Emmanuel yawned as gray death screamed toward him, all glistening white hunting fangs, leathery skin, and great membranous wings.
He pulled the trigger when he felt the first downdrafts from the lizard's wings, just as he'd been taught by Woodcraft-Mistress Rebekah. His aim proved as reliable as ever: the bolt went home in the wyvern's scrawny chest, pinning it spreadeagled against the indigo sky. With one final, disbelieving screech, it crumpled and fell silently to the ground, dead as a stone.
The Sprite lad grinned briefly, running a weary hand through his shock of curly brown hair. His latest kill meant they'd done away with seven of the nasties so far this
morning. In a moment, the number would be eight; the little draconian flyers always came in pairs.
A brutal shriek ripped the woodland silence. It was followed, a long second later, by the heavy thud of a wyvern striking the ground. Isaiah'd been lucky, too. That's eight.
Turning completely around in his treetop perch, Manny carefully scrutinized the sky. Nothing. The firmament was empty for as far as he could see. He heaved out a great, heavy sigh; the wood-wyverns would be slow in coming from here on in. Stupid as they were, they'd soon realize that it was plenty dangerous to frequent this part of the Galanier Forest today.
He plucked cantankerously at the garish orange-and-red lure-suit that sheathed his compact frame, staring discontentedly out at the trees that surrounded him. It was hot as the hinges of Hades up here. He most definitely needed a bath; he could smell the bitter tang of his own sweat. Heck, the wyverns themselves were probably sniffing him out rather than using their eyes to find him. Hmmph. For Gaea's sake, why did he have to be the lure, while Izzy got to slouch amid the cool branches ten ems below? For that matter, what the deuce had made him volunteer for Pest Control duty in the first place? He hated the daytime. Cursing under his breath, he lifted his tail and scratched his chin with the tip. Ah, heck. He knew very well why he'd volunteered. Pest Control had seemed so damned glamorous. Well, that was last week. He knew better now -- and he'd never volunteer for anything again so long as he lived, by gum. Let some other nimnod teen do it next time. He'd never been this bored in his entire life, not even the time he'd gone on that 'dillo hunting expedition with Uncle Abraham.
Heck, hunting 'dillos was downright exciting compared to potting wyverns. At least the 'dillos surprised you sometimes.
Sighing, Manny leaned back against the treetrunk to wait. Thoughts of his friend Sarah, and what he'd like to do with her, teased the fringes of his mind...but no, that was something he shouldn't be thinking about, not when he was 30 ems up in the fractal branches of a galgar. Instead, he found himself drifting into his second-favorite fantasy: he was a Sprite tech in one of the great Colony ships, at some ill-defined time during the two-millennium Exile between Gaea and Landfall. He and his people shared the Ship with all the other Made Races -- urbane Alfar, mysterious Fae, brawny Daemons -- as well as the base human stock from which they'd been engineered, the Firstkin. In his daydream, he spent his time crawling about like an em- long spider in the bowels of the Ship, using his prehensile tail to aid him as he made repairs, saving the Ship and its precious cargo from catastrophe over and over again...
Man, that must have been heaven! To be surrounded by hecs and hecs of machines! But all that was two hundred generations gone: the Landing had been almost four thousand years ago now, and the only machines they had were the ones they could recover from the Lander hive-cities on the Shipdowns.
" Heads up, Manny! " Isaiah's shout snapped the young Sprite out of his reverie. He heard a crossbow thrum below him. " Missed! " Izzy cried as his bolt sailed off over the trees. " Get him, Manny! "
Grimacing, Manny spitted the wyvern with a quarrel. It died as unspectacularly as all the others had. Expecting its mate at any moment, he took a pair of bolts from his quiver and casually reloaded his doublebow. Let the stupid critter come looking for his mate. He was more than ready.
For wyverns, anyway. So he was terribly surprised when a full-grown Wyrm swooped down from above to snatch him up and carry him away.
