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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.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 182

After he was done with Tellias, Tythel and Eupheme let Otis lead them to beds to tend to their wounds. “Light, you have wings now,” he whispered when Tythel removed her cloak.

Even with everything going on, even with her worries about Nicandros, Tythel couldn’t help but smile. She’d only gotten to fly once since she’d gotten them, and she laid on her stomach to stretch them over the side of the bed so Otis could get to her back. The deep gash between her shoulders pulsed with pain when she moved. “Do you think you could so that up well enough I could fly again soon?” she asked.

Otis leaned forward to remove the bandage, and Tythel hissed involuntarily when the bindings were pulled away. Eupheme had done the best she could, but Otis was an actual doctor. “I know absolutely nothing about wings,” he said, carefully scraping something off her scales, “but I do know injury. That one’s deep. Does it hurt when you move the wings?”

Tythel nodded emphatically. “Shadow takes me, it hurts.”

“Then whoever stabbed you must have gotten through the flight muscles,” Otis said. “This is going to sting a little.”

He had undersold it. The liquid he put onto the injury made it flare up like he’d poured liquid metal into the injury. Probably worse than that would have felt – given how resistant dragons were to heat, Tythel suspected that molten steel would have hurt less. “What?” she gasped when he was done.

“Disinfectant. The best there is. Makes sure the wound won’t fester. You know its working because it burns.”

“Then it works very well,” Tythel muttered.

“You’d be surprised how often I hear that,” Otis said. “I can sew this up. But you’re not flying until it heals. The cut went into the muscles below. They’ll knit back together. Muscles are good at that. At least, they would for a human. You’re the first half-dragon I’ve treated, so I’m not certain exactly how it works.”

“I know dragons heal like humans” Tythel said.

“Then you will fly again. But I can do very little to accelerate it besides make sure the wound is clean and stitched back together. If you try to fly before its ready, you’re just going to reopen the wound. I think you got lucky – there are likely other muscles back here that, if they’d been cut, meant you wouldn’t have been able to even move them without reopening the injury.”

Tythel shuddered at the thought. She felt Otis press something sharp against her back, and then withdraw it. “Problem?”

“I…the needle isn’t going through easily.” Otis sighed. “Of course not. Dragonscale is hard for swords to pierce, if the stories are true.”

“So…what does that mean?” Tythel asked, worry making sweat break out across her forehead.

“I’m going to have to use a binding agent instead. You’ll need to make sure you don’t move until it dries and hardens. It’s as good as stitches, and will fall off on its own in time. That’s also the biggest downside – it means it’ll fall off before you’re fully healed, and if you try using your wings then, you’ll tear it open.”

“I understand. How long until it heals?”

“If you were a human stabbed in the same place? I’d give it a month, maybe two. For a dragon…I don’t know if you heal faster or slower than we do. I’d say to avoid even trying until you’ve had two months. When you move the wings, if the pain is more of a dull ache than a sharp pain, you’re probably fine.”

“I’m going to hold your word to that,” Eupheme said from the other bed.

Tythel grimaced. “What if it becomes a dull ache sooner?” she asked.

“Then you’re going to be cautious and not take risks, your highness,” Eupheme said, her voice firm. “I’m not having you tear your back open just when you’ve started healing.”

Two months. It could be worse. It could be like her eye, unlikely to ever work again. That’s probably how long we’ll need to meet back with the others, Tythel thought. “Fine.”

“Your word?” Eupheme asked.

“My word,” Tythel said.

The binding agent stung less than the disinfectant had, although it still wasn’t a pleasant sensation. “What is that, anyway?”

“Glue,” Otis said.

Tythel looked over her shoulder at him. “You just glued my back together?”

“It’s something the Alohym brought with them. A special type of glue, one of the strongest glues there is. I normally use it over stitches, to seal the wound, but it works fine on its own.”

“I’ve never heard of glue that could hold skin together.”

“It’s a fairly new treatment. The Alohym don’t use it that way – or if they do, they don’t mention it. A doctor I know who works with the Alohym field hospitals has found it’s a good way to provide battlefield injury treatment. Seals them up until something better can be done, if something else is needed. In your case…it will hold.”

“Thank you,” Tythel said. Eupheme and her both had other injuries that needed attention, and Otis tended to them with swift professionalism. Tythel tried not to note that Eupheme bore the treatment much more stoically.

