Latest Page

The Dragon’s Scion Part 134

The knock on Tythel’s door in the middle of the night startled her out of a deep sleep. Visions of Alohym soldiers bursting into the room, unlight weapons drawn, drove her out of bed with the rapid frenzy of pure panic. It wasn’t until she was on her feet, extending her talons, that her brain registered it had been a gentle rapping, not the hard knock soldiers would make trying to break into her quarters.

“Tythel? Are you awake?” a voice whispered on the other side of the door.

“Tellias?” Tythel asked, blinking to clear her eyes. “Well, I am now.” She walked over and unlocked the door to give him entry. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Tellias said, stepping into her room. He was fully dressed for departure, although the first light of dawn had not yet crested over the horizon. He certainly cut a dashing figure. His coat was as immaculate as possible from months on the road, black with gold inlay, and it looked like he’d taken some time to attend to his hair and trim the stubble he’d been developing of the last few days. “I just wanted…oh.” A bright red blush crept up Tellias’ cheeks, and he turned his back to her abruptly.

Tythel cocked her head in confusion. “Tellias? What is it?”

“Um…you’re still in your smallclothes.” Tellias said, his voice sounding half strangled. “I didn’t mean to…I mean, I wasn’t trying to…”

Tythel felt a blush creeping its way up her own neck. Karjon had told her many times that humans found it shameful to be seen too unclothed, although he’d never been able to explain why. She’d gotten the impression it was because he hadn’t fully understood it.

Up until this moment, Tythel had been as confused as her father. Right now, however, the fact that Tellias had seen her wearing only a night shift filled her with a sense of something like shame. It didn’t feel exactly like it, but she was blushing, and her heart was racing, so it seemed like the most natural reaction. “I’m sorry,” she blurted. “I should have…hold on, let me fix that.”

Tythel had laid the next day’s clothes over the railing of the bed before going to sleep. She pulled them on as hastily as she would have if the Alohym had found them and were pounding up the stairs this instant. “It’s terribly unfair that you woke me up this early and then find the sight of me so offensive,” she said, muttering more to herself than to Tellias.

“I didn’t – I mean, it’s not offensive. Quite the opposite. Er. I mean you aren’t offensive. It’s offensive for me…hang on, I’m terrible at this. I meant it was just – improper.” Tellias said, sputtering between each word.

“As improper as being unescorted in a young lady’s room at this hour?” Tythel asked, cinching the rope on her trousers. “You can turn around.”

Tellias did. “I didn’t think – you care about that?” Tellias asked. He was still bright red, which to Tythel’s mind was perfectly acceptable.

“No,” Tythel admitted. “Just pointing out that propriety isn’t something we normally worry about. I don’t understand why being unescorted around a lady is improper in the first place.”

“Of course you don’t,” Tellias muttered to himself. “I – that is to say – it’s because,”

“Light and shadow, man,” Tythel said, crossing her arms. “I am desperately hoping you did not wake me so  you could stammer at me.”

Tellias glared at her, which seemed to help give him control over is tongue. “Of course not. I wanted to talk to you.”

“Poorly?” Tythel asked.

“Apparently!” Tellias said, far louder than Tythel thought was strictly necessary. “Light, I’m not good at this.”

Tythel bit back an agreement. “I’m not certain what you mean,” she said instead, cocking her head again, although she was starting to suspect. The romances that she’d read in Karjon’s library had be damnably unclear on the nuances of human mating habits, but they were extremely detailed about this kind of interaction.

“I want to court you,” Tellias blurted out.  He took a deep breath and then launched ahead before Tythel could even fully process the directness of it. “I wanted to court you as soon as I knew you existed, before I had even met you. You’re the princess, of course I did. But then I met you. You are utterly unlike any woman I’ve ever met before. I didn’t expect to enjoy your company so much, to find you so intriguing. You’re beautiful too, but it’s – you fascinate me, Tythel. If I could, I would be speaking to your father about this first, even though that would mean asking a dragon to court his daughter. Since I cannot, I find myself not knowing how to properly express it. So, I sputter at you like a boy just noticing women for the first time. But I wish to court you.”

Tythel stared at Tellias for a long moment. “Thank you,” she said quietly, and found she meant it.

Tellias took a step forward, a wide grin spreading across his face. “So you -”

Tythel held up a hand to forestall his advance. “Tellias…I’m honored and flattered. Truly. But…this all very sudden.”

“Is it though?” Tellias asked, although he stopped approaching. “We’ve been travelling together for weeks. You fell asleep against me. We’ve shared battle, we’ve shared secrets. I thought…I thought I’d seen you look at me with interest.”

“I don’t know if I have,” Tythel said, shaking her head.

“How can you not know?” Tellias asked. He didn’t sound offended, which was a relief. Just confused. Tythel couldn’t blame him for that. She barely understood herself.

“Tellias…I’m a dragon.”

Tellias blinked slowly. “Half-dragon, you mean.”

Tythel waved her hand to dismiss the difference. “Dragons don’t experience attraction the way humans do. We don’t fall in romantic love. We have a breeding season, after which the male takes half the clutch and the female takes the other half. They almost never interact again. Sometimes if they’re friends, but-”

“But you’re not just a dragon,” Tellias said. “You’re also human.”

“For now,” Tythel said. She stepped away from Tellias, walking over to the window. “I’m still transforming. I don’t know how far the transformation is going to go. My father died before he could explain it to me. Romantic attraction might be something I won’t be capable of once it’s finished.”

She wasn’t watching him, but she could hear Tellias stiffen. “I…that’s so sad.”

Tythel turned to face him, arching her brows in confusion. “No? I mean…I guess I can see how it would seem that way to you, but I’ve never wanted romantic attraction. I wanted to be a dragon.”

“And what about the kingdom? You’re the princess, you’ll need an heir.”

Tythel shrugged. “Then it’ll be a blessing. Princesses rarely get to marry for romance regardless. It’s my duty to have a politically advantageous marriage after the Alohym are defeated. Preferably someone who knows a single flathing thing about leading a kingdom, since I know nothing.

“I have been schooled in-” Tellias didn’t seem angry – at least, not yet. Or maybe he was. Tythel was trying to read his face, but the emotions on it were not part of the handful she’d learned to recognize easily. His forehead was furrowed, especially between his eyebrows and the corners of his lips were turned downward, but not as deep as a full frown.

“I know,” Tythel said. “And that would be taken into consideration. But Tellias…I don’t know if I can be what you want. I don’t want to be that.”

“You want to be a dragon,” Tellias said, his voice flat.

“I am a dragon,” Tythel said, trying not to bristle.

Tellias was definitely getting angry now. She could see it in his eyes, the way they flashed with an intensity like burning coals. Or maybe that was passion. Tythel assumed the former – she had never seen the latter. That she knew of. Why are humans so confusing? “I don’t understand,” Tellias said.

“I know,” Tythel said, her voice going soft. She took a step towards him and reached out, then withdrew her hand, not sure what she’d been intending to do with it in the first place. “I’m sorry.”

Tellias sighed. “Me too.”

They stood there for a moment, and Tythel realized she was at a complete loss for words. It seemed Tellias was too.

“I should go,” Tellias said, his voice stiff.

“We only have an hour before we are to depart,” Tythel said. She didn’t want him to go, but she didn’t know how to address this anger, this tension, the sudden awkwardness. It wasn’t how things were supposed to go. He was her friend.

Now this.

“You have the right of that,” Tellias said. “All the more reason for me to finish getting prepared.”

Tythel couldn’t find a reason to deny him a graceful exit. He left, and Tythel sat back on the bed.

Sleep hadn’t returned by the time Eupheme arrived to collect her.

Small Worlds part 237

Ryan panted heavily as his eyes cleared from the beam of light. I got her, he thought, taking a deep breath with every moment.

The town was oddly silent in the wake of the sunbeam. Part of that was because the way the clap of thunder had filled his ears, burying the sound of rain beneath a ringing. But there was something else to it too.

