Athena felt the penanggalan’s entrails tighten around her throat. She summoned another sword – her fourth this fight – and severed the grasping appendages. It let out a hiss of anger and pain, which she cut short by embedding the blade in its face.
For the first time in the fight, no new opponent rushed in to take the place of its fallen kin, giving Athena time to look around the battlefield. There were still a few penanggalan active, but most were lying on the ground in various states of destruction. As she watched, Anansi cleaved another in half from chin to skull, and Dianmu electrocuted three with a bolt of lightning thrown from her spear.
And Crystal was walking up now, drawing a sword and shouting. “Oy! Wankers! Looks like you couldn’t take those three down; maybe give me a try, yeah?”
As much as Athena didn’t like Crystal putting herself at risk, the three of them were all running on empty. It was a welcome relief to let Crystal begin to dance among the monstrosities while they caught their breath. It’s also good to know Crystal is well,” Athena chided herself. *That leaves only Horus unaccounted for. Where is he?
Athena watched Crystal fight, looking for any sign the other goddess was in trouble. Fortunately, Crystal seemed to be handling the situation well. As Athena watched, she leapt among the penanggalan like a sylph, flitting and flowing between them. Her slender sword sliced the eye out of one of her attackers as she leapt over the encroaching entrails of another, letting her foot connect with that attacker’s nose. As she landed she flipped her blade out to intercept another in a single fluid motion, so quick that the second penanggalan was cut in half before Crystal’s foot touched the ground. And so it went, a dance among them until the last of their number fell to the earth.
Barely panting from the exertion, Crystal looked up at the three gods as she wiped her sword clean on her leg. “Sorry for the delay!” she said, her voice full of forced cheer. “Thanks for saving a few for me.”
Anansi chuckled and Dianmu shook her head. Athena took the opportunity to assess them. Like her, they had been bit multiple times. Anansi had a deep wound on his left bicep where one of his attackers had gotten its teeth deep into the muscle, while Dianmu had a matching injury on her calf. Athena could feel her hand throb from where one had gotten her. If there had been a few more, or Crystal had been a bit later…we might have lost someone.
Dianmu’s voice startled Athena out of her reflection. “Glad you could join us,” she said, her dry tone offset by her relieved smile as she limped over to Crystal. “I trust you had something fairly important to keep your attention.”
Crystal gave her a good natured grin. “Your trust is well placed, love, because I did.” The grin faded quickly as Crystal focused on the news itself. “I ran into Resheph. Moloch came here to kill off his own pantheon and scoop up their nanoverses.”
Athena swore. “You think he means to create a new merged nanoverse with all the ones he recovered?”
“Maybe,” Crystal said, frowning. “He has at least a dozen now. If he does what Enki did, he’ll be damn near unstoppable, but…”
“But?” Dianmu prompted after Crystal trailed off. Athena noted she was starting to use her glaive as a walking stick to keep the weight off her injured leg.
“Enki became predictable after he merged the nanoverses. We thought it was because he was dense, but what if it wasn’t that? What if he was just being overwhelmed?”
Anansi nodded along with her as she spoke. “Increased power would have an increased strength in divine sight. You think Moloch would worry about how much worse that would be with so much power?”
Athena found herself resisting the urge to cross her fingers. Anything would be better than trying to fight a merger of thirteen nanoverses. “Do you really think Moloch might want to avoid that risk?” she asked, trying to keep the hope out of her voice.
Crystal nodded. “There’s a lot of bad names you could call Moloch. Bastard. Prick. Asshole. Monster. Jackass.”
“Would-be-tyrant,” Dianmu added.
“Murdering coward,” Anansi contributed, that implacable grin of his widening.
They all looked at Athena, who frowned in thought, searching for the right phrase to sum up her feelings on Moloch, “Sociopathic traitor not fit to lick the paws of the lowliest, flea-bitten cur to have ever begged for scraps.”
“Nice,” Crystal said with a grin. “We could probably list them all day. But none of them are “idiot” or any of its variants, yeah? If Enki succumbed to sensory overload from two, Moloch would be driven mad by thirteen.”
