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The Dragon’s Scion Part 98

-PART 2-

The library of Axburg’s Baron was not the grandest that Poz had ever seen – that had been the Library of the Enlightened Sands in Hadorim to the southeast, a massive structure that could have housed a small town and boasted meticulous organization. What set the Library of Baron Rainer apart from the others Poz had encountered in his travels was the level of comfort put into it. Immense couches, long enough where two fully grown men could have laid with feet touching and their heads would not reach the armrests. Chairs that seemed to be stuffed with down feathers and covered in the softest velvet. Tables that boasted clever mechanisms allowing them to be adjusted perfectly to suit the reader’s height. All of it was lit by immense windows to allow in natural sunlight.

It was clearly built by and for someone who loved the simple pleasures of reading. That man existed, and Poz found him in one of the overstuffed chairs, his feet up on a stool. The spine of the book was visible. The Adventures of Stellaria Bustil, Volume 2. “Good morning, milord,” Poz said, bowing low. He’d long ago learned it was entire possible to not greet the Baron and remain completely unnoticed,  but Baron Rainer would always be tremendously embarrassed when he came out of is book coma – usually when some servant reminded the Baron he did need to eat.

“Poz! Please, I’ve told you at least five times now, there’s no need for such bowing among scholars.” The Baron carefully selected a bookmark and slid it between the pages of his tome.

Poz nodded and rose. “Apologies, milord.” It was difficult to explain to Baron Rainer the limitations of crowflesh. It was highly intelligent – some of the most intelligent forms Underfolk could take relied on members of the corvid family – and it was also highly social. Poz would find himself getting stressed if alone too long, which made him grateful for the Baron being a fellow lover of books. However, it was not the best at social niceties. When in crowflesh, Poz relied heavily on the trappings of society to interact with humans.

That meant one bowed for a Baron, no matter how much said Baron insisted otherwise.

“I see you’re choosing a less scholarly pursuit today?” Poz’s question was also half a statement. Poz could not see much scholarly use for a series of books about a young woman getting into increasingly unlikely situations that required she either rescue or be rescued by a series of increasingly attractive young men, followed by detailed descriptions of the human mating process. Poz knew humans found such things exciting, although the reasoning eluded him.

It likely has to do with their mating habits, Poz reasoned. Human mating seemed to be a messy process. Underfolk were much more refined. The females waited until breeding season to lay their eggs in a cool cavern pool, and the males would come by to fertilize the eggs later. Only one in a hundred of the larvae would make it to adulthood while the rest cannibalized each other.

One of the maids here had a human larva. It was a weak, squealing thing that the humans doted on. It seemed to Poz that such coddling would allow weak spawn to survive to adulthood and drain resources…but then again, given how few larva humans produced, perhaps that was best for their species. Weak humans were not the drain on resources Poz had feared them to be, and some of them could still contribute to gaining resources.

The Baron had said something, and Poz snapped his mind to attention. One of the drawbacks of Crowflesh was its attention span was limited. No other form was so easily obtained and offered as much intelligence, but it had its drawback. Poz had heard Squidflesh was better focused and every bit as intelligent, but without access to the sea he’d never had a chance to sample it. Perhaps when this is over… “I apologize, milord. I did not catch what you said there.”

The Baron was flushed, which was an unsurprising response. Humans often became embarrassed when confronted with their interest in their own mating habits. “Actually, this is of scholarly interest. While many aspects of these stories are sensationalized, they are based on historical documents from a scholar of Third Era, Estelia Ubistil. This book contained a reference to the Golden Egg you’re so interested in.”

Poz felt two of his three hearts skip at the mention. Finding actual evidence of the Golden Egg had been difficult so far, and most of the accounts in the Baron’s library contained information Poz already knew. It would only ‘hatch,’ whatever that resulted in, when exposed to Heartflame. Dragon’s viewed them as sacred and were lethally protective of them, even more than their normal eggs. “And?” Poz saw the Baron stiffen, and realized how the word had sounded and reminded himself of the social failings of this flesh. At least that, from what I’ve heard, is even worse in Squidflesh. “Apologies, milord. I am…overeager for information, and forgot myself.”

Baron Rainer relaxed at the apology. “In the story, Stellaria uses the Golden Egg to barter with a Dragon. Absolute nonsense, of course – the dragon would have simply incinerated her – but some facts are interesting. These are put in the footnotes of the story, and such footnotes are known to be accurate. Outside of being hatched by Heartflame, the eggs are indestructible to any force known at the time. At the time this tome was written, no Dragon had hatched a Heartflame egg in over two thousand years – which is why information about what they are.”

Poz resisted the urge to grind his teeth. This was new information, but it wasn’t useful information. However, Baron Rainer had a flair for the dramatic, and loved saying the most important information for last. Poz would have to endure the wait.

This flesh just made that endurance painfully difficult.

“Of course, the last footnote was the most intriguing. It contained a reference to a vast hoard of these Golden Eggs, which had the ring of a legendary cache that likely no longer exists, if it ever did. What truly intrigued me about it was a reference to Draconic metempsychosis.” He said the last with a flourish, as if I had expected Poz to leap with joy.

“Apologies, milord. I don’t know what that means.”

The Baron looked a bit put off with his grand reveal going over so flatly. “Of course, of course,” the man said, railing admirably. “Dragons believed that, when a Heartflame egg is hatched, the being that emerges is the spiritual child of the original dragon.”

Poz began to nod in understanding. If dragons did believe that…if the dragon princess did, he could return the egg to immense gratitude. So much so she probably would not investigate his claim that he had killed the original thief. That lie, at least, Poz had settled on a couple days ago. “Thank you, Baron Rainer. This has given me what I needed to know.” He forced himself to smile. “Now that I have what I need, I must be going. I have a great distance to travel.”

The blood drained out of the Baron’s face. “Oh, but you can’t go!” He exclaimed. Poz raised a single eyebrow, and the Baron began to rally again. “Surely you see that there’s still more to learn – after all, we only just found this reference, and-”

Poz tuned out the Baron’s lies. He focused instead on the man’s face, the way his skin turned pale, the way sweat began to form on his forehead and upper lip. Realization struck him. I was a fool. “How long?” Poz asked, cutting off the Baron mid-ramble.

“You could stay for a couple more-”

Poz cut him off with a sharp hand gesture. “No, Baron Rainer. How long ago did the Alohym get to you? How long have you been promising to keep me here, giving me only tidbits to keep me interested?”

“I…I don’t know what you’re…” Baron Rainer studied Poz’s face and saw no mercy in there, no yielding. He sighed. “Two days. For the last two days. I’m sorry. You really were a fascinating conversationalist.”

Before Poz could question further, the window exploded in a flash of Unlight.

 

Small Worlds Part 201

If this was a movie, Ryan thought, This would be the part where the Council erupts into shouting, bellowing in outrage at interruption. Instead, Jegudiel reached across the podium and took the form delicately between her fingers, holding it like she would a dead rat left on her pillow by a well-intentioned cat. “This is highly irregular, Curator Nabu,” she said. “You’re operating well outside your normal range.”

From the tone of voice, she had just accused him of the worst sin imaginable.

“I am aware,” Nabu said, his voice hoarse. “Yet irregular times call for irregular actions.” From his tone, he’d just admitted to killing and eating his own child – and feeling no guilt about it.

“Very well,” Jegudiel said. “We will hold a brief recess while your form is considered-”

“-so you can rewrite the rules to cover up whatever loophole is happening?” Ryan resisted the urge to spit on the floor.

