Small Worlds Part 208

Arachne sat across from Athena, tapping her fingers on the table in rapid, staccato bursts. Her lips were as thin as her eyes. “You honestly believe this?” she asked.

Athena nodded. After the battle, Arachne had a dozen questions, and they’d needed a place to talk. Athena would no sooner enter Arachne’s nanoverse than Arachne would enter hers, and Anansi had been the one to suggest they talk somewhere comparatively neutral. After discarding various divine realms for a variety of reasons, they had settled on a small cafe that overlooked the Mediterranean. Arachne had never had coffee, and Anansi had been eager to introduce her to this particular wonder of the modern world.

The amount of cream and sugar she’d used to make it palatable had horrified Athena, but she’d kept it to herself. Given that this was the first thing she’d had since returning to the core world, Athena was hardly going to judge.

“The sun’s been getting hotter,” Athena said in response to Arachne’s questions. “I think it’s pretty irrefutable at this point. I don’t know how long we have.”

“So, you brought me back to the core just so you could tell me the world was going to die?” Arachne sighed through clenched teeth, her fingers still beating out a frustrated rhythm. After the fight, Arachne had been more tolerant of Athena, though she still regarded her former mentor with a furious wariness.

“No. The impending destruction made me-”

Arachne cut her off with a frustrated wave of her hand. “Athena, I’m not even close to forgiving you, but this thing – if you’re telling the truth about it, and I see no advantage to you lying – is bigger than even what happened between us. You don’t need to explain yourself or apologize again every time I snap, so long as you understand it’ll be some time before I can stop snapping. Until then, just ignore me when I comment on it. Agreed?”

Athena considered for a moment, and then nodded. “As you wish,” she said. In truth it was a relief.

Especially given how frightening Arachne was to Athena. Athena and Anansi had beaten her to the cafe under the pretense of wanting to make sure that there would be no threat lying in wait, but it had given them a much-needed chance to discuss the fight. Once she’d convinced Anansi that she hadn’t thrown the fight deliberately – which had not been an easy task – Anansi had come up with a chilling hypothesis.

Arachne had been able to resist Athena’s power within Athena’s nanoverse, where Athena was supposed to be omnipotent. Somehow, the trillions of years had worked Arachne partially into the fabric of Athena’s reality. Athena’s power, directed against Arachne, would barely impact her, while Arachne’s power, directed against Athena, was able to cut through her defenses like they weren’t there.

In short, if Athena were to ever face Arachne in a battle to the death, Arachne would almost certainly triumph. Anansi had called Arachne Athena’s personal kryptonite, a pop culture reference that Athena had understood and dreaded.

The threat she posed to Athena directly was the primary motivation behind telling Arachne everything. If she understood, she’d hopefully agree to at least leave Athena be until after this was over.

“Glad we have that established,” Arachne said, taking another sip of her coffee. “So what are you all doing to prevent it?”

“We can’t,” Athena said, shaking her head. “At least, probably not. Ryan and Dianmu are in Officum Mundi right now, trying to get information out of the Curators-”

“The what?” Arachne asked.

“The Curators,” Athena repeated, fighting back again an urge to apologize, an urge to make amends for thousands of years of life stolen from Arachne. Athena had to remind herself that Arachne’s crime had been horrible, that she’d deserved punishment for what she had done. It helped her fight back the impulse. “A group of celestial beings that watch over knowledge and keep track of it. No one really knows what their true purpose is, but if anyone has the answer, they do.”

Arachne nodded and motioned for Athena to continue.

“So, if the Curators have a way to prevent it, we will. If the Curators do not…then we need to find a way to end the world without killing every person on it.”

“Seems a bit of a difficult task,” Arachne said. “How can I help?”

Athena gaped at her. “You want to help me?”

“Oh, stars of Olympus, no!” Arachne said with a bitter laugh. “But I just got the world back. I refuse to sit idly by while it burns around us.”

Athena glanced at Anansi, who had been silently observing Athena throughout the conversation. “We thank you for your aid,” Anansi said with a warm smile. “Right now, however? Athena and I are on standby. Another route is being sought by Crystal and Isabel, one that will hopefully yield other results.”

That was where they had drawn the line. Trusting Arachne to know about the end of the world was one thing. Trusting her with the knowledge of the Staff of Ra had been a risk too great. It would have changed Arachne from being a threat to Athena personally into a threat to the entire endeavor.

“I see.” Arachne chewed her lip in thought, a gesture that was so familiar to Athena it was almost like looking through a portal into another time, and a wave of nostalgia and regret struck her. “In that case, I suggest-”

Arachne’s suggestion was lost in a sudden eruption of screams from the cafe. The three gods stood and whirled, each of them preparing to face this new threat.

A bloody, badly beaten man had stepped out of the bathroom. His left arm was missing, and he only was not fountaining blood across the floor because someone had cauterized the wound. His body was covered in scratches and the unmistakable patterns of shark bites. He had a bandage wrapped around his head, covering one eye, and was so badly beaten that it took Athena a moment to recognize him.

“Athena!” he said brightly. “Hello. Poseidon is a right bastard. We’re in a bit of trouble at the moment.”

And then, his message delivered, Hermes collapsed into unconsciousness.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 104

The sound of the Skimmers reversing course never reached Tythel’s ears. The Skimmers carried on, flying off to wherever they had been heading in the first place. Tythel’s heart still pounded in her chest. They might have sent a song to some soldiers in the area, they might have…

Might have said what? All they would have seen is a group of people, gathered in an alley. The crate could have just been closed with the warning she had given. Even without it though, a group of people lunging into a building is hardly something worth dispatching a squad of soldiers to investigate. Probably, at least, Tythel reminded herself. She didn’t want to second guess the Alohym too hard – they’d surprised her before, and it could easily happen again.

“What the flath is a Skimmer?” Eliert hissed, emphasizing the curse.

“A new thing of the Alohym,” Eupheme explained in hushed terms. “They’re flying creatures, far faster than the Alohym’s vessels.”

Eliert’s eyes narrowed. “I’ve never heard of a Skimmer before. How did you?”

“We’ve encountered them. I think they’re new – we barely got away last time.” Eupheme shrugged.

