IT WAS storming. That in itself wasn’t unusual, but Trekelm, current leader of the Mages’ Guild of the Dragon’s Claw, felt something underneath the torrential rain and thunder. He’d lived too long to ignore the feeling in his gut. Something was about to happen. Something huge and not necessarily pleasant.
Only half-aware of what he was doing, Trekelm pulled a rope hanging from the wall, not turning his eyes from the window as he did. Scant moments later a young man opened the door. “Master? You rang?”
“Do you feel it, Corrin?” Trekelm asked his apprentice.
The boy made a noise of acknowledgment. “Yes, sir. It’s like the world is screaming. Like something bad has happened and the Maker is scrambling to fix whatever went wrong.”
The guild leader sighed heavily, his body slumping. “I was afraid of that.”
Corrin opened his mouth, probably to ask what his master meant, when the entire castle shook with explosive thunder.
“The beach,” Trekelem said urgently, not understanding the sudden need refusing to let him stay still. He ran out of the room, Corrin at his heels. He ignored the questions those he passed threw at him as his feet slapped against the floor at a wild pace. He had to get there in time, though in time for what, he had no idea.
He wasn’t sure how he managed to get down to the beach without breaking his neck. Later, he couldn’t even recall having descended the sandstone steps leading down from the cliff the castle perched on, Corrin still following.
A glow at the edge of the water, like a beacon, drew his attention. When he neared the glow, he dropped to his knees. It was coming from a small human body. Soaked red hair clung to the girl’s shoulders, chest, and back like seaweed, but she was otherwise bare. Trekelm barked out a word, and a blanket appeared next to him. He immediately wrapped it around the poor girl.
“Is she…?” Corrin’s question faded away, as if he couldn’t bring himself to finish the thought.
“Alive. Breathing, though I have no idea how,” Trekelm said.
A moan escaped the young woman, and eyes the color of the ocean fluttered open. “Triv int aie,” the girl murmured.
Corrin gasped in surprise, but Trekelm ignored him, leaning closer to her. “Is that your name?”
“Onai. Triv int aie. Gisik,” she said, repeating the strange words, though this time they came out as a sob while tears gathered in her eyes.
“Okay, okay,” Trekelm shushed gently, pulling her into his arms and cradling her. “You’re safe now, Trivintaie.” He looked toward the sandstone steps, then back to the girl. “You’re home.”
Zaree woke with a start, jolting upright before she realized what she was doing. And then, without completely understanding why, she began to sob. As she curled up protectively and wailed with a grief she wasn’t even sure was hers, her bedroom door creaked. A moment later, a furry snout pushed into her face, quickly replaced by a wet tongue.
Hush now, Daro soothed. You’re safe. I’m here. Was it a bad dream?
They were all questions one might expect a parent to ask a small child, and that would have probably gotten Zaree’s back up if anyone else had dared ask. Instead, the wolf’s words comforted her, and she found herself relaxing enough to wind her arms around him and press her face against his neck. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “It wasn’t about me. It was about Triv. In the past, I think. She looked so young. And she had feet.”
Daro huffed a laugh. Definitely in the past, then. Perhaps you should ask her about it.
“I will,” Zaree agreed as she used Daro’s fur to dry her eyes. “But I need to go see Tasis first. Has anything…?” She let the words trail off, half-afraid of the answer she’d received.
Nothing has changed, Daro said sadly, answering the question she’d been afraid to finish. He and K’yerin are still… not there. Tasis is awake, and able to be guided through small tasks such as eating, but his mind continues to be closed. K’yerin remains asleep. Kelwin is with them.
“Has he slept at all?” She already knew the answer, but she asked anyway as she let go of Daro’s neck and leaned back to look at him. Daro simply gave her a shake of his head. “Yeah, I didn’t think so, but I figured it was worth asking.” She let out a sigh and stretched, making her joints pop. “Come on, let’s go check in on Kelwin and then go searching for Josephina. She can force him to get some sleep. It’s not like there aren’t other people here who want to help take care of Tasis too.”
