When they got back to Athena’s nanoverse, Ryan wasn’t sure what to expect. Athena hadn’t said a word during the rest of the walk, not even asking what Crystal and Isabel could possibly be planning doing to ‘get ready’ for a trip to Tartarus. Maybe she knew it was an excuse to give her time to catch her breath.
So not knowing what to expect, Ryan wasn’t entirely surprised when Athena let out a scream as soon as the door was closed. It still caught him off guard, and at the same time broke his heart as he heard the anguish in it.
When she was done, he moved to comfort her, but she whirled on him, her eyes flashing with the most anger he had seen since…well, since Tyr died. “I never should have listened to you,” she growled.
Ryan stopped his approach and put his hands up. “Me?”
“Yes! Ryan, I wanted to go to Tartarus! Right after Hades pointed us in that direction. I all but begged you and Crystal. And both of you said it would take too long.”
“Well, you said it could take a week.”
Athena’s nostrils flared, and Ryan realized he’d made a mistake. “So all the more reason to get a head start. Since he took a human sacrifice shortcut, he could be there already! Laying siege to my family! By the time we get there, even with six of us, it’ll probably be too late!”
Ryan opened his mouth, trying to pick his words carefully. “Athena-“
He didn’t need to make the effort, since Athena was on a roll. “I should have known better. You’re new, you’re still learning, and the next day we learned Crystal was being influenced by Enki’s corruption. I should have insisted we head to Tartarus that instant. Instead, I let myself get caught up hunting in Venezuela for Moloch, chasing my tail, dealing with Horus – and if I had just trusted my judgement, we’d be there by now.”
Ryan had never seen her like this before. Athena was a rock – these jagged spikes of anger were entirely unlike her. How long has she been holding this in?
He didn’t try to speak again, letting Athena take a few deep breaths. Watching her reign in the fury. “I shouldn’t have shouted,” she said, her voice now tightly controlled. So tightly Ryan had to wonder if it would snap again. “None of us could have known.”
Ryan nodded, relieved to see a more familiar version of her. “If we had, Athena, I swear we would have gone straight there.”
“I know,” she said. Her voice was still rough, but letting some of the rage out seemed to have helped. Ryan thought about the myths about Greek gods and their tempers, and wondered how long she’d been the more controlled person he knew now. She continued from the earlier thought, “If we had gone without knowing, we would have been blindsided by Moloch.”
“I didn’t even think of that. This way, at least, we could possibly still help.”
“I…” Athena let out a frustrated growl. “I can’t keep losing people, Ryan. I was exiled, Ishtar went to war with me, my people converted to Christianity and called me a false idol, I watched Tyr die, and now my entire Pantheon might get wiped out before I get to see them again…I’m just so damn tired of losing people.”
Ryan instead moved to her, taking a half step. She gave him a slight nod of permission, and he opened his arms and embracing her. She accepted the hug and leaned into it. “Athena…”
“Don’t say it,” she said. She pulled away just enough to look him in the eyes. “Don’t you dare say I won’t lose you or Crystal or my family or anyone. You can’t promise it.” Her voice was back to its usual, much lower emotional register, but in her eyes Ryan could still see the turmoil.
He gave her a slow, thoughtful nod. “You’re right. But I can promise that, as long as I have anything to say about it, I won’t let it happen.”
“See that you do.” In that, at least, he heard the Athena he knew, and he smiled at her. She returned the look with one of her ghost smiles of old, and Ryan could feel her relax before she gently broke the embrace.
“Can I ask you something?” Ryan said, as he moved to take a seat. “If this isn’t a bad time, that is?”
Athena shrugged. “I can’t imagine a good time in the near future, if we’re being honest. Go ahead.”
“Fair. Very fair. I just…you mentioned Ishtar as someone you lost, and Crystal as someone you don’t want to lose. I didn’t quite follow that.”
“Oh, so a light question,” Athena said, a note of irritation in her voice. Ryan didn’t think it was directed at him. “Ryan, the bridges that Ishtar burned – that we burned, if I’m being fair…it was ugly, between us.”
Ryan nodded, “I did assume that, since it kinda helped spark the Punic Wars. When a war ends with a city being salted, I figured it was safe to assume there was some underlying bitterness.”
