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.

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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Strange Cosmology Part 79

Incase you missed it, we’re skipping ahead in time a bit to get things back on track. Anansi and Athena have overcome the obstacle they were faced with, and the group has been following their drones. Thank you for your patience.


 

Crystal paced to the end of the hallway, then turned around and headed back the way she had come. The two drones with her followed obediently, like puppies not sure why their owner was wandering around the house.

It was one thousand, three hundred, and twenty three steps. On average. She supposed it would be more accurate to add the point seven that it technically came out to, but that always bothered her. How can you take seventy percent of a step? It was like digging half a hole.

A day and a half, by the way she was counting the footsteps. That’s how long since Isabel had vanished, and Crystal had been cut off from the rest of the gods. She’d spent almost the entire time pacing, knowing she had to conserve her strength. It wasn’t quite as dull as sitting on a dead world orbiting a black hole, but at least back then she’d been able to pass the time by wallowing in self-pity and guilt. Plus, the gravity had done some interesting things to the landscape, making the dust on the surface roll almost like the tide.

This time, her friends were still out there, and she could do nothing to help them. If they were even still alive.

She slammed one fist into the palm of the other hand. She hated not being sure if Ryan had undergone Apotheosis. I never should have let him come here. Bringing the possibly Nascent Eschaton into the Labyrinth was just begging to have the last million subjective years been for nothing.

The end of the hallway was reached again, and she started to turn again, when one of the drone’s crackled to life.

“Hello? Is this damn thing working?”

Crystal whirled to face it. The voice wasn’t Isabel’s. “Who the bloody hell?”

“Ishtar! I got the little robots working.” Crystal finally placed the voice.

“Resheph? What the sodding shit is going on? Where’s Isabel?” She practically shouted at the drone.

“Ishtar, I have no idea who Isabel is. I just woke up about two hours ago, naked in someone’s staging area. There were some computers and you lot were being watched. I’m guessing she’s behind this setup?”

Crystal frowned at the drone, “It’s Crystal now, love. What do you mean – was there any sign of a struggle?”

“Not much of one. A chair was knocked over, and one of the screens has a crack.” Reshaph was silent as Crystal thought. “If someone came here, they had to get past all the barriers y’all threw up.”

“Wait, those are still there?” Crystal blinked in confusion. “That’s not possible.”

“Eh, possibile’s a funny thing. A god couldn’t do it, y’all were pretty extensive. A monster sure as shit couldn’t do it. But that’s not to say there aren’t things that could have done it.”

Crystal’s frown deepened. “Angels.”

“Pretty much only thing I can think of besides the Creator that wouldn’t have left a trace,” Reshaph agreed. “Piss any of them off lately?”

“Only one I’ve even see this century was Uriel, and she’s on our side.”

“What about Lucifer?”

“Got himself offed by a mortal,” Crystal said dismissively, her mind churning. “I don’t see why Uriel would have taken Isabel. Only thing that makes sense is…”

“Moloch’s got himself a pocket angel. Er. That is assuming you all are still after him?”

Crystal nodded into the camera. “We think he’s trying to do to the Olympians what he did to your kin. We don’t know why, but it’s the only thing that makes sense.”

“Damn. Well, I’m looking for some payback. I’ll come join you all then?”

“We lost our navigator,” Crystal said, shaking her head as she did. “She’s who the angel abducted. Right now, best you can do is monitor for us.”

“I don’t know much about computers.” Reshaph said, his voice low and slow.

“Good news is, Isabel did most of the work. Just watch the monitors and the map it’s making. How close are the others to me?”

“Uh, hard to tell.” Reshaph paused for a bit, and Crystal could hear the sound of him muttering to himself. “Looks like Group B is almost to you, if they have a turn up ahead. Group A might be a bit further, but it really all depends on if things turn and where they do, you know?”

Crystal slumped against the wall, sinking from her feet to sit, resting her head in her hands. “The others, are they alright?”

“Near as I can tell. There’s supposed to just be four of them, right?”

“Yes. Brilliant. At least one damn thing hasn’t gone wrong.”

Reshaph let her sit there for a bit before speaking again. “I think you’re close to the exit.”

Crystal immediately sat up, her heart pounding. “Come again?”

“Well,” He said, dragging out the word, “the map shows where everyone’s been, right? Both other groups had a pretty long stretch where they never turned north, or if they did it was after heading South for a bit first. So I think you’re close. Based on what we see as they get to you, I might be able to figure the rest of the way out.”

“If I was there, I could kiss you,” Crystal said with absolute sincerity. “Reshaph, if you-”

The rest of her sentence was cut off when she saw them round the corner. Ryan and Dianmu. Before she could greet them, however, Ryan was gesturing and twists to reality dragged the drone into his hands. “Reshaph!” he shouted at the drone, “where the hell is my sister?”

It took some explaining to catch Ryan and Dianmu up to speed, and then for Dianmu to catch Crystal up as well. While Ryan spent some time calming himself after apologizing to Reshaph, Crystal spoke directly into Dianmu’s mind. “How’s he doing?”

Dianmu didn’t even blink as she responded. “Better than at first, but he’s become somewhat unspooled. Have you seen the other two yet?”

