On the Scales of Dragons – Kathryn Yelinek

High above the island of Dreden, the wind roared in Tala’s ears, chilling her despite the warm bulk beneath her, and she wished humans could mindspeak as dragons did. Instead, she rapped her knuckles against one of Kendriley’s incised neck scales and spoke magné, a minor Word of power that amplified her voice.

“I don’t think the people of Dreden want visitors. Any chance those Xs are bones?”

Kendriley dipped her green head to survey the large, dark Xs laid out in intervals along the shore. To warn ships away, Tala guessed, since she doubted anyone had prepared for arrival by dragon.

“Stone, I think,” Kendriley said, with a glance back. She might be older and larger than most dragons, but her sleek, feline grace still thrilled Tala after fifteen years of working together. “Probably granite from the cliffs. I’ll make a note later.”

Tala rapped a scale in acknowledgement. Everything is worth knowing, the Library’s motto insisted, and as a librarian she knew that any knowledge—be it landmarks or types of stone—could be important.

“Any word from our colleagues?” she called.

“No,” Kendriley growled. Tala felt the rumble as much as heard it. “If they are speaking, I cannot hear them.”

How can two pairs of librarians simply vanish? Tala shivered and hugged Kendriley closer, relishing her warmth and smoky smell.

Unfriendly Xs aside, Dreden looked similar to many of the other remote islands she and Kendriley visited to collect knowledge. It would take perhaps a day to walk from end to end. In the north, the forest opened onto farm fields too sodden from ongoing spring rains for planting. In the center of the fields huddled the single village. There, Tala hoped, they would discover what had happened to their colleagues from the King’s Library.

As they approached, the village women and children fled inside while the men froze, pointing skyward, a typical rural response. By the time Kendriley descended into the village square, the men had gathered in a huddle to watch. They were a ragtag group, from youths to elders, wearing faded coats and patched woolen trousers against the spring rain.

At least they didn’t all run away in fear, Tala noted, holding tight as Kendriley folded her green wings. Did that mean they’d seen dragons before? That the other librarians had made it this far?

She stood on Kendriley’s back, towering over the men, her dragon-scale armor glinting. Again she whispered magné, amplifying her voice.

“Greetings! We come in peace from the Dragon King.”

One man stepped forward from the rest. He was in his early twenties, perhaps, twenty years younger than Tala.

He gestured with his hands. It took a moment to realize he was making a variant of the hand gestures used by temple scribes sworn to silence.

“You are welcome,” he signed, “though we can offer little hospitality. As you see, we are poor, and the land unforgiving.”

He spoke true. The village consisted of thatched hovels sprouting like mushrooms along a single muddy street. The place smelled of rot, and she twitched her nose in unease.

Still, it would be rude to say so. She climbed down from Kendriley’s back. Her boots splashed on the muddy ground. “Be at ease. We’re not here for your wheat or your fish. We come for your knowledge.”

His expression passed from curiosity at their arrival to puzzlement when she spoke of knowledge. The men behind him proved more stony-faced, their emotions hidden behind prodigious beards.

“We are happy to help the Dragon King,” the man signed. “But what do you mean, you come for our knowledge?”

How could he not know of the Dragon King’s demands? Especially if her colleagues had come before. Was he feigning puzzlement, pretending not to know?

She answered carefully. “As repayment for the dragons putting an end to the constant warring, the King demands knowledge as part of your taxes. Since you live out so far, the librarians have been slow to reach you, but now these taxes are due.”

The Beards heard this in stony silence, their faces impassive. A strange reaction, since usually people questioned her, incredulous that knowledge could be collected as a tax. Once they knew her to be in earnest, most paid gladly. Better to rebuild the libraries under a Dragon King than starve under a human lord.

In the face of impassive silence, she forged on. “You’ll tell us your stories, histories, herb lore—local knowledge of any kind. All knowledge is worth collecting; nothing is outside the purview of the Library.”

She paused, stymied by the unrelenting blank faces of the Beards. “In particular,” she said, perhaps a bit too loudly in that silence, “we want to know what happened to our colleagues who came before us.”

“We know nothing,” the man signed, looking back to the Beards, “of any colleagues who came before you.” The Beards nodded in agreement, their heads bobbing as one.

At the sight of that silent, coordinated agreement, a shiver ran down Tala’s back, under her armor. She looked away from the men, unnerved, and focused desperately on their spokesman. Was he lying? Were they all lying?

