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The Dragon’s Scion Part 193

Long ago, a Necromancer had nearly conquered the entire known world. His name had been Gix, and it had taken the Council Of Nine – five of the Little Gods and Four Dragons – working with the nations of Men, the Sylvani Diaspora, and the hidden realms of the Underfolk. It had been, for centuries, the greatest calamity the world had ever faced, on par with the collapse of the Cardomethi empire. Kingdoms burned. Entire towns were slaughtered to the last man, woman, and child, only to be raised again in Gix’s service. 

Tythel knew the stories well – Karjon had been one of the Council members, and she’d been fascinated to hear his tales of the war. He’d glossed over the horrors in her youth, focusing instead on the valor an the heroic sacrifices. As she’d aged enough to understand, he’d told her the rest. The Fall of Nehilom, where Gix had first deployed a spell that allowed his zombies to spread reanimation to corpses they had bitten, where fathers were devoured by their children and children by their parents. The rise of the Abyssals, and how that knightly order had been vital to winning the war as he had told her, but how they had committed countless atrocities in the name of victory. 

And, of course, the betrayal of the Last Prince. 

His name had been forbidden to be spoken or written for so longer, only members of the Nine still knew it. Lathariel was the last surviving member of the nine, even though she slumbered in a coma. Since Karjon had not passed the name to Tythel, unless Haradeth had been told the name by Lathariel, it was a name that was currently lost to the world. Only if Lathariel awoke was there any chance of it being preserved. 

The academic in Tythel hoped it would be remembered, so it could be added to genealogy trees. The warrior in Tythel wanted it to remain forgotten. 

The Last Prince had waited until a pivotal battle. A moment where it looked like the mortal races and the Council of Nine would emerge victorious. In that moment, he had revealed his true allegiance. He had taken his knights in on their charge, as he was supposed to – but when they struck, it was not Gix’s hoard that they slew, but their own allies. Because of his action, the war with Gix waged on a decade longer than was needed. Karjon personally oversaw his trial, and personally incinerated him when the guilty verdict came down. The Last Prince only had one defense – “I sought to preserve some life in the face of death.”

For that statement, his legions became remembered as the Death Knights, and the Cidatel that had housed them was Death’s Head Keep. The name was not just a reminder of what evil had been done here, but also descriptive – the gateway to the keep was a stylized skull.

“You know,” Tythel said to Eupheme as the road to the drawbridge beneath the looming stone skull, after boring her throughout the entire ride with the full tale of the war and the Last Prince’s betrayal, “In hindsight, the kind of person who designed a keep with a skull for a door being a traitor in a war against a necromancer probably shouldn’t have been a surprise.”

Eupheme snorted. “When you put it that way…’

“Thank you, by the way,” Tythel said. Eupheme raised her eyebrow. “When I get going on history like that, I know how boring it gets. I appreciate you humoring me.”

“Tythel, you’re my friend. Dolt. We’ve covered that before. Do I care about the intricacies of Cardomethi politics during the collapse, or the broken supply chains that made it so hard to fight Gix in the early days of the war? Normally, no. But when you’re talking about them, you get so excited that I care because you do. So you weren’t boring me.”

Tythel flushed, glad her scales didn’t betray that anymore, and smiled for Eupheme’s benefit. The expression was becoming more natural, although she felt herself habitually still squinting when she did it. “Well, thank you for seeing it that way.”

“Next time just do me a favor and stick to the battles more? That’s the best part.” Eupheme’s eyes sparkled with the gentle prod.

“I’ll do my best. But would they be as good if you didn’t have all the context so you knew exactly what was at stake?”

Eupheme considered for a moment and then nodded. “Yes, I would. Battles are inherently interesting, even without context.”

“I’ll test that theory at some point,” Tythel said. They’d reached the main door.

“Halt!” came a voice from above. “Who goes there!”

“The Princess Tythel!” Eupheme responded. “Who dares bar her passage?”

“No one!” This time the voice was just a shade higher. “Just need to confirm its her, that’s all.”

“The poor man’s just doing his job,” Tythel said in a quiet voice, then raised it. “The Horn is Raised at Midnight,” Tythel shouted.

“And the Rabbit Calls its Warren A Fortress,” Eupheme added. 

“Welcome, Princess Tythel!” the man atop said, and the door began to grind open. “Do you need someone to take your steeds?”

“Light and Shadow, yes!” Tythel said. It hadn’t been as bad as she’d feared, mainly because she and Eupheme had set a fairly sedate pace, but after so many days in the saddle Tythel was ready to never be in one again.

Their horses taken by the stableboys – Tythel did give hers another apple before he was taken, so he’d remember her fondly and hopefully tolerate her if she needed to awkwardly sit on his back again, Tythel and Eupheme headed into the main entrance way.

“Armin!” Tythel shouted when she saw the lumcaster, fighting a very undecorous urge to tackle him with a huge. “Deepest Shadow, man, it’s good to see you again!”

Armin’s eyes widened when he saw her, and there was a moment of hesitation. Then he smiled. Something about his smile seemed off to Tythel. There was a note to it she’d never seen before. Was that an excited smile? Or a relieved one? It didn’t quite fit either of those, but she couldn’t place it. “Likewise! I’m so glad you made it back all right. Although…I’m sorry to hear about Tellias.”

Ah. That explained the smile. He had heard the news, clearly, but had been hoping for there to have been some error. “I hold hope, still,” Tythel murmured. “He does not yet rest in the Shadow’s Embrace.”

“Of course,” Armin said. “Heartflame, I’m certain.”

There was a edge to his words Tythel couldn’t place, but she was able to easily deduce it was because he didn’t want to break her hope. “You would be correct. I cannot yet wield that power, however.”

“I’m sure you’ll figure it out at the exact right moment for your needs. You’ve got the Light on your side, there.”

“Thank you,” Tythel said, unsure why Eupheme was starting to look angry. Oh, of course. She was being rude and dominating the conversation. “I’m going to go find Ossman, let you and Eupheme catch up.”

“Actually, not yet.” The voice came from behind Tythel. She’d heard the footsteps coming, but hadn’t paid them much mind. Duke de’Monchy. “Your timing is fortuitous, Tythel. We have much to discuss. Armin finished his decryption just two days hence. We were about to give up on waiting for you to arrive.”

Tythel looked at Armin with wide eyes. “Did it…”

Armin nodded, and his smile lost some of the edge. “I know now. I know what the Vacuity Engine is, and I know where we can find it. And I know why we absolutely must destroy it.”