“Not yet,” Crystal shot back, watching Ryan closely. “Reshaph thinks the other two will be along soon, and we’re near the exit,” she said out loud. “We just need the data from their trip to be sure, love.” She put a hand on Ryan’s arm. “We’ll get her back.”

Ryan took another deep breath, and seemed to calm down some. “Thanks, Crystal.”

Dianmu cracked a rare grin. “I’ve been telling you that for the past two days, and she tells you once and you believe her?”

Ryan at least had the wits to look somewhat sheepish. “It’s only because she had two days of groundwork to work with?”

Dianmu paused and considered. “I’ll accept it,” she said.

Crystal relaxed, watching them. “Well, loves, I’m going to suggest you two try and fill any lingering hungers while we wait for Athena and Anansi. Once they’re here, we can-”

CLOP.

“…oh you have got to be sodding kidding me. Now?” She saw Ryan’s eyes light up with rage.

CLOP.

“Reshaph! Any update on Athena and Anansi?”

“Uh…yes. Looks like they’re almost there. Go, turn right, I’ll start figuring out how to get you out of there! What is that thing, anyway?”

CLOP.

“It’s the bloody Minotaur,” she checked Ryan and Dianmu, who looked like they were well enough to move. Which was good, because they’d have to be.

It was time to run now.

CLOP.


 

Next Page

The Dragons Scion Part 1

bonus

Prologue

On the path between a dying city and a mountain, a dying guardsman rode with a precious bundle in his arms. This was not the first horse the guardsman had ridden since leaving the city. The others had perished on the journey. He hadn’t even purchased this horse. Having long ago discarded his tabard and armor, this guardsman wore thick furs to keep out the bitter cold. Between that and the wild look in his eyes, he looked less like a guardsman and more like a bandit. It was fitting, in a way, that the third and final horse he rode was stolen.

His name was Comber, and he had been part of the troop assigned to protect the royal family against all threats. For ten years he had stood his post, alongside the royal family’s Umbrists. Comber didn’t have the Shadow-infused powers of the Umbrist. He had armor that had been forged with steel mixed with light, and a sword that had been blessed millennia ago with a dragon’s breath.

That was in the past.

He had a vow to protect the royal family against any and all threats. He’d fought when the minions of a necromancer had snuck in through the sewers. He still had a scar on his thigh from an assassin’s crossbow bolt meant for the King. He was not a coward, and he had thought himself beyond fear.

That was also in the past.

Comber looked over his shoulder. His pursuers weren’t there. He was alone here. There was nothing but a path through the woods, a path that had been cleared by game hunters who would head this way. It took a bold man to hunt in these woods, given what guarded them. The same being that drew Comber deeper within. His last hope for salvation.

The skies darkened, and Comber risked a glance upwards. There it was. That hole in the sky. The sun had passed behind it, casting a momentary shadow across the world. It was like the eclipse Comber remembered from when he was a child, but there was still light coming from the center. Small points showing stars unlike any he had seen before.

A few tiny dots broke off from the main circle. Comber shuddered at the sight. He’d seen what those dots could do when they got lower.

The bundle in his arms stirred when he shivered again, and looked up at him with bright green eyes. Awake now, the child’s face was placid for just a moment, those beautiful eyes flickering about. Then hunger set in, and the child started to wail.

“Shhh, little one,” Comber whispered, stroking the side of the child’s face. “Shhh.”

Still the child cried. She was just old enough to eat mashed food. Comber grimaced and looked around again. There was no one present. “Shhh,” Comber said, pulling on the reins of the horse. He reached into his pack. He still had some berries from the last town, and got to work mashing them into a paste with a mortar and pestle. At her age, the child had just enough understanding of what that smell and sound meant, and her cries turned to excited cooing as she reached towards his hands. “Almost there, little one,” Comber said. Or at least, he started to say. Halfway through the wound in his side reminded him of why he’d abandoned his sword, and Comber hissed in pain. Even the simple motion of grinding berries was too much for him.

He set the mortar down carefully. He hadn’t been able to get a spoon in his mad flight. The child was able to suckle the paste off his finger, and that would have to be good enough. Once she’d been fed, Comber held her with one hand and pulled the other inside his coat. He ran his fingers over the hasty bandage. It was damp. He wanted to look at the injury, but didn’t dare. He knew what he’d find. Black veins sprawling outwards from under the bandage, creeping along his skin. Last night, the veins had been halfway to his chest. Soon they would reach his heart.

He’d die then. Comber didn’t need to be a Physician to know that.

The child reached up and grabbed for his nose with hands wrapped in mittens. Comber let her grab it, then pressed his forehead to hers. “Soon, you’ll be safe,” Comber whispered to her.

Then it was time to transition the child to the straps wrapped around his chest, freeing his hands, and Comber resumed his ride to the mountain.

***

The horse – Comber had never bothered giving it a name – came to a stop, and the jolt rocked Comber awake. He blinked around blearily. He’d fallen asleep in the saddle somehow. Everything felt like it had been coated in a layer of wool. Comber worked one of his hands free of the glove and pressed it against his forehead. In spite of the cold, heat radiated from the touch. “Fever,” he muttered to the child.

“Bah-bah-bah-bah,” she said, which Comber took as affirmation. He smiled down at her, then looked around again. They’d reached the mountain.

