The guards had stashed the Underfolk in a guardhouse, outside the walls of the Keep proper. Per Armin’s instructions, there were two dozen men surrounding the location, Arcwands pointed at every point of egress the man could conceivably use. In a way, it was almost comical to see this many soldiers, prepared to shoot a single rundown building at the slightest sign of danger. Not the kind of comedy that brought a smile to Armin’s lips, more the kind that made him grimace at the absurdity of the world.
“At ease,” Armin said to the captain of this little force, a man who was maybe a decade Armin’s senior but had a young, soft face that made him look five years Armin’s junior. A few scars accumulated during his service to the Resistance didn’t counteract that look, but enhanced it, making him look like a child who’d had a rough life on the streets. “Captain Crewson. Any change?”
Crewson shook his head. “Not yet,” he said, his voice a deep baritone that clashed with his appearance. “He’s just reading from some papers he brought with him. About as threatening as a kitten with a ball of string, if I’m being honest.”
Armin nodded. “Thank you for keeping the men at the ready in spite of that. Short of an actual Alohym, that might be the most dangerous being in the kingdom. Somehow.” Armin felt the urge to explain that, at least. It was a delicate balance to walk with the military members of the Resistance. Lumcasters technically outranked them, but the military was cognizant of the harm that had happened in the past from Lumcasters thinking rank and book knowledge made them more fit to lead than soldiers who had practical experience. Armin figured the least he could do was explain himself.
“Lumcaster?” Crewson lowered his voice so only Armin could hear. “Begging your pardon, but it’s just a single man, and he has no way to leave without being cut down. I struggle to see how he could be a threat.”
“Honestly, Captain? I don’t see how either.” Armin pointed at the guardhouse. “That man outfought an entire Alohym garrison, including some new type of Alohym and the Traitor, escaping with his life. He also was present for the massacre. I don’t know what he’s capable of.”
“Understood,” he said, and from the way that smooth forehead creased, he absolutely did. “Shall I send some men in with you?”
Armin shook his head. “Keep your men at the ready. If I walk out of there and scratch my nose, that’s my signal I want you to shoot to kill the Underfolk. If you can do so without hitting me, I’d prefer it, but if you can’t…he’s a big enough threat to be worth the risk. Once you’ve taken him down, if I’m alive, lock me in there and send for an interrogator to make sure I can be trusted.”
“That seems a bit extreme, Lumcaster,” Crewson said.
“And it very well may be overkill,” Armin said. “I’m not an expert in these things. No one is. But given what he’s done…I feel like there’s no such thing as too cautious. If I give the signal, I’ll trust your judgement.” Armin took a paper out of one of the sacs tied to his belt and quickly wrote a note confirming he’d given the order. He pressed his thumb to it afterwards, leaving an unforgeable Lumcaster’s mark on the document.
“Understood,” Crewson took the note and folded it into his pack. “Good luck.”
“Thanks,” Armin said, standing up. “I pray I won’t need it, but if I do I’ll need every bit the Light can spare me.”
Armin had never seen an Underfolk in person before. They’d gone underground as soon as the Alohym had invaded, and illustrations of the reclusive people had always been rare. After the build up, the tension, and the careful walk to the door, it was almost a let down.
The Underfolk was short compared to a human, and the top of his head would have came up to Armin’s chest if he’d been standing. He was hunched over a table, looking at some papers, his eyes scanning the document with speed. He had a few long whiskers coming from his nose, and thick fingers that had retractable claws poking from the tips.
“Greetings,” the Underfolk said, looking up to reveal slitted, cat-like eyes. “I am Poz. You are not the Dragon Princess.”
“I am not,” Armin said, taking the seat across from Poz. “Forgive me, but it would be poor security to just let anyone who demanded an audience with her get what they sought.”
Poz grimaced, revealing his teeth were more like fangs. “I see. That is understood, but problematic.” His eyes narrowed as he noticed something. “Although as one of her companions…Armin, yes?”
