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Small Worlds part 218

Ryan had expected a battlefield.

It was night in North America when he set foot in Grant, a town he’d never thought he’d returned to after the encounter with the mummies of lost Ys. It had been almost a blip on his radar, noteworthy to him mainly as the first time he and Athena had fought side by side. Mainly, it had been a reminder of how little regard Bast and Moloch held for human life.

Now that he was back here, he expected to walk into another war zone. Whatever horrific monsters Bast had conjured running through the streets, the civilians of Grant shooting from windows and stores. He hadn’t expected the silence.

It wasn’t the normal silence one associated with a sleepy small town in rural America. That silence was comfortable, like a warm blanket on a cold night. This silence? It had a harsh, metallic edge to it. The silence that came after a car crash or an explosion, like a ringing in your ears that’s hiding the screams. “Are we too late?” He said.

Dianmu shook her head next to him. She’d already drawn a glaive out of her nanoverse, and was giving the empty street a suspicious gaze. “There were still flashes on the Zoisphere. There are people still alive here.”

Nabu stood on the other side. He looked as calm and composed as Ryan remembered, and it was both comforting and deeply disturbing to have Nabu back again. If he pulls out a notebook, I might scream, Ryan thought, then pushed the thought aside. It wasn’t important. He had to manage. He could deal with his old trauma after he saved whatever was left of this town. “Come on,” he said and started to walk down the empty street.

There were signs something had happened here. The McDonald’s the passed had its windows shattered, and a strong smell of offal wafted from that building. Grant’s one Cafe also had a broken window, and through the window Ryan could see a hand stretched out from under a table, the rest of the body hidden by the booths. He turned on his divine sight to confirmed what he already suspected – whoever that hand belonged to was dead, and had been for some time, their body cooled down to the same temperature as the floor beneath them. Dried blood had pooled there, attracting flies.

The next store, the town’s lone bookstore, had a dead body propped up against the door. Ryan walked over to the corpse. This man, whoever he had been, looked like he was in his late thirties, early forties. He might have been handsome in life. It was hard to tell. Death had not been kind to him. His mouth and eyes were both opened wide, frozen in the terror of his final moments, and someone – or some thing – had torn open his chest and ripped out the heart.

Ryan stepped back, fighting a wave of nausea. He’d fought against gods and monsters, but he’d never been so close to a dead body when there wasn’t an immediate threat. It was something different entirely than seeing one in the moment of a fight. There was a silence, a stillness. Like a burnt out house, once full of life and joy and hope, now broken and shattered and charred. “What the hell could have done that?” Ryan asked.

Dianmu and Nabu stepped closer to see what he meant. “His heart’s been taken,” Nabu said, with the dispassion of someone who had seen countless dead bodies.

“An ammit?” Dianmu asked, leaning down to inspect. Ryan took both of their focus on the dead body as an excuse to look away and watch for any encroaching threats.

“Unlikely,” Nabu said after a moment’s consideration. “They usually only feast after the person’s already dead. This man’s heart was removed still beating. Perhaps a loup garou?”

Ryan heard a squelching sound from behind him and forced himself not to look. It was bad enough to imagine what they were doing in their investigation of the man’s body. Seeing it would have been even worse. After everything you’ve been through, you’re squeamish about this? Ryan wondered.

But it was different. There was something strange and unnatural about it, without adrenaline pumping through his veins and keeping his mind focused on the immediate threat. This was something different, something colder. It was frightening in a way he couldn’t quite put his finger on.

“No,” Dianmu said after a moment. Her voice wasn’t quite as collected as Nabu’s – there was a hint of underlying sorrow to it. She, at least, was aware of the tragedy that this man’s life was cut short. “There’s no other injuries on his body. Have you ever known one of them to just eat the heart if their victim was capable of running. Besides – Bast hates canines.”

Nabu made a thoughtful sound, but didn’t argue. “How about an aswang? I know they eat more than just the heart, but if they only had time to eat one organ…”

“It’s possible,” Dianmu conceded. “But I don’t think it’s likely. We’d smell it if an aswang had been in this town in the last month. You never forget a stench like that. I think we’re dealing with something new.”

“You might be right. But what could have arisen so quickly-”

Ryan lost track of their conversation. Someone was coming, running towards Ryan. Whoever he was, he was unmistakably human, wearing a t-shirt with some dark pattern on it and jeans. Ryan raised his hand and motioned the man over.

The man turned and dashed towards Ryan, passing under a street lamp as he approached. The harsh light threw the man into sharp relief. That dark pattern on his shirt was blood, and it ran up his neck to his chin. The man’s eyes were wild. Oh damn it’s a zombie it’s a goddamn zombie. Ryan raised his hands, reaching out for the equations that governed reality.

As if in response to Ryan’s threat, the approaching man dropped to all fours, taking the shape of a loping feiline.

You’re responsible for this, Ryan thought, and with a sudden shout of rage he didn’t realize he’d been holding back, Ryan threw out his hand and let a bolt of lightning arc from his fingers into the charging creature. It through the thing back and drew both Nabu and Dianmu’s attention to the threat.

“Any of you know what runs like a man and can turn into the ugliest panther you’ve ever seen?” Ryan asked as the cat-thing struggled to get back to its feet.

“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” Dianmu confirmed.

“Me either.” Ryan began to stalk forward. “Let’s ask it what it is.”

He was so focused on the threat in front of him, he didn’t notice the other eyes drawn by his attack.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 114

Dawn was cresting over the horizon as they broke off the road and prepared to make camp. The rest of the trip out of the town had been conducted in silence. Every muscle in Tythel’s body ached from being carried over Tellias’ shoulder for hours, and she’d had to fight the urge throughout to try and shift and make herself comfortable. You’re pretending to be a corpse; she reminded herself, a mantra that was repeated over and over again.

Leaving the Inn had been easier than Tythel had expected. Far too easy. There were bound to be Writ Hunters trailing them, looking to claim the ‘prize.’ Eupheme has whispered that, so low that only Tythel could hear her, and the entire time they’d traveled from town, Tythel had been able to confirm that with the distant sound of footsteps dogging their heels. No more than five of them, as far as Tythel could tell.

A far more manageable number than what they’d had in the inn, but still too many for Tythel’s liking.

Tellias dumped her unceremoniously onto the ground, muttering an apology as she hit the forest floor. There was no reason for him to treat her as anything other than a dead body, after all. She was valuable, but it wouldn’t make sense for him to keep her in pristine condition.

Knowing that didn’t help her desire to kick Tellias in the back for tossing her.

Tellias and Eupheme dragged some downed branches to cover Tythel, then they got to work setting up camp. Tythel took advantage of the time and cover to surreptitiously work out the kinks in her arms and legs. She couldn’t resist anything that might cause rustling, but flexing her toes and fingers wouldn’t show from above. Once feeling had returned to her hands and feet, she started rhythmically tensing and untensing her arms and legs, as well as her stomach and neck.

I’d kill for the chance to stretch properly, Tythel thought. The little bit of flexing was helping with some of the tension from being carried like a sack of potatoes over an armored shoulder for four or five leagues, but she desperately wanted a chance to get up and move about properly.

Also, her bad eye itched. Her eye had itched for the last hour. Tythel swore that as soon as she could move, she’d rub the thing out of its shadow-damned socket, so it would never bother her again. It was maddening to have an itch like that, one where her very survival depended on refusing to scratch.

Patience, Tythel, she reminded herself. Their pursuers had stopped as soon as they’d diverged from the path, making their own camp further down the forest. They were far enough away that without Tythel’s ears, they could have remained completely unheard. She didn’t know how they were remaining unseen – or, more concerning, how they were doing their observation.

“You think we’re being followed?” Tellias asked Eupheme. His voice was still echoing in the helmet, but underneath it, Tythel could hear a measure of strain.

“I think we’d know if we weren’t,” Eupheme said. “I think someone would make it very clear if that was the case.”