“We go no further together,” he said to the horse. Comber had never been one to speak to his mounts, aside from commands. He preferred to make noises at them, reassuring ones. But in the grip of fever, Comber felt irrationally sorry for abandoning an animal he’d only had for a day. A stolen one, at that. “You’ll be able to find your way back to town, won’t you? Or maybe you’ll be able to run free now, without the need…the need…” Comber trailed off. What had he been doing? Talking to a horse, that’s what.

They were close to the base of the mountain, but not quite there. He could see it. Perhaps he could ride the horse a little bit further? He dug his heels in. The horse let out a huff of air and shook its head, instead backing up a few paces. “Of course,” Comber said, shaking his head. “Of course. A horse. A horse of course.” He laughed a bit. It wasn’t funny, but the child joined in the laughter. He patted the side of the horse’s neck again. “You smell it, don’t you?”

The horse shook its head violently and took another step back. That was all the confirmation Comber needed. The horse would go no further. “You know,” Comber said, getting ready to dismount. “I should have known. They eat you, don’t they?”

The horse did not respond this time, for it was a horse, and all it cared about was that it didn’t need to go any further.

Comber got one foot out of the stirrup, but the world started to spin. Instead of dismounting gracefully, Comber swung drunkenly, and collapsed into the snow. He had just enough presence of mind to turn around as he fell, landing on his back to keep the child safe. Comber growled in pain as the impact lanced through his back. The shock did wonders for clearing his head. The child, jostled by the fall, poked her head up and giggled.

“That’s right,” Comber grunted. “I’m silly, aren’t I?”

The child reached up for him, grasping for him. Comber put his finger out for her to hold onto.

He’d abandoned his station, and he knew he should feel guilty about that, but…the beings that had come from that hole in the sky were beyond anything that could be fought. Arrows bounced off their gleaming carapace. Swords were deflected with swipes from their unnatural hands. He had a duty, and he could only save one person.

He’d chosen her.

Comber rose to his feet and turned the horse around. It only took a nudge to get the horse trotting away from the mountain.

It would live. The child would live. That would have to be enough.

Comber made himself walk towards the mountain. Every footstep was like lead. He spotted a trail in the snow – someone else had come this way and left. They were human, or at least walked like one. It could be an Underfolk or Sylvani. It wasn’t the invaders. That much was certain. No one could mistake their skittering legs for human footsteps.

The mountain, at least, was free of snow. Impossibly free, and impossibly warm. A fire burned in the heart of this mountain. Not the molten fire of a volcano. A living flame. A hungering flame.

Had the fever started sooner than Comber realized? He’d been so certain of this plan. He’d heard tales of the flame that lived in this mountain. The tales had made it out to be one of the ones that did not feast on the flesh of Man or the other Intelligent Races. They said it had stood alongside the forces of the Light and Shadow against dread powers in the past. They said it was not to be disturbed, but would not slay – except for those that came to attack it.

But still…could he trust it?

It was too late now. There was nowhere else he was certain would be safe for the child. Not with that locket, secured carefully in a pouch in the swaddling. Even without it…would anywhere be safe from the invaders? Would anything? They hadn’t been killing innocents. They’d killed armies, they’d slaughtered guards, but any who did not pick up blade or spear against them was spared their wrath. Yet…Comber didn’t trust them to stop there. It was possible – nay, it seemed likely – that they were just starting with those that posed a threat to them.

“Not that we did,” he said to the child, who paused in her attempts to gum his finger to look up at him. “I hope, if you remember nothing else, you remember that we tried. We tried.”

“Burrrbl,” the child said happily.

“We tried,” Comber repeated. And they had. Nicandros, the captain of the royal guard, had commanded them perfectly. However, no strategy could overcome the fact that their weapons did no harm to the invaders. That was when Comber realized the only option was saving what he could. That there would be no victory here. Still, Comber had fought, until his wound. Then…he’d been even more useless in battle.

Time became unstable. Comber kept walking up the warm mountain and its bare stones. It was a gentle slope, which was the only reason he could progress at all. Ahead, he saw his goal.

A hole, high up the mountain. One far larger than would be needed for a man to pass through, and one too smooth and round to be the result of nature. This was not a cave. It was a lair.

Comber stumbled and dropped to his knees. The child started to wail again, startled by the jostling. Comber tried to shush its cries, but he was too late. Something was stirring in the lair, dragging itself forth from the depths. Comber saw golden eyes peering out of the darkness, followed by red scales and immense, bat-like wings.

Comber had never seen a dragon in person. Only flying overhead, and even then, such sights were rare. He’d expected them to crawl across a ground, like a lizard, but this one slunk with a cat’s grace. An older cat, one that was past its prime hunting days, but still possessing enough energy to move about. The dragon flapped its wings and took to the air, circling around Comber once before landing.

“I told Lathariel I would not be disturbed,” the dragon growled, and Comber was certain he’d made a mistake. Tears started to form in his eyes, unbidden.

“Please…” Comber said, but the dragon shook its head.

“I will not fight.” The dragon looked up, seeing the hole in the sky, and its nostrils flared. For a moment, Comber could see it considering…then it shook its head again. “I will not fight,” it repeated. “Leave this threat for younger drakes. Ones that have hotter flames.”

