NaNoWriMo 2019 #16: Penultimate Confrontation

Serpent

In a world filled with monsters, tracking one alone seemed virtually impossible. Garyl turned into a cryptid hunter over the next few years, following rumors and urban legends wherever he found them. With no leads to begin with and no idea what form Tiane’s awakening power would take, he had little recourse but to guess in which direction the girl might have fled, investigate as many reports of strange occurrences as he could, and move on once his leads ran cold.

He wasted his first winter looking for charred corpses and dragon sightings. Tiane remained more subtle than that. It wasn’t until he found somebody in a tavern at Baeddan’s Well telling stories of a thief who could control minds with her eyes that  he began to see the pattern. Tiane had grown up as a thief, not a killer. In the absence of any other authority figures, she went back to what she knew. It made perfect sense once Garyl stopped to think about it. She had spent years stealing for Falden, and now she could revert to type without having to split her profits with anybody else. That meant that a few fat coin purses provided her with enough to survive for weeks at a time. Unfortunately, this also meant that she could essentially disappear if she wanted to lay low.

Lytha’s failed assassination attempt had likely taught Tiane one very important lesson: even those she once trusted had become potential enemies.

Shortly after the first winter, he found a glimmer of hope in the town of Perne—hope that quickly turned to panic once he considered the implications.

“I’ve seen my fair share of thieves over the years,” said a woman who sold pottery on the edge of the market square. “When one of them gets caught but gets a good step on their mark, a chase sometimes follows. Usually, the mark will yell ‘thief!’ or call for the watch, but this one didn’t say a word. He started to gain on the skinny little thing, and she tossed his coins at his feet. If nothing else, that usually solves the problem. But this man was out for blood.”

The woman made a show of sorting through her pottery, making sure that the most elegant pieces faced Garyl. “I would have jumped in to help her at that point,” she said, “but I have nobody else to tend my cart. Wouldn’t want thieves taking advantage of my absence to steal my merchandise.”

Garyl scanned the pottery. Most of it imitated the artistic style of the old Magelords, but failed to do a convincing job. He chose not to speculate on what he assumed to be very low odds that a thief would prioritize these wares over anything else, unless they happened to be cold and wanted a warm jail cell in which to sleep during the night.

“Anyway,” continued the merchant, “I marked the whole thing up to an unfortunate bit of sadness in these normally quiet streets. A sad fate for such a young thing, but those are the risks for somebody who chooses to live a life on the edge of the law. But then not more than a few minutes later, the two of them came back with the big man following the girl behind like ann obedient dog.”

“And the girl,” Garyl said, “I assume she looked different than before?”

The merchant hesitated, as though nervous to divulge this part of her story. “Aye, I suppose she was,” she said after taking a breath. “She didn’t huddle anymore. Walked tall, looked like a woman in charge. The man certainly seemed to think of her in that way. She turned back to say something to him at one point, and he bowed so low that I wondered if she was some kind of royalty in disguise. If it wasn’t for that little bit at the end, I might not have made any special notice of it all.”

“And which way did they go?” Garyl asked. He placed some coin on the edge of the cart in an attempt to improve the accuracy of the incoming answer.

The woman took the coins behind her part of the cart before giving her answer, making sure that Garyl couldn’t easily take them back if she gave him a response he didn’t like. “What am I, a tracker? They might have gone to a tavern to buy a drink, or maybe they left town entirely. I just know it’s been three weeks and I haven’t seen them since. Sorry.”

Garyl took time to consider the evidence. Despite having a slim hope of getting more meaningful information, he determined that he couldn’t afford to waste the one piece of relatively reliable information he had uncovered in months. He fished two of his last coins out of his belt pouch and placed them in the woman’s open palm. “You’ve done me a great favor today, my dear lady. I only hope you can help me a little bit more. Did you notice anything unusual about the man—an identifying mark or strange feature that stood out to you?”

The merchant started to nod but stopped herself before the movement was complete. “Why are you so keen on tracking these two down? Are you and the man fighting over the girl?”

Garyl rubbed the back of his dark hands. The realm of Blackwood had become more accepting of strange folk like himself over the years—after all, they needed all the help they could get during a generations-long war that had depleted most of the kingdom’s resources. Still, stories of night folk who stole children and enslaved humans persisted after all these years.