Small Worlds Part 274

Both sides of the fight had thrown up barriers to cut the other one off. Crystal was maintaining a complicated wall of water and air that was being backed by a field Ryan had created, an entire region of air where the equation for velocity had a negative sign slapped into it, so anything that got through Crystal’s field would head back in the other direction. He couldn’t see the equations the super soldiers were using.

“We can outlast them,” Horus said. “My and Crystal’s power can be used more efficiently, which will bring their Hungers into effect first.”

“I don’t think we can count on starving them out,” Ryan gasped. He wrapped a bandage around his hand. “I can barely concentrate with my hand like this.”

“That is why I said it would be up to crystal and I.” Horus shook his head. “You need to quit the field. Before you die.”

“Can’t,” Ryan said.

“This is no time for grandstanding, Eschaton.” Horus snapped the words, and his eyes narrowed into a firm glare. “You may be more competent than I thought, but you are badly injured and are still Nascent. If you die-”

“I don’t need the reminder!” Ryan didn’t mean to shout, but he was getting tired of people reminding him that at any moment he could die permanently. “But right now I’m the only thing keeping that nuke from going off, and if I let go of that twist it’ll be armed again.”

“Nuke?” Horus asked.

Crystal started to respond, but she was drowned out by a hail of gunfire from the other side. Equations were backing these bullets, and they came at Crystal’s barrier so fast that by the time they reached the water, they were blobs of superheated plasma. The particles detonated upon impact with Ryan’s impossible laws, sending force pouring away but still allowing heat in. Horus’ quick thinking and twist stopped them all from catching on fire.

“Nuke,” Ryan repeated. “Can you hit them back?”

Horus raised his guns into the air and let loose, the huge slugs flying away. He was already twisting himself. The bullets, now drawn to the super soldiers as their direct ‘down’, began to fall from the sky. “You didn’t mention a nuclear weapon.”

“If I’d known, I promise, that would have come up sooner.” The super soldiers had to take power from their front facing barrier to block Horus’ ballistic strike. “I’ve turned the firing mechanism into a block of carbon, but if I stop that twist…”

“I understand.” Horus thought for a second. “What about-”

“Not until Kali shows,” Ryan said, growling the word. “The whole point was to flush her-”

“Nice try!” Evans shouted from the other side of the park. “But you can’t hide there forever. In fact, I don’t think I’m going to allow that to happen.” Ryan could barely make him out through the twin barriers, but it was enough to see him turn towards the crowd and raise his weapon.

“No!” Ryan shouted, twisting. The barrier of negative velocity condensed into a sphere, and Ryan hurled it towards Evans. It warped the air like a heat ripple as it flew, air molecules suddenly finding themselves going the other direction when they impacted it. That negative direction meant the barrier the super soldiers had erected offered no resistance as it passed through. If it had hit Evans, it would have done the same to his torso.

If. Arnold had been watching the attack, and he shoved his commander out of the way. It flew past Evans and Ryan had to let it disperse before it hit the crowd.

Munoz opened fire with hyper-accelerated rounds. This time, without Ryan’s barrier, all they had was Crystal’s water to blunt the attack. Water that turned to plasma upon impact. Everything went white and Ryan howled in pain as the flames washed over him.

The world started to clear. Horus twisted reality again to put out the lingering flames. Crystal was still standing, defiant even as wisps of smoke curled from her clothes and her cheeks blistered. Horus shook himself free of ash, the back of his hands cracked and burned. Ryan could feel the burns were worst on his shins, and looking down he could see that the denim of his jeans was fused to burnt flesh.

“We can’t wait anymore!” Horus growled.

He was right. “We need backup!” Ryan shouted.

Evans sneered. “You already pulled in your support. You’re alone and-”

His were drowned out by a flash of light and clap of thunder. Spots danced in Ryan’s vision, and when they cleared he could see Evans standing stiff, his hair standing on end. Thin bands of smoke curled off his uniform.

Lakshmi on a rooftop, wearing a functional jeans and t-shirt combination, electricity dancing from her fingertips.

Munoz whirled to face the new threat, unloading a new barrage of gunfire that accelerated into plasma. Lakshmi whirled and ducked, a graceful motion that sent the plasma balls flying over her head as she dove from the roof and lowered herself to the ground on a twist that slowed her fall. The plasma balls streaked into the sky, and then curved as a new set of twists intercepted them. Munoz had to dive out of the way as they streaked back to the point of origin, the plasma detonating when it struck the solid earth she’d just been standing on.

Ryan’s eyes went to a different rooftop where a figure stood, clad in red and gold silk. He held a staff that ended in three rings with his nanoverse fixed firmly into the center. Even from this distance the elongated jaw and hairsuite nature made it clear this wasn’t a human. In spite of his upright posture, this was a member of Pan troglodytes, also known as the common chimpanzee. One of the few sentient non-humans to have ever found and claimed a nanoverse.

Son Wukong, the Monkey King.

He raised his staff in acknowledgement of Ryan’s gaze, and his eyes glinted with mischief. A cloud gathered above him, twist that he and Lakshmi had arranged together, a combined storm that sent hungry bolts of lightning towards the super soldiers.

Now it was their turn to be on the defensive. Horus unleashed a barrage of gunfire to add to the hungering storm gathering in the air, and Crystal pulled knives from her nanoverse and hurled them towards their opponents in rapid succession, adding a variant of Athena’s sword accelerating toss to each throw. The super soldiers threw up a three-pronged barrier of air, stone, and inverted equations to blunt the force of the attack, but now it was five on three in Ryan’s favor. Well, four on three. Much as he wanted to join the assault, Ryan was already feeling his stomach start to growl form the effort of keeping the nuclear device contained. He could cause the bomb to disassemble and turn the fissile materials into a gas so they’d dissipate, but as soon as that was over there would be radioactive materials spread across the park – possibly even into the panicked, densely packed crowd. Ironically the bomb was the only thing preventing the harmful radiation from spreading.

No. He had to maintain his hold on it for now.

And what if your power runs out? 

It was a terrible question to have to ask himself, but in the reflected glow of his allies’  attacks slamming into the super soldier’s barrier, he had to ask it. As terrible as it would be…given the option between letting them detonate a nuke and risking irradiating the crowd, Ryan would have to choose the latter.

He could only pray it wouldn’t come to that.

That terrible thought was what kept him from giving his full attention to the battle, so he was the only one who noticed it when the air was rent asunder. This was no normal doorway to a nanoverse, but an actual tear in reality, a sucking wormhole that blotted out all light. Air began to rush into the exposed vacuum, tugging on Ryan’s shirt.

