Ends of the Sky

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic


A short story about a dragon who just happens to adopt a human child.

Submitted: June 05, 2018

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Submitted: June 05, 2018

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Ends of the Sky

 

 

 

 

 

 

Her family considered her an eccentric, her neighbours thought she was a tad mad, and the rest of her kin would likely have called a shrink to examine her, had they known or cared enough. She herself had never quite understood how letting Fia live with her was seen as such a wild and unbecoming notion. “Think of your family image!” her friends always told her. She wasn't all that certain what Fia had to do with the image of her family. She looked nothing like anyone in her family for one thing.

“Sylph? I'm going to the market to get some food. Do you need anything?” Fia was standing at the entrance, dressed in her homespun, reddish-brown smock, blonde hair tied in a loose tail, a wicker basket hanging on one arm. Her grey eyes flashed as she smiled. “Sylph?”

Sylph opened one eye that slowly fixed upon her. “Nothing, thank you. Call on me if anything happens.”

“You worry too much, Sylph. You know you're the only one allowed to kill me.” Fia laughed, showing her dimples to good effect. She halted, halfway out. “Oh, and also, a mouse got into the flour. Would you work your magic to make sure it doesn't happen again?”

Sylph grumbled something, drifting towards sleep again. It was summer, and the day was too hot, even if she stayed indoors. Where did Fia find energy for all that bluster?

“Don't laze around all day now. I'll be back before dark.” And with that, Fia was off.

“Never should have let her stay...” Sylph muttered to herself, not meaning a word. One of her eyes opened by itself, gazing after the entrance to her lair as if longing for the sight of the human that had just left.

Grumbling to herself, Sylph slowly got to her feet, carefully folding her wings to avoid tearing any of the paintings Fia had so carefully hung on the walls of the cave. Her claws roused sparks from the floor as she lumbered towards the kitchen and the urn Fia stored her flour in.

“Mice? Rats? Bother...”

 

*

 

She had had no great love of humans. To her, and most of her kin, they served as nothing more than nuisances, possibly snacks if times grew dire, and, in very rare cases, when some of them banded together to raid their lairs, they were usually regarded as vermin and exterminated.

Fia, however, was not the first human she had encountered.

Born to a honourable lineage and bearing the proud name of Silver-Wings-That-Soar-Upon-The-Trails-In-The-Sky-And-The-Claws-That-Rend-The-Moon-And-Fell-Stars (or Sylph for short), great things had been expected of her from the moment she first learned to fly. Her proficiency with the First Language, the old words of power, set her course towards the arcane. With it came the need to study many other worlds and beings, to better understand the order of universe, herself, and her place in it.

Or so her teacher had claimed, before going off to hibernate for a century or two.

Promptly, as the young of her kin were prone to do, she had decided to see how high the sky was, and had found out, like many before her, that the sky was indeed endless. It went on and on, higher and higher, until you reached land again at some other world. She had never been content with that. Her curiosity demanded a definite answer.

This had been somewhere between her second and third century. She'd lost count, as the years of different worlds had variable lengths. One world had been a perpetual summer, another shifted between seasons every two weeks. One world had had a fifth season, during which the water that had collected in the lakes and seas began to rain back towards the heavens and the endless sky above. When, in the absence of her teacher, she'd asked her father about it, he'd mumbled something about the “gravitas of the moons” and shuffled off to tinker with another one of his machines.

Her first encounter with the humans upon arriving in their world had very nearly made her return home immediately. They had, as she was trying to introduce herself, begun screaming and shooting arrows at her. Arrows! The offence of them thinking such primitive means would be able to hurt her had been as bad as their calling her a dragon. She had nothing to do with those dumb, mythical beasts the humans seemed so fond of. Yes, she had wings and scales, a tail and adamantite claws. Yes, she could set the humans on fire if she so wished. No, she was not a mindless beast that desired to devour virginal human women. And no, she had no desire to amass those few metals the humans used for trading amongst themselves (well, maybe she could use some for an experiment she had in mind).

After her first encounter with humans, during which she had managed not to kill any of them in anger but failed to establish a means of communication (the humans seemed not to speak any civilized languages, to her chagrin), she had departed their primitive little village and sought out a lair within easy travelling distance.

Three days after she had settled into the cave she still called home, chosen thanks to the small spring that flowed out of its mouth, the humans had appeared on her doorstep, unannounced and with disturbing intentions.

An old man in a dirty robe shoved a youngling into her cave, then departed in haste with his retinue, all of them armed with pointy sticks and bows. They chanted in their gibberish all the while, which she had to admit was a somewhat admirable feat, running as they were.

The little one they had dropped off into her cave was a female, who, by her size, could not have been much older than ten years of age (by this world's calendar). The poor thing was scared stiff when she saw Sylph, and began to cry hysterically as soon as she approached, and so she decided to leave it be, let it go wherever it wanted. Those were her thoughts when she had gone to sleep.

The next day, the pup was still there. Shuddering from the cold within the cave, it had not moved an inch from where it had fallen after being tossed in. She could not help but take pity on the poor creature, but, again, when she tried to approach it, it began to wail in a high voice, cowering away from her. Seeing no way but to establish a way of communication, she tried to speak to it, trying several languages, but to no avail. Trying to establish a connection of minds resulted in failure as well, only that her attempt to speak into the child's mind seemed to have had the side effect of leaving the poor thing catatonic.

It wasted away, drooling, within the next two days.

She felt some remorse as her actions seemed to have caused its death, and resolved to learn what she could of these humans to avoid any further mishaps.

The next day, she contacted one of the elders living on this world, She-Whose-Name-Is-Sung-And-Whose-Eyes-Glow-As-Stars-In-The-Dark, requesting information as to how to deal with these beings called humans. She was presented with a collection of reports, memos and, best of all, full transcriptions of various languages that were prominent with the current human civilizations.

