“You’ve got to counter the spin with your wings, Ada. Spread them out.”
Pouting, Adaklies leapt into the air once more, raised the sword above her head, and brought it down. The momentum of the swing threatened to spin her end-over-end, but she flapped her wings hard and managed to wobble instead.
“Better,” said her mother. “But you’ll need plenty more practice to learn how much to compensate for the swing of the sword.”
“Can’t we move onto the next move already?” asked Adaklies.
Her mother smirked. “You’re trying to run without learning how to stand. You’re still just a teenager, you’ve got time. Now get that sword up!”
Adaklies took to the air and swung the sword, throwing a flurry of strikes at the air. She wobbled and her hands ached from how hard she gripped the sword, but she remained airborne.
“You try too hard.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You can’t just push through something difficult with nothing but more effort. Either you get it or you don’t. All this swinging about you’re doing with that sword is getting you nowhere. It’s fine to give it a rest.”
“You’re saying I should just give up.”
Adaklies’s mother shook her head, sat down, then waved Adaklies over. “Put the sword down.”
“Put it down, Ada.”
Huffing, Adaklies sheathed the sword and dropped it before walking over to her mother and sitting down.
Her mother ruffled her hair. Her touch was warm and rough. “You’ve got my spirit and that’ll take you far. But you’re going to have to learn to pick your battles. Know where to keep going and where to give up.”
“I’ve gotten a lot better with a sword.”
“You’re still sloppy. And it’s not just swordfighting I’m talking about. Life’s gonna throw a lot at you, and I’m not going to be around to help.”
“You’re leaving again?” Annoyance seeped into her voice.
Adaklies’s mother flicked her in the forehead. “Get your mind off the present! I’m not leaving, not yet. I just got back. I’m trying to warn you about the future. You need to prepare yourself.”
“I’ll train harder.”
“Training is one kind of prep, but strength can’t solve every problem. You need to go out into the world, expose yourself to all sorts of different situations, different dangers. Then you’ll be able to tell when you’re in over your head. When to run.”
“What sort of places should I go, then?”
“I dunno, maybe Ir or Aezerin? They’re always gonna be at ends. But don’t join the army. Just try new things and learn from them like I did.”
“Like helping conquer a country.”
Adaklies’s mother threw her head back and laughed. “No way. You’re my kid, so you’re not hopeless, but repeating what I’ve done? I’m one in a million. Not gonna happen.”
“I’ll make it happen.”
“You should really toss that dangerous attitude.” When Adaklies frowned at her, Adaklies’s mother leaned down and patted her shoulder. “Look, I’m not saying you’ll amount to nothing. I said you’re my kid, and my kid ain’t a weakling. But only I can be me and the only person you can be is you. You’ll find your way.”
“But not as someone famous like you.”
“Don’t get hung up on what you haven’t done or what I have. We are not our accomplishments. We are the road that runs through them.”
The next morning was wordless.
The Mother returned from burying her husband at some point during the night. Jonas and Greyemeid arose not long after Adaklies, their weariness showing even after a night’s sleep.
Adaklies knew they should’ve gotten up and started traveling as soon as they’d eaten, but no one did. Their backs could not yet carry the burden of their thoughts.
The Mother remained with gaze outward, perhaps lost in her own thoughts, perhaps anticipating another attack from Livoetian. Greyemeid’s eyes were solidly planted in the dirt. Jonas was nestled up next to her, looking all about, so lost in himself he probably didn’t know where he was. Adaklies clutched her wounded arm, hoping a firm grip on it would distract her from the pain.
The sun crested noon before something finally happened. Jonas stood and approached the Mother.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
She didn’t even glance at him. “Apologize not for the actions of others.”
“It is my fault, though. I am the one who gathered us. And it was my incompetence that let Livoetian find us.”
“Livoetian and her spies found us through an effort of their own. And think not it your fault my husband or I are here.”
“I should have—”
“You should have?” said the Mother, taking a step toward Jonas and dwarfing him. “You? Do not scoff my husband and I by purloining ownership. You may have asked us for help, but we were proffered a choice and we chose. The only thing you should’ve done, little one, is remained seated by Greyemeid and kept your presumptuous apology to yourself.” Her tail nudged him away.
He walked, limbs stiff, back to his seat next to Greyemeid. A touch of color returned to Jonas’s pale face as he looked at Adaklies. “I’m sorry to you as well.”
“Cut it out.” snapped Adaklies.
“He’s—” Greyemeid started, but Jonas laid a hand on her thigh, quieting her.
“Adaklies, you know I am the one who put this together. Anything that happens on this trip is at least partially my fault.”
“Don’t you ever get sick of being so severe all the time?”
Jonas’s face hardened. “I am who I am. And Folsomar was a good man who did not deserve what he got.”
“He did not deserve it?” said the Mother.
Everyone’s attention snapped to the Mother.
“My husband was aiming to kill Livoetian. As were we all. She defended herself. I may see it as an injustice, but to say he did not deserve it? He put himself in a position where he knew very well it may happen.” She looked over her shoulder back at them. “Forget not why we are here and try not to dress this up as something it is not. We are assassins.”
Even Greyemeid was taken aback. “Isn’t that being too harsh on yourself? On him?”
“It’s too early to say something like that,” said Jonas, nodding in agreement. “Where’s the room for sorrow?”
The Mother closed her eyes, taking a breath so contained Adaklies could tell it was the only thing between her and a roaring avalanche. “Is it that you think no room exists in my heart for sadness? That I’ve become cold and hollow these nearly two thousand years? It’s the opposite. My cup has filled and spilled over. ‘Where’s the room for sorrow?’ You would be better served asking if oceans have room for water or skies room for air. For this moment, my anger reigns. I’ll only find sorrow in washing Livoetian’s drying blood from my claws.”
With that, she turned away once more.
“I’m sorry if I—” said Greyemeid.
Jonas put a hand on Greyemeid’s back and rubbed it. She smiled at Jonas, leaned into him and wrapped a wing around him.
