The Dragon’s Scion Part 65 (Beginning of Book 2)

In all of Drakan, there was no creature more wretched than Poz Torne, and if anyone had reason to doubt that, Poz would be happy to set them straight on the matter. He had thought he had reached the bottommost point of wretchedness the year before, when he’d been locked up for a little bit of looting. Not much looting, not in Poz’s estimation. They hadn’t been Alohym soldiers he’d been looting from – Poz knew that would mean the gallows for him – just rebels, and it’s not like they were using those boots anymore, on account of them being dead and all. “I was’t doin’ the harm to them, no I was’t,” Poz muttered to himself, crouched a cave with the lichen and the guano.

It darker in this cave than the Shadow’s anus, as near as Poz could reckon, which meant he had some time before he needed to worry about his pursuers catching up with him. Or at least, iffin my luck don’t be doin’ me the bad like what it does, he reminded himself. And since my luck be lovin’ doin’ me the bad, I be doing’ the think that it’s going to turn on me like what it always does.

It could have been worse, Poz reminded himself. He could have been caught looting Alohym soldiers, or committing one of their blasphemies. Looting rebels was just a plain old ordinary crime, as far as the Alohym reckoned, and Poz was glad that was how they reckoned it, else he would have been doing a merry little jig a few feet off the ground. Instead he’d done six months hard labor to set him straight, then gotten released and went right back to looting. Can’t be doing me a blame for looting, can you? Poz has to be doing the eat.

For one brief, shining moment, Poz had believed his luck had finally turned. He’d gone to loot a battle, like always, but this time, he hadn’t even needed to go to where the rebels would be laying dead with their boots just waiting for Poz to snatch them away. Instead, he’d found the packs the rebels had set aside, glorious packs of provisions.

Now, Poz had a rule. Poz had lots of rules, actually,  but the relevant one here was don’t take what will be missed. So he’d taken a bit of food from each pack, and a nice pair of socks, and a pair of new undergarments. He’d planned to check out the battle, see who all else had died, and if the rebels were all dead…well, if they were dead, there wouldn’t miss their packs, now would they?

Should have done a stick to the rules, Poz, he admonished himself. Should have done a Shadow-tossed stick to the rules. But in the last pack, he’d seen something too good to pass up. Something that shone greater than any prize Poz had ever imagined stealing. It was the kind of treasure they wrote books about being stolen, usually in great underground vaults surrounded by Light-infused constructs and deadly traps. The people who stole such things weren’t wreches like Poz. They were beautiful people, with perfect hair and teeth that gleamed when they smiled.

Poz should have known better than to steal the thing, but it had been so shiny, so bright, how could he resist?

There was a sound of footsteps near the entrance to his cave, and Poz pressed himself further into the floor, his ears twitching. Being an Underfolk meant Poz could barely see even in normal light, but he could click his tongue and bring himself an image of the world around him. He did that a few times, his heart pounding. His pursurers hadn’t seen the cave yet – or if they hadn’t, they weren’t near the entrance.

Should have done a leaving of the thing, he sighed to himself. But he hadn’t. He’d taken it from the pack and made a beeline for town, seeking out his Riki, his fence.

Riki was a hard woman who had lived a hard life, but she had a soft spot for Poz. Sure, she called him an ugly little bastard, but she always did it with a smile. Or at least, without a grimace. Usually. But when Poz had Sung her and told her that he had something worthwhile, Riki had come running. This had pleased Poz. He’d built up a reputation for whining and moping because…well, because he liked to whine and mope, but also because doing so meant that, when he said he had something good, people knew it had to be true.

“Where’d you find this?” Riki had asked when he’d shown her the thing.

“You don’t want to be doing a know of that, no you do not,” Poz had assured her, getting a smile out of Riki.

“I suppose I don’t. Poz, how hot is this thing?”

“I was doing a wait of a couple weeks before I did a song, yes I was. No one’s been doing a sniffing for it, I can tell you that.”

Riki frowned. “I’ll see what I can find, Poz. You might have just become the richest one of your people on the continent.”

That was when Poz knew something was very, very wrong. Things that good did not happen to Poz, no matter what else was going on. No matter where he went or who he spoke to, the best Poz ever hoped for was to break even.

Even if he did have an egg of solid gold with him.

So he’d put his ear to the ground, as they said. He’d heard things that made him shiver down to his core. One of the Alohym, Rephylon, had met its end. Burned to death by a…by someone. Everyone agreed that Rephylon was dead, but not everyone agreed as to the creature that had killed him. Some said she was a monster, a half dragon, half human that wanted the Alohym gone so she could prey upon humanity freely. Some said she was a pure, true dragon from the old tales, the kind that kidnapped princesses and sat on their great hordes of treasure. Some said she was just a woman, able to weave dragonflame out of Light.  

All the stories, however, agreed on two things. One was her name – Tythel, a name stolen from the long dead princess of the old kingdom. Of course she is not being the princess, Poz thought. Only the very stupid be doing the believing of that. And they agreed she had survived the death of Rephylon, and was now building an army. Rumors said, in the month since Rephylon’s death, she’d been gathering all manner of cutthroats and brigands and all sorts of nasty folk to her banner, or that she was killing the nasty folk and…Poz clicked his tongue again, both to check his surroundings and to clear his head.

The truth was, Poz was sure it didn’t matter if she was wicked or good. Because Poz was increasingly certain that the egg he had stolen had belonged to this Dragon Princess. Which meant she wanted it back, and the Alohym wanted it for themselves. And what is poor Poz supposed to do? Do I be doing a go to the Dragon Princess and say “please don’t be doing a killing? I didn’t know it was yours when I be doing the take of it?” Hah! She’ll probably be putting the burn on me before I even finish a sentence! He’d been ready to give the egg to Riki and run to the hills, he really had. He’d gone to see her to be done with it and run, run far away, but when he’d gone to see her, Riki had been dead, impaled on the wall of her shop by a great sword as long as Poz was tall.

That’s when Poz realized that he was worried too much about the wrong people that wanted the egg. The Dragon Princess would burn him to a crisp if she could find him, but the Alohym…they knew he had it, somehow. They had sent something new after him, something terrifying. Something that fought like an Alohym but stalked like a man. It was what was out there right now, waiting for him.

Maybe if I be doing the leaving of the egg here, they’ll leave me alone, Poz thought, but dismissed the idea immediately. It was a nice, lovely thought, but it wouldn’t be what happened. They’d overlook the egg and hunt him down. Or they’d find the egg and still hunt him down. Or they’d find the egg and leave him be, but then the Dragon Princess would hear of it and she would hunt him down, and he wouldn’t even have the egg to bargain with.

Poz clicked his tongue again, and this time he had to fight back the urge to scream. The thing that was chasing him was in the cave’s entrance. It was as tall as a man, perhaps a bit taller, its form lithe and supple and covered with a rock-hard shell like the skin of an Alohym. Its head was wedge-shaped, like an Alohym, and it moved with preternatural grace.

Poz clicked his tongue a few more times, letting the new thing get further into the cave, then slowly skittering across the walls and hoping, begging the Shadow to keep him safe. He had one hope, as far as he saw it, one person who could set this straight. An old friend who would know what to do.  

A rock fell. The new thing turned towards Poz and started to raise its arm. The clawed hand was running like it was made of wax, forming some new appendage.

A beam of unlight shot from the newly formed tube at the end of its wrist, and Poz cleared the edge of the cave by mere inches before the blast struck. Then he was gone, fleeing into the night, with the new thing hot on his heels.

Just keep doing the running, Poz! Do the run and don’t ever stop! And once you be finding Nicandros, he’ll be knowing what to do with this.

Poz could only pray he would live that long.

Small Worlds Part 167

“I’ve told a few different versions of what happened with Arachne over the centuries,” Athena began, “but never the truth. It’s known to only one other goddess – Artemis. That’s how I knew Hermes message was truly from her.” Athena sighed. “In ancient times, the Olympians employed a sort of…of mentor program when a new god found a nanoverse, throughout their Nascency. Always in pairs.”

“Always two there are,” Isabel muttered to Ryan, who had to fight back a grin.

Athena apparently heard the comment and gave Isabel a puzzled look. “Yes. That is what pairs means.”

“It’s…never mind.” Isabel shook her head. “Sorry, please go on.”

