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The Dragon’s Scion Part 178 (End of Book 2) (Resumes December 10th)

“An interesting theory Nicandros,” Poz said through the Songstone. Nicandros glared at the stone, trying to figure out how in the Shadow this was happening. “However, I think you have much bigger problems to worry about. See, you are correct about a number of factors, although you underestimate my injury.” That was a lie.

“Damnit, Nicandros, where’s that smithy?” Ashliel said.

“North of my position,” Nicandros said, but his words were cut off by Poz’s voice.

“He can’t speak. I’ve hijacked his song. Apologies, Nicandros, but I can’t have you speaking. Do you remember earlier, Ashliel, when Nicandros warned you there was a risk of a popular uprising incurring in Edgeminster?”

“I have nothing to say to you,” Ashliel began to fly towards Nicandros, and he waved to try to get her attention. Unfortunately, Poz’s voice was continuing in his taunting. As fast as Ashliel was, speech was faster.

“So you do recall. Well, then, did you know that the Alohym’s Songstones link perfectly up to the city-wide song network? Do you know that the Alohym’s Songstones link perfectly up to the city-wide song network? Of course you do, the Resistance used the same thing to broadcast Tythel’s message to the rest of this corner of the empire. But I don’t think that was the best use of that technology. I think it is far more interesting for the people to hear what the Alohym think of them.”

Ashliel crushed her Songstone in her fist, a childish display of frustration. “What does that mean, Nicandros? What is he doing?

Nicandros looked at the Songstone in growing horror. “Ashliel…these things. Do they listen at all times, in cast they are activated?”

Ashliel nodded. “Of course, why wouldn’t they…oh. Oh no.”

Before they could even begin to react, Ashliel’s voice came through Nicandros’s Songstone. Not just his, either. As Poz had promised, Nicandros could hear Ashliel’s words echoed a dozen times over.

“I’m not interested in questions of morality. These people are disposable. Our soldiers are slightly less disposable. The only three beings that matter, in this entire city, are myself, you, and the underfolk. There are millions to replace even the thousands that might die here. This isn’t a police action to protect the citizens, and I swear by my Father’s Holy name, if I must burn every living being in this city to ash to achieve victory, I’ll do so with a smile and a laugh.”

All around them, troops were beginning to slow down. People were staring up at the speakers in growing horror.

“These people are disposable. Our soldiers are slightly less disposable.”

“No, no no no,” Ashliel started to moan the words and took the air on buzzing wings. Shouts began to come from the ground as people spotted her rise into the air.

Nicandros slunk away from where she’d taken off.

“”If I must burn every living being in this city to ash, I’ll do so with a smile and a laugh.”

Somehow Poz was cutting parts out of the conversation as they had happened. Nothing changed the core meaning, however, and people were coming to realize that the flying thing above the city was the source of the words. People were pointing at her, shouting. Soldiers started to move towards the people, but Poz played another segment. Or maybe he had predicted what parts he’d need to play when, for maximum impact.

“Our soldiers are slightly less disposable. The only three beings that matter are myself, you, and the underfolk.”

The soldiers of the Alohym began to hesitate. The crowd began to mutter angrily. Someone shouted. Nicandros couldn’t make out what the shout was, it was too far away, but it began to grow. More people were gathering. Fury was building.

“We deserve to live!”

“She’ll kill us all!” Officers began to bark orders, telling their soldiers to disperse the crowd, shouting at the citizens to go home, adding more chaos to the clamor. Ashliel was circling overhead, and the crowd was pointing at her, their screams getting louder. Nicandros wanted to tell her to leave, to get out before the situation erupted, but she had destroyed her Songstone in a fit of pique and was too high to hear anything.

“Look at her!”

“Burn us to ash?”


Arcwands were levelled at the crowd, and Nicandros’s heart began to pound. No. Not this. Please not this. 

The motion only incited more anger from the crowd.

“They don’t care about you either!”

“You’re nothing to them!”

“You think you’re less disposable?”

“Who’s the other one?”

“I think it’s him! He was with her!”

A finger was pointed in Nicandros’s direction, and the crowd began to surge. Soldiers pulled out unlight shields and tried to move to intercept the crowd.

Then everything fell silent again, as Poz’s voice once again came over the Songstone, and now Nicandros knew he was listening in, monitoring the situation, and deliberately pushing things over the edge.

“What was it you said when you were brought before my father? ‘Burn the resistance, burn the princess, burn my very soul to ash if you have to. I know you offered that bitch her father if she served you. Give me back my son, and I’ll be your creature until my last breath.’”

Nicandros took a step back, but there was nowhere to run. The crowd surged again, their screams turning to pure fury, their taunts now aimed at him as well as Ashliel.

“Stop this at once!” The voice cut over the crowd, magnified somehow. Every head turned to look at the source. It was Ashliel, coming down to land on top of a watchtower. “Listen to yourselves! This is a cheap trick, designed to turn you against us. You think that we are the monsters here? We have given you food beyond what you had before us. Medicine that exceeds the greatest works you had. And have we been harsh? Have we been unfair? What have we done that would lead you to believe I would say such things – that I would believe these things? When we came to your world, we did not slaughter your innocent. We only fought the soldiers of the old regimes – the monarchies that forced you into serfdom. Are your lives not better under us? How could you turn on us, after everything we’ve done for you?”

Silence followed. Nicandros held his breath. That was it. That was what they needed. It would muddle the issue, confuse things. She could have sounded less indignant, could have been more conciliatory, but-

“Your resistance – apologies, your former resistance – relies heavily on support from the populace. Whenever their action results in the deaths of civilians, it reflects poorly on them. Their allies begin to withdraw. Their support begins to dry up. In the meantime, if we enforce quarantine, we are labeled as tyrants and dictators. By allowing the population to engage in normal activities, we are seen as the reasonable actors. If people die…it doesn’t make us look like the antagonistic force.” Ashliel’s voice, once again coming from the Songstones

“You put people’s lives at risk to win a popularity contest?”

It was Nicandros’s voice, and he winced, remembering what came after those words. Ashliel’s damning response.

“Yes. Revolutions aren’t won on battlefields or in back alleys. They are won in the hearts and minds of the people. And, by the same token, that’s also where they are lost.”

For a moment, it felt like time itself was holding its breath.

Nicandros would never forget that moment. That single, frozen moment, where it seemed like everything could still be salvaged.

Then someone threw a stone. It glanced off the helm of a soldier, sending him staggering. The soldier next to him, his comrade, possibly even his friend, snapped his arcwand back up.

Then he opened fire blindly into the crowd. A woman screamed.

And the crowd began to charge. More stones were throne. Soldiers screamed orders, and Arcwands began to fire again, and again, and again. The screams of rage began to mix with screams of agony of the wounded and screams of anguish from those standing near the dead.

Nicandros felt himself being lifted into the air. Ashliel had hooked her hands under his arms and was dragging him skyward. A stone flew in their direction, but she was able to block it with her carapace.

Someone threw a torch. A building caught flame.

Edgeminster began to burn, and the riot turned into a massacre.

And, Nicandros was certain, somewhere far below in the chaos, Poz was able to slip away with his prize.

It would later be called the Edgeminster Slaughter. It would be remembered as the day that seven hundred civilians were killed, and three times that many wounded, by Alohym in their attempt to catch a single individual. It would grow with each retelling as it spread from town to town like a wildfire, Ashliel’s words being twisted further and further.

By the time it reached Tythel and Eupheme, sitting at the bedside where Tellias was hooked up to machines that were his only chance of survival, Nicandros’s name was spoken of in the same tones as the foulest creatures spawned from the Shadow. Tythel hugged her friend, and together they wondered if their battle had somehow pushed the Alohym over the edge into slaughter.

By the time it reached Duke De’Monchy, they said it was seven thousand dead, and the entire city of Edgeminster burned to the ground. He knew that now, the citizens knew the Alohym were as terrible as he’d always feared, and the only window they’d ever have to fight back with a hope of winning was now. He swore a blood oath that those that died in Edgeminster would be avenged, and that tale was spread throughout the kingdom as well.

By the time it reached Poz, emerging from the cocoon in Lizardflesh, he knew he was responsible for the deaths, and wept for nearly three straight days. He too swore that the deaths would not be in vain, although his tale would not spread until far, far later.

It would not reach Armin for longer than the rest. He had the treasure horde of Grejax to deal with, using the Sylvani transporters activated by Bix to carry it where it could be moved to the resistance. By the time he heard it, rumor had been separated from fact, and the true number of dead was established at seven hundred and thirty four, with twenty thousand and ninety three wounded and thirty two soldiers dead.

