brilles clouded — I could feel them staring at me, waiting.
Breathe, low, breathe calm. I had to think! They had caught Hinte by surprise, injured her even more. She was over there, alone. I had to help her.
But how? I needed to make them stop attacking her. Distract them? Lure them away?
A vague memory came to me, another echo that wasn’t my voice.
It awakens sleeping things, sleeping out the gray season.
The gray season. When volcanic activity waxed with the coming perigee of Laswaith, the great moon of violence. When the animals in lake estivated to weather the heat and ash. But if these wraiths were still active, well, they had to eat something. The glasscrabs ate the crysts. And what else could the wraiths eat but glasscrabs?
Breaking my feigned death, I did a quick dart to my bag, where glasscrabs poked out. The wraith lunged in the corner of my eye. I rushed a crab out. Then threw it out in front of me. It paused, and peered at the crab, tongues flicking. I leapt up, running in the opposite direction. The two wraiths disappeared in the distant darkness behind me.
When no razor fangs came crushing down on my legs, I breathed. I did it!
Away from the wraiths I was again limping on injured legs. My left forefoot had teeth marks down its middle. My right foreleg had three bleeding breaks in the glass. Adding to the pain, my face dripped blood from numerous swipes, both deep and shallow, and the horrible bite on my belly. Despite all of this, the pain felt distant, muted.
Free from the fight, I could flee. Fly up into the sky and glide back to Gwymr/Frina. Hinte needed my help, but would I even make a difference? Maybe it was better if at least one of us lived. She could understand that, right?
That same echo:
I would not let you die.
No, she would try to save me. I needed to stop cowering. She had saved me twice — I could show my thanks. And, well, I’d been some help against the humans, hadn’t I? If I could just think…
I had a plan, I just needed to find Hinte. She’d been fleeing last you saw, and I’d… gone in the opposite direction. Aching legs slipped me into a high walk. I slinked over the gnarled ground as fast as I dared. The new speed ripped pain in my forelegs, but it didn’t matter.
The fight made ripples over the lake skin. The fractured and bulging ground turned to another obstacle standing against me. In the nighttime vog I was half-blind; but I could do better than just hope Hinte was in this direction; the burning cracks ripped open left me half-sighted.
The stark bright of the molten glass seemed to darken vog even more. I could see almost nothing but what had been limned by the wake of the fight.
Moments of stealth passed like this, and I was tripping over my claws with spicy anticipation on my fangs.
At last I came back around to Hinte and her attackers.
First thing you saw: the fading white glowy stuff spilled all over the ground. What you smelt? Blood in the air. Tart and spicy venom. And rank, stinky wraiths.
Dogged by rockwraiths, Hinte fell into a crouch, and stumbled into a leap — a lopsided leap that was brought low in breaths by the wraiths. She tried, again and again.
With an injured hindleg and wing, the bright-white figure couldn’t fly away. You were built to fly, take that away and how much was left?
“Hinte!” I shouted. “I have a plan — play dead!”
Already falling and crashing on the surface, she didn’t get up — I just prayed the endless stars it was on purpose.
My last glasscrab was in my feet, held tight, and I pulled back and aimed. Between the bright-white figure and me it landed aright. One wraith glanced at it. And it went back to biting Hinte!
A growl left my lips. I had one last gambit. It might throw away all I’d worked for — but if I succeeded, it had to be worth it.
A glass came from my bag, a glass of glasscrab blood. I unlidded and threw it over the crab corpse. As it fell, the contents spilled out below it. It landed with a crack.
Both wraiths looked, this time. Hinte stayed still.
A wraith jerked its head back at Hinte. No!
My last glass was in my feet before I could think, before it was flying low over the lake skin before it smacked into a crag with a big pop that was only loud because it was so quiet all around and —
A rockwraith moved. It ambled twitchingly over toward the crab and the spilled blood.
I still held my breath, but something eased when I saw the other, larger rockwraith lunge after the first with a gait that was like a very efficient limp.
At the creature, I peered. Like the cloudwraiths above, these things scented the air with two tongues. Long, curling forelegs doubled as three-clawed wings, wyvern-like. Hindlegs looked almost draconic, monstrous limbs for leaping into the air. And midwings sat between those two pairs, much wider than the snakelike body was long.
When first wraith reached the crab, a small bite was taken. This smaller wraith then hopped onto it, and grasped the corpse in its hindfeet. The leader leapt winging away, and the smaller followed, lugging the crab.
The rockwraiths winged over to where I’d left larger crab. There, my once-attackers were still taking ravenous bites out of the first crab. The leader landed and in turn nipped both of the hungry wraiths. Cowed, they fell in line as the leader clutched the big crab and led them winging off.
In formation, they all flew away, victorious.