“Pop culture reference, love,” Crystal said primly. Once again, Ryan found himself wondering if Crystal had actually understood the reference or was just good at spotting and rolling with references as they happened. Of course, if I asked her, she’d say something vague and leave me more confused.

“Ah. Well, it had been time for me to take an apprentice. I was given charge of a young Goddess named Arachne. Back then, we didn’t think of it as twisting reality – that’s a more modern convention. We thought of it as weaving the elements. And Arachne…she was one of the most gifted weavers I’d ever seen. She had a natural affinity for the elements unrivaled by any other Nascent. An affinity that every bit as great as her ambition.”

“To complete their apprenticeship and be fully considered an Olympian, a god or goddess had to complete a Trial. You’ve heard myths of some of these – the twelve labors of Heracles are the most famous of them. I set Arachne’s trial as one that was both simple and impossible – she had to beat me in a challenge of weaving.”

“I was hundreds of years old at this point. I’d fought in the Titanomachy, and was one of the finest warriors on Olympus.” Ryan couldn’t fight the smile this time. I wonder if I could say that with so little arrogance. “It would be decades, maybe even centuries before Arachne could best me in combat.”

“Why’d you give her an impossible task?” Crystal asked, frowning.

“Because the real trial wasn’t to actually beat me. It was for her…she needed to prove she could get past that arrogance.” She fixed her gaze on Crystal. “You saw what the Titanomachy did, Crystal.”

“What did it do?” Isabel asked.

“Did you study the Bronze Age Collapse?” Athena asked.

Isabel nodded, then her eyes widened. “That was the end result?”

“Yes. In our war with the Titans, we destroyed them. Not the Titans – we did. Because we were reckless, because we were so damn arrogant. That was why we made hubris the highest sin among our followers – because it was a reminder to ourselves what could happen if we fell into arrogance. I needed Arachne to prove she could get over that arrogance.”

Athena lapsed into silence for a moment. “What happened?” Ryan asked.

“She took another path. She did…she did a terrible thing to overcome me.” Athena shook her head. “Don’t ask me what it was. I’ve kept her secret for millennia. The story became a parable of the follies of arrogance.” Athena took a deep breath. “I turned her into a spider.”

“How did you manage to make that stick?” Anansi asked. “She was a goddess, it should have been simple for her to learn how to change herself back.”

“Yes, it would have been. Had I not taken her first to a place where my will was absolute, a place where she held no power.”

Dianmu looked sick. “You took her into your nanoverse?”

“Yes.” Athena took a ragged breath. “I made her immortal. I’ve preserved her existence through even collapses of my nanoverse. She goes into hibernation during the beginning and end of each cycle, awakening anew when intelligent life forms and slumbering again when she would otherwise be isolated.”

Silence returned to the table.

“So…you want to let her out?” Ryan asked finally. “After…what, hundreds of thousands of years for her? Millions?”

“Yes,” Athena said simply. “I know she’ll likely hate me. She’ll likely become a thorn in our side. But…I cannot let her suffering continue any longer. If I were to suffer true death…” Athena let the thought trail off.

“Love, I understand wanting to right past wrongs, but there’s no way she isn’t completely bugnuts by now,” Crystal said, as gently as she could. “And even if you brought her out, you’d be condemning her to a mortal life. Her nanoverse had to undergo heat death long ago.”

“I left her nanoverse. She’s been able to reset it, although not draw power from it. I couldn’t bring myself to condemn her to death, I certainly couldn’t do it to the innocent people in her nanoverse.”

“So let me get this straight,” Ryan said. “You want to go into your nanoverse and pull out a woman who is also a millions of years old spider that will have access to the full power of a goddess and literally every reason to hate you.  You want to do this now, right before we are moving into the last days of the world, and any distraction could mean the end of the human reason. On top of all that, your only reason for doing so is because it’s the ‘right thing to do’?”

Athena gave him a careful look. “Yes,” she said, tensing up.

Ryan smiled. “That’s…that’s great, Athena.” She was still studying him, looking for any signs of sarcasm, and Ryan shook his head. “I mean it, really.” It surprised him that he did. Every part of his brain was screaming that this was a terrible idea, except for a little voice in the back of his head that was screaming fuck logic, this is wrong. Just as Athena started to relax, Ryan went on, “But I don’t think you should go in there alone.”

“Excuse me?” Athena asked, the tension returning.

“No, he’s right.” Dianmu said after a moment. “It’s not safe.”

“It’s in my nanoverse,” Athena protested. “How could it possibly be dangerous?”

“Well, besides the fact that I recently got an abject lesson in how dangerous a nanoverse can be?” Crystal asked. “Athena, you could barely tell us the story of what happened. Bloody hell, it’s still full of holes, and that was you coming clean. Do you really think you’re ready to face Arachne, have a sit down?”

Athena opened her mouth to protest, but Isabel stepped in. “No one but you can speak for your own mental state, Athena. But do you really think Arachne wouldn’t appreciate an intermediary? Nothing personal, but if it was me and you showed up after millions of years, I don’t think I’d be able to say anything other than various swear words while trying to claw your eyes out.”

Athena sat there for a moment, clearly struggling. “Who would go?” She finally asked.

Crystal tapped her chin. “Gee, if only we had someone here who already had to sit out of both of the active missions we were planning.” She gave Anansi a pointed look.

He smiled at Athena. “I’d be honored to aid you. I know a thing or two about talking to spiders, anyway.”

Athena slumped in what looked to Ryan like a combination of relief and defeat. “Fine. But it’s just into my nanoverse – we could still join you afterwards.”

“Oh no,” Crystal said in unison with Dianmu. Crystal motioned for Dianmu to continue. “Athena, if Arachne is hostile when she gets out, the last thing we want to do it dangle Ryan in front of her. Or any of us, for that matter. You and Anansi will need some time to assess her mental state, make sure it’s safe for us to be around her.”

“I…yes, that makes sense. I don’t like leaving you shorthanded.”

“Don’t worry!” Isabel said brightly. “Crystal and I just need to have a chat with a Sphinx, and Ryan and Dianmu are just having a chat with the Curators. It’ll be-”

“Don’t you dare say ‘it’ll be easy,’” Ryan interrupted.

Isabel gave him a broad grin. “I didn’t. You did. That means if this goes pear-shaped, it’s your fault now.”

Athena let out a small snort of laughter, the tension beginning to fade from her shoulders as she did. “Do you always run circles around him?” she asked Isabel.

“Oh no, absolutely not. There was a time when he could run circles around me. Then I learned to walk.” The ensuing laughter was exactly what they needed to break the tension.

Ryan just wished he could shake the horrible feeling that they were forgetting something important.

 

Small Worlds Part 166

“After Anansi had made sure Ra would be comfortable as he fell into twilight, his nanoverse undergoing final heat death, Anansi headed to Egypt. It pained Anansi to leave Ra alone in his final hours, but the threat of the Staff of Ra being found was too great to wait however long it would take for Ra to die.” Anansi pursed his lips and shook his before continuing. “To be honest, Anansi had also not yet seen an abosom die, and also left because he was frightened to watch such a thing.”

“Upon arriving in Egypt, Anansi headed to the court of Amun, who would later be known as Amun-Ra. Anansi did not intend on seeking the aid of Amun in locating the Staff, for Anansi did not want to risk the Staff finding in anyone’s hands. There a celebration was thrown for Anansi’s arrival, for he was the first abosom to come to Egypt since the terrors of Sekhmet, and the pantheon there desperately wanted to show the world they were safe to visit again. There was a week of celebration for Anansi’s arrival, and he celebrated with the gods and Pharaoh of Egypt and learned more of their stories.

“The abosom of Egypt had found a great treasure of nanoverses, which they gave to the greatest of their mortal Pharaohs before their death, allowing them to become Nascent. A new Pharaoh was approaching the end of his life, one who’s name history has forgotten and is now known only as Scorpion the First. Since this Pharaoh had acknowledged Amun’s supremacy over Ra, it was doubtless Scorpion would be given a nanoverse, which meant another week of celebration. He died before finishing his Nascency, so even Anansi has forgotten his name, and it is of little importance to this story.

“Anansi excused himself from the second celebration, saying it was because he did not wish to intrude upon such a momentous day. In truth, Anansi excused himself because he knew the week of celebration would give him time to find the Staff of Ra without discovery.”

Anansi smiled.

