One minute we were walking toward the dragon's home and the next minute Saoirse collapsed screaming and writhing on the ground. Her eyes rolled back and she didn't respond as I called her name. When she finally quieted, I got hold of her hand and blanched. The swollen area had started turning a bright blue. I lifted her up. The whites of her unseeing eyes had become the same blue, with only the smoky ring around her irises keeping them from blending into it. I felt for a pulse and found one, beating weakly and irregularly. The dragon was an hour away still, at a good pace. She might not make it.
I laid her down gently and pulled her cloak over her. Time to try what that jerk Beniamino taught me.
I took a deep breath and stepped away from her. I drew a circle of calling and began the chant. I threw Sorin's name into the appropriate space and planted my feet outside the circle. I threw a seed of power into the centre and shouted his name one last time in the final line and waited.
The sand in the circle turned cherry red and a ball of flame blasted out of it, shooting into the sky.
The huge ruby red dragon unfurled his orange bat-like wings and landed a few feet away from us. "I was napping, boy, who are you?"
"I am Ardon- please, can you help us? We were comin' to see you, but my friend was stung and she collapsed here. We could go no further- can you identify this?" I held out the body of the blue creature that had poisoned Saoirse for the dragon to see.
The dragon sniffed in disdain and peered at the creature before him. "That is an azure scorpion," he said. "They are very rare, magical creatures. This stung your friend?"
"Yes, please! Tell me what can be done- she lies there, dyin' as we speak!"
"She won't die, boy," Sorin said. "You have to let the venom take its course. You shouldn't have killed this creature."
"Oh, forgive me," I snapped. "I guess I was just worried it might be important to know what the hell is killin' her."
The beast's great golden eye rolled to look at me. He took a step closer to me. "You are impertinent to one who only seeks to help you, boy."
"I'm sorry, please just tell me what's happenin' to her!"
"I told you creature was magical. What it has done is unpredictable. If it felt threatened, she may be cursed. If it was just a reflexive action, she may be gifted or cursed. It varies too much to be certain. It has been known to grant longer life or to force one to wander the earth for a decade."
I walked over to Saoirse and held her in my arms. Her eyes were closed now and she seemed to be breathing more naturally. I brushed a few damp red-gold curls from her forehead and gently pushed one eyelid up. The blue seemed to be receding. I checked her little hand and thanked whatever deities in this world existed for letting the swelling go down.
"Is there anyway you can carry her to your home?" I looked up at the dragon hopefully, ready to beg if I had to.
"I can carry both of you," he rumbled. "Sit on my tail." He extended his scaly tail and I sat with her pack over one of my arms and her over my shoulder. He lifted us up and then tipped his tail so I slid onto his back behind his wings. I settled Saoirse in front of me, using her pack to hold her against me and my free hand to steady us as much as possible from falling off of Sorin.
"Ready?" He didn't wait for an answer, he just leapt with his powerful legs and flew. Before I had a chance to get used to the sensation, we were there, landing in the largest oasis of the desert, Sorin's home. There were apricot trees, fig trees, palm trees, date trees, olive trees- all surrounding an almost lake-sized body of water. It was stunning that such a place could exist in such a barren land. Even with the threat of a giant dragon, animals were drinking and lounging around the pool. I saw fennec foxes like the one Saoirse had seen, a golden bird with feather designs like a peacock, a silver wild cat about the length of my leg with tufted ears and blue eyes that practically glowed, a few sand cats, and even a lone coyote who was panting on a rock under a date tree.
Once we landed, I wrapped an arm around Saoirse and slipped down the dragon's side with her. I threw her cloak down on the ground and laid her on it carefully. I checked her pulse, breathing, eyes, and hand and started to calm down. She was still unconscious, but everything else seemed fine. I laid out her bedroll close to the water and gently moved her to it. Her lips were cracked and dry, so I used a damp cloth to moisten them before I got out some of the skin cream and dabbed some onto her little mouth and skin. She had a slight sunburn, but nothing too bad. I put extra balm on her nose since it was the worst. I stayed beside her, waiting and praying for her to wake up soon and be well.
"You care very much for this mageling, don't you?"
I looked up in surprise. I had forgotten all about Sorin. "Yes." I cleared my throat and realized I was drying up. I drank from my canteen and answered him. "She's very important to me."
The dragon blinked at me as his tail reached for an olive tree. He was shrinking before my eyes. "How are you doin' that?" I asked.
"If I am smaller, I am less hungry," he answered as he tossed olives into his mouth. I heard grinding and crunching as he ate the pits, twigs, and leaves that accompanied them.
I took another look around the clearing, marveling at how peaceful the animals there seemed to be. "How do they all live in harmony like this? Predator and prey together without fear."
"They are my council," Sorin said with a low chuckle. "They are not simple beasts like the rest of their kind."
One of the tiny big-eared foxes walked over to Saoirse and laid down beside her. A sand cat came to me and curled up in my lap. I looked down at it with surprise. It meowed at me, and I understood. I gently scratched its- her- ears and petted her. She purred quietly and I looked up at the dragon.
"I kind of understood that," I said with a frown.
"I can help you understand everything," Sorin said. "That is why you're here, to learn the languages of this world. Of every world. Knowledge only a dragon can give."
