The Dragon’s Scion Part 86

The sky above the canyon was growing red and orange with dusk when Tythel heard it. A long, warbling wail cut through the air and echoed along the canyon’s walls. All other animal sounds fell silent in the wake of the noise, and Tythel came to an abrupt halt, diving under a tree. “What-” Eupheme started to say, but Tythel shushed her with a furious hiss.

It was even darker under the tree, to the point where it felt like night beneath its branches. Small insects flew nearby, flashing with momentary bursts of green light to signal for mates. Hands trembling with fear, Tythel lowered Eupheme to the air as gently as she could manage. The entire time she strained her ears, hoping she wouldn’t hear it, that the source of the sound was moving further down the canyon. Maybe even pursuing the Skimmers. Anything but…

And then she heard it, in the distance but growing closer. The gentle rustle of flapping wings. “Aeromane,” Tythel whispered to Eupheme. “If it sees us…”

Eupheme’s eyes widened and she nodded to show she understood. Aeromanes were rare. They tended to prefer the same types of lairs and territories as dragons, but were out competed by the superior intelligence dragons possessed. Or at least, they had been, Tythel thought with grim realization. If it was true, if Karjon had been the last full dragon, there were no more checks on their territory. “Stay to shadows. Flit between them. If it can’t pick up your scent, it won’t hunt you,” Tythel whispered.

Aeromanes weren’t like dragons in another way. They were voracious eaters, and would hunt any game large enough to feed them in their territory. In these canyons, there was unlikely to be easier prey than a human, let alone one with a broken wrist. I have to get her away from it.

“Flath that,” Eupheme whispered back. “If I do that, what are you going to do?”

“Dragonflame. It should scare it off.” Tythel said, hoping Eupheme wouldn’t realize that she wasn’t sure she could manage dragon flame at all right now. And even if it did, the aeromane that was in Karjon’s territory was hardly scared off by dragonflame. Tythel could still see it, that hungry, frightened, furious creature clawing at her as she scooted further back into the lair, it’s claws mere inches from…

“Then it’ll be safest near you,” Eupheme said firmly.

“I need to get to Tellias,” Tythel said. “It’ll be easier to remain hidden if I’m alone.”

“You think I’ll reveal you?” Tythel had never imagined someone could whisper scornfully, but Eupheme proved it was completely possible.

“Eupheme,” Tythel started to object, but the other woman cut her off with a firm shake of her head.

“There’s no pile of boulders to shove me behind this time, your highness.” Eupheme glowered. “I’m staying with you.”

Tythel opened her mouth to object, but shame took the words from her lips. “I thought princesses had some ability to give orders,” Tythel muttered, knowing how sullen she sounded.

“You can absolutely give orders. And I can choose to ignore them. Any idea where Tellias is?”

Tythel paused to listen. The were no sounds coming to her besides the gentle rushing of the river and the wind through the trees. All animals, the ones supposedly less intelligent than humans and dragons at least, had fallen silent at the sound of the aeromane’s cry. She was about to shake her head when she heard it. Faint, coming much futher down the canyon, a voice, echoing in a metallic shell. “Anyone? I can’t exactly move without power. Is anyone there?”

“Oh light and shadow,” Tythel whispered, turning to Eupheme. “He ran out of power. He’s trapped in his armor.”

“He’ll be safe from the aeromane, right?” Eupheme whispered hopefully.

“I’ve seen an aeromane claw through a boulder,” Tythel responded. “I don’t think that-”

Tythel had pushed her throat too hard. Before she even realized how scratchy her voice was growing, Tythel erupted into a series of coughs. In the silence of the canyon, they echoed repeatedly, sharp rapports that cut through the air. Eupheme looked at Tythel with horrified eyes.

Both of them there sat there in silence, Tythel silently begging Light, Shadow, and all the small gods to keep the aeromane from noticing them. After what felt like hours but was likely only a couple minutes, Tythel let out a sigh of relief.

As if it had been waiting for that, the aeromane roared, and the rushing of its wings resumed, growing closer with every flap.

“On my back,” Tythel growled, all pretense of steath vanishing. “Hurry.”

Eupheme didn’t object, clamoring on Tythel’s back as carefully as she could. Eupheme wrapped her injured arm around Tythel’s neck to hold herself in place, using the crook of her elbow to keep weight off her broken wrist. As Tythel started to run, Eupheme used her good hand to pull out her arcwand. “Can you actually manage dragonflame right now?” Eupheme asked as they started to run.

Tythel let the silence answer Eupheme’s question. It got the message across well enough, and Eupheme swore.

Moments later, the aeromane flapped into view.

The one Tythel had seen as a child was half starved and distorted by the nightmares of youth. This one was well fed, and Tythel was able to get a better look at it.

The aeromane was, technically, a relative of the great cats that roamed the jungles of Aelthor to the south, in the same way a dragon was, technically, a relative of the small drakes that hunted birds in the trees, or mankind was related to the curious monkeys that would steal berries from bazaars. Almost as large as a true dragon, the aeromane had four bat-like wings propelling it through the air, replacing all four of its legs. It could still walk awkwardly on them, but in the air it was a thing of grace and beauty. It was slower than a dragon, although far more manuverable, and as it was proving right now, it was more than fast enough to catch up to a half-dragon running with an Umbrist on her back.

Eupheme fired a few wild shots at the aeromane, but it was able to maneuver around the beams with the same ease Tythel had once seen it evade dragonflame. It let out another one of those caterwauling roars and began to steer itself towards them with lazy flaps of those immense wings.

Tythel rounded a corner just in time to see Tellias laying there, face down in his powerless arcplate. Too far away to reach, and too badly trapped to be helped even if they could reach him. The aeromane was too close, and too hungry.

With a final roar, it dove from them.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 85

Tythel found Eupheme tangled in a bush nearly a mile back. She still had no idea how far they’d flown with the Skimmers. The twisting path of the canyon had long ago hidden the plateau from view. Eupheme grimaced at Tythel a she approached. “You’re alright?”

Tythel nodded. “You?” she said. The walk back to Eupheme, with repeated stops to drink, had given her throat some time to heal. Talking still hurt, but she could get through more than a single word without falling prey to a violent coughing fit.

Eupheme shook her head. “Think I broke my wrist. The Skimmers?”

“Gone,” Tythel assured her, walking the rest of the way over. Eupheme’s wrist was already swollen to twice its normal size. Tythel didn’t know medicine but was sure that was a bad sign. “I can start tearing?” she asked, motioning to the branches.

“Don’t bother,” Eupheme said. She was white with pain. “Just get the blanket out of my pack?”

Tythel looked around. The pack was caught in a tree branch a little way back, just too high for her to reach without climbing. One of the fluttering birds was pecking at it curiously. It flapped away with a startled squawk as Tythel drew near. Tythel looked at the pack more closely. Her hammer was attached to it, dangling from a thin strap.

She kicked the tree as hard as she could. The branches shook, and the hammer fell free. Tythel picked it up off the ground, activated it, and swung for the tree as hard as she could. The combined force of her swing and the force that activated when she struck cracked the truck in half, and with a groan the tree collapsed to a chorus of splintering branches.

