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~ Previous Chapter ~
Oh, look, an answer to a long running question!
THE STONE BENEATH Mouse’s hand dropped away, and he stumbled forward with a cry. The ground was solid and hard when he dropped to his knees, catching his weight on his hands. It was cold and there was a sense of space all around. The faint echo of his own cry drifted back to him.
There is no reason to be afraid. You have been here before.
Mouse shivered at the words slipping inside his mind. They were cool and wet, dripping like water. Not entirely unpleasant but strange. He wasn’t used to voices inside his head, except his own and those of memory. Though he might have been here before – wherever here was – he had never heard this voice.
I had nothing to say. I was sleeping.
As Mouse was now. He wondered how he could dream, yet know it was a dream. The darkness breathed around him.
Come,” the voice urged. Come, Morri. Here. Down. Come.
With every word he crawled forward, pulled inexorably towards the source, unable to resist even if he had wanted to. Little stones bit into his palms and knees, dust crunched under his weight and the chill grew.
His hand sank, breaking through a watery surface that neither stirred nor splashed. It swallowed his hand, wrapping him in a coldness that sank into his bones and spread across his body. He pulled back.
No. The water held him, refusing to let him go. Come.
His hand slipped further until he had no choice but to put his other hand down, unless he wanted to lose his balance. With both hands under the surface, the pull increased and dragged him forward.
“No.” Mouse struggled as the water lapped at his chest, brushing his shoulders. “No!”
Come, Morri. Down.
“No!” The water rose around his neck, caressing his mouth. He shook his head in frantic denial, but was pulled deeper, his back already below the surface.
With a last panicked breath, his nose went under. Knowing there was no other choice, Mouse closed his eyes and thought a last prayer to Maegla. Then the water sucked him down, and the cold consumed him.
* * *
The Cleansed Lands
LEAVING A SODDEN trail of boot prints, Corin and Jaymes walked until they reached a wide, glittering cavern. Stalagmites pointed towards the arched ceiling and long stalactites reached down to meet them. Scuttling lizards covered everything – the walls, ceiling and floor – their spotted skins glistening with inner light.
As Corin stared in wonder, she realised the creatures were working. Scattered about the spaces between the towering stalagmites, stones had been piled in careful arrangements like little formal gardens. The lizards tended these gardens with gentle care, accepting new stones or rejecting them from the piles collected by other lizards climbing down from the ceiling and walls. Others had been heaped upon the gardens, looking strangely like rocky quilts keeping something warm.
“Gods,” Corin whispered with dawning understanding.
“There certainly are a lot of them,” Jaymes murmured weakly, but Corin shook her head.
“Look what they’re doing, Jaymes. Look what they’re tending.”
“Rocks?” He peered at the nearest garden. “It’s strange, the way they’ve arranged those stones. If you replaced them with grass or twigs or something similar they could almost be… oh.” He blinked in astonishment. “Gods!”
She couldn’t resist a grin, even as the magnitude of her thoughts caught up with her. “I don’t think they’re theirs, do you?”
Jaymes shook his head, looking around and counting. “There are more than fifty in here.”
Yes, purred the voice inside their heads, sounding smug. Come.
Corin felt an inexplicable urge to turn right. She stumbled backwards, still holding Jaymes’ hand. He looked at her, equally surprised.
“It wants me to go this way,” they both said, pointing in different directions.
Yes. Corin, come.
Smiling, she uncurled her fingers from his and raised her glow globe. “I’ll see you later.”
“Yes,” he agreed vaguely, answering the call in his head. “Later.”
The tug inside made her forget all about Jaymes, the cavern and the lizards. All that mattered was the spot a little way ahead. Alone and untended, these rocks looked forlorn compared to the ones nearby. Corin walked straight to it, unopposed, the globe in her hand throbbing faster until it matched her heartbeat.
Crouching, she put the globe aside and moved the top rock from the pile. It was warm, just as she’d suspected.
Putting aside the stone, she shifted more, smiling as they grew hotter the deeper she went.
Help, now. Please.
She scooped the rocks aside with cupped hands, even ones that were as big as her head. She didn’t question where the strength came from, didn’t even notice that the effort was making her sweat or that the heat was unpleasant against her skin. All that mattered was reaching the centre, the heart of the garden.
