The Dragon’s Scion Part 156

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“Lorathor, behind you!” Armin shouted.

Thankfully, Lorathor didn’t wait to turn to look at what had Armin shouting. He dove forward, and Clarcia’s outstretched hand passed through the open air. Clarcia let out a low hiss and began to shamble forward.

“Light and Shadow!” Lorathor said, bringing up his arcrifle and sighting Clarcia with it. Before Armin could even speak, he fired three short bursts. Arclight flew and struck Clarcia in the shoulder, chest, and forehead. She staggered backwards and fell over. “Thanks for the warning,” Lorathor said, raising the rifle. “I thought she was dead.”

“She is,” Armin said.

“Right, now. But I mean when I came in she looked…” Lorathor trailed off. “Necromancy?”

They both turned back to Clarcia. Her limbs were jerking unnaturally as she started to rise. She reached a crab position and her head turned unnaturally until it was facing them. “Necromancy,” Armin confirmed.

Lorathor shot her again. Beams of light streaked across the small cell. Clarcia barely rocked at the impacts, hissing and scurrying across the floor with preternatural speed. “Flath!” Lorathor shouted, throwing himself to the side as Clarcia’s jaw snapped shut inches from his knees.

Armin backed up, staring at her with wide eyes. It was Clarcia. It was Clarcia. She still looked like herself, even unnaturally twisted like this. “Armin!” Lorathor shouted. “Move!”

Clarcia was closing the gap between them. When she got close, her legs folded up over her body. For a moment she was walking on her hands, then her feet finished their arc and touched the floor, pulling her body and head upright in a swift motion. Armin threw up his hands and caught her on the shoulders. She bowled him over as her head twisted back into place. They hit the floor hard, and Armin wheezed as the wind was driven from his lungs.

Clarcia wasn’t impeded. She was snapping her jaw at him, only inches from his face. There was breath coming with the snaps, each one unnatural hot and reeking of the grave. The smell was enough to turn Armin’s stomach. If not for his hands on her shoulders, she would have torn out his jugular in an instant. Even with his hands in placed, her strength was immense. Armin pushed her upwards, and her fingers dug into his arm. Armin screamed as her fingers began to tear deep furrows on his skin.

An arclight beam struck Clarcia in the back of the skull. It blew straight through, and flesh, bone, and brain matter tore from her face. Clarcia didn’t even flinch at the sensation. The jerking motion tore one of her eyes loose, and it dangled from an optic nerve on the side of the head. “Get her off me!” Armin screamed.

A tentacle wrapped around Clarcia’s neck and began to tear her backwards. Armin stared at it in wide eyed horror as more tentacles join the first, grasping and tugging at Clarcia. Scrambling back and rising to his feet, Armin looked at the tableau, trying to process what he was seeing.

Lorathor was gone. Where he had been was some kind of…thing. Tentacles from an octopus attached to a humanoid torso. The tentacles wrapped around Clarcia as she struggled against the bonds. The creature wrapped a tentacle around her throat and wound it up to her forehead, pulling her head back so her jaw wasn’t able to reach the other parts of the thing. “Armin, get out of here!”

That was Lorathor’s voice. Coming from this monstrosity. Lorathor’s voice, and now that Armin looked, he could see the eyes. Yellow and with oddly-shaped pupil.

Sylvani eyes.

Armin sat down hard, his knees no longer able to support his weight. It was too much by far. He couldn’t process it. This horror, something out of the depths of both the ocean and nightmare, was entangling the undead being that had once been his friend. Clarcia growled and hissed, snapping at the creature, but unable to find purchase. There were dull plates covering the tentacles, flexing with them, and her fingers could not find purchase on their bulk.

“Armin, move!”

Barely able to think, Armin just kicked his leg, letting the thing that had once been Lorathor hear the clatter of the chain. Lorathor snarled and began to tug hard on the Clarcia zombie.

Armin began to hear the cracking of bones. Clarcia’s struggles became more frantic, and flesh began to tear under the force.

Someone was screaming. Dimly, Armin realized it was him.

As he watched, helpless to do more than scream, Clarcia’s arm came out of its socket. Freed from her shoulder, it started to try and wrap around the thing that had been Lorathor. He – some part of Armin was willing to accept that this thing was, in fact Lorathor, although he could not hope to process how that had happened – brought two free tentacles around to grab onto the flailing arm. Bones crunched under the stress, and then the cracking sound turning into a grinding noise.

When Lorathor tossed that arm free, it was still twitching, trying to move and rejoin the attack. However, he’d shattered every bone in the limb, and it couldn’t do anything but flop uselessly on the floor. Bit by bit, Lorathor started to dismantle Clarcia.

She wasn’t helpless though. Lorathor’s grip would slip at time, and her jaws would find purchase. She bit through the strange armor that shifted with Lorathor’s form, cracking both teeth and plate with the force. Lorathor howled in pain, although Armin couldn’t see anywhere for him to be howling from. 

It took nearly a minute. Lorathor tore Clarcia bit to bit. At the end of it, Clarcia had been reduced to a collection of twitching flesh, and Lorathor was bleeding from a dozen wounds. The mass of tentacles retracted and reformed into the Sylvani Armin knew.

“Armin, I can get that chain off you,” he said. Lorathor’s skin was paler than its usual vibrant colors, and he took a step towards Armin.

Armin recoiled from the motion, bringing up his hands. “What…what the flath are you?” he shrieked.

