The Dragon’s Scion Part 165

Ghostflame washed towards Tythel’s targets like a cresting wave. She didn’t sustain the burst, having learned from her past attempts how badly that would damage her throat. It came out in an arc of flame that rushed towards her adversaries.

Their reaction was immediate. Catheon’s wings flicked to life and pulled him into the air, away from the fire. Leora dove into the shadow of a bush and vanished. Daetor threw up his hands and set a half crescent of light between himself and the flame.

Ghostflame could penetrate any physical matter, leaving it unharmed, to sear the very soul of the creatures it struck. In the past, when dragons had attacked human settlements, they’d sometimes fly low and let loose a long running wave of ghostflame as their opening barrage, leaving dozens of seemingly unharmed corpses in its wake.

Tythel had hoped it would pass through Light with the same ease, but instead the wave broke when it hit Daetor’s barrier. It wasn’t completely stopped again. Instead, Daetor’s lumwoven construct caught aflame, as if it was thick wood.

Exactly what happened after that, Tythel didn’t see. She was already moving, leaping from the branch of her tree and onto the next. She’d given away her position with that trick, but that had been an expected consequence.

Her movement was proven to be the correct choice mere moments later. An unlight beam came down from above, and the tree she’d just vacated detonated like it had been struck by an entire storm’s worth of lighting. Splinters of wood bounce off Tythel’s scales.

All right, now he’s going to have to come back into the illusion to see and…The droning of Catheon’s wings betrayed his approach. He was alert this time, ready for her to shoot another blast of flame his way. Tythel tensed, waiting for him to draw closer. “Oh won’t you please come out,” Catheon said in a mocking voice. “I want to end your life, and if you do, I’ll make it painless.”

His path drew him close to her tree. The moment she thought he was distracted enough, she propelled herself out of the tree with all of her might.

Catheon didn’t try to dodge this time, instead shooting a beam of unlight the moment she started to move. If she’d tried another burst of flame, the beam would have cut her in half. Since she’d leapt, it passed under her. Catheon swore in surprise and Tythel brought up her feet. She hit his chest and sunk all four sets of talons into the black carapace that surrounded him.

The scream that Catheon made had no trace of human pain in it. It was just that strange buzzing that overlaid his speech. His flight began to falter, and they started to fall towards the ground.

The moment Catheon was between Tythel and the dirt, she kicked off, pushing herself upwards and propelling Catheon even faster down. His wings began to flitter furiously, and he stopped himself a mere span before he would have slammed into the ground. His wings kicked up a storm of dust as he righted himself. Black fluid leaked from where Tythel’s talons had torn the carapace.

Tythel turned her leap into a flip and landed in a crouch, letting loose a torrent of ordinary dragonflame the moment she touched the ground. Her blast met Catheon’s unlight beam midair. Just as Karjon’s flame had once meat the unlight cannon of an Alohym ship, and as Tythel’s flame had met Rephylon’s.

Catheon wasn’t interested in a protracted trade of fire, however. He dove to the side, breaking off his beam as the flame passed through the space he’d just vacated. He turned his dive into a roll and came up on his feet, shooting another beam at Tythel with the movement.

Tythel was already moving, dashing to the side. Their fight turned into a mutual circling, Tythel sending quick bursts of flame in his direction, Catheon lashing out with unlight beams. Both of them were avoiding the shadows that surrounded their battle.

There was another war happening there. Tythel could catch glimpses of a fight in the shade of the trees, Leora and Eupheme appearing for brief flickers to slash at each other before both vanished. Leora struck in one flash, and the coppery taste of blood reached Tythel’s nose. Eupheme! 

The distraction nearly cost her the battle. Catheon shifted one of his arms into a wicked, scythe-like blade and dashed in. Tythel barely managed to duck under the blow and lash out with a slash of her own, forcing the half-Alohym back. Catheon took to the air, merging his arms into a single unlight cannon.

It was a reflex he’d likely developed over dozens of battles, and it would have served him well in most fights. In this case, however, the instinct played in Tythel’s favor. He cursed as he passed through the illusion, and Tythel dove under the trees while he’d lost track of her.

Then she slashed wildly with her talons, two quick arcs that cleaved the air. On her left side, she felt something give under the slash. Leora let out a surprised yelp and vanished again. Strips of cloth hung from Tythel’s claws. I didn’t hit her. She’s going to be re-appearing any moment, and knows I can’t cover my back with that trick, so-

Tythel leapt into the air and kicked backwards. She felt the impact all the way up her back as her heel hit Leora’s face and sent her stumbling away. Tythel landed awkwardly on the ground.

Eupheme appeared then, driving her dagger towards Leora’s heart. Leora vanished before the blade could end her life. Tythel stood back up and gave Eupheme a shaky grin. “Looks like we-”

She didn’t get to finish the sentence. Her left arm exploded in pain before Eupheme could even shout  warning. Catheon gave Tythel a sick grin as he withdrew his arm-blade from Tythel’s shoulder. He hadn’t been flapping his wings to hide his approach and had used the cover provided by her missing eye to his advantage.

Tythel drew her warhammer and swung for him, but Catheon was still inhumanly fast. Her blows struck only empty air as the half-Alohym drew away, and his mocking laughter made Tythel’s blood boil.

The first engagement had left Tythel and Eupheme injured, and only knocked Leora senseless for a moment while scratching Catheon’s armor. There was no sign of either Tellias or Daetor.

Fear gripped Tythel’s heart. If this was how the fight went…don’t give up. Not yet. 

This time, when Catheon approached, Tythel was ready.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 153

The Portal Stones – Haradeth refused to think of them as boogers, even if he’d say the word aloud to placate Bix – were objects spread across the world. Myths from various cultures held different significance to them. The Cardomethi had claimed they could access the realm that the ancient Alohym had used when they left. The Dor’nahi had maintained they were gates to the true ancestral home of humanity, and would one day lead them back. The Kingdom, before it’s fall, had believed them to be pagan iconography from a pre-Light religion. The warriors of Xhoa held they were gateways to the Shadow, where their Holy and Eternal War would one day spill out of that realm and into the mortal world. The Underfolk had held the belief that they would lead to a world where there was only darkness above and light below, a sacred land where humanity would be forced to live beneath the Earth.

In hindsight, Haradeth realized it should have been telling that the Sylvani were the only peoples who didn’t ascribe any significance to them. Sylvani travelers, when asked about the stones, would only repeat one of the other culture’s legends. Usually with song and drink, because the Sylvani bought their way into acceptance through entertainment when they could, and getting the locals too drunk to organize a mob when they could not.

To the best of his knowledge, no one had asked the Alohym what they believed the stones would lead o. They might not even be aware of the portal stones’ existence.

He voiced that possibility to Bix as they were gearing up, and she shrugged – an expressive gesture with metallic limbs. “Who knows? But I’m guessing not. If those things could have accessed an interplanetary method of rapid transit, I think they would have lept on it with all four hands.”

“You mean they could have activated it?” Haradeth asked. That thought had never occurred to him, and its implications were disturbing. Were they just handing the Alohym another weapon to use in their domination of the world?

“Not without me stabbing them lots. Even Anoirita would have acted then, I think. The only way to fully control the boogers is from here, and the Alohym would have come here if they knew. Also, if they knew what the boogers were, they probably would have figured out that we hadn’t all died out. They would have come and murdered everyone in the face. Except me. Because I’d be stabbing them, you see.”

