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.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 47

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It was a while before Tythel had collected herself and returned. They’d helped Eupheme out of her bedroll and she was now sitting on a log nearby. Her skin was getting color back from the ashen look it had before. Armin turned as she approached, “So glad you’re back! I need you to help me settle a finer point of contention between our dear Ossman and a ill tempered bear. You see…” The rest of the joke died on his lips as he saw her face. “Tythel? What’s wrong?”

“Nicandros is gone,” Tythel said, her voice barely a whisper.

Haradeth’s eyes narrowed. “Gone? What do you mean, gone?”

“I mean he left,” Tythel said, unable to stop the bitterness creeping into her voice. “I mean he’s quit, he’s done, he’s no longer going to be working with us. Or at least, with me.”

Silence reigned. “What happened?” Ossman asked softly, breaking the spell.

“I…” If you tell them, will they leave too? The fear choked the words in Tythel’s throat. I can’t lose anyone else. “I confessed something to him. Something that’s between me and him. It doesn’t impact any of the rest of you. I swear that. Can we…please, just leave it at that?”

“No,” Haradeth said, “we cannot. A personal disagreement with Nicandros caused him to abandon us? I’m sorry, but I don’t believe it. Nicandros hates the Alohym, more than anyone I’ve ever met.”

Tythel clenched her fists, then forced them apart. “He quit once before, didn’t he? Is it that hard to believe he’d do it again?”

“Frankly, yes,” Haradeth responded. “He came back because they killed his son. Now you’re telling me because he didn’t get along with you – which doesn’t make sense based on what I’ve seen of the two of you – he’s gone?”

“Leave it alone, Haradeth,” Armin said, crossing his arms.

Haradeth raised an eyebrow, “I’m sorry?”

“I’m serious, Haradeth. Leave it be. If we needed to know, Tythel would tell us. Look at her – you’re really going to push her on this right now?” Armin stepped up to Haradeth’s face.

Haradeth sneered at Armin, “I’m the ranking member on the field, especially with Nicandros gone. Stand down, Armin. I need to know how she cost us one of our best operatives!”

“No, you don’t! She already gave us the important details.” Armin’s eyes flashed with visible light.

“Armin’s right,” Ossman said from behind Haradeth. “Nicandros is gone. That’s what matters. Why do we need to know more?”

“Because this isn’t a gathering of friends, Ossman. This is a military organization! We don’t get to hold information back because ‘it’s personal.’ All of you need to realize that we can’t let personal feelings dictate our actions at this point. We are fighting against a foe that vastly outnumbers us with resources we can barely comprehend. We don’t get the luxury of personal lives if it could possibly impact-”

“I killed his son!” Tythel shouted. “That’s what it was, Haradeth. His son was part of the Alohym and helped attack my father and when I found him after the fight I burned him in his armor. Nicandros can’t forgive me for that, so he left.”

Silence resumed its reign. Haradeth thought in the silence, then nodded. “Good.”

Tythel cocked her head, confusion erasing anger. “Good? It’s good that I killed his son?”

“Yes. His son signed up to fight on behalf of the Alohym, Tythel. He saw what they were doing, and said to himself, ‘yes, this is an organization I should be a member of.’ As far as I’m concerned, you did this whole world a favor.” Haradeth stepped away from Armin, who was looking at Tythel with wide eyes. “And,” Haradeth continued, “if you hadn’t told us, the Alohym would have figured it out. Used it against us somehow. I’m glad you came around to seeing reason.”

“You didn’t know,” Eupheme said, before Armin or Ossman could speak. “You didn’t meet Nicandros until later. And, as far as I’m concerned?” She shot Haradeth a dirty look, “Haradeth has a point. Not about telling us. But that Nicandros’ son joined the Alohym. He became our enemy. We’re at war. That’s that.”

Tythel took a deep breath. At least I’m not going to lose her, Tythel thought. Ossman was nodding along with Eupheme. Armin was still staring at Tythel with wide eyes.

“Armin?” she asked hesitantly.

Armin shook his head. “I’m not as rabid as that, Tythel. Light forsake me, but I’m not.” He saw Tythel’s face fall and held up a finger, “I’m not saying I agree with Nicandros. I Ijust don’t believe that every Alohym soldier should die. Some of them are just people who believe they’re doing the right thing. We might not understand how they can, but they do believe it. However, you’d just lost your father. I don’t think it’s right to hold what you did in the aftermath of that against you. I still don’t know what I’d do if I ever got my hands on…” Armin shook his head again. “Nevermind. Just…I understand.”

Tythel could see there was more there, but didn’t want to push Armin on it. Not right now. “Thank you,” she managed.

“You all are very loud,” a voice said from the bushes, making them all jump. As Tythel’s heart started to slow down, Lorathor slipped out of the underbrush, his skin resuming its normal texture as he did.

Haradeth nodded towards the Sylvani. “How much of that did you overhear?”

“All of it,” Lorathor said with a shrug. “I honestly find the importance you all put on blood relations perplexing. What matters is that Nicandros left. Again. Not that it would change anything.”

“What do you mean?” Tythel asked.

Lorathor closed his eyes before continuing. “There’s no good way to say this. It was as you feared, Haradeth – Urdin’s betrayal went beyond the mission. He lead the Alohym back to the ruins. There wasn’t even a fight. Almost everyone’s been captured – they’re being taken to the city, where they’ll be executed.”

Everyone stared at him.

“My…my mother?” Haradeth asked, his voice shaking.

Haveron managed to hide himself and her,” Lorathor said. “They’re both fine. A few others, too. Everyone else, however…”

“That’s it, then,” Haradeth said. “It’s over.” There was a finality to his voice.

Lorathor nodded. “I’m afraid so. I’ll be returning to my people – there’s other causes to fight for, but before I join in one of them I’d like to…”

Lorathor’s voice faded into the background as Tythel looked at the others. Ossman’s fists were clenched in rage. He’d never once spoken as to what pain had driven him to fight against the Alohym, but whatever it was seemed to be burning very near the surface right now. Armin had sunk to the ground and put his hands over his face. If he’d been moving more, Tythel would be worried he was weeping. Instead, it just looked like he couldn’t make sense of what was going on. And Eupheme…

…Eupheme was looking at Tythel, as if waiting to see what she’d do next.

Tythel had run out of tears to shed. Nicandros was gone. Her last hope of getting revenge for her father was gone. The people she’d met – virtually everyone she knew that wasn’t here – were slated for execution. There’s nothing I can do.

“No.”

The word shocked Tythel even though it came from her lips, and everyone looked at her. “No,” Tythel repeated, trying it on for size.

“No?” Lorathor asked, “No what?”

“No, they’re not going to be executed.”

Lorathor frowned. “I suppose it’s possible Haveron misinformed me, but I assure you I confirmed before I returned. The execution takes place this coming Luxday, your highness.”

“Luxday,” Tythel muttered. “That’s…that’s not for another four days. Why so long?”

“They want to make a bit of a spectacle of it,” Lorathor said. “They’re pulling people in from the outlying farms and villages to witness. They’re going to execute an entire rebel army – or what was left of one. They want everyone to see it.”