“I’m a Sylvani. We’re shapeshifters, Armin. Remember? You saw me slip through that crack in the tower, even though it was barely an inch wide.”

Armin nodded at the memory.

“I usually don’t go that far out of the form you know,” Lorathor continued. “But I needed to. I’m sorry.”

The words were so normal, Lorathor’s tone so calm, Armin was able to start thinking again. “I…I didn’t know you could do that.”

Lorathor grinned. The expression was strained, and Armin could see pain behind his eyes. “I don’t show it off often. An arcwand or blade is usually a better weapon anyway.” He glanced over at the twitching mess on the floor. “Usually. Who was that?”

“Clarcia” Armin whispered.

Lorathor flinched. “I’m sorry you had to watch that. Come on. Let’s get out of here.” He held his finger up towards the lock on Armin’s shackle. The digit protruded into the lock, and it unclasped like he’d turned a key. “Come on, Armin” he said, offering a hand.

Armin took the hand. “Ossman. Aldredia. They-”

“We’ll get them. But first…pull yourself together. You’ve been through the deepest Shadow. But I know we can pull yourself together. We can’t let Bix and Haradeth fight Theognis alone.”

Armin nodded and took a deep breath. I’m not losing anyone else. The thought was firm and he held it in his head like a drowning man clutching driftwood. “Alright. Let’s go. And while we do…I have two questions.”

“Ask away,” Lorathor said, peering out into the hallway.

“How did you get here, and who the flath is Bix?”

Lorathor smiled. “Would you believe me if I told you those answers went together?” And, without waiting for a response, he started to explain.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 151

Armin reeled back from the threat. “I…I don’t even know what you’re talking about,” he said, and hoped Theognis would take his widening eyes for fear, not shock.

“Please,” Theognis said. Just that. Please. It was an archly dismissive word, one that said everything it needed to say about Theognis’ thoughts on Armin’s protest. He gave Armin a level stare before continuing. “We tracked her here. I would love to know how you found her first – and believe me, I fully intend on torturing the information out of you later – but for now, I simply require you to tell me where she is.”

Armin felt his skin go clammy. This couldn’t get any worse. Not only was Theognis asking for something that Armin didn’t want to tell him, he couldn’t tell him. Synit could be anywhere by now. Think, Armin. Think. “We didn’t find her!” Armin protested, deciding that letting the fear show was the best tactic right now. The fact that he couldn’t have held it back even if he wanted to was immaterial. Torture me, you bastard. Rip me apart to prove to yourself that I don’t know. Leave them alone. “I don’t even know who you’re talking about!”

“Then why were you here, hmm?” Theognis tapped his fingers on his chin.

Armin hesitated. There wasn’t any harm in telling him, was there? Not about the Vacuity Engine, of course. If they survived this, it’d be best if the Alohym didn’t know they were looking for it. “Gold,” he said.

“Gold?” Theognis asked, cocking his head to the side. “You came all this way for lucre? You’ve never been the material kind, Armin.”

“It’s…”

And then Armin clamped his mouth shut. Let him think he has to push you. Let him drag it out of you. Give him a lie to disprove, so he’ll accept it as truth. “I know we can’t win,” Armin said, looking down. “But I’ll be damned if I join you all. I was going to take the gold and set up a life somewhere, far away from here.”

Theognis laughed. “So, you brought Ossman? Ossman. You expect me to believe that he was going to abandon your resistance?”

“None of them were,” Armin said, the lies rolling off his tongue more easily now. “But I’d hoped to convince them. Tempt them with the appeal of a better life, one that doesn’t involve…all of this.”

Theognis shook his head. “Armin. You disappoint me, boy. That upstart half-wyrm ‘princess’ of yours killed Rephylon. You claim that after you got your first ever taste of victory is when you betrayed your cause?”

“It wasn’t a victory,” Armin said. His voice was miserable, and at least he didn’t have to feign that. He had plenty to be miserable about, although the death of Rephylon wasn’t one of them. “Everyone was acting like it was, but…it was one Alohym, and it nearly killed her in the process. I think I’d…had it in my head we’d win once we managed to kill one. That it was the big stepping stone, and once we crossed it, victory would be assured. Then you all broke us at Hallith. You had that…”

Armin’s eyes narrowed as he made a connection he’d missed before. “That was that thing in the air! The flying Alohym. That was Rephylon’s daughter!”

Theognis gave him a long, careful look, before chuckling. “You’ve gotten better, Armin. Not quite as dense as you used to be. You’re not quite right, however. Synit was…an early attempt at fusion. The one you saw was much better integrated.” Theognis paused and then shook his head. “Of course, you already knew that, didn’t you? You figured out they were kith and kin long ago. That’s how you tracked her here.”

“I had no idea,” Armin swore, and it was nice to tell the truth here.

Theognis absentmindedly swatted at a fly that was buzzing around his head. It dodged his blow and flew back to the door. “No, you didn’t, did you?” Theognis said, more to himself than to Armin. Armin started to relax, but Theognis wasn’t done. “You didn’t know they were one in the same. I can hardly blame you for that – wretched creature is so badly twisted she doesn’t look a thing like her brother. But if you think for a second that I believe that you came here to fill your own pockets…” Theognis shrugged and stood, finally getting off Clarcia’s back. “I think we’ll start with the eyes. Send her to you, blind, Ossman’s flesh welded over her vision. That will be-”

Armin broke into a cold sweat. The earlier threat hadn’t been an exaggeration – Theognis truly meant to do it. “Wait!”