It was the perfect time for him to receive the terrible news, because he could counter it with hope. With Synit and Bix’s help, he’d decoded Theognis’s ledger. He knew what the Vacuity engine was. He knew what they could do about it.

He did not yet know what to do with the two dozen golden eggs they’d taken from Grejax’s lair. He had questions about them, along with a great deal of other questions forming from what he’d learned in the lair of a long dead monster, questions that could only be answered by a woman who was now being called the Dragon’s Scion.

But that is all in the future.

For now, Edgeminster burned, and with it Nicandros saw hope turn to ash.


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Small Worlds Part 259

I messed up and had to re-write this part. Sorry for any confusion!


“Do you know something I don’t?” Athena said as she caught up with Artemis.

“Probably. I’ve been in the Elysian Rest for three hundred years, and the currents of our pantheon are largely a mystery to you since your exile. I’m sure there’s a great deal about that I know that you are unaware of.”

Athena gave Artemis a sideways glance. When the archer was being so frustrating literal, it was hard to tell if she was deliberately joking or just being her. For her part, Artemis’s face was the picture of cool calm, and utterly unreadable. “I meant,” Athena said after deciding that asking Artemis if she was joking would be offensive if she wasn’t and too big a satisfaction if she was, “about what you said. About Kali gathering her own forces.”

“Ah.” Artemis considered for a second. “Well, since you are asking, I’m going to have to assume I do. Otherwise you wouldn’t need to ask.”

Athena pursed her lips. “Please tell me it’s bad news. That she reached out to the Jade Emperor and was rebuffed or something.”

Artemis shook her head. “I wish it was that simple. No, Kali has gone to Asgard. She met with the Aesir, and while we don’t know what they said, we know that they rebuffed our messengers while they welcomed her.”

Athena swore. “I thought Asgard had locked itself away from the world?”

“It was less a literal lock and more simply refusing to allow anyone to cross the Rainbow bridge.”

Athena sighed. She’d never had much cause to visit Asgard, so hadn’t known about That. Asgard was like Tartarus – once within the realm, doorways would not open, and twists would stay in place permanently. The Rainbow Bridge was the only way in and out of that realm, making it near impossible for a hostile force to breach their door. Athena caught a curious look from Artemis. “What?”

“I thought you were running with Tyr for some time. I figured you’d know more about what was happening there than I did.”

“It…wasn’t like that,” Athena said. “Tyr didn’t like talking about Asgard, any more than I liked talking about Olympus. We were both outcast, and we both didn’t talk about why. It’s what drew us together.” I should have asked him, Athena chided herself. I should have pushed. The ache of his death was still with her. It had been a wonder to find someone like her, someone outcast from their own pantheon, and after the disaster of Autolycus it had taken her time to start trusting again, but Tyr had never been anything but a loyal friend. She’d grieved him and moved on – the satisfaction of knowing Bast was dead had been wonderful, even if it was a disappointment that she hadn’t been able to be there to kill her – but it still hurt to think about.

“I see,” Artemis said. She gave Athena another sidelong glance. “I only ask because I’m bad at telling these things. Were you and he more than friends?”

Athena shook her head. “Everyone assumed we were, but neither of us were interested. We both needed each other. But there wasn’t anything there. We fed each other’s Social hungers sometimes, but that was just about taking care of a Hunger, nothing more.”

“I see. I am sorry for your loss. I never knew him well, but he was one of my favorites of the Aesir.” Artemis continued walking. It was one thing about Artemis Athena loved. She had no interest in romance or even sex, not even to fill her Social Hunger, and as such she didn’t leap to conclusions about relationships the way so many others did. She asked if she was unsure, and then she moved on either way.

“Thank you. When your emissary went to the Aesir, did they tell him anything?” Athena asked after a momentary pause.

“Not at first. I think Heimdall took some pity, or just wanted Heracles to stop shouting.”

Athena snorted. “You sent Heracles as an emissary?”

“Only because it was the Aesir. They respect battle prowess above all else, and the only war deity I know that has a functional brain was a bit busy helping me deal with the aftermath of Poseidon. I needed you there. Ares was dead and is too cruel for their tastes anyway, and Kratos has let his brain rot by playing those damn games about him. I swear, the ego on that man…”

“I’ll have to tell Ryan about that. He’ll get a kick out of knowing Kratos is a fan of a game series where he slaughters our entire pantheon.”

“I’m sure he will.” Artemis smiled, and Athena remembered Artemis’s earlier injunction about not waiting to speak to Ryan about her feelings and realized how painfully obvious it had to be if Artemis, of all deities, had noticed. “Anyway, Heimdall told Heracles that Kali had been there, and had met with Thor. Odin was away, apparently. It…does not bode well that they refused to meet Heracles.”

“No it does not.” Athena sighed. She detested Thor. The man was violent in a way that impressed Ares. At least Ares was able to sometimes restrain himself from going on murderous rampages when given a slight. Thor, on the other hand, didn’t just treat brute force as the first solution, but the only solution. “I hadn’t even tried to go to them.”

“I’m surprised they even met with her, given their history,” Artemis said.

Athena nodded. The human worshippers of the Deva remembered the Aesir as their own personal brand of demons, the Asura, while the human worshippers of the Aesir had remembered the Deva as Asgard’s oldest foes, the Vanir. This was because, in times long past, the two pantheons had gone to war. A violent, bloody war, right around the time of the Titanomachy. Although both sides spread so much propaganda it was impossible to know what the truth was for anyone that wasn’t there, Tyr had indicated it had been a clusterfuck of the highest order – and by indicated, she meant those had been her exact words. “Maybe they killed her behind our backs?” Athena said hopefully. “Or mean to betray her at a crucial moment?”

Artemis laughed. “If she’d met with Loki, maybe. But Thor…he’s a bastard, but he has his honor. If he agreed to an alliance, he won’t turn on her. And if he didn’t like her, he would have flayed her body and posted it on the Rainbow Bridge for any visitor to see.

Athena shuddered at the thought. She’d seen the Blood Eagle that the Aesir had taught their followers to make out of those they wanted to suffer a terrible fate and had no desire to be reminded of it. “I can only hope then that they listened to her and then told her to go away.”

“We can hope,” Artemis said, although her tone made it clear how unlikely she thought that would be.

“You indicated you might have a lead on some allies?” Athena asked, trying not to sound too hopeful. Having Olympus on their side was an immense boon, but Kali had the advantage of being able to concentrate her forces. Athena and her allies had to defend every single one of the Wormholes, unless they could find some way to determine where Kali would strike. Athena had some theories, but none of them were particularly good. They would be too spread out to defend themselves. They could have ten times Kali’s number on paper and still find themselves outnumbered, and that was without counting any monstrous or human reinforcements either side had. Especially if Kali teaches them the secrets of Ichor. That was a sobering thought. If Kali wanted victory badly enough to risk that…

“I do, although they won’t meet with me. It’d be even harder with Zeus back awake. But they’ll meet you, Athena, and they’ll listen to your case.”

“That’s something, at least,” Athena said, her mind working furiously. “Who is it?”

“Chernobog. You should probably prepare.”

Athena halted in her tracks. “I must have misheard you. You meant Belobog, right?” The two gods were opposite sides of the same coin, with Belobog being the White God of light and day, and Chernobog being the Black God of darkness and night. Chernobog had actually been fairly decent back in the day, in spite of the associations, but millennia of being equated with Satan by Christian writers had led to him being frustrated, then bitter, and then finally saying “if they want me to be a villain, I’m going to be a damn villain.”

“No, Chernobog. Those are very difficult to confuse.” Artemis said, and again Athena found herself wondering if Artemis was having fun at her expense or was serious. “I’ve heard about how he’s changed, but Savrog spoke highly of you to him, so he’s willing to listen.

“Wait, Savrog spoke well of me?” Athena hadn’t seen Savrog since that meeting in Empyrean provocation, when Crystal had been waiting to resurrect. Savrog had been among a group of gods that had absolutely dismissed the idea of the Eschaton cycle.

“You made a good impression,” Artemis said, shrugging again. “I suppose you should get ready. I’ll let you know where and when to meet him.”

Athena took a deep breath. While Chernobog had stated he intended to be the monster they thought he ways, all his ‘evil’ acts were only told about in legend – there hadn’t been anything that Athena had ever been able to prove. Maybe this would go well. “Thank you,” she said to Artemis.

“You’re welcome.” Artemis smiled. “We can pull this off, Athena. Somehow. We’ll get there.”

Athena nodded, appreciating the vote of confidence. She believed her friend.

It just felt like there was a very long way for things to go.


