Injuries were bandaged and food was passed around. Isabel had gone to sleep, but made them promise to leave one of the drones running so she could hear the stories later on. With a gesture Athena created a ball of flame that hovered just above the floor, crackling in a good facsimile of a campfire. “It didn’t seem right to tell stories without one,” she said, a ghost of a smile crossing her face as she did.
Anansi folded his legs into a lotus position as he did. “You are absolutely correct. And I am a bit of an authority on the subject.”
“Why’s that?” Ryan asked, leaning with his back against a wall next to Athena. The warmth of the fire washed over him, tickling a memory of hot dogs and s’mores around the fire pit in his parent’s back yard.
“At one point, I held all the world’s stories.” Anansi winked at Ryan.
“Right,” Ryan said, rolling his eyes with a smile. “I know how what we can do works, and somehow holding onto the concept of “stories” isn’t in our abilities.”
“No, it is not. And yet, I still did.”
“Sounds like we have our first story, then.” Dianmu was settling into her spot next to Crystal. She folded her legs like Anansi had. Crystal was leaning back against the wall, too engrossed in her protein bar to comment yet.
“I’m not sure that’s the story I want to tell yet,” Anansi said, his eyes sparkling. “Besides, I’ve long wished to hear one of the stories of Pallas Athena.” Athena raised an eyebrow at her name and Anansi continued, “So many stories about you, yet I’ve never heard one by you.”
“Well, in the interest of not passing responsibility for starting, I guess I will go first.” She leaned forward, pulling up her knees so she could rest her hands on them. “However, If you think I’ll be telling a story you’ve already heard, but from my point of view, then I’ll have to disappoint you.”
“Drat,” Ryan said, “I was half hoping for the truth behind the Iliad or the Odyssey or something.”
“We do want time to get some sleep in, love,” Crystal chimed in, finally swallowing the last bite.
Athena smiled. “True. Perhaps another time.” Although her gaze was fixed on the fire, it seemed to see far past the flames. Her voice started hesitant, although it gained strength as she spoke. “It was just after the rise of Julius Caesar, so I was going by Minerva then.” Around her, everyone settled in to listen. “It was a rough century – Athens had been sacked, Rome had lost its republic – I always believed in democracy, so watching it fall apart again was hard. And there had been the Punic Wars which had ended not one hundred years before-”
“Sorry about that, love,” Crystal interjected.
Athena shrugged. “It is past. But I needed a change of scenery; I needed to get a fresh perspective. So I went to Empyrean Provocation, with every intention of meeting some god or goddess from another world to head elsewhere in the universe for a bit. Instead…I met Thoth.” She smiled at the fire and continued.
Minerva sighed in relief as she stepped onto the platform overlooking Empyrean Provocation, stretching her shoulders as she did. “Athena!” Someone shouted, and she had to remind herself that most beings here wouldn’t know she’d changed her name. Her eyes found the speaker.
“Thoth!” she said, making her way towards him. In truth, had he not being wearing his hieroglyph as a necklace, she wouldn’t have recognized him. Not without his ibis head. And I’m so glad the fashion of shifting to have the head of an animal fell out of fashion. “It’s Minerva now, by the way.”
Thoth smiled. “Noted. Well, Minerva – it’s been some time.”
“It has been,” she said, frowning as she did. “In fact…I honestly don’t recall ever actually meeting you. Seeing you, of course, but not actually meeting.”
“Well, I’m honored you remember me,” he responded with a bow. “Especially because you’re just the kind of goddess I’m looking for.”
Minerva felt her smile tighten. “Unfortunately, Thoth, you’re not the kind of god I’m looking for right now.”
“Too Egyptian?” he asked, nonplussed. Ever since the conquest of Egypt by Alexander and the installation of the Polemic dynasty, the gods of Egypt and those of Greece had undergone some strained relations.
“Too Earthly,” she correct with a shrug. “I’m looking to get away for a while, and don’t want to get drawn into…whatever it is you’re looking to draw someone in to.”
“How can you be sure before I’ve even told you what I want to do?” Thoth said, his smile returning.
“Does it involve humans in any way, shape, or form?” her voice was cool.
“It does, but-“
“Then unless the humans are on another world, I’m certain I’m not interested.” She studied his face, watching his smile grow even wider. “It does involve humans on another world, doesn’t it?”
Thoth nodded and leaned in to explain…
“You see,” Athena continued, still giving the fire that small smile, “there were a group of gods that had survived their world’s last Eschaton. Without their people to keep them busy, they’d gone a bit mental, and started abducting members of races from across the cosmos to put onto a hodgepodge world they’d built together. Sort of a…” she groped for the term.
