Interlude III: Witness

iiiiii

i.*

Adwyn knew it was mistaken, but sense was sense.
The schizon-clad drake lighted down on the granite hall like the pupil of Gwymr/Frina.  One glance was spared to the male assistant barring the door.  Then the adviser scanned the four guards watching.
He smirked, and strode right up to the assistant.  “I must speak with Mlaen.”  The words came piercing like light, and his studied glare shone upon the assistant.
The other drake could have flinched.  He swallowed and said, “She went out looking for you.”  He didn’t mean Mlaen.
“A shame.  Yet not my concern.”  He took a step.
“She’s at the Berwem gate⁠ ⁠—⁠ thought you might fly that way.”
Adwyn glanced at a guard.  “They have mirrors.  Tell her to come back.”  He took another step.  “Or don’t.  Wait until I leave.”
The assistant still stood in front of the door, albeit with a coiled tail and dew that could have been spicier.
He asked, “Where have you been?”
“Can I not fly out to talk to a friend?”
“You⁠ ⁠—” He stopped to collect himself.  “You were summoned by an Inquirer, and you refused to let us accompany you!”  The smaller orange drake glanced away.  “Something is up.”
“Precisely why I must see Mlaen.  Surely you aren’t holding that up?”
“She’d going to bite you when she gets back.”  But he stepped aside.
Adwyn slinked his way down the twisting ramp, and paused frowning in the lobby.
He could have kept straight, gone down to the sleepless red wiver.
He went right, down the same corridor from earlier.  Past the threshold of the Dyfnderi’s room, he was pulling down a pycnofiber curtain, and covering the doorway.  It would stop no one; yet his assistants were not (to his surprise) foreign to politeness.
When Adwyn lay down, one lamp shone in this dim room, the one sitting on his desk.  He stared into it, and reflected.
The scarlet drake had always been a chimerical hope.  Adwyn’d always known he was somewhat older and foreign, and that was if he’d even been interested at all, at all.  But they had complimented each other finely.  And for Adwyn there had always been one more matter, on other thing to address, which kept him from seeing how bright it could shine.  Kept him from ever asking.
Would it have been better to lose hope earlier, or later?  Or never?
Adwyn sighed.  There were clearer ways to deal with this⁠ ⁠—⁠ that old king had convinced him into at least some time in a monastery.
But to just accept it, to acknowledge what couldn’t be denied, to move past?  Adwyn couldn’t tell you it wouldn’t work.  Couldn’t tell you some half of him didn’t want it.  Logic, rationality, philosophy, the disciplines of order and sundry, they all had come as easy to him as everything else.
And yet.  Still there lingered some succulent complexity, some verity that dwelt in his feeling that he wouldn’t release so simply.
He liked the scarlet drake, fancied him.  But Adwyn didn’t know what he would do about the feeling⁠ ⁠—⁠ but mere acceptance, stoic forgetfulness, seemed too abject.
And just as it had been with expressing his feelings beforex, right now there were still other tasks to be completed.  Then, Adwyn could deal with matters of the fangs.
The high alchemist, his wife, and the high guard.  None of them could be trusted.  The wife and the high guard at least gleamed sympathetic about it, but the alchemist⁠ ⁠—
It was a threat.  And an alchemist was the last dragon you wanted against you.
Adwyn could cede.  Go to sleep now, and in the morning find something less… dangerous to occupy his attention.
What, truly, was at stake?  Mlaen said it herself⁠ ⁠—⁠ concern for the law was rich, coming from him.  Adwyn knew laws were just finely engraved stones.  Treason, conspiracy, trespassing, theft of what truly wasn’t theirs⁠ ⁠—⁠ it was all pale, victimless and abstract.
Truly, Adwyn was guilty of worse.
But even if it weren’t about the law, Adwyn had to solve this mystery and he’d known it since the puzzling existence of the Dychwelfa revealed itself, even more with the baffling appearance of the humans, and most with the perplexing actions of the thieves.  It was what the adviser had hoped to find (and disappointed not to find) in the sky-dweller exile; a sight for answers and a sight for knowledge.  Adwyn had to know.
So perhaps morals didn’t shine, here.  Adwyn decided he wouldn’t rest even if the thieves were actually heroes.  It was a puzzle, to see their true face, to scry their true motive.  The Return of Dwylla?  The human demonhunters?  The old pillars of Gwymr/Frina?
It all piqued, and if nothing else, Adwyn would sate his curiosity.
Adwyn rose and advanced once more to the threshold.  Still, one more choice prickled: should he tell Mlaen?  The alchemist’s threat lingered.  Do not inform the faer.
Would the black ascendant stand opposed to an ancient alchemist?  As the scarlet drake would say, there’s confidence and that’s too much of it.
But⁠ ⁠—⁠ Ushra was old and withering.  What had he done to hold onto that kind of respect?
Gwymr/Frina had been haunted by its past long enough.  Adwyn would care about its future.
“You look brightly smug,” came some growl of a voice.  “I’d tell you it’s not a good look, but you don’t care and I don’t think that mug of yours has a better look.”
Adwyn cleared his eyes, leaving the realm of thought to discover he remained at the threshold, standing to block a scowling orange wiver.
He said, “I’d tell you rudeness isn’t a good flavor for you, but I don’t mind.”  Adwyn stepped aside and the wiver did not step into the room.
“What you should tell me,” she started, “is what possessed you to fly away against your assistants?  Shall I report this?”
“Do what you will.  I think capitol will care more that I stand at the cusp of uncovering the secrets at the heart of Gwymr/Frina.”
“And you’ll have all that honor to yourself, won’t you?”  She looked sour.
Adwyn regarded the wiver.  He smirked a certain schemely smirk.  “Well, I wouldn’t say you two are uninvolved.  Why, you could certainly stand to make my life easier, less complicated.  That should not go unnoticed.”
The wiver was like a bug.  But that entailed a certain simplicity, an a lack of loyalty.  She wasn’t on his side, not yet and perhaps not ever.  But he had a sway, for now.
The female assistant followed after him, as he walked off.  He didn’t mind, but didn’t allow her to step into the room with him and Mlaen.
Adwyn would unravel the secrets of Gwymr/Frina.  Adwyn would descend the pits.
(And if the town needed a hero… the black ascendant could redeem his name.)

Adwyn paused a moment to see the paintings.  Cynfe’s work.  They smelt oddly of ink, and had the glow of the finest oils.  Forms seemed to struggle to life, shadows sinking away and highlights popping.  One painting stared out over the red distance of the land of glass and secrets, as it was known from its highest peaks.  A land crossed and riveled deep with serpent-like gullies and ravines and gorges, with blooms of green or black life scattered all around.  The suns neared colorfully the horizon, and thunderous storm-clouds weighed high above.
That painting was largest, the centerpiece.  Others hung meekly beside it.  One of a cracked fire-clay mug and its twin shadows, rendered to exact extremes for inscrutable reasons.  One of a land snail eating a tidbit chicken, ponderously.  Adwyn saw fish, scenes of bamboo, and the night’s sky.
