Starlegacy by Steph T, Chapter 3 of 3

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Starlegacy (cont.)

Starring Milo Pulsar and Shaula Bluestar

In short order, we’d set up camp on the outskirts of the Tree’s canopy. In deference to the already-angry dryads, we didn’t build a fire, just threw up a heat-shield dome over our bedrolls and wolfed down a cold dinner.

“Strengthening the Tree,” I said reflectively as we finished up our meal. “How do we do that? Purge the poison somehow?”

Milo nodded slowly. “I’m not very strong with healing magic,” he said slowly. “And even if I was- this is a seriously large weight to lift. We’d need an enormous power source.”

“Do you know any strong Healers? Who we could ask for help?”

Milo thought. “Hmm. My friend Alyssa over at the Novum College’s healer’s department- no, wait, she’s on sabbatical this semester, and I’m not sure how to reach her.”

“Anyone else at the department we could get?” I asked hopefully.

He shook his head. “I kind of burned a lot of bridges when I left there,” he said apologetically. “By the time we’d convinced anyone to listen to us… well, I don’t think we have that kind of time.” He grumbled, kicked a rock. “Dammit.”

I sighed. The last of the light had disappeared from the sky, and the stars were starting to twinkle overhead. I gazed up at them appreciatively, soaking in their radiance and listening to their whispers.

Milo eyed me consideringly. “Maybe-” he started, when a sudden warbling noise made him jump. “What the…?” he muttered as he fumbled in his pocket and pulled out the Gate Key his uncle sent given him, back on Paragon.

“What is it?” I asked curiously.

“I didn’t realize… the Key’s also an astral communicator. I can’t believe him!” Annoyance flooded Milo’s face as he fumbled for a way to shut the thing off.

He evidently hit the wrong button, because Baross’s face suddenly appeared before us, hovering in midair above the key. “Milo!” the face said happily. “So good to see you, my nephew, so glad to-”

“Uncle Vlad!” Milo huffed. “I really don’t have time to talk- Shaula and I are working right now, we-”

“Having a nice camping excursion, I see,” he beamed, looking around at us and nodding politely to me. “Listen, I wanted to remind you that the graduation is tomorrow, and the school’s about two forward from standard, and it looks like you’re three or four behind, so an early morning for you! And I truly hope you can make it. Your cousin is just so excited to hear that you were thinking about it, he-”

“Uncle! I am saving the Galaxy here!” Milo’s face was almost purple with anger.

“Yes, exactly, such a fine example for the children, I must-”

“No, Uncle, I mean, right now, I am busy saving the Galaxy!” He ground his teeth. “I. Do not. Have time. For a graduation!”

A hurt expression crept onto Baross’s face. “Well, nephew,” he huffed. “If you’d rather enjoy your little camping trip with your… partner… than attend to your family duties, I suppose that’s just that then.” Baross shook his head sadly.

“UNCLE VLAD!” Milo hollered. “I AM-”

“Goodbye, Milo,” Baross interrupted, and the image faded out.

Milo stared at the Key. Looked over at the forest.

“Don’t do it,” I advised. “It wouldn’t be fair to inflict him on the dryads.” Milo’s face began to crack, and I continued. “We can incinerate it when we’re off planet. Or perhaps hurl it into a star?”

He couldn’t help it; he laughed. “Or Gate it into the Void,” he suggested. And at that we were off; devising more and more creative ways to be rid of that hated Key. Around the suggestion of “feed it to a surly drake with indigestion” I was struck with a wave of weariness. It had been a very long day; I looked at Milo and caught him yawning, too. “Sleep,” he nodded.

It seemed like I’d barely closed my eyes when suddenly Milo was shaking me awake. “Shaula, Shaula!” he whispered excitedly. “Wake up, starprincess, I had an idea!”

I blinked at him crankily. I’d been soaking in the nicest starlight… “What are you talking about?”

“You, it’s you!” A beaming smile split his face. “Can’t you just Sing the Tree back in shape? I mean, it wouldn’t be warping it- just putting it back the way its supposed to be. That’s in the realm of your Song, right?”

I eyed him, still a little irritable from being woken up. It wasn’t even morning yet- there was still plenty of starlight to absorb. “It could be,” I said with irritation, “if we could somehow have the Tree be floating in the black so I could pull energy off the local star. Which I’m pretty sure would free the Nidrruk. Pulling the Tree into orbit, that is. Even if it wasn’t infeasible.”

