In all of Aelith, there was no creature more wretched than Poz Torne, and if anyone had reason to doubt that, Poz would be happy to set them straight on the matter. He had thought he had reached the bottommost point of wretchedness the year before, when he’d been locked up for a little bit of looting. Not much looting, not in Poz’s estimation. They hadn’t been Alohym soldiers he’d been looting from – Poz knew that would mean the gallows for him – just rebels, and it’s not like they were using those boots anymore, on account of them being dead and all. “I was’t doin’ the harm to them, no I was’t,” Poz muttered to himself, crouched a cave with the lichen and the guano.
It darker in this cave than the Shadow’s anus, as near as Poz could reckon, which meant he had some time before he needed to worry about his pursuers catching up with him. Or at least, iffin my luck don’t be doin’ me the bad like what it does, he reminded himself. And since my luck be lovin’ doin’ me the bad, I be doing’ the think that it’s going to turn on me like what it always does.
It could have been worse, Poz reminded himself. He could have been caught looting Alohym soldiers, or committing one of their blasphemies. Looting rebels was just a plain old ordinary crime, as far as the Alohym reckoned, and Poz was glad that was how they reckoned it, else he would have been doing a merry little jig a few feet off the ground. Instead, he’d done six months’ of hard labor to set him straight, then gotten released and went right back to looting. Can’t be doing me a blame for looting, can you? Poz has to be doing the eat.
For one brief, shining moment, Poz had believed his luck had finally turned. He’d gone to loot a battle, like always, but this time, he hadn’t even needed to go to where the rebels would be laying dead with their boots just waiting for Poz to snatch them away. Instead, he’d found the packs the rebels had set aside, glorious packs of provisions.
Now, Poz had a rule. Poz had lots of rules, actually, but the relevant one here was don’t take what will be missed. So he’d taken a bit of food from each pack, and a nice pair of socks, and a pair of new undergarments. He’d planned to check out the battle, see who all else had died, and if the rebels were all dead…well, if they were dead, there wouldn’t miss their packs, now would they?
Should have done a stick to the rules, Poz, he admonished himself. Should have done a Shadow-tossed stick to the rules. But in the last pack, he’d seen something too good to pass up. Something that shone greater than any prize Poz had ever imagined stealing. It was the kind of treasure they wrote books about being stolen, usually in great underground vaults surrounded by Light-infused constructs and deadly traps. The people who stole such things weren’t wretches like Poz. They were beautiful people, with perfect hair and teeth that gleamed when they smiled.
Poz should have known better than to steal the thing, but it had been so shiny, so bright, how could he resist?
There was a sound of footsteps near the entrance to his cave, and Poz pressed himself further into the floor, his ears twitching. Being an Underfolk meant Poz could barely see even in normal light, but he could click his tongue and bring himself an image of the world around him. He did that a few times, his heart pounding. His pursuers hadn’t seen the cave yet – or if they hadn’t, they weren’t near the entrance.
Should have done a leaving of the thing, he sighed to himself. But he hadn’t. He’d taken it from the pack and made a beeline for town, seeking out his Riki, his fence.
Riki was a hard woman who had lived a hard life, but she had a soft spot for Poz. Sure, she called him an ugly little bastard, but she always did it with a smile. Or at least, without a grimace. Usually. But when Poz had Sung her and told her that he had something worthwhile, Riki had come running. This had pleased Poz. He’d built up a reputation for whining and moping because…well, because he liked to whine and mope, but also because doing so meant that, when he said he had something good, people knew it had to be true.
“Where’d you find this?” Riki had asked when he’d shown her the thing.
“You don’t want to be doing a know of that, no you do not,” Poz had assured her, getting a smile out of Riki.
“I suppose I don’t. Poz, how hot is this thing?”
“I was doing a wait of a couple weeks before I did a song, yes I was. No one’s been doing a sniffing for it, I can tell you that.”
Riki frowned. “I’ll see what I can find, Poz. You might have just become the richest one of your people on the continent.”
That was when Poz knew something was very, very wrong. Things that good did not happen to Poz, no matter what else was going on. No matter where he went or who he spoke to, the best Poz ever hoped for was to break even.
Even if he did have an egg of solid gold with him.