Haradeth nodded, a small part of him surprised at how easily he’d come to take the little automaton’s violent nature in stride. “But once we activate them, can they trace it back here?”

“Probably not.” Bix looked uninterested as she worked on the console.

“Probably?” Haradeth asked.

Bix sighed. “Haradeth. We last fought the Alohym like, back when your people were deciding that eating cooked meat was a better long term plan than waging wars with flung feces. Excremental artillery. Shit showers. I think that’s all of them.”

“Okay, I just don’t-”

“Wait, no, I have one more. Crap catapults. Okay, now I’m good. What was your most likely stupid question?”

Haradeth waited for a second to make sure Bix was, in fact, done with her jokes. She motioned for him to continue. “I don’t see what that has to do with them being able to hijack the portal stones.”

“Because we’re talking about thousands of years, no matter what world you’re on. I wasn’t just making fun of you for being a bunch of monkeys who developed culture and decided it made you rightful masters of this world. Back then, you had…flath, I used all the good terms. Insert a scatalogical weaponry reference for me okay? Okay. But by the time the Alohym arrived, you’d gone from that to castles and catapults and stabby death, which is a much more refined way of waging war compared to the poop. Even if the Alohym hadn’t shown up, given thousands of years, even you idiots would have figured out arcwands. Technology grows and changes. The Alohym couldn’t crack the Transmatter Warp Platforms back when they invaded us, so they might not be able to crack it now. Or perhaps they’ve figured it out in the millennia in between.”

“Wait, what did you call the portal stones?” Haradeth asked.

Bix pressed a knife against his throat. “Boogers?” Bix asked.

“Boogers,” Haradeth agreed.

The knife vanished, as fast as it had appeared. “It’s a Transmatter Warp Platform. It bends spacetime curviture so the distance between here and there is shorter. It’s their proper name, but I long ago gave up trying to get you people to call them by that. Since you insist on calling them portal stones, I decided to give them an equally stupid name. Thus, boogers. Now, I’m almost ready. What’s the plan?”

“Plan?” Lorathor asked, walking around the corner. The Sylvani was wearing some kind of blue armor that reflected light in a dull manner. It was unlike any metal Haradeth had seen before. He’d told Haradetha bout it. It was a cultural artifact of the Sylvani, but they could be used with special approval. Bix had a suit she could authorize someone to use. The…what was it Bix had called them? The polycarbons in the suit would shift to match the wearer’s natural shapeshifting, allowing Lorathor complete access to his natural talents.

“Yes. Plan.” Bix gave them both a level look. “You don’t have a plan?”

“I didn’t think you’d be in favor of one,” Haradeth said.

“Of course I’m not. It’s no fun messing up someone’s plans if they don’t have one.” Bix crossed her arms and glared at Haradeth.

“Well, that’s part of why I didn’t have one. You can focus on the fact that we’re disrupting the Alohym’s plots?”

“Patronize me again and I’ll…flath, these are complicated equations, even for me. Do me a favor and assume I threatened you and you were truly terrified of it.”

Haradeth thought for a moment and discovered coming up with possible torments Bix could unleash was more frightening than any of the threats she’d actually make. “Done,” Haradeth said.

Bix nodded in approval. “We’ll only have a few seconds. This is some slipshod math. But it will get us there, and there is a ninety-six percent chance we’ll arrive with every body part we left with.”

Bix pushed a button on the console, and the air over the Portal Stone distorted. As Haradeth watched, it folded in on itself, almost like someone pulling a sock inside out, if the sock was the fabric of reality. It hurt his head to watch. “Wait, what was that last thing you said?”

“No time!” Bix said cheerfully and dove through the portal. Haradeth gaped at Lorathor, who laughed and followed. Swearing under his breath, Haradeth jumped through after them.

The portal snapped shut after them. They were in a treasure room lit by dozens of Alohym arcglobes. There were three soldiers in here, staring at them in mute astonishment. “Get Theog-” one of them started to shout.

For his quick thinking, he died first. A dagger sprouted from his throat, moving so quickly Haradeth could barely track it. Bix stood there, grinning at her handwork. The two soldiers remaining began to raise their arcwands.

Haradeth dove for cover as one of them opened fire, unlight ricochetting off a pile of gold. Lorathor closed the distance between them in two great strides, unlight glancing off his armor. The third stepped around and took aim at Lorathor’s back, and Haradeth hurled a gold plate like a discus.

It hit the side of the man’s head and lodged in there.

Bix chuckled. “I knew I kept you alive for a reason.”

“Lorathor.” Haradeth pointed down the cororidor. “Wear one of these faces, and tell Theognis the portal stone activated. Then find Armin and the others.”

Lorathor started to run, his skin and armor already running as he did. Bix gave him a sideways look. “I’m no strategy expert, but why did we just give up the element of surprise?”

“Because we didn’t,” Haradeth said, taking cover. “He’ll be expecting resistance fighters. He definitely will not be expecting a godling, and he can’t possibly be prepared for you.”

Bix nodded at that and headed over to climb into a cauldron. “I’ll pop up when he least expects it. Then I’ll stab him.” She clambered up the side and looked in. “Hey, Haradeth, if someone’s in here, should I stab them? She looks…weird.”

Haradeth ran over to the cauldron and looked in inside.

A half alohym woman was huddled in the bottom, staring at them both with wide eyes.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 147

I never thought I’d be coming back here, Tythel thought as the Skitter broke free of the forest and the entrance to Karjon’s valley loomed above them. Once upon a time, this had been her entire world. Those stone walls that rose up from the floor of the valley had been the edge of reality, the furthest she’d even gone. They were as she remembered them, large and spiked and imposing. The morning sun had started to rise behind them, changing them from black shapes rising in the darkness to dark gray. Tythel’s memory of these stones only had them a few shades lighter than what she was seeing now. Once they passed through the gap she’d exited through all those months ago, they’d be back in twilight for another thirty minutes, until the sun managed to crest over their peaks.

As imposing as they were, they also seemed smaller than she remembered. Her memory held them as these huge, imposing, structures. Completely impassible and as implacable as if they’d been wrought of iron. Now, however? They were formidable, but Tythel had seen Alohym Warmongers annihilate forests in a single shot. She’d seen their Chrysopods shatter walls twice the height of this with beams of Unlight. She’d seen things she never could have imagined. The walls that had once been the border of her world now lacked…something. Like the walls had shrunk in the year she had been gone.

What made you? She wondered, bringing her eyes up to look at the grey stone. It was a question she’d meant to ask her father, when time had permitted. The valley was a crater, the stones that surrounded it where primordial stone had splashed up like water from some immense impact and then frozen in place. It was beyond the power of dragons, men, Sylvani, Alohym, and even the Small Gods to make such a thing.

If Karjon had known, he’d taken that secret to the grave with him. Their secret had not been recorded in any of his notebooks that she’d been able to recover.

“Share your thoughts?” Eupheme asked quietly. She’d wrapped herself fully in her cloak and looked like a blob of shadow that had taken residence in the pilot seat of the Skitter.

“I’m being morose,” Tythel admitted, forcing herself to smile. She’d gotten better at that since she’d left the valley, but this one felt faker than usual to her. “Thinking about what made this valley. The mountain used to be volcanic. Dad formed his lair in the old caldera. But the valley itself was the result of something before even his records.”

