Strange Cosmology part 98

Small Worlds Book 1: Weird Theology is now available for preorder. More information here.


 

I really should have expected this, Moloch thought with a snarl as he reached out to grip reality and twist it to his whims.

Angels were able to manipulate the fabric of reality with an ease no god could match. That lead lesser gods to believe that angels were unbeatable. The problem was, they were thinking in terms of raw power.

Moloch had plenty of raw power, but never ascribed to the believe it was the most important part of things. Not even back in the old days.

The world stopped besides Uriel and Moloch.

The problem with angels was that they were billions of years old. And that meant that if you studied them long enough, they became predictable. Uriel always opened by accelerating her temporal reference frame. If you weren’t prepared for it, you’d be diced to ribbons before you could react. It was how she had killed the first born of Egypt in a single night.  If you did the same thing at the same time, it just meant you had an uninterrupted fight.

Moloch grinned as Uriel’s eyes widened, their swords meeting mid air. “Impossible,” the angel whispered.

“Obviously not.” Moloch whirled under Uriel’s blade and thrust his sword towards her chest. With a flap of her immense wings, Uriel  launched herself away from him. The angel was glancing around. Moloch decided to take advantage of that uncertainty. Three bolts of dark green lightning raced from his fingers. Uriel’s sword sung through the air. She moved so fast she was able to catch two of the bolts, but the third struck home.

Moloch applied pressure onto those surges of power now racing from his fingertip to Uriel. “You angels think you’re so much better than us,” he hissed. “So holy, so righteous. You’re a bunch of hypocrites. Where were you when they burned, Uriel? Where were you?

Uriel screamed in pain.

Around them, the battle was still mostly frozen, everything moving like it was swimming through amber. A lightning bolt was starting to form above Moloch at a glacial pace, a twist of reality from that upstart Eschaton. Beside him, his sister’s form started to blur again. An Eschaton and a Protean. What are the odds? He could see Dianmu, raising a glaive to meet a lunging draconic head. Anansi and Athena were hidden by the chaos of the melee.

Worst of all, Crystal was nowhere to be seen.

“You speak of your creator,” Moloch spat at Uriel. “You speak of his plan. You preach his Glory. Your creator is gone, Uriel. Your creator has abandoned us! The only gods that matter are us. The only truth that matters is ours. The only world that matters is the one I’m going to see burn in the sun.”

Then Uriel flapped her wings, breaking herself free of the green lightning.

“Electricity made of mortal souls,” she gasped, her form smouldering. “You play in forces beyond you, godling.”

Moloch lashed out again. “Nothing is beyond me!” he screamed.

This time, Uriel was prepared for the bolts of lighting. She dodged all three with a deft sweep of her wings that carried her above the battlefield.  With a quick flick, her ascent turned into a dive straight for Moloch, her sword elongating to a hooked halberd. She swung the weapon below herself as she passed over Moloch.

Moloch parried the blow, but Uriel was now a whirlwind, rising and diving too quickly for Moloch to do anything but defend himself. No. Not after everything I lost. Not after everything that’s happened. I will not be beaten by an angel!

Uriel’s blade slipped past Moloch’s defenses, biting into his shoulder. His sword arm fell limp by his side. “Little god!” she said, her eyes burning with divine wrath, “you twist the powers of creation, the fabric of reality. “ She swooped down again, and Moloch had to duck this attack. He was already moving as fast as time would allow, he couldn’t heal. “Your powers are limited but your Hungers. I have no Hungers.” Uriel’s next strike sliced a line in Moloch’s thigh. “You manipulate laws, but those laws were put in place by my Creator.” Another dive, and Moloch screamed in pain as the fingers on his left hand were severed. “You forget that I. Am. Those. Laws.” Uriel landed and ran Moloch through.

Moloch slumped forward on the halberd. Oh. You are, aren’t you? Uriel was panting from the effort.

She dropped the halberd as Moloch started laughing, sliding forward on the weapon that was impaled through his chest. “You…you’re laughing. You’re going to die, Moloch. You’ve lost. What on Earth is possibly fun-uphg.”

Moloch’s hand shot up to cover her face. “Because, Uriel. You are made of the Laws.” Uriel started to struggle against the grasp, but Moloch was already twisting reality as he did. “You are woven into the fabric of reality as firmly as gravity. As firmly as light. And as I am their master…so I am able to master you.”

Moloch removed his hand.Time’s normal flow resumed. Ryan’s lightning bolt struck the ground where Moloch had been standing, and Isabel melted into the form of a wolf. A quick twist to reality allowed Moloch’s wounds to heal.

Uriel stood there, staring at her hands, backing away from him and gasping. Repeatly. “What did…you do to me.”

Moloch smiled. “Welcome to mortality, Uriel. You’re a living, breathing creature now. And do you know that means you can do?” Moloch gestured, forming the air into spikes of titanium he shot to punch holes in Uriel’s thighs, arms, and wings. “Bleed.”

Uriel went down. Moloch wondered if she’d ever experienced pain before, or if this was an entirely new sensation. I should finish her off now. End this all for good. 

Moloch shook his head. Crystal wasn’t here. He’d waited for so very, very long for this moment. Don’t rush it. Savor every moment. Let Uriel witness. 

It’s almost over. 

Moloch turned towards Isabel and Ryan. “I do love killing siblings,” he said, grinning on the pair. “The way you scream when one dies gives me chill. So…who do I get to hear scream today?”

The Dragon’s Scion Part 44

They came to a stop once they’d pushed the horses to the limit. The beast that had carried Ossman and Armin seemed the closest to dropping from exhaustion. Astray was breathing heavily, but of their mounts was the most alert.

Tythel had enough time to push through the horror of what she had done, or at least push it down into a corner of her mind where she could face it later. There was too much danger, and they needed to rest the horses. Eupheme was injured, Armin was fading. I can fall to pieces on my own time.

Haradeth slid off the the horse, offering Tythel a hand to help her off. She took it, which was all that spared her from landing flat on her face as she indelicately flopped off the horse.

“Thank you,” she said, and then turned back to Astray, “and you as well.”

The horse chuffed and turned away. Without Haradeth’s constant touch to calm it, it was no longer comfortable with the smell of dragon that lingered on her.

Nicandros and Haradeth led the horses away as Ossman and Tythel tended to Eupheme. The injury on her leg was not showing any signs of rot, but it would not support her weight right now. “I’m fine,” Eupheme  muttered to Ossman, “Her highness got sliced to ribbons, you broke a dozen bones, and Armin attuned himself to a shadow-forsaken lumwell tainted with unlight. Both of you can stop fussing over me.”

Ossman just looked at Tythel helplessly. Tythel crouched down next to her injured friend. “Eupheme. You seem to be the only person here who really cares that I’m a princess. So, as your princess, I order you to accept some mothering.”

Eupheme frowned at Tythel. “I’m pretty sure that’s not how that works,” she muttered, adding a belated, “your highness.”

Tythel cocked her head. “You might be right. So, lets try yourself. As a dragon, if you don’t accept some mothering, I’ll sit on you until you do.”

That at least got a grin out of Eupheme. “As the Dragon Princess wishes, then.”

Tythel nodded. Ossman motioned towards her. “I’ll take care of Eupheme,” he muttered. “You need to go check on Armin. He stopped talking about halfway, and I couldn’t get him to respond. Go. I’ll take care of her.”

Tythel looked around for Armin, finding him sitting where they had placed him, staring blankly down the path they had just run though. She strode towards him as Ossman helped Eupheme onto a bedroll to check her bandage.

Tythel moved to sit next to Armin. “You look terrible,” she said.

No witty retort, no barb. Armin just grunted.

Tythel bared her teeth, the way Karjon always had when he was frustrated, though she fought back the hiss that usually accompanied the expression. “Did we get far enough to a lumwell for you to attune to another one?”

The silence stretched so long, Tythel began to worry he had drifted too far away to even understand the question. Just as fear was really settling in, Armin shook his head.

Don’t give into fear, Tythel. He needs you right now. “Well, are we at least far enough away from the tainted one where it’ll get better for you?”

Again, Armin did no respond right away, but his forehead furrowed. She saw his lips moving slowly, as if he was repeating the question to himself. Finally, he managed a faint shrug. “Light,” he murmured. “Need light.”

Tythel patted his shoulder. “I know, Armin. We’re headed back towards base. There’s a lumwell there. You’ll…you’ll be able to last that long.” Tythel studied his face. Right? The question died on her lips as Armin’s lips began to move again.

“Need. Light.” Armin lifted one hand. Tythel watched the motion happen at a glacial pace until finally, he was pointing to their packs.

Tythel looked at the packs, then back to Armin. His arm was shaking as he muttered again. “Need. Light.”

What does he mean? Tythel tilted her head at Armin as he began to repeat the two words again, his arm falling back to his side. Every other response he’d made been at least coherent. Not a lumwell. Light. He keeps saying he needs Light.

Tythel stared at their equipment, baring her teeth again. This time she did let herself hiss. Letting herself expression frustration helped clear her head, although it didn’t give her an answer.