I had lost my crabs. I had lost the crab blood. My face and legs were red and wet. But, just maybe, there was a victory of my own: I had survived. And Hinte? The stars had to have spared her. They had to.
My wings took me toward the spilled white glow on the ground, the glair-like stuff pooling out around her lantern like a cracked egg. The dark-green wiver lay on the ground, in the same spot where I’d told her to play dead.
With the wraiths gone, the frenetic energy in my limbs faded. My wounds roused awake, and I faltered in the sky. When I crashed, I fell to my side and stayed there for a bit.
“…Kinri?” came a certain jagged voice. A head rose, and the lines of that dark-green face came to life. The amber goggles still hid her eyes, but I imagined behind them, eyes opened and searched around.
“It’s over? Your plan worked.” Hinte had shifted from her slumped position. She now crouched on her hindlegs, forelegs and wings supporting her weight. Others might look frail in that position. She only looked defiant.
“It did.” I looked away. “But it–it feels like a defeat.”
“It is not defeat until you can no longer play,” Hinte said, sounding like an echo. When my head didn’t rise with her words, she added, sounding more urging, “Kinri. Those are the same wraiths that killed the human. I smelled the blood on it. We lived.”
“But — you killed that human.” I glanced tilting back to her.
“It was a mercy killing. After the wraiths attacked, it could only die. I decided when.”
“I–I guess.” I sighed in relief. Hinte had survived with me. Not even a defeat like this could keep her down! My legs relaxed with the calming breath, and I buckled before I caught myself.
With that fight feeling so far behind me, injuries from earlier screamed. The pain fired up through my legs and side, winging from my mouth as a pained groan. Hinte stared at me, hidden gaze meeting mine, lines of her face softening further.
I looked away, again. “How bad are your injuries?” I asked.
“…They got my wings and hindlegs. Again. I will not fly for a half-cycle, at least.”
“That’s harsh. Do we — do you have enough medicine for that?”
“No. Not for both of us — I saw the wraith bite your side. And your face is more red than blue.” My frill wrinkled. “I shall bandage it up. Did they get your legs?” I nodded. “Feh. We can start with that, then.” She shifted, digging into her bag.
“No — I think you got the worst of it. Could we start with your legs?” I said, and rubbed my gashed foreleg with my other foot.
Hinte stared, for a breath. “Do it, then.” She turned around so that both of her forelegs faced me, then nudged three containers toward me. They looked vague forms in the darkness. Crouching down, I examined and unlidded two containers — one, the clear ointment from earlier in a small, ball-like vial; the other, a translucent green substance in flat container. When I picked in up, its contents wiggled.
“What do all these mixtures do?” I asked. I had to learn more about alchemy if I was to impress Hinte without the Sieve. No shame in just asking, right?
“It varies.” Hinte’s voice was clear and steady, as if this were any other talk at any other time. When the lid came off the clear green mixture, and she tapped my claw with a wing. “No, save that for the small cuts. The pink one.”
I did, but not before wiggling it again. “This looks like jelly~”
Hinte clicked, and I smiled. Like that, I started applying it to her legs. She winced. As if to distract herself, Hinte’s earlier tone returned and she continued, “That green mixture there is die kleine Heylpflanze, a simple mixture of nutrients and healthful plants.” She shifted her weight a bit, and relaxed the leg I worked on.
“The ingredients are cheap, or as near as alchemicals are to cheap; and it is straightforward to ferment and cool. Even if some tongueless alchemist managed to botch it up —” a grunt was swallowed as I switched to the other hindleg “— you would more than likely get something inadequate or useless than lethal.”
I’d taken too little of the pink solution, so I stopped to get more. Hinte grumbled, and said, “Do not use too much — die Wundervernarbung is powerful enough. And you must save some for yourself.” I only hummed. Would we need to ration it if that starless human hadn’t wasted a third of it?
“Regardless, that is die Heylpflanze. A pigeon of mixtures. Hatchlings brew it in our academies in their first gyras.”
I finished with her hindlegs. As if sensing this, the wiver put her leg down, and spread her wings. I stared at them, scowling at how the leathery membrane was littered with clawings and bitings all over.
Despite myself I was reminded of how small grew surface-dweller wings. Hinte’s wings were maybe three, maybe four times as long as her legs, while mine were near five times as long as my legs.
Focus, Kinri. This could take a while.
Hinte was saying, “Use die Heylpflanze for my wings.”
So I scooped out clawfuls of the stuff and lathered it onto her wings. “It sounds like the pink stuff is the more interesting of the two.”
“The pink mixture is die Wundervernarbung.” Why did her voice sound so songly? Her uttering that polysyllabic monster sounded almost an excited lilt, if that could ever describe Hinte’s voice.
The dark-green wiver just remained silent after that, and I caught the definite note in her tone. As if that name spoke for itself.
