PodCastle 636: While Dragons Claim the Sky — Part 2

Show Notes

Rated PG.


While Dragons Claim the Sky

By Jen Brown

[Note: This is Part 2 of a two-part novelette. Please visit last week’s post to read Part 1.]

When marble cracks, it isn’t loud — or at least, not in the way I thought it’d be. Thera the Thrasher demonstrated this by cleaving her warhammer into the space where Myra’d lain moments ago. Instead of shattering, the veiny rock split with a squelch that came from sliding against itself; too dense to crumble, yet still capable of being broken.

That rockface would’ve been Myra, had she not pitched away at the last second. Clambering up, she swayed gracelessly, swiping away the blood marring her chin.

She could’ve been killed.

That thought haunted me while I watched her match from a cramped stadium seat, wedged in between two bettors who could only complain about how boring the ‘underlands scruff’ were.

“How long?” I choked out to man one on my left. “How long have they been fighting?” I’d arrived minutes ago.

“Half an hour,” he grumbled. “Abyss and shit, let’s end it already. We’re all really here to see Giralt the Grand, am I right?”

He elbowed my side just as Myra rolled from another of Thera’s crushing blows — but this time her shield split, leaving her gasping for breath and clutching her side. I shot up, fighting nausea.

Myra was losing. She might actually die here, among uncaring skyfolk, before I’d gotten a chance to —

“Finally!” screamed the woman on my right.

With a deft foot sweep, Thera pinned Myra’s weakened form with ease. Abandoning my seat, I practically vaulted the stadium stairs while the crowd roared anew. I had to get to her.

Then, everything shifted in the span of a blink. Thrusting sharply, Myra rammed her knee into Thera’s spine. Off guard from the unexpected blow, Thera wobbled right into her grip, allowing Myra to slash up against the arm pinning her throat; then low as Thera staggered backward, welling her shin red.

It was a game of quickness after that, one that ended with Myra smashing her mailed boot into Thera’s chest plate. Despite tepid applause, Myra shouted when the Empress called it, laugh-jogging to the preparatory tent as if her life hadn’t been in danger.

Though when she saw me enter, her excitement dimmed.

“There’s the non-believer,” Myra called loudly. “Convinced yet?”

My lungs were still convulsing, breaths coming hurried. “Convinced? You could’ve died!”

“It’s called a feint.” Myra rolled her eyes, though the left one had already grown puffy. “Anyway, shouldn’t you be heading toward the cloud ferries by now?”

I deserved her ire, even if it stung. “Not without apologizing.” Though washrags littered the competitor’s tent, I tore cloth from my good trousers; pressed in close to hold it against the cuts peppering her chin. “I’m so sorry, Myra. For judging you unfairly. For doubting you.”

Myra’s jaw quivered, but she didn’t back away. “Fine. Apology done. You going now?”

“No,” I shot back. “Because I’m stronger than you think, and I’m not leaving until I find my way into the coif program.”

Something gentle flitted over Myra’s features. She let me worry over her scrapes a while more before catching my wrists. “Look Omani, I was born with a shit back, but it never stopped me from skinning wolf-wraiths, tail to snout. Know why?” Her lips curled back. “Because of the herb-gatherers they stole from us beneath swollen moons; or the sick ones they maimed, just ‘cause they couldn’t lock their doors tight enough after dark. I fight because I believe in what I’m fighting for, just like Murinien taught me.” Sun-warm and kiss-soft, her fingers burned against my wrists. “So, don’t count me out again.” A small smile lit her bruised face. “And I won’t underestimate you again, either.”

It was a plea and a compact and hope bound up in one; I latched onto it with both hands.

That night, I made dragon scales of my emotions; thrust everything I had into a belief in our ability to conjure dreams. After stuffing ourselves with cured meats and rich breads in the victor’s tent, we retired to our lavishly decorated dorm room. By the time I’d fashioned her twists into a pompadour and flung her next wish into the world (this time, blessedly about easing her back pain), I practically fainted onto our only featherbed — but not before telling her about my meeting with Professor Ames.