“Four days,” Tythel bared her teeth. “Four days, then, to save an entire army from under the Alohym’s noses.” Tythel turned to look at everyone. “I can’t speak for all of you, but I’m tired of losing. This is something we still can save. We already broke out of prison once, and this time we’re on the outside. It’ll be easy this time!”

“Uh,” Armin said with a frown, “not to be indelicate, but you almost died. So did I. As did Ossman.”

Tythel nodded. “So, let’s try not to do that this time.”

“Oh good,” Ossman muttered, “a solid plan.”

“We have four days, Ossman. We can come up with a plan. But I’m just done losing. There are hundreds of people awaiting execution right now, and if you’re with me…” She took a deep breath again. “If you’re with me, we’re going to save them all.”

Somehow, she added to herself.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 40

Tythel dragged herself out of the Shadow, still clutching that ball of light. When her senses returned, she could feel her mind returning with them. Thoughts were clearer and linear. Her head was still pounding, but it wasn’t making it impossible to think.

Before trying to move, she took stock of the room around her. Nicandros was sitting nearest, all but looming over her. Eupheme was on top of the stairs, sharpening a dagger. Ossman was asleep on a bed in the corner, looking less like a mummy than he had when Tythel could remember last.

Armin was nowhere to be seen.

Besides them were a few new objects. The first Tythel noticed were more weapons, smuggled into the basement while she slept. Arcwands, enough for each of them. Then there was a pile of rags in the corner, clothes of all shapes and sizes haphazardly strewn together. The strange device Armin had been using on her rested on top of them, and a few more devices Tythel couldn’t place.

She started to get up, but Nicandros put a hand on her shoulder. “Easy, girl. You with us?”

Tythel let herself be pressed back into the bedroll. “I think so. How long?”

“Four days. A shard of the unlight blade broke off, got stuck in your ribs.” Nicandros gave her a smile, and in that smile Tythel could see the echo of the fear that must have plagued him for days. “How are you feeling?”

“Better than last time I got up.” Tythel rose to a sitting position, having to stop and wince once she was fully up. Her head was throbbing in protest, and she reached up to rub her temples to try and quell the pain. It’s like the morning after I snuck a sip of Sylvani wine from Karjon. Seeing as Sylvani wine was one of the few alcohols that could manage to intoxicate a dragon, it had been extremely potent for twelve year old Tythel. He acted so mad. I can’t believe he let me do that just to teach me a lesson. She pushed back the memories to focus on the present “How bad was it?”

“Tythel,” Nicandros said in a warning tone, but Tythel shook her head.

“Nicandros. I need to know, please. How bad?” It was hard for her to say why she felt like she needed to know. Something about it struck her as important. Maybe it’s just because they risked everything to save you? Or just good to know how close you came to dying.

Nicandros sighed. “We almost lost you, girl. If not for Armin, we would have. Your blood was tainted with unlight. If we hadn’t managed to purge it…” Nicandros sighed. “Unlight poison does terrible things to a person.”

Part of Tythel wanted to ask what it would have done to her. She noticed that Nicandros hadn’t said “die” once in his entire explanation. I wonder if that’s because he doesn’t want to say the word…or because something worse would have happened. There wasn’t time to ask about that right now. There were more important questions. “Where’s Armin? How is he?”

In response to the name, pile of rags in the corner shifted. Tythel started at it until Armin’s head poked out of them. “Oh, praise the light. You’re alright.”

Tythel couldn’t stifle as gasp at his face, although she tried. It was nearly all grey, worn and gaunt, looking like something more skeletal than the handsome young man she remembered. The white streak she’d seen forming in his hair had become a series of streaks, tiger stripes of pale hair. His eyes were dull, almost lifeless. “Armin! What did you do to yourself?”

“It’s nothing,” Armin said, extracting himself from the rags. His clothes hung loosely on his frame, and as soon as he was free from the improvised bed he started shivering. That’s why the rags. He’s freezing. “The local lumwell…it’s been tainted with unlight. So…” Armin shrugged.

“You look half dead.” Tythel said, blinking with concern.

“You were three quarters dead. Now you’re one fourth dead and I’m half dead. Fair trade, right?” Armin managed a grin, and although it was a bit ghoulish Tythel felt some of her tension fading. If Armin was grinning, he was still Armin.

“Thank you,” Tythel said, sincerely.

“Psh,” Armin rolled his eyes. “I just did it so the big softy there wouldn’t cry.” He pointed to Nicandros, and although the words came out harsh and rasping, Tythel found a laugh for his attempt at humor.

“Well, thank you for making sure Nicandros didn’t cry.” She glanced over at Nicandros, who was surreptitiously wiping his eyes. Armin wasn’t kidding, Tythel realized, her eyes widening. Or accidentally was right. Either way… Tythel sucked in a breath. Nicandros still didn’t know she’d killed Thomah. Would you still worry for me if you did?

“I’m glad you’re back on your feet, your highness,” Eupheme said, sheathing the dagger and walking down the stairs. “We were just getting ready to try moving you without you waking up.”

Tythel frowned. “What’s going on?”

“They’re closing in on us,” Eupheme said with a shrug. “The Alohym want us recaptured, bad. I can barely step out of the shadows without being spotted, and I think they figured how far I can travel – which isn’t very far.”

“They’re coming to search this block tonight,” Nicandros growled, and Eupheme nodded to confirm his words. “We can’t stay any longer.”

“But what about Armin? Ossman?”

“The big lump,” Eupheme said indicating Ossman with a quick flick of her hand, “is fine. Just sleeping off the last bit of healing. He can move, he can fight.”

Tythel looked at Armin, who shrugged. “Honestly, your highness? I’m not getting any better until I can attune to a healthy lumwell.”

Tythel let her tongue flit out of her mouth for a moment, a gesture Karjon always made when she presented him with a problem he couldn’t answer. Much as she wished it wasn’t the case, one of Karjon’s knowledge gaps had been in the realm of human magic. He’d explained to her the basics – human mages attuned themselves to a nearby lumwell, which were connected by invisible rivers of power. They could draw power from there…somehow. He’d been vague about it. There had been a lumwell in the valley below the mountain, and he’d taken her to it, but she’d felt no resonance. Whatever that meant. He’d said that meant she wasn’t a mage, and from the way Karjon had phrased it, he’d taken immense relief in that fact.

Probably because he would have had to find a teacher for me. Would have put him in danger. “Why can’t you heal until then?” she asked Armin.

“The lumwell is tainted. Same as your body was.” Armin’s joking manner had completely evaporated now, and his tone was somber. “It happens in the cities a lot these days. Some mages have learned how to tap into the…the taint, the unlight pollution. I’m not one of them. It’s too dangerous. But that means drawing power when I’m attuned to one…” Armin shrugged. “A burning man won’t stop burning until you pull him out of the flame.”

“Can you just…” Tythel groped for the word, trying to figure out what she was saying. I do not want you to die to save me. “Unattune? Something like that?”