“I don’t know the man,” he said. “I’m trying to save the girl.”

“Oh? Is she in trouble?”

She is the trouble, Garyl thought wryly. “I don’t know for sure,” he lied, “but I can get a better idea if you tell me more about the man.”

“Fair enough,” the merchant said. “You’ve paid fairly for the information. I didn’t notice anything about him the first time around, other than the fact that he moved well for a large man. On the way back, though, the collar of his shirt was a little ruffled. He had apparently pulled out a pendant of some sort—a nice silver affair. If the girl had wanted to steal something of value, she should have gone for that. Heh…would have been quite a bit harder, though.”

“The pendant was only silver?” Garyl asked. “Did it have a design of some sort?”

The woman held up her hand and crooked her fingers. “Looked like a hand of some sort, but I couldn’t see it very clearly from here. Would have missed it entirely if it didn’t have some nice stones set into it. Rubies or garnets…I couldn’t tell, but I bet it cost some pretty coin to craft that thing. Probably needed two jewelers, too—one to cast the silver and one to set the gems.”

Garyl reached into a pocket that he had sewn into his cloak and removed a thin piece of charcoal and a yellow square of parchment. He lifted a clay bowl and set it aside so he could have a flat surface on the cart to work, ignoring the intake of breath and the dismayed sigh that came when the merchant first thought he might buy the piece and then realized that he had no interest in her wares. Sticking the tip of his tongue out the corner of his gray lips, Garyl make a quick sketch and then passed it over to the merchant.

“Did it look like that?” he asked.

The merchant squinted at the drawing of a dragon’s claw that Garyl had made. When she recognized the pattern, her face grew pale and she passed the parchment back to him. “It’s time for you to leave,” she said, fear audible in her voice.

Garyl crumpled the parchment up and tucked it back into the pocket of his cloak. “Yes, I think you’re right.”

He turned and left without saying another word. The symbol of the Crimson Claw gave Garyl a direction. Unfortunately, Tiane already had a head start.

***

Dead bodies came in no short supply in the Dragonlands. Unfortunately, none of them were fresh enough to move more than a few feet without falling apart if somebody were to animate them. The mists had cleared even further than before and the dead decayed, leaving Derrezen further into the realm of memory. If Garyl had his way, he would stay a memory. Unfortunately, Tiane had likely fallen in with a crowd that desired otherwise.

The good news about the slow recovery of the Dragonlands was that it made it easier for Garyl to find fresh food and water. Unfortunately, the further north he ventured, the more the corrupting spells that Derrezen had woven all those years ago lingered. And so Garyl spent months traveling as far north as his supplies would allow before retreating back beyond the Serpent River and into the realm of Blackwood, where the safety of city walls and the comfort of hot baths awaited him. The months turned into years, and although Garyl faced more than his share of danger within the Dragonlands, his hunt never brought him any closer to finding where Tiane had hidden.

One day, however, the cult of the Crimson Claw found him instead.

Garyl had begun traveling at dawn, moving through an open plain that he suspected might once have been farmlands. He paused to examine the cracked earth, looking for signs that a plow had run through the field at some point in the past. Unfortunately, he lacked the agricultural knowhow to tell for sure.

“Slim chance anyway that a farm would have some dried rations hidden away somewhere in its ruins,” he muttered. Then he saw a shadow fall across the ground and looked skyward.

Three winged lizards, each at least fifteen feet long from their snouts to the tips of their tails, soared overhead. They had blue-green scales and feathered, rainbow-colored wings. Garyl worried that they might be dragons at first, but then realized that they had no arms or legs—they were essentially flying snakes. That meant they could probably devastate him with fangs and possibly venom, but at least they wouldn’t breathe fire at him. In support of his theory, he noted that dragons almost never wore saddles, while these creatures did.

Their riders wore blue armor with spiked pauldrons and wielded spears from their seats on the lizards. They had strapped themselves securely into their saddles, ensuring that careless riding wouldn’t leave them plummeting to their deaths. But as they saw Garyl, the riders spurred each of their beasts into a dive. They approached as one until they were about ten feet from the ground, at which point they released the straps on their saddles and leapt the rest of the way. They had obviously practiced the maneuver, for each of them landed on their feet. The serpents flew upward and continued circling, apparently awaiting commands from their masters.

