“Do you think this will keep Vlad satisfied?” Cassandra asked, looking over the ruined structure.
Bast pursed her lips. Poveglia Plague Island had served as a quarantine zone for the plague in the seventeen hundreds. The last time she had seen the island, it had been riddled with the dead and dying. Now it stood abandoned due a combination of dilapidated infrastructure and a governmental ban from Italy preventing ghost-hunters from infesting the island. No tours, no visitors, no ‘urban explorers.’ What happened in the last century? Bast wondered. It used to be men would avoid such places out of fear for their lives. Now they come with cameras strapped to their heads to shriek to the amazement of the Internet.
None would come here – or if they did, they would find the island haunted by far worst than spectres. The former Admiral patrolled the edge of the island, and his new monstrous form would be the last thing any would-be explorers saw. “It will do well enough,” Bast hissed. The island was, in fact, perfect.
“You don’t seem pleased by that,” Cassandra said in a cautious tone.
“I am,” Bast said with a sigh. Off in the distance, she could see the hunched form of Bridges creeping between ruined buildings, looking for someone to share his torment with. “It just galls me that Vlad’s satisfaction is even remotely relevant.”
Cassandra paused and licked her lips, a sure sign that she had something she wanted to say that she feared would displease Bast. She should speak more freely with me, Bast thought, a thought followed on the heels by, It is right that she defers to me so.
“Speak,” Bast commanded.
“I just wonder if we really need him?” Cassandra asked. “Vlad is in this for his own well-being. The same will be true of the others that he wants to bring in. If the Eschaton can do what we want him to do, why would we want the others to benefit?”
Bast chuckled softly to herself. “You are learning,” she said, and Cassandra flushed at the praise. “I have been wondering myself at that same question. Vlad is…problematic. We needed him at first – learning more of what I am was vital – but now that I’ve learned all I could from him he has become an irritant.”
“Then why not kill him and be done with it?” Cassandra pressed, her voice more excited. “Before he can bring in his allies?”
“Because victory isn’t certain. If I attacked him, perhaps I would win. Perhaps I would not. The risks outweigh the rewards.”
Cassandra nodded, although Bast could still see the doubt behind her eyes. “He speaks to you so disrespectfully. I can tolerate it when he condescends to me, but the way he talks to you…it’s intolerable.”
“I’ve endured far worse. It’s not the first time I’ve served under someone who thought themselves my better.”
“Enki?” Cassandra asked.
Bast nodded. “And others. Before Enki there was Amun. Before Amun there was Osiris. Before Osiris there was Ra.”
“You don’t talk much about that time.”
It wasn’t quite a question, but Bast could hear the curiosity in Cassandra’s tone. “We have time before Vlad returns,” Bast said. “Do you want to hear what it was like?”
Cassandra nodded so eagerly, Bast couldn’t help but smile. She motioned for Cassandra to follow her into the building. “You studied some mythology. What do you know of the myths?”
“Just the broad outlines. Ra learned that mortals were failing to worship him, so he created a goddess to hunt and slaughter them, teach them to fear the gods again. Sekhmet. She instilled tremendous fear among the mortals, and then Ra ordered her to stop. Sekhmet refused. The entire pantheon had to come together to defeat her. After her death, her divine power was transferred into a new goddess, you, who would use that power to protect the people of Egypt.” Cassandra gave her a hopeful look. “Do I have that right?”
“Oh, yes, you have the myth right. But so much of that is untrue. So many lies spread throughout history.” Bast took a seat in one of the few chairs that had the structural integrity to bear a person’s weight, and Cassandra did the same. There was no electricity in here, and the windows were boarded up. The only light came streaming through cracks, creating beams of illumination. The dust they disturbed danced in those beams.
“What really happened, then?” Cassandra asked, leaning carefully on a table that was only half rotted away.
Bast leaned back. “It was true that Ra was losing devotion. Back in those days, we cared more about such things. We weren’t willing to hide in the shadows as we have for so long, and if mortals did not fear enough, we had concerns they would eventually overwhelm us. Some of us even believed we could draw strength from their worship. Any loss of worship was seen as a possible attack, a weak point that could be turned against us.
“Ra didn’t help things by going senile.”
Cassandra’s eyes widened. “That can happen to gods?”
“Not the same way it happens for mortals,” Bast said. “Ra was ancient before Egypt was young. He wasn’t even human, not in the strictest definition of the term. As far as I know, he was the only member of his species to find a nanoverse, although I’m sure Ishtar’s memory goes back further.”
“What was he?”
“Back then, humans called his people the Tah-nok, the Slope-Brows. You scientists prefer a more formal name – Homo Sapiens Neanderthalensis.”
“He was a Neanderthal?” Cassandra’s hand came up to her mouth in shock. “That…that’s insane. Neanderthals died out almost twenty-five thousand years ago. Egypt was founded in the third millennium B.C.E. He had to be at least twenty-two thousand years old!”
“Not quite. You forget that before Egypt there were the Upper and Lower kingdoms. Still, the last of the Tah-nok died out about thirteen thousand years before the Nekhen, the city Sekhmet was from, was founded. At least, that’s what Ra said, and he wasn’t so senile to have forgotten that. But you are correct that Ra was ancient – and he wasn’t Ishtar or Enki. He did not have some driving goal to keep him sane throughout the millennia, some core principle that he could base his continued lucidity around. He started to forget things as the memories piled on, his mind overwhelmed. We can do much, but we cannot overcome the limitations of what the human mind can store. It can lead to something like mortal senility.”
“If he was going senile, why did he care about if mortals worshipped him?”
“Because he hadn’t yet given up on life. He was not yet ready to allow his nanoverse to undergo heat death. So he needed to do something to bring them back in line.”
“That’s when he gave a nanoverse to Sekhmet. A woman who would become a monster to put Set to shame, his personal enforcer to keep mortals in line. And that, truly, is where things begin for our story.”
Cassandra settled in to listen.