“Well, well.” Myra sounded genuinely impressed, legs dangling off her side of the mattress. “Good on you. Make her see what they’d be missing out on.”

I yawned. “Oh, I intend to.”

We lay silent, lulled by the sound of tempermages netting Sight threads to redirect strong winds every few minutes, until Myra cleared her throat. “You know, I’ll have real money if I win this. Which I’ll send back home,” she added quickly. “But . . . if this college thing doesn’t work out, it’s money I can use for other stuff.”

Her eyes fixed mine in the darkness.

“Yeah?”

“Mm,” she returned. “You could come along while I guard Qu’hell. A real retainership, salaried and everything.”

Shivers prickled my skin as Myra’s fingers grazed mine beneath the coverlet; as we hovered atop the precipice of a sudden, surprising want; one that stretched wide, strong enough to tremble us both. Then, it morphed.

I’d come here to scrub my family’s debts away, the way papa’d always planned. Yet here I was, lying next to a fierce, unshakable girl, chasing wants my parents never could.

“We should rest,” I whispered. Painfully, I withdrew from Myra; pressed my welling eyes into the pillow, so that she wouldn’t catch me crumbling over the way dreams claimed the space in my head where family should’ve been.


Professor Ames enjoyed her Gyrixëan coffee black and scalding, dolloped with a bit of cream so that our cups matched my complexion.

“Is this a staple in your house?” she asked over-shoulder, descending Kent’s wooden stairs as if floating.

My saucer clattered melodically, punctuating our steps. “Sometimes. Mama likes to sell what’s left to the merchers, but we keep a little for special occasions.”

“And your mother taught you wish coiffery?”

Fat coffee droplets splattered my thumbs. Resisting the urge to lick them, I took the last three stairs with her, avoiding the portrait gazes of great mages lining the wall. “Yes, and no. I discovered it on accident.”

I didn’t want to mention papa; didn’t want to see pity lining her eyes. Instead, I focused on how Professor Ames liked to be on the move. We flitted between classrooms to check on student mages while walking towards her salon, then sunk onto a divan just outside once we reached its polished doors.

“One doesn’t luck into acceptances here. Tell me the truth of how you devised your wish magery.”

Guess I had no choice. You’re strong as dragonscale, I reminded myself.  She’ll be the making of you. “I tried to wish my father alive.”

“Ah.” She regarded me for a long while, wrinkled mouth puckering. “You lost him young?”

“I was twelve.” Shifting, I set my saucer aside. “It didn’t work, of course. Which made me realize that coif wishing, and all magicks really, are bound to what the universe can actually deliver.”

“Did you try other wishes?” She downed the rest of her coffee; smiled at another professor sweeping by. “Ones that might change the course of something large?”

My brow crumpled. “Well, most wishes are about the client. Things like wishing for a good harvest, or — ”

“What of wealth? Power?”

I was at a loss, unsure of myself. Had clients come to me wishing for riches and notoriety? Of course. Braylon’s boys fancied themselves Gyrixë’s best tailors; they once asked me to shear spirals into their flat-tops, wishing that one of the merchants would take their wares upland. Maybe a noble might don one of their tailored coats, exclaiming: “Who are these designers? Name them — I must have more of their work.”

They were still hustling, slogging to Han’enfol’s markets and peddling their clothing to anyone who’d listen.

“Yeah, I’ve gotten such requests, but there are no guarantees. A lot of wish magery depends on what follows, with how you dance alongside the universe as it tries to rearrange.” I could tell my answer disappointed her, so I quickly added: “Though, I’m excited to test its limits in your department. Maybe we can discuss patrons who’d find wish magery compelling?”

Professor Ames rose swiftly, so I stood too. “Patrons want to see what your gifts will buy them.” She eyed me closely. “Come. Let me show you magicks they value most.”

Entering her salon was like traipsing into a fortress, brimming with students preparing for battle. Foregoing styling chairs and capes, they huddled around large oak tables and wide bookshelves that seemed to house all the world’s knowledge. Together, we approached a group studying in the rear.

