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.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 105

The sun was setting over Emerita, sinking below the horizons and casting long shadows over the town. It glowed red as it dipped, and illuminated the sky with bands of color from red all the way to indigo. Strips of unlight sapped the color along the edge of each band, ugly breakages of the normally beautiful sunset. Tythel wondered if they were new, or if she was just now noticing them. Surely they hadn’t been there back when she was living with Karjon. She’d watched the sunset numerous times from the edge of the lair, staring as intently as she dared as day bled into night.

Dusk and dawn had always been evil times, when the world was between the Light and the Shadow and not fully under the protection of either. Now that they were revealing unlight corruption that stretched even into the sky, they showed exactly what evil was lurking between the two. The Alohym had taken the domain that had once been filled with demons and fel spirits, and unlike their predecessors, they walked Alith whenever they wished.

They were back in Tythel and Eupheme’s room. Tellias was perched on the edge of the table, slicing off chunks of an apple with a book open across his knees. It was this year’s almanac, and he was trying to figure out if they should be wary of any storms on their path. Tythel had been laying back in her bed, Karjon’s notebook open in her lap, when the setting sun had caught her attention. She was just about to ask Tellias how long ago he’d started noticing those unlight bands, or if he even had, when they were interrupted.

“I think I know what had Eliert so spooked,” Eupheme announced, stepping out of the shadow behind the dresser. Tellias nearly fell off the edge of table he was sitting on. At least his stumbling covered up Tythel starting at the sudden sound.

“Is it because you popped out of flathing nowhere?” Tellias asked, shooting Eupheme a glare. “You keep that up, you’re going to send me to the Shadow early.”

“I’ve never managed to send someone to the Shadow just by showing up, so that would be a treat,” Eupheme said with a smile. “But I doubt it. Usually when I send someone to the shadow, I need to be a bit more direct with it.”

Tellias sighed. “Has it ever occured to you how unfathomably rude that is?”

“Of course,” Eupheme said brightly. “Several times a day. But then I remember that I could not possibly care any less about rudeness, and I push it aside. Now, m’lord, do you want to hear what I learned or chastise me for being infinitely more amusing than you give me credit for?”

“Of course we want to hear,” Tythel said before Tellias could needle her further. “Or at least, I want to hear, and Tellias is going to listen.” Anything’s better than the two of them bickering, Tythel added, although she kept the thought to herself. Ever since they’d left Hallith, Eupheme and Tellias had found reasons to snipe at each other at every opportunity. Tellias thought that Eupheme should give him the respect his station deserved, and Eupheme thought Tellias was a stuck up prig that could handle being brought down a peg or twelve hundred.

At least, that’s what each of them told her. Tythel had hoped that the tension between herself and Eupheme had been the root of the Umbrist needling Tellias at every opportunity, but it seemed that the Light didn’t favor her in that regard. Eupheme gave Tellias a deliberately childish smirk – at least, Tythel thought that’s what it was – before pulling something out of her pocket.

“This has been going around.” She showed it to Tythel first.

It was a Death Writ, the kind that was used in the days of the old kingdom. Tythel had seen them in history books before. They were used for the most despicable of criminals, monsters the crown could not capture or find, making sure they had no safe haven in any law abiding town or villiage – turning the entire kingdom into a weapon against a single individual. Anyone who managed to bring back proof of death for the subject of a Death Writ would find themselves elevated to the rank of Minor Baron – or if already of the nobility, elevated even higher – and given land and wealth to support that rank.

At least, that was how it had been. Tythel wasn’t certain what the Alohym awarded those who managed to fill the Death Writ, and the Writ didn’t make it clear what would be awarded.

Looking down at the paper, seeing her own face – complete with eyepatch – Tythel was left to wonder what the person who killed her would be given.

“Why would this have made him nervous?” Tythel asked, fighting against the sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach. “He didn’t see my face.”

“But the veil didn’t hide the eyepatch,” Eupheme said as Tellias glowered at the paper. “Eliert may be a worm, but he’s not a stupid worm. A Xhaod warrior maiden showing up wearing an eyepatch? With these floating around? It doesn’t take a vast intellect to determine that you were the same.”

“We have to get moving,” Tellias said, his voice hoarse. “Even if Eliert doesn’t turn on us…how many people saw you?”

Tythel blinked rapidly as she thought. “There was the meat vendor, and there was Eliert and his thugs, and there were several dozen people in the market, and the innkeeper, and…” Tythel sighed. “Too many. Far too many.”

Eupheme nodded, her humor from earlier gone. “We leave after the sun has finished setting, under the domain of the Shadow. I wanted to see if we could purchase a Skitter, but…”

Tythel agreed. “Even if we could afford one, which is questionable, it’s too big a risk. The cart will have to do.”

“What about horses?” Tellias asked.

“If we can’t steal any,” Eupheme said, “We’ll have to drag the cart. Now that we have a cell and mind for your armor, you and Tythel can share the burden.”

