Chapter One - Part Eight
Disclaimer in Prologue
The mage light was dimming by the time they finished their meal. Meldew used a quick cantrip to clean the stew pot, and Cullie packed it and the rest of the gear away before picking a spot to set out her bedroll. They’d agreed there was no need to set watches, since the sanctity of the place was likely to keep away the nastier things that roamed the night – and the presence of the Lord Watcher would almost certainly discourage the more simple hunters from venturing too close.
Ashley bid them all good night and curled herself into a bundle beneath her blankets, having studied her spell books with the diligence required to commit fresh spells to memory and still retain them in the morning. Flux, who still remembered the morning he’d woken up to find a very large phase spider spinning webs across their gear, took a moment to roll up the hole and tuck it away before seeking a spot to settle for the night. Meldew had staked out a place by the embers of the fire, and the dwarf moved across to claim the space beside him. A sudden sparkle of light caught his eye – a momentary brush of starlight glimmering across bronze scales somewhere out in the darkness.
Flux grinned. The events of the afternoon were settling into memory, a weaving of breathless excitement, heart shivering terror, and mind spinning incredulity. This morning he had woken up, clambered out of his blankets and set about the day as if it had been any other … well, any other on which he was part of an expedition into dangerous territory – which meant being armed to the teeth with steel, brimming with curiosity and fired with the thrill of exploring the unknown. He’d earned his younger rankings stalking the edges of the Sharshall Fell, hunting down monstrosities and returning with the triumph of unearthed treasure: rare splinters of starsteel ore, and once – just once – a precious nugget of moonsblood. The secrets of the city had drawn him even then, although he’d never risked coming this deep into the ruins – and because of it, he’d found pleasure in colouring his life with tales and legends and echoes of the world that had existed before the Fall. He had followed truth and rumour in equal measure. Had yearned for a glimpse of ancient glories, for evidence of mages that had once made mountains walk, or of heroes who had fought entire armies
with nothing but wild determination and blades of ensorcelled steel. He’d dreamed of dragons. Had longed
for a glimpse of metalled wings, passing over him, high in the sky and distanced by the shimmer of the sun. But he’d never – never
- in all his long years, and through all the trials and triumphs of campaign and adventuring, believed that there might come a day when he – Flux Wireform, the son of Smelter, and youngest of his mother’s sevenbrood – would find himself standing this
close to a true Dragon. A child of the old forging, noble in blood, steeped in wisdom and charged with magic.
A dragon, what’s more, who was everything he’d ever imagined they might be – while being nothing like
anything he might have expected. Had he expected it.
And he’d stood this
close and offered the creature his service - and had the offer accepted with a clasp of hands …
“One of these days, Flux,” Meldew was saying, the note in his voice suggesting he knew exactly
what his friend was thinking about, “you’re going to open your mouth and put much more than your foot in it.”
“Oh, aye?” the dwarf retorted, drawing his eyes down from shadows in the dark and unrolling his bedroll with a flourish. “I didn’t see you stepping up to the parapet with any better defence. Truth and honesty is best with dragons – or so all the stories say.”
“That’s what all the books say, too,” Meldew admitted reluctantly. “I’m not saying you did wrong
, Flux – just that, one day, your luck and your wits will fail you. And I don’t want to be the one burying you in six different pieces because you spoke your mind one too many times. You’re supposed to live long enough to bury me
“And I will,” Flux retorted warmly. “In a crypt of hand hewed granite, all lined out with Merengivian Marble. Lead lining for the coffin, gold chasing on the edges of the bier. Although with you, it might end up the other way round …”
“I wish.” Meldew snorted at the thought. “No-one's mastered that
transmutation since before the Fall. Not so that it lasts, anyway.”
“Well, you’ve time yet. And so have I. Besides – if I ever did
get myself bitten in two, Cullie’s the kind to dive into the jaws of Death and haul me back before she had time to swallow - and you’d be busy gluing me back together with one of those concoctions of yours while she did it.”
“I probably would at that. Waste of a good distillation though. I wonder if the Lord Watcher would …”
“No,” Flux interrupted sternly, halfway through unhooking his weapon belt. “No asking the Sword of Sulis for blood - nor scales, nor spit, either. They aren’t yours – or any others’ - for the asking. He’ll gift you with them if he deems you worthy, and you’ll treasure them for what they’re worth. And if you’re lucky,” he added thoughtfully, “you’ll be around when he sheds his skin. A sliver o’that
would serve your potions well enough.”
