He was still too valuable for that. That was why she had buried the bodies, the toxic growths upon them not likely to deter the young drake from sampling the bodies. He was untied from the harness, dropped to the ground a moment later with only enough care to ensure his bound wings would not take the brunt of the landing. He hit the ground with a muffled squeak, the fall pausing his constant flailing for a brief moment. Haix gladly took that reprieve from the young drake’s endless energy, pulling free the knots that bound his legs and wings. In the case of the former, she doubted his nails would be able to even tear through Stalker’s hide. And as for his wings, she was certain the hatchling would not be able to gain enough height to escape the pit on his own.
The crossbreed would have no such problem if it decided to leave, and Haix waggled the flashlight in one hand, catching sight of the crossbreed kneading on the sack of supplies. The other hand slipped off the last of the leather bindings on the hatchling. With a shrill hiss, the hatchling reared, then promptly collapsed on his numb limbs. 64
The sarane hatchling flopped across the ground, his limbs moving as he directed them, but the joints refusing to bend or so much as twitch. His jaws felt as if they were being gnawed by a pack of similar hatchings as he bit at the air, squeaking once as he ineffectively dragged his legs in grand sweeping motions that did little more than brush away the bits of gravel he lay upon. His wings proved even less useful, the lack of sensation as he tried to flap them enough to make him try to crane his head towards his back. The wings did move, though much like his legs, then what felt like a swarm of insects began crawling down his limbs. He could see nothing of the bugs he felt, the meager amount of light reflected by the walls not enough for him to see so much as his claws. Then the insects began to sting and bite, the pain increasing as he flailed more wildly, a strangled squeak of pain enough to draw the attention of the light. While it was not the strongest, and the light vanished a heartbeat later, he had failed to make out what was hurting him.
Stalker paid no attention to the sarane, instead staring longingly at the sack of supplies Haix had brought. 65
The young drake paused in his struggles to draw a deep breath, and the pain lessened. Hopeful, he tried to stand again only for the pain to return in nearly full force. This time however he was able to get his legs under himself, the joints stinging as they gradually bent and the limbs flexed. His front legs held enough strength to allow him to push the upper part of his body up while his rear legs scrabbled in the dirt, trying to catch on something. The pain in his front half gradually faded as he gained better control over his rear legs, until he finally was able to stand, albeit with the stick limbs quivering as if he was in a gale.
Haix grabbed a handful of gravel and began to rub it against the shovel, polishing away any bit of putrid ichor or yellowish dust she found. When one spot had been cleaned to her satisfaction, the stained and considerably smaller amount of small rocks was dumped to the floor and a new handful was scooped up to clean another spot. The crossbreed would watch her, darting forward to inspect the discarded sand only to be chastised with a snarl and return to its original spot. 66
When the shovel was at last free of any obvious stains, Haix slid it and the pickaxe back into the sack, their metal heads protruding from the mouth. A gurgling sound came from Stalker as she tightened the mouth of the sack, causing her to pause and give it an amused glance. She asked it a question, one that it could not have responded to even had it understood the words, and she once again loosened the mouth of the sack. Digging around inside, she pulled free a few small parcels, alternating them as she weighed them in her hands, then nodding to herself before shoving a few of them back into the bag. Calling Stalker over as she unwrapped the first parcel, the crossbreed had just reached her as she tossed the mess of waxy meat cubes a few feet away from the nearest spot of used gravel. It lunged after the meat, wings twitching as if it thought flying a feet feet would get it there even faster.
Unwrapping a parcel for herself, this one comprised of dried fish and some green plants she knew would fill the stomach without killing her, she flicked the flashlight’s beam across the pit to find the sarane. 67
The little false dragon had dragged himself from where she had left him, the ropes that had bound him looking like a long snake that had just finished the last of its dying spasms. The beam caught the drake a few seconds later, drawing a squeak from the sarane as flinched away from the bright light, something small and brown gripped tightly in his jaws. Keeping him trapped in the light as he darted one way, then another, she tried to make out what it was that he held so tightly. Approaching him caused the drake to rear up, this time successfully staying on his hind legs with the assistance of his frantically flapping wings, his jaws opening, dropping the brown thing, to hiss-squeak at her in a threat that might have been more amusing if she did not know the drake was going to try to kill her when it grew larger. He lunged for her as she ignored his warnings to grab the scrap of leather he had been chewing on, his jaws clicking shut as she backhanded him across the face.
