Cypher Nullity hadn’t changed at all since their last visit. Ryan and Anansi were the last to arrive, it seemed. Crystal and Athena were sitting at a table flanked by a pair of gods that Ryan didn’t recognize.
The meeting place was in the Reliquary of Squandered Dreams. During their last visit, Ryan hadn’t gone inside the building, but from the outside it had put him in mind of a cathedral designed by a madman – a massive structure that looked almost organic, with spine-like structures placed at the regular intervals and the worn stone of the walls giving the appearance of flesh stretched between them. It was spotted with stained glass windows that allowed light to filter into the room where they now gathered.
The building’s interior was less menacing than its exterior had suggested. The fleshy theme did carry over, with the columns looking like stacked femurs and the ceiling covered in a webbed pattern that put Ryan in mind of veins. But millions of years of dust covered the whole thing, and the softening effect of that dust made it more sad that creepy. It was a haunted house that had fallen into depression with no one to torment, and had been lonely and forlorn so long it couldn’t bother to try to frighten those who were now inside.
The god sitting near Athena was in tactical gear that looked so much like one of the soldiers Ryan and Anansi had fought that, if it hadn’t been for his friends sitting calmly near him, Ryan might have attacked out of sheer panic. He was talking to Crystal, gesturing firmly as he did. “I know Moloch is a threat, Ishtar. But we need to find Bast. There must be a good reason for her to be working with him,” he said, although Ryan almost missed the words just from seeing the man’s appearance.
Before Crystal could respond, Athena turned to him, her eyes narrow and harsh. “Bast murdered Tyr in front of us, knowing Enki was going to destroy his nanoverse, Horus. You’re in denial.”
“Also, it’s Crystal now,” Crystal said absentmindedly.
“You can’t know that for certain!” Horus said, his voice matching the anger in Athena’s eyes. He was turned to face the Greek goddess, but Crystal spoke up to respond.
“Sure I can. It’s my name, I change it every couple millennia. Hey Ryan, hey Anansi.” She didn’t look away from Horus, although the goddess near Crystal did turn to face Ryan with an enigmatic smile.
“That’s not what I meant.” Horus snapped.
“Oh, I know that.” Ryan walked over to the table, motioning for Anansi to take a seat, but didn’t say anything as Crystal continued, “And sure, we can’t read her mind, but she buggered us. Hard, and not in the fun way. Which means Enki had her trust, so we have to assume she was complicit in the whole thing, yeah?”
Horus scowled. “I know her. She wouldn’t-”
“Incorrect.” Athena interrupted, “You knew her, but by your own admission you haven’t seen her in three hundred years. People change, Horus. Surely you aren’t the same man you were in the 1700’s?”
Ryan leaned over to the goddess he didn’t know, offering a hand. “Ryan Smith. I’m the eschaton, apparently,” he said in a low voice as Horus began to rebut Athena.
The goddess took the hand and shook it, that enigmatic smile losing some of the mystery to become friendlier. “Dianmu.”
“Good to meet you. How long have they been at it?” Ryan asked. Crystal had picked dup the thread of the argument again, once again pointing out it was safer to assume Bast had gone bad.
“Only about fifteen minutes,” Dianmu responded, glancing over at Athena, “Although I get the feeling that it was a longer discussion before Crystal and I joined in.”
“Gotcha.” Ryan wasn’t sure what to say next, so was glad when Anansi decided to jump in.
“Anansi. I don’t think we’ve had the pleasure.” He offered Dianmu a hand, and she shook it with a bit more caution than she’d used with Ryan.
“No, we have not. But I still know you by reputation, trickster.” Her tone was still friendly, almost teasing. “My ex-husband and I were still married when he had his run in with you.”
Anansi considered for a moment. “Leigong? You were married to him?” Dianmu nodded, and Anansi chuckled. “Back then I was more prankster than trickster, I’ll admit. How long did it take him to find all the feathers?”
“Five decades.” She did chuckle at this, although the argument between Crystal, Athena, and Horus somewhat swallowed the sound. “And another two to be certain he had found them all. He wasn’t amused.”
“And that’s why I avoided China for the next three thousand years,” Anansi said.
“A wise choice. I don’t think he has forgiven you yet.” Dianmu turned towards the argument now, which had circled back to the same points Ryan had heard when he walked in. “Perhaps we can set this argument aside?” Dianmu said. Her tone was level, but firm enough to cut through the argument. They all looked at her. “It’s becoming obvious that neither side will convince the other, so allow me ask an overlooked point – do any of you know where to find Bast?”
Reluctantly, both Athena and Horus shook their heads.
“Then perhaps we can wait till we have some idea where to find her to argue about what should be done with her, yes?”
“Especially since we have bigger problems,” Ryan chimed in. All looks shifted from Dianmu to him. “Like the fact that an army is being made that poses a serious threat to us?”
Crystal and Dianmu looked worried, but Athena looked shocked. “You encountered them too?”
The question made Ryan sag. “I was really hoping they only had the few Anansi and I fought. If they were in South America, then we’ve got a bigger problem than we realized.” Anansi nodded in agreement.