This town was dead. Empty.

Ryan stood up and straightened his back. Dianmu was standing as well, covered with dozens of cuts and scrapes from her injuries. She gave him a weak thumbs up, and Ryan sighed with relief. The idea had been to trap Bast in a prism of sunlight. Ryan had liked the poetry of using Tyr’s favorite twist to kill her. Adapting it to kill the Cadiophages had been inspired, in his opinion. When Nabu got back he would-

A fist slammed into Ryan’s face. He could hear his nose shatter under the blow, feel the sudden welling of tears to his eyes and blood come pouring out his nostrils. He couldn’t see, his eyes wouldn’t respond, and before they would he felt a hand slap him across the face with a force that could crack concrete, followed by a backhand that would have bent a light pole in half. A knee to the gut finished the series of blows, sending Ryan flying almost perfectly straight into the air.

His arm broke when he hit the ground, and he screamed in pain.

His vision started to clear. Bast was approaching him, walking unsteadily. His beam of light had caught her in the right shoulder, burning away a huge chunk of her torso and that arm. The intense heat had cauterized the wound shut, but had also burned away much of the skin on that side. Her face was half a skull, even the eyeball burned away, revealing her fanged teeth.

She was dead. But she might survive long enough to take Ryan with her. “Just had to….just had to give up,” Bast coughed. Ryan started to force himself to his feet, gritting his teeth against his pain. Bast gestured, and a chunk of rock rose from the ground to strike Ryan directly in the break on his arm. He wasn’t sure if he screamed again. Lances of agony blocked out all senses. His throat was raw when his senses started to come back.

Dianmu was scrambling to reach them, throwing balls of pure lightning at Bast with what little energy she had left. They struck the heart-eating goddess but bounced harmlessly off her. Dianmu had burned through so much power generating the lenses needed to finish the anthropophages, and Bast was so far past pain that they had no effect aside from searing her already roasted hide.

“I told you…” Ryan gasped, trying to rise to his feet. His arms and legs weren’t wanting to obey him. The only Hunger that hadn’t settled in yet was the vast, yawning loneliness that would indicate he’d burned through all his divine power and had been left helpless. If that happened, he was dead. So long as he didn’t have that, he still had a tiny amount of power to fight on. “…I don’t give up.”

Bast sneered with the remaining half of her lips. “Subjugation is always preferable to death.”

“And that is why you’re thousands of years old and miserable,” Ryan said. “Because you stand for nothing.”

Bast raised her remaining hand and clenched it. A torrent of fire erupted from the ground beneath him, searing him and sending him flying into the air. When he landed, he could feel that desperate need for human contact settling in, and his divine sight winked out. He was lost. Dianmu was spent as well.

It was over. Bast raised her hand. “You didn’t do your job, Eschaton. You didn’t kill me. You didn’t save me. You didn’t end the world, and you didn’t save it. You have done nothing, save give me a heart to sustain myself. Goodbye.”

The hand came streaking down towards Ryan’s chest. He raised his own in a futile gesture of resistance.

Bast’s hand stopped inches from Ryan’s chest. A third hand had appeared from seemingly nowhere and caught Bast by the wrist. Ryan followed the hand up to its owner.

Nabu stood there, holding Bast in place with an iron grasp. The cadiophage in the lab coat from earlier was sliding off his back. Bast’s eye followed her movement. “Cassandra?” Bast asked, and there was a crack to her voice. Not one of rage or fear, but of a deep and horrific pain. “I thought-”

“You said we could eat animal hearts,” Cassandra said, not meeting Bast’s eye. “You said…you just said. We could survive off the heart of animals. I didn’t have to be a monster. You didn’t have to be a monster. We didn’t need to…we could have endured!” She turned her head up, and there were tears in her face. “You didn’t make me a monster. I let you make me into that. I had to…I had to be better than what you wanted of me.”

Bast howled and tried to lunge at Cassandra. Nabu held her wrist firm and held out his free hand. Words began to form in the air, glowing letters that coalesced into a blade that glowed with a pale blue light. Bast now started to kick at him, but Nabu was uninjured from his earlier fight with the cadiophages.

She had no more chance against him than Ryan had moments ago of surviving her assault alone.

With a swift strike, Nabu cleaved Bast’s head from her shoulders. It landed on the ground with a sickly wet sound and rolled away. Before Ryan’s eyes, both her body and her head began to flake like they had been set aflame, only there was no heat, only ashes rising up in defiance of the rain that still pounded the town.

In seconds, what remained of Bast had turned to dust and been washed away. Nabu’s foot shot out, stopping her blood-red nanoverse from rolling away with the rest of her form. “We’ll have to destroy this,” he said.

“I’m fine, really,” Ryan grunted, trying to rise to his feet again. “Thanks for asking. Don’t…worry about me. I just hurt everywhere. Couple broken bones. Been set on fire a couple times. You know…Tuesday stuff.”

Nabu gave him a long, curious look. “Ryan. It’s a Thursday.”

“Oh. Well. In that case, I’m going to do what I do on Thursdays. Just give me a minute. Uh…help me get back to my nanoverse. And…and help Dianmu get to hers. We’re both…not doing so hot right now. Cassandra, right?” he said, pointing to the cadiophage in a lab coat.

Cassandra nodded, though her eyes didn’t pull up from the ground where Bast had vanished. “I couldn’t let her…”

Ryan didn’t wait to make her finish. “I know. You did the right thing. Really. Saved my life. And the world. I’m going to buy you a hundred pigs so you can eat their hearts or whatever. A thousand. You need to stick with Nabu. Tell him everything you know.” Ryan took a deep breath. It was a painful mistake, and Ryan shuddered at the surge of agony.

“I’m still confused on one thing,” Nabu said, glancing down at Ryan. “What do you do on Thursdays?”

“On Thursday?” Ryan said, black tendrils creeping across his vision. “On Thursdays, I pass out.”

As soon as the words were past his lips, Ryan let go of the frantic battle to maintain consciousness, and did exactly that.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 133

They laughed and drank throughout the evening, now that the serious conversations had been taken care of. Although there was still an air of tension, the knowledge that at any moment Alohym soldiers or writ-hunters could show up, for the most part Tythel was able to find herself able to relax and breathe easy for the first time in what felt like months.

“I have a joke,” Tellias said. His cheeks were flushed and he was slurring his words, but the flush was due to a minor irritating Eupheme had given them to rub on their faces, and the slur was an act. No one would believe they would do what came next if they were sober and clear headed, so they had to act that part of drunks to sell the ruse.

“Is it one Tythel will get?” Eupheme asked, giving Tellias a teasing grin.

Tythel hung her head and sighed heavily. Tellias’ last three jokes had fallen flat. One had featured a philandering couple, one had featured a priest of the Light and a brothel, and the final had involved a serpent and a cave. “I understood the jokes,” she objected. “I just don’t understand why they’re funny. I mean, two people having an affair with the same person is an odd coincidence, so I guess I see the humor there. And priests do frown on brothels, so going to one is outside their expected behavior. I don’t know why it’s funny that he tried to preach about a whore’s hidden shadow.”

“It’s a euphemism for her-” Eupheme started to say, but Tythel cut her off.

“I understood that. But why would he preach to her about the sanctity of it. Do priests believe those are holy?”

“Say holy again,” Eupheme said. “But say it slower. Sound out each syllable.”

Tythel took a deep breath. “Fine. Hole…oh, I just understood.” Tythel sputtered as both Tellias and Eupheme laughed uproariously at her discomfort. “I’m beginning to suspect that you’re telling these jokes because it’s fun to laugh at my confusion” she said, pointing an accusing finger at Tellias.

“Me? Take advantage of your naiveite like that? That would hardly be gentlemanly of me.” Tellias said in overblown affront.

“Yes, it would. Which I notice isn’t a denial.”

Tellias gave her a wide grin. “Very observant of you, your high-Tythel.”

