Arthur Pendragon

Patreon Snippets 18 (Heretical Edge 2)

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For those who read Summus Proelium who might have missed it, there was a commissioned interlude for that story posted yesterday. You can find it by clicking right here

The following is the 18th edition of Patreon Snippets. Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers.

Gabriel Ruthers 

The Necromancer was dead. After more than a dozen mortal lifetimes, after an untold number of victims and atrocities, the monster who had shown Gabriel Ruthers what the beings who lurked in the shadows were truly capable of was gone. He was dead and he would never threaten another person’s life, would never corrupt and torture another innocent soul. 

It should have been a time of joy, a time of relief and celebration. And it was, for some. For many, really. A large portion of the Crossroads population who had any clue who the man named Fossor had been were currently engaged in parties that stretched across just about every major holding their society had. There was talk amongst others in the Committee of making the day Fossor fell into a literal holiday, perhaps even working in a way to make it one amongst the Bystanders as well somehow. They were giddy with relief and joy, most not caring anything about who had struck the final blow, only that it was done and that Fossor was dead. 

But of course, it wasn’t that simple. Such things hardly ever were. Particularly these days.  

As for Ruthers himself, the man stood not at any of those parties. Nor was he celebrating more quietly, as others were, in various bars or private restaurants. No. Instead, he stood on a hill a few short kilometers north of Collobrières, in France. With one hand resting against a tree, Ruthers stared at a nearby spot between two fallen logs. To most, it would seem the same as any other patch of dirt in any other forest. Looking there, they would see nothing important, nothing special. 

Nothing that had changed the entire course of human history. 

But, of course, it was far more than that. When Ruthers looked to that spot, he saw himself, young and so naive. He saw Fossor, expertly manipulating him. The two of them had stood there, in that very spot, to finalize the ‘deal’ that was supposed to involve Ruthers and the other Heretics he had gathered together giving Fossor the power he needed to use a spell that would have eliminated the grave threat they had all faced. 

Fossor had presented himself as a friend, one they could trust. Others hadn’t believed him. Ruthers had vouched for the man. He had traveled with Fossor for months, had fought alongside him, had saved his life (or so he thought) and vice versa. For those months, Fossor had worked to convince Gabriel that he was trustworthy and honest, someone who only wanted to help. 

And Gabriel, fool that he was, had believed it. He had well and truly believed that this Fossor, though not human, was someone who could help them. He’d argued with their other allies, had nearly come to blows with them, had staked everything he was that the man at his side was one they could count on. 

It was his words, his urging, that convinced the others to take a chance. They helped contribute the power Fossor had asked for. Desperate as they were to stop the threat that had been looming in front of them, they gave the Necromancer everything wanted, everything they could give. 

Only later did Ruthers find out the truth, that Fossor’s magic on this world had been weak, thanks to the efforts of some other entity. He was–not quite cut off in the same way as the curse for stepping on Earth soil (that had been accomplished later), but his efforts to draw power here to Earth were weakened. But by convincing Gabriel and the others to give him so much power, Fossor managed to break that limitation. And, in the process, he had nearly wiped out all humanity. Killing millions of innocent people, a solid chunk of the entire population of the world at the time, and turning the slow trickle of his power on this world into the full geyser it was supposed to be, all in the same move. Which of those was his primary goal would forever be a mystery. Perhaps both. Perhaps it didn’t matter. 

What mattered was results. And the result was that because of his own naivety, Ruthers had convinced others to give Fossor everything he needed to nearly wipe out the human race and become a threat to the Earth for centuries following. Every person who had died from that disease, every person Fossor had killed since then, was because of what Ruthers had done. They were dead because he had trusted the Necromancer when everyone else had said he shouldn’t. If he had listened to them, if he just hadn’t been so stupid and naive… 

It was a mistake he would never make again. Humans. His loyalty was to humanity. After what he’d done, after what he’d helped cause, Gabriel Ruthers would never forget that. Whatever happened, he would always put humanity first. He would protect them from everything he could, no matter what. The horror and guilt he felt whenever he thought about this moment, the moment all those centuries ago when he had stood in this forest and agreed to convince his companions to trust Fossor, would never leave. After all this time, it was only stronger. 

And when he saw Joselyn, when he saw the young woman with so much charisma and power falling into that same trap, not understanding that the evil things that wanted to destroy the human race were patient enough to play nice for months and even years at a time, he wanted to scream. He wanted to grab the woman and shake her, shout in her face about what Fossor had done to him. Fossor had played him, just as those creatures were doing to her. 

His mistake had nearly resulted in the complete annihilation of the human species. Hers could be worse, if someone didn’t make her stop. She was too charismatic, too capable of convincing other people to join her. Joselyn and her daughter. The two of them together could drag humanity to destruction or complete servitude, all with the best of intentions. Because they wouldn’t listen, because they refused to understand. 

The smell of ash filled Ruthers’ nose, and he turned a bit to find the tree he had been touching had been disintegrated. Lost in his memories and thoughts as he had been as he stared at that single spot where he and Fossor had stood, his hand had subconsciously heated up to the point of burning the entire tree down to nothing. Without even thinking about it, without any conscious thought, he had destroyed a living thing that had been standing for two hundred and seventeen years. He knew that, because he had seen the tree sprout the first time. He knew every plant in this area, every rock, every creature that called it home or passed through. 

He knew this place as well as he knew his own room. Or even more, because it was far more important.  

For a moment, the man grimaced at the sight, pausing a bit before looking over to a nearby tree that was still standing. Holding out his hand, he waited until a seed from that tree flew through the air to his palm. Then he crouched as a perfectly circular hole appeared in the ground to drop the seed in. Using both hands, he pushed the dirt in on top of it, patted the ground flat, and stood. A thought made the seed begin to sprout and grow at a rapid pace, until a young but sturdy sapling stood where the previous tree had been. 

Satisfied, Ruthers stepped away from the sapling, leaving it to grow the rest of the way on its own as he moved to stand in the spot he had stood all those centuries ago. He heard his own voice, his own words agreeing to Fossor’s supposed plan. He heard the stupidity in them, the childish belief and trust. He heard everything in his own voice that he now heard whenever Joselyn or Felicity spoke. Or any of their people. 

He heard their words and he heard his own. He saw his consequences, and saw what theirs could be if someone didn’t stop them. If they were being played, if even one person in their little collection of monsters had the same intentions that Fossor had had…

He couldn’t let that happen. Fossor was dead and gone, and good riddance. Ruthers hadn’t been the one to kill him, but he truly didn’t care about that. All that mattered was that the Necromancer was dead. But if his legacy continued, if one like him managed to carry on where he had failed, because Joselyn kept the fucking door open for it…

Pivoting away from the spot with a grunt of disgust, the man began to stride away from it purposefully as a portal appeared to take him back to Crossroads. Let others celebrate. They deserved it. As for him, he had to get back to work. 

Joselyn and her people had to be stopped. They all had to be stopped. That was all there was to it. Ruthers would make absolutely certain of it. Whatever it took, whatever had to happen, he would make sure nothing like Fossor ever happened again. 

Or he would die trying. 

*******

Zeke Leven 

That Felicity Chambers chick was a pain in the ass. 

The thought, along with other similarly uncharitable ones directed toward his former classmate and her entire family, filled Zeke Leven’s mind as he repeatedly hit a punching bag that had been set up in one of the Crossroads Academy gyms. The bag was enchanted to take a lot of damage. Which was a good thing, considering the boy had gained enough power over the past year and change to pick up and hurl a decent sized Bystander car. Every punch he subjected that bag to would have turned an ordinary, mundane one into dust and shattered cloth. And he hit the thing rapidly, twenty, thirty full-force punches in the course of ten seconds. 