Theognis paused. “Oh? Decided to tell the truth finally?”

“We’re broke,” Armin said. The words came out in a babbled rush, and not just because he wanted to convince Theognis he was terrified. He was, of course, but he needed Theognis to believe it. So much for your vaunted moral high ground, you monster.  “Not us, the resistance. We’re running on coppers and prayers. We came here to plunder the horde to fund our operations.”

“Another stupid lie,” Theognis sighed.

Now Armin’s heart started to pound in earnest. “I’m telling you the truth! We didn’t know anything about…about anyone. We needed the funds!”

“You have access to the horde of Karjon the Magnificent. The last of the dragons. The largest horde on all of Alith. And you claim you’ve already exhausted it?”

Armin gaped at Theognis, his mouth hanging open and his eyes wide.

Theognis chuckled. “You do, don’t you? Your vaunted ‘princess’ came to you with piles upon piles of gold, didn’t she? I figured that was why you chose her for the lie, because she’d bought her way into it.”

“What?” Armin asked, his voice high. Theognis had gone from being terrifying to insane.

“Oh yes, we know all about your little ruse.” Theognis sat back down on Clarcia, and the fury helped Armin cut through the confusion. “The Alohym have remarkable devices. One of them is…well, in their tongue it is a throk’lahypth. We haven’t been able to come up with a good Cardomethi translation for it, because we don’t have the words for the concepts it refers to. The best term would be a “hereditary detector,” I suppose. It analyzes little fragments of information we all carry in our blood. Some was taken from the ‘princess’ while she was our captive, and then analyzed against the same information in the bones of the royal family.” Theognis leaned forward. “They didn’t match. Your ‘princess’ is a lie, and we know it.”

“You’re lying,” Armin said, swallowing on a suddenly dry throat.

“Why would I bother lying?” Theognis spread his arms wide. “You’re going to die, Armin. You won’t spread anything I tell you to your peers. I gain nothing by telling you this. I, honestly, thought you were high enough in their ranks to know about the ruse.”

Armin’s mind worked furiously. Her transformation. She’s turning into a dragon. Maybe that fools their machines. She wouldn’t lie to us…except she had, hadn’t she? She’d been in the conversation where they’d discussed resources, and she’d offered this place up for treasure. Hidden in the swamps of Dor’nah, fraught with peril. She’d never even mentioned her father’s hoard. It hadn’t even occurred to Armin.

After all, why would she lie?

“And now I see you know nothing.” Theognis looked almost…disappointed. “You don’t know the ‘princess’ is a lie. You don’t know you were sent here for Synit. You don’t know anything that could be of use to me. And because of that…” Theognis stood up. “I’m still going to drag what information you have out of you. Slowly and painfully. Who knows? You might know more than you realize.  At the very least-”

“Sir!” Someone was pounding on the door. “Sir, we need you. Immediately!”

Theognis frowned and threw open the door. “What is it?” he said with a scowl.

The man outside was dressed in the garb of an Alohym trooper, his eyes hidden behind the green visor they used to see in darkness. “One of the portal stones, sir!” The man’s voice was high with panic. “It was in the hoard. It’s activated! Something…something came through!”

“Impossible!” Theognis shouted, sweeping from the room. It seemed he didn’t believe his own word. “Stay here with this one. I’ll have your corpse slaving in the sewers if he escapes.”

The guard blanched and nodded, turning to face Armin and closing the door behind Theognis.

“Can we get a bit of light, Lumcaster?” the guard asked.

Armin sighed and created a sphere, his mind too occupied with bitter thoughts to care.

Not that stopped him from screaming when the guard’s features melted in the face of the light. “Quiet!” the guard snapped. “This is a rescue mission, Armin.” His features had resolved into Lorathor’s grinning face. “Now, let’s get you out of those chains.”

Armin couldn’t speak from the shock. Relief, confusion, and joy washed over him.

Right up until he saw Clarcia stand up, her dead eyes glowing with unnatural malice.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 148

The crystal bottle that had once held the Phoenix Flame lay still lay in the grass where Tythel had dropped it as she left this valley. It was now home to a small mouse and her pups, who apparently didn’t mind that predators could see them. Not when they were safely in a bottle that had contained liquid hot enough to burn a dragon’s lifeless body to ash. Tythel hopped out the Skitterer and began to walk towards where that ash had been left – her father’s last resting place.

In her grief, she hadn’t thought about Phoenix Flame and what that would mean. The phoenix were a race of dragonkin that had gone extinct during the era of her great grandsire, the necromantic dragon Grejhak that had created the lair Armin was now delving into. The timing was no coincidence – Grejhak had waged a genocidal campaign against these creatures that could defy death. Their name, in the old Draconic tongue, meant “Second-Born,” a reference to their phenomenal regenerative prowess. Aside from that, Karjon had spoken only little of them, save that their flames had been opposite those of normal dragons – a Phoenix could breathe Heartflame from birth, and only later would learn Ghostflame. Their third flame was similar to Dragonflame, but for two key differences.

Phoenix Flame lacked the sheer destructive potential of Dragonflame. It was hotter than any flame mankind could produce, and hot enough to burn a dragon’s scales, but it was still dwarfed by the heat their scaled cousins could produce.  However, unlike Dragonflame, it did not just leave behind ash. It helped decompose that which it burned, accelerating years of natural breakdown into a handful of seconds.