A wave of impossible black fire leapt from the torn place. Ryan threw up a hasty barrier to stop the attack, but when it met his equations the fire burned them away, he howled as a burning sensation crept into his mind through the twists.

Kali stepped out of the wormhole, the Staff of Ra held forward.

“Well. I do believe this is finally everyone,” she said. “Cease fighting and surrender, Eschaton. Do not make this harder than it has to be.”

The Dragon’s Scion Part 192

It was worse than Tythel had feared.

The newsheets were products of Alohym technology, and Tythel had never paid them much mind. She hadn’t been in a town long enough to really bother perusing one. She now wished she had paid more attention.

THE DRAGON CON – THE LIES OF THE ALLEGED DRAGON PRINCESS

In a statement released by the Crawling Citadel, it has been revealed that Tythel, the woman who claimed to be the last heir of the nobles that we were so kindly liberated from the Alohym, is not only attempted to resurrect an archaic institution that so long oppressed our people, is a fraud. Analysis of her blood conducted while she was the captive of the Alohym – before her escape and subsequent murder of over three dozen brave soldiers – has been compared to the bones of the former King and Queen. Through study of the blood-lexicon that makes up all life, the Alohym have determined that Tythel’s bloodline shares no markers in common with the royal family. 

It should come as no surprise about her lies. After her brutal murder of Great Rephylon, she…

Tythel stopped reading there, and handed over the sheet to Eupheme wordlessly. Eupheme’s eyes skimmed over. “What a pack of nonsense. There were a half dozen guards there, at most, and I hardly call what happened a murder. I’m pretty sure we didn’t kill all of them, anyway. It’s more Alohym propaganda, and… and why are you looking like that?”

Tythel had gone ashen, and her nictitating membranes were flashing. “‘Everything will collapse. Your people will call you a monster, a liar, a child, they will turn’…I’m guessing it was supposed to be against you, but I tore out his throat before he could finish.”

“What?” Eupeheme asked.

“Rephylon. The last thing ever said. I figured the monster was because I am a dragon, and child because of my age, but liar…I just assumed he was hurtling any insult he could think of at me. But now…he knew. He knew when we fought. The Alohym were just sitting on it until…”

“Tythel…are you believing this?” Eupheme asked.

“I…I don’t know. That medallion I showed Lathariel that proved to her I was the heir? Karjon said it was from my parents, but what if it wasn’t? He had dozens of treasures in his horde, it could have come from there. That was…that was the only proof I had.”

“Would you father lie to you like that?”

Tythel’s nictitating membranes tried to wipe away tears that still wouldn’t come. “I don’t…I don’t know. I don’t think so. But…maybe he was lied to? Or maybe he had a plan to…to use me to flush out the real heir? I don’t know.” Tythel shook her head, more to clear the dark thoughts than in any kind of negation. “But people are believing it,” she said. “That’s…that’s the real problem. Even if we don’t, it’s created a doubt to my legitimacy, and the only way to prove it one way or another requires the Alohym blood reading technology and the bones of the Royal family. Of…of my parents.”

Eupheme grimaced. “So it’s impossible to prove?”

Tythel nodded slowly, still staring at the paper. The words ran in her vision.

Eupheme placed a hand carefully on Tythel’s shoulder. “So…what are you going to do?”

“I’m going to take a deep breath,” Tythel said, doing exactly that. “You know my father taught me history, right?”

“I might have picked up subtle hints in that regard,” Eupheme said, her voice as dry as salt.

“Do you know what makes nobles nobility?”

Eupheme hesitated. “They are blessed by the Light, and guarded by Shadow?”

“Of course,” Tythel said. “At least, that’s what they say. Blessed by Light, Guarded by Shadow. By people like you. But I mean originally. How the first noble houses came to be, how they rose, how they secured their places. What made them different from everyone else?”

Eupheme shook her head.

“When the Cardomethi empire fell, there was almost no order on the continent. Various bands of warlords rose up from the ashes of the empire’s collapse. Some claimed to be headed by the lost heir of the Emperess. Some claimed to be blessed by the Light. Some claimed to be godlings. Some even were godlings. Some claimed to trace their lineage back to the ancient Alohym.” Tythel sniffed and wiped her eyes. It helped clear away the cloud that was growing on her vision. “At the end, when the dust had settled, everyone who was able to carve out territory had one thing in common. Do you know what it was?”

“They were all blessed by the Light?” Eupheme guessed.

“No. One could argue they were all favored by the Light – they certainly did – but only two of those warlords was able to claim they were descended from people who had made that claim at the start. One of them became the Royal family. That’s why they said they were favored by the Light. But before they unified the country under their rule through marriage and conquest, all those warlords called themselves nobility, even those that never claimed a blessing from the Light. No, the one thing they shared in common was they were all better at warfare then their opponents. That seems to be what distinguishes nobility from the common person.”

Eupheme looked hesitant. “I’m not sure…what are you saying?”

“I’m saying it doesn’t matter if my blood is royal.” Tythel felt her jaw clench in determination. “I’m saying if I win, everyone will say my blood was royal. That the counter claim was another Alohym lie. And if I lose, everyone will say the Alohym told the truth. That I was never royal. There are so many lies flowing from Alohym mandibles, it won’t matter what is said anymore – only what happens.”

“You’d start your reign off with a lie?” Eupheme said. “If you truly believe it’s not royal blood…”

“I’ve got plans for that. For the reign, I mean. I think it’s important that I have exactly much power once it’s time for me to reign as I do in the resistance – because I’d be about as good as leading a nation as I have been at fighting a war. Seeing as the two missions I’ve been involved in have resulted in the capture of the entire unit and then the permanent incapacitation of one member of a three person team, that tells you exactly how good I think I’d be at leading a nation. But my point is…my point is, there’s no way to prove the lie one way or another right now. So I’m going to keep acting like I have a claim, and history will decide if I did. Trace any royal family back long enough, and what you’ll find is some bastard who was very good at killing people. If what the world needs is for me to be that bastard, I’ll be that bastard. And if history damns me for it, then history damns me.” 

“Why do you want it?” Eupheme asked. “If you believe you might not be of royal blood, why on earth would you put yourself in that danger? You could renounce your claim and pursue your vengeance in peace. Well, relative peace. The Alohym wouldn’t need to kill you specifically anymore – if you renounce your claim, you’d just be another soldier.”

