Windclaw took a running start, snapped his great wings wide, and lifted slowly, rumbling into the air across the open campsite. Windclaw needed nearly a hundred yards just to reach treetop height, because he was big, even for a transport dragon. That gave him lots of lifting power, but he was simply too large and too slow to lift off on his tail, the way some of the smaller fighting dragons could. The fighters—especially the ones bred to go after enemy gryphons—had to be fast and agile, since gryphons were small, swift, and brutally difficult to catch in midair.
Most dragons take off a lot faster, particularly combat dragons, but Windclaw takes a hundred yards to clear the treetops.
He and Windclaw didn't share any sort of special bond, like the ones bred into some of the more spectacularly expensive pets wealthy Arcanans sometimes commissioned. No pilot or dragon did. But he'd come to know his beast's moods and temperament. They'd come to . . . respect one another, and Windclaw was fond enough of him—in a dragonish sort of way—to make their working relationship satisfying on both sides, and tonight, Windclaw's decades of experience might just make up for his lack of nimbleness.
Some kind of engineered familiar bond is possible for Arcanans, but it's ludicrously expensive. Too much so even for the dragon air force.
Starlight and moonlight burnished his wings with a metallic shimmer, glittering as they touched the elaborate wing patterns that represented Windclaw's pedigree, as well as his current unit assignment.
I still think draogns use some kind of antigrav, but it seems the wing patterns actually recount dragon pedigree and assignment.
Salmeer tapped his personal crystal with the spell-powered stylus that allowed him to plug in Hundred Olderhan's grid coordinates, even though Salmeer himself had no Gift at all, and the crystal obediently displayed a standard navigational grid, with the familiar compass points in a sphere around the circle that represented Windclaw. A blinking green arrow pointed the direction to fly, giving Salmeer a beautifully clear, easy-to-read three-dimensional display to follow. When they reached the target zone, a steady red circle would appear, directly at the grid coordinates Hundred Olderhan had sent.
More personal crystal GPS, and I guess you can
use one without any magic, as long as you have the proper tool or a specialist to configure it for you.
Someone spoke practically into her ear, and she gasped in surprise, skittered sideways—
—and promptly rolled off the edge of whatever she'd been lying on. She bit off a scream, but the fall to the ground was only about ten inches. Which was still more than enough to knock the wind out of her and jar her painfully, especially with her previous injuries.
Whoever had spoken leaned over her almost before she landed, making worried sounds that quickly turned soothing. Gentle hands straightened her bent limbs and tested her pulse, and Shaylar whimpered, cursing the pain that exploded through her with every movement.
Her eyes opened, and she looked up.
She couldn't remember his name, but she knew his face: the enemy commander. He was speaking softly to her, his gaze worried and intense. She hissed aloud and flinched back when he touched the bruises along her jaw with a gentle finger, and his face drained white at the pain sound. What was obviously a stuttering apology broke from him, and she wanted to reassure him. But the unending pain and fear and the silence in her mind left her weak, and far too susceptible to new shocks. She was horrified to discover that all she could do was lie on the cold ground and weep large, silent tears that stung her eyes and clogged her nose.
I suppose there really was no way to keep her from startling when she woke. Again, they have a fairly impressive ability to communicate basic ideas regardless of language. She knows that he's apologizing, for instance.
So she lay still on her strange, floating bed, and wondered in a distant, abstracted sort of way, how these people made their stretchers float. There was no logical explanation for it, any more than there were logical explanations for the other mysteries she'd already witnessed: glassy tubes that threw fireballs with no visible source of flame. Seemingly identical tubes that hurled lightning, instead of fire. The odd little cubes that had somehow packed enough explosive force to immolate an entire human body—yet did so without any actual explosion, just a sudden and inexplicable burst of flame.
Sorcery, the back of her wounded brain whispered, and Shaylar was so befuddled, so lost in this unending bad dream, that she didn't even quibble with her own choice of words. Whatever these people used for technology, it looked, sounded, and even smelled like magic. At least, it did to her admittedly addled senses.
I imagine if not for the shock and head injury, she'd be freaking out a lot more over this. I would.