Milo’s face fell. “Yeah, you can’t just draw on any powerful mana source, can you?” he said, crestfallen. “Even if we had something strong enough. Ah, damn again.” He flopped back onto his bedroll.

I rolled my eyes and went back to sleep, dreaming of Thom, who was trying to tell me something important; but I was annoyed at him for having cut his hair, so I didn’t listen.

My eyes suddenly flew open, and I sat bolt upright. “Milo,” I whispered, shaking him awake. “Milo, wake up!”

Milo’s eyes opened a very tiny crack. “Whaaa?” he muttered.

“Milo, your idea wasn’t completely stupid!” I grinned, happiness beaming out of me as brilliant blue light.

Milo shaded his eyes and shook his head blearily. “Not completely stupid. But you hate weasels.”

“…what?”

“Oh, we’re awake.” He blinked again. “Wait, the Song idea?”

“Yes, the Song.” I reached into the pocket of my robe and pulled something out. “We do have a power source.”

Milo’s eyes widened as he came fully awake. “Is that the star crystal-”

“-that Wizard Secoundus found in the Fire Nebula last week, yes! I was examining it in my study before the Sorceror called us, I must have still had it in my pocket when we came, and-”

“…you can draw on it to channel the Song! Oh, perfect, perfect!” Milo surged to his feet- or tried to, but forgot he was still wrapped up in his sleeping rolls, and promptly fell on his face.

I looked up at the sky as Milo thrashed his way free. Dawn wasn’t far off; we’d be best off doing this quick. “Can you get me to the top of the Tree fast? The Skyroot star doesn’t like me, but if I can latch onto another before we lose…”

“Yeah, of course, some Snaring Vines should do the trick. I’ll come with, just a…” he pulled his foot out of a tangle of blanket. “Okay, yeah, let’s do this!”

I nodded gravely, and we started hurrying towards the Tree. “All right, now, you should know that some of the dryads might be sensitive about this- the Song thing- but just hold them off as best you can, okay?”

“Um, okay, sure, but you’re explaining that later,” Milo gave me a look.

“Mm, not likely,” I murmured softly.

Milo’s tome was open by the time we’d come in reach of the Tree’s bottom-most branches; a few sharply spoken words, and a pair of vines snaked down and wrapped around our waists, sending us flying upwards. I winced as we crashed noisily through the foliage; but there was no time to waste. Another sternly spoken phrase, and another pair of vines latched onto us. Upwards and upwards we went at a dizzying speed, only slowing as the branches grew more densely packed.

The sky was growing light when we finally broke through the canopy. “Higher,” I urged; Milo gestured commandingly, and the vines lifted me up and steadied me. I looked up; there, winking in the sky, was my home-star, still burning bright in the sky here, so many light-years distant. With a pang of sadness in my heart, I seized upon its fading light; gripped the starcrystal tight; and opened myself to the Song.

My voice rang out like a bell, filling the air around us with the First Drawing Note. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a bird startle, mantling wildly. Milo said something soothing to it; I put it from my mind and concentrated on simply channeling the Note.

Star above, Heart in hand, Tree below; and binding it all, the Song. I let it take me over, let myself become a vessel for the power. I felt the Tree surging beneath me, felt the incredible deep strength of it. My consciousness surged into its branches, its leaves, down its trunk; down into the roots. The deep sinkroots, the wide laterals, the threading secondaries; I felt them fill me, felt myself filling them. Felt the parts that were rotten, twisted. And with the Second Drawing Note, I attacked the rot.

The starcrystal was burning hot and bright in my hand. Skyroot’s star had risen; but its light could not overpower this channeling. Somewhere far away from the Song, I heard one of the dryads shouting something angry at Milo; he replied in a calm voice.

The Second Note was digging into the rot, pushing the dead flesh away and sealing it off, sending down new roots to replace what had been lost. So strong, so deep! And as those roots dug deep, I began to feel the shape of something else; something woven into the roots of the tree; a magic I could not quite comprehend. Nidrruk’s binding, I guessed; I could think of nothing else.

I didn’t try to change it; just gently poured the Third Drawing Note into the roots surrounding it, and watched it brighten.

I took a moment to glance down at the starcrystal in my hand. It was shining strong and bright; but to my shock, I realized I was shining as well, dangerously bright. If I wasn’t careful, I was going to burn myself out, quite literally. I didn’t dare launch into the full Song of Birth.