What shined out most though, was that there were no dragons.  He had to sift the walls to find it, tucked away in a corner.  The one painting, with a dragon, was of Mlaen.  A portrait.  It could have⁠ ⁠—⁠ should have⁠ ⁠—⁠ been one of the centerpieces, but Adwyn knew why it wasn’t.  The Mlaen dwelling in this painting regarded kindly, softness in her cheeks, a smile.  As Adwyn looked longer into her painting, he felt a voyeur’s shame ride up on him, the sense that in this painting was a moment, someone’s moment, and it wasn’t his.
Adwyn had never seen this Mlaen.
He frowned as the lights blent together in his head: the paintings had no dragon save one, because no dragon would model for her save that one.
“I never did expect pieces like these in the land of glass and secrets.”
It was the male assistant, sidling up to him.  He let him with a nod and no response.
They waited for the female adviser to get ready.
Among them settled the silence of the town hall very late into the night, like the rich soil to nurture fruits of thought.
It would help, if Adwyn hadn’t already found enough resolution to sate that hungry thinking part of his brain.  Everything was decided; he would solve the town’s mystery, he would descend the pits.
Properly, the pits were just another sifting hazard (it was as if the lake collected them.)  Plummeting chasms of dustone and glass out in the lake’s center, they were like stabwounds in its battle against the sky.  The librarian had wondered if they were accidents of the flow of the glass, or sites of doomed meteors, or something odder still.  They reached down to the caves that were like the arteries of the cliffs, and natives called those caves the pits too, in defiance of sense.
Dragons said they didn’t want to talk about the pits, but you couldn’t shut them up if you attempted to.  The superstitious prattle was entertaining to hear, in the least, but Adwyn knew they were deeply hyperbolic: supposedly, the pits had humans, spiders, fungal oddities, slightly animated cadavers, things too monstrous and strange for the lake above, things which tried to be dead and failed, and things no dragons had dared yet to name.
If you believed their talk, one would think the unholy pits the place of some god’s lingering curse⁠ ⁠—⁠ if what the natives called unholy had, in their godless spirituality, some meaning greater than ‘it gives me the creeps.’
Adwyn breathed in and out, in and out.  The posture of meditation came easily to him, and he found patience in the peace of the moment.  The drake beside him didn’t make that harder; when he didn’t whine with his simpering voice, he was a fair sight.  Adwyn breathed in and out, and waited for the female assistant against his better judgment.  As he breathed, he felt the anxious notes of his heartbeats augmenting to steady rhythms⁠ ⁠—
And he felt them diminuting instantly upon his hearing the furtive step.
Someone was padding up behind him.  Rounding, he saw a cringing figure in black and gold scurrying into the room.
“Hi–hi, Adwyn-sofran.”
Mouth closed, he popped his tongue.  Opening it, he said, “What is it?”
The figure⁠ ⁠—⁠ who would stand his taller if she didn’t slouch⁠ ⁠—⁠ cast her eyes down, brilles clouding as a wing slipped into her bag.
Adwyn waited.
The figure pulled out⁠ ⁠—⁠ a thick white net rolled onto a stick of bamboo.
He tilted his head.
“Mistress⁠ ⁠—⁠ err, Cynfe-sofran has heard of your, um, glassheaded plan to stir trouble in the pits, and she wants you to take this so she doesn’t dew when you ground yourself.”
The adviser stared at the net-spooled bamboo.  Gingerly, he grasped and moved it to his bag with care appropriate for a bomb or bible.
Concern molted from his face just as the magical implement left sight.  He looked at the low secretary, regarded her, examined her.
Levelly he said, “I spoke my plans to Mlaen alone.”
The figure cringed back three steps.  She wore such a embarrassed frown one would think her cheeks would twist off.
Adwyn smirked at the little eavesdropper, fangs unfolded.
This proved to be too much and the wiver squeaked.  Adwyn wondered if her tail would fall twitching off like some little lizard.  He’d seen it happen.
“Calm yourself,” he said.  “I’d be a hypocrite if I faulted you for a touch of targeted listening in service to some scheme.”
Were he a persuader, were he interested in ingratiating, he’d’ve done it differently; but Adwyn knew what he cared about, and it wasn’t this wiver.
He took a stride toward the cringing figure.  Still slouched in a low-stand, she saw the shorter drake look down on her.
He asked, “You report only to Cynfe, correct?”
“Bariaeth pays very much.  But–but my mistress said she would make me strong and confident and not like sp–spineless whelps like him.  I–I haven’t talked to him in a⁠ ⁠—⁠ while.”
With a neutral line, Adwyn said, “Strong and confident?  You should start now.”  He motioned her up.
“But⁠ ⁠—⁠ you are a Sofrani.  I shouldn’t!”
“I don’t play the respect games, Gyfari.”  He glanced aside.  “And irregardless you have Cynfe on your side⁠ ⁠—⁠ or perhaps the other way around.  There are precious few things she worries about.”
Adwyn saw the wiver still gawked at him, so he added, slowly, “She’ll protect you from whatever offense you might cause.  Act as you wish.”
“Mistress says you have no idea what you talk about.”
He clouded his brilles for a moment.  When he glimpsed a rebuttal, he cleared his eyescales, and saw an orange wiver was watching them.  She sauntered over at his glance.
“Look at you, trying to be helpful.  One wonders what strangeness has shined into you⁠ ⁠—⁠ if one wonder about you at all.”
Adwyn compacted his annoyance before it grew again.  To the low secretary he only said, “Tell Cynfe this town has enough scheming without her throwing herself into the blend.”
The secretary nodded vigorously, and scurried away.
He turned to the tardy wiver.
“Shall we be off?” 

Behind them the Berwem gate crashed close.  It was a plunge⁠ ⁠—⁠ tangible progress toward the pits, a visceral separation from the civil into the wilds.  The lamps had turned to red, and the catwalks thinned.
But perhaps Adwyn was letting his anticipation ferment his expectation.  The mind-clearing breath came simply, but his tart worry regenerated as fast.
In his wings, Adwyn held that stick of bamboo; furling and unfurling little lengths of net.  He ran toes over its smooth cords, catching no seam, and no stab of his claws could pierce them.  A closer look found sections of net one could rip off, each with a bright red thread.  Seamless as the cords were, every bit of red frayed outward.
The high secretary did not like him.  He didn’t think that had changed.  And yet, a gift seemed to clash violently with her character.
Of another dragon Adwyn might suspect some hidden fondness for him, but he didn’t glimpse her capable of such subtleties.
Right now the assistants trailed behind him, but in this moment of reflection, they’d come to his heels.  He restrained a glare; without them, he might already be in the pits by now.  These scrawny administration dragons could barely manage a flight to the gate.  They implored him to stop, let them rest their wings for a spell.  He should have left them then.
The male was speaking up.  He asked, “So that thing’s magic, isn’t it?”  Pointing at the net in the adviser’s wings.
Adwyn considered lying.  “Worrisome magic.  The secretary quite nearly roasted a human with these same nets.”  He paused, tasted his fangs.  “I cannot say my stomach agree with the thought of using this.”
The female assistant had a lamp that hung off a wing.  Beside her head, as if to brandish her future scowls.  She was not glaring at the furled nets, oddly enough.
Instead, curiosity⁠ ⁠—⁠ the Gwymr/Frina kind of curiosity⁠ ⁠—⁠ was limned in her face as she snapped up a look at him.  She asked, “Where do you think the halfbreed got them?”
