The Burning Epoch Part 1

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

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

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

She was right, but it illustrated his point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The day that the kaiju had come.

Small Worlds part 213

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dragon’s Scion Part 108

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

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

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

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

“What is it?” Armin asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Small Worlds part 211

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’s not wrong,” Dianmu said.

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

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

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

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

Ryan chuckled. “Peppers.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nabu leaned forward and prepared to exactly that.

Small Worlds Part 209

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

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

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

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

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

Arachne pursed her lips but let that go.

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

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

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

“Things must be dire then,” Arachne murmured.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dragon’s Scion Part 105

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about horses?” Tellias asked.

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

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

The sound of arccells charging.

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

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

The Dragon’s Scion Part 104

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His eyes widened, and Eliert clenched his teeth.

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

“Kill them,” Eliert hissed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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Small Worlds Part 207

Crystal blinked as her eyes clear and the robotic voice said “cleansing complete. Radiation neutralized.”

A lump formed in Crystal’s throat. Isabel… She’d believed this entire time that the security protocol to deal with the Typhon would be something rooted in divine powers, but the Lemurians who built this facility weren’t gods. They were beings of science and had found a scientific solution to the problem. One that killed every living creature within the chamber.

The dome retracted and Crystal wiped the tears burning on the edge of her vision. I never should have brought her here, she thought with a fierce anger. Crystal knew that was foolish – she would have died against the Typhon without Isabel’s help – but the fact remained that if Isabel had remained behind, she’d be alive.

Crystal forced herself to her feet again. She just wanted to sleep, sleep for years, but she wouldn’t let Isabel have died for nothing. I’m sorry, she thought, looking over the edge. If the staff of Ra didn’t hold the key to saving the world, then…then she’d deal with that later. It has to help, Crystal thought, knowing how irrational that conviction was. But she didn’t feel she had anything else to hold onto.

The Typhon’s body was unmoving, the tendrils that connected its head and snakes to its body laying discarded on the ground. Tumors had formed at the edges of the wounds. The radiation must have caused it to be unable to regrow. It was an effective method of control, Crystal had to admit. Irradiate everything to hell with neutrinos. The beam must have blasted out the far side of the moon, given how insubstantial the moon was, but at close proximity they would be dense enough to have killed pretty much everything not protected by one of those domes.

The Tyrannosaurus that had been Isabel was…Crystal’s forehead furrowed. Where the bloody hell is it? 

As if in response to the question, a lump began to form on the floor, a lump that grew rapidly until it was a young woman, looking tired and bruised, but very much alive. “Did we win?” Isabel shouted up to Crystal.

“Isabel?” Crystal asked, her jaw dropping. “How…what…how are you not dead?”

Isabel flashed Crystal a grin. “Water bear! I heard your warning and shifted to it. Expelled most of the poison too, although I cycled back through the woodrat to make sure.”

Crystal started to laugh, feeling the tears forming again. “You scared the bloody piss out of me!” she shouted.

“I thought those snakes got you!” Isabel countered. “Fair’s fair, right?”

Crystal could only laugh, right up until the shaking caused her arm to give her another reminder how very broken it was. It was hard to see through the tears, but it looked like Isabel was grimacing.

“How badly are you – you know, screw the shouting,” Isabel said from the bottom of the pit. “Can I get a lift up?”

“I couldn’t lift a piece of paper up here, love,” Crystal countered. “I’m completely drained.”

Isabel nodded and turned into a hummingbird, flitting her way up to the platform. Crystal watched the tiny jewel of a bird flutter up and hover in the air before shifting back to Isabel. “Damn…what happened?” She motioned to Crystal’s arm.

Crystal shrugged with only her good shoulder. “I kind of ran out of power while going forty sliding along the ground. Real physics weren’t particularly kind to me when the power dropped.”

Isabel winced in sympathy. “Stay there, let’s get you a sling.” She pulled off her shirt.

Crystal’s Hungers were in full effect, and she had to fight the urge to stare as Isabel ripped a strip off the bottom of the shirt before replacing what remained of the garment. “We’re going to need to move your arm back up,” Isabel said, flushing faintly as she noticed Crystal’s gaze. “It’s going to hurt.”

