The arclight beams hit Theognis barriers. His hand moved impossibly fast, keeping up with each bolt. Armin could see strings of unlight around Theognis’s wrists – he wasn’t moving his hand with his muscles, but instead his mind. He could react at the speed of thought. There’s got to be a way we can use that. “Ossman, Aldredia, hit him from the sides. Lorathor, get behind him!” Armin shouted, keeping the pressure on Theognis. At least Armin’s limited lumcasting was keeping his arcell full – he didn’t need to worry about reloading.
Ossman and Aldredia charged in arcs, circling to hit Theognis from the left and right respectively. Theognis’s hands snapped to each side, catching Ossman’s unlight ax and Aldredia’s arcblade, then flicking forward to intercept the next two beams from Armin’s arcwand.
Sweat began to form on Theognis’s brow, and Armin felt hope surge again. They were getting through to him! As soon as Lorathor got into position and they had him surrounded, they could land a blow. Theognis was an old man – one solid hit should end the threat he posed.
Then why’s he smiling? Armin asked himself. It was true that even with the injury to his hand, even with the trap surrounding him, Theognis hadn’t waivered in his smug confidence since uncovering Armin’s ruse.
The moment Lorathor was parallel to Ossman, Theognis acted. He stepped forward, into Ossman’s axe range. The handle of the weapon clattered against his forearm and pushed Theognis to the side, taking him out of Aldredia’s strike and Armin’s blast. Theognis ducked down before Ossman could take advantage of the proximity and slapped his hand against the floor.
Unlight rolled out from the point of impact, a wave that sent the three of them tumbling backwards. Armin felt that strange pressure again and pushed. The attack parted before it struck him, but everyone else was thrown to the ground. Haradeth and Bix slammed into the back walls of their unlight cages, and Synit tumbled over and behind and pile of gold coins.
Armin fired as rapidly as the arcwand could stand. Its barrel began to glow with the heat. Yet with no one distracting him, Theognis could block Armin’s attacks easily. “How do you keep doing that?” Theognis snarled, his hands a blur. “How are you unweaving the unlight?”
We both wish I knew, Armin thought.
Theognis snarled at his nonanswer and sent a beam of unlight shooting out of his eyes. The pressure rose again, and Armin undid the beam as it streaked towards him.
It still almost killed him. There was a backlash that tore through his head, feeling like an icepick shoved into his tear duct. Armin screamed and dropped to one knee, the motion saving him from a follow-up blast from Theognis.
Theognis gave Armin a curious expression, raising his eyebrow. The look was so familiar. Where had Armin seen it before?
As the pain faded, clarity replaced it. He remembered a lesson, long ago, in Theognis’ class.
“Light comes from a lumwell in strands,” Theognis said. Armin fought to keep his head from nodding again. He’d get in trouble if he fell asleep in class. It was so hard though. The room was hot, the weather was beautiful outside, and Theognis spoke in a low drone that threatened to force him into sleep. “These are called Rays. A successful lumcaster is able to bind those rays to their soul, which serves as a prism. They can redirect that energy as they wish.”
Armin furrowed his forehead, and Theognis focused his gaze on him. “Ah, Armin. It appears that a thought has crossed your mind, as unlikely as that seems. Since that’s such a rare occurrence, perhaps you should share that with the class? I’d hate for everyone to miss such a beautiful moment.”
Armin flushed as the class tittered. “Uh. Yes. Sorry, Master Theognis. I was just wondering…if rays of Light come from the lumwells, what happens if something intercepted those rays?”
And that was when Theognis gave him the look. The sneer combined with a quirked eyebrow. “If fish can breathe water, why can’t you, Novice Armin? If you had the most basic grasp of what I was teaching, you’d know such questions were folly. I fear you’ve wasted the classes time-”
“Master Cordwein could do it!” Armin objected.
This got another round of laughter from the class, and a withering glare from Theognis. “Master Cordwein was a myth, Armin. Warriors cannot leap thirty leagues like Kornar the Mighty, Dragons cannot melt mountains like Sjarix, and Lumcasters cannot cut off light.”
Armin’s cheeks were so hot, they threatened to ignite. “I just…Master Cordwein is in the history books. Those other two are from children’s tales.”
“I’ll have to inform Master Olerian you aren’t paying attention in history either, Novice Armin. There was a Lumcaster in the Cardomethi Empire known as Master Cordwein, that is true. However, the tales attributed to him are greatly exaggerated. Unless,” and to make Armin’s humiliation complete, Theognis laughed along with the class at the last sentence, “you propose there is a way to drink a drop of the sun?”
Except there was, wasn’t there? Armin had done that. He was cutting Theognis’s Lumcasting off from the source of its power. Wherever unlight came from, Armin was blocking the rays before they could reach Theognis.
And now that he knew what he was doing, Armin was sure he could do it again. It had been a reflex before, but now…
…now it was too late. That last blow had almost knocked him out. Even though Theognis was tiring, he was readying to cut Armin down with the next unlight blast. As soon as he did, it wouldn’t matter that Theognis was too weak to create more unlight cages. Ossman was groaning on the floor, his arm bent at an awkward angle. Aldredia was rising to her feet, but her vision was unfocused, and she had to pause to throw up. He’d cut them down without even needing to manifest more unlight, and then Lorathor would be…
Why had Theognis trapped Haradeth? Or Bix, for that matter? Light and Shadow, Armin had seen the carnage – he must have trapped Bix before even starting the fight. Why?
“I don’t suppose you’ll tell me how you’re doing that before you die, Armin?” Theognis asked, his teeth gritted in pain.
“Yeah,” Armin said. It was hard to focus enough to talk. Yet he made himself do it as he felt for that pressure again – felt for it and found it. “In fact…I’ll even show you, Theognis.”
Theognis quirked his eyebrow yet again. “Oh?”
“Absolutely.” Armin held out his hand towards Theognis. “Watched closely.”
Armin snapped his fingers. The pain was even worse this time. Armin couldn’t hear himself scream over the pain that lanced through his brain. He lost vision. He collapsed forward, shaking.
As his vision cleared Theognis stared at him and sighed. “You’re wasting my time. Goodbye, Armin. I hope that it helps to know you died as you lived – a failure.”
Right before the beams fired from his eyes, something impacted Theognis’s back and sent him flying forwards. Unlight beams flew from his gaze and scored the ceiling of the cavern. Theognis whirled at impossible speeds to face his attacker.
A three span tall automaton grinned at Theognis, her metallic eyes alight with something akin to rage. “Heya. I’m Bix. You put me in a box. Eye-boy over there opened it. Guess what that means?” She surged forward, the arms on her back extending in unison.
Theognis only had two hands. They couldn’t be in four places at once. His barriers caught the saw blade and the needle, but the electrified fork and razor-thin blade dug into his gut.
Theognis’s body locked up in pain and shock as Bix leaned in close. “It’s means I’m gonna stab you lots.”
Armin had just enough energy to raise his middle finger towards Theognis before he passed out.
Sorry for the delay with this! Double update time! Read this part then click over to get part 160 right away. Patreons, part 160 and 161 are up over there. Thank you for the patience!
Armin kept the arcwand trained on Theognis as the Lumcaster clenched his fist. Tendrils of unlight were stretching across the wound. “Don’t move or the next bolt goes through your skull,” Armin said, spitting the words.
Theognis looked up at him, and although his face was twisted into a mask of pure hatred, he didn’t budge from where he was. Every line of his body was tight with tension, and the dark web didn’t stop its progress, but he didn’t move.
“Good. Glad we have an understanding.”
Haradeth was looking at him in disbelief. Synit’s mandibles were hanging open. Even the strange automaton had ceased her attempts to break free of the unlight cage to peer at him with narrowed lenses that Armin assumed must be her eyes, or at least function as them. He couldn’t see Ossman and Aldredia and Lorathor, but he could imagine they were giving him similar expressions. A single question hung over the room, one that no one was saying aloud. “How did you do that?”
Armin really hoped no one would ask it, because the truth was, he had absolutely no idea.
He played back the last few in his head, trying to figure out what had happened.
Lorathor didn’t need keys to the other cells. Now that he was more open about how far his shapeshifting prowess could be pushed, it was easy to watch him shove his fingers into the keyholes and let them run like wax before the door unlocked.
“I should go first,” Armin said quietly as the first door clicked open. “Ossman knows you, but Aldredia might respond poorly to an unknown person coming in.”
“I can’t imagine why,” Lorathor said, his voice thick with sarcasm, and he pulled the door open, stepping back to remain hidden behind the wood.
Aldredia screamed and lunged from the room, her fists raised. They hadn’t chained her to a wall. Armin leapt back, holding up his hands. “It’s me! It’s me!”
“Armin?” Aldredia asked, coming to a halt. “How’d you get out?”
“My friend behind the door. We have to move. We need to get Ossman free.”
“Just Ossman?” Aldredia’s eyes narrowed. “What about Guiart? And Clarcia.” Armin tried to find the words, but they were thick on his tongue. He settled for just shaking his head. Aldredia’s face collapsed inwards, like she’d been punched in the gut. “I see. You’re sure?”