Adwyn thought she would scowl to taste just how much the locals were blending into her.  Or, perhaps, she would scoff it off, take it in gaze.
He didn’t have an answer.  “Mlaen leans far more into magics than one would glimpse.  Cynfe is her little flower, bright and well-watered.”
“It looks⁠ ⁠—⁠ dim,” started the female, “to give implements like that to a secretary, and no guard.”
“Guards who wouldn’t take brightly to magic?”
“Guards who wouldn’t take brightly to orders?”  She twisted her voice, made it horribly smarmy and sarcastic.
Adwyn said, “Turn down your lantern.  Gwymr/Frina’s pits run deep.”
The female fell back off his heels like that, and they walked on, a dimmed lantern lighting their footing, and and red lanterns their ambiance.  The female was positioned herself to deny the light to Adwyn.
And like this, they walked⁠ ⁠—⁠ not flew⁠ ⁠—⁠ to the prison at the center of the lake.  Wydrllos was the safest route to descend the pits.
As Gwymr/Frina tended to a landmark behind them, nighttime fauna found their confidence.
Anurognaths crooned tunefully, and came down on sleepless tentacle snails.  Big round bats glared from crevices and let the glider scorpion take a night of peace.  One pair licked each other’s wings.  A big six-legged jumping cat, she was not fully grown but bold, struck down from an evil-looking crevice-alley and came up close to them in near-deadly silence.  Adwyn pulled out his baton and she went back to the dark, but the fear loomed that she wouldn’t be off so simple.  Yet she was.
They walked on.  Big ferns, cool-colored, poked out of the ravine wall and cast mean shapes.  Moss grew thick on the gravel under foot, and smelt very dry.  Sometimes it crunched.  There was a murmur from a stream or rill that a cute dew pond sat somewhere around here.
The air was growing weary with chittering or stridulating of insects and insect-kin things.  They were noisy tonight for no reason, but after quick reflection Adwyn decided perhaps they mated.
He misread a sign once, and it took them down a bad road where the dirt scorpions and wriggly wigs and mere spiders grew far too big, and they worried they might see a true spider.
Adwyn made them high-walk out of there very fast, for he would not even tend close to smelling those things again.
Perhaps one of the assistants smirked but he let them because they were administration dragons, of course they would smirk.
Most of the good creatures they saw were small and cute.  Retiring monitors or skinks who liked the cliff faces, turtles who may be trying to sleep, and wild or stray snakes who slithered slowly about.
The female assistant found some meat to throw near those pretty serpents, and the things were well behaved around dragons for just this reason.  One wouldn’t guess, but the female assistant nursed an odd sweetness for snakes.
There was not much game down in the ravine, maybe a six-legged wild camel who got lost or a diller sleeping or snuffling stupidly.  They only saw one, and it could have been a wild one or one somebody didn’t know what to do with.  You could tell by the shell, but they did not care.  They walked on.
Once, Adwyn heard a lich-owl scream.
This sound struck such a vein of fear in the party that it was the female assistant who began to chat.
“Have you two seen that meteor tending close?”
“Chwithach or Ushra was saying it’s supposed to crash tonight and nearby too.”  The male was nodding deeply.
“Wonder if any louts are going to get burnt licking after it.”
Adwyn swallowed spice and chimed in: “The exile was wandering about tonight.  A sky-dweller.  It’s no guess she was seeking it.”
“That’s stupid.  You never know what dinks around in the cliffs.  Humans, spiders, worse; dragons have been rumoring monsters here since this was our land.”
“It’s like you care.”  Adwyn hisslaughed a little.
“I just know idiocy when I see it.  And something has to be said.  This quiet’s getting on my nerves.”
Why?  I find it peaceful, natural.”
“You heard that.  We all did.  Don’t mess around.”
Adwyn kept quiet which only stirred her further.  She said, “I should think you would care, from how much you bring her up.”
“I do.  But that hinges on her handling what she gets herself into.  I’ll simply observe how this turns out for her.”
“Speaking of humans,” the other orange drake started, “you think the greedy things will scamper after the meteor?  Rumor’s got it that your skein fought some earlier.”
“I don’t gossip.  If Mlaen shows interest in this meteor, then I will speculate.  As it stands, I don’t much care.”  Adwyn looked up, glimpsed a cloud occluding a star.  “How about we speculate about what dwells in the pits?”
The male assistant scratched his chin.  “I heard Chwithach saying humans dug the pits anyway.  Maybe that’s where they live!”
“All the background I read for this assignment tells me the pits were here before we built the outpost or the Wydrllos.”  The female adviser looked thoughtful for once.  “Even the ruins left are too advanced a construction for humans now, let alone hundreds or thousands of years ago.”
“So who do you think it was?”
“…The background didn’t say.  It’s too bleary to guess.  The Empyrean doesn’t care to mine, and Pteryx⁠ ⁠—”
“It was Pteryx.”  Adwyn thought of the demon seal.  “Trust me.  I have it on⁠ ⁠—⁠ authority.”
The female adviser.  “Then why not ask this authority what’s going on deep in the pits?”
“I did.  That’s why we’re going down there.”
The female stopped walking, halting the light with her.  The adviser spun around.
She said, “If you know, then tell us instead of laughing at our speculation.”
Adwyn smirked.  “If I told you, you’d opt not to follow.”
Under his breath, he sighed.
The assistants were still hindrances.  Adwyn couldn’t trust them.  Their alliance was first of all to capitol.
Just as his should be.
But it wasn’t.  The capitol had spat on him⁠ ⁠—⁠ called him the black ascendant, cursed his ambitions, outcast him to the doldrums of Gwymr/Frina.
Where he had gained new motive, new allies.  He owed it to Mlaen to make her and her country strong.  Dyfnder/Geunant was strong, and there was strength in an alliance, but he was doing it for her, and not for capitol.
He glanced behind at the assistants.  Shook his head.  Thought of⁠ ⁠—⁠ the scarlet drake.  Shook his head.  Adwyn would have to do this alone.  He knew this now; he could trust no one but Mlaen-sofran.
He turned and walked on.  After a lurch the light started receding⁠ ⁠—⁠ then after a bit stopped, and it slowly inched after him.
Adwyn heard her breathing behind him as they walked on. 

ii.*

There should have been a guard here.
Adwyn smelt the rotting blood, the lingering ozone, and a very⁠ ⁠—⁠ aseptic smell he only knew he’d never smelt before.  Not here.  The shattered boulder was here by the ravine walls, already dusted with sand or moss.  The spears were here.  A tattered bit of magicless net was here.
There should have been a guard here.
He halted the assistants then, and they lingered.
Adwyn did not trust in anything preternatural; he knew the merely physical was far subtler than oft credited.  He glimpsed there were very minute details⁠ ⁠—⁠ perhaps the sound of bones smally popping or out of place breathing; perhaps a whiff of just one chemical one couldn’t place; perhaps a shadow or flicker you’d never twitch at.
Things almost absent, things very cloudy, things that simply don’t register to a skeptical mind.
So too with Adwyn.  But they built up this feeling⁠ ⁠—⁠ malign and just out of reach.  It felt to Adwyn like lady death breathing down his neck.
