4. Pretty, Pretty Butterflies

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Summer heat radiated off Morg's scales as the rising air currents buoyed him eastward. It was his first far-venture since his awakening, and it felt glorious. The sun was a smoldering diamond in a bottomless sky. The ground was lumpy and mottled as a toad's back, its patterns unfamiliar after long-sleep. He took his bearings from the timeless mountains, the bones of the earth.

It had taken all winter and most of the spring to recoup his strength and restore his lair to a semblance of its former glory. Restoration complete, he sallied forth to indulge in his favorite pastimes: chasing big-horned caribou across the uplands, flushing snowy eagles from their aeries, and diving for silver-backed fish in the canyons. But he tired of these diversions. As the sun cycles passed, his thoughts were inexorably drawn back to the empty spaces in his lair. It was time to start hunting his real prey—manling.

A peculiar kind of hairless ape, manlings came in several varieties, most of them useless. The exception was the manling soldier, whose ornate carapace made it the perfect collector's item. Harvesting one undamaged was no mean feat, however. Armed with sundry stingers, barbs and claws, soldiers could become quite feisty when provoked, but he couldn't just squeeze or pummel them as their delicate shells were easily scratched and dented. Flame left permanent scorch marks and must also be avoided. Soldiers were quite rare, seldom venturing far from their stone hives across the plains. Even when they did, they usually clumped together in groups, making precision work all but impossible.

Through much trial and mutilating error, Morg gradually perfected his methods. He first needed to locate one of the smaller colonies that sprang up like anthills during a long-sleep. Then he would cause a fiery ruckus to get their attention and draw the soldiers away from their hives. Finally—and this part was key—he would capture a young breeder to lure them out into the open one or two at a time where they could be easily picked off.

The sun was dipping toward the horizon when he caught sight of several scraggly gray wisps rising from the ground like steam off a dung heap. At last, a manling colony.

* * * * *

The door to the bakery swung open, and two girls entered with a loud rustling of skirts. The way they floated up to the coin table reminded Berla of a pair of dead butterflies floating on a pond.

Krystal and Miramelle were no strangers to Berla. They had been part of the town welcoming committee—if that's what one could call the heckling pack of children that swarmed around the rickety merchant wagon Berla and her grammy rode in on. Berla's grammy, who could always find a bright side, spoke encouragingly into her ear, "Lookee, Berla dear, at all the other little boys and girls for you to play with. You're going to love it here."

Her grammy had been right, strictly speaking. There was no shortage of children her age, and Berla quickly fell in love with the little town on the edge of nowhere. In contrast to the crowded, hard-cobbled streets of Alvaron, the woods around their cottage were full of wonders: birds with emerald-banded wings, speckle-backed spiders, checkered snakes and lizards with fanned necks that changed colors before her eyes.

But Berla's bungling attempts to make friends brought her only shame and disappointment. Apart from Little Marcus, the boys horrified her, the way they were always squishing, plucking and stabbing things. One time they snuck up on her while she was feeding worms to a fledgling sparrow that had fallen from its nest. Two boys held her down while the others took turns tossing it into the air, shouting at it to fly away. When the fledgling failed to oblige, they smashed it against a tree.

The girls were cruel in their own way. If she dared approach their tight-knit group, they would scatter like doves, but if she tried to avoid them, they would circle like wolves. "Berla. Berla. You're so slow—" Wherever there was such a pack of girls to be found, there were Krystal and Miramelle, giggling, pointing and calling names.

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