Stonebones

Issue #142 - Science-Fantasy Month 2

In the morning, Jenivar ran away from home. As the sun reached zenith, she walked along the Black Road, keeping her sunshade overhead. The sun was as white as a bone and bright enough to bleach the colors from everything in sight. Even the Black Road looked more like a faded gray-green in the glare.

Jenivar kept her goggles on and watched her step. The Black Road was full of cracks and crevices, some of them several feet wide and all of them likely hiding places for rock-snakes, drackles, and leathery needlebats roosting away from the sun. To her left was the Big Glass. To her right was the Scrub. Only an idiot tried to travel any distance through either of those. Behind her was the Spine, still visible through the heat-haze. Ahead of her, somewhere out of her sight, was the Skull, and beyond that was freedom. Or destiny. It didn’t matter so much what was ahead.

Jenivar looked over her shoulder. The rocky mound of the Spine made a gentle curve along the horizon, its two ridges—the Neck and the Tail—reaching out to embrace the small valley within, granting shade and shelter to the inhabitants. Jenivar decided that she did not like the view; it looked as though the Spine were reaching out to grasp her and pull her back in.

By now, they’d have found the missing stores. She adjusted her goggles and hurried on.

It was a six-hour walk to the Skull, but that was assuming you were smart enough to go in the twilight, when the temperature was a little more bearable. Jenivar made it in seven, her skin tingling with the reflected sunlight she’d taken in, despite her poncho, sunshade, and goggles. There was a drackle still squirming on the point of her sunshade’s bayonet; she hadn’t wanted to fold the sunshade long enough to remove it. Besides, maybe someone at the Skull knew how to make drackles edible. If she could eat the omnipresent black-shelled vermin, her worries about food would be solved.

The Skull loomed over her, twenty feet at its highest point. The eye sockets had been covered with plaster, so that the whole top half appeared smooth and unbroken. There was space up there where travelers could rent a room for the day and wait out the heat inside the cool stone. The jagged teeth, pointed and visibly serrated, had been broken at the front to allow a doorway. It was covered by a ragged curtain, weighted at the bottom to improve the seal and keep out dust and heat. The nostrils vented wisps of vapor, cold and damp air pumped up from deep underground to fill the Skull’s interior. Jenivar saw a drackle skitter out of one foot-wide opening, and she shuddered.

Movement in the distance caught her attention. Jenivar flipped the farsight lenses down over her smoked goggles and peered through, turning the Spine from a distant speck to a sizeable lump. A dust cloud had emerged from the gap between the Neck and the Tail. It seemed that Water-Keeper Tymon—not “father,” never that—had woken up earlier than she’d thought he would. That title was half a joke; everyone at the Spine knew Jenivar had been Water-Keeper in all but name for years now. He’d sent Terk and his engine-cycle after her.

She nodded to herself. This was not an entirely unexpected development. She had perhaps an hour before he caught up to her, allowing for the delay when he had to leave the increasingly fragmented road to get around the cracks too wide for him to roll over. She patted her thigh, where the ancient gun Groton had given her rested comfortably in its holster. The withered old historian had told her it was a genuine Knight’s weapon, from the days when the Knights had fought the dragons and won the war for humanity. Its cracked screen still flashed with a nearly full charge. Jenivar pushed the curtain aside and stepped from the baking brilliance of the day into a muggy darkness.

The snout formed a long entranceway. There were a few small tables along the rows of stone teeth. Inside, where the dragon’s tongue would have rooted, the space opened out into a round area. Above, the roof was rickety wood, imperfectly fitted. Periodically, stone dust drizzled down from the occupants in the rooms overhead. There were more tables here, and a counter of sorts, formed from solid rock. A stairwell behind the counter led down into darkness, and Jenivar could hear the pumps working below to move the cool air up along rubber hoses affixed to the walls and ceiling.

Jenivar pushed her goggles up and looked to the man at the counter, who was big and beefy and bald. His apron was stained, and he stood beside three barrels and a metal trunk. He looked at Jenivar without speaking, and Jenivar returned the stare.

Finally, he spoke. “Yeah?”

It was more of a grunt than a greeting. Jenivar elected to take the man in stride. “Greetings, barman,” she said. “I wish to trade with you. I am a Knight on a quest, and I therefore require maps of the area and directions to the nearest marauding dragon.”

The man sniffed and rubbed at his nose with a meaty forearm. He looked her up and down more closely, wary instead of apathetic. Eventually, he shrugged. “Got some papers. People trade ‘em sometimes. C’n let you look at ‘em and take one if you want it. Whatcha got to trade?”

Jenivar moved to the counter and swung her pack around. She rummaged inside and retrieved a piece of paper, twisted at both ends into a wrapper. “Donnybell,” she said, shaking it so the powder inside rustled.

The barman nodded vigorously and snatched it away. “Deal!” he said, sliding it into a pocket beneath his apron.

“And refill my water-bags,” Jenivar added, suddenly unsure of herself. She’d known the herbs from the Spine’s gardens were valuable—the town’s main trading goods—but she had apparently underestimated the market price.

“Sure.”

“And a meal.”

The barman shrugged and grinned at her. His teeth were as ill-made and broken as those of his establishment. He lugged one of the barrels onto the counter, opened the lid to show her it was truly water, and hooked the hose at the bottom onto her bags. She’d drunk far too much on the walk over.

While the bags were refilling, he rummaged in some bins hewed out of the space below the counter and came up with a loaf of gritty bread and a strip of unspecified jerked meat. He handed over the food and Jenivar’s renewed water supply separately, using both hands for the taut bags. Everyone handled water with a touch of reverence, even Jenivar and Tymon.

Then the barman surprised her; he pulled out a stone mug and filled it most of the way with water from the same barrel before offering it to her.

“My name’s Huj,” he said. He met her gaze, then glanced down. “Drink’s included,” he said, reaching a hand to the lump of Donnybell in his apron pocket.

