“Mine doesn’t go back nearly as far as Athena’s,” Dianmu said. She still stood, her gaze not focused on the fire but going from person to person around the campfire. “I’d like to instead tell a story from not that long ago. It begins in nineteen thirty-seven.”
Ryan involuntarily sucked in air, drawing Dianmu’s attention. “Not a great year,” he said, his voice low.
Instead of looking annoyed, Dianmu gave him a small smile. “No, it was not. Although it was paled by far darker years to come. I wasn’t unaware of the conflict brewing in Europe, but I was much more focused on events far closer to home.” She shrugged slightly. “I think, if I had known what was going on in Europe truly, I would have joined the theomachy going on over there.”
“Theomachy?” Ryan asked.
She nodded. “A war among gods, the last big one. One fought with more secrecy than previous ones, a war that started in Europe and spilled out into the planes beyond.”
“It kept us busy for most of the second World War,” Crystal added, giving Dianmu a curious look. “I always wondered where you were during all that, love.”
“Well, allow me to remove that wonder. I was in my homeland, during the second Sino-Japanese war. But I wasn’t fighting a war, not in the normal sense. I was avenging a murder.”
“Who?” Athena asked, quietly.
“My husband, Lei Gong. His long standing feud with Raijin across the Sea of Japan had finally come to blows. Again. But this time, Raijin was not satisfied with winning the fight. Upon Lei Gong’s death, he took his nanoverse…and shattered it.”
No one made a sound, but the sympathy that came washing from them had a near audible force. Ryan could see on the faces of the others that, even though he did feel for Dianmu’s loss, it struck them much more personally. Dianmu nodded. “So, even though for four thousand years I had let my husband have his personal war and stayed out of it, Raijin had proved he would commit the ultimate act. I couldn’t let him live after that. So I sought him out.”
The other gods settled back to listen.
In four millenia, Dianmu had never known pain like this. She’d suffered loss, she’d endured injury, she’d mourned friends. But though it all, there had been one constant. Lei Gong had been by her side every step of the way. No other divine marriage she had heard of had lasted as long as theirs.
And now he was gone. She didn’t even have his body.
She had gone to the Jade Emperor and made her case. She had pointed out that Raijin had violated an ancient taboo, and he must be punished. She’d appealed to his logic, to his reason, to his sense of honor. She’d even appealed to his heart at the end, breaking down in tears of rage and all but begging him for justice.
Ane he had been unmoved. The pantheons stood on the edge of a Theomachy, and the Jade Emperor would not grant her aid for fear of it being the catalyst that set all out divine war in motion.
She would get no aid in hunt.
The one boon he had granted her, the only consolation, was that he would not forbid her from seeing justice herself.
I wonder if that was because he honestly believes I should, she thought with a bitter note to the thought, or if he doesn’t think it’s worth the effort to stop me.
It didn’t matter, not really. What mattered more than anything else was finding Raijin and making him pay. Somehow. The problem was, in their four thousand years, she and Lei Gong had always been equals. And Raijin had never lost to Lei Gong, not once in four thousand years.
“As I hunted, as my grief began to ebb, I realized that I couldn’t best him, not in brute strength. That was why Lei Gong had always lost to him – their battles were always in terms of raw power. I had to be smarter than him.”
Dianmu fell quiet for a moment, her gaze at the fire having turned sad some time before. “That’s why I initially appealed to the Jade Emperor for aid. If any of the other deities would join me, even one, I’d be able to take the fight to Raijin and win.”
“So you weren’t looking for an honorable fight?” Athena asked, her voice without judgement.
Dianmu sniffed. “Raijin had murdered my husband. I wanted his head on a spear that I could shove into a pile of cow shit until it lost its humor value.”
Athena gave her a savage smile. “I understand completely.” Ryan glanced at Crystal, who nodded in agreement. They both were certain she was thinking of Tyr.
“It sounds like you faced quite a problem,” Anansi commented, leaning forward. “If you could not best him in direct confrontation, it sounds like your options are limited.”
“I mean – if I can interrupt for a second? There’s something I don’t understand,” Ryan asked, glancing at Dianmu.
She smiled, and Ryan noticed the damp glimmer to her eyes. “Since Anansi is insisting you learn each lesson as it comes, that is the third rule. A story should always be interrupted if comprehension is lost.”
“Alright. How can you be certain you couldn’t beat Raijin? We all operate pretty close to the same power, right?”
