Shoel's Story

Chapter Sixty: Reunion

Written in collaboration with Silver Midnight


The trip through the city was even more uncomfortable than usual, because before she'd either been on foot and thus not as noticeable, or she'd had Hemlock to joke around with and keep her distracted from the stares and whispers. Now she had nothing but stiff posture and dark thoughts to distract her, and that wasn't enough. They were all just waiting for her to leave, staring at her back once she'd passed them, staring at the stupid human girl who couldn't even hold onto a friend for more than a month. If he could have been counted as a friend for that long. At least the stares made it easier to keep her emotions in check, and the only face she showed the draclin'geyar was chilly and calm.

Hemlock did not catch up to her, not that she'd really expected him to. She headed into the rainforest, in the direction of the Ring of Fire, out from the watchful eyes of the city-dwellers, and that was when it started getting difficult to keep control. She bit her lip, hard enough almost to break the skin, and forced herself to review Charter marks in her mind to distract herself.

The forest, at least, was a cheerful enough place. Birds were in full song all around her, flowers bloomed, insects buzzed, and the leaves of the trees were ridiculously green for what was supposed to be winter. After a while she managed to put Hemlock's abandonment behind her, at least for the moment, to just enjoy it. There weren't any wraiths here-- though there didn't seem to be any mammals around, other than herself and Steady, which might explain the lack-- which was relaxing. There wasn't anyone to talk to except Steady, but she was sure that would be all right. I like being alone, she reminded herself a few times. She'd traveled alone before, for the whole decade since she'd been exiled from her own world; she could do it again.

By sunset, when she'd found a likely looking campsite, still alone, the temporary calm had worn off and she felt like breaking down and bawling. She managed to get camp set up, her diamond of protection in place, some dinner inside her, and a charmed fire going that would not go out until dawn before losing the remains of her control. Steady settled down at her back, as if trying to be comforting, and she crawled into her bedroll in shirt and breeches, hugging her bandolier disconsolately within the roll of blanket, and cried herself to sleep.

She woke a little after dawn, gritty-eyed and sore, Saraneth and Astarael's handles digging into her chest, and it took her a few minutes to convince herself to even open her eyes. Steady was breathing steadily behind her, awake already, and she finally decided she might as well get up. The Undead Clutch wasn't going to wait on her depression. She sighed, rubbed at her eyes, and sat up.

She blinked, staring across the line of her diamond at the pair of golden eyes staring back at her. She rubbed at her eyes again and squinted, trying to wake herself up, and made out a little, black dragon with wraith-gold eyes, sitting up stiffly and with his tail around his forepaws, head lowered in what looked to be a menacing glare. It wasn't a wraith, since she couldn't sense him, so it had to be....


At her query the dragon lifted his head and loosened his posture, changing position to lay on the ground, back and wings to her so he could look out at the forest. Whatever had brought him back, it obviously wasn't warm, fuzzy feelings. She stared at him a moment, viciously forcing back any kind of feeling at all, then climbed out of her bedroll and set about breaking camp in silence.

She'd gotten breakfast eaten and Steady almost ready to go by the time the silence was broken, and it was Hemlock who broke it. "It's stupid to go wandering around alone on Pre'Mian, you know," he said casually, still facing away from her.

"I was unaware you cared," she answered softly. "Though I suppose Jasien would be rather upset with you if anything happened to me." That was probably it; he was bound to protect her and didn't want to face Jasien's wrath if his negligence had lost the Firelancer his candidate. That was why he'd come back.

"Oh, come off it," the little dragon sighed, looking over his shoulder at her. "I've told you before, I don't care if I die, and I really don't care what Jasien thinks, either. Since it's so important to you, I'll say it: I do care what happens to you and I haven't been following you around just to be in compliance with the Firelancer's wishes. I wouldn't let anyone go traipsing around Pre'Mian alone, but it's not everyone I'd follow into a nest of undead just because they wanted to rekill a commander."

For a moment Shoel didn't trust herself to speak; she just stroked Steady's neck and nose, as he nudged her affectionately, until she was sure her voice wouldn't shake or she wouldn't burst into tears. That was twice already; she didn't need to make him think she was a weakling who cried all the time by doing it a third time. "Then why do you keep acting like you don't?" she asked when she was able. "Am I just that bad at reading you, and you aren't? Or what?"