Tythel took a moment to look around the room. They were in the back of some store, from the sounds on the other side of the wall. In here were a large variety of crates, though none were as big as the one Tythel carried, and all were labeled with glyphs that indicated they were shipped through proper channels. She didn’t need her nose picking up whiffs of fresh paint to inform her that some of those glyphs were forgeries.

Light came from a single arcglobe that hung near a door that lead into the back of the shop. Tythel could hear a couple people talking out there, haggling over the price over a heat extractor.

“Awfully convenient,” Eliert said, drawing Tythel back to the problem in front of her. “An Alohym invention no one else has heard of, and we get warned of by the veiled maiden who – somehow – heard them before anyone else did.” He reached to the single hand arcwand that hung at his side.

“Eliert, what are you suggesting?” Tellias asked, tensing up himself.

Eliert’s eyes were taking on the wild look of a trapped animal. “How in the shadow is she still holding that crate? It’s over twenty-five stones, and she’d holding it like it’s full of feathers!”

“Just stay calm,” Eupheme said, taking a half step back, placing her foot in one of the shadows cast by the shelves that surrounded them. “Eliert, I’ve worked with you before. You know me.”

Eliert let out a laugh that held an edge of hysteria. “Do I? Do I really, ‘Grendella’? That’s not even your real name, is it?”

“Of course not,” Eupheme said, putting on her best soothing voice. “I’m not a flathing idiot, tossing around my real name for these kinds of purchases. Light, it’s not like Eliert’s your real name.”

His eyes widened, and Eliert clenched his teeth.

“Oh, shadow forsake me,” Eupheme swore, her hands going to her daggers. “It is your real name.”

“Kill them,” Eliert hissed.

Tythel dove forward before he even finished the word, bringing the heavy crate down to collide with his face. The impact hit the moment Eliert got the word out of his mouth, and he rocked back, the arcwand tumbling from his fingers. Something cracked under the impact, and a small part of Tythel hoped it was Eliert’s face and not some of their goods. She lashed out with her foot and kicked it away from the fight. It set her off balance, and she stumbled to the side, barely righting herself before the weight sent her tipping over.

The two bruisers Eliert had hired had pulled out their clubs. “Don’t, you idiots,” Tythel snapped, pitching her voice as low as she dared. Eliert lay on the ground, clutching his nose and groaning in pain. “Do you want to bring the Alohym down on us?”

“And more importantly,” Eupheme said from behind one of the thugs, “do you want to still be breathing?” There was a dagger pressed to the man’s throat, and his eyes widened. She’d taken advantage of the distraction Tythel had provided to step through the shadows, which made her usual vanishing trick even more unnerving than usual.

The man with the dagger to his throat dropped the club, and his companion followed suit. “Good choice,” Eupheme said, not moving her dagger.

“She broke my nose!” Eliert growled from the floor. “She broke my flathing nose!”

“You pulled an arcwand,” Tellias said, walking over to bend down and look at the man. “You pulled an arcwand in the middle of a crowded chamber when the Alohym could have spotted us. Light, how have you survived this long selling black market goods?”

Eliert responded with a string of curses that Tythel didn’t understand, but they sounded incendiary. “What do we do with him?” Tythel asked.

Eupheme and Tellias shared a look, and Tythel fought down a curse of her own. This wasn’t a look she’d seen before, but it seemed to have weight and gravity behind it. I am getting better, she reminded herself, but it was a cold comfort when it seemed like everyone else on the planet could share looks that seemed to hold entire conversations in a glance.

“We leave him,” Tellias said, and Eupheme gave a reluctant nod. “He has as much to lose as us if he goes running to the Alohym.”

“More, really,” Eupheme amended. “As dimly as the Alohym look on people who purchase goods illegally, they take an even more unkind view to those that sell them.” That last sentence was for Eliert’s benefit, Tythel was sure. It didn’t make sense for the Alohym to prioritize the sellers of weapons over the buyers, especially with an active rebellion.

Eliert went pale, and Tythel hoped that meant he got the message. “Fine,” Eliert spat. “But don’t come around to me anymore, you hear me? We’re done!”

Eupheme gave Eliert a tight-lipped smile as she stepped out from behind the thug. “Believe me, Eliert, I wouldn’t dream of it.”

With that, the three of them exited the dark back room.

 


 

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Small Worlds Part 207

Crystal blinked as her eyes clear and the robotic voice said “cleansing complete. Radiation neutralized.”

A lump formed in Crystal’s throat. Isabel… She’d believed this entire time that the security protocol to deal with the Typhon would be something rooted in divine powers, but the Lemurians who built this facility weren’t gods. They were beings of science and had found a scientific solution to the problem. One that killed every living creature within the chamber.

The dome retracted and Crystal wiped the tears burning on the edge of her vision. I never should have brought her here, she thought with a fierce anger. Crystal knew that was foolish – she would have died against the Typhon without Isabel’s help – but the fact remained that if Isabel had remained behind, she’d be alive.

Crystal forced herself to her feet again. She just wanted to sleep, sleep for years, but she wouldn’t let Isabel have died for nothing. I’m sorry, she thought, looking over the edge. If the staff of Ra didn’t hold the key to saving the world, then…then she’d deal with that later. It has to help, Crystal thought, knowing how irrational that conviction was. But she didn’t feel she had anything else to hold onto.

The Typhon’s body was unmoving, the tendrils that connected its head and snakes to its body laying discarded on the ground. Tumors had formed at the edges of the wounds. The radiation must have caused it to be unable to regrow. It was an effective method of control, Crystal had to admit. Irradiate everything to hell with neutrinos. The beam must have blasted out the far side of the moon, given how insubstantial the moon was, but at close proximity they would be dense enough to have killed pretty much everything not protected by one of those domes.

The Tyrannosaurus that had been Isabel was…Crystal’s forehead furrowed. Where the bloody hell is it? 

As if in response to the question, a lump began to form on the floor, a lump that grew rapidly until it was a young woman, looking tired and bruised, but very much alive. “Did we win?” Isabel shouted up to Crystal.

“Isabel?” Crystal asked, her jaw dropping. “How…what…how are you not dead?”