A huge, black shadow swooped suddenly between Olderhan and the stars, then an overpressure of air blasted across the camp. The bonfires flared wildly as sparks, ash, and scattered autumn leaves flew before the whirlwind, and she jerked her gaze upward.
Scales, like a crocodile's armored hide in glowing, iridescent colors like shoaling fish. Immense wings, so thin the firelight glowed through them. Bats' wings the size of the sails on a ninety-foot twin-masted schooner. Claws, a foot long and razor-sharp, glittering bronze as they reached down to grasp boulders in the stream when it landed. A long, sinuous neck, like a serpent twenty feet long, still as thick as her own torso where it met the triangular, adder-shaped head. Spikes, immense spikes, jutting out over eyes of crimson flame, and an eagle's beak of metallic bronze, sparkling in the wildly flaring firelight.
Its mouth opened, revealing rows of sickle-bladed teeth, and it was looking directly at her. Shaylar's wounded mind shrieked at her to run, even as she sensed an alien, inhuman presence behind those fiery eyes, malevolent and barely under control.
The nightmare apparition hissed. The sound was an angry steam-engine shriek, and Shaylar flinched back, drew breath to scream—
—and the man strapped to its neck spoke sharply. He emphasized his words with a jab from an implement that looked part-cattle prod and part-harpoon. It would have to be sharp, she realized through waves of unreasoning terror, to make itself—and its owner's displeasure—felt through hide that tough.
Wings rattled angrily, like agitated snakes, and the prod came down again, sharper and harder than before. The beast reared skyward and let out a shriek of rage that battered Shaylar's bleeding senses. She did scream, this time, and cowered down with both arms over her head—not to keep the creature's teeth off her neck, but to keep its fury out of her mind.
A Motherfucking Dragon. And Windclaw seems as bothered by Shaylar as she is by him. And the giant stick used by a dragon-rider to control his mount.
Humanity hadn't pitted dragons against one another in almost two centuries, and no one living had ever heard that pre-battle steam-kettle sound. Not in earnest, at any rate. But it had been too frequently described in the history books and the aerial training volumes—even in those silly romances his younger sister mooned over—for him to mistake what he was hearing now.
Dragon hissing. I assume something about Shaylar's Talent is setting off the dragon. We establish a bit later that dragons are "smarter than any dog" though a long way short of sapience.
Morikan was a North Shalomarian—one of the towering variety. A big, rawboned man, nearly six-foot-seven in his bare feet, he still managed to move so quietly, almost noiselessly, that Jasak had sometimes wondered if it was a part of his Gift. The healer had huge shoulders, enormous physical strength, and a Gift for healing which made the hulking giant one of the gentlest souls Jasak had ever known. He'd never pursued the research necessary to earn the formal title of magistron, the healer's equivalent of Gadrial's magister's rank, so he was technically only a journeyman, which also explained why he wasn't a commissioned officer in the Healer's Corps, himself. But Jasak wasn't about to complain about that today. Not when it meant having a healer as powerfully Gifted as Morikan out at the sharp end when the remnants of First Platoon needed one so desperately.
Naf Morikan, Jasak's head Healer. It seems Magistron is a specific rank of medicine/life sciences-focused mage. As a Healer, Morikan outranks a surgeon, who outranks a herbalist, but would still be subordinate to a magistron.
"And for Rahil's sake, do whatever it takes to save him. I'm convinced he's this girl's husband." She tightened her embrace around Shaylar, who was watching them, her hazy eyes wide and frightened. "She's hurt, herself, and she's in a fragile state. If she loses him—"
The magister broke off, her mouth tight, and Morikan nodded in comprehension.
"Their last names are the same," Jasak added. "I found that out when she woke up. They're either married or brother and sister, and I'm inclined to agree with Magister Gadrial's theory that they're married."
Communicating impressive amounts despite the language barrier. Be a touch awkward later if it turned out their surnames indicated profession or homeland, huh?
The newcomer had lifted the blanket off Jathmar's burnt back and hissed aloud at the damage he'd found. But he didn't appear to be doing anything else at all. He was just kneeling there, hands extended over Jathmar's stretcher, eyes unfocused, staring at nothing. . . .
