Shoel's Story

Chapter Sixty-One: Return and "Welcome"

Written in collaboration with Silver Midnight


The rest of the trip took about a week, as expected, and it was wondrously trouble-free, on both pertinent fronts. Not only did they not run across anything troublesome, as even the wraiths were still giving Shoel and Hemlock a wide berth, but they also managed to keep hostilities between them to mild bickering-- which wasn't even exactly hostile. Hemlock seemed quite a bit more affectionate in his dragon-form, which he wore the whole rest of the time while they were traveling, and she didn't mind at all having him curled up against her back on the packs.

After six days of travel, they could finally look up through the canopy of trees and see the peaks of the volcano housing the Ring of Fire in the distance, and even the flame that wreathed it, whenever the trees thinned temporarily enough to catch a glimpse at the top of the mountain. She'd felt the concentration of Dead even before they'd seen the volcano, but it wasn't as overwhelming as she remembered it. It felt strange riding towards the tunnel of stone leading into the dragonry itself, after so long away; so much had changed, particularly her own perspective, that she hardly knew what to expect.

At the top of the peak, the tropical climate had given way to something closer to what Shoel was used to: deciduous forest and, since despite the lack of evidence elsewhere it really was winter, a sprinkling of snow. Shoel smiled at it all quietly, but the little dragon huffed from behind her, watching their breath turn to mist in the cold mountain air before commenting sourly, "I wish they could have chosen a warmer location. I hate winter."

"Well, you can spend your time inside while we're here," she suggested, not at all as disturbed by the chill as he was. They entered the tunnel, and Steady broke into a trot, probably anticipating rest at the other side. "And I doubt we'll be here very long, anyway," she added over her shoulder. "We'll be back in Arliingran soon enough."

"Just as cold there," Hemlock retorted, snuggling in closer to Shoel, and she grinned. "Mountains-- feh."

"Well, if you still want to share Steady, I promise I'll wear my cloak on the way down, and you can hide under it?"

"Wouldn't mind." He nuzzled her side, with a short purr, and she made sure not to twitch. Sometimes it could tickle when he did that, and the first-- and last-- time she'd actually let herself react, Steady had not been happy with her.

"Then that's what we'll do," she said with a smile, and then they were out into the thin sunshine again, on the open plain in the center of the volcano. The snow was a little thicker here, with nowhere to slide to, but not too thick for Steady to not move comfortably through it. "So where are the stables?"

"That way," Hemlock told her, angling his muzzle towards a mid-sized wooden building off the main entrance to the dragon dens. "Can't really keep them inside the complex, they don't like it."

"That makes sense, with so many giant carnivores around," she agreed, directing Steady towards it. His ears perked, probably catching the sounds and smells of other equines, and he stepped up his pace. It wasn't a moment later that he'd slowed to a stop in front of the building, and Shoel could slide off with a grateful sigh, patting his neck. At the lack of obvious attendants, she led the big avicorn inside, herself. "Can I put him in just any box, or are they specifically assigned?" she asked Hemlock.

"The ones that are assigned are marked," Hemlock answered before getting to his feet and jumping off Steady's back to return to human form for the first time since she'd left him standing in front of the inn. Predictably, he hadn't brought his armor; who knew where he'd put it. "Then mark the number used on the chart."

"All right...." She found the chart he'd been referring to, a large chalk-slate on the wall and found a number that was empty, for the largest of the stalls she could see without actually moving further inside, and filled in her name and Steady's beside the number before leading the avicorn down towards it.

In their stalls some of the other equines stamped irritably, and Hemlock raised an eyebrow, looking at them. "Wonder what their problem is."

"Dislike of avicorns?" Shoel suggested with a shrug, letting Steady into the large box and following in after him to start pulling off tack and packs.

"If that's so, then they just picked up that trait while we were gone."

"Dislike of necromancers?" she teased, hefting the saddle onto the stable partition, on the widened block made for such things.

"Once again, they must have picked it up while we were gone," Hemlock retorted dryly, giving her a slight swat on the hip. She swatted back, not really with intent to hit, or hurt if she did, chuckling, then relieved Steady of his bridle and bit, hanging it on a peg she assumed was for such things, and pulled out his brush.

"I take it everyone looks after their own animals here, then?" she asked. If Drakonus didn't want Steady back, she'd have to make sure to come visit the avicorn every day or so, while she stayed here, and ride him whenever she had the chance.

"Yes, we're in need of an actual staff." Hemlock shook his head at that, leaning against a door of an empty stall. "Really annoying."

"Maybe candidates and fledgelings should pitch in," she suggested, rubbing Steady down vigorously. He leaned into the brush with a big sigh, extending a wing as if to help, or just to beg more "petting". "That's what they do at other dragonries I've been to."

"Well, we don't run that many clutches," the necromancer admitted with a slight frown. "And I doubt anyone wants most of the present candidates near anything but each other or the eggs, if even that."

