“Your left side is opened,” her mentor said disapprovingly.
Athena scowled. “I don’t even understand this training,” she said, brushing some stray hairs behind her ear. The tight bun she wore these days helped keep it from her face, but it could still be a distraction. “How often am I going to find myself attacked by a dozen whips at once?”
Sometimes, Hera reacted to her complaints with amusement. Today was not that day. In the month and a half since she’d become a goddess, Hera had been like a mother to her – and had a mother’s patience for a petulant child. “If you find yourself beset by a hydra,” Hera snapped, her eyes hard and unyielding, “Or a gorgon. This technique will even protect you against the jaws of Cerberus, should you ever find yourself earning Hades’ displeasure. Which, with your attitude, is likely.”
Athena held up a hand in surrender. “Sorry, I’m…” she sighed. “I didn’t realize those monsters were real.”
Hera’s eyes did soften at that, although only slightly. “I know, child. And I know I am pushing you hard. But war is brewing, and you must be ready.”
“I know, Hera. I’m sorry. Can we go again?”
Hera nodded and stepped back. Again she reached into her minikosmos and pulled out the weapon that was being used to train her. A series of whips around a central lever. When pulled, the lashes would come down on whatever was in the center.
Athena had to dodge them all at once. She took a deep breath and prepared to signal her readiness – but perhaps because of her complaint, Hera didn’t wait for the signal.
The whips closed in, and Athena moved as quickly as she could. She leapt up, pulling pure Air into a shield around herself – and again left the left side open, earning herself a sharp sting along her arm.
“Wow, Hera. You’re not taking it easy on the new girl, are you?”
The voice was unfamiliar to Athena, and she felt herself flush with the shame of someone seeing her failure. Hera’s eyes hardened even past where they had been before. “Ishtar,” the older goddess said, her voice full of venom.
“I see your eyes still work,” Ishtar said as she bent in a bow that lacked even a trace of respect. Athena’s eyes widened at seeing someone talk so flippantly toward Hera, and readied herself for this interloper to be laid low for the insult.
Instead, Hera, the most powerful woman Athena had ever met, wife to Zeus…ground her teeth. “I didn’t realize you were in the area. If I had, I would have prepared appropriately. A feast of rotten horse meat would be appropriate, I think.”
Ishtar rolled her eyes. “I think it would be better served to your pig of a husband, you…” Ishtar took a deep breath, and reached up to pinch her nose. “Damnit, Hera. I’m sorry. I didn’t come here to start a fight with you.”
“I never thought I’d hear those two words from you, Ishtar.” Hera’s eyes narrowed. “What do you want?”
“Enki’s gone mad and gone to ground. I came here to patch things up with you all. I…don’t really have anywhere to go, yeah?”
Athena couldn’t help herself as she blurted out, “So you immediately disrespect her?” The two other goddesses – for that’s what this Ishtar must be if she could speak to Hera so rudely – turned to her.
“She has a point,” Hera said, and here Ishtar had the decency to look abashed.
“She does, doesn’t she. What’s your name?”
“Athena,” she said, glad it didn’t look like the other two were going to start a miniature war.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Ishtar flashed her a grin, then turned again towards Hera. “Teaching her to defend against nasty grabber things, yeah?” Hera nodded. “How about I help out for a bit as penance for my earlier rudeness?”
After a moment’s consideration, Hera nodded. “Under my supervision, of course.”
“Of course,” Ishtar said, without a trace of her earlier sarcasm. She stepped over towards Athena. “So you’re doing the leap and shield method from what I saw?”
Athena nodded, eying this strange woman again. She’s beautiful…but who is she, to speak to Hera so? And how have I not heard of her?
“It’s a good one. The air shield is too slick for them to get a grip on. But you keep using one hand, that’s why your left side’s open. Try twisting with both hands – remember, the air bubble should keep your sword in place.” Ishtar took herself over to Hera’s device. “Are you ready?”
“Just a-” but Ishtar seemed to at least agree with Hera that she should be caught off guard, and was already pulling the lever.
In the present, Athena leapt into the air and let go of her sword, closing herself in a bubble of air as the penanggalan’s entrail tentacles closed in on her. As she had practiced all those centuries ago, they hit the bubble wetly before sliding off, unable to find purchase.
Others were moving, but so was Athena. She rolled away from her target, scooping back up her sword in the process, and threw it directly at her attacker’s skull. A quick twist as she let go of the sword, and the weapon let out a sonic boom as it found itself moving faster than sound.
That was how Athena learned a pound of metal moving at supersonic speeds had the same effect on a disembodied skull as a shotgun would on a tomato.
Useful knowledge, Athena thought, already rolling. The immense sound, coupled with the rather gory display, gave the other penanggalan pause. Not for long, but enough time for Athena to escape the circle so they were no longer surrounding her. She whirled as she drew another blade from her nanoverse, barely bringing it up to meet the bite of the next attacker. They’re fast, she thought as the two halves of the skulls fell to the ground – revealing three more closing the distance with her.
They were smart, too. They attacked from different directions, keeping their grasping entrails extended so she couldn’t just block them out. Athena felt their slimy lengths brush against her arms and had to strike again, finding herself losing ground with each strike.
And still more came. Like the hydra, for every one she cut down, two or more filled the gaps left behind. Athena felt fangs sink into her arm, another pair into her leg, and a third into the nape of her neck. Already they were drawing from her, feasting on divine Ichor. Too much longer, and she would be too weak to keep the fight up.
Fortunately, the goal had been to draw them close.
Actually twisting equations directly, the way Crystal and Ryan could, did not come naturally to her. Even though she now knew the math, she still saw the world in terms of the classical elements. The small part of Athena that was slightly delirious from pain and blood loss wondered what their math would make of what she did here. As far as she was concerned, she was altering the elements around her. A direct replacement of Air with Fire.
The explosion sent her rocking backwards, and sent the nearby penanggalan reeling. Many of them simply burst into flame themselves, while others were blown away.
Athena dropped to a knee. She’d beaten back the first wave, had bought herself time to breathe and think.
Unfortunately, the penanggalan that hadn’t attacked her had been busy. Bodies littered the battlefield from before, bodies of both man and god, and they had been feeding during the fight. Athena felt her heart start to pound – with the extra time to drain the corpses, they would be much, much harder to defeat than that first wave had been.
She reached up, and began to twist in front of her as several dozen penanggalan, flush and fully fed, began to turn to face her. She was able to send shards of stone hurtling at them, but their writhing intestines struck many of the projectiles out of the air. Come on, come on, where-
A battle cry gave Athena reason to smile. Dianmu leapt from atop a nearby pile of rubble, her glaive flashing down on the opponent nearest Athena. It didn’t cleave the penanggalan as neatly as Athena’s sword had earlier, but it was still a welcome relief to find herself no longer alone. “I got your message,” Dianmu said with a fierce grin.
“Nothing quite like a sonic boom to give away your location” Athena got back to her feet, breathing heavily. “The others?”
Another penanggalan moved in, but a rolling buzzsaw of air caught it mid-flight. Anansi stepped into view as it did, that implacable grin still on his face. “Hopefully, they are on their way. Want to see how many we can take out before they get here?”
Athena gestured, and her supersonic sword reversed its course from earlier to hit a new foe. This one nearly managed to catch the blade, even at those speeds – but there was a limit to what guts could grab, and it exploded with the same messy satisfaction as the first.
“Let’s,” Athena said, raising her sword.
But as the three gods met the oncoming monstrosities, Athena couldn’t help but worry why Crystal and Horus hadn’t yet come to their aid.