And dragon bodies fueled plant life unlike anything else in the world.

In the year since she’d been gone, the spot where her father had been cremated had transformed. It was awash with Drakebloom. The flowers grew taller than even the Sunflowers that sometimes lined the roads, their stalks twisted and arched to look like a dragon rearing up to let loose its breath weapon. Their petals were red and orange and gold and glistened with morning dew. Bees, stripped green and black, flitted among them. When the Drakebloom was ready to reproduce, the flower would rise up until it was facing the sky, then spray its seeds. It was said to look like a dragon flaming as the red and gold seeds caught the air to be carried away.

Tythel had to swallow to process the implications. Drakebloom could breed true with other flowers though some process Karjon had not been able to explain. It was still rare because dragons normally incinerated their dead, and much of the nutrients gained through normal breakdown were lost. Where they weren’t incinerated, they would decompose only slowly.

But Tythel had incinerated Karjon with Phoenix Flame. Everything in his body had been returned to the earth in an instant.

The Drakebloom would spread throughout the valley. Eventually, enough seeds would crest over the wall to spread into the rest of the world. The normal yellow honey bees outside would take over from the green bees of Karjon’s valley, and they would spread the Drakebloom further.

Dragons may be gone, but Drakebloom would one day be as common as lilies.

Tears threatened to well in Tythel’s eyes. She hadn’t meant to, but she’d given Karjon a legacy even better than the cold stone she’d carved for him. It was still there, although she had to brush away some vines that had begun to creep their way up the mass of rock. She traced her fingers along the letters of the message she’d written, so long ago.

Here lies Karjon the Magnificent

Who battled the Wizards of the 9th Circle

Dueled the dread necromancer Gix

Sat upon the Council of Twelve

And was the greatest Father to have lived.

Behind her, she could hear Eupheme and Tellias dismount from the Skitter. They spoke briefly amongst themselves – “Is that her father-” Tellias started to say, but before he could finish, Eupheme interrupted.

“I think so. Help me unpack this? I think she needs a moment.”

“I imagine she needs more than that,” Tellias said, but not in an argumentative tone. He sounded somber, and at that moment, Tythel could have hugged them both.

She didn’t. Instead, she savored the moment here, pressing her hand against the cold stone as she once had against her father’s warm scales. I’m sorry I didn’t come back sooner, Father, she thought, and in the twilight shadow she could almost imagine the Drakebloom formed his profile perfectly. It’s been a long year. I’ll tell you all about it once we’re done. But…right now, I need your protection again.

Tythel knew her father well. He would have hunkered down, bringing himself eye-level with her, and cocked his head just slightly. He would have said “What trouble you, my child?” Or something along those lines. Immediate concern for her, the rest to be considered later.

The Alohym – Those From Above – have a new thing. A thing that is half human and half of them. It hunts me and my friends. I don’t…I don’t know if I’m strong enough to beat it. The feeling of tears continued to build, and her nictitating membranes began to flash in reflex.

This time, she could practically hear him. “Of course you are. You are my daughter, after all.”

I’m still human. I’m still too weak. I think I lead us all to our deaths. 

“Oh, really? Then tell me, my beautiful human daughter – why don’t you weep?”

Tythel knew the voice wasn’t real. Knew it was her filling in what he would be saying – but also realized he was right. She brought her hand up to her cheek and found it dry. Her nictitating membranes were still flashing – the way dragons relieved sadness, their version of a human’s tears – but tear ducts were human things. Dragons shed no tears.

Tythel shed no tears.

Finding one more thing in common with her father made her smile even through the flashes of her membranes. She slid her hand down the stone and stepped back.

Even if they died here, she’d do so with the knowledge she’d taken on one more draconic trait before she passed.

Tythel turned to help Eupheme and Tellias unload the Skitter. She could sense their desire to comfort but their uncertainty about doing so. When she met Eupheme’s eyes, she shook her head, but made herself smile.

Knowing they cared was enough.

In the distance, Tythel heard the buzzing of Catheon’s wings, and knew that soon this valley would be a battleground once again.

She glanced at her father’s grave one last time as they moved to pick the point where they would engage the enemy, and silently made a vow.

No matter what happened here, the Drakebloom would be unharmed.

Small Worlds Part 238

Athena had shifted her lower body more fully than before, forgoing feet entirely to merge her legs into a single scaled fluke, just like a dolphin’s. She’d shortened her hair to reduce drag, and a wedge-shaped dorsal fin jutted from her back. Her hands were still hands, her arms still arms, but a pair of pectoral fins emerged from her ribcage just below her arms. She’d need her hands to twist reality, to fight – but every other part of this plan depended on her being able to outswim a water elemental, and for that, she needed as much agility as she could manage.

It wouldn’t be enough for long. She’d adapted herself as much as possible to the water. The elemental was the ocean, a maelstrom of hatred given unholy life and a hatred for everything organic. It was not a guided missile. It was a tornado unleashed and set in her general direction. There was a reason that, even against Enki, she’d never considered creating such a creature. Even Moloch, in the depths of his madness, would not risk making something so uncontrolled. It was an act of desperation. It was the actions of a cornered wolf, snarling and frightened.

Of course, in this case, the wolf had fangs that could savage the very fabric of reality.

