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The Dragon’s Scion Part 188

Small villages like Delna, once home to just under five hundred people, had gone down one of two paths in the wake of the Alohym’s arrival. In some cases, they’d began to boom as Alohym machines meant less labor was needed to maintain farms. New tasks began to arise in Alohym factories, and people had migrated inwards. Delna had gone down the other path. Being close to a large city, it had withered like fruit on a vine that severed from its root as the people had migrated away. The last human had left Delna three years prior. Nature had begun to creep in, gardens turning to dense clumps of weeds and roads into fields. Vines crept up walls and were cracking stone. A tree was growing under a collapsed roof, and in a few more years it would emerge through the rotting thatch, birthing new fruit. It was quiet and still, for most of the time. Just a week ago, Delna had seen a brief flurry of activity when a pack of wolves had cornered a deer against one of the walls. Although the wolves had captured their prey, one of their number had been mortally wounded by the deer’s antlers. 

Two days later, that wolf had found itself fed upon in turn. 

In the basement of what had been Delna’s town hall, a cocoon ruptured, and Poz crawled out with shaking hands that ended in curved claws, stepping forward on back bent legs. HIs jaw was distended forward, and fur covered his skin. Wolfflesh was something he rarely partook in, since it was rare to come across and dangerous to hunt for itself. But it was smart flesh, clever flesh, and the senses it provided were second to none. 

It also was flesh that belonged to an animal that could mourn the dead. And right now, Poz desperately needed to mourn. Something welled up in his throat, and driven by the instincts of this flesh, Poz threw back his head and howled. The sound was long and mournful, and was picked up by other wolves until it echoed across the valley.

Poz let the sound fade away into the distance. The grief didn’t vanish with it. I did that. How could I do that? The worst part of manflesh wasn’t the way it ate away at his body, and it wasn’t the way it tore away his ability to empathize. It was the way he couldn’t understand his own thoughts afterwards. Everything was hazy and twisted from his thoughts moving so quickly. He could remember what happened, but not why. 

He could smell oil nearby. While in manflesh, he’d had the sense to leave himself a torch for just this moment. Of course I did. I think of everything except for people. 

He groped along the floor. The torch was easy to find by scent in the darkness of the basement, but the flint and steel he’d set aside were not so easily located. His fingers closed in around something that struggled on six wriggling legs. 

Grubflesh. Shadow, but it tempted him. The ancient punishment for manflesh was, in a way, a kindness. Grubflesh could barely feel anything except fear and base needs. It wasn’t the borderline sociopathy of manflesh, emotions were still there, just…muted. Last time he’d taken Manflesh, with Nicandros all those years ago, he’d freed himself from it with Grubflesh before turning himself in to be exiled and bound by law to eat nothing but grubs. It had spared him the pain of facing what he’d done in Manflesh.

Poz felt his fingers tense, and forced himself to open his hand. The insect, confused, skittered away from the lumbering creature that had grabbed it. They called the Grubflesh after one feasted upon forbidden forms the Coward’s Exile. Poz had always thought that it was because it was punishment for taking the cowardly way out of a problem. Now, he had to wonder if perhaps the cowardly part was eating Grubflesh to hide from the pain of what you’d done. 

Not this time. Poz ran his fingers along the stone floor of the basement carefully, inch by inch. Something had scratched the floor in regular patterns, and the cuts were too fresh to have been worn away by the rain. Poz could feel jagged bits of stone scratch at his fingers.

In Manflesh, Poz must have decided that was the true meaning of the Coward’s Exile. That was why he’d changed his mind to eat Wolfflesh. Flesh that could feel the full weight of what he…no, that didn’t make sense. Manflesh didn’t care for that kind of thing. Then why? 

Why any of it? Why had he chosen to eat from the dead wolf? Why had he engaged Nicandros so directly? And for the love of the Light, why had he thought it was acceptable to sacrifice all those people for his escape? He remembered doing it, but the chain of thought that led to doing so wasn’t something this flesh could follow.

Something clattered under his fingers. The flint. His movements sent it skittering away, and Poz swore under his breath as he groped after the sound. 

The egg was a factor. He was certain of that. He’d known he had to protect it, and even even vaguely remembered having some kind of realization about what it was and how it worked. There was some reason it was vital that it didn’t fall into Alohym hands, and it had involved that half-Alohym woman who had been fighting alongside Nicandros. It was…damn it to shadow. He couldn’t make the connection anymore. It didn’t fit. 

The flint finally in his grasp, Poz struck it against the stone floor a couple times. The brief flashes of illumination created by the the sparks let him find the steel he’d left behind, and threw the scratches on the floor into sharp relief. They weren’t just random markings caused by some animals. They had patterns, regularity. 

Barely daring to breathe, Poz lit the torch.

He was blind for a moment, and had to blink rapidly as his eyes adjusted. Wolfflesh had better night vision than other fleshes, but took longer to adjust to light because of that. It wasn’t quite the same as Catflesh, but if he’d had access to that, he wouldn’t have needed to bother with the torch in the first place. 

The flickering light of the flame gave everything an unstable appearance as Poz’s vision cleared, but it was still clear enough. The floors of this basement had been scored with a knife, over and over, the scratches forming words and equations. Characters written in Poz’s own handwriting.

He didn’t even remember writing this. He’d been so deep in the fever of Manflesh, even memory of his actions escaped him. In that fevered state, he’d sent a message to himself. A message that detailed everything he’d put together about the Alohym, about the dragon egg, and why it was so vital the egg not fall into their hands and instead reached Tythel. Some of it, even now, Poz couldn’t fully understand. 

It ended in a single phrase. You can buy your way into her good graces with these words – ‘they might yet live again.’

Poz took a deep, ragged breath, and reached for his pack, pushing down his grief. He’d copy down what he’d written. He’d puzzle over it all later. For now, at least, he knew his path lead him to the Dragon Princess.

At least he’d been kind enough to write down where he could find her. 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 187

“So, this is interesting,” Bix said. She was looking at some device that held a small droplet of Haradeth’s blood. He looked over and regretted the motion, as it made the room spin. Losing blood is making you light headed. Who would have thought? Bix had stabbed him with a hollow needle attached to a tube of some material that was as clear as glass but bent like rope. Which meant he could see his blood flowing through the tube and ending in some kind of clear bag made of the same material as the tube. It was profoundly disturbing to watch, and he was grateful for the opportunity to distract himself.

“What is?”

“Your blood. See, I had thought that…arg. The limits of your language. So gods like your mother, they can breed with humans. Obviously. That’s how you exist, so you know your mother boinked a human at some point.”

“Can we not talk about my mother…boiking?”

“Fine. Boffed. Bedded. Lay with. Flathed. What term that means two slabs of meat smacking themselves together until they’ve made baby meat do you prefer?”

Haradeth suddenly wished he could just focus on his blood. “I’d prefer we move on in the conversation?”

“Fine. Anyway, so given that you could interbreed, I assumed little gods and humans were part of similar species. Kind of how you can get a mule from a donkey and a horse, although not sterile so not exactly right. But that doesn’t seem to be the case.” She pointed to the slab of blood. “You have two separate chains of meat words that are spiraled around each other. That shouldn’t be possible naturally. It’s just like Synit’s meat words, only instead of Alohym and Human woven together with crude structures, it’s elegant. Refined. Which either means that you are naturally impossible but still exist anyway, which I suppose makes sense because magic, or you’re naturally impossible because you’re not natural.”

Haradeth grimaced. “I don’t follow.”

“Of course you don’t, you’re a moron.” Bix turned her attention back to the device, but gestured towards Synit. “She is unnatural. We can agree on that, yes?”

“Yes,” Haradeth said.

“Okay. Normally, it’s only possible for two species that are this different to blend together because of something unnatural happening. Like her. Godlings look like they’re the result of someone very intelligent doing very complicated work on meat words. But you aren’t the product of complicated science, you’re the product of uncomplicated rutting. Right? Your mother wasn’t secretly hiding a laboratory in her forest?”

“I’m certain she wasn’t.”

Bix nodded. “Then that means that something that shouldn’t happen naturally did anyway, which is stupid and what a lazy meat brain would use to explain things. A crystal lattice mind, such as myself, can see that would be incredibly unlikely. Which would mean that it’s far more likely that, at some point, someone turned god’s reproductive organs into secret laboratories. Question – do you know of any Godlings that had a divine father?”

Haradeth nodded. “I knew…one.” That memory brought back a host of ones he did his best to keep down, and he had to push them back before tears could well in his eyes. “She had a divine father.”

Bix sighed, and impressive feat for someone with no actual need for air. “Then that means that the secret laboratories aren’t hidden in divine wombs. They must be hidden in your cells. Which would explain these structures I’m seeing drifting along with your mitochondria, and…and I’ve lost you.”

Haradeth did his best to look apologetic.