Isabel flashed Crystal a grin. “Water bear! I heard your warning and shifted to it. Expelled most of the poison too, although I cycled back through the woodrat to make sure.”

Crystal started to laugh, feeling the tears forming again. “You scared the bloody piss out of me!” she shouted.

“I thought those snakes got you!” Isabel countered. “Fair’s fair, right?”

Crystal could only laugh, right up until the shaking caused her arm to give her another reminder how very broken it was. It was hard to see through the tears, but it looked like Isabel was grimacing.

“How badly are you – you know, screw the shouting,” Isabel said from the bottom of the pit. “Can I get a lift up?”

“I couldn’t lift a piece of paper up here, love,” Crystal countered. “I’m completely drained.”

Isabel nodded and turned into a hummingbird, flitting her way up to the platform. Crystal watched the tiny jewel of a bird flutter up and hover in the air before shifting back to Isabel. “Damn…what happened?” She motioned to Crystal’s arm.

Crystal shrugged with only her good shoulder. “I kind of ran out of power while going forty sliding along the ground. Real physics weren’t particularly kind to me when the power dropped.”

Isabel winced in sympathy. “Stay there, let’s get you a sling.” She pulled off her shirt.

Crystal’s Hungers were in full effect, and she had to fight the urge to stare as Isabel ripped a strip off the bottom of the shirt before replacing what remained of the garment. “We’re going to need to move your arm back up,” Isabel said, flushing faintly as she noticed Crystal’s gaze. “It’s going to hurt.”

“Right,” Crystal said, getting her focus back on the task at hand. “Can you help with that?”

Isabel nodded and stepped forward, looping the strip of cloth over Crystal’s neck and shoulder. “You’re going to need to get it properly set when we get back to Earth. If it heals badly…” Isabel looked up and met her gaze. It seemed she was as aware of how close they were as Crystal was. “Well, you’ll probably be fine. Divine everything, right?’

Crystal smiled. “Too bloody right, love. Let’s get this over with?”

Isabel nodded and gently placed her fingers on Crystal’s injured hand. “Clench your good first. It’ll help.”

The blinding pain of having her arm lifted to be placed in the sling completely killed whatever mood had been building. Crystal threw her head back to scream at the agony, and following Isabel’s advice caused her hand to clench so hard it dug deep furrows of blood in her palm. “Sorry, sorry,” Isabel said repeatedly, pushing Crystal’s arm into the sling and then giving it a careful tug to make sure it was straight. “Sorry,” she said again as Crystal’s pain levels went from unbearable and wound down to agonizing.

“It’s alright,” Crystal panted. Sweat beaded her forehead, and she felt like she was about to pass out. Against everything her body wanted to do, she forced herself to smile. “Just need some food, some drink, some sleep, and some fun. Then it’ll heal right up.”

Isabel nodded and gave Crystal a mirror of her reassuring smile. “Absolutely.” She pointed down towards the bottom corner of the room. “We should get down there. I saw a doorway when I was fighting the Typhon. It’s the only other door I’ve seen in here, so it has to lead to the staff of Ra.”

“Right,” Crystal said, tearing her eyes off Isabel to follow the direction of her point. “Any idea how to get down there without me blacking out? I can’t lower myself, and I don’t look forward to riding you with a broken arm.”

Isabel flushed at the choice of words and coughed. “I’ve been thinking about that. I’ve got a T-Rex, so I’m guessing I have some kind of sauropod. I can get my head up to the bottom of the platform, you step on, I lower you down.”

Crystal nodded. “That makes sense. But first?”

Isabel looked at her, and Crystal reached out to take Isabel’s hand. “Last time things were desperate, and I didn’t ask. But I’m Hungry, and if anything’s waiting, I need any kind of strength, and beyond that I’d bloody love to kiss-”

Before she could finish the sentence, Isabel leaned forward, carefully avoiding Crystals arm.

There in the Typhon’s chamber, on a platform built by a species thirty million years gone from this earth, they kissed – and for a moment, Crystal forgot about everything else that surrounded them.


 

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The Dragon’s Scion Part 103

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Tellias was waiting for them at the end of the alley, dressed in a laborer’s simple white tunic that was slightly damp with sweat from the heat. Three other men were with him. Two were also dressed in simple clothing, large and well-muscled, and had a hard look to their eyes Tythel had seen in the most veteran resistance fighters. The remaining man was dressed nicer, with a black shirt that gleamed with the sheen of silk. His hair was plastered to his forehead with sweat, and his face was turning red. Probably shouldn’t wear black in this weather, Tythel thought, glad that heat didn’t touch her.

“Ahhh,” the man said, “the lovely Grendella returns, and brings her mythical Warrior Maiden companion – not so mythical, though. Tell me, Warrior Maiden, what do you call yourself? Grendella didn’t deign to share your name.”

Eupheme – or ‘Grendella,’ Tythel supposed – barely even flinched. She needn’t have worried. “I am called Zimiri,” Tythel said, her voice casual. “If you wish my true name, you can taste my steel.”

The man studied her for a moment, then nodded to himself. “Sounds enough like what I’ve heard. I don’t like working with people who cover their faces, Ulmar.”

That last comment seemed directed at Tellias, who gave the silk-clad man a casual shrug. “And I don’t like trusting my security to hired thugs. Zimiri’s honor means my wallet stays secure.”

After a moment, the man sighed. “I suppose I can’t argue with that. Or, to be more accurate, I could, but I’d rather be done with the lot of you.” He turned and gave Tythel a low bow. “I may be called Eliert and mean no offense. These are dangerous times for men such as myself, and every caution must be taken.”

Tythel gave Eliert a faint nod of her head. From the look in Eliert’s eyes, she’d passed that test too – the warrior maidens only bowed before initiating combat. Thank you, father, for all your lessons. “And do you have what we need?” Eupheme asked, taking back control of the conversation.

Eliert gave her a broad grin. Tythel wasn’t sure exactly how to read it – was he amused? Frustrated? Something about this man was throwing off her ability to read people. Probably because he’s a liar, Tythel reasoned.  “Grendella. In all the times we’ve worked together, have I ever not had what you needed?”