Athena swam as hard as she could, steering herself directly towards the elemental. It was currently tearing apart a group of Arae and Erinyes, crushing them into a paste in its vortex arms. The moment Athena entered the rage of its senses, the water elemental whirled to face her, ignoring the prey directly in front of it. Come on, you monstrosity. Come on. 

With a roar like a crashing tide, the water elemental surged in her direction. Athena turned on a dime, kicking herself away from the approaching horror.

For a brief, wild, and useless moment, she wished that Isabel was here. Her ability to actually take on the true form of animals, gaining their instincts and skills along with their shape, would make her even better suited for this part of the mission. Of course, the water elemental wouldn’t be coaxed into chasing her. Athena had to do this herself.

The group of sea gods pointed at her approach. Poseidon was laughing at the futility of her attempt to escape. The water elemental was faster than her. It was gaining on her. The other oceanic gods seemed equally amused at her plight. They were grinning, laughing. All except for Eurybia, who was looking at Athena with a concerned frown.

Arrows streaked by Athena from around both sides of the water elemental. Demeter and Artemis. One of the arrows found its home in the distracted eye socked of Eurybia before she could warn the others of what she had seen, and the other caught Nerites in the throat before he could shout more commands to his troops.

Then the subtle weavings Arachne had woven onto the arrowheads detonated in a surge of Air and Flame. A tiny tornado of fire engulfed where they had struck, and Eurybia’s and Nerites’ headless corpses sunk to the bottom of the ocean floor.

That got the sea gods attention. Immediately they began erecting barriers they had neglected, wrapping themselves in a bubble of seawater that caught the next two arrows before they could pierce the skull of another of the sea gods. Two down, Athena thought with a fierce grin. Already the odds were evening, and so far, Poseidon and his minions were acting exactly as Athena had hoped.

Just as the water elemental was closing the distance between it and Athena, four more Athenas appeared, each one swimming in a different direction as Athena turned as hard as she could. The overall effect made the water elemental hesitate, trying to pick the real target.

Arrows still flew through the ocean, keeping the pressure on the sea gods as they detonated against their solid dome of seawater. Hera joined in the assault against their defenses, sending razor blades of stone breaking away from the seafloor and sticking into their barrier. Throughout it all, Arachne wove bands of Fire and Air onto the projectiles, turning them into explosive missiles.

They merely created ripples on the barriers that were protecting the sea gods. The intense pressure of their barrier was more than enough to hold back the assault without difficulty.

The intense pressure the sea gods were commanding would hold back this assault without problem. That was fine.

The plan just called for them to be distracted.

Athena risked a glance back over her shoulder. With their divine support distracted, with the water elemental focused on Athena, the Nereids and Icytocentuars were without support.

It left Hades, Persephone, and Charon unopposed as they began their slaughter. Green fire flew from the fingers of the underworld deities, flames that burned despite the water around them, searing wounds in the sea monsters Poseidon had arranged against them. The remaining Arae and Erinyes surged forward with their king and queen, tearing into the ones that managed to avoid the hadesfire that was being hurled among them.

Athena tore her eyes off the spectacle and surged forward, kicking her fins straight for the sea god’s barrier. Anansi saw her change course and dropped the illusions, once again giving the water elemental a clear target to pursue. It roared and surged after Athena.

Athena flicked her tail, sweeping down low directly over the sea gods and their barrier. Poseidon glared up at her, pointing a finger and shouting something to his companions. She couldn’t make it out through the press of water surrounding them – it was too heavily distorted.

The instant afterward, Athena’s muscles seized up from a sudden surge of electricity filling the water around her. Her jaw clamped shut so hard she swore her teeth would break. Her fingers dug into her palms so tightly, blood began to spill from them into the water around her. Sheer momentum carried her out of the lethal electricity field before it could stop her heart.

That…wasn’t part of the plan. Athena thought, getting control of herself again. Stars of Olympus, that had hurt! She flicked her tail hair, driving herself away from the secondary attack, water blades flying from the barrier and leaving trails of bubbles that barely passed her as they sliced through the area she had vacated.

It was close. She couldn’t avoid their assault for long. She certainly didn’t have the power to stand up to Triton, Poseidon, Ceto, and Thalassa all at once.

Then the blades of water stopped, and Athena glanced back with a fierce grin.

The water elemental had struck the barrier. The barrier the sea gods had woven out of pure water. A barrier the water elemental could tear apart in an instant as it absorbed the increased pressure into its own mass.

An elemental was something you set loose in a general direction, with a single target. It didn’t care who or what you put in its way.

Even its former masters.

The Burning Epoch Part 5

When the helicopters had arrived, Candice and Diane hadn’t stuck around in the living room to see what happened. They’d ran into Diane’s room, the one furthest from the wall, and taken refuge. It seemed like such a pathetic hiding spot, but they couldn’t think of anything else to do. It was better than saying close to the wall and hoping for the best.

Plus, Diane had a television in her room. They could watch the news from here.

“We should go the stairwell,” Diane said. “We should go to the stairwell so we’re not near windows anymore.”

“No,” Candice wasn’t certain of a lot right now – there was very little to be sure of at the moment – but she was certain of that.

The news was still showing Kurt’s livestream. Some other people in other buildings had started streaming as well, and people in other areas, but Kurt was the first and was getting the most attention still.

“So, the helicopters are down,” he said through the television. “The…oh God, the helicopters are down.” He’d relocated to his bedroom and shoved the camera up to the window. “We still don’t know what…wait, I’m seeing movement.”