“I’m not going to teach you biology. Suffice it to say that life is made of tiny pieces of living bricks. Inside those living bricks are very tiny things that house meat words and break down food to turn into energy and all sorts of other stuff. Like pieces of straw that keep a clay brick solid, only far more complicated. Meat has special ones that produce extra energy called mitochondria. Plants have special ones that take energy from sunlight called chloroplasts. You, little Godling, have an extra one. One that doesn’t occur in most meat. I’m guessing it’s the difference between gods and dragons and the rest of meat, and they also are what allow you to interbreed with normal meat.”

“I’m sorry…did you just put dragons and gods in the same category?”

“Of course I did.” Bix rolled her eyes. “Have you seen a dragon?”

“A couple times.”

“Then you should know – or you would know if your meat brain was capable of it – that they shouldn’t be able to fly. The weight distribution for their wings is all wrong. A dragon’s wings would need to be three times their size to allow them to really fly, and if they were that big the energy to flap them would starve the dragon before they could even get up a mountain. Not to mention the flames, which can’t be explained by a biological process. You…flath me, I lost you again, didn’t I?” She didn’t wait for Haradeth to respond. “Dragon heavy. Dragon wings too small. Snap if flap. Don’t snap because magic tiny straws in meat bricks.”

“That…made more sense,” Haradeth said.

“Which is probably what that Heartflame does,” Bix said. “It excites the mitochondria. They work overtime, and biological processes happen faster, thus healing. If you do it for long enough, some of the mitochondria turn into these new structures. Then you get a half dragon as more and more of the mitochondria are converted. Although…that doesn’t explain everything.” Bix sighed and picked up a saw. “I’m going to start cutting up Synit now. We’ve got a lot of your blood. It’s not as fun as stabbing meat, but it needs to happen so I can fix her. And you’re going to promise me something, or I’ll just take all your blood.”

“Okay,” Haradeth said, trying not to think about how weak he felt right now and his inability to parse when Bix’s threats were serious or not. “What’s that?”

“When we get a chance, you’re going to get me a light mutant. A living one, twisted and warped by light. Because I think…I think that might explain how gods and dragons work. And maybe how Alohym work. And perhaps more. Promise?”

“I promise,” Haradeth said weakly.

Bix pinched off the tube that was draining his blood and removed the needle, placing a bandage over the injury. “Just so you know, I wouldn’t have drained all your blood,” she said. “If I was going to kill you, you’d scream a whole lot more.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. Should I stay?”

“Not unless you want to see what Synit looks like on the inside. Which I understand meat gets squeamish about – oh my, you’re turning green. That’s hilarious. Go. Eat lots of sugar and get some sleep. Come back tomorrow to collect Synit. Or her body if this doesn’t work. Your call.”

Haradeth hurried out of her lab as fast as his weak legs would allow.

 

Small Worlds Part 271

Ryan and Crystal watched the stream of humanity pouring into the wormhole from the only empty space remaining in the Volksgarten, a stretch of grassy field that was perfectly manicured and would by, by the end of the day, the only part of the entire park not crushed under millions of footsteps. Well, Ryan was watching. Crystal was twisting, pulling up stone from beneath the dirt and welding it in place to create barriers to try and keep the damage of the impending fight away from the crowd.

“Are you sure you don’t need my help?” Ryan asked.

“I’ve got this, love, don’t worry. You just keep an eye out for our dance partners, yeah?” Crystal wiped sweat from her forehead and took a deep breath, giving lie to her words.

“You’re going to be drained by the time they get here at this rate,” Ryan said.

“Nah. I’m just needing air right now, not even at thirst yet.” Crystal gave him what he was sure was meant to be a reassuring smile, but her eyes betrayed her. They was a haunted look behind them.

“Crystal…” Ryan started to say, but Crystal cut him off.

“Ryan, you’re still Nascent. Remember? Kali shows up and you’re not at full power, you could die permanently. I die? As long as you get my nanoverse out of here, there’s no risk of permanence. I’ll be out for the rest of the fight unless I get a really clean death, but I’ll be fine. You…this could be it for you.”

“That’s been the case since we started,” Ryan said. Crystal did a double take, and Ryan couldn’t stop himself from letting out a genuine smile for the first time in what felt like days. “I’m not saying I want to die or that I’m okay with dying, I’ve got a lot left to do…but that isn’t new. Every fight we’ve been in, I’ve been nascent. At least this time the wormholes are made. People are going though. Hell, we’ve got millions through already. If I go down-”

“-I won’t let that happen,” Crystal interjected.

“Crystal, please, let me finish.” Crystal looked surprised, and Ryan couldn’t blame her. Since they’d met, had he ever asked for that? If he had, he couldn’t remember it. “I’m not saying I want to die. But it doesn’t matter on the big, planetary scale at this point anymore. If I die, the rest of you can keep the fight going. They can keep evacuating people, save as many people as possible.”

“So…what are you saying?” Crystal said, after giving Ryan a moment to make sure he was finished.

“That you don’t need to be afraid for me anymore. That, if anything happens, we did it. You did it. I never could have gotten this far without you, and humanity isn’t doomed anymore. So…you don’t need to stress about my well being anymore. Let me worry about that, okay?”

Crystal studied Ryan’s face with an unreadable expression. “You said everything about that?”

Ryan nodded and smiled.

“Good. I just want to make sure I’m not interrupting you when I do this.”

“Do what?”

Crystal answered by smacking him in the back of the head, hard enough to sting but not too much to hurt. “You’re a bloody git, Ryan Smith.”

“Ow, what the hell?” Ryan rubbed the back of his head. “I thought you’d be glad about all that!”

“I am,” Crystal said, but her eyes flashed with anger. “Bloody hell, it’s the biggest relief I’ve had since…since everything died last time. But I’ll be damned if that means I stop worrying about you, you absolute wanker. You think I’ve just worried about you because I wanted to finish the job? That hasn’t been true since…well, I won’t say the first few days, because I’m not going to lie about that, but at least since Graham Island. I worry about you dying because I don’t want you to die. So that means you conserve your power to decrease the chances you die until you finish Apotheosis, and you get my nanoverse out of here if I end up dying. I need you to get out of this alive because I care about you, even if you’re a twit.”

Something in Crystal’s anger got through to Ryan, and he found himself having to blink back tears. Outside of Isabel…Ryan didn’t think he could remember the last time someone had straight up told him it mattered if he lived or died. Not on his own merit. For months now it had been about if he was going to save the world or not. Hearing this…he wanted to give her a hug. Instead, what he could give her right now was a joke. “And because Isabel and Athena will kill you if you let me die.”

Crystal studied his face for a moment. Apparently, she liked what she saw there, because some of the tension drained away. “And because of that, yeah. I honestly don’t know which one I should worry about more.”

“Honestly?” Ryan said. “I’ve seen Athena take down a Linnorm and run a sword through a downed foe because she was pissed off. Having seen that, I’d say…you should absolutely be more afraid of Isabel.”

Crystal snorted. “You’re probably right. Athena could only kill me. Your sister is bloody creative.”

“Damn right I am,” Isabel chimed in on the comms. “Sorry, I came back just in time to hear I was scarier than Athena for some reason, and had to comment.”

“Isabel,” Ryan said, his heart spiking. “How’s it going elsehwere.”

“Good news is, no sign of Kali yet. Bad news…the Asgard has jumped in. Anansi’s pinned down by Loki in Accra, Freya and Athena are going at it in Tokyo, and Dianmu and Cassandra are dealing with a quintet of Valkyries in Hyderabad. They’re just sending one person per portal, though. I think they’re just trying to keep us from being able to focus on one place. The good news is that means they’re not concentrating their forces yet either. Chernobog and the Slavic deities are hopping around to provide relief, and a few portals are pretty much untouched. We can’t take the Olympians or Caaninites away from them though, otherwise we’ll leave something wide open. We’ve got it under control for now, but…”

“…but it’s exactly what we were afraid of.” Ryan finished for her. “Any signs of the super soldiers?”

“Negative.”

“Which means they’re probably with Kali. Great. Isabel, what are they targeting?”

“The portals and the gods,” Isabel said, knowing where Ryan was going with the questions. “Civilian casualties have been minimal. I’m not sure if it’s just because they are focusing on the biggest threat or aren’t interested in wholesale slaughter, but either way it’s been pretty contained. With crowds this dense though…” Isabel’s voice hitched, and Ryan didn’t want to try and imagine what horrors she’s seen through the unblinking cameras of her drones.

“Thank you for the update, Isabel.” Ryan knew his sister. If she wanted anything right now, it would be a few quiet minutes to process or a chance to talk to someone one on one. “Let me know if you see any of the soldiers – and if anyone’s portal clears up and they’re still fit to fight, send them our way.”

“Will do,” Isabel said, and he voice cracked on the words. “Crystal, can I borrow you for a minute?”

“Sure thing, love. I’ll switch to private channel.” Crystal gave him a quick nod and stepped away. She was working on the barrier again and Ryan did his best not to eavesdrop, but overall he could still make out her reassuring tone.

