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Small Worlds Part 268

Ryan woke up to a mouth full of ash and a stomach that begged for food. He could feel tears trying to stream out of the corner of his eyes, but in the grips of his dehydration, all they could do was form little flecks of salt on the edges.

Crystal was there in an instant with a bottle of water. “The Hungers from that are the worst,” she said, a sparkle in her eyes. Ryan barely nodded in agreement as he sucked down the water with desperate greed. The water was sweet on his tongue, even sweeter than dehydration could account for. “It’s sugar water,” Crystal said, presumably seeing the way his forehead creased, “it’ll help take the immediate edge off the hunger. Usually not needed, but given how I remember that twist affecting me, I figured it would be a good call.”

“Thanks,” Ryan said, finally finishing the bottle. She was already handing him a stick of beef jerky, and he shoved it into his mouth with the dignity of a small child. “Did it work?” he asked between bites.

“See for yourself,” Crystal said with a wink, and for a moment Ryan was struck with how beautiful she was, and he wanted to reach out and hug her, hold- stop it. Ryan chided himself. That’s just the social Hunger speaking. The shame of the thought helped drown the fleeting feeling, and to distract himself, Ryan looked in the direction of the wormholes.

Half the original number remained. Each one was a white ring hovering in the air, and in the center of the bubble they left behind Ryan could see the impossible. Plants that looked akin to trees but with leaves that splayed out like stretching fingers and bark that shimmered like steel, dotted with tiny colorful patches that blossomed like stars. They grew above vast green fields of grass that ended in miniscule ferns, each blade as tall as a man’s waist. Through one portal he could see a mountain range that stretched far higher than any ever seen on Earth, with snow forming a middle ring around the slopes and the peaks barren from being so high they jutted out of the planet’s atmosphere. On the other side of that range was another portal, this one on the very edge of a vast desert formed in the mountain’s shadow. Another portal was near cliffs that were coated in emerald-green lichen that stretched off into the horizon over an ocean that was the purest blue.

Yet another was situated on a grassy field on the edge of a badlands that were crossed by a complex maze of hundreds of stone arches, a natural field of doors carved by some ancient and long-dried up river. Still another was at the edge of a forest, only these trees had no leaves, just a single solitary leaf that spread out like the head of a mushroom. They hung close to the ground, and small strands of some amber-gold organism stretched from the leaf’s underside to the forest floor below.

The only things that moved were the waves and the plants in the wind. There were no insects buzzing about, no birds overhead, no creatures creeping through the underbrush. It was a world teaming with life, but with no animals for mankind to displace from their natural environments. There was only the vast, primeval wilderness of this world, dominated by analogues to plants, fungi, and other, simpler forms of Earth life.

“It’s beautiful,” Ryan said, wrenching his eyes from endless rolling hills of amber grass that was dotted with incandescent seeds floating in the air to where they would grow next.

Crystal nodded in agreement. “A new home for humanity. Let’s hope you lot don’t wreck it too hard. But…the world’s got a better land to sea ratio, and it’s a bit bigger than ours anyway. I think you’ll do fine.”

Ryan winced at her words, and Crystal raised an eyebrow. “Something bothering you?” she asked.

After a moment’s consideration, Ryan laughed. “You know, I guess there is. I know this is stupid, but…I kind of feel like a pig. I’m looking at this new world and practically drooling, and outside the door is the world I’ve known my entire life. Can you feel like you’re cheating on an entire planet?”

Crystal looked like she was about to laugh, her lips curling up at the edges, and Ryan was glad that gaping at the natural beauty of this new world had helped take the edge of his Social hunger. Instead of feeling that annoying surge from earlier, he just waited for her to share in the joke. Instead, however, the laugh was strangled before it ever escaped her throat, and only half her lip curved upwards, turning amusement into a wistful smirk. “I know what you mean, really. If we could stay, if we could fix Earth, we’d be terrible for just packing up and leaving. But…the only thing we can do to save Earth is to leave. She’ll be better off without us, anyway – we were pretty terrible to her at times.”

“Yeah,” Ryan said. “Let’s hope whoever comes after us treats her better, you know? If it’s the crows or the elephants or the racoons, let’s really hope they do right by her.”

“Who knows,” Crystal said. “Maybe someday it’ll be safe for us to send messages to whoever comes next. We can check up on her, make sure they’re treating her well.”

Ryan looked at those alien vistas and shook his head. “Maybe. But…we’ll probably just have to trust it. I mean, would you ever send messages to your ex’s new significant other to make sure they’re less of an asshole than you were?”

At that, Crystal did throw back her head in an earnest laugh. “No, I suppose no,” she admitted, wiping at her eyes. “A million years trying to save this world, and at the end it comes down to a bad break-up metaphor. That’s bloody perfect. Come on,” she said standing up before he had to figure out how to respond to that. “You got some actual sleep in there, so you should be good for that Hunger. Social’s all you’ve got left, and we can finish filling that with some planning.”

Ryan nodded and followed her at. Isabel was still at the computers, studying them furiously. “What’s the good news, Izzy?”

Isabel turned and shrugged, and Ryan sighed. “What’s the news, Izzy?”

“It’s not all bad,” she said, and Ryan couldn’t help but notice the way her eyes lit up when Crystal followed him out. “The Shinto deities aren’t willing to fight, but they’re more than happy to go through early and start setting up structures for people. Same goes for a lot of individual deities. Hephestus, Ptah, Tvastar, and Ikenga are going to coordinate with Kagu-Tsuchi – all of them are forge gods  and help with overseeing it and working on some of the more complex bits, like doors and windows. Neith is going through as well with Mama Ocllo, and Zhinü to start setting up some weaving stations so we can start making clothes, and Thoth, Anahit, Wenchang Wang, and Ogma are going to be working on getting libraries going so we can start working on preserving knowledge. Kuebiko is going to be working with the agriculture deities we’ve got as well, trying to get some basic farmland figured out.”

“That all sounds like good news,” Ryan said, not wanting to admit he didn’t know who the majority of those gods were.

“It is, but it’s kind of being overwhelmed by the bad. No word form Aesir, but it sounds like they’re probably going to giving Kali a helping hand. Something about not wanting to ruin Ragnarök. The Canaanite deities aren’t willing to risk getting into direct combat. Same with the Slavic deities, although they’re at least going to protect the innocent, so that’s something. The Jade Emperor has decided they’re sitting it out, although if we win they’ll be happy to help with building on this new world. The Aztec pantheon has made it abundantly clear they intend on joining in the fight, but Quetzalcoatl wanted to make sure I understood they were still debating the proper side. So that’s a coin toss.”

“You spoke to Quetzalcoatl?” Ryan asked.

Isabel rubbed her eyes. “Yeah, he called me. I have been trying very hard not to think about how he got my number. Arthur called too. Uriel is absolutely wiped out from ferrying the wormholes. She’ll join in if she can, but our one angel is out. And none of that’s the worst of it.”

Ryan swallowed hard. “What is the worst of it?”

“Michael has said we’re interfering with the Creator’s plan. Kali is going to have some angelic backing. Arthur said that since the angels are going to be getting involved in the Eschaton cycle, they are going to be majorly depowered for going outside their mandate, but he doesn’t know how depowered they’ll be.”

“Well…I mean, we’re going to have some allies, right?” Ryan asked.

Isabel sighed. “Some. Papa Legba is willing to join the fight, and he’s talking to the other Loa. We’ve got the Slavic gods on defense, which is something, but it might not be enough. Dianmu and Cassandra are going to meet Sun Wukong, and Dianmu does not sound happy about that. We can’t count on Arthur’s demons, either – the moment they enter the field, the angels get their full power, and we’ll be overrun. Anansi is taking Horus to the Egyptians, and Horus thinks it’s likely the ones that haven’t spoken up yet will join in our side, but…we’re going to be spread thin, Ryan. Really thin. The upside is, as far as anyone who knows her is saying, Kali is probably going to spreading herself thin too. She won’t want to let any portal go unattacked. But even if she goes wide, we’re badly outnumbered.”

“Okay,” Ryan said, taking a deep breath. “That is bad. But we could still get the Aztecs, and you didn’t even mention the Hindu deities. They might still join us.”

“Might,” Isabel admitted. There were dark circles under her eyes. “Ryan…we have to be ready for the worst. We might not be able to save everyone.”

Ryan took a deep breath, steadying the surge of anger. “If we don’t, it sure as hell won’t be because we didn’t try.”

Isabel nodded.

“Loves,” Crystal said, finally speaking up. “You’re forgetting one thing.”

They both looked at her.

“Twenty-four hours ago, we weren’t sure we were going to save anyone. No matter what, as long as we get people to the other side, enough people that humanity will be able to keep going…we win. That’s all it takes. Enough people to get to the other side, and us closing the door before Kali gets through. We do that…and we stopped humanity from being wiped out. So stop being all doom and gloom. We have one job, and we’re going to get it done.”