“Please…” Comber said again, then coughed. Flecks of something black came with the cough, and Comber moved with speed he didn’t know he still had, pulling the child free of the path of whatever those were. He groaned in pain and nearly blacked out.

“You are injured,” the dragon said, leaning down. “And you are ill.”

Comber nodded.

“I can heal your injuries,” the dragon said, after considering for a moment. “But my flames will make the disease spread quicker.”

“Not…me.” Comber coughed again. “Her.”

The dragon looked at the child. “She’s uninjured,” he said.

“Care…protect.” Comber’s vision grew dark. “She…she…is.” Comber’s vision narrowed. “She is…everything….” The dragon was barely visible now. The world was barely visible. The child stirred, looking from the dragon to Comber and back again, starting to make distressed noises. She didn’t fear the dragon. That was good. But she could tell something was wrong.

“I’m sorry,” Comber said to the child. He looked back up at the dragon. His vision was barely there anymore. He’d gone so far. It felt like part of his mind had been set on fire, to hold back death, and now that he was here, that flame had gone out. “Tell her…” Comber said, and then he started to cough again. “She is…”

“What should I tell her she is?” the dragon asked, after Comber had been silent for too long. When he got no response, the dragon Karjon leaned down. The man’s heartbeat had been so faint when he’d approached, Karjon could barely hear it. Now, though? Now there was nothing.

And the child started to cry.

Karjon looked at it. He’d never dealt with human children before. He knew they needed more comfort than hatchlings. Uncertain, Karjon reached out with one claw and retracted his talon, then brushed his scales on the child’s cheek.

Quick as a viper, the child grabbed Karjon’s finger tightly, trying to seek some comfort in a world that had abandoned her.

Karjon sighed. He had not had children of his own. He hadn’t planned on doing so. But…if nothing else, he could not leave this child to starve on his mountain. He carefully bit on the swaddling, making certain to only let his fangs touch the fabric.

Once these invaders had been dealt with, Karjon would take the child to the nearest humans. They would know how to handle her. He’d keep her safe until then. It shouldn’t be long. There had been many threats over his nine hundred years of life. They’d always been defeated.

There was no reason to believe this would be any different.

Chapter 1

“I have lived for centuries,” Karjon growled. “I dueled the Necromancer Gix and his army of undead. I was on the Council of Twelve, battling the Lichborne. When the mad Lumcaster sought to blind the world, I doused him in my flames. How is it that nothing has vexed me as much as you, little one?”

Tythel looked up at the dragon with eyes wide in feigned innocence. Sixteen years had passed since the mountain and the snow. She didn’t remember it, of course. Just as she did not remember what her name had been before coming here. Tythel was a dragon’s name, not a human name. For all Karjon’s bluster, she was not worried. In sixteen years, Karjon had never raised a claw in anger. “Father, have you considered that it is just because you love me so dearly?”

Karjon huffed and shook his head. “That cannot be it. I think it must be because I did not know how vexing your unique subspecies of humans can be.”

“Subspecies?” Tythel asked.

“Yes. Those strange beings humans call ‘adolescents.’ Or perhaps it is just a trait unique to daughters.”

Tythel beamed at him. The expression only came through with her eyes. In her books, humans would use their mouths to do things like smile and frown. Tythel understood, in theory, what those were, but the expressions didn’t come to her naturally. From what Karjon had said, she’d smiled and frowned at first…but with time, those had stopped. Now, she blinked rapidly to show her excitement. “Which would only matter because you love me. Therefore, I am still correct. And, since I am correct, I see no reason I should not be allowed to go.”

Karjon sighed heavily. “Tythel…”

“You said I could,” Tythel reminded him, trying her best not to sound sullen.

“I told you that, yes,” Karjon said. “I said you could go when it was safe.”

“I want to see other humans,” Tythel said. “Why can’t I go?”

Karjon sighed again, a sound that filled the entire cave that was his lair and their home. “When, exactly, did ‘because I said so’ become insufficient?”

“When I stopped being a child,” Tythel said. “You said when I was sixteen, I could go and see other humans.”

“I said that you could go into the village when you were sixteen, Tythel. I did not say you could do so the very next day.” Making that promise, back when she was nine, had been a mistake. He’d done it to get her to cease her incessant questions. He didn’t think humans of that age could remember things for so long.

“You’re splitting scales and you know it.” She folded her arms across her chest and glowered at him.

Karjon, who weighed in at just over six tons and had battled some of the greatest foes the world had ever seen, broke the staring contest first. Tythel tried not to blink when she realized that meant she was getting through to him. For all his fury and might, Karjon had always struggled to deny her anything. Still, he was not caving like he usually did. “Tythel, there are reasons for the choices I make. They are for your safety.”

“You always hide behind that, father. Are you planning on keeping me here the rest of my life? What are you hiding me from?

“There are those out there that would see you dead. Is that not enough explanation?”

She glowered at him again. “You know I can’t do anything if you don’t tell me. But if you want me to leave it alone, you’ll need to give me more than that.” Her expression softened. “Please, father.”

Karjon settled down onto the pile of coins that made his seat. Tythel took the cue and walked over to her own, smaller pile. She didn’t have a hoard of her own. Not yet. But she would one day, although she was less than eager for that day. Dragons did not share a hoard. She’d have to leave that day, never to live here again.

