Small Worlds part 220

The Adriatic Sea was one of the most beautiful oceans on the world. As a girl, long before finding her Nanoverse, Artemis had enjoyed spending hours along its banks, hunting – sometimes alongside Apollo, sometimes alone. In that time, almost no humans lived along vast stretches of its shores, and she could go out there and be completely alone. Even after she had found her nanoverse and then scoured the globe to find one for Apollo, she’d come out there sometimes to enjoy the solitude. What had impressed her most back then was how clear the water was – it had felt like she could have stared straight to the bottom if there was only a bit lighter.

Today, that water was growing murky with the spilled blood of the god and monster alike.

Artemis’ bowstring thrummed in rapid succession, letting loose a trio of arrows that buried themselves in the chests of approaching Nereids. Blood began to leak into the water around them, and some of the shark mounts began to frenzy, turning on their bleeding riders. Artemis turned away from the sight – they weren’t threats anymore. “Fall back!” she shouted. Water rushed into her mouth, but the words came out clearly. She still found herself choking on seawater.

It took only a tiny portion of her divine power to allow a bow and arrow to work under water, but as long as the battle had been raging, Artemis was beginning to feel the strain of even that. Her body Hungered for air, a hunger that normally never bothered her. She shifted her body slightly, spouting gills along her neck and the sides of her ribcage. It was not the first adaptation she’d made for underwater combat, and she kicked away from the approaching horde with webbed feet. “Fall back!” she repeated. “Fall back or we’ll be overrun!”

Harpoons flew through the water around her, and one grazed her back. She gritted her teeth against the pain. Triton had lent some of his own ichor to all of these projectiles, and they sliced through divine flesh without problem.

Aphrodite spread her fingers, and bands of water wove themselves into a solid net between the retreating Olympians and Poseidon’s army. Hera flung out her hand and threw a web of fire into the net, boiling the sea between the bands.

Artemis saw the frustration on Hera’s face and knew it was mirrored on her own. On the surface, out in open air, that much heat would have incinerated a sizeable chunk of this army. Beneath the waves, it helped create a field of hot water and not much else.

Artemis landed on the floor of the ocean and held out her hand, grabbing threads of Air and Aether. She created a bubble of dry air on the ocean floor, and the other Olympians joined her. “We can’t keep this up!” Demeter said as soon as she entered the bubble.

“I can only hold this bubble for so long, and the Kraken or Scylla will find us soon,” Artemis growled as others joined them. “I need useful suggestions, please.” Already, Harpoons were being shot through the makeshift barrier and into the bubble of air. The difference between air and water meant they missed, but it would only before a matter of time before the Nereids drew near enough to open fire through the air.

“Hestia is dead,” Hephaestus intoned sourly, something small clutched between his fingers. He held it up to reveal her nanoverse.

“And you sent Hermes away,” Aphrodite sniffed.

“Enough,” Hera snapped, drawing all eyes to her. “We are also missing others. Artemis was chosen to lead. Shouldn’t we follow her?”

Artemis gave the older woman a look of pure thanks. Ever since Poseidon had turned on them, Hera had become Artemis’ staunchest supporter. It’s only because she wants you to vote to reinstate her once Zeus resurrects, Artemis reminded herself. At least, that was her best theory.

Either way, it worked in her favor.

“Fine,” Demeter said, wringing sea-water from her hair. “Then what’s your plan?”

The truth was, Artemis didn’t have one. This wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near this hard. Fighting Poseidon in the ocean was going to be difficult, but eight on one were odds that should have made it less of a fight and more of an execution. Even with Thalassa supporting him, they still would have outnumbered them four to one.

“We need to hold out till Hermes returns with reinforcements,” Artemis said. “The plan isn’t changed.”

“Hermes left before the others showed up!” Aphrodite said, the snap in her voice vanishing after a glance from Hera. “It’s not just Triton and Thalassa out there!”

Artemis didn’t need the reminder. On top of those three, on top of the Scylla and the Kraken, two other sea gods had joined the fray on Poseidon’s side. Ceto, the goddess of sea monsters – who was bringing in more creatures by the minute to reinforce Poseidon’s side – and Eurybia. Five gods, two monsters, and the gods and monsters arrayed against them were all in their natural habitat.

“It gets worse than what you know,” Aphrodite said with a scowl. “I saw my ex out there. Nerites. Nerites is commanding the Nereids.”

Make that six gods and two monsters. 

“All we have to do is hold out,” Artemis repeated, her voice firm. “Hermes will bring us back reinforcements. He’s never failed before.”

“Even if he does,” Apollo said, his voice calm, “what good would it do? That little mishmash pantheon Athena has been working on would-”

“Would almost double our numbers with fresh troops, and bring us two war goddesses, a Trickster, and a storm goddess. Under the waves. We need them.”

“There’s still an army,” Apollo objected in the same reasonable tones as before.

“Which is why Athena was not Hermes’ first stop,” Artemis said, meeting his gaze with level eyes.

Everyone looked at her. “What aren’t you telling us?” Hera asked, suspicion now in her eyes.

As if on cue – Artemis wouldn’t be surprised to learn the god in question had been waiting and listening to make a dramatic entrance – a bolt of fire split the air in the center of the gathered Olympians. Tiny hands, the color of a moonless night, grabbed onto the edge of the tear and tore it apart until it was wide enough to allow traversal.

Hand in hand, Hades and Persephone stepped out onto the sea floor. Hades was wearing a black suit, his bident resting on his shoulder. Persephone at least had dressed for the occasion, wearing a black wetsuit and had her hair tightly bound behind her head. “Well,” Hades said with an overly friendly grin, “I do hope I’m in the right place.”

“You could have arrived a little later. Maybe after we were all dead?” Artemis extended her hand, and Hades shook it. “Thank you for coming.”

Hades opened his mouth to answer, but Persephone cut him off. “They’re closing in. Hades and I will supply the army. You need to hold them off.”