“What is the pink Wunder thingy?”
“Die Wundervernarbung. It means —”
“I know what it means. Wonderful scarring or something like that — I speak Drachenzunge, Hinte. You just can’t expect me to pronounce all of those big fat words you all have.” I had finished with the one wing, so I moved around to the other. “Tell me about the pink stuff, please.”
“Die Wundervernarbung” — (it was definitely a lilt) — “was a miracle, plain and simple.”
“Well, to understand, you need to know of die Verdorrenderpolypen.”
She paused there; I growled at her.
Rolling her head, she continued, “They are also, more briefly, called die Polypen or das Verdorrend — a parasitic, virulent plant disease, inventive, with relentless mutations and variations. Die Polypen are the tumors. Das Verdorrend — ‘the withering’ in y Draig — is the rot that creeps over the plants.”
A rockwraith had torn through her wing, leaving a puncture big enough to stick my toe through. I put some Heylpflanze around the edges. The stuff must have hurt less, because Hinte had stopped interrupting herself with gasps or yelps.
The wiver was continuing, “Eating an infected plant will not still you, but will sicken your stomach, and open you up to worse diseases. Das Verdorrend does not destroy the plants — or it would not be so dangerous — in the end, it renders them inedible and cancerous.”
“Yes,” she said. Then her tone became at once less and more abstract: concrete, but like something which had long since stopped being concrete. “One day, a researcher, Faulchra, wasting away in some tiny farming village in the depths of the cold southern forests, had discovered a new formula. He never published, and it was near lost. But when he died some two hundred gyras ago, the notes and recipes were passed to his niece. That niece was a warrior instead of a scholar, so she gave the inheritance to a university.”
I found another puncture, in a fold, and I let out a low whining sound.
She said, “What?”
“Just — your wings look awful. You can’t even fly!”
Hinte’s claws dug into the ground. She said, “I will heal. Just finish applying the pflanze.”
“Okay.” I should have gotten to Hinte faster. All of my deliberation, having to convince myself not to just run away. And Hinte suffered for it. It wasn’t fair!
The wiver flicked her tongue, frills working as she found her place again. She said, “It took dances, but a Dozentin’s students investigated the notes, and within them discovered the Wunder mixture. Faulchra had devised a novel treatment for the polyps. His method was complex, grossly complex, but the idea was said to be brilliant.”
The lathering was finished, so I grabbed the bandages from her bags, and some sticky paper to keep them in place.
Hinte had paused, as if to remember or decide some detail. “I never cared for farming — but my grandfather had studied it extensively. He tells me the idea is to turn das Verdorrend against itself. It does not work — the mixture Faulchra discovered was as ineffective as it was convoluted. But the students had worked on it, simplified it.
“Because die Verdorrenderpolypen is a blight on crops, the research was carried out on a farm suffering from it. The farmer was lucky. But after cycles on the farm, moiling on the technique, with no results, the Dozentin, the students, the farmer, had all grown weary. The farmer did not understand the complexity and hard work that goes into alchemical research, and the students didn’t understand how long one must go with seemingly no results.
“When one student had lost their motivation and taken a rest from the work, the farmer grew finally irritated.”
It had taken Hinte that long to realize she could sit down and rest on her haunches. I blew my tongue at her, and she didn’t react.
She said, after another pause, “That irritation came to a bud when one of the animals ate one of their blighted test crops and grew very sick. The farm took the animal to the resting student and demanded it be healed.” Hinte was chopping her forelegs in the air in quick imitation, and then she dismissively tossed her head.
“The animal couldn’t be saved, and it would have been a waste regardless. But the student was stimulated by the interaction between the alchemically modified blight and the animal’s body. When they returned from the farm, the student refined the idea of mending flesh with polyps. Dozens of gyras later, he turned it into something usable, into die Wundervernarbung.
“That student was my grandfather. The new method had utilized the inventive mutations of the polyps to — I digress.”
I blew my tongue at Hinte again. I came that close to getting forest-dweller alchemy secrets for free!
The fledgling alchemist rolled her head. “The rest is history. Newly fledged, but historic. Die Wundervernarbung is — was the pride of clan Gären, and of the forests. We had been tweaking and refining it in the gyras since. My grandfather was at the forefront of the research until…” Hinte went silent, but it wasn’t her messing around again. I didn’t push.
“It is hard not to love it. It is — it is an amalgam of everything that is good about alchemy. Progress, simplification, making the world better.”
I had finished applying salve to her wing earlier, so I sat, listening to her finish her story. There was a heavy silence following her declaration. When I spoke, It felt like sullying a beautiful ideal with dull reality.
“I uh… finished with your wings.”
Hinte lowered her head. “Wrap my legs and I can start on your side.”