“Are you hissing?”

Haradeth moved so quietly, Tythel hadn’t even heard him approach. She jumped where she sat and glowed back at the demigod. “Yes. I hiss. Dragons hiss. Light and Shadow, Haradeth. Are you starting this up again?”

Haradeth flushed, although Tythel couldn’t tell if it was shame or frustration. “No, I didn’t…flath. Not what I meant, Tythel. Shadow, it’s not even why I came over here.”

Tythel took a deep breath. “And I shouldn’t have snapped. I’m worried about Armin.”

“What’s wrong with him? Eupheme mentioned he was in a bad way, but not what was wrong.”

Tythel considered his words. He did sound genuinely concerned. “The lumwell he was attuned to. It was corrupted by Unlight. The corruption seeped through to him.”

“I…” Haradeth frowned. “I don’t think there’s anything I can do to help with that. I can ease the pain from physical injuries, but this…”

“We can’t risk it,” Tythel said, shaking her head. “If Unlight can corrupt a Lumwell, what could it do to a godling?”

Haradeth sighed. “I don’t know. What’s he saying?”

“You can’t hear it?” Tythel tilted her head.

“We don’t all have dragon ears.” Haradeth said mildly. “Although…do dragons even have ears?”

“They’re internal, under a membrane,” Tythel said absently. “And he’s saying ‘Need Light.’ Was pointing at our equipment.”

“Oh! Right, the equipment!” Haradeth snapped his fingers and got up.

Tythel felt hope soar. “You know how to help him?” she asked.

Hope came crashing back down as Haradeth winced. “No. Light and Shadow, I should have realized how that sounded. But I do have something. I found it when I was looking for Lorathor, and I remembered how important it seemed to you, so…” Haradeth lifted something out of the pile of packs that he and Nicandros had unloaded from the horses.

Tythel let out an audible gasp that turned into a delighted squeal. In Haradeth’s hand was her missing packed. She practically tackled him with the hug. “You found my pack. Oh Light, thank you, thank you so much!”

Haradeth stiffened a the contact, then awkwardly patted her back. “I’m…er, glad I could help.”

The embrace ended, and Tythel tore open the top of her pack. She began to dig into it. Where is it? Where is it?

The joy of the pack being returned started to fade. She looked up at Haradeth, her eyes wide. “Haradeth…did you – I’m sorry, I know you got this for me, but did you…open my pack? Take anything out?”

Haradeth frowned. “No. I closed it when I found it, but I didn’t even peek in. I swear.” He looked at Tythel’s face and bent down. “Tythel. I swear on my mother’s name, everything that was in the pack when I found it is still inside, and that I didn’t see anything near it when I found it.”

Tythel nodded, fighting back despair.

The egg was gone.

“Thank you, Haradeth,” she managed again, forcing herself to smile. “It’s still…it’s still wonderful.” You have your father’s notes back. You have your childhood book back. You have the dagger, you have the Sun Tears, you have your clothes. Let that be enough. You can fall apart on your own time. Armin still needs you.

Tythel frowned, not even aware the expression was coming naturally. Well, no, he needs Light.

Light. Tythel looked at the content of the package, which had been emptied in the frantic search for the egg.

The notes, the book, the dagger, the clothes…and peaking out from under a blouse, one of the three remaining Sun Tears.

“He needs Light. Of course!” Tythel snatched the Sun Tear and tore away from Haradeth.

“What…Tythel?” Haradeth chased after her, but Tythel ignored him. Ossman was rushing over as well, drawn by her exclamation.

Armin had stopped muttering. His head was drooping. “No, no, no.” Tythel whispered, grabbing his hands and forcing them around the Sun Tear. “I’m not losing anyone else, Armin. Don’t you dare go anywhere. I figured it out. Light. There’s a crystal made of pure Light in your hand, Armin. Take it!”

It seemed she’d been too late. Armin was slumping to the ground. His breathing was coming quick and shallow now, his heartbeats a slow rhythm Tythel could barely hear. His murmurs had grown wordless. I spent so long on my own sorrows, Tythel thought. I could have saved him, but I was too self-absorbed to…to…

Haradeth grabbed her shoulder and pulled her back as the Sun Tear flared to life. Light poured out between Armin’s fingers. He jerked up like he’d been struck by lightning. His mouth opened in a soundless scream and Light poured from his eyes and mouth into the the heavens.

Everyone had to look away as, for a moment, Armin glowed as bright as the sun, casting their hiding spot into pure daylight.

When her vision cleared and Tythel looked back, Armin was sitting there, still clutching the Sun Tear. His eyes still glowed, looking like the sun during an eclipse. He no longer looked withered or frayed. If anything, he looked even healthier than before.

“Armin?” Tythel asked, hesitantly.

He looked over at her and smiled. “Took you long enough to figure it out, your highness. Should I always plan on nearly dying to get a point across?”

Tythel tackled him with a hug, and Ossman clapped with excitement. From her spot near the bedroll, Eupheme let out an excited woop. Even Haradeth chuckled in appreciation.

Nicandros burst back into the clearing, looking around, and glancing at Armin. “Was that flathing light your doing?”

Armin laughed. “Terribly sorry for giving away our position, sir. Was trying not to die.”

Nicandros stared at Armin, and Tythel could see realization of how much better Armin looked settle in. “Well, if you do it again, boy, try to get into a cave before coming back from the dead,” he said gruffly.

“Yes sir, Nicandros the Mighty, Sir!” Armin snapped a sloppy salute as Tythel finally let go of him. “Permission to sleep off my near death, sir? Reviving tires you like you wouldn’t believe.”

Nicandros didn’t bother fighting the grin. “Granted, soldier. Haradeth, Tythel. You two go scouting – Haradeth take North, Tythel take South. We need to figure out if that little display alerted the Alohym. Ossman, you’re with me standing guard.

They all nodded and headed out, Tythel making sure her pack was securely on her back before she did. It hadn’t contained the Egg, but it had given her Armin back.

She could live with that trade.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 43

Haradeth was waiting on horseback outside the walls, looking ready to leap out of his saddle. “Come on!” he shouted to Tythel and Eupheme. The rest were already mounted.

Tythel’s heart skipped a beat. “Haradeth! Me and horses!”

Haradeth frowned, “Flath,” he whispered to himself, then shook his head, coming to a decision. “Behind me! Astray won’t buck you with me here!”

You named your horse Astray? Tythel bit her tongue at the thought and took Haradeth’s proffered hand to vault onto the horse’s back. He had to hold her steady to prevent her from immediately falling off the other side of Astray. True to his word, Astray didn’t do much more than whinny at her presence, although the other horses shied away as she drew closer. Give me a nice, safe Crawler over these beasts, Tythel thought, then frowned as she realized what had just gone through her head. You prefer the inventions of the Alohym to the creatures of your world?

Then there was no time to think. Haradeth flicked the reigns, and they were off. Tythel immediately wrapped her arms around Haradeth’s waist, holding on with everything she had.

“Tythel, I can’t…breathe,” Haradeth gasped.

Blushing furiously, Tythel loosened her grip until Haradeth could gasp out a breath. She risked a peek over her shoulder, trying to confirm what her ears were telling her.

Her ears were correct. They were being pursued. The devices the soldiers behind them were riding were some kind of two seated Crawler, scurrying along on six legs. They looked like ants to the normal Crawler’s spiders. Tythel shouted a warning to the others.

“Light and Shadow,” Ossman growled as he saw them. Armin was on the seat behind him, and went even paler than he already was.

Tythel could guess why. Crawlers don’t tire. Horses do. The Crawler riders apparently knew this, too. They were taking shots at the horses, but they were lazy, unfocused. They weren’t trying to actually land a hit. They were trying to get them to run their horses to death.

Armin turned around in his seat to start returning fire, and Nicandros added to it with his arcwand tucked under his arm. Nicandros’ shots just helped keep the soldiers’ heads down. Armin had more opportunity to actually aim, but his normally excellent aim was off. Probably just from being jostled on horseback. Please, Light, let it just be that, Tythel thought.

Eupheme let out a pained shriek as bolt of unlight managed to catch Eupheme with a glancing blow to the leg, and she started to slide out of her saddle. No! Tythel thought. If she fell now…

Eupheme’s hands found her reins again, and she righted herself, although Tythel could see the way she grimaces with every hoofbeat. Eupheme might not fall, but she certainly wouldn’t fight again today. Come on, Tythel, think. You have to do something!

She risked peering around Haradeth to see what was coming. They were running through the farmland that surrounded the city, along a road that wove through the various farmsteads. No farmers were peeking out their windows to see what the commotion was about. Apparently the blared warning from the city had reached this far out. The Crawlers were long legged enough to traverse the fields of wheat, but horses had to stick to the roads.

More arcwand fire. Unlight sizzled on the road around them, spooking the horses. A bolt tugged on Nicandros’ cloak. Another one zipped so close to Tythel’s head that it temporarily blinded her as it passed her vision. We’re going to die if you don’t do something!