“Perhaps…” Karjon started to say, then held up a claw to forestall her before she got too excited. “It is time you know of the dangers beyond this lair. Why I keep you hidden here. And tomorrow…” he studied her critically for a moment, then nodded. “You are old enough.”

“To go visit?” Tythel asked hopefully.

“Not yet,” Karjon said, shaking his head. “But tomorrow, I think you are ready for the one thing I know you want more than to leave.”

Tythel sat up straighter, her eyes sparkling with excitement. “You mean…you’ll finish the adoption?”

Karjon nodded, and Tythel leapt up to run over and wrap her arms around her father’s neck. “Thank you thank you thank you!” There were tears forming in her eyes, a human reaction she hadn’t shed with age, but these were tears of joy and not sadness.

“It’s past time,” Karjon said. “I just worried about how your body would react to the transformation.”

“I know,” Tythel said, although deep in her heart, she’d worried that he wouldn’t do it. That she wasn’t good enough. She’d never told Karjon that. If it wasn’t true, it would have broken his heart. If it was true…she couldn’t have handled that. Now, though, she was practically vibrating with anticipation.

Karjon put one of his claws around her, in his version of a hug. From what he’d said, dragons did not engage in touch the way humans did, but one of his books had told him a lack of touch and affection could kill human infants. Deep down, Tythel suspected he had grown to like it himself. “Now. Will you listen, and will you wait?”

Tythel nodded firmly.

“Then do so,” Karjon said, and Tythel settled back onto her coins. “Sixteen years ago, just days before you were brought to me…the skies let loose monsters.”

“Monsters?” Tythel asked.

Karjon nodded. “I do not know if they have a name. I know what Lathariel told me they were being called ‘Those From Above.’ They had weapons that sucked in light and spewed forth their own unnatural energy. Unlight, she called it.”

“And you fought them?” Tythel asked, excitedly.

Karjon shook his head, and in his eyes Tythel could see sorrow she’d never imagined from her father. “I am old,” Karjon said. “I thought they could be defeated without me. Even when I was told dragonflame was all that would harm them…I still thought they could be defeated. There were other dragons. By the time I realized…it was too late. Those From Above had secured power over humanity. They rule down there now. As far as I know, they only fear dragonflame.”

Tythel held up a hand and focused. A ball of flame formed between her fingers. “They fear this?” she asked. Dragonflame was similar to normal fire, but more vibrant. The transition from white to yellow to orange to red that happened in a normal flame was marked by clearer lines. Hers was weak. Not close to the true power of a dragon. She could barely call upon it, and couldn’t even touch the greater fires of ghostflame or heartflame. But it was not nothing.

“Yes,” Karjon said, and there was a somber note to his voice that Tythel couldn’t ignore. “By healing you when you injured yourself…you already formed the gift.  They will hunt you. For that and…for other reasons.”

“What other reasons?”

Karjon shook his head. “Not yet. There is much I have kept from you. You are old enough now, but…before that there’s something you need to understand.” He put one claw carefully on her knee. “Tythel…tomorrow, after the Ascension, the number of dragons in the world will go from one to two.”

Tythel stared at her father for a long moment, processing his words. She’d never met another dragon, but the idea there had been other dragons out there…she’d just assumed it. Realizing they’d been hunted down, there was only one thing to do.

She hugged Karjon again, and her father hugged her back. They sat there for a moment, before both of them could steady themselves enough to speak. “Tythel,” Karjon said. “I…have kept something else from you.”

“It’s so much,” Tythel whispered.

Karjon cocked his head. “Do you need time before the rest?”

Tythel considered for a moment, then shook her head. “A scholar’s first duty is to acquire all information before passing judgement,” Tythel said, repeating one of her father’s lessons back to him.

Karjon gave her a slow blink of amusement. “You listen too well sometimes. Very well. Your locket.”

Tythel’s hands went up to the chain around her neck. She’d worn it as long as she could remember. It was the one piece of her own hoard she had.  “You said it was my parents.”

Karjon nodded. “That locket is the other reason you will be hunted. It is the locket of the royal family.”

There was a moment of silence as Tythel stared at her father. “The…the royal family. But they…I mean…that’s…” Tythel sputtered off into silence. She couldn’t say it. “I’m…”

Karjon nodded, the motion oddly gentle. “You are the heir to the throne of your family. The throne of the kingdom of Dretayne. You are the next queen of this realm. And for that, you will be hunted as one of the barriers to the rule of Those from Above.”

Tythel took a deep, ragged breath, then nodded slowly. She couldn’t think about it right now. She could barely understand it. So she fell back on the lessons of her childhood. A scholar’s first duty. “Tell me everything.”

***

Tythel did not sleep well that night. She tried to, doing every meditation technique Karjon had taught her over the years, but she spent the entire night tossing and turning. The bed she slept on was one Karjon had gotten as a trophy from the Underfolk, those strange underground folk that were in Karjon’s stories, and it had been perfect for her when she was a child. But for the last two years, she’d been forced to scrunch up on it, leading to the impression the Underfolk were likely quite small.