"That's true," she said. "Though I certainly wouldn't mind helping out, at least, if any dragon I might bond isn't too much of a drain on my time for something like that. I like horses. And equivalent," she added for Steady's benefit, scratching his ears. Hemlock just shrugged in response, his eyes wandering towards the entrance to the stables, and Shoel finished up with Steady by filling a the feed bucket with warmed grain, and the trough beside it with water.

"There you go," she told him. "I'll come see you again soon, to make sure you've had enough to eat and are warm enough, promise." The avicorn whickered at her, then stuck his nose in the grain and proceeded to ignore her. Chuckling, she slipped out of the box, hefting the packs over her shoulder. "Shall we?"

Hemlock jumped a little, uncharacteristically, and she cocked her head at him. "Oh, yeah," he answered, pulling himself back together. "My mind was wandering, I suppose. Sorry."

"It's all right. Come on, let's go put all this down in my room, and maybe hunt down Jasien...." She would have taken his arm, but her hands were full, so she just settled for nudging him companionably with her shoulder before starting for the stable doors and the snowy grass outside. Hemlock shrugged and followed after her.

Shoel stepped out into the snow, taking a deep breath of the familiar scent of winter, before starting out across the grounds for the humanoid-housing part of the dragonry. She had to wonder, vaguely, just what the date was, if they even counted the days similarly here to other worlds she was aware of; she thought she might have lost count, sometime over the course of their trip.

Her thoughts were quite rudely interrupted when a screech like something most people never hoped to hear startled her into a dead stop, and an instinctive half-turn towards the sound. A large, black and green beast came charging from his refuge along the crater wall: a wingless xenodragon, fully adult and obviously angry. The eight-foot tall xenodragon lunged at her before she could throw herself out of the way more than a foot or two, but its claws hit packs instead of flesh, at least. Still, it sent her tumbling with a yell; her hands were too full for her to grab sword or bells, and if she let go of the packs to free either one, she'd loose what protection she currently had.


At the sound of Hemlock's voice, the 'burster immediately released her, only to pounce on him-- though in sharp contrast to his attack on Shoel, he started licking the necromancer with his second jaw and drooling on him like some deranged pet dog. It would have been an amusing sight, if the same creature hadn't just attacked her. As it was, Shoel just picked herself up of the ground, shaking just a little with excess adrenaline and staring at the pair.

"I take it he wasn't very happy with me, for some reason," she managed.

"Ugh," Hemlock shook his head under the onslaught of both drool and xenodragon affection, attempting to shove the big chitinous beast off him. "I guess he didn't like you 'stealing' 'his' Hemlock." He smirked a little at the thought, only to have the creature's strange tongue drag across his face. Despite the general danger the creature might pose to her, Shoel couldn't help but chuckling a little as the necromancer exclaimed, "Gah! Get off!"

"Well, he obviously missed you...."

"Yeah, too much," Hemlock replied in irritation, turning his back to keep Kzats from drooling on his face. At that the xenodragon, of course, set upon his hair, and Shoel had to clap a hand over her mouth to keep from laughing. "If I'd known they got so big and annoying, I wouldn't have stood for that clutch," he grumbled.

In response to the comment and mood of his bond, Kzats whined, much like the dog he resembled, butting his head against the man's back. "All right, all right, I'm sorry," Hemlock sighed, scratching the creature's crest. "Crazy thing...."

"Oh, Tenat's, back on the station, was actually kind of sweet. Taller than this one." She approached cautiously, ready to jump back again if the xenodragon decided to turn on her again. The creature curled back his lips to reveal his many teeth as Shoel approached, giving a warning hiss, and she stopped immediately. In response, though, Hemlock whacked him on the head, making him go momentarily docile. Only momentarily, though, for he finally backed off of the necromancer, only to stalk about behind him with a protective, threatening stance that quite obviously said what he felt of the situation: he quite obviously did not like her, and wanted her nowhere near his bond. Well, that could prove troublesome.

"I wonder if he'll ever decide you don't need to be protected from me," she said with a little smirk.

"He's kind of possessive," Hemlock commented, pulling a big string of xenodrool off him with a disgusted expression. "Maybe once he gets used to you and realizes you will be around me a lot, maybe he will 'take possession' of you as well." All the xenodragon did for the moment, though, was continue to pace and glower at Shoel.

"Charter forbid," she said dryly. "Though I suppose that would be better than snarling at me all the time. Do you think he'll let you come with me inside?"

The necromancer eyed the big black and green beast, unsure just quite how to answer that. "Well, he'll have to," he finally grumbled. "Hopefully he knows how to listen."

"If you're firm enough, he ought to get the picture. I think they're mostly interested in pleasing their bonds... I think." She gave him a hopeful sort of grin. "Might as well head in, then; it'll be warmer there, and I'm sure I've got a towel in my room you can dry off with."

"I think it might ruin your towel," Hemlock pointed out grimly. "But yes, let's go in."

They crossed the basin to the nearest door to the tunnels into the mountains. "At least it is always warm in here," Hemlock said, shivering a little as they stepped into the warmth of the hallway, Shoel pushing the door open with her hip and the bulky pack containing her armor.

"You really don't like the cold, do you?" she mused, slowing a little so he could walk beside her, now.