“That’s the nasty catch, your highness.” Armin gave her a wan smile. “If I do, there will be backlash. Unpredictable magical effects. I could warp, I could shatter, I could kill you all in an controlled power surge.” Armin shrugged again, and Tythel hated how loose his clothing looked every time he did. “Archmages can swap lumwells with the slightest twitch of a finger. I’m a glorified power source.”

“Well, I met an archmage in the dungeons,” Tythel said, forcing a smile, trying to get him to return the expression. It felt unnatural on her face, but Armin did respond with his smile brightening slightly. I feel like I’m threatening him. “I’d rather take a glorified power source over a dozen of him.”

“As touching as this is,” Eupheme interrupted, “we have to get moving. Before they sweep the block tonight and catch us?”

Nicandros nodded in agreement. “Wake up, Ossman,” he said, kicking the leg of the bed Ossman was sleeping on. “We leave within the hour.”

“Mmmwah?” Ossman said, blinking himself awake. “Tythel? Are you with us or are we in for more egg talk.”

Tythel gave the most dignified sniff she could manage. “I don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about.”

That got a chuckle out of Ossman, and together they began to pack their things.

They were leaving the city tonight. Only time would tell if they left it for the open plains or to join the Shadow’s embrace.

 

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.

Strange Cosmology Part 89

Ryan had been a nerd through most of high school. Comic books, collectible card games, video games – if it was about something that fell into the broad category of “geek culture,” Ryan was into it. Sometimes he wondered if being followed by a figure no one else could see had lent him a predisposition to the hobbies of the socially awkward, or if had just been his father reading him the Hobbit almost every night before bed.

Either way, he had found himself in the nerd clique at his school, and around Sophomore year they had roped him into the penultimate of nerd hobbies, tabletop gaming. (Eugene, the dungeon master, had explained that it was penultimate because LARP existed, and that “LARP is to tabletop gaming what tabletop gaming is to watching Footballers score home runs.” Ryan had tried to explain how football actually worked, and Eugene had threatened to remove XP if he didn’t stop.)

An important element of tabletop games, at least the ones they played, was the day and night cycle. Spells, hit points, and many special abilities recharged overnight, so groups frequently found themselves having to sleep in dangerous areas for extended periods of time. Because they were camping in the middle of a dungeon full of monsters or cultists or demons or horrible things called Mind Flayers or Beholders, someone had to keep watch. Eugene had always had them roll spot checks whenever they kept watch to see if they saw anything, and he would roll on a chart to see if something horrible attacked them.

Each watch was two-four hours in universe depending on how big the party was. In the real world, however, for the people that were playing the game, it was usually about a minute: they rolled a die, Eugene rolled a die, Eugene confirmed they saw nothing for those two hours, and it was the next person’s turn. One time it had been Jacquelin’s turn to run, and she had made them also make will saves to stay awake. When they’d challenged her on that, claiming that Eugene never did, she’d mollified them with a tiny bit of bonus XP if they failed the roll since, “it’s just more realistic, honestly.”

Now that Ryan was really keeping watch after being battered into exhaustion by a full day of fighting, having just gotten barely enough sleep and food and water to fill his Hungers – after a day where he had actually commanded the elements like his old level 16 Druid, Charibmor – Ryan realized how absolutely correct Jacquelin had been.

Moloch and his army were camped. The Olympians were holed up behind their barriers. Ryan’s motley group was asleep behind him. Tartarus didn’t even have any native wildlife to keep him engaged. Reshaph was watching the drones, but they were needed to cover angles Ryan couldn’t see – including the passage back to the Labyrinth, since the Medusa was still at large. He found himself wishing he had brought a book, or his phone, or pretty much anything to keep him distracted.

All he was certain of was, once this was all over, if the world was intact enough for tabletop gaming to still be a thing, he’d make sure to give Charibmor a hobby to do on watch. Wood carving, or, giving that at sixteen Ryan had though a Neutral Evil druid was the most clever and subversively edgy thing ever, maybe bone carving would be more appropriate.

He pursed his lips as he looked at Molochs motley mob of monsters. Maybe not Neutral Evil. Maybe I should retire that character and play something on the Good spectrum. Evil’s kinda lost its appeal.

He was drawn out of his reflection by approaching footsteps and glanced over his shoulder. Athena was walking up, and gave him one of her ghost smiles that Ryan couldn’t help but like. “Couldn’t sleep?” he asked.

“No, just had slept enough.” She sat down on the battlement of the lavaforged castle next to him, folding up her legs to rest her hands on her knees. “Anything interesting happen?”

“I had some deep reflections about my misspent youth fighting Kobolds in the forest of Dragonfall. Other than that, nothing interesting.”

Athena raised an eyebrow at him. “You fought Kobolds before you found your nanoverse? That is something I thought you would have brought up before…” She noticed how hard Ryan was trying to hold back his laughter and frowned. “I’m missing a joke, aren’t I?”

Ryan nodded, having to wipe away tears of suppressed laughter. “It was a game. If I had actually tried to fight Kobolds, I would have been dead long before you met me.”

“That, I can’t argue.” Athena grinned to take the sting out of the barb, then cast her gaze over to the Elysian Rest at the other end of the battlefield. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

Ryan didn’t take his eyes off of her. “Yeah, beautiful,” he said softly. Athen glanced over at him and rolled her eyes, though Ryan detected a hint of a blush in her cheeks.

“Very funny.” She turned her gaze back to the massive structure, one of intricately woven columns and gleaming domes. “Hephaestus’ work, the designs. He’s remembered for his skill at the forge, but he was always a talented builder of almost anything. I went into his nanoverse once. Seeing what he could build without constraints was something magnificent.”

Ryan actually followed her gaze this time, nodding. “I can only imagine, just based on that.” He glanced sideways at Athena. “You’re worried about them, aren’t you?”

Athena nodded. “They were never cowards. I can’t figure out why they’re not fighting back! Everything hinges on us being able to pin Moloch between us and them.”

“They’ll come out,” Ryan said, his voice firm. Athena looked at him, her eyebrow once again raising. “It’s the only way we win, right? So it’ll happen. Somehow, something will change. We’ll get them to come out, we’ll save them and my sister, and we’ll kick Moloch’s crusty old ass halfway to Mars and back.”

“That’s not how the world works,” Athena said, and then she chuckled to herself.

“What’s so funny?” Ryan asked.

“Just remembering the last time we sat on a battlement before a huge battle. On Graham Island. I was reassuring you that everything would go alright.” She gave him a half-smile. “Now here we are, in another fortress, overlooking another battle, and you’re telling me it’s going to be okay.”

“We’ve almost come full circle,” Ryan said, feeling his heart begin to speed up.

“Almost?” Athena asked, and her smile took on a playful note.

“Yeah.” Ryan leaned forward and kissed her. She laughed slightly into the kiss, reaching up and putting her hand on the back of his head and holding him into the kiss to prolong it. They spent a little bit of time sitting there, side by side, kissing in the sourceless light of the Elysian Rest.

Athena gently broke the kiss, leaning her forehead against Ryan’s. “What was that about?” she asked, her voice husky, sparkling with a smile that Ryan could hear even though he couldn’t see.