“Anansi’s attempt to remain undetected was uncovered in just three days by Neith, goddess of the forge and – more relevantly – of the hunt. She suspected Anansi was up to his trickery, for tales of Anansi’s trickery had spread even to Egypt. Neith found Anansi preparing to break into a Pyramid and demanded that Anansi tell her what he was doing. Anansi tried every trick he knew to persuade Neith to leave it be, but Hunter Goddesses rarely fall for such ploys. Under pain of being taken before Amun – which would have resulted in a great deal of pain – Anansi told her what he was here for and begged her to keep silent.

“Fortune smiled on Anansi that day. Neith had been seeking the same artifact, for she hoped to find it before her quarry did. She was hunting Apophis, the enemy of Ra, who had long sought Ra’s staff. Apophis was a monstrous being said to be far older than Ra and far madder than any other being alive. He was an abosom, and he sought the staff, so he might restore a long-lost world.”

“Moloch,” Ryan hissed.

Anansi shook his head. “By the end of my story, you’ll see why I’m certain it was not. But I now believe that Apophis also hailed from that same ancient era that birthed Moloch, and our dear Crystal, and perhaps other beings. Ones that acted like monsters but had the power of gods.”

“The Titans.” Athena said.

Anansi nodded. “Among others.” He glanced at Crystal. “Is such a thing possible?”

Crystal shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “I thought I was the only one to survive, and the only monster I dealt with that meets that description is Lamashtu. Knowing what we know now…” Crystal shrugged helplessly. “I figured they had all died permanently. They could have been from a race that came between my people and humanity. Bloody hell, they could have been gods from another world that had undergone its own Eschaton.”

“All of these make sense,” Anansi said thoughtfully. “I suppose we may never know. Apophis was certainly not one for speaking. He had taken a great serpent and was worming deep beneath the Earth to try and find the pyramid that Ra had hidden the Staff within. Neith and Anansi had both searched different pyramids, and that left them only one to search.”

“They arrived as Apophis burst through the Earth to claim his prize.”

“The battle was a fierce one. Neith moved like lightning and struck like the hammer upon the anvil. Anansi used all his greatest tricks, trying to ty the great serpent in knots of its own coils. Apophis was screaming and rambling the entire time – so close to its prize, it had gone even madder than it had been for most of existence. The serpent managed to bite Anansi, and he was dying of its poison. It reared up for one last strike – and that was when Neith stepped between the serpent and Anansi. She drew a great kopesh from her nanoverse and drove it into the serpent’s mouth and brain.

“Apophis fell dead, but it had bitten Neith as well. She and Anansi both perished from its poison deep beneath the sands of Egypt, side by side.

“Of course, they were abosom. They were resurrected once their bodies had healed and purged Apophis’ venom. Apophis had not resurrected yet, since Neith’s kopesh was still lodged in his brain. Anansi took the Staff, and they both agreed it was best that Neith did not know where he hid it. Neith burned Apophis’ body and then took his nanoverse into her own. As terrible as the crime of destroying a nanoverse can be, it would have been far worse to allow Apophis to return to life.

“Anansi returned to Ra, only to find that the old god’s death was coming far swifter than Anansi expected. They had only minutes left. Anansi worked with Ra to use the power of the staff once and only once.

“When Ra died, he arose as a monster, but one with a noble heart and pure intentions. He would sit as the guardian of the Staff for the rest of time. That monster was the first of the Sphinx, and Anansi took both Sphinx and staff to a place where no one would think to search for it – to that hidden cave of metal hidden upon the moon.”

“It’s on the moon?” Ryan asked, feeling his eye widened out. “How are we ever going to get to the…moon.” He trailed off and started to flush. “No, no need to point out how dumb that was.”

“The moon part isn’t why I’m giving you the bug-eyed look, Anansi,” Crystal said. “A Sphinx? A sphinx that used to be Ra?”

Anansi nodded. Isabel raised a hand. “Someone fill me in, so I can join you in freaking out?”

“Sphinx are one of the few monsters that retain the full intelligence they had in life, and retain some of their divine powers,” Athena said with a grimace. “They’re not as powerful as a dragon, but much harder to outwit.”

“They can be reasoned with,” Dianmu added, turning to Anansi. “Do you think you could talk him into letting you have the artifact back?”

“No. As a precaution against shapeshifters, we agreed if he ever sees me again, he’ll kill me on the spot. If anyone claiming to be me shows up, he’ll likewise kill them, regardless of who they appear to be. My presence would destroy any chance of negotiations.”

Athena tapped her fingers on the table. “It can’t be Ryan either.” Ryan shot her a confused look, and she elaborated. “Nabu owes you a debt. You need to go speak to the Curators. Find out what happened to Horus, and if they can offer any other aid.”

Ryan sighed. “Okay, that makes sense. So, you all go deal with the Sphinx-formerly-known-as-Ra, and I’ll go to the Curators.”

“No offensive, love, but there’s no way I’m sending you alone to the Curators,” Crystal said. “Anyone besides Anansi and myself done any Lunar fighting?” No one raised their hand, and Crystal sighed. “That’s what I thought. I’ll go up to the moon base and talk to the bloody Sphinx.”

“Is there air in this moon base?” Isabel asked?

“Yes,” Anansi said.

“Then I’m going with Crystal.”

“Didn’t you just get done saying you were interested in being the tech girl behind the desk?” Ryan asked.

“Yeah, but that was before we were talking about going to the goddamn moon.” Isabel flashed him a fierce grin. “Besides, the Sphinx is smart, it’s probably spent its time preparing for a god to come along. No way it prepared for me.”

“Isabel-” Ryan said, but she cut him off with a quick shake of her head.

“Ryan, if you were about to point out how dangerous this is and I can die because I’m a mortal blah blah blah, I’ll remind you that you’re still able to permanently die and are more important for what we’re doing than I am, so I’ll only be missing out on the Moon if you agree to be stuck in a nice safe spot until it’s time to end the world.”

Ryan snapped his mouth shut and glared at her. “Fine. Then who’s coming with me to Officium Mundi?”

“I will,” Dianmu said. “I learned a great deal about the Curators when I was in the Jade Emperor’s palace, and nothing prepares you for dealing with them quite like the divine bureaucracy.”

Ryan nodded. “Okay, so Dianmu, Anansi and I to the Curators, Athena, Crystal, and Isabel to the…oh what now?” Both Athena and Anansi were shaking their heads.

“I stole a file of tales from the Curators three thousand years ago,” Anansi said with a bit of pride, “they would not welcome me.”

Crystal gave an affectionate sigh. “Of course you did. Athena, love? You’ve got something else to do than go to the moon?”

“Yes.” Athena looked down at the table, like she didn’t want to meet their eyes. Is she embarrassed?” Ryan wondered, not sure how to square that emotion with the woman he’d come to know over these past few weeks. Athena continued, “The fight with Moloch…was the closest I’ve come to true death. Ever. I realized…if I had died, I would have left behind unfinished business. I’ve done something I regret, and I must set it right before throwing myself headlong into danger again.”

Everyone looked at her, stunned. Ryan finally found his voice. “What do you need to do?” he asked, softly.

“I need to confess a lie to you all. A lie I’ve been telling for over four thousand years. And then…” she looked up, and Ryan realized it wasn’t shame that had driven her to look away, but it’s close cousin, guilt. “And then I need to free Arachne from the prison I made for her.”

For a full minute, the only sound was the winds of Cypher Nullity.

“Maybe you should start from the beginning,” Ryan said slowly.

 

Small Worlds Part 165

Everyone regarded Anansi. “Maybe you should start from the beginning,” Athena said slowly.

“That might be best.” Anansi sat up straighter, and Ryan settled into his chair. It seemed they had another story coming.

“I told you before of how Anansi battled the great metal scorpion that came from the secret cave upon the moon, the creature we now know was a szarmic.” Anansi looked at Crystal, who nodded to confirm the pronunciation. “This story takes place not long after that, at least not long as abosom reckon time. Only a few generations of mortals had passed, and Anansi felt the need to wander again. He had climbed to the moon, he had traveled through every continent and every nation of men, but that had been a few generations of mortals, and Anansi hoped that there would be new things to see.”

