Strange Cosmology Part 102

Dianmu leapt for Moloch, her glaive held high over her head, howling a battlecry. Moloch flicked his wrist and hit her with a gust of air before she could get within reach. He raised his other hand to counter Anansi’s twist. The spider god sent of bolt of lightning streaking towards Moloch, but Moloch stopped it by raising a stone wall from the ground. “What is it going to take for you to stay out of my way?” Moloch asked.

Moloch knew they were as likely to do that as he was spare the life of the Eschaton or Crystal. This is my victory, my triumph. I’m not going to let these upstarts ruin it.

Dianmu lowered her glave and charged. Moloch whirled to face her attack, slamming his fist into the ground. He added a twist and his fist’s impact generated a wave of molten rock that shot out and streaked towards the approaching goddess. Her charge interrupted, Dianmu leaped over, momentarily lit red by the lava beneath her.

No. Not that easy this time. Moloch flicked his hand again, increasing her gravity at the apex of her leap, pulling Dianmu sharply towards the molten rock. She managed a last second twist of her own, freezing the rock beneath her. Her impact with the ground was brutal, but it didn’t incinerate her. Moloch sighed as she started to rise and increased the gravity again, holding her in place.

When Moloch turned to face Anansi the trickster was gone. Moloch glanced back to Dianmu. “It appears only one of you has the sense to-”

Dianmu was gone as well. Moloch scanned the battlefield. Two of his Helhests were feasting on the last of the centaurs, and the sweet melody of a faun being torn limb from limb filled Moloch’s ears. His monsters were gaining the upper hand against the disorganized chaos of the creatures of the unleashed Labyrinth. Yet either of his opponents were nowhere to be seen.

He was caught completely off guard when they phased out of the ground on either side of him. Dianmu’s swing was aimed at Moloch’s neck, Anansi’s sword was coming for his back.

Moloch twisted time as the blades closed in, slowing the two of them to a near stop. Too close, Moloch thought, stepping aside. The motion forced him to take a breath. Too close, and I’m starting to feel Hungers. Moloch kept the alteration up for a few more seconds, just enough to rush behind Dianmu and kick her forwards.

Normal time resumed. Pushed ahead, Dianmu’s glaive bit into Anasi’s shoulder, and Anansi’s sword caught Dianmu in the side. Before they could pull away from each other, Moloch struck them with a bolt of lightning. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have worried about Enki,” Moloch said as he clenched his fist, striking them again. “You two weren’t even there, and the other three managed to defeat him.” Moloch went for a third strike, but Anansi and Dianmu had managed to separate and leap apart. Anansi’s skin was smouldering, and Dianmu’s eyes were turning red from burst blood vessels. “I can only imagine what I could have done with his power,” Moloch said, stepping back so he could see them both.

“And yet you did not,” Anansi said, “Why is that? Was Enki smarter than you? How did he figure out what the great bird man did not?”

Moloch snapped, “I reject the notion that a mere human god could have come up with something beyond me.”

“And yet, a mere human did,” Dianmu countered from the other side, “perhaps you’re not quite as intelligent as you pretend to be, Moloch? Or do you just need to feel superior to us to justify genocide to yourself?”

That’s right, Moloch thought, let them think they’re goading you. “Enki was a fool with power he didn’t comprehend. I could have crushed him at any time, I just did not want to waste my strength.”

“Lies,” Anansi said, “Enki had more power than you ever held.”

“Power is nothing without the knowledge how to use it. Allow me to show you.” Moloch flung his hands out and began to manipulate the chemicals in the air.

The air around Dianmu and Anasi caught fire, a pair of raging infernos. Anansi was the first out of his fireball, his skin seared into black and red patches. Dianmu was not emerging. “Dioxygen Difluoride,” Moloch crowed. “Your skin is now catching on fire at these temperatures, spider. I doubt there’s much left of Dianmu. You, Anansi, are lucky enough to witness the end of humanity.”

Anansi started to rise to his feet, and Moloch struck him with lightning. Let’s not repeat the mistake I did with Athena. Moloch had known the effort of setting up high electron density points before the fight had been worthwhile. The ability to call lightning with minimal twisting helped him look even more impressive than he already was. Did it even occur to them, he asked himself, that I had weeks to prepare the battlefield? Weeks where any twist made would stay in place?

Moloch doubted it. If they had thought of it, they certainly didn’t seem to have prepared at all. I wonder if they honestly think they chose this battlefield? “Dianmu is immolated,” Moloch growled, turning back towards Crystal. “And I’m about to stomp the spider. I was going to make you watch the Eschaton die first, but since I had to kill one of them already, I suppose Athena should be next.”

Crystal’s eyes were full of hate. That’s right. She and Dianmu are friends. Moloch wished he’d made the thunder goddess suffer more before her death.

Then he sensed something behind him, a twisting of equations. The inferno surrounding Dianmu was dying down.

Dianmu crouched in the center of the fire, encased in a whirling bubble of air. She rose to her feet and charged, her glaive lowered.

Impressive, Moloch acknowledged. She’d more dangerous than I had thought.

Moloch threw out his hand and turned a tiny number of the air molecules in front of Dianmu into antimatter. The explosion sent her flying backwards, the force of a grenade going off in her face.

Then again, so am I. Under normal circumstances antimatter would be a stupid waste of energy – Moloch thought he might have burned a full millenia of power on that – but it was worth it. Moloch cracked his neck. “I’m barely even Hungry,” he said to Crystal. “You cannot win. You never could. You need to accept that.”

The hatred in Crystal’s eyes hadn’t abated and she rose, standing protectively over Ryan. Her throat was an ugly purple color, and Moloch wondered if she could even speak through the damage. It doesn’t matter.

Moloch held out his hand, and gestured for her to come to him. Crystal started to charge.

And so it ends.


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Strange Cosmology part 98

Small Worlds Book 1: Weird Theology is now available for preorder. More information here.


 

I really should have expected this, Moloch thought with a snarl as he reached out to grip reality and twist it to his whims.

Angels were able to manipulate the fabric of reality with an ease no god could match. That lead lesser gods to believe that angels were unbeatable. The problem was, they were thinking in terms of raw power.

Moloch had plenty of raw power, but never ascribed to the believe it was the most important part of things. Not even back in the old days.

The world stopped besides Uriel and Moloch.

The problem with angels was that they were billions of years old. And that meant that if you studied them long enough, they became predictable. Uriel always opened by accelerating her temporal reference frame. If you weren’t prepared for it, you’d be diced to ribbons before you could react. It was how she had killed the first born of Egypt in a single night.  If you did the same thing at the same time, it just meant you had an uninterrupted fight.

Moloch grinned as Uriel’s eyes widened, their swords meeting mid air. “Impossible,” the angel whispered.

“Obviously not.” Moloch whirled under Uriel’s blade and thrust his sword towards her chest. With a flap of her immense wings, Uriel  launched herself away from him. The angel was glancing around. Moloch decided to take advantage of that uncertainty. Three bolts of dark green lightning raced from his fingers. Uriel’s sword sung through the air. She moved so fast she was able to catch two of the bolts, but the third struck home.

Moloch applied pressure onto those surges of power now racing from his fingertip to Uriel. “You angels think you’re so much better than us,” he hissed. “So holy, so righteous. You’re a bunch of hypocrites. Where were you when they burned, Uriel? Where were you?

Uriel screamed in pain.

Around them, the battle was still mostly frozen, everything moving like it was swimming through amber. A lightning bolt was starting to form above Moloch at a glacial pace, a twist of reality from that upstart Eschaton. Beside him, his sister’s form started to blur again. An Eschaton and a Protean. What are the odds? He could see Dianmu, raising a glaive to meet a lunging draconic head. Anansi and Athena were hidden by the chaos of the melee.

Worst of all, Crystal was nowhere to be seen.

“You speak of your creator,” Moloch spat at Uriel. “You speak of his plan. You preach his Glory. Your creator is gone, Uriel. Your creator has abandoned us! The only gods that matter are us. The only truth that matters is ours. The only world that matters is the one I’m going to see burn in the sun.”

Then Uriel flapped her wings, breaking herself free of the green lightning.

“Electricity made of mortal souls,” she gasped, her form smouldering. “You play in forces beyond you, godling.”

Moloch lashed out again. “Nothing is beyond me!” he screamed.

This time, Uriel was prepared for the bolts of lighting. She dodged all three with a deft sweep of her wings that carried her above the battlefield.  With a quick flick, her ascent turned into a dive straight for Moloch, her sword elongating to a hooked halberd. She swung the weapon below herself as she passed over Moloch.

