Lytha had cared for many mangled bodies during her years as a healer, but had never acted as a patient herself before now. She drifted in and out of consciousness, unwilling to look into a mirror to see how bad her burns were. Her labored breathing relaxed on the first day, and the constant pain diminished as her condition stabilized. When she finally ventured to touch the skin around her face and neck, she felt the unfortunately familiar sensation of burned flesh.
She woke up one day to find somebody offering her a drink of healing draught. She swallowed the liquid without questioning and only realized after she had drank it that the person who offered it to her had skin the color of the midnight sky.
“It’s not quite as powerful as the elixir you gave me once so long ago,” Garyl said gently, “but it should help smooth out the burn marks on your skin. I can’t do anything about your wrinkles, though.”
Lytha shifted her head to look at Garyl. She lay in the same infirmary where she had brought him not so long ago—maybe even the same bed. “You were up and about in a few hours,” she said weakly. “Will I be that lucky, too?”
“Unfortunately not,” Garyl replied. “I’ve already beaten you by several days. After Tiane did her initial damage, your skin kept smoldering for quite a while. And while you’ve trained some very good healers here, none of them have quite your skill at potion-making.”
“And how long did it take for one of the teachers to find you?”
“I was on my way back shortly after it happened.” He leaned down and spoke to her in a confidential tone. “I used my amazing powers of deduction to figure out you had lied to me.”
“Had to,” Lytha croaked. “Or at least, I thought I had to.”
“Yes. You attempt to stop a new Dragon War didn’t work out the way you expected, did it?”
“She’s dangerous. This just proves it. And you owe me an apology for bringing her here in the first place.”
Garyl sat up straight in his stool. “If you want an apology, I’ll give you one. It won’t be the most sincere thing you’ve heard, though—not for that, at least. I’m sorry I spoke too freely about her nature. I’m sorry I took too long to build my hypothesis. And I’m sorry that I fell for your lie and left without checking this campus top to bottom. But I’m not sorry for bringing her here in the first place.”
“Some sort of monstrous avatar, and you think it’s a good idea to bring her in contact with children.”
“Where else could I bring her? I needed her in a safe place, one where should could get nurturing and understanding. And I admit, I was hoping you could teach her a spot of magic. If she could harness the power without losing control—”
“Then she would have done this to me long ago, no doubt.” Lytha attempted to sit up and felt surprised to find that she had the strength to do so.
“What happened?” Garyl asked. “Immediately before she attacked you.”
“I tried to stab her,” Lytha admitted.
“And when she set Falden’s shack on fire, agents from the academy had just launched an attack on the building. Both times, her life was in danger, either directly or indirectly. The only wildcard is whatever happened in the hedge maze.” Garyl frowned and furrowed his brow. “What were we talking about when we passed that part of campus?”
“You were trying to convince me of your theory,” Lytha responded after a brief moment of though. “I admit now, I was more skeptical of the idea than I should have been.”
“Right,” Garyl said. “Tiane must have been somewhere nearby, probably right in the maze herself. Let’s see…I tried to convince you to give me a post at the academy, you rightly pointed out that I would be a terrible teacher, we talked about Derrezen…”
“You called me young,” Lytha interjected.
“Yes—good memory,” Garyl said emphatically. “She didn’t cook your brain, did she? Let’s see…what else? She must have overheard me sketching out in fairly good detail that I thought she was a vessel for Derrezen’s soul, but I also said that it would take her years to come to full power. So that means…oh. Stupid, stupid, stupid!”
Garyl walked to the wall and punched it in frustration.
“Are you trying to land yourself a bed next to mine?” Lytha asked. She tried to raise her eyebrows, then wondered if she had eyebrows left…and, if not, how long it would take to grow them back.
“No, I’m fine.” Garyl shook his hand and failed to keep the pain out of his voice after having thrown a punch into a brick wall. “But I’m also an idiot.”
“Why this time?”
“I make this mistake all the time. I run off, and I do research, and I come back and tell everybody to look at me because I’m so smart. But I never tell the right people at the right time. I keep making the mistake of thinking that being old makes you smarter and wiser than everybody else. But it really just means that I should know the patterns now before I make the same stupid mistake!”
“And what mistake is that?”
“Why didn’t I tell Tiane everything right away?” Garyl put emphasis on every word and waved his hands as though appealing to an invisible crowd. “I had the theory, and I had enough evidence to make it work. Why did I go to you in the first place instead of the girl whose life it affected?”
“Well, when she found out she burned my hedge maze to the ground,” Lytha answered. “You might have been rightly concerned that you would wind up in the literal line of fire.”
“I’ll grant you that, but here’s something else to think about: when I asked you to take her in and told you she had dragon blood, did you share that news with her?”
Lytha took a deep breath and thought about the events from almost a year ago. Then she nodded. “Yes…I shared what you had told me.”
“Of course you did! Because why wouldn’t you? That’s potentially cataclysmic news, so why shouldn’t the person who is most affected by it hear it as soon as possible? But then when I had even bigger, more devastating news, I took her to an undersea fair instead and then talked to you as though she were some sort of experiment. And I can only think of one good reason why I would do that.”