So he’d put his ear to the ground, as they said. He’d heard things that made him shiver down to his core. One of the Alohym, Rephylon, had met its end. Burned to death by a…by someone. Everyone agreed that Rephylon was dead, but not everyone agreed as to the creature that had killed him. Some said she was a monster, a half dragon, half human that wanted the Alohym gone so she could prey upon humanity freely. Some said she was a pure, true dragon from the old tales, the kind that kidnapped princesses and sat on their great hordes of treasure. Some said she was just a woman, able to weave dragonflame out of Light.
All the stories, however, agreed on two things. One was her name – Tythel, a name stolen from the long dead princess of the old kingdom. Of course she is not being the princess, Poz thought. Only the very stupid be doing the believing of that. And they agreed she had survived the death of Rephylon and was now building an army. Rumors said, in the month since Rephylon’s death, she’d been gathering all manner of cutthroats and brigands and all sorts of nasty folk to her banner, or that she was killing the nasty folk and…Poz clicked his tongue again, both to check his surroundings and to clear his head.
The truth was, Poz was sure it didn’t matter if she was wicked or good. Because Poz was increasingly certain that the egg he had stolen had belonged to this Dragon Princess. Which meant she wanted it back, and the Alohym wanted it for themselves. And what is poor Poz supposed to do? Do I be doing a go to the Dragon Princess and say, “please don’t be doing a killing? I didn’t know it was yours when I be doing the take of it?” Hah! She’ll probably be putting the burn on me before I even finish a sentence! He’d been ready to give the egg to Riki and run to the hills, he really had. He’d gone to see her to be done with it and run, run far away, but when he’d gone to see her, Riki had been dead, impaled on the wall of her shop by a great sword as long as Poz was tall.
That’s when Poz realized that he was worried too much about the wrong people that wanted the egg. The Dragon Princess would burn him to a crisp if she could find him, but the Alohym…they knew he had it, somehow. They had sent something new after him, something terrifying. Something that fought like an Alohym but stalked like a man. It was what was out there right now, waiting for him.
Maybe if I be doing the leaving of the egg here, they’ll leave me alone, Poz thought, but dismissed the idea immediately. It was a nice, lovely thought, but it wouldn’t be what happened. They’d overlook the egg and hunt him down. Or they’d find the egg and still hunt him down. Or they’d find the egg and leave him be, but then the Dragon Princess would hear of it and she would hunt him down, and he wouldn’t even have the egg to bargain with.
Poz clicked his tongue again, and this time he had to fight back the urge to scream. The thing that was chasing him was in the cave’s entrance. It was as tall as a man, perhaps a bit taller, its form lithe and supple and covered with a rock-hard shell like the skin of an Alohym. Its head was wedge-shaped, like an Alohym, and it moved with preternatural grace.
Poz clicked his tongue a few more times, letting the new thing get further into the cave, then slowly skittering across the walls and hoping, begging the Shadow to keep him safe. He had one hope, as far as he saw it, one person who could set this straight. An old friend who would know what to do.
A rock fell. The new thing turned towards Poz and started to raise its arm. The clawed hand was running like it was made of wax, forming some new appendage.
A beam of unlight shot from the newly formed tube at the end of its wrist, and Poz cleared the edge of the cave by mere inches before the blast struck. Then he was gone, fleeing into the night, with the new thing hot on his heels.
Just keep doing the running, Poz! Do the run and don’t ever stop! And once you be finding Nicandros, he’ll be knowing what to do with this.
Poz could only pray he would live that long.
Tythel leaned back against a wall, looking over the Span of Hallith, an empty notebook in her lap. She wrote idly in it as the wind gently tugged at her hair.
Little is known about Hallith, and I hope to have time to delve into the unexplored parts of the ruins while we’re camped here. The Span itself is even more breathtaking than the books described. I wish I had the eyes of an artist – or I suppose I should say “eye” now – so I could sketch it.
She debated taking some time to describe it, and decided against it. If someone one day read her notebooks and wasn’t familiar with Hallith, they’d probably skip this section anyway. Even after a month holed up here, it still took her breath away.
Hallith had been a city-state that predated the Cardometh Empire by over two thousand years. Located on a plateau several miles wide, Hallith was surrounded on all sides by a canyon nearly six hundred feet deep. The only ways into or out of the plateau were two great bridges, each capable of being retracted into the city. Or at least, they had been retractable. The magic that powered that mechanism had long since faded, and the bridges were permanently open. Still, it only took a handful of guards to watch each approach, meaning they wouldn’t be taken by surprise. The barren scrubland that surrounded the canyons also provided plenty of open air to see any approaching Alohym ships.