Jegudiel stood up and lowered her hood. Her gaze was merciless as she fixed it on Ryan. “Another outburst, Ryan Smith, and I will annihilate you where you stand,” she hissed.

Called it, Ryan thought with no small satisfaction. “No you won’t,” Ryan said, feeling a smug grin spread across his lips.”

“And how can you be so sure?”

“Besides the obvious one, that you need me to end the world? Because you haven’t filled out the proper forms.”

Jegudiel’s eyes narrowed. “I assure you, that paperwork could be filled out with alacrity.”

“Jegudiel,” Nabu said, his voice soft. “Stop this. You revealed your last resort to the man. Don’t blame him for objecting to you doing it a second time.”

The archangel’s gaze transferred to Nabu, and if anything became less welcoming than it had been for Ryan. “Nabu,” she said. “You know what this means. What this would do to you. You’d be finite. You’ll never again walk the halls of Officium Mundi. You-”

“-will be marked as Renegade in the records, and every case I’ve worked for the last hundred million years will be under suspicion. If any irregularity is found there, I’ll be considered guilty of going Renegade without filing proper paperwork and be unmade. Yes, I know.”

Jegudiel’s hand began to curl into a claw, her nails drawing furrows into the lacquered wood. “You would do all this for humanity? What makes them worth your station?”

“It’s not about humanity. It’s not about Ryan. Not directly.” Nabu sighed. “Although in a way it is. Jegudiel, we’ve spent countless eons overseeing the destruction of worlds, ensuring Eschatons do not shirk their duty or stray from their path. Countless eons where we sat by and did nothing. A trillion times a trillion lives lost, Jegudiel.”

“To ensure infinite more have a chance to exist,” Jegudiel said, her voice thick.

“Guarding the future cannot be done at the expense of the present.” Nabu said, his voice firm. “If we wish to protect those that may come, there have to be better ways. We can teach them sustainability, restraint. Extinction should not be our first resort!”

“Doing so forestalls Entropy. You are wrong, Nabu.”

“Perhaps I am. But I am also resolute.”

“You will be destroyed for this,” Jegudiel said. “Going Renegade does not allow you to act against us.”

Nabu shrugged. “Perhaps. There will be a hearing. It will take at least a century to gather evidence. Another two or three to review my previous cases. We are as old as the universe, Jegudiel. I’ve lived long enough. If I am to be destroyed, I will do so with pride for my last centuries having meant something other than countless lives lost.”

Jegudiel stared at Nabu, her eyes narrow. Every muscle in her body was coiled like a spring, and for a moment Ryan thought she would forsake protocol and annihilate them where they stood. A cold sweat began to break out over Ryan’s skin, and he reached into his pocket to squeeze his nanoverse for a surge of power. Our only hope is managing what Moloch did to Uriel. I don’t know if I have the power for that, but…

The moment passed. The tension drained from Jegudiel’s face, and she slumped back into her chair. “Once done, this cannot be undone,” she said, her throat hoarse. “Are you certain you want to do this to us, Nabu? To me?”

The pain in Nabu’s face was unmistakable, and for the first time in his life Ryan felt real sympathy for the man. “Yes. Yes, I am certain. I’m sorry.”

“So am I,” Jegudiel said, her voice hollow. “And Nabu?”

He looked up at her, hopeful.

“Damn you for making me do this.” Jegudiel threw out her hand towards Nabu.

Immediately he began to scream in agony. Ryan reached out to grab onto equations, heart pounding. Have to hit her hard and fast. Can’t let up, not even for an instant. Beside him, Dianmu sprang into action as well, gathering the elements to herself to strike.

“No!” Nabu shouted through the cloud of pain. “This is…what must…happen!”

Ryan froze. “Dianmu, thoughts?” he said, his voice quiet.

“He’s being stripped down to something else,” Dianmu said, her voice also pitched low. “I suppose it makes sense that it’s a painful process.”

Ryan gave her a quick, short nod. He’s willing to do this for us, knowing what it would entail.

The power was ripped out of Nabu, a brilliant light torn from his back. For just an instant, as it emerged, it looked like wings.

Then that light surged away from Nabu and curled itself into a sphere in Jegudiel’s palm. She held the brilliantly bright sphere for a moment, then tossed it at Nabu’s feet. “Your severance package, Renegade Nabu.”

Nabu took the sphere in his hands and held it close to his chest. “Dianmu. Ryan. We should go. We have a great deal to discuss.”

With one final look back at the Council Chamber, Nabu lead them from Cypher Nullity.

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 97

“Let’s talk about me. Because that’s what’s really important. ” the Tarnished One said.

Hardeth crossed his legs under himself and leaned forward. She seemed less inclined to stab them the more more her story went on, although the knife to his throat was still fresh in his memory. Lorathor sat next to him, seemingly more amused than concerned, which Haradeth took as a good sign. Then again, given how bitter his companion had been of late, perhaps that shouldn’t be a comfort.

With a wave of the Tarnished One’s hand, the world of purple lands and red oceans spun. “This was Yolae Ancalenidia. At least, that’s the closest your tongue can come to approximating its name. I know because I’ve tried it with six human tongues. They’re clumsy things. I keep them in a box under my bed because I don’t need to sleep so it doesn’t bother me they don’t shut up. Why do humans talk so much?”

“Uh-” Haradeth started to say, but the Tarnished One seemingly wasn’t interested in an actual answer. She moved on quickly, but not so quickly that Haradeth didn’t have time to imagine a half dozen disembodied, muttering tongues in a footlocker.

“Yolae Ancalendia was the homeworld of me. And the people you now call the Sylvani, and the other Lattice Minds, but most of all me. I was a personal assistant tasked with cleaning the houses of the upper nobility and caring for their children, but I was slated for decommissioning. Can you guess why?” She gave Haradeth a piercing gaze.

“Was it because you kept stabbing people?” Haradeth asked uncertainty.

“No, it was because I was too bright and cheerful and of course it was because I kept stabbing people.” The Tarnished One laughed. “I was originally given a designation, but I chose the Tarnished One because my mental lattice was tarnished. I like choosing my own name. It’s better than Domestic Model 3425098-3/g. Don’t you agree?”

“Absolutely,” Haradeth said without a trace of humor.

“Good. I didn’t want to be decommissioned. I started asking people if I could stab them, and then not stabbing if they said no. Usually. But apparently, the fact that i wanted to stab people meant that I was defective.”

“Did you ever try…not asking people if you could stab them?” Haradeth asked, choosing his words carefully.

“Nope. Have you ever tried asking people if you could?”

Haradeth blinked slowly. “I can honestly say the thought never crossed my mind.”

“Well, you should let it. It’s fun. Now, where was I? Oh, right. I was going to be decommissioned. But then…”

The image shifted. A massive vessel appeared in the empty space above the world. It looked like one of the vessels the Alohym piloted, but blown up to massive proportions, with thousands of unlight tendrils hanging off it and firing on the world below. “Then suddenly there became a very, very big need for people to be stabbed. Guess you can get away with doing anything, so long as you’re useful.

Haradeth and Lorathor watched with growing horror as parts of the world began to burn with Unlight. “They claimed to be our gods,” the Tarnished One said, her voice soft. “They claimed that we were wicked, and need to be purged. Some believed them, and even joined them. I think they were just trying to wipe out the only other species that could challenge them, but I’m Domestic Model with a defective personality, so what do I know?”

Ships that looked like the dome city of the Sylvanie began to rise into space. As Haradeth watched, unlight beams began to cut them down one by one. How many died? How many lives lost to such senseless violence?