“…a people zoo?” Ryan prompted, and Athena chuckled.
“Not quite. More like a people preservation. They wanted to save members from every species from the end of their respective worlds, whenever that came.”
Anansi shrugged. “That doesn’t seem too bad, no.”
“Oh, it wasn’t. They had one problem, however.” Athena shook her head in the fire. “They’d put two dozen races on it…and then left with no explanation. It had fallen to war pretty much immediately.”
“So Thoth wanted to, what, rescue the humans?” Crystal asked.
“I actually asked him almost the same thing.” Athena said, “but that wasn’t the problem. The problem was, they were conquering the other species, and the gods that had brought them there thought that maybe human gods could get them to stop.”
The world was a bit cooler than the Mediterranean climates the two gods were used to, and Minerva drew her robe tighter around herself as they wound through a mountain pass. “I don’t still don’t understand why they need us for this, Thoth. Surely they have the power to put a stop to it.”
“Ahhh, that’s where the confusion lies. It’s not about power – they don’t want to use brute force. They don’t believe in causing harm any more. Even to prevent harm to others.”
Minerva sniffed at the thought. “Strange gods, then. But really, how bad could it…oh my.”
They’d round the bend and before them stretched the Valley of Humanity. Or, as the other species had begun to call it, the Valley of Terror.
In the few generations they’d been here, the humans – who had been gathered from around the globe – had overcome their language barriers and built a thriving city. The city was made out of a black stone unique to this alien world, and its walls were carved with a pidgin script that had arisen from their native tongues. The warnings were clear “We are Humanity. Bow Before Us or Break Upon Us.”
Humans walked freely in and out of the gates of that great city, but other species passed through it in chains or on carts. The ones that passed on carts were not moving.
“Hubris,” Minerva said as she began to stride forward, drawing a staff out of her nanoverse, “pure, unadulterated hubris. Shall we teach them the error in that?”
Thoth cracked his neck and reached into his own nanoverse, pulling out a staff of his own. “By all means, lead on.”
Minerva did, reaching out to bring an earthquake into existence under the city’s battlements as she did.
“What’d you do?” Ryan asked, leaning forward.
Athena chuckled. “We cracked their walls and then…just stood there. For five days, we let them throw everything they had at us. Catapults and ballistae bolts and arrows and spearmen and anything they could muster. We just stood there and defended, not taking a single life, until finally they sent out an emissary to ask us what we wanted.”
“Did they listen?” Dianmu had mostly been silent during the story, but she had her own half smile at the thought.
“Oh yes. For the two hundred years Thoth and I were together, we would check up on them regularly to make sure they were behaving. No more conquest or war except for defense or to protect an ally. They declared us the gods of their city, so I can say I’m one of the few of us to have been worshipped on two words simultaneously.”
“That’s quite an accomplishment,” Anansi said, and gave Athena a slight bow. “Thank you for that. I never expected a story that I had not only not heard, but never imagined.”
Athena preened a bit, and Ryan smiled as he asked, “So what are they up to now? Formed a big egalitarian society of multiple species?”
Athena shook her head. “Sadly, the gods that made that world eventually gave in to age and let their nanoverses undergo heat death. Without their powers to maintain it…” she shrugged. “The world hadn’t had an atmosphere before they did their work. Without them, the sun stripped it away in a matter of months.”
“Damn,” Crystal said, frowning. “Shame about that.”
Ryan winced slightly. “Sorry for ruining the mood there.”
Athena shrugged and Anansi smiled at Ryan. “The first rule of a story circle. Always let the teller choose where the story ends.”
“There are rules?” Ryan said, glad that the topic had been changed from that rather depressing epilogue.
“Oh yes,” Anansi nodded, and Ryan could see the others agreeing with him. “But I think it is better for you to learn them by experience.”
“You would,” Ryan said without rancor, then looked around. “Alright then, since I’m learning the rules, who goes next?”
“Second rule,” Anansi said, directing his attention towards Athena again, “She told last story, so she gets to choose next to tell.”
Athena scanned the group, her eyes settling on Dianmu. “I feel like I barely know you. I’d love to hear one of your tales.”
Dianmu gave her a slight nod of acknowledgement. “Then I’ll be happy to be the next to speak.” She stood up and stretched, wincing at her injuries as she did. Then with a gesture, she turned Athena’s flame blue.
“And I know exactly what story I should tell.”