That had been the signal. It was time for Tythel to make sure they were noticed. And if Tellias had slipped honestly, she was more than happy to assume it was the signal if it meant they would stop mocking her.

Not that she minded, not really. They weren’t mean about it, and she never felt they were laughing at her. Still, it was good to have an excuse. “Well, gentleman you may not be, but I have doubts of your manhood.” She ignored Eupheme’s snicker and placed her elbow on the table. “Twenty keys say that I can force your arm down.”

She made the announcement loudly enough to draw the attention of a few tables nearby, drawing curious looks from the other patrons. Tellias put down his coins and reach out to take her hand. “I’ll look forward to taking your money,” he said.

Tythel gave him a sweet grin and the contest was begun. Tellias strained to push her arm down with all the strength he could muster. Tythel sat there, letting him struggle. She took time to sigh deeply, covering her mouth with exaggerated mockery. “You can use both hands if you want,” she prompted.

Tellias reached up and strained against Tythel’s hand. He leaned forward out of the seat, deliberately knocking his chair over in the process. The loud clatter drew more attention to the spectacle of a man with a soldier’s muscles leaning with all his might to bring down Tythel’s single outstretched arm.

Tythel let it go on until beads of sweat began to form on Tellias’ brow. A crowd was beginning to gather, cheering Tellias raucously. “Bored now!” Tythel announced. With a slow, deliberate gesture, she began to lower Tellias’ hand towards the table. He cursed and tried to stop the motion, but Tythel’s strength was far too great for him to overcome.

“I yield!” he shouted when his knuckles gently touched the hard wood of the table. A round of cheers rose up at the display. These people were mostly far too drunk to really think through how the whole process had played out – that what they’d witnessed should have been impossible. They just saw a show, and they appreciated that.

“Who’s next?” Tythel said, raking over Tellias’ money. “Twenty keys say not a man in here is strong enough to bend my arm.”

Chairs began to scrape as a half dozen men stood up. The large fellow she’d seen earlier, drinking all comers under the table, shouldered his way through the crowd. “I could wrap my hand around your bicep, girl,” he growled.

“Yes,” Tythel said, giving the man’s hands an appraising look. “They are rather large. But as mighty as your sinews might be, do you really think you can push down my hand?”

The man reached into his pouch and threw out an assortment of keys. Tythel didn’t bother to count them – there were close enough to twenty. She forced herself to smile, hoping his intoxication would prevent the expression to be too off-putting, and motioned for him to take the seat across from her.

He did so, putting his elbow on the table and raising his massive arm. “I don’t even know what sinews are, but I assure you I am more than strong enough to handle you.”

Tythel reached out and clasped his hand. “Then prove it,” she said.

Immediately, he surged forward, pushing against her hand so hard the veins began to appear in his neck in seconds. His forehead bulged and he clenched his teeth, grunting at the exertion. He was strong, stronger than Tythel had expected.

Her elbow almost wobbled.

She set herself a bit better, strengthening her grip and pushing back just a hair more. “As I said before, you can use both hands-”

The man roared in frustration and lunged forward. With the inaccurate determination only obtainable by the heavily intoxicated, he wrapped his free hand over the other and leaned with all his might against Tythel’s arm.

She let her arm give, bending backwards. In truth, the full force of this behemoth of a man trying to bend her arm was probably more than she could have resisted even if she wanted to, but they’d known going into this they’d have to lose the keys. If Tythel had won the bout, they would have been accused of cheating or playing a confidence game. That would have drawn the attention of the local constabulary, which would have been more attention from the Alohym when they wanted.

The man roared in triumph, pumping his fists into the air, and Tythel made a show of reluctantly pushing her keys across the table towards him. “Almost had you,” she said, making her voice as mournful as possible. “Anyone else want a go?”

Encouraged, more men surged forward to take her challenge. She made a point of losing more than she won, enough to keep the game interesting for them while never seeming like a scam.

By the end of the night, half of the men and a couple of the women in the tavern had sat across from her, staring her directly in the eye and the patch. Some would remember her the next day, and at least one was certain to connect her to the face on the writ posters. Word would reach the Alohym, but not in enough time for them to prevent the trio from leaving the town.

There was a small chance one would send word tonight, but they’d all agreed that was an acceptable risk. Even if they could, it was unlikely that any of their pursuers would be able to arrive in enough time. It was a gamble, but an acceptable one in their estimation.

The three retired when the night was still young. As Tythel curled into the bed, her stomach full, her friends safe, and her eyes sore  from blinks of laughter, she felt content for the first time in far too long. Tomorrow, there was a vehicle to steal, a chase to escape, and a return to her father’s grave not to pay her respects, but to lure her adversaries.

At she drifted into sleep, she was surprised at how little that weighed on her.

Small Worlds part 236

Bast leapt across the distance she’d kicked Ryan, landing at the base of the car. With a quick twist, she flipped the car, sending Ryan tumbling through the pouring rain and landing hard on the wet grass outside of a home. He rolled aside just as the car impacted the spot, he’d been occupying with a wet squelch that was accompanied by the sound of tearing metal.

Bast made a ‘tisk’ sound between her lips. “All this struggling, and for what? To get you a chance at a cheap shot?” Her lips curled into a malicious grin. “All that, and in the end…it failed. You have failed, Eschaton. Just give up?”

Ryan pushed himself up just to his hands and knees. “You honestly think I’m going to…give up?”

“Of course,” Bast said, raising an eyebrow. “Why don’t you just acknowledge you are beaten and surrender.”

“I will never, ever surrender to you, Bast.” Ryan managed to spit out. Blood was running from the corner of his mouth. He thought he had at least one broken rib, possibly more. That last blow had nearly been enough to turn his chest concave, it was amazing he was still standing. She wants me alive. That’s the only reason I can do this.

Bast sighed. “Not particularly, but I’m certain you’re going to want to tell me at great length anyway. You know, this really gets much easier once you stop fighting back.”

Ryan took a deep, painful breath, and lightning cracked down from the sky. Not summoned by either deity, just a natural side effect of the storm Ryan had summoned. It illuminated the entire street as it hit the roof of a diner, and in the illumination, Ryan saw exactly what he was looking for.

Bast licked her lips. Not in a taunting way, but a reflexive gesture. The kind of thing humans did when they were thirsty enough their lips were going dry.

Ryan gritted his teeth against the pain, shoving his hands onto the wet mud beneath him. Thunder rumbled in the clouds above, the storm Ryan had set in motion finally getting ready to unleash its torrent. Slowly, pain lancing through every motion, Ryan forced himself to his feet. “You think I’m going to stop fighting you?” Ryan asked, rising to stare directly at Bast.

Bast rolled her eyes. “I just said that I do. Did I rupture your eardrums? Or did I just knock the sense out of you?”

Every breath Ryan drew felt like his chest was under tons of pressure. The need for Breath was an intense, sharp thing, gnawing at his lungs. He was gasping between his broken ribs, but Bast…Bast was thirsty. She’d burned through a great deal of her divine power.

Ryan had yet to throw a twist of reality in the fight. He threw out his hands and grabbed onto the equations in the storm. “You betrayed Tyr and Athena!” Ryan screamed. He threw his hands together, pulling the equations along with him.

Bast’s eyes narrowed, and she pointed the gun at his leg. “What are you doing?” she demanded.

Before she could pull the trigger, a sound began to fill the empty air. A sound like two trains rushing towards them from the air. Bast turned her eyes upwards just in time to see the twin funnel clouds Ryan had pulled from the sky. “You killed Crystal in front of my eyes!” Ryan shouted.

“What?” Bast said, her voice dripping with disbelief, as the tornadoes closed in around her. Ryan was already working the equations, gritting his teeth against the pain, ready for the next assault. Bast held out against the storm. While Ryan couldn’t read the twists to reality she was making, it was clear she was starting to buckle against the forced Ryan was unleashing.

Then Bast came flying out of the funnel clouds, her hair whipped around her face, a khopesh gleaming in her hand. She was slicing towards Ryan’s arm, a blow that could have severed the limb clean from his body.