“I don’t suppose you know where we can find a tailor that is both discreet and willing to handle odd requests?” Eupheme asked when Otis was done.

“For the wings, you mean?” Otis asked. Eupheme nodded in agreement, and Otis considered for a moment. “Are you staying the night? I might have someone for you, but I need to make sure they’re available.”

Tythel looked at Eupheme, who gave her a slight nod. “We will,” Tythel said.

She almost felt bad knowing Eupheme intended to spend the night spying on the staff to ensure there weren’t any unpleasant surprises.

Almost.

 

Small Worlds Part 267

“There are concerns,” Xuanzang said, “about the Eschaton Cycle.”

“About the cycle as a whole?” Dianmu asked, leaning forward and resting her elbows on her knees. She fixed Xuanzang with an intense gaze. “I was expecting you to say this is about me.”

“Because you’ve repeatedly ignored imperial decrees to cease your activities among Humanity and return to the Jade Palace?” Xuanzang smiled, but this time it didn’t quite reached his eyes. “While  your actions there have been a source of consternation, no one was really prepared to fault you for what you were doing there. You were quiet, you were discreet, and you were helping people. And you were in mourning, and that is something everyone believed afforded you a great deal of leeway.”

“Believed?” Dianmu asked. “I’m not sure I like the implication of the past tense there.”

“I’m telling you what others are saying,” Xuanzang held up a hand in a placating gesture. “You are not without allies here. I count myself among them. But you need to know of your reputation. I just ask that you don’t shoot the messenger.”

Dianmu settled back some. “Apologies.”

“None needed.”

Someone – or, Cassandra assumed, something that was humanoid – came in with a tray containing a pot of tea and three cups. Xuanzang smiled up at the figure, and conversation paused as drinks were poured. The aroma was heavenly, and Cassandra did her best to enjoy it. It was hard. The way this conversation was going had soured her appetite.

“Now, where was I?” Xuanzang said as he placed his tea on the table. “The view now is that you have become somewhat…erratic. Your refusal of past summons does you no favors there. Working with…Crystal, I understand she calls herself now?” Dianmu nodded in response to the question, and Xuanzang continued. “Well, working with Crystal has made things worse. Her reputation is still that she is a source of trouble, a destabilizing influence on her fellow gods.”

“We’ve been friends of millenia,” Dianmu said, and Cassandra noted the defensive tone.

“Yes. Tell me, Dianmu, how often have you wondered about my judgement when it comes to Sun Wukong because of our friendship?”

Dianmu nodded in assent of the point. “It is different, I’d argue, but I imagine you’d say the same if our positions were reversed.”

“Oh yes. Quite loudly.” This time, the smile was more genuine.

“I don’t understand why that’s still a problem. We know now that the Eschaton Cycle is real. Or is that still in question?”

Xuanzang shook his head firmly. “No, I know of none here who still doubt that it is real. The world is coming to an end. The age of Man is drawing to a close. That is now seen as inevitable. The problem now, however, is if it’s something we should or could avoid.”

“It can be avoided,” Dianmu said. “We’ve uncovered a way.”

“Yes. This plan to create portals, evacuate the entire planet. I have to admit, it’s an inspired choice. Meeting the letter of the law while absolutely violating the spirit. I have a friend who would approve a great deal of that course of action.”

Dianmu’s lips tightened into a thin line. Cassandra didn’t need to wonder who Xuanzang was talking about. Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. While Cassandra knew that time and retelling had probably distorted the story a great deal, it seemed Sun Wukong’s reputation for being a troublemaker had not been inaccurate.

I want to meet him. Cassandra had fallen in love with Journey to the West in college, and had read the entire thing when the course had only required selected readings. Given that she’d been working on her pre-med program, sparing time to read that much had been a luxury she really shouldn’t have been able to afford. She’d been so engrossed though, it had just been a matter of sacrificing some nights when she would have been drinking instead. She’d considered that time well spent. Something in the impulsive Monkey King had spoken to her in a way most fictional character’s didn’t. However, they weren’t here so Cassandra could fangirl over one of her favorite characters in literature. No matter how much she wanted to.

Besides, Dianmu might actually kill her, given how unhappy she was at any reference to Sun Wukong.