Artemis nodded and turned to ready her bow as the water rushed back in around them.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 116

Tythel threw herself to the side as the unlight beam approached and covered her head with her shield as the beam stopped tearing through the forest floor and struck the tree that had briefly been covering her.

That saved her. The unlight hit the tree and, for a moment, it sucked in all light that was hitting its branches, creating a massive circle of darkness around herself and its trunk.

Then it exploded, sending unlight-infused splinters spiraling through the air, a hail of deadly shrapnel that could have punched through her scaled hide. She could feel a couple pieces stick into her arms and tore them out with hisses of pain. The idea of having to endure unlight poisoning again was motivation enough to overcome the sharp stinging sensation.

“Move!” Tellias hissed, and Tythel realized she was exposed. She got up and ran, moments before a beam of unlight impacted the forest floor she’d just vacated. This time, it wasn’t a sweeping beam. It drilled into the ground, sending chunks of earth and stone flying away, and unlight corruption began to seep into the leaves and trees.

Tellias opened fire with one of the arcwands, beams of crimson light lancing up towards where the attacker was. The beam shifted in direction and angle as the flying Alohym twisted away from the incoming fire. “Die you monster!” the human inside the flying Alohym-suit screamed, still propelling unlight into the spot Tythel had vacated.

Tythel didn’t want to dissuade him of the notion that he’d managed to strike her. She began to scrabble up a nearby tree with her talons. Get above the tree line and burn him while he’s distracted, Tythel thought to herself. No time to focus on the energy needed for ghostflame. If she hit him hard enough, she might be able to ground him, and once that happened…then they’d at least be on a more even playing field.

She reached the top of the tree before the man inside was finished firing. He was every bit as imposing at Tythel remembered. Easily as tall as Tellias in the armor, but slender and graceful with an unnatural grace. The huge thorax that emerged from behind his legs was shrinking as he maintained the beam of unlight, and Tythel could hear his breathing, ragged with every second.

Ragged and…sniffling. He was crying. The man inside the Alohym skin was crying as he fired into the ground, thinking he was killing Tythel.

Pushing her confusion aside, Tythel took a deep breath and let out a torrent of dragonflame.

It was perfect. The flying Alohym didn’t see it coming. It streaked towards his back, completely unaware, and Tythel braced herself to leap as soon as he fell.

The fire struck a golden barrier before it could hit the flying man, flaring outwards from the impact a good span away from the Alohym’s back.

Oh, right, Tythel thought, looking around wildly. The lumcaster. He was there, in a nearby tree, and waved his fingers when he saw Tythel looking. “Careful, Catheon,” the lumcaster said. He was speaking quietly enough that he likely didn’t believe that Tythel could hear him.

At least she had a name for the man in the flying Alohym suit. Catheon.

Tythel leapt from the tree and latched onto another one. She began to run through the branches, using the skills she’d honed long ago in Karjon’s valley with her new strength and talons for better grip. The lumcaster’s eyes widened as Tythel drew near, brachiating like an ape to close the distance. He leapt out of the tree and began to channel a barrier of golden light.

Tythel landed and heard Eupheme appear behind her. Good, that means I don’t have to worry about my back. Tythel prepared herself to smash her unlight hammer against the lumcaster’s barrier – when it occurred to her that Eupheme’s footsteps sounded wrong. Too heavy, too quick.

She turned just in time to prevent the woman behind her from ramming a spear through her heart. It glanced off Tythel’s ribcage instead, drawing a line of blood. Tythel hit the ground and rolled away from her attack. It wasn’t Eupheme. She was too tall, wrapped head-to-toe in black fabric, and carried a spear that glowed with unlight.

Some other umbrist had joined the fight. An umbrist on the side of the Alohym.

Tythel took a deep breath, fighting aside the pain as best she could. The Umbrist was every bit as fast as Eupheme, and Tythel found herself leaping back repeatedly to avoid getting impaled.

The real Eupheme had appeared behind the Lumcaster. He’d managed to create a collar of light around himself to prevent Eupheme from slitting his throat from behind and had banished all shadows around him. He was now engaged in a swordfight with Eupheme, who was forced to only rely on her speed and skills. In that, at least, the Lumcaster seemed to equally match her.

A beam of unlight streaked from the sky again. This time it slammed into Tellias, driving him to one knee. Catheon – didn’t maintain the beam this time. Tythel prayed he couldn’t, or they were damned.

She caught the head of the new umbrist’s spear on her shield and reminded herself they might be damned either way.

They needed a plan, desperately. They were out maneuvered, out armed, and running short on time. Tythel couldn’t even use her greatest weapon here, not without…

A horrible, dangerous, and beautiful plan occurred to Tythel. She took a deep breath between the umbrist’s strike and let loose a stream of flame. The umbrist ducked into the shadow of a tree and vanished, reappearing on the other side of Tythel, but Tythel wasn’t aiming for her. Tythel spun around, maintaining the flame as she did.

The flame nearly caught the Umbrist mid-leap. She twisted her body in the air, the flames just barely missing her, and the daggers that had been aimed for Tythel’s back went wide. She landed with a curse and rolled to the side, and Tythel chased her with the flame. “You’re going to burn us all!” she shouted at Tythel.

No. I won’t, Tythel thought grimly as she maintained the stream of fire and pivoted in a full circle.

Around her, the forest burst into flame.

Small Worlds part 219

 

Ryan gestured, grabbing equations that governed gravity around the cat thing, and set himself as ‘down.’ The creature began to scrabble along the ground as it slid towards Ryan, but the street as far, as it was concerned, was a perfectly horizontal wall. It flew off the ground when it got close. Ryan grabbed it by the throat and let gravity return to normal. The creature yowled and shifted back into a human. “I didn’t know you were him!” the man screamed in Ryan’s grip. “I didn’t know!”

Ryan looked at the man critically. He was in his late teens, maybe a young looking early twenty.  Aside from the blood on his face and shirt, he looked like a perfectly normal human. “What’s your name?” Ryan asked, the withheld fury making his voice sound dangerously calm.

