Small Worlds Part 184

Rear Admiral Dale Bridges was dead. The creature that inhabited his body now vaguely remembered who he had been before, a distant dream of a life spent serving an idea higher than himself. That was still true from the wretch Dale, but that ideal had changed. Now he served Bast, and he loved her with as much passion as he loathed her.

Dale couldn’t remember what the Rear Admiral had served. It was something…something big.

Someone screamed on the street below, drawing Dale’s attention. It was a male, somewhere in that awkward stage between boy and man. He must have been in bed when the assault had started, as he wore only a tank top and flannel pants. The pants were already ripped in places, and the tank top stained with flecks of blood.

The boy was running from some of Bast’s new children. Dale watched as they loped after the boy, swiping at him with claws that could tear flesh and bone with disgusting ease. The boy tripped, and the Children swarmed around him, snarling and biting. He whimpered and swung his hands wildly at them, trying to bat them away.

The Children backed off, letting their prey think it was having some effect. “Please,” the boy said, tears streaming down his face. “Guys, please. It’s me.”

“Guys, please, it’s me,” one of the Children repeated in a high pitched mockery. “That’s how you sound, Jimmy.”

Another one of the Children let out a gagging sound. “Fuck’s sake, Jimmy, did you piss yourself? You smell like piss.”

 

Jimmy’s face scrunched up, and tears began to stream down his face. “Greg, Sammy…c’mon. Don’t…please?”

The third of the Children laughed, a low, growling sound. “You know, Jimmy, we were going to turn you, but…I mean, you pissed yourself. Are we supposed to show you to Bast covered in piss?”

The first, the one Jimmy had called Greg, snorted. “Bryce, you haven’t gotten to eat yet, have you?”

Jimmy turned towards the third Child, the one called Bryce. “No…is that you?”

Bryce shifted, turning into a human. He was well muscled and wore only a pair of boxers, and looked to be four or five years Jimmy’s senior. His skin was wet with blood. “Yup. You were so busy running while these two were eating mom and dad, you forgot to shout a warning to me, Jimmy.”

“Bryce…” the boy sobbed, “Bryce, I didn’t…I was scared, and…”

“I was scared,” the remaining Child, Sammy, repeated in another mockery. “Oh no I was scared. I’m so scared I’m going to piss my pants like a baby.

“Shut up,” Bryce growled, his voice a sharp snap. “I’m talking to my brother.”

Sammy and Greg backed off so Bryce could walk closer to Jimmy. The child looked up at his brother, eyes wet with tears and wide with hope. No, you fool, Dale thought. “Bryce?” Jimmy asked in a voice that waivered.

“You’re my brother Jimmy. I’m gonna give you a choice. You can join us, or you can keep running.”

Jimmy’s eyes widened. “You’ll…you’ll let me run?”

Bryce nodded. “Absolutely, little brother. You can run. It’s night. No one’s on the highway. Other Children might find you. But you can try.”

“Uh…Bryce?” Greg asked, his voice full of confusion. “This isn’t what She want-”

Bryce snarled at Greg, and the feline creature backed down. Even though Bryce was the youngest of the group, it seemed that social bonds from their previous life still held. “It’s my brother. He gets to choose.”

Jimmy stood up to shaky feet. “I’m gonna…thank you.”

Bryce pursed his lips. “You sure about this man? You have no idea how good it feels.”

Jimmy nodded again, tears streaking down his face.

Dale stared at Bryce, shaking with rage. How dare he? It wasn’t just the defiance of Bast. It wasn’t just the gall to believe he knew better than a goddess. This was not supposed to happen. If the boy got to the highway, he might be picked up. He might get to a phone. These days, someone would absolutely believe the boy’s wild claims about monsters in Grant.

Jimmy started to run. Sammy and Greg looked up at Bryce with feral, furious eyes. “She won’t be happy,” Sammy growled.

“I don’t care. I’m not going to eat my own brother.”

Dale didn’t listen to the rest. He pushed his legs against the roof, propelling himself into the air, hurtling like a cannonball. The three Children gaped at him as he flew, but they took no action. Jimmy didn’t even know Dale was coming, not until Dale landed on the pavement in front of him.

Jimmy screamed as Dale reached out and clutched him with fingers far longer than they had once been. Inhuman hands that Dale didn’t recognize anymore.

“I said to let him go!” Bryce shouted.

“Yes,” Dale hissed, holding Jimmy close. “Damn you. Damn you. I didn’t want to this. I didn’t have to do this!”

“Do what?”

With a quick twist of his hands, Dale snapped Jimmy’s neck. The boy fell to the ground, and the three Children looked at him with eyes wide with shock. “What the hell!?” Bryce snarled, stepping forward and shifting into his animalistic form. “He was my brother.

