Small Worlds Part 174

We’re going to the moon, we’re going to the moon, I’m going to be the first woman on the moon, Isabel thought, practically bouncing in her chair in Crystal’s staging area. She glanced at Crystal and amended that thought. I’m going to be the first mortal woman on the moon who cares I’m going to be on the friggin’ moon.

“Careful, love. You look like you’re about to bounce out of your seat,” Crystal said in a teasing voice. “Nervous?”

“Nervous? Oh hell no. I’m going to be walking on the moon. Are you kidding me? I couldn’t be more excited if it was Christmas, my Birthday, and Graduation all wrapped up into one.”

Crystal let out a chuckle. “I hope it doesn’t disappoint you.”

“Will I be able to see the Earth being massive overhead?”

Crystal glanced at her console, then nodded. “Anansi’s directions take us to the near side, not the far side, so yes. Earth should be right overhead when we step out.”

“Then I’m going to be perfectly happy,” Isabel said.

“You’re not worried about the lack of air?”

“I mean, you’re going to take care of that until we get to the sphynx and the mysterious moon base, right?” Isabel asked with a frown. “Should I be worried?”

“I’ll be maintaining a bubble of air for you, love, so it should be fine, but if something happens to me…” Crystal let that trail off. “Well, you’ll have a bloody short time to get back to the doorway.”

Isabel shrugged. “And if an astronauts suit gets punctured, they’re dead. Honestly, I think it’s safer than a space suit – instead of relying on materials and fabrics, I’ve got literal divine intervention holding me safe, so I should be fine.”

Crystal smiled at Isabel, and Isabel felt herself begin to flush. “Well, I appreciate the confidence in my abilities,” Crystal said.

“I’d be rude if I didn’t have confidence! You’ve survived for this long just fine, I’m pretty sure you could manage a trip across the lunar surface. Besides, you saved my life once before, and that was way more dangerous than this.”

“Don’t be so sure about that, love,” Crystal said, darkly. “We haven’t encountered moonworms yet.”

Isabel froze. “Moonworms?”

“Oh, bloody hell, did I not mention those? Yes, moonworms. They burrow through the Lunar dust, you see, and they’re attracted to sources of heat. It’s what they feed off of. For living things, they crawl up their legs and try to get as close to the warmth as they can.”

Isabel stared at Crystal with growing horror. “So they…hug your legs?”

Crystal shook her head grimly. “Oh, no, not at all. They have jaws that can cut through lunar regolith, they’ll absolutely try to go as deep into the warmth as possible. Bite. By. Bite.”

Isabel couldn’t contain a frightened “eep.” As soon as she let the sound out, Crystal’s frown vanished to be replaced with laughter. Isabel stared at her for a moment, then crossed her arms as realization settled in. “You were messing with me.”

“Of course I was bloody messing with you,” Crystal said, wiping away tears of laughter. “Moonworms. That’s…I’m sorry, love,  you should have seen your face.”

“That was just mean. How am I supposed to know Moonworms weren’t real? A few days ago I was kidnapped by an archangel and a crazy god from a pre-human race and you all were fighting dragons. Are you going to tell me moonworms are absurd when compared to that?” In spite of her annoyance, Isabel was also flushing. You “eeped.” You were being taunted by a goddess, and you said “eep.” Way to go, Isabel.

Crystal’s laughter began to die down. “Oh, come on love, just a bit of a joke, yeah?”

Isabel sniffed in annoyance. “It wasn’t very funny.”

Crystal held up a hand. “You’re right, you had no way of knowing they weren’t real. If it makes you feel any better, Selene fell for the same thing ages ago.”

Isabel blinked. “Wasn’t Selene a moon goddess?”

“Oh, yeah, absolutely. She was so pissed at me for the moonworms, she decided to stay up here for a few days to prove she wasn’t frightened. By the time she got back, everyone decided she was the moon personified.”

“Now that,” Isabel said with a reluctant smile, “that, I have to admit, is pretty funny.”

Crystal’s grin returned. “I know, right? Bloody brilliant, if I do say so myself.”

“So does your humor always involve telling people lies they couldn’t know were lies without some kind of precognition?”

Crystal shook her head firmly. “Do that too often, and people stop trusting you. Now that I’ve done it to you,  you’re safe for the next millennia. Maybe two, can’t be too predictable. Just do me a favor, yeah? Don’t tell your brother. Haven’t gotten him yet, either.”

Isabel snorted out a breath. “If you’re going to do it to Ryan, I’ll help.

Crystal’s grin returned. “I knew I liked you.”

Still a bit annoyed by the joke, Isabel found it easy to prevent the flush this time. “So, this is old hat for you, isn’t it? Going to the moon, I mean.”

“Kinda, yeah. I don’t come up here often, though.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s the moon. There’s nothing up here, love!” Crystal frowned. “Or at least, I didn’t think there was. Should have known a Trickster would have put something up here.”

“Ahh, so the great Crystal isn’t as omnipotent as she seems?” Isabel said.

“Love, if I was half as omnipotent as I seemed, I’d be twice as omnipotent as I actually am.”

“Did you just make a Tolkien reference?”

Crystal just winked at Isabel instead of answering. “Don’t let me being old and jaded spoil the moon for you though. I may have been here a few times, but I’d hate for you to feel like it was somehow less special. Decided what you’re going to be on the moon?”

“I’m going to start as a human,” Isabel said after a moment’s thought. “I want to see it with my own eyes.”

Crystal nodded approval. “Well then, we’re here. You ready?”

Isabel practically threw herself out of the chair, thrumming with excitement. “Yes, yes, please God yes.”

Crystal smiled and opened the door, waggling her fingers to – Isabel assumed – give her some air to breathe on the lunar surface. “Beauty before age, love.”

Isabel didn’t protest, didn’t even register the comment fully. Instead, she bolted out the door and took her first step onto the surface of the moon.

She didn’t pay attention to how light she felt. She didn’t worry about the temperature of the artificial air brushing against her skin. In fact, she didn’t focus on anything at all, instead craning her head up and looking at the sky.

There, above them, just over the Horizon like it was the rising sun, hung the Earth. It was blue and green and brown and swirled with white streaks, half covered by night. She couldn’t quite make out individual continents, not with the clouds covering part of it, but she didn’t need to. Some part of her recognized that multicolored sphere as “home.”

Isabel felt tears spring to her eyes. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 70

As they drew closer to the dome, Haradth could begin to make out what was inside. There were buildings in there, small versions of the towers that rose from the depths of the sinkhole. More of the strange animals, too. He could see a few creatures that he now knew were the natural form of the Sylvani, peering through the glass and waving their tentacles. As Haradeth watched, their skin rippled in a rapid display of colors. There seemed to be some kind of pattern in the shimmering of their skin, but Haradeth couldn’t pinpoint it. “They seem agitated,” he commented to Lorathor.

“They are.” Lorathor frowned. “They’re yelling at me for bringing an outsider here, especially now.”

“I can’t hear them,” Haradeth said with a frown.

“They aren’t yelling in words. We don’t speak amongst ourselves. We shimmer. If you knew how badly they’re cursing me right now…” Lorathor sighed. “They’re even angry I’m still in this form.”

“Should you shift?” Haradeth asked with sudden concern.

“No. I was going to shift back eventually. They need to be reminded of…well, of what’s here.”

“I don’t understand, Lorathor. Any of this.”

“I know.” Lorathor gave him a sad smile. “But you will.”

When they reached the end, a doorway opened in the glass. There hadn’t been any break before, Haradeth was sure of it. Two of the Sylvani levelled what looked like arcwands at them, but made of that same woven metal that seemed to be what constructed everything out here. “Lorathor. You’ve gone too far this time,” one of them said.

“Elder Shaaythi,” Lorathor said, ducking his head in a very human bow. “Last time you said that, She agreed with me.”

Shaaythi shimmered dark, rippling patterns of blue and purple and black. “You cannot speak of Her with an outsider!” she shrieked.

“Yet you are speaking aloud for his benefit,” Lorathor mentioned, “and speaking of Her yourself.”

“Only because you brought her up!” Shaaythi wrung her tentacles together and turned her eyes towards Haradeth. “Forgive me, human. Lorathor has gone outside of his remit, but it is hardly your fault. You are not expected to know our customs.”

Haradeth bowed towards the Elder. “No apologies needed. And you need not apologize for being incorrect about my race. I’m only half Human. My mother was Lathariel.”

Shaaythi turned her eyes back towards Lorathor, and her colors were now mixes of reds and golds, making her skin look like it was aflame. “What are you planning here, Lorathor?”

“She will want to speak to him,” Lorathor said calmly.

“You presume to know what she wants?” Shaaythi snapped.

“You presume the same,” Lorathor said simply.