From there, it was easy to pick the pack off the branches.

“Did you really need to break the tree?” Eupheme asked, a strained smile breaking through the pain. That’s a smile I’m getting all too good at recognizing, Tythel thought as her nictitating membranes slid closed in a moment of sadness. Spending as much time as she had around soldiers, the sickly grins of the injured trying to put on a brave face were seared into her mind.

“No,” Tythel admitted. “When all you have is a hammer…” She didn’t finish the idiom. It was enough to get a laugh out of Eupheme as Tythel rummaged through pack for the blanket. “What now?” Tythel asked, holding it up for Eupheme to see.

“Throw it over me.”

Tythel blinked in confusion. “Cold?” she asked.

Eupheme shook her head. “Please,” she asked.

Tythel’s eyes widened as she grasped it and tossed the blanket over Eupheme. It collapsed onto an empty bush, and Eupheme stepped out from behind a nearby tree. “Oh yeah,” she hissed. “That’s…that’s broken. Flath that hurts. Do you know how to do a splint?”

Tythel shook her head. “Talk me through it?” she asked. The idea of helping set a bone was uncomfortable, but the idea of letting Eupheme’s pain get worse was intolerable.

Eupheme nodded and sat down with Tythel’s help. “We’re going to need some sticks. Ones about as thick as my finger, and as straight as you can find. Ones that will run the entire length of my arm.” Eupheme managed another one of those pained smiled. “The good news is, someone just created a whole mess of sticks for us.”

Tythel looked over to the tree she had just felled and flushed. “Right.”

As many options as she had, Tythel felt it should have been easy to find some that met their requirements. However, most of the sticks Tythel was finding were too thin, or too thick, or too bent and twisted. She tossed another pair aside in irritation. “These?” she asked, holding a couple up for Eupheme.

Eupheme regarded then critically. “The one on the left will work,” she finally said.

Having a template of what to look for speed things up a bit. By the end of it, Tythel had gathered one stick that was perfect for their needs, and three that would work when bundled together. From there, the rest was relatively simple. The blanket that provided a way for Eupheme to get out from the bush was shredded, strips wrapped around the sticks to prevent splinters and around Eupheme’s arm to keep the pressure from being too great. “It’s still going to hurt,” Eupheme explained, “but it will hurt less, and heal better in the long term. The whole goal is to immobilize everything.

The final step was the worst, tightening the cloth around both wrist and stick to hold them in place. Even with everything they had done to reduce pressure, there was no way for it to not send lances of pain through Eupheme’s wrist whenever Tythel tried to tighten it.

“I’m sorry,” Tythel whispered as she let go of the cloth when Eupheme cried out in pain.

Eupheme grunted and blinked away tears of pain. “It’s going to hurt me, your highness,” she said softly. “The only way it’ll get better is if you set it properly. Temporary pain now means health in the future.”

Tythel nodded, gritted her teeth, and handed Eupheme a leather strip to bite down on. This time, she forced herself to not let go when Eupheme grunted in pain around the strip, forced herself to keep going until it was securely in place.

When they were done, Eupheme let out a low groan and held up the splint. She couldn’t move her wrist now, even if she’d wanted to. “I’m just…I’m just going to lay here for a bit.” Her eyes were half lidded. Tythel couldn’t even imagine how bad the pain must have been to wear Eupheme out to this degree and wish she could let the woman rest. Right now, that wasn’t an option.

“No,” Tythel said, forcing herself to stand up. “Night’s coming. Predators.”

Eupheme glanced in the direction of the sun and blinked. The sun was almost below the edge of the canyon. They’d have some hours before night once that passed, but they’d be plunged into darkness soon. “Okay. And we need to find Tellias.” Eupheme grimaced. “Once true night hits, I can push myself to reinforce this bond. It’ll give me some mobility back. Until then, I’ll only slow you down.”

“Not leaving you behind.” Tythel said firmly. “You’ll get on my back again. Won’t slow me down at all.” That proved to be a bit too many words at once, and the last word came out in a harsh wheeze. Tythel found herself coughing again, turning away to cough into her hand. No blood came up this time, which she decided to take a good sign.

Eupheme grimaced but nodded in agreement.

It had been some time since Tythel had last heard the clang of arcplate approaching. Tellias wasn’t coming for them. Tythel had to hope they hadn’t taken too long caring for Eupheme.

Once Eupheme was secure on Tythel’s back, she took off as quick as she dared move back up the river.

 

Small Worlds part 188

Athena raised her hand, putting a barrier between herself and Arachne. Here in her nanoverse, it wasn’t a barrier of anything. It was just a barrier, a spot in the universe through which matter could not pass. A fundamental law. Inviolable for anyone who was not Athena.

Which is why she was completely unprepared when Arachne tore through it like it was paper.

Anansi danced out of Arachne’s path, swinging for her gut with the butt of his flint dagger. Without even pausing, Arachne’s hand snaked down to catch his wrist and fling him aside. When Anansi struck the wall, the stone turned soft to encase him, leaving only his face exposed.

What? Athena thought as she teleported herself out of reach of Arachne’s hands. “Arachne, stop!” she commanded. She erected another barrier, this time encasing Arachne in it like a cocoon. She didn’t just let it stand as before, pouring her will into it.

Arachne strained against the bonds. Athena could feel pain build up behind her eyes, a headache from the effort of restraining someone within her nanoverse.

“No!” Arachne shouted. “You won’t kill me!”

“I’m not here to kill you, I’m here to free you!” Athena shouted.

The pressure against the barrier stopped. The headache began to fade. Athena’s heart did not stop pounding. For as long as she had lived, she’d never imagined anything threatening her in her nanoverse. “What?” Arachne asked, blinking.

“I’m here to free you,” Athena repeated. “It’s…it’s been too long.”

Arachne took a deep breath. “Then release me.”

Athena did so, and at the same time removed the stone barrier from Anansi. Arachne stood there, taking things in. She looked at her hands, flexing the fingers she had not known for trillions of years. “I haven’t had an endocrine system since you locked me in here. Emotions are stronger than I remember.”

Athena relaxed. “I understand.”

Arachne shot her a withering glare. “No, no you do not. Lock yourself as a base animal, one that can barely even reason, for several lifespans of a universe, and then you can say that. Know what it’s like for a single thought to take millennia upon millennia to form, and then you can say that. Endure one tenth of what you have done to me, and then you can say you understand.”

“I…” Athena started to say, and she was grateful for Arachne’s interruption, because she had no idea what she could possibly say.

“I had to relearn how to think, Athena. I have no idea how many millennia, how many universes, I spent as mindless beast. Even once I did figure out how to think, that brain was so weak, so pitifully dominated by instinct, cognition was an effort that took longer than you can imagine. How long has it been, Athena? How long did you lock me in hell?”

“Five millennia,” Athena whispered.

“Five millenia for you. Nanoverses need to be reset every few hundred years or so, don’t they?” Arachne took a deep breath. “Ten universe lifetimes, at least. Hundreds of trillions of years. And now…what? You want to release me? You want to let me go out there, live a mortal life for mere seconds of what I’ve endured, then die?”