Sandoval was out there, along with her sister. Both of them had bought into the cuddly, friendly, oh-so-misunderstood Strangers bullshit. How? How was that possible, after everything they had seen? Scout especially should have known better. After everything she’d been through, after what their mother had–

But their mother had bought into it too. Or had she? Was the woman who had shown up really their mother, or one of those bodysnatchers that had been talked about? What kind of woman would really drag her daughters into that bullshit rebellion against humanity when they themselves were humans? It didn’t make any sense. It was bullshit. It was wrong. 

“Zeke,” a quiet voice spoke from nearby, drawing the boy’s attention. He turned, to see a familiar woman. 

“Mother,” the boy said simply, blinking a bit as her appearance threw him. “What are you doing here?” 

Sophoronia, in turn, replied, “Is it so strange for me to check on my son?” She paused, eyes flicking toward the severely punished heavy bag before they moved back to him. “How are you? I assume you’ve heard the news of Fossor’s death.”

“Heard? Yeah, I heard,” Zeke retorted, gesturing off toward the grounds. “That’s what all the screaming and partying going on out there is about. Newest excuse anyway. Not like people need much of one.” 

“Yet, you’re not celebrating with them,” his mother noted carefully, watching him.  

Zeke shrugged, folding his arms over his stomach. “We didn’t do much, did we? I mean, it was the traitors who actually killed the motherfucker.” 

“Language, Zeke,” Sophronia gently chastised before reconsidering. “On second thought, use whatever bad language you like when it comes to that creature. But please, leave that specific phrase out of things. It’s a bit too… on the nose.”

Ignoring that, the boy looked to his mother. “What are you people going to do about the traitors? They’re turning innocent people to their side now. And since they killed Fossor, I heard some people talking about how maybe they’re right. Especially since they had Strangers helping them.” 

Sophronia met her son’s gaze. “Do you know who specifically has been saying that?” 

For a few silent seconds, Zeke stared back at his mother as a handful of thoughts swirled through his head. He considered every possible answer before simply looking away with a muttered, “Just some mutters. Nobody specific. But that’s not the point. The point is people are starting to look up to them, Mother. This whole thing is going to be worse, because you guys won’t stop them and put those traitors where they belong.”

“It’s not quite that simple,” his mother quietly informed him, seeming to consider her words then before continuing. “Would you have us put everyone who has left Crossroads under this belief in prison? Including the Mason twins and others?” 

“No,” Zeke snapped quickly. “They’re just–they’ve been tricked. They’re…” He trailed off, trying to find the right words. 

“As I said,” Sophronia gently put in, “it’s complicated. And even if such a decision could be made lightly, they’re quite strong. Going to full-scale war against them could leave the Earth itself vulnerable to other threats. We have to be careful.” 

With a sigh, Zeke turned away to face the heavy bag once more. “Yeah, whatever.” 

For a moment, his mother said nothing. Then she moved closer, putting both hands on his shoulders. “I’m sorry, Zeke. The work I’ve done, the things I’ve been busy with, they… I haven’t spent as much time with you as I should have.” 

“What?” He blinked, turning to look over his shoulder. “What does that have to do with anything?” 

It looked, just for a second, like his mother was going to say one thing. Then she clearly changed her mind and shook her head. “Nothing. I just… I haven’t been able to be there for you as much as I should have.” Carefully, she turned the boy around, pulling him closer into an embrace. “I just want you to make good choices. But they have to be your choices.”

Zeke, of course, had no idea what that was supposed to mean. Nor why his mother was acting so strangely. Maybe it was just the fact that Fossor, a long-time enemy, was finally dead. Maybe it made her feel nostalgic or something. 

He did know two things for a fact, however. First, the traitors were going to have a field day recruiting people after this victory that had made Crossroads look like idiots. 

And second, Felicity Chambers was definitely a pain in the ass. 

******

Sariel and Haiden 

“You know, shotgun weddings have their benefits,” Haiden Holt noted as he stood near the window of the Vegas hotel room, “but downsides too.” The man, wearing a provided bathrobe, was gazing out over the brightly lit Vegas strip far below, watching the line of cars and starry-eyed tourists. How would they react if they had the slightest idea of who the actual people who ran this city were? A trio of Strang–Alter families, vampire, Vestil, and Oni all in an uneasy truce to keep Heretics (or most of them, anyway) out. 

Come to think of it, given the mix of Bystander rumors and truth about the powers behind Vegas over the decades, maybe people wouldn’t blink too much at the truth after all. 

“Are you saying you don’t want to get married?” Sariel teased from the bathroom where she was drying off and dressing after their shower together. 

Eyeing the reflection in the window where he could barely make out the beautiful woman’s form, Haiden retorted, “Did I say anything of the sort? I just think it’s too bad that neither of us have friends we could invite. Okay, no friends that we’ve known longer than the few months we’ve known each other, anyway.” Abandoning everyone he’d ever known, as Sariel herself had on her side, had taken a lot. But the two of them had each other. And soon, once they were married, the bond between them would be a far more formal and permanent one. 

Sariel stepped out into the room, not bothering to dress as she moved up behind the man and wrapped her arms around him. “It would be nice,” she murmured, “but there’s no way it could work.” 

“You thinking about specific people you’d like to be here?” Haiden asked, as it took everything in him to focus on their conversation and not on the fact that the woman he loved was naked and clinging to him. She really was cheating. 

“Are you?” Sariel returned, before adding, “I’d like my… Apollo to be there. And a few others. My mother…” She trailed off, shaking her head. “That’s impossible for a lot more reasons. Not just because she’d probably want to kill you for being human and corrupting her daughter. But also… all that.” 

Of course, because of ‘all that.’ Haiden knew about the woman called Korsmea, how she was in some kind of Seosten mental hospital because of the curse. A curse that made her constantly forget when she was in her own personal timeline. Every time the woman woke up, or even multiple times a day, she would think she was at some different point in the several thousand years she had been alive before the curse. 

Thousands of years of memories, all being randomly relived with no way of focusing on the present. It sounded horrific, and in some ways even worse for a young child like Sariel had been to live through. 

No wonder she wanted this Apollo guy to be there. The Seosten who had been her partner, her brother of sorts, for so long. He’d tried to get Sariel to tell him more about the guy, so he could reach out to him (the man had left the Seosten after all), but she refused. She was, as far as Haiden could tell, ashamed that she hadn’t left with Apollo in the first place. Which seemed like a dumb reason not to reach out to him now, but he wasn’t going to push that. Not yet. 

“Vanessa,” he murmured, answering her earlier question in a quiet voice. “I’d like Vanessa to be here.” Which was even more impossible, given his sister had died many years earlier. She’d been killed in training back at Eden’s Garden, even before the two had graduated to full Heretics. 

With a visible wince even in the reflection, Sariel held him more tightly. “I’m sorry,” she murmured while gently kissing his shoulder. “I wish your sister could be here too. I wish everyone we cared about could be here. I wish… a lot of things.”

Turning from the window to face her, Haiden shook his head. “It’s okay. We’ll find new people we can trust and love and open up to.” Arching an eyebrow, he pointedly looked down, then back up again. “And I can’t say I’m exactly suffering right now.” 

It was fun seeing the way he could make a woman as ancient as the original Artemis blush. A wave of pink spread over her face as she punched him in the shoulder while rolling her eyes. “I should get dressed. And you should think if there’s anyone else you wish you could invite.” Poking him in the same spot she had punched, the woman turned and started to walk away. Again, a view he didn’t exactly object to. 

Turning back to the window once she started to dress, Haiden idly remarked, “I suppose I could try to reach out to see if Lucy’s interested in showing up. I mean, after everything that guy did for me before we met, and–” 

Suddenly, Sariel was there. Her hands caught Haiden by the arm, turning him to face her. “What?” she demanded, eyes wide. “Who did you say helped you?” 