Shaaythi glanced around at the others, and motioned for them to lower their arcwands. Haradeth let out a breath he didn’t realize he had been holding. “Son of Lathariel. You are welcome among our people. It has been some time since we had a guest, but we will do our best to accommodate you.”

“Thank you,” Haradeth said simply, not sure what else to do.

“Unfortunately, Lorathor has made promises he cannot keep. She does not speak to outsiders.”

“Who is She?” Haradeth asked.

Shaaythi shuddered. “She is…she is to us what your mother is to humans, in a way. Our goddess. She Who Is Born of Light.”

Haradeth nodded slowly. “I understand why she would not ordinarily speak to me,” he said, “but these are hardly ordinary times. You live apart, but you share the world with us. The Alohym-”

As soon as he said the name, every Sylvani save Lorathor began to shimmer in the red and gold colors Haradeth now associated with anger. “They should not be spoken of!” Shaaythi said. “Such things are forbidden.”

If she had told Haradeth that she was going to sacrifice him on an altar, he couldn’t have been more shocked. “Shouldn’t be spoken of?” He asked. “They invade our world! They have conquered the humans! They are slaying the gods and the dragons! And you want us not to speak of them?”

“Elder Shaaythi,” Lorathor said gently, “perhaps we should ask Her if she’ll speak to Haradeth.

“I…” Shaaythi hung her head. “It’s not permitted.”

“Not even to ask?” Haradeth asked.

“Not even to ask.”

Haradeth fought the urge to grind his teeth. Has Lorathor taken me all this way for nothing? He glanced sideways at the Sylvani. If Lorathor was fazed or surprised by this turn of events, it certainly wasn’t showing on his face.

“Very well,” Lorathor said before Haradeth could start the argument again. “I assume we can still grant the normal rules of hospitality?”

Shaaythi glared at Lorathor. “For your guest, yes. You, Lorathor, have violated ancient laws by-”

Lorathor interrupted her with a quick snap of his voice. “Her name, Haradeth, is Anotira. She is the Luminous One, our goddess, and she guides us from-”

“What are you doing!?” Shaaythi shrieked, raising her strangely beautiful Arcwand again.

“-within the walls of our Domes, where she is absolute and-”

“Silence or I will cut you down!” Shaaythi said, and Lorathor clamped his mouth shut. “Lorathor. Explain yourself.”

“Haradeth is our guest. Per our laws, that makes him a temporary citizen, does it not? And the laws against sharing information about our origins are very clear – we must not do so with a human, or an Underfolk, or a Dragon. We can only do so with citizens of our realm. And we cannot talk about it outside the dome.” Lorathor beamed at her. “Haradeth is not purely of any of those races, he is a guest and therefore a citizen, and we are within the dome.”

Shaaythi looked ready to faint. “You…you pervert the spirit of the law in favor of the letter of it! Lorathor, what happened to you? Did you live among the humans so long you have forgotten our people?”

“Oh, no, I have not forgotten them,” Lorathor said firmly. “But, unlike the rest of you, I remember Anotira’s first commandment. “Do nothing that prevents the growth of the other races.” We have our magics, our devices hidden here in this city that we have kept secret. Meanwhile, humans have welcomed us into their cities, into their homes, into the courts. That they have not always been perfect, no. They have been fearful, and reactionary, and brutal – but ultimately, they have been good. We need to help them!.”

“That is not for you to decide,” Shaaythi said.

“No, it is for Anotira to decide. And as a citizen who is neither human, nor underfolk, nor dragon, underneath the dome, he has the right to petit-”

“Silence!” Shaaythi snapped, “I am revok-”

“I wish to petition Anotira!” Haradeth shouted, before Shaaythi could kick him out. By the way Lorathor nodded, that had been important. “Under your laws, I have that right, do I not?”

Shaaythi swayed in shock. “It isn’t…it isn’t…”

Then someone began to laugh. A voice that was everywhere and nowhere, that came from the dome above them, the trees beside them, the buildings. It was a warm sound, but it was also terrifying. Even gods were manifest as physical beings. Haradeth looked around wildly for the source of the laughter.

“You were outplayed, Elder Shaaythi,” said a voice. There was a shimmer of light in the air in front of Haradeth, and suddenly there was a being there. She appeared almost humanoid, but made of light. Haradeth could see through her to Shaaythi. Her form was a bright blue, and Haradeth hastily bowed.  

As he rose from the bow, her form flickered, tiny motes of white light replacing here for the barest of instant before reforming. But that wasn’t what set Haradeth’s heart pounding in sudden fear, nor did it cause his mouth to dry up in swelling terror.

No, both of those were because, whatever this Anotira was, she gave off no signs of life to his senses.

“Elders of the Sylvani,” Anotira said, “one has requested my audience. His input is unothodox, but accepted. Leave us. We have much to discuss.”

The Sylvani bowed and began to go, and Anotira raised a finger. “Not you, Lorathor. You got the boy into this much trouble. It falls on you to get him out of it.”

Lorathor nodded graciously, and Anotira beckoned Haradeth closer. “Come, godling. I’m certain you have queries.”

Feet leaden with fear, Haradeth followed the woman made of light without a trace of life in her form.

Her form shimmered into motes of white light again for an instant, and Haradeth wondered if Lorathor had brought him all this way just to die.

Small Worlds Part 173

Taking care of sleep had been easy for Horus. By the time he had dragged himself into his nanoverse, he was so tired he’d keeled over before properly forming a bed. Don’t think I’ve ever come that close to dying and survived, he thought, taking another bite out of a cold steak with the delicate refinement of a starving hound. Don’t think I want to ever again.

He swallowed the last bit of steak. That’s four Hungers down. There was just the fifth to take care of. Horus glanced over at his collection. Books he’d not gotten around to reading, movies he’d not yet seen, the standard ways to take care of that particular Hunger when there wasn’t companionship available.

Except there was someone who’s Company was available. Someone who was very close by, and someone who Horus dearly wanted to enjoy the company of. You should read a book, he told himself as he stood up. Or put in one of the movies, he thought as he walked out of his Nanoverse. They were good thoughts. They were rational thoughts.

Horus wasn’t feeling particularly rational at the moment.

Underneath those thoughts was a nastier line of thinking, an uglier one. One that had nothing to do with rationality, and everything to do with the primal, the base. A part of his mind that he was tired of ignoring, tired of letting slide.

He found her in what was once a clocktower, looking through the splintered glass and broken numerals to stare over the island. The wind was strong up here, whipping her hair back and pressing her loose fitting dress tight against one side as it billowed out on the other. She saw him coming, and with a gesture brought stillness to the air. “You recovered already,” Bast said simply. She took stock of him, glancing up and down, seeing the skin still red and white with burns and the way he swayed where he stood, still weak with the unfulfilled Hunger. “Or at least, you’re walking.”

Horus’ nostrils flared. “I nearly died, and that’s all you have to say to me?”

Bast laughed, a cold sound. He remembered her laughter once being warm, remembered it once set a shiver down his spine. Had her laughter changed so much? Or had the centuries of refusal soured his reaction? “What do you want me to say?” She brought a wrist up to her forehead dramatically, “oh thank you Horus, for saving me from the vile fiend!”

“I deserve something better than that!” Horus bellowed, and Bast’s smile faded, hard lines replacing mocker. “You’re not some fainting damsel, Bast, but you needed me to kill him for you!”

“Hardly,” Bast said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “I wanted assurance he would fall. Two on one are odds that are favorable, and you gave me an opening to land the coup de grace. If there had been a better option, I would have gone with that. Now, as always Horus, you are a tool.”

Horus nearly screamed in rage. “That’s not what you said beforehand! You said you needed me. Hours of Night, Bast, what will it take?”

“What will what take?” she asked, her voice level.

“You know what I want,” he nearly spat. “I want it even when I have no Hunger to drive me, but right now I’m half mad with want of you. With need for you.”

Bast pursed her lips. “Say it, Horus. If you want it so bad, say it.”

“I want you, Bast. I want you so badly it tears at me. I’ve wanted you for millennia, for countless centuries. You have spurned me at every opportunity, but today you gave me a quest. I fought the dragon for you. I stood against the monster. I was your knight in shining armor. And still you spurn me!

“So I owe you?” Bast said, gesturing to herself. “What is it of me you want, Hours? My mind, my heart, my body?”

“All of them,” Horus whispered, stepping closer. His voice was hoarse.

She didn’t step away. “And what do you offer?”

“My devotion,” he said, taking another step closer.

Again, she stood her ground, regarding him. “You have already given me that.”

Emboldened, he took another step. “My Hunger.”

She laughed, and now he found the sound warm again, warm and sweet and inviting. “You’re already begging me to fill that, Horus. Try again.”