Adaklies stormed off into the forest, marching until she couldn’t see straight. Livoetian was just defending herself!? Adaklies punched the nearest tree as hard as she could. The shock rattled throughout her entire body, igniting the wound on her arm. The tree shook, branches falling around her like stiff rain.
Folsomar didn’t deserve death. So what if Livoetian was defending herself? It wasn’t right. He was the first one to trust Adaklies without needing a word of convincing since her bounty was posted.
The Mother said she was saddened, but where were her tears? Where was the rage at this wrongness in the world?
The next time when Adaklies hit the tree, her fingers went numb.
Where was Folsomar’s vengeance? The cry to raise a sword in his name? The shout of his name at the sky so the world wouldn’t forget him?
With a scream, Adaklies threw her entire body into the final punch. This time the crack was deafening. The tree leaned slow at first, gaining speed as it collapsed in a thunderstorm.
Adaklies fell to her knees, covered her face, and cried. Folsomar was dead. Who could tell her she wouldn’t soon follow?
He was the one who bound the group together. He was the one who, when everything got as mad as it was, knew how to stay normal. How to think normal.
Adaklies poured out all she had into her claws, weeping until the dirt mistook her misery for rain. She didn’t even know the answer to his question yet. Now she was supposed to figure this all out by herself?
Cry as she might, even Adaklies had her limits. She couldn’t fill oceans with sorrow like the Mother. Nor could she spit arrogant apologies with a straight face like Jonas. All that was left, she supposed, was being herself.
It would have to do for now.
With straining effort, she stood. Her hand went to her wound. She looked at it. Several scales had melted straight off, never to heal, and the skin around them was pulsing red. She could leave. She didn’t have to risk herself any more. It was understandable, wasn’t it?
‘You’re going to have to learn to pick your battles. Know where to keep going and where to give up.’
Someone behind her clicked her tongue. Adaklies spun.
Greyemeid was there, alone, leaning against a tree, arms crossed. They met eyes and Adaklies immediately shot her a withering glare.
“What are you here for?”
Letting her arms down, Greyemeid approached.
Adaklies’s mind flashed back to the battle with Livoetian. She saw Greyemeid, arms high, a gleaming drekhel sweeping downward in a deadly arc. The general had a drekhel. How did she figure it out?
Or is this just another limitation of being ordinary?
“Discard your raucous anger, Adaklies. I’m here because I’ve been unfair to you and I’d like to offer my apology.”
“Great fucking time for an apology.”
“An apology it is nonetheless. I have been told I have a bad habit of introspection in difficult times.”
Adaklies loosened her gritting teeth. “Fine. Accepted. Are you happy?”
“That’s not the only reason I’ve come.”
“Then out with it.”
“I thought you may have wanted to talk.”
“The situation before us.”
“And why in demon-bloodied hells would I want to talk about that?”
“Because Folsomar was a close friend and,” she said, gesturing to the downed tree, “I thought you might want to let out some anger.”
“Unfortunately for the tree, you’re a little late for that.”
Adaklies passed Greyemeid, intent on getting back to camp.
“Do not assume yourself alone in your opposition to the Mother’s assessment,” said Greyemeid.
“Why are you telling me this?”
“The Mother lives and judges herself on a set of values the lessers like us are unfamiliar with. But should you ask my feelings at the moment? Doubt. Fear, even. I want to protect Jonas. I want to know my decision to leave Livoetian didn’t doom him. And,” said Greyemeid, eyes burning, “Rage. Rage that Livoetian would dare make me feel these things. I cannot feel your sorrow for the death of a good man, but I can feel your anger. I want you to know we’re on the same side.”
Greyemeid put a claw on Adaklies’s shoulder and nodded.
Adaklies returned the nod. Even she couldn’t throw such honest words back at Greyemeid. Besides, this was not the time to be spitting in her allies’ faces. There was someone else much more deserving.
It was mid-afternoon before someone dared to broach the subject of their plan.
“We are back at our original problem,” said Jonas. “How to deal with Livoetian. The only ones able to even get close to her were Greyemeid and the Mother, and nothing they tried seemed to even touch Livoetian. Any ideas?”
“We need to get you a suitable weapon,” said Greyemeid.
“No,” said the Mother. She reached into her pack and took out a sword. She tossed it at Jonas’s feet. “You have one. It’s enchanted. I picked it up along with the one meant for my husband.”
Jonas stared at it. “I… thank you. I’m truly grateful. This clears up that problem. Now we will keep heading west for another couple days, then head north.”
“We will no longer be taking that path,” said the Mother.
“Why not?” said Jonas.
“It wastes time. If we are to go to the capital, we will be going directly. But before we travel headlong into another battle with Livoetian, we will need to do more research.”
“With all due respect, Dragon Mother—”
The Mother bore down on Jonas. “I believe you’re mistaken about something. The moment Livoetian killed my husband, this assassination was no longer yours to lead. You will follow my direction, or you will lose it.”
“Now, do any of you have any ideas?” asked the Mother.
“We could try to find more help. I know numbers won’t work, but one or two more skilled fighters could even things out,” said Jonas.
Jonas balked at the simultaneous combined denials of Greyemeid and the Mother.
“Is there any chance we could discuss that point?”
“No,” said the Mother.
A lull broke the conversation. The group churned the gears in their heads, eyes wandering to the sky, to the ground, and to each other, trying to come up with something.
“Is there really nothing? No suggestions? No new information?” asked Jonas.
“Actually, I might have something,” said Adaklies.
Three heads turned to stare at her.
“It was… six years ago, now? I considered pursuing the bounty on Livoetian for a while. Started looking up information on her. Where she traveled, where she lingered, habits, guards, those sort of things.”
“Why didn’t you mention this?” said Greyemeid.
“It’s been six years. Pretty much all of that information is obsolete now. But, before I decided it was too risky to go after her, I dug up one piece of information—well, one person—that might still be relevant. Never ended up following through back then.”
“Who?” said Greyemeid.
“Where.” said the Mother.
“A ways east, past where we were planning on turning north for Malivus. Almost a days’ flight.”
