The Dragon’s Scion Part 85

Tythel found Eupheme tangled in a bush nearly a mile back. She still had no idea how far they’d flown with the Skimmers. The twisting path of the canyon had long ago hidden the plateau from view. Eupheme grimaced at Tythel a she approached. “You’re alright?”

Tythel nodded. “You?” she said. The walk back to Eupheme, with repeated stops to drink, had given her throat some time to heal. Talking still hurt, but she could get through more than a single word without falling prey to a violent coughing fit.

Eupheme shook her head. “Think I broke my wrist. The Skimmers?”

“Gone,” Tythel assured her, walking the rest of the way over. Eupheme’s wrist was already swollen to twice its normal size. Tythel didn’t know medicine but was sure that was a bad sign. “I can start tearing?” she asked, motioning to the branches.

“Don’t bother,” Eupheme said. She was white with pain. “Just get the blanket out of my pack?”

Tythel looked around. The pack was caught in a tree branch a little way back, just too high for her to reach without climbing. One of the fluttering birds was pecking at it curiously. It flapped away with a startled squawk as Tythel drew near. Tythel looked at the pack more closely. Her hammer was attached to it, dangling from a thin strap.

She kicked the tree as hard as she could. The branches shook, and the hammer fell free. Tythel picked it up off the ground, activated it, and swung for the tree as hard as she could. The combined force of her swing and the force that activated when she struck cracked the truck in half, and with a groan the tree collapsed to a chorus of splintering branches.

From there, it was easy to pick the pack off the branches.

“Did you really need to break the tree?” Eupheme asked, a strained smile breaking through the pain. That’s a smile I’m getting all too good at recognizing, Tythel thought as her nictitating membranes slid closed in a moment of sadness. Spending as much time as she had around soldiers, the sickly grins of the injured trying to put on a brave face were seared into her mind.

“No,” Tythel admitted. “When all you have is a hammer…” She didn’t finish the idiom. It was enough to get a laugh out of Eupheme as Tythel rummaged through pack for the blanket. “What now?” Tythel asked, holding it up for Eupheme to see.

“Throw it over me.”

Tythel blinked in confusion. “Cold?” she asked.

Eupheme shook her head. “Please,” she asked.

Tythel’s eyes widened as she grasped it and tossed the blanket over Eupheme. It collapsed onto an empty bush, and Eupheme stepped out from behind a nearby tree. “Oh yeah,” she hissed. “That’s…that’s broken. Flath that hurts. Do you know how to do a splint?”

Tythel shook her head. “Talk me through it?” she asked. The idea of helping set a bone was uncomfortable, but the idea of letting Eupheme’s pain get worse was intolerable.

Eupheme nodded and sat down with Tythel’s help. “We’re going to need some sticks. Ones about as thick as my finger, and as straight as you can find. Ones that will run the entire length of my arm.” Eupheme managed another one of those pained smiled. “The good news is, someone just created a whole mess of sticks for us.”

Tythel looked over to the tree she had just felled and flushed. “Right.”

As many options as she had, Tythel felt it should have been easy to find some that met their requirements. However, most of the sticks Tythel was finding were too thin, or too thick, or too bent and twisted. She tossed another pair aside in irritation. “These?” she asked, holding a couple up for Eupheme.

Eupheme regarded then critically. “The one on the left will work,” she finally said.

Having a template of what to look for speed things up a bit. By the end of it, Tythel had gathered one stick that was perfect for their needs, and three that would work when bundled together. From there, the rest was relatively simple. The blanket that provided a way for Eupheme to get out from the bush was shredded, strips wrapped around the sticks to prevent splinters and around Eupheme’s arm to keep the pressure from being too great. “It’s still going to hurt,” Eupheme explained, “but it will hurt less, and heal better in the long term. The whole goal is to immobilize everything.

The final step was the worst, tightening the cloth around both wrist and stick to hold them in place. Even with everything they had done to reduce pressure, there was no way for it to not send lances of pain through Eupheme’s wrist whenever Tythel tried to tighten it.

“I’m sorry,” Tythel whispered as she let go of the cloth when Eupheme cried out in pain.

Eupheme grunted and blinked away tears of pain. “It’s going to hurt me, your highness,” she said softly. “The only way it’ll get better is if you set it properly. Temporary pain now means health in the future.”

Tythel nodded, gritted her teeth, and handed Eupheme a leather strip to bite down on. This time, she forced herself to not let go when Eupheme grunted in pain around the strip, forced herself to keep going until it was securely in place.

When they were done, Eupheme let out a low groan and held up the splint. She couldn’t move her wrist now, even if she’d wanted to. “I’m just…I’m just going to lay here for a bit.” Her eyes were half lidded. Tythel couldn’t even imagine how bad the pain must have been to wear Eupheme out to this degree and wish she could let the woman rest. Right now, that wasn’t an option.

“No,” Tythel said, forcing herself to stand up. “Night’s coming. Predators.”

Eupheme glanced in the direction of the sun and blinked. The sun was almost below the edge of the canyon. They’d have some hours before night once that passed, but they’d be plunged into darkness soon. “Okay. And we need to find Tellias.” Eupheme grimaced. “Once true night hits, I can push myself to reinforce this bond. It’ll give me some mobility back. Until then, I’ll only slow you down.”

