Author's Note: I wonder if I should seriously take up one of my friends on a little game he's proposed. Truth be told, I think it might help our writing, and encourage critical review of each other's works--or devolve into a shouting, screaming match.

Hmm. Maybe I should talk it over with him first.


Burnination

Chapter 16


The air turned cold, and I got the nagging feeling I should have been downing a good-sized trough of C'zarr's house blend.

"Mother? What did you say?"

Without so much as a word, Mother thumped me on the head again and sent chills running through my horns. "Your sister has run off, H'ssanth. Taken a whole convoy of mining equipment, some of our best geologists and enough supplies to feed a small army--and vanished without so much as telling her dear mother where she's gone to."

"M-Mother…"

"Stop quavering like that Green sleeping in your bed--incorrigible you are, too, to thrash someone who isn't a Red until they're bedridden--and tell me where H'ssdar's gone. Or do I have to beat it out of you? I've even brought the rod."

I remembered the rod well; we'd been close acquaintances when I'd been a dragonet. Three and a six-twelfth Lengths of solid carbon steel, one end in Mother's clawed hand, the other against my hide. Of course, Mother had loved H'ssdar and I, or else she wouldn't have bothered disciplining us. She could have tended to the business, picked a more suitable successor to lead the brood cartel, and shunted us off with stipends for the rest of our lives. She didn't, and had invested her time in us. I'd wounded her deeply when I'd chosen to move here, and the both of us knew it.

But that didn't stop the rod from hurting very, very much.

"Well?" Mother snarled, tapping the business end of the rod against her free palm. In the flickering firelight, I could see it clearly--a little rusted and tarnished, but still very solid.

"I don't know, Mother. I'm telling the truth. I don't know."

For a moment I thought Mother was going to leap over the table and tear at my throat, but her flames died out before they reached the table's surface. "You're lying. You've got to be lying. My own brood lying to me. You were the only one outside the business H'ssdar met of late. She must have told you something of her intentions, H'ssanth. I can live with you choosing to leave Nexus and come to this…place, if it suits you that much, but I have to have your sister back.

"Someone from my brood has to lead the cartel after I'm gone, and if something happened to your sister I'd never forgive myself, and I don't think your father would, either. You don't have to cover up for her, H'ssanth. Please."

It made sense. If something happened to H'ssdar…well…as much as I hated to admit it, I agreed with Mother. The only problem was that H'ssdar hadn't told me anything. She'd lied to me, and by the looks of it, Mother as well. Mother and I might not be on the best of terms, but even she didn't deserve this.

"All right, Mother. I'll tell you what I do know. Just leave Father out of this; he's long dead and burned."

Mother's wings drooped. "So you were lying."

"No, Mother. I don't know where exactly H'ssdar's gone, but I think I can point you in her general direction."

Mother's voice could have melted carbon. "Where, H'ssanth? Where?"

I pointed out of the window to the Bulwark and the dark clouds gathered beyond the colossal metal wall. "There, Mother."

Setting down the rod on the table, Mother turned to her bodyguards. "The lot of you, leave. Fan out around this location. You too, trooper; I don't care if your orders are to protect my offspring or whatever. He and I need to talk in private."

"With your permission?"

I nodded at Sa'norath, and she left. The door shut, and I shuttered the windows.

"About that Green--"

"It's all right, Mother. Ar'idanth's asleep. Besides, he's not part of this, and I can't move him without fear of breaking something again."

Mother's eye shards flashed a brilliant amber, but in the end she shook her head. "All right. Tell me what you know, H'ssanth."

Walking over to my shelves, I rummaged through piles of junk until I found the tin I was looking for. Prising off the lid with my claws, I upended the tin and a small black lump of metal fell out.

"I think she's gone looking for this."

Fingering the small lump of metal, Mother grunted and shook her head. "So, you think she's run off looking for this in a reputedly dangerous place, when there are terrorists lurking about. Terrorists that would see you sister and her convoy as hostages, money, supplies and spare parts."

"That about sums it up. My suspicions were confirmed when I got worried about H'ssdar and called in to the Guild to ask whether the meeting had gone well. Had to call in a favour, but I ascertained that she'd never even booked an appointment with the Guildmaster. Wasn't much I could do about it but hope she turned out all right." I poured out the kettle into the trough; its contents bubbled and steamed. "Water, Mother?"

Mother took the trough and eyed it, but didn't drink. Something twisted in my underbelly.

"Risks have to be taken in business, but this is insane," Mother said at last. "Even if your sister succeeds and comes back with a fortune, I'm thrashing her to within a Length of her life for daring to tell me such a bold lie."

"She lied to us both, Mother."

"And you? Why didn't you tell me once you figured--"

I laughed. "You seem to have forgotten the fact you've threatened to gut me the moment I step into any urban centre, Mother, and it's not as if any old scalebag can activate a communications crystal and get to you. What did you expect me to do? Send a message through H'ssdar? She was my only line of communication with the brood."

"So, you think your sister is closer to you than the one who laid your egg. Fine. Personnel and trackers are on the move from Nexus as we speak; I'm going to find that sister of yours and make sure she never even thinks of lying to me again," Mother spat. "While you might have been an ingrate, selfish and rebellious little whelp, you never told anyone in the brood a lie or half-truth, H'ssanth."

Dipping my hands into the trough I'd poured for myself, I splashed steaming water onto my eyes. It'd been a long day, and if Mother disapproved, she didn't show it. "Very well. Is there anything you want me to do in particular, Mother?"

