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The Dragon’s Scion Part 50

Later that night, the group reconvened in the Gilded Piglet, taking the conversation to Lorathor’s room.

“They’re not in the same prison we were in,” Ossman started. “In fact, most people don’t know our prison existed. Or at least, didn’t until we broke out.”

“How could they not even know it existed?” Tythel asked, tilting her head in confusion.

“Because there’s a different prison,” Ossman said, settling into a chair they’d brought up from the common room. “A much bigger one.”

“It’s likely that they wanted to keep our imprisonment secret,” Eupheme added, leaning forward. “In case Tythel thought joining those murderous bastards was a good idea – they would have been able to pretend she was always on their side.”

Tythel nodded slowly at the logic. “I take it the rest of the army is in the other prison?”

Ossman frowned. “Yeah. As well as a couple thousand other people.”

“Flath,” Haradeth swore. “When we liberate our people, we risk releasing some of the others.”

“But surely that won’t be that bad?” Tythel asked. “I mean, they’re prisoners of the Alohym, surely they could be allies…” She glanced around and saw the fallen faces.

“They’re not just rebels, Tythel,” Armin said. “Thieves, murderers, the works. All are locked up in there.”

Haradeth took a deep breath. “We’ll throw that to the Shadow for now. Our people are in that prison – what else did you manage to learn about it, Ossman?”

“They converted Goldstone Keep into the prison. Instead of doors, they have fields of Unlight keeping people from escaping. It’s got a defensive wall I wouldn’t want to assault with our army on the outside. Guard towers every twenty paces, with long-range arcwands in each one. The wall is thick stone, from back in the old days, and well maintained.”

“That last part matches with what my rats told me,” Haradeth said. “No way in or out besides the doors. The windows are too small for any of us to fit through.”

“I could try jumping the wall,” Tythel said uncertainly.

“No,” Haradeth said. “Not with snipers every twenty paces. Even in the dark, you’ll be cut down before you hit the ground.”

Tythel leaned back into her chair, frowning.

“Oh, it gets better,” Ossman said in a tone that indicated anything but an improvement. “There’s always at least one Alohym physically there.”

That brought a round of silence to the room. No one’s managed to kill one of those things yet, Tythel thought with a shudder. “What about bribing the guards?”

“They’re too loyal,” Haradeth said. “If we had more time, we could probably find one who would turn against their masters, but we’ve only got a couple days left.”

“Well,” Armin said, with a smile that looked forced even to Tythel, “at least I have something we can use. You may all bow before my amazing talent.”

“We’re not going to bow until you prove how you’re amazing, assuming we even do then.” Tythel said with a blink of appreciation at the joke.

“Fine,” Armin gave an over dramatic sigh. “The unlight barriers they use in place of doors? They’re controlled from the old Magus Tower, which is outside the keep. If we get in there we can disable the field.”

The silence this time was lighter than the one before. “So if we turn it off from back here…” Tythel murmured.

“We only have to assault the Magus Tower.” Armin said with a nod of encouragement. “We can release prisoners as we wish if we control it, so we can even avoid releasing the criminals in there.”

“And as soon as we do, our troops get cut down by the snipers,” Ossman said with a shake of his head.

“What if they didn’t?” Tythel asked, tilting her head in thought.

Now everyone was looking at her. “And how, exactly, do we accomplish that?” Haradeth asked.

Instead of answering, Tythel turned to Lorathor. “Did your contacts know how large the garrison here is?”

Lorathor nodded. “They’ve brought in reinforcements for the big event, so it’s about five hundred.”

Tythel tapped her chin. “That seems low,” she said.

“It’s all they’ve needed to hold us off before,” Lorathor explained. “The Alohym don’t marshall huge armies for the most part. They just equip the forces they have as much as possible.”

“That’s still more than we have,” Haradeth added. “Even if we release everyone of our men they have locked up…”

“Then we don’t just release our men. We let everyone out.” Tythel said. “The criminals, the rebels, all of them. In fact, we let the ones who aren’t with us out first.”

“Light, that’s brutal,” Armin muttered.

Tythel nodded. “Yes, it is. But it could work. We let the initial wave overwhelm the guards, then we let our people out.”

“It could work,” Haradeth said thoughtfully, “Damn me to Shadow, but it could work.” His frown returned. “There’s still the issue of what to do after we get them out, however.”

“We arm them,” Eupheme said. “Did any of you find where the armory was?”

“We were beneath it,” Ossman said.

“How far is that from the prison?”

“About six blocks.”

Eupheme smiled. “The garrison will be torn between coming for the prisoners and coming for us. Sheer weight of numbers will get us out of the initial push. Then it’s six blocks to get our people to the armory.”

“Then we have to get them out of the city, but once everyone’s armed…” Ossman said with a slow smile..

“Once we have an armed force, it becomes much easier,” Haradeth agreed. He looked around the room. “Eupheme, can you walk?”

She nodded. “I don’t want to try to carry anything heavy, but I can walk well enough now.”

“Good.” He stood up, brushing himself off as he did. “Then everyone get ready. We head for the tower in two hours. Unless someone has objections?”

“Just to be clear here,” Armin said, furrowing his eyebrows, “we are planning to use the other prisoners to draw fire from our people. Actually, let me drop the euphemism. We’re planning to send them to be slaughtered for our gain. Is that the plan?” He settled his gaze on Tythel.

“Yes,” Tythel said. “I don’t like it, Armin, but unless we have a better idea…”

Armin shook his head. “I don’t have a better idea. I knew when I started this I’d have to do things I found disgusting. But I will never, ever do them by talking around the horrible thing. If we’re going to do something awful? We call it awful, we admit what we’re doing is terrible, and then decide if we’re comfortable with it. No talking around it, no Alohym propaganda about it. We name it.”

Tythel nodded slowly. “Agreed. Then yes, we are planning to send the other prisoners to get slaughtered for our gain. I do think we won’t lose all of them. I think we’ll end up freeing a lot of them. But we’re letting them out so our people are safer.”

“Well. As long as we’re admitting it.” Armin looked at Tythel, and she found herself wishing more than usual that she could read expressions better. There was something in his eyes she couldn’t place, but it made her uncomfortable.

“Any other objections?” Haradeth asked after a pause.

No one had any.

“Then get ready. Two hours.”

Tythel wanted to talk to Armin, but he was out the door before Haradeth had finished the last word.


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Strange Cosmology Part 104

Earlier

Thirty in favor of aiding Athena and her allies, thirty in favor of aiding Moloch. Artemis wanted to rip her hair out. Cowards, she thought.

Poseidon looked smug. “It appears we have an even tie.”

“I’m perfectly capable of counting, Poseidon,” Artemis growled.

Then that means we take no action.”

Artemis could feel her hands shake with poorly suppressed rage. “You were counting on this,” she said quietly, leaning in so only Poseidon could hear her. “You knew that even in a tie, things would go your way. What did Moloch promise you? What did it take to get you to sell out our people?”
Poseidon glanced around to make sure they weren’t being overheard before leaning back in. “I would have vetoed anyway. Same as you would have vetoed me. Deadlock was guaranteed, with no third veto to break the tie.” His eyes flashed with anger. “But don’t you dare call me a traitor, archer. I did this to save us. Moloch just wanted the right battlefield to fight the others. He didn’t give a damn about us.”
“You’re a fool if you believe that,” Artemis said, shaking her head. “You’re a bigger fool than I ever could have imagined. Once Moloch wins, he’ll turn whatever monsters he makes from them against us.”

And we will win if he does,” Poseidon said with a shrug.

He has an entire pantheon’s worth of monsters out there, Poseidon! We will die.

It doesn’t matter, Artemis.” Poseidon reached out and clapped her on the shoulder. “You fought well. I didn’t expect it to be this close. But you’ve lost.”
Artemis took a deep breath, hoping against hope she wasn’t wrong. “No, I haven’t.”
Poseidon frowned as Artemis turned back to the assembled gods. “I invoke Eumenides,” she said in a clear voice to carry over the muttering.
Every head whipped towards her. No one had invoked Eumenides since…well, since Athena was banished. But it was one of their oldest laws. In the event of a divine deadlock, if even the veto powers could not reach an accommodation, the tie would be broken by a single vote.

