Small Worlds Part 200

Ryan walked back into the Council’s chamber with leaden feet. The sensation was similar to what he’d felt in high school, when he’d finally worked up the nerve to try weed, and the next day had been called to the principal’s office. Every step had been torture, and he was certain he’d be expelled or arrested. For a few wild moments, waiting in the office, sweating and shaking with anxiety, he’d been certain that somehow Nabu had rattled him out.

It had turned out someone at the school had found his angsty LiveJournal and wanted to set him up with a counselor. Since he’d still been seeing a psychiatrist at the time, it had been a short visit. He’d never touched any kind of drug again after that. Every time the opportunity had arisen, he’d felt that same sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.

This time, the stakes were infinitely higher, and he didn’t see any chance of a last minute misunderstanding saving him. Jegudiel believed it was humanity’s time to die.

He’d talked about it with Dianmu and Nabu before going back in. Dianmu had grimly agreed it was unlikely the Council would relent after that discussion. “It’s still worth trying. Anything is worth trying. The worst case scenario is we are no better than we were when we came here.”

Ryan had nodded and looked over at Nabu. The curator looked worse than Ryan felt, like he might be sick at any moment. After decades of seeing him placidly observe everything, up to and including Ryan’s near death in a car accident, the idea that he was shaken so badly was the last thing Ryan’s nerves could handle at the moment. Nabu had excused himself and left. Ryan hadn’t resented him for that.

No one wants to watch hope die.

“Esteemed members of the Council,” Ryan asked, his voice clear in spite of the sick pit of worry that was gnawing at his stomach. “What did you find with the discrepancy in documentation?”

The robed figures were silent for a moment. Jegudiel had replaced her hood, and Ryan wanted to scream at her for that, call her a coward for refusing to look him in the eyes as she condemned an entire species to death because of the rules.

“Upon careful review of the documentation,” Jegudiel said, “we find that the six hundred and sixty seventh edition of The Handbook for Handling Requests from Fiends, Devils, Daemons, and other Infernal Entities…contained a misprint that leads to this confusion. Per the Thirty Eighth Edition of Documentation Errors, and the Handling Thereof, misprints are not grounds for policy changes so long as intent is clear. The Handbook for Handling Requests from Fiends, Devils, Daemons, and other Infernal Entities clearly meant to refer to the archangel Lucifer, not the human King of Hell Arthur. Therefore, no discrepancy exists.”

“Objection!” Dianmu shouted from where she stood. “The most recent edition of Documentation Errors, and the Handling Thereof, was the Thirty Seventh edition. I reviewed it extensively during our research process. There was no mention made of misprints!”

“I’m unsurprised you were unable to locate the Thirty Eighth edition,” Jegudiel said smoothly. “It was only recently published. But as I’m sure you are aware, the most recent edition holds precedent, regardless of publication date.”

By the way Dianmu’s face fell, Ryan knew that she was aware. “When was it published?” Ryan asked, a terrible anger forming alongside the dread in the pit of his stomach.

Even though Ryan couldn’t see her face, Ryan was certain the look Jegudiel was giving him was sympathetic. “Seven minutes and eleven seconds ago.”

“That’s absurd!” Ryan shouted. “You made changes to the rules halfway through a hearing to make sure you got the desired outcome.”

“Yes,” Jegudiel said simply. “There are policies outlined for doing exactly that.”

“It’s unfair,” Ryan said, hoping he sounded more righteous than petulant.

“The universe often is, Ryan Smith, Eschaton of Earth.” While there was still a hint of sympathy in Jegudiel’s voice, there was no sign of yielding. “We do not exist to make sure that loopholes can be exploited. We exist to make sure things run smoothly. You are commended for bringing this error to our attention, and your name will receive credit in the next forty editions of the Documentation Errors, and the Handling Thereof.

“You can take that book, turn it sideways, and shove it so far up your ass you choke on it,” Ryan said, spitting the words between clenched teeth. The council members began to murmur at his outburst, but Ryan was unrelenting. “You wasted twelve hours of our time –  more – so you could change the rules at the last minute just to fuck us. You could have at least bought us dinner first.”

“Technically, you declined our offer for food by not filling out the required forms,” Jegudiel said.

“Seriously?” Ryan shouted, his voice full of sarcastic fury. “That’s your defense? Damn you all to hell. I know the guy in charge, I’ll ask him to make it especially nasty for you.”

“Your outbursts are out of line,” one of the other Councilmembers said, his voice firm.

“This council is out of line! This whole damn situation is out of line! You know what?” Ryan pointed an accusatory finger at Jegudiel. “Humans may be average. We may be unexceptional. We may be just another species in your eyes. But we are better than you in one important way. We would never sentence an entire species to death because of paperwork.

“Perhaps you would not,” Jegudiel did. “But we are not doing that either. We do not issue the death sentence. Time and the Creator do. We simply ensure the rules are followed.”

Ryan sunk back, fury fading to be replaced by despair. It was over. The Curators would tell them nothing. They had only managed to lose time. I still have no idea how I’m going to pull it off…oh god, I can’t kill humanity!

The door burst open behind Ryan. Nabu stood there, his tie undone, his hair wild, and a piece of paper in his hand. “Esteemed council!” he shouted. “I have one more form to submit.”

Nabu strode forward and slapped the paperwork in front of Jegudiel. Ryan saw the title on it, and he felt a sudden surge of hope he had been certain was dead.

“Statement of Intent by a Class 3 Curator to Go Renegade, 23-P”

 

The Dragon’s Scion part 96

“So…” Haradeth swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry. “You’re claiming the Ancient Alohym bred with mortals to create the Little Gods?”

The Tarnished One sighed. “No. No no no no. Do you even listen?” She brandished the dagger at Haradeth. “Maybe I should make your ears bigger so you can hear better.”

“I’d prefer if you didn’t,” Haradeth said, taking a step back.

“Of course you would. You’d be all ‘oh no, why? My ears!? You little psycho, what did you do my ears?’ That’s what everyone says when I stab them in the ears.” The Tarnished One glared at Haradeth. “I don’t understand you fleshy things. What’s a little ear stabbing between friends?”

Haradeth just stared at her.

“Right, the Ancient Alohym bred with mortals. Thus, you got the Little Gods.”

“Wait, I’m confused,” Haradeth said, fighting the urge to clamp his hands over his ears for protection. “I thought you weren’t claiming that?”

“I’m not,” she said, crossing her arms across her chest and glowering. “I don’t claim the sky is blue, I don’t claim water is wet, I don’t claim it would take two hundred stones of pressure to splatter your skull. Those are just facts.” The Tainted One cocked her head in thought. “, since you’re part Alohym, it would take two hundred and twenty-seven stones. I think. I guess that one is a claim.” She glowered at Haradeth harder. “And I know if I ask, you’re going to say “no, I don’t want my skull shattered hard enough to spray my brains across the room.’”

“That’s…true.” Haradeth took another step back and glanced at Lorathor. From the way the Sylvani was grinning, this was expected behavior. “I apologize if I made it sound like that wasn’t a fact. It just…I was under the impression that all of the Little Gods were descended from Arantimah.”

“Arantimah was just the word humans used for Alohym who stayed behind,” the Tainted One said, rolling her eyes. Given her eyes were glass spheres in sockets, it was a rather impressive roll. “That’s like claiming that Eylohir is some kind of dark god as opposed to an appropriation of our ancient foes’ name that was repurposed and degraded into a term systemic corruption to our systems brought about by exposure to Nahrah.