“Vincent!”

A boy with smooth, gaunt cheeks looked up. “Professor?”

“We have a prospective student all the way from Gyrixë.” He looked perplexed. “One of the underlands,” she added. “Please show her our coif specialty.”

Vincent waved over another mage, a girl with wavy hair and narrow eyes. She knelt before him as Vincent blinked, his pupils dilating enough to swallow the amber in his eyes. Summoning the Sight, Vincent raised his hands, whispered the word rise, and levitated her hair with magicks alone.

“Hold,” Professor Ames commanded, both with words and Ecrouxvérian sign language, so that her meaning reached him even without sound. Like gargoyles, they froze — Vincent stone-faced, awaiting instruction; the girl’s wide mouth slightly ajar.

“Fascinating.” Pitching forward, I tried to predict his next move. Would he completely style her hair without touching it? Make the magicks slick it into some dramatic updo?

“Raise Amelia.”

Minutely, Vincent’s fingers pinched together. Up, he commanded. Her hair went rigid, stretching around an unseen tether to lift her torso-first.

“Professor?” I sounded small.

“Hold out her arm,” Ames went on.

Grunting, Vincent pivoted his left shoulder, gritting out the word pull. Her right arm stabbed the air, sleeve felling away to reveal goose-pricked flesh where the hairs strained against her skin, as if they were being tugged. Sight scabs peppered her follicles like tics.

“Excellent,” Professor Ames cooed. Then, reverently: “Now break it.”

I turned sharply. “Professor.”

It wasn’t a question, but Carolyn knew that, preferring to keep her eyes on the way Vincent’s fingers bent. Claw-like, he squeezed the air, slithering break between his sweat-stained lips. It pulled a muffled shout from Amelia, as red colored them both — him, bloody from the Sight carving crescents atop his clavicles; her pale arm bruising where Vincent clefted muscle and tendons and bone beneath —

“Stop.” My command was cotton-soft, muted beneath the roaring in my ears.

“Well done.” Professor Ames applauded like I hadn’t spoken, then signaled two students forward. “Would you escort her to the infirmary?”

But Amelia wouldn’t go. Not without blinking rapidly into her Sight, round eyes impossibly wide. “Eat shit, Vince!”

With her good arm, she punched the air; Vincent’s chin hairs wobbled before a sickening crack sounded. Wailing, he clutched his jaw.

“Oh my.” Professor Ames laughed. “Any other volunteers? Seems they’ll both need a healer’s hand.”

I watched them stagger from the room, cold and hot all over; like my body couldn’t decide what to be.

“You see,” Professor Ames faced me, “patrons don’t fund stylists. They like charismatic diplomats. Keen politicians. Unstoppable assassins.” She pinned me with a wilting stare, crossing the distance between us. “Understand, that here? A patron funds your potential. Which means it — you — must be ruthless. That you must mold yourself into something they want to fund in the first place.”

Around us, students returned to their wrinkled scrolls and bitter coffees and weighty desks, but Professor Ames raised her Sight, hovering her fingers around a single braid along my cheek. Softly, she commanded: unravel. Magicks uncrossed the plait, expelling the added braiding hair until only my coils zig-zagged before us.

I knew what was coming. Knew it, even as my stomach bubbled wetly, last night’s dinner threatening to come up.

Align.

Her command stretched those coils until their spiral disappeared; until the hairs swung limply before my eyes. I caught it stiffly between my fingers, swallowing around a lump as it refused to spring back into place; as it blotched the picturesque view of student mages returning to a normalcy that didn’t include me.

“Now, return to the melée grounds.” Professor Ames made for the door. “And tomorrow, I — and a possible patron or two — shall be watching to see if your potential proves ruthless.”


That evening, Myra faced fiercer competition: an uplands bastard called Harric, who had plenty to prove. But this time I watched them fight with my Sight up, straining to reveal crystalline magicks sketched across the amphitheater. Blood slicked down my arms as I traced the webbing from treetops dangling overhead, to the crowded seats, to the Empress’s dais, and then down to my feet inside a quiet corner of the competitor’s tent — the most I’d ever revealed at once.