Stalker, how had been too busy pecking at its food to pay attention to the sarane or lizard, looked up briefly as Haix barked out something, then returned to its food after realizing it was not the one being reprimanded. 68 ((Stalker-26.0 Gala-3.0))
The hit had been enough to send the sarane scurrying back a few feet, the force of the hit making him shake his head in an attempt to clear it. Haix held the slobber covered leather between two fingers, running a thumb over the small tears the sarane had already managed to make in it. It was not unexpected that the sarane’s teeth would be sharp, the speaking box having announced a while back that sarane were more than capable of hunting within their first few hours out of the egg.
She was lost in thought as the sarane hiss-squeaked, wings held to their fullest extent to make him appear larger in a display she barely noticed as she considered the way soft-skins had chosen to name his species. A bit weird to name the bad tempered pit beasts after those things, but amusing nonetheless. And when he was fully grown and broken, she could claim without a hint of a lie in her words that she owned a dragon.
Stalker of course was paying no heed to either the sarane itself or the words used to describe it, burying its beak in the gravel at random points in hopes of pulling up another treat. 69
She chuckled at the thought, and the sarane reacted as if she had just signaled that she was going to try to kill him. Still hiss-squeaking in what he thought of as a particularly intimidating manner, the young drake sped toward her with his jaws open and ready to take a chunk of her leg. Haix, being rather partial to keeping her body intact at the moment, had just enough time to hop one step to the side. The hatchling hit the ground in a splash of gravel, twisting and flapping in confusion as he tried to turn to face Haix once more. With a hiss-barked warning, Haix twisted her own body as the drake bunched up his legs and leapt, her foot rising to meet him.
He went flopping through the air, a mess of flailing limbs as his graws sought something to hold onto and his wings flapping ineffectually. He hit the ground, barely avoiding his wings snapping like sticks against the stone surface and slid a few feet until his momentum finally died. Haix felt silly for bracing herself for a second charge, slowly moving out of her hunched-over crouch as the sarane blinked stupidly. It made no sound to attract the attention of the crossbreed that was still rooting through the dirt only a few feet away. 70
The hatchling could not see Stalker, not with the light of the flashlight aimed so his eyes were little more than slits against the light. Nor did he hear the shuffling sounds as the crossbreed moved closer to where he lay glaring at the beam of light. He moved slowly all the same, never looking away from the light as if it were the eye of some great beast, head bobbing side to side. His wings were opened, given an experimental flap that caused the still unseen crossbreed to pause, and that pause was long enough for Haix to notice the flashy colors of its hide, the sparkling purple of its eyes. She was just calling out to it, forming the word that made up its name, when the hatchling decided to charge her.
He did not make it very far.
The hatchling squealed like a bwee as the weight of the crossbreed smashed into his back, its nubby fingers curling around his throat and a leg, digging its blunt claws into the soft scales. He drew his wings close to his sides as the weight of the crossbreed slammed him into the ground, its own wings flapping for balance and its head shot out at the back of the hatchlings neck. 71
Haix screeched at the crossbreed, demanding it to stop. The creature did, pausing with its open mouth less than a few inches from its intended target. Haix stormed over to them, yelling at both at the sarane, who had began to struggle in hopes of throwing off the thing on his back, and the crossbreed, who had taken the struggles of the sarane to mean it should try nipping at the dangerous creature once more before Haix reached them. The commands were ignored completely by the struggling hatchling, but the crossbreed had yet to poison the sarane. It stood with its two rear paws on the ground, straddling the sarane and pinning his wings. One clawed hand had kept its grip on the throat of the hatchling and the last paw had joined it, jaws close to the throat but the crossbreed appearing to be fine with strangling the sarane instead.
When it did not flee at her approach, and the young drake’s struggles were growing weaker as his head rolled and his eyes hung half open, Haix grabbed Stalker by one of his hind legs and yanked. It let go of the sarane, its own panicked flailing mirroring that of the sarane as it was dragged away. 72
Stalker was not sentient. It was not crafted with the intelligence to learn a language any more than it had been made with the ability to speak in said language. Neither had it been made with the instinctive ability to know what emotions others displayed. Despite that, the crossbreed had no trouble realizing that Haix was annoyed with it, that defending her from the winged lizard had not been met with praise and treats but with the painful twist and jerk of its leg as it was dragged off of the sarane. The only thing it felt it had done right was when it had instinctively released its grip to face the new threat, and had just enough of its wits left to keep itself from striking out at Haix.