“Not leaving you behind.” Tythel said firmly. “You’ll get on my back again. Won’t slow me down at all.” That proved to be a bit too many words at once, and the last word came out in a harsh wheeze. Tythel found herself coughing again, turning away to cough into her hand. No blood came up this time, which she decided to take a good sign.

Eupheme grimaced but nodded in agreement.

It had been some time since Tythel had last heard the clang of arcplate approaching. Tellias wasn’t coming for them. Tythel had to hope they hadn’t taken too long caring for Eupheme.

Once Eupheme was secure on Tythel’s back, she took off as quick as she dared move back up the river.

 

Small Worlds Part 181

“Shouldn’t being a god means my wrist doesn’t cramp up from writing?” Ryan said, breaking the silence after what felt like hours. He was getting to the bottom of his form, currently working on the “Urgent Request to Petition Specific Curator 834-G” which was different through forms A-F because of some arcane reason Ryan couldn’t divine. He’d still had to fill out forms A-F even though they didn’t apply to Nabu.

Dianmu grimaced. “If only. Repetitive motions are one thing we aren’t protect against, since it’s about our own strength. At least you’ll never develop a permanent injury from it.”

“Small favors,” Ryan grumbled, signing his name on the bottom of the form. “I think I’m done with my stack.”

“Same,” Dianmu said. She got up and walked over to Ryan’s desk, grabbing his papers off it and adding them to her own. “Now we just have to wait to be processed,” she said, sliding them in the “Insert Paperwork Here When Completed” doorway.

“At least it should be quicker since we’re not standing in line, right?” Ryan asked hopefully.

Dianmu gave him a flat look.

“At least it…won’t add any time since we’re not standing in line?” Ryan tried.

Dianmu’s expression didn’t waiver.

“Goddamnit,” Ryan muttered. “Why have us do extra paperwork if it doesn’t speed anything up in the long term?”

“Paperwork does not exist to make things quicker, Ryan, and certainly doesn’t exist to make it more efficient for the end user. Paperwork exists to do two things – to make things easier for the people at the top, and to make more paperwork. Haven’t you ever had an office job?”

Ryan sighed. “I did, but…I kinda hoped the Curators would be better?”

Dianmu shrugged. “So we’ve got some time to kill. Any Hungers bothering you?”

Ryan shook his head. “You?”

“Not at the moment. Which is probably for the best. You do not want to try to order food on Officium Mundi.”

“Sounds like you speak from experience.”

Dianmu sat back dwn, and wheeled her chair over so they didn’t have to talk across the room. “I do. I was here one time, not long ago, after a fight. I needed information, but I was Hungry. I decided to go to the food court.”

“They have a food court?”

Dianmu nodded. “A few levels down. I decided to get something simple, or so I thought. A hamburger. It required filling out Requisition forms. For the Hamburger as a collective unit. And the cheese. And the bun. And the ketchup. And the mustard. And the oil the burger was cooked in. And for the heat that was being put into the burger. Then I had to fill out a form to authorize assembling the ingredients into the burger.”

Ryan gaped at her. “You’re joking.”

“I wish I was.”

“But…if you already filled out the collective unit form, why the bloody hell was there a form to assemble the ingredients?”

“So they could make sure that what constituted a hamburger also was the same thing I was assembling. So that I couldn’t do anything unsavory with the ingredients and cause mischief. I ended up getting a lukewarm hamburger that I was too Hungry to heat up myself, and there was no way I was even trying to do paperwork for the microwave.”

Ryan shuddered at the thought. “I thought you admired their efficiency?” he asked.

“Oh, no. I just understand the purpose. But I’m still a human, deep under the divinity. You honestly thought I didn’t find it maddening?”

Ryan chuckled in agreement. “So what do you think? An hour? Or two?”

“If we’re luc-” Dianmu started to say, but was cut off by a knock on the door. Ryan and Dianmu shared a glance. “Who is it?” she asked.

“Nabu,” came the voice from the other side. “Mind if I come in?”

Ryan tried not to think too hard about how they were talking through the door when the same door lead to two hundred instances of the same room. “Please, if I don’t have to fill out a form giving you permission,” Ryan said.

Nabu chuckled and opened the door. “I wouldn’t make you do that, Ryan. I think I’ve put you through enough.”

Ryan’s returning laughter wasn’t nearly as warm as Nabu’s. “Thank you for seeing us,” he said, forcing himself to untense. You came here to see him, Ryan, he reminded himself. Why would you flip out the moment he arrived?

Of course, that question had a very obvious answer, at least to Ryan. He’d finally gotten used to Nabu not being there all the time. Not just gotten used to it, he’d started to love it. Some part of his brain was convinced now that, since Ryan was seeing Nabu again, he’d end up stuck with him. That Nabu would never, ever leave, and resume following Ryan silently for the rest of his life – only since Ryan was immortal now, it would be for hundreds or thousands or millions of years. He saw himself in the distant future, the last survivor, as old as Crystal, trying to explain to some new creature what being the Eschaton meant…and Nabu standing there, taking notes in one of those damn notebooks.

