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The Dragon’s Scion Part 139

“They’re coming,” Tythel said.

The Skitter had been running for the last hour, an hour spent in tense silence, waiting for the very real risk that at any moment a patrol would intercept them. It was a chance worth taking, a risk they were aware of, but so far it hadn’t happened.

None of them had been speaking for that hour. It had stretched on interminably. On more than one occasion Tythel had considered breaking the silence, but the fear of making sound that would cover the sound of pursuit or a waiting ambush had kept her mouth shut. She could only assume the same held for Tellias and Eupheme.

Now, however, they were both looking at her with wide eyes. “What do you hear?” Eupheme asked.

“The sky is screaming,” Tythel said. She’d just picked up on it, and it did what it always did – took her back to the first sound her improved hearing had been able to detect as the Alohym’s tentacled ship descended from the sky to slaughter her father and her. “Screams of iron and cracks of rivulets. It’s one of their ships.”

“Flath. We weren’t expecting that,” Tellias said, spitting out the word. “This is a mistake.”

Tythel shook her head. She wanted to agree with him but had no better plan. The trio that hunted them was too dangerous to fight any other way, and the fact that they were bringing an entire vessel didn’t change that. “I was able to hide in the illusion over the valley after my father died. They couldn’t penetrate it then, and that was…a year ago.”

With a start, Tythel realized she’d turned seventeen a couple days ago. Or she would in a couple of days. Maybe a week in either direction. Dates had never been something she’d focused on too hard – Karjon had been the one to keep track of dates, but he’d used the draconic calendar. Between her sessions of unconsciousness, the long marches that seemed to stretch ahead endlessly, the dull months in hiding at Hallith, and the random days of panic that had each seemed like a week, she’d lost track of the human calendar in comparison.

“Who knows what they might have discovered in the last year?” Tellias asked, his voice thick. “What if they’ve uncovered a way to see through it?”

“Then we die,” Tythel said simply, looking out over the road ahead. She didn’t recognize this stretch of roadway. It was likely a couple more hours before they reached the point where Freda and…Tythel found she couldn’t recall her husband’s name. It didn’t matter. They’d soon reach the point where she’d been rescued.

“That’s all you have to say? ‘Then we die?’” Tellias’ eyes hardened. She could see his hands clench into fists in the arcplate. Would you be this angry if I hadn’t rejected you? Or would you have regretted my acceptance now if I had?

“Yes.” Tythel growled the word. “Tellias, we have a humanoid Alohym, an Umbrist who has been doing this longer than Eupheme, and a true Lumcaster after us. I’m a half-reborn half-dragon, you’ve got arcplate Armin threw together in a cave with a crate of scraps. Eupheme is the only one with a chance of escaping if this goes bad this time, and she’ll die before she escapes without me.”

Eupheme nodded to confirm what Tythel was saying, though she focused on steering the Skitter down the road.

“Light and shadow,” Tythel continued, “we’re massively overmatched. The presence of a ship just adds more Alohym soldiers, and we can cut through those easily enough. They’ll be a distraction, nothing more. If it has flathing Skimmers or weapons of its own, if it’s more than a transport vessel, then the illusion is the only thing keeping us safe. If they can suddenly see through it, we’re flathing dead, and we can’t do anything about that.”

Tellias gave her a stricken look, and Tythel felt immediately guilty. It was hard to remember that he had no more idea what he was doing in this than she did. They both had to go off their best instincts and their training – his in politics, her in history, neither of which was particularly well suited to battle strategies. History is probably better at least, Tythel thought. “I just…feel like we should have a plan other than ‘we die.’”

Tythel sighed heavily. “Well, we have the next few hours to come up with one. If we don’t, we can’t plan for every contingency. This was the best option.”

Eupheme, who had been silent so far, nodded in agreement. “We lead those three back to the others…can you imagine what they’d do? Especially if they came back with an army, and maybe an actual Alohym on the field as well, and a few Skimmers? We’d be slaughtered by the dozens, and Leora would cut our leadership to ribbons. We Umbrists aren’t best as front-line fighters. We’re our best as assassins no walls can keep out. It’d be a massacre, and it would be the end of us.”

“And if we die trying to stop them?” Tellias asked, his voice soft.

“Then we take Leora down with us,” Tythel said, coming to a sudden decision. “The Resistance has fought against Lumcasters before, and Catheon isn’t that much more dangerous than a normal Alohym. She poses the greatest threat – something they won’t know is coming or how to fight.”

Eupheme’s nod was grim, and Tellias could only shake his head – not in negation, but in disbelief. “Well, as long as we have a plan.” He grinned as he said it, but it was a sickly expression even to Tythel’s eyes, and he quickly put on his helmet before they could stare at his face too long.

Behind them, the rending steel sound of the Alohym vessel grew closer. Its progress was faster than theirs, but not by much. In a couple of hours, Tythel would be able to hear the hum of its unlight engine and weaponry. It might give her an idea of this was a gunship or one of their transports. Either would be bad, but the transport would likely be worse.

“I’ve never gone in with a chance the mission would be impossible,” Tellias said quietly. “I always assumed that there was some way out – that if I hadn’t thought of it, de’Monchy had, or my aunt, or Master Armin, or you, your highness. I’ve never known there was a chance it was hopeless.”

“There’s always that chance,” Tythel said, trying to make her voice as gentle as possible. “Have faith, Tellias. We made it this far when you didn’t see the flaws. Light and shadow, most of the time I don’t realize how large the flaws are until afterwards.”

“Well, I feel greatly comforted,” Tellias said, but he laughed after he did, so Tythel assumed it wasn’t meant in anger.

“What I mean is…just because you’re aware of it doesn’t mean it’s any more dangerous. We survived impossible odds before. Somehow. We can do it again. We will do it again.”

Tellias nodded, and his posture seemed to relax some. Tythel was grateful for that.

She wished she had the confidence she was projecting.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 138

If you missed it, book 4 of Small Worlds has wrapped up in serial format. Click here for more information. Book 2 will be out this summer, so now’s a good time to pick up Weird Theology if you’ve been waiting. If you want to dip your toes into Small Worlds for free, check out Rumors, a prequel story

The common room of the Inn was as quiet as a grave. At this hour, it was too early for even the innkeeper to be up and going about his duties, too late for the most drunken lout to still be snoring into a pile of vomit on the tables. The only living thing down here was a mouse, and it twitched its nose as Tythel, Eupheme, and Tellias slipped into the room. It seemed unconcerned for a moment, certain these huge, lumbering oafs would pose no threat to it – then it turned those tiny little eyes towards Tythel.

All living things on Aelith that could smell knew the scent of dragon, and even the beasts that had no fear of humans knew to fear the smell of the greatest hunters that had ever roamed the world.

Tythel wondered if that would change in time. If over the centuries and millennia to come, creatures would lose their fear of that smell. There would be no more dragons roving the sky, and their hunts would be forgotten by men and beast and even Alohym. Dragons would become only legends they would tell their children, a reason for a tingle in the spine at a passing shadow, and then would be forgotten.