“There was the time in Queensfall,” Eupheme said with a roll of her eyes.

“Hey, that wasn’t on me, that was on-”

“And the time in Oxhaven,” Eupheme said, crossing her arms.

Eliert held up his hands. “What was I supposed to do, there were a dozen-”

And then there was-”

Eliert threw up his hands. “All right, all right, fine, I see your point. Yes, I have what you need. Do you have the keys for it?”

Eupheme motioned to Tythel, who held up a bag and jingled its contents. “I let the deadly assassin carry the money,” Eupheme said, and Tythel thought she was used to Eupheme’s expressions well enough to see a sparkle of amusement in her eyes.

“Probably a good call.” Eliert held out his hand. Tythel glanced at Eupheme, who’s eyes narrowed.

“The goods, Eliert?” she said.

Eliert sighed and glanced at Tellias. “Your ladies aren’t particularly trusting, Ulmar, are they?”

Tellias gave Eliert a flat look. “I told Zimiri to slit your throat the first time you started to act suspect, Eliert. They’re every bit as trusting, and twice as patient.”

The two men on either side of Eliert tensed and gave Tythel appraising gazes. She met their gaze, wondering what they saw there. Certainly not fear. These two brutes couldn’t threaten Tythel without weapons more advanced than the crude clubs on their sides, and that was if she was alone. With Eupheme at her back, the only thing she had to worry about was getting Tellias to safety before someone crushed his skull.

Whatever they saw, they didn’t like. They tensed up further and the air grew tense. Tythel readied herself to spring, Eupheme’s hands went to her daggers, Tellias reached for his long, thin blade, and the brutes reached for their clubs.

Then Eliert started laughing. “I should have known anyone who could run with Grendella would have the sense of humor of a flathing aeromane that’s been kicked between the legs. I have the goods, no worries.” He stepped back into the doorway behind him.

The tension faded from the air, and the two guards gave Tythel a sheepish grin. “Don’t like the idea of fighting one of you,” he said.

Tythel just gave him a slight nod, remembering Eupheme’s interdiction against speaking too much. Instead, she strained her ears to listen to Eliert as he moved boxes around. “Too damn hot to hold on to anyway. Need to get out of this flathing town for a bit after this, yes I do.”

Eliert dragged a crate out from the room he was in. “Hey, you two!” he barked. “Put those bulging sinews to good use and help me with this.”

The thugs glanced at each other. The one that had spoken shrugged and stepped in to help Eliert with the crate. They came out, struggling to carry the crate between them. “As promised,” Eliert said, putting it down into the dirt where it settled in with a hard thunk. Eliert glanced down the alley to make sure no one was coming, then kicked the lid slightly to slide it, revealing the contents. “Ten weapon arccells – fully charged, so a hundred shots each – two long range arcwands, a close range ringwand, and one Skitter arccell and lattice mind. Don’t know why you want the last two, and don’t care. Now, my keys?”

Eupheme gave Tythel a slight nod, and Tythel tossed the bag of coins to Eliert. He opened it up and shook it a few times next to his ear, listening to the clinks. He then took one of the coins out and bit down on the soft gold. “Alright. Guess our business is-”

Tythel’s eye widened, and she missed the rest of what Eliert had to say. A sound had reached her ears – distant but growing stronger. A low roar, like a fast-moving flame. “Skimmers,” she hissed. “We have to get inside.”

Eliert’s eyes widened. “What? Here? No, no, you are not going-”

Tythel bent down and with a smooth motion, picked up the crate that two men had struggled to carry and brought it to rest on her shoulder. Eliert and his men both gaped at her. “Move!” Eupheme barked, snapping them out of their trance.

They dove into the entrance way just as the Skimmers streaked overhead, Tythel’s heart pounding. Light, please say they didn’t see us.

She listened to the roar of their flames and waited to hear them turning back.

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Small Worlds Part 206

Crystal felt a tug on her hair as one of the serpents managed to find purchase. She yanked her head forward and felt tearing in her scalp as a chunk tear loose in the snake’s maw. Crystal stumbled from the pain and the tug. The stumble turned into a fall, and Crystal saw the ground rushing up to meet her. The snakes surged forward in anticipation of her hitting the ground, fangs dripping with venom.

Crystal dropped the coefficient of friction in the tube into the negatives. She could feel reality push back hard at the violation of every law of thermodynamics, but she held the twist in place. Instead of skidding to a halt, she accelerated as she slid across the tube of air.

Her face pressed into the clear air gave her an excellent view of Isabel and the Typhon. Isabel had bitten into the Typhon’s neck stump and was now rolling with the body. Monstrous flesh shredded at the motion, and the Typhon shrieked at her in blind fury. New tendrils worked to reattach the parts Isabel shredded as quickly as she could tear them apart.

Isabel also bled from dozens of places where the fangs had managed to work their way past her scales, the anticoagulant venom making each pinprick as ticking clock towards her death. Crystal could still feel ichor running down her arm from the earlier bite, hot and sticky. It bounced oddly on the unnatural friction Crystal had created.

The effort of violating so fundamental a law was wearing on Crystal as she sped towards the end of the tunnel. Her mouth was painfully dry, and she could feel her lips cracking from the need for moisture. The pain in her stomach far exceeded the other injuries from the battle, and a heavy tiredness was settling in around her joints, so intense she almost feared she’d collapse before reaching the end of the tube.

On top of it all was a loneliness so crushing it brought tears to her eyes, a desperate need for some kind of contact. A tiny voice whispered in the back of her mind that she could get that contact – all she had to do was let the serpents catch up. She wouldn’t feel alone anymore then – and shortly afterwards she’d feel nothing at all.

She pushed the treasonous thought aside and focused on the platform growing closer in her vision.

Then her divine power winked out. Immediately, the normal friction of the air tube resumed. Her slide had increased to nearly forty miles per hour when the power vanished. It was falling out of a car at those speeds onto a fairly smooth road. Crystal was sent tumbling end over end, flopping along the tube in an undignified roll. Divine resilience left her as well, and she felt something snap in her arm. The pain was more than enough to draw a scream from her lips.

