Once back inside the fortress, they took time tending to each other’s wounds, utilizing a combination of what little divine power they had left and normal bandages to make sure they were as ready to recuperate as possible. While Resheph would provide the bulk of the watch duties with the drones, it was decided they should take some time to be awake themselves, with Dianmu arguing that if Moloch managed to sneak something past the drones, someone needed to be alert enough to fight while the others were awoken.
No one said out loud that they also didn’t trust Resheph, not fully. It would have been easy for Moloch to spare him for exactly this purpose, and none of them wanted to risk a knife in the dark.
Crystal had to give her nanoverse an extra squeeze for a bit more energy so she could take first watch while the others slept. They each took a two hour turn to make sure everyone got a chance to feed that Hunger. Ryan was after Dianmu, who awoke him with a shake on his shoulder.
“Ugh,” he grunted as he peeled his eyes open, blinking away the sleep. “We didn’t bring coffee. Why did we not bring coffee?”
Dianmu gave him a small smile at the comment. “Because none of us are prescient. A shame. I think I’d fight a Hecatoncheires for a cup of coffee.”
Ryan could only grunt in agreement as he swung his legs over to the side and forced himself to his feet. He ran his hands over his face as he did. “I motion that we start treating caffeine as an actual Hunger going forward. Back me on that when everyone else is up?”
“Absolutely,” Dianmu said, stepping back. “I’m honestly surprised we didn’t start doing that ages ago. It’s the nectar of the gods, after all.”
A smile crept its way across Ryan’s face at that, and he pushed himself to his feet. “No movement?” he asked.
“Some. Nothing too concerning.” Dianmu shrugged. “It seems Moloch wants to take the time to focus his attack on the Olympian’s defenses. A small group has been set up as a rear-guard to be ready for an attack by us. Another dozen Helhests, with some form of goat-monster I haven’t seen before. A custom creation of his, I think.”
Ryan groaned at the thought. “That’s why he took the nanoverses, isn’t it? So he can kill of gods at his leisure, calling up new monsters as needed.”
“So it would seem.” Dianmu curled her lips into a grimace at the thought. “I should have killed him when I had the chance.”
That made Ryan sit up straighter, blasting away the last cobwebs of sleep from his brain. “You had a chance to kill him?”
Dianmu got a faraway look. “It was back in the second century of the Roman calendar, the year 2789 by how the Han Dynasty counted years. The general Ban Chao sent an envoy to the west. Gan Ying. I went with them, to ensure the trip was a success and because I was curious. We came across a small cult that was forming in the Parthian empire. One of the local gods, Anahita, had been killed, and I was asked by Ahura Mazda to help them root out the killer.”
Ryan tilted his head. “Why did…Ahura Mazda?” Dianmu nodded and he continued, “why did Ahura Mazda asked for your help? Couldn’t they handle it themselves?”
“They absolutely could have, yes. However, a goddess was dead, and they knew very little of this cult, so they were all suspecting each other. Ahura Mazda wanted an impartial judge, one who was not a suspect. They were also busy with a terrible Div that had arisen from her death.” Dianmu looked at Ryan’s expression and laughed. “I’ve lost you. Too many names you’ve never heard before?”
Ryan rubbed the back of his neck with a sheepish smile. “I’m going to go ahead and blame it on not getting my fill of sleep yet.”
“Fair,” Dianmu laughed. “Ahura Mazda was the head of his pantheon, when he had one. He was a wise ruler – Zeus without the propensity to perversion.”
“Was?” Ryan interjected, frowning as he did.
The laughter died on Dianmu’s lips. “He was the sole god of his faith for most of his history. By the time I left, he was again the sole god worshipped in his faith.”
Ryan sucked air between his teeth at the thought. “Moloch?”
“Yes. We tracked him down, and Ahura Mazda and myself did battle with Moloch’s creatures. For nearly twelve straight hours we fought against his monsters, to the point of utter exhaustion. He seemed to never run out of new creatures to throw at us. What we didn’t know was that was what Moloch wanted. We were never his real targets – the rest of the gods of the region were.” Dianmu sighed. “He’d thought, as many later did, that Anahita and Ishtar were one in the same. After he killed her, when he learned he was wrong, he decided to wipe them all out.”
“That’s…that’s pretty sick.” Ryan rubbed the back of his neck to try and push down some of the hairs standing on ends there. “I killed the wrong person, better kill everyone while I’m at it?”
Dianmu grimaced “It’s perfectly in line with the logic I’ve always known him to employ.”
“I…really need to ask Crystal why she thought we could work with him,” Ryan muttered.
“Because Crystal, for all the millenia I’ve known her, under any name I’ve known her by, will always give someone a second chance if they seem sincere. No matter what they’ve done, no matter how monsterous, she’s never not given that second chance.” Dianmu met Ryan’s eyes, “I can’t imagine, now that we know her full story, any reason she might be so forgiving.”
“Heh,” Ryan said without a trace of humor. “Fair. Sorry, I diverted the conversation. So you and Ahura Mazda were fighting Moloch’s monsters? You said you had the chance to kill him.”
Dianmu sighed. “I suppose it was a bit of an overstatement to say we could have killed him. The two of us were overmatched, too many of Moloch’s creatures, backed by the Div he’d created from Anahita’s death. But I’ve often wondered, if we had pushed harder, if I’d gone and gotten backup from my own people – even just brought my husband into it – if maybe we could have won.” She met Ryan’ gaze again, more firmly than before. “It’s a game you’ll find yourself playing over the centuries, Ryan. ‘What if I had…’ Take a piece of advice from an old goddess?”
“Stop playing the game as soon as you’ve learned your lesson for next time. No one has the power to change the past, not here in the real world. You’ll go mad thinking you can undo what you have wrought.”
“I…” Ryan had to lick his lips, finding his mouth feeling dryer all of a sudden. “I’ll try.”
“That’s all anyone can ask.” Dianmu smiled and patted him on the shoulder. “One more piece of advice, since you’re in a listening mood?”
Ryan nodded again, unsure of what to expect.
“Life is not eternal, even for us. We go tomorrow to fight against monsters lead by a worse monster.” She glanced over to where Athena lay, snoring gently, then back at Ryan. “Do not wait too long to act on things you could lose.”
Ryan cleared his throat, feeling his face flush. Dianmu smiled at him, and Ryan groped for a new subject. “Hey, something your story reminded me of that I’ve been wondering about that.” Ryan asked, scratching his chin as he did. “Athena and I fought dozens of mummies and manticores. Moloch’s got dozens of Helhests out there, and there was a whole army of Varcolaci on Graham Island. Were those all dead gods?”
Dianmu’s eyes sparkled with amusement at the topic change. “No. The death of a god creates a monster. Varcolaci, Helhests, manticores, demons, undead? Those are all born from the death of a mortal being.”
Ryan frowned. “How do you tell the difference?”
Dianmu gave him a wry grin. “A single creature doesn’t stand a chance against a god. A single monster does…well, would you rather face a lone Helhest, or a lone Lindworm?”
“Fair enough.” Ryan said with a shudder at the thought. “Anyway, I should go take my watch. And you should get the rest of your sleep.”
Dianmu nodded. “I do hope you consider my advice, Ryan Smith. Both of them.” And then, before he could speak further, she got up and headed towards her bed.
Ryan could head to join Resheph and the drones on watch. It would be his turn to wake up Athena in two hours. Plenty of time for you to chicken out of doing anything, he thought to himself with another sigh.