Dragon’s Scion Part 177

Poz could not accurately calculate how long he laid on the floor of the blacksmith, insensible with pain, the stench of his own burned flesh filling his nostrils. The smell should have filled him with revulsion, but instead reminded him of how long he’d been in Manflesh and how long he’d been without food. His stomach was rumbling at the smell of his own burned arm, and the knowledge of that was another fact that he put aside in a box in the back of his mind. When he left Manflesh, when his intellect was sooner, many of these facts and information he’d gleaned while in this flesh would be lost as his intellect diminished to the point where he could no longer make sense of them. He was certain that he would not lose the knowledge that, when desperate and on the border of death, he’d been hungry for his own arm. That seemed like the kind of knowledge that would linger, something he’d recall when he woke up screaming later nights.

For right now, however, he had to ensure those later nights would occur.

The loss of blood he’d suffered when his arm had been burned off was severe. It had left him weak and his thoughts unfocused and muddled. The weakness was something that could be overcome. The difficulty in thinking was a far more serious impairment, since his intellect was the only weapon he had left.

Why did the Alohym care what happened to Nicandros? 

That thought seemed like it might be critical to uncover, but Poz lacked sufficient data to make an accurate prediction. Alohym rarely cared for what happened to the humans under their command. Nicandros was a valuable human, but not so valuable as to be worth endangering whatever their primary mission was. The recovery of the egg. They needed to recover it. It was vital that they did, because if they were able to get the egg then the only hope left for the world would be a young woman more focused on anger and revenge than freeing world from Alohym rule. A young woman who they could control, because the egg would be a tempting prize.

Poz forced himself to stand. It was difficult, and his vision turned black from the effort and from lack of blood. He reached for the Songstone, only to remember it was on the side of his body that lacked an arm now, and all he was doing was waving a stump in the direction of his pocket. He reached across his body with his free hand, his only hand, and awkwardly worked the Songstone out of his pouch. Trousers with pouches sown into them. I must remember it. It is a vast improvement over the current designs.

He flicked on the Stongstone.

His earlier modifications had allowed him to listen in as if he were Nicandros, hear whatever Song Nicandros was being sung and to hear what songs Nicandros was singing. It had allowed for other things, including turning it into a weapon of last resort. Perhaps there would be some insight he could glean.

“You let him get away,” Nicandros said. His voice was thick with pain, but underneath it Poz did not hear anything that sounded like reproach. It sounded more like confusion and wonder.

“I saved your life.” Ashliel’s voice was hard to make out. In addition to its natural buzzing quality, there was also the sound of wind whipping past her, and the background thrummed with the sound of her wings. “Would you prefer I left you to die?”

Nicandros grunted. “Of course not. I just…why?”

How convenient, that they’re discussing the exact information I wish to know. Poz thought it was easy. Too easy. Poz tried to calculate the odds that he would turn on the Songstone at the exact moment to hear what he wanted to hear. They were minimal. He then calculated the odds that this discussion was a bit of theater for his benefit, if they suspected he was listening in. Those odds were still small, but they were more in his favor.

“I’ll explain later.” Ashliel’s voice was curt, and Poz breathed a sigh of relief. If it was theater for his benefit, there was no reason for her not to give a prepared answer. This seemed more natural. They didn’t suspect he was listening in. Of course they don’t. The Alohym don’t understand how dangerous I am to them. 

“Hold on,” Nicandros said. “I think I might have something.”

The line went silent, and Poz tensed. What did Nicandros suspect? What had he seen? Was he outside the door right now, ready to burst in? Poz tried to figure out his chances of survival if he did. They were minimal. Poz walked over to where the anvil was and took out the egg, placing it on the anvil. While Nicandros investigated whatever he’d heard, Poz wrapped his fingers around the blacksmith’s hammer. What he was contemplating was monstrous, but no more monstrous than letting the egg fall into Alohym hands.

“He’s in a smithy about three blocks from me,” Nicandros said. “Or he was. You took off his arm with that last blast. I doubt he’ll have gone far.”

There’s still time. Poz lifted the Stongstone to his lips. It was time for his final gambit.

“An interesting theory Nicandros,” Poz said, setting the hammer back on the floor. “However, I think you have much bigger problems to worry about. See, you are correct about a number of factors, although you underestimate my injury.” That was a lie.

“Damnit, Nicandros, where’s that smithy?” Ashliel said. Three blocks could mean any direction.

“He can’t speak. I’ve hijacked his song. Apologies, Nicandros, but I can’t have you speaking. Do you remember earlier, Ashliel, when Nicandros warned you there was a risk of a popular uprising incurring in Edgeminster?”

“I have nothing to say to you,” Ashliel spat, but Poz could hear the undertones of fear in her voice. He smiled.

“So you do recall. Well, then, did you know that the Alohym’s Songstone link perfectly up to the city-wide song network? Of course you do, the Resistance used the same thing to broadcast Tythel’s message to the rest of this corner of the empire. But I don’t think that was the best use of that technology. I think it is far more interesting for the people to hear what the Alohym think of them.”

He pressed another button, one that would silence Ashliel. Well, it would silence present Ashliel.

The city of Edgeminster would hear what Ashliel of the past had to say. And in the chaos that would follow, Poz would be able to escape.

Ashliel’s voice was harsh when it came across the entire city, broadcasted so loudly no citizen could hope to not hear it.

“I’m not interested in questions of morality,” Ashliel said, her buzzing voice clearly the product of an Alohym throat. “These people are disposable…”

Poz tucked the egg back into his pouch and waited for the riot to begin.

Small Worlds Part 258

Artemis took a deep breath after Zeus left. “Think that will stay with him? Or are we going to be dealing with him in the middle of everything?” she asked, her voice low for Athena’s ears.

“Zeus loves being glorified. I think we won him over,” Athena said

Artemis sighed and glanced around. The area near the pillar had been completely vacated in the course of their argument with Zeus. He had a tendency to spread his wrath around when he was in a foul mood, and no one had wanted to be the one to catch the brunt of his displeasure. Seeing they were clear, Artemis sat down and started to rub her temples. “This is a mistake, Athena.”

Athena sat next her, folding her legs under herself. “What is?”

“I shouldn’t be on the Council.”

Athena had been wondering when this would happen. “You’re doing phenomenal work. You just survived your first clash with Zeus, you oversaw a rebellion by Poseidon and won, Hades is back…”

Artemis waved her hand dismissively. “I’ve gotten lucky. If you hadn’t been here for Zeus, I have no idea how I would have deescalated that. Poseidon just had inferior numbers – and again, I needed your help for that. Hades is only back because Arthur broke the locks on the Underworlds as part of his war with Heaven.”

“You also saved us after the fight with Moloch. You defeated Poseidon, I just helped. And Zeus…I’ve always been better at handling him than you, but you would have figured something out.” Athena reached over and put a hand on Artemis’s shoulder. “I feel much better about the Council knowing you’re on it. Imagine if we had faced this crisis with Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades in charge.”

Artemis groaned and pulled her legs up to her chest, wrapping her arms around her knees. “I’d rather no think about that. That would be a nightmare.”

“So far better you than them.”

Artemis shook her head. “I want to be away from Olympus. I want to be in the forest, hunting something suitably clever so I get a real challenge, or training a young hunter or two that are actually worth a damn. I don’t like people, and now I’m supposed to tell them what to do?”

Athena chuckled. She’d meant for the sound to be reassuring, but Artemis just buried her face against her knees. “Have  you spent much time on Earth since you left the Rest? Time that wasn’t spent in battle, I mean.”

“No,” Artemis said directly to her legs.

“They have this concept. It’s called imposter syndrome.”

Artemis looked up, an eyebrow quirked. “I’ve never heard of it?”

Athena smiled. “It’s a psychological phenomena where someone who has accomplished a great deal feels like they’re a fraud. Like everyone around them is giving them credit for things they didn’t deserve, and at any moment is going to realize they are a fake who has been pulling the wool over their eyes the entire time.”

“I’m so glad to know they have a name for it now,” Artemis said. She was being sarcastic, but there wasn’t any vitriol to the sarcasm. “But Athena, it’s more than just that. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to be surrounded by people asking me what they’re supposed to do, and then having to yell at them until they actually do it. Why even bother asking if you’re just going to disagree?”

Athena sat back, thinking. Artemis had never been much for Olympus, as long as Athena had known her. She’d spent more of her time out in the wilds, doing whatever she wanted and enjoyed. The conflicts of the gods were something Artemis thought were petty and a waste of time. “Do you think you can hold on for another seven days?”

Artemis sighed. “I suppose if I say no, you’ll try to persuade me to stay with it?”

Athena shook her head. “You’re my friend, Artemis. I don’t want you to suffer. If you can’t stomach it, we’ll find someone else. I’ll help you. Maybe your brother?”

Artemis snorted. “Apollo is as bad as Zeus when it comes to being led by his pelvis, and doesn’t want to lead. He’d be worse than me if he tried.”

