Death was breathing quietly in the dark.
The feeling hadn’t left Adwyn since that cursed iron gate came close behind him. From everywhere and in everything — sight, sound, smell — there was a certain malignity, and it settled into his scales. He would molt next cycle, he knew; and it wasn’t soon enough.
Adwyn drew a calming breath and spat out spicy venom. After an inhale the dew came back, and he let it; his soul needed it.
The gate had seen him into a wide entry chamber that turned to a ramp which slinked down to something that already felt somber even when half invisible.
He lifted the glowing lamp, and when the light brushed the deteriorating walls, he saw script. Without the high guard’s eye, there was no telling for true, but he bet it was Pteryxian.
The murderer had said this was a mass grave. Were these cenotaphs?
Did they spell final praise, or condemnation?
Would anyone even return to find out?
Above many of the big bold letterforms (names or titles, perhaps) there lingered engraved portraits, dragons with the short, thin snouts of desert-dwellers, who gazed listlessly out from fading visages.
These forgotten dragons fading away seemed so close to some ultimate death that one could imagine —
Adwyn did not believe in ghosts.
Death was a blank, but all dragons were seen eternally in the gaze of Dyfns. These dragons were gone from the world, but they were not gone.
A whispering on the edge of thought. Mutely, Adwyn nodded and he tugged his high stand into striding steps toward one wall. Here the weathering of rain or whatever else was near complete, and any cenotaph or portrait was utter dust.
A rock from the ground went to his foot and the orange drake began working.
In his best, straightest serifs, the pits gained new memory: “Wedd” and “Ysais.”
Please forgive me.
A thought, and he took a finer rock and wrought a portrait. Every Dyfnderi monk knew the science of drawing, and painting.
There were no proper pigments, but crushed leaves and mushrooms did their part. The blood of wormrats gave colors of life to their cheeks.
And last, dipping a toe into the lamp’s glowing, glairy liquid, Adwyn tried to limn some effect like a living soul staring out from those eyes. But it was known impossible.
The science of rendering had come as easily to him as all else, and at his painting any critic would be impressed.
He stared at those likenesses, at the sum of his memory of Ysais and Wedd. Wedd, caught laughing with some curious gleam, and Ysais, silently sneering, yet some hope hiding in her brow. Details he’d noticed, and never considered or identified. Subtleties of dragons he’d surely never miss.
There were definitions of the yawning chasm of loss, which no lights illume.
Adwyn stood there, silent, for a long time. Waiting for something to change, waiting for anything to get better. Nothing did. Nothing ever did.
The lamp went out, and now Adwyn was waiting in the dark.
When he felt himself skip a thought, that was when Adwyn ceased waiting. It had gotten late, hadn’t it? The adviser would finish this now, before exhaustion became intolerable.
His bones cracked when he moved, he’d been still so long. Adwyn knew personal noises weren’t as loud as they felt, but he trusted instinct. And instinct told him that sudden skitter in the shadows was something new.
Dragons leapt quick, and body kept pace with thought as the orange drake dodged into a chamber mouth he’d spied on the walls and almost quietly he rushed forth. His wings stretched in front and from this he knew with time to slow when he came to the wall.
He snuck along the wall for another mouth and all this happened two more times before tiredness overruled instinct.
Panting, fanning his frills and wings, falling onto his haunches, Adwyn hoped it was enough distance and he thought about his next action. The baton made way to his wing, and already the drake was standing up.
He’d fought in webs before. He’d fought alone in webs before, when the battle had gone to worsts.
And this wasn’t a web.
He smiled like another would grin. The next steps were slow, as the drake collected detritus. Dead or now dead mushrooms, odd sticks or leaves, bits of sorry cloth or linen time had yet to devour, and equally suitable things that nonethelesss he could not identify in the dark.
He put them in the lamp.
He had enough now, and picked up two rocks and for a moment clawed for any other survival minutia he could manage remembering.
No wind here, no worry about that. It was humid, worse than a web, but nothing could be done. Between that and the poor quality of his fuel, he glimpsed difficulties lighting a fire.
What else was there?
Ah. He knew dragons had a certain temperment of venom oily enough to help. Was it spicy? Bitter? Tart?
He hoped it was of the latter two; the adviser wasn’t as good at — inspiring temperments in himself, as some he knew were. He didn’t consider it a virtue.
At length Adwyn managed a droplet of both. He judged the right flavor bitter by the slimy feel of it. But this little bit wasn’t enough.
Every dragon was a touch different, with their own little language of scent. Adwyn found that bitter venon came best when he was angry, jealous, stubborn. He thought of what mattered to him, what he really wanted to protect, out here in Mlaen’s country. His sister, who refused to ever again speak with him, whom he hadn’t seen in gyras? It only made him sad. The people of Dyfns, who needed an effective king, someone like him? He found it vaguely annoying.
They were his usual answers, and truly they did nothing for him.
What about the handsome high guard, who’d wet the adviser’s fangs more and more the longer he’d lived here? …Secrets hurt, Adwyn had learnt. It — changed things, to know that Rhyfel the younger was Rhyfel the elder, that Gwymr/Frina’s beacon of justice and comaraderie was the murderous, thieving bandit who’d roamed the cliffs, who’d stolen the Berwem outpost from the Dyfnderi protectorate, who’d conspired to dethrone Dwylla. Adwyn would have listened to his reasons — but if the scarlet drake did not even find him worth telling?
This was something angry, but not the right kind of anger.
What about the frustrating bluescaled exile? The wiver who could do things, important things — if she cared to. No, in the depths he didn’t care for her.
Adwyn sighed. Really, it was a farce that he’d had to think this hard. The answer was the very first thing he thought of.
The insomniac red wiver, who no doubt still sat awake on that dillerskin rest, still from time to time worrying about Adwyn in that scheming way of hers.
It would be a very sad thing, if Adwyn were lost forever down in the pits, and never again knew a morning with Mlaen and a chat over coffee; him having just woken up, and her having not.
Cynfe too, the cryptic halfbreed. She took after the faer like a daughter. The bundle of net came out his bags. Perhaps her gift would prove useful again. He dropped it into the lamp.
For morning coffee with Mlaen, for her wouldbe painter of an adoption, and maybe for Gwymr/Frina itself, Adwyn supposed he could go forth.
The bitter venom was a trickle now, and the drake spat into the murderer’s lamp. The rocks grinded against one another and sparked and sparked. Nothing. Nothing. A little ember which didn’t catch. Nothing. Another ember, a lucky one.
Adwyn had light.
The pits were very dark, but Adwyn had light.
The pits were unlike a web.
One could have a flame here, yes. The air wasn’t chittering and humming with secret conspiracy, yes. And yes, there were no strings of unsightly strength slowing every step.
Really, the pits were unlike every no drake’s place in which Adwyn ever had to operate a mission. In a number of ways, but the one that shone out was here his efficiency — even his survival — depend on his care for other dragons, rather than his lack; the lamp’s new flame was fueled as much by his bitter venom as it was by what poor flammable bits he could find.
The magical net had done something — given the flames some electric nature that left it crackling and smelling of ozone and sending little shocking fingers dashing out on the cursed iron of the lamp.
These bolts were very bright, so Adwyn added more torn bits of net every so often.
More often, he had to think of Mlaen and what he would fight for. Enough to dew bitter, and spit that into the flames.