The maneuver, while impressive, had given Garyl enough time to draw his sword and ready his shield. It also allowed him all the time he needed to realize that he wouldn’t be able to win this fight. Even if he could single-handedly defeat three skilled warriors, their flying beasts could likely dive down and swallow him in a single motion.

Maybe I’ll get lucky and they’ll fight amongst themselves over the right to eat me, Garyl thought.

In analyzing the approaching battle, Garyl waited too long and lost the potential advantage of the first attack. As soon as the warriors recovered from their leaps, they unholstered their spears and began circling him. Each of them wore similar armor, but had helmets of different designs. One helmet resembled an angry bear, one looked like a lion, and the other a dragon. Each of them stood at least a head taller than Garyl.

“Right,” Garyl muttered as he considered his odds. He decided to change tactics. Sheathing his sword and bowing, he spoke to the man with the bear helment.

“Good sir,” he announced in a loud but cordial voice. “I stand in awe of your mastery of those flying beasts and pray you to please show me mercy. You see, I am simply a humble traveler and—”

“Humble traveler my arse,” the man in the bear helmet said. “The only people who wander the Dragonlands are the ones who are arrogant, suicidal, or powerful enough to risk a fight with creatures like the beasties up there.”

In a pouch on Garyl’s belt, he felt the weight of his black candles. Unfortunately, it would take too much time to set up a circle and summon aid, even if he did manage to kill one of the warriors.

“Just take a look at me…I’m a night folk,” Garyl said. “These lands are my home. We should be friends, not enemies.”

The warrior with the lion helmet spoke up. “Maybe we would believe that—”

“—not that it would keep us from feeding you to our mounts,” interrupted the woman in the dragon helmet.

“Too true,” the man in the lion helmet stated. “But we’re not the first to have seen you wandering around these lands. You’ve popped up here and there for at least three or four years now, haven’t you?”

“I travel often,” Garyl said.

“Oh yes, you get around the Dragonlands,” the warrior said. “But then you scurry on down south when you run low on supplies. We don’t see you for a few weeks, then north you come again. Are you looking for something, ‘friend?’”

“My lucky coin,” Garyl lied. “I dropped it in a battle up here years ago and haven’t found it since.”

“A coin?” asked the woman in the dragon helmet. “It’s an awful lot of effort to go through for a trinket, don’t you think?”

Garyl grinned. “It was very good, and I’ve had a very bad run of luck ever since I lost it.”

“That’s for sure.” The warrior in the bear helmet approached Garyl from behind and pointed the tip of his spear at the night folk’s back. Garyl fought back an urge to defend himself with his shield, instead trusting that his reflexes would hold up should one of the soldiers get antsy and strike first.

“We can account for most of the monsters here,” the woman with the dragon helmet said. “The River Hag—”

“Vezara,” Garyl corrected.

“Vezara,” the woman said, staring daggers at Garyl. “She’s on our side. The land sharks in the Sentry Cliffs are great for feeding enemies to but not friendly enough to ally with. The winged ophidians up there…well, they make great mounts as you can see. But a night folk, and a lonely one, is either some sort of spy for another force or a nobody who serves best as a snack for one of the natives here.”

“And you want to know which one I am?” Garyl asked.

“No,” the woman said. “We already know who you are. As it turns out, somebody important is looking for you.”

“Good,” Garyl said. “I’m looking for her, too. So if you could take me to her and facilitate this meeting, I would appreciate it.”

“We can’t do it that way,” the woman said. “We need to know that you won’t hurt our mistress.”

“Easy enough,” Garyl replied. “You can have my weapon.”

One of the warriors stepped forward and took both Garyl’s sword and shield from him. The other two kept their spears pointed directly at his heart.

“Unfortunately, we can’t assume that a lone wanderer in the Dragonlands gets by on his dueling skills alone,” the woman with the dragon helmet said. “You’ve been nice and cooperative so far, so I feel like I should apologize. This is going to hurt.”

