For an insane, heart pounding moment, Athena was convinced that Moloch was speaking to her. She prepared herself to do one solid twist of reality and engulf herself in flame – enough to burn her body to ash in an instant. If she got lucky, the flame would spill over into immolating Moloch as well, but fighting him without her nanoverse would be insane and she couldn’t risk being taken-
“Kaaaaaaaaarrrrrkkk!” the cockatrice screamed in anger. The sound made sweat erupt across Athena’s brow, but in her panic on seeing Moloch she’d half-forgotten the massive bone-eating bird was there. The reminder brought reality back into perspective – Moloch was talking to it, not to her, and she wasn’t spotted.
She slowly let out the breath as Moloch began to circle the cockatrice. It kept its head and eyes focused on the malformed god. Moloch was keeping his head slightly bowed, watching the cockatrice out of the top of his vision without making actual eye contact.
“You’re a beautiful creature. I do wish I could take you alive.” Moloch’s voice wasn’t the raspy whisper she’d grown used to, but a resonant baritone that didn’t match his broken husk of a face.
The noise the cockatrice made in response to that defied transcription. Athena had never tried to imagine how a whistle might sound defiant, but now she wouldn’t have to. It was beginning to turn slowly, keeping its eyes fixed on Moloch. After a few more steps, it cocked its head like a confused dog, and Athena could almost hear its thoughts. This has always worked for me before, but you’re not turning into bone, which is damned rude of you. Can you please freeze in place now?
Moloch did not oblige the cockatrice’s request, much as Athena wished he would. Instead, now that the cockatrice had been turned a full one hundred and eighty degrees, Moloch held his head out towards the brush. “Send the Aspirants forth.”
As he spoke those words, his form changed. No longer was he a withered and rotten old man. He stood up straight to a good two meters, his shoulders broad, his muscles fitting the physique favored by most masculine deities. His hair was still pale, but instead of the unwashed grey of before it was gleaming silver.
Three people walked out from behind the cockatrice, two men and a woman. They carried primitive weapons – a pair of stone hatchets for the woman, a stone hammer for the man on her left, and a spear for the one on her right. Their faces were painted no, that’s not paint – they’ve tattooed those marks on their face with occult symbols associated with Moloch. Similar markings adorned their bodies, but these bore the dark red color and flaking texture of dried blood.
Aside from the blood marking their bodies, they were completely nude.
The cockatrice didn’t notice them. It was transfixed on Moloch’s outstretched hand, waiting for him to make a move.
Moving his hand slowly back and forth to keep the Cockatrice’s gaze, Moloch began to speak. He was using the gift of the Primordial Speech, the language mankind spoke when they all spoke one tongue. Although no mortal mouth could form the words anymore, Gods could speak it, and all mortals could understand them. “You stand here, willingly outcast from the society that rejected you. You stand here, clothed as newborns, wearing naught but viscera. You stand here, with weapons you have made with your own hands so they will be extensions of your hands. Are you prepared to forsake all you had fully and be reborn as my children?”
All three gave a slow, deliberate nod.
“Good. Then prove your worth.” He snapped his fingers, and as far as the three could tell, nothing changed. Athena saw the change, however – he’d masked himself from the cockatrice’s vision.
It gave a confused coo as it turned back towards its meal, only to find three more humans there. It must have recognized them as humans and not gods, or perhaps it was just frustrated by the first one to approach vanishing. Either way, it didn’t display the cautious curiosity it gave Moloch. Instead, it immediately lunged forward.
Athena watched the fight from her hiding spot with sickened curiosity. The three worked together so well it looked almost choreographed – the cockatrice lunged towards the hammer-holder was cut short by a slash at its neck by the spearman, and when it turned towards him its vision had to cross the axe woman, who sliced at its eyes with cool confidence.
The cockatrice reeled back from the attack, one eye now leaking bright red blood. It took a couple of steps away, trying to process how what looked like easy prey had managed to hurt it. But they were pressing the attack, the stone hammer coming down to try to crush talons as spear was raised to keep the cockatrice from noticing the attack. One of the hammer blows landed, crushing the delicate bones.
The injury elicited a sound of agonized fury from the cockatrice, and it turned to run. But the axe woman had been ready for that, had been circling the monster while her companions attacked. It lunged for her, realizing it was cornered, and took a hatchet to the face for its trouble. The sharpened stone buried itself in the soft flesh where beak met skull, and the sounds coming from the cockatrice took on an element of unmistakable fear.
Athena didn’t want to watch the remainder of the fight, but found herself unable to look away. The Aspirants took turns slicing apart the beast. At least twice, Athena saw them deliberately avoid making killing blows. They want it to suffer. The cockatrice’s motions became increasingly panicked and erratic. It gave a few more screams and clawed and bit with every ounce of energy it could muster, but with each attempt those attacks became weaker. Fainter. Its strength was failing, and it knew it.
Finally, it became too much. The cockatrice collapsed, and with a triumphant scream, the axe-woman buried both her stone hatchets in its head.
“Well done, my Children,” Moloch spoke again in those smooth, deep tones. More people, tattooed the same as the Aspirants but dressed in black robes, stepped out of the bushes. Athena realized that if she had taken refuge on the other side of the clearing, she would have been trying to hide among Moloch’s followers.
The newcomers presented the victorious Aspirants with black robes to cover themselves, and Athena took a moment to study them. It was a diverse group. Twenty people, counting the three Aspirants, thirteen men and seven women. She saw a variety of nationalities represented among them, and other than the tattoos and clothes they had little in common.
Now that they were dressed, they began attaching ropes to the cockatrice and dragged it back the way they came. Moloch floated to the air and left with them, hovering a couple feet above the ground.
Athena waited a good while before daring to move herself. If nothing else, she now knew better what Moloch was doing down here. Once they had taken the cockatrice back to where they were holed up, they would feast upon it – and in doing so, gain some of the resistance creatures like it had to direct applications of divine powers.
He was building an army that could fight against gods.
The fact that she still didn’t know exactly where Moloch had made his temple was of secondary importance. If he was building this army, he was getting ready for war. Crystal and Ryan had to be notified before –
“Pallas Athena. It has been some time.”
Athena whirled around, once again feeling hopelessly exposed without her nanoverse. A handsome man stood there, dressed in modern tactical gear, including a Kevlar vest, dyed in the green and brown patchwork of forest camouflage. For a moment she didn’t recognize him, and considered moving in to strike. Right before she did, she noticed the stylized falcon symbol over his heart. Suddenly his features clicked into place and she knew who she was dealing with.
“Horus. I’m surprised to see you here.” She kept her tone as carefully neutral as possible, and resisted the momentary urge to lick her lips.
He considered her words before responding. “I suppose you may be. I cannot say the same, Pallas Athena. I have been looking for you.” He reached into his nanoverse, pulling out a pair of kopesh. “How our reunion goes will depend on your answer to one simple question.”
“And what might that be?” Athena was already shifting to defend herself. While she had been ready to immolate herself to prevent capture from Moloch before, the information she had now couldn’t wait for her to die and resurrect.
“Simple. Where. Is. Bast?” Horus snarled the last three words, and Athena realized he was half crazed with…hope? Fear? Some emotion, one she couldn’t identify. This meant she couldn’t know what answer he wanted, leaving her only the option of telling the truth.
“I haven’t seen her since I killed her.”
Horus took a long time studying her face, looking for evidence of a lie. When he saw none, he sheathed the weapons.
“Tell me everything.”