“It’s a solid plan,” Dianmu said, her voice firm. “It even has a curator’s blessing.”

“A fallen Curator,” Xuanzang said politely.

“He filed the proper paperwork to fall,” Dianmu countered.

“And I am glad to hear that. Yet…” Xuanzang held up a hand to forestall Dianmu’s counterargument. “Dianmu. I’m trying to prepare you for what’s waiting for you.”

“Then can we focus on that?” Dianmus said. “I’ve dealt with attacks on my character before.”

“Of course. Your domain has made you enemies, and many of them are taking this opportunity to speak against you.”

“Storm goddesses aren’t popular here?” The words were out of Cassandra’s mouth before she could stop herself, but now that they had cleared her lips she was glad to have spoken. The two gods seemed to have forgotten she was there, or at least that she might not understand everything they were talking about.

“Dianmu also have dominion over hidden crimes,” Xuanzang said, when Dianmu motioned for him to explain. “It’s made her less than popular among those whose secrets she’s brought to light. Although it has made her excellent at rooting out Anthropophages and other monsters that dwell among humanity.”

Cassandra was very grateful for the tea at that moment. It would have been difficult to avoid fidgeting without something to distract her from the conversation going down this path. “I see,” Cassandra said, once the tea had given her adequate time to cover her discomfort. “No one likes a cop.”

Xuanzang barked out a laugh. “Something like that, yes,” he said, his eyes still sparkling with amusement. “Very well,” he said, turning back to Dianmu. “Allow me to speak plainly then.”

“I certainly wasn’t stopping you,” Dianmu murmured.

Xuanzang waved away the reproach. “Kali has sent messages to us, and to other pantheons. She acknowledges the Eschaton Cycle, and insists that it is a natural part of the universe. That it staves off Entropy. Is that true?”

Dianmu grimaced.

“I feared as much. There are many among the Heavenly Court that do not believe we have a right to try and change something so fundamental to the order of the cosmos. If, as long as the Eschaton Cycle is allowed to continue, the universe will endure forever, who are we to place humanity above the rest of the Universe?”

“We aren’t, though,” Dianmus said. “This plan will fulfill the requirements of the cycle. Human civilization as we know it will end. The sun will be restored, and Earth will continue and, eventually, evolve new sentient life to repeat the process.”

“And in that time, the knowledge stored in human minds will be re-created. We are on the verge of, in just a few generations, leaving our Solar System. This will set humanity back, but it will still allow them to reach that before the next step in the cycle. We will spread across the stars, and in the process disrupt the natural order of things. What if that is the catalyst for the march towards Heat Death, or for Dark Energy to accelerate to the point where it will eventually overcome gravity and even the bonds within atoms? What if, in doing so, we sentence the universe to death?” At Dianmu’s expression, he shook his head. “This is not what I believe. If we are not meant to save Humanity, I believe we will fail in attempting to do so – but that does not mean we should not attempt. Even the gods are not stronger than Destiny, so there is no risk in trying.”

“But…”

“But the Jade Emperor disagrees. Given the source, given that it is you coming here, and given that there is a risk of sentencing the universe to a slow death…he has forbidden anyone to aid you.” Xuanzang put down his tea. “I’m sorry, Dianmu. So long as the fundamental order of reality is threatened, we have been forbidden from helping.”

Dianmu sighed. “His decision is final?”

“It is possible his mind could be swayed, given enough of the one thing you are soley lacking.”

“Time,” Dianmu said.

“Time,” Xuanzang agreed. “The only ones who would follow you…well, they’d have to be someone who would defy the Jade Emperor. Someone who has proven they care little for the decrees of Heaven. Someone who is a bit of a rebel themselves.”

Dianmu rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Please…please tell me you are not going to suggest what I think you are going to suggest.”

“I am not fond of lying,” Xuanzang said, and Cassandra had to fight back an urge to smile as Xuanzang continued. “So tell me. How desperate are you?”

Dianmu sighed. “Very. Fine. Tell me…how do I reach Sun Wukong?”

Cassandra couldn’t contain her smile any longer.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 181

Otis worked in silence for a bit. “He’ll live,” Otis said after a bit. “I’m sorry, your highness, but that’s all I can say. He’ll likely never wake up again, and he’ll certainly never be the same.” He gave her a sidelong glance. “At least, not without the Heartflame. You’re certain it will work?”