Ryan caught the echo his words from that first kiss on Graham island, and decided to return her words as well. “Maybe nothing. Maybe something. Maybe it’s just another reason to survive tomorrow.”

She laughed and leaned back a bit, breaking the moment. “Is that the case? Or just repeating my words to complete the cycle?”

Ryan chuckled. “Just repeating your words. In reality? It’s…it’s something. It’s definitely a reason to survive tomorrow.”

Athena gave him the same half-smile she’d given him on Graham Island after that first kiss, the one that set his heart pounding. She reached over and put a hand on his. “Then let’s survive tomorrow. After that? I think we should find out what that something is, don’t you? No excuses this time.”

“Absolutely,” Ryan said, feeling his smile turn into a bigger grin.

“In the meantime,” Athena said, “I think it’s my turn to take over the watch.” She leaned in, putting her hand behind Ryan’s head. He thought she was going in for another kiss, but instead she leaned in to his ear. “After that,” she whispered, “I still have a Hunger to take care of.”

Ryan had to lick his lips, his throat suddenly dry. “Yeah, me too.”

“Then get some sleep. I’ll be by after my watch.” She leaned back just enough to give him another kiss, and broke it before it could go on too long.

Ryan got up and smiled at her one more time. “I’ll look forward to it.” With that, Ryan headed back to bed, trying to get more sleep.

Unsurprisingly, it eluded him, which meant he was still wide awake an hour earlier when Athena raised the alarm.

Strange Cosmology Part 86

Artemis smiled as she peered into the distance. She’d woven a complicated web of lenses in the air between herself and the battle, a trick she’d taught Heimdall. Here in Tartarus, the fact that divine changes to reality didn’t decay meant she was able to see virtually everything when she stood at this window, multiple bubbles on her eyes showing her every detail.

And what details they were! Athena and Dianmu had joined Anansi, who had been holding his own well against Moloch’s abominations, and Ishtar was aiding the unknown god, who threw power in the kind of excess that marked him as relatively young, possibly still Nascent. She thought they’d break their foes before long.

If only it mattered.

Moloch’s forces were so numerous! He seemed to be creating new monsters out of nothing. As she watched, he stepped out of his nanoverse – something that should be impossible here – and with a gesture called up a new horror. This one was a goat-man behemoth she’d never seen before, with gangly arms and matted fur. It stood a good thirty feet as it rose to its full height, although it didn’t charge off to join the battle. Instead, it turned to join the other brutes hammering on the Olympian’s defense. How many gods are you killing, you old bastard? And where are you getting the nanoverses?

Strictly speaking, he didn’t need the nanoverses to summon the monsters. Just the residual energies from a divine death. But each time he summoned a new horror, he’d step into his nanoverse and come out, which to Artemis said he was just casually ending the lives of deities whenever he needed a new warrior.

“How goes the battle, Artemis?”

She didn’t need to turn to know it was Ares again, even before he spoke. One lens let her watch her back at all times, which is why she saw the gorgeous Eros standing with him, his beauty unmarred by his concerned frown. “They’ve won this match, though they’ll need to rest and recover their hungers, I think. It was a near thing.”

“That’s something at least.” Ares didn’t have Eros’ beauty, and his frown was an ugly thing, full of fury and exhaustion.

“And will we be riding out to meet them?” Artemis knew how bitter her voice was, and didn’t bother to hide it. “Shall the Olympians finally emerge from cowering behind our defenses to do proper battle, or are we going to watch them die?”

“That’s why I’m here,” Eros said, his face smoothing as he spoke. “Hera has concerns about your assessment, Artemis.”

“Concerns she’s whispered in your ears in secret corners, Eros, or ones she’s shared with others?” It amused her to watch the gorgeous god sputter, confirming her suspicions. Zeus’ philandering ways were well known, but less so were Hera’s preferred means of evening the scales. It’s good to have that one confirmed.

“That hardly matters,” Eros protested as Ares gave him a sidelong glance. “She doubts that we can win this battle, even with their aid.”

“Well, Eros, she should ask our greatest general.” Artemis tapped her chin for a moment. “Oh wait, Hera had her exiled and now she’s fighting to rescue us.” If the slight of his skills as a general offended Ares, he didn’t show it, which was for the best. Ares may have been the god of war, but his tactics were always…direct.  “The best one we have here, however, agrees with it.”

“As I told Hera,” Ares confirmed, giving Eros as smug smirk as he did. Adversity leads to strange bedfellows, Artemis thought, trying to figure out how she and Ares had come to be aligned. Perhaps it was just because they were the only two not acting on their basest fears.

“And yet, she remains unconvinced. Perhaps I could watch for a time?” Eros’ gave her a perfectly reasonable smile as he did.

Artemis wanted to smack it off his face. “Since Moloch has arrived, I’ve kept this vigil. I have not rested, nor waivered. If Hera mislikes my assessment, perhaps she could at least do the courtesy of informing me in person.”

“She wishes she could, Artemis, which is why she sent me. To show how seriously she takes this, I mean, not to tell you you’ve down poorly. However, right now her attention is needed to dissuade Zeus from doing something far more foolish than charging out to join the battle would be.”

“He cannot be thinking of opening the lower gates!” Artemis, for the first time in days, whirled to fully face away from the window to meet the grim faces of the two gods. “That would be…”

Eros was nodding. “Madness, yes. The Titans unleashed upon the world again-“

“Screw the world, Eros!” Artemis took a step forward to point directly into his face, dropping the formal speak of Olympus to the vernacular favored among mortals that she felt more comfortable using. “Has he even considered the fact that they would first be unleashed upon us?”

“Don’t shoot the messenger, Archer,” Eros sighed, “I agree with you. Hera doesn’t believe he can be left alone, else he may take matters into his own hands.”

“Hera wants Eros’ evaluation, Artemis,” Ares said, his voice gruff. “She thinks we are being hasty.”

Artemis scowled. “Hera just wants to do anything to avoid seeing Athena again. Even if it damns us all to Hades, she won’t unbend her neck that far.”

“It’s not that,” Eros said, stepping up to the window as Artemis moved aside. “Marvelous set up you have here,” he commented before continuing along the original thread, “at least, not entirely.”

“I appreciate you acknowledging that much,” she said, softening somewhat at the concession. “What else, then?”

“She does not believe Moloch will breach our defenses. If enough time passes, his Hungers will overwhelm him. He cannot feed them off his Nanoverse, and his human followers are mortal. Eventually he’ll need to feed his Hungers, with the way he’s burning power. With our farms, we can endure forever. Why would we take the risk if we can merely wait him out, even if it takes centuries?”

“He can still access his nanoverse, Eros! He’ll never starve.” Artemis nearly wailed, and both gods looked at her in surprise. She hadn’t shared that tidbit of information yet. It hadn’t seemed relevant.

“Impossible. We are in Tartarus, it’s beyond-“

“I saw it, Eros. Stars of Olympus, if you had arrived just ten minutes sooner you could have seen it yourself, but look behind him, near that fallen angel. You’ll see his doorway. He can last as long as we can.”