“Normally, yes. But Raijin frequently engaged in sacrifice. That’s how he got his reputation for eating children, you see.”
“Ah,” Ryan said, wincing at the thought. “Okay, fair enough.”
Dianmu checked his face for comprehension, then continued. “So I needed to find a way to beat him, but I couldn’t rely on overpowering him. I needed a plan. And on my way to finally confront him, I thought I had one.”
The cliff where Raijin made his home would have been nightmarish for a mortal. For Dianmu, twisting reality slightly as she climbed when her divine strength wasn’t enough, it was merely annoying.
Raijin’s castle atop the mountain was a testament to his arrogance. It was balanced precariously on the edge of a cliff that should have buckled under the castle’s weight. Only modifications made using Raijin’s power allowed it to stay in place.
“Raijin!” She shouted once it was in sight, amplifying her voice to the point where it shook the valley below. “We have business, and I have a grievance that must be addressed.”
A howl of wind answered her, and Raijin can soaring out of a window, riding a cloud made solid so he could stand on it. He was hideous in appearance, which hadn’t always been uncommon, although these days it had faded into irrelevance. But once upon a time, many gods loved to wear monstrous or demonic forms to make sure mortals knew exactly what they were.
Raijin had not abandoned that tradition. He was, in many ways, old fashioned like that. Keeping a monster form, living in a castle on a cliff in a secluded valley,
“Dianmu,” Raijin hissed. “I’m not surprised. Although you could have knocked.”
“You murdered Lei Gong. You murdered my husband. You destroyed his nanoverse. Did you think I would show up asking for your hospitality?”
“I suppose not,” Raijin sighed. “So this is it, then? You and me, a battle to the death? Seems very…unnecessary. My battle was with your husband, not you.”
“I have a dispensation from the Jade Emperor. A chance for you to balance the scales. Not a battle to the death. A competition. Three tasks. If I win all three, you will allow me to slay you. If you win all three, my life is yours to do with what you will. Should either loose any one task, we will try all three again the next day, until there is a winner.”
Raijin scratched his chin, studying her for a moment. “And should I decline this generous offer?”
“Then the forces of Heaven will descend upon you for your transgression and the destruction of a nanoverse.”
“Ah. Well, when you put it that way…shall we begin?”
“The first task was to snatch a gnat out of the air. A simple one, but one I had practiced on the way to his home. The second was a dance, perfectly done, and one I had memorized long ago. Two tasks I was sure I would win at first. The third was a race to the end of the valley. This task I had no hope of winning, because he was more powerful. He could simply bend time to favor him and would never fail in this one.” Dianmu stretched her shoulders as she continued.
“For twenty one days we did these three tasks. By the end of the first week, he could best me in catching the gnat. By the twentieth day, he could do the dance without error.”
“On the twenty first day, I made an error in the dance. He had already caught the gnat first, and then it was time for the race, the one I had never won. That day, we both twisted time as we ran, but he was more powerful. He bested me easily, reaching the end of the valley before I did. He turned around, ready to gloat, to boast how he had won.”
She paused here, and Ryan couldn’t help himself. “And then?”
Her face broke into a satisfied smile. “And then the artillery batteries that I had moved into position opened fire. After twenty one days of manipulating time, with no rest to recharge his hungers. Raijin was absolutely spent, had no energy left to defend himself, and was unfamiliar with artillery. I will forever savor the look of surprise on his face as he was blown to pieces.”
“Ha!” Crystal said, her voice glowing with reflected triumph. “Oh, that’s bloody brilliant. Well done.”
Ryan opened his mouth, then closed it again. Dianmu gave him a raised eyebrow. “Almost violated the rule. I’m supposed to let you choose when the story ends.”
“Well remembered, Ryan. But it’s fine, I know the question. I did destroy his nanoverse, gave him the same fate he had given Lei Gong. And after that, I retreated from the world to grieve. By the time I learned what was happening in the world, it was over.”
“Well, I’m glad you did. He had it coming, and it sounds like Raijin would be working with Moloch if he was still alive.”
Dianmu laughed at that. “Oh yes, he would have. The world was much better off without him.”
The laughter died down, and Dianmu settled back into her seat. “Now then. You delayed before, old spider, but I would like to hear your story next. Whichever one it might be.”
Anansi gave her a seated bow. “Then I will be happy to share, after that lovely tale of revenge.” He leaned forward, taking his turn to stare into the fire for a moment.
“My story begins long ago, before mankind had built cities or farms. My story is of the first monster I ever slew…”