What madness is this?” Poseidon demanded. “You cannot invoke Eumenides. The Furies are not here, they are in Hades’s realm.
Artemis nodded. “Yes, they are. Which means the vote falls upon the god or goddess of wisdom.”
Poseidon scoffed. “There has not been a goddess of wisdom since Athena was exiled.”
“Correct. However, I do not recall Athena ever being stripped of that title,” Artemis said cooly, looking around the room as she did. “Can anyone prove me wrong?”
Silence. Slowly, eyes started to turn towards Poseidon.
The gods of Olympus were a quarrelsome lot, but one thing they agreed on were their Laws. No one had said Athena was no longer the goddess of wisdom, nor had a new one been appointed.
“I deny it,” Poseidon growled.
“You cannot,” Artemis said. “Eumenides cannot be overruled by veto.”
Poseidon gnashed his teeth. Artemis started to grin. I didn’t know if I remembered the laws correctly, she thought.
“It’s impossible,” Poseidon spat, “she is outside our barrier. To go to her would be tantamount to declaring war on Moloch!”
Artemis shook her head. “Then I’ll go alone. You can deny me as a traitor if things go poorly. But I will get to Athena, and I will get her vote.”
“We all know what she’ll vote!” Heracles shouted from the back. “Let her vote happen without her, and let us go to her aid!”
“Our laws forbid assuming votes,” Poseidon said, clinging to the last hope he had left.
Artemis nodded. “He’s right. Do not worry, Heracles. I’ll get her vote.”

I’ll not allow anyone to go with you,” Poseidon muttered.
With a gesture, Artemis’s arrows flew from where she’d shot them back to her quiver.

“You won’t need to. I’ll report back with her vote soon.”
Poseidon could do nothing more than stare at her in silent fury as Artemis left.

Now
Artemis rose to her feet, coughing up blood. Ishtar was staring blankly at the statue that had been Moloch.
The saber tooth tiger that was standing over the Eschaton shifted into the form of a young woman. “Did we just win?”
Artemis hissed in pain. “There’s still a war on. Where’s Athena?”
The shapeshifter pointed towards a crater. “Wait, I thought you gods could heal from anything? Won’t Moloch be turning back to flesh soon?”

He would anywhere else,” Artemis said, hobbling over towards the depression that held Athena. “What Medusa does to people is a manifestation of Athena’s power. It would take minutes, maybe, for that twist to fade on Earth. But we are in Tartarus. Changes to reality are permanent here.”
“So…”
“So now his army has no commander, and we are sitting in the middle of the largest brawl of monsters I’ve ever witnessed. We’re dead unless I get to Athena. Talking makes that harder.”
“Okay then,” the woman said, turning back to the Eschaton. “Hey, Ryan, we won. Or. I think we’re winning?”
Weakly, Ryan raised a hand from the ground to give the woman a thumbs up.
Artemis ignored the rest of their conversation, leaning over the edge of the crater. “Pallas Athena,” she said.
Athena looked up. “Artemis. Olympus is finally fighting?”
Artemis carefully sat on the edge of the crater. “No. Just me. There’s a tie in the Elysian Rest. I invoked Eumenides. We need your vote.”
A sly grin crept over Athena’s face. “You were paying attention.”
“Sometimes,” Artemis granted. “Your vote, then? Should we aid Moloch’s monsters or should we aid you and your allies?”
“I vote you all get off your asses and help us.” Athena said.
“Figured you might say that.” Artemis twisted to amplify her voice. “Athena has voted to fight the monsters of Moloch! Eumenides is fulfilled! Olympus, the time for inaction has passed!
At first, nothing happened. Artemis began to worry that Poseidon had done something terrible, broken their laws to force people to stay within.
Then Heracles came flying out of the Rest, holding a sword as long as he was tall, and threw himself into the mass of monsters. One by one, the gods of Olympus came charging into the disorganized mess. Had Moloch still commanded them, they could have rallied against the gods, even posed a threat. Without their master, most of them were just beasts.
Artemis looked back down in the crater to see Athena’s frowning face. “Artemis, wait. Only one who holds a veto can invoke Eumenides. How did you-”
Artemis stepped into the crater, offering Athena a hand. “You and your allies have been beaten bloody, old friend. Perhaps we should get you to safety before I fill you in on the last millennia of Olympian politics?”
Athena laughed, and the two women clasped hands. “Fair enough. Let’s gather the others, then. I have…many questions.”
“Of course you do,” Artemis said with a roll of her eyes. “Safety first. Questions later.”
To Artemis’s surprise and relief, Athena nodded in agreement.

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The Dragon’s Scion Part 49

Weird Theology is on sale other regions here. Already read it? Please consider leaving a review on Amazon or Goodreads.


The signs of the battle were still evident as they headed back into town. Their path took them around to the south entrance. It seemed best to avoid trying to re-enter past the downed pod. On the horizon Tythel could still see smoke rising from the fields she had burned. It was worth it, she told herself, hoping that if she repeated it enough she might begin to believe it.

Thankfully, the Alohym had not increased security after their flight. It seemed even their adversaries thought it would be idiotic to try to sneak back into a town they’d just broken out of. It was Tythel’s first time seeing Dawnchester when it was daylight and she wasn’t suffering from Unlight poisoning. Prior to this, the largest group of people she had seen had been the three-hundred rebels. That, to her, had been huge but manageable.

There were at least twice that number waiting in queue just to get into that city, if not more. Light and Shadow. So many people. The sound of hundreds of people was almost overwhelming. The crying of children, the arguing of merchants, the grinding of armor, She could hear everything, but could understand none of it. And that was just the sound! Everywhere she looked, there were people. A surging mass surrounding them.

Tythel started taking deep breaths, trying to steady herself. It’ll be better in the city, she told herself. You were in there, it wasn’t like this.

A traitorous part of her mind reminded her she had been moving at night then. It could easily be this crowded during the day.

“You’re scaring Astray,” Haradeth muttered as they approached the gates.

“What?”

“You smell like scared dragon. Astray is picking up on it. I’m not a miracle worker. Keep this up and he’ll bolt. Probably draw guards in the process.”

“Oh,” Tythel snapped back in a whisper, “that helps soothe my nerves. ‘Calm down or we’re in terrible danger.’ How could anyone possibly feel uncomfortable with that advice? While we’re at it, tell me how being anxious is something the Alohym can sense, so I’m broadcasting where we are just by feeling. Or perhaps that Unlight will curve to strike the nervous! Anything to calm me down.”

Haradeth was quiet as he reached down and patted the side of Astray’s neck. “Smelling like angry dragon isn’t any better.”

Tythel fought the urge to make an obscene gesture at his back. Any attempt to retort was cut off as they got close to the gate.

The guard manning the entrance was a portly man that had to have been squeezed into his armor, with an expression like he was slowly dying of boredom. “Nature of your business in Dawnchester?” Every word was laced with an absolute lack of concern for the answer.

“Ah, my good man!” Armin rode at the head of the group, and he bent in a seated bow. “We are, of course, here to witness the execution of the damn rebels our Saviors have recently captured.”

If Armin’s friendly demeanor had any impact on the guard, it certainly wasn’t visible on his face. “Execution isn’t for another three days,” the guard intoned.

“Three days?” Armin asked in well-feigned surprise before glancing at Eupheme. “Three days! You told me the execution was Noxday.”

“I’m terribly sorry, dear.” Eupheme shrugged. “I should have known better than trusting Ethil’s word on these things.”

“Ethil’s word?!” Armin practically roared at her. “The only difference between Ethil and a rotfly is that one is a buzzing insect that causes constant irritation, and the other is a rotfly. You listened to her?”

Tythel watched as the guard reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose. “Sir-” he started to say.

“Now one minute!” Armin said, waving to the guard, “I need to know why my wife thought it would be good to recommend a trip into the city based on the word of Ethil.”

“Oh,” Eupheme snapped back, “then who should I have asked? Your brother? That idiot couldn’t find his arse with both hands, a map, and a three day head start.”

The guard let out a sigh. “Sir? Ma’am?”

His words had no effect. Armin was beginning to gesticulate wildly as he defended his brother and simultaneously denigrated Ethil. Ossman sidled up to the guard. “I once saw them argue for three solid hours,” he muttered.

This time, the guard let out an audible groan. “Can you make them stop?”

Ossman nodded. “We just need to offer Caldor some beer. He’ll rush straight towards it.”

“Then go, get them out of my damn sight.”

Ossman raised his hands to his lips. “Caldor. The inns should be open.”

Armin brightened up. “The inns? Why did you say so?” Eupheme shot Ossman a look that could have melted steel. The guard was so happy to be rid of them, he didn’t bother asking Haradeth and Tythel to raise their cloaks.

In her bag, Eupheme had a wide variety of makeups. With just a bit of work, she’d made herself, Armin, and Ossman almost unrecognizable. Haradeth and Tythel were too distinctive up close.

“I can’t believe that worked,” Tythel said to Eupheme once they were through the gates.

Eupheme gave her an impish grin. “Most people will do almost anything to get out of an uncomfortable situation.”

Tythel glanced back towards the walls of Dawnchester, wishing she was out of the press of humanity in here. “I can believe that,” she said.