“I will give you whatever you want.” They were almost face to face now, her peering up at him, close enough where he could practically feel her breath. He felt his hand tremble in anticipation. Yes. Finally, yes. “My love,  my live, my heart.”

Bast reached up and brushed her fingers against his chest. “Are you certain?”

“Yes,” Horus whispered.

“I accept,” Bast whispered, leaning in. Horus leaned towards her, his lips puckering, and just before they touched he had a moment where he and Bast plunged her fingers through his damaged skin. Horus let out a scream of sudden agony as he felt her shatter ribs and tear muscle with a single gesture, a scream that cut off in a ragged gasp as he felt her fingers close around his heart. She didn’t tear it out, not yet, instead holding it gently enough it could still beat. “What’s wrong?” she cooed in his ears. “Is this not what you meant?”

Horus could only gasp, flecks of blood flying from his lips.

“Don’t worry, Horus,” she said, her hand still halfway through his chest. The pain was immense, and Horus wasn’t sure how he managed to maintain consciousness. If he’d stopped to fill his need for Company, he would have had the power to fight this. With his Hungers not completely filled, however, he could do nothing. “You’re going to resurrect. I promise you that. Over. And over. And over. I think I’ll feed your heart to Cassandra next time. A constant, never ending food supply. Won’t that be wonderful?

Before Horus could speak, even to curse her name, Bast ripped his heart from his chest. The last thing he saw was her shudder with delight as she bit into it. Vision was fading but hearing remained just long enough to hear her mocking voice. “It’s funny, in away. In the end, you finally did get inside me.”

Then, darkness.

 

Small Worlds Part 172

“I was a huge nerd back in the day,” Ryan started with a grin. “I didn’t quite fit in with most people because I was constantly looking over my shoulder at Nabu, which got me a reputation for being just a little bit of a weirdo.”

“I can’t imagine why,” Dianmu said dryly.

“Right? So I made friends with some of the other outcasts. I’d say remind me to tell you about my goth phase, but we don’t ever talk about my goth phase. Eventually I settled in with the nerds. They thought I was a bit weird too, but they were proud of being weird so it was a natural fit. This was the early 2000’s, so there wasn’t the stereotypical 80’s bullying, but it also wasn’t at the widespread nerd culture adoption we have now.” Ryan paused. “I just realized, I’m never sure how much into popular culture you all are, and most of my reference frame is pretty American. Am I making sense so far?”

“Yes,” Dianmu said. “I’m a bit out of touch, but not completely ignorant of trends in popular culture.”

“Okay, good. Stop me if I start talking about things that don’t make sense.”

“Like, for example, a demonic creature called a Fangliang you’d clearly never heard of before I told the story?” Dianmu asked.

“Yes, exactly like that.” Ryan laughed. “Okay, point taken. So being in with the nerds means I got roped into the Alphabet Soup of hobbies – MTG, DnD, PnP RPGs, MMORPGs, the works.”

Dianmu rolled her eyes. “You did that deliberately, didn’t you?”

“Guilty,” Ryan said.

“Well, I know what some of those acronyms mean,” Dianmu said. “DnD is Dungeons and Dragons, yes? And MMORPG is some kind of video game.”

“Yup. Dungeons and Dragons is the one that really matters here. Are you familiar with it?”

“Not particularly. It never really caught on in China – at least, not among the people I lived among in Guangzhou. From what I’ve gathered, it’s some kind of satanic game for virgins?”

Ryan nearly doubled over from laughter. “No,” he said, wiping his eyes. “It’s…wow. I can see why you’d think that, but no. It’s a game where you roll dice to pretend to be elves and dwarves and wizards and such. It got a reputation for the satanic part back during the Satanic Panic in the 80’s, and the virgin thing is because of stereotypes about nerds.”

“I see. So you weren’t a satanic virgin?” Dianmu’s eyes glistened with amusement.

“I never worshipped the devil,” Ryan said primly.

Dianmu laughed, then looked at Ryan. “Wait, you’re serious?”

Ryan nodded. “Having a guy in a suit watching you twenty four hours a day, seven days a week is kind of a mood killer. I had girlfriends, but once it got to that point…I’d always wig out.”

“I suppose that makes sense,” Dianmu said after a moment’s thought.

“I thought it did.” Ryan shrugged. “Anyway, so it’s a game and it’s also a cooperative storytelling thing. It was a ton of fun. Jacqueline was our Dungeon Master, the person who oversees the game, and we played once a week at her house, every Friday after school.” He smiled at the memory. “I was a playing a Bard at the time. Merrick, the Mastiful Musical Magician. I had this whole speech that allterated off of M I’d do before performances.”

Dianmu’s forehead was furrowed. “I think I understand, although I’ll admit that I don’t see the appeal.”

“You know how fun it is to sit around sharing stories?” Ryan asked.

“You mean like we’re doing now?”

“Yeah, exactly. Now imagine that instead of one person was telling a story, everyone was telling the same story, and no one knew exactly how it would end because everyone was working together to get there.”

“It sounds chaotic,” Dianmu said.

“It is, but the rules and the dice help provide an order for the chaos, and the Dungeon Master tries to keep things structured.”

Dianmu nodded. “I suppose that makes some sense. So you almost died playing Dungeons and Dragons?”

“Not exactly,” Ryan said, leaning back into his chair. “We were over there one night in winter. It started snowing while we were playing. The other players – Mike, Bethany, Andre – they all went home early because the were worried about the weather. It was fine for the game because I’d wandered off from the group anyway, so Jacqueline and I decided to wrap up my solo adventure. I’ll admit I also stayed because I had a huge crush on her.”

“What happened to her?” Dianmu asked, noting the frown forming on Ryan’s face.

“We ended up dating the summer before college, and made it for a couple years before we broke up. The fact that I kept…well. It would have been fine, I think, if I’d said I wanted to wait until marriage or something. But since I didn’t want to, and she didn’t want to, but I kept backing off, and then refused to get help for what seemed like some kind of phobia eventually magnified the other flaws in our relationship until it broke us up.”

“You still miss her.”

“I was over it, over her. Honestly I was. Then in Cypher Nullity I stuck my head in the Reliquary and saw what would have happened if I’d told her. We would have been fine, apparently.”

Dianmu made a sympathetic sound. “Crystal took me there once. I put my head in too. I think the curiosity was too much to bear.”

“What’d you see?”

“What would have happened if I’d acted on my love for Leigong.”

Ryan blinked. “Wasn’t he your husband?”

Dianmu nodded. “What I saw there gave me the push to act upon that love.”

“Damn,” Ryan said. “Was kind of hoping to hear the Reliquary wasn’t always right about that kind of thing.”

“I asked Crystal about that later. She said it wasn’t – that the Reliquary always shows you the best case scenario. It’s a punishment, after all, or it’s meant to be. Think of it this way – had you stayed with Jacqueline, do you think you would have found your nanoverse?”

Ryan shook his head.

“Then it’s likely some other person would have your duty right now. But by the same token…well, actually, that’s another conversation.” Dianmu smiled. “I want to hear the rest of your story.”

“Fair enough,” Ryan said. “Although I’m going to ask you to circle back to that later.” Dianmu nodded in agreement, and Ryan continued. “So where was I? Oh yeah. I stayed late to finish my solo adventure. Had a great time. Almost worked up the nerves to ask Jacqueline out, but chickened out at the last second. Still, I was in a pretty good mood when I got in the car. I was even chatting at Nabu, for what ended up being the last time in years.”

Ryan took a deep breath. “I lost control of the car. Skidded off the road. I remember I came to, and I remember begging Nabu for help and him just standing there, taking notes like he didn’t give two shits about it.” He felt his fist begin to clench, and forced them relax. “Some random person saw the crash, pulled over, called nine one one. I’d been cut pretty bad. Lost so much blood that they almost didn’t try a transfusion. If it hadn’t been for that out of town doctor…”

Dianmu cocked her head. “What out of town doctor?”

“Some visiting physician who was at the hospital for a conference. Doctor Arturo Cuban. He insisted they attempt it anyway. I was legally dead for minutes. According to the Doctors, I should have stayed dead. It was a medical miracle I’d come back. Apparently, after you’ve lost forty percent of your blood, death is pretty much guaranteed even with a transfusion. I’d lost closer to forty-five.” Ryan shuddered. “I was still in a coma for a couple days. Never got to thank the Doctor who saved my life. Just woke up to Nabu still standing there, taking notes. My parents came in later, but that stuck with me – if not for sheer luck the last thing I ever saw was Nabu standing there, taking notes. Maybe that’s why he feels guilty enough to help me now.” Ryan shrugged.

“Perhaps,” Dianmu said.