But the Three Notes were going to be enough, I realized. Offended dryads be damned; this was working.

Naturally, this is exactly when things got more complicated.

The sky cracked in front of us, and the Nogg wizard stepped out of a Gate. He hovered in midair before us, levitation harness glowing brightly.I didn’t give myself time to think; just latched myself onto the starcrystal in my hand. It didn’t protect me entirely, but when the wizard pulled my home’s heart from his pocket, I managed to keep myself from screaming in pain and losing control of the Notes.

It still hurt, though.

The Nogg wizard spoke a single word, gestured at us; a torrent of fire sprang from his fingertip and raced our way. But Milo was even faster, summoning up a shield of spinning water that doused the flame and deflected the heat away from the tender foliage.

Next to us, the eagle-it would be an eagle, I suddenly realized-screamed in anger and launched himself off his branch, diving towards the enemy wizard in single-minded fury. The wizard swore, dove to one side, and summoned up a shield of force. The eagle’s claws scrabbled off the impenetrable surface, and after a frustrated moment he pealed away to circle around for another attempt.

Beside me, Milo finished his incant, and before the Nogg wizard could turn to retaliate the sky turned grey, suddenly filling with towering storm clouds. Lightning cracked, narrowly missing the wizard. “Little to the right!” Milo shouted happily over the boom of thunder. And with a flick of his wrist he sent another bolt lancing towards the wizard.

This one struck, but ricocheted violently off a hastily flung-up shield of force. “He can’t keep that up forever,” Milo panted, hurling another bolt towards him. “Too much energy to maintain-oof!” The Nogg wizard had changed his tactic, and somehow managed to deflect the lightning to arc right past Milo’s head, filling the air with a smell of ozone.

Meanwhile, I clung to the Third Note, desperately sounding that tone into the Tree. If I could just hold on, drive that rot away! I shot Milo a desperate look; he nodded at me back and said something I couldn’t quite hear over the driving rain and crashing thunder.

Suddenly the rain turned cold; the lightning died away, and the raindrops turned into sudden sheets of snow and ice. I flinched as they slashed at my bare limbs-I hadn’t taken the time to pull my robe on when we’d jumped out of bed, and now I regretted it-and raised my core temperature as high as I dared. The vines at my waist squirmed a little in displeasure.

Milo’s tome glowed fiercely as he pulled at the storm, sending a cloud of little ice-lances swirling around the Nogg wizard. He couldn’t defend himself from all sides; I saw some of the lances score hits. His robes darkened with blood in a few spots; and his face twisted in anger. I saw him speak a short incant, and he clutched my heart-stone tight. A wave of pain lanced through me as he drew power from the starcrystal to fuel his spell; and then again as a furious blast of wind drove that wall of ice and snow directly and Milo and myself.

I lurched unsteadily as one of the vines supporting me was entirely severed, and the remaining vine labored to compensate. Milo stumbled back as well, bleeding from a dozen shallow cuts.

Caught off balance, we’d both have been done for if our ally the eagle hadn’t chosen that moment to strike, diving fast and hard for the wizard’s back. The Nogg wizard went tumbling, spinning wildly as the talons managed to sever one of the levitation harness’s shoulder straps. The eagle managed to disengage, but was slow to get clear; the wizard managed to nail him with a lance of fire that sent him spiralling to the ground.

I glanced over at Milo; he was pale and panting hard. I knew he didn’t have a lot of favors saved up with most of his usual allies; he’d likely been drawing all the power for these spells from his own mana reserves and his Tome. And it didn’t look like he had a lot left.

I let the Note fade. Tree be damned; the rot was almost gone anyways, and the drayds could cut the rest away safely. It was easy, so easy, to let the heat boil up into my eyes. The Nogg wizard managed to stabilize his spin; and as he did, I shot a plasmabeam that burned with more fury than I had thought I could contain.

It connected solidly. By all rights, it should have seared the flesh from his bone. But to my complete shock, it fizzled, the beam crackling and running off him in little rivulets.

The Nogg wizard raised my heartcrystal and gave it-and me-a puzzled look. “What the,” I heard him mutter. “There was… a survivor?”

I looked at Milo desperately. “That’s all I’ve got,” I said.

He shook his head. “My laser whip’s back at the camp. If we live through this, I’m buying you one, dammit.”