After studying them thoroughly, she found herself even more disgusted with the behaviour of the chanting humans. The child had been intended as a sacrifice, to quiet her wrath or some such nonsense. From the reports, she also learned that the child had more than likely been forced, by abduction or slavery, to take up the role. There was nothing noble about it, yet the word the humans used for such acts was “sacrifice”.

From the documents, she learned that the humans customarily cremated their dead. She lit a pyre for the child outside her lair, watching the smoke rise to a dark sky that did not seem bottomless at all before returning to her reading.

It had been three weeks since her arrival when she finished reading the reports, and already she was debating whether to kick off the dust of this world and look for something more interesting.

That was when the same old man and his armed retinue arrived, dropping off another intended sacrifice before they again fled, shouting chants and brandishing their pointy sticks. Looking at the poor child – another female, she realized – dressed in what seemed to be a sack on the verge of falling apart entirely, her face and arms bruised, clotted blood on her blond hair, she resolved not to let this one die.

The child cowered in fear, hiding her face against her knees as Sylph approached, shaking the ground with each step.

“There's no need to be afraid, child,” she spoke to calm the creature, choosing the language the child was most likely to speak, but only managed to heighten its fear. “I am not going to eat you, child, no matter what that old man – a priest, yes? - told you. You wouldn't make much of a meal, anyway.”

That seemed to have some effect, as the child stopped shaking. She halted, waiting for the child to move. After a moment, a grey eye peeked at her from between matted curls.

“Wh-what will you do wi-with me, then?” the child asked in a quivering voice.

“Do with you?” Sylph laughed, a deep rumbling sound. The child yelped, hiding her face. Sylph chuckled again. “I won't do anything to you, or with you, child. You're free to go.” With that, she turned and, shaking the ground, walked back inside her lair. She had been able to communicate with the humans, was what she thought as she drifted to sleep that night. Maybe there were still things she could learn here.

 

*

 

It had taken her a whole two minutes to deal with the mouse in the kitchen. A spoken word with some power behind it and the critter had understood it was in its best interest to vacate the room, and inform its brethren that, should they wish to avoid a gruesome death, they might want to keep it that way.

Sylph was again dozing off inside her lair as the day slowly turned towards the evening, cooling from sweltering to comfortable warmth. A thrush was singing by the entrance, its peeping seeping slowly into her ears as she half slept, half waited.

It had already been eight years since Fia had come to live with her. Eight years. That was a long time for a human.

Fia was 21 now. No more considered young among the humans, nor yet old.

She turned uneasily as that thought spun around her head, again and again.

“Why do you care so much for the human?” her mother's voice echoed in her memory.

I do not know.

“Associating with humans brings nothing but pain and an early death,” her father told her.

I do not see how such weak creatures could prove to be a threat, father.

“You will come to regret your choice, child,” her teacher assured her.

I would much rather regret doing something than leaving things undone.

Her thoughts a-whirl, poking at her dilemma from angle to angle, she drifted back towards deeper sleep. For some reason, the last words on her mind were that of the elder who helped her out when she first moved here, about how “youth was precious and to be cherished”.

Sylph scoffed, even in her sleep. Maybe the elder had mistaken the word for precocious...

 

*

 

The following morning, she had not been too surprised to see the child still lying there, three meters inside her cave, shivering.

“Whyever are you still here, child,” she said, bemused. “I believe I told you you're free to go.”

The child jerked awake, looking at her with eyes wide. Seeing herself reflected on the grey irises, wide with fear, Sylph sighed. This would not do.

“Child, I am not going to harm you. Tell me, why have you not gone home?”

The child hid her face against her knees again, not answering. She waited for a moment before sighing and turning away, when she heard the child mutter in a low voice.

“I have no home anymore.”

“Whatever happened to your home, then?”

“They burned it.”

“And your family?”

The child merely shook its head, sniffling.

She ran the memos she had read through her head. War. Spoils. Slaves. The words hung before her mind as fiery brands.

“And yourself, child? Were you enslaved, taken from your home against your will?”

A wordless nod.

“Well, you are a slave no more. I free you. Now, run back to wherever you came from. Surely they'll feed you if you work hard for them.”

“No! I can't!” The child suddenly stood up, almost shouting. Sylph saw a silver pendant hanging around her neck, the chain much too long for a child. “If I go back, they'll... they'll kill Kaya!”

“Pardon?”

“I... I can't...” the child cried, hands balled into fists, shaking from fear and the cold. “Kaya...”

Sacrifice.

“I see. They told you they'd kill your... sister? If you did not do what they said.”

The child sniffled and nodded.

“Deplorable,” she sighed. “Well, that makes it easier for you. Go wherever you want. You're free. Go.”

“I can't.”

“I am telling you to go, child. Do you not wish to be free?”

“I can't. If I leave here, they'll kill Kaya.”

“Is your sister's life that important to you?”

The child nodded, looking down at her feet, one hand clutching the pendant.

“Even if staying here meant you're going to die?”

The child stiffened, but nodded nonetheless.

Sylph eyed the child carefully. She had to admire its guts. For such a weak, squishy creature, this child had the spirit of a mountain.

“Stay, then. There's plenty of room,” she heard her voice say. She turned and walked back inside her chamber before she could come to regret her decision.

The child looked on for a moment, eyes wide in surprise.

Then, the patter of bare feet on rock followed her inside.

 

*

 

Sylph opened one eye, rousing from her reverie for a moment.

Her gaze slowly drifted around the largest room inside their home, the main chamber of the cave that Fia had carefully and lovingly furnished with paintings, some bought, some painted by her. Scenes of different seasons, cities within valleys of deep snow, towers built upon vast oceans, a lone tree standing upon a ledge overlooking a silent bay. Fia had intended to cover the stone floor with mats or planks, but had given up on the idea after she realized Sylph's claws would make short work of anything they touched.

Sylph's gaze moved towards the entrance. A curtain of brown canvas hung before the mouth of the cave, not quite covering the opening. A ray of the evening sunlight slowly streamed in, lighting up the motes of dust Sylph's breath blew up each time, swirling towards the ceiling before slowly drifting down again, gently touching the water flowing out of the cave.

