“I don’t understand,” Myaszæron muttered, frustrated. “They won’t stop bleeding.”
Her spell of healing had failed. With gentle fingers, she probed the ragged wounds in Lööspelian’s neck. A row of deep punctures, their edges haggled and rough, encircled her throat. Fluid seeped slowly from them, slicking her blue-green skin.
“What would cause that?” Joraz asked, concerned. He had tried the Grail, but though the wounds had closed briefly, mere moments later they had reopened again, and were oozing once more. “Is it some kind of curse?”
“A profane power, more like. One wielded by certain fiends of darkness,” the princess said gravely. “These are vile wounds, my friend. They will not heal normally, nor will they yield even to the Forest Mother’s divine might. They can only be dealt with on sanctified ground. We have to get her to a temple. Perhaps to the shrine maintained by your acquaintance, Andralyus. If, that is, he would agree to succour someone who looks like…like this.” She waved at hand at their prisoner.
“No offence,” Myaszæron added quickly, glancing up at her patient.
Lööspelian’s lip twitched in wry amusement. “None intended, none taken,” she replied. Her voice was as richly resonant as Joraz remembered it from the battle aboard the Sandpiper.
They had hustled the fallen angel down into the hold as quickly as possible after the battle. After the dragon’s fall and the destruction of the two fiends, the surviving sailors had emerged from the ship’s bowels, and boatloads of curious onlookers and would-be assistants were thronging towards Odergrav from the shore. Joraz had consulted with Thanos, and neither wanted to have to explain to the elves the presence on their ship of a towering red-headed woman with blue-green skin, auburn-feathered wings, and bright, blood-red eyes.
And, Joraz reminded himself, horns. At least she didn’t have a tail.
Lööspelian’s head came up suddenly. “Wait a moment,” she said, speaking the traveling tongue with a thick, liquid accent, and looking both disoriented and confused. “Did you say ‘bleeding’?”
Safely below decks, the princess had ordered the fiend to take a seat on a convenient crate in order to examine her wounds. It didn’t help much. Myaszæron was no midget, at least insofar as the elves of the Third House were concerned; but Lööspelian was positively statuesque, taller than either Karrick or Joraz, if less heavily built. Sitting only brought her eyes down to the same level as the elf-woman’s.
Joraz stood back a few paces, watching the pair closely, his arms crossed and his expression carefully neutral. He had no reason to doubt the fiend’s conversion or her explanation of her presence, but neither did he intend to take any chances. “I’m not sure I understand,” he said slowly, ignoring their prisoner’s question. “You say that some creatures of darkness are able to inflict such poisoned wounds. Are fiends not impervious to their own corrupted powers?”
Myaszæron scratched her head. “That’s an excellent point,” she admitted. “Certainly, she ought to be immune to this sort of accursed wound. I don’t understand how –”
“ ‘Bleeding’?” Lööspelian repeated, sitting up straighter. “Bleeding!” She put a hand to her throat, then drew it back and stared at her fingers. Her eyes widened in shock.
She touched her bloody fingers to her lips, tasted…and laughed. A sudden, panicked bray of hilarity burst from her lips, accompanied an instant later by a storm of tears. To the astonishment of her captors, she howled and wept simultaneously, rocking back and forth on the crate, hugging her shoulders, her vast, lush wings quivering with mirth.
Myaszæron glanced over at Joraz, alarmed. The monk spread his hands wide in puzzlement, not taking his eyes off the chuckling, bawling fiend.
Then he leaned forward, cocking an ear. Lööspelian’s eyes were squeezed tight shut as if in prayer, and she was muttering something under her breath, over and over and over again. The princess noticed him listening, and did the same.
After a moment, their eyes met. “Pranaharah?” Myaszæron asked, puzzled. “Apasadamërgim? Am I saying that right?”
Joraz nodded. “It’s the celestial tongue,” he replied softly. “Or sort of. ‘Apasadamërgim’ is a made-up word. Apasada means ‘outcast’ in the celestial tongue; mërgim means ‘exile’ in the tongue of fiends.”
He stared at the giggling, weeping creature, nonplussed by her complete loss of control. “It’s what she described herself as. One who has rejected, and has been rejected by, both the Anari and the Uruqua alike. A divine servant no longer, neither of the light, nor of the dark.”