“Bit less interesting than your story,” Ryan said with a grin.

“More interesting than any story I have from before I found my nanoverse,” Dianmu countered. “I certainly never died before I became a goddess.”

“Well, thank you for that.”

“You’re very welcome.”

“So…what was it you wanted to ask me?” Ryan said after a momentary lull in the conversation.

“Oh. Well, quite simply-” At that moment, Ryan’s console gave a quick beep letting them know they’d arrived. Dianmu laughed. “It’s something that will have to wait till later.”

Ryan sighed. “Apparently. Alright. You ready to tangle with the Curator’s red tape?”

“As ready as anyone can be.”

With that, they headed to the door, ready to argue with the universe’s oldest bureaucracy.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 67

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As far as Tythel could determine, in ages past the Reliquary Hall of Hallith had held the bones of the true Alohym. Those bones, if they had ever truly been there, were either worn to dust by the ages or stolen by looters long ago. It was still a grand structure, built remarkably to withstand the ravages of time. The roof was still intact, supported by twelve massive columns, and the walls were lined with the empty containers that had held the dead bodies of gods. In the center was a long stone table that Tythel suspected might have been holy to the Hallithians. An altar, or perhaps were the bodies of their gods were prepared for storage.

Part of her felt it was wrong to turn that table, this entire structure, into a war room. Practicality had won out over respect for the long dead peoples of Hallith, however. Very few places in the city allowed for a table to be covered with paper and notes and maps without being disturbed by winds.

Armin was there, and he flashed Tythel a grin when he saw her enter. After a second’s hesitation, he blinked a few times. Tythel returned the blinking and then made herself grin in response. Armin was struggling with the happy blink – he usually did it too slowly, indicating concern, and it was an odd gesture without nictitating membranes, but she appreciated the effort more than she could say. After so long struggling to smile so people understood her expressions, it was wonderful to have someone return the effort. So long? It’s only been two months since you left the valley.

            It felt like an eternity. Thinking about that brought thoughts of her father rising up. Thinking about Karjon no longer was a sharp pain that threatened to pull her into tears. It was a dull ache, a hollow feeling. She pushed it aside with more ease than she’d expected. The Duke had also saw her enter and gave her a nod. “Glad you could make it, your Highness.”

Tythel winced at the note of reprimand in his voice that even she could make out. He didn’t like that she was going out to the walls to be alone, or that she was going…well, anywhere where he couldn’t keep a personal eye on her. I’m almost worried he doesn’t trust me. She didn’t think that was the case, just concern for her wellbeing, but it still stung slightly.

Don’t get too close to him, Tythel reminded herself. “Apologies for my delay. I thought it best my ears were on the wall for any approach.” She was glad that Tellias hadn’t caught up yet. She preferred he didn’t see the excuse. When did you start making excuses?

Tythel knew the answer to that question and shied away from that thought. Thinking about what happened to her father was still a dull ache, but Nicandros’ abandonment still burned hot. In part because she still held out hope that it could be fixed somehow. As unimaginable as it was – she had killed his son, after all – it was at least possible. After all, they were both still alive.

At least, you hope that’s true.

“Your ears may be useful on the wall, your highness, but your place is here.” The Duke glanced around quickly. The only people in here were Tythel’s friends and other members of leadership – Lord Devos and Lady von Bagget. Even the Dutchess wasn’t present yet. “Among the leadership. The men are starting to talk about you going off on your own so much.”

Tythel let out a chuff. “And what are they saying? That I’m doing something wrong somehow?”

“No, just that -” the Duke cut off as Tellias walked in. “Good, I think everyone’s here.”

“Is Ossman coming?” Tythel asked.

“No,” Lord Devos said, making sure he met Tythel’s gaze.” I left him with some of the new recruits. This is need to know only.”

And Ossman doesn’t need to know, so don’t you dare tell him, went unspoken. Lord Devos had never been the warm and friendly sort, but Uridin’s betrayal had hardened his already rough edges. He suspected everyone of treachery. Armin had once joked he slept with one eye open and a mirror so he could keep an eye on himself, and Tythel had laughed in part because she could picture it perfectly.

“As a matter of fact,” Lord Devos continued, pointing at Tellias and Eupheme, “these two don’t need to know.”

Eupheme looked to Tythel while Tellias hesitated. “They should stay,” Tythel protested. “Eupheme is my bodygard, she goes where I go.” Duke d’Monchy raised an eyebrow at that, and Tythel pointedly ignored it, “and Baron Tellias has been working on decoding this same text.”

“He didn’t crack the code. Armin did. If Tellias had, I’d be saying Armin should get out.”

Lady von Bagget reached over and put her hand on Lord Devos’ arm. “Eupheme is an umbrist. If we cannot trust her, we should slit our own throats now. Light knows she had ample opportunities.”

Lord Devos considered that, then nodded. “Very well.” He motioned for Tellias to leave.

“But-” Tythel started to say, then saw the slight shake of Eupheme’s head. Don’t fight this battle. Tythel let the exclamation die as a frustrated exhalation.

Tellias bowed stiffly and left.

“Now, can we get to business?” The Duke asked in irritation.

Tythel nodded, looking at Armin. “Eupheme said you’d had a breakthrough?”

Armin nodded eagerly. He was still dusty from the excavations. “He based it on Hallithian!” Armin crowed. “Theognis, I mean. I saw one of the symbols in his cypher when we down in the ruins, and as soon as I did I knew I could use it!”

Tythel did the hyper quick blinks of excitement. We were sitting on the cipher and didn’t even know it. “And?”

“It’s only one section, and I just finished it. I think he must have used different ancient languages for the other parts of the cypher. But I know where they’re keeping the Vacuity Engine!” Armin looked down at what he had written. “It’s on the Ambulatory Bastion!” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, his excitement drained away. “Wait. Flath. That’s…that’s really bad.”

Tythel looked around to see the others were frowning. Duke d’Monchy had turned white. Lord Devos was turning red, and Tythel couldn’t tell if he was going to hit something or swear. “What’s…I haven’t heard about the Ambulatory Bastion before.”

“There’s so much we need to teach you still,” the Duke muttered, his voice too low for anyone but Tythel to hear. Louder, he said, “the imperipods we encountered before? It’s one of those, but scaled up immensely. When the Alohym first arrived, it flew down from the sky and has been roving across the continent ever since.”

“How large?” Tythel asked.

“As large at this entire flathing plateau,” Lord Devos exclaimed. “It’s a flathing walking city is what it is. And the Vacuity Engine, the one flathing thing that might give us a chance, is on it.”

Tythel joined them in looking disappointed. An imperipod the size of a small city. She couldn’t even begin to imagine how they were supposed to assault a monstrosity like that.

It was supposed to be good news, she thought to herself.

Small Worlds Part 169

Horus didn’t bother trying to break the vampire’s grasp. There wasn’t time. He had burned through more than enough power where the need for air was burning at his lungs. Instead of entering a contest of main strength, Horus dropped himself backwards, pulling his legs up as he did. The motion caught Vlad off guard, and the two of them fell to the ground. Horus was able to bring up his feet into the vampire’s stomach and kicked as hard he could.

Vlad had no choice but to release Horus’ neck, not if he wanted his wrists to remain intact. Vlad turned to mist again to save himself impact with the ground, giving Horus’ time to gasp for air. Horus rolled away as Vlad reformed, slamming his heel down on where Horus’ head had been moment’s before.

Concrete cracked under the vampire’s heel. Bits of it flecked up and bit into Horus’ face. Even half burned, Vlad was unimaginably strong. Horus brought his leg up in a kick aimed at Vlad’s knee. Before he could connect, Vlad’s hand lanced down and grabbed Horus by the ankle. Vlad swung Horus over his body, slamming him into the concrete. Horus felt the world spin from the impact, and coughed up flecks of blood. Before he could try to break free of the grip, Vlad lifted Horus back up and swung him in an arc, slamming him into ground on the other side. “I’m going to drain you dry for this,” Vlad snarled, lifting to swing Horus again.

Horus threw his hands out towards the ground on the third swing, twisting reality to give the pavement the consistency of a feathered bed. He sunk into the now soft concrete, then kicked back towards Vlad, taking advantage of the vampire being off balance to free himself. Horus didn’t bother to try and rise, instead twisting to surround himself in a bubble of sunlight. Vlad hissed and recoiled from the field.

“You can’t keep this up forever,” Vlad growled from the doorway he had taken shelter within. “Your power is limited, and you’ve burned a great deal already.”

“I have enough to burn you, vampire,” Horus said, finally rising to his feet. “Your presence has been tolerated on this world for far too long.”

Vlad chuckled, the sound echoing through the courtyard. “Tolerated? You think you are the first god to have delusions about killing me? Please. I’ve survived far worse than you. Do you have any idea how many of our numbers I’ve killed over the centuries?”