It was less cluttered as they got further into the city and traffic started splitting up, Crawlers taking the main roads as horses were diverted into back alleyways. Tythel let out a relieved breath once the things enclosing her were walls instead of people. “How do people live like this?” she asked.

“It’s not so bad,” Armin said, “There’s endless things to do in a city, endless people to meet. Why would you want to live anywhere else?”

“Peace. Quiet. Privacy. I could go on.”

Armin shook his head.

“Come on,” Ossman said. “Lorathor should have already gotten us somewhere to stay by now.”

Lorathor had spent time in Dawnchester before. It took some trying for the group to get directions to the Gilded Piglet, but the faded gold pig on the sign made it easy enough to find once they had directions. The Sylvani was waiting inside at a table, holding an ale with both hands.

“Any problems getting into the city?” Lorathor asked them as they joined him.

“Only that my flathing wife thought that we should take advice from Ethil,” Armin said with a grin.

Eupheme rolled her eyes as Ossman answered Lorathor’s question with a shake of his head.

“Excellent. We have rooms upstairs.” Lorathor slid them keys. “The owner is an old friend of mine. He won’t report us.”

“You told him who we were?” Tythel asked in a low hiss.

“Of course not,” Lorathor scoffed at the idea. “But if he puts it together, we’re still safe.”

“Sorry,” Tythel muttered, feeling her cheeks flush. “This place has me on edge.”

“You’ll adapt.” Lorathor said soothingly.

“Or you’ll get yourself killed,” Haradeth muttered, and she felt her embarrassment turn to anger. Tythel turned to Haradeth, baring her teeth, but was interrupted by Eupheme putting a hand on her arm.

“Could you help me to my room?” Eupheme asked in a firm voice that bore little resemblance to a question. “My leg is still healing, and I think should lie down for a bit.”

Tythel gave a curt nod.

“Good,” Haradeth said. “We need you healed. Armin, Ossman, I want you two out there. Mingle. Try to find something we can use against the prison. Lorathor, I want you to try and make contact with the underground. Tythel, take care of Eupheme and stay out of sight.”

Tythel pursed her lips. “And what will you be doing?”

“Seeing what the rats know.”

After a pause, Tythel decided she didn’t want to give Haradeth the satisfaction of admitting she didn’t know if he was being literal or not. Instead she stood up, offering a hand for Eupheme to use as support. “Let us know if you need anything,” she said. Tythel didn’t wait for Haradeth’s response as she lead Eupheme upstairs.

“You shouldn’t let him bait you like that,” Eupheme said when they were out of earshot.

Tythel sighed. “I know. It’s just…he knows exactly what to say to be as annoying as possible.”

“Everyone deals with fear differently. Armin jokes more. Ossman goes quiet. You get angry at everyone and everything. Haradeth acts like a prick.” Eupheme shrugged. “Your way of dealing with fear just clashes with his.”

Tythel tilted her head. “I’m not…” the protest died as Eupheme gave her a flat look. “Fine,” Tythel muttered, “but it doesn’t excuse him.”

“I never said it did,” Eupheme said with a smile. “Light, I would love to smack the smug off his face. But you can’t control Haradeth. You can only control how you react to him.”

Tythel grunted. “And what about you?” Tythel asked.

“What about me?”

“How do you deal with fear?”

Eupheme’s smile widened as they entered the room. “I strangle it.”

“Any chance you could teach me that?” Tythel asked with a snort.

Eupheme shook her head. “It’s something you can only learn with experience. As long as you don’t let your fear master you, you needn’t worry.” They reached the door to Eupheme’s room, and Tythel let them both in.

Tythel helped Eupheme change her bandage and helped her into bed. As Eupheme drifted off to sleep, Tythel sat in the center of the room and began to focus on what she could hear.

The sound of the city washed over her like the tide, and Tythel started trying to do her best to pick useful information out of the clamor.

Strange Cosmology Part 103

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Crystal opened her divine sight as she ran, equations whirling around herself and Moloch. King. Crystal still couldn’t process that it was really him.

She slid under Moloch’s first blow, her sword flying out to cut him across the calves. Moloch hissed in pain, bringing his talon up to kick Crystal away. She rolled away from the blow, bringing her sword around in another frantic slash. He leapt over it, and she redirected her cut upwards. She felt it bite into Moloch’s skin, but he whirled away before it could get purchase. He’s still just a god, Crystal reminded herself. This wasn’t like Enki. Moloch’s reserves of power may be vast, but if she could just get in a fatal hit she could-

Moloch managed to hit her in the chest, hard enough to send her flying back. “So you figured out how to watch the equations too,” he said, walking over to her.

“King…” Crystal gasped. It felt like he’d broken one of her ribs. “You don’t have to…I didn’t have a choice.”

Moloch shook his head. “There’s always a choice, Crystal. You chose to end the world. You chose to kill my family, my friends.”

“The sun…”

“There was still time!” Moloch roared, and he reached out to strike Crystal with bands of lightning. “There was still a chance! You couldn’t wait. You were so damn eager. I think you were looking forward to it.”

“I hated it.” Crystal spat as the lightning dissipated. “I never wanted to do it.”

“And yet, you did, and here we are.” Moloch sighed. “You did it, Crystal.”

“There was no other-“

Moloch kicked her . “It’s just a rock, Crystal. You saved a damn rock. Maybe you’re right. Maybe there was no hope left! Who gives a shit?”

Crystal looked up at him, her eyes wide with more than pain. “What?”

“If everyone dies anyway, what’s the point of saving the damn rock everyone lived on? What does it matter? All you accomplished was killing everyone slightly earlier than scheduled!”

Moloch’s next kick sent Crystal flying. She felt something else break when she hit the ground. Get up, get up…”Humanity still-“

That was the wrong thing to say. Moloch leapt the distance between them, landing on her back, his talons digging in. “You don’t get credit for that, Crystal. You killed an entire world to allow another to possibly exist, and got lucky.” Moloch leaned down and grabbed Crystal’s head, forcing her to look at the others. “Look at them, Crystal. Look at these apes you sacrificed our people for. You love them so damn much?”

“Yes!” Crystal shouted, “Bloody hell, yes.”

“Then you get to watch them die. The same gift you gave me.” Moloch opened his mouth to say something else, but his words were cut off by a gargle. An arrow erupted from his open mouth, having punched through the back of his skull to shoot out between his teeth.

Moloch whirled around. “You talk too much,” Artemis said.  She fired three arrows in rapid succession, hitting Moloch in the chest, right where the heart would be. “And I’ve spent centuries locked up with the gods of Olympus.” Another two arrows, one to each knee. “I’m somewhat of an expert in talking too much.”

Moloch began to slump over. Artemis strode forward.

Crystal’s felt hope fade. “Artemis!” Crystal shouted. “His heart is on the other side!”

The warning came too late. Moloch stood up in a swift motion, pulling the arrow out of his mouth and ramming it into Artemis’ chest. The goddess managed to twist so it only hit her in the shoulder instead of puncturing a lung.

Frantically, Crystal scanned the Elysian Rest for some sign, any sign, that Artemis was part of a vanguard of Greek gods, that the rest were coming.

The halls of the Elysian Rest sat silent. The defenses Artemis must have lowered were back in place.

No more help was coming, and Artemis couldn’t shoot anymore.

Without her bow, Artemis posed as much threat to Moloch as any of the other gods had so far. She had drawn a gladius, but Moloch just reached out and twisted, hitting her with several walls of force, each stronger than an onrushing train.

Artemis was bowled over and sent rolling back across the landscape with each blow. “Poseidon was supposed to keep you all occupied,” Moloch muttered as his mouth healed, then looked around. “Anyone else?” he shouted at the raging war of monsters around them. “Does anyone else think they can fight me!”

Crystal caught a glance of something in the melee, between the legs of a Cyclops and a twisted monstrosity made of teeth and claws and little else. She kept her eyes on Moloch and hoped she was right about what she dare not look at.

“There’s one other,” Crystal gasped, managing to raise herself to a seating position.

Moloch frowned at her. “Why would you tell me that?”

“I’ll show them to you, Moloch, if you promise me something.”

Moloch scoffed. “What do you think I’ll give you?”

Crystal glanced at Ryan. Isabel had managed to reappear and had taken the form of a saber toothed tiger, standing over Ryan protectively. Crystal turned back to Moloch. “I know you want me to suffer. I deserve that. He didn’t do anything to you. Don’t kill him.”

Moloch sighed. “The sun is going to destroy the world, Crystal. You have to fail. It’s only just.”

Crystal nodded. “Fine. Then…promise me you won’t make him suffer.” C’mon, you arrogant bastard, let me do this…

Moloch paused to think, then nodded. “Agreed,” Moloch said. “Now. Who else is going to get in my way?”