He would need water soon, he knew; his canteen was dimming fast. He prayed the pits had a pool or stream, or that he would find the rumored door very soon. There came a rumbling, and the drake added food to that prayer. He could cook it now.
But hope for that was scarce. He watched the bugs and fungi grow thinner deeper in the pits, and really, what could live this deep underground? Would he want to eat it?
All that said the rooms if anything grew thicker — or at least more numerous. Many more cenotaphs rotted away in their fashion. Some had fallen apart so that skeletons could be seen, and a thing had gnawed at the bones.
All the while the walls still felt the engaved letters of that unsure script.
Till suddenly even that changed, from possibly Pteryxian, to antiquated y Draig: Who taketh to the highest skies, or In memoriam, or Walk fain in the gaze of Dyfns. The numbers he found were as early as gyra 547, and as late as 651.
Were the old outpost workers buried here? Before or after the fanciful legends of terror had limned its reputation?
It was an inappropriate thing for such a grave site, but Adwyn felt relief. Both for the change of epoch which surely foretold the end of all this scenery of death (and perhaps, that persistent feeling of dread quickening like breath), and because it in total meant him closer to the door.
Even lost in reflection, Adwyn did not misss that glimmer in the dark. He thought it looked like scales.
Baton out, he dashed forward.
The steps were fast, and to his left, the sound of little wings flapping.
Adwyn knew speed, and he chased. Catacombs weren’t built for chases, and walls stood to block, fire clay urns rolled to trip, and odd remaining doors swung to attack.
He could be careful, or he could be fast.
Dyfns saw that the chase led to a final room where three doors collapsed, (and the last through which they entered wanted to, but couldn’t).
Into this room the figure had fled and Adwyn blocked the exit. There was a lot of debris on the ground — perhaps a pillar had fallen also?
There the figure stood, quickly turning and seeing it was trapped.
Adwyn peered: four legs, two wings, one tongue. This was a dragon, a very small one, wearing silken, cowled robes and little sandals.
“Who are you?” asked Adwyn. “Why are you here?”
A grin under that silken cowl, a tongue flicking through it, and a high, lilting voice: “Beware the monster, mister Adwyn.” It sounded posh, and could have been imperious or commanding if it wasn’t playful. And if it wasn’t the voice of a moltling.
There was a lot of debris on the floor, and when the moltling looked up, the adviser realized. The ceiling had collapsed, too.
A leap and a flapping of those little wings, and the child in silken robes was gone. He opted not to follow, turned around, and went deeper into the pits, and he thought.
Adwyn was not alone in the pits.
With the other dragon gone, and the hungry tiredness only looking worse, Adwyn had to think deep about navigating the pits.
Catacombs did not have a direction; they sprawled. To a drake with somewhere to go, the winding corridors and identical rooms only had him groaning and muttering. Yes, a learnèd noble like he could appreciate the — not elegance, but accomplishment, perhaps — of the old Pteryxian stonemasters. He would admit it could impress even on the wrong side of a battle with time, and perhaps he would admit more on a full stomach.
With focused breaths, Adwyn settled himself, and remembered: He done more on less; a few gyras in an office and with full coffers shouldn’t let him forget that.
Adwyn flicked his tongue. His eyes couldn’t guide him here, so he scented. While the catacombs had a particular deathly smell, the pits proper knew a closer relation to the lake Berwem. Beneath the Wydrllos prison out in the lake’s center, an elevator went straight down to the deepest reaches, to the pits. The murderer’s route clearly wound, for no gleaming reason, but Adwyn would smell his way.
Sulfur would be the biggest hint, and one smelt just a glimpse of that; not enough for a gradient, not enough to follow.
Dustone and fire clay had a smell all their own, but Adwyn didn’t expect either to form this far down.
The drake was clouded in his thoughts. Forget what one should smell, he told himself, what did one smell? Linen. Ancient embalment. Something… fungal. An unwashed dragon — the moltling, he thought. Should he follow them?
The other smells were the teasing hints of sulfur, the bitter trail from his lamp, and a reek of blood and pus and shed scale — it was very strong for how far away it must’ve been.
The moltling ran from him; if they expected a chase, they expect it through that hole in the ceiling. Adwyn could loop around.
Why was there a moltling loose in ancient catacombs? They opened right to the malrumored pits, even the Wydrllos itself only dared descend a few wingbeats down into the depths.
If you heeded the whispers — Adwyn didn’t — then Aurisiuf of the night crawled up out of the pits; if one’s shadow fell into the pits, you lost it; even a breath of the foul vapors gave one that new papills sickness; that ugly Ushra had a secret, terrible lab down into the pits. They said, as Rhyfel did, that a demon had lain — or lay — in the pits. Sifters had died in the pits.
The adviser was a floor up, now, and following that drake’s scent. Though he had been walking some time at this point and took to peering at the walls a little closer, searching.
Too much to hope the moltling would be going somewhere instead of wandering.
Adwyn licked his brilles. Would it be a adequate conclusion of the day to take them home to some anxious mother or father? To do no noble duty for sake of Gwymr/Frina, but to save some specific day?
Adwyn passsed an opening where a fat rodent — skinful and pale — set or slept lazily out in the open. As the circling continued, he passed the opening again. Where a blood splat now lay.
The odor of blood and pus and shed scales had crept up very quick.
Adwyn was not dawdling — he was sneaking — yet at that he sped after the moltling.
He found the silkenrobed dragon climbing one of the cenotaphs. Right now, upside down and gawking at him.
At the orange drake rushing in, a tongue flicked, then a smile flattened and the hatchling lighted onto the floor, wings held tight and legs ready to leap. He asked, “Are you running from the monster?” A nod. “I know a place we can hide.”
But what was this monster? Why is a hatchling so adept at avoiding it? Could it harm Adwyn? While the adviser quietly figured questions, the moltling ran off. And Adwyn raced after. While the adviser did not swallow legend and rumor, fearing the unknown in the dark silent pits was sense. He had seen a web glitter, once.
The ceiling — or floor, from this angle — broke a number of times in a number of places he had never seen. Dropping floor after floor made quick pace. As they went the walls seemed to slough even the Dyfnderi graves, till all around them were raw caves and crevices. Perhaps they allowed here and there a support beam or a sign that shed its letters, a lost tatter of clothes, a scrolls, a strange tool, or any other anonymous draconic touch that might linger in this solitude. But they were all guests, and nature made a careless host.
Had it been a ring of wandering? Two? Adwyn looked at the moltling again, saw the silken robes touched with dirt scratches, the personal way his feet sunk into the leather sandals. He glanced to the head, where peering eyes took in the pit’s walls like a reader a favorite book.
Adwyn nodded. “You know the pits well.”
They blew their tongue. “Better than you.”
The orange drake stepped forward, first beside, then past the other.
“It’s only my first time.” He continued toward a cave mouth. It smelt most sulphurous.
“There’s a drop that way.” But the pair had taken drops all the way here. “I threw a few rocks down once. I never heard them clack.”
Spinning around then, smiling, the adviser asked them, “Then perhaps you can guide me. Ever seen a strange door at the deepest?” He lowered his head to their eye level. “Do it, and I shall guide you home to your parents.”
A wing whisk. “I don’t need that.” Then they turned and started off.
“Still, will you lead me?”
“Maybe.” An alula moved to scratch their chin — it didn’t touch, but it made the motion. “There are some strange dragons down here. Can you do something about them? These are my pits.”