“Then we shall go there.” The Mother looked at Jonas. “I will bear you hence. Collect your things.”
Greyemeid opened and closed her mouth. She’d probably realized as Adaklies had that any objections thrown at the Mother would be dismissed without a second thought.
Once ready, Jonas rubbed his hands together. “Alright. So, how do you want me to—”
The Mother walked up to him, put a claw behind his back, then used her tail to sweep his legs out from underneath him. He yelped as he went horizontal, but the Mother’s other claw scooped up his legs before they came down.
“Adaklies, take the lead,” said the Mother.
The three dragons took off and headed east.
It was rough weather for flight. A strong wind bore down on them from the north, trying to throw them off-balance. Adaklies couldn’t keep herself from checking back on the Mother, sure the wind had either rustled Jonas out of place or slowed her down, but each time Adaklies looked, the Mother was there, flying steady, eyes iron-focused and wings beating with fervor.
They rested once about halfway through the flight, mostly for Jonas’s sake. Even hours in the Mother hadn’t shown a lick of fatigue, something Adaklies found mind-boggling. Carrying a human this distance was just one more thing a Pillar could do that an ordinary dragon like Adaklies could only dream of.
The afternoon was waning as the group landed at their destination. It was a solitary house, far removed from any village or settlement. It was too small to be called lavish, but large enough to be comfortable. A warm, flickering light glowed through the windows. To the side was a small garden, stocked with a medley of fruits and vegetables. Adaklies could make out the scent of livestock not far off as well.
Shaking off the ache of hours of flight, Adaklies stretched her wings and cricked her neck. She started toward the door.
It opened before she was halfway there. Standing in the doorway was a man that hardly came up to Adaklies’s shoulders. He waved at Adaklies wearing a smile innocent enough to shame a lamb, a picture made almost laughable by the pudginess in his cheeks and the long brown hair framing his face.
The man couldn’t offend a rabbit if he tried.
“Isn’t it a little early? Y’all were here just a couple months ago,” he said.
Adaklies gave him a confused look. “We’ve never been here before.”
“I know, she sends someone new one every time. Usually alone, though.” He took another look at them, reconsidering. “She didn’t send you, did she?”
“Are you Alexmathies?”
“Call me Lex. Come, let’s not chatter out here, I’ve got a perfectly comfy table we can all sit at.”
Face bubby, Lex held the door open for all of them, nodding in greeting as they entered. He directed them all to a tidy living area with a table that looked like it’d be pressed to seat everyone.
“Just a second and I’ll get chairs for everyone!” Lex hollered as he shuffled through into another room.
“Don’t bother,” said the Mother. “This will be a short talk.”
“All the more reason to be comfortable!” said Lex. After a brief bout, he emerged with chairs enough for everyone and directed they all sit. Adaklies, Jonas, and Greyemeid obliged, but the Mother preferred to lean against the wall. Brooding, really.
“Can I get any of you something to drink? Looks like it’s been a long trip. I should have some food around here, too, if you need a bite,” said Lex.
“No need,” the Mother answered for everyone.
“Sure? It’s really no problem.”
Lex hardly seemed affected. “Alright, no problem! I’d introduce myself, but it seems you’re familiar with me. Y’all care to introduce yourselves?”
“I am Istoladrek,” said the Mother. “The green dragon is Adaklies. Greyemeid is the black. Beside her is Jonas.”
Lex sat down, slowly, laying his hands on the table. “Q-quite a party you got there! If I knew I’d be hosting such company I’d have gotten something special ready.” From the Mother’s searing gaze he knew better than to pursue that avenue, however. “So, what can I do for y’all?”
“I am here for information on Livoetian,” said the Mother.
“Ah! That does often seem to be the subject of discussion, doesn’t it?” It was subtle, but something in his voice changed. “I left her about ten years ago, and people can change a lot in ten years, so I may not be able to help you out. But I’ll answer what I can.”
He left her?
“You will tell me about her defenses. Specifically her Castle and whatever else she does to prevent weapons from reaching her,” said the Mother.
“That’s not the sort of information someone who’s looking to have a friendly chat with her would ask about, is it?”
“No, it is not.”
Lex did his best to keep up his smile. “Not sure I could really tell you much, then.”
“All I know is what I know. What little she did say was a long time ago and I’ve forgotten just about all of it. Didn’t really make an effort to remember it.”
“Is that so.”
“Yeah.” Lex’s eyes went to the door. “Y’all mind if I gotta step outside for a sec?”
The Mother nodded and Adaklies watched as he shuffled out the door, wondering if she should be feeling pity for the man or not.
“He’s lying,” said Greyemeid as soon as he was gone.
“I know,” said the Mother.
“Shouldn’t someone watch him, then?” said Jonas. “He might run.”
“And how would he run from three dragons, dear?”
“He…” Jonas trailed off. “I see what you mean.”
The four sat in silence. Jonas stared at the table while Greyemeid clasped her hands, deep in thought. The Mother looked out a nearby window, roiling anger still present but held in check. Adaklies’s foot started tapping on the floor.
“He didn’t seem all that interested in helping,” said Adaklies.
“We can wait for now,” said Greyemeid. “We have the time.”
“But what do we have to convince him?”
“We may not need anything. We’ve ambushed him with a sudden question with many unsightly implications. All he might need is time.”
“But we did not get the chance to explain our side,” said Jonas. “There is little to motivate him to talk.”
“A fool he is not,” said the Mother. “I could tell from where he looked, his posture, how he spoke. Easy to miss under that cloak of kindness. He will have gleaned enough from what he has seen thusfar.”
Jonas leaned forward onto the table. “It’s odd to think the defeat of Livoetian hinges on her former husband,” said Jonas. “And even stranger is that Livoetian’s going to be killed by a group made mostly of her own citizens.”
How did he do that? Adaklies thought. Talk like they had already won.
“That blame is hers,” said Greyemeid.
“Really?” Jonas paused, then probed further. “Is that why you decided to leave?”
Greyemeid smirked at him, placing a claw on his hand. “I left because I love you.”