No. Tythel thought, tightening her face with resolve. Dragons wouldn’t be forgotten. She would learn Heartflame. One day she would have a daughter or a son herself, the heir to the kingdom…and to Karjon’s legacy. She would teach them the Three Flames, and they would do the same for their children. They would carry the legacy of the dragon throughout history, and although some would forget that dragons truly existed as her father had, it would be part of her family legacy.

For now, however, this mouse had not forgotten, and skittered silently across the hardwood floor away from a smell it knew to fear.

Silently. That was the problem. Tythel bumped against a chair to create a clatter, but it wasn’t enough.

“Eupheme, you’re being too quiet,” Tythel hissed. The whisper was deliberately far too loud. Anyone in nearby rooms would be able to hear her, though not enough to make out the words. It was a careful sound, one she’d considered after the awkward conversation with Tellias.

“Blood and shadow, Tythel, I’m an Umbrist.” Eupheme’s whisper was perfectly pitched to just reach Tythel’s ears, modulated so no one else would have the slightest idea she was even speaking. It wasn’t even really a whisper, barely a breath. “Besides, you two are loud enough for all of us.”

Tythel opened his mouth to object, but the objection died on her lips before it could even pass between her teeth. She wasn’t incorrect about that, especially with Tellias in the arcplate. He hadn’t spoken since she’d laid out the plan, and barely spoken even when she was laying it out for them. He still wasn’t speaking, but the heavy clomp of the arcplates greaves caused the floor to shutter loud enough to draw plenty of their attention on their own.

He’ll be fine, Tythel assured herself. Their discussion had only happened an hour ago. Of course he was still upset. Tythel was still upset.

Tythel reminded herself of the importance of staying focused. The goal was to attract attention, but not too much attention.

Eupheme reached the door, then motioned towards Tythel. “I’d hate to open it too quietly.”

Tythel rolled her eyes and closed the distance. She slid the door open a few digits to glance into the lot. A road lead to it, one covered with hoofprints and the triangle shaped clawprints left behind by Skitters. The woods behind the lot were dark and shivered in the early morning wind, a wind that carried the snorts of horses back to Tythel’s ears. Three Skitters sat out there among the horses. Giving Eupheme a smug smile, she closed the door with exaggerated care. “Ready?”

Eupheme nodded.

Tythel stood in front of the door and took a deep breath before kicking it as hard as she could. A thunderclap of sound filled the Inn, and confused shouts began to erupt from above. She could hear shrieks of shock and fury. Eupheme rolled her eyes. “Think we have their attention?” she asked.

“I hope so. Move,” Tythel said by way of response. Tellias nodded, the first sign he’d given that he was anything other than an automaton designed to look like arcplate. Tythel had no time to worry anymore about his feelings. That was something that could be mended later, when the world was safe – or at least when the current crises was dealt with.

For now, what mattered was the feel of the barren dirt lot beneath her feet, the sound pounding in Tythel’s ears with every footstep.

“Someone sing to the guards!” A woman shouted from an upstairs window. Tythel leapt the rest of the distance to land in the cabin of one of the Skitters.

“Move yourselves! We have to get to my father’s lair!” Tythel shouted. Eupheme swung herself up to the cabin of the Skitter, followed by Tellias with a single heave.

“A little bit too obvious, don’t you think?” Tellias muttered.

Tythel was just relieved to have him speaking again. “Even if they think it’s a trap, they have to follow up on the lead,” she muttered, reaching down to pull open one of the panels on the Skitter.

Tellias shoved the gauntlet of his arcplate into the spot Tythel had opened. The energy expelled was more than enough to kickstart the Skitters cells even without the benefit of a key to activate them. The Skitter began to hum to life.

Tythel moved aside to give Eupheme access to the Skitter’s controls. She began to work the levers and start the legs moving.

Not a moment too soon. Tythel could hear the pounding footsteps of guard drawing near, Alohym soldiers that would see their departure. “Go!” she shouted.

Eupheme didn’t need additional encouragement. The Skitter began to veer away across the lot, pulling onto where the dirt road met the pavement.

Tythel turned around for the final nail in the coffin. As they passed the guards that were moving to block the road, Tythel took a deep breath and let loose a torrent of dragonflame. Men shouted and scattered, diving to the ground to evade the impressive heat.

There was no doubt they’d know where she was going now.

Small Worlds Part 241 – End of Book 4 – Small Worlds Returns September 2nd!

“Nabu, being renegade now, was able to explain to me exactly what the rules are. ‘An Eschaton must use the single surge of power by their granted Zoisphere to utterly destroy civilization on their world, including all physically preserved knowledge and records that could be used to prove a civilization previously existed there.’” He glanced over at Nabu. “Did I get that right?”

Nabu nodded. “Verbatim.”

“Excellent. So there’s a key phrase there. ‘On their world.’ I have to end civilization planet Earth. But…there’s a whole universe out there, right? And with our staging areas, we can go anywhere faster than the speed of light.” Ryan looked back to where the doorways stood and sighed. Still no sign of Crystal or Isabel.

Athena put a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sure they’re fine. Crystal hasn’t survived as long as she did to let things fall apart this close to the finish line.”

“Right,” Ryan said, snapping his attention back to the conversation.

“Ryan…” Anansi said quietly. “Even if we got every single god on Earth to fill their staging area with humans, we could only save maybe two or three thousand. That’s not enough.”

“No, it wouldn’t be,” Ryan said, then held out his hand. He’d had enough recovery time gather some of his energy back.

It would be simpler to explain, but a demonstration seemed like it would be in order. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

Reaching out, he began to grab onto strands of reality, twisting and pulling the equations. It was complicated, but not as hard as he’d been afraid it would be. He grabbed a sphere of air, forcing it into a ball around his hands – and then changed the nature of the matter. It wasn’t as simple as negating gravity around it. That he’d done before, it wouldn’t work here.

He had to change the fundamental interaction his matter had with gravity. It went from being normal matter to exotic matter.

It was repelled by gravity on all directions, pushing away normal matter so strongly, it even started to bend light that passed nearby it, giving the sphere a warped appearance like the gravitational lenses they’d used to safely observe Medusa back in the labyrinth. Reach up, Ryan split the exotic matter into two chunks and pulled them apart.

The effect was disorienting. Looking into the one over his right hand, you could see the view over his left hand, and visa-versa.

He’d created wormholes.

The energy needed to maintain them caused them to dissipate quickly. Everyone was staring at him, in varying degrees of shock. “You…you can’t maintain those for long enough,” Dianmu said.

“Normally I couldn’t,” Ryan agreed. “So I use the one big twist I get. One giant, massive twist. I create spheres of exotic matter – stable exotic matter – across the Earth. As many population centers as I can manage. We can fit hundreds of this into a single nanoverse. We have one god go and take them all to a new world. A habitable world. A place where humanity can rebuild and grow and expand.”

“I hate to be a problem,” Cassandra said quietly, “but aren’t you forgetting part of the rules? ‘Including all physically preserved knowledge and records,’ right?”