She felt very close.
“Why did we stop, Adwyn-sofran?”
“Funny you’d stop to gawk after purporting this mission to be so important.”
Such were the last words of the assistants.
The lamps all around had gone out, and when Adwyn turned he saw two dark dead dragons.
A momentary prayer to Dyfns.  Light my path.
Lifting his head very slowly Adwyn saw a deep shadow advancing with meticulous steps, dithering movements and so much quietness.  Sharp, thin things orbited them, and Adwyn knew their smell was of blood.
“Adwyn, the black ascendant, scion of house Graig Mwsogl.”  His murmuring voice carried only thanks to the deep quiet he brought.  “I should apologize it took so long for us to meet.”
The figure looked up, pierced him with a gaze.  But Adwyn only saw little orb-lights sown into the cloak, too round and bright to be the real eyes.  As if they hid their gaze.
“…But I knew it was pointless.”
Adwyn said, “You killed them.”
He didn’t care.  He only wondered why.  What was the impetus?
“Taking proper caution.  In the worst case, you would be dangerous enough alone.  Unfortunately, you are the one who matters.”
Adwyn drew his baton, ridiculously, but he wanted the appearance.  “How flattering.  Perhaps recognizing that will encourage you to make sense.  It should.”  His tone frayed on those words.
“I don’t find I need to.  All will make sense when it must.”
Adwyn made himself nod.  His gaze fleeted, caught in the air the drifting sharp forms.  “Is that magic?”
The figure paused then.  In the dark there were no tells but that.  They said, “You would call it so.”
Adwyn could sigh.  With a slightly trembling foreleg, he reached for the male assistant, pressed hard a vein.
Adwyn had said it.  The figure had said it.  He should have known.
And yet, the confirmation was a great cold settling just under his scales, a very lonely rime.
Adwyn looked at the figure, and somewhere dim and occulted mental muscles shifted and Adwyn merely frowned.  Truth shone only in his eyes.
His voice, meanwhile, was a casual probe.  “I glimpse you’ve done this a few times or more.”  An alula motioned toward a corpse.
“Often it is the simplest, cleanest path.”  They nodded.  “Would it be wrong to call them rounding errors in the grand equation?”
Simple, clean.  Adwyn could glean the appeal.
And yet.
“Simple and clean for you.  Their deaths will cause a mess and one that I’d see most of.”
“Forget the capitol, Adwyn.  There’s no alliance; do you think Mlaen cannot shield you?  Slough the needless hindrances.”
“A cliff drake doesn’t abandon his loyalties.”
“You are from the canyons, Adwyn.”
Adwyn turned a little, looked off down the ravine.  “I cannot simply abandon my loyalties.  I’d dissolve.  How can one stand if they stand for nothing?”
“There are more fundamental things you can strive for.  Freedom.  Power.  Balance.”
“The trouble with blurry abstraction like those is you cannot pin them down.  They’ll shift under you, and you’ll be doing anything you want.”
“Are you afraid of what you want, Adwyn?”  A pause.  “False question.  You are.  You wouldn’t be anywhere near where you are lest you were furiously hiding or denying what you want.”
“Are you a priest, then?  Here to talk me out of my troubles?”  Over the corpses you rendered?
“I was once a priest.  And so, I would if you’d allow it.  But I know the look of a meteor fated to crash.  I’ll only point you.”
“Point me?
“To the pits.  You were going through Wydrlllos, were you not?  The rumors were true.  You are a fascinating amalgam of stupidity and brilliance.”  A head slowly shaken.  “Follow me.”
“How could I trust you?”
The shadow turned, began low-walking analytically toward a ravine wall.
“I’m sure you’ll find a reason.” 

The figure flew up to become a silhouette on high.  Adwyn looked up the cliff wall.
Sense was sense.  Adwyn lowered his gaze and in quiet slinked away from the figure into the night.
The dark spot with the boulder and spears and⁠ ⁠—⁠ the assistants was behind him.  He didn’t look back, but perhaps when that high whistle pierced the night those false eyes were tracking him.
His gaze remained in front of him, and it was fortune, for there was no sound and there was no scent.
Only a pale fanged thing rearing in the dark.
The drake had taken another step before he really saw the golden python.
Three steps in front of him, thick as his neck, it softly, daringly hissed.
His fear flared, blinding all else, for one moment.  Then Adwyn breathed and crouched.  Snakes could leap high, but if he⁠ ⁠—
Wings spread behind the pale fanged head.
He whirled around, saw the false eyes watching.  He glanced down the ravine opposite the snake, glanced up the wall opposite the figure.  He took a step⁠ ⁠—⁠ and saw the figure had wings aspread.
Sense… was sense.
Behind him the wingèd python mimed silence as it slithered over moss and gravel.  Picking his way to the wall then climbing, Adwyn heard it always remaining, a goldenscaled warning.
“I expected you to care more about this.”  They watched Adwyn climb, the slender snake and its master.
“I care more about my own life.”
“Do you?  I hadn’t realized.”  They turned their head to look at the climbing drake.  “Dyfns, capitol, Gwymr/Frina, Mlaen, sense⁠ ⁠—⁠ you care about many things, but I don’t glimpse your self-sacrificing life amongst them.”  A pause.  “Is it simple cowardice, then?  Fear to tread near the shadow of the night?”
“There’s no courage in facing unavoidable death.”
“I will not kill you, Adwyn.  Sense will tell you that.”
Adwyn had climbed footspans near the ravine’s top.
The figure was there, reaching, grabbing the orange drake, pulling him up slowly.
They said, “Meeting me at all, speaking to me at all, is an allowance.”
Adwyn lunged away from the grasp, stumbling.  “I don’t appreciate my being at your mercy.”
They stood still, false eyes watching.  “You prefer being the one administering it.”
Adwyn turned his head to look at the figure, face still settling into a reaction.  It was a frown, and became tight, for the figure had gained new definition, outside the shadow of the ravine.
The golden snake had followed him already, and coiled its fat body around the master.  With the lustrous black cloak waving and above it the healthy slick scales coiled, the intermixing light of moons and stars rendered a stark figure.
Adwyn nursed spice in his glands.  Dragons didn’t stand that straight.  Their voices weren’t so precisely pitched, and Adwyn didn’t like that there came one breath for every ten of his own.
“Walk with me.”
Walk?
“Of course.”
“Why?”
“You saw the meteor crash.”
Adwyn only tilted.
“It’s the perfect excuse for Rhyfel and for Wrang to have their dragons out in the cliffs.”  They whisked a wing.  “Ostensibly to get rich finding the meteor, really to watch out for the rogue adviser on the loose, after who knows what.”
“Fine.  Walk to where?”
“The pits.  Where else?”
“I don’t glimpse you’d be sensible enough to simply walk into Wydrllos and give yourself to us.”
The figure began high-walking, the overlong body of that wingèd serpent trailing on the ground, idly slithering.
They finally said, “Do not trust the guard, Adwyn.  You should have glimpsed their true colors by now.”
“I don’t see the relevance.”
There were two breaths, unusually close together.  One could have been a sigh.
“There are more ways into the pits than Wydrllos.”