She’d left the snakes behind as she slid, and as she skidded to a halt, mere feet from the platform, they surged forward with ravenous anticipation. Crystal could barely move. So close, love, she thought, glancing at Isabel’s slowing form. Isabel would probably last another few minutes before the Typhon overcame her, then she’d die. Crystal would find herself the Typhon’s plaything, dying and reviving over and over, until her nanoverse collapsed from heat death.

We tried, she thought at the snake heads opened.

They halted mere inches from sinking their fangs into into her face.

Crystal stared at them, dumbfounded, as the serpents began to scream and were dragged out of the tunnel. Slowly, Crystal lowered her eyes to Isabel and the Typhon.

Isabel had turned back into the Tyrannosaurus Rex, and her massive jaws were wrapped around all of the Typhon’s serpents on one shoulder – the ones that had been chasing her. Instead of severing them, Isabel was dragging them back through her own immense weight and size.

It came at a cost. Virtually every other serpent on the Typhon’s back were now latched onto Isabel, pumping their venom into her. Isabel’s footsteps were growing weak, and she stumbled slightly with every footstep. She’d be dead soon.

Don’t waste this opportunity, Crystal thought fiercely, forcing herself to her feet. She was able to take two steps, just enough to get onto the platform where the control panel waited, before another lance of pain from her broken arm sent fracture lines of darkness across her vision, and she stumbled to her knees. Moments later, a massive crash signified that Isabel had collapsed. Don’t waste her sacrifice! Crystal screamed internally. She risked a glance back as she rose to her feet.

Isabel had managed to sever the serpents before her legs gave out, and now the Tyrannosaurus lay on the ground, barely breathing as blood pooled beneath it. The snakes were coming for Crystal again, moving at impossible speeds she couldn’t hope to match – but they had a ways to travel still. Crystal had to only move another four feet.

Crystal brought one leg up under herself, planting the foot firmly on the ground. Another wave of pain, this one accompanied by nausea, and Crystal fought down bile that rose in the back of her throat. Everything in her body was screaming at her to surrender, to lay down and accept it.

Instead, she forced her other leg forward and rose to her feet. The serpents were halfway to her now, hissing in excited fury. Crystal could see the emergency button, red and yellow.

She took a step, her uninjured arm outstretched. It shook with the effort, and Crystal felt like she was walking through molasses. She started to stumble again, and the button began to rise above her head.

With a lethargically frantic flair of her hand, Crystal managed to press the button and collapsed to the ground.

A dome sprung up over the platform, and the snakes broke their fangs against it. A few had been past the barrier, and they were cut in half as it rose. “Isabel!” Crystal shouted with the last of her strength as the walls of the chamber began to glow with sudden light.

“Cleansing initiated,” a robotic voice said.

Then the world went white as the energy of a star going supernova only quarter of a light year away flooded the chamber.


 

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Small Worlds Part 205

“Login successful,” the touchscreen read in a bright, cheerful font. “Please select your operation: Facilities Maintenance, Current Schedule, Contact Supervisor, Policies and Procedures, Union Messages, Contract.”

Crystal blinked at the screen as a sudden pang of familiarity struck her. She was certain she’d never been to this place, but clearly whatever she’d done before the end of the world, she’d worked for the same organization that had owned this place. Contact supervisor? What was I?

If time had permitted, Crystal would have spent hours exploring the menu. She wanted to, but Isabel’s life was in danger. Her hand flicked over to Facilities Maintenance and tapped that icon. Behind her, she heard a series of deep crashes and a bellowing roar that couldn’t have possibly come from the Glyptodon’s throat. Isabel had shifted again. Crystal fought the urge to glance over her shoulder to see what new form was tearing into the Typhon. Focus.

“Facilities Maintenance: Please select your operation: Life support. Fire control. Climate control. Incident Reports. Open Tickets. Pending Tickets. Closed Tickets.”

Crystal stared at the screen, her forehead furrowing. None of those seemed to cover what she needed. She could turn off Life support, but she’d only kill Isabel if she did. Fire control, perhaps? Crystal reached out and tapped that icon.

“Fire control: Please select your operation. Extinguisher Health Check. Sprinkler Health Check. Emergency Suppressant Health Check.”

Nothing that actually lets me control anything, Crystal thought, her frustration deepening. Behind her, the Typhon’s continued laughter took on a deeper, more resonant note. He’d managed to reattach his throat. It was cut off with a sickening crunch of bone and tearing of flesh, but Crystal didn’t need to look to know Isabel was lagging behind. If he reforms…Hurridly, Crystal tapped the back arrow and selected Life Support.

“Life Support: Please select your operation. Carbon Scrubber 1 Health Check. Carbon Scrubber 2 Health Check. Carbon Scrubber 3 Health Check. Carbon Scrubber 4 Health Check. Inorganic Waste Disposal Unit Health Check. Organic Waste Disposal Unit Health Check. Bodily Waste Disposal 1 Health Check. Bodily Waste Disposal 2 Health Check…”

It went on like that, listing health checks for various subsystems needed to maintain the life support. Desperate for some answers, Crystal tapped on Carbon Scrubber 1.

A list of readouts appeared. Filters. Power capacities. When the last manual check had been done – this one showing a date in a calendar format Crystal hadn’t seen in countless eons – and when the last automated replacement had occurred. That, at least, was last week. A red icon informed her that she was thirty million, two hundred and twenty three thousand, one hundred and seventeen years, three lunar cycles, one interval, six days, sixteen hours, three minutes, and nineteen seconds behind schedule, and accordingly, her pay would be drocked by a two hundred and seventeen million percent.

That last bit of information, that detail she’d be docked pay for being behind schedule, put the final piece of the puzzle into place, and memories started flooding back. She had worked for this company. She’d been working on their facility in the Blasted Desert when she’d found her bloody nanoverse in some new excavations. She’d left that day without even quitting.

She’d been working in maintenance, but not of the equipment. Not in a technical role.

She’d been a janitor.

Isabel roared behind her, and Crystal snapped back to the present. Celebrate knowing what you used to do later, she thought, backing out of the menus. She knew this system like the back of her hand, and with the memories back at the surface, it wasn’t hard to know exactly where to go. Policies and Procedures, then the big red icon she knew to expect: Emergency Procedure. A second tap brought up a holographic map of the room, with several points labeled. Fire alarms. Life support failure alarms. Ozone alarms. And one, clearly labeled: “Subject Containment Breach Response.”