“It would indeed.” Meldew folded himself down onto his bedding and wrapped his cloak around his lanky frame. “And I would not be so impolite as to beg even a whisper of dragon breath – from him or
her. Tempting as it may be …”
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Night settled over the ruined city. Fell things stirred in the shadows and stalked in the dark, much as they had done for hundreds of years. Cold ghosts rose from the sleep of death and drifted through the streets they had strolled along in life. Hunger gnawed in forgotten corners, and malignant, bitter echoes lingered in the tumbled halls and the broken remnants of long corrupted dreams. Sharshall never slept, never stilled, never forgot
Yet, in the very heart of the Fell, in the depths of the temple where the memory of the light had lingered, and the cold of the shadows had been kept at bay, souls did
slumber, cradled in the sanctity of ancient powers and guarded by wise eyes that watched and wondered, pondering the perversities of fate and the absurdity of trying to unravel them.
Dragons have little need of sleep when they are young; they preserve their energies in other ways, balancing exertion and action with moments of quietness and thoughtful meditation. True sleep only claims them in times of injury, if they have exhausted themselves through extremes of effort, or in the hours after a truly satisfying feast – because for dragons
, sleep is less about rest and more about the chance to digest
… although this particular dragon had had no opportunity to discover that, as yet.
What he was busy discovering was an awareness of himself and his new shape, mentally exploring the world of sense and sensation that came with what Willow had termed his ‘makeover.’ The sense of her presence was part of that; she was a warm weight against his skin, comforting in her company and reassuringly Willow
in a way he could not define but suspected had a lot to do with the package of sensory and supernatural abilities that both of them had been gifted with for survival in this new world.
He would know her anywhere. Would know any of the four souls that slept so trustingly barely a wing stretch away from him, too – because while human senses logged features and figures and the sound of voices, he could easily add scent and the signature of soul to the list. Bigger brains
, he decided, wondering just how much of his additional cerebral matter was given over to the control of six … make that seven
… limbs rather than four, along with processing the wider sweep of vision, the enhanced spectrum, the more subtle palate of enlarged nostrils and tongue, the fins that were apparently sensitive to air currents as well as variations in temperature, and the soft tang
of electrical generation that sparked in the roof of his mouth.
Not to mention the energies that coiled though every inch of him, defining his shape and determining his true power. Willow was right. The magic was
different here – but it seemed less a difference in the nature of the world, and more about the change in their
nature, in the innate gifts they had been given, and the expectations they had been shaped to fit.
He thought about that for a while, considering what the alchemist had said about the power of dragons to take other shapes, to disguise themselves in human, or other forms … There was something it that that made sense – in the certainty he had of being dragon
, while retaining the memory of what it was like to be a man. Could he really shift from one to the other, compacting thirty foot of skin and bone and wing and muscle down into six feet of human anatomy?
It would certainly make it easier to avoid unwanted attention - and easier to integrate into whatever society awaited them beyond the ruined walls of the Enclave. Easier to walk unseen and watch unnoticed. It seemed he was no longer charged with Watching a Slayer – and lord
, he was going to miss her, despite the compensation of Willow’s company – but with Watching a world
. A much harder task, but hopefully one that would turn out to be just as rewarding in the end.Start small
, Giles reminded himself severely. He was barely a beginner in this dragon business. He’d learn from this quaternity the gods had sent to greet and guide them, would help them protect their people, perhaps even find a place in their kingdom – although if he did,
he’d do well to remember those long lessons that had taught him to separate duty from politics, and obligation from patriotism. Have to teach her some of that
, he realised, looking down at the young woman currently curled against his warmth. Willow was part of his duty now – a partner in responsibility as well as purpose – and she would need to understand how to recognise the hard decisions, to consider the matters of the greater good … although she was already well aware of the dangers inherent in possessing power – and she’d stepped into the rift beside him with barely a hesitation, despite knowing what doing so might mean.
He quirked the kind of smile that only a dragon can, and curled his wing down to cover her as she slept, offering her shelter and protection, and defence against the cold terrors of the night. There was an adventure awaiting them both in the morning – a journey into a new world and a new beginning.
So why did it feel as if he’d finally come home?
Here endeth Chapter One of the Songs of Summerset and Midwinter
Chapter two will follow soon ...