Tythel didn’t need to think too hard to read the subtext there. Fortunately, it seemed that was true for Tellias as well, who grunted in acknowledgment of the point. If Eupheme hadn’t been right, Tythel would have seized the opportunity to inform them. If just to get the chance to move.

“We can’t sleep,” Tellias said, his voice low. “Or at least, one of us can’t.”

Again, a veiled meaning, one Tythel didn’t have too much trouble following. She was capable of remaining motionless and breathing shallowly so long as she was awake. Asleep-

“Yes. One of us snores quite loudly.” There was a joking edge to Eupheme’s voice, and Tellias snorted in amusement.

Tythel had to frown. This was a veiled meaning, but she was absolutely lost. Tellias and Eupheme both didn’t snore in their sleep, so it couldn’t be they were talking about either of them. Was snore perhaps a coded phrase of some kind? Tythel turned it over in her mind. It could refer to a roar, although that didn’t quite add up. That could be about the difficulty of getting Tellias out of his armor without her aid…although Tythel had no idea how that would be a snore. Perhaps they meant…

Or, just perhaps, they mean you snore, Tythel thought, suddenly flushing with indignation. Which is absolute rubbish. They’re just taking advantage of the fact that you can’t retort, light forsake them! 

If they knew Tythel was fuming under the pile of leaves and branches, they gave no indication.

The fact was, Tythel realized, they were at an impasse. Right now Tythel had no way to alert them to how many possible foes waited nearby, nor did she have a way to strategize with them. They could strategize all they wanted, but they lacked any information as to what the nature of the threat was, and any strategy would give away that Tythel was alive. For all they knew, an Alohym was trailing them with a small army, just out of their earshot. The moment their aggressors realized that she was alive, they would…

…either flee in fright or charge and attack. Either of which would be better than this interminable waiting.

Tythel sat up so suddenly Tellias let out a startled, strangled sound, and even Eupheme jumped. “Yes, yes, I have arisen from the grave,” Tythel said, adopting the same annoyed tone Karjon had used whenever startling her. “We’ve got five of them, about a mile away. Don’t know how they’re watching us, but they have been since we left town. They’re going to know I’m awake any minute now, I’m sure of it.”

Tythel held up a finger to forestall any response. As she had expected, the moment she sat up, the sounds of footsteps started pounding on the ground – headed towards them. Tythel sat up and held out her hand for her hammer and shield. “They’re coming,” she said.

Five foes of unknown strength, charging the three of them. Eupheme vanished into the shadows, and Tellias and Tythel readied their weapons.

Then, pausing for a moment, Tythel placed her hammer on the ground and rubbed at her eye. She might die here, but she’d be forsaken by Light and Shadow both if she’d die with that flathing itch in her eye.

Satisfied, she grabbed her hammer just as the Writ Hunters burst into view.

Small Worlds Part 217

Isabel was sore in every muscle she could feel and several that only existed when she shapeshifted. Every step was a new surge of discomfort, especially with her partially supporting Crystal’s weight. By all rights, she should be miserable.

But she couldn’t stop grinning.

It wasn’t just the kiss, though that certainly had been wonderful. It has also been getting to turn into a dinosaur. Twice, when she’d used the titanosaur shift to get Crystal down from the platform. It had been amazing to turn into one of the most powerful creatures to have ever walked the earth, a rush like nothing else she’d experienced.

And then having Crystal lean against her as they walked…that was an entirely different rush.

Isabel strongly suspected the goddess didn’t actually need the support. From what she’d said, the kiss had helped her recover a bit of energy, the protein bar and water bottle had helped some more. In Crystal’s own words she was still “bloody tired,” but the rest of her Hungers were recovered enough where she had a bit of divine power back if they encountered anything else problematic.

Yet she’d practically leapt when Isabel suggested she should take it easy on her leg.

At least those fang marks shrunk with me, Isabel thought. All the injuries had, which was a blessing in this case. The fangs of the Typhon’s snake heads were only a bit larger than normal Earth snakes, and when the holes they left were scaled down from Tyrannosaurus down to human, they were too small to even bleed all that much. Literal pinpricks were the best analogy Isabel could come up with.

And if they had been larger…Isabel shuddered at the thought, and Crystal removed her arm. “Sorry, love, I shouldn’t be leaning on you. You took a bloody beating too.”

“No, it’s fine,” Isabel said hastily. “It wasn’t that.”

Crystal nodded. “What’s wrong then?” She gave Isabel a worried look. “If I wasn’t clear enough earlier, that wasn’t just about Hungers.”

Isabel flushed and smiled. “No, no I think I got that.” Deep down, it was a relief to have the confirmed. “It’s…my injuries carry between forms.”

A wave of relief crept across Crystal’s face, only to be immediately replaced with a new concern. “You didn’t think they would?”

“No, I…” Isabel laughed. “I’m still learning how all this works, and I was basing my expectations off this book series I read as a kid, where teenagers fight aliens by turning into animals. In that, they always healed between forms, so I kind of assumed…well, I assumed my ‘given to me by the literal King of Hell powers’ would work the same as fictional ‘granted by aliens powers.’

Crystal chuckled at Isabel’s blush, although it didn’t entirely erase the worry lines on her face. “You got hurt fighting Moloch.”

“Yeah. I had a temporary rapid healing then, from what Uriel told me. My body still absorbing all the souls I’d just been given. I heard that, but it didn’t really translate in my head to ‘you are still going to get hurt like everyone else.’” Isabel grimaced. “I thought that I could just cycle through forms to stay safe.”

Crystal considered for a moment, then her eyes widened in understanding. “You charged in there because you thought you’d just get better.”

“I sound like a coward when you put it that way,” Isabel said, looking away.

Crystal stopped walking and put a hand under Isabel’s chin, gently turning her back till they were facing each other. “Isabel. I saw you turn into a Tyrannosaurus on the back of a damn Typhon. If I ever call you a coward, you have permission to straight up eat me, yeah?”

“I have to wait for that?” Isabel said, the words out of her mouth before her brain fully registered what she was about to say. She clamped her hands over her mouth and turned bright red. “I can’t believe I just said that!” she squeaked. Muffled by her hands, it came out as an incomprehensible mess, but Crystal seemed to get the general gist of what Isabel was saying.

Crystal nearly doubled over with laughter. “We’re going to have fun,” she said with a grin. “But don’t think you’re a coward, yeah?”

Isabel nodded. “How…how does this work, anyway?” Isabel asked after they resumed walking down the twisting corridors of the lunar base.

“Gonna need you to narrow that a bit,” Crystal said.

“I…don’t understand how your social hunger works. I know for me it’s just part of who I am, but…”

Crystal smiled. “Gods have relationships with each other and mortals, love. It’s absolutely something I know how to work around.” Then it was Crystal’s turn to cough and look embarrassed. “Although that’s pretty presumptuous of me, assuming you wanted-”

Isabel opened her mouth to respond, to assure Crystal she was absolutely interested in exploring that option. Before she could, they rounded a corner.

Ahead was a chamber slightly smaller than the one the Typhon had been residing in. This one was lit by several spotlights, all focused on a single object that floated in the center of the room. It was as long as Isabel was tall, a golden rod woven with images of entangled serpents and ending in an open setting that looked perfectly sized to hold a nanoverse.

The staff of Ra.

“We made it,” Crystal said. “Bloody hell, after all that, we sodding made it.”

Isabel gave her an excited grin. “So think there’s security systems we’ll have to work though?”

“Oh, absolutely,” Crystal said. “But as long as we go slow and careful, shouldn’t be a problem. After all, we have all the time in the world, yeah?”

“Unfortunately, that is not the case,” said a voice from behind them. They whirled. Standing only a few feet behind them was an Indian woman in a white lab coat, flanked by three soldiers in exotic harnesses. “Crystal. You’ve been busy.”

Crystal’s eyes narrowed. “Smashana Kali,” she said, tensing up.

The soldiers raised their guns and trained them on Crystal and Isabel.