Tellias looked like he wanted to object to being a beast of burden, but before he could, Tythel held up a hand to silence him. “Sounds from downstairs,” she said.

The sound of arccells charging.

“I don’t think we can wait until nightfall,” she said, her voice tense. “Writ hunters are here already, in the common room.”

No more words were spoken as they scrambled to grab what they could before they had to choose between fight and flight.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 104

The sound of the Skimmers reversing course never reached Tythel’s ears. The Skimmers carried on, flying off to wherever they had been heading in the first place. Tythel’s heart still pounded in her chest. They might have sent a song to some soldiers in the area, they might have…

Might have said what? All they would have seen is a group of people, gathered in an alley. The crate could have just been closed with the warning she had given. Even without it though, a group of people lunging into a building is hardly something worth dispatching a squad of soldiers to investigate. Probably, at least, Tythel reminded herself. She didn’t want to second guess the Alohym too hard – they’d surprised her before, and it could easily happen again.

“What the flath is a Skimmer?” Eliert hissed, emphasizing the curse.

“A new thing of the Alohym,” Eupheme explained in hushed terms. “They’re flying creatures, far faster than the Alohym’s vessels.”

Eliert’s eyes narrowed. “I’ve never heard of a Skimmer before. How did you?”

“We’ve encountered them. I think they’re new – we barely got away last time.” Eupheme shrugged.

Tythel took a moment to look around the room. They were in the back of some store, from the sounds on the other side of the wall. In here were a large variety of crates, though none were as big as the one Tythel carried, and all were labeled with glyphs that indicated they were shipped through proper channels. She didn’t need her nose picking up whiffs of fresh paint to inform her that some of those glyphs were forgeries.

Light came from a single arcglobe that hung near a door that lead into the back of the shop. Tythel could hear a couple people talking out there, haggling over the price over a heat extractor.

“Awfully convenient,” Eliert said, drawing Tythel back to the problem in front of her. “An Alohym invention no one else has heard of, and we get warned of by the veiled maiden who – somehow – heard them before anyone else did.” He reached to the single hand arcwand that hung at his side.

“Eliert, what are you suggesting?” Tellias asked, tensing up himself.

Eliert’s eyes were taking on the wild look of a trapped animal. “How in the shadow is she still holding that crate? It’s over twenty-five stones, and she’d holding it like it’s full of feathers!”

“Just stay calm,” Eupheme said, taking a half step back, placing her foot in one of the shadows cast by the shelves that surrounded them. “Eliert, I’ve worked with you before. You know me.”

Eliert let out a laugh that held an edge of hysteria. “Do I? Do I really, ‘Grendella’? That’s not even your real name, is it?”

“Of course not,” Eupheme said, putting on her best soothing voice. “I’m not a flathing idiot, tossing around my real name for these kinds of purchases. Light, it’s not like Eliert’s your real name.”

His eyes widened, and Eliert clenched his teeth.

“Oh, shadow forsake me,” Eupheme swore, her hands going to her daggers. “It is your real name.”

“Kill them,” Eliert hissed.

Tythel dove forward before he even finished the word, bringing the heavy crate down to collide with his face. The impact hit the moment Eliert got the word out of his mouth, and he rocked back, the arcwand tumbling from his fingers. Something cracked under the impact, and a small part of Tythel hoped it was Eliert’s face and not some of their goods. She lashed out with her foot and kicked it away from the fight. It set her off balance, and she stumbled to the side, barely righting herself before the weight sent her tipping over.

The two bruisers Eliert had hired had pulled out their clubs. “Don’t, you idiots,” Tythel snapped, pitching her voice as low as she dared. Eliert lay on the ground, clutching his nose and groaning in pain. “Do you want to bring the Alohym down on us?”

“And more importantly,” Eupheme said from behind one of the thugs, “do you want to still be breathing?” There was a dagger pressed to the man’s throat, and his eyes widened. She’d taken advantage of the distraction Tythel had provided to step through the shadows, which made her usual vanishing trick even more unnerving than usual.

The man with the dagger to his throat dropped the club, and his companion followed suit. “Good choice,” Eupheme said, not moving her dagger.

“She broke my nose!” Eliert growled from the floor. “She broke my flathing nose!”

“You pulled an arcwand,” Tellias said, walking over to bend down and look at the man. “You pulled an arcwand in the middle of a crowded chamber when the Alohym could have spotted us. Light, how have you survived this long selling black market goods?”

Eliert responded with a string of curses that Tythel didn’t understand, but they sounded incendiary. “What do we do with him?” Tythel asked.

Eupheme and Tellias shared a look, and Tythel fought down a curse of her own. This wasn’t a look she’d seen before, but it seemed to have weight and gravity behind it. I am getting better, she reminded herself, but it was a cold comfort when it seemed like everyone else on the planet could share looks that seemed to hold entire conversations in a glance.

“We leave him,” Tellias said, and Eupheme gave a reluctant nod. “He has as much to lose as us if he goes running to the Alohym.”