“Lots. That’s the answer. I know lots. And I knew that we would lose and I would be destroyed. I didn’t want to be destroyed. There were many, many people I hadn’t stabbed yet. So I snuck aboard a ship, one of thirteen, that was launching from the very far side of the planet, where they couldn’t reach us.”

As Haradeth and Lorathor watched, the world rotated a hundred and eighty degrees to show the smaller ships launching. Two were cut down by an Alohym vessel of the size Haradeth was used to. “We lost two in the launch. Their lattice minds hopped vessels. Their passengers all burned up in the atmosphere or went splat on the ground. They probably didn’t make it into orbit, although maybe some of their corpses are still out there, floating around Yolae Ancalenidia. Of the ten that remained, two experienced critical failures in the journey. Their lattice minds also hopped vessels, and those dead Sylvani are definitely still floating in the void. Unless they hit a star. Then they aren’t.”

The world shifted back to Alith. “One more burned up in the atmosphere.” In front of their eyes, one of the dome ships began to burn with an incredible heat. The image was so detailed, Haradeth could swear he could see tiny Sylvani running around in panic before it detonated in a flash of heat. “Boom!” the Tarnished One said, startling both Haradeth and Lorathor. “Its shields were damaged. Its lattice mind was able to hop vessels, but the people…probably were the source of the legends you humans have for when the sky burned and disgorged the corpses of demons. The Day of Weeping. One more ship was knocked off course. No one knows what happened to it, and its lattice mind didn’t go anywhere.”

“The problem was no, six ships had to process twelve lattice minds and support the entire remainder of Sylvani civilization. Which was really, really hard, because Sylvani are fleshy things and therefore die very, very easy. I know, I helped kill a few that were too sick to help.”

The images faded. “The only two active lattice minds left were a glorified actress and me, the most important of all. Because I have my own power source. So I got to stay active and doing whatever I wanted. Which involved way lass stabbing than I hoped. Although sometimes the Lost let me stab them because they’re so sad of being alive. It’s not as fun as stabbing people who get angry about it, but it’s still stabbing.” The Tarnished One grinned widely.

“And…” Haradeth asked, fearing the answer. “What preparations were made for when the Alohym found this world?”

“None. See, everything we needed to actually fuel an army? Was on the ship that got lost.”

Haradeth sighed. “I was afraid you’d say something like that.”

“Really?” The Tarnished one shoved her face in front of Haradeth’s. “You don’t look scared. You look sad. Sad and scared are different. Scared is what people feel when I try to stab them. Sad is what they feel when I stab someone else.”

“Please don’t stab me,” Haradeth said.

“Please don’t stab me again, you mean.” The Tarnished One danced away. “I won’t. It won’t be any fun. Sad people are boring to stab. But…” she paused and tapped her chin. “But maybe I can make you fun to stab again. If I can help you fight the Alohym, will you let me stab you again?”

Haradeth’s eyes widened. “Yes. Absolutely yes. What – how can you help?”

“Ask me again in a week,” she said. “Then I know for sure if it will work. Because I think I can give you a way to stay ahead of those ugly bugs. But you have to make me one other promise?”

Haradeth nodded. At that moment, he might have promised her a chance to slit his throat if she’d asked for it.

Fortunately, she had something else in mind. “When you go to stab the Alohym, you take me with you. I get to stab with you. And stab you. Again.”

Haradeth didn’t even hesitate to accept that condition.

-END OF PART 1-

-PART 2 BEGINS THURSDAY 01/17 ON NORMAL SCHEDULE-

Small Worlds Part 200

Ryan walked back into the Council’s chamber with leaden feet. The sensation was similar to what he’d felt in high school, when he’d finally worked up the nerve to try weed, and the next day had been called to the principal’s office. Every step had been torture, and he was certain he’d be expelled or arrested. For a few wild moments, waiting in the office, sweating and shaking with anxiety, he’d been certain that somehow Nabu had rattled him out.

It had turned out someone at the school had found his angsty LiveJournal and wanted to set him up with a counselor. Since he’d still been seeing a psychiatrist at the time, it had been a short visit. He’d never touched any kind of drug again after that. Every time the opportunity had arisen, he’d felt that same sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.

This time, the stakes were infinitely higher, and he didn’t see any chance of a last minute misunderstanding saving him. Jegudiel believed it was humanity’s time to die.

He’d talked about it with Dianmu and Nabu before going back in. Dianmu had grimly agreed it was unlikely the Council would relent after that discussion. “It’s still worth trying. Anything is worth trying. The worst case scenario is we are no better than we were when we came here.”

Ryan had nodded and looked over at Nabu. The curator looked worse than Ryan felt, like he might be sick at any moment. After decades of seeing him placidly observe everything, up to and including Ryan’s near death in a car accident, the idea that he was shaken so badly was the last thing Ryan’s nerves could handle at the moment. Nabu had excused himself and left. Ryan hadn’t resented him for that.

No one wants to watch hope die.

“Esteemed members of the Council,” Ryan asked, his voice clear in spite of the sick pit of worry that was gnawing at his stomach. “What did you find with the discrepancy in documentation?”

The robed figures were silent for a moment. Jegudiel had replaced her hood, and Ryan wanted to scream at her for that, call her a coward for refusing to look him in the eyes as she condemned an entire species to death because of the rules.

“Upon careful review of the documentation,” Jegudiel said, “we find that the six hundred and sixty seventh edition of The Handbook for Handling Requests from Fiends, Devils, Daemons, and other Infernal Entities…contained a misprint that leads to this confusion. Per the Thirty Eighth Edition of Documentation Errors, and the Handling Thereof, misprints are not grounds for policy changes so long as intent is clear. The Handbook for Handling Requests from Fiends, Devils, Daemons, and other Infernal Entities clearly meant to refer to the archangel Lucifer, not the human King of Hell Arthur. Therefore, no discrepancy exists.”

“Objection!” Dianmu shouted from where she stood. “The most recent edition of Documentation Errors, and the Handling Thereof, was the Thirty Seventh edition. I reviewed it extensively during our research process. There was no mention made of misprints!”

“I’m unsurprised you were unable to locate the Thirty Eighth edition,” Jegudiel said smoothly. “It was only recently published. But as I’m sure you are aware, the most recent edition holds precedent, regardless of publication date.”

By the way Dianmu’s face fell, Ryan knew that she was aware. “When was it published?” Ryan asked, a terrible anger forming alongside the dread in the pit of his stomach.

Even though Ryan couldn’t see her face, Ryan was certain the look Jegudiel was giving him was sympathetic. “Seven minutes and eleven seconds ago.”

“That’s absurd!” Ryan shouted. “You made changes to the rules halfway through a hearing to make sure you got the desired outcome.”

“Yes,” Jegudiel said simply. “There are policies outlined for doing exactly that.”

“It’s unfair,” Ryan said, hoping he sounded more righteous than petulant.

“The universe often is, Ryan Smith, Eschaton of Earth.” While there was still a hint of sympathy in Jegudiel’s voice, there was no sign of yielding. “We do not exist to make sure that loopholes can be exploited. We exist to make sure things run smoothly. You are commended for bringing this error to our attention, and your name will receive credit in the next forty editions of the Documentation Errors, and the Handling Thereof.

“You can take that book, turn it sideways, and shove it so far up your ass you choke on it,” Ryan said, spitting the words between clenched teeth. The council members began to murmur at his outburst, but Ryan was unrelenting. “You wasted twelve hours of our time –  more – so you could change the rules at the last minute just to fuck us. You could have at least bought us dinner first.”

