Chapter Thirteen: Wrath
Eryn's empathic signature was an infuriatingly bubbly signal of happiness and undulating amusement, and it pulled Hallai across the surface of the planet as though it and not her wings propelled her. Whatever was entertaining Eryn wouldn't go on entertaining her much longer. How dare she. How dare that woman invite herself into Hallai's home under pretense of civil curiosity and poison Ilen against her. How dare she go home after that and find something funny.
It was a long flight. The horizon curved ahead of Hallai. She didn't bother tracking time. What else was she going to do with her day besides chase the one who'd wronged her?
Ilen could have the apartment. Hallai wasn't going to turn him out into the world. He'd probably die if she did.
Without the apartment why should she bother showing up to work? She could kill things for food. She'd done it as a goshawk, tearing apart vermin on her off-hours for something to do, and when the cafeteria served meals she didn't like. It was free. Maybe if she had leftover aggression when she was done with Eryn it'd help. She could land in a jungle somewhere and learn to hunt as a lioness too.
But first things first.
Eryn was having far too much fun.
Hallai flew on.
It was dusk when the angle of the followed signature started changing rapidly enough to indicate nearness. Just the tip of the sun cast shadows when Hallai triangulated her way to a tower and landed on the mountain that stood under it.
There was another signature in the tower, too, close enough to blip on Hallai's senses without being familiar. Irrelevant.
Hallai meant to call out Eryn's name, demand that she account for herself, but when she opened her jaws and cold air hissed in past her teeth, all she could force out was an incoherent roar.
Faces appeared at the window. Eryn and another blonde, less plump, similar in the eyes - a relative maybe. They looked tiny with Hallai in dragon form and approaching forty feet long. If she stood up on her hind feet and stretched out her neck she could look in the window of the fourth and highest story. She did that, to meet Eryn's eyes.
She roared again.
Eryn didn't even seem to recognize her. She was only confused and frightened, and her relative the same.
A little frightened. Maybe Eryn had never seen an Elcenian dragon before. She had only the mild unsettled trembling of someone facing something unknown and large and loud and sharp.
Not frightened enough.
Hallai had never used her empathy as a weapon. She'd used it productively. Her strength was to counter Ilen's, when he was afraid. It was to calm and smooth and gentle and nudge.
But no one had ever reached into her ribcage and extracted her heart before.
And so Hallai did not feel so unjustified in using it to terrify.
Eryn screamed, and scrambled backwards, falling over herself to get away. She sobbed and hid her face behind her arms, soaking her sleeves with tears. She wailed and shook and tried to move backwards through the far wall of the tower.
Hallai hadn't included the relative in the projection. She could focus on it with more force that way, crash down on her target like the moon was falling. But out of the corner of her eye she saw the relative moving, now more alarmed, grabbing something made of wood from a table. Wood wouldn't hurt Hallai, but magic might. She aimed doubly. Let this person who was apparently on friendly terms with Eryn fear, too.
But unlike Eryn, who went on screaming and clawing at her scalp on the floor, the stranger was motivated by fear to action. She pointed the wooden object and -
Nothing that Hallai noticed, and the relative's eyes went wide and her fear spiked under the layer of projection. She hooked her hind foot into a lower window to climb higher, and reached a claw into the window to swat at the wooden implement anyway, but couldn't reach. With a snarl, she pushed the wall in with both forefeet. A few shoves later and she'd cracked it, and a few more after that and the window was just part of a large ragged hole in the wall.
She reached again, and the relative jabbed in her direction with the stick.
This, Hallai did feel. There was pain - come to think of it, there had been the previous time, too, just not enough to catch her attention; this she detected, but it was more than bearable. But also sickness and exhaustion. Her breath came with difficulty; she wouldn't be able to roar again, not without embarrassing herself. She was so tired.
But empathy didn't take much energy. Hallai rested her chin on the floor of the damaged tower and hissed and went on.
Fear obviously moved the relative to act the way it didn't Eryn. Hallai switched tactics. Sadness, let the annoying distraction try to attack her under a crushing press of that. Let them both. Eryn could feel the consequences of her actions.