We did just that. I had no wonderful tales to regale Hinte with as she handled my injuries — so we worked in silence. But it was a good silence.
I thought I looked cool. With my face bandaged up, I was like some fierce war-mistress of the sky! It almost put a skip in my step, but my legs still ached. Hinte had wrapped my sides and face, but there hadn’t been enough bandages to cover my legs, so she lathered them with more Heylpflanze, then used a makeshift bandage from tattered strips of my sifting suit.
When I’d asked why not use the rest of the miracle mixture, she’d said, “Wundervernarbung should never be applied to any wound that will not be immediately dressed with sterile cloth. Any danger of contamination or infection is unacceptable.”
I hoped it hadn’t sounded like I questioned her judgment. I was just curious.
Before we’d set off, we needed to clean the blood from the damaged corpses. Without beating hearts, they didn’t bleed much — but it had been enough to bother Hinte. So we cleaned and half-wrapped the wounds of the corpses. Just enough not to drip onto us.
Hinte’d grabbed her glowing lantern, and dusted the liquid with something powdery that left the glow blazing and yellow-tinged, so even with two thirds spilled away, the visibility didn’t suffer.
Like that, we trudged on. As we must — we had a mission! And we nearly died carrying these bodies back to town, there was no way under the stars I would give up now.
Hinte still hadn’t told me how she had fought all of these apes at once. Even two had given us so much trouble. She said they were sleeping or something, right? But that couldn’t be the whole story if she had all of those injuries — which she did.
But I released my breath, and let my thoughts fray apart. Hinte didn’t like me bugging her, or repeating herself. I’d respect that. Maybe she’d stop calling me ‘stone-frills’ if I did.
By this point I had emptied my ghost canteen and refilled it with ghost water.
Would ghost water be that easy to find? Maybe I could just fill it with the vengeful spirit of all the water that must have died to make this lake so dry.
By now the vog was giving way to the blackened cliff walls orbiting the lakes. It was hard to distinguish these from the spot where we had lunch or the path to the plateau, but Hinte seemed to. She turned left here, gazing at the cliff wall, maybe reading patterns on it.
We traveled along the base of the cliff for a while, and eventually came up on the massive opening to the cave system, the usual way in and out of the Berwem.
We hadn’t entered here — so whyever leave this way? I glanced almost smirking at Hinte, and saw that her tail was lifted, and both her frills and wings stood on edge, flared. She looked irritated, either from the pain, exertion, or my antics. I liked teasing her, but I wouldn’t want to actually upset her. So I didn’t ask.
Signs of civilization greeted us as the crags of the lake shore gave way to a worn (though not paved) road. Along the edges of the road were black bamboo posts driven into the ground. Some were the occasional signpost, and the rest were lampposts, bright crimson, lighting the darkness of the cave. They stood a few heads taller than me, hanging off their rods, glowing sharply, with a diamond shape. The sight put me at ease. I hummed bright and tunefully.
It was still a long walk from here to Gwymr/Frina, but I could imagine myself taking it from here. This cave road branched more than too many times, but only a few of those branches were equal. Mostly the main road would slough off gravelly claw-dug passages; and it was clear which lead into town. Only four of the forks we passed even offered a paved alternative.
Long into our walk, the cave ceiling above us broke in places, letting fresh air and light in. Or it would have — because the breaks confirmed night had fallen in full. Only waxing Ceiwad and the endless stars shone above us. Violiet Laswaith flew dead and darkened in this part of the dance, to hatch again in the coming cycles. And with it, the white season.
It confirmed what I had known earlier. Hinte had said both moons were out tonight, but they weren’t.
I fell behind Hinte a little as I stared at the filaments. The red and yellow of the galaxy stretched across the sky, and I took more than a measure of solace in it. No matter where I drifted or wandered, this starry sky would always be there for me. Would always be mine.
My gaze didn’t fall from the sky as I caught up to Hinte, though it shifted as the cave ceiling above us. As I watched, the ceiling split and became the cliffs this country was known for, a welcome sign of our progress toward town.
On the cliff walls catwalks stretched along and across, but mostly along. They sat on two levels, the lower being two or three wing-beats above the ground, the higher almost ten or twenty. Dotted in-between the catwalks, the amber lamps lined the cliff faces, sparsely, all the way up to the very top and stretched into the distance. Around them stirred black wisps of moths or beetles, compelled to turn to buzzing ornamentation for the red light. The lamps peered like a myriad eyes staring us down as we dared to enter the town, all suspicious and wary.
A dull white figure stepped from further up the road, spat out by the shadows. The scent of black salve and shed skin followed them. And something metallic and lightninglike.
Between the white sifting suit and the red mask around their neck, I placed them as the sifter in the lake so long ago, Wrang. The absence of his mask revealed a greeny-brown-scaled, plain-dweller face, framed handsomely in horns.