He couldn’t be sure if the look on her face was a grin or a grimace. “If I’m being completely honest with myself, it was part of why I was willing to join Enki in the first place, and convinced Tyr to. Not the whole reason – I did believe you were a danger – but I have to wonder if I would have fallen for Enki’s lies if you hadn’t been working with her.”
Ryan let out a low whistle to show he understood how deep that hatred must have lied. “But you and her are friends now.”
“No, Ryan. Ishtar, the woman I knew, is dead. I’m friends with Crystal. It’s how I was able to reconcile a grudge that spanned millennia.” She gave him a bitter smile. “People Ishtar has burned have a tendency to remember it.”
“Am I ever going to hear what happened there?”
Athena shrugged, “We’re immortal. I suppose it might happen.”
“Fair enough.” Ryan realized it was probably time to turn to a better topic. Or at least a neutral one. “So. Tartarus. Why the full week to get there?”
“If only,” she said, relaxing again as the topic changed. “Tartarus is a dead realm. Not a realm of the dead, but somewhere lifeless and…odd. Doorways cannot enter beyond the border, which is what makes it the perfect prison. Beyond that lies the Labyrinth.”
“The Labyrinth? The one Daedalus built for the king of…a place?” Ryan was proud to at least remember the name Daedalus.
“Crete, yes, although that wasn’t the first one. The one Minos commissioned was a pale imitation of what Daedalus built in Tartarus. The Labyrinth, being part of Tartarus, spits out new challenges every time someone passes through it. It’s almost impossible to know what will come our way.”
Ryan made a face, and she paused for his question. “Well, at least you know the way through, right?”
“I wish. That also changes every time someone passes through.”
Ryan swore. “So…there’s really no way to know what we’re going to face?”
“There’s some things for certain. There are three tests we will definitely have to face. Each time we are able to succeed, the Labyrinth will open new pathways, become less complex. The tests are Mind, Body, and Soul.”
Ryan frowned in thought, “And let me guess – all we know are their names, no way to know what we’re going to have to do?”
Athena shrugged in agreement. “I honestly am not sure what Crystal wanted me to explain – beyond the broad strokes, there’s little we can do to prepare.” She gave him a look, and Ryan smiled. She returned it. They both knew what was going on here, and it would be best for both if they pretended they didn’t.
“Is there any good news at least?” Ryan asked instead, not expecting a yes.
Which made it a pleasant surprise when Athena nodded. “Just one, but while we’re there – any changes we make, any localized twists, won’t snap back. We can’t run through on an accelerated time frame or anything, but if we wanted to blanket an area in darkness or remove gravity, we wouldn’t need to maintain it for that location.”
“Which will at least make it safe to make camp, since we won’t have our nanoverses to retreat to?”
“Exactly. And it could prove useful in defeating Moloch,” she added.
“I hope Crystal has some idea of what we need,” Ryan said.
“We need a way to light our way, a way to mark our path, supplies for Isabel and if our Hungers come up, and some tools for emergency use,” Athena said promptly.
“Well…okay, I suppose I should have thought of that.” Ryan grinned. “That’s why you’re the goddess of wisdom and I’m…I dunno, god of breaking things?”
Athena let out a slight breath of air at that, but it was close to a laugh and Ryan took it as a good sign. “You’ll find your role in time. After you finish the most important one.”
“Ending the world, right. I actually…after we get done with Tartarus, I have a crazy idea about that I want to run by you and Crystal.”
Athena relaxed a bit more. “I’m glad you do – I was beginning to worry our only option would be destructive.”
“Same. Completely the same.” Ryan put a hand on her shoulder. “You going to be okay?”
“Yes. Although…” she sighed, “No, I’m not going to think about that possibility. We’ll be there in time.”
“Damn right we will,” Ryan said, “Moloch won’t see us coming. He’ll be stuck between your family and us, and I’m looking forward to punching the ugly off his face.”
“That would need to be an impressive punch,” she said, and gave him another ghost of a smile. “Come on, let’s go see if the others need help. And Ryan?”
She reached up and touched his cheek. “Thank you.” He smiled at her, and together they headed out to prepare to enter Tartarus.
They could only hope they would arrive before Moloch was done.
-END OF ACT I-