It would be good if she could make him sleep, Daro agreed as he hopped off the bed and waited patiently while Zaree slowly made herself get up. He’ll only ruin his own health if he insists on avoiding sleep to keep watch over Tasis.
Zaree made a noise of agreement as she finally stood and forced herself to cross the room to her wardrobe, where she opened the doors to peer inside at her options. Several of the items were so far out-of-date that they seemed exotic, but as they’d once belonged to Triv, that was to be expected.
It really didn’t take much thought. Once, before Tasis had been… whatever he currently was, she would have taken more care toward deciding what clothing suited her best. But with her brother incapacitated, she had other, more important things on her mind. That being the case, she grabbed the first items of clothing at hand and dressed quickly, intent on getting to Tasis and, in turn, Kelwin.
It was a surprise, then, that she entered Tasis’s room to discover Kelwin asleep next to Tasis, Josephina watching over both of them. “I suppose it’s a little awful of me,” she whispered when she caught sight of Zaree and Daro, “but I snuck up on him and knocked him out.”
“I’m glad you did, because I was going to ask you to do just that,” Zaree admitted as she sat on the edge of the bed and gently pushed Tasis’s hair out of his face. His eyes opened and for a brief moment Zaree thought he might be looking at her, but in the space of a heartbeat it became obvious he was staring at nothing. She sighed mournfully and picked up the unconscious cat that lay near his head, tucking him against her so she could bury her face in his side and breathe in his scent. “I never thought I’d be so sad for Rin to be so silent,” she admitted with a short, cheerless laugh.
“It never was something he was very good at,” Josephina agreed, reaching out to stroke the cat’s soft purple fur. “But soon enough we’ll all have him in our heads again, wishing he’d learn to be quiet once in a while.”
“I’m pretty sure I’ll never want him to be quiet again,” Zaree said. “You’re sure he’s still in there somewhere?”
They both are, Daro reassured her. Bahz and I can feel Rin’s presence, even if we can’t figure out why it’s locked away. And Tasis…. The wolf paused, mulling over his words before letting out a huff. With him, I can just tell. Call it a gut feeling or an instinct that it would take far more than we can imagine to stop him. He’s in there, just as Rin is. We merely need to figure out where and why.
“I don’t like logic puzzles,” Zaree said dryly. “I prefer to take action. That’s what I know, what I was raised to do. To sit here and contemplate where my brother’s consciousness may be hanging out while it’s on holiday isn’t exactly my usual method of solving a problem.”
“Yes, love, but in this case, I don’t think getting out your quarterstaff is going to help,” Josephina said gently, before tilting her head to one side in thought. “Though you never know. We haven’t tried giving Tasis a blow to the head yet. What do you think, Daro? Would that stir him?”
The way Zaree hits, I think it’s more likely to scramble him. Or his brains, at any rate. Let’s leave violence out of this for now, shall we?
“I suppose you’re right,” Zaree said with a sigh. “I just wish there was something I could do.”
Josephina gave her an understanding, if somewhat sad, smile and patted Zaree’s knee. “Why don’t you go start with seeing what Firea can fix you for breakfast, love? She could use some distraction as well.”
Zaree looked at her brother’s still form and felt the urge to demand her rightful place at his side. Before she could put the impulse into words, she felt Josephina take her hand and give it an understanding squeeze. When she dragged her gaze off her brother and back to Josephina, she was greeted with a small, understanding smile. “It’s okay,” Josephina told her. “I’ll be with them. You have to take care of yourself too. Otherwise, what will Tasis do when he wakes up to discover you haven’t been watching out for yourself?”
“Oh Maker,” Zaree sighed. “The yelling would never stop. Fine. Food.” She stood and gave her brother a long look before turning away. “What about you?” she asked Josephina. “Have you had anything to eat?” Certainly, if Josephina hadn’t yet eaten, it meant she had an excuse to return with food, but it wasn’t just that. The old woman was also the quintessential grandmother, making people want to take care of her. She had the younger occupants, all hungry for that kind of familial love, eating out of her wrinkled, thin hands. And she gave them that love in spades.