Her gaze stopped upon the doorway to the kitchen, beyond which lay Fia's personal rooms. Sylph smiled as she thought about them, remembering again how they first came to be.

 

*

 

The child had not been staying with her for more than a week before it suddenly sickened. The food she gave it, it could not keep down. Water that she purified for it to drink seemed fine, but the meat and wheat she procured seemed not to nourish the child enough.

Distraught, she went through the memos and reports she had received, but none of them had anything on the diet of humans aside from mentioning agriculture and hunting. Another day passed, and the child seemed to grow weaker. Desperate, she infused it with some of her own spirit, which seemed to calm the child but did not improve her condition. Fearing that the child would simply waste away quietly, she again contacted the elder she had received memos from, speaking the words that allowed the sound of her voice travel across space.

“Human food?” the elder sounded surprised. “Whatever do you need human food for?”

“A human, what else? Please, grandmother, can you help me?”

“You have a human there with you? Whatever have you been doing, child?”

“They dropped her off at my door as a sacrifice. She had no place to go, so I let her stay, but now she's taken ill.”

“I see. What are the symptoms?”

“She can't keep any food down. Her breath seems raspy in her throat, and she has a cough that brings up phlegm of a dull green colour. Also, I am not exactly certain of this, but I believe her body temperature has gone up somewhat.”

“I see. What have you been feeding her?”

“Meat that I've caught – deer, I believe – and wheat and barley that were hoisted upon my door as offerings.”

“I see. No wonder then. Now, listen carefully, child. First, you must make sure she is warm, preferably in a room without draft or dust. Can you do that?”

“Of course. A moment.”

She turned to regard the cave she had made into her home. She muttered a word, gazing through the stone to see in which direction the hillside continued furthest, then turned to face the southern wall. Another word and a hole appeared in the wall. Another word, and the hole deepened and widened into a chamber five meters across and deep. She ushered the child inside the room, wrapping her in a canvas that had been left at her doorstep.

“Do you have any water you can heat up?”

“Yes. There is a spring beside the entrance to my lair. How much do I need?”

“Do you have a kettle or anything you can use?”

“I have several phials I've used for research. I'll just use one of those.”

“Make sure they're clean, child. Humans are rather fragile.”

“Of course, grandmother.”

A word and she had a phial of boiling, clean water.

“What now, grandmother?”

“I'll send over a pouch with herbs. Infuse the water with them and have the human drink it. It should be enough. Make her drink it several times a day until her temperature is back to normal.”

“I see. Thank you very much, grandmother.”

A spark flared within the cave, coalescing into a leather pouch that slowly floated towards the ground. Sylph carefully upended the herbs into the phial and had the child drink some of the mixture – after making sure it wasn't hot enough to scald her.

“I'll send you a memo about human food in a moment, child.”

“I cannot thank you enough, grandmother. I could not have done anything to help this child.”

“Think nothing of it. Call upon me should you need more help with your human.” With that, the elder broke off their connection.

The elder's medicine proved effective, and the child recovered within the week. The memo she had been promised turned out to be exhaustive, listing not only suitable foods for humans, but preferable living conditions as well as suggestions towards proper clothing and furnishings for their abodes.

As soon as the child was able to walk without seeming woozy, she had her dictate what sort of furniture she wished for her new room. The child was content with very little: a bed, a cupboard for storing food, a bowl, a spoon, a mug.

“Is there nothing else you require, child?” she asked, at a loss. There had been so many things in the memo that she had wanted to try making. “How about an armchair for you to sit upon or books to read to pass the time? What about a dress to replace that torn up thing you're wearing?”

The child merely shook her head. “I'm fine. I'm to die here, I don't need anything.”

“You won't die, child. I just cured you, did I not?”

“I know. But you're the one who will kill me, aren't you? You're a dragon.”

“I'm not a dragon, I am Silver-Wings-That-Soar-Upon-The-Trails-In-The-Sky-And-The-Claws-That-Rend-The-Moon-And-Fell-Stars” she corrected the child instinctively, but the child only stared, mouth hanging open. “Child?”

“Shilvwi?...” The child stared.

“No, Silver-Wings-” She began, but the child's eyes were already glazing over. “Fine. Sylph it is.”

“Miss Sylph?”

“Yes. And if you read some books, you'd learn, among other things, that dragons don't exist in the first place.”

“But you look just like a dragon, miss Sylph. I've seen pictures, and paintings.” The child's eyes seemed to grow ever wider, taking in the enormous, silvery-cobalt scaled form that was Sylph.

“That's just what you humans decided to call my kin, not understanding us and deeming us nothing but beasts, creating a myth to ignore the truth. In our own tongue, we are called... Seekers, might be a proper translation. I'll let you read the history of my kin, child. Collecting knowledge is what life is all about.”

The child looked down. “I can't read.”

“Then I will teach you, child.” As she looked at the child, she realized she had no name for her. “Come to think of it, I do not know your name, child.”

The child looked down. “I have no name. They said I don't need one.”

“I know your sister has a name. Surely you have one as well, then.”

The child shuffled, embarrassed. “Fia.”

“Pardon?”

“It's Fia,” the child said, looking up.

“Fia? I do think that is a fine name. What say you, Fia, if I were to teach you how to read and write, to draw and calculate, to start off with a few things?”

 

*

 

Sylph turned her head, looking towards the shelf near their door that held most of the books she had used when she had started schooling Fia. Books on an array of subjects this world had never even dreamed of yet filled the shelves, in the language of Sylph's kin.

She spoke a word and a book, written by her, floated from the shelf to land on the ground before her. She leafed through the pages filled with her carefully painted letters, accompanied by Fia's early scribbles when she had been learning the proper alphabet. Sylph still did not understand why humans had decided an alphabet was complete with so few letters. There were so many sounds that could be produced, after all.

As she kept turning the pages, leafing through time, witnessing again as Fia's skill at writing improved, Sylph could not help smiling.