The woman took a step back to give herself room to manipulate her spear. Swinging it around, she struck Garyl in the jaw with the butt of the weapon. Colored spots burst before Garyl’s eyes and he staggered backward toward the other warrior. Thankfully, that one had also moved his spear so it wouldn’t impale Garyl immediately. Instead, the warrior grappled Garyl and placed the haft of his spear against the wizard’s neck. Garyl kicked his legs and tried to gain some leverage, but to no avail. Another blow from the woman in the dragon helmet caused Garyl to expel the air in his lungs, and he soon found that he couldn’t breathe in to replenish it. The warrior behind him pulled the spear tight enough to cut off Garyl’s windpipe.

The struggle lasted for nearly thirty seconds, during which time Garyl tried everything from kicking backwards to clawing at the warrior’s eyes with his long fingernails. None of his efforts paid off—he simply lacked the leverage or the power to make any impact on the thick armor of the warriors surrounding him.

“Whether you’re a warrior, a wizard, an assassin, or something else, the best way to make sure you pose no threat is to keep you unconscious—or close to it, anyway,” the woman in the dragon helmet said. “But you’ll want to stay out for what comes next. You’ll notice that our saddles only have room for one rider each.”

Spots formed in front of Garyl’s eyes and he made one last desperate gasp for air. When nothing entered his lungs, he finally went limp. At that point, the warrior who had been choking him let go. Garyl hit the ground and darkness closed around his vision. Taking a sharp inhalation of breath, he fought off the blackness on the edge of his sight and pushed himself onto his hands and knees. When he looked up again, he immediately wished that he hadn’t.

At a whistle from one of the warriors, one of the flying serpents went into a dive. Garyl gave a yell of fright as a gigantic fanged maw closed around him. The creature didn’t swallow him, so there he stayed—afraid to make a false move lest he wind up further down the monster’s digestive tract.

“Don’t worry,” came the woman’s voice. “They’re very well-trained. Just stay put and don’t try to escape. Even if you did make it past the teeth, you would find that it’s a long way down.”

Not wanting to find out how high they were already, Garyl closed his eyes and stayed still. There he remained, barely able to breath and covered in the saliva of a giant serpent, for what may have been hours. Eventually, the creature did finally deposit Garyl unceremoniously on rocky ground. When the creature spat him out and took flight, Garyl remained on the ground with his eyes closed before reluctantly opening them to take stock of his surroundings.

The few warriors who had accompanied him on his journey stayed airborne, circling overhead and waiting to feed Garyl to their mounts should the opportunity arise. Behind him, Garyl saw a sheer drop of at least a hundred feet. A fair share of company joined him on the rest of the plateau—some dressed in armor similar to that worn by the warriors who had found him, others more lightly armored, and some wearing robes of various colors. All of them were human, or at least appeared to be.

At the front of the crowd, standing just a few feet away from Garyl, stood the familiar figure of Tiane. Now nearly twenty years old, she looked taller than before and wore robes of dark green that complemented her crimson eyes, making them shine like fire. Her dark hair had been carefully braided and she held a gnarled black branch as a staff.

“Garyl,” she said. “I hear you’ve been looking for me.”

Garyl smiled weakly. “I have,” he admitted. “But now I’m having second thoughts.”

***

Garyl had encountered many megalomaniacs over the years, and he felt happy that Tiane didn’t have quite the right look in her eyes yet. The hostile cult that surrounded him took most of that joy away, though.

“You’ve been searching for me,” she said. “It’s flattering to remain somebody’s hobby after all these years.”

“Averting an apocalypse is my hobby.” Garyl stood up and vainly tried to wipe the monster saliva off his face. “You’re an old friend with whom I’ve wanted to reconnect for years.”

“Then maybe you shouldn’t have left in the first place,” Tiane said.

“The thought had crossed my mind more than once,” Garyl retorted.

He examined the terrain around him. The rocks had a gray striated appearance, implying a good deal of granite. Maybe an old quarry lay abandoned somewhere nearby.

The people around him didn’t seem to care about the region’s forgotten history, however. They remained focused on Tiane, leaving even Garyl as a second thought. They gripped weapons, many of which had stains and chips on their blades to indicate that they had been through numerous battles. Only those in the sky kept their weapons at their sides, and Garyl knew from painful experience that their mounts could do more harm than a sword ever could.

“I looked for you, but you found me,” Garyl said.

