In the center of Tartarus, the gods had built a retreat, directly over the hole that contained the Titans. It might seem odd to build a retreat directly on top of a prison for primordial entities, but Zeus had reasoned it would be the safest spot in all the universe. A place where the gods could truly be safe, so long as they were willing to brave the Labyrinth to get there.
Of course, Ares thought bitterly, it also means that if it ever became unsafe, there wasn’t any chance of reinforcements.
He’d made that argument to Zeus back when the Elysian Rest was first built, a project that had partially been a way for Zeus to combat the general malaise that had followed Athena’s exile. Ares had argued that if they ever faced a foe that could break through to Tartarus, they’d find themselves trapped between their attacker and the Titans, with no way to request aid and no easy way for anyone to reach them.
“Fire!” was shouted outside the walls, and another volley of arrows and bullets clattered against the wards they’d erected, hasty constructs of compressed air. The invaders weren’t actually trying to punch through the barrier. As far as Ares could tell, they were just testing it, looking for weak points.
The moment they inevitably found one, they’d come pouring through.
He saw Artemis, who was leaning against a window, her bow slung across her back. “Any change?” he asked as he approached.
She shook her head and took a step back. “See for yourself, Ares. It doesn’t look any less bleak than it did yesterday.”
He saw that she was right. The army outside was probably about two thousand strong, although sheer numbers meant little when fighting against gods. The bulk of the army also, mattered little – a motley assortment of varcolac, lycanthropes, nagual, and other breeds of shapeshifting monsters. If it had just been then, the Olympians might have taken some casualties, but they would have ultimately triumphed.
Of more concern were the rest of the army. The white lindworm was bad, as were the other five dragonesque monsters – a tarasque, a hydra, a drakaina, a ddraig goch, and a three-headed balaur. Any one of them could pose a threat to a single god if not multiple gods, but they were backed by even stranger monsters, including a handful of Hecatoncheires – former guardians of Tartarus that Moloch had turned to his cause upon his arrival.
Backing them were the mortals, men and women armed with assault rifles. They should have been even less relevant than the shapeshifters, but each one had fed on the flesh of monsters and had proven extremely dangerous. Letting their guard down around them had already cost Hermes his life in an attempt to get a message to the outside world. Fortunately they had ripped him to shreds, and his nanoverse was safely within these halls. Unfortunately…
“We’re trapped,” he said, not that Artemis needed him to point it out.
Still, she nodded. “Adrestia is advocating we go on the offensive. I don’t think Zeus will change his mind though.”
“Of course he won’t,” Ares said with a snort. “He may not be a great tactician, but he’s no fool. We have nothing to gain by attacking.”
Artemis scratched her chin. “We also have nothing to lose, Ares. If we can take him down, the rest of his army might break.”
He could only grunt to that. It took a moment of scanning the army to find the man they were talking about. Moloch. Horror god of monsters and sacrifice. “What the hell does he want?” he muttered to himself, not for the first time.
Also not for the first time, Artemis had no answer for him. “It’s our only chance, Ares.”
“Maybe,” he muttered. “We don’t know what he’s after. For all we know, Artemis, that’s exactly what he wants. Right now, the longer we wait, the safer we are.”
“Until we run out of supplies to refill our Hungers.” Ares opened his mouth to object, but Artemis cut him off. “It doesn’t matter. Zeus wants us to wait, so we wait.”
Ares was glad to hear that she was, at least, not going to break ranks. But she wasn’t wrong about one thing. Eventually, it would come to war – and Ares had doubts about their victory.
What the hell do you want, Moloch?
Cassandra had always loved showering. It was an incredibly simple pleasure – the sound of water drowning out the rest of the world, the warmth of the water, the absolute isolation, and, of course, being able to emerge clean and refreshed and free of the grime from the day before. She often had woken up an hour before she actually had to, to give her time to fully enjoy her morning shower.
It was a relief to learn that she hadn’t lost that in her transformation, although it was different now. Her enhanced hearing was good for more than just detecting heartbeats, and it changed the splash of water she associated with the shower into something more like the torrential downpour of a heavy rain. The isolation was wonderful, but now it was because it drowned out the constant *lub-dub* of the few regular humans they had saved for later. The warmth was welcome, and now it also helped distract her from the knowledge of what she had done, of that hunger for the flesh of her fellow man.
And, of course, instead of just washing away grime and sweat, she was washing away dried blood.
She paused to let the hot water run through her hair, since it felt like scrubbing was just working the flakes of blood in. The shower was full of a coppery smell layered under the scent of shampoo, a combination that both disgusted her and made her stomach rumble. Like seeing a delicious meal and then noticing a clump of hair laying on it. It also gave her an opportunity to study her hands.
