Moordryd woke up on a floor. At first, he wondered why he didn't feel Decepshun behind him, and why the ground wasn't cold and the air didn't smell of dragon chow. Then someone shook his shoulder again, and he found himself in Artha's living room, the gloom of daylight in the window.
"Think you can handle coffee?" Kitt murmured.
"Only one way to find out," he said as softly, taking the offered mug. "Thanks. Did he wake up?"
Kitt glanced at Artha, asleep on the sofa beneath a blanket. Red burns peeked out from underneath the bandages and the faint scent of burn cream lingered in the air.
"A couple times," she said, sitting on the edge of the sofa. "Just long enough for a drink. Good thing he was wearing his armor. Didn't have to scrub sand out of his skin."
"Did Connor say...?"
Kitt shook her head. "He isn't sure. At least a couple days 'till Artha's up and moving around again. And Lance..."
There was no misreading Moordryd's muttered grumble, even if she couldn't hear exactly what he'd said. She shared his feeling.
"He's making Lance do all these dumb exercises, see how the armor responds," she said, "and it's just making that little slag even more cocky than before. 'Ooh, look at me, I can do double backflips now'. And stupid Parm."
Moordryd glanced at her over the edge of his mug. "Hm?"
"Connor's got Parm sparring with Lance."
That made Moordryd sit straight, his eyes tightening. "What? Sparring?"
"More exercises," she sighed.
"Like Egghead knows how to fight," Moordryd grumbled. "I'll bet he's just standing there holding his jack stick while mini-brat flails around at him—"
"Not so loud," Kitt hissed.
Artha turned slightly, wincing even in his sleep. Moordryd waited until the other boy settled again.
"Tell me I'm wrong, though," he whispered.
"Nope," she said, and she flopped down in the other sofa. "I offered to do it instead, but Connor's afraid I can't control the armor yet. Thinks I'd burn Lance up by accident."
Moordryd gave her a look. "Would you? By accident, of course?"
She returned his look, then dramatically rolled her eyes with a handwave.
"Maybe. Just a little."
He gathered his legs under himself, taking the moment to drain the mug, shuddering as the heat pooled in his stomach. He put the empty mug down, stretching so far that his muscles trembled, then yawned again and relaxed.
"And you?" Kitt curled up, folding her arms over the edge of the sofa and resting her head. "Feeling better after napping next to 'stable brat'?"
His eyes narrowed. "I'm used to the floor, thanks."
"Yeah, next to your dragons," she said. There was no sarcasm or any overt tone to her voice, but she smiled behind her hand. "You always sleep next to the ones you like'?"
Neither of them spoke. Moordryd didn't dare look down at Artha again, but he knew he was only making himself more obvious to her. There was no point in denial.
"Does Artha know?" she asked.
"He's oblivious," Moordryd said, his voice hard. "He doesn't even know what he wants."
"What do you want?" she asked. She lifted her head curiously.
He shrugged, intentionally misunderstanding her.
"To get out of this stupid war alive?"
"That's it?" she prodded.
The memory of fear washed over him—being chased by a monstrous dragon rider, once in the desert, once in the city. Men who weren't just warriors but forces of nature controlling technology so ancient that it was almost like magic. Of riding in a frozen city. Of seeing towers collapsing around him. Of Artha trapped in his father's mind control gear.
"It's a war," he muttered, unable to keep from glancing at Artha. "Wars kill stupid heroes."
Would she tell Artha? Moordryd scolded himself. What was there to tell? He'd slept next to stable brat when there had been an empty couch nearby. What of it? He could just say he preferred the floor of a dragon stable at this point.
So why didn't he go sleep by Decepshun then? He growled to himself, then growled a little louder when he saw her look, wordlessly asking the same thing. With a huff, he grabbed his jack stick and stepped past her.
"Where are you going?" she asked over her shoulder.
"Downstairs," he said. "See if Connor wants a real sparring partner for the mini-brat."