Ryan nodded. “You’re right, but I didn’t forget that part. Once humanity is safely extracted – or once it’s the last possible second – I let the wormholes go. Each one will have the potential energy of a nuclear warhead. If not more. It won’t wipe out all life on earth, but it…”

“Nuclear winter without the fallout,” Athena said, her voice soft.

“Exactly,” Ryan said, feeling sick at the thought. “A lot of the life on Earth will die, but not all of it. Enough to rebuild, evolve. Form a new intelligent species. They’ll get the chance they deserve after our departure.”

“We’ll lose Earth,” Dianmu said, her voice quiet.

“Maybe,” Ryan said. “Or maybe not. We’ll still have the information in everyone’s heads. Nothing in the rules says we can’t start writing it down as soon as we get to where we’re going. We won’t be starting from scratch. We’ll have no infrastructure, but we’ll have billions of people available as a workforce. We can bring materials with us too. Technology. 3D printers. Solar panels. Pre-cut wood. Nails. Seeds, farming equipment.”

Ryan took a deep heavy breath. His hands were curling into fists on the table, and he wasn’t sure if it was frustration or desperation. Terror, he decided. He was absolutely terrified that one of these gods, older and wiser and more experienced than him, would find some flaw in his plan, something he overlooked.

That he’d be back to square one. It shook him so much, his hands were trembling on the table.

“We’ll have a short time to create a sustainable food supply before we eat the new world dry, but…it’s possible. Especially if all of us gods lend all the power we can to making it possible. And then after that…well, we’ll have everything we’ve written down upon arrival. Every bit of science we could recover. Enough that maybe we could take this new world and…build something bigger”

“It could work,” Athena said thoughtfully.

“It’s…actually not a bad idea,” Arachne agreed, tapping her chin with her finger. “We’d need someone we can absolutely trust to go scatter the other ends of the wormhole around this new world. You…do have a new world in mind, don’t you?”

Ryan glanced at Nabu, his eyes wide with hope. It was the one thing he hadn’t been sure of.

Nabu nodded. “Kepler-442b, as humankind knows it. It’s a life-bearing world around a K-class orange dwarf. The local biochemistry would be compatible with human needs, although there would be a need to find a particular fungal-like organism that could be used to create antibiotics within three weeks – otherwise, the local single-celled organisms will start a plague that humans aren’t adapted too. Fortunately, I know how to cultivate it, and it grows quickly.”

Ryan waited for Nabu to continue with bated breath.

“No sentient life has ever arisen on that world, and its star has another ten billion years before it enters the next stage of its life cycle. Temperatures vary a bit more than is optimal for human life – it has a two hundred and seventy-three-hour rotational cycle – but it could work. Overall it’s a bit warmer than humans are adapted for during the long noon, but that will prevent too much freezing overnight. It’s a bit more massive, but not so large its gravity would be harmful to humans once they’ve adapted to the pull. It could work.”

Ryan waited. He thought it was going to throw up. He thought he might cry. Every other person at that table was sitting in silence, thinking, pondering. What did I miss? He asked silently. What is the flaw. Why is humanity doomed?

One by one, they nodded their heads. “It’s the best plan we have, and it’s a good one,” Dianmu said.

“We’ll want Crystal to weigh in,” Athena added.

“Where is she, anyway?” Ryan asked, looking again over his shoulders. “If she doesn’t show up soon, I swear I’m going to the moon myself and-”

A doorway appeared. Crystal’s doorway. Ryan let out a sigh of relief and stood up.

The door opened. Isabel stepped through it. At least, Ryan hoped it was Isabel. It could just as easily be a random gorilla carrying Crystal’s limp form, but given how concerned it looked…Ryan was certain that was Isabel.

“Hey loves,” Crystal gasped weakly. “We have a problem,”

Gorilla Isabell gently lowered her into a chair before shifting into Isabel. Ryan gasped. His sister looked badly cut and bruised as well. like she’d been through hell herself. “Kali,” Crystal said. “In her Destroyer aspect. She…she has the staff of Ra. And the super soldiers. And…and she had a message for you.”

Ryan stiffened. “What was it?”

Crystal heaved herself up to a full seating position. Her eye was swollen shut. “Stop this silliness and do your job, Eschaton,” Crystal said, clearly repeating words that weren’t her own. “You are not above the cycle. You are not better than those that came before. Humanity’s time has ended. End it – or force me to finish your job for you.”

“This doesn’t change anything,” Ryan said in the silence that followed. “We’ll just have to deal with…with all of this while we evacuate the planet.”

From the looks everyone had, none of them believed it would be that easy.

Yet they had to try. They had no other choice. They were on the home stretch now. The final battle. A chance to save humanity.

Or watch the world burn in solar flame.

–End of Book 4–

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The Dragon’s Scion Part 137

The death of Rephylon had been a chaotic time. Armin hadn’t even been present in the fight itself – he’d been helping with the evacuation and re-armament of the former prisoners, frantically watching for some sign that Theognis had returned. He’d known Tythel had stood against Rephylon…and had expected that he’d come back to her body.

Afterwards, she’d told them about what had happened. Rephylon’s terrifying speed and strength, Tythel’s realization of how she could channel ghostflame, and the things Rephylon had said to taunt her. One of those had been that the Alohym had been raising humans. “She said that humans are good at imprinting, and they were able to raise humans directly. Her exact words were…” Tythel had trailed off here, scratching at her milky eye. Armin had been pushing her to accept an eye-patch, but she’d been resistant. “It was ‘Your species is unusually fragile in infancy, there was an adjustment period. But I can say we are quite pleased with the results.’

Armin had a terrible feeling that Synit was what Rephylon had meant by an “adjustment period.” The end result of an attempt to fuse the Alohym’s organic suits with human flesh. Now that he was looking at her with less animosity, he could see that every motion Synit made was slow and deliberate, her limbs trembling with pain at every action. “Rephylon raised you?” He asked. It was a stupid question, one she’d already answered, but sometimes a question needed to be asked because the truth was so unbelievable that it bore repeating.

“Yes. Almost as long as I can remember.” There was a melancholy that underlined her every word. It wasn’t completely obscured by the unnatural sounds her throat and mouth made as she spoke, although they did mask it well. “I have the faintest memories of my first mother. A laugh, a song in the dark, and the tears as they ripped me from her arms. I remember that all too well. Rephylon thought I would bond with her in spite of those memories.”

“It appears she was mistaken,” Ossman said. He still had his axe drawn, was still standing protectively in front of Clarcia, but the tension had left his grip. He was no longer a wolf waiting to spring, but a hound trying to decide if it was looking at an intruder or a guest. Ready to bite if needed, but not certain of the need.

“She was.” Synit spat the words.

Armin had bought himself time to think, but it had proved to be of little benefit. He still was adrift at how to respond. “How long have you been free?” he finally managed, uncertain if it was the right question to ask this madwoman.

Synit tapped her mandibles together, an expression Armin couldn’t read. It was even harder than understanding Tythel’s expressions. The princess could speak volumes with a tilt of her head or the blink of an eye, but at least she had the same anatomy as a human. Synit was only partially that, and the alien structures made reading her a challenge Armin didn’t think he’d be overcoming anytime soon. The eyes. Focus on the eyes. 