“You unleashed monsters on this town!” Ryan shouted, clenching his fist as the next twist to reality he’d woven crashed into place. Spines of solid stone began to erupt out of the ground around Bast, one impaling her leg, another slamming through her hand.

“What!?” Bast screamed, this time pain and rage mingling with the confusion. She struggled against the stones, and they shattered under her hands, but they’d slowed  her enough.

“You killed these people to get my attention!” Ryan bellowed, and he raised his hand up and brought it down in a sweeping gesture. An arc of lightning leapt from the clouds above, piercing Bast before she could fully break free of the stone spines.

It struck her with a blinding force, an electrical bolt from a storm Ryan had created. Bast’s muscles seized up from the onslaught, and she stumbled forward.

“What…is…happening?” Bast asked, and now it was her turn to grit her teeth against the pain, her turn to look up at Ryan with a mixture of confusion and fear and hatred. The emotions warred on her face, dancing about, and Ryan felt immense satisfaction knowing she had no idea what was about to happen.

“And most importantly!” Ryan said, raising his hands towards the sky. The equations he’d woven at the beginning of the battle, the ones that had needed the cloud cover to hide their true purpose, fell into place.

The thunder rumbled one last time, and then the clouds were blown apart as a beam of sunlight, all the sun that was coming through the sky for over ten kilometers, streaked from the heavens. It had just been dawn when the battle had started, but it had been building for the entire fight, several seconds worth of solar energy gathered into a single beam.

Ryan didn’t focus the beam on Bast directly. Instead, in came down on top of him, and when it reached his fingers the sunlight began to pool between his hands. A sphere of light, a miniature star of his very own, began to form in Ryan’s hands. “I’m going to fight you because it’s the only good thing I can still do!”

Bast’s eyes were wide and twitching with disbelief. “What. Is. Happening?” she asked again, struggling with each and every word.

“You wanted my surrender, Bast?” Ryan said, his own rage, and his pain, and his fear whipping together to make his voice raw. “Then it’s time to see if you can earn it!”

And with that, Ryan threw the star of condensed sunlight at Bast.

It streaked across the battlefield, warping from a sphere of energy into a beam that had the raw power of a solar flare condensed into a point only a foot wide. Nearby cars exploded from its passing as it tore across the street, heating the gasoline in their tanks in an instant. The rain turned to steam, a sudden plume rising and then falling back to earth. Ryan couldn’t see what happened to Bast as the light engulfed her. He could see what happened to the light on the other side, though.

Dianmu had, throughout the course of her fight with the cadiophages, been keeping a careful eye on Ryan, and maneuvering the battle as needed. Ryan’s screaming had alerted her that it was about to happen.

When he threw his attack, Dianmu had dove to the ground. The beam hit the gravitational lenses she had woven into the air and fractured, lancing outward in dozens of individual beams.

Each one was aimed at a Cadiophages. They had only moments to look surprised before the fractured beams of raw light struck them and turned them into clouds of ash.

A clap of thunder rocked the air as air rushed back in to fill the channel Ryan had cut with sunlight.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 132

Hillsdale was almost exactly as Tythel remembered it, at least in the details. The houses had changed little in the weeks she’d been gone, still spread out to take advantage of how much spare room the village had to grow. People milled about the streets in the evening sun, going home from their daily tasks. At the end of the road was the inn where she’d rested and recuperated under the watchful eyes of Otis and Freda after she’d been injured that first day.

Skitters rested in the lot behind it, as they had when she’d left, and smoke rose from its chimney in gentle puffs. Even though Tythel knew it was no different from the smoke of the burned forest that still hung low on the horizon, it seemed different. This smoke was kind. It was safe.

It was also a lie. Hillsdale wasn’t safe. She and Nicandros had fled here with the Alohym in direct pursuit. They’d found her here because someone had reported Otis and Freda. What was that woman’s name? Catha Lambright, that had been it. The woman who had said she wasn’t human, had told Freda to report that they had found her.

Tythel pulled her cloak in over her head a bit tighter. Catha might recognize her. The veil that had served as a disguise before would stand out too much here – Warrior Maidens coming to a sleepy town on the edge of the kingdom would draw more attention than a cloaked figure. At least Hillsdale was too small to warrant walls that would be guarded along their full length, only along the gates. They had approached off the main road and leapt over the wall – Tythel carrying Tellias – to avoid detection.

The arcplate was stored in a grove nearby, buried under a hasty pile of leaves. It wasn’t the best solution but was infinitely better than trying to sneak it into the town. They’d had a cart last time to hide it in, and no one had been looking for it. After the battle in the forest, everyone would know what to look for.

At least, now that they were past the wall, people didn’t give them much more than the normal glances reserved for strangers in a small town. They were new, they were noteworthy, but since they were inside the wall, clearly, they belonged. Otherwise, the guards would have stopped them.

It was the kind of circular logic that Eupheme had needed to explain to her.

“People are…stupid isn’t the right word. Lazy is a better one, but still not accurate. I think it really boils down to the fact that most people are honest. They stay within the rules, they obey the laws, and they keep out of trouble – so they tend to assume everyone else does too. Which means if you’re breaking those rules, if you’re violating those laws, or you mean to cause trouble, but you act like you aren’t going to…They’ll see what they want to see. Someone who belongs.”

Tellias had agreed with her. “Back in the day, my grandfather was plagued by a thief that robbed him on no less than seven separate occasions. Stole over ten thousand keys worth of goods. When they finally caught him, my father asked him how he’d picked the expensive locks built into the doors. The thief had explained he’d gotten in by knocking and insisting he had important business. Each time wearing a small false-face – a mustache, a beard, clean shaven, longer hair – and an expensive suit. The servants had let him in because he’d clearly belonged.”

Tythel thought that some of those details must have been inflated by years of retelling, but it was gratifying to see that they had been right about. Everyone who bothered noticing them – which was only a small fraction of the residents they saw – was looking at them like they were strange and different, but not out of place.

They made it all the way to the Inn’s entrance without being challenged a single time.

“Told you,” Eupheme said quietly as they slipped in the door.

Tythel rolled her eyes. “I didn’t exactly doubt you. But it’s still hard to believe. How do people manage to be so unobservant?”

“Mmm,” Eupheme said, holding the door for Tellias. “And how many people we passed had served in the Alohym’s army?”

The inside of the common room was a wall of noise, the crowd far denser than Tythel had expected. In one corner, a group of men threw dice in a game of Snakes and Skulls. A cheer erupted from that table as one man cursed loudly. Copper Keys were pulled from their place in front of him and distributed amongst the group. In another, a large man – not overweight, just overall large – sat with his shirt unbuttoned and drunk heavily to the encouragement of a small group that had gathered around him. He finished the drink and slammed the mug down on the table with an impressive belch.

“Your turn!” he growled to the woman in front of him. She wasn’t as large as the man she sat across, but she had a farmer’s build, stocky and strong. She gave him a wolfish grin and grabbed her mug, starting another round of encouragement.

All around them it was like that. People living, talking, laughing, cursing – living. As if they didn’t have a care in the world. As if beings from beyond the stars hadn’t taken over the world. “I don’t know,” Tythel admitted to Eupheme’s question.

“I counted six,” Eupheme said.

Tellias snorted. “And how, pray tell, did  you do that?”

“Alohym soldiers drill on marches six hours a day for their first month of service,” Eupheme said, taking a seat. The general din of the tavern was enough to keep their conversation from prying ears – Tythel could barely make out unique voices unless they were shouting, and no one else here would hear as well as her. “It’s a very specific step, crisp and sharp. After they leave their service, they tend to retain a vestige of the march in their normal walking gait. I saw six people with that walk.”

“So, what’s your point?” Tythel asked.

“That most people are the same in that regard. It requires very specific training to start noticing people. It’s not a flaw – it’s just the way our minds work. You’d be surprised how much you miss too, is all.”