Horus peered around, trying to pinpoint the vampire’s voice. Between the acoustics here and his own spinning head, he couldn’t quite place it. “However many it is, the number will not increase today, I can promise you that.”

“Endless void, did you read The Book of Bullshit Cliches? Is this the part where I tell you ‘we’re not so different, you and I’?”

Horus’ eyes flared. “We are nothing alike!”

“Of course we aren’t. You’re a pompous, self obsessed, neckbeard with delusions of grandeur. And I? I’m a survivor.

At that moment, Vlad finished the twist to reality he had been working on. Horus screamed as the ground beneath his feet turned into molten rock, causing his shoes to burst into flames that started to lap up to his ankles. He moved as quickly as he could, before the lava could completely incinerate his feet, but as he landed Horus screamed in pain. The soles of his feet were burned past the point of sensation – the pain seemed to be coming from somewhere around his ankles. The nerves below that had been seared away. Horus didn’t dare look at the mess of charred flesh he knew his feet had become. It was all he could do to maintain his balance, and keep up the field of sunlight that was keeping Vlad at bay.

“Which Hunger are you up to, Horus? I’m sure you’re thirsty by now.” Vlad’s voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. “Probably even feeling the need for food.”

A chunk of rock lifted off the ground and streaked towards Horus’ head. It took every bit of energy he had to dodge it before it could crush his skull. “You know why I always wear gods down before I kill them?” Vlad whispered from the shadows. “It’s not just because it’s safer to wait until they’ve drained all their power. It’s because I know that last Hunger is waiting for them. The need for socialization. The need for human contact.”

Horus saw his vision waiver, and the sunlight surrounding him dimmed as he dropped to one knee. Have to do something or he’ll kill me, Horus thought, frantically searching for a plan.

“It means that when you die, not only are you terrified, but so you’re painfully lonely. Isolated. I like to imagine that when my fangs sink into your neck, you’ll welcome it. Even though it’s killing you, it’s the last bit of human contact you’ll ever get before the grave.”

“Now…” Horus grunted, struggling to keep his eyes open. “Now who’s spouting the bullshit cliches?”

That actually got a laugh out of Vlad as Horus slumped to the ground, the sunlight going out. “I started monologuing. I am becoming a cliche in my old age, aren’t I?” In an instant, Vlad was on top of Horus, flipping him over with a kick to expose his neck. “At least I don’t sparkle. I hope someone kills me if I start to sparkle.” Horus raised his hand, and Vlad batted it aside. “Please. You have no power left. Accept this death, Horus.”

Vlad brought his fangs down towards Horus’ neck.

At that moment, Horus tapped into the last bit of power he had been holding in reserved as he faked his powerlessness, and erupted in sunlight. Vlad recoiled and howled in agony as his flesh began to fleck away. It was so bright it blinded even Horus.

When his vision cleared, Vlad was still there. He looked more like a corpse than a man now, his skin burned to a blackened crisp across his body. If he’d been a normal god, he would have died from his injures already. As it was, his movements were jerky, uncoordinated.

But he was still moving. Horus raised his hand to try another twist to reality, but he had burned through all his power. Nothing happened. He was, effectively, mortal.

Vlad’s power had to be mostly drained as well, but even with no divine strength left, he was still a vampire. He slammed his hand down onto Horus’ check, and Horus felt bones crack beneath the blow. Horus fell onto his back, and Vlad leaned his, his fangs coming ever closer to Horus’ throat. “Tell me, Horus – do you welcome this?” Vlad whispered.

“I do,” said a voice behind Vlad. The vampire started to turn, but before he could make it far into the motion, his chest bulged outwards. A hand shot through it, clenching the still beating heart of the vampire.

“Why?” Vlad asked, the unholy light in his eyes fading.

“I don’t answer questions from corpses,” Bast said, and then reached around – her arm still through Vlad’s chest – and brought the heart to her lips, biting into it.

Horus watched in as Bast shuddered at the bite, her eyes rolling back in her head in apparent ecstacy. He’d seen her feed since she became this horror, but it had never been like this. After that first bite, she devoured Vlad’s heart so greedily, Horus was certain she caught some of her own fingers in those bites. “I had no idea it would taste that good,” Bast whispered, shuddering in aftershocks of enjoyment.

Vlad, of course, said nothing. His body was falling apart, turning to bones and dust. Bast reached down with a bloody hand and patted Horus’ cheek. “You did well, Horus. Do you want to heal naturally?”

Horus nodded. The pain from his burned feet was pushing through the exhaustion, but the idea of waiting for a resurrection – of letting himself die after fighting so hard to live – sickened him.

Beneath that was a terror of what would happen if he was helpless in front of Bast right now, so close to the ecstacy of eating a divine heart. He didn’t believe she would feed on him, not really…but the hand that had patted his face had been missing bits of flesh.

That terror gave him the strength he needed to crawl his way back to his doorway as Bast watched with apparent amusement until he could seal himself inside.

Then, and only then, he allowed himself to pass out.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 65 (Beginning of Book 2)

In all of Drakan, there was no creature more wretched than Poz Torne, and if anyone had reason to doubt that, Poz would be happy to set them straight on the matter. He had thought he had reached the bottommost point of wretchedness the year before, when he’d been locked up for a little bit of looting. Not much looting, not in Poz’s estimation. They hadn’t been Alohym soldiers he’d been looting from – Poz knew that would mean the gallows for him – just rebels, and it’s not like they were using those boots anymore, on account of them being dead and all. “I was’t doin’ the harm to them, no I was’t,” Poz muttered to himself, crouched a cave with the lichen and the guano.

It darker in this cave than the Shadow’s anus, as near as Poz could reckon, which meant he had some time before he needed to worry about his pursuers catching up with him. Or at least, iffin my luck don’t be doin’ me the bad like what it does, he reminded himself. And since my luck be lovin’ doin’ me the bad, I be doing’ the think that it’s going to turn on me like what it always does.

It could have been worse, Poz reminded himself. He could have been caught looting Alohym soldiers, or committing one of their blasphemies. Looting rebels was just a plain old ordinary crime, as far as the Alohym reckoned, and Poz was glad that was how they reckoned it, else he would have been doing a merry little jig a few feet off the ground. Instead he’d done six months hard labor to set him straight, then gotten released and went right back to looting. Can’t be doing me a blame for looting, can you? Poz has to be doing the eat.

For one brief, shining moment, Poz had believed his luck had finally turned. He’d gone to loot a battle, like always, but this time, he hadn’t even needed to go to where the rebels would be laying dead with their boots just waiting for Poz to snatch them away. Instead, he’d found the packs the rebels had set aside, glorious packs of provisions.

Now, Poz had a rule. Poz had lots of rules, actually,  but the relevant one here was don’t take what will be missed. So he’d taken a bit of food from each pack, and a nice pair of socks, and a pair of new undergarments. He’d planned to check out the battle, see who all else had died, and if the rebels were all dead…well, if they were dead, there wouldn’t miss their packs, now would they?

Should have done a stick to the rules, Poz, he admonished himself. Should have done a Shadow-tossed stick to the rules. But in the last pack, he’d seen something too good to pass up. Something that shone greater than any prize Poz had ever imagined stealing. It was the kind of treasure they wrote books about being stolen, usually in great underground vaults surrounded by Light-infused constructs and deadly traps. The people who stole such things weren’t wreches like Poz. They were beautiful people, with perfect hair and teeth that gleamed when they smiled.

Poz should have known better than to steal the thing, but it had been so shiny, so bright, how could he resist?

There was a sound of footsteps near the entrance to his cave, and Poz pressed himself further into the floor, his ears twitching. Being an Underfolk meant Poz could barely see even in normal light, but he could click his tongue and bring himself an image of the world around him. He did that a few times, his heart pounding. His pursurers hadn’t seen the cave yet – or if they hadn’t, they weren’t near the entrance.

Should have done a leaving of the thing, he sighed to himself. But he hadn’t. He’d taken it from the pack and made a beeline for town, seeking out his Riki, his fence.

Riki was a hard woman who had lived a hard life, but she had a soft spot for Poz. Sure, she called him an ugly little bastard, but she always did it with a smile. Or at least, without a grimace. Usually. But when Poz had Sung her and told her that he had something worthwhile, Riki had come running. This had pleased Poz. He’d built up a reputation for whining and moping because…well, because he liked to whine and mope, but also because doing so meant that, when he said he had something good, people knew it had to be true.

“Where’d you find this?” Riki had asked when he’d shown her the thing.

“You don’t want to be doing a know of that, no you do not,” Poz had assured her, getting a smile out of Riki.