“You know the lake well, then?”
“Of course.”
Quite telling, in light of recent events.  He said, “How fortunate for me.”
The next comment was almost idle.  “Most fortunate would be to have no association with the pits.  But upon us is the burden of saving Gwymr/Frina.  Again.”
The black ascendant had practiced the grandiose tones of speech till they came natural⁠ ⁠—⁠ he didn’t think the figure had.
Adwyn was picking his way after the figure.  “You ever illume more questions.  Which of them will you deign to answer?”
“All you must know is that Gwymr/Frina is under threat from exactly those who claim to want to save it.  Rhyfel, Ushra.  Do not trust them.”
A backward glance as it was said, and a fractional nod at the orange drake, and then the figure added, “You know already.  They trust you.”
“Rhyfel does.”  Emphasis fell on the silence.
The reply: “I know Ushra.  Better than you do.  The little alchemist likes you.  That’s closest to his trust.  The closest without pulsing a drop of his blood.”
“I only met him this morning.”
The figure stopped at that.  His stride paused in one leg.  The other three fell stiffly still.
Adwyn could add that Ushra threatened him obliquely, that his wife betrayed the town, that his granddaughter was the apprentice of some ambiguous him.
He didn’t think he would.
“And Rhyfel?” the figure asked.
Adwyn measured out the words, and voiced them.  “I work with him.”
“Nothing more than that?  Has he never mentioned the pits to you?”
Adwyn smirked.  Gotcha.  But the murderer needed a story.  “No,” he started, buying breaths.  Who else knew of the pits?  Who else knew the secrets of this town?
Of course.  “Mlaen tasked me with investigating the pits.”
A fleeting nod.  “There are worse dragons with which to ally yourself.”
“Such as yourself.”
“Suffice it to not ally yourself against me, Adwyn of Dyfns.”
And with that the mysterious figure began to walk onward.
Behind them Adwyn worked his frills, those painted flaps thoughtfully twisting in the moonslight.
The figure wasn’t allknowing and therefore not allpowerful.  Adwyn could still solve this.
They walked across the top of the ravine where you could look down upon the lamplit cobble and catwalks like some haughty lord.  The figure’s serpent disappeared to swallow some screaming squirrel once, and never returned to the lustrous cloak.
Adwyn couldn’t hear it breathe behind him.
It was quieter, high above the safety of the ravine floor.  Up high, one saw what could be an owl or mean anurognath flying from clifftop to clifftop; there was the jumping cat stalking about; and a dragon off on some business whom Adwyn didn’t hope or dare to involve.
The figure continued the analytical walk forward.
Adwyn asked, “How did you know I was out, going to the pits?”
The response grew in silence.  “An associate of mine spied you making your way to the east gate.”  A pause in stride.  “And even before that the rumor of the rogue adviser had spread quick amongst the guard.”
Of course the female assistant brought the magical murderer down on his head.  Somehow, Adwyn couldn’t muster the venom in the thought.
Adwyn looked the figure up and down.  “I would glimpse a⁠ ⁠—⁠ character such as yourself would prefer to work alone.”
At that moment the golden wingèd snake leapt out and landed bodily on the figure.  They swayed to a stop, and dragon and serpent turned to face Adwyn together.  The figure’s face remained covered, but the snake yawned.
Adwyn rolled his head.  “That is a beast.”
“No dragon is truly alone.”  They turned around once more, but murmured, “I resent that you don’t respect the intelligent of amphipteres.  They are capable creatures.”
“…Do they speak as well?”
“They are snakes.  No.”
Adwyn kept a stare at it.  “Are they magical?”
“Have you ever seen a amphiptere?”
“Why insult me?”
“It was an answer.  Amphipteres are rare, for they had been bred.  Or rather, designed.”
“…With magic.”
A slowly said, “Yes.”
Subtle by his side a wing lowered and his alula fingered the dangling gray net.  Magic against magic.  He should try his luck.
Adwyn kept a stare at the wingèd serpent as onward they walked. 

“Do you care for spiders?”
“What kind of fool-sighted question is that?”
“Though so,” they said.  “The war was unprovoked, you know.”
“What?”
“Dyfnder/Geunant could have left well enough alone.  The spider war was a choice.”
“They are vermin.  Extermination befits them.”
“I’d disagree that any creature deserves that fate.”
Adwyn leapt across the gap where two ravine walls tended close.  A big-eyed furry thing dodged out of the way, and the snake hissed at it.
He waited while the figure crossed over with merely a long step.  The adviser said, “You have me at your mercy, and you inflict philosophy puzzles on me.”
“Do you not like puzzles?”
“I do not like being played with.”
“Yet you’ve done the same to me.”
The orange drake started off.  He smiled to be walking in front of the figure.  The trail through the caves and obscure edges of cliffs was such a line that he could manage it.  When he came to a spot like here where the path went left or right up against a still higher wall he could just wait.
The figure passed in front and Adwyn saw that the snake had left again.  He kept a measure on the thing now, puzzled out how it thought and acted.
They went left, the figure licking a brille.  “The point is, some dragons are irrationally afraid of spiders.  You should know there’s a web in the cliffs.”
Adwyn weighed again his odds escaping the amphiptere.
Their route was everything and meandering.  But Adwyn felt a vague sulfur smell sidling up and moss grew thin now.  He glanced behind him, saw the snake had disappeared again, and was gliding back with a lump like a bat down its throat.
The adviser felt the nets again, and followed on.  Above them, the stars were unchallenged by city light.  Laswaith was waxing, and even in the shadow of a ravine wall, it wasn’t too dark.
After a bit, the snake slithered in front of him to nudge its master, and then their route veered a bit.  They soon came across a hissing opening in the ravine wall, and the figure paused while the serpent nosed into the hole, and Adwyn heard the harsh mewling and yelping or sizzling of the snake’s secret language.
When it came back, the orange drake looked closer, saw the serpent had eyes facing more forward than any natural python he’d seen.  It had more of a face.
At one point along the way, the trail grew quite thin and treacherous and Adwyn held the murderer’s lamp while the other dragon kicked down bamboo.  The serpent, circling around hissing, had stopped him from considering escape.
After the bamboo, they climbed up and walked atop the cliffs again.  Adwyn had nearly stepped blindly into a muddy area where a very high rill went splashing lower.  The wingèd python slipped past quick and lunged right at him, and there was a very draconic hiss as it watched the drake stumble back into the mud and wring and scrape his feet.
He glared at the snake as they marched forward, while the snake looked all around.  It was flicking its tongue like it was scenting something specific before it slithered off with a high hiss.
“Adwyn,” the murderer called, and when the drake approached, he continued, tone as if the silence had begun to wear on them, “Do you have any regrets?”
He rolled his head, and might’ve ignored the baffling smalltalk.  But aside from conversation, he had only his growling stomach and slim chance of escape to contemplate.
He said, “Many.  I wouldn’t be in Gwymr/Frina if I didn’t have regrets, and I imagine it goes for about everyone who didn’t hatch here.”
“Quite true.  For myself, I suppose my biggest regret is a very old one.”  The figure looked up, wing flexing out.  His murmuring grew wistful. “When I was young⁠ ⁠—⁠ very young⁠ ⁠—⁠ I had hoped to destroy death.  Me, everyone I loved, everyone I didn’t, living.  Just living, forever.”