She returned to her notes.
It’s no wonder Hallith never fell to outside invaders. Even with the benefits of arcwands and their technology, I doubt the Alohym will be able to dislodge us from here. Should they approach from the air, we are already prepared to delve into the ruins below. Armin and a few other Magi who have joined us are hard at work creating an exit point in the canyon below we can use if we have to retreat there. I help when I can, but the molten rock left behind by dragonflame creates fumes that make it too hard for anyone to breathe.
That particular memory gave her a reason to wince. None of them had expected the toxic gasses, although they shouldn’t have been surprised. One of the few things known about Hallith was how it fell – a horrid miasma, created by the Hallithian’s burial customs of tossing the dead into their lumwell, had choked every citizen in their sleep. It seemed that miasma still infused the very stones of the plateau and burning them released it.
I’m supposed to be the one that knows better. Armin could have died that day. I could have died. She decided not to write that part down, instead pushing forward.
Duke de’Monchy has taken command of the army while Lathariel recovers. Lady Von Baggett has taken command of the civilians. Those that can fight she sends to Lord Devos for training. Ossman’s been working closely with Lord Devos. He’d probably join the Abyssals, if not for the headaches he gets ever since his close exposure to the lumwell. Eupheme watches him closely for any signs of madness. So far he seems to still be sane, but…well, we’re hiding in the ruins of a dead civilization from the creatures that have stolen our world, so ‘sane’ is relative these days.
Tythel heard footsteps approaching and stifled a sigh. She got time to herself so rarely these days, it was hard not to resent any interruptions. Especially this particular one. She had time to finish her final thoughts.
There’s one amazing historical find we’ve made already. The word “Alohym” originates from the Hallithian language. We’ve found Hallithian depictions of the ancient Alohym they worshipped. They look nothing like the invaders that came from beyond the stars, either in their insectoid outer form or their slug-like inner, true form. The Alohym depicted in the Hallithian artworks are wondrous beings. It’s final proof of a theory we had been debating – the Alohym of modern days were never worshipped by humanity. Just as they stole our world, they’ve been trying to co-opt our mythology. Of course, any proof we try to publish we be denounced as rebel propaganda, but it’s satisfying to at least know they are not the gods they claim to be.
Tythel closed her notebook, satisfied to at least complete the passage she was on. “Baron Gobori,” she said, looking down at the man who had approached her. He was a couple years older than her, and despite his low rank claimed to be able to trace his ancestry back to noble blood. He was handsome and knew it, with a broad grin full of white teeth and an easygoing attitude. At least, around most people. He often seemed uncomfortable around Tythel, which only partially confused her. Most people were uncomfortable around her, besides her close friends.
“Please, call me Tellias,” the Baron responded, flashing her that wide smile.
“As you wish,” Tythel said, as she always did when he asked her to use his first name. He gave her a slightly wide-eyed look that Tythel thought meant he was expecting something, but she was still unsure what he was.
“So…on the walls again? Looking out for Alohym ships?”
“No. We have sentries that will spot them before I do.” That last bit was partially a lie – her good eye would likely catch the ship first – but since she’d been staring at a notebook, it was also partially true. “I was writing.”
She slid off the wall to join Tellias on the ground. “Oh? A diary?”
“Essentially, yes. It’s important to keep track of what’s happening, and my thoughts and feelings during it.”
Whatever response he had been expecting, it hadn’t been that. Tellias blinked in confusion, a gesture Tythel immensely appreciated since it took no thought to understand. Does he do that for my benefit? Or is it something people do? “Why is it so important?” he asked.
“Primary sources. If our rebellion succeeds, it will be a historic event. Or, if it fails spectacularly enough, it might also be enough. Future historians will be scrounging for any record of the times they can find. If they find my notes, it will give them a primary source they can rely upon.”
“I…see.” Tellias recovered his footing. “Well, that’s certainly noble of you, to provide them with a reliable and unbiased source.”
Tythel tilted her head, careful not to tilt it too far. Humans did tilt their heads to express confusion sometimes, she’d learned, but rarely to the extremes that she was used to. “Nobility has nothing to do with it. I’m a historian myself. I appreciate primary sources, so it’s important to pay that forward. And I’m hardly unbiased. I don’t understand why you would say that – unless you were mocking me?”