“I suppose I don’t. Poz, how hot is this thing?”

“I was doing a wait of a couple weeks before I did a song, yes I was. No one’s been doing a sniffing for it, I can tell you that.”

Riki frowned. “I’ll see what I can find, Poz. You might have just become the richest one of your people on the continent.”

That was when Poz knew something was very, very wrong. Things that good did not happen to Poz, no matter what else was going on. No matter where he went or who he spoke to, the best Poz ever hoped for was to break even.

Even if he did have an egg of solid gold with him.

So he’d put his ear to the ground, as they said. He’d heard things that made him shiver down to his core. One of the Alohym, Rephylon, had met its end. Burned to death by a…by someone. Everyone agreed that Rephylon was dead, but not everyone agreed as to the creature that had killed him. Some said she was a monster, a half dragon, half human that wanted the Alohym gone so she could prey upon humanity freely. Some said she was a pure, true dragon from the old tales, the kind that kidnapped princesses and sat on their great hordes of treasure. Some said she was just a woman, able to weave dragonflame out of Light.  

All the stories, however, agreed on two things. One was her name – Tythel, a name stolen from the long dead princess of the old kingdom. Of course she is not being the princess, Poz thought. Only the very stupid be doing the believing of that. And they agreed she had survived the death of Rephylon, and was now building an army. Rumors said, in the month since Rephylon’s death, she’d been gathering all manner of cutthroats and brigands and all sorts of nasty folk to her banner, or that she was killing the nasty folk and…Poz clicked his tongue again, both to check his surroundings and to clear his head.

The truth was, Poz was sure it didn’t matter if she was wicked or good. Because Poz was increasingly certain that the egg he had stolen had belonged to this Dragon Princess. Which meant she wanted it back, and the Alohym wanted it for themselves. And what is poor Poz supposed to do? Do I be doing a go to the Dragon Princess and say “please don’t be doing a killing? I didn’t know it was yours when I be doing the take of it?” Hah! She’ll probably be putting the burn on me before I even finish a sentence! He’d been ready to give the egg to Riki and run to the hills, he really had. He’d gone to see her to be done with it and run, run far away, but when he’d gone to see her, Riki had been dead, impaled on the wall of her shop by a great sword as long as Poz was tall.

That’s when Poz realized that he was worried too much about the wrong people that wanted the egg. The Dragon Princess would burn him to a crisp if she could find him, but the Alohym…they knew he had it, somehow. They had sent something new after him, something terrifying. Something that fought like an Alohym but stalked like a man. It was what was out there right now, waiting for him.

Maybe if I be doing the leaving of the egg here, they’ll leave me alone, Poz thought, but dismissed the idea immediately. It was a nice, lovely thought, but it wouldn’t be what happened. They’d overlook the egg and hunt him down. Or they’d find the egg and still hunt him down. Or they’d find the egg and leave him be, but then the Dragon Princess would hear of it and she would hunt him down, and he wouldn’t even have the egg to bargain with.

Poz clicked his tongue again, and this time he had to fight back the urge to scream. The thing that was chasing him was in the cave’s entrance. It was as tall as a man, perhaps a bit taller, its form lithe and supple and covered with a rock-hard shell like the skin of an Alohym. Its head was wedge-shaped, like an Alohym, and it moved with preternatural grace.

Poz clicked his tongue a few more times, letting the new thing get further into the cave, then slowly skittering across the walls and hoping, begging the Shadow to keep him safe. He had one hope, as far as he saw it, one person who could set this straight. An old friend who would know what to do.  

A rock fell. The new thing turned towards Poz and started to raise its arm. The clawed hand was running like it was made of wax, forming some new appendage.

A beam of unlight shot from the newly formed tube at the end of its wrist, and Poz cleared the edge of the cave by mere inches before the blast struck. Then he was gone, fleeing into the night, with the new thing hot on his heels.

Just keep doing the running, Poz! Do the run and don’t ever stop! And once you be finding Nicandros, he’ll be knowing what to do with this.

Poz could only pray he would live that long.

Small Worlds Part 167

“I’ve told a few different versions of what happened with Arachne over the centuries,” Athena began, “but never the truth. It’s known to only one other goddess – Artemis. That’s how I knew Hermes message was truly from her.” Athena sighed. “In ancient times, the Olympians employed a sort of…of mentor program when a new god found a nanoverse, throughout their Nascency. Always in pairs.”

“Always two there are,” Isabel muttered to Ryan, who had to fight back a grin.

Athena apparently heard the comment and gave Isabel a puzzled look. “Yes. That is what pairs means.”

“It’s…never mind.” Isabel shook her head. “Sorry, please go on.”

“Pop culture reference, love,” Crystal said primly. Once again, Ryan found himself wondering if Crystal had actually understood the reference or was just good at spotting and rolling with references as they happened. Of course, if I asked her, she’d say something vague and leave me more confused.

“Ah. Well, it had been time for me to take an apprentice. I was given charge of a young Goddess named Arachne. Back then, we didn’t think of it as twisting reality – that’s a more modern convention. We thought of it as weaving the elements. And Arachne…she was one of the most gifted weavers I’d ever seen. She had a natural affinity for the elements unrivaled by any other Nascent. An affinity that every bit as great as her ambition.”

“To complete their apprenticeship and be fully considered an Olympian, a god or goddess had to complete a Trial. You’ve heard myths of some of these – the twelve labors of Heracles are the most famous of them. I set Arachne’s trial as one that was both simple and impossible – she had to beat me in a challenge of weaving.”

“I was hundreds of years old at this point. I’d fought in the Titanomachy, and was one of the finest warriors on Olympus.” Ryan couldn’t fight the smile this time. I wonder if I could say that with so little arrogance. “It would be decades, maybe even centuries before Arachne could best me in combat.”

“Why’d you give her an impossible task?” Crystal asked, frowning.

“Because the real trial wasn’t to actually beat me. It was for her…she needed to prove she could get past that arrogance.” She fixed her gaze on Crystal. “You saw what the Titanomachy did, Crystal.”

“What did it do?” Isabel asked.

“Did you study the Bronze Age Collapse?” Athena asked.

Isabel nodded, then her eyes widened. “That was the end result?”

“Yes. In our war with the Titans, we destroyed them. Not the Titans – we did. Because we were reckless, because we were so damn arrogant. That was why we made hubris the highest sin among our followers – because it was a reminder to ourselves what could happen if we fell into arrogance. I needed Arachne to prove she could get over that arrogance.”

Athena lapsed into silence for a moment. “What happened?” Ryan asked.

“She took another path. She did…she did a terrible thing to overcome me.” Athena shook her head. “Don’t ask me what it was. I’ve kept her secret for millennia. The story became a parable of the follies of arrogance.” Athena took a deep breath. “I turned her into a spider.”

“How did you manage to make that stick?” Anansi asked. “She was a goddess, it should have been simple for her to learn how to change herself back.”

“Yes, it would have been. Had I not taken her first to a place where my will was absolute, a place where she held no power.”

Dianmu looked sick. “You took her into your nanoverse?”

“Yes.” Athena took a ragged breath. “I made her immortal. I’ve preserved her existence through even collapses of my nanoverse. She goes into hibernation during the beginning and end of each cycle, awakening anew when intelligent life forms and slumbering again when she would otherwise be isolated.”

Silence returned to the table.

“So…you want to let her out?” Ryan asked finally. “After…what, hundreds of thousands of years for her? Millions?”

“Yes,” Athena said simply. “I know she’ll likely hate me. She’ll likely become a thorn in our side. But…I cannot let her suffering continue any longer. If I were to suffer true death…” Athena let the thought trail off.

“Love, I understand wanting to right past wrongs, but there’s no way she isn’t completely bugnuts by now,” Crystal said, as gently as she could. “And even if you brought her out, you’d be condemning her to a mortal life. Her nanoverse had to undergo heat death long ago.”

“I left her nanoverse. She’s been able to reset it, although not draw power from it. I couldn’t bring myself to condemn her to death, I certainly couldn’t do it to the innocent people in her nanoverse.”

“So let me get this straight,” Ryan said. “You want to go into your nanoverse and pull out a woman who is also a millions of years old spider that will have access to the full power of a goddess and literally every reason to hate you.  You want to do this now, right before we are moving into the last days of the world, and any distraction could mean the end of the human reason. On top of all that, your only reason for doing so is because it’s the ‘right thing to do’?”

Athena gave him a careful look. “Yes,” she said, tensing up.

Ryan smiled. “That’s…that’s great, Athena.” She was still studying him, looking for any signs of sarcasm, and Ryan shook his head. “I mean it, really.” It surprised him that he did. Every part of his brain was screaming that this was a terrible idea, except for a little voice in the back of his head that was screaming fuck logic, this is wrong. Just as Athena started to relax, Ryan went on, “But I don’t think you should go in there alone.”