In truth, Tythel was taller than most humans. Sixteen years of eating a diet of meat cooked in dragonflame and lifting and moving gold on a regular basis had left her with a build that was less princess and more warrior, but since the only humans she’d seen had been in her imagination, she’d had no idea how imposing a figure she could cut when she wasn’t comparing herself to a dragon.

She’d never complained to Karjon about the small bed. Other things, sure, but never that – or any of the other things he’d provided to her over the years. Tythel had known how lucky she’d been to have a dragon for a father. Karjon’s stories were full of tales of the legendary heroes of the past, Calcon the Brave and Rilan the Just and Brigith the Nobel and all the rest of them. All of them had started their lives as humble folk that had heeded the Call, which meant their lives had been the humdrum work of farmers and blacksmiths and other folk, and the stories all made that life out to be terribly dull.

She’d always imagined Karjon had rescued her from that sort of suffering.

Now she knew differently. She would have been a princess, daughter to a king and queen, living a life of luxury and wealth and, if the legends were any indication, would have either ended up spoiled rotten or kidnapped by someone to later be rescued. Other than that her life would have been one of formality and circumstance until she was married off to secure an alliance or to whoever had been strong enough to save her, regardless of their other qualities.

Tythel decided that, small bed aside, she still felt lucky to have been raised by Karjon. That feeling was quickly followed by shame at even considering an alternative.

She got out of bed and pulled her blankets and pillows to the floor, arranging them in a pile like the gold Karjon slept on. It wasn’t as comfortable as the bed, but it did allow her to stretch out, and that was preferable to being cramped into the bed at the moment.

The problem was, it wasn’t the bed keeping her up tonight. It was her mind.

Tythel had been on top of the mountain a few times every year, under Karjon’s careful eye. He had explained that if she didn’t get to see the sky every now and then, she’d probably go mad. The village had always fascinated her, and her entire life she’d wanted to go there, just for a day, to explore and celebrate. She wanted to see horses and soldiers and blacksmiths and maybe even a lumcaster if she was really lucky. Karjon had taught her some magic, the barest flicker of dragonflame, but it was not magic meant for humans.

Of course, that would change tomorrow. Well, her being human – she didn’t know if she’d gain any proficiency with her meager powers in the process. She’d have Karjon’s power running through her veins, becoming half dragon and half human. For most of her life, it had been the one thing she’d wanted more than going to the village.

The village. She turned over again.

From the mountain, it had been hard to make out details. She’d filled in those details in her head with ones stolen from her stories – thatched roofs covering star-crossed lovers, barns harboring hard working folk with wisdom gained from years of honest toil, scholars in cramped quarters trying to unravel the mysteries of the universe, chimneys smoking with fires that were roasting chickens or beef. Never in her life had she imagined the people out there were being subjected to tyrants that had more power than she could imagine. Never, not once, had she imagined that she was their ruler by a mere quirk of birth.

That thought got her turning again. Karjon’s stories had talked about something called “noblesse oblige,” the responsibilities that the nobility had to their people. Protect them, help them, guide them, and care for them. If she was a noble – a royal – didn’t the same thing apply to her?

Stop it, Tythel. Stop it.

But the thought wouldn’t go away. If she stayed here with Karjon, she was failing in her responsibility. The sixteen years leading up to this had not been her fault; she hadn’t known she had duties. After a moment of reflection, she decided they weren’t Karjon’s fault either. They were the fault of the mysterious Those from Above. Now that she knew, however…well, Karjon had always taught her that inaction was still a choice, the choice to do nothing.

Tomorrow, then, after the Ritual. She’d leave, no matter what. And if Karjon tried to stop her…well, then she’d have to do it alone.

And that thought, more than any other, caused Tythel to burrow as deeply as she could into the blankets before sleep finally claimed her.

Chapter 2

Waking up was a slow process, and Tythel had to drag herself out of slumber piece by piece. She’d been having a nightmare, one where the village was being shot by pirate ships in the sky. They’d been begging her for help, but Karjon had been shrunk down to the size of a whelp and she’d been hugging him to her chest to keep him safe.

Let’s…not try and dig into the metaphor there, okay? she told herself as she climbed out of her nest of pillows and blankets. She could hear Karjon already awake, moving through his pile of gold. She dressed hastily in some of the silk garments that were part of Karjon’s treasure.

“Good morning, father,” she said as she entered the main entrance room. She needed a moment for her eyes to adjust to the extra light that was being reflected off of the gold and silver and other precious gems. Once it was adjusted, she reached into the pile and fished out bracelets to wear, as well as a pair of earrings.

Being raised by a dragon did give one an appreciation for the aesthetics of lustrous adornments.

“Good morning, little one. Did you sleep well?”

Tythel stifled a yawn. “Well enough, I think.” They were both being so formal with each other, and Tythel hated it. But today was a formal day, so she put it down to that. It definitely wasn’t some kind of developing gulf between them. It absolutely wasn’t caused by the revelation that Karjon had been keeping from her a deep secret from her.

Certainly not.

Breakfast was bison roasted in dragonflame. As always, Karjon let her eat her fill, then devoured the rest in a matter of seconds. As he did, Tythel frowned. “I don’t understand – if Those from Above are so dangerous, why can you go out and safely hunt?”