The greater mobility of the Crawlers meant they could easily be hemmed in, as long as their drivers stuck to the fields. Unfortunately, it seemed their drivers had figured this out too, and were too deep in the fields for Tythel to do anything dramatic, like jump on top of one or…

Tythel, it’s wrong. The farmers depended on this fields for their livelihood! Tythel frowned. And these people are depending on you for their lives.

In the end, it was no contest. “Haradeth! Will fire spook the horses?”

Haradeth shook his head and shouted over his shoulder. “I’ve seen how far you can flame! They’re out of your range.”

“No,” Tythel muttered, “They’re not.” Light forgive me for this. “Drop us to the back!”

That earned her a scowl. After so long with just the others for company, Tythel had forgotten how much Haradeth scowled. He also, for a blessing, didn’t argue. They slowed down just enough for everyone to get ahead of them. Everyone except the riders in the fields of grain.

The riders in the flammable fields of grain.

Tythel turned her head, not daring to let go of Haradeth, and let loose a surge of flame. She didn’t focus the flame this time, instead going for as wide an angle as possible. Turning her head, she repeated it on the other side.

It must not have rained lately, or perhaps Tythel simply underestimated how flammable wheat was. The fire spread through the fields like…well, like wildfire. A few of the Crawlers came to a halt. A couple didn’t stop in time.

Try as she might, Tythel couldn’t help but hear their screams.

“Light,” Haradeth whispered to himself, and Tythel couldn’t tell if he was impressed or horrified.

A few more Crawlers, the outermost ones, were able to go around the flames before they spread too far. They lost precious time in doing so,  and more importantly precious distance. The second wave of dragonflame Tythel sent into the crops gave them a barrier the driver’s couldn’t maneuver around.

Except, that wasn’t why they stopped. Tythel could still hear them. Shouting for buckets, screaming roughly into Songshells for something called “Fire Services.” They didn’t stop because they couldn’t pursue. They stopped because they were prioritizing extinguishing the fires over chasing down escaping prisoners.

I had to save the others, Tythel thought, but it felt like a hollow objection. There were innocent farmers with homes in those fields. With families! Maybe even children. It now fell on the soldiers to save them from Tythel’s flames. Servants of the Alohym, saving them from their supposed princess. The farmers had committed no crimes, save wanting to make food for people the Alohym ruled. That didn’t justify putting their lives in danger, that justify ruining their lives. Or does it?

As much as the books liked to speak of the honor of war, Tythel couldn’t think of a single one that had been won without innocent people dying.

The others were looking at her, but Tythel couldn’t meet their gaze. They all followed me into the trap that lead us here. I have a duty to get them safely out. I did that.

Then why did she feel so dirty?

They were safe now. That was what mattered.

Tythel buried her face into Haradeth’s back, hoping he wouldn’t notice her tears staining his shirt.

Strange Cosmology Part 97

Ryan had been shot, shocked with lightning, punched, cut, and a variety of other injuries since ascending to godhood. He was getting good at distinguishing different types of pain. Having his kidney impaled on a sword was a fresh surge of agony that was its own distinct flavor. This one was…coppery. Wait. That means blood’s in my mouth. Did I cough up blood?

Moloch raised his foot to Ryan’s back, and kicked Ryan so he slid off the blade. That was also a new flash of pain, and Ryan couldn’t do anything but fall to the ground.

“Thousands of years living off of human sacrifice,” Moloch said, advancing on Ryan. In spite of the pain, Ryan managed to scramble away from Moloch. The murderous god didn’t seem frail or sickly anymore. He was strong and vital, his withered skin clearing up, his eyes blazing with a determination Ryan had never imagined they could hold. “Thousands upon thousands of years working through monsters and proxies and from the shadows.  It is so good to finally be at the endgame, wouldn’t you agree, Eschaton?”

Around them, sounds of battle raged. Anansi was flying through the air on a complex twist, baiting his draconic foe. Dianmu assaulted hers with fury and thunder. He couldn’t see Crystal or Athena. What he was most aware of was his own blood staining the grass below. Moloch was advancing on him at a sedate pace. Ryan reached down to his injures, sending a surge of heat with a twist. Moloch smiled and motioned for Ryan to get on with it. He wanted Ryan to heal himself.

Ryan wasn’t going to question why. He screamed again at the pain of the cauterized wound, but at least he wouldn’t bleed to death. “You’re sick,” Ryan hissed through gritted teeth, forcing himself to his feet. His sword was nearby, and a quick twisting of equations brought it flying to his hand.

“Then please, Eschaton.” Moloch spread his arms wide, the sword that still dripped with Ryan’s blood held out. It was still bright red. Ichor dries quicker. I’m still Nascent.  Real fear spiked through Ryan’s chest, as bad as when Enki had him by the throat. “Put me out of my misery. Cure what ails me!”

It was a trap. It was such a painfully obvious trap that Ryan almost fell for it, taking a half step before stopping himself short. “Nah,” Ryan said, “I’m not going to stab you today.”

Moloch frowned. “Pity. I was hoping that-“

Ryan reached behind his back and twisted reality the moment Moloch’s guard was down, reorienting gravity. As far as Ryan and Moloch and everything else on the battlefield was concerned, everything worked like normal.

Everything except the Tarasque’s corpse. Ryan twisted reality so that, as far as it was concerned, Moloch was down – and has a massive gravitational pull. It rocketed across the landscape at Moloch, shattering rocks and more monsters and soldiers as it plummeted towards Moloch.

With a laugh, Moloch turned around to disintegrate the corpse. The individual flecks of ash didn’t completely vanish, but they were robbed of their momentum and only ended up clinging to Moloch, coating him in a layer of grey soot, but their impact was almost nonexistent. “A good attempt. I especially like giving me the gravitational pull of Jupiter. Would have hurt quite a bit if it had -.”

Moloch’s words were cut off when Ryan buried his sword into Moloch’s back. “Changed my mind about stabbing you.”

To Ryan’s dismay, Moloch didn’t scream or gasp or do anything of the things you expected when stabbing someone with a large blade. Instead, he laughed again, and Moloch’s form ran like wax. To Ryan’s horror, Moloch managed to completely reorient his body so front was back and back was front. It was so sickening to watch, Ryan found he couldn’t do anything but stare dumbfounded.

Moloch reached out as soon as he was facing Ryan and threw out his hand, striking Ryan in the chest with a pure equation of F=M*A. Ryan went flying backwards, leaving his sword in Moloch.

Ryan’s flight was interrupted by a group of Helhests and riders. They started to wheel to face Ryan, but Moloch held up a hand. “No! Not yet.”

Ryan’s only response was to moan into the dirt. Something in his earlier injury had torn open from that toss, and Moloch seemed to be only moderately inconvenienced by being impaled. Did he manage a double nanoverse? Ryan wondered through the pain. But that didn’t make sense. If Moloch had pulled that off, he wouldn’t waste any nanoverses on making monsters. Moloch could have used the entire Canaanite pantheon to far outstrip anything they could have fought. Then how is he so damn powerful?

It doesn’t matter. You’ve fought more powerful gods than you before. You nuked Enki. You can do this, Ryan. You can beat him. Ryan forced himself to his feet, feeling less certain than his pep talk indicated. Every fight with Enki had been a fierce battle. Even at the height of Enki’s power, he’d never seemed so lazy about it. Moloch was acting like a cat with a cornered mouse that he intended to play with before killing, and seemed even less threatened.

“Why not kill me, Moloch?” Ryan asked, trying to buy himself some time with banter.  If I can get keep him talking until the others show up, five on one odds favor us. Doubt flickered across Ryan’s thoughts. Right? Why isn’t he concerned? “You’re acting like I can’t hurt you. Why not just come at me?”

“Because,” Moloch said, “not everyone’s here. You don’t get to die until they do. But I don’t want you making it too easy on them.”

With a gesture, Moloch used the same trick Enki had used, so long ago on Crystal. Chains shot out of the ground and latched into Ryan’s skin. The pain was incredible, even though the damage was minimal. But they were barbed and hooked in ways that wormed into his skin and he swore he could feel them drilling.

So Ryan screamed. Moloch laughed. And the bear roared.

Bear?

The sound wasn’t what Moloch expected, clearly. Then again, there are very few situations where one expects to be charged by nearly two tons of enraged grizzly. It caught Moloch off guard with how fast it was. Ryan watched as the bear tore a series of lines into Moloch’s back, sending him to the ground. Moloch flipped over to face it, snarling, but the bear got another blow on the side of Moloch’s head. Why is there a bear?

Another part of Ryan added that, just like Moloch’s power source, it didn’t matter. The bear was there, and Ryan knew how to break these chains. It was one of the first things he’d ever managed to do. With a twist, the chains shattered as Ryan broke down the bonds between iron atoms.

As Ryan struggled to his feet, Beast and god wrestled. Before Ryan could dash to aid his savior, Moloch hit it in the chest with a single flat palm, a blow he accelerated with enough force to actually lift the bear off the ground and send it flying upwards.