“Any idea what made it?” Tellias asked. It was a relief to have him join the conversation unprompted. The tension between them had been fading over the course of the ride, although there was still a gap between them that Tythel could still feel. It was, oddly enough, something on his face. Some expression she couldn’t quite place, but an expression she could still read on some level below the conscious.

“Logically, the easiest explanation was some huge stone falling from the sky, out of the void the Alohym came from. If there can be other worlds up there, it stands to reason that the myths of flaming stones that fall from the heavens are based on reality.” Tythel shook her head.

“But you don’t believe that,” Tellias said, shifting forward slightly. To conserve power, his arcplate wasn’t active, meaning he had nothing but his own muscles to move the dozens of stones worth of steel encasing his body.

“No, I don’t.” Tythel said. They were at the gap now, the one break in the wall that surrounded the valley. The space between the stones was not as mysterious as the stones themselves. Karjon had deliberately shattered the barrier there, to allow animals to travel in and out on their own. At least, that was the reason that Karjon had given her back then. But if that had been why, wouldn’t he have shattered it in the hundreds of years before her life?

No, it seemed most likely he’d done it in case anything were to happen to him, to make sure Tythel wouldn’t be trapped within the crater.

“I think it was the ancient Alohym. If it was a skystone, there would be more like this valley, but I’ve never seen anything like it. This…the stone cooled in an instant to form like this. That’s not how anything else works, other than the Light, but we have no lumwell here.”

“Light and shadow, that’s quite the thought,” Tellias muttered.

“It’s also good for us,” Eupheme said, pulling down the hood of her cloak. “The nearest Lumwell is back in Hillsdale, and it’s a small one. Their lumcaster won’t be able to pull much power from it. He’ll be limited.”

Tythel nodded. “We’ll also have shadows all day long around the edge, at least on this side.”

“We’ll need to get out of them,” Eupheme said, her shoulders stiffening. “If Leora shows up with them…she’s better in the shadows than I am. I think I can match her if we stay in the sunlight, but in a shadow that large, she’ll tear me apart. All of us, really.”

“You’re a bright little lumwell, aren’t you?” Tellias muttered.

“I’m a realist,” Eupheme snapped, with far more vitriol than Tellias teasing had called for.

“The important thing,” Tythel interjected, trying to get the words in before the argument between the two could ignite, “is that the illusion my father had woven over the valley will mean we can negate the biggest advantage Catheon has over us.”

The Skitter went silent at the mention of Catheon. Having a name for the human that wore an Alohym skin like a suit of arcplate should have made him less intimidating, less mysterious. He wasn’t some strange figure; he was a person with a name.

But instead, his name just raised more question. It wasn’t a human name. It sounded akin to Rephylon or Metymon or other named Alohym. Yet the voice inside was human.

“Even on the ground, can we really beat him?” Tellias asked.

Tythel shrugged. “I don’t know. But we can try. I’m sure of that much. And if we can manage to pull it off…we’ll have taken down a real threat.”

“And if we die, the drop I set up in Hillsdale will make sure d’Monchy learns of our fate.” Eupheme said. The tension was fading from her shoulder some. “At least he’ll be warned of what’s coming – and that we won’t be.”

Tythel nodded. She opened her mouth to say something, but then they were past the wall and in the valley.

Ahead, she could see her father’s tomb, and the sight tore the words from her.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 146

Edgeminster had become a prison with a thousand guards and a single prisoner. Poz pressed his back against the bell tower he had escaped too. Those strange flying monsters of the Alohym screamed through the air, their stalk-eyes scanning the ground for any sign of Poz’s huddled form. Alohym troops patrolled the street, relaying their orders through song stones built into their helmets. The worst was the omnipresent buzzing sound that flitted about the sky on gossamer wings.

Poz’s pursuer, the human that wore the skin of an Alohym, had arrived in Edgeminster.

Ratflesh was not the kind of flesh that was given over to hatred. Ratflesh was fear and cunning and curiosity, not love and hate. Those were the emotions of the High Flesh, of Crowflesh and Squidflesh and Apeflesh. Ratflesh was the cleverest of the Low Flesh, and still the most useful for right now.

This bell tower was well hidden from the ground. If Poz had crow, he could go for Crowflesh. Right now a Middle Flesh might fit better – cat or fox or hound – but the difference wouldn’t make enough of an impact to be worth the risk of trying to acquire the meat.

Also, those fleshes could know hatred. Right now, if Poz could know hatred, he would be distracted by feeling it for that flying bastard. He’d followed Poz across the continent twice, from the battlefield where he’d found the deathegg to the Barony of Axburg in the north and then again to the south at Edgeminster.

This thing had hounded Poz, and Poz strongly suspected that it was ultimately responsible for Nicandros turning against them.

If I could kill him…

Poz pushed the thought down. Ratflesh made it easy. Rats did not think of harming their predators to scare them away. Rats hid and only bit if cornered. It was the correct call to make here. That man could fly in the sky and fire beams of unlight from his hand. He was as dangerous as a true Alohym, and with the cunning of a human. Poz had no hope of defeating him.

Unless…

Poz reached into his pouch. The egg was still there, but he pushed that aside. There was something else there, a leather tube, tightly wound. He’d been carrying it since Axeburg.

No. Poz thought firmly, pulling his hand out of the pouch. It would be the height of folly to take that risk. There was no guarantee it would even give him what he needed to defeat the flying Alohym.

It would be enough to escape, though. 

That though stopped him cold. The temptation…Poz leaned over to peer out of the bell tower. There were Alohym soldiers along the walls, and imperipods watching each of the gates. There was no escape for him, not right now.

He leaned back before a flight of Skimmers could pass by again.

It couldn’t be all about the egg, Poz realized with growing horror. The egg couldn’t possibly be that valuable. Even if it was, the Alohym had sent an entire battalion down to Edgeminster to claim it. There had to be something else they wanted, and Poz was gradually becoming certain he knew what it was.

The last remaining deathegg would be an appealing target, especially if the Alohym knew better than Poz what it could do. Even if they didn’t, it would be a useful lever to have over the Dragon Princess that sought to reclaim her throne, the one that had killed one of their own. Yet…that couldn’t be everything. Not for this much.

Why did they pull the rest of my people back? Poz asked, for what had to be the hundredth time. Like the previous ninety-nine times he’d wondered that, he had no answer. As far as Poz knew, he was the only one of the Underfolk to remain on the surface. He’d thought it was because the Underfolk had feared the Alohym, but now…now he had to wonder if the Alohym might want some other prize.

The only sample of the Underfolk they could reach.

Poz shuddered and curled up into a ball around himself. Tears began to well in his eyes. It was too much. Too much. An entire army was waiting to keep him from breaking free of the city, and the only thing he could provide were more questions. Questions he couldn’t answer because he was not smart enough.

Not right now…

Poz reached into the pouch again, drying his eyes with his free hand. His fingers brushed against the leather pouch and, delicately, he removed it. He nearly dropped it from how badly his hands were shaking, terrified at the thought of what he was contemplating. Breathing slowly and steadily, Poz focused to forcing his hands to obey his commands as he unwound the twine that held the leather pouch shut.

Back when the flying Alohym had attacked him in Axeburg, Poz had been forced to crawl along the ground, searching for an exit. The Baron had already been hit by shards of glass and sliced to death. He’d been bleeding a few feet away.

Poz hadn’t been able to ask before taking one the Baron’s discarded fingers.