Tythel shrugged. “Someone has to stand up to the Alohym and take the arcfire. As long as I’m a target, the Alohym will focus on me and not the people actually leading the rebellion. I can do that. Better someone with dragonscale than a normal human. Besides, people have started rallying around the idea of me. Not me the person. I think the resistance would shatter at that. But the idea had power. I’ll let the Resistance use that idea. If it puts me in danger…well, a martyr can be a better thing to rally around than a person. Light knows it’ll stop me from doing something stupid and breaking that idea to peices.”

Eupheme was looking at her carefully.

“I know your oath is to the royal family. I know this puts that in question.”

“It does,” Eupheme said, her voice small. “But…in all the time I’ve known you, this might be the first time you’ve actually sounded like a royal. Like a royal should be. You’re my friend, and I don’t care what Alohym science proves. You are my princess. And that’s enough.” 

Tythel smiled at her, hoping it looked at least somewhat natural, and Eupheme returned the expression.

“So,” Eupheme said. “What now?”

“Now?” Tythel said, squaring her jaw. “Now I’m going to get on that Light-Forsaken horse. Come on and make sure the beast doesn’t kill me in the process.”

Small Worlds Part 273

The firing mechanism of the nuclear warhead turned to simple carbon under Ryan’s manipulation. He barely finished the twist to reality before Munoz levelled her rifle at Ryan. Where did that even come from? The thought was irrelevant and barely started before Ryan dove to the side, rolling away from the hail of bullets. He threw out another twist with the roll, and a barrier of solid air stopped the gunfire from punching into the now panicked crowd. He pulled the barrier with him as he moved, intercepting gunfire that was just barely missing him.

Crystal lunged at Munoz, her sword swinging towards the soldier’s neck. Munoz ducked under the blow, but had to stop shooting at Crystal pressed the attack. Ryan flicked his wrist, turning the wall of air into a blade and sending it streaking towards Munoz. She held out a hand and casually caught the air blade with a twist of her own, but couldn’t respond in kind. Not with Crystal’s blade always just inches from her body.

Ryan began to gather another twist, but was driven to the ground when something slammed into his back. He felt the air knocked out of his lungs and tasted dirt before he could properly register what had happened, and by then there was already a foot on his spine, pushing him into the ground.

“Nope,” the owner of the foot said. “You’re not pulling any crap right now.”

Ryan recognized the voice. Arnold. He stopped trying to push his face out of the dirt and instead grabbed threads of reality, desperately twisting. I really hope that shoe has a rubber sole, Ryan thought.

A deafening crack split the air, and the pressure on Ryan’s back lessened. He pushed himself up, the smell of dirt being replaced with ozone. Arnold was still standing, but smoke rose from his body and his hair was standing up wild, making him look like a mad scientist with a machine gun. He was blinking his eyes, trying to clear his head. Ryan didn’t give him the chance. He lashed out with a quick kick to Arnold’s stomach, sending the man stumbling back.

He would have followed up the attack, but once again his attention was diverted by the arrival of a new attacker. This one came in the form of a fireball streaking towards Ryan. Ryan twisted had, pulling water out of the air to form a barrier. Steam erupted from where water and fire met, and Ryan cried out as superheated steam worked its way up his arms.

A quick twist chilled the steam to mist, and Ryan dove into the protective covering it offered. Evans. That made all three of the surviving super soldiers, already here. He could hear the sound of steel on steel that indicated Crystal and Diane were still fighting, and after reactivating his divine sight he confirmed that with his own eyes. Arnold was still in the cloud with him, brushing off his shirt.

“Nice moves, kid,” he said, looking around blankly. He doesn’t know how to use his divine sight yet. Ryan dropped into a crouch and began to creep closer to Arnold. If he could get him while he was blind, he could even the odds. “You’ve gotten better since the last time we fought.”

Oh, you have no idea. Ryan reached into his nanoverse and pulled out a sword. This one was unnaturally heavy, with a core of some substance that weighed it down. For a human, it would be near impossible to swing. For a god, it was just about perfect. Ryan tensed his legs and then sprung forward silently, sword raised over his head.

Arnold whirled and stepped forward into the blow, so instead of the sword coming down on his head Ryan’s elbow landed on his shoulder. Before Ryan could react to this change of pace, Arnold’s hand closed in around his neck. “But you never did learn to stay down.” He picked Ryan up and, still holding him by the neck, slammed him into the Earth. “Or how to tell when someone’s bluffing.”

Ryan could feel the need for air building up in his lungs. So many twist in such a short time, he was already at the first hunger. He flipped his grip on the sword and, to Arnold’s surprise, rammed the blade into his opponent’s forearm. Arnold screamed at the pain and let loose his grip on Ryan’s neck, and Ryan stood back up, his back a mass of pain, gathering together threads of reality for a new twist. “You still talk too much,” Ryan said.

Or at least, he tried to. He got out “you” and “still,” but in the brief instant between that and “talk,” his hand exploded in pain. Ryan screamed dropped to the ground, not driven by any combat reflex. His knees just refused to let him still be standing, and for the third time in under a minute, Ryan was down. He looked at his hand, trying to figure out what had happened.

It took a moment for his brain to process what it was seeing. The ring finger on that hand was gone, completely obliterated by an attack Ryan hadn’t even seen coming. He gritted his teeth against the screams and twisted a surge of heat to cauterize the wound.

“About now would be really goddamn good!” Ryan shouted.

That seemed to puzzle his opponents, or at least make them stop short in their advance. Evans had come out of the crowd and switched to a sword of his own. Arnold was pulling Ryan’s sword out of his arm, a movement that made a horrible sound. They were both focused on him completely.

Which meant Evans was completely off guard when Horus descended from the sky, talons outstretched. Those talons raked red lines across Evans’ face. Horus didn’t quite manage to take out one of the super-soldier’s eyes, but blood still poured from the injuries, blocking Evans’ vision.

“Took you long enough,” Ryan growled, his vision still blurred by pain. That will grow back, right? My face grew back after Ross shot it off. The stump where his finger had been throbbed in response.

Horus shifted to human form and skidded to a stop, pulling some kind of high caliber automatic weapon from his nanoverse with one hand and twisting reality with the other. He didn’t target either of the distracted super soldiers, instead setting his sights on Munoz and opening fire. The guns roared like thunder. Munoz was able to dodge out of the way, forcing her apart from Crystal, and the bullets were caught on the web of air Horus had woven.

“Ryan!” Crystal said, taking the break to rush over to him. She was sporting a black eye but otherwise seemed unharmed. “Shit, love, your hand.”