“More, really,” Eupheme amended. “As dimly as the Alohym look on people who purchase goods illegally, they take an even more unkind view to those that sell them.” That last sentence was for Eliert’s benefit, Tythel was sure. It didn’t make sense for the Alohym to prioritize the sellers of weapons over the buyers, especially with an active rebellion.

Eliert went pale, and Tythel hoped that meant he got the message. “Fine,” Eliert spat. “But don’t come around to me anymore, you hear me? We’re done!”

Eupheme gave Eliert a tight-lipped smile as she stepped out from behind the thug. “Believe me, Eliert, I wouldn’t dream of it.”

With that, the three of them exited the dark back room.

 


 

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Small Worlds Part 206

Crystal felt a tug on her hair as one of the serpents managed to find purchase. She yanked her head forward and felt tearing in her scalp as a chunk tear loose in the snake’s maw. Crystal stumbled from the pain and the tug. The stumble turned into a fall, and Crystal saw the ground rushing up to meet her. The snakes surged forward in anticipation of her hitting the ground, fangs dripping with venom.

Crystal dropped the coefficient of friction in the tube into the negatives. She could feel reality push back hard at the violation of every law of thermodynamics, but she held the twist in place. Instead of skidding to a halt, she accelerated as she slid across the tube of air.

Her face pressed into the clear air gave her an excellent view of Isabel and the Typhon. Isabel had bitten into the Typhon’s neck stump and was now rolling with the body. Monstrous flesh shredded at the motion, and the Typhon shrieked at her in blind fury. New tendrils worked to reattach the parts Isabel shredded as quickly as she could tear them apart.

Isabel also bled from dozens of places where the fangs had managed to work their way past her scales, the anticoagulant venom making each pinprick as ticking clock towards her death. Crystal could still feel ichor running down her arm from the earlier bite, hot and sticky. It bounced oddly on the unnatural friction Crystal had created.

The effort of violating so fundamental a law was wearing on Crystal as she sped towards the end of the tunnel. Her mouth was painfully dry, and she could feel her lips cracking from the need for moisture. The pain in her stomach far exceeded the other injuries from the battle, and a heavy tiredness was settling in around her joints, so intense she almost feared she’d collapse before reaching the end of the tube.

On top of it all was a loneliness so crushing it brought tears to her eyes, a desperate need for some kind of contact. A tiny voice whispered in the back of her mind that she could get that contact – all she had to do was let the serpents catch up. She wouldn’t feel alone anymore then – and shortly afterwards she’d feel nothing at all.

She pushed the treasonous thought aside and focused on the platform growing closer in her vision.

Then her divine power winked out. Immediately, the normal friction of the air tube resumed. Her slide had increased to nearly forty miles per hour when the power vanished. It was falling out of a car at those speeds onto a fairly smooth road. Crystal was sent tumbling end over end, flopping along the tube in an undignified roll. Divine resilience left her as well, and she felt something snap in her arm. The pain was more than enough to draw a scream from her lips.

She’d left the snakes behind as she slid, and as she skidded to a halt, mere feet from the platform, they surged forward with ravenous anticipation. Crystal could barely move. So close, love, she thought, glancing at Isabel’s slowing form. Isabel would probably last another few minutes before the Typhon overcame her, then she’d die. Crystal would find herself the Typhon’s plaything, dying and reviving over and over, until her nanoverse collapsed from heat death.

We tried, she thought at the snake heads opened.

They halted mere inches from sinking their fangs into into her face.

Crystal stared at them, dumbfounded, as the serpents began to scream and were dragged out of the tunnel. Slowly, Crystal lowered her eyes to Isabel and the Typhon.

Isabel had turned back into the Tyrannosaurus Rex, and her massive jaws were wrapped around all of the Typhon’s serpents on one shoulder – the ones that had been chasing her. Instead of severing them, Isabel was dragging them back through her own immense weight and size.

It came at a cost. Virtually every other serpent on the Typhon’s back were now latched onto Isabel, pumping their venom into her. Isabel’s footsteps were growing weak, and she stumbled slightly with every footstep. She’d be dead soon.

Don’t waste this opportunity, Crystal thought fiercely, forcing herself to her feet. She was able to take two steps, just enough to get onto the platform where the control panel waited, before another lance of pain from her broken arm sent fracture lines of darkness across her vision, and she stumbled to her knees. Moments later, a massive crash signified that Isabel had collapsed. Don’t waste her sacrifice! Crystal screamed internally. She risked a glance back as she rose to her feet.

Isabel had managed to sever the serpents before her legs gave out, and now the Tyrannosaurus lay on the ground, barely breathing as blood pooled beneath it. The snakes were coming for Crystal again, moving at impossible speeds she couldn’t hope to match – but they had a ways to travel still. Crystal had to only move another four feet.

Crystal brought one leg up under herself, planting the foot firmly on the ground. Another wave of pain, this one accompanied by nausea, and Crystal fought down bile that rose in the back of her throat. Everything in her body was screaming at her to surrender, to lay down and accept it.