She took a breath and regretted it as the rotten smell clung to her nostrils. She gritted her teeth, swallowing down a sense of wrongness that pricked her skin. Centering her thoughts—you’re a librarian, you can gain knowledge from a grain of sand—she tried again.

“Sola and Audrohasta came three years ago. Ko and Fenomere followed last spring. They sent word from the mainland that they were flying here, but were never heard from again. You haven’t seen them?”

He blinked. She saw him make a decision. “No.”

Liar.

Anger heated her face. Instinct urged her to reach for her dagger, made from a talon that Kendriley had lost, but reason kept her hand still. Anger wouldn’t help her friends.

“You’re sure?” she asked, her voice harsh. “Two of them were dragons, remember. Not as large as Kendriley, but still much larger than oxen. Hard to miss. You never saw them?”

His lips thinned. “No.”

“I find that difficult to believe. You’re sure none of you saw them?”

“I am sure.”

He was more opaque than a grain of sand. Exasperated, she blew out her breath and tried a different approach. “Dragons value knowledge above all else and would pay handsomely for information about why four of their librarians vanished.”

“I’m sorry,” he signed. “Some knowledge simply cannot be bought. Please, have tea before you go. The flight back will be long.”

Again, that maddening, blank silence. Tala opened her mouth, ready to scream, but Kendriley spoke: “Enough.”

Tala froze. The Beards jumped. One dropped a trowel. He snatched it up, glowering at Kendriley.

Why had she spoken? She rarely did in front of those unused to dragon-speak. Then Tala smelled the rot again. Only this time it was both a stench and a sense of evil that prickled up her back. It seemed to seep from the ground, from the very core of the island, rising in response to Kendriley’s voice. Kendriley shifted, as if she could no longer bear to make contact with the earth.

The Beards stared, silent still, their expressions unchanged, and Tala realized they didn’t sense the evil. Either they couldn’t, or they were inured to it.

She swallowed, a bitter taste in her mouth. All she could think was to get away.

To the spokesman she said, “Even if you can’t tell us of our colleagues, you still owe the King your knowledge. Kendriley and I will survey the island, decide what we most want to know.”

The man swept a circle with one arm. “Look around you. We have no knowledge worth your gathering.”

“All knowledge is worth gathering.”

She remounted, grateful to be back on Kendriley. Quickly, they left the men of Dreden behind.

“What is that feeling?” Tala asked two hours later as she fed dry wood to their campfire. Gloomy afternoon light struggled to pierce the low-hanging clouds. They had circled the island for some time, fruitlessly following one scent trail after another in search of the evil before making camp deep in the winter-bare forest. “It keeps coming and going.”

“Like it’s examining us, testing for weaknesses.” Kendriley raised a talon from where she was incising one of her scales, recording the story of their arrival on Dreden. Her body wrapped halfway around the camp. An outcropping of rock on the other side provided a dry overhang for Tala’s fire. “I’ve not encountered anything like this in all my long years, and I don’t like it.”

“I’d feel better if we were still out searching. Not sitting here.”

Kendriley flicked her tail in agreement. “But I want you near me, because I’m going to See.”

She said it with an elongated “S”: Ssssee.

Tala’s heart gave an unhappy lurch. “Now? The Beards are going to come for us, I’m sure of it.”

“Not yet. They need time to stew and debate.” Kendriley sheathed her talon, her incising done. “And when they come, they will tell us lies. I want information to use against them.”

“I don’t like having you vulnerable right now.” Tala looked over her shoulder, out into the forest. A large blackbird perched in a nearby tree, one yellow eye trained on them. Curious, that. Birds usually kept a healthy distance from Kendriley. “Something out there has already overpowered two dragons.”

“Neither of whom was as old or as powerful as I. And neither had a librarian like you by her side.”

Tala swatted Kendriley playfully. “Now you’re just talking nonsense.”

“I put my life in your hands every time my mind leaves my body. I trust you’ll see I have a body to return to.”

Tala sobered. “Of course. You be careful.”

“Cross my heart. You, too, kitling.”

Which made Tala smile, as always. She held still, listening to the drips of the sodden forest, while Kendriley settled into her trance. It was unnerving to see the body of her friend grow lax and unresponsive. In that moment, Tala knew, Kendriley became both Kendriley and not-Kendriley. She inhabited both herself and the beings around her–-birds, snakes, trees, rocks–-connecting herself to them so she saw what they saw and knew what they knew.