“I’ll show you,” Crystal reached out and began to twist, moving slow so Moloch could see what she was doing, know it wasn’t a trap. She was just making a series of lenses. Moloch stared into them, his forehead furrowing.

“Her name,” Crystal said in triumph as the lenses fell into place, “is Medusa.”

Moloch brought a hand up to cover his eyes as he found himself staring directly into the gorgon’s face.

As Crystal watched, Moloch’s hand started to turn grey.

“No!” Moloch shouted, “No!” He looked around the battlefield wildly. He locked eyes with Crystal, and in that instant, he looked exactly like he had so many years ago, right before he dashed out to save his children.

The grey crept up his arms, reaching his face, and that expression became the one Moloch would make for eternity.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 48

After Tythel’s proclamation, it was decided it was best if everyone slept before committing. “If I’m going to agree to a suicidal plan,” Armin had said, “I’m going to do it on a full night’s sleep.”

Tythel barely slept. She had Karjon’s notes back. Being able to read them was a welcome relief – especially since she strongly suspected she’d need to figure out the secret to Ghostflame to have even a hope of pulling this off. Unfortunately, as before, no hidden trick leapt off the page to provide her a solution. I’ll figure it out. I have to.

That point was driven home by an Alohym ship passing nearby in the night. Tythel couldn’t see the vessel, but she heard it, that sound of groaning metal piercing the night air. She shuddered at its passing.

“You hear it too?” Haradeth asked, rolling over.

Tythel started at the sound. I thought he was asleep. “Yes. Like someone’s tearing apart the sky.”

Haradeth nodded in agreement. “They’re abominable things, those vessels. The sky should belong to beasts, not men or Alohym.”

“I don’t know if I’d go that far,” Tythel said after a pause. “We have created arcwands that don’t use unlight. Once the Alohym are defeated, I don’t see any reason we shouldn’t create our own vessels using Lum.”

Haradeth pursed his lips. “If we were meant to fly, we would have wings.”

“If we were meant to cross the oceans, we’d have fins,” Tythel countered. “I don’t see any reason that ships that sail the sky should be different than those that sail the sea. One’s just more complicated than the others.”

“There’s a natural order to things.” Haradeth protested.

“Yes, but we defy that natural order all the time. Doctors prevent those who would die from perishing. We create fields to harvest grain to feed vast cities, and we reshape the land to fit our needs. I don’t think ‘it’s unnatural’ should be a reason not to do something.”

“The Alohym aren’t of this world. Seems to me that is a fairly good argument against the unnatural.”

Tythel turned her head to peer back at where the Alohym vessel was heading. It seemed to be going to the city. Wonderful, she thought sarcastically. “They’re not monsters because they’re unnatural. They’re monsters because of what they do.”

In response, Haradeth rolled his eyes and turned back over in his bedroll. Tythel glowered at his back, but didn’t press the argument. Instead she laid down to try and get a few hours of sleep.

Sleep didn’t come easily. She couldn’t escape the haunted look in Nicandros’s eyes.

When dawn finally broke, it was greeted by a bleary-eyed Tythel. She did her best to be quiet as she got ready for the day, not wanting to disturb the others. In spite of her best efforts, the rest began to stir into wakefulness as the sun’s rays brightened.

Ossman was the first to approach her. “You’re serious about this, aren’t you?” he asked.

“Yes. I don’t know if we’ll be able to do anything. We might just end up right next to them come Luxday. But I have to try.”

Ossman scratched his chin. “Ah, flath it. We can’t leave them to die.”

“Light, were you actually considering that?” Armin asked as he strode up, still rubbing his eyes. “We both know you wouldn’t have slept for months if you’d abandoned them.”

“I don’t want to throw my life away, Armin,” Ossman protested.

“Yes, you do. So long as it’s in the most noble way possible, and this qualifies.” Armin sighed dramatically and looked at Tythel, “I guess I’ll have to go alone. Light knows what Ossman would end up doing without me to keep him straight.”

Tythel chuckled. Their joking was helping with the pain of Nicandros’s departure, and for that she could have hugged them both. “Glad you’re feeling better, Armin. Are you use you want to go near the…corrupted Lumwell?”

Armin nodded. “I think, whatever the Sun Tear did, it helped me process the worst of it. As long as I don’t draw too deep – and I don’t plan to – I should be fine.

Tythel peered at him closely, and saw his eyes still looked like the sun during an eclipse. “You know better than I do, so I can’t argue. How are you feeling?”

“Like this is a terrible flathing idea, but it’s better than nothing.” Armin winked at her. “Otherwise, I feel perfectly fine, especially considering I was half dead yesterday.”

“Don’t suppose you have any more miracle cures to spare, your highness?” Eupheme asked. She was limping up to them, supporting herself on a branch. “Because I could use some for what comes next.”

Tythel shook her head. “Eupheme, you’re injured. You can’t attack a city.”

“Give it thirty seconds into the fight, your highness, and I’ll be the least injured of all of you. No offense, but even with an injured leg I can keep pace. Besides, I’ll be mostly healed by the time we get there. It just grazed me.”

Tythel blinked a few times to think. Armin is right about how stupid this is. Do you really have a right to stop her? “If you’re sure.”

Eupheme gave Tythel a grin. “I’m not dead yet, your highness. Yes, I’m sure.”

“So that just leaves Haradeth and Lorathor?” Ossman asked, peering around.

He nearly jumped out of his skin when Lorathor spoke from behind him. “Yes, it does.”

Ossman whirled around. “Light and Shadow, Lorathor, are you trying to give me a heart attack?”

“Of course not, Ossman. You’re far too young for that to be a risk.” Lorathor turned to Tythel. “I think this idea is far too risky. It’s almost certainly going to result in one or all of you dead. I’d like to strongly suggest we consider casting our lot with another group resisting the Alohym.”

“And leave those people to die, Lorathor?”

Lorathor just shrugged. “Call me callous, but there is a bigger picture here. Your value as a figurehead is not to be underestimated.”

“I appreciate that,” Thythel said, then frowned as she really thought about what he had said, “I think. But no, I’m going to do this.”

“Then I suppose I must aid you. I’d feel terrible if you all got yourselves killed without me to remind you I was right.”

Armin grunted. “I should have thought of that line,” he muttered.

“Lorathor has centuries on you, Armin. Don’t blame yourself for not being able to outthink him,” Haradeth said, finally joining the group. He gave Armin a grin that was more than a little forced. Peace offering? Tythel wondered.

Thinking of how bad she was at reading facial expressions reminded her of training with Nicandros. They had been making real progress. Tythel felt the anger and guilt and grief well back up within her. She pushed them down best she could as Haradeth continued. “I suppose I should come too. As your-”

“No.” Tythel said, cutting him off.

“What do you mean, no?” Haradeth’s eyes narrowed. He does that a lot around me, Tythel noted.

“Your mother is alive, Haradeth,” Tythel said, her voice firm. “I’m not going to cost anyone else their children.”

“Do you intend to free the soldiers bloodlessly, then?” Haradeth asked. “No matter what we do Tythel, people are going to die. Everyone has parents.”

Tythel opened her mouth to object, but couldn’t find any good counter arguments. “I still say no.”

Haradeth shrugged. “I still say I’m coming. We let you sit at the table, Tythel. That doesn’t change that I still am running what’s left with this resistance.”

Eupheme put a hand on Tythel’s arm. “We need all the help we can get, your highness. Don’t throw this away.”

“Fine,” Tythel said with a growl.

Haradeth gave her a mock bow. “Your magnaminty knows no bounds, your highness. Then I suggest we get the horses ready and head back to the city. If we leave now, we’ll be able to join the midday merchants and get in with minimal fuss.”

Tythel nodded, and they all headed off to gather their packs and break camp.

Light, please tell me I just didn’t get us all killed. Tythel prayed.

As usual, the Light left her with no answers.

 


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The Dragon’s Scion Part 47

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It was a while before Tythel had collected herself and returned. They’d helped Eupheme out of her bedroll and she was now sitting on a log nearby. Her skin was getting color back from the ashen look it had before. Armin turned as she approached, “So glad you’re back! I need you to help me settle a finer point of contention between our dear Ossman and a ill tempered bear. You see…” The rest of the joke died on his lips as he saw her face. “Tythel? What’s wrong?”

“Nicandros is gone,” Tythel said, her voice barely a whisper.

Haradeth’s eyes narrowed. “Gone? What do you mean, gone?”

“I mean he left,” Tythel said, unable to stop the bitterness creeping into her voice. “I mean he’s quit, he’s done, he’s no longer going to be working with us. Or at least, with me.”

Silence reigned. “What happened?” Ossman asked softly, breaking the spell.