“I saw Clarcia’s body,” Armin said. Lorathor stepped out from behind the door and moved to the next cell. He knew the urgency of the situation but let them have their moment in silence.
“Where?” Aldredia asked.
“I’ll…I’ll explain later.” Armin said. Aldredia gave him a sharp look, one that softened when she met his eyes. The horror he felt must have shown through, and Armin tried to suppress it. Don’t burden her with it. Not right now. After we’re done.
Assuming he didn’t get anyone else killed.
Ossman and Lorathor were having a quiet conversation. Armin didn’t hear any rattling chains. It appeared Theognis had spared the only cell with a chain for Armin. Of course he did, Armin thought bitterly. He was probably going to kill them if he ever opened their cells again.
“Any idea where our weapons are?” Aldredia asked.
Armin shook his head. “I’m an absolute failure, it seems. Maybe Lorathor-”
What he had been about to say was cut off. Aldredia stepped forward and raised her hand. For a moment Armin thought she was going to slap him. For an instant, it looked like she thought the same thing. Then she took another step forward and grabbed him by the shoulder. “You develop the ability to see the future when your eyes went weird?” she asked.
Armin blinked at the question and shook his head.
“Then you can’t blame yourself for not predicting the unpredictable. No one I’ve served under would have seen that coming.”
“Thank you,” Armin said. Ossman and Lorathor exited the other cell. Armin met Ossman’s eyes, and saw they glistened in the faint light provided by arcglobes. Lorathor must have given him the details. Everyone keeps telling you it’s not your fault. If you freeze right now, though…that would be your fault. “Alright. Lorathor, do you know where our weapons are?”
“I saw a few thrown in an unlocked cell on my way in. If they’re not yours, they’re still weapons.”
“Good enough. Let’s move. We’ve got a Lumcaster to send straight to the Shadow.”
They were their weapons; a stroke of luck Armin hadn’t expected to get. Re-armed, they followed Lorathor down the hallway towards where Theognis waited.
As they ran, Armin opened his eyes.
It was wrong. He knew that. Mortals were not meant to see the flow of Light. Such things were forbidden, in the same sense that attempting to fly by flapping your arms or breathing underwater or swimming through the ground were forbidden – no actual law was needed to forbid them, because natural laws made them impossible. It was blasphemous, something that perhaps the little gods could do, but not a mortal. Yet Armin could now, and he certainly was not a god. He knew he should keep this power locked away and never utilize it.
Yet if he had kept his eyes open, he might have seen the unnatural strands of unlight that signaled Theognis’s presence. He might have known sooner that they were coming.
That was the failure. That was what he could have done differently. He could have watched with his new sight, and if he had, Clarcia and Guiart might still be alive.
Never again would he shut himself off from their flow, and if he was damned to the darkest parts of the Shadow for his blasphemy, he’d accept that torment as a price for saving even a single life.
So, when they’d rounded the bend and seen Theognis closing in on Synit, unlight prisons trapping Bix and Haradeth, Armin had known what to expect. Theognis’s hands were wrapped in a cocoon of unlight, strands of it so densely packed the man’s hands were merely an outline. It was invisible to the naked eye, a pre-cast weaving that would activate if it was triggered. It was how he was absorbing the unlight, and any true light that was sent his way would be twisted into unlight before it reached his barrier and only strengthen it.
Even knowing it wouldn’t work, Armin had pulled the trigger. Pure instinct had driven the reaction. He had to do something, anything. And then he’d felt something. A sensation not unlight the buildup of light when he was charging an arcell, but somehow different. He’d pushed out with that sensation, and Theognis’s barrier had flickered out of existence.
It had lasted only a moment. It had given Armin’s blast all the time it needed. But now Theognis was protected again, and Armin had no idea how to replicate the feat.
He doesn’t know that. Light and Shadow, don’t let him figure it out. “Bring down the unlight cages, Theognis. Now.”
“I have to move if that’s what you want,” Theognis said, growling through the pain. The hole in his hand was now full of unlight.
“I know that’s a lie. You don’t need to use your hand to undo your own lumcasting.”
Theognis gave him a thin smile. “So, you did pay attention sometimes. I’ll admit to being surprised. Yet unlight is different.”
“You’re lying,” Armin said, pushing his finger against the trigger.
Theognis shrugged slightly. “You don’t know. You never studied it, Armin. Unlight requires the motion to undo, as it does to put in place.”
That was a mistake. It gave Theognis a chance to think. “Hmmm…a question, before you kill me?”
“I don’t care-” Armin started to say, but Theognis wasn’t interested in his opinion on the matter.
“If you believe they work the same, then you would believe killing me would end the traps. Yet you chose not to. And now I’m forced to wonder…why?”
Armin pulled the trigger. Theognis’s hand intercepted the blast, and Armin didn’t feel that pressure this time. The arclight was corrupted into unlight and merged with the barrier. Theognis smiled cruelly.
Screaming in desperation, Armin started to fire again.
In this moment, he was certain this would be the last act of his life.
Reflex drove Haradeth to shield his eyes against the blast. It was an absurd reaction – unlight darkened the room, not illuminated – but reflexes far deeper than logic drove his hands up. The cavern erupted with sound, a deep bass thrumming that shook the very walls. Some force was emanating from the beam, and Haradeth felt his feet begin to slide across the stone floor as it pushed him away from the point of impact.
Forcing himself to overcome those reflexes, Haradeth lowered his arms.
If he’d been fully human, the darkness would have been overwhelming. However, Haradeth had hunted with the wolf, stalked with the cougar, and raced through the trees alongside owls. His eyes were perfectly able to pierce the gloom, and what he saw filled him with dread.
Synit had been pushed back against the wall by her own blast. It held her in place, unable to move. Even Bix had stopped in her struggles against the unlight prison to stare in wonder at the display of power in front of them. Theognis should be nothing more than a stain on the wall right now.
Instead, he was standing there, one hand held out. Synit’s unlight beam was far broader than the lumcaster’s hand, but as it neared Theognis it was narrowing to a point centered in the middle of his palm. The veins in his arm were budging, his eyes were wide and bloodstained, and his clothes and hair were whipped backwards from the same impact…but he did not budge from where he stood.
Synit’s antenna were flapping in the force released by her blast, and a black fluid that Haradeth assumed was sweat but just as easily could have been blood began to ran from her pores. Inch by inch, her beam began to shrink. Theognis’ lips curled into a triumphant snarl as Synit weakened. “You tried,” Theognis said. The words were strained and he had to spit them through gritted teeth, but there was no mistaking his tone – Theognis was certain of victory. “But it’s time to come home, Synit. The Council of Nine is quite interested in hearing about your… misadventures.”
Synit screamed in defiance and the beam widened again for just an instant. Theognis took a step back, and black lines began to race up his arm. That’s it, Haradeth thought with a surge of excitement. You’ve got him!
Then the unlight beam winked out, and Synit collapsed to one knee. Theognis’s triumphant grin returned to his lips, yet he had to clutch his arm against his chest. “You do not know what you’re doing,” Theognis said in a tone that was meant to be calming, yet every word ached with suppressed fury. “I have your best interests in mind here.”
“Flath. A. Cactus,” Synit spat the words into the floor, bringing her arms up under herself. They quavered with the effort of trying to lift her torso. “You…are as bad as them.”
“You are blessed, you spoiled child.” Theognis didn’t try to hold back the fury now. “You were granted a form fit for gods, and you spit on that legacy with your defiance. You will be brought back to your forbearers and taught the error of your ways.”
“Every moment of my life…is pain. You expect gratitude?” Synit finally managed to push herself up far enough to work her knees under her body. Her entire body was shaking, and Haradeth was less certain that black fluid wasn’t blood as it began to run from the corners of her eyes.
“I expect acknowledgement of what you are.” Theognis began to stalk towards Synit.
“I’m a failure. You have your proper halfbreeds now. What do you need me for?” Synit’s hands began to change shape again, morphing into elongated blades like the ends of scythes.
Haradeth knew he had to move, but didn’t know what to do. Theognis had managed to hold off an attack on par with blasts that had felled gods. Trueborn gods, not godlings like Haradeth. Dragons had fallen to those beams. Castles had broken. Theognis had held it off with one hand. How could Haradeth hope to match him?
Bix was grinding her sawblades against the unlight cage again, and even though her form was alien, Haradeth could feel fury radiating off her every motion. Could even Bix defeat Theognis? Could anyone?
You have to try, Haradeth thought, glancing around the chamber. If unlight couldn’t harm him, perhaps a more mundane method would be needed.
Haradeth’s eyes fell on a scepter with a head of solid gold. He reached out and grabbed it. It weighted as much as a child.
Theognis was getting close to Synit, and she was backing away from him, her eyes growing wide with terror. She slashed at him with her arm blades, but her motions were shaky and uncoordinated. Theognis created a shield of unlight on either side of his body, and they moved to intercept her attacks.
Haradeth charged, holding the mace above his head. It was nearly enough to overbalance him with its sheer weight, but Haradeth was able to keep his steps steady and silent. He closed the gap and swung with all his might, bringing down the immense mass squarely for the back of Theognis’ skull.