“Enough!” the Nogg wizard bellowed, his voice cutting through the dying storm. He snarled an arcane command; the last bits of ice and snow dispersed, and thin sunlight pierced the cloud cover. “Enough,” he repeated, glaring at the two of us. He looked tired as well; not as exhausted as Milo, but then, he’d had a starcrystal to draw on. “It would have been better,” he continued, “to claim the Tree as well. But I suppose I will content myself with the one prize. NIDRRUK!” And he threw his arms wide, my heartcrystal burning like a tiny blue star in his hand.

Something cracked, louder than thunder, and shook the very air around us. Void and black, how could anything be so loud? “The binding!” Milo gasped, clinging to the branch beneath him. “Shaula, the dragon!”

Hundreds of feet below us, the earth surged as the Nidrruk exploded free of his prison, roots cracking and dryads screaming around him.

I looked at him wide-eyed and desperate. “It’s an Earth-dragon, though, right?” I asked foolishly. “It wouldn’t be able to…”

A gust of wind surged past us as the dragon shot skywards, huge wings unfurling for the first time in centuries.

“…Fly?” Milo asked wryly. “Nah, I’m sure not.”

“And you must fly,” said a new voice. We whirled as one to see the singed and scraggly form of the eagle light on a branch next to us. “Look, even now the wizard flees.”

And sure enough, the Nogg wizard was giving us an ironic bow as the air around him crackled; and then with a crack, he’d Gated away again.

“Fuck!” I swore. “Milo, the crystal!”

“Shaula, the dragon,” he replied, pointing wildly at the sky, where the dragon was slowly turning around, no doubt to attack.

“Fly,” the eagle urged us. “I can protect the Tree and its people; but it is not in my power to protect you, Outworlders.”

“Fly, fly, augh, Shaula, I don’t have good flight spells!” Milo clenched his fists in frustration, patted at his various pockets. “Fly, fly-what? Well, damn, I guess this’ll do, Shaula, come here!” And pulling out his uncle’s Gate Key in one hand, he grabbed my wrist in the other, and with a single spoken Word he sent us flying halfway across the galaxy.

We landed on our hands and knees in at least six inches of velvety-soft grass, the thick, plush kind it takes decades to groom. A ripple of shocked gasps sounded around us; we looked up to see a crowd of well-dressed parents and their uniform-clad sons staring at us in shock and dismay.

I rolled my eyes and ignored them. “Milo, are you okay?” I asked in a low voice, running my fingers over the cut on his face. Oh good, it was shallow; hard to tell with any cut to the head and face, but it seemed we were lucky.

He winced away from my fingers, and nodded. “Nothing that won’t heal. You?”

“Sore on my insides,” I grimaced, “but same, nothing that won’t heal. Um. Are we at your cousin’s graduation?”

“I couldn’t think of anything else,” he replied with chagrin.

“Milo! Milo my boy, is that you?” Vlad Baross pushed through the gawking crowd, and as he caught sight of us I watched expression turn from surprised pleasure to sour outrage. “Milo!” he cried indignantly. “This is neither the time nor the place for…! For this sort of…!” He gestured at the two of us still sprawled on the lawn.

I’d had enough. “I’ve got this,” I murmured to Milo, and in a single graceful moment stood up to my full height- which, while not particularly human-tell, was still a head higher than Baross. “Mister Baross,” I said in a cold and level voice, “that is quite enough. I have no idea what possesses you to think that you have the right to pass judgement on your nephew; who has been, as he told you just last evening, working and fighting to protect the innocent and defend the peace of the Galaxy!” Most of the younger boys and a number of the adults were staring at me with a strange expression on their faces-oh. Human decency usually meant wearing more than just thermal wraps, for whatever reason. Ah well; I continued on nonetheless. “But I will not permit you to berate him any further. While you have been attending to your festivities,” I gestured at the gathered masses, the schoolgrounds bedecked with ribbons and flowers and elegant decorations, “your nephew and I have been fighting, among other things, a dragon. And furthermore-”

“Father,” interrupted a tall youth behind Baross, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Father, don’t fuss; we should be welcoming our guests, not scolding them!” Cousin Darvy- who else could it be?- stepped forward with a white smile, and offered his hand to me. “Lady Bluestar,” he said politely. “I’m Darvin Baross, and I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.” Very well-spoken, for a human youth.