Haradeth glanced at Lorathor for clarification, thinking the Sylvani was less likely to stab him for asking than The Tainted One. “Remember?” Lorathor prompted. “Anortia mentioned Eylohir yesterday. Said it was a name for…wait.” Lorathor’s gaze switched the Tainted One. “It’s a name for what? And exposure to…Nahrah?”

“Oh, Lorathor.” The Tainted One said brightly. “Maybe your ears need stabbing. Eylohir is the term for the corruption to all of the ship’s operational systems. Eylohir was also the name of your gods in ages past, which was later repurposed by the beings you now call Alohym when they decimated your homeworld. It seems that these beings are fond of repurposing gods and presenting themselves as such.”

Haradeth was beginning to feel like he was drowning in new information. “I hear you, oh Tainted One,” Haradeth said carefully, “but I do not understand.”

“It’s a flaw in your brain,” The Tainted One sighed. “I can give you a better brain, but then you’d be all ‘I exist to serve, mistress’ and ‘what is thy bidding, mistress’ and that gets no fun. They don’t even scream when I stab them.”

It was now time for both Haradeth and Lorathor to take steps back in tandem. The Tainted One rolled her eyes again and sat on the floor. “Look. No stabbing. I’d have to stand up to stab you because you’re very tall. I suppose I could stab in you in the shins, but I already stabbed Haradeth once and stabbing Lorathor would just make you leave. Now. Shut up and let me explain.”

A beam of light erupted from the box floating in the center of the room. It crystalized into a globe, an image of the world. Haradeth gasped at the sight.

“This is your world. Most worlds in the cosmos are made of rock and metals – except for gaseous worlds, but those would blow your mind even further, so we won’t talk about them.” She waved her hand, and the image changed. It now showed the world cut in half. It appeared to be layers and layers of rock, over a central chamber nearly big enough to house a second world. “Some time before we arrived on your world, the Ancient Alohym fought a battle with some threat, an immensely powerful being. The Ancient Alohym won, but in the process, this powerful being drank all your molten stuff in the center of your world.”

The Tainted one made a slurping noise to demonstrate, then raised a finger and pointed at the globe. “This is what should have happened.”

Before Haradeth’s eyes, the image of the world collapsed under its own weight, shards of rock shooting outwards. He felt the need to swallow again.

“As awesome as a world collapsing would have been, the Ancient Alohym weren’t okay with that. So instead, they turned their bodies into Nahrah and plunged themselves into the world.” A sudden sphere of light appeared in the center of the hollowed-out globe. “In a few places, the pressure of Nahrah was so great, it pushed through all that rock and poked out of the ground. These are what you call…”

“…Lumwells,” Haradeth finished for her, realization dawning on him. “Nahrah is light.”

“Yay you can think. That’s good. Means I don’t need to fix your brain.” the Tainted One grinned widely at him. “Yes. Your people came to call it light. With a sun above and the world being full of light, it’s no wonder you all worshipped the abstract concepts of Light and Shadow so hard that you attracted their personifications.”

“Wait,” Haradeth started to say, but was cut out by a dagger being pressed to his throat. He hadn’t even seen her move. She was holding herself off the ground on two of her hand tails, and a third one had wrapped around Haradeth’s waist, holding him close to her.

“No. I’m not explaining that. It’ll take too long. Whimper if you understand.” Her voice was a low, rasping sound.

Haradeth couldn’t have stopped himself from whimpering if he wanted to.

The Tainted One grinned and carefully pressed her metal lips to his forehead in something akin to a kiss before bouncing off. “Now, as I was saying,” she said. “The light in the center of the world is the result of an ancient ritual the Ancient Alohym performed to keep your world aloft, by constantly healing and replenishing it. Which is why it mutates life so badly. A few remaining mated with mortals to ensure their bloodlines survived, and those created the Little Gods. Are you following me so far?”

Haradeth and Lorathor nodded. The Tainted One smiled.

“Good. Because this next part is where things start getting really interesting.” The image of the world sealed itself and was again whole. A second world appeared, one with purple lands and red oceans. “Because this is the part where I come in. And I suppose the Sylvani and the beings like Anitoria, but really, it’s the part where I come in, and that’s what matters. Sit down, fleshy friends. We’ve got a bit more story to tell.”

His heart still pounding from the knife to his neck, Haradeth did exactly that.

 

Small Worlds Part 199

“You seem nervous,” Jegudiel said, giving Ryan a warm smile. “Would you care for some tea? I find it’s very relaxing.”

“Uh…do I have to do paperwork for it?” Ryan asked, trying to discreetly run the palms of his hands on the side of his jeans to rid them of sweat. He’d seen what an archangel could do now. If Uriel’s fight with Moloch was anything to go by, the short woman in front of him could kill him before he could bat an eyelash. Been awhile since you felt like this, hasn’t it? Even against Enki, even against the Super Soldiers, even against Moloch…Ryan hadn’t felt powerless. Overwhelmed, under prepared, or not quite strong enough, sure. But powerless? That was new.

He didn’t particularly like it.

Jegudiel laughed lightly. “Yes, but they’re very simple. Just a Waiver for any Injuries Sustained from Hot Beverage 19-C and Consent to Imbibe Caffeinated Beverage 30-J. Just need your signature.”

“Appreciate it,” Ryan said, “but if I have to sign one more form I’m probably going to tear out my eyeballs and try to use them as pens.”

“Not without an Authorization to Use Bodily Fluids or Substances for Ink or other Writing Implement Special Request – Non-Blood 11-J.”

Ryan stared at her. “You’re serious. You actually have a form for that.”

“Of course we do,” Jegudiel said, her tone full of sympathy. “It may seem odd you, but there are rules and processes for everything. And there a reasons for them.”

“If you don’t mind my asking…what possible use is there to a form specifically for requesting bodily fluids to be used as ink?” Ryan kept his tone as polite as possible. Do not piss off the lady that can break time in half.

“If you were to do so, you’d be leaving behind your DNA and a bit of your essence. Such things could be used against you. The form ensures that you fully understand the possible repercussions for doing so, to make sure you don’t accidentally expose yourself to risks you couldn’t have predicted.”

“Okay,” Ryan said after a moment, “I guess I can see the logic of that. And a form to Consent to Imbibe Caffeinated Beverages?”

“Caffeine is a diuretic. Even the law enforcement on your world gives people caffeinated beverages to increase the need to urinate, which is an effective – if debatably legal – interrogation technique. Again, it’s about making sure you understand the consequences of your actions.”

“Uh-huh.” Ryan frowned. “And the temporary pen Allocation forms?”

Jegudiel’s face darkened. “People kept stealing my pens. I hate it when people steal my pens.”

Ryan couldn’t stop himself from barking out a laugh. Jegudiel gave him a raised eyebrow. “Sorry,” Ryan said. “I just…that’s the first thing you’ve said I can relate to.”

Jegudiel’s smile returned. “As I said, a purpose for everything. But for most of them, it’s about informed consent. Understanding that actions have consequences. Such as, for example, trying to circumvent the natural Eschaton process.”

“Ah,” Ryan said, settling back into his chair. “I see where you’re going with this.”

“I doubt it,” Jegudiel said, although politely. “I think it’s very likely that, if you did understand, you would be apologizing and leaving my office.”

“Maybe,” Ryan said. “On the other hand, I’m pretty attached to my species.”

“You and every other Eschaton, Ryan. Do you know how many Eschatons have come to Officium Mundi, this year alone, requesting some way to circumvent the process. ‘Please, make this one exception. Tell me how I can save only my species.’ It’s understandable, but it’s also painfully selfish.”

“Selfish?” Ryan asked with a start. “How could it be selfish? I’m trying to save the human race!”

“And only the human race,” Jegudiel said. “Other races can burn as far as you’re concerned, yes?”