Tythel did her best not to look at how dangerously collapsed parts of Tellias’ skull looked, tried her hardest not to listen to how ragged his breathing was. “No,” she whispered. “But I have to try.”

Otis nodded and began to pack up his medical equipment. “I don’t…I can’t afford to cover the tax after the two months,” Otis said. “Not without bankrupting myself quickly.”

“It won’t be a problem,” Tythel said. “Light and Shadow, my father’s horde is…it won’t be a problem.”

“Good.” Otis sighed. “I’m surprised to find you back here. After everything that happened in Edgeminster, I figured you’d want to be with the resistance. Reclaiming your throne.”

“We were separated in the ruins of Hallith,” Tythel said. It felt like years ago. “And we were leading away a monster that was chasing us. What happened in Edgeminster?” The question was an afterthought. She was so worried about Tellias, she’d missed the dour turn to his eyes, the way the word came out as a harsh whisper.

“You haven’t heard? Then…I’m sorry to be the one to inform you. There was a massacre. Hundreds are dead. Maybe thousands.”

Tythel stared at him, her eyes growing wide, and Eupheme gasped in surprise. “Tell me everything. Please.”

Otis sat back down. “What I’ve heard was mostly rumor and hearsay. The Alohym have not released a statement, and when they do it will probably be full of lies. There was…someone in Edgeminster. An Underfolk. That much, most of the rumors agree on. The Alohym arrived hunting him, including a thing that looked like a human encased in the carapace of an Alohym. And…someone else.”

Tythel nodded, feeling numbness creeping in. Another like Catheon, she thought. The same kind of being that had nearly killed all three of them. And there were more of them. What if the Alohym had an army of those things? They couldn’t fight that. No one could fight that. If they were waiting…wait. Her brain started to catch up to what Otis had said. And, more importantly, how he had said it. That hesitation, the way his eyes had gone to the window, a mixture of fear and anger creeping into his voice… “Someone else?”

“The hunt for the Underfolk became dangerous,” Otis said, like she hadn’t spoken. “A bell tower exploded. Everyone agrees on that. Then, somehow, the Underfolk hijacked the song network. He or she or…I never learned a good word for the Underfolk maharim, but it probably wasn’t one of them, since they never leave the caves. Although these days, none of the Underfolk do, so who knows?” Otis shook his head. “Anyway, the Underfolk takes over the song network in Edgeminster and starts playing what the Alohym and the…other person were talking about.”

There it is again. “Someone else.” “Other person.” Each time like he was avoiding speaking the name for fear of invoking some terrible curse. “Otis…who is it?”

“They were willing to destroy the town to get the Underfolk. Made it very, very clear that…that they didn’t care what happened to the people in there.” Otis’ voice cracked on the word care, and Tythel knew he was thinking about his wife, and how well the Alohym’s ‘mercy’ had gone for him. “They made it abundantly clear that the town was nothing to them, that Edgeminster could burn, even their own soldiers could burn. The entire town heard it, including the Alohym’s troops. No one knows who shot first. Some say it was the soldiers. Some say it was the townspeople. Some say it was the soldiers shooting at each other, or at the Alohym, or at…at her guest. No one’s positive. But…the Alohym shot last. That much is certain. They’ve got some of their ships hovering over the town all day round right now, and they say there’s a dozen Alohym personally on the ground, hunting down rebels. They say that the rebels include their own soldiers. They also say you’re there, fighting alongside them, or that you were there and died, or that there was no Underfolk and it was you instead, but…” Otis gestured to Tythel. “At least I know that rumor is a lie.”

Tythel took a deep breath. “Eupheme. We…we can’t sleep tonight. We have to get back up the mountain, get my father’s horde. The resistance will need it, and Tellias will need it so Otis can keep him alive.”

“All of it?” Eupheme asked, her voice carefully neutral.

“All we can carry,” Tythel said, giving Eupheme a slight nod. The Alohym slaughtered an entire town. She couldn’t wrap her head around that. It was too big. Armies clashed. People died. But cities…cities were wiped out in wars, but this felt different. Worse. In the past, it was done with swords and arrows and fire. Now it’s done with unlight and from ships that fly too high for anyone to fight against. 

In their initial invasion, the Alohym had avoided damaging civilian centers. It seemed those days were past. As dead as what passed for peace these days.