“Quit trying to find excuses to stay in this room,” Josephina said with a laugh, clearly not fooled for an instant. “Go on, love. Go eat and spend a little time with Firea.”
Zaree sighed again but nodded. “Right. I’ll be back in a while.”
“I’ll be here,” Josephina told her. “I promise.”
Zaree gave her another nod, let her gaze linger on her brother’s too-still form again, then left the room.
Firea was not alone when Zaree wandered into the kitchen. The dragon Yldost was seated on top of the table, watching avidly as Firea cooked something that was likely their breakfast. The small, feathered dragon had regained much of their color. After being imprisoned for longer than Zaree could fathom, their sky-blue and white feathers had all faded to shades of gray. Some had fallen out, leaving them looking like a half-plucked chicken. The feathers were coming back, though the appearance while they were growing made Zaree wonder if there was hedgehog blood anywhere in the dragon’s family line, and the blue and white were no longer dingy. Yldost craned their long neck around to look at her.
“You’re awake,” they said. “But you’re carrying the dark cloud of bad dreams with you. I can see it.”
“You’re a very odd dragon,” Zaree said, not for the first time, as she took a seat at the table that left her facing them directly. And it was true, Yldost was indeed an enigma. They always seemed to know things they shouldn’t, and spoke in a way that gave Zaree the distinct and uncomfortable feeling that nothing could be hidden from them. “But yes, it was a disturbing dream. I don’t think you’ll be able to help me understand it, though. I’m pretty sure it was about your brother’s mermaid apprentice.”
“His child,” Yldost corrected. “She died and was reborn. Vashk facilitated the rebirth, which makes her his child.” They waved a talon dismissively. “It’s a dragon thing, so no matter. You will discuss it with them, yes?”
“Yes,” Zaree agreed, though she wasn’t sure she wanted to. The dream had been unsettling, and she wanted to return to Tasis’s room. But if for some reason she was indeed dreaming of Triv’s past, they all needed to know why. It could be important. “What about you? What are your plans for today?”
Yldost tilted their head to one side speculatively, and Zaree found herself smiling. Who would have thought an unfathomably ancient creature could be so adorable? “I will eat,” Yldost said. “And then I will go with you to visit my brother. I wish to hear of your dream, but if it was disturbing, I do not wish for you to have to tell the story more than necessary. After that, I may see if I’m finally strong enough to change my size.”
Zaree stroked the side of Yldost’s face, earning her a happy trill as the dragon nuzzled into her touch. “I’ll be glad if you’re healthy again, but I’ll also be sad that you won’t be so tiny anymore,” she admitted. “You’re rather cute like this.”
Yldost snorted. “Cute,” they muttered before peeking up at Zaree. “You really think so?”
Zaree’s smile broadened, and she nodded. “I do,” she confirmed. “But I also understand it’s best for you to be able to change your size when you need to.”
“And my form,” Yldost said with a nod. “But if I can change my size, I can also likely change my form.”
Firea turned from whatever she was doing at the stove to give Yldost a curious look. “You have another form? You never mentioned.”
“All dragons have a second form,” Yldost said. “You’ve never seen Vashk’s?” The dragon went quiet, tilting their head as they considered the situation. “I suppose that makes sense. He finds his other form somewhat embarrassing.”
Zaree stared at Yldost, trying to figure out what could possibly embarrass their massive, water-dwelling brother, and wondering if it would be rude to ask. After a moment’s thought, she decided it probably would be. And while she had no problem letting her mouth run away from her, the thought of hurting Vashk was somehow more upsetting than the thought of kicking puppies. And that thought was pretty damn upsetting. Instead, she ran a gentle finger along the sheaths protecting Yldost’s still-growing feathers. The dragon made a funny little trilling sound and Zaree paused. “Sorry, did that hurt?”
“It tickled,” Yldost admitted. “They’re coming in strong, yes? If I were as strong as I was before Gisik got me, they’d have grown back overnight.”