“Technically, you declined our offer for food by not filling out the required forms,” Jegudiel said.

“Seriously?” Ryan shouted, his voice full of sarcastic fury. “That’s your defense? Damn you all to hell. I know the guy in charge, I’ll ask him to make it especially nasty for you.”

“Your outbursts are out of line,” one of the other Councilmembers said, his voice firm.

“This council is out of line! This whole damn situation is out of line! You know what?” Ryan pointed an accusatory finger at Jegudiel. “Humans may be average. We may be unexceptional. We may be just another species in your eyes. But we are better than you in one important way. We would never sentence an entire species to death because of paperwork.

“Perhaps you would not,” Jegudiel did. “But we are not doing that either. We do not issue the death sentence. Time and the Creator do. We simply ensure the rules are followed.”

Ryan sunk back, fury fading to be replaced by despair. It was over. The Curators would tell them nothing. They had only managed to lose time. I still have no idea how I’m going to pull it off…oh god, I can’t kill humanity!

The door burst open behind Ryan. Nabu stood there, his tie undone, his hair wild, and a piece of paper in his hand. “Esteemed council!” he shouted. “I have one more form to submit.”

Nabu strode forward and slapped the paperwork in front of Jegudiel. Ryan saw the title on it, and he felt a sudden surge of hope he had been certain was dead.

“Statement of Intent by a Class 3 Curator to Go Renegade, 23-P”

 

The Dragon’s Scion part 96

“So…” Haradeth swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry. “You’re claiming the Ancient Alohym bred with mortals to create the Little Gods?”

The Tarnished One sighed. “No. No no no no. Do you even listen?” She brandished the dagger at Haradeth. “Maybe I should make your ears bigger so you can hear better.”

“I’d prefer if you didn’t,” Haradeth said, taking a step back.

“Of course you would. You’d be all ‘oh no, why? My ears!? You little psycho, what did you do my ears?’ That’s what everyone says when I stab them in the ears.” The Tarnished One glared at Haradeth. “I don’t understand you fleshy things. What’s a little ear stabbing between friends?”

Haradeth just stared at her.

“Right, the Ancient Alohym bred with mortals. Thus, you got the Little Gods.”

“Wait, I’m confused,” Haradeth said, fighting the urge to clamp his hands over his ears for protection. “I thought you weren’t claiming that?”

“I’m not,” she said, crossing her arms across her chest and glowering. “I don’t claim the sky is blue, I don’t claim water is wet, I don’t claim it would take two hundred stones of pressure to splatter your skull. Those are just facts.” The Tainted One cocked her head in thought. “, since you’re part Alohym, it would take two hundred and twenty-seven stones. I think. I guess that one is a claim.” She glowered at Haradeth harder. “And I know if I ask, you’re going to say “no, I don’t want my skull shattered hard enough to spray my brains across the room.’”

“That’s…true.” Haradeth took another step back and glanced at Lorathor. From the way the Sylvani was grinning, this was expected behavior. “I apologize if I made it sound like that wasn’t a fact. It just…I was under the impression that all of the Little Gods were descended from Arantimah.”

“Arantimah was just the word humans used for Alohym who stayed behind,” the Tainted One said, rolling her eyes. Given her eyes were glass spheres in sockets, it was a rather impressive roll. “That’s like claiming that Eylohir is some kind of dark god as opposed to an appropriation of our ancient foes’ name that was repurposed and degraded into a term systemic corruption to our systems brought about by exposure to Nahrah.

Haradeth glanced at Lorathor for clarification, thinking the Sylvani was less likely to stab him for asking than The Tainted One. “Remember?” Lorathor prompted. “Anortia mentioned Eylohir yesterday. Said it was a name for…wait.” Lorathor’s gaze switched the Tainted One. “It’s a name for what? And exposure to…Nahrah?”

“Oh, Lorathor.” The Tainted One said brightly. “Maybe your ears need stabbing. Eylohir is the term for the corruption to all of the ship’s operational systems. Eylohir was also the name of your gods in ages past, which was later repurposed by the beings you now call Alohym when they decimated your homeworld. It seems that these beings are fond of repurposing gods and presenting themselves as such.”

Haradeth was beginning to feel like he was drowning in new information. “I hear you, oh Tainted One,” Haradeth said carefully, “but I do not understand.”

“It’s a flaw in your brain,” The Tainted One sighed. “I can give you a better brain, but then you’d be all ‘I exist to serve, mistress’ and ‘what is thy bidding, mistress’ and that gets no fun. They don’t even scream when I stab them.”

It was now time for both Haradeth and Lorathor to take steps back in tandem. The Tainted One rolled her eyes again and sat on the floor. “Look. No stabbing. I’d have to stand up to stab you because you’re very tall. I suppose I could stab in you in the shins, but I already stabbed Haradeth once and stabbing Lorathor would just make you leave. Now. Shut up and let me explain.”

A beam of light erupted from the box floating in the center of the room. It crystalized into a globe, an image of the world. Haradeth gasped at the sight.

“This is your world. Most worlds in the cosmos are made of rock and metals – except for gaseous worlds, but those would blow your mind even further, so we won’t talk about them.” She waved her hand, and the image changed. It now showed the world cut in half. It appeared to be layers and layers of rock, over a central chamber nearly big enough to house a second world. “Some time before we arrived on your world, the Ancient Alohym fought a battle with some threat, an immensely powerful being. The Ancient Alohym won, but in the process, this powerful being drank all your molten stuff in the center of your world.”

The Tainted one made a slurping noise to demonstrate, then raised a finger and pointed at the globe. “This is what should have happened.”

Before Haradeth’s eyes, the image of the world collapsed under its own weight, shards of rock shooting outwards. He felt the need to swallow again.

“As awesome as a world collapsing would have been, the Ancient Alohym weren’t okay with that. So instead, they turned their bodies into Nahrah and plunged themselves into the world.” A sudden sphere of light appeared in the center of the hollowed-out globe. “In a few places, the pressure of Nahrah was so great, it pushed through all that rock and poked out of the ground. These are what you call…”

“…Lumwells,” Haradeth finished for her, realization dawning on him. “Nahrah is light.”

“Yay you can think. That’s good. Means I don’t need to fix your brain.” the Tainted One grinned widely at him. “Yes. Your people came to call it light. With a sun above and the world being full of light, it’s no wonder you all worshipped the abstract concepts of Light and Shadow so hard that you attracted their personifications.”

“Wait,” Haradeth started to say, but was cut out by a dagger being pressed to his throat. He hadn’t even seen her move. She was holding herself off the ground on two of her hand tails, and a third one had wrapped around Haradeth’s waist, holding him close to her.

“No. I’m not explaining that. It’ll take too long. Whimper if you understand.” Her voice was a low, rasping sound.

Haradeth couldn’t have stopped himself from whimpering if he wanted to.

The Tainted One grinned and carefully pressed her metal lips to his forehead in something akin to a kiss before bouncing off. “Now, as I was saying,” she said. “The light in the center of the world is the result of an ancient ritual the Ancient Alohym performed to keep your world aloft, by constantly healing and replenishing it. Which is why it mutates life so badly. A few remaining mated with mortals to ensure their bloodlines survived, and those created the Little Gods. Are you following me so far?”

Haradeth and Lorathor nodded. The Tainted One smiled.