“Billy. My name’s Billy.”

Ryan took in the new information with a level glare. “Hi Billy. You seem to know who I am.”

Billy nodded frantically, so hard that it almost slipped him out of Ryan’s grip. Ryan could feel the immense strength this man possessed. Against a human, it wouldn’t even be a fair fight. Billy would tear them apart with almost no exertion. Ryan didn’t want to try to arm-wrestle Billy, but it seemed Billy was too cowed right now to even realize that he could pose a threat to a god. “You’re the Eschaton.”

“That’s a pretty big word there, Billy. You know what it means?”

Billy nodded again. “It means…she said you’re going to end the world.”

“She?” Ryan asked quizzically, sure he knew the answer. “Who is ‘she?’”

Billy swallowed hard, and Ryan could feel the motion travel down Billy’s throat. “She’ll…she’ll kill me.”

“Oh, will she?” Ryan lifted Billy off the ground and with a single, fluid motion, slammed him into the asphalt hard enough to crack the black stone. Billy grunted with pain and brought his hands up to clutch at Ryan’s arm. “She’s not here right now, Billy. I am. You tell me, you might have time to run.”

Billy’s eyes widened as Dianmu and Nabu stepped into view. “I…it was Cassandra, okay? Cassandra?”

Huh. Ryan thought with the part of his brain that was still running logic under the outrage. “Cassandra?” He glanced sideways at Dianmu. “Any chance it’s the Cassandra?”

Dianmu shook her head. “She was mortal.”

Ryan glanced back at Billy. “Who the hell is Cassandra?”

“The first of us,” Billy whispered. “She was the first of us.”

“And what are ‘you,’ Billy?” Ryan asked. He was kneeling down, and lowered his face even closer so Billy could clearly see the rage that burned inside Ryan’s chest right now.

“Cardiophage,” Billy whimpered. “She said we were…Cardiophages.”

“Heart-eater,” Nabu supplied helpfully. “From the Greek Kardia, meaning ‘heart,’ and phagein meaning-”

“To devour,” Ryan finished for him, focusing on Billy. “So you eat hearts.”

“Y-yes,” Billy stammered. “Oh God please don’t kill me!”

“I’m not sure yet,” Ryan said. “Tell me, Billy, why the hell shouldn’t I kill something that eats hearts!?” The last two words came out in a scream, and flecks of spittle flew out of Ryan’s mouth and onto Billy’s face.

“Easy, Enki,” Dianmu said quietly.

The last word was like a bucket of cold water on Ryan’s head. He’d used the exact same trick Enki had used to pull Billy into range, and then was holding him up to his face and screaming in it like a monster. For the first time Ryan took a good look at Billy. This guy was a kid, and the blood on his face was mixing with tears and snot. Ryan felt sick at himself.

“Because…because,” Billy said, hiccupping with fear. “Because I didn’t want this, man! I just wanted to ask a girl out and then I’m…I’m being fed my own heart and…” Billy sniffed loud and deep. “I didn’t want this!”

Ryan leaned back and took his hand off Billy’s neck, replacing the grip with a twist to gravity just strong enough to keep the young man – the cardiophage – pinned to the ground. He rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Damnit. Thank you Dianmu.”

Dianmu gave him a small smile. “Crystal told me all about your encounters with him, in great detail.” Her smile faded. “It’s your first time dealing with this kind of horror, isn’t it?”

Ryan nodded, suddenly feeling hollow and empty. “I miss the days when the monsters were mummies or goblin-vampire-werewolf things. Hell, for that matter, I miss the days when there were no monsters.”

“Anthropophagi,” Nabu said thoughtfully.

“Man-eater?” Ryan said, looking at Nabu. “Are you okay, Nabu? Billy here said Cardiophage.”

“If a god turns into an anthropophagi, it’s always a unique kind,” Dianmu said, picking up where Nabu had left off. Ryan appreciated it – it saved Nabu the trouble of re-explaining what an anthropophagi was. “And they are always able to create spawn like themselves. It’s part of why the vampire myth is so universal.”

Ryan felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach and turned back to Billy. “Who does Cassandra serve?” he asked.

Billy looked at Ryan with wild eyes and mouthed a word. It was too low a whisper for Ryan to make out. Ryan knelt back down and leaned his ear near Billy’s voice.

“Look behind you,” Billy said, then snapped his rapidly shifted jaws down on Ryan’s ear. Ryan roared with pain and pulled away, clenching one hand to the side of his head. Blood poured between his fingers, and Billy was laughing, the previous fear vanished in an instant. Ryan whirled and snapped his fingers. Billy’s laughter ended in a sudden wet, sticky sound as the gravity on his chest increased to the power of ten.

“You shouldn’t have hurt my child,” Bast said. She was standing on a rooftop, flanked by dozens of the cat-things that Ryan had seen earlier. “Although I would have killed him for harming you, Eschaton.” Bast gave him a cruel smile. “We should talk.”

Ryan cauterized the bleeding stump where his ear had been as Bast leapt off the roof in a graceful bound.

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 115

The Writ Hunters didn’t approach like soldiers. They didn’t start with a single barrage of unlight fire designed to cut them down. Instead, uncoordinated beams lancing through the air and cutting swaths of darkness across the woods. Tythel dropped behind her shield and let the beams ricochet off it. Eupheme ducked into the shadow of one of the trees and vanished. And Tellias just stood there, letting the arcplate absorb the beams, an implacable force against the attack.

Just as Tythel was thinking this was going to be too easy, two of them broke out of cover, weapons raised and charging, a howling fury darkened by unlight weapons. They were the two with the ringwands, and when they fired, expanding circles of unlight sliced through branches and shrubs in their path.