“I imagine that’s kind of a nuisance,” Zaree said. “Yldost, is he really doing this because he’s in love with your mother? Or is he just doing it because he enjoys it?”
Yldost contemplated the question in silence, their patchy wings fluttering a bit before stilling. “I believe it started as love,” they said slowly. “But love changes those who fall into it. Gisik’s love is twisted, and it has twisted him as well.” Their tail jerked back and forth irritably, much as Rin’s did when he was annoyed. “It is possible the change in him has made him come to enjoy that which most would find evil or wrong.”
“I don’t understand how someone can change like that,” Zaree said with a sigh. “If you love someone you should want the best for them, right?”
“Consider Josephina,” Firea said as she brought a bowl to the table and set it in front of Yldost. It looked to be full of chunks of cooked fish, and the dragon gave a happy chirp before diving into their meal.
“What do you mean?” Zaree asked, watching Yldost grab pieces from the bowl to stuff into their mouth. “What does Josephina have to do with an evil dragon?”
“Not evil,” Yldost corrected through a mouthful of food, making the words almost unintelligible. “Twisted. I have been told he used to be good and just.”
Firea returned to the stove and poured something into another pan. The room suddenly smelled distinctly of pancakes, and Zaree had to remind herself that drooling would probably be in bad form. “Consider what she’s told you about her relationship with Triv. She loves Triv to the point of remaining merely a friend because she is not who Triv chose for a romantic partner. Because it makes Triv happy, it makes her happy as well.”
“Right,” Zaree agreed. “But what does this have to do with Gisik?”
Firea looked over her shoulder and gave Zaree a sad smile. “Now consider Falcon, who left Triv because she couldn’t bear to see her happy with someone else.”
Zaree went silent. She hadn’t seen for herself the monster Falcon had become, since she’d gone back down the mountain with Tasis, but the way Kelwin and Jorget had described the creature’s horrible appearance had sent chills through Zaree’s entire body. “Do you think she ended up like that because her personality had become twisted, then?”
“No,” Yldost answered immediately. “She ended up like that because I was too weak to know what I was doing. I may have thought that turning her into one of my people would enable her to free me.” Their wings and even some of their feathers drooped. “I will do whatever I can to restore her. No one should have to live like that, beyond thought and a slave to their instincts.”
Zaree caressed Yldost’s feathers again. “We all know you will,” she reassured them. “But why would you have had to turn Falcon into one of your people to free you? Josephina freed you with a word. And what do you mean by turning her into one of your people, anyway?”
“Exactly that,” Yldost said, as though that explained everything. They mulled it over for a moment before shrugging. “Like Triv and the others. They have been made Vashk’s people. Josephina answers to Vashk, so the magic worked.”
Firea returned to the table with a plate piled high with pancakes and set it in front of Zaree before taking a seat. “Then why couldn’t Vashk have freed you?” she asked. Zaree had been wondering the same thing and was grateful Firea had broached the subject.
“You saw what Gisik did to me, yes?” Yldost said with a snort. “His magic… that box, those chains. If Vashk had tried to destroy either, it would have hurt him badly. It could have killed him, maybe.”
And like that, another piece of the puzzle clicked into place. “That’s why the dragons collect people,” Zaree exclaimed once her mouth was empty. “Because you can’t do anything directly to protect yourselves against each other.”
Yldost shook their head. “Close. Against Gisik. My siblings and I…. We do not always agree, but we do not war against one another. Gisik is the only one. At least, the only one we know of. It may not be so on other worlds, with the siblings we have not met. But unlike our parents, their spawn do not have the ability to leave their birthplace.”
“Wait,” Zaree said, closing her eyes and leaning back in her seat so she could concentrate. “You said your mother was life, when Jorget asked you if she was the Maker, right? I’m going to guess you didn’t mean that as in we’re all living on an enormous dragon.”
“Your language is limited,” Yldost grumbled. “Dragon language is more nuanced. She is the world, but she is all worlds?” It was said as a question, as if they were unsure of their own phrasing. Which was likely the case.
