Ryan put his chin on his hands as Crystal finished filling him and Isabel in on what had happened in Shadu. “And there’s no way to trace that portal back to where he came from?” he asked, suspecting that if there was they would have already tried it.
“Sorry, love,” Crystal said, confirming his suspicions. “He did a nasty trick to open that, using human sacrifice to open the gate and all.”
Ryan leaned back with a sigh. It was just the three of them in Crystal’s nanoverse. The other four needed to recover their strength and deal with their Hungers – Horus from shapeshifting for so long, the other three from the fight itself. Dianmu and Anansi had gone to the Empyrean Provocation after tending their wounds and told them to catch up when they were done. Athena was waiting for them to finish, and Horus had said he’d deal with the social Hunger in his own way before abruptly departing.
Isabel opened her mouth to speak and then abruptly closed it, which got an amused smile out of Crystal – and a concerned eyebrow out of Ryan. She was being weird ever since they got back, and Ryan didn’t think it was entirely about having seen him get his face shot off less than an hour ago.
“Something on your mind?” Crystal asked.
“Yeah, sorry if it’s a stupid question,” Isabel said with a sigh. “I just – I don’t understand that. You gods do everything with your nanoverses, right? So…what is the point of human sacrifice? Or was he just being evil for the sake of being evil?”
Crystal sighed at that, and Ryan silently thanked Isabel for asking. That had been bugging him too, but he wasn’t in the mood for a ‘roll with it,’ if that was the answer. “Not entirely evil for its own sake,” Crystal said, leaning back in her seat as she did, “Though Moloch does seem intent on doing everything in the most bloody evil way possible.”
Ryan nodded emphatically at that. “I think Moloch wouldn’t be able to read a newspaper until he found the tree’s saplings and made them watch him read it.”
Isabel snorted. “Okay, fair enough. But how does it work?”
“It’s complicated,” Crystal said, relaxing with the atmosphere in the room. “In addition to gods like us, love, there’s underworld deities like Hades and Hela and Mictlāntēcutli-”
“Mix-land-culty?” Isabel didn’t seem to be able to help herself. Crystal laughed at the butchering of the name, and Ryan noted how his sister flushed.
“Aztec death god, love” Crystal didn’t miss a beat as she continued. “Underworld deities don’t get a nanoverse, they get a Realm. Hades or Helheim or Mictlan, respectively for those three, yeah?” Crystal paused for a second, and when Isabel didn’t comment on the pronunciation of Mictlan, she continued. “They draw power from the souls that end up there, same way we draw power off our nanoverses. But both sides can do things the other can’t because of it.”
“Like what?” Isabel asked, leaning forward.
“Well, they can raise the dead, find it much easier to make monsters, and can drain energy without needing to put it somewhere else like we do, ignoring the conservation of energy. Oh, and most important to what we’re dealing with, they can open bloody portals.”
Isabel chewed her lip. “So by completing human sacrifice, Moloch was able to mimic one of their powers?”
Crystal beamed, “Hole in one, love.” She glanced at Ryan, “I take it your sister got the brains in the family?”
Ryan gave her a good natured middle finger in lieu of response.
After a moment of silence, Isabel spoke again. “But why bother when you have these Nanoverses in the first place?” As Crystal opened her mouth, Isabel suddenly held up a hand. “Wait, no. I think I got it. He had an entire army with him, right? And there’s only so much space in these rooms. By opening a portal, he could move more people at once.”
“You catch on quick,” Crystal said with a smile, “We can only make our staging areas so big – anything more and they have to be in our nanoverses, yeah? And that can be dangerous for non-divine life. Moloch’s method was evil, and it was strategically beneficial. Two-for-one in his eyes, I imagine.”
“Damn,” Isabel said. Crystal raised an eyebrow and Isabel pushed forward. “If he was just being evil, that would mean he was being stupid. Stupid is easier to beat.”
Ryan grunted. “Can’t say you’re wrong with that. But there’s nothing we can do about it now, anyway. Not until we have an idea what he’s doing next.”