If she made a reply, he didn't hear it, moving quickly to the cave and heading down in. Already he caught the sound of one jack stick against another, heard Parmon's little winces and anxious mumbles under Lance's grunts bouncing off the walls.
Connor, seated at the computer screens, glanced up to see who had come. When he spotted Moordryd, he frowned slightly and turned his chair to better face him.
"Is Artha all right?" Connor asked.
"He's fine," Moordryd said, waving him off. "I mean, aside from sleeping off the burns from mini-brat there."
In the center of the room, a fighting circle had been fenced off with barriers rising up out of the floor. Lance stopped spinning his jack stick, breaking off his attack. He didn't speak, worrying the stick in his hands, and Parmon took the opportunity to slip out of the ring.
Moordryd took a moment to study Parmon's armor. Slender and sleek like all the armors, his boots flared out at the knee, providing a solid, sturdy base. Moordryd had no doubt that if Parmon didn't want to be moved, any opponent would find themselves stopped in their tracks and then forced back.
"How's it feel?" Moordryd asked.
"I'm not sure," Parmon said, his voice resonating from his helmet. "I don't feel heavy, but I know it's heavy. I just...don't feel comfortable yet, I suppose."
"It feels like wearing plas-steel skin," Moordryd said with a nod. "You'll get used to it. Just need to get into a couple fights a few times."
He glanced at Lance, who was watching them silently.
"Real fights," he amended.
Parmon visibly winced, raising his hands together in his usual pose, incongruous with his armor. Moordryd would have teased, but he was focused over Parmon's shoulder at Lance as the other booster stiffened, standing straight and planting the end of his stick on the ground.
"I'm a fighter," Lance insisted.
Mordred's snort was all the answer needed.
"Come on," Lance said, jerking his head once toward the ring. "I'll show you I can handle this."
Moordryd glanced at Connor, who hadn't said anything. The older man's frown hadn't gone away. If anything, it had deepened.
"Lance," his father said, "Moordryd is a very different fighter from Parmon. He won't stand there blocking."
Parmon grumbled under his breath. "And letting you hit my fingers, too."
"I've fought him before," Lance argued. "He's not that hard."
Moordryd didn't let his smile show. He just glanced at Connor without any hint of emotion.
"He's ten years old," Connor said in a low voice.
"Tell that to Armeggaddon," Moordryd said just as softly. "Or my father. Or the down-city gangs."
Connor stared at him for a moment, then looked at his son.
"Is the armor..." Moordryd wondered how to even ask the question. He didn't know enough about their armor to begin to understand how they worked.
"It's not doing anything unusual," Connor said, understanding him. "Aside from accelerating his growth in a splitsecond. Otherwise there have been no fluctuations, no surges, nothing."
His sigh showed just how much that didn't reassure him.
"And even if he's more your size," Connor said, "he doesn't understand what a real fight is like."
"...I won't break him," Moordryd said. "He'll walk out of the ring."
Connor gave a long sigh, lowering his head.
Moordryd was already dropping his amulet into his gauntlet, letting the armor form over himself. With the dark wisps still sliding around him, he crossed the floor and entered the ring.
"Cool," Lance said. "And this time maybe I can try using an energy blast or—"
"No!" Connor said, standing at his seat, one hand upraised as if he could grab his son from across the room. "Don't use any energy! There's no way of knowing what could happen!"
"Aww..." Lance crossed his arms, his jack stick folded awkwardly at his side. "I'm sure it'd be okay."
Moordryd frowned, and the glowing eyes of his helm narrowed.
Without warning, he swung his stick in an arc, striking the back of Lance's knees to send him backward. Lance landed on the floor hard enough to knock the wind out of him.
"Come on, mini-brat." Moordryd paced around him like an animal circling its prey. "I thought you were gonna give me a real fight."
"No fair," Lance groaned, rolling onto his front, slowly coming back to his feet. "We didn't start."