Bast was a shapechanger, and could look like whatever she damn well felt like. Cassandra, if she could change shapes, hadn’t learned how to yet. So it seemed their appearance was the new normal. They didn’t have fingernails anymore, the tips looking odd for being smooth and round. And when she flexed them – which she did here – hooked claws emerged from behind flaps of skin. The tips were also a deep red that she had initially taken as blood stains, but no amount of showering had interrupted the gentle lightening of red, from nearly maroon at the tip to a bright, fire-truck color before it merged back into her normal skin tones at the knuckles. I need to get gloves.
She took a deep breath as she turned around to wash her face. The water running off her hair had finally turned clear. You finally got rid of the blood of the people you ate. She pushed that thought down. Cassandra had always been an optimist. It made her smile to think that Bast, even when she was their prisoner, had called her Sunshine. Everything happened for a reason, even horrible things.
In this case, the thing that happened was she’d been turned into a monster with a hunger for hearts, but that was no reason to mope about it.
“Cassandra. Are you in here?”
She jumped at her name, for a moment able to hear her own heart pounding. Silly. You’re being silly. In the motion, she had bit her lip, which was an unpleasant experience with her new fangs. They weren’t just the canines like a vampire, but every single tooth in her head – the better to tear the tough muscles of the heart. She was still getting used to talking, or even moving her mouth, with them.
“Yes. My…oh, I don’t even know what to call you now. I’ll be out, one second.” She turned off the water and gave herself a quick brush with the towel before wrapping herself in a bathrobe.
Bast nodded when she came out. “How are you adjusting to the physical changes?” she asked.
“Oh, um…” Uncertain, Cassandra grabbed the edge of the robe and curtsied slightly.
It made Bast laugh. “You don’t need to bow and scrape. You aren’t my worshiper or a supplicant. You’re…family now.”
Cassandra nodded, and felt a rush of warmth. Every time Bast praised her or approved of her, she felt that rush. It was somewhat like being told by a stern parent they were proud of you, with hints of approval from your super high achieving friend. Or, rather, it was both, the full intensity of both at once. Am I going crazy? “Thank you,” she said with a smile.
Bast returned it, but then frowned. In a swift motion, she was in Cassandra’s face. “You’re bleeding,” she said after inspecting Cassandra’s lips for a heart racing moment.
“Oh. I…well, I bit my lip. I’m still not used to these things.” She bared her fangs.
Bast took a step back. “I understand.”
Cassandra breathed a sigh of relief. “Bast,” it felt odd to just call her by her name, but the goddess nodded approvingly for Cassandra to continue. “I’m just wondering…do we have a plan? A next move? Because, if nothing else…”
“We need to feed, yes. Our stores here won’t last forever. For that, I promise you we will, but we’re going to be waiting, seeing how long you need before you have to feed – we need to know your limits.” Cassandra could only nod to that, even though she hated the idea of waiting. “As for a plan…yes. Pharvathi. The good doctor. We’re going to find her and whoever she’s working with.”
“Of course,” Cassandra said. “I’m assuming she’s Parvathi? One of the wives of…” She trailed off at Bast’s amused expression.
“Don’t be ashamed. I assumed you looked it up?” Cassandra nodded. “It’s a good guess,” Bast said, “but I doubt it. Parvathi despises things like us, because we can make more of ourselves. We’re a perversion of life, and I think she could sooner put a dagger in Shiva’s breast that create something like me, no matter what the goal. But I think that name was chosen to cast suspicion on her, lead us away from the true perpetrator. Whoever that is.
Cassandra nodded in understanding, then bit her cheek. A reflexive motion, one that she often used when she needed to think – but in this case, it caused her to bring her hand up to her cheek in pain. “Sorry, forgot about the fangs again,” she said to Bast’s worried expression. The coppery taste faded as she continued, “It makes sense. I’m just…of course Doctor Pharvathi needs to be punished, but what about…whatever it was you were doing before. When you were working with Enki?”
Bast gave her a blank look for a long few moments, and at first Cassandra was afraid she’d upset her somehow. Then she laughed. The sound was, without a doubt, the most human the goddess had sounded since she’d started eating hearts. “I’m sorry, it’s not funny, it’s just…it’s been so long. Feels like months, if not years.”
Cassandra almost slumped in relief. “I guess I can see that. So…”
“Oh yes,” Bast said, her lips peeling back in something that was like but not exactly a grin. “We’re going to still do that. And I think finding the doctor is going to be a good first step. Without knowing how Enki managed to merge nanoverses, I think her research will be quite useful for that.”
“And…what was that? If you don’t mind me asking.”
Bast reached out and patted her on the head affectionately. Cassandra felt another rush of joy at being favored. “Dear Cassandra, we’re going to save the world. Before Ryan and his ilk can end it. Now come – it’s time to convert this base into a suitable seat of power.”
Bast turned to leave, and – hair still wet, still wearing a robe and barefoot – Cassandra moved to follow. Because there was one thing Cassandra was sure of.
It was good to have purpose.