It was on the other side of the room. Crystal didn’t bother with trying anything even remotely fancy. Instead, she wove a bridge of pure air between her platform and the switch’s location. Without even a glance back, she dashed across the bridge.

It gave her an excellent view of the fight. The Typhon had mostly reassembled, although Isabel was doing an admirable job of keeping its head from reattaching fully to its neck. She’d transformed herself into an immense crocodile, easily forty-five feet from nose to tail.  Sarcosuchus imperator, the largest crocodile to have ever existed. It’s scales were far too thick for the Typhon’s fangs to easily penetrate, and it offered the bite strength Isabel needed to keep the monster at bay.

The Typhon’s face had flipped over at some point, and his face was a mask of frustration and rage. Several of the snakes were trying to wind their way around Isabel. Whenever they got a secure grip, she’d start to trash and roll, and they would be ripped from their moorings on the Typhon’s back. It was a stalemate for now, but the Typhon showed no signs of tiring, while Isabel’s movements were increasingly sluggish.

Unfortunately, his face being turned upwards gave him a perfect view of Crystal running across the air. His frustration vanished to be replaced with cruel amusement, and dozens of snakes broke free to lunge for her.

With a quick flicking of equations, Crystal wove the bridge into a tunnel. Snakes battered against it and began wrapping around it, constricting tightly. Hunger rumbled in her stomach, and she didn’t dare try the electricity trick again.

Come on, come on…just a bit bloody further. Crystal’s feet pounded on the platform. Her heart pounded in her chest, and she could feel her breath hitch with every step. Behind her, she heard a hissing sound as the the snakes began to force their way through the ultra-dense air, and the tunnel filled with the sound of scales sliding against the smooth surface.

The sound of hissing grew louder with every step.

Small Worlds Part 204

“Damnit!” Crystal shouted, fighting the urge to bring her hands down on the screen in frustration. “Damnit, damnit, and damn the whole sodding thing a third bloody time.”

The swearing didn’t help clear her head or make her feel better. Crystal usually couldn’t remember her password after a couple days, especially since she usually used a random collection of numbers and letters that she could just store in a notebook in her staging area. Trying to remember a password from a year ago was a lost cause – a password from a million relative years ago, and thirty million actual years, was beyond what any sentient being should be expected to do.

I have to try something. Crystal risked a glance back. Isabel was getting tangled in the tendrils slowly pulling the Typhon back together. She was thrashing about, stamping her talons, biting, and even slashing with those tiny arms, but the tendrils were just reforming faster than she could destroy them.

To make matters worse, Isabel’s movements were becoming lethargic. The stomps were increasingly uncoordinated, and her eyes had a wild look to them that Crystal couldn’t attribute just to ferocity.

“Vocal tone indicates swearing,” the screen said. “Do you need assistance resetting your password?”

“Isabel!” Crystal shouted, inspiration striking. “Woodrat!” She twisted reality with the shouts to carry her voice to Isabel’s ear. Then she whipped her head back to the keyboard. If Isabel understood, and had a woodrat in her bag of forms – I swear if Arthur included bloody dinosaurs but didn’t include a woodrat I’m going to beat him to death with his own arms – she could shift into it long enough to neutralize the venom, then shift into something better suited to combat the Typhon. If she didn’t die while shifted. If she doesn’t shift, she’s dead either way.

“Response not understood. Do you need assistance resetting your password?”

“Yes!” Crystal shouted. “Yes, I need bloody assistance.”

The screen winked out for a moment, processing, before the screen repeated, “Response not understood. Do you need assistance resetting your password?”

Oh bloody hell, I have to speak Lemurian. Divine translation allowed her to read the words on the screen and speak in a way any living creature could understand. This machine couldn’t understand her though. “Uh…ghrat!

Again the screen winked out to process. As it did, a foul stench reached Crystal’s nose, like rotten eggs and spoiled milk mixed with rotten meat and left in the sun for a week. The Typhon began to bellow in something other than anger or triumph. Oh no, love, you didn’t…Crystal risked a look back over her shoulder. The tendrils had momentarily halted, and the Typhon’s head was actually trying to worm away from its neck. In the center of the mess sat a white a back blob, only a couple feet long, with an upraised tail.

Crystal couldn’t help but laugh and look back at the screen. It had bought Isabel some time at least.

“Acknowledged. Please select your security question:

Name of the first to hatch from your clutch?

Name of the last to hatch from your clutch?

Sod off, I don’t have a third question?”

Crystal desperately wished divine power allowed her to travel back in time so she could slap her younger self hard enough to knock some sense into her. She’d been trying to remember the names of any of her siblings for millenia, how was she supposed to put it together now? And then the third one…Okay, think. You would have had to put in an answer. What would it be?

Behind her, the battle had resumed. The Typhon had decided that the scent of a skunk was something it could bear, and Isabel had shifted forms again. Whatever she had turned into didn’t roar like the Tyrannosaur, but it certainly was making an unholy racket. Crystal glanced back at the battle, unable to help herself. She tapped the third question as she looked.

The Typhon’s tendrils were rapidly reconnecting to its neck. Many of the serpent heads had reconnected, and were trying to bite into Isabel with frantic desperation. For her part, Isabel was much smaller compared to the Tyrannosaur, less than three meters – if you didn’t count the massive tail that ended in a spined club. The most heavily armored mammals to ever walk the Earth – the Glyptodon, an ancient armadillo. Far too thickly armored for the Typhon to bite into her, and much better suited to snapping the tendrils as the tail waved back and forth.

“Please input your answer.”

Crystal’s hands flew to the keyboard. At least divine translation made typing easier. “Sod you too,” she tried, hoping for the easy answer.

“Input incorrect. Two attempts remaining.”

Crystal felt her heart pounding in her chest. “I don’t bloody know!” she tried.

“Input incorrect. One attempt remaining.”