Ryan couldn’t watch as the bear hit the ceiling above them. It was certainly moving fast enough. Instead he looked at Moloch, who was watching. Moloch’s wounds closing before Ryan’s eyes. That’s impossible. You can’t shapeshift away injuries. Ryan turned on his divine sight. Moloch was accelerating time around his injures like it was nothing, healing them in an instant.

Then, Moloch frowned, and Ryan risked a glance up. The bear had stopped moving, and a pair of enormous red wings jutted out from behind its bulk. “Uriel,” Moloch growled, almost in unison with Ryan. The two adversaries shared a glance of mirrored bewilderment. Who’s side is she on?

The bear was lowered to the ground in Uriel’s arms.

As Ryan watched, the bear’s form ran much like Moloch’s had, shapeshifting into something else. No, not something. Some one.

Uriel helped Isabel Smiths stand up. “Hey bro,” Isabel said, peering around Moloch. Her voice was strained, and her stance unsteady. That blow to the chest she received in bear form still hurt. “guess I still have to clean up after you.”

Moloch snarled and readied a bolt of lightning. Ryan started to try and lunge at him before Moloch could blast Isabel apart, but then Moloch hesitated and glanced at Uriel. The archangel was grinning. “You broke a compact with Hell, Moloch,” Uriel said, her voice dripping confidence.

“You agree to do no harm to Isabel Smith,” Moloch muttered.

Uriel nodded. “And you have violated that.”

To Ryan’s horror, Moloch didn’t seem at all disturbed. If anything, he seemed…excited. “I’m going to enjoy killing you, angel.”

And with that, angel and god charged each other.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 42

The tentacle thrashed under Tythel, trying to throw her off. In this case, its size worked against it. If it had been smaller, thinner, more whip-like, she would have been tossed easily. As it was, she could see each movement the tentacle made and adjust her feet accordingly to stay onto the limb. It wasn’t easy, by any stretch of the imagination. She’d pictured herself leaping atop the tentacle and dashing across it to the central pod as easily as she’d leapt from rooftop to rooftop, but a few steps into it and she’d almost fallen off twice. Slow and steady, Tythel.

It helped that she’d sprouted talons when she’d landed on the tentacle. She didn’t risk glancing down to her feet again, but she knew what she’d see if she did. Her toes were longer and ended in curved claws. Those claws were her saving grace right now, able to find purchase in the tiny segments that gave the tentacle mobility. She advanced along the appendage with a slow deliberation. You are not going to kill them. We’re getting out of this flathing city.

At least, if nothing else, they are.

Soldiers began to pop their heads out of the top of the pod, unlight arcwands in hands. She pulled out her shield as they opened fire. The hiss of unlight beams on the barrier was just more white noise in the mix, and many of them missed. It’s almost funny. The tentacle thrashing is making me a harder target. She continued to plod onwards towards the central base, as the limb began to readjust. Someone inside had finally figured out that she couldn’t cling on if they got the tentacle completely vertical, and were moving the mass of the central pod over her to drop her off.

T ythel push forward as fast as she dared, the shield her only protection. As soon as she was close enough to risk it, and her footing was sure enough, Tythel pushed herself into a leap to land on top of the central pod.

The men who had poked out to start shooting at her were coming out, unlight blades drawn. Tythel swung down on one as he was coming out, and breathed a quick burst of fire at another.

Then she brought the hammer down on the central disk.

It rang out like a gong, cutting over the sounds of battle and that damned repeated announcement. The hammer, even with its own energy burst and Tythel behind it, was not strong enough to send the pod flying, and the impact reverberated up her arm. She could feel it in her bones, and tasted coppery blood from the force of her teeth being driven together.

She brought the hammer down again.

Again the clash of unlight hammer on Alohym metal. Again an impact that rose up her arm and travelled through her entire body. She could feel herself become nauseous for a moment, as if the reverberations were interfering with her balance. And again, when she pulled it away, the metal it had impacted showed no scratching, no dent.

It has to be more lightly armored, it has to be, Tythel told herself as she raised the hammer again. She brought the hammer down a third time with even more force behind it, putting her entire body into the swing to get every ounce of force she could. This time the sound had even more texture to it than a gong, as if the individual components of the pod were rattling. A soldier that had been trying to climb out past his fallen comrade stumbled back as the entire pod shook from the impact.

And yet, when she pulled the hammer away, the metal was unscathed.

Despair began to set in as she raised the hammer again. A tiny doubt rose up, a gnat buzzing around her thoughts. It didn’t have to be weaker. Perhaps these had been constructed when the Alohym warred against each other, armored for attacks from above. Perhaps it had weaker armor, but it was not weak enough. Or, more accurately, she was too weak.

No.

She pushed that fear aside. She would break this pod or it would break her. And I don’t break, she thought, bringing the hammer down again. I don’t break, she thought again, the hammer ringing against the steel hide of this unnatural creation of the Alohym. I. Don’t. Break. She brought the hammer down with everything she had. The soldiers inside the pods were staring at her in shock and confusion, but they were adjusting to the sound. They were grabbing their weapons to come out and meet her. Still she swung the hammer. Nothing else mattered. Not the soldiers that were taking aim, not the sounds of the pods footsteps as it tried to continue its assault . Nothing mattered besides swinging that hammer, over and over, faster and faster, to the point where instead of the phrase punctuating her swings individual words did.

I

CLANG

Don’t

CLANG

BREAK!

And with that last swing, she did not hear a clang. She heard the wrenching sound of metal tearing. A hissing sound, like lightning in a bottle, began to emerge from the point of impact.

She glanced back to the soldiers in time to see one of them fall. Eupheme was there with her. Tythel didn’t know how she’d got there, perhaps jumping out of one of the soldiers shadows, or perhaps-

“Your highness! Quit staring and finish this flathing thing! I’ve got this here.”

Tythel nodded, and turned back to where she had been hitting. A small tear had appeared in the armor, as long as her finger and about as wide. Tythel brought the hammer down on the tear again. You will break. It was wider this time. You will break. It was now almost as long as her hand. One more blow, and it was as wide as it was long, the hammer’s head punching through so firmly that Tythel lost her balance wrenching it out.

Her claws scrabbled on the surface for purchase. Vertigo set in, and she began to slide down the side of the pod. The ground was four stories away. She could see it, could see herself falling. She didn’t think she’d survive the fall.

Just before she passed the point of no return, her claw caught the lip of the hole she had created. She had her grip back, and whirled back towards the hole. Eupheme was locking down the soldiers, but was doing so with normal shoes. She’d lose her footing eventually, and the soldiers – still half inside the pod – didn’t have that concern.

Tythel took a deep breath, and shot her dragonflame directly into the gap she had created.

The change was almost immediate. Explosions began to rock the pod, flame exiting though the gaps where the legs met the sides. It also flooded back through the pod into the central chamber were the soldiers were.

The pod began to list to one side. Tythel reached out to grab Eupheme’s foot as Eupheme began to lose balance, and then they were falling with the pod, the ground rushing up to meet them.

Had they fallen straight the full distance, the impact still would have killed them. But the joints of the tentacles failed bit by bit as the pod collapsed, slowing their descent enough where the impact was jarring, but non-fatal.

Eupheme let out a single laugh as she started righting herself. “Wait till we tell Armin about this one. He’ll never believe us.”

Tythel couldn’t help but let out a laugh of her own. “They’re..”

“Safely out of the city. Come on, your highness, or we won’t join them.”

The dash through the gate was unimpeded, and together they dashed into freedom.

Strange Cosmology Part 96

Ryan didn’t think the headlong rush toward Moloch deserved a name as dignified as a charge, or that the group of monsters should be called something as orderly as a mob. If he had to give the collection of beasts perusing them a collective noun, he would have called it a chaos of monsters. They were currently enraged chasing after Resheph’s drones, but as soon as they got scent of the divine they would be diverting their mass.

Ryan hoped that would be the case. The plan falls apart if they don’t. Granted, in Ryan’s opinion, if the attack on Moloch was too much to call a charge, if the monsters didn’t deserve to be called a mob, then calling “unleash the monsters and rush at Moloch and hope they kill him and his followers before they kill us I guess” a plan was a grave insult to the concept of plans.

At least it had accomplished one thing. Moloch did not look smug, or arrogant, or haughty. He certainly didn’t look like he was in control, bellowing orders at his followers and his monsters. His eyes were wide, his movements exaggerated, and kept shouting uncertain glances at the approaching horde.

Whatever else, Moloch was off balance.

“Get your targets, everyone!” Ryan shouted. The other gods didn’t need to be reminded, of course, but Ryan felt he should shout something. The situation was as dire as it got, the stakes as high as they could be, and his sister’s life hung in the balance on top of everything else. But part of Ryan was both terrified and thrilled to be fighting his target.