“I want to thank you for clearing out the Typhon for us,” Kali said, her voice calm and level. “I wasn’t looking forward to that. Now. We are going to take that Staff.”

“Over my dead body,” Crystal spat.

Kali sighed. “I was afraid you were going to say that. I don’t want to kill you.” Her gaze hardened. “So do not force my hand. Step out of the way, Crystal.”

“Maybe if you had come here alone,” Crystal said, shaking her head. “The fact that you bought those three though?” she pointed to the super soldiers. “Tells me everything I need to know.”

“Very well.” Kali lowered into a fighting pose.

Isabel took a deep breath, and tried to find a form that would let her battle a goddess.

The Burning Epoch Part 4

There were good reasons to get drunk. If Darnell Henderson had known the world was ending, he would have considered that a very good reason to get drunk. However, he wasn’t aware of that when he started drinking.

There were bad reasons to get drunk. The fact that today was yet another day where he was stuck using his biology degree to sell pharmaceuticals was probably a bad reason to get drunk, but it was the reason that motivated Darnell at the moment. He’d wanted to be a scientist. When he’d gone to college and majored in biology, he’d had dreams of working in some kind of laboratory, maybe being the one to figure out how to clone dinosaur DNA.

Then he’d gotten his fancy diploma, and a week later he’d his car had careened out of control, and he’d been just over the legal limit. No one had been hurt, except for his post-grad prospects. And if all you have is a degree in biology, there weren’t many jobs that involved actual lab work that would hire you. He could have gone back to school and gotten a teaching certificate, but schools also weren’t too keen on hiring someone with a DUI.

Pharmacy companies, however? They didn’t care what skeletons you had in your closet. Or at least, not if it was a little thing like a DUI. If you could sell, you were golden.

So Darnell had learned how to sell. He’d actually turned out to be very good at it. All you had to to was exude confidence and phrase things the right way. Don’t ask someone if they wanted to buy the product, ask them when they wanted it delivered. Don’t ask someone what need you could fill for them, convince them they had a need that only you could fill. It went well, it made him money, and he hated it with a passion that burned like the whiskey going down his throat.

Goddamn you’re getting maudlin, he chided himself. It was depressing, or it was depression. He wasn’t sure which. Maybe a little bit of both.

His phone started to beep with notifications. Darnell ignored it. He didn’t want to see the latest Twitter trend, he didn’t want to know what the assholes he worked with were tagging it in, he didn’t want to see another invitation to go out and go drinking with his co-workers. One thing Darnell had learned from DUI – drinking was something best done at home, alone, where you wouldn’t have to go anywhere afterward. As far as everyone who wasn’t willing to come over to his place was concerned, he was totally dry.

Today had actually been a good day. He’d secured the SigmaDyne account, which had netted his company ten million dollars and him a hundred thousand dollars worth of commission. The problem had been who he was selling too.

Grant Whitman, the head of Research and Development at SigmaDyne, who’d been Darnell’s lab partner Junior year.

He and Grant had parted on good terms. Grant had left the bar the same night as Darnell, every bit as drunk. Grant knew that it was only an accident of fate that it had been Darnell that crashed, Darnell that got caught, Darnell that was stuck working as what amounted to a corporate approved drug-pusher. Grant was living the dream. He’d been in the research lab at SigmaDyne after he finished his Masters in Molecular Biology. He’d managed to find a way to get E. Coli to produce bacteriophages for other, deadlier bacteria without killing themselves. His research was going to solve the growing problem of antibiotic resilience.

Darnell had sold him and his company an exclusive contract to distribute boner pills for old white guys that couldn’t get it up anymore. Greg had been kind about it, and Darnell probably wouldn’t have gotten the contract without that connection, but…goddamn did it burn. Burned like…burned like a bad, overwrought metaphor.

He didn’t know anything was wrong until he heard the roar coming from the parking lot. Even then, he didn’t leap out of his chair to go take a look at it. He figured the people in the apartment below him just had some movie on too loud.

It wasn’t until the screaming started he realized something was wrong. It hit the window like a sonic tidal wave, crashing over his ears and triggering a surge of adrenaline that cleared his head for a moment. He got up and wandered over the balcony, his heart pounding, wondering what the hell he was about to walk into.

“Run!” someone was screaming from the balcony above him. He recognized Candice’s voice and looked down to see who she was screaming at. At this height, Darnell couldn’t make him out.

Then he noticed the monster. The goddamn giant monster – no, monsters – that dominated the parking lot like a pair of scaled Tyrannosauridae. No, not quite. Their arms were too long and strong. Longer and stronger than any described Therapod. Their heads were wrong too. A bit too flat, a bit too wedged shaped, looking like the belonged on a member of the anole family, not the ancient claude that had given rise to the largest predators that had walked the Earth.

The other reason Darnell knew they weren’t dinosaurs. Because they were in the goddamn apartment of his fucking apartment building. That was a dead giveaway that they weren’t dinosaurs, because dinosaurs were extinct. 

One of the monsters was scraping its way into 213 across the way, and Darnell could only watch in horror. From above him, from Candice’s apartment, he heard the newscaster. “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States of America.”

Darnell pulled out his phone as Candice’s glass door slid shut above him. The president was on the white house lawn. He’d been sworn in just three months ago, after a volatile election in 2020. He’d looked young and full of energy then.

Right now, he just looked tired. “My fellow Americans,” he said, his voice far calmer and firmer than his eyes looked. “Today, we face an event unlike any other in the history of this great nation – indeed, in the history of mankind. At seven-thirty this evening, Eastern Standard Time, seismic events began disturbing the lives of men and women across the globe. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and seismic events have caused untold damage across the globe. I can deliver some good news there – while we do not yet know the cause of these seismic events, early reports that this disturbance was enough to cause a ‘nuclear winter’ that covered our globe with ash are overblown. We may experience some cooling, but long term damage to our crops and life will be minimal.”

On the bottom of the screen, the scrolling ticker was informing Darnell of exactly what areas were impacted by these seismic events. It was a horrifyingly long list. He stared at it, but his attention was pulled away by the sound of helicopters in the distance.

The monsters heard it too. They turned away from the building they were tearing into and chirped at each other, their heads turning skywards towards the source of the sound. Darnell felt his heart begin to pound in his chest. These creatures were, somehow, recognizing the approach of the helicopters as something that warranted their attention.

“We also have seen things of indescribable horror. To call them monsters would be accurate, although I have been informed another term is being preferred – Kaiju. A Japanese word that existed in popular culture for decades and means ‘strange beast.’ I think this term truly is the best because while they are indeed strange and dangerous, they are also just that. Beasts. Animals.”

The helicopters came into view, their searchlights illuminating the two Kaiju in the parking lot. The larger of the two let out a bellowing roar as if challenging the strange flying creatures that dared to have invaded its territory.

“Two of these creatures have been sighted on American soil, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I have dispatched air force helicopters to contain the threat they pose. I have mobilized our military in its full might to provide relief to stricken areas, and to contain the threat these kaiju pose. Please remain calm. Help is coming. If you are in a major metropolitan area, please remain indoors. Help is coming. We are urging anyone not inside a city head towards the safety of urban centers not impacted by the seismic events. Our first priority is to drive these creatures from our cities.”

The rest of the President’s words were drowned out as one of the helicopters opened fire, a long, ripping sound that sounded like the world was being torn apart. Reflex drove Darnell back against his glass door.

One of the Kaiju screamed in a sound of fury and pain. The smaller of the two. It was now bleeding from a dozen wounds, the glowing red blood flowing freely from what looked like comically small holes. It was hurt, but it certainly wasn’t down. Darnell stepped forward.

The larger of the two bent its head, and a low buzzing sound began to emerge from its mouth. It opened its mouth to roar, and Darnell though it was another challenge, another act of defiance.

Then the roar turned into a stream of golden energy that flowed like fire and impacted the firing helicopter. It detonated, and shards of flaming metal rained from the sky around it.