“That’s true,” Athena admitted. “Of course, if we’re looking at ‘worse than you,’ that covers a pretty broad range, because you’ve done very well so far.”

“Flattery won’t help you here,” Artemis said, but the beginning of a smile began to play on her lips. “You’re positive you won’t come back? You’d be much better at this than me.”

“No I wouldn’t,” Athena said. “At least, not with the current crisis. I take to long to think things through sometimes. I get stuck in debates and hearing and proceedings. I overthink everything. You have a knack for cutting through to the heart of the matter. Kind of like-”

“If you make a joke about archery here, I’ll push you off the pillar,” Artemis said.

“Like someone who knows what’s important,” Athena said without missing a beat. “And right now, that’s what Olympus needs. It’s probably was Olympus needs all the time, but at least for the next week.”

“Fine,” Artemis said. She straightened out and stretched her back. “I blame you if I spend the next century avoiding all of humanity though.”

“You were going to do that anyway after spending so long in the Elysium Rest,” Athena countered.

“Yes, but I’ll blame you for it.” Artemis stood up and offered Athena a hand. “Speaking of you overthinking things, you finally told Ryan about how you feel?”

If she hadn’t taken Artemis’s hand, Athena might have fallen off the pillar. “You are, as always, the master of terrible segues.”

“It’s a gift. And don’t change the topic. Have you?”

Athena sighed. “It’s that obvious?”

“I know you,” Artemis said. “You spend a tremendous amount of time dithering and waiting.”

“We’re dealing with the end of the world.”

“Yes,” Artemis said firmly. “So tell me…is that really the time to be waiting for the right moment? Because right now, it seems to me that there might not be too many moments left.”

Athena gaped at her. “That’s…I didn’t think you had an interest in romance. Even other people’s.”

“I don’t.” Artemis shrugged. “I have an interest in seeing my friends happy. So do something about it. Before you run out of time.”

“I will,” Athena said, moved by Artemis’s concern.

“Good. Now. Let’s get some more allies for you. Because Kali is gathering her own forces, and you’re going to be in for one hell of a fight.”

Artemis leapt off the pillar. Athena followed, wishing Artemis had chosen any other note to end the conversation.

Hey, guess what? On Patreon, Small Worlds is now two parts ahead. Soon it’ll be up to three parts. Check out part 259 and 260 here!

Dragon’s Scion Part 176

“Give up, Poz,” Nicandros growled from the darkness.

“Question,” Poz said, pressing his back against the stone he’d taken cover behind, his heart pounding in his chest. Keep him talking. It would give Poz time to think, which even with his enhanced intellect he desperately needed. He’d already found an appropriate means of egress from his predicament, but it would high a high probability of resulting in his dismemberment, with a slightly lower risk of death. Slightly. He tore off part of his shirt and wrapped it around the knives to prevent bleeding. “In your experience, how often has demanding someone give up work at this point?”

“At this point?” Nicandros said.

Poz could hear him moving to circle around his cover, but the acoustics of this place made determining his exact location extremely difficult. Perhaps if I were to fashion some sort of amplification device, perhaps utilizing a series of horns linked to spider-web to detect faint vibration, I could pinpoint. The designs were half formed in his head before he reminded himself that doing so would be impossible. He lacked spider-webs, horns, and time. “At the point where it’s certain that defeat means death. What incentive do I have to surrender?”

Nicandros’s movement halted, and in the darkness, Poz could hear a low chuckle. It didn’t sound amused. It sounded more sad than anything. Nicandros was likely feeling sentimental about their time together before. “I forget how much of a pain in the ass you are like this. How long have you been in Manflesh? Clock is ticking, right?”

“Ah, yes. I fully intend to provide you vital intelligence in the middle of an armed conflict.”

“I suppose not. Can’t blame me for trying.”

Poz sighed. “No, I suppose not. I guess I should reward the effort. I have thirty one days, seven hours, and eleven minutes left in Manflesh.”

Nicandros’s movement halted. “You’re lying, Poz. You told me you’d burn out after, at most, half a day.”

“Perhaps I am. Or perhaps I solved that problem already. Perhaps I’ve be sandbagging. I suppose you’ll need to let me survive to test that hypothesis.”

“Sorry, I can’t do that, Poz. If you wanted to survive, you should have handed over the egg when you had the chance.”

“I suppose so,” Poz said, making sure his voice sounded with a bitter irony he didn’t feel. Right now, his only hope of survival depended on Nicandros’s human side. Fortunately, Poz knew exactly where he was most vulnerable. “Can’t blame me for trying.”

The echo of Nicandros’s earlier words drew him up short, and Poz could hear him hesitate again. Poz took the opportunity to pull the two daggers from his arms, clenching his teeth against the pain and moving quickly to staunch the bleeding. Battlefield treatment dictated a puncture wound should not be re-opened like this, but Poz was running low on options. Now, he at least was armed. “It didn’t have to be like this,” Nicandros said. “Light and Shadow, Poz, you could have just given me the damn egg.”

“Yes. And if it had been just you to ask, I would have given it. But you didn’t want it for yourself. You wanted it for the Alohym.”

“I wanted it for Tomah,” Nicandros growled. He was angry now, and his footsteps came quickly.

There’s the opening. Poz rose up, the daggers in his hands. “Then I hope you tell Tomah that Uncle Poz died on his feet.”

Nicandros was in the open, as Poz had predicted, and he stumbled at the words, the reminder of the bond Poz shared with his son. Poz flicked his wrists. The first dagger missed Nicandros by a hair, tumbling past his ear, driven off course by a spasmodic twitch in his injured arm. However, the motion brought Nicandros’s hands up to his face reflexively.

It left him exposed for the second dagger to sink into his gut.

Nicandros doubled over with a quiet grunt of pain. Poz frowned. The plan would not work with just a quiet grunt. He leapt over the barrier. Nicandros lunged for him, his hands outstretched, but the motion was rendered clumsy with pain. Poz wrapped his fingers around Nicandros’s wrist and moved past his bod, twisting as he did. Nicandros’s arm bent so it was stretched behind him, his elbow facing up, and Poz applied pressure to the wrist to drive Nicandros to the floor. “Scream,” Poz said.

“What…” Nicandros gasped. “You’re a sadist now?”

“No. However, the Alohym saved you from the explosion of the bell tower. She has an interest in your survival. Your screams will draw her attention.”

“Never,” Nicandros said, growling the word.

“Then I promise, when I’m back in a more empathetic flesh, I’ll feel terrible about this.”

He drove his free palm into Nicandros’s upturned elbow, bending it almost a perfect forty-five degrees in the opposite direction. To Nicandros’s credit, he didn’t scream at first, not until Poz continued to apply pressure to bend the arm further. However, Nicandros was only human. He couldn’t withstand too much abuse before instinct took over.

At the point his forearm was almost perpendicular to his back, Nicandros started to scream.

Now. Poz released the pressure and dove towards the entrance. The top of the bell tower was being torn apart by some force, a plurality of ink black arms rending stones from stone. “Leave him alive or your screams will echo across a thousand worlds!” Ashliel screamed as she ripped the top of the tower off with greater speed than Poz had calculated would be possible.

She descended towards Nicandros like a comet, one of her arms forming a protective dome to drop around his prone form. Her other arm extended towards Poz, forming an unlight cannon.

Poz dove through the door. The unlight cannon fired. Poz felt something tug on his arm, but he was in the street and running, and Ashliel was sure to waste time checking on Nicandros before she pursued. A simple brace will repair the damage, so long as the stomach wound does not go septic. Alohym medication will likely prevent that. Poz felt lightheaded, and as he ran through the street, people screamed and ran from him.

That surprised him. Humans tended to react with the least fear to his Manflesh form. He glanced at his arm, trying to see what the Alohym had hit him with. Perhaps some brand that marked him as a target, or…

“Oh,” Poz said aloud.

The arm ended in a stump just above the elbow. Shock was the only thing preventing him from keeling over in agony.

Several new variables raced through his head, although he had to remind himself that he couldn’t trust his own calculations. He’d lost a lot of blood already. Have to find Gecko when I’m out of the city. That Flesh can let me regrow the arm. Maybe. He’d be dumb for days, barely better than Grubflesh, but he’d survive if he could get it in time.  The regrowth was uncertain, but worth the risk.

Poz saw a smithy and dove through the open door. The huge man behind the counter bellowed in surprise, and Poz hit him in the throat with his remaining hand to silence him as he vaulted over the counter.

The man had an apprentice, one who raised a hot iron in a defensive pose when Poz burst in. “I’ve crushed your master’s trachea,” Poz said, not certain if he’d actually managed that. “If you get him to a healer in time, you can save him. If you give me that hot iron, I’ll let you go. What is more important, his life or his wares?”