“No, no, perish the thought!” Tellias took off his hat and bowed to her. “I knew you were a scholar and assumed you’d be trying to keep your account unbiased.”
“Oh.” Tythel blinked in thought. “I suppose I should be, but any halfway decent historian will assume I’m biased and account for that. I still will take notes of my own bias, though, for future readers.” She began to walk back to the camp.
Tellias had to step quickly to keep up with her, which gave Tythel a chance to think. Tellias confused her. He often sought her out to speak to her, but rarely in the company of others. She’d thought he was trying to form a friendship with her, but whenever she invited him to join them, he’d declined. What does he want from me?
She considered asking him directly, but thought that would be too blunt, even for her. Instead, she decided to change the topic. “Have Armin and the rest of the Magi returned from today’s excavations?”
Tellias frowned for half a second, the same way he did whenever she mentioned Armin or Haradeth. Do you not like them? Maybe I should invite him to join Eupheme, Ossman, and I without the other two around. He might appreciate that. “Not yet, your highness. Nor, if I may anticipate your next question, has Haradeth returned from the Sylvani lands.”
Tythel let out a huff of air. “He should have been back by now. Ideally with Lorathor and a small army of Sylvani in tow.”
“Your highness, if I may? I think ideally, he’d return with a large army of Sylvani.”
Tythel chuckled at the joke. “I like to temper my expectations.”
“A wise mindset for a ruler, your highness.”
“I don’t rule anything – and if we don’t get reinforcements, it’s very likely the only kingdom I’ll ever have a chance to rule will be within the Shadow’s embrace.”
That put a damper on the conversation, which hadn’t been Tythel’s intention. Still, it served to keep Tellias quiet for the remainder of the walk to camp. You’re being uncharitable. He’s not bad to talk to. He just confuses you, and that makes you uncomfortable.
Before she could open her mouth to apologize, she saw someone walking towards them. Eupheme, who was waving her hands for attention. “Hurry up! Where have you been?”
Tythel picked up her pace, muttering an apology for Tellias. He couldn’t hope to keep up with her now that she was sprinting. “What’s wrong? Is it the Alohym? Is it-”
Eupheme cut her off with a shake of her head and a grin. “No, nothing bad! The Duke was looking for you. They’ve made progress on Theognis’ cypher, and he’s called a meeting. They think they might have a location on the Vacuity Engine.”
Tythel blinked in excitement and turned to dash towards the center of camp. Tellias was left lagging behind, and Eupheme only kept up by leaping from shadow to shadow.
As far as Tythel could determine, in ages past the Reliquary Hall of Hallith had held the bones of the true Alohym. Those bones, if they had ever truly been there, were either worn to dust by the ages or stolen by looters long ago. It was still a grand structure, built remarkably to withstand the ravages of time. The roof was still intact, supported by twelve massive columns, and the walls were lined with the empty containers that had held the dead bodies of gods. In the center was a long stone table that Tythel suspected might have been holy to the Hallithians. An altar, or perhaps were the bodies of their gods, were prepared for storage.
Part of her felt it was wrong to turn that table, this entire structure, into a war room. Practicality had won out over respect for the long dead peoples of Hallith, however. Very few places in the city allowed for a table to be covered with paper and notes and maps without being disturbed by winds.
Armin was there, and he flashed Tythel a grin when he saw her enter. After a second’s hesitation, he blinked a few times. Tythel returned the blinking and then made herself grin in response. Armin was struggling with the happy blink – he usually did it too slowly, indicating concern, and it was an odd gesture without nictitating membranes, but she appreciated the effort more than she could say. After so long struggling to smile so people understood her expressions, it was wonderful to have someone return the effort. So long? It’s only been two months since you left the valley.
It felt like an eternity. Thinking about that brought thoughts of her father rising up. Thinking about Karjon no longer was a sharp pain that threatened to pull her into tears. It was a dull ache, a hollow feeling. She pushed it aside with more ease than she’d expected. The Duke had also seen her enter and gave her a nod. “Glad you could make it, your Highness.”
Tythel winced at the note of reprimand in his voice that even she could make out. He didn’t like that she was going out to the walls to be alone, or that she was going…well, anywhere where he couldn’t keep a personal eye on her. I’m almost worried he doesn’t trust me. She didn’t think that was the case, just concern for her wellbeing, but it still stung slightly.