The Typhon had finally gotten enough tendrils attached to drag its head back towards its body. Isabel was repeatedly smacking the Typhon’s head with her armored tail, knocking off huge chunks of flesh and bone with each blow, but it didn’t seem to be doing more than annoying the monster. Isabel let out the glyptodon’s version of a roar, a deep bleating sound that was almost goat-like. It would have been funny if Crystal couldn’t hear the edge of desperation in it.

Serpent fangs kept striking against the glyptodon’s armor. By pressuring her with those, the Typhon was keeping her from being able to safely shift again. The moment she did, the instant that armor went away, Isabel would be right back to bleeding slowly to death. What would it be, what would it be…it doesn’t relate to the question. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when I’m not under pressure? The first thing I think when I look at that?

As soon as the thought crossed her mind, the answer followed. Of course. Fingers flying over the touchpad, Crystal typed exactly what she knew that question wanted.

“Roll with it, love.”

The answer was immediate. “Input correct. Please set your new password.”

This time, Crystal picked something she was certain she’d remember for quite some time.


 

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The Dragon’s Scion Part 100

Tythel sat in the window of her room in The Witty Herald, overlooking the city of Emerita. It was the largest city in the kingdom that didn’t have its own Lumwell, instead drawing Light from Queensfall to the South, Havenswatch to the North, and the Capitol to the West. Emerita was almost perfectly equidistant between all three cities, and thrived as a trade hub that facilitated commerce between its larger neighbors. It was also close enough to all three that you could tell where in the town someone came from just by their appearance.

With just a glance, Tythel could see a man with dark skin and red hair that mirrored her own, meaning he must have been from the western part of the town. He was in an animated argument with a merchant with with the black hair and golden skin of Havenswatch, marking her as being born in the northern district. What the locals called a Southgater leaned against a post nearby, his hair the same blue as the sky and skin the color of the desert sands near the plateau. I should go out and stretch my legs, she thought, before continuing to sit there.

Emerita, without a Lumwell, didn’t have a strong Alohym presence. This close to the Capitol, however, there was a very real risk of a patrol passing through that could spot her. That meant Eupheme and Tellias were going out to collect the supplies they needed, and Tythel was holed up in this inn, watching from a window.

I really am a princess, Tythel thought with a bitter smile. I’m moping and sighing about sitting in comfortable accommodations. Most people would kill for this luxury. It wasn’t that it was unappreciated. Light and Shadow, she’d learned enough of hard living these past few weeks to last her the rest of her life.

However long that was.

The problem was, she hadn’t really gotten much of a chance to actually live since her father had passed. It had been an endless parade from one crisis to the next. And now that she was finally getting to the point where she could think about his death without being wracked with grief, now that she was finally finding the energy to want to do all the things she’d spent her entire childhood dreaming about…she was spending her time in an Inn she couldn’t leave because of a one hundred thousand key price on her head.

Frustrated, Tythel stalked away from the window and threw herself on the bed, reaching under it for her pack.

At least the Sunstone had been useful. They’d gotten enough money from the sale of it that they’d be able to buy everything they needed for the journey the rest of the way to her father’s lair and have enough left over for that journey to be fairly comfortable. They weren’t going to spend every night in luxury, of course. Every single key they could spare for the resistance would be beneficial. But, as both Tythel and Tellias had argued, the better rested they were, the better prepared they would be for the fight at the end of this journey.

Eupheme hadn’t seemed completely convinced, but she’d acquiesced, so Tythel was counting it as a victory.

Just a few more hours, Tythel reminded herself. A merchant had come into town earlier today, selling the veils that the lower castes of the Xhaod Empire were forced to wear in public. With that and some of the silks in her pack, Tythel could pass as a Xhaod warrior maiden. Well, she could do it well enough to walk around without fearing someone would call the nearest barracks and summon a swarm of soldiers down on their head.

She pulled out one of her father’s notebooks, the one that explained how different types of dragon flames worked. She’d figured out ghostflame in part from studying this, and that had been back when she’d barely able to touch it without starting to choke up. I will master heartflame, Tythel told herself.

Which might be a bit of an overstatement. She could barely manage ghostflame without searing her throat – even enough dragonflame would do it. Heartflame would be an entirely different category. She opened the page to her last marker.

Heartflame cannot be used by a dragon to heal itself. The flame transfers some of their own life essence into the heat. Other beings, even other dragons, can be restored with only some harm being done to the dragon that exhaled. It has the same limits as what light can heal – injuries will mend together, bones will knit, rot will be cleansed. Diseases will grow stronger along with their host, and tumors will grow rapidly. Unlike the light, however, there’s no risk of grotesque mutations. Instead, it only causes a specific mutation, one that grows gradually over time – the transformation into a dragon.

You’ll find the transformation is something you have some control over, my dear. As you push yourself, you’ll find it happens erratically, based in part on what you are feeling an overwhelming need to achieve.

And because I know you, Tythel, do not jump off a cliff trying to sprout wings. They will come in time.

Tythel smiled at that last line. If he hadn’t mentioned it, she wouldn’t have tried jumping off a cliff. Probably. It didn’t get her any closer to understanding Heartflame, but it was nice to feel like Karjon was there, lecturing her with the patient exasperation he always showed when she did something absurdly stupid.

Her eyes danced down to the next line, but were pulled away from the pages by a sudden scream from outside. Tythel rushed to the window, heart pounding. The Alohym? Here? Already? There’s barely been any time, we’re not ready!

It wasn’t an army. It wasn’t a monster, nor was it some alien creature of the Alohym’s making. Instead, it was a creature mutated by lumwell exposure. It took Tythel a moment to recognize the base creature – a rat – as it scurried along the street on eight legs, each as long as a man was tall. It’s body was the size of a man’s torso, and its tail was horribly elongated, covered in tiny, grasping hands. The poor thing’s face bore some resemblance to the rat it had once been, although it was flattened and fixed in an expression of confused terror.

Guards were yelling, calling for arcwands to put the thing out of its misery before it got into the sewers. Lumwell mutants that managed to breed with the local creatures could create entirely new species, and rats bred rapidly. Tythel didn’t want to think what kind of creature would be the result of this thing being allowed to breed with the local rats. I could save it further suffering, Tythel thought.