“Aha! I taste you two have finally reunited. Glad I could be of assistance.”
I looked at the wiver just as she looked the same at me. “You know him?” I whispered.
“I came across him when I was scenting after you.” Hinte’s lips twitched. “They said you smelled lost and groping for trouble.”
I tossed my head, and turned back to the sifter. “So, did you ever reunite with your friend?”
The sifter looked up. “Ah yeah. Not long after your partner found me.” He whisked his wing behind him. “We hopped back to town, but I sent her on through the gate. Reasoned I could wait on the road, be sure you all flew aright.”
I smiled. “Thanks, we appreciate that.”
“All in a day, stranger. All in a day.”
Hinte glanced at me. But she snapped her tongue and looked back to the sifter. “What happened to the argument you two had? Mawla said you ditched her.”
“Ah, that. Yes, we had something of a falling out. She was being reckless, and I was concerned for her safety. But she’s determined to be alone. I’ll let her.”
Hinte looked at me. Her brows narrowed, but I couldn’t see her eyes under her goggles. I looked up at the stars.
The sifter cleared his throat. “So youse can make it back to town aright, or shall I accompany you two?”
“Well, that would be —”
Wrang shrunk his frills at Hinte’s refusal. “Pity, pity. But I shan’t intrude.” He turned, tail waving. “Dwylla guide you,” he said.
I waved my wing. Then, “Oh! Wait up, wait up.” My waving turned more intense. The sifter stopped, turned back to me, tongue flicking. My tail wrapped around the pink cryst, the last crabstone, and tossed it to my forefeet. I presented the glowing pink stone to the sifter.
“Hey, that’s another one of those rocks. What’d you say they’re called? Crysts?”
“They are.” I held it out. “You can have it!”
“Truly? Thank you, thank you.”
As I passed it to them, I said, “Funny story about that one you gave me. You said they warded off evil spirits? I used it to lure away a bunch of glasscrabs.”
He grinned. “Glad I could serve you well.” He glanced up at the moons. “I suppose I’ll be leaving now, if that’s all?”
And at that, the sifter turned and started off. As he left, I spotted a thin rod poking out of his bag, and flicked. A sheathed sword? Hadn’t his bag been empty the first time I saw him? And that meant he had to have gotten the sword in the lake — oh! He must have been the shadow in the cliff that’d scared me ten beats away and disappeared. He had been with Mawla, so it fledged sense.
That was a mystery solved, I guess. I was nodding my head as I fell into step beside the bright-white figure. Would the sifter keep the sword, or sell it? It would drag if something like that turned out to be worth a lot. I could’ve used the electrum.
As the sifter ran forward and leapt away, flying up the road, and as Hinte and I continued our march to town, I still turned over the new answer in my mind, spurred by a niggling doubt. I had a new answer, but somewhere, I was missing something.
My tongue started, and searched. The metallic lightning scent? What had that been about? It’d just faded out, and I’d ignored it at the time. But somehow, these humans had alchemy, and that weird scent might be significant, even if it was just the sword. Did the sifter have its source, now? I had tasted something similar.
And with that, it was back to questions I couldn’t answer, and I shook my head and spun my focus to my surroundings. A small silence had fallen between Hinte and me. When I turned to her, my dark-green-scaled companion was watching me.
I said, “He was nice.”
She tossed her head. “No. Ingratiating, anodyne. It smelled fake.”
“It’s still nice. It isn’t like they wanted anything.”
“Yet they got something all the same,” she said. Looked back at me, she added, “Their story doesn’t mix, even with itself. Mawla had said that she ditched him, but I mangled it on purpose. He didn’t catch it.”
“So? Maybe they misheard you or thought it would be rude to correct you.”
She grunted and turned, facing up the ravine again but she waited for me to turn and step forward before setting off.
The worn road became cobblestone beneath my claws, lined with tephra and murky glass. The texture felt so right after the dusty, crackling ground in the Berwem. I slid my claws over the stones as I walked, and relished the feel.
The cobble in the road became denser, the lamps lighting the path more common, and we walked on. Toward town, our meeting with the faer, and the long-awaited end to our adventure. Anticipation and dread wound in my glands. It wouldn’t be that simple, would it?
Towering above us stood the mighty Berwem gate, a mostly-stone wall blocking the ravine all the way to the very top of their faces. It bristled with images, and the lamps to make them legible even at night.
Dimly on one side lay crossed the pickax burning sieve of Gwymr/Frina, and on the other spread the flowing glass veins of the Berwem. Painted or stained in the center, almost (but not yet) in procession, marched the symbols of the faers: near to the center was the interleaved quill and bullion, guarding a minimal portrait of the current faer, the ruddy-red-scaled Mlaen; and beside it was the closed eye and single star at the shoulders likeness of the former faer, the heavenly-white-scaled Dwylla.