 

*

 

“I'd say that concludes our lesson on the subject of the differential coefficient. Any questions?” Sylph looked down towards Fia who sat cross-legged, back against her side, the hem of her skirt riding up. An open book lay on the human's lap, filled with mathematical formulae.

“I think I get it, Sylph,” Fia, fifteen years of age, said, pushing her blond hair out of her eyes. The dress she was wearing was getting short for her, Sylph realized. She had studied what she could on human adolescence, but Fia's latest growth spurt still managed to astonish her.

“I think it's time to make you a new dress again,” Sylph said. “You keep growing out of them at such a speed I find it hard to keep up.”

Fia blushed faintly. “I'm fine with this one, Sylph. Don't trouble y-”

“It's no trouble. Go get the binder with the diagrams and tell me what you'd like this time.”

Fia's face lit up and she half ran, half skipped towards her room. The book she'd had on her lap was left on the ground, still open.

Sylph sighed, returning the book to the shelf. She had to decide what subject to teach next. Maybe keep with maths and physics for the time being, before moving back towards philosophy? She had yet to properly breach the topic of meta-physics with Fia after all, and all sorts of social and political philosophy for that matter. She wasn't all too certain if humans could grasp such subjects at all, looking at their society of oligarchs and “divine” rulers, but then again, she had not been certain if Fia could learn the language of her kin in the first place.

So far, the child had been surpassing her every expectation with her quick wits and sharp mind, often grasping concepts with such alacrity that Sylph had to devise further lessons on the fly.

They had covered most of basic maths, so physics would be the logical course of progress, would it not? Sylph smiled to herself. Maybe logic would be the logical choice? But no, after a proper introduction to physics, and some more lessons on geography, she could finally start teaching Fia about the sky, space, and what lay between worlds. Yes, astrophysics, that would be next.

“Sylph, I can't find it,” Fia called from her room.

“You left it on top of the cabinet last time,” Sylph called back

“Oh, right,” Fia's mutter drifted to Sylph's ears, before she appeared carrying the bundle of sketches, diagrams and a piece of canvas or two, all filled with pictures of different sorts of clothing for humans.

“I'd like to try something a bit lighter this time, Sylph,” Fia said before she had even managed to sit down. “Maybe something that's shorter in front and longer at the back?”

“I don't see why not,” Sylph agreed amicably. Fia was just as into this clothing business as she always was. Sylph found it amusing, but if it made Fia happy... Sylph smiled as she leaned her head lower, peeking over Fia's shoulder to see what she was looking at.

“How about this one?” Fia said, pointing to a picture of a dress that was so short it did not reach even as far as the knees. A longer, drapy skirt drooped below the knees at the sides and back. It looked low cut up top, with sleeves just short of the elbows. And there were a lot of frilly bits to the hem and sleeves. A lot of them.

“Won't it be a little unconventional, with all these... frills?”

“Lace, Sylph,” Fia corrected her absently. Sylph blinked in surprise, but Fia carried on without noticing. “I guess you're right. Maybe tone them down a bit?”

“I'll just make you two, one with the... lace and one without,” Sylph offered.

“Really? Thanks, Sylph,” Fia laughed, hugging Fia's snout. “Could you make them red again?”

“To hide the blood? A wise choice, as always,” Sylph nodded.

“Could you stop bringing that up?” Fia said, flushing faintly.

“Why? It's a natural part of what humans are.”

“Just... It's embarrassing.”

“I don't understand why you'd find your nature embarrassing, Fia, but as you wish,” Sylph chuckled. “Off you go then. I'll have your dresses ready in an hour or so. Why don't you go outside and read up on your geology while you're at it?”

“Yes, Sylph,” Fia said in a voice near monotone, skipping towards the mouth of their cave, picking up a book from the shelf. “You should come out as well. Summer won't last forever, you know.”

“I certainly hope not. It's too hot.”

Fia's laughter echoed as she walked out.

 

An hour or so later, Sylph wandered out of the cave into the summer evening, which, while still warm, was starting to cool off towards the evening. She scanned the vicinity of the cave before taking wing, scouring the landscape for Fia.

The woods whispered below her as she flew, the summer breeze caressing her scales and bending the trees in her wake. Each wave of her wings took her higher and higher, up towards the bottomless pit of the sky that loomed above.

She found the girl asleep on a hill, using her arm as a pillow. The book on geology lay abandoned in the tall grass that hid her from all eyes if they did not seek her from above.

Sylph landed near her, shaking the ground as her feet touched upon it. She leaned her head over the sleeping girl, blocking the sun from her face.

“Uhnn...” Fia murmured, stirring. One of her grey eyes opened to a slit. “Oh, Sylph? Is it time already?”

“I've finished with the dresses, if that's what you mean. Did you get any reading done?”

“Yes.” Fia shrunk slightly as Sylph showed one canine tooth in an enormous smirk. “Well, not much. The weather was too nice, and the wind feels too good not to take a nap, don't you think?”

Sylph raised her head, looking around the wooded hillside. The hill itself was devoid of trees, but the forms of evergreens and young birches swayed gently in the breeze, surrounding it. All she could see was the trees, the tall grass, a lone cloud skimming across overhead, small and wary of covering up the slowly setting sun. The sky seemed to be remembering why it had once been named azure.

“You might be right,” Sylph heard herself say.

“Right?”

Sylph sat down, coiling her tail and body around the girl, making sure not to block the sun from keeping her warm. It glittered on her scales, casting a silvery, cobalt gleam towards the vastness above.

“You're shining again,” Fia said, one hand gently touching Sylph's side.

“It's but a refraction of light,” Sylph said, closing her eyes. It was comfortable, outside. If only today.

 

*

 

Sylph got up and stretched, closing the book.

It was getting dark outside, slowly but surely. Fia should be back soon, with foodstuffs and whatever else interesting she'd found at the market. It was time for her to put the water to boil.