Ryan blanched. “No, I don’t mean…I just can’t do anything for them. I have to focus on what I can control.”

“Mmm,” Jegudiel said. She motioned and out of the air, formed a perfect cup of tea to take a thoughtful sip out of. “Tell me, then, Ryan. What makes the human race worth saving, out of all other races. What makes your species special?”

“I mean…” Ryan stared at her. “I don’t know. I don’t know what other races are like, so I can’t make a case for humans being exceptional without a comparison.”

“Fair.” Jegudiel tapped her lip. “Would you like to know? Would you like to know what makes humans exceptional?”

Ryan nodded.

“Absolutely nothing.” Jegudiel’s smile took on a wicked bend, although Ryan had to wonder if it was his own mind adding that at the way his stomach dropped. “You’re more violent than fifty-five point three percent of species. You’re more artistic than forty-six point eight percent. You’re lifespan is within median ranges for sentient species. You’ve destroyed your home planet quicker than sixty one point four five percent of species. You’ve engaged in genocide more frequently than forty nine point two. You commit acts of kindness more frequently than fifty five point seven. You achieved space travel quicker than sixty two point seven percent of species. There is nothing about humanity that stands out, nothing that makes them exemplary for good or ill.” This time there was a gleam in Jegudiel’s eyes that Ryan was sure was, if not malicious, a least smug.  “That’s also true for sixty five point seven percent of species, so you’re not even exceptionally mediocre.”

“Well, maybe that’s because species keep dying before they can accomplish anything!” Ryan said, anger replacing fear in a burning rush. “Maybe this whole Eschaton cycle just prevents any species from reaching its full potential.”

“Maybe.” Jegudiel said, her voice firm. “But there’s no reason to believe humanity will manage to achieve any degree of exceptionalism. There’s nothing about your species that suggests you are anything other than an average species, from an average world, around an average star. You had an average civilization. Take some pride in that you avoided destroying yourselves before now, which is true of forty point five percent of species. At least you weren’t in the upper percent of that range.”

“It’s not just about math,” Ryan growled. “It’s about individuals. Anything becomes average when you look at a large enough groups, but individual people have lives and hopes and dreams and potential. We could still do so much.”

“Yes, you potentially could have done so much,” Jegudiel softly. “But it’s time for the world to end, Eschaton. It’s time for humanity to die. I’m sorry. Leave aside this debate, go back to your world. If you want, take a few humans into your nanoverse to live their lives out in the space of a cosmic blink, if it eases your guilt.. But let go.”

Ryan stood up sharply. “No. I’m going to keep pushing. I’m going to keep fighting. Right up until the last second, as long as I draw breath, I’m not giving up.”

Jegudiel sighed. “You are going to regret that, Ryan Smith. It’s best to accept that there are some things that cannot be fought. Give up.”

“Never,” Ryan said firmly. “Never, ever give up.”

“As you wish,” Jegudiel said. “You do understand that, in this debate, I make the final decision, correct?”

Ryan nodded.

“And you still wish to argue, knowing my stance?”

“Sure,” Ryan said. “Because there’s still hope I can change your mind.”

“You won’t.” Jegudiel said simply.

“Maybe,” Ryan said. “But I know one thing for a fact.”

Jegudiel arched an eyebrow. “And what, pray tell, is that?”

Ryan smiled at her. He knew how bitter the expression was, but was past caring. “That I’ll never convince you if I don’t try.”

Jegudiel sighed. “Very well, Ryan. I’ll see you back in the meeting chamber.” She motioned to dismiss him.

Ryan gave her a stiff bow and walked out.

 

 

Small Worlds Part 198

Crystal was lost in a sea of math.

Typhon was focusing one hundred and nineteen heads on her right now, a tangled mass that she could barely sort out. If she’d tried to watch the heads themselves, she’d get distracted in short order.  Based on previous attack patterns eighty nine point three percent probability of strike on lower left side in next point two seconds shift stance nine point three degrees clockwise and lower left blade and –

The calculation didn’t need to finish. Crystal could feel the impact of the serpent’s snout as it impaled itself on her blade. She flicked her wrist to bring the sword up to catch the next attack, this one from the upper left, while swinging her right sword in a wide arc to catch the merged strikes that were coming from that side.

Three more serpents reared back, bloody and confused. At least, the math told her they were reared back, and the impact up her arms told her she’d cut into their flesh. She did her best to only watch the math directly.

It was less distracting than the writhing mass of serpents surrounding her.

Ninety one point seven percent probability of strike from directly above. Crystal raised her sword and was rewarded with a snake bifurcating itself along the point of the blade. She was immediately leaping to take her path over another snake coming for her ankles, swinging her sword to free it from its gory sheathe. A quick spin in the air caused a serpent head that would have plunged its fangs into her midsection to snap shut on her hair. She had to jerk her head to tear a few strands loose.

She’d lost sight of Isabel some time ago, but the occasional shrieks of a bird of prey told her that her companion was still alive and fighting.

Above it all, Typhon was still bringing the massive dragon heads to bare on Crystal. He moved with agonizing slowness when he wasn’t relying on the serpent heads. That’s for the best; Crystal reminded herself, ducking beneath two incoming heads and managing to decapitate one with a quick scissoring of her twin swords. If he was fast, we’d already be dead.

Of course, the problem was they weren’t even coming close to accomplishing their goal. Typhon – even though it technically was just “a typhon”, Crystal struggled to not think of it as a name – was barely even winded, and had Crystal and Isabel fighting for their lives. One point seven percent chance you are not struck within the next ten seconds. That particular probability had been dropping steadily throughout the fight.

And right now, she still had no way to strike at Typhon directly. Come on Crystal, she urged herself. Think. Think of something!

Before she could, a pair of fangs sunk into her left arm. Crystal grunted in pain and tore away, swinging the sword wildly to decapitate the head. It fell to the ground with an audible thump, and ichor began to flow freely from the wound. The toxin’s an anticoagulant, Crystal realized with a start. That was in some ways better than it could have been. It meant she wouldn’t have to contend with a neurotoxin attacking her brain.

It also meant a clock had been put onto the fight. Crystal could cauterize the wounds, but the fangs had sunk deep. Cauterizing would only stop the bleeding on the surface.

Nothing like your impending death to get the mind going.

Crystal grabbed onto threads of reality and twisted. A dome of air sprung into existence around her, and with another twist to reality, she set it up to fling all negatively charged particles out into the mass of snakes. One of the serpent heads struck towards it, and was met with a blast of electricity. It convulsed and hissed in pain as it withdrew.

She’d bought herself a reprieve, but it was a brief one. If she stayed in here for too long, Typhon would shift his attention to Isabel, and this hastily erected barrier would do nothing to stop those intense flames from the dragon heads. At least they’re so slow…too slow.

Typhon was playing with her and Isabel with its snake heads. Otherwise they’d have been surrounded and completely consumed by now. But if it didn’t want to kill them, it wouldn’t have bothered with the dragon heads at all. So why was it moving so damn slowly?

The answer presented itself as Crystal opened up her divine sight. The pillars that were built into the room were buried into the largest masses of Typhon’s flesh. Complex equations ran through them, too complex for Crystal to figure out exactly what they were doing to him, but their broad purpose was clear enough. They were inhibiting Typhon, weakening him. This entire moon base was a prison for the creature, not one built with divine power, but with Lemurian technology.

Crystal launched herself into the air, orb of lightning still surrounding her. Snake heads reeled back from the onslaught, hissing in agony. Typhon himself roared in agony. Enough charge had built up where he could feel it coursing up his body.

