Starlegacy by Steph T, Chapter 2 of 3

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Starlegacy (cont.)

Starring Milo Pulsar and Shaula Bluestar

Just under an hour later we were stashing the last of our packs on Tau and Andry when I noticed Thom waving madly at us from the ground. “Wizard Pulsar!” he shouted. Milo was running a loud test on one of the pteradon’s engines; I waved at him and pointed once he noticed.
“Huh? What is it?” Milo squinted at the apprentice.

“Sorry, letter for you- good thing I caught you, huh?” Thom grinned broadly, reached up to pass a thick package over.

Milo glanced at the seal and groaned. “Great, just great,” he grumbled.

“Something wrong?” Thom cringed.

“Yeah, but not your fault, kid.” Milo frowned. “Hey, we’re about to blast off, maybe you should…” He gestured back towards the tower.

“Oops, right, of course!” Thom ducked a quick bow; noticed me, and ducked a second one my way; then dashed back inside.

“Family business?” I hazarded wildly.

“How’d you guess?” Milo asked sourly. He broke the seal, looked in the envelope. Something gleaming and heavy-looking fell into his hand, and he shook his head and sighed.

“What’s that?”

He held it up; it looked like an old-fashioned big brass key, with a large rune-engraved amethyst set on the end. “Private Gate Key to my cousin’s school, and an invitation.” He rolled his eyes. “Can you believe it? They have a private Gate-anchor. Too good to use the one in orbit, it’s got to be right on the grounds itself.”

“It’s planetside?” I asked in alarm. “But the heat it must generate…”

“Gets dispersed via large piles of money.” He snorted, stuffed the key back in the envelope and the whole thing in a pocket. “Remind me to burn that later or something.”

I just sighed and swung myself up onto Tau. The tetrapteryx cawed at me excitedly, ready to be in the air; I smiled and stroked her flank. “Ready or not,” I murmured, and touched her flight runes.

We leaped into the air with a roar of the engines and a caw of triumph. Androsus wasn’t more than a hair behind us, screeching in good-natured competitiveness. I could hear Milo laughing over the rockets as our flight patterns twined around each other, dancing our way skywards.

In short order we’d broken atmo; the Gate Ring hung above us, runes gleaming silently in the blackness of space. Milo made a gesture; with our atmospheres not overlapping, I couldn’t hear the words he said as he activated the Gate, but I could see the energy sparking and crackling as it opened.

He gestured for me to go first; I needed no encouragement. Tau and I sailed through the enormous Ring, and in an instant we were in orbit around Skyroot.

It had never really made sense to me that the Galactic Council-the original one, that is, back before it fell apart-had built an Astral Gate Ring at Skyroot. I mean, dryads, by their very nature, almost never leave their home planet; being too far from it for too long would be like suffocating, drowning; or perhaps starving to death is a better analogy. So the Ring would only be for the convenience of those coming to visit; and for the tiny number that did, well, it’d have been easier overall just to let them burn a little extra mana making the link the hard way. But no, no, had to do things right; primary planets of sentient races get a Gate Ring. Ah, humans.

Moments later, the Gate flared again, and Androsus appeared in orbit beside me, Milo atop his back waving triumphantly. I nodded, then turned my face towards the Skyroot star. It was a warm one, blueish-white and fierce; but despite my politeness, he ignored the overture. I sighed; Milo was gesturing planetwards. I nodded reluctantly, not quite ready to leave the comforting black of space. But we had a job to do; and the two of us glided downwards into the atmosphere.

By unspoken agreement I took point once we were at a good altitude. I didn’t have to think too hard about our destination; in fact, I just pointed us at the most enormous tree I could see. It was a huge old one, too; at least eight hundred feet high, and broad around. Its canopy spread out for just acres and acres, dwarfing everything around it.

When we were a few miles off, I signalled Milo and then turned off Tau’s rockets. We’d been asked for help, yes, but no excuse to be unfriendly; Milo followed suit almost immediately. We glided in on warm winds; I took a moment to appreciate the heat of the star’s rays, the lushness of the vegetation. This was a healthy living planet; it had a sense of power and of place.

There was something else to it, too; almost a heartbeat of sorts. I followed the train of thought; closed my eyes and opened my other senses. Yes, there was definitely a sentience to this planet; given the number of dryads on it, I wasn’t surprised, but it was still… intriguing, I suppose is the best word, to feel it.

From very far away, I heard Milo yell something. But I was too deep in my trance; too centered in my other senses to understand that note in his voice was not high spirits, but panic.

It was a complete surprise to me, then, when my dinorocket and I were suddenly jerked gut-wrenchingly out of the sky.

Tau screamed. I was too surprised to scream; and then as another coil of vine wrapped around the tetrapteryx’s body, crushing me against her hide, I couldn’t draw enough air to scream. I belatedly panicked, struggling wildly as the ground rushed towards us, very fast. I couldn’t focus; couldn’t think; and then with a whip-like crack, we suddenly stopped moving.