“Yes,” Dale said, his voice quiet. He reached down to brush Jimmy’s hair. “You can still hear his heartbeat, Bryce. I know you can. He’ll live for a few hours before fluid build up kills him…unless you save him. Or feed.”

“Who the hell do you think you are?” Bryce snarled.

“I am our mistress’s favorite chew toy,” Dale spat out, not trying to hide his bitterness. “She’ll never forgive you for killing me.”

“He speaks truth,” said another voice, a voice Dale knew, a voice Dale loathed and loved as much as he did his goddess. Cassandra. “This one is off limits.”

The three cowered before her. She did not look half feral as they did. Cassandra had been a Child so long, and in many ways was something else. Something greater. Her bestial form was as beautiful and terrible as Bast’s. They knew where they stood relative to her.

As Cassandra passed Dale, she patted him on the head like a favored dog.

“Chose, Bryce. Does your brother recieve Her gift, or is he your first meal?”

Dale didn’t wait to see what Bryce chose. Dale didn’t care. He loped off on all fours, horrified at what he had done, horrified at what he had become.

As he ran through the streets, he saw something blowing in the wind. A piece of cloth, red and white stripes with a blue field of stars, attached to a pole. It tugged at some memory, a memory of the Rear Admiral’s, a memory that Dale forced to back to the back of his mind.

Bast had ordered this town be turned or dead, and had ordered that it not be allowed to happen to quickly. Dale would see it done. He would serve. He would obey.

And maybe, if he was very good, Bast would finally grant him the release of death.  

Small Worlds Part 172

“I was a huge nerd back in the day,” Ryan started with a grin. “I didn’t quite fit in with most people because I was constantly looking over my shoulder at Nabu, which got me a reputation for being just a little bit of a weirdo.”

“I can’t imagine why,” Dianmu said dryly.

“Right? So I made friends with some of the other outcasts. I’d say remind me to tell you about my goth phase, but we don’t ever talk about my goth phase. Eventually I settled in with the nerds. They thought I was a bit weird too, but they were proud of being weird so it was a natural fit. This was the early 2000’s, so there wasn’t the stereotypical 80’s bullying, but it also wasn’t at the widespread nerd culture adoption we have now.” Ryan paused. “I just realized, I’m never sure how much into popular culture you all are, and most of my reference frame is pretty American. Am I making sense so far?”

“Yes,” Dianmu said. “I’m a bit out of touch, but not completely ignorant of trends in popular culture.”

“Okay, good. Stop me if I start talking about things that don’t make sense.”

“Like, for example, a demonic creature called a Fangliang you’d clearly never heard of before I told the story?” Dianmu asked.

“Yes, exactly like that.” Ryan laughed. “Okay, point taken. So being in with the nerds means I got roped into the Alphabet Soup of hobbies – MTG, DnD, PnP RPGs, MMORPGs, the works.”

Dianmu rolled her eyes. “You did that deliberately, didn’t you?”

“Guilty,” Ryan said.

“Well, I know what some of those acronyms mean,” Dianmu said. “DnD is Dungeons and Dragons, yes? And MMORPG is some kind of video game.”

“Yup. Dungeons and Dragons is the one that really matters here. Are you familiar with it?”

“Not particularly. It never really caught on in China – at least, not among the people I lived among in Guangzhou. From what I’ve gathered, it’s some kind of satanic game for virgins?”

Ryan nearly doubled over from laughter. “No,” he said, wiping his eyes. “It’s…wow. I can see why you’d think that, but no. It’s a game where you roll dice to pretend to be elves and dwarves and wizards and such. It got a reputation for the satanic part back during the Satanic Panic in the 80’s, and the virgin thing is because of stereotypes about nerds.”

“I see. So you weren’t a satanic virgin?” Dianmu’s eyes glistened with amusement.

“I never worshipped the devil,” Ryan said primly.

Dianmu laughed, then looked at Ryan. “Wait, you’re serious?”

Ryan nodded. “Having a guy in a suit watching you twenty four hours a day, seven days a week is kind of a mood killer. I had girlfriends, but once it got to that point…I’d always wig out.”

“I suppose that makes sense,” Dianmu said after a moment’s thought.

“I thought it did.” Ryan shrugged. “Anyway, so it’s a game and it’s also a cooperative storytelling thing. It was a ton of fun. Jacqueline was our Dungeon Master, the person who oversees the game, and we played once a week at her house, every Friday after school.” He smiled at the memory. “I was a playing a Bard at the time. Merrick, the Mastiful Musical Magician. I had this whole speech that allterated off of M I’d do before performances.”

Dianmu’s forehead was furrowed. “I think I understand, although I’ll admit that I don’t see the appeal.”

“You know how fun it is to sit around sharing stories?” Ryan asked.

“You mean like we’re doing now?”

“Yeah, exactly. Now imagine that instead of one person was telling a story, everyone was telling the same story, and no one knew exactly how it would end because everyone was working together to get there.”