“Good. Because this next part is where things start getting really interesting.” The image of the world sealed itself and was again whole. A second world appeared, one with purple lands and red oceans. “Because this is the part where I come in. And I suppose the Sylvani and the beings like Anitoria, but really, it’s the part where I come in, and that’s what matters. Sit down, fleshy friends. We’ve got a bit more story to tell.”

His heart still pounding from the knife to his neck, Haradeth did exactly that.

 

Small Worlds Part 199

“You seem nervous,” Jegudiel said, giving Ryan a warm smile. “Would you care for some tea? I find it’s very relaxing.”

“Uh…do I have to do paperwork for it?” Ryan asked, trying to discreetly run the palms of his hands on the side of his jeans to rid them of sweat. He’d seen what an archangel could do now. If Uriel’s fight with Moloch was anything to go by, the short woman in front of him could kill him before he could bat an eyelash. Been awhile since you felt like this, hasn’t it? Even against Enki, even against the Super Soldiers, even against Moloch…Ryan hadn’t felt powerless. Overwhelmed, under prepared, or not quite strong enough, sure. But powerless? That was new.

He didn’t particularly like it.

Jegudiel laughed lightly. “Yes, but they’re very simple. Just a Waiver for any Injuries Sustained from Hot Beverage 19-C and Consent to Imbibe Caffeinated Beverage 30-J. Just need your signature.”

“Appreciate it,” Ryan said, “but if I have to sign one more form I’m probably going to tear out my eyeballs and try to use them as pens.”

“Not without an Authorization to Use Bodily Fluids or Substances for Ink or other Writing Implement Special Request – Non-Blood 11-J.”

Ryan stared at her. “You’re serious. You actually have a form for that.”

“Of course we do,” Jegudiel said, her tone full of sympathy. “It may seem odd you, but there are rules and processes for everything. And there a reasons for them.”

“If you don’t mind my asking…what possible use is there to a form specifically for requesting bodily fluids to be used as ink?” Ryan kept his tone as polite as possible. Do not piss off the lady that can break time in half.

“If you were to do so, you’d be leaving behind your DNA and a bit of your essence. Such things could be used against you. The form ensures that you fully understand the possible repercussions for doing so, to make sure you don’t accidentally expose yourself to risks you couldn’t have predicted.”

“Okay,” Ryan said after a moment, “I guess I can see the logic of that. And a form to Consent to Imbibe Caffeinated Beverages?”

“Caffeine is a diuretic. Even the law enforcement on your world gives people caffeinated beverages to increase the need to urinate, which is an effective – if debatably legal – interrogation technique. Again, it’s about making sure you understand the consequences of your actions.”

“Uh-huh.” Ryan frowned. “And the temporary pen Allocation forms?”

Jegudiel’s face darkened. “People kept stealing my pens. I hate it when people steal my pens.”

Ryan couldn’t stop himself from barking out a laugh. Jegudiel gave him a raised eyebrow. “Sorry,” Ryan said. “I just…that’s the first thing you’ve said I can relate to.”

Jegudiel’s smile returned. “As I said, a purpose for everything. But for most of them, it’s about informed consent. Understanding that actions have consequences. Such as, for example, trying to circumvent the natural Eschaton process.”

“Ah,” Ryan said, settling back into his chair. “I see where you’re going with this.”

“I doubt it,” Jegudiel said, although politely. “I think it’s very likely that, if you did understand, you would be apologizing and leaving my office.”

“Maybe,” Ryan said. “On the other hand, I’m pretty attached to my species.”

“You and every other Eschaton, Ryan. Do you know how many Eschatons have come to Officium Mundi, this year alone, requesting some way to circumvent the process. ‘Please, make this one exception. Tell me how I can save only my species.’ It’s understandable, but it’s also painfully selfish.”

“Selfish?” Ryan asked with a start. “How could it be selfish? I’m trying to save the human race!”

“And only the human race,” Jegudiel said. “Other races can burn as far as you’re concerned, yes?”

Ryan blanched. “No, I don’t mean…I just can’t do anything for them. I have to focus on what I can control.”

“Mmm,” Jegudiel said. She motioned and out of the air, formed a perfect cup of tea to take a thoughtful sip out of. “Tell me, then, Ryan. What makes the human race worth saving, out of all other races. What makes your species special?”

“I mean…” Ryan stared at her. “I don’t know. I don’t know what other races are like, so I can’t make a case for humans being exceptional without a comparison.”

“Fair.” Jegudiel tapped her lip. “Would you like to know? Would you like to know what makes humans exceptional?”

Ryan nodded.

“Absolutely nothing.” Jegudiel’s smile took on a wicked bend, although Ryan had to wonder if it was his own mind adding that at the way his stomach dropped. “You’re more violent than fifty-five point three percent of species. You’re more artistic than forty-six point eight percent. You’re lifespan is within median ranges for sentient species. You’ve destroyed your home planet quicker than sixty one point four five percent of species. You’ve engaged in genocide more frequently than forty nine point two. You commit acts of kindness more frequently than fifty five point seven. You achieved space travel quicker than sixty two point seven percent of species. There is nothing about humanity that stands out, nothing that makes them exemplary for good or ill.” This time there was a gleam in Jegudiel’s eyes that Ryan was sure was, if not malicious, a least smug.  “That’s also true for sixty five point seven percent of species, so you’re not even exceptionally mediocre.”

“Well, maybe that’s because species keep dying before they can accomplish anything!” Ryan said, anger replacing fear in a burning rush. “Maybe this whole Eschaton cycle just prevents any species from reaching its full potential.”

“Maybe.” Jegudiel said, her voice firm. “But there’s no reason to believe humanity will manage to achieve any degree of exceptionalism. There’s nothing about your species that suggests you are anything other than an average species, from an average world, around an average star. You had an average civilization. Take some pride in that you avoided destroying yourselves before now, which is true of forty point five percent of species. At least you weren’t in the upper percent of that range.”

“It’s not just about math,” Ryan growled. “It’s about individuals. Anything becomes average when you look at a large enough groups, but individual people have lives and hopes and dreams and potential. We could still do so much.”

“Yes, you potentially could have done so much,” Jegudiel softly. “But it’s time for the world to end, Eschaton. It’s time for humanity to die. I’m sorry. Leave aside this debate, go back to your world. If you want, take a few humans into your nanoverse to live their lives out in the space of a cosmic blink, if it eases your guilt.. But let go.”

Ryan stood up sharply. “No. I’m going to keep pushing. I’m going to keep fighting. Right up until the last second, as long as I draw breath, I’m not giving up.”

Jegudiel sighed. “You are going to regret that, Ryan Smith. It’s best to accept that there are some things that cannot be fought. Give up.”

“Never,” Ryan said firmly. “Never, ever give up.”

“As you wish,” Jegudiel said. “You do understand that, in this debate, I make the final decision, correct?”

Ryan nodded.

“And you still wish to argue, knowing my stance?”

“Sure,” Ryan said. “Because there’s still hope I can change your mind.”

“You won’t.” Jegudiel said simply.

“Maybe,” Ryan said. “But I know one thing for a fact.”

Jegudiel arched an eyebrow. “And what, pray tell, is that?”

Ryan smiled at her. He knew how bitter the expression was, but was past caring. “That I’ll never convince you if I don’t try.”

Jegudiel sighed. “Very well, Ryan. I’ll see you back in the meeting chamber.” She motioned to dismiss him.

Ryan gave her a stiff bow and walked out.

 

 

Small Worlds Part 198

Crystal was lost in a sea of math.