And then, suddenly, Jathmar began to glow.
Shaylar gasped. Light poured from the big man's hands, enveloping Jathmar's entire body. Then, despite the whirling black pain in her head, the marriage bond roared wide. Shaylar flinched violently in Gadrial's arms as Jathmar's pain blasted through her. She sensed Gadrial's sudden twitch of hurt as her fingers sank deep into the other woman's upper arms, but she couldn't help it. Her back was a mass of fire, her chest a broken heap of agony wrapped around ribs shattered like china someone had dropped to the floor, and her insides were bleeding.
Then she felt an odd presence, like a tide of warm syrup flowing over her—into her—and there was intelligence in the syrup. There were thoughts and emotions, a sense of awe that she was alive at all, and a determination to keep her among the living.
A soothing wave of light and energy she could sense but couldn't see sank down into her blistered back. The sensations were soul-shaking. She could literally feel her skin growing as blisters popped, drained, vanished. The damage ran deep . . . and so did whatever was sinking into her, repairing the deep layers of skin and tissue damaged in the hellish vortex of the enemy's fire.
It sank deeper still, down into her bleeding abdomen. She felt half-glued wounds knitting themselves together as new tissue closed the gaps and fissures in blood vessels, intestinal walls, muscles and organs. Pain flashed through her, bright and terrible, as ribs shifted, moving on their own, grating back into proper alignment. She writhed, whimpering, and the pain in her chest burst free in an agonized cry.
What proper magical healing looks and feels like.
Now that Jathmar was semi-conscious, the healer took care to stimulate the centers of the brain and spinal cord that produced natural pain killers. The patient's body flooded with his own internally produced pain-fighting serum in moments, which quickly put an end to his semi-aware thrashing about, and Morikan was dimly aware that his wife's cries had faded as well.
Seems there's a degree of control over the subject's biology, and not just wishing problems away.
The healthy, pink skin visible beneath his scorched shirt was a soul-deep shock. She'd felt it healing, but the very idea of such an uncanny miracle had been so alien that she'd more than half-feared it was no more than an illusion brought about by her own head injury. Something she'd wanted so badly, so desperately, that she had imagined it entirely.
To be perfectly clear, Jathmar's injuries would have been fatal, even with the best healing Talents and mundane medicine Sharona had. With magic, he'll be fine. Of course, every Voice will have seen Jathmar take undeniably fatal injuries....
The dragon crouched low, muscles bunching in a smooth ripple. Then they catapulted forward as the dragon's huge feet gripped tight on the stream's boulders and its powerful legs hurled them almost straight upward. The force of the sudden movement clacked her teeth together with bone-jarring force, but before she could even groan, the wide wings snapped open. The sheer breadth of the dragon's wingspan came as a distinct shock, despite its size, for they were even larger than she'd initially thought. They beat strongly, far more rapidly than she would have believed possible, and she felt the creature climbing in elevatorlike bursts with each downstroke.
They flew parallel to the stream, barely clearing the water and the brush-filled banks to either side at first, for more than a hundred yards. Then the creek turned south, forcing the dragon to follow the curve of its bed. Another hundred-yard straight stretch gave it the room it apparently needed to get fully airborne.
Each massive sweep of its wings, loud as thunder cracks in her ears, lifted them steadily higher. By the time they reached the end of the second straightaway, the immense dragon had finally cleared the treetops. They flashed past a rustling canopy of leaves, argent and ebony in the moonlight, then sailed into clear air above the forest.
Shaylar discovered that she'd been holding her breath and her fingers had dug into the straps holding her securely in place. She glanced back and saw a brilliant spot of light in the darkness, where the bonfires in the camp they'd left burned like jewels against velvet. Moonlight poured across the treetops with an unearthly beauty, creating a billowing silver leaf-sea which stretched for miles in all directions. Wind set the silver sea in motion, with a constant ripple and swirl that was dizzying, exhilarating, like nothing Shaylar had ever experienced before. The windbreak shielded her from about mid-torso down, but the skin of her face was cold, except where the goggles shielded it, in the icy wind buffeting past its upper edge.