He barely heard Isaiah's frightened shout as the Wyrm's claws bit into his shoulders, yanking him suddenly up into the sky. Manny did a bit of panicked shouting of his own then, but the big reptile ignored him as it soared up above the trees and away toward the South. Manny's stomach seemed to drop out of him as the dragon propelled itself ever upward with mighty beats of its immense wings. The great beast banked to the left suddenly, rising on a thermal; buffeted by the abrupt change of direction, it was all Manny could do to hang onto his doublebow.
Grinning fiercely, the Sprite pointed the weapon upward. He had no desire to be some Wyrm's meal; one bolt in the breast would make this ugly nightmare let go of him. His finger tightened on the trigger...
-Wouldn't do that if I were you,- murmured a resonant voice in his head. A vast, inexplicable grief filled the mindvoice. He knew automatically it must be the Wyrm speaking. Had to be. Only Fae and dragons used mindspeech, and naturally there were no Fae around when he needed them, dammit.
He twisted his head back and looked up toward the dragon's big scaly head, somewhat encouraged, and feeling the least bit defiant. " Wouldn't, huh? Why not? Scared I might hurt ya? "
-No, not really,- the dragon replied. -But look down.-
Manny did, and nearly fainted. They were still flying over the Forest, oh yes, but the Forest lay at least two kays below. The Sprite gulped hard. After a lifetime of living in the trees, he found that he'd suddenly developed an acute fear of heights.
-Now, I doubt that little toy you've got there could penetrate my hide,- the Wyrm went on, -but at this range, it might sting a little and cause me to drop you. Get the picture?-
A small nod was all Manny could manage. Sure, he got the picture, all right. In a big way.
-Yeah, you know, at this height, things tend to splatter quite respectably when dropped.- The dragon's right claw slipped off Manny's shoulder. -Oops!-
At that point, the Sprite quietly fainted. The dragon shook him once, trying to rouse him, but to no avail; the little guy was out cold.
-By the First Egg,- the great reptile growled to herself. -Stupid humans never can take a joke.- Shrugging, the dragon spiraled higher into the sky, to a height that would have sent poor Manny into convulsions had he been conscious, and continued south. The last of the Galanier slipped by unnoticed far below, as they passed into the airspace of the Llannedth Confederacy, headed for the Llannedth Mounts and Dragonheim.
It was cold. Manny rolled over, reaching for his bedcovers. His fingers encountered only hard logs and mud wattle. What the...?
He came quickly awake. Rubbing his eyes, he surveyed his surroundings. He wasn't dead: that was good, so far. He found himself on an open platform some twenty ems square, a stage of sorts constructed quite cleverly of galgar and tamari logs welded together with adobe mortar. The flat surface was pitted and gouged by countless rough landings. In the center of the platform was a massive nest, woven of tree branches and splintered bone, and in the middle of the nest sat the dragon.
-Good morning,- she said in his mind. -Feel better after your little nap?-
Gulp. " Uh, yes, ma'am, dragon, ma'am, " he stammered. " W-where are we? "
-Look around,- she replied. -I'm sure you'll figure it out.-
Hugging his arms to his chest, he obeyed. Gods, it was frigid up here. And no wonder. Snow-clad mountains marched to the horizon on either side. Far in the distance, off to the East, he could see a huge, imposing peak that must have reached up to punch a hole in the top of the sky. It was at least twenty, maybe thirty kays high. He recognized it immediately; on a clear day, that mountain was visible even in the South Galanier, hundreds of kays distant.
-'Dragonslicer', you humans call it,- the dragon noted. -A silly name, but apt, after a fashion. It's a sort of testing ground for our young; if, at a certain age, they can reach the peak, then they can call themselves ifuthan, that is to say, a 'dragon', as you humans name us. If they fail, they die. Futhananna kills them.- The dragon rumbled deep in her throat.