Crystal was peeling off from the group as soon as she spotted her target, the hydra that was under Moloch’s command. She dodged the Hecatoncheires hands, she can dodge the Hydra’s heads, Ryan thought to try and reassure himself. He watched for a moment as she launched herself into the air, but didn’t have time to see her first attack land before the next of their group spotted their target and split off to face it.

Anansi had spotted the ddraig goch, a dragon from Welsh mythology with an eagle’s beak. And so it went, Dianmu breaking off to fight the three-headed balaur, a creature that looked like it should be more at home in the water but moved across the land with serpentine grace, and Athena to fight her old nemesis in the drakaina, which looked to Ryan like the Medusa on steroids but thankfully lacked a petrifying glare.

Then Ryan saw his target, a creature from French mythology, and inspiration for one of his favorite creatures in roleplaying games.

The dread Tarasque.

It stood on all six legs – legs that bore more resemblance to a bear’s than anything else – with a massive shell covering its back that was dotted with spines as big as Ryan. As he approached the monster, it roared at him, revealing a mouth full of teeth fully in keeping with its leonine head.

I’m going to kill a Tarasque. Ryan thought as he propelled himself into the air by amplifying the force of his leap through twisting the acceleration his jump provided. As he came down towards it, part of him couldn’t help but add or die to one.

Ryan held off on twisting reality as he came down. They all were going to fight their monsters as much as possible with their weapons and wits and only minor alterations to reality. We have to save our strength for- ohgodspike!

Ryan twisted in the air to avoid impaling himself as he came down on the creature’s back. The result was that he had to roll instead of the sword-down landing he’d been aiming for, nearly falling off the Tarasque’s back before he managed to catch himself with one foot. Graceful, Ryan, he thought to himself.

Okay, you’re on the shell of a dragon-turtle-lion-bear hybrid, now what? Ryan considered trying to twist reality – the other part of the plan hinged on taking down the monsters before Moloch could empower them – but conserving power was more important.

Instead he started to make his way across the Tarasque’s back as it thrashed, trying to toss him into mauling range of those claws. It was like crawling across the roof of a bus on a bumpy road, when the bus was made of teeth and claws and malicious hate.

As difficult as it was, with each passing moment Ryan grew closer to the creature’s neck, holding onto his sword as best he could as he crawled along the slick shell of a beast that was large enough to bite Ryan in half  lengthwise.

A month ago you were trying to decide how many days you could hold off before you had to go to the Laundromat. The thought rose, unbidden, and once it was in Ryan’s head he couldn’t shake it. A month ago his concerns had been the laundromat, and if he was going to eat prepackaged noodles or splurge on fast food burgers. He was worried about getting progress reports done for his boss and – Holy crap I never quit. I forgot to quit my job.

Well, he’d been all over the news running around being the alleged Antichrist, so he was certainly fired by now. Not that it mattered. He’d only wanted the health benefits really, and he didn’t exactly need those anyway.

Ryan thought they were odd thoughts to have when crawling across the back of a beast that had terrorized fifth century France, but for the life of him couldn’t figure out what normal thoughts would be under these circumstances. The Tarasque’s neck was ahead. Ryan was almost in striking distance.

Then it rolled.

Ryan had to twist reality as it did to avoid being crushed by its bulk, pulling all the air around him into a thick cushion. As the Tarasque rolled onto its back, Ryan got glimpses of Moloch’s soldiers being crushed by shell and spines, then it was darkness as his hastily constructed air shield was buried into the ground. The Tarasque began to thrash above him, grinding him further and further into the dirt, and Ryan held onto the cushion of air for dear life.

After seconds that stretched into an eternity, it rolled off him. When Ryan came out of the ground, it was wheeling towards him. Upon seeing he was still alive, it bellowed and charged, its mouth opening to devour him whole. Ryan’s heart pounded. If you don’t get this right, you’re going to need a miracle.   

Ryan reached out and caused the air around the Tarasque’s face to release a sudden burst of photons, a face-first flashbang that blinded the beast. It still charged, it still bellowed, but that was enough for Ryan to roll forwards under that snapping jaw and raise his sword above him.

It was just high enough. The first half-foot of his sword buried itself in the Tarasque’s underbelly, and its mass was too great to stop itself. Ryan just had to stand there, sword raised above his head, and let the Tarasque’s momentum combine with his own divine strength to disembowel the creature from sternum to stem.

The stench was horrific as black ichor and monstrous viscera splattered free of its stomach to slosh on and around Ryan.  When it was done, Ryan looked like he had been doused in ink. He wiped his face, feeling his stomach churn.

A bit behind him, the Tarasque’s momentum ran out. Its body flopped lifelessly to collapse among Moloch’s army and the chaos of monsters, scattering both forces with its bulk.

Ryan dragged himself to his feet, looking for where in the chaos he was needed most. Already burned some power, and haven’t even started to bother Moloch yet. If I’m not careful-

Ryan gasped at a sudden, sharp pain in his side, and looked down to see the sword running halfway through his kidney.

“Oh, my,” Moloch whispered in Ryan’s ear, “I have so missed getting my hands dirty.”

The Dragon’s Scion Part 41

The building they were staying in turned out to be a home belonging to a couple that had been executed for aiding one of the resistance groups. “Once they do,” Nicandros explained to Tythel as they were packing, “the people and everything they owned are declared Anathema.”

“Like in Cardometh?” Tythel said, frowning. Anathema as a religious practice had died out when the Cardomethi empire fell, to be replaced with Exile to the Shadow. It meant the Shadow would rule your life as well as your death, but was far gentler than –

“Girl, you know I don’t know anything about Carodmeth.” Nicandros snorted. “It means that if you touch anything that belonged to them before it’s been cleansed, you’re marked and the Alohym will keep you from the Shadow’s embrace. And if you get caught, you’re probably a rebel and get treated as such.”

-That. “Yeah, that’s about the same,” Tythel said in a small voice.

Nicandros turned away to rummage through a pack, pulling out Tythel’s hammer and shield. “The Alohym don’t seem to have figured out we uses Anathema houses when we’re in cities. Safer than exposing someone who is still alive to the flathing Alohym. Although I think this is the last time we’ll get to use that trick.”

Tythel blinked in confusion. “How could they not have figured it out? They’re not stupid.

“Because we’ve only done it once or twice before, as a last resort. Like this was.” Nicandros shrugged as he handed over the armaments. “It’s a trick we knew could only sit in a cryobox for so long. Saving you and Ossman was worth burning it.”

The guilt began to rise in Tythel again, and she fought it down. If you tell him now, he’ll be thinking about it during the escape. He might even not trust you during it. At least wait until you’re out of the city and safe. At least wait until…Tythel resisted a sigh. At least wait until you can stomach the look in his eyes.

She knew that wasn’t fair to herself, that there were solid reasons not to tell him now. That didn’t change the fact that it felt like cowardice.

“Thank you, then.” She tried to force a smile for Nicandros. He raised an eyebrow in confusion, and Tythel blinked again. “Did I get it wrong?”

“If your lips don’t go up, it’s just a grimace. You’re getting better, girl, don’t worry.” Nicandros did give her a smile, one she hadn’t been able to place before but was now realizing was an indulgent smile.

Tythel turned away.

“Hey, Tythel, don’t worry.” Nicandros said. “We’re going to get out of this. Remember, I promised. Not going anywhere.”

Instead of answering, Tythel shouldered her pack. “Don’t make promises you can’t be sure you’ll keep,” she said, brushing past Nicandros before her nictitating membranes started flashing away the tears. She knew it looked like she was angry, and she was. It’s not his fault.

She just wished he’d stop saying that.

“Eupheme,” Tythel approached the woman, “The routes still clear?”

Eupheme gave her a tilted head of confusion that Tythel appreciated. “They were five minutes ago, your highness. Do you want me to check again?”

Tythel bit her lip. “No. It’s only been five minutes?” Eupheme nodded. “I just…” Tythel glanced out of the corner of her eye at Armin.

The young mage was moving around getting ready, but it was a listless series of gestures. He seemed present, mentally, but without his usual cheer and jokes he was…Tythel couldn’t put a word to it. He’s just going through the motions. Eupheme followed her gaze and then motioned to draw Tythel’s attention back. “He’s stronger than he looks, your highness.”

Tythel didn’t know if Eupheme meant that, or was saying it for Tythel’s benefit, but it was appreciated all the same.

“Alright, everyone, listen up,” Nicandros growled. “Once we go out that door, we’re not going to have long to go before we run into a patrol trying to close the net. Take them down hard, fast, and silent. If we pull that off and break out of the web, we’ll be clear. If we don’t, we’re going to have to fight our way out through the entire flathing city. We’re about half a mile from the wall, and Eupheme’s already made sure we’ll have an open gate. If  you get separated, head towards the Northwest gate. Push hard, but we’re not trying to take down the whole flathing garrison here. If your opponent can’t chase, it’s time to move, not fight. Understood?”

Everyone nodded and headed towards the door. Tythel took a deep breath to steel her nerves and, with one last glance to make sure Armin was still on his feet, opened the door.