Instead, she forced her other leg forward and rose to her feet. The serpents were halfway to her now, hissing in excited fury. Crystal could see the emergency button, red and yellow.

She took a step, her uninjured arm outstretched. It shook with the effort, and Crystal felt like she was walking through molasses. She started to stumble again, and the button began to rise above her head.

With a lethargically frantic flair of her hand, Crystal managed to press the button and collapsed to the ground.

A dome sprung up over the platform, and the snakes broke their fangs against it. A few had been past the barrier, and they were cut in half as it rose. “Isabel!” Crystal shouted with the last of her strength as the walls of the chamber began to glow with sudden light.

“Cleansing initiated,” a robotic voice said.

Then the world went white as the energy of a star going supernova only quarter of a light year away flooded the chamber.


 

I’m making a big push to do this full time. Click here for more information – including getting Thursday’s post right now, and previously unreleased King of Hell artwork!

The Dragon’s Scion Part 101

“I’m back,” Eupheme said, stepping out of the shadow next to the dresser.

Tythel yelped and nearly tossed her book into the air. “Light and Shadow, Eupheme, have you ever heard of doors?”

“Yes,” Eupheme said with a grin. “They’re something that impedes other people. I am above such paltry concerns.” She casually tossed Tythel a satchel. “One Xhaodi warrior maiden veil, as you requested. It’ll cover your hair if you do it up in a bun, too.”

Tythel blinked at Eupheme slowly. “I…have no idea how to do a bun.”

“Oh.” Eupheme chewed her cheek in thought. “I guess being raised by someone with scales would make it hard to learn the finer art of hair care.”

Tythel flushed. She’d read about everything women did to their hair in her books. None of it had made any sense, except for brushing. Karjon had a brush inlaid with diamonds in his hoard, and Tythel had brushed her hair exactly one hundred times per day, at the suggestion of The Proper Care for Ladies, by Maxiona Balmod. She hadn’t understood why. “He did his best,” Tythel said defensively.

“Of course he did, I didn’t mean any insult,” Eupheme said soothingly, going over to her pack and pulling out a brush and several implements that Tythel couldn’t hope to name. “But, if half of what I’ve heard about dragon sizes is close to accurate, he couldn’t have held a brush except between the tips of his talons.”

“He tried,” Tythel muttered, looking at the devices in Eupheme’s hands with wary suspicion. “He also didn’t understand it. He taught me alot about grooming scales though.”

“And it’s a good thing, too,” Eupheme said. “I’ve heard if you don’t take care of them, it can get bad.”

Tythel strongly suspected that Eupheme was humoring her, but went along with it. “It can. Rotscale, if not properly treated, can cause even worse infections – even the loss of a limb or wing! A lot of young dragons think you can just spray fire all over yourself and call it hygine, but since our scales protect against heat infections and worse, drakemites, can linger under the skin.”

Eupheme sat down on the bed next to Tythel. “I…honestly never considered it. How do you clean it then?”

“Soak in hot water for a quarter hour, using your flames to keep it scalding, then scrubbing with a bristle soaked in mineral oil, never against the scales. Once you get out, then use your flame to turn the water to steam.” Tythel recited the instructions with the same precision she could list the emperors of Cardometh.

“And here I was, assuming you just used the fire to dry off faster.” Eupheme shook her head. “Turn around, let me get to your head. I’ll teach you how to do this later, but for now I know you’re dying to get out.”

Tythel followed Eupheme’s instructions. It was the first time in Tythel’s memory someone had ever touched her hair. She found it oddly comforting. “I saw a Lumrat outside,” Tythel said as Eupheme began to brush her hair with quick, efficient strokes. “Took everything I had not to use it as an excuse not to leap out and take it down.”

Eupheme chuckled. “I’m honestly surprised you didn’t just say “flath the consequences, I’m going to do it.”

At first Tythel blinked rapidly in amusement, but then realized there had been a bitter edge to Eupheme’s voice. Tythel was glad neither of them could see the other one’s face. She didn’t know what hers would give away, and wasn’t looking forward to trying to puzzle out Eupheme’s expression.

“I’m sorry,” Tythel said, quietly. “I don’t…I don’t remember if I’ve said that yet, but I’m sorry.”

Eupheme paused whatever she was doing with Tythel’s hair. Eupheme sat there for what felt like an eternity, then sighed and went back to work on Tythel’s hair. “I know,” she said, quietly.

“We didn’t really talk about it.” Tythel’s nictitating membranes slid closed in sorrow. Flath, I’m not going to cry. I don’t get to make her feel bad about being angry.

“No, we didn’t,” Eupheme said. “Tythel…do you get why I was angry?”

Tythel tilted her head to think. Eupheme pulled Tythel’s head back into place, firmly and gently. “I can see two reason, and I think it was probably a little bit of both?”

“Go on,” Eupheme said.