Haiden was left blinking a little, confused. “Lucy–no big deal. He was the guy, the Heretic I mentioned who helped point me to a few problems. Like the one where I found you.” 

“You never mentioned his name before,” Sariel pointed out, her grip on his shoulders still tight. 

With a confused shrug, Haiden offered, “Yeah, he had a big thing for secrecy. Has, I guess. He was huge for being anonymous, I guess I was just respecting that. He was–umm, are you okay?” He’d noticed the odd look in his fiance’s gaze. 

Sariel didn’t answer at first. She turned away, arms folding across her stomach as she stared at the floor and shivered a little. She was lost in thoughts, in memories, in doubts. 

“Hey, what–” Haiden hesitated before putting his hands on her shoulders, gently turning the woman to face him. “What’s wrong? Is this–you know this Lucy guy, don’t you? He pointed me at you for a reason.” In that moment, seeing the way the woman he loved reacted to the name, he was trying to decide if that was a good thing or if Lucy had somehow been fucking with them both. If this was a guy who hated Sariel, if they were–

“Apollo,” the woman finally spoke up, her voice cracking just a little. “It was Apollo.” She looked to him, swallowing hard. “His original name was Lucifer. They–my people made him the… yeah. Lucifer. Lucy. It was him.” 

That was a… a lot. For a moment, Haiden just stared at his fiance as he digested that. “Your brother–Apollo, the one you call Apollo, he’s Lucifer. Your people turned him into the embodiment of all evil in the Bystander Christian mythology, and he… he was the guy who sent me to you.” 

He’d known that he’d been intentionally sent to meet Sariel, of course. He’d known that there was someone who had purposefully pointed him toward her, likely with the intention of just what had happened. Except he’d never considered it being Lucy, because the man named Lucy had always presented himself as the go-between. He had simply passed along a message from the man named Nicholas. It was Nicholas, whoever he was, whom Haiden had assumed was responsible for making sure he and Sariel met. 

Except was there even an actual Nicholas to begin with? Or was that just a way for this Lucifer/Apollo to hide in plain sight? 

Focusing on Sariel, he quietly asked, “Are you okay?” She had to be reeling even more than he was, after the long and incredibly complicated relationship she’d had with the man. He knew there was more to the story, but from what he had heard, this Apollo or Lucifer had basically been the most important person in her life for… for a really long time. 

For her part, Sariel was quiet at first. She seemed to be digesting the information, her gaze moving past him to stare out the window. He saw flashes of guilt in her expression, but also wonder, relief, fear, and happiness. It was a clearly a confusing rush of emotions, before she finally looked back to him, visibly swallowing. In a very small voice, she whispered, “He sent you to me.” There were tears in her eyes, which she blinked away rapidly before repeating in an even more tender voice, “He sent you to me.” 

Before Haiden could respond, Sariel’s hands were on either side of his face, and he was pulled down. Her lips found his, in a kiss that seemed to eclipse all they had shared before that moment. 

She said nothing else after that, not for some time. Nor did he. Because nothing else needed to be said about how they each felt about each other and their relationship. 

Not with words, anyway. 

********

Guinevere and Arthur

Two teenage figures, one male and one female, stood atop a hill facing one another. In the distance, a small village could be glimpsed with smoke rising from several fireplaces. The sound of merriment for the local festival to celebrate the harvest could be heard, but neither of the teens paid attention. Their sole focus was on one another, and what they were doing. 

“So,” Guinevere began while squinting at the boy across from her, “how does this work? And if you start talking about needing some kind of kiss or something to make your power work, I shall make certain you regret it.” 

An embarrassed blush crossed the dark-haired boy’s face at her words. Which, Guinevere decided, made him look even more attractive. Not that she’d ever tell him that. 

Well, not soon, anyway. 

“I, ahh, I’m not completely sure,” Arthur confessed. “I’ve never really done this before. But Nimue says it’ll be instinct. She says dragons were always supposed to enhance the abilities of the rest of the armies they were at the head of, so I should just… um, be able to do it by thinking about it.” 

For another moment, the two just stared at each other. As it began to feel a little awkward, Guinevere offered, “Perhaps we should hold hands. As long as you don’t get any ideas.” She added the last bit primly, mostly just to see his reaction. 

And it was a fun reaction indeed. The blush that she had decided was cute spread even more, as Arthur shook his head quickly. “No, no ideas. I mean, ideas for this, but not–I mean. Here.” Quickly, he grabbed both of her hands and held them. His eyes closed briefly, but then drifted open as he stared at her. 

At first, Guinevere met his gaze only for the purpose of teasing him about staring at her. But the words faltered in her throat as their gazes locked. She stared into Arthur’s eyes, feeling her own heartbeat, hearing her breath gradually slow along with his. The two gazed at one another, as a feeling of warmth built through her. It began in her hands, clasped within his, spreading through her arms and into her core. That feeling of warmth, of acceptance, of… of power built in her. She lost herself in his gaze, tumbling endlessly and yet felt perfectly safe. 

With a sudden gasp, both Arthur and Guinevere stumbled away from one another, releasing their hands as they almost fell. 

Catching herself, Guinevere blurted, “Gods! You–that was–you just…” The feeling, it was so strong. She felt–she felt so… amazing. Turning, the girl looked toward the village and focused. The moment she did, a gasp escaped her once more. “It worked!” 

“It did?” Arthur blinked, stepping that way. “How can you–” 

“I can see a long way,” she informed him, not looking away from the village. “The griffin I was bonded to, it let me see things from a far distance. But now I can see even further. I couldn’t see the sign by the pub before. Now I can. I can count the number of coins on the bar through the window.”

That said, the girl turned away from the village, drawing a knife from its sheath at her leg. Holding the weapon up, she eyed it. At a thought, the blade bent all the way to the left, then to the right, while her smile grew. “It’s easier to control metal too. It responds faster. This is–Arthur, you made me stronger!” 

Quickly, the boy pointed out, “Nimue says that boost was growing since I was bonded. It’ll take longer to do more boosts like that. Or they’ll be smaller. And more spread out.” 

“I don’t care,” Guinevere informed him, “this is amazing.” 

After a momentary hesitation, Arthur asked, “You can fly too, right? Do… do you think you’re faster now?” 

The question made a sly smile cross the girl’s face. “Do I think I’m faster? Faster than I was, or faster than you?” She watched his reaction, giggling despite herself before reaching out to poke his nose with her finger. “I guess there’s only one way to find out, isn’t there?” 

With that, and with no further warning, the girl abruptly erupted from the ground. In an instant, she was a distant speck far off in the sky. 

Gazing after her, Arthur gave a slow smile of his own as he watched the figure doing loops through the air as though taunting him to catch up. 

And then he was gone too, launching himself into the sky to give chase. 

********

Joselyn and Abigail

Long after the main party celebrating the defeat of Fossor had died down, people still spoke in small, isolated groups or pairs. One of those pairs, standing on the porch behind the cabin where others of the family were resting, was Joselyn and Abigail. Mother and daughter, separated for so many decades to the point that they were entirely strangers, stood side-by-side, looking out at the forest as they bonded over the single shared experience they had: motherhood. 

“Once,” Abigail was saying, “when Koren was around eleven, she decided she really wanted a dog. I told her only if she was responsible for it, so she said she’d start feeding and walking some neighbor’s dogs to prove it. Good so far, right? Well, little did I know, my little angel wasn’t about to wait for as long as proving herself would take.

“Turns out, she had already been given a dog by one of her friends. Long story there. But she kept him out in the shed in the backyard. We thought one of the neighbor dogs was just barking a lot. She kept him out there, and when she fed the neighborhood dogs, she just kept a little bit from each in a baggy and brought it all home to put in a pan for her dog. She took him for a walk the same way she took the other dogs for walks, just pretending it was one of the neighbor’s. She played with the dog, walked the dog, fed the dog, all right in front of us while we thought it was yet another neighborhood dog she was taking care of. That kid must’ve fed, walked, and played with ten different dogs over those few weeks just to hide the fact that she already had her own dog she was taking care of.” 