Tythel nodded thoughtfully as one of the serving girls approached. “What can I get for you?” she asked in the friendly polite tones of someone who didn’t particularly care what you answered but had a duty to fulfill.

Food and drinks were ordered. “We strike out for the mountain the morning,” Tythel said after the serving girl was out of earshot. “We should be able to make it by midday.”

“I saw that mountain,” Tellias said doubtfully. “It looks like it’s a good distance away.”

Tythel nodded. “It is. Which is why we’re going to get a Skitter before we leave. Quicker.”

“I don’t know if we can afford a skitter,” Tellias said with a frown.

“We can’t,” Eupheme agreed. “Even if we could find one willing to sell it on such short notice…”

“I never said anything about paying for one,” Tythel said. The return of the serving girl with their drinks interrupted her response. It gave plenty of time for Eupheme and Tellias to give her confused looks.

“Not that I’m opposed to the idea,” Eupheme said once they were again protected by solitude and the wall of noise around them, “but…I figured I’d have to convince you.”

“I don’t like it,” Tythel admitted, her nictitating membranes narrowing with displeasure, “but I don’t see another choice. We have to make sure that our passage is noticed, and there’s no doubt to our destination. That’s the whole point of coming out here. Once we’ve lured them into my father’s illusions, the flyer will have to land to find us. But…even if we’re noticed like we hope, they won’t know for certain where we are going.”

“But if we make a big noise in the theft and make sure we’re seen leaving…” Tellias said thoughtfully, “then it won’t take much of a leap to decide you’re going to your father’s lair.”

Tythel nodded firmly. “And I think I know exactly how to make that big of a noise. I also think I know how to make sure we’re before then. I’ll tell you first thing when we wake. For now…drink lightly. We’re going to have an early morning, Light willing.”

Tellias and Eupheme gave her fierce grins, and Tythel could only hope she wasn’t leading them to their dooms. No, she told herself firmly. You’ve cast that die. They let you cast that die. Trust them and trust the plan. Tonight…try to enjoy yourself.

As the food arrived, mutton that was piping hot and smelled divine, Tythel thought that might be easier than she feared.

Small Worlds part 235

Ryan cried in agony as he felt his nose shatter under Bast’s foot. She brought up the heel, and Ryan’s hands went to his face. Blood poured from his broken nose, running between his fingers. He couldn’t see through the pain. “You can’t win this, Eschaton,” Bast said, her words cutting over the pain. “You had time to trick Enki. I won’t repeat his mistakes.”

It took time for Ryan’s vision to clear. Bast stood there, allowing him to blink away the tears and stand up. With his hands on both sides of his nose, Ryan snapped his nose back into place. It caused another lance of pain to blind him for a moment, and he almost dropped back to the ground. Instead he stood there, his vision slowly fading back into reality.

“You won’t repeat his mistakes?” Ryan asked with a sniff, wiping away the blood from his mouth. “Then why the hell are you just standing there, gloating?”

Bast sighed. “Because I’m hoping you see reason. I’m hoping you realize that this ends poorly for you. I don’t want you dead, Ryan. I want you to fix what’s broken in us.”

Ryan shook his head. “I’ll die before I do, Bast.”

Bast didn’t bother retorting. Instead, she gestured. A wind surged up from around her hand and roared towards Ryan like a freight train, tearing chunks of pavement up as it travelled towards him. Ryan didn’t even try to stand up against the immense force. He instead curled into a ball, letting his elbows and knees take the brunt of the bouncing along the ground.

Ryan crashed along the street like a human bowling ball, tumbling end over end. Splinters of pain raced through his body from wherever he impacted, radiating out from his hands as they protected his head, spiraling up from his sins when he ricocheted off a car, and getting a hiss of pain from his throat when his elbows slammed in the pavement.

It was hardly the most dignified thing a god had ever done, but it was effective. When he finally stopped, his hands and knees were scarred, and he felt like he’d been thrown into a tumble dryer, but he was alive and able to stand.

Everything’s still going…according to plan, Ryan told himself. And, in a sense, that was true. It missed the very important caveat that Ryan had not expected the plan to hurt so damn much.

He could see Dianmu dancing among the Cadiophages behind Bast. She kept them at bay with her glaive, the blade flashing in the momentary bursts of lightning that illuminated the ever-darkening sky. She had dozens on her, and like Ryan she was withholding using any of her divine power.

At least, in a way the Cadiophages could detect. All I need know is – ooof!

The last thought was also expressed vocally. Bast had flown down the street and impacted Ryan with her knee raised high. He’d been so off guard; he’d taken the blow directly into his solar plexus. She grinned as he tumbled down the street again, this time lacking the presence of mind to curl himself protectively.

Ryan gasped for air. She’d driven the wind straight from his lungs, and with the Hunger for Air starting, he needed to draw breath. Bast gave him a lazy gesture.

This time Ryan was able to dodge. A bolt of lightning lanced down from the storm Ryan had summoned, splitting the concrete he had just vacated. The sheer force of the thunder this close still sent him rocking back, and his ears filled with a high-pitched ringing sound.

For a terrible moment, Ryan thought he’d been deafened by the explosion so close to his head, and he had to imagine trying to save the world with his ears still fill of that constant ringing. Then another bolt of lightning joined the first. This one struck him directly, and the sound of his own scream filling his ears assured him he was able to hear just fine.

Ryan slumped to his knees. Even with the rain cooling him, steam was rising from his arms and back from the lightning bolt, a cloud forming around him for a moment before the rain washed it away in a stream.

Bast was approaching him at a lazy, sedate walk. “You really did rely on Ishtar and Athena to defeat Enki, didn’t you? I knew you were no warrior, but I never imagined you’d be this-”

Ryan reached into his nanoverse to draw out his sword, and in a single fluid motion swung it directly at Bast’s neck. It was a perfect strike. She’d been lulled in to such a state of overconfidence, he managed to catch her completely off guard. He’d end this right here, the sword striking her head clean from her body.

Bast held up two fingers and caught the edge of the blade against the middle finger. A line of blood emerged from where the blow had struck, but Bast had somehow hardened her hand. Ryan’s sword barely even broke the surface. Bast smiled at him. “-pathetic. Apparently, though, here you are. Anything you want to say for yourself?”

Ryan looked at Bast’s hand, then back at the sword. His mind tried to process what he was seeing. He’d been so sure that the sword was going to land home, buy him room to recover…and there she was, standing there and blocking it like he’d swung a particularly thin twig at her.

“Oh. Um. Shit,” Ryan said.

Bast’s smile widened. “That’s what I thought.”

This time, when her knee struck his stomach, it sent him flying upwards in a lazy arc that ended with him crashing into the roof of some poor soul’s car, collapsing the metal beneath him.

In the aftermath, Ryan could only lay there in the rain, staring at the clouds, letting out a low wheeze of pain.

Dragon’s Scion Part 131

“I’m so sorry for how I acted when you showed up,” Nicandros said as he re-entered the room.

Poz smiled. “You need not apologize,” he said, his tone genuine.

Nicandros looked like a new man. He’d talked to Poz for hours, and wept, and talked some more. Poz had to do very little speaking of his own. He got the feeling Nicandros had desperately wanted someone to care. Humans were like that – they fiercely protected their pain, right up until someone convinced them it was safe to release it. Then they would share it all. It often made them feel better. It always was better for them.

After they’d talked, Poz had convinced Nicandros to visit a bathhouse and a barber. Being relieved of the matted locks he had before and having the accumulated grime from days of mourning washed away, as well as having his facial hair removed, was a good first step to feeling like a person again. At least, in Poz’s estimation. Even deep in Grubflesh, he’d always been fastidious about his cleanliness. It was a relief to see it had improved Nicandros’ mood as well as Poz had hoped.

“Yes, I do. You were – are – a friend, and you had no way of knowing I wished to be left alone.” Nicandros pulled up the chair and sat down. The pain was still there in his eyes, but it no longer consumed his every glance the way it had before. “And thank you for ignoring those wishes.”

