Crystal remembered when the hydra was the single most feared monster to roam the Earth. If it hadn’t been for Iolaus giving Heracles the bright idea to sear the stump shut before more heads grew, they probably would have retained that title.
What bothered Crystal was that it put people in the mindset of “oh, fighting a hydra is easy, you just cut the head off and cauterize it shut.”
Because severing one head of a creature with a dozen heads, searing it shut before it could grow two more heads, and doing so while evading the other heads, all of which were still trying to bite you, was no more difficult than walking the dog.
If it’s so bloody easy, I’d like to see you try it. Crystal rolled along the ground as the Hydra lunged at her, each mouth snapping shut mere inches behind her as she dove. It was down three heads, the stumps waving blindly in the air, but that left Crystal with nine to go – and Moloch had just beaten Uriel.
We’re missing something, Crystal thought, sliding under the Hydra’s blow to shove her sword up into its gut. The hydra screeched in pain and the mouths flew at her. She grunted as she blocked one of the heads with her sword, headed to white-hot with a simple twist. The head hissed and retreated before it could become a killing blow. How the hell did Moloch beat Uriel?
It didn’t matter right now. What mattered was that Moloch was advancing on Ryan and Isabel, and Crystal still didn’t know if Ryan could come back to life. Isabel definitely won’t, Crystal thought, and can’t gamble on Ryan.
Of course, that had to take a secondary role to the massive Hydra that was currently trying to reach around its bulk to bite at Crystal.
She dove out of the way of another head that snapped down in the space she had just occupied. This bite actually managed to catch her shirt, tearing off a chunk of the sleeve. Okay, focus, she chided herself, her heart pounding at the close call. Hydras were inhumanly fast and could bite through a god’s arm with those jaws. Decapitation was the only way to kill them – even cauterized wounds below the neck would heal.
Crystal spun again as the Hydra lunged for her. This time she spun inwards, getting the two heads of the Hydra to collide mid-bite. Good to know that still works, she thought, enjoying the momentary shelter the two tangled necks provided.
Hydras couldn’t coordinate their attacks, not the way a single organism usually could. Each head functioned independently, and didn’t seem to grasp that food all went to the same stomach. It was the only reason the creatures could be beaten, even with the fire trick.
A gap opened in the necks above her. Another head lunged down.
Crystal started a twist, giving her speed a boost, and dashed out of the way. The third head snapped shut in what would have been a perfect, waist-high bite. Crystal couldn’t help but picture the way her legs would have kicked out of the creature’s jaw before it swallowed her whole.
She kicked back in, bringing the white-hot sword around. The blade bit into the Hydra’s neck, but it was able to rear back before she could finish severing the head. Damnit, it’s too mobile. That head at least was out of commission with its throat slit, but it would only be a matter of seconds before it had fully healed and was rejoining its brethren in trying to bite her.
Heracles seriously undersold how hard this was, Crystal thought with a frown, flipping away from another three bites. Her heart was racing. She didn’t have time to sever the other nine heads. She could barely sever one of them, and she couldn’t even see what was happening between Moloch and the others right now, let alone impact it.
Crystal looked up at the creature as it reared, the heads hissing, and saw what she needed. Don’t sever nine heads. Sever one.
The Hydra started to strike again. This time, Crystal didn’t try to back away from it. She went upwards with each bite, kicking off the Hydra’s heads to propel herself forwards and over the Hydra. It caught the creature off balance. No being had ever tried something so stupid before, it didn’t have the instincts to handle it.
Fine by me, love. Crystal landed on the hydra’s back, and with a swipe of the sword, cut off three heads at the base. She leapt away from the Hydra’s retaliatory strike, but she needn’t have bothered. The creature was too busy roaring in pain.
Five to go. Crystal started in towards the back, but the Hydra wasn’t just hungry now. It was frantic and cornered, and the heads had stopped caring about which one ate her. They instead just wanted her dead.
Which meant their strikes were a bit more thought out, trying to avoid tangling each other. Still not the way it would have been from a single being, but each head was watching how the last head’s lunge went before going in on its own. Correcting for her dodges, shifting the body away each time it missed.