With a smile, Joselyn asked her own grown daughter, “Did you let her keep him?” 

“Well at that point, what else could we do?” Abigail snorted. “I told her to prove she could take care of one, and she took care of him and nine others.” She exhaled, looking away. “We had Thumper for about three years after that, until he went missing. Koren was heartbroken. I…” She trailed off, shaking her head. “She really loved that dog.” 

For a minute or so, both women were quiet. Then Joselyn spoke up. “Felicity was in kindergarten. She was doing really well, but then she started getting in trouble. Not bad trouble, just enough to get in timeout. She refused to share, took someone else’s crayons, talked back to the teacher, little things that made them put her in the corner. All week long, every day, she did just enough to get put in timeout. The teachers couldn’t understand why, and we couldn’t either. Until I figured it out.” 

“What was she doing?” Abigail asked, curious about what her much-younger sister had been up to. 

With a chuckle, Joselyn explained, “See, I was working at the high school that week, helping with the career day events and a few other things. I thought Felicity was jealous or something, upset that I was at the high school and wasn’t visiting her school, because they were right next to each other. But when I went to visit her teacher to have a talk, I realized something. The timeout chair in the corner, it was right by a small window. And through that window, she could see the parking lot in the high school where I’d been working all week.” 

Abigial gave a double-take, staring at her. “Oh my God. You mean she was intentionally getting in trouble so they’d put her in time-out, just so she could watch you from across the parking lots?” 

A fond, tender smile touched Joselyn’s face as she nodded. “That’s right. She just wanted those few extra minutes every day to watch me, even if it meant getting in trouble to do it.” 

“Being a mom, it’s worth it,” Abigail quietly announced without taking her eyes off her own mother.

Joselyn, in turn, met her gaze while slowly lifting a hand to touch the other woman’s face. “Yes,” she agreed. 

“It absolutely is.” 

******

The Olympus

With a snap of his heels and a quick salute, the incredibly young Seosten (he couldn’t have been older than sixty or so) military guard jumped to abrupt attention at the unexpected appearance of a surprising guest. “Trierarch!” he blurted aloud, voice betraying his surprise, “Apologies, sir, if you were expected I wasn’t informed.” Belatedly after saying that, he seemed to want to correct himself to avoid potentially throwing any of his close superiors under the bus.

Puriel, however, shook his head. “Ease, peditatus. It’s okay. I know it’s early, but I ahh, just thought I’d come take a look at the old girl while the place was closed.” Meeting the other man’s gaze, he added with a very small smile, “I’d rather avoid crowds and fuss.” 

“O-of course, sir.” Quickly, the young Seosten turned toward the heavy metal door he had been half-dozing in front of before this unexpected arrival. Taking the field-engraver from its slot on his belt, he carefully touched all four points of the alarm spell, disengaging it and unlocking the door. It hissed open a moment later, as he gestured. “Right this way, Trierarch.” 

With that, he started forward through the airlock, leaving Puriel to follow. The two of them entered a long, clear tube. The Seosten homeworld of Elohim lay far below. They weren’t quite in space, being ‘only’ around thirty thousand feet up. This was the navy museum, where dozens of old, decommissioned military vessels were kept. The facility itself consisted of a maze of these clear corridors connected to various box-like structures where classes and presentations about ships (both those kept here and others that had been used throughout the long conflict with the Fomorians) were held. The ships that were actually kept here at the museum were attached to the open spaces between the main structures, able to be viewed from all sides through the maze of clear tube corridors. The entire facility was kept aloft through powerful engines at all four corners that allowed it to remain in the same relative position above the Seosten capital city.

Stepping out into that particular tube, Puriel took a look at the ship that had been his home for so long, his pride and joy, his… his true achievement. The ship that had truly meant more than he ever could have understood until long after he’d lost it. 

The Olympus. The ship itself consisted, at its base, of an orb five hundred meters in diameter. The main science and living facilities of the ship were kept there, along with the primary bridge directly in the center. Attached to that primary orb were three long gunships that were about a third of the width of the core and vaguely curved in order to attach/overlap it. The gunships were each attached equidistant around the orb, extending twenty meters behind the orb and a hundred meters in front of it, with two on what was considered the ‘bottom’ and one on the ‘top.’ It essentially looked like a long, thick metal pipe with three large cracks between where gunships were between the two and three o’clock positions, the six o’clock position, and the nine to ten o’clock positions, all surrounding a large ball trapped inside said pipe.

Not that the gunships had to stay connected. At any point, one or all of the three cylinder pieces could detach from the main orb and operate separately to provide fire support. The Olympus was essentially four vessels in one, a science orb protected by three powerful gunships. 

For a few long seconds, Puriel said nothing. He simply stood, staring silently at the sight in front of him. A myriad of thoughts, emotional, very complicated thoughts, ran through him. The memories that came when he saw that ship were… almost more than he could bear. He could feel himself start to slip away, start to lose himself the way he had done for so long after that broken banishment orb had all-but destroyed his mind. 

Spark pulled him back. He felt her presence, felt her gently catch his drifting thoughts and point him back to what he was doing, before he could entirely lose himself. 

“Sir?” It was the Seosten who had unlocked the door to let him in here so he could see the old ship. “Are you okay? Should I get someone to–” 

“No,” Puriel interrupted. “No, it’s alright. Thank you, peditatus, I–what’s your name?” 

“Eilerien, sir,” came the response. 

“Eilerien,” Puriel repeated. “Good. Would you mind giving me a few minutes here? I need to… I’d like to reminisce without feeling self-conscious.” 

The other man gave a hurried nod, clearly glad for the excuse to avoid the embarrassment of standing around while an old, retired captain stared at his ship. “Yes, Trierarch, of course. I’ll be right outside if you need anything.” He quickly moved back through the doors, shutting them behind himself to provide some privacy. 

After a moment of silence, Puriel spoke quietly, “It’s safe. We’re alone and no one’s watching.” 

Instantly, Spark appeared beside him, manifesting herself in a visible form by harnessing his own energy powers to bend the light into what amounted to a hologram. As always, she presented herself as having long hair pulled in a braid, half of it dark to match his hair and half blonde to match her mother’s. 

“It’s bigger than you imagine it,” she pointed out. 

“It feels smaller when I think about how many people we had,” he informed her. “It was home. A dysfunctional, often dangerous home, but still home. Seeing it empty… that’s what makes it seem bigger now.” 

For a few long seconds, neither of them said anything else. Spark simply stared through the clear corridor, watching the ship where her mother had served for so long. Finally, she spoke quietly, “Can you really do it?” 

Puriel didn’t answer at first. He simply stared at the ship, considering before giving a short nod. “Yes. I just need some time.” 

With that, his eyes closed, as the man reached out with his own Tartarus-granted power. The ability to control and manipulate vast amounts of energy to almost limitless ends, including magical energy. He could, in effect, create almost any spell effect he knew of simply by willing ambient magical energy to shape itself properly. Even if he didn’t know how to cast the actual spell itself, he could force the energy to follow his will. 

The ‘some time’ he had asked for turned out to be nearly an hour. A few times, he felt the guard outside the room take a glance in to make sure everything was still fine. But the man, of course, never saw anything untoward. As far as he was concerned, Puriel was simply standing there, one hand on the clear tube, as he stared at the ship and lost himself in memories. 

It would’ve been easy to actually lose himself that way, to be fair. But Spark helped keep him on-task and focused. For that hour, he worked his own power over the ship in the distance, pulling energy from the air and shaping it into the spells he needed. 

Finally, it was done. The Olympus, with a suddenness that was almost jarring despite the fact he was ready for it, vanished as though it had never been there. 

