“This is it men! Keep him down. You only need to hold out a little longer! For humanity. For the future!”
Xerthus gripped the reins of his wyvern as the enchantment on his voice fell away, angling it to the side to avoid a pike of lightning that flew through the air.
Clenching his fist, Xerthus formed a lightning pike of his own. As tall as a grown man and as wide as a warrior’s arm, he threw it down at the god below.
Ddraicoatl caught it with his bare chest. He could do nothing else.
The sealers were performing their task well. The entire raised dais that held the bulk of the god was clear of demi-fiends. Ddraicoatl’s legs and arms were bound. He could move no farther than an everwood tree stuck in a forest.
The lightning pierced through his hide, peeling away the armored scales as it momentarily pinned him to the ground. The lightning dissipated soon enough, yellow crackles disappearing into the aether.
Xerthus could see straight through Ddraicoatl’s chest. The hole in his scales dripped with viscera.
For a moment.
Even as Xerthus watched, the hole sealed itself. Scales grew, sinew stretched, and bone mended. Within seconds, the god’s chest was back to normal.
So long as he was distracted for a few seconds, Xerthus was willing to count that minor injury as a victory.
Ddraicoatl’s great fanged maw opened, bellowing out a cry of rage.
It sounded crisp and clear even over the massive battle raging around. The army—men and women fought against the god’s demi-fiends. Spears and pikes clattered against scales and claws, often failing to pierce. Humans died in droves. Other wyvern riders sailed through the skies. Sailed and fell. The god’s dragons cut them down without remorse.
One wyvern rider, a young boy whose name escaped Xerthus, sent his wyvern into a nosedive. Straight into the path of a dragon.
Lightning from the dragon’s maw hit him, turning the boy and his wyvern to dust.
But he stopped the lightning.
Through the wall of bodies, both in the sky and on the ground, the sealers were protected.
They only needed to last another few moments.
Soon enough, no dragons, no demi-fiends, no gods would matter.
At the sound of his name, Xerthus turned his head.
Ddraicoatl had ceased struggling. His reptilian eyes glared upwards, burning with anguish, hate, and confusion.
“I gave you everything,” Ddraicoatl said, voice loud enough to shake the very skies he shouted towards. “Everything you asked for. This is my reward? Betrayal!”
Releasing the reins of his wyvern, Xerthus answered his god with two pikes of lightning.
“This isn’t about me,” he said, voice too low to be heard by any but his wyvern.
Lightning pikes plunged into his shoulders, pinning the god to the ground once again.
Again, Ddraicoatl cried out to the heavens.
But there were far more important words beneath the volume of his shout.
Human words, carried over the winds for him to hear.
“We are ready.”
One of the sealers, Xerthus thought as he pulled his wyvern around. He didn’t bother looking back to the sealers for confirmation.
They wouldn’t be able to hold for long.
He had to act.
Xerthus angled his wyvern towards Ddraicoatl and entered a dive.
From behind his back, Xerthus withdrew a set of manacles. Heavy, huge manacles. Each side could fit both of his legs with ease. But they were a special set, emitting a faint light of unnatural power. A set made by Ddraicoatl for the express purpose of capturing other gods.
It was time to return the manacles.
Thirty feet from the ground, Xerthus jumped from his wyvern. He gripped hold of the god’s arm, slowing his descent and wrapping one side of the manacles around Ddraicoatl’s wrist. A herculean feat. The god’s wrists were the size of Xerthus’s body.
With the mages’ seal in place, he couldn’t even fight back.
Jumping to the god’s other scaly wrist, Xerthus repeated his task, affixing the manacle to his wrist.
The moment he clamped the bolts into place, he could feel it.
Or rather, he couldn’t feel it.
Ddraicoatl stood at his side and yet he couldn’t feel the slightest hint of power from the being.
A tremor ripped through the armies, both human and inhuman. Everyone felt their god’s power vanish from existence.
With his power gone, so too went the magic. The seals binding the god in place vanished. Shields provided by the mages across the battlefield collapsed. Trying to call up a pike of lightning, Xerthus found himself unable to reach for that extra mana that permeated existence like air.