“I…” If you tell them, will they leave too? The fear choked the words in Tythel’s throat. I can’t lose anyone else. “I confessed something to him. Something that’s between me and him. It doesn’t impact any of the rest of you. I swear that. Can we…please, just leave it at that?”

“No,” Haradeth said, “we cannot. A personal disagreement with Nicandros caused him to abandon us? I’m sorry, but I don’t believe it. Nicandros hates the Alohym, more than anyone I’ve ever met.”

Tythel clenched her fists, then forced them apart. “He quit once before, didn’t he? Is it that hard to believe he’d do it again?”

“Frankly, yes,” Haradeth responded. “He came back because they killed his son. Now you’re telling me because he didn’t get along with you – which doesn’t make sense based on what I’ve seen of the two of you – he’s gone?”

“Leave it alone, Haradeth,” Armin said, crossing his arms.

Haradeth raised an eyebrow, “I’m sorry?”

“I’m serious, Haradeth. Leave it be. If we needed to know, Tythel would tell us. Look at her – you’re really going to push her on this right now?” Armin stepped up to Haradeth’s face.

Haradeth sneered at Armin, “I’m the ranking member on the field, especially with Nicandros gone. Stand down, Armin. I need to know how she cost us one of our best operatives!”

“No, you don’t! She already gave us the important details.” Armin’s eyes flashed with visible light.

“Armin’s right,” Ossman said from behind Haradeth. “Nicandros is gone. That’s what matters. Why do we need to know more?”

“Because this isn’t a gathering of friends, Ossman. This is a military organization! We don’t get to hold information back because ‘it’s personal.’ All of you need to realize that we can’t let personal feelings dictate our actions at this point. We are fighting against a foe that vastly outnumbers us with resources we can barely comprehend. We don’t get the luxury of personal lives if it could possibly impact-”

“I killed his son!” Tythel shouted. “That’s what it was, Haradeth. His son was part of the Alohym and helped attack my father and when I found him after the fight I burned him in his armor. Nicandros can’t forgive me for that, so he left.”

Silence resumed its reign. Haradeth thought in the silence, then nodded. “Good.”

Tythel cocked her head, confusion erasing anger. “Good? It’s good that I killed his son?”

“Yes. His son signed up to fight on behalf of the Alohym, Tythel. He saw what they were doing, and said to himself, ‘yes, this is an organization I should be a member of.’ As far as I’m concerned, you did this whole world a favor.” Haradeth stepped away from Armin, who was looking at Tythel with wide eyes. “And,” Haradeth continued, “if you hadn’t told us, the Alohym would have figured it out. Used it against us somehow. I’m glad you came around to seeing reason.”

“You didn’t know,” Eupheme said, before Armin or Ossman could speak. “You didn’t meet Nicandros until later. And, as far as I’m concerned?” She shot Haradeth a dirty look, “Haradeth has a point. Not about telling us. But that Nicandros’ son joined the Alohym. He became our enemy. We’re at war. That’s that.”

Tythel took a deep breath. At least I’m not going to lose her, Tythel thought. Ossman was nodding along with Eupheme. Armin was still staring at Tythel with wide eyes.

“Armin?” she asked hesitantly.

Armin shook his head. “I’m not as rabid as that, Tythel. Light forsake me, but I’m not.” He saw Tythel’s face fall and held up a finger, “I’m not saying I agree with Nicandros. I Ijust don’t believe that every Alohym soldier should die. Some of them are just people who believe they’re doing the right thing. We might not understand how they can, but they do believe it. However, you’d just lost your father. I don’t think it’s right to hold what you did in the aftermath of that against you. I still don’t know what I’d do if I ever got my hands on…” Armin shook his head again. “Nevermind. Just…I understand.”

Tythel could see there was more there, but didn’t want to push Armin on it. Not right now. “Thank you,” she managed.

“You all are very loud,” a voice said from the bushes, making them all jump. As Tythel’s heart started to slow down, Lorathor slipped out of the underbrush, his skin resuming its normal texture as he did.

Haradeth nodded towards the Sylvani. “How much of that did you overhear?”

“All of it,” Lorathor said with a shrug. “I honestly find the importance you all put on blood relations perplexing. What matters is that Nicandros left. Again. Not that it would change anything.”

“What do you mean?” Tythel asked.

Lorathor closed his eyes before continuing. “There’s no good way to say this. It was as you feared, Haradeth – Urdin’s betrayal went beyond the mission. He lead the Alohym back to the ruins. There wasn’t even a fight. Almost everyone’s been captured – they’re being taken to the city, where they’ll be executed.”

Everyone stared at him.

“My…my mother?” Haradeth asked, his voice shaking.

Haveron managed to hide himself and her,” Lorathor said. “They’re both fine. A few others, too. Everyone else, however…”

“That’s it, then,” Haradeth said. “It’s over.” There was a finality to his voice.

Lorathor nodded. “I’m afraid so. I’ll be returning to my people – there’s other causes to fight for, but before I join in one of them I’d like to…”

Lorathor’s voice faded into the background as Tythel looked at the others. Ossman’s fists were clenched in rage. He’d never once spoken as to what pain had driven him to fight against the Alohym, but whatever it was seemed to be burning very near the surface right now. Armin had sunk to the ground and put his hands over his face. If he’d been moving more, Tythel would be worried he was weeping. Instead, it just looked like he couldn’t make sense of what was going on. And Eupheme…

…Eupheme was looking at Tythel, as if waiting to see what she’d do next.

Tythel had run out of tears to shed. Nicandros was gone. Her last hope of getting revenge for her father was gone. The people she’d met – virtually everyone she knew that wasn’t here – were slated for execution. There’s nothing I can do.

“No.”

The word shocked Tythel even though it came from her lips, and everyone looked at her. “No,” Tythel repeated, trying it on for size.

“No?” Lorathor asked, “No what?”

“No, they’re not going to be executed.”

Lorathor frowned. “I suppose it’s possible Haveron misinformed me, but I assure you I confirmed before I returned. The execution takes place this coming Luxday, your highness.”

“Luxday,” Tythel muttered. “That’s…that’s not for another four days. Why so long?”

“They want to make a bit of a spectacle of it,” Lorathor said. “They’re pulling people in from the outlying farms and villages to witness. They’re going to execute an entire rebel army – or what was left of one. They want everyone to see it.”

“Four days,” Tythel bared her teeth. “Four days, then, to save an entire army from under the Alohym’s noses.” Tythel turned to look at everyone. “I can’t speak for all of you, but I’m tired of losing. This is something we still can save. We already broke out of prison once, and this time we’re on the outside. It’ll be easy this time!”

“Uh,” Armin said with a frown, “not to be indelicate, but you almost died. So did I. As did Ossman.”

Tythel nodded. “So, let’s try not to do that this time.”

“Oh good,” Ossman muttered, “a solid plan.”

“We have four days, Ossman. We can come up with a plan. But I’m just done losing. There are hundreds of people awaiting execution right now, and if you’re with me…” She took a deep breath again. “If you’re with me, we’re going to save them all.”

Somehow, she added to herself.

Strange Cosmology Part 102

Dianmu leapt for Moloch, her glaive held high over her head, howling a battlecry. Moloch flicked his wrist and hit her with a gust of air before she could get within reach. He raised his other hand to counter Anansi’s twist. The spider god sent of bolt of lightning streaking towards Moloch, but Moloch stopped it by raising a stone wall from the ground. “What is it going to take for you to stay out of my way?” Moloch asked.

Moloch knew they were as likely to do that as he was spare the life of the Eschaton or Crystal. This is my victory, my triumph. I’m not going to let these upstarts ruin it.

Dianmu lowered her glave and charged. Moloch whirled to face her attack, slamming his fist into the ground. He added a twist and his fist’s impact generated a wave of molten rock that shot out and streaked towards the approaching goddess. Her charge interrupted, Dianmu leaped over, momentarily lit red by the lava beneath her.

No. Not that easy this time. Moloch flicked his hand again, increasing her gravity at the apex of her leap, pulling Dianmu sharply towards the molten rock. She managed a last second twist of her own, freezing the rock beneath her. Her impact with the ground was brutal, but it didn’t incinerate her. Moloch sighed as she started to rise and increased the gravity again, holding her in place.

When Moloch turned to face Anansi the trickster was gone. Moloch glanced back to Dianmu. “It appears only one of you has the sense to-”

Dianmu was gone as well. Moloch scanned the battlefield. Two of his Helhests were feasting on the last of the centaurs, and the sweet melody of a faun being torn limb from limb filled Moloch’s ears. His monsters were gaining the upper hand against the disorganized chaos of the creatures of the unleashed Labyrinth. Yet either of his opponents were nowhere to be seen.