It didn’t matter that my arm was on fire, or that, if spotted, ushers could disqualify Myra for my unsanctioned use of magicks during the melée. I had to risk it, in order to understand what I’d missed after years of self-study; to discover whatever ruthless magicks Gyrixëan coif mages hadn’t known to teach me.

Edging forward, I traced the magicks Harric touched; saw them warble and twist others nearby, until I found one that seemed to run between my foot and his mailed legs. Examining it, I wondered how much force I’d need to tug the hairs lining his calves, canting his balance.

Or to break his legs, bone-by-bone —

My chest seized. I’d stopped breathing. Convulsing, I blinked and rubbed the Sight away until the sweaty heat and hard stone beneath me returned. Which meant I’d missed minute sixty-three, where Myra ended the match with a knife to his neck.

I should’ve whooped and hollered when they announced her victory, but my stomach roiled instead; Myra was a finalist now — and tomorrow, Ames would eye us both while cupping my fate between her weathered palms.

“You’ve made a believer outta me,” Myra said, swaggering into the preparatory tent. I hid my bloody arm. “Gods, my back felt great. And I haven’t been anxious about the pain coming back, like I usually am. Does wish magery quell that, too?”

I shrugged as attendants poured us celebratory wine; tipped the glass back hard enough to knock my teeth.

“Guess we’ve both cause for celebration?” Myra smirked. “Did Professor Fancybritches get you a patron on the spot?”

My chalice felt molten enough to melt flesh. Fighting an urge to dash it against the stone, I threw Myra a tight smile.

“Let’s do your hair!” I said, discarding my glass. My breathing harshened, tightening around a panic attack. One mama would’ve helped me slow, if I hadn’t left, believing the Imperial College would save us all. “Give me another wish to work with.”

The word tasted acrid and wrong; I needed to twist it. Mold it anew, so that it fit me again. As I raced back to our dorm, scraping my shins on the brambles outside, Myra was right on my heels.

“You didn’t answer my question! Was she impressed with you?”

No. “She was,” I lied. “In fact, she’ll be there to see you fight tomorrow.”

Fight. The imperial way, like Myra with her blades or Ames with her strings. Wishes did not fight; they hoped.

I pounded up our dorm’s stairwell; this time, glancing at more paintings of great mages lining the wall, and met the challenge in their stare.

“Would you gimme your wish already?” I yelled back.

Bounding up alongside me, Myra laughed, successfully deceived. “Fine. It’s a simple one this time: I wish that we get everything we want!”

After racing through our dorm’s humming hallways, we fell through our door breathlessly.

“We’re this close, ‘Mani.” Myra said, approaching the room’s lone vanity mirror. “Mm, I’m thinking . . .” She squinted, letting her twists down. “Don’t hate me for this, but take ’em all out. I want it wild and loose, so the bastards all see me coming.”

Her wish was too broad for working with, but that didn’t matter anymore. I unraveled each twist, wrapped her flowing coils in a silk square, and flung her last wish into the world even as the Sight reopened old scars along my neck — wounds that hadn’t bled since I’d tried summoning papa. Every gash felt like a betrayal, unstitching my resolve until old aches sprung free.

So, I made instruments of my agony. After Myra fell asleep, I kept my Sight up; planted myself before the vanity, and held my ashen arm before the mirror. I manipulated its long hairs without a wish to speak of; whispered commands well into the night, until it was too dark to make out my reflection. Until it was impossible to distinguish where pain ended and I began.


Our final melée came under a bruised sky as we met Empress Troxrin on the College’s wide athletic field; wavering grassland stretched on for miles, accented by the rise and fall of sloping hillsides marked with sigils denoting different magickal sports. There would be no amphitheater this evening; no roaring crowd watching from the hovering mage-stands. Just six finalists waiting, while their retinue watched from the sidelines.