His empty stomach protested. His aching legs resisted. His cloudy night mind was against it.
His sense of duty answered, “I can do it.”
He lifted his head and looked around. Here it was, the pits proper. Adwyn had made it.
And a moltling knew the pits better than he did.
The smell of sulfur was stronger down here. Adwyn could see the yellow of it settled into the walls, but the stink of it came from elsewhere: bubbling pools crowding the edges of the cave path like gutters.
The smell had been scented before — a hint in the head alchemist’s home, this morning. He knew the liquid wasn’t pure sulfur, and he knew he didn’t want any part of him dipped there; but that was all. He peered closer, idly as he walked, saw colorful stringy mats like algae at the bottom, crowded all around the holes that bubbled warmly up. Near them rose spires like metallic sponge. Some rose up and out of the sulfuric pools and resisted his pokes. Things swam in the pools too: tiny floater like sea jellies difting, and darkly near the surface were wriggling things he didn’t like.
These pools held Adwyn’s interest where the other sights became bleary background. The mushrooms had somehow remained, and this deep they glowed for some reason. Faintly; they were stingy with their light.
Worrisome were the scuttling bugs that now strutted like royalty — mitelike things that matched sifters’ description, save that where above they (supposedly) made a good meal, down here they made a meal of Adwyn. They sucked meat and blood where they found purchase, and buzzed incessantly.
If Adwyn were quick, there was still a good night’s sleep for him. That kept Adwyn striding forth when once or twice he lay down to break, even leaned his head low, even skipped a thought. He could sleep when all had been seen through.
That sounded like Mlaen, and this lit a smile and a little flame.
But between the mushrooms and glittery evil bugs, the lamp didn’t help overmuch.
After the smile, Adwyn’s mind regrettably returned to focus.
Perhaps it was the thrill of a new puzzle. How would Adwyn do something about a strange dragon deep below the Berwem? Strange how? Why were they down here?
First Adwyn had to find them. All the moltling said was ‘follow the hum’ and pointed to this opening.
Adwyn kept his frills perked in the beginning, though now they drooped. He listened for this hum, but there was hope for a trickle or rushing sound; as Adwyn brought a large canteen that tended almost two thirds empty.
The warning was a tickle or scuttle atop his head. He should have been more cautious, but faint winds carred dust, and liquids that weren’t water dripped; so at first he ignored it likewise.
The next thing he felt was a sting driving right into his eye — red and bright and — Adwyn ripped the evil mite off his brille.
He bled over his right eyescale now. Did he have something to wrap it with? Was it worth sacrificing half his vision? Out of one eye alone, Adwyn could hardly see over his snout.
But infection killed sharply. Adwyn treasured his eyes.
By the time the orange drake had alchohol-stung eyes and an eyepatch of bandages, his frills flared.
A wavering pitch had snuck onto the fringe of hearing. He was close.
The moltling had also said, “I maybe thought it was something new to play with down here. But I didn’t like the dragon there. They were thin and groany and had strange stuff in their mouth.”
One heard the groaning first, a perfect octave down from the hum. When that pitch wavered, Adwyn almost imagined the groan struggling in counterpoint.
Along the way Adwyn splashed into — something sticky and oleagenious. He hardened his face and moved on; disgust wouldn’t stop him.
Tongue flicked. Adwyn did not smell the blood and pus and shed skin — well, he did, and it wafted close with steps; but this smell was newer, paler, and, perhaps, washed out? It lacked the vast menace of the smell of the ‘monter’, and almost seemed to be fading away.
The passage — a tunnel, really — wagged back and forth, and undulated. Adwyn nearly gasped surprise when it halted with a swift drop. He landed on his feet, but he had missed the ground. Was it the fall, or a tired leg’s sabotage?
At the sound of a voice, that tiredness drew back.
“Who… who’s that…?”
“Adwyn of Dyfns, high military adviser, with license to detain and arrest. Who are you?” He lifted to a high walk and tended closer.
Slumped against a wall. Garbed in darkened, tearing rags. Sprawled out, legs seeming to twitch or convulse.
Adwyn stepped closer; the dragon stayed silent, though the neck languidly snaked the head forth, pointed vaguely toward Adwyn. The mouth opened and one could almost see words squirming forth. But that was the tongue. Tongues?
The tongue or tongues weren’t the only squirming thing attached. Adwyn nearly vomited to know the dark leechlike things wiggling in the sulfuric pools could breath his air. Two of them snuggled onto the dragon; one at the haunches, one around near the back.
Those mites crawled slowly, stealthily over the limp wings. They still buzzed, a perfect octave above the hum that led him here.
Parts of the dragon swelled. Bits like the ankles, perhaps they were heavy with pus or blood, but on the belly, neck and head? It had the qualities of a tumor.
Papills. He had visited the hospitals. He knew.
The words at last broke free. “Names…” they said. “Dragons have those… they do. I should have — had one. Maybe, maybe I did. I’m —” There came coughs, violent bloodly coughs whose outburst landed upon him. “I’m… down in the pits. That’s all there is. They, they told me this would — happen. Who? who did?”
Memory loss. Delirum. Fragmented thinking or speech. He’d seen it before.
Adwyn asked, “What can you recall? How old are you?”
“How old? Old — old enough to… alight. I remember — light. That’s true, isn’t it, isn’t it? From the blue sky. I hope that wasn’t a dream, it was very nice. Too nice.”
Adwyn, with hesitation, drew closer. He did not touch the dragon, but made himself present, made himself visible.
“Can you recall anything personal? Who are you?” Why was he bothering? Let the Inquirers tear confessions — trespassing in the pits was high crime. And if it were an escaped prisoner —
Then what was going on in the prison? In the pits?
It was a puzzle. Cold curiosity. Adwyn didn’t care.
They said, “I had a mother, didn’t I, didn’t I? She would sing. Sing — songs. They had… notes. One of them went like this.” And they hummed. Its tone was a centperfect unison with the overmastering pitch behind them, that vibration which suffused.
The dragon shifted or fell, and revealed what lay behind them: the source of the hum, a glowing glass over which the scuttling bugs were swarming like many deaths.
“Get yourself away from that!”
“It sounds like mother. No one else down here. But the ghost.”
It wasn’t bright of him to touch the dragon. Adwyn did not care — so he didn’t know why he did it. All the same, grabbing the dragon by the foreleg, yanking them bodily, and falling into a leap, Adwyn felt the flexing tiredness reach a peak, then, and he could have stayed like that. But he forced the dragon off top him, and it took three sweeps to get away all the eager biting mites.
“You need to get out of here. That’s an order.”
(It’s a mighty convenient use of power, ain’t it? The voice sounded like the high guard — but even his imagined Rhyfel had no right to talk about fairness anymore.)
“Do I? Hm…” The dragon struggled to get up – that was what Adwyn hoped the flailing legs meant.
“What —” the voice had gained a slight lucidity, “What gyra is it now? It’s been — long, feels like.”
“That’s — no. It’s not. You’re — You are fuckin with me.” The dragon managed a stand now. And fell right back down. “You aren’t, aren’t even a real guard, I bet.”
“I am. And I have no reason to lie.”
“They’re all — dead. They have to be.” It wasn’t a response.
The dragon craned their head up to looked up at Adwyn. The forelegs shook and spasmed as they came up and held the snout.
“If you, you aren’t lying then —” Another cough, more spit and bitter, bitter venom splatting on his armor. “If you are a guard, maybe you got — a sword? Please, please make it… quick.”