Jenivar nodded and thanked Huj politely, as was the Knightly thing to do. She had definitely misjudged the value of the herbs she’d taken. She hoped her theft wouldn’t hurt anyone at the Spine. They’d had so much, and she’d taken so little. Was that why Terk was wasting his fuel to chase her down?

Jenivar sat at a table in the corner by the entrance, so she was out of sight of anyone coming in from the bright, but still close enough to dash for it. The bread was impossible to eat, hard as it was, but she soaked it in the water until it softened. The water tasted of mold and moss and deep, deep caverns.

Huj brought her a string-wrapped sheaf of yellowed, flaking documents. “Here,” he said. “This’s all I’ve got. Dunno what’s all in it. Some of ‘em got pictures. Might be maps.”

“Thank you, sir. You are most kind.”

He grunted. “You come up from the Spine, yeah?”

Jenivar nodded.

“Tell that Keeper, Tymon, he owes me for two kegs of rotgut. Been weeks now.”

Jenivar nodded again, trying to keep her face carefully blank. “When I see him again,” she promised, more or less truthfully.

Huj pursed his lips and lumbered back to his station, where a tall man clad almost entirely in leather belts had come down from overhead to mumble something at him.

Jenivar couldn’t understand most of the papers. She knew how to read, but many of the papers were in languages she didn’t recognize or were smudged beyond readability. Those that she could read didn’t make much sense. She found half of a book with the pages still mostly glued to the spine. There were a lot of documents in the too-fine writing that meant a machine had made them. Others looked like journal entries or contracts. One seemed to be an IOU, but Jenivar didn’t recognize the names. Or the currency.

At last, near the bottom of the stack, Jenivar found a map. It had the obvious land-shapes and lines, with words in the middle. It even still had a little bit of coloring on it; the biggest space was still faintly blue, which meant it was an ocean. Groton had told Jenivar about oceans, of course, but it was exciting to see confirmation that such things had once existed. To think of all that water... What excited Jenivar the most was the notation she found in the northernmost reaches of the map: “Here be dragons.”

Dragons in the north. That was where she had to go if she wanted to slay one.

Jenivar had just finished her meal when the entranceway flared with light. Someone had pushed aside the curtain. Jenivar bundled up the papers and hastily crammed the last of the meat into her mouth. Heavy bootsteps echoed faintly on the rocky floor as a shadow stretched out into the main chamber. A tall, rangy figure strode in, clad in a tight-fitting leather helmet and wrapped at every joint with colorful scarves. He paused in the doorway. Jenivar eased to her feet and pressed against the wall as if she could disappear into it.

Terk. The leader of the Watch, guardian of the Spine.

Her enemy, now.

Huj ducked his head respectfully—more greeting than he’d given Jenivar or any of his other guests—and coughed. “Wasn’t expecting you back so soon,” he said. “What brings you out again?”

“I’m looking for someone,” Terk responded. His voice was deeper than his reedy build would have suggested. “A thief.” He didn’t move out of the entrance, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dimness.

“Well, everyone comes through here, though some don’t stop. I don’t ask where they been before.”

“Have you seen a girl-child today?” Terk stepped forward. Jenivar scooted behind him, out of sight, but Huj couldn’t conceal his darting glance at her. Terk caught the movement and spun around, hands going for the blades that hung on his belt.

Jenivar was faster. She had the old blaster up and leveled. “I’m leaving,” she announced.

Terk chuckled and straightened. “Don’t try to threaten me with that toy. It’s been hanging on Groton’s wall since his father’s day.”

Jenivar thumbed the switch. The pistol whirred to life, filling the room with an ominous hum. A tiny red dot appeared on Terk’s chest, just between his scarves.

“I’m leaving now,” said Jenivar.

Terk swallowed. “Jenivar. Jen. Be reasonable. You’ve taken more out of the stores than you could earn the rights to in ten years. You’ve disrupted two full days’ work while we sort out the water rations. Tymon is heartbroken. And for what?” Jenivar tightened the trigger until the vents opened. The gun’s hum shifted to a higher pitch. Terk stopped talking.

“Tymon can crawl back into his bottles and stay there for good, for all I care. I’m going to be a Knight,” Jenivar told him, easing away. She kept her back to the wall and the gun on Terk. “I have to slay a dragon first. That’s the Code.”

“The Knights are a dead cult,” Terk said, flinching as the laser sight glinted across his eyes. It tracked him steadily. “I know you loved Groton. We all loved that old duffer. But this Knight nonsense... he didn’t do you any favors, filling you full of that slag. The Knights probably never even existed, and if they did, it’s crazy to think that they killed dragons.”

“So I’m crazy.”

“There aren’t any dragons.”

“There were. I’m going to find where they went.” Jenivar reached the curtain and hooked her ankle around it. “I’ll be covering the entrance. If I see any movement...” She let the remark hang in the air. Terk and Huj stayed frozen. Jenivar ducked outside.

She did keep the gun pointed at the curtain, because she’d said she would and a Knight must not lie. She turned it off as soon as she was out of sight, though. Humming and lighting up was all it could actually do, and Groton had warned her about letting it overheat. Terk’s engine-cycle sat nearby, a low-slung mass of hollow tubes, gears, and chains whose immense motor at the rear gave it the look of a fat black spider. Jenivar considered her options. On the one hand, stealing was un-Knightly. On the other hand, if she tried to flee on foot, Terk could easily catch her in the engine-cycle. Should mere pragmatism triumph over chivalry? Yet... when a Knight defeated an opponent, he could claim their armor as a ransom. She’d bested Terk in a confrontation, even if it hadn’t come to blows. Perhaps the engine-cycle was simply the spoils of combat.

The curtain flexed slightly, as if someone stood waiting just behind it. Jenivar made her decision and slid into the bucket seat in the middle.