Painted or stained. That was ever the question in the cliffs. Maybe I would’ve gawked at the intense skill at molding glass that the Gwymri flaunted — if I had more than dimly understood what glass even was before leaving the sky.
Ahead, Six dragons guarded the gate, two at the bottom, four at the top, each wielding crimson lights. Three of the guards were naked, and two were close, but all wore the everywhere-present red and yellow sash of the Frinan guard.
Both guards at the gate’s base had red cliff-dweller scales: the left a near-black red and the right a muddy dark-red half-hidden by an ashcloak. One had a weapon strapped to their forelegs, but you couldn’t make out more than a sheath at this distance.
As we approached, the one on the right lifted a wing in salute or acknowledgment. When they spoke, it was with an alert energy that had me wondering if they had woken up less than a long ring ago for their job. My fangs tinged peppery. To be able to work at night, under the stars?
“Oi!” they said. “Long day in the lake, eh?” the muddy-red guard spoke. Their near-naked partner shifted, bringing a wing over their face. I glanced at the dark-green wiver, but she didn’t speak up.
My tail hung by my hindleg. I said, “You–you don’t know the half of it.”
“Ha, sounds like this was your first time. Enjoy the heat?”
“Not at all. But the smoke is worse.”
“I hear that, I hear that. ’tis what made me quit the sift myself, damn fumes were harshin my lungs.” The muddy-red guard made a motion like pained coughing, pressing one wing to their throat and one to their back. Their partner was rolling their head, snickering.
The dark-red dragon glanced my way again. In the dim light of the lamps a head tilted. “Hey,” they said, “what happened with your face? Those bandages look fresh.”
“Oh um… it was a rockwraith attack.”
“What — how many were there?” They lift their lamp, and shine more light on me. Their brows furrow with what they see. Why?
Their partner whistled, but the dark-red guard said, “Four at once? Did you drop all your luck in the lake or something?”
“No,” the muddy-red guard said, “you smelling it wrong. Four at once, and they lived. You two ought to hit up a card game or lottery before you turn in, with that kind of luck.”
“I don’t know — four at once in this season? That takes a special kind of unlucky.”
“Maybe they got a bunch of luck and unluck — it balances out.”
I looked between the guards and the conversation which I seemed to have been bantered out of. Hinte had started forward again, muttering something about ‘ashwits.’ Did she mean me, or the guards? I stepped forward with her, and the muddy-red guard looked at me, and did a second take, and then a third take.
“Hey, what’s up with those corpses?”
The muddy-red guard looked from their friend to Hinte. “Corpses? Those are apes! Never seen one in person — you two have got to have a story to tell —”
“No,” Hinte said. “Our report is for the faer’s tongue only. This is important.”
“Sheesh. You’d think the world was ending or something.”
“Bet the faer’ll laugh in their face and just cook up the monkeys.”
The dark-red guard prodded their partner. “Little hatchling probably won’t even make it to the faer.”
A shadow moved in the corner of our sight, and we all turned to look, where a drake walked down the cliff wall. When the guards relaxed, so did I. The new dragon also wore the red and yellow sash, but also had a finely-woven halfrobe covering his barrel. It was gray-black, with a rock striking a pickax sown on the shoulder. A plain-dweller, his scales looked chocolate-brown, and his face lined with wrinkles and scars.
The newcomer hopped to the ground and ambled over in a lazy low-walk. As he approached he eyed the corpses on our backs, and waved their tongue. He gave us a smile.
He said, “Listen, I’ll take those apes off youse’s backs. Cart ’em over to our prefect, she’ll have ’em on Rhyfel’s back in no time at all.”
“That sounds —”
I turned to Hinte, flicking my tongue. “Why not?”
“These ashwits would sooner eat the bodies. Or drop them from a cliff. I don’t trust them.”
The new guard said, “Now listen here you skink, we take our jobs seriously.”
“I’m old enough to be your grandfather. You’d better show some respect.”
Hinte snorted, then murmured so only I could hear her. “My Opa is older than this town.”
The guard. “What’s so funny?”
“You are. If you deserved respect, you wouldn’t be night watch.” Hinte regard the new guard, and you saw she was taller than him, bigger than him.
“I’m night watch to keep youse and your get safe at night. If I wasn’t here some Dyfnderi baddie could slip right in, slit your throat. Show some screaming respect.” The new guard had his tart-smelling fangs out, frills all awrithe.
Hinte laughed again. It was a throaty, high laugh; I’d never heard her laugh like that before. “Calm down, you aren’t stopping any baddies. They just don’t want to hurt an old dragon.”
The angry guard stepped forward, but the dark-red guard pressed a wing to them. “Ground yourself, Ffrom. Sofrani wouldn’t want any of us getting into trouble.”