From this perspective, it looked like he was just peering into empty air. She started to tap her foot impatiently as she waited for him to see what she’d noticed. “I do see a doorway…but he might have constructed it-“

Eros’ protest was cut short when Ares moved, a flash of his sword severing the beautiful gods’ heads from his shoulder. Artemis whirled to face him, her mouth hanging open, unable to summon any words besides a confused gasp.

“It had to happen,” Ares said gruffly, wiping his blade on his shirt before bending down to pluck Eros’ nanoverse out of his pocket. “Moloch’s won. You see that, don’t you? Our leaders won’t act, we waste our time with petty arguments. I reached out to him telepathically after Hera refused us. If we slay the others, he’ll spare any who join me. You’re the last one I’ve talked to. It’s the only chance we have.”

Artemis backed away from the war god, wishing she had her bow and arrows in easy reach, but he now stood between her and them. “Ares…I never took you for a coward.”

He shook his head and sighed. “I’m a survivor, Artemis. Moloch has his nanoverse in Tartarus. The angels of Hell do his bidding. He is slaughtering gods daily. You remember the Curators’ messages? About the end times, from Enki and Ishtar?” Artemis nodded slowly, “I don’t think they were forgeries, or traps. I think they are upon us, and Moloch seems to be on the winning side. We have to act.”

“I won’t help you slaughter our friends! Think about what you’re saying. Think about what you’re doing! It’s not too late. Eros will heal, and he’ll be annoyed but no real harm done. You don’t need to…we can still fight!”

Ares gave her another sigh, this one less frustrated and more mournful. “Then…you are in my way, Artemis.” He raised his sword and charged.

In the narrow hallway, he had every advantage, save speed. That alone saved Artemis, who ducked low under his initial swing and then rebounded into a jump over his head. The slash of his sword as she passed over him nearly split her in two, but she was able to twist enough to only take a small cut to the leg. She kicked off his shoulder blades as she came down, propelling herself further and putting more space between the two of them.

Enough space for her to reach her arrows. She had one knocked and drawn before he was completely turned around, loosed just as he was facing her.

It caught him directly in the eye. He howled in agony but did not fall, throwing himself at her. She put another arrow in his other eye as he came, but still he found the strength to keep pushing. It caught her off guard, so much so that she didn’t move in time.  Then he was on top of her, his hands managing to wrap in their blind panic around her throat, and he was screaming and the world was going dark.

Her fingers closed on an arrow scattered to the floor her fall, and she drove it into his temple.

That did it. He slumped over on top of her, dead for now. She collected his nanoverse for safekeeping, then tossed his body out the window for spite. With the extra breakage, it would take longer for him to resurrect. Then she turned and abandoned her woman. She had to find Hera, or Zeus, or someone. “You’re the last one I’ve talked to,” Ares had said.

There were traitors in the halls of the Olympians.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 26

The next day began early. Two groups were going out – the bulk of the resistance were riding to intercept a supply caravan Lord Devos had found, one that would help arm and feed them. Tythel, Nicandros, Armin, Eupheme, and Ossman were heading towards the factory that was making the crawlers along with Haradeth, Lorathor and a dozen of Lord Devos’ Abyssals, as well as several broken arcwand packs that would be detonated to destroy the production lines.

The leader of the Abyssals was Urdin Cognasso, a broad man from the eastern isles with hair the color of the sky and light gray skin. His face was long and gave him the appearance of perpetually frowning, one that was enhanced by the fact that he often was actually frowning to go with it.

In Tythel’s opinion, that made him a perfect match for Haradeth, who started the ride in quiet conversation with the dour Abyssal.

Their cover was that of a merchant caravan, one wealthy enough to afford armed guards but not yet able to have purchased a crawler. The cover would also provide reason for their journey to Bardstown, since the crawlers were less expensive if bought near the source.

Horses, carts, and the carriage had been ‘procured’ by Lord Devos during his scouting expedition. Their wares were fish, grabbed out of the ocean and packed with salt that they had boiled out of the seawater, with extra weapons and the dangerously overloaded arcwand packs hidden under the fish and salt. Most of their party was mounted, with Nicandros, Tythel, and Armin riding in the carriage.  Lorathor rode atop, and Nicandros assured Tythel that would not be remarked upon even if he was noticed, since the Sylvani were known for their odd habits. All they had to do is claim it was a Sylvani custom, and any who questioned them would have no reason not to accept it.

Nicandros was posing as the merchant, with Tythel as his daughter and Armin her suitor that was also learning Nicandros’ trade. Although Ossman and Eupheme had chuckled at the arrangement, Tythel was just glad to not have to ride one of the horses.

She and Nicandros had discussed the possibility before they left. “It’s not that I don’t think I could, Nicandros. I can’t imagine it’s that much different that riding on Karjon’s back, except I don’t have to worry about wings.” Nicandros had chuckled at that, and Tythel had pressed on “It’s just that…well, they’re animals.”

“I don’t see why that matters” Nicandros had said with a frown. “I’ll be honest, girl, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion riding a horse and riding a dragon are two vastly different arrangements, but I’m not sure I understand your objection.”

“They…I mean, how do you know that they’ll do what you want them to do?”

“And that’s part of why it would be different than riding a dragon. Still, you’re a bit…bigger than would be expected of a merchant’s daughter would be expected.”

It had turned out to be a moot point. As soon as the horses had caught her scent, they’d begun to get skittish, reacting to their eyes telling them human but their noses informing them one of their most dangerous predators was present. Even Haradeth had struggled to calm them, muttering something about the difference between wild animals and tame ones. Once she was safely in the carriage they’d calmed down, although the windows were staying closed to make sure no stray breeze carried her scent to them.

For her part, when they were on the road, Tythel found herself feeling a bit queasy at the rocking of the carriage. “Dearest Tythel,” Armin said, leaning forward to clasp her hands. Tythel noted that ever since he had been told to play the role of her suitor, he’d been doing that a lot. “I know how much these long journeys disagree with you, but I assure you, we will be in Bardstown before too long.”

Tythel did her best to return the smile. Beside Armin, Nicandros shook his head but gave her an encouraging smile of his own. Not there yet, but you’re getting closer. At least, that’s what she thought it meant. It was a small comfort

On top of the nausea, she was wearing the clothes of a merchant’s daughter, which meant a restrictive corset under a dress with layers. She’d needed Eupheme’s help to even get it on! Having worn loose fitting garments most of her life, it felt like being imprisoned. She knew Armin was just playing his part, and Eupheme and Nicandros both had stressed that once they were on the road they had to stay in character the entire time, even when it seemed stupid to Tythel since no one was watching.

That didn’t mean she didn’t want to punch Armin for trying to make her speak right now. “Oh, sweet Armin,” Tythel said, drawing upon every play and tale of young lovers she had read for the right words for this, “I cannot wait to get to Bardstown! It will be so good to be in a proper city again, where you can safely give your glorious sword-”

She didn’t finish the sentence. Armin broke into howling laugher, and Nicandros turned bright red and brought both his hands up to his face and pressed his palms against his eyes. “No, girl, no,” Nicandros growled, as Armin clutched his sides.

Tythel crossed her arms and glared at the two of them. “I am trying not to be sick here, what is so flathing funny?”

