The Dragon’s Scion Part 114

Dawn was cresting over the horizon as they broke off the road and prepared to make camp. The rest of the trip out of the town had been conducted in silence. Every muscle in Tythel’s body ached from being carried over Tellias’ shoulder for hours, and she’d had to fight the urge throughout to try and shift and make herself comfortable. You’re pretending to be a corpse; she reminded herself, a mantra that was repeated over and over again.

Leaving the Inn had been easier than Tythel had expected. Far too easy. There were bound to be Writ Hunters trailing them, looking to claim the ‘prize.’ Eupheme has whispered that, so low that only Tythel could hear her, and the entire time they’d traveled from town, Tythel had been able to confirm that with the distant sound of footsteps dogging their heels. No more than five of them, as far as Tythel could tell.

A far more manageable number than what they’d had in the inn, but still too many for Tythel’s liking.

Tellias dumped her unceremoniously onto the ground, muttering an apology as she hit the forest floor. There was no reason for him to treat her as anything other than a dead body, after all. She was valuable, but it wouldn’t make sense for him to keep her in pristine condition.

Knowing that didn’t help her desire to kick Tellias in the back for tossing her.

Tellias and Eupheme dragged some downed branches to cover Tythel, then they got to work setting up camp. Tythel took advantage of the time and cover to surreptitiously work out the kinks in her arms and legs. She couldn’t resist anything that might cause rustling, but flexing her toes and fingers wouldn’t show from above. Once feeling had returned to her hands and feet, she started rhythmically tensing and untensing her arms and legs, as well as her stomach and neck.

I’d kill for the chance to stretch properly, Tythel thought. The little bit of flexing was helping with some of the tension from being carried like a sack of potatoes over an armored shoulder for four or five leagues, but she desperately wanted a chance to get up and move about properly.

Also, her bad eye itched. Her eye had itched for the last hour. Tythel swore that as soon as she could move, she’d rub the thing out of its shadow-damned socket, so it would never bother her again. It was maddening to have an itch like that, one where her very survival depended on refusing to scratch.

Patience, Tythel, she reminded herself. Their pursuers had stopped as soon as they’d diverged from the path, making their own camp further down the forest. They were far enough away that without Tythel’s ears, they could have remained completely unheard. She didn’t know how they were remaining unseen – or, more concerning, how they were doing their observation.

“You think we’re being followed?” Tellias asked Eupheme. His voice was still echoing in the helmet, but underneath it, Tythel could hear a measure of strain.

“I think we’d know if we weren’t,” Eupheme said. “I think someone would make it very clear if that was the case.”

Tythel didn’t need to think too hard to read the subtext there. Fortunately, it seemed that was true for Tellias as well, who grunted in acknowledgment of the point. If Eupheme hadn’t been right, Tythel would have seized the opportunity to inform them. If just to get the chance to move.

“We can’t sleep,” Tellias said, his voice low. “Or at least, one of us can’t.”

Again, a veiled meaning, one Tythel didn’t have too much trouble following. She was capable of remaining motionless and breathing shallowly so long as she was awake. Asleep-

“Yes. One of us snores quite loudly.” There was a joking edge to Eupheme’s voice, and Tellias snorted in amusement.

Tythel had to frown. This was a veiled meaning, but she was absolutely lost. Tellias and Eupheme both didn’t snore in their sleep, so it couldn’t be they were talking about either of them. Was snore perhaps a coded phrase of some kind? Tythel turned it over in her mind. It could refer to a roar, although that didn’t quite add up. That could be about the difficulty of getting Tellias out of his armor without her aid…although Tythel had no idea how that would be a snore. Perhaps they meant…

Or, just perhaps, they mean you snore, Tythel thought, suddenly flushing with indignation. Which is absolute rubbish. They’re just taking advantage of the fact that you can’t retort, light forsake them! 

If they knew Tythel was fuming under the pile of leaves and branches, they gave no indication.

The fact was, Tythel realized, they were at an impasse. Right now Tythel had no way to alert them to how many possible foes waited nearby, nor did she have a way to strategize with them. They could strategize all they wanted, but they lacked any information as to what the nature of the threat was, and any strategy would give away that Tythel was alive. For all they knew, an Alohym was trailing them with a small army, just out of their earshot. The moment their aggressors realized that she was alive, they would…

…either flee in fright or charge and attack. Either of which would be better than this interminable waiting.

Tythel sat up so suddenly Tellias let out a startled, strangled sound, and even Eupheme jumped. “Yes, yes, I have arisen from the grave,” Tythel said, adopting the same annoyed tone Karjon had used whenever startling her. “We’ve got five of them, about a mile away. Don’t know how they’re watching us, but they have been since we left town. They’re going to know I’m awake any minute now, I’m sure of it.”

Tythel held up a finger to forestall any response. As she had expected, the moment she sat up, the sounds of footsteps started pounding on the ground – headed towards them. Tythel sat up and held out her hand for her hammer and shield. “They’re coming,” she said.

Five foes of unknown strength, charging the three of them. Eupheme vanished into the shadows, and Tellias and Tythel readied their weapons.

