The Dragon’s Scion Part 81

“Jump!” Eupheme shouted as her arcwand blazed.

Tythel leapt to the side without a moment’s hesitation, grabbing onto a rock that jutted out a bit further from the cliff face. A beam of unlight scored the stone she had just vacated, sending chunks flying free from the wall to crash into the valley below. Her remaining talons bit into the rock. A lance of pain threatened to black out the vision in Tythel’s good eye as her bloodied finger slammed into the rock, but she forced it aside. The rock was beginning to crack under their combined weight, and Tythel had to scramble with her feet and remaining hand to find purchase. “Flath, that was close,” Eupheme hissed. “They’re getting ready for another pass.”

Tythel nodded and took a moment to make sure her grip was firm. Then, taking a deep breath to calm her nerves, Tythel shifted away her talons.

For a terrifying moment, all that was holding her in place was the strength of her grip on the rocks and the tiny footholds barely under her toes. Even her enhanced strength could barely support the two of them. Tythel waiting there for a moment, then tentatively lowered her injured finger onto the rock.

The pressure wasn’t painful. Although the digit was still streaked with blood from the earlier injury, without a talon Tythel didn’t have any injury to cause her pain.

“They’re coming back around,” Eupheme said in a warning tone. “Whatever you’re doing, mind hurrying it up just a bit?”

Nodding again, Tythel shifted her talons back into place. She let out a sigh of relief at having them grip into the stone again, and almost wept for joy when her damaged talons grew back with the uninjured ones. It wasn’t much – she could only heal injuries to the parts of her body she grew – but it was something. “Tythel! Move!” Eupheme shouted.

Tythel kicked to the side again. There weren’t any safe outcroppings on the side of her head she could see out of, so she leapt blindly into the spot hidden by her bad eye, turning her head and praying to both light and shadow she’d find something to grab into. Unlight again sheared away the rock from the plateau. Beams erupted from the ground as Tellias opened fire, streaking past the Skimmers.

There wasn’t anything to grab onto this time. Tythel was forced to again dig her talons into the stone cliff, scoring the stone with lines as they fell. They hadn’t gone as far this time – her talons held, although it sent lances of pain along her arms and legs as she slowed their impact. Eupheme opened fire again. “They’re so fast…” Eupheme said, ejecting a spent light cell and slamming another one into place. “Tythel, I don’t know if I can hit them.”

Tythel nodded, and swallowed hard as she began to climb. She needed every bit of moisture she could get in her ruined throat. A plan was beginning to form, but it required being able to ask Eupheme a question. “How…” Tythel started to say, but the rest of the sentence died in a series of coughs that tasted of copper.

“Don’t try to speak,” Eupheme said in growing alarm. “Just keep climbing!”

Tythel did, waiting for Eupheme’s warning to jump again, looking out of her good eye with a frantic fear. Have to find another outcropping, she thought. Have to get to safety or-

“Now!” Eupheme shouted.

Tythel leapt again, Eupheme firing wildly. Eupheme let out a whoop of excitement as Tythel managed to sink her talons into a soft spot of dirt that was packed into the side of the plateau. A wave of heat hit Tythel a moment latter, followed by a soft “whump” of an explosion. “Got one!” Eupheme said fiercely.

If Tythel could have spoken, she would have congratulated her friend. Instead she kept climbing, her mind racing. The smell when they are near is like burning gas. They only have one heartbeat. Somehow, these aren’t ships, or some new kind of Alohym skin. They’re creatures in their own right!

Suddenly, her crazy plan seemed even more needed. “Close,” Tythel managed to spit out before another round of coughs sent her vision spinning.

“Close? Ground is another hundred feet,” Eupheme said.

Tythel shook her head.

“The Skimmers? They’re coming around for another pass.”

Tythel shook her head again, still climbing.

“Then what do you…oh. Oh no. You can’t be serious.”

Tythel nodded.

“Light and flathing shadow,” Eupheme swore. “About three heights. You’re sure?”

Tythel didn’t even bother to nod this time, continuing her climb and awaiting Eupheme’s signal.

“Damnit,” Eupheme muttered. “Alright, get ready.”

Tythel stopped her climb.

“And…now!” Eupheme shouted.

Tythel leapt, twisting again in the air to face away from the wall. She found herself face to face with the eyestalks on the underbelly of the Skimmer. Although the eyes were markedly inhuman, they widened in a comically familiar expression of shock.

Then Tythel sunk her talons directly into the creature’s underbelly. The Skimmer let out a sound that Tythel assumed was pain, a sound like someone blowing into a broken flute. The creature staggered in the air, and Tythel’s heart stopped. Oh no. I killed it. I killed it and we’re both going to fall to our deaths.

Then the flames emerging from under the Skimmer’s wings reignited, and they began to accelerate. The Skimmer tried to swing its tail around to take aim at them, but Eupheme shot it off with a quick blast of her Arcwand. “You’re crazy!” Eupheme shouted. “You’re madder than the moon!”

Tythel blinked in amusement at the compliment. The Skimmer began to streak away from the plateau, its eyes wild with pain. She could feel it trying to pull up and gain altitude, but the Skimmer wasn’t meant to support the weight of two humans, especially not while losing blood from its abdomen. With every second, the ground grew closer. Tythel could see Tellias racing to follow them, the remaining Skimmer right behind him.

All that was left for Tythel to do was grit her teeth, and get ready to leap off the bottom of the Skimmer before it scraped her and Eupheme to past on the canyon floor below.

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 77

Tellias and Tythel fled the airborne Alohym, beams of unlight searing the ground behind them and to the sides. An unsettling realization settled into Tythel like a maggot worming into meat. He’s toying with us. The creature was too fast, too lethal. It should have been able to strike one of them by now. Instead it was baiting them, leading them on, herding them. As long as they kept running, he could keep playing with them.

Terror and fury mixed in Tythel’s mind, each one fueling the other. Tythel focused on those emotions, feeding them and hardening them until they held an almost diamond clarity in her mind. “Get ready,” she said to Tellias.

“For what?” he asked, but Tythel didn’t bother to explain. If she could see the Alohym, it could hear here. She could only hope that Tellias would pick up on her plan. Still running, she waited until the Alohym aimed to fire again, then whirled and let loose a gout of pure dragonflame the moment the Alohym let loose its next attack.

Unlight and dragonflame met in the sky, and Tythel could hear him let out a startled shout. The impact of the two forces raced back to their respective wielders. The Alohym was pushed higher into the air, and Tythel was knocked back onto the ground.

It was painfully similar to how Karjon’s flame had caught the warship’s unlight in mid air. Tythel took hold of that pain and funneled it into the flame, using the still dull pain of loss to put more force behind the fire. The point of impact caused Tythel’s flame to expand further, a wide swath of flame filling the sky, obscuring vision of the Alohym. She knew he was still there, however, the pressure pushing back against her dragonflame an unrelenting wall of force. She felt herself start to get pushed into the soil of the ground beneath her, but the flames that were fanning out from the impact with the unlight began to grow more distant.

For a moment, the flame provided more light to the battlefield below than the still-rising sun, throwing everything into sharp relief. Yet Tythel could still see the fire was darker near the point of impact, the unlight eating the natural light being put off the flame.

“You mongrel fahik,” the Alohym hissed in that too human voice. Tythel didn’t know the word, but it was clear from the way the Alohym spat it that it was anything other than a compliment. Still, her heart leapt to note the strain she heard in that voice, mirroring the one she was feeling in her throat and neck.

Tythel grabbed onto that hope and funneled it with the other emotions into her flame, using the hope like a lense to focus the anger and fear and pain to the point where they shone white hot within her. She watched as the dragonflame shifted colors to the wispy blue of ghostflame.