As she spoke a word and assumed a human form to fit inside their kitchen, her hands stopped when they took hold of the dress Fia had sewn for her to wear. The bright, clean green of the cotton seemed almost ethereal in the dim darkness of the cave. Sylph blinked and realized she needed to light up the lamps. Humans couldn't see in the dark, after all.

“Such a weak species,” she muttered, a smile on her lips.

She quickly pulled on her dress, put the kettle to boil and lit the lamps, then seated herself on a stool by the kitchen door.

Her eyes travelled to the mouth of the cave. It was getting dark. Darker. Fia should be getting home any moment.

Her soft, human fingers absently played at the hem of her dress, familiarizing themselves with the stitch and the seam, Fia's loving handiwork.

 

*

 

Fia had turned eighteen when they got a message, through one of Sylph's connections, that Kaya was expecting a child and was almost in her ninth month.

Fia was very nearly beside herself with glee, so happy she was for her sister. Sylph did not have the heart to tell her that Kaya had not been married, but hoisted off to a local nobleman to serve as a concubine. Her logical side thought that such a fate for a slave was as close to the optimal outcome as possible, but she knew Fia well enough to know she would not have seen things that way. So, she just told her that Kaya had managed to become his mistress, as she knew that Fia could accept it if it was a choice her sister made for herself and not the other way around.

“We need to go visit her,” Fia said for the third time within the minute. “I need to bring our mother's pendant to her. It needs to be passed on, Sylph.”

“It's a bad idea, Fia. I can conjure up the image for you to see here.”

“We need to go visit her. It's just not right for me – the aunt! – not to be present a the birth.”

“I'm telling you Fia, it's a bad idea.” Sylph tried looking for an excuse. “What if the people recognize you? What will become of your sister and her child, then?”

“Oh, please Sylph.” Fia said, hands on her hips. “It's been more than five years since they left me for dead here. I've grown up, haven't I? Would you recognize me if you'd last seen me five years ago?”

“Yes. I would.”

“Sylph...” Fia shook her head. “You know what I mean.”

“Yes, and I'm telling you, it's a bad idea.”

“But...”

The conversation went on for three days until Fia mounted a decisive assault. She stooped to begging, knowing well enough Sylph could not say no.

“Fine,” Sylph said, “but I'm coming with you.”

“And what do you think the people would think if the dragon that has been quiet for a few years suddenly showed up at the birth of a child?” Fia asked, amused. “They'd offer the baby as a sacrifice, and I don't want Kaya to lose her firstborn child to you.”

“I have no desire to devour the newborn,” Sylph said, slightly offended.

“I know, I know,” Fia said, placing a placating hand on one of Sylph's wings. “You'd probably do a fine job at raising the child. But! That is not the point here. You can't just go waltzing into town, Sylph.”

“I'm not letting you go alone. Either I go with you, or we stay here,” Sylph said with finality. Only, this time, Fia did not cave in.

“And I'm telling you, I can't go into town with a dragon! So, either way, I must go alone, unless you have any better ideas. And no, me not going is not one of them,” Fia said with equal finality, crossing her arms.

“...Bother.” Sylph said, muttering a word of power.

“Yes. So, as you can... see...” Fia stammered to a halt.

Sylph's form glimmered, shrunk, flashed, and in the place of her hulking, scaled form taking up one third of the cave stood a human child, who looked completely ordinary except for her silvery, cobalt tinged hair and bright emerald eyes. She could not have been older than five.

“I'll need clothing, I believe,” Sylph said as she walked over to Fia's mirror, inspecting herself. “Am I missing anything, an ear, a buttock?” Sylph looked over her shoulder at the stunned human. “Fia?”

“How?” Fia managed to utter.

“You know how.”

“No, I mean,” Fia shook her head. “Why? Why have you never...?”

“I do not particularly enjoy being this vulnerable,” Sylph sniffed. “You humans are so squishy, a stiff wind could keel you over.”

Fia stared a moment longer before a strained laughter escaped her. “I just don't...” She took a deep breath. “Okay. I agree, going as a child is a good choice. Let me go get you one of my old dresses, we can make do even if they're a bit large for you. We need to hide that hair of yours, as beautiful as it is, as well.”

Sylph raised one brow, amused. “Good choice?

“Yes. We can pretend you're mine, and we're just visiting from a farm. Here, see if this fits you.”

“That's not what I meant,” Sylph smiled as Fia pulled the dress over her head.

“What is it then?”

“Never mind.”

It took them the better part of two hours to make it to the town where Kaya lived. Sylph knew Fia could have made the trip in half the time. She was unused to human form, its aching limbs and terrible balance. How did anyone walk without a tail? She almost pitied Fia, then and there. Almost.

The streets of the town were paved with cobblestones, which she knew to be a sign of a either a very old or a very prosperous town, and the main street was lined with merchants hawking their wares. Most houses were of stone, interspersed with a wooden one every five or six buildings, their roofs either of thatch or fired tiles of a reddish brown tint. The people on the streets wore clothes of cotton, with some in leather and the odd soldier or mercenary in boiled leather and chainmail. They passed a tavern, the open door let Sylph peek in to see a bard performing a rather disjointed melody on a lute that had seen better days. The patrons, although it was barely four in the evening, seemed inebriated enough not to care.

“Should we stop to get something to bring as a present?” Sylph inquired as they passed a stall selling jewellery, staring at the items on offer from under her hood.

“I brought gifts from home,” Fia said, patting her satchel. “A shawl, and besides, our mother's pendant is gift enough.”

Fia had only shown the precious item properly to Sylph once, a rather battered piece of silver with a tiny sapphire inlaid to it, on which occasion Sylph had offered to fix it with her words. This had offended Fia rather greatly, and the pendant had been hidden away inside Fia's rooms ever since. Sylph wasn't quite sure what she'd done wrong, and so had decided not to press the issue.

They reached the gates of the manor on the central square of the town in a few minutes. The manor itself was both impressive and very unimpressive. What it lacked in imagination, it made up for in pomposity. Any free surface of the walls, the fence surrounding it and the very gates were enamelled, inscribed or gilded with imaginative beasts on every corner. Sylph scoffed at the sight of a stone dragon keeping watch on the roof.