The other two helicopters opened fire then, but the Kaiju were moving. The smaller one began to climb up 214, moving with surprising swiftness as it scaled the balconies of the apartment. The helicopter firing at it tried to rotate around the building to get a better shot, but the Kaiju took its climb horizontal, keeping the building between itself and its attacker.

The larger kaiju held its ground, and the buzzing sound around it began to intensify. It was building up another one of those discharges. The helicopter began to take evasive action, and Darnell found himself stepping forward against his balcony, leaning over, wanting to scream and shout encouragement to those brave souls shooting up his parking lot.

He heard a crash of stone and creaking mortar as the smaller Kaiju reached leaped onto the roof of 214 like it like it was pouncing on prey. The helicopter that had been following it now had a clear line of fire. Before it could fully swing its minigun around to fire, however, the kaiju opened its mouth. Darnell braced himself for another line of golden fire, but that wasn’t what his kaiju could do.

Instead, a tongue lashed out like a chameleon’s, ending in a five-pronged grasping appendage. It latched onto the helicopter, on the airframe between the fuselage and the tail rotor. The kaiju’s tongue began to retract, throwing the helicopter off course, until finally, the tail gave way under the strain. Darnell screamed wordlessly as the helicopter careened out of control and crashed into 215 before plummeting to the ground.

Then the big kaiju released its stream of golden energy again, and the final helicopter detonated in the air.

The two kaiju roared their triumph. After the sudden chaos, the silence that followed was overwhelming.

“I have no doubt that we will overcome this threat, as we have overcome so many others,” the President said, finishing his speech. “We will endure, and we will triumph. And again, I assure you, if you are in an impacted area – do not panic. Help is coming. God bless.”

The feed went back to the talking heads, preparing to analyze the President’s speech and awaiting results of the helicopters dispatched to Minnesota.

In the parking lot of Darnell’s apartment, hope was burning.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 113

Leora Dimici was ready to slit the throat of every one of these stupid flaths. “I’m telling you,” she snarled, gesturing with her unlight blade directly in the face of a fellow writ-hunter, a grizzled man with a scar that ran from chin to forehead, crossing directly through the ruined remains of his nose, “we don’t know what we’re dealing with. We get the kill. We each get a piece. First one back to the Alohym gets to claim the prize.”

“There hasn’t been a Writ issued in nearly a decade,” the man responded in a low growl. “I’d rather not risk you hopping in some pretty little Skitter you have stashed somewhere and get the Writ back before us.”

Leora pinched the bridge of her nose to contain the frustration. She had been a professional Writ Hunter for five years before the Alohym arrived. While she’d never scored a Kings Writ – no one scored a Kings Writ and kept Hunting – she’d managed several Baron’s Writs and one Ducal Writ. She’d lived comfortably enough. Ten years without Writs had left her with little to do and rapidly dwindling money. She’d been offered a job with the Alohym Guard. She’d turned that down as politely as she could.

The Alohym would at least employ mercenaries now and then if they wanted something, they didn’t want their Guard attached to. But a Writ, a proper Writ, had been impossible for her to resist. Her, and every other flathing Writ Hunter on the continent. “There hasn’t been a Writ issued in nearly a decade,” she explained as slowly as she could manage without being as condescending as she desperately wanted to be. “Where do you think I have the money for a flathing Skitter?”

The large man shrugged. “Dunno. Don’t care. You’re pushing for this option because it favors you, and you flathing know it.”

Of course, he was right. Not about the Skitter – she didn’t own one and didn’t have one stashed anywhere. None of the people in this room could afford one. What she could, and had barely managed to afford, was one of those new mounts the Alohym’s magi were breeding. A fulocae. It was a combination of a horse and some slender creature from the Southern continent. They looked like hornless gazelles that had done twenty years of intense strength training. They couldn’t outrun a Skitter, but they could outrun any shadow-damned horse that had ever lived. “I don’t have a Skitter,” Leora repeated, “and may the Shadow swallow me if I lie.”

A hush fell over the room. Such oaths were not made lightly, even in this age of Alohym dominance. After the shadows did not lengthen, the general murmur resumed.

“Fine,” the man said. “But you have some trick up your sleeve.”

“I just don’t want to-”

Leora cut herself off at the sound of footsteps coming from the upstairs. Big, heavy footsteps. Immediately, the tension between the Writ Hunters vanished, and they turned to face the source of those footsteps. It sounded like an Alohym Guard in Imperiplate, only larger. Clunkier.

A man stepped into view, wearing plate that was Imperiplate, but larger and clunkier. The lines of the armor glowed with red and orange instead of the usual unlight. Leora gaped at him with an open mouth.

Over his shoulder was the target. She wasn’t breathing. Blood caked her face, clothes, and hair. Leora’s best guess was she’d been stabbed through the chest, based on the concentration of blood there, but she couldn’t see a tear in that fine silk. Must have stabbed her in the face.

“Damnit!” Leora swore. “You moved without us?”

“I didn’t know there was a plan.” The man’s armor made his voice deeper and resonant, like how imperiplate soldiers sounded. “Is there a problem with that?”

The Writ Hunters bristled but didn’t move. The target was dead. This man had proof of death. They could try to fight him for it, but…but that’s not how we do things, Leora thought bitterly. There was a reason the Hunters had been sitting down here, arguing, before approaching the target. “You’re young,” she guessed.

The man in the armor nodded.

“Then you should know that there’s rules. There’s a way we do things. You don’t move on the mark when other Hunters are in place.”

“I’ve been hiding in the room next to hers all flathing day,” the man in the armor objected. “How long have you been here?”

Immediately, the tension began to seep out of the Writ Hunters, Leora included. If he’d been here first… “We only got word she was here today,” Leora said. “Care to share your source?”

“That would be me,” said a voice, stepping out from behind the armor. A young woman with an eyepatch. “As soon as I heard I…” her single eyed gaze crossed over to Leora.

At the same moment it widened in surprise, Leora recognized the girl. No. That’s impossible. But it wasn’t. Here she was, standing directly in front of her.

Eupheme. 

Last time Leora had seen her, Eupheme had been full of ideals and running off to fight the Alohym, spouting nonsense about honor and nobility. Now here she was, standing in front of her, having helped kill the princess of the resistance.

And if anyone who knew Eupheme believed that, Leora had a Lumwell to sell them.

“…I contacted my partner,” Eupheme finished, not taking her eye of Leora. “Sorry for not spreading the word, but I don’t know any of you.”

Leora heard the slightly pleading note on that ‘any.’ She gave Eupheme the faintest of nods, and Eupheme started to relax.

“Let them go, boys,” Leora said with a sigh. “They beat us, fair and square.”

There were grumbles around the room, but no one really objected. Most Writ Hunters lived and died by the codes. The few that were going to break them would tail the successful ones and strike when they thought they were distracted.

Leora walked out with the rest of them but didn’t go far. Instead, as soon as she could, she stepped into an alley.

Normally, Leora would never break the codes. Normally. This was anything but normal, however. Eupheme was still here. Eupheme was alive. And that meant the target was alive. That meant Leora still had a chance to claim the Writ.

Grinning to herself, Leora stepped into the shadows – and vanished in an instant.

Small Worlds Part 216

“Get up,” Cassandra said, pointing to Nelly.

She’d recovered her composure in Bast’s absence, but still was frightened of this woman. Can you really blame her? Cassandra thought with a wry grin. She was bathed in the blood of her former neighbors. The fact that the Reverend was giving her a level look was a sign of what Cassandra considered had to be a deep-seated psychosis. “Get over here,” Cassandra snapped, her voice harsh. “I’m full right now. Bast left you alive for a reason. I’m not going to kill you.”

Nelly shook her hand and Cassandra sighed. In the blink of an eye, she crossed the distance between herself and Nelly, grabbing the woman’s wrist in a grasp that was like iron. Nelly screamed, and Cassandra patiently waited for her to stop. “I can still hear you reloading that revolver, Reverend. Don’t give me a reason to snap your neck.”