Jonas blushed so hard Adaklies could feel the heat coming off him. “Then why do you say the blame is hers?”
“Do you know what Livoetian hates more than anything?” said Greyemeid. “Sloth. Decay. She hated what the previous head of Ir was. She believed she could make the country the most powerful force in the world. She wanted a bastion for monsters, where the irrational hatred Aezerin had for us couldn’t hold us back. That was the Livoetian that descended upon the marauders that burned my hometown to the ground. But somewhere along the line, she forgot where she’d started. She stopped hating sloth and started hating the slothful. Aezerinians weren’t flawed, they were a menace. It wasn’t their actions, but the very nature of their existence that was the problem.”
“Well, regardless of what Livoetian did, I am glad you are here.”
“Oh? Are you?”
His brow furrowed. “Yes. Did I not just say so?”
Whatever came next, Adaklies didn’t hear. She pushed out the front door, sucking in breath like the outside air was the first she’d tasted in weeks. Closing her eyes, she gripped her wounded arm. The pain was still there, fresh, telling her she was making a mistake. Now was the time to run. Why did she insist on pursuing Livoetian?
She felt another’s eyes and turned to see Lex, standing in his garden, watching her.
“My house too small for that many dragons?” he asked.
Adaklies shook her head. “Nauseating lovebirds.”
He smiled. “They looked happy together.”
“I’m sure they are.”
“You’re not happy for them?”
“I should be.”
“Ah! It’s much easier to be bitter, isn’t it?”
“Me? Of course not.” He looked back to his garden. “Probably.”
Adaklies walked over to him and the two stared at the vegetables swaying in the breeze. It was a gentle sort of silence.
“If you don’t mind me asking, what are you doing all the way out here?”
“I’d thought that was obvious from the questions the Mother asked you.”
“Oh, no, not her. You. What are you doing?”
“Having a picnic.”
Lex chuckled. “It’s personal, then? Fair enough. My former wife has done plenty to deserve it.”
With all her might, Adaklies fought to keep her mouth shut. It wasn’t entirely untruthful. But she’d always been terrible at controlling her mouth.
“That’s not it.”
“What is, then?”
Adaklies crossed her arms, picking out a stalk of one of Lex’s garden plants and staring at it. “Dunno. But it’s not that.”
“That,” said Lex, sighing, “comes up much more than you’d expect. Take me. I don’t know what I’m doing out here, really. I just knew I couldn’t stay inside.”
“It’s pretty understandable you wouldn’t want to answer those questions. Of course you’d walk out.”
“It’s so clear to everyone else, isn’t it?” His head drooped. “It should feel like I’m betraying her. It should hurt.”
“But it doesn’t.”
“It’s like… the worst ‘I told you so’ moment you could ever experience. It’s like I can see her, standing right in front of me, and the want to say it is just as strong as the pain it’d cause me to. I didn’t want her to end up like this, that’s exactly why I warned her. But if someone refuses to listen, what are you gonna do? That’s who they are. That’s their choice.” He turned to Adaklies. “How about you?”
“There anyone out there that’d say ‘I told you so’?”
“I don’t have anyone like that,” said Adaklies, her face darkening. She debated whether or not coming out here was worse than staying inside.
“Y’know what confused me the most about Livoetian? I never quite knew what about me it was that got her attention. I’m a farmer. Not even that great of one. Heck, I didn’t even own the farm I worked on. I’d like to think I’m an honest worker, a hard worker, yes, but what about that catches the eye of the strongest lilim in the world?”
“Dunno. My ‘normality’ hasn’t caught anyone’s eye.”
“And mine didn’t, either. Until it did.”
“But surely she told you why, right? You were together for a while.”
“Ha! She said I had a nice ass.” He slapped his rear. “Maybe she was right, but that doesn’t mean she was telling the truth. Never got a real answer to that question. And I guess that was what I loved about her. The mystery. But mystery only gets you so far.” He waved his hand about. “Look at my life now. Living alone, supporting only myself and a few animals. About as plain and predictable as life can get.”
“Maybe she made you hate mystery.”
“Maybe. Or maybe I was tricking myself the whole time. Maybe I just love being ordinary.”
“Yeah.” Is this the kind of life an ordinary living leads to? A little farm, some visitors, a husband if she got lucky? “I’d rather die.”
“Ahahaha!” Lex threw his head back. “You just say what you want to, don’t you?”
“Better than saying what I don’t want to.”
“True, true. Well, you suppose it’s time we went back inside?”
Adaklies raised an eyebrow at him. “You’re going to tell us what we want to know?”
“Yup. To tell the truth, I don’t think I had a choice the moment I saw her eyes. Reminded me too much of Livoetian when I first met her. So much fire in them I thought I could taste ash.”
He waddled back into the house, Adaklies not far behind. Only Jonas seemed surprised Lex had returned.
“You’ve made your choice,” said the Mother.
“Yes.” Lex clasped his hands. Seconds passed as they stared at him, his face twitching with conflict. “You know, she was my wife for nearly fifteen years. But—” He raised a hand, stopping the Mother before she replied. “I’ll tell you. I get Livoetian did her share of work earning this. I just… I’m hoping you’ll give her a chance to do right by you before it comes to the worst.”
“Only with her death will she have done so,” said the Mother.
“Hell. It was worth a shot.”
“You broke up a long time ago, correct?” asked Jonas. “Why?”
“Lotta reasons, but one stands out much more than the others: I realized that as long as she was leading Ir, the war would never end. And war wears.”
“Why do you still care, then?” said Adaklies.
“Because we never really lose the things we love. For better or for worse.” He smiled. “But I think Istoladrek there is about to pop my head off if I don’t get talking, and I’d rather spit it out before I talk myself out of it.”
Tapping the table with his fingers, Lex leaned back. “If you’re going to fight Livoetian, first thing you gotta know about is the Castle. See, it’s not a sphere around her, it’s a lot like, uh, a donut shape with her in the middle. So there’s a blind spot above her. It’s not that big, but if you come diving at her straight down, you can zip right through it. Shouldn’t be a problem for anyone with wings like y’all.”