We were hanging in a coil of snare-vine in a tree some sixty or eighty feet off the ground. Stunned from the impact, I didn’t realize I’d come out of my flight-strap until I was suddenly slipping from beneath the coils. I scrabbled uselessly for purchase; and then I fell.

My recollection of the next few minutes is hazy at best. I fell badly; hit a lot of branches, which probably saved my life, but tossed and tumbled me until I was so disoriented, I couldn’t have told you which way was up. I vaguely remember hitting the ground and rolling down an incline; I certainly don’t remember hitting the bottom of the hollow. I remember pain that burned hotter than my home star; and then the world went dark.

I half-woke to the sound of angry shouting. The words didn’t make sense at first; I let myself drift away again once more until a howl of rage brought me back, painfully, to myself. I struggled to push aside the pain enough to open just one eye: my lids felt heavy as mountains.

“…curse, she was just trying to fucking help you, Void and black!” I’d never heard such savage rage in Milo’s voice. “Fucking touch us, just fucking touch her again and I swear, I will raze this forest, burn it to the ground!” He screamed at them, a low and bestial cry; and a horde of bellowing voices took up the cry.

I looked, and saw a sight I didn’t understand. What looked like an entire clan of minotaurs circled us, each wielding a vicious-looking double-axe. And just beyond the ring of them, a mess of giant snake-like roots bobbed and weaved in place menacingly.

“No,” I said, or rather, tried to say. Something was lodged in my throat; it came out as a muffled “Nngghh.” Milo didn’t hear me; and now his tome was open again, and I didn’t even want to think of what he might be summoning. With a massive surge of will, I moved my hand several mile-long inches and touched his ankle.

He was practically berserk; I don’t think he’d even have felt it if a trickle of burning-hot liquid hadn’t been leaking out of my mangled hand. It scalded him; he flinched, swore, and then swore again when he realized it was me. “Shaula, oh fuck, Shaula!” The words poured desperately out as he crouched beside me. “Talk to me, Blue, tell me you’re okay!”

“Nnnggh,” I managed again. And to my intense embarrassment, I began to weep from the pain, fat hot tears that splashed onto the ground, sizzling where they hit.

I saw the change overtake his face. Saw the panic and anger turn cold; the fury turn to icy hatred. Saw his eyes narrow, saw him turn to the summoned minotaurs. Saw his lips form the command that would turn this standoff into… well, carnage.

“Noooo,” I groaned, too late to stop it from happening.

And then, miraculously, it did.

Everything around me fell silent. I wondered briefly if this was the moment of my death. No, I hurt to much to be dying. This was something else.

It was the unicorn.

He picked his way slowly through the field of battle, cloven feet sure and steady on the mussed and trampled ground. The roots parted to let him pass; the minotaurs stepped aside, their bloodlust momentarily quenched. Slowly but steadily, he crossed the ground, until he was standing beside us. Very deliberately, he turned his noble head to gaze at whatever was behind him. Then he lowered it, and touched his horn to my shoulder.

Ah, agony! I thought I’d known pain before; but that, I realized, was merely the hurt that comes when your life is pouring out of you. Far greater was this pain: the pain of life pouring back in, of crystal bones straightening and knitting back together, of the fiery-hot liquid that serves as my blood coursing back through my flesh.

Accelerated healing hurts.

I must have blacked out again from the pain. When I came to again, I ached all over, bone-deep. I was exhausted; and furthermore, I was starving. But I was alive. And I was slumped over the neck of the unicorn, Milo’s hand steadying me as he walked beside the creature.

“…beg you to forgive us. We had no thought that you might be coming to help; only that you were a stranger, an intruder, and so near to the Heart Tree. And at this time… we are so ashamed.”

“I hear what you’re saying,” Milo replied neutrally. “And if you’d killed her, I would have flattened this entire forest.”

A stunned silence. I put my hand on Milo’s, straightened myself up into a more comfortable sitting position. The unicorn’s gait, unsurprisingly, was the smoothest I’d ever felt. “Peace, Milo,” I said softly. “Everything is well again.”

He smiled at me, but the smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Feeling all right there, starpartner?”

“Mmm.” I glanced around us; it was hard to tell where we were, exactly. The canopy here was thick. “Where are we going, now?”

Satisfied that I was going to stay upright, Milo took his hand back. “On our way to that big damn tree.”

“The Heart Tree,” the dryad walking closest to us said, humbly. She was slender and willowy, with dusty-grey skin. Strings of tiny green flowers grew in her hair. “The Sage has told us why you have come, sky-cousin; we are bringing you to where the sickness began.” She darted a glance up at my face. “I am Oul, cousin; and will serve as your guide here, in atonement for ordering the attack that so injured you.”