I gave him my hand, and watched in amusement as he bowed over it. “A pleasure, Darvin,” I murmured.

Milo got to his feet beside me, nodded at the youth. “Heyah, Cousin Darvy,” he said casually.

“Milo,” he grinned broadly. “I’m really glad you could make it, even if-”

“Darvy,” Baross blustered. “You can’t seriously believe this dragon nonsense, can you? It’s clearly just an excuse to cover your cousin’s slovenly-”

“Father,” Darvin said sharply, as Milo and I watched in amusement. The drake had certainly flown far from the horde with this one.

Whatever he was going to say was cut off as a shriek came from the far edge of the crowd. Milo and I exchanged a look, then without so much as a word between us waded through the crowd to the sound of the scream.

I’d never seen a private Gate Anchor before, but I had no doubt that was what this was. Twice as tall as a man, carved from pure white marble and inlaid with gold all over, it was hands-down the tackiest display of sheer wealth I’d ever seen.

It was capped with a half-dome of clear faceted glass or stone of some sort, currently flashing bright orange. “What does that mean?” I asked Milo with forced casualness.

“Something’s forcing its way through!” a woman beside me screamed. “That’s not supposed to be possible!”

Milo’s eyes widened, and he turned slowly to face me. “Um. Looks like it was not a clean getaway,” he said, a bit foolishly.

“No,” I replied weakly.

And at that my partner whirled into action. “Everybody out of the area!” he bellowed at the top of his lungs, gesturing wildly back towards the school building. “Get off the lawn, get inside and get whatever wards the building has up, and you better hurry!” The parents all gawked and stared; but the sons, for the most part, leaped to obey, hurrying the rest along.

But not all of them moved; and many of them moved slowly. So the grounds were far from clear when the dome on top of the Gate Anchor shattered and the Nidrruk smashed through.

(Oh, they moved then. Screaming and running and falling over themselves, they moved!)

The dragon was huge. It must have been eighty feet long from nose to tail; a powerfully built creature, short and thickly muscled. And it was fast; unfair that something so enormous should be so fast! It bounded across the lawn, gouging huge chunks out of that carefully maintained green and splattering mud and sod all over the guests.

“Aw, shit,” Milo muttered, and I couldn’t agree more.

“We’ve got to get them clear,” I murmured, and shaking my head, broke into a run directly towards the screaming crowd.

We had only one thing on our side- something as large as a house couldn’t change speeds very fast. Granted, this only gave us moments instead of instants; but we made good use of those moments, pulling fallen men and women to their feet and pushing them in the direction of the school. One woman had broken something in her leg when she fell; I grabbed a pair of schoolboys and directed them to carry her.

Then, the Nidrruk turned. And then, the Nidrruk charged.

My plasmabeams hadn’t scratched his hide; but maybe they could still do something. I fired off a blast- not at the dragon, but at the earth beneath his feet. He stumbled as the ground opened beneath him and tumbled him over.

Milo and I threw ourselves out of the way as the dragon rolled towards us, roaring in rage. It got to its feet; one of its legs was bent the wrong way, and for a moment I dared hope we might have a chance. But it shook its head, straighted its leg out with a mighty crack, and charged right towards us.

“Got this one,” Milo grunted, and with a word and gesture summoned up a sheet of thick ice under Nidrruk’s feet. It went sliding again, roaring its rage as it smashed into a tree, splintering the stately hundred-year-old oak as though it were a sapling. Limbs went flying; I saw one bounce off a half-dome shield being held up by no other than Cousin Darvy. I frowned in dismay; then saw him standing protectively over the limp form of his father.

No time to think farther; the Nidrruk was charging again. But before we could set anything in waiting, it dove into the earth, sliding beneath the churned mud and grass as though it were water. Milo and I exchanged a horrified look; he grabbed my arm and started gabbling out his earth-armor spell.

The plates of stone and earth were only halfway-settled onto my body when the ground exploded beneath us, sending the two of us flying across the trampled green. I managed to cling to him and somehow turn us in midair so that when we hit the tree, I hit first. The stone-plate shattered, and we dropped to the ground as a single dazed lump.

I couldn’t get my eyes to focus; I blinked and blinked. Milo’s too-pale face swam before me. “I don’t have much left,” he gasped.

“Been good knowing you,” I said softly, meaning it.

“Hey!” a voice cried across the field. “Hey, you, dragon! Over here!”