Ghostflame was insubstantial, passing through all solid objects to sear at the very souls of its target. Tythel had hoped that meant it wouldn’t be blocked by impacting with unlight, but it seemed that had been a false hope. The light the ghostflame put out was unearthly in ways entirely different from the unlight, but it was still light, and it seemed that was what mattered. Tythel risked a glance around without moving her head, hoping to see Tellias. Unfortunately, the man had been on the side of her bad eye when the fight started, and therefore out of her vision. She did notice something odd, however.

In the blue light of the ghostflame, she could see her bones through her skin, with the skin a translucent blue superimposed over the skeleton beneath. It was so unsettling it almost broke her concentration. However, The Alohym wasn’t letting up its beam, any more than Tythel was letting up on the dragonflame. In this, at least, Tythel held an advantage, and the ghostflame continued to push its way against the unlight towards the Alohym. Her heart was still pounding with fear. She knew she couldn’t keep this up for much longer, and that was confirmed when a warm, coppery taste began to well up from her throat, Tellias, where in the shadow are you?

As if on cue, the Alohym screamed in pain. Abruptly the pressure against Tythel’s head stopped, and the ghostflame was able to streak on unimpeded. The Alohym managed to dodge a direct hit, but it did sear one of his wings. He started to tumble to the ground. Tellias was standing against a broken pillar, an arcwand pointed at the Alohym. He took a few more shots at the falling Alohym, but his target shifted his arms again, turning them into a pair of barriers to absorb the blows.

“We’ve got it on the ground! It’s hurt!” Tellias shouted. “We need to-”

Tythel cut him off with a hoarse whisper. “No.” She had to spit blood onto the ground.

“Then I’ll go-” Telias started to say, but Tythel was shaking her hand. It burned to speak, more painful than any other time she’d used her fire.

Tythel took a moment to gather her wits, and find the least amount of words needed to explain her objection. “Flame. Sky. Target,” she managed after a couple seconds.

Tellias nodded to show he understood, although he swore under his breath as he did. They’d lit up the entire plateau with that display. Every Alohym and Alohym soldier would know where they were, and with most of the resistance already fled into the tunnels, they’d have little to keep them busy.

Eupheme appeared besides them. “Light and shadow,” she whispered, stepping up to Tythel and helping her to her feet. “What happened?”

“Later,” Tythel croaked. Her voice failed her halfway through the word, and the ‘er’ at the end came out as a gasping wheeze. Eupheme paled at her voice. Tythel put a hand on Eupheme’s shoulder in thanks, then began to head towards the tunnel.

It seemed between the arcwand blasts, Tythel’s flames, and falling close to two hundred feet, the Alohym was no longer interested in pursuing them. Tythel hoped he was dead, but didn’t think that too likely. He had stood against an entire army to cut his way to them. Surely a little fall wouldn’t kill him.

Tythel pulled out her waterskin and began to drink from it as they ran, hoping to alleviate the pain in her throat. The entire plan hinged on her being able to breath flame again. If she couldn’t, she’d just gotten the resistance slaughtered.

Light, please, don’t let that be the case, she thought as they reached the tunnel’s mouth.

And not a moment too soon. Behind her, Tythel could hear the pounding feet of the Alohym’s soldiers charging their way.

“This plan of yours…I hope it works,” Tellias said gently beside her.

If Tythel could risk speaking, she would have assured him she felt the same.

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 76

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The books had always described retreat like it was a neat, sterile thing. “The armies of Cesus were forced to retreat.” One army defeated another, and the other ran away. Nice, clean, and over. Clearly, that was where the killing ended. That was where the horror stopped. It was the end of the story.

Tythel was learning that it was anything but that.

She leapt over another wall, a soldier slung over her shoulder. Tythel hadn’t bothered to get his name, had just scooped him up and leapt. Unlight lanced through the air to strike at the spot they had just vacated, digging a furrow in the canyon floor. Too close. She landed, her feet shifting to talons as she slid across the ground. “It’s okay, I got you,” she said to the man, pulling him off her shoulder to set him on the ground.

He collapsed bonelessly, a neat hole carved into his head. Tythel fought back bile as it rose in her throat and turned away.

Before she could let the death sink in, before the fact that she had just carried a corpse to safety could really get its hooks into her, Tellias came slamming through the wall she had just leapt over, locked in a grapple with a Imperiplate trooper. Tythel ran towards the two struggling shapes, her hammer at the ready.

Before she could reach them, Tellias sunk his arcblade into a gap in the man’s neck armor. The imperiplate trooper fell, his head and helmet rolling away from his body. They separated as the roll, the man’s head coming to rest staring up at the sky with unseeing eyes.

Tythel couldn’t fight the bile this time. She turned and was messily sick against the wall. “Tythel, what’s wrong?” Tellias asked.

“What’s wrong? How can you- did you see what just happened?” Tythel snapped. “How can you ask what’s wrong?”

Tellias didn’t seem to know what to say to that. Tythel didn’t know what to say either, instead striding over to scoop up the vacant helm. “We’ve lost a quarter of our forces, your highness.”

“Then we need to keep fighting.” She turned and took a deep breath to steady herself, attaching the helm to her belt. It would hang there awkwardly, but it was worth it.

It would make what happened next slightly less suicidal.

Eupheme chose that moment to reappear in a rush of air, stepping out of the shadow of the wall. “Orders are going out. We’re falling back to the tunnels,” she said simply.

“Okay,” Tythel said, taking another deep breath. The taste in her mouth was terrible, and her enhanced senses were filled with the sounds and smells of the dying and the dead. “Tellias, take your men back to the tunnel. We’ll be right behind you.”

“Right behind me? Your highness, no. Absolutely not. You’re coming with us.”

“Damn it to shadow and sear it in light, Tellias, I have a plan. You and your men go into the tunnel first. Trust me.”

“Trust you?” Tellias’ voice was firm. “You just lost your stomach in the middle of the battle. I’m not letting you out of my flathing sight.”

Tythel looked at Eupheme, who shook her head. “If you did…” Eupheme said, trailing off without finishing the thought.

“Fine.” Tythel snapped the word more firmly than was needed. “You can stay, but get your men into the tunnel. Or do you want to keep arguing while they die?”

Even though the arcplate helm covering his face, Tythel could feel the intensity of anger in his gaze. He gave the orders, though, which was all Tythel cared about. “Eupheme, make sure his men get in.” Eupheme shot her a glare, but Tythel shook her head. “You can be back in an instant if something goes wrong. Please.”

Eupheme held the glare a moment longer, then gave a curt nod and vanished back into the shadow.

“Care to tell me what this plan is?” Tellias asked.

Before Tythel could respond, shouts began to rise up from further down the line. “Alohym on the field! Alohym on the field!”

One of those shouts ended abruptly in a gurgling scream.

Tythel felt her blood run cold. “Come on,” she shouted to Tellias.

He didn’t argue, which Tythel took as small blessing. She extended her hammer and they burst back through the hole in the wall.

This was only the third Alohym Tythel had seen close and in person. She’d expected it to be virtually indistinguishable from Rephylon, the way telling apart two tigers was difficult when you’d only been mauled by one. To her surprise, that wasn’t the case – in part because this Alohym looked nothing like any other she’d even heard described. Its skin was still a black carapace, its head still the wedge shape she’d gotten used to, but this one walked on two legs and its arms didn’t split at the elbow. If it hadn’t been from the massive thorax extending back from where the legs met the torso, she almost could have taken it for a human wearing armor modeled after the Alohym like some new, sleek imperiplate.

It whirled as they entered. A soldier tried to take advantage of its distraction, standing up to point his arcwand at the creature. Without even looking, this strange new Alohym extended its arm sideways towards the man. The carapace began to run like wax, and that arm was coated with a large growth, the forearm bulging outwards and consuming the hand so all that was left was a vacant hole. Unlight streaked from the new appendage, cleaving the man in twain.

It had done all that in the time it took the man to raise his weapon and take aim. Light, I’ve never seen anything move that fast. It even exceeded Rephylon’s speed – Although, Tythel reminded herself, Rephylon was toying with you.