Moloch parried the blow, but Uriel was now a whirlwind, rising and diving too quickly for Moloch to do anything but defend himself. No. Not after everything I lost. Not after everything that’s happened. I will not be beaten by an angel!

Uriel’s blade slipped past Moloch’s defenses, biting into his shoulder. His sword arm fell limp by his side. “Little god!” she said, her eyes burning with divine wrath, “you twist the powers of creation, the fabric of reality. “ She swooped down again, and Moloch had to duck this attack. He was already moving as fast as time would allow, he couldn’t heal. “Your powers are limited but your Hungers. I have no Hungers.” Uriel’s next strike sliced a line in Moloch’s thigh. “You manipulate laws, but those laws were put in place by my Creator.” Another dive, and Moloch screamed in pain as the fingers on his left hand were severed. “You forget that I. Am. Those. Laws.” Uriel landed and ran Moloch through.

Moloch slumped forward on the halberd. Oh. You are, aren’t you? Uriel was panting from the effort.

She dropped the halberd as Moloch started laughing, sliding forward on the weapon that was impaled through his chest. “You…you’re laughing. You’re going to die, Moloch. You’ve lost. What on Earth is possibly fun-uphg.”

Moloch’s hand shot up to cover her face. “Because, Uriel. You are made of the Laws.” Uriel started to struggle against the grasp, but Moloch was already twisting reality as he did. “You are woven into the fabric of reality as firmly as gravity. As firmly as light. And as I am their master…so I am able to master you.”

Moloch removed his hand.Time’s normal flow resumed. Ryan’s lightning bolt struck the ground where Moloch had been standing, and Isabel melted into the form of a wolf. A quick twist to reality allowed Moloch’s wounds to heal.

Uriel stood there, staring at her hands, backing away from him and gasping. Repeatly. “What did…you do to me.”

Moloch smiled. “Welcome to mortality, Uriel. You’re a living, breathing creature now. And do you know that means you can do?” Moloch gestured, forming the air into spikes of titanium he shot to punch holes in Uriel’s thighs, arms, and wings. “Bleed.”

Uriel went down. Moloch wondered if she’d ever experienced pain before, or if this was an entirely new sensation. I should finish her off now. End this all for good. 

Moloch shook his head. Crystal wasn’t here. He’d waited for so very, very long for this moment. Don’t rush it. Savor every moment. Let Uriel witness. 

It’s almost over. 

Moloch turned towards Isabel and Ryan. “I do love killing siblings,” he said, grinning on the pair. “The way you scream when one dies gives me chill. So…who do I get to hear scream today?”

The Dragon’s Scion Part 42

The tentacle thrashed under Tythel, trying to throw her off. In this case, its size worked against it. If it had been smaller, thinner, more whip-like, she would have been tossed easily. As it was, she could see each movement the tentacle made and adjust her feet accordingly to stay onto the limb. It wasn’t easy, by any stretch of the imagination. She’d pictured herself leaping atop the tentacle and dashing across it to the central pod as easily as she’d leapt from rooftop to rooftop, but a few steps into it and she’d almost fallen off twice. Slow and steady, Tythel.

It helped that she’d sprouted talons when she’d landed on the tentacle. She didn’t risk glancing down to her feet again, but she knew what she’d see if she did. Her toes were longer and ended in curved claws. Those claws were her saving grace right now, able to find purchase in the tiny segments that gave the tentacle mobility. She advanced along the appendage with a slow deliberation. You are not going to kill them. We’re getting out of this flathing city.

At least, if nothing else, they are.

Soldiers began to pop their heads out of the top of the pod, unlight arcwands in hands. She pulled out her shield as they opened fire. The hiss of unlight beams on the barrier was just more white noise in the mix, and many of them missed. It’s almost funny. The tentacle thrashing is making me a harder target. She continued to plod onwards towards the central base, as the limb began to readjust. Someone inside had finally figured out that she couldn’t cling on if they got the tentacle completely vertical, and were moving the mass of the central pod over her to drop her off.

T ythel push forward as fast as she dared, the shield her only protection. As soon as she was close enough to risk it, and her footing was sure enough, Tythel pushed herself into a leap to land on top of the central pod.

The men who had poked out to start shooting at her were coming out, unlight blades drawn. Tythel swung down on one as he was coming out, and breathed a quick burst of fire at another.

Then she brought the hammer down on the central disk.

It rang out like a gong, cutting over the sounds of battle and that damned repeated announcement. The hammer, even with its own energy burst and Tythel behind it, was not strong enough to send the pod flying, and the impact reverberated up her arm. She could feel it in her bones, and tasted coppery blood from the force of her teeth being driven together.

She brought the hammer down again.

Again the clash of unlight hammer on Alohym metal. Again an impact that rose up her arm and travelled through her entire body. She could feel herself become nauseous for a moment, as if the reverberations were interfering with her balance. And again, when she pulled it away, the metal it had impacted showed no scratching, no dent.

It has to be more lightly armored, it has to be, Tythel told herself as she raised the hammer again. She brought the hammer down a third time with even more force behind it, putting her entire body into the swing to get every ounce of force she could. This time the sound had even more texture to it than a gong, as if the individual components of the pod were rattling. A soldier that had been trying to climb out past his fallen comrade stumbled back as the entire pod shook from the impact.

And yet, when she pulled the hammer away, the metal was unscathed.

Despair began to set in as she raised the hammer again. A tiny doubt rose up, a gnat buzzing around her thoughts. It didn’t have to be weaker. Perhaps these had been constructed when the Alohym warred against each other, armored for attacks from above. Perhaps it had weaker armor, but it was not weak enough. Or, more accurately, she was too weak.

No.

She pushed that fear aside. She would break this pod or it would break her. And I don’t break, she thought, bringing the hammer down again. I don’t break, she thought again, the hammer ringing against the steel hide of this unnatural creation of the Alohym. I. Don’t. Break. She brought the hammer down with everything she had. The soldiers inside the pods were staring at her in shock and confusion, but they were adjusting to the sound. They were grabbing their weapons to come out and meet her. Still she swung the hammer. Nothing else mattered. Not the soldiers that were taking aim, not the sounds of the pods footsteps as it tried to continue its assault . Nothing mattered besides swinging that hammer, over and over, faster and faster, to the point where instead of the phrase punctuating her swings individual words did.

I

CLANG

Don’t

CLANG

BREAK!

And with that last swing, she did not hear a clang. She heard the wrenching sound of metal tearing. A hissing sound, like lightning in a bottle, began to emerge from the point of impact.

She glanced back to the soldiers in time to see one of them fall. Eupheme was there with her. Tythel didn’t know how she’d got there, perhaps jumping out of one of the soldiers shadows, or perhaps-

“Your highness! Quit staring and finish this flathing thing! I’ve got this here.”

Tythel nodded, and turned back to where she had been hitting. A small tear had appeared in the armor, as long as her finger and about as wide. Tythel brought the hammer down on the tear again. You will break. It was wider this time. You will break. It was now almost as long as her hand. One more blow, and it was as wide as it was long, the hammer’s head punching through so firmly that Tythel lost her balance wrenching it out.

Her claws scrabbled on the surface for purchase. Vertigo set in, and she began to slide down the side of the pod. The ground was four stories away. She could see it, could see herself falling. She didn’t think she’d survive the fall.

Just before she passed the point of no return, her claw caught the lip of the hole she had created. She had her grip back, and whirled back towards the hole. Eupheme was locking down the soldiers, but was doing so with normal shoes. She’d lose her footing eventually, and the soldiers – still half inside the pod – didn’t have that concern.

Tythel took a deep breath, and shot her dragonflame directly into the gap she had created.

The change was almost immediate. Explosions began to rock the pod, flame exiting though the gaps where the legs met the sides. It also flooded back through the pod into the central chamber were the soldiers were.

The pod began to list to one side. Tythel reached out to grab Eupheme’s foot as Eupheme began to lose balance, and then they were falling with the pod, the ground rushing up to meet them.

Had they fallen straight the full distance, the impact still would have killed them. But the joints of the tentacles failed bit by bit as the pod collapsed, slowing their descent enough where the impact was jarring, but non-fatal.

Eupheme let out a single laugh as she started righting herself. “Wait till we tell Armin about this one. He’ll never believe us.”

Tythel couldn’t help but let out a laugh of her own. “They’re..”

“Safely out of the city. Come on, your highness, or we won’t join them.”

The dash through the gate was unimpeded, and together they dashed into freedom.

Strange Cosmology Part 94

Ryan had already been awake, and as such the first to get to Athena, although the others weren’t far behind. The alarm still rung in his ears, a low bell she’d made by slamming two masses of air together in the exact right way. “What’s wrong, what is it?” Ryan asked, wiping his eyes as he did.