"I don't need to be worrying about someone all the time," Hemlock answered, getting to his feet and turning towards her again. "The sooner you get off this damn planet the sooner I can stop worrying about what the residents will do, or what the hell you think, and what to do with you."

It wasn't much of an answer, but she thought she could glean what he meant out of it. "Ah. All right." She rested her cheek against Steady's for a moment before climbing up into his saddle and pulling back her marks, collapsing the diamond. "Will you be riding with me, walking, or flying ahead?"

"None are particularly desirable." He wrinkled his nose, a somewhat funny expression on a dragon; she almost smiled. "But since I have to make a choice, I suppose I'll walk."

"All right, then." A click to Steady, and the avicorn started back onto the path again.

Hemlock followed somewhat slowly after, always keeping a distance of ten feet or more. He walked with his head down and forward, occasionally lashing his tail. "I didn't think you were stupid enough to set out on your own," he said after a few minutes.

"What was I supposed to do?" she answered with a noncommittal shrug. "You didn't seem to be following."

"Wait, come back?" he suggested sourly, flicking his tail tip violently. "Do you have a deathwish or something?"

Maybe. Who knows? I keep doing stupid things, apparently. "I didn't expect you to follow me, at all," she pointed out. "I lost my temper at you yet again, when you already weren't happy with me, and I already wasn't happy with you. Besides, I've traveled alone before, I'd probably have been fine...."

"Not on a demon and undead infested planet," Hemlock said bluntly, sparing a snap at Steady's heels. The avicorn broke into a canter for a few paces, then slowed again and cast him a very dirty glance over his shoulder. "Or you could have always run across one of Akana's reconnaissance units, now that would have been pleasant."

"It's not as if it matters," she sighed, a little exasperated with him, now. "There's no one who'd miss me, except maybe you, and I'm sure you'd get over it."

"Who said they'd kill you?"

Shoel was beyond the point of caring. She shrugged.

"Fine," Hemlock snorted into the dust on the path. "Maybe I should leave you to your fate, then?"

"If you want to." Then she added, half-expecting him to fly off before she had the chance, "I'm sorry I slapped you."

He didn't respond to that. "I asked if you wanted me to."

"Actually, no, you didn't... but no, I don't particularly want you to."

"I asked in my own way," he grumbled, swiping a paw at a low branch; she heard it rustle.

"Well, the answer is no."

"You do realize that even with me here, if we meet a scout unit we're both dead meat?"

"Then you can fly away and give Jasien and Drakonus my apologies for not returning. And until that point, we can hope we don't run into a scout unit, whatever that is."

Rolling his eyes Hemlock actually sprang up onto Steady's back behind Shoel, perching on top of the packs. The avicorn snorted and gave a little buck, not enough to dislodge him, but certainly enough to express his displeasure. Shoel hushed him gently, stroking his neck, and he subsided with another snort. "A group of four to six of Akana's soldiers," Hemlock explained, "generally expendable but just as nasty, cruel, and horny as all the other demonic Katris."

" ... 'Horny'?"


"Ugh...." She wrinkled her nose. "Not someone to run into, then."

"Now do you understand what I meant about them?"

"Yes, Hemlock. I'll be a good little girl and let you watch over me."

He quite suddenly nipped her on the arm, not hard enough to break the skin-- or even the cloth-- but enough to hurt. "Don't be a smartass."

"Why not?" she retorted, a little sourly, rubbing at her arm. "You are."

"I wasn't intending to be."

"Well, you're very good at it, for not intending to be."

"Or maybe you're just being a bitch?"

"Probably. It's not uncommon."

"Do you want me to go find the nearest scout patrol and lead them to you?"

"Of course not. For one thing, they'd probably shoot you or something before you got to leading them anywhere." Feeling somehow a little more comfortable, as if by their bickering she was back on solid ground, she half-turned in the saddle in an attempt to touch him, lightly. He just sighed and rolled his eyes, but let her run her fingers over his head, beside the horns. "Besides, I didn't want you to leave, remember?"