For weeks now it had been in his pouch, wrapped in leather and covered with salt so it wouldn’t turn or spoil. The finger was a brown and shriveled thing by now, the color of a mummified corpse. There wasn’t much flesh on it, but large quantities of flesh weren’t needed to trigger a transformation.

Manflesh. He was contemplating committing the great sin and eating on Manflesh. Again.

There were three Forbidden Fleshes. Man, Sylvani, and Dragon. Poz suspected that if they had not fled underground, the elders would have declared Alohym flesh forbidden as well. The flesh of other beings that were on part with the Underfolk in intellect.

He’d tasted it once before. It had been the most incredible experience he’d even encountered. It had also been terrifying. He’d understood why it was forbidden, understood so much he’d fed on Ratflash to stop the terrible, unstoppable understanding.

And now he was considering tasting it again. Of turning into…that again.

Poz wanted to scream. He wanted to be sick. The idea of that was…monstrous. If it was just his own survival at stake, he’d never even been contemplating this before. Yet there was something that the Alohym wanted. Something they wanted so badly they’d dispatched an entire army to retrieve it, turned Nicandros against his former friends with the promise of a resurrection, and sent the man who wore an Alohym to retrieve it.

Maybe it was the egg. Maybe it was his flesh. Maybe it was both.

It did not matter. The Alohym could not be allowed to have whatever they were after.

Even if it meant committing this sin.

The finger tasted of salt as it passed his lips.

The Burning Epoch Part 1

There are some events in history that everyone remembers where they were when it happened. Moments that define a generation, becoming part of their collective consciousness. For most of human history, that has been defined by assassinations, acts of war, and horrific disasters. For the last generation of the modern age, it was the moment the monsters came.

Kurt Weber was standing on his balcony, smoking a cigarette. It was seven in the evening, and monsters were the furthest thing from his mind. He was worried about the bills that were piling up and the fight he’d had with his girlfriend earlier that day. Jessica had texted him, letting him know she was going to bed and would talk to him tomorrow. Jessica never went to bed before ten, and he knew she was pissed.

It was the same old fight they’d had before, although this one had felt nastier, uglier. She didn’t like that he’d quit his job, not without having a backup plan. He got the anger, but if he’d had to listen to another entitled asshole scream at him because of corporate policies he couldn’t change, he would have gone to jail. He would have gone to jail because he would have been guilty of murder. Jessica had said he was being hyperbolic.

She was right, but it illustrated his point.

Today she’d asked him how the job search was going, and he admitted he’d spent the entire day playing video games. He’d tried to explain that he was streaming them, that he was up to two-hundred followers. He could make it as professional streamer, he’d already gotten his first donation! What harm was one day off from the job search? It’s not like there was a deadline.

They’d gotten ugly. She’d called him self-centered and lazy. He’d called her domineering and bitchy.

That’s when she said she’d go to bed, and he’d just responded with a single instance of the eleventh letter of the alphabet, a dismissive ‘k’ that showed how little he cared to hide how badly he’d cared.

He was just contemplating if their relationship of two years was at an end, if this fight was the final proof that they’d both changed so much since college that they weren’t compatible anymore, when the ground began to crack in the parking lot. Fractures spiderwebbed away from the initial spot. Oh shit, Kurt thought, his eyes bulging. It was right next to his car, and-

The cracks collapsed inwards, a sinkhole tearing open the earth. Kurt shouted a wordless denial as his car fell backwards into it, crashing against the sides with a couple others that were in the parking lot.

At first, he could only stare at it with his mouth hanging open. People started coming out of other apartments, and Kurt took out his phone and started to stream, some vague thoughts about having proof for the insurance company forming. “So, this is, um, my parking lot,” he said, struggling to find the words. “A sinkhole just, well, it just opened up. My car…my car fell into it. Oh Jesus. I could have been in it.”

A notification on the corner of his phone informed him his views were jumping. People were sharing this to social media. The only thing people liked more than watching someone play video games was watching someone freak out, and he was definitely doing that. “I…you can see that there are people around, looking…looking into the hole. It wasn’t just my car. Three…three cars in total. Yeah. You can see from, from here that the cars aren’t visible anymore. So, this sinkhole has to be…fifteen feet deep? Maybe more? I don’t know.”

He was up to ten thousand views, which didn’t quite register. He wasn’t being that interesting. Why the hell was this getting so much attention?

“Uh, so. I think I’m going to go out there, get a closer look for you all.”

Kurt turned around to go to his door and opened the sliding door with shaking hands. His phone was buzzing with notifications, but he ignored them. Instead, he stumbled through his living room, nearly tripping over the coffee table with legs that felt like they were made of gelatin. “I’m going to the hole,” he said, throwing open the door and running down the stairs. He only had one flight before he hit the ground level and burst out into the parking lot. A few other residents had appeared.

He glanced at his views. A hundred thousand, and the number was ticking upwards so fast the last digit was a blur. Excitement began to replace fear. He was going viral. He was going viral. It would be incredible. He’d start getting donations soon. If even a tenth of the people donated five dollars…he’d be able to replace his car. His poor, uninsured car. He could do more than that! He strode up to the edge of the hole with increased confidence.

“I didn’t see – all three cars that fell in were empty. I’m sure of it. No one was harmed in the collapse. If you could take a moment to donate, I’d really appreciate it. It would help me replace my car, which was – was swallowed by the sinkhole. I’m sure its totaled.” He leaned the phone forward, careful not to fall in himself.

“As you can see…or rather, as you can’t see, this sinkhole is too deep to see the bottom. It’s about seven pm here in Minnesota, but there’s a street lamp right next to the hole, so we should be getting some light, but…well, I’m turning on my phone’s light, and as you can see, it barely shows any deeper.” He glanced at the phone. Almost a million views. He could imagine what they found so interesting about a hole in the ground. He still was ignoring the notifications that sent his phone buzzing, focusing instead on the stream itself.

He wasn’t seeing the people screaming at him to run. He didn’t know that these people weren’t here for him, they were here for the hole. He had no way of knowing he was the first one to capture live footage of one of these.

But he got an inkling when a sound came out of the hole. A deep, rumbling sound that struck something primal deep within him, the part of his brain that still feared predators and knew what one sounded like. “Oh Jesus, oh Jesus Christ,” he said, but he remembered the stream, and managed to force himself to do more than repeatedly violate the third commandment. “If you were able to hear that – I don’t know how you couldn’t – there was…a sound from the sinkhole. I’m sure it was just…that it was just the earth settling.”

The sound continued, like two blocks of granite being dragged across each other, low and rumbling and far too terrifying to be caused by settling rocks. Kurt swallowed hard, a lump in his throat beginning to form. “Yeah…it’s the earth settling.”

Don’t break, he told himself. Two million views and growing with every passing second. “If you could, while you’re here…donations are always, always appreciated.” He could be rich by the end of this if people donated. “If you’re…if you’re just joining us, a sinkhole opened up in the parking lot of my apartment complex. It swallowed my car. There’s a sound coming from the sinkhole and…oh my Jesus what is that!?”

A shape was charging out of the hole, a shape that moved along the wall, climbing like some grotesquely large lizard. Its head was almost as large as Kurt’s torso. It heard his scream and answered with a roar of its own, that same deep rumbling sound he’d heard before.

All the money in the world couldn’t get him to stand there now. He backed away, still facing the hole, still holding up his phone. Other people in the parking lot that had come out to investigate were screaming too, screaming and running. Kurt wished he could say he was only backing away because of some kind of journalistic integrity, or at least some professional desire to still earn money.