This newcomer didn’t seem interested in playing game. It sprouted thin, gossamer wings from its back and flew towards Tythel and Tellias, the arm shaping into a wicked blade that glowed with an unlight edge.

“Great, it can flathing fly,” Tellias had time to mutter, and then it was upon them.

It struck for Tellias first, a fury of blows that happened far too quickly for Tellias to even think about parrying individual strikes. He swung his arcwand, forcing the creature to dart back, and Tythel could see the exposed cords of his wire from a dozen cuts the Alohym had broken in the steel. The Alohym flew around, coming back in for another strike, this time focused on Tythel.

Tythel wasn’t going to let it get into melee with her. She turned to follow it, heart pounding. Come at me, you monster, she thought with a savage fury, stroking the fans of ghostflame with her anger and fear. Come on, I’m right here.

As if it heard her, the Alohym dropped its erratic pattern and charged directly for her. She let loose a gout of blue and white ghostflame to meet it.

It dodged like the fire was standing still, flittering away from the flame with preternatural speed. Tythel turned her head to follow its path, the flame swinging towards the Alohym like it was on the end of a massive whip connected to her throat, but it kept ahead of the soul-searing fire with a contemptuous ease. “I won’t be as easy as that, you monster!” it screamed.

The voice surprised Tythel so much she stumbled as her ghostflame cut out. That stumble saved her life – the Alohym’s blade passed through the space where her head had been, and Tythel turned it into a roll to come up behind the Alohym. It was as surprised at the motion as Tythel, which gave her and Tellias a chance to strike. Their attacks missed as the Alohym rocketed back into the air. “No,” Tythel said quietly as it flew upwards. “That’s not possible.”

“What isn’t?” Tellias growled. “This flathing thing being that fast?”

His voice helped snap her out of her surprise. “Later. Won’t impact the fight.”

Tellias just grunted in acknowledgement. “We need to get to the tunnels. It’s too mobile out here. Down there it’ll only have one avenue of attack, only one path.”

“There’s still soldiers out he could kill!” Tythel hissed, watching closely at their opponent circled in the air, getting ready for another strike. Tythel’s voice was raw from the ghostflame, and she could feel her knees begin to shake. Light give me strength. I can’t collapse now.

“I don’t think it is interested in the soldiers. It called you a monsters, your highness. I think it’s going to follow- Get down!”

Tythel had seen it at the same moment as Tellias, and they both leaped aside. Their opponent had brought his hands together and they had shifted again, forming a single, massive unlight cannon. A small part of Tythel’s brain noticed how the thorax shrunk when it formed that weapon, but there wasn’t any time to think about that. The creature was firing on them with the force of an Alohym Warship, and Tellias and Tythel were both forced to run for the tunnels, it’s fire dogging their heels.

“Don’t think you can escape me,” he growled, and again Tythel heard his voice. She’d been expecting it this time, but that only made it slightly less shocking.

Somehow, this Alohym spoke with the voice of a man.

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The Dragon’s Scion Part 74

Tythel popped over the wall, raising her arcwand and squeezing off three quick shots in the general direction of the Alohym’s approaching troops. Between their armor and her terrible aim, she was relatively certain it did nothing except make them keep their heads down, but that meant they weren’t shooting back. At least, I hope it’s doing some good.

The warship had taken out their heavy Arcwands, and it was now charging for another shot. The Alohym were keeping it far in the back, so it couldn’t focus on individual soldiers. A small blessing. It was still plenty close to target any building the rebels built up a strong presence inside, cracking centuries old stone like it was rotten wood.

Tythel slid along the wall so she wouldn’t be poking her head over the same spot, and then jumped up to fire again. Another three shots, and she ducked back down.

“Incoming!” one of the soldiers shouted, diving to the ground. A sphere fell out of the sky and exploded in a burst of unlight, sending shards of rock and steel flying among the men. Tythel felt some of the shrapnel bite into her arm and hissed in pain.

“They’re closing in!” Another shouted from a watchtower. “On the lef-”

His warning was cut off with a sudden gurgle, and Tythel watched the man’s body fall limply out of the tower. Cold rage washed over Tythel. She hadn’t even known the man’s name, and he was dead now. Go peacefully to the shadow. Your warning won’t be in vain.

Tythel crawled along the ground towards the left of their position. There was an archway over there, and three Alohym soldiers were running towards it, their unlight weapons raised. They saw Tythel and pointed, starting to charge directly at her.

They clearly didn’t know what she could do. She took a deep breath and let loose a gout of dragonflame, moving her head in an arc to catch as many of them in fire as she could.

Their screams joined the general cacophony of the battlefield, and Tythel turned away, just in time to see the part of the wall she had just vacated explode. A soldier in full imperiplate had hit the wall at a charge and burst through, sliding to a stop across from Tythel with an unlight axe raised.

“Get down!” Tellias shouted, leaping into action before Tythel could even begin to draw breath. His arcplate’s light dimmed as he got closer to the imperiplate, and the battlefield rang with the force of his blow against his opponent.

“Get free so I can breathe!” Tythel shouted, but Tellias was lost in the struggle. The two metal-clad men were now in a grapple, the unlight axe discarded at the moment of impact.

Tythel loosed her hammer and ran to join in their struggle. She leapt as she got close to the fight, using her feet to push off of Tellias’ shoulders and fly over the imperiplate soldier’s head.

Eupheme was on this side of the breach, and she vanished into Tythel’s shadow right before Tythel landed in a roll. Tythel whirled and swung with her hammer. It met the side of the soldier’s hip and the armor cracked where it landed.

Tellias broke free of the grapple, bringing back one gauntleted fist to slam into the soldier’s faceplate. His opponent was fast and more experience with imperiplate. He managed to move out of the way in time, sending Tellias off balance. For a moment Tythel thought Tellias would come stumbling into her, but he caught himself before he did, instead bringing his gauntlet around to hit the spot Tythel had weakened. She could hear something break deep within the imperiplate, and the soldier inside became more frantic.

Eupheme reappeared them, stepping out of the shadow to shove a thin blade into the cracks now splintering the armor’s hip. The man inside screamed in pain.

From there, it took Tythel and Tellias only moments to finish the soldier off. Moments they didn’t have. “Fall back!” Someone shouted further down the line. “Fall back or be surrounded!”

Tythel snatched up the unlight axe and tossed it to Eupheme. Eupheme nodded and stepped back into shadows again. Tythel began to run to the first fallback point, Tellias joining her. “Don’t get between me and plate again,” Tythel hissed at him.

“Then don’t get so close to plate,” Tellias growled. “I don’t want to see you in hand to hand with one of those things.”

Tythel leapt over the next wall with Tellias, then turned to him to shout, “I was fighting them in hand to hand before you were-”

Eupheme stepped out from the shadow of the wall. “Enough!” she snapped, her voice firm. “This is a battlefield, not a bedroom. Bicker later.”

Tellias turned a deep shade of red, although Tythel could on blink in confusion. What do bedrooms have to do with arguments? Still, properly chastised, she peered through a gap between the stones.

Numbers should have been on their side, yet the Alohym’s forces were pushing them back. That damn warship in the sky was pelting them with unlight beams that could cleave through any barrier they could erect, and they were making good use of their imperiplate, clumping it together in groups of four or five to act like a fist at anywhere resistance was particularly strong. We need something to change the game or we’re done for.

There was no time for clever strategies, however. Soldiers of the Alohym were rushing forwards. Resistance fighters began popping over the walls to open fire, trying to slow their advance. This time, Tythel didn’t bother with an arcwand, instead waiting for them to get closer before leaping out of cover and letting loose a wide arc of dragonflame.

She only caught a few soldiers in her breath, but they fell, screaming in agony as they did. If only there was some way to burn the whole army…Tythel thought.

Then, slowly, a grin began to spread across her face. “Tellias! We need to fall back to the tunnels!”

Tellias gave her an open mouthed stare. “Have you lost your mind? We’ll be trapped like rats down there.”