From her smile, it at least made Isabel feel better. Ryan was too nervous to hope right now, but that was a personal problem. “You’re right,” he said with cheer he didn’t feel. “So. Let’s get this party started. Where’s first?”

Isabel checked her computer. “You two are meeting Athena and Dianmu in Salzburg. Let’s get some Austrians to space!”

And hope Kali doesn’t kill us in the process, Ryan thought, forcing himself to keep the thought off his face.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 183

Dawn crept over Hillsdale like a thief, slipping into the window and robbing Tythel of a beautiful dream where she was in Karjon’s lair with her father and Eupheme and Tellias and Armin and Ossman, and he was telling her that Nicandros had gotten sweetrolls. Then the lair had turned into a palace and she was sitting on a throne, but it was also Karjon’s horde, and she’d had her own horde of books – somehow recovered from the drowned library of Golmanni. She knew that because a fish was telling her.

The beauty had started to decrease the more logic started to intrude. 

“Good morning,” Eupheme said brightly as Tythel stirred.

Tythel groaned. “Do you ever sleep? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you sleep.”

“I sleep,” Eupheme said. “I just only do it when you aren’t in danger. Or potential danger. Or there is a possibility of danger. No matter how remote.”

Tythel forced herself up. The ache between her wings was less, and Tythel wanted to try to stretch them. As if Eupheme had read her mind, her eyes narrowed and she shook her head. “There’s always a remote possibility of danger,” Tythel murmured, shaking her head to try and clear it. “So when do you sleep?”

“Between moments,” Eupheme said. 

“I don’t know what that means,” Tythel said.

Eupheme smiled. “I know. Now, Otis stopped by. The tailor is willing to work on the unique request, discreetly. There’s a small question that still needs answering. Color.”

Tythel’s nictitating membranes flashed, clearing the last blur of sleep. “I’m sorry, but…color? Does that really matter all that much right now?”

“Well…” Eupheme hesitated, and Tythel motioned for her to go ahead as she settled into a sitting position. Eupheme moved behind her with a brush and began to work on Tythel’s hair. “You have the right to the royal colors. Purple, black, and gold. It would suit you well, I think, and it would send a clear message you are claiming your heritage.”

Tythel frowned in thought. The idea of wearing something so bright to a battlefield was a serious concern, not to mention the audacity of wearing the royal colors when she hadn’t even made a real claim to the throne. It was a step she needed to take, sending her formal claim to the various nobel houses. Assuming Duke d’Monchy hadn’t done that already. No, he can’t. He needs the locket to seal it properly. So that was something she had to do, and it felt wrong to do so before she’d made an official statement. And then…that would be that. She’d officially have declared her intention to rule once the Alohym were defeated.

“Your hair,” Eupheme said, breaking Tythel’s train of thought.

“What about it?” 

“It changed. It’s…coarser. And…well, feel for yourself.”

Eupheme bought some of her hair around, and Tythel ran her hands through it. There were far fewer strands than before, and each one was significantly thicker than it had been. It was like running her hand through thin copper wires. “It’s like scales,” Tythel said after a moment. “I was wondering like that. Hair isn’t something dragons and humans share in common. I guess this is the next closest thing. I figured either this would happen, or it would fall out. Still might, I suppose.”

“You don’t seem bothered by that.”

Tythel shrugged. “Hair is something humans have. I’ve gotten used to it, and it doesn’t bother me enough to cut it off, but I won’t mind if it’s gone.”

“You are a strange woman.” Eupheme said, and Tythel could hear the smile in her voice. “So…the colors?”

“I’m not sure.” Tythel explained her earlier thoughts about claiming the color too soon. 

“Then we could have it made for when you make the claim.” Eupheme said. There was an edge to her voice, one Tythel couldn’t quite place.

“Is something bothering you?”

“Tythel. You’re my friend. I’m here for you and I’m fighting in this resistance. But you’re also my princess and will be queen one day. So far, though, you haven’t done much in that regard. Anything, if I’m being blunt, aside from that one statement in the aftermath of killing Rephylon. I know you’re hesitating on this, but after what Otis told you right now…we need you to be what you are. We need to know there is something after the Alohym are driven back, that we aren’t just going to replace them with more chaos. More riots and death. You can be that symbol.”

“I’m not certain about that,” Tythel said. “I’m…not good at being human. I can’t smile and wave without the expression looking fake. I can’t read people, to try to figure out what’s going on beneath the surface. The only time I’ve ever led anything, the first time it was a raid that ended with everyone getting captured and us barely escaping. The second time Tellias ended up…ended up like that.” Tythel gestured in the direction of Tellias’ bed. It was hidden by a curtain, for privacy, but with her hearing Tythel could hear the faint rasping of his labored breaths.

“What happened to Tellias wasn’t your fault,” Eupheme said.

“Wasn’t it, though?” Tythel asked. “He was there because he was following me. I should have sent him to rejoin with the resistance.”

“And then you and I would be dead. Or do you think we could have handled the three of them alone?”

Tythel shook her head. “I don’t know. Maybe you’re right. But that’s not the point. I didn’t think about the danger I was putting you both in. I was just focused on ending the threat. That’s been me since I started this. Everything I’ve done…I haven’t thought about the consequences. And look where it’s gotten us! Nicandros serves the Alohym. Tellias is in a limbo between life and death. Armin and Ossman went off to a dangerous swamp because I was too afraid of giving up my father’s horde. What right do I have to lead anything?”

Eupheme continued to work the brush through the coarse strands of Tythel’s hair. She was silent for several seconds. “You’re aware of it,” Eupheme said. “You’re aware of it, and you regret it. You’ll do better in the future.”

“And if I don’t?” Tythel said, feeling very small.

“Then I’ll convince you to use your position to create a new government. Abdicate your throne after this is all done, once stability is restored. But right now, we just need a symbol. We can figure the rest of it out later. But with that symbol, we hope. And hope is in very short supply.”

“Promise me,” Tythel said. “Promise me that if I won’t be right, you’ll tell me. Promise me you won’t let me become…I’ve studied history, Eupheme. I know what bad rulers can cause. Even ones that aren’t malicious. Incompetent rulers cause famines, wars. They make plagues worse. They watch their people riot and end up in civil wars and they don’t even understand how it happened. Promise me that you won’t let me become that.”

“That’s the final tasks of the Umbrists,” Eupheme said. “I promise.”

Tythel didn’t need to wipe her eyes. The transformation had taken care of that. Her nicitating membranes were still needed to take care of the burning. “Thank you. Then…I suppose one in the royal colors would be good. The rest should be in practical colors, though. I’m not going into a battlefield dressed like a flower. Browns and greens that will hide me, thank you very much.”

“I’ll get two in the right colors. Just in case.” 

It was nice to hear that the smile was back in Eupheme’s voice.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 182

After he was done with Tellias, Tythel and Eupheme let Otis lead them to beds to tend to their wounds. “Light, you have wings now,” he whispered when Tythel removed her cloak.

Even with everything going on, even with her worries about Nicandros, Tythel couldn’t help but smile. She’d only gotten to fly once since she’d gotten them, and she laid on her stomach to stretch them over the side of the bed so Otis could get to her back. The deep gash between her shoulders pulsed with pain when she moved. “Do you think you could so that up well enough I could fly again soon?” she asked.

Otis leaned forward to remove the bandage, and Tythel hissed involuntarily when the bindings were pulled away. Eupheme had done the best she could, but Otis was an actual doctor. “I know absolutely nothing about wings,” he said, carefully scraping something off her scales, “but I do know injury. That one’s deep. Does it hurt when you move the wings?”

Tythel nodded emphatically. “Shadow takes me, it hurts.”

“Then whoever stabbed you must have gotten through the flight muscles,” Otis said. “This is going to sting a little.”

He had undersold it. The liquid he put onto the injury made it flare up like he’d poured liquid metal into the injury. Probably worse than that would have felt – given how resistant dragons were to heat, Tythel suspected that molten steel would have hurt less. “What?” she gasped when he was done.

“Disinfectant. The best there is. Makes sure the wound won’t fester. You know its working because it burns.”

“Then it works very well,” Tythel muttered.

“You’d be surprised how often I hear that,” Otis said. “I can sew this up. But you’re not flying until it heals. The cut went into the muscles below. They’ll knit back together. Muscles are good at that. At least, they would for a human. You’re the first half-dragon I’ve treated, so I’m not certain exactly how it works.”

“I know dragons heal like humans” Tythel said.

“Then you will fly again. But I can do very little to accelerate it besides make sure the wound is clean and stitched back together. If you try to fly before its ready, you’re just going to reopen the wound. I think you got lucky – there are likely other muscles back here that, if they’d been cut, meant you wouldn’t have been able to even move them without reopening the injury.”