The truth was, his brain had simply locked up with terror, and he couldn’t conceive of anything else than backing away with his phone’s meager flashlight still shining towards the horror that was crawling out of the earth.

It burst out of the hole, and Kurt captured the first ever clear picture of one of the creatures. It supported itself on arms that were long and solid, arms that ended in wicked claws that gleamed in the single streetlamp. It was covered in thick overlapping scales that formed black and blue stripes along its body, a body that was emerging from the hole to reveal it stood on its hind legs, powerful legs. It was built like a dinosaur, with four rows of great spines along its back.

The monster blinked for a moment and tilted its head back, as if registering how immense the world truly was, and let out another bellowing roar, a roar that shook Kurt down to his bones. It was a roar of defiance, a roar announcing to the world that Earth now had a new dominant species.

Then it turned its head toward Kurt, a narrow head like a lizard’s, a head full of teeth as long as Kurt’s fingers. It was easily four times Kurt’s height and twice a long, and a small part of Kurt realized he was perfectly bite-sized for this creature.

That’s when Kurt realized the truth of it. The now ten million people that were tuned to his stream had arrived to see one of these monsters. Many of them had wanted to warn him. They’d probably tried to warn him. But since he was ignoring it, they were content to watch him die. The monster took a step forward, its tail lashing the air behind it, and asphalt crumbled under its step.

The night air was broken by the sharp report of gunfire, a deep sound that echoed among the apartment buildings. Someone on a balcony was shooting at the monster. Most of the bullets bounce off its scales, but one managed to hit a weak point, and red blood that glowed with an unnatural light began to leak from the wound.

The monster shook his head, like a horse bitten by a fly, and turned in the direction of the shooter. It bellowed a challenge to this threat and began to stalk away from Kurt. The shooter was screaming, shouting in defiance or terror.

The creature reared back and opened its mouth, and Kurt expected it to roar again. It didn’t. Instead, its tongue lashed out of its mouth, shooting out like a harpoon, long enough to reach up to the third story balcony where the shooter was. The end of the tongue was like a starfish that wrapped around the man. He had time to let out a startled shriek and then-

-then he was dragged into the creature’s gaping maw. The crunch of bones was sickening, one arm dangling from the monster’s mouth.

The gun the man had been holding clattered to the ground, a few feet from Kurt. Still half paralyzed with fear, Kurt reached for it with shaking hands. In his mind was some vague ideas are about shooting the thing.

Then he found his legs and started to run, screaming, into the night. It wasn’t because the creature was sniffing the air, hungry for its next meal. It wasn’t because he could still feel the man’s blood, warm on the handle of the gun.

It was because a second pair of claws emerged from the pit, another creature emerging from the lightless depths below the earth.

The video would be shared over and over again in the coming days and months.

The day that the kaiju had come.

Small Worlds part 213

“Let’s assume for a moment I’m okay with the idea of generating natural disasters to appease the sun or however this works,” Ryan said, breaking the silence after Nabu’s last proclamation. Also, “I’m not, for the record, but let’s assume that I do. I don’t even know how. I haven’t even touched my Zoisphere since Crystal first showed it to me, and that was before the fight with Enki. That was ages ago.”

“Three weeks is ages?” Nabu asked, raising an eyebrow.

Ryan stopped and stared at him. “Three weeks?” he asked, his voice sounding hollow even to him. Everything that had happened – the fight with Enki, the battle with the super soldiers, delving into the Labyrinth…all that had happened in three weeks? It didn’t seem possible, but as Ryan thought about it, he realized it was actually the correct length. “Damn. It feels like a whole lot longer.”

Nabu chuckled. “You’ve been rather busy, haven’t you?”

“And still getting used to not having the normal mortal time measurements,” Dianmu said. “No breaths as a subtle reminder of the passing of time. No sleep cycle to mark the days. Hopping between time zones in your nanoverse, so you can’t even rely on the sun. No biological reminders that time passes. It took me a couple decades before I really got used to it.”

“Fair,” Ryan said with a sigh. “Okay, so it’s been a few weeks since I’ve seen my Zoisphere, and I don’t even remember much about it. Mind giving me a primer?”

Nabu looked over at Dianmu. “The workings of a nanoverse are only academic to me.”

“I’ll be happy to help,” Dianmu said. She motioned towards Ryan’s console. “Do you recall how to bring it up?”

Ryan nodded, getting up and heading over towards the console. A few button presses and screen swipes, and the zoisphere appeared.

It was a massive globe, seven feet from top to bottom, showing the entire world in exquisite three-dimension detail, right down to the clouds rolling over the landscape. Ryan was certain, as he was before, that if he could somehow zoom in on it, he could see individual people walking about – probably even individual ants. It was the entire world recreated in miniature.

All across the land on the globe, tiny dots were appearing and vanishing. Most of them were blue or red. “Okay, I think I remember how this works,” Ryan says. “Blue dots are someone being born, red dots are someone dying, right?”

Dianmu nodded and motioned Ryan over. “Let’s say you wanted to start a hurricane over the Atlantic,” she said. “All you have to do is grab the Zoisphere and rotate it – go ahead and do so now, you won’t hurt anything until the last step.”

Ryan swallowed a lump of fear and reached up to touch the globe. He could feel the clouds and waves beneath his fingers, although his hands offered no resistance. It took a slight tug, but the Zoisphere rotated until the coast of Africa filled his view. “Now, you need to open your divine sight,” Dianmu said.

Immediately, Ryan could see the world. He could see the equations governing airflow, controlling currents, governing tectonic shift. “Holy crap,” Ryan said with the most reverent tone ever applied to those two words.

“That’s what the Zoisphere does,” Dianmu said gently. “It lets you access the things too big to normally see. You can manipulate them here, but will find it far, far harder to control all the variables than you do normally. If you want to make sure you’re hitting a particular location, you’ll want to start the devastation here.”

“Why devastate?” Ryan said, rotating the globe to the side until Northern California was under his view. “All this power…why would I destroy?” He focused on the equations governing condensation, air currents, and precipitation. They were immensely complex, but he didn’t need to understand them the way he did when normally twisting reality. Instead, he reached out with his hand and grabbed some clouds from Seattle, pulling them down and duplicating them.

When he pulled his hand away, clouds were beginning to gather under his fingertips. In a couple hours, they would form a rainstorm, one that would travel southwards down the state and bring rain to one of the most drought-stricken regions in the world. Ryan turned to Dianmu. “All that power…there’s so much good we could do.”

“And so little time,” Dianmu said quietly. “That storm will bring some relief to the region, yes. But that moisture had to come from somewhere. Seattle will miss its rain very little, but if you did it long enough to stop the drought in California, you’d have to create a new drought in the northwest. The fact remains in this, as in all things, is that destruction is easier. Our powers offer very little shortcuts to creation.”

Ryan sighed. “Oh well. At least I did something good.” He started to move the Zoisphere back into its original configuration.

“What’s going on in Texas?” Nabu asked.

Ryan felt his blood run cold as the echo of the words he’d said to Athena so long ago reached his ears. His eyes snapped to Texas. He didn’t even need Nabu’s outstretched, pointing finger to know where to look.

Grant, Texas. The same city that Bast and Moloch had devastated weeks ago was now, once again, a hotspot of rapidly flickering red lights.