“Oul,” I repeated softly, distracted. I wondered for a moment if I could slide down and walk with them; it was a little embarrassing to be the only one unable to do something as simple as move under my own power. But even thinking about it made my body ache and throb; and the unicorn, as though sensing my thoughts, shifted under me and snorted warningly. I gave in to the inevitable and stayed put.

“Oul,” I said again. “Forgive me if you’ve already said this, but… when did this all start?”

“There is nothing to forgive,” she dipped her head. “It began perhaps…” she paused, thinking. “In standard, perhaps a month ago? Yes, a little less than a standard month, if I am doing the conversion right. At first it was just in a few of the lateral roots; a darkness, a blight.” Oul shrugged, and her hair rippled as the flowers in it winked closed and open again. “Such things are not unknown. Some of our number prefer to dwell among the roots; they went to cut the dead away, and for a while we thought it was finished.” She went quiet.

“But it wasn’t?” Milo prompted.

“No,” she said sadly. “A few days later, the same thing, but in one of the sinker roots.” She looked away, and the flowers in her hair furled tightly closed. “They went to fix it, but…”

I made a soft noise of understanding. “They didn’t come back, did they?” I asked gently.

Oul shook her head. “Not for days. And when they did… they were dying.” She shuddered. “The poison inside them, ah!”

I made a soothing gesture. “We know. You can skip that part, if…” I let my voice trail off.

Oul took a deep and shaky breath. We waited in respectful silence for her to continue. “We sent another group, better guarded and armed.” She shook her head. “They made it there and back, but within a day they were all just as sick.” Her flowers began to unfurl slowly. “We didn’t know what to do. Every few days, another root or group of roots. And if we don’t cut it back right away…” she shrugged. “It spread to one of the aerial roots. And yesterday it entered the most windward sinker root; if that goes…” her voice trailed off.

Milo and I exchanged a puzzled glance and shrug. “Then what?” Milo asked.

Oul blinked, and looked at us quizzically. “Oh. If we lose too many sinker roots, especially the ones on the windward side…” She winced. “Then the next strong breeze- and we get some fierce windy seasons here- stands a good chance of toppling the Heart Tree. And if that happens…” she shrugged. “We don’t know what would happen. We think… we think it might kill us all.”

“Hmm.” Milo pondered the statement; glanced over at me appraisingly. “Dryads can’t live without their trees at all? Can’t switch to another?”

Oul raised an eyebrow, eyed Milo strangely. “Not really, no,” she said slowly. Her gaze followed his, met my eyes. “We are not so hardy that we can be… transplanted, no.” She had an odd look on her face, as though she wanted to ask me something; but she bit her tongue and looked away.

“What is it?” Milo asked curiously. We ignored him in silent unison; he let out a frustrated huff of displeasure. “If this is relevant…”

“It’s not,” I said flatly.

“And how do you know that?” he shot back, his annoyance rising.

“I do,” I said simply; and laid my hand on the unicorn’s shoulder. He snorted in agreement, and picked up the pace; in a moment’s time, we’d left Milo and Oul behind us, moving to the front of the little procession of dryads.

They nodded to me respectfully, introducing themselves one at a time. Aor was a golden-skinned male dryad who reminded me a bit of the woman on Paragon; Yir, an ash-grey male with leafy vines growing all up and down his length; and Woi, a pale green woman who spoke very little. Yir explained that the four of them were a patrol of the more militant arm of the dryad community, called simply the Vines. Both Aor and Yir carried heavy bows; Woi had a hand-sickle at her waist, but it didn’t look as well-used as the men’s bows. I suspected she was responsible for the snaring vines that had caught Tau and myself.

“Tau,” I said suddenly, startled. “Our mounts…”

“Being cared for,” Aor said soothingly. “We left the fifth of our number behind- and Nya is a strong healer. Your friend will recover, and the other evaded Woi’s snares.” Ah, theory confirmed.

I murmured my thanks, and we continued on. “Another question,” I said after a moment. Aor looked at me inquisitively. “The messenger we spoke to- she called this… this thing.” I stumbled, unsure what to call it exactly. “She called it The Devourer.”

They exchanged sad glances amongst themselves. “Yes,” Aor said at last. “Those of our number who returned… they spoke, before they passed, of marks like great teeth upon the roots; and it was there that the contagion began, each time.”

“Hm.” I pondered it long, but nothing particularly came to mind.

Within in a hour or so we reached the edge of the forest. The sight of the Heart Tree towering above us as we broke the treeline was majestic indeed; I sucked in an astonished breath, and felt more than saw the tolerant smiles of the dryads around me.

They were proud of their Tree; and well they should be. Its canopy spread out for acres; and the grasses beneath that canopy! Brilliant shades of gold and green, lovingly cultivated and tended; it was an impressive sight. Even from the distance we were at, I marvelled at the graceful spiraling of the trunk, the clean lines of its spreading branches. “It’s beautiful,” I murmured.