Athena let out a long, steady breath. “I hope you are right,” she said. “Because I don’t know how we could possibly defeat someone with that much power. The three of us barely defeated Enki, and only survived doing so by turning his power back against himself. Even with six, I doubt we could defeat Moloch if he managed it.”
Dianmu nodded in agreement, before her brow furrowed. “Of course, if it’s not the merger, that raises a question – what, exactly, did he want with their nanoverses?”
“Perhaps he merely wishes to take them back to his nanoverse to destroy them all? Permanently end the threat?” Anansi’s voice was uncertain, and Crystal was shaking her head. Athena decided to give voice to the objection.
“I wish I could believe it was that simple, but if it was…why bother attacking in the first place? These gods were staying out of it, they were bothering no one.”
“I think that’s obvious,” said a voice, and Horus shifted out of his falcon form to land among them. Athena fought the urge to grind her teeth. Where the hell were you? “He’s eliminating our possible allies. Making sure that we have to deal with his army directly.”
“Good of you to join us,” Athena said, and immediately tried to soften the words with a question. “Did you find any other survivors?”
Horus shook his head. “I thought it best to search before any more bled out. They were all dead, every last one I could find.”
Athena wanted to rake him over the coals for abandoning him, interrogate him as to what he was really doing. But the way he hung his head, the mournful intonation…it seemed truthful. Instead, silence reigned for a moment – Athena didn’t know what to say. No one did. An entire pantheon, gone. Nothing like it had ever happened before.
“I saved Resheph,” Crystal said in a small voice, tapping a pouch at her side as she did. “I killed him and destroyed his body, but his nanoverse is safe. He’ll resurrect there safely, so that’s…” She trailed off.
“It is something,” Athena said, surprising herself with how firm her voice was. “Maybe he can tell us more, once he resurrects.”
“I don’t think we can afford to wait,” Dianmu countered, “before Moloch can move onto the next stage of whatever he’s planning.”
Anansi nodded. “He has a few days before he has to worry about these gods resurrecting and coming to reclaim their nanoverses, so he’ll have to move fast. And I think there’s a flaw in your theory, Horus.”
Horus bristled. “I’d love to hear a better idea for what he’s doing, old spider.”
Anansi sighed. “I do not know. But if he was seeking to deny us allies, he chose a poor method for doing so.”
“Anansi is right,” Dianmu interjected before Horus could argue. “If we tell other gods what happened here, they’ll begin to fear Moloch will come for them even if they mean to stay on the sidelines. It could be a rallying cry for our cause. He must have a plan for those nanoverses.”
Horus looked like he’d just taken a swig of stale, sour beer. “Fine. Then we need to figure out what he could be doing with them – what else they could be used for. That will help us find him and deal with him, permanently.”
Again, no one was sure what to say. Horus was right about that…but it didn’t get them any closer to an answer.
Crystal began to open her mouth, but whatever thought she had was cut short. At that instant, breaking the silence that had fallen over the group, the portal shimmered and Ryan dove through. They watched, calmly, as he rolled into cover, drawing a sword out of his nanoverse in the motion.
It was exactly the right call when going through an unknown portal, but doing it at the moment when no adversaries were present struck Athena as so…so Ryan that she had to smile. “It’s alright, Ryan. The fighting’s already over.”
Crystal gave her a sideways glace and a half grin as Ryan stepped out, dusting himself off. Athena decided to ignore that knowing smirk. Your voice rarely gets that soft, she thought to herself, and then stamped that thought down. So what if it did? It’s good to have something to break the tension. “Oh,” Ryan said, his cheeks flushing slightly from the theatrics. “Okay, good. Everyone okay?” Athena nodded with the others and Ryan let out a sigh of relief. “Great, glad to hear it. So…what happened?”
Athena shook her head. “We’ll fill you in. But right now…we have Hungers to attend to, and there’s nothing left for us here. Let’s head back to reality.” She glanced at their companions. “Unless anyone objects?”
No one did. They headed to the portal and exited back to reality, leaving behind the graveyard that was Shadu.