“A servant of…of what, then?” the princess wondered.
Joraz could only shrug. “I’m not sure she’s a servant of anything anymore.”
Myaszæron blinked. “What about the other word?”
“ ‘Pranaharah’? It means ‘mortal’,” Joraz replied.
“No,” Lööspelian interjected. She was still laughing, but less insanely now. She rubbed her hands over her face, brushing away tears. “No, no! Not just ‘mortal’. It means more than that. So very, very much more.”
Joraz frowned. “My translation is accurate.”
“Oh, of course.” She smiled. “But ‘mortal’ is simply the...the lexical definition. To us…well, to my former brothers and sisters of the Sarvaloka…it is what we call you. All of you. Pranaharadrim. It means ‘seed of the Holy Mother.’”
“ ‘Children of Bræa’,” the princess murmured. “The Kindred. Yes?”
“The Kindred,” Lööspelian nodded happily. “Just so.”
She held out her hand, palm forward, so that they could see that her fingers were discoloured neither by the foul, corrupted ichor that coursed through the veins of the slaves of the Uruqua; nor with the hot, divine white fluid that sustained the eternal lifebeats of the Anari. Instead, they were stained with red – bright red. Shining scarlet; blood, normal blood, a mortal’s blood, trickling down her back and breast, and dripping slowly from her wounded wrists.
“At last…oh, at last! So many thousands upon endless thousands of years! A child of Bræa at last!” Lööspelian cried.
She held her hands out, presenting her wounded, bleeding wrists like a badge of honour, and laughed long and loud. “At last, I am one of you! At last…I am free!”
Myaszæron’s eyes widened, and she glanced at Joraz again.
The monk blinked. “Well,” he said, as astonished as the princess but unwilling to allow his reputation for unflappability to suffer the slightest diminishment. “Welcome to the club, I suppose.”
Dame Amorda stood a few feet aft of the mainmast, contemplating the wreckage of the stern with a distracted air. Everything abaft the twin companionways – the wheel-deck, the Captain’s cabin, the wardroom below it – had been smashed into kindling by the shattering impact of the dragon’s mistimed dive. The blast of flame the foul creature had emitted thereafter had burned much of the rest into a massive cinder. The stench was horrific.
The monstrous corpse was slipping off the crumbling remnants of the stern. The land breeze had risen at last, and the gentle wave motion filtering into the bay from the harbour’s mouth had set the now-unbalanced ship to pitching back and forth. Fall, the captain, was running around like a man possessed, driving his makeshift crew – a motley guard of survivors bolstered by several boatloads of longshoremen and the crews of neighbouring ships – to the brink of exhaustion. Many had rowed over in the aftermath of the battle, and Fall was making good use of them to fight the lingering fires, to get the one remaining chain pump working to empty the bilge, and finally, once enough hands were available, to drive his few remaining topmen up into the fore-top to undertake the finicky, complicated work of sending down the foretops’l yard and the foretopmast in a desperate effort to trim the ship.
When this didn’t stop the pitching, Fall had the foreyard sent down as well, and then had the crew move as much of the deck cargo as far forward as they could. From where she was standing, Amorda could see that his efforts were bearing fruit. The shifted mass of barrels and crates counterbalanced the weight of the dragon’s immense carcass, bringing the shattered stern a little higher out of the water. A few moments later, she could hear the rush of water into the hull cease, and the men at the pumps were able to take a much-needed rest.
She nodded approvingly. Whatever else he might have been, Fall was a competent sailor.
She felt a presence at her elbow and knew instantly who it was. “Colonel,” she murmured.
“Madam,” Thanos nodded. “I didn’t think you’d been wounded, but I thought it best to check. You’re not injured, are you?”
She shrugged. “Actually, I was rather badly off a moment ago. But fortunately” – she held up her slender right hand, wiggling her ringed fingers – “I keep a few useful remedies on hand. I’m fine now.”
Thanos frowned. “But you weren’t struck. How did you sustain...were you hit?”
Amorda shook her head, but said nothing.
The warcaster eyed her, confused. He wanted to probe a little deeper, but she seemed preoccupied as well as healthy. So instead, he stepped a little closer to the shattered edge of the deck planks, looking down over them to get a better glimpse of their fallen foe. “Big brute,” he muttered.