The engine-cycle was unfamiliar—Jenivar had only driven pedalers before—but she’d seen Terk start it up any number of times, when he made his trading trips. She’d been so jealous of him and his stories. Cities of three or four thousand people! Buildings that reached up into the sky as well as down into the ground! Surely, somewhere out in that wide world, was a town in need of a hero.

With a cough and a sputter, the engine behind her came awake, spewing thick black smoke. Its roar veered to a keening note until Jenivar hastily pulled the clutch lever and disconnected the motor from the gears.

Terk’s basso shout caught her attention. He charged from the entrance of the Skull, waving his warhammer over his head. Jenivar plunged her foot onto the accelerator and the cycle lurched forward, roaring in triumph. Terk dove out of the way as the engine-cycle rushed past him. Jenivar managed to swerve just enough to avoid the wall of the Skull. She threw her weight against the steering mechanism and pulled the vehicle in a long arc through the sand, bumping at last back onto the roadway. She jerked the clutch into a higher gear and chugged away, back toward the Spine.

The Spine was west, though. She needed to go north. Leaving the road would be difficult at best. A few hundred meters away, the answer to her problems glittered dangerously in the sun. It touched the road here, in its southernmost reach, and extended north to the horizon.

The Big Glass.

It would have been easier if the Big Glass had been as flat as it looked. The wheels of the engine-cycle bumped and juddered on flaws that Jenivar could hardly see; even with her smoked goggles, the ground was a mass of flare and shine, the sun reflecting in every direction. As it was, she had to constantly fight the steering rod as some lump or furrow in the glass sent a wheel jumping to one side or the other. It was exhausting , and Jenivar felt herself sweating with exertion. The engine-cycle’s canopy didn’t help. The light came from below as much as above, the sun bouncing back from the ground with almost equal intensity. Jenivar felt broiled inside her protective clothing. She was drinking her water too fast, she knew, but she also knew the dangers of sweating without replenishing fluids.

She drove all day and into the night, pushing as far as she could in the relative cold before pausing to sleep. There was no point in setting up any precautions; nothing lived in the Big Glass. The Spine had long since merged with the distant mountains on the horizon, the Scrub a darker blotch to the side. Ahead was... nothing. More whorls and curves of glass.

No one knew how wide the Big Glass was, not really. No one had ever crossed it. No one even knew if it had a far side. It was an irregular blotch, inside of which the desert sand had fused to crude glass. The sand was slowly reclaiming the space, gnawing at the rounded edges. Jenivar knew that if you followed the edge of the Big Glass far enough east, you eventually came to a place called Burrows, where the houses were dug into the sand and they used the glass shards as decoration for their homes and bodies. That was three days’ hard driving along the perimeter; even Terk had never been further than that. Terk said that carrying enough fuel to go that far ended up burning too much fuel at the start. It was, he said, the Point of Diminishing Returns.

Jenivar had searched Groton’s ancient maps for the Point for several days until she’d realized what Terk had meant.

She drove all through the next day, too. She had spare fuel—Terk never left the Spine without at least two extra cans—but water would be the more pressing need. She was already running low. The Big Glass was also the Big Empty; the sand itself was buried beneath several feet of glass, and any water there might be was far deeper than Jenivar could have burrowed by herself.

Tymon had been the Water-Keeper at the Spine since before Jenivar was born, and through the benefits of his office, she’d never known what it was like to be without water. Between the collector sheets up at the Drip and the bucket-and-pulleys down at the Drop, there was always enough water, and no one would begrudge the Keeper a sip or two while he gathered it up and set it to purifying. Jenivar remembered the quiet darkness of the lowest levels of the Drop, so deep that the air grew chilled, down in the caves where the sun could never reach and even a torch or a glowstone felt like blasphemy. No heat, no crawling drackles, no family or neighbors, no forced smiles and unspoken questions; just the steady dripping of water along rock, echoing down the tunnels until it came from everywhere and nowhere, soothing, hypnotic...

Jenivar came awake from her daydream when the engine-cycle bounced over a ramp-like protrusion and kicked sideways. She clutched at the steering rod, but the engine-cycle was rolling on only two wheels, teetering dangerously. Jenivar threw herself to the side, trying to balance the weight and settle the vehicle. She hovered tenuously for a timeless moment. Then she hit the rim of a pit.

It was a large, shallow depression, worn smooth by years of wear. If the engine-cycle had been rolling normally, the pit would have posed no risk at all, and might even have been a bit of fun to speed through. As it was, the sudden drop removed any semblance of control. The engine-cycle toppled—the wrong way—and crashed to the bottom of the pit, sending up a spray of glass splinters. Jenivar closed her mouth and covered her face with her gloved hands as best she could. She tumbled into a darkness even more complete than that of the caverns around the Drop, silent and smothering.

When Jenivar opened her eyes again, she saw nothing. After a brief moment of panic, she realized that night had fallen while she still had her smoked lenses down. She tugged her goggles down and tried to assess her situation. A sharp pain in her hand made her flinch, which sent a drackle flying from beside her. The finger-length insect had bitten her, chewing through her sleeve. Jenivar had seen bodies after the drackles got to them. They weren’t nice to look at.

She lay on her shoulders on the hard ground, her legs caught in the engine-cycle’s seat. She wriggled and managed to scrape her way partially out of the mangled frame. She became aware that her arm felt cold, and she looked down to see a long gash on her forearm, cut through the protective layers. The blood was black in the starlight. She touched it to her lips; it was tacky and crusted, no longer actively bleeding. The edges looked ragged; an artifact of the injury itself, or had drackles been gnawing on it? She shuddered as she realized that she could well have bled to death, dangling upside down in the wrecked engine-cycle, and never woken to realize it. She smelled the sharp odor of its fuel and heard a faint trickling, but she couldn’t see what was happening. She also heard a distant hum that seemed to be coming from underground, as though another engine-cycle were running at full tilt somewhere down below.

