The travelers had spotted them. He might be too high in the air yet to see the faces, but could make out what they were calling out. “Dracomis! Dracomis!” Then: “Mordifor!”
Dragon and man tweaked their wingtips and puffed out their chests as they came down on the shores of a small lake, sparkling in the early afternoon sun. Mordifor laughed as he saw a familiar figure waving from among the dozen or so workers on the almost-finished span. The first person to reach them was a stranger, however—a gangly faun with a fresh blisters on his hands and a piece of a spell caught on his peach fuzz.
“Greetings, esteemed dracomis!” He fluted. “I am Raizdos, and long have I—er—longed to meet a dracomis. Tell me, in what manner may I address you?”
“We are Mordifor,” the dragon said, the stifled laughter making the scales on her sides vibrate. “Separately, folk find it meet to address the man as Diffy and the dragon as Mo.”
The hoofed youth looked horrorstruck. “Mo and…Diffy?” He squeaked.
The rider slid down and patted the faun on the arm. “We’re less grand than the stories will have you believe, you know.” He said consolingly. “Besides, these days, we spend so much of our time with other folk, we thought nicknames would make things simpler.”
“Just in time, old friend, just in time!” Someone clapped a hand like a smith’s on Raizdos’ shoulder, the fingers drumming in excitement. “We don’t stand on ceremony around these parts, but there’s nothing like a dracomis to add that touch of class to magical doings.”
“Zar, you rogue of rogues! I haven’t seen you for—what, four turns now? You do manage to be in the least likely places! I half expected to see you jump out of an egg at the last Hatching, but you’ve put on a bit more body since we last met.”
“Cap’n Zarathustra, you are known to the dracomis?” Raizdos said, awestruck. On his face, a tiny simulacra of a blue hand blinked into existence and began dancing an extravagant waltz. Zar waved an admonishing finger at the dragon, who shrugged.
“I can’t help it,” she rumbled. “It’s like a—a bleb that begs to be popped.” The miniature portrait of Zar, as he had been, vanished and the stray bit of magic returned to pulse sluggishly on the faun’s chin.
“Call me Zar, Raizdos. Just Zar.” Some of the animation went out of the blue-skinned seaman’s eyes. The fingers on his outsized right hand drooped despondently. “And I wish that there were more dracomis or fewer causes to know me. I was at the Battle of the Empyrions, you see."
At the regret in Zar’s voice, the two souls that were Mordifor instinctively held fast to one another. Pain is the sister of loneliness, echoed the old litany of dracomis in their shared mind. And a dracomis is never alone, never abandoned.
The dragon lowered her head and gently nudged Zar, careful not to topple him over on his peg leg. "Many an egg has hatched on the Empyrions since that day," she said. "And some quite wondrous. But first, you and your friends must tell us of this bridge."
It was true that a small crowd had gathered while they had been talking. Raizdos remembered his courtesy and led them all under a great striped canopy, where dragon and man were plied with iced magnolia tea and warm biscuits leaking birch syrup. The bridge that was taking shape on the lake was no ordinary span, according to Zar. In his wartime travels, he had seen an ice bridge magicked to traverse in a moment what would usually take moons of hard journeying, and he intended to seed Texel with a number of such portals.
"It's not that Oldtown magic is stronger," Zar said, warming to the subject. "It's that it dreams more beautiful dreams, my friend. Besides, the mages there took up with the moto-folk and clockwinders, and you’ve never seen such magic as they do! Did you know they razed the town? They said ’twas more a gaol than a home, and what use is a gaol to free folk except to make them fear to be free? So down came the whole thing, and now all the folk in those parts live in mechanized movables, settled into one of the new market-towns—or roaming as they like.” He nodded at a figure in blue overalls intently watching the trestles blink in and out of view, while a black-haired sorceress sat cross-legged beside him in a water-circle, her arms and wings tracing out a pattern too complex to decipher.
“Where will your bridge cross to?” Mordifor asked, delicately licking syrup off a claw. Food for everyday pleasure was one of the better ideas brought over by defenders, as far as she was concerned.
“That’s the beauty of it: anywhere you wish, so long as you have been there once.”
Both dragon and man sat up and let out the clear, high yodel of their kind. Out on the lake, the builders stopped for a moment, grinning at the joyous sound.
“We have a proposition, then. What say we join this great work of yours? Many of us dracomis are helping map the world for the Sons of Samael, who are building a repository of all knowledge. Even with such an incomplete map as we have, we can help find likely places for your next bridge.”
“Excuse me, uh, Mo,” a weresnail said timidly. “I thought all the dracomis were busy fighting the last of the exos.”
“Some are,” the dragon replied. “But I was never much of a fighter—just ask any defender—and things have changed for our kind. Any dracomis is free to elect an occupation. Some have stayed with the old calling, of course, to watch the stars and track the eyes that open onto our world. But since the raid on the Empyrions,“ she said, giving Zar a firm look that brooked no recrimination, “we have spread out for safety, and found joy in it.”
“Double joy,” the rider chimed in, grinning. “You can stop carrying the guilt, Zar. The first turn of our migration, all fourteen surviving dracomis gathered at the Empyrions for the laying and the Hatching. Sixty-four eggs, Zar, more than four to a clutch. And guess how many dragonets hatched?”
“Forty?” Zar said hopefully. “No, forty-five—I know Ericminos had a good two dozen bands guarding the mountain. He is nothing if not thorough.”
“One hundred and fourteen.” Mordifor said with deep satisfaction. “Like I said, you can stop worrying about the future of dracomis-kind.”
Zar started in his seat, almost falling over before righting himself with the stump of his left arm. “Two from an egg? How is that possible?”
“Something in the water, perhaps,” she said. “Every one of them is as healthy as can be. One of the twinlings became a strategos, even.”
His arm slung around the dragon, the rider felt her remembering the unease with which they all had regarded the fifty eggs streaked with steel gray, dwarfing the familiar blue and green eggs.
We shan’t tell them about that. No, we shan’t, we’ve no cause to.
The dragonets from those eggs had been no different from their singleton hatchmates, after all, and the symbiosis had gone off without a hitch. In fact, with not enough xana children to hatch the unexpected windfall of eggs, the Empyrions had thrown caution to the wind and invited in any child with the desire to become dracomis—and that had turned out to be a monumental decision. Mordifor had seen one battleworn warrior, Sunback, fall to his knees and weep at the sight of a young hemi hatching a dragon. Sunback’s jubilation had filled Mordifor not with satisfaction but shame: how easy it had been for the dracomis to take the same narrow path, turn after turn. To say who was natural-born to the gift and who was not, for reasons that reason knew nothing of.
“So what say you?” Mordifor asked, turning his thoughts back to the future, not the past. “Have you room in your merry band for us?” There were cheery yeas under the canopy and beyond.
“Welcome, then,” Zar said, grinning broadly. “Welcome to the new struggle.”