Ryan pulled his sword out of the last of the Helhests, sucking in a pained breath as he did. Blood ran from a dozen shallow cuts, and his shirt had been burned away, revealing flesh marked with blisters from their burning breath. He tried not to think about how bad the injuries would have been if not for Athena’s reinforcements. He looked over to Crystal, who gave him her best smile, but the circles under her eyes and unsteady gait would have showed she was feeling the fight as badly as he was, if that hadn’t been given away by how matted her hair was, or her skin burned raw by the earlier steam. “Well, that’s the first round done and gone, yeah? Guess we came out alright in the end.”
Ryan shook his head. “The others still fighting?”
Crystal wove a quick lens in the air and peered into it, and Ryan noticed that she put her sword into the ground, resting on the pommel as she did for balance. “Looks like they just wrapped up too. Bit of a hike to get back, love. May need to catch their breaths, they’re as badly banged up as we are.”
“Damnit,” Ryan muttered, getting a raised eyebrow out of Crystal for the curse. “We’re outmatched, Crystal. That was just an exploratory force, the Lindworm and twenty riders. Moloch’s got a few more dragons and dozens more riders than that, not counting whatever other monsters he’s called up, and we barely won against this! And the Olympians are completely holed up in there. I don’t…I’m worried they won’t come out.”
Crystal motioned for him to walk away from the battlefield with her, which Ryan appreciated. It helped to get even just a bit of distance between the stench of death. “I don’t think they will, love. I think we have to assume we’re on our own here.”
Ryan reached up to rub his temple, where a headache was forming. “If we don’t get help, we’re going to lose!”
“You’re not wrong, love. We’re completely, utterly buggered, no two ways about it.”
Silence fell, and Ryan looked at her for a couple moments, his face full of expectation. “Uh, Crystal. This is usually the part where you give me something we can work with, some kind of reassurance?”
Crystal shrugged, but her smile didn’t waiver. “Here’s the thing. I don’t have anything like that for you. Wish I could say I did.” Ryan’s face began to fall, but she continued, “Then again, I didn’t have any idea how we were supposed to be Enki when he was juiced up. Looking at that fight, I would have said the same thing if you’d asked.”
Ryan felt his mouth fall open in shock. “You…I mean, you seemed so calm during that fight. Like we had it the entire time.”
“And am I acting any differently now?” she asked, quirking an eyebrow as she did. Ryan shook his head. “There you go then.”
“Then why’s this feel so much worse, Crystal? I was worried then, scared out of my damn mind, but it didn’t feel anywhere near this hopeless.”
Crystal reached out to put a hand on his shoulder, carefully placing it on unburned skin. “Because, love, this time you know more. You know your strength and the rest of our strength. You know what you can and can’t do, and right know everything you know is telling you that you can’t beat this. It’s telling you that we’re facing against impossible odds, and that at the end of the day we’re going to fail, yeah?” Ryan grimaced as he nodded. “Well, bollocks to that. We’ve done the impossible before, and you barely knew what you were doing! Not only that, we did it with grace and style and some cheeky jokes about the whole thing. So stop thinking it’s impossible, because we’ve already dealt with that word before, and we will pull it off again, yeah?”
Ryan felt a smile form on his face. “Okay, yeah. We’ve got this.”
“Good lad.” She took her hand off his shoulder and swung the lens to survey Moloch’s army. After a couple minutes of surveying it, she let out a hiss of air in surprise. “Oh, and here’s some good news, love! Well, also some bad news. I found your sister.”
She stepped aside as Ryan rushed over to look. Isabel was on her knees, in chains. Moloch was talking to her, and nearby Uriel stood with her arms crossed, her face impassive. “Oh that son of a bitch. Arthur sold us out.”
Crystal’s voice was still casual, “Seems like it. Explains how she vanished so utterly, yeah? Angels can go places our staging areas don’t reach. Just whisked her away.”
“Damnit. Doesn’t this violate our agreement?” Ryan asked, clenching and unclenching his fists. “How can he possibly give her a nanoverse now?”
“You made a deal with the King of Hell?” Crystal asked, and Ryan turned to face her.
“Yeah. To find Isabel a nanoverse. Wanted to make sure – I mean, had to make sure she survived all this.”
Crystal gave him an understanding nod. “Then she’s probably semi-safe right now. I mean, did anything in the agreement specify that you had to still be alive when he gave it to her? Or that she had to retain her freedom after getting one?”
If Ryan had been less exhausted, he might have lashed out with a bolt of lightning or something similar out of sheer frustration. “No. Nothing…damnit, he could probably technically fulfill it by having Uriel put it in her hand and then cutting her head off.” Nausea that had nothing to do with his injuries was washing over him. “I gave him the knife, turned my back to him, and said ‘oh no I hope you don’t stab me with that knife.’”
“Hey, Ryan.” Crystal motioned in his face to draw his attention away from his fears. “Pulling off the impossible again, right? Stop bloody wallowing in what could go wrong, focus on how we’re going to get it to go right.”
Ryan took a few deep breaths. “Okay,” he said, rubbing his face as he did. “Yeah, you’re right. We’re going to beat Moloch, we’re going to save my sister, and then we’re going to pop over to Hell and kick Arthur’s ass.”
“That’s the spirit.” At that moment, the others crested the hill. Athena and Anansi were leaning on each other for support, and Dianmu was using her glaive as a walking stick.
“You all alright?” Ryan asked. Nods of affirmation replied, although Athena’s seemed more sincere than the other two’s.
“We need rest,” Dianmu added, pointing back at the fortress Crystal and her had constructed. “We should fortify that as strongly as possible, and then take care of our Hungers.”
“Agreed,” Ryan said, tearing himself away from the lens completely. You’re no good to Isabel if you get yourself killed, he reminded himself. “But there’s still a risk while we’re resting.”
“I can keep watch.” Ryan jumped at the voice coming from one of the drones. With everything going on, he’d forgotten that Resheph had been watching the whole thing from behind the screens. “I think I’ve gotten the controls for these things down, and I’ve got plenty of energy to spare.”
“Thank you,” Ryan said. Knowing they had someone covering them was the final shove to push him over the edge as his legs started to sag, and he used his sword to support his weight the way Crystal had as the weight of his injuries and exhaustion began to settle into his bone. There were other Hungers to tend to, but right now what he needed sleep. “Everyone able to make the walk?”
Weary nods all around. They headed back to the fortress to sleep, Ryan’s tired brain turning over and over as they did, trying to find some solution to the impossible fight ahead.