Tythel nodded. “I have a plan. Well, an idea. Flath it, Tellias, we’re getting picked off from the air anyway! Underground favors us right now.”

As if to punctuate her point, an ancient tower that contained arcwand snipers exploded nearby, shattered by a beam of unlight as thick as a man’s torso. The warship was beginning to slowly advance, its pilot realizing that nothing they had on the ground could oppose them. “Light burn me,” Tellias swore, looking around wildly. “We need to convince the rest of the army, or we’ll just be cowards running.”

Tythel stood up again to let loose another gout of dragonflame at the advancing soldiers. An unlight beam brushed her shoulder, and she dropped back down as she suppressed a hiss of pain. “Eupheme!” Tythel said. “Find d’Monchy. Tell him-”

Tythel didn’t need to finish the explanation. Eupheme gave Tythel a quick nod of her head and vanished again into shadows.

“Are you alright?” Tellias asked, standing up to return fire on the advancing soldiers. From the lack of screams, both from her flame and his shots, neither of them had struck home.

“Are you kidding?” Tythel let out a dark laugh. “I’ve been shot worse than this. I’ll be fine.” She did her best to seem confident, even though every twitch of the injured arm was agony.

Tellias only nodded. “Well, you highness, your Umbrist has gone to try and change the course of an entire army. What do we do until she returns?”

A soldier made it to the wall, leaping over in a swift motion. His eagerness put him directly in Tythel’s arm reach, and she swung her hammer one handed. The man’s chest cavity collapsed under the blow.

“We hold the line,” she said. And Light grant we can hold it long enough.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 72

“So are you going to say anything?”

Tythel didn’t mean to snap when she asked the questions, but she couldn’t help it. Leaving the meeting of the council had her on edge, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that Eupheme was judging her.

If the outburst startled Eupheme, it didn’t show. “Something on your mind, your highness?”

They’d both been silent since leaving the meeting, weaving between the broken stones that were all that remained of Hallith. Eupheme had claimed what seemed to be the upper floors of an inn for their quarters, although for all Tythel knew it was actually a manor of some Hallithian noble, or barracks for some particularly high ranking soldiers. Whatever it had been, it was close to the Reliquary, and only had one room that remained intact enough to sleep in. Perfect for the two of them.

“You know what’s on my mind,” Tythel said, moderating her tone. “I’m sorry I snapped.”

Eupheme shrugged off the apology. “Difficult choices breed anger. It’s natural.”

“Surely you have some thoughts on it, though,” Tythel said as they walked through the doorway of their temporary home. “You’re not made of stone.”

Eupheme smiled, a smile Tythel couldn’t parse. Shadow take me, I wish I’d learned facial expressions sometimes. “No, your highness, I’m not. However…when you spoke of the hoard before, it had a reverence I didn’t understand.”

Tythel sighed. “Eupheme, I’m not sure how to take that.”

“Can I be blunt?”

“Please,” Tythel said as they took seats on the bundles of cloth that served as beds.

“Alright. If you were a human, raised by humans, I’d think you were a selfish bitch.”

Tythel let out a huff of air in shock. “Well, I did ask for blunt.”

Eupheme nodded. “But you’re not fully human, and you weren’t raised by humans. There are differences between the way you see things and the way I do. Often I think it’s one of your strengths. It would be hypocritical of me to judge you only when it goes against what I think is right.”

Tythel sighed, flopping on her back onto the blankets. “So you think it’s wrong.”

“Yes. But I also don’t think I fully understand the significance. As far as I can see, it’s a collection of treasure and coins. It seems like it’s more than that to you.” Eupheme laid down on her stomach, propping her head up on her arms.

“It’s so much more than that,” Tythel said with another sigh. “It’s…I’m not sure how to explain.” Tythel turned to face Eupheme. “Let me ask you something. If it would help defeat the Alohym, would you eat a handful of live centipedes?”

Eupheme made a face. She’d confided her fear of the creatures during one of their late night talks, when Tythel had complained Eupheme seemed too fearless. “No. I mean, I would try, but I know I’d fail. And I can’t imagine how it would.”

“I can’t see how it would either. But…the idea of plundering my father’s hoard for…for material gain?” It was Tythel’s turn to make a disgusted face. “Even for the good of the world, it’s appalling.”

Eupheme frowned. “I can understand, I think. But…what do dragons do with their hoards?”

“It’s a hoard,” Tythel said. Eupheme looked at her blankly, and Tythel groped for the right words. “It’s just…it’s a hoard. You don’t…do anything with it. You hoard. You have your parent’s hordes, and you divide it among siblings if you have any. Then you add your own treasure to it, and then…and then you have it. A part of your parents you keep with you, and you grow it and care for it and pass it along to your children.”

Eupheme regarded her for a long moment. “It’s like a garden,” she said finally.

Tythel snapped her fingers. “Yes. Exactly like a garden.”

“If it was a garden, then, let me ask you something. If someone came to your garden, starving to death, would you deny them fruit from it?”

Tythel closed her eyes slowly, showing how deeply the question hurt her. From the way Eupheme winced, Tythel thought she understood. “It’s different. Fruit in a garden will regrow on its own.”

“Yes, it will. But if the city was starving, would you let them eat all the fruit, even though it meant you could not plant any more trees?”

Tythel put her face into the cloth in frustration. “I guess it’s not like a garden,” she muttered. “The analogy doesn’t work.”

“It doesn’t? Or you don’t like the analogy because it makes you uncomfortable?”

Tythel sat up fully. “Because it makes me uncomfortable, okay?”

“At least you admit it.” Eupheme said, rising to sit herself. She was frowning as she did. “I wish things had been done properly,” she muttered.

Tythel cocked her head in confusion. “What do you mean?”

“Your books had little about my order, didn’t they?” Eupheme asked.

“I mean…yes.”

“What did they say?”

Tythel was failing to see the relevance to their conversation, but went ahead regardless. “They said you served Royal families. That you were guards against assassins and assassins yourself. Little else in terms of the general.”

Eupheme nodded. “We work hard to keep out of the books. Most authors don’t spend time describing the shadows cast by the figures they follow, and that is what we are.”

Tythel took a moment to regard her own shadow. It flickered in the torch they used for light, dancing on the cloth and stone. “Then…tell me what I need to know.”

“If things had been done properly, I would have been raised alongside you. Myself and at least three others, girls around our age. We would have been like sisters to you, although also not your equal. We would have spent our childhood learning your habits, your whims. The hope is you would have chosen one of us to adopt as a true sister in all but inheritance, your closest companion with whom you share your every thoughts.”

Tythel leaned down to rest her arms on her knees and her head in her hands. “That’s how it always was?”

“Always. It means you have an advisor you can trust implicitly, one who is even more trustworthy than your own siblings would have been, since she never would have a claim to the throne so no reason to betray you. And I – she – would have had a lifetime learning your moods, your thoughts, to the point where she could read your intent without you saying a word.”

“That sound wonderful,” Tythel said. “To have someone who knows you that well.”

Eupheme nodded. “It also would have meant I could have understood where you were coming from with this, Tythel. But I don’t. The wealth in Karjon’s hoard could fund the resistance for months, at least, and the books could be the key for cracking the cipher. I don’t understand how you can keep that to yourself.”

Tythel let out a low, tired breath and looked down at her feet. “It’s…it’s like making blades from his bones, shields from his scales. It’s like desecrating his grave.” She could feel her nictitating membranes wiping away the tears that were forming. “I don’t know of any other way to explain it.”

There was silence for so long, Tythel wondered if Eupheme had slipped away. Finally, the other woman spoke. “I suppose I can understand that.” Eupheme came over and put an arm around Tythel’s shoulder. “I won’t press you on it again. I just want to ask one thing. If he were alive, do you think Karjon would hesitate to spend that entire treasure to keep you safe?”

