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William Myrlhigh fantasy books, young adult fantasy books

Mythopoeia     |    Chapter VIII   |  Chapter X

   © Aug. 30 2013 William Myrl

Chapter IX

Whether first or last
they were the brightest children
to be born in a dry nest...


The buildings around the bonfire at the center of Mondane were ruined beyond their time. They looked as if they had been abandoned a hundred years ago, instead of only one. The bonfire was mostly accidental. Though people fed it, the thing now had an existence separate from the whims of man. It was watchful and hungry and the bandits kept their distance, using more manageable campfires to cook their meals. Gatherings were held here, the self-elected boss of Mondane had a stage for himself within the light of the blaze. It was the middle of the night, and several dozen men and women were engaged in various stages of revelry in the city center. There was a loose desperation to their moods, as some parts of them knew that the air they breathed was poison and the fire truly alive. They drank and sang and screwed, rarely all at once, and enjoyed the provisions of a dead city.
    The boss paced his stage, impatient for his prisoners arrival.
    Two skree were deposited at his feet without ceremony. One of them was wearing a ragged, miniature imitation of a wizard’s robe.
    "These are the ones?" he demanded.
    "Probably me," Tiddles said.
    The boss waved at the men who had brought them. "Tell Jafaar to give you the reward, I don't want to be disturbed again until this is finished."
    The stage cleared quickly, and Tiddles couldn't decide whether it was because this man was feared and respected, or because they simply didn't care what this was about. It was hard for Tiddles to imagine being so...incurious.
    The boss knelt. He had a drawn, manic face, and was glistening with sweat. The stage caught the heat of the bonfire and held it.
    "I have you now," he said, "and you will give me everything I want." Tiddles flinched as the man produced a knife, but it was only to cut the bindings around his hands.        Eyebright wasn't so lucky. She struggled in her net, bordering on a panic.
    The boss ignored her. "Do you know why I've brought you here?"
    Tiddles made the bird sounds that signalled confusion for a skree, then shook his head when he realized he was dealing with humans again.
    "You are going to make me invincible." The boss pressed close to Tiddles, heedless of the knife where it prepared to part scales. "That is what the voice said. You have secrets for me. Share them, now."
    "Come again?" Tiddles said.
    The boss reached for a pouch that hung at his side. There was a bulge in it like a book. He whispered into the mouth, and then placed his ear against it to listen. Tiddles wondered why the bandits followed a man who was so obviously insane. Maybe they didn't follow him, but humored him like favoring a disadvantaged cousin.
    The boss narrowed his eyes, suspicion clear as he handed the pouch to Tiddles.
    "It says I must give it to you, and then you will put me beyond the reach of mortal men."
    "All right." He held out his claws, and felt the tablet inside of the sack. His heart fluttered as he brought it out.
    A symbol had raised out of the smooth wax surface. It was a spell he recognized, though not one he had ever attempted before. 
    "I can't," he said, speaking to the face he knew lived behind the wax. The sigil was nasty, all vicious jags and curves. "Show me another way."
    "You will do it!" the boss snarled, "or I will cut your friend." Eyebright was forced on her back, claws scrabbling for purchase, but between the man’s size and the constraints of the netting she was helpless. The blade tip snicked against the soft scales just below her neck.
    Tiddles was not harsh by nature. He had been raised to be subservient, to accede. Now another aspect of himself presented itself, a hard glitter in the darkness. "Cut my palm," he said, proffering. “I will do exactly as you say."
    "That's better, " the boss said, and the knife moved. He slammed it into the stage through one of Eyebright’s hands. Her keening was shrill enough that many of the revelers looked to see what their leader was doing to the Skree. They had an audience now.
    Tiddles froze, and the boss removed the knife and handed it to him. "Use this. Inscribe me with the sacred rune."
    Tiddles did as he was told, using the blood as ink, the knife his quill, and ignoring the sounds of his friends' distress. The man’s neck was exposed, lost as he was in a religious reverie. What if he missed the artery? The man would overpower him easily, and it would be for nothing. There were others around the stage, and Eyebright was now wounded as well as entangled.
    It came together quickly, Tiddles barely had to glance at the tablet again to know his sigil was perfect.
    "I feel the power," the boss said. "It's going to be mine."
     Tiddles bent to free Eyebright, cooing to calm her as well as he could. He could see that she had been lucky; she would likely retain the use of her hand.
    The boss began to laugh, and Tiddles tucked the tablet under his arm as he helped Eyebright to her feet. "Hurry now," he said, "let's pretend as if we belong."
The boss strode back and forth across the stage, waving his arms and announcing his ascension into the ranks of the exalted gods. Then one of his eyelids drooped, and he fell and didn’t move again.
    A man saw them get away, and subsequently got into a savage argument over whether ugly dogs could be given robes and made to walk on their hind legs. The two Skree were out of the town center, away from the light of the bonfire, when the shouting started in earnest. They hid under a wagon with a broken axle, and the tablet suggested a spell that Tiddles used to bend the shadows around them into a curtain of darkness. It wouldn't hold when daylight came, but for the night it was all they needed to escape notice. Tiddles bound Eyebright's hand with a scrap of his robe after looking up a cantrip that helped blood coagulate to stop bleeding.
He had missed his tablet very much.