The camera shifted to put the hole back into focus. More of those scaled arms appeared over the lip. These were smaller, spindlier. The creatures that crawled out, one after another, were about the size of a human, but other than that looked like the bigger ones. They were ganglier, and their eyes wider.

“I think those are…baby Kaiju. They’re baby version of the big Kaiju.” Kurt said. Real insightful commentary there, Kurt, Candice thought. Knowing this was happening right outside her apartment gave the whole thing an air of unreality that was hard to process. Like she was watching from a dream, only the dream was alive and directly in front of her eyes.

“The babies – or juveniles, or whatever they are…they’re going towards the helicopters,” Kurt said, and there was an unmistakable dread in his voice as he turned the camera. “The big Kaiju is…shepherding them towards it.”

Candice hit mute and turned away from the television. Diane was pale and shaky. “They’re going to eat the soldiers alive,” she said, her voice hoarse.

Candice shook her head firmly. “The soldiers…I mean, no one could have survived those crashes.”

“Oh, that makes it so much better,” Diane said, her voice sharp.

“Yes, it does,” Candice said, snapping every word. “Dying in a crash is something I happen to think is better than being eaten alive.”

Diane stared at her for a moment, then looked away. “Fine. Whatever.”

Candice sighed. “Sorry. I’m tense.”

“Gee, can’t imagine why.” Diane gave her a weak grin. “I mean, it’s not like there’s anything going on right now that could be making either of us tense, right?”

Candice responded with a shaky laugh and risked a glance back at the screen. Kurt had turned his camera away from the helicopters, focusing on the Kaiju that was atop 215. It is staring at 213, cocking its head. From outside, Candice could hear it making chirping noises.

She reached out with a trembling hand and turned up the volume.

“- not sure what it’s going to do,” Kurt was saying. “It looks too big to jump down from that height, and I’m not sure how it would climb. It might-oh God, it’s tensing up, it’s getting ready to-”

Kurt’s voice was drowned out by the sound of the Kaiju leaping. It didn’t clear the distance between 215 and 213’s roof. It landed on the side of 213 and latched on with its talons. Candice could hear screaming from inside the building. Diane grabbed a stuffed bear from her bed and held it against her chest.

The Kaiju’s tongue lashed out, bursting through windows. It came out with a screaming woman desperately slapping against the appendage wrapped around her. Candice couldn’t look away as the Kaiju flicked its head and letting go.

The woman screamed the whole way down, landing amidst the young Kaiju on the ground.

Kurt pulled the camera from the window, focusing it on his face. “Okay. Okay. That was…that was horrifying,” he said. His eyes were wide and sweat beaded on his forehead. “I’m going to relocate. I’m going to…I have a friend in the complex. I’m going to go up to her apartment. Candice, if you’re watching, I’m going to be coming up to you. Get a better angle. Everyone else…stay tuned. I’ll be back soon.” He sniffed. “If I don’t sign back on…I didn’t make it. I’m sorry. Jessica, if you’re watching…I love you.”

For a moment Candice felt bile rise in her gullet. How dare he? Coming up here, drawing attention to her and Diane? It was so shitty of him.

But those tears were real. Candice could see that and reminded herself Kurt lived alone. Was he coming up because he wanted a better angle? Or was he coming up because he didn’t want to be alone?

That matched better with the man she knew.

Didn’t mean she wouldn’t kick him in the shin when she saw him.

Right before the feed cut out, there was a pounding on her door. Diane shrieked, which let Candice cover up her own surprised gasp. She ran to the door and poked her eye up to the peephole. For a second, she was convinced it would be one of those big Kaiju out there, or a younger one.

It was Kurt, shaking and pale.

Candice opened the door. “How the hell did you get up here so quick?”

Kurt blinked at her owlishly. “I guess the news has me on a delay,” he said after a moment. “So, they can…so they can cut if I bite the dust.” He chuckled, a sound that turned into a sob halfway through. “Can I…can I come in?”

“You can,” Candice said, holding up a finger. “But if you think I’m letting you record-”

Kurt cut her off. “Ten thousand dollars. I’ll give you ten grand if you let me stream from up here.”

Candice’s mouth clamped shut. That was what she’d make in a month of customer body work. Before the cost of car parts. “You can’t afford that,” she said, almost defensively.

“I couldn’t afford that,” Kurt said, almost sheepishly. “I…have gotten a lot of donations. A lot. I can definitely afford it.”

Candice frowned. “The money won’t do me any good if I get eaten,” she said, knowing how hesitant she sounded.

“Fifteen thousand. For both you and your roommate.”

“Let him in!” Diane said, shouting from her bedroom. Fifteen grand was half a year’s pay for her. Apparently, as frightened as she was, she wasn’t immune to avarice. Candice stepped aside and let him enter.

“Thanks,” Kurt said, letting out a sigh. “I like what you’ve done with the place.”

Candice raised her eyebrow at him. “Really? There’s monsters in the parking lot, but you like what I’ve done with the place.” The last time Kurt had been here had been when she’d moved in, invited a bunch of people she could find on social media up to a housewarming party. A house warming party that had really been about networking and getting clients for her shop, but a housewarming party nonetheless. They’d talked a couple times after then, when he’d been having car problems and brought his car in, and the one time she’d asked for his help with her computer.

Friend was a generous term for what they were. Outside of those interactions, they liked each other’s Facebook posts now and then and bitched about the rent a couple times.