Karjon finished crushing the last leg of the animal before answering. “The valley on the other side of the mountain? When I first came here, I had it placed under a powerful illusion by a Lumcaster who owed me a debt. Only dragons of my bloodline can see what is truly in there from above – I imagine after the Ritual, you’ll be able to see it as well. I only hunt within the valley.”

“Oh.” Tythel had seen the valley from above before, but was only now realizing she’d never seen any animals moving within. From further up the mountain, it seemed static and unchanging. “Can you show me how it works after the Ritual?”

Karjon chuckled. “If you feel up to it. Shall we begin?”

“Yes please.”

Dragon magic was vastly different from the magic humans employed. A human doing magic channeled one of two powers. Lumcasters drew from the power of the Light, coalesced in lumwells that were the center points of many human settlements. They could also store that light in specially made implements – their staves, their wands, their words, and their sigils – to focus their will into something that could influence reality. Umbrists couldn’t control the counterpart of Light, the Shadow, but instead could move through it. They often wore cloaks or boots partially made of calcified Shadow to aid their motion. However, a dragon’s body generated and stored its own powers. They were their own implements, and needed no such foci to channel the raw energies of creation. They only needed their knowledge and their will, and they could channel their flame and give it shape.

Which meant that, in spite of its name, the Ritual was a fairly plain affair. No fancy runes were needed upon the ground, no ceremonial vestments, no chanting. All it required was a subject, Tythel, and a donor, Karjon.

However, she did change clothes before the ritual. She liked what she was wearing, and whatever she wore for this would probably be ruined beyond repair. She changed into her least favorite clothes and joined Karjon atop the mountain.

There was a storm overhead, and cold wind whipped through the threadbare wool she wore. No precipitation fluttered from the clouds yet, but it would come. There was always a storm when they went to the mountain, and for the first time Tythel suspected that Karjon was summoning it to shelter them from the prying eyes of Those From Above. The more she thought about it, the more things started to make sense in that context. I’ll have to ask him about it.

But not right now. Now they were at the summit, and it was time to begin. She knelt down before Karjon, looking up at him, and he gazed down at her.

“Are you ready, my child?” he asked, his voice both firm and kind.

“Aye, I am prepared.” In spite of the cold, a warmth reached her. Her father, gathering his flames, and heating it within his gullet.

“Once this is done, it cannot be undone. You will forever be part human, and part dragon. Are you certain you want this?”

Tythel smiled up at him. “Father. You have raised me from the days before my earliest memory, and all that I am – save my form – I owe to you. I want nothing more than this, to be your daughter in blood as firmly as I already am in truth.”

Dragons couldn’t cry, not the way humans did. Their eyes didn’t leak water when they felt an emotion that would bring a human to tears. But that did not mean they did not feel, and Karjon’s nictitating membranes fluttered. It was a distinctive pattern, several flickers then a slight pause before another set of flickers. Happiness, not the sustained flickering of sorrow. “Then,” he said, his voice cracking with pride, “let it be done!”

He opened his mouth wide and let loose a torrent of silver and gold flame. It washed over Tythel. She screamed, but it wasn’t in pain. The sensation wasn’t like anything she’d imagined before. It was like she was being pulled inside out, but not violently. Like she was being snapped into the shape she’d belonged in since birth. A sense of wonder so overwhelming, she had to scream.

This was Heartflame. The flame of the forge, the flame of the stove, the flame of the surgeon. Heartflame did not damage what it burned; it cleansed them of impurities and remade them. A dragon could, if it so wished, breathe Heartflame on a human and clear away any injuries and diseases. It could breathe upon a lump of iron and not just turn it into Drakesteel, but also have it be formed perfectly into weapons or armor or whatever the dragon wished when the flames died down.

And it could engulf a young woman who was a dragon’s daughter in spirit, and remake her into his daughter in body as well.

The Heartflame faded, and with it the sensation. She collapsed forward onto her arms, which shook with an exhaustion her mind did not feel.

Everything was brighter. The snow atop the mountain was clearer, and she almost imagined she could see individual flakes. Then the realization crept up on her that she wasn’t imagining it; she really was seeing the flakes, and she started laughing in amazement. Tears began to well in her eyes, and a film began to flit across her vision – she had eye membranes of her own now, and could properly emote as a dragon. Her hands still looked like her hands, even to her enhanced vision, but when she held them closer she could see the little lines that had marked the back of a human hand were now regularly shaped and smoothed into patterns. Tiny, near invisible scales.

That made her laugh as well. “Oh by Light and Shadow and all the little gods, it’s beautiful!”

She looked up at her father, and although dragons could not smile the way a human did, she knew him well and could see the joy in every line of his face. Sound was flooding in as well. She could hear the gentle ring of snowflakes on the mountain, she could hear the deep and rumbling beat of Karjon’s heart, she could hear the beatings of the wings of a nearby flock of birds, and she could hear, coming from the clouds, the deep sound of metal grating on metal.

That last sound cut through the joy like a dagger through the heart. “Karjon, do you hear that? There’s metal in the sky.”

Although Tythel was new to her enhanced senses, she was young and her hearing was far better than his. He hadn’t heard it until she pointed it out, and even then it was only the faintest sound at the edge of his senses.