She just pointed by way of answer. She’d moved the lenses while keeping her watch, and they now magnified part of the base of the Elysian Rest. Two men lay dead near the foundation, their bodies twisted and broken by the fall. Ryan couldn’t make out too many more details, except that it seemed that one of them had been decapitated. Ryan felt his stomach churn. “Are those…”

Athena nodded as the others approached. “Ares and Eros.” Ryan thought better of asking how she could tell from the corpses laying at the base of a tower from this distance. She sounded certain, and pressing her wouldn’t get them anywhere. “I didn’t see what happened, I’m not sure how long they’ve been dead.” Her fingers tightened into fists, and Ryan considered reaching over to comfort her. He glanced at Crystal, who shook her head, and Ryan agreed. “Moloch breached their defenses,” Athena said.

“Hold on now,” Ryan said, his tone gentle as possible. “We don’t know what happened. It could have been some kind of internal conflict or…” Ryan blinked a couple times, and Athena gave him a hard look. “Actually, that’s the only other thing I can think of.”

“If you’re trying to calm me,” Athena growled through clenched teeth, “I think you could have done worse. Somehow.”

“Athena, love, we don’t know what’s going on,” Crystal said, stepping in. “Maybe it’s already over. Maybe there’s nothing to worry about.”

“Look at this and tell me there’s nothing to worry about,” Athena said, stepping aside to give the other gods access.
Everyone took a moment to look through the lense while Athena’s knuckles grew whiter and whiter. “I do not think Moloch has breached their walls,” Dianmu finally said, looking squarely at Athena. “There would be more chaos if he had gotten even a single monster in.”

Athena sighed and seemed to relax some, although her shoulders were still rigid with tension. “Then the Olympians are tearing themselves apart from inside. We can’t wait any longer, we have to help them. Otherwise this was all for nothing!” she gestured expansively back at the labyrinth with the last sentence, as if to draw attention to how much they had gone through and were squandering.

The other gods looked at each other for a moment before Anansi spoke up. “Athena is correct. Our primary objective here was to see if the Olympians needed aid. Even if they need aid from each other, we should try to proffer it.” He smiled broadly, “Besides, I see no reason to make things easier for Moloch.”
“I hope some brilliant plan has formed for how we can do that, then,” Dianmu said with a scowl. At least it’s not a refusal, Ryan thought with relief. “The five of us barely took down some outriders and a single dragon. He has four dragons, a goat monster, and dozens more outriders. It doesn’t exactly inspire hope to know the odds have gotten work.”

Athena glowered at her, but Crystal stepped in. “She’s right, love. We go in half-cocked, we’re likely to do nothing to help the Olympians besides give Moloch some fresh corpses.”

“I have been thinking on this,” Anansi said, his voice slow and careful. “Although it assumes some things. Something Ryan said – what was it about the Lindworm and forms?”

Ryan had to frown for a minute to remember the line he’d said to Anansi as they were making camp. “Oh, yeah. I didn’t know Lindworms could pull a ‘this isn’t even my final form’ and go all one-winged angel on us.”

Anansi nodded, and Crystal grinned. Athena and Dianmu stared at them with perfectly mirrored expressions of confusion.

“It’s a reference to…you know what, it doesn’t matter,” Ryan said, not wanting to delve into the intricacies of video game and anime plots. “The point is, the Lindworm turned into something straight out of Dark Souls…” he saw even Crystal and Anansi’s forehead furrow and sighed. “Seriously, you all need to stay at least semi-up to date with pop culture. Something out of Lovecraft?” Confusion faded. “Great. My point is, if that’s not something Lindworms can normally do, how did that one manage it?”

“And you have an answer now, Ryan?” Dianmu asked, tilting her head.

“No, but I’m guessing he does,” Ryan said, pointing at Anansi.

“I do. Moloch has found a way to send his power into these monsters, give them a portion of divine power. Likely from human sacrifice, given how much he favors it.”

Crystal nodded. “I’ve never known Moloch to touch his nanoverse for power when dead humans could do the trick.”

“I feel the need to point out you were okay with us allying with him,” Ryan muttered.

Crystal rolled her eyes. “Well, love, we didn’t exactly have a dearth of applicants. We needed help.”

“Yes you did,” Anansi said, “but the point, if I may?”

No one objected, and Anansi continued, “It all comes back to Moloch. He is empowering the monsters. He is commanded them. He commands the Helhests. If he’s sufficiently distracted…well, he’s still only one person. We just need to get through to him. If we sneak-“

Dianmu interrupted him. “And if we’re caught, Anansi, what then? We need some way to sneak past an entire army! What on Earth could give us the chance to do that. We’d need one hell of a distraction. No, spider, we need an army”

Ryan was looking back into the fortress, frowning. “An army…” he muttered.

Athena followed his gaze, then glanced over at Ryan. “What are you thinking?”

“Hey,” Ryan said, loud enough to interrupt the growing argument. “What allows Moloch to command monsters? I mean, every one we’ve fought seems pretty intractable to me.”

“You have to be the one that created them, love, otherwise they’re going to run rampant.” Crystal joined Ryan in frowning.

“So…without a god to control them, monsters will just attack the nearest god?”

“Hah!” Dianmu barked a humorless laugh. “No, they’ll attack the nearest thing. God, mortal, machine – lacking one of those, they’ll even turn on each other.”

“So we give them a target,” Ryan said, his voice growing in excitement. “We give them something to chase, lead them into Moloch’s army, and let them run rampant! Hey Resheph, how good are you with drones now?”
Resheph’s response took a couple moments. “I can fly them pretty well. These voice controls are a bugger and a half, though.”

Which explained why he’s been so silent, Ryan thought, his frown turning into a smile.

“Lead who, Ryan?” Dianmu asked, her voice finally softening. “What are you thinking? We don’t have monsters, or an army.”

Ryan shook his head. “No, we don’t.” He raised one hand to point down the great broken doors than lead back into the Labyrinth. “But we know where to find a whole hell of a ton of them, don’t we?”

The other gods stared at him, then at each other. The silence was broken by Anansi, who started to chuckle. “Yes, we do.”

“You do know ‘just crazy enough to work’ isn’t meant as advice, right?” Dianmu asked, but she was tapping her chin as she did. Less denial, more concern.

“Well, my last plan involved a nuclear bomb, so really, this is a step up in sanity for me.” Ryan looked around. “Anyone have a better plan?”

No one spoke up. Athena looked positively eager. “From the outside…the walls should be vulnerable from the outside,” she said, nodding her head excitedly. “We never imagined someone would try to break in, only through or out.”
“Great,” Ryan said. “Let’s crack this thing wide open. If it works, we’ll finally get to talk with Moloch. If it doesn’t, well, it’s not like things were going well before.”

Crystal shook her head. “We really need to work on your inspirational speeches, love.”

They were past the point where speeches mattered. The die was cast. They set out to unleash the monsters of the Labyrinth.

And let’s hope this isn’t as crazy an idea as it seems, Ryan thought as he began to walk the wall, looking for where he’d begin his part in the destruction.

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 39

Tythel remembered little of the flight through the city. Just glimpses, snatches that flitted in and out of memory like butterflies punctuated by a spinning sensation and darkness. Nicandros pulling her into an ally and her trying to object until he clamped a hand over her mouth and they crouched behind a barrel as an imperipods stalked past. In the daylight, when she wasn’t fighting them, Tythel expected them to look less menacing. The reality was they seemed worth, giants of metal and unlight that stalked down streets barely wide enough to accommodate them, small tendrils on the sides with sensors sweeping back and forth.

“Stay down, girl,” Nicandros had muttered, and Tythel realized she was trying to rise. Part of her saw these things and wanted to fight them, wanted to overpower them for what they’d done to her and her friends. She was snarling, a deep sound in her throat that put Tythel in mind of the noise Karjon had used to spook lions when they wandered too close to his lair. Something primal in her was responding to these things as her foes, and she was struggling against Nicandros.

He held her, and it was a measure of how weak Tythel was that her struggles were about as effective as a kitten. The world started to spin again, and went dark.

Her vision spun back up. She was in an alley, but it was a different one. Tythel was certain this one was different because they could not see the street, and the bricks above her head were a darker shade of brown, and enough time had passed for Eupheme to get her hands coated in a layer of blood. Eupheme was trying to stop someone from bleeding, although Tythel couldn’t process who it was.

“I can’t cauterize her, Nicandros!” Eupheme was hissing. “How many flathing times do I have to tell you that? She doesn’t burn.