Poz chuckled. “I was happy to do so,” he said.

“Still. You said you needed my help. The least I can do is repay your kindness.”

“Think nothing of it,” Poz said, waving away the thought. His hearts began to pound faster at the reminder of his real purpose here.

One thing had become abundantly clear during Nicandros’ long, rambling retelling of everything that had happened since he’d met the dragon princess. His anger at the girl was still white hot. It ran so deep Poz hesitated to use a term as light as anger.

And Poz’s purpose here was to seek advice about this Tythel. How would Nicandros take that?

“Still,” Nicandros said. “You didn’t come all this way to pull me out of…of that. Why did you?”

“I found something,” Poz said, picking his words with great care. “And since I did, the Alohym have been hunting me for it. That’s why I came through the window.”

“Do you still oppose them?” Nicandros asked, his lips curling down in a frown. Poz could not miss the caution in his voice.

“I left the Resistance shortly after you did,” Poz said. “I wasn’t of much use even at the best of times, and in your absence, I’d lost my patron.”

“I’m sorry for that,” Nicandros said. The tension he’d showed a moment ago started to fade.

“I understood your reasoning. It was hardly something I could fault. I should have taken your offer to leave with you. I believed that I’d still be able to help.” Poz shook his head at his own foolishness. “Grubflesh really did impact my judgment worse than I realized.”

“I should have insisted,” Nicandros said. “Light and Shadow, I knew how badly that was impacting you. I’d seen the difference. It was a terrible thing for them to force upon  you.”

“It was a terrible thing that I did. The punishment fit the crime.” Poz shifted uneasily in his seat. “I regret breaking the terms of my exile.”

“I’m  surprised you did. After how long you held out, I thought nothing would convince you to go against those terms.” Nicandros leaned forward. “What changed?”

“The Alohym were hunting me, personally. I couldn’t…there wasn’t anyone I could hide behind anymore.” Poz held up a hand to forestall another apology. “I don’t mean that as an inditement. Just that it was what it was.”

Nicandros nodded slowly. “Then…what did you find?”

Poz took a deep breath. He still wasn’t certain about this. Quite the opposite, in fact. It was entirely possible that this would send Nicandros back into a spiral or enrage him all over again. “Perhaps we should wait for tomorrow?” Poz suggested. “The day grows late, and you’re still recovering.”

“I appreciate the concern, but I’m not a flathing porcelain doll.” Nicandros grinned. “I understand why you’re worried, I do. But…you helped me see purpose from here again. I think I know what I’m going to do next. But first, let me help you.”

“What are you going to do?” Poz asked. There was an edge to Nicandros’ grin that Poz misliked. Something…not quite manic. He couldn’t quite place it.

He got better too quickly, Poz realized. That was the problem. Nicandros had been wallowing in pity for days. Now one conversation later, and Nicandros had done a complete reversal. He was smiling, he was laughing, he was joking…but his eyes had barely changed at all.

“It doesn’t matter,” Nicandros said.

“You weren’t grieving,” Poz said. “That’s not why you were so drunk. You were trying to make a decision. A hard one. And…you’ve made it now.”

“I remember when you were still allowed to eat other flesh,” Nicandros said, nodding in agreement. “I’d forgotten how sharp you are. Yes. Without a reason to seek revenge against the Alohym, I was considering what I was going to do next. I had no fight. No purpose. Telling you the story…it helped me gain clarity.”

“And?” Poz asked.

“And I’m going to accept an offer that I received some time ago. I’ll tell you about it later.” Nicandros furrowed his forehead. “You seem flathing determined not to tell me what you came all this way for. Why not?”

Poz leaned back and bit his lip. Nicandros was being odd, that much was certain. But…the man had lost his child, had lost his reason for living, and was just recovered from a binge unlike anything Poz had seen before. Of course, he was going to be odd. “Can I still trust you?” Poz asked.

If the words hurt Nicandros, it didn’t show. At least, it didn’t increase the pain Poz could already see in his eyes. “Absolutely,” Nicandros said. “You helped me gain clarity when I’d been floundering, even if it was just by listening.”

Poz reached into his pouch and pulled out that damn golden egg. “I found this. Are you familiar with it?”

Nicandros’ eyes grew wide at the sight. “Where did you get that?” he asked, his voice tight.

“I stole it from a battlefield.” Poz winced at the admission. “It was…how I was supporting myself.”

“You were there that night?” Nicandros asked.

Poz nodded.

“Light and Shadow, I can’t believe it.” Nicandros took a deep breath. “Do you know what you have?”

“A dragon’s death egg. Specifically, the death egg of Karjon the Magnificent, adopted father to…” Poz trailed off.

“Tythel,” Nicandros said, and he spat the word with far more vehemence than he’d ever said ‘flath.’ “Poz, I have wonderful news. We can help each other here. I’ll take the egg off your hand and free you from being chased from the Alohym.”

“How does that help you?” Poz asked, cocking his head. “What will you use the egg for?”

“Fill the offer I’ve decided to accept,” Nicandros said.

Poz felt himself starting to tense up. The pain was fading from Nicandros’ eyes, being replaced by a hungry gleam that Poz knew too well. He’d seen it in his own eyes before, deep in the grip of Grubflesh, when he’d not eaten for days and was looking in a mirror, considering breaking his oath – as well as his weak mind could consider anything then. Need mixing with desire and blended with the knowledge that what he was considering was unthinkable. “What was the offer?”

Nicandros shook his head. “I’m sorry, a condition was that I don’t speak of the details of what they’re asking me to do.”

Poz swallowed har. “Who made you the offer?”

“That…” Nicandros paused to consider. “That they didn’t forbid me saying.”

“Who?” Poz repeated when Nicandros didn’t elaborate right away. “Who made you an offer?”

“The Alohym,” Nicandros said. “They want me to do a job for them. And if I do it…if I do it, they’ll give me my son back.”

Now Poz was certain.

He’d made a terrible mistake.

Small Worlds part 234

Thunder rumbled over Grant, the storm Ryan had set in motion getting ready to unleash its fury. Dianmu threw up her hands and sent a surge of air rushing to meet the charging Cadiophages. They struck it like it was a physical wall, digging their claws into the street to avoid being blown back. Bast snarled and reached into her nanoverse, drawing out her guns. “You good on the plan?” Ryan asked.

Dianmu gave him a curt nod. “Take care, Ryan,” she said. Then, holding out her hand, she sent surges of lightning leaping from the heavens to arc down and strike the Cadiophages. They howled in anger and pain.

Ryan rushed forward in the confusion and swung for Bast. She dodged back from the blow with the same easy grace she’d always shown in combat. “Leave the Eschaton for me!” she commanded. “Kill that bitch!”

Dianmu’s wind wall dropped, allowing the cadiophages to surge forward. She turned and ran, leading them away from the battle.

Ryan shouldn’t have let himself be distracted. Bast’s foot connected with his stomach and sent him flying back, the wind driven from his lungs. He slammed through a glass window of a bookstore, careening into a bookshelf and collapsing to the ground.

Okay…that wasn’t part of the plan, Ryan thought through the pain, getting to his feet. His back felt like a giant bruise. “I thought you wanted me alive, Bast? And now you’re going to-ohshit!” A ball of flame streaked from Bast’s hands. Ryan flung himself to the ground, and it passed over him, the heat searing his back. It struck the bookshelf, and the paper burst into flame.

“I know what will kill you, Eschaton!” Bast said, her voice full of delight. “I can keep you alive for quite some time.”

The flames were beginning to lick the heels of Ryan’s shoes. He leapt to his feet and dove out of the window, rolling as he hit the ground so Bast’s next attack, a bolt of lightning, would arc over his head instead of striking him. That’s it, come on. Ryan reached out and gestured with a tiny twist, just enough to quintuple the weight of her guns. Bast let them fall to the ground, where they cracked the concrete beneath her feet. She shrugged at the dropped weapons, and Ryan fought the urge to sigh with relief. The plan relied on her burning through as much power as they could get her to.