She could be minutes or hours in the trance. Best to stay busy, Tala had learned. It kept her from brooding over a dragon who looked near death.

So while her dinner cooked, she pored over Kendriley’s carvings, searching for some clue they had missed. As usual, the notes were thorough, the observations recorded in precise shorthand. Beside the new notes were two incised scales ready to be shed. One came off in her hand, and she tucked it into their bags. It would join the thousands of other scales in the Dragon King’s library, making a fireproof, nearly indestructible record of the kingdom’s reconstructed knowledge. In its place a new scale would grow, ready for Kendriley to incise with whatever they learned next.

Tala hoped it would be the identity of whatever lurked out there. The blackbird still watched them, its feathers glistening in the rain.

“And what do you want?” Tala called.

The bird didn’t respond.

Hurry up, Kendri, Tala thought. She was as jumpy as a novice at her first dragon moot.

When they were first paired together fifteen years before, Kendriley had explained the mechanics of Seeing. Tala hadn’t understood it then, and she still only knew that it was an adaptation of the mindspeak all dragons used while they flew. Only the oldest and most powerful dragons dared to See. Younger, weaker minds were susceptible to being taken over.

Suddenly, Kendriley stiffened.

Tala went to her and stroked her neck scales. “Shh, it’s all right. I’m here.”

Kendriley groaned. The noise rumbled, deep and eerie, and the hair on Tala’s arms stood on end.

“Kendri?”

Kendriley thrashed. Her tail whipped into the campsite, scattering their bags, the studded end digging into the earth. Tala scrambled back.

“Wake up!” She spun away from the spiked elbow on Kendriley’s right wing. The tip scored the outcropping. “Kendri, wake up!”

Kendriley’s silver eyes were open and unseeing. She pulled back her lips, baring her fangs.

“Wake up!” Tala grabbed the bucket of water from beside the fire. She sloshed Kendriley’s face.

Kendriley hissed. Her gaze bored into Tala.

“Hillside,” she said.

Then she slapped her front paws over her snout. Her eyes squeezed shut, and she sank down on the ground, trembling.

“Kendri?” Tala clutched her bucket, uncertain. Should she run for more water or tend Kendriley?

Kendriley didn’t seem to want tending. She huddled on the ground, her tail pulled tight around her, her every muscle rigid. Instinctively, Tala knew not to touch her.

She turned instead to the outcropping of rock bordering the campsite.

Did it qualify as a hillside? Was the evil inside it? Was that why Kendriley had scored it with her wingtip? Had she meant her word as a warning or a call to act?

Tala dropped to her knees beside Kendriley’s head, looking to her friend for clues. They were in short supply. Kendriley shivered, her scales prickling like a horse bothered by flies. All Tala could think was that the Seeing had gone bad. She had heard stories, of course, but never expected to witness a bad Seeing, not with Kendriley. Still, the trembling, the thrashing, the paws slapped over her snout—everything hinted that some consciousness Kendriley had entered was trying to take over hers. It seemed impossible that something could possess a dragon of her age. Surely it wasn’t the sparrows and oaks she normally connected with.

Tala stood and glared into the forest. The blackbird stared back with its unblinking yellow eyes.

“Let her go,” she yelled. She threw a stone, which just missed the bird’s back. “Tell me what you want.

No response, not evening a ruffling of its feathers, only the hissing of the wind in the trees that seemed almost to whisper a word.

A half hour later, someone crashed their way through the forest. Tala sheathed her dagger from where she’d been digging into the hillside. Carefully, she planted herself between the trees and Kendriley’s vulnerable head. She wished she felt more imposing without Kendriley alert behind her. She was dirty and frustrated—there had been nothing unusual about the hillside. At least the fire glinted an impressive red and yellow on her armor.

The man who had signed at her in the village stalked into view. A burlap bag hung from each shoulder, giving no indication of what good or bad things they might contain.

He walked forward carefully, his hands in plain view. The unflappable blackbird watched his approach.

He stood about twenty steps away when Tala asked, “What do you want?”

He set down the bags. “I guessed you might camp here. My name is Bolen. I come alone, with answers to your questions.”

“You claimed not to know anything earlier.” She glanced into the forest. Were the others waiting there? She needed their information, yes, but what would they do if they knew of Kendriley’s vulnerability? “Prove you have answers.”