Though she lacked an elevated dais, the Empress commanded authority in polished chainmail while addressing a powerful cadre: College Chancellor Vihrane, flanked by distinguished faculty like Professor Ames; magistrates from Ecrouxvér’s six provinces; sign language interpreters, in case College faculty were using their Sight — a slew of important somebodies who might as well have been nobodies to me.

“Trusted colleagues,” Troxrin intoned. “Again and again, you’ve put our Empire above yourselves, sacrificing everything to see it whole. Now, it is time I show you the gift your patience bore.”

Nerves should’ve made slush of my veins, as Troxrin began addressing Myra and her competitors. Instead, I blinked my Sight on and off like flint striking stone. Like playing my fingers over fire, ignoring the singe of it. Ready to strike, I sized up Myra’s more foolish competitors; the ones who’d clearly thought all coif mages simple healers. I took in the exposed neck hairs of one burly finalist, and the armpits of another who stretched to get limber. Somehow, I’d interject; make a key move look  like Myra’s actions, but really be mine.

“Fighters, you must be wondering what stands between you and greatness.” Myra fidgeted, hands poised on her daggers, eager to start as the Empress continued. “You will be called upon to best one another soon enough. But first, you must face the empire’s greatest danger together.”

Professor Ames clasped her hands tightly, grim mouth twitching. When she caught me staring, she inclined her head, giving me her full attention.

“This year, my champion’s bounty goes beyond banknotes and knightships.” Troxrin approached, royal guards following. “What you fight for now is the very survival of our empire, and all who walk it.”

An acrid smell drifted over us just as Troxrin raised her gauntlet, signaling something above. Distant Sight threads wavered as dark sky galleons crested the field’s western edge. Blinking out of my Sight, I squinted through the haze. Chains dangled between the airships, hauling something massive, muzzled —

“The hell?” Myra yelled.

A captured realm dragon flailed within the chains. The iridescent creature’s scales reflected sunlight in frost-blues and fuchsia-periwinkles; like a soap bubble bound against the skyline. Its muffled wailing increased as tethers gouged the fur tufting its belly, back, and snout. More rope dug into the membrane of its bat-like wings. Troxrin’s cadre rose, gape-mouthed as her warships settled it onto the field with a resounding thud.

“Comrades, competitors!” The Empress called. “I gift you one of the dragonkind that deserted us.”

Cacophony erupted: Troxrin’s senators cheered; Chancellor Vihrane hustled forward, jowls trembling. “What have you done? Empress, the old oaths. The dragonkind will come for us all!”

Professor Ames’s perfect brows arched toward the heavens; horses reared up against their handlers in fear —

“Wait, your majesty!” Myra screamed around the dragon’s muffled roars. “That — that’s Murinien.”

Murinien. The dragon who saved Qu’hellain babes from soul sucking wolf-wraiths; who taught Myra’s Da to hunt, and then Myra herself; who’d watched over Qu’hell’s plains folk for three thousand years.

“Myra.” Her name left me like a plea. I tried to make for her, but Troxrin’s guards blocked my path.

“She’s Qu’hellain’s realm dragon,” Myra pleaded. “She — ”

“Deserted her realm months ago, breaking the old oaths like all the rest of her kind,” Troxrin cut in. I stumbled backward as the Empress suddenly unsheathed a wraith-blade, made from the very creatures Myra’d kept at bay. Its icy surface matched her pallor. “Competitors, how long have you lived in fear of the dragonkind?”

I flinched against the cry of upland warriors who’d never known dragons, or the lakes they liked to drink from.

“Defeat this beast here and now,” Troxrin commanded. “And you’ll have your knightship. You’ll have my armies, too. And you’ll march on dragons littering the Eastern crag wilds before they know what’s coming!”

Finalists charged with a collective battle cry. Troxrin signaled her mages — they trained levitating arrows on Murinien’s writhing form. Myra wept openly as noble conquerors readied to annihilate her protector.