Almost immediately, alarms began to blare. The door slammed open, and Eilerien burst through, eyes wide. “Trierarch?! What happened, what–” 

He was stopped in mid-sentence, as Puriel produced a small, clear-colored orb and touched it to the man’s forehead. The memory modification spell he’d previously attached to it had already set to work, shaping itself to follow his words. But it would do more than that. The orb wouldn’t simply rewrite the man’s memory, it would also alter the holographic recordings to match. 

“I was never here. You were attacked by a band of pirates who infiltrated the facility. You managed to kill three of them at great risk to your own life, but they proved too much. Their intended target was the military vessel Aeternum, but your valiant efforts forced them to retreat to take the Olympus instead, as a secondary target. You’re proud of yourself for standing your ground and driving them away from their main target. Now, sleep.” 

With that, the guard collapsed to the ground. Stepping away from him, Puriel waved a hand to summon a portal. As it appeared, he spoke to Spark, whose holographic form stood nearby. “It’s time. 

“Let’s go take a closer look at the ship that’s going to take us to Earth.”

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Mini-Interlude 53 – Arthur Pendragon

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527 AD

The squawk of a chicken as it frantically scurried along the dirt path that wound its way through the middle of the small village was accompanied by a joyous giggle from the mostly-naked toddler that chased the bird. Tiny bare feet splashed through a small puddle as the young boy made one last, laughing lunge for the the bird. His efforts were thwarted by the chicken’s own final leap, leaving the child lying in the dirt as he cried after the animal, “Chickeeeeee!”

The chicken, exulting in its escape, made a triumphant dash for the end of the long wooden building that they had been running alongside, where an opening in the short fence was all that stood between it and freedom. It stopped short however, at the sound of a sudden and somewhat terrifying crack of wood against wood. The chicken screeched to a halt, skidding in the dirt as two older children, a boy and a girl and each twelve years old, emerged from the same hole that it had been fleeing toward.

The crack came again as the youths each swung the roughly sword-shaped sticks they held at one another. The boy backpedaled a couple steps, nearly trampling the chicken as he quickly blocked three subsequent rapid blows from the girl. Each was small and scrawny, their waif-thin bodies countered by the exuberance with which they swung their makeshift weapons. Their faces and matching black hair were caked with dirt.

“Roman dog!” the girl crowed while pressing the attack. “Flee like the rest of the cowards!”

“Never!” the boy shot back just as intensely, straightening as he moved to counterattack with several wild swings. “Begone to the marshes, filthy Saxon barbarian swine!”

The chicken, frantically trying to escape from between the two children’s legs, was caught up by the toddler, who yanked the bird to safety and clutched it against his bare chest. “No hurt chickee!” he snapped, with all the righteous indignation of youth untempered by age.

“Arthur!” The call came from the woman who stepped out of the wooden building and onto the deck beside the dirt path where the children were playing. She moved to the edge of the railing, looking to the three. “Arthur, run to the well and fetch some water.” The instruction was accompanied by a tossed wooden bucket for the boy to catch. “Chadwick,” she added toward the toddler who still clutched the chicken to his chest, “Come inside and put a shirt on before you catch your death. And put the poor chicken back in her pen. Chicken, pen, you, shirt.” Her summary was accompanied by a point and whistle to show that she meant business.

Taking the bucket as it was tossed to him, twelve-year old Arthur turned on his heel. “Come on, Morgana,” he mumbled to the girl while walking that way. “We best do as Mother says, and be quick, or Father will hear of it.”

“Our mother,” the girl, Morgana pointed out while moving to catch up with him. “Only your father, as he is so quick to remind me time and time again. As if I could ever possibly forget.”

“Father cares for you as well, Morgana,” Arthur firmly assured his companion as the two of them made their way swiftly through the busy village. “He just has his own way of showing it.”  

At that point, the two passed another figure. Their eyes turned that way, finding an unfamiliar face. A stranger, who stood at the edge of town. His unnaturally pale face would have drawn their attention by itself. But coupled with his hair, its own shade as blue as the sky, and both children instantly stopped. A stranger, with strange hair and a pale face. What could he–

And then the question vanished, along with all thought and memory of the stranger, as the two continued walking.

“His own way,” Morgana echoed Arthur’s previous words, giving the boy a disbelieving look for a moment, her dark hair falling in front of her eyes until she pushed it back. “Yes, he has quite his own way. One might say that he speaks more with his hands than his mouth. And his hands say that I am no child of his. You and Chadwick are his children. I am a reminder of his shame and the betrayal of his wife and best friend, nothing more. Whatever he sees me as, it is not his child. It will never be.”

Arthur clearly wanted to say something more to that, but in the end, he just sighed and continued walking. Together, the pair of half-siblings walked past a dozen other villagers who were all going about their business. Some waved to the children and greeted them by name, while others ignored them in favor of their own work. Darkness was fast approaching, and all wanted to be done with any chores that required them to be outside long before last light.

Making their way to the well just outside the edge of town, uphill from where any waste would travel, the two filled the wooden bucket. Though Arthur had been able to carry it out by himself, once the bucket was full both of them had to work together to carefully start hauling it back.

The two had only just gingerly picked up the bucket, mindful of any spills, when the sky grew dark, as if the sun had fallen behind a cloud. Which, considering that up until a moment earlier, the sky had been completely clear without a cloud in sight, was more than a little surprising.

“Rain?” Morgana asked quizzically while turning her face upward. What she saw, however, made the young girl gasp out loud. She lost her grip on the bucket she stared at the sky.

“Morgana!” Arthur yelped, unable to hold the large, full bucket by himself. It fell with a loud clatter, dumping its contents onto the ground and over both of their feet. “What are you–”

Then he looked up, his own gaze following his half-sister’s to see what had captured her interest. And in that moment, the protest and complaint vanished from the boy’s lips along with every other thought that had been in his head. He just stood there, staring in shock.

The creature’s size went against all reason. From the tip of its nose, down its bronze-scaled body and to the very end of its tri-pointed tail, it was seventy meters long. Almost two hundred and thirty feet, with a total wingspan of over five hundred feet. The monster’s sheer scale defied all logic.

“Dra… dra…” The trembling Morgana started, her voice breaking from terror as the two stood, watching in horror as the creature’s long neck turned. Its eyes seemed to take them in, even as high as it was. With a rustle of leathery wings, it changed course, flying toward the village.

Dragon!” The scream went up not from either Morgana or Arthur, but from one of the men of the village. He came tearing out of the nearby woods riding a gray horse, its hooves pounding against the ground like thunder as he galloped right past the children without noticing them. His eyes were on the sky, his mouth bellowing the terrible warning once more. “Dragon!”

The cry was taken up by others, which turned to screams of horror as the villagers erupted from their homes, turning their eyes to the sky to see the descending death as it came upon them.

More men took up arms, a few wielding actual swords and axes, while others held pitchforks and other tools. They screamed at the dragon, trying to draw its attention while others scattered and fled. Confusion and terror filled the air, until both were overtaken… by fire.

That terrible mouth opened, and the heat of the sun engulfed the village. In a single breath, half of the buildings, along with everyone in or anywhere near them, were annihilated. All that was left, all that remained where the ball of fire had struck, were ashes and dust. Nothing more.

The force from blast sent Arthur and Morgana to the ground, even as the heat nearly burned them alive. Crashing down hard on his side with a pained cry, the boy’s vision went black for what felt like only a scant handful of seconds. Then he was being shaken violently, a faint, distant voice barely reaching him, as if someone was shouting from the far side of Miller’s Lake.

His eyes opened, finding Morgana kneeling there. The girl was shaking him. From the look of her face and the way her mouth moved, it was clear that she was screaming at the top of her lungs. Yet her voice was barely audible, after the blast from that dragon had deafened them.