I managed at last to focus my eyes, and saw a horror. Cousin Darvy had charged into the middle of the field and was now waving his arms distractingly at the Nidrruk.

“Darvy, no,” Milo moaned, but no use; the Nidrruk fastened its gaze on the youth, and opened its jaws wide in anticipation. “Ah, fuck, no!” A strange look stole over Milo’s face. “Might as well,” he muttered to himself, “couldn’t possibly make it worse.” He shoved himself up into a crouch, unable to manage anything more upright. And with his shaking arms raised, he called out an incant I’d never heard.

And everything around us just… stopped.

I mean everything. The dragon, the families; a spray of mud flying up under Nidrruk’s gallop froze in midair. Darvy was actually caught a few inches off the ground, jumping and waving.

And it suddenly seemed to me that the entire scene before us- the sweeping grounds, the dignified buildings, the messy and hopeless combat- that all of it was being viewed through a window of some sorts, a huge glass lens. And suddenly that lens blinked, and a huge eye opened before us, and a voice pounded through our heads.

“WHO DARES?”

The force of those words shattered the image of the world around us, and we found ourselves seated on a smooth dark surface, floating somewhere in the blackness of space. Stars shone all around us, and swirled in the great eye that floated before us. And that eye, I realized, was connected to an even greater head; and a body so long I couldn’t even conceive of its size.

This couldn’t be happening. “You summoned the Star Dragon?” I squeaked.

Milo swayed in place. If he hadn’t been crouching, I’m sure he’d have fallen; as it is, he had to lower his arms to steady himself. “Please,” he said simply, in a voice rough with exhaustion. “Please, mighty Dragon; we beg your aid.”

“I CAN SEE YOUR PLIGHT, HUMAN WIZARD. YOU HAVE CHOSEN TO TANGLE WITH ONE OF MY CHILDREN; AND FOR YOUR IMPUDENCE, YOU ARE ABOUT TO DIE. AND YOU DARE- YOU DARE ASK ME FOR HELP?! I SEE NO REASON I SHOULD NOT END YOU MYSELF!”

The voice boomed through the black, and I cringed away from it, feeling small and powerless under the sheer force of the words. But somehow, Milo found the strength to answer it. “Please, mighty Star Dragon, hear us; we would never choose to face the Nidrruk if we could avoid it. But another has tricked and misled your… your child, freed it from its prison on Skyroot, stirred it up and set it against us by claiming… claiming to be your emissary!”

The great Eye narrowed, and the stars inside it spun even more wildly. I clung to Milo’s arm, too terrified to even speak.

“YOU DO NOT LIE TO ME; THIS I SEE. AND I CANNOT IGNORE THE INSULT OF ONE CLAIMING TO BE MY EMISSARY.”

I dared to hope.

“BUT NEITHER CAN I IGNORE THE INSULT OF BEING CALLED IN SUMMONS AS THOUGH I WERE A LESSER BEING. AND SO YOU WILL DIE.”

“Wait!” someone cried; and I was surprised to realize it was me. I found myself on my knees, gazing pleadingly into that great eye. “Please, Star Dragon, accept this token in offering and apology,” I begged, proffering with both hands the star crystal that I had- pretty miraculously, really- managed to hang on to through the entire scuffle.

The Eye looked at me, and I felt every defense of my mind being stripped away. I stood before the Star Dragon, shivering and vulnerable; I felt his gaze on my very core.

“STAR-CHILD, ORPHAN OF BLUESTAR, THE INSULT OFFERED HERE WAS NONE OF YOUR OWN; AND FOR YOUR LOSS, AND BECAUSE I AM FOND OF YOUR PEOPLE’S SONG, I WOULD SPARE YOUR LIFE. KEEP THE STARHEART AND LEAVE THE WIZARD; ITS POWER COULD YET EXTEND YOUR LIFE, IF USED WISELY.”

I swallowed hard. “I can’t do that,” I said helplessly. “Milo saved my life; and I know he offered you insult, and I know also he would never have done so if it could have been avoided. But all those people are going to die, and he… he could never just let that happen.” I shook my head, and proffered the crystal again. “Please, take the offering, and spare my friend.”

The eye blinked, very slowly; and when the great lid rose again, there was a new star glittering in the eye’s depth, and my hand were empty.

“VERY WELL, CHILD; FOR YOUR OFFERING AND YOUR GRACE, I WILL FORGIVE THIS INSULT.”

