Thanos buckled the flap on the saddle-bags he had laboriously affixed to the Shavvuk, gave them a confirmatory tug, and turned. Shory was standing right behind him, watching with her usual air of disdainful disinterest. She held out a slender wooden box, latched and hinged, of roughly the same size and shape as the case that held his rod of office, if not nearly so ornate.
“Something for Karrick.”
She gave the thing a shake. Thanos accepted it gingerly. One never knew, where Shory was concerned. “What’s in it?”
“A quill,” she snorted. “Ink. Parchment. The usual things.” She tapped the box with a carefully-polished fingernail. “See that he gets it, will you? And that he actually uses it?”
“Karrick’s busy keeping me alive. He’s got better things to do with his time than write letters,” the warcaster said seriously.
“He can make time,” the woman replied grimly. “And if he doesn’t, I will.”
“Heavens! Discovered the Miruklær, have we?” Thanos muttered. He turned back to his mount, unbuckled the saddle bag, stowed the box, and secured the flap again. “I’ll put it in his hands myself. But even I can’t guarantee he’ll use it.”
The woman gave her hair a toss. “Tell him that if I don’t hear from him within the month, I’m coming looking for him.”
“You’re a lot more possessive than I remembered,” Thanos grinned.
She made an impatient noise, turned on her heel, and marched away.
“Aren’t you going to see us off?” the warcaster called. There was no reply.
After the woman had gone, Valaista stuck her head out from behind a teetering stack of hay bales. She was wearing one of the heavy, hooded oilskin capes that their host, Colonel Laurits, had given them to protect them against the winds while aloft. “Why is Magistatrix Nestra so evasive about Karrick?” she asked bluntly.
“They were...ah, ‘intimate’ is perhaps the best way to put it,” Thanos replied, choosing his words with care.
“They were love-mates, you mean?” the dragon-girl asked, sounding confused.
“I don’t think the arrangement was that permanent,” the warcaster replied, stifling a chuckle.
“She thinks it was,” Valaista said pointedly. “Could you not scent it?”
“ ‘Scent it’?” He snorted. “Me? You’re joking, right?”
The dragon-girl waved a hand before her face. “Regardless of what our friend may feel, that woman considers herself mated to him.” She sniffed delicately. “I am learning to recognize the signs among your kind. The princesses Myaszæron and Amorda betray similar sentiments, although in both their cases their tuoksu totuus declares that they consider themselves aitokaveri. True-mates.”
“ ‘Tuoksu totuus’?” Thanos repeated, eyes wide.
“It means ‘scent-truth’,” the girl said primly, blushing a little. “The truth of the corporeal body’s reaction to what lies in the heart is most difficult to conceal from a creature with adequate olfactory senses.”
“I know what the phrase means,” the warcaster replied, grinning at her discomfiture. “I just wasn’t sure you did.” He looked from hand to hand, trying to decide whether to carry his sword, his new rod of office, or the silvery sceptre he had found in Algoraz’s tower. One never knew when sudden access to potent conjurations might come in handy.
“I am learning rapidly among your kind,” Valaista sniffed. “Although I suspect in different areas of study than my parents hoped I would. In any event, in the case of the two princesses, inferring mate-status is easier by far than it was with Magistatrix Nestra. I have discovered that, as is the case with my kind, your scent changes with the raskauus.”
There was a clanging rattle followed by a choking noise.
“Are you all right?” Valaista asked.
“Excuse me?” the warcaster gargled, sounding as though someone was standing on his throat. “Did you say ‘raskauus’?”
The dragon-girl cocked an eyebrow. “Yes,” she said slowly. She bent, retrieved Thanos sword and Algoraz’ rod from the floor, and passed them to their owner. "I see you recognize that term as well."
"I do." Thanos took his implements with nerveless fingers. “Which one?”
Valaista glanced from sword to rod. “Which one, what?”