“Second thing you gotta know about is her magic armor. It’s invisible and covers her entire body, but not impossible to get past. It’s normally brittle all around—maintaining the Castle takes a lotta power, so she can’t make herself invincible everywhere all the time. If she knows where she’s gonna get hit, however, she can reinforce the armor where the hit’s coming and make whatever it is bounce off, no problem. But if she doesn’t have time to react and you hit the armor, it gets fragile. Hit it hard enough or often enough like that, you’ll go straight through.”
“Would an ordinary sword work on her armor?” asked Jonas.
“Yeah, should get through it just fine, assuming the armor’s brittle enough. Couple surprise hits should do the trick.”
Greyemeid clasped her hands on the table. “You know a lot of specifics about this. Was this something Livoetian was open about? She never made anything but broad statements to me.”
“It might surprise y’all, but the woman was desperate for someone she could trust all the way down. She had her generals and attendants, but they don’t get the full Livoetian, just the lilim. She got where she was with power, not words, so when she found herself at the top and everyone gunning for her, she closed up. Until me.”
“Ironic that trust will kill her,” said Greyemeid.
“Suppose it is,” he said, deflated.
“Is there anything more you can tell us?” asked the Mother.
“That’s all I remember. Can’t think of anything else that might stop you.”
“The armor and the Castle make up the entirety of her defenses, then.”
The Mother analyzed him, her piercing gaze cutting through the already-despondent Lex. A long moment passed before she started for the door. “That will be enough. We’re leaving.”
Jonas and Greyemeid both offered a bow before following. “Thank you for answering our questions,” said Jonas.
“I’m, uh, glad I could help, I suppose.”
He didn’t look like it.
Adaklies started to stand, but Lex put a hand on her shoulder, stopping her.
“Don’t let what happened to my wife happen to you, Adaklies.”
She gave him a hollow smile. “Don’t think that’s possible, Lex. I’ve no one to let down.”
Just as dusk’s light began to fade, the Mother had them land and make camp. They weren’t even an hour south of Malivus, dug into the rocky cover of a mountain with a fine view. Adaklies busied herself with setting up camp, idly listening to Jonas and Greyemeid chatter about trivial things. Nerves, she supposed.
Adaklies found a flat, open spot on the mountain’s side a short ways off and took the space to suck in a deep breath and relax. Her claw came up and she half-closed it, trying to summon her drekhel.
Tonight, though, she couldn’t even get started. Every time she closed her eyes and tried to concentrate on the fire, she thought about Greyemeid swinging her own drekhel, the giant two-headed axe of wicked, fiery steel. Adaklies thought about how she had one without even needing the Mother to show her how. How long had it taken her? How long had she had it?
Grumbling, Adaklies crossed her arms, resting her head on them, and frowned at the sunset.
“Such things deserve not your disquiet.”
Adaklies spun, finding the Mother approaching her from behind, eyes on the horizon. She took a seat next to Adaklies.
Adaklies suddenly felt much smaller.
“Why would you say that?” said Adaklies.
“The answer will come when it matters.”
“You’ve got more faith in me than I do, then.”
Taking a deep breath, the Mother took in the sunset. “Such beauty hidden in plain sight. Mayhaps it’s time again I pay them attention.”
“It’s nice,” said Adaklies. “Better than most.”
They watched the sky in silence. It was nice. The clouds looked like splashes from a brush, a speckled violet igniting to a swelling, anxious red. Through the breaks in the clouds was a thunderous blue so deep it could’ve been the sea. Every trace of color and every shift in the clouds all collapsed in toward the bleeding, dying light at the zenith.
“Folsomar and I met first at the coast south of here in the aftermath of a hurricane. The first words he said to me were, ‘Watch your horns, you might hit them on the clouds.’”
The Mother paused as if expecting a reply. Not wanting to stop her story before it started, Adaklies just nodded.
“A carpenter he was, rummaging through the remains of his house, separating the useful scraps from bothersome trash. I remember a discontented look on his face, like naught amongst the debris would satisfy him. Enter I amidst the wreckage, deep in curiosity, when he saw me and yelled out those words. He meant to rile me, make me feel as though I must needs prove sincerity so when he asked me to help, I would.” The Mother smiled. “I ignored him. At day’s end, I circled back to Folsomar and found him already trying to put something together with the wood he deemed still workable. Care to venture a guess what it might have been?”
“A wall frame. The man was trying to rebuild his house that very day! His want defined, all that remained was to build the bridge to it using his own two hands. Some of his former neighbors mocked him for it. The town was absolutely devastated. Unsalvageable. They claimed no volume of effort could restore what they lost.” Her eyes narrowed on Adaklies with a directed glance. “Some laugh at the stars while their feet cling tight to the ground. Others fly.
“Curiosity compelled my return. Folsomar had since finished a small shack to work out of and was helping others rebuild their homes. Those who stayed and those who put in the effort were rewarded. The weaker ones fled. I suppose that was the moment I began to fall in love with him.”
“I still don’t understand how someone like you could end up with someone like him,” said Adaklies. “Just the difference in your ages seems overwhelming.”
“Age is not the metric by which a heart is measured.” Something of a smile threatened the Mother’s face. “And he had something, something I’d been searching for. You have it too.”
“I doubt it.” Adaklies couldn’t keep the smarminess out of her voice. “But, for the sake of curiosity, what might ‘it’ be?”
The Mother sighed. “Sixteen hundred years and that answer eludes me still. Ambition it is not, though it yearns. Determination it is not, though it pushes through. It is a pull without origin nor destination. It offers no certainty, no means nor cornerstone. But it moves those who have it, inexorable and puissant.”
“Yeah, I’ve got nothing special like that.”