“Okay, yeah, that was stupid,” Kurt said, moving over the window. Candice tensed up. She’d been ignoring the sounds coming from outside, trying her best to push aside whatever horror awaited them out there. “Sorry. I…well, I think that someone needs to show what’s going on here. And from up here it’ll be less…be less visceral.”

“And you realized those small ones are the right size to leap through your window,” Candice said, her voice flat.

“No, why would you think that?” Kurt said, his voice rising about three octaves with the lie. He coughed and flushed. “I mean…okay, yes.”

“We’re not safe up here,” Candice said, her voice low. Diane hadn’t come out of her room yet, and the last Candice had seen her, she’d been ready to go into a full-blown panic attack. Yet she let Kurt in for money…

Kurt shook his head. “I know. The moment they start climbing, I’m running. I’m running, I’m screaming, and I’m probably blubbering. I might even wet myself. I won’t pretend otherwise.” Kurt gave her a grin that shook. “By the way…do you know how to use a gun?”

Candice nodded, and Kurt reached into the back of his pants and pulled one out. “I, uh…”

“Jesus, point that thing somewhere else!” Candice said, stepping away from him. “In fact, give it to me!”

“What?” Kurt said, “I was trying to!”

“Okay, look,” Candice said, trying and failing not to snap. “Your finger is on the trigger. You’re hold a live, loaded gun, with your finger on the trigger. Point that damn thing at the ground and take your finger off the trigger.”

His hand still shaking, Kurt did. Candice stepped forward and, with the care she’d use to remove a live wire, took the gun from his hand. The safety was off. “You could have shot your ass off,” she said.

“Oh.” Kurt looked very small. “Uh…I’m sorry.”

“Me too,” Candice said, thumbing the safety into place and checking the chamber. There was a round in there, as she expected. It was a Desert Eagle .45, what Candice thought of as the Overcompensator. Mostly bought by people who had heard in books and movies it was the most powerful handgun in the world and wanted to make themselves feel big and strong because they were packing serious heat.

“This isn’t your gun,” Candice said flatly.

Kurt shook his head and looked down at the ground. Candice remembered him bending over and picking something up when he’d been in the parking lot.

She decided not to press further. “Fine. Go to the balcony. I’m coming with you. If you draw the Kaiju’s attention, I’m throwing you off.” Kurt started to laugh, and Candice cut it off with a sharp shake of her head. “I’m not sure I’m kidding. You shouldn’t be either. Come on.”

Kurt swallowed hard and followed Candice to see what new horrors awaited them.

Small Worlds part 220

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you sent Hermes away,” Aphrodite sniffed.

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

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

Either way, it worked in her favor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make that six gods and two monsters. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Small Worlds part 219

 

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

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

“Billy. My name’s Billy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dianmu shook her head. “She was mortal.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Easy, Enki,” Dianmu said quietly.

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

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

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

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

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

“Anthropophagi,” Nabu said thoughtfully.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Burning Epoch Part 4

 

The Emergency Room at Mercy Hospital was never a boring place to work. Even on slower nights, like tonight had been, there was always a tension in the air. It was the anticipation, the expectation, that at any moment someone could come through those doors on an ambulance, barely clinging to life, and it would be up to Brenda Newman and her team to keep them from shuffling off this mortal coil and heading into whatever came next.

At the moment, they didn’t have anyone like that. At the moment, the only people waiting for attention weren’t the true emergencies, but the people for whom emergency care was their only option. These were the people who only went to the hospital when they absolutely had to, and all of them knew that it would mean months of calls from bill collectors for bills they couldn’t pay.

There were a few repeat visitors Brenda – Dr. Newman to her colleagues – recognized out there. Robert Burnham was shifting uncomfortably, and Brenda sent a silent prayer to whatever Saint cared for overworked trauma doctors that Mr. Burtham did not need anything removed from his colon this time – or if he did, it was something easier than another damn action figure. Karen Gillman was holding her son Chuck on her lap, shushing tears he wasn’t actually shedding. He looked more annoyed than anything. Ms. Gillman was going to insist her son had a serious injury, and when they talked to him, he’d roll his eyes and say he bumped his shin on a coffee table, or pinched his finger in a book binder, or something equally absurd. Probably. You always had to assume it was serious but based on how Chunk looked more annoyed than anything else, Brenda assumed that was the case.

Those were the repeat visitors she could smile and shake her head about. They were frustrating, and they sucked up resources that could have been used for patients with actual emergencies, but on slow nights like tonight, they weren’t hurting anyone.

Then there were the other returns that made her want to tear her hair out. Shannon O’Dowell’s cough was back, a cough that wouldn’t respond to treatment for long, a cough that required tests that Ms. O’Dowell couldn’t afford. She’d managed to quit smoking, but even at forty, Brenda was afraid it was too late. Mike Gallant had a black eye again, and his speech was slurred. He wasn’t a belligerent drunk, and he didn’t need his stomach pump this time, but he was going to drink himself into an early grave if things didn’t change. Brenda wanted to do more to help them, but there were limits. Shannon especially – Brenda had seriously considered pushing her into an MRI and bribing the techs not write it down if it came back negative. If they could get a diagnosis, they could get coverage for the treatment – but it was a catch 22, because Shannon couldn’t afford an MRI that ended up coming back negative and didn’t believe that she was a sick as Brenda was sure she was.