The noise behind her subsided, and Nelly stared at her with wide eyes. Cassandra held up the woman’s hand to inspect it with a critical eye. “Several lacerations, which you already knew. None of them deep though. You’ve broken your index fingers intermediate phalanx and proximal phalanx, your ring finger’s intermediate phalanx, and probably fractured a metacarpal or two, although I’d need an x-ray to confirm that.” She nodded and let go of Nelly’s wrist. “Do you play the piano?”

Nelly shook her head.

“You ever dream of playing the piano?”

“What? I mean…no.” Nelly took a step back. Cassandra had never been known for her bedside manner and turning into a heart-eating monster had done nothing to improve it.

“Good, because you probably never will. Beyond that, you’ll be able to do anything that doesn’t require delicate hand motion. So no piano, no flute – really, no musical instruments – and no surgery or working with tiny machines. Any of that going to be a problem?”

Nelly shook her head again. She seemed to be regaining her mental footing some. Right now, Cassandra was presenting as a perfectly ordinary doctor in a blood-stained lab coat. The human mind’s ability to categorize the weird and make sure it was properly sorted never ceased to amaze Cassandra.

“Good.”

“You seem to be implying we’ll survive this,” the Reverend said, his voice careful. “Not that I mind the implication, but you’ll forgive me for being a bit surprised.”

“I will?” Cassandra asked. She knew her voice was low and thrummed with fury. She didn’t care. It was so hard to remember to care about such things. “I’ll forgive nothing I do not wish to!”

Nelly choked out a sound that might have been a sob but sounded to Cassandra like a laugh. She whirled to face the woman. “Am I amusing you?”
“God no!” Nelly burst out, and Cassandra was less certain what the sound had been. Certainly not a sob. A snort? Had this woman snorted at her? “It’s just…is this what you were like before? Talking like a Saturday Morning Cartoon vill-”

Before the rest of the word was out of her mouth, Cassandra had Nelly on the ground, pinned to the asphalt by a hand around her throat. “Consider your next words very carefully.” Cassandra hissed.

The fear was back in Nelly’s eyes, and the Reverend took a step forward. “Please. I beg of you. We just want to understand.”

“You can’t hope to understand,” Cassandra snarled, loosening her grip on Nelly’s neck just enough to allow the woman to breath. She didn’t want to. She wanted to squeeze the life out of the woman.

“We could try,” the Reverend said, his voice entirely too reasonable for Cassandra.

“You could try? You could try to understand what it feels like to shove your hand through a man’s chest? You could try to understand the feeling of a beating heart in your grip? You could begin to imagine the rush as it touches your lips?” Cassandra shook her head. “No. This isn’t for you to understand. I want to understand.”

The Reverend nodded. “Then please, ask?”

“Why did she spare you?” Cassandra asked, her voice hollow. “I’ve never seen her spare anyone. Why you?”

The Reverend looked upwards. “I think I might have had some help in that regard.”

Cassandra barked out a single laugh. “That’s a pathetic answer. She spared you because of God? You had divine protection of some kind? I refuse to…” Cassandra trailed off as realization began to settle in. “Oh, of course,” she breathed, actual amusement returning to her. Amusement tinged with relief.

“Might I ask what you’ve learned?” The Reverend said, offering Nelly a hand to help her to her feet.

“You can ask whatever you wish. I certainly don’t intend to answer.” Cassandra shook her head. It was so obvious. Vlad had warned them that strong faith was a danger to Vampires, and that they couldn’t risk exposure because there was no way of knowing if Bast and Cassandra would be vulnerable to it.

Not that she could tell the Reverend that. The last thing she wanted was this man knowing he could potentially be a threat to them. It’s absurd, Cassandra thought. Nothing else operates off pure faith. Why would we? 

Yet Bast had decided not to risk it. Cassandra was not going to presume to countermand her goddess. “Where were you going?” Cassandra asked.

Both Nelly and the Reverend froze. Nelly’s eyes fixed themselves to Cassandra’s face, but the Reverend didn’t have her discipline. His eyes flicked to the 12-Inn-One. Cassandra followed his gaze. His heart was pounding in his chest.

Since the first time since Cassandra had arrived, the Reverend was truly afraid.

“What’s so important there?” Cassandra asked, her lips curling into a wicked grin. “Guns? Explosives? A direct line to the outside world?”

The Reverend licked his lips nervously. “No, nothing like that. Nothing that poses a threat to you.”

“And I’m supposed to take it on faith?” Cassandra asked, spitting the last word. “No. I think I’ll go see for myself.”

“No!” Nelly shouted, but Cassandra was already gone. She crossed the space to the cheap motel in a second heartbeats.

She returned less than a dozen later. “There’s nothing there,” she lied. The Reverend and Nelly shared a look, one full of hope and fear. Cassandra ignored it. “My goddess decided you get to live. That means you do. For now.” She gave her best smile, a sadists gaze, then vanished to find where Bast had gone.

It had been a stupid line to leave on, a pointless mockery that earned her nothing. Yet…yet she couldn’t let them know she’d seen what they were keeping there. She couldn’t let them know she’d decided to allow them to spare that last bit of hope.

The initial swarm of mummies had been devastating to Grant, but thankfully it had happened on a weekday. Dozens of people had died in the town’s main shopping area, but there had not been many – if any – children present.

Many had lost parents. The Inn held the orphans.

Cassandra knew, right then, that she couldn’t let Bast learn of them. And with that, the first cracks began to form.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 112

“There’s six of them in the main room,” Eupheme said, stepping out of the shadow behind the dresser for what Tythel hoped would be the last time. “And three on both exits. Armed with unlight weapons.”

Tythel swore, although she managed to avoid jumping this time. It helped to expect Eupheme’s return. It helped even more to be busy helping Tellias strap himself into the arcplate. Armin had outdone himself with the device, and even Tythel could follow the relatively simple labelling to install the new power source – one that was designed for skitters, no less. Whenever I see him next, I must tell him he made it as foolproof as possible. 

Of course, finding him was contingent on surviving the next five minutes.

“Unlight weapons – see any arcwands?” Tythel asked.

Eupheme nodded. “At least three different people with arcwands, and two with ringwands.”

Tythel grimaced. If they all had melee weapons, it would have been possible to charge through, or utilize their own newly acquired arcwands to keep them at bay. None of them could stand direct unlight beams, although Tellias’ arcplate would be able to absorb a few blasts. She strapped on Tellias’ greaves, making sure the sturdy hide was well secured.

“We can’t sneak out then,” Tellias said, his voice muffled by the helmet as Tythel placed it on his head. It normally took three people working for ten minutes to get arcplate in place. Tythel and Tellias had managed it in just under five. He was now the tallest of the three of them, nearly seven spans tall, and the red and orange lines of arcplate cut a striking figure. The arcplate, due to the somewhat roughshod nature of Armin’s modifications, was bulkier than the sleek black and unlight design of the Alohym’s imperiplate, with glowing canisters sticking out of the shoulder plates and down the spine. In some ways, it was more imposing than imperiplate – it made Tellias look like one of the holy warriors of old.

“Main room isn’t an option either,” Tythel said, grabbing her own hammer and shield. She regretted not finding the time for Armin to retrofit them to work with arclight, but she’d hated the idea of leaving them aside for too long. They’d been added to her meager list of possessions. Plus, they belonged to Thomah, and therefore represented her only remaining link to Nicandros. Do not think about him right now, Tythel chided herself. “If we go through the main room, this Inn will be destroyed the moment I use my flame. That would be a poor way to repay the innkeeper for his hospitality.”

“What about ghostflame?” Eupheme asked. “It can pass through barriers without harming them, right? The Innkeeper’s room is above us, the Writ Hunters are below. No other patrons downstairs either.”

Tythel considered for an instant. It was very tempting. Just let Eupheme point where she should breath and let loose the wispy blue flame to empty the common room without exposing any of them to danger. It was a nice thought, and if she had mastered ghostflame properly, she’d be able to do it in a heartbeat. Regretfully, she shook her head. “I still have to start with dragonflame and transition through. By the time I got to ghostflame, I’ll have set the building on fire.”