“Well…part of it is because you – I mean, from what you said – you were trained to protect a royal family that you didn’t think existed anymore. Then you finally do find one, but she’s stubborn and doesn’t care much about the royal thing and keeps sticking her head into a aeromane’s maw without your input. Shoving you down the tunnel and sealing you off was a bridge too far – it wasn’t just putting myself in danger, it was putting myself in danger and protecting you, when you feel like you’re supposed to protect me.”

Eupheme continued to work on Tythel’s hair. “Yes,” she said. That’s part of it.”

Tythel fought the urge to nod as her membranes opened, bringing the room back into focus. “And the other thing is…we’re friends, and I didn’t treat you like a friend. I treated you like someone I was supposed to protect, the same way I had anyone else. I didn’t tell you my plan, I didn’t give you a chance to agree with it or disagree. Light, you didn’t even need to be shoved, you could have just stepped past the barrier once it was up. I…I treated you like you were just someone else.”

“That’s the bigger one.” Eupheme stuck some things into Tythel’s hair, the long pins she’d pulled out of her bag. When she let go, Tythel’s head felt odd with the weight of her hair shifted. “I’m not anyone else, Tythel. I’m your friend. That means I’ll back you on whatever shadow-forsaken fool idea you have in your head to everyone else, and I’ll call you a fool for it in private.”

Tythel nodded. “I promise…” then she bit her lip and held up a hand as she thought through the wording. “I promise as long as it’s not something spur of the moment, I’ll tell you what’s I’m thinking, and give you a chance to tell me I’m being foolish, and I promise I’ll only act to protect you if there’s no doubt I’ll be safe doing it. I can’t promise more than that, not and still be honest.”

She turned around to face Eupheme. She considered Tythel for a long moment, then smiled. “I’ll take that. I’m still a bit raw about the whole thing, but I can live with those promises.”

Tythel didn’t bother to fight the tears now as relief flooded her, her nictitating membranes flashing to keep up with the surge. She hugged Eupheme, and the other woman returned the embrace.

After a bit, they broke the hug, and Eupheme helped Tythel secure the veil in place so she could join them in exploring the city.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 100

Tythel sat in the window of her room in The Witty Herald, overlooking the city of Emerita. It was the largest city in the kingdom that didn’t have its own Lumwell, instead drawing Light from Queensfall to the South, Havenswatch to the North, and the Capitol to the West. Emerita was almost perfectly equidistant between all three cities, and thrived as a trade hub that facilitated commerce between its larger neighbors. It was also close enough to all three that you could tell where in the town someone came from just by their appearance.

With just a glance, Tythel could see a man with dark skin and red hair that mirrored her own, meaning he must have been from the western part of the town. He was in an animated argument with a merchant with with the black hair and golden skin of Havenswatch, marking her as being born in the northern district. What the locals called a Southgater leaned against a post nearby, his hair the same blue as the sky and skin the color of the desert sands near the plateau. I should go out and stretch my legs, she thought, before continuing to sit there.

Emerita, without a Lumwell, didn’t have a strong Alohym presence. This close to the Capitol, however, there was a very real risk of a patrol passing through that could spot her. That meant Eupheme and Tellias were going out to collect the supplies they needed, and Tythel was holed up in this inn, watching from a window.

I really am a princess, Tythel thought with a bitter smile. I’m moping and sighing about sitting in comfortable accommodations. Most people would kill for this luxury. It wasn’t that it was unappreciated. Light and Shadow, she’d learned enough of hard living these past few weeks to last her the rest of her life.

However long that was.

The problem was, she hadn’t really gotten much of a chance to actually live since her father had passed. It had been an endless parade from one crisis to the next. And now that she was finally getting to the point where she could think about his death without being wracked with grief, now that she was finally finding the energy to want to do all the things she’d spent her entire childhood dreaming about…she was spending her time in an Inn she couldn’t leave because of a one hundred thousand key price on her head.

Frustrated, Tythel stalked away from the window and threw herself on the bed, reaching under it for her pack.

At least the Sunstone had been useful. They’d gotten enough money from the sale of it that they’d be able to buy everything they needed for the journey the rest of the way to her father’s lair and have enough left over for that journey to be fairly comfortable. They weren’t going to spend every night in luxury, of course. Every single key they could spare for the resistance would be beneficial. But, as both Tythel and Tellias had argued, the better rested they were, the better prepared they would be for the fight at the end of this journey.

Eupheme hadn’t seemed completely convinced, but she’d acquiesced, so Tythel was counting it as a victory.

Just a few more hours, Tythel reminded herself. A merchant had come into town earlier today, selling the veils that the lower castes of the Xhaod Empire were forced to wear in public. With that and some of the silks in her pack, Tythel could pass as a Xhaod warrior maiden. Well, she could do it well enough to walk around without fearing someone would call the nearest barracks and summon a swarm of soldiers down on their head.

She pulled out one of her father’s notebooks, the one that explained how different types of dragon flames worked. She’d figured out ghostflame in part from studying this, and that had been back when she’d barely able to touch it without starting to choke up. I will master heartflame, Tythel told herself.

Which might be a bit of an overstatement. She could barely manage ghostflame without searing her throat – even enough dragonflame would do it. Heartflame would be an entirely different category. She opened the page to her last marker.