Tythel could feel the impact all the way up her arm as one impacted her shield, grunting against the sudden force. She dug her talons into the forest floor before she went skidding away. Tellias took a ring to his chest and was sent tumbling backward. Tythel could hear him cursing in the armor as the dry leaves crunched under his bulk.

I can’t use flame in here, Tythel realized. She gritted her teeth and charged towards one of the shooters. The man fired a couple more rings, each one striking her shield and slowing her for a moment, but her advance was inexorable. He cursed and drew an unlight blade, just in time to block her hammer strike.

The shockwave of the hammers detonation against the shield drove the man to one knee and sent branches snapping nearby. The man’s eyes widened, and he slashed at her with the sword, a frantic, desperate motion. Tythel caught it with the edge of her shield, inches away from her stomach.

He was so focused on her, the writ hunter didn’t see Eupheme step out of his shadow. He didn’t know she was there until her dagger drew a thin line across his throat.

Eupheme was gone before the Writ-Hunter hit the ground.

The three who were still firing from range had been focusing their fire on Tellias, but when their compatriot collapsed, Tythel could hear angry curses. It gave her enough time to bring her shield back up before they could perforate her.

She dropped to one knee, making sure the shield completely covered her body and braced herself as the impacts struck her shield over and over again. The unlight crystal in the back of her shield was drawing in a higher amount of light as it strained to compensate for the repeated impacts.

She was pinned.

Tellias had engaged the ringwand wielder. He didn’t throw his weapon aside as the first one had, instead dropping to one knee under Tellias’ wide strike, shooting an upward blast into Tellias’s chest. That close, the ringwand had enough force to lift him armor up into the air from the impact.  He landed on his back, and the attacker stepped over him, ready to shoot him in the chest again.

Then Eupheme stepped out of the shadows and ran the shooter through with a dagger into his back.

The shooters in the brushes were beginning to panic, firing wildly at any movement they could see. “Run!” Tythel shouted. “Run and live!”

All she managed to do was focus their fire back on her. That…suited her purposes perfectly. With the pressure off them, Eupheme and Tellias were able to dispatch the remaining three with relative ease.

The forest was oddly silent in the wake of the short battle. No animal stirred in the wake.

“That was too easy,” Eupheme said, stepping out of a tree behind Tythel.

“Agreed,” Tellias said, walking back their way with the unlight weapons slung over his shoulder. “They might have been arrogant, but that arrogant? I find it hard to countenance.”

“Because they were betrayed,” Tythel said, blinking in thought.

The other two looked at her. Before she could elaborate, Eupheme reached up and smacked her forehead with the palm of her head. “Right, of course. There were five of them.”

“And the sixth never showed,” Tythel said, “which means they were probably counting on him to assist in taking us down – they were arrogant because they had a trump card they thought ensured victory.”

“Someone who could enable them to watch us from afar,” Tellias said, arriving at the same conclusion as Tythel. “You think they had a Lumcaster.”

Tythel nodded. “A powerful one, someone able to bend light to watch us.”

Eupheme vanished into a shadow of the tree without warning. Tythel looked at Tellias, and then stepped behind him, pressing her back to his, her shield raised. I should have thought there might be an attack coming, Tythel thought, cursing herself for the oversight.

Eupheme reappeared a moment later. “He’s gone,” she said. “At least, he’s not with their camp.”

“A single Lumcaster couldn’t fight the three of us alone,” Tellias said as the tension began to drain out of his posture. Tythel was amazed she could feel it through the armor, but he’d been wound tighter than a clock spring. “We’re safe.”

“So…why didn’t he strike?” Tythel asked, stepping away from Tellias so she could see both him and Eupheme. “If he had come with the others…” Tythel didn’t need to finish the thought. A lumcaster could have hampered her, banished the shadows Eupheme relied upon, even restrained Tellias’ armor. It would have completely changed the slaughter they’d just perpetrated against their attackers.

“Do you hear him, Tythel?” Eupheme asked.

Tythel held up a finger to pause the conversation and listen. She could hear in the distance animals that hadn’t been frightened by the fight. She could hear the rustle of leaves on the winds. She could hear heartbeats, but none that sounded human. And she could hear a buzzing on the air, like the wings of a great wasp.

Oh no, Tythel thought, her eyes widening. “They’re here!” Tythel shouted, scrambling for the cover of one of the trees. “The flying Alohym is here!”

Eupheme and Tellias leaped for cover as a great beam of unlight lanced out of the sky and carved a furrow in the earth directly towards where Tythel hid.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 112

“There’s six of them in the main room,” Eupheme said, stepping out of the shadow behind the dresser for what Tythel hoped would be the last time. “And three on both exits. Armed with unlight weapons.”

Tythel swore, although she managed to avoid jumping this time. It helped to expect Eupheme’s return. It helped even more to be busy helping Tellias strap himself into the arcplate. Armin had outdone himself with the device, and even Tythel could follow the relatively simple labelling to install the new power source – one that was designed for skitters, no less. Whenever I see him next, I must tell him he made it as foolproof as possible. 

Of course, finding him was contingent on surviving the next five minutes.

“Unlight weapons – see any arcwands?” Tythel asked.

Eupheme nodded. “At least three different people with arcwands, and two with ringwands.”

Tythel grimaced. If they all had melee weapons, it would have been possible to charge through, or utilize their own newly acquired arcwands to keep them at bay. None of them could stand direct unlight beams, although Tellias’ arcplate would be able to absorb a few blasts. She strapped on Tellias’ greaves, making sure the sturdy hide was well secured.

“We can’t sneak out then,” Tellias said, his voice muffled by the helmet as Tythel placed it on his head. It normally took three people working for ten minutes to get arcplate in place. Tythel and Tellias had managed it in just under five. He was now the tallest of the three of them, nearly seven spans tall, and the red and orange lines of arcplate cut a striking figure. The arcplate, due to the somewhat roughshod nature of Armin’s modifications, was bulkier than the sleek black and unlight design of the Alohym’s imperiplate, with glowing canisters sticking out of the shoulder plates and down the spine. In some ways, it was more imposing than imperiplate – it made Tellias look like one of the holy warriors of old.