The night air was still and cool. It should have been refreshing, but there was something off about it. A foul stillness that reminded Tythel of when Karjon had exposed some new tunnels for the lair. The stale air from in there had been exactly like this.

By contrast, to Tythel’s ears, the city was very much alive. There was a woman arguing with her husband about her sister. Here was a young boy trying to comfort a younger child, promising papa would be home soon. The gentle sounds of a couple kissing. Some less gentle sounds from a different couple that confused Tythel. What on earth are they doing? And so on and so forth.  An absolute cacophony of life that had been hidden from her in the basement.

And when we were on the first floor, Tythel reflected as she fell in behind Eupheme and Nicandros, who were taking up scouting positions in the front. There had been no sound from the city at large when they had been there. Did Anathema actually do something? Or was it some other factor? Tythel shook her head to dismiss the thought and try to tune out the sound. She needed to stay focused. Even with Eupheme and Nicandros taking point, Tythel might spot something they missed.

Tythel heard the clang of the Alohym soldiers enhanced mail at the same time Eupheme held up a fist to bring the group to a stop and gestured at Nicandros. He nodded, raising his arcwand, and Eupheme vanished into the shadows.

Everyone tensed. Tythel was holding her breath, Ossman was hunching his shoulders to look as small as possible, even Armin was…well, the best one could say for Armin right now was that he looked alive, which was an improvement.

They were so focused, they all missed the soldier coming up behind them before it was too late.

“Targets spotted!” he shouted into his shoulder, and Tythel whirled around. In a single smooth motion she activated and let her hammer fly as she did. The soldier was a good distance away, having shouted the warning before the sound of his mail alerted Tythel. The hammer still struck him in the chest, and he went stumbling back as Tythel ran to pick up the weapon. Stupid, stupid, Tythel chided herself.

“Come on!” Nicandros shouted as Tythel’s fingers closed around the hammer’s handle. The time for stealth was over.

It was time for flight.

Tythel was able to catch up to Ossman and Armin. When she reached them she slowed down to match Ossman’s speed and grabbed Armin by the back of his clock and tossed him over her shoulder. “Tythel, what are you doing?” he shouted, practically in her ear.

“Shoot behind us!” she responded. It wasn’t the reason she’d picked him up, but Tythel took pride in herself for the improvisional answer.

Armin grumbled but unslung his arcwand as soldiers began to close in behind them. He opened fire.

Alarms started sounding across the city. A deep, booming voice sounded over the city, coming from a dozen different origins. “U’doh’can. U’doh’can.”

“What are they saying?” Tythel asked Ossman as their feet pounded on the pavement.

“Stay in your homes,” Ossman grunted. “It means they’re not going to be holding back.”

Tythel nodded and pushed her head down. They’d caught up to Eupheme and Nicandros. Eupheme was running oddly, her form trailing a shadowy impression of herself with every step. Nicandros just ran as fast as he could.

The gate loomed ahead. Freedom was almost there! Tythel pushed herself a bit harder, determined to get Armin to freedom.

Then a metal tree trunk slammed into the road in front of them. It took Tythel a moment to realize it belonged to one of the tentacles of the pod-walkers from the forest. It was thicker than the one they had fought back then, and Tythel didn’t think they’d be lucky enough to open a small hole she could exploit this time.

Tythel’s mind was racing. If I was building a colossus like that, where would I short the armor? The answer was obvious. No one in the world had flying machines besides the Alohym, so why would you waste armor on the top.

Because of me.

Tythel shoved Armin at Ossman. “Get him out of the city!” She shouted at Ossman.

“What?”

“Go! I have a plan!” Tythel didn’t wait for Ossman to answer.

Instead, she leapt.

The leap took her high enough to hit the roof of a two story house beside her. The walker turned towards her, and lashed out with one of its tentacles. Not there yet. Without even pausing on the balcony, she took two more steps and launched herself into the air again, this time landing on the roof a third story building. The people inside the house screamed in panic, but that was swiftly drowned out as the tentacle slammed into the balcony she had just vacated.

The screams from inside the building were frightened, not pained. Tythel hoped she hadn’t gotten anyone killed as the walker swung towards her again. Tythel had to drop to her knees to slide under this blow, bending backwards till she could feel her hair press the tiles.

Then she pushed up to resume charging. A four story building was nearby, and was her target. It seemed – thank the Light – the Alohym soldiers inside were unwilling to fire Unlight inside a city and were trying to swat her like a bug instead. Perfect.

She leapt up to the four story building. The pilot of the pod had figured out her destination and a tentacle was swinging to meet her. Instead of trying to dodge this one, Tythel landed on it.

For a moment she almost lost her balance. The metal was smooth and polished to a sheen, it offered very little in the way of foothold. Then she heard and felt something catch in her foot, and her momentum stopped. Worry about that later. Tythel pivoted towards the pod and began to charge up the length of the tentacle.

If I survive this, Nicandros can never complain about my technique again.

Strange Cosmology Part 95

It’s so nice to have everything going according to plan. What was I thinking, working with Enki and Bast? It wasn’t the first time Moloch had wondered that, and he doubted it would be the last. Enki had been an unstable element. Moloch had admired his near obsessive focus on a single goal – he could relate to it – but his mad plan to merge nanoverses…if I had thought it could work, I never would have worked with him. Bast would have been fine to work with, but If she’d understood the full scope of Moloch’s ambitions, she would have stabbed him in the back faster than he’d betrayed Ishtar.

And I never planned to stay loyal to her. His hands twitched at the thought of Ishtar’s name, a gesture he was almost not aware of. Just a reflexive one, triggered by the thought of wringing her by the neck until it snapped it half. Letting her go to stop Enki had been galling. You’ve waited so long for that moment, he reminded himself. Just a little bit longer was for the best.

Especially because Enki might have been able to pull it off. Seeing what he could do with just two nanoverses, Moloch honestly thought Enki might have been able to hold the Sun back if he’d had enough of them.

And we can’t have that.

In a way, it was funny. Enki had become something so terrible, Moloch had been forced to allow defeat to make sure he was undone. Almost like the old days. Except for a few important details.

That thought made Moloch chuckle to himself, the raspy, wet sound he favored for how much it unnerved humans.

“Something amusing you, Moloch?” Uriel asked, crossing her arms across her chest. Moloch sighed at her voice. I preferred the last guy. Lucifer and his minions had been devious and manipulative and wholly focused on mortal sin and suffering, but they hadn’t been insufferable prigs about it. Uriel had somehow become more arrogant, not less, since her Fall.

“Just reminiscing, Uriel. About days long gone.”

“I know how long.”

That would have stopped Moloch cold if the fallen angel hadn’t been firmly leashed by their bargain. “It’s good to know things,” he muttered, turning back to Olympus. “I don’t recall part of our deal being you ruining the moment.”

“You should have specified in our deal, then.” Uriel gave him an impudent grin. “Since you did not, I can do as I please.”

Moloch turned away from her, not willing to let the insolence spoil the mood. Everything is going perfectly, he reminded himself. The gods of Olympus were turning on themselves. Even if they decided to aid Ishtar and her cohorts, it would be the remnant, the survivors. They were done, and would be ash soon. His real targets had taken the bait, and their first fight against one of his enhanced monsters had resulted in them needing to recover their hungers. They’d come to fight soon, and Moloch would crush them.

He could not wait to see the look on Ishtar’s face.

“Sir?” It was one of his cultists, enhanced by sacrifice and monstrous ichor. Moloch couldn’t remember his name. Or, more accurately, Moloch cared about this cultists name as much as he cared for the blades of grass he was currently standing upon. “Some of the others approach. Athena and Dianmu. They’ve stopped near the southern ridge.”

Moloch furrowed his brows. “Well, we should not keep them waiting, should we?” Moloch turned to head towards the barricade to the south.

As the cultist had stated, Athena and Dianmu stood there. Moloch couldn’t see the others, not from here. It doesn’t matter. They’d come, in time. Maybe these two had realized the folly of opposing him and were trying to get sanctuary. If they are, offer it. Until things are done. He doubted he’d be that lucky though. Athena was as steadfast as they came, and Dianmu had never betrayed a cause – not even when she herself was betrayed. I wonder if she’s still sore about that?

They were just far enough away Moloch didn’t bother ordering his outriders to hunt them down. Instead, he drew up to make sure he was clearly visible over the crude fortifications of bone and sinew.

“Moloch!” Athena bellowed, her voice amplified by Dianmu twisting reality as she spoke. “You have invaded the home of the Olympians. You have committed foul acts against both man and god. You have destroyed nanoverses for personal gain, ending trillions of lives to create monsters. You-“

Moloch twisted reality to amplify his own voice. The time to conserve power was almost at an end. “As much as I appreciate being reminded how incredible I am, Athena, I assume you have a point?”

If the interruption bothered Athena, she didn’t show it beyond rolling her eyes. “I’m giving you a chance, Moloch. Surrender, and we will imprison you in the Labyrinth. You’ll live your life there, but you will not face Real Death, and you will have a domain to shape to a degree.”