“Move!” the girl was screaming, “Arthur, get up! Please! Arthur, you have to get up!”

Painfully, he sat up before turning his head. Then the boy blinked, staring disbelievingly at the sight in front of him. The village… it was almost entirely gone. Fire had spread everywhere. Bodies, some half eaten, lay scattered throughout the ruins. Smoke left it almost impossible to see very deep into the village itself, and the very few buildings that remained were empty, broken skeletons, their features somehow even more terrifying as they were half-visible through the cloud of dust and smoke.

And just above the middle of the village floated the dragon, its head turning back and forth as the thing sought its next target. Those terrifying wings gradually flapped up and down, moving entirely too slowly to have anything to do with its ability to keep itself in the air.

Before he knew what he was doing, the boy was on his feet. His eyes were wide as he screamed, “Mother! Father!” The heat and smoke were already burning his throat, and he coughed violently then, hacking a few times while Morgana pulled at his arm.

“Th-they’re dead, Arthur! They’re dead!” she shrieked, tears flooding her eyes. “And we’ll be dead too! We have to go! Run! Arthur!” She pulled at him.

Eyes wild, he looked to her. “We don’t know that!” he shouted back. “They might be alive! They might be hurt! I have to find them, Morgana! They might need me!”

I need you!” the girl shouted back at him, hysterical as she clung to the boy’s arm. “Arthur, please! They’re gone! Don’t go in there! If you go in there, you’ll die! It’ll kill you, that thing will kill you! We have to run! Arthur, we have to run!” Her voice quieted then, tears filling her eyes she pleaded in desperation. “Please, Arthur. Please don’t leave me. Please.”

For a moment, he hesitated. Heart pounding as fear and doubt filled his mind, the boy looked over his shoulder. He stared into what looked like the abyss of hell for several seconds before turning back to his half-sister. “Run,” he told her, pointing to the woods. “Run to our spot and wait for me! I’ll meet you there, I promise! I’ll be there, I just have to check. I have to know!”

Morgana’s pleas continued, even as Arthur turned, pulling himself free to move. He shouted one more promise to meet her by their spot in the woods before running full-out into the smoke.

It took far too long to find his house. When the boy finally arrived, coughing and hacking as he stumbled to a stop, he found the building still half-intact. Half, because one of the dragon’s feet was occupying the other half. It had landed. The remains of his father’s body lay just outside the house, burned almost beyond recognition, while his mother’s upper half hung from one of the half-broken walls, impaled on the sharp spikes that remained. Her lower half was nowhere to be seen.

For an eternal second, the boy stood there, staring at his dead parents as shock filled him. The truth of it was unfathomable, the horror indescribable. He might have screamed, might have begged, might have vowed vengeance. But he did none of that. He just stood, mouth open as a noise that was unlike anything a living creature should make slowly escaped him. It was the loss of a soul, the loss of innocence. It was the loss, in some ways, of his childhood.

Arthur might have stood there forever, until he died of smoke or some other, more direct cause. But a sound caught his attention. The sound of crying. As the boy’s eyes snapped that way, he saw his little brother. Chadwick was lying just at the end of the porch, near the hole in the fence. He had his beloved chicken clutched to his chest, sobbing violently.

The dragon heard it too. With a rustle of wings, it spun. The thing’s head came down, and the thing glowered at the sight of the toddler and his favorite bird. With a growl that shook the ground like the passing of a thousand strong horses, the monster slowly opened its mouth.

No!” The scream tore its way out of Arthur’s throat, even as he found himself moving. His mother was dead. His father was dead. Not his brother. Not Chadwick. Not him. No. No. No!

The dragon’s head whipped around toward him, seeming to open more in surprise at the sight of the twelve-year-old boy sprinting at it than from its previous intention. For an instant, it was frozen.

And that was one instant long enough for Arthur to reach the dragon’s lowered head. With a primal scream of rage, loss, and denial, the boy hurled himself at the monster. In the background, he heard Chadwick call his name. Then there was nothing save for that looming, open maw as the dragon’s cavernous mouth rose to fill his entire field of vision.

He was in the mouth, inside the monster. Its enormous teeth, as large as Arthur himself, somehow managed to just narrowly miss the boy as he found himself astride its massive, wiggling tongue. As the dragon yanked its tongue back toward that open throat, the boy leapt aside. He landed hard on the bottom of the mouth, drenched in saliva while desperately reaching out to grab the nearest thing that he could. His grasping, searching fingers found one of those deadly, spear-like teeth, and the boy clung to it for dear life even as the dragon shook its head violently back and forth. Still, the boy held on, pulling himself up against that single tooth while a noise that was half-shout and half-sob escaped him.

The constant rumble grew louder then, and Arthur felt the heat rapidly rise. Fire. The dragon was about to breathe fire once more. Eyes widening, he pitched himself up and forward, flinging his body out of the mouth at the exact second that the monster whipped its head in the opposite direction. His hands still held tight to that tooth, and the sudden motion of his body falling one way with it while the dragon’s head jerked in the other direction tore the tooth from the monster’s mouth. Blood came with it, and Arthur landed hard on the ground, tooth falling on top of him while the blood from it coated his body. Some seeped into his mouth, but he was too stunned, too broken, to care.

In the background, the boy heard the dragon’s fire fill the air. He prepared himself to burn, prepared himself to go to the same place as his mother and father. He whispered an apology to Morgana, to Chadwick. He closed his eyes as the dragon roared.

Then… nothing. The air was silent, save for the crackling flames and his brother’s own cries. The expected pain, the expected end, never came.  

What did come, instead, was the sound of footsteps gradually approaching. When Arthur opened his eyes, he found himself staring up at an unfamiliar woman. She was shrouded in smoke, her short brown hair seeming to glow from the surrounding embers. In the distance behind her, he could see the faint shape of the dragon disappearing in the sky.

“Br…broth….” He tried to form the words, tried to tell the woman to take Chadwick.

“Shh.” Taking a knee next to him, the woman put her hand against his face gently, her touch as tender as he had ever felt. It made him want to cry. “Easy, brave one,” she whispered. “Rest now. Rest.”

As if a spell had been put on him, the boy did just that. His eyes drifted closed, and for quite some time, Arthur knew nothing more.

******

One Year Later

Morgana was gone. The girl had disappeared by the time Arthur had woken up, and despite his insistence on searching the entire woods, there had been no sign of her. Which was fair, as two days had passed by the time he finally got there.

As for Chadwick, the boy and his chicken had survived. But Arthur had known that he couldn’t take care of him. But a family in a nearby village had been able to take in both child and bird, and Nimue had assured him that they would take good care of his brother.

Nimue. That was what the woman who had saved him that night, the woman who had taken him in and cared for him, trained him, over the past year called herself. When he had asked what kind of name that was, she had told him that, in the language of her people, the word essentially meant ‘teacher.’

For the past year, Nimue had taught him to fight. She had fed him, clothed him, and trained him. Not just in martial prowess, but also in education. She taught him numbers, reading, sewing, everything she thought that he needed to know. And, apparently, she thought he needed to know everything.

And she taught him about his powers. The powers of the dragon, whose blood had mixed with Arthur’s own, granting him an ever-expanding list of gifts that were only growing stronger with each passing day.

He was strong. That was the start of it. At the moment, one year after bonding with the dragon, he was capable of easily lifting a single slab of rock that had, according to Nimue, weighed as much as three full-sized horses. And every week, he found himself able to lift more. Similarly, he was tough. His skin deflected arrows and sling-launched rocks without a single mark to show for it. Nimue had thrown stones at him at speeds far higher than anything any human weapon could manage, only to gain the same results. A horse had kicked him full in the face and had not affected him in any way. Sword, spear, and mace had broken against his back without doing more than briefly stunning him. And lately, they didn’t even do that.

He was also immune not only to fire, but to any temperature change whatsoever. Nothing could burn or freeze him, be it natural or magical fire.