“Yes,” the elf-woman agreed. “A terrible opponent. They all were. I suppose congratulations are in order.” She half-turned to face him and sketched a brief bow. “I thank you, warrior, for the gift of your courage, and the strength of your arm.”
“Duty, madam,” Thanos replied, flushing a little. Then he frowned. “You seem a little…er, distracted. Are you certain everything is all right?”
Amorda blinked twice. “Your colleague, Beck,” she said, ignoring his question. “Unless I’m mistaken, he seems to bear a particular animus towards dragons.”
“It’s a family thing,” Thanos temporized. “He’s sworn an oath to destroy all dragons who find themselves in his path.”
“All evil dragons, surely,” the elf-woman said with a frown.
“I’m not sure it was that specific, actually,” the warcaster replied distantly. Out of habit, he threw a glance over his shoulder. Karrick, his mailshirt lying in a puddle on the deck, was helping with the chain pump. His imposing bulk took the place of two of the sailors at the capstan, but since he appeared to be doing the work of three men, it was a net gain for the Odergrav.
Valaista, Thanos noted with relief, was standing next to the warrior, her garb edged with burn-marks, still looking faintly terrified at her close brush with eternity. She’s not strong enough for this, the warcaster thought, grinding his teeth. I’m going to get her killed. Just like Xeros. Sooner or later…
“He seemed…what he did, after…”
Thanos realized that the elf-woman was still talking about Breygon and the dragon. He followed her gaze to what was left of the huge wyrm’s neck. The ragged stump was as big around as his torso. “The teeth and the head, you mean? Trophies,” he shrugged. “You get used to it on the battlefield. You try to put a stop to it when it’s men butchering other men, of course,” he added clinically, thinking of the necklaces of ears and fingers he’d seen over the years, “but when somebody takes down a wyrm, I suppose he’s entitled to crow a little.”
“That was more than crowing,” Amorda said, looking faintly ill. “Did you hear him? Shrieking imprecations and swearing vengeance ‘on you and all your kind’? Doesn’t he know that there are…are good dragons in the world, as well as evil ones?”
“Yes, we’re…er, aware of that,” Thanos replied drily.
“Then why…why such bloodlust? Such…” she seemed to be searching for words. “Such hatred?” she whispered at last.
“Ask him yourself,” the warcaster said shortly. “Perhaps he’ll tell you.”
The elf-woman nodded briefly. She returned to staring fixedly at the carcass.
Something was wrong. Thanos could feel it. Uncertain what, if anything, he should do, he simply stood at her shoulder, watching her rather than the dragon.
They stood together like that, in companionable silence, for some time. Then the set of her shoulders changed subtly, and Thanos knew what she was going to ask him even before she opened her mouth.
She glanced up at him, her eyes enormous in the torchlit darkness. “What is this ‘shaft of the wand’ the leader of the fiends asked you about?”
Thanos thought about his answer for a long moment. “I’ve noticed,” he said carefully, “that you are adept at seeing through falsehoods.”
That earned him a lopsided grin. “It’s what I do, more or less,” she admitted.
“I suspected as much,” the warcaster nodded, choosing his words with extreme caution, “I’ll simply say this, then: I cannot tell you. Not until I’ve had a chance to consult with my colleagues.
“I’m sorry,” he added before she could object. “Please understand, it’s not that I distrust you. It’s just that the answer pertains not only to what we’re doing here in the Elf-realm, but could bear upon…er…larger issues.” Like the obliteration of the Universe, he thought to himself.
“I understand,” the elf-woman shrugged. “I’m no stranger to secrets, Colonel. I don’t know everything, nor even half of what I ought to know...but don’t mistake me for a dullard.
“He was talking about Scipionis Rex Veneficus, was he not?” There was a peculiar golden light in the woman’s eyes. “The Rod of the Sorcerer-King? What men call ‘Bîardath’s Wand’. Yes?”
“As I said, Milady Amorda,” Thanos replied, aware that he was now on very iffy ground, “I’d rather not answer your questions until I’ve had a chance to speak with…with Beck, and Joraz.”
“My name isn’t ‘Amorda’.”