“Bast,” Ryan said, hissing the name through clenched teeth. “It has to be Bast.” Ryan turned around and ran to the console.

“Ryan, what are you doing?” Nabu said, frowning. “You can’t be sure it was Bast!”

“Yes, I can,” Ryan said, working the controls furiously. “Because it’s where she struck before. She went back to finish the job she started!”

“Probably to draw you out,” Dianmu said, crossing her arms as she thought. “She’s probably trying to get you to do exactly what you’re doing!”

“The entire world is at stake, Ryan,” Nabu said, his voice level. “It would be foolish to-”

“No!” Ryan said, looking up from the controls. The fury in his voice wasn’t directed at Nabu, but Ryan didn’t try to contain it. “No, I am not sacrificing a town to get ahead. I’m not letting those people die so I can stay safe. I might have to end the world. I might have to throw hurricanes and brew earthquakes. I might need to let hundreds of people die to give the world enough time to survive, but I’ll be damned before I let a town die because I don’t want to take risks. I didn’t cower when Enki was hunting me. I didn’t skulk away from the super soldiers. I didn’t let Moloch have free run of the Elysian Fields, and I sure as hell won’t let Bast slaughter a small town. There’s no point in saving the world if I don’t do everything I can to save the people on it, and this? This I can do. Are you two with me?”

“Of course,” Dianmu said. Nabu just nodded.

“Good. Then get on your game faces because we’re going to go to Texas, we’re going to open a divine can of whoop ass on Bast, and then we’re going to figure out how to save the whole damn world.” Ryan hit the button to start moving his nanoverse. He strode back over to his Zoisphere and studied Grant. “And I think I have a plan. For once.” He reached out and swirled his finger over the town to get a storm brewing.

He could only hope that they weren’t going to be too late.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 108

The entranceway of Grejhak’s lair was littered with the long rotten bones of the dead. They were scattered about with the careless hand of a macabre child’s toys, strewn without any rhyme or reason that Armin could see. He could feel the thrum of necromantic power in the air, like a wire drawn taught and plucked by a foul hand, but none of it seemed to emanate from the bones itself. You’re being absurd, he reminded himself. Without a necromancer present, the bones would remain bones, as inanimate and lifeless as the stones they lay upon.

He still gave them a wide berth and told himself he was doing it to respect the dead. He even almost believed it.

The others were giving the bones the same distant respect that Armin was, as if there was an unspoken agreement that none of them wanted to be the one to disturb whatever horror the bones represented. Claricia’s eyes shone with the light she was holding onto, and she held her hands outstretched, as if ready to unleash a torrent of raw light the moment something even twitched.

Armin approved of that mentality. Guiard and Ossman had their weapons unsheathed, with arclight glowing the blades of both Guiard’s sword and Ossman’s axe. Only Aildreda kept her weapon sheathed, to avoid giving away her position as she scouted ahead. She was a dim shadow at the mouth of the next room and was waving for Armin to come to her position.

“What is it?” Armin asked.

Instead of answering, Aildreda pointed deeper down the tunnel. It took Armin’s eyes a moment to adjust to the gloom. There were vague shadows there, slightly deeper spots against the grey stone. Armin looked a question at Aildreda, who nodded. He held up his hand and formed a globe of light around his fingers.

Five dead bodies sat propped up against the end of the hall. These had not laid here for countless millennia like the ones in that grim foyer. For starters, their flesh was still intact, although flies swarmed around and on them in a nauseating cloud. More importantly, they wore the imperimail of the Alohym foot soldiers. These men had worked for their enemy and had been here recently.

Armin’s black and orange eyes, so like an eclipse, met her emerald green gaze. “Have they moved?” he asked, his voice shaking.

Aildreda shook her head. “Can you feel anything?”

Armin focused on the rays of energy that swirled around him. They had the same sickly taint of death that Armin had been feeling since entering the swamp, like the very power of life and warmth had grown ill. This wasn’t the shadow, which was beyond his ability to touch and even if it hadn’t been, was no fell or foul thing, no was this the repelling power of unlight. This was a more natural phenomena, although it was natural in the same way parasitic wasps were natural.

This is what happened to a lumwell if a slaughter occurred within its dominion. It was twisting the land and air, it was what had turned a forest into a decaying swamp, and it was choking the flows of light with the taint of necromancy. Armin could no more distinguish the source than he could find a candle flame at a hundred yards in a sun-scorched desert. “I can’t tell,” Armin said, although he’d learned one thing.

The flow of corrupt light was stronger here than it was in the entranceway. The only way it could be this much stronger only a dozen feet ahead was if they were directly over the lumwell itself.

He glanced back to Ossman, who had almost caught up with them. His hair had never fully grown back from his early exposure to a lumwell. Armin hated seeing his baldness. Ossman claimed he didn’t mind, but…I should have been strong enough to stop it. “Ossman,” Armin said, stepping away from the rest of the group. “I think we need a rearguard. There are Alohym soldiers in the hall – I want an advance warning if they send more.”

Ossman nodded. “Agreed.” Armin was ready to leap for joy. He was certain this was going to be a fight, but Ossman saw the wisdom and- “Send Aildreda. She has the best eyes and can catch up with us quickest.”

Shadow forsake it. “Actually, I was thinking-”

“Guiard. Also a good call. He can use the Skimmer to escape if he can’t get to us at least, let command know what happened.”

Armin pursed his lips. “Ossman, I wasn’t going to send either of them-”

“Well, you certainly weren’t going to send Claricia, because you need her Lumcasting,” Ossman said, talking over Armin without hesitation. “And I know you weren’t going to send yourself, because you’re in command of this operation. And you definitely aren’t sending me, because if you keep treating me like I am a ceramic doll I’m going to break your flathing neck to prove I’m not fragile, so I’m not sure what you had in mind.”

Armin stared at Ossman, shocked into silence by the fury in his voice.

“Stop blaming yourself, Armin,” Ossman said, his voice low and harsh. “You did what you could to protect me. You didn’t do anything wrong. I’m fine. I only hear things sometimes, and I know damn well you want to send me away because we’re near a lumwell and you’re afraid. I understand that. I know guilt. But you did your best.”

“It wasn’t good enough,” Armin muttered, unable to meet Ossman’s eyes.

Ossman put a hand on Armin’s shoulder. “I stood by you at the collegium revolt. I stood by you in the resistance. I don’t care if your best is good enough, Armin. I only care that you tried. But if you keep treating me like spun glass, you’ll actually manage to offend me. Let me decide what risks I can take. Trust me as much as I trust you.”

Armin noted mutely and turned back to the group. “Let’s go,” he said, taking a step further into the hallway.

The moment he did, the eyes snapped open on the corpses at the end of the hallway, and the rotting husks began to lurch to a shambling semblance of life.

Armin could only stare at them. He’d been so concerned about Ossman, he’d completely forgotten about the danger waiting for them.

Light help me, I’ve damned us all, he thought, fumbling for his arcwand.

Small Worlds part 211

No one spoke on the walk out of Officium Mundi. Ryan couldn’t say what was going through Nabu and Dianmu’s heads, but for his part, it was a mixture of lingering rage at the Curators and shock at Nabu’s about-face. He didn’t know what to say to the man – if that was even the right word.

Thankfully, once they were back in his nanoverse, Dianmu took over the silence. “What was that glowing orb you were given?” she asked.