Adwyn stared at the dragon. The tumorous, bugridden, swelling, shaking, pale, thin, forgotten, forgetting, old, lost, withering, suffering dragon.
All life was precious, wasn’t it? He knew that now. Wedd and Ysais seared that knowledge into him.
Adwyn had sworn a vow. The king, the brightest priest, his lovely sister, all his family had been there to witness it. He was a pacifist.
And yet, Adwyn looked again at the suffering dragon, whom no one was left to miss, who had lost everything, who clung like in a slumber to only a ghostly memory of their mother from which Adwyn had wrenched them away.
The black ascendant knew strangulation. It was quick when one held the vessels, and this (hopefully) dying dragon couldn’t struggle under him.
He could do it.
And if he didn’t, would it be better to let cruel, torturous life have its game with them for however many days — cycles – dances — gyras (it’s been — long) that it would take?
Adwyn regarded the dragon for quite a while.
Death took a long, long breath.
And in the dark, quiet pits, the old dragon knew slumber absolute.
As the murderer walked back down the winding tunnels of the pits, even the mites seemed to avoid him. He felt his heart keeping rhythm in his frills, and his burning legs seemed to move without him. It was these bodily things that kept time moving forward for Adwyn. Everything of his mind seemed utterly still, or lost deep in the past.
It had been gyras. The black ascendent had returned. And no one would even know. Dyfns had witnessed him betraying his vows; but any mortal dragon?
The old dragon had had a locket on them. The timepiece had came apart — mechanical parts fell out when he opened it. As did a tender piece of fernpaper, dirty with charcoal. It was a sketch, and not a bad one for the work of a cliff dragon.
There was a big smiling wiver, and a smaller, younger drake whom Adwyn had to recognize — the instants with their neck under his feet had seared the image in his head. Brice, and his mother Edle.
Had this been a commision, or had Brice been an artist? He would never know.
Adwyn felt no loss, not truly, but there was a lingering emptiness, abstract and nameless. There were defintions of the yawning chasm of loss, but this?
“You have returned. Did you get rid of that boring strange dragon?”
Adwyn looked at the moltling. What would he say? His brilles clouded, and mind slipped to the past —
He was right about those pools. Dipping a bit of Brice in to them, and the rags were eaten away. The scales? To be digested. Whether by the vitriolic pools, or the hungry mites and leeches.
“You won’t have to worry about him any more.”
“Wondrous! The other —”
“I’m sorry hatch, but I am exceeding tired and I have business to handle in the pits. I have helped you. Can you show me to the door?”
“After you do as I say.” They spread their wings and lifted their head all the way up — barely reaching Adwyn’s withers.
He flicked his tongue. “Did your mother not teach you how speak to your elders?”
“She taught me how to command my lessers. And I say —” The moltling flicked their tongue. The drake smelt it too. “Oh dear, the monster is coming. He acts strange.”
He started off toward the mouth opposite where Adwyn’d come from.
“Can I follow?”
They turned and peered at the orange drake. “Hm. The monster may not like you, and you have been useful.” Again the scratching alula not reaching their chin. “…You may.”
Adwyn walked behind the moltling, and reched for conversation to keep him awake. “Do you have a name?”
He waited, then sighed. He said, “I am Adwyn.”
“Of Dyfns, the black ascendant. I have heard of you.” He glanced back, smiling with teeth. “I did not think you would come so soon.”
The small dragon’s teeth were very white to catch the light — someone must take care of them.
They walked far ahead of Adwyn (just out of reach of his lamp), but when they turned, the faint mushroom light was enough to hint at their scales; some color very light.
Adwyn saw they pulled the hood tighter over their head.
Did they hide something? Adwyn peered closer — but they had socks on under the sandals, and the cloak they wore covered them to the tip of the tail.
This night had limned it more clearly than any other: Gwymr/Frina was the capital of the land of glass and secrets.
A sigh, and a neutral question: “Where are we going?”
“To see the blind wiver.”
A blind wiver? Living deep in the pits? He ought to henceforth deny this night the privilege of surprising him.
Perhaps this wiver was whoever took care of the impetuous little skink. And Adwyn wanted a proper adult with him again, someone who could understand and answer his questions.
So he followed after the moltling. They were small, even given how the silken robes wrinkled and draped around him. He came up to about Adwyn’s knees. It didn’t put Adwyn at ease; he’d lived in Gwymr/Frina long enough that the sight of a nimble little dragon, cowled and secretetive, would only have him gripping his coinpouch with a tail or wing.
If this were a grift, it was a long, involved one. Adwyn hadn’t brought his money — no point. But there were documents left in his bag, detritus from all the meetings and trysts he’d had today. They could be a headache if certain parties had a tongue on them.
Besides the moltling, what else was there? The little gleaming webs still tended in the corners, but Adwyn was beginning to decide they were the nests of mere spiders. He had grown used to crushing the insistent mites, and though the slimy leeches twitched when he stepped too close, their lunges never brought them close enough to land on Adwyn.
He heard the crack of a rock or old brick falling out place, distant and blended with atmospheric sounds. There was a ‘monster’ dwelling in the pits. Adwyn still hadn’t seen it — he didn’t much want to, but he wondered how so many dragons could live in these soulless depths.
The thought travelled quickly; he asked the moltling, “This blind wiver — would you suppose she could spare a draught of water? Perhaps a morsel of food? It was a long night before I had to travel these caverns, you must understand.”
The moltling glanced back — face still shadowed — and made a hum of thought. He tossed a wing at the clay mounds that occasioned the walls.
Down in the pits, the gliderscorpions had grown fat and nimble, and would clump together in nests of dirt and metal. They’d become social things, speaking with voices that whistled or lowly roared, and at times resembled speech.
The smaller ones dared closer to the drakes as they passed a nest.
Adwyn watched as the moltling caught a jumpy scorpion and at length tore off its legs, then each wing, stinger then chelicerae, and lastly the head.
They threw the dripping thing at Adwyn.
He had done more on less.
Crackling electric flames still burnt in the murderer’s lamp. Soon a sizzling gliderscorpion smell wafted.
The orange drake didn’t like the mouthfeel of chitin, so he cracked it open and consumed the meat with tongue and teeth.
Catching a few more gliderscorpions wasn’t hard work (though now they had wisened up to his intentions) and now Adwyn was exceeding thirty. His canteen was one third, now.
Always there was a hum crackling on the fringes of the pits’ soundscape. When one took the wrong fork in a passage, one of the clashing hums would ride in close and curl under your frills, dare you to complain. Awful.
The moltling slowed in his walk. Adwyn felt his baton with his wing.
He was expecting another dying dragon who aped the pitch with its groans.
But from the shadows one heard the pitch instead mimicked by a scream.
Then lunged a beast on four legs, a grayred dragon coming to tatters. They charged forward like a dripping tongue snapping forth. It was blood or pus or something else that was coming off this dragon, something black with a smell that rotted your tongue, or should have.
There was no pause from the mad dragon to scare or examine the party. Adwyn could see the bloodshot sclera. When a wing snapped out, the drake had his baton swing up, lamp dropping still onto the ground.
The grayred dragon was strides away, aiming to rake him with clawed wingfingers while charging. But Adwyn blocked the wing. Still it charged forward.
The orange drake fell to his hindlegs to bodily resist the charge. It let up then, pulling back and twisting while the tail lashed to smack.