“Then sew her up,” Nicandros growled.

“Ossman is the one who’s been studying how to do that, not me. I’m an assassin, not a surgeon. And before you ask – no, we’re not waking Ossman up. That’s just a good way to lose them both!”

They’re talking about me. They think I’m dying. That thought struck Tythel as hilarious, and to show her appreciation for the humor she coughed up blood.

Armin responded before either of them could, rushing over to kneel by her head. His hair was messy and had some blood in it as well, and Tythel reached up to touch his face.

“You fell off a building.” She said.

“That was yesterday, your highness,” Armin said with a smile that didn’t reach his eyes. It was a sad smile. “I got better. Now it’s your turn.”

“But I can’t,” she murmured, the world starting to spin again, “I lost my egg.”

Armin shared a concerned look with Eupheme, but the world began to grow dark again, and she was falling, falling back down into the darkness. “Tythel!” Nicandros said. Or at least, she thought it was Nicandros. It came from so very far away. Or maybe it wasn’t his voice, maybe it was Karjon. Maybe he was waiting for at the bottom of this fall and was calling her name. Was he beckon her or warning her away?

She rose out of the darkness again. She was not in an alley. At least, it wasn’t like any alley Tythel had ever seen, but the ones she’d seen in between snippets of darkness were the only alleys she’d ever really seen, so maybe it was normal for alleys to have shelves and tables.

“I don’t care about the Lum. I’m a mage, I can provide the flathing Lum. But will it work?” Armin was shouting, and Tythel wanted to admonish him because there were imperipods nearby only seconds ago, but then Ossman lumbered into view and seemed fine so maybe it had been longer. How long had she been down in the darkness?

Ossman fell onto the table next to Tythel, and she realized he wasn’t lumbering, but being carried by Nicandros and Eupheme. If Ossman is still hurt, stop shouting, Armin. There are imperipods nearby! She tried to shout all that, but what came out was wordless mumble.

“You don’t understand, mage,” said another voice, one Tythel didn’t recognize. It was old and hoarse, like sandpaper being rubbed along a beach. “Her blood is poisoned. She should be dead – I don’t understand why she is not. I can give you the curative, and you’ll have to power it, but I can promise nothing.

“I’ll take it,” Armin said.

But at what cost? Tythel thought. From what she was hearing, it sounded like Armin would be paying in gold the resistance could ill afford, and she saw Karjon’s horde again, large and glittering. How many problems could my father’s tomb solve? But that wasn’t right, it wasn’t his tomb. He’d died below and she’d given him the best grave she could. She reached out with one hand, blinding groping for someone. She found Nicandros’ sleeve and tugged it.

“Don’t exert yourself,” he growled, leaning down to hear what she was trying to say. “You need to rest. Get better.”

I killed your son. You should be pushing me into the Shadow. The words didn’t come out of her lips, although she wanted to say them. Instead, what she managed to get out was a simple request, “Bury me in the valley.”

Nicandros tried to shake her hand away, glowering at her with a fury so great she wondered if she had told him the truth about Thomah. “Don’t you talk like that. You’re not going to flathing die, you hear me?”

“NIc. Please. Promise. Bury me,” and she felt tears spring to her eyes. She was so weak her nictitating membranes could only sluggishly clear the tears, but her grip on Nicandros’ sleeve was as hard as iron. “in the valley. Under the mountain. With my father.”

“Alright.” Nicandros finally managed to free his sleeve with a yank. “Alright. But you’re going to be fine. Now stop with this flathing ‘bury me’ nonsense.”

Satisfied, Tythel slipped back into the light touch of the Shadow, the gentle caress of darkness that seemed to beckon her deeper, to fully accept the Shadow’s embrace.

When she finally rolled out of that comfort, they were in a building. From the dirt walls, Tythel though it might be a basement. Armin was sitting in a chair next to her, clutching something in his hands that glowed like a small sun. There was a cord connecting that device to thinner cables, and those thinner cables were inside of Tythel’s wounds. Light travelled along the cords, not the gross unlight of the Alohym, but the warm pale glow of the rising sun. Or setting. It’s always prettiest just before it goes out. That seemed profound to Tythel, although part of her suspected she’d feel otherwise if she survived.

“Where’s Eupheme?” growled a voice, and it wasn’t Nicandros. It was Ossman. Ossman was up and walking, and he looked better, although still not good. He was covered in bandages, and reminded Tythel of the mummified Princes of Phaenidia. Except he isn’t the one that’s cursed. I have a curse in my blood.

“She’ll be back,” Nicandros said, glancing at a hearth in the side of the wall. It’s like he expects Eupheme to burst out of there at any moment, Tythel thought, and then recalled the way Eupheme had rolled under a table and come out behind a man. Oh. He probably does.

“I don’t like it,” Ossman objected, and Tythel was glad he was feeling well enough to be stubborn. “The entire city is looking for us, Nicandros! If they find her-“

“-she’ll escape, especially if she doesn’t have to worry about saving us,” Nicandros responded. “She’s twice as capable of any of you lot.”

“And what about you?” Ossman asked, his chin jutting out defiantly.

“Doing this? Still better that I would be.”

“Both of you shut up,” Armin said from beside her, his voice flat. Tythel looked at him and saw his skin was turning gray around the edges, a streak of white forming in his hair. “I need to concentrate, and I’m not interested in listening you two repeat the same flathing argument.”

No, Armin, don’t waste away for my sake! Tythel tried to say, but she couldn’t form the words.

Eupheme chose that moment to step out of the hearth. One of her arms was bleeding. Tythel could smell it was a fresh wound. “They’re about a league out of the city,” she said, brushing away Nicandros’ concern with a wave of her hand. “If we can get out, if we can get to them, they’ll be able to take us the rest of the way.”

Nicandros nodded. “So Haradeth and Lorathor survived? Both of them?” He asked Eupheme.

“I don’t know about Lorathor. Haradeth and him got separated.” Ossman got up and lumbered over to Eupheme, who offered him her arm for bandaging. “But Haradeth is fine, and he-“

“They.” Ossman interrupted. “you said they.”

“He made some new friends. They’re going to help us.” Eupheme glanced at Tythel and sighed. “At least, they’re going to help her. Some old oath.”

No one owes me any oaths. Tythel thought, and she tried to shift, but found Armin’s hand on her chest, right under her neck. Either he was far stronger than he looked or she was even weaker than she felt. “I swear to the light, your Highness,” Armin growled, “If you undo all my hard work, I’ll personally follow you to the Shadow.”

Tythel blinked at him. “You look like you’re going to anyway,” she croaked.

“What, me? I’m fine. Just pulling power from an unfamiliar lumwell. Nothing to worry about at all.”

You’re lying, Tythel thought, but that was enough, that was more than enough. The effort of moving that much had her spinning back down into the shadows embrace. Maybe I should just go all the way down.

But this time there was a light in the darkness. She clung to it as tightly as she could, hoping against hope it would be enough.

She didn’t come fully to her senses for another three days.

Strange Cosmology part 93

The megaron of the Elysian Rest, the great hall of the gods, was perhaps the most lavishly decorated place in the entire complex. Artemis watched as the gods wound among the ornately sculpted columns, some of Hephestus’ finest work, every little detail showing off some victory of the gods throughout history. Dionysus was leaning drunkenly against one that showed the last battle against the Titans, when Zeus had sealed Chronus within the depths of Tartarus with the help of Heracles and Athena – although someone had come along and scratched Athena’s face out. Probably Hera, Artemis thought with a sigh.

Hera, for her part, was standing next to the throne that should have held Zeus. On the left, as opposed to her usual spot on the right hand side.

On the right hand side stood Thalassa. Artemis was keeping a careful eye on her, that was much certain. Thalassa had predated the Olympians, the consort of the deity Pontos that had been worshipped before even the Titanomachy. She’d later married Poseidon, and fought alongside the Olympians against the Titans, but Artemis didn’t trust the woman. She’d turned sides once before to save her hide, she’d do it again.

She was your friend, Artemis! Are you suspecting everyone now?

The problem was, all these people were her friends. Heracles was laughing at some joke with Demeter, and from the expression on the goddess’ face she’d only found it a tenth as funny as the boisterous son of Zeus. Angelia sat against a pillar near the back of the room, nervously rumpling her toga in her hands. With Hermes still awaiting resurrection, Angelia had confided in Artemis that she feared she’d be called to fulfill her duties as a messenger, and was terrified she’d be sent out to be torn apart by Moloch and his monsters. So on and so forth, people who were Artemis’ friends, her family. None of them could have betrayed them!