He was caught completely off guard when they phased out of the ground on either side of him. Dianmu’s swing was aimed at Moloch’s neck, Anansi’s sword was coming for his back.

Moloch twisted time as the blades closed in, slowing the two of them to a near stop. Too close, Moloch thought, stepping aside. The motion forced him to take a breath. Too close, and I’m starting to feel Hungers. Moloch kept the alteration up for a few more seconds, just enough to rush behind Dianmu and kick her forwards.

Normal time resumed. Pushed ahead, Dianmu’s glaive bit into Anasi’s shoulder, and Anansi’s sword caught Dianmu in the side. Before they could pull away from each other, Moloch struck them with a bolt of lightning. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have worried about Enki,” Moloch said as he clenched his fist, striking them again. “You two weren’t even there, and the other three managed to defeat him.” Moloch went for a third strike, but Anansi and Dianmu had managed to separate and leap apart. Anansi’s skin was smouldering, and Dianmu’s eyes were turning red from burst blood vessels. “I can only imagine what I could have done with his power,” Moloch said, stepping back so he could see them both.

“And yet you did not,” Anansi said, “Why is that? Was Enki smarter than you? How did he figure out what the great bird man did not?”

Moloch snapped, “I reject the notion that a mere human god could have come up with something beyond me.”

“And yet, a mere human did,” Dianmu countered from the other side, “perhaps you’re not quite as intelligent as you pretend to be, Moloch? Or do you just need to feel superior to us to justify genocide to yourself?”

That’s right, Moloch thought, let them think they’re goading you. “Enki was a fool with power he didn’t comprehend. I could have crushed him at any time, I just did not want to waste my strength.”

“Lies,” Anansi said, “Enki had more power than you ever held.”

“Power is nothing without the knowledge how to use it. Allow me to show you.” Moloch flung his hands out and began to manipulate the chemicals in the air.

The air around Dianmu and Anasi caught fire, a pair of raging infernos. Anansi was the first out of his fireball, his skin seared into black and red patches. Dianmu was not emerging. “Dioxygen Difluoride,” Moloch crowed. “Your skin is now catching on fire at these temperatures, spider. I doubt there’s much left of Dianmu. You, Anansi, are lucky enough to witness the end of humanity.”

Anansi started to rise to his feet, and Moloch struck him with lightning. Let’s not repeat the mistake I did with Athena. Moloch had known the effort of setting up high electron density points before the fight had been worthwhile. The ability to call lightning with minimal twisting helped him look even more impressive than he already was. Did it even occur to them, he asked himself, that I had weeks to prepare the battlefield? Weeks where any twist made would stay in place?

Moloch doubted it. If they had thought of it, they certainly didn’t seem to have prepared at all. I wonder if they honestly think they chose this battlefield? “Dianmu is immolated,” Moloch growled, turning back towards Crystal. “And I’m about to stomp the spider. I was going to make you watch the Eschaton die first, but since I had to kill one of them already, I suppose Athena should be next.”

Crystal’s eyes were full of hate. That’s right. She and Dianmu are friends. Moloch wished he’d made the thunder goddess suffer more before her death.

Then he sensed something behind him, a twisting of equations. The inferno surrounding Dianmu was dying down.

Dianmu crouched in the center of the fire, encased in a whirling bubble of air. She rose to her feet and charged, her glaive lowered.

Impressive, Moloch acknowledged. She’d more dangerous than I had thought.

Moloch threw out his hand and turned a tiny number of the air molecules in front of Dianmu into antimatter. The explosion sent her flying backwards, the force of a grenade going off in her face.

Then again, so am I. Under normal circumstances antimatter would be a stupid waste of energy – Moloch thought he might have burned a full millenia of power on that – but it was worth it. Moloch cracked his neck. “I’m barely even Hungry,” he said to Crystal. “You cannot win. You never could. You need to accept that.”

The hatred in Crystal’s eyes hadn’t abated and she rose, standing protectively over Ryan. Her throat was an ugly purple color, and Moloch wondered if she could even speak through the damage. It doesn’t matter.

Moloch held out his hand, and gestured for her to come to him. Crystal started to charge.

And so it ends.


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Strange Cosmology Part 101

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Ryan was screaming.

Athena was near the top of Tartarus, her battle with the ddraig goch having kept her away from the center of the fighting. Now, she gripped its back with one hand and drove her sword down with another, seeking to breach the beast’s scaley hide. It twisted and spun, slamming her into the rocky roof.  Athena bled from a dozen cuts and scrapes already, but so far had avoiding twisting.

Shouldn’t have wasted my time, Athena thought, gnashing her teeth in frustration. Something was going terribly wrong, and she had to get to the main fight. Better to face Moloch weakened than not to face him at all.

So she gestured, tearing the wind away from herself and the dragon. It beat its wings desperately, but found nothing flap against, and they both began to plummet. Athena continued the twist, keeping the two of them in an artificial vacuum as they fell from the top of Tartarus.

The ddraig goch arched its back in a quick, snapping motion, throwing Athena off. Damnit! Athena clutched her sword as the creature rolled around to claw at her. One of its talons slipped past her guard to add another line of blood to her growing collection.

Without air, the two of them fell at the same speed. They would reach the ground in a matter of seconds, but the dragon still had plenty of time to rip Athena to shreds. She raised her sword, ready to strike down at her adversary. Have to take the offensive or it will tear me apart.

Realization struck home. Since you’re twisting anyway, make it work for you. Athena changed her twist.

Air rushed back in around her, and with it Ryan’s screams. Air resistance started to slow her fall, pulling her and the ddraig goch apart. She kept the dragon in a vacuum as it lashed at her, but without air it could do nothing to arrest its fall. Monsters howled as the massive bulk of the creature slammed into them.

Athena held out her arms to slow her fall, twisting to give herself some lift. Where are they?

At first, all Athena could see was chaos. Monstrous flesh writhed and clashed together, the unleashed hordes of the labyrinth tearing into Moloch’s creations. Two Lamia had trapped something that walked like a man but had the head of serpent and were tearing it apart. Three of Moloch’s Helhests were hounding a herd of centaurs. Growls, hisses, and chirps of fury and pain filled air. I can’t find them, Athena thought, fighting panic as she surveyed the battlefield. If she couldn’t get to them in time…Ryan’s howls were cutting over the din, taking on an inhuman quality, and she could only imagine the what pain could cause those screams.

There.

A spot of open field, kept clear by Moloch’s minions. An avian humanoid held Crystal by her neck. Some kind of form Moloch’s adopted, Athena hoped. She didn’t want to try and imagine what else could be manhandling Crystal so effortlessly. A sphere of thorns and steel surrounded Isabel, and it seemed to be shrinking around her. And Ryan…chains and bands of light covered his arms and legs, pulling and stretching his body. Moloch’s trying to draw and quarter him, Athena realized with a sick lurch.

As much as she wanted to immediately act to save Ryan, Athena took a deep breath and thought furiously. Crystal is the least restrained. If I free her, it evens the odds. Athena drew back her sword and threw it, twisting air to accelerate it to hypersonic speeds. It was the same trick that she’d used to sever Bast’s arm on Graham Island.

Without even looking in her direction, Moloch thrust his free hand to the side. The sword was travelling at nearly fifteen thousand kilometers an hour, but Moloch caught it with no apparent effort. Stars of Olympus. Athena paled, letting the lift carry her higher. Moloch tossed the sword aside. This is worse than Enki. We had a plan then! We don’t have a plan for this!

Then Athena noticed that small red drops were running from Moloch’s hand, beginning to puddle on the ground. He can be hurt. He can be killed.

Steeling herself, Athena reached out and began to twist. She threw herself at Moloch, one leg extended in a hypersonic flying kick aimed directly at his head.

Moloch reached out and  grabbed Athena mid flight. She lost much of her speed, but his bloody hand couldn’t completely stop her momentum. Her foot slammed into his head, snapping his beak back. Moloch  grunted in surprise and pain, and his grip on Crystal slipped slightly.

The instant Crystal was free, Athena electrified her skin.

Moloch’s hand clasped down on Athena’s leg, an involuntary response to the electricity. Athena felt her bones crack under his grip and almost lost control of the twist, but forced herself to concentrate on keeping Moloch frozen by the electricity.

Then, still holding her by her broken leg, Moloch swung her in an arc over his body, slamming her into the earth. She barely had time to register the pain before he  did it again. And again. After the fourth hit, Athena’s head was swimming. “You. Aren’t. Part. Of. This.” Moloch growled, every word punctuated by another slam. Athena could barely maintain consciousness, let alone a twist, and her electricity went out.

Through the pain, she noticed that Ryan had stopped screaming. No, she thought. Oh, please, no.