He had stopped walked to look long down the cliffside.  “In the end, I achieved the first part of that wish⁠ ⁠—⁠ perhaps even the third⁠ ⁠—⁠ but… I wouldn’t share it, not now.  If I lost it, I don’t know if I would reach again for it.”
He looked back.  “I tell you this because you are on⁠ ⁠—⁠ terms, with Ushra.  He may make you an offer some day.  If he does, ask him, ask Gronte, ask Rhyfel, ask Mlaen⁠ ⁠—⁠ ask them if they are happy.  It won’t matter whom you pick.”
Adwyn gave a hisslaugh.  “I can’t imagine I’d spend longer than I have to on this life.  Dyfns saw death for a reason.”  He could hear the old king speaking, Death is an old friend.  We’ve had our disagreements, but she’s best kept at peace.  Adwyn felt something⁠ ⁠—⁠ bitter light on his fangs at this.
Leaving his thoughts, he heard the murderer gave a perplexing hum⁠ ⁠—⁠ Adwyn knew not if it were idle agreement, restrained disagreement, or both.
They had to climb off the clifftops when they reached another edge, onward they marched through another ravine.
The walls, rising still high beside, were pressing closer and at the end this path funneled into a kind of cave.
Adwyn took another step⁠ ⁠—⁠ and heard a high squeal of a sound.
“She must want me to come see something.  Mind waiting here while I do?”
The orange drake moved his head in a nod.
The figure leapt onto the wall and dithered off.
The adviser looked up the path and down.  Backward was long and obvious, and forward lead to the lake after a fashion.
The adviser breathed for a little while, and then he too leapt and scratched up the still higher walls and stood atop the to crouch, just in time for the murmuring voice to say:
“Adwyn.”
He stopped.  What else could he do?
“I parse that you do not quite trust or respect me, do you?”
A huff leaked out before Adwyn choked the budding laughter.
“Why? I’ve been helpful.”
It struck Adwyn blank and reflective for a second.  Here was a vexing enigma of a dragon who only tended less threatening.  As if the whole impression had been some accident.
The adviser’s mind didn’t stay blank for long.  He smirked.  “Why can’t you just cullet the mysteriousness and tell me what this is all about?”  Why they had to die?
“If I told you the whole story, would you trust me not to lie?”
“I’d scry what you could gain from me believing.”
“And if that satisfied you, and you reported back to Mlaen⁠ ⁠—⁠ would she trust me not to have lied?”  They shook their head.  “Disbelief is worse than ignorance.”
“Mlaen trusts me.  You only need to convince me.”
The figure walked to the edge of the cliff to stare out over the cracked and mountainous country.
Adwyn didn’t approach.  “Tell me about the seal.”
“Mlaen knows about that as well?”  It was said low, as if only for the heatdrawn bugs buzzing around them.  “You do not need to know more about the seal.  You aren’t to do anything about it.”
Behind the figure, where he couldn’t see, Adwyn clenched a foot.  First they presumed to do him favors, next they plan around what he would and wouldn’t do.  An embarrassment of an opposition, was what they were.
He said, “And what am I to do?”  What piece am in your game?
The figure stepped off the cliff and began his stiff climb downward.
The orange drake leapt and footed himself in the other dragon’s path.  They paused on the wall, pointed those false eyes at him.
“Follow me.”
Adwyn knew he stood in a low-stand, loose and relaxed on his feet.  He knew his tail swayed, and knew the words scrambling up his throat were mistakes.
It was an answer.  The adviser heard it, measured it, and turned.
In the corner of his eyes floated the sharp form once again.  He knew they would not be put away so simply again.
Together, they did not walk onward.  The new path resembled the one they came by, and when it split it was not toward the eastern lake Berwem.
The amphiptere squealed again.
Wind did not make its way into the ravine without willing it, and was weakened at that.  It flicked the sleeves of the hooded dragon, and had the adviser lick dust from his brilles.
Soon more airborne particles lighted down on those brilles, and went unlicked.  Breaths passed, and the path between the ravine tended wider.  It met another cliff wall like a flattened fork, and below walked a stream almost dry.  The figure looked up, though, and so did the orange drake.
A little cave found the wall nice, and nestled a bit under the top.  A crouch⁠ ⁠—⁠ two crouches, and the two dragons lighted down into the mouth of that cave.
It was quiet.  Quieter than the night, which betrayed lack of bats, or scurrying vermin, or certain overlarge bugs.
It took longer for Adwyn’s eyes to adjust and when they did he saw it was dark.
The figure produced something glowing glairy white.  One saw dark blood and bone, old enough their smell lost its teeth, and certain snarling black fungal growths attended the corners of the cave.  Flicking one’s tongue, one smelt a gnarlier reek of death and its conspecifics further in the cave, and something like musk.  Nothing draconic, but close enough that it pulls from one a reaction.  Tinged uncanny, perhaps.
Adwyn liked it, but they had wyverns in the canyons, well behaved ones.  This smelt much wilder than they, though.
Adwyn glanced at the other, but they did not return it.  They dithered forward.
“Do you smell the snake?”
The orange drake only found it in himself to creep forward in this cave that smelt of death.  To the ceiling gripped bulbous stalactites.  Stranded drops of water dripped into still pools.
Once, obscure vibrations shook a rock to fall clack in the quiet.  But what they’d seen was the large lizard skull it had hit shift suddenly in the dark.
Strange things happened as frills struggled to hear, significance was read into scales rubbing, distant howls that might’ve been close and quiet, passing air that might’ve been slumbering breaths.
The white light crept more carefully and quietly than they, and its ephemeral touch was the first to fall on thick, rough scales.
The first to see that hallux-less foot, to see that quartet of wings, see those twin tongues, and those eyelids open to inscrutable black slits.
The rockwraith awake, alert, stared at the dragons treading near its lair.
The figure and the light took another undaunted step, and they knew this to be the lair of three rockwraiths
One of which chased leaping a certain fluttery python.  Behind them gaped another chamber of the cave.
The figure stared straight at the amphiptere.  The floating sharp form returned⁠ ⁠—⁠ knives without handles.  Adwyn hoped aluminum, but there were red hints at the flat edges.
The schizon clad drake leapt out of the glair light’s grasp.  Rockwraiths, a strange dragon, and a strange creature.  A battle which bore observation, and from the shadows Adwyn watched.
Two rockwraiths growled rumbling at the cloaked murderer, and one pursued the wingèd python through the floor’s deep crevices.
He could have a chance now, if he kept close attention.  The two wraiths were stepping close, circling slowly but the dragon was still.  Those handleless knives swayed in the air, never still, as if forced or pulled incessantly on like small light things in the wind.
The adviser kept watch, saw the four knives trace around the murderer a ring.  He decided they could not keep the knives still.
One wraith lunged inside the ring, forewing swinging forward before its neck knew a thick red line.  A foreleg kicked in a perfect arc.  The body was a lump somewhere else.
A loud high hiss, like a shriek.
A bleeding scar ripped across the array of triangles patterning the scales of the amphiptere.  Adwyn had seen a snake caught by a wildcat before.