Theognis flicked his good hand just before the impact, and an unlight shield manifested in the way of Haradeth’s blow. The head of the scepter bent under the impact, soft gold deforming into a flat surface. The unlight shield rang like a gong and detonated.
The sudden force sent Haradeth flying backwards and made Theognis stumble forward. Synit twisted under his grasping hands and used the bladed hands to skitter awkwardly across the floor. Theognis snarled and lunged for her, but he was off balance from the impact, and he only managed to grab one of her antenna. Synit twisted her head and screamed as the antenna was torn free of her skull. Black fluid poured from the wound. “You,” Theognis said, snarling and turning to face Haradeth. “You are going to die for that. Slowly. Painfully. And begging for mercy.”
Haradeth responded by hurling the scepter with both hands. Theognis didn’t block it this time, instead just leaning towards the side so it could fly through open air. It clattered down the hallway and tumbled into darkness. Theognis snapped his fingers, and an unlight cage like that one that had Bix enclosed fell into place around Haradeth.
“Now. Where were we?” He turned to face Synit. “That’s right.” He tossed her antenna to the ground. “You were going to come with me back to our masters so you could beg their forgiveness.”
Haradeth beat his fists against the unlight prison. His blows were as effective as Bix’s sawblades, which is to say they didn’t seem to accomplish anything. Synit couldn’t move any faster than she was, and Theognis was able to start closing the distance between them by simply walking.
We lost, Haradeth thought.
Just at the words went through his head, a beam of arcfire shot out of the darkness. It caught the edge of Theognis’ outstretched hand, and he hissed in pain and pulled the limb back.
Armin emerged from the gloom, flanked by Ossman, Lorathor, and Aldredia. Theognis turned towards his new attackers and spat. “You. I thought you’d learned your place, Armin. You are nothing compared to me.”
“You’re probably right,” Armin said, the arcwand still aimed for Theognis. “But I don’t need to match you for power to send you straight back to the shadow.”
Theognis smirked. “I have your two strongest members trapped. What could you possibly do to me?”
Armin brought the arcwand up to his eye, sighting down the barrel. “Let’s find out.”
With that, he pulled the trigger. Theognis threw his hand up to catch the blast, grinning.
That’s when Haradeth noticed Armin’s eyes, a pair of burning eclipses blazing to life.
Theognis howled in pain as the arcwand beam cut a neat hole through the palm of his hand.
Bix stood up and made a slashing motion with her hand. Haradeth stopped clapping before Synit – the half Alohym woman looked less certain than he did about what the gesture meant. “I’ve never seen anything like that,” Haradeth said, doing his best to convey shock and excitement over the feat as opposed to letting any of his horror at the carnage slip though.
It’s not that he felt bad for the Alohym soldiers Bix had laid low. This was a war, casualties would happen. Bix hadn’t been especially cruel in the slaughter. Haradeth had just never seen anyone or anything kill so many people with such…frivolity. She’d been singing, for the light’s sake?
“What are you?” Synit asked. She’d barely moved since the beginning of the fight, and had not yet taken her eyes off of Bix.
“I’m amazing.” Bix turned back towards the hallway. “You two need to pull your weight some, though. I can’t kill all of them myself. Well, I mean, I probably can, but it will take slightly longer.”
Haradeth nodded, his brain finally kicking back into focus. The danger hasn’t passed yet. Theognis is still out there. “Synit, can you shoot an arcwand?”
“No,” Synit said.
Haradeth clenched his teeth. He didn’t mind that they’d found this woman. If she hadn’t been honest about being on their side, she easily could have betrayed them during Bix’s slaughter of the soldiers earlier. Haradeth had been completely transfixed by the carnage. However, he was starting to wish he’d left her in the cauldron. “Then what can you do in a fight?”
“I’m part Alohym,” Synit said, as if that was an answer. “Their blood runs in my veins as much as my human side does.”
Haradeth took a deep breath to avoid screaming at the obtuse woman. “I’ve seen Alohym fight. They move at incredible speed, strike hard enough to crack stone, and can command unlight. Can you do any of those?”
Synit nodded. “The last one. I can command unlight.”
Haradeth sagged with relief. “So you’re a lumcaster. When Teognis arrives, I’ll need you to-”
Synit’s antenna twitched, and Haradeth felt his heart sink. “You misunderstand. I can project unlight beams. Theognis is a true lumcaster, he can do far more than I.”
Haradeth clenched his hands into fists. “So when you said you didn’t need an arcwand, it was because you are one. Why…why did you not simply say that?”
“I answered the question you asked.” Synit shrugged. Haradeth could see her wince from the pain the gesture caused her. It tugged a bit of sympathy out of him, but the irritation was still strong. There was a murderous lumcaster coming for them, and she was playing word games.
“You really should let me stab her,” Bix said.
“Don’t tempt me,” Haradeth responded. “Synit, get to cover and get ready. Bix, would you be so kind as to toss me one of those arcwands? I’ll need it when Theognis arrives.”
“I will, if you’re absolutely certain I can’t stab the Alohym woman right between her spines.”
“Yes, I’m absolutely certain that you-” Haradeth caught the way Bix’s eyes started to narrow. “I’m absolutely certain that I’d prefer if you didn’t stab her.”
“Yay you can learn. Fine.” Bix skittered over to one of the arcwands and kicked it towards Haradeth. “Now why don’t you-”
Bix’s sentence was cut off and she started to shriek, a harsly metallic sound that sent Haradeth’s hair standing on edge. An unlight dome had dropped around her, and Bix was slashing at it with all four limbs.
“Synit, get back!” Haradeth barked, raising his arcrifle and pointing it down the corridor.
Theognis walked into view, his face contorted into anger. Haradeth opened fire. Theognis held up his hand and caught the unlight beam with an open palm. Haradeth pulled the trigger again and again. Each beam was intercepted as Theognis’ hand blurred, catching each individual bolt. That shouldn’t be possible. No one can move that fast. No one should be able to move that fast. Even the speed Bix had shown wasn’t on par with this. And yet Theognis was easily keeping up with Haradeth’s attacks.
“A godling using an arcwand. How delightfully pedestrian,” Theognis said. The hand he’d been using to block began to suck in the ambient light. Next to Theognis, Bix had switched all four of her limbs to the tiny rotating saws and was pressing them against the unlight barrier surrounding her. They made a harsh grating sound as they dug into the energy barrier, but it did not break. “I’ve gotten very tired of dealing with this inane meddling. Surrender, godling, and I’ll make your death quick.”
Haradeth tossed the arcwand aside as it clicked empty and grabbed a new one. “I’m sure to get right on that,” Haradeth said, aiming the arcwand at Theognis’ head. “Let me guess. If I continue to resist, my death will be long and painful?”
“Oh no,” Theognis said. “You’re the last surviving godling. You’ll be used to spawn more of your kind, and you’ll watch as your offspring are bound with Alohym and made into new beings.”
Haradeth paled at the implications. “I would never touch -”
“Please,” Theognis interrupted. “The Alohym do not need you alive. They merely need your blood. That is more than enough to fabricate all that they need. I should have been clearer – your blood will be used to create more godlings. The question is if you are alive to witness what your progeny become, or if you rest in the Shadow while we make them.”
Haradeth responded by shooting again. Theognis caught the blast.
“So you choose to watch. I see. I suppose there’s no point to even asking you where Synit is?”
Haradeth frowned. Is that why he’s here? He’s looking for her? How could she be that important. “What’s a Synit?”
Theognis sighed. “I endured this idiocy from Armin earlier, little godling. Tell me where she is or I will-”
“I’m right behind you.”
Theognis whirled to face the voice. Synit had emerged from behind cover, her hands held together. No, Haradeth realized. Her hands have merged together. The limbs formed a star, and the center was drawing in so much unlight the entire cavern darkened to the level of twilight.
She let loose a blast of unlight as thick as the main weapons of the Alohym’s skyships, focused directly on Theognis’ chest.
Thankfully, Lorathor didn’t wait to turn to look at what had Armin shouting. He dove forward, and Clarcia’s outstretched hand passed through the open air. Clarcia let out a low hiss and began to shamble forward.
“Light and Shadow!” Lorathor said, bringing up his arcrifle and sighting Clarcia with it. Before Armin could even speak, he fired three short bursts. Arclight flew and struck Clarcia in the shoulder, chest, and forehead. She staggered backwards and fell over. “Thanks for the warning,” Lorathor said, raising the rifle. “I thought she was dead.”
“She is,” Armin said.
“Right, now. But I mean when I came in she looked…” Lorathor trailed off. “Necromancy?”
They both turned back to Clarcia. Her limbs were jerking unnaturally as she started to rise. She reached a crab position and her head turned unnaturally until it was facing them. “Necromancy,” Armin confirmed.
Lorathor shot her again. Beams of light streaked across the small cell. Clarcia barely rocked at the impacts, hissing and scurrying across the floor with preternatural speed. “Flath!” Lorathor shouted, throwing himself to the side as Clarcia’s jaw snapped shut inches from his knees.
Armin backed up, staring at her with wide eyes. It was Clarcia. It was Clarcia. She still looked like herself, even unnaturally twisted like this. “Armin!” Lorathor shouted. “Move!”