“Not these. Mya and Amorda. Which one’s – er – raskaana?” the warmage asked, his face flaming.
“Both of them,” Valaista replied, surprised. “You did not know?”
“I don’t have your nose,” the warcaster sighed. “When?”
Valaista flushed again. “I cannot be certain, of course, given the frequency with which your kind...er...you know. But I would imagine that, in Myaszæron’s case at least, conception occurred either the mor – ”
“Whoa!” Thanos shouted. “Whoa, whoa. Not that! I meant, when did you know?”
“Ah. With Myaszæron, I first noticed the change in tuoksu totuus aboard ship, shortly before we arrived in Novaposticum,” Valaista said, frowning. “Although I did not know what it was at the time, as I was still familiarizing myself with Kindred physiology. In the case of our hostess, however, it was far more obvious; on the day of her wedding to your friend, she was already radiant with the fact of conception. I was surprised no one else in the temple seemed to notice.”
“Ara probably did,” the warcaster muttered. “I wonder why she didn’t say anything?”
“Perhaps he did say something,” Valaista offered. “But not to you.”
He thought about that for a moment, then bit his tongue. “Did Ara...” he began hesitantly, then forged ahead. “Did her scent change after...after she and I...”
“No,” Valaista said firmly. “Although I am not certain that I would notice. You will recall, of course, that 'Ara' is really Mahanirion, and that he is in fact a male.”
“I’m unlikely to forget it,” Thanos said without expression. “Ever.”
Valaista did not appear to notice his tone. “I do not believe it would be possible for him to form the kaveri-takuu with you,” she said clinically. “The mating bond is not possible between members of the same gender.” She cocked her head. “Not for us, at any rate.”
“And how on earth would you know that?” he snapped, baffled.
“We are hatched with much – ”
“I know,” he sighed. “I know.” There was a long pause. “Well,” he said at last, “I’m glad to see you’re getting used to us, at any rate.”
“I would not go that far,” the dragon-girl sniffed. “You Kindred broadcast tuoksu totuus, but exercise no control over it. Living among your kind is like being in an orchestra with no music or conductor, where everyone feels compelled to play whatever they like, and as loudly as possible. Sometimes I feel I have to breathe through my mouth, or I shall go mad.”
“I had no idea we were such a trial,” Thanos said blandly.
“It is far worse in the elven lands than anywhere else I have been in your company,” the girl went on, sounding depressed. “Tuoksu totuus conveys emotion. The dwarves master their feelings, and halflings flit so quickly from one emotional state to another that they hardly produce any scent at all.” She frowned. “Perhaps that is why they make such proficient thieves. You humans are little better; you experience your emotions with great intensity, but so fleetingly that they are scarcely perceptible before they are gone again. I only noticed Magistatrix Nestra’s heightened state because she has, it seems, been maintaining it for some time.”
“Carrying a torch for Karrick, eh?” the warcaster chuckled. “Gods help her.”
“Indeed. The elves, though,” the girl went on gloomily, “they feel more profoundly than any of the other Kindred. As deeply as we dragons do, and for nearly as long. Perhaps it has something to do with their lifespan, which is only a little shorter than our own. But unlike your kind, we can control our feelings, and prevent tuoksu totuus from betraying us. Or at least from inconveniencing our neighbours. Most of the time, anyway.”
“You also don’t live in groups of ten-score thousand,” Thanos observed. “That makes a difference, I’ll bet.”
“It does.” She shuddered. “It’s like swimming in scent. Some of you seem to live in a permanent state of arousal. It is most distracting.”
“There are men who would pay a king’s ransom for your nose,” the warcaster snorted. “Well, if it’s such a burden, the least I can do is give you a break from our company and our stench.” He nodded at the Shavvuk. “Trot around the other side there, and mount up. Let’s see what this clockwork abomination can do.”