Jenivar wriggled free at the cost of another cut on her forehead and several painful glass splinters in her back. She checked her water-bags for leaks and ran a quick inventory, operating by touch as much as by sight. Sword, gun, water, sunshade, herb pouch; Jenivar made sure the paper twists of Donnybell were unharmed and the glass bottle of Hellflower extract remained unbroken in its wad of soft fibers.

She shuffled a few meters away and flicked the power switch on her gun. The readout screen came to life, and she turned the useless weapon around at the site of the crash. The faint greenish glow illuminated enough of the engine-cycle to tell that she wouldn’t be using it to travel any further.

She was in a bowl-shaped hollow, ten meters across and perhaps a half-meter at its nadir. The light also glinted off of a stream of dark liquid under the engine-cycle. The fuel! It was leaking from the spare cans, forming a puddle that sent out tendrils toward the bottom of the pit, where it trickled into a jagged hole.

The engine-cycle might be a wreck, but fuel was valuable, and she’d couldn’t waste the rest of her herbs until she knew better what they were worth. Knightly largesse was all well and good, but she suspected she’d made a fool of herself with Huj, and that rankled. She struggled upright and eased forward. As she drew nearer, she realized that the humming sound was coming from down the hole.

Sudden motion made her halt. A black shape darted out of the hole and skittered toward her. A drackle! She stomped it in instinctive revulsion, its scaly carapace crunching unpleasantly under her boot. The creature’s reeking innards gushed out; drackle guts smelled like unwashed feet and rot. She flicked the disgusting thing back into the hole. The buzzing intensified, drawing nearer to the surface, and Jenivar realized she was in trouble. One drackle was a nuisance. A handful were a pestilence. A whole swarm of them... Her hand throbbed where one had bitten her. Their poison was weak, but even a strong man could be in danger from a sufficient number of them.

Jenivar quickly fumbled open her herb wallet and grabbed a handful of the remaining Donnybell packets. The herb was useful for soothing and calming in very small doses, loosening muscles and sending strange dreams. In large doses, it was almost invariably lethal. Jenivar ratcheted her blaster’s power up to the maximum and felt it begin to overheat, soon almost burning her skin through her gloves. She held her breath and touched the paper twists containing the Donnybell to the blaster’s battery pack. They smoldered and caught flame. Jenivar held them away from her face and waved them about, making certain the fire was well and truly caught. When the smoke turned dark, she dropped them down into the hole.

The falling flame caught the trickle of fuel, sending a ribbon of fire downward. Like dragonfire, Jenivar thought. It illuminated an endless horde of crawling bodies coating the sides of the tunnel, a stream of foulness that seemed to reach into the bowels of the earth. Where the smoke touched, they fell senseless away, and those nearby went into a frenzy, lashing out with their sharp forelimbs.

Jenivar did not linger. Some drackles could fly, and she wanted to be nowhere near the area when any of them made it out.

She was alone, and her engine-cycle was scrap. She might be able to walk back out of the Big Glass, but it would be a hard trek indeed, and Terk would have mobilized anyone he could deputize to hunt her down. He might be waiting for her at the edge, or even following after her.

A Knight would not retreat. A Knight would press on. She oriented herself as best she could by the stars and struck out for what she hoped was the north edge of the Big Glass.

Jenivar did not feel like a Knight when she emerged from the Big Glass. She should have felt triumph, but she didn’t; she felt like a thirst with legs. She’d walked all day in the punishing sunlight across what was functionally an enormous mirror. If she stopped, she knew she would fall and never stand up.

Ahead, the sand gave way to mere sandy soil. A series of small bluffs off to the east held vegetation on their lower ranks.

And there was a thin shape approaching out of the rolling heat shimmers.

Jenivar at first feared it was Terk or a clutch of his deputies, but no, a plodding beast of burden, another figure behind it, and a larger one behind that. Travelers. Perhaps traders.

Jenivar lifted the dusty lenses of her goggles. She knew it would make her paleness all the more apparent—every trader she’d ever seen had been baked brown by their years in the sun—but she wanted clear sight for her first encounter with a true stranger on the road. She tugged her thick gloves off and rested a hand on the pommel of her sword as well.

As the figures approached, Jenivar began to sense that something was not quite right. There was the pack-beast, likely a donkey. But the two figures were strange. One was tall and dressed in the loose robes of a practiced desert traveler, but the short one seemed to have on no clothes at all, and he staggered unevenly, lurching. It wasn’t until the tall figure pulled its arm back and Jenivar caught the glint of sun on metal that she realized.

Slaver.

The tall figure had knocked the small one to the ground and was kicking it repeatedly.

A Knight would not stand for injustice, Jenivar knew, but her reserves were severely depleted. Her mission would best be served if she obtained water and directions as politely as possible and moved on to find a dragon, which would likely be menacing dozens or hundreds of people at a time.

The tall slaver appeared to have seen Jenivar coming, as he stood still with his foot on the fallen slave and watched her approach. Jenivar tried to work up enough saliva to speak; best to present as strong a front as possible.

The slaver turned out to be a lean and rangy man, with the rough nut-brown skin of a regular traveler. His hair was bleached pale by the sun, but he bore two long mustachios that were almost black. His eyes were invisible behind a shaded lens, a wraparound visor that left his peripheral vision intact. The slave was a youth younger than Jenivar, clad in a thin shirt and inadequate trousers, his skin exposed to the sun and his feet to the rocks and sand. He craned his neck to look up at Jenivar but flinched as the man bore down harder on his booted foot.

The man lifted a gnarled hand in greeting. “Hail and well-met, traveler! You have clearly traveled a hard road.”

“Hail,” Jenivar managed, but her throat betrayed her, and the rest of her greeting disappeared in a strangling cough.

“Please,” the man offered, lifting a waterskin from his side, “I have more than enough to see me through my journey, and I would be remiss in my duties as a traveler if I did not offer assistance where I might.”

Jenivar accepted the proffered skin and drank. She was desperately conflicted about accepting water surely purchased with money gained from human suffering, but she was dizzy and nauseated with dehydration already.