Hallai might have gone into more detail in the projection, given a more thorough understanding to Eryn of what she'd done, how much she'd hurt, but the relative still held her stick, and was weeping uncontrollably but could still point and shoot.
The dragon's wings drooped with more heaviness, and she tried to bite at the attacking kama but couldn't lift her head. She slid away from the side of the tower and collapsed on the mountainside, but she would not stop making either miserable until she was done.
Her dragon shape was sick. She'd been in it because she'd been flying; she could project as well in any other, though, and wasn't interested in tearing up the tower further. She shifted to her human form, but that felt sick too; she appeared in it standing but couldn't keep her feet.
Lioness, also sick.
Goshawk, sick, but light-boned enough that she felt perhaps she could fly. She could get away before the kama with the stick made her worse.
Hallai took to the air.
She got a fair distance, pressing misery at both targets, and giving up on the relative to focus on Eryn when she thought she was out of kamai range, and then she dove to the ground and could not deny sleep.
Ilen rocked in place in his chair. He was hungry, but they only had ingredients, because they were cheaper, and he couldn't cook. He was cold, but Hallai had embroidered the only blanket in the apartment and he couldn't bear to touch it after what he'd done to her. He was alone, and she wasn't coming home, and it was his fault, and he couldn't even retreat into emotional screaming insanity that demanded a magical solution anymore, he could only sit and rock and mourn.
So he tilted himself forward and back and wrapped his arms around himself in an inadequate facsimile of a hug and tried to remember whether starvation was the kind of death that killed just one form, or all of them.
Hallai didn't know how much time had passed when she woke up. All she knew was that she was still weighed down with sickness, her wings sprawled out awkwardly to her sides where she'd crashed, and she was fuzzy-headed and dizzy and could feel every one of her feathers where they were threaded through her skin. She shifted human, and it was no improvement; she was still heavy and oversensitive, overcome with vertigo and cotton in her skull.
She was hungry, and thirsty. She didn't think she could do much about getting herself food in her current state, but she'd crashed right next to a stream. She dragged herself in its direction and spent a few degrees figuring out how to put her mouth against the water without inhaling it or having to press her hands into service.
After a few mouthfuls, which tasted silty but better than nothing, she relaxed and lay where she was. Eryn's signature was gone; she must be in Elcenia. So was that other kama's. Probably they were rallying friends to come kick Hallai while she was down.
Hallai turned lioness and shut her eyes. It was marginally better than the human form, not because it was any less sick but because it had more affordances for lounging comfortably even on rough ground. Whatever was the matter with her had to be inherently magical on top of being a kama's fault. Ordinary diseases wouldn't affect more than one form unless they were all infected separately, and certainly wouldn't affect a reptile, two mammals, and a bird all the same way. She wondered if it would kill her.
A shadow fell over her back, and the chill was as unpleasant as the warmth from the sun had been, and Hallai cracked an eye open to see what it was.
It was a dragon, but not one like Hallai had ever seen before. She had black and orange patterns splotched across pebbled skin, and a salamander-like face peering down at Hallai's copper-furred form, and was far larger than even Hallai's own dragon form, by at least two or three times.
"Why, my eggs," she said, "what a strangely colored creature. Why might that be, my eggs?"
"Your eggs?" Hallai asked, bewildered.
The black-and-orange dragon reared back, surprised. "And it speaks."
"I speak? I'm astonished. That's new," said Hallai as sarcastically as she could without moving her mouth too much.
The salamander-dragon chuckled softly, settling back down on all fours. "I did not mean to offend, speaking lion."
"I'm not a lion," complained Hallai.
"Ah. Of course not. Appearances deceive, my eggs," murmured the dragon.
"Are there some eggs around that you're talking to?" Hallai asked, blearily looking off to the left and giving up before turning to the right.
"Not around. Inside. But oh, they can hear," said the dragon. "Who are you, shining unlion?"
"And I am Sal. What non-lion thing are you? What makes your coat bright like metal and lets you speak? In my language, no less."