And as far as magic went, none of it would work if he didn’t consciously allow it to. Nimue had tried ever-increasingly powerful spells, and unless he made the decision to allow the spell to work, nothing did. Nor could any active spell continue working once he laid his hand on either the active effect or the source and made his intent known. Nimue had erected the most powerful barrier she could, only for it to fall apart the moment that Arthur put his hand against it and willed it to.

Fire obeyed him, as did water, air, and the ground itself. All four followed his will. And the first three: fire, air, and water, could be produced with a thought. They came from his mouth, a ball of flame that could melt a stone as large as a man, a geyser of water powerful enough to put a hole in that same stone, or a gust of wind of such strength that it would pick up that stone and send it miles away.

And finally… finally there was the last gift that he had, thus far, inherited. The gift that was, in many ways, the most incredible.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!” The boy screamed. Yet it was a scream not of terror, but of exhilarance, of pure, unbridled joy. It was the cry of a boy who was the single happiest, most free person on the planet.

Or not on the planet. Because in that moment, Arthur was high above it. He flew, flew through the clouds, like a bird. Like a dragon. The ground far below whipped by at a dizzying rate as he pushed himself to speeds beyond what any horse could ever hope to reach. He was a blur in the sky, his small form a briefly glimpsed and quickly forgotten streak to the people below. He pushed himself as hard as he could, sending a boom of sound around himself before outrunning even that. He was moving significantly faster than the noise of his flight could keep up. In the span of only as much time as it had taken his old family to eat a decent meal together, the boy could fly from the southern-most tip of the Isle, all the way to the northern waters.

Finally, laughing wildly, the boy came to a stop. He dropped, landing in a crouch beside the woman who stood on the edge of a bluff that overlooked an open field. “Nimue!” he cried out happily, looking to the woman. “I made it all the way to the ocean this time, and I didn’t even have to stop!”

Nimue smiled at him, her expression fond as she reached out to touch his hair. “So you did. Perhaps it’s time for you to receive your gift.”

“Gift?” Perking up, Arthur asked, “What gift?”

With a flick of her hand, the strange woman produced a weapon, a sword sheathed in an elaborate scabbard. “I have been working on it for you this past year. It’s a bit big for you now, but you should acquaint yourself with it nonetheless. You and it are inexorably tied.”

Hesitantly, Arthur took the weapon. Holding it with one hand, he slowly drew the sword. The blade was white, pure white. Almost blindingly so, once it caught the sun. And it wasn’t iron, or metal at all. Or at least, not any metal that he had ever seen. In fact, when he looked closer, the blade appeared to be made of…

“Tooth,” Nimue confirmed. “Dragon tooth, that is. The same tooth that you tore from the mouth of the one you faced. I have… worked on it. The sword will serve you well, for the trials that are yet to come.”

“Trials?” Arthur echoed, blinking at her.

The smile that she gave him seemed, sad in a way. “Yes, trials. They will not be easy. But you will meet them. Of that, I have no doubt. Because you are Arthur of dragons.

“You are Arthur Pendragon.”

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Mini-Interlude 52 – What Are Dragons

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Millions of years ago

The planet would come to be known by dozens of names over the course of millennia worth of millennia. For this moment, it was called Tseniya. At one time, it had been a lush, beautiful world of expansive jungles, with trees growing far into the heavens. Their branches had stretched to cover most of what lay below, like the protective arms of a concerned mother. Teeming with life of all kinds, Tseniya was a sanctuary, a garden where no technology had been allowed. It was a place for spiritual reflection.

It was almost fitting, in a way, that this was where a race whose population had once stretched across every star in the visible heavens would make their very last stand. This world had been a garden of life, a preserved refuge against all of the problems and dangers of the universe. Now, it would be the place where the only survivors of that once great, star-spanning Empire made one final play against total extinction.

That once lush and green world would not last much longer. Already, a black, obsidian-like substance encased more than three quarters of the planet. It covered every living thing. Trees, flowers, vines, and every creature that flew, walked, crawled, slithered, or swam. None were spared. None were immune. None could fight. There was no fighting that which had caused this. There was only retreat, only running. And now, at this moment, there were no more places to go, no more planets to flee to. Tseniya was their last hope, their last stand.

“It’s coming.”

Those simple words, spoken in a voice that had been long-resigned to saying them, nonetheless carried the weight of a man announcing the extinction of his species and the eradication of civilization itself.

Two figures stood atop a hovering spaceship, as it floated hundreds of feet above the ground. The ship itself was a thousand feet long, eight hundred feet wide, and shaped roughly like the shell of a turtle. Its heavily armored surface looked silver, with golden lines that glowed with power. Far below, it and others like it had used their remarkable mounted weapons to carve out a flat valley through the jungle so that the survivors, the refugees, that they carried could be disembarked. Those who were left, those who had not yet been lost, had needed the open space in order to try one last, final solution, a desperate play to avoid total extinction.

The pair of figures who stood at its edge, staring off into the distance, were two of only ten thousand. Ten thousand was all that remained of what had, not so long ago, been a civilization numbering in the hundreds of trillions.

They called themselves the Suelesk. Originating from a planet called Elesk, with Su meaning ‘Of’. They were ‘Of Elesk’. The Suelesk stood between six and eight feet in height. They were a reptilian-based species, their skin covered in tiny, incredibly tough scales. Technically, they were four-legged, though they stood upright like any bipedal species. Their main pair of legs were much larger than the second set, shaped somewhat like what would eventually be known as a kangaroo. These heavily muscled limbs allowed the Suelesk to jump extraordinary distances.

Meanwhile, the second pair of legs, much thinner than the first, emerged from the Suelesk’s stomach-area and were mainly used for balancing. When standing at rest, they would lean slightly forward, allowing all four legs to take their considerable weight.

The weight was considerable due to the heavy, reinforced shell that each Suelesk carried on their back. Similar in shape to their ships themselves, the Suelesk shell stretched from near their knees, all the way up over their snapping turtle-like heads. Finally, each possessed two stout, muscular arms that could withdraw almost entirely into their shell, or extend as far as five feet in length. Mostly, they kept their arms at a comfortable two feet for general, minute-to-minute actions, with more than half of their length withdrawn and resting.

The one who had made that terrible, two-word announcement looked toward his companion. “The Last will be here soon.”

The Last. That was what they called one of four beings who would be responsible for the annihilation of their civilization. Only four. Where they had come from, what they wanted, what they called themselves, whether they even had any concept of such things was completely unknown. They didn’t communicate, they didn’t make demands. They simply… destroyed.

Four of them. The Suelesk called them The First, The Next, The Other, and The Last, in order of when they had appeared over the past thirty years. Each was different from the other three in every way save for their destructive capability and the total lack of any response to every attempt to communicate with them. No weapons could kill the entities, or even do enough damage to be noticed. They seemed to only grow stronger when magic was used against them. Nothing had worked. Nothing ever worked.

This one, The Last, was the largest of the quartet. At most estimates, the creature’s main body was almost nine hundred feet in length, and six hundred feet wide. It was nearly impossible to get a decent measurement, however, because the monster spent most of its time with three-quarters of its main body buried underground. Dozens of tentacles that ranged in length from only a couple hundred feet all the way up to twenty miles emerged from both ends of the creature’s roughly pear-shaped body.

Those dozens of tentacles constantly produced a steady cloud of dark red gas. It was contact with that gas which turned every living thing into the hardened shell that now covered so much of this once lush planet (and the entirety of so many planets before this one). The Last was always engulfed in that gas, a fog of total destruction that filled the air for several miles around the creature. Wherever it went, living things were turned to that hardened, obsidian-like state. None survived even the briefest contact with the deadly fog.