She’d been about to approach Shannon about that when the EAS started. That had completely changed the demeanor of the hospital. Everyone went from the sleepy tension of a slow shift with minor problems to the high tension of waiting, expectation. Rooms filled with non-critical cases were emptied, their patients moved to other parts of the hospital if they still needed attention. If they didn’t, they were placed in waiting rooms and told not to try to leave yet. Alerts were sent to all on call personal, making sure they were awake and alert and prepared. They wouldn’t be called in yet, not until it was clear it was safe for them to travel in, but they were now ready. The helicopter was checked and made sure it was ready to support emergency services.

She’d been so busy preparing for the emergency, Brenda had actually missed what it was about. The first she realized it wasn’t a normal emergency, that it wasn’t a nascent tornado or impending flood or something worse was during the President’s speech. It took her a moment to understand what she was hearing when she walked in near the end. “-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.”

“What the hell?” she said to one of her nurses. Clint Oberman was one of the best damn nurses Brenda had ever worked with, which – given that his stated reason for choosing his career was the male to female ratio – was a source of constant amazement, but that was only if you didn’t know that he said that because he was covering. He didn’t think he could have cut it in med school, but actually wanted to help people. His disapproving father had torn into him for working a ‘sissy job,’ so Clint had built the act carefully to justify his job to his father and himself.

He was good in a crisis, and aside from the ratio jokes, was never inappropriate. He could do his job well, and right now, the skill Brenda most valued was his ability to summarize quickly, concisely, and without emotion. “Monsters came out of sinkholes. Saw footage of one. Here in town. Dinosaur looking things. Thousands. Maybe more.”

Brenda did not stare at him and demand to know if he needed to do a drug test. Clint would never joke about something like this, not when it matched so well with the President’s speech. “Clint, grab two of the EMTs. I want them to go over to the emergency veterinary clinic down the street. Tell them we’re going to need their help.” It was a risk, but it was a calculated one. Clint’s forehead furrowed, but he nodded and ran towards the door.

She could justify the costs to her boss afterwards. Veterinarians knew animal bites better than anyone, they knew how to treat them, and were used to saving lives on a tenth of the budget Brenda operated with. If anyone would come in handy for the surge they were about to face, it would be the veterinarians.

“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 President’s speech closed, and the TV station cut to the footage of the kaiju attack here in town. The analysts were talking about his speech, but Brenda couldn’t hear them. Not over the pounding in her ears. Not over the sudden weakness in her knees.

That was Sunny Grove apartments. Where her sister and nephew lived. Sunny Grove. The kaiju were in Sunny Grove.

Brenda took a deep breath, and then another one. The nurses were looking at her. The other doctors were looking at her. This was her team, her people. They needed her to hold it together. You can do this, she assured herself. “Alright everyone,” she said, her voice carrying a confidence she didn’t feel. “You heard the President. Help is coming. We have to hold the line until then. If this is happening across the city, we’re going to see-”

Screams echoed from the waiting room. Speech time was over. Brenda joined the rush to see what was happening.

Karen of the fragile son was staring out the window, her boy clutched tightly to her, backing away. One hand was outstretched, pointing, and she was still screaming, a long, unbroken wail. Brenda followed her arm to see what she was pointed at.

A reptilian eye the size of a grapefruit with glowing golden veins was staring through the window, attached to a creature that looked like it had stepped out of myths and legends. Its scales were white with gold accents, its body was long and serpentine, and its wings…it had wings. Large, leathery appendages like a bat’s currently hugged close to its body.

Dangling from its teeth were a pair of blue scrubs, and a human arm, an arm with a barbed-wire tattoo, a tattoo that Brenda had last seen on Clint as he rushed out of the room.

The dragon – there was no other word for it – arced its head back and tossed the rest of Clint’s remains into its mouth. Karen had stopped screaming, although she was still pointing, her mouth open, frozen in a silent shriek of terror.

You killed him, Brenda thought, frozen to the spot. She wasn’t sure if she was blaming Clint or the dragon.

Overhead, she heard the whirring sound of helicopters. The dragon did too, whipping its head to the side, and it hissed a challenge that Brenda could feel in her bones. It extended those immense wings, and Brenda could see her initial impression they were wrong. They weren’t quite like a bat wings. Large sacks hung under the wings, close to the body.

Then the helicopter opened fire. “Get down!” Brenda screamed, following her own advice and throwing herself to the floor. The sound of shattering glass and the roaring of the minigun drowned out the screams inside. Brenda could barely even hear herself over the torrent. Some of the bullets found their mark and struck the dragon. A strange, glowing gold liquid began to flow from the injuries.

The dragon roared, and those sacks under its wings contracted. A blue light filled the hospital and a burst of heat, as the dragon launched itself into the air like a rocket. The gust of wind they created sent shards of glass flying in a deadly hail.

In the aftermath, the dragon was gone. Shannon would never have to worry about her medical bills again, not with the foot-long shard of glass wedged into her throat. She kicked a couple times, her eyes wide with terror, and then the light in them went out. People were screaming, people were crying, and there was so much blood.

She pushed the earlier guilt aside. At least Brenda knew what to do here. She began to bark orders, taking command of the situation. She couldn’t save Clint. She couldn’t save Shannon. But she would be damned if another person died because she made the wrong call. She’d assign blame later. She’d hate herself later. Right now, she had to care for the living.

It was time to hold the line.

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 115

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was pinned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dragon’s Scion Part 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.