And yet, some of them were planning to do exactly that. The only ones alive Artemis could be certain of were Hera, who was already exposed as a different kind of traitor, and Athena, who was outside the wall and likely still recovering from yesterday’s battle.

“You seem tense, sister,” said a voice behind her, causing Artemis to jump. She whirled around and almost smacked Apollo across the face.

“Where have you been?” she hissed. “I was looking for you and-“

“And I was enjoying Aphrodite’s company,” Apollo said with a mild shrug. “Or she was enjoying mine. It was a mutual enjoyment.”

Artemis sighed. “Apollo, there’s things going on. Where is she, anyway? And don’t cut me any crap about tiring her out, I’m not in the mood. I know how divine stamina works, and you haven’t been burning power.”

“So says the universe’s oldest virgin.” Apollo laughed. “I don’t know where she is, Artemis. I am not my lover’s keeper. “

Artemis snorted and rolled her eyes. At least Aphrodite won’t throw themselves off a cliff. “Well, I’m glad you’re here. I’m not sure who I can trust anymore. And I was worried that…” Artemis bit her lip. This entire time, she’d not let the idea cross her mind that she’d be finding her brother’s body, broken or beheaded or speared like Zeus’. Now that she was here with him, she basked in the relief .“I’m just glad you’re alright.”

Apollo laughed. “Artemis, what in all the chthonic realms has gotten into you? Honestly.”

“We’ll be hearing more soon, Apollo. Once everyone gets here. But short version – Ares, Eos, and Zeus are all dead. Hera nearly killed Poseidon and me. People are talking about selling us out to Moloch to save their own hides!”

Apollo’s joking demeanor vanished with every word. “Ares is dead?” he whispered, “and the others? I mean…even Zeus?”

“Yes. So glad something finally got through to you.” Artemis rolled her eyes. “Do you need a moment to catch up?”

Her response was a frown as Apollo mouthed through what she had said. It’s not that he’s dumb, Artemis thought was a smile. Apollo had spent much of his time with his head in the clouds, and had the attention span of  gnat. He’d remember in just-

Hera tried to kill you?” Apollo hissed, casting a venomous look at the woman beside the dais. “I swear by all the-“

“-That you’ll do nothing,” Artemis responded firmly. “Apollo. There’s enough going on. We have to think about this carefully. Now is not the time to further our divisions. Nanoverses are intact. No one has committed the ultimate act. Hera wasn’t going to. Calm your temper.”

Apollo took a few deep breaths and did seem to get himself under control, just in time for Posideon to step up to the throne. A hush fell over the megaron as he did. Zeus belongs there, the hush seemed to say. That is Zeus’s place, Zeus’ throne, the silence muttered. Why is his brother there? What is going on?

“No,” Poseidon said in whisper that carried through the silence so all could hear it, “this is not my throne.” He whirled to face the crowd. “Fellow Olympians, I come bearing grave tidings!” Poseidon gestured, and the massive hearth that dominated the center of the room burst into flames. “Zeus has fallen.”

The silence that seemed to generate its own whispers now was filled with true murmurs. Zeus hadn’t died in millennia. For most of the gods here, they had never seen him die, or even heard of it happening in their lifetimes. The idea of him dying was abhorrent, it was unthinkable. Poseidon held up his hand for calm, and for a moment a line from Shakespeare crossed Artemis’ mind.

I’ve come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.

Artemis blinked as the crowd calmed itself and Poseidon continued. “It’s to Artemis we owe the discovery of the truth behind this murder, and it’s to Hera we owe the blame for it.” This provoked another mutter in the crowd. Everyone had known their marriage was acrimonious – it was practically their defining trait – but the idea it had escalated to murder was unthinkable. Artemis caught a few glances and frowned. No, I’m not the other woman, she wanted to say, but knew that denial right now would only strengthen those rumors. “As such,” Poseidon continued, quieting the crowd before he repeated as such, “As such, we have some votes to consider. All such votes will, of course, only be made permanent after the dead have been resurrected so that all voices can be heard. First of all, I am calling for Hera to be removed from her position, stripped of all rank, and for her vote to be removed until the present crisis is over!”

This caused an uproar, an outright shouting match of the gods. On the one hand, removing Hera’s ability to vote was unheard of. Rank and status, that was expected. But her vote? That was unimaginable. On the other hand…Artemis scanned the crowd. Heracles, who Hera had tried to kill when he was a mortal. Dionysus, whom she had killed once for getting Zeus drunk and encouraging him into an escapade. Aphrodite, who had finally arrived, and whom had been Hera’s oldest rival. Hera had been as likable as a hungry crocodile, as warm as a marble statue, and as welcoming as a mother bear standing over her cubs. She’d made enemies all the time, relying on her status to keep her untouchable. And now?

Now she’d gone too far.

The vote carried quickly. A few holdouts existed – Apollo was one of them – but for the most part it was uncontested. Hera practically fled the dais.

“Now,” Poseidon said, another hand raised. “There is a question. Without a vote, we’ve also lost a veto.” This, at least, settled the crowd down.  Of course Poseidon would call for a vote to pass it to Thalassa. His wife would hold the second veto.

“To hold that second veto, to keep us honest through this difficult time, I propose Artemis.”

If the earlier vote had caused an uproar, this one was bedlam. Not because she was a controversial choice- Artemis was beloved by no one but hated by few – but because of how unexpected it was.

Artemis wasn’t watching the crowd, though. She was watching Poseidon, who was smiling at her. And Thalassa, who was smiling beside him.

You played me. Her eyes widened. Now that she had the veto, any move she made would look like a grab for power. Like she was taking advantage of Zeus’ death. Having one of the three vetoes meant that she’d have more theoretical power than any other god save Poseidon, and it also meant she’d be even more powerless than before.

And if she turned it down, it would cause chaos.

“I accept the nomination,” Artemis said when silence fell, and approached the dais, her stomach sinking with every step.

“Thank you, Artemis, for your service. And now!” Poseidon bellowed. “Now comes the most important issue of all, one that calls for debate because it is not a mere choice. What to do about Moloch?”

If the last vote was a bedlam, this one was a cataclysm.

And, Artemis thought with growing dread, there’s no guarantee it will be over in time to help Athena and the others.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 38

At least one of the soldiers was smart enough to fire below the shield that Tythel held up as she charged, an arcwand blast slicing along her upper thigh as she charged. She stumbled with the blast, and in the stumble almost dropped the shield. It slipped down, and several beams cut over her head by mere finger-lengths.

Then she was in the middle of them, slamming into one of the soldiers with the shield with every iota of force her dragonic muscles could manage. He went flying back and up from the blow as Tythel struck him, and she saw his head impact one of the beams on the roof. He hit the ground like a marionette with its strings cut, the boneless slump of the dead.

Then Tythel activated her unlight hammer, as soldiers around her switched from arcwands to swords. The air dimmed from the concentration of unlight like dusk had fallen around them, and the pain in Tythel’s leg increased as if responding to the presence of unlight somehow. She did her best to push it aside. It was time to find out how well Nicandros’ lessons had paid off.

If she’d learned poorly, she would die here.

The first soldier to move in came at her with a careful thrust, one that Tythel was able to easily bat aside with her shield, but another took advantage of the shift of her defenses to come in with a slash aimed at her back. She tried to whirl away from it, but it still dealt her a glancing blow. The pain was as intense as she remembered from being shot that first day  with Karjon, so long ago. She stumbled forward as the wound shrieked at her, grunting in pain as she did.

She had been paying attention to Nicandros’ lessons, though. She turned the stumble into a roll, passing through the soldiers immediately around her. Next time, don’t charge into the center of the enemies, Tythel, she chided herself, again pushing the pain aside as she sprung to her feet and swung the hammer in a wide arc as she pivoted to face her attackers. She managed to brush it against one of them, triggering the flash of unlight that this hammer had given off when Thomah had struck her with it.

That glancing blow was enough to launch her assailant backwards. Tythel was vaguely aware of an arcwand beam coming from the stairwell to puncture his sternum, turning his flight into a limp death-roll. Armin. Tythel should have known he wouldn’t stand there and do nothing.

She could feel blood running down her back from that first slash. Time was now even more against her than it had been.

Two soldiers charged at her from the left, two more from the right. Tythel blindly thrust the shield towards the two at her left to drive the back, meeting their charge with her own slam. Instead of following that push up to try to finish them off, she whirled back towards the two on the right, bringing her hammer around in a wild swing. It hit one of the soldiers squarely in the side, sending her careening into a wall. The direct hit combined with the unlight hammer’s flare of power and Tythel’s own considerable strength meant he punched through the wall when he hit it. Sunlight began to flood in, as people on the street started to scream and run. Oh, flath, Tythel thought with a bitter anger.