“What is it with you humans and your mythical virgin devourers?”

“Now now,” Fia placated her. “It's an old custom.”

Sylph did not deem it fit to comment. “So, how are you planning on getting in? I can get us in with-”

“How about we just ask the guards at the gate, I'm sure they'll let us in if only to bring the gifts and well-wishes.”

“I suppose it wont hurt to try,” Sylph agreed warily.

However, the guards at the gate turned them away.

“The mistress is in labour as we speak, miss. His lordship has ordered no one to be allowed to pass until the baby is born, to avoid any disturbance. I'm sure you understand, miss,” the guard said, helmet under his arm as he rubbed his brown hair. “You're the first people to come asking, too. Just come back tomorrow, I'm sure his lordship would be glad to receive your gifts and well-wishes for the babe.”

Fia seemed likely to argue, so Sylph stomped on her foot. “Let's go, Fia.”

“But-” Fia opened her mouth.

“No buts. Come.” Sylph nodded curtly to the soldier who blinked at this child's regal behaviour.

“We'll be back tomorrow, then,” Fia said, bowing.

“Of course, miss.”

“It'll be a long road home,” Sylph muttered as they began walking towards the gate. “My feet hurt.”

“We could stay at an inn, here,” Fia suggested.

“Or I could just fly us home.”

“Come now Sylph. What's the harm in spending one day at an inn, here?”

Sylph opened her mouth to argue, but realized her only argument was a childish one. She shut her mouth with a click. “Fine.”

The inn they chose – the best and only one in town that was an inn first and a tavern second – was nearly full. The only room available was a small one with a single bed.

After signing her name in the inn's ledger, Fia was handed a key in exchange for a coin Sylph had just spoken into being. They asked for supper to be brought to their room, to which the innkeeper readily agreed.

The food turned out to be fair, but not quite to Fia's tastes. She'd picked up cooking as a hobby, after growing tired of Sylph's favourites: meat and meat, charred, broiled or chargrilled.

Later that evening, Sylph found it hard to fall asleep. Fia's back was warm against hers. The woollen blanket tickled her soft human skin, and the mattress, filled with straw, seemed to be prickling her somewhere, no matter which way she turned.

She managed to rouse Fia from her sleep with her constant turning.

“Sylph? Can't sleep?”

“Mmh.”

“What's wrong?”

“Nothing.”

“Sylph?” Fia said, turning around.

“It's just... You humans are so squishy,” Sylph muttered, voicing her discomfort at sleeping in such a place, in such a form. She had never realized how much she relied on her scales, nor just how vulnerable Fia must feel all the time.

“Oh.”

Then, Sylph felt Fia's arms pull her towards her, Fia's warm body envelop her. It was an odd feeling, but not entirely uncomfortable.

“Just go to sleep, Sylph.” Fia said, yawning.

 

The next morning, they were up and out of the inn, making their way towards the manor before seven o'clock.

The gates of the manor stood open and, ominously, unguarded.

“Whatever is this about?” Fia wondered out loud.

Sylph said nothing. She had a bad feeling.

The same guard that had greeted them yesterday stood by the steps leading to the double doors in front of the mansion.

“Oh, it's you,” the guard said, straightening.

“The gates are open, I see. Have there been many well-wishers yet?” Fia asked as they approached.

“That's just the thing, miss,” the soldier said, taking off his helmet to present his freshly shaven head. “A sad thing it is.”

Fia froze at the sight of the soldier's bald head. “You don't...”

Sylph could sense her dread. Her mind went through its mental inventory again, scanning the reports she had been reading on human culture, the local one. Warrior. Shaven. Mourning. She closed her eyes, realization hitting her.

“Yes, miss,” the soldier said, eyes downcast. “Both the mother and the babe, miss. The lord isn't accepting any visitor I'm afraid, but the mistress is laid out in the chapel should anyone wish to pray for her. Miss?”

Fia stood, frozen, before her voice creaked as if from a deep hole. “Please.”

The soldier put on his helmet. “This way, miss.”

The chapel was a small white building located behind the manor, hidden away in a little copse of trees. Its door stood open with another guard posted by it. The guards exchanged nods, before the one who had led them here gestured towards the door and turned to resume his own post.

The inside of the chapel held only a grey stone altar, upon which burned a single candle. Before it lay a stand, on which rested two forms, a small one and a large one, their faces covered by white cloth. The larger one was dressed in a fine, black dress, the small one wrapped in a bundle of black and grey cloth.

Fia fell to her knees beside the larger form, taking its cold hand in her own.

“Kaya...” her hoarse voice rang out inside the chapel, echoing, echoing.

Sylph could only stare. She had seen dead humans before. She'd studied what she had been able to about their lifespans, their culture of war and cities built on corpses. Death was no stranger to the ones that called themselves humans. Yet, as she watched Fia cradle the cold hand of her sister, all she could see was that little unfortunate girl that had been tossed into her cave as a sacrifice before her, who'd grown cold as she had watched her whimper away in the darkness, broken in spirit.

She felt her jaw tense as that image burned in her mind, only this time, the girl was not the nameless unfortunate, but Fia. For a moment, there existed no human other than her. Fia was cradling Fia's cold hand in front of her. Fia was human, too, wasn't she? Fia was going to die soon. Fia was-

?” the guard's alarmed voice brought Sylph back to present. She followed the soldier's gaze and realized Fia was walking away, legs moving mechanically, already halfway towards the manor.

“Fia?!” she yelped, hastening after her.

“Fia? Fia?” she breathed as she took hold of her hand, outside the manor's gates. The street around them was waking up, men and women opening shops and stalls on the street.

“This isn't happening,” Fia said, repeating it over and over again. “This isn't happening.”

Sylph looked around her, feeling the eyes of the people upon them and pulled her hood lower. They were attracting too much attention. It took most of her willpower not to shift back to her own shape and whisk Fia away from the town, then and there.

