In the morning, Malfas declined to go on. The flight over the sea to Vol’dun was long, and he was hungry. Seryth also checked on the whelpling. It clung to his chest, its claws pricking him even through the patch of scales, reminding him eerily of the itching of the Nathssysn. He carefully unhooked its talons. He’d need to create a proper sling for it.
They hiked through the hills, Malfas lumbering behind them. The air turned colder and colder, and Seryth held the whelpling cradled against his chest with one hand, its claws now too weak to hold on by itself. The gesture brought back memories of his foster father, and Seryth allowed himself to remember Daelin. He wondered if Daelin had once been in such a position with him, holding a youngling with a terrible illness, alone in a hostile wilderness, struggling to survive.
He shuddered. The thought was still too painful, and besides, the hatchling was mewling again in hunger. It had turned its nose up at the anchovies the imp had brought. He’d have to find something else for it to eat.
They came upon a nest of spiders. Remembering the imp’s love of their legs, he commanded it to attack. Seryth trailed behind the imp, only using his spells sporadically, still not quite trusting himself without the Nathssysn’s power guiding his own.
The spiders were like uncooked crabs inside, and Seryth could crack a leg in two and let the whelpling lick at the slime that dribbled out. It seemed to like it, and stopped mewling. Either that, or Seryth had poisoned it, and he spent a sleepless night checking its sides every few minutes to see that its ribs still fluttered with its breaths.
He noticed wicker frameworks and charms among the spider webs. At first it didn’t mean anything to him, and he could barely tell the sticks apart from the branches of the strange trees around him. It was only when he went further into the woods and the spiders grew bigger, that he noticed the frames seemed to be on purpose, as if someone had gifted the spiders with a scaffold on which to hold their webs — as if they were cultivating them.
He caught a glimpse of a human woman through the trees. He tried to hide, thinking she might recognize him as the Tyrant of Westfall, but she spotted him quickly, for she was a huntress.
She told him she had been out gathering food and herbs for the use of the Rangers in the area. Seeing the sling he carried gently across his chest, she mentioned that he could find food and shelter if he continued southeast into the hills: that he and his baby would be welcome among the homesteaders there.
Seryth was about to protest, that what he carried was a dragon and not an elven baby, but then he thought better of it. He wouldn’t turn down help.
He signaled to Malfas to stay back in the trees and continue to eat his fill of the spiders. Though he could probably keep the whelpling hidden from suspicious eyes, hiding a full-grown drake was much more difficult. The imp, of course, could masquerade as a cat, as it so often did up front of humans.
Lying, hiding, masquerading. Reveal himself and maybe get killed for the kinds of allies he harbored. If Seryth was truly cleansed of the Nathssysn’s corruption, why did it feel like he was making the same mistakes all over again? He bent his head and trudged on.
The homesteaders were on edge. Though the humans were just as Seryth remembered from Westfall — a down-to-earth people without much magic to speak of — their land was steeped with ancient power. He could feel it, vaguely, like a movement inside the earth.
Though friendly, the humans also demanded he repay for the food and other supplies he asked of them. He had never picked up much of a trade beyond farming — of no use here — and the role he had played in the war against the demons — one he’d rather not return to.
One of the humans, a cheeky woman named Ranger Wons, put a bow in his hands and told him to stick people with the pointy end. It helped if he first got the pointy end to fly through the air with the stringy end, she added. Seryth thanked her dryly. Daelin had taught him some archery, though he had never been as good of a shot as the Farstrider. The thought of his foster father was bittersweet.
Of course, the quarry Ranger Wons meant for him to hunt was not just animals, but the very ancient power that both Seryth and the Rangers had felt rising from the ground. The power had manifested as restless rock that walked like a man and hunted man, too.
In the heat of the battle with such creatures, Seryth was surprised to find it came almost as instinct for him to throw some firebolts in with the arrows. Maybe he hadn’t completely lost his powers after all.
This time, though, he couldn’t hear the Nathssysn or feel its presence each time he called up the flames. The whelpling huddled closer to him, as if his casting the firebolts around also warmed it up.
The imp helped him in the battles, adding firebolts to his own. Seryth found that some of the old shadow magic still came to his call, though it seemed weaker without the Nathssysn’s guidance.
As he fought, he noticed the whelpling seemed to absorb some of the magical energy as soon as he cast it out. The fire magic warmed it, and the shadow magic made its scales gleam like obsidian.
“Are you sure you want to feed it that?” asked the imp. “Remember what Eli said about you two.”
Seryth didn’t answer. The whelpling seemed stronger for the magic — both kinds of magic — but he didn’t need the reminder of what dark and demonic energies could do to a living being.
The stone guardians of Drustvar seemed to feed on his magic just as the whelpling did. On sudden inspiration, Seryth led one into dead-end gully, where he could hit it from above without it endangering him. Then he intentionally channeled all the shadow energy he could into it.
The effort drained him, his heart beating weakly, but he still retained just enough knowledge of the shadow that he could bend the newly infused voidwalker to his will. He also hoped that using the once-guardian as a conduit for his shadow magic would keep the whelpling from being infused by the power instead.
He circled around the ruins that Ranger Wons had asked him to clear of hostiles. He was pushing through a drift of leaves and twigs when two eyes opened in the drift, then a mouth, then the thing spoke.
The pile of leaves wasn’t forest detritus, but a druid.