The Collegium had been known for many things – a bastion of knowledge and civilization, some of the greatest halls of learning in the Kingdom, the birthplace of Lumcasting – but one in particular had stood in Armin’s mind. It had the tallest structure built by human hands. The unimaginatively named Tower of Light had tested the very limits of how high stone and wood could built when reinforced by the Light that named it. It was practically a tradition for first year students to walk every single step in the Tower of Light at some point to look down at the world below.
Armin could never forget how it had looked from that height. It was so windy at the top, the whole thing was encased in a permanent dome of Light so it was even possible to stand up there without wind sweeping you away. It was nothing in comparison to mountains, of couse, but on the Tower one could stand and look over the edge and imagine oneself flying. Before the Alohym, it was the closest a human could get to that sensation.
The dizzying perspective of it, seeing the whole world laid out beneath him, the people below looking like tiny ants he could reach down and pluck up, had lingered with him for days. Armin had never really been able to get over that moment, how it had changed how he’d viewed everything. For some of the students, it had been a powerful feeling, standing so high above those without the gift to climb the steps. For Armin, however, it had been a reminder of how fragile things were. From up there, everyone looked as vulnerable as ants, and Armin had realized that they were.
When Tythel burst through the door of the guardhouse, Eupheme right on her heels, her eyes wide with a mixture of hope and terror, Armin had the same sense of shifting perspective.
He’d seen the egg before and, Armin hated to admit, part of him had thought Tythel’s obsession to be one born of yet another draconic lust for gold. It wasn’t until he saw that look in her eyes that he realized how badly he’d misjudged her.
Karjon hadn’t just been Tythel’s father, he’d been her entire world. That valley, that lair, and her father had been everything she’d known. At the same moment she had gained a wider perspective on everything, just like Armin had in that tower, she had also seen the world was full of terror and monsters. Monsters that had taken her father from her. Relief that his friend finally was going to get part of that world back warred with shame that he’d judged her so wrongly in at least this one thing.
It wasn’t going to magically fix things. Armin knew that. But for the first time he really, honestly, believed that there were things that could be fixed.
And if this Poz had lied about the egg to gain audience with Tythel, Armin would kill him for crushing Tythel’s hopes like that. Assuming, of course, Tythel let Poz live long enough for Armin to do so.
“I came as fast as I could,” Tythel panted out the words, her nictitating membranes flashing so quickly Armin knew exhaustion had nothing to do with it. “Is it…” Tythel swallowed hard, her throat so choked with emotion she couldn’t even finish the question.
“I never would have risked confusing you if it wasn’t,” Armin said.
Tythel’s attention turned to the Underfolk.
Poz had been unable to avoid forming expectations for his first meeting the Dragon Princess. She’d been painted as a figure great and terrible, a monster and a savior. He’d half expected her to be a full blooded dragon, or a human of painful beauty. He’d expected her to sweep in with regal imperiousness. She wouldn’t demand the egg, no, because demands would be something beneath her station. Demands were made by people who had to use harsh words and strength to enforce their will. The Dragon Princess, however, wouldn’t need such things. She’d just say that Poz would give her the egg, not as a demand, but as a statement of face. Apples fall from trees, the sky is blue, and the egg would be in her possession.
In Manflesh, Poz had written different predictions as to her reaction, including the low but not unlikely possibility she’d kill him outright for the crime of taking the egg in the first place. Human behavior was a difficult to account for variable, since humans behaved so uniquely and irrationally from each other. Unknown humans were even harder to account for, since no norms could have been formed, and too much rumor had influenced Tythel’s reputation to draw a truly accurate conclusion. And when you added dragons to the mix, which were more predictable than humans but less well studied, Manflesh Poz had only been certain of one thing – that if the Dragon Princess didn’t kill him outright, she would welcome the return of something so treasured.
The breathless young woman in front of him was not a great match for either set of expectations. She was undeniably of human origin and nonhuman ancestry, her scales gleaming in the torchlight of the guardhouse, her hair thick strands that had never adorned a mammal’s hide – and that was ignoring the avian structure of her legs and feet, the long reptilian tail that stretched behind her, and the two wings that emerged from her shoulders. What she absolutely was, however, was emotionally distraught.
“A pleasure,” Tythel managed, the barest formality of her station managing to overcome her initial panicked state. “I…thank you, for bringing this to me. It has been long sought.” She looked at Poz’s hands, at the table, her eyes flickering about. She wanted to make the request or the demand, that was clear.