"Why would I, don't tell me you do?" He came up beside her, giving her a smile beneath his xenodrool-matted hair.

"I'm more used to it than to tropical heat," she admitted. "The Old Kingdom was fairly far north, and the winters were quite a bit colder than this. I don't know that I particularly like the cold, but it's better than being too hot. At least when it's cold you can curl up by the fire with a good book."

"What about with a good companion?"

"It's been an awfully long time since anyone's wanted to curl up beside a fire with me," she chuckled a bit. "And even then, it wasn't for very long."

"Why not?"

"I've only ever had one serious relationship, and I only had that over one winter," she told him with a little shrug. "I think I was seventeen. Maybe eighteen."

"So why didn't it work out?" he asked, tilting his head slightly.

"I was never entirely sure," she admitted dryly. "He said it was because we were both so busy, but I suspect it had something to do with his family and friends not trusting me. I wasn't particularly well-liked, and that's a hard thing to put up with, all that negativity."

"Heh, I understand that," Hemlock agreed, rolling his eyes. "A shame, though. You seem to mention that relationship a lot."

"Do I? Well, it's the only one I can ever bring up, when the subject of romance comes up. That's probably why. Though I expect I babbled about him a fair bit, under the influence of that tea of yours."

"That you did." Hemlock chuckled a little at that, and Kzats growled before getting a glare from his bond. "Maybe we should stop bringing up the subject?"

"Oh, is he not a romantic?" Shoel chuckled. "Or is he just not interested in hearing about the trip?"

"I'm not sure, really," Hemlock told her, looking back at the xenodragon again.

"Well, we're here, anyway," she said, stopping in front of the door, dropping the armor-bundle, and fishing in her satchel for the key. "And I don't think he'll fit inside," she added absently, before finding the key and unlocking the door. Skelemis wasn't inside, she could tell that immediately, and she wasn't sure whether she was relieved or concerned: she didn't really want to deal with him, but neither did she like the idea of him wandering around the dragonry. At least she hadn't had any urgent messages from Jasien, so he couldn't have gotten into too much trouble. She hefted the armor again and carted it all inside.

Hemlock followed Shoel inside, closing the door for her-- in the xenodragon's face. Outside Kzats yowled, but only for a moment before Hemlock presumably sent him some silent reassurance, and Hemlock himself asked, "Need any help?"

"I'm just dropping things off," she said, doing just that: tossing her burden down with a clatter of metal beside the bed. "I'll worry about organizing them and cleaning them and whatever else I end up doing with them later." The towels she'd left in the room ages ago were still there, folded on the simple, wooden chair beside the simple, wooden desk, and she tossed one to Hemlock. "Here, you might as well get cleaned up a little."

Hemlock gladly accepted, attempting to rub the clinging xenoslobbers off his face, hair, and shoulders. "Thanks."

"Don't mention it," she grinned at him, and pulled off her tabbard while she waited, hunting for a clean one to put over her shirt before she sought out Jasien. She had the thought that she might take a bath or at least change her clothes first, but it would be silly to wait, especially since Hemlock was here, now, and she doubted the Firelancer would mind too much if she smelled faintly of horse.

Tossing the now disgusting towel off to the side where it would be out of the way, Hemlock watched Shoel for a few moments as she found herself another tunic-- not blue, for the first time in almost two months, but instead an austere black-- and tugged it over her head. "I suppose I should probably leave my sword here," he said dryly. "I don't think Jasien would respond well to that."

"Might well not," she agreed, untying her hair to gather it up again and retie it. "Even if it was a gift, and necessary. I'd hate for him to try and take it, too, though." Hemlock shrugged and took off his belt with the various supplies and the scabbard, gently laying it on the bed. Then as an afterthought he also untied the wristbands with the bone shards for spears and put them next to the belt with a sigh. Shoel, finished with her hair, came over to pat his shoulder. "Maybe he'll lighten up about weapons, now."

"We'll see." He glared down at his clothing, noting the wet spots where Kzats's 'kisses' had gotten. "Messy thing...." Shoel just snickered and tossed her own sword next to Hemlock's, expecting she wouldn't need it, but slipped her bandolier back into place over the new tunic.

"At least he does like you," she pointed out, taking his arm and heading back to the door with him.

"Must be as insane as you," he teased, tickling her side a little.

"Hey!" she protested, arching away from his fingers. "Cut that out!"

Hemlock just smirked and did it again, earning a light swat, but after that subsided. "You two are lucky I just like you, too."

"You know, some women might think it an insult to be compared to a xenodragon," she grinned, releasing him to open the door.

"You're much cuter, I assure you," Hemlock said soothingly, giving her a slight hug around the shoulders.

Laughing a bit, she leaned against him just a moment before warning playfully, hand on the door handle, "Don't let Kzats see you do that, or he might decide to take a bite of me." Then she opened it, revealing the xenodragon himself, sprawled across the hallway-- blocking it quite efficiently-- and presumably waiting for them. "This time, you get to go first," she said dryly, motioning Hemlock ahead of her-- and he agreed, only because Kzats was in control of the hallway!


Chapter Sixty-Two



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

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