Before he could, or Synit could respond, or one of his companions could chime in with a more sensible question, the slowly expanding ring of light finally reached the walls, dispelling the last of the darkness to slink into the shadows where it lay, coiled like a serpent. The moment it touched the edges of the room, it was reflected back. No darkness impeded its path this time, and in an instant the light’s intensity doubled. The walls were covered in gold and gems, and shone so brightly it gave the room the luster of daylight.

Everyone – even Synit – gaped at the sight. This was not a king’s ransom in gold. This was a kingdom’s ransom. Gold and silver and platinum, studded with gems from across the world.

“Since Rephylon died” Synit said, breaking the silent awe. Armin had to fight back a sudden, irrational surge of resentment. “Her death plunged a great deal into chaos. I came here as quickly as I could. I…hadn’t shone light here yet. Light and Shadow, I had no idea what to expect.”

“We’ll need to come back,” Aldredia said, her voice almost hoarse in its hushed reverence. “We can’t hope to carry enough.”

“Carry enough?” Synit asked. Her mandibles parted, and Armin wondered if that was a frown, or if it was some other expression.

“We came here for this,” Armin said, gesturing towards the treasure that surround them.

Synit’s eyes narrowed. “You came here…to remove treasure from a dragon’s horde?”

“Is that a problem?” Armin asked, tension creeping back into his shoulders.

“Surprising,” Synit responded. “I was under the impression that dragons viewed such things as anathema. Perhaps the scrolls were inaccurate.”

Her eyes were narrowed, and she still radiated tension. Armin took a deep, careful breath to buy himself time to think. Choose your next words carefully, Armin. If you make a misstep here, you could start a fight, and you still don’t know what she can do. “So Rephylon was your mother? I can only imagine how bizarre that was.” Brilliant. 

“I do not hear a refutation in that statement,” Synit said. Her antennas started to twitch in…excitement? Anger?

“I don’t know,” Armin admitted. “Only that the princess told us we would find treasure here. And…well, our coffers run near empty. And-”

“Silence!” Synit said, the word coming out as a cold hiss. “Someone has entered the upper chamber.”

“Who?” Ossman asked, tightening his hands around the handle of his axe again.

“My corpses were destroyed somehow,” Synit said, glaring at Clarcia. “I do not have sentries anymore. I have no way to know. But there are many of them.”

“Is there another way out of here?” Armin asked, unslinging his arcwand.

“Not that I’ve discovered in the weeks I’ve been here.”

“We’re trapped?” Guiart asked, his voice high with sudden terror.

Armin felt that same fear racing through his veins.

Small Worlds Part 240

The shifting, stained glass sky of Cypher Nullity danced overhead as Ryan stepped onto the obsidian soil of the long-abandoned afterlife. It was starting to feel almost homey, after coming here so often to regroup and recover and plan for what came next. He leaned against Nabu, one hand over the former Curator’s shoulder. “So…this is where we’ve been going.”

“I know,” Nabu said simply, helping Ryan as they walked towards the meeting hall they had been using. “It’s good to see this place being used again.”

Three other doorways were already open here. Anansi and Athena and, Ryan hoped, Crystal. Given that Athena had gone into her nanoverse to recover Arachne, though…it seemed likely that was who the third doorway belonged to. Which meant Crystal and Isabel weren’t back yet. Please be okay, Ryan thought, limping towards the meeting place.

A new doorway appeared, and Dianmu stepped out, similarly supported on Cassandra. The last Cardiophage. Dianmu didn’t look thrilled about supporting her weight on a woman that had been a monster just yesterday, but Dianmu had been the one to insist on keeping an eye on the dangerous woman. Cassandra, for her part, looked…thoughtful. Muted. If Ryan didn’t know better, he’d never be able to tell that this woman could turn into a killing machine at a moment’s notice.

“Ryan,” Dianmu said, cutting through his reflection. “Horus is alive. He went over to Bast’s side, right up until she got tired of him and ate his heart. He’ll resurrect in a few days. Cassandra told me where.”

Cassandra nodded eagerly. “I can take you right there. His body is chained so he can’t escape when he resurrects.”

Ryan frowned in thought. “After we’re done here, Dianmu, would you mind going and incinerating his body?”

Dianmu blinked in confusion. “Ryan…you want me to do what?”

“Incinerate his body.” Ryan sighed. “It’ll delay his resurrection. We can’t trust Horus. Not after he already sold us to Bast once before. I don’t want him coming back to life until after this whole thing is done. It takes a few days to come back from complete disintegration, right?”

“Yes.” Dianmu walked the next few steps in silence, pointedly not looking at Cassandra. “There are others we’re trusting that it seems…dangerous to trust?”

“Like Athena, who worked with Enki? Like Crystal and I, who worked with Moloch?” Ryan shook his head. “None of us made a promise to this group and then betrayed it. I’m trusting everyone we have here unless we have a reason not to. Horus crossed a line.”

Those last few words were intended for Cassandra, and from the way her eyes widened, she got the message.

“Harsh, but understandable,” Dianmu said. “As long as he hasn’t already resurrected, right?”

Ryan shuddered. “Absolutely. We’re not going to kill the guy. Just…delay him coming back. There’s no downside to that, right?”

“None I know of. We should probably ask the others to confirm.”

Speaking of the others….they were ahead. Anansi, lounging back in one of the chairs, looking like he just needed a good night’s sleep to be back at full strength. A pale woman Ryan didn’t recognize with long, dark hair and a wild look to her eyes. That must be Arachne, Ryan thought. Her long, considering look was aimed at Athena.

Athena was the only one that looked like she’d been in a fight. She still seemed to be in better shape than Ryan, but her body was covered in tiny wounds and her arm was wrapped in a sling. She stood up when she saw Ryan enter and walked over towards him, wrapping her good arm around him in a hug. “How did you…Nabu?” she asked, glancing finally at the man to Ryan’s left.

“In the flesh,” he said with an awkward smile. “Quite literally, in fact. I’m a fraction of what I once was, but I am free to act.”

Athena blinked a few times as if she needed a moment to process that. “Are you alright?” she asked Ryan.

He nodded. “I am. You?”

“Yes. Olympus will support us,” Athena said. “Artemis is running it. Zeus will resurrect soon. Demeter will probably take the third seat, although it’s chaos over there right now.” She gave him a smile, and for a moment there was an energy between them that was so thick it was almost palpable. A combination of them both having their pangs of Hunger in full force and relief for having been reunited.

“Suck each other’s faces or stop whispering so we can hear you,” said Arachne, rolling her eyes. “It’ll be annoying either way, but at least the first option means I won’t be missing anything important.”

Ryan leaned over Athena’s shoulder to glower at the spider goddess as Athena broke the half embrace. “Arachne, I presume?”

“Oh, it’s so good to know that keen power of observation is present. It will serve us well.”

Ryan fought the urge to grind his teeth. “You…we literally just met, and you have a problem with me already?”