I nearly collapsed in relief.

Then the eye turned to face Milo.

“WIZARD. WHAT WOULD YOU ASK OF ME?”

Milo shook his head. “Only to bind him once more, mighty Star Dragon. I would not presume to ask his life; just to save all the lives he would take if left unchecked. And-er-that he would know better than to believe someone claiming to be your Emissary.”

The eye blinked again, slowly.

“AND YOU ARE WILLING TO ACCEPT THE PRICE THAT MY AID WILL CARRY?”

Milo was nodding before the Star Dragon had even finished asking the question. “Whatever the price, I will bear it.”

“VERY WELL, WIZARD. THERE WILL COME A DAY WHEN I CALL IN THIS MARKER; BUT FOR NOW, I WILL BIND THE NIDRRUK ONCE MORE. AND NO FALSE EMISSARY SHALL EVER COMMAND IT AGAIN.”

“Thank you,” Milo murmured, and then his arms gave out beneath him and he collapsed in a heap.

I scrambled to help him, pull him partly upright; and suddenly we were back on the green at the school, and the Nidrruk was bearing down on young Darvin Baross, jaws wide and teeth sharp. I heard a woman scream; I didn’t blame her. The Dragon was less than a body-length away from the boy when a huge booming sound cracked across the lawn and the Nidrruk disappeared.

Cousin Darvy stumbled back and fell on his rear in the mud. “I knew it!” he yelled across the field at us, waving madly. Scrambling back to his feet, he ran over to Milo and me, smiling broadly. “I knew you could handle it, Milo!” he said excitedly. “I figured if I could distract it long enough you’d figure something out- I, er, I’m awfully glad you did so before it ate me, of course.” He flushed suddenly, as though he’d realized what a colossally stupid thing he’d nearly done.

Milo was still lying half in my lap, utterly exhausted. “Mmph,” he said eloquently, and closed his eyes.

“Your cousin needs to rest,” I said gently, before Darvy could say anything further. “He drained his reserves of mana in the fight fairly severely.”

“Of course,” he said in a subdued and respectful tone. “Err, I’ll get the school nurse then. Lady Bluestar,” he added with a hurried bow.

I nodded at him, and he took off running the other way. “Still with us, Milo?” I asked quietly once the boy was gone, smoothing the wizard’s hair back away from his face.

“Mmmph.”

“Here’s what’s going to happen now, partner: I’m going to go take one of the school’s skimmer shuttles before anyone notices, and we’re going to sneak off home, okay?”

“Mmpph. Best partner in history of wizarding.” He didn’t open his eyes, but he smiled faintly.

“It’s possible.” I fished in the pocket of his robes and drew out the Gate Key. “Too bad you lost this thing in the scuffle,” I said solemnly, winding up and pitching it as far away from us as I could get. ”I bet Uncle Vlad would love to tell you how this is all your fault, but well, no way of doing that now, hmm?”

“Best. Ever.”

And we got the hell out of there.

* * *

Things were pretty much wrapped up at that point. We finished up helping the dryads on Skyroot, who were both grateful and a little resentful. Milo spent some time talking with Aul, and then cornered me about it.

“Question for you, starpartner,” he said over Androsus’s back. We were just loading our packs back onto the two dinorockets to head off planet.

“Yes, Milo?”

“Why did dryads and starbeings split up?”

I didn’t flinch- at least, not visibly. “Been speaking to Aul, hmm?”

“She said you’d be better to explain this part.”

I let out a soft sigh, laid my cheek against Tau’s flank for a moment. “It’s a bit of a story,” I hedged. “Are you sure-”

“Yes.”

I closed my eyes. “All right,” I finally said. “It was Hropti Arnhof.”

“Founder of the Order of Delphi, first Runic Wizard, etcetera etcetera?”

I nodded. “He came to the Tree for wisdom. Some of the dryads didn’t think it was a good idea to pass on the power to a human; didn’t think that humanity was…” I searched for the words.

“Worthy?” Milo offered.

I shook my head. “Ready for it. Remember, humanity around Arnhof’s time was embroiled in so many civil wars; they’d caused such damage already, and that was with only limited Evocation and Divination and the rest; there was a faction that strongly felt that if humanity had more…” I spread my arms wide. “But they were overruled, obviously.”

“Mm. Since he evidently hung on the tree, on a spear, for nine days.” Milo raised an eyebrow. “That’s just a story, right?”