“Your friend has the idea. You couldn’t handle us.”
The guards reacted as if struck. The angry guard pushed the blocking wing away, and the friend let them.
When the angry guard lunged, Hinte murmured, “Cover your eyes.” The last blinding orb appeared in her forefeet.
Then, I react. My frills fold over my face.
The orb smashed, and the guard yelped. A chorus of shouts rose, from the around us and from the guards above us.
A tail wrapped around my foreleg! I uncovered my eyes. The dark-green tail tugged my foreleg before releasing me. The sickly sweetness of chagrin rolled down my fangs. “Hey!”
Hinte smacked my leg with her tail. I was now stepping after her.
The dark-green wiver stood a few paces from the Berwem gate. I took a spot beside her as the guards recovered.
At that instant the trio of guards from above fell around us. One landed in front and two at our sides. A mix of reds and browns, one wearing an odd hat, another a tattered halfrobe. Some wielded weapons, but the ones with weapons had only cheap clubs.
The angry guard, though, pulled out a sword, a dull copper blade with blue flakes near the hilt.
Hinte had her head high. “We are alchemists. Let us pass.”
I smelled the curdled stench of fear on their fangs. But the angry dragon waved his sword. And instead of contracting in fear, their frills writhed in anger. Yet his stance was loose, as if wanted to flee instead of fight.
I didn’t want any more fights.
His claws dug into the gravelly ground. He’s about to lunge again, I heard, a mental whisper from somewhere distant and old.
Maybe it was a bloom of the same protectiveness of Hinte that had stood me against the humans, against the rockwraiths — or maybe somewhere deep, I’d finally tired of feeling so helpless. But whatever — because as if summoned, old instincts were whispering in my head, reading people like messy scrawled pages.
They’re all unbalanced, the instincts noted. Even the angry one. Self-disgust curled in my gut, but a plan spread its wings in my head, unperturbed.
Hinte growled, and I saw the soft weakness in the angry guard hardening as he built his confidence. He tried not to look it, but the orb had spooked him more than the others.
I spoke a single word, high and ariose, “Bow.” They were unbalanced, and I could remind them who was in control.
One guard, to my left, the closest, lowered themself into a bow. All it would take is one. I made as show of scanning the assembled guards. Two others bowed and even the other flinched. And the rest would fall in line.
As the guards around them fell into their bow, the angry guard broke his gaze, looking all around, bemused. His frill twitched before his legs, too, sprawled. His frills did not stop writhing, and he stood a head taller than the other bowed guards. But it was a bow, and I couldn’t push any farther without stretching my assumed authority thin.
My voice did not waver. “We must speak to the faer. Let us pass.”
The guards hesitated. But then the first two guards rose, and the rest followed, moving to the split in the middle of the gate. With one on either side, each grabbed a clawhold at the bottom of the gate. The angry guard’s partner and one of the guards at our flanks followed them; the angry guard stood high.
At once, the four dragons hefted and heaved the gate. It lifted with a fluidity that suggested Geunantic engineering. The guards pulled away from each other, and the gate opened, revealing the roads of Gwymr/Frina proper, lined with red lamps.
The gate opened only wide enough for the two of us to walk through. Hinte gave no acknowledgment as she passed, but with the tension uncurling, I found myself coiling my tail and taking furtive glances at the guards as we pass. Was there anything I could do to ease the fear we’d caused and exploited?
I gave the guards a simple, respectful salute, wings on either side of my head, frills pressed back. They stared, blank. …Did the surface have a different set of salutes than the sky?
“Oh well,” I murmured, and mirrored Hinte’s impassiveness. We slinked through the gate, and it was sliding closed behind us. The muddy-red guard spoke up as we left, in nervous tones as they tried to ease the tension we created.
“Can you even cook an ape —” The door shut.
The door shut, and I turned to my companion. “What the heck, Hinte?”
She growled. “Are you going to be weird about my tail again?” With the implicit message, ‘I don’t have time for this.’
I covered half of my face with a wing. “Yes, but that isn’t what’s important right now! Why did you provoke that guard? Why couldn’t we have just taken them up on their offer?”
“I did not lie. I do not trust that guard.”
She whisked a wing. “Remember what he said? He would take the bodies to his prefect. Then that prefect would tell the high guard. Then the high guard would tell the faer. We would trust each of those dragons to take it seriously, then decide to pass it up the skein. If word ever reached the faer, it wouldn’t be within the night.”
That didn’t even answer my question. “Okay,” was what I said, though. “Still, why provoke him? It seemed like you were doing it on purpose.”
“We did not have time for their circling nonsense.”
“I thought it was funny.”
She grunted, then prodded me with a wing. “This is important.” She watched me lower my head, my frills folding. “What about you? Why make them bow?”