“It sounds chaotic,” Dianmu said.

“It is, but the rules and the dice help provide an order for the chaos, and the Dungeon Master tries to keep things structured.”

Dianmu nodded. “I suppose that makes some sense. So you almost died playing Dungeons and Dragons?”

“Not exactly,” Ryan said, leaning back into his chair. “We were over there one night in winter. It started snowing while we were playing. The other players – Mike, Bethany, Andre – they all went home early because the were worried about the weather. It was fine for the game because I’d wandered off from the group anyway, so Jacqueline and I decided to wrap up my solo adventure. I’ll admit I also stayed because I had a huge crush on her.”

“What happened to her?” Dianmu asked, noting the frown forming on Ryan’s face.

“We ended up dating the summer before college, and made it for a couple years before we broke up. The fact that I kept…well. It would have been fine, I think, if I’d said I wanted to wait until marriage or something. But since I didn’t want to, and she didn’t want to, but I kept backing off, and then refused to get help for what seemed like some kind of phobia eventually magnified the other flaws in our relationship until it broke us up.”

“You still miss her.”

“I was over it, over her. Honestly I was. Then in Cypher Nullity I stuck my head in the Reliquary and saw what would have happened if I’d told her. We would have been fine, apparently.”

Dianmu made a sympathetic sound. “Crystal took me there once. I put my head in too. I think the curiosity was too much to bear.”

“What’d you see?”

“What would have happened if I’d acted on my love for Leigong.”

Ryan blinked. “Wasn’t he your husband?”

Dianmu nodded. “What I saw there gave me the push to act upon that love.”

“Damn,” Ryan said. “Was kind of hoping to hear the Reliquary wasn’t always right about that kind of thing.”

“I asked Crystal about that later. She said it wasn’t – that the Reliquary always shows you the best case scenario. It’s a punishment, after all, or it’s meant to be. Think of it this way – had you stayed with Jacqueline, do you think you would have found your nanoverse?”

Ryan shook his head.

“Then it’s likely some other person would have your duty right now. But by the same token…well, actually, that’s another conversation.” Dianmu smiled. “I want to hear the rest of your story.”

“Fair enough,” Ryan said. “Although I’m going to ask you to circle back to that later.” Dianmu nodded in agreement, and Ryan continued. “So where was I? Oh yeah. I stayed late to finish my solo adventure. Had a great time. Almost worked up the nerves to ask Jacqueline out, but chickened out at the last second. Still, I was in a pretty good mood when I got in the car. I was even chatting at Nabu, for what ended up being the last time in years.”

Ryan took a deep breath. “I lost control of the car. Skidded off the road. I remember I came to, and I remember begging Nabu for help and him just standing there, taking notes like he didn’t give two shits about it.” He felt his fist begin to clench, and forced them relax. “Some random person saw the crash, pulled over, called nine one one. I’d been cut pretty bad. Lost so much blood that they almost didn’t try a transfusion. If it hadn’t been for that out of town doctor…”

Dianmu cocked her head. “What out of town doctor?”

“Some visiting physician who was at the hospital for a conference. Doctor Arturo Cuban. He insisted they attempt it anyway. I was legally dead for minutes. According to the Doctors, I should have stayed dead. It was a medical miracle I’d come back. Apparently, after you’ve lost forty percent of your blood, death is pretty much guaranteed even with a transfusion. I’d lost closer to forty-five.” Ryan shuddered. “I was still in a coma for a couple days. Never got to thank the Doctor who saved my life. Just woke up to Nabu still standing there, taking notes. My parents came in later, but that stuck with me – if not for sheer luck the last thing I ever saw was Nabu standing there, taking notes. Maybe that’s why he feels guilty enough to help me now.” Ryan shrugged.

“Perhaps,” Dianmu said.

“Bit less interesting than your story,” Ryan said with a grin.

“More interesting than any story I have from before I found my nanoverse,” Dianmu countered. “I certainly never died before I became a goddess.”

“Well, thank you for that.”

“You’re very welcome.”

“So…what was it you wanted to ask me?” Ryan said after a momentary lull in the conversation.

“Oh. Well, quite simply-” At that moment, Ryan’s console gave a quick beep letting them know they’d arrived. Dianmu laughed. “It’s something that will have to wait till later.”

Ryan sighed. “Apparently. Alright. You ready to tangle with the Curator’s red tape?”

“As ready as anyone can be.”

With that, they headed to the door, ready to argue with the universe’s oldest bureaucracy.

The Dragon’s Scion part 53

The wooden door was built into the stones of a tower directly over a lumwell. Over a hundred years of light had infused the wood, strengthening it by miniscule amounts every day. A normal door would have been torn to shreds by the unlight beams by now.

This door was only getting torn to shreds slowly.