“I’ll live,” Ryan managed to gasp. “Thanks for the save, Horus. It’s good to see you again”

Horus just gave him a curt nod. “I count three,” he said.

“Yeah,” Ryan muttered the word. Where is she? 

Three on three. Last time they’d fought the super soldiers, it had been six on four and Ryan and co had barely made it out alive. If Ryan didn’t have another ace up his sleeve, he’d be panicking right now.

Instead, what he felt was a growing terror that even that wouldn’t be enough.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 191

“This is going to work,” Eupheme said firmly.

Tythel shook her head and took a step back, eyeing the target of Eupheme’s gaze. They were still upwind, and the beast had not caught Tythel’s scent yet. “These things and I don’t get along,” Tythel said. “They don’t like my smell, and the feeling is very mutual.”

Eupheme shook her head. “Tythel, it’s just a horse. This one has grown up in the shadow of your father’s mountain, and it’s familiar with the scent of dragon. It’s not going to spook on you.”

“How can you be sure?”

“Because I asked the seller. Sheress the Wise, last of the Greenkeepers? This horse was ridden by knights fighting alongside her in the last charge. And before you ask,” Eupheme held up a finger, stifling Tythel’s objection before it could even form, “I checked the paperwork to ensure that claim was legitimate. It’s not going to run from you.”

Tythel grimaced. “I just don’t see why we can’t ride a Skitterer,” she grumbled, taking a hesitant step towards the animal. The horse was munching on some kind of grain, completely oblivious to Tythel’s approach.

“Because we still don’t know how we were being tracked. It’s possible there’s something in Skitterers the Alohym can use to follow their passengers, and…oh, Light,” Eupheme’s eyes widened. “You’re not worried about the horse being scared. You’re scared.”

“Am not,” Tythel protested.

“Okay, prove it. Walk up to that horse.”

Tythel took a deep breath and steeled herself. As firmly as she could, she took a step forward. The horse heard the motion, and its tail flicked.

Tythel leapt back.

“Oh Light, you are,” Eupheme breathed. “Didn’t you…I’m sorry, I’m confused. You rode one into battle.”

“I clung to Nicandros’ back on one in battle,” Tythel said. “He was controlling the animal. Not me. I don’t even know what I’m doing on one of these things.”

“Tythel…you’ve fought Alohym. You ran up the leg of one of their machines before beating it with a hammer until it cracked. You faced off against a half-Alohym monster, an insane lumcaster, and my flathing sister. And you’re afraid. Of a horse.”

“Those are different. They’re all people.” Eupheme’s eyebrows went up, and Tythel shook her head. “I said people, not human. Even if I don’t understand weird Alohym logic, I can reason with it, and talk with it, and if it attacks me I can set it on fire. A horse though? You can’t reason with it. There’s no coming to an understanding. It’s a horse. It’s an animal. And if it attacks me I can’t set it on fire.”

“You…you think a horse is immune to dragonflame?” Eupheme was looking sympathetic, but Tythel could see the grin threatening to burst out from behind her worried frown.

“No, I mean, it wouldn’t deserve to be set on fire.” Tythel didn’t mean to snap, but the horse was looking over its shoulder now. It snorted. “It’s just an animal. So if attacks me, it means I did something wrong, and it would be wrong. Also do you know how strong a horse can kick? It could kill a person.”

“You’re half dragon,” Eupheme said.

“And I’m half human. Dragon scale is great for stopping blades and arrows, but it bends as easily as human skin. It kicks me I could break bones. I’d have to go get treatment if I didn’t die. And it would be my fault.” Tythel’s breathing was fast and deep now.

“Okay,” Eupheme said, the grin fading. She put a hand on Tythel’s shoulder and gently pushed her away from the horse. “Tythel. You’re overthinking this, and it’s not adding up. What’s really bothering you?”

Tythel took a few slower breaths, trying to calm herself. “I just…what if it kicks me?”

“You mentioned that, but you weren’t that afraid of these when you were with Nicandros. So I don’t buy that it’s just fear of being kicked. So you need to tell me-”
“What if it kicks me in the head?” The words came out in a muted wail.

Eupheme froze, her eyes widening. Tythel hadn’t wanted to say it, but could imagine Eupheme was seeing the same thing Tythel had been seeing ever since she first saw the horse. Tellias’ indented skull, an injury nothing short of heartflame could heal him from unless they wanted to turn him into a twisted mutant. Heartflame that now only had one possible source – Tythel.

“Okay,” Eupheme said, and she led Tythel to a bench by the side of the road. It was light out, and people were walking about their business. While Tythel’s heavy cloak to hide her wings was certainly drawing some attention in the sweltering heat, not so much that anyone was pausing for more than a glance. Eupheme, who had dressed appropriately for the heat, was drawing far more attention, although Tythel didn’t quite understand why. It wasn’t that unusual for a woman to wear pants, and while Eupheme’s were tight, it certainly wasn’t unheard of. Yet so many of the men were looking at her buttocks. Maybe they’re trying to gauge her mobility?

The train of thought, while slightly ludicrous even in Tythel’s estimation, helped her calm down. Eupheme’s arm around her shoulder helped too. “What are you thinking about?” Eupheme asked.

“Actually, I was distracting myself. Trying to figure out why men were looking at your rear.”

Eupheme snorted. “Because humans find that part…you know what, it would take too long to explain. It’s a human sexual attraction thing.”

“Ah,” Tythel said, smiling shakily. “That…does explain why I couldn’t understand it.”

Eupheme’s answering smile was encouraging. “You always were bad at that. At some point we need to have a serious talk about it. So much of what people – sorry, humans – do is explained by our baser urges, and you’ll need to understand that if you’re to rule us.”

Tythel nodded seriously. They sat there for a moment as Tythel gathered herself. “Eupheme, I’m sorry. It just, lately, feels that everything that could possibly go wrong does go wrong. And the horse is just…one more thing that could go wrong.”

“I understand. Truly. And I know it’s….what?”

Eupheme had cut herself off because Tythel raised a hand to silence her. There was a conversation a block away, and Tythel had heard her name. She focused herself, blocking out all other sounds to try and pick up what they were saying in the bustle of the town.

“I always knew it was a lie,” one voice was saying. He sounded male, and absolutely disgusted.

“Don’t try that line,” a woman responded. “You were talking about the return of the rightful heir from the day that she came out to the world.”

The man sputtered. “I didn’t believe it, though. I mean, it was an interesting moment, but everyone knows that the real princess died.”

The woman’s voice dropped several registers, and even with her hearing Tythel could barely make out what was being said. “Or it’s another Alohym lie.”