“I had a few advantages,” Tiane said. “It helps to have a whole network at your disposal. The Crimson Claw serves me well, because they remember the legends. It’s been almost twenty years since the Dragon-God died, but he always knew that he would be reborn. Those who aid in his rebirth will find all the rewards that only a dragon can provide.”

“And such wonderful rewards they are,” Garyl said sarcastically. “Your whole cult takes shelter in a monster-filled wasteland while your enemies enjoy all the luxuries of civilization. You created that wasteland; why don’t you explain to your followers why they sleep in broken cities and on beds of hard earth instead of enjoying a life of luxury?”

“That came before,” Tiane said. “It wasn’t me in charge.”

“It was. Or at least that’s what part of you wants to believe. That’s what all your followers have signed up for. They don’t want to worship Tiane. They want Derrezen the Dragon-God reborn, with all the power and glory they associate with that old snake.”

Tiane’s haughty gaze faltered for just a moment, and she looked uncertainly toward the throng of cultists that stood behind her. The multitude of others seemed to steel her resolve, and her prideful poise returned quickly. The moment passed in an instant, but the glimpse of doubt wasn’t lost on Garyl.

“Oh,” he said as though he had just stumbled upon an embarrassing secret. “Oh, that’s exactly the problem, isn’t it?” He stepped forward experimentally, then felt emboldened by the fact that none of the cultists struck him down. He stopped moving when he was convinced that only he and Tiane would hear his next words. “When you returned to them, they thought it was a matter of weeks, or months, didn’t they? Some of them probably expected the Dragon-God to burst out of your skin. But that didn’t happen, and you’ve still shown human limits, haven’t you? Can you work your magic yet, or does it only come out when your life is on the line?”

Tiane raised a finger and pointed it like a weapon aimed between Gary’s eyes. “Do you wish to find out?”

Garyl hesitated, but then grinned. “Oh my…if that’s a bluff then it’s a good one. But I want to tell you something right now, Tiane, and I want both parts of you to listen to me. I pose no threat to you. Either you’re Tiane and I consider you a friend, or you’re Derrezen and I can’t possibly harm you. Moreover, you wouldn’t have brought me here as a monster’s chew toy just to kill me.”

“I could just want to kill you in front of a crowd,” Tiane said. “Spilled blood goes a long way with this crowd.”

“As I said, I pose no threat to you.” Garyl spread his arms, emphasizing his lack of weaponry. “Since I’m at your mercy, you should either kill me or tell me what you have in store.”

“You’re not totally wrong,” Tiane said. “They do expect a lot out of me, and my progress hasn’t been as smooth as they expected.”

“And what does that mean for me?” Garyl asked. “Am I a sacrifice to appease the masses? And if that doesn’t work, who becomes the next sacrifice?”

“I wasn’t lying when I said that those who aid in his…in my…rebirth will receive great rewards. Before Lytha’s betrayal, I heard you trying to convince her to take you on as a teacher. You wanted to train me. Now you have a chance. Try to inject some kindness into it if you want. Spout your platitudes and show me your peaceful wonders, but give me a chance to learn as well.”

“I wanted to teach at the Lorinthian Magic Academy, not some fog-shrouded waste in the Dragonlands,” Garyl said. “And you’ll pardon me if I don’t believe that I have anything but an ironic death in store if I sign up for your ‘reward.’”

Tiane lowered her finger, but then grabbed Garyl by the tunic. “I could throw you off the cliff instead,” she said. “Not my first choice, but it would keep the crowd entertained for the night.”

“Oh, please do,” Garyl said cheerfully. “It would save me the trouble of trying to figure out a better escape. We dove off a cliff like this together and came away without a scratch. Don’t you remember?”

Tiane cast another glance over her shoulder, looking more nervous this time. “Then you don’t leave me with any choice.”

A collective cheer went up from the spectators as she shoved Garyl toward the edge. But Garyl had prepared himself for the moment, taking the time they had spent talking to clear his spinning head and prepare his reflexes to allow him the necessary reaction. He stumbled backwards toward the edge, but grabbed Tiane by the robes and pulled her toward him. Tiane lurched forward in surprise before digging her feet into the ground to stop their momentum. Unfortunately, the hard, rocky surface gave her little purchase.