“Fia? Fia, please. We should leave.”

“This isn't happening. This isn't....”

Sylph realized Fia was in no shape to listen. She took firm hold of her hand and began pulling her towards the gate they had entered through, away from the humans and their curious eyes.

They were halfway back to their home before Fia said anything else.

“You knew, didn't you?” Her tone crawled with accusation.

Sylph stood back on her heels, halting, letting Fia's hand slip out of hers. “What?”

“You knew, didn't you.” Fia turned to look at her, eyes burning.

“No!” Sylph said, mouth hanging open. “How could I?”

“Because you know everything!” Fia almost screamed. “You-”

“I don't know everything,” Sylph tried to sound calm. “I'm not the universe, I only know what I know.”

“Then why didn't you save her?” Fia was gripping one hand inside the other so hard there was blood dripping to the ground.

“Fia! Your hands!” Sylph reached out, alarmed, but Fia slapped her hand away.

“Answer me, dragon! Why? Why did you let her die? Why?”

“Fia?” Sylph gaped, hurt. She had never seen Fia like this. “What do you mean?”

“You could have saved her with your words of power. Tell me it isn't so.” There were tears in Fia's eyes now, but her face was contorted in a rage that scared Sylph.

“No. No power can bring back the dead. Once the door is open for them and they enter, nothing can bring them back.”

“You lie. Tell me you're lying.”

“It's the truth. The words bear all the power of the universe, but the dead do not belong in this world. I can teach you what I know if you do not trust me.” Sylph held her hands in front of her, palms up. “Please, Fia?”

“Then this form of yours,” Fia spat, anger flaring again. “Are you mocking me, left without a sister, trying to replace her?” Fia's tone lowered in an imitation of Sylph's normal voice. “This poor human, let me help her, ease her pain.”

“What? No!” Sylph could see that Fia was merely taking her grief out on her, but it still hurt. “I cannot help looking like this. When you change forms, truly change forms, the form you assume accounts for the gap in the relative lifespans between the two.”

Fia's hands slackened. Her whole body swayed. “What?” she said in a weak voice.

“I mean, you humans live such short lives that-”

Sylph was interrupted as Fia knelt before her, hands on her shoulders.

“You're just a child?” Fia looked stricken. “Just a child?”

“I'm more than ten times your age,” Sylph scoffed, unsure where this was going.

Just a child, Fia's mouth worked silently one more time, then, “I'm sorry, Sylph,” she said, crying openly, embracing the small form that had taken care of her for the past five years. “I'm so, so sorry.”

“Fia...” Sylph tried patting her back, but could not quite reach the way Fia's arms were trapping hers to her sides. Fia's tears fell, warm against the back of her neck. It was enough.

She made her resolution then and there. She had just seen, been reminded of the ultimate fact that she had known all along, the fact she had somehow, forcefully, managed to ignore thus far. The truth about her life with Fia.

Humans were fragile. Short-lived. Prone to death by accident, mishap, or sheer bad luck.

But Fia was warm as she wrapped her arms around the form Sylph had assumed. Warm.

Sylph carefully put her arms around the human and realized she was not about to let go. She would not lose this warmth.

 

*

 

Fia should have been home by now.

Sylph cast an uneasy look towards the mouth of the cave. She had pulled the canvas aside to see outside, as if being able to see a patch of the forest would bring Fia home faster, but the darkness outside their home was too deep for her human eyes to pierce.

As she debated whether or not to contact Fia via their mental path, her gaze drifted to the blackboard she had been using for the research that had taken up most of her free time for the past three years. She had had to resort to doing it in secrecy for the last year, as Fia proved a frighteningly keen student on the subject of the First Language. To Sylph's dismay, they had discovered that, although Fia was more than capable of reading, writing, speaking and, most important of all, truly understanding the words, when spoken by her they held next to no power at all. Fia could barely manage to ignite a spark, and even that feat would leave her gasping for breath.

Sylph had hoped that Fia could change her form to that of her own kin and extend her short life. As that no longer was an option, she had had to resort to other paths of research.

When she had finally found a solution, she'd wondered at the simplicity, and had just been about to contact her teacher about it when she'd realized what her father had meant, those eight years ago.

Truly, it would be an early death for her. But for Fia, it would be a life of such length that Sylph did not need to think twice.

As she again went over the phrasing of her spell, her oath, Fia's strained voice rang inside her mind.

Sylph...! Help...”

Sylph jumped up and fell to her back, so surprised she forgot humans only had one pair of legs.

“Fia? Fia, what's wrong? Where are you?”

...sylph.... H...elp....”

As Fia's voice faded inside her mind, Sylph felt an urgency she had only felt once before, when she thought she had seen the ends of the sky before her and took that last, fateful dive ahead.

“FIA!” she screamed, crashing out of the cave, up into the night sky even before her form had settled back into her original one.The torn remains of her dress silently fell towards the ground.

She rose as high as she could before clouds began to cover her vision and muttered the words of searching, tucking in her wings and diving at a breakneck speed towards the direction from where she could hear the answer whispering to her ears.

What she saw made her blood boil like never before.

A band of men, mercenaries or bandits by their outfits and swords and spears, had Fia on the ground in their midst. She was bleeding, bleeding too much for her feeble human form to sustain such loss of vitality. A man was getting on top of her despite her weak attempts to resist him as the rest of band howled and cheered. Fia's dress was torn, exposing her creamy skin to the moonlight, her wicker basket crushed beneath the feet of the onlookers.

Her Fia. Hers. She was hers!

Sylph crashed into the circle of men, too angry to speak the words that would have eradicated them from the universe, the words that would have reduced them to wet ash and dust, the words that would have severed their limbs and spine by each joint, in order of width. There were no words for this. Just her claws, her limbs, and their screams and the sound of bones breaking and armour being torn.

One of the humans tried to run. Sylph finally found her words as she crushed the last man brandishing his spear at her. She spoke the name of Flames. The fleeing man burned with such intensity that for a moment, the darkness gave way to a midnight sun.