“Kandru the Trader is my name,” said the man, “known throughout the Mirrorlands for the quality of my goods and the reasonableness of my bargains. You seem to be on a lengthy journey. I have dried meat, water, salt tablets, even a compass. Or, as you look to have an interest in ancient tech,” Kandru murmured, eyeing the pistol at Jenivar’s side, “I do a small trade in such exotics and sundries myself...”

“Jenivar,” said Jenivar. “I am a Knight-Errant, called to serve the people. I am afraid I require only two things. First, directions to the nearest trading post or waystation. Second, the release of that child.”

“Child?” said Kandru, clearly offended. “This boy is my rightful property, though I was badly cheated by his former owners. The ungrateful brute disregards orders and shirks constantly. I would be better served by my donkey! I have no intention of losing him, not at the price I paid. He will learn obedience and loyalty soon enough. Isn’t that right, boy?”

“Yes, boss!” The boy’s accent was thick, lending an odd inflection to his words.

“I saw you beating him,” Jenivar said coldly. She drew herself up. “A Knight will not stand for injustice. A Knight defends the weak.”

“If I see any such notables, I shall promptly inform them of their duties.” Kandru spat over his shoulder, his expression as sour and unfriendly as it had previously been unctuous.

Jenivar bent to the boy. “Are you happy with your master? Does he treat you properly?”

“Yes, boss! Yes, boss!”

Jenivar was taken aback. “Really?”

“Don’t put too much stock in that. Those are the only two words he knows, likely by rote. I believe I mentioned that I was cheated on his price.”

“And yet you beat him for not understanding or following instructions?”

Kandru frowned. “I will treat my property as I see fit. The nearest trading post is Yellowcake, just over a day’s walk behind me. If you’ve no intent to barter or trade, be off with you, and be thankful I don’t demand payment for the water you’ve wasted.” He strode past, hauling at the reins of his donkey and tugging on the chain linked to the slave’s wrists. “Move, you worthless dracklespawn.”

But the chain slid free without the boy, who instead darted behind Jenivar to hide behind her legs. He had not been still or idle while he had lain in the dirt; Jenivar saw a bent piece of wire clutched in one scrawny hand. He babbled something in a language she couldn’t understand, but the urgent need in his expression was undeniable.

“This nonsense again?” Kandra flexed his hands. “Do you want to be tied to the donkey for the rest of the journey?”

“Yes, boss!” The boy stared at Jenivar, pleading.

Jenivar hesitated. Her course here was clear, but how would she complete her quest if she was saddled with the care of a helpless and frightened child?

“I wish to purchase your slave, Lord Kandru,” she announced. She reached into her pouch and closed her gloved hand around a paper-wrapped packet. “I will pay a fair price. A Knight does not cheat or steal. I have rare herbs, Donnybell and Numb, other medicines.”

Kandru turned back, his eyes now watchful and gleaming with excitement. “Medicines I have in plenty,” he said, “but perhaps there are... more interesting artifacts in your possession.”

Jenivar thought hard. “I have one or two gallons of fuel for a burn-engine.”

“Does that weapon function?” Kandru said abruptly, pointing to the blaster.

“Why would anyone carry a weapon that did not?” Jenivar countered, feeling a twist of guilt. But really, it wasn’t a lie, not exactly. And he had kicked the boy. She had seen it.

“A trade, then. The boy for the gun. The road is dangerous, and if you deprive me of my night-guard, you can at least arm me sufficiently against the dangers that remain ahead.” Kandru held out his hand.

Jenivar hesitated only a moment. Using her left hand, she pulled the blaster from its holster and offered it, upside-down.

“Would you be wanting a bill of sale?” Kandru asked, turning toward the packs on his donkey’s side.

“Is... is that necessary?” Jenivar asked.

“No,” Kandru said flatly. He turned back, the blaster’s power light glowing and the vents humming, and leveled it at Jenivar’s head. “I will be leaving here with my property. All of my property.” Kandru gestured at the boy.

Jenivar held up her left hand to halt him. This man had no honor, none whatsoever.

“Don’t think it,” Kandru warned. “I told you I trade in tech. I know how to wield a blaster.”

Jenivar did not move. She knew she would have only a moment to act once he discovered her ruse.

“Hands away from that sword, girl,” Kandru said again. “Now.”

“All right,” Jenivar said.

And she flung the paper packet of Hellflower extract into Kandru’s face.

He screamed and reeled backwards, dropping the blaster to clutch his visor and rip it away. Jenivar snatched it up, then shouted to the boy. “Run!”

She’d made it a few steps before Kandru’s mewling screams stopped her. “Rub sand in it!” she called to him. “Water only makes it worse.”

She wondered if she should go back to render aid; her herblore would at least ensure he didn’t lose his sight permanently. A Knight was merciful and would not leave even a fallen adversary helpless. But a Knight also had to protect her charge. She’d helped the slave-boy escape, but he would not last long alone. He was her responsibility. More than what she’d done to Kandru?

As she debated, Kandru lurched to his feet with an inarticulate roar of rage. Behind Jenivar, the slave-boy moaned in terror.

Jenivar fled, tugging the slave-boy after her.

Jenivar carefully scrubbed her hands with sand before removing her glove and folding it, inside out, into a spare pouch. The leather had protected her when she crushed the glass vial of Hellflower extract, but she didn’t want to risk any residue remaining on the glove’s palm. She had once rubbed absentmindedly at her face while chopping Hellflower for processing; her eyes had been swollen shut for a week, and that was fresh-picked Hellflower that hadn’t yet had its potent chemical isolated and purified into crystals. Hellflower was a decent medicine, and in minute amounts made for fiery spiced meals, but it was a truly nasty weapon.