“Impudent little godling!” he bellowed in that voice that shook the room like an earthquake. Moonquake. Don’t waste time pondering correct terminology, Crystal told herself.

Those pillars were her primary focus. In the last days of Lemuria, her people had made a concentrated study of the mythological creatures spawned from the deaths of gods and their offspring. Typhon was still alive because he’d been a research project. But her people would have put fail safes in place. A way to permanently put the monster down if it managed to break free.

“Pathetic worm!” Typhon bellowed. He spoke in the tongue of long forgotten Mu, which told Crystal how old the being was. Enough divine energy still lingered in his massive form to where even Isabel would be hearing it in English. Crystal kind of regretted that was true. At least she wouldn’t have to understand the creature’s inane taunts.

Why’s he keeping us alive? That question still tugged at Crystal’s mind, but she put it aside. As important as it seemed, there would be time to ponder it when he was dead.

“I will feast on your flesh,” Typhon growled as the snake heads closed in on Crystal’s field again. Enough of them to overload the electric charge and push through. She reached out and twisted equations again. The field exploded in a sudden burst of increased electricity. Typhon’s roar this time carrier real pain.

She’d turned the air surrounding herself into plasma, which combined with the earlier equations had sent every electron flying outwards. The resulting electricity had carried millions of watts of power, and she’d only managed to just hurt the creature. “You will suffer for your impudence!” Typhon roared.

“You need a bloody dialogue coach,” Crystal shouted back.

Some of the snake heads following Isabel broke off their pursuit and started to chase Crystal. Typhon had heard her taunt and was not amused. It had bought Isabel a bit of breathing room, but made Crystal’s job harder. Worth it, Crystal thought. She just had to hope the kill switch was still working and figure out how to activate it.

If not, she and Isabel would suffer everything Typhon promised and more.

 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 95

It was only a few minutes after their first encounter with the Lost that Haradeth and Lorathor reached where the Tarnished One dwelled. Along the walk they’d encountered a few other of the Lost. One had simply sat with his multiple arms wrapped around himself, muttering Ancient Alohym. Another had seen them and started screaming, a scream that didn’t stop until they were out of sight. So it had gone, every encounter with the Lost something that left Haradeth wanting to weep for what happened to these people. This isn’t right.

That much, Haradeth was certain of. Whatever the natural life cycle of the Sylvani was supposed to be, it wasn’t supposed to end in madness and screams. Every one of the individuals they’d encountered – even the first one, although Haradeth had been too distracted to notice at the time – had a sickness to their aura, like an animal that had been infected with frothmouth. I wish my mother was here. She’d been able to cure even that rabid illness with a brush of her fingers. Haradeth did not yet have any talent for the healing arts, unless they were caused by parasites. Then he could command the creatures to leave the body. Beyond that…beyond that, he could do nothing for these people.

Whatever else happened, Haradeth resolved to drag his mother back here as soon as she was recovered. If she recovers a traitorous thought rose in his mind, one he squashed as quickly as he could.

Instead, he focused on the Tarnished One’s dwelling. It was built out of pieces of the dome city, torn from walls and floors and assembled into its own, smaller, dome that was a ramshackle imitation of the splendor above. A few buzzing things floated in the air around it, shining tiny spotlights. Each one was as large as Haradeth’s fingers and no more alive than the dome itself.

For that matter, he could sense no life coming from the dome. Whatever the Tarnished One was, she wasn’t alive.

Lorathor approached the door and reached into his pouch, pulling out a dagger. “O Tarnished One, She Who Guards the Tomb, Keeper of our Twilight. I bring you a gift from Outside, a gift of Iron wrought by the hands of Men.”

An apparatus folded out of the top of the dome, a multisegmented arm made of the Sylvani’s green flowing metal. At the end of the apparatus was a glass eye, like the ones built into spy glasses. Slips of metal around the edge of the apparatus dilated as it focused on the dagger, then it retreated into the dome.

“Did she-” Haradeth started to say after thirty seconds of waiting, but Lorathor shook his head.

“Just wait. It can take a bit.”

It was at least a full minute that felt like ten before a hole in the side of the dome creaked open. A brilliant light shone from those depths. A lumwell, Haradeth realized with a start. Lorathor motioned for him to enter.

The interior of the dome was easily a dozen sizes larger than the Exterior. It made Haradeth’s head hurt to look at. What he had taken for a lumwell was actually something different, a box of steel with dozens of glass lenses on it that floated in the center of the room, spinning erratically. The rest of the room was full of an assortment of knick-knacks, random scraps from the world outside. Haradeth saw a child’s doll, a treatise on the Golmiran Federation, and a shield that was dented beyond use.

Then the Tarnished One stepped from behind the box of light. “Oh! Hello!” she said, her voice bright and chipper and undeniably mechanical. The Tarnished One was a mass of woven tendrils of what looked like solid gold that had dark spots of tarnish. Haradeth assumed that’s where she got her name. She was shaped broadly like the small monkeys that dwelled in the jungle to the south, although in place of a prehensile tail she had three additional arms, each one nearly twice as long as she was. Most surprising to Haradeth was her size – she was small, barely coming up to Haradeth’s waist. “Lorathor! You brought a friend. And a present. I like your present. I’ve never seen a stabby-slicey with that shape before.”

Stabby-slicey? Haradeth thought as Lorathor presented the dagger. The Tarnished One took it and made a gentle cooing sound as she cradled it like a newborn. “I’m going to call it Murderface.”

“Why that name, O Tarnished one?” Lorathor asked.

“Because it’s been used to murder someone. In the face.” Her mechanical lips spread in a wide grin. “Can I stab you in the face?” she asked, her tone one of a child asking if she could have an extra helping of sweets.

“I would prefer if you didn’t, Tarnished One.”

“Bah,” she said, crossing her arms across. “No one ever lets me stab them.” She turned those glass eyes on Haradeth. “How about you? Can I stab you?”

Haradeth frowned. “What about a tiny stab, on the tip of my finger?” He extended the digit towards her.

Lorathor gasped in horror as The Tarnished One squealed with glee and thrust the dagger towards Haradeth’s outstretched hand. For a moment he thought he’d made a grave mistake, and that she was about to split his finger in two. Inches from his finger, the strike slowed down, until it pricked the tip and drew a tiny bead of blood. “Huzzah!” she cheered, bouncing up and down. “I got to stab someone!” She repeated the chant in a singsong voice a few times, before putting the tip of the dagger in her mouth. “Ooooh, your blood is tasty. This is a special blend. You’re three fourths mortal-and one quarter Alohym.”

Haradeth’s blood ran cold. “I’m…I’m not a quarter Alohym.”

“Well, of course not,” she said, giving him a conspiratorial wink. Haradeth sighed with relief, before she continued. “Genetics are never that precise. You’re technically nineteen percent Alohym.”

“That’s impossible!” Haradeth fought the urge to shout, but his voice came out sharp and hard. “I was born before the Alohym invaded.”

“No, silly.” The Tarnished One giggled, holding a hand to her mouth. “Not those imposters. They’re not real Alohym. Real Alohym were awesome. Which makes you nineteen percent awesome. That’s a better percent than most people.”

Haradeth stared at her. “You mean…my mother was half Ancient Alohym?”

The Tarnished One giggled again. “Of course, stabby man. Man who got stabbed. I stabbed you.” She grinned up at him. “I mean, where do you think your Little Gods come from?”

Haradeth gaped at her. Less than three minutes into the conversation with this murderous child made of gold and glass, and he’d already learned something about the way the universe worked. Something he’d never imagined.

For the first time since being rejected by Anoritia, Haradeth began to feel something akin to hope.