“Yldost,” Firea said softly, and her tone had Zaree opening her eyes to look at her. “Does your mother create worlds? Did she create us?”
“She created the world,” Yldost confirmed, frowning as they tried to get the words right. “Then she created us, and other life on the world. Her daughter created the green things for the life to continue to grow and thrive. That is how it always is. The rest of us protect that life, both animal and green things.”
“Oh Faarin’s bloody corpse,” Zaree breathed. “Your mother is the Maker.”
“I do not know,” Yldost admitted, looking discomfited. “She makes things. But so do her daughters.”
“Jorget!” Zaree bellowed. “Get in here!”
When there was no response, Zaree looked down at Daro, who had been listening at her feet. “Daro, go find him. Tell him what Yldost told us. We need him here.”
The wolf stood and gave her a nod before sniffing the air and running out of the room without a word.
“I do not understand,” Yldost said. “Why is this important?”
“It might not be important to our current situation,” Zaree said. “But, Yldost. You’ve just confirmed that your mother is the Maker, our creator. That’s no small thing.”
“It’s something people have tried to discover since the beginning of time,” Firea interjected. “If your mother is the Goddess Maker—”
There was a thumping of footsteps down the stairs in the nearby hall, interrupted by a loud thud. “Ow.”
“Are you okay?” Zaree called out to Jorget.
“No, I’m pretty sure I’m about to have a nervous breakdown,” Jorget answered, though they could hear him getting up and heading for the kitchen. He stepped into the room and stared at Yldost for a moment before he pointed at them. “Do you know what this means?”
“No?” Yldost answered, looking warily at the finger Jorget had shoved in their general direction.
“It means there’s a god sitting on our kitchen table,” Jorget practically yelled in response. “If you’re a god shouldn’t you be able to wake Tasis up?”
The little dragon let out a snort and moved closer to Zaree, as if seeking protection. “There are rules. Rules that cannot be broken without dire consequences.”
“Rules?” Zaree asked, rubbing them under the chin before glaring at Jorget for making them uncomfortable. At least he had the good sense to look abashed at his own behavior. “What kind of rules? Like that one Triv’s talked about?” The name was on the tip of her tongue, but she couldn’t remember.
“You mean Qelmar’s Rule?” Jorget asked in a normal tone as he took a seat at the table.
Yldost perked up and looked at Jorget, inching closer to him. “Is it still called such?”
“If you mean that thing about not killing people if you don’t want to die in return, then yeah,” Zaree said. “Why?”
Yldost made a happy little noise, their feathers fluffing in a way Zaree had come to understand signified pride, joy, or a combination of the two. “Qelmar is the void. He who provides the canvas for our mother, his mate, to create life.”
Jorget rubbed at his face. “Qelmar is your father’s name.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yes,” Yldost confirmed, sounding a little confused. “Why?”
“Of course,” Jorget muttered into his hands as he rested his face against his palms, his elbows propped atop the table. “Of course a rule like that’s going to come from the Maker’s eternal mate.”
Yldost looked up at Zaree. “Is he all right?”
“He’ll be fine,” Zaree reassured them. “He’s just having his entire concept of everything turned upside down. He’ll come to terms with it.”
Firea, who had been observing, cleared her throat. All three looked at her at once, but her eyes were focused on the small dragon—the god, for Maker’s sake—who sat on their kitchen table. “Why did your father make that rule, love?”
Yldost trilled happily again, apparently pleased with the endearment. They practically bounced past Zaree to nuzzle Firea’s hand. “To prevent war,” they explained as they continued to rub their face against Firea’s hand like a contented kitten. “He has tried many things to prevent his brother from destroying the worlds our mother creates. The rules from our elders may not be broken without dire consequences, even by other elders. Father hoped the thought of dying again would deter Gisik at least somewhat, because his death is always painful.” They let out a snort of disgust and shook their head, the crest of feathers down the back of their neck waving as they did. “But Gisik is beyond reason now. His existence has become only about stealing our mother from his brother and punishing those who would not allow it to happen. He kills our sisters and sends our parents into despair as yet another of our mother’s worlds falls prey to war and carelessness. Those she creates forget about us and take advantage of her gifts to them, ruining them in the name of greed. Her own creations kill the home they were given and kill themselves in the process. I have heard many stories.”