Then she was before Fia, reaching out to embrace her, only to realize she could not take hold of her with her sharp claws. A word and she was human again.

“Fia! Fia, please, talk to me, Fia!”

“...Sylph?” Fia opened her eyes. She was covered in blood, some of it hers, most of it not hers. There was a sword jutting out from her side, piercing her lung. Sylph wracked her hands at the sight. She had the words to fix this, but with Fia having lost this much blood, could she-

“...You... came...” Fia smiled tiredly. “I'm... sorry Sylph.” She tried to take a deep breath and spat out blood.

“Don't talk, I'll fix you right up. Just, stay awake, please stay awake for me.”

“...I... sorry, Sylph.” Fia coughed and took another weak breath, coughing up more blood. “This is... goodbye, Sylph...”

“No! Never. Don't say that,” Sylph pressed Fia's hand against her cheek, eyes shut. “It's not.”

“I'm... sorry for... leaving... you...” Fia coughed, her hand tensing. “I... Sylph... I...”

Sylph felt her jaw clench. This was not what she had intended. What she was about to do was unforgivable. She was playing creator, she knew Fia would object, she knew a thousand things could go wrong. She knew all that, and she knew that she did not care. Fia lay before her, growing colder.

Life. Death. Equilibrium.

“...Sylp...h...?” Fia struggled weakly, trying to get up as Sylph began to speak in the First Language. Her eyes widened as she understood what Sylph was about to do. “...no...! ...Don't!”

Sylph opened her eyes, locking gazes with the human that had become her reason for being.

“Your life is mine, Fia, and I claim what is mine.” As she spoke, Sylph drew in her breath, steeling herself for what she must do.

“...Sylph...” Fia whispered, too weak to even shake her head.

“And now, I return it to you, a hundredfold.” She breathed out and into the human before her, letting her life, soul and being flow out along with the air.

 

*

 

The day after they visited the town, they held a funeral for Kaya upon the hill their cave lay beneath.

The grave was empty. Kaya had been laid to rest elsewhere, in the private house of the dead for the lord and his family, a place of honour many thought was in poor taste, yet the lord did not care. Sylph had told Fia all this, and offered to spirit away her sister's body so that they could lay her to rest where Fia could visit her at any time.

Fia had refused, with a sad smile. “Let her rest where her loved ones can go see her, Sylph. I do not wish to separate her from her child. And no, do not offer to bring them both.”

In the grave upon the hill lay their mother's pendant, wrapped in the shawl Fia had knitted for Kaya to wear, to keep her warm as she recovered from labour. Sylph had only been able to watch, worried, as Fia dug the grave and laid the pendant and shawl to the cold embrace of the ground without shedding a single tear. Such acts of mourning were not something her kin practised. They knew that all that lived, died, and that death was not a thing to be feared. To her wonder, as she watched Fia kneeling before the open grave, Sylph realized she had come to understand both the reason why humans mourned death and what inspired them to fear it.

“Could you help me with this, Sylph?” Fia asked, standing, taking up the shovel. Sylph was about to speak the words to make the hillside whole again, but Fia stopped her. “No. We should do this properly.”

So it was that a lucky traveller would have been able to see an unlikely sight had they chanced upon this hillside within the forest: a human and someone quite humanlike filling in a grave in respectful silence, one of them earning the first blister she had ever known.

When the grave was filled to Fia's satisfaction, she allowed Sylph to speak a gravestone into being and flowers to adorn the grave, hyacinths, lilies and roses, purple, white and a deep pink. The gravestone reads simply:

 

 

Kaya

 

Ava

 

You will be remembered.

 

 

Fia then gazed upon the grave for a long silent moment, during which Sylph was too scared to move out of fear of doing something that would hurt her.

When Fia finally sighed and spoke, Sylph was more than glad to reassume her own form.

“Well then, I believe you promised to teach me your words,” Fia said in a forcefully light-hearted tone.

“I did, and I will,” Sylph said, sitting down on the hillside, basking in the late autumn sun glittering on her scales. It was a warm day, with barely a cloud in the sky. ”But not today. It is too fine a day to spend inside with the blackboard. You're tired, I'm tired. What say you, shall we spend today and tonight telling stories of our families, and our youths? I do not know human customs well enough to pretend to know what you do in the event of a life passing before its time, but my kin talk and commit any of those gone before us to memory, so that those who come after do not forget those that came before.”

“I'd like that,” Fia said, sitting down next to Sylph, resting her back against her scaly side. Sylph carefully unfolded one of her wings, blocking the autumn wind from chilling Fia. “You haven't told me much about your childhood- No, wait. You're still a child, Sylph.”

“I'm-”

“More than ten times my age, I know. But, taking into account, what did you call it, “the gap in relative lifespans”?”

“Yes, and-” Sylph started.

“Right, the gap. So, by the gap, I'm the eldest. I'll have to start taking up that role, now.”

“Fia, I don't-”

“No buts, Sylph. I'll have to start taking care of myself, and I can manage to cook for you from now on as well, since you're obviously capable of becoming a human for mealtime. So, I'll be visiting the town from now to go to the market. Okay?”

“...”

Okay?”

“...Fine.”

Fia looked up towards where Sylph's long neck craned above her, patting her side. “Thanks, Sylph. So, your youth?”

Sylph couldn't help laughing. “Have I ever told you of the time I decided I wanted to know how high the sky goes?”

“No. How high is it?”

“I don't know. I never found out. Somehow, when I thought I was finally about the reach the end and be able to look down, I always ended up in another world where the sky began rising again. It was daunting, to tell the truth.”

“Another world? How many are there?”

“Oh, countless. As many as there are stars in the sky, actually, or maybe more.”

“Are you pulling my leg?”

“Would I do that to you?”

“I don't think you would. So, how come you came to stay in this world? I thought you disliked it and us humans.”

“No, I like this place.” Sylph said, looking down at the human nestling against her side in the shade of her wing. “The sky isn't too high, here.”


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