“I wanted to end it without fighting.” And it felt good. I hadn’t had anyone — bow to me in a long time.
“It would have resolved itself. None of those guards would risk attacking an alchemist.”
“The one with the sword was psyching himself up for another attack.”
“And they would have regretted it.” I tilted my head. She elaborated, “My Dozentin gave me an explosive. I could not use it over the lake. The skin is too weak. But they would have worn the scars on their face for gyras.”
“Then I’m glad I stepped in when I did.”
Hinte just flicked her tongue. “How did you know it would work?”
I looked away, licking my eyes and tracing the cliff wall. I felt the headband on the top of my head, the silky fibers. How to put this? “I dealt with dragons more cunning and more dangerous than him in the sky. So I know a few things about reading dragons and situations.”
“Then how did you miss how drafty that was? He came down only to ask about the apes, after we mention the faer.”
“How else would he have known about the bodies? It would be more suspicious if he came down before then.”
Hinte growled. “Did you see his reaction to the bodies? He looked at the bodies before he looked at us.”
“He had some ulterior. It is too clipped.”
“That’s kind of a big leap to make.”
“Remember how he phrased his plan, ‘I will take it,’ not ‘We will take it.’ He is working on his own.”
“Still, it’s a big leap, I think he thought he was doing us a favor, I think he is a good drake. And you almost hurt him!”
“Not every smile means well, stone-frills. Hide your fangs.”
I flinched. Hide your fangs? Where had I heard that before? My mind turned to the endless public events and decorum drills, the milieu that had infected my childhood as the great dances had piled on. Some frustration tensed in lines of my face — but I had already looked away.
My eyes rolled over our new surroundings, still not quite the familiar Frinan streets. The Berwem gate had spat us out on the outskirts of town, in a massive clearing that would seem desolate in the light, but, between the crooning of anurognaths, the faintly tickling wind and pale-green moonlight, became haunted.
The crimson lamps sat at odd intervals, marking out a cobbled path that we might have missed otherwise. As the cobbling grew thicker and the clearing narrowed, the red lamps had given way to amber, another welcome sign of progress. I glanced at my companion, smiling, but she still looked annoyed and almost angry. She shifted her load and strode forward without looking at me. As always, I turned and caught up.
The truth was, what Hinte had said made sense to me, on the same level, in the same sense, that the guards’ dynamic had made sense. But the idea that everyone had an ulterior, some cunning plan to downdraft you? I’d had enough of it back home. If I looked at the world that way, I would find plots whether they existed or not. And surely real, normal dragons weren’t like the walking masks from the courts and parties of the sky? They could be good. They had to be.
The outskirts of town this late felt empty. We passed only the occasional dragon, always someone dangerous-looking or some poor vagrant. Sometimes, shadows of fliers passed overhead; the ravine was wide enough for a single dragon to fly through.
A few of the passersby noticed our load. Most didn’t bother with a second glace. The few that did, maybe wrote it off as some obscure creature we’d hunted. Only one startled in recognition. They stepped forward to ask about it, but Hinte hissed at them!
Her visage turned aggressive — which just meant exaggerating what was already there. The curious dragon backed off, slinking away into the night.
“Hinte, I think we should stop, take a small break.”
She looked back at me and didn’t even feign disagreement. We walked like that until we found a good spot to lay, a dew pond in one of the dead-end branches of the ravine, where the ground became softer and little weeds sprouted up. We both lay down, tired.
“Do not to fall asleep, Kinri,” she said. I only clicked my tongue as I settled down onto the ground. Unable to roll on to my back, I contented myself with upturning my head. I gazed again at the stars shining so bright in the sky above. We came far enough away from the cloudy lake to see the sky. I found Ceiwad again, somewhere in the east, a green-white circle speckled with dark spots. Scanning the rest of the sky, I hunted for the Master and his Serpent, two of my favorite constellations.
I saw, halfway up the sky, white lines streaking the sky — meteors. It would shower soon, and one of those meteors had been getting bigger and brighter every night.
My eyes drifted, my brilles clouding, and I remembered all the nights I spent under this same sky, tracing the stars with my mothers’ sister, Vaale. She had showed me the calculations that tracked the wandering stars with unerring precision, and regaled me with the fantastical tales from the stargazers. That each star was a dancing pair as luminous as our two suns, but so far away they seemed as only pinpricks. That the wanderers were thriving worlds as lush and large as our own. That one day, maybe, we could make those worlds our own.
When I noticed my thoughts drifting, I stopped myself. I shouldn’t fall asleep. Standing up, I felt refreshed enough and ready to finish this. I looked to Hinte, lying in the dirt on her belly. Her frills fell over her head and she murmured to herself, lost in thought.
“Hinte,” I called. “Hinte!” I repeated.
Oh. She was never hearing the end of this.
* * *