 

Small Worlds Part 197

Isabel watched as Crystal threw her hands out, arresting her fall midair. Before Isabel could even think about what form she was going to shift into next, Crystal twisted reality to raise the ambient light seeping into the room.

Isabel nearly fell out of the air at the sight. The chamber was immense, easily the size of a football field, and circular. Wires and electronic devices hung from the ceiling, of a make and purpose Isabel couldn’t begin to deduce. Five immense pillars, arranged in a pentagram, jutted down from the ceiling, covered with walkways and more electronic gadgets.

At the bottom of the pit was the Typhon. It was so immense that, at first, Isabel’s mind refused to believe it was a single coherent creature. It covered the entire bottom of the chamber, a sprawling mass of tentacles that writhed maliciously. In the center was the creature’s torso, one that looked almost like a giant torso of a man, although covered with red scales. It turned a head that was eerily human upwards to look at its new visitors, and Isabel realized that each of its eyes were as large as Crystal. It was slowly raising its arms, two immense masses of flesh that ended in dragon heads the size of school buses. Along its back were another series of tentacles, each of these ended in a serpentine head like the one that had pursued them into the pit.

How can we possibly kill this thing? Isabel thought in despair. It was too big, too powerful. It was too much for them to destroy.

“Move!” Crystal shouted, startling Isabel out of her reflection. Isabel banked to the side just as the snake head that had reached all the way up into the shaft above snapped its jaws shut. It caught a couple of her tail feathers, but missed ending her life in a single bite. The dragon heads were now aimed firmly at Crystal, and each of them took a deep breath. Oh no, Isabel thought, flapping to get as much distance between herself and Crystal. Crystal’s eyes widened and she allowed gravity to reassert its hold on her.

The dragon heads let loose a torrent of fire. The temperature in the chamber leapt like a blast furnace. Even the creature’s own snake head broke off pursuit of Isabel.

When the flames cleared, Crystal had landed on one of the walkways of the pillars. Typhon bellowed a laugh that shook the chamber like peals of hateful thunder. “Good. I have not killed anything in far too long. I look forward to this, little thing.”

Before Isabel could fully process that this monstrous thing could speak, let alone speak English, The serpent heads hissed and struck towards Crystal and Isabel. Isabel lost sight of Crystal in the mass of attacking snakes, and was forced to duck and weave. Each one was large enough to kill Isabel with a snap of those jaws; even ignoring whatever poison they had dripping from those horrid fangs.

The parrot brain offered little guidance in how to avoid this many incoming attacks. It had spent its entire life around humans, and the closest thing it had ever encountered to a predator was when its owner was cat sitting. Isabel’s erratic, panicked flapping made her a wild enough target to keep her safe, but she knew that couldn’t last long.

If she was going to survive, she needed something that could handle this. I can’t even try to land! Isabel thought in panic. The snakes were swarming around her, forming a web of scaled flesh that threatened to envelop her even if she managed to avoid being bitten. The parrot was panicking now, which didn’t help at all. It knew they were in danger, it knew it was going to die, and all it wanted to do was to fly away, a frantic thought that would make them sitting ducks for the serpentine heads.

Another one snapped shut just above Isabel’s head. She could actually feel the scaled mouth of the serpent brush through her feathers.

That was too much for both Isabel and the parrot. In desperate fear, she began to flap furiously, trying to put as much space between herself and the viciously hungry heads.

A gap opened in the mess surrounding her as the snake heads began to pursue her. Crystal was down below. She’d drawn a pair of thin sword out of her nanoverse and was fending off the Typhon’s attempts to bite her with preternatural grace. Isabel had never seen anything like it. Crystal seemed to be reacting to threats before Typhon even knew where the next attack would come from, like the monster was fighting with two seconds of lag behind the goddess.

It also was apparent that it wasn’t enough. Crystal was drawing thin lines of blood from the scales of the monstrosity, but she was just cutting the hundreds of snake heads. She couldn’t pause to hurt Typhon directly.

And right now, I’m no help to her, Isabel thought. If anything, she was a distraction. She had to do something. She had to not just evade. She had to fight.

Isabel pushed the parrot’s body to fly downwards, away from the serpents that struck all around her. The parrot didn’t want to. The parrot wanted the freedom of the open sky. Isabel just wanted space to shift.

The moment she had it, she banked as hard as she could. The next snake that came striking towards her was met with talons that sunk into its neck.

Isabel let out an instinctive and triumphant shriek.

The harpy eagle was native to the rainforests of the Amazon, and was built to fly in between the thickly packed branches of those tropical environments. It was perfect for flying between the grasping snakes heads Typhon was throwing at Isabel, and its talons were more than strong enough to actually puncture the thick scales of the serpents’ hides.

This particular harpy eagle’s mind was strong in the back of Isabel’s brain. It was confused by the threat they were against, but it wasn’t frightened. It was an apex predator in one of the most dangerous places on the planet. It was an apex predator that shared its dominion with jaguars and anacondas.

So, with Isabel’s heart pounding and her brain demanding that she choose between fight and flight, the harpy eagle strongly felt that the second option was for prey. He was not prey. He was the predator.

Isabel went along with that instinct, hoping that the harpy eagle’s soul would have a better idea how to survive what came next than she did.

 

The Dragon’s Scion part 91

“Sounds like you two are having fun,” Eupheme said as she walked out of the cave where they’d made camp for the night.

“For once, I am,” Tythel replied honestly, throwing the last stone at the river. It splashed with a resounding thunk, not even skipping a second.. “Even though I am terrible at skipping stones.”

“The score is thirty-seven to zero,” Tellias said.

“I still think hitting the wall on the other side of the canyon should be worth something,” Tythel muttered, turning her attention to Eupheme. “How’s your arm?”

Eupheme held it up. The improvised splint was now wrapped in a dark cloth that seemed to absorb the sunlight. It’s not cloth, Tythel realized with a start. It’s darkness. “This should give me some use of it,” Eupheme explained. “Though I have to be careful for a bit or I’ll hurt it worse.”

“I didn’t think the shadow could heal,” Tellias said, sounding as impressed as Tythel felt.

Eupheme smirked. “You thought right. Healing is the domain of Lumcasters. For us Umbrists, we can bind, and we can remove the pain. That’s why I have to be careful – I won’t realize I’m hurting it.”

“That still sounds like…well, I’ll be honest Eupheme, I can think of a few times I would have liked to just have the pain stop,” Tythel said, trying her best not to sound cross, but remembering being impaled on the sword. Or the burning in her throat. Or cracking her ribs. Or losing her eye. How am I not dead? Tythel wondered as she stopped the tally of injuries before it became truly depressing.

“I can’t maintain it on someone else,” Eupheme said with an apologetic shrug. “Not without special materials. If we can get a Priestess of the Shadow to infuse silk, I can work with that. Otherwise, I’m limited to using it personally, and I need it to be night, and I need an hour.” She flashed them a grin. “On the positive side, there’s absolutely no risk of it turning me into a mutant.”

“It’s definitely better than light in that way,” Tythel agreed.

“Which reminds me,” Tellias said. Tythel had to fully move her head to see him, since he was standing on her blindside. “Have you considered using the light to regrow your eye?”

“No,” Tythel said, unable to keep the bitter note out of her voice. “I was too close to a lumwell for too long. If I attempted to use light to regrow, the risk of mutation…it’s too high, I absorbed too much. It’ll eventually be safe, but by then the eye will be fully healed. From what Armin explained, the healed spot will be my new ‘default’ state.”

Tellias winced. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to-”

Tythel shook her head and forced herself to smile. From Tellias’ reaction, it looked more like a grimace, and Tythel stopped before she disturbed him with her expression. “It’s alright. I had a great time this morning, I’m not going to let this ruin it.”