"We're both in the ring, ain't we?" Moordryd made a show of tapping his foot impatiently. "You're lucky I didn't start with your head!"
The last word was punctuated with a yell as Moordryd aimed his stick in a easily dodged thrust toward Lance's helmet. Lance threw himself completely over to one side to avoid it, then yelped as Moordryd followed with another swing that connected with his shoulder.
Parmon stood beside Connor, wincing every time Moordryd struck and sent Lance to the ground or scrambling out of reach. The few times that Lance managed to swing, Moordryd deflected it so that Lance was left wide open for a hit to his middle, another hit on his legs.
"Are you sure you want to let them keep going?" Parmon whispered.
"Lance needs to learn the difference between being a kid and a combatant," Connor said. "That he can't even defend himself yet. He's faced Moordryd enough times that...maybe he'll finally listen."
"And what about the gauntlet?" Parmon asked. "The armor?"
Connor didn't answer. He opened his mouth once, about to reply, then cut himself with a shake of his head.
A cry startled them back to the fight. Moordryd had one foot planted firmly on Lance's chest, holding him in place, and the tip of his stick rested lightly on Lance's throat.
"Quit squirming," Moordryd warned him. "Or you're gonna find yourself crawling out of this ring."
Lance reached out for his own stick one more time, straining his fingers and brushing the end of it...and then Moordryd smacked it away and whirled the stick around back to Lance's throat for good measure.
"Now do you get it?" Moordryd hissed. "You didn't even last a minute with me. How're you gonna last against Armeggaddon?"
Lance put his hands on the end of Moordryd's stick, relieving some of the pressure, and he kicked his heel into the floor out of frustration. With a long gasp, he shuddered and looked up at Moordryd. His eyes narrowed.
"Then teach me how."
Moordryd blinked, startled at how that hadn't been a request.
Lance was finally able to push him off, scrambling back so he could stand, leaning against the ring. He panted for breath, shoulders heaving, but he met Moordryd's stare steadily.
"Then teach me," Lance demanded again.
Not sure what to do, Moordryd looked at Connor.
"We don't even know if the armor is stable," Connor said. "And regardless of how you look—"
Lance wasn't listening. He brought his gauntlet up and yanked out the amulet.
Moordryd's helmet darkened protectively as the room filled with light. He turned, feeling the crackle of energy along his left side, and as the voltage grew in intensity, he found himself being pushed out of the ring. He stumbled and felt himself still sliding—his boots couldn't get a grip on the floor—he was picking up speed as he was shoved harder toward the stone wall—
An arm caught him, guiding him to the floor where the pressure suddenly stopped. Moordryd looked up and found Connor beside him, both of them behind Parmon. The power booster had brought up a dark green shield, deflecting the energy waves so that the blue crackle of lightning flowed around them.
"We have to reach Lance!" Connor yelled over the sound of sparks.
"It's taking all I have to hold this," Parmon said, his arms up in a block over his face. "If I try to move, we'll go crashing into the—"
The pressure stopped so suddenly that Parmon flailed for a moment, tottering forward. Behind them, the computer screens crackled and flickered, sparking at the edges and showing error screens. Parmon disengaged the struts that had come from his boots and lodged into the ground, letting him walk again.
Connor came around Parmon, running for the ring. Parmon and Moordryd followed at his heels, stopping as Connor stood beside his son. A moment passed before Moordryd realized that Lance was still wearing the energy gauntlet.
Moordryd let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding.
Lance was out of the armor and still looked like a teenager. He coughed a few times, shivering as the last bits of electricity coursed over his skin.
"There," he muttered, yanking on the gauntlet. "Will you teach me if the armor's off?"
He jerked at it once, then twice. Then pulled with all his might.
The gauntlet refused to budge.
By his boots, the amulet glittered with its own energy. Connor bent and swept it up, palming it in his fist.