“I preserved your nanoverse,” Athena said. “Locked it in temporal stasis in here. It’s unchanged over the time. You’ll still be a goddess.”

Arachne studied Athena, then looked over Anansi. “Who are you?”

Anansi bowed. “I am Anansi. I never was in your land while you were there.”

“And you’re friends with…her?” Arachne asked with a sneer, gesturing towards Athena. “You let her bring you into her nanoverse?”

“Yes,” Anansi said simply. “I trust her.”

Arachne sneered. “So did I. I hope you never learn how foolish that is.”

“I came in here knowing your fate, Arachne,” Anansi said calmly. “I came in here to provide support for Athena as she undid the crime done to you – and to chastise her if she wavered in doing it.”

Both goddesses looked at him in shock. “Chastise?” Arachne asked coolly.

Anansi shrugged. “In here, there was little else that I could do. But I am very good at chastising. I once lectured a python so thoroughly, it swallowed its own tail. I imagine I could have gotten Athena to at least taste her ankle.”

Arachne looked at him, her eyes widening, and then she let out a harsh laugh. “I’d like to see that.”

Athena was at a loss for words. Arachne glanced at her with a raised eyebrow. “I’m not done with you, Pallas Athena. But I am sick to death of this cave. Take me out of here.”

“Of course. My staging area is right outside this cave.”

“My nanoverse?” Arachne asked.

Athena gestured and summoned it to her hand. “Right here.”

Arachne snatched it out of Athena’s fingers and held it close to her chest, starting to walk out of the cave. “Why didn’t you kill me?” Arachne asked, not turning back to look at Athena. “Why this hell? You had every right to slay me permanently under the laws of Olympus. Why did you instead lock me away?”

“I couldn’t kill billions,” Athena said, watching the back of Arachne’s head. “I couldn’t kill all those innocent people in your nanoverse. They did nothing wrong. And…and I failed you. I didn’t believe you deserved death, because the fault was partially mine.”

“Death would have been a kindness,” Arachne said, her voice harsh. “Don’t you dare claim you did it for me. You did it to assuage your guilt.” She glanced down to the nanoverse in her hands. “And for them. I can believe that.”

“I’m sorry,” Athena said.

Arachne whirled on her, pointing a finger at Athena’s face. “No. Your guilt grew strong enough that it forced you to action. You didn’t do this for me. You’ve done none of this for me. I don’t want your apology, Athena.”

“Then what do you want?” Athena asked, her voice soft. “Revenge?”

Arachne glared at her. “And if I did, would you have any right to deny it to me?”

Athena shook her head.

“Good. At least we can agree on that. For now, I want honesty.”

“You will have that,” Athena said.

Arachne spun and talked out of the cave again, seemingly too furious for words.

In silence, Athena followed.

Small Worlds Part 187

 

The locals called the island that housed Arachne Hina’ka’nati, the Island of Broken Night. As they drew close, Athena could get a feeling for how it had earned its name. It was about as large as Sicily. Some ancient meteorological event, a comet or asteroid that had slammed into the island, had carved it into a large crescent. Fitting, Athena thought with a grim expression. The island that had driven Athena to make so many mistakes with Arachne had also been carved by forces powerful enough to crack the land. Those had come from within the earth, though, and this had come from above.

Also, unlike the island Athena knew so well, this one was densely forested. The world being broken up into constant island allowed for a high degree of speciation, and on this particular island a different kind of tree life had evolved. The leaves weren’t green, like on much of the world, but a deep blue bordering on black. They were also covered with spider webs. Huge white strands that stretched across every branch and wrapped every tree. Athena could see spots where the webs were clumped together, holding some meal for later. “There,” Anansi said, pointing to a spot on the island. Athena glanced where he was pointing and nodded.

A cave of dissolved limestone. Webs encircled the entrance, leaving a yawning black hole in the center. It looked like an eye, with the thick circle of strands forming a teardrop shaped iris.

Athena landed her staging area outside the entrance. “Look at those,” Anansi said, his three eyes widening in surprise.

Athena followed his gaze. There were several spots where stones had been deliberately stacked, eight high, and food had been placed at their bases. The stones were painted, and simple wooden designs had been put atop each one. They looked like stylized spiders and were woven with some of the silk from nearby trees. “They’re altars,” Athena said softly.

Anansi glanced at her. “Arachne is just a spider, isn’t she?”

“I thought she was,” Athena sad. “Last I checked she was. But…that was several crunches ago. Things might have changed a great deal.”

“Well,” Anansi said, rubbing his hands together. “This promises to be even more interesting than I expected.”

Athena shot him a dirty look. “I think you should stay here,” she said. “You could be in danger.”

“Oh, I very much doubt that. I’m walking with the literal goddess of this reality.”

“And you go to meet a woman who’s spider form may have gone beyond my supposed omnipotence.”

“Yes.” Anansi’s face grew grim. “One who has a great deal of reason to lash out at you. I think it would be best if you two had an intermediary for your reunion.”

Athena grimaced, but didn’t see a flaw in his argument. “Fine. One thing before we go…” she blink, and Anansi’s clothes changed. He was now garbed in the armor of a warrior from the nearest group to their location, sheets of wood from these black leaved trees that, when shaped and treated with the blood of a fish that swam in the nearby seas, became almost as hard as iron. A flint dagger was strapped to his side.

Anansi nodded in appreciation, unsheathing the dagger from the carapace that contained it. “You are fairly paranoid about this meeting.” he said.

“I’m paranoid about a lot of things. This is one of them.” Athena willed similar armor in existence around herself. “Shall we?”

Anansi answered by heading to the door.

The air outside was crisp and warm, a pleasant breeze keeping the temperature just short of creeping into hot. Waves lapped at the beach in the background, hidden from sight by the webs and unnaturally dark foliage. There was a disconnect to the scent and sounds with the scenery. There won’t be down there, Athena thought, looking at the cave. Now that they were closer, she could see it wasn’t as pitch black as it had seemed from above. There was a bioluminescent blue light emanating from deeper within. It would have been too faint to provide much light to human eyes, but the Skabin had better vision in the dark. Athenea nodded to Anansi, and they headed into the cave, ducking through the teardrop hole in the webbing.

The floor of the cave was covered in additional silk. Athena could feel the way it clung to her feet with every step, individual strands tearing away with every step to follow her feet. The bioluminescence was coming from a moss that was growing in patches along the ceiling, winding its way down stalactites. And on the walls…

…on the walls was art. Not the early art that Athena expected from the Skabin, but beautifully woven pieces of multicolored spider silk. The details were far more fine and intricate than anything Athena had seen before. That wasn’t what made her stop to stare at them.

It was what they depicted.

Here was one that showed the Titanomachy, the moment when Zeus made the final leap that would drive his spear directly through Chronos’ eye. The details were beyond what Athena thought possible to accomplish with mere silk. She could see the mingled pain and rage on Zeus’ face, she could perfect make out Chronos’ astonished fury. The silk behind them even implied the great windstorm that had been raging during that battle, its subtle lines evoking a sense of movement to the air. It was gorgeous, and it shouldn’t have been here.