Dianmu must have noted his distress, and she took the lead. “Thank you for expediting our forms, Nabu.”

“Like I said, it’s the least I can do. What can we help you with?”

“We’re lost, Nabu,” Ryan said, finally finding his voice. “We don’t…we don’t know how we could possibly end the world without killing everyone on it. I was hoping you could tell us.”

Nabu went stiff. “Ryan,” he said gently. “You know we are expressly forbidden from interfering with that.”

“Yeah, I do. I just think it’s bullshit,” Ryan said, more bluntly than he intended to.

“What Ryan means,” Dianmu said, stepping in diplomatically, “is that while it may be against your regulations, you already did act by sending messages for Enki and Crystal at the beginning of Ryan’s tenure. It’s hard to believe you couldn’t make another exception.”

“Like I said,” Ryan repeated, settling back into his chair, “I think it’s bullshit.”

Dianmu shot him a glare before turning back to Nabu.

“I know it seems that way, Ryan, but that was to discharge a debt. One that you gave to Crystal.”

“She gave it back to me,” Ryan said smoothly. He actually couldn’t remember if she had, but he figured she’d be fine with the lie if she hadn’t. Crystal might have had more time to get used to the Curators than Ryan, but she didn’t seem to tolerate their particular brand of bureaucracy much better.

Nabu pursed his lips in thought. “Nonetheless, there are still limits. Even for that debt.”

“Bullshit,” Dianmu said, drawing startled looks from Ryan and Nabu. “You set precedent, Nabu. Not only that, but you started observing him far earlier than most of us ever had to deal with your kind, and it took him longer to find his nanoverse. That’s different.”

“Not always for the Eschaton. We usually identify candidates for that right at birth. It’s easier since there’s only one nanoverse left to find.”

“You were a lot more helpful last time I was here,” Ryan groused. Nabu regarded him impassively. Ryan frowned in thought. “I…somethings different from last time. What is it?”

Nabu smiled. “And that, Ryan, is the right question. I want to help you. I’m willing to stretch, maybe even break the regulations to help you. But…but I don’t have the answers you need. I don’t know how it’s possible. No sentient species has accomplished it in my sector.”

Ryan sighed. “Great. So we’ve come all this way for nothing.”

Nabu shook his head. “No, not for nothing. You have twelve hours.”

“Twelve hours for what?” Ryan asked, cocking his head in confusion.

Nabu reached into his jacket pocket. “I pulled every string I have left. Here’s all the relevant regulations. All of them. You two need to study them, try to find a loophole.”

“And then?” Dianmu asked, cocking her head in confusion.

“Then you get to argue your place with the High Council. If anyone can assist you, they can. But they won’t listen to pleas from the heart. Before you go and speak with them…we need to find a loophole.”

The stack of papers Nabu pulled of his jacket was impossibly large. Thousand upon thousands of pages. Ryan took a deep breath, and nodded. “It’s a good thing we don’t need to sleep. Let’s get to work.”

The three of them settled in to do exactly that.

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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Small Worlds Part 178

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Isabel’s version of the story was choppy and full of speculation. She hadn’t been there for most of it, and for most of the parts she had been there for, she’d been watching through a drone. The only part she could personally attest to from first hand experience was the battle with Moloch, and that Isabel glossed over.

She focused her story on Bast and everything she had been told about what happened with her.

“The first thing I know for certain she did was side with Enki. Unlike Athena and Tyr, she knew the full extent of Enki’s plan, including the fact that it involved stabbing Athena and Tyr in the back to get everyone who might oppose Enki out of the way – and get their nanoverses for him to merge.”

Ra yawned. “You do not know this mortal, but the merging of nanoverses is impossible. You’re repeating Ishtar’s lies.”

“My brother saw it with his own eyes,” Isabel protested hotly. “And destroying it corrupted Crystal’s nanoverse so badly, she…” Isabel frowned. Crystal had been less than forthcoming on the details of the corruption, just that it had happened and had caused her some problems. “She had serious problems, okay?”

Ra frowned. “Let’s assume I believe that such a thing is possible. I do not, but let us assume it.”

Isabel bit her lip. That wasn’t good enough, not to make their case. “Can you at least believe that Enki, in his madness, believed it? Can you at least believe that Bast believed him.”

Ra cocked his head, a gesture so naturally leonine that it almost made Isabel laugh. “I suppose I can believe that.”

Isabel nodded. “And Tyr has not respawned, so we know something bad happened to his nanoverse.”

Ra blinked. “Respawned? I do not know this word.”

“You speak English even though you have been on the Moon for millennia, but respawn is where you draw the line?” Isabel asked, incredulous. She looked at Crystal.

“May I explain, Ra?” Crystal asked.

Ra nodded assent.

“Being gods means we can speak and understand any language, but only it’s most technical version, as it is understood by the majority of speakers, love. It’s one of the last tricks we learn before we undergo Apotheosis. But we struggle with slang, especially niche terms. So something that’s only understood by, say, the video game community, is impenetrable to us. You might as well announce that you’ve met a sat-reteh.