"Maybe he can still shrink," Moordryd said. "If that thing ever comes off of him."
"He wouldn't 'shrink',' Parmon said, indignant at his word choice. "He would decelerate his aging, if that's even possible. And that isn't even scraping the surface of possibilities here. He could de-age back to a zygote, he could age until he crumbled to dust, his bones and organs could become unstable and grow right through his musculature..."
As Parmon rattled off the list, Lance stared at the ground as if he couldn't hear. Moordryd heaved a long sigh. He knew that look. That was someone staring into the distance, pretending that nothing else mattered except their goal and trying to hide the fear.
"Enough, Parm." Connor slid the amulet away for safekeeping. "I refuse to lose hope. I'll just have to keep running diagnostics on the gear and see if there's something I'm missing. As for Lance..."
Connor glanced at his son again. "Stay here. You're too volatile to let out of the safety of the cave. If you released another burst like that, someone could be seriously hurt."
Lance ground his teeth. "Just say it. You just want to take off the gauntlet. You just want me to be a kid."
"You are a kid," Connor said. "That you look different doesn't change that."
"Look around you!" Connor finally snapped, waving his arm at the destroyed wiring and frayed cables. "I'm going to have to spend hours fixing this instead of monitoring for Armeggaddon or Word or... Your brother is hurt, Moordryd is still healing, and Kitt and Parm could have been seriously injured if their armor had been corrupted at all. You've been acting like a spoiled brat this entire time and you want us to think that you're somehow not a child?"
Connor bit off whatever else he was going to say and instead returned to the equipment, beginning repairs. Parmon sighed and released his own armor, sliding his amulet inside his pocket computer for safekeeping and going to help Connor.
Moordryd finally released his armor, vowing that next time he wouldn't let Lance's energy burst take him by surprise. And wondering if it would matter. Uncontrolled, that burst had still sent him tumbling despite being fully armored.
"Next time I'll find Egghead and hide behind him," he told himself.
As he headed for the door, Lance's mutter followed him.
"Will you teach me?"
Moordryd sighed and shoved his hands in his pockets. He glanced over his shoulder.
"I think you've pushed your father as far as he'll go today," he said. "Quit acting like a brat for awhile, get him so he's not scared to death that you're gonna die, and then we'll talk."
Lance's eyes widened. "He thinks I'm gonna die?"
"Well, to be fair," Moordryd grinned without humor, "he thinks we all might die. He's trying to keep us from being ripped apart or crushed or burned to a crisp. If you'd listen to him half a moment, you'd see that."
The pout on Lance's face didn't match his older features. His thoughts warred with the understanding that his father cared and the deep frustration that his father didn't have any faith in him. And the fact that Parmon and Kitt and Artha and Moordryd all agreed with him made Lance want to break something.
"Like you listen to your father?" Lance asked.
Moordry's grin faded to nothing. The muscle in his jaw tightened.
"If I listened to my father," he said lowly, "you'd be dead right now. And if my father catches me, he's going to lock me in the tower and beat me until I can't move." He looked away from Lance, sick of him and his voice and attitude and questions that hit too close to the mark.
"Your dad gives a damn about you. Sorry I'm not all that sympathetic."
When Moordryd reached the top of the stairs, he paused just long enough to look out at the stables. He spotted Kitt putting out feed and water. The security grid was already humming overhead. In no mood for conversation, he went and sat down by Artha again.
"Hurry and wake up," he muttered. "It feels like I'm alone in here."
The blanket rustled.
"Oh, I don't know," came the soft murmur beside him. "'Least I got you in here 'stead of the stables."
The familiar voice was all it took to clear Moordryd's bad mood. As he turned, however, he saw the look of Artha's face. Even under the simple bandage, his expression was clear. Artha's eyes seemed to see someone completely different as he looked at Moordryd.
Kitt had told.
Artha looked at him with...pity. It had to be. And Moordryd felt the last bits of firm ground crumbling out from under him.