That meant there would be more coming. Once again, Time turned on them.

To make matters worse, the other soldier on that side had parried her hammer swing. The unlight of their weapons met, and sparks of darkness erupted from where they pressed against each other. In theory, Tythel should be able to press the attack down. She was far stronger than any normal man. In reality, he waited for her to apply the pressure and then angled the blade, causing her hammer to go up and wide, leaving her open to an attack.

This soldier, the one with a scar over his left eye, following up his deflection with a quick cut in towards her side. His blow was strong enough to cut through her dragon scale skin and score itself along her ribs. Had it not been for how tough her skin was, Tythel was certain she would have died there. As it was, she roared in pain from the injury.

The two on her left were not giving time for her to recover from that blow, coming in as one. In a desperate fit, Tythel hurled her shield at them, a blow she followed up with a left handed lob of dragonflame. She heard them shriek in pain and terror, and for a moment was distracted remembering the first time she’d killed a soldier with dragonflame, roasting Thomah alive in his armor. How can you look Nicandros in the face?

Part of her knew that it was blood loss making her distractible, and that she should be more concerned about that than anything else. Scar-eye was back, and was her only remaining assailant. He cut down against her arm, and his sword bit into Tythel’s flesh. Dragon scales again saved her from amputation, but not from her hammer slipping out of suddenly numb digits to clatter to the floor.

Tythel joined the hammer on the floor as pain drove her down. Scar eye let out a triumphant howl and lunged down at her, trying to drive the blade through her neck.

Time seemed to slow down, and once again Tythel was convinced she was going to die. Only one hope remained. Tythel took a deep breath and forced out a gout of flame. It came with a scream she only half-realized she was making, the sensation of dragonflame pushing past her still healing throat being an agony to add onto her three new unlight-sword wounds.

The dragonflame met the point of the sword halfway towards her throat, much like Karjon’s flame had met the great unlight beams of the Alohym ship. And like then, the flame and unlight didn’t interact like they should have. Fire had no force, no mass. Even dragonflame was just light and heat.

But when it met scar-eye’s blade mid air, his sword stopped, like he was pushing against a physical thing. His good eye widened in shock as the two forces met. In truth, Tythel knew she should have won nothing. The blade should have cut down to push its way into her face.

However, when dragonflame met unlight blade and stopped, the dragonflame had to go somewhere. It did by spilling to the sides in a cone, engulfing scar-eye’s arm, chest, and head.

By the time Tythel’s eyes cleared from the flash, he was a half-charred remain of his former self.

That gave Tythel a chance to look around. Several spots in the room were on fire, and not all of them were because of her. Eupheme was bleeding from dozens of cuts, all of them smaller than the ones on Tythel, but their cumulative effect was slowing her down. She was rolling away from a soldier, under one of the tables in the room.

Tythel began to move to help her, but the moment Eupheme vanished under the table, she appeared from the soldier’s shadow, spinning a slice to cut both of his hamstrings. He barely had time to scream as he hit the ground before Eupheme’s dagger was buried in his throat. Her remaining attacker was finished off from an arcwand blast from Armin, who had come further up the stairs to lean against the wall.

The corner of Tythel’s eye caught Nicandros, who had been disarmed by his attackers, three of whom remained. Tythel could see his unlight sword laying uselessly on the floor, kicked too far away to be of any use. Without a moment’s hesitation, he punched one of his assailants in the elbow, causing the soldier to drop his own sword. As it fell, Nicandros reached down, plucking it out of the air. He gave it a quick spin before ramming it into the soldier’s chest. Armin took aim at one of his other attackers, and Tythel used what felt like the last of her strength to hurl dragonfire at the remaining one.

She used the injured hand to throw the dragonfire out of instinct. The pain was intense, enough to cause her vision to flicker with shadow for a moment and drive her back to her knee.

It did the job, however. Nicandros’ remaining two attackers were down.

“See,” Eupheme panted as she rose from the floor, “seven each.”

“Hardly,” Armin said with a pained jeer. “I took down four myself.”

“You assisted,” Eupheme countered with a shrug, already heading over to Tythel. “Your highness, you’re badly injured.”

“You don’t look too well either, Eupheme.” Tythel glanced towards the hole in the wall. Crowds were still trying to run away from the battle. Their chaos was delaying the soldiers from arriving, and Tythel made a mental note to remember panic could be used that way. For now, however, she took Eupheme’s proffered hand. “We should go.”

Armin took Ossman’s arm over his shoulder again. Tythel did her best to use her shirt to staunch the blood flow form the worst of her injures on her arm, knowing she’d need to treat it soon before she passed out.

With Nicandros and Eupheme flanking for her, as ready for her to keel over from her injuries as she was, they pushed out through the hole Tythel had created to try and lose themselves in the city beyond.

Strange Cosmology Part 92

Poseidon slumped to the floor as Hera removed the complex elemental bonds she’d wrapped around him. His skin was seared where the burning stone had touched it, filling the air with a smell that put Artemis in mind of burned pork. Her stomach churned at the thought. “He’ll live,” Hera said with a dismissive wave of her hand.

If Artemis didn’t have so many questions, she would have loosed the arrow for that comment alone. “You were willing to subject him to that pain. You killed your husband. Why?”

Hera took a slow, deep breath. “You don’t understand, Artemis. You just can’t. You’re responsible for you, yourself, and no one else. You never wanted greater duty.”

“Your explanation starts with you telling me why I won’t understand it.” Artemis narrowed her eyes. “You’re not off to the best start.”

“Fine,” Hera nearly spat with the word, her face contorting into a scowl. “I did it to save us. My husband was growing tired of our siege. He believe that we should lower the defenses. Meet Moloch in honorable combat.” Hera let out a desperate, pained laugh, “As if Moloch would know the meaning of the word!”

Poseidon was riding to his feet, and while he was still gravely injured, Artemis felt some comfort in knowing she wouldn’t be facing off against Hera alone if this turned into a fight. “You killed Zeus for trying to do exactly what I was going to do?” A realization swept over Artemis, and the arrowhead wavered for a moment. “You were going to kill me, weren’t you?”

“Once you had killed Poseidon. Artemis, I promise you, it would not have been a permanent death. I would never have – could never have -”

“My Queen, I have no idea what you’re capable of anymore.” Artemis scowled at Hera. “So you frame Poseidon for murdering Zeus, me for murdering Poseidon – and Ares, I presume?”

“Of course. You snapped when Ares killed Eros. All of Olympus knows how you long for him, Artemis.”

Artemis wasn’t sure if she should laugh or scream. “That old rumor? Still? After all…if I…” Artemis settled on making a half strangled sound. “And you believe the others would have fallen for this?

“I had to improvise. Several steps got changed when Ares killed Eros.” Hera sighed a deep, weary sound that provoked no sympathy from Artemis, who was watching in her peripheral vision as Poseidon struggled into his chair with a gasp of pain. “I had no idea Ares had betrayed us. Had I known…”

“You would have what, Hera? What would you have done differently?”

“If I’m being honest, I would have sent someone who wasn’t in my camp. Apollo, most likely. One of them would have killed the other, and then things could have gone from there.”

Artemis wanted to be sick. It would have worked, the whole thing. That’s what she didn’t want to admit. Everyone believed that stupid rumor about her and Eros, and a god flying into a rage over a death that would be temporary was hardly unheard of, followed by finding Zeus’ body in a grief-filled state and then tracing it back to Poseidon…”It would have fallen apart the moment we resurrected, Hera. You know that, don’t you?”

“Of course I do. I’m not stupid.” Hera sneered. “It didn’t need to. Just long enough for Moloch to get what he really wanted. Then he would have left us alone.”

Artemis’ heart started pounding. “What does he want, Hera? What did he tell you?”

Hera chuckled like Artemis had just invented the very concept for bad jokes. “He didn’t need to tell me, archer. Isn’t it obvious? He comes here and throws his monsters against our defenses, but never attempts to undo them himself. Just throwing monsters and twisted humans at us, over and over again. He doesn’t want us, he wanted them.

“Them?” Artemis blinked. “Athena and her new pantheon?”

Hera nodded eagerly. “Don’t you see? If he truly was after us, he would have tried much harder to crush our defenses. He would have directed his own power against us, he would have had his monsters come as a mass, any number of things. But instead he sat there and he toyed with us like the cat that’s caught the mouse. We weren’t the target, we were the bait!”