Isabel frowned. She’d heard the word sat-reteh, but she’d also heard another word in there. It just wouldn’t come into focus. Ra was chuckling, like he understood a joke. “A what?”

“Loosely translated, it means a baker’s daughter. But it was really just a kind way to call someone obese – like a child that grew up with easy access to bread at all times. You see how you didn’t understand that, even though you understood everything else I said?”

“I understand.” She turned back to Ra. “Respawn is a term from a form of entertainment we play on Earth now, where we control avatars in a box of moving pictures. If your avatar dies, you have to wait a short time before it comes back and you can play it again. The act of coming back is called respawning. I…kind of have been using it to refer to how gods resurrect.”

“I see. Tyr has not resurrected?”

“No. So if nothing else…”

“Bast destroyed his nanoverse.” Ra chuffed and frowned. “An abhorrent gesture.”

Isabel had been about to blame the destruction of Tyr’s nanoverse of Enki, but was more than happy to let Ra leap to the conclusion that benefited her stance the most. “Exactly.”

“That is one atrocity, but hardly enough to justify letting someone access the Staff.”

“She also unleashed mummies on a town!” Isabel said. “Dozens of people died. If it wasn’t for Athena and my brother, they could have killed hundreds. Maybe thousands.”

“Mummies?” Ra asked, leaning in with interest.

“Yes. The Mummies of Yes.”

“Ys, love,” Crystal corrected gently.

“Right, sorry. The Mummies of Yiss.” Crystal winced at Isabel’s butchering of the word, but Isabel forged ahead. “Surely the fact that she was willing to do something so…large would indicate she might be a threat to the world.”

Ra paused to consider. “Unleashing monsters sounds more like Moloch’s stratagem than Bast’s.”

“You know her better than anyone else. Has Bast ever worked through proxies before?”

Another long pause, during which Ra settled down more onto his paws, curling them in for comfort. The hallway was finally no longer being distorted to accommodate the Sphinx’s movement, and settled into its normal proportions, giving Isabel a chance to look at the surroundings.

The hallway was not, as Isabel had assumed, constructed purely of metal. Most of it was metal, but in places jagged lunar rocks had punched through it. Isabel could see what Crystal meant by the nanobots – the seam around the stones were so smooth, it looked almost like they had been intentionally placed in the walls. Remnants of some long forgotten asteroid impact, no doubt. There were wires and lights running along those walls as well, and in one place one of the jagged fragments of stone had cut right through the wires. Isabel could see where it had been cut off, but it had also been spliced to reroute the power to the facility around where the stone had penetrated.

Isabel felt some tension she hadn’t realized she was carrying drain away. If the auto-repair nanobots were so advanced they could reroute power, this place really would withstand anything short of a direct meteor hit. She knew the void of space still sat outside those walls, but it no longer was an oppressive presence on the back of her mind. If something happened, she’d only be in danger for a short time before the nanobots repaired the damage – and Crystal could surely keep her safe for that long. There’s always a Tardigrade, too, Isabel reminded herself. I could survive for long enough for the bots to do their work.

Assuming, of course, the cause of death wasn’t being mauled by the giant leonine creature that was now thinking. “What else has Bast done?” he finally asked, his voice slow and steady.

“That’s the worst part, we don’t know.” Isabel said firmly. “But we do know…” she glanced at Crystal then back at Ra, “or at least suspect that she’d been starved, her power somehow being routed to empower some soldiers with her…ichor? Is that the right term?”

Crystal gave Isabel an encouraging nod as Ra spoke. “Starved?” Ra asked. “Is she…did she develop a new Hunger?”

“We don’t know.” Isabel said, wondering why there was a quaver in Ra’s voice at the question. “What would that mean?”

“Anthropophage,” Ra hissed. He fixed his gaze on Crystal. “Do you believe it’s possible?”

Crystal nodded. “Possible? Absolutely. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s bloody likely.”

Ra considered again, and Isabel waited with baited breath. They had nothing else to offer Ra, no other true claims to what Bast had done. Speculation and fear was all they had. She made a mental note to ask Crystal later, if they survived this, what the hell an Anthropophage was, because it did not sound like anything good. If a Bacteriophage is a virus that preys on bacteria, and Anthro means man…I really hope it’s a colorful term for a vow of peace.

Isabel didn’t think that was particularly likely.

“I will allow you entrance,” Ra said slowly. “And will allow the remaining guardian to decide your fate.”

“Oh, c’mon, love,” Crystal said. “Can’t you-”

“I never imagined anyone would need access to the Staff. I cannot even enter the levels where the guardian lies. I have sealed it against my own power.”

“Can you at least tell us what we’re up against?”

Ra nodded. “I have set a Typhon to guard the Staff.”

Crystal swore, and Isabel looked over at her. “What? What’s a typhon?”

“You remember the Hecatoncheires, the big giant you saw on the news?”

Isabel nodded, feeling the color draining out of her face. “It’s…it’s one of those.”

“No, love.” Crystal sighed. “It’s what gives hecatoncheires nightmares. We’re in for a very rough time here.”