“You come in here, still Nascent, bloody, battered, and bruised. The fate of the entire world rests on your shoulders, and you’re getting into scrapes that could get you killed. Yes, I have a problem with you already.”

Athena was, in fact, grinding her teeth, her hands clenched into fists. “You had the option of staying with the Olympians. If you wanted-”

“I want to make sure that someone had an eye on things here. Someone who isn’t prone to letting their temper rule their-”

“Enough,” Anansi said, his voice calm but firm. “Enough, Arachne.”

The spider goddess whirled to face him. “Excuse me?”

“While we were dealing with the aftermath of the battle, Artemis decided to tell me what you did. What crime caused Athena to seal you away. She thought someone should know who we were working with. Given the enormity of your actions, I am tired of you antagonizing Athena.” Anansi’s eyes blazed with fire the normally calm god didn’t show often. “What she did to you was wrong. What you did to provoke her in the first place was monstrous. Athena’s guilt will compel her to endure any abuse you hurl at her. You’re taking advantage of that. You can continue to do so. I will not try to stop you from doing so again.”

Arachne started to open her mouth, but Anansi wasn’t finished. “As soon as you tell everyone what you did in the first place. If you are comfortable owning up to your crime, then you’ve clearly moved past the guilt of it. You’ve made your peace with it. You have a right to wield it as a weapon. But if you cannot…perhaps you should consider the fragility of your own house before you hurl stones.”

Arachne clamped her mouth shut and glared daggers at Anansi, but did not continue to needle Athena.

“We’ll have to catch up on where we’ve been and what happened in a bit. I’m glad Olympus is on our side. We’re going to need more. A lot more.” Ryan took a deep breath. “Unless I start triggering catastrophes to delay the apocalypse, we have one week until the world ends.”

He settled into a seat in the silence that followed. “That’s the bad news. The good news is…I think I know how to pull it off.”

Ryan waited for everyone to take a seat before launching into his explanation.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 136

Light spilled sullenly into the room that had once housed the hoard of the dread necromantic dragon. The power within was so great, it slowed the spread of radiance to a crawl, as if the light itself was molasses spilling across the floor. Yet where it touched, it found more surfaces to amplify its glow. Piles of golden and silver coins from empires that had died generations before Armin’s great grandsires’ own great grandsires had been birthed were strewn across the floor. The long-dead kings and queens and emperors and princesses emblazoned on the metal stared mutely at the sudden intrusion of light, and at the edges where radiance flickered against darkness, Armin could almost imagine those rulers of dust trying to blink to clear their eyes of the luminosity.

The chanting continued unfalteringly in those inky depths, the speaker unfazed by the intrusion into his work. For a moment Armin dared hope that somehow he hadn’t heard their entrance, but the voice began to move closer to where they were, a gentle jingle of coins heralding each step. Armin raised his arcwand as his companions similarly readied their weapons, Aldredia moving with greater haste than the sluggish light and vanishing into the darkness.

A shape moved in the shadows at the edge of the expanding ring of light, and Armin set his sights on it. The chanting was rising from that throat, from the speaker here, and Armin pulled the trigger in the hopes of ending it before it could complete whatever it’s dread purpose was.

The arclight beam streamed from his weapon with the unerring accuracy he’d become known for, yet it was swallowed by the darkness before it could hit its mark. The chanting voice hit a final word and then stopped. Armin knew that word, Loruyah. In the tongue of the Alohym, it meant “halt,” and an unlight lumcaster that wove it into their ritual could resume it at a later point without their magic disrupted. Another advantage they have over us, Armin thought with a scowl.

“Don’t fire again,” said the voice. Now that it was speaking a language Armin knew, he could hear how twisted with unlight mutations it was. Familiar words turned alien on those lips, with letters clicking as if forced through mandibles. “We should speak, before you decide if you will slay me or not.”

Armin’s mind was made up, but he still hesitated. Now that they weren’t speaking the Alohym’s language, he could tell it was not Theognis. That man’s voice had not been so far gone as this, and Unlight mutations were like those of the Light in one regard – they warped a man slowly over time. If he had been wrong about that, he might be wrong about other things. “Then step forward and speak, and we will decide.”

The shadow moved, an arm extending to point into the darkness. Armin could see its outline and his stomach lurched as he realized it was bifurcated like the Alohym’s, split at the elbow. Even though just an outline, he could tell the two hands at the end were those of a human. “Call your skulker back from the shadows, and I will. They do not hide you from me.”

“Come, Aldredia,” Armin said, and the silent swordswoman appeared a moment later. Armin gave her a faint nod and half grin, hoping she would take it to mean he had a plan. He didn’t, but right now their lives might hinge on that belief. If nothing else, this talk would buy him time to figure out what his desperate gambit would be. “I’ve done as you bid. Now show yourself.”

The figure stepped into the light, and Guiart retched beside Armin at the sight. Armin could scarce blame him for the reaction. This figure was undeniably that of a human – it stood on two legs covered with pale flesh, it had eyes that were gold and twinkled in the light, and its hair was long and thickly braided. Yet it was also undeniably something else. The face was rent in twain, a mouth that opened both on the horizontal and the vertical. Its arms were both split in the unnatural way of the Alohym, and beneath the silk tunic it wore, Armin could tell its abdomen pinched so inhumanly tight there was no room for the entrails that humans relied upon for life. Of its sex, the inhuman form gave no sign – too far into the alien to even be considered androgynous.

“What are you?” Armin asked, unable to keep the horror from his voice.

“A failure,” the figure said in that voice that cracked like breaking flesh. “You may call me Synit. That is what the told me my first mother named me. My second mother gave me a new name, but I rejected it as she rejected her daughter.”

“Synit,” Armin said. It was a name common to the empire of Xhaod – or at least it had been before the Alohym had annihilated that empire with every other human kingdom. “What…happened to you?”

“That is a fairer question, and one with a more interesting answer. Yet one that seems to be lacking in manners. Courtesy would dictate some pleasantries before such things questions are answered. Such as your names.”

“Courtesy?” Ossman said, bristling. Armin could almost hear his tendons as they closed around the grip of his axe. “You set the undead to guard your path. They nearly slew us, and you dare speak of courtesy?”

Synit sighed, a rasping sound that ground against his ears like a whetstone. Her form – at least, Armin thought that was the correct way to refer to her, given her talk about being a daughter –  was monstrous, but Armin focused on her eyes. They were human, and there he would have a hope of reading her true intention. Just like Tythel, Armin thought. Although the princess was far less inhuman than this creature, the eyes would give answer to her true intention. “I did not set them upon you. Had I known adversaries of the Alohym followed me, I would have instructed them more carefully.”

Armin couldn’t stop the hoarse laugh that escaped his lips. “You would have us believe that you are a foe to the Alohym? You are half one of them to look upon, and you set yourself against them?”

“There are those who are humans in truth who make common cause with them,” Synit said. She reached up to tuck her hair behind the twin antenna that sprouted from her head in place of ears. “Is it so hard to believe that it could go both ways?”