"I'm a dragon from another world. I can shapeshift and speak any language," said Hallai tiredly. "And I am sick and hungry and don't really want to make small talk."
"You are a sick and hungry dragon here alone?" Sal asked, sounding horrified.
"Mm-hm." Hallai had room to shift under Sal's nose; she did it, just for a tick, to prove her claim, and then became a lion again.
"Where is your conclave?"
"I don't have one of those... things. Whatever it is," Hallai said.
"A conclave. A community of dragons."
"Oh." Hallai thought of the shren house. But she hadn't been a dragon there. And didn't have it anymore. "No. Don't have one."
"Well. If you have no conclave, you must obtain one. I am nearly ready to return home myself. Can you fly?"
"I can pick you up, if you stay this small. But I fear catching your disease, while carrying my eggs. They are so vulnerable. What is it that afflicts you?"
"I don't know. A kama did it to me. It might be more than one thing."
"A humanoid kama?"
"Halfbood," Hallai specified.
"Ah. They are not worth associating with; perhaps you should simply avoid them. I know only a small amount of kamai, and perhaps not the right kind, but if I look carefully..." Sal reached out a delicate claw to touch Hallai's side, and Hallai wasn't in much position to protest. "I do not think you will spread your sickness."
"Can you fix me?" Hallai asked.
"No. But I can safely take you to the conclave. No dragon should be sick and hungry and alone, even if you have enraged a kama."
Hallai didn't much care where she went, and it sounded like Sal or Sal's friends would feed her, so she didn't make a fuss when Sal scooped her up in long foreclaws and took to the air.
"We must always look after our kin, my eggs," she murmured. "Even distant kin."
"Kama's wrath," pronounced the spike-spangled dusky red dragon who had been introduced to Hallai as Ban. He seemed to be a different subtype from Sal, no more alike than a copper and a violet. He continued peering at Hallai, who sprawled in natural form in a comfortably mossy cave the conclave had provided her. "Three times over. You say you felt nothing the first time?"
"It hurt, but not enough that I'd notice," Hallai said.
"And you were in this... form, at the time. The foolish biped must have neglected to compensate for your size, and you suffer most of your symptoms only from the second and third workings, but that is more than enough."
"Can you fix her?" Sal asked Ban.
Ban shook his head. "Not yet. When the illnesses have burned through some of their staying power I will be able to accelerate her healing, but I can do nothing of value now. Only the kama who attacked her could reverse it, or a more skilled practitioner than I."
"Hear this, my eggs, kamai is powerful, but not all-powerful," murmured Sal.
"Hear this, my eggs, it is best to avoid picking fights," Ban said good-naturedly.
"Oh, I did not start this," growled Hallai. "The image kama started it. I would've left the other one alone but she went after me."
"I do not say that you started it," Ban said. "I did not witness any of this. But my eggs are most likely to have the chance to suffer what you do if they pick fights when they have rested and hatched and grown, and I spoke to them."
"Right." Hallai was vaguely amused by the practice of speaking to unlaid eggs. "They're yours too?"
Hallai cut off that line of inquiry there; she didn't want to think about happy couples, not with her loss so fresh. "So I just... do I lie here for days, months?" The dragon language contained neither a term for seven-day periods, nor the ten-day ones that were the popular substitute among Barashi's humanoid cultures.
"Perhaps fifteen days," Ban said. "But I have not seen your sort of dragon before, or three kama's wraths overlaid on each other, so this is only a guess. At least I do not expect that you will die of it. With no conclave of your own, we will look after you, of course."
"There's no 'of course' about it," said Hallai irritably. Her joints were all stiff. Between sentences she held her breath as long as she could to postpone the wheezing exhalations and struggling gasps that followed.
"Yes there is," contradicted Sal. "You are a kind of dragon, however strange. If you need a conclave's help, you have it. But you are not trapped here, if that is your concern. You can go if you wish, under your own power or asking conveyance from one of us, now or when you have recovered. Listen, my eggs, our conclave is floor, not wall..."
"Does your kind of dragon fall into the Sleep?" Ban asked. "Have you learned to trigger it? It would last longer than the kama's wrath would, but might be pleasantest on balance."