Don’t get too close to him, Tythel reminded herself. “Apologies for my delay. I thought it best my ears were on the wall for any approach.” She was glad that Tellias hadn’t caught up yet. She preferred he didn’t see the excuse. When did you start making excuses?
Tythel knew the answer to that question and shied away from that thought. Thinking about what happened to her father was still a dull ache, but Nicandros’ abandonment still burned hot. In part because she still held out hope that it could be fixed somehow. As unimaginable as it was – she had killed his son, after all – it was at least possible. After all, they were both still alive.
At least, you hope that’s true.
“Your ears may be useful on the wall, your highness, but your place is here.” The Duke glanced around quickly. The only people in here were Tythel’s friends and other members of leadership – Lord Devos and Lady von Baggett. Even the Duchess wasn’t present yet. “Among the leadership. The men are starting to talk about you going off on your own so much.”
Tythel let out a chuff. “And what are they saying? That I’m doing something wrong somehow?”
“No, just that -” the Duke cut off as Tellias walked in. “Good, I think everyone’s here.”
“Is Ossman coming?” Tythel asked.
“No,” Lord Devos said, making sure he met Tythel’s gaze. ”I left him with some of the new recruits. This is need to know only.”
And Ossman doesn’t need to know, so don’t you dare tell him, went unspoken. Lord Devos had never been the warm and friendly sort, but Urdin’s betrayal had hardened his already rough edges. He suspected everyone of treachery. Armin had once joked he slept with one eye open and a mirror so he could keep an eye on himself, and Tythel had laughed in part because she could picture it perfectly.
“As a matter of fact,” Lord Devos continued, pointing at Tellias and Eupheme, “these two don’t need to know.”
Eupheme looked to Tythel while Tellias hesitated. “They should stay,” Tythel protested. “Eupheme is my bodyguard, she goes where I go.” Duke de’Monchy raised an eyebrow at that, and Tythel pointedly ignored it, “and Baron Tellias has been working on decoding this same text.”
“He didn’t crack the code. Armin did. If Tellias had, I’d be saying Armin should get out.”
Lady von Baggett reached over and put her hand on Lord Devos’ arm. “Eupheme is an umbrist. If we cannot trust her, we should slit our own throats now. Light knows she had ample opportunities.”
Lord Devos considered that, then nodded. “Very well.” He motioned for Tellias to leave.
“But-” Tythel started to say, then saw the slight shake of Eupheme’s head. Don’t fight this battle. Tythel let the exclamation die as a frustrated exhalation.
Tellias bowed stiffly and left.
“Now, can we get to business?” The Duke asked in irritation.
Tythel nodded, looking at Armin. “Eupheme said you’d had a breakthrough?”
Armin nodded eagerly. He was still dusty from the excavations. “He based it on Hallithian!” Armin crowed. “Theognis, I mean. I saw one of the symbols in his cypher when we down in the ruins, and as soon as I did I knew I could use it!”
Tythel did the hyper quick blinks of excitement. We were sitting on the cipher and didn’t even know it. “And?”
“It’s only one section, and I just finished it. I think he must have used different ancient languages for the other parts of the cypher. But I know where they’re keeping the Vacuity Engine!” Armin looked down at what he had written. “It’s on the Ambulatory Bastion!” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, his excitement drained away. “Wait. Flath. That’s…that’s really bad.”
Tythel looked around to see the others were frowning. Duke de’Monchy had turned white. Lord Devos was turning red, and Tythel couldn’t tell if he was going to hit something or swear. “What’s…I haven’t heard about the Ambulatory Bastion before.”
“There’s so much we need to teach you still,” the Duke muttered, his voice too low for anyone but Tythel to hear. Louder, he said, “the imperipods we encountered before? It’s one of those, but scaled up immensely. When the Alohym first arrived, it flew down from the sky and has been roving across the continent ever since.”
“How large?” Tythel asked.
“As large at this entire flathing plateau,” Lord Devos exclaimed. “It’s a flathing walking city is what it is. And the Vacuity Engine, the one flathing thing that might give us a chance, is on it.”
Tythel joined them in looking disappointed. An imperipod the size of a small city. She couldn’t even begin to imagine how they were supposed to assault a monstrosity like that.
It was supposed to be good news, she thought to herself.
Want to find out what happens next? Check out Dragon’s Scion Book 2, Ghostflame, here!