    "What did you do?" Eyebright asked at length.
    "The man wanted me to cast a dangerous spell for him. I made a mistake in the limning, and it killed him."
    Eyebright didn't say anything, and sometime before dawn, they both passed into sleep.The tablet woke him up with a minor shock. Tiddles jerked.
    "The patrols missed you," it said. " If you go now you will reach the mountain without being accosted."
    Eyebright stirred, and the tablet fell silent. He debated within himself whether to tell her of his friend or not, but the moment went by without revelation.
    "We should go," he told her, and she nodded. The trauma of the last hours, or the strain of being above while the angry eye of the heavens unfurled over them was enough to keep her from questioning the wax rectangle he clutched at his side. They arrived at the tunnel they had come through by mid-morning and found Growler was waiting for them.
    He blocked the passage to home.
    "You had no permission to go above."
    "We went to find the sickness," Eyebright said.
    "I know. Bigheaded told us what you did. He wanted us to rescue you. We told him it was your own doing if you died. We have spoken on this before." He swatted her snout, scratching it, and she trilled in surprise.
    Tiddles felt anger bloom, and set it aside for later. "Fatetaster," he said. Growler wouldn't understand draconic, so he was reduced to a foreign vocabulary. 
    The older Skree peered at him. "Wiseclaw gave up his fire last night. You should have been with him. Coolhands is preparing his body for the feast."
    Tiddles’ eyes nictitated. The Fatetaster had been sick and frail, so this was not totally unexpected. Still, it was not an outcome he had wanted. 
    "I go," he said, and Growler allowed him past. He hoped that Eyebright wouldn't be punished for what they had done, but that wasn't his concern now. Tiddles did not go to the chamber he had shared with Wiseclaw. Instead, he crawled through a narrow avenue into an unused alcove within greyscales territory. Growler hadn't asked about the tablet, another curious incuriosity. Of course, Tiddles didn't have the words to explain it to him in a way he would understand. 
    "Magnus, are you there?"
    The face of his oldest friend rose out of the wax. "Naturally, I am everywhere. I sense we are alone."
    "I wasn't sure what to tell them about you." His voice was pitched low, in case any Skree wandered nearby. Even small sounds could travel great distances in the silence and the dark. He could see Magnus with his wizard’s sight, violet light outlining the wax features.
    "Best to give them nothing," the tablet said. "Better for them to see you acting alone."
    "What do you mean?"
    "I have plans for you. I couldn't be sure I would find you again after you lost me. Now that I have, we should move as soon as possible."
    "You used the bandit," Tiddles said. " How did you convince him to trust you?"
    The tablet turned wry. "Humans will believe almost anything a talking object tells them. They do not think I am a person, because I am non-human, and so the assumption becomes that I exist for their benefit."
    "But what did you tell him?"
    "What he wanted to hear; that I could give him power unequalled in his dreams, and that there was one unique ingredient he needed for the ritual; you."
    "We came above because of the poison," Tiddles said. "Is there anything we can do to stop it?"
    "The poison?" Magnus raised a smooth grey eyebrow. "You mean the mantic dissonance, I suppose. You've been out of the Tower too long. In any case, no, there is nothing to be done. When the Shield of Petronia met the Sword of Glass, both were destroyed. The magic they unleashed will haunt this region for centuries, if the world has that long."
    "The failsafes are being dismantled, is that it? Someone wants to destroy the Tower."
    "Nothing so direct as that." Magnus corrected him. "Someone wants to wake the exalted ones again, to unmake the wizard’s peace."
    Tiddles opened his mouth and let it hang there.
    "It isn't this alone, "the wax face continued. "There have been other occurrences across Mythopoeia. This is the work of a well organized cabal, or else a single being of formidable proportions. Offhand, I think it is either a rogue Fae Queen or agents of the dragons of the east. The Tellurians don’t want the gods freed anymore than the tower does."
    Tiddles recovered himself. "So two of the Nine are destroyed. Something has to be wrong with Timothean. How could he have allowed it to come this far."
    "I don't know," Magnus said, "but that is not our immediate problem. "
    "What is?"
    "Giving the Skree what they have never had; a king."
    "Come again.”