“Understood,” Eupheme said, and Tythel could practically feel the relief radiating off her.

Otis, likewise, looked relieved, and Tythel hated to shatter that relief, but she had to know. “Otis…who was it? The person you don’t want to name, I mean.”

“I don’t know for certain,” Otis said. “But some people claim to have heard the Alohym speaking to him, and some of the descriptions of him match…they match.”

“They match what?”

The next word was like a dagger straight to her heart.

“Nicandros. I’m sorry, your highness, but it sounds like Nicandros.”

“Impossible,” Tythel said, although she knew even as the word left her lips she was saying it not because it was impossible, but because she didn’t want it to be impossible. “Nicandros gave up everything to fight the Alohym. Everything. He only stopped when his son signed up with them. He wouldn’t…he would never betray us. He’d never work with them.”

“Never?” Otis said. “He was…he was close to Freda. Not me. But from what she told me, from what I saw, Nicandros was a man who would do whatever he thought was necessary. His hatred of the Alohym was only eclipsed by his love for his son, and he would do anything to protect his Tomah.”

“Tomah is dead,” Tythel said, the words coming out far harsher than she intended. “I should know. I killed him with my own hands.” As if their mention reminded them they existed, her hands started to shake. “There’s nothing else Nicandros can do for Tomah. All he has left is hating the Alohym.”

“No,” Eupheme said quietly, putting a hand on Tythel’s shoulder. “Tythel…he has someone else he can convince himself to hate.”

Tythel didn’t mean to let the sob out. Without tears, it was a harsh, ragged sound, and she clamped it down before it could be followed by more. Eupheme’s hand on her shoulder tightened, and Otis looked at her with eyes full of sorrow.

“There’s something else,” he said. “Some of the rumors carry the exact words. One in particular…he was demanding the Alohym give him his son back. Just like they offered…pardon the language. Just like they offered “that bitch her father.”

Sorrow is a powerful emotion, but it has little it can offer to hold off the advance of dread. Rephylon had offered her Karjon. Had offered her Karon returned to life with Alohym technology. Nicandros…what would Nicandros do if it meant he could have Tomah back?

Shadow take me, that’s the wrong question, Tythel thought, the fear taking root in her heart. It would be much better to ask what he wouldn’t do to get Tomah back? 

For the life of her, Tythel couldn’t think of a single thing for that list.

 

Small Worlds Part 266

Xuanzang lead them up an impossible bridge to one of the sections of the Heavenly Palace. There were people up here – other gods, Cassandra guessed, and probably some other beings that didn’t fit into the normal categories of God, Monster, or Human. She’d known from Bast that demons and angels did exist, and Nabu was a Curator – a concept she still didn’t fully understand – so these people were probably in a group like that. I’ll just think of them as Spirits until I get a better word. They couldn’t all be gods, that Cassandra was sure of – there were far too many of them. Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands.

It was a city contained in a palace, and Cassandra felt like she was an intruder among this sea of serene faces. Cassandra took a step closer to Dianmu, waiting for someone to see her, recognize what she was, and cause an uproar. How could they not know what she was? She could hear all their hearts, couldn’t they hear how her own was pounding. Try to relax she told herself. You’re being absurd. Dianmu wouldn’t bring you here to let you get torn apart, and if something happens, you’re not helpless…and Dianmu will protect you. 

Something in that thought rang a bit hollow, and Cassandra had to turn the thought over to contemplate it further. In truth, Cassandra was realizing she knew very little about the goddess she’d followed to this beautiful land of floating palaces and impossible bridges. Bast hadn’t mentioned Dianmu, and all Cassandra had really seen Dianmu do is annihilate a host of Cardiophages with sunlight.

Cassandra’s heart started to beat even harder. Ryan had promised her protection, but what if this was Dianmu’s way of getting rid of the Anthropophage? Bring her to the Heavenly Palace, out her to the other gods up here, let them tear her apart, and then go back sad to Ryan and say “So sorry, I did everything I could, but I was outnumbered?”