Tythel shuddered at the thought. She felt Otis press something sharp against her back, and then withdraw it. “Problem?”

“I…the needle isn’t going through easily.” Otis sighed. “Of course not. Dragonscale is hard for swords to pierce, if the stories are true.”

“So…what does that mean?” Tythel asked, worry making sweat break out across her forehead.

“I’m going to have to use a binding agent instead. You’ll need to make sure you don’t move until it dries and hardens. It’s as good as stitches, and will fall off on its own in time. That’s also the biggest downside – it means it’ll fall off before you’re fully healed, and if you try using your wings then, you’ll tear it open.”

“I understand. How long until it heals?”

“If you were a human stabbed in the same place? I’d give it a month, maybe two. For a dragon…I don’t know if you heal faster or slower than we do. I’d say to avoid even trying until you’ve had two months. When you move the wings, if the pain is more of a dull ache than a sharp pain, you’re probably fine.”

“I’m going to hold your word to that,” Eupheme said from the other bed.

Tythel grimaced. “What if it becomes a dull ache sooner?” she asked.

“Then you’re going to be cautious and not take risks, your highness,” Eupheme said, her voice firm. “I’m not having you tear your back open just when you’ve started healing.”

Two months. It could be worse. It could be like her eye, unlikely to ever work again. That’s probably how long we’ll need to meet back with the others, Tythel thought. “Fine.”

“Your word?” Eupheme asked.

“My word,” Tythel said.

The binding agent stung less than the disinfectant had, although it still wasn’t a pleasant sensation. “What is that, anyway?”

“Glue,” Otis said.

Tythel looked over her shoulder at him. “You just glued my back together?”

“It’s something the Alohym brought with them. A special type of glue, one of the strongest glues there is. I normally use it over stitches, to seal the wound, but it works fine on its own.”

“I’ve never heard of glue that could hold skin together.”

“It’s a fairly new treatment. The Alohym don’t use it that way – or if they do, they don’t mention it. A doctor I know who works with the Alohym field hospitals has found it’s a good way to provide battlefield injury treatment. Seals them up until something better can be done, if something else is needed. In your case…it will hold.”

“Thank you,” Tythel said. Eupheme and her both had other injuries that needed attention, and Otis tended to them with swift professionalism. Tythel tried not to note that Eupheme bore the treatment much more stoically.

“I don’t suppose you know where we can find a tailor that is both discreet and willing to handle odd requests?” Eupheme asked when Otis was done.

“For the wings, you mean?” Otis asked. Eupheme nodded in agreement, and Otis considered for a moment. “Are you staying the night? I might have someone for you, but I need to make sure they’re available.”

Tythel looked at Eupheme, who gave her a slight nod. “We will,” Tythel said.

She almost felt bad knowing Eupheme intended to spend the night spying on the staff to ensure there weren’t any unpleasant surprises.

Almost.

 

Small Worlds Part 267

“There are concerns,” Xuanzang said, “about the Eschaton Cycle.”

“About the cycle as a whole?” Dianmu asked, leaning forward and resting her elbows on her knees. She fixed Xuanzang with an intense gaze. “I was expecting you to say this is about me.”

“Because you’ve repeatedly ignored imperial decrees to cease your activities among Humanity and return to the Jade Palace?” Xuanzang smiled, but this time it didn’t quite reached his eyes. “While  your actions there have been a source of consternation, no one was really prepared to fault you for what you were doing there. You were quiet, you were discreet, and you were helping people. And you were in mourning, and that is something everyone believed afforded you a great deal of leeway.”

“Believed?” Dianmu asked. “I’m not sure I like the implication of the past tense there.”

“I’m telling you what others are saying,” Xuanzang held up a hand in a placating gesture. “You are not without allies here. I count myself among them. But you need to know of your reputation. I just ask that you don’t shoot the messenger.”

Dianmu settled back some. “Apologies.”

“None needed.”

Someone – or, Cassandra assumed, something that was humanoid – came in with a tray containing a pot of tea and three cups. Xuanzang smiled up at the figure, and conversation paused as drinks were poured. The aroma was heavenly, and Cassandra did her best to enjoy it. It was hard. The way this conversation was going had soured her appetite.

“Now, where was I?” Xuanzang said as he placed his tea on the table. “The view now is that you have become somewhat…erratic. Your refusal of past summons does you no favors there. Working with…Crystal, I understand she calls herself now?” Dianmu nodded in response to the question, and Xuanzang continued. “Well, working with Crystal has made things worse. Her reputation is still that she is a source of trouble, a destabilizing influence on her fellow gods.”

“We’ve been friends of millenia,” Dianmu said, and Cassandra noted the defensive tone.

“Yes. Tell me, Dianmu, how often have you wondered about my judgement when it comes to Sun Wukong because of our friendship?”

Dianmu nodded in assent of the point. “It is different, I’d argue, but I imagine you’d say the same if our positions were reversed.”

“Oh yes. Quite loudly.” This time, the smile was more genuine.

“I don’t understand why that’s still a problem. We know now that the Eschaton Cycle is real. Or is that still in question?”

Xuanzang shook his head firmly. “No, I know of none here who still doubt that it is real. The world is coming to an end. The age of Man is drawing to a close. That is now seen as inevitable. The problem now, however, is if it’s something we should or could avoid.”

“It can be avoided,” Dianmu said. “We’ve uncovered a way.”

“Yes. This plan to create portals, evacuate the entire planet. I have to admit, it’s an inspired choice. Meeting the letter of the law while absolutely violating the spirit. I have a friend who would approve a great deal of that course of action.”

Dianmu’s lips tightened into a thin line. Cassandra didn’t need to wonder who Xuanzang was talking about. Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. While Cassandra knew that time and retelling had probably distorted the story a great deal, it seemed Sun Wukong’s reputation for being a troublemaker had not been inaccurate.

I want to meet him. Cassandra had fallen in love with Journey to the West in college, and had read the entire thing when the course had only required selected readings. Given that she’d been working on her pre-med program, sparing time to read that much had been a luxury she really shouldn’t have been able to afford. She’d been so engrossed though, it had just been a matter of sacrificing some nights when she would have been drinking instead. She’d considered that time well spent. Something in the impulsive Monkey King had spoken to her in a way most fictional character’s didn’t. However, they weren’t here so Cassandra could fangirl over one of her favorite characters in literature. No matter how much she wanted to.

Besides, Dianmu might actually kill her, given how unhappy she was at any reference to Sun Wukong.

“It’s a solid plan,” Dianmu said, her voice firm. “It even has a curator’s blessing.”

“A fallen Curator,” Xuanzang said politely.

“He filed the proper paperwork to fall,” Dianmu countered.

“And I am glad to hear that. Yet…” Xuanzang held up a hand to forestall Dianmu’s counterargument. “Dianmu. I’m trying to prepare you for what’s waiting for you.”

“Then can we focus on that?” Dianmus said. “I’ve dealt with attacks on my character before.”

“Of course. Your domain has made you enemies, and many of them are taking this opportunity to speak against you.”

“Storm goddesses aren’t popular here?” The words were out of Cassandra’s mouth before she could stop herself, but now that they had cleared her lips she was glad to have spoken. The two gods seemed to have forgotten she was there, or at least that she might not understand everything they were talking about.

“Dianmu also have dominion over hidden crimes,” Xuanzang said, when Dianmu motioned for him to explain. “It’s made her less than popular among those whose secrets she’s brought to light. Although it has made her excellent at rooting out Anthropophages and other monsters that dwell among humanity.”

Cassandra was very grateful for the tea at that moment. It would have been difficult to avoid fidgeting without something to distract her from the conversation going down this path. “I see,” Cassandra said, once the tea had given her adequate time to cover her discomfort. “No one likes a cop.”

Xuanzang barked out a laugh. “Something like that, yes,” he said, his eyes still sparkling with amusement. “Very well,” he said, turning back to Dianmu. “Allow me to speak plainly then.”

“I certainly wasn’t stopping you,” Dianmu murmured.

Xuanzang waved away the reproach. “Kali has sent messages to us, and to other pantheons. She acknowledges the Eschaton Cycle, and insists that it is a natural part of the universe. That it staves off Entropy. Is that true?”

Dianmu grimaced.

“I feared as much. There are many among the Heavenly Court that do not believe we have a right to try and change something so fundamental to the order of the cosmos. If, as long as the Eschaton Cycle is allowed to continue, the universe will endure forever, who are we to place humanity above the rest of the Universe?”

“We aren’t, though,” Dianmus said. “This plan will fulfill the requirements of the cycle. Human civilization as we know it will end. The sun will be restored, and Earth will continue and, eventually, evolve new sentient life to repeat the process.”