Which meant he had to play tag with Bast until she was worn out. “I don’t know why I’m worried about you, Bast!” Ryan shouted. “Even with a linnorm backing you, Athena kicked your ass.”

Bast’s smug smirk turned into a snarl, and she curled her fingers into claws as she began to lob a stream of fireballs at Ryan. He dove and ducked and weaved, using only his divine sight to try and guess where the next attack would be coming from.

It worked for a few seconds, but it had taken Crystal millennia to master that skill. Ryan was thirty years old and had been a god for weeks.

One of the fireballs struck him in the chest. It exploded like a grenade, a wave of heat and concussive force sending him flying back and rolling down the street. If he’d been human, he’d be dead. As it was, his chest was a mass of pain, and when he coughed, red flecks landed on the pavement in front of him. Get up, Ryan. Get up. 

Thunder rumbled, and the storm he’d set in motion unleashed its fury in the most torrential storm ever seen in this part of Texas. Rain came down in great sheets, washing away the blood he’d left on the pavement, quenching the flames that burned from Bast’s earlier blasts.

Streaks of lightning, too rapid and focused to be natural, began to crash down among the cadiophages at the other end of the block. Dianmu was still fighting, and making sure Ryan knew exactly where she was.

Ryan reached into his nanoverse and grabbed a sword, charging toward Bast with the weapon raised.

He used the motion to hide a twist of his free hand as he started a cascade of power. Power he’d need to tap into later.

Assuming he could survive long enough.

Bast watched him approached with an eyebrow raised in confusion. She waited for Ryan to get within a dozen feet of herself, then gestured backhandedly. A wall of wind slammed into Ryan and sent him flying down the street. “You must have come here Hungry,” Bast said, although Ryan could barely hear her over the rain. “That was stupid. That was very, very stupid.”

Ryan threw his sword at Bast, a slight twist accelerating the blade. Bast caught it in a web of water woven from the falling rain, and then with a gesture shattered the blade. She held out her hand, and the shards of Ryan’s abandoned swords came flying back towards Ryan.

He screamed at the sudden pain of a dozen cuts as splinters of metal shredding his arms and legs. Bast had been careful to avoid his chest and neck. Blood mixed with rainwater and Ryan collapsed to one knee.

“Of course, it’s only the fifth stupidest thing you’ve done today,” Bast said, walking towards him with a casual deliberation. “The fourth was coming here to challenge me without Ishtar or Athena.” She gestured towards the heaven, and a bolt of lightning leapt from the clouds. Ryan felt his muscles clench up from the strike. “The third was letting your pet curator leave to follow my Cadiophages.” Bast gestured, and the falling water condensed into lashes that struck Ryan across the back. It was like being cut with a pressure cleaner, and Ryan didn’t even try and prevent the cry that it dragged from his lips. “The second was thinking you could challenge me alone.” Bast clenched her fist, and a stone pillar shot from the ground to impact Ryan directly in the face. He reared back, clutching at his eye, and thought he felt the socket had been cracked. “And, of course, the big one, the number one mistake you made today – was thinking you could challenge me.” She threw her hand out, and another wall of wind struck Ryan. He was sent flying forward now, rolling across the ground, asphalt scraping at his skin.

He landed at Bast’s feet, looking up into her smug, malicious grin. “Give up, Ryan. Give me what I want, and you might survive.”

Ryan heard her words, but that wasn’t what he was focused on.

She was breathing. Deep, heavy breaths. Bast was getting Hungry.

Just need to stay conscious long enough to finish this, Ryan thought, right before Bast brought her heel down on the bridge of his nose.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 130

“Poz?” Nicandros said, looking up at the window with wide eyes. “What…what are you doing at my flathing window?”

“I need your help,” Poz said. It had been years since he’d last seen Nicandros, but they had fought together. He wasn’t sure what kind of reception he should have expected, but it wasn’t this. Nicandros looked wild, unkempt, and like he’d spent the last few days either drunk or hungover.

Nicandros cursed and stood up, striding over to the window and throwing it open with a violent gesture. “Get in here,” he growled, “before someone sees you.”

Poz’s nose twitched as he slid through the window. The room smelled of ale and wine and sweat. It smelled like the common room of an inn whose keeper spent no time making sure it was well kept, and whose patrons were the kind of surly that didn’t much care either. “You seem to be having a rough time,” Poz said carefully.

Nicandros ran his hand through his hair. It was long and grayer than Poz remembered. Human hair did that, a slow transformation as it lost color with age, but Poz hadn’t expected it to have changed quite this much. He also hadn’t expected Nicandros to allow his beard to grow out so much. “Well, it’s good to know you’re still observant.” Nicandros shook his head and walked back to the table. “What did you want?”

Poz pressed his lips into a thin line of annoyance. “You are less than pleased to see me,” he said, as opposed to directly answering Nicandros’ inquiry.

Nicandros chuckled. It wasn’t a pleasant or friendly sound. The laugh was dark and hoarse. “How hard did you look to find me?” he asked. He motioned for Poz to take a seat on the bed, the first sign of hospitality Poz had noticed.

“I’ve been looking for weeks,” Poz admitted. He took the proffered seat. After all this time searching, he’d been hoping for a warm reception. Or at least one that wasn’t ice cold. “I’ve gone halfway across the kingdom and back. Everywhere I knew you favored. I broke my exile terms and ate Crowflesh, among others.”

“Thought you sounded less like a halfwit than the last time we spoke,” Nicandros said. He opened the wardrobe in the room and pulled out a green bottle. Poz’s nose twitched at the scent that emanated from it. It was the cheapest type of alcohol, and the smell turned Poz’s stomach. “Well, I’m happy you finally decided to stop punishing yourself. Although I thought Crowflesh was supposed to make you smart.

Poz could feel the hair on the back of his neck rise. “It does,” he said, his voice sharper than he intended. He clenched his hands into fists, trying to control the rising anger. “Crowflesh is among the most intelligent forms I can adopt.”

Nicandros took a long swig from the bottle of cheap alcohol. Poz took slow, deep breaths to try to calm himself while Nicandros deliberately insulted him with the delay. Perhaps it’s not deliberate, Poz thought, the anger still white hot in his stomach. Perhaps he just needs alcohol to process-

“Then I must have been wrong before. I assumed that you were a halfwit because you were eating insects. Now I understand. You’re just a halfwit.”

“Nicandros!” Poz snapped, the anger finally boiling over. “I do not know what I have done to insult you, yet I doubt it was enough to deserve this treatment.” Weeks. Weeks looking for you. Weeks desperately hoping that you would be my salvation. And…this is what I get. 

“Well then, let me explain it to you, in terms even you can understand,” Nicandros said, sitting down at the table and putting the bottle in front of him with enough force he nearly broke the glass. “You spent weeks trying to find me, and it never once occurred to you that perhaps your difficulty was that I flathing did not want to be found!” The last few words were shouted, practically screamed.

Poz curled his fingers into claws. Ratflesh had a strong instinct, when confronted with danger, to flee or engage in battle. Normally it opted for flight, but Nicandros hardly seemed like a threat right now. Half drunk and weary, Poz was tempted to pay him back for the insult with a thrashing that Nicandros apparently desperately needed.

Then he saw the tears forming in Nicandros’ eyes, and realizations slept over him. “What happened?” Poz asked, his voice far gentler than it had been before.

“None of your flathing business,” Nicandros said, turning away from Poz’s gaze to stare into the bottle that sat in front of him. “Go. Leave.”

“I can’t do that,” Poz said. “I need your help. Desperately. If I had anywhere else to turn, I would have tried it when you could not be found.” He hesitated before continuing. Nicandros was slouching in the chair. The grey hair…Poz knew that sometimes, humans under immense stress could age prematurely. Was that what was happening to Nicandros? “And, I think, you need my help every bit as badly.”