“Flath,” Eupheme said. “Can you at least still hear them?” She walked over to the window and glanced out, as if half expecting to see snipers waiting for them across the window. Tythel didn’t think that was likely, but her hand still twitched with a desire to tackle Eupheme to the ground just in case.

Instead, she took a deep breath and focused on what she was hearing. After a moment, she nodded. “They’re arguing right now about how to handle who gets the spoils of the kill. Someone, a woman, is suggesting that they stop fighting over it now and make it a race – whoever gets proof to the Alohym first gets the prize. There’s some contention over it. We still have a bit of time.”

“Maybe we’ll get lucky,” Tellias said, although he didn’t sound like he believed his own words, “and they’ll turn on each other before even coming up here.”

Tythel snorted at the thought. Writ hunters were a fiercely competitive lot, if half the stories she’d read were true, but they’d rarely fight each other. There wasn’t any profit in it. “Do we ever get that lucky?” she asked.

She could hear Tellias shaking his head inside the helm, although it didn’t move with the motion. Tythel pulled over a chair to see why it wasn’t and found a loose connector strap near the shoulder. If we had missed that…Tythel pushed the thought aside as she secured the strap, then began to check over Tellias another time.

“We could go through the window,” Tellias said. “It’ll mean less damage to the Inn than a fight in here would, and all of us can survive the drop. At least, assuming the arcplate’s charge hold.”

“It’s a brand new arccell. If it doesn’t hold, I’m tracking down Eliert and skinning him, starting with his flathing ears,” Eupheme said in a low growl. “Window is a gamble, and one I’m not keen to take. If we get hurt in the landing, or draw too much attention, we’ll have the Alohym down on us.”

Tellias turned to glare at Eupheme, and Tythel was relieved the helm moved with the motion. “We’re running low on options!” Tellias said, his voice full of frustration. “If you have a better idea-”

At that moment, an idea crystalized in Tythel’s mind. She took a moment to turn it over, although with Eupheme already giving an angry retort, it was hard to focus. “Quiet, both of you! I think I do,” Tythel said before the argument could get really heated. She hadn’t intended for her voice to come out in that harsh a snap, but light their argument was grating on her nerves. “It’s a crazy plan, but it could work.”

“Well, spit it out then,” Eupheme said.

Tythel nodded. “First of all, Eupheme, you’re going to need to wear my eyepatch, and I’m going to need your dagger…

Small Worlds Part 215

Reverend Jeremy Howard leveled the revolver towards Bast and pulled the trigger. She raised one hand as the first shot rang out, missing her by a good distance, and the remaining bullets plinked harmlessly off an invisible barrier. “Oh Lord…” he whispered, his voice hoarse,

“He’s not here,” Bast said. With a flick of her finger, the gun was sent flying, torn from the Reverend’s fingers by an invisible force. “He won’t answer your prayers. I suggest you try praying to me instead.”

Nelly had stopped screaming and sunk to her knees, cradling her hand and sobbing. Two of her fingers were broken and her hand was badly cut, but they were intact. Assuming they survived the next few minutes, she’d probably heal.

That seemed like a rather large assumption to the Reverend. Bast was giving him an expectant look. Behind her, the troll like creature she’d had following her since she arrived, roaming the town, bounded into view. The Reverend had heard some of the other monsters calling him ‘Dale,’ and his face was human enough to look hauntingly familiar to Jeremy, although he couldn’t imagine where he’d seen such a brutish creature before. Bast sneered as the Reverend continued to stare. “I said you should try praying to me.” Before he could even hope to respond, the goddess reached out and clenched her fingers. “Perhaps you need instruction on how.”

A sudden wind whipped up around The Reverend and took an almost physical form, like it was a giant hand wrapping around him. With the same ease a child would manipulate an action figure, he was to his knees and his hands were pressed flat against each other in front of him. “This is how you Christians pray, but…we’re not trying to reach your god. You’re praying to me.” She bent her hand downwards, and the Reverend’s body followed suit until he was face down on the ground, his knees curled under him, and his arms outstretched. “You too,” Bast said.

Jeremy heard Nelly gasp in pain as Bast forced her through the same steps. “You’re lucky I’m full,” Bast said, walking over so the reverend could see the toes of her feet. She wore simple sandals, and there were a few drops of dried blood on her toes. “Now…Pray to me.”

There was no hesitation for the Reverend. He might die here, but he would do so a man of god. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures-”

Bast snarled and the Reverend found himself lifted into the air by that invisible hand. He continued. “He leadeth me beside the still waters-”

“You really don’t value your life, do you?” Bast interrupted, her eyes narrowing. “No point playing any more games, then.” She held up a hand and pointed a single finger towards him.

“Wait! Please!”

The exclamation hadn’t come from Nelly, and not from the Reverend’s lips. The wretched creature at Bast’s side had been the one to speak, and the Reverend knew that voice and remembered the face. Admiral Dale Bridges. It was hard to reconcile the proud military man with the debased thing cowering at Bast’s side.

“He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths-” the Reverend continued, almost reflexively.

Bast snarled at Dale. “You contradict me?” she asked, ignoring her pray for the moment.

“Please, no,” Dale said, quaking under her fury. “I do not – I just beg you for mercy! I know this man – he is a good man.”

“-of righteousness for his name’s sake.”

“Shut up, you,” Bast said offhandedly, and the Reverend felt an immense force impact his stomach. The pain blinded him for a second, and he had to gasp for breath. “Dale, look at everything we’ve done here. We’ve killed dozens, if not hundreds, of ‘good men’ here. What’s one more?” Bast’s tone was calm, reasonable – but her eyes told a different tale, tight and hard.

“I know him,” Dale said, unable to meet her gaze anymore.

“And what we do is fine so long as you don’t know them?” Bast’s laughter was loaded with derision. “I suppose that explains what you did to me. No, Dale. I will not show him mercy. And I want you to watch as he dies.”

The Reverend found his breath. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,”

Bast raised her finger again. Dale’s eyes darted from the Reverend to the Goddess and back again. Sweat started to bead on his forehead.

“For thou art with me! They rod and thy staff, they comfort me!”

Electrical energy began to build up around Bast’s fingertip, crackling in the air. “As far as last words go,” Bast said, “I’ve heard worse. Lacking in originality though.”

He ignored her taunts and continued the psalm. He was going to die with the name of the lord on his lips. “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies! Thou anointest my head with oil! My cup runneth-”

The word was drowned out by the sound of crackling lightning and a clap of thunder as the world turned white – and the inhuman cry of Dale, shouting a single word that turned into a cry of agony.

The Reverend’s eyes cleared. He was untouched. He looked at Bast, who seemed as confused as he felt.

Dale – that poor, twisted monstrosity that had once been a man – had leapt into the path of the lightning bolt. The explosion of energy had fried him completely, and his mortal remains lay on the ground smoldering between the two of them. “How did he move that fast?” Bast murmured to herself. She looked up at the Reverend, and her eyes widened as with realization – or maybe a memory. “Well,” she said, and with a flick of her wrist flung the Reverend to the ground. “You made me break my favorite toy. I think your reward is going to be dying last. I want you to see this town burn around you.” She turned into one of those horrific cat monstrosities and stalked off.

Nelly wasn’t moving next to the Reverend. She seemed to be hoping she was forgotten – and in the chaos and Bast’s sudden realization, it seems that hope had paid off. He waited for Bast to finish clearing away, and then walked over to Dale’s charred remains.

“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” He reached down and closed the one-time Admiral’s eyes.

“He doesn’t deserve that,” said a voice from behind him. The Reverend looked over his shoulder and saw another one of those monsters standing there. The one that had come with Bast to the town. He’d heard the others call her Cassandra. “He was a terrible person.”

“Maybe he was,” the Reverend said, still feeling the calm from earlier. “But I am not, and there are some things that should be done.”

Cassandra considered him, and the Reverend was certain the danger hadn’t passed yet.