“And in that time, the knowledge stored in human minds will be re-created. We are on the verge of, in just a few generations, leaving our Solar System. This will set humanity back, but it will still allow them to reach that before the next step in the cycle. We will spread across the stars, and in the process disrupt the natural order of things. What if that is the catalyst for the march towards Heat Death, or for Dark Energy to accelerate to the point where it will eventually overcome gravity and even the bonds within atoms? What if, in doing so, we sentence the universe to death?” At Dianmu’s expression, he shook his head. “This is not what I believe. If we are not meant to save Humanity, I believe we will fail in attempting to do so – but that does not mean we should not attempt. Even the gods are not stronger than Destiny, so there is no risk in trying.”

“But…”

“But the Jade Emperor disagrees. Given the source, given that it is you coming here, and given that there is a risk of sentencing the universe to a slow death…he has forbidden anyone to aid you.” Xuanzang put down his tea. “I’m sorry, Dianmu. So long as the fundamental order of reality is threatened, we have been forbidden from helping.”

Dianmu sighed. “His decision is final?”

“It is possible his mind could be swayed, given enough of the one thing you are soley lacking.”

“Time,” Dianmu said.

“Time,” Xuanzang agreed. “The only ones who would follow you…well, they’d have to be someone who would defy the Jade Emperor. Someone who has proven they care little for the decrees of Heaven. Someone who is a bit of a rebel themselves.”

Dianmu rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Please…please tell me you are not going to suggest what I think you are going to suggest.”

“I am not fond of lying,” Xuanzang said, and Cassandra had to fight back an urge to smile as Xuanzang continued. “So tell me. How desperate are you?”

Dianmu sighed. “Very. Fine. Tell me…how do I reach Sun Wukong?”

Cassandra couldn’t contain her smile any longer.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 181

Otis worked in silence for a bit. “He’ll live,” Otis said after a bit. “I’m sorry, your highness, but that’s all I can say. He’ll likely never wake up again, and he’ll certainly never be the same.” He gave her a sidelong glance. “At least, not without the Heartflame. You’re certain it will work?”

Tythel did her best not to look at how dangerously collapsed parts of Tellias’ skull looked, tried her hardest not to listen to how ragged his breathing was. “No,” she whispered. “But I have to try.”

Otis nodded and began to pack up his medical equipment. “I don’t…I can’t afford to cover the tax after the two months,” Otis said. “Not without bankrupting myself quickly.”

“It won’t be a problem,” Tythel said. “Light and Shadow, my father’s horde is…it won’t be a problem.”

“Good.” Otis sighed. “I’m surprised to find you back here. After everything that happened in Edgeminster, I figured you’d want to be with the resistance. Reclaiming your throne.”

“We were separated in the ruins of Hallith,” Tythel said. It felt like years ago. “And we were leading away a monster that was chasing us. What happened in Edgeminster?” The question was an afterthought. She was so worried about Tellias, she’d missed the dour turn to his eyes, the way the word came out as a harsh whisper.

“You haven’t heard? Then…I’m sorry to be the one to inform you. There was a massacre. Hundreds are dead. Maybe thousands.”

Tythel stared at him, her eyes growing wide, and Eupheme gasped in surprise. “Tell me everything. Please.”

Otis sat back down. “What I’ve heard was mostly rumor and hearsay. The Alohym have not released a statement, and when they do it will probably be full of lies. There was…someone in Edgeminster. An Underfolk. That much, most of the rumors agree on. The Alohym arrived hunting him, including a thing that looked like a human encased in the carapace of an Alohym. And…someone else.”

Tythel nodded, feeling numbness creeping in. Another like Catheon, she thought. The same kind of being that had nearly killed all three of them. And there were more of them. What if the Alohym had an army of those things? They couldn’t fight that. No one could fight that. If they were waiting…wait. Her brain started to catch up to what Otis had said. And, more importantly, how he had said it. That hesitation, the way his eyes had gone to the window, a mixture of fear and anger creeping into his voice… “Someone else?”

“The hunt for the Underfolk became dangerous,” Otis said, like she hadn’t spoken. “A bell tower exploded. Everyone agrees on that. Then, somehow, the Underfolk hijacked the song network. He or she or…I never learned a good word for the Underfolk maharim, but it probably wasn’t one of them, since they never leave the caves. Although these days, none of the Underfolk do, so who knows?” Otis shook his head. “Anyway, the Underfolk takes over the song network in Edgeminster and starts playing what the Alohym and the…other person were talking about.”

There it is again. “Someone else.” “Other person.” Each time like he was avoiding speaking the name for fear of invoking some terrible curse. “Otis…who is it?”

“They were willing to destroy the town to get the Underfolk. Made it very, very clear that…that they didn’t care what happened to the people in there.” Otis’ voice cracked on the word care, and Tythel knew he was thinking about his wife, and how well the Alohym’s ‘mercy’ had gone for him. “They made it abundantly clear that the town was nothing to them, that Edgeminster could burn, even their own soldiers could burn. The entire town heard it, including the Alohym’s troops. No one knows who shot first. Some say it was the soldiers. Some say it was the townspeople. Some say it was the soldiers shooting at each other, or at the Alohym, or at…at her guest. No one’s positive. But…the Alohym shot last. That much is certain. They’ve got some of their ships hovering over the town all day round right now, and they say there’s a dozen Alohym personally on the ground, hunting down rebels. They say that the rebels include their own soldiers. They also say you’re there, fighting alongside them, or that you were there and died, or that there was no Underfolk and it was you instead, but…” Otis gestured to Tythel. “At least I know that rumor is a lie.”

Tythel took a deep breath. “Eupheme. We…we can’t sleep tonight. We have to get back up the mountain, get my father’s horde. The resistance will need it, and Tellias will need it so Otis can keep him alive.”

“All of it?” Eupheme asked, her voice carefully neutral.

“All we can carry,” Tythel said, giving Eupheme a slight nod. The Alohym slaughtered an entire town. She couldn’t wrap her head around that. It was too big. Armies clashed. People died. But cities…cities were wiped out in wars, but this felt different. Worse. In the past, it was done with swords and arrows and fire. Now it’s done with unlight and from ships that fly too high for anyone to fight against. 

In their initial invasion, the Alohym had avoided damaging civilian centers. It seemed those days were past. As dead as what passed for peace these days.

“Understood,” Eupheme said, and Tythel could practically feel the relief radiating off her.

Otis, likewise, looked relieved, and Tythel hated to shatter that relief, but she had to know. “Otis…who was it? The person you don’t want to name, I mean.”

“I don’t know for certain,” Otis said. “But some people claim to have heard the Alohym speaking to him, and some of the descriptions of him match…they match.”

“They match what?”

The next word was like a dagger straight to her heart.

“Nicandros. I’m sorry, your highness, but it sounds like Nicandros.”

“Impossible,” Tythel said, although she knew even as the word left her lips she was saying it not because it was impossible, but because she didn’t want it to be impossible. “Nicandros gave up everything to fight the Alohym. Everything. He only stopped when his son signed up with them. He wouldn’t…he would never betray us. He’d never work with them.”

“Never?” Otis said. “He was…he was close to Freda. Not me. But from what she told me, from what I saw, Nicandros was a man who would do whatever he thought was necessary. His hatred of the Alohym was only eclipsed by his love for his son, and he would do anything to protect his Tomah.”

“Tomah is dead,” Tythel said, the words coming out far harsher than she intended. “I should know. I killed him with my own hands.” As if their mention reminded them they existed, her hands started to shake. “There’s nothing else Nicandros can do for Tomah. All he has left is hating the Alohym.”

“No,” Eupheme said quietly, putting a hand on Tythel’s shoulder. “Tythel…he has someone else he can convince himself to hate.”

Tythel didn’t mean to let the sob out. Without tears, it was a harsh, ragged sound, and she clamped it down before it could be followed by more. Eupheme’s hand on her shoulder tightened, and Otis looked at her with eyes full of sorrow.

“There’s something else,” he said. “Some of the rumors carry the exact words. One in particular…he was demanding the Alohym give him his son back. Just like they offered…pardon the language. Just like they offered “that bitch her father.”

Sorrow is a powerful emotion, but it has little it can offer to hold off the advance of dread. Rephylon had offered her Karjon. Had offered her Karon returned to life with Alohym technology. Nicandros…what would Nicandros do if it meant he could have Tomah back?

Shadow take me, that’s the wrong question, Tythel thought, the fear taking root in her heart. It would be much better to ask what he wouldn’t do to get Tomah back? 

For the life of her, Tythel couldn’t think of a single thing for that list.