“Yes,” Aor said simply.

Milo and Oul drew up with us. My partner took a long moment just to contemplate the size of the tree; the look on his face was of deepest respect. Our escorts gave us time to take it in; then, with a shared nod, we continued onwards.

“We need to talk,” Milo said quietly to me as we picked our way across the sward.

I looked at him searchingly. I saw it in the lines of his face; I wasn’t going to be able to put him off this time. I acceded gracefully. “Later,” I nodded.

“Later,” he agreed. He could be patient, my partner could, if he knew he’d eventually get what he wanted.

We were perhaps halfway to the tree when a vine lashed down from the branches above us, and a cherrywood-skinned dryad with a spear longer than she was tall dropped neatly to the ground, directly in front of us. Her hair fell in a rippling red-brown mane to the center of her back, with parts of it pulled into small braids to frame her face. Her posture was easy, but she gripped her spear with the ease of long practice.

“Aza”, Oul greeted the woman with a dip of her head. “The Sage Milo Pulsar and Star-cousin Shaula Bluestar are here under invite of our fallen sister Nua, and under my protection. They are here to help.”

Aza snorted and tossed her head. “Here to watch us die, more like,” she said. She tried to make her tone one of disdain; but bitter hopelessness crept in, and I could not help but pity her. “While you were on patrol… Oul, Aun passed.”

Oul dipped her head, and her flowering hair fell around her face to hide the sorrow. “I see,” she said, her voice choked. “Was she…”

“She was not alone.” A note of tender compassion in Aza’s voice made the words a comfort. “Do you need to go grieve?”

“Not yet, Aza, not yet.” Oul lifted her head, and though her eyes were red with unshed tears her voice was steady. “I have taken these two into my care.”

“Of course,” Aza murmured, and turned her gaze on us. I held myself steady; she frowned, very slightly, to see me, but her expression calmed when she looked at the unicorn. A tiny nod; she turned to look at Milo.

A strange expression flashed onto her face; I watched her grip her spear just a little bit tighter, corded muscles standing out on her arms. Her expression… it was almost hungry, and I suddenly guessed what she was thinking. “Absolutely not,” I said, my voice cracking like a whip.

Milo and the other dryads startled, and looked at me searchingly. “Shaula?” Milo asked quizzically.

I stared Aza down, and I needed no mirror to know that my eyes were starting to fill with black. The heat throbbed in my sore head; she met my gaze fiercely, but after a long tense moment, it was she who turned away. “He could win such enlightenment,” she murmured silkily, “such power and wisdom.”

“He’d win nothing but death, and you know it,” I said flatly, but let my eyes start to cool down.

“The last Sage who…”

“Hmph.” I cut her off with a sharp glare. I could feel Milo’s gaze boring holes in the back of my head; carefully, I swung my leg over the side of the unicorn and slid down to the ground. I stumbled when I landed, and would have fallen if Milo hadn’t caught my arm.

“Shaula, you need to…”

“Later.” My voice was cold; I darted a glance at him and my expression softened. “Later,” I repeated softly. “I promise.” I raised my voice. “Oul, will you please bring us to the aerial root section you spoke of?”

“I will,” she said readily, eager to carry the conversation past where it had been. “Though I dare not approach it too close, lest the sickness… well. Please, right this way.”

Aza watched us go, and her grip on her spear did not lighten.

Once we were out of earshot, Milo hissed at me, “Shaula. Later had better be now, or I swear…”

“Peace,” I replied, tired. “It can be, yes.” I eyed Oul, who was very politely ignoring us. “Which part?”

“Hmph, which first, more like. Well, what was that Aza talking about?”

I winced. “Don’t do anything stupid?”

“Since when do I… don’t answer that.” A grin. “Okay, okay.”

“She was. Um. Thinking about hanging you on the Tree.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad.” Amusement.

“With her spear.”

“Ah.” Amusement vanished.

“For nine days.”

“Nine days?” Curiosity.

“It’s the amount of time Hropti Arnhof hung on it. And when he came down, the stories say he was endowed with all the wisdom of the many worlds.” I sighed. “Stories.”

“Arnhof?” Milo frowned. “The only Arnhof I know is the… umm. The founder of the Order of Delphi. Arguably the first Wizard; definitely the first one to use Runic Magic.”

“Yes,” I said, my voice no louder than a whisper. “And he learned it on the Tree, along with… many other things. Things he chose not to pass on to mankind.” A shudder ran uncontrollably down my spine.

Milo gave me a strange sidelong glance. “But that’s just a story?” He waited, but I didn’t reply. “Shaula, are you all right?”

I shuddered again, shook my head. “Please don’t ask me any more,” I whispered. “Because I’ll tell you.”

“All right, all right.” Milo’s voice was uncharacteristically gentle, soothing even.