“Special? No. I have found it universal. Only some feed it, however. Suppose Greyemeid. She let it die. As a prodigy, she had no need to change the world around her, for she knew the means to manipulate and thrive within it. One day Jonas may find it, but that one invests himself in a faith in proper order. In the idea that there is a correct way of things. You, however… you have been given nothing. The swell of the world, each roughness and imperfection has buffeted your rampart and you have beaten it back. You have found the hunger and you have fed it. You reach without mind of your grasp. One day it will kill you, as it will kill all of us.” She turned back to the horizon. “And on that day, the world will tremble.”
Adaklies squeezed her fist so tight it hurt. Tomorrow she may find death, but there was no way it’d involve something as extravagant as the Mother mentioned.
“Once, I, too, knew this thing, but I lost it along the way. I’d hoped Folsomar could show me how to get it back. And maybe he did. Hard to tell, it is.”
“Is that… is that why you two were so much more warm to me than I expected you to be?”
“Myself, perhaps. Folsomar had his own reasons, though I suspect he since divulged them.”
“Ah.” Adaklies’s gaze dipped to the ground. “I wish I could return your faith, but I’m still inexperienced. I’ve never fought someone like Livoetian before and I haven’t even found my drekhel yet. There’s little I’ll be able to do for you tomorrow.”
“Whatever obstacle you have constructed lies entirely within you. Hence, the tools to overcome it reside within as well.”
“I don’t know why you think I’m going to make something of myself!”
Adaklies immediately covered her mouth after the outburst, but the Mother was smirking.
“So something is there. Why fear you the attempt?”
No force could make her meet eyes with the Mother. She hung her head and pondered.
“I would be remiss toward my husband’s wishes if I did not say this: if there is aught I might help you with, tell me. I may be inclined.”
Adaklies paused. There was one thing, and since the Mother was already asking… “Can I have Folsomar’s sword?”
The Mother shot her an inquisitive look. “You usually don’t fight with a sword. You won’t need it once you find your drekhel, anyways.”
“I’d like to have it.”
After a moment of thought, the Mother reached into her pack. “Very well. I will want it back after the fight, however.”
When Adaklies saw the Mother pull out the enchanted sword she’d fetched for Folsomar, Adaklies stopped her. “No, his other sword. The one he’d been carrying since the beginning.”
“That one is mere steel.”
“If that is what you want.”
In that moment, holding the sword, Adaklies believed she had a choice to make.
“Greyemeid, you’ll be with me,” said the Mother.
The four of them were huddled, waiting for dawn to break, while discussing how to approach Livoetian.
“Jonas, you will stay back beyond the Castle.”
His face went red with irritation. “I want to—”
“You will stay back,” said the Mother.
It took him a moment and a swallow, but he nodded.
“I need someone in reserve both to take advantage of any mistake Livoetian makes and to make her cautious. We may know you don’t have a secret weapon ready for her, but she does not. While you’re there and she knows you’re there, she must stay on edge.”
“And what about me?” asked Adaklies.
“You’ll be using what we learned from Lex. Give us a short head start, make sure her attention is on us, then approach her from above. When you can, dive straight down on her and hit her armor. With luck, you’ll break it. At the very least, it will make it brittle enough to shatter with another hit.”
Nodding, Adaklies’s grip tightened on Folsomar’s sword. She’d make it count.
“Greyemeid,” said the Mother, “We’ll be essentially buying time until Adaklies strikes. Do not attack in earnest until Adaklies acts unless we need to open a window of opportunity for her.”
“Understood,” said Greyemeid, her face hardened. Both her and Jonas shared that soldier disposition.
“That’s the whole of the plan. I don’t want to make it any more complex, the simpler the better. Any questions?”
Silence passed between the four of them. No, there wouldn’t be any questions. They all knew why they were here.
“Then let’s head out.”
Just as the Mother planned, the flight to Malivus was a short one. They were in the air for hardly an hour before the city came into view. Adaklies tensed up, ready, trying to spot out a tall building where Livoetian might be waiting, but the Mother motioned for them to stop with the city still far away.
Before Adaklies could ask why, the Mother pointed to the plains in front of the city. “Look.”
A flood of soldiers were lined up outside the city, all in formation, armored and ready for combat. Adaklies could make out lines of soldiers on the city walls as well, each standing at attention. It wasn’t a full army, from the looks of it, but it could very well have been the entirety of the city’s defense force.
“She’s making us fight her soldiers first?” said Adaklies.
“No,” said Greyemeid. “Something much more clever. She’s making us an example.” She pointed to a spot on the plains, far in front of the soldiers.
The small white figure of Livoetian was standing, relaxed, like she was about to brush off some bothersome dirt.
“How did she know we were coming?” asked Adaklies.
“Likely whatever spies tracked us down in the first place. She can’t fight alongside soldiers or even within the city and still use her Castle. So she’s come out here to face us, making sure her soldiers are watching. The news of my betrayal must’ve spread and now she’s using this fight as a way to keep her soldiers in line.”
“She’ll look terrible if she loses, though,” said Adaklies.
“I doubt her corpse will care,” said the Mother. “We’ll split here. All ready?”
The four of them nodded to each other.
Adaklies brandished Folsomar’s steel sword. “For the man who needs a reason to do anything.”
Shock struck the Mother’s face as she spun on Adaklies. “What?! Where did you…” She took a moment then trailed off, shaking her head.
And they broke off.
There was a crack and magenta magic flashed through the air. Taking her cue, Adaklies climbed, going as high as she dared before flying over where the battle raged.
Even as high as she was, she could make out what was happening and it didn’t look good. She’d been hoping that the Mother and Greyemeid would be able to cut through the Castle by flight but Livoetian was much more focused this fight. With only two targets, both of which she respected, the magic that blossomed from her shone so bright Adaklies could barely focus on it.
As a consequence, Greyemeid was forced to the ground, where she could advance more cautiously. The Mother made it through, but not before taking several hits.
Adaklies’s arm burned where she’d been hit last time. She could only imagine the pain those attacks were causing.
The Mother’s drekhel flashed. Livoetian moved faster.
The two whirled, pushed, pulled, struck and parried faster than Adaklies’s eyes could see. There was a blur of motion and a second later the Mother was flying backward. The Castle immediately ambushed her. She took it head on.