“Excuse me?” Athena asked, the tension returning.

“No, he’s right.” Dianmu said after a moment. “It’s not safe.”

“It’s in my nanoverse,” Athena protested. “How could it possibly be dangerous?”

“Well, besides the fact that I recently got an abject lesson in how dangerous a nanoverse can be?” Crystal asked. “Athena, you could barely tell us the story of what happened. Bloody hell, it’s still full of holes, and that was you coming clean. Do you really think you’re ready to face Arachne, have a sit down?”

Athena opened her mouth to protest, but Isabel stepped in. “No one but you can speak for your own mental state, Athena. But do you really think Arachne wouldn’t appreciate an intermediary? Nothing personal, but if it was me and you showed up after millions of years, I don’t think I’d be able to say anything other than various swear words while trying to claw your eyes out.”

Athena sat there for a moment, clearly struggling. “Who would go?” She finally asked.

Crystal tapped her chin. “Gee, if only we had someone here who already had to sit out of both of the active missions we were planning.” She gave Anansi a pointed look.

He smiled at Athena. “I’d be honored to aid you. I know a thing or two about talking to spiders, anyway.”

Athena slumped in what looked to Ryan like a combination of relief and defeat. “Fine. But it’s just into my nanoverse – we could still join you afterwards.”

“Oh no,” Crystal said in unison with Dianmu. Crystal motioned for Dianmu to continue. “Athena, if Arachne is hostile when she gets out, the last thing we want to do it dangle Ryan in front of her. Or any of us, for that matter. You and Anansi will need some time to assess her mental state, make sure it’s safe for us to be around her.”

“I…yes, that makes sense. I don’t like leaving you shorthanded.”

“Don’t worry!” Isabel said brightly. “Crystal and I just need to have a chat with a Sphinx, and Ryan and Dianmu are just having a chat with the Curators. It’ll be-”

“Don’t you dare say ‘it’ll be easy,’” Ryan interrupted.

Isabel gave him a broad grin. “I didn’t. You did. That means if this goes pear-shaped, it’s your fault now.”

Athena let out a small snort of laughter, the tension beginning to fade from her shoulders as she did. “Do you always run circles around him?” she asked Isabel.

“Oh no, absolutely not. There was a time when he could run circles around me. Then I learned to walk.” The ensuing laughter was exactly what they needed to break the tension.

Ryan just wished he could shake the horrible feeling that they were forgetting something important.

 

Small Worlds Part 166

“After Anansi had made sure Ra would be comfortable as he fell into twilight, his nanoverse undergoing final heat death, Anansi headed to Egypt. It pained Anansi to leave Ra alone in his final hours, but the threat of the Staff of Ra being found was too great to wait however long it would take for Ra to die.” Anansi pursed his lips and shook his before continuing. “To be honest, Anansi had also not yet seen an abosom die, and also left because he was frightened to watch such a thing.”

“Upon arriving in Egypt, Anansi headed to the court of Amun, who would later be known as Amun-Ra. Anansi did not intend on seeking the aid of Amun in locating the Staff, for Anansi did not want to risk the Staff finding in anyone’s hands. There a celebration was thrown for Anansi’s arrival, for he was the first abosom to come to Egypt since the terrors of Sekhmet, and the pantheon there desperately wanted to show the world they were safe to visit again. There was a week of celebration for Anansi’s arrival, and he celebrated with the gods and Pharaoh of Egypt and learned more of their stories.

“The abosom of Egypt had found a great treasure of nanoverses, which they gave to the greatest of their mortal Pharaohs before their death, allowing them to become Nascent. A new Pharaoh was approaching the end of his life, one who’s name history has forgotten and is now known only as Scorpion the First. Since this Pharaoh had acknowledged Amun’s supremacy over Ra, it was doubtless Scorpion would be given a nanoverse, which meant another week of celebration. He died before finishing his Nascency, so even Anansi has forgotten his name, and it is of little importance to this story.

“Anansi excused himself from the second celebration, saying it was because he did not wish to intrude upon such a momentous day. In truth, Anansi excused himself because he knew the week of celebration would give him time to find the Staff of Ra without discovery.”

Anansi smiled.

“Anansi’s attempt to remain undetected was uncovered in just three days by Neith, goddess of the forge and – more relevantly – of the hunt. She suspected Anansi was up to his trickery, for tales of Anansi’s trickery had spread even to Egypt. Neith found Anansi preparing to break into a Pyramid and demanded that Anansi tell her what he was doing. Anansi tried every trick he knew to persuade Neith to leave it be, but Hunter Goddesses rarely fall for such ploys. Under pain of being taken before Amun – which would have resulted in a great deal of pain – Anansi told her what he was here for and begged her to keep silent.

“Fortune smiled on Anansi that day. Neith had been seeking the same artifact, for she hoped to find it before her quarry did. She was hunting Apophis, the enemy of Ra, who had long sought Ra’s staff. Apophis was a monstrous being said to be far older than Ra and far madder than any other being alive. He was an abosom, and he sought the staff, so he might restore a long-lost world.”

“Moloch,” Ryan hissed.

Anansi shook his head. “By the end of my story, you’ll see why I’m certain it was not. But I now believe that Apophis also hailed from that same ancient era that birthed Moloch, and our dear Crystal, and perhaps other beings. Ones that acted like monsters but had the power of gods.”

“The Titans.” Athena said.

Anansi nodded. “Among others.” He glanced at Crystal. “Is such a thing possible?”

Crystal shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “I thought I was the only one to survive, and the only monster I dealt with that meets that description is Lamashtu. Knowing what we know now…” Crystal shrugged helplessly. “I figured they had all died permanently. They could have been from a race that came between my people and humanity. Bloody hell, they could have been gods from another world that had undergone its own Eschaton.”

“All of these make sense,” Anansi said thoughtfully. “I suppose we may never know. Apophis was certainly not one for speaking. He had taken a great serpent and was worming deep beneath the Earth to try and find the pyramid that Ra had hidden the Staff within. Neith and Anansi had both searched different pyramids, and that left them only one to search.”

“They arrived as Apophis burst through the Earth to claim his prize.”

“The battle was a fierce one. Neith moved like lightning and struck like the hammer upon the anvil. Anansi used all his greatest tricks, trying to ty the great serpent in knots of its own coils. Apophis was screaming and rambling the entire time – so close to its prize, it had gone even madder than it had been for most of existence. The serpent managed to bite Anansi, and he was dying of its poison. It reared up for one last strike – and that was when Neith stepped between the serpent and Anansi. She drew a great kopesh from her nanoverse and drove it into the serpent’s mouth and brain.

“Apophis fell dead, but it had bitten Neith as well. She and Anansi both perished from its poison deep beneath the sands of Egypt, side by side.

“Of course, they were abosom. They were resurrected once their bodies had healed and purged Apophis’ venom. Apophis had not resurrected yet, since Neith’s kopesh was still lodged in his brain. Anansi took the Staff, and they both agreed it was best that Neith did not know where he hid it. Neith burned Apophis’ body and then took his nanoverse into her own. As terrible as the crime of destroying a nanoverse can be, it would have been far worse to allow Apophis to return to life.

“Anansi returned to Ra, only to find that the old god’s death was coming far swifter than Anansi expected. They had only minutes left. Anansi worked with Ra to use the power of the staff once and only once.

“When Ra died, he arose as a monster, but one with a noble heart and pure intentions. He would sit as the guardian of the Staff for the rest of time. That monster was the first of the Sphinx, and Anansi took both Sphinx and staff to a place where no one would think to search for it – to that hidden cave of metal hidden upon the moon.”

“It’s on the moon?” Ryan asked, feeling his eye widened out. “How are we ever going to get to the…moon.” He trailed off and started to flush. “No, no need to point out how dumb that was.”

“The moon part isn’t why I’m giving you the bug-eyed look, Anansi,” Crystal said. “A Sphinx? A sphinx that used to be Ra?”

Anansi nodded. Isabel raised a hand. “Someone fill me in, so I can join you in freaking out?”

“Sphinx are one of the few monsters that retain the full intelligence they had in life, and retain some of their divine powers,” Athena said with a grimace. “They’re not as powerful as a dragon, but much harder to outwit.”

“They can be reasoned with,” Dianmu added, turning to Anansi. “Do you think you could talk him into letting you have the artifact back?”

“No. As a precaution against shapeshifters, we agreed if he ever sees me again, he’ll kill me on the spot. If anyone claiming to be me shows up, he’ll likewise kill them, regardless of who they appear to be. My presence would destroy any chance of negotiations.”