The Burning Epoch Part 2

Candice Chambers liked turning her phone off now and then. It was good to unplug, to get away from it all for a bit. And after a long day working on cars, it was nice to have some actual silence going on for a change.

Well, not real silence. The television was going right now, turned to the news, a minor bit of background noise to go along with her workout. That would be her roommate roommates doing, Diane Crowe. Despite her insistence to always have the television going in some form or another, Diane was the perfect roommate, in Candice’s humble opinion. She worked the night shift as a security guard at a mall, meaning their schedules only really overlapped for about two or three hours a day. Diane also had about as much interest in dating as Candice had in underwater basket weaving, so there were no strange guys being brought into their apartment.

And Diane was perfectly content to not bother Candice during her evening workout. Candice had finished her sit-up and moved onto push-ups. By the time she was done, Diane would have left for work, and she’d be able to control of the apartment until it was time to sleep. No muss, no fuss, no distractions – and she only had to pay half the rent.

It was exactly what Candice needed after work, especially today. Some asshole had brought in an eighty-nine Volvo. The head gasket had blown and leaked antifreeze into the oil lines. He’d driven it for a week afterwards. The engine was shot, and for an eighty-nine, the repairs were going to be four times the value of the vehicle.

He’d taken the news poorly. Yelling, screaming, cursing, and threatening to put them on social media, leave bad reviews. He’d talked about reporting them to the BBC – and Candice hadn’t earned any points by reminding him the BBC was the British news channel, and he probably meant the Better Business Bureau. That had really set him off, and he’d demanded to speak to the owner, or a man who knew cars.

Candice had taken immense satisfaction in letting him know that she knew cars as well as any of the guys working here – he’d seemed to have trouble believing a penis wasn’t a prerequisite for understanding the inner workings of a shit car. When he’d balked at that and demanded for her manage, right now, it had been even more fun to watch his face when she got the manager, who had then turned and asked her what the status of the car was.

The customer had flipped out then, and the manager – Billy Goodell – had politely informed mister eighty-eight Volvo that he was required to run anything involving threats of legal or social media action by the owner of CC mechanics. Who happened to be one Candice Chambers. The woman he had insulted repeatedly for the last ten minutes.

Fortunately, the man had taken that as a cue to storm out. Leaving his car behind. Without paying his bill. It would be wonderful to charge him an overnight fee for leaving it in their lot. Candice smiled in satisfaction at the thought.

It hadn’t been satisfying then. She’d left Billy in charge and walked the thirty feet it was from her shop to her apartment complex. Now she was doing pushups and-

The Television began to make a loud, droning beep. The emergency broadcast system.

“Hey, Candice?” Diane said. “You might want to-”

Candice was already finishing her push-up and getting to her feet. In this part of the country, as high up as Candice and Diane lived – the 7th floor – you didn’t skip emergency broadcasts. They could be tornados. She heard a sound of crunching metal outside and ignored it. She paid premium to park her car in the garage, she didn’t have to worry about some asshole hitting her baby while she wasn’t looking.

The news was showing footage of sinkholes. Candice couldn’t hear them – they were muted by the Emergency Broadcast System. “Attention,” said an authoritative electronic voice. “We interrupt your programming. This is a national emergency. Important instructions will follow. The following message is transmitted at the request of the United States Government. Numerous seismic events have been reported across the country. Reports include: over two-thousand sinkholes opening in residential or commercial areas. A 6.5 magnitude earthquake along the San Andreas Faultline. A 4.7 magnitude earthquake near Saint Louis, Missouri. A 7.8 magnitude earthquake near Anchorage, Alaska.”

“Oh my god,” Candice whispered, but Diane waved her to be quiet.

“All residents in the affected areas are advised to take the following actions. Seek refuge in a place that provides adequate structural support…”

Candice turned it out, turning to Diane. “We’re fine, we’re safe. We’re nowhere near any of that.” Minnesota may not normally qualify for the safest state in America – especially not in winters – but right now it was about far away from any of that. The Saint Louis quake was the nearest, although it certainly wasn’t a dangerous one for them right now.

Diane nodded. “I’m just…holy shit.” The news was backing up what the EAS announcer was saying, showing aerial footage over San Francisco. The highway had been split down the middle, and cars were falling into the crevice left behind. Tiny dots that Candice distantly realized were people were leaping out of vehicles, running away.

The broadcaster had moved on, another round of beeps signaling the end of the message. Except it wasn’t. “Volcanic eruptions near the following cities: Flagstaff, Arizona. Dotsero, Colorado. Reno, Nevada. Albuquerque, New Mexico. Brown Mountain, Oregon. Mount St. Helens, Washington. Mount Baker, Washington.”

Candice could feel her hands start to shake. It was starting to sound like the end of the world. Diane’s eyes were wide with fear, mirroring Candice’s own.

“A cause for these geological disturbances is unknown,” the voice continued. “The president will be speaking shortly on all stations. All stations will remain on air providing ongoing updates as the situation develops. Please stay tuned for further announcements.”

This time, the round of beeps did signal the end of the message. The news reporter’s voice took back over. “-only reporting sinkholes here so far. There have been unconfirmed reports of wild animals active around the sinkholes, and – one moment.” The screen shifted to show a sinkhole in a parking lot. “What you’re seeing now,” the reporter said, “is live footage of one of these sinkholes, being captured by a Minneapolis resident.”

The reporter went silent, letting the streamer speak. “As you can see…or rather, as you can’t see, this sinkhole is too deep to see the bottom.” Candice frowned at the voice. It was ringing a bell somewhere in the back of her mind. It was familiar, like it belonged to someone she’d talked to a few times, but she couldn’t quite place it. “It’s about seven pm here in Minnesota, but there’s a street lamp right next to the hole, so we should be getting some light, but…well, I’m turning on my phone’s light, and as you can see, it barely shows any deeper.”

Candice felt her jaw hit the floor. “Diane, is that…is that Kurt?”

Diane blinked for a moment and frowned. “I think…I mean, it sounds like Kurt.” Her frown deepened. “And…that does look like our parking lot.”

Both women shared a look, then got up and scrambled over to the balcony, fear of earthquakes and volcanoes momentarily forgotten in the desire to see what the hell was happening.

It was their parking lot. Kurt was out there, the little light on his camera phone unable to illuminate any deeper into the pit that had opened in the parking lot. Candice turned to Diane, ready to ask her if her car had been nearby but was cut off by the sound that came through both the television and out of the pit.

It was a terrible sound, an animalistic growl blown up to immense proportions. People from other apartments were running out onto their balconies. Four different buildings – 213, 214, 215, and the building she shared with Kurt and Diane and about a hundred others, 216 – overlooked this parking lot, and all of them were filling up with people staring down, trying to find the source of the sound. In the background, Candice could hear Kurt’s voice coming out of her television.

“If you’re…if you’re just joining us, a sinkhole opened up in the parking lot of my apartment complex. It swallowed my car. There’s a sound coming from the sinkhole and…oh my Jesus what is that!?”

Diane screamed next to Candice, drowning out the voice, joining a chorus of other screams as an immense, reptilian arm shot of the hole, dragging an enormous bulk behind it. A creature of proportions Candice had never imagined, larger than an elephant. It was like a dinosaur, and it was advancing on Kurt. “Run!” Candice screamed, although her word was drowned out by the monstrous roar and the screams coming from the apartments around them.

The some brave, beautiful, stupid motherfucker in 215 opened fire, the echoing pops of his handgun cutting over every other sound. Diane couldn’t take it anymore and ran back inside, but Candice held onto the railing and watched. She saw the creatures blood began to well up, a neon red that carried its own light. The creature whirled away from Kurt and began to stalk towards the shooter.

Then the tongue lanced out and dragged that brave, beautiful, stupid motherfucker into the creature’s waiting jaw. It roared triumph for its capture. Candice could barely breathe. Kurt was still standing out there, his phone held up.