The young man couldn’t have been more than fourteen. He blanched at Poz’s words, and although he likely didn’t understand what a trachea, he understood enough. With a curse, he tossed the hot iron to the ground and ran to the front of the store.

Poz shoved his stump against the red-hot metal. No amount of shock could spare him from the pain of cauterization, and his screams chased the blacksmith and his apprentice into the street.

Small Worlds Part 257

It had been centuries since Athena had last seen Zeus. While seeing the rest of the Olympians had been a reminder of the unchanging nature of the divine, there had still been subtle differences. Their clothing styles had evolved. Their hairstyles had adapted. They all had looked like a mish-mash of the ancient Greek styles they were famous for and the seventeenth century, with a few of their own mutations that had happened over their centuries in exile in Tartarus, but that had been enough to make them seem different.

Zeus had none of that. He looked almost exactly like he’d stood of that throne where Phidias had captured his likeness in marble. His hair was long and curled and circled his face along with a beard that reached almost to his bare chest, wearing only an achiton off his shoulders and around his waist. The only difference was that in Phidias’ sculpture, he looked calm and regal.

Here and now, his face was contorted with fury.

“Artemis!” he bellowed when he saw them, stalking up to the pillar where they rested. “Get down here this instant!”

Just like that. A father scolding a disobedient child. Artemis’ face darkened, and Athena put a hand on her arm. “Careful,” Athena murmured.

Artemis gave her a curt nod to show she understood. “You missed some things in your sleep, oh King of Olympus.” Her voice was loud and clear, but pitched carefully with a twist of Air and Aether to make sure it did not carry farther than Zeus’s and Athena’s ears. “I need not leap because you say so. If you wish to speak, come up here and join me as an equal.”

The twist was likely the only thing that kept Zeus from lashing out in that instant. His face darkened like a thundercloud, and his eyes hardened. He muttered something that sounded a lot like “perfidious bitch,” but propelled himself up to the top of the column on a gust of air. “This is nonsense,” he growled as he landed, his voice full of animalistic fury. “You cannot be elevated by a council that was formed by my brother without me.”

“I can and I was,” Artemis said, her voice unyielding. No hint of deference touched her voice, and if not for Athena’s hand on Artemis’s arm she would have believed the archer to be every bit as calm as she sounded. It was only the slight tremble of her elbow that gave lie to her confidence, too subtle to be seen.

“Preposterous. It was only an act of desperation that elevated Hera without Hades, and even then-”

“You speak to me of desperation?” Artemis said, her voice low with fury. It was only then that Athena began to suspect that the tremble she’d felt wasn’t born of fear, but of rage. Zeus’s eyes widened and he rocked back. Athena wondered how long it had been since someone other than his brothers or his wife had the audacity to interrupt him. It was nice to see him off balance. “You dare? Olympus was beset on all sides with foes both from without and within. Moloch had laid siege to the Rest with an army of Godslayers and monsters. Your brother was trying to sell us to him to further his own selfish ends.

“The desperation that lead to your wife’s elevation was Hades’ absence and your own need to placate a woman whose marital bed you’d defiled time and time again. There was no threat. There was no army at the gates. There was no monster sitting on our council – or rather, we did not know there was a monster sitting on the council, holding the veto. Yet there were three. A man who would betray us to our greatest foe. A woman who would use a crisis to exact her revenge. And you, a coward who wanted us to hide away.”

Zeus did not explode in the silence that followed. His face darkened like gathering thunderheads, and Athena had to fight an urge to step back, to be out of the blast radius of that storm when it unleashed. “You forget yourself, archer,” he said, the words hissing between his lips like escaping steam.

“You forget what I know. What we all know now. You knew the cycle was coming to an end. You knew the Eschaton would be found. You knew Ishtar had the right of it all along, and instead of giving us centuries to prepare for what was to come, you hid us away in Tartarus so we might simply fade away. You led us to believe Ishtar was a madwoman who would doom us all.”

“She will!” Zeus bellowed, the storm finally breaking. “She thought she could prevent the cycle. The Eschaton will destroy this world. I was warned of this by Athena’s own oracle-” Athena didn’t know how to feel about the fact that Zeus was finally acknowledging her presence with a gesture, and decided that this was a case where discretion was, indeed, the better part of valor, “-and I had it confirmed by a Curator. There is no saving this world. I set up the Rest to be a last refuge. There were enough of us where humanity could have been reborn there, from the loins of the gods.”

“Of course your plan would stem from loins,” Artemis spat the words. “Have you ever ever taken an action that wasn’t guided by your cock? For millennia the only thing that prevented our entire Pantheon from being led towards whatever hole you wanted to shove your member into was Hades and then Hera.”

Zeus began to gather threads of Flame and Earth around himself. “You go too far,” he said, each word heavy with spite.

“I do not go far enough,” Artemis countered, shifting her stance slightly. “There is worse I could say about you. But the most important of them is simply that you were wrong. The Eschaton does not seek to end the world. He is creating Gates that will take humanity from this world to another. He will fill his destiny and ‘end’ our world, but he will do so without bloodshed, without chaos.”

The threads Zeus had gathered stopped there, and his eyes narrowed. “What?”

“He is ending Humanity’s reign on Earth, as the cycle demands he does, but he is doing so in a way that spares the species. There will be no more civilizations built by human hands on this world, yet humanity will endure.”

“If a single thing goes wrong, the Sun will consume the world.” Zeus said.

“Yes.” The word was blunt and simple. Artemis had never been one to spare words when they weren’t needed – this argument was the most Athena had heard her speak in a single conversation in centuries. “But the bulk of humanity will not be here to see it. Even if the worst happens, even if we cannot spare Earth, we will endure, and enough animals will be brought where extinction will be minimal.”

Zeus looked less than pleased. “The others know of this?”

Artemis nodded. “I knew you’d object. I made sure that if you did so publically, you’ll be known for what you are.”

Zeus’s face darkened. “Humanity forgot us. In the Rest, they would have known who they owed their lives to. Who they owed their world to.”

“And they still will,” Athena said, speaking for the first time. Artemis looked ready to launch into another tirade, one that would be satisfying to watch, but at this point Athena judged appealing to Zeus’s ego to be the wiser course. “Ryan – the Eschaton – spoke publicly before a union of the world’s nations that exists. He warned them of what was coming. He did so flanked by gods, myself among them. When we go to this new world, Humanity will come fully aware of why they were spared. Of who spared them. Gods. You think that won’t ignite a new wave of worship?”

For the first time since he’d screamed Artemis’s name, Zeus looked thoughtful. Artemis didn’t looked pleased with the change and direction, but she knew how to take an opportunity when it presented itself. “Of course, any gods that stand against us will be remembered poorly by humanity. Their names will be spoken in the same tones Humanity used to reserve for its great foes. Enki. Moloch. Bast. Kali. They’ve added their names to that list already, as will any who join them. Will you have the name Zeus be spoken in such company? Or will you cast aside the fact that it was not your plan that saved the world, and instead make sure your name is counted among those who shepherded humanity into this new era?”

Zeus stared at them both, his eyes hard, and he stroked his beard in thought. Artemis glanced at Athena, and in that glance Athena saw gratitude, and realized she’d played perfectly into Artemis’s plan. Artemis had styled herself a protector of virginity, eons ago, owing to her own disinterest in carnal pleasures. That had put her firmly opposed to Zeus, and Zeus never would have believed an offer for glory if it had come from Artemis. By being the one to offer it, Athena had allowed Zeus to actually consider it. Of course, Artemis couldn’t have predicted what Athena would do to mollify Zeus – only trusted that Athena would offer something to mollify Zeus

“You play a dangerous game, Archer,” Zeus growled.

“The game became dangerous in spite of my efforts,” Artemis said, the fire in her own voice dying down. “But the game still favors us. Which side of the board are you on?”

Zeus sighed. “Hera will be furious I allowed you to keep your seat.”

“She did kill you,” Athena said.

“Oh, yes. It’s been a few centuries since she last did that.” Zeus shrugged, and looked almost sheepish. He’d gone so quickly from raging fury to the abashed husband, Athena was worried her neck would snap from whiplash.  But that was how Athena remembered him. Constantly mercurial in his moods. “Her timing is usually better than this.”

“She’s killed you before?” Artemis asked.

“It’s part of how we handle things.” Zeus shook his head. “Fine. We’ll go with this plan, Artemis. For now. But I will be watching carefully.”

Artemis didn’t slump with relief, but Athena could see how badly she wanted to.

“Now. Make amends for your tone by telling me what all I missed before I resurrected.”