Then, pausing for a moment, Tythel placed her hammer on the ground and rubbed at her eye. She might die here, but she’d be forsaken by Light and Shadow both if she’d die with that flathing itch in her eye.

Satisfied, she grabbed her hammer just as the Writ Hunters burst into view.

The Burning Epoch Part 4

There were good reasons to get drunk. If Darnell Henderson had known the world was ending, he would have considered that a very good reason to get drunk. However, he wasn’t aware of that when he started drinking.

There were bad reasons to get drunk. The fact that today was yet another day where he was stuck using his biology degree to sell pharmaceuticals was probably a bad reason to get drunk, but it was the reason that motivated Darnell at the moment. He’d wanted to be a scientist. When he’d gone to college and majored in biology, he’d had dreams of working in some kind of laboratory, maybe being the one to figure out how to clone dinosaur DNA.

Then he’d gotten his fancy diploma, and a week later he’d his car had careened out of control, and he’d been just over the legal limit. No one had been hurt, except for his post-grad prospects. And if all you have is a degree in biology, there weren’t many jobs that involved actual lab work that would hire you. He could have gone back to school and gotten a teaching certificate, but schools also weren’t too keen on hiring someone with a DUI.

Pharmacy companies, however? They didn’t care what skeletons you had in your closet. Or at least, not if it was a little thing like a DUI. If you could sell, you were golden.

So Darnell had learned how to sell. He’d actually turned out to be very good at it. All you had to to was exude confidence and phrase things the right way. Don’t ask someone if they wanted to buy the product, ask them when they wanted it delivered. Don’t ask someone what need you could fill for them, convince them they had a need that only you could fill. It went well, it made him money, and he hated it with a passion that burned like the whiskey going down his throat.

Goddamn you’re getting maudlin, he chided himself. It was depressing, or it was depression. He wasn’t sure which. Maybe a little bit of both.

His phone started to beep with notifications. Darnell ignored it. He didn’t want to see the latest Twitter trend, he didn’t want to know what the assholes he worked with were tagging it in, he didn’t want to see another invitation to go out and go drinking with his co-workers. One thing Darnell had learned from DUI – drinking was something best done at home, alone, where you wouldn’t have to go anywhere afterward. As far as everyone who wasn’t willing to come over to his place was concerned, he was totally dry.

Today had actually been a good day. He’d secured the SigmaDyne account, which had netted his company ten million dollars and him a hundred thousand dollars worth of commission. The problem had been who he was selling too.

Grant Whitman, the head of Research and Development at SigmaDyne, who’d been Darnell’s lab partner Junior year.

He and Grant had parted on good terms. Grant had left the bar the same night as Darnell, every bit as drunk. Grant knew that it was only an accident of fate that it had been Darnell that crashed, Darnell that got caught, Darnell that was stuck working as what amounted to a corporate approved drug-pusher. Grant was living the dream. He’d been in the research lab at SigmaDyne after he finished his Masters in Molecular Biology. He’d managed to find a way to get E. Coli to produce bacteriophages for other, deadlier bacteria without killing themselves. His research was going to solve the growing problem of antibiotic resilience.

Darnell had sold him and his company an exclusive contract to distribute boner pills for old white guys that couldn’t get it up anymore. Greg had been kind about it, and Darnell probably wouldn’t have gotten the contract without that connection, but…goddamn did it burn. Burned like…burned like a bad, overwrought metaphor.

He didn’t know anything was wrong until he heard the roar coming from the parking lot. Even then, he didn’t leap out of his chair to go take a look at it. He figured the people in the apartment below him just had some movie on too loud.

It wasn’t until the screaming started he realized something was wrong. It hit the window like a sonic tidal wave, crashing over his ears and triggering a surge of adrenaline that cleared his head for a moment. He got up and wandered over the balcony, his heart pounding, wondering what the hell he was about to walk into.

“Run!” someone was screaming from the balcony above him. He recognized Candice’s voice and looked down to see who she was screaming at. At this height, Darnell couldn’t make him out.

Then he noticed the monster. The goddamn giant monster – no, monsters – that dominated the parking lot like a pair of scaled Tyrannosauridae. No, not quite. Their arms were too long and strong. Longer and stronger than any described Therapod. Their heads were wrong too. A bit too flat, a bit too wedged shaped, looking like the belonged on a member of the anole family, not the ancient claude that had given rise to the largest predators that had walked the Earth.

The other reason Darnell knew they weren’t dinosaurs. Because they were in the goddamn apartment of his fucking apartment building. That was a dead giveaway that they weren’t dinosaurs, because dinosaurs were extinct. 

One of the monsters was scraping its way into 213 across the way, and Darnell could only watch in horror. From above him, from Candice’s apartment, he heard the newscaster. “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States of America.”

Darnell pulled out his phone as Candice’s glass door slid shut above him. The president was on the white house lawn. He’d been sworn in just three months ago, after a volatile election in 2020. He’d looked young and full of energy then.