Isabel looked up at Ra, and saw it in his face.

Even he believed they were doomed.

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Small Worlds Part 177

Of all the traits, rhinoceroses were not known for their keen vision. Quite the opposite, in fact – the Sphinx pushing its way into the room was initially as blurry as the optometrists bottom row was to someone with severe myopia. It was taking Isabel some time to sort out what she was seeing.

Fortunately, the rhino’s hearing and vision were working perfectly fine  Unfortunately, the Sphinx’s reeked of lion, one of the few creatures able to hunt and kill rhinos. Even worse, it didn’t scare the rhino’s soul Isabel was sharing this body with.

It just pissed it off.

Before Isabel was entirely sure what she was doing, she’d lowered her head and pawed the ground in a warning gesture. Back the fuck off or I’ll run you down, she thought, a moment before her rational brain was able to assert itself. You’re here to talk, not to fight!

She barely felt Crystal’s hand on her flank. “Easy there, love.”

“You…brought a rhino…to the moon?” the Sphinx said slowly, enunciating each word carefully. “Why?”

“Figured I could use some backup if you didn’t want to talk, love.” Crystal’s tone was calm, her scent confident, and although the rhino was skittish at the scent of human, it helped Isabel assert more control. “Which is what we’re here to do. Talk.”

Isabel knew that last word was meant for her, and her ears flicked at the reproach.

“That answers my second question. I assume you want to talk about your first – why are you here?”

Crystal took a deep breath. “We need the staff of Ra.”

The faint amusement Isabel had heard in the Sphinx’s voice vanished. “You need my staff,” he said flatly.

Crystal’s scent changed to confusion. “You still think of yourself as Ra?”

“Of course I do,” the Sphinx said dismissively. “Why wouldn’t I?”

“I just…I didn’t think any memories of who you were before remained. After dying and becoming a…I mean, after you turn into…”

“A monster,” Ra said. “If you thought you would offend me, Ishtar, you are sorely mistaken. You humans have thought as me for a monster for quite some time.”

The situation didn’t seem to be escalating. Isabel shifted back to her human form, then stood up from all fours and brushed herself off. “You know each other?”

“I met Ra once,” Crystal said offhandedly.

“But I’ve never met you,” Ra said.

Now that she could see him, Isabel had to fight the urge to stare. His body was all leonine, although the fur ran closer to gold than the tawny color of a lion. It almost shone in the light. Being a rhino had also blinded her to the sheer size of Ra. He was far larger than a lion had any right to be, almost as large compared to a lion as a lion would be to a housecat. The face that was staring at her was similarly sized, a regal human head sitting atop those shoulders. “Um…Isabel Smith, sir,” Isabel said, fighting the urge to babble.

Ra’s head turned towards Crystal. “You brought a Nascent here?”

“She’s not Nascent,” Crystal said, putting a hand on Isabel’s shoulder. “Just new at this.”

Ra studied Isabel for a moment lower, and nodded. Isabel felt a surge of relief. Crystal had worded that very carefully – it was easy for Ra to assume Isabel was a full fledged goddess, and not a mortal with some shapeshifting tricks. That relief was quickly obliterated when Ra spoke again. “You have yet to convince me I shouldn’t gut you both,” he growled. “The staff is too dangerous to be out in the world. I’m here to prevent it from ever leaving.”

“Begging your pardon,” Crystal said, “but there are things more dangerous than the staff.”

“Such as?” Ra growled.

“The end of the world.”

Ra studied her for a moment, then began to laugh, a deep sound somewhere between real laughter and a roar. “You still cling to that myth about the Eschaton, Isthar? Even after all these years?”

“First of all,” Isabel interjected, “her name’s Crystal now. Second of all…myth? The sun’s getting hotter, right outside your moon base.”

Ra returned his attention to Isabel. “I do not venture out of here often,” Ra admitted, “but I find that hard to believe.”

“Don’t take my word for it. Step outside and see for yourself.”

Ra cocked his head at her in a very cat-like gesture of confusion. “And I can tell a difference of a few degrees? I am not some kind of temperature gauge – if it was hot enough for me to tell without air, the Earth would be cinders by now.”

“I could make air for you,” Crystal said helpfully.

“And just heat the air to suit your story? I think not.” Ra’s jaw stretched open in a lazy yawn. “I never trusted you, Ishtar. How did you escape Enki’s wrath?”

“I ran like a bloody coward,” Crystal’s voice was too bright with forced ease. “Can you blame me? He was off his sodding rocker, yeah?”

“So you claimed. He claimed you were the mad one. That was why I stayed out of your little spat. Too much…back and forth. No way to divine the truth.” Ra huffed out a breath. “Much like right now. You claim extraordinary things, and you offer no proof.”

“I can’t bloody prove it if you want me to wait!” Crystal snapped. “Endless stars, Ra, what could possibly prove it to you?”

Ra considered for a moment, then nodded in acceptance. “I suppose that is a fair point.”

“So you’ll help us?” Isabel asked.