I closed my eyes for a moment; collected myself. Aul had stopped; still studiously ignoring us. Some twenty feet in front of us was the loop of a thick tree-root; no doubt the one we were to investigate. It was as thick around as my waist, rising as tall as my shoulder at the highest point of its arc. “This is it?” I asked her.

She nodded. “It is. And here I must leave you, at least for a short while. I will be nearby, though; and should you need me, I will come to you.” She hesitated for a moment. “I am… not certain how to make you welcome. When you need to rest…”

Milo shook his head. “Don’t worry, we won’t be bad guests,” he said with a wry little smile. “We’ve got supplies back with our mounts, if you could send someone for our packs…?”

She nodded gratefully. “I’ll arrange it at once.” And with that, she left us.

I moved forward to investigate the root. At first glance, it didn’t seem unusual; but as I began to open my other senses, something strange stood out.

“Wait,” Milo interrupted, putting a hand on my arm.

I jumped. “I don’t think it’s going to harm-”

“Not that. I just wasn’t done.”

I winced.

Milo scowled. “Don’t act like… augh. Look.” He paused for a moment, rearranging the words in his head. “Shaula. With your star… with it gone.” He caught my unwilling gaze, looked me right in the eye. “Are you going to die?”

I stared back at him, unable to look away. I was silent for a long moment, trying to think of how to answer. He waited patiently; finally, I swallowed hard and answered. “Yes,” I whispered. “When-”

His face clenched with anger. “Dammit, Shaula, when were you going to tell-”

I cut him off with a shake of my head. “Hear me out,” I pleaded. “Just listen.” I waited for him to quiet, then continued. “With the dryads… when their tree dies, they will die too.” I searched for a metaphor. “Its existence… is like air to them. And when the last piece dies, they’ll… drown, I guess. Starve. Whatever the human analogy is. It might take a few weeks for every piece to die, but then… those that aren’t already dead of the sickness will just… wither.” I shook my head.

“And you?”

I found myself tensing up, drawing inwards. “It’s different. My star…” and here my throat went thick with tears. “Its light, its radiance is still spilling across our galaxy.” I lifted my face, pointed to a spot in the sky. “If it were a clear night, you could still see it from here, right there.” I swallowed hard. “With the Gates and all, we forget how slow light moves, right? But within a few hundred years, I won’t be able to spend much time in the Outer Arm, or parts of the Acanthus Arm. And within a few tens of thousands of years, there won’t be a spot in the galaxy with… air to breathe, for me anymore.”

Milo’s face was a mix of emotions I couldn’t even begin to untangle. I could see he wanted to say something, but I plowed on regardless.

“I imagine it’ll grow thinner and thinner, the farther I travel from… from my old home. It won’t be fast, like the dryads, when I die.” I took a deep, shaky breath. “I’ll just… fade. Diminish. We… we’re supposed to live for thousands and thousands of… Milo, I’m only a hundred and twenty!” For the second time in a day, I felt tears welling up in my eyes; I swallowed hard and tried to suppress them.

Milo took a deep breath. “There has to be some way around it,” he said roughly. “Oul said something about transplanting. If we could find another star…”

I shrugged. “There’s no precedent,” I said cautiously. “It might give me a few more years, but there’s no… if I could reclaim the heart-crystal, then maybe.” I let out a long sigh. “But well, you know how much progress we’ve made on that in the last half-year.”

“None at all,” Milo grumbled. “Ah, Shaula; I’m… I’m sorry. I didn’t think…” he let out a mighty shrug that somehow encompassed everything.

“Don’t be,” I replied. “It’s… none of it’s your fault, not in the least.” I gave him a tight smile. “And if there’s anyone in the galaxy who’d be able to help me, I’m sure it’s you.”

His mouth curled in a half-grin. “Right. This wizard who can’t even wrangle his family into shape will definitely save you from a slow and terrible death.”

I shrugged, my smile broadening. “It’d just be one more on the tally, hmm?”

He laughed. “You got it. Anyways, dryads?”

“Mm, right. Enough dwelling on things we can’t change.” I turned my gaze the the aerial root. “What do you think?”

“Hmm.” He pulled his Etheral Mask down over his face; the eyepieces glittered as they adjusted themselves. “Yeah, this piece definitely has… whatever it is.” He peered closely. “And it has a source down that way,” he pointed towards the end running away from the tree. “I feel like we’re going to need to get underground to the source to really check this out.”

I made a face; I didn’t like spaces I couldn’t see the sky from much. “How do we do that?”

“Mm, simple earthmoving spell should do it.” He flipped through his tome. “Here, stand close,” he said, steering me up against his side. “Here goes,” he muttered, and began to murmur the spell.

The tome’s pages began to glow as the earth sank beneath us. Slowly but steadily we sank into the earth, leaving a tight round column of air and light above us. “Just a little more,” Milo murmured.