 

Small Worlds Part 266

Xuanzang lead them up an impossible bridge to one of the sections of the Heavenly Palace. There were people up here – other gods, Cassandra guessed, and probably some other beings that didn’t fit into the normal categories of God, Monster, or Human. She’d known from Bast that demons and angels did exist, and Nabu was a Curator – a concept she still didn’t fully understand – so these people were probably in a group like that. I’ll just think of them as Spirits until I get a better word. They couldn’t all be gods, that Cassandra was sure of – there were far too many of them. Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands.

It was a city contained in a palace, and Cassandra felt like she was an intruder among this sea of serene faces. Cassandra took a step closer to Dianmu, waiting for someone to see her, recognize what she was, and cause an uproar. How could they not know what she was? She could hear all their hearts, couldn’t they hear how her own was pounding. Try to relax she told herself. You’re being absurd. Dianmu wouldn’t bring you here to let you get torn apart, and if something happens, you’re not helpless…and Dianmu will protect you. 

Something in that thought rang a bit hollow, and Cassandra had to turn the thought over to contemplate it further. In truth, Cassandra was realizing she knew very little about the goddess she’d followed to this beautiful land of floating palaces and impossible bridges. Bast hadn’t mentioned Dianmu, and all Cassandra had really seen Dianmu do is annihilate a host of Cardiophages with sunlight.

Cassandra’s heart started to beat even harder. Ryan had promised her protection, but what if this was Dianmu’s way of getting rid of the Anthropophage? Bring her to the Heavenly Palace, out her to the other gods up here, let them tear her apart, and then go back sad to Ryan and say “So sorry, I did everything I could, but I was outnumbered?”

Stop it, Cassandra told herself. It wasn’t impossible, but if Dianmu wanted to do kill Cassandra, there were about a dozen better ways to do it – including having told Ryan he had to choose between helping Cassandra and Dianmu’s support, and then cutting her down when Ryan chose Dianmu. Why wouldn’t he? With the entire world at stake, every bit of aid mattered. The fact that they were going to work with Horus again, knowing what he was and what he had done, made that abundantly clear. There was no reason to believe Dianmu was that vicious or petty.

And yet, Cassandra worried. It must have shown on her face, because Dianmu gave her a curious look, and slowed down slightly to let Cassandra catch up to her. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“I just…feel exposed,” Cassandra said, after a momentary hesitation.

Dianmu’s forehead furrowed. “Because of your condition?”

Your condition. Such a delicate way of putting it. You have an insatiable hunger for hearts. It’s a condition. “Yes.”

“I understand. I think it’s good that we encountered Xuanzang first. He’s a very understanding sort. He spent centuries standing up for…him, after all.”

“Sun Wukong?”

Dianmu nodded. “He’s impulsive, reckless, and an absolute pain to deal with for any extended period of time. He aided Xuanzang on the Journey as a penance for everything he had done in the Kingdom of Heaven. Xuanzang made no friends defending him, yet he did anyway. He has this absurd belief that with patience and understanding, even the most monstrous being can be reformed.”

Cassandra’s heart sped up further. “Absurd belief?”

“Yes. Absolutely absurd that he holds onto it, in the fact of so many people insisting he is wrong. And yet he’s been proven right, time and time again. It’s almost like the belief is absurd not because of what he believes, but because those that refuse to believe it create self-fulfilling prophecies for themselves. Treat someone like a monster and watch them act like a monster. Treat them with respect, and they often live up to earning that expectation.” Dianmu gave Cassandra a level gaze. “I’ve never heard of an Anthropophage reforming. Yet I’ve also never heard of one trying. I’d have faith in any who attempted.” Her eyes slipped over to Xuanzang and back to Cassandra, and Dianmu winked. “If such a being existed, I’d like to meet them.”

“It would be…interesting,” Cassandra said, knowing how weak her voice sounded. Can she read my mind? Or perhaps thousands of years of knowing people had given Dianmu some insight into how people thought.  Given that Dianmu didn’t respond to Cassandra’s mental inquiry, it seemed like that was the more likely option. But one data point was hardly conclusive.

Cassandra gave Dianmu a smile, and very determinedly imaged the poised goddess shoving a finger up her own nose and rooting around. It was difficult to get the mental image to form, but once it did, she watched Dianmu’s eyes carefully. There was no reaction. If she’d seen what Cassandra had thought, she was impossibly good at hiding her reactions.

“Thank you,” Cassandra said, realizing she’d been staring blankly at Dianmu for the last dozen steps.

Dianmu cleared her throat and gave a nearby being a sideling glance before turning her gaze back to Cassandra. “For what? Idle speculation?”

Cassandra bit her cheek and nodded. “It’s an interesting intellectual exercise,” she said, a bit too loudly. Xuanzang didn’t turn around, but his head tilted to the side.

“Mind if I intrude into the discussion?” he asked.

Cassandra flushed, glad he couldn’t see them.

“Perhaps later,” Dianmu said smoothly. “Girl talk.” She winked at Cassandra.

“I see.” Xuanzang did look at them now, and there was a sparkle in his eyes. “Well, in that case, I suggest you table the discussion for now. We’re here.”

“Here,” apparently, was home that was comparatively humble to the splendor around them. Comparatively was a relative term – it was still a mansion in the Tang dynasty style, six smaller buildings that wrapped around an open courtyard with a four pointed pavilion in the center. But unlike the other buildings they’d seen so far, the walls were simple wood and relatively unadorned, the roofs green tiles and nothing fancier, and the jīnzhuān bricks were replaced with simple clay ones. It was still gorgeous, but it had a humble beauty.

Perfect, in fact, for the man that was leading them now.

Xuanzang led them to one of the buildings. There was a place where they could take off their shoes before entering, and inside were simple fabric slippers to cover their feet. Cassandra did so and sat on the floor next to Dianmu when Xuanzang motioned for them to do so.

“The Jade Emperor has concerns,” Xuanzang said, the human fading from his eyes, “about your recent activities, Dianmu. You are developing a reputation as being somewhat of a rogue, and there are…concerns.”

Dianmu leaned forward. “Tell me everything.”

Cassandra settled in to listen.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 180

I’m very sorry for another silence after the last one – I had a family crisis, and that plus my continued illness left me unable to write. The family crisis is resolved and the individual is doing much better as of today, and I can breathe through my nose, which is goddamn amazing at this point. Thank you all for your patience and understanding. Especially to my patrons – I admit I was dreading seeing how much pledges had dropped in my absence, and I was rendered speechless to see no one had unsubscribed. You all absolutely blow my mind and I cannot thank you enough.
As I get back into the groove, updates will not be on a set schedule, but I’ll be shooting for an average of 3 updates to all stories every two weeks. I’ll have a set schedule by February, barring yet another crisis. 

If Tythel had any doubt about Catha’s honesty when it came to Freda’s fate, those doubts were erased upon seeing Otis. The man Tythel remembered was large and full of life and bluster. This man was half the man she remembered. He was thinner, his clothes hanging loosely like they were still sized for the man he’d been before. There were dark circles under his eyes, and his hair had turned the color of ash. The last few months had aged him decades, and Tythel wanted to hug him and tell him they would find the people responsible for his suffering and make them pay.

Unfortunately, the woman in question stood behind Otis. Catha looked as worried as Tythel felt. How dare you pretend to care for him? You did this to him. Tythel again had to restrain herself from leaping at the woman across from her and putting her talons to use. Eupheme’s hand on her shoulder reminded Tythel she needed to constrain herself.

Otis gave them both slight nods and got to work inspecting Tellias. It was clinical and detached, the examination of a man who had seen too many horrors to let one more nightmare bother him. 

“Can I be frank with you?”

Tythel nodded.

“Your friend here isn’t alive. Not in any meaningful sense of the word. He has a pulse, he’s breathing, but his pupils aren’t dilating to light, he shows no responses to external stimuli. If there’s anything of the man you knew still in there – which I quite frankly doubt – he’s lost in a private world of agony.”

“I suppose I did ask you to be frank.” Tythel said. “I just didn’t expect…”

Otis gave her such a forlorn look that Tythel closed her mouth. “Miss, I don’t want to pretend this is something other than it is. The best thing you can do for your friend right now is let me fill the bloodwetters with poppy milk. If there’s anything left of him, his pain will stop.”

“Along with everything else,” Tythel said, clenching her hands into fists.

Otis nodded. “I’m sorry. As much as the…as the Alohym have advanced what we can do for patients – and Light help me, it is infinitely better than what we did for them before – he is beyond our ability to help. A lumcaster’s too, though there are precious few of them left around. It would require far too much Light to heal him.”

“There’s a way,” Tythel said.

She expected Otis to protest, to try and convince her she was wrong. She didn’t expect him to close his eyes tightly, taking a deep breath. “I understand that hope, miss. I do. And I know how hard it can be to let go. But right now, your friend is just suffering. Let me do what I can for him. Let me spare him that pain.”

“No,” Tythel said. “You have to keep him here. You have to keep him alive.”