Athena was so engrossed in it that it wasn’t until Anansi tapped her arm that she realized they were no longer alone in the depths of these caves. A chittering sound came from deeper in the cave. A single chitinous leg emerged from the shadow, a glossy black covered  in fine hairs and as wide as Athena’s leg. A second one followed, and behind them emerged the spider that had once been Arachne, her eight eyes gleaming with an inhuman malice. Venom dripped from her mandibles which clacked together as she drew closer.

“Now would be a good time-” Anansi said, a note of concern creeping into his voice.

He needn’t have bothered with the warming. Athena gestured, and the spider stopped, its eyes widening in surprise. Exoskeleton began to melt away, dissolving into human flesh, human legs emerging from the monstrous ones that had crept out of the darkness.

The whole process took less than a second. Standing there now was Arachne, exactly as Athena remembered her all those millenia ago.

“It’s been some time,” Athena said awkwardly, changing her shape back to one Arachne would know. “Welcome back, Arachne.”

The woman took a deep breath when she saw Athena. Then, with a shriek of primal rage, she hurled herself at Athena’s throat.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 83

Poz didn’t know how long he had been running. It had been many, many nights, sleeping during the days, only sometimes he couldn’t. Sometimes he didn’t dare. Every time he stopped for too long, it seemed, the Hunter was back. Always back, always there, always one step behind Poz. Iffin’ I be doing run, I be getting tired. Iffin’ I be doing a sleep, I be getting caught.

It was an impossible situation, as far as Poz could reckon. But Poz couldn’t reckon far. The limitations he had…No. They be doing a forbid. Poz eat bug. That is a law. Poz has to be doing a stay like this.

Would the Mothers have wanted him to die at the hands of an Alohym? They hadn’t even known of the Alohym when he’d been given the decree. Surely they couldn’t have meant for him to die, stupid and unable to figure out how to survive.

It was dealing with this conundrum that Poz found his way into Axburg. It was a large town that had been at the edge of the kingdom and the wild in the days before the Alohym, and was now at the edge of the Alohym dominion and the wild. The people in Axburg had traded with Poz’s people in the days before the Alohym. When the skies had opened up, the Underfolk had gone beneath the dirt, beneath the stone, to their homes deep within Aelith.

All of them except Poz, who had been exiled to the light-blinded world.

Without trade with the Underfolk, Axburg had begun to wither and rot. There was no more great works from the Underfolk to trade with other humans, no more fine art to sell to Sylvani merchants, no more gold flowing into their coffers. There was a small garrison of Alohym soldiers stationed here, to keep an eye out for anything that might come from the wilds and ensure that spirit of rebellion never took root in the town, but they needed have bothered with the second. Axburg had no spirit left to speak of.

At least they were used to the Underfolk. Poz had gotten some curious looks as he crept into town, but the guards had seen Underfolk like Poz, knew what he was, why he was slow. They challenged him to state his business, and accepted that Poz was just passing through. Even as slow as Poz was, he’d noted the disappointment on their faces. I be doing sorry, humans. I not be doing business. The people, they still be doing hide. Iffin’ they come back, they won’t send a wretch like Poz.

In that spirit, Poz crawled his way to the one Inn that remained open in Axburg, the Goblin’s Gullet. “Ah!” The Innkeeper said, brightening up as Poz entered. “It’s been awhile since we’ve seen one of you lot around. Welcome!”

“Doing a welcome to you, Innsman. Name is Poz. You?”

“Grekor.” The man frowned at Poz. “You…what have you been eating?”

Poz grimaced. Even this man, this Grekor, could tell Poz’s shame. “Doing an eating of bug, Innsman. Nothing but bug and bat and grub for Poz.”

“Oh you poor man,” The Innkeeper said, looking at Poz with eyes that seemed kindly. The man had a face of white whiskers, which Poz thought meant advanced age for a human, but wasn’t sure. “It’s been a long time, but I think I have some pickled crow in the basement still.”

Poz hesitated. It had been so long since he’d tasted crow. So long. But to have crow would be to break the edict. It would be a crime he had sworn never to commit. It would be…

It would be doing you a salvation, Poz thought to himself.

“No coin,” Poz said warily.

The Innkeeper nodded. “I remember the old laws. Will you pay by craft or service?”

“Craft” Poz said, after a long pause. It was another thing he had been forbidden to do, but if he was breaking one law, he didn’t see a reason not to break others as well.

The Innkeeper nodded and helped Poz into a chair. It hurt his back, being slumped in a chair like this. The lights hurt his eyes. But he waited, and prayed to the Forgotten Gods that his sins would be forgiven.

The Innkeeper came up, and with him was a jar that contained a whole bird, feathers plucked. Poz wanted to weep at the sight. Without hesitation, the Innkeeper set it down in front of Poz, as well as key. “The lower rooms are open. You can stay as long as you like.”

Poz nodded his thanks, and shoved the crow into his mouth with a single bite, crunching bones and flesh in his jaws. Then he crawled across the floor the basement, where the rooms for his people were. Tomorrow. Tomorrow I’ll be doing a think. Poz crawled into the sleeping pit, and in moments, he was asleep.

When dusk came again, Poz crawled out of the cocoon that had formed around him in his sleep and stretched, cracking his neck. His mind felt like it was on fire, thoughts racing a thousand times faster than they had the day before. He was able to stand up straight for the first time in years. His skin had gone from mottled green and grey to a beautiful, shining black. Forgotten Gods, it’s been miserable the past…twenty years? Was I that wretch for twenty years? Poz’s eyes were handling the light better, too. One of the many advantages to crowflesh.

Don’t forget the downsides, he reminded himself. Hollow bones break easily, and you’re still being hunted.

He sat on the room’s lone chair to think. Whatever had been chasing him wouldn’t give up so easily. Poz was still in territory firmly under the Alohym’s control, and in his stupidity he’d crawled to a city famous for being friendly to Underfolk – the first place his pursuer would look. Whatever it is.

Finding Nicandros was still the best option. He was sure of that. Nicandros had resistance contacts. Nicandros had allies.

All over a damn egg, Poz thought, pulling out the offending object. Although crowflesh made him smarter, it didn’t give him any knowledge. He knew no more about this egg than he had when he’d been that wretched thing.

Unlike before, however, he could learn. There were books in Axburg.

He wouldn’t be staying long. It would be dangerous. But before he would left, Poz would know exactly he had stolen from the Dragon Tythel.

And how he could best use it.

 

Small Worlds Part 186

Stars danced as Athena and Anansi stepped into Athena’s staging area, the doorway clicking shut behind them. “There’s something I don’t understand,” Anansi said as they wove between the pillars. “If Arachne has been in here since the age before even ancient Greece…well, haven’t you had to reset your nanoverse since then?”

Athena pursed her lips. “Yes.”