Poz saw no reason to prolong her torment. He reached into his pouch, and the Dragon Princess’s breath caught. Armin’s forehead furrowed, and his lips began to trace a scowl. “You told me you’d hidden it,” he said.
“I lied, Poz responded, pulling out the egg. “Forgive the deception, but do you honestly think it would be a safe idea to leave something so precious unattended?”
Armin gave him a curt nod, and every muscle in the Dragon Princess’s body tensed. With deliberate care – Poz knew how durable the eggs was, but they might, and the last thing Poz wanted was to give them the impression he was being indelicate – Poz pulled the egg from his pouch and set it on the table in front of him.
Tythel stared at it. Her eyes were in the most literal sense flashing, nictitating membranes closing and opening with such regularity that the contrast between the light shining off her eyes and the less reflective membranes made that far too literal. “Thank you,” she said, her voice hoarse. She reached for it with trembling hands, but stopped short of touching it, as if she feared that contact would break the illusion. “How did you…”
“He’s told me the story,” Armin said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “I can fill you in later. I know that’s not what really matters to you right now.”
Tythel nodded, and finally let her fingers gently brush the side of the eggshell. She held it as if it was made of spun glass, slowly drawing it close to herself and nestling it in both hands. “Thank you,” she whispered again.
Then the Dragon Princess slumped to her knees. The other woman who was with her was at her side in an instant, so quickly that Poz didn’t even see her cross the intervening distance. That would be Eupheme, then, the Dragon Princess’s Umbrist. She put one hand under Tythel’s arm, so she wouldn’t fall further. “Your highness?”
“I need…” Tythel’s breath hitched. “I need…”
Poz stood up. This was something he’d predicted in Manflesh. He hadn’t expected it to be so soon, but he could see it now. Bits of light coming through her scales, barely noticeable to human eyes, but bright as day to the eyes of catflesh. “We should leave her,” Poz said firmly.
“Why?” Armin asked, whirling on Poz. “What happened?”
“Surely you noticed by now, the transformations of Heartflame rely upon the recipients emotional state,” Poz said, already moving to the door. Armin moved to block his path, and Poz slid to the side with a cat’s grace. “If we are still here, we will be caught in it.”
Armin’s eyes went wide. “What…is she going to be all right?”
“Presumably!” Poz was at the door, but the Umbrist was moving after him, and her agility matched his own. The gifts of Shadow. Even Catflesh had its limits. “However, we may not!”
“Go-” Tythel managed through clenched teeth. The word came out hoarse and strained, and Tythel managed to take a deep breath and and managed the word again. This time, it was exactly the tone Poz had expected at the beginning of their encounter. Not a demand. A simple statement of reality. “Leave.”
Poz was already out the door.
Tythel could feel something welling inside her. It wasn’t painful. Not exactly. Or really uncomfortable. It was like she was stretching a muscle she’d never known she’d had for the first time. It was a beautiful feeling, but it was also overwhelming. It was coursing through her veins, setting them on fire. Fire that was building and growing.
It felt like the first time she’d access Ghostflame, but far warmer. Not in terms of heat, Ghostflame had an ice cold heat that Tythel couldn’t quite understand. This heat was far greater, but it was also warmer. It was a warmth she knew, but not one she’d ever expected to feel inside her. It was the warmth of laying against Karjon’s side on a sunny day, reading a book and watching the life of the the valley unfold beneath her while her father slumbered, it was the warmth of a welcoming embrace from Ossman, it was the warmth of a rare smile from Eupheme or the spark of excitement in Armin’s eyes.
It was comfort and hope wrapped together and magnified a thousandfold, relief of knots unwinding and a warm bed after a long journey multiplied by the excitement of discovery.
There were shouts coming from outside, distant and strange voices. The soldiers Tythel had blown past in her hurry to reach the guardhouse were reacting to everyone but their princess rushing from a building filling with a strange goal. She could hear Armin and Eupheme trying to stop everyone. At some point Ossman – Tythel had seen him among the soldiers as she rushed to the guardhouse – joined Armin and Eupheme in stopping everyone from entering. Her friends, guarding her, caring for her.
Then she couldn’t hear anything. There were only two sounds in the entire world, and both were filling Tythel’s ears with a pressure she’d never imagined before. One was her own blood, rushing in her veins. She could feel its force increase. Something was building in her, something solid and small but connected to every other part of her, and it was beating in time with her heart, and it was hard and precious and on some level, Tythel knew that this was the Egg that was her Core. The same as the one from Karjon she held in her hands.