Nabu gave her a small smile. “It’s all the power I had before, condensed. I can access it to a point, but I’m far more limited now – and it’s a finite resource. Once it’s gone, so am I.”

“Thank you,” Ryan said, finally finding the words. “I…I didn’t expect that. Or anything like that.” Ryan motioned to raise some chairs from the staging area floor for the three of them. “Thank you,” Ryan repeated, knowing how weak it sounded.

“I’ve been considering it for a few hundred thousand years,” Nabu said. “We – or I supposed when talking about the curators I should say ‘they’, now – lost our way at some point. I knew that protocol allowed for rules to change when the Council was in recess. When I realized that’s exactly what they were doing, it was the final straw.”

“And you didn’t warn us?” Ryan asked, careful to keep any accusation out of his voice. Nabu had just given up true immortality, beyond what even gods had, for their sake. The last thing he wanted to do was act like an asshole. Am I even still angry at him anymore? Ryan wondered.

Nabu shook his head. “I still had hope that I was wrong. I filled out the form to make sure I was ready, but I still held hope.” Nabu’s lips curled for a moment into a bitter grimace. “It was a foolish hope.”

No, I’m not, Ryan realized. Thirty years of being followed by Nabu had done damage to Ryan’s life, sure. It had cost him any chance at anything close to normality, and now Ryan had a terrible burden looming over him. But…but the later part hadn’t been Nabu’s fault. Nabu did nothing to guide Ryan to the nanoverse. And having a normal life wouldn’t have left Ryan any better prepared for what he was dealing with now.

“Well,” Ryan said, “foolish hope is pretty much our entire stock and trade, so you’ll fit right in.” He gave Nabu a lopsided grin.

Dianmu nodded and smiled. “I don’t think, since I’ve started working with Ryan, I’ve experienced any hope that wasn’t foolish. It’s worked out in the end each time in the end, though.”

“Thank you,” Nabu said, settling into one of the chairs. It was still weird for Ryan to see Nabu doing anything even remotely normal, like sit in a chair, or have his tie loose, or look tired. “Tell me. Is hunger a sharp pain in your stomach, followed by a rumbling sensation?”

Ryan couldn’t help but laugh. “Yeah, that sounds like it. I’ve got some emergency food for if my Hungers flare up – what sounds good to you.”

“I have no idea,” Nabu admitted. “I’ve never eaten anything before.”

“Never?” Ryan asked, freezing and looking at Nabu with incredulous eyes. “I mean…you have a cafeteria in Officium Mundi, right?”

“For visiting gods,” Nabu said, raising one hand to rub at his stomach. “The last thing we want is hungry gods running around Officium Mundi. You all can cause all sort of problems when you get up in your needs.”

“He’s not wrong,” Dianmu said.

Ryan nodded. “How about an Italian sub, then?”

“I literally have nothing to compare it to, so whatever you suggest,” Nabu said. “I do remember you enjoying those though.”

Ryan got up and went over to the console. Moments later, a refrigerator was rising out of the floor. “Go ahead.”

Nabu grabbed the sandwich and took a bite. His eyes widened. “Hmm. It seems there are unexpected benefits to mortality. Also, my tongue seems to be reporting pain.”

Ryan chuckled. “Peppers.”

“It’s an interesting sensation,” Nabu said. Dianmu motioned Ryan over while Nabu finished his sandwich.

“As amusing as it might be to watch Nabu learn about mortal life, we do have an objective here,” she said, her voice low.

“I haven’t forgotten,” Ryan said, shaking his head. “Was thinking about dropping into my nanoverse fully to give us plenty of time.”

“I don’t think that would be a good idea,” Dianmu said. “He’s not human, and his power source isn’t a nanoverse itself. We don’t know what it would do to him. He might not be able to exist in there – and even if he is, he just lost countless eons of power. Then you want him to give up what little he has left?”

Ryan pursed his lips. “Damn. Didn’t even think about that. But yeah, good catch. Although we probably should figure that out – otherwise we’ll have to know at the worst possible time.”

Dianmu laughed, a light and unamused sound. “I do wish I could tell you that was inaccurate.”

Ryan glanced back at Nabu, who had finished the sandwich in a horrifyingly short amount of time. “Hey Nabu, if we needed to drop into my nanoverse, would that…do anything to you?”

Nabu considered for a moment. “It probably wouldn’t be immediately harmful. Probably. I’d rather not experiment right now.”

Ryan glanced at Dianmu, who gave him the politest ‘I-told-you-so” look Ryan had ever received. “Fair enough. In that case, I hate to rush things, but…”

“But time is running short. You need to know the rules, and you need to know before the sun explodes next week.”

Ryan froze at Nabu’s words. “Next week? Next week?” Ryan shouted, his voice cracking. The old anxiety, so long absent, rose up in his throat like an unwelcome house-guest and threatened to strangle him.

Nabu nodded slowly. “Take a deep breath, Ryan. There’s things we can do to postpone, and I’m hoping that – once you know the rules – you’ll be able to figure out a loophole I’ve overlooked.”

Ryan walked over to one of the chairs and slowly slid into it, taking the deep breath that Nabu recommended. “Alright. Tell me everything.”

Nabu leaned forward and prepared to exactly that.

The Dragon’s Scion part 107

It only took Armin two hours to decide that, of all the hellish places he’d visited working for the Resistance, the swamps that had once been Dor’nah were the absolute worst, and the reasons for that were so numerous that Armin was able to pass the time by listing them to himself. It was an exercise he kept private – venting to his cohorts would do nothing for morale, and for some reason that idiot Duke had put Armin in charge of this thing. I shouldn’t be leading anyone anywhere, Armin thought, and with that thought came fear, and with that fear came distraction.

Stop it, he chided himself. You’re being childish. 

So instead, he took the very mature and adult route of mentally categorizing everything he hated about this swamp.

The first was the smell that had assailed them when they’d still been outside the swamp. Now that they were actively passing through it, their skimmer kicking up brackish water, it was almost overwhelming. A combination of cow dung and spoiled meat mixed with the sulfurous stench of rotten eggs. Claricia and Guiart had each thrown up once from the stench, and Ossman looked ready to join them. Armin was keeping his stomach from emptying through sheer force of will alone. Only  Aildreda seem untouched by the smell, although that was because she was being plagued by the next item on Armin’s lists of gripes.

The bugs. The light damned, shadow forsaken insects that swarmed around them. Every step of the Skitter stirred up more of them, and they seemed to find Aildreda and Armin particularly delicious. Armin was taking advantage of his attachment to the Lumwell right now to keep a number of them repelled, warming his skin to be less appealing to the little pests, but Aildreda had no such defense. She slapped her arm again as Armin watched.

“If you want, I could try to shield you,” Armin said.

Aildreda shook her head. “It’s a pointless waste of Light, but thank you. I’ve dealt with worse than these biters before.” She slapped her neck and grimaced. “Although not so many of them.”

Armin nodded and let the silence return. It was needed right now. None of them really knew what they could be dealing with.

That was the worst on the list of complaints. The tension, the all encompassing knowledge that they had left behind the world they knew, the world of grass and field and trees and woods and lakes and beaches and seas. They’d entered an utterly alien domain, one that was ruled over by horrors beyond their reckoning, and they were grotesquely unprepared for it. Claricia was the only one of them who could lumcast, at least properly. Armin could deflect flows of light when they were right on top of a lumwell, but that wouldn’t do any good out here. Outside of her, they were all just good with arc weapons.