Flight, Shaylar's first time. Took him longer to clear the trees this time, but then there's 20+ people riding now.
Given the dragon's tough armor, not to mention its sheer size, Shaylar wondered if a rifle shot could be effective against it. There were hunters who took big game, of course, especially in sparsely settled universes where elephants, rhinos, immense—and aggressive—cape buffalo, thirty-foot crocodiles, and even vast herds of bison were a serious danger to colonists. There were some pretty heavy guns and cartridges for that kind of shooting, but Shaylar wondered if even those weapons could be effective at much greater ranges than point-blank into a dragon's belly or throat.
I seem to recall them going down from machine guns later on.
A massive, metal-bending screech tore the air.
The dragon slewed sideways in midair. It actually bucked, and Shaylar's eyes flew open as her teeth jolted together and the whole platform creaked against the violent motion of the beast under it. Her head jerked, and she felt herself bounced backward against her safety straps as a raging red fury lashed at her mind.
Shaylar tries again to Voice-call Darcel and Windclaw shrieks and tries to buck her (and incidentally the other riders) while actually attacking her telepathically until she passes out. Well, Gadriel knocks her out with healing magic. But when you start clutching your head and screaming about getting it out of your mind, that's probably the best outcome you can expect.
No Talent could do something like that. Even the most Talented Healers were limited mostly to healing minds which had been shattered, or encouraging the body to heal itself more effectively. They could work wonders enough, but none that came close to this.
Limits of Sharonan healing. If most of the Talent is just making things repair faster, their healers really
need that conventional medical training. On the other hand, as Shaylar observes, their healers can spam healing all day while Arcanan healers run into some hard limits on their energy use.
It was painfully evident they were prisoners, but how did their captors treat prisoners of war? They must have some sort of procedures to deal with captured enemy personnel, and a further thought chilled him. Would these people think he and Shaylar were soldiers? Even he knew soldiers and civilians received different treatment from the military during armed conflicts. It had been a long time since any major Sharonian nation had gone to war, but even on Sharona there was the occasional border dispute, the "incident" when a patrol from one side wandered across the other side's frontier, the "brushfire" conflict between ancient and implacable enemies. And there'd been more than enough violent conflict in Sharona's pre-portal history to make such procedures necessary.
War isn't exactly dead on Sharona, but major wars haven't happened in a good long time.
His heart twisted, and the look he turned on the enemy commander who'd ordered their massacre could have frozen the marrow of a star.
There's not enough blood in your veins to make up for what you've done to her, his icy eyes told the other man.
The officer looked back, meeting that hate-filled glare squarely. Whatever else he might be, this wasn't a weak man, Jathmar realized. His regret for what had happened appeared to be genuine, but he met Jathmar's steely hatred unflinchingly. They shared no words, couldn't speak one another's language, but they didn't need to in that moment. They looked deep into one another's enemy eyes, and Jathmar could actually taste the other man's determination to do his duty.
Again with all this understanding, without a common language or anything like common culture or history from which to assume gestures or expressions.
"I intend to abandon this camp," he said. "Withdraw completely from this portal and evacuate everyone to the coast. There's no way anyone can track us if we evac by air, and that's critical, because the armed confrontation has to stop here. None of us are trained diplomats, and that's what we need. If we get a diplomatic mission out here, there's at least a chance we can keep anyone else from getting killed. At this point, it doesn't matter whether Osmuna shot their man first, or whether he shot Osmuna first. What's going to matter to them is that we slaughtered their entire crew; what's going to matter to us are the casualties we took, and the weapons capability they revealed inflicting them. We didn't mean for any of this to happen, but they're going to have trouble buying that, and there's going to be a lot of pressure on our side for a panic reaction when people higher up the military and political food chains hear about what's happened. Especially if the other side sends in some sort of rescue mission that leads to additional shooting."
Jasak's plan going forwards. Fall back, learn what they can of Sharonan language and customs from the prisoners, let the next contact be made by diplomats.