Clarcia was closing the gap between them. When she got close, her legs folded up over her body. For a moment she was walking on her hands, then her feet finished their arc and touched the floor, pulling her body and head upright in a swift motion. Armin threw up his hands and caught her on the shoulders. She bowled him over as her head twisted back into place. They hit the floor hard, and Armin wheezed as the wind was driven from his lungs.
Clarcia wasn’t impeded. She was snapping her jaw at him, only inches from his face. There was breath coming with the snaps, each one unnatural hot and reeking of the grave. The smell was enough to turn Armin’s stomach. If not for his hands on her shoulders, she would have torn out his jugular in an instant. Even with his hands in placed, her strength was immense. Armin pushed her upwards, and her fingers dug into his arm. Armin screamed as her fingers began to tear deep furrows on his skin.
An arclight beam struck Clarcia in the back of the skull. It blew straight through, and flesh, bone, and brain matter tore from her face. Clarcia didn’t even flinch at the sensation. The jerking motion tore one of her eyes loose, and it dangled from an optic nerve on the side of the head. “Get her off me!” Armin screamed.
A tentacle wrapped around Clarcia’s neck and began to tear her backwards. Armin stared at it in wide eyed horror as more tentacles join the first, grasping and tugging at Clarcia. Scrambling back and rising to his feet, Armin looked at the tableau, trying to process what he was seeing.
Lorathor was gone. Where he had been was some kind of…thing. Tentacles from an octopus attached to a humanoid torso. The tentacles wrapped around Clarcia as she struggled against the bonds. The creature wrapped a tentacle around her throat and wound it up to her forehead, pulling her head back so her jaw wasn’t able to reach the other parts of the thing. “Armin, get out of here!”
That was Lorathor’s voice. Coming from this monstrosity. Lorathor’s voice, and now that Armin looked, he could see the eyes. Yellow and with oddly-shaped pupil.
Armin sat down hard, his knees no longer able to support his weight. It was too much by far. He couldn’t process it. This horror, something out of the depths of both the ocean and nightmare, was entangling the undead being that had once been his friend. Clarcia growled and hissed, snapping at the creature, but unable to find purchase. There were dull plates covering the tentacles, flexing with them, and her fingers could not find purchase on their bulk.
Barely able to think, Armin just kicked his leg, letting the thing that had once been Lorathor hear the clatter of the chain. Lorathor snarled and began to tug hard on the Clarcia zombie.
Armin began to hear the cracking of bones. Clarcia’s struggles became more frantic, and flesh began to tear under the force.
Someone was screaming. Dimly, Armin realized it was him.
As he watched, helpless to do more than scream, Clarcia’s arm came out of its socket. Freed from her shoulder, it started to try and wrap around the thing that had been Lorathor. He – some part of Armin was willing to accept that this thing was, in fact Lorathor, although he could not hope to process how that had happened – brought two free tentacles around to grab onto the flailing arm. Bones crunched under the stress, and then the cracking sound turning into a grinding noise.
When Lorathor tossed that arm free, it was still twitching, trying to move and rejoin the attack. However, he’d shattered every bone in the limb, and it couldn’t do anything but flop uselessly on the floor. Bit by bit, Lorathor started to dismantle Clarcia.
She wasn’t helpless though. Lorathor’s grip would slip at time, and her jaws would find purchase. She bit through the strange armor that shifted with Lorathor’s form, cracking both teeth and plate with the force. Lorathor howled in pain, although Armin couldn’t see anywhere for him to be howling from.
It took nearly a minute. Lorathor tore Clarcia bit to bit. At the end of it, Clarcia had been reduced to a collection of twitching flesh, and Lorathor was bleeding from a dozen wounds. The mass of tentacles retracted and reformed into the Sylvani Armin knew.
“Armin, I can get that chain off you,” he said. Lorathor’s skin was paler than its usual vibrant colors, and he took a step towards Armin.
Armin recoiled from the motion, bringing up his hands. “What…what the flath are you?” he shrieked.
“I’m a Sylvani. We’re shapeshifters, Armin. Remember? You saw me slip through that crack in the tower, even though it was barely an inch wide.”
Armin nodded at the memory.
“I usually don’t go that far out of the form you know,” Lorathor continued. “But I needed to. I’m sorry.”
The words were so normal, Lorathor’s tone so calm, Armin was able to start thinking again. “I…I didn’t know you could do that.”
Lorathor grinned. The expression was strained, and Armin could see pain behind his eyes. “I don’t show it off often. An arcwand or blade is usually a better weapon anyway.” He glanced over at the twitching mess on the floor. “Usually. Who was that?”
“Clarcia” Armin whispered.
Lorathor flinched. “I’m sorry you had to watch that. Come on. Let’s get out of here.” He held his finger up towards the lock on Armin’s shackle. The digit protruded into the lock, and it unclasped like he’d turned a key. “Come on, Armin” he said, offering a hand.
Armin took the hand. “Ossman. Aldredia. They-”
“We’ll get them. But first…pull yourself together. You’ve been through the deepest Shadow. But I know we can pull yourself together. We can’t let Bix and Haradeth fight Theognis alone.”
Armin nodded and took a deep breath. I’m not losing anyone else. The thought was firm and he held it in his head like a drowning man clutching driftwood. “Alright. Let’s go. And while we do…I have two questions.”
“Ask away,” Lorathor said, peering out into the hallway.
“How did you get here, and who the flath is Bix?”
Lorathor smiled. “Would you believe me if I told you those answers went together?” And, without waiting for a response, he started to explain.
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Bix leapt onto the chest of an Alohym soldier. The man screamed and tried to raise his arcwand towards her. Before he could finish the motion, Bix buried a dagger in each of his eyes. The man fell forward, landing on his knees. Bix kicked off his shoulders, sending his body rolling into the ones that were behind him. Two more raised their arcwands and shot at her. Bix rolled away from the point of impact and left to the roof of the passageway. Her daggers and feet dug into it, and she began to skitter across the ceiling.
That was when she started singing. It was a tavern song, one Haradeth knew well. His eyes widened as he listened to it come from the mouth of an automaton dispensing bloody death.
“I met a man on the road to Greymoan,” Bix sang as she dove off the ceiling, her daggers held outwards. She sliced through the necks of the two who had shot, and they clutched their throats. Blood ran between their fingers.
“When he saw me, he called to me.” Bix flipped around, her tail lashing out to wrap around a soldier’s neck. One next to the newly struck soldier swung with his arcblade, trying to sever Bix’s tail. Bix’s dagger lanced out, catching the blow. In one fluid motion, she snapped the man’s neck and drove her dagger into the other man’s knee. When he fell, her other dagger met his chin.
“Oh, fair maid, why do you walk alone?” Three more soldiers charged her, screaming in what was either defiance or fear. Bix waited until they grew close. The moment they were in range, she popped up on her tail like a Jack-on-Spring and thrust daggers into two of their chests. Holding on by the daggers, her tail lashed up and caught the third in the groin.
“Because alone is how I wish to be.” The soldiers began to back up now, arcwands unslinging. They started opening fire, beams of unlight lancing towards Bix. She dodged them with the speed of a monkey dancing among the treetops, using her tail and feet and arms interchangeably.
“He called me fairest he’d ever known,” Bix kicked off a wall, driving herself across the chasm. Her tail sprung a blade with the motion, and with quick whips she drew it across the stomach of every soldier she passed. Three fell, clutching their guts and screaming in agony.
“And for my hand he started to plea.” True to the song, Bix drew out the last word as she flipped between unlight beams.
The Alohym soldiers stopped firing. “So, I” Bix sang, drawing out each word. As she sung, her back began to vibrate and four new hands sprung from her back, each ending in a bizarre implement unlike anything Haradeth had seen before – one some kind of needle attached to a tube, another a serrated blade that spun, a third like a two-pronged fork with lightning dancing between the tines, and the final a device that looked like it was loaded with tiny needles attached to thread.
“Stabbed him, stabbed him,” Bix sang the words as she danced into the group. The original lyrics were far bawdier, and far less murderous, that what she was singing, but Haradeth could barely focus on that. His attention was completely held by the spectacle.
The sawblade lashed out, severing a man at the knee. “Stabbed him,” Bix sang, and the electric fork rammed into a soldier’s kidney, causing him to dance and bleed from the eyes, “Stabbed him,” Bix brought one of her knives around directly into another man’s groin, and Haradeth winced.
“I stabbed him right there on the road,” The limb that ended in the needle loader aimed at fleeing soldier. It began to fire needles, and they started to wind through his skin.
More were starting to break and run. “I stabbed him,” Bix swung the needle-tube around and shoved it into another man’s neck. The tube constricted, and the man clutched at his head as blood ran from his ears.
“And offered to carry-” Bix had to duck under a frantic slash, her tail lancing up to crush the man’s trachea “his-” Bix dove forward on the closest fleeing soldier. “loooooooooad.” She ended his screaming with two daggers thrust into his lungs.
The remaining Alohym soldiers were routed. They were hardened men, veterans of dozens of battles, and they’d seen horror before. Yet even the strongest man was not prepared to stand against a metal woman half their size singing lewd songs as she cut their fellows down.