    Eyebright was not in a pleasant mood. She had been growled at and interrogated, and neither of her fellow conspirators had been in sight. She had gone to Coolhands, and he had castigated her for risking the wellbeing of the tribe by drawing the attention of humans. Tiddles hadn't been there, and she had a terrible feeling that Coolhands would be their new Fatetaster. Wiseclaw had been kind and knowledgeable without condescension. He had performed his duties well for more years than she had known, and he would be missed. Now his body would be drained, his blood sipped and his flesh tasted, so that his wisdom would never leave the tribe, and to abide the maxim that meat never be wasted.
    Would Tiddles be absent for that as well?
    She caught him hurrying down a side passage with a small bundle in his arms.
    "Where have you been!" She accused.
    "I'm sorry, Eyebright, I have no time."
    She grabbed him when he attempted to slip by her. "Show me what is so important," she said," or I will tell them you talk to a pale stone, and that you killed a man by touching him."
    "Okay," Tiddles said.
    The unused alcove was now lit by a yellow orb floating near the ceiling. Tiddles had collected a soft rock he could use as chalk, and with it he had filled the chamber with circles and sigils.
    "What is this?" Eyebright asked.
    She had waited with the patience of her kind as he worked to prepare the room, silenced by an innate respect for that which she didn't understand.
    "I'm not sure." Tiddles had decided there was no reason not to be honest. "My friend says it will make me strong."
    Eyebright quirked her head to one side. "What do you have to be strong for?"
    "I'm not sure." Tiddles watched the final sigil form on the surface of wax. He was supposed to write it over his heart. The sign was uncomfortably similar to the one he had used to kill the bandit boss. His teeth were fit for piercing, better suited for eating insects than the fungus the Skree had come to subsist on. Blood welled from his claw tip, and he opened his wizard’s sight to help draw magic into the ritual signs. The sigil pulsed upon his breast, and heat coursed over his scales. Then he fainted.
    Eyebright made a shrill sound and went to him, ignoring the strange light that obscured her vision of the room, ignoring the chalk circles that had somehow burned themselves into the rock.
    "He's well." The tablet was propped against a stalag beside Tiddles prostrate form. “He will wake once he's had a few minutes to recover."
    "What do you want?" she hissed at it.
    "A number of things." The mantic symbols were replaced by a handsome face, a strong nose and large eyes. "For the moment, you and I should be allies. You want to help him, want to help your people, and you will need me to do that. Notice that I am fluent in Skreelan. Our mutual friend will have that ability as well when he wakes. I have undone some of the damage Corneus' heavy-handedness did to him. And I will do more for him soon."
    "I hear you," Eyebright said, "and I do not trust you."
    "One of the many ways your race proves itself wiser than that of man. You don't take the talking object at his word." The face smoothed over, then returned a moment later, like a face at a window having gone and returned from another room. "Know this, bright-eyed Skree. He has put himself into my power with this spell. If you try to betray or destroy me, it will not go well for him."
    Eyebright bared her teeth, but Tiddles was already stirring. He felt himself a thing of clay.  His limbs were clumsy and his head in pain. "I'd rather not do that again."
    "Every morning," the tablet said, "when possible."
    The sign that had been painted in Tiddles blood was now a white scar against the pale grey scales of his chest. He examined it minutely. "What have I done to myself?"
    "It makes you better by packing more magic into you," the tablet said.
    "That sounds safe." Tiddles picked up the wax rectangle, then turned to Eyebright. "I'm ready to go see the others now. Do you want to lead?" 
    Eyebright glanced from Tiddles to tablet, and trilled her assent.

     The Skree exist in a tribal hierarchy not unlike that practiced by the plains people. The Fatetaster is an advisor, medicine man, and leader of ceremonies. The chief leads in war, but for the most part is simply the most respected member of the community, not an absolute ruler. When a Fatetaster dies, the chief and other influential members of the tribe attend a ceremony led by his successor. They were already assembled in a large chamber, and Wiseclaw’s body had already been skinned. His scales sat at the center of the feast that had been made of him. Skree would take his bones away, and Coolhands would keep the skull. The Greyscales had a place deep in the warrens where the skulls of their Fatetasters were kept. It was so with all the tribes, and these places were not disturbed even when fighting among the tribes became fierce, and one was destroyed.
    They were eating when Tiddles arrived, and Eyebright paused at the edge of the gathering. There were about thirty Skree here, old and young.
    Tiddles pushed through to the center where Longtooth crouched with Coolhands. Others made way for him. He was known, and the average will always make way for the unusual. Robewearer, they still called him. Some had heard his other name, but Destroyer did not fit with what they saw.
    "Excuse me," he began when Longtooth looked at him, "there is something you should know." He intended to tell them of what had happened in the above, of the poison that threatened their way of life beneath the mountain. A force stopped him. In the brief interval of his unconsciousness, he had been changed. A voice had spoken to him, whether that of Magnus or another. It spoke through him now.
    "I am the chief of the Greyscales."
    His statement carried, and silence followed it. He didn't recognize everyone in the inner circle, but nearly all of them knew of him. There were a few low hisses and angry clicks. It would have been offensive in far politer circumstances. This was disrespect upon a Fatetaster just dead.
    Longtooth was larger than Tiddles and better armed, as his name suggested. He didn't care for this outsider as a rule, and was irritated by his robes. But this brazen declaration was so out of the expected realm that he wasn't angry. He was wary. He would not have called himself the chief, though he was; it would have been inappropriate. The word sounds in Skreelan were the same as those they used for dragon, a sacred noise.
    "You know not what you say." Odd that he said anything. Had he been pretending to be incapable of using their language fluently until now? That kind of deception was all the more reason to walk lightly.
    "I know my words," Tiddles said. "I will be the dragon of the Greyscales. You will be below me." 
    Coolhands had moved to silence Tiddles, but something in the stance of the other Skree gave him pause. Coolhands did not act rashly, as a rule. He came to within a step of the Robewearer and stopped. Longtooth would put an end to this shortly.
    The Skree chief hissed and lunged at Robewearer, intending to put him down and have his submission so they could continue with the feast of the dead.