With those precious seconds, Livoetion spun on Greyemeid and launched several massive orbs of magic at her. Seconds before they hit, Greyemeid leapt backwards out of the way before dashing forward again.
The Mother caught up to Livoetian and they clashed. Magic splashed against the Mother’s scales. Her drekhel hammered on Livoetian’s shield.
Adaklied squeezed Folsomar’s sword. This may be her chance. As soon as Livoetian threw the Mother off again, Adaklies would have a clear lane to her target. Her wings fluttered.
Then Livoetian landed a hit on the Mother’s leg. She staggered.
Adaklies dove. The roar of sky filled her ears. The battlefield and Livoetian rushed up to her.
She brought Folsomar’s sword down.
It connected with a mighty clang so loud Adaklies feared it may shatter. The air rippled. The barrier around Livoetian held, angrily throwing the sword backwards, making it shake with a force that just about tore it from Adaklies’s grip. Within that second, Livoetian spun with dizzying speed.
“Be gone from my sight!” she yelled, then pounded Adaklies with a vicious flash of magic.
Pain bloomed. Her dodge wasn’t fast enough, but at least she could use the momentum to spiral backwards and away. Throwing out her wings, Adaklies managed to control herself, but only a second before an arrow from the Castle formed and launched itself at her. Grunting, Adaklies zipped backwards and out of the way. She landed and immediately grabbed the new wound at her hip. Just like with her arm, she’d sacrificed her scales to avoid crippling injury.
But Adaklies had landed her hit. Lex’s information was good. One more solid hit on the armor would get through it.
Unfortunately, that was the only thing going for them. Greyemeid was stuck in the Castle, the air alight with lethal magic around her. The Mother was able to make some progress, but she could only get up close for a few moments before Livoetian ejected her once more and each foray into the Castle cost her.
Jonas caught her eye, waving to her from nearby cover. Yes, she could help from outside the Castle. Surely he had come up with something, he wanted to be useful too.
The Mother herself was still going strong, cleaving through magic arrow after magic arrow with her drekhel, headed fast for Livoetian again. The Mother was a Pillar as well—Adaklies shouldn’t underestimate exactly how many times she could make it through the Castle. Greyemeid, too, was a fine soldier. The Castle might have been beating her back now, but she’d gained considerable ground since the fight first started. It was very possible Adaklies wasn’t needed. Who was Adaklies to interject herself? She’d done what she needed to do. Her drekhel still eluded her and without that, she was nothing. It wasn’t the place of a common dragon like her to assume she could help, even if it was possible.
Adaklies heard Folsomar’s voice. Her heart beat like a clamouring bell. Her memory flashed backward back to that day in the bar. The moment when she felt something, eye to eye with Jonas. A spark. Who was this stranger, this footsoldier, this nobody, to dare try to take on Queen of Demons?
The subtly shimmering barrier of the Castle hung before her. All she had to her name was a bounty. Her wounded arm and hip burned with mortality. It wasn’t the Castle. It was death. And it didn’t matter.
Jonas knew the risk. Folsomar knew his limits. They knew, and, sweet demons, they did it anyways. They climbed their mountains, telling themselves one day it would be behind them. While they could not wield a certainty of their outcomes, they could wield something else: choice.
Adaklies looked at her sword.
She still had hands to hold a weapon. She still had legs to carry her forward. She still had will to bear her fear. She still had wings.
And with these wings I soar.
Adaklies broke the barrier flying, wind a deafening clamor in her ears. Arrows of magic spawned all around her instantly, singing their deadly barrage with a hum of warning. Adaklies dove under the first arrow and banked hard to avoid the second. Two more rained on her from above, but with a beat of her wings and a tuck of her legs, she was past them.
She sucked in her chest as one more missed by inches. The distance between her and Livoetian shrunk fast, but still she seemed so far away. Forever.
Livoetian held the Mother off with deft dodges and violent blasts of magic. The Mother’s drekhel struggled to reach her, catching air again and again. Finally, one strike went through, aimed at the hip, but Livoetian’s armor caught it and tossed it away. With the Mother reeling from the strike, Livoetian planted both hands on her chest and unleashed.
A brilliant pink light forced Adaklies to look away and when she focused back on Livoetian, the Mother was whirling backwards, body smoking as the Castle pelted her mercilessly. Livoetian shifted to other pests. While Greyemeid was still forging ahead, she wasn’t making real progress. Adaklies’s risker strategy had brought her closer.
Livoetian turned to her.
Time slowed. Adaklies saw Livoetian smile at her and, with a dismissive wave, unleash death. Dozens of magic arrows, all different sizes, shapes, and speeds rushed forward to meet Adaklies. Above her, behind her, below her, the Castle brought upon a new barrage of its own.
But there had to be a way through. A million threads ended in Adaklies’s death, but the only one in her mind was the one where she pushed forward. So she bolted toward the barrage, watching how each and every arrow moved, and carefully picked out the gap.
She found it. If she blocked a single arrow and twisted just the right way, she could do it. She could do it. The steel sword came up. Adaklies braced it with a claw just before the arrow connected.
The entire sword hummed, shaking, buckling, hot with the raw energy flowing through it. Adaklies held on tighter, and did the only thing left to her. Hope.
The sword held.
Gasping, she followed through on the spin, watching her wings, cutting them through the tiny spaces in the barrage, diving forward with all the speed she had. One wing hissed as an arrow grazed it and Adaklies stumbled. The ground came up fast. Her maneuver had cost her a lot of momentum.
She planted her foot. She drew a breath of flame.
The Castle stopped.
A dozen paces. Her blade rose. Her other foot fell. Livoetian spun, shock on her face. She didn’t have time for another barrage. With a yell, Adaklies devoured the distance between them. Another step. Another step. Her entire body screamed. She lifted her blade higher. The breath she’d been holding streaked from her mouth: a broad stream of immense heat aimed straight for Livoetian’s face. Livoetian raised her hand to block it.
Adaklies’s blade fell. It was early, far too early to connect. Livoetian’s vision was blocked by the flames and smoke and the downward swing was never what Adaklies intended in the first place.