Thanos blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
The elf-woman lowered her voice, speaking in the barest of whispers. “My name – my true name, which I give to you in trust, so that you may in turn trust me – is Pellax. Candida Pellax. And I’m no more a lady than you are.” She grinned narrowly. “There. I’ve offered you my throat. Time to see what manner of man you are.”
“Ah,” Thanos replied, somewhat confused. “Ah-ha! Er…so, you are in disguise?”
“My whole life is a disguise, Chiliarch,” the woman replied in a furious whisper. “Be cautious with that name, I beg you. Dame Amorda Excordia of Arx Incultus is welcome in both Astrapratum and Eldarcanum, and was once a close friend, even a confidante, of Her Grace the Duchess, and Her Grace’s Daughter, the Countess Szyelekkan. But Candida Pellax of Starmeadow is a wastrel and a spendthrift who is suspected of murdering her lifemate. To make matters worse, she has been proscribed in the northern duchy, and if she is ever taken there, an outstanding sentence of death by torture will be applied without delay.”
Thanos frowned. “But they’re both you. That makes no sense.”
The elf-woman snorted. “Try living in my world for awhile,” she replied with a snort. “You’ll be amazed at how many things make no sense.
“So,” she went on, “this is what I propose. You will answer my questions; and in return, I shall answer yours. I think you’ll find that we are in a position to do each other some good.”
The warcaster nodded slowly. “Very well. Let me speak with Joraz, and Beck, and I’ll…what is it now?”
Amorda’s lip had curled slightly at the mention of the archer. “The men of Ekhan are known for many things, Colonel, but to your credit, falsehood isn’t one of them. We have a saying here in the homelands: Ad homo imperio, fortasse cadere, nunquam fallere.”
Thanos translated that in his head: Men of the Empire may kill you, but they’ll never lie to you.
“I’ll take that as a compliment, I think,” he chuckled. “It certainly describes Karrick. But what was your point?”
“My point is ‘Beck’. We both know that isn’t his name,” she replied intently.
Thanos ground his teeth. “Once again, lady,” he said softly, “I must consult with my colleagues before…”
“Oh, spare me!” She turned back to contemplate the dragon’s corpse.
Moments later, they felt a subtle jar beneath their feet. Amorda staggered. “What was that?” she asked, alarmed.
Thanos, who had been watching events unfold around them more closely than she, had been expecting the jolt, and when it struck, he put out an arm and caught her. He released her quickly, before she could protest. “We touched bottom,” he explained. “Fall’s grounding the ship, to keep it from sinking.”
He glanced around at the flurry of activity, and added, “I don’t know how much tide they get here. But when it’s high, he’ll likely beach her, probably on rollers. Then they’ll start tearing the stern apart.” He’d already made a critical estimate of the damage. “Three or four months’ work there, I’d imagine.”
“Why bother?” she murmured.
“Ship’s salvageable,” Thanos shrugged. “Five thousand, ten thousand maybe, to fix it. But fifty thousand to build a new one from the keel up. She’s worth saving.”
The elf-woman nodded absently, her air of distraction returning. “Do you…do you suppose they’ll find anything? In the wreckage, I mean?”
“I hope so,” the warcaster grunted. He nodded at the dragon. “All of our kit was under that.”
To his astonishment, Amorda burst into tears.
Despite his exhaustion, Thanos was no dullard either. A sudden thought struck him. “Lady,” he said tentatively, “where’s your ancilla? Reticia?”
Amorda tried to smile through her tears. “She’s always been adept at beguiling hearts and minds, but she’s no warrior,” the elf-woman replied, her breath coming in hitches. “After I…I cast the illusion to conceal her, I ordered her to flee, to…to the safest part of the ship.” She nodded at the wreckage beneath the dragon’s carcass. “Your quarters.”
Thanos glanced down at the shattered, fire-blackened timbers, and winced. “She could still…she might still be…” His voice trailed off. His companion was shaking her head.
“You asked how I was injured, even though I hadn’t been struck in the battle.” Amorda held up her left hand, tapping the thumb against an unusually subtle mithral ring encircling her middle finger. “This is an anullamiculus.”
“A ‘little friendship ring’?” Thanos asked, confused.
“Precisely.” Amorda sighed. “Reticia was wearing the other one.”