“Right,” Crystal said, getting her focus back on the task at hand. “Can you help with that?”

Isabel nodded and stepped forward, looping the strip of cloth over Crystal’s neck and shoulder. “You’re going to need to get it properly set when we get back to Earth. If it heals badly…” Isabel looked up and met her gaze. It seemed she was as aware of how close they were as Crystal was. “Well, you’ll probably be fine. Divine everything, right?’

Crystal smiled. “Too bloody right, love. Let’s get this over with?”

Isabel nodded and gently placed her fingers on Crystal’s injured hand. “Clench your good first. It’ll help.”

The blinding pain of having her arm lifted to be placed in the sling completely killed whatever mood had been building. Crystal threw her head back to scream at the agony, and following Isabel’s advice caused her hand to clench so hard it dug deep furrows of blood in her palm. “Sorry, sorry,” Isabel said repeatedly, pushing Crystal’s arm into the sling and then giving it a careful tug to make sure it was straight. “Sorry,” she said again as Crystal’s pain levels went from unbearable and wound down to agonizing.

“It’s alright,” Crystal panted. Sweat beaded her forehead, and she felt like she was about to pass out. Against everything her body wanted to do, she forced herself to smile. “Just need some food, some drink, some sleep, and some fun. Then it’ll heal right up.”

Isabel nodded and gave Crystal a mirror of her reassuring smile. “Absolutely.” She pointed down towards the bottom corner of the room. “We should get down there. I saw a doorway when I was fighting the Typhon. It’s the only other door I’ve seen in here, so it has to lead to the staff of Ra.”

“Right,” Crystal said, tearing her eyes off Isabel to follow the direction of her point. “Any idea how to get down there without me blacking out? I can’t lower myself, and I don’t look forward to riding you with a broken arm.”

Isabel flushed at the choice of words and coughed. “I’ve been thinking about that. I’ve got a T-Rex, so I’m guessing I have some kind of sauropod. I can get my head up to the bottom of the platform, you step on, I lower you down.”

Crystal nodded. “That makes sense. But first?”

Isabel looked at her, and Crystal reached out to take Isabel’s hand. “Last time things were desperate, and I didn’t ask. But I’m Hungry, and if anything’s waiting, I need any kind of strength, and beyond that I’d bloody love to kiss-”

Before she could finish the sentence, Isabel leaned forward, carefully avoiding Crystals arm.

There in the Typhon’s chamber, on a platform built by a species thirty million years gone from this earth, they kissed – and for a moment, Crystal forgot about everything else that surrounded them.


 

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Small Worlds Part 206

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We tried, she thought at the snake heads opened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cleansing initiated,” a robotic voice said.

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


 

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Small Worlds Part 205

“Login successful,” the touchscreen read in a bright, cheerful font. “Please select your operation: Facilities Maintenance, Current Schedule, Contact Supervisor, Policies and Procedures, Union Messages, Contract.”

Crystal blinked at the screen as a sudden pang of familiarity struck her. She was certain she’d never been to this place, but clearly whatever she’d done before the end of the world, she’d worked for the same organization that had owned this place. Contact supervisor? What was I?

If time had permitted, Crystal would have spent hours exploring the menu. She wanted to, but Isabel’s life was in danger. Her hand flicked over to Facilities Maintenance and tapped that icon. Behind her, she heard a series of deep crashes and a bellowing roar that couldn’t have possibly come from the Glyptodon’s throat. Isabel had shifted again. Crystal fought the urge to glance over her shoulder to see what new form was tearing into the Typhon. Focus.

“Facilities Maintenance: Please select your operation: Life support. Fire control. Climate control. Incident Reports. Open Tickets. Pending Tickets. Closed Tickets.”

Crystal stared at the screen, her forehead furrowing. None of those seemed to cover what she needed. She could turn off Life support, but she’d only kill Isabel if she did. Fire control, perhaps? Crystal reached out and tapped that icon.

“Fire control: Please select your operation. Extinguisher Health Check. Sprinkler Health Check. Emergency Suppressant Health Check.”