“Be careful with that,” the man said in what he thought was a whisper but carried far better than his earlier speech. “You never know who might be listening.”

“I’m just saying,” the woman continued, “they need something after the massacre. It’s awfully convenient for them that they are able to release this information right as people are really focused against them.”

“Yes, but they had to admit they had her captive and lost her. That certainly lends credence to their story, don’t you think?”

“What is it?” Eupheme asked. Every line in her body was tense and ready to spring for some threat.

Tythel didn’t even have the energy to sigh. “A problem. Come on. I need to see what’s going on.”

She just had to hope it wasn’t what she feared.

 

The Dragon’s Scion part 190

Poz was able to find a resting place in a ruined building. The windows had long ago been broken and taken away, and the interior was a mess of spider webs and rotting wood. There had once been furniture here, but that had been taken at some point. Only ghostly outlines on the floor marked where it had once been, spots where the sun hadn’t bleached the floor as strongly. It was the kind of place that was abandoned and forgotten.

Poz still sniffed the air, wanting to make sure he was truly alone. There were a faint stench of waste, but it was old and faded. No other evidence of humans remained. The only smell was dust so long undisturbed, it had gone stale.

He crept through the window, careful to ensure no one was watching him move with a spryness that would have betrayed his fake aliments. Once inside he still made sure to listen carefully for a few moments, wanting to make certain there were no footsteps creeping closer, no gentle hiss of knife or sword drawn from scabbard, and no low hum of arcwands charging.

For a half second that felt like an eternity, Poz waited. Only when none of those sounds reached his ears did he dare let himself breathe.

You’ll have to travel at night. Those were the words of Man-Poz, some of the coherent pieces of advice he’d left behind. And sleep during the day. Awaken at dusk, bed at dawn, and avoid grubs. 

Poz grimaced at those last words. There was an erroneous belief among humans that spiders would climb into their mouths while they slept. It was a legend, something with no basis in reality. Only two or three Underfolk had ever gone to sleep in one flesh and awoken in another, and they were so exceptional Pox could recall their names from childhood stories. Ulk, who had fallen asleep after three days march and landed face first on an anthill, Kol, who later discovered the change in flesh was a trick by his brother to ensure Kol would be too stupid to help on the day his brother staged his revolt, and Bon, who had been so near death he could barely breathe and so a spider had felt safe seeking refuge in the open mouth of a predator. 

No, Manflesh Poz wasn’t trying to warn him against the dangers of accidental ingestion. He was, as was often the case, condescending to himself. Don’t do the stupid thing you believe to be noble and self-exile into grubflesh again. That was what those words had meant.

If there hadn’t been a reason to, Poz would have ignored the warning. But he had things to do. Things that required grubflesh. 

Things that were outlined in the book.

Poz settled down to the floor and leaned back against the wall, unwrapping the book from its bindings and unfolding it to the page he’d marked before.

To the north you will find the town of Gildsroot, to the south Gremsburg. Head north. Gremsburg has a larger Alohym contingent, and if Nicandros is expecting you, he’ll send people there first. Gildsroot will fly past his notice because of how long the trek here is. I give this a seventy-three percent probability, based on norms established for Nicandros. Grief may have changed his behavior, and he may now be an adversary, but that shouldn’t have changed his tactical decision making too much. The other twenty-seven percent accounts for the possibility Nicandros will expect that I have outthought him – which I have – and selects Gildsroot based on its unassuming nature or through using some sort of randomized determination factor. 

It’s vital that you do not rest in the wilderness for any period of time. The Alohym have new fliers of multiple varieties, their half-Alohym, half-Human hybrids and some sort of manta-ray like creature that can traverse the air at immense speeds. Given what I’ve seen, and the overall lack of organic Alohym technology, it’s likely these rays are creatures brought from some other world they have conquered. 

This is important. The Alohym must have faced rebellion before. If they are bringing in creatures from across their empire, that means one of two possibilities exist. In the first, they are secure in their knowledge that they have defeated the humans so thoroughly that this world is entirely under their dominion. Given that this occurred after the Princess slew Rephylon, I find that unlikely. More likely, and more important, is they are growing desperate.

On the stone over the firepit – and here Poz had included a note to himself that he’d transcribed the passage that was on that stone on page eighty-three – you’ll find a diagram for a device that should allow you to take one of these creatures down from the sky. You’ll need to get specialized components made from a blacksmith, and the diagrams you’ll need to provide them are there. Engage them in the woods over Mistwafe, and place it among the trees.

Remember. No one thought to forbid the flesh of these strange flyers. 

Poz sighed and settled deeper into a slump. The idea was solid, and the design had carefully been laid out so even Wolfflesh could understand it. However the “specialized components” would require custom blacksmithing that he could not afford, from a blacksmith that would have every reason to kill him and hand his body over to the Alohym, and Man-Poz had not included any ideas for how to lure these fliers into the forest mentioned. 

Plus, there were concerns beyond just the practical. 

These fliers, if they were truly creatures from another world the Alohym had brought with them, could be intelligent. True, they would not be among the Forbidden Flesh, but just because the ancestors had not thought to explicitly forbid creatures from another world did not mean it was something that should be ignored. Intelligence, when added to Intelligence, would override something else. For Manflesh, it was empathy. Poz had never dared taste Dragonflesh or Sylvaniflesh, but he had concerns about what those would do. 

Flesh from another world? What might that do to him?

He turned his eyes back to the book. One of the flaws of our consumption of flesh is that our mass does not change. As such, Crowflesh, Henflesh, and other avian fleshes grant some degree of wings, but they are proportional to the much smaller base forms. We cannot fly with them – even you know this. The only flesh that grants flight is the Aeromane. Likely Dragonflesh as well, although we cannot prove that. These creatures are larger than us, and they fly through the air via some manner of organic combustion that allows them to attain great velocities. Their flesh could grant us flight. It is imperative you seek them out.

Ignore your outdated morality. We are at war, and casualties must be allowed for. The fate of this planet is greater than your sense of ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’

Poz closed the book and sighed. Was that true? Man-Poz was convinced it was, but he had let an entire town be slaughtered to secure his own safety. What point was there to freeing the world from the Alohym if it burned in the process?

A low growl slipped from Poz’s throat, an involuntary reaction born of this flesh. These questions were too much to handle, and he had a sense that no one person should be the one to answer them.

He would have to find the Resistance. They could debate what was right and wrong. He could listen to their arguments and decide for himself.

For now, he had to rest. Sleep came moments after he closed his eyes.