Athena tapped her fingers on the table. “It can’t be Ryan either.” Ryan shot her a confused look, and she elaborated. “Nabu owes you a debt. You need to go speak to the Curators. Find out what happened to Horus, and if they can offer any other aid.”

Ryan sighed. “Okay, that makes sense. So, you all go deal with the Sphinx-formerly-known-as-Ra, and I’ll go to the Curators.”

“No offensive, love, but there’s no way I’m sending you alone to the Curators,” Crystal said. “Anyone besides Anansi and myself done any Lunar fighting?” No one raised their hand, and Crystal sighed. “That’s what I thought. I’ll go up to the moon base and talk to the bloody Sphinx.”

“Is there air in this moon base?” Isabel asked?

“Yes,” Anansi said.

“Then I’m going with Crystal.”

“Didn’t you just get done saying you were interested in being the tech girl behind the desk?” Ryan asked.

“Yeah, but that was before we were talking about going to the goddamn moon.” Isabel flashed him a fierce grin. “Besides, the Sphinx is smart, it’s probably spent its time preparing for a god to come along. No way it prepared for me.”

“Isabel-” Ryan said, but she cut him off with a quick shake of her head.

“Ryan, if you were about to point out how dangerous this is and I can die because I’m a mortal blah blah blah, I’ll remind you that you’re still able to permanently die and are more important for what we’re doing than I am, so I’ll only be missing out on the Moon if you agree to be stuck in a nice safe spot until it’s time to end the world.”

Ryan snapped his mouth shut and glared at her. “Fine. Then who’s coming with me to Officium Mundi?”

“I will,” Dianmu said. “I learned a great deal about the Curators when I was in the Jade Emperor’s palace, and nothing prepares you for dealing with them quite like the divine bureaucracy.”

Ryan nodded. “Okay, so Dianmu, Anansi and I to the Curators, Athena, Crystal, and Isabel to the…oh what now?” Both Athena and Anansi were shaking their heads.

“I stole a file of tales from the Curators three thousand years ago,” Anansi said with a bit of pride, “they would not welcome me.”

Crystal gave an affectionate sigh. “Of course you did. Athena, love? You’ve got something else to do than go to the moon?”

“Yes.” Athena looked down at the table, like she didn’t want to meet their eyes. Is she embarrassed?” Ryan wondered, not sure how to square that emotion with the woman he’d come to know over these past few weeks. Athena continued, “The fight with Moloch…was the closest I’ve come to true death. Ever. I realized…if I had died, I would have left behind unfinished business. I’ve done something I regret, and I must set it right before throwing myself headlong into danger again.”

Everyone looked at her, stunned. Ryan finally found his voice. “What do you need to do?” he asked, softly.

“I need to confess a lie to you all. A lie I’ve been telling for over four thousand years. And then…” she looked up, and Ryan realized it wasn’t shame that had driven her to look away, but it’s close cousin, guilt. “And then I need to free Arachne from the prison I made for her.”

For a full minute, the only sound was the winds of Cypher Nullity.

“Maybe you should start from the beginning,” Ryan said slowly.

 

Small Worlds Part 164

Bast fought back a curl of her lips as she saw the adoring look in Horus’ eyes. Pathetic. For a moment, she was tempted to tell him the truth, that she was Sekhmet. She wondered what he would do. Would it finally break the adoration from his eyes? Or would not even that extinguish a torch that had burned for millenia? Probably the latter. You once reviled me for being a monster. Now you ‘love’ me even though I’m more monstrous than I ever was. “Glad you could make it, Horus,” she said.

Horus stiffened at her tone. She’d considered hiding her contempt, but nothing she’d yet done had driven him from her. At least her scorn was honest. “Bast. Cassandra said you needed me?”

“Need might have been a strong term,” Bast said.

She watched the anger build behind his eyes. “What have I done to earn this contempt?” he asked, his voice hoarse. “For thousands of years I have done what I could to get something other from you. I have debased myself, I have broken oaths, I have turned my back on everything.”

Play the game, Bast, she reminded herself. There was nothing to be gained in antagonizing him. Instead of firing back, she turned away, letting her head dip down in faux vulnerability. “I never asked for that,” she said in a whisper.

“Had you asked for it, you would not be the woman I…I would not have done it.” He reached out to her, and she stepped away.

“Then you cannot hold it against me! How can you demand anything of me for things you have given freely?”

“You told me what I had to do to stay by your side. I wouldn’t call that entirely given freely.”

Bast turned away so he wouldn’t see her smirk. Took you a moment to notice the lie. “You assumed much, Horus. I never asked you to follow me. I never wanted it. You insisted.” Mortals of this era had a very particular term for this dance, once Cassandra had taught her about. Gaslighting. Telling someone blatant lies and letting their devotion turn those lies into truth. Bast didn’t think it quite applied here, since it was a mixture of half-truths, but she’d be the first to admit Cassandra was likely the expert.

“Then you don’t want me? Do you say that fully?”

“I’ve said it a thousand times,” Bast said, but she turned back towards him as she did, letting her eyes grow wide. Let him think she was afraid he would leave. Let him think he had a chance. Bast had never before done anything to encourage his affections. She knew now that it was vital he had a sliver of hope.

Especially with what she was going to ask him to do.

“Yet you’ve never run from me,” Horus said, stepping forward.

I was part of the same pantheon as you, you leering twat. And even if I had, you would have followed! “No. I never did.”

“Why, Bast? Why do you fight what is between us?”

Because it’s only existed in your own mind, Horus. It always has been a figment of your imagination. “What is between us? You’ve spoken of it often, but…what is it?”

“You know, Bast.”

Bast took a step forward, meeting his eyes directly. She checked to make sure she was out of easy arms reach – the last thing she wanted was the fool thinking this was an invitation to grab her and kiss her or some other nonsense. “Say it.”

“I love you, Bast. I’ve loved you for thousands of years, for as long as I’ve known you. I love you. What will it take for you to return my love? Why won’t you love me in return?”

Bast turned away again, walking back to the window. It fit the narrative she was helping Horus build, and hid her smile. You knew me before you loved me. Oh Horus, I cannot wait to tell you the truth. She reminded herself this next part was crucial. If she played it wrong, Horus could turn on her. “I don’t know if I’m capable of love now. Not like I am. Even though you are a god, my Hunger only sees you as food.”

Lub-dub. Lub-dub. Just saying it was enough to bring his heartbeat to her attention. “So…there’s no hope.”

That note in Horus’ voice was dangerous, but he hadn’t moved to strike yet. “No. Not unless…” She let the word hang there, waiting for the question.

“Unless what?” Horus asked, all too eager.

“The Eschaton is capable of a single twist to reality beyond what any god can manage. He’s supposed to use this twist to sacrifice the world. But this alternation is so powerful…it could free me of this Hunger, Horus. Me and Cassandra.” She turned towards him, forcing tears to her eyes. “Don’t you see? I could be whole again.”

“Then we have to make him do it.”

How easily your honor evaporates in the face of gain. You once were noble, Horus. “It’s not that simple,” Bast said, wiping her eyes, making a point to look embarrassed. Let him thing it was an error. Let him think she’d let her guard down. “Vlad told me. He wants us to work together to get the Eschaton to fix us both. But the rules…it’s a single twist. A single alteration. What if he can only fix one type of anthropophage?”

“I’ll convince him to fix it for you.”

Bast could hear the uncertainty in his voice. “You know the Eschaton, Horus. He was only an antagonist for me, but you know him. Given the choice, which would he save? A woman who worked with Enki and only has a single spawn, or all vampires that have ever existed, thus ridding humanity of a blight that has preyed on them since the Black Death? Tell me truly what you think he would do.”

Horus sighed. “He’d chose the latter.”

“You see my problem, Horus.” Bast sighed. “I have no more need of Vlad, but he’s much more skilled with these new powers than I am. I must work with him, I cannot betray him, so I am forced to risk losing everything. And without that…I don’t know if I can love.”

It took Horus only seconds to make the decision. “I think you will be free of him, Bast.”

“How can you be…no, I best not ask.”

Horus nodded. “Where is he?”

“We expect him back soon.” Bast looked up at Horus, wondering if he needed more goading, but she saw there the fire that burned would not go out during the wait. “Thank you,” she said.

Horus smiled at her, and the possessiveness in that smile made her skin crawl. “Thank me when it’s done. I must prepare for…well, what comes next.”

Bast nodded and watched him go. That’s right, Horus. You get to ‘save’ me. And if I’m really lucky, neither of you will survive.

It was as true now as it had been in the days Bast was Sekhmet, and likely as true as it had been when Ra was still a slope-browed Neanderthal. Likely as far back as that archean era Crystal heralded from.

There was no force more destructive than one sided affection.