I thought of mama and papa. Of Gyrixëan summer nights, when we watched dragons circle overhead, clutching dying gryphons and ogres between their teeth, while trying to guess which realms they protected. Of the way papa kissed my frizzy curls when, at seven, I told him I wanted to be a dragon when I grew up.

You can be anything you want, he’d responded, dark cheeks puffed with a smile. You just got to believe.

Slack-jawed, I glared as Professor Ames’s tight expression broke open; felt rage boil through me as she smiled the way papa used to, whenever he saw dragons; as mage-arrows lashed through Murinen’s wings from above, and competitors slashed at her belly below.

Reaching into myself, I discovered a smoking pit dense enough to swallow the sky. I recalled my Sight in one blink, revealing milky threads that stretched from Troxrin’s feet to the galleons above, running right through her guards before me.

And then, ruthlessly, I spat a single word while my hands hovered over magicks kissing their mailed legs: move.

In one motion, they buckled unnaturally, falling away. I strode over them like dust mites, keeping my left hand firmly on the magicks pinning them. No one noticed me yet — not the competitors hacking at Murinien; not Troxrin. Not even Myra, who still wept into her hands.

So, next came the galleons. I searched their hull quickly, hungrily for — aha! A shorthaired avimage stood at the bow, forehead bleeding as she manipulated threads about her craft like a cradle. I didn’t need to bring the whole ship down; I just needed to get its captain.

Raising blood-slicked fingers, I reached for the magicks stretching from her hair to my hands, yelling: throw.

This time, the threads pulled at me, almost upending my legs. But I stood my ground as they lifted the avimage jaggedly, then flung her overboard. The leftmost galleon tottered in midair, tossing its soldiers in every direction.

Troxrin spun, mouthing something I couldn’t catch, wraith-blade aloft.  I hunted for the right galleon’s captain, but the pinned guards quickly named me her adversary. Sighting me, Troxrin advanced, auxiliary guards falling into line as I scrambled backward, searching for an advantage against the incoming mob.

But someone’s blade struck out, cutting the air between Troxrin and me. My heart lurched as Myra wedged herself between us, knives spinning for the Empress’s head. Troxrin snarled, quickly shifting between smoky silhouette and solid form to avoid Myra’s blow. Her wraith blade pulsed with the effort, lending her its power. Troxrin thrust its full might toward Myra’s torso.

We wouldn’t last like this, with the world bearing down on us.

Casting around, I searched for another move — but the magicks in my left hand suddenly severed, shearing painfully from my flesh as my fingers bent. I came out of my Sight with a scream.

Professor Ames bore down on me, hands curled like talons, tight-lipped snarl frozen in place.

“So, you would turn your ruthlessness against the empire?”

Though chaos raged everywhere, I smiled. Finally, I understood my place. “No. I’m shaping it into something my parents would be proud of.”

Summoning strength that mama and papa and nanu helped me tend, I called back my Sight even as Professor Ames fought for control of my body; as Myra failed to hit Troxrin, whose wraith-blade made landing blows impossible.

I peered past all of it, out to the magicks surrounding Murinien’s chains and muzzle; counted every thread touching her fur in my mind’s eye.

Break.

I thought it, spoke it, flung it into the sky — until the threads around Murinien’s chains shattered, taking the iron with them, pushing air and matter and debris around so that her muzzle and shackles disintegrated. Aghast, Professor Ames staggered as the world behind her seared, bubbled, erupted. I squeezed my eyes shut as Myra launched into me, hurtling us aside. Murinien’s flames licked past, igniting everyone but us.

And when the light flaring behind my eyelids faded, I opened my eyes; blinked my Sight away, taking in the destruction.

Only Myra and I remained, sweaty and ash-soaked, amid the now-charred ruins.

“How  —  how?” Myra stumbled ahead. We faced Murinien, whose pale eyes raked over us. “Your coif magery did all this?”

I shuddered. “No. That was the College’s coiffery, at its finest.” My heart stopped, as realization dawned on me. “Troxrin?”

“Not dead,” Myra muttered, dusting off her armor. “Stupid wraith blade saved her ass, yet again.”