Manny nodded, his teeth chattering -- and from more than the cold. " We're in the Llannedth Mounts, then. Dragonheim. "
-Of course. Atop Sleestal's Peak.-
" Sleestal...? "
-My name, Spriteling. Or my title, if you prefer. What do you call your tiny self?- Her great glassy eyes glittered red.
" I, uh, that is, I'm Manny. Um, Emmanuel, son of Daniel, son of -- "
-I get the point, Emmanuel Danielson. I don't really care much; idle curiosity, nothing more. My egg ought to be cracking any moment now. But until then, we might as well enjoy a bit of civilized conversation.-
Manny took a deep breath. " Egg? "
-Yes, egg. The one I'm sitting on. You're going to be Stistanti's first meal. You didn't think I brought you up here for nothing, did you?- Her laugh chilled down Manny's spine.
Panic sprang to life in him full-grown. Nuh-uh. No way. He was too young for this. He began backing away. He didn't care to be a dragon's meal, now or ever. He'd die first.
-Don't even try it,- Sleestal advised. She reached out and snatched him up with the tip of her flexible tail, held him out over the edge of the platform. -It's a long way down. See?-
He saw. The mountain was steep, and the nesting platform lay at the edge of a vertiginous precipice. A good kay or so below, sharp rock spires clutched hungrily upward. And the base of the mountain was far below that.
Abruptly, an icy calm that had nothing to do with the temperature settled over the Sprite. It was replaced a split-second by pure rage. " So I die either way, huh? " he shouted. " I can jump and die on the rocks, and you'll feed me to your dragonet anyway. Or I can stay and meekly get eaten. I'm damned if I do and damned if I don't. By the gods, why did you pick me? Why not a mountain goat or a thrummer? Why'd you pick me, huh? Why me? "
-BECAUSE YOU KILLED MY CHILD!- Sleestal shrieked. -YOU KILLED MY EARENTARL!- He suddenly found himself face to face with a ton of angry dragon -- glittering green eyes, fangs, ebon claws, the whole nine ems. Huge knots of muscle bunched under iridescent skin as she eyed him angrily.
Terrified again, he squeaked, " But I didn't! I was killing wyverns for Pest Control! I never -- " His vocal cords froze in his throat as a horrible realization overtook him.
-Yes,- she sneered, slamming him to the platform. He lay there dazed for a moment, face averted, afraid to look at her. -That last 'wyvern' you killed. That was no wyvern. It was my son, Earentarl. Had you looked closely, you might have noticed the differences. He was a little large for a wyvern, wasn't he? Not quite the right color. Much larger head. No crest...I could go on. A thousand small things. But you didn't take the time to notice. You just reacted, as all humans do...- Her anger sputtered out, replaced by a measureless grief.
" I-I didn't know, " Manny sputtered, shocked. " I don't...understand. Why did he buzz us? "
He was playing with you,- Sleestal replied dully. -He wasn't old enough or responsible enough to understand what weapons were, that he could die. By the time I realized what he was doing, it was...too late.-
" I'm sorry, " Manny whispered, sincerely ashamed.
-He was seventeen,- the dragon mused. -Older than you, I imagine, but younger, in a way; we futhan mature more slowly than you invader humans.-
" Yes, several years older. " Manny felt a lump grow in his throat.
-You understand now why I brought you here, don't you? Futhani justice. A life for a life.-
" Yes. " That didn't mean he had to like it.
-You can't get away quick enough that I can't find you. And I can't let you jump. We don't eat carrion.-
Every particle of his soul shouted No! I'm not ready to die! but aloud, he said, " I understand. But I can't promise I won't jump if I get the chance. "
She eyed him wearily. -I'd have expected no less. I can't blame you. I'll just have watch you, won't I?- She rumbled deep in her throat. -The egg will crack soon. Stistanti will be very hungry.-
" I'm n-not afraid, " Manny said in a trembling voice.
-Of course you are. It's only natural.- A trace of amusement crept into the dragon's mindvoice. -But Heth, who knows? You might get lucky. The egg might not hatch after all. Though that's unlikely.- The mental equivalent of a toothy grin flared against Manny's forebrain.