“You cannot kill me,” Ddraicoatl said, voice sounding far less intense than his earlier shouts. “Even with these manacles.”
“No.” Xerthus shook his head. “No. But I can ensure that you are buried so deep that you will never see the light of day again.”
There was a low rumble from the being beside Xerthus. A low growl.
It lacked all the intimidation that it might have once delivered.
“Tell me. Who was it that faked their imprisonment? Which of my brethren betrayed me?”
Xerthus took a deep breath as the sounds of battle slowly started to pick back up. Just because their god was captured didn’t mean that his army would drop their weapons and surrender. Extermination was the only path forward for either side at this point.
Still, there was no harm in answering his question. Perhaps Ddraicoatl might find some amusement in knowing. Something to keep his mind company during his eternal incarceration.
“Gwiddonoctal. She walked into her prison of her own accord, leaving us with the extra set of manacles. ‘The Age of Gods is at an end. It is time for humanity to continue without our meddling,’ she said.”
Another low growl emanated from the being.
Without warning, the god leaned back and spat.
A thick glob of slime hit Xerthus just below the eye.
With the back of his thumb, Xerthus started at his nose and scraped off the slime. He flicked the gunk to the ground in disgust.
“Spitting, Ddraicoatl? How the mighty have fallen.”
“Your descendants will curse your name.”
Xerthus shook his head again. “They will never know what I have done. It is best if you and your fellow gods are forgotten to the annals of history. None will speak your name beyond today. All gods will be purged from written records.”
Stepping away from his former god, Xerthus drew in a deep breath. Without his vocal enchantment, his words would fail to carry across the battlefield. Still, if what men his words did reach found themselves renewed in vigor, perhaps those who saw them would find hope to fight harder, better, and stronger.
“The final, greatest and most terrible of the gods has been bound! Fight on my brothers! Slaughter the monsters until none remain. It is time for humanity to find its own path, to grow on its own merits, and to find its own future away from the meddling and politics of the gods!”
The dais rumbled as one of the great dragons landed. A vast dragon covered in emerald-green scales, each stronger than every breastplate in the army placed in a line. Smoke and steam erupted from its nostrils as it stared straight at Xerthus with deep blue eyes. The irises had faint glowing lines around the edges.
Xerthus drew his sword with a grin of grit teeth. With the final god sealed in the manacles, there was no magic in the air. He would have to do this the hard way.
He could not allow Ddraicoatl to be freed.
— — —
Victoria jolted awake. Beads of sweat dripped from the tip of her nose. Her breathing came quick and labored. Placing a hand to her chest, she actively focused on calming down.
Looking around with half-lidded eyes, Victoria found herself safe and sound within her workshop. She could see her breath, which meant something was wrong. Papers covered in plans and diagrams were scattered everywhere, brass and copper pipes ran overhead, and her steam boiler sat silent in the corner of the room.
Scratching at an itch at the base of her neck, let out a long yawn. Just a dream?
Of course it was. What else could it have been?
There was nothing scary save for the amount of cleaning she had to do. No giant battles or flying lizards. There was nothing frightening around.
Her itching came to a halt as her eyes widened.
Nothing except for the lack of flames under the boiler.
No steam meant no heat to the rooms.
Jumping out of her chair, Victoria ran across the room.
It took but a moment to diagnose the problem.
The flames were out.
Checking the gauges, Victoria found the gas tanks to be full. As they should be. She had just accepted a delivery of fresh tanks a few mornings ago. They had enough to last them the remainder of the month. Another three weeks at least.
Following the pipes towards the boiler, Victoria checked every inch for any sign of a leak. Given that she hadn’t exploded from the gaslights in the room, she was confident that there weren’t any leaks.
Never hurts to check.
By the time she reached the burners, Victoria had found nothing.
Except for the valve being closed.
She struck a match with one hand, the other spun the bright red valve. A hiss of gas came from the pipes beneath the boiler. Victoria waited just a moment before tossing in the match.
Flames came to life.
Victoria slammed the furnace doors shut, keeping most of the heat inside the boiler and out of the rest of the workshop.
But it was too late.