Valaista nodded and trotted obediently to the other side of the construct. A moment later there was a muffled grunt, followed by a soft clang and a curse. Ducking under the Shavvuk’s neck, he walked around to the other side of the imposing creature, and found Valaista seated on the straw-strewn floorboards, glaring up at the metal thing, and rubbing her posterior.
When she saw her master, she climbed swiftly to her feet. “Slipped,” she explained briefly.
“Yes, it’s got a nice polish, hasn’t it?” the warmage replied, being careful not to chuckle as he helped her to her feet. The dragon-girl was inordinately self-conscious about her clumsiness. Instead, he slapped a hand against the Shavvuk’s upper forelimb, which, with the construct crouching in landing mode, was bent parallel to the ground. “Feel this.”
Valaista obeyed, running her hand over the chill metal. “It’s rough!”
“Knurled for traction,” the warmage nodded. “The upper thigh, too. Put your foot there to mount” – he did so – “then jump up and grab the neck-spines.” He stood easily on the creature’s bent forelimb, holding onto one of its long, pointed dorsal spikes for balance.
“Fine,” the dragon-girl groused. “But where do we sit?”
Thanos grinned. Grabbing another of the spines, he swung his left leg over the creature’s back. Instantly a pace-long section of the spines melted away into its dorsal ridge, forming a low, broad saddle with high, waist-encircling horns. The two spines he’d been holding twisted downwards and outwards, shaping themselves into a pair of curved hand-grips that pointed directly at his chest.
He glanced down at Valaista, and saw that the girl was staring at him, eyes wide. “You try it,” Thanos commanded.
“I’d rather fly,” she muttered tonelessly.
“That’s what we’re going to do.”
“I meant the normal way.” She fluttered her hands at shoulder level.
“Not an option," he grunted, giving the Shaavuk a slap. "Even if you could keep up with one of these, you can’t fly for a day and a half without rest. And we can’t afford to dawdle; we’re already overdue.” He tapped the creature’s flank with his free hand. “Mount up.”
Grumbling under her breath, Valaista stepped gingerly up onto the Shavvuk’s bent forelimb, stood, grasped a pair of the spines that stood up immediately behind Thanos’ ‘saddle’, took a deep breath, and swung her leg over. Thanos had been ready to catch her if she fell, but she managed the manoeuvre without difficulty.
The spines instantly melted immediately into the creature’s back. Metal curved up behind the girl’s posterior, hugging it tightly, while the rear horns of Thanos’ ‘saddle’ produced a pair of hand-grips that she clutched the instant they appeared.
“All right?” the warcaster asked.
“I suppose,” the dragon-girl muttered.
Thanos nodded, adjusted his seat, and said loudly, “ ‘Command’ –”
“Wait! We’re leaving NOW?” Valaista yelped.
The warcaster twisted, shooting her an irritated look over his shoulder. “We’ve said our farewells. I’ve got a stack of requisition forms from Kalos. You’re all packed, aren’t you?”
“Well, all right, then,” he said reasonably. “No point in delaying. ‘Command’–”
“I thought you wanted to wait until dark!” the dragon-girl squealed.
Thanos shook his head. “It’s at least five hours ‘till nightfall. We’ll fly out over the Insea, circle the peninsula, and head southwards over the water. That’ll only take us an hour, and we’ll be four ahead.”
“What difference will four hours make?”
He cocked an eyebrow at her. “What’s got your knickers in a twist this morning?”
“My head hurts.” She put a hand to her temple.
Thanos grinned. “That’ll teach you to treat Lorkae wine with some respect, infant.”
“Don’t you know any way to fix it?”
“What, your head?” he laughed. “Short of blowing it off your shoulders, no. You’ll just have to tough it out, my dear.”
“I can’t understand why you people drink at all,” the dragon-girl complained. “I feel like I’m going to purkaa.”
“You purkaa on my new ride, and you’ll be walking to Starmeadow,” the warmage warned.
The girl shuddered. “I want to go back to bed. Why do we have to leave now, for Shells’ sake?”