Tellias flashed her a smile of his own.

“I heard from Armin,” Eupheme said. “He said that Duke d’Monchy wants us to meet him at the rendezvous point. No help’s coming for us, we’re too spread out. Armin and a few others are going to hunt down the lead you gave, your highness. He’s also cutting off songs for the next week. We don’t want to risk the Alohym overhearing.”

“Wait, what?” Tythel asked, feeling her blood run cold. “Armin is leading an expedition into the wastes of Dor’nah?”

Tellias frowned at Tythel. “It was your suggestion,” he said hesitantly.

“I expected to be going when I made the suggestion!” Tythel was shouting, but she couldn’t help herself. “It’s…flath it, that place is overrun with creations of draconic necromancy. Grejhak reigned there for nearly a millennia and had all that time to permeate the land with his power. There’s no way to know what’s waiting for them in there. All for what, the possibility of treasure? I said it was only possible! I didn’t even get to find the maps, or write what I knew!”

“There’s no way to be sure there’s not a hoard there,” Tellias said, his tone as placating as possible. He looked more startled than anything else. Of course he is, Tythel thought, her nictitating membranes blinking in rapid anger. He doesn’t know you gave the suggestion just to keep their hands away from Karjon’s hoard.

“Sing back to him,” Tythel said to Eupheme, ignoring Tellias. “Tell him to call it off. Tell him to-”

Eupheme cut her off with quick, hard gesture before Tythel could go any further. “He cut off all songs. There’s no way to get messages right now. And before you say it, we’ll never catch up to them in time.”

Tythel took a deep breath to steady her anger. “There’s nothing you can do?”

Eupheme shook her head. “I’m sorry, your highness.”

Tythel sighed. “Damnit. And on top of that, we can’t even go to the rendezvous.”

“What?” Tellias and Eupheme asked in near perfect unison.

“Remember that flying Alohym from the fight?”

Tellias grimaced. “How can I forget?”

“Well,” Tythel said, “I could hear it during the fight, as high up as it was. It was coming after me. It called me a monster. It said I wouldn’t escape. Called me a mongrel fahik. Which, incidentally, I’ve never heard before. Do either of you know what it means?”

Tellias coughed and looked down awkwardly. “It’s a portmanteau of fahid and phik, two words in the Alohym’s tongue. Fahid means flesh or meat. Phik means pit or hole. Put together, they’re an insult specifically geared towards women.”

Tythel cocked her head. “How is that an insult? ‘Meat-hole?’ I don’t understand how that could be used as an insult.”

Tellias looked at Eupheme, who gave him a smile. “Yes, please, Baron Tellias, explain to the princess how meat-hole could be an insult to a woman.”

“Well,” Tellias said with another cough. “It, erm, is used to imply a woman is…liberal. With her favors.”

Tythel cocked her head to the other side. “I don’t understand…Oh, wait! I understand.” Then her eyes widened as she properly comprehended it. “Nevermind, moving back to the original topic, let us never discuss this again.”

“No promises,” Eupheme muttered.

“Anyway,” Tythel said, dragging the word out to give herself time to recover from the embarrassment. “The point is that it…it was personally interested in killing me. I think it’s going to keep trying to find me. If we lead it back to the resistance, I don’t think they could shoot it out of the sky. I think we need to lure it away.”

Tythel took a deep breath. “And I think I know exactly where we can lead it. Where we might have a chance to beat it.”

“Where?” Tellias asked.

“We need to lure it back to my father’s valley,” Tythel said, wishing she had another answer – any other answer – to that question.

Small Worlds Part 194

The heroic walk into the Hall of Curation was somewhat spoiled by the receptionist desk waiting for them. Ryan had quietly been hoping that he would be to stride directly to the Council and present his case. I should have known that the Curators wouldn’t allow people to go prancing in there without permission, he thought, forcing his expression to change from determination to something more affable.

The receptionist, a male Curator with short dark hair, glanced up at them. “Do you have an appointment?” he asked.

“Ryan Smith, Eschaton of Earth, with Dianmu, Goddess of Thunder, and Nabu, our Curator Representative.”

The receptionist tapped away on a computer. “I do see you are here. Excellent. Their last meeting is running behind schedule.” From the way the Curator said those last three words, one would think someone had rerouted a sewage outflow pipe directly into the Council chambers. “I have some paperwork you can fill out while you wait?”

Ryan fought back a sigh and held out his hand for the paperwork. Thankfully they still had pens so didn’t need to deal with a Temporary Pen Reallocation Form. Ryan fought back an urge to curse when he saw the headings on these forms. “Authorization Form For Wasting Time 19032-G?” he growled at Nabu. “We have to wait, and because of that we need to fill out forms?”

Nabu chuckled. “No. We Curators don’t do well sitting idle. These forms aren’t required, they’re just a way to pass the time.”

Ryan and Dianmu carefully put their clipboards aside. It earned them a disapproving look from the receptionist. Apparently the idea of someone sitting quietly without doing paperwork was alien to him. Then again, how often does someone get to speak to the Council? Ryan wondered. He thought to ask Nabu, but the Curator was engrossed in the Authorization Form For Wasting Time 19032-G, and Ryan didn’t want to disturb him.

They didn’t have to wait long at least. Not fifteen minutes later, the door was opened, and the receptionist motioned for them to head inside.

This room, at least, lived up to Ryan’s hopes for this excursion. The walls were hidden in shadows, and atop five podiums sat five hooded figures. Each one wore a robe of the plainest beige, which somewhat ruined the effect in Ryan’s mind. They looked like the grim reaper for people with no imagination.

Ryan decided to inspect them with his divine sight.

The pain was immediate and immeasurable. He didn’t scream. It was more like a paralysis struck him, like grabbing a live electrical wire, seizing up every muscle in his body. He blinked away tears as the final vestiges of that glance faded from sight, but what he had seen chilled him to his core.

The Council of Curators were beings fundamentally woven into the fabric of reality. They were forces of nature in the same way that gravity was, or electromagnetism. Ryan had seen exactly one thing like it before.

Uriel.

The Council of Curators were archangels. The Curators were angels.

Ryan felt a weight fall into the pit of his stomach. I really, really hope they don’t know about what I helped Arthur do… he thought, his palms suddenly sweaty.

“The Council of Curators will hear the argument of Ryan Smith, Eschaton of Earth, Slayer of Enki, Ally of Hell and Invader of Heaven,” they intoned in unison.

Oh…shitblossoms, Ryan thought as he swallowed against the sudden lump in his throat. []

Nabu coughed, and Ryan realized they were waiting for him to speak.

“Esteemed Council of Curators,” Ryan began. He could feel sweat beginning to condense on his forehead. You faced down Enki. And the Super Soldier. And Moloch. You can handle this. Ryan wiped his forehead and cleared his throat before beginning again. “Esteemed Council of Curators, I come to you today to request permission to read or learn in any fashion of your choosing the precise rules and regulations governing my duties as Eschaton. I seek to know exactly what parameters must be met to satisfy the criteria that the world has ended to prevent Earth’s sun from detonating.”

“And why do you seek this information?” said the Councilmember at the head of the semicircle. The voice was firm and powerful, with a slightly higher registered that Ryan assumed was feminine. Not that he could be sure with those beige robes and deep shadows obscuring all features.

“Because I have a job to do, and I want to do it right?” If Ryan was hoping for laughter from the lame joke, his hopes were doomed to be dashed. “Because I want to find a way to save the human race,” he repeated. “I don’t want to condemn them all to death to save a star.”

“If the star detonates, everyone on the planet will die,” said the Concilmember on the far right end of the table. “You do not care about saving humanity. You care about avoiding guilt.”