She thrust for the heart.
For an instant, the tip hovered in the air, a breath away from its target. Adaklies heard a rattle of resistance from the magic armor. But on that day, in that place, at that moment, that blade and the dragon behind it would not be denied. There was a crack.
Folsomar’s sword dove through.
Livoetian gaped, struggling to draw breath, eyes bulging in complete and utter disbelief at the sword sticking out of her chest. She fell to her knees. Her arms went for the sword, but her grip had no strength behind it.
Adaklies stared fire into Livoetian’s eyes, digging the sword deeper. The lilim’s resistance gave out.
Adaklies roared to the sky. With every last bit of herself, she roared. She roared in anger, in vengeance, in relief, and in pure conquest. The world shook in resonance as she spewed the raw essence of her emotion to any who dared listen.
Eyes lit with fury, Adaklies raised a claw to strike Livoetian, but something stopped it. Spinning, Adaklies found the Mother holding her wrist.
“Finely done, Adaklies. But we’d want not to accidentally knock that sword loose. Retreat a spell whilst I do what I came to do.”
If it was possible, Livoetian’s expression looked even more fearful now. Robbed of all energy, however, she could do nothing as the Mother descended upon her. The Mother laid her body down gently then placed a hand on her head and began to chant.
During whatever ritual the Mother was doing, Livoetian managed to raise her hand, struggling to draw breath, and attempted to pull the Mother’s claw off her head. When her grip went limp, the Mother stopped, shook her head, and closed Livoetian’s lifeless eyes.
“Is that it?” asked Adaklies.
“Yes,” said the Mother. “Livoetian is dead.”
Adaklies, Jonas, and Greyemeid all sat at the edge of the forest, the couple leaning against each other while Adaklies sat with her back against a tree, watching Livoetian’s army disperse. It was unreal. Livoetian was dead. A monumental relief but, at the same time, an enormous void. There was nothing left for Adaklies to do. Sure, Greyemeid had a country to run now, and Jonas would be there with her, and the Mother needed to grieve, but Adaklies? What was next for her? Go back to being a criminal?
As if reading her thoughts, Jonas spoke up. “Where are you going now?”
“Dunno. Back to Keian, I guess. There are a couple good people back there.”
“You are welcome to join us,” he said.
“Nah. Taking a country’s fine and all, but running one? No thanks.”
“I’m sure there’s still plenty of battles ahead for us, if that’s what you’re interested in,” said Greyemeid.
Adaklies looked to the army that had been watching their fight. Some were brave enough to hold formation even still. She shook her head. “I hate armies.”
“You were a key part of this victory,” said Jonas. “We can find you a nice place to live in Malivus once we’re in charge and a fine coffer of gold to rest on. You’ve earned at least that much.”
Adaklies smiled to herself. Every time, without fail, someone thought wealth was what she was after. “Not my style.”
“Jonas, dear,” said Greyemeid. “She’s trying to tell us she’d like to go her own way tactfully.”
“Nothing to be sorry about.” Out there, somewhere, was her next conquest. Her next reason. She knew she wouldn’t find it in Malivus.
A flutter of wings and a soft landing announced the Mother’s return. “I’ve finished burying Livoetian. Rest assured there are no means of restoring her known to mortal minds.”
The four regarded each other, silent, thinking if there was something more to say. Another excuse to stay together, another reason for a long goodbye. And while there may have been one, none of them could think of it.
“I guess that is it, then,” said Jonas, walking up to the Mother. He held out his hand. “Thank you for everything. I owe you so much.”
The Mother took his hand and shook it. “Yes. And you can be sure I will call on that debt one day.”
Undaunted, he nodded. Then he went to Adaklies and offered his hand. She ignored it and hugged him.
“You’ll need more than a handshake for the world you’re about to enter,” said Adaklies.
He returned the hug. “I suppose you are right.”
Greyemeid said farewell to the Mother before approaching Adaklies. “You were the one who came through in the end. Without a drekhel, too.”
“Those things are too gaudy for me.”
Greyemeid didn’t bother offering a hand and hugged Adaklies, squeezing her with wings and arms a moment before breaking away. “Thank you. And don’t forget Jonas’s offer. We’ll always welcome you.”
“When I’m famous, I might grace you with some of my time. Maybe.”
The two shared a smile. Then, without leaving any room to make it harder, Greyemeid took Jonas and left.
The Mother and Adaklies looked at each other, Adaklies trying to figure out what to say while the Mother cut through Adaklies with her passive stare.
“I think I’ll miss you, Mother” said Adaklies.
“And you are one I’ll not soon forget.”
The wind picked up, a whistling, a calling, a whisper. Adaklies’s hair tossed about and she wondered if she could hear the world roar.
“He was just happy to be with you,” said Adaklies. “Didn’t regret a second of it.”
“Yes,” said the Mother, her cup spilling over. “Yes, I suppose he didn’t.”
The air was awash with barley as Adaklies stepped into Gremm’s bar. Everyone inside, monster and human alike, were celebrating. For those who lived near the border and bore the brunt of Aezerinian aggression, Livoetian’s death was the best news they’d heard in years. There was a hint of hesitance to their celebration, however. It was hard to tell what Aezerin would do in reaction. Even with that taint, though, the beer flowed thick and heavy.
Smiling softly to herself, Adaklies took a deep breath and sauntered up to the bar. Not halfway there, Gremm spotted her and called out.
“Adaklies! You’re back!” He pointed to her stool. “Saved your stool for ya!”
She gave it a light pat before sitting down on it. Just as comfy as she remembered.
“So! You probably heard, but the Demon Lord’s been put down and the whole place is havin’ a nice lil’ celebration! For you, first round’s on the house!” He stepped to the side, showing off his entire collection. “What’ll you have?”
Adaklies leaned forward, resting her arms on the bar. His entire collection, hmm? After a thought, she knew exactly what she wanted. “Water.”
Gremm paused, smiled, and grabbed a cup. “Water it is.”
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