Light suddenly dawned. “Shield Other,” Thanos said. “The bodyguard’s bane.”
“Built into a ring.”
The warcaster rubbed his eyes, tired. “So that’s how you came to be injured. The spell transferred her wounds to you!”
Amorda nodded. Tears stood out in her eyes. “And it’s how I know that she’s…that she is gone,” the elf-woman husked. “When the dragon fell upon the deck, the transfer nearly killed me. That much harm would have…would have slain Reticia instantly.” She was staring at the wreckage, half-blinded by tears. “She’s still under there. Somewhere.”
Thanos put a gentle hand on the elf-woman’s shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he said softly. “But at least we’ve avenged her.”
Amorda snorted sourly. She scrubbed at her running eyes with a sleeve in a gesture that struck Thanos as remarkably unrefined. “Marvellous!” the elf-woman hissed. “Yes, vengeance makes everything better. I’m sure ‘Beck’s’ impromptu dentistry and his acquisition of a new mantelpiece ornament will be an immense relief to Reticia’s departed spirit. And to her parents, her grandparents, her cousins, her nephews, and her nieces.” She spat. “And to me.”
She spun suddenly to face him, her face wet, and her eyes red. “I will be sleeping in town this night, after visiting Hara’s house to say a prayer for the souls of the good folk, men and elves alike, who fell today, victims of a battle that would never have happened if you people had not come here. Think about that, Colonel. You might even consider saying a few prayers yourself. But let me warn you, Hara Sophus abominates those whose hearts beat only for vengeance.”
Thanos blinked at her sudden vehemence. “Lady, I…”
“I’ve already told you, I’m no lady” she said harshly. “I have a friend to mourn, son of Empire. Talk to your comrades, and let us see if we can’t help each other. Your quest, if it is what I think it is…I wish to aid you. However I can.
“But,” she added with an empty-eyed frown, “I will hear no more talk of vengeance. It is a hollow place, cold and empty, devoid of companionship, and reeking of hatred, venom and death. I have no wish to join you and your comrades there.”
Thanos didn’t quite know what to say to that, so he held his silence. The woman turned on her heel and stalked off toward the gangway through the ever-growing crowd.
When she had gone, he turned back to his contemplation of the dragon’s carcass.
The heavy bronze goblet trembled briefly in Karrick’s grasp. An instant later, it grew suddenly heavier.
He glanced into it and grinned. The vessel was brimful with a dark amber fluid. He took an experimental sniff, followed by an experimental sip.
A moment later, the cup was empty. “I’m gonna have to thank that crazy fire-headed bastard,” he murmured to himself. Now…what next? Something obscure and expensive… “Aquoreus Palatinus!”
Another sniff…another grin…and…
“What in the name of the First Shell are you doing?”
Karrick started and nearly dropped the cup. He had been so focussed on his experiments that he hadn’t even heard the remarkably unstealthy Valaista approaching from behind.
Being careful not to spill the goblet, he turned and gave her a wink. “I’m trying out my new toy,” he explained. “Want a sip?”
“What is it?” she asked, eyeing the container dubiously.
“The boys call it ‘Aqua-P’,” the warrior replied. “Short for Aquoreus Palatinus. ‘Palatine water-bearer’. Standard issue back home in the army.” He hefted the goblet. “That’s about a two-day ration right there. Wanna give it a go?”
“Why not?” She took the goblet carefully from his hands. Without hesitation, she put the brim to her lips, tilted it back, and drained the cup.
Karrick’s jaw dropped open. So did Valaista’s. The goblet fell from her suddenly nerveless fingers, and she began coughing and wheezing.
The warrior caught the cup before it could hit the deck planking. He placed it carefully on a nearby crate, then grabbed the girl by the bicep, spun her around, and began pounding her gently between the shoulders. When one of her coughs was accompanied by a brief spray of fiery sparks, he only jumped a little.
It was some time before she could speak again. When she could, she said weakly, “You really drink that?”
“Well,” the warrior spread his hands, “to be fair, that’s cask strength. Cheaper to ship it that way. Most of the lads cut it with water before drinking it.”
“Do you?” the dragon-girl coughed.
“No. I like it the way it is.”
