Small Worlds part 220

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you sent Hermes away,” Aphrodite sniffed.

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

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

Either way, it worked in her favor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make that six gods and two monsters. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dragon’s Scion Part 116

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Around her, the forest burst into flame.

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.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 112

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dragon’s Scion Part 110

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The booger,” the Tarnished One said helpfully.

“Fine. What does the booger do?”

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

“Right,” Haradeth said.

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

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

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

“And you need my blood because?”

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

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

The Tarnished One giggled as she stabbed the offered digit.

Small Worlds part 213

“Let’s assume for a moment I’m okay with the idea of generating natural disasters to appease the sun or however this works,” Ryan said, breaking the silence after Nabu’s last proclamation. Also, “I’m not, for the record, but let’s assume that I do. I don’t even know how. I haven’t even touched my Zoisphere since Crystal first showed it to me, and that was before the fight with Enki. That was ages ago.”

“Three weeks is ages?” Nabu asked, raising an eyebrow.

Ryan stopped and stared at him. “Three weeks?” he asked, his voice sounding hollow even to him. Everything that had happened – the fight with Enki, the battle with the super soldiers, delving into the Labyrinth…all that had happened in three weeks? It didn’t seem possible, but as Ryan thought about it, he realized it was actually the correct length. “Damn. It feels like a whole lot longer.”

Nabu chuckled. “You’ve been rather busy, haven’t you?”

“And still getting used to not having the normal mortal time measurements,” Dianmu said. “No breaths as a subtle reminder of the passing of time. No sleep cycle to mark the days. Hopping between time zones in your nanoverse, so you can’t even rely on the sun. No biological reminders that time passes. It took me a couple decades before I really got used to it.”

“Fair,” Ryan said with a sigh. “Okay, so it’s been a few weeks since I’ve seen my Zoisphere, and I don’t even remember much about it. Mind giving me a primer?”

Nabu looked over at Dianmu. “The workings of a nanoverse are only academic to me.”

“I’ll be happy to help,” Dianmu said. She motioned towards Ryan’s console. “Do you recall how to bring it up?”

Ryan nodded, getting up and heading over towards the console. A few button presses and screen swipes, and the zoisphere appeared.

It was a massive globe, seven feet from top to bottom, showing the entire world in exquisite three-dimension detail, right down to the clouds rolling over the landscape. Ryan was certain, as he was before, that if he could somehow zoom in on it, he could see individual people walking about – probably even individual ants. It was the entire world recreated in miniature.

All across the land on the globe, tiny dots were appearing and vanishing. Most of them were blue or red. “Okay, I think I remember how this works,” Ryan says. “Blue dots are someone being born, red dots are someone dying, right?”

Dianmu nodded and motioned Ryan over. “Let’s say you wanted to start a hurricane over the Atlantic,” she said. “All you have to do is grab the Zoisphere and rotate it – go ahead and do so now, you won’t hurt anything until the last step.”

Ryan swallowed a lump of fear and reached up to touch the globe. He could feel the clouds and waves beneath his fingers, although his hands offered no resistance. It took a slight tug, but the Zoisphere rotated until the coast of Africa filled his view. “Now, you need to open your divine sight,” Dianmu said.

Immediately, Ryan could see the world. He could see the equations governing airflow, controlling currents, governing tectonic shift. “Holy crap,” Ryan said with the most reverent tone ever applied to those two words.

“That’s what the Zoisphere does,” Dianmu said gently. “It lets you access the things too big to normally see. You can manipulate them here, but will find it far, far harder to control all the variables than you do normally. If you want to make sure you’re hitting a particular location, you’ll want to start the devastation here.”

“Why devastate?” Ryan said, rotating the globe to the side until Northern California was under his view. “All this power…why would I destroy?” He focused on the equations governing condensation, air currents, and precipitation. They were immensely complex, but he didn’t need to understand them the way he did when normally twisting reality. Instead, he reached out with his hand and grabbed some clouds from Seattle, pulling them down and duplicating them.

When he pulled his hand away, clouds were beginning to gather under his fingertips. In a couple hours, they would form a rainstorm, one that would travel southwards down the state and bring rain to one of the most drought-stricken regions in the world. Ryan turned to Dianmu. “All that power…there’s so much good we could do.”

“And so little time,” Dianmu said quietly. “That storm will bring some relief to the region, yes. But that moisture had to come from somewhere. Seattle will miss its rain very little, but if you did it long enough to stop the drought in California, you’d have to create a new drought in the northwest. The fact remains in this, as in all things, is that destruction is easier. Our powers offer very little shortcuts to creation.”

