“Hey, Athena, Anansi?” Isabel’s voice came over the speaker. “Sorry, missed this at first. There’s a four way intersection if you double back. Just turn around and hang right, it’ll be about two hundred yards down if the drone’s detectors were right.”
“Understood,” Athena said, looking up into the drone’s mechanical eye. “Thank you, Isabel. And the others are still alright?”
“Yup. Ryan and Dianmu have bunked down for a rest, and I’m keeping Crystal company. I’m going to power these down. Audio will be on, so shout if you need me.”
“Understood,” Athena said again, watching the drones float to the ground. Anansi grabbed a couple, and she did the same.
“You don’t trust them either?” Anansi asked, waving one of the drones to show what he meant.
Athena nodded as they headed back down the hallway. “I know it’s absurd. Technology advances, and these devices aren’t any stranger than others that have come before. But they fly without pilots and carry messages and can see. That’s too much like a living thing for my comfort.”
Anansi gave her a smile of agreement. “I take some comfort knowing young Isabel sits behind the controls, and can shut them down when she wishes.”
“Do you? Or are you just saying that because she can still hear us?” Athena’s tone was as light as she could manage.
“I see no reason those statements need be exclusive,” Anansi chuckled.
Athena gave him a smile and waited. When no response came from Isabel, she shrugged. “I guess she’s busy talking with Crystal.”
“Or just has the volume low. She did say to shout if we need her attention.”
“Fair enough.” They walked down the passage in silence for a bit.
As they came to the four way intersection, Anansi shattered the silence with the delicacy of the Minotaur. “So, Gray-Eyed Athena, why do you mistrust us tricksters and spiders so much?”
The question was so unexpected Athena nearly tripped over her own feet. “I…what?”
Anansi grinned at her. “Forgive my bluntness, but it has been weighing on me for some time. You never finished your story from before.”
“You do enjoy asking uncomfortable questions.” Athena frowned, and then shook her head as she settled onto a seat she wove out of Air with a dash of Fire to keep it warm. “Why do you want to know? Clearly we’ve passed my…well, my prejudice. “
“Clearly,” Anansi said with a grin, choosing to weave himself a seat like hers. Facing each other like this, they could see down all four corridors. “But it sounded like a good story. And I do love good stories.”
Athena sighed. “It’s old news now, but if you must know…they’re separate stories, but tied together.”
Anansi leaned forward, his grin unchanged, “Go on.”
“So I told you I was young and in love. Not young by mortal standards, but I’d only recently passed two hundred years. When I found them in bed…well, it was a bucket of frozen water. I hadn’t acted on my love, not yet. I’d waited too long, at least in my mind. Turning Arachne into a spider was a petty act of revenge for not only the theft of the heart of one I desired, but also for my defeat.”
“Hmmm,” Anansi nodded. “I’ve heard another version of the story. Where you did it as punishment for Arachne practicing unnatural arts, or that they had driven her mad.”
Athena looked down for a moment. “It was true she was delving into things a mortal should not know. The secrets of Tartarus, Cypher Nullity – the truth behind dead realms. When I learned she had been doing so, to hide my shame, I told my love that I had turned Arachne into a spider because of a madness from delving into such things. I’m…not proud of that.”
“We’ve all made mistakes.” Anansi said, sympathetically.
“True.” Athena shrugged. “Ever since then, spiders have made me uncomfortable. A reminder of one of the more regrettable things I did. Especially because she truly had done nothing wrong, not really.”
“Because you had not yet professed your love?”
“Yes. Arachne had no way of knowing. Ishtar didn’t even know. It was childish, and neither of them were to blame. I found Arachne later, still alive, and offered to turn her back, but at that point she had been a spider so long she preferred to remain that way. Still, I wonder if she truly was happy, or if she just had grown used to it. I wasn’t about to transform her back against her will,”
“You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself. You tried to make amends, and it was…” Anansi paused, then made a show out of cleaning out his ears with his fingers. “I beg your pardon, but my ears were clogged. It sounded like you said the object of your desire was Ishtar.”
Athena gave him a small smile. “It’s good to see you don’t know everything, old spider. Yes, it was Ishtar.”
“Our Ishtar? The one that now goes by Crystal?” Anansi’s expression of surprise was still comical enough to get a smile out of Athena.
“I prefer to pretend they’re two different people. And you met Ishtar back when she was the goddess of love and war. They *are* different people, in so many ways.”
Anansi nodded thoughtfully. “I prefer the woman we know now to who she was before too. So this ties into your mistrust of Tricksters?”
Athena nodded. “Sometime later, I confessed my feelings. She reciprocated. We had a wonderful couple of centuries together. It was the happiest I’d been in some time…until it wasn’t.”
A long moment passed before Athena spoke. “She is a different woman now. Ishtar is, as far as I’m concerned, long dead. But things between us ended in a spectacular and ugly fashion. I’d prefer to let the details stay buried, to not color your opinion of either of us. Can we leave it at we were both terrible people to each other at the end?”
“Thank you. But the fallout of that breakup was the Punic War. Over a hundred thousand men dead and Carthage burned to the ground and salted because of my spite. ‘Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam.’ I whispered those words in the ears of Cato the Elder.”
“And I think, also, that Carthage must be destroyed.” Anansi said, frowning.
“They’d become Ishtar’s pawns. Some of her old pantheon was there – Bel, Isimud, Ningal, Shamash, a few others. They followed Ishtar gladly. I wanted them broken.” Athena frowned before she continued. “In my rage, I didn’t think about the fact that Carthage was also the land of Hera’s birth. She was beyond enraged. Even though Cartage opposed Rome, she didn’t want them annihilated like that.”
“What did she do?” Anansi asked.
“I was exiled from Olympus. That would have been bad enough, but Hera wasn’t done. Immediately afterwards Hera helped Rome conquer all of Greece. She wanted to take Athens from me. Destroyed Corinth to show what she intended for the city, and then let me wait for the hammer to fall. In one fell swoop, I had lost my family, the first woman I had ever loved, and the city that was my proudest creation. All I had accomplished was death and death. I couldn’t even blame Ishtar for it.”
Athena reached into her bag, pulling out a bottle of water, and took a long drink before handing it to Anansi to do the same. Her throat had grown somewhat raw. “Tell me, trickster. Have you ever loved something so much that losing it destroyed you?”
“Oh yes.” Anansi gave her a bitter grin. “As painful as it is, I think I would mistrust anyone as old as us who had not.”
Athena let out a semi-amused huff of air. “I think I agree with you there. Well, I loved all three that much. It took decades for me to pull myself back together.”
Anansi handed the bottle of water back to her. “I’m glad you were able to.”
“Me too,” Athena smiled. “You know, my people considered me a goddess of wisdom, but I don’t think I really earned that title until long after they gave it to me.”
Anansi stretched back in his chair. “Thank you for telling me.”
“You’re welcome.” Athena yawned. “Although I realize I never really answered your question about Tricksters.”
“I thought it would be rude to point out,” Anansi said, his grin returning, “but I assume it connects?”
Athena gave the slow nod of the sleepy. “During those decades when I was pulling myself together, I met another god who had been cast out of Olympus. A Trickster. Autolycus.”
Anansi raised an eyebrow. “His name was ‘very wolf’?”
“It loses some poetry in translation,” Athena said with a laugh that turned into a yawn halfway through. “Perhaps best a story for our walk tomorrow?”
Anansi nodded. “You seem to be struggling more with that Hunger than I. I’ll take first watch?”
Athena nodded and rolled over on her couch of Air and Fire. She meant to tell Anansi to wake her when he was ready, but exhaustion claimed her before she could even form the words.