“Yes,” Armin spat. “As hard to believe we just happened upon you in the depths of a dragon’s lair.”

“I’ve been waiting,” Synit answered. “I was certain someone would come here. There are only two dragon lairs left unspoiled, and only a fool would dare approach Karjon’s lair. The Alohym will have it guarded heavily, awaiting the dragon princesses return to her father’s grave. It made sense that she one send someone here. Dragons are as much creatures of instinct as they are of reason.”

“Pretend for a moment I believe you,” Armin said. He wasn’t certain how much or little faith he might have in the words that were spilling from between those twisted mandibles, but he could see no lie in Synit’s eyes. What he saw there was hatred, a hatred that flared every time she spoke the word ‘Alohym.’ While that boded well, what did not was the clear madness of her plan. Armin and the others had only come here out of desperation for gold and translation for Theognis’ notes, not as part of some plan to recover a draconic horde for Tythel. How long would she have waited? Armin wondered. How long chanting in the darkness, hoping that Tythel would send someone here? Armin wanted to ask her what she was doing here in this tomb but feared provoking a fight too soon. Synit was not operating on logic Armin could follow, and he had to tread carefully. “Why were you waiting?”

“Because I wished to make a gift for this dragon princess. She righted a great wrong, and although she did not do it for me, I still owe her a debt. One that I had hoped to repay.”

“What debt is that?” Ossman asked, his voice still thick with loathing.

“She slew my second mother, and in doing so freed me. I wish to repay her for that death. If naught else, I wish to thank her.”

A quiet dread began to creep up Armin’s spine. “And who was that second mother?”

“You knew her,” Synit said, affixing her eyes on Armin’s. Here was that hatred again, a well so deep that Armin could see himself drowning in it. “She was known by a different name, but human tongues can’t form the word properly, so she took on a new name, one stolen from your gods of Light.”

“Name her,” Armin said. The point of his arcwand began to tremble with shock before she even spoke the words and confirmed his deepest fears.

“You knew her as Rephylon,” Synit said.

Small Worlds part 239

The water churned with screams and divine power behind Athena. Poseidon and his companions were tearing into their own elemental, frantic weavings of Fire and Aether and Air to try to boil it into steam before it could tear them apart.

“Now!” Athena shouted, grabbing onto the bands of the same elements and adding them to the surge that was being poured into the water elemental.

Behind the water elemental, the remaining Olympians began to do the same. Green flame from Hades and Persephone and Charon, the unnatural soulfire of the underworld gods, joining and merging with the bright bands woven by the standard gods. Arachne used her power to weave channels of air for the Olympians flames to travel through, pushing away the water to give them a clear path.

And Anansi held the Water Elemental in place on top of the sea gods by giving it dozens of copies of Athena to destroy. As Athena watched, one of her facsimiles was captured in the vortex arms of the water elemental. She held up her hands, slashing out with her sword at the water around her. Her fins struggled to maintain her balance, but the current was too strong.

The illusionary copy died screaming as the water elemental crushed it into a red paste. The blood vanished as Anansi stopped maintaining the illusion, only to create a new Athena for the water elemental to capture and kill.

It was unnerving in a way few things Athena had ever experienced. Watching herself die over and over again.

But the water elemental was a simple thing. It couldn’t comprehend that Athena should have died with each illusion it killed. It couldn’t understand that the real Athena was floating nearby, pumping it full of pure bands of Fire. It didn’t realize that it was destroying the deities that gave it life.

Or maybe it did understand that last one. Maybe the hatred Ceto had spawned into it had been too much, or maybe the unrelenting fury of an unleashed elemental simply could not be contained.

Either way, it left the sea gods one choice. They were trapped within the water elemental. Because they were true gods and not mere illusions, they were not being crushed as easily as Athena’s duplicates. They were pouring their own Fire into their creation in a frantic attempt to save themselves, trying to turn it to steam before it could destroy them.

Athena had thought that it would take the combined might of all of Olympus to destroy the elemental, break it apart into steam. She’d been right – she’d just needed to find a way to get the sea gods to join in the destruction.

Now they were, and the process, allowing their adversaries to boil them alive.

The water that made up the elemental began to grow cloudy from the immense heat pouring into it. New streams were added as the Nereid’s numbers were thinned. Dionysus joined, cackling drunkenly, his hand still shoved through the spine of the Nereid he had just killed. Bubbles began to form in the water around the elemental, and the temperature of the Adriatic Sea began to rise.

The elemental knew no pain. It knew no weakness. It was merely deific rage given an elemental body and unleashed upon the world. It didn’t understand that it was being harmed. Ceto hadn’t programmed it with a sense of self-preservation. Poseidon hadn’t seen a need to order her to do so.

“How could you!” Athena shouted, her own rage boiling over. Poseidon somehow heard her words over the boiling elemental around him. It shouldn’t have been possible. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he just wanted to glare at the one responsible for his torment. She didn’t care. “You betrayed us! You betrayed your family! You created a monster!” she poured the emotion into her weaving, and from her force alone the steam boiling off the water elemental began to cause the vortex to break down in its torso. The Olympians saw the weakness she was exposing and added their own heat to the mix. “You betrayed everything you were sworn to protect! How could you dare?

Poseidon’s face was turning red and blistering from the boiled water. His eyes were wide with fury and fear. He was pouring his own weaving into the water elemental, at the same time it sucked him deeper into its mass, pulling him inexorably to the point where its mass was a bubble of pure steam.

Just before he hit the steam, Poseidon managed to look at her one more time. He mouthed something. A single word, but one Athena could not make out through the torrent around him.

Then he was pulled into the mass at the center of the water elemental, and his screams echoed through the ocean.

The water elemental evaporated in a burst of steam, the bubbles boiling to the surface of the sea and blanketing the water above with a dense fog of steam. Athena hoped any humans that were in the area had vacated at the churning their battle had created. If they hadn’t…

Athena glanced upwards. No shadows of boats darkened the sea above. They were safe.

The Olympians began to close in on the sea gods. Ceto had half her face torn away from being drug along the seabed. Thalassa was bruised and battered but seemed more concerned for her husband’s fate than her own. Triton’s arm was broken in three paces, and he panted with the pain.

And  …Poseidon was standing. His skin was a mass of blisters, his face and skin seared. But he still stood, still breathed. “I wish to negotiate a truce,” Poseidon said, his voice raspy.

Athena shifted back to her fully human form, remaining wary. This could still be a trap. “You don’t need to negotiate with me, lord of the seas,” she said, her voice firm. “Artemis commands Olympus.” Athena raised her hand to hail her friend. “Artemis! What do you say to Poseidon’s truce?”

In response, an arrow erupted from the back of Poseidon’s throat. Thalassa screamed as he collapsed down to one knee, clutching at the arrow with desperate hands. Artemis finished her swim towards him, landing just above his writhing form. “We’ll negotiate when you resurrect, you son of a bitch,” Artemis spat. Underwater it had an interesting effect, bubbles floating away from her lips, but the contempt was clear. “The rest of you lay down your weapons, or I might rethink the idea that no one’s nanoverses will be ended today.”