Garyl took another step backwards and felt his foot touch open air. He let gravity do the rest of the work, sending his body over the edge Tiane followed him, yelling in surprise as they both began to plummet. This was the easy part.

Cultists charged to the cliff’s edge. Some watched in horror at the turn of events, while others grinned in anticipation, expecting the situation to bring out the beast within Tiane whose presence they had been waiting for. Of greater concern, the great winged serpents went into a dive, moving to intercept the pair before they reached the ground. Garyl knew that one of them could snatch Tiane away from him and carry her to safety while he hit the rocks below. However, he couldn’t think about that right now. He had to focus on his plan.

He had many criticisms for the plan, chief amongst them its suicidally dangerous nature. However, it was the best his addled brain could come up with through the haze of head trauma and near-asphyxiation. Ignoring the whistling wind in his ears, the fanged monsters gaining speed, the approaching ground, and the pounding in his skull, he began weaving the spells he had used years ago when he and Tiane had dived into the sea. First a simple, quick incantation to slow their fall. Then a bubble of force around them. This rose just in time, as one of the serpents lunged a split-second later, breaking a tooth on the invisible wall that had risen between them.

The next step called for improvisation. Garyl had one last spell in mind, but it had served him well when he needed to avoid particularly deadly beasts in the Dragonlands. Releasing Tiane with one hand, he spun a spell of invisibility. The pair of them disappeared just a second before they hit the ground.

“Sorry in advance,” Garyl said to Tiane. Then they hit the ground…or at least the sphere that protected them did. Despite the spell that slowed their fall, the impact was jarring. Garyl pulled the stunned Tiane closer to him, trying to shield her from the brunt of the damage. Unfortunately, the fact that they were both approximately equal in size and weight made it difficult. Previously, the sphere had dropped them into an ocean at high tide. This time, their landing spot was unyielding rock. Garyl felt an impact that rattled his teeth and heard a pop, the source of which he would have to identify later. It only got worse from there as the sphere rolled through the mountains, carrying the invisible travelers with it.

Something must have hit Tiane in the head early in the tumble, because Garyl felt her go limp in his arms. He closed his eyes and hoped that his theory that Derrezen’s power would only emerge only if her life was in danger held true. That way she could be unconscious but not dead with a broken neck…and not about to immolate him in a dragon rage.

The journey lasted for minutes, but the speed at which the orb moved increased with its momentum. When Garyl was satisfied that nobody could keep track of the invisible, randomly bouncing duo, he spoke a word and the sphere disappeared. Unfortunately, this also sent both of them flying out of control into a trench. They both became visible again while sprawled out in the dirt.

Garyl thanked his luck for a change when he found that his left arm was broken but both his legs still moved. He thanked it even more when he checked Tiane and found that the woman still drew breath.

“Well, then,” he said to Tiane’s unconscious form. “Plenty of daylight left, so they’ll probably send a search party. We’d best find a hiding place, oh mighty Dragon-Goddess.”

When Tiane didn’t answer, Garyl used his good arm to lift her unconscious form onto his shoulder and look for the nearest cave.

***

Tiane expected to awaken with her hands and feet bound or with a makeshift dagger placed against her throat. Instead, she sat up to find Garyl kneeling next to her in a cave, palms on his thighs. Seven black candles stood in a circle around them, each freshly lit.

“You know you’re doomed,” she said. “The Crimson Claw will hunt you down for taking me. No matter what happens to me, they’ll make sure to cut your throat.”

“Eventually, yes,” Garyl said. “But I never expected to live forever.”

Tiane started to stand, but Garyl held up a hand.

“You wanted me to teach you,” he said, his eyes darting from candle to candle. “You’re free to leave if you want, or you can let me provide you with a lesson before we part.”

“Another trick?” Tiane asked.

“I’ve never tried to trick you,” Garyl said. “The times that I did came about either due to a very hasty plan or an honest mistake on my part.”

Tiane shifted into a cross-legged position. “I’ll let you try to sway me,” she said. “But my course is already set. If you won’t serve me as a mentor, I’ll find somebody else.”

Garyl nodded. “Fair enough. The fact of the matter is that you’ll become more powerful as the years go by, anyway. But it might take generations—maybe a century or more before you reach the levels that your followers expect. And all the while, those short-lived humans will keep doubting you, wondering if maybe you’re a fraud or maybe they should dispose of you some way. You have quite the collection of ‘friends.’”