“Oh no,” Ra said, stretching his back and extending his claws. “It just means the time for talk is past. I’d allow you to leave alive, but-”

Isabel glanced at Crystal, whose eyes were wide with sudden panic. If Crystal didn’t like her odds…how could they hope to fight Ra in these cramped quarters. She can’t fight because of me, Isabel realized. If she goes full power and Ra tears a hole in the wall, I’m dead.

“-know where I am. That cannot be tolerated, not-”

“We’re fighting Bast!” Isabel interjected with a wild shout. “She believes us, and she tried to kill my brother over it!”

Crystal stared at her. Ra stared at her. Isabel didn’t know what has possessed her to shout that specific warning. Some vague hope that a member of his own Pantheon would draw his attention, maybe. Or you just wanted to say anything to get him not to pounce.

Ra stared at her for a long pause, during which Isabel’s heartbeat spiked up to the point where it felt like it was going a thousand times a second. Then, slowly, Ra withdrew his claws, and settled back onto his haunches.

“Go on,” He said gradually. Crystal opened her mouth, but Ra shook his head. “No, Ishtar. You speak too quickly, and your words drip with the honey of your lies. I’ll hear this one. And then…then I’ll decide.”

“She knows more of the story than me,” Isabel said.

“I do not care,” Ra said, his voice empty of emotion. “I want to hear your version. Tell me the story, Isabel, and I’ll decide.”

Isabel took a deep breath and plunged ahead, praying for the best.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 71

“Be not afraid,” Anotira said, motioning Haradeth towards a chair that awaited the building she had brought them to. “I do not intend you harm this day, Haradeth, son of Lathariel.”

Haradeth swallowed what felt like a lump of cotton. “You know my name?”

“Of course. I heard the argument with Shaaythi, after all. I hear all that happens within this dome.”

Lorathor stood silently against the wall, letting Haradeth take the lead. Haradeth did so by sinking into the chair he was offered.

“What are you?” he finally asked.

“I’m a goddess. Like your mother,” Anotira said.

Haradeth shook his head firmly. “You’re not alive.”

Lorathor gasped, but Anotira laughed. This time, the sound came from her mouth, not the air around Haradeth, and it felt more natural – although the lack of life coming from Anotira was still unsettling. “What makes you say that?”

“It’s the truth,” Haradeth said simply. “I can sense life. I know life. You are not a living thing.”

“Interesting. I wonder what that says about me. Are you certain I’m not just too alien for your experiences to process?”

Haradeth shook his head. “The Alohym are alive. I can feel it off them. If I can sense it from them, I surely can from you.”

“Haradeth,” Lorathor said firmly. “She is our goddess. You should not speak to her so.”

Haradeth did not take his eyes from Anotira. “She may be that, my friend, but she is certainly not alive.”

Lorathor opened his mouth to object again, but before he could, Anotira sighed, and again she flickered into motes of light. “I suppose there’s not point arguing it.” She turned to face Lorathor for a moment. “Lorathor. Spawn of Galithin, Chessae, and Corvi. I bind you to speak no word of what you learn here to the others. No clever tricks, no loopholes. If you share what I say here, you will be cast out. If you find some way to subvert the spirit of this order, you will be cast out. Am I clear?”

Lorathor nodded mutely, and Anotira turned back to Haradeth.

“You are correct. I am not alive. Not in the strict, organic sense of the word. Although I’d argue that I can exhibit many of the traits of life. I can replicate, I consume, I grow. I just do so through a different mechanism.”

“I don’t understand,” Lorathor burst in, and Haradeth nodded in agreement.

“How does a Skitter know where to put its claws at it moves?” Anotira asked.

Haradeth frowned. “There’s a lattice inside the Skitter. It controls the legs. It’s sort of like…well, I guess it’s like an insect’s mind.”

Anotira nodded. “It’s exactly like that, in fact. And if a lattice could be built to emulate the mind of an insect, could it be scaled up? To the mind of a wolf? Or a human? Or…something more?”

Haradeth gaped at her. “You…you’re a lattice? So there’s some Sylvani controlling you?”

Anotira shook her head. “No Sylvani controls me. I was built to be self controlling, self aware.”

If Haradeth hadn’t already been sitting down, he would have fallen to the floor. “That’s impossible.”

“If the Alohym had not come, you would have said a web that functions like an insect brain was impossible.” Anotira said gently.

Haradeth could only stare at her mutely.

“I am the guiding intelligence of this city,” Anotira explained. “I am the beginning of the Sylvani’s story on this world, and I am its end.”

After a minute, Haradeth found his voice. “You…what do you mean you’re the beginning of the Sylvani’s story? Did something else make you?”

Anotira shook her head. “I said I was the beginning of the Sylvani’s story on this world.

Lorathor had turned a pale blue. “What…what are you saying?”

“You are not of a people native to his world, Lorathor,” Anotira said. “Your ancestors came here thousands of years ago. Each of the spires that make up this city was once a ship that traversed the same voice the beings you now know as Alohym traveled.”

“Now know as Alohym?” Haradeth said, his voice firm and demanding. “What were they called before?”

“I do not know.”

Haradeth’s eyes narrowed. “You claim to be as old as the Sylvani on this world, yet you don’t know the name of the beings you fled to come here?”