Heartflame cannot be used by a dragon to heal itself. The flame transfers some of their own life essence into the heat. Other beings, even other dragons, can be restored with only some harm being done to the dragon that exhaled. It has the same limits as what light can heal – injuries will mend together, bones will knit, rot will be cleansed. Diseases will grow stronger along with their host, and tumors will grow rapidly. Unlike the light, however, there’s no risk of grotesque mutations. Instead, it only causes a specific mutation, one that grows gradually over time – the transformation into a dragon.

You’ll find the transformation is something you have some control over, my dear. As you push yourself, you’ll find it happens erratically, based in part on what you are feeling an overwhelming need to achieve.

And because I know you, Tythel, do not jump off a cliff trying to sprout wings. They will come in time.

Tythel smiled at that last line. If he hadn’t mentioned it, she wouldn’t have tried jumping off a cliff. Probably. It didn’t get her any closer to understanding Heartflame, but it was nice to feel like Karjon was there, lecturing her with the patient exasperation he always showed when she did something absurdly stupid.

Her eyes danced down to the next line, but were pulled away from the pages by a sudden scream from outside. Tythel rushed to the window, heart pounding. The Alohym? Here? Already? There’s barely been any time, we’re not ready!

It wasn’t an army. It wasn’t a monster, nor was it some alien creature of the Alohym’s making. Instead, it was a creature mutated by lumwell exposure. It took Tythel a moment to recognize the base creature – a rat – as it scurried along the street on eight legs, each as long as a man was tall. It’s body was the size of a man’s torso, and its tail was horribly elongated, covered in tiny, grasping hands. The poor thing’s face bore some resemblance to the rat it had once been, although it was flattened and fixed in an expression of confused terror.

Guards were yelling, calling for arcwands to put the thing out of its misery before it got into the sewers. Lumwell mutants that managed to breed with the local creatures could create entirely new species, and rats bred rapidly. Tythel didn’t want to think what kind of creature would be the result of this thing being allowed to breed with the local rats. I could save it further suffering, Tythel thought.

Instead, she turned away from the window. The rat would run free or be killed by the guards. It wasn’t worth risking exposing herself, no matter how much she wanted to. She chose to return the bed and resume flicking through her father’s notes.

As far as Tythel was concerned, Eupheme and Tellias couldn’t return soon enough.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 99

Poz’s hearts pounded as he dove behind a bookshelf, shards of glass still raining throughout the library. Baron Rainer was screaming, and the coppery scent of blood filled Poz’s nostrils. So this is how the Alohym treat their allies, Poz thought, crawling along the ground. No warning, no time to get clear. The only entrance to the Library was in clear view of the window. If he went for it, he’d be cut down before he could even go two steps.

He’d have to find a different way.

The sound of feet crunching on glass reached his ears, heavy footsteps that were weighted down. He didn’t hear any of the mechanical whirring that accompanied imperiplate, and he didn’t hear the rapid skitter of standard Alohym footfalls. It was the one from earlier, the one that flew and was shaped like a man.

The Baron must have signaled him that the ruse was up, Poz thought with a curse. The footsteps were headed towards the doorway to block his exit. Deepest shadows! I missed it. It was possible that Baron Rainer hadn’t sent a signal, but if not, the timing was too coincidental for Poz’s liking. If the Shadow has set itself against me like that, I am already damned.

“You should just come out and save me the time,” said the creature. Its voice reverberated in the strange way of the Alohym, but it did not speak in the Alohym’s tongue. That was Cardomethi, which told Poz a few things. First, that this creature was not from the region, or it would have likely spoken Zhomi. It was the same one that pursued him from that cave all those weeks ago. Second, this creature – whatever it was – was no Alohym. He’d never heard tell of any of those beings speaking anything other than their own tongue unless forced to. And Alohym don’t travel alone, he reminded himself.

Of course, he didn’t answer the being’s taunt. Instead, he crawled along the ground, keeping himself hidden behind bookcases. A small object, formerly belonging to the Baron, caught Poz’s eye. He didn’t hesitate as he reached out and scooped it up. It would do nothing to save him from his current plight, but later…

Sop that thought, he told himself. Focus on survival. Make sure there is a later to worry about.

“I’m going to find you,” the creature said, “and then I’m going to ask you a few questions. If you come out, I’ll just ask. If you don’t…I’ll have to assume you plan on being uncooperative, and treat you accordingly.” There was an undeniable air of menace in the voice. “You don’t want to find out how I ask uncooperative people questions.”

Poz ignored the threat. If this creature truly was willing to speak with him as equals and simply ask questions, they would not have begun the fight with a barrage of high impact weapons. In fact, Poz doubted if the being really wanted to ask him questions at all. It’s foolish, Poz thought, facts beginning to connect in his mind. A shard of glass could have stuck in my throat and killed me or rendered me incapable of speech. Yet they must be after the egg, and I never told Baron Rainer where I hid it. If I had died…

The only conclusion Poz could draw was that this creature was foolish. He felt his hearts speed up as he began to climb up one of the bookshelves.