That was a bluff. Athena knew her friend well enough to know that she could never bring herself to end trillions of lives to settle even a matter of treason. Or at least…she had known her. Even gods can change a great deal given millennia. She wouldn’t. 

Thankfully, the sea gods didn’t test her patience. Hastily, they tossed aside their weapons. “You’ll really allow him to resurrect?” Thalassa asked, her eyes wide with hope.

“Of course I will,” Artemis said, rolling her eyes. “We have a world to save, you ninny.”

“Then…why did you kill him?” Thalassa asked.

“Because,” Artemis said, slinging her bow back over her shoulder, “he really, really pissed me off. Come on you three. Gather your dead. You’re all under arrest.”

Athena caught the archer’s eye, and for a moment, they shared a rare smile.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 135

The pathway winded down into the ground for so long, Armin began to wonder if they’d walk all the way till they passed through the outer stone and reach the sea of light that the scholars said infused the center of Aelith. It was an absurd notion, of course – most theorized that the outer stone was several leagues in depth, and that as one drew close to the sea of light the rocks would take on signs of living things from so much raw light infusing them. Even a dragon would not make their bed among stones that moved like living things.

Yet, the deeper they walked, the more the idea stuck into Armin’s head. That they would hit the depths where the stones moved like living things and crushed men, where just from proximity they would begin mutating from the light pouring through their bodies.

The oppressive weight of it all was pressing on his companions as well. Ossman and Aldreida had ceased their conversation ahead, or were now speaking in tones so hushed that Armin couldn’t hear them. Armin didn’t think that was likely though – if they were just being quiet, he would have heard.

It’s not like the two with him were providing much sound to drown Ossman and Aldreida’s voices out.

Clarcia and Guiart had fallen completely silent at his side. Guiart was clenching and unclenching his fists with every step, the soft creak of his leather gloves echoing his footfalls. Clarcia was staring directly ahead, her back so straight Armin was worried she’d strain something from holding herself so tensely.

He wanted to break the silence. A good leader would break the silence. Give an inspirational speech, talk about honor or glory or some such. A decent leader would at least make a joke to break the tension. At least, that’s what Armin was telling himself.

But he found he didn’t have the words, at least not right now. If only Eupheme and Tythel could see you struck silent. They’d wonder what strange creature had replaced me. 

He considered calling a stop to the march. There was enough treasure along the walls to fund their resistance for weeks.

It’s not about the flathing treasure, he thought, continuing to walk, continuing his silence. That was a bonus. Honestly, given how weak Tythel’s intelligence about the situation had been, Armin was pleasantly surprised there was actually any treasure to begin with. The writings, that was the real treasure, and so far they’d found nothing of use there. They had to press on.

It was almost a relief when he heard Aldreida’s footsteps approaching at a dead run. Even though she was clearly disturbed, it was a welcome distraction from the immense weight of stone above them. “There’s something ahead,” she said, her breathing heavy.

“What is it?” Armin asked, reaching over his back to unsling his arcwand.

“A chamber with a closed door. Ossman’s guarding it. But someone is moving on the other side. Pacing, muttering to themselves.” She motioned for them to get moving again. “Not sure what he’s saying. It’s not in any language I know.”

“But is the tongue human?” Armin asked, his heart leaping up into his throat and threatening to strangle him. He’d known soldiers of the Alohym were present, but it had never occurred to him until this very moment there might be an actual Alohym here. Waiting for them at the end of this deep delve, the five of them against a monster that had only been slain once in history.

“It was human, but it was speaking the Alohym’s language.” Aldreida watched Armin closely. He’d just started to relax when she said. “Armin. You know what that means, yes?”

He’d been so relieved at the realization it wasn’t one of the Alohym that he’d forgotten to think through the full implications of what she’d said.

The Alohym’s language was nearly impossible for most humans to reproduce. Its high trills, rapid clicks, mandible clacks, and disturbingly wet noises simply were outside the range for teeth and tongue to reproduce. Words like “flath” were born out of human approximations of the sounds but were nowhere near how their actual language sounded.

But there were humans that could replicate the Alohym’s language near perfectly. Humans that could manage the trills and the grotesquely wet sounds, although the mandible sounds were still beyond them. Humans that had been mutated by constant exposure.

Lumcasters, those that channeled the Alohym’s unlight instead of the light of their native world, and those that had done so deeply and powerfully enough to begin mutating.

Theognis, Armin thought with a sudden flash of certainty, remembering that strange shadow bound by unlight that had seeped like smoke from the defeated zombie. The man whose tower they had raided in the desperate bid to free the captured members of the Resistance. The man who had corrupted the Lumwell that lay beneath. No other lumcaster had delved so deeply into unlight as he had. He’d been banished years before the Alohym invasion for dabbling in necromancy and had embraced unlight so firmly upon the Alohym’s arrival.

Or maybe it was just fear that drove Armin to that certainty. Fear and hope. If it was Theognis within, they’d likely die. If they could defeat him somehow…then they’d have a hope of getting the translation completed. If is the most toxic word, Armin thought grimly.

Suddenly, the idea that they were delving close to the light see at the heart of the world seemed less absurd. Theognis had managed to corrupt a lumwell already. What if he was down there, doing the same thing to the source?

It was still ridiculous, but Armin couldn’t shake the thought.

Everyone’s waiting for me, Armin realized with a start. He’d been standing there, gathering his thoughts, ever since Aldreida had spoken. “Theognis, or one of his ilk. It has to be.”

Guiart let out a low moan of fear as Clarcia shook her head. “Armin…if you’re right, I can’t defeat a master Lumcaster. None of us can.”

Aldreida was looking at him with expectant eyes. Ossman was still somewhere further down the tunnel, no doubt listening for some meaning in the chanting. “Clarcia’s right,” Armin said, his forehead creasing in thought. “Back when we raided his tower, when we had a half-dragon and godling, I don’t know if we could have stood against him. We don’t have either of those right now.”

Guiart looked like he wanted to throw up, and Aldreida’s mouth curved downwards in a frown. “I don’t claim to be any kind of expert, but typically before a battle, Duke d’Monchy tells us why we’re going to win, not why we’re certainly doomed.”

Armin motioned for them to follow him. “We’re going to win. We absolutely are.”

“Oh thank Light and Shadow,” Guiart said, his voice shaking so heavily it threatened to crack like a boy’s as he approached manhood. “You have a plan. Of course, you do.”

“No,” Armin said. In spite of himself he found his footsteps lighter, a smile spreading across his lips. “Do you know why Duke d’Monchy recruited me?”

“No?” Aldreida said, her voice turning it into a question.

“I was at the Collegium Rebellion. When many of the old masters broke their vows and turned themselves to the Alohym’s service in exchange for access to unlight. When the last hope of the world was snuffed out like a candle in a hurricane. It was supposed to be humanity’s last stand.” Armin shrugged his shoulders back. A weight he hadn’t been aware he was carrying seemed to slide off his shoulders. “A dozen students and some of the servants had gathered in the Stellari. Clarcia do you remember?”