“Movement to the right,” Aildreda whispered.

All eyes, save Claricia, went to that direction, and Ossman raised his arcwand as he sought out the source of the motion. “There,” he whispered.

Armin followed the arcwands point to see what Ossman had seemed. It was just a shape in the mist and vaguely humanoid, although far too large and far too hunched to meet the description fully. It looked like there were vines or lichens hanging from it, and its clawed hands were bringing something unidentifiable up to its lips. It tore and chew, a grotesque sound that cut through the sound of insects and the Skitter’s gentle sloshing through the water.

“Hold fire,” Armin said, watching the shape. It seemed intent on its meal, and had given no indication so far it was even aware of their presence. How could it not be? It should be able to hear the Skitter at least. 

Ossman kept the arcwand trained on the creature but obeyed Armins order. For a few tense seconds, Armin thought that would be the end of it. The creature would continue to eat, and they would pass by unmolested.

Then the creatures head whipped towards them, and they could see its eyes glow in reflected light, wide and bright as will-o-whips.

Ossman didn’t hesitate. He pulled the trigger immediately. A beam of light lanced from the arcwand towards the creature. It bellowed in sudden surprised pain, and scampered away.

Armin let out a sigh and a relieved laugh. “It wasn’t something undead,” he said, taking deep breaths to calm himself.

“How can you be sure?” Aildreda asked, every muscle in her neck standing out from tension.

“Because the undead don’t feel pain,” Clarcia said. The entire time, she’d kept he vigil on the left side of the bank. “Not from light or flame or broken bone. Pain is something reserved for the living.”

Armin nodded in agreement. “We just need to-”

“Turn left,” Claricia said, interrupting him. She pointed out into the fog. “We’re here.”

At first Armin couldn’t see it, nodded for Guiart to turn the Skitter. As they grew closer, a shape began to form in the fog, one that resolved itself into clarity with each step. It was a stone structure, a tower that was probably once immensely tall but had sunken deep into the mud of the swamp. It loomed out of the fog, its open windows watching them like the eye sockets of an accusatory skull.

Atop the tower was the skeleton of a dragon, an immense shape covered in moss and dangling with vines. It was draped across the tower, somehow held together against the eons, but even from here Armin could tell that, in life, those teeth were each as long as his hand.

Grejhak Armin thought. The great dragon died atop his tower, alone and forgotten.

“Take us in,” Armin said, fighting a wave of fear. “We’ll find what we’re looking for over there.”

From his tower, the skull of Grejhak watched them mockingly.

Small Worlds Part 209

In the chaos that erupted after Hermes arrival, Athena and the others used the ability to phase to exit the cafe before it completely erupted into a full blow riot. Three of the people at the cafe suddenly vanishing into thin air did very little to quell the panic, and the cafe emptied around and through them in a cloud of panicked screams.

“Is that who I think it is?” Arachne asked as Athena and Anansi picked up Hermes, Athena taking his shoulders and Anansi taking him by the knees.

“If you think it is Hermes, you are correct,” Athena said with a grunt. It was that Hermes was heavy, it was just awkward to carry him without grabbing onto any obvious existing injuries. Anansi seemed to be having a similar struggle carrying the unconscious messenger god. We can’t risk hurting him worse, Athena reminded herself.  If Artemis had sent him even through there was so much danger, the fight must be dire indeed.

“And he said he was battling…Poseidon?” Arachne’s eyes were wide as she lead them down the street.

Athena grunted again, and shifted her weight as she realized the shoulder she’d been using to support Hermes was fractured in no less than three places. A soft moan escaped from the unconscious god’s lips.  “A few centuries ago, the Olympians retreated to a paradise they’d built in the heart of Tartarus. Most of them, at least. Hades was trapped in his realm, and I was exiled.” She could see Arachne bite back a sharp comment at Athena’s exile, and appreciated the woman’s restraint. “A little over a week ago, we went into Tartarus to hunt down Moloch. Don’t worry about who he is, it’s not relevant right now.”

Arachne pursed her lips but let that go.

“Poseidon cut some kind of deal with Moloch. Artemis was dealing with it from within the Olympians retreat. He killed Zeus and Ares, possibly others. After Moloch was defeated, Poseidon fled with a few loyalists, and Artemis is in charge of the Olympians until Zeus resurrects.”

“Artemis?” Arachne asked, her forehead furrowing. “You mean your old friend Artemis, the hunter goddess that skulked about and told most people to leave her alone?”

“Yes,” Athena said. They were approaching a hotel, and phased straight through the door to the stairwell. There would be an empty room that could serve as a makeshift infirmary until Hermes woke up, or one of them was able to move their doorway.

“Things must be dire then,” Arachne murmured.

Athena didn’t bother trying to defend her old friend. Artemis wouldn’t care what Arachne thought of her – in fact, she’d probably be livid at Athena for having brought her out – and there was no benefit in contradicting the truth. Artemis was many things, but leadership was not a role anyone had expected from her. What you don’t understand is that Artemis gives any task she has everything she can. She’ll become adept at it because she has to. 

All of that Athena kept to herself, responding only with a grunt.

“Those are shark bites,” Anansi said, almost contemplatively as they climbed the stairs.

“It makes sense,” Athena said. “Poseidon is lord of the sea. It would be in his best interest if he’s angered all of Olympus to hide beneath the waves.”

“And makes engaging him infinitely more dangerous,” Anansi added.

Athena didn’t have an answer to that. Just like tricksters found illusions easier, storm gods could command the winds and lightning with more ease, and war gods were stronger and faster, sea gods could command any manipulation regarding water – or any fluid – as naturally as mortals found breathing. Fighting Poseidon in the ocean wasn’t as dangerous as fighting Enki or Moloch had been, but it was the best analogy for those things before Athena had learned dual nanoverses or millions of years of stored power were possible.

“We’ll be able to help,” Athena said. “By the time we show up, everyone will be deep in their Hungers, including Poseidon. We’ll be fresh and ready.”

“If we help,” Arachne said. Athena nearly lost her patience and barked out an argument – right before she saw Anansi nodding. That put a pause to her tongue.

“We have bigger things concerning us, Athena,” Anansi said softly. “We don’t know how long we have, and we don’t know how great the dangers could be. Wouldn’t it be wiser to conserve our strength until at least the others returned?”

Athena pursed her lips at the subtle barb Anansi had placed in the word “wiser.” Athena had once been regarded as the wisest of all Olympians, but the past few centuries Athena had felt like that wisdom was being eroded under a constant barrage of…well, of life. “No,” Athena said, her voice firm. “You two can do as you will. I won’t pretend it’s smart. I won’t pretend it’s wise. I certainly will not pretend it’s even a good idea. But I will not stand by while Poseidon reaches victory. I won’t lie and claim that I’m doing this because, if Poseidon wins, he could pose a real threat to us during the last days. I believe it, but that’s not why I’m doing it. I’m doing it because my gut tells me it is the right thing to do.”

Anansi nodded. “Then I will go with you.” Simple agreement, and if they hadn’t been carrying Hermes unconscious body up a flight of stairs, Athena would have hugged him.

“I wouldn’t miss it, in that case,” Arachne said with a small smile. “The only Olympian you ever let me meet was Artemis. I think it’d make a good impression if I meet them for the first time by coming to the rescue.”

At that moment, Athena could have hugged her former pupil too.