Athena was mostly glad she’d brought the other three with her back to Venezuela. Since they knew where they were going, they had just opened their doorways directly into El Ávila National Park and skipped the hassle of walking there. Horus and Dianmu had ridden with Athena and Anansi respectively so they could use their passenger’s doorways if a quick escape was needed. With the National Park becoming increasingly infested with formerly mythic beasts, having four gods there to handle any threats as they emerged was an absolute…well, an absolute godsend, Athena thought with wry amusement.
“Are we making any progress, or have we been walking in circles for the last hour?” Horus asked, and Athena took a deep breath.
He was the reason she was only mostly glad for the company.
Dianmu rolled her eyes and Anansi chuckled under his breath as Athena responded, doing her best not to grind her teeth. “Well, Horus, we have been travelling in a straight line. We are following the trail you discovered. These are both unchanged from your last inquiry.”
Horus growled at her, “If you would let me have the lead, I would not need to ask, Athena.”
“When she let you have the lead, my friend, you set a pace none of us could match by turning into a bird,” Anansi chided.
“It’s faster,” Horus snapped, before sinking into sullen silence.
Athena took another deep breath. She reminded herself that Horus had other concerns. That he was worried about that murdering bitch Bast. That he was only here because he thought they would be the quickest way to get him to his goal. And Horus had never been patient to begin with.
“Might I suggest a compromise?” Dianmu asked. Athena and Horus both looked at her. “Horus, why not scout ahead to make sure we are on the right path, while Athena still leads our group on the ground? Then both goals are met.”
“I will,” Horus said, and without waiting for Athena’s response turned into a hawk and began to flap away.
Athena let out a sigh. “Thank you, Dianmu. I was…struggling to contain my frustration.”
“I know, dear. It’s why you both missed the obvious option. You two have history, I take it?”
Athena nodded. “When Alexander seized Egypt, we went to war against their deities to ensure he could control the region. I personally clashed with Horus multiple times, and cut off his hands in one fight. He never quite forgave me for the injury.”
“I can’t imagine why,” Anansi muttered in a stage whisper, then gave Athena a wide grin.
She felt her cheeks redden. “They grew back,” she muttered defensively before turning her eyes forward.
The path ahead had started from where she had seen Moloch’s cultists take down the cockatrice. Dragging its body through the forest had left quite the trail, and although at times it had gone cold and they had needed Horus to find it again, right now Athena could have followed it with her eyes closed.
She wished it had been a bit harder to follow. Focusing on trying to keep on the path would have been a welcome diversion from her worries about her friends. If anything happened to Ryan or Crystal…Athena. You’re walking towards Moloch’s front door, and you’re worried about them? Even if Crystal can’t clean her nanoverse, there’s nothing that can threaten her in there, and Ryan’s having a chat with his sister. You’re being absurd.Still-
“I wonder, Athena Pallas, have I done you some wrong?”
Athena hadn’t heard Anansi’s approach, and it nearly caused her to jump. She glanced sideways at the other god, who was giving her his usual friendly grin. Dianmu had moved ahead, talking to the now landed Horus. “Seeing as this is our first time meeting, I can’t imagine how you could have,” she said briskly.
He nodded. “I thought as much as well. Yet you seem to be uncomfortable around me. Surely it is not because of my ethnicity.”
The sentence had been a statement, not a question, but Athena felt the need to respond. “Of course not. We could both change that about ourselves in an instant if we so wished. It’s as relevant as my hair color.” She shifted the hair to red, then to blond, then purple in quick succession before allowing it to revert to its natural dark coloration to prove her point.
Anansi nodded again. “I thought as much. Yet it must be something about me – either a past action or some inherent quality – that is the root of your dislike.”
Athena let out a huff of air. “You’re a Trickster and a Spider. Every dealing I’ve had with either has gone poorly for me.”
“Ahhh,” he said, smiling. “Did you not turn poor Arachne into-”
“It wasn’t about the weaving thing.” Athena snapped with more heat than she intended. She blushed again. “I’m sorry, Anansi. It’s not fair, I know, but…”
“…once bitten, twice shy. The euphemism typically implies dogs, but I think it may be even more relevant with spiders.”
That did get a chuckle out of Athena. “The bite is often worse in that case, yes. But I’ll try to be better about it.”
“Do not worry. I am just glad to understand the concern. So if it wasn’t the weaving, why did you turn her?”
“You enjoy asking uncomfortable questions, don’t you?” Athena said, although there was no heat to it.
“Of course. Trickster, as you pointed out.”
“I was young,” Athena said, knowing how defensive it sounded and not caring. “I was new to my power and in love.”
Anansi’s smile widened. “I do love stories that start this way.”
Another chuckle. “Arachne was a weaver, one of – no, the best in Greece. She did claim to be better than me, which I would have been willing to admit was true. But I did want to prove it one way or another, so the contest was arranged. Everything would have been fine…but I arrived early.”
“Ahhh,” Anansi said again, his eyes twinkling. “And found her sharing a bed with the object of your affection?”
“Yes, although they didn’t know it at the time. When she won the contest on top of that…I reacted poorly.”
It was Anansi’s turn to laugh. “You could say that is quite the understatement. What did your lover think of this?”
“It didn’t come up for a few hundred years, and by that point – wait, I think Horus found something.”
They picked up the pace to catch up with the other two. “Up ahead,” Dianmu whispered. “Horus found them.”
The next kilometer was covered in total silence until they saw what Horus had observed. It was a temple – there was no other word for it. The style blended ancient Canaanite styles that Moloch would be familiar with with a Mesoamerican twist – likely deliberate on his part to fit himself into the local beliefs a bit more. The result was a miniature ziggurat, ‘only’ about four stories tall.
Horus spoke in their minds now, a trick so rarely used that Athena had almost forgotten they could use it. Do we wait for the others or do we go ahead?
I would suggest caution, Dianmu said, her mental voice tinged with worry. We do not know how many of these resistant cultists Moloch has created.
While you have a point,” Horus countered, “we also don’t know how many more he could create if we wait.
I will defer to the war goddess in this, Anansi said, but I would advise caution as well. We do not know what dangers we face.
Athena considered for a moment. We get closer, attempt to look within. Caution is important, but if there are limited foes, striking before reinforcements could arrive may be our best option.
For the first time since they arrived here, all three other gods agreed with her. They crept up to Moloch’s temple and climbed the first tier until they got to an open window on the east side of the building.
It was empty within, at least from what they could see, but lit by a strange glow. Athena nodded towards Anansi. Get a closer look.
The god nodded and turned into a spider. Although huge – nearly half a meter long – it would draw less notice than a man. She waited, heart pounding, until his thought came back. It has been emptied. You may want to see this for yourself, however.
Athena went in, followed by Dianmu and then Horus.
In the center of the temple was a huge pit, full of bones that were covered in soot and char. Athena didn’t need to look closer to be sure that at least some were human. Moloch does love sacrifice, she thought, her stomach turning. Just as underworld gods drew power from human souls, it was possible to draw power from the ending of their lives as well. Possible and horrific – it consumed the soul in the process.
Athena didn’t need to wonder what Moloch wanted the extra power for. Along the back wall of the temple was a portal, more than large enough to accommodate a man. Such things were used to go places nanoverses were barred from, and the list of such places was short. Each place was a place of power that had been locked away so that gods could not easily access it – the potential to upset conflicts from such locations was far too great.
Wherever he had gone, Moloch would be far more dangerous when he returned.