Ossman caught a bolt of Unlight first. It had expended most of its energy punching through the door itself, so it only caused him to peel away from the door in pain. “We can’t hold it!” Tythel shouted over the alarms.

“Have a better idea?” Lorathor snapped as a beam of unlight passed inches in front his eyes. He winced, momentarily blinded by the attack.

“Armin!” Tythel shouted over her shoulder, “how much longer do you need?”

“I literally just started! So I’m going to stay with ‘I don’t know,’ for now, but it’ll be a lot longer if I have to keep answering that flathing question! Distractions don’t make it quicker!”

Tythel ground her teeth, and risked putting one of her eyes up to a hole in the door. There were easily a dozen soldiers out there, if not more. If they pushed through, in the narrow corridor, they’d cut everyone in the room down in seconds. “We’re being overrun,” she said as Ossman regained his footing and charged back do the door.

“Nothing I can do about that!” Armin shouted.

“I wasn’t talking to you! You focus on what you’re doing.” She turned to face Lorathor and repeated, “overrun, Lorathor. We need a plan!”

Lorathor’s w-shaped eyes widened. “Why do you think I have one?”

“Someone has to!” Tythel exclaimed in desperation.

Ossman glanced around the room. “How about we start moving some of this stuff to block the door?”

“Don’t you dare!” Armin shouted. “I don’t know what’s needed for these devices to function! You could ruin the whole thing.”

Eupheme hissed in pain as a bolt of unlight punched through the door and caught her in the shoulder. She stumbled back, and Tythel stared at her in worry, but when Eupheme pulled her hand away from the injury it hadn’t even punched through the clothes. “I’m okay,” she said.

“Ossman, Eupheme,” Lorathor said, his voice a sharp whip-crack of command, “get away from the door.” Ossman did. Eupheme, just nodded and stayed where she was.

“Tythel,” Lorathor said, looking up at her. “I have a plan to buy us time. Step back and ready your shield. Get ready.”

Tythel did. “Ready for what?”

Lorathor opened his mouth to explain. Before he could, another beam hit him in the side and sent him reeling away, swearing at the pain. Unlike Eupheme and Ossman, this blast had punched through more firmly. Wisps of smoke rose from where he’d been hit.

The next unlight blast sent the door flying open. Tythel found herself facing rows of soldiers, firing in a constant stream as they advanced. Her shield was already up, but it was already starting show cracks in the field of unlight from the constant barrage.

“Now!” Lorathor shouted.

As soon as he did, Tythel put together his plan. The soldiers were advancing towards them down a hallway.

A tight, packed, narrow hallway.

The instant their fire let up for them to replace energy packs, Tythel took a deep breath and let loose a gout of flame down the hall towards the soldiers. They were not clad in imperiplate, nor were they carrying shields like Tythel’s. It was a blessing that the dragonflame was too bright for Tythel to make out what happened to the bodies.

It didn’t save her from hearing them scream.

As soon as she stopped the torrent of fire, Ossman slammed the door shut.

“That should buy us some time,” Lorathor hissed through the pain.

Haradeth came flying down the stairs. “How did they find you?” he shouted over the alarms.

“Deadman switch!” Armin said from his buttons. As he clicked one, the constant alarm died abruptly. “They had a deadman switch set up. Had to be pressed every five minutes. It only had fifteen seconds left on it when I got in the seat, just figured it out.”

“How long do you need?” Haradeth asked.

Armin’s answer was a frustrated snarl.

With the alarms gone, Tythel could hear another sound approaching. “Imperiplate,” she said hoarsely, “They’re bringing up Imperiplate.”

Everyone looked stricken. The heavy armor would annihilate them in such close quarters.

“Armin,” Tythel said, “change of plans. You’re turned off the alarms, right? Does that mean you can turn them on?”

“Of course I can,” Armin barked, “but I don’t see why you’d want me to.”

“What about other alarms?” Tythel asked. “Like say, the gates?”

Armin’s eyes widened. “Yeah, okay. One second.” His fingers clacked away. “Done.”

Only Tythel could hear it as alarms started going off across the city. The imperiplate soldiers stopped in confusion, and several of them begin to break away to investigate.

“I just set every alert in the city to the highest level,” Armin said. “Now can I return to the prison? We have a whole lot of criminals to get slaughtered.”

Tythel couldn’t miss the bitter note in his voice. “No, we don’t.”

“Excuse me?” Haradeth and Armin said in almost identical tones.

“They know we’re here. That plan only worked because they’d be caught off guard. It’d minimize casualties. Now, however, they know we’re in here, they’re on high alert, it would be a massacre.”

“That didn’t bother you before,” Armin said.

Tythel shook her head. “I didn’t know the Alohym had all this,” she said, waving to the screens. “I didn’t know how connected they were. I thought we were looking at…at a couple dozen deaths. Not wholesale slaughter like that.”

