The Dragon Prince: Reflections
Written by Michal Schick
Illustrated by Caleb Thomas & Emily Marzonie
Claudia laid her hand on her father’s brow, feeling heat beneath her palm. “Dad?” she repeated, louder. “Come on, wake up!”
Viren’s eyelids fluttered and Claudia’s heart leapt in relief—but her father only gave a wordless moan, and returned to his uneasy sleep.
Biting her lip, she sat back on her heels and scanned the secluded grove. Umber Tor reared like a fang above the trees, still uncomfortably close. If the mountain was near, then so were Callum, Ezran, and their elf.
Claudia held her breath, listening. She heard the rustle of woodland life and the homunculus snoring in soft, gooey rumbles where it had curled up to sleep near the treeline, but nothing more. They hadn’t been followed. It should’ve been peaceful, but the quiet didn’t make her feel any better; missing from the quiet was her father’s calm breathing, his low, measured voice…
“Hey, love.” Terry knelt down beside her and began to rub her shoulders. “Your dad’s still asleep, huh?”
“Yeah,” she said, “It’s so strange. He was fine just a few minutes ago.”
“He does look a bit wilted, but that’s usually nothing a good watering won’t fix!” Terry gestured toward a small trail leading out of the grove. “I think I saw a pond over that way.”
Claudia squeezed Terry’s hand, his four fingers cool as earth after the rain. “I don’t want to leave him.”
“I’ll be right here with your dad the whole time,” Terry assured her. “The stroll will clear your head, and while you’re gone, I’ll sing my favorite song from when I was a sapling.”
Claudia couldn’t help but smile. “I’m sure that will help,” she said.
“Oh, maybe!” Terry said brightly. “But mostly, the song’s to keep my spirits up.”
Terry’s voice followed Claudia through the woods as she picked her way along the scrubby path. “Get mud beneath your fingernails,” he sang, “Ooze along with slugs and snails! Know your roots and know yourself…”
The song faded on the last line—“For you are an Earthblood elf!”—as Claudia pushed past a thicket of trees. She found herself by a small pond edged with sweet-smelling fronds. Shafts of sunlight pierced its surface, highlighting smooth stones along the bottom. Claudia knelt on the bank, cupped her hands in the still water, and splashed her face, sighing as the dust of Umber Tor lifted away.
It was good to feel clean again.
Claudia’s reflection wavered below her in the water. Studying it, she frowned: her face was narrower than she remembered, paler against the sweeps of white hair. Even her eyes looked older somehow, as though the work of the last two years had aged something deep within her, beyond the touch of time.
But of course it had aged her. It had been dark work—
“Stop it,” she told herself firmly. She splashed away her reflection—and heard an echoing splash from across the pond. Claudia looked up, startled.
The homunculus watched her from across the water. Claudia blinked in surprise—she didn’t realize she’d been followed from the campsite—and the creature blinked back. She tilted her head, and sure enough, the homunculus did the same.
“Hmm.” Claudia raised an eyebrow. Once more, she dipped her cupped hands into the pond and lifted them to her face. The homunculus did the same, or tried to—but all the water streamed through the gaps in its long fingers. The being squawked and smacked the pond in annoyance.
Claudia sighed. “Come here. You’re our only link to Aaravos, you can’t just go goo-ing off and getting lost in the woods.”
“Larshgfarg!!!” the homunculus agreed. It paddled over to her side of the pond and plopped down across from her, legs crossed, mirroring her pose.
She clapped. So did the homunculus.
She yawned. It copied her.
Claudia considered picking her nose, but decided that she didn’t need to teach the creature that particular trick. She settled for planting her finger on the tip of her nose and giving it a tap. The creature, of course, did the same.
“Well?” she said. “This is what I do when I get an idea, and I’m all out. You’re up, Sparklepuff.”
The homunculus blinked slowly—and then leapt into the air with an eager squawk. It hopped a few paces down the shoreline and began to rake its long fingers through the damp ground, as though it had lost something in the mud.
“That’s not helpful,” Claudia chided. “Stop.”
The homunculus ignored her. Long furrows appeared in the silt, deep lines through the fraying fabric of her patience.
“So, you’ll copy me, but you won’t listen to me,” she muttered. “Why are you even here? What does Aaravos want us to do with you? We’re not even following you any more—you’re just following us!”
Claudia leaned forward, shaking the homunculus’s bony shoulder hard—harder than she’d meant to. Its wings fluttered and it whined in surprise, but looked up and met her eyes.
Something in its gaze made her breath catch. There was something wide and curious there, simple and yet almost familiar, almost… knowing.
“Wait,” Claudia said. “Maybe that’s it—maybe you know how to help my dad again. Or maybe…”
It could work. She had to try.
She inhaled slowly and said, “I want to talk to Aaravos.”
The homunculus tilted its head, as though considering her request. Something flickered behind its lamplike eyes—like someone passing in front of a flame—and Claudia realized that the air in her lungs was growing stale.
The voice in her ear throughout everything; two years of missed steps and missed meals, cold campfires, and fitful sleep. Claudia hadn’t known how badly she’d wanted to hear it again.
“The being that emerges from the chrysalis will guide you to one who has answers.” That was the last thing Aaravos had said to her.
It wasn’t much of a goodbye.
She exhaled. The homunculus remained silent.
“Come on,” Claudia whispered. Her nails dug into the meat of her palms. “Talk to me.”
She leaned closer, searching the slack purple face. It blinked slowly, wisely, and she felt a painful stab of hope. “That’s right,” she told it. “Aaravos. Startouch elf, voice like a–”
The homunculus swept its hands out of the mud, spattering Claudia’s face and tunic.