Right now, he just looked tired. “My fellow Americans,” he said, his voice far calmer and firmer than his eyes looked. “Today, we face an event unlike any other in the history of this great nation – indeed, in the history of mankind. At seven-thirty this evening, Eastern Standard Time, seismic events began disturbing the lives of men and women across the globe. Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and seismic events have caused untold damage across the globe. I can deliver some good news there – while we do not yet know the cause of these seismic events, early reports that this disturbance was enough to cause a ‘nuclear winter’ that covered our globe with ash are overblown. We may experience some cooling, but long term damage to our crops and life will be minimal.”

On the bottom of the screen, the scrolling ticker was informing Darnell of exactly what areas were impacted by these seismic events. It was a horrifyingly long list. He stared at it, but his attention was pulled away by the sound of helicopters in the distance.

The monsters heard it too. They turned away from the building they were tearing into and chirped at each other, their heads turning skywards towards the source of the sound. Darnell felt his heart begin to pound in his chest. These creatures were, somehow, recognizing the approach of the helicopters as something that warranted their attention.

“We also have seen things of indescribable horror. To call them monsters would be accurate, although I have been informed another term is being preferred – Kaiju. A Japanese word that existed in popular culture for decades and means ‘strange beast.’ I think this term truly is the best because while they are indeed strange and dangerous, they are also just that. Beasts. Animals.”

The helicopters came into view, their searchlights illuminating the two Kaiju in the parking lot. The larger of the two let out a bellowing roar as if challenging the strange flying creatures that dared to have invaded its territory.

“Two of these creatures have been sighted on American soil, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I have dispatched air force helicopters to contain the threat they pose. I have mobilized our military in its full might to provide relief to stricken areas, and to contain the threat these kaiju pose. Please remain calm. Help is coming. If you are in a major metropolitan area, please remain indoors. Help is coming. We are urging anyone not inside a city head towards the safety of urban centers not impacted by the seismic events. Our first priority is to drive these creatures from our cities.”

The rest of the President’s words were drowned out as one of the helicopters opened fire, a long, ripping sound that sounded like the world was being torn apart. Reflex drove Darnell back against his glass door.

One of the Kaiju screamed in a sound of fury and pain. The smaller of the two. It was now bleeding from a dozen wounds, the glowing red blood flowing freely from what looked like comically small holes. It was hurt, but it certainly wasn’t down. Darnell stepped forward.

The larger of the two bent its head, and a low buzzing sound began to emerge from its mouth. It opened its mouth to roar, and Darnell though it was another challenge, another act of defiance.

Then the roar turned into a stream of golden energy that flowed like fire and impacted the firing helicopter. It detonated, and shards of flaming metal rained from the sky around it.

The other two helicopters opened fire then, but the Kaiju were moving. The smaller one began to climb up 214, moving with surprising swiftness as it scaled the balconies of the apartment. The helicopter firing at it tried to rotate around the building to get a better shot, but the Kaiju took its climb horizontal, keeping the building between itself and its attacker.

The larger kaiju held its ground, and the buzzing sound around it began to intensify. It was building up another one of those discharges. The helicopter began to take evasive action, and Darnell found himself stepping forward against his balcony, leaning over, wanting to scream and shout encouragement to those brave souls shooting up his parking lot.

He heard a crash of stone and creaking mortar as the smaller Kaiju reached leaped onto the roof of 214 like it like it was pouncing on prey. The helicopter that had been following it now had a clear line of fire. Before it could fully swing its minigun around to fire, however, the kaiju opened its mouth. Darnell braced himself for another line of golden fire, but that wasn’t what his kaiju could do.

Instead, a tongue lashed out like a chameleon’s, ending in a five-pronged grasping appendage. It latched onto the helicopter, on the airframe between the fuselage and the tail rotor. The kaiju’s tongue began to retract, throwing the helicopter off course, until finally, the tail gave way under the strain. Darnell screamed wordlessly as the helicopter careened out of control and crashed into 215 before plummeting to the ground.

Then the big kaiju released its stream of golden energy again, and the final helicopter detonated in the air.

The two kaiju roared their triumph. After the sudden chaos, the silence that followed was overwhelming.

“I have no doubt that we will overcome this threat, as we have overcome so many others,” the President said, finishing his speech. “We will endure, and we will triumph. And again, I assure you, if you are in an impacted area – do not panic. Help is coming. God bless.”

The feed went back to the talking heads, preparing to analyze the President’s speech and awaiting results of the helicopters dispatched to Minnesota.

In the parking lot of Darnell’s apartment, hope was burning.

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.

Small Worlds Part 207

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

I’m making a big push to do this full time. Click here for more information – including getting Monday’s post right now, and previously unreleased King of Hell artwork!

The Dragon’s Scion Part 103

I’m making a big push to do this full time. Click here for more information – including getting Friday’s post right now, and previously unreleased King of Hell artwork!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there was-”

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

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

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

“The goods, Eliert?” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Small Worlds Part 206

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We tried, she thought at the snake heads opened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cleansing initiated,” a robotic voice said.

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


 

I’m making a big push to do this full time. Click here for more information – including getting Thursday’s post right now, and previously unreleased King of Hell artwork!