Typhon was focusing one hundred and nineteen heads on her right now, a tangled mass that she could barely sort out. If she’d tried to watch the heads themselves, she’d get distracted in short order.  Based on previous attack patterns eighty nine point three percent probability of strike on lower left side in next point two seconds shift stance nine point three degrees clockwise and lower left blade and –

The calculation didn’t need to finish. Crystal could feel the impact of the serpent’s snout as it impaled itself on her blade. She flicked her wrist to bring the sword up to catch the next attack, this one from the upper left, while swinging her right sword in a wide arc to catch the merged strikes that were coming from that side.

Three more serpents reared back, bloody and confused. At least, the math told her they were reared back, and the impact up her arms told her she’d cut into their flesh. She did her best to only watch the math directly.

It was less distracting than the writhing mass of serpents surrounding her.

Ninety one point seven percent probability of strike from directly above. Crystal raised her sword and was rewarded with a snake bifurcating itself along the point of the blade. She was immediately leaping to take her path over another snake coming for her ankles, swinging her sword to free it from its gory sheathe. A quick spin in the air caused a serpent head that would have plunged its fangs into her midsection to snap shut on her hair. She had to jerk her head to tear a few strands loose.

She’d lost sight of Isabel some time ago, but the occasional shrieks of a bird of prey told her that her companion was still alive and fighting.

Above it all, Typhon was still bringing the massive dragon heads to bare on Crystal. He moved with agonizing slowness when he wasn’t relying on the serpent heads. That’s for the best; Crystal reminded herself, ducking beneath two incoming heads and managing to decapitate one with a quick scissoring of her twin swords. If he was fast, we’d already be dead.

Of course, the problem was they weren’t even coming close to accomplishing their goal. Typhon – even though it technically was just “a typhon”, Crystal struggled to not think of it as a name – was barely even winded, and had Crystal and Isabel fighting for their lives. One point seven percent chance you are not struck within the next ten seconds. That particular probability had been dropping steadily throughout the fight.

And right now, she still had no way to strike at Typhon directly. Come on Crystal, she urged herself. Think. Think of something!

Before she could, a pair of fangs sunk into her left arm. Crystal grunted in pain and tore away, swinging the sword wildly to decapitate the head. It fell to the ground with an audible thump, and ichor began to flow freely from the wound. The toxin’s an anticoagulant, Crystal realized with a start. That was in some ways better than it could have been. It meant she wouldn’t have to contend with a neurotoxin attacking her brain.

It also meant a clock had been put onto the fight. Crystal could cauterize the wounds, but the fangs had sunk deep. Cauterizing would only stop the bleeding on the surface.

Nothing like your impending death to get the mind going.

Crystal grabbed onto threads of reality and twisted. A dome of air sprung into existence around her, and with another twist to reality, she set it up to fling all negatively charged particles out into the mass of snakes. One of the serpent heads struck towards it, and was met with a blast of electricity. It convulsed and hissed in pain as it withdrew.

She’d bought herself a reprieve, but it was a brief one. If she stayed in here for too long, Typhon would shift his attention to Isabel, and this hastily erected barrier would do nothing to stop those intense flames from the dragon heads. At least they’re so slow…too slow.

Typhon was playing with her and Isabel with its snake heads. Otherwise they’d have been surrounded and completely consumed by now. But if it didn’t want to kill them, it wouldn’t have bothered with the dragon heads at all. So why was it moving so damn slowly?

The answer presented itself as Crystal opened up her divine sight. The pillars that were built into the room were buried into the largest masses of Typhon’s flesh. Complex equations ran through them, too complex for Crystal to figure out exactly what they were doing to him, but their broad purpose was clear enough. They were inhibiting Typhon, weakening him. This entire moon base was a prison for the creature, not one built with divine power, but with Lemurian technology.

Crystal launched herself into the air, orb of lightning still surrounding her. Snake heads reeled back from the onslaught, hissing in agony. Typhon himself roared in agony. Enough charge had built up where he could feel it coursing up his body.

“Impudent little godling!” he bellowed in that voice that shook the room like an earthquake. Moonquake. Don’t waste time pondering correct terminology, Crystal told herself.

Those pillars were her primary focus. In the last days of Lemuria, her people had made a concentrated study of the mythological creatures spawned from the deaths of gods and their offspring. Typhon was still alive because he’d been a research project. But her people would have put fail safes in place. A way to permanently put the monster down if it managed to break free.

“Pathetic worm!” Typhon bellowed. He spoke in the tongue of long forgotten Mu, which told Crystal how old the being was. Enough divine energy still lingered in his massive form to where even Isabel would be hearing it in English. Crystal kind of regretted that was true. At least she wouldn’t have to understand the creature’s inane taunts.

Why’s he keeping us alive? That question still tugged at Crystal’s mind, but she put it aside. As important as it seemed, there would be time to ponder it when he was dead.

“I will feast on your flesh,” Typhon growled as the snake heads closed in on Crystal’s field again. Enough of them to overload the electric charge and push through. She reached out and twisted equations again. The field exploded in a sudden burst of increased electricity. Typhon’s roar this time carrier real pain.

She’d turned the air surrounding herself into plasma, which combined with the earlier equations had sent every electron flying outwards. The resulting electricity had carried millions of watts of power, and she’d only managed to just hurt the creature. “You will suffer for your impudence!” Typhon roared.

“You need a bloody dialogue coach,” Crystal shouted back.

Some of the snake heads following Isabel broke off their pursuit and started to chase Crystal. Typhon had heard her taunt and was not amused. It had bought Isabel a bit of breathing room, but made Crystal’s job harder. Worth it, Crystal thought. She just had to hope the kill switch was still working and figure out how to activate it.

If not, she and Isabel would suffer everything Typhon promised and more.

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 95

It was only a few minutes after their first encounter with the Lost that Haradeth and Lorathor reached where the Tarnished One dwelled. Along the walk they’d encountered a few other of the Lost. One had simply sat with his multiple arms wrapped around himself, muttering Ancient Alohym. Another had seen them and started screaming, a scream that didn’t stop until they were out of sight. So it had gone, every encounter with the Lost something that left Haradeth wanting to weep for what happened to these people. This isn’t right.

That much, Haradeth was certain of. Whatever the natural life cycle of the Sylvani was supposed to be, it wasn’t supposed to end in madness and screams. Every one of the individuals they’d encountered – even the first one, although Haradeth had been too distracted to notice at the time – had a sickness to their aura, like an animal that had been infected with frothmouth. I wish my mother was here. She’d been able to cure even that rabid illness with a brush of her fingers. Haradeth did not yet have any talent for the healing arts, unless they were caused by parasites. Then he could command the creatures to leave the body. Beyond that…beyond that, he could do nothing for these people.

Whatever else happened, Haradeth resolved to drag his mother back here as soon as she was recovered. If she recovers a traitorous thought rose in his mind, one he squashed as quickly as he could.

Instead, he focused on the Tarnished One’s dwelling. It was built out of pieces of the dome city, torn from walls and floors and assembled into its own, smaller, dome that was a ramshackle imitation of the splendor above. A few buzzing things floated in the air around it, shining tiny spotlights. Each one was as large as Haradeth’s fingers and no more alive than the dome itself.

For that matter, he could sense no life coming from the dome. Whatever the Tarnished One was, she wasn’t alive.

Lorathor approached the door and reached into his pouch, pulling out a dagger. “O Tarnished One, She Who Guards the Tomb, Keeper of our Twilight. I bring you a gift from Outside, a gift of Iron wrought by the hands of Men.”