A tension she’d been seeing in Armin’s eyes since the plan had been made began to fade. At the same time, Haradeth’s eyes were hardening. “A noble sentiment, Tythel, but our people are still in there!”

Tythel turned to Armin. “Can you open all the doors? At once?”

“Yes. Absolutely. I was already going to do that,” he said, turning back to the keyboard.

“What are you doing?” Haradeth asked.

The sound of the imperiplate footsteps got closer as Tythel explained, “We let everyone out. The Alohym are going to be running everywhere, trying to figure out where the real fires are. The prison is going to be a madhouse now. If we open all the doors, our people have a chance of pushing out.”

“I don’t see how that changes the original plan,” Haradeth asked.

“Well, for starters,” Armin muttered, “I was going to just do that anyway because the plan was monstrous.”

Haradeth shot Armin a glare, finally picking up that he had always played disobeying orders, but before Haradeth could speak Tythel stepped close to him and whispered so only he’d hear. “Haradeth, there’s three imperiplate soldiers coming up the hallway. In close quarters. We don’t have Nicandros’ disabling spheres. We might not survive long enough for a staggered release. At least our people are free this way.”

Haradeth looked into her eyes, and saw she was serious. His eyes widened. “Armin, open all the doors at once.”

Tythel couldn’t see Armin roll his eyes, but was certain he did. “Again, that was always what I was going to do. Does no one ever listen to me?”

Tythel took a deep breath. “Once you’re done, grab an arcwand. We’re going to be in the thick of it.”

A gauntleted fist punched through the wood, sending splinters into the room, and Tythel whirled, ready to make what she was certain would be her last stand.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 41

The building they were staying in turned out to be a home belonging to a couple that had been executed for aiding one of the resistance groups. “Once they do,” Nicandros explained to Tythel as they were packing, “the people and everything they owned are declared Anathema.”

“Like in Cardometh?” Tythel said, frowning. Anathema as a religious practice had died out when the Cardomethi empire fell, to be replaced with Exile to the Shadow. It meant the Shadow would rule your life as well as your death, but was far gentler than –

“Girl, you know I don’t know anything about Carodmeth.” Nicandros snorted. “It means that if you touch anything that belonged to them before it’s been cleansed, you’re marked and the Alohym will keep you from the Shadow’s embrace. And if you get caught, you’re probably a rebel and get treated as such.”

-That. “Yeah, that’s about the same,” Tythel said in a small voice.

Nicandros turned away to rummage through a pack, pulling out Tythel’s hammer and shield. “The Alohym don’t seem to have figured out we uses Anathema houses when we’re in cities. Safer than exposing someone who is still alive to the flathing Alohym. Although I think this is the last time we’ll get to use that trick.”

Tythel blinked in confusion. “How could they not have figured it out? They’re not stupid.

“Because we’ve only done it once or twice before, as a last resort. Like this was.” Nicandros shrugged as he handed over the armaments. “It’s a trick we knew could only sit in a cryobox for so long. Saving you and Ossman was worth burning it.”

The guilt began to rise in Tythel again, and she fought it down. If you tell him now, he’ll be thinking about it during the escape. He might even not trust you during it. At least wait until you’re out of the city and safe. At least wait until…Tythel resisted a sigh. At least wait until you can stomach the look in his eyes.

She knew that wasn’t fair to herself, that there were solid reasons not to tell him now. That didn’t change the fact that it felt like cowardice.

“Thank you, then.” She tried to force a smile for Nicandros. He raised an eyebrow in confusion, and Tythel blinked again. “Did I get it wrong?”

“If your lips don’t go up, it’s just a grimace. You’re getting better, girl, don’t worry.” Nicandros did give her a smile, one she hadn’t been able to place before but was now realizing was an indulgent smile.

Tythel turned away.

“Hey, Tythel, don’t worry.” Nicandros said. “We’re going to get out of this. Remember, I promised. Not going anywhere.”

Instead of answering, Tythel shouldered her pack. “Don’t make promises you can’t be sure you’ll keep,” she said, brushing past Nicandros before her nictitating membranes started flashing away the tears. She knew it looked like she was angry, and she was. It’s not his fault.

She just wished he’d stop saying that.

“Eupheme,” Tythel approached the woman, “The routes still clear?”

Eupheme gave her a tilted head of confusion that Tythel appreciated. “They were five minutes ago, your highness. Do you want me to check again?”

Tythel bit her lip. “No. It’s only been five minutes?” Eupheme nodded. “I just…” Tythel glanced out of the corner of her eye at Armin.

The young mage was moving around getting ready, but it was a listless series of gestures. He seemed present, mentally, but without his usual cheer and jokes he was…Tythel couldn’t put a word to it. He’s just going through the motions. Eupheme followed her gaze and then motioned to draw Tythel’s attention back. “He’s stronger than he looks, your highness.”