"No, we sleep, but we don't do it for years on end," Hallai said when she'd deciphered the word's significance. "Just parts of days."
"What about eating? Do you eat?" Sal asked.
"Of course I eat." Hallai paused. That might not be obvious; she slept differently, maybe she ate differently. And actually she did, come to think of it. "But if I eat enough to feed whatever form I'm in, then I'm fed. I don't have to handle them separately."
"So you could eat as a lion," suggested Ban.
"Yeah. I don't care. If you're low on food -"
"No, no, you misunderstand," said Sal. "We have no shortage of prey, and you are welcome to all you need in any or every shape when you can catch it for yourself. But if you can eat smaller game than your normal shape suggests and this will be no hardship, we can ask a child to do your hunting without that child needing to make many trips. That is all."
"Sure. Makes no difference to me. I'm used to eating in human shape," Hallai said.
Ban made a little hissing sound. "Well, we would prefer you didn't do anything as vulgar as take that form," he said. "On occasion, conclaves tolerate bipeds, but only when they are the ones who take the trouble to be our shape."
"Makes no difference to me," Hallai repeated hollowly. When she pictured Ilen's face she pictured the human one. Maybe she should stop that. She could call to mind the dragon face, or the moth's pattern, or the lion he'd become to match her because he loved her -
She turned away from the dragons who were peering at her. "Anything else?" she asked. "I want to be by myself."
"Nothing else," said Ban, and they left and flew away from the mouth of the cave. There were more caves all against the mountains that ringed the conclave's valley. Huge mouths of openings each with naturally running water and mossy spots to lie on and decorative carvings in the rocks. Hallai's cave had stood unoccupied for some time, and smelled of dust and bats.
She didn't want to cry, because if she did enough of that she'd develop embarrassing patina streaks under her eyes, and if she started she'd never stop. She tried to sleep, instead, and dozed fitfully, distracted by the difficulty of breathing and the overwhelming malaise.
A dragon child, already two-thirds Hallai's size but juvenile for the local species, came by an angle later with a dead sheep in her mouth. She was dark green, almost black, and as bedecked with spines as Ban. "Do you still want to be alone?" she asked Hallai, after she'd deposited the sheep near Hallai's head.
"Yes," said Hallai, beginning to painstakingly peel the sheepskin away with her claws so she didn't wind up with a mouthful of wool.
"Okay," said the younger dragon, and she left.
Hallai turned lioness and ate.
Ilen ate cheese that had been intended to grate over pasta. He ate the spinach that had been planned for the same pasta dish, raw, without any dressing and overcautiously washed so many times that it was limp and falling apart by the time he ate any. When he was ravenous again, he read the directions on the pasta itself twelve times, attempted them, and wound up with an overcooked starch glop. He choked this down with some powdered garlic and enough hunger to make almost anything taste edible.
Then a note appeared summoning him to the Senate, and he splashed water on his face until he didn't look like he'd spent the last forty angles crying and flew to the circle. If he didn't go to work, they wouldn't pay him, and he'd be kicked out of the apartment, and maybe now Narax would let him live in the Imilaat place for free but then he'd have no hope of ever seeing Hallai again. She might turn up and get her stuff. He hoped she wouldn't do it while he was at work. He also guiltily hoped she wasn't going to turn up to work. He would absolutely not be able to do his job if she did.
He managed, somehow, to translate things without causing international incidents. At the end of his shift he went to his supervisor, and, blushing beet-red, asked if he could do more written work for the next while. It wouldn't matter so much if he lost his composure while writing something.
His supervisor said yes, and didn't press for details.
Ilen got lost on his way out of the Senate campus. He'd made it out once or twice on his own, but usually Hallai had been with him, and he couldn't remember the way without her to follow, not this time. He wandered in search of landmarks, trying not to break down in public. Finally he went into a building marked "Senate Staff Services". It sounded promising; maybe they had a map of the place or an employee who'd point him to the circle.
He heard children. Laughing.
Forgetting what he was in the building for, he followed the sound.