He dodged away, freed from its wing his baton. Swinging his head around, away from the attacker, the orange drake peered a breath. Where was the moltling? Were they safe?
The silken robes caught faintest light, and moltling was just out of reach. Up on a wall, near the ceiling, hiding. The molting had leapt off, climbed away from harm.
Adwyn let the tail hit him, and adjusted as he fell back on all fours. A bite was coming, and the orange drake was half jumping and half slinking away.
The baton in his wing swung again, cracking against the grayred dragon’s nose. Blood fell out.
It snarled and tossed its head.
Like some wild beast.
Adywn couldn’t get space to breathe. It rushed at him again and again, driven by some black frenetic energy.
Could he trust the moltling to help him? Drop down and claw it apart from above?
Could he trust whatever magic or worse tainted these dragons with swelling and pallor and madness not to infect the hatch by careless touch?
Another wild swing, a bite, a wing trusting out. Adwyn blocked them with his baton, or tried to dodge them, or let his rugged schizon take the pain.
It was a fighting style he’d grown into after the vow. Never offensive, assuaging or deflecting everything. A pacifist’s stance.
It was not how the black ascendent fought.
How would he, the murderer who had — deniably — eliminated some of capitol’s most wellprotected dragons, how would he end this fight?
For a moment, he forgot the events of tonight, and simply allowed his mind to act as it naturally did.
After all, the art of death come as easily to him as everything else.
When the grayred dragon first charged the crackling lamp had been dropped. Adwyn gave the dragon a quick clawrake; the sudden pain yielded sudden pause, enough for the orange drake to leap over, light down right by the lamp and its dwindling flame.
The glass cracked as the thrown lamp hit the grayred dragon smack in the face. Fire crawled all over the weakened dragon, darkening pale scales, popping upon touching the black blood, and turning to utter ash the ragged linens.
Still the mad dragon staggered forth, wings ready to rake him again.
Adwyn had known the flames were weak, and his brain had already accounted for it. He took a breath.
He always could have done something like this, loosened up, become properly dangerous. Why hadn’t he? He’d taken the vow. He still had honor, dignity. And when the weight of life strained his back, and finally bid him to slouch, for what end did he still struggle forth now?
Mlaen. Cynfe. Perhaps, Kinri.
The bitter venom came again, and Adwyn spat in twin streams at the lunging mad grayred dragon.
The flame ate his passion, flared like watered flowers, and the pain (such pain; fire hurt more than heartbreak), Adwyn had a few breaths longer to work.
The bamboo spool of nets came out next, and torn net flew to engulf the dragon, and their last feeling was melting to magic electrity.
Adwyn drew at last the little blade the wingèd snake had found, and with that, he finished the endeavor. The mad dragon lay headless in its final slumber, and the murderer breathed deep and long.
The moltling lighted down after that, and had the gall to nurse a smile in their voice:
“Wonderful work, mister Adwyn. That was the other one. I shall tell the blind wiver just how helpful you’ve been.”
“What is this ‘monster?’”
“Perhaps, young drake, you could initiate our conversation — our first conversation with something a bit more social.”
Adwyn rolled his glowering head. Rude, he knew, but hard to resist, knowing she wouldn’t see. Though he half couldn’t see either; he didn’t trust the shattered lamp to safely carry a flame anymore, and now it rested bottom of his bag. The moltling seemed to have no trouble finding their way without it, and Adwyn wasn’t wholly worse off; the strange glowing mushrooms kept him oriented, and the mites sometimes flashed greater light. You even got light from deep in the vitriol pools, but Adwyn didn’t trust its reflections.
None of that in here, though. Mushrooms were scraped off the walls, mites kept away by asceptic scents, and vitriolic pools sat bubblingly clear.
The blind wiver lived in caves where the rocky ground became soft, fertile silt, and near the warm pools odd greenless plants sprouted up. Around them were big fireclay tables, and on them sat detritus of life: a half eaten gliderscorpion; a clay tablet almost filled with unreadable tactile engravings; distorted clay figures, like dragons constructed from touch alone. The figures had the look of a hatchling’s drawing seen to life. (It was no mystery; Adwyn knew one’s first drawings were informed more by the feel of things than how they actually looked.)
They sat in glazed clay chairs, too. Or rather Adwyn did. The blind wiver was at a rocky surface, chopping up gliderscorpion and another of the fat fleshy rodents. The molting was around here somewhere, playing the inscrutable hiding games of dragonlings.
“Well, who are you? My name is Adwyn, adviser to faer Mlaen-sofran.”
For a beat, she continued chopping at the meat. He worried momentarily, and almost spoke up to help; but he knew how perversely proud and protective lesser dragons would get of what little ability they’d scraped out. He’d rather not have offered help be spurned.
“I would tell you my name, but you shall not need to remember it. Suffice it to call me the blind wiver. Everyone does.”
“I would think you wouldn’t want to be… reminded —”
“Nonsense. I’m not a hatch who’d cry at the wrong words.”
As he expected. So Adwyn glanced to his claws, begin to scrape accumulated dirt from them. “Tell me, does your blindness bear any connection to the — sick dragons which tend these caves?”
“Clever drake. Stop thinking about it.”
Frustrating wiver. He said, “As you wish.”
The moltling dodged out of a tiny opening in the wall, and crept along the shadows like a little Black Fang. His stabbing claws found an overlarge spider.
The orange drake gripped hard the table as the hatch carried the twitching hairy legful creature to the wiver. She popped her tongue and said, “Too poisonous. Throw it in the vitriol.”
The silken robed dragon trailed away slowly, head down. They glanced at the Adwyn, and threw the spider. The drake quick snapped his foreleg up, and knocked it back. It smacked the kid in the face, and they hissed at him, but walked on.
“I take it you care for this little problem?”
“Someone must. You wouldn’t trust the other dragons down here to do it, would you?”
Adwyn peered closer, eyeing the startlingly dark green scales, which looked healthy enough.
“It’s just — don’t suppose you are the hatch’s mother, no? Who is?”
The wiver laughed. “I wonder why the hatch brought down such a questioning drake as you. What’d you say your name was, Adwyn? Not Hinte? Not Chwithach? Interesting.”
A sigh, a muttered, “Dyfns deliver me from mysterious dragons.”
“Sorry to say, but your little canyon spirit doesn’t shine here.” A pause. “Not anywhere, to be true, but especially not here.”
Godless squirrels. At least the traitor had been cut from a different cloth.
“Listen, miss. I am on an important mission for Mlaen-sofran. I must descend the pits and examine the door down here. Tell me if you aren’t going to help.”
“She’s not my faer. This isn’t Gwymr/Frina.” A sigh. “But if the little one thinks you’re worth helping, there must be something.”
“Thank you for doing your duty to the land of glass and secrets.”
“Oh shut up. I have long, long ago done my duty to Dwylla and this lacuna-damned land of secrets. Whom I serve now is my business.”
“Still, the help is appreciated.”
“This is not me helping you. This is me allowing you to proceed.” She reached into her silken robes, retrieved an irregular length of metal. “You shall need this key to enter the labs, and only through there shall you reach the hallowed chamber.”
The chopping had stopped a while ago, replaced by subtler sounds like the dance of spices, cold sizzling, or the faint smacks of meat being shaken in a bowl.
The wiver brought Adwyn a bowl of meat and sat the key down beside it. She didn’t take her foot off the key, however.