This meant that they were both still processing the sound when the ship breached the cloud like a shark cresting above the waves, a vessel three times Karjon’s size and armed with tentacles that were tipped in violet crystals that hummed with aberrant energies.

Karjon didn’t have time to shout a warning. He turned around as quickly as his bulk would let him and reared back, readying a gout of flame. At the same time, the abnormal crystals began to glow. Although Tythel realized that glow wasn’t the right term. The air around the crystals was growing darker, and they seemed brighter by contrast.

Then both sides let loose their attacks. The beams of unlight that erupted from the tentacles converged into a single beam that raced toward Karjon’s flame, and where they impacted the fire began to split, shattering into individual threads of flame that went wild from their target. Similarly, the Dragonflame seemed to consume the beam like it was kindling, and an unnatural green smoke began to erupt from the impact.

Tythel tried to rise. She could feel energy welling within her, a desire to join the battle, but as soon as she reached her knees she was betrayed by her own muscles. Although she was still feeling fine mentally, energized by the Heartflame, her body had just reworked itself on a fundamental, physical level. It was exhausted, and let her know by driving her back down to the snow.

Karjon’s flame winked out when the beam died down. She could see the ship better now that it was clear of the clouds. It looked like some tentacled monster from the ocean depths, an octopus made of steel and affixed to the sky against all sense and reason. Two transparent spots were mixed in like eyes in the steel, and with her newly enhanced senses Tythel could see figures moving behind them.

Smaller pods began to detach from the main vessel, and their falling was slowed by glowing balls of energy at their – Tythel squinted to make sure she was seeing it correct – feet. Yes, those were feet, and the pods were in fact suits of armor in the shape of men, each one as tall as Tythel. They didn’t fall according the laws of gravity, instead descending down in an arc that was carrying them closer to Karjon.

“The people!” she shouted, but Karjon was busy, because the main vessel was firing its unlight again. This time he could not counter it directly, because they were not aiming for him, but rather at a spot a bit further down the mountain. They were trying to cause a collapse, and it was taking all of Karjon’s effort to keep his flame between the attacker’s beams and their target.

Move! she screamed at herself. Are you going to die in the snow like some helpless princess, or are you going to fight like a dragon?

Somehow, she found the strength within her. It was like a physical thing, a well deep under the surface she had not tapped before. She stood, and when the floating armor began to close she reached into that well to call upon her limited pool of draconic magic.

She did not have the strength to summon a pure flame like Karjon could, even now. But she could call balls of fire to her hands that she could hurl at their attackers, and those did burn hotter than they ever had before. Her hands shook with the effort of standing and using her power, making aiming nearly impossible. Of the twelve she threw, only two found their marks. One enemy raised its hands in defense. The motion sent the suit tumbling end over end. He started to fall like a rock, and with his feet facing the sky, couldn’t right himself.

The other suit was impacted squarely on the chest. It wobbled slightly, but continued to approach.

“I can’t hurt them!” she shouted, turning to see Karjon.

He had found a break in the unlight of the ship, and angled his flame upwards. It raked across the bottom of the vessel, a flame more concentrated than anything she had ever seen Karjon make before, so bright it was nearly white. She had to avert her eyes at the sight. When her vision cleared, the underside of the vessel glowed red from the heat. If it had been normal steel or something comparable, Tythel was certain it would be molten slag.

It wasn’t, however. The ship was heated, but it was not damage, and the crystals were beginning to suck in the light again. They’d fire again soon. Karjon was panting with exertion. His flames were reaching their limit.

“The valley!” Tythel shouted as the idea struck her. Karjon turned his head towards her and just gave a quick, short nod. She hopped onto his back, grabbing onto the spines behind his wings. Karjon kicked off the top of the mountain and began to flap his wings with all his might moments before the beam impacted they space they’d just vacated, shearing off the top of the mountain as easily as Karjon’s talons tore open bison hide.

Then he was diving, and she was holding on as tightly as she could, her aching muscles already screaming in protest.

Beams of unlight began to race towards them from the falling pods. She could see what they were using to launch them, as small tentacles erupted from their suit’s wrists. The large beam from the ship also tracked them, closing the distance faster than Karjon could fly.

A beam of unlight struck her in the shoulder, and she nearly blacked out from the pain. If she hadn’t been reforged in Heartflame, she probably would have lost the arm. As it was, the arm lost all strength, and she had to focus entirely on holding onto Karjon with her remaining limb.

The main beam stopped. For a moment a surge of relief pierced the pain in Tythel’s mind as they dove to the safety of Karjon’s illusionary valley – and he had been right, she could see through the illusion now – but already the tendrils were warming up again.

This time it was not a single beam, but a volley of them, each enemy firing a single beam in a circle around Karjon that snapped shut like a clenching fist. Her father twisted in the air, trying to dive through the gap, but the space might have been too tight, or maybe he was just moving slowly so he wouldn’t throw Tythel from his back. Either way, it had the same effect.

She could do nothing but watch, screaming in horror and rage, as the beam cut Karjon’s right wing in half. He roared in agony, and then they were falling towards the valley below.

Tythel’s only comfort as the irresistible pull of the ground asserted its dominance was that, at the very least, their attackers wouldn’t get to see them die.

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