“What are the candles for?” Tiane asked. She breathed in deeply but detected no particular scent beyond the smell of fire consuming long wicks. “Are you trying to set a mood and relax me?”

“The candles are part of the lesson,” Garyl said. “Or, more accurately, they’re here to facilitate it. I can’t teach you exactly what I want to without a little help. Fortunately, in the Dragonlands, I have that assistance. My wife—yes, I was married once upon a time—died here in these lands. You killed her—or the thing inside you did. But a part of her remains here still, bound to this land by whatever magic kept the dead from decaying for so many years. I haven’t been able to call her recently because she needs a body to inhabit and there aren’t enough fresh corpses anymore. But you have experience holding multiple souls inside yourself, and I figured I should try my hand at that as well.”

Almost simultaneously, the wicks reached a point where the candles began to sparkle with a silvery light. They gave off a thick gray smoke that moved in a circle around the pair. Garyl closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Then something aside from smoke entered his body. His eyes snapped open, and their fiery orange seemed softer.

“Oh,” the person inside Garyl’s body said. “This is…crowded.”

“Who are you?” Tiane asked.

“I should ask the same of you,” Kajeel responded. “Garyl told me a little about you, but we haven’t spoken in a long time. Are you the thing that killed me? Or are you your own person?”

Tiane hesitated. “I’m…not entirely sure,” she admitted.

“That’s a start. Wait…what’s that?”

“I—” Tiane began, but Kajeel cut her off by raising a hand.

“Oh,” she said with Garyl’s voice. “I’m not very good at hearing two sets of thoughts at once. But the candles are still burning, and you’re in the circle with me. That means that I can do…this.”

Kajeel touched Tiane on the forehead, and a jolt ran through both of them. The world spun around, and the candles flickered out.

Then they were back in the memory that Tiane had glimpsed before, on board a ship tossed about in stormy seas. No…there was no they. Tiane and Kajeel and even Garyl all existed in the same body—the form of the younger Garyl, grasping the knife as the terror of a sea monster lurked somewhere in the storm around them.

“We go east,” shouted the other night folk on the ship. “We can’t last long in the storm, so we have to head for the nearest shore…no matter what might wait for us there.”

Memories rushed through Tiane’s mind—memories that belonged not to her but to the person in the past. The pair of night folk running from human soldiers, hiding in a cave while their torches passed by. A dead sailor, a stolen boat, and a shared panic. Night and night of the two holding tight to one another, afraid of a world that deemed them to be the monsters that crept through the night.

Then this storm. The lurching, sickening feeling in the pit of the stomach. And the sight of green-black scales somewhere far in the distance. Vedrin—for that was the other’s name—hadn’t seen it yet. Only Garyl saw it. He watched it swim closer, moving with the speed of the waves themselves. Then he saw it disappear moments before Vedrin called for them to go east.

“We’ll never make it,” the younger Garyl said, comparing the slow, tumultuous progress of the ship with the speed that the sea serpent had used to cut through the waves. “This isn’t fair. It’s not my time to die.”

Vedrin turned around and placed a hand on each side of Garyl’s face. “Listen to me brother!” he shouted as rainwater ran down his face. “We can make it through this storm, but only if we work together! And if we die, at least we die as one.”

Garyl shook his head. “No…no, you don’t understand.” He pointed into the darkness of the storm, just as the coils of the sea monster broke the surface. “There! The storm is the least of our worries…there’s a monster out there, and it’s hungry!”

Vedrin followed the direction of Garyl’s finger and squinted into the darkness. Then he shook his head. “There’s nothing out there. Your fear is making you see things. Help me point the ship toward the shore and we’ll be safe, no matter what hungry beasts the sea holds.”

Vedrin turned back to wrestle with the sail. Garyl almost followed suit, but caught movement again out of the corner of his eye—a great fanged maw, easily enough to swallow a human-sized body whole.

“It is out there,” he said to himself. “And I must not die today.”

Instead of reaching for a rope, he instead drew the dagger at his belt. The sea monster had to be coming closer, and it would keep coming until it fed.