Otis took another slow, deep breath. It wasn’t anger, like Tythel had initially thought. He was holding back tears of his own. “Alohym law means that, unless his family makes a claim and funds his survival, I cannot prolong it longer than two weeks. After that, if no family has come forward-”

“What right does his betrothed have?” Tythel asked, snapping the question.

“She…would have the same right as family, although their claim would supersede hers if they came forward. Upon her instructions, I can prolong his life for two months. After that, I’m required to take a tax to fund the treatment of patients with a hope of survival.”

“Then I have two months to get you the money.”

Otis’s expression made it clear he didn’t believe her hasty lie, but didn’t care enough to protest. Or maybe that was too harsh. Maybe he just couldn’t bring himself to crush her hope. “I hope in two months, you’ll reconsider. The tax is…designed to discourage needless suffering.”

Designed to make sure only the wealthy can keep their loved ones alive, binding their hope to the Alohym and their machines, Tythel translated, though she held her tongue. “How much?”

“Two thousand keys a month.”

“I’ll pay it,” Tythel said, without flinching. A single jewel from her father’s horde would buy Tellias ten months of life. A dozen of them…if she couldn’t learn Heartflame in that time, then maybe it would be time to admit that Tellias was gone.

“Catha, can you check on the other patients?” Otis asked, looking over his shoulder at her.

Catha nodded and exited. Otis turned back to Tythel. “So it really is you?”

Tythel’s heart stopped beating for a moment, then started up again at a runner’s pace. “Really is who?”

Otis snorted. “Your disguise is not a good as it could be. Makeup covers a great deal, but your voice…I remember your voice. I remember how cavalier you were about money then too. A dragon’s view.”

“Otis…” Tythel reached out and took his hand. “I’m sorry about Freda.”

“Thank you,” Otis said. He paused for a moment, and a bitter smile spread across his lips. “Your highness.”

“You don’t…you don’t need to call me that.” Tythel’s nictitating membranes flashed, clearing away tears that weren’t coming. She’d lost her tear ducts at some point, and her eyes just burned instead. 

“He should,” Eupheme said, speaking up softly. “He is one of your subjects, after all.”

“She’s right,” Otis said, before Tythel could protest. “My father always claimed one day I’d treat the illnesses of dukes. I never expected to skip straight to the royal family. I certainly never expected to do it without knowing that’s what I was doing.”

Tythel winced. “I didn’t know either.”

“I believe that.” Otis squeezed her hand one more time. “You…have some dragon magic that can save your friend?”

“I will,” Tythel said. “I just have to learn it. Heartflame.”

“I’ve heard of it,” Otis said. “Heals like light. But instead of turning people into monsters, too much…too much makes them into dragons.”

“I’d say just enough,” Tythel said.

“Is that what your friend – your betrothed – wants?”

Tythel sniffed. “I don’t know. And he’s not…” Otis gave her a warning glance, and Tythel cut off her denial. “I don’t know.”

“Some would say you shouldn’t do that to him without his permission.”

Tythel had to rub her eyes to dispel the itch, the nictitating membranes not doing enough to relieve the need to cry. I’ll be past that one day. I’ll be like my father. My sorrow wont burn my eyes. “If he prefers death to being a dragon, he can fall on a sword once he’s healthy enough to make that choice. But I’ll be damned to the blackest Shadow if I don’t do everything I can to let him choose.”

Otis nodded. “I did say some would say. I wouldn’t be one of them.”

“Otis…you should know. Catha…she called the Alohym on me. What happened to Freda…”

Otis looked at her with eyes that had stared through a thousand torments and shook his head. “Catha wanted to. I agreed, your highness. I thought…I thought they’d spare us if I did.” The tears he had fought for so long finally began to mist his eyes. “I should have known better. That’s not how the Alohym show mercy. They only spared me.”

Tythel found herself unable to speak as the man who had saved her life and doomed the woman he loved collected himself. It took some time. 

Small Worlds Part 265

I’m still alive. Apologies for the delays. It’s probably going to be erratic until the holiday season is over, and I appreciate everyone’s patience.

 

Cassandra knew she was staring with her mouth hanging open, but at the moment couldn’t bring herself to care. The Heavenly Palace of the Jade Emperor was beyond her wildest imaginings. It was built on a series of seven floating islands that rested within clouds, connected by vast arching bridges that spanned over a perfectly green field of grass below. The buildings were built in the style of the Forbidden City – or more likely, Cassandra expected, the Forbidden City had been built in the style of the Heavenly Palace – although on a scale no human builders could have managed with the technology on the time. Under the floating bridges were rivers that wound through the sky, flowing over nothing and filled with iridescent fish that glimmered in the sunlight.

Dianmu’s gateway had opened in a pavilion on that perfect field, paved with golden bricks known as jīnzhuān. This place is so magnificent, Cassandra marveled, even the entranceway is paved with gold. 

It was a far cry from the dark and terrible realms Bast and Vlad had shown her – his nanoverse is crawling citadels the size of planets, hers of twisted terrors transpiring under the baleful gaze of pyramids that housed hateful suns. This place wasn’t twisted and evil, it didn’t fill her with dread. It was the first place she’d since she’d gotten involved with these gods that was full of pure wonder, untainted by anything darker.

A being was descending from one of the islands, leaping off the edge and descending as slowly as a floating feather, his robes billowing out behind him. Dianmu squinted at the approaching form and smiled. “Tang Sanzang,” she said to Cassandra. “Better known in English as the Golden Cicada.”

Cassandra had to suppress a surprised gasp. She didn’t do very well at it, and Dianmu’s eyes twinkled. “The Golden Cicada?”

“You’ve heard of him?” Dianmu asked.

Cassandra nodded firmly. “I took a class where we analyzed The Journey to the West as for a literature credit. Tripitaka was the reincarnation of the Golden Cicada and we learned he was based on a historical monk, Xuanzang, and…wait. If gods are created by finding their nanoverses, does that mean that he is Xuanzang?”

Dianmu laughed. “Oh, he’s going to like you.”

“I mean…crap. Should I bow? Kowtow? What do I-”

Dianmu put a hand on her shoulder. “Follow my lead, Cassandra. Bow as deeply as I do, and slightly more. But do not worry – Cicada is friendly, and understands that you are showing respect, so long as that is what you are doing.”

“But…I’m an anthropophage,” Cassandra said, her voice small. Dianmu squeeze her shoulder reassuringly, but it was too late for her to anything else to put Cassandra at ease. Golden Cicada had touched to the ground and was approaching. “Dianmu,” he said.

Dianmu bowed, and Cassandra imitated the gesture, following Dianmu’s advice and going lower with the motion than Dianmu did. Cicada returned the bow, and Cassandra noted his bow was not as low as either of theirs – it seemed that he outranked Dianmu. “Xuanzang,” she said as they all straightened, her voice warm. “It is good to see you again.”

Now that he was on the ground, Cassandra could get a better look at him. He was somewhat plain, a far cry from the beautiful and handsome gods Cassandra had grown used to, but that was offset by a welcoming warmth to his eyes that seemed almost grandfatherly. Remembering what she could of the mythology of Journey to the West, Cassandra thought that perhaps a Buddhist monk would consider the overblown beauty of most Gods as a vanity he wanted to avoid.

“I welcome your return as well,” Cicada said, and Cassandra had to wonder how she should think of him – was Cicada right? Or should it be the full Golden Cicada? Or Xuanzang or Tang Sanzang or even Tripitaka? She silently wished she’d been given more time to ask Dianmu questions, and decided to follow the storm goddesses lead and start thinking of him as Xuanzang. “You’ve been away from the Heavenly Palace for far too long. I’m glad you’ve returned to us in these trying times.”

“So you know?” Dianmu asked.

Xuanzang nodded. “We do know. And we know why you are here, what fear drove you to return.” The warmth in his eyes faded somewhat.

“Do you know the Emperor’s answer already?” Dianmu asked.

“I do not,” Xuanzang said. “But I do fear it will not be to your liking.” He smiled. “But we can talk of such dark things later. For now, we can celebrate your return. You and your guest – we have not been introduced.”

“Apologies for my lapse there,” Dianmu said. “This is Cassandra.”

“Cassandra,” Xuanzang said. “It is a pleasure to meet you. I have heard a great deal of your affliction, and I hope your burden has grown easier to bear.”

Oh crap he knows, Cassandra thought, her mind racing. How did he already know? Could he see it on her? Was she obviously an Anthropophage to everyone who saw her? Was he going to-

Dianmu was laughing politely, a hand covering her mouth. “Forgive me, I should have been clearer,” she said. “This is not the Cassandra. This is just a Cassandra. It has become fashionable on Earth to name children after some of the figures from myth, and Cassandra is one of the names that has endured well into modern times.”