“And that reason is…?”
Garyl’s animated demeanor disappeared in a flash. He sat down on an empty bed, breathed a long sigh, and hung his head. After collecting himself for a moment, he raised his head again and spoke to Lytha. “Because I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I wasn’t sure what action I needed to take next, so I turned to you in an attempt to buy myself time. If you had given me a teaching post, I probably would have stayed on for a few months to do some research and then disappeared around exam time. But since you didn’t, I revealed more and more of the problem to you in a subconscious hope that you would help me come to a decision. Of course, in doing so I really just passed the decision onto you and put you in harm’s way. And for that, I am very sorry.”
“So you apologize for the harm you did, but not the actions you took that led to it.”
Garyl ran his hand through his hair. “Where else should she have gone? Two of the three times that her power manifested, her life was either in danger or very near to it. The other time, she overhead me rambling on about her true nature, and she must have realized that somebody would think as you did and try to kill her before she became a real threat. She only managed to cause harm when something threatened her life. What other place in all the world would have given her the safety that you did?”
“Need I remind you that I just recently tried to stab her in the head?”
Garyl nodded. “But up until that point, you were loving and caring to her.”
Lytha laughed despite herself. “None of that describes the way I teach or administrate.”
“Okay, I’ll give you that,” Garyl said. “But she was safe here until I put wheels in motion that changed all that. Now she’s out somewhere in a dangerous world, which means a fair share or peril is coming her way. That, in turn, means that she’ll use her powers more often, which means she’ll speed up her progression toward becoming a real danger.”
Lytha passed a hand over her mangled face. “You mean she isn’t a danger already?”
“You’re alive,” Garyl said grimly. “If she had full control, you wouldn’t be.”
“So how many times will it take for her to get good at this?”
Garyl stood up and shrugged. “I don’t know. How many people have you tried to kill in your life?”
“Up until Tiane, none.”
Garyl looked genuinely stunned, as though Lytha’s lack of bloodlust were some great miracle the likes of which he had never seen before. A smile crossed his face. “Well then, let’s hope you don’t get more practice at it, or you might get good at it.”
“So once she gets in practice, how many people will you let die?”
Garyl started to turn for the door, but paused as he considered Lytha’s question. “What?”
“As you said, the Lorinthian Magic Academy is one of the safest places in the land. If Tiane had attacked me anywhere else, the healers might not have been able to save me. If she lashes out at somebody else who doesn’t have the benefits and protection I have, they might die. How many people does she get to kill before her threat grows big enough for you to end? Does it have to turn into another Dragon War?”
Garyl frowned. “One is too many,” he said. “So I’ll have to act quickly and make sure that nobody dies at all—including Tiane.”
“Do you really think you can stop her without killing her?”
“I think Derrezen made a mistake when he put his soul in the body of a human child,” Garyl said. “You people grow and change very quickly. All those new experiences…I think it might be able to transform that soul into something better.”
“And what if Tiane turns into something worse instead?”
Garyl clenched his teeth and waved his arms in frustration. “What if you get another chance at her and I’m standing in the way? Do you kill me to get at her? Do you justify that away? I don’t have the answers, and I’m not sure how this ends. But I’d really like to find a solution where everybody lives. I’ll keep trying for that until it becomes impossible. And if it does, I’ll have to find another plan. The difference between me and Shandalar is that I don’t think I have all the answers.”
“I still have to make a report to the city council,” Lytha said. “I won’t lie to them about everything that happened here. Even if they don’t believe me about Tiane’s true nature, they’ll treat somebody with her uncontrolled power as a threat.”
Garyl knelt by Lytha’s side, took her hand, and gave it a tight squeeze. “Lovely Lytha, you judgment saved my life once before. Use that judgment and do what you think is right. I’ll use mine and try to find the right answer, but I know full well that my judgment almost always leads me into peril.” He kissed her hand. “Do you have any idea where I should start looking for her?”
Lytha squeezed Garyl’s hand back. “I suppose that’s the closest you’ll ever come to deferring to my superior judgment,” she said. “I don’t know where she is now, but the hole she blasted in my wall should still be there. I suppose she would have traveled straight from there until she ran into something that forced her to change paths.”
Garyl rose. “Then that’s where I’ll start. I’ll check in on you as I can. Please make a full recovery. Even if the academy has a capable second-in-charge, I need you.”
Tiane had never been a terrific thief, but she had enough basic skills to keep herself alive. She had acquired a small skinning knife early on that served her well when cutting purse-strings. From there, it was usually just a matter of figuring out where the city watch in a given community patrolled and how to avoid those areas. That way, if somebody called the watch, she could be long gone by the time they arrived.
Her skills were rusty after spending so much time away from Falden and his operation, but she didn’t need a lot of finesse to get the job done. As long as she never got greedy, she could give up a potentially fat purse for the opportunity to steal another day. If somebody chased her and she couldn’t get away, they would usually stop to pick up their purse if she tossed it behind her. That delay was all she needed to disappear and try her luck elsewhere. She stole more than she needed to survive, so she could manage lean times. She had made it all the way through the winter on the streets of Perne using this technique.