Artemis lowered the bow, although she kept a wary arrow nocked. Hera wouldn’t move now, though, Artemis was sure of that. Poseidon was regaining his full sensibility, and while Hera could overpower Artemis, Poseidon was another matter, and they also had the numeric advantage. “Hera…you were so sure of this, you were willing to kill your husband to keep us safe?”

Hera’s nod this time was slow and steady. “It all makes sense, doesn’t it? But Zeus wouldn’t listen, so I had to eliminate my opponents before it ended up spilling out. Before we found ourselves with a civil war within these walls. Don’t you see that-”

“Hera, Ishtar is out there,” Artemis said, her voice quiet. Barely enough for Hera to hear, but more than enough to get her to stop talking.

“I know that,” Hera said with a bluster-laden shake of her head. “What is your point? She’s one of the one’s he’s here for, so it doesn’t matter.”

“Ishtar, who claims to be a million years old and has other beings from beyond the stars backing that claim up. Did it even cross your mind that Moloch wanted to kill Ishtar to get the monster that he could make out of her death? It would be…”

“…immense,” Hera finished, her bluster and bombast stripped away and fixed with sick terror and bone-deep disgust. “Enough to even shatter their way through our defenses.”

“You betrayed us without enough information, Hera. You’re scared, aren’t you?”

Hera gave a small, miserable nod. “I’ve seen what those soldiers can do as payback. You all saw what they did to poor Hermes. The defenses are the only things keeping us safe now.”

Artemis shook her head. “My Queen…you have proven yourself to be unfit to rule. As the ranking war deity, I am relieving you of your command.

Hera scoffed. “You think so, do you?” she sneered. “This hardly meets the requirements of that law. I would need to be seriously injured or dead for you t-”

Hera’s words were cut off as Artemis’ arrow slammed into the wall, inches from her head. A few strands of Hera’s hair fluttered down, trimmed by the arrow’s passing. “You have proven yourself to be unfit to rule. As the ranking war deity, I am relieving you of your command. Poseidon, will you be my witness?”

The oceanic deity was still too injured to speak, but he nodded his approval.

“Wonderful.” She stepped forward to clap Hera’s hands in shackles that would even hold a goddess. “Poseidon, I’m gambling on you. There’s a traitor, at least one, probably more within Elysian Rest. If we don’t find out who they are and then sally forth….?

“They’ll stab us in the back,” Poseidon managed with his ruined voice. “Why do they serve Moloch?”

Artemis gave him a brief summation of what had happened, starting with what she saw while watching and ending with their arrival into Poseidon’s room.”

Poseidon nodded. “Gather the others. Gather the gods in the Great Hall. We have much to discuss.”

Artemis headed out to do exactly to that, silently praying she was not leading her fellow Olympians into a trap as she did.

I promise you, Poseidon, if you’re Moloch’s servitor, you won’t survive your betrayal.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 37

With both sets of keys from the two dead guards, it did not take long to open the cells. Nicandros opened the door to Eupheme’s cell, who was sitting the in middle of it with her legs cross in a lotus. “Oh, thank you for saving me the trouble,” she said, rising in a fluid motion. “I hadn’t worked out how to escape quite yet.”

Nicandros let out a sound somewhat like a chuckle. “Eupheme, drop the bravado. We’re getting out of here. That’s what matters.”

As Tythel fumbled with the keys, she could hear Eupheme sigh as she rose to her feet, brushing off her clothes that Tythel knew would be nowhere near as dirty as Tythel had gotten digging a tunnel between two cells. “Still. It should have been my job to escape.”

“Doesn’t matter who did,” Nicandros responded, “Just that we’re out.”

“True.” Then under her breath, so quietly Tythel wondered if Nicandros could even hear her at all Eupheme muttered, “of course, I would have been just a bit quieter about it.

Tythel heard all this, but was distracted by opening Armin’s cell. He was lying in the hay. One of his eye was covered by a massive bruise, and similar contusions and lacerations covered his arms. “Light! Armin, are you alright?”

He looked up at her and gave her a lopsided frown, “Tythel. This is all wrong. It’s all so wrong.” He sounded so deadly serious that Tythel stopped dead in her tracks, looking at him with growing concern.

“What’s wrong, Armin?”

“The hero is supposed to save the princess. The princess doesn’t save the hero! No, leave the keys, go back to your cell, and I’ll come save you. It’s my duty as a hero.” The frown turned into a grin he couldn’t hide.

At least anyone can read Armin’s grins. He always grins because he’s being too damn clever for his own good, Tythel thought with no small amount of amusement as she snorted and rolled her eyes. “I was worried about you, moron. Come on. They’ll be down here with reinforcements soon. Or did you not hear the great flathing crash when we escaped.”

“Absolutely,” Armin said, rising as he did. “Escape should be our number one priority. Especially seeing as you are simply encased in filth, your highness. Completely unbecoming of a lady of your status.”

Suppressing a grin of her own, she headed to Ossman’s cell, saying a silent prayer to the Light that he had been healed.

The Light, fickle as always, chose not to answer her prayer. Ossman was still battered and badly injured. His breathing seemed more steady – he no longer looked like he was lurking on the Shadow’s Threshold – but he was in no state to run or fight. “Your highness,” he wheezed, slowly rising to his feet. “I fear I am not yet fit for duty.”

Tythel’s nictitating membranes flashed back tears at seeing his pain. Yet another reason I need to master Heartfire. At least then I could have healed him. “Ossman. Can you even walk?”

“Slowly” he said, his word beling the pain even speech put him though.

Armin slid past Tythel to offer Ossman a shoulder for support. “Your highness, I’m useless without an arcwand. Let me worry about Ossman, you three worry about me. Sound good?”

Tythel gave him a quick nod and turned. Nicandros was unlocking the safe behind the guard’s desk. “Get over here, everyone, grab your stuff. Move as fast as you can.”

It wasn’t a great surprise that her pack wasn’t in there, although it tore Tythel’s heart to realize her last great hope for the pack’s return was now dashed. Her hammer and shield, however, were in there, and she pulled them out greedily, moving her wrists to activate both. Nicandros’ sword and his special little devices were in there, as was Eupheme’s daggers and the cloak she’d worn to the fight. Tythel couldn’t figure out why that last piece had been put in with the weapons, but it didn’t matter. Ossman’s Axe was present, although not his armor, nor was Armin’s arcwand.

Still, it was something, which was good. Tythel heard footsteps approaching. “Behind me, everyone!” she shouted, running to the door and extending her shield to meet the first wave of attackers. Crouched down like this, the shield could perfectly cover their forms from any array of arcwand fire.

Which was needed. As soon as the three guards that burst in saw them, they opened fire, bolts of red arcfire and light-draining unlight splashing against the shield. The sound was filling the hallway with echos of weapons. They don’t need to kill us, Tythel realized. We’re pinned down. They just need to hold us until help arrives.

Just as she was getting ready to risk throwing dragonfire over the shield to try and give them an opening, Eupheme – who Tythel was certain had been behind her only a moment ago – stepped out of the doorway behind the guards. She shoved a dagger into the necks of the two on either side, and the third whirled to face this new threat – exposing his back to Nicandros’ hurled sword.

Tythel thought about Eupheme. She’d barely seen her in the fight against the Imperipods, and the way she had just stepped out of one of their shadows was suddenly cast in a new light. Had Eupheme slipped past them when she wasn’t looking somehow? Or was it possible that she had somehow moved the distance without crossing it? 

“Your highness, plenty of time to be impressed by me later,” Eupheme said with a quick grin.

“Right.” Tythel took point again, charging forward with the shield held high. They needed to push fast before the entire garrison could descend upon them – and from the sound of it, they were getting ready to do exactly that. Imperiplate would take a long time to put on, and Imperipods couldn’t come in here. We’re just going to be dealing with normal soldiers. “Armin! Stay with Ossman on the stairs until we are ready for you!” she shouted as she burst through the door at the top of the stairs in a single lunge, sending splinters into the room behind.

There were twenty one guards on the other side of the door, raising their arcwands and getting ready to fire. “Seven each,” Eupheme said, her tone matter-of-fact, as if the idea of each of them taking on seven guards was a simple task.

There wasn’t any time to worry. There wasn’t any time to fear. The other thing ahead of Tythel was to bow her head, raise her shield, and continue to charge the nearest group as arcwand blasts streaked towards her.

And all the while she knew that if they didn’t escape before the Alohym arrived, it wouldn’t matter how many guards they defeated.

Strange Cosmology Part 91

Zeus sat dead on his throne. He looked almost peaceful, his head bowed, the great white beard stained red by the hole in his chest where his attacker had stabbed him. Artemis was doing her best to look at the situation with a detachment, even though it was hard seeing him like this. Zeus may have been a randy old bastard, but he’d guided the pantheon for as long as she could remember. He didn’t expect the attack.