Tythel opened her mouth to speak, but the sound turned into a sob. She buried her head in Eupheme’s shoulder, and Eupheme held her and let her cry. “How many times do I have lose him?” Tythel choked out. “First to the Alohym, then the egg, and now his hoard…how many times do I have to say goodbye to my father?”

Eupheme didn’t answer her at first, just held her and ran her hand through Tythel’s hair and letting her cry. “Don’t think of it at losing him,” Eupheme said gently. “Think of it as letting him still help you. I wish I had known him so I could say this with certainty, but from what you’ve told me…don’t you think he would have wanted that?”

Tythel gave Eupheme a grateful series of blinks. “Yes. He would have.” She pulled away from Eupheme and wiped her eyes. “Light and shadow, I’m a mess. I hardly seem like a princess or a dragon, do I? Just a whiny girl.”

Eupheme smiled. “Your highness, if things had been done properly, my duty would have been to be the person you could whine to.”

“Well…guess you get to do that anyway.”

Eupheme laughed. “It is my honor to be able to do so.”

Tythel wiped her eyes again, knowing they would be red and raw but feeling as if a great weight had been lifted.. “Thank you, Eupheme.” She took a deep breath. “I’ll do it. Tomorrow. First thing tomorrow, I’ll offer it as an alternative.”

Eupheme smiled. “Wonderful. And what, then, shall we do with tonight? More mournful staring off the walls?”

Tythel did laugh now, and shook her head. “No, not that. I think tonight I’ll spend among the others.”

Eupheme nodded in approval, and the two women headed to find what trouble Armin had gotten himself up to, or see if Ossman was able to step away from his duties. They would drink, and dance, and have altogether a wonderful time.

None of them had any way of knowing it would be the last chance they had time together for quite some time.

Small Worlds Part 174

We’re going to the moon, we’re going to the moon, I’m going to be the first woman on the moon, Isabel thought, practically bouncing in her chair in Crystal’s staging area. She glanced at Crystal and amended that thought. I’m going to be the first mortal woman on the moon who cares I’m going to be on the friggin’ moon.

“Careful, love. You look like you’re about to bounce out of your seat,” Crystal said in a teasing voice. “Nervous?”

“Nervous? Oh hell no. I’m going to be walking on the moon. Are you kidding me? I couldn’t be more excited if it was Christmas, my Birthday, and Graduation all wrapped up into one.”

Crystal let out a chuckle. “I hope it doesn’t disappoint you.”

“Will I be able to see the Earth being massive overhead?”

Crystal glanced at her console, then nodded. “Anansi’s directions take us to the near side, not the far side, so yes. Earth should be right overhead when we step out.”

“Then I’m going to be perfectly happy,” Isabel said.

“You’re not worried about the lack of air?”

“I mean, you’re going to take care of that until we get to the sphynx and the mysterious moon base, right?” Isabel asked with a frown. “Should I be worried?”

“I’ll be maintaining a bubble of air for you, love, so it should be fine, but if something happens to me…” Crystal let that trail off. “Well, you’ll have a bloody short time to get back to the doorway.”

Isabel shrugged. “And if an astronauts suit gets punctured, they’re dead. Honestly, I think it’s safer than a space suit – instead of relying on materials and fabrics, I’ve got literal divine intervention holding me safe, so I should be fine.”

Crystal smiled at Isabel, and Isabel felt herself begin to flush. “Well, I appreciate the confidence in my abilities,” Crystal said.

“I’d be rude if I didn’t have confidence! You’ve survived for this long just fine, I’m pretty sure you could manage a trip across the lunar surface. Besides, you saved my life once before, and that was way more dangerous than this.”

“Don’t be so sure about that, love,” Crystal said, darkly. “We haven’t encountered moonworms yet.”

Isabel froze. “Moonworms?”

“Oh, bloody hell, did I not mention those? Yes, moonworms. They burrow through the Lunar dust, you see, and they’re attracted to sources of heat. It’s what they feed off of. For living things, they crawl up their legs and try to get as close to the warmth as they can.”

Isabel stared at Crystal with growing horror. “So they…hug your legs?”

Crystal shook her head grimly. “Oh, no, not at all. They have jaws that can cut through lunar regolith, they’ll absolutely try to go as deep into the warmth as possible. Bite. By. Bite.”

Isabel couldn’t contain a frightened “eep.” As soon as she let the sound out, Crystal’s frown vanished to be replaced with laughter. Isabel stared at her for a moment, then crossed her arms as realization settled in. “You were messing with me.”

“Of course I was bloody messing with you,” Crystal said, wiping away tears of laughter. “Moonworms. That’s…I’m sorry, love,  you should have seen your face.”

“That was just mean. How am I supposed to know Moonworms weren’t real? A few days ago I was kidnapped by an archangel and a crazy god from a pre-human race and you all were fighting dragons. Are you going to tell me moonworms are absurd when compared to that?” In spite of her annoyance, Isabel was also flushing. You “eeped.” You were being taunted by a goddess, and you said “eep.” Way to go, Isabel.

Crystal’s laughter began to die down. “Oh, come on love, just a bit of a joke, yeah?”

Isabel sniffed in annoyance. “It wasn’t very funny.”

Crystal held up a hand. “You’re right, you had no way of knowing they weren’t real. If it makes you feel any better, Selene fell for the same thing ages ago.”

Isabel blinked. “Wasn’t Selene a moon goddess?”

“Oh, yeah, absolutely. She was so pissed at me for the moonworms, she decided to stay up here for a few days to prove she wasn’t frightened. By the time she got back, everyone decided she was the moon personified.”

“Now that,” Isabel said with a reluctant smile, “that, I have to admit, is pretty funny.”

Crystal’s grin returned. “I know, right? Bloody brilliant, if I do say so myself.”

“So does your humor always involve telling people lies they couldn’t know were lies without some kind of precognition?”

Crystal shook her head firmly. “Do that too often, and people stop trusting you. Now that I’ve done it to you,  you’re safe for the next millennia. Maybe two, can’t be too predictable. Just do me a favor, yeah? Don’t tell your brother. Haven’t gotten him yet, either.”

Isabel snorted out a breath. “If you’re going to do it to Ryan, I’ll help.

Crystal’s grin returned. “I knew I liked you.”

Still a bit annoyed by the joke, Isabel found it easy to prevent the flush this time. “So, this is old hat for you, isn’t it? Going to the moon, I mean.”

“Kinda, yeah. I don’t come up here often, though.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s the moon. There’s nothing up here, love!” Crystal frowned. “Or at least, I didn’t think there was. Should have known a Trickster would have put something up here.”

“Ahh, so the great Crystal isn’t as omnipotent as she seems?” Isabel said.

“Love, if I was half as omnipotent as I seemed, I’d be twice as omnipotent as I actually am.”

“Did you just make a Tolkien reference?”

Crystal just winked at Isabel instead of answering. “Don’t let me being old and jaded spoil the moon for you though. I may have been here a few times, but I’d hate for you to feel like it was somehow less special. Decided what you’re going to be on the moon?”

“I’m going to start as a human,” Isabel said after a moment’s thought. “I want to see it with my own eyes.”

Crystal nodded approval. “Well then, we’re here. You ready?”

Isabel practically threw herself out of the chair, thrumming with excitement. “Yes, yes, please God yes.”

Crystal smiled and opened the door, waggling her fingers to – Isabel assumed – give her some air to breathe on the lunar surface. “Beauty before age, love.”

Isabel didn’t protest, didn’t even register the comment fully. Instead, she bolted out the door and took her first step onto the surface of the moon.

She didn’t pay attention to how light she felt. She didn’t worry about the temperature of the artificial air brushing against her skin. In fact, she didn’t focus on anything at all, instead craning her head up and looking at the sky.

There, above them, just over the Horizon like it was the rising sun, hung the Earth. It was blue and green and brown and swirled with white streaks, half covered by night. She couldn’t quite make out individual continents, not with the clouds covering part of it, but she didn’t need to. Some part of her recognized that multicolored sphere as “home.”