“Maybe,” Armin said, before bursting into another peal of laughter he finally managed to reign in, “maybe you should avoid talking about my…” Armin burst out laughing again.

Tythel sighed. “What did I miss? In the stories I’ve read, women are always asking for their men’s sword!” She tilted her head in thought. “Although they never seem to actually be given it…”

Armin was laughing again, and Nicandros’ expression was one she’d only seen on him once, when he’d bit into a fish that had been sitting for a couple days. “Someone please explain this to me?”

Neither of them did. Lorathor came to her rescue, popping open the hatch on top of the carriage. “A woman asking a man for their sword is a slang for intercorse,” the Sylvani said. His tone was matter of fact, but his skin was shifting to a golden shade as it often did when he was amused.

Tythel felt her own skin turn color, although it was mostly her face, and it was far redder than Lorathor’s skin. “Oh,” she said quietly, and Armin howled with laughter again.

For the next hour, at Nicandros’ suggestion, they rode in silence, although Armin kept breaking it to chuckle to himself from time to time. His amusement vanished when they had to pull off the road to let a column of Alohym troops pass.

Tythel peered past the curtains as they did. About three hundred men and women, wearing the woven mail the pilots of those strange walkers had worn, riding on the backs of crawlers that were extended to allow for more seating. Each of the crawlers also had two soldiers in the imperiplate as well. The crawlers were larger and thicker than the one that Otis had piloted. That had looked like a spider, but these put Tythel more in mind of ants, marching in a line to get some food.

With them were three of the pod walkers that had been attacking the forest. It was Tythel’s first time really seeing them in the daylight. They were nearly four times as tall as a man, and the tentacles looked far too thin to keep the pod at the top aloft. She could see small unlight circles at the bottom of the pods, and realized that they were similar to the ones that powered the great ships of the Alohym. It seemed the walkers used a combination of unlight and tentacles to stay aloft. Maybe I can use that somehow if I ever have to fight one again.

Fortunately, the soldiers didn’t pay them any mind, far too focused on whatever was displaying on their emerald visors. Tythel wished she could tell what they were seeing. She could hear it, and it was that strange language Thomah had been speaking before they fought in the woods. Tythel could only make out a few words, and if that was all she could make out, the others wouldn’t hear anything. One of the words she heard made her heart clench, however.

“They’re headed towards Diresburg, where the others are!” she hissed in a low whisper to Nicandros.

He didn’t bother asking her how she knew. The moment the soldiers were out of earshot, he pulled out a device that looked like a flute and spoke a warning into it addressed to Lord Devos, who was heading up that raid. Then he played a few notes on the flute. “Is that how you sing to someone?” Tythel asked, realization finally hitting her.

Nicandros’ nodded, “It’s imperfect, but if you need to get a quick warning, nothing’s better. After we’re done in Bardstown, I’ll show you how to use it.”

Relieved that at least Devos and the outriders would have some warning, Tythel leaned back as they resumed their journey, nausea settling back in from the rocking of the cart.

Strange Cosmology Part 82

“There’s a force approaching us,” Anansi said, perched atop a hill near the entrance to the Labyrinth.

Ryan walked up next to the spider good and squinted. Anansi was using an air lens, like what they had done so long ago on Graham Island. So long ago? It was last month, Ryan. He shook his head at the thought. It felt like a lifetime ago, but now that they were here it also felt like yesterday.
Behind them, Crystal and Dianmu were preparing a molten fortress. Apparently, the thunder goddess had been the one to invent the trick and shown it to Crystal, so together they could create a much more elaborate fortification. They were building it over the entrance to the maze, both so they could use the wall as part of their structure and to make sure anything that came out would have to go through them. A great idea, right up until we get caught between Moloch and the Medusa. Or something worse.
“You’ve become quite the cynic,” Anansi muttered, moving so Ryan could see through the lens.
“Did I say that out loud?” Ryan asked, frowning as he did. The last thing they needed right now was for him to start talking to himself.
Anansi shook his head. “But your face was quite loud,” he said with a grin.
Ryan snorted and peered into the lens.
Even days of war hadn’t managed to scar the beauty of the Elysian Rest. It was a vast field dozens of miles wide, coated in tall grass. Spotted throughout were patches of thicker vegetation, fruit bearing trees that sat among clumps of red and blue and yellow flowers. It put Ryan more in mind of the Savannah of Africa instead of anything from Greece, especially the way the trees flared out to shade the patches below them. The cavern roof above them was festooned with flowering vines that hung down low enough where, in spots, they almost brushed the ground.
At the center was the actual structure that housed the Greek gods. It sat on a rocky hill, the closest approximation to a mountain they could manage. It was a structure right out of mythology, with columns supporting the lowest level, and the upper levels made of solid stone broken up by balconies that were supported by statues of smiling guardians, all painted in bright colors. It would have been breathtaking, if it wasn’t so dire.
Ryan wished he could spend more time enjoying the view. The focus of the lens, however, was more than sufficient to remind him why he could not.
A group of people were riding across the grass towards them, armed with assault rifles and falchions, dressed in modern day camouflage with bulletproof vests. Their steeds were black horses that, instead of two hind-legs, had a single powerful leg in the center. With each exhalation, small gouts of flame erupted from their nostrils. “What are they riding?” Ryan asked.
“Helhests,” Anansi said, grimacing at the word. “They helped spread the Black Plague. Omnicidal maniacs, the lot of them.”
“Perfect friends for Moloch then. But doesn’t look like anything we can’t handle.” As soon as the last word was out of his lips, the white scales of the linnorm that had once been Tyr emerged from behind a tree, slithering along just behind the charging steeds. “Oh son of a…”
Anansi nodded. “Any drake-kind is dangerous enough, but linnorm are particularly troublesome.”
“It’s not just any linnorm,” Ryan said, stepping away from the lens. “That used to be Tyr. I need to talk to Athena.”
“I’ll let you know if anything changes,” Anansi said, and Ryan thanked him and headed down the hill.
Athena was busy preparing some armor from them out of spare clothes in their packs, twisting the material to be woven titanium chains covered by the same Kevlar/graphene hybrid Ryan had used to protect the drones. She looked up as he approached. “Ryan, what’s wrong?” she asked.
“We’ve got incoming. Athena, I’m sorry. Moloch sent Tyr with them.” Ryan took a deep breath and watched her face carefully.
It slid back almost immediately into the emotionless mask she had worn when they had first met, an immediate wall rising up to block any entrance and lock up any emotion from slipping loose. “Good. That monster should be removed.”
“Athena…” but she was shaking her head before he could continue.
“That monster isn’t Tyr. It’s a byproduct of his death, and it carries no more of him than the grass that grows over a grave carries of the person that is buried beneath. Once it is dead, that’ll be the last taint of his death removed from the world.”
He wanted to believe her, but he saw the way her knuckles whitened on the shirt she was clutching, and he knew better. Their eyes met, and the message in them was clear. Don’t push me on this.
“Okay, fair enough,” Ryan said, answering both her spoken and unspoken comment. “They’re a couple miles out, so we’ve only got a few minutes.”
Athena gave him a curt nod and tossed the shirt she was holding to him, followed by a couple others. “You, Crystal, Dianmu. I’ll finish Anansi’s and then my own before they arrive. Bring the other two their garments.”
Ryan wanted to hug her, but though she might punch him if he did. She certainly didn’t seem to want any comfort right now. “Okay. Back in a bit.”
He went to find Crystal and Dianmu and give them the news. They reconvened on the hill, meeting up with Anansi and Athena. Without much time left to plan, it was decided that Anansi and Ryan would draw the riders away from the group, letting the trio of goddesses focus on the linnorm. “Remember, loves,” Crystal added, “They may be technically mortal, but those people are going to be resistant to us, yeah? Try to go for indirect attacks.”
Ryan and Anansi nodded and wished the goddesses luck before splitting up. Ryan quickly lost sight of the other god as the riders came between them. They didn’t seem to have noticed either himself or Anansi yet, which gave them the perfect opportunity to get the drop on their attackers.
Ryan, heeding Crystal’s advice, opened with an indirect attack. Instead of twisting reality directly at the riders and the Helhests, he created an imbalance in electric charges above and below them.
There was, he had to admit to himself, something absolutely primal in summoning bolts of lightning. Three of the twelve riders were struck, and one slumped over, both horse and rider dead. The other two started to turn to face Ryan, and four more of their group followed. The other half turned to charge at Anansi, who had called stones out of the ground they stood on to hurl at the riders at ballistic speeds.
Before the Tyr linnorm could reinforce either of the groups, Athena hurled her sword at it. A familiar twisting of reality instantly accelerated the weapon to supersonic speeds, and although it slithered away before the blade could strike home, Athena now had its full and undivided attention.
Ryan’s heart pounded as the riders lowered their assault rifles to take aim at him, and he broke into a sweat. Sudden visions of the barrel of the gun that had blown half his face away filled his vision, and before Ryan’s eyes, the Helheist he had already felled struggled back to its feet as the rider ripped off his own face to reveal a grinning skull. Ryan shuddered at the sight and realized that he had to ignore the others for now.