Anansi waited for Athena to elaborate. When she did not, he sat down on one of the chairs and rested his head on his hands. “How is such a thing possible? I’ve seen and created plenty of impressive life forms in my nanoverse, but never one that could survive the Crunch.”

Athena approached the altar that served as her console, running her hands over the lettering. Ryan had told her that she should modernize the display, take advantage of familiarity with videos and touch screens and keyboards to give her a more flexible control option. He hadn’t understood. Athena had been using this method for controlling her staging area for thousands of years. Trying to learn a new system was like trying to believe a river would flow uphill without a twist to manipulate it.

“I made her existence a fundamental law of reality. She was woven into the fabric as intrinsically as gravity. When the Crunch happens, her experience stops, and it begins again as soon as life has evolved.”

Anansi let out a low whistle, watching the stars begin to move around them with more purpose as Athena navigated them. “That would make her as much as part of your nanoverse as you are.”

Athena nodded. “Before we can recover Arachne, I’ll have to change that. It will be…delicate work. I was very careful to make sure she lived.”

“As a spider this entire time?” Anansi asked.

“Yes.” Athena was glad she could look down at the console to avoid her companion’s gaze. “It’s been…trillions of years from her perspective. She’s lived through dozens of Crunches. A spider’s mind was a filter, a way to keep her mind from snapping. If I hadn’t she would have gone mad.”

“Of course,” Anansi said, and Athena was relieved to note there was no judgement in his voice. No agreement either, just a calm statement of fact. She’d take that right now. “Is that the planet?” he asked as one zoomed into focus.

Athena nodded. It was a beautiful world, a paradise. It always was. This time the world was a mostly oceanic world, peppered with hundreds of islands covered in dense forests. Carefully laid out currents in the oceans carried warm water across the globe, keeping the tropics from becoming too hot and the rest from being too cold, with a few vertical currents carrying cold water down to thermal vents deep in the sea where it would be heated back up. Single biome worlds were the hardest to maintain, but every iteration of her Nanoverse, Athena made sure there was at least one where the entire globe was perfect for spiders.

“Local sentients haven’t developed too far technologically,” Athena said, “although their boating is far ahead of where humanity was at the same technology level. Unsurprising, I suppose. We shouldn’t need to interact with them much, however.” Athena dropped the ship into real space, and the planet’s orbit slowed as they synced up the time streams. She pointed to a tapestry on one of the pillars, that was now showing a vaguely humanoid form with purple skin, long prehensile tails, and a third eye in the center of its forehead. “This group is the dominant ethnic group of them. The Skabin. I’m going to adopt one of their forms.”

“Change me into one, too?” Anansi asked. “I’d like to blend in.”

Athena nodded and changed them both with a simple thought. She could still see hints of Anansi’s features in the three eyed face, and had left traces of her own in her adaptation of the shape. “I’ll also translate for you if we need to interact with them.”

 

Anansi nodded in thanks. “So what do you need to do to…unfix Arachne from the fabric of your nanoverse?”

Athena gave a shaky laugh. “Honestly? I need to be ready for what comes next.”

She earned a sympathetic look for that comment. “Athena. You did a terrible thing to Arachne. You know that.”

“Thanks for that, Anansi.” Athena said with a frown, unable to keep the sarcasm from her voice. “I feel so much better now.”

Anansi held up a finger. “I started that poorly, but wasn’t finished. Yes, you did a terrible thing. But you’re here to make it right. You’re here to correct the error that you made. There is an honor in that.”

Athena drew a ragged breath. “What was I thinking?” she said quietly. “Why did I think this was just?”

“Did you ever, truly?”

Athena paused to consider, then shook her head. “I suppose not. I didn’t think it was just, but after what she did I was supposed to kill her. I couldn’t do that to her, and I couldn’t end all those lives in her nanoverse. This seemed like the gentler option.”

“Then you did it with a good reason, and you did it to protect the innocent. There are worse choices one can make, Gray-Eyed Athena.”

Athena stared at the world, a tropical paradise she’d created over and over again in a variety of forms to ease her guilt. “I don’t think I get to say what I did was okay. I think only Arachne can decide that.”

“I think there is wisdom there,” Anansi said with a kind smile. “However, you have every right to decide that you will not be haunted by what you did, so long as you improve.”

Athena nodded and took another deep breath. “Let’s go planetside.”

 

“Don’t you need to correct how she’s woven into your Nanoverse?” Anansi asked, then nodded in sudden understanding. “No, of course. You just wanted to make sure you had time if you weren’t ready.”

 

“Yes,” Athena said. “I fixed that the moment we entered. Are you ready?”

 

“As long as you are.” Anansi said.

 

“I’m not. I don’t know if I’ll ever be. But I’ve made her wait for aeons for this. I’m not willing to wait any longer.”

 

Anansi nodded in approval, and they headed into the atmosphere to find the lair of a spider who had been a goddess.  

The Dragon’s Scion Part 82

Tythel felt Eupheme’s weight vanish from her back as the ground grew closer. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her friend reappear in the shadow of a shrub and roll out of it. Tythel heard a sickening snap, like a twig being broken in half, followed by a sharp scream by Eupheme. The only thing that assured Tythel that her friend was alright was that the scream was followed by a series of curses. Please don’t be her leg, Tythel asked the Light, and then the time for worrying about Eupheme was past.

It was time to worry about her own safety.

The instant she was close enough to the ground, Tythel dropped her feet and and started to run along the ground. As fast as the Skimmer was moving, she accomplished little more than tapping her feet against the ground at first, but with each footstep she robbed the creature of a bit of its momentum. Finally it was enough for her to dig her heels into the ground, dragging the Skimmer to a stop. It’s flame sacs were still running, and Tythel had to grit her teeth to wrestle it to the ground.

She got it on its back, and removed one claw to slam the creature between its stalk eyes. As she hoped, that seemed to be where it kept its brain, and it fell still, either unconscious or dead. Tythel hoped for the former, but didn’t have time to check. The second Skimmer was coming up fast. Tellias was somewhere behind it, and Eupheme was still recovering from her roll. And I still can’t breathe or speak.

The remaining Skimmer drew closer. Tythel heaved up the one she had taken down, putting it between herself and the approaching attacker, and sunk her claws into the unconscious creatures skin just below its throat. A trickle of blood rose up from around her talons, letting her know it was still alive.

The Skimmer still in the air curved away. It had gotten the unspoken message – come any closer and this one dies. It started to circle the air around Tythel, keep it’s whiplike tail pointed towards her. Standoff, Tythel thought. If it shot her, she’d kill the one she had captured. If she killed the captured one, it’d shoot her.

Tythel had one hope she could hold onto. She just had to stand on the ground. The Skimmer was airborne. As tired as she was, as much as her legs shook from the sheer effort of supporting her weight and the creatures, she had hope she’d tire out long before her adversary did.

The Skimmer was clearly intelligent by the way it had backed off when she’d grabbed its companion. It was doing the same analysis Tythel was – or at least, she hoped it was. You can’t win, she thought. So back off.