An apparatus folded out of the top of the dome, a multisegmented arm made of the Sylvani’s green flowing metal. At the end of the apparatus was a glass eye, like the ones built into spy glasses. Slips of metal around the edge of the apparatus dilated as it focused on the dagger, then it retreated into the dome.

“Did she-” Haradeth started to say after thirty seconds of waiting, but Lorathor shook his head.

“Just wait. It can take a bit.”

It was at least a full minute that felt like ten before a hole in the side of the dome creaked open. A brilliant light shone from those depths. A lumwell, Haradeth realized with a start. Lorathor motioned for him to enter.

The interior of the dome was easily a dozen sizes larger than the Exterior. It made Haradeth’s head hurt to look at. What he had taken for a lumwell was actually something different, a box of steel with dozens of glass lenses on it that floated in the center of the room, spinning erratically. The rest of the room was full of an assortment of knick-knacks, random scraps from the world outside. Haradeth saw a child’s doll, a treatise on the Golmiran Federation, and a shield that was dented beyond use.

Then the Tarnished One stepped from behind the box of light. “Oh! Hello!” she said, her voice bright and chipper and undeniably mechanical. The Tarnished One was a mass of woven tendrils of what looked like solid gold that had dark spots of tarnish. Haradeth assumed that’s where she got her name. She was shaped broadly like the small monkeys that dwelled in the jungle to the south, although in place of a prehensile tail she had three additional arms, each one nearly twice as long as she was. Most surprising to Haradeth was her size – she was small, barely coming up to Haradeth’s waist. “Lorathor! You brought a friend. And a present. I like your present. I’ve never seen a stabby-slicey with that shape before.”

Stabby-slicey? Haradeth thought as Lorathor presented the dagger. The Tarnished One took it and made a gentle cooing sound as she cradled it like a newborn. “I’m going to call it Murderface.”

“Why that name, O Tarnished one?” Lorathor asked.

“Because it’s been used to murder someone. In the face.” Her mechanical lips spread in a wide grin. “Can I stab you in the face?” she asked, her tone one of a child asking if she could have an extra helping of sweets.

“I would prefer if you didn’t, Tarnished One.”

“Bah,” she said, crossing her arms across. “No one ever lets me stab them.” She turned those glass eyes on Haradeth. “How about you? Can I stab you?”

Haradeth frowned. “What about a tiny stab, on the tip of my finger?” He extended the digit towards her.

Lorathor gasped in horror as The Tarnished One squealed with glee and thrust the dagger towards Haradeth’s outstretched hand. For a moment he thought he’d made a grave mistake, and that she was about to split his finger in two. Inches from his finger, the strike slowed down, until it pricked the tip and drew a tiny bead of blood. “Huzzah!” she cheered, bouncing up and down. “I got to stab someone!” She repeated the chant in a singsong voice a few times, before putting the tip of the dagger in her mouth. “Ooooh, your blood is tasty. This is a special blend. You’re three fourths mortal-and one quarter Alohym.”

Haradeth’s blood ran cold. “I’m…I’m not a quarter Alohym.”

“Well, of course not,” she said, giving him a conspiratorial wink. Haradeth sighed with relief, before she continued. “Genetics are never that precise. You’re technically nineteen percent Alohym.”

“That’s impossible!” Haradeth fought the urge to shout, but his voice came out sharp and hard. “I was born before the Alohym invaded.”

“No, silly.” The Tarnished One giggled, holding a hand to her mouth. “Not those imposters. They’re not real Alohym. Real Alohym were awesome. Which makes you nineteen percent awesome. That’s a better percent than most people.”

Haradeth stared at her. “You mean…my mother was half Ancient Alohym?”

The Tarnished One giggled again. “Of course, stabby man. Man who got stabbed. I stabbed you.” She grinned up at him. “I mean, where do you think your Little Gods come from?”

Haradeth gaped at her. Less than three minutes into the conversation with this murderous child made of gold and glass, and he’d already learned something about the way the universe worked. Something he’d never imagined.

For the first time since being rejected by Anoritia, Haradeth began to feel something akin to hope.

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 94

It had never occurred to Haradeth that something as beautiful as the dome city of the Sylvani could have a seedy underbelly. Yet as they wound down through the passages and left the light behind, the corridors gradually grew more and more decayed. The gleaming green metal that composed most of the hallways was showing signs of tarnish, scraps of trash were laying on the floors, and the air gained a faintly unwholesome smell that Haradeth associated with undisturbed caves and tombs, as if the air itself had gone stale. In various places there was graffiti on the walls, a mishmash of the Sylvani’s curved script, the angular lines of the Cardomethi alphabet, and series of dots, circles, and lines that Haradeth vaguely recalled as belonging to the Ancient Alohym.

The modern Alohym script, with its spirals and harsh gashes, was nowhere to be seen.

I suppose that’s a good sign, Haradeth thought, although there’s little else comforting about this. Haradeth’s knowledge of the Sylvani script only barely exceeded his absolute ignorance of Ancient Alohym, but the phrases he could see in Cardomethi were disturbing in their vague implications. “He Comes with Dusk.” “The Veiled Moon Watches All.” “Alert! Alert! Beseech Her Not!”

“Where are we going?” Haradeth asked Lorathor, his voice a low whisper.

“The Tombs of the Lost,” Lorathor said, his face grim. “Sylvani don’t age the same way as humans. In our final hours, we undergo a process not unlike a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. Only instead of a beautiful creature fluttering about, an ageless and mad creature climbs out. The Lost. They migrate to the Tombs, where they can rant at each other until disease eventually claims them.”

“That’s horrible!” Haradeth exclaimed, forgetting his hushed reverence of earlier. “Elders should be respected, their opinions cherished for their wisdom.”

Lorathor chuckled darkly. “Maybe among humans, although most of the ‘wisdom’ I’ve observed from the elders of that species boils down to attitudes held over from a bygone era mixed with cute sayings and folklore.” Before Haradeth could object to Lorathor’s characterization, the Sylvani was pushing the conversation ahead. “We do not force them to go wait in the Tombs, my friend. They climb down here of their own volition, and they wallow in their madness.” Lorathor shook his head. “It’s the fate that awaits all of our species.”

Haradeth shuddered at the thought. Knowing that at the end of your life, you didn’t have a gradual decline into the grave, but would one day pupate into something that would crawl away…”I’m sorry,” Haradeth said.

“It is as it is,” Lorathor said with the smallest of shrugs. “I do not waste time dreading it. All beings come to an end. Ours is just stranger than most.”

Haradeth found he had no answer to that. It was for the best, because at that moment, they rounded a bend in the path and encountered their first of the Lost.

It was a pitiful thing, every line of its body showing signs of age and a weariness that made Haradeth ache just to look at it. A single large eye was all that belied it’s Sylvani ancestry, the distinctive w-shaped pupil something that Haradeth had never seen on any other creature. Our first sign they were not of this world, he thought. The rest of the creature slithered about on a single, massive tentacle that gave it the appearance of a slug, and from its back arose a series of spindly arms it used to drag itself along the ground on three pronged hands. In the front of its mass, just under the eye, was a hooked beak. “I see you,” it said in a high, fluting voice that echoed in the narrow hallways. “But do you see me?”

“Uh…yes?” Haradeth half said, half asked.

The creature clicked its beak together a few times, a sound that Haradeth took for amusement, then its form began to run like hot wax. It was somewhat like watching a Sylvani turn from a human form to their native form, but in many ways more disturbing. Haradeth looked away, unable to stomach the sight of the transformation.