Athena bristled at his tone, but Artemis had used the fire she needed. For now, mollifying Zeus seemed to be where Artemis wanted to go, and Athena did not seek to undermine her. Instead, Athena helped by filling in gaps in Artemis’ story, and trying to figure out when her friend had become so adept at manipulating her fellow Olympians.

At least her timing couldn’t have been better.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 175

Poz caught himself on the line he’d secured before detonating the bell, slowing his descent enough to avoid injuring himself when he landed. High probability I killed Nicandros with that explosion. The Alohym hybrid creature, on the other hand, is an unknown variable. The only abilities I’ve seen from it is the ability to fly and shoot unlight from its hand. It might have been able to save itself or Nicandros. Poz considered the thought and shook his head. The idea an Alohym would save another was a variable not worth considering.

You killed Nicandros. 

There should be some emotion attached to that thought. Sadness at killing an old friend, satisfaction at achieving a victory and eliminating the only threat that could educate the Alohym on Poz’s current abilities, but at the moment all he really felt was a need to move to the next stage and prepare for the Alohym’s likely counterattack.

Every time it’s come at me before, it’s done so from the air. It favors rushing in and letting loose with a large burst of Unlight, then follows that up with moving into close combat when I’m exposed. His mind worked furiously, trying to find a way to counteract the advantages the Alohym posed. Forcing it underground would neutralize the advantage it had in flight but doing so would also give him little room to outmaneuver its beams. Engaging it in the open would give him room to evade, but no means of counterattack while it remained in the open. The only remaining option was engaging it within a structure. It would give him some room to maneuver, while limiting its flight. Except it would have no reason to not just bring the structure down around you. Human hostages were considered and discarded. The Alohym would not hesitate to slaughter any humans that stood between it and victory.

And, even if he engaged it in a structure, he currently had no means of injuring it.

Poz grimaced. Assuming the bell hadn’t ended the conflict before it even began, Poz was in an uncomfortable position. Enhancing his intelligence really only served to make sure he knew exactly how low his odds of success were against the Alohym.

Except it’s not an Alohym. It is a hybridization of some kind. Approach the problem from that direction. Also, the stonework on this structure has erosion patterns that indicate it’s at least a century old given average precipitation and weather patterns in this area. I wonder if there would be some way to increase its longevity. It occurred to Poz that some kind of coating over the stone could reduce the weathering from wind and rain, a sealant of some sort. Perhaps something based off of oil. If he could find a way to solidify it, the sealant would prevent water degradation due to oil’s hydrophobic properties…

Poz shook his head, trying to clear away the distraction. There were important things to focus on. His life was in imminent danger, and there was a very real threat of failing to find somewhere safe to feast on new flesh before his brain overheated and left him comatose and dead.

He felt the Songstone in his pocket. He still had a card to play. If he used it properly, it would create just enough chaos to escape. If he did not use it properly, it would result in the pointless loss of human lives and still leave him trapped. Too early, and the chaos would be subdued before he could take advantage of it. Too late, and he’d already be a smear on the cobblestones.

The only possible option for the hybrid is a human. So…what weaknesses does a human have that an Alohym would not cover? That was a more interesting question, because it was solvable. Alohym had a hardened carapace that made up for humans comparably thin skin, inherent sensory dampeners that made up for most of the human sensory flaws, and an extended thorax that provided additional mass…

Mass that has to be supported by the human knee and spin. 

The two major structural weaknesses in the human frame. Knee and spine. The Alohym’s hardened carapace would help protect it against attacks focusing on the spine, but the knee…it was a joint. Joints were weak points. A plan began to form. It would be risky, but it was viable if he could just-

A faint sound reached his ears and reflex drove Poz to leap to the side, rolling with the motion. A beam of unlight lanced down from the damaged bell tower and tore a chunk of cobblestone from where he’d been standing, digging a furrow as wide as Poz was at the shoulders through the streets and sending stone flying into the air. Poz kept moving as the beam started to chase him. He could see the Hybrid above him on the edge of the ruined tower – might as well use its name, Ashliel – and dove into the tower she was standing on before she could catch him in the solid beam of destruction.

He’d been so focused on solving the problem he’d forgotten to move. A flaw of manflesh. An easy one for it to figure out and exploit. Light and Shadow, it probably hadn’t needed to know it was a weakness – all it had to do was check to see if it could see him from the elevated altitude. Now he was in the tower and had blocked his escape path with his own debris. You’ll hear her wings when she starts moving again. Then you can-

A motion in the darkness of the room. Poz leapt back, his mind racing through the possibilities. Before he could figure out the most likely threat, pain blossomed in his left bicep. Sharp pain, sudden warmth. I’m bleeding. There’s a metal object inserted into my arm right now. His attacker had thrown three blades, along the primary assault path and the only two spaces Poz could reasonably move to in evading it.

Poz realized he was shouting in pain and made himself stop. Instead he lashed out with his hand, catching the fourth dagger before it could impact him in the chest. He hurled it back into the darkness but wasn’t rewarded with any sound of pain or drop of a body hitting the floor. Poz pivoted, heading towards the entrance.

A beam of unlight blasted down inches in front of the door before he could exit. If he’d jumped to the other side, he would have been moving through it at that exact instant and would have been vaporized.

Poz leapt into the air. It was an absurd move, one he never would have tried normally, but had the benefit of moving him out of the path of the daggers that were coming out of the darkness.

Another weakness of manflesh. Pitiful vision in the darkness. His attack knew that and was exploiting it.

Poz leapt again, ducking behind some rubble.

“Nicandros,” Poz said. “It appears I had miscalculated your odds of survival.”

A damaged arcell flew over the pile of rubble and landed next to Poz, pulsing and glowing with unlight. Frantic calculations told Poz he had five seconds before it detonated. Four now, it had taken him a second to calculate it. At three seconds, his fingers closed around the arcell. He had to reach out of cover to grab it, and this arm sprouted a dagger as well. He ignored the pain. Two seconds. He tossed it wildly towards the entrance. One second.

It detonated just after passing through the entrance. The explosion rocked the street outside, but Poz was spared from the blast.

Poz had escaped certain death and traded it for an uncertain survival.

It appeared there were other odds he’d miscalculated.

Small Worlds Part 256

Athena stepped out of her staging area onto the entrance to Olympus for the first time in over three hundred years. She’d been here just weeks ago with Crystal and Ryan, but she’d had to climb the mountain like a mortal petitioner. Now she could arrive from her staging area, a proper arrival for a goddess that she’d been denied for far too long.

This wasn’t Olympus as she’d last seen it either. Then, it had been a forlorn place, a hollow shell of what it once had been. Now, however, it swarmed with activity. Gods walked its streets again, dressed in their finery and talking amicably. It was still in ruins – the brief time the Olympians had been back on their mountain had not been enough to repair the damage – but seeing it full of her kin again made the ruin feel less oppressive. More temporary. This was a place that was damaged by the ravages of time, but it was a place that would be rebuilt.

Of course, they’d have to move the entrance. Earth would be devoid of all human life soon, and that had to include the Olympians. As she walked the streets, marvelling in the joy of seeing it teeming with life again, she could hear Hephestus and Hades talking about moving the entrance to Hades’ realm as an interim solution, something to keep them clear of the temptation of Earth until a suitable place could be found on this newly habitable world.

“Athena!” Artemis shouted. She was standing atop a pillar, directing a trio of nereids who were carrying a single finger from a downed statue. Athena smiled and waved at Artemis, picking up her pace to reach the archer goddess.

“How is everything coming along here?” Athena asked, leaping on the pillar alongside Artemis

Artemis grimaced and shook her head, dropping her voice. “I’m keeping everyone busy with reconstruction so they don’t think too much about what’s coming. Only took the remainder of the Twelve I can trust with me to guard the UN meeting. Tensions are high right now.”

Athena looked around. “It doesn’t feel like it.”

“I know,” Artemis sighed. “Everyone’s pleased to be back. Everyone’s even gladder to be out of Tartarus, and looking forward to going back to Earth. It’s keeping things from boiling over, but that last bit is the main problem.”

“Going back to Earth?” Athena asked.

“Yes. The knowledge that it won’t be around for much longer is weighing on people.” Artemis stopped herself to yell at the nereids, who had started to slack off in her inattention. They leapt at the sound of her voice and started to move quicker. “I’d be more worried if there was anyone claiming the end wasn’t coming. Right now the worst that would happen is some more people will slip away.”

“Slip away?” Athena’s forehead furrowed.

“Leave. Abandoned Olympus. They’ve gone to Earth to see what’s new, or get drunk with mortals, or screw themselves silly.”

“That’s imbecilic. Two of those will still be present in the new world.”

Artemis shrugged. “I’m not wasting my time stopping them. We have too much to do instead of wasting time wrangling waste. So far no one of much import has left, save one.”