Instead, its flight began to slow down. It brought itself near a tree and wrapped its tail around a branch, swinging its body so the eye stalks were facing Tythel. Tythel fought back an urge to swear. Now it just had to wait for her to get tired, for her attention to slip. Then it could drop off the tree, swing that tail around, and…

Tythel fought back an image that rose to mind, of what unlight beams that could sear stone would do to her face.

She could hear Tellias in the distance, but he’d fallen far behind the chase. How fast were we moving? Tythel wondered, not taking her eyes off the Skimmer. Imperiplate could cover a league in seven minutes when at a dead run. For Tellias to be so far behind, they had to have been moving at least twice as fast, if not more. Crawlers could outpace Imperiplate, but not by that much.

Tythel shook some of her hair out of her good eye. It was clingy and wet with sweat. Focus, she chided herself. She had no help coming any time soon, and didn’t doubt the other Skimmer would try something when Tellias arrived. With Eupheme injured, possibly out of the fight…

“Release him,” the Skimmer said in a wet, burbling voice. Tythel nearly jumped out of her skin. It can speak? She thought, her mind racing furiously.

Tythel shook her head, then shifted the unconscious Skimmer to free up one of her hands and gesture towards her throat. “Can’t,” she said, letting the Skimmer hear how raspy her voice was, hear the wet coughs she made as she tried to speak. It was a risk, letting it see how weak she was, but she still had a claw to its companion’s throat.

“You cannot release him, or you cannot speak?” it asked, fixing those stalk eyes more firmly on her.

Tythel held up two fingers to indicate the second option.

“Release him or die.”

Tythel just rolled her eyes at this one. The Skimmer was intelligent enough to speak. Surely it was intelligent enough to understand why that was a stupid option for her.

“You are weak,” it burbled. “Your posterior limbs shake. Your skin excretes saline. You vocal apparatus is damaged. You have no projectile weapons. You cannot win.”

Tythel gave a slight shrug, and tightening her grip on the unconscious Skimmer. The one in the tree let out a sound like a dribbling snot that Tythel took for anger.

“Do not!” it croaked.

Tythel took a deep breath. She pointed to the Skimmer in the tree, then to the sky, then to the unconscious Skimmer, and then to the sky again.

“I fly away. You release him. Is that claim?”

Tythel nodded.

“Lies. You will not release.”

Tythel pointed to the stump where the injured Skimmer’s tail had been. “No,” Tythel said, then had to pause to cough again. She took a deep breath and swallowed. The taste of blood was a bit less strong this time. Am I healing? Or am I just getting used to it? “Threat,” Tythel managed to choke out, finishing the thought from earlier.

“You claim you will do this thing because he is no threat?”

Tythel nodded. The Skimmer studied her with those eye stalks. “If you do not release, I will come back. I will slay.”

Tythel nodded again to indicate her understanding.

“Bring him to water. Put him in. He will endure there. I will find him down stream. Or I will slay.”

She gave the creature one last nod, and after a long moment, the Skimmer unfurled its wings and begin to spray flame from those sacs on its wings. It held onto the tree until the force of the flame pulled it horizontal. Just before the tree branch snapped, the Skimmer released itself, and took off into the sky. It kept its eye stalks on her as it flew away.

Tythel let go of the unconscious Skimmer and stepped towards the stream. She cupped some of the water in her hands and held it to her lips, wanting to weep with relief as the cool water flowed down her throat. She gathered up the Skimmer and drug it back to the river, pushing it in.

As soon as it touched the water, it began to move, its eye stalks coming alive and alert. It began to swim away from her as quickly as it could, waving its fins to propel itself. It was strangely beautiful to watch, now that it wasn’t trying to kill her.

Tythel watched it go, then took another drink of water. It’s over, she thought numbly. It had felt like weeks since the battle had started, and it was finally over.

Now it was time to gather Eupheme and Tellias and figure out what they were going to do next.

I don’t have a Black Friday sale, but I do have a free book you can pick up here, and if you can pick up a copy of Weird Theology – now available in ebook, paperback, and audiobook!

Small Worlds Part 185

Reverend Jeremy Howard pulled himself up, risking another glance out the window. Billy and Sally were still out there, heads closed together, having a whispered conversation. Whatever they were talking about it, it didn’t seem to be going well, not based off of the way Sally was gesturing towards the building that held the refugees or the firm shakes to Billy’s head.

“We’re going to die, aren’t we?” Someone said inside.

The Reverend turned to face the speaker. It was Nelly, sitting with her knees curled up to her chin, the shotgun resting across it. “We’re going to die,” she repeated. “We survived the goddamn mummies and the goddamn Antichrist and now we’re going to die to whatever these things are.”

It wasn’t her words that scared the Reverend. Nelly had always been prone to complaining. No, what scared the Reverend was the dull, flat tone. This wasn’t Nelly griping, this wasn’t even Nelly scared. This was Nelly utterly resigned to what was going to happen. Looking around the room, the Reverend saw more of that in the eyes of the huddled mass in the police station. Not fear, not anger, just a hollow look to their eyes. These people had been through hell, and had hit the limit of what the human spirit could endure.

“No, we won’t,” Jeremy said, his voice firm. Those hollow eyes all turned towards him.

“How can you say that, Reverend?” Nelly asked. The Reverend had hoped her voice would pick back up some of that fire at being contradicted, but it was still lifeless. “They’re picking us off that their leisure. We’re…we’re cows, Reverend. They’re keeping us alive because they’re not hungry yet.”

“Better die than become one of those things,” a voice said from the back of the room. There were nods around. The Reverend focused his eyes on the speaker.

“I’m not going to say you’re wrong, John, but you make it sound like there are only those two options.”

“What else can we do? We can’t fight those things, Reverend. We can’t even hit them.”

“We can have faith,” The Reverend said, his voice firm.

“Faith?” Nelly snorted in disbelief. “How can you talk about faith right now? We’ve had faith, Reverend. Lord knows how much faith I had. And look what it brought us!”

“We’re still alive,” The Reverend said.

“So, what?” Nelly snapped, and the Reverend felt relief in the face of her anger. At least she was caring. “You’re trying to say the people who died out there didn’t have strong enough faith? You’re blaming them?”

He shook his head. “No, Nelly,” he said softly. “I’d never dare suggest that. The Lord may be omnipotent, but he does not shield us so directly. We were granted free will, and that means men and women may choose evil.”

“These aren’t men and women!” Nelly stood up now, her eyes blazing. “These are monsters, Reverend. They’re supernatural creatures, they’re demons. They’re beyond us!”

“The Lord works-” Jeremy started to say, and Nelly cut him off with a harsh laugh.

“I swear to God, Reverend, if you say ‘in mysterious ways,’ I’ll shoot you myself.”

Jeremy shook his head. “No. You know I hate that line. It’s a preacher giving up on trying to explain, trying to mollify when no other words will do. The Lord’s ways may be mysterious to us mere men and women, but what I was going to say was that the Lord works through good men and women. The Lord works through our strength, our determination, our faith.”

“So, what are you suggesting? We go out there, guns blazing, and hope because we’re faithful a bunch of demon cat monsters that used to be our friends run away.”