She shook her head. “You people amaze me.”
“Maybe I just have a stronger stomach,” Karrick ventured with a smile.
Valaista pursed her lips. Glancing around, she espied a ship’s lantern swinging from a becket. With a brief, economical gesture she twisted off the filling cap, grasped Karrick’s cup, and poured the hot, stinking oil into it. Then, smashing open the glass shroud, she applied the burning wick to the cup. The oil immediately caught fire.
The dragon-girl raised the burning cup, saluting him. “Cheers.” Then she poured the flaming oil down her throat, smacking her lips as she did so.
Karrick grinned. “Tasty?” he asked.
“Excellent,” she replied. “Some sort of vegetable oil, I’d wager. Very nice.”
“Olives, this far south,” the warrior guessed. “Or grapeseed. Why, what did you expect it to be?”
“The dwarves use rock oil,” she replied. “Or rendered lard. Frankly, I prefer the rock oil.”
“Never tried it myself,” Karrick laughed. “Okay, point taken, girlie.”
“Oh, that wasn’t my point,” Valaista snorted. “This is.” She hefted the lantern body, then raised it to her lips and took a bite out of it. Her teeth sheared through the bronze sheeting of the oil reservoir. The crunching, grinding noise as she chewed the metal was quite alarming.
She swallowed, then smiled at him sweetly. “Now that was good.”
“I can only imagine,” Karrick replied. “All right, I surrender. You’ve got the stronger stomach.”
“I do,” she agreed. She tossed the remains of the lantern aside. “But my stomach didn’t save me this evening. You did. That’s what I wanted to say.” She put a hand on his arm and kissed him on the cheek. “Kiitos, Suojalaite.”
“I don’t talk wyrm-speech,” Karrick replied, his face reddening. He was surprised to discover that the dragon-girl’s kindred form was nearly his own height. “But I think I understood that. So...you’re welcome.”
She nodded. “I have a favour to ask.”
“Our master is teaching me much,” the dragon-girl said, her mien serious. “But I wish to learn from you, too. Magic is one thing, but...ego draconis primus est. Our greatest strength lies in fang and claw. I need to learn to fight as well as I can.”
Karrick nodded. “Well, all right then. I’m your man.” He retrieved his new cup, bent over it, and whispered something. The goblet shimmered and filled again. When it had stopped quivering, he passed it to Valaista, who accepted it with an extremely dubious expression.
“Lesson number one,” the warrior said, nodding at the goblet. “Drink up.”
Valaista was no fool. This time she sniffed at the cup before putting it to her lips. When she did so, however, her expression changed, and she emptied half the vessel in a single gulp. “That’s good!” she exclaimed.
“Thought you’d like it,” the warrior chuckled.
She thrust the cup at him. “You try it!”
Karrick held up his hands. “Hah! Nope. Not my sort of thing. It’s all yours, girlie.”
Her eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Why? What is it?”
“Umber hulk blood.”
Valaista blinked. “Excuse me?”
“You heard me.”
She stared into the cup. “Really?” Unconsciously, she licked her lips.
Karrick nodded. “Iron dragons hunt umber hulks. Figured it wasn’t for sport.”
The dragon-girl hesitated a moment longer. Then she shrugged and drained the cup. “It’s still good,” she said defensively. “I still like it.”
“I’m sure,” Karrick laughed. “But I think I’ll stick with brandy and ale myself.”
Valaista laughed as well. “So, you’ll teach me how to fight? The way you do?”
“If you like.”
“Can we start now?”
Karrick squinted at the port-hole. It was pitch-black outside. On top of that the dwarven deepwine was starting to go to work on his brainpan and his digestion. “Maybe tomorrow,” he grunted. “We could use some rest.”
Valaista looked disappointed, but nodded assent. She upended the cup; a single drop fell out. “It’s empty,” she said sadly.
“Only works three times a day,” the warrior shrugged. “At least, that’s what the crazy mage said in his letter.”
“I can’t believe you people trust a revenant,” the dragon-girl muttered.
“Long story,” Karrick said briefly. “He wasn’t a bad companion for a while there. Besides, I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for anybody sets my enemies on fire.”
“I can do that, too,” Valaista laughed.
“Prob’ly why we get along so well,” Karrick shrugged.