He gave her a penetrating look. “Leaving now will get us back to Starmeadow in daylight instead of at night. I don’t feel like being chased by gryphon cavalry or getting fireballed by a twitchy mage. All right?”
“All right,” she grumbled.
He waited, staring at her without expression.
“All right, master,” she sighed.
“That's more like it. And next time the wine-flask comes ‘round, you’ll know better.” Thanos turned back to the Shavvuk and barked, “ ‘Command: awaken’!”
The immense metal beast shook itself. It stretched its neck and extended its wings with a steely hiss, like a rapier being drawn from its scabbard. When it turned its massive head to look back at them, its deep-set, unnatural eyes glowing bright red in the dimness of the shed, Valaista swallowed audibly.
Thanos grasped the rein-grips and leaned forward slightly in the saddle. Obediently, the Shavvuk began walking. Its steps thudded heavily, and it seemed about as graceful as a bull, albeit one five times as big as a bull had any right to be.
It was certainly responsive, all the same. Thanos inclined his upper body to the right just in time to steer the lumbering monstrosity towards the wide-open doors; although he was fairly certain that the things were able to avoid visible obstacles, he didn’t feel like testing the Shavvuk’s perspicacity on his friend’s barn.
At the last second he saw what was about to happen, and shouted, “Retract!” The creature tucked its immense metal wings against its flanks. He shook his head; evidently, the metal dragons were difficult to manoeuvre in tight spaces.
They had to duck to avoid being decapitated by the lintel beam as the creature squeezed its way out of the door. Once outside, Thanos breathed a sigh of relief. Leaning to the left, he aimed the creature toward the cliff, a couple hundred paces distant.
“Why can’t we just leap the flux?” the dragon-girl asked plaintively.
“Because I have enough problems with Breygon and his darling wife,” Thanos muttered through clenched teeth. “If I teleport into his back yard with a thousand mummies, barrow-wights and spectres, I’ll never hear the end of it.” He leaned forward slightly, and the Shavvuk accelerated obediently into a trot.
“This isn’t natural!” the girl shrieked.
“What’s your problem?”
“This is a machine!” she cried. “It’s made of steel! Steel doesn’t fly!”
“It does if I tell it to!” the warcaster shouted in reply. He couldn’t keep from grinning; the Shavvuk’s heavy stride was terrifying. He wanted to run it over an enemy division just for the sheer pleasure of trampling foes into the ground. An instant later he berated himself, shocked at his wanton blood-thirstiness. Been spending too much time with mercenaries.
“Do we really have to go over the water?” Valaista moaned.
“I’m afraid so,” Thanos replied. “The mountains between here and Duncala are too high. This time of year, we’d freeze to death. Also, flying from Duncala to Starmeadow would take us over Eldarcanum.” He worked his fingers in the heavy gloves and clenched them on the rein-grips. “I’d rather avoid that!”
He tried to ignore the girl’s shivering. This was a novel experience, and although he understood the theory well enough, he wanted to be able to concentrate.
“What if we fall off?!” she squeaked.
“Well,” the warcaster replied with a shrug, “you’ll transform into your true shape, and I’ll try to hit the water feet first, and stay afloat until you rescue me.”
“Rescue you?” the dragon-girl exclaimed. “How am I supposed to rescue you? I can’t swim!”
“Oh. Well, then,” Thanos grinned, “I guess we’d better hang on, hadn’t we?”
Valaista ground her teeth. “A hundred thousand-score magi in the world,” she growled, “and my sire had to apprentice me to the one who can level mountains but can’t cast feather fall!”
“Or water breathing,” Thanos laughed. No amount of grousing could dampen his spirits. “Ready?”
Grinning, the warmage tapped his toes against the Shavvuk’s flanks. The creature’s metal carapace obediently extruded a pair of comfortable stirrups. Valaista, observing this, did the same, digging her feet into the metal cups.