“Ryan!” a voice shouted from the crowd, drawing his attention.

Ryan glanced towards the voice. Jaqueline. He jogged over to her. “Hey there!”

“Ryan, this is my husband, Kevin. Kevin, this is Ryan.”

Kevin was a good looking guy. Clean cut, wearing jeans a T-shirt. The kind of guy whose mere presence helped make it look like this line was to get into a football game, not an evacuation for an entire planet. He offered Ryan a hand. “Thank you,” he said. “For getting us out first.”

I’m using you as bait for a trap for a monster again, and I’m going to leverage you for political benefit if this goes south. Ryan shook Kevin’s hand. “I’m allowed to make things a bit personal, even with lives on the line.”

Jaqueline smiled and mouthed her gratitude as well, but the crowd was moving, and Ryan didn’t want to hold up the line. The meeting Ryan had been hoping for had served its purpose. People had seen, so if Ryan needed to leverage them, there would be people who were able to back his claim.

The fact that it was a huge relief to see they were going to be safe was just a coincidence.

He could almost convince himself of that if he really tried.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 186

Edit: I’m getting an error when logging in to Patreon right now to post the chapter over there as well. Apologies and will try to get it uptomorrow!

After the darkness of the dragon’s lair, Haradeth was glad to be back among the Sylvani. Having spent so much time in human cities, he’d come to associate the word city with harsh lines and straight edges. The organic lines of the Sylvani structures appealed to him on a fundamental level. It was like being back in the forest, but with the overall sense of bustle and life that he did enjoy about human cities. And without the filth. That was nice too.

“Where’s Bix?” Haradeth asked the empty air.

A shimmering image appeared in the air in front of him, an almost perfect recreation of the tiny Automaton if not for its translucency. “Oh, it’s you,” she said. “I was getting ready to stab someone for interrupting me.”

“But you’re…not going to stab me?”

Bix’s mechanical eyes whirred and narrowed. “That depends. Are you wasting my time?”

“You wanted to know when we’d brought everything back from the lair. Everything’s done, you can disable that portal stone now.” It was so remote and far away from everything else, they didn’t need it active. By disabling it, the Alohym wouldn’t be able to use it against them – at least, not without a full day’s worth of effort to reactivate it, which would give them plenty of time to know something was coming.

“Oh, good. Mostly. I did want an excuse to stab you.” Bix’s eyes relaxed. “Come down to my little home, would you?”

“Are you going to stab me?” Haradeth asked, already walking. The image floated alongside him as he moved, although Bix’s feet didn’t move.

“You’re going to let me stab you. Very different.” Bix delivered that in the prim tones of a child correcting a minor misspeak by their parent.

Haradeth stumbled. “Why would I-”

The image vanished. Bix clearly expected him to come, regardless of any objections he might have.

What’s worse is, she’s right. Sheer curiosity would be enough for Haradeth to go visit her right now, even without the very real possibility she’d stab him without permission if he didn’t go down there as soon as he could.

The winding path down to Bix’s lair had less of the elder Sylvani than Haradeth had seen on his previous trip. There were only a couple, their forms morphing constantly in response to stimuli Haradeth couldn’t perceive. “Did you find her?” one asked. “The lady wearing the stars for a gown and with suns in her mouth, she who swallows worlds. Has she been found?”

“Um…no,” Haradeth said. He knew these poor souls were too mad with their condition to properly understand the world around them, the question was so coherent that he felt bad ignoring it.

The elder made a wet sound, like someone sighing their last breath as they sunk beneath a bog. “She will be found, or she will find.”

“Absolutely,” Haradeth nodded in agreement, smiling at one of its eyes.

That seemed to satisfy the Sylvani ender, and its form twisted into an almost perfect sphere so it could roll away. “But who will find her first?” it asked, rolling along the ground.

Haradeth was glad it didn’t seem to want an answer to that. Especially because something was drawing his attention right now, something far more pressing.

The smell of blood.

Haradeth picked up his pace until he was half running in that direction. It was coming from Bix’s sanctum, and the smell was so strong it was almost overpowering. “Oh good,” Bix said when Haradeth threw open the door. “You made it.”

Haradeth stared in openmouthed horror. Synit was down there with her, but had been laid in some kind of glass coffin. She wasn’t moving or breathing. Her eyes were open, and didn’t even twitch at his arrival. “What did you do? For the love of the Light, Bix, you killed her!”

“Did not,” Bix said. “I just halted all metabolic activity and biological action after draining a great deal of her blood. And no more consciousness either.”

Haradeth could feel bile rising in his throat. “Bix, that kills living beings. You…you were supposed to help her.” He’d barely gotten to know the half Sylvani woman, and he’d certainly not been friends with her, but he hadn’t wanted her to die as part of some experiment by Bix.

“Oh Light. Your eyes are leaking water. That’s a bad sign.” Bix sighed. “Fine, spoil my fun. She’s not dead. I put her in stasis until you were free, because I think I can fix her. But I need to stab you to fix her.”

“Wait…what?” Haradeth said.

“We – and by we, I mean me, because I’m amazing – can put life forms into a stasis. It’s like sleep as far as your mind is concerned, but it’s more like being frozen solid. No metabolic activity, no growth, no aging, but at the same time no decay or damage occurs. It’s reversible. We do it when our medical…I mean, we did it…” Bix smacked the side of her head. “Faulty driver. It’s something we do when there are too many broken organics to fix you all at once. Let’s us get to fixing others when we have time to focus. Sometimes we also do it for illnesses we don’t know how to fix. So once I’ve stabbed you, I can just reverse it, and she’ll be fine.”

Haradeth stared at Synit. “You…” He shook his head. He didn’t know exactly what faulty drivers meant, but given how his brain was bouncing in a thousand directions, he had a feeling he could empathize with the sensation. “Why do you need to stab me?”

“Because I want your blood.” Bix waited and again sighed when she didn’t get the reaction she was hoping for. “You’re becoming less fun. Maybe I should do some surprise stabbings to keep you interesting.”

“Please don’t,” Haradeth said weakly.

“No promises. But right now I want you to let me stab you so I can take your blood.” Bix stood up on her tails and began to move along the room. “The Alohym rewrote her…you won’t know that word. Or that word. Or that one. Damn it to Shadow. Okay, so organic beings have little words written in their meat. They are what make organic beings work. These little meat words were rewritten by the Alohym to have both human and Alohym meat words. Like a document written with both our language and yours mixed together. Is your brain processing this so far?”

“I think,” Haradeth said. “It would be very hard to read a document written in two languages, though.”

“Yes, it would!” Bix said excitedly, like he’s just grasped an important point. “That’s why she’s so broken. When she was growing, her body was trying to read two different sets of meat words, and that didn’t work well for her. So her body is badly made, like a house that was built by someone who was following instructions written in two languages, and they only knew a handful of words in one of the languages.

“I can fix the damage to her structure, but she will lose a lot of blood. I don’t have access to Alohym meat words, and I’d need a blend of Alohym and human meat words anyway. But you’re a godling, meaning your meat words are in a state of constant flux. I think I can use your blood to keep her alive while I cut her up. And then she’ll be able to function without being in constant pain. Then I can stab her by surprise and it will be fun. Oh, and she’ll be in less pain and all that too, but really, the stabbing is the important part.”

Haradeth sat down on one of the chairs. “So…how are we going to get my blood safely?”

Bix smiled up at him. “See? And you doubted you’d let me stab you.”

 

Small Worlds Part 270

“I don’t like this, Ryan.” Isabel’s voice was coming in loud and clear through the radio device resting in Ryan’s ear.

“Really? You don’t? I wouldn’t have picked that up from the last dozen types you’ve mentioned it.” Ryan couldn’t help himself with the sarcasm. “Look, Isabel, it’s a risk, but it’s a calculated one. We can do this phase without the military cooperation we wanted. It’s just a couple dozen cities. Tomorrow we’re doing almost a hundred. We need the UN’s support. If Lakshimi’s on the level, her help will come in handy. If she’s not, this is the ideal time to stab us in the back, prove it, and convince the Secretary General that we’re the ones she should be trusting. Either way, it’s a win for us.”

“Except for the part where the backstabbing happens,” Isabel said. “You do get that’s a pretty big flaw in your plan, right? Also the part where she might not betray us today?”

“For the first part…we’ve done what we can to mitigate that risk.” Ryan looked around. He’d never been to Austria before. Prior to becoming a god, he’d never been out of America even. The Volksgarten in Salzburg looked like it would be a beautiful place normally. The park was well maintained, and the fountain in the center of the lake sent shimmering droplets dancing in the sun. He was certain it was normally a place of peace.

Normally.

“For the second part…with the portals today, we’re getting a hundred million people offworld. Tomorrow, we’re going to be close to five hundred million. Kali isn’t going to want to risk giving us that chance. If she has Lakshimi as some kind of, I dunno, double agent mole thing, she’s going to pull the trigger on it.”