Tythel didn’t know if Eupheme meant that, or was saying it for Tythel’s benefit, but it was appreciated all the same.

“Alright, everyone, listen up,” Nicandros growled. “Once we go out that door, we’re not going to have long to go before we run into a patrol trying to close the net. Take them down hard, fast, and silent. If we pull that off and break out of the web, we’ll be clear. If we don’t, we’re going to have to fight our way out through the entire flathing city. We’re about half a mile from the wall, and Eupheme’s already made sure we’ll have an open gate. If  you get separated, head towards the Northwest gate. Push hard, but we’re not trying to take down the whole flathing garrison here. If your opponent can’t chase, it’s time to move, not fight. Understood?”

Everyone nodded and headed towards the door. Tythel took a deep breath to steel her nerves and, with one last glance to make sure Armin was still on his feet, opened the door.

The night air was still and cool. It should have been refreshing, but there was something off about it. A foul stillness that reminded Tythel of when Karjon had exposed some new tunnels for the lair. The stale air from in there had been exactly like this.

By contrast, to Tythel’s ears, the city was very much alive. There was a woman arguing with her husband about her sister. Here was a young boy trying to comfort a younger child, promising papa would be home soon. The gentle sounds of a couple kissing. Some less gentle sounds from a different couple that confused Tythel. What on earth are they doing? And so on and so forth.  An absolute cacophony of life that had been hidden from her in the basement.

And when we were on the first floor, Tythel reflected as she fell in behind Eupheme and Nicandros, who were taking up scouting positions in the front. There had been no sound from the city at large when they had been there. Did Anathema actually do something? Or was it some other factor? Tythel shook her head to dismiss the thought and try to tune out the sound. She needed to stay focused. Even with Eupheme and Nicandros taking point, Tythel might spot something they missed.

Tythel heard the clang of the Alohym soldiers enhanced mail at the same time Eupheme held up a fist to bring the group to a stop and gestured at Nicandros. He nodded, raising his arcwand, and Eupheme vanished into the shadows.

Everyone tensed. Tythel was holding her breath, Ossman was hunching his shoulders to look as small as possible, even Armin was…well, the best one could say for Armin right now was that he looked alive, which was an improvement.

They were so focused, they all missed the soldier coming up behind them before it was too late.

“Targets spotted!” he shouted into his shoulder, and Tythel whirled around. In a single smooth motion she activated and let her hammer fly as she did. The soldier was a good distance away, having shouted the warning before the sound of his mail alerted Tythel. The hammer still struck him in the chest, and he went stumbling back as Tythel ran to pick up the weapon. Stupid, stupid, Tythel chided herself.

“Come on!” Nicandros shouted as Tythel’s fingers closed around the hammer’s handle. The time for stealth was over.

It was time for flight.

Tythel was able to catch up to Ossman and Armin. When she reached them she slowed down to match Ossman’s speed and grabbed Armin by the back of his clock and tossed him over her shoulder. “Tythel, what are you doing?” he shouted, practically in her ear.

“Shoot behind us!” she responded. It wasn’t the reason she’d picked him up, but Tythel took pride in herself for the improvisional answer.

Armin grumbled but unslung his arcwand as soldiers began to close in behind them. He opened fire.

Alarms started sounding across the city. A deep, booming voice sounded over the city, coming from a dozen different origins. “U’doh’can. U’doh’can.”

“What are they saying?” Tythel asked Ossman as their feet pounded on the pavement.

“Stay in your homes,” Ossman grunted. “It means they’re not going to be holding back.”

Tythel nodded and pushed her head down. They’d caught up to Eupheme and Nicandros. Eupheme was running oddly, her form trailing a shadowy impression of herself with every step. Nicandros just ran as fast as he could.

The gate loomed ahead. Freedom was almost there! Tythel pushed herself a bit harder, determined to get Armin to freedom.

Then a metal tree trunk slammed into the road in front of them. It took Tythel a moment to realize it belonged to one of the tentacles of the pod-walkers from the forest. It was thicker than the one they had fought back then, and Tythel didn’t think they’d be lucky enough to open a small hole she could exploit this time.

Tythel’s mind was racing. If I was building a colossus like that, where would I short the armor? The answer was obvious. No one in the world had flying machines besides the Alohym, so why would you waste armor on the top.

Because of me.

Tythel shoved Armin at Ossman. “Get him out of the city!” She shouted at Ossman.

“What?”

“Go! I have a plan!” Tythel didn’t wait for Ossman to answer.

Instead, she leapt.

The leap took her high enough to hit the roof of a two story house beside her. The walker turned towards her, and lashed out with one of its tentacles. Not there yet. Without even pausing on the balcony, she took two more steps and launched herself into the air again, this time landing on the roof a third story building. The people inside the house screamed in panic, but that was swiftly drowned out as the tentacle slammed into the balcony she had just vacated.