Isabel felt tears spring to her eyes. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 68

“We can’t let this go,” Lord Devos growled into the silence. “The Vacuity Engine…it’s our best chance to beat the Alohym.”

“We don’t know that for certain,” Lady von Baggett countered. “It’s a rumor we’ve heard.” she held up a hand to forestall one counter argument, “I know that it’s a credible rumor, but ‘disabling the Vacurity Engine could turn the tide’ being told to one of our agents from a dying man is hardly enough to risk an assault. For all we know, the Vacuity Engine might not even exist. And even if it does, it might be nowhere near as important as we think it is. We don’t know if it’s worth the risk.”

“What do you propose, then?” Lord Devos had a wicked gleam to his eye. “We keep fighting the same losing war we were fighting?”

“We have a way to kill Alohym now,” the Lady countered.

“No.” Lord Devos pointed a single meaty finger at Tythel. “She has a way to kill Alohym. She’s just one flathing woman, and she’s the princess! She’ll eventually die, and then we’re back to losing.”

“We have more people flocking to our cause than ever before,” Lady von Baggett managed to remain calm in the face of Lord Devos’ rage. “We could-”

“Even if every single person on the flathing continent joined us, we still don’t have a way to take down the Alohym. We’ll die before they fall.”

“We couldn’t kill the Alohym before because we were using their own weapons against them. It’s entirely possible that Arcwands will work if they’re powered by normal lumcells. No one’s tried it before.”

“Bah,” Lord Devos spat on the ground. “I’d rather not throw away men’s lives on a hunch.”

“So instead you’d waste them on the hunch the Vacuity Engine is of any use to us, if it even exists?”

“Enough,” Duke d’Monchy said in a calm but firm voice, cutting off Lord Devos’ retort. “Allow others to speak, please?”

“Uh,” Armin said, taking the opportunity, “I don’t believe it’s a trap. The only reason we cracked this code is because we holed up in ancient Hallith. If we assume the Alohym have the ability to predict what we’re going to do to that degree of certainty, we might as well lay down and die.”

“Thank you, Armin,” Lord Devos growled.

“But,” Armin continued, “it’s true we don’t know what it does. It could be so important it could turn the tide of the war, but it could be it’s a religious relic to the Alohym, or a repository of knowledge they want but don’t need, or something even stranger.”

At least he’s gotten Lord Devos and Lady von Bagget to agree on something, Tythel thought. She couldn’t read their faces well, but it didn’t take any great understanding of human expressions to figure out they both wished Armin had kept his mouth shut.

“Do you propose something then, Armin?” Duke d’Monchy asked evenly.

“I wish I had a solution. If I’m right, if the code is all have Archaic symbols as their key, we’d need to delve into a lot of ruins before we had an answer. The Collegium might hold some of the answers, but it’s only slightly less suicidal to assault a building full of Alohym loyal Magi as it is to assault the Ambulatory Bastion.”

Duke d’Monchy frowned. “We have to do something soon, whatever it is. Our resources are running short. We’ve been able to support ourselves some by trading, but that money is running out. The soldiers need food.”

Everyone stared at each other in glum silence. Everyone but Eupheme, who was giving Tythel an inquisitive eyebrow.

Tythel took a deep breath. She’d told Eupheme about what was waiting back at Karjon’s lair, and told her about the struggle to let anyone use it. On the one hand, it solved so many problems. On the other, it despoiled the last bit of her father left. And what about the living, Tythel? She asked herself. Eupheme’s expression didn’t waiver, but to Tythel’s eyes it started to seem somewhat accusatory. You’re imagining things. You’re lucky you could tell what she was thinking at all, now you’re putting nuance in there?

“Let me see those maps,” Tythel said, moving closer to the table. “There’s got to be some other ruins near by here.” She bit her cheek in concentration. There has to be something else, some half remembered bit of lore…anything other than raiding Karjon’s lair.

“What,  you don’t just know ancient symbols?” Armin said in a teasing tone.

“No, unfortunately. Karjon was focused on teaching me Carodmethi and a few others. Hallithian is so old, it’s barely used anymore.” Tythel’s forehead furrowed in concentration.

“And the locations of ancient cities?”

“I know some maps from the time. Geography can change a lot in seven thousand years. I’m trying to figure out from a few permanent features. And I think…” she tapped a location on the map with her finger in the middle of a forest, her eyes fluttering with excitement. “Yes! I’m sure of it. The rivers have changed, but mountains don’t move much even in thousands of years. Hallith’s greatest rival, Dor’nah. This wasn’t a forest back then, it was a desert, but when the Grey Ridge erupted, it let the clouds past just enough. Hallith remained scrublands, but the rains fell on Dor’nah. The flourished for a thousand years after Hallith’s collapsed, before they fell to Grejhak the Terrible.”

“Grejhak?” Duke d’Monchy frowned. “That sounds draconic.”

Tythel nodded. “It is. Technically Grejhak is my ancestor. He annihilated Dor’nah for some slight or another, but if Karjon’s texts were right, he did so with ghostflame. It would have left the buildings intact. He laired there until his death in the year 7124, as the dragons count years. That’d be…4219 years before the founding of the current calendar. No one disturbed it for millenia afterwards out of fear.”

“Fear of what?”

“Grejhak dabbled in Necromancy, infusing both light and shadow to animate corpses. Superstitious people believed his corpse still wandered the ruins. By the time humans had forgotten to fear him, they had forgotten Dor’nah ever stood there. Which means it should be undisturbed.”

“Undisturbed except for five thousand years of forests growing,” Duke d’Monchy frowned. “It could be worth investigating, but we’d be exposed the moment we left this plateau.”

Tythel nodded. “Then how about a small force? I’ll take them, I know the way. We’ll move quicker in the forest anyway. If we find anything work taking, we can come back with a larger force to delve into his lair, and we can bring back Dor’nahid writing for Armin to compare to the cypher.”

“No,” Duke d’Monchy said. “You’re too valuable to risk, your highness. You can write directions down.”

“And what if something happens? What if they encounter Alohym?” Tythel could feel heat rising to her cheeks, anger and frustration mingling.

“What if the Alohym attack here?” he asked mildly. “If you want to protect people from the Alohym, you can do far more here.”

“And if you want to slay them,” Lord Devos added, “You’ll find more of them to kill here. We can’t stay hidden forever.”

Tythel could already tell she was going to lose the argument. It wasn’t even an argument, not really. Duke d’Monchy’s mind was set. He doesn’t want to lose you, she thought bitterly. You’re too useful.

So instead, other people were going to go and delve into the forest that covered the ruins of Dor’nah. Other people were going to hunt for a treasure five millennia old, based on half remembered scraps of Karjon’s teachings from a era he had only covered as far as it related to their family line. Other people could die because Tythel was hoarding bits of things that would never be used otherwise.

“Fine,” Tythel said with a sigh. “But I’ll  need a couple days to write the instructions down. I’ll need up to date maps, and I’ll be comparing from lore I don’t remember all that well.”

It was agreed. They’d send an expedition into the woods to find if the treasure of Grejhak remained, and if they could find any of the writing of Dor’nah.

The truth was, Tythel could have written what instructions she knew in a matter of an hour. But the two days bought her time to think. Time to decide. Could she really risk the living to preserve her father’s grave? Or, for that matter, could she stand to see her home despoiled to fight a war?

Right now, she honestly didn’t know.

Small Worlds Part 171

I’ve published a free novella starring Crystal– click here to sign up for my mailing list for your free copy!

“Before I got your message, I was living in one of the poorest parts Guangzhou.”

“I don’t know the area,” Ryan said.

“It’s what’s euphemistically called an “urban village”. It would more accurately be called a slum. I’d been living there for about a hundred years.”

“People didn’t notice that you weren’t aging?” Ryan asked with a frown.