“Will they be done before it gets here?” the second of the two Suelesk asked, turning away from the sight of the steadily approaching dark crimson cloud to look toward the figures below. The last of their species, desperately rushing to finish their final attempt at survival.

“They have to be,” the first replied in a quiet, subdued voice. There was no other choice. If the ones below didn’t finish their work, then their civilization, their species, would cease to exist.

A couple of minutes later, The Last had crossed almost half of the remaining distance. Its furthest tentacles were almost close enough to begin affecting the outer edges of their manufactured valley.

“They are ready,” a third Suelesk announced, stepping out onto the top of the ship with the first two. “It is time to begin the departure.”

The first turned to look toward the newcomer, giving a slight nod. “Begin,” he ordered simply. There was nothing else left to say. Nothing to debate. This was their last chance to save their species.

Speaking the same word into his communicator, the third Suelesk stepped over to join the other two. Together, the trio looked down to the group far below. The last of their species, aside from the few hundred on the ship they were standing atop, all devoting everything they had to this final effort.

As the command to begin was sent down, all ten thousand figures on the ground linked their arms, and their voices, in calling upon the single spell that they had been working on for so long. Ten thousand Suelesk, each of them having poured hundreds of hours into this single bit of magic.

And with a rush of power that all could feel as wind upon their faces, an enormous portal opened up ahead of the ship. Extending from the ground itself all the way to the clouds, and thousands of feet wide, the portal seemed to explode into existence.

“They did it,” the first Suelesk murmured, awed by the sight. Not just by the size of the portal, impressive as it was, but by the knowledge of where it led. Because this was no ordinary portal. There were no remaining planets in the known universe to flee to. The four entities had overrun everything.

So, the Suelesk would not flee to a known planet. They would leave the universe entirely. They would step beyond where any being had ever gone, leaving this universe behind. They would abandon everything they had ever known, and move through this portal toward an uncertain universe, an unknown reality. Because an unknown reality was far better than a certain extinction.

Standing there, atop the ship, the trio watched as the last of their species were transported onto the remaining four ships, the last of what had been a great, universe-spanning fleet. Once the passengers were aboard, those ships began to pass through the giant portal. Each carried supplies, weapons, everything that they would need on the other side. Where they would come out was unknown, save for the fact that it was a world vaguely similar to the one they were leaving. Beyond that… well, there was a reason that this was a last ditch effort.

“They’re going to make it,” the second Suelesk announced, watching for another moment before turning back to her companions. “We need to go, before it gets here.”

She was right. Now that the other ships were almost through the portal and on to whatever awaited the rest of their species on the other side, they needed to do their part. Because in the hold of this ship waited the other half of their two-pronged plan to both survive and defeat these monsters. In the hold were fifteen of what would appear to be enormous boulders, forty feet high by thirty feet in width. But they weren’t boulders at all. Instead, each was an egg. Created by a mixture of science and magic, the eggs held potential. Potential which wouldn’t be realized for a very long time.

During their increasingly desperate attempts to find a way of combating the four entities, the Suelesk had experimented upon broken off pieces of the entities themselves. Through those efforts, they had discovered that they could use those pieces as genetic building blocks in order to create an entirely new species. A species which could, theoretically, serve as guardians against what had been their original bodies. Essentially, they were taking what amounted to broken fingernails and discarded hairs and creating whole new lifeforms.

Those new lifeforms would have similar resistance to magic and other damage as the entities had. Yet they would also be given intelligence, compassion, and loyalty to their makers. They would be similar to the creatures they were born from, but far different. They would be guardians, protectors, and warriors. As individuals, they wouldn’t be as strong as that which they had sprung from. But together, and with the aid of the Suelesk themselves, they would defeat their progenitors.

Or they would have. Unfortunately, after the initial exciting news and plans of what could be done with those discarded pieces of the entities, the reality had set in. It would take over one million years of constant energy being pumped into each egg before they would even be close to hatching. The side effect of a being having so much power was that it took a lot of power before it could actually be born.

So, that thought had been cast aside, and other efforts had been pursued. Until now. Until all other efforts had utterly failed. Now, these eggs and the potential they held within was all that remained of any chance there was of actually defeating The First, Next, Other, and Last.

What they needed was time. And so, time was what this was all about. This ship would transport the eggs to the only places within the universe where they could both continually absorb enough energy to eventually hatch and remain safe from the entities who would destroy them: within the hearts of fifteen different stars. In those stars, the eggs would rest for a million years, taking on the power that they needed.

Meanwhile, the Suelesk aboard would take the ship to the deepest recesses of the universe, where they would set their systems to broadcast educational communications that only the eggs, and eventually the guardians themselves, would be able to pick up. The broadcast would teach the guardians of their purpose in the universe, their creators, and the threats which faced them. Then the Suelesk would seal themselves in cryogenic chambers, and sleep away the millennia.

In time, once all fifteen guardians had hatched and gained all the power they needed, the ship would communicate exactly how they could find it, and awaken the crew within. Once they were awakened, the Suelesk crew would work with their empowered guardians to create the same portal that existed here now. At that point, when the new portal was created, the rest of the Suelesk would return. Or rather, their descendants would, having had a million years to replenish themselves and to prepare for that moment.

They would return, and alongside their guardians, the Suelesk would destroy the entities who had so devastated their civilization. With one million years to prepare, and fifteen creatures who, while weaker than the entities themselves, were at least similar in capability, they would have their revenge, their justice.

******

Hundreds of years ago

“Well? What happened next? Did all of their flying ships make it through the portal? What of the one that was supposed to transport the eggs and then wait? Is it still waiting?”

Arthur Pendragon smiled slightly at the woman beside him as she pressed him for answers. Holding up a hand to forestall more questions, the tall, bearded man winked. “A true bard would make you wait until tomorrow evening to hear how the story ends, Guinevere.”

The blonde woman gave him a long, disgusted scowl. “You are no bard, Arthur. You are my husband, and a terrible tease. You promised to tell me what Nimue explained about the origin of these dragons.”

Nimue, the woman from the stars who had come in her own sky-boat and taught Arthur and the rest of them so much. It was her stories, her instructions, which had led to the formation of Arthur’s knights, his most loyal and steadfast friends.

Now, the king rested a hand on her shoulder, squeezing slightly as his smile broadened. “I did promise, didn’t I?” Taking a moment to tug his wife up against him fondly, he continued. “As I understand it, these are stories that were passed down for many generations before reaching Nimue herself. But according to those tales, the sky-boat managed to deposit each egg before being damaged by something. The specifics are… unclear. What matters is that the ship never ended up broadcasting its instructions. The guardians, what we call dragons, spent a million years as eggs before hatching within the heat of their individual stars… with no idea what their purpose was. They wandered like that. Spread out as they were, it was thousands of years before any even ran into another of their kind. Some fought, some procreated and deposited their own eggs within other stars. But mostly, they kept to themselves, on their own journeys through the universe to seek their purpose, their reason for existing.”

“If the dragons have been searching for their purpose for so long,” Guinevere started, “then how does Nimue know it?”

“As I understand it,” Arthur replied, “her people discovered the remains of the sky-boat crashed on their own world. It was from those remains that they were able to create their own sky-boats, like the one that brought her here to our world. They were able to search its records, and discovered as much as I’ve just told you.”

“But what of these entities?” the woman pushed, looking to her beloved urgently. “If they are still out there–”

“There has been no sign of them since the time of those Suelesk,” Arthur assured her. “Whether they too moved on to another universe, died off when there was nothing more to kill, or were killed by some other force, we don’t know. No one does. But they aren’t here.”

Guinevere’s eyes lowered to look at the blade on her husband’s hip. Excalibur, created from the tooth of the same dragon whose blood had empowered him into the man he had become. “Not now,” she murmured softly.

“But I know a few bard tricks as well. And if I were the one telling this story, it wouldn’t be a matter of if they returned.

“It would be a matter of when.”

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