“Come on,” the creature said, frustration dripping from every word. It sounded almost petulant to Poz’s ears. “I want to be about my business. I didn’t come to the frozen edge of the world to play hiders and peekers with you.”

Poz settled onto the top of the bookshelves. He could see it clearly now, for the first time since he had abandoned grubflesh. It was smaller than Poz remembered, although give how tall he now stood that was likely a matter of perspective. The creature’s build was overall humanoid, with a distended Thorax extending from where its spine met its hips. Poz couldn’t deny the creature was intimidating, covered in black carapace and spines. “I’m not interested in games either, monster,” Poz said.

He leapt to another bookshelf the moment the words left his lips, and the Alohym shot a beam of unlight in the general direction of Poz’s voice. It didn’t seem to think to aim upwards, instead firing at the bottom of the shelf. Where the beam impacted, a bubble spread outwards to about five feet before violently contracting. Books were condensed into a tight space, but didn’t seem to be crushed. I don’t want to find out what would have happened to me there, Poz thought. Perhaps it would just immobilize him. Perhaps it wouldn’t account for the hollow bones of crowflesh and turn him into a paste. “Yet here you are playing them,” the creature muttered before speaking louder. “Why do you fear to come out, Underfolk? My father told me tales of your people. Your cowardice was something he overlooked.”

Human, Poz thought, tensing. This creature was human. “And what did he tell you?” he asked before leaping again.

He needn’t have bothered. The person in that carapace armor did not fire blindly again, instead looking towards the source of the voice. So far they still hadn’t thought to look upwards, for which Poz was grateful. “That you were greedy, selfish beings that preyed on the generosity of mankind. That you sealed yourself away when the Alohym returned to us so you could cavort with the fiends of the Shadow, and would one day return to be wage war on and then be crushed by the rightful gods of this world.”

“Your father lied to you, then,” Poz said.

Poz had to leap again as the human in Alohym skin opened fire. He barely reached the next bookshelf, and the room filled with the sound of books and shelves clattering to the ground. “You will not speak of my father!” the human screamed. “My brother is out hunting his killer, and I’m stuck here hunting you. I will endure no insult towards his name from the likes of you!”

That’s it. Poz took a deep breath. This particularly trick was one of the benefits of crowflesh, and it was hard to get right. If he pulled it off though… “Your flathing father is a goat-brained liar and you are a coward. I wouldn’t wish his flesh on the worms that are feasting on him.”

The human screamed in rage and rushed to the window to look out – because that’s where they’d heard Poz’s voice come from. There wasn’t time to admire how well throwing his voice had worked. Instead, Poz leapt down and scrambled for the heavy oak doors of the room.

At the last moment, the human heard him and whirled, firing a beam of Unlight in a wild arc. It passed over Poz’s head and encased one of the Baron’s guards – Poz wondered with irritation where they had been earlier. The unlight formed a sphere that imploded again, and the guard was forced into the fetal position. He howled with the agony of the desperate and damned, and Poz regretted he didn’t have time to help the man – or put him out of his misery.

Behind him, his pursuer howled, and the sound of footsteps on stone pursued Poz out of the Baron’s manor.

 

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 98

-PART 2-

The library of Axburg’s Baron was not the grandest that Poz had ever seen – that had been the Library of the Enlightened Sands in Hadorim to the southeast, a massive structure that could have housed a small town and boasted meticulous organization. What set the Library of Baron Rainer apart from the others Poz had encountered in his travels was the level of comfort put into it. Immense couches, long enough where two fully grown men could have laid with feet touching and their heads would not reach the armrests. Chairs that seemed to be stuffed with down feathers and covered in the softest velvet. Tables that boasted clever mechanisms allowing them to be adjusted perfectly to suit the reader’s height. All of it was lit by immense windows to allow in natural sunlight.

It was clearly built by and for someone who loved the simple pleasures of reading. That man existed, and Poz found him in one of the overstuffed chairs, his feet up on a stool. The spine of the book was visible. The Adventures of Stellaria Bustil, Volume 2. “Good morning, milord,” Poz said, bowing low. He’d long ago learned it was entire possible to not greet the Baron and remain completely unnoticed,  but Baron Rainer would always be tremendously embarrassed when he came out of is book coma – usually when some servant reminded the Baron he did need to eat.

“Poz! Please, I’ve told you at least five times now, there’s no need for such bowing among scholars.” The Baron carefully selected a bookmark and slid it between the pages of his tome.

Poz nodded and rose. “Apologies, milord.” It was difficult to explain to Baron Rainer the limitations of crowflesh. It was highly intelligent – some of the most intelligent forms Underfolk could take relied on members of the corvid family – and it was also highly social. Poz would find himself getting stressed if alone too long, which made him grateful for the Baron being a fellow lover of books. However, it was not the best at social niceties. When in crowflesh, Poz relied heavily on the trappings of society to interact with humans.