The Emerald Inn had many rooms that needed heating. As such, they had a rather large boiler. It would be at least an hour before the steam really got flowing through the pipes.
And Victoria could already hear the crunching of snow outside of the building.
The door opened, slamming into the wall and sending a small cloud of dust scattering through the stagnant air.
Not enough to be a hazard, but enough to remind Victoria that she really needed to clean.
“Victoria Jamie Watt, I just had a guest come to me with a complaint. Do you have any guesses as to what the complaint might have been?”
“Mama, the gas valve was closed. Someone must have sneaked in and shut it off.”
Hands on her hips, Mama tilted her head just enough to look over the rims of her glasses. “And just who could have come in here under your watchful eye.” She tapped her chin with one finger.
Victoria blinked before raising her own hand to her chin. A slick patch of drool came off on the back of her hand.
“Mind telling me why you’re so sweaty? And drooling. With the lack of heat in here, exercise might be a good way to keep warm. If we didn’t have a boiler that should have been on.”
“I had a dream, Mama. Giant flying lizards that carried men. Men who could grasp lightning and throw it like a spear. An army of people covered in scales. It was a massive battle with hundreds of–”
“If you have time to dream up fantastical nonsense, you have time to keep the boiler lit. I don’t pay you to sleep.”
“You don’t pay me at all!”
“I feed and clothe you, that’s payment enough. If you can’t do your job, I don’t know why I should bother.”
Victoria held in a sigh. Because you’re my mother, she thought. Unfortunately, that argument had never worked. Mama believed in everyone carrying their own weight. Victoria’s brother had found out the hard way that Mama wasn’t kidding around.
Francis had been booted out of the house with nothing more than the clothes on his back. He was still around, in fact, he had landed a job at the factory downtown. Nothing fancy. He just worked the textile mills. They provided room and board with a full three meals a day. He got Sundays off and made almost three full dollars a week.
It was a paying job. More than Victoria had.
She was starting to wonder if it wasn’t time to strike out on her own. It would mean giving up on her dreams. Without money, her dreams were stagnating anyway. Getting away from Mama was just an added bonus.
“Well, the heating is on now. It will be a while before the steam makes its way around the building.”
“If I hear another complaint…” Mama trailed off, leaving the threat hanging in the air. She spun around, gripping her apron in her hands to keep it from flying about the place.
Victoria stared after Mama’s retreating back. She turned to look at the boiler again.
There wasn’t much she could do for it. The heat was on full. Short of setting the workshop on fire, nothing would get the steam out faster.
“Mama,” she said, chasing after the old woman. “The question isn’t why I was asleep. It is why someone would shut off the heat. And who.”
Victoria stepped outside the workshop, shivering as the chilly outside air hit her skin. Snow crunched beneath her heels as she moved. Her leather boots didn’t do much in the way of keeping the cold out. They were work boots, not snow boots.
But Mama didn’t slow down. All she had on were slippers, a bodice, shirt, and ankle-length dress. And her apron, though that didn’t do much to protect against the cold.
Adjusting her suspenders to keep the bottoms of her trousers out of the snow, Victoria hurried after her mother. It wasn’t like there was much distance between the workshop and the main building.
One step inside the inn had Victoria rubbing her arms. She could see the condensation in her breath even inside.
“You should have woken me sooner,” she said, wishing she had taken her coat.
“I was happily asleep beneath a pile of blankets.”
“So you get to sleep–”
Mama paused, turning towards Victoria with a finger crossed over her lips. She pushed open the door that led to the lobby with an apologetic half-smile on her face.
“Once again, I am sorry Mr. Mallory. The problem with the boiler has been fixed. Heat will start flowing soon.”
Victoria walked in behind her mother, suppressing a scowl.
James T. Mallory was a regular customer with a hook nose and a pale blue vulture’s eye. He stayed at the inn least once a month. It was always for business, but whatever business he was in certainly involved a lot of female clients. His companion was almost always someone new.
And he always found something to complain about. The food was bland or the pillows weren’t fluffed. Something trivial. Mama only tolerated him because he paid well even despite those complaints. More than well, he was being overcharged and he knew it. Since no one at the inn talked about his guests, he kept coming.