“And oh, how things had changed! In a land far to the east of his home, he found the peoples of Mesopotamia. They had their own abosom, but Anansi had met the abosom of Mesopotamia before, the Seven Gods who Decree, and he did not wish to meet them again. This was in the time before that land was ravaged by Lamashtu and the madness of Enki, which is not my story to tell, and it doesn’t involve Anansi, so it’s not a story for today.” Anansi’s eyes twinkled, and Crystal rolled her eyes with a laugh.

“While he was in the land of the Seven Gods who Decree, Anansi found many amazing things, things he resolved to bring back to the people. But among the things he learned, there was one thing Anansi had decided he would keep to himself for now. This amazing, wondrous thing had been invented by the priests of Ishtar. They used it to keep track of grains and cattle at first, but had begun to use it to keep track of ideas, of thoughts, of hopes and dreams – and most importantly to Anansi, they used it to keep track of stories. They called this thing writing, and to Anansi it was the finest invention mankind had yet come up with.”

“Having learned of writing, Anansi spent his time recording every story he had ever heard or even been a part of. This was, of course, a very long task, because Anansi had held all the world’s stories for a time, and was easily distracted. Yet he persisted, and in time, he had recorded all the stories he had ever heard or ever been a part of. When he ceased his task, he found that writing had spread to Egypt and further, all the way to his people, and they had their own writing and own words that Anansi would have to learn. This written language was forgotten and rediscovered and then forgotten again, and has not yet been recovered. Anansi was afraid that might happen, so he kept his tablets written in the language of Mesopotamia, and went searching for more stories to learn of or be a part of so he would have more to write.”

“Anansi started his search for new stories in the land of Egypt. Many things had happened there in his absence. Ra had created a new goddess, Sekhmet, and she had been a monster to rival Lamashtu. Ra had been deposed for his crimes, and the abosom of Egypt were choosing a new one to lead them. The choosing did not interest Anansi, who never had patience for politics, and he instead went in search of Ra, wondering what stories this abosom older than humanity’s oldest stories might be able to tell.”

“He found Ra far away from Egypt. Ra had gone to the north, hoping to find more of his people, whom he called the Urthigg, and whom those of Egypt called the Tah-nok, and what modern man called Neanderthals.”

“Ra was a Neanderthal?” Isabel blurted out, then covered her mouth and turned red.

Anansi seemed more pleased than annoyed with the interruption. “Oh yes, although he called them the Urthigg. They had all died, although Ra had heard rumors of a hidden tribe still in the north, hiding out of the reach of humanity. Humans had killed most of his people, and those that humanity didn’t kill had been married to the sons and daughters of mankind, so their legacy was fading away. Anansi did not know where Ra had heard rumors of a hidden tribe. Given how mad Ra was when Anansi found him – mad in the loss of sanity, not in fury – Anansi had to wonder if perhaps Ra had imagined those rumors of a hidden tribe, or invented them to handle being deposed for his crimes. Ra was very mad and very old, and rambled about many things.”

“In his rambling, he mentioned an artifact he had found, from a race that came before the Urthigg. This artifact was the shape of what would be called an Ankh, and Ra had placed it upon a staff, creating both Ankh and Staff of Ra. Ra was very mad at this point, and in his rambling he told Anansi what the staff could do – it would store the energy nanoverses normally bleed.”

Crystal let out a low whistle, and Dianmu frowned. Athena glanced at Ryan and Isabel, then back at Anansi. “Might I interrupt with an explanation?” Anansi nodded for her to continue, and she turned to face the two youngest members. “A nanoverse leaks power constantly at a steady rate. That energy is just lost – the normal side effect of entropy. Even when you draw power directly from it, a great deal escapes you and floats away.”

“How much power is lost?” Ryan asked, frowning.

Athena gave a small shrug. “No one knows the exact amount-”

“Seventy three point six six percent,” Crystal said. “Repeating, of course.” Everyone looked at her now, and she gave them a smile. “Before the end, Lemuria had found a way to measure nanoverse energy.”

“You’ve never mentioned that before,” Dianmu said.

“I didn’t remember until just now, love. It’s not something I really gave much thought to.”

“Wait…” Ryan held up a hand. “Almost three fourths of the energy of a nanoverse is lost?”

“Yes,” Anansi said, in his storyteller voice, commanding the attention of everyone in the room again. “Someone who possessed the staff of Ra would be more powerful than any god who had ever lived. Even now, this remains true – Enki would have lost most of the energy of his abominable nanoverse through the same process. The power scared Ra so much, he had never dared use it. Even when he created the monster Sekhmet to punish mankind for their failure to worship, he did not risk using the Ankh, for fear that power would drive him mad.”

“After creating the monster Sekhmet, Ra feared what he would do, feared the temptation of the Staff and Ankh. Before he had left Egypt, he had hidden them away in one of the great Pyramids his people constructed as tombs for their kings, but  now in his madness, he feared what would happen if it was eventually unearthed.”

“Anansi agreed, and after making sure Ra would be comfortable in his final days, set off to recover the Staff and hide it away, for Anansi knew of a place where none would think to look, where the Staff of Ra could be hidden safely until Anansi was as old and mad as Ra.”

“Little did Anansi know he was almost too late. Someone else was on the hunt for the Staff of Ra, and would stop at nothing to obtain it before Anansi could hide it away. This is a tale of a battle that time had forgotten, one that took place beneath the sands of Egypt, and much like the tale we now live in – the fate of the world was a stake, for the Staff of Ra possessed a power so terrible it threatened all that existed.”

Ryan settled in to listen.

Small Worlds Part 162

After Herme’s abrupt departure, Dianmu turned to Ryan. “You were just about to ask a stupid question?” she asked.

“Right,” Ryan said with a wince. “Seems even more of a long shot now – I almost think we should just forget about it.”

Isabel shot him a glare, and Athena shrugged. “A stupid question is better than staring at each other, wishing we had a plan. Who knows, we might get one from it.”

“Thanks for that,” Ryan muttered, and sighed. “I’m just…I mean, I was wondering if…” He gave Isabel a helpless look.

“Oh good Lord,” Isabel said with a roll of her eyes. “We were wondering if there was any magic fix we’d overlooked. A wise old man on a mountain, a mystic artifact, some way we could get an easy fix to the whole end-the-world problem that Ryan and I overlooked because we’re not millenia old and don’t know everything.”

Crystal snorted a laugh, and Isabel flushed, shooting Ryan yet another glare. “I would have said it,” Ryan said with a grumble.

“Not before the world catches on fire,” Isabel shot back.

Ryan held up his hands in defeat, then looked at the assembled gods. “I know it’s a long shot. But we figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask. So…anything?”

For a moment, there was nothing but silence, and Ryan could feel himself joining Isabel in blushing. “There are the Curators,” Dianmu said slowly.

“Come again?” Crystal asked. “They won’t do anything to intervene. It’s not their style.”

“It hasn’t been their style,” Dianmu corrected. “However, you and Ryan have already gotten more from them than anyone else in the cosmos I’ve ever heard of. Certainly more than they’ve ever given me.”

“Or me,” Anansi added.

“I can third that,” Athena said.

“We sent Horus to talk to them already,” Crystal said, although her forehead was furrowed in thought. “And we never did hear back. Maybe something happened and he got waylaid after leaving Officium Mundi.”

The other three long-term gods nodded. Ryan raised an hand. “Why are we talking like that’s a good thing?”

“Love, you saw what happened when Nabu felt he owed you a debt. If someone used seeing Horus on Officium Mundi against us, we could probably convince Nabu that increased his debt. Might be able to get some answers out of him.”

“But what would we ask?” Athena said, leaning forward to rest her elbows on the table. “We won’t get many questions – probably only one – and I don’t think we should waste it on a magic artifact that probably doesn’t exist.” She gave Isabel and Ryan a small grin. “No offense.”

“None taken.” Ryan replied, glad that the question had at least produced something productive. “And I think the question is obvious – if someone’s pulled it off before. If someone, somewhere, managed to stop their sun from exploding without wiping out all life on the planet.”

Anansi shook his head. “I think you’re on the right track there, but we run a very real risk that the answer will be ‘no,’ and we’ll be right back where we started. Perhaps instead asking how Nabu would end the world without genocide?”

“Better,” Dianmu said, “but still leaves room for a useless answer. The answer could easily be ‘I don’t know,’ and again, we’re back where we started.”

“I know the question,” Crystal said, leaning forward in excitement. “I know exactly what bloody question we need to be asking that wanker. We ask him exactly what the rules are. Right now we’re trying to base our plans off my half remembered concept of the rules, but if we know exactly how it works…then we can find a loophole.”