When she and the boy had run as far as they could—which wasn’t terribly far, with the boy in the shape he was—Jenivar called a halt in the relative shade of a rocky outcropping and looked to the boy’s wounds. He had had the forethought to grab one of the oversized waterskins from the pack-lizard as they fled. All Jenivar had thought to grab was her non-functional blaster.

“Smart boy,” she murmured.

“Yes, boss.”

Jenivar blinked. She had never been anyone’s boss. “I know I was offering to buy you, but I don’t want a slave. I want to help. I’m a Knight. It’s part of the Code. You’re free now.”

The boy stared at her with wide, dark eyes.

“I’m Jenivar, of the Spine. What’s your name?”

The boy shook his head and gabbled at her in a language she didn’t recognize.

“Jenivar.” She pointed to herself, then to him. “You?”

His eyes lit up with understanding. “Arturo!” he said, slapping his chest proudly.

Arturo was in completely inappropriate clothes, his arms and face almost entirely exposed. Jenivar set to work with a packet of Numb, dribbling the juice onto cuts and bruises, massaging it into the skin. She knew from experience that he would feel a faint tingle, then a spreading warmth and, as the name implied, numbness. Taken orally, it would knock a grown man out for hours. Jenivar saved half the packet and stowed it in her much-depleted herb wallet. She got out her spare jacket and draped it across Arturo’s bony shoulders. It hung on him like a blanket on a fencepost. He looked down at himself clad in what was functionally a very baggy dress, then questioningly up at Jenivar.

“For the sun,” Jenivar said, pointing overhead.

Arturo nodded. “Sohn,” he said, mimicking her accent.

With some effort and a lot of gesturing and pantomiming, Jenivar managed to convey that she had come from the south, her home a place called the Spine. “Arturo?” she asked. “Arturo home?”

Arturo pointed vaguely toward the north, the sleeve of the jacket slipping over the ends of his fingers.

“That’s where I’m going,” said Jenivar. “Are there dragons there? Have you ever seen one?”

Arturo hesitated, his eyes darting anxiously. “Yes, boss?”

Jenivar sighed. The language barrier was proving troublesome. “Well, come on. We need supplies; with two of us drinking that water we’ll be lucky to make it to the trading post that... man mentioned.”

Arturo was a quick study and an insatiable learner. Only the relative barrenness of the landscape kept him from becoming a true nuisance, asking the names of every new feature they passed and trading Jenivar words in his own language. He laughed when she fumbled the unfamiliar sounds. Jenivar found herself feeling strangely happy. She had never had any siblings, and children at the Spine were rare enough that there was no one close to her own age. Most children took up their parents’ roles quite young and spent much of their time working. It was nice to have someone to talk to, even such an excitable and largely incomprehensible someone.

During the days of travel, Jenivar and Arturo made sufficient progress in mutual understanding that when they left the Yellowcake trading post—lighter by the weight of Jenivar’s sunshade and the now-useless fuel canisters but stocked with renewed provisions—Arturo was able to tell something of the town he came from.

“Home, gone! Bad. Very bad.” He flapped the arms of his too-long jacket like wings and growled deep in his throat. “Take all. Gone! I only one. Men come and take me. Say ‘slave.’ Say ‘yes boss.'”

“Wings... a dragon? Was it a dragon that destroyed your home?”

Arturo shrugged. “Bad. Big bad. Malochiones.”

“Can you find your way back there?”

After some thought, Arturo nodded. “Many days.” He held up all his fingers.

“At least ten days, huh?” Jenivar frowned, hefting their bags of food and water.

“The men stop. Water. Food. I see.”

“Waystations? Caches of supplies?”

Arturo shrugged.

“Well,” said Jenivar. “I hope you’re right, because no Knight can refuse a request for aid against a dragon.” She hefted her pack and adopted her best forthright expression. “Come on, Art. We’re taking you home.”

“Yes, boss.”

It was twelve days, actually. The caches Arturo had indicated held stale water in wax-sealed casks, and food, primarily dried or heavily salted. Many of them were nearly empty, but there were clear signs of travel and something approximating a path. It seemed Arturo’s home had not been completely isolated before the attack. Jenivar wondered if a rescue had already been mounted; if she was too late to slay the dragon herself. She wasn’t even certain if she was allowed to hope that she wasn’t, that the rescuers had failed and the dragon still menaced the area. It was Knightly to be bold and face danger alone, but it wasn’t terribly Knightly to wish harm on people so she could save them from it. Arturo wasn’t much help; even after Jenivar spent hours trying to explain her concerns, he only shrugged and smiled.

They passed a valley that had a familiar glassy sheen. How many Big Glasses could there be? Across the way, resting on the rim of the opposite side, Jenivar saw the open maw of a stone dragon skull. Behind it, the body humped, massive and threatening, and beyond that was a curiously squared pillar of gray stone, apparently hollow and riddled with jagged cracks.

Jenivar never knew what the town was called. She wasn’t sure which of the words Arturo babbled was the name. It was a desolate place, whatever it had been called. The dragon had fallen splayed on the ground rather than curled, as the Spine was, and the gaping stone mouth led down a long, low tunnel to a massive city in the belly and below. Jenivar saw a waterworks that put the Spine’s rope-and-pulley system to shame, several gardens, including an edible fungi farm and a smelting facility. There were also more esoteric workshops, full of steam pipes and rusting gears, whose purpose Jenivar could only guess at. Filled to capacity, the enclave would have held triple the Spine’s thousand occupants easily.

“But there’s no destruction,” she said to Arturo, who was pale and withdrawn. “I mean, things are knocked over and everything is dried up or run down, but how did the dragon get everyone without breaking open the ceiling?””

“Many,” said Arturo. “Many flying. Big, but not so big.” He shuffled his feet, sending echoes across the vast central area that still contained the detritus of what looked to have been a semi-permanent market.

“Big but not big, huh?” Jenivar poked at a fallen board with her toe, sending withered fruit tumbling away. Something skittered into the shadows.

Arturo huddled close behind her. “Yes.”