Clarcia nodded slowly, a smile beginning to form on her lips as well. “How could I forget? That gardener’s son was standing there with a bloody shovel and grabbed you by the lapel and demanded you come up with something.”

“Absolutely.” Armin waved as they rounded the corner. Ossman, that gardener’s son, was standing next to the door, his ear pressed to the door. “There were two dozen Alohym soldiers outside, three real Alohym scuttling around the grounds, and an unknown number of masters now fallen or pledged to those creatures. And I looked him in the eye and said…” Armin trailed off as he made sure he had Ossman’s gaze here in the present as he once had in the past. “Shadow take you, we’re going to win. Just shut up and don’t ask me how.”

It was Ossman’s turn to smile and he stepped back from the door.

“What happened then?” Aldreida asked, her voice sounding more certain although still confused.

Ossman answered for him. “The mad bastard threw open the door and charged at the Alohym soldiers, throwing overcharged arcells at them.” Ossman gave Armin a sideways glance. “We doing that again?”

“Like I said, don’t ask me how. I have no flathing clue.” Stepping forward towards the aged door, hinges so darkened by rust stealth never would have been an option, Armin shoved them with all his might. “Just follow me and I’ll figure it out at the last second.”

To punctuate those boldly stupid words, the door swung open with a dying man’s groan, revealing the darkness where death chanted his otherworldly rituals.

Small Worlds Part 238

Athena had shifted her lower body more fully than before, forgoing feet entirely to merge her legs into a single scaled fluke, just like a dolphin’s. She’d shortened her hair to reduce drag, and a wedge-shaped dorsal fin jutted from her back. Her hands were still hands, her arms still arms, but a pair of pectoral fins emerged from her ribcage just below her arms. She’d need her hands to twist reality, to fight – but every other part of this plan depended on her being able to outswim a water elemental, and for that, she needed as much agility as she could manage.

It wouldn’t be enough for long. She’d adapted herself as much as possible to the water. The elemental was the ocean, a maelstrom of hatred given unholy life and a hatred for everything organic. It was not a guided missile. It was a tornado unleashed and set in her general direction. There was a reason that, even against Enki, she’d never considered creating such a creature. Even Moloch, in the depths of his madness, would not risk making something so uncontrolled. It was an act of desperation. It was the actions of a cornered wolf, snarling and frightened.

Of course, in this case, the wolf had fangs that could savage the very fabric of reality.

Athena swam as hard as she could, steering herself directly towards the elemental. It was currently tearing apart a group of Arae and Erinyes, crushing them into a paste in its vortex arms. The moment Athena entered the rage of its senses, the water elemental whirled to face her, ignoring the prey directly in front of it. Come on, you monstrosity. Come on. 

With a roar like a crashing tide, the water elemental surged in her direction. Athena turned on a dime, kicking herself away from the approaching horror.

For a brief, wild, and useless moment, she wished that Isabel was here. Her ability to actually take on the true form of animals, gaining their instincts and skills along with their shape, would make her even better suited for this part of the mission. Of course, the water elemental wouldn’t be coaxed into chasing her. Athena had to do this herself.

The group of sea gods pointed at her approach. Poseidon was laughing at the futility of her attempt to escape. The water elemental was faster than her. It was gaining on her. The other oceanic gods seemed equally amused at her plight. They were grinning, laughing. All except for Eurybia, who was looking at Athena with a concerned frown.

Arrows streaked by Athena from around both sides of the water elemental. Demeter and Artemis. One of the arrows found its home in the distracted eye socked of Eurybia before she could warn the others of what she had seen, and the other caught Nerites in the throat before he could shout more commands to his troops.

Then the subtle weavings Arachne had woven onto the arrowheads detonated in a surge of Air and Flame. A tiny tornado of fire engulfed where they had struck, and Eurybia’s and Nerites’ headless corpses sunk to the bottom of the ocean floor.

That got the sea gods attention. Immediately they began erecting barriers they had neglected, wrapping themselves in a bubble of seawater that caught the next two arrows before they could pierce the skull of another of the sea gods. Two down, Athena thought with a fierce grin. Already the odds were evening, and so far, Poseidon and his minions were acting exactly as Athena had hoped.

Just as the water elemental was closing the distance between it and Athena, four more Athenas appeared, each one swimming in a different direction as Athena turned as hard as she could. The overall effect made the water elemental hesitate, trying to pick the real target.

Arrows still flew through the ocean, keeping the pressure on the sea gods as they detonated against their solid dome of seawater. Hera joined in the assault against their defenses, sending razor blades of stone breaking away from the seafloor and sticking into their barrier. Throughout it all, Arachne wove bands of Fire and Air onto the projectiles, turning them into explosive missiles.

They merely created ripples on the barriers that were protecting the sea gods. The intense pressure of their barrier was more than enough to hold back the assault without difficulty.

The intense pressure the sea gods were commanding would hold back this assault without problem. That was fine.

The plan just called for them to be distracted.

Athena risked a glance back over her shoulder. With their divine support distracted, with the water elemental focused on Athena, the Nereids and Icytocentuars were without support.

It left Hades, Persephone, and Charon unopposed as they began their slaughter. Green fire flew from the fingers of the underworld deities, flames that burned despite the water around them, searing wounds in the sea monsters Poseidon had arranged against them. The remaining Arae and Erinyes surged forward with their king and queen, tearing into the ones that managed to avoid the hadesfire that was being hurled among them.

Athena tore her eyes off the spectacle and surged forward, kicking her fins straight for the sea god’s barrier. Anansi saw her change course and dropped the illusions, once again giving the water elemental a clear target to pursue. It roared and surged after Athena.

Athena flicked her tail, sweeping down low directly over the sea gods and their barrier. Poseidon glared up at her, pointing a finger and shouting something to his companions. She couldn’t make it out through the press of water surrounding them – it was too heavily distorted.

The instant afterward, Athena’s muscles seized up from a sudden surge of electricity filling the water around her. Her jaw clamped shut so hard she swore her teeth would break. Her fingers dug into her palms so tightly, blood began to spill from them into the water around her. Sheer momentum carried her out of the lethal electricity field before it could stop her heart.

That…wasn’t part of the plan. Athena thought, getting control of herself again. Stars of Olympus, that had hurt! She flicked her tail hair, driving herself away from the secondary attack, water blades flying from the barrier and leaving trails of bubbles that barely passed her as they sliced through the area she had vacated.

It was close. She couldn’t avoid their assault for long. She certainly didn’t have the power to stand up to Triton, Poseidon, Ceto, and Thalassa all at once.

Then the blades of water stopped, and Athena glanced back with a fierce grin.

The water elemental had struck the barrier. The barrier the sea gods had woven out of pure water. A barrier the water elemental could tear apart in an instant as it absorbed the increased pressure into its own mass.

An elemental was something you set loose in a general direction, with a single target. It didn’t care who or what you put in its way.

Even its former masters.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 134

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Poorly?” Tythel asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tellias…I’m a dragon.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tellias sighed. “Me too.”

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

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

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

Now this.

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

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

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