"Are you willin'?" I asked, looking into his golden eyes.
"If I grant you this, you will both owe a debt to me. Are you prepared to pay when the time comes?"
"As long as the debt is not Saoirse, my sister, myself, or another person, and as long as the debt can wait to be paid until after we rescue my sister, then yes. I am prepared to pay. I cannot speak for her, though," I said, glancing at her.
The dragon nodded. "I can agree to this. Your word, summoner." He held out an ivory claw, sharper than any sword. I offered him my hand and did not flinch as he cut a shallow X into my flesh.
"Lie down. When she awakes, I will make the same bargain with her," Sorin promised. I rolled out my bedroll beside her and covered the both of us with our cloaks.
"Thank you," I breathed as I faded into sleep.
It was still daylight when I woke up to the familiar sound of Saoirse's musical laugh. I sat up and saw her playing with some of the animals over by a large apricot tree. She was rolling the fallen fruit for the cats to chase and tossing a stick for the coyote. The big silver cat sat up proudly beside her, looking over all of it with his tail wrapped around her. She looked pretty as a picture, I just couldn't put my thumb on what was different about her.
"She wasn't cursed, was she?" I asked Sorin.
"No, she wasn't," he said, amusement colouring his tone.
I frowned. "What do you know? What's different?"
"Can't you see it?"
I looked closely at her. Her long hair was still curly and a deep golden red. Her face was unchanged, lightly freckled, a little pink from the sun. She was still tiny. Two legs, two arms, two feet, two hands, two wings.
They weren't as huge as the ones on the angelic people we saw in the inn when we first entered Hybris, and they weren't feathery either. They looked like butterfly wings, but less substantial and they folded down like Sorin's wings. She kept stretching them out and folding them back up. They looked damp and dark, but they were mostly see-through, like glass with designs in bright blue painted along the contours and lines. They would be beautiful dry.
I stood up and walked over to her slowly. She smiled up at me and I saw a few more differences. Her ears had tapered to a point, the canines in her mouth were a little more defined, and her pupils were slit like the cats she was playing with. "So, how are you feelin'?" I asked cautiously, sitting down beside her.
"Incredible, Ardon," she said. Her voice was smoother somehow, almost enchanting. "Sorin says the azure scorpion made me part faerie and it is amazing- the world seems to move so slowly now. I've never felt so alive!"
She was well, enthusiastic, and beautiful, so I was happy. But I couldn't help being a little frightened. She was different in another way. Something on the inside had changed, too. She almost seemed...predatory. Like at any moment she could destroy and revel in it. I shuddered a little and stood. "I'm goin' to go talk to Sorin, okay?" I said.
She nodded without looking up. "Come back and play soon, please," she said, tossing an apricot pit toward one of the foxes.
"Of course," I said, my mouth dry.
"Astoundin', yes?" Sorin chuckled when I walked back to him. "I have never seen one so blessed."
"Blessed?" I muttered. "Is there any way to change her back?"
Sorin bared his teeth. "I cannot change her. Livia may, but she is far out of your way and fickle. It would be best if you continued on the journey for your sister. Livia would not change Saoirse back unless she wanted," he added in warning.
"Where is this Livia, and where may we find her if Saoirse chooses?" I insisted.
"If she wishes to undo, come back to me after you have found what you seek."
"Who is Livia?"
"She is a dragon of the air," Sorin said dreamily. "She is blue like the sky, white like the clouds, with feathers as soft as the phoenix upon your friend's shoulder."
I glanced back and saw that the golden bird I had noticed earlier had flown down to join Saoirse with the other animals.
"Tell me about faeries, please."
Sorin puffed a little and looked at me. "Pure faeries are small. They usually get no bigger than your hand. They vary in species. Some have butterfly wings, some have dragonfly wings, some even have bat and bird wings. They all have very sharp teeth and prey on insects and sometimes small rodents they consume along with various types of vegetation. They are intelligent, sentient creatures who exist in harmony with nature. Some of them have a darker side. The butterfly faeries are generally pleasant, but they have a, well."
He looked at me for a long moment and grinned. "Just don't make her angry, ok?"
I kicked a rock, muttering about the convolutions of dragons, and went back to sit by Saoirse.
She took my hand in hers and leaned against me. She looked up at me with big blue cat-like eyes and smiled. "My wings are almost dry. We can leave soon."
I smiled back and wrapped an arm around her, careful not to bump her wings. "I'm just glad you're okay. I thought you might- well, you're alright now." I kissed her forehead and pulled back. "You're hot," I said. I placed my wrist against her cheeks and neck. She was burning up!
She laughed. "It's ok. I'll always be like this," she said. "I'm not sick- my temperature is just a little higher than it used to be."
She handed me a baby sand cat to play with. "Have you made a deal with the dragon?" I asked. If we were done here and we hurried, we could go at least three more miles before dark, five if she was feeling good.
She looked around at the animals surrounding us and sighed. "Yes, but we haven't received the gift yet."
We stood and walked back over to Sorin, her new friends trailing behind us. "I'm ready," I said.
Sorin opened his mouth and breathed cool, silvery flames over us. My mind tingled