Ryan sighed. “Oh well. At least I did something good.” He started to move the Zoisphere back into its original configuration.

“What’s going on in Texas?” Nabu asked.

Ryan felt his blood run cold as the echo of the words he’d said to Athena so long ago reached his ears. His eyes snapped to Texas. He didn’t even need Nabu’s outstretched, pointing finger to know where to look.

Grant, Texas. The same city that Bast and Moloch had devastated weeks ago was now, once again, a hotspot of rapidly flickering red lights.

“Bast,” Ryan said, hissing the name through clenched teeth. “It has to be Bast.” Ryan turned around and ran to the console.

“Ryan, what are you doing?” Nabu said, frowning. “You can’t be sure it was Bast!”

“Yes, I can,” Ryan said, working the controls furiously. “Because it’s where she struck before. She went back to finish the job she started!”

“Probably to draw you out,” Dianmu said, crossing her arms as she thought. “She’s probably trying to get you to do exactly what you’re doing!”

“The entire world is at stake, Ryan,” Nabu said, his voice level. “It would be foolish to-”

“No!” Ryan said, looking up from the controls. The fury in his voice wasn’t directed at Nabu, but Ryan didn’t try to contain it. “No, I am not sacrificing a town to get ahead. I’m not letting those people die so I can stay safe. I might have to end the world. I might have to throw hurricanes and brew earthquakes. I might need to let hundreds of people die to give the world enough time to survive, but I’ll be damned before I let a town die because I don’t want to take risks. I didn’t cower when Enki was hunting me. I didn’t skulk away from the super soldiers. I didn’t let Moloch have free run of the Elysian Fields, and I sure as hell won’t let Bast slaughter a small town. There’s no point in saving the world if I don’t do everything I can to save the people on it, and this? This I can do. Are you two with me?”

“Of course,” Dianmu said. Nabu just nodded.

“Good. Then get on your game faces because we’re going to go to Texas, we’re going to open a divine can of whoop ass on Bast, and then we’re going to figure out how to save the whole damn world.” Ryan hit the button to start moving his nanoverse. He strode back over to his Zoisphere and studied Grant. “And I think I have a plan. For once.” He reached out and swirled his finger over the town to get a storm brewing.

He could only hope that they weren’t going to be too late.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 108

The entranceway of Grejhak’s lair was littered with the long rotten bones of the dead. They were scattered about with the careless hand of a macabre child’s toys, strewn without any rhyme or reason that Armin could see. He could feel the thrum of necromantic power in the air, like a wire drawn taught and plucked by a foul hand, but none of it seemed to emanate from the bones itself. You’re being absurd, he reminded himself. Without a necromancer present, the bones would remain bones, as inanimate and lifeless as the stones they lay upon.

He still gave them a wide berth and told himself he was doing it to respect the dead. He even almost believed it.

The others were giving the bones the same distant respect that Armin was, as if there was an unspoken agreement that none of them wanted to be the one to disturb whatever horror the bones represented. Claricia’s eyes shone with the light she was holding onto, and she held her hands outstretched, as if ready to unleash a torrent of raw light the moment something even twitched.

Armin approved of that mentality. Guiard and Ossman had their weapons unsheathed, with arclight glowing the blades of both Guiard’s sword and Ossman’s axe. Only Aildreda kept her weapon sheathed, to avoid giving away her position as she scouted ahead. She was a dim shadow at the mouth of the next room and was waving for Armin to come to her position.

“What is it?” Armin asked.

Instead of answering, Aildreda pointed deeper down the tunnel. It took Armin’s eyes a moment to adjust to the gloom. There were vague shadows there, slightly deeper spots against the grey stone. Armin looked a question at Aildreda, who nodded. He held up his hand and formed a globe of light around his fingers.

Five dead bodies sat propped up against the end of the hall. These had not laid here for countless millennia like the ones in that grim foyer. For starters, their flesh was still intact, although flies swarmed around and on them in a nauseating cloud. More importantly, they wore the imperimail of the Alohym foot soldiers. These men had worked for their enemy and had been here recently.

Armin’s black and orange eyes, so like an eclipse, met her emerald green gaze. “Have they moved?” he asked, his voice shaking.

Aildreda shook her head. “Can you feel anything?”