It was hard to hear Isabel’s response over the growing shouts of the crowd, mixed in with the barking of dogs and the yowls of cats and the wails of children. Austria’s population was close to nine million. The easternmost part of the country would be evacuated tomorrow with Vienna, the westernmost part with Liechtenstein was going later when they evacuated Switzerland through Zurich. That had cut down the number of people significantly, closer to five million, but there were still five million people being held back from the park by what looked like every police officer in the country. The military was further out there, keeping order throughout the city. The crowd stretched back further than the eye could see.

“It’s a miracle we haven’t had a riot,” Ryan said, more to himself than to Isabel.

“Not a miracle. You can thank me for that.” Isabel said.

“Isabel, is that smugness I hear?”

“A bit,” she admitted. “Idea came to me at the eleventh hour, and Artemis was able to make it happen. We have Lotus-eaters, from the Odyssey, out there in the crowd. The sleep lotuses? They’re dispersing it as an aerosol. Low grade magic dispersed like that, muting everyone’s panic with a peaceful drowsiness. We’ll have to get more peace inducing creatures for the future, but for right now they’re at every wormhole.”

“You’re drugging everyone with magic flower people?” Ryan asked.

“What? Would you prefer that I let normal human nature take over and have a mass panic on our hands? Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures and all that.”

“No, no, I’m not mad. I’m impressed. I was kind of assuming the panic would happen at some point.”

Isabel laughed. “Well, I think of everything. Speaking of which, we have soldiers and police in place around the park with the scanners checking for culture icons. Assuming we operate at about three fours of our ideal speed, we should be able to process about seven thousand people every minute. That means we’re going to get everyone here through the wormhole in twelve hours. Are you ready to start?”

Ryan nodded, then reminded himself Isabel couldn’t see him. Feeling stupid, he said, “I’m ready. Are the others in position?”

“Yes,” Isabel said. “And…Ryan, are you sure about the other two?”

“I’m sure they’re on our side,” Ryan said. “Beyond that…no, not really. And since I’m not, that means no one else will be either. Right now, we need that chaos. It’s the one advantage we have left. Still, I’ll feel better when Crystal gets here with that wormhole.”

“Give it just a moment…” Isabel said.

At that moment, a second doorway opened in the park, and Crystal stepped out. The shimmering wormhole trailed behind her, bound to her movements by some simple twists. She’d already armed herself, a straight edged sword strapped her back. At the sight of the wormhole, the crowd surged forward against the barricade. If this was what happened now, Ryan didn’t want to imagine what would have happened if it hadn’t been for the Lotus eater’s calming influence.

“Cheers, love!” Crystal said with a wave, detaching the wormhole. “Just dropped the other ones off.”

“And you’re sure this will work?”

Crystal squinted at the crowd. “There’s so many…”

Ryan waited for a moment. No response. “Uh. Crystal?”

“Sorry.” Crystal shook her head. “She’ll come here. I’m sure of it. The hardest part is going to be containment. This is…this is going to be ugly, Ryan. Even with Isabel’s clever little trick. We didn’t drug them so much they’ll just stand their docile when a divine fight breaks out, and Kali is not going to care about collateral damage. We’ll get plenty through before she figures out this is where you are, but it won’t take her twelve hours.” The crowd surged again, the shouts growing louder. “What about the people who didn’t come?”

Ryan sighed. “What I said earlier stands. Anyone who doesn’t come, we can’t drag out of their homes kicking and screaming. Even if we had the manpower, it wouldn’t be enough.”

Crystal studied him for a moment. “She’ll be here, Ryan. Her and her whole family. Even form the one time we’ve met, I got that impression. She’s stubborn and strong-willed, and she trusts us. Trusts you.”

“I know. It’s just…did I make the right call?”

“You don’t have many people out there you’re close to, love” Crystal said quietly. “At least, not humans, and we can’t spare Isabel. When people figure out you set this up as a bloody trap, there’s going to be backlash. Revealing you were willing to risk someone you care about…it’ll help mitigate the backlash.”

“Okay.” Ryan took a deep breath. “You ready?”

“Ready when you are.”

Ryan nodded. “Isabel, tell the police. It’s time.”

“Uh…you have Glossolalia, right? I’ll patch you through – I’ve been relying on gods to translate things. Do not want to risk any of this getting garbled by me doing a google translate attempt at austrian-accented German.”

“Go ahead,” Ryan said.

“You’re on in three, two, one, go.”

“Police of Salztburg,” Ryan said, doing his best commanding voice. “My name is Ryan. Please do not forget all citizens must be checked for cultural artifacts. Art, books, movies, technology – all of them must be left behind. Beyond that, we don’t care who comes through. Everyone gets one of the survival packets. Don’t waste time checking for IDs, or things are going to drag out. You can check them on the other side. I know you are sacrificing a great deal to be the last through. I promise you, no matter what, we will hold this portal until you are able to cross over. Start letting your families in now, then open the gates.”

It had been the best bribe they could offer for the police. Their families got to go through first. Well, not first. The first people through had gone through were a UN peacekeeping force, who had started approaching the portal the moment Ryan had started speaking. They nodded to Ryan as they passed, but they had a job to do. They were on crowd control on the other side – crowd control, and pacifying any immediate hostile lifeforms.

They were wearing kevlar, but armed with bows and arrows and swords. State of the art versions of each, but still – technology low tech enough Nabu didn’t believe they’d cause a huge risk. That, plus the survival packet that contained some basic supplies – similarly vetted by Nabu, food that would keep for long enough for the first crop to come in, and seeds that would provide that first crop, was everything they could safely bring.

It was the best they could do. It was everything they could do.

Now they just had to wait for Kali to show up.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 185

“Do you think we need this, Ossman?” Aldreda asked, picking up a scroll and waving it in his face. “I mean, I’m not expert in ancient gibberish, but apparently I should be able to tell what Armin needs and what he doesn’t.”

Ossman held out his hand for the scroll. “I don’t expect you to be an expert,” he said.

Aldreda rolled her eyes and gave him the scroll. In spite of her frustration, she still was gentle with the relic. “I know you don’t. But you’re not an expert either. Why did Armin give us this job? Shouldn’t we be hauling heavy objects with the others?”

Light, I wish I knew. Aldreda’s frustration mirrored his own, although he didn’t want to admit it. “I’m sure Armin has his reasons, ‘dreda.”

Aldreda brushed back a strand of hair from her face and flushed slightly. Ossman blinked, puzzled. “You’re loyal to him,” she said. “I get it. I’m not saying that he’d wrong, Ossman, I’m just saying it doesn’t make sense. And…flath me sideways, Ossman, you’ve known him longer than me. Are you going to look me in the eye and tell me there’s nothing to worry about?”

Ossman looked down at the scroll first and unrolled it carefully. The glyphs on here were impenetrable to him, but Armin had explained what to look for. The language that he needed samples from had over ten thousand characters, all of them polygons with lines drawn through different segments. This scroll had a couple dozen repeating characters, all of them circles with varying shapes in the middle. 

He put it on the second pile carefully. The tomes and scrolls and other texts that weren’t what they needed, but Armin wanted to keep safe. Aldreda was still staring at Ossman, her arms crossed. “Well?” she asked.

Ossman looked up and met her eyes. “There’s nothing to worry about.”

Aldreda snorted. “You’re a terrible liar.”

Ossman turned to the next document they hadn’t sorted. This one was a fragment of a clay tablet. “Help me look for the other half of this? It’s got a three point break that looks kind of familiar, I think we already saw it somewhere.”

Aldreda sighed and turned to the fragments they had gathered. “He’s not normally like this, is he? Snapping, broody. That’s not the guy I got to know at least.”

“He’s also never lost anyone before,” Ossman said, finally engaging the topic as he joined her in sifting through the fragments. 

“Everyone’s lost someone,” Aldreda said, not looking up.

“No, I don’t mean in general. Bad phrasing on my part. He’s never lost anyone he was commanding before. Ever since the Collegium rebellion, every time he’s taken command, he’s gotten back with everyone alive. I’m not saying I’m not worried.”

“Even though you just did.”

“Well, you called me on that lie. If I’m being honest, I’m not saying I’m not worried. What I’m saying is I don’t think I should be worried. Armin’s dealing with a new kind of grief. Can I really blame him for processing it poorly at first?”

Aldreda grunted, lifting a large chunk of a clay tablet. “Give it here?” she said. She slid it next to the piece that Ossman had found. They looked like they belonged together, but the lettering was too different, and the break didn’t quite line up. “Damn. Thought I had it. And I hear what you’re saying. But…shouldn’t he let go of command until he’s dealt with it? Put Haradeth in charge, or Lorathor, or even you.”

Ossman’s heart rate spiked at the thought. “You’d be better than me,” he said, wiping the back of his arm against his forehead. “Anyone would be better than me.”