“Thank you, miss.”
“I have a few conditions. First, I assured you everything down in the pits is owned. You purportedly have a mission. Focus on that, and ignore any shiny thing you think might not be missed. It will.”
“Of course. What is a canyon drake, if not honorable?” Nothing. He was nothing.
“Second, mind my sister. You shall face her sooner or later, and I don’t think she’ll take kindly to you. Don’t hold it against her.”
“I don’t think anything in these pits has taken kindly to me.” Or worse, they hadn’t taken him serious.
“Third, take care of the little one, who shall be coming with you.” The moltling sulked out from the shadows.
Adwyn glared at the hatch, and stopped himself. Had his hold on himself slipped that much?
“And finally, stop calling him the monster. It’s bad enough the little one started doing that. Know he’s lucky his mind survived the process lucid for so long. His body isn’t even the worse case we’ve seen.”
“What do I call him, then? What is his name?”
The wiver only smiled.
Adwyn was fledging immensely tired after an evening of dragons smugly denying him answers. Once, twice was chance, thrice and he started paying attention. Why would a dragon deny him answers? Not seeing a reason to give them to him? And why not that? Because Adwyn wasn’t on their side, he wasn’t their friend, they wouldn’t open up to him.
The one spot of cooperation, of wholesale sharing of information, had been with the red wiver. She was his ally, of course. And yet, the others: Ysais and Wedd were with capitol, and had acted his assitants; the murderer needed him in his plans, needed his clout and openness; the blind wiver trusted him with the moltling and the key to this ‘hallowed chamber’.
They were all his allies. And yet, in some capacity, there was a hesitation, some axis along which they did not fully align with him.
For perhaps once, Adwyn briefly considered the notion that other dragons may not like him.
It was something new and unexplored enough to snare his thoughts for several moments.
Around him, the pits were really starting to limn the influence of the fiery lake Berwem. The dustone and limestone showed veins of fire clay, and even the crizzling glass that had wormed its melting way down.
At intervals one passed a vein that was not yet vitrified, and would shine warmly. The cool glow of the mushrooms danced with the dim light of the dying glass, and Adwyn, lampless and squizzing, smiled for it. They offered heat, as well, and gave the mites confidence they didn’t need, but seemed to scare off the gliderscorpions, and Adwyn’s stomach was not happy for that change.
“I hate going this way. Too hot!”
The moltling punched a dark bit of glass, watched it sag or shatter as a result.
“Does it get hotter than this?” He’d helped the high guard deal with troublemakers on the sifter teams. He could — just — bear standing near the lake. Now he was under it.
“Changes with the tide. You should have asked the wiver.” They punched the wall again. “I hope today is not a really hot day.”
The orange drake sighed and fell back into his thoughts, cloudy eyes roaming the glowing veins and swooping mites.
He asked the moltling, “Do I seem like a nice drake?”
“No.” He tail flicked, smacked Adwyn in the snout. “Nice drakes do not make it this deep into the pits.”
“The blind wiver says they do not belong.”
The orange drake had worn and punctured frills that cast thoughtful shapes on his neck. He watched the walls change and not change as they walked on. At first the inexplicably glowing mushrooms had perplexed him, but as he looked closer he could see at intervals the bugs which at times resembled moths would come by and light on the luminescent beds. Their tongues like little pipes would sink down into the mushroom and after awhile they would fly away on their business.
Without the sun, the pits were without flowers, and the mushrooms had seen an oppurtunity.
One would suppose today was in fact a hot day; the heat pressed harder and gamelier onto Adwyn. His canteen became emtpy.
“How much longer until we reach this hallowed chamber?”
The moltling didn’t answer, and he asked again.
“I don’t know! I don’t go this way. But you can’t fit through my way, so we go the hot way. It is longer.”
The murderer did not complain again. At length the ground flattened itself as if finally entertaining a request, and the plants and metal sponges poking out of vitriol pools were shooed away. The hot veins of seeping glass were not so kind, and if anything grew fatter.
The tunnel tended wider, too, but it felt more like it loomed than it opened up. After the ground was flat, one began to spot big cyclopean bricks of granite half consumed by the dustone.
It wasn’t just the dustone; fire clay and crizzling glass covered the fledgling bricks, as well as the dirty stuff that remains after mushrooms and worms have had their way with dead things. Even now, the vitriol pools lingered, and Adwyn increasingly was tempted to wash his feet utterly clean. He had trudged through worse, he knew. Few things could truly disgust a drake who felt what remains of a true spider’s uppity slave.
At last what had seemed to be a lost floor made a final push to emerge from the encrouching pits, and succeeded. The cyclopean bricks now spread out unhindred, and Adwyn saw between them melty iron like grout.
Cursed. These pits were cursed in about every aspect.
“Why do you play in a place like this?”
“We’re waiting till the time is right.”
A grin looking back, sharp white teeth. “A new faer.”
Adwyn opened his mouth for more questions, but didn’t like how dry his mouth became when the hot cave air rushed in. He saved them for when they found water. He feared that would take a while in the pits — why hadn’t he asked the blind wiver for drink?
They walked past a wall honeycombed with deep indentations. Sidling closer, Adwyn saw that each cubbyhole had a name printed above it — and it was neither y Draig nor the Pteryxian-looking one. Adwyn could tell Drachenzunge, but could not read it.
The orange drake stopped, and breathed still for a few cycles. He flew alone in a storm of questions; the secrets of the pits roared and flashed in sudden hints, and all around him was a rain occluded and secretive. He flew alone, but toward a beacon: the unflappable faer Mlaen and her mind which could rival the scarlet snake himself.
Together, they would unravel the secrets of Gwymr/Frina. Until then, he would survive the pits, and witness what lay at the depth of it all.
Before he left he tended a space closer to the cubbies, peered and glimpsed what lay inside them. Faded pages lost to time, the skeletons of snakes long dead, scurrying bugs who’d reclaimed the holes, wands and rings that still hummed with some magic. Adwyn didn’t touch those.
He made a note of the wall, and started toward the moltling waiting near (but not very near) a shining vein. The tunnel now had opened up so suddenly and widely that you could call this a room. There were two pillars on either side which upheld a roof sagging and dipping with glass.
There was a wide, inviting opening at the center of it all and the moltling was tended toward it. Adwyn followed, ready for more unintelligible hints.
They came into an atrium like a dragon with wings outstretched or a tree with leaves of short crumbling pews. From here a spine or trunk marched down centerly, till it reached a final platform where it suddenly lifted like a proud head. Many limbs unfurled from the center, and unfurled again, till there were many boughs of seating on either wing of the room.
They were not alone. There were serveral bloated shapes lit dimly from above, one of which moved.
The molting said, “I forgot which side it is on. Look for a lever. This room has lights.”
Adwyn glanced around the shadowed rooms. The walls were occluded, and the forms sticked off them could be collapsed rocks, fungal growths, or the lever. The shape moved again, and the murderer focused on it, wing at his baton.
“I found it.” Next came a kind of snap, and then the now familiar crackling of magical electricity. It coursed and pulsed through the iron grout of the walls and blue knots of shock danced at intersections.
Then orbs bulging out from the walls breathed cool light.