Bix turned to Haradeth and bowed. She was covered in so much blood, her usual bronze color was almost uniformly crimson. After a moment, she glanced up at him. “Start clapping.”
Haradeth began to clap like his life depended on it. Synit joined in, her antenna twitching in terror.
Strange Cosmology, the sequel for Weird Theology, releases on 09/10! The pre-order will go live on 08/16 – just in time for a MASSIVE 99 cents sale with 190 other books! Check HERE for the other books in the sale, click HERE for Weird Theology, click HERE for the free Small Worlds Prequel…or just keep scrolling down to read the sample chapter of Strange Cosmology!
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For long-time readers, everything in the preview is all new. The final draft of Strange Cosmology clocks in at around 130,000 words. This was originally the first act of Strange Cosmology, labeled right now at Strange Cosmology Part 1-50, and was only 79,000 words – so a TON of new and revised scenes will be in the book.
A Debt Repaid
Ryan Smith thought that, as afterlives went, he had seen worse than Nav. The Slavic realm of the dead was not as oppressively dark as the endless war of Helheim, nor was it as imposing as the great caverns of Hades. Mostly, it was barren, the kind of empty, frozen expanse that could only have been imagined by people that had lived in Siberia and wanted to come up with something worse.
Having visited seven other afterlives today, Ryan was developing some definite opinions. He preferred cold and ice to fire and brimstone. Quiet was better than howls and groans from the various inhabitants. And being able to enter without being attacked by an undead army was the biggest selling point of all. So far he was ok with Nav.
My life is so weird, he thought. Now, if I were a death goddess, where would I be?
The only break in the seemingly endless landscape was a bridge in the far distance, and Ryan supposed that would be the best place to start looking for the lady of this realm. Ryan reluctantly began walking away from the doorway to his nanoverse, leaving his exit point further behind with each step and resigning himself to what might be a long search. His bargain with the King of Hell would be fulfilled when he delivered eight death gods and goddesses to the battlefield, and he had hoped that this last one would be relatively easy, but had known better than to expect it.
After a half hour’s walk, Ryan finally drew close enough to see that the bridge didn’t seem to offer much of a clue. On the other side of the frozen river, everything looked exactly the same.
Maybe it’s some kind of mystical thing, he thought. I cross the bridge and suddenly I’m in Morana’s palace, where she’ll give me three wishes and a cup of hot chocolate.
He turned back toward his doorway, just to reassure himself that it was still there, and nearly jumped out of his skin when he heard a voice behind him.
“So…you’re the delivery boy?”
Ryan yelped and whirled around, his heart pounding. A woman had appeared on the bridge, looking over the river. She turned to face him as he took a deep breath and tried to get control of himself.
At first glance, Ryan actually felt comforted. The woman had a matronly look, her soft features suggesting that she actually might be the type to offer warm shelter and a cup of hot chocolate. Then he saw the hard, black pits of her eyes, and wondered if she’d be more inclined to warm someone by tossing them into a fire.
“Morana?” Ryan asked hopefully.
“Yes. And you are?” Her expression dripped contempt, and Ryan swallowed hard.
“Ryan. Ryan Smith.”
“Ryan…Smith,” Morana said, tasting the name. She made a face, as if it was a particularly bitter flavor. “My. They’re letting anyone have a nanoverse these days, aren’t they?”
Ryan reflexively reached into his pocket, closing his fingers around his nanoverse. You’re a god, too, he reminded himself. Sure, he’d only been one for a few weeks, but he still was a god. He’d battled a hundred handed giant, survived Enki’s various traps and tricks, and nuked a small island in Canada, so was he was going to let himself be intimidated by this random death goddess?
Her gaze narrowed, and Ryan realized the answer was absolutely yes. When her eyes flicked down towards his pocket, he felt a flicker of shame on top of the fear, realizing that grabbing for his nanoverse probably seemed weak and childish to her. Sometimes, being a new god felt a lot like being an uncool kid in high school.
“We should get going,” Ryan said gruffly, ignoring his pounding heart and reddening face as he pulled his hand back out of his pocket. “You’re the last one on my list.”
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Ryan realized they were a mistake, and Morana’s eyes flashed in fury. An icy wind rose around her, turning her raven hair into a storm around her face.
“If I didn’t need you to be free from this hell, I’d gut you for that insult,” she snarled. “You dare suggest that I am lesser? I, the bringer of winter, the killer of Yarilo, the mistress of death?”
Ryan swallowed again. He scrabbled for his nanoverse again, needing the reassurance. To hell with looking cool. If you have to fight her…crap. Death gods followed different rules from other gods. They weren’t reliant on their nanoverses, instead drawing power from the souls of the realm they claimed. Within that realm, they were not omnipotent, but they were far more powerful than anything Ryan had ever tried to face before. If Morana decided his insult was worth losing her chance at freedom, he’d have to…
…have to figure out why she was laughing. It took Ryan a second to fully process that Morena’s “angry goddess” pose had completely collapsed, and that she was nearly doubled over with amusement. Again, Ryan felt heat rising in his cheeks.
“I’m so sorry,” she gasped, wiping away tears. “It has been so very, very long since someone new visited my realm. Let alone someone I could mess with. Do you have any idea how boring it can get in here?”
Ryan let loose a deep sigh. “You really…you really had me going there for a bit. I thought you were going to kill me.”
“Oh, oh no. My first chance to walk among the mortal world again? To gain worshippers? Freedom? You’re absolutely safe.” Morana chortled again.
Ryan shook his head. “Well, I know that Arthur has a pretty tight schedule for all this. Mind if we move along?”
Morana nodded and stepped off the bridge, joining Ryan on the frozen plain.
“How is the war in Heaven progressing?” she asked.
“Messy,” Ryan said grimly. “Very, very messy.”
As they trudged across the ice, he thought back to his last visit to the battle.
Ryan had completed his first six pickups as quickly as possible, barely glancing at the battlefield before darting back into his nanoverse. He had promised to free the captive death deities and bring them to join Hell’s army, but watching demons and angels do their best to destroy each other was definitely not part of the arrangement.
However, when he stepped out to deliver Hela, ruler of the Norse afterlife for the dishonorable dead, the demon Ashtaroth had caught his eye and beckoned him over, and it just wasn’t politic to ignore Hell’s general. Especially when they were, at least for the moment, allies.
Ashtaroth raised his sword in salute, and Ryan couldn’t help staring as blood dripped from the sword onto the once pristine fields.
“You’ve barely stopped for an instant,” the demon rumbled. “We appreciate your diligence, but you can spare a few moments to rest, and to appreciate the battle. After all,” Ashtaoth’s eyes gleamed, “this has been millennia in the making.”
“I know, I’m just…” Ryan shook his head. The truth was that he didn’t want to see the battle, but saying so would probably be insulting.
“I thought Graham Island got you used to war,” Ashtaroth said, clearly intuiting the unspoken words.
“Can you ever truly get used to this?”
Ryan glanced at the battlefield, focusing on a tower still holding out against the horde of demons, its defenders in gleaming plate and fighting with spears of light. They looked so proud, so noble, so glorious. Ryan’s allies, by comparison, were a mass of unholy flesh wreathed with hellfire. If this was a scene from a movie, it could not possibly be clearer which side was good and which was evil, not unless the director edited in labels over each faction.
When Ryan had promised to aid Hell in its war with Heaven, he’d been too focused on his own enemies, and his desperate need for allies, to think too hard about his end of the bargain. Now, he couldn’t help questioning his “the enemy of my friend is my enemy” situation.
“Get used to this?” Ashtaroth gave him a wide grin, revealing rows of teeth that gleamed in contrast to his crimson skin. “I was born for this. It’s like asking a wolf if they ever truly get used to the hunt. But I know how it affects you humans. What’s that your people are fond of saying? ‘War is hell’.”
“Puns. We’re standing in the middle of a battlefield, and you’re making puns. You really are a monster,” Ryan said, forcing a smile.
“You certainly didn’t complain when we were fighting for you.”
You were fighting other monsters then, Ryan thought. “I guess it felt different because it was my fight,” he said.
Ashtaroth’s expression turned serious. “And you knew the hows and whys of that fight, and believed it to be of great importance. In this fight, however, it is you who are simply offering support without knowing all the roots of the conflict.”
Ryan paused, considering. Arthur, the current King of Hell, wanted to turn it from a pit of evil and torment into a semi-respectable afterlife. Was this war about that, rather than a simple power grab? Was Heaven trying to force Arthur to take on the role of eternal torturer, maybe? One thing Ryan had learned since becoming a god was that all myths and religions were different-and more complicated-than he had believed.
“I should think you would be less quick to judge without full information. After all, Eschaton, I’m sure you are far from finished confronting those who misunderstand your desire to end the world.”
“It isn’t my desire,” Ryan protested, “it’s my job. And if I don’t do it, something much worse will happen.”
“Still, it will be hard to sit on that high horse, passing judgement, when you’re laying waste to Earth.”
Ryan winced. “It’s different. It will be different.”
“Oh? And please, pray tell, how is that any better than what we’re doing here?”