He clenched his fingers and leaned as far forward as the saddle allowed. Instantly, like thunder come to earth, the immense creature began to run. After a half-dozen strides its wings flicked out. The wingtips whistled ominously as they cut the air.
Behind him, Valaista abandoned her hand-grips, leaned forward and locked her arms around Thanos’ waist. He gasped at the pressure – the dragon-girl, despite her slender build, was far stronger than he – but he still couldn’t help chortling with glee. The sensation of power that came from riding atop the running monstrosity was overwhelming.
Jolted by the beast’s hammering steps, Valaista shouted, “There’s something very wrong with you, master!”
“Oh, you noticed?” Thanos chortled. He tightened his fingers on the rein-grips until his knuckles whitened, leaned as far back in the saddle as he could, and shouted, “ ‘Command: FLY!’”
Whatever Valaista’s retort might have been, it was lost in her panicked shriek as the Shavvuk thundered off the edge of the cliff, plunged briefly, and then, wings thundering through the air, shot out over the sparkling white-caps of the wine-dark sea.
“The nominal strength of the division is thirteen thousand, two hundred and forty-five all ranks,” Hauvvak said, consulting the small sheaf of bound leaves he had brought to the Lindenborg. “Two hundred and sixty-five officers – yourself included – with three hundred and forty-eight non-coms, roughly ninety-four hundred troops, forty-four magi, six hundred engineers and medics, and about twenty-seven hundred remfs.”
“ ‘Remfs’?” Incendia asked, eyebrows raised.
“Rear-echelon mother –” the old soldier began.
Thanos cut him off. “Support troops, my dear. Wagoners, armourers, fletchers, cooks and what-not.”
“Ah,” the lady nodded.
The warmage shot an irritated glance at his old tutor, and received a grin in reply.
It was late evening on the 17th, the day following their arrival. After their illuminating visit to the Den of the Maiden, Thanos and Valaista had returned to the Steenborg to pay a final parting call on his old friend. Hauvvak had been deep in conversation with Shory when they’d arrived, and the two had decided to accompany Thanos back to the Laurits estate for a final tête-a-tête before parting again.
The ride through Norkhan had been pleasant, if bittersweet. Thanos did his best to participate in the conversation, rather than dwell on the gloomy fact that, if he failed in his quest, he would never see his homeland again. After a half-hour of grim introspection, he realized that if he failed in his quest, it would in all probability be because he was dead. That cheered him up immediately.
At one point, he noticed Valaista scratching furiously underneath her glimmering, magical surcoat. “What’re you doing?” he whispered.
“It tickles!” the girl snapped.
“I know!” he replied. He’d been trying not to scratch himself. Evidently the Maiden’s powers had come upon them full-force, and were – for lack of a better term – itching to be used. He had wondered whether it would feel different to cast a spell powered by divine might. “Look, just...try not to! It’s not ladylike!”
“I’m not a lady!” Valaista hissed in reply. But at least she stopped scratching.
They had reached the Lindenborg in the late evening, and the Laurits’ had been only too glad to add two more plates to the board. Kalos, like Thanos and untold thousands of other officers, had trained under Hauvvak in the distant past. He was delighted to see his one-time mentor, and broke out a dozen bottles of first-class plonk from the vineyards of Lorkae to celebrate.
The resulting party had gone on well past moonrise. Shory had been the first to succumb to the potent vintage. Thanos and Kalos had taken her, head and heel, and followed Incendia’s lead to one of the guest suites, where, after tucking the pretty wizard into bed, Thanos had found himself wondering how anyone with so minimal a tolerance for wine could possibly have become so besotted with his hard-drinking adjutant. Love is blind, he philosophized drunkely. As well as deaf, dumb, and stupid.
They had no more returned to Kalos’ study than Valaista, who had decided to brave the wine, emptied her glass, placed it carefully on the table, blinked twice, and passed out on Thanos’ shoulder. He and his host had repeated the recovery operation. This time Kalos had remarked on the girl’s limited tolerance, opining that the elves he’d met normally had a greater capacity for wine.