The atrium had lost a battle with the lake from above. Columns of glass leisurely flowed down and consumed the pews at length. Chunks and sections of the ceiling had been punted down to crater the floor. The atrium had lost the battle, but uninformed stranglers still fought: final pillars upheld lucky sections, and a few groups of pews hadn’t been lost to disarray. But even the floor had given in its own way: tilted from high left to low right like one falling bit of ceiling had hit too hard. At the far right a colorless misty liquid pooled, he flicked his tongue, it was vitriol.
Farther from the center, the lights mounted on poles took longer to light as if the conductive iron grout had sustained damange, but when it was finished they saw many of the bloated shapes were infected dragons dead or close enough not to matter.
The one moving shape fled to the cowardly shadows at the ends.
As gaze moved from fringe to center, Adwyn’s breath fled him. On that platform there stood a weltering mass on — one hopes — four legs.
The blind wiver had asked Adwyn not to call him a monster, but it was not a promise he could keep.
His claws scored the granite where he stood. In truth, those feet resembled more sea stars or gnarled knotted roots, and every foot a different species. One leg upheld like a pillar, another bent like a tentacle or whip, one like a foreleg, and another couldn’t be seen but at this angle ought to have been. There were too many tails — three? Seven? Five and a half? Irregardless, Adwyn had seen the wriggling of an agitated archon spider. The wings weren’t wings, and Adwyn didn’t like to look too long at the trunk. Was it too long or too short? The scales — if they were scales — of the things didn’t like the light. Adwyn glimpsed perhaps they wanted to be white, but they bubbled and stretched, and blood or pus always seemed to be a possibility away on every scute. Adwyn forgot the tails, and decided there were six limbs. He wished it would stay that way, but the tendency of the flesh seemed to be exploring every possibility. A scale became a tendril became a horn became a decaying thing falling off; elsewhere the line of thought was picked up, turning to roots or grasping bony things or things that flapped. Never in places that made sense. The neck emerged after several false starts and it wasn’t properly long. You could call what was on the end a head — you had to. It didn’t have the only eyes, the only mouths, the only flaring nostrils or curling horns, but it was a convention. The eyes there were there, crowned uncontested the face, and they were the right shape, yet clouded. The mouth sat closed rather than groaning or screaming like other infected, and Adwyn wondered if coherrent speech rested there. When the cracked, twitching lips parted, many tongues flicked out in rhythmless cacophony. There were exactly nine frills, evenly distributed on each side. Overall, one supposed it fit many definitions of a draconid. One’s mind refused to squint when faced with such an ontological threat — but if one did, one could see the resemblance. And yet, the entirety of the creature was flickering unintelligibly in Adwyn’s mind just as much the dithering sections of skin — was it once a wraith? An ugly outgrowth of the vitriolic pools? Two infected dragons who’d lain too close together? Was it a dragon at all, at all? Had it once been a dragon? Adwyn stared long, and in all his study at the universities and monasteries and libraries of two nations, he couldn’t weave together the proper words to render such a creature in entirety — and it was for the best, for no dragon truly wanted that.
He did not scream. He knew control. He knew breathing. Adwyn clouded his eyes, and saw not.
Still, even behind clouded brilles, Adwyn could in recollection see the weltering mess. The spiderly tail. The legs of different species. The scales that crawled.
Adwyn knew utter terror, and no exercise of the mind erased it.
The molting was regarding the monster with a smile or sneer. He had a wing lifted, and that meant something. It almost pointed, at that was enough to drag his gaze back toward the monster.
Its brilles, too, had unclouded, and in that moment, Adwyn recognized. He’d seen the portraits. He’d heard the legends.
He glanced at the molting. Details were blending in his head. But with the expanding fearcloud, no triumph nor revelation could shine through. Far away on the platform at the head of the room, the monster took a single step forward, toward them. Adwyn did not scream. He set his gaze on a ceiling hole yawning above, and crouched. He prayed Dyfns that the twisting image would leave him as he left the room.
Crouched, Adwyn leapt.
Beneath him, the floor crumbled under the weight, and he never rose.
In a place called the pits, one expected to fall for longer. The orange drake landed sharp on his back, hard rocks poking into him. Beneath the atrium and its granite blocks, the fire clay had washed away and left a cavern. The glowing mushrooms reclaimed it, while the shining flows of glass were sated above. Down here things were slimier and full of insectiod chittering, and an explanation at once gleamed when Adwyn turned his head right.
The was a churning lake of vitriol deep underground. The leeches teemed and wormed, the metal sponges dotted like bushes. He saw stranger things floating along and did not look long.
As if spurned along by a occulted thought, Adwyn curled to a stand and limped to the edge of the lake.
He could take another step.
A final bath.
The land would be rid of the black ascendant, at last, and he could know peace.
As in ritual, the counterarguments surfaced. It was a cowardly act. But he had proven himself one to flee many times down in the pits. He was honorbound to serve Gwymr/Frina. But what was Gwymr/Frina? The true nature of the capitol of the land of glass and secrets forever seemed to swirl and shift under him. Increasingly he could not separate the conspiritorial rot that writhed here from the beauty worth preserving. He owed it to Mlaen, his only friend. Was he truly serving her best by remaining here? Did she need him? There was already the treasurer, the high guard, and that ridges’ adviser. Did the Frinan administration truly need another murderer?
Long did he stare into his shadowy reflection on the liquid’s surface. In the end, the impetus did not come as some revelation or insight; his thoughts still tended silence or vague circling along the same flightpaths. No, the answer ultimately could not come from inside him.
A ghostly form drifted in that vitriol lake, and swam gently toward him.
At his backing away, the form slowly climbed ashore on flippers unused to walking. It had a head, body, and six swimming limbs. A distant cousin of this species must have resembled a salamander at one point, and resemblance lingered in the bulbous head and large halfblind eyes. It nosed on the ground, round tongue finding scents in the air.
Salamanders didn’t quite have scales, and the round hard plates that clung to this one limned the impression of something separate, loosely attached, with how it swung and wrinkled.
Gingerly, stupidly, did it approach the drake. The nonsalamander opened a gaping mouth and burped.
He clicked a laugh, though it eased away when the breath touched him and his scales seemed to sting and grow very dry.
The orange drake backed away further, and fell to laughing again at the absurdity of it — a survival instict after what he was considering!
He rubbed the flaky scales where the creature’s breath hit him as he stepped away and watched it snuffle along the ground. The contents of his bag had spilled out with the fall, and littered the ground. The canteen; the sword; the smashed lamp; the timepiece of Brice.
The timepiece had snapped open at its impact, and the paper fluttered so subtly in cavern air. The creature neared it, eyeing the paper, and feeling — something well up from his glands, he lunged forward.
The thing startled at the movement. Adwyn took anohter step toward it. It backed up, then waded back into the vitriol, disappeared into its depths.
He glanced at the little piece of paper, the last memory of Brice and Elde.
The venom welling up had been bitter.
Adwyn let himself be immersed in the odd protectiveness he felt for that timepiece and paper, and let himself walk away from the pool of vitriol.
He lit another flame with venom and Cynfe’s gift. The flames were wild now without the glass restraining. He let the fire consume Brice’s last sketch. It flared brighter.
Adwyn stared long into the flames. Even in the darkness of the pits, in his own darkness, there was light and there was something worth protecting.
And for now, he would.
Striding forward, orange feet made quick work out of the cavern below the atrium. The tunnels sought out like tendrils, in many directions, but going left and climbing, he returned to corridors with cyclopean blocks and unfaltering pillars. He was sure he’d walked past the length of the atrium, so wherever he was, it lay behind the atrium.