“No thank you.” Aldreda shuddered. “I want it about as badly as you do. So Haradeth or Lorathor, then. Until he’s dealt with the grief. There’s no shame in letting someone else take charge when the mission is done.”

“He doesn’t see it that way,” Ossman said, quietly.

“Which part?”

“The mission isn’t done.” Ossman picked up another fragment. This one did fit with the peice they’d found, but only a small fraction of it. “We’re going to need more, but I’ve got part of it. Hand me the sealant?”

Aldreda did so, and bent down to help Ossman hold the pieces in proper alignment when it hardened. “How is the mission not done? We beat Theognis, we’ve got the samples, and we have enough gold to fund the resistance for another year. What is missing?”

I don’t know. Armin was still in mission mode, and it was bothering Ossman. “Probably just won’t count it as complete until he has looked at the fragments and decoded Theognis’ codex. With that, we’ve got everything we came for. Then he can call it done.”

The sealant began to expand, filling the crack so perfectly that it was almost impossible to tell there had ever been a gap there. Only a slight break in the lettering revealed the flaw. 

“Then why in darkest Shadow did he send the two least literate people in the group to retrieve scrolls and tomes? Wouldn’t it have made more sense to pick anyone else?” Aldreda gestured at herself and Ossman. “We know, between us, eleven different weapons and one language, not counting Alohym battle cant.”

“You mean Alohym swears?”

“They’re one and the same, and you’re not going to distract me.” Aldreda wiped her forehead too. Gathering books shouldn’t be hard work, but when half the books were large enough to be one of those eleven weapons, and the other half were written on clay, it was more exhausting than Ossman had expected. “So one language between us, because battle cant doesn’t count as a language. Meanwhile, Haradeth is a godling and fluent in three languages – which I only know because he’s mentioned it a half dozen times. Lorathor is a Sylvani, so he at least speaks their language and ours. Synit…okay, so Synit would probably be worse than us, but I’d wager she at least can speak the Alohym’s tongue, so that still makes her a better linguist than the two of us. And that creepy little automaton has probably forgotten more languages than the rest of the Resistance combined knows. Yet…we are the ones gathering up the scrolls and tomes?”

Ossman rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I don’t know what to tell you, ‘dreda. I’m worried about him. And you’re right, it doesn’t make sense.”

“Because you’re looking at it the wrong way.”

The sudden voice was so unexpected, Ossman nearly dropped the tablet fragment he was holding, and Aldreda whirled, one hand going to her sword. Armin stood there, leaning against the room’s entranceway.

“Armin,” Ossman said. “How long have you…”

“Not long, but sound carries a long way down here.” He walked over to the clay fragments. “I chose you two because you aren’t going to get distracted. If Haradeth finds a copy of The Lineage of the Little Gods, he might stop to read it. If Lorathor finds an account of the early Sylvani’s interactions with humanity, he might stop to read it. If Bix saw a book that looked like it had a face, she might stab it. Then read it. Or maybe the other way around, I can’t figure it out.” Armin reached down and plucked out a fragment. “Sealant?”

Ossman handed it over, and Armin slid it into place. 

“And me,” Armin said, “I’m likely to end up just sitting here and trying to decode the entire damn thing without eating. I picked you two because you can do what’s needed without getting distracted. Maybe Synit could, but she still finds movement painful. I wanted to get her treatment.”

“Armin, I didn’t mean to give offense,” Aldreda said.

Armin looked up at her and smiled. Ossman hated how it didn’t reach his eyes. “I know. And…you’re right. I shouldn’t be in charge of anything dangerous right now. I’ve already talked to Haradeth. If we find ourselves in a fight, he’ll take command. But outside of combat, I’m still leading this mission. Can you trust me with that much, at least?”

Aldreda nodded. Armin looked over at Ossman. “And you?” he said.

“Always,” Ossman responded without hesitation.

“Thank you. Both of you.” Armin stood up. The fragment he’d picked out – from walking into the room, after both Ossman and Aldreda had been looking – fit in place perfectly. “I think this will be enough. Let’s-”

find and grab and break and tear and shred and –

“of here.” Armin glanced over at Ossman, and his forehead furrowed. “You alright? You look like you just saw a ghost.”

“Stray thought,” Ossman said, dismissively. “Distracted me. But I’m with you. Lets get out of here.”

Armin and Aldreda both looked concerned, and Ossman smiled. “You sure you’re alright?” Armin asked.

“Absolutely.” 

“Alright then.” Armin relaxed. “Let me know which of these boxes I can handle? Without throwing out my back, I mean.” 

Aldreda pointed to one of the boxes and gave Ossman a wink. It was nice, in that moment, to be able to prove Aldreda wrong about one thing. 

When he needed it, he was an excellent liar.

Small Worlds Part 269

Hey everyone. First of all, thank you for your patience and understanding. Second, minor retcon to last post, because I realized it was a bit preemptive for Ryan to go straight to Salzburg. Last scene would instead end this way.

“So. Let’s get this party started. Where’s first?”

“Not so fast,” Isabel said. “I have a request that you stop by and speak to Secretary Rajan first. She wants to go over some things before she authorizes the drone access I’ve requested.”

Ryan grimaced. “Okay. That’s going to screw up our timetable, but okay. Crystal, let’s get the wormholes out of my nanoverse. Isabel, tell everyone they need to come here and pick up the wormholes, we can’t take them to everyone individually. Nabu can coordinate it. I…have to speak to the Secretary General of the United Nations.”

And now, onto today’s part. 

Compared to what Ryan had expected, the office of the Secrety General was a rather modest affair. Books lined the back wall behind the desk, the spines displaying text that was mostly in Hindi – it still disturbed Ryan that when he focused he could understand words in a language he’d never even studied – and the chairs weren’t particularly luxurious. They were the kind of chairs that one would expect in a normal office environment.

Secretary General Rajan was sitting behind the desk. Her hands were folded in front of her, and she gave Ryan a small nod as he stepped into her office. If she seemed surprised by the fact that the door into the hallway beyond seemed to now open into an endless expanse of stars, it didn’t show. “So good of you to meet me,” she said.

“Madam Secretary,” Ryan said by way of greeting. He debated if he should bow or offer his hand, and settled for twitching for a moment before thrusting his hand towards he. Two suited men near the door tensed up at the gesture, but the Secretary took the proffered hand  warmly, which at least told Ryan she had more grace than he did. “I understand you wanted to speak before we put things in motion?”

“Yes, Mr. Smith. It seems I’m not entirely comfortable turning over access to military drones offered by member nations without speaking to you personally. I can’t imagine why that might be.” Her tone was still warm, but her voice was a dry as sandpaper. Ryan found himself liking her.

“I guess I can think of a few reasons for that,” Ryan said, taking a chair. “And please, call me Ryan, Madam Secretary.”

“Understood,” she said, and Ryan noted the lack of reciprocal offer. “I’m confused about the placement of some of these portals. New York, Beijing, Mumbai, Tokyo, Lagos – the major metropolitan areas – those  make sense. They get the largest group of people through in the first wave. That is the reason, correct?”

“Mostly,” Ryan said. “We were also worried that if we only had one major city, it would pose a tempting target for Kali. By spreading out the big cities, we hope she’ll focus on the real target.”

“And what might that be?”

“Ma’am, begging your pardon, but I’d rather not say. We don’t know where she is and what she’s able to listen in on, so if I do say it aloud, I run a real risk of her – or one of her agents – overhearing what I’m saying.”

Secretary Rajan leaned forward, her eyes narrowing. “Ryan. You are asking me to take a great deal on faith. Access to the drone’s cameras. The fact that this other world is even accessible, let alone not a death trap. The very end of the world. Right now, I’m inclined to tell you to take that real and gaand ma ghal.

The blessing of glossolalia made sure Ryan knew that the Secretary General of the United Nations had just told him to stick it up his ass. Ryan blinked, activating his divine sight. The very real possibility that it was not secretary Rajan, but Kali herself, sitting across from him made his heart pound.

Thankfully, it was her. She was human, and there weren’t any bugs in her office Ryan could see. What there was however, was a twist to reality. One with an equation Ryan couldn’t read, but as large as a human, and sitting in the chair directly next to him. His blood ran cold. “I understand your concern, Madam Secretary,” Ryan said, moving his hand slowly. “But spies could be everywhere.”

With the last word Ryan lunged, drawing a sword from his nanoverse and thrusting it towards the twist on the chair next to him. The ring of steel on steel filled the room, and Secretary Rajan leaned back away from the sudden conflict. The men in suits reached for their guns, but with a gesture the Secretary stopped them from drawing.

It wouldn’t have done them any good regardless. Ryan twisted the blade, trying to get it past the defenses he couldn’t see, and the surface he’d struck shifted. He nearly fell out of the chair at the sudden lack of resistance, and his momentum brought his sword arm into the twist. He could have turned it into a slash, but not without bringing his blade around towards the Secretary. As large as this office was, it wasn’t quite large enough to allow for him to slash wildly. He went with the momentum instead, and a hand like  vice clamped around his wrist.