Moloch leapt up, and, with a final swing, sent Athena rocketing towards the ground. “Stay,” Moloch snapped as Athena lay in a crater left by her own battered body. “Stay right there, Olympian, and I’ll make your death quick.”

Over the lip of the crater, behind Moloch, Athena saw Crystal freeing Ryan and Isabel from their traps. They’re alive. Oh, thank the Fates, they’re alive. Keep him focused on you. “What do you mean, I’m not part of this?” Athena’s voice came out slurred through a broken jaw. She started to flex her toes. The bones in her leg hadn’t broken, she realized, just cracked. Bad enough, but could be worse. There was worse: Her stomach growled, her mouth parched, and panted for breath – she was facing three Hungers, and her enemy seemed barely inconvenienced.

“It’s between me, Crystal, and the Eschaton. I still have to wipe your kind out – can’t have the rest of you making more humans – but I don’t get anything from tormenting you.”

Moloch glanced over his shoulder, and Athena followed his eyes to see that Crystal had freed Ryan from the chains. Moloch snapped his fingers, and an explosion sent Ryan and Crystal  flying apart and tumbling through the air.

He looked back at Athena. “So you’re not going to distract me. Stay. Right. There.”

Moloch turned to his real targets. Pain coursed through every part of Athena’s body. You are not going to lie there and take this, she shouted at herself as she managed to rise to a sitting position. Dozens of hairline fractures screamed at her. Give up, part of her whispered. You can’t beat him. No one can. It’s hopeless. He’s too strong. Too aware. He can crush you without even trying.

Athena pushed those traitorous thoughts down, forcing herself to her feet. She collapsed, her injured leg giving out, and dropped to one knee to prevent herself from falling completely. Moloch was stalking towards Crystal and Ryan.Isabel was nowhere to be seen. It’s you, Athena. It’s up to you. She began to crawl towards the edge of the crater.

The hilt of her sword gleamed just over the lip. She reached out, aching fingers closing on the familiar grip. Hand over hand, she pulled herself back onto the grass, and reached out to twist.

Without turning around, Moloch clenched his fist. Lightning arced from a dozen points in the cavern, all of them converging on Athena. For an instant, all was searing agony, and then a clap of thunder threw Athena back into the pit.

She lay there, smoke rising from her skin.

Athena saw lightning forming above her, gathering power.  Gasping she tried to brace herself to survive the next onslaught.

Something arced out of the air behind her and buried itself in the ground beside her. The lightning lanced down, but instead of striking Athena, it caught the object. Athena closed her eyes against the blinding flash of light, but not before she recognized what had saved her. Dianmu’s glaive. Moloch whirled around.

Suddenly, Anansi and Dianmu were there, standing protectively over Athena, who nearly wept in relief.

Moloch sneered. “Distractions. More pitiful distractions. Well, then, come on. I’m going to kill you all anyway, so you might as well attempt the fight.”

Dianmu pulled her glaive out of the ground and charged toward Moloch as Anansi reached out his hand to twist.

Athena wanted to cheer, but the pain was too much. The pain, and the fear. I don’t think it’s going to be enough. How can we possibly beat him?

Athena didn’t have an answer to that question. She didn’t think anyone did.

 

Strange Cosmology part 100

Book 1 is now on sale! Paperback here, Ebook here, other regions here


Crystal remembered when the hydra was the single most feared monster to roam the Earth. If it hadn’t been for Iolaus giving Heracles the bright idea to sear the stump shut before more heads grew, they probably would have retained that title.

What bothered Crystal was that it put people in the mindset of “oh, fighting a hydra is easy, you just cut the head off and cauterize it shut.”

Because severing one head of a creature with a dozen heads, searing it shut before it could grow two more heads, and doing so while evading the other heads, all of which were still trying to bite you, was no more difficult than walking the dog.

If it’s so bloody easy, I’d like to see you try it. Crystal rolled along the ground as the Hydra lunged at her, each mouth snapping shut mere inches behind her as she dove. It was down three heads, the stumps waving blindly in the air, but that left Crystal with nine to go – and Moloch had just beaten Uriel.

We’re missing something, Crystal thought, sliding under the Hydra’s blow to shove her sword up into its gut. The hydra screeched in pain and the mouths flew at her. She grunted as she blocked one of the heads with her sword, headed to white-hot with a simple twist. The head hissed and retreated before it could become a killing blow. How the hell did Moloch beat Uriel?

It didn’t matter right now. What mattered was that Moloch was advancing on Ryan and Isabel, and Crystal still didn’t know if Ryan could come back to life. Isabel definitely won’t, Crystal thought, and can’t gamble on Ryan.

Of course, that had to take a secondary role to the massive Hydra that was currently trying to reach around its bulk to bite at Crystal.

She dove out of the way of another head that snapped down in the space she had just occupied. This bite actually managed to catch her shirt, tearing off a chunk of the sleeve. Okay, focus, she chided herself, her heart pounding at the close call. Hydras were inhumanly fast and could bite through a god’s arm with those jaws.  Decapitation was the only way to kill them – even cauterized wounds below the neck would heal.

Crystal spun again as the Hydra lunged for her. This time she spun inwards, getting the two heads of the Hydra to collide mid-bite. Good to know that still works, she thought, enjoying the momentary shelter the two tangled necks provided.

Hydras couldn’t coordinate their attacks, not the way a single organism usually could. Each head functioned independently, and didn’t seem to grasp that food all went to the same stomach. It was the only reason the creatures could be beaten, even with the fire trick.

A gap opened in the necks above her. Another head lunged down.

Crystal started a twist, giving her speed a boost, and dashed out of the way. The third head snapped shut in what would have been a perfect, waist-high bite. Crystal couldn’t help but picture the way her legs would have kicked out of the creature’s jaw before it swallowed her whole.

She kicked back in, bringing the white-hot sword around. The blade bit into the Hydra’s neck, but it was able to rear back before she could finish severing the head. Damnit, it’s too mobile. That head at least was out of commission with its throat slit, but it would only be a matter of seconds before it had fully healed and was rejoining its brethren in trying to bite her.

Heracles seriously undersold how hard this was, Crystal thought with a frown, flipping away from another three bites. Her heart was racing. She didn’t have time to sever the other nine heads. She could barely sever one of them, and she couldn’t even see what was happening between Moloch and the others right now, let alone impact it.

Crystal looked up at the creature as it reared, the heads hissing, and saw what she needed. Don’t sever nine heads. Sever one.

The Hydra started to strike again. This time, Crystal didn’t try to back away from it. She went upwards with each bite, kicking off the Hydra’s heads to propel herself forwards and over the Hydra. It caught the creature off balance. No being had ever tried something so stupid before, it didn’t have the instincts to handle it.

Fine by me, love. Crystal landed on the hydra’s back, and with a swipe of the sword, cut off three heads at the base. She leapt away from the Hydra’s retaliatory strike, but she needn’t have bothered. The creature was too busy roaring in pain.

Five to go. Crystal started in towards the back, but the Hydra wasn’t just hungry now. It was frantic and cornered, and the heads had stopped caring about which one ate her. They instead just wanted her dead.

Which meant their strikes were a bit more thought out, trying to avoid tangling each other. Still not the way it would have been from a single being, but each head was watching how the last head’s lunge went before going in on its own. Correcting for her dodges, shifting the body away each time it missed.

The bites were getting closer.

Crystal tried pushing back in towards the body, but it had learned from that trick. She couldn’t get close. It’s going to slow me down too long. Moloch is going to-

The thought was cut off as Crystal screamed. One of the heads managed to close in on her arm, and it reared her up into the air. Her sword arm was free, and she started hacking at the neck, but the angle was terrible. She couldn’t manage to sever it. No, not like this. No bloody way am I going out like this!

Another head came around and closed on her leg. Another lance of agony. The two heads started to pull away from each other, and part of Crystal wondered if she’d be pulled in half or if it would just pull the limbs off.

No!

Crystal dropped the sword and used the free hand to twist. The force the Hydras were applying as they pulled was zeroed out. It could tug all it wanted, but the sensation of being ripped apart faded. The bites were still agony, but she could push through that. She had to push through that.

The other three heads were coming in. If they got her, it would be over.

The sword was still falling. Crystal grabbed the sword with another twist, and send it spinning upwards. Whirling so fast it looked like a white-hot disk more than anything else, she steered it into the base of the Hydra’s necks. One of the jaws opened up right near her head, and she could stare down the throat that would be her last sight.

Then she was falling. She landed amid a series of crashes as the Hydra’s heads slammed into the ground around her. It worked! Bloody hell, that worked!

Before relief could settle in, she was being dragged along the ground towards Moloch. “No, Crystal,” he growled, somehow being heard over the din of battle, “You get to see this. You are going to watch them die.”