What could that mean? A nest of hatchlings, perhaps? “Well, we just got here. Let’s find a place to sleep and we’ll start searching for spoor in the morning, okay?”

Arturo didn’t answer. His eyes were black holes in the darkness.

Jenivar woke from a crushing dream in which Terk, grown to enormous size and sporting dragon wings, flexed hands made of crumpled cycle parts and gathered her up to swallow her whole. His mouth opened to reveal a rushing torrent of water that wasn’t water at all but the acrid rotgut Tymon favored, and at the bottom of Terk’s gullet was Tymon himself, bloated and sweating, swallowing the flood as it poured down.

Jenivar fell, and came to herself amid a tangle of dusty blankets. Arturo’s own sleeping roll lay crumpled on the floor. The room they had scrounged together was empty. A glowstone, nearing the end of its life, emitted a feeble radiance from the small ledge provided for that purpose. The heavy metal weapons rack they had pushed to blockade the door had been tugged laboriously aside, just enough for a slender form to creep out.

Jenivar frowned but could not muster much anger. She had lost her home voluntarily, but Arturo’s had been taken from him in brutal fashion, and the only other person who cared that he was alive couldn’t even speak the same language. Jenivar knew about needing to be alone and the healing that solitude could bring.

But she was a Knight, or she would be soon. And Arturo was her ward, her responsibility. She couldn’t leave him out there alone; this place was not safe, not yet.

Outside, the dragon’s central cavity opened up, darkness on every side. Jenivar was aware as she had never been in the Spine of how organic the dragon-stones were. The Spine was old, and layered with tunnels, filled with platforms and rickety ladders, ropes and cubicles: the detritus of humanity. Here, in this place, Jenivar was only a speck of human life in the belly of an ancient beast, living in the holes left where its life had fled, scrounging the stones of its body for shelter. When the dragons had ruled the world, killing a dragon, even successfully wounding one, was sufficient to make a man a Knight, a hero whose name would live on in legend forever. The dragons had been so vast and so grand and so terrible. What, in comparison, was one human? How could a Knight have ever prevailed, alone against a dragon? It was not a comfortable feeling. Jenivar stared into impenetrable night with her hand on a stone that had once been the bones of a dragon and wondered if she really could slay a dragon if she met one. She wondered if she would even want to.

“The dragons are dead,” Jenivar said. Her voice bounced and echoed from the holes left by ribs and scales. “The dragons are dead, and there are no more Knights.” She felt something leave her with the words, and she could not tell if it was a loss or a relief.

Then she heard Arturo screaming.

She snatched up her sword and gun and fled half-clad into the darkness.

They’d taken him into a tunnel. Drackles, bigger than any she’d ever seen; some the size of rats or house-iguanas. They’d poured out of it like foul water and retreated just as quickly when she slashed at them with her blade. She waded into the fray, sword flashing, shouting a battle cry like the Knights of old. She’d killed two or three with every swing, but there were more, more, always more. Through the press, she caught glimpses of Arturo in the dimness ahead. At first, he’d clawed and flailed, but then he cried out and went limp. The bites were poisonous, after all, each one a tiny dose, but collectively...

That was the problem. Collective. The drackles moved as one swarm, and it gave them power beyond what any of them could have managed alone.

Now Jenivar crawled through the tunnel that was barely big enough for her scrawny frame, pushing her sword and gun forward. The empty cavern behind her hadn’t been destroyed by some unknown terror; some nest of hatchling dragons breaking in. It had been eaten from the inside. By vermin. Nuisances. Pests.

Jenivar kept crawling through the dark, unable to see, unable to smell anything other than the fetor of the drackles and their slime on her sword; barely able to hear the ever-receding scraping and clattering of uncountable feet on rock, the slither of clothing and warm skin dragged by numberless pincers.

If they came back for her, they would swarm her, and she would be helpless. Her sword was almost useless in these narrow confines. They would bite and sting and smother her nose and lips with their shuddering carapaces, and she would sleep and die knowing that she had failed. There were no dragons to slay. Not anymore. There were only drackles and slavers and empty caverns. She would never become a Knight.

It seemed to be an endless nightmare crawl, but Jenivar had gone only fifteen or twenty meters when her sword tip dropped unexpectedly. She barely kept her grip on the hilt, scraping metal against stone. Echoes answered back from a much larger space ahead of her. She eased forward. The floor was only a few feet below the tunnel exit and stretched on farther than she could reach with her blade. Jenivar struggled out and stood in the dark. The surface below her feet had an unpleasant springy quality to it. Taking a risk, she thumbed the power on her blaster and held up the faint green glow to light her surroundings.

The walls were square, sharp corners forming a plain cubic shape. Jenivar, acclimated to the curves and bubbles of the Spine, found the shape of the room disturbing. Every surface, walls, floor, and ceiling, was covered with thin black fibers like roots. She reached to touch them and found them warm, almost hot to the touch. Ahead, a set of stairs rose out of the gloom. There was no sign of any drackles.

Jenivar stepped forward and heard a crunch. Something long and round moved under her feet. A bone, drained of every drop of nourishment and rendered brittle, either through age or some other mechanism. Tendrils grew into the sides of the thing, and she resolutely looked upward and gripped her sword more tightly.

Other than the thin coating of slime, the stairs were easy to climb. This had been a human place, once; the stone beneath was a different quality to anything Jenivar had seen and clearly not something the drackles had made. They were just occupying the space, filling in areas that someone else had built and abandoned. She refused to think about them any further.

Jenivar peeped over the lip of the staircase, her blaster growing warmer in her hands. She ducked back down immediately, quieting her retching as best as she could manage. Slowly, carefully, she moved again.