As Ryan watched, Hela gestured towards the bastion. Swarms of half rotted corpses, the undead monstrosities known as dragur, followed the gesture to descend upon the tower. “It won’t be this horrible,” Ryan whispered.
He spoke so quietly, he wasn’t sure Ashtaroth heard him, until the demon began to laugh. “It’s the end of the world, Eschaton. It can’t be anything but horrible.”
“Right, but I’m…I’m going to do it in a good way,” Ryan protested, keenly aware of how weak the objection was.
“And how does one end the world in a good way?” Ashtaroth asked.
Ryan turned away, back to the battle. The dragur were forming a ramp of their own bodies, allowing the demons to clamber up the tower. He didn’t want to watch but couldn’t look away. You played a part in this, Ryan reminded himself.
Ashtaroth was still waiting for an answer, but Ryan didn’t have it. He had to end the world, or the sun was going to explode, not only ending all life on Earth but making all future life impossible. Ryan intended to find a way to end the world while somehow saving as much of humanity as possible, but so far he had no idea how to do that. “I’ll figure it out,” he said, as much to himself as to Ashtaroth.
The demon rolled his eyes. “As you will.” For a moment, Ryan saw something almost like sympathy cross Ashtaroth’s face.
“I suppose you should be going,” Ashtaroth said after it became clear that Ryan had nothing more to contribute to the conversation. “We wouldn’t want anyone getting the impression this is your war. You have enough complications, and Morena was never known for patience.”
“I can’t argue with that,” Ryan said, turning his eyes away from the carnage. There were already two gods, Moloch and Bast, still at large and opposed to Ryan and his allies. Ryan was certain there would be others. The last thing he wanted was to add Hell’s adversaries to his own problems. With a nod to Ashtaroth, Ryan headed back to his nanoverse.
Soon, he would be done with this whole nasty business and able to get back to ending the world.
For some reason, that didn’t exactly put a spring into Ryan’s step.
Ryan had only given Morana the barest sketch of the fighting, but it was enough to fill the walk back to his door. The stars spun around them as they entered his staging area, the landing platform from which Ryan could oversee his pocket universe, where he truly was omnipotent. The staging area was also where Ryan was able to move his nanovere through space and between realms, in a way he couldn’t begin to understand, any more than he could wrap his head around the fact that he was inside his nanoverse, but his nanoverse was also in his pocket. His friend Crystal constantly told him to stop worrying about understanding everything and “roll with it”, but sometimes it still gave him a headache.
Fortunately, Morana was happy to provide a distraction in the form of a question. “So, Uriel wasn’t blowing smoke? There really is a new King on Hell’s throne?”
Ryan nodded as he walked over to the console that controlled his nanoverse’s movements. “Yeah, apparently. I’ve only met his representatives, but given that Hell’s armies are dancing to his tune, it seems pretty legit.”
“Fascinating. Do you think he’ll uphold his bargain with us?”
“Why would my opinion matter?” Ryan asked. “So far all you know about me is that I’m doing his bidding, and that I’m apparently really, really easy to scare.” He took a second to rearrange the staging area, summoning comfortable furniture, and even a few decorative elements.
Morana chuckled and took one of the seats. “Truth. However, you’re also a god, and you’ve been free to roam about while I have been trapped in my realm. That gives you some credibility.”
“Fair enough.” Ryan said, setting the coordinates for the trip back to the battlefield. “I don’t actually know the terms of your deal. All I know is that my friends and I have to pick you up and drop you off, because that was our deal.”
“Our agreement was quite simple, really,” Morana said. “You see, most of the death gods have been imprisoned for some time, as the result of some nastiness that I’d prefer not to discuss. Any of your sort of god could have used their nanoverses to free us, but few were inclined to do so, and our freedom was always of limited duration. If Arthur breaches the gates of Heaven, he’ll have the power to free us permanently. In exchange for our help in the fight, he’ll free us to gain new souls and walk the world once more. The second, to be honest, was more appealing to me. Nav has become a lonely place.”
Ryan nodded thoughtfully “That’s a pretty good deal on both sides. I think he’ll come through. He upheld his end of our bargain.”
“Oh?” she asked. “And what was that?”
Finished at the control panel, Ryan took a chair across from her. “I needed an army. I had to deal with a bunch of…are you familiar with Varcolaci?”
Morana nodded. The Varcolaci were creatures out of Romanian mythology, a sort of middle point between werewolf, vampire, and goblin. They could tear a man apart like he was made from tissue and found death as inconvenient as an ill-timed nap.
“Arthur gave me a legion to fight the Varcolaci in exchange for transportation services.”
“I see.” Morana tapped her chin. “So, in your agreement, Arthur paid before you did?”
“Yeah,” Ryan said, then frowned at the implication. “You’re worried he’ll back out on you because it happened in the other order?”
“Wouldn’t you be?” Morana asked.
“Well, I’m fairly new to…all of this, really. I don’t know how infernal deals work and what he can and can’t back out of.”
“But surely…oh my. You’re still Nascent, aren’t you?”
Ryan grimaced at the reminder. It was true, he was Nascent, a god that uncovered a nanoverse and was still undergoing the transformation into full godhood. It sometimes felt like it meant he was a child – which, essentially, he was. He didn’t know half of what so many gods seemed to pick up on instinct, his divine senses were not as attuned as those of full gods…oh, and he could die without his nanoverse being destroyed. There was that little detail.
Morana gave him a sympathetic smile. “Apologies. It’s been so long since I’ve met a Nascent, I’ve forgotten…”
“It’s fine. I’m getting used to it.”
“I should try to make it up to you, though,” Morana said. “So, here’s a bit of advice. You might meet someone named Ishtar. She’s likely to try and convince you that you must end the world. It’s absolute-”
“It’s true,” Ryan said firmly.
“Oh dear, you’ve already been taken in.”
Ryan sighed. “I’ve had this conversation four times today. Sorry if I’m a bit short.”
Everyone in the know agreed that Ryan was the Eschaton, the last god of an era. Unfortunately, opinions differed on what that meant. Some believed that meant there would be new gods, with different powers and roles. Others believed that no new gods would emerge. Ryan’s friend Crystal, formerly Ishtar, believed that this meant it was time to end the world. Ashtaroth believed the same, and Ryan was pretty sure that meant that Arthur was on board, but didn’t know for sure.
For his part, Ryan agreed with her. Mostly. Her explanation made sense, and several people had tried very hard to kill Ryan based on the belief that it was true, so Ryan took that as a bit of confirmation. Granted, it wasn’t much to go on, but…
Morana was giving him a wary look, and Ryan sighed. “Look, I’m not going to go crazy and start killing people. I promise. Right now, we’re trying to figure out a way to save people, and we won’t be doing anything rash when it comes to the apocalypse. Can we skip that part of the lecture, please?”
Morana sniffed. “I remember being Nascent. So sure I had all the answers, too.”
Ryan rolled his eyes at the condescending tone. Yes, Ryan, that will convince everyone you’re not a child. Roll your eyes. You should throw a tantrum if you really want to sell it. “So, once you’re free, what are you up to next?” Ryan asked, hoping to change the subject.
Morana sniffed. “Something other than ending the world, I’m sure.”
You walked right into that one, Ryan chided himself. “Oh, thank God, we’re here,” he said as the console started to flash.
“Odd choice of words,” Morana said with a rueful grin, and Ryan couldn’t help but agree with her. He opened the door for Morana, and they stepped out on the edge of the battlefield.
“Well,” Morana said briskly, “looks like there’s still plenty for me to do. Thanks for the ride.” A chilling wind gathered around her as she strode into the fray.
Ryan deliberately turned his back on the fighting, and came face to face with Athena. The Greek sculptors of ages past had done well mimicking her appearance, but no sculpture could have captured her energy and vitality, or her inherent grace. All the goddesses Ryan had met were beautiful, but Athena drew his eyes more than any other.
“Is that the last of them?” she asked, her voice tight. Athena had agreed on the necessity of working with Arthur, but Ryan knew that she was just as conflicted as he was, if not moreso. He felt an urge to reach out to her and offer some sort of comfort, but held back, unsure if she would welcome the gesture.
He was glad he could at least give her good news. “Yup, as long as you and Crystal are done. Where is she?”
Athena jerked her thumb over her shoulder, and Ryan looked over to see Crystal perched on a rock and watching the battle. It was unusual to see her so still. A million years of life apparently left one with little patience for wasting time.
When he and Athena reached Crystal, Ryan saw that despite her relaxed posture, her expression was stormy. “I’m bloody glad that’s over,” she said. “Please tell me you lot are through so we can get out of here.”
Ryan just nodded, and they turned to exit the field. It was time to seek different allies.
“Can I stab it?” Bix asked, breaking the silence that had fallen over them. The half-Alohym hissed at Bix, her jaw widening to reveal mandibles. Bix reached out and rapped her across the forehead with her metal knuckles. The woman recoiled from the blow, her hands coming to her head to grab at the impact. “No. Bad freak of nature. You hiss at me again, and I will stab you. Actually, I might stab you anyway.”
“Don’t,” the woman growled. “Please.”