Athena didn’t ask this time, instead just giving Artemis a raised eyebrow.

“Eris,” Artemis said.

Athena swore, and Artemis nodded in agreement. Eris, goddess of strife. “Did anyone ever find where she hid her children?” Athena asked, dreading the answer.

Artemis shook her head. Eris’s ‘children’ weren’t her actual descendants. They were mortals that Eris had experimented on, playing with divine power to infuse them with energy. They’d created new people that were related to mankind, but also alien and unnatural – and able to breed true. “If she gets them out…”

“Then she’ll find herself trapped on Earth when the world ends, one way or another.” Artemis said grimly. “Or she’ll join forces with Kali, and we’ll have a whole new type of problem. Stars of Olympus, we’ll have that problem if she joins forces with Kali even on her own.”

“She won’t be the only one,” Athena said, slumping down to sit on the pillar. “I can think of at least a few gods who, if they hear of this, will follow Kali straight into hell for their own reasons.”

“I can think of a few as well,” Artemis said. “You really thought you’d be so lucky as to avoid her gathering allies of her own?”

Athena shook her head. “That was a downside of Ryan’s announcement. Battle lines are being drawn. We’re going to be looking at a full on war, unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. It will make the Titanomachy look like a skirmish.”

“Then I’m glad we have you,” Artemis said, glaring at a group of satyrs that had wandered drunkenly into her line of sight. They decided to stagger out of the range of her glare. “We’ll need war leaders.”

“We’ll have them,” Athena said. “It’s been a long time since I lead armies.”

Artemis snorted. “Let mortals have their armies. We need people to command gods. And when it comes to that, few names are more respected than Pallas Athena.”

“A lot has changed in your absence,” Athena said. “I’m not sure how much cache my name carries these days.”

“Then you’ll make them listen. Or is the goddess of wisdom and war going to allow herself to be pushed around?”

Athena laughed. “Hardly. But a leader without followers is just going for a walk.”

“They’ll follow,” Artemis said. Athena turned to ask her what she meant, how she could possibly know when she’d been in Tartarus for three centuries, but Artemis wasn’t looking at Athena. She was looking at where Nike and Kratos were talking with Ares, who was gesturing towards Demeter. Tyche was nearby, rolling her eyes at Dionysus’s antics, and Apollo was leaning against a pillar, eating some fruit. “They know Hera’s exile of you was unjust now. They know that you rescued them from Moloch. That, if not for you, the others that came with you would never have arrived. They know your plan turned the tide against Poseidon. They’ll follow, Athena.”

Athena found herself unable to speak, a sudden lump in her throat obstructing her speech. She smiled at Artemis warmly, then had to sniff and wipe her eyes.

“You’re absurd,” Artemis said, shaking her head. She gave Athena a sideways glance. “I don’t suppose that means you’re reconsidering my offer?”

Athena shook her head. “You have Hades back now. He and Persephone will help you with the parts you hate.”

“I know you won’t take the Veto,” Artemis said. “I meant about coming back here. Rejoining.”

Athena looked again at the group of gods. Kratos had gotten Dionysus in a headlock and was laughing while rubbing his knuckle’s against the wine god’s scalp. Dionysus looked more amused than frustrated, which was a blessing – he was a terror when his blood was up. “If you’d asked me a couple months ago, I would have disemboweled myself if that’s what it took.”

Artemis’s nose wrinkled. “Graphic,” she said dryly.

Athena ignored the comment. “But I’ve found a new Pantheon. One that took me in after I opposed them, just because I said I’d chosen poorly. I’m not going to abandon them, not after everything they’ve done for me.” Athena smiled slyly at Artemis. “Besides, there is always my offer to consider. We only have a few members, and no goddess of archery yet.”

“When I inevitably have a complete breakdown from the burden of leadership and being expected to govern in peacetime, I’ll consider it,” Artemis said. Her voice was so flat, Athena was only somewhat sure she was joking. “Besides, there’s always the-”

“Where! Is! Artemis!?”

The voice cut over the sounds, cut through the air, and shook the halls of Olympus. It was monstrously loud, and full of fury. Artemis’s face went tight, and Athena felt her balling her hands into fists.

Whatever Artemis had to say would have to wait.

Zeus had resurrected, and he sounded furious.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 174

The Songstone sprung to life again in Ashliel’s hands. What came out wasn’t the normal speech Nicandros was used to, but the clipped mishmash language the Alohym had taught their human soldiers. It was where terms like ‘flath’ had originated. The speech was terrible for conveying complex information, abstract ideas, or anything resembling artistry. It was, however, ideally suited for relaying hard data concisely.

In this case, it took the speaker on the other end just fifteen words to inform Ashliel that another squad, a group of three men, had fallen off the song in the same general area as the last five. Squads were preparing to cut off the streets leading into and out of that area, and the soldiers were already starting to search the homes along those blocks to try and flush out the aggressor. Skimmers were en route to begin patrolling the skies above the block to locate any sign of Poz from above.

“He is just a single being, yet he’s already killed eight. This is not some half-dragon or man clad in plate. It is a cave-sucking grub-eater.” The words came out in a hiss from Ashliel’s mandibles, and she whirled to face Nicandros. “Stars forsake us, what is happening?”

Nicandros didn’t look at her directly, instead scanning the ground around them. They were in a courtyard, and with the break of dawn people had begun to spill out into the streets. They all gave the Alohym soldiers a wide berth and curious gazes, but they were still present. Edgeminster was a large enough city that the presence of this many soldiers was not cause for alarm – at least, not yet. “We have to get the civilians out of here,” he growled.

“That’s impossible,” Ashliel said with a dismissive wave of her hands. “A city this large, at this time of day? We’d have to put the entire place under Quarantine.”

“Then put it on Quarantine,” Nicandros said.

“Nicandros, I know you’re new to our way of doing things, but right now no one can leave the city. These people might hide your little friend, but he cannot escape the city. The moment we enforce quarantine, we are going to be faced with possible riots. He could use the chaos to escape – and more importantly, we’ll lose our biggest advantage.”

Nicandros’s eyebrows furrowed. “Advantage?”

Ashliel nodded. “Surely you’ve noticed. Your resistance – apologies, your former resistance – relies heavily on support from the populace. Whenever their action results in the deaths of civilians, it reflects poorly on them. Their allies begin to withdraw. Their support begins to dry up. In the meantime, if we enforce quarantine, we are labeled as tyrants and dictators. By allowing the population to engage in normal activities, we are seen as the reasonable actors. If people die…it doesn’t make us look like the antagonistic force.”

If Ashliel had not been so potentially dangerous, if Nicandros hadn’t needed her so badly, he would have tried to drive his blade through her chest just for that sentence. “So you put people’s lives at risk to win a popularity contest?”

“Yes.” The word was as blunt as it was direct. “Revolutions aren’t won on battlefields or in back alleys. They are won in the hearts and minds of the people. And, by the same token, that’s also where they are lost.”

Nicandros clenched his fingers into fists for a moment, then forced himself to loosen them. “Girl, the normal rules don’t apply here. Poz has eaten manflesh. He was not exaggerating when he said he was the smartest being on the planet currently. The more things there are out there for him to work with, the greater the risk to us. He can exploit any loophole we leave him to grab ahold of. If he has to, he’ll kill thousands of people – morality means very little to him right now.”

“I’m not interested in questions of morality,” Ashliel buzzed the words harshly. “Nicandros, it’s very important you pay attention here. These people are disposable. Our soldiers are slightly less disposable. The only three beings that matter, in this entire city, are myself, you, and the Underfolk. There are millions to replace even the thousands that might die here. This isn’t a police action to protect the citizens, and I swear by my Father’s Holy name, if I must burn every living being in this city to ash to achieve victory, I’ll do so with a smile and a laugh.”

Nicandros did look at her now, fixing her with a glare that carried the full force of his rage. “You…”

“Want nothing more than you do, Nicandros,” Ashliel said, her voice now smooth as silk. “Tomah returned to us. We don’t get what we want if the Underfolk escapes. What was it you said when you were brought before my father?” One of her segmented fingers came up to her chin, and she tapped the space between her mandibles as if in thought. Something in the motion told Nicandros is was a mockery, that she knew exactly what he had said and was merely trying to score some kind of petty point. “I believe it was…yes. ‘Burn the resistance, burn the princess, burn my very soul to ash if you have to. I know you offered her father if she served you. Give me back my son, and I’ll be your creature until my last breath.’ Does that sound familiar?”