"Seems rather silly to me."

"Then I'm silly."

"That much is obvious." He nuzzled her arm a little when she pulled away, and she smiled some as she turned back around in the saddle.

"So I take it you left Vesper and your things behind." She frowned a bit. "If it's so dangerous to travel alone, how are you going to get him back?"

"I know how to travel alone," he scoffed. As if I don't, she sighed to herself. "Even if it is that dangerous, as I said: I don't care if I die."

"And what if they don't kill you?" she suggested, using his own words.

"Not much else to do with me."

"I'm sure they could think of something. I could think of plenty of things, and I'm not a Katri demon."

"Oh? Like what?"

"The same things I'm sure you could imagine they'd do to me. Torture, drugs, rape. It is, after all, just as possible to rape a man as a woman. And you have a dragon to worry about, as well."

Hemlock snickered, flicking his tail. "Too bad about ninety percent of the soldiers are male, and it's very rare for a Katri to be homosexual."

Shoel didn't bother mentioning that a group of males, with no women around for weeks on end, would take a feminine man as quickly as an actual woman. Perhaps these Katri were different, and it wasn't something she particularly enjoyed talking about, anyway. "I'm sure you know better than I do."

"It wouldn't be the first time I've traveled alone," Hemlock assured her, settling down into a laying position behind her. She could feel him crouched warmly against her back and the cantle of the saddle. "I'm still here."

"I know. Thank the Charter for small blessings."

"Blessings? I swear, you're one of the strangest people I've met."

Smiling a bit, she said, "Thank you. But even if it wasn't the case that I like your company-- most of the time-- without you, I doubt I'd have ever heard of the Ring of Fire, Pre'Mian, or Galarin."

"It was only my stupidity that caused you to hear about the Ring of Fire."


"I can't say I regret meeting you, but I do regret fighting with you," he explained, cuddling in closer against her back. She twisted just enough to get a hand behind her to stroke his wings.

"I can't say we won't do it again, but I prefer the more friendly kind of bickering to an actual fight, too."

"Well, I won't be pulling any sort of weapon on you again if we do."

She chuckled. "That's probably a good thing, since you seem to be so much better with them than I am."

Hemlock purred softly, perhaps at her words, perhaps because she was still petting him gently. "You're not as bad as you think."

"Maybe not, but you're still worlds better," she pointed out. "Maybe we need to spar more often; then perhaps I can learn from you."

"How about lessons for lessons?" Hemlock said thoughtfully, still purring. "I teach you how to use a sword, you teach me about your magic."

Shoel turned a bit further in the saddle, peering over her shoulder at him. "So you're interested, then? In learning more about the Charter and how to work with it?"

"I figure it couldn't hurt," he answered, reaching up to touch his nose to hers; she smiled and ran her fingers under his jawline. "Maybe I'd understand what you mean about it, and if it's not my thing I could always try to ignore it, I suppose...."

"If it's not your thing, I'm sure the Charter would release you again," she assured him, feeling quite a bit happier, now. Maybe I just need to accept that he's even more moody than I am, and try to weather it, she mused to herself. "Or you could release yourself, I'm sure... other Charter mages have done it, though they usually do it because they want to turn to a life of doing harm, more than because they're not comfortable with the Charter itself."

"You already know the worst things I've done," the little dragon said quietly. "That's in my whole life, and I don't exactly plan to do more."

"I wasn't worried that you would," she told him with a smile, then daring just enough to kiss the tip of his muzzle lightly before turning back around to watch where Steady was taking them, only keeping one hand back to touch him. "Do you still want me to try it temporarily first? I think I can, though it might be difficult."

"If you want to try and think you can, I suppose."

"If we end up at an inn during the trip, or once we get to the Ring of Fire, then," she nodded, pleased.

"That's fine." Still purring, he nuzzled her side lightly then settled himself down to watch the forest go past. Shoel smiled contentedly and let the comfortable, birdsong-filled silence reign for a while.


Chapter Sixty-One



Shoel's abilities and homeworld are copyrighted to Garth Nix.

Quote borrowed from Garth Nix's book, Lirael, from The Book of the Dead.