It was released yards away from where the sarane lay, the young drake gasping where he lay. Haix snarled for it to stay in place and it did, cringing as though she had slapped it. She glared as it wilted in front of her but it did not move otherwise. With it thoroughly cowed, she went back to where the sarane was slowly getting to his feet, gazing blankly at the dropped flashlight. 73 ((Stalker-27.0 Gala-4.0))
Haix called out to the hatchling, and the young drake blinked and turned his head to look at Haix with the same wide-eyed blank stare he had been favoring the flashlight. Concerned, Haix hissed at him, opening and closing her jaws in an exaggerated chewing motion while raising her hands up as if she was going to strike. The pose made her feel ridiculous, but the mimed threat was enough to wake the sarane out of whatever daze he had been in. He stretched out his neck towards her and hissed, pulling the rest of his body into a crouch to face her. The two of them held their respective aggressive stances for only a few seconds before Haix sighed and relaxed, taking a step towards the sarane. The young drake did not throw himself at her as he had done before, but kept up his shrill hiss-squeak as he took one step back.
So she took another, crouching to snag the flashlight, and continued slowly walking over to the hissing hatchling, and he kept scooting back as he tried to keep the distance between them. Unable to look behind her and check that Stalker was indeed staying still without risking the hatchling deciding to attack and risk provoking Stalker, she called out for Stalker to do its clicking thing, and the crossbreed gladly obliged. 74
Under the earth, within the pit with uneven surfaces all around her, there was no easy way to know where most sounds came from. The rattling clicks that came from the crossbreed clearly came from somewhere close to directly behind her, so she repeated the order for it to stay in place. The hatchling understood none of this, wincing as she had clicked her tongue and spoke the other commands. He held his ground until she began her advance once more, this time his retreat only ending once his rear was pressed firmly against the wall. Haix, much to the hissing hatchling’s surprise, stopped too.
Gripping the flashlight in her mouth was uncomfortable, her jaws stretching far beyond what she normally asked of it before gripping the plastic cylinder between her teeth. It jutted out from the side of her mouth, and she turned her head so the light shone on the hatchling and she could still watch it with one eye. Her hands were put to the use of slowly unwrapping one of the parcels, the salted meat looking as cracked and rough as the stone the hatchling was pressed against. With that done, the flashlight was removed from her mouth, jaws aching slightly until she yawned then snapped them shut a few times. 75
None of the snapping or yawning would have greatly reassured the hatchling, but he could not make out what Haix was doing behind the glare of the flashlight. His hisses began to crack and falter, his throat beginning to hurt from all the noises he had been making. Then the piece of salted meat flew out of the darkness and hit him in the face. This was the final straw. With one final squeak, the shrill sound cracking as it rose in pitch, he charged the light and the lizard.
There was a flurry of motion just beyond his site, and he snapped wildly, only to feel something hard and hot slam his head into the ground. Tired, thirsty, and hurting, the little sarane’s struggles were nothing that even a soft-skinned child could not have handled. He was still fighting when the thing that had flown at him was pressed to his mouth. He bit savagely at it, finding it hard to rip through and the salt making his mouth even dryer. The bit of meat he had ripped off only served to let him know that he was starving too, and he tore at the meat. The clicks that came from the dark were ignored, as well as the feeling of something touching his back. 76
Haix held the young sarane down as it ate, stroking his back as she spoke softly to him. On occasion, she would call out to Stalker, reminding the crossbreed to stay where it was, but she kept the soft tones as to not surprise the sarane further. She wanted him to calm down just enough so that he would roam around the pit instead of constantly snapping at her, to see if he found any point of escape that she might need to block. And, naturally, she needed him to be less inclined to kill her when the day came to break him.
She had heard of previous breakings, attended a few when the pit allowed onlookers to watch the soft-skins ride their blood-crazed drakes. Most soft-skins wore some sort of metal shell, and she had seen the strength-enhancing jewelry wrapped around wrists or dangling from throats. It was rare that any of them ever failed a breaking, herself having never seen a single one where the soft-skin could not stagger away on their own two legs. She did not intend to fail her first. She had armor prepared, though she lacked the tack and much of the magic some of the soft-skins had used as a crutch. 77
That the labs had put such a trick into one of their crafted species, that one had to ride it into exhaustion before it would be obedient was refreshing. She had already faced the claws of a sarane and lived, though that was in part due to the glancing nature of the strike and the cursed ones that had taken what blood she lost in payment for ridding her of those scars. And keeping her alive, but that possibility was not one she would happily admit, even as cursed as she now knew herself to be. The next time she faced a sarane, she would be prepared for the battle. Or the ride, assuming she managed to remain on this one’s back until he fell.
For now, the little drake could not have thrown her off even had he been at full strength. She pinned him just tightly enough to be sure he would not twist and strike at her, and loosely enough so he could continue eating the dried meat she had pushed closed to his jaws. Once he had eaten it, something she was not sure how long it would take, then she would see if he had calmed down. Perhaps he might even have been broken early, an idea that she was not particularly fond of. 78 ((Stalker-28.0 Gala-5.0))