Stop it, Cassandra told herself. It wasn’t impossible, but if Dianmu wanted to do kill Cassandra, there were about a dozen better ways to do it – including having told Ryan he had to choose between helping Cassandra and Dianmu’s support, and then cutting her down when Ryan chose Dianmu. Why wouldn’t he? With the entire world at stake, every bit of aid mattered. The fact that they were going to work with Horus again, knowing what he was and what he had done, made that abundantly clear. There was no reason to believe Dianmu was that vicious or petty.

And yet, Cassandra worried. It must have shown on her face, because Dianmu gave her a curious look, and slowed down slightly to let Cassandra catch up to her. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“I just…feel exposed,” Cassandra said, after a momentary hesitation.

Dianmu’s forehead furrowed. “Because of your condition?”

Your condition. Such a delicate way of putting it. You have an insatiable hunger for hearts. It’s a condition. “Yes.”

“I understand. I think it’s good that we encountered Xuanzang first. He’s a very understanding sort. He spent centuries standing up for…him, after all.”

“Sun Wukong?”

Dianmu nodded. “He’s impulsive, reckless, and an absolute pain to deal with for any extended period of time. He aided Xuanzang on the Journey as a penance for everything he had done in the Kingdom of Heaven. Xuanzang made no friends defending him, yet he did anyway. He has this absurd belief that with patience and understanding, even the most monstrous being can be reformed.”

Cassandra’s heart sped up further. “Absurd belief?”

“Yes. Absolutely absurd that he holds onto it, in the fact of so many people insisting he is wrong. And yet he’s been proven right, time and time again. It’s almost like the belief is absurd not because of what he believes, but because those that refuse to believe it create self-fulfilling prophecies for themselves. Treat someone like a monster and watch them act like a monster. Treat them with respect, and they often live up to earning that expectation.” Dianmu gave Cassandra a level gaze. “I’ve never heard of an Anthropophage reforming. Yet I’ve also never heard of one trying. I’d have faith in any who attempted.” Her eyes slipped over to Xuanzang and back to Cassandra, and Dianmu winked. “If such a being existed, I’d like to meet them.”

“It would be…interesting,” Cassandra said, knowing how weak her voice sounded. Can she read my mind? Or perhaps thousands of years of knowing people had given Dianmu some insight into how people thought.  Given that Dianmu didn’t respond to Cassandra’s mental inquiry, it seemed like that was the more likely option. But one data point was hardly conclusive.

Cassandra gave Dianmu a smile, and very determinedly imaged the poised goddess shoving a finger up her own nose and rooting around. It was difficult to get the mental image to form, but once it did, she watched Dianmu’s eyes carefully. There was no reaction. If she’d seen what Cassandra had thought, she was impossibly good at hiding her reactions.

“Thank you,” Cassandra said, realizing she’d been staring blankly at Dianmu for the last dozen steps.

Dianmu cleared her throat and gave a nearby being a sideling glance before turning her gaze back to Cassandra. “For what? Idle speculation?”

Cassandra bit her cheek and nodded. “It’s an interesting intellectual exercise,” she said, a bit too loudly. Xuanzang didn’t turn around, but his head tilted to the side.

“Mind if I intrude into the discussion?” he asked.

Cassandra flushed, glad he couldn’t see them.

“Perhaps later,” Dianmu said smoothly. “Girl talk.” She winked at Cassandra.

“I see.” Xuanzang did look at them now, and there was a sparkle in his eyes. “Well, in that case, I suggest you table the discussion for now. We’re here.”

“Here,” apparently, was home that was comparatively humble to the splendor around them. Comparatively was a relative term – it was still a mansion in the Tang dynasty style, six smaller buildings that wrapped around an open courtyard with a four pointed pavilion in the center. But unlike the other buildings they’d seen so far, the walls were simple wood and relatively unadorned, the roofs green tiles and nothing fancier, and the jīnzhuān bricks were replaced with simple clay ones. It was still gorgeous, but it had a humble beauty.

Perfect, in fact, for the man that was leading them now.

Xuanzang led them to one of the buildings. There was a place where they could take off their shoes before entering, and inside were simple fabric slippers to cover their feet. Cassandra did so and sat on the floor next to Dianmu when Xuanzang motioned for them to do so.

“The Jade Emperor has concerns,” Xuanzang said, the human fading from his eyes, “about your recent activities, Dianmu. You are developing a reputation as being somewhat of a rogue, and there are…concerns.”

Dianmu leaned forward. “Tell me everything.”

Cassandra settled in to listen.