    Longtooth noted that he was on his side and that something was covering his right eye. There was a dim ringing in his ears, and blood in his mouth. Someone was saying they were the dragon of the Greyscales. That didn't make any sense. There had never been a dragon in the Greyscales, and Longtooth was their chief. He touched his face. A flap of skin was hanging over his eye. Pain was growing more sharply in its focus with every beat of his heart. Someone was helping him up, Robewearer, who had struck him moments before.
    "I am sorry," he said, "I did not know my strength."
    "Why do you want this?" Longtooth's voice was rough. "You are not one of us." 
    "No, I am not," Robewearer said. "That is why it must be me."
     The other Skree watched the exchange, unsure of how to respond. A challenge to their leader’s authority had ended immediately and decidedly in favor of the newcomer.
    Coolhands chose this moment to come beside them. "We are not at war," he said. “A dragon is called for only in times of strife between the tribes, or great changes. You cannot be what you say. You do not understand our ways."
   Tiddles clicked his condescension. "We are at war with man. He put poison in the mountain. If you do not acknowledge it, all the more reason for a dragon to be made."
    Coolhands would have berated the Robewearer for his temerity if Longtooth had not just been incapacitated. Instead, he said,"We are not at war. We do not war with man."
    “They war with us." Tiddles cast his voice so that he would be heard clearly by the other Skree. "They have poisoned our rivers so that the fish will not breed, and the crops are reluctant to grow. They wear our skins. They think we are animals, and we do nothing."
   "There is nothing we can do," Longtooth said. He did not disagree with the Robewearer about menfolk; they were worse than cave spiders. But conflict had been sought in other lives,and it had never gone well for the Skree.
    "Hold still," the Robewearer said, and pressed the loose flap of skin back onto Longtooth’s skull. He said something that couldn't have been repeated. It was too strange, and the skin sealed. Longtooth hissed at the fresh pain, but he was no longer bleeding.
Whistles and trills went up around them, for the Robewearer was glowing silver. Not brightly, but it seemed almost blinding against the absolute blackness of their existence. Not only that, he was shining with his warmth, as the mad and the sick do to the adapted sight of the Skree.
    "What is this?" Coolhands asked, aghast.
    "My name is Destroyer of Worlds," Tiddles said, "Wiseclaw knew it to be true." He crouched, and took a morsel of the lean feast for himself, snapping it up."The Fatetaster's do not know what it means, but I do. I will bring change to the mountain, and to the Skree. That change begins here. I am the dragon of the Greyscales."
    Magic sustains the Skree, their farms, their sight, and it sustains them without the need for formal practice. They do not have wizards, and the powers of the Fatetaster's are few and feeble. What Tiddles presented to them was magic of a different sort, deliberate and forceful. Suddenly, his robes did not seem a sign of foolishness, they fit him. His was not the difference deserving of contempt. Now, it was the difference of the divine.
    Coolhands, ever practical, bobbed his head in obeisance. He felt that if he fought this he would be destroyed, so it was better to be among the founders. Perhaps more importantly, he was a Fatetaster, and he could smell the truth of what the Robewearer said as his tongue flicked in the air.
    First a few, and then more; the others bobbed their heads as well. 
    Eyebright came at the end, seeing the Robewearer, Destroyer now, win influence over the tribe. It seemed wrong to her, all of it. She wanted to save her people, not to change them. It was taboo to bring light this deep into the warrens, and the Destroyer bled light from his very scales. It was her gift to see clearly, and she saw the end of the Skree.