I cringed as the sky shrank to a tiny disc above us. In such close quarters, Milo couldn’t help but notice; he raised an eyebrow at me. “Fine,” I murmured, lifting my eyes to the sky.

He understoof; or at least part. “I’ll leave the column open,” he reassured me.

Not much, but it was something. I relaxed a hair as we continued down deep into the earth.

“Almost… whoa!” Milo exclaimed as something shifted and moved beneath us. “Sorry, we just hit a patch of cave or something. Hard to see…”

I started to glow, casting a soft blue light around us.

“…Much better.” Milo grinned. “Now, let’s take a look…”

We both peered around as the disc of earth we stood on slowly lowered us to the floor of the cavern. The opening was surprisingly large; perhaps ten or fifteen feet high and wide, and maybe thirty feet long, with tunnels twisting away in a couple of spots. Thick, ropey roots strung their way across the space, dividing the space up further.

Milo’s Etheral Mask glittered as he gazed around the space. “There we are,” he said, sounding satisfied. Without waiting for the disc of earth to settle, he hopped the last few feet down and clambered over the uneven ground. “Shaula, look at this!” he called triumphantly from a spot halfway down the tunnel. “This is definitely the source, and… hmmm. It looks like tooth-marks.”

“That’s what Aor said,” I replied, stepping carefully off the platform and starting to pick my way across the cavern. “Can you tell what kind of teeth?”

“Hmm. Big.” Milo squinted, and I obligingly turned up my glow. “Thanks. Mm, mix of sharp-scrapey and mash-gnawey. Omnivore.”

As I got closer, I could see what Milo was talking about. The section of root he was examining was fairly thick; I might be able to circle it with both hands, but only barely. And there were definitely fresh marks in it; large crushed sections. I couldn’t imagine the strength behind the jaws that had inflicted that, especially at the awkward angle the root was at.

I touched the stone below us. “Gouges in the rock,” I noticed, running my finger into the furrows. “Something with big claws?”

“Looks like it,” Milo agreed. “Hmm, so what kind of large predator-omnivore would have the kind of poison in its bite to travel all the way up the root system?”

“And be subterranean,” I added. “There are a couple of giant serpent breeds that are venomous enough, but no claws.”

“Mm. Wererats?”

“Do they get this big?”

“They can, in the right environment.” Milo’s voice didn’t sound convinced.

“I don’t think this planet has enough moons for this size.” I tapped a finger on the stone again, then straightened up.

“I think you’re right. Hmm, a different breed of lycan? Something native to this planet?”

“It could be,” I allowed. “The poison-bite fits.”

Milo nodded. “I’ll take some scrapings. I’ve got a silver bowl with my gear, should be able to run a couple of tests.” He fumbled in his pockets for a minute, then pulled out a little paring knife. “Oof, this root is really tough,” he grunted as he scraped.

I settled myself across the cavern on a little cup of rock to wait. It was almost soothing; the dark, the gentle shick shick of the knife scraping on the root; the earthy, musky smell. Hm, actually… I wrinkled my nose. “Do you smell something funny?” I asked.

The shick shick stopped immediately. I heard Milo murmur another spell, quietly; watched as the earth and stone around him sort of oozed up his legs and around him like a suit of very craggy armor. “Shaula, come over here so I can give you-”

His words were abruptly cut off as something loomed out of the darkness and slammed into him, knocking him clear across the cavern. “Milo!” I yelped as the shape disappeared down a side cavern too quickly for me to even see what it was.

“Stay put over there, Shaula!” he called back, levering himself into a sitting position. A big chunk of his rock-plate armor had been knocked off, and he looked a little dazed. Not too dazed, luckily, to start calling out the incants of another spell- I saw the roots all around him begin to stir and wriggle, questing around like giant fingers.

Something blurred in the corner of my eye; the shape tore through the cavern again, knocking Milo up against the wall with a terrifying crunch. Earth showered down all around him, obscuring both shapes for a moment. By the time the air cleared, the creature was gone again.

It had torn through the grasping roots like they were no stronger than twine. My gut lurched as I suddenly recalled the strength of the jaws that had crunched through that root. “Milo, time to get out of here!” I called over the pattering of falling earth.

“Couldn’t agree more!” he agreed between raspy coughs. “Back to the shaft!” Pulling himself out of the wall, he started scrambling back my way.

I didn’t need to be told twice; I moved, picking my way across the uneven ground as quickly as I could. My feet slipped out from under me twice, and each time I couldn’t help but imagine that creature looming over me, ready to crush my whole body as easily as it had the root.

We reached the earth-disc at the same time. He hastily started to gasp out the spell that would lift us up again; but before he could get even halfway through, the earth boiled up beneath us and knocked us both flat on our back.