Armin blinked, a chill running down his spine. “How do you know who I am?”
“The eyes are distinctive. Word of them has spread. I hear things.”
The mundane nature of the explanation made Armin bark out a laugh. Without knowing what the Underfolk was capable of, Armin had attributed all kinds of mysterious and unnatural powers to him. Apparently, the strange an uncanny ability he possessed was…the power of observation. Poz looked a bit put out by Armin’s amusement, although it was hard to tell. Time with Tythel had taught Armin that assuming non-humans had similar expressions to humans was an exercise in arrogance. “I forget about them half the time,” Armin lied. He really never could forget about his new, unnatural eyes. A product of Tythel using a rare Sunstone to save him from Unlight poisoning, Armin’s eyes permanently looked like the sky during an eclipse.
He couldn’t forget about his eyes, but apparently he could forget how he got them. A rare treasure from Tythel’s father’s horde she’d used without hesitation. Light and Shadow, did I ever properly thank her for that? Armin pushed the thought aside, but made a mental note to return to it. Distraction now could be fatal.
“Ah.” Poz shook his head, as if clearing a thought of his own. “You’re frightened. I expected that. Unfortunately, I have not come up with a way to calm those fears.” He gestured to himself. “Catflesh is ideal for crossing terrain without detection, and one of the more intelligent fleshes, but can be a poor fit for navigating social situations.”
“Catflesh?” Armin asked, and a lesson from his Collegium days sprung to mind. “Right, of course. Metamorphic digestion. Your people take on the properties of anything you eat.”
Poz nodded slowly. “Any flesh.” Poz stressed the word.
“I thought the Underfolk were carnivorous,” Armin said, leaning forward on the table. This was hardly the most important topic of conversation, but Poz had said Catflesh wasn’t the best for social situations. If it was anything like how cats worked, idle chatter might help Poz feel more comfortable, give him time to get used to Armin’s presence.
For an insane moment, Armin pictured himself offering Poz an open palm to sniff, then imagined the man rightly slapping Armin silly for the insult. Or, given those claws, worse. Conversation seemed like the best way to go.
“Of course we’re not,” Poz said, in a rather dismissive tone. Armin really wished Poz hadn’t told him about the Catflesh. Now, all Armin could picture was a cat turning up its nose at food that didn’t meet its palate. “If we were, we’d change flesh constantly. We eat plants when we do not want to change flesh. And, before you ask…the cat had expired from natural causes. I do not kill to change flesh when the animals are companions for sentient races.”
“That’s good,” Armin said. The question hadn’t occurred to him until just now, but he was glad for clarification before it had. “But…you have fangs. Seems like eating plants with those would be detrimental.”
Poz opened his mouth wide. Impressively wide. Far wider than a human ever could. It reminded Armin of a cat’s yawn, more than anything else. The back teeth were unexpected, however. In spite of the vicious fangs that composed the further forward teeth, the back four were molars. “Trueteeth,” Poz explained, once his jaw was closed. “They do not change with our flesh. Cut the plants small enough, and they can be chewed there.”
“I see,” Armin said. The scholar in him wanted to ask more questions, get more information, really study Poz. Underfolk had been resistant to letting humans or Sylvani examine them in any detail, and if Dragons had been given greater access, they hadn’t shared it with the other races. However, those questions would have to wait. “Poz – were you the underfolk that fought Nicandros?”
Poz stiffened. “The outcome of that battle wasn’t intended,” Poz said quietly, looking down. “Or…I suppose I should say I regret that it was. There are…dangers to other types of flesh. Some carry a lack of empathy. An extreme lack.”
“Like Catflesh?” Armin hazarded a guess.
Poz shook his head. “Humans misunderstand cats. They do care. They only wish to care on their terms. At least, that is how their flash works for us. It constantly baffles me that a species can live alongside a predator that routinely climbs onto their laps and screams for attention doesn’t care about what happens to them.”