Vedrin glanced over his shoulder at Garyl and didn’t immediately realize what he saw. He had to do a double take, by which time it was too late. The knife flashed in the air and then struck right between the night folk’s shoulder blades. Before Vedrin could react, Garyl struck again and again. Bitter tears ran down his face, mingling with the salty spray of the ocean and the driving rain. Vedrin croaked and tried to say something in protest, but Garyl was already enacting the next part of his plan. With a groan and a heave, he hurled his brother’s body overboard—food for the sea monster.

Garyl took control of the ship and began sailing east. He heard a splash and then a crunch, and he imagined the sea serpent sinking back into the depths of the ocean, its appetite satisfied for now. But he didn’t look back to see any of it.

***

The candles had burned out by the time the memory ended. Tiane took a moment to remind herself of the nuances of her own body, remembering where she began and Garyl ended. Garyl seemed to have a similar time adjusting. Tiane couldn’t see his face in the darkness of the cave, but she thought she heard him crying softly.

At a word and a movement of his hand, Garyl brought a soft orange light into existence. He didn’t hide the tears that ran down his cheeks.

“It’s just me again,” he said sadly. “I can call Kajeel back, but you can’t hold onto the people you love forever.”

“The memory…” Tiane swallowed. “When I tried to learn about who you were, that’s the first thing I saw.”

Garyl nodded. “Vedrin was silent and swift. He earned the nickname of the Shadow. That’s where my name comes from, not the weak excuse I gave you before. When I chose a new identity for myself, I wanted to remember what I was running from.”

“And the sea monster—?”

“I never got a good look at it,” Garyl said. “I swear I saw it, but the more I think about it the more I imagine that it might have been my eyes playing tricks on me. But that doesn’t really matter, does it? I had a moment. Just one single moment when my life was more important than anything else. One time when I relied on fear and steel instead of words.”

“That’s just survival,” Tiane objected. “You didn’t want to die.”

“And I still don’t,” Garyl responded. “We do a lot in order to survive, don’t we? And survival is important—nobody should ever want to die, even though far too many people experience that feeling. But there has to be a line. There has to be something that is more important than our own lives. If not, what’s the purpose?”

“Some might say that living is enough of a purpose,” Tiane said. “Wouldn’t conquering death be the ultimate goal to achieve?”

“Maybe,” Garyl said. “But you exist because some ancient monster decided that living was more important than anything else. He had thousands of years at his disposal, and what did he do? Create a gigantic wasteland decorated with the dead and found a cult that has doubts about their returning deity even when they’re looking her right in the face. And even now…what are you?”

“I am…we are a living god,” Tiane said.

“Sure,” Garyl responded dryly. “I’m sure it’s all going according to plan. A living god trapped in the body of a teenager. Somebody who has just enough power to stay alive but not enough to do anything with that might. I can see it now…it’s all going according to the master plan.”

“Better than staying in a boring old school all the time where the students mock me,” Tiane said angrily.

Garyl nodded. “I agree, bringing you to the academy didn’t turn out to be the greatest plan I ever had.” He offered Tiane his hand. “Will you come with me now? Let’s leave the Dragonlands behind and we can find a new plan. Sooner or later, we’ll come up with something that makes you happy.”

Tiane reached for Garyl’s hand, but wavered before taking it. Then she shook her head sadly and stood up. “I have a destiny, and it takes me far beyond you.”

Garyl winced as though Tiane had just slapped him and stayed on his knees. “I said before, you have nothing to fear from me. I can’t stop you from going wherever it is you intend. But I hope you remember the things we’ve seen together. The fair at the bottom of the sea, my own stupid mistake on the boat…remember what you can ruin if you think you’re more important than others and what you might enjoy if you stand back and watch. You’re going to live a very long time, Tiane. But sooner or later you’ll reach a point where you’ll find something more important than your own survival. Please recognize what that is before you destroy it.”

Tiane shifted her weight, trying to determine whether to stay or to leave. Eventually she began backing toward the mouth of the cave.

“You’ll have a head start once I leave here,” she said. “I’d suggest that you run south as quickly as you can. The Crimson Claw won’t show you any mercy once we catch up with you.”

Garyl bowed his head and closed his eyes. He stayed that way for a very long time. When he finally moved again, Tiane was long gone.

 

 

Image: kill, distributed via a CC BY 2.0 license

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