“Main room isn’t an option either,” Tythel said, grabbing her own hammer and shield. She regretted not finding the time for Armin to retrofit them to work with arclight, but she’d hated the idea of leaving them aside for too long. They’d been added to her meager list of possessions. Plus, they belonged to Thomah, and therefore represented her only remaining link to Nicandros. Do not think about him right now, Tythel chided herself. “If we go through the main room, this Inn will be destroyed the moment I use my flame. That would be a poor way to repay the innkeeper for his hospitality.”

“What about ghostflame?” Eupheme asked. “It can pass through barriers without harming them, right? The Innkeeper’s room is above us, the Writ Hunters are below. No other patrons downstairs either.”

Tythel considered for an instant. It was very tempting. Just let Eupheme point where she should breath and let loose the wispy blue flame to empty the common room without exposing any of them to danger. It was a nice thought, and if she had mastered ghostflame properly, she’d be able to do it in a heartbeat. Regretfully, she shook her head. “I still have to start with dragonflame and transition through. By the time I got to ghostflame, I’ll have set the building on fire.”

“Flath,” Eupheme said. “Can you at least still hear them?” She walked over to the window and glanced out, as if half expecting to see snipers waiting for them across the window. Tythel didn’t think that was likely, but her hand still twitched with a desire to tackle Eupheme to the ground just in case.

Instead, she took a deep breath and focused on what she was hearing. After a moment, she nodded. “They’re arguing right now about how to handle who gets the spoils of the kill. Someone, a woman, is suggesting that they stop fighting over it now and make it a race – whoever gets proof to the Alohym first gets the prize. There’s some contention over it. We still have a bit of time.”

“Maybe we’ll get lucky,” Tellias said, although he didn’t sound like he believed his own words, “and they’ll turn on each other before even coming up here.”

Tythel snorted at the thought. Writ hunters were a fiercely competitive lot, if half the stories she’d read were true, but they’d rarely fight each other. There wasn’t any profit in it. “Do we ever get that lucky?” she asked.

She could hear Tellias shaking his head inside the helm, although it didn’t move with the motion. Tythel pulled over a chair to see why it wasn’t and found a loose connector strap near the shoulder. If we had missed that…Tythel pushed the thought aside as she secured the strap, then began to check over Tellias another time.

“We could go through the window,” Tellias said. “It’ll mean less damage to the Inn than a fight in here would, and all of us can survive the drop. At least, assuming the arcplate’s charge hold.”

“It’s a brand new arccell. If it doesn’t hold, I’m tracking down Eliert and skinning him, starting with his flathing ears,” Eupheme said in a low growl. “Window is a gamble, and one I’m not keen to take. If we get hurt in the landing, or draw too much attention, we’ll have the Alohym down on us.”

Tellias turned to glare at Eupheme, and Tythel was relieved the helm moved with the motion. “We’re running low on options!” Tellias said, his voice full of frustration. “If you have a better idea-”

At that moment, an idea crystalized in Tythel’s mind. She took a moment to turn it over, although with Eupheme already giving an angry retort, it was hard to focus. “Quiet, both of you! I think I do,” Tythel said before the argument could get really heated. She hadn’t intended for her voice to come out in that harsh a snap, but light their argument was grating on her nerves. “It’s a crazy plan, but it could work.”

“Well, spit it out then,” Eupheme said.

Tythel nodded. “First of all, Eupheme, you’re going to need to wear my eyepatch, and I’m going to need your dagger…

The Burning Epoch Part 2

Candice Chambers liked turning her phone off now and then. It was good to unplug, to get away from it all for a bit. And after a long day working on cars, it was nice to have some actual silence going on for a change.

Well, not real silence. The television was going right now, turned to the news, a minor bit of background noise to go along with her workout. That would be her roommate roommates doing, Diane Crowe. Despite her insistence to always have the television going in some form or another, Diane was the perfect roommate, in Candice’s humble opinion. She worked the night shift as a security guard at a mall, meaning their schedules only really overlapped for about two or three hours a day. Diane also had about as much interest in dating as Candice had in underwater basket weaving, so there were no strange guys being brought into their apartment.

And Diane was perfectly content to not bother Candice during her evening workout. Candice had finished her sit-up and moved onto push-ups. By the time she was done, Diane would have left for work, and she’d be able to control of the apartment until it was time to sleep. No muss, no fuss, no distractions – and she only had to pay half the rent.

It was exactly what Candice needed after work, especially today. Some asshole had brought in an eighty-nine Volvo. The head gasket had blown and leaked antifreeze into the oil lines. He’d driven it for a week afterwards. The engine was shot, and for an eighty-nine, the repairs were going to be four times the value of the vehicle.

He’d taken the news poorly. Yelling, screaming, cursing, and threatening to put them on social media, leave bad reviews. He’d talked about reporting them to the BBC – and Candice hadn’t earned any points by reminding him the BBC was the British news channel, and he probably meant the Better Business Bureau. That had really set him off, and he’d demanded to speak to the owner, or a man who knew cars.

Candice had taken immense satisfaction in letting him know that she knew cars as well as any of the guys working here – he’d seemed to have trouble believing a penis wasn’t a prerequisite for understanding the inner workings of a shit car. When he’d balked at that and demanded for her manage, right now, it had been even more fun to watch his face when she got the manager, who had then turned and asked her what the status of the car was.

The customer had flipped out then, and the manager – Billy Goodell – had politely informed mister eighty-eight Volvo that he was required to run anything involving threats of legal or social media action by the owner of CC mechanics. Who happened to be one Candice Chambers. The woman he had insulted repeatedly for the last ten minutes.

Fortunately, the man had taken that as a cue to storm out. Leaving his car behind. Without paying his bill. It would be wonderful to charge him an overnight fee for leaving it in their lot. Candice smiled in satisfaction at the thought.