Ryan bowled himself towards the attacker, kicking off the ground and thrusting his free hand towards his attacker. He punched something solid and steel.

“Enough of this!” a voice said from within the twist, and it vanished. Sitting in the chair was an Indian woman with the sort of ageless appearance Ryan had come to associate with some of the divine. She let go of Ryan’s wrist, and he landed on the other side of her. “I’m not your adversary.”

“No, you’re just listening in to my conversations,” Ryan said, growling and rubbing his wrist.

“Lakshmi is here on my invitation,” Secretary Rajan said firmly. “I wanted someone to verify you were who you claimed to be.”

“I did warn you the moment he got suspicious, he’d see through it,” Lakshimi said, nodding to acknowledge Ryan. “Apologies for the deception.”

Ryan surreptitiously rubbed his wrist. “Sorry for lashing out.” Under his divine sight, he could see that Lakshimi was not actively shapeshifting – she was exactly what she appeared to be, which meant she wasn’t Kali. “Why the game though? Just wanted to catch me off guard?”

“In a manner of speaking.” Lakshimi gestured, righting his chair with a twist. “I wanted to see how you’d behave if you weren’t aware of my presence.”

“So it was a test,” Ryan said, taking his seat.

“That is what I just said, yes.” Lakshimi quirked an eyebrow at him.

Just when I thought I was done with this kind of crap… Ryan sighed. It was to be expected, he supposed, but he’d gotten used to the idea that he was going to be taken seriously. In hindsight, he had no idea why he’d gotten that idea in his head in the first place, but Lakshimi had handily debased him of that notion. “So, did I pass?”

Lakshimi nodded, then looked at Secretary Rajan. “I don’t think he’s a threat to you, or to us. As best as I can tell from the brief interaction, at least. He had an opening, but if he’d taken it, it would have turned his blow towards you. He chose against that.”

Secretary Rajan nodded. “Lakshimi had kindly been advising me on matters of the divine. Including how to deal with you.” Ryan wasn’t sure what to say to that, which was for the best, because the Secretary continued as if his response was irrelevant. “Lakshimi has assured me that this conversation is private. So, I ask you again – where are you trying to draw Kali?”

Ryan shifted in his seat and looked at Lakshimi. “Forgive me, Madam Secretary, but it’s not that simple. Lakshimi, your pantheon hasn’t yet declared where they will fall in the conflict. I believe that Kali isn’t listening, but I don’t know what side you’re on.”

Lakshimi gave him a small smile. “Consider this. If I was on Kali’s side, I would not have waited for you here alone. I would have waited with a small group of gods, and we would have subdued you the moment you arrived and brought you to her.”

“Maybe.” Ryan shrugged. “Or maybe you’re playing a deeper game. You’re millennia old. I don’t know you. More importantly, I have no idea if I can trust you.”

Lakshimi’s smile soured. “That does make things difficult,” she said.

“Yeah, it does.” Ryan sighed. “I don’t mean to be a pain in the ass, but if I make a bad judgement call, we’re all doomed. The entire human race. I’m the one holding onto the wormholes. Kali gets a hold of them, she can use them to end the world preemptively. She gets the end of the cycle she wants, and humanity? It’s gone.”

“Then how do you propose we resolve this dispute?” Lakshimi asked.

Ryan leaned forward in his chair, a smile tugging at his lips. “You know what? I think I know exactly how you can.”

The Dragon’s Scion Part 184

Armin nudged the edge of the portal stone with the tip of his boot. He jerked his foot back like the touch had carried an electric shock. Nothing happened. He’d seen portal stones before, going back to his days at the academy. Conventional wisdom held that they’d marked ancient religious sites, where the precursors of the Umbrists would attempt to commune with the Shadow, or perhaps they were a pre-Cardomethi’s civilization attempt to achieve the impossible and create new lumwells. No one had been certain, but there were enough stranger, superstitious rumors about them that even with his education, Armin held the stones in wary reverence. “You’re certain this thing is safe?” he asked.

Haradeth gave him a wry grin and placed another chest on the flat stone. It wasn’t full of gold – it would have been impossible for even the godling to lift that much – but instead the bottom was lined with golden coins and then filled above that with gems, art, lighter metals, and other valuable artifacts. As much as they could carry. That one chest enough probably held enough to sustain the Resistance for a month. It was being placed alongside twelve others like it. This would be the third such load they’d sent through the portal. “You’re afraid of Sylvani magic, lumcaster? I figured your sort would be more comfortable with it.”

Armin grunted and turned away from the stone, reaching down to grab another handful of gems in the chest in front of him. “I lost two people getting in here. I don’t want to lose anyone else getting out.”

There was silence for a moment as Haradeth shifted the chest backwards to make sure it was fully on the platform. One of the chests had been half off the stone, and it had been cleaved neadly in two when they’d activated it. There was still half an empty chest laying next as proof for how dangerous it could be. “Bix says they are,” Haradeth said.

Armin looked around. “And you trust her?” he asked. The little automaton had gone through the portal with Synit and the first wave of chests, saying something about smoothing it over with “That stupid entertainment system we decided was a god when I was obviously the better choice.” Armin hadn’t understood half of what she said, but he’d understood enough to know that it had to do with the Sylvani’s internal politics. “She’s…not exactly stable. And don’t flathing mock me for finding her frightening. I saw the way you looked at her.” 

Haradeth laughed, although it wasn’t directed at Armin. “Light and Shadow, of course I won’t mock you for seeing the threat she poses. I’d call you a fool if you didn’t think she was a threat.” Haradeth grunted as he picked up another chest that was half hanging over the side, placing it on top of a crate they’d found. “But I do trust her. Bix is unstable, strange, has an…abnormal morality, and absolutely will stab you because she finds it amusing…”

“Oh, well, you’re certaintly convincing me of how trustworthy she is now,” Armin muttered.

Haradeth smiled and kept talking as if Armin hadn’t interrupted him, “but she likes us, as far as I can tell. Or at least doesn’t actually wish us harm. And she wants to fight the Alohym. Probably because she finds them more fun to cut into than we are, but that still makes her trustworthy.”

“I think you were in the Sylvani land too long,” Armin said after staring at Haradeth for a moment. “You’ve clearly gone insane. ‘We’d be less fun to stab’ is not a good basis for trust. You do still realize that, right?”

“It’s not for a human, or a sylvani, or…anything made of flesh, really. But you’ll understand once you get to know her. She’s not a threat. She’s just strange and unusual.”

“In my experience, strange and usual is the definition of threatening. Or at least untrustworthy.” Armin said, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice.

Haradeth grimaced. “You’re not talking about the Alohym, are you?”

“No, I’m not talking about the flathing Alohym.” Armin threw the next load of treasure into the chest with more force than was strictly necessary. “She lied to us, Haradeth. She lied about being the princess. She hid her father’s hoard. We came here to get funds for the resistance and Clarcia and Guiart are dead because of it.”

“We dont know that she lied,” Haradeth said. “She might have been lied to about who she was. The Alohym might have taken Karjon’s hoard after his death. It’s a bit too quick to jump to conclusions.”

Armin slammed the lid of the chest shut. “I can’t believe you are speaking in her defense, Haradeth. I thought you trusted her as far as I could throw her.”

Haradeth walked over to take the chest from Armin, but rested his hand on Armin’s shoulder first. “I don’t trust her motivations,” Haradeth said. “She wants to use our Resistance as an outlet for her grief, and weaponize us against our foes. But that doesn’t mean I think she’s a liar, or that she’d do things to deliberately put people in danger with no reason. Least of all you and Ossman.”

“So, you’re going to speak up for her?”

“I don’t like seeing someone mistrusted for the wrong reasons,” Haradeth said with a shrug. “And I don’t believe she was lying about her heritage. Especially since her lying means we’re trusting the Alohym over her.”

Armin wiped at his eyes. They were itching for some strange reason that absolutely had nothing to do with feelings of betrayal or anger. “And the hoard?”

Haradeth sighed and picked up the chest. “Did you love your mother?” Haradeth asked.

Armin blinked at the change of topic. “Of course,” he said. 

“And do you know the tale of Queen Olanni?”

“Every child does,” Armin said. “Queen Olanni, the High Queen of the Necropolis, who steals bad children from their beds and feeds them to zombies. Especially bad children who don’t finish their food, according to my mother.”

Haradeth laughed. “Exactly. So imagine Queen Olanni was real. Imagine, then, to defeat the Alohym the Resistance had to defile a grave. It could be Olanni’s, or it could be your mother’s. Both could be guarded by the Alohym. Which do you choose?”