Armin focused on the rays of energy that swirled around him. They had the same sickly taint of death that Armin had been feeling since entering the swamp, like the very power of life and warmth had grown ill. This wasn’t the shadow, which was beyond his ability to touch and even if it hadn’t been, was no fell or foul thing, no was this the repelling power of unlight. This was a more natural phenomena, although it was natural in the same way parasitic wasps were natural.

This is what happened to a lumwell if a slaughter occurred within its dominion. It was twisting the land and air, it was what had turned a forest into a decaying swamp, and it was choking the flows of light with the taint of necromancy. Armin could no more distinguish the source than he could find a candle flame at a hundred yards in a sun-scorched desert. “I can’t tell,” Armin said, although he’d learned one thing.

The flow of corrupt light was stronger here than it was in the entranceway. The only way it could be this much stronger only a dozen feet ahead was if they were directly over the lumwell itself.

He glanced back to Ossman, who had almost caught up with them. His hair had never fully grown back from his early exposure to a lumwell. Armin hated seeing his baldness. Ossman claimed he didn’t mind, but…I should have been strong enough to stop it. “Ossman,” Armin said, stepping away from the rest of the group. “I think we need a rearguard. There are Alohym soldiers in the hall – I want an advance warning if they send more.”

Ossman nodded. “Agreed.” Armin was ready to leap for joy. He was certain this was going to be a fight, but Ossman saw the wisdom and- “Send Aildreda. She has the best eyes and can catch up with us quickest.”

Shadow forsake it. “Actually, I was thinking-”

“Guiard. Also a good call. He can use the Skimmer to escape if he can’t get to us at least, let command know what happened.”

Armin pursed his lips. “Ossman, I wasn’t going to send either of them-”

“Well, you certainly weren’t going to send Claricia, because you need her Lumcasting,” Ossman said, talking over Armin without hesitation. “And I know you weren’t going to send yourself, because you’re in command of this operation. And you definitely aren’t sending me, because if you keep treating me like I am a ceramic doll I’m going to break your flathing neck to prove I’m not fragile, so I’m not sure what you had in mind.”

Armin stared at Ossman, shocked into silence by the fury in his voice.

“Stop blaming yourself, Armin,” Ossman said, his voice low and harsh. “You did what you could to protect me. You didn’t do anything wrong. I’m fine. I only hear things sometimes, and I know damn well you want to send me away because we’re near a lumwell and you’re afraid. I understand that. I know guilt. But you did your best.”

“It wasn’t good enough,” Armin muttered, unable to meet Ossman’s eyes.

Ossman put a hand on Armin’s shoulder. “I stood by you at the collegium revolt. I stood by you in the resistance. I don’t care if your best is good enough, Armin. I only care that you tried. But if you keep treating me like spun glass, you’ll actually manage to offend me. Let me decide what risks I can take. Trust me as much as I trust you.”

Armin noted mutely and turned back to the group. “Let’s go,” he said, taking a step further into the hallway.

The moment he did, the eyes snapped open on the corpses at the end of the hallway, and the rotting husks began to lurch to a shambling semblance of life.

Armin could only stare at them. He’d been so concerned about Ossman, he’d completely forgotten about the danger waiting for them.

Light help me, I’ve damned us all, he thought, fumbling for his arcwand.

Small Worlds part 211

No one spoke on the walk out of Officium Mundi. Ryan couldn’t say what was going through Nabu and Dianmu’s heads, but for his part, it was a mixture of lingering rage at the Curators and shock at Nabu’s about-face. He didn’t know what to say to the man – if that was even the right word.

Thankfully, once they were back in his nanoverse, Dianmu took over the silence. “What was that glowing orb you were given?” she asked.

Nabu gave her a small smile. “It’s all the power I had before, condensed. I can access it to a point, but I’m far more limited now – and it’s a finite resource. Once it’s gone, so am I.”

“Thank you,” Ryan said, finally finding the words. “I…I didn’t expect that. Or anything like that.” Ryan motioned to raise some chairs from the staging area floor for the three of them. “Thank you,” Ryan repeated, knowing how weak it sounded.

“I’ve been considering it for a few hundred thousand years,” Nabu said. “We – or I supposed when talking about the curators I should say ‘they’, now – lost our way at some point. I knew that protocol allowed for rules to change when the Council was in recess. When I realized that’s exactly what they were doing, it was the final straw.”

“And you didn’t warn us?” Ryan asked, careful to keep any accusation out of his voice. Nabu had just given up true immortality, beyond what even gods had, for their sake. The last thing he wanted to do was act like an asshole. Am I even still angry at him anymore? Ryan wondered.