Small Worlds Part 272

“They should have showed by now,” Ryan said in a quiet whisper to Crystal. Well, as quiet as was possible with the bustle of humanity around them. It had been hours, and the crowd had barely begun to diminish. Even with Isabel’s Lotus Eaters keeping them calm, they were hardly being quiet. There was a general sense of subdued panic running through the crowd, as if all of them were holding back from becoming a shrieking mess by sheer collective force of will. It carried in the buzz of their conversations, the tension in their shoulders, the way almost every person that walked through the wormhole would look back over their shoulder one last time. A child was crying somewhere. More than one, but there was one Ryan couldn’t help but hear. He or she – at that age, it was hard to tell – was muffled, their face pressed into their fathers chest. They were repeating a single word between sobs, over and over. It was in German, but Ryan could still understand it.

“Goodbye…goodbye.”

Ryan took a ragged breath as the sound of their cries faded through the wormhole. He had a feeling that, decades and centuries from now, when he pushed himself to the point he needed to feed the need for sleep, he’d hear that child’s cry in whatever dreams awaited him. “They should have showed by now,” Ryan repeated, a bit louder, trying to drown out the thought. “It’s been six hours.”

“They might be waiting for us to drop our guard,” Crystal said, squinting at the mob. She had been oddly quiet the entire time, and Ryan had left her to her thoughts. Given everything, he couldn’t imagine there was anything good going through her mind at the moment. Was she picturing Leumrians and Atlanteans and the rest of the people she couldn’t save, going through like this? If she wants to talk about it, she can. Instead, Crystal continued her earlier thought. “Kali doesn’t need to rush. If she uses the wormholes to destroy Earth like we fear, where’s that molten rock going to go?”

Ryan staggered like she’d dropped a heavy load on his back. In way, that’s exactly what she had done. “That…hadn’t even occurred to me.” He could see it now. The people they were evacuating, standing near the wormholes, waiting for more people to come through. Instead, molten rock began to pour through, slow at first, but faster and faster as it reached the high pressure points at the Earth’s core. Then, even liquid metal would flow like a geyser, flooding the new world and encasing it in Earth’s remains. The immense heat would cook the atmosphere clean, suffocating any survivors.

“Sorry to be the bearer of bad news,” Crystal said. She smiled, but it was painfully forced. “Cheer up. The more people we get through, the less viable that plan becomes. Worst case scenario we can all fall back through the portals and seal them on that side. She knows that. So she’ll be here. But for the moment, time is still on her side.”

Ryan laughed, a short and harsh sound. “Oh, good, at least there’s that.”

Crystal raised an eyebrow at him. “Want to tell me what you’re really thinking?”

“Sorry, I just…it feels like it never ends. There’s always one thing after another. I just want it to get easier. But every time I turn around theres some new horror waiting for me. It’s…I don’t know how to handle it.”

“We’re almost there, love,” Crystal said, putting a hand on his shoulder and squeezing. “We’re gonna get through this. Just have to hold up a bit longer. You’ve done a bloody good job keeping it up since we started this. Just a little bit more.”

Ryan nodded. “Thanks. I just…no, you’re right. Thanks.”

The two gods lapsed into silence again. Minutes ticked by. People shuffled through the portal, their eyes hollow and fearful. Mostly. Ryan made himself focus on them more. Put aside his own fear and worry. Focus on what was actually happening.

Yes, there was fear. Yes, there was anxiety. But there was also determination. A few even held excitement. The unknown loomed in front of these people, but not all of them saw it as a bad thing.

It was a reminder Ryan desperately needed. No matter how it looked sometimes, humanity was not some monolithic entity that stood for or against anything. It was a collection of people, full of their own individual hopes and dreams. “Humanity” was nothing more than a statistical artifact from looking at a large group. “People” were reality, and the people in front of him were going to be okay. Humanity would change. These people would change. But they would still be here.

As long as he had anything to say about it.

The newfound focus on individuals let Ryan see something. A woman ahead. He would have overlooked her only minutes ago, just another refugee in the crowd. She wore a dark green jacket, military colors. She had a similarly colored cap down low over her eyes, and a dufflebag thrown over her shoulder. Nothing in particular stood out about her…except for that dufflebag.

Everyone was clutching their luggage like it was a lifeline. Knuckles were white around handles. People were holding bags to their chests. Even people wearing backpacks had fingers wrapped around straps for extra support. These people were carrying everything they could safely bring to this new world, the relics of a life they would never have again, and they were protective of them.

Not this woman. The dufflebag was idly draped over her shoulder, just two fingers through the straps. It didn’t look like she was carrying the sum of all her worldly goods, it looked like she was taking out the trash. “Crystal,” Ryan said, already moving towards his target.

Crystal set off after him, scanning the crowd.

“Hey, ma’am?” Ryan asked. “Ma’am! Frauline?”

The woman came to a halt. “Damn. Was almost there, too. You don’t need to attempt german, by the way. I can understand no matter what language you speak, and your accent is atrocious.” She had stopped moving, but she also didn’t turn around.

Crystal held out her hand. With a quick twist, the air around the three of them shot up to a brisk one hundred and fifty degrees. People started to shout and push away. “I know that voice,” Crystal said through gritted teeth.

Ryan nodded, his mouth dry. He held up his hands, adding a high pitched hum to the air, encouraging people to move away even faster, and turned on his divine sight.

He saw exactly what he expected to see. It was wrapped around her chest and back, same as he remembered, coiled like a serpent. The harness that he’d seen so long ago. The equations around it were different, however. There’d been upgrades. That wasn’t what drew his attention though. Nor was it the strange equations that rolled in the center of her harness, equations that seemed familiar but corresponded to no math Ryan had ever seen before.

No, what drew his attention was the contents of her duffle bag. Complex machinery aside, what he couldn’t miss was the atomic numbers of the element at the center of the mess.

Ninety two protons for one, ninety four for the other. Uranium and plutonium.

The ingredients in a nuclear warhead.

Ryan’s blood ran cold as Diane Munoz turned around and raised her head to smile at Crystal and Ryan. She dropped the dufflebag to the ground carelessly. “Heard you used a nuke to wipe out Enki. Let’s see what this one does to you, yeah?”

Ryan didn’t waste time with banter. He was already moving, twisting, desperately trying to disable the nuke before it could go off.