Moloch burst out laughing, and with the twisted amplification, his cackles echoed horribly throughout the entirety of Elysian Rest. “You are giving me a chance, Pallas Athena? I have every advantage. I have an army remade to kill gods. I have monsters that would rip you shreds. I have your dear Eschaton’s sister,” and here Moloch gestured, and Isabel was drug over to him by her chains. Moloch ignored her protests and lifted her high so Athena could see. Uriel tensed. Don’t worry, Uriel. I won’t harm her. I remember our deal. They don’t know of it, however. “I have an angel on my side! You have a few gods and…nothing else.”

Ryan, Ishtar, and Anansi were cresting the hill to join Athena. They exchanged some quiet words, and Moloch tapped his foot, waiting for a response. His fingers twitched again. He could reach out right now, direct his full power at the cluster. They’d never see it coming, they’d never imagine it. You’d never see the look on their faces. The plan, Moloch, the plan.

Besides, what could they possibly do to him?

As if they had senses the thought, Athena turned back to him. “Iacta Alea est!” The die is cast. As a group, the five gods raised their hands and lowered them.

That’s when the explosions started. Over and over, explosions along the sides of the Elysian Rest. All around them, the walls of the Labrynth were wracked with staccato burst of detonations that shook the ground Moloch stood on. Moloch looked around, wildly. Dust was filling the space the explosions had occupied.

And from behind the dust came dozens of roars. “What.” Moloch said. It wasn’t a question. He could tell exactly what was going on. He could already see the first creature emerge from the smoke and dust, a trio of Chimeras bellowing from all three heads. They were followed by a hydra, growingly and hissing as it slithered free. Scylla, the creature that had blocked Odysseus from his return to Greece, was the first Moloch recognized, a massive woman that crawled across the landscape on tentacles that ended in ravenous wolf-jaws.

The first what didn’t seem enough. “What.” Moloch repeated. This wasn’t part of the plan. This wasn’t part of any plan! “This is madness,” Moloch shouted across the pass at Athena.

She didn’t answer. She and her companions were already charging, trying to stay ahead of the wave of monsters they had unleashed.

In his grasp, Isabel stared laughing. “What is so funny?” Moloch growled. “What is so goddamned funny?”

“My brother…he used to play this nerd game with dice. And every time they were near the end of the game, people would…” She snorted and had needed a moment to collect herself. “would wonder what stupid-ass thing he was going to do next. No one could plan for it! Drove the head nerd, the DM, up the wall.” Isabel got her laughed under control and gave Moloch a defiant grin. “No one can plan for my brother.”

Moloch snarled at her and tossed Isabel aside, issuing orders to his troops. Isabel rolled with the throw as best she could, coming to a stop at Uriel’s feet.

Ryan, what the hell are you doing? Isabel wondered. Unleashing a ton of monsters was stupid. Or maybe it wasn’t. But Moloch had an army, Ryan had a mob. For all her bravado, she was not even remotely certain Ryan had any idea what was going on.

Isabel glanced at Moloch, making sure he was still focused on his army. He was out of sight. She reached down to her pocked as best as the chains allowed.

It was still there. Isabel glanced at Uriel, who nodded. Almost time, Isabel thought, her heart pounding. It’s almost time.

She just hoped that, if this was going to go badly, it would be enough to turn the tide.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 40

Tythel dragged herself out of the Shadow, still clutching that ball of light. When her senses returned, she could feel her mind returning with them. Thoughts were clearer and linear. Her head was still pounding, but it wasn’t making it impossible to think.

Before trying to move, she took stock of the room around her. Nicandros was sitting nearest, all but looming over her. Eupheme was on top of the stairs, sharpening a dagger. Ossman was asleep on a bed in the corner, looking less like a mummy than he had when Tythel could remember last.

Armin was nowhere to be seen.

Besides them were a few new objects. The first Tythel noticed were more weapons, smuggled into the basement while she slept. Arcwands, enough for each of them. Then there was a pile of rags in the corner, clothes of all shapes and sizes haphazardly strewn together. The strange device Armin had been using on her rested on top of them, and a few more devices Tythel couldn’t place.

She started to get up, but Nicandros put a hand on her shoulder. “Easy, girl. You with us?”

Tythel let herself be pressed back into the bedroll. “I think so. How long?”

“Four days. A shard of the unlight blade broke off, got stuck in your ribs.” Nicandros gave her a smile, and in that smile Tythel could see the echo of the fear that must have plagued him for days. “How are you feeling?”

“Better than last time I got up.” Tythel rose to a sitting position, having to stop and wince once she was fully up. Her head was throbbing in protest, and she reached up to rub her temples to try and quell the pain. It’s like the morning after I snuck a sip of Sylvani wine from Karjon. Seeing as Sylvani wine was one of the few alcohols that could manage to intoxicate a dragon, it had been extremely potent for twelve year old Tythel. He acted so mad. I can’t believe he let me do that just to teach me a lesson. She pushed back the memories to focus on the present “How bad was it?”

“Tythel,” Nicandros said in a warning tone, but Tythel shook her head.

“Nicandros. I need to know, please. How bad?” It was hard for her to say why she felt like she needed to know. Something about it struck her as important. Maybe it’s just because they risked everything to save you? Or just good to know how close you came to dying.

Nicandros sighed. “We almost lost you, girl. If not for Armin, we would have. Your blood was tainted with unlight. If we hadn’t managed to purge it…” Nicandros sighed. “Unlight poison does terrible things to a person.”

Part of Tythel wanted to ask what it would have done to her. She noticed that Nicandros hadn’t said “die” once in his entire explanation. I wonder if that’s because he doesn’t want to say the word…or because something worse would have happened. There wasn’t time to ask about that right now. There were more important questions. “Where’s Armin? How is he?”

In response to the name, pile of rags in the corner shifted. Tythel started at it until Armin’s head poked out of them. “Oh, praise the light. You’re alright.”

Tythel couldn’t stifle as gasp at his face, although she tried. It was nearly all grey, worn and gaunt, looking like something more skeletal than the handsome young man she remembered. The white streak she’d seen forming in his hair had become a series of streaks, tiger stripes of pale hair. His eyes were dull, almost lifeless. “Armin! What did you do to yourself?”

“It’s nothing,” Armin said, extracting himself from the rags. His clothes hung loosely on his frame, and as soon as he was free from the improvised bed he started shivering. That’s why the rags. He’s freezing. “The local lumwell…it’s been tainted with unlight. So…” Armin shrugged.

“You look half dead.” Tythel said, blinking with concern.

“You were three quarters dead. Now you’re one fourth dead and I’m half dead. Fair trade, right?” Armin managed a grin, and although it was a bit ghoulish Tythel felt some of her tension fading. If Armin was grinning, he was still Armin.

“Thank you,” Tythel said, sincerely.

“Psh,” Armin rolled his eyes. “I just did it so the big softy there wouldn’t cry.” He pointed to Nicandros, and although the words came out harsh and rasping, Tythel found a laugh for his attempt at humor.

“Well, thank you for making sure Nicandros didn’t cry.” She glanced over at Nicandros, who was surreptitiously wiping his eyes. Armin wasn’t kidding, Tythel realized, her eyes widening. Or accidentally was right. Either way… Tythel sucked in a breath. Nicandros still didn’t know she’d killed Thomah. Would you still worry for me if you did?

“I’m glad you’re back on your feet, your highness,” Eupheme said, sheathing the dagger and walking down the stairs. “We were just getting ready to try moving you without you waking up.”

Tythel frowned. “What’s going on?”

“They’re closing in on us,” Eupheme said with a shrug. “The Alohym want us recaptured, bad. I can barely step out of the shadows without being spotted, and I think they figured how far I can travel – which isn’t very far.”

“They’re coming to search this block tonight,” Nicandros growled, and Eupheme nodded to confirm his words. “We can’t stay any longer.”

“But what about Armin? Ossman?”

“The big lump,” Eupheme said indicating Ossman with a quick flick of her hand, “is fine. Just sleeping off the last bit of healing. He can move, he can fight.”

Tythel looked at Armin, who shrugged. “Honestly, your highness? I’m not getting any better until I can attune to a healthy lumwell.”

Tythel let her tongue flit out of her mouth for a moment, a gesture Karjon always made when she presented him with a problem he couldn’t answer. Much as she wished it wasn’t the case, one of Karjon’s knowledge gaps had been in the realm of human magic. He’d explained to her the basics – human mages attuned themselves to a nearby lumwell, which were connected by invisible rivers of power. They could draw power from there…somehow. He’d been vague about it. There had been a lumwell in the valley below the mountain, and he’d taken her to it, but she’d felt no resonance. Whatever that meant. He’d said that meant she wasn’t a mage, and from the way Karjon had phrased it, he’d taken immense relief in that fact.

Probably because he would have had to find a teacher for me. Would have put him in danger. “Why can’t you heal until then?” she asked Armin.