Gifts dealing directly with living things—like healers and the other magistrons and journeymen involved in things like the dragon breeding and improvement programs, the hummer breeding program, and even the agronomists who were constantly seeking to improve food crops and sources of textiles—were quite different from Gadrial's own major arcanas. Those Gifted in such areas required special training, and no one had yet succeeded in figuring out how to store a major healing spell, although Gadrial was confident that the coveted vos Lipkin Prize waited for whoever finally did.
Actually getting the spellware loaded into the sarkolis didn't seem to be the problem. It wasn't one to which Gadrial had devoted a great deal of her own attention—her major Gifts lay in other areas—but she suspected that the difficulty lay in the inherent differences between each illness or injury. The sort of blanket spells involved in most preloaded spellware were frequently a brute force kind of approach. That was acceptable for inanimate objects, but even small glitches could have major—even fatal—consequences for living things. So each healer was forced to deal with an unending series of unique problems, each demanding its own unique solution.
Why they don't have healing crystals.
They'd come to the conclusion that the difference between a magister, trained in the "hard sorcery" dealing with inanimate forces and objects, and a magistron, trained in the "life sorcery" someone like Naf Morikan practiced, was the difference between a symphonic composer and a brilliant sight-reading improvisationist. Neither was really qualified to do the other's job, or even to adequately explain the inherent differences between their specializations to each other.
People capable of murdering an entire civilian survey crew were capable of anything, and torture could be undeniably effective. No Sharonian nation had used it—openly, at least; there were persistent grim rumors about the current Uromathian emperor and his secret police—in centuries. But in Sharona's dim, grim past, torture had been an approved and often frighteningly effective method of extracting detailed information from captives.
Sharonans don't torture. Except maybe the Uromathian Secret Police. Oh, and there are Uromathian Secret Police.
He gave them a curiously formal bow, then folded his long, lean body down to sit beside them. His voice was strangely gentle as he said something, then indicated himself and said slowly and carefully, "Halathyn. Halathyn vos Dulainah."
Shaylar glanced at Jathmar, then touched her own chest.
"Shaylar," she said, then indicated her husband. "Jathmar."
Halathyn's face blossomed in a beatific smile. He moved his hands in an intricate fashion, murmuring almost under his breath, and the air began to shimmer. Shaylar gasped, and Jathmar stiffened in shock as a flower of pure light formed in the air between the silver-haired man's palms. It was a rose, scintillating with all the dancing colors of the rainbow.
Halathyn moved his hand, and the rose of light drifted toward Shaylar. The older man took her hand, lifted her palm, and the impossible rose drifted down to rest against her fingertips. It shimmered there, ghostlike and lovely, for several seconds, then sparkled once and faded away.
Shaylar sat entranced for several heartbeats, staring at her empty palm, then turned to stare at the aged man beside them. Halathyn was grinning like a schoolboy, and she felt herself smiling back, unable to resist. Despite the pain in her head, she could feel the clean, gentle radiance of the black-skinned man's soul, and it washed over her like a comforting caress.
Halathyn being his charming self. Hologram or illusion or whatever of a rose.
Whatever Halathyn was doing with the stylus, the squiggles of light shifted rapidly inside the crystal. It certainly looked like writing of some sort, and it did, indeed, look as if Halathyn were storing the words inside that water-clear rock. He glanced up, eyes twinkling, then he whispered something else, and the light faded.
He handed it to Shaylar, who took it with a deeply dubious expression. Then he spoke one word and tapped the crystal with his stylus, and the glowing text sprang back to life. It glowed deep inside, scrolling past at what would probably have been a comfortable reading speed, if they could have read it at all.
Shaylar stared, openmouthed, then looked up to meet Jathmar's amazed gaze, and Halathyn chuckled. He looked inordinately pleased with himself as he retrieved his crystal, and the look he gave Gadrial was just short of impish. She responded by rolling her eyes, and handed over the mugs she carried.
And Halathyn showing off his personal crystal.
Both of them slewed around in time to see another dragon come winging in from the east. Translucent leathery wings vaned and twisted, altering its flightpath and slowing its airspeed. There seemed to be something indefinably wrong about the way it braked, how quickly it lost velocity, but Jathmar reminded himself that he was scarcely in mental condition to make reliable hard and fast judgments about mythological beasts who couldn't possibly exist anyway.
Still thinking antigrav.