The egg of the nest.
Help. Corin, help.
There it was. As long as her forearm and just a wide, the stony egg glistened with a faint silver shine and was speckled with tiny flecks of blue. Beads of moisture gathered near the top, slowly trickling down the sides.
The glow globe by her knee fluttered and pulsed, matching the tapping coming from within.
“It’s all right,” Corin whispered, pressing her hand to the shell, her skin sizzling. “I’m here.”
Corin. The voice sounded tired but relieved and the chipping paused.
Out. The tapping renewed, until a hairline crack emerged on one side. Help. Please.
“All right,” she murmured, picking carefully at the flaking shell, not wanting to press too hard in case she hurt the hatchling. “Keep going, you’re doing well.”
She smiled at the pathetic whisper. Better her new friend learn from the start that she was nobody’s fool. It had sounded strong enough earlier when it was keeping her moving despite her own tiredness. “Keep going,” she urged. “The sooner you break out, the sooner you can stop.”
The voice didn’t say anything, but Corin felt its wordless sulk. Hatching was hard and it didn’t want to do it anymore. Why should it have to when she was here to help?
“I’m not going to hurt you to hatch you.”
A deep sigh and the tapping slowed to a controlled, forceful thump.
Out. Out. Out!
The crack spread, revealing the inner membrane of the shell as more fragments flaked off.
Corin cleared away what she could. “Good,” she praised.
Another hard hit, another crack, shooting out in three directions. The membrane bulged.
The membrane tore, pouring clear liquid onto the hot stones, steaming up the cool cavern.
A tiny silver snout poked out, pointed at the end with a sharp tooth. Tired, murmured a plaintive voice.
Corin laughed. “All right, lazy, let me help.” When the snout retracted, she gripped the broken edge and heaved, hissing as the hot shards bit into hands already scratched and blistered by the hot rocks. The egg groaned, tougher than she’d anticipated.
Out, begged the hatchling.
“Working… on it,” she puffed, leaning back with all her weight. “Just… a little… more.”
A sharp snap sent her flying, broken fragments of shell pinging loose and cutting her face as she tumbled down the loose stones of the nest garden and landed heavily on her back.
Out! the voice exulted.
Wiping the blood from her face and wincing at the pain in her hands, Corin looked up and blinked.
A dragonet blinked back. Long and sinuous, its rounded scales were blue with a shimmering layer of silver. Although wet and pathetic, from nose to tail tip it was nearly as long as she was tall as it scrambled down from its hot stones and clambered up her sprawled body. Staring into her face, it chirruped.
Tired, the familiar voice murmured inside her head, and the dragonet curled its long tail around her waist, back feet tucking against her belly. It rested its wet snout against her throat with a sigh. Hungry.
When Corin didn’t move, too stunned to do otherwise, it raised its head again.
Hungry! it insisted indignantly.
Eying the cut on her cheek, a small grey tongue flicked out. Corin, it purred, rumbling both inside her head and through the creature curled up on her. Mine.
“Oh, Gods,” she groaned, and dropped her head to the floor, unable to bear the thought of moving. Not while she had a baby dragon on top of her.
She opened her eyes and saw Jaymes looming over her. He had a dragonet too, its forepaws and long neck draped carelessly around his shoulders, its tail also anchored around his hips. But the similarities ended there, since his dragonet was as red as Jaymes’ hair and when it breathed smoke puffed from its nostrils.
“Gods,” she repeated, more weakly this time.
This could not be happening. Not to her. These sort of things happened to Mhysra; she was the one with the exciting life. Corin was normal. And she liked it that way. Who wanted to be interesting when it led to sea caves and baby dragons with possessive tendencies?
Her thoughts must have shown on her face because Jaymes smiled, though it was tinged with awe at what had befallen him.
“Come on,” he said, offering a hand for her dragonet to sniff. “We need to feed the babies.”
Corin stared. “I’m too young to have children!”
He pulled her up with a chuckle. “I don’t think we have a choice. Congratulations, Mama.”
“Shut it, Da.”
~ Next Chapter ~
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