“She’s not doing badly for a three-month-old,” Thanos had chuckled.
That had entailed a much lengthier and more detailed explanation than he’d intended. At some point during his tale, Incendia excused herself and left. Thanos hardly noticed.
The tattered remnants of the dinner party – Thanos, Laurits, and Hauvvak, whose battle-hardened liver would have given Karrick’s a good run for its money – reconvened thereafter to tackle the last three bottles.
“How many cavalry?” Thanos asked, trying to focus. Lorkae vintages were legendary, and it was all he could do to keep his mind on the conversation.
“Notionally? Six hundred heavy, and a little over two thousand light,” Hauvvak replied. The wine didn’t appear to be affecting him at all.
“That’s a hell of a force,” Thanos mused. “I could have some serious fun with that many of the boys.”
“You could, if they were any more than numbers in a book,” the old general laughed. He folded up the parchment bundle and tossed it to the table. “There’s your division, general. Try not to conquer the world by accident.”
Thanos chuckled along with him. “Where’s the important part?”
The warmage flipped to the end of the little booklet. A moment later he let out a heavy whistle. “That’ll do.”
“Thought it might,” Hauvvak snorted.
Thanos turned to his host. “How much can I draw at once?”
“Much as you like,” Laurits shrugged. “But Kald’s restricted you to being two months in arrears at any one time, and no more.”
Thanos checked the numbers again. “So, about three hundred thousand’s my limit, then.”
“In cash or notes,” Laurits nodded. “I recommend notes, for the most part; that’s three wagonloads of bullion. If you manage to get to a depot, you can draw about the same amount in kit. If it’s standard issue, I can cover it up. Special orders...not so much.”
“So if I need a trebuchet...”
“No problem,” the colonel shrugged. “Your rank and unit code will do the rest. But if you want enchanted items, explosive ammo, things like that...no can do.”
“What’s the closest depot to Starmeadow?”
“West, north, or east?”
“All of them,” Thanos said.
“West is Eregaard,” the colonel replied, thinking deeply. “We’ve a regiment in Duncala, but they’re ceremonial troops. North, you’ve got a choice of two towns on the Great Caravan Route: Bylkor – that’s about fifty leagues west of Gaudium, the biggest city in the northern Elven barony of Arx Incultus – and Poratcaminus, the free city, about seventy leagues further along, east of Gaudium. That one’s a little bigger than Bylkor, ‘cause there’s a light cavalry regiment there. East, of course, there’s Skywaters, and the Wastelands Army Depot. That’s the biggest one outside the Empire. There’s a full cavalry division at Skywaters, too.”
“Jesper Varkan’s got that one,” Hauvvak interjected. “He’s solid. Has to patrol the Route between Portacaminus and Zare, and ride out against the Hand Knights out of Mirabilis whenever they start feeling muscular. Buggers need a good pounding every now and then, to remind them who’s in charge.”
“Maybe I should visit Bylkor first,” Thanos mused. “One of my comrades has a connection to Arx Incultus,”
“Really?” Hauvvak asked, interested. “What kind of connection?”
“Pelvic,” the warmage grunted. “Actually, the other one – Portacaminus, you said? – that’s probably closer.”
Laurits frowned. “To what?”
“Mons Lacrimosa,” Thanos replied. “There’s a...well, let’s just say I’ve got an appointment there.”
“Bring your sword,” Hauvvak said grimly. “There’s a dragon there, you know.”
“So I’ve heard,” Thanos said drily. “Look, different topic. I need to ask you both another favour.”
“Why not?” Laurits shrugged. “What’ll it be this time?”
“The Vale,” the warmage sighed. “Wartack’s there now, checking out a report that came in a few weeks back, yes?”
“The cave, with the statues and the river of flowstone,” Hauvvak said. “So?”