That last word froze Haradeth’s hand as he reached for his blade. There were many things he could imagine an Alohym saying. Please was not on that list. “Bix, wait.”
Bix glared at him. “Try that again, godling.”
Haradeth swallowed. “Bix, I’d appreciate it if you would wait till we understood more.”
“Better. We are kind of on a tight timeframe though.” Bix’s head swiveled until it was facing backwards.
“What are you?” The half-Alohym woman asked.
“I could ask you the same thing,” Haradeth said, offering her a hand.
Synit stared at it suspiciously. “My name’s Synit. I’m an early attempt to merge human and Alohym. A failed experiment.” After a moment’s pause longer, she took Haradeth’s hand and let her take him out of the cauldron. “I…was supposed to help Armin and the others. But the battle turned against them so far, but the time I could move, it was over.”
Haradeth didn’t have trouble believing that, seeing how stiffly she moved. It looked like she could barely do more than shuffle. “What were you supposed to do?” Haradeth asked.
“I’m a natural lumcaster. Same as all…well, same as my sire. Rephylon. I came here to try to tap into Light. I hoped it would…” she shook her head.
“It seems trusting.” Bix said, crouching on the cauldron. “I don’t like it. Things that trust too much usually want too much trust.”
“I heard you call him a godling,” Synit said. “I know of the Little Gods. The Alohym want you all dead almost as badly as they wanted to wipe out the dragons.” Her mandible clicked together. “Anything that the Alohym hate that much is an ally of mine.”
“Even disease?” Bix asked. “The Alohym hate diseases. Think it’s messy. Is disease your ally, plague-bringer?”
Synit looked at Bix, then back at Haradeth, then back to Bix. “Obviously I meant any-”
“Bah. Wasting too much time. Haradeth, I’m going to stab her.” Knives appeared in her hands.
Synit nearly fell over from the surprise, and she groaned in pain when Haradeth caught her. “Bix, please, you’re scaring her. She can barely walk!”
“Yes, I know.” Bix sighed and stalked away. “She’s useless. You should let me stab her. Since you won’t, hurry it up. We have a serious problem coming soon.”
“She…she’s insane,” Synit said as Haradeth helped her to her feet.
“You’re not wrong,” Haradeth said, keeping his voice low. “She’s also been very helpful. Light and Shadow, I’ll take a dozen psychopaths like her if it means we get to defeat those monsters.”
“Agreed,” Synit said. Her sight was a contrast to Bix’s metallic gargle – when Synit sighed, it sounded like slabs of meat slapping together. He was glad she wasn’t in contact with him anymore. He didn’t think he could suppress the shudder any more than he had. “She’s not incorrect, however. I was…less than useless in the last fight. I’ll just be a liability.
Haradeth grimaced. “Then climb back in that cauldron and wait until the fight is over.” Synit gave him a shocked look, and Haradeth shrugged. “I don’t have time right now to learn if you’re right or wrong. If you can fight, fight. If you need to hide, do so and we’ll keep you safe.” He fought an urge to roll his eyes. It was as bad as dealing with Tythel all over again. Synit was a half-breed obsessed with vengeance against the Alohym who would whine her way through anything she could. At least Tythel is competent in a fight.
Synit stood there, perfectly still. Haradeth got the impression he might have offended her. He really wanted to care, but he couldn’t. “You work with Armin? I heard you talking when you arrived.”
“He tolerates your attitude?”
“I’ve never given him a choice.” Haradeth shrugged. “Look, Synit, I-”
“Have to justify things. Yes. I understand. You are…very human, little godling.”
Haradeth bristled at the insult. “Look here you-”
“Light and Shadow, will you two kill each other already!” Bix shouted. Both of them turned to face her. “Flath, meat is so stupid. Look. You. Synit. You are half Alohym so Haradeth finds you offensive because you’re a perversion of life he finds so precious. Haradeth. The first human who wasn’t in the service of the Alohym she met was Armin, who – if half of what you told me about him was true – was all ‘oh no you poor thing, let me hug you lots and make you feel better moo moo moo.’”
Haradeth stared at her as Synit spoke. “Moo moo moo?”
“That’s the sound humans make when they’re trying to be affectionate.” Bix said.
“I think you’re thinking of cows,” Haradeth said.
“No, cows go Mwraaww. I’ve heard them. Moo is a human word.” Bix shook herself. “Haradeth. Do you think bug girl hates the Alohym?”
Haradeth nodded curtly.
“Synit, do you think leafy-green hates the Alohym?”
Synit considered for a second then nodded.
“Great. So, we’re united in hatred. Story for the flathing ages. Now shut up because something nasty is coming up this tunnel and I’m gonna stab it until it stops amusing me.”
Synit’s antenna twitched. “I can hear them. A couple dozen Alohym soldiers.”
“No, Haradeth. You two are outmatched here. A couple dozen Alohym soldiers are a warmup for me. Climb into the cauldron if you’re not going to let me stab Lady Alohym over there.” Her tail lashed the air like a cat waiting to pounce.
“Bix-” Haradeth started to say.
“Nope!” Bix said.
At that moment the first of the Alohym soldiers rounded the corner, an unlight arcblade held in his outstretched hand. He shouted and charged Bix.
Haradeth could barely see her arms move. He just got a vague sense of movement from them.
It was, he imagined, what the mouse saw right as the viper strikes.
The soldier fell at Bix’s feet. His torso landed first, divested of its previous attachments. It was followed by his collapsing legs and then by his right arm. His left hit the ground in three sperate chunks. His head sailed over Bix to land behind her, clattering against a pile of gold coins. Bix shivered. “Now. Let’s get stabby.”
Not waiting for Haradeth to speak, she dashed at the speed of a diving falcon for the next soldier to round the corner.
The Portal Stones – Haradeth refused to think of them as boogers, even if he’d say the word aloud to placate Bix – were objects spread across the world. Myths from various cultures held different significance to them. The Cardomethi had claimed they could access the realm that the ancient Alohym had used when they left. The Dor’nahi had maintained they were gates to the true ancestral home of humanity, and would one day lead them back. The Kingdom, before it’s fall, had believed them to be pagan iconography from a pre-Light religion. The warriors of Xhoa held they were gateways to the Shadow, where their Holy and Eternal War would one day spill out of that realm and into the mortal world. The Underfolk had held the belief that they would lead to a world where there was only darkness above and light below, a sacred land where humanity would be forced to live beneath the Earth.
In hindsight, Haradeth realized it should have been telling that the Sylvani were the only peoples who didn’t ascribe any significance to them. Sylvani travelers, when asked about the stones, would only repeat one of the other culture’s legends. Usually with song and drink, because the Sylvani bought their way into acceptance through entertainment when they could, and getting the locals too drunk to organize a mob when they could not.
To the best of his knowledge, no one had asked the Alohym what they believed the stones would lead o. They might not even be aware of the portal stones’ existence.
He voiced that possibility to Bix as they were gearing up, and she shrugged – an expressive gesture with metallic limbs. “Who knows? But I’m guessing not. If those things could have accessed an interplanetary method of rapid transit, I think they would have lept on it with all four hands.”
“You mean they could have activated it?” Haradeth asked. That thought had never occurred to him, and its implications were disturbing. Were they just handing the Alohym another weapon to use in their domination of the world?
“Not without me stabbing them lots. Even Anoirita would have acted then, I think. The only way to fully control the boogers is from here, and the Alohym would have come here if they knew. Also, if they knew what the boogers were, they probably would have figured out that we hadn’t all died out. They would have come and murdered everyone in the face. Except me. Because I’d be stabbing them, you see.”
Haradeth nodded, a small part of him surprised at how easily he’d come to take the little automaton’s violent nature in stride. “But once we activate them, can they trace it back here?”
“Probably not.” Bix looked uninterested as she worked on the console.
“Probably?” Haradeth asked.
Bix sighed. “Haradeth. We last fought the Alohym like, back when your people were deciding that eating cooked meat was a better long term plan than waging wars with flung feces. Excremental artillery. Shit showers. I think that’s all of them.”
“Okay, I just don’t-”
“Wait, no, I have one more. Crap catapults. Okay, now I’m good. What was your most likely stupid question?”
Haradeth waited for a second to make sure Bix was, in fact, done with her jokes. She motioned for him to continue. “I don’t see what that has to do with them being able to hijack the portal stones.”
“Because we’re talking about thousands of years, no matter what world you’re on. I wasn’t just making fun of you for being a bunch of monkeys who developed culture and decided it made you rightful masters of this world. Back then, you had…flath, I used all the good terms. Insert a scatalogical weaponry reference for me okay? Okay. But by the time the Alohym arrived, you’d gone from that to castles and catapults and stabby death, which is a much more refined way of waging war compared to the poop. Even if the Alohym hadn’t shown up, given thousands of years, even you idiots would have figured out arcwands. Technology grows and changes. The Alohym couldn’t crack the Transmatter Warp Platforms back when they invaded us, so they might not be able to crack it now. Or perhaps they’ve figured it out in the millennia in between.”
“Wait, what did you call the portal stones?” Haradeth asked.
Bix pressed a knife against his throat. “Boogers?” Bix asked.