Beside me, Milo landed hard on a rocky shelf, shattering the last of his stone armor; I got lucky, and landed on a softer patch of earth. It was still enough to knock the breath out of me, and my light flickered out. We were left in darkness, pierced only by the narrow beam of light trickling down our entryway shaft. Then suddenly even that was blotted out as a huge shape loomed over us. Something hard and heavy pressed down on my chest, pinning me to the cavern floor; next to me, I heard Milo let out a desperate huff as presumably the same happened to him. He tried to call out a spell, but couldn’t catch his breath.

No time to think. I let my body’s core heat shift up to a spot in the back of my head; felt my eyes start to spin as the black expanded. With a desperate cry of rage I abandoned all my careful control; let loose with everything I had, firing a beam of scorching-hot plasma right into the creature.

I only caught a brief glimpse of it, a bare sense of size; enough to know that my blast- a blast that I knew from experience was hot enough to singe a harpy to the bone- hadn’t even scratched the thing’s hide.

It reared back, though, drawing its claws away from us; and to my utter surprise, it spoke. It was no language I knew; strange and alien syllables that seemed to rise and fall in the pattern of a question. Beside me, I heard Milo scramble to his feet, coughing, and he replied shakily in the same tongue.

The thing let out a low keening sound; whirled around and darted away, faster than my eye could follow. Milo grabbed my arm, helped haul me to my feet; we stumbled over to the disc of earth and clung to each other for balance as he gabbled out the words to lift us back out of the ground.

I nearly collapsed with relief as we emerged into the light once more. Caked in dust and dirt, we stumbled to where Aul waited for us, looking both shocked and terrified. We sprawled in the thick grass at her feet, each of us breathing hard. “What,” I finally gasped, “what in the black did it say? And what did you say? What… what language was that?”

Milo groaned in response. “To answer your last question first,” he replied, “it was one of the ancient languages of magic. Which I’ve studied some, though I would hardly call myself fluent in… but what it said… ah, I don’t even know what it means!” He took a deep breath.

Aul crouched beside us, eyes wide and white. “You saw something?” she asked in wonder and fear. “The… the Devourer?”

“Mm. And it said… mm. ‘The Star Dragon sends a second emissary?’” Milo shook his head. “I just said something angry back, I don’t even know… it got confused I think. But… the Star Dragon?”

“A second emissary?” I frowned. “So there’s a first?”

Milo sat up, looked down at me with a serious expression on his face. “Shaula, that thing was an Earth Dragon, I’d bet my magic on it.” Behind him, Aul swayed in place, rocked with surprise. “And dragons are… void, out of our league, out of almost anyone’s league!” He bit his lip, looking both angry and frustrated. “I’ve read… there are a couple old tales about entire armies of Paragon Wizards going up against a dragon. Half of them died, and it was a draw. A draw.”

“And it…” I frowned. “It thought we were emissaries of the Star Dragon?”

Milo shook his head slowly. “The older stories claim that all the dragons in the universe have to answer the call of the Great Star Dragon, were it ever to summon them. My guess is it thought you were part of that, starpartner.”

I propped myself up on my arms, not quite ready to sit up just yet. “It worries me more that there’s already a first emissary,” I said quietly.

Milo nodded in emphatic agreement. “Something with enough power to convince it- I can’t believe that it’s actually an emissary.” I nodded in agreement. “Not another starbeing; I think it’s safe to rule that out.” He rubbed his eyes.

“Mm.” I looked up at the tree consideringly. A pair of dryads perched in a branch above us, looking worried; a squirrel clung to another branch, looking amused and curious. “This kind of makes me think of-” I stopped suddenly as a sensation like an iron band wrapped itself across my chest.

“Think of… Shaula, are you okay?”

His hand was on me, dark eyes glittering with anger. Too-dark red flame danced on the end of his staff, and his metal skullcap shone with reflected flame like a bloody halo. He said something to the dragon before him in a low and angry voice; his hand clenched my crystal-self tight. The iron band around my chest began to burn. “He’s here,” I gasped, and then I began to scream.

In another place, deep beneath the earth, the Order of Nogg wizard continued to chide the dragon in a cold and masterful tone. The creature replied, its booming voice somehow managing to sound sullen. And the wizard’s hand clenched my heartstone- the crystal he had pulled from the wreckage of my home system- ever tighter and more painfully, the rage in his body coursing into the crystal, and through it, into me.

I lay prone on the grass, my body spasming uncontrollably as agony coursed through me. I felt the wizard’s anger building up inside me, felt my eyes going black; struggled to hold it in check. I felt soft hands on my body, pressing me down; Aul and Milo and the others, desperately trying to keep me from hurting myself.

My skin was threatening to crack under the pressure of keeping the energy contained. Vines wrapped around me; I smelled them singeing. Overhead, the squirrel chattered out a derisive laugh.