“I like it,” Isabel said with a smile. “I like it a lot – it actually gets us somewhere. Although, and maybe this is because I’m just a dumb mortal, but it seems like there’s a follow up question we should ask.”

“What’s that, love?”

“If they’re consider getting off their asses and doing something.” Isabel said. As she saw everyone’s dubious looks, she held up a hand for patience. “Look, I know the Curators don’t do that. But they also don’t take sides, and Nabu did. Lucifer doesn’t quit being King of Hell, but he did. Gods don’t live more than twenty or thirty thousand years, but both Crystal and Moloch managed it. It seems like there’s so many things you all don’t do because you’ve got it ingrained in your heads that it’s the rules, but they aren’t as binding as you think they are.”

Ryan watched the faces of the other four gods, noting that, while they seemed uncomfortable, none of them could exactly refute Isabel’s point. “It doesn’t hurt to ask,” Athena finally said.

“Damn right it doesn’t,” Ryan said. “Okay, so that’s one thing. But we don’t need all six of us to go talk to the Curators.”

“We definitely don’t,” Dianmu said, giving Isabel a gentle smile. “They would not react well to us brining a mortal with us, even one as unique as you.”

“What, they’d kill me?” Isabel asked, a slight tremor in her voice.

“No,” Dianmu said, “they just wouldn’t allow you to see them. As far as you’d be able to see, you’d be standing with us in an empty plane.”

“Oh.” Isabel relaxed some.

“Besides,” Crystal said, “it’s not like there’s not other things we have to deal with. Horus is still missing. We might want to consider aiding the Olympians against Poseidon, since at least Artemis knows she can trust us. Bast is somewhere out there still, although I’m hoping she went to ground once Enki got a bloody nuke to the face. When it’s time for the endgame, I want as many pieces off the board as possible.”

“So that’s a no on the magic artifacts, I guess?” Ryan said with a grin.

It got a few smiles in return. “No,” Athena said. “As much as it would be, I know of only one artifact that could have helped us, and it’s been missing for almost four thousand years.”

“What was it?” Ryan asked.

“The Staff of Ra.” Athena sighed. “If we had that…but there’s no point to getting into that. No one know where it is.”

Anansi cleared his throat, drawing everyone’s attention. “So, and lets just be clear here…if one of us happened to know where the Staff of Ra was, we’d consider using it?”

“Yes, love” Crystal said slowly. “Why would you ask?”

“Hold on, we’ll come back to that.” Anansi said with a wave of his hand. “But I want us to make sure we’re on the same page. As dangerous as the Staff of Ra could be if it fell into our enemies hands, we’d be willing to risk it?”

“Absolutely,” Athena said firmly. “The entire world is at stake.”

“Yes,” Anansi said, “and the Staff of Ra could put whatever comes after the end of the world in danger.”

“Even if it does, at least we’ll have an after,” Dianmu said.

Anansi looked around the table, and sighed. “Then…it’s entirely possible I know where it is. Or at least, where it was lost.”

“How would you know that,” Athena asked, her eyes wide.

Anansi gave her a wide grid. “Well…it’s entirely possible I was the one to lose the thing in the first place.”

The other three older gods stared at Anansi. Ryan raised a hand. “Just so Isabel and I can join you all in looking at Anansi like he just grew a second evil head…what’s the Staff or Ra?”

“It’s a magic artifact,” Crystal said, not taking her eyes off Anansi. “It’s a magic artifact that’s powerful enough to give us a chance to actually pull this off, love.”

Ryan felt hope leap into his chest, but looking at Anansi’s face, he couldn’t help but still worry.With something that Crystal clearly held in such high regard in play, it didn’t make sense for the Trickster to look so sad.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 64 – End of Book 1

Tythel found Armin below, showing one of the doctors how the device he’d used to purge Tythel of Unlight poisoning worked. “You need to be careful,” he was saying. “I got an abject lesson last night in what too much light can do to a man, and it’s worse than it use to be.”

The doctor nodded and Armin turned and saw Tythel, giving her a smile. “Ty-” he glanced around at the group of doctors and wounded soldiers. “Your highness,” he amended, slapping his fist to his chest.

Tythel opened her mouth to object to Armin’s use of the title, but remembered Haradeth’s words. “You need to learn to start acting like a princess.” Tythel gave Armin her best smile and hoped it wasn’t too unnerving. “Armin. I’m glad you made it through the battle.” She looked over the rest of the soldiers. “All of you.”

That got some smiles from the soldiers, so she didn’t think she’d done too poorly. “Might I have a word, your highness?” Armin asked. Tythel nodded, and let Armin lead her away. “You okay?” He asked.

“I’ll live,” she said with a happy blink. “You?”

Armin nodded. “Look, Eupheme and Ossman are outside. They’ll want to see you too. But…there’s a crowd, Tythel. People who want news about you.”

“What…what do I do?” The idea of facing a crowd was somehow more frightening.

“Say something inspiring, hold up your good hand, and then get out. Haradeth’s going to be waiting for you at the Mayor’s manor, there’s a Crawler waiting to take you there.”

Tythel took a deep breath. “Okay, I can do this.”

“I know you can,” Armin said. He motioned like he was going to hug her, saw her bandages, and instead put a hand on her good shoulder. “I’ll be right behind you.”

“Thank the light for that,” Tythel muttered, and headed to the door.

“Wait!” Armin said, stopping her short. He went over to one of the doctors and came back with a black eyepatch. “I heard about your eye. Figured this would look better.”

Tythel frowned. “How bad is it?”

“You haven’t seen it yet?” Armin asked.

“There weren’t any mirrors up there.”

“Oh.” Armin shrugged. “It’s gone a bit milky. Besides, the eyepatch is a bit more stylish. I’m sure if you think about it, there’s been some leader or another who wore an eyepatch, so there’s precedent.”

“Yuana Qui, Pirate Queen of the Umbral Isles,” Tythel said promptly, noticing Armin’s evasion and deciding not to press him on it. She was aware of the darkness in her vision, but held out a small hope that her continued transformations would eventually heal it. And if it doesn’t, it’s not like I need depth perception to bathe something in flame at close range, or whack it with a hammer, she through wryly before continuing. “She was known as the Scourge of Valaetia, and for thirty years raided their coasts. Although she wasn’t actually a pirate, but a Tsani privateer that had been hired by the Cardometh Empire to disrupt trade between members of the Valaetinian Confederation, something she did well until…” Tythel trailed off and tilted her head at Armin. “I lost you.”

“Sorry, Professor,” he said with a grin and a shrug. “I never studied history much. Now go. Your people are waiting for you.”

‘Crowd’ undersold the number of people waiting outside. It was overwhelming. They can’t all be for you, Tythel tried to console her self. Some have to be waiting for word on their loved ones.

Then the cheering started. Tythel let the sound wash over her, trying not to let panic set in, and then held up her arm. “We’ve won a great victory today!” Tythel said, recalling the speech Xiongnes had made on the steps of Llansire after they had repelled an invasion from Carthomere. “We’ve beaten back the Alohym, and proven them to be false gods. We’ve driven them from this city!”

That invited another wave of cheers. She waited it them to die down, her heart pounding. I hate this oh Light it’s worse than facing down Rephylon. She was suddenly glad for the eye patch, since it hid part of the crowd from her and the panicked look in that eye from them. Keep your voice steady, Tythel. Don’t quaver. Don’t throw up. “I tell you now, people of Dawnchester. The fight is not over. The fight may not be over for some times. But today we have proven that the fight is not lost! That we are not broken! We will fight until we are victorious, until we have reclaimed not just our cities, not just our kingdom, but until we have reclaimed our world! So stand tall, people of Dawnchester! Today, we have taken the first steps on a long journey, and we will still be standing tall at the end of this road!”

Another round of cheers. Tythel lowered her arm, knowing the speech had already been falling apart at the end. “Best to end it on a high note,” she muttered to Armin.

“Say that you have to go or something,” Armin said “but remind them the fight isn’t over.”

The cheering died down as Tythel agreed. “I must go for now. There’s much to do, much to prepare for. But I swear to you, so long as I draw breath, I will not stop fighting. As long as any one of you draw breath, our resistance stands strong. Never let that flame die out from within you, and never let memory of this victory fade!”