Xuanzang smiled. “Of course, I should have asked.” He turned back to Cassandra. “It is still a pleasure to meet you. I understand this has become a more common greeting among your people?” He offered his hand.

Cassandra took it, her mind reeling still from the whiplash. “Thank you,” she said. “I’m a huge fan.”

“A…huge fan?” Xuanzang said, looking her up and down. “You seem to be human to me.”

“No, I mean…I…” But Xuanzang had a glint to his eyes, and Cassandra flushed. “You were making a joke, apologies.”

“No, my apologies,” Xuanzang said. “I think I spend too much time with Sun Wukong still – his sense of humor has rubbed off on me.”

Dianmu’s lips curled down in the barest hint of a frown. “Sun Wukong isn’t…here, is he?”

“Of course not,” Xuanzang said. “You know how much he dislikes spending time here. Last I heard, he was off on another adventure on one of the worlds orbiting Proxima Centurai. I doubt he’s even heard about what’s going on.”

Dianmu’s face relaxed. “I know he’s a friend of yours, and yet…”

“He can be trying,” Xuanzang said smoothly before Dianmu could finish whatever she’d been about to say. “I know that all too well, believe me.”

Cassandra realized she was staring, and shook herself out of it. “Sun Wukong is real. So that means you were Tripitaka?”

“Among other names,” Xuanzang said. “Allegory and myth and truth blend together in so much of the old literature. It’s hard to keep track of myself sometimes, and I lived it.”

“I can imagine,” Cassandra said.

“Perhaps you would like to dine with me?” Xuanzang asked, his glance indicating the invitation included Dianmu. “You’ve come a long way, and I’d love to answer your questions – while asking my own about Earth. It’s been some time since I was last there.”

“I’d love to!” Cassandra blurted out before Dianmu could speak, then turned red and glanced over at the storm goddess. “I mean…if that would be all right.”

“It would be,” Dianmu said after a pause. “I have questions about the Heavenly Palace of late, old friend – and why you think the Jade Emperor will reject my request.”

Xuanzang nodded somberly. “Then come with me. I hope I can answer some of your questions – and prepare you for the worst.”

As excited as Cassandra was, even she couldn’t miss the way that statement hung in the air.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 179 (Start of Book 3)

And, after far too long, we return to Tythel and co. I’m going to be holding off on trying to keep a regular update schedule until after the holidays to give myself time to keep recovering from illness and all that, and that also is delaying the release of early access chapters on Patreon slightly – but that will be coming as soon as possible. I’m so excited to bring this back. Enjoy.

Tythel felt like she’d never fully escape Hillsdale. Her entire life she’d wanted nothing more than to explore the town, be among the people so far below her father’s lair, see what they did and how they lived. She hadn’t thought of them as her fellow humans – she was far too much her father’s daughter to feel like other humans would be her kin – but she’d wanted to understand their lives, see the stories they lived with her own eyes instead of reading about them in tomes her father had gathered over centuries. 

It was darkly amusing how much she’d come to hate this place. 

Maybe if she had come here under better circumstances at at least one point in her life. If her first visit hadn’t been because she was clinging to life after being shot with an unlight beam and ended with her fleeing for her life alongside Nicandros. If her second visit hadn’t been because she and her friends were trying to lure a monster to her father’s valley for a battle to the death, a fight she had half expected to end with her dying in her father’s home. 

If her third visit hadn’t been because Tellias was clinging to life, a life she could save if only she’d been able to master Heartflame.

“Freda!” Tythel hissed, banging on the door once again, hoping the woman would be the one to answer the door. This was the place she’d recovered once before, through the kindness of Otis and Freda, and anyone could save Tellias it was them – or they would know where to take him. 

“Are you sure they slept here?” Eupheme asked. Her voice was quiet, and although Eupheme knew better than to whisper when trying to avoid notice, Tythel could still hear the tightness in her voice. She was standing next to the litter they’d built to carry Tellias off the Skitterer and to this place. Tythel could hear his breathing, wet and ragged. He’s not suffering. Not with his skull damaged like that. If Tellias was still in there in anything resembling awareness, his brain was far too broken for him to feel any physical sensation. But that didn’t mean his body was flourishing. It was barely clinging to life.

The slow death. That’s what they called these injuries these days. The mind was damaged beyond the repair of even Alohym medicine, too damaged to be healed with light without causing mutation. There was one thing that could heal an injury like this, and it was something beyond Tythel’s current powers. Yet if they could get him to the machines in time, he could be stabilized. Kept alive until Tythel could learn how to heal him.

If only Freda would answer the flathing door.

“I hear someone in there,” Tythel growled, and she raised her hand again. To knock, although she was a moment away from bashing down the door with brute force and dragging whoever was in there out to help.

She didn’t need to. The person inside finally began to move towards the door with hesitant steps, and Tythel could hear the scrape of a latch being undone. “Who’s there?” someone said, opening the door a fraction.

“Someone who desperately needs healing,” Tythel said, trying not to sound too angry. It was a woman speaking, and her voice was strangely familiar.  It wasn’t Freda, that was certain.

The figure on the other side opened the door. “What happened…oh, Light and Shadow.” The swear came as soon as she saw Tellias’s form, and her distraction helped her not notice the way Tythel’s eyes widened when she saw the speaker.

Catha Lambright. The woman who had sold Tythel to the Alohym, and had almost gotten her killed in the process.

Tythel was glad Eupheme had insisted on the disguise. Tythel’s wings had been a huge problem for getting into town unnoticed, but if she draped them across her her shoulders they could hide – barely – under a cloak. Add to that some modifications Eupheme had down with powder and charcoal, both to hide Tythel’s scales and alter how her features looked, and Catha was unlikely to recognize her. 

That didn’t stop Tythel’s hands from twitching in a reflexive clawing motion. Thankfully, Catha was far too focused on Tellias to notice.

“Bring him in, bring him in,” Catha said, motioning them frantically. “Careful with that litter, if you jostle him it could damage his spine…”

The way she trailed off made it clear Catha was already putting together how little that would matter with the injury to Tellias’s skull, but she was still clearly a professional if nothing else. Under her instructions, Tythel and Eupheme were able to carry Tellias up to one of the cots they had here for the most serious cases. “I’ll get him on a bloodwetter right away, and some medicine to kill off infection,” Catha said. “Then I’ll get Otis. He’ll be able to tell you more.”

“Freda,” Tythel said. Otis had vassilated on whether or not to report them. Tythel had far more trust for Freda’s skills – and her discretion.

The mention of the name had an immediate reaction on Catha. Her eyes widened, and began to glisten. She started to get to work on the bloodwetter. Tythel was familiar with the device – it kept you from starving or dehydrating while you were unable to eat or drink. “I’m sorry,” Catha said. “I didn’t…you knew her?”

Tythel noted the past tense and gritted her teeth. “Yes. I did.”

“I’m so sorry,” Catha said.

“What happened?” Tythel asked. 

“She was taken by the Alohym for abetting rebellion. When she wouldn’t tell them…she held on for so long, they say.” 

“She was executed,” Tythel said flatly.

Catha nodded, and Tythel couldn’t help but note that she wouldn’t meet either of their eyes. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

You killed her, Tythel thought, and if they hadn’t needed Catha to keep Tellias alive right then, Tythel didn’t know what she would have done. Freda had saved her life. The first human Tythel had ever met who wasn’t trying to kill her. Freda was dead, and Tythel hadn’t even known. I didn’t even check when I was here last time. There had been a reason for that, wanting to avoid drawing Alohym attention to this place, but now…now Tythel wished she’d tried to stop.

“Thank you,” Tythel managed gruffly.

“Your friend here…what’s his name?”

“Dommo,” Eupheme said, speaking before Tythel could. Tythel wondered if it was because Eupheme didn’t trust her to be able to remember the lie right now, or if she just wanted to speak before Tythel started clawing Catha’s throat out. 

“Dommo. How was he injured? Otis will want to know what to look for.”

Eupheme shook her head, putting on an angry expression. “Flathing idiot had heard rumors there was still a Dragon’s horde up in the mountain. We came along to try to keep him from breaking his fool’s neck. He pushed ahead of us in the climb, and…”

It was the only lie they’d been able to come up with that would explain how badly battered Tellias was. 

“Third person we’ve had try that since the dragon died,” Catha said, shaking her head. “Although I’m sorry to say your friend is the worst injury we’ve seen because of that.”

Eupheme sniffed convincingly. “That’s Dommo. Has to outdo everyone at everything. Even has to fall off a mountain and get more injury than everyone else.”

Catha smiled sympathetically. How can you smile. How can you smile through the weight of your sins? Tythel wanted to scream, but kept her mouth clamped shut. “Did you clean his wounds?” Catha asked.

Eupheme nodded. “Best we could.” There would be enough dirt from the transit where it would look like an amateur job. At least, they hoped. 