Instead, she turned away from the window. The rat would run free or be killed by the guards. It wasn’t worth risking exposing herself, no matter how much she wanted to. She chose to return the bed and resume flicking through her father’s notes.

As far as Tythel was concerned, Eupheme and Tellias couldn’t return soon enough.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 99

Poz’s hearts pounded as he dove behind a bookshelf, shards of glass still raining throughout the library. Baron Rainer was screaming, and the coppery scent of blood filled Poz’s nostrils. So this is how the Alohym treat their allies, Poz thought, crawling along the ground. No warning, no time to get clear. The only entrance to the Library was in clear view of the window. If he went for it, he’d be cut down before he could even go two steps.

He’d have to find a different way.

The sound of feet crunching on glass reached his ears, heavy footsteps that were weighted down. He didn’t hear any of the mechanical whirring that accompanied imperiplate, and he didn’t hear the rapid skitter of standard Alohym footfalls. It was the one from earlier, the one that flew and was shaped like a man.

The Baron must have signaled him that the ruse was up, Poz thought with a curse. The footsteps were headed towards the doorway to block his exit. Deepest shadows! I missed it. It was possible that Baron Rainer hadn’t sent a signal, but if not, the timing was too coincidental for Poz’s liking. If the Shadow has set itself against me like that, I am already damned.

“You should just come out and save me the time,” said the creature. Its voice reverberated in the strange way of the Alohym, but it did not speak in the Alohym’s tongue. That was Cardomethi, which told Poz a few things. First, that this creature was not from the region, or it would have likely spoken Zhomi. It was the same one that pursued him from that cave all those weeks ago. Second, this creature – whatever it was – was no Alohym. He’d never heard tell of any of those beings speaking anything other than their own tongue unless forced to. And Alohym don’t travel alone, he reminded himself.

Of course, he didn’t answer the being’s taunt. Instead, he crawled along the ground, keeping himself hidden behind bookcases. A small object, formerly belonging to the Baron, caught Poz’s eye. He didn’t hesitate as he reached out and scooped it up. It would do nothing to save him from his current plight, but later…

Sop that thought, he told himself. Focus on survival. Make sure there is a later to worry about.

“I’m going to find you,” the creature said, “and then I’m going to ask you a few questions. If you come out, I’ll just ask. If you don’t…I’ll have to assume you plan on being uncooperative, and treat you accordingly.” There was an undeniable air of menace in the voice. “You don’t want to find out how I ask uncooperative people questions.”

Poz ignored the threat. If this creature truly was willing to speak with him as equals and simply ask questions, they would not have begun the fight with a barrage of high impact weapons. In fact, Poz doubted if the being really wanted to ask him questions at all. It’s foolish, Poz thought, facts beginning to connect in his mind. A shard of glass could have stuck in my throat and killed me or rendered me incapable of speech. Yet they must be after the egg, and I never told Baron Rainer where I hid it. If I had died…

The only conclusion Poz could draw was that this creature was foolish. He felt his hearts speed up as he began to climb up one of the bookshelves.

“Come on,” the creature said, frustration dripping from every word. It sounded almost petulant to Poz’s ears. “I want to be about my business. I didn’t come to the frozen edge of the world to play hiders and peekers with you.”

Poz settled onto the top of the bookshelves. He could see it clearly now, for the first time since he had abandoned grubflesh. It was smaller than Poz remembered, although give how tall he now stood that was likely a matter of perspective. The creature’s build was overall humanoid, with a distended Thorax extending from where its spine met its hips. Poz couldn’t deny the creature was intimidating, covered in black carapace and spines. “I’m not interested in games either, monster,” Poz said.

He leapt to another bookshelf the moment the words left his lips, and the Alohym shot a beam of unlight in the general direction of Poz’s voice. It didn’t seem to think to aim upwards, instead firing at the bottom of the shelf. Where the beam impacted, a bubble spread outwards to about five feet before violently contracting. Books were condensed into a tight space, but didn’t seem to be crushed. I don’t want to find out what would have happened to me there, Poz thought. Perhaps it would just immobilize him. Perhaps it wouldn’t account for the hollow bones of crowflesh and turn him into a paste. “Yet here you are playing them,” the creature muttered before speaking louder. “Why do you fear to come out, Underfolk? My father told me tales of your people. Your cowardice was something he overlooked.”

Human, Poz thought, tensing. This creature was human. “And what did he tell you?” he asked before leaping again.

He needn’t have bothered. The person in that carapace armor did not fire blindly again, instead looking towards the source of the voice. So far they still hadn’t thought to look upwards, for which Poz was grateful. “That you were greedy, selfish beings that preyed on the generosity of mankind. That you sealed yourself away when the Alohym returned to us so you could cavort with the fiends of the Shadow, and would one day return to be wage war on and then be crushed by the rightful gods of this world.”

“Your father lied to you, then,” Poz said.

Poz had to leap again as the human in Alohym skin opened fire. He barely reached the next bookshelf, and the room filled with the sound of books and shelves clattering to the ground. “You will not speak of my father!” the human screamed. “My brother is out hunting his killer, and I’m stuck here hunting you. I will endure no insult towards his name from the likes of you!”

That’s it. Poz took a deep breath. This particularly trick was one of the benefits of crowflesh, and it was hard to get right. If he pulled it off though… “Your flathing father is a goat-brained liar and you are a coward. I wouldn’t wish his flesh on the worms that are feasting on him.”

The human screamed in rage and rushed to the window to look out – because that’s where they’d heard Poz’s voice come from. There wasn’t time to admire how well throwing his voice had worked. Instead, Poz leapt down and scrambled for the heavy oak doors of the room.

At the last moment, the human heard him and whirled, firing a beam of Unlight in a wild arc. It passed over Poz’s head and encased one of the Baron’s guards – Poz wondered with irritation where they had been earlier. The unlight formed a sphere that imploded again, and the guard was forced into the fetal position. He howled with the agony of the desperate and damned, and Poz regretted he didn’t have time to help the man – or put him out of his misery.

Behind him, his pursuer howled, and the sound of footsteps on stone pursued Poz out of the Baron’s manor.

 

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 97

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haradeth didn’t even hesitate to accept that condition.

-END OF PART 1-

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