Adwyn unclouded his eyes fully.  He had a chance now.  Gripping the gray net, yanking it off the bamboo spool, Adwyn wielded Cynfe’s magical gift.  He knew how to activate it; the intent of the bright red wire sown loosely in had come clear awhile after examining it.
Adwyn dithered⁠ ⁠—⁠ was dithering.  He pinched and unpinched the red wire, darted his gaze from attacked amphiptere to attacking rockwraith.  All to avoid that final decision.  Thoughts came quick, and he didn’t⁠ ⁠—
He didn’t want to think about where he was aiming, didn’t want to make the⁠ ⁠—⁠ right choice.
Adwyn had a chance, and Adwyn did not take the chance.
He ripped the red wire, and he threw the torn magical net.
The attacking rockwraith knew the electrifying pain, and the attacked amphiptere knew the slithering grace of freedom.
The black ascendant had wanted revenge, even in the most petty capacity.  If he truly factored into the murderer’s plans, then a dead pet wouldn’t erase that.
But the female assistant nursed⁠ ⁠—⁠ had nursed, odd sweetness for snakes.  And this creature was⁠ ⁠—⁠ not complicit in its master’s plans.
The false eyes were on him though, and the drake’s hesitation had been noted.  A nod.  The drake’s mercy had been acknowledged.
Two rockwraiths were dead.  The survivor crouched a distance away, poised to leap, half growling half yiping.  It turned a slow gaze to the wraith convulsing under a magic net, and then to the lump of dead wraith near the wall.  It had two tongues, they flicked.
Adwyn’s did too, and he smelt fresh waste.
These creatures had fangs too, gnarled stabs of bone, but they dewed and smelt alien yet deeply, despairingly sour.
The crouch broke then and the wraith was leaping an attack.  The neck broke then as the floating knife hit the wraith like it was blunt.
Silence rushed back in after the thump.
He breathed, sighed.  But the murderer was still and normal.  Adwyn stared for any sense of exertion or excitement.
Something moved before he ever did, and he glanced.  The amphiptere was slinkslithering back toward them.  Its head stayed low and guilty, and she stopped some distance from its master, a leathery form in her mouth.
The murderer just shook his head and turned.
“These cliffs are dangerous, Laswaith.  You should know better.” 

iii.*

They walked atop the cliffs now and they came again to the elevated rill.  In the night Adwyn almost walked blind into it, and glanced at his side again; the amphiptere had crept up again, but didn’t lunge.  She reared up as high as his withers and waited like that till the drake petted her.
The snake had swallowed the leathery form, and spat it up now.  It was a sheath, and in it rested a shiny aluminum blade.  Adwyn knew wyverns liked to collect or steal shiny objects from dragons, and perhaps wraiths did as well.
Adwyn took the blade, kept it in his bag, and thanked the snake, who nodded.
Far ahead, watching the orange drake jog to catch up, the murderer was flicking their tail.
They said, “We are not far now.”
“Tell me what part I play in your plan.”
The murderer glanced back and said, “You must know?”  They lifted their gaze to the stars, and continued, “I need an ally in the administration, some smart drake who won’t distrust immediately from some bias.  You are the only one.”
Waving their wing at him, they finished, “On a bare literal level, I need a witness.  That is why you must descend the pits, agnize what dwells there.  You’ll know what to do after that.”
“A witness for what?
“Do you know what the pits really are?”
“Old mines?  Dangerous caverns?”
“A burial site, a mass grave.  Not anymore, but there was one last dragon buried here.”
“You’re concerned about ghost stories?”
There was a satisfied sounding hum as the response.
The figure turned around again.  “Come.  The proper entrance to the pits is lower.”
Adwyn didn’t move just yet.  “If we’re truly allied, then you must know Wrang lays at the root of this.  You answer to no one.”  (Was that a tonguepop?) “You could kill Wrang tonight.  It would be simple for you.”
The murderer shook his head.  “It’s not that simple.  The opposition is more deeply rooted than either of us can manage.  It takes more than just severing the head.  Come.”
With a sigh, he went with them to the edge and climbed down.  The ravine here was a lightish gray, but there were black spots like polyps on the wall.  He picked at one, and it felt like the fungal bits in the rockwraith lair.
He kept climbing down and the growths came more numerous.  Adwyn briefly considered eating one; all mushrooms were edible once.  He’d been out walking for rings now; today’s one meal didn’t account for that.
But he knelt to the risk.  He would solve the mystery of Gwymr/Frina, be its hero if it needed one.  He wouldn’t die.
They jumped down to the ground; and stood in yet another winding ravine, thin enough to discourage gliding or flying.  Not that Adwyn had either in his stomach.
Snake, drake and murderer settled and marched on through the ravine.  Already this stretch had an atmosphere separate that of the cliffs entirely.  The lake’s breath bore down on them, as a warm sulfuric warning.  The dust flitted down in the air and claimed all it touched.
In nuance to that Berwem stench, another aroma wound its way down from something awaiting them further on⁠ ⁠—⁠ natural in the fashion of decay of corpses rotting and lower life sprouting triumphant from the remains or excess of its better.  Mushroom didn’t smell to attract sensate bees or butterflies, and this was quite apparent.
One heard something as one approached, as well; a chorus of flies humming in high register, a rhythm section of chittering hoppers or gliderscorpions keeping beat; and a bassline held by a certain kind of turtle that rumbled like frogs.
A curious sonic absence of birds or bats or anurognaths.
And so, they marched on through the smell of triumphant decay, the taste of sulfur and dust, and the animals active as if infected with some strange new form of life.
Underneath it all was the feeling like death sighing, and Adwyn didn’t know why.
A cloud passed in front of the moon, and the shadows seemed to preen beneath the wings of this greater shadow.  They continued on.
There came the first bird sound, a vague, significant hoot.
The ravine winded one final time, and widened considerably.  The subtle claw-worn path they followed kept straight, heading right to a black metal gate, massive and thick.  Adwyn stared hard, and saw the red flakes dotted it.  The cursed metal.
The murderer stopped first.  Adwyn looked around, then saw the huge dragon-height danger of sleek feathers that was gliding down from atop the ravine to stand between them and the iron gate.
“You heard it scream.”
“I did.”
They turned and faced the lich-owl. 

“It seems things have grown more dire than I recognize.  There must be a nest nearby.”
There were chants for times like these, invocations to Dyfns for clear sight and smiting light.  Adwyn prayed.
And he started to draw the bamboo spool of net.
“No,” said the murderer.  “They feed on magic.”
Adwyn stopped and looked at the lich-owl.
It had feathers that softly snared the light and let it to glom into a diffuse mist as a cloak.
One would think it had the purest black eyes that the light didn’t grace, but then it lifted its head.  In fact there was no color, only pure reflection.  Adwyn stared into his own eyes.
The manner of reflection was peculiar, as if limning some mirror world where color looked twisted two shades from truth.
He shook himself out of staring.  He couldn’t keep from agnizing something familiar in those eyes, even nostalgic.  It wasn’t just intelligence he saw.  His mind turned to the black eyes of Ushra, even Rhyfel.
He frowned, and hesitated when drawing his baton.  The murderer already had the knives floating and now the owl seemed to step examining them in return.