Zaree blinked. “That sounds….”
“Lonely,” Firea supplied. “How heartbreaking for your mother.”
“I agree,” Jorget said, startling Zaree a little. He’d been so quiet as he listened to Yldost that she hadn’t expected him to say anything. “Though I’ll admit I feel a little odd saying that about the creator of all things.”
“She’s a mother,” Firea told him, her chin lifted with a hint of defiance. “Certainly, a mother on a grander scale than I can even comprehend, but a mother nonetheless. Goodness knows I remember what it was like, raising my own brother when we had no parents left to do so. I was heartbroken when he walked away, but even more so when I heard he was dead and we would never again speak, even if it were only to bicker. What must the Maker feel, losing entire worlds of her children?”
Yldost placed one of their diminutive claws atop Firea’s hand and looked up at her adoringly. “Mother would like you. You understand. I hope you meet her someday.”
“Don’t we all meet her someday?” Jorget asked wryly.
Yldost gave him a confused look. “I do not understand.”
“He’s talking about death,” Zaree told them. “The assumption is that your mother would also handle death.”
Yldost gave a small snort. “Oh, no. Mother creates. Her twin guides the creations to the next life with love and compassion when the time comes.”
“What does happen after we die?” Jorget asked.
The dragon looked at him, head cocked to the side, one eye ridge raised in what could only be amusement. “I’m sorry, but you will have to wait and find out for yourself.”
“Another rule?” Zaree guessed as Jorget muttered something about the unfairness of it all.
“Of course,” Yldost said. “If you knew what awaited you, it would spoil all of my aunt’s fun.”
“You know, I’ve noticed that your family has an odd definition of the word fun,” Jorget pointed out grumpily.
Yldost snickered as they moved back to their plate and took another bite of their breakfast. “No,” they finally said. “I’m quite certain it’s you. Because it’s very likely that dragons invented fun.”
“Not necessarily,” Firea said with more than a hint of amusement. “Who came before dragons?”
Yldost tilted their head. “I do not understand.”
“Your mother may have created us,” Firea pointed out, “but who created your mother?”
The little dragon’s eyes went wide, and they made a noise that sounded a bit distressed. “She has always been. As has our father.” Yldost wrung their claws and gave Zaree a look of panic. “Haven’t they?”
“Firea, stop,” Zaree said softly as she reached across the table, picked up Yldost, and cradled them close. “I don’t think they’re equipped to deal with that line of thought.” At least not at that moment. Yldost had healed quite well, but they still had tics in their behavior that spoke of the unfathomably long time spent in captivity.
Firea immediately looked contrite, stroking Yldost’s feathers until the dragon’s anxious quivering stopped. “I’m sorry, love. I forget that I can’t argue with you like I do with Vashk. It’s okay.”
“It’s a good question, though,” Jorget said. Zaree opened her mouth to growl at him to change the subject, but Jorget glanced at Yldost and shook his head. “Remind me to bring it up to Vashk sometime in the future.”
“I’ll do that,” Zaree promised as she rubbed Yldost under the chin. They’d brightened some, but they were still clinging to her shirt and showing no sign of being ready to go back to eating. She looked them over, her brow furrowed in thought, until they returned the stare. “Do you need to bite one of us?” she finally asked. “It just occurred to me that Kelwin probably hasn’t had the brainpower to remember he’s currently part of your diet.”
The dragon’s muzzle wrinkled in an obvious display of disgust, and they shook their head before loosening their grip and returning to their breakfast. “It no longer tastes good.”
“Their body’s way of telling them the blood isn’t needed anymore, maybe,” Jorget mused quietly. “Interesting.”
“We can think on it later,” Zaree told him. “For now, I plan to finish my breakfast before having a nice long chat with Vashk and the others. It’s time we got some answers.”