Armin shook his head. “I see what you’re saying, but I don’t agree with the analogy. I never would have dreamed of suggesting we create dragonscale armor from Karjon’s hide, even though it’s nigh-impervious when properly infused with light. That would be far too much. But his hoard? His things? Who cares about things more than lives? Tythel does, apparently. And that…that’s unacceptable.” Armin held up a hand to forestall Haradeth’s objection. “I’ll hear her out. I know Theognis just told me those things to try to turn me against her. But damn me to darkest Shadow if I’m going to accept a weak excuse. I want to know why Guiart and Clarcia had to die, Haradeth.”

Haradeth didn’t try to defend Tythel further, just shook his head and sighed. “I think that’s the last of the chests,” he said as he settled it in place. “If we want more, we’ll need to get them from the Sylvani.”

Armin nodded. “I’ll wait here for Ossman and Aldreda. They’re the last two. You go through.” Lorathor had gone with the second wave of treasure. “I’ve seen you work the stone enough to know how to do it.”

“You were nervous about it a second ago, and now you want to operate it?” Haradeth asked with a furrowed brow.

“The Sylvani know you. The sooner they see you, the better they’ll feel – and the better I’ll feel taking my people through. Go ahead. I’ll be fine.”

Haradeth shrugged and stepped onto the portal stone. He spoke the command word, there was a flash of light, and he and the treasure were gone.

Armin breathed a sigh of relief, then checked to make sure Ossman and Aldreda weren’t coming yet. He’d set them to the task of gathering up texts and tomes he’d need to decode Theognis’ codex fully, although he already knew more than he expected. It had been a pretense to distract them. Same as sending Haradeth through the portal first.

He checked the sack he’d hidden inside a gilded chair. He was now glad he’d kept this secret from Haradeth. The godling couldn’t be trusted not to tell anyone about them. It’s not the same as what Tythel did, Armin thought. No one’s in danger.

But Tythel had been lying to them. Maybe from the beginning. And she’d been desperate to recover a single one of these. Armin couldn’t help but be suspicious as to why. Why did she want to recover the one she’d lost so badly? Was it just symbolic? Or did it have a purpose? For all Armin knew, that single one could be used to destroy the Resistance from within – or a weapon that could destroy the Alohym once and for all?

No, until he knew if he could trust her, it was far safer to keep the cache of dragon eggs safely hidden. With the portal stone working, he could return here whenever he needed. He just needed to move them away from the other treasure so no one would accidentally find them.

Not until he was ready.

Small Worlds Part 268

Ryan woke up to a mouth full of ash and a stomach that begged for food. He could feel tears trying to stream out of the corner of his eyes, but in the grips of his dehydration, all they could do was form little flecks of salt on the edges.

Crystal was there in an instant with a bottle of water. “The Hungers from that are the worst,” she said, a sparkle in her eyes. Ryan barely nodded in agreement as he sucked down the water with desperate greed. The water was sweet on his tongue, even sweeter than dehydration could account for. “It’s sugar water,” Crystal said, presumably seeing the way his forehead creased, “it’ll help take the immediate edge off the hunger. Usually not needed, but given how I remember that twist affecting me, I figured it would be a good call.”

“Thanks,” Ryan said, finally finishing the bottle. She was already handing him a stick of beef jerky, and he shoved it into his mouth with the dignity of a small child. “Did it work?” he asked between bites.

“See for yourself,” Crystal said with a wink, and for a moment Ryan was struck with how beautiful she was, and he wanted to reach out and hug her, hold- stop it. Ryan chided himself. That’s just the social Hunger speaking. The shame of the thought helped drown the fleeting feeling, and to distract himself, Ryan looked in the direction of the wormholes.

Half the original number remained. Each one was a white ring hovering in the air, and in the center of the bubble they left behind Ryan could see the impossible. Plants that looked akin to trees but with leaves that splayed out like stretching fingers and bark that shimmered like steel, dotted with tiny colorful patches that blossomed like stars. They grew above vast green fields of grass that ended in miniscule ferns, each blade as tall as a man’s waist. Through one portal he could see a mountain range that stretched far higher than any ever seen on Earth, with snow forming a middle ring around the slopes and the peaks barren from being so high they jutted out of the planet’s atmosphere. On the other side of that range was another portal, this one on the very edge of a vast desert formed in the mountain’s shadow. Another portal was near cliffs that were coated in emerald-green lichen that stretched off into the horizon over an ocean that was the purest blue.

Yet another was situated on a grassy field on the edge of a badlands that were crossed by a complex maze of hundreds of stone arches, a natural field of doors carved by some ancient and long-dried up river. Still another was at the edge of a forest, only these trees had no leaves, just a single solitary leaf that spread out like the head of a mushroom. They hung close to the ground, and small strands of some amber-gold organism stretched from the leaf’s underside to the forest floor below.

The only things that moved were the waves and the plants in the wind. There were no insects buzzing about, no birds overhead, no creatures creeping through the underbrush. It was a world teaming with life, but with no animals for mankind to displace from their natural environments. There was only the vast, primeval wilderness of this world, dominated by analogues to plants, fungi, and other, simpler forms of Earth life.

“It’s beautiful,” Ryan said, wrenching his eyes from endless rolling hills of amber grass that was dotted with incandescent seeds floating in the air to where they would grow next.

Crystal nodded in agreement. “A new home for humanity. Let’s hope you lot don’t wreck it too hard. But…the world’s got a better land to sea ratio, and it’s a bit bigger than ours anyway. I think you’ll do fine.”

Ryan winced at her words, and Crystal raised an eyebrow. “Something bothering you?” she asked.

After a moment’s consideration, Ryan laughed. “You know, I guess there is. I know this is stupid, but…I kind of feel like a pig. I’m looking at this new world and practically drooling, and outside the door is the world I’ve known my entire life. Can you feel like you’re cheating on an entire planet?”

Crystal looked like she was about to laugh, her lips curling up at the edges, and Ryan was glad that gaping at the natural beauty of this new world had helped take the edge of his Social hunger. Instead of feeling that annoying surge from earlier, he just waited for her to share in the joke. Instead, however, the laugh was strangled before it ever escaped her throat, and only half her lip curved upwards, turning amusement into a wistful smirk. “I know what you mean, really. If we could stay, if we could fix Earth, we’d be terrible for just packing up and leaving. But…the only thing we can do to save Earth is to leave. She’ll be better off without us, anyway – we were pretty terrible to her at times.”

“Yeah,” Ryan said. “Let’s hope whoever comes after us treats her better, you know? If it’s the crows or the elephants or the racoons, let’s really hope they do right by her.”

“Who knows,” Crystal said. “Maybe someday it’ll be safe for us to send messages to whoever comes next. We can check up on her, make sure they’re treating her well.”

Ryan looked at those alien vistas and shook his head. “Maybe. But…we’ll probably just have to trust it. I mean, would you ever send messages to your ex’s new significant other to make sure they’re less of an asshole than you were?”

At that, Crystal did throw back her head in an earnest laugh. “No, I suppose no,” she admitted, wiping at her eyes. “A million years trying to save this world, and at the end it comes down to a bad break-up metaphor. That’s bloody perfect. Come on,” she said standing up before he had to figure out how to respond to that. “You got some actual sleep in there, so you should be good for that Hunger. Social’s all you’ve got left, and we can finish filling that with some planning.”

Ryan nodded and followed her at. Isabel was still at the computers, studying them furiously. “What’s the good news, Izzy?”

Isabel turned and shrugged, and Ryan sighed. “What’s the news, Izzy?”

“It’s not all bad,” she said, and Ryan couldn’t help but notice the way her eyes lit up when Crystal followed him out. “The Shinto deities aren’t willing to fight, but they’re more than happy to go through early and start setting up structures for people. Same goes for a lot of individual deities. Hephestus, Ptah, Tvastar, and Ikenga are going to coordinate with Kagu-Tsuchi – all of them are forge gods  and help with overseeing it and working on some of the more complex bits, like doors and windows. Neith is going through as well with Mama Ocllo, and Zhinü to start setting up some weaving stations so we can start making clothes, and Thoth, Anahit, Wenchang Wang, and Ogma are going to be working on getting libraries going so we can start working on preserving knowledge. Kuebiko is going to be working with the agriculture deities we’ve got as well, trying to get some basic farmland figured out.”

“That all sounds like good news,” Ryan said, not wanting to admit he didn’t know who the majority of those gods were.

“It is, but it’s kind of being overwhelmed by the bad. No word form Aesir, but it sounds like they’re probably going to giving Kali a helping hand. Something about not wanting to ruin Ragnarök. The Canaanite deities aren’t willing to risk getting into direct combat. Same with the Slavic deities, although they’re at least going to protect the innocent, so that’s something. The Jade Emperor has decided they’re sitting it out, although if we win they’ll be happy to help with building on this new world. The Aztec pantheon has made it abundantly clear they intend on joining in the fight, but Quetzalcoatl wanted to make sure I understood they were still debating the proper side. So that’s a coin toss.”

“You spoke to Quetzalcoatl?” Ryan asked.