It hadn’t been satisfying then. She’d left Billy in charge and walked the thirty feet it was from her shop to her apartment complex. Now she was doing pushups and-

The Television began to make a loud, droning beep. The emergency broadcast system.

“Hey, Candice?” Diane said. “You might want to-”

Candice was already finishing her push-up and getting to her feet. In this part of the country, as high up as Candice and Diane lived – the 7th floor – you didn’t skip emergency broadcasts. They could be tornados. She heard a sound of crunching metal outside and ignored it. She paid premium to park her car in the garage, she didn’t have to worry about some asshole hitting her baby while she wasn’t looking.

The news was showing footage of sinkholes. Candice couldn’t hear them – they were muted by the Emergency Broadcast System. “Attention,” said an authoritative electronic voice. “We interrupt your programming. This is a national emergency. Important instructions will follow. The following message is transmitted at the request of the United States Government. Numerous seismic events have been reported across the country. Reports include: over two-thousand sinkholes opening in residential or commercial areas. A 6.5 magnitude earthquake along the San Andreas Faultline. A 4.7 magnitude earthquake near Saint Louis, Missouri. A 7.8 magnitude earthquake near Anchorage, Alaska.”

“Oh my god,” Candice whispered, but Diane waved her to be quiet.

“All residents in the affected areas are advised to take the following actions. Seek refuge in a place that provides adequate structural support…”

Candice turned it out, turning to Diane. “We’re fine, we’re safe. We’re nowhere near any of that.” Minnesota may not normally qualify for the safest state in America – especially not in winters – but right now it was about far away from any of that. The Saint Louis quake was the nearest, although it certainly wasn’t a dangerous one for them right now.

Diane nodded. “I’m just…holy shit.” The news was backing up what the EAS announcer was saying, showing aerial footage over San Francisco. The highway had been split down the middle, and cars were falling into the crevice left behind. Tiny dots that Candice distantly realized were people were leaping out of vehicles, running away.

The broadcaster had moved on, another round of beeps signaling the end of the message. Except it wasn’t. “Volcanic eruptions near the following cities: Flagstaff, Arizona. Dotsero, Colorado. Reno, Nevada. Albuquerque, New Mexico. Brown Mountain, Oregon. Mount St. Helens, Washington. Mount Baker, Washington.”

Candice could feel her hands start to shake. It was starting to sound like the end of the world. Diane’s eyes were wide with fear, mirroring Candice’s own.

“A cause for these geological disturbances is unknown,” the voice continued. “The president will be speaking shortly on all stations. All stations will remain on air providing ongoing updates as the situation develops. Please stay tuned for further announcements.”

This time, the round of beeps did signal the end of the message. The news reporter’s voice took back over. “-only reporting sinkholes here so far. There have been unconfirmed reports of wild animals active around the sinkholes, and – one moment.” The screen shifted to show a sinkhole in a parking lot. “What you’re seeing now,” the reporter said, “is live footage of one of these sinkholes, being captured by a Minneapolis resident.”

The reporter went silent, letting the streamer speak. “As you can see…or rather, as you can’t see, this sinkhole is too deep to see the bottom.” Candice frowned at the voice. It was ringing a bell somewhere in the back of her mind. It was familiar, like it belonged to someone she’d talked to a few times, but she couldn’t quite place it. “It’s about seven pm here in Minnesota, but there’s a street lamp right next to the hole, so we should be getting some light, but…well, I’m turning on my phone’s light, and as you can see, it barely shows any deeper.”

Candice felt her jaw hit the floor. “Diane, is that…is that Kurt?”

Diane blinked for a moment and frowned. “I think…I mean, it sounds like Kurt.” Her frown deepened. “And…that does look like our parking lot.”

Both women shared a look, then got up and scrambled over to the balcony, fear of earthquakes and volcanoes momentarily forgotten in the desire to see what the hell was happening.

It was their parking lot. Kurt was out there, the little light on his camera phone unable to illuminate any deeper into the pit that had opened in the parking lot. Candice turned to Diane, ready to ask her if her car had been nearby but was cut off by the sound that came through both the television and out of the pit.

It was a terrible sound, an animalistic growl blown up to immense proportions. People from other apartments were running out onto their balconies. Four different buildings – 213, 214, 215, and the building she shared with Kurt and Diane and about a hundred others, 216 – overlooked this parking lot, and all of them were filling up with people staring down, trying to find the source of the sound. In the background, Candice could hear Kurt’s voice coming out of her television.

“If you’re…if you’re just joining us, a sinkhole opened up in the parking lot of my apartment complex. It swallowed my car. There’s a sound coming from the sinkhole and…oh my Jesus what is that!?”

Diane screamed next to Candice, drowning out the voice, joining a chorus of other screams as an immense, reptilian arm shot of the hole, dragging an enormous bulk behind it. A creature of proportions Candice had never imagined, larger than an elephant. It was like a dinosaur, and it was advancing on Kurt. “Run!” Candice screamed, although her word was drowned out by the monstrous roar and the screams coming from the apartments around them.

The some brave, beautiful, stupid motherfucker in 215 opened fire, the echoing pops of his handgun cutting over every other sound. Diane couldn’t take it anymore and ran back inside, but Candice held onto the railing and watched. She saw the creatures blood began to well up, a neon red that carried its own light. The creature whirled away from Kurt and began to stalk towards the shooter.

Then the tongue lanced out and dragged that brave, beautiful, stupid motherfucker into the creature’s waiting jaw. It roared triumph for its capture. Candice could barely breathe. Kurt was still standing out there, his phone held up.

“Run!” She screamed again. He didn’t seem to hear her. He bent down, picking something up – and then another claw emerged from the abyssal pit. That set Kur fleeing, running back into the apartment complex and slamming the door behind him. This new creature was even larger than the first, and its bellow was deeper, more resonant.

The first one turned to the new arrival and ducked its head submissively. The new arrival let out a chuff of air, then began to stalk towards 213.

