“I’ve told a few different versions of what happened with Arachne over the centuries,” Athena began, “but never the truth. It’s known to only one other goddess – Artemis. That’s how I knew Hermes message was truly from her.” Athena sighed. “In ancient times, the Olympians employed a sort of…of mentor program when a new god found a nanoverse, throughout their Nascency. Always in pairs.”
“Always two there are,” Isabel muttered to Ryan, who had to fight back a grin.
Athena apparently heard the comment and gave Isabel a puzzled look. “Yes. That is what pairs means.”
“It’s…never mind.” Isabel shook her head. “Sorry, please go on.”
“Pop culture reference, love,” Crystal said primly. Once again, Ryan found himself wondering if Crystal had actually understood the reference or was just good at spotting and rolling with references as they happened. Of course, if I asked her, she’d say something vague and leave me more confused.
“Ah. Well, it had been time for me to take an apprentice. I was given charge of a young Goddess named Arachne. Back then, we didn’t think of it as twisting reality – that’s a more modern convention. We thought of it as weaving the elements. And Arachne…she was one of the most gifted weavers I’d ever seen. She had a natural affinity for the elements unrivaled by any other Nascent. An affinity that every bit as great as her ambition.”
“To complete their apprenticeship and be fully considered an Olympian, a god or goddess had to complete a Trial. You’ve heard myths of some of these – the twelve labors of Heracles are the most famous of them. I set Arachne’s trial as one that was both simple and impossible – she had to beat me in a challenge of weaving.”
“I was hundreds of years old at this point. I’d fought in the Titanomachy, and was one of the finest warriors on Olympus.” Ryan couldn’t fight the smile this time. I wonder if I could say that with so little arrogance. “It would be decades, maybe even centuries before Arachne could best me in combat.”
“Why’d you give her an impossible task?” Crystal asked, frowning.
“Because the real trial wasn’t to actually beat me. It was for her…she needed to prove she could get past that arrogance.” She fixed her gaze on Crystal. “You saw what the Titanomachy did, Crystal.”
“What did it do?” Isabel asked.
“Did you study the Bronze Age Collapse?” Athena asked.
Isabel nodded, then her eyes widened. “That was the end result?”
“Yes. In our war with the Titans, we destroyed them. Not the Titans – we did. Because we were reckless, because we were so damn arrogant. That was why we made hubris the highest sin among our followers – because it was a reminder to ourselves what could happen if we fell into arrogance. I needed Arachne to prove she could get over that arrogance.”
Athena lapsed into silence for a moment. “What happened?” Ryan asked.
“She took another path. She did…she did a terrible thing to overcome me.” Athena shook her head. “Don’t ask me what it was. I’ve kept her secret for millennia. The story became a parable of the follies of arrogance.” Athena took a deep breath. “I turned her into a spider.”
“How did you manage to make that stick?” Anansi asked. “She was a goddess, it should have been simple for her to learn how to change herself back.”
“Yes, it would have been. Had I not taken her first to a place where my will was absolute, a place where she held no power.”
Dianmu looked sick. “You took her into your nanoverse?”
“Yes.” Athena took a ragged breath. “I made her immortal. I’ve preserved her existence through even collapses of my nanoverse. She goes into hibernation during the beginning and end of each cycle, awakening anew when intelligent life forms and slumbering again when she would otherwise be isolated.”
Silence returned to the table.
“So…you want to let her out?” Ryan asked finally. “After…what, hundreds of thousands of years for her? Millions?”
“Yes,” Athena said simply. “I know she’ll likely hate me. She’ll likely become a thorn in our side. But…I cannot let her suffering continue any longer. If I were to suffer true death…” Athena let the thought trail off.
“Love, I understand wanting to right past wrongs, but there’s no way she isn’t completely bugnuts by now,” Crystal said, as gently as she could. “And even if you brought her out, you’d be condemning her to a mortal life. Her nanoverse had to undergo heat death long ago.”
“I left her nanoverse. She’s been able to reset it, although not draw power from it. I couldn’t bring myself to condemn her to death, I certainly couldn’t do it to the innocent people in her nanoverse.”
“So let me get this straight,” Ryan said. “You want to go into your nanoverse and pull out a woman who is also a millions of years old spider that will have access to the full power of a goddess and literally every reason to hate you. You want to do this now, right before we are moving into the last days of the world, and any distraction could mean the end of the human reason. On top of all that, your only reason for doing so is because it’s the ‘right thing to do’?”
Athena gave him a careful look. “Yes,” she said, tensing up.
Ryan smiled. “That’s…that’s great, Athena.” She was still studying him, looking for any signs of sarcasm, and Ryan shook his head. “I mean it, really.” It surprised him that he did. Every part of his brain was screaming that this was a terrible idea, except for a little voice in the back of his head that was screaming fuck logic, this is wrong. Just as Athena started to relax, Ryan went on, “But I don’t think you should go in there alone.”
“Excuse me?” Athena asked, the tension returning.
“No, he’s right.” Dianmu said after a moment. “It’s not safe.”
“It’s in my nanoverse,” Athena protested. “How could it possibly be dangerous?”
“Well, besides the fact that I recently got an abject lesson in how dangerous a nanoverse can be?” Crystal asked. “Athena, you could barely tell us the story of what happened. Bloody hell, it’s still full of holes, and that was you coming clean. Do you really think you’re ready to face Arachne, have a sit down?”
Athena opened her mouth to protest, but Isabel stepped in. “No one but you can speak for your own mental state, Athena. But do you really think Arachne wouldn’t appreciate an intermediary? Nothing personal, but if it was me and you showed up after millions of years, I don’t think I’d be able to say anything other than various swear words while trying to claw your eyes out.”
Athena sat there for a moment, clearly struggling. “Who would go?” She finally asked.
Crystal tapped her chin. “Gee, if only we had someone here who already had to sit out of both of the active missions we were planning.” She gave Anansi a pointed look.
He smiled at Athena. “I’d be honored to aid you. I know a thing or two about talking to spiders, anyway.”
Athena slumped in what looked to Ryan like a combination of relief and defeat. “Fine. But it’s just into my nanoverse – we could still join you afterwards.”
“Oh no,” Crystal said in unison with Dianmu. Crystal motioned for Dianmu to continue. “Athena, if Arachne is hostile when she gets out, the last thing we want to do it dangle Ryan in front of her. Or any of us, for that matter. You and Anansi will need some time to assess her mental state, make sure it’s safe for us to be around her.”
“I…yes, that makes sense. I don’t like leaving you shorthanded.”
“Don’t worry!” Isabel said brightly. “Crystal and I just need to have a chat with a Sphinx, and Ryan and Dianmu are just having a chat with the Curators. It’ll be-”
“Don’t you dare say ‘it’ll be easy,’” Ryan interrupted.
Isabel gave him a broad grin. “I didn’t. You did. That means if this goes pear-shaped, it’s your fault now.”
Athena let out a small snort of laughter, the tension beginning to fade from her shoulders as she did. “Do you always run circles around him?” she asked Isabel.
“Oh no, absolutely not. There was a time when he could run circles around me. Then I learned to walk.” The ensuing laughter was exactly what they needed to break the tension.
Ryan just wished he could shake the horrible feeling that they were forgetting something important.