The screams from inside the building were frightened, not pained. Tythel hoped she hadn’t gotten anyone killed as the walker swung towards her again. Tythel had to drop to her knees to slide under this blow, bending backwards till she could feel her hair press the tiles.

Then she pushed up to resume charging. A four story building was nearby, and was her target. It seemed – thank the Light – the Alohym soldiers inside were unwilling to fire Unlight inside a city and were trying to swat her like a bug instead. Perfect.

She leapt up to the four story building. The pilot of the pod had figured out her destination and a tentacle was swinging to meet her. Instead of trying to dodge this one, Tythel landed on it.

For a moment she almost lost her balance. The metal was smooth and polished to a sheen, it offered very little in the way of foothold. Then she heard and felt something catch in her foot, and her momentum stopped. Worry about that later. Tythel pivoted towards the pod and began to charge up the length of the tentacle.

If I survive this, Nicandros can never complain about my technique again.

Strange Cosmology part 93

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now she’d gone too far.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dragon’s Scion Part 38

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strange Cosmology Part 92

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dragon’s Scion Part 37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s wrong, Armin?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strange Cosmology Part 91

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We do?” Artemis asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hera nodded.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 33

Rephylon gazed at Tythel for a bit, just long enough where Tythel began to wonder if she was supposed to speak first. Before she could break the silence – she still had no idea what she’d break it with – it let out a lone drone mixed with clicks and wet sounds like meat sliding across sandpaper.

She was reminded of Thomah shouting before he died. O’malh’ti! O’malh’ti! Hoth’tivath!” If Tythel let herself try to make out distinct sounds in the horrible noise Rephylon was emitting, she could hear how those worlds – and flath, for that matter – would be the closest a human mouth could come to copying that grotesque speech.

“You do seem to be the daughter of the old Royals in this region, yet your flesh also seems different. You are more than they were. Explain,” Theognis intoned. It took Tythel a second to realize he was literally translating what Rephylon was saying. Rephylon tilted its head to the side in obvious confusion.

Tythel’s heart was pounding. If she lied to to the Alohym, it might know otherwise,  and might take poorly to the lie. She got the feeling she wouldn’t like its displeasure. On the other hand, it didn’t know. It couldn’t tell what she was. Given that the Alohym had made a mission out of eradicating dragonkind, if she told it the truth it likely would also take poorly to that. “I was born a human. How could I be anything else?” she tried. At least it wasn’t technically a lie.

Rephylon reared back a fraction of an inch, and Tythel wondered what that signified. It wasn’t like any gesture human or dragon had ever made, and she found herself doubting her earlier conclusion that the head-tilt was confusion. It spoke again, with Theognis translating, “That question is one we will have answers for.” Theognis gave her an grin as he relayed that  line, and Tythel shuddered at the thought of what finding those answers would entail. “Yet you are the daughter of the Royals of this region. Why do you fight against us?”

The question startled Tythel so much, she forgot her fear and let out a sharp laugh. “Why? You kill people for standing against you. You took away this world from humanity. You oppress us at every turn. And, most importantly,” and here for the first time Tythel found the strength to meet its gaze as her owned narrowed, “you killed my father you monster. How could I not fight against you?”

The Alohym reared back another fraction, and brought one of those bisected forearms up to tap both its head and shoulder simultaneously. Is that like a man scratching their chin? Or a dragon flicking its tail in thought? At least Tythel could take comfort it was unlikely anyone was particularly adept at reading the emotions of these invaders. “I arrived ten cycles ago,” Theognis said for Rephylon, “and your parents died long before that. You were an infant, you did not know them. Why would you care?”

Tythel snarled. “Not them. My father was Karjon,” she said.

Rephylon looked over at Theognis and made some sound Theognis didn’t deign to translate. He spoke in that strange tongue himself, although they sounded more like words coming from Theognis’ lips. Come to think of it, no part of the Alohym moves when it speaks. How does it even make sounds? The questioned seemed trivial and Tythel tried to push it aside, but some part of her brain kept circling back to that. The sounds were coming from its head, yes, but they were also coming from deep inside its chest – what Tythel supposed she should be calling its thorax. How did this monster speak?

She heard Karjon’s name in Theognis’ answer, and it struck her that it was clear what they were talking about. Rephylon had no idea who or what Karjon was. The idea that one of them didn’t even know who he was filled her belly with fire all over again, and she considered attempting to flame even with the ache in her throat.

“Karjon. Who is this Karjon?” Theognis translated, and the fire in her belly began to settle into into a thick stew of molten lead.

“Karjon was – “ Tythel almost started to scream his praises at them, but bit her tongue before she could go any further. If she told them too much, she’d likely earn her own death. By the time you’re done, every one of them will know his name. Don’t tell them now. “- was the one that raised me. He died in – “

“Do not dissemble,” Theognis snapped without any input from Rephylon. “You told Lucien that he died in the raid on the dragon, that he was the dragon. But he was a dragon. Who was he, that he matters so much to you that you fight against the Gods in his name?”