" I'm still not scared. "
-Whatever you say.-
He nodded; that was settled. Then he lay down again, very scared indeed, and began to mentally compose himself for death.
The hours passed slowly. Manny couldn't sit still; he wandered about the platform, examining things, as Sleestal watched attentively. The bones of scores of animals -- and a few humans -- lay scattered about the platform, and quite a few were woven into the nest. Most of the human bones were obviously those of Firstkin and Alfar, but he spied the tail vertebrae of at least one Sprite. He also found quite a few interesting artifacts: knives, cuirasses, coins, a mirror, even a fantastic glittering sword made of crystal embedded with fine wires. Eventually, the boy could stand the strain of waiting no longer. " Um...will the egg hatch soon? " he asked the dragon.
Sleestal, who had been dozing, opened one gold-flecked eye. -It should.-
"But when? "
She chuckled. -Feisty little thing, aren't you? It will be soon.-
Unable to conquer his rising impatience, Manny went to the edge and peered over.
It was still a long way down.
Shivering, he walked back to the nest, and courageously sat down on the edge. The dragon stared at him curiously.
" Can I see it? " he requested, after a time.
-My egg? Certainly.- Sleestal pulled back to reveal the big, whitish ovoid that lay beneath her. -Pretty, isn't it?-
He nodded. Pretty it was, in its own way; impressive as well. It wasn't at all like a chicken's egg, or even a dygarth's. Its shell seemed more leathery than hard, and it was speckled with brown dots and pale bands of blue. A faint iridescence, like that of Sleestal's skin, underlay the colors. " Stistanti? That's its name? "
" How do you know it'll be a her? "
-I planned it that way be when I laid my egg, two years ago. Satisfied?-
He nodded. Two years...that was a long time to wait for a baby. The Five Races of Landfaller humans only had to wait seven months, about two hundred sixty days. " It's going to crack today, for sure? "
-Yes. Dragonets are nothing if not punctual.-
" I see. "
-Oh. Getting antsy, are you?-
" A little bit. " He glanced at the sun; it lay barely two handspans above the western horizon. The Moon would be up soon. Faraway Little, Landfall's distant second satellite, was already rising in the East. " It's getting late. "
-Yes, I know,- she replied, her tone tinged with discomfort and worry. -Stistanti will be along.-
" What if she's not? What if she doesn't hatch? " His words were hopeful, though he felt little of that emotion.
The notion seemed to upset the dragon. She glared hard at him, and smoke seemed to pour from her dilated nostrils as she spoke -- though Manny knew that firebreathing dragons were just a thing of legend, so it must have been merely condensation from the cold. Or so he sincerely hoped.
-Listen, human. We futhani and our kin reigned on Xlototalsk long before your kind came out of the stars and began to call our world Landfall. We ruled this planet for half a million years before you humans came and started killing us off. I think we know a thing or two you don't! If I say Stistanti will hatch, she'll damn well hatch!- She flapped her humongous wings in consternation, and the downdraft nearly blew Manny over the edge.
" Uh, yes, ma'am, " he gulped, instantly contrite.
" Sorry, ma'am."
She settled down, placated. -Quite all right. Just don't let it happen again.-
" Yes, ma'am. "
-Stistanti will be along soon.-
" Yes, ma'am. "
Cold wrapped them like an icy cloak. Manny was glad he was wearing the luresuit over his normal clothing; otherwise he'd be freezing to death right about now. The sun had gone an hour ago, but the sky was bright with the effulgence of the full Moon. Sleestal stared dully at Manny as she sat on the egg.
The egg that hadn't hatched yet.
Finally, the dragon stirred. -My egg is dead,- she stated flatly.
" Dead? " Hope flowered in Manny's chest.