The bites were getting closer.
Crystal tried pushing back in towards the body, but it had learned from that trick. She couldn’t get close. It’s going to slow me down too long. Moloch is going to-
The thought was cut off as Crystal screamed. One of the heads managed to close in on her arm, and it reared her up into the air. Her sword arm was free, and she started hacking at the neck, but the angle was terrible. She couldn’t manage to sever it. No, not like this. No bloody way am I going out like this!
Another head came around and closed on her leg. Another lance of agony. The two heads started to pull away from each other, and part of Crystal wondered if she’d be pulled in half or if it would just pull the limbs off.
Crystal dropped the sword and used the free hand to twist. The force the Hydras were applying as they pulled was zeroed out. It could tug all it wanted, but the sensation of being ripped apart faded. The bites were still agony, but she could push through that. She had to push through that.
The other three heads were coming in. If they got her, it would be over.
The sword was still falling. Crystal grabbed the sword with another twist, and send it spinning upwards. Whirling so fast it looked like a white-hot disk more than anything else, she steered it into the base of the Hydra’s necks. One of the jaws opened up right near her head, and she could stare down the throat that would be her last sight.
Then she was falling. She landed amid a series of crashes as the Hydra’s heads slammed into the ground around her. It worked! Bloody hell, that worked!
Before relief could settle in, she was being dragged along the ground towards Moloch. “No, Crystal,” he growled, somehow being heard over the din of battle, “You get to see this. You are going to watch them die.”
Ryan and Isabel had not fared well against Moloch. Isabel was trapped in a cage of metal covered in thorns that was slowly closing in on her. She kept shifting her form to something smaller as they got closer. Ryan was held in the air by bands of solid light that were pulling against chains digging into his skin. His mouth was hung open in a wordless scream.
Bands of light? Crystal frowned. She knew that twist. But from where? “Moloch…” Why hadn’t he killed them yet? Keep him talking, love, or no one’s getting out of this alive.
“I’ve been waiting for this for so long, Crystal. So damn long. You have no idea how badly I’ve wanted to see the look on your face.” Moloch was grinning at her. “I tried to kill you at first, but I’m glad you survived when I sent the monsters on Sumeria. I’m glad you made it out of that. I’ve realized since then that it was better this way, to wait till you got to the finish line.”
Crystal’s mouth fell open. “Lamashtu,” she whispered.
Moloch nodded. “One of the names I’ve worn over the millenia. It was when I first came back, you see. I’d been floating in the Earth’s mantle for so long. Dying. Being reborn. Dying again. The others didn’t try to crunch their nanoverses. They all gave up, welcomed death. I didn’t. I never did. I knew I would get out.”
“You…what?” Crystal shook her head, still trying to figure out why those bands of light were so familiar, as well as what the hell Moloch was rambling about. “What are you talking about?”
“Everything!” Moloch bellowed. “Everything I’ve done was for this. This moment. Didn’t you ever wonder why I sacrificed humans for power, why I never used my nanoverse? It was so I would have a million years of divine energy stored up for this moment. So I could battle for days without getting Hungry. Everything I’ve done has been just so I can kill the woman who murdered the world.”
Crystal couldn’t help but let out an involuntary gasp. Moloch’s form was starting to shift, but he didn’t need to. Those bands of hard light had been a favorite trick of-
“You finally figured it out,” Moloch said as he finished his shapeshift, his form coming together to form one that was still humanoid, but covered in feathers. He was glorious like this, the most beautiful being Crystal had ever known.
A man Crystal had buried in a sea of molten rock.
“King,” Crystal whispered.
The man who had guided her while she was Eschaton gestured, and Crystal flew into his outstretched talons. His claws tightened around her throat. “Yes. King. I held on, Crystal. Because I wanted you to witness this. I want you to watch.” He leaned closer, “I want to see the look in your eyes as I extinguish the world you killed my family to save.”
With his free hand, Moloch gestured, and Ryan started to scream again.
“No more Eschaton, Crystal,” Moloch hissed. “ And then…no more Earth.”