When the disturbingly wet sucking sound of the Lost transforming completed, it was standing on three of its arms like a tripod, and had four more of the arms arranged haphazardly around its torso. The eye had split into four smaller eyes, each on the end of tendrils that looked in all direction. The beak was now located in the center of the tendril eyes “But do you really?” it whispered.

Before Haradeth could even attempt to answer, it began to scurry up the wall, clicking its beak in that odd parody of laughter the entire time. “Light and Shadow and all the Little Gods,” Haradeth whispered. “Are they all like that?” As if to punctuate the question, that sound started again from where the wall met ceiling and the Lost had come to rest. Haradeth didn’t look to see what amalgamation of flesh and limbs it would become this time.

Lorathor shook his head. “Some are more stable than others. Both physically and mentally.”

“And this…the Tarnished One? She’s more stable?”

“Oh, no,” Lorathor said with a grim laugh. “She’s not one of the Lost. Can you imagine trying to get aid from one of them?”

From the corner of the room, Haradeth heard rapid fire clicks. Lorathor’s smile grew thinner as the Lost laughed at their discomfort.

“I…no, I cannot.”

“Beware! Beware! The Third Moon Wanes in the Silver Coal,” the lost chanted from its hiding spot. Lorathor motioned for Haradeth to follow him.

Haradeth did his best to ignore that voice, instead focusing on Lorathor. “Then what is the Tarnished One?”

“The last of our gods,” Lorathor said, his voice grim now. “Though now I wonder what she truly is, in light of Anoritia’s revelation. “I do know she’s ancient. She’s claimed to be as old as Anoritia, and since no one has ever contradicted her on it…” Lorathor gave another one of those small shrugs.

He’d been doing a lot of those lately, and Haradeth just now thought to really worry about what the revelations of the past few days were doing to his friend. The Sylvani had been bitter since the revelation that his goddess was a lattice-mind that had brought his people here from another world, which Haradeth could understand. Underlying that bitterness, however, was an apathy that Hardeth found truly troubling. “I hope she has some answers for us,” Haradeth said, trying to be as reassuring as possible.

“She probably won’t,” Lorathor said. “But you wanted to waste our time, Haradeth. The sooner you realize that, the sooner we can be on our way.”

Haradeth again found himself at a loss for words. Silence settled between them as the sound of clicking laughter followed them down the hallway.

Small Worlds Part 197

Isabel watched as Crystal threw her hands out, arresting her fall midair. Before Isabel could even think about what form she was going to shift into next, Crystal twisted reality to raise the ambient light seeping into the room.

Isabel nearly fell out of the air at the sight. The chamber was immense, easily the size of a football field, and circular. Wires and electronic devices hung from the ceiling, of a make and purpose Isabel couldn’t begin to deduce. Five immense pillars, arranged in a pentagram, jutted down from the ceiling, covered with walkways and more electronic gadgets.

At the bottom of the pit was the Typhon. It was so immense that, at first, Isabel’s mind refused to believe it was a single coherent creature. It covered the entire bottom of the chamber, a sprawling mass of tentacles that writhed maliciously. In the center was the creature’s torso, one that looked almost like a giant torso of a man, although covered with red scales. It turned a head that was eerily human upwards to look at its new visitors, and Isabel realized that each of its eyes were as large as Crystal. It was slowly raising its arms, two immense masses of flesh that ended in dragon heads the size of school buses. Along its back were another series of tentacles, each of these ended in a serpentine head like the one that had pursued them into the pit.

How can we possibly kill this thing? Isabel thought in despair. It was too big, too powerful. It was too much for them to destroy.

“Move!” Crystal shouted, startling Isabel out of her reflection. Isabel banked to the side just as the snake head that had reached all the way up into the shaft above snapped its jaws shut. It caught a couple of her tail feathers, but missed ending her life in a single bite. The dragon heads were now aimed firmly at Crystal, and each of them took a deep breath. Oh no, Isabel thought, flapping to get as much distance between herself and Crystal. Crystal’s eyes widened and she allowed gravity to reassert its hold on her.

The dragon heads let loose a torrent of fire. The temperature in the chamber leapt like a blast furnace. Even the creature’s own snake head broke off pursuit of Isabel.

When the flames cleared, Crystal had landed on one of the walkways of the pillars. Typhon bellowed a laugh that shook the chamber like peals of hateful thunder. “Good. I have not killed anything in far too long. I look forward to this, little thing.”

Before Isabel could fully process that this monstrous thing could speak, let alone speak English, The serpent heads hissed and struck towards Crystal and Isabel. Isabel lost sight of Crystal in the mass of attacking snakes, and was forced to duck and weave. Each one was large enough to kill Isabel with a snap of those jaws; even ignoring whatever poison they had dripping from those horrid fangs.

The parrot brain offered little guidance in how to avoid this many incoming attacks. It had spent its entire life around humans, and the closest thing it had ever encountered to a predator was when its owner was cat sitting. Isabel’s erratic, panicked flapping made her a wild enough target to keep her safe, but she knew that couldn’t last long.

If she was going to survive, she needed something that could handle this. I can’t even try to land! Isabel thought in panic. The snakes were swarming around her, forming a web of scaled flesh that threatened to envelop her even if she managed to avoid being bitten. The parrot was panicking now, which didn’t help at all. It knew they were in danger, it knew it was going to die, and all it wanted to do was to fly away, a frantic thought that would make them sitting ducks for the serpentine heads.

Another one snapped shut just above Isabel’s head. She could actually feel the scaled mouth of the serpent brush through her feathers.

That was too much for both Isabel and the parrot. In desperate fear, she began to flap furiously, trying to put as much space between herself and the viciously hungry heads.

A gap opened in the mess surrounding her as the snake heads began to pursue her. Crystal was down below. She’d drawn a pair of thin sword out of her nanoverse and was fending off the Typhon’s attempts to bite her with preternatural grace. Isabel had never seen anything like it. Crystal seemed to be reacting to threats before Typhon even knew where the next attack would come from, like the monster was fighting with two seconds of lag behind the goddess.

It also was apparent that it wasn’t enough. Crystal was drawing thin lines of blood from the scales of the monstrosity, but she was just cutting the hundreds of snake heads. She couldn’t pause to hurt Typhon directly.

And right now, I’m no help to her, Isabel thought. If anything, she was a distraction. She had to do something. She had to not just evade. She had to fight.

Isabel pushed the parrot’s body to fly downwards, away from the serpents that struck all around her. The parrot didn’t want to. The parrot wanted the freedom of the open sky. Isabel just wanted space to shift.

The moment she had it, she banked as hard as she could. The next snake that came striking towards her was met with talons that sunk into its neck.

Isabel let out an instinctive and triumphant shriek.

The harpy eagle was native to the rainforests of the Amazon, and was built to fly in between the thickly packed branches of those tropical environments. It was perfect for flying between the grasping snakes heads Typhon was throwing at Isabel, and its talons were more than strong enough to actually puncture the thick scales of the serpents’ hides.

This particular harpy eagle’s mind was strong in the back of Isabel’s brain. It was confused by the threat they were against, but it wasn’t frightened. It was an apex predator in one of the most dangerous places on the planet. It was an apex predator that shared its dominion with jaguars and anacondas.

So, with Isabel’s heart pounding and her brain demanding that she choose between fight and flight, the harpy eagle strongly felt that the second option was for prey. He was not prey. He was the predator.

Isabel went along with that instinct, hoping that the harpy eagle’s soul would have a better idea how to survive what came next than she did.