“He was my father!” Tythel shouted, and tears of frustration began to creep into her eyes. Before she could stop herself, her nictitating membranes flashed across her eyes.

Theognis took a step back at the motion, as if she was somehow as horrible a monster as the creature standing besides him. If Rephylon found it odd, it did not show it in any word or gesture. When Theognis began to translate again, his voice was halting and uncertain. “You hold a bond to this Karjon the same as humans hold to those they share flesh with?”

“Yes,” Tythel hissed through clench teeth. “What part of that is so hard to understand?”

“We are constantly surprised by humans ability to hive-bond. I have seen humans become suicidally angry over the death of lower life forms they keep as hunting partners. I have seen humans weep for the destruction of their nests, even if we offer to rebuild them. A dragon? They are the monsters we are saving you from, and yet you claim one as a parent?”

Tythel gaped at Rephylon. “Saving us from? No, no, that doesn’t make sense.” She bit her lip in thought, then felt her eyes widen in realization. “Of course. Just like the Nahdi, when they conquered the Brerica. They told them it was for their own safety, that they were protecting them against the Cardometh, when Cardometh had no ambitions on that peninsula. You’re claiming dragons are the threat because you want to appear better. Every Light needs its Shadow.”

Karjon had once said that she could be distracted by a history lesson in the middle of a battle. This wasn’t a battle, it was an interrogation, but he was certainly being proven right at the moment. Rephylon leaned forward, till their faces were mere inches apart. It let out the droning hiss directly in her face, and Tythel leaned as far away as possible when it did. “Dragons eat humans,” he intoned for Rephylon, as if saying it would have the same weight as the truth, “and now they are gone. We have saved you.”

“Not me,” Tythel said, with as much defiance as she could muster pressed against the wall. “I lost the greatest being I’d never known because of you. You didn’t help  me, you ripped me apart.”

The Alohym reached up with it’s bisected arms, and she couldn’t move away enough to prevent it from touching her. She wondered if she’d gone too far, if it was going to kill her right here and now for daring to talk about to it. No, I can’t die yet. I still have work to do! She almost risked a flame, but instead of a strike or a throttle like she expected, it touched her cheek and arm delicately. The touch was cold and smooth, like the carapice it resembled, but there was something about the motion that reminded her of how people comforted each other. “Yes,” Theognis translated, “we did. And we will fix that, if you will serve.”

Tythel jerked away from the touch. “How can you possibly fix it? He’s dead. There’s no bringing him back.”

“We are gods, child. We will do exactly that, if you will serve.”

Tythel felt her heart, already pounding as fast as it ever had before, accelerate. “I will not subject my father to a necromancer’s touch!” she hissed.

“Necromancy is children playing in our domain. No, we would not bring him back as some undead thing. We would rebuild his body with our devices, and then we would call his soul back to it. He would live again, as he was before his death.”

“That’s impossible. You’re not gods, not really.”

Theognis chuckled for a moment, and Tythel for once could read a reaction perfectly. Theognis new, as well as she did, that the Alohym were not gods. They were something else, but he did not believe in their divinity. Was it you, Theognis, who suggested they steal the Old Tongue word for god? Or was that their own idea?

Rephylon was droning again, and Tythel waited for Theognis to translate its words. “You may disbelieve if you wish. Yet we have ships that sail beyond the sky. We have marvels your species never imagined. We channel power you had not dreamt of. I assure you, such a feat is not beyond us.”

Tythel had to remember to breath. If the Alohym could bring Karjon back… “Why should I trust you?” she asked.

“Because we have need of you, Daughter of the Royals. The humans of this kingdom, they are…rebellious. If we had you, it would help quell those that feel the Royals should rule again. And if we failed to deliver, you would have no reason to serve.”

Much as she wished otherwise, there was a logic to Rephylon’s words. I could have my father back! The idea that he might not be lost to her forever was a fresh agony, ripping open the wounds she had thought were beginning to heal. She could hear his voice again, rest against his flank, shelter under his wings. She could play with him again, sit on the ground listening to his wisdom, learn more about what it meant to be a dragon now that she was one. Isn’t that what you really want?

The Alohym’s gaze was unreadable, but Tythel felt an expectation beneath that stare. She couldn’t find the words to answer it’s offer, and fresh grief began to wrack her body to the point where she was finding it difficult to stand.

Rephylon again reached out with that two-handed arm and wiped away the tear that began to roll down her cheek before she could jerk away, droning as it did. “Think on it, child,” Theognis translated. “In three days, you will be taken from here. Then you will either be executed or you will have you father returned to you. Your companions, likewise, may be spared if you choose to serve.”

With that, the two turned to leave, leaving Tythel with her doubts and her tears.