“That’s the only reason he’s alive still. No fever from infection yet. You did a good thing there.” Catha finishing putting the needles in Tellias’s arms. “I’ll go get Otis. You two stay with him, but put these on first.” She handed them a pair of fabric masks with strings in the back. “They’ll filter any contagion on your breaths.”

“Shouldn’t you have worn one?” Tythel asked.

Catha’s response was to open her mouth. There was something silver and artificial, a mesh behind her teeth that stretched as she spoke. “Standard for medical work,” she said, and now that Tythel knew to look for it she could see it flex and move. It was a strange thing. “They activate when we need them.”

Tythel just nodded and tied on the mask. “How far away is Otis?”

“He’s just downstairs. I’ll be back in a moment.”

Good. Tythel could hear what happened, and what she said. She gave the woman a slight nod.

Catha exited and there was nothing to do but wait.

 

Small Worlds Part 264

Thank you everyone for the patience. I think I was a bit optimistic in getting a new Staff Part out today, but at least I’m back to updating!

I’ve missed this. Enjoy.

Chernobog sat in shadows upon a throne of ice, being waited upon by the walking dead. Athena shuddered at the sight. They were the drekavac, and they were one of the punishments that awaited those who followed Chernobog and sinned when doing so. Their souls were forced to stay inside their bodies so they would arise after burial, and every moment they would feel themselves decaying. The sensation of the maggots that crawled beneath their skin, the way their flesh would burn and itch as it rotted away…it was said to drive them mad. In a way, allowing them to serve him here in a palace of ice was a kindness – they would freeze and their skin would crack, but no insects would infest their bodies, and the decay would be limited. On the other hand, it would prolong their punishment greatly…

“Do not waste your pity on them, Olympian.” Chernobog’s voice was a deep rumble. “They are the worst of the sinners. I could make your skin crawl far worse just by telling you of their crimes. Trust me when I say these men deserve far worse than the torment I give them.”

“I trust you on that,” Athena said, and she meant it. As disturbing as the sight was, Chernobog had once been considered a just and good god. He might have become bitter over the centuries, but having turned so cruel as to inflict such horror on innocent men? That seemed impossible to countenance.

“Chernobog, I present you Pallas Athena,” Artemis said. If there was more to her introduction, Chernobog waved it away.

“I know who she is. Although it’s odd you choose Pallas as the epithet. Named for a giant you slew. Is that how you come here, Athena? As Pallas Athena, the slayer of giants? Or are you someone else this time? Perhaps you are here instead as Athena Ageleia, the defender of your people. Or maybe I address Athena Mechaneus, the inventor of new tactics? Or perhaps,” and Chernobog leaned forward, his face emerging for the first time from the shadows that had hidden it, “I address Areia Athena, the warmonger.”

Chernobog had changed his appearance to match his reputation. The skin below his nose was completely gone, instead revealing only a grinning jawbone untroubled by muscle or sinew. His eyes were the color of blood that had soaked into a battlefield, and a crown of horns shaped like canines grew from his skull.

Athena met his gaze without a hint of hesitation. “I am none of these today. I come to you as Athena Soteira, the saving goddess, because the end of the world is at hand, and it desperately needs saving.”

Chernobog studied her closely. “Such brave words,” he said, and his voice was made unnaturally harsh by the lack of lips. Some of those sounds he shouldn’t be able to make even, but glossoliga was a skill that worked in both directions, so long as the god speaking had a mouth to form words. “Your companion scowled when she saw my face. You seem unimpressed.”

“Artemis is a goddess of the wildness. She is disturbed by the unnatural. I, on the other hand, am a goddess of tactics. The horse that allowed the Greeks to raze Troy was a monument to my ability to plan and react appropriately. I know a ploy when I see one.”

Chernobog threw back his head and laughed. As he did, the skin flowed on his face, covering his jaw, retracting the crown into his skull, and returning his eyes to a deep brown. Thick black hair sprung up on his head and a coarse beard stretched across his face. He was a handsome man, although after his monstrous appearance Moloch would have seemed attractive by comparison. “You’re the first person to figure that out in a century,” Chernobog said, and his voice was now like a roaring flame, rich and warm and full of life. “I’d begun to despair anyone noticed.”

Athena allowed herself a small smile. “Why the ruse?”

“I grew tired of people walking on their toes, pretending that I’m not seen by most as a monster. I thought it best to test and see if anyone could see past the external. Well done.”

Athena did her best not to look at Artemis, but couldn’t help but note her scowl. For all the progress Artemis had made, she still wasn’t the best at reading people’s intentions. “Thank you,” she said, relaxing slightly.

“But tell me, Athena Soteira. Did you truly see through it, or was that desperation driving you to hope?”

“If I’m being completely honest? Mostly seeing through it, but I won’t deny the desperation. We have powerful need of aid.”

Chernobog nodded. “Well, this is interesting. It’s been quite some time since anyone has come to me for aid. Especially ever since that damn musical show. The one where they painted me as a devil on a mountain, tormenting souls that came to me seeking succor.”

“I didn’t see that one,” Athena said, which was true of most films. She made a mental note to ask Ryan for more details – sometimes it felt like he’d seen every movie ever made. “But I had heard of you of old. Your reputation did not paint you as a monster, so I had hope that this was just an act.”

“Oh?” Chernobog said, settling back into his chair and resting his head on one hand. “So you’ve never known a god or goddess to turn foul from centuries of abuse?”

“I have,” Athena admitted. “Bast recently had to be slain for the horrors she had unleashed, and the horror she had become.”

“Bast?” Chernobog’s ears perked up. “I’d never imagined it. What did she do?”

“She became an anthropophage,” Athena said, spitting the word.

To her surprise, Chernobog yawned. “Anthropophage. That sort of thing isn’t someone changing. That is change being forced upon them. Hardly a case of-”

“She killed Tyr before that.” Athena didn’t mean to interrupt, but the words were out of her mouth before she could call them back, “as part of a ploy arranged by Enki. She gave his nanoverse to Moloch to turn into a Linworm. All of that lead to her death and antrophophagenisis. She had become a monster before she turned into one.”

Chernobog let out a hiss of air between his teeth. “That…is surprising. Do you know why she turned?”

Athena shook her head. “I wasn’t too interested in asking her questions. Tyr and I had grown close. I wanted her dead.”

“That I can understand.” Chernobog stood up. “Svarog tells me that you tried to warn him about the end of the world. You and this new god, this Ryan Smith. Ishtar’s mad ramblings turned out to be true – the sun grows warmer, and the end comes for humanity. Is that correct?”

So that’s what I did to impress Svarog. There was something to be said for speaking the truth before anyone else saw it. It hadn’t worked out well for Cassandra, but thankfully Athena hadn’t been given her curse. “It is.”

“Good.”

Athena’s eyes widened. “Good?” she practically growled the word.

“Yes. I said good.” Chernobog slumped in his throne. “Look at what humanity has done. Look at what humanity has become. They have enough weapons to end themselves a hundred times over. In our absence, they’ve invented things like genocide. They boil the seas and scorch the skies so they can arrive at a place slightly faster. Why are they worth saving? What gives humanity value?”

“You were one,” Athena said, fighting the urge to clench her hands into fists. “And most of them are innocent of any crime. Would you condemn them to death to punish the guilty?”

“If it’s happening anyway, why should I care?” Chernobog said. “I wouldn’t lift a finger to kill them, but nor will I lift a finger to spare them. There’s no purpose to it.”

Athena took a deep breath, ready to launch into a passionate defense of humanity…then caught herself, just before she spoke. “This is another ruse,” she said, choosing her words carefully.

Chernobog threw back his head in laughter. “I got you this time,” he said. “You have to admit, you believed it.”

“Why?” Athena asked, trying to wrestle her temper under control before she said something truly regrettable.

“Because,” Chernobog said, his face turning serious. “I had to know you cared. If you were able to meet my apathy with dispassion, I would have known you had hidden motives. The fear and anger I saw? Those were real. Those I can trust in.”

“So…you’ll help us?” Athena asked.

“I will gather the bog. We will help humanity escape from Kali’s wrath. But,” he said, raising a finger before she could speak, “We will not be soldiers in your war. We will protect humanity from the wrath of the Destroyer if she comes to us, but we will not hunt her down with you, and we will not march to war.”

“That is more than enough,” Athena said, though she had to fight disappointment for the words to come out. “It will be nice to have some of us focused solely on defense.”

Chernobog grinned. “See? Now I know I’m at last as good at seeing through lies as Athena the wise. No, don’t try to argue. I don’t care, and I won’t have us starting this alliance off poorly. Just tell me where to take my people, and we’ll be there.”

Athena decided to take the better part of Valor, and sat down at a chair that was brought to her by the tormented dead sinners so she could explain the plan.

It would have to be enough.