Mother threw her head back and roared in laughter, slamming one fist against the table so hard I was worried it'd crack. "H'ssanth, H'ssanth. I haven't heard that from you for so long. Well, I'll be taking this--" she snatched up the small black lump of metal-- "for future reference. Your sister might be underequipped, but I'm sure a properly armed expedition could prove profitable, if this thing is as resistant to heat as you say."

"Strong enough to melt tungsten."

"Yes. And H'ssanth, I want you to get out of this wasteland."

"We've already been over this countless times, Mother."

"It's for your own safety this time. Don't think I haven't heard of your recent exploits against the local terrorists, H'ssanth--you've been marked out as a target, enough to warrant protection by the military. That crater just by your lair makes it so disgustingly obvious they want to kill you, and if they can kill you, what will the scalebags think of me, then?"

My claws trembled, but I clenched them tight. Not going to run away. Not from my home. No. I sighed. "I'm not going back, and that's final, Mother. I have a duty to this place that I've made my home--"

"Duty?" Mother screeched, and made some of the more precarious piles tremble at the sound of her voice. "What would you know of duty, you tiny, incorrigible snowflake? You forsake your duty and responsibilities to the brood just to come to this place--and--and--"

The table went down. As fast as coal dust exploding, Mother was on me, her claws digging into the hide of my neck.

Mother's breath reeked mostly of sulphur and brimstone, her unintelligible screeching sending searing blasts of air against my snout.

Just how many stimulants had she consumed? I tried to speak, to tell Mother to stop strangling me, but her grip on the very neck she'd once nuzzled was deathly tight…

Deathly tight…

I did the only thing I could. It was inevitable. Unavoidable. My knuckles collided with Mother's jaw.

Her head snapped back. Teeth flew and rattled on the floor.

Then the bodyguards were in my living quarters, rifles all pointed at me. Amazingly, Ar'idanth seemed to have slept through all of this, his green-scaled form still lying peacefully on the gravel of my bed.

"It's all right," Mother snorted, clutching her jaws; I could see dribbles of green-tinged spit ooze from between them. "It's all right, the lot of you. Leave H'ssanth be. Got somewhat flustered back there; I got a bit flustered just then."

"Mother, I could scent--"

"No. Not now, H'ssanth," Mother said, her eye-shards fading from crimson to amber. "Stay here if you want, and defend it like I did if this wasteland means so much to you. Perhaps you'll learn something in the process, if you survive."

Under the bodyguards' gaze, I caught hold of Mother's hand and helped her up. She managed to stand, albeit shakily. "What are you going to do then, Mother?" Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted one of my distant cousins pick up Mother's teeth and carefully stow them away in a small cylinder.

"I…" Mother's eye-shards flickered a deep blue for the shake of a tail. "I'm going to launch a search for your sister, H'ssanth. She will be found, dead or alive. If anything untoward has happened to her, I will drag you back to Nexus by your wings if need be. One way or another, one of my offspring will succeed me as president of the brood cartel. Are we clear on this, H'ssanth? We both know I only tolerated you coming here because you had a sister."

I ground my jaws.

"If you have the smallest spark of decency or duty in you, H'ssanth, you'd listen to me. Think about it," Mother said with a sigh before she turned to the small army she'd brought with her. "All right, we're done here. Back to the train in loose formation."

One by one, my relatives fell in behind Mother.

"Mother--"

She paused in the doorway. "Yes, H'ssanth?"

"About that metal lump. What do you want with it?"

"It seems like an interesting curiosity. While I don't like what your sister has done, any idiot can see the market potential such a material could have, especially if the source were monopolised. Oh, and one last thing. Clean this filthy lair of yours. It's absolutely disgusting. Good day, H'ssanth."

The door slammed shut. A tin fell from a shelf and rattled on the floor.

Slowly, I folded my aching wings and set about putting right the table and mopping up the spilled water.

"Are they gone for good?"

I looked up. Ar'idanth had levered himself into a sitting position and was gingerly stretching his arms.

"Maybe," I said, wringing the sponge over the sink. "You're feeling better?'

"More or less. You have a strange family, H'ssanth."

Suddenly, my arms felt very, very heavy. "Not as much as you'd think. Red society is…different from that of Greens'."

"I figured that out a long time ago."

"Thought you were sleeping."

Ar'idanth snorted. "With them tramping around like that? I was awake since they were waiting for you in here, H'ssanth. Know how hard it is to stay perfectly still while everything around you's being wrecked? Meditation lessons paid off today."

"Mother's not her usual self. She's been taking stimulants. Hallucinogenic drugs. Her breath was thick with those and more; I've never known Mother to indulge herself that way."

"More than once I thought of getting up and helping you--"

"And end up with all your bones broken and having to stay longer with me? I'll pass."

The door creaked. I whipped my head around, and relaxed when I saw Sa'norath in the doorway.

"I was circling around when I saw them leave," she said. "Are you all right, H'ssanth?"

"I think so. Come on in, have some water to keep yourself awake or something. I'm not sure how this is supposed to go--oh, I've had bodyguards before when living in Nexus, but Mother always made sure I didn't know about them until their services were no longer needed."

"Who's she?" Ar'idanth said, a grin on his jaws. "Your consort?"

It took all my willpower not to crush the can in my hands. "No, Green. She's just a bodyguard Th'rakaz assigned to me. There'll be more of them."

"Good. You'll have a personal harem then, H'ssanth."

I didn't know why, but I laughed along with the druid.