“It was the elders.” His face twisted in disdain as he signed of them. “They had your friends killed.” He opened one of the bags, scooped out a handful of red and blue scales. They were all that remained of a dragon after death.

Tala sucked in her breath. She’d known her friends might be dead, had reconciled herself to the possibility months ago. But to see the proof in his hands…

She couldn’t dwell on it now. Not with Kendriley in danger. And she didn’t trust this man’s sudden tattling. What if he was lying again? “You’re saying a group of old men took down two dragons and two trained librarians?”

“They’re old, but they aren’t stupid, and young dragons aren’t invincible.”

She could imagine it—an arrow below the jaw, or in the eye. Or a welcoming sip of poisoned tea.

“Were the elders acting on their own? Or are they under the control of the evil?”

Fear crossed his face. He swallowed.

“Tell me,” she pressed. “What is the evil?”

His face went white. That, she was sure, was not a lie. “What do you know?”

“You tell me.”

He licked his lips and pointed to Kendriley. “Is your dragon all right?”

“She’s meditating. To increase her power.” She paused to let him come to his own conclusion about that.

He eyed Kendriley as if she would eat him at any moment.

“Time’s wasting,” Tala said when he didn’t speak. “I’d hate to think what would happen if your elders found you speaking to me.”

He glanced fearfully into the forest. There, all was still. The blackbird remained silent, as if waiting to see what happened between her and this man, Bolen.

“All right,” he signed. “I’m tired of serving them. I’ll tell you about the evil.” With the decision made, he seemed to stand taller. “But I want to talk to the dragon.”

“Anything you can say to Kendriley you can say to me.”

“That, librarian, is where you’re wrong.”

“Why am I wrong?”

His face was grim. “Because only a dragon of her power can hope to destroy our evil.”

“You can see it best from up here,” Bolen signed down to Tala.

She nodded and grabbed a clump of grass to haul herself up. Bolen scaled the incline like a mountain goat. She wondered how many times he’d made this climb.

He had signed, “It’s on a hillside,” and that word alone had made her leave Kendriley’s side. She had promised to rouse Kendriley once she was satisfied by what Bolen showed her. Now, hauling herself up, she gasped for breath and hoped there would be a Kendriley to rouse.

He didn’t comment on her windedness, simply offered a hand to pull her up the last particularly steep ledge.

Wheezing, she stood on a flat tabletop of land. It gave a panoramic view of forest behind and to her left, a burned-out meadow in front of her, and soggy fields to her right. Beyond the fields, she could make out the Beards in their village square, engaged in silent, signed disagreements. Even farther over her right shoulder, Kendriley glittered green beneath the dark skeletons of trees.

Keep fighting, Kendri. I’m coming.

“Get down,” Bolen signed, flattening himself to the ground. “Let’s hope it doesn’t sense us here.”

Tala ducked, her armor rattling. She followed his lead as he crawled to the edge of the flat top. Below it, the ground sloped down to the burned-out meadow.

“Over there.” Bolen pointed to the large hill that bordered the far side of the meadow.

She frowned, puzzled, for she and Kendriley had flown over the area earlier that afternoon. The hill was steep, though not as steep as the incline they’d just climbed. The bare, burned soil and rock showed grayish brown in the afternoon sun. Except now it became obvious that not all of the hill was rock or soil. A wooden panel the size of a large door lay across the face of the hill. It had been painted to blend in with the earth.

As she stared at that panel, dread churned her belly. It was the evil she’d sensed before, rising now as if summoned by Bolen’s signing and her gaze. Only now it was stronger, more concentrated, and she had no doubt that whatever it was emanated from behind that panel. She breathed between her teeth to keep from flinching.

“What’s behind there?”

Bolen gave her a look of undiluted terror. He hunched down, keeping his hands out of view of the hill. “A Word.”

She gaped. Her heart thudded in a confused, animal terror. “But Words alone—they have no power.”

“Quiet!” He threw a glance at the panel. His face went grey. “Look out! Stop your ears! Don’t listen!”

Only a flock of birds flew over the meadow. “Wha—?”

Bolen pressed his hands over her ears. As he did, the birds descended, cawing. The sound was harsh, unbird-like. It grated against her ears, sent shivers down her spine. She slapped her hands over Bolen’s and screamed a minor Word to deaden sound.