“Boogers,” Haradeth agreed.
The knife vanished, as fast as it had appeared. “It’s a Transmatter Warp Platform. It bends spacetime curviture so the distance between here and there is shorter. It’s their proper name, but I long ago gave up trying to get you people to call them by that. Since you insist on calling them portal stones, I decided to give them an equally stupid name. Thus, boogers. Now, I’m almost ready. What’s the plan?”
“Plan?” Lorathor asked, walking around the corner. The Sylvani was wearing some kind of blue armor that reflected light in a dull manner. It was unlike any metal Haradeth had seen before. He’d told Haradetha bout it. It was a cultural artifact of the Sylvani, but they could be used with special approval. Bix had a suit she could authorize someone to use. The…what was it Bix had called them? The polycarbons in the suit would shift to match the wearer’s natural shapeshifting, allowing Lorathor complete access to his natural talents.
“Yes. Plan.” Bix gave them both a level look. “You don’t have a plan?”
“I didn’t think you’d be in favor of one,” Haradeth said.
“Of course I’m not. It’s no fun messing up someone’s plans if they don’t have one.” Bix crossed her arms and glared at Haradeth.
“Well, that’s part of why I didn’t have one. You can focus on the fact that we’re disrupting the Alohym’s plots?”
“Patronize me again and I’ll…flath, these are complicated equations, even for me. Do me a favor and assume I threatened you and you were truly terrified of it.”
Haradeth thought for a moment and discovered coming up with possible torments Bix could unleash was more frightening than any of the threats she’d actually make. “Done,” Haradeth said.
Bix nodded in approval. “We’ll only have a few seconds. This is some slipshod math. But it will get us there, and there is a ninety-six percent chance we’ll arrive with every body part we left with.”
Bix pushed a button on the console, and the air over the Portal Stone distorted. As Haradeth watched, it folded in on itself, almost like someone pulling a sock inside out, if the sock was the fabric of reality. It hurt his head to watch. “Wait, what was that last thing you said?”
“No time!” Bix said cheerfully and dove through the portal. Haradeth gaped at Lorathor, who laughed and followed. Swearing under his breath, Haradeth jumped through after them.
The portal snapped shut after them. They were in a treasure room lit by dozens of Alohym arcglobes. There were three soldiers in here, staring at them in mute astonishment. “Get Theog-” one of them started to shout.
For his quick thinking, he died first. A dagger sprouted from his throat, moving so quickly Haradeth could barely track it. Bix stood there, grinning at her handwork. The two soldiers remaining began to raise their arcwands.
Haradeth dove for cover as one of them opened fire, unlight ricochetting off a pile of gold. Lorathor closed the distance between them in two great strides, unlight glancing off his armor. The third stepped around and took aim at Lorathor’s back, and Haradeth hurled a gold plate like a discus.
It hit the side of the man’s head and lodged in there.
Bix chuckled. “I knew I kept you alive for a reason.”
“Lorathor.” Haradeth pointed down the cororidor. “Wear one of these faces, and tell Theognis the portal stone activated. Then find Armin and the others.”
Lorathor started to run, his skin and armor already running as he did. Bix gave him a sideways look. “I’m no strategy expert, but why did we just give up the element of surprise?”
“Because we didn’t,” Haradeth said, taking cover. “He’ll be expecting resistance fighters. He definitely will not be expecting a godling, and he can’t possibly be prepared for you.”
Bix nodded at that and headed over to climb into a cauldron. “I’ll pop up when he least expects it. Then I’ll stab him.” She clambered up the side and looked in. “Hey, Haradeth, if someone’s in here, should I stab them? She looks…weird.”
Haradeth ran over to the cauldron and looked in inside.
A half alohym woman was huddled in the bottom, staring at them both with wide eyes.
“I don’t know what you want me to check out here,” Bix said. “It’s just some manky swamp in the middle of nowhere.”
“Middle of nowhere is where the resistance often has to hole up,” Haradeth said. The three-dimensional display in front of them showed a near endless swampland, dotted with ruins. It was a dismal landscape, full of mutated life. “We can’t exactly hide our forces next door to the capital.”
Bix sighed, a sound like nails rattling in a tin. “Fine. It’s not like other watchers can’t look in different places while we do.” She studied the landscape, tapping her food. Clangclangclang – “I remember Dor’nah back when it was…you know, actually a nation. Before everyone who lived here got murdered and started sinking into the sea?”
“Oh?” Haradeth asked.
“Oh yeah, absolutely. Back when it was the Three Empires – Hallith, Dor’nah, and Cardometh. Dor’nah was different from the other kingdoms you humans put up. Sylvani were welcome there, as were the Kan’nah. I actually went a couple times. Only stabbed someone once.”
“Kan’nah?” Haradeth said, furrowing his brow.
“You call them Underfolk now. Back then they didn’t live underground. Interrupt me again and I’ll make a necklace from your teeth. Understand?”
Haradeth nodded furiously, and Lorathor flashed him a reproachful glare. Just as Haradeth started to wonder if Lorathor had caught Bix’s unique brand of lunacy, the Sylvani winked and turned his attention back to Bix.
“Now, where was I?” Bix said. “Yes, Dor’nah. Humans, Kan’nah, and Sylvani. I went there a few times. In the night, because I didn’t want to be seen. This was…a long time ago. Everyone living together in a state of mutual hatred that never quite bubbled over into bloodshed, which is the closest you meat ever gets to peace. I didn’t even stab anyone when I was there because a random murder could have boiled over into indiscriminate warfare, and I didn’t want that. There’s no fun in random murder.
“But I hear you wondering how all these different people lived together. No, no, don’t say anything, not if you want to keep your teeth. See, all those people had one thing in common. They hated dragons. Which is a stance that can, perhaps, be understandable in the days when those three races were considered food sources by dragons. However, it’s not a very good idea to hate dragons when you share territory with a dragon that also was the most powerful necromancer alive. His lair is right over….ooooh, what’s this?”
Haradeth waited to make sure Bix wasn’t going to say anything else before asking, “What’s what?” The drone was flying up towards a structure that loomed over the landscape, even though it was sunken into the terrain. Haradeth tried to get a sense of how large the building had been, but his mind rebelled at the scale. For perspective, on top of the building was the skeleton of an immense a dragon, overgrown with moss, still clinging to the top of the building.
“Bah. Why do you even have eyes if you don’t use them?” Bix flew the drone lower to the ground.
Haradeth’s eyes widened and Lorathor gasped. Skitterers, sitting in the swamp outside the building. At least a dozen of them. “Okay, fine. I am only going to say this once,” Bix said, her eyes whirring as they narrowed into slits. “You were right, we should check here.” She flew the drone into the building.
“Thank you. I’ll never mention it.” Haradeth said.
“Good, you do learn quick,” Bix said, her voice light and cheerful. “So, it looks like someone brought a military presence into the ruins of Dor’nah and decided to take a stroll through a dragon’s lair. That’s…completely illogical, but you lot often are.”
“Is there a portal-” Lorathor started to say but caught himself with Bix’s gaze fixed on him. “Fine. Is there a booger here?”
Bix gave him a look that was so clearly a ‘proud parent’ look that Haradeth had to suppress a laugh. “Oh yeah, most dragon lairs have at least one booger,” she said. “At least the old ones. They used to consider it a status symbol to pick one and stick it in the hoards, because they were so rare.” Bix paused to consider her words. “Actually, they still are rare, but they also were. Even at the height of things we only had about fifty on this landmass. There’s one down there, though.”
The drone’s vision switched, giving them a false-color image of the pathway, it was travelling in pure darkness. Gems glittered on the walls among the artwork, woven between thin sheets of precious metal foils. It was beautiful. “A dragon made this?” Haradeth asked.
“No, no no no. Draconic art is different. They do their art by melting stones with their breath and reshaping it into something else.” Bix sighed. “I truly do love their artwork. It’s so wonderful to look at statues made with molten stone. Art made into a destructive act. I do hope we find some down here. Anyway, this art was made by humans or Underfolk or Sylvani. Probably humans because there’s more of you buggers. Talons aren’t good at fine work like this.”
Haradeth nodded, watching the display. These drones were incredible creations. They could cover a hundred leagues in a day. The path in front of them flew by in a rush as it sped down into the depths of the dragon’s lair.
And into a group of Alohym soldiers. “Light and Shadow, look out!” Haradeth shouted.
Bix gave him a level look. “What are you shouting about? Are you afraid of the big bad soldiers?”
Haradeth stared as the soldiers ignored the drone. A couple waved hands in its direction. “Bix…how small is this thing?”
Bix held up two fingers close to each other. “Too tiny to stab easy. Or notice. At least right now. I activated a couple circuits on it that give us a temporary spatial distortion that…” she noticed the glazed looks on their faces and gave another of those mechanical sighs. “This is why I call things boogers. Fine. I turned on the tiny maker. It’s tiny for a couple hours. Then it will re-enbiggen.”
“I followed that,” Haradeth said.
“I know. I put it on your intellectual level.” She directed the done to fly under a locked door.
In there was Armin, chained to a wall, and that bastard Theognis.