Anitoria flickered again. “No. I do not. My lattice…when we first arrived here, there were twelve of us.”

“The Twelve Luminous Gods,” Lorathor said, still looking so pale Haradeth feared he might faint. “The others died to preserve your life, facing off against the Dark One Eylohir, so that you could guide us for the rest of time.”

“Is that what they say?” Anitoria smiled. “It’s…close to the truth. Eylohir is a word that your language has lost, Lorathor. In the ancient tongue of the Sylvani, it meant…” Anitoria frowned. “I cannot find a good synonym. A loose translation would be ‘catastrophic system failure.’ She sighed again, and Haradeth noted for the first time the sigh was identical to the others. The way her head tilted, the way her arms moved, wasn’t just similar to previous sighs. She was going through the exact same motion each time.

“Our power cores were damaged when we arrived here. To maintain all twelve would have resulted in our shutdown within one hundred years local time. It was decided that the other eleven would go into hibernation. I would be able to access their memories, but since I was the simplest of the Lattice Minds on this ship, I could run with the lowest power drain. Even then, to extend my lifespan, I was to run only when absolutely needed, and pass the important parts of the Sylvani culture and history down through organic, memetic methods, and prepare for the Alohym’s arrival on this world.”

Lorathor and Haradeth shared a look of confusion. “Organic, memetic methods?” Haradeth asked.

“Stories. Legends. Religion. Myths. Things the Sylvani would pass to each other. I made sure to run long enough enough to correct any absolutely flawed assumptions, but-”

“-you let us think we were from this world!” Lorathor burst in, unable to contain himself anymore. “You kept that secret from us! How is that not an ‘absolutely flawed assumption?’”

“It would have availed you nothing,” Anitoria said firmly. “I was to care for the Sylvani. Would you have me force you to feel like outsiders, constantly aware of the fact that you did not belong on this world? Would you have me force upon your an apocalyptic prophecy that the Alohym would arrive, when a hundred times a hundred generations have passed since we arrived on this world? A hundred times a hundred generators burdened by the knowledge of a fate that could arrive at any time? What would that have done to you? You accused Shaaythi earlier of forgetting that humans were worth saving, and that’s without feeling apart and separate from them.”

“What of our tools?” Lorathor demanded. “Of our weapons? We could have shared them with humanity!”

“We did,” Anitoria said firmly. “We gave humanity the tools we had, we gave them our science, we showed them how to channel the light within their world – the same light the Alohym stole from us.”

Lorathor looked a mixture of confused and hurt right now, so Haradeth picked back up the conversation. “If you did, what happened?”

“I can no longer access those records,” Anitoria said, her simulated voice full of bitterness. “I know there was a war. I do not know who fired the first shot. I do not know whom is to blame. I only know that since that war, I cannot access the memories of my siblings. I know my data has become corrupted in places. The older the memory, the harder it is to obtain, and the more likely it is to be riddled with errors. I was supposed to prepare us to face this enemy, and because of a war that was fought with the weapons we granted humanity, I cannot.”

“Surely you have some ideas-” Haradeth began, but Anitoria cut him off.

“I was created to record entertainment, not to formulate plans. When I could access the memory banks of the others, I could use them to simulate intelligence in areas I did not have. Invention. Strategy. Synthesis. Hypothesis.” She gave that sigh again, the same as every other sigh. “Now I am limited. Severely limited. I cannot even access the information I need to restore my connection with the others!”

“So you cannot help us?” Haradeth asked, softly.

“I cannot,” Anitoria confirmed, her voice sad. “I am sorry to have wasted your time. But what power I have left must be dedicated to maintaining the Sylvani’s safety.”

“But-” Haradeth begin.

Anitoria sighed that identical sigh one last time. “No, Haradeth, son of Lathariel. There is no but. I have one purpose I can still fulfill. These people are that purpose.”

Haradeth could see the resolve in her eyes, and realized that no words he could say would persuade this goddess.

Lorathor finally broke the silence, an ugly note to his voice. “Come on, Haradeth. I think we should be going.”

With that, they turned to leave Anitoria’s chamber, and Anitoria once again dispersed into cloud of lights.

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

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“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 67

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As far as Tythel could determine, in ages past the Reliquary Hall of Hallith had held the bones of the true Alohym. Those bones, if they had ever truly been there, were either worn to dust by the ages or stolen by looters long ago. It was still a grand structure, built remarkably to withstand the ravages of time. The roof was still intact, supported by twelve massive columns, and the walls were lined with the empty containers that had held the dead bodies of gods. In the center was a long stone table that Tythel suspected might have been holy to the Hallithians. An altar, or perhaps were the bodies of their gods were prepared for storage.

Part of her felt it was wrong to turn that table, this entire structure, into a war room. Practicality had won out over respect for the long dead peoples of Hallith, however. Very few places in the city allowed for a table to be covered with paper and notes and maps without being disturbed by winds.