“Indeed, much like troglodytes. Just a story.”

“Ouch.” But he smiled.

“Anyways,” I continued, “when he came off the Tree, the Tree had found him worthy. Given him Rune Magic, among other things.” I bit my lip. “He… he had song-magic, Arnhof did. He chose not to pass that one on, though.”

“Huh.”

“He’d made a deal with the Tree; to guard the Galactic Nexus. Which is actually part of what the Tree is, but that’s a story for another time.” I shook my head. “So the dryads who’d been against it- they were hurt that the Tree thought otherwise, and so they left.” I shrugged. “The Tree let them go, I think; and they rose into the sky and became starbeings.” I paused. “They took the Songs with them; and left the earth-magics behind. Kind of a division of power, or rather powers.”

“And that’s why the dryads were so sore about you doing your Song?”

I nodded. “Essentially, yes. I was rubbing it in, really; even my being here must have stung. The ones who left, come back to gloat now that the Tree is dying…” I let my voice trail off.

Milo was on a different path, though. “Shaula… when Arnhof brought Rune Magic to humanity… that was the only thing that saved us from the Cataclysm.” He raised an eyebrow. “If Arnhof hadn’t built that Astral Gate, we’d all have been on Acanthus when it shattered.”

I turned my head away and studiously re-checked Tau’s pack.

A note of annoyance crept into his voice. “Did those starbeings know that? They must have had an idea- would they really have been so…” his voice trailed off. “Wow. They really would have let humanity die?”

“We were unsure of the wisdom in letting them live, yes,” I replied evenly. “Such destruction- all that chaos.” I shuddered. “Humankind destroys a lot of trees. And stars.”

“Oh, now it’s we?” Milo replied sarcastically.

I turned my face away. “The Cataclysm wouldn’t have ever happened if humanity hadn’t let its patron Spirit die,” I said softly.

“We didn’t just let her die,” Milo said quietly. And he looked away too. After an awkward quiet moment, he changed the topic. “I know you weren’t alive then, Shaula- what do you think? How would you have voted, then?”

I sighed. “I don’t know, Milo,” I replied truthfully. “If humanity had been wiped out, it would never have birthed the man who killed my family, and nearly destroyed this planet, too.” I shook my head. “But I also would never have met you.”

“And wait, you’re counting that a positive?” he asked with a wry grin.

I laughed softly. “You’re my best and only friend in the universe, Milo,” I said, quite truthfully.

“Pshh,” he scoffed. “What about my Cousin Darvy, who is totally in love with you now?”

“Oh, stop!” I laughed.

“No, really, you should see the letter he already sent me! Dear Cousin Milo, it was so good to see you and your Lady Star-Partner, I hope she is recovered from the injuries you both suffered, et cetera!” Milo snickered, fastened the last pouch on Andry’s back.

“He’s a good kid,” I rolled my eyes. “Did you know he’s planning on joining the Space Fleet as soon as he’s old enough?”

“I’m sure he’ll go far.” Milo shook his head, pulled himself up and into his flight-strap. “Ready?”

“Undoubtedly. And it could behoove us, Milo, to maintain ties- connections with the Fleet could come in handy some day.” I clambered up onto Tau’s back. “All set, let’s go.”

And we left Skyroot.

There was a pile of angry letters waiting for Milo when we got home, all from Uncle Vlad. We tipped them into the fire together unread.

The rest of the Order of Paragon was a little disappointed I’d lost the starcrystal, but quite impressed that we’d faced- and arguably defeated- a dragon, so they ended up letting that slide.

The one real failure of the entire mission was losing track of the Nogg wizard. Milo tried to trace his Gate back to wherever he’d come from, but with no luck; and all our other avenues of investigation were similarly fruitless.

“He’s probably running scared, right Shaula?” Milo suggested hopefully.

“I doubt it,” I replied skeptically. “And now that he knows I exist, it’ll be even tougher to dig him out.”

“Hey,” he said softly. “We’ll do it. Promise.”

And you know what? Call me naive, call me foolish or just too trusting; I believed him. We’d already done the impossible; we’d faced down a dragon and survived. “Yeah,” I said softly, and felt a genuine smile break across my face. “We really will, huh?”

He grinned back, and my heart felt just a little bit lighter.

Humans have a saying, that friends are the family you choose for yourself.

I think I chose well.

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