But those without such abilities were gone. Professor Ames. Magistrates and senators. Even the competitors, who’d been too busy hacking at Murinien to notice us. I swallowed.

“You okay?” Myra asked.

Murinien approached while I struggled to answer, claws crunching over the smoking field. Myra practically leapt into her belly, nuzzling tightly against her fur. Murinien brought her head low; the best hug a dragon could manage.

Thank you for saving me. Murinien’s voice rang in my head, loud and clear as bell chime.

I staggered back a little. “Y-you’re welcome.”

Myra laughed. “You’re always so formal, Muri.” Which meant Myra’d heard her, too.

Murinien exhaled a bit of smoke. And you are always so teasing.

“But you love me anyway.” Myra put out her hand, beckoning me. And even though we stood amidst a field of ash, I took it, letting her warmth soothe my aching fingers. “Muri, my friend here doesn’t just do fancy, life-saving magicks. She grants wishes.” Myra pushed my hands into Muri’s soft belly fur. “She might grant yours, if you ask it of her.”

I felt a part of me stir; the part that loved papa and mama, and the underland magicks I grew up with. “You have a wish?” I asked.

Murinien paused. I have many. She rose up then, turning from us a little. But I abandoned Qu’hell against the empire’s orders. Left to join my kin who yearned for quiet, for freedom after eons of service. I knew the cost of this. Knew the humans I’d leave behind. So, kind as your offer is, I cannot accept.

Myra scoffed, voice shaking. “Don’t you dare start that, Muri. Look, you made us strong. You made me strong. And now, we have to carry on those lessons you and the other dragonkind taught. I’d rather see you free, old oaths be damned.”

Muri rumbled, sounding like a purring cat stretching beneath the sun, but she said no more.

“I . . . didn’t grow up with a realm dragon,” I began, stroking her fur gently. “But I watched them fly overhead. Heard of the wars we took you into, the problems we made you solve.” I smiled, remembering papa. “But you gave my family something to dream about. And you knocked our crops free just by flying over, even though you weren’t meaning to.”

Muri laughed in my mind, the sound coming like waves breaking against a moonlit cliff. Who said we weren’t trying to do just that?

“Then you were always thinking of us,” I grinned. “Now, it’s time to think of yourselves. So, I’ll ask again — you have a wish, yes?”

Far off, Ecrouvér’s emergency sirens wailed. Soon, Troxrin would bring her armies; would scour uplands and underlands alike for those who stole her victory.

Myra squeezed my hand, as if sensing my thoughts. Well, mama had always told me: pick your battles one at a time, and I wouldn’t shirk her teachings now. Until Myra and I somehow made our way back to family, I’d wrap myself in her sayings until I forgot them, like nanu.

Murinien rumbled. Very well. But may I wish for more than one thing?

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll send out whatever I can.”

I wish to remain free alongside my kin, until the sun calls me home. And I wish for your safety — that this empire never finds you or your families again.

There were no guarantees, but if there could be such things as dragons and underland girls who found their power above the clouds, I thought anything might be possible.

“Once more, Muri?” I asked.

I called back my Sight. Murinien roared, and the magicks crossing her fur illuminated brilliantly, shimmering up and over her horns to set the sky ablaze.

See it done.

Closing my eyes, I wove her wish into the world’s fabric.

About the Author

Jen Brown

Jen Brown photo
Jen Brown is a queer, Black SFF writer and college librarian. When not working on stories or helping undergrads, she’s either playing visual novels and/or tactical RPGs, watering an impressive collection of house plants, or desperately tackling her “To Be Read” pile.

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About the Narrator

C. L. Clark

C.L. Clark

Cherae graduated from Indiana University’s creative writing MFA. She’s been a personal trainer, an English teacher, and an editor, and is some combination thereof as she travels the world. When she’s not writing or working, she’s learning languages, doing P90something, or reading about war and [post-]colonial history. Her work has also appeared or is forthcoming in FIYAH and Uncanny.

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