Each time she stole and ran, though, she felt an itching on the inside of her skull. The voice of the dragon-clawed man chided her for acting like a coward when she could simply take what she wanted. Today, however, that voice remained silent. Somebody pursued her with a purpose today, and a fight seemed inevitable.
She had gained a good head start before her mark had tracked her down in the crowd. If he had played things in a calmer manner, she probably could have made it to safety without him even noticing any suspicious behavior. But despite its walls and cobbled streets, Perne didn’t attract sizable enough crowds to hide her for long. She thought that if she made haste she could get out of sight before her mark noticed her. In this, she had been wrong. She had also been wrong about how fast the man could run.
Despite a large midsection and relatively short legs, the bearded man kept up well and even gained whenever Tiane took a sharp turn in an attempt to avoid him. She had tossed the purse behind her at least two blocks ago, but he ignored it. Casting a glance over her shoulder, Tiane saw the glint of a sword hilt concealed beneath the man’s light blue cloak. He didn’t have it in his hand yet, but he would be able to draw it quickly if he ever caught up with her.
And catch up with her he did. Knowing that she couldn’t make a run for the city wall without attracting members of the watch, Tiane tried to move toward the center of town, where a number of residences stood packed closely together. She had hoped that the tight alleyways would afford her proper hiding places. Unfortunately, she hadn’t counted on the warm, dry spring afternoon bringing people out to air wet laundry and perform menial chores around their hovels. Everywhere she turned, a potential hiding place was occupied with some annoying homebody who would call the authorities if a scene broke out nearby. When she did eventually find an empty alleyway, she also discovered a dead end. A brick wall bridged the gap between two buildings, and Tiane didn’t have the strength left in her legs to attempt to climb over it.
“Finally,” her pursuer said as he cornered Tiane in the alley. He placed a hand on his sword.
Yes…finally. Tiane heard the voice in her mind, but didn’t recognize it as her own thoughts. Regardless, a calm overtook her. She ran out of habit and a desire for a thrill—left one-on-one with a potential attacker, she had no need to continue her charade of helplessness.
Tiane turned slowly, holding her palms at shoulder level to demonstrate that she had no weapons. “It was a fun run, but you caught me,” she said. “Of course, you left your coin purse somewhere back in the streets, so you don’t have a lot of evidence to present to the guard if you want to jail me.”
“Oh, there’s no guard coming to help you, little brat.”
Tiane felt taken aback by the man’s hostile demeanor. He had soft features and a soft body—she hadn’t predicted that he would have the stamina to keep up with her at a run or the disposition to resort to violence for the trouble she had caused. Oh well, she thought. Everybody gets surprised sometimes.
“This isn’t about the money,” the man said as he drew his blade. “It’s about lessons. You don’t steal from me, girl. And you’re about to find out why.”
The sword was a little over two feet long and had a straight blade designed for thrusting. Its dainty appearance matched Tiane’s original assumption that the man was more of a fop than a killer, but the cruel smile that he wore reminded her that he could be both. Keeping her feet close together, she turned her toes outward and bent her knees slightly, like a dancer assuming first position.
The man had no more threats for her—only a desire for violence. Once he came within reach, he lunged forward with the sword and struck for her heart. Anticipating the move, Tiane spun away from the blow, dodging to one side and stepping so close to the man that they almost stood nose to nose. She felt a surge of adrenaline run through her body, and her mind lit up with a fiery sense of pride. She had grown to like this part.
She never knew exactly what happened next, but she usually imagined her crimson eyes glowing like fire as she struck terror into the minds of those who threatened her. The man reacted like all the others at first—his cruel eyes wavered, and then he dropped his weapon and took a couple of faltering steps backward. But then came the surprise: instead of turning and fleeing like most people did, the man dropped to one knee and bowed to Tiane like she was some sort of queen.
“I didn’t realize,” he mumbled. Reaching to a chain on his neck, he pulled a small silver pendant from beneath his tunic. The pendant resembled the shape of a dragon’s hand, with small ruby studs at the tip of each hooked claw. “My name is Rigar Yorenson, and I am loyal.”
Loyal, Tiane thought in the voice that wasn’t entirely her own. Good.
Rigar remained on his knees, trembling in fear and keeping his gaze focused on Tiane’s feet rather than her eyes.
“And to whom are you loyal?” Tiane asked in a voice that sounded like hers but seemed much older.
“To you,” he said. “To the Dragon-God reborn.”
“And how do you know that to be me?”
“All of us in the Crimson Claw have been told to watch for the signs. We have been exposed to dragon-fear so we know what to expect.”
“Very good.” The part of Tiane’s mind that she knew to be hers listened intently to the words coming out of her mouth, wondering what she would say next. “Tell me, Rigar Yorenson…do you have any coin beyond what I took from you?”
“Yes…in my bakery,” Rigar said subserviently.
“Good,” Tiane said with a smile. “Then take me there. After that, I want you to escort me on a journey. You and I are bound for the Dragonlands.”
Image: Dawn Hudson