Tythel all but lunged into the crawler as the final round of cheers started.

Ossman and Eupheme were waiting inside. Ossman gave her a broad grin. “Didn’t think you’d get to go to this meeting without us, did you?”

Tythel laughed, drunk on relief from being away from the mass of people. “I wouldn’t dream of it.”

“Good,” Eupheme said. “I’d hate to become cross with you.” She frowned with worry. “How do you feel?”

“The tea they gave me to numb the pain is still working. I’m not looking forward to when it wears off.” Tythel blinked with amusement. “If that happens during the meeting, would one of you please distract everyone until I can get more? I don’t know how useful I’ll be groaning in pain.”

“Don’t worry,” Ossman said. “I’m certain Armin will do something stupid to draw their attention.”

“Hey!” Armin objected. “That’s hardly fair. I’ll do something intentionally stupid to draw their attention.”

Eupheme snorted. “There’s many things I believe about you doing stupid things, Armin. Premeditation isn’t one of them.”

“Of course not. I meditate afterwards, to reflect on what I did.”

We did it. Tythel thought to herself with a grin as Ossman and Eupheme groned. She rolled her eyes as she, settled back into her seat. Now, she thought, letting her friends banter, now this feels like a victory.

She wished Karjon was there to share in the triumph. She wished Nicandros hadn’t gone to…wherever he had gone. She wished she’d escaped the fight with injures she was certain would heal, and she wished she had more confidence in her ability to defeat an Alohym in a fight again.

For now, however, she pushed those thoughts aside. For now, for the first time since this had started, Tythel allowed herself happiness untainted by fear or grief or uncertainty.

It was, after all, what Karjon would have wanted for her.


 

End of Book 1. Series resumes September 25th. 

Small Worlds Part 161

The group reconvened in Cipher Nullity.

“Still haven’t heard from Horus,” Dianmu said as they took their seats. “I’m starting to worry something went wrong for him.”

Anasi frowned in concern. “We can go to Officium Mundi and check with the Curators, see if he at least made it there.”

“Love, as much as I’d like to, I don’t know if we have time,” Crystal said, throwing down a newspaper on the table. For a moment, Ryan had to grin – he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a physical newspaper outside of a story. That grin faded as he saw the headline. “Global Temperatures Rising more Rapidly Than Models Predicted.” Crystal tapped the headline to make sure none of them missed which story she was worried about. “It’s already started.”

“Is this what happened last time?” Athena asked.

Crystal gave them a grim nod. “I don’t remember how long we had after the heat started. But it was when things started to get close.”

“Does that mean we need to do something right away?” Ryan asked, his voice cracking with alarm. It’s too soon, I’m not ready yet.

“Not yet,” Crystal said, reaching over to pat him on the shoulder. “It just means we have to keep an eye on things. We’ve got a bit to go still before things become urgent, and once that happens you can start using you Zoisphere to slow things down.”

“That’s an option?” Dianmu asked. “Why didn’t you mention it before?”

“I hadn’t remembered,” Crystal said with a sigh. “Seeing…I mean, that whole mess with…” Crystal took a deep breath. “I can’t make myself call Moloch any other name, yeah? The man I knew died a million years ago, and can we leave it at that?”

No one objected.

“Okay. So the whole thing with Moloch jarred some more of my memories loose. Nothing,” she said hastily to Ryan, “that gives us a magic answer. But I do remember that when things started getting bad, I used my Zoisphere to slow things down. Hurricanes, Earthquakes, Floods – local disasters, but not apocalyptic. The more creative things got, the more it helped.”

Ryan let out a long sigh. “So…you’ll know when it’s time to start that?”

Crystal nodded. “And we’re not there yet. But we need to keep an eye on the news.”

“I’m on that,” Isabel said. She’d brought a laptop, and had it on the table in front of them. “I don’t suppose any of you could give me wifi access here?”

“A bit outside of even our power,” Athena said gently. “We don’t have the advantages of permanent twists to reality that we did in Tartarus.”

“No worries, I don’t need it right now, as long as we can keep it working in nanoverses like before. But, since I’m the IT girl, I’ll set up some alerts for rapid temperature rises, climate change, other apocalyptic signs. Anything else I should be looking for?”

Crystal went over some of the other signs they were getting closer to the Sun’s explosion. “But you’re just the IT girl? Won’t be joining us on the battlefield?”

Isabel shook her head. “I got my first taste of gods battling and nearly died. If there’s something that absolutely requires me to join in the fight, I’m there, but other than that…I’m basically an Animorph on steroids, and the stuff you’re fighting is a bit more dangerous than Yeerks.”

Ryan laughed. Everyone else gave Isabel blank looks. “What’s a Yeerk?” Athena asked.

Isabel flushed slightly. “Probably should have gone with a better known reference. They’re…never mind, it would take too long to explain. My point is, I’m in over my head against gods. I think I can do more with the drones and tech support than I can anything in the field.”

Tension seemed to leave the faces of Athena, Dianmu, and Anansi. Ryan felt an urge to defend his sister rising, but he was as relieved as them to have Isabel not in the fights. She can’t resurrect. Not until we get her a nanoverse, and that won’t happen till after the world ends at earliest.

Ryan decided to ignore the fact that he had not guarantee of resurrection yet either. “Well, then I have a question, and stop me if this is stupid-“

Apparently whatever capricious force governs timing decided it was a stupid question, since at that moment a seventh doorway opened in Cipher Nullity. The gods leaped to their feet. Please be Horus, please be Horus, please-

It wasn’t Horus, but it also wasn’t a threat. Hermes stepped out of his nanoverse, blinking at them. “Relax, everyone. I’m bringing word from Artemis.”

“How did you find us?” Crystal said, righting her chair with a wave of her hand.

“My little secret.” Hermes smiled. “Don’t worry, Crystal, it’s not something anyone could replicate. Especially not Bast.”

Crystal frowned at the lack of an explanation but didn’t press Hermes. “So what’s the word?”

“Poseidon has fled.” Angry muttering rose from the table, and Hermes held up a hand for attention. “Artemis doesn’t know who helped him, but once Zeus resurrected, he clearly figured out things were about to go very poorly for him and decided to go to ground.”

“Where?” Athena said, clenching her fists.

“We don’t know yet. Artemis is hesitant to start the search. He had assistance, that much is certain. She’ll be happy to help you all, but with Poseidon being a looming problem…she’s going to be a bit busy for now.”

“She can’t send us any help?” Dianmu asked in clipped tones.

Hermes shook his head. “Artemis has precious few people she can trust right now, and she needs them close until Poseidon is dealt with. Excpet for me, apparently.” Hermes tapped his chin in thought. “Or perhaps she doesn’t trust me, I’m not sure.”

Athena snorted. “She trusts you with this message.”

“Everyone knows I can be trusted with those.” Hermes looked offended.

“Fair,” Athena said.

Hermes nodded. “And with the message done, I must return and see if I have more to carry.”

“Hey Hermes,” Ryan said at the retreating god. “Why didn’t you do your whole ‘repeat her exact words’ thing?”

Hermes smiled, and when he spoke this time, it was with Artemis’ voice. “And don’t repeat what I said verbatim. I hate my voice coming out of your mouth. If they doubt that it’s a legitimate message, tell Athena I never broke her trust on the weaver.”

Athena’s eyes widened. “The message is from Artemis,” she said slowly.

“Then may I depart?” Hermes asked, not waiting before stepping back into his nanoverse.

With that, Hermes was gone. And there’s no way to know when we’re going to be getting help. We’re on our own, Ryan thought bitterly.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 63

Tythel woke up to a thousand little pains that were swimming in a deeper sea of ache.

She barely remembered Eupheme leading her to the Inn that was rapidly being converted into a makeshift hospital for the wounded. The memory of being bandaged was lost in a haze of pain. Someone had given her something to drink afterwards, and she’d fallen into a dreamless sleep.

She remembered waking up once. Haveron, the sour-faced doctor from the camp, was there, standing over her, talking to someone she couldn’t see. “We could save the eye, but it’s beyond surgery. We’d have to risk using light-”

And more and more and more and more… The sight of those terrible mutants flashed through her mind, and Tythel found the strength to reach out and grab his wrist, causing exclamations of surprise. Haveron winced as Tythel tried to speak. Her tongue felt like it was a dry cloth, and she could only manage to shake her head. “Your highness, I want you to understand, once the eye heals it will be beyond even the light to restore your sight. The nerves were severed. That will never repair itself naturally.”