“Well, it’s hardly surprising they were in South America,” Horus said, seemingly willing to put aside his argument with Athena for the moment. “Moloch is behind them.”
“Oh c’mon!” Ryan nearly shouted – not at Horus, but at the universe. “Moloch is working with the United States?”
That took Athena and Horus back, and they glanced at Anansi as if seeking confirmation. “The United States is involved?” Athena asked, the ghost of a frown crossing her lips.
“Well, yeah. I mean, they had US flags on their uniforms.”
“Uniforms?” Athena’s forehead wrinkled. “When I saw them, they were naked or just wearing plain robes”
“Except for the harness, I assume?” Anansi asked.
“Harness? No, just the tattoos.”
“What tattoos?” It was Ryan’s turn to furrow his brow. “None of the ones we fought had them, at least not that we could see.”
“Oh bloody hell in a handbasket!” Crystal snapped, getting everyone’s attention. “Athena, tell us what you saw. Then Ryan, you tell us what you saw. Because I’m pretty sure you’re talking about two different sodding things!”
Dianmu reached out and put a gentle touch on Crystal’s arm. Crystal pursed her lips as she took a deep breath in the silence. “Please.” She added, and Dianmu smiled.
Wonder what that’s all about? Ryan thought, but at least it had helped Crystal calm down.
“Very well.” Athena told her tale – the cockatrice, the cultists, the implied feast. She turned towards Ryan at the end, probably because he looked confused while everyone else had various stages of concern on their face. “By letting his followers feast on such beasts, Moloch’s giving them resistance to divine powers. We won’t be able to directly alter their biology, same as another god, and their weapons will be harder to defend against. They may even gain some powers from the creatures they feed on.”
“In time, they’ll become monsters themselves, and only divine flesh will satisfy their hunger,” Horus added, having calmed down fully during Athena’s story.
Anansi sighed deeply, looking at Ryan. “No harness needed. What they do, it’s an old practice, one most gods banned long ago – and why we allowed the creatures of legend to be locked away.”
“Until Arthur set them free,” Ryan muttered, making a note to have words with the King of Hell if he ever got a chance to do so. He addressed the larger group. “Anansi and I didn’t face that – we were up against something different, something new. The United States government has found a way to make gods out of technology, and sent a squad of them against us.”
Athena put a hand to her mouth, and Dianmu leaned forward. “Elaborate, if you will?”
So Ryan told his story, with Anansi adding details Ryan had overlooked. He started with the tear-gas grenade going through the window, and ended with the explosion burning them. “The good news is,” he added, “if you can get the harness off them, it’s pretty much instant power down. Also, they have to have a power source, which means it’s finite. If you know what you’re dealing with, you can probably outlast them.”
Crystal snorted. “Well, that’s brilliant. So we’ve got theovores and super soldiers. Sounds like a lovely time.”
“And there’s still the end of the world, let us not forget,” Dianmu said mildly. “Although if push comes to shove, that problem could solve the other two.” They all looked at her, and she shrugged softly. “I’m not advocating it, but it sounds like the world must end. If these factions cannot be faced, then perhaps they can be erased during the End Times.”
“I don’t think so,” Ryan said, surprising even himself. He thought about why he said that, then caught the thread of logic his subconscious was working on. “If we’re going to end the world peacefully, which is still the plan, it’s going to be delicate work. I’m sure of that. We can’t risk doing it when either of those groups could beat down the door and interrupt us.”
The other gods looked doubtful until Crystal spoke up. “If he’s saying that, then he’s right. I didn’t have anyone to explain the eschaton stuff to me when it was my go-around, loves. But I do remember some things just making sense like that, yeah?”
Athena nodded in agreement. “Then it seems obvious Moloch should be our first focus. The entire United States is a large area to search, and I at least have some idea where Moloch’s base may be.”
“What about Tartarus?” Ryan asked, doing his best to give her a sympathetic look.
“My kin will have to wait. Moloch is the greater threat.” Her voice was neutral, but Ryan was getting better at reading the various shades of neutral in her voice. It was tearing her apart, not knowing what happened to the Olympians.
“Agreed,” Horus said, gruffly. “Your kin – and mine – can wait till these abominations Moloch is creating are dealt with.”
Athena stiffened at the god’s tone, but let it slide.
“Alright!” Crystal said, clapping her hands. “So we have a plan? Well, not a plan, but at least a vague idea what we’re doing next.” Everyone nodded. “Great. Can I borrow Athena and Ryan then? Got a bit of private business to discuss.” The last few words came out in a rush, and Dianmu smiled at her encouragingly as they did.
The other three deities shared a look. Dianmu was the first to her feet, and half herded the two men out of the Reliquary of Squandered Dreams.
Athena and Ryan settled in, looking at Crystal. She took a few more deep breaths, almost like she was getting ready to start a workout. “I think breaking Enki’s dual nanoverse did something to me. I think I might be dying, or going crazy.” The words came out in a giant spurt. Ryan got the feeling that she was afraid if she paused, she’d loose her courage.
Ryan moved to sit next to her, and put a hand on her shoulder. On her other side, Athena moved to do the same. “Tell us everything,” Athena said, softly.
So, speaking in fits and spurts, Crystal did.