The other sound was a mirroring beat from the egg. It could sense the feeling in her, and it was responding to that same thing. It had its own warmth, but that warmth was fragile and flickering. A candle in the wind, able to be snuffed out at any moment.
Tythel was barely present in her own mind anymore. What was happening right now had as much to do with awakening instincts as it did with any rational thought, and even moreso. It was the inversion of the fight or flight instinct, where terrible fear gripping the soul forced desperate action on a mind unable to process what was happening was replaced with a loving and inevitable embrace, guiding confident, firm action. The instinct of a dragon. Protect and hold. The instinct that drove them to build hordes, to guard their lands so fiercely, to hold their young so tightly.
It wasn’t anything human. Tythel knew a human’s desire to nurture, grow, and care, but this wasn’t that. It was something deeper, more fundamental, something that was part of who she was as her scales. And those instincts knew what she needed to do.
Fire was meant to warm and spread.
Tythel threw back her head and let loose a burst of dragonflame into the ceiling above her. It was more powerful than any flame she’d ever unleashed before, obliterating the stone above her with a force almost physical and sending it scattering away. No shard came down on her or the egg now nestled against her sternum. That flame began to narrow and turn ephemeral, merging into the ghostly blue of dragonflame, no longer destroying but passing harmlessly through the objects in her way.
The shouts outside were getting louder. Tythel ignored them. They were not dangers to her or the egg. They were allies who meant her well. They were comforting. People who never knew her as anything more than a figure were worried for her well being, and that merged with the concern of her friends and grew the warmth inside Tythel.
Then the flames coming from her mouth brightened. They were no longer ghostly. They were beautiful and bright. Not the white that merged to yellow and orange and red, but a core of pure white gold that fanned out to yellow gold and then flicked towards silver and bronze at the edges. The flames both radiated and reflected light, and Tythel had to close her nictitating membranes against the glare.
Instinct drove her still. The egg in her fingers was lifted upwards towards the heavens like an offering, and Tythel barely needed to move her head to bring the flame and egg together. The delicate, fragile flame within the egg ignited upon meeting Heartflame, flaring to life, forming a blaze that matched her own. It took on a life of its own.
Tythel closed her mouth, cutting off the Heartflame, at the exact moment that much power would be too much for the egg. She could feel it burning still, shifting, its own flame now roaring in a power that needed no external fuel. Tythel brought it close.
Silence returned. The shouts outside died down, everyone waiting to see what would emerge from within the guardhouse. The stones were cooling rapidly, but they held the colors of when they had been near molten, no longer glowing, but still infused with her power.
The egg began to shift in Tythet’s fingers. A tiny crack formed at the top, near the point. Tythel stared in wonder at the beginning of a snout poked at the crack. It was orange and red. It had delicate scales that looked more like feathers. Tythel smiled and gently tapped the snout with her finger. It chirped in excitement at the touch. She wanted to help it free itself, but on some level knew that would make the being within weaker. It had to complete this task itself.
Minutes passed, Tythel staring at the egg in wonder as slowly a wing emerged, followed by a talon, and then another, and a tail that was wet with left over birthing fluid but clearly had narrow feathers along its length. The wings, too, were feathered and matted with the task just completed.
Tythel knew what this was now. Knew it in her bones. Creatures that were thought to be extinct. Of course people thought that. No dragon had died with its egg able to be recovered by another dragon in hundreds of years, and they had all been slain. This was a secret only dragons knew, and Karjon had passed before he could share it from her.
“From flame and ash they rise,” Tythel said, remembering a legend she’d read in a book. It was believed that meant these creatures were immortal, but if they were extinct, how could that be so? No. it made perfect sense to Tythel now as the creature fully emerged, shaking off the last bit of eggshells. It was the size of the palm of her hand now. Its build was draconic and awkward, gangly limbs being stretched for the first time, but its wings and the end of its tail had long feathers, and the rest of its scales were adorned with scales that were the color of flame.
No, not it. He.
“Hello,” Tythel said. “I’m Tythel. And we’re family, and I am never, ever going to let anything happen to you.”
He looked up at her with wide eyes full of the trusting innocence of youth, and its nictitating membranes flashed with joy.
The last of the dragons had been reborn.