Something clicked. I went limp, opened my eyes; Milo drew back with a curse, no doubt recognizing the swirling black that preceded one of my beams. “No, Shaula!”

I heard him. But I let loose anyways, sending a searing beam of plasma directly at the squirrel.

The branch it was on splintered and cracked; beyond it, a swath of foliage burst into violent flame. The dryads screamed and scattered, dashing up vines to contain the damage. I lurched to my feet and pointed myself towards the little divot in the grass where the squirrel had fallen. It was already stirring; stumbling, I gestured at it wildly, and shouted, “Get it, Milo!” before falling flat on my face.

Milo was a good partner. Despite my apparent temporary insanity and penchant for property destruction, he leaped into action, whipping out his levitation wand and giving it an expert slash. I lifted myself off the ground in time to see a greenish-grey… thing… lift out of the grass, kicking and swishing its long tail in indignant fury.

It was still squirrel-shaped, yes; but now it was half as long as a human is tall. Probably as long, if you counted the lashing tail. Two sets of eyes glowed red in its grey-green skull. It screamed at us, baring teeth fully as long as my hand.

(Beneath the ground, the Nogg wizard gripped my heart tight.)

“Yadhosk,” I squeezed the words out of the vice I was being gripped in. “Tell the Nidrukk… the human is no Emissary. Being… played…”

Yadhosk squirmed, flipping himself upright in midair; and he let out a long chattering laugh. “And who,” he chirped at us, “do you think put the idea in the wizard’s metal-head?” He flicked his tail in a quick pattern, and Milo staggered back in his steps, cursing and rubbing his wrist. The squirrel dropped to the ground, and in two mighty bounds reached the base of the tree.

Milo slashed desperately with the levitation wand, but too slow; the bark opened up underneath Yadhosk and drew him in. “Damn!” Milo spat.

Beneath the ground, the wizard had finished his rant. Cloth obscured my second-vision as he put the heartcrystal into a pocket; then something snapped inside me, and the vision disappeared as he Gated away. The burning iron bands lifted from my chest, and my eyes began to spin back down to normal. “Owww,” I winced. “Fuck all, he’s gone.”

Milo blinked at the uncharacteristic language; then swore as he realized what I meant. “You mean him him?” he demanded. “The one who…”

“Yes,” I said through gritted teeth. “The one who…” Destroyed my home-star. Killed my entire family. Nearly killed me- would have, if Milo hadn’t been there just in time. “…the one who holds my star’s heart-crystal.”

Milo let out a growl of anger. Then, after a moment, he chuckled a little. “Think of it this way,” he said, “this just means when we kick his ass, we’ll be killing two drakes with one lance- we’ll save the dryads of Skyroot and keep you from dying, too.”

I gave him a half-smile in answer. “Unless we get eaten by a dragon instead,” I pointed out.

“Well, yes, I suppose that could happen too.” Milo looked up into the tree’s branches, where the dryads had mostly extinguished the flames my plasmabeam had set. “Ah, Shaula, have we walked into a legend? Yadhosk and Nidrukk? And this, the World-Tree?”

“No other,” I agreed grimly. “The legends say that the Tree’s roots imprison Nidrukk; but if the Nogg wizard can somehow free him…”

Milo shook his head in revulsion. “I don’t want to think about that kind of power in his hands.”

We were silent for a long moment. “How can we possibly stop a dragon?” I finally asked.

Milo shook his head. “I don’t think we can, really. I think… I think we have to try to make sure he doesn’t break free in the first place.” He ran a hand through his hair. “Um. So strengthening the Tree?”

Aza dropped lightly to the ground beside us, spear in hand and fury blazing in her eyes. “Strengthen the Tree?” she spat. “What, with more fire? How dare you, how dare…” she raised her spear, pointed it at us as her face darkened with rage.

Aul dropped down neatly in front of us, arms raised in supplication. “Aza, no! It was the Yadtahsk, the Whisperer!”

For a hot and furious moment it looked like Aza was ready to drive her spear through Aul to get to us; but finally, she whirled, swearing, and bounded away into the branches of the Tree.

Aul turned to us, eyes shadowed with weariness and some amount of doubt. “They are very angry,” she finally said.

Milo snorted. “Angry?” he began. “They should…”

I cut him off before he could even start. “And they should be,” I said humbly. “I am very sorry for the damage I wrought.” I bowed low in apology. “The one responsible for stirring up the dragon… he was here. His presence…” I searched for an explanation that would make sense. “He is an old foe of mine, and has a certain power over me. The rage that filled me… I could not control it.” I bowed even lower. “I grieve for the scar I have given your home.”

I meant every word of it, and I think Aul could tell. “You should come with me,” she said gruffly. “Your belongings have been gathered. Night is falling; and I am thinking you should rest a ways apart from the rest.” Her gaze darted up, then back to us. “They are very angry,” she said again, apologetically.

Next Chapter

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