Inside, Candice could make out the sound of the television again, cranked up to its maximum volume by a shuddering Diane. “We uh…there seems to be confirmation now of the reports of animal activity near the sinkholes,” the reporter said, his voice shaking. “The uh…I’m sorry. I seem to be at a loss for words. For those of you just joining us, the image on your screen is of a creature that has emerged from one of the sinkholes. We are just now getting reports of more creatures emerging. This is happening across the country – I’m sorry, I’ve just been informed these phenomena is happening globally.”

The creature that was approaching 213 sniffed the building as people inside screamed. Candice could hear their cries over all other sounds. It sounded, perversely, like the screams of a roller coaster going over a hill, a unified mass of shrieking humanity. Everyone had abandoned their balcony, at least on the lower floors.

“These creatures – these Kaiju, I’m being informed is the term being used – seemed to range in size from fifteen to fifty feet tall. They also don’t all look like the one we have footage of. We’re getting additional pictures, appearing on your screen now.”

Candice couldn’t resist looking back. Four images were being shown. The creature in her parking lot, currently sniffing at 213, was in the top right corner. In the top left was a brightly light photo of a creature surrounded by billboards with Korean littering. It was built like a hairless ape covered in turtle shells that were arranged along its arms and chest like medieval armor. Another, in the bottom right, was flying over the Eiffel tower. looked like an eyeless, bipedal wolf with bat ears and long, membranous wings under its forearms. The one in the bottom left was…there was no way around it. It was a dragon, it was just a straight up goddamn dragon perched atop the Sears tower.

Outside, the screams intensified. The kaiju was clawing at the building, tearing chunks of stone away. Someone inside tried to take the opportunity to run out the front door, but the first kaiju ran after him. In four steps, it was close enough for its tongue to cover the distance.

Candice couldn’t stop herself from screaming as the man was drawn back into the monster’s mouth. It didn’t bite down though. Instead, it walked over to the larger kaiju, the screaming man still dangling from the starfished tip of its tongue.

The larger kaiju bent down and, almost delicately, took the man into its mouth.

Then the man’s screams stopped.

Candice threw up over the side of her balcony, unable to contain it anymore. She sunk down into the chair behind her when she heard. “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.”

The Dragon’s Scion Part 110

As promised, the Tarnished One was waiting for them with a ‘needle,’ if the definition of needle was changed to include an outright stiletto so large it lacked only a handle to function as a rapier. “You came,” she said, sighing in disappointment. “I guess that means you can choose where I stab you.”

“I would prefer if you didn’t,” Haradeth said carefully.

“And I would prefer if I did,” the Tarnished One said with a broad grin, the metal slivers around her glass eyes dilating to make her look more innocent. When Haradeth met her gaze with a level one of his own, she sighed. “You’re absolutely no fun. Fine. I need your blood.” Seeing the expression that crossed Haradeth’s face, she rolled her eyes. “I need a tiny amount of your blood. This needle is sterile and will store it safely.”

“You don’t want to stab Lorathor too?” Haradeth asked, stalling.

Lorathor shot Haradeth a dirty look as the Tarnished One giggled. “Of course I want to stab him, silly. I just don’t need to stab him. I need to stab you. Like a pincushion.” Her eyes widened. “Yes. That is what you shall be. God of Pincushions. Because I’ll stab you, you see?”

“I did pick up on that,” Haradeth said, his voice so dry it was practically dessicated.

“Well, I don’t know what your meat brain picks up on. No one ever lets me open their meat brains while they’re alive so I can see how they work on. I just have to assume you all are dense and need everything spelled out for you.”

“We can’t all be that dense.” Haradeth crossed his arms. As much as he hated to admit it, part of him was enjoying the banter with this clockwork psychopath. She had the empathy of a starved vulture and a sense of humor Haradeth expected from a rabid hyena, but compared to Lorathor’s endless doldrums, it was a massive improvement.

“If you’re not all dense, then why does everyone react the same when I stab them? They’re always ‘what are you doing to me?’ and ‘why are you doing this?’ and ‘won’t you stop?” and ‘Oh Light, am I going to die?’ when the answers are clear. In order – stabbing you, because I want to, only when it stops being funny, and maybe – I can never be sure what kills meat.”

Haradeth grimaced. “Well, at the risk of being dense, I would like to know why you want to stab me.”

“Because it’s fun?” The Tained One offered, cocking her head in confusion. “You are dense, i just told you that’s why I do it.”

“Sorry, I phrased that poorly. Why do you need to stab me?”

“Oh! That’s actually not a dense question.” the Tarnished One paused and tapped her chin, a gentle clinking sound signaling her thought. “Maybe. How much do you know about phase-matter transference equations?”

“I don’t even know what those words mean,” Haradeth said, after mouthing the words a few times to try and and work them out. He knew the word equations, but it was already an ugly word, and combined with the others it was like finding a mushroom growing on unidentified meat – even if you didn’t know what you were being fed, you could be certain it was something unwholesome.

“Then it’s not a dense question,” the Tarnished One said. “You’re just poorly educated. I need your blood because the phase-matter…” she saw Haradeth’s eyes glaze over and sighed. “The booger I’m working on needs to be configured for your biology. It’s designed for Sylvani and Lattice Minds. You aren’t either, and you’d end up a red paste at the end. Which would be fun, but not for you.”

Haradeth shuddered. “And what does the…phase-matter…”

“The booger,” the Tarnished One said helpfully.

“Fine. What does the booger do?”

“Well, it’s a highly complex configuration that utilizes a network of three lattice minds to tap into your planet’s natural luminferous…” Again, she trailed off as Haradeth felt his attention waiver. “Okay, I’ll put this in terms your meat can understand.” She grabbed a piece of sheet metal. “So lets say this is the world. You are on this end of the sheet. You want to get the other end. You have to walk across it, right?”

“Right,” Haradeth said.