That much was obvious. Zeus was as dangerous as they came, the rise of his divinity marked with the battles against the Titans and then followed by centuries of Theomachy to bring the rest of the old Olympians in line. He’d helped find divinity for both his brothers, even going so far as to find how to help an Underworld god ascend for Hades sake, something no one had understood – at least, as far as Artemis knew. He’d later gone to war with them and neither Hades or Poseidon were exactly pushovers. He’d survived the Bronze Age collapse, he’d survived the war against the Egyptians and the Persians.

The only warriors as skilled as him, and the only gods as powerful, were Hades, Poseidon, and Hera. Hades had remained in his realm instead of coming with them to the Elysian rest. Hera was currently screaming vengeance for this fowl betrayal. So where are you, Poseidon?

“Where is his Nanoverse?” Hera shouted, startling Artemis out of her thoughts. She was looking at Artemis as she screamed it, but Artemis didn’t think the question was directed at her, especially since Hera didn’t deem to wait for an answer before continuing. “He always had it on him, always. If we find his nanoverse, we find his killer.”

“Then I suggest we gather everyone. Check them. See who has two. We’ll have our killer then,” Artemis responded, trying to keep her voice as calm as she was her emotions. Hera didn’t need someone to rage with her right now. She needed someone who could stay calm.

Of course, now carrying around Ares nanoverse was a much bigger liability than it had been. Artemis still trusted her gut instinct to lie about that to Hera, but if the enraged god-queen found out that Artemis was carrying two now…I don’t think any amount of bold moves will save me then.

“Oh, you suggest that, do you?” Hera snapped, her voice dripping with vitriol so thick Artemis wondered if they’d need to mop it up before it tainted the crime scene. She opened her mouth to respond, but Hera wasn’t actually looking for an answer. “Don’t just suggest it, then! Go! Do it. I’m sick of councils, sick of talking. Give me action!”

“And what if I find myself against someone who could kill Zeus? Would you have me fight whomever killed your husband?”

Hera’s nostrils flared. Artemis had never understood how a marriage built upon so much mutual acrimony could contain so much love. Hera seemed to do nothing when it came to her husband except than complain about his infidelities, and Zeus rarely spoke of Hera except to grumble about her attempts to kill his ex lovers and children, but whenever they were together they were the perfect picture of a happy couple. Artemis had thought it was as sham, a show for the other Olympians, but seeing Hera’s rage now…you do love him.

“No, of course I won’t,” Hera said after she’d calmed down. “Of course you can’t fight them. You’re a good archer, but you’re no match for anyone who could do this. Especially because we know who it was, don’t we?”

“We do?” Artemis asked.

“Of course. Poseidon, and probably his cow Thalassa. He was always jealous of Zeus, and she always believed she’d be a better Queen than I. They’re using the opportunity of Moloch to seize power. It’s obvious.”

It wasn’t to Artemis. Poseidon and Zeus had gotten along poorly in the past, true, but betraying them to Moloch? That seemed beyond even him – if nothing else, he would be too proud to resort to trickery. Thalassa, meanwhile, had said she’d been a better Queen than Hera. That was true. But she always said it with the unspoken implication of “and if I’m saying I would do better, than you know how poorly I think she’s doing.” Comparing herself was a critique of Hera, not an actual desire. “We should check them first then,” Artemis said. If they found Zeus’ nanoverse it would answer the question, and put Hera’s paranoia to rest if they did not.

That, at least, Hera agreed to, and she stalked the halls of the Rest as Artemis followed. They wound through the great garden, where Ionian columns supported a garden tended by Demeter that was as lush as her power could manage.

Artemis hoped that once this whole business with Moloch was done, the gardens remained undamaged. They were slightly inspired by the hanging gardens that had once adorned Babylon, but Demeter had carefully given them a perfectly natural appearance, where it gave the impression that all this wonder and beauty had happened by accident – and at the same time was clearly sculpted by an expert hand. The flowers that grew here formed a perfectly contrasted rainbow of color, and from experience Artemis knew that from the sky above it looked like a kaleidoscope, especially at the artificial evenings they had created in here. During that time, they would open and close to create a swirling pattern that spiraled across the entire span of the garden.

So renowned was their beauty that as they wound through, Hera stopped her stomping to step carefully. It gave her a chance to calm down, and Artemis watched her as she did. Hera’s hands were shaking, her shoulders were slumped, her head was bowed. Artemis thought for a moment it was grief, but why would she be grieving her husband? He’d be back soon. Possibly even tomorrow, given the killer had only created a single hole.  And why didn’t the killer burn his body? Remove his head? Do something to delay his resurrection further?

It wasn’t adding up to Artemis. Something was wrong, she was missing a detail somewhere.

It was something to puzzle over later. They were arriving at Posideon’s chambers. The great sea god was in many ways his brother’s mirror, although his build was slighter and his beard was even more resplendent that Zeus’ “Hera! Artemis!” He asked in a jovial tone. “What brings you to my little corner of paradise?”

“Where. Is. It?” Hera snapped. Guess we’re not even attempting subtly, Artemis sighed.

Poseidon look puzzled. “Where is what, my queen?”

Hera didn’t bother answering with words. With a gesture, before Poseidon had time to prepare himself, she twisted reality. Poseidon was hurled by a complex weaving of all five elements. A burst of air wrapped him up and slammed him against the wall with such force the stone cracked under the impact. Poseidon started to reach out, but Artemis’ mouth went dry as the water was sucked out of the air to throw off his balance and force him to try and deal with the distraction of it flooding into his lungs, where Artemis could see it still swirled in miniature whirlpools. Bands of the stone rose to encase his wrists and ankles and face and crawling over his torso. Under those bands were strands of fire searing his flesh, and if not for the torrent in his lungs, Artemis was sure she’d hear him scream. Artemis had never even attempted a weaving that complex and Hera had done it like it was nothing.

She remembered something Ishtar had said, back when she was with Athena and somewhat welcomed on Olympus. That the elements were just their perceptions of the mathematics that underlies reality. Artemis had laughed it off, asking her if she’d been spending time with the Pythagoreans, but now that she saw what Hera could do, she wondered if maybe Ishtar had a point. Certainly that was no normal elemental work.

Hera strode over to Poseidon’s bed and began to tear it apart. Artemis thought to protest what was happening to Poseidon until his guilt was determined, but seeing the wild look in Hera’s eyes, she decided not to make herself a target of her Queen’s wrath. “A-ha!” Hera shouted, holding the nanoverse high. The one eye Poseidon had that was not covered with burning stone widened in shock instead of pain. “I knew it was you, Poseidon.” She glanced over at Artemis. “Execute this traitor. I want you to shoot him until your quiver is empty.”

Artemis reached back to her quiver, drawing an arrow, and unslung her bow. What had she thought earlier? I’m sorry, Athena. Unless I do something drastic, you’re on your own.

Artemis knocked the arrow, then whirled to face Hera. “Don’t. Move. If you even begin to weave reality, my Queen, I’m putting this between your eyes.”

Hera went stock still, her eyes narrowing. “Artemis. What is the meaning of this?”

“When I found you, you were half mad. Whoever killed Zeus couldn’t bear to destroy his body and delay his resurrection. The only way to manage something as complex as what you did to Poseidon was if you already came here and laid the groundwork for it.”

“You accuse me?” Hera asked, her voice venomous. “Put down that bow now, Artemis. Put it down this instant, and we will talk about this.”

“I will, my Queen, if you can answer one question for me.” Artemis’ hands didn’t waiver. This bow was built for a goddess, with a one thousand pound draw. The arrows each weighed more than a sword. She couldn’t take Hera in a straight fight, but if she loosed the arrow in this close proximity she wouldn’t have to.

“Fine, then. I explain everything you’ve mentioned, so ask your question and then we can discuss overlooking your little-”

Artemis cut her off. “How did you know the nanoverse was in the bed?”

Hera’s mouth snapped shut, and she gave Artemis a look filled with hatred, terror, and grief. “I can explain,” the Queen of the Olympians said, and if the situation was less dire, Artemis would have found humor in Hera repeating the phrase Zeus had so often used on her.

“I can’t believe you’d serve Moloch,” Artemis spat.

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Hera almost stepped forward, then stopped before Artemis loosed the arrow. “Artemis, I didn’t do this to serve him. Lower the bow and I will explain.”

“No. Release Poseidon and talk,” Artemis said, not moving an inch. Which means that even after this, there’s still the traitors to deal with. Artemis fought back despair, focusing on the task in front of her.

Hera nodded.