But as the environs turned from cavern to ruins, it grew harder to navigate. Rooms split off from the corridors, and Adwyn had not the time or energy to explore their contents. It wore on his tired, abused body enough to simply be moiling forth. But he did, for he must.
”Deep, deep down in the pits, there’s a supposedly sealed door. You can find it by going the other way whenever any one way seems right. If it feels like you shouldn’t be there, keep going. After it feel like you right died, you’re close. If you go deep like that, you’ll find that sealed door.”
Like that, Adwyn went on. His mouth had known only dryness for what felt like rings. He swished his canteen, and didn’t let himself regret how it turned out. His initial desire to tend close to the vitriol lake had completed itself, and left him with a canteen full of the stuff. He just had to remember not to drink it. So he kept it in one wing, swished it.
Adwyn knew many things, but he did not know how to sleep and walk. All the same, his thoughts and memory warped and entire corridors or rooms seemed to pass without his remembering crossing them.
He came to what passed as full awareness when his head bonked against a cursed iron door. Two of them. With a keyhole in the metal.
The door to the labs? The blind wiver had given him the key. It worked, and carefully, feet kept from the iron with the sleeve of his armor, Adwyn opened the gate.
Inside, he could believe the rumors of some awful alchemist holing up down here. Every color of liquid sat in an oddly shaped glass somewhere, smelling assortedly of vitriol, saltpeter, lards and oils, glazeward and respira, and every manner of dried plant one could find in the cliffs. He knew also, from the master high alchemist who dwelt in the Geunantic palace, the smell of aqua regia, alkahest and aver.
Besides ingredients, there was a palpable dissonance of five or six foot-sized crysts blaring or shrieking throughout the room. The mites weren’t here, and one would almost think it worsened the sound.
On tables all around you saw wraiths or olms or rotting dragons drawn, quartered, and vivesected. Organs were on plates and scales, sealed up in containers or soaking in strange liquids. One could not tell which parts were dragon and which parts were not.
The room was organized without being labelled, and there was not an overarching order. It had one’s eyes wandering listlessly around, seeing without finding the meaning that would tie it all together.
It left it easy to miss the most curious sight in the room: the row of dragons stock still along a wall, eyes very dark, and scales black like the blind wiver.
Among them was a gap, like one was missing.
Tightness entered Adwyn walk toward the other door of the room. He unholstered his baton in wing. His frills flexed, straining to hear, and heard death mumble something. Adwyn’s agitation traveled down his spine and lashed his tail. By the time he made it to the center of the room and the tables tended thicker, that lashing tail smacked a glass, spilt something to the ground. His foot found the glass and near tripped him, but he already had caution enough.
Already still, Adwyn half turned to glance behind — that out of place black dragon was right there, standing still as the others, but by the opposite wall.
Adwyn wished he’d given it a good look earlier — had it been there all along?
He measured steps forward. Instinct turned his head again — and saw the black dragon hadn’t moved, standing as still as the others.
The murderer breathed, and pushed himself forward. He checked the other black dragons, they hadn’t moved. The contents of the lab remained unchanging, save liquids which bubbled or meat which dissolved in certain baths.
Adwyn slowly stepped on. He looked up, at the ceiling, where cracks implied it may be collapsing soon — but not for dances, at least. Unless the lake grew too violent.
He didn’t worry, and looked for other tells. In a corner there lingered a thick spiderweb. He stared at it awhile.
When instict flared again, he almost didn’t turn. But he did, and saw across the table beside him, paces behind him, black dragon, standing as still as the others.
It had lusterless black scales, wings without membranes, and unlike the others, clear brilles that revealed still gray eyes.
He turned away for a breath before instict jerked it back —
The black dragon stood two steps behind him, standing as still as the others.
He whirled around in full, frowned at the dragon. Grip tighted on the baton but —
They had a sword. He’d seen the sheath, but it wasn’t in the sheath. It was already in their feet, already rushing at him, already sliding into his breast on the wrong side for his heart.
Breathe, one, two.
Adwyn had suffered worse.
And he had a mission.
His baton wing was already swinging around, and striking against the snout. He gripped the sword to keep it from being pulled out. His tail was fishing the sword from his bag. He was bringing a foreleg up to punch.
The dragon caught the punch, and it just stopped. It rolled away from the snout strike and raked him with a wing. The sword was not let go of.
The murderer had ceased pulling his punches, ceased observing his vow, stopped letting himself be leashed or restrained.
This had been a chasm of a night, and it would not end here.
The dragon was wrenching at the sword, the other foreleg coming to grip his neck, and behind them the membraneless wings flaring.
Then Adwyn did a few things at once —
His tail passed his sword to a foreleg. He stabbed upward with it.
His other wing popped the canteen’s top with an alula, and threw.
He snaked his head forward and bit the snout.
His last foreleg gripped a shoulder.
Adwyn knew it would be the end of one of them.
His sword stabbed forward, and the murderer knew where the heart was.
The vitriol fell, and his aim or calculation was off; droplets splashed upon him and they burned.
He tightened his bite, even as the strangling foreleg tightened too.
And like instict, Adwyn twisted the blade.
It didn’t happen all at once, their dying. He felt the tug on the sword die away, the strangling die away, and lastly they fell to the floor.
Adwyn stepped away.
They had turned away in time for the vitriol eat at their frills and neck. Their legs had curled in something hatchly.
Adwyn did not regret, and did not mourn. He had a task, and he would see it through to the end. Nothing would stop or sway him.
He felt the searing vitriol eating holes in his face. From this night he would be scarred. Unless Ushra saw mercy.
He felt the chestwound which he perhaps just had the materials to survive. He would be scarred, if he lived to be scarred.
He turned, and he began walking deeper into the pits. The high guard had been wrong. He didn’t feel like he’d died.
He felt like death.
Before he’d left the lab, he glanced back out of habit or instict. The black dragon was gone. It didn’t feel like weight falling off him; he didn’t regret, he didn’t mourn, he didn’t care.
The murderer turned one last time, and walked on to the hallowed chamber.
He would witness the mystery of Gwymr/Frina.
At longest last, Adwyn had reached the door in the depths of the pits. Ahead, a iron portal (the archaic word felt appropriate) filled the corridor. Its frame panted with endless geometrics and that gleaming Pteryxian script.
And that doorway lingered open.
Adwyn tended closer.
In it stood the silkenrobed moltling, lying as if resting. His mat could have been a throne, decorated with electrum and diamonds. Around him were silk dolls or wooden toys, or elaborate constructions of metal. The cowl of his robes was down, and the cool magic lights must lay inside, for you could see the face, utterly clear.
One saw he had had purewhite, leucistic scales, a beatific smile on the face, and (Adwyn felt his suspicions harden to fact) silk, spidersilk robes.
Adwyn looked, and saw finally that the molting had those two heterochromatic eyes, one black and one white.
We’re waiting till the time is right.
For a new faer.
Several thoughts were in Adwyn’s head, and then they were in his wings reaching for his blade, and then they were in his legs lunging him forward, and then they were in the thrust, and then they were in the horrible, innocent screams exploding out, and those screams never left him.
No else had heard. They had nowhere else to go.
For a very long time, no thoughts came. No adumbrations of purpose or mission, assertions of regretless, mournless action. Only the silence of death, and the breathing of her practitioner. Then, at length, there was a single thought, not in his voice.
You fucked up, Adwyn.
* * *