“Or until he does it and we have to deal with the fallout!” Crystal said with mock cheer, eliciting a heartfelt groan out of Ryan.
“Let’s assume things don’t get that bad. I don’t think I want to think about being that far behind Moloch.”
“Works for me, love.” Crystal stretched. “I’m going to grab Athena and head to the Provocation. You two coming?”
“Sure!” Isabel said, then she glanced at Ryan. “At least, I’m going, with or without you. I’m still mortal – I need food and drink regularly. I also desperately need to find a restroom.”
Ryan nodded. “Don’t ever forget to mention those. I’ll be honest; I completely forgot you still had normal biology.”
“Me too,” Crystal chimed in, looking somewhat abashed. “If you want love, I can take you somewhere where you can get the normal version of all of those before we go. The Empyrean Provocation caters to gods and other immortals – you might not find everything you need there.”
Isabel sighed. “I’m so jealous of you both right now,” she said. “Yes please.”
“Cool,” Ryan said, standing up abruptly. “While you do that, I’m going to grab Athena and head there.”
“If you want,” Crystal said. “You’re welcome to come with us if you want.”
“Nah, I’m good. See you both there?”
“Definitely,” Crystal said.
Ryan stepped out of her nanoverse into the hot Venezuelan air and took a moment to go over the conversation in his head.
It wasn’t just her. Isabel was being weird. Raising her hand, getting embarrassed – that didn’t jive with the in-your-face girl he’d grown up with. Then again, what did you expect? She’s as out of her depth as you were at first – of course she’s acting oddly. Shrugging but still feeling like he was missing something, he knocked on Athena’s doorway.
She opened it, and all thoughts of his sister exited his head. Athena had already changed for the Empyrean Provocation, and the dress took his breath away – a red one that fit her perfectly. She’d even turned her bandages into a fashion statement, covering them with black and red fabric that made them look like accents rather than dressings for a wound.
A small part of Ryan’s mind was analyzing his reaction. You just got out of your nanoverse. You don’t have social Hunger right now. Yet you’re half-drooling. Why?
Back in reality, Athena quirked an eyebrow at him, and he realized he was just staring.
“You look phenomenal,” Ryan said in a rush, and Athena smiled at the compliment.
“Thank you. Are you ready?”
“Yeah,” he said, mentally scooping his brain back into his skull. “Crystal and Isabel went to take care of her mortal needs, so they’ll be along in a bit.”
“Perfect.” Then she reached out slowly, reached behind his head – and whacked him on the back of his skull. Not hard enough to really hurt, but certainly hard enough to sting.
“What was that for?” Ryan asked, more surprised than anything else.
Athena crossed her arms. “For nearly dying. You had me worried, Ryan. You cannot go off alone again, not until you’re no longer Nascent.”
He rubbed the back of his head, half to get rid of the lingering sting and half out of embarrassment. “I – sorry. Didn’t mean to worry you.”
Athena’s eyes narrowed and she tilted her head. “And?” she prompted.
“And I won’t go off alone again until I’ve undergone Apotheosis. Promise.” With the last word, he raised his hand in the Boy Scout’s three fingered oath.
Her expression softened. “Thank you.”
Ryan lowered the hand and considered her. “You were really upset, weren’t you?”
“Of course,” she said her voice firm. “The fate of the entire world rests on your survival. We literally all die if something happens to you.”
“Oh, yeah. Fair point,” Ryan said, his shoulders sagging as he did.
Athena sighed, but a smile was creeping its way onto her lips. “Also, we have some business we never did get around to addressing.”
Ryan felt his spine stiffen, and his own smile jumped onto his face. “Oh yeah?”
She let out a throaty chuckle. “Not right now, Ryan. I’m Hungry, and that clouds my judgement. Let’s go to the Empyrean Provocation, get wonderfully blitzed, and we can worry about other things after, alright?”
“Totally fair. I guess I’ll hop back to my staging area to get ready and meet you there?”
She nodded and, with one last enigmatic smile, closed the door. Ryan, still grinning, headed to do exactly that.
He may not have Hungers, but suddenly he was really looking forward to the evening’s festivities.