Dianmu gave him a small smile. “Oh, they would have – if I wasn’t aging. However, I made myself age the entire time I lived there. I’d then start playing the role of my own daughter, and then fake my own death, living as my daughter until the cycle repeated. I got some comments about how much I looked like my mother, but never anything too strong.”

Ryan chuckled. “So no one knew you were different? Living a mere mortal.”

“Not entirely,” Dianmu said. “I got a reputation as a mun mai poh – similar to what you’d call a medium. People would come to me when things got…strange. When they believed they’d encountered ghosts or demons or monsters.”

“Did that happen often?”

“Believing they did? Of course. People everywhere are incredibly credulous when it comes to certain elements of the supernatural. Most of the time it was nothing, or had some rational explanation. In those cases I did my best to assure them they had nothing to fear. Sometimes, if the person was particularly frightened to the point where it was hurting their life, I’d fix the problem and then ‘banish’ the spirits. It put their minds at ease. Other times, more rarely, it was due to a disorder of some kind. Those people I helped get the attention they needed. And other times…do you have anything to drink?”
Ryan motioned to summon the refrigerator, offering her a choice of bottled water, soda, iced coffee, and beer. “You’re thirsty?” he asked, surprised.

“Oh, no. I’ve barely used any power today. But I find storytelling can still make my throat sore, and I prefer to head that off. Being a god does not make us immune to that, it seems. Or have you not noticed?” She selected a bottle of water.

“Honestly? I hadn’t. Then again, I haven’t done much storytelling since this all started.”

“Well, unless you are like Anansi, you’ll find it becomes tiresome. I don’t know how he does it.”

He’d probably just remind us he once held all the world’s stories.”

Dianmu smiled. “Almost certainly.” She took a drink. “Now, where was I? Oh, yes, other times, very rarely – not much more than once or twice a decade – it actually was something. A creature looking to prey on the poor, where it might go unnoticed.” Her eyes flashed with sudden anger. “Those I showed no mercy. Even when the monster was a human seeking easy targets.”

“That happened?”

Dianmu nodded. “Once.”

“What were they doing?” Ryan asked.

“In the 1950’s, it was a serial killer who preyed upon young women. I made myself appear as his ideal target to draw him out, then boiled his eyes in his skull.”

Dianmu’s voice was so calm, so matter of fact, it made Ryan shudder. “So nothing that could really pose a threat to you,” Ryan said, trying to change the topic back to the monsters.

“Not for the hundred years I lived there. Not until the very end.” Dianmu shook her head sadly. “People were going missing. In too great a number to be accounted for by normal means. It disturbed me, and then became extremely concerned when I realized they were all people living on the first or second floors of their buildings, or from the top two floors.”

“I’m not sure what that indicates,” Ryan said.

“Monsters that prey upon humans tend to avoid exposure. They know that if humanity banded together, enough of them would kill them. So they tend to attack from below the ground or from the air to minimize that risk.” Dianmu’s eyes shone with that hard, cold anger again. “This one was doing both.”

“What can do that?”

“Not many things. Even fewer that would risk hunting in a city. Most of them are anthropophages – the ones you’d know of best are vampires – that can pass as humans. The pattern didn’t fit one of their ilk. You know the old tale that vampires need to be invited in to enter someone’s home?”

Ryan nodded.

“It’s a myth, but like most myths, has some vestige of truth in it. Vampires do not require an invitation to enter your home, but they do prefer it – as do most anthropophages. It means they have your trust, that your guard is down.” She shook her head. “They would never need to focus on the ground floors, and would never, ever risk having to fight their way through a horde of panicked humans from roof to floor. I honestly was at a loss of what could be causing it. Anything more monstrous, and the risk of being caught is much greater. Even if mortals don’t target you, you risk drawing the attention of a god or goddess. Which, of course, this one had, but so far it was managing to utterly confound me.”

She took another drink. “Then the first body was found. It was labeled as a ritualistic gang killing, which is what urban police across the world use most often to describe monster killings.”

Ryan frowned. “I’ve seen what monsters can do. You’re telling me the cops write that off as being gangsters?”

“What else are they supposed to do?” Dianmu asked. “If they say it’s a cult, they’ll have a panic on their hands. If they say it was a wild animal, in a city a densely populated as Guangzhou, people will call them incompetent or liars – and they’ll still have a panic on their hands. If they blame it on gang activity, however, people can sleep safely. They can tell themselves ‘I never angered any gangs, nor do I know anyone in a gang. There is no risk to me.’ They might become frightened, they might cry out about the crime, but ultimately, it’s criminals killing other criminals. It’s a safe lie to cover the horror of what happened.”

Ryan scratched his chin. “I…wish I could find a flaw in that logic.”

Dianmu laughed, a sound utterly without mirth. “One thing I’ve learned over thousands of years – human nature never changes. We like our nice, comfortable lies more than the hard, brutal truth that we are as vulnerable as anyone else. When a civilization is exposed to that truth, panic always follows.”
Ryan shuddered.

“What’s wrong?” Dianmu asked.

“If you’re right…well, the entire world now knows that the mythological is real.”
Dianmu nodded. “I think when we find time to rejoin civilizations, it’s going to be a rather unpleasant sight.”

Ryan swallowed, hard. “So…a body was found?”

“Yes,” Dianmu said, not even flinching at the change of subject. “I was able to get my hand on the police report. The person’s brain and liver had been removed. That told me everything I needed to know. It was a Fangliang – a demon that feeds on those two organs from corpses. And when they cannot find corpses…well, they’re not above making fresh ones, then waiting for them to rot enough for the Fangliang to feed.

“They favor being below ground, fitting for their preferred food source, but they can fly through the air on transparent wings. It was the only thing that fit, although I was surprised they were operating in a city. The only way to kill them permanently is to bury them alive. Otherwise they keep reforming and coming back at every full moon.”
“So you had to take it alive and bury it?”

“Yes. And that was my plan, when I delved into the burrows they had dug in the foundation of a condemned building. Find it, capture it, and bury it.” Dianmu’s eyes flashed at the memory. “I wasn’t expecting an entire nest of the creatures. Over three hundred of them.”

Ryan let out a low whistle. “How did that go undetected?”

“They were spreading out their hunting, and focusing on poorer areas. They were organized, they were smart.

“So that’s how you died.” Ryan said. “Sheer numbers?”

“Oh, no.” Dianmu did smile here, a fierce expression on her face. “I don’t know if I could have defeated three hundred of the creatures in combat. But I didn’t need to. I had come to bury them alive, after all – and the building above us was condemned.”
Ryan stared at her, his mouth hanging open. “You collapsed a building on yourself to take them out?”

“Yes. One of the beams impaled me – I had to immolate myself so I could resurrect back at my nanoverse.”

“Holy shit,” Ryan whispered. After a few seconds to take in how casually Dianmu was talking about being buried, impaled, and immolated, Ryan let out a soft breath.

“Dianmu?”

“Yes?”

“I’m really glad you’re on our side.”

That got a genuine laugh out of her. “Thank you for the compliment,” she said.

“You deserve it. Did it work?”

Dianmu nodded. “When I resurrected, I learned there had been no new disappearances. I also got the message – but at that point, you had already tricked Enki into nuking himself, so I assumed things were over.” Dianmu looked up at him. “Speaking of which, I’m very glad I’m on your side as well.”

It was Ryan’s turn to laugh.

“So, I’ve told you my story. How about yours, Ryan Smith?”

Ryan shrugged. “Not much to tell, really. I was just a perfectly ordinary guy right up until I found the nanoverse. And you’ve heard that story.”

“There’s no such thing as perfectly ordinary. Everyone has something interesting happen to them, at some point.”

Ryan frowned in thought. “Okay, I have one,” he said after a moment. “And in keeping with the theme, it’s also about a time that I died.”

Dianmu arched an eyebrow. “Surely you mean almost died?”

Ryan shook his head. “No. Once before I found my nanoverse, when I was seventeen, I died for five solid minutes.”