“The lumwell is tainted. Same as your body was.” Armin’s joking manner had completely evaporated now, and his tone was somber. “It happens in the cities a lot these days. Some mages have learned how to tap into the…the taint, the unlight pollution. I’m not one of them. It’s too dangerous. But that means drawing power when I’m attuned to one…” Armin shrugged. “A burning man won’t stop burning until you pull him out of the flame.”

“Can you just…” Tythel groped for the word, trying to figure out what she was saying. I do not want you to die to save me. “Unattune? Something like that?”

“That’s the nasty catch, your highness.” Armin gave her a wan smile. “If I do, there will be backlash. Unpredictable magical effects. I could warp, I could shatter, I could kill you all in an controlled power surge.” Armin shrugged again, and Tythel hated how loose his clothing looked every time he did. “Archmages can swap lumwells with the slightest twitch of a finger. I’m a glorified power source.”

“Well, I met an archmage in the dungeons,” Tythel said, forcing a smile, trying to get him to return the expression. It felt unnatural on her face, but Armin did respond with his smile brightening slightly. I feel like I’m threatening him. “I’d rather take a glorified power source over a dozen of him.”

“As touching as this is,” Eupheme interrupted, “we have to get moving. Before they sweep the block tonight and catch us?”

Nicandros nodded in agreement. “Wake up, Ossman,” he said, kicking the leg of the bed Ossman was sleeping on. “We leave within the hour.”

“Mmmwah?” Ossman said, blinking himself awake. “Tythel? Are you with us or are we in for more egg talk.”

Tythel gave the most dignified sniff she could manage. “I don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about.”

That got a chuckle out of Ossman, and together they began to pack their things.

They were leaving the city tonight. Only time would tell if they left it for the open plains or to join the Shadow’s embrace.

 

Strange Cosmology Part 94

Ryan had already been awake, and as such the first to get to Athena, although the others weren’t far behind. The alarm still rung in his ears, a low bell she’d made by slamming two masses of air together in the exact right way. “What’s wrong, what is it?” Ryan asked, wiping his eyes as he did.

She just pointed by way of answer. She’d moved the lenses while keeping her watch, and they now magnified part of the base of the Elysian Rest. Two men lay dead near the foundation, their bodies twisted and broken by the fall. Ryan couldn’t make out too many more details, except that it seemed that one of them had been decapitated. Ryan felt his stomach churn. “Are those…”

Athena nodded as the others approached. “Ares and Eros.” Ryan thought better of asking how she could tell from the corpses laying at the base of a tower from this distance. She sounded certain, and pressing her wouldn’t get them anywhere. “I didn’t see what happened, I’m not sure how long they’ve been dead.” Her fingers tightened into fists, and Ryan considered reaching over to comfort her. He glanced at Crystal, who shook her head, and Ryan agreed. “Moloch breached their defenses,” Athena said.

“Hold on now,” Ryan said, his tone gentle as possible. “We don’t know what happened. It could have been some kind of internal conflict or…” Ryan blinked a couple times, and Athena gave him a hard look. “Actually, that’s the only other thing I can think of.”

“If you’re trying to calm me,” Athena growled through clenched teeth, “I think you could have done worse. Somehow.”

“Athena, love, we don’t know what’s going on,” Crystal said, stepping in. “Maybe it’s already over. Maybe there’s nothing to worry about.”

“Look at this and tell me there’s nothing to worry about,” Athena said, stepping aside to give the other gods access.
Everyone took a moment to look through the lense while Athena’s knuckles grew whiter and whiter. “I do not think Moloch has breached their walls,” Dianmu finally said, looking squarely at Athena. “There would be more chaos if he had gotten even a single monster in.”

Athena sighed and seemed to relax some, although her shoulders were still rigid with tension. “Then the Olympians are tearing themselves apart from inside. We can’t wait any longer, we have to help them. Otherwise this was all for nothing!” she gestured expansively back at the labyrinth with the last sentence, as if to draw attention to how much they had gone through and were squandering.

The other gods looked at each other for a moment before Anansi spoke up. “Athena is correct. Our primary objective here was to see if the Olympians needed aid. Even if they need aid from each other, we should try to proffer it.” He smiled broadly, “Besides, I see no reason to make things easier for Moloch.”
“I hope some brilliant plan has formed for how we can do that, then,” Dianmu said with a scowl. At least it’s not a refusal, Ryan thought with relief. “The five of us barely took down some outriders and a single dragon. He has four dragons, a goat monster, and dozens more outriders. It doesn’t exactly inspire hope to know the odds have gotten work.”

Athena glowered at her, but Crystal stepped in. “She’s right, love. We go in half-cocked, we’re likely to do nothing to help the Olympians besides give Moloch some fresh corpses.”

“I have been thinking on this,” Anansi said, his voice slow and careful. “Although it assumes some things. Something Ryan said – what was it about the Lindworm and forms?”

Ryan had to frown for a minute to remember the line he’d said to Anansi as they were making camp. “Oh, yeah. I didn’t know Lindworms could pull a ‘this isn’t even my final form’ and go all one-winged angel on us.”

Anansi nodded, and Crystal grinned. Athena and Dianmu stared at them with perfectly mirrored expressions of confusion.

“It’s a reference to…you know what, it doesn’t matter,” Ryan said, not wanting to delve into the intricacies of video game and anime plots. “The point is, the Lindworm turned into something straight out of Dark Souls…” he saw even Crystal and Anansi’s forehead furrow and sighed. “Seriously, you all need to stay at least semi-up to date with pop culture. Something out of Lovecraft?” Confusion faded. “Great. My point is, if that’s not something Lindworms can normally do, how did that one manage it?”

“And you have an answer now, Ryan?” Dianmu asked, tilting her head.

“No, but I’m guessing he does,” Ryan said, pointing at Anansi.

“I do. Moloch has found a way to send his power into these monsters, give them a portion of divine power. Likely from human sacrifice, given how much he favors it.”

Crystal nodded. “I’ve never known Moloch to touch his nanoverse for power when dead humans could do the trick.”

“I feel the need to point out you were okay with us allying with him,” Ryan muttered.

Crystal rolled her eyes. “Well, love, we didn’t exactly have a dearth of applicants. We needed help.”

“Yes you did,” Anansi said, “but the point, if I may?”

No one objected, and Anansi continued, “It all comes back to Moloch. He is empowering the monsters. He is commanded them. He commands the Helhests. If he’s sufficiently distracted…well, he’s still only one person. We just need to get through to him. If we sneak-“

Dianmu interrupted him. “And if we’re caught, Anansi, what then? We need some way to sneak past an entire army! What on Earth could give us the chance to do that. We’d need one hell of a distraction. No, spider, we need an army”

Ryan was looking back into the fortress, frowning. “An army…” he muttered.

Athena followed his gaze, then glanced over at Ryan. “What are you thinking?”

“Hey,” Ryan said, loud enough to interrupt the growing argument. “What allows Moloch to command monsters? I mean, every one we’ve fought seems pretty intractable to me.”

“You have to be the one that created them, love, otherwise they’re going to run rampant.” Crystal joined Ryan in frowning.

“So…without a god to control them, monsters will just attack the nearest god?”

“Hah!” Dianmu barked a humorless laugh. “No, they’ll attack the nearest thing. God, mortal, machine – lacking one of those, they’ll even turn on each other.”

“So we give them a target,” Ryan said, his voice growing in excitement. “We give them something to chase, lead them into Moloch’s army, and let them run rampant! Hey Resheph, how good are you with drones now?”
Resheph’s response took a couple moments. “I can fly them pretty well. These voice controls are a bugger and a half, though.”

Which explained why he’s been so silent, Ryan thought, his frown turning into a smile.

“Lead who, Ryan?” Dianmu asked, her voice finally softening. “What are you thinking? We don’t have monsters, or an army.”

Ryan shook his head. “No, we don’t.” He raised one hand to point down the great broken doors than lead back into the Labyrinth. “But we know where to find a whole hell of a ton of them, don’t we?”

The other gods stared at him, then at each other. The silence was broken by Anansi, who started to chuckle. “Yes, we do.”

“You do know ‘just crazy enough to work’ isn’t meant as advice, right?” Dianmu asked, but she was tapping her chin as she did. Less denial, more concern.

“Well, my last plan involved a nuclear bomb, so really, this is a step up in sanity for me.” Ryan looked around. “Anyone have a better plan?”

No one spoke up. Athena looked positively eager. “From the outside…the walls should be vulnerable from the outside,” she said, nodding her head excitedly. “We never imagined someone would try to break in, only through or out.”
“Great,” Ryan said. “Let’s crack this thing wide open. If it works, we’ll finally get to talk with Moloch. If it doesn’t, well, it’s not like things were going well before.”

Crystal shook her head. “We really need to work on your inspirational speeches, love.”

They were past the point where speeches mattered. The die was cast. They set out to unleash the monsters of the Labyrinth.

And let’s hope this isn’t as crazy an idea as it seems, Ryan thought as he began to walk the wall, looking for where he’d begin his part in the destruction.