Isabel rubbed her eyes. “Yeah, he called me. I have been trying very hard not to think about how he got my number. Arthur called too. Uriel is absolutely wiped out from ferrying the wormholes. She’ll join in if she can, but our one angel is out. And none of that’s the worst of it.”

Ryan swallowed hard. “What is the worst of it?”

“Michael has said we’re interfering with the Creator’s plan. Kali is going to have some angelic backing. Arthur said that since the angels are going to be getting involved in the Eschaton cycle, they are going to be majorly depowered for going outside their mandate, but he doesn’t know how depowered they’ll be.”

“Well…I mean, we’re going to have some allies, right?” Ryan asked.

Isabel sighed. “Some. Papa Legba is willing to join the fight, and he’s talking to the other Loa. We’ve got the Slavic gods on defense, which is something, but it might not be enough. Dianmu and Cassandra are going to meet Sun Wukong, and Dianmu does not sound happy about that. We can’t count on Arthur’s demons, either – the moment they enter the field, the angels get their full power, and we’ll be overrun. Anansi is taking Horus to the Egyptians, and Horus thinks it’s likely the ones that haven’t spoken up yet will join in our side, but…we’re going to be spread thin, Ryan. Really thin. The upside is, as far as anyone who knows her is saying, Kali is probably going to spreading herself thin too. She won’t want to let any portal go unattacked. But even if she goes wide, we’re badly outnumbered.”

“Okay,” Ryan said, taking a deep breath. “That is bad. But we could still get the Aztecs, and you didn’t even mention the Hindu deities. They might still join us.”

“Might,” Isabel admitted. There were dark circles under her eyes. “Ryan…we have to be ready for the worst. We might not be able to save everyone.”

Ryan took a deep breath, steadying the surge of anger. “If we don’t, it sure as hell won’t be because we didn’t try.”

Isabel nodded.

“Loves,” Crystal said, finally speaking up. “You’re forgetting one thing.”

They both looked at her.

“Twenty-four hours ago, we weren’t sure we were going to save anyone. No matter what, as long as we get people to the other side, enough people that humanity will be able to keep going…we win. That’s all it takes. Enough people to get to the other side, and us closing the door before Kali gets through. We do that…and we stopped humanity from being wiped out. So stop being all doom and gloom. We have one job, and we’re going to get it done.”

From her smile, it at least made Isabel feel better. Ryan was too nervous to hope right now, but that was a personal problem. “You’re right,” he said with cheer he didn’t feel. “So. Let’s get this party started. Where’s first?”

Isabel checked her computer. “You two are meeting Athena and Dianmu in Salzburg. Let’s get some Austrians to space!”

And hope Kali doesn’t kill us in the process, Ryan thought, forcing himself to keep the thought off his face.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 183

Dawn crept over Hillsdale like a thief, slipping into the window and robbing Tythel of a beautiful dream where she was in Karjon’s lair with her father and Eupheme and Tellias and Armin and Ossman, and he was telling her that Nicandros had gotten sweetrolls. Then the lair had turned into a palace and she was sitting on a throne, but it was also Karjon’s horde, and she’d had her own horde of books – somehow recovered from the drowned library of Golmanni. She knew that because a fish was telling her.

The beauty had started to decrease the more logic started to intrude. 

“Good morning,” Eupheme said brightly as Tythel stirred.

Tythel groaned. “Do you ever sleep? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you sleep.”

“I sleep,” Eupheme said. “I just only do it when you aren’t in danger. Or potential danger. Or there is a possibility of danger. No matter how remote.”

Tythel forced herself up. The ache between her wings was less, and Tythel wanted to try to stretch them. As if Eupheme had read her mind, her eyes narrowed and she shook her head. “There’s always a remote possibility of danger,” Tythel murmured, shaking her head to try and clear it. “So when do you sleep?”

“Between moments,” Eupheme said. 

“I don’t know what that means,” Tythel said.

Eupheme smiled. “I know. Now, Otis stopped by. The tailor is willing to work on the unique request, discreetly. There’s a small question that still needs answering. Color.”

Tythel’s nictitating membranes flashed, clearing the last blur of sleep. “I’m sorry, but…color? Does that really matter all that much right now?”

“Well…” Eupheme hesitated, and Tythel motioned for her to go ahead as she settled into a sitting position. Eupheme moved behind her with a brush and began to work on Tythel’s hair. “You have the right to the royal colors. Purple, black, and gold. It would suit you well, I think, and it would send a clear message you are claiming your heritage.”

Tythel frowned in thought. The idea of wearing something so bright to a battlefield was a serious concern, not to mention the audacity of wearing the royal colors when she hadn’t even made a real claim to the throne. It was a step she needed to take, sending her formal claim to the various nobel houses. Assuming Duke d’Monchy hadn’t done that already. No, he can’t. He needs the locket to seal it properly. So that was something she had to do, and it felt wrong to do so before she’d made an official statement. And then…that would be that. She’d officially have declared her intention to rule once the Alohym were defeated.

“Your hair,” Eupheme said, breaking Tythel’s train of thought.

“What about it?” 

“It changed. It’s…coarser. And…well, feel for yourself.”

Eupheme bought some of her hair around, and Tythel ran her hands through it. There were far fewer strands than before, and each one was significantly thicker than it had been. It was like running her hand through thin copper wires. “It’s like scales,” Tythel said after a moment. “I was wondering like that. Hair isn’t something dragons and humans share in common. I guess this is the next closest thing. I figured either this would happen, or it would fall out. Still might, I suppose.”

“You don’t seem bothered by that.”

Tythel shrugged. “Hair is something humans have. I’ve gotten used to it, and it doesn’t bother me enough to cut it off, but I won’t mind if it’s gone.”

“You are a strange woman.” Eupheme said, and Tythel could hear the smile in her voice. “So…the colors?”

“I’m not sure.” Tythel explained her earlier thoughts about claiming the color too soon. 

“Then we could have it made for when you make the claim.” Eupheme said. There was an edge to her voice, one Tythel couldn’t quite place.

“Is something bothering you?”

“Tythel. You’re my friend. I’m here for you and I’m fighting in this resistance. But you’re also my princess and will be queen one day. So far, though, you haven’t done much in that regard. Anything, if I’m being blunt, aside from that one statement in the aftermath of killing Rephylon. I know you’re hesitating on this, but after what Otis told you right now…we need you to be what you are. We need to know there is something after the Alohym are driven back, that we aren’t just going to replace them with more chaos. More riots and death. You can be that symbol.”

“I’m not certain about that,” Tythel said. “I’m…not good at being human. I can’t smile and wave without the expression looking fake. I can’t read people, to try to figure out what’s going on beneath the surface. The only time I’ve ever led anything, the first time it was a raid that ended with everyone getting captured and us barely escaping. The second time Tellias ended up…ended up like that.” Tythel gestured in the direction of Tellias’ bed. It was hidden by a curtain, for privacy, but with her hearing Tythel could hear the faint rasping of his labored breaths.

“What happened to Tellias wasn’t your fault,” Eupheme said.

“Wasn’t it, though?” Tythel asked. “He was there because he was following me. I should have sent him to rejoin with the resistance.”

“And then you and I would be dead. Or do you think we could have handled the three of them alone?”

Tythel shook her head. “I don’t know. Maybe you’re right. But that’s not the point. I didn’t think about the danger I was putting you both in. I was just focused on ending the threat. That’s been me since I started this. Everything I’ve done…I haven’t thought about the consequences. And look where it’s gotten us! Nicandros serves the Alohym. Tellias is in a limbo between life and death. Armin and Ossman went off to a dangerous swamp because I was too afraid of giving up my father’s horde. What right do I have to lead anything?”

Eupheme continued to work the brush through the coarse strands of Tythel’s hair. She was silent for several seconds. “You’re aware of it,” Eupheme said. “You’re aware of it, and you regret it. You’ll do better in the future.”

“And if I don’t?” Tythel said, feeling very small.

“Then I’ll convince you to use your position to create a new government. Abdicate your throne after this is all done, once stability is restored. But right now, we just need a symbol. We can figure the rest of it out later. But with that symbol, we hope. And hope is in very short supply.”

“Promise me,” Tythel said. “Promise me that if I won’t be right, you’ll tell me. Promise me you won’t let me become…I’ve studied history, Eupheme. I know what bad rulers can cause. Even ones that aren’t malicious. Incompetent rulers cause famines, wars. They make plagues worse. They watch their people riot and end up in civil wars and they don’t even understand how it happened. Promise me that you won’t let me become that.”

“That’s the final tasks of the Umbrists,” Eupheme said. “I promise.”

Tythel didn’t need to wipe her eyes. The transformation had taken care of that. Her nicitating membranes were still needed to take care of the burning. “Thank you. Then…I suppose one in the royal colors would be good. The rest should be in practical colors, though. I’m not going into a battlefield dressed like a flower. Browns and greens that will hide me, thank you very much.”

“I’ll get two in the right colors. Just in case.” 

It was nice to hear that the smile was back in Eupheme’s voice.