Nicandros snorted. “I have all the help I need right here,” he said, holding up the bottle and shaking it in front of Poz. “Unless you want to fetch me more, as I’ve started to run low.”

Poz studied Nicandros. The man was definitely under immense strain. That much was painfully obvious. Treating him with comfort and kindness seemed unlikely to penetrate the barriers that Nicandros had erected. “Does the alcohol numb you from how pathetic you’ve become?” he asked.

Nicandros’ eyes hardened, and he put down the bottle with deliberate care. “I’d take that back,” he growled.

“Why? What are going to do? Make your stench more offensive? Drink even harder?” Poz scoffed. “I’d say I’m worried you’d crawl into a hole and die to spite me, but it looks like you’re doing that already.”

Nicandros stood up with careful deliberation. It wasn’t enough to hide the unsteady nature of the gesture, the way his hand trembled as he set it on the table, the way he swayed with the motion. “I’m warning you-”

“And I do not fear the warning,” Poz said. “The man I knew, the man I fought alongside, would not have given me warning. He would not have given me a chance. I would have been cuffed across the face for the insult, as I deserved. Yet you stand there and let me continue to mock you. What happened to you, Nicandros? When did you become a coward?”

Nicandros swung at Poz. It wasn’t the precise strike Poz had seen Nicandros use before. It was a wild throw of the fist, an act of violence without coordination, without direction. Lashing out.

It was far too easy to duck out of the way of the blow and land a precise punch against Nicandros’ ribcage, sending the man reeling backwards. Nicandros stumbled into the chair and went down in a clatter. It would have been comical had it been any other drunk. Seeing it happen to Nicandros, a man who had always moved with the grace of a hunting panther, was almost physically painful. “What happened to you?” Poz repeated. He deliberately kept the sympathy, the concern, the fear out of his voice. Nicandros would reject pity.

But scorn? He’d respond to scorn.

Nicandros started to rise to his feet again. The anger was still there, but the sorrow was overwhelming. “What will it take for you to leave me be?”

“Knowledge,” Poz said simply.

“Fine.” Nicandros spat onto the filthy floor. “You remember why I left the resistance?”

“Because you couldn’t bear the thought that you might one day fight your son,” Poz said.

“That’s right. Well…it stopped mattering. He died. I went back because I wanted revenge for what happened to him. I met the princess. We became close. And then…she told me she was the one to kill Thomah.” Nicandros gave Poz a defiant glare, as if daring him to mock his pain. “She murdered my son in cold blood to avenge the beast she called a father. A flathing dragon. So, leave me be, Poz. I’m done with this world.”

“I’m sorry,” Poz said.

It wasn’t much. They were just words, after all. But Nicandros reacted as if Poz had embraced him. He sat down hard, and the tears finally began to spill out over his cheeks.

“I lost him,” Nicandros said softly. “He was…he was the whole reason I fighting to rid the world of the Alohym. So he could have a future free of them. And the resistance I helped to found is going to put the woman who killed him on the throne.”

Poz sat down to listened as Nicandros told him the full story, an outpouring of words and pain that had been building up inside him like a poison finally being excised.

Small Worlds Part 233

Sally lunged across the highway towards Nabu with a feral scream that turned into a roar as she flew. Her mouth elongated into a muzzle, her hands twisted into claws, and her body became more feline.

A human faced with this charge would have instincts take over. Instincts that would have them recoil, raise their hands and impose their arms between the claws of the beast and their soft, vulnerable face. They’d probably scream too, a reflexive action that Nabu didn’t quite understand the purpose of.

Biology was something Nabu understood, but for the entire lifespan of the universe, it had been something that happened to other people. It wasn’t a problem Nabu had to deal with directly. While his body now operated on biological principles, his brain was still that of a Curator. Calm, analytical, and fast.

All those thoughts crossed his mind while Sally was still in the air. Calmly, Nabu stepped into her reach, passing between the claws before she could bring them together. Then he raised his cane and rapped it across her face in two hard strikes before ducking under her leap.

Sally flew through the air over his head, landing near the downed truck. Her claws scrabbled on the asphalt for an instant, trying to get purchase, before she was able to halt her momentum and whirl to face him. She shook her head, clearing it from the strikes. Nabu regarded her dispassionately. This is the third of the runners Bast sent. Given their rate of propagation, I still have sufficient time to conserve power in this battle. 

That was a vital factor. Nabu didn’t know how long his power would last before it would need to recharge. He didn’t know the mechanisms his new, limited power utilized. He could incinerate this monster where it sat, but if he did so, would he be able to stop the others?

Nabu had insufficient data to make a determination. Instead, he raised his cane again, and held out his free hand, his fingers pointing towards the cardiophage, his palm raised towards the sky.

Ryan had loved watching movies. Nabu had been watching Ryan, but he’d often positioned himself so he could watch the movie as well. One particular gesture, in these types of situations, always seemed to be particularly insulting and provoke an immediate response.

He curled his fingers upwards in a series of rapid ‘come here’ gestures.

Sally snarled and charged across the ground at him. She wasn’t going for the leap this time, not after how that had worked for her on her last pass. Instead she was in a bounding run, her paws firmly on the ground beneath her. Nabu waited until  she was fully accelerated, then stepped forward to crack her twice atop the skull before dancing to the side.

Sally stumbled into the space he had just vacated, her head ringing from the blow. She shook her head again, and the long, naked tail lashed behind her. “Bastard,” she growled with a mouth that shouldn’t be able to make those sounds. “You’re toying with me.”

“Yes,” Nabu said simply. “I want to give you a chance. I have a great deal to do in a relatively short time.” He pointed with the cane down the road, back towards Grant. “Return to the others. Abandon your mission. I will allow you to live.”

“She’ll kill me if I do,” Sally growled.

“Yes,” Nabu said, not seeing any reason to attempt to deceive her when she was so painfully correct. “However, I will be forced to terminate your life if you do not. Your odds are better if you return to the town. By then, your mistress may very well be dead.”

“You can’t kill a goddess,” Sally snarled.

For the third time, Nabu simply responded with a single affirmative, “Yes.” This one he was less certain of. The only mechanism he knew of to destroy a nanoverse permanently involved taking it into a nanoverse and wielding the nigh omnipotence there to crush it. However, he wasn’t convinced he wouldn’t be able to figure out an alternative methods.

Such thoughts weren’t what Sally needed to listen to him. “I cannot,” he said again to confirm, “but I arrived with two other gods. I assure you, they absolutely can.”

“And they’ll kill me too,” Sally said.

“Their concern is with your mistress,” Nabu said. “If you are not trying to start the eradication of the human race, they will not be interested in your death.”

Sally considered for a moment.

Nabu saw her answer before she sprung. Fear, hunger, and hatred drove that leap. Nabu grimaced. It had been the same way with the other two, as well. It was senseless, needless.

But the reasoning of biological organisms had never been entirely clear to Nabu. He watched Sally charge, and answered by running to meet her. A tiny surge of his energy flowed into the cane, and it blazed with a golden light.

Nabu dropped into a low crouch, sliding along his knees, as Sally leapt into the air, slashing with her claws. He held up the cane, and this time when it struck Sally’s face, it didn’t make a wooden crack. It made a wet, sticking sound. Sally’s own momentum carried her along the blade.

Nabu comforted himself with the fact that her death was a near instant as he could manage.

Sally collapsed to the ground. Nabu didn’t look back at her remains, not wanting to see what a grizzly mess he’d left behind.

The human Sally had been assaulting, the one driving the truck, was still breathing. As far as Nabu could tell, he’d be fine. That was for the best.

Nabu had other priorities this day. He surged with light and propelled himself into the sky again.

Seven more to go. And the others would be going to other towns, seeking other prey.

If he still had his full powers, he’d be confident of his ability to hunt them down and kill them before they’d reached their destinations.

Now? Now he was less than certain.

He flew towards the next destination, feeling his power leaking out of him with every passing second.