It helped, but the sound still battered against her ears. It wormed down her throat and up her nose, searching, striving to reach her mind. “No,” she whispered, filling her mind with her own voice. “No. No. No.”

The attack seemed to go on forever, but must have been only moments. Then the birds soared away, and Bolen released her.

They were both panting. Bolen’s lips moved as if he wanted to make a sound but couldn’t. Tala wiped her mouth, tasting blood. She must have bitten her tongue.

“What was that?” she demanded.

He shook his head. He motioned back the way they’d come. “Not here.”

He crawled across the flat top and started down. Tala eyed the hillside, her stomach twisting. The panel looked unchanged, the sky clear of birds. She followed. She didn’t stop until they were back among the trees on level ground.

“Talk to me,” she said. Even in her armor she felt vulnerable. “What just happened?”

Bolen rubbed his beard. He breathed heavily, the sound labored, though he hadn’t on the climb up. Scratches marred the backs of his hands. Tala realized she must have made them.

“There’s a Word, an evil Word, carved into that hill. It just tried to get you to hear it so you would speak it.”

“By sending birds to caw at me?”

“They’re mimics. The Word takes over their minds, makes them speak.”

Kendriley, she thought with a shiver. She wished she could see the dragon’s comforting glitter.

“Did you carve this Word, you and the elders?”

“No! We’re the guardians. It’s our job to make sure it remains hidden, unknown and unspoken.”

“And it made you kill my friends?”

He shook his head, rubbing at his scratches. “They—we—did that. Your friends had to die, so they wouldn’t bring knowledge of the Word to the Library.”

She forced herself to speak calmly. “You don’t have to kill anyone. Just chisel the Word off the hillside. “

He gaped as if she were mad. “You think we haven’t tried that? It can’t be chiseled off. It can’t be scorched off. We’ve painted over it, tried to grow plants to break the hill apart. Nothing works. We have to replace the panel every year. The best we can do is achieve a stalemate, but you librarians came and threatened the balance.”

“You killed your best chance.” She would have laughed if it weren’t so important. “We don’t just collect knowledge. Some librarians are scholars who specialize in words and magic. They could help you.”

He shook his head. “No one must learn of it. Some things are better left unknown.”

“Everything is worth knowing. Look what happened when the wars destroyed the libraries. The land fell into chaos. I promise the scholars will help.”

“And have every power-mad idiot flocking here, hoping to use it for their own ends?” He shuddered. “I want your promise that Kendriley will obliterate it. Her fire must be hot enough, or her claws sharp enough.”

Tala looked him full in the face. He was wrong. Only by knowing something could you face it. “What does it do?” she asked, enunciated each word clearly.

“Destroy.” He made the sign with a swipe of his hand. “It gives the speaker power to kill, to obliterate, to dismantle anything at a word.”

“Why would it want to do that?”

“It’s a Word. It does what it was created to do. Our legends say the magician who created it sought the ultimate secret—to revive the stillborn baby born to his grieving wife. But such knowledge is not for humans, and it drove him mad. When he couldn’t create, he vowed to destroy. If the Word took possession of someone powerful enough, it could destroy the world.”

“Powerful enough—Oh, gods, Kendriley.” No wonder she had slapped her paws over her snout. She was fighting for the life of everything on earth.

Bolen frowned. “What?”

“We have to get to Kendriley.” She ran, sprinting towards the campsite. Fear was like a wind at her back.

Hold on, Kendri.

With Bolen beside her, Tala thundered into the clearing. Kendriley still huddled there. Tala gave a silent prayer of thanks to see her alive and–-

“Oh, gods.” She ran to Kendriley’s side. “Her tail’s gone.”

Kendriley’s tail ended in a stump about an arm’s length from her body. The end oozed, raw and seeping. The air stank of blood. A mound of scales showed where she’d tucked her tail close to her belly.

“It must have forced her to speak,” Tala whispered, her hand at her throat. “She destroyed part of herself rather than anything else.”

“It’s already taken her over.” Bolen glared at Tala. “What hope is there now of stopping it? You should’ve told me earlier.”

She’d gasped the story out during their race to the campsite. Now she glared back as she ransacked their bags. Nothing was big enough for a bandage. “And you should’ve told us right away about the Word. She’s still fighting, so help me find some way to help her, or shut up.”