Though, Victoria thought with a slight shiver, he might have a point this time.
“Good help is hard to find these days,” he said with a glare towards Victoria.
Victoria kept her mouth shut. Mama would not like her speaking out against a customer. Even scum like Mallory.
“Indeed. Was there anything else?”
“So long as the heat comes back on soon,” he said slowly, “I’ll be fine for the night.”
“Excellent. I’ll take you back to your room.” Mama took one step, making a slopping sound against the wood floor with her slipper. She turned on Victoria with a flash of annoyance. “Get this water mopped up and shovel the walkway.”
“Yes Mama,” Victoria said as her mother took Mallory up the stairs without her slippers.
From the broom cupboard, Victoria threw on a jacket, pulled out a shovel, and got straight to work. Starting with the snow to keep more water from getting tracked into the inn, she hopped back into the cold and shoveled away. The cold didn’t last long. Despite her lack of heavy clothing, shoveling a foot of snow along the walkway wasn’t easy work.
Victoria didn’t have to be too careful. The ground was frozen solid, so there wasn’t much chance of digging up the ground. That made the tedious task go by much quicker as she didn’t have to waste time putting the ground back together.
Once she reached the workshop, Victoria headed inside. Her knuckles were bright red along with her nose. Sniffing to clear her nose, she ran up to the boiler and sat nearby, warming up her frozen limbs. She didn’t spend too much time—Mama would be upset if there was still water all over the floors.
In a quick dash, Victoria made it back to the inn. She pulled a few rags out from the broom cupboard. Though it was uncomfortable work, she retraced her steps on her hands and knees. There was enough melted snow to need a trip to a bucket. Some of the melted water had actually started to freeze over into ice, especially around the door.
By the time she had finished sopping up the unfrozen water, she was ready for another nap.
The late night working certainly took its toll. Days when Mama needed her away early in the morning—most days—were the worst. Since Francis had run off, it became Victoria’s task to shop for anything they needed. Food, cleaning supplies, fresh linens, everything.
At least Mama handled the actual cleaning.
Before Victoria could head back over to the workshop and sneak in another nap, Mama came back down the stairs. She had a frown on her face as she looked around the floor. She didn’t actually say anything, praise or complaint.
Which was appreciated. Victoria had fully intended to clean up the mud that had gotten tracked in. At least, that was what she would claim if asked.
Mama cleared her throat, bringing Victoria’s attention back up to her eyes. “There’s a clanking in the orange room again.”
“Clanking? The radiator?” There shouldn’t be enough steam flowing through the pipes just yet. Unless… Victoria looked at the half-frozen rag in her hands. How long have I been cleaning? “Well, I can take care of it.”
“Good. No one is staying in the orange room. Just take care of it before someone in the neighboring rooms wakes up and complains.” She started back up the stairs towards her room before pausing. “Mr. Mallory has informed me that there is no need to fix him breakfast at the usual time. The green and red rooms will still need to be fed.”
“Yes Mama,” Victoria said with a mental sigh. “I’ll be up for it.”
With a sharp nod, Mama continued up the stairs. “Goodnight, Victoria.”
Victoria couldn’t head straight up to the orange room. She had to go back out to her workshop and pick up some tools. A wrench, first and foremost. Also a spare air vent. Hopefully it wouldn’t need replacing, but they occasionally got gummed up. If a guest had damaged it again… well, Mama wouldn’t be happy about that.
Tools in hand, Victoria tiptoed upstairs, careful to not wake Mama—or worse, guests. Not the easiest task. Someone had left a bucket out in the hallway. If not for the moonlight, she would have tripped over it and woken up everybody.
Mama would have blown a rivet.
After setting the bucket inside a cupboard, Victoria slipped into the orange room.
Sure enough, there was a banging noise every few seconds. Not too loud, but it was there. Victoria would have been surprised that Mama had even heard it had she not known that the innkeeper had a supernatural sense for that sort of thing. It was almost scary.
Diagnosing the problem didn’t take long at all. Rather, it was obvious even from a quick glance.