Jeremy shook his head. “We can’t do that. What we do is we hold out, and we trust the Lord to provide the means of our salvation.”

“And what form do you expect this salvation to take? A chior of angles with holy swords? A bunch of knights in shining armor? A goddamn bolt from Heaven?”

“The last time we faced a supernatural threat, the Lord provided.”

That got a stir from the entire crowd. “You’re telling me that you expect the Lord to save us through a false god? Through the damn Antichrist?” Nelly asked.

Jeremy gave her a wide smile. “He did so before. Maybe not Ryan again. Maybe Athena this time. Or that friend of theirs, Crystal. Or maybe it will be another one of these false gods. Perhaps it will be a choir of angels with holy swords.”

The Reverend began to pace, the way he did when he was on the pulpit. “We may live in a time of horrors, unimaginable horrors. But we also live in a time of miracles. The ‘gods’ were men and women, once. The Lord absolutely can still work through their actions, even though they claim to be things they should not. And I don’t believe he’s the Antichrist. I don’t believe any of them are. If any of them were, I believe Enki was the most likely one, and he’s dead now.”

The Reverend began to lock eyes with some of them in turn. “John, when the mummies began to swarm our town, you were up in the bell tower on that old radio of yours, letting people know where the safe zones were. Nelly, you were right there with me. Jim, you held one of those things off with a carving knife and a frying pan. Karen, don’t think I didn’t hear about what you did with that chainsaw, that was mighty impressive and mighty stupid. We were able to hold off long enough for the Lord to send us help.”

“Well, they’re not here,” Nelly said firmly. “I’m not too keen on waiting around for the…for whatever they are to show up and save us. I don’t believe they were sent by the Lord, Reverend. I think we got lucky they showed up for the mummies, and didn’t show up for us. I think if we wait for the Lord to send help, we’re all going to die.”

The Lord helps those who help themselves, the Reverend thought, but didn’t say. He didn’t want to give Nelly the answer. He wanted her to say it herself. “Then what would you rather do?”

“Damnit, Reverend, I don’t know. But I know I’m not going to sit around and wait to die.”

Nods were going around the room, and the Reverend had to hide a smile. The fire was back in their stomachs. They weren’t waiting to die anymore.

He didn’t know if he believed the Lord would sent those false gods to save them. He didn’t know if there was any help coming. But he knew these people had hope again.

For now, that would be enough.

I don’t have a Black Friday sale, but I do have a free book you can pick up here, and if you can pick up a copy of Weird Theology – now available in ebook, paperback, and audiobook!

The Dragon’s Scion Part 81

“Jump!” Eupheme shouted as her arcwand blazed.

Tythel leapt to the side without a moment’s hesitation, grabbing onto a rock that jutted out a bit further from the cliff face. A beam of unlight scored the stone she had just vacated, sending chunks flying free from the wall to crash into the valley below. Her remaining talons bit into the rock. A lance of pain threatened to black out the vision in Tythel’s good eye as her bloodied finger slammed into the rock, but she forced it aside. The rock was beginning to crack under their combined weight, and Tythel had to scramble with her feet and remaining hand to find purchase. “Flath, that was close,” Eupheme hissed. “They’re getting ready for another pass.”

Tythel nodded and took a moment to make sure her grip was firm. Then, taking a deep breath to calm her nerves, Tythel shifted away her talons.

For a terrifying moment, all that was holding her in place was the strength of her grip on the rocks and the tiny footholds barely under her toes. Even her enhanced strength could barely support the two of them. Tythel waiting there for a moment, then tentatively lowered her injured finger onto the rock.

The pressure wasn’t painful. Although the digit was still streaked with blood from the earlier injury, without a talon Tythel didn’t have any injury to cause her pain.

“They’re coming back around,” Eupheme said in a warning tone. “Whatever you’re doing, mind hurrying it up just a bit?”

Nodding again, Tythel shifted her talons back into place. She let out a sigh of relief at having them grip into the stone again, and almost wept for joy when her damaged talons grew back with the uninjured ones. It wasn’t much – she could only heal injuries to the parts of her body she grew – but it was something. “Tythel! Move!” Eupheme shouted.

Tythel kicked to the side again. There weren’t any safe outcroppings on the side of her head she could see out of, so she leapt blindly into the spot hidden by her bad eye, turning her head and praying to both light and shadow she’d find something to grab into. Unlight again sheared away the rock from the plateau. Beams erupted from the ground as Tellias opened fire, streaking past the Skimmers.

There wasn’t anything to grab onto this time. Tythel was forced to again dig her talons into the stone cliff, scoring the stone with lines as they fell. They hadn’t gone as far this time – her talons held, although it sent lances of pain along her arms and legs as she slowed their impact. Eupheme opened fire again. “They’re so fast…” Eupheme said, ejecting a spent light cell and slamming another one into place. “Tythel, I don’t know if I can hit them.”

Tythel nodded, and swallowed hard as she began to climb. She needed every bit of moisture she could get in her ruined throat. A plan was beginning to form, but it required being able to ask Eupheme a question. “How…” Tythel started to say, but the rest of the sentence died in a series of coughs that tasted of copper.

“Don’t try to speak,” Eupheme said in growing alarm. “Just keep climbing!”

Tythel did, waiting for Eupheme’s warning to jump again, looking out of her good eye with a frantic fear. Have to find another outcropping, she thought. Have to get to safety or-

“Now!” Eupheme shouted.

Tythel leapt again, Eupheme firing wildly. Eupheme let out a whoop of excitement as Tythel managed to sink her talons into a soft spot of dirt that was packed into the side of the plateau. A wave of heat hit Tythel a moment latter, followed by a soft “whump” of an explosion. “Got one!” Eupheme said fiercely.

If Tythel could have spoken, she would have congratulated her friend. Instead she kept climbing, her mind racing. The smell when they are near is like burning gas. They only have one heartbeat. Somehow, these aren’t ships, or some new kind of Alohym skin. They’re creatures in their own right!

Suddenly, her crazy plan seemed even more needed. “Close,” Tythel managed to spit out before another round of coughs sent her vision spinning.

“Close? Ground is another hundred feet,” Eupheme said.

Tythel shook her head.

“The Skimmers? They’re coming around for another pass.”

Tythel shook her head again, still climbing.

“Then what do you…oh. Oh no. You can’t be serious.”

Tythel nodded.

“Light and flathing shadow,” Eupheme swore. “About three heights. You’re sure?”

Tythel didn’t even bother to nod this time, continuing her climb and awaiting Eupheme’s signal.

“Damnit,” Eupheme muttered. “Alright, get ready.”

Tythel stopped her climb.

“And…now!” Eupheme shouted.

Tythel leapt, twisting again in the air to face away from the wall. She found herself face to face with the eyestalks on the underbelly of the Skimmer. Although the eyes were markedly inhuman, they widened in a comically familiar expression of shock.

Then Tythel sunk her talons directly into the creature’s underbelly. The Skimmer let out a sound that Tythel assumed was pain, a sound like someone blowing into a broken flute. The creature staggered in the air, and Tythel’s heart stopped. Oh no. I killed it. I killed it and we’re both going to fall to our deaths.