Ryan and Isabel had not fared well against Moloch. Isabel was trapped in a cage of metal covered in thorns that was slowly closing in on her. She kept shifting her form to something smaller as they got closer. Ryan was held in the air by bands of solid light that were pulling against chains digging into his skin. His mouth was hung open in a wordless scream.

Bands of light? Crystal frowned. She knew that twist. But from where? “Moloch…” Why hadn’t he killed them yet? Keep him talking, love, or no one’s getting out of this alive.  

“I’ve been waiting for this for so long, Crystal. So damn long. You have no idea how badly I’ve wanted to see the look on your face.” Moloch was grinning at her. “I tried to kill you at first, but I’m glad you survived when I sent the monsters on Sumeria. I’m glad you made it out of that. I’ve realized since then that it was better this way, to wait till you got to the finish line.”

Crystal’s mouth fell open. “Lamashtu,” she whispered.

Moloch nodded. “One of the names I’ve worn over the millenia. It was when I first came back, you see. I’d been floating in the Earth’s mantle for so long. Dying. Being reborn. Dying again. The others didn’t try to crunch their nanoverses. They all gave up, welcomed death. I didn’t. I never did. I knew I would get out.”

“You…what?” Crystal shook her head, still trying to figure out why those bands of light were so familiar, as well as what the hell Moloch was rambling about. “What are you talking about?”

“Everything!” Moloch bellowed. “Everything I’ve done was for this. This moment. Didn’t you ever wonder why I sacrificed humans for power, why I never used my nanoverse? It was so I would have a million years of divine energy stored up for this moment. So I could battle for days without getting Hungry. Everything I’ve done has been just so I can kill the woman who murdered the world.”

Crystal couldn’t help but let out an involuntary gasp. Moloch’s form was starting to shift, but he didn’t need to. Those bands of hard light had been a favorite trick of-

“You finally figured it out,” Moloch said as he finished his shapeshift, his form coming together to form one that was still humanoid, but covered in feathers. He was glorious like this, the most beautiful being Crystal had ever known.

A man Crystal had buried in a sea of molten rock.

King,” Crystal whispered.

The man who had guided her while she was Eschaton gestured, and Crystal flew into his outstretched talons. His claws tightened around her throat. “Yes. King. I held on, Crystal. Because I wanted you to witness this. I want you to watch.” He leaned closer, “I want to see the look in your eyes as I extinguish the world you killed my family to save.”

With his free hand, Moloch gestured, and Ryan started to scream again.

“No more Eschaton, Crystal,” Moloch hissed. “ And then…no more Earth.”

The Dragon’s Scion Part 46

When Tythel had been young, an aeromane had moved into Karjon’s territory. Aeromanes were one of the few predators that would dare try hunting in a dragon’s territory, their four wings and large eyes giving them superior mobility and the ability to escape the larger and more intelligent dragons, their green fur hiding them well from the air. However, few regions had enough wildlife to support both an aeromane and a dragon, and Karjon’s territory had been no different. After a year of managing to evade Karjon, the aeromane had depleted most of the of the local wildlife. Karjon could just fly further to get new prey, but the aeromane had become desperate in the later days of its life. Desperate and frantically hungry – so much so it had attempted to attack Karjon’s lair after picking up Tythel’s scent.

Tythel never forgot the hungry, haunted look in the creatures eyes before Karjon had managed to slay it. She never forgot its panicked desperation, the frantic need that had clawed at it so strongly it had risked diving into a dragon’s lair.

In Nicandros’ eyes, she saw a twisted refection of the look in the eyes of that starving aeromane. “You…you know how he died?” Nicandros asked, his voice hoarse.

The look in his eyes frightened her so much, Tythel could only nod.

“Tell me,” Nicandros whispered. Tythel felt her resolve draining. Why did I decide to speak with him? Wouldn’t it have been better to not put him through this? At her silence, Nicandros’ hand lashed out and grabbed her by the arm, squeezing. “Tell me!” Not a request, but a demand.

“He was…he was part of the group that came to attack us,” Tythel said, forcing the words out. She had to lick her lips. When had her throat gotten so dry? “It…he was in imperiplate. One of the soldiers in the sky.”

Nicandros’ grip didn’t soften. If anything, it grew tighter, so much that it was even starting to hurt a bit. “What. Happened.” Nicandros spat the words through clenched teeth.

“They were firing on him, Nicandros! On my father! I had…I’d just undergone my change. I threw dragonflame. I hit one in the foot, disrupted his unlight. He…he fell.”

Nicandros didn’t let go of her arm. “If he fell,” Nicandros hissed, “if he dropped like you said, how do you know it was Thomah!” He was shouting now.

Tythel couldn’t look him in the eyes. “He survived the fall. I found him in the woods. We fought. He mentioned his name when we did.”

Nicandros just stood there, and finally Tythel couldn’t ignore the grip on her arm anymore. “Nicandros…you’re hurting me.”

The words were soft, quiet things. They got through to Nicandros, who unclenched his hands. “I…” He swallowed hard. “I guess I can…I mean, it was in the heat of the moment. He…he attacked you.” Nicandros was sweating, and moved his hand up to wipe his brow. “You were acting in…you were protecting yourself.”

He opened his mouth to say more, but saw Tythel’s expression, saw her nictitating membranes flashing to fight back tears. Whatever he had been about to say died on his lips. “Right?” he whispered.

Tythel shook her head. “I found him in the crater he’d made when he landed. When he woke up, he thought I was…some sort of traveler. I didn’t ask. He was confused, disoriented. His plate had been shattered by the fall. I,” Tythel fought back a sob as she saw the look in Nicandros’ face. “I was so angry! I’d just watched Karjon die! I didn’t know he was your son, I didn’t even know you!”

“What did you do?” Nicandros asked, but it wasn’t angry this time, it wasn’t demanding. It was the most forlorn thing she’d ever heard come out of another beings mouth in her life, like he was standing at a great distance. It was like he was hollow, empty.

“I attacked him, Nicandros. I started the fight. I…that’s where I got my hammer. And my shield. After I…” Tythel took a deep breath. She couldn’t go on, she couldn’t finish the sentence.

“Say it.” The dangerous, desperate edge was back in Nicandros’ voice. “You did it, girl. You did it and now you don’t get to be a coward. Say it!”

“I used my flame!” Tythel shouted. “He’d helped kill my father and I killed him. Shadow forsake me, I burned him alive!”

Nicandros reeled back. For a moment, Tythel thought it had been too much for him. That she’d broken something in the older man, and he’d keel over dead right there. He certainly looked halfway to a corpse. His eyes were sunken, his skill pallid. “I thought…I thought he died in one of their border skirmishes,” Nicandros said in a harsh whisper. “It was the only reason I could think of for refusing to tell me. But…of course they wouldn’t tell me, wouldn’t give me the body. Dragonflame leaves marks, and dragons were supposed to be extinct.” He looked up at her again. “It was you. You murdered my son.”

Tears stopped as fear replaced them, and Tythel backed away from Nicandros. “Please, put the sword down,” she asked.

Nicandros looked at it. He seemed surprised to find the unlight blade in his hand. Seeing the weapon made Tythel feel sick, reminding her of the blade that had sliced her in the barracks. “That’s right. This can hurt you, can’t it?” Nicandros asked, almost softly.

Then he sheathed the weapon. “I’m going.” He said, with finality. He started mounting one of the horses.

“Nicandros-“

He cut her off. “No, Tythel. No. I came back to fight for one reason, and one reason only. I thought the Alohym had murdered my son. And now…I don’t know if I can stand the sight of you. I can’t stomach being around you. And I certainly, under no circumstances,” Nicandros raised his eyes to meet Tythel’s, and it seemed the desperation had finally settled on an emotion. Hatred. Tythel could read it in every line of his expression. Pure, unadulterated, loathing, “can work with you.”

Tythel didn’t fight back the sob this time. “You promised,” she cried, in desperation, “you promised I wouldn’t lose you.”

The look Nicandros gave her had something else besides hatred in it. Maybe it was sorrow. Or maybe it was just grief for his son’s murder. “I lied,” he whispered, and kicked the horse into motion.

“Nicandro-“

He whirled and cut her off again with a snarl. “You’re dead to me, your highness. What could a dead woman possibly say?”

Tythel stepped back from the snap, shrinking. “Where will you go?” she asked, her voice quiet.

“None of your flathing business. I’ll go to Cardon and become a sellsword. I’ll go to Ryhmmeria and become a drunk. I’ll go to Shadow and rot and I swear on all I hold holy that if I see you again I’ll take you with me.”

Tythel couldn’t look at him anymore. She turned her head away. “He killed my father,” she said, quietly.

She could hear Nicandros spit. “You killed my son.”

When Tythel finally found the strength to look up, he was gone.