This would demand everything he had.

 

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Strange Cosmology Part 80

The sound of the minotaur followed them down the hallways of the Labyrinth. Ahead, Ryan saw Athena and Anansi. They’d heard the monstrous hoofsteps approaching and were already moving, though they kept their pace just slow enough for the others to catch up.

CLOP.

“Reshaph!” Crystal shouted as they caught up with the other two, “If you have a way out of here, now’s the time to bloody well share it!”

“Right,” he said, and Ryan could hear his fingers tapping on the keyboard with the same desperation their feet hit the floor. “Okay, up ahead, turn left!”

CLOP

They did, and to Ryan’s relief at the end of the hallway he saw a massive stone door, the twin of the one they had come through. To Ryan’s dismay, the door at the end of the hallway was nearly a full mile of straight corridor ahead.

CLOP

As was often the case, the universe decided that since things could get worse, they absolutely should get worse. At the sound of that last footstep, the Minotaur barreled around the corner and into view.

As with before, once they could see it, its feet and by extension its mass move far faster than the slow, deliberate clops would have indicated. The charge it initiated to follow them was the most bull-like of anything it had done, barreling along headfirst faster than the gods could move without massively draining themselves.

“We’re not going to get the door open in time!” Dianmu shouted, glancing over her shoulder. Ryan could see she was right – the Minotaur was moving too fast. They’d reach the door before it did, but only by a narrow margin.

“We won’t need to,” Anansi responded, motioning ahead. Gravity near the door split, the downwards direction shifting towards either wall.

As soon as the gods reached the end, the Minotaur closing in on them, they leapt up to the walls and began to run out of its grasp. It raised its halbreds, slashing at the equations as soon as he reached them.

Gravity asserted its rightful direction, but no force involved at any point told inertia it could not keep doing exactly what it was meant to do. In this case, what it was meant to do was keep all ten tons of angry cow person and slam it into the door as hard as its bulk allowed for.

The stone doors that sealed the end of labyrinth outweighed the Minotaur by several orders of magnitude. If it had just been a question of the Minotaur’s mass and the door’s mass, the doors would have won every time. But those weren’t the only objects in the equation, and the door’s hinges buckled under the impact. Stone doors went tumbling to the ground as the Minotaur’s mass carried it through and into the field beyond.

By comparison, five gods slamming into the stone below was an undramatic affair, just a few gentle puffs of flesh on stone. It stung, but Ryan had endured worse falls. They all got to their feet and took the opportunity to leap out and into air beyond.

Being in an open space again was an immense relief, and Ryan took a deep an unnecessary breath of fresh air. The Minotaur was attempting to right itself. “We still have to deal with that,” he said, before he looked over at Athena, whose lips were a tight line. “It’s out now, we can’t ignore it.”

“I know,” she growled, looking at the assembled gods. “Anyone have an idea for fighting this thing?”

Crystal nodded. “I had time to think while I was waiting for you all, loves. Follow my lead.”

By the time she finished relaying instructions to them, the Minotaur had managed to regain its feet and was bellowing in rage.

The gods scattered in all directions before it could charge, hoping to buy time as it picked its target. After a momentary pause, it turned to charge after Ryan.

It would be me, Ryan thought with a frown, but now that it had a target, he had a role to play.

The first thing to do was to start running in an arc, not in a straight line. No longer constrained by the Labyrinth walls, he could keep moving and prevent it from building up too much momentum. The Minotaur was faster than him, but it couldn’t accelerate like him, and it definitely couldn’t turn like him.

Once it was starting to get frustrated, he turned around and twisted reality directly in front of the Minotaur’s face. It reached up and slashed away the changed equation, and Ryan shouted, “You were right!”

Crystal heard the shout and signal the others. The plan hinged on one theory being true, and they just had confirmation that it was.

The Minotaur hadn’t tried to talk, tried to reason, just acted on animalistic instincts. And those instincts included slicing any equation the gods threw at it, even if Ryan had changed the direction of a single oxygen molecule in the air in front of its face.

“Now!” Crystal shouted, and they reached out and began to twist reality, each of them targeting the Minotaur. Crystal started changing the coefficient of friction of individual furs on the Minotaur’s back. Athena went for a single degree increase in temperature around its eyes. Dianmu maneuvered the blades of grass beneath its feet. Anansi twisted the photons reflecting off its horns to change their color, and Ryan kept running, while throwing changes to the air in front of it over his shoulder.

The Minotaur’s arm’s blurred, and Ryan began to think they had been wrong, that the brute had too much stamina. Even with its arms flashing, it was still gaining on Ryan, and he had a horrible vision of being impaled on one of those halberds.

Then he saw it. The Minotaur’s strikes started to slow down, and individual equations stayed changed for a fraction of a second, then a full second. It took the Minotaur the same amount of effort to undo these tiny twists as it did to undo larger ones.

The Minotaur’s steps were also slowing as it slashed at the air like it was trying to ward off a horde of angry gnats  that were buzzing around its face. “Almost there!” Crystal shouted as they continued their tiny alterations.