Bolen sank down on his haunches. “Nothing can help her. She was the only chance we had.”

“Shut up.” She threw down their last bag and kicked it. “No, wait.” She rounded on him. “How do you lot resist it?”

Something like pride made him stiffen. “We drink a brew every morning. In time, it destroys our voices. The Word knows we can never speak it.”

No wonder the Beards had been silent. She had a new respect for the villagers of Dreden, even if they were murderers. But that method was too slow. Kendriley didn’t have time to gradually lose her voice. “What about before the potion works?”

“If the Word seems too strong in a youngster, we cut out their tongue.”

Her jaw dropped. She snapped it shut.

“It’s better than speaking the Word.” He shoved up his left sleeve. “We also mark ourselves with this.” It was a minor Word—defendé—carved into the skin of his forearm. “I don’t know what it means. None of us read.”

“It’s an ancient protective Word.”

With that, an idea formed. Tala’s heart thudded.

“It stops working after a while.”

“Yes,” she said idly, staring at his scar. “For true protection, you’d need to carve a major Word of power.”

“I—” Bolen signed, but Tala strode past him. She knelt by Kendriley’s head. Cautiously, she placed one hand on Kendriley’s left paw, where it was still wrapped about her snout. Kendriley shook like a bowstring.

“I know what you’re fighting,” Tala said softly. “I saw the hillside.”

Kendriley opened one eye. Her gaze held pain and urgency.

Tala swallowed back tears. “I know lots of Words, minor and major ones, but I don’t know any with power great enough to protect you. What’s the greatest protective Word you know?”

Kendriley growled deep in her throat. Bolen started, backing away.

Tala merely shook her head. “I don’t understand. What?”

Kendriley growled again. Tala felt it in her palm. There was a word in the growl, buried deep in dragon-speech.

“One more time. Please.” She bent down, placed her ear next to Kendriley’s lips.

Kendriley growled, Tala strained her ears, and the forest erupted with deafening bird caws. It wasn’t the grating sound of before. There was no single insistent word, still the noise overpowered Kendriley’s voice.

“Quiet!” Tala screamed.

Silence descended.

For Kendriley, too. She trembled in mute battle.

“No.” Tala shook her. “I didn’t mean you. What Word should I use?”

Kendriley didn’t respond.

Bolen touched Tala’s elbow. “See? It’s too powerful.”

She yanked her elbow back. In that moment, she wished him and his Word a hundred thousand leagues away. “I’m going to carve a protective Word on her.”

“What good will that do? She’s already possessed.”

“If I can find a Word of great enough power, it’ll let her regain her own mind. Then she can See. She can re-connect with the Word but not be overpowered by it.”

His face lit up. “Does this mean she can speak the Word against itself? Force it to destroy itself?”

Tala nodded. She pressed her forehead against Kendriley’s side, breathing in her smoky smell.

“Oh.” He had worked out the hitch in the plan. “But you just said—She’ll be Seeing, so she’ll be connected to the Word. In destroying it, she’ll destroy herself.”

“Damn you, Kendri,” Tala whispered, because she knew she had no choice, and she hated that knowing.

Bolen rose to his feet. “I could do the carving if you show me what symbols—”

“No.” She pushed herself up. “Kendriley is my friend. You keep watch. Tell me if that overgrown noun so much as makes a splinter in its panel.”

“Of course. Good luck.” He climbed the outcropping that made up one side of the camp. As easily as if it were a set of stairs, he pulled himself up over the crown of the trees. “I can just see the panel,” he signed down.

Tala took a deep breath. She rested one hand on Kendriley’s head, feeling the ridges of the scales, the warmth of them under her palm. Then she pulled out her talon knife. She found the slight break in scales where she’d harvested one that afternoon. Using her knife, she prized off four of the neighboring scales. Kendriley shuddered. Blood the color of wine streamed down her exposed skin.

“I’m sorry.” Tala pressed her hand to the wounds, holding until the hot blood slowed to a trickle. The bare spot looked horrible, but the damage would be worth it to give Kendrily the full protective power of carving on skin rather than scales.

Only one Word she knew could possibly hold more power than the one on the hillside. She’d last invoked it before the examination to enter the Library.

She whispered a prayer and began to carve.

COG

The ground shook. A tree cracked, and a branch the width of her leg crashed down behind her. Tala gritted her teeth, bracing an arm against Kendriley’s side.