“Run!” She screamed again. He didn’t seem to hear her. He bent down, picking something up – and then another claw emerged from the abyssal pit. That set Kur fleeing, running back into the apartment complex and slamming the door behind him. This new creature was even larger than the first, and its bellow was deeper, more resonant.

The first one turned to the new arrival and ducked its head submissively. The new arrival let out a chuff of air, then began to stalk towards 213.

Inside, Candice could make out the sound of the television again, cranked up to its maximum volume by a shuddering Diane. “We uh…there seems to be confirmation now of the reports of animal activity near the sinkholes,” the reporter said, his voice shaking. “The uh…I’m sorry. I seem to be at a loss for words. For those of you just joining us, the image on your screen is of a creature that has emerged from one of the sinkholes. We are just now getting reports of more creatures emerging. This is happening across the country – I’m sorry, I’ve just been informed these phenomena is happening globally.”

The creature that was approaching 213 sniffed the building as people inside screamed. Candice could hear their cries over all other sounds. It sounded, perversely, like the screams of a roller coaster going over a hill, a unified mass of shrieking humanity. Everyone had abandoned their balcony, at least on the lower floors.

“These creatures – these Kaiju, I’m being informed is the term being used – seemed to range in size from fifteen to fifty feet tall. They also don’t all look like the one we have footage of. We’re getting additional pictures, appearing on your screen now.”

Candice couldn’t resist looking back. Four images were being shown. The creature in her parking lot, currently sniffing at 213, was in the top right corner. In the top left was a brightly light photo of a creature surrounded by billboards with Korean littering. It was built like a hairless ape covered in turtle shells that were arranged along its arms and chest like medieval armor. Another, in the bottom right, was flying over the Eiffel tower. looked like an eyeless, bipedal wolf with bat ears and long, membranous wings under its forearms. The one in the bottom left was…there was no way around it. It was a dragon, it was just a straight up goddamn dragon perched atop the Sears tower.

Outside, the screams intensified. The kaiju was clawing at the building, tearing chunks of stone away. Someone inside tried to take the opportunity to run out the front door, but the first kaiju ran after him. In four steps, it was close enough for its tongue to cover the distance.

Candice couldn’t stop herself from screaming as the man was drawn back into the monster’s mouth. It didn’t bite down though. Instead, it walked over to the larger kaiju, the screaming man still dangling from the starfished tip of its tongue.

The larger kaiju bent down and, almost delicately, took the man into its mouth.

Then the man’s screams stopped.

Candice threw up over the side of her balcony, unable to contain it anymore. She sunk down into the chair behind her when she heard. “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.”

The Dragon’s Scion Part 111

Haradeth withdrew his finger with a wince. There hadn’t been much blood, but enough to make him glad he’d only chosen the tip of his finger. The momentary flash of pain also helped Haradeth clear his brain from the earlier confusion. “So, one thing I don’t understand – where can you send us?”

“I can’t send you anywhere.” The Tarnished One gave Haradeth a broad smile. “The booger can.”

Haradeth glanced over at Lorathor, who was at least grinning. That made the budding headache Haradeth felt forming at least a bit more bearable. At least it’s somewhat worth it. The Tarnished One, despite clearly understanding what Haradeth meant, was also clearly going to make Haradeth ask the question correctly before she’d answer.

“Then where can the booger send us?” Haradeth asked, maintaining his patience. It was cheering Lorathor up some to watch Haradeth struggle, and Haradeth reminded himself of how inert Lorathor had been the past few days. It’s worth it, Haradeth repeated.

“It can send you anywhere that, in ancient times, the Sylvan placed receiving disks. And those disks are still functioning. I don’t have a working knowledge of where they are – I only know of a couple. Anortia might know, but she probably doesn’t because she’s just a pretentious song with delusions of godhood.”

Lorathor’s grin faded, and Haradeth had to bite back a curse. “Then if we don’t know where they are, how-” Suddenly, realization struck him, and his eyes widened. “Portal stones.”

Both Lorathor and the Tarnished One gave him curious looked.

“Portal stones!” he repeated excitedly. “That’s what the booger connects to. I remember my mother telling me stories about them! They were left behind by an Old Empire, the one that arose in the aftermath of the Ancient Alohym’s departure. In fact, I say we should call this a portal stone too.”

The Tarnished One sighed heavily, a mechanical grating sound. “Fine, if you want to use a boring name. And yes, those are probably what they are. We worked closely with the Old Empire and gave them access to the…portal stones.” Distain dripped off the last two words like a dirty handkerchief, but Haradeth was too excited to care.

“Do you know where they are?” Lorathor asked Haradeth, and from the sparkle in his eyes, some of Haradeth’s energy was infecting the Sylvani as well.

“There’s one in my mother’s forest. If she’s awoken yet, there might be more she knows of. And even if there aren’t, we know someone who can help us find them. Someone who has been drilled in history since she was in the cradle.”

“Tythel,” Lorathor said.

“Tythel,” Haradeth said, nodding in agreement.

“Tythel!” The Tarnished One said happily. They both looked at her, and she shrugged. “You were both shouting that word, so thought I’d join in. What’s a Tythel?”

“She’s the heir to the throne, a half dragon, and most importantly, she’s a historian.” Haradeth laughed.

“I’ll admit I’m surprised to hear you excited about anything involving her,” Lorathor said, scratching his chin in thought.

“Why wouldn’t he be?” The Tarnished One was tapping her foot in impatience.

“Because she wants to use us to follow her own personal vendetta,” Haradeth said. There wasn’t the usual edge to the words, at least not this time. “The good news is, this gets both us and her what we-”

The Tarnished One whipped the thin stiletto up to Haradeth’s throat with impossible speed. He cut the sentence off and clamped his jaw shut. “Bored now! No more talking about people I don’t know, or I see how many knots I can tie in your entrails before you die.”

Haradeth nodded frantically, and the Tarnished One withdrew the blade. “Good. Now then. I need time to make the ‘portal stones’ not turn pincushion into mush. It’s a stupid name, by the way.”

“Thank you, Tarnished One,” Haradeth said, and then decided to take a risk despite the blade that had just been at his throat. “Is there something else we can call you besides ‘Tarnished One’? It really is more of a title than a name.”

The Tarnished One frowned, and for a moment Haradeth thought he’d made an error and was about to find himself gutted. Just as he was about to flee for his life, the Tarnished One nodded. “No one ever asked me that. I think I’ll allow it, it would be nice have a name. Call me Bix. It’s kind of like the sound a knife makes when it goes into meat, a bit punchy, a bit squishy. Don’t you think it’s a good name?”

Haradeth nodded.

“Good. Now before I work on this-” she pointed the blade at Lorathor. “You seem mopey. I don’t like mopey, it’s boring. People who mope too much end up just kind of sighing in resignation when I threaten to kill them, and that’s no fun.”

Lorathor pursed his lips into thin lines. “Well, Bix, excuse me for being mopey. I’m kind of dealing with the sudden knowledge that my entire life up until now has been a lie.”

“Oh, psh.” The Tarnished One – Bix, Haradeth reminded himself – rolled her eyes. “That’s stupid, even for meat. So, you found out you’re not from this world and the being you worshipped as a goddess is a pretentious bard. You know how awesome that is?”

“I don’t see anything awesome about it,” Lorathor said.

“Because it means you can do whatever you want. This isn’t your world, and your goddess can’t do anything. You can sin if you want, you cannot if you want, you can live or die as you please. You can let me stab you over and over if you want, which I think it’s a great idea personally. You have total freedom because you know it doesn’t matter.”

Lorathor opened his mouth angrily to object, then stopped and considered her words. “I’ll think on that.”

Bix grinned widely. “Good. I’m full of good ideas. Especially the part about letting me stab you over and over. That’s the best idea ever. Now go away. I have to work.”

Haradeth glanced at Lorathor, who nodded.

The entire walk back, Lorathor didn’t seem to show more cheer than he had been, but at least seemed to be puzzling over Bix’s words.

Haradeth decided that, for now, that would be enough.

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