Armin was there, and he flashed Tythel a grin when he saw her enter. After a second’s hesitation, he blinked a few times. Tythel returned the blinking and then made herself grin in response. Armin was struggling with the happy blink – he usually did it too slowly, indicating concern, and it was an odd gesture without nictitating membranes, but she appreciated the effort more than she could say. After so long struggling to smile so people understood her expressions, it was wonderful to have someone return the effort. So long? It’s only been two months since you left the valley.

            It felt like an eternity. Thinking about that brought thoughts of her father rising up. Thinking about Karjon no longer was a sharp pain that threatened to pull her into tears. It was a dull ache, a hollow feeling. She pushed it aside with more ease than she’d expected. The Duke had also saw her enter and gave her a nod. “Glad you could make it, your Highness.”

Tythel winced at the note of reprimand in his voice that even she could make out. He didn’t like that she was going out to the walls to be alone, or that she was going…well, anywhere where he couldn’t keep a personal eye on her. I’m almost worried he doesn’t trust me. She didn’t think that was the case, just concern for her wellbeing, but it still stung slightly.

Don’t get too close to him, Tythel reminded herself. “Apologies for my delay. I thought it best my ears were on the wall for any approach.” She was glad that Tellias hadn’t caught up yet. She preferred he didn’t see the excuse. When did you start making excuses?

Tythel knew the answer to that question and shied away from that thought. Thinking about what happened to her father was still a dull ache, but Nicandros’ abandonment still burned hot. In part because she still held out hope that it could be fixed somehow. As unimaginable as it was – she had killed his son, after all – it was at least possible. After all, they were both still alive.

At least, you hope that’s true.

“Your ears may be useful on the wall, your highness, but your place is here.” The Duke glanced around quickly. The only people in here were Tythel’s friends and other members of leadership – Lord Devos and Lady von Bagget. Even the Dutchess wasn’t present yet. “Among the leadership. The men are starting to talk about you going off on your own so much.”

Tythel let out a chuff. “And what are they saying? That I’m doing something wrong somehow?”

“No, just that -” the Duke cut off as Tellias walked in. “Good, I think everyone’s here.”

“Is Ossman coming?” Tythel asked.

“No,” Lord Devos said, making sure he met Tythel’s gaze.” I left him with some of the new recruits. This is need to know only.”

And Ossman doesn’t need to know, so don’t you dare tell him, went unspoken. Lord Devos had never been the warm and friendly sort, but Uridin’s betrayal had hardened his already rough edges. He suspected everyone of treachery. Armin had once joked he slept with one eye open and a mirror so he could keep an eye on himself, and Tythel had laughed in part because she could picture it perfectly.

“As a matter of fact,” Lord Devos continued, pointing at Tellias and Eupheme, “these two don’t need to know.”

Eupheme looked to Tythel while Tellias hesitated. “They should stay,” Tythel protested. “Eupheme is my bodygard, she goes where I go.” Duke d’Monchy raised an eyebrow at that, and Tythel pointedly ignored it, “and Baron Tellias has been working on decoding this same text.”

“He didn’t crack the code. Armin did. If Tellias had, I’d be saying Armin should get out.”

Lady von Bagget reached over and put her hand on Lord Devos’ arm. “Eupheme is an umbrist. If we cannot trust her, we should slit our own throats now. Light knows she had ample opportunities.”

Lord Devos considered that, then nodded. “Very well.” He motioned for Tellias to leave.

“But-” Tythel started to say, then saw the slight shake of Eupheme’s head. Don’t fight this battle. Tythel let the exclamation die as a frustrated exhalation.

Tellias bowed stiffly and left.

“Now, can we get to business?” The Duke asked in irritation.

Tythel nodded, looking at Armin. “Eupheme said you’d had a breakthrough?”

Armin nodded eagerly. He was still dusty from the excavations. “He based it on Hallithian!” Armin crowed. “Theognis, I mean. I saw one of the symbols in his cypher when we down in the ruins, and as soon as I did I knew I could use it!”

Tythel did the hyper quick blinks of excitement. We were sitting on the cipher and didn’t even know it. “And?”

“It’s only one section, and I just finished it. I think he must have used different ancient languages for the other parts of the cypher. But I know where they’re keeping the Vacuity Engine!” Armin looked down at what he had written. “It’s on the Ambulatory Bastion!” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, his excitement drained away. “Wait. Flath. That’s…that’s really bad.”

Tythel looked around to see the others were frowning. Duke d’Monchy had turned white. Lord Devos was turning red, and Tythel couldn’t tell if he was going to hit something or swear. “What’s…I haven’t heard about the Ambulatory Bastion before.”

“There’s so much we need to teach you still,” the Duke muttered, his voice too low for anyone but Tythel to hear. Louder, he said, “the imperipods we encountered before? It’s one of those, but scaled up immensely. When the Alohym first arrived, it flew down from the sky and has been roving across the continent ever since.”

“How large?” Tythel asked.

“As large at this entire flathing plateau,” Lord Devos exclaimed. “It’s a flathing walking city is what it is. And the Vacuity Engine, the one flathing thing that might give us a chance, is on it.”

Tythel joined them in looking disappointed. An imperipod the size of a small city. She couldn’t even begin to imagine how they were supposed to assault a monstrosity like that.

It was supposed to be good news, she thought to herself.