The wood had sagged at the end farthest from the valve. Rotted away in part from a slight leak where the radiator met the pipe. With the radiator tilted, the hot steam condensed into cool water that couldn’t flow back into the system. When more hot steam hit it, the water got thrown around the radiator.
Not something she could really fix with a wrench. She could tighten up the leak, that would leave the wood still rotted.
She would need to pick up some lumber and replace part of the flooring. Not a small job.
That would have to wait until morning. For the moment, shutting the valve entirely would stop the noise. As the room was empty, it really shouldn’t be open anyway. It just ate up pressure that could be put to much better use back in her workshop.
Job complete—for the moment—Victoria started back downstairs.
But paused. Paused and listened.
For a moment, she had thought that she heard a tapping noise.
There it is again. Victoria frowned. Another radiator?
She stalked down the hallway as quiet as she could, pausing every few steps to listen again.
It took a few minutes, but she finally found where the noise was loudest.
Just outside the blue room. Mr. Mallory’s room.
Victoria groaned. She had half a mind just to leave it be. It wasn’t that loud and she wouldn’t be able to do anything if the floor were rotted away in there as well. He would complain either way, so she might as well get back to her workshop.
But Mama would never forgive her if she walked away. Customers always came first in her eyes.
“Mr. Mallory,” Victoria whispered right next to the door. She gave two soft knocks against the wood. “Are you still awake?”
Victoria couldn’t hear any response.
She could hear the tapping increase in intensity, growing louder and more frequent than before.
And a short, high-pitched creak.
He had just been complaining about being cold and now he was opening the window?
“H-help,” came a strangled whisper from the other side of the door.
“M-Mr. Mallory?” Victoria said as she pushed open the door. “I’m enter–”
Victoria’s voice caught in her throat.
An oil lamp swung from the rafters, throwing a dim, eerie light around the room.
Mallory’s shadow flailed against the wall.
Mallory was hanging from the rafters in the ceiling by the neck. Both of his hands were clawed at the rope around his neck to no avail. He kicked wildly, thrashing this way and that. Yet he was far enough from the wall that his feet only tapped against it every couple of swings.
A flash of movement pulled Victoria’s eyes towards the windows.
Blue eyes stared back at her from beneath a heavy cloak. They had strange glowing rings around the outer edge of the iris. Perhaps more strange than that, Victoria could see dark scales around the eyes in the dim light.
The creature before her felt so familiar. Straight out of her dreams. For a moment, it was all Victoria could do to stare.
Another tap in the wall broke whatever spell had held them in place.
The cloaked figure vanished out the window as Victoria turned to Mallory.
“Mama!” she shouted.
Mallory was turning all kinds of colors. Purple, mostly. His eyes were bulging out of his face as he tried to gasp in fresh air.
“J-just hold on… I’ll…”
The tips of his feet were barely scraping against the floor. He only needed a few inches. She could rush forward and try to lift him up, but that was a temporary measure.
She needed something to drag in the way.
Victoria ran towards the bed only to recoil back.
A woman was lying in the bed, covered in red. Blood dribbled from her neck. She stared at the ceiling with glassed over eyes.
Stumbling backwards, a churning in Victoria’s stomach rapidly made itself known. On her hands and knees, Victoria clamped down on her nausea.
“I’ll be right back,” she squeaked out as she charged from the room. She didn’t look back. She didn’t want to look back.
But she had to try to save him.
“Mama!” she shouted again as she skidded to a stop in front of the cupboard. Other tenants were poking their heads out of their rooms.
Victoria paid them no mind. She grabbed the bucket from the cupboard and dashed past the confused customers back to the blue room.
Almost tripping as she entered the room, Victoria slammed the bucket upside down on the ground. She gripped a wet spot on his ankle and tried to lift up Mallory’s feet; show him where the support was.
His legs had no tension. His feet were flat against the bottom of the bucket but his knees were bent. They wobbled side to side.
With a shudder, Victoria looked up.
One of Mallory’s hands dangled limp at his side. A finger on the other hand was caught between the rope and his neck. His mouth hung open.
His eyes, one milky blue and the other bloodshot, stared out at nothing, unfocused and dead.