Tythel shook her head again, as firmly as she could manage.

“I understand. Rest then. We won’t go against your wishes.”

Relieved, Tythel slipped back into that dreamless sleep.

Now it was morning. The Inn was full of the sounds of the wounded and quiet bustling. The doctors were gone.

“Oh, good, you’re awake.” Haradeth said. He was leaning against the window and looking out over the city.

“The others?” Tythel asked, her throat raw from medication and flame.

“Alive,” Haradeth answered. “Much of their army broke when Rephylon’s death reached them. A few defected or surrendered, more fled. I guess they were terrified of whatever could kill a god. The remainder fought throughout the night. There’s still some pockets of fighting. Theognis is holed up in the old castle, but he’s not risking trying to break out. The city is ours.”

Tythel’s eyes widened. “We’ve…managed to claim a city?”

Haradeth nodded. “We can’t keep it. The Alohym main force will be here by tomorrow. We need to be long gone when they get here – we can’t hold out against that.”

Tythel nodded glumly. We’ve accomplished nothing. We’ve gotten ourselves right back to where we were at the start of that, and we call this a victory?

“No, don’t do that.” Haradeth’s voice was a snap. “We won, Tythel. For the first time in sixteen years, we faced the Alohym in battle and actually won. This is going to galvanize the resistance. Many of the former prisoners are staying with us. Soldiers wearing full imperiplate have defected. We have control of some of the Alohym’s greatest weapons, and when we get them to our Lumcasters, they can find ways to recreate it without unlight. And word is spreading – the Alohym are not immortal, they can be killed. This is a triumph!”

Tythel was shocked by the passion in his voice. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to discount-”

Haradeth chuckled. “Don’t apologize. You’ve only been doing this for a few weeks, you can’t be expected to see the bigger picture yet. And…you need to learn to start acting like a Princess.”

Tythel flushed. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“Rumor has already started that you died after killing Rephylon and we’re hiding it. We need you to meet with some civic leaders, to appear to the crowd and wave.” Haradeth shrugged. “We need to prove to people we still have the woman that can kill an Alohym.”

“I don’t know if I can do it again,” Tythel said quietly. “I barely did this time. It only worked because Rephylon was arrogant, talking to me, letting me get in attacks. I would have died if Rephylon wasn’t playing me.”

“Don’t tell anyone that,” Haradeth said in an urgent hiss. “Don’t you dare tell anyone else that it was luck. Right now people have hope. You can’t take that from them.”

Tythel leaned back, startled by the intensity of his warning. “If they follow me thinking I can reliably kill Alohym, they could die.”

“The Alohym will be hesitant to fight you again. They don’t know it’s luck either. Tythel, we have a chance to win this. But right now, much as I hate it, it hinges on the belief that you can kill these monsters.”

“If I can’t, how can we win?”

“Theogines’ notes.” Haradeth patted his pocket. “Theognis knew where the Vacuity Engine was. We need to finish breaking the code, but once we do…we can find it. We can win. But right now, the only flathing way we’re going to do that is if we hold on to the myth of the princess the Alohym fear.”

“I don’t like it,” Tythel said. “I’ve seen what secrets do when they come out.”

“Some secrets have to be kept,” Haradeth growled.

Tythel pursed her lips, then nodded. “I’ll not share.” In that moment, Tythel felt the same animosity towards Haradeth he’d displayed towards her. Even though he was right, it sickened her to keep more secrets from her friends. It’s not his fault, she reminded herself.

“What did I do? Why do you…I don’t know. Dislike me? Hate me? ” The words were out of Tythel’s mouth before she could think it through.

Haradeth seemed surprised, but recovered quickly. “I suppose that’s a fair question. Honestly? You’re an angry child who wants to use our resistance – the people I care about, the people who are fighting for the good of this whole world – to pursue your own personal revenge. You don’t care about the people, just some individuals, and if we win those people are going to want to put you on the throne. I shudder to think of what you’ll do there.” Haradeth held up a hand before Tythel could object. “Don’t…don’t argue with me about it.”

Tythel glared at him. “I’m supposed to just accept you calling me a selfish monster?”

“No.” Haradeth said with a shake of his head. “You’re supposed to prove me wrong. Words won’t do that.”

Tythel’s glower deepened. “How am I supposed to prove it? Anything I do you’ll assume is because i want-”

Haradeth shrugged. “Maybe you can’t. It doesn’t matter, anyway.”

“How could that possibly not matter?”

“Because,” Haradeth said, “we’re using you too. We’ll never stop being useful for your revenge, and you’ll never stop being useful to our resistance. We have a term for that in nature – symbiosis. Like the birds that clean the teeth of a crocodile, even though it could devour them in a single bite.”

“And which one is which?” Tythel asked.

That got a grim smile out of Haradeth. “I suppose we’ll find out.” He stood up abruptly. “A couple healers are going to be along soon, They’ll give you some herbs to help you past the worst of the pain. We need you to be busy today, because we’re leaving with the dusk.”

“Okay.” Tythel still fumed from Haradeth’s accusations, but she didn’t have to like him to work with him. As he turned to leave, she spoke up. “Haradeth, was there any word of…did anyone else show up to the battle? That we weren’t expecting?”

Haradeth paused and turned back to look at her. “No. He didn’t show up, Tythel. I never imagined he would. He no longer could find his vengeance with us.” Haradeth studied her with an unreadable expression. “I see why you two got along so well,” he said after a moment.

With that, Haradeth left.

Tythel felt the grief and anger well up within her, and forced them aside as best she could. You killed an Alohym. The resistance won. This is a time to celebrate, not stew.

There would be time for that later. For now, the doctors were arriving, and she had her medicine to take.

Then it was time to be what everyone wanted her to be.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 62

Tythel slumped back to the ground after the burst of ghostflame.

You’re not done yet, Tythel reminded herself. Her vision in her good eye was blurred, but she could see Rephylon. The Alohym laid on its side, its spindly legs twitching spasmodically in the air. It was reaching out towards her, the hands clenching and unclenching.

More importantly, it was speaking, but its mandibles weren’t moving. The voice was coming from inside its chest. You heard this before, Tythel realized. Back in the prison. She’d heard the voice emanating from the thorax. It hadn’t registered at the time, not as anything important. Now that the Alohym lay dying, the voice coming from inside its chest took on a sick importance.

Tythel began to limp over to the Alohym. She could barely walk. The earlier cut in her leg was throbbing with each step, although it was a minor pain compared to the other ones. The ringing in her ear was beginning to fade, but she still couldn’t see out of her right eye. Her left arm was clutched to her chest at an awkward angle, and Tythel knew she needed to heal it at some point. Every step sent pain through that arm, pain that also radiated out to her shattered ribcage. She didn’t think they were actually broken – Tythel was certain she wouldn’t be able to walk if they were.

It didn’t matter. She had to finish this.

She could hear voices from inside the houses that lined their battle. Faces came to windows. People were whispering in confusion and shock. The song notes of those shells began to chime as the few who had the ability to communicate long distance began to share what they were seeing. Part of Tythel thought that might be important, but the rest of her was too focused on her next step to really think about it.

“Tythel?” a voice said. Tythel turned towards it. Eupheme stepped out of a shadow, her eyes wide. “Light and Shadow, you look…is that an Alohym?”

Tythel could only give Eupheme a cut nod. “The army?” Tythel croaked.

“On it’s way back.”

Tythel turned back to Rephylon and resumed walking. “Need to finish…not done.”

If Eupheme objected to Tythel’s course of action, Tythel didn’t hear it. Step by plodding step, she finally closed the distance between herself and the Alohym.

Now that she was close to Rephylon, she could almost hear the individual words coming from its chest. It sounded like it was railing at Tythel. “I’m sorry,” Tythel said to it, bending down to one knee, “I can’t quite make that out.” She slashed with the talons of her good hand to tear open the Alohym’s thorax. “You were saying?”

The last three words came out as a furious growl.

“You will not survive this.” Rephylon hissed through its pain. “Everything will collapse. Your people will call you a monster, a liar, a child, they will turn-”

The Alohym’s words reverted to its native language as soon as the final plate of the thorax was torn away.