Nicandros turned away and began to scan the crowd again. The words hit him like a blow to the stomach. He’d been drunk at the time, drunk and desperate with grief and fury. He hadn’t even known it was Daemryon he’d been speaking to – just that he’d been hauled before an Alohym and thrown on the floor. He’d expected death, and had intended to go out with one final shout of defiance…but then he’d remembered the offer the Alohym had made to Tythel. The rebirth of Karjon. If they could give her that, couldn’t they also give him the same?

“So please, Nicandros, spare me your morality. We both want Tomah. We will have him. But spare me your pitiful attempts to convince me that the methods of conquest that have served the Alohym on a dozen worlds will not work here because you want to keep your hands clean. You will not budge me.”

Nicandros slammed his fist into a wall. Don’t argue. Get her moving, get her acting. That’s how you save these people. “Fine. Then we need to find Poz. Even with his intelligence enhanced the way it is, he’ll want to seek something comfortable to think. Send your soldiers into cellars, send them into sewers. The Underfolk like the dark places of the world, and we’ll either find him or some trace of him when we-”

Nicandros didn’t get to finish the thought. There, on the bell tower. 

He’d been so very wrong. Poz had gone to the last place Nicandros would have dared to suspect – the very place where Ashliel and Nicandros had just been. The same place he’d left his cocoon. It had been so long since he’d last seen Poz in Manflesh, he’d forgotten what it looked like. The Underfolk stood tall and straight, his back almost painfully rigid. His frame rippled with muscles – not the thick cords of a soldier, but thin and lean.

It was the eyes that Nicandros could never forget. Black as pitch and unyielding as stone. There was no familiarity in that gaze, no comradery. No friendship.

Poz slapped something against the side of the bell and leapt away. It detonated afterwards and sent the immense iron bell ringing as it was propelled from the tower by the force. “Move!” Nicandros shouted, lunging for Ashliel.

It was too late. The bell was heavy, and the tower wasn’t built for that kind of strain. As the slab of iron flew through the air, it began to pull the tower down to the side, chunks of masonry flying along with its arc to rain down towards Ashliel and Nicandros.

Ashliel didn’t budge at Nicandros’s shove. Instead, she wrapped one arm around him and drew him close, extending her free arm over her head. The arm began to widen and lengthen, going from a simple appendage to a disc that stretched out and anchored itself to the ground on chitinous tendrils. At the same time her skin pulled away from her face and the arm around Nicandros’s back, revealing a second layer of skin beneath it. Skin that had gone pallid with lack of sunlight, but nonetheless was human skin.

Stone crashed into the barrier Ashliel had erected. It drove the struts of her shield into the stone around them, but not enough to push the full weight of the stone on top of either of them.

Ashliel looked at Nicandros with eyes that were unmistakably human and, equally unmistakably, were in pain. “Why?” Nicandros asked. “You could have flown and-”

“Tomah…would never forgive me…if I let anything happen to you…” the words came out in harsh gasps, like her breathing was labored. Most of her carapace had pulled away to form the barrier, and what human bits of her Nicandros could see were weak and frail. “I can…get us free. But…you need to tell me how to beat…what we’re dealing with.”

Nicandros nodded, and his mind worked furiously as Ashliel’s armor moved like a mass of liquid stone to pull away layers of debris.

Right now, however, he was running terribly short of options.

Small Worlds Part 255

Crystal had warned Ryan that it would be an intense sensation. That had been an understatement, in Ryan’s estimation. Being stabbed was an intense sensation. Being set on fire was an intense sensation. This wasn’t either of those. It really wasn’t that the sensation itself was intense – it was more that every single one of his senses was intensified. He could hear the sound of Crystal’s heart, pounding in his ears as loudly as if it’d been shoved against his eardrum. He could hear the gentle hum of his staging area, a sound he didn’t even know it made. He could hear an almost imperceptible series of rapid dop sounds, and slowly he realized that it was the sound of air molecules bouncing off each other.

It helped that he could see them now. Individual molecules whirring through the air, bouncing around, ricocheting off each other and solid objects. Somehow they didn’t interfere with his vision – he could see them and at the same time see through them, a dichotomy that he was struggling to process.

The sound of screaming reached Ryan’s heightened ears, and dimly he was aware that it was his own voice making the sound.

“Hold on to it, love!” Crystal shouted over his voice. “Focus, remember?”

Have to…have to…Ryan repeated the phrase over and over again in his head, not even sure what he had to, just sure that he had to whatever it. Do it, be it, beat it, claim it, use it….have to. 

The human mind wasn’t meant for nigh omniscience. Ryan was still mostly human. Equations were swirling around him now, billions of them. Some were the vectors for the individual air molecules, some were electron probability distributions for individual atoms, others were the very math of the quantum field that filled the space between everything and also made everything. He could see the formulas that made up individual quarks and their interactions. It was the most fundamental level of reality, deeper than anything Ryan would have ever dared to even attempt to manipulate.

“I…can’t…” Ryan growled. “Too…much.”

“Remember the phrase!” Crystal shouted.

If a Minkowski spacetime contains a compact region Ω, and if the topology of Ω is of the form Ω ~ R × Σ, where Σ is a three-manifold of the nontrivial topology, whose boundary has topology of the form ∂Σ ~ S2, and if, furthermore, the hypersurfaces Σ are all spacelike, then the region Ω contains a quasipermanent intrauniverse wormhole. It popped into Ryan’s head the moment Crystal spoke, and immediately equations began to make sense.

The problem was matter. Matter couldn’t form the necessary topology to generate the sigma hypersurfaces needed to create the omega region that would result in the wormhole. At least, no matter in its normal form. The quarks that were the fundamental building blocks of reality had mass, and what Ryan needed was antimass that wouldn’t have the annihilative properties of antimatter.

In short, he needed matter that would repel gravity, warp space time the way gravity did but push it away instead of bringing it in. And he needed to do it without causing his staging area to be consumed by an antimatter explosion that would kill him, Crystal, and probably his nanoverse as well.

He started with holding out his hand and twisting the quantum fluctuations that surrounded him to spontaneously generate a black hole with the mass of a human body. Such a thing was theoretically possible but had a less than one in ten to the power of six hundred chance of happening at any given instant. Ryan was able to collapse that odds down to one in two chance of happening – he didn’t have the strength to get it down to a certainty, even with the immense power flowing through him – and then waited for the black hole to manifest. If he couldn’t see the equations, he wouldn’t have seen it happen. The black hole was smaller than the air molecules it occasionally added to its mass as they flew by.

The equations that governed it were absolutely fascinating. Ryan had to keep adjusting the number for how long the black hole had existed so it wouldn’t evaporate and explode with hundreds of megatons of force. Hawking radiation was pouring out of it, and Ryan realized he could set it in a loop to have it pour back in, stabilizing something that shouldn’t be able to continue existing.

From there, it was a simple as changing every single quark that made up the singularity at the heart of the black hole into a new type of quark that Ryan invented on the spot. An exotic quark, with a negative mass.

The effect was immediate. Ryan was pushed back and to the ground as the singularity stopped trying to explode constantly, instead distorting spacetime with incredible force. When Ryan righted himself he could see it there. It was pure white light in the center, radiating out with the colors of a rainbow. At first he thought he’d made a mistake, that this wasn’t working…and then he realized he’d just forgotten a step. With a gesture, he pulled apart the two ‘ends’ of the wormhole, letting one rotate behind his body.

When he stared through the one in front of him, he could see the back of his own head.

Crystal started to cheer in excitement, and Ryan felt himself smile. Each end of the wormhole was about three meters across, large enough for people to walk through easily. It was emitting its own radiation, similar to the Hawking radiation the black hole had been creating. In a few days, it would shrink to nothing and evaporate from that impact. It would last long enough. I don’t think the radiation will be harmful to humans… Ryan thought, then realized he didn’t need to think. He could just look and see how the radiation interacted with the atoms that made up his own DNA, and confirmed that he didn’t need to worry about creating a world dying of radiation poisoning or destined for cancer.

The immense power still coursed through him, but now that he knew what to do it with, it was less overwhelming. He sent the two wormholes he created sliding to alternate ends of his staging area, kilometers across…and then he started to do it again. And again. And again. A thousand times. Two thousand times. He was starting to feel the power drain at two thousand and five hundred times. He fell to his knees at three thousand and five wormholes.

And then, exactly three thousand, three hundred and thirty three wormholes later, Ryan felt the power of the Eschaton wink out.

Crystal rushed to his side as he collapsed fully onto the floor, his vision spinning, his heart pounding. Darkness was creeping in, the way it had back when he’d first gotten his powers and pushed himself too far.

“I got you,” Crystal said. “You did it, Ryan. You did it. Uriel will be here soon, and I’ll take care of that.” She was smiling, and there were tears of joy in her eyes. “For now, rest.”

Unable to even nod in agreement, Ryan did exactly that.