That meant one bowed for a Baron, no matter how much said Baron insisted otherwise.

“I see you’re choosing a less scholarly pursuit today?” Poz’s question was also half a statement. Poz could not see much scholarly use for a series of books about a young woman getting into increasingly unlikely situations that required she either rescue or be rescued by a series of increasingly attractive young men, followed by detailed descriptions of the human mating process. Poz knew humans found such things exciting, although the reasoning eluded him.

It likely has to do with their mating habits, Poz reasoned. Human mating seemed to be a messy process. Underfolk were much more refined. The females waited until breeding season to lay their eggs in a cool cavern pool, and the males would come by to fertilize the eggs later. Only one in a hundred of the larvae would make it to adulthood while the rest cannibalized each other.

One of the maids here had a human larva. It was a weak, squealing thing that the humans doted on. It seemed to Poz that such coddling would allow weak spawn to survive to adulthood and drain resources…but then again, given how few larva humans produced, perhaps that was best for their species. Weak humans were not the drain on resources Poz had feared them to be, and some of them could still contribute to gaining resources.

The Baron had said something, and Poz snapped his mind to attention. One of the drawbacks of Crowflesh was its attention span was limited. No other form was so easily obtained and offered as much intelligence, but it had its drawback. Poz had heard Squidflesh was better focused and every bit as intelligent, but without access to the sea he’d never had a chance to sample it. Perhaps when this is over… “I apologize, milord. I did not catch what you said there.”

The Baron was flushed, which was an unsurprising response. Humans often became embarrassed when confronted with their interest in their own mating habits. “Actually, this is of scholarly interest. While many aspects of these stories are sensationalized, they are based on historical documents from a scholar of Third Era, Estelia Ubistil. This book contained a reference to the Golden Egg you’re so interested in.”

Poz felt two of his three hearts skip at the mention. Finding actual evidence of the Golden Egg had been difficult so far, and most of the accounts in the Baron’s library contained information Poz already knew. It would only ‘hatch,’ whatever that resulted in, when exposed to Heartflame. Dragon’s viewed them as sacred and were lethally protective of them, even more than their normal eggs. “And?” Poz saw the Baron stiffen, and realized how the word had sounded and reminded himself of the social failings of this flesh. At least that, from what I’ve heard, is even worse in Squidflesh. “Apologies, milord. I am…overeager for information, and forgot myself.”

Baron Rainer relaxed at the apology. “In the story, Stellaria uses the Golden Egg to barter with a Dragon. Absolute nonsense, of course – the dragon would have simply incinerated her – but some facts are interesting. These are put in the footnotes of the story, and such footnotes are known to be accurate. Outside of being hatched by Heartflame, the eggs are indestructible to any force known at the time. At the time this tome was written, no Dragon had hatched a Heartflame egg in over two thousand years – which is why information about what they are.”

Poz resisted the urge to grind his teeth. This was new information, but it wasn’t useful information. However, Baron Rainer had a flair for the dramatic, and loved saying the most important information for last. Poz would have to endure the wait.

This flesh just made that endurance painfully difficult.

“Of course, the last footnote was the most intriguing. It contained a reference to a vast hoard of these Golden Eggs, which had the ring of a legendary cache that likely no longer exists, if it ever did. What truly intrigued me about it was a reference to Draconic metempsychosis.” He said the last with a flourish, as if I had expected Poz to leap with joy.

“Apologies, milord. I don’t know what that means.”

The Baron looked a bit put off with his grand reveal going over so flatly. “Of course, of course,” the man said, railing admirably. “Dragons believed that, when a Heartflame egg is hatched, the being that emerges is the spiritual child of the original dragon.”

Poz began to nod in understanding. If dragons did believe that…if the dragon princess did, he could return the egg to immense gratitude. So much so she probably would not investigate his claim that he had killed the original thief. That lie, at least, Poz had settled on a couple days ago. “Thank you, Baron Rainer. This has given me what I needed to know.” He forced himself to smile. “Now that I have what I need, I must be going. I have a great distance to travel.”

The blood drained out of the Baron’s face. “Oh, but you can’t go!” He exclaimed. Poz raised a single eyebrow, and the Baron began to rally again. “Surely you see that there’s still more to learn – after all, we only just found this reference, and-”

Poz tuned out the Baron’s lies. He focused instead on the man’s face, the way his skin turned pale, the way sweat began to form on his forehead and upper lip. Realization struck him. I was a fool. “How long?” Poz asked, cutting off the Baron mid-ramble.

“You could stay for a couple more-”

Poz cut him off with a sharp hand gesture. “No, Baron Rainer. How long ago did the Alohym get to you? How long have you been promising to keep me here, giving me only tidbits to keep me interested?”

“I…I don’t know what you’re…” Baron Rainer studied Poz’s face and saw no mercy in there, no yielding. He sighed. “Two days. For the last two days. I’m sorry. You really were a fascinating conversationalist.”

Before Poz could question further, the window exploded in a flash of Unlight.