Dianmu leaned in and motioned for him to continue.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 66

Tythel leaned back against a wall, looking over the Span of Hallith, an empty notebook in her lap. She wrote idly in it as the wind gently tugged at her hair.

Little is known about Hallith, and I hope to have time to delve into the unexplored parts of the ruins while we’re camped here. The Span itself is even more breathtaking than the books described. I wish I had the eyes of an artist – or I suppose I should say “eye” now – so I could sketch it.

She debated taking some time to describe it, and decided against it. If someone one day read her notebooks and wasn’t familiar with Hallith, they’d probably skip this section anyway. Even after a month holed up here, it still took her breath away.

Hallith had been a city-state that predated the Cardometh Empire by over two thousand years. Located on a plateau several miles wide, Hallith was surrounded on all sides by a canyon nearly six hundred feet deep. The only ways into or out of the plateau were two great bridges, each capable of being retracted into the city. Or at least, they had been retractable. The magic that powered that mechanism had long since faded, and the bridges were permanently open. Still, it only took a handful of guards to watch each approach, meaning they wouldn’t be taken by surprise. The barren scrubland that surrounded the canyons also provided plenty of open air to see any approaching Alohym ships.

She returned to her notes.

It’s no wonder Hallith never fell to outside invaders. Even with the benefits of arcwands and their technology, I doubt the Alohym will be able to dislodge us from here. Should they approach from the air, we are already prepared to delve into the ruins below. Armin and a few other Magi who have joined us are hard at work creating an exit point in the canyon below we can use if we have to retreat there. I help when I can, but the molten rock left behind by dragonflame creates fumes that make it too hard for anyone to breathe.

That particular memory gave her a reason to wince. None of them had expected the toxic gasses, although they shouldn’t have been surprised. One of the few things known about Hallith was how it fell – a horrid miasma, created by the Hallithian’s burial customs of tossing the dead into their lumwell, had choked every citizen in their sleep. It seemed that miasma still infused the very stones of the plateau, and burning them released it.

I’m supposed to be the one that knows better. Armin could have died that day. I could have died. She decided not to write that part down, instead pushing forward.

Duke d’Monchy has taken command of the army while Lathariel recovers. Lady Von Bagget has taken command of the civilians. Those that can fight she sends to Lord Devos for training. Ossman’s been working closely with Lord Devos. He’d probably join the Abyssals, if not for the headaches he gets ever since his close exposure to the lumwell. Eupheme watches him closely for any signs of madness. So far he seems to still be sane, but…well, we’re hiding in the ruins of a dead civilization from the creatures that have stolen our world, so ‘sane’ is relative these days.

Tythel heard footsteps approaching, and stifled a sigh. She got time to herself so rarely these days, it was hard not resent any interruptions. Especially this particular one. She had time to finish her final thoughts.

There’s one amazing historical find we’ve made already. The word “Alohym” originates from the Hallithian language. We’ve found Hallithian depictions of the ancient Alohym they worshipped. They look nothing like the invaders that came from beyond the stars, either in their insectoid outer form or their slug-like inner, true form. The Alohym depicted in the Hallithian artworks are wondrous beings. It’s final proof of a theory we had been debating – the Alohym of modern days were never worshipped by humanity. Just as they stole our world, they’ve been trying to co-opt our mythology. Of course, any proof we try to publish we be denounced as rebel propaganda, but it’s satisfying to at least know they are not the gods they claim to be.

“Your Highness!”

Tythel closed her notebook, satisfied to at least complete the passage she was on. “Baron Gobori,” she said, looking down at the man who had approached her. He was a couple years older than her, and despite his low rank claimed to be able to trace his ancestry back to nobel blood. He was handsome and knew it, with a broad grin full of white teeth and an easygoing attitude. At least, around most people. He often seemed uncomfortable around Tythel, which only partially confused her. Most people were uncomfortable around her, besides her close friends.

“Please, call me Tellias,” the Baron responded, flashing her that wide smile.

“As you wish,” Tythel said, as she always did when he asked her to use his first name. He gave her a slightly wide-eyed look that Tythel thought meant he was expecting something, but she was still  unsure what he was.

“So…on the walls again? Looking out for Alohym ships?”

“No. We have sentries that will spot them before I do.” That last bit was partially a lie – her good eye would likely catch the ship first – but since she’d been staring at a notebook it was also partially true. “I was writing.”

She slid off the wall to join Tellias on the ground. “Oh? A diary?”

“Essentially, yes. It’s important to keep track of what’s happening, and my thoughts and feelings during it.”

Whatever response he had been expecting, it hadn’t been that. Tellias  blinked in confusion, a gesture Tythel immensely appreciated since it took no thought to understand. Does he do that for my benefit? Or is it something people do? “Why is it so important?” he asked.

“Primary sources. If our rebellion succeeds, it will be a historic event. Or, if it fails spectacularly enough, it might also be enough. Future historians will be scounging for any record of the times they can find. If they find my notes, it will give them a primary source they can rely upon.”

“I…see.” Tellias recovered his footing. “Well, that’s certainly nobel of you, to provide them with a reliable and unbiased source.”

Tythel tilted her head, careful not to tilt it too far. Humans did tilt their heads to express confusion sometimes, she’d learned, but rarely to the extremes that she was used to. “Nobility has nothing to do with it. I’m a historian myself. I appreciate primary sources, so it’s important to pay that forward. And I’m hardly unbiased. I don’t understand why you would say that – unless you were mocking me?”

“No, no, perish the thought!” Tellias took off his hat and bowed to her. “I knew you were a scholar, and assumed you’d be trying to keep your account unbiased.”

“Oh.” Tythel blinked in thought. “I suppose I should be, but any halfway decent historian will assume I’m biased and account for that. I still will take notes of my own bias, though, for future readers.” She began to walk back to the camp.

Tellias had to step quickly to keep up with her, which gave Tythel a chance to think. Tellias confused her. He often sought her out to speak to her, but rarely in the company of others. She’d thought he was trying to form a friendship with her, but whenever she invited him to join them, he’d declined. What does he want from me?

She considered asking him directly, but thought that would be too blunt, even for her. Instead, she decided to change the topic. “Have Armin and the rest of the Magi returned from today’s excavations?”

Tellias frowned for half a second, the same way he did whenever she mentioned Armin or Haradeth. Do you not like them? Maybe I should invite him to join Eupheme, Ossman, and I without the other two around. He might appreciate that. “Not yet, your highness. Nor, if I may anticipate your next question, has Haradeth returned from the Sylvani lands.”

Tythel let out a huff of air. “He should have been back by now. Ideally with Lorathor and a small army of Sylvani in tow.”

“Your highness, if I may? I think ideally, he’d return with a large army of Sylvani.”

Tythel chuckled at the joke. “I like to temper my expectations.”

“A wise mindset for a ruler, your highness.”

“I don’t rule anything – and if we don’t get reinforcements, it’s very likely the only kingdom I’ll ever have a chance to rule will be within the Shadow’s embrace.”

That put a damper on the conversation, which hadn’t been Tythel’s intention. Still, it served to keep Tellias quiet for the remainder of the walk to camp. You’re being uncharitable. He’s not bad to talk to. He just confuses you and that makes you uncomfortable.

Before she could open her mouth to apologize, she saw someone walking towards them. Eupheme, who was waving her hands for attention. “Hurry up! Where have you been?”

Tythel picked up her pace, muttering an apology for Tellias. He couldn’t hope to keep up with her now that she was sprinting. “What’s wrong? Is it the Alohym? Is it-”

Eupheme cut her off with a shake of her head and a grin. “No, nothing bad! The Duke was looking for you. They’ve made progress on Theognis’ cypher, and he’s called a meeting. They think they might have a location on the Vacuity Engine.”

Tythel blinked in excitement, and turned to dash towards the center of camp. Tellias was left lagging behind, and Eupheme only kept up by leaping from shadow to shadow.

It was the first good news they’d gotten since the death of Rephylon. Tythel wasn’t going to risk missing it.

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.