Grimacing, she wiped the filth from her eyes to see the homunculus holding out a clot of wet, squirming earth. Burbling happily, it offered her the mess like it was the prize of its many labors. Worms dangled helplessly in the air, many broken apart by the being’s sudden movement, their blunt ends wriggling in confusion.
Claudia stared flatly at her companion. “I guess that’s a no from Aaravos.” She knocked away the teeming clump, ignored the homunculus’s distressed chirp, and took another deep breath.
“My dad will be okay,” Claudia announced—to the trees, to the water, to the homunculus pawing again at the ground. “He needs rest. He’ll be better in the morning.”
She uncorked her flask and plunged it into the pond. Bubbles sprouted from the lip, like someone drowning.
But he won’t be better in the morning.
It was her own voice.
It will be just like before, only this time, you won’t be able to fix him…
Claudia squeezed her eyes shut. Beside her, the homunculus was squawking again as a warm, sunlit breeze rolled across the water and kissed her cheeks, but neither mattered to her. There was only the grim silence of a battle’s end, the cold wind among the rubble at the base of the Stormspire, and that… familiar, broken body.
Her hands itched with the horrible lightness of each scattered piece, her feet ached as she walked and walked and walked to gather her father back together… And then the voice, the thread she had caught and clung to and used to haul herself out of the darkness.
“Do not fear,” the Startouch elf had said. “You are a dark mage, powerful and potent. With my help, there is nothing you cannot fix. Not even death.”
Claudia breathed in pine and earth, and the faint tang of the water.
It’s up to me again, she thought. It’s always up to me.
She opened her eyes and looked at the homunculus reflected next to her in the pond. Its arms and legs were caked with mud, and dark spatters flecked its little face. The creature had tucked in its wings, looking almost contrite.
“Aaravos helped me once,” Claudia told the homunculus. “But now there’s just… you.”
The homunculus’s reflection only blinked.
“So is that it?” she asked. “Aaravos left me too, huh? Like dad and Soren, and my mo—”
Claudia’s throat closed around the word.
Lissa had left her years ago, but the space she had owned in Claudia’s heart remained. It was a dark place now, hard and hateful, its edges raw as a wound that had forgotten to heal.
And it wasn’t empty. That space held familiar rooms turned cold and strange, defined by division. Half of the books were gone from the shelves, bare stone gaped where portraits once had hung, and wire-rimmed spectacles vanished from the bedside table. Whatever Lissa had seen in the family left behind, she had taken it with her to Del Bar.
But her shadow still painted the walls of that space; her presence still lingered, just like her violet perfume.
In that space, too, was the memory of pain: in Claudia’s trembling legs, still almost too small to climb the battlement steps; in her lungs, tight and burning as she pushed herself to the highest point of the castle. Even her nose was raw from scraping against the stone as she stood on her toes to watch the tiny figure riding away on a dark horse.
Away and away and away, far beyond Claudia’s reach…
The reflection in the pond rippled, broken by the soft splash of tears.
From beside her came an almost sympathetic purr. Surprised, Claudia looked up to see the homunculus. Its wings caught the sun, bathing it in a soft halo of lavender light. Its eyes glowed gold and luminous, almost warm, almost… patient.
Claudia sniffled, and wiped her eyes on her sleeve.
“Hey,” she said, extending a finger to stroke the creature’s mottled face. “You’re still here. Even though I’m…” She gestured at herself, to something beyond the soil-soaked boots and tearstained face: a total mess.
“You know, for a gooey, screetchy Sparklepuff, you’re not such bad company.”
The homunculus seemed to appreciate the compliment. “Flaarghsush!” it said, and extended its hand to Claudia. Two glistening trails of slime led to a pair of snails inching slowly across its muddy palm.
“Ohhh,” Claudia said, “Is this what you wanted to show me?” She plucked one snail from the homunculus’s hand, studying it closely. Flashes of jewel-bright shell glinted beneath a crust of dark earth. “Thanks. It’s pretty.”
The homunculus stuck out its long tongue, wings flaring happily. The second snail squirmed across the top of its hand, and the being tapped it lightly with one finger, as though it was a pet.
Claudia narrowed her eyes at her snail, cool and slimy on her skin. The trail it left, she saw, was faintly iridescent. “Huh…” she said. “I wonder if…”
She turned back to the water, gazing straight down into her reflection. The sallow skin, the stolen time behind her eyes…
“Enihs ruoy em dnel,” she whispered, and crushed the snail in her fingers.
A puff of purple smoke leaked from her fist. Claudia closed her eyes as the rush of the spell settled over her, smelling violets.
A moment later, she blinked into the pond; her reflection beamed up at her. Her eyes brighter, her face fuller, more color in her cheeks. Small changes, but still—
There I am, she thought.
I’m not a mess. I’m a dark mage. And I’m stronger than almost anyone knows.
Maybe her mother hadn’t seen that strength. Maybe Soren had chosen to ignore it. But Aaravos had known—and her father did, too.
The homunculus was quiet as Claudia turned back to the forest path. For a moment, she thought she saw reproach in its gaze, or perhaps even a glaze of fear; but no, it was only that same benign blankness. “Let’s go,” Claudia told the creature. “I can fix this. I can fix anything.”
She reached for its hand—and flinched. The remains of the second snail coated the homunculus’s palm, a stain of crushed flesh flecked with colorful shards of shell. The being seemed unperturbed. It gazed up at her, eyes bright and luminous.
Like a helpless thing, Claudia thought.
Like a child.
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