Nothing that actually lets me control anything, Crystal thought, her frustration deepening. Behind her, the Typhon’s continued laughter took on a deeper, more resonant note. He’d managed to reattach his throat. It was cut off with a sickening crunch of bone and tearing of flesh, but Crystal didn’t need to look to know Isabel was lagging behind. If he reforms…Hurridly, Crystal tapped the back arrow and selected Life Support.

“Life Support: Please select your operation. Carbon Scrubber 1 Health Check. Carbon Scrubber 2 Health Check. Carbon Scrubber 3 Health Check. Carbon Scrubber 4 Health Check. Inorganic Waste Disposal Unit Health Check. Organic Waste Disposal Unit Health Check. Bodily Waste Disposal 1 Health Check. Bodily Waste Disposal 2 Health Check…”

It went on like that, listing health checks for various subsystems needed to maintain the life support. Desperate for some answers, Crystal tapped on Carbon Scrubber 1.

A list of readouts appeared. Filters. Power capacities. When the last manual check had been done – this one showing a date in a calendar format Crystal hadn’t seen in countless eons – and when the last automated replacement had occurred. That, at least, was last week. A red icon informed her that she was thirty million, two hundred and twenty three thousand, one hundred and seventeen years, three lunar cycles, one interval, six days, sixteen hours, three minutes, and nineteen seconds behind schedule, and accordingly, her pay would be drocked by a two hundred and seventeen million percent.

That last bit of information, that detail she’d be docked pay for being behind schedule, put the final piece of the puzzle into place, and memories started flooding back. She had worked for this company. She’d been working on their facility in the Blasted Desert when she’d found her bloody nanoverse in some new excavations. She’d left that day without even quitting.

She’d been working in maintenance, but not of the equipment. Not in a technical role.

She’d been a janitor.

Isabel roared behind her, and Crystal snapped back to the present. Celebrate knowing what you used to do later, she thought, backing out of the menus. She knew this system like the back of her hand, and with the memories back at the surface, it wasn’t hard to know exactly where to go. Policies and Procedures, then the big red icon she knew to expect: Emergency Procedure. A second tap brought up a holographic map of the room, with several points labeled. Fire alarms. Life support failure alarms. Ozone alarms. And one, clearly labeled: “Subject Containment Breach Response.”

It was on the other side of the room. Crystal didn’t bother with trying anything even remotely fancy. Instead, she wove a bridge of pure air between her platform and the switch’s location. Without even a glance back, she dashed across the bridge.

It gave her an excellent view of the fight. The Typhon had mostly reassembled, although Isabel was doing an admirable job of keeping its head from reattaching fully to its neck. She’d transformed herself into an immense crocodile, easily forty-five feet from nose to tail.  Sarcosuchus imperator, the largest crocodile to have ever existed. It’s scales were far too thick for the Typhon’s fangs to easily penetrate, and it offered the bite strength Isabel needed to keep the monster at bay.

The Typhon’s face had flipped over at some point, and his face was a mask of frustration and rage. Several of the snakes were trying to wind their way around Isabel. Whenever they got a secure grip, she’d start to trash and roll, and they would be ripped from their moorings on the Typhon’s back. It was a stalemate for now, but the Typhon showed no signs of tiring, while Isabel’s movements were increasingly sluggish.

Unfortunately, his face being turned upwards gave him a perfect view of Crystal running across the air. His frustration vanished to be replaced with cruel amusement, and dozens of snakes broke free to lunge for her.

With a quick flicking of equations, Crystal wove the bridge into a tunnel. Snakes battered against it and began wrapping around it, constricting tightly. Hunger rumbled in her stomach, and she didn’t dare try the electricity trick again.

Come on, come on…just a bit bloody further. Crystal’s feet pounded on the platform. Her heart pounded in her chest, and she could feel her breath hitch with every step. Behind her, she heard a hissing sound as the the snakes began to force their way through the ultra-dense air, and the tunnel filled with the sound of scales sliding against the smooth surface.

The sound of hissing grew louder with every step.