“Okay. What if instead you did this?” With no discernable effort, the Tarnished One folded the nail-thick sheet of steel in half. “You can now go to one point to another in a single step, yes?”

Haradeth nodded, trying to fathom the strength this tiny mechanism possessed.

“Well, the booger folds space like that. It lets you take that step. Only it doesn’t damage the world – things pop back right into place. I think I could find a way to damage the world with it, but I wouldn’t do that until I could find a way out. Otherwise I’d end up damaging myself, and we can’t have that.”

“And you need my blood because?”

“Because if the booger isn’t configured right…well, pretend this sheet metal isn’t the world anymore. Pretend it’s you.” She crumbled the metal into a ball, compacting it into a sphere no bigger than a marble. “See, the booger would try to fit you into a Sylvani shape. But you’re not a Sylvani. So it would use a default configuration – which in this case is a sphere.” She dropped the ball on the ground with a deafening thud. “Only you wouldn’t stay a sphere. You’d be paste. ”

That answered every question Haradeth dared ask at that moment. He was too busy picturing himself crumbled up into a sphere. Shaking, he held out a finger.

The Tarnished One giggled as she stabbed the offered digit.

The Dragon’s Scion part 107

It only took Armin two hours to decide that, of all the hellish places he’d visited working for the Resistance, the swamps that had once been Dor’nah were the absolute worst, and the reasons for that were so numerous that Armin was able to pass the time by listing them to himself. It was an exercise he kept private – venting to his cohorts would do nothing for morale, and for some reason that idiot Duke had put Armin in charge of this thing. I shouldn’t be leading anyone anywhere, Armin thought, and with that thought came fear, and with that fear came distraction.

Stop it, he chided himself. You’re being childish. 

So instead, he took the very mature and adult route of mentally categorizing everything he hated about this swamp.

The first was the smell that had assailed them when they’d still been outside the swamp. Now that they were actively passing through it, their skimmer kicking up brackish water, it was almost overwhelming. A combination of cow dung and spoiled meat mixed with the sulfurous stench of rotten eggs. Claricia and Guiart had each thrown up once from the stench, and Ossman looked ready to join them. Armin was keeping his stomach from emptying through sheer force of will alone. Only  Aildreda seem untouched by the smell, although that was because she was being plagued by the next item on Armin’s lists of gripes.

The bugs. The light damned, shadow forsaken insects that swarmed around them. Every step of the Skitter stirred up more of them, and they seemed to find Aildreda and Armin particularly delicious. Armin was taking advantage of his attachment to the Lumwell right now to keep a number of them repelled, warming his skin to be less appealing to the little pests, but Aildreda had no such defense. She slapped her arm again as Armin watched.

“If you want, I could try to shield you,” Armin said.

Aildreda shook her head. “It’s a pointless waste of Light, but thank you. I’ve dealt with worse than these biters before.” She slapped her neck and grimaced. “Although not so many of them.”

Armin nodded and let the silence return. It was needed right now. None of them really knew what they could be dealing with.

That was the worst on the list of complaints. The tension, the all encompassing knowledge that they had left behind the world they knew, the world of grass and field and trees and woods and lakes and beaches and seas. They’d entered an utterly alien domain, one that was ruled over by horrors beyond their reckoning, and they were grotesquely unprepared for it. Claricia was the only one of them who could lumcast, at least properly. Armin could deflect flows of light when they were right on top of a lumwell, but that wouldn’t do any good out here. Outside of her, they were all just good with arc weapons.

“Movement to the right,” Aildreda whispered.

All eyes, save Claricia, went to that direction, and Ossman raised his arcwand as he sought out the source of the motion. “There,” he whispered.

Armin followed the arcwands point to see what Ossman had seemed. It was just a shape in the mist and vaguely humanoid, although far too large and far too hunched to meet the description fully. It looked like there were vines or lichens hanging from it, and its clawed hands were bringing something unidentifiable up to its lips. It tore and chew, a grotesque sound that cut through the sound of insects and the Skitter’s gentle sloshing through the water.

“Hold fire,” Armin said, watching the shape. It seemed intent on its meal, and had given no indication so far it was even aware of their presence. How could it not be? It should be able to hear the Skitter at least. 

Ossman kept the arcwand trained on the creature but obeyed Armins order. For a few tense seconds, Armin thought that would be the end of it. The creature would continue to eat, and they would pass by unmolested.

Then the creatures head whipped towards them, and they could see its eyes glow in reflected light, wide and bright as will-o-whips.

Ossman didn’t hesitate. He pulled the trigger immediately. A beam of light lanced from the arcwand towards the creature. It bellowed in sudden surprised pain, and scampered away.

Armin let out a sigh and a relieved laugh. “It wasn’t something undead,” he said, taking deep breaths to calm himself.

“How can you be sure?” Aildreda asked, every muscle in her neck standing out from tension.

“Because the undead don’t feel pain,” Clarcia said. The entire time, she’d kept he vigil on the left side of the bank. “Not from light or flame or broken bone. Pain is something reserved for the living.”

Armin nodded in agreement. “We just need to-”

“Turn left,” Claricia said, interrupting him. She pointed out into the fog. “We’re here.”

At first Armin couldn’t see it, nodded for Guiart to turn the Skitter. As they grew closer, a shape began to form in the fog, one that resolved itself into clarity with each step. It was a stone structure, a tower that was probably once immensely tall but had sunken deep into the mud of the swamp. It loomed out of the fog, its open windows watching them like the eye sockets of an accusatory skull.

Atop the tower was the skeleton of a dragon, an immense shape covered in moss and dangling with vines. It was draped across the tower, somehow held together against the eons, but even from here Armin could tell that, in life, those teeth were each as long as his hand.

Grejhak Armin thought. The great dragon died atop his tower, alone and forgotten.

“Take us in,” Armin said, fighting a wave of fear. “We’ll find what we’re looking for over there.”

From his tower, the skull of Grejhak watched them mockingly.

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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