And, in the back of his mind, he couldn’t help but wonder where the rest of the super-soldiers were.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 189

It took Poz a full day to get somewhere with human civilization. He stuck to nuts and berries as he travelled, not wanting to sacrifice the advantages of this flesh. The city of Gildsroot was located at the meeting point between two rivers. It had been a hub for trade even before the Alohym had arrived. Although the advantages offered by air travel could not be denied, for the most part the Alohym’s ships were reserved for military use and transporting goods they deemed essential. For everything else, the river served well enough, especially with the new engines provided by Alohym technology. They would heat the water to a boil and use the pressure to turn great paddles, able to move far faster than any sailing vessel had in the days before the Alohym – and against the current without the effort of rowers to propel them.

They also had steel sides that were nearly impervious to arcfire, and were therefore relatively unguarded this close to a town. In the growing light of the dawn, it was very easy for Poz’s Wolflesh form to swim up and wait for one to pass without being noticed. Then it was a simple matter to grab a rope dangling from the deck into the water below and hang on for an easy trip past the guards on the wall of the town. Thankfully, in Manflesh he’d known this might need to happen, and had thought to leave a warning to himself so Poz could waterproof the pack that held the valuable papers.

What he hadn’t predicted in manflesh was the air of the town when Poz paddled to the shore, abandoning his ride before it would reach the dock and risk drawing the attention of the guards. There was a palpable tension to the air, like the feeling just before a storm came in, but under a sky that was clear of all but a few wispy clouds. People went about their business and talked to each other about what Poz could only assume were the usual topics – how the fishing had been, the latest haul from the docks, how nice it was to have such good weather. The sort of trivial things people discussed when they worked or had nothing more pressing on their minds. A couple walking by was even discussing a Lum Play they had seen the night before, a recreation of the famed tragedy of the last days of the Cardomethi empire.

“Personally, I feel that it was a bit overblown,” the man said, rolling his eyes.

The woman with him smiled, but the way her knuckles whitened where they gripped her shawl belied the expression. “I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it.”

He shook his head. “It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it. It’s just…I understand it’s supposed to be a history, but things certainly couldn’t have actually happened like that. An empire as vast a Cardometh falling in a week? Surely it’s impossible.”

The last two sentences were said slightly louder than the statements preceding it, and the man’s volume increased at the same time as an individual hidden behind the imperimail armor of the Alohym’s soldiers passed by them. The armored individual – behind that much protection Poz could not tell if they were male or female – gave the couple a nod and continued on his way. The man and woman fell silent for a few steps, and the woman let out a soft breath. “So why did you really dislike it?”

The man chewed his lip, and spared a glance over his shoulder. The Alohym soldier was still walking unabated. “We can talk about it at home,” the man said.

The woman’s eyes narrowed, and she nodded curtly. “For the best, I think. It’s nonsense, anyway.”

Like her partner, the woman’s voice grew a bit louder. Not so much that most would register it, but the sensitive ears of Wolflesh let Poz pick up on the difference easily. That wasn’t the only sense that was heightened for him either. The couple passed the crates he was crouched behind, and their passing stirred the air enough to bring their scent to his nose. It was salty and damp. The smell of sweat.

Wolflesh couldn’t sweat. If Poz needed to let off heat in this form, he was forced to pant. In the cool air, he had no need to let his tongue roll loose. It certainly should be far too cool for humans to sweat, dressed as they were.

Considering the implications of what he’d just heard and smelled, Poz slipped into the alley behind the shops. A bit of rummaging through the rubbish back here let him find a discarded burlap sack that had no rotting smell tainting the fabric and a wooden dowel of the right length. Underfolk couldn’t pass a human if they were being watched closely, but with a few careful tears and ties to make the sack into a hood and leaning on the dowel as if it were a cane, Poz could easily use the hunched back of Wolflesh to pass as someone with some unfortunate spinal injury. He made sure the sleeves of his shirt covered his hands so the claws could not be seen, and as long as no one noticed his grey skin, he had the perfect disguise.

It was a horrible truth of Humanity that their eyes would glaze over strangers in suffering, either to spare them the terrible thought that fortune was all that separated themselves from the poor wretch they avoided or to avoid taking on the burden of someone’s pain they had no investment in. The best of them would avoid staring to avoid making Poz feel uncomfortable. No one would look closely at him, and the Alohym soldiers?

They would never imagine someone so afflicted could be worth their notice.

As long as I can avoid anyone who wishes to do me charity, I’ll be fine. It had worked for him before, back when he’d worked with Nicandros in the days before the Alohym’s arrival and in the days after.

For a thousand reason he now felt it would be a very wise decision to avoid openly walking about as an Underfolk. The fact that the rest of his species had retreated beneath the Earth was one of those reasons. The fact that he’d indulged in the sin of Manflesh was another. The remaining reasons, all nine hundred and ninety eight of them, were embodied by the poster offering ten million keys for Poz’s capture or death, and a hundred thousand keys for any Underfolk – dead or alive – that ended up not being him, or if the body was too mangled to identify.

“Terrible, isn’t it?” a voice next to Poz said, startling him. Poz didn’t dare look over at his new companion.

“Yes, terrible,” Poz croaked, coughing with the words to disguise the growling voice of this form as some phlegmatic affliction.

The sound worked. The man who had stepped up took a hurried step to the side. “I mean, I thought they were all gone or dead. And one of them is now walking around, inciting riots?”

Poz swallowed hard. We meant different things with that word. “Terrible,” Poz repeated. “Alohym willing, he’ll be caught soon.”

“Alohym willing,” the man agreed, and when Poz started to cough again, he took a few hasty steps away.

It was a relief. Poz had to take deep breaths, staring at the poster that offered more money than a laborer could make in a decade for any Underfolk corpses brought to the Alohym. If your people hadn’t fled underground, there would be blood in the streets. 

But they had, and they were safe. Poz was the only one that walked the surface freely. And his blood was worth a hundred of his kinsmen.

Terrible indeed.

Making sure to lean on the improvised walking stick as if he truly needed it’s support, Poz headed deeper into the city. He would need to rest here tonight, and he’d have to find somewhere safely hidden away.

Unless, of course, he wanted to make some random stranger a very wealthy individual for the very low price of Poz’s head.

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 188

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barely daring to breathe, Poz lit the torch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dragon’s Scion Part 187

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

“What is?”

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

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

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

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

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

Haradeth grimaced. “I don’t follow.”

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

“Yes,” Haradeth said.

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

“I’m certain she wasn’t.”

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

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

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

Haradeth did his best to look apologetic.

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

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

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

“A couple times.”

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

“That…made more sense,” Haradeth said.

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

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

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

“I promise,” Haradeth said weakly.

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

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

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

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