“That’s not true!” Ryan objected. “If I allow the star to detonate, I’m still guilty of the crime of letting humanity die! I want to know if there’s a third option.”

The Councilmembers shuffled in their seats, looking at each other. “Ryan Smith, do you understand why the cycle is so important?” the middle one asked. Even though Ryan couldn’t see her eyes, she could feel the intensity of her gaze upon him.

Ryan nodded. “I think so, at least. It keeps the universe young. In theory, it could extend the lifetime of the universe indefinitely.”

“Yes. In theory. However, every time Eschatons start arising, some clever Eschaton gets it in their head they can cheat the system. That they can save their people. Every time it happens, the star in question explodes. The Universe falls a bit more into Entropy.”

Ryan swallowed. “If you do this, if you give me this, you have my word that if I cannot save the people of Earth, I will not allow the sun to go supernova. I will end this.”

The far left Curator snorted sourly. “An easy promise to make. You believe you’ll find a loophole in the system.” His voice was unmistakably male, and unmistakably completely tired of Ryan already. “You’ll promise your own head on a plate, but when you fail? You’ll run.”

“I won’t!” Ryan objected.

The middle Councilmember pulled a book out of her robe. In gold letters across the front lead “The Pre-Divinity Life of Ryan Smith, Eschaton of Earth, Abridged.” Ryan glanced at Nabu, who was shifting in discomfort.

“You have, in your life, made three hundred twenty eight promises,” the Councilmember read. “In that time, you have violated a promise one hundred and eighty three times. This is a fifty-five point four nine percent failure rate of your promises, if we round up. The odds of a coin coming up heads are better than the odds of you keeping a promise.”

“I can’t…three hundred twenty eight promises?” Ryan blanked. He couldn’t recall anything close to that number of promises.

“April seventeenth, 2001. You swore to your parents you wouldn’t drink until you were twenty one. October third, 2005, got drunk you freshman year of college. Swore the next morning you would never drink again. October eight, 2005, got drunk again.”

“Oh come on, everyone-” Ryan started to object, but the Curator was relentless.

“November twenty sixth, 2006. Promises your sister you would still take her to Moonburger ever wednesday even though you were in college. December thirty-first, 2007, cancelled because you were “too busy.” spent the entire day watching the extended edition of Lord of the Rings and eating Pizza.”

“I had just broken up with-”

“February third, 2000. Confirmed in the Catholic Church. January 7th, 2018, lead an army to the gates of Heaven in service of the King of Hell.”

The sweat broke out again in earnest. “My parents made – “

The curator slammed the book shut. “Excuses. Always excuses. Your promises, Eschaton of Earth, are meaningless. We have agreed to hear your arguments, Ryan Smith. However, you will no longer waste our time with your promises.

Ryan stepped back and took a deep breath, trying to steady himself.

He had a very bad feeling this wasn’t going to work out.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 88

“Duke d’Monchy,” Armin said, as firmly as he dared to a member of the nobility. “I understand the urgency to leave this tunnel. However, we’ve heard from Eupheme. There’s an aeromane out there.”

Armin folded his arms to hide the way his hands clenched in frustration. Breaching the plateau had happened just a few minutes before Eupheme’s song came through. Armin and his fellow lumcasters found themselves trying to hold an entire army from trying to pour out into the fresh air. To make matters worse, Armin wanted to do exactly that. He’d been starting to fear that they’d remained trapped under here forever, slowly dying of asphyxiation, never realizing they had miscalculated and were just tunneling deeper into the earth.

“You think a beast is going to attack an army?” The Duke asked incredulously. “Surely you jest, Master Armin.”

“I wish I was. I’ve studied the creatures, m’lord. Aeromanes have, throughout history, risked attacks on armies. They can get out of bow range quickly enough after grabbing prey.”

“We don’t rely on bows anymore,” Dutchess d’Monchy was less dismissive than her husband, but no less insistent. “Surely arcwands could slay the beast if bows once worked.”

“They absolutely could, you ladyship,” Genevia interjected, putting the stately grace that had come with age behind her words. She fixed the Dutchess with her three eyed gaze, and Armin wanted to cheer in thanks. Genevia’s gaze was unnerving as the blackest reaches of the Shadow, but when it was employed against someone else Armin appreciated it. “What’s less certain is, in the dark, we’ll be able to slay it before it manages to kill any of our men.”

The Duke and Dutchess shared a look, and Duke d’Monchy sighed. “Very well. What word, then? Is the princess alright? And the others?”

Armin nodded. “They are well, m’lord. They are also thirty leagues from here. It might be wisest to meet them at the rendezvous.”

“Impossible,” the Duke said with a scowl. “Tellias in that arcplate could cover that distance in a single day. How did the princess and her umbrist keep pace?”

“By riding some new Alohym creation,” Armin said grimly. “They’re called Skimmers. They can fly faster than the Alohym’s vessels. Shorter range, most likely, but they’re smaller and more agile and…”

“And the perfect flathing scouts,” Lord Devos spat the words. “Where did the Alohym get the flathing things?”

“From a distant star,” a voice said.

Everyone turned to look at the speaker. Ossman. Armin winced at his voice. Ever since the incident at the mage tower, Ossman had been…different. Prone to unusual outbursts like that. He was normal the overwhelming majority of the time, and then would say something like that. “What do you mean?” Adenot asked, his voice gentle. Armin resisted the urge to shoot the other Llumcaster a glare. Adenot meant well, Armin was sure, but ever since learning what had happened to Ossman, Adenot had treated him more like an experiment than a person.

Ossman frowned in thought, and shrugged sheepishly. A red flush began to creep up his neck. “I don’t know. Just an idle thought, I guess?”

Adenot took out a piece of parchment and began to scribble on it, nodding to himself as he did. Armin wanted to go over, give Ossman some words of reassurance, but what could he say? “I know the light addled your mind, but it’s okay, you’re giving my colleagues some very useful data?”

Somehow, Armin doubted that would do much to make Ossman feel any better.

“Lord Devos raises an excellent point,” the Duke said, mercifully pulling attention off Ossman. “These things…how do we handle scouts that fly that quickly?”

“There is good news there, m’lord,” Armin said, glad to keep the conversation off of Ossman. “Though they fly like ships, Eupheme confirmed they can be felled like animals. If we see them, I suggest our best course of action is to fire every arcwand we have to bring them down before they can report back to their masters. She said they didn’t have any songstones that she could see, so they’d have to report in person.”

“That’s something at least. How long do we have to wait here, Master Armin?”

I shouldn’t be in charge! Armin wanted to shout. I didn’t even finish my apprenticeship! Genevia is eldest. Or Adenot. Flath it, even Clarcia is more equipped to lead a group of Lumcasters. I’m an ambulatory power source, I’m useless. Stop treating me like I’m in charge. “Until dawn, m’lord,” Armin said out loud. “With sunlight, we’ll be able to see it coming – if it’s still even in the are.”

The Duke nodded and turned to leave, the Dutchess and Lord Devos following. Of the noble council, only Lady Von Bagget, who had been silent up until then, remained.

“What of Tellias?” she asked Armin, her voice low and urgent. “Is he well?”

Armin nodded. “His Arcplate ran out of light. It was one of the first pieces I converted, and I hadn’t gotten a chance to fix the leakage problem.” It took Armin a moment to remember the relation. Tellias was Lady Von Bagget’s second cousin on her mother’s side. She’d been the one to vouch for his allegiance.

The tension in her shoulders faded. “And he’s with the Princess?” she asked. This question was still urgent, but not as fearful.