The Senate had a daycare. Three women and a man were looking after some four dozen children of all ages. One was reading a storybook. One was supervising snacking. One was bustling to and fro with cleaning supplies. One had a weeping child in her arms, and was soothing him.
How, how, how had he been so foolish as to look in Esmaar for work, give up, and then take an unrelated job in Aristan without first looking for something like this?
He stood stock-still, watching, before one of the women, the slim halfblood with dark hair who'd been cleaning, ducked out of the daycare space and waved in front of his face. "Hello? Sir?"
"Are you here to pick up your kid? Which one's yours?" she asked.
"No - no, I don't - I don't have any - I'm only - I got lost," he stammered.
"Oh! Where are you hoping to go?" she asked.
"To the - the summoning circle," he said, leaning slightly to his left to watch the older lady with the storybook conclude the story and authorize the use of stuffed animals. There was a dragon doll among them.
"You just want to go around the circular path about halfway, either direction's fine, and - are you okay?"
Ilen swallowed. "Are you hiring?" he asked.
Ilen went home with a job application clutched tightly in his hands. Ludei would write him a recommendation for his experience with the baby shrens. Narax could assert that his competence extended to other species. The daycare was thinly staffed enough to want a new employee but not so understaffed that he couldn't go to the better-paying translation job when they called him in. They sometimes watched diplomats' children who didn't speak Martisen. He might not have to look up what his species of moth was supposed to eat to save money on groceries at all.
Coming home hit him like a blow to the chest. Hallai hadn't been by for her things. They were right where she'd left them, untouched.
He ate as much of a head of cauliflower as he was sure was intended for consumption, put away the stem and the leaves in case someone told him differently later, and went to half of a cold bed.
Hallai didn't know how much time had passed. Maybe a couple of days, since the only thing worth having in her life had pushed her away and she'd discarded the rest. She'd been very lucky that Sal found her. Lucky that the dragons she'd fallen in with weren't obnoxious. It seemed like until she said otherwise, the little green one would bring her a sheep or a deer once a day, clear away the bones from the old one, and otherwise demand no interaction with her. She could wallow in peace without starving.
She wondered what the little green one's name was. She could ask when the next meal came.
And then who should appear in her cave but Rhysel.
"I'm being watched," Rhysel warned, first of all.
"Oh, goody. Does that mean if I try to eat you, someone will pull you back to Elcenia and you'll leave me be?" Hallai drawled tiredly, rolling over to look away from the intruder.
"If you try to hurt me, someone will pull me back to Elcenia, and then you won't have a chance to convince me to talk Eryn into dropping criminal charges," Rhysel corrected.
"I should charge that friend of hers. Or is it legal to go around infecting people three times with kama's wrath?" Hallai snapped.
"Eryn's sister was acting defensively; I don't think you'll convince a court otherwise," Rhysel said. "Your good luck is that laws on the books in Restron only refer to kamai, not magic in general - for now. They're drafting replacements. They can charge you with destruction of property and intimidation, but not with unlawful mental tampering. Or trespassing, since those laws don't apply to kama towers. But there are still complaints you'll have to address if Eryn charges you. Restron doesn't have the resources to pull you out of a dragon conclave. Esmaar does, though, and you were their resident. They've got a good enough relationship with Restron that they'll do it if Eryn calls for it."
"Oh, lovely," growled Hallai.
"Tell me what happened. Eryn will listen to me."
"Eryn made Ilen break up with me, that's what happened!" cried Hallai; she was trying to sound furious but only managed a thin whine through the congestion. "She's lucky I didn't - ugh, I don't even know why I didn't set her on fire. Didn't think of it."
"Were you going to kill her?"
"No." Hallai was tired. She'd been trying to go to sleep.
"But you don't know why you didn't set her on fire?"
"I know enough about kamai from Finnah, she could've put it out, I just wanted her to know some fraction of what she did to me," growled Hallai.
"Are you going to go after her again?"
"Not unless she goes after me again," said Hallai.
"Mm. I might be back," Rhysel said.
"Not responsible if a speciesist dragon eats you."
"I understand," sighed Rhysel, and she disappeared.
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