COGNIT

Kendriley roared, part triumph, part pain.

Birds swarmed around Tala. They mobbed her, their feathers sticking against her eyes, her nose. She couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe. She choked, suffocating under the smell of rot.

By feel alone she carved: COGNITIÉ.

A crack, as if the world had split open. Tala found herself on the ground, in a swirl of feathers, her knife still clutched in her fist.

Kendriley growled. Her tail thrashed, scattering birds. Her growl rumbled through the earth, loud, but just a growl. There was no Word in it.

“The panel cracked,” Bolen signed, barely visible through a mass of birds. “But the Word’s still there. Your plan isn’t working.”

Tala spit out feathers, gasping for air. What else could she do?

She scrambled onto her knees as Kendriley writhed, her paws still over her snout. Blood dripped from the carved letters. If one Word was too weak, would two work? But what other Word would do? No other Word of power—

No.

Tala gasped.

She didn’t need a Word of power.

She staggered to her feet, her knees shaking.

This Word would not submit to more power. But she had a secret weapon: She knew the history of this Word, while it knew next to nothing about her. Knowledge could save them all.

“Hurry!” Bolen signed.

Kendriley’s head drooped lower. Her tail flopped. She could not struggle much longer.

Frantically, Tala stumbled to her. She grabbed one of Kendriley’s ears. The scales were warm under her fingers.

Once chance. What one fact, one utterance would distract the Word? Allow Kendriley the moment she needed to See?

She closed her eyes, crossed her fingers, prayed that the myth of the grieving magician held a kernel of truth, a nugget that spoke of true knowledge.

She whispered not a Word of power, but a powerful word: “Creation.”

The ground shook. Kendriley roared. The Word was lost in the roar, which rumbled in Tala’s spine and molars. Her ears rang. She sat down sharply.

The birds flew away, disappearing into the forest. On the outcropping, Bolen jumped up and down. “It’s gone!” he signed. “The panel fell away, and there’s nothing but ruined earth behind it. You did it!”

We did it, Tala thought, and though she was afraid to, she turned her head.

Kendrily lay on her side, breathing shallowly, her eyes tightly closed.

Tala laid a hand on Kendriley’s snout. “You’re alive.”

Kendriley slit open an eye. Her lips curled in a dragon smile.

“Thanks to you, kitling. But not for long. The protective power is fading.”

“No! You’re not going to die.”

Kendriley winced. “Yes, I am. And before I do, you must promise me. Tell no one of the Word. Let all knowledge of it pass from this earth.”

“I can’t. You know that. We must collect what we’ve learned.”

“Oh, kitling. Being a librarian isn’t all about collecting knowledge. Sometimes you have to discard it, too.”

“Never. Lost knowledge only leads to chaos.”

Kendriley growled. “I’ve already alerted the other dragons of my passing. When they come, they mustn’t gain knowledge of the Word. Don’t let me die in vain.”

“No!” Tears pricked Tala’s eyes. “There must be another way.”

“There isn’t. If knowledge of the Word survives, my sacrifice will mean nothing. Promise me, kitling, that my death will mean something.”

Desperately, Tala stroked Kendriley’s snout. She wanted to deny it, to cling to her certainty that knowledge must be preserved above all else. But how could she deny Kendriley her dying wish?

Finally, she nodded. “Cross my heart.”

“Thank you.” Kendriley closed her eyes. Her body quivered. Then it vanished. Her scales tinkled as they collapsed, leaving a dragon-shaped mound along one edge of the campsite.

Tala shook. Before long, the dragons would arrive. They would arrange for the islanders to face the King’s justice and for Tala to return to the Library.

So now, alone in the late afternoon sun, surrounded by scales and feathers, Tala picked up a blank scale. It was still warm and smelled of dragon. With her dagger, she carved a false version of what had happened, omitting all mention of the Word.

She wept as she carved, the tears leaking salt into her mouth. They dropped onto the scale, making it glitter like glass, sharp and smooth and deceptively bright.

When she was done, she set down her dagger and wrapped her arms around herself, holding tight as she rocked. Carving the scale had been her last act as a librarian. She would not pick up another dragon-talon dagger. That decision was simple. She would never again serve as a librarian, not when it meant hiding the truth of Kendriley’s death. For truth could be kept from the world, but not from herself.

About B. Morris Allen

Editor and publisher of the vast Metaphorosis empire.

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