Nabu shook his head. “I still had hope that I was wrong. I filled out the form to make sure I was ready, but I still held hope.” Nabu’s lips curled for a moment into a bitter grimace. “It was a foolish hope.”

No, I’m not, Ryan realized. Thirty years of being followed by Nabu had done damage to Ryan’s life, sure. It had cost him any chance at anything close to normality, and now Ryan had a terrible burden looming over him. But…but the later part hadn’t been Nabu’s fault. Nabu did nothing to guide Ryan to the nanoverse. And having a normal life wouldn’t have left Ryan any better prepared for what he was dealing with now.

“Well,” Ryan said, “foolish hope is pretty much our entire stock and trade, so you’ll fit right in.” He gave Nabu a lopsided grin.

Dianmu nodded and smiled. “I don’t think, since I’ve started working with Ryan, I’ve experienced any hope that wasn’t foolish. It’s worked out in the end each time in the end, though.”

“Thank you,” Nabu said, settling into one of the chairs. It was still weird for Ryan to see Nabu doing anything even remotely normal, like sit in a chair, or have his tie loose, or look tired. “Tell me. Is hunger a sharp pain in your stomach, followed by a rumbling sensation?”

Ryan couldn’t help but laugh. “Yeah, that sounds like it. I’ve got some emergency food for if my Hungers flare up – what sounds good to you.”

“I have no idea,” Nabu admitted. “I’ve never eaten anything before.”

“Never?” Ryan asked, freezing and looking at Nabu with incredulous eyes. “I mean…you have a cafeteria in Officium Mundi, right?”

“For visiting gods,” Nabu said, raising one hand to rub at his stomach. “The last thing we want is hungry gods running around Officium Mundi. You all can cause all sort of problems when you get up in your needs.”

“He’s not wrong,” Dianmu said.

Ryan nodded. “How about an Italian sub, then?”

“I literally have nothing to compare it to, so whatever you suggest,” Nabu said. “I do remember you enjoying those though.”

Ryan got up and went over to the console. Moments later, a refrigerator was rising out of the floor. “Go ahead.”

Nabu grabbed the sandwich and took a bite. His eyes widened. “Hmm. It seems there are unexpected benefits to mortality. Also, my tongue seems to be reporting pain.”

Ryan chuckled. “Peppers.”

“It’s an interesting sensation,” Nabu said. Dianmu motioned Ryan over while Nabu finished his sandwich.

“As amusing as it might be to watch Nabu learn about mortal life, we do have an objective here,” she said, her voice low.

“I haven’t forgotten,” Ryan said, shaking his head. “Was thinking about dropping into my nanoverse fully to give us plenty of time.”

“I don’t think that would be a good idea,” Dianmu said. “He’s not human, and his power source isn’t a nanoverse itself. We don’t know what it would do to him. He might not be able to exist in there – and even if he is, he just lost countless eons of power. Then you want him to give up what little he has left?”

Ryan pursed his lips. “Damn. Didn’t even think about that. But yeah, good catch. Although we probably should figure that out – otherwise we’ll have to know at the worst possible time.”

Dianmu laughed, a light and unamused sound. “I do wish I could tell you that was inaccurate.”

Ryan glanced back at Nabu, who had finished the sandwich in a horrifyingly short amount of time. “Hey Nabu, if we needed to drop into my nanoverse, would that…do anything to you?”

Nabu considered for a moment. “It probably wouldn’t be immediately harmful. Probably. I’d rather not experiment right now.”

Ryan glanced at Dianmu, who gave him the politest ‘I-told-you-so” look Ryan had ever received. “Fair enough. In that case, I hate to rush things, but…”

“But time is running short. You need to know the rules, and you need to know before the sun explodes next week.”

Ryan froze at Nabu’s words. “Next week? Next week?” Ryan shouted, his voice cracking. The old anxiety, so long absent, rose up in his throat like an unwelcome house-guest and threatened to strangle him.

Nabu nodded slowly. “Take a deep breath, Ryan. There’s things we can do to postpone, and I’m hoping that – once you know the rules – you’ll be able to figure out a loophole I’ve overlooked.”

Ryan walked over to one of the chairs and slowly slid into it, taking the deep breath that Nabu recommended. “Alright. Tell me everything.”

Nabu leaned forward and prepared to exactly that.

The Dragon’s Scion part 107

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Movement to the right,” Aildreda whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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