“So, I’ve been given reason to believe that there might be more to that than just some rocks.” He steepled his fingers beneath his chin, trying to decide how much to tell his friends. “Look, just keep an ear to the ground, would you? Anything unusual, get me a message, all right?”
“How? With the flux-speaking down, we’re buggered,” Laurits growled.
The warmage smirked. “I can’t believe what I’m hearing! You’re all old campaigners! What about alternative means?”
“Shanks’ mare?” Hauvvak snorted. “Dispatch riders? Smoke signals?”
“How about a message spell cast through a greater scrying?”
Laurits frowned. Then his eyes widened. “You know, that might work,” he agreed. “Whatever’s interfering with flux-speaking hasn’t interrupted scrying. That’s still functioning, at least.”
“Cuts down on the number of casters that can contact you, though,” Hauvvak grunted. “Not many magi can cast greater scrying.”
“Shory can,” Thanos pointed out. “When she’s not dead drunk, anyway.”
“Still, it’s a pretty damned complicated way to send a message,” the old general groused.
“There are other ways,” the warmage shrugged. “You could use gate. That works via the River of Stars, not the flux. You could just open it, and shout a message...”
All three were staring at him, their eyes the size of tea-trays.
“What?” he asked, suddenly self-conscious.
“You got a lot of acquaintances that can cast gate?” Hauvvak snorted.
“Er...all right, I see your point,” the warcaster allowed. “Sorry. I’ve been spending a lot of time with folks from the College of Stars lately. I was about to suggest greater plane shifting to another planar realm, and then back to Anuru, to wherever I am. I suppose that’s out, too.”
“You think?” Laurits snorted.
“I guess it’s scrying, then.”
“Or quill and parchment,” Hauvvak said, shaking his head in disbelief. “You lunatic! People still write letters without magic, you know.”
“Well, if we must, we must,” Thanos sighed.
As he brought his metallic mount in for a landing, swooping low over the stony, moonlit beach, Valaista clutched Thanos ‘round the waist again. Her caution proved unnecessary; the warcaster was getting the hang of his new toy, and he managed to ease the enormous creature down onto the strand with only a slight clatter of iron claws on rock.
Once the construct had stowed its wings, the dragon-girl leapt easily to the ground, then turned and offered her hand to her master. Thanos shook his head, wishing honour permitted him to accept her aid. He’d been in the saddle the better part of fifteen hours, and his bones ached as though he’d been riding practise jousts for a week. In the darkness, he misjudged his leap. His knees buckled as he hit the earth, and he had to hold onto the Shavvuk’s forelimb to hold himself upright.
“I thought we were flying through,” Valaista asked from the shadows.
“Need a break,” he grunted. “This is Isla Baccra, I think, fifty leagues or so south of Eregaard. We’re on schedule; I just need a few minutes to stretch and warm up.”
“Are you all right, master?” the dragon-girl asked, concerned. She had no trouble seeing in the dark, and held her hand out again.
“It’s just the chill,” he said, waving her away. “The Lantern’ll be up soon, and it’ll be warmer. For now, just make a fire, would you?”
He stretched his neck. “Use your imagination, girl.”
She snorted, then spoke a quick word and hurled a handful of flame at a nearby pile of driftwood. The tiny blast caught on a log, sputtered for a moment, then went out.
Thanos shrugged. “It’s been raining. Need a hand?”
“No,” she snapped. Striding over to the heap of grey, weathered wood, she clambered among the logs, found the centre of the heap, then spoke a different set of syllables, pushing her palms outwards. A snarling ring of fire burst from her body, blasting the wood with forge-heat and driving scorching flame into the dry core of every log. In an instant, she was standing in the heart of an inferno.
Thanos nearly leapt forward, but managed to stop himself at the last instant. The girl didn’t need any hint of mistrust from him.
His restraint was rewarded; a few moments later, she strode out of the bonfire, pink-cheeked and chipper. “I was cold, too,” she explained. “And wet. Now I’m dry.”