Being treated like a full Lumcaster had its privileges. Technically all full Lumcasters were minor nobility, although their titles could not be inherited. Still, it meant nobles spoke more freely around him now. In those contexts, Lady Von Bagget had made no bones about her intention to see her cousin the next Prince Consort. Tythel being stranded with that pompous git would only be good for Lady Von Bagget’s plans. “Yes,” Armin answered honestly, fighting a scowl at the calculating smile on Von Bagget’s face. There will have to be a Prince Consort. Tythel will need an heir.

It still rankled him to see Lady Von Bagget so eager.

She left after getting her answers, tapping her chin in thought. Armin rolled his eyes at her back.

“You look like you just swallowed a whole vase of rotflies,” Ossman said quietly.

Armin didn’t bother hiding the grimace this time. “Genevia, would you mind helping Adenot check himself for any new mutations? I know he’s eager to find out if he finally got one, and I think a professional eye would be useful.”

If getting commands from a Lumcaster that had never graduated bothered either Genevia or Adenot, it didn’t show. Armin secretly suspected they wanted command as much as he did. The other two Lumcasters left, leaving Ossman and Armin relatively alone. “It showed that much?” Armin asked.

“A blind Underfolk could see it at noon,” Ossman said with a grin.

“Tythel’s not a pawn in someone’s marriage game,” Armin groused. “We should at least see if we’re going to win and reclaim the kingdom before we start picking out a husband for her. And she should get some say in it.”

Ossman chuckled. “Armin. Do you honestly believe anyone on Alith could force Tythel into a marriage she didn’t wish for?” He emphasized her name, to show exactly how absurd he found the concept.

“No, I just…flath it. It bothers me.”

Ossman’s grin only widened. “Of course it does. I’m surprised it took this long for you admit it does.”

Armin frowned. “What do you mean by that?”

Ossman gave him a look of wide-eye incredulity and sighed. “Nevermind. Just don’t forget that Tythel has the lineage of an entire kingdom to think about – and with how much she knows about history, she probably understands that better than we do.” Ossman stood up, brushing off his pants. “I’m going to see if Lord Devos needs my help.”

Armin watched the larger man go, wishing he could understand what that meant.

Small Worlds Part 191

Athena and Arachne’s swords rang out in the warm Mediterranean air. Arachne was fast, but all those years had a spider had done nothing to teach her better swordplay. With each blow, Arachne was forced back, step by step. Athena pressed forward, not relenting. A high blow met an angled parry, a low blow forced Arachne to leap back to avoid the sword rising up to meet her stomach. Come on…Athena thought, egging herself onward. Maintaining the anger at Arachne to drive herself to not hold back was hard. Arachne’s threats were terrible, but to really get the most of them, Athena had to believe she would really do it. Would she?

That distraction gave Arachne an opening. She pushed downward with a weaving of Air, propelling herself up and back away from Athena. Athena tried to counter by pushing herself into the air, but Arachne deftly wove a correcting twist in Athena’s attempt. Reality, as if glad for the excuse to return to normal, struggled against Arachne.

Athena rolled to the side as Arachne hurled a lightning bolt across the battlefield. “That’s more like it!” Arachne shouted. “Come at me with everything! No more games, Athena!” Stones began to explode again near Athena’s feet, forcing her to take to the air or be impaled on splinters of stone. This time, Arachne didn’t risk the high power cost of breaking Athena’s manipulation, instead magnetizing the spines of rock she’d already created to come flying after Athena as she rose into the air.

With a flick of her wrist, Athena threw an air bubble between herself and the stones. A few punched through, and Athena fought back a shout of pain as one embedded itself in her calf. She saw her opening here, however. Reaching out, she grabbed bands of Air and Aether.

The sky grew dark, and Arachne looked up in confusion – just in time to see the sunlight gather into a shaft of pure light to come streaking out of the heavens towards her.

The old trick of Tyrs was one of his favorite battle enders. Being struck by the concentrated power of the sun had a way of making opponents simply stop existing. It had one major weakness – the way the sky went dark before it struck, alerting its target that the laws of physics were about to break down in a very lethal way.

Athena had been counting on that. Arachne had throw herself to the side with a powerful burst of air just before the light struck stone with enough energy to vaporize it into plasma. Arachne stared at where the beam had impacted, sweat running down her face. “Now…now I believe you’re taking this seriously.”

Athena gave her a grim smile as she settled back onto the ground, throwing forth a wave of fire that rolled along the ground. Arachne countered with a pressurized jet of water, powerful enough to sear flesh to the bone and easily dousing the flames in front of her. Athena threw up a stone pillar between herself and the jet of water, then – with a twist to give it direction – punched the back of the stone. It went flying at Arachne, slowed by the water jet but given added strength by Athena’s additional twists. Arachne easily leapt out of the way when it got too close to her, and swung down at Athena with a whip of molten rock.

Athena lurched to the side as the whip seared the earth she had just vacated. Coming up from the roll, Athena used one of her newer tricks, one Arachne hadn’t seen before.

She threw her sword. A quick twist gave the blade the mass of an elephant and hypersonic speed. It was the same twist she’d used to punch a hole in a hecatoncheires. Even divine reflexes weren’t enough to save Arachne completely. She started to dodge, but the blade still drew a thin line of blood from her cheek. Arachne’s hair whipped about in the in the shockwave of its passing.

Arachne grinned fiercely and threw her hands towards Athena. Another wave of lightning crackled from her fingertips. Athena twisted Earth, grounding the lightning before it could reach her. She dashed past the lightning to close the distance between herself and Arachne. Swords clashed again, but Athena could tell she was slowing down. Arachne barely seemed tired. The sound of steel on steel rung through the air, each of them putting everything they had into the blows. This was the kind of battle that had made mortals once fear gods, the kind of clash that created the rumors of gods with swords of lightning, bellowing thunder. The each had to weave Earth into their blades to prevent the steel from shattering under the repeated impacts.

Even those couldn’t hold forever. With one final downward strike from Athena, the swords shattered against each other. Arachne was quicker, and with a twist of Air she sent a hail of steel shards flying into Athena’s face.

Athena screamed as the splinters cut into her cheeks and forehead. An upraised hand saved her eyes from being pierced, letting steel embed itself in her palm. Before she could even begin to recover from that. Arachne’s knee shot up to meet Athena’s stomach. It hit with enough impact that it sent a shockwave cracking through the air. Athena rode the impact and the shockwave into the air.

Before she hit the ground, Arachne hurled a bolt of lightning from the sky, drawing it to the metal in Athena’s face.

Athena was too far past pain to scream then. Her vision went white, and her body seized up as white hot electricity lanced through her veins. She collapsed to the ground, the distant sound of thunder echoing in her ears.

Arachne was walking towards her with a slow deliberation. She’d pulled another sword out of her nanoverse, one that trailed the ground at her side. “So, Athena, this is how it ends.”

Athena held up a hand that twitched with the leftover pain from the lightning. Before she could speak, another bolt of lightning flew down from the sky, again drawn to the metal in her face. This time Athena did find the pain the scream. When her vision cleared, Arachne was standing over her, the sword raised and ready to bring down.

“I…yield,” Athena managed to croak out.

Arachne’s face hardened, and she brought down the sword. Distantly Athena could hear Anansi cry out, but he was too far away, too late to prevent it, too late to stop from Arachne from driving the sword through Athena’s heart.

The sword struck the earth next to Athena, sinking into the ground without even touching her. Arachne regarded her coolly as she stared at Athena. Then she nodded slowly. “I accept your surrender.”

Then, with careful deliberation, she turned away from Athena. “Get up.”

Limbs trembling from repeated electrocution, Athena did.