Armin chuckled at that. “So, what flesh causes that lack of empathy?”
“Forbidden Fleshes,” Poz said, quietly. “Flesh I’d partaken in before, out of the most dire need. Nicandros knew of that shame, but I knew of Nicandros. No other flesh would have ensured my survival, and I had to survive. I have…so many things I can share. But…the Dragon Princess. I have a gift for her. One I will only give to her. Others would try to use this gift against her, and in doing so would provoke a wrath so terrible it would undermine this resistance. Or so I thought, in the Forbidden Flesh, and the Forbidden Flesh is rarely wrong. I will give it to her with no traps on the gift, so she may know I am sincere in my desire to help. And so she does not set me aflame.”
Armin wanted to press him more on the Forbidden Flesh, but put that aside. Too much pressure could turn the Underfolk skittish. “Well…as you said, I am her sworn companion. Surely you can at least tell me what this gift is, so I can know you mean her no harm?”
Poz’s eyes narrowed, and Armin wondered what he missed. It took him a moment, but then Armin realized he hadn’t refuted the idea that Tythel would attack Poz or undermine the resistance. Hardly the stirring defense of a ‘sworn companion,’ whatever that meant.
“I do not have it with me,” Poz said. “I have it stashed away safely, and will not tell you where.”
Armin nodded. “When we go to retrieve it, Tythel will be there.” As well as every soldier Armin could grab, Eupheme, a couple of the Lumcasters, and hopefully Haradeth and his insane automaton friend.
“Good.” Poz considered for a moment longer, than blinked slowly. In cats, that was a sign of trust. Armin hoped that translated here. “Very well,” Poz said .I have, safely, where no harm could come to it, the Heart-Egg of Karjon the Wise.”
“I don’t believe you,” Armin said immediately, half truthfully and half just to buy himself time to think.
“Your belief does not change the truth,” Poz said without flinching. There was an absolute certainty to his words that Armin found near impossible to doubt. “But for proof – I was at the battlefield where it was lost, scavenging for supplies. I found her pack. I was the one that took it at first, not knowing what I held. The moment I learned the truth of its import, I sought to return it to her as quickly as possible.”
Armin stared at him for a long moment, a thousand possibilities running through his mind. No one had ever been told where or when it had been lost, which meant Poz had to have it. For one brief, terrible, shameful moment, Armin considered adding it to the others. That, however, would be monstrous. Hiding the other eggs from Tythel…that was something Armin was still grappling with. But this was her father’s egg. There was only one right thing to do here. “Crewson, your presence is needed!” Armin shouted through the door, startling Poz so badly the poor man’s hair shot up. Of course. Cats. Armin apologized to Poz for the fright. When Crewson didn’t immediately appear, Armin stepped to the door and poked his head out, to show his nose didn’t itch.
Crewson nodded and headed towards him. “What is it.”
Armin glanced over at his shoulder. “Fetch the Princess, her Umbrist, and every spare man you can gather. I’m not certain this is not a trap, so we’ll want everyone we can get – before you tell the princess, that is. Once you’ve gathered the needed force, inform the Princess I’ve spoken with this underfolk…and he has something of her father’s she thought lost, and he dearly wants to return to her.”
Apologies for the delay. Shouldn’t happen again for a while, but I had to prioritize the sequel to The Wastes of Keldora unexpectedly. The good news is, with Exercise the Demons coming out in December and Dragon’s Scion 1 in January, I can go easier on new book words for a bit. In the meantime…book 2 of Factory of the Gods , The Trains of Keldora is now available for pre-order! Pick it up if you liked the first book, and if you could leave the first book a review while you’re at it, I’d appreciate it! The first two chapters for The Wastes of Keldora are up for your reading pleasure here, and for The Trains of Keldora here.
Next week will have updates for all ongoing serials, with Dragon’s Scion Tuesday.