“Why don’t your clothes burn when you do that?” he asked, curious.
“Your resistance to flame,” he pondered aloud. “It’s a feature of your natural draconic form, is it not?”
“Your clothes aren’t. So why don’t they catch fire?”
The girl blinked, taken aback. “I...I don’t know!”
“I guess that’s your next research topic,” Thanos laughed. He stepped closer to the blazing heap of driftwood, opening his cloak and extending his hands to the blaze. “That was well done, by the way,” he added, hunkering down, groaning as his knees popped.
“What? The fireburst?” She squatted next to him.
“Yes. A good first attempt. Can you remember the other ones I taught you?”
“You’ve taught me an awful lot,” the dragon-girl said drily.
“You’ll know which ones I mean,” he said. “Feel for them. If you’re ready for that one, you’re ready to try some of the others. The ones that you’re able to cast...it’ll seem like they’re at the front of your mind. Right behind your eyes.” He reached out and touched her forehead just above the bridge of her nose. “Right here.
“You can feel the words,” he said, watching her eyes. “Just let them out. Try something else.”
Her brow furrowed. “I can’t...”
“Sure you can,” he interrupted soothingly. “You just did. Relax and let it flow.”
The girl took a deep breath, centering herself as Thanos had taught her, letting her mind open up to the knowledge that he had implanted in her. Her eyes fluttered for an instant...then she pointed at the fire and spoke a rapid series of syllables.
Thanos jumped back, alarmed. “Not that one!”
Too late. The bonfire exploded into a howling, shrieking blast of multicoloured light, washing the beach out in a blaze of argent glory and illuminating most of the tiny island they had landed on. The flaring blast reflected off the lowering clouds. It was as if lightning had struck the shoreline.
Thanos yelled a curse and put his face in his hands, blinded by the glare. He could hear a patter of burning splinters falling to the stone around them as the smoking fragments of firewood fell out of the sky.
“Master!” Valaista screamed. “Master, where are you?”
“I’m right here!” Thanos replied. “Calm down!”
“It’s temporary,” he said, trying to sound reassuring even though all he could see were spots. “We’re not in combat, so just stand still ‘till it passes.”
“How long?” she shouted, still sounding panicked.
“Less than a minute.” Even as he spoke, the glimmering spots before his eyes were already beginning to clear. “I’m coming out of it already, in fact. How about you?”
“I still can’t see!”
He squinted, trying to catch sight of her in the darkness. He managed to spot her by her shadow against the Shavvuk’s looming bulk. He took a step toward her, caught one of her flailing hands, and winced as her fingers clamped down on his. “Just wait,” he said soothingly. “It’ll pass.”
She didn’t speak, but the pressure on his knuckles eased.
Thanos chuckled to himself. The spots were nearly gone, but a headache had taken their place.
“What’s so funny?” Valaista demanded.
“You are,” he chuckled despairingly. “Why’d you have to pick pyrotechnics?”
“It was the first one that came to me,” she replied, disgruntled. She pulled her fingers away from his. “It’s clearing up now, I think.” As he watched, she waved her hand before her eyes.
“Good,” he grunted. “Let’s mount up.”
“I thought we were taking a break?” the dragon-girl exclaimed.
Thanos nearly bit his tongue. To his credit, when he spoke again, his voice was entirely calm. “Break’s over.”
“I can make another fire!” she objected.
“You’ve made enough fire for one night, missy,” the warcaster snapped. “You just lit a beacon visible for a hundred leagues in every direction. We’ve got to get out of here, and right now.” He hauled himself up into his saddle and jerked his head at the girl’s seat. “Mount up.”
Chastened, Valaista pulled herself up the Shavvuk’s side and took her place behind him.
As the glistening creature clawed its way into the night sky, she cried, “I’m still cold!”
“You can warm up at Amorda’s house,” Thanos yelled. “Next stop: Starmeadow!”