Then the flames emerging from under the Skimmer’s wings reignited, and they began to accelerate. The Skimmer tried to swing its tail around to take aim at them, but Eupheme shot it off with a quick blast of her Arcwand. “You’re crazy!” Eupheme shouted. “You’re madder than the moon!”

Tythel blinked in amusement at the compliment. The Skimmer began to streak away from the plateau, its eyes wild with pain. She could feel it trying to pull up and gain altitude, but the Skimmer wasn’t meant to support the weight of two humans, especially not while losing blood from its abdomen. With every second, the ground grew closer. Tythel could see Tellias racing to follow them, the remaining Skimmer right behind him.

All that was left for Tythel to do was grit her teeth, and get ready to leap off the bottom of the Skimmer before it scraped her and Eupheme to past on the canyon floor below.

 

Small Worlds Part 184

Rear Admiral Dale Bridges was dead. The creature that inhabited his body now vaguely remembered who he had been before, a distant dream of a life spent serving an idea higher than himself. That was still true from the wretch Dale, but that ideal had changed. Now he served Bast, and he loved her with as much passion as he loathed her.

Dale couldn’t remember what the Rear Admiral had served. It was something…something big.

Someone screamed on the street below, drawing Dale’s attention. It was a male, somewhere in that awkward stage between boy and man. He must have been in bed when the assault had started, as he wore only a tank top and flannel pants. The pants were already ripped in places, and the tank top stained with flecks of blood.

The boy was running from some of Bast’s new children. Dale watched as they loped after the boy, swiping at him with claws that could tear flesh and bone with disgusting ease. The boy tripped, and the Children swarmed around him, snarling and biting. He whimpered and swung his hands wildly at them, trying to bat them away.

The Children backed off, letting their prey think it was having some effect. “Please,” the boy said, tears streaming down his face. “Guys, please. It’s me.”

“Guys, please, it’s me,” one of the Children repeated in a high pitched mockery. “That’s how you sound, Jimmy.”

Another one of the Children let out a gagging sound. “Fuck’s sake, Jimmy, did you piss yourself? You smell like piss.”

 

Jimmy’s face scrunched up, and tears began to stream down his face. “Greg, Sammy…c’mon. Don’t…please?”

The third of the Children laughed, a low, growling sound. “You know, Jimmy, we were going to turn you, but…I mean, you pissed yourself. Are we supposed to show you to Bast covered in piss?”

The first, the one Jimmy had called Greg, snorted. “Bryce, you haven’t gotten to eat yet, have you?”

Jimmy turned towards the third Child, the one called Bryce. “No…is that you?”

Bryce shifted, turning into a human. He was well muscled and wore only a pair of boxers, and looked to be four or five years Jimmy’s senior. His skin was wet with blood. “Yup. You were so busy running while these two were eating mom and dad, you forgot to shout a warning to me, Jimmy.”

“Bryce…” the boy sobbed, “Bryce, I didn’t…I was scared, and…”

“I was scared,” the remaining Child, Sammy, repeated in another mockery. “Oh no I was scared. I’m so scared I’m going to piss my pants like a baby.

“Shut up,” Bryce growled, his voice a sharp snap. “I’m talking to my brother.”

Sammy and Greg backed off so Bryce could walk closer to Jimmy. The child looked up at his brother, eyes wet with tears and wide with hope. No, you fool, Dale thought. “Bryce?” Jimmy asked in a voice that waivered.

“You’re my brother Jimmy. I’m gonna give you a choice. You can join us, or you can keep running.”

Jimmy’s eyes widened. “You’ll…you’ll let me run?”

Bryce nodded. “Absolutely, little brother. You can run. It’s night. No one’s on the highway. Other Children might find you. But you can try.”

“Uh…Bryce?” Greg asked, his voice full of confusion. “This isn’t what She want-”

Bryce snarled at Greg, and the feline creature backed down. Even though Bryce was the youngest of the group, it seemed that social bonds from their previous life still held. “It’s my brother. He gets to choose.”

Jimmy stood up to shaky feet. “I’m gonna…thank you.”

Bryce pursed his lips. “You sure about this man? You have no idea how good it feels.”

Jimmy nodded again, tears streaking down his face.

Dale stared at Bryce, shaking with rage. How dare he? It wasn’t just the defiance of Bast. It wasn’t just the gall to believe he knew better than a goddess. This was not supposed to happen. If the boy got to the highway, he might be picked up. He might get to a phone. These days, someone would absolutely believe the boy’s wild claims about monsters in Grant.

Jimmy started to run. Sammy and Greg looked up at Bryce with feral, furious eyes. “She won’t be happy,” Sammy growled.

“I don’t care. I’m not going to eat my own brother.”

Dale didn’t listen to the rest. He pushed his legs against the roof, propelling himself into the air, hurtling like a cannonball. The three Children gaped at him as he flew, but they took no action. Jimmy didn’t even know Dale was coming, not until Dale landed on the pavement in front of him.

Jimmy screamed as Dale reached out and clutched him with fingers far longer than they had once been. Inhuman hands that Dale didn’t recognize anymore.

“I said to let him go!” Bryce shouted.

“Yes,” Dale hissed, holding Jimmy close. “Damn you. Damn you. I didn’t want to this. I didn’t have to do this!”

“Do what?”

With a quick twist of his hands, Dale snapped Jimmy’s neck. The boy fell to the ground, and the three Children looked at him with eyes wide with shock. “What the hell!?” Bryce snarled, stepping forward and shifting into his animalistic form. “He was my brother.

“Yes,” Dale said, his voice quiet. He reached down to brush Jimmy’s hair. “You can still hear his heartbeat, Bryce. I know you can. He’ll live for a few hours before fluid build up kills him…unless you save him. Or feed.”

“Who the hell do you think you are?” Bryce snarled.

“I am our mistress’s favorite chew toy,” Dale spat out, not trying to hide his bitterness. “She’ll never forgive you for killing me.”

“He speaks truth,” said another voice, a voice Dale knew, a voice Dale loathed and loved as much as he did his goddess. Cassandra. “This one is off limits.”

The three cowered before her. She did not look half feral as they did. Cassandra had been a Child so long, and in many ways was something else. Something greater. Her bestial form was as beautiful and terrible as Bast’s. They knew where they stood relative to her.

As Cassandra passed Dale, she patted him on the head like a favored dog.

“Chose, Bryce. Does your brother recieve Her gift, or is he your first meal?”

Dale didn’t wait to see what Bryce chose. Dale didn’t care. He loped off on all fours, horrified at what he had done, horrified at what he had become.

As he ran through the streets, he saw something blowing in the wind. A piece of cloth, red and white stripes with a blue field of stars, attached to a pole. It tugged at some memory, a memory of the Rear Admiral’s, a memory that Dale forced to back to the back of his mind.

Bast had ordered this town be turned or dead, and had ordered that it not be allowed to happen to quickly. Dale would see it done. He would serve. He would obey.

And maybe, if he was very good, Bast would finally grant him the release of death.