The floor above was the drackles’ larder. Tendrils and slime coated everything, and the floor was pocked with shapeless lumps and uneven depressions. Every pile of extruded filth concealed one or more bodies, none of them moving. Drackles skittered haphazardly across the floor, pausing at this bundle or another to flense a bit of flesh with their jaws. The whole room reeked of rot and drackle-spew. Jenivar stepped carefully out. The drackles here didn’t seem to have noticed her yet. The bulk of the visible ones were busy at the far end, swarming over something Jenivar couldn’t see. She thought she knew what it was. She walked, barely daring to breathe. The goal was everything.

Motion beside her foot broke her concentration. A dusky-skinned face with black, curly hair—just like Arturo’s—stared sightlessly from one ruined eye socket. The rest of the face was covered in matted black crust, the color and texture of a drackle’s body. Something moved in the inside of the head, a flicker in the tunnel of the macerated flesh. A miniature horde of pale, many-legged things burst out, swarming down the cheek and dropping to disappear in the layered crust of the floor.

It wasn’t just a larder. It was also a nursery.

Jenivar didn’t make the decision to start running forward. Her feet moved on their own. She would have told them to stop, but her mouth was busy screaming. Not pain, not fear, but anger. Drackles scattered from her path, a dozen crushed under her feet as she charged the mass at the far end of the room.

She launched herself at them and sprawled on the heap; punched out with the hilt of the sword, kicked and bit at the endless wriggling forms. The largest one, its central body the size of her head, hissed and lunged at her with open jaws foaming with milky froth. Jenivar rammed her pistol down its throat and heard its insides sizzle from the overheating battery.

Suddenly, the swarm was gone, drackles scattering and receding into their hive. Jenivar lay across Arturo, whose skin was pale and unhealthy in the flickering light of the blaster’s readout screen. He was covered with a thin glaze of the omnipresent tendrils.

She tore them away with cries of disgust. “Art! Arturo!” Jenivar shook him, but his head only flopped bonelessly with the motion. “We have to get out of here. We have to run!”

Arturo didn’t move.

Around her, outside of the tiny ring of radiance, came the sounds of squelching and crackling. Drackles coming out of hiding. She saw the hive-substance heave and fracture by her feet, and a pincer as long as her forearm emerged. They were coming from every direction, and she had only a sword and a broken gun to face them.

She had two options. The Code told her that a Knight never gave in to despair.

That left one option.

She thought back to the lessons Groton had taught her about the care of a Knight’s weapons and his admonishments regarding the malfunctioning blaster. She then carefully broke every single rule he had laid out. She shoved every switch to full on the already-hot blaster, watched for the gauges to begin flashing red, and pulled the trigger.

The weapon clicked and squealed, unable to discharge the energy it had built up in its core. Jenivar tossed it to the middle of the room; the bodies squirmed beneath its crimson-lit arc. She tore Arturo from his half-made cocoon, threw him across her shoulders, and fled for the stairs.

Drackles boiled up after them, quickly filling the stairwell, but Jenivar had no intention of leaving that way. Instead, she sprinted up. There was a door at the top, which she shouldered through and slammed behind her.

The next level had less hive-stuff. The level after that had less still. Drackles, like the humans they had stolen, preferred the damp and cool of underground to the blistering sun. The frantic beeping sounded below, increasing steadily in volume and pitch.

Jenivar’s legs burned and her arms ached, but she forced herself to run and recited the Knight’s Code in her head. Another floor. Another. The walls had holes in them here, and she could see the sky, burning the red-orange of impending dawn. Jenivar kept climbing, so exhausted she was able to move only at a walk now but knowing she had to get more distance before the blaster’s power pack reached critical mass.

They burst onto the roof, she and Arturo, just as the sun crested the horizon. From below, the shrill alarm went silent, replaced with a subsonic rumble and the taste of copper in the back of Jenivar’s throat. The explosion made a noise so loud it was like no noise at all, flaring orange light shining through the cracks and crevices at the base of the building like a second sun. Contained by the walls around it, it blossomed out of the cavernous belly and shot from the stone dragon’s mouth. It looked like the dragon was breathing fire.

Just like the stories, she thought.

Beneath her, the pistol’s blast vomited forth from the roof and shot up into the sky, a flare, a sign, a new-born star. Jenivar felt the heat rush through her, felt the stone beneath her threaten to melt away. This must have been what it was like when there were dragons. It was too much, and at the same time not enough. This must be why we killed them, or why they went away.

And then the blast was over. Half the building had been torn away behind her, and the smell of burning drackle wafted up on noxious black smoke. Jenivar stood with Arturo on the section of roof that remained, two tiny lives trapped on something far too large for either of them to encompass. The building trembled on its foundations, and Jenivar wondered if it would crumble. She held Arturo tightly and felt tears in her eyes when he stirred and mumbled incoherently.

They would walk down together, or she would carry him, and they would gather the dried seeds and hard-baked bread from the empty shell of Arturo’s home, and then they would go. Back to the southwest, perhaps, or east or north, off to explore new lands and find a place where they could make a new home.

In the distance, something glinted in the dawn light; sand grains fused together into glass. The desert looked empty from here, but it wasn’t. Not quite. There were no more dragons and humans lived in the holes left behind, but now she knew that there were monsters still, and heroes. Small monsters, perhaps, and small heroes, mean and petty and alone in scattered crevices. But the monsters hadn’t stayed alone, and neither should the heroes. Out in the wastes was hidden life and unguessed danger. Even in the Spine, where the cold water appeared like magic and the herb gardens grew thick with secrets. Out there were people living in the jaws of dragons, thieves and cowards, merchants and guards, slavers and bullies, mothers and fathers, and every one of them the children of dragon-slayers. Knights, if they wanted to be.

“Look, Arturo,” Jenivar said. “It’s beautiful.”


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Nathaniel Lee has an English degree and thus considers himself basically unemployable if he ever loses his current (unrelated) position. His short fiction has appeared in venues such as Penumbra, Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Flash Fiction Online, and Toasted Cake. His self-described sappy little story “The Alchemist’s Children” is in Alex Shvartsman’s Unidentified Funny Objects anthology.

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