Beneath the thorax was not a mass of internal organs. Instead there was a chamber, in which sat a creature not much bigger than a cat. It looked like a segmented, plated worm. One that had been badly burned. Metal cables connected it to the rest of the chamber, and with the thorax gone it began to scream wordlessly.

Tythel reached in, wrapping her talons around it, and yanked it from its chamber. It wiggled and writhed in her grasp, and the sensation was so disgusting, Tythel held the creature as far away from her body as she could.

Gasps began to sound from the houses around her.

“What is it?” someone whispered.

“Where did it come from?” another asked.

“It’s horrid,” a child’s voice said.

Tythel, for a moment, stood there dumbly. They need to see this. She could hear the army was returning – if not for the ringing in her ear, she would have heard them much sooner. They all need to see this. Tythel stood back up, carefully. Someone was at her side. Eupheme, one hand under Tythel’s arm. “Can’t have you passing out now, your highness,” Eupheme whispered. “It’s your first public appearance, after all.”

Tythel did her best not to lean too noticeably into the assistance until she was on her feet again, the Alohym still trying to escape her grasp with frantic struggles and cursing Tythel in that hideous, shrieking tongue. Or maybe it was begging. Tythel had no idea what the Alohym was saying, and didn’t care.

“What the flath is that?” Tythel heard. Armin’s voice. The army had returned. That’s good, Tythel thought.

She held the Alohym aloft, making sure everyone could see this pathetic, mewling thing. Making her voice as loud as she could manage through the pain, Tythel shouted, “People of Dawnchester! Behold your gods!”

Silence as realization settled in, silence only broken by the Alohym’s continued screeching.

Certain she had everyone’s full attention, Tythel ignited her hand in dragonflame.

Rephylon gave one last shriek and fell silent.

In the distance, alarms still blared. In the distance, fighting still raged. But right here, all was silent. If it wasn’t for Eupheme, Tythel would have collapsed right then. As it was, she stood there, leaning heavily on her friend.

“Light Shine on Princess Tythel!”

Tythel looked to the voice, and was shocked to see Haradeth had started the cheer. “Light Shine on Princess Tythel!” He repeated. This time, the chant was picked up by others. It began to spread through the army, and then through the people watching from their windows. They were cheering. The words “false gods” and “death to the Alohym” began to mix in.

You were just worshipping them, Tythel thought. Are you that fickle? Or were you just that desperate for a crack in their divinity? Another, uglier thought followed that one. Or do you just fear what could happen if you didn’t cheer?

It didn’t matter. They’d seen their gods bleed. They’d seen them die. They’d learned the truth – and thanks to Alohym devices, the whole kingdom would know soon.

Tythel tossed the charred remain of the Alohym to the pavement. The cheering surged again.

It’s a start, Tythel thought. Eupheme prompted Tythel to raise her hand for another round of cheers. “Now, your highness, I think you should rest before your people see you collapse.”

Tythel didn’t protest as Eupheme led her away.

Small Worlds Part 159

“Ra! Save me!”

Sekhmet bent down, a dagger in her hand. It was a simple tool, one of sharpened stone, but it had proven more than enough to allow her to disembowel the man in front of her. His innards spilled out over the brick floor of Sekhmet’s dwelling. The bricks would need to be remade – this much blood always caused them to turn to mush. “Interesting. Your entrails spill out of you, yet you still have the strength cry for Ra.”

“Please…” he whispered, blood running from his mouth. “Please, grant me a swift death.”

Sekhmet reached forward and brushed the man’s hair back from his face. She saw hope swell up in his eyes. “No,” she said, standing up and stepping backwards.

“Why?” the man asked.

“You deserve death,” Sekhmet said, stepping away to wipe the knife clean, momentarily turning her back to the man as she did. “You agreed that. However, I’m interested in seeing how long a man can survive with your injuries.”

When Sekhmet turned back, the man’s eyes were glossy, his chest unmoving. “Ah. Not very long at all, it would seem.”

“I could have told you that,” said a voice from behind Sekhmet.

She whirled around, stone knife coming up as she dropped into a defensive posture, certain the Pharoh’s men had finally found her.

It was not the Pharoah’s men. It was a shirtless man with the head of a falcon, regarding her with a curious expression.

Ra. God of the Sun. Was in her home. Sekhmet stood up, her heart pounding, putting the dagger back in her belt. The weapon would do nothing against a god, and Sekhmet was not in the mood to bow and scrape. “If you came to answer his prayers,” Sekhmet said with a gesture, “you’ll have to fetch him from Duat. He’s no longer of this world.”

A being without lips should not be able to smile, yet somehow Ra managed. “You respect me as little as the rest of the people of this city,” he said.

Sekhmet shrugged. “To be honest, I assumed you were here to slay me for my transgressions. I was not interested in pressing my forehead to the floor before my heart was weighed.”

Ra didn’t seem certain what to make of that. He looked down at the man again. “What did he do?”

“He died,” Sekhmet said, furrowing her forehead in confusion.

“I can see that. Before I revealed myself, you said that he deserved death. Why did he deserve death.”

Sekhmet shrugged. “I didn’t ask.”

“Then how did you know that he did?”

“He admitted it after I held his feet to hot coals for an hour.” Sekhmet sniffed. “If you’re not here to punish me, Great Ra, might we take this conversation outside? The stench of death isn’t my favorite.”

Ra strode out, motioning for her to follow. Irritation flared up in Sekhmet – she had invited him outside – but she followed.

Sekhmet’s dwelling was outside the walls of Nekhan, away from the prying eyes of civilization. She had a tiny oasis that provided her fruit and water. The men of the city would sometimes come to her, asking her to read the future in the entrails of a goat. She couldn’t see the future, but she could tell convincing lies that were vague enough that the men of the city would come back frequently, bringing with them meat and grain.

Sometimes, they would not return from those journeys. The roads outside of Nekhan are treacherous, after all.

“Why do you do it, Sekhmet? Why did you kill him? And the others, for that matter?”

“Does it matter?” Sekhmet asked, walking over to the oasis to scoop out a cup of water. She offered it to Ra, who declined. “Why do you sail under the world every night? Why bear the sun across the sky? We are what we are.”

“I actually do neither of those,” Ra said with a rumbling laugh. “Yet you kill so coldly. I ask again, why?”

Sekhmet frowned, “I do it to learn,” Sekhmet said, “There is so much that happens in the human body we do not understand. The only ways to understand is to open them up and look.”

“Then why make him admit he deserved death? To salve your conscience?”

Sekhmet shook her head. “No. Because I wanted to see if enough pain would cause a man to admit a terrible thing. Since he would only admit to deserving death, I presume either it would not, or he had no terrible thing to admit.”

“I see.” Ra sounded somewhat repulsed, and he turned back towards the city, as if steeling himself. “You’re a monster,” he said.

“I find that distinction irrelevant,” Sekhmet countered. “I am also a woman. I am also a scholar. I am many things that are more quantifiable than monster.”

Ra nodded slowly. “As you say. I wish to ad one other thing to that list. You are a woman, and you are a scholar, and you are – indisputably, in my eyes – a monster.” He looked back to the city one more time, then turned to Sekhmet. He raised his hand and opened it, revealing a small black stone within. “I’d also like you to become a goddess.”

Sekhmet stared at the stone. She could see stars swirling within, and felt a pull to gaze deeper into it. Ra closed his fist before she could. “And what would you want in exchange for that?” Sekhmet asked.

Ra tilted his head. “I offer you untold power, and you ask about conditions?”

“Why else would you make someone you consider a monster a goddess, unless you had a  need?”

Ra nodded, then pointed back to the city. “The people of the city have forgotten my worship. I wish to see them punished for it. You would be my instrument in doing so.”

“I’m not interested in wholesale slaughter,” Sekhmet said. “I work personally.”

“If I wanted the city destroyed in an instant, I would do it myself. I want them to have time to think, and to beg for my aid. I want them to remember why they need me. You have the…personal touch I require.” Sekhmet frowned, still thinking. “Think of how much you could learn if you had millenia of life. Of how much knowledge there is to gain. All for the price of making one city know what it means to fear my wrath.”

“I want you to know I know you’re manipulating me,” Sekhmet said, stepping forward and holding out her hand. “You aren’t even trying to hide it. And yet…I will do as you ask, because you are right.”

Ra placed the stone in her hand. Sekhmet stared into it, and the stars filled her vision.

“Then go, Sekhmet. Show them what it means to anger the gods.”