-Yes. Dead. Stistanti will not be born, on this day or any other day. Lucky you.- Pumping her huge wings, she grasped the egg in her talons, lifted it up gently, and bore it out over the edge of the platform. Then she dropped it, letting it shred itself on the rock spires far below. Returning to the platform, she turned to face Manny. -Guess I won't be needing you anymore.- She radiated apathy and grief.
The extent of her emotion humbled him. " I'm sorry, " he said softly. Then he dared to add, " Maybe you'll lay another egg soon. "
She snorted. -That was my last.- Turning her head toward the East to gaze at the dark bulk of Futhananna, she murmured, -Do you know how old I am?-
" Uh -- no, " he replied, a bit perplexed.
-Believe it or not, I'm almost a thousand years old.- She rustled her wings a bit, stirring up a breeze. -That's old for a dragon. Old for anything. Soon, I'll be dead. Stistanti...was to have been my final child.- She sighed, turned to face him again. -It's rare for an egg to die -- but it happens, especially since you humans first polluted Xlototalsk with your presence.-
She paused for a long moment, then: -Our children are few and far between, and Earenta was my last living child. I outlived them all; I outlived even my grandchildren. As it turns out, I have no living descendants at all.- She chuckled sadly. -Fate has been cruel to me, and to the futhani in general. Once, we darkened the sky with our numbers. Now there are few of us left. Your people and our planet are killing us off. We are a failed experiment, apparently.-
Manny said nothing. There was nothing he could say.
The dragon Sleestal looked at him, her eyes aswim with luminous motes of green and red. -You are no longer required,- she rumbled. -Go away.-
" As easy as that, huh? "
-As easy as that.-
He nodded in understanding. Stepping to the edge of the platform, he cast himself into the abyss beyond.
Only to be snatched out of the air by one tremendous claw.
Sighing, Sleestal deposited him on her eyrie. -No,- she said, in a chiding tone. -You need not sacrifice yourself now. It would be a waste. You are free to go.-
" Better to die now than freeze to death, " he told her quietly. " I don't think I can make it down before I die of the cold. "
-That's your problem, Spriteling,- she told him, -Though it'll be warm enough come sunup, and I imagine, if you're careful, you'll be able to climb down to the base of the mountain. You wouldn't be the first human I've released. I doubt it's more than a two month walk back to the Galanier. You ought to make it before winter.-
" Oh. " So it wasn't to be as easy as that, after all.
-The best things in life aren't free, you know. You have to work for them,- she noted, as she gathered herself to spring into the air. -If I were you, though, I'd wait until morning. You wouldn't want to reach the bottom with every bone in your body broken.-
He nodded slowly. " Yeah. Right. So where are you going? "
-I go,- she replied, -to meet my doom.- And with that, she launched herself into the chill air and sped away toward the East, to wrestle one last time with mighty Futhananna.
Three grueling days later, a bedraggled Sprite reached the bottom of Sleestal's Peak, scratched and bruised in body and spirit. His left ankle was twisted, so he used the glittering sword he'd rescued from the dragon's hoard as a crutch. Once he'd passed the last of the knurled granite outcroppings that skirted the base of the mountain, he cast himself down upon the greensward that lay beyond, sinking deep into the emerald spring-grass. It felt so good to be on ground that didn't slant or crumble underfoot, ground that was perfectly, solidly flat. He stared up at the bright overcast that curtained the sky, and allowed himself a tiny smile. He was alive, and that was something.
His eyes detected a flicker of movement, and his breath caught in his throat as a majestic winged form swept into his field of vision. Sleestal...! She wasn't dead!
He scrambled to his feet and stared upward as the dragon circled Sleestal's Peak, hovered almost hesitantly over the eyrie for a moment, then set off toward the West with great beats of its leathery wings. Oh. So this wasn't Sleestal after all -- he could see that now. This dragon was smaller, and darker, and possibly male. Emmanuel felt something akin to disappointment rise in his chest. And his eyes burned a little.
It wasn't very logical, but it was human, this reaction, as was the respect and sadness for a worthy opponent who'd wrestled fate and lost.
Sleestal would have understood.