It flared four wide, white wings.
Behind it, swarms of beetles and lies and scorpions rose buzzing.  Snakes and turtles and skinks writhed from the shadows and crevices.  And all of them fled the clearing before the iron gate.
“Do you think perhaps we should turn back?  These owls are deeply cursed.”
“No.  I have them well studied.”  Then, they said, “Do not let it claw you.”
The lich-owl was creeping closer, beak opened, eyes gleaming, feathers still glowed.  It had its feathers spiked up awfully like a cat and Adwyn didn’t know a bird could growl but there came a deep rumbling in its chest and an gargle like choking on poison in its throat.
The distance shrunk and one saw the owl came to a dragon’s withers, even as it leaned forward in threat.
Adwyn took a step back and glanced at the murderer who stared down the bird, and the amphiptere rising up between the two dragons and swaying to either side, hissing endlessly.
Adwyn breathed in once, twice.  He would not kill, but he could defend himself.
With a prayer to Dyfns, the schizon-clad drake lifted himself to a high-stand and strode forward.
The lich-owl flared its four wings.
It screamed louder, higher than death, and burst forward.
Things changed very quickly.
Adwyn was recoiling back bringing his baton to block⁠ ⁠—
The murderer was shouting, the knives dragging slowly, useless after the owl.
The bird twisted in the air, claws that dripped⁠ ⁠—⁠ black, were aligning for his throat.
And the amphiptere threw itself in the way.
One heard terrible caws and whines, and talons ripping into scaley, meaty flesh once twice thrice.
The floating knives arrived.  With fury they ripped and tore.
The bird flapped away.  Feathers dripped down, black dust flaked off.
Still it stared at the pair of dragons and the poor snake.
The leaping murderer slammed down beside Laswaith.  Tenderly they held the head and body between the bleeding wounds.
They looked up to the owl still rumbling.
Amphiptere in foot they backed away in steps.
“Is it⁠ ⁠—⁠ will it alight?”
“Go.”
“What?”
“The gate should still be opened.  I have a distraction.  Cover your brilles.”  Their tail was moving, tossing a bumbled of thick knotted lengths.  They could have been tentacles, or hairs, or rope, or sinews, or glass strands, but they weren’t.
The lengths caught the light and killed it, reflecting the corpse or memorial.  Distorted forms moved stilted within.
Adwyn had seen much tonight, and at this he stepped back.
Meanwhile, the owl stopped growling and stalked forward a stride.  Then two.
“What are those⁠ ⁠—⁠ unsightly things?”
“Raw medusa fibers.”
The murderer was crouched on hindlegs.  With one forefoot they clutched the fibers and with the other leg they covered their eyes.
Last Adwyn saw those knives drifted toward the knotted bundle.  By then he had decided to draw his wings over his eyes.
First one heard vicious, viscous tearing.  Next came an acidic smell like the tainted glass in the lake’s bad spots, yet also like helium.  Then a high hum that built and built till it was very irritating.
The owl was still audibly stalking forth through all of this, but that stopped when the vexing hum released with such a pop that frills twitched.
Was that all?  Slowly did Adwyn lower his wings, and quickly did he regret.
The medusa fibers still glowed⁠ ⁠—⁠ really, they shined, and it was day in this ravine.
The lich-owl was screaming once more, and hopping around blindly.
Adwyn looked to the murder, and asked once more, “Will it live?”
“Go.”
“I owe my life to that beast.  At least tell me its fate.”
Perhaps there was a chance he would keep silent.  But they said, “I have studied lich-owls.”
Dim of him to think the murderer would cullet mystery even now.  But Adwyn liked puzzles.
With that, he went. 

The black iron gate to the depths of the pits still hung open behind Adwyn.  A moment of thought, and then he closed it, shutting off completely this chamber from the meager light of moons and stars.  He had the murderer’s lamp, and held it near.  It made the whole world feel very small.  The slight fingers of light couldn’t touch the walls.
Adwyn did not curl in on himself.  In fact, he opened up; he was alone, and he wasn’t being watched, he wasn’t performing.  What some would call taking off a mask felt to Adwyn like clouded brilles before his soul finally clearing.
Adwyn gasped.  Deeply sour droplets were already dewing.  He licked them away, but they came back and he let them.  He down lay aside the lamp.
Eyescales went clouded and stayed that way.  Adwyn lowered his head to his feet and could hardly lift it again under the force of his⁠ ⁠—⁠ it could only be sorrow.
Their names were Wedd and Ysais.  He was a commoner with a tiny little garden and a young, fatherless cousin back home.  He rose through university, and then lighted in the administration in capitol, and he was only nineteen gyras.  One only did that on the minimum of sleep and free time.  Little more than his garden, Adwyn thought.
She was some knighted merchant’s daughter third daughter.  The first had taken the family name; the second was married out.  She was barren.  Perhaps, in the depths, she’d been aiming for Inter-Stronghold Affairs, or the Hall of Justice⁠ ⁠—⁠ something significant to keep her name alive.  She didn’t sleep in the town hall.  The faer didn’t allow snakes, and she had six.
Ysais and Wedd were two dragons with whom he could talk unlike any native.  Who knew the hypocrisies and luxuries of life in the land of chasm and wisdom; who, in a land torn between worship of a longdead faer or reverence for strange old gods or ambiguous spirituality, instead rightfully feared the eye of deepest gaze, Dyfns of infinite insight.  To whom a drake who liked drakes wasn’t a curious, sorry thing.
And yet, he had half hated them, and he thought they knew.
Useful tools, scrawny neophytes, hindrances, rounding errors⁠ ⁠—⁠ but were they that to him, they were not to other dragons.  Adwyn had made a mistake.  Oh Dyfns, had he made many mistakes.
Adwyn knew there were definitions of the yawning chasm of loss opening before him; and Adwyn knew there were names for the fatal affliction… for vengeance.
The black ascendant had learnt the infinite value of life only recently⁠ ⁠—⁠ very late, too late to atone for the things had had done.
And now, to know with utter keenness the bleak wake of death?
There stood a certain appeal and peace in simply perishing.  Cowardice, too.
Adwyn breathed twice, sent up a prayer to Dyfns for clear sight.
Cool, and transparent, and brilliant.
Adwyn left the brilles over his soul unclouded, but made the hot fire fall to embers, smolders, then dust.
At last Adwyn lifted his head, and looked around.  The floor was hewn rock very slowly washing away.  Moss and lichens crawled into the chamber, and between them Adwyn spied fat bugs.
He rose to a stand, with the lamp.  Little moths came along a trice before they fluttered away.
With his thoughts on the wane, the orange drake heard the whinings of the night return to his frills.  Approximate silence sat outside the iron gate.  The murderer was dead or gone.  The lich-owl was dead or gone.
Little Laswaith was dead or gone.
Adwyn was very alone in this abject corner of the cliffs.
But he had a purpose here⁠ ⁠—⁠ the mystery of the land of glass and secrets.  The high guard’s plan and the murderer’s scheme met here in the pits.  If he could descend the pits, witness what lay at the depth of it all, he would be the hero.
He would solve the mystery of Gwymr/Frina.
But in his soul, Adwyn knew it was mistaken. 
* * *

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