The monster, upon hearing her voice, turned and began to direct its charge at Crystal. She planted her feet and stood her ground, instead increasing the speed at which she sent her alterations at the Minotaur. It was starting to get confused, snorting and stamping the ground. Every other hunt against gods, they had been running or exhausted long before. Now they were…still fine?

The Minotaur, as Ryan had previously noted, has the skull of a bovine with hyena jaws attached. Now, bovine heads were noteworthy for many things. They were very solid when the beast ran into things, they were excellent at finding the best patch of grass to each, their ability to manage four stomachs was impressive, and they had a wonderful ability to scan their surroundings for possible threats.

As anyone who grew up on a farm could attest, they were not particularly noted for their ability to solve complex problems. Although the Minotaur was at least somewhat smarter than the average cow, as evidenced by its ability to wield weapons, there were newborn infants somewhat smarter than he average cow.

The Mintoaur, without seeing any results from its frantic slashing at the divine twists to reality, dropped its attempts to cut them apart and lowered its head to charge.

“Now!” Crystal bellowed the moment it stopped.

Each of them changed what they were doing. Ryan grabbed every available photon in the cavern, throwing them in a weak imitation of Tyr’s sunbeam spears from so long ago. Athena heated the ground it was standing on so rapidly it skipped turning into a liquid or gas and went straight to a plasma. Anansi cut a segment of the ceiling above it, dropping over a hundred tons of stone on its head,  and Dianmu threw her hands together, causing spears of the ground Athena hadn’t touched to rise up towards the Minotaur’s gut. For her part, Crystal waited until every other gods effect hit, and then grabbed every bit of available matter and turned it molten for just long enough to trap the brute if it somehow survived all of that.

The last thing she saw was utter confusion on the Minotaur’s face as it was engulfed in divine fury.

In the aftermath of all that, the air seemed almost too silent. After the silence had gone on for just a bit too long, Resheph broke it with a low, “Damn, I’m glad I haven’t done anything to piss you all of.”

Ryan paid it no attention. As the silence echoed through the field, horns sounded from a distant structure, one that reminded him of a fresh and maintained version of the buildings he had seen on Olympus all those weeks ago.

They’d beaten the Minotaur, but in doing so, they left the doors open for any horrors left in the Labyrinth to break free.  What was worst, they’d lost the element of surprise.

Moloch knew they were here.

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The Dragon’s Scion Part 21

She didn’t stop until she got to the edge of the water barrier. She managed to get her tears under control by then.

Anger and frustration fed into hunger from earlier, and she realized she was ravenous. Several fish swam up to peer at her, gulping as their fins fluttered. She shoved her hands into the water and grabbed one.

One difference between dragon flame and normal fire is the former could burn underwater. After holding it in there a few minutes, flame engulfing her hand, the fish was nicely boiled with the parts that her hands had been in direct contact with where freshly seared. She pulled it out and sat down there, by the edge of the water, picking at the meet and shoving it into her mouth in big chunks.

When Karjon had cooked for her before, she’d always had to wait for the meat to cool down to avoid burning her mouth. Now that she was part dragon herself, it seemed that wasn’t a danger anymore, and it was just pleasantly warm.

“Oh, by the light, do you have to eat like that?”

Tythel glanced over her shoulder to see the last person she wanted to see right now. Haradeth.

“So now I can’t even *eat* right for you?” Tythel snarled, half tempted to toss the fish in his face. “Go to shadow where you belong, I don’t know what is wrong with how I eat, and I don’t care.”

Haradeth winced, and held up a hand. “I…flath. I didn’t come here to push you further.”

“Oh, you didn’t?” If it was possible for one to defiantly take a bite into a half eaten fish, Tythel managed it. “You seem to be terrible at that, then.”

Haradeth looked away as she spoke. “You…really have no concept of how civilized people eat, do you?”

Tythel swallowed the bite she had been chewing. “The first humans I ever met tried to kill me. The second humans I met nursed me back to health, then split the difference on selling me to the Alohym or calling Nicandros. The fourth group of humans I met included *you.* Humanity has me unimpressed so far.” She took another bite, and swallowed it before he could speak. “Although you’re a demigod, so I guess it isn’t fair to hold you against humanity.”

Haradeth frowned. “I’m trying to apologize to you!”

“Oh, is that what you’re doing?” Tythel finished the last bit of meat and tossed the head into the ocean wall for the fish to nibble on. “Because you haven’t actually apologized yet. You’ve only berated me for not eating like a civilized person. I’ve met civilized. So far, I’ve seen little to recommend it.”

“You’re impossible.” Haradeth scowled at her.

“No, you’re just terrible. And the worst part is? I kind of want to accept your apology. I know your mother is hurt, and I know you blame me, although I can’t fathom why-”

“Because we ran for your sake!” Haradeth snapped. “We were going to hold out, but suddenly the lost heir shows up and she wants us to run because you’re useful. Which left her forest undefended, which is *why my mother is dying.* And you, you don’t care. You look at the dying and wounded and it means nothing to you!”

Dragonic magic was a tricky thing. Human spellcasters had to tap into lumspring’s, which involved clearing their minds of all distractions. Dragons, on the other hand, tapped into the power inherent in raw emotions, which was why so much of their power was rooted in flames – but they had to focus the emotions, harness them into a raw power. Up until this exact moment, Tythel had never managed to do more than set her hands aflame and toss the fire like balls.

Haradeth’s accusations, however, caused fire to pour from her hands. If they had been facing him, it might have incinerated him, or at least seared him. As it was, her flame poured out of her hands in a torrent onto the sand beneath her feet. Haradeth leapt back a good dozen feet in a single bound in surprise before falling to his feet, and by the time she had reigned in the stream of flame, she was standing on a small island of cool sand in the middle of a sea of molten glass.

She stepped onto it before it could cool. Her shoes, which were already ragged and needed to be replaced, burned away as she stepped through the yellow liquid, but it felt like a warm bath between her toes.

“Never think I don’t care, Haradeth.” He was staring at her, his eyes wide and round. “Do not *dare* assume that. I wept for the men we could not save, and I was sick for the men we had to hurt worse to spare the Shadow. Their deaths and suffering will haunt me. Just because I don’t show it the way you prefer does not mean I’m above their pain.”

Haradeth glared at her. “What are you?” He hissed through his teeth.

Tythel shrugged. “I’ve told you. A historian, a princess, and above all else,” she leaned down to make sure she was looking directly into his eyes. “I am a godsdamned dragon, you jumped up demigod. Now,” she stood up, “I want to defeat the Alohym. You want to defeat the Alohym. So why don’t you stop being a prick for a couple hours so we can discuss it?”

She didn’t wait for his answer, same as she hadn’t before, and strode back to the meeting area. It was good to deal with Haradeth, but more importantly, she’d managed a piece of draconic magic she’d never managed before, a true stream of fire. It made her feel closer to her father, and for once thinking of what he’d say seeing her manage a stream made her smile, not want to tear up.

Haradeth didn’t like her. Haradeth might never like her, and honestly? He didn’t have to. He just had to work with her.

She could only hope she hadn’t lost that.

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