Of all the traits, rhinoceroses were not known for their keen vision. Quite the opposite, in fact – the Sphinx pushing its way into the room was initially as blurry as the optometrists bottom row was to someone with severe myopia. It was taking Isabel some time to sort out what she was seeing.
Fortunately, the rhino’s hearing and vision were working perfectly fine Unfortunately, the Sphinx’s reeked of lion, one of the few creatures able to hunt and kill rhinos. Even worse, it didn’t scare the rhino’s soul Isabel was sharing this body with.
It just pissed it off.
Before Isabel was entirely sure what she was doing, she’d lowered her head and pawed the ground in a warning gesture. Back the fuck off or I’ll run you down, she thought, a moment before her rational brain was able to assert itself. You’re here to talk, not to fight!
She barely felt Crystal’s hand on her flank. “Easy there, love.”
“You…brought a rhino…to the moon?” the Sphinx said slowly, enunciating each word carefully. “Why?”
“Figured I could use some backup if you didn’t want to talk, love.” Crystal’s tone was calm, her scent confident, and although the rhino was skittish at the scent of human, it helped Isabel assert more control. “Which is what we’re here to do. Talk.”
Isabel knew that last word was meant for her, and her ears flicked at the reproach.
“That answers my second question. I assume you want to talk about your first – why are you here?”
Crystal took a deep breath. “We need the staff of Ra.”
The faint amusement Isabel had heard in the Sphinx’s voice vanished. “You need my staff,” he said flatly.
Crystal’s scent changed to confusion. “You still think of yourself as Ra?”
“Of course I do,” the Sphinx said dismissively. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“I just…I didn’t think any memories of who you were before remained. After dying and becoming a…I mean, after you turn into…”
“A monster,” Ra said. “If you thought you would offend me, Ishtar, you are sorely mistaken. You humans have thought as me for a monster for quite some time.”
The situation didn’t seem to be escalating. Isabel shifted back to her human form, then stood up from all fours and brushed herself off. “You know each other?”
“I met Ra once,” Crystal said offhandedly.
“But I’ve never met you,” Ra said.
Now that she could see him, Isabel had to fight the urge to stare. His body was all leonine, although the fur ran closer to gold than the tawny color of a lion. It almost shone in the light. Being a rhino had also blinded her to the sheer size of Ra. He was far larger than a lion had any right to be, almost as large compared to a lion as a lion would be to a housecat. The face that was staring at her was similarly sized, a regal human head sitting atop those shoulders. “Um…Isabel Smith, sir,” Isabel said, fighting the urge to babble.
Ra’s head turned towards Crystal. “You brought a Nascent here?”
“She’s not Nascent,” Crystal said, putting a hand on Isabel’s shoulder. “Just new at this.”
Ra studied Isabel for a moment lower, and nodded. Isabel felt a surge of relief. Crystal had worded that very carefully – it was easy for Ra to assume Isabel was a full fledged goddess, and not a mortal with some shapeshifting tricks. That relief was quickly obliterated when Ra spoke again. “You have yet to convince me I shouldn’t gut you both,” he growled. “The staff is too dangerous to be out in the world. I’m here to prevent it from ever leaving.”
“Begging your pardon,” Crystal said, “but there are things more dangerous than the staff.”
“Such as?” Ra growled.
“The end of the world.”
Ra studied her for a moment, then began to laugh, a deep sound somewhere between real laughter and a roar. “You still cling to that myth about the Eschaton, Isthar? Even after all these years?”
“First of all,” Isabel interjected, “her name’s Crystal now. Second of all…myth? The sun’s getting hotter, right outside your moon base.”
Ra returned his attention to Isabel. “I do not venture out of here often,” Ra admitted, “but I find that hard to believe.”
“Don’t take my word for it. Step outside and see for yourself.”
Ra cocked his head at her in a very cat-like gesture of confusion. “And I can tell a difference of a few degrees? I am not some kind of temperature gauge – if it was hot enough for me to tell without air, the Earth would be cinders by now.”
“I could make air for you,” Crystal said helpfully.
“And just heat the air to suit your story? I think not.” Ra’s jaw stretched open in a lazy yawn. “I never trusted you, Ishtar. How did you escape Enki’s wrath?”
“I ran like a bloody coward,” Crystal’s voice was too bright with forced ease. “Can you blame me? He was off his sodding rocker, yeah?”
“So you claimed. He claimed you were the mad one. That was why I stayed out of your little spat. Too much…back and forth. No way to divine the truth.” Ra huffed out a breath. “Much like right now. You claim extraordinary things, and you offer no proof.”
“I can’t bloody prove it if you want me to wait!” Crystal snapped. “Endless stars, Ra, what could possibly prove it to you?”
Ra considered for a moment, then nodded in acceptance. “I suppose that is a fair point.”
“So you’ll help us?” Isabel asked.
“Oh no,” Ra said, stretching his back and extending his claws. “It just means the time for talk is past. I’d allow you to leave alive, but-”
Isabel glanced at Crystal, whose eyes were wide with sudden panic. If Crystal didn’t like her odds…how could they hope to fight Ra in these cramped quarters. She can’t fight because of me, Isabel realized. If she goes full power and Ra tears a hole in the wall, I’m dead.
“-know where I am. That cannot be tolerated, not-”
“We’re fighting Bast!” Isabel interjected with a wild shout. “She believes us, and she tried to kill my brother over it!”
Crystal stared at her. Ra stared at her. Isabel didn’t know what has possessed her to shout that specific warning. Some vague hope that a member of his own Pantheon would draw his attention, maybe. Or you just wanted to say anything to get him not to pounce.
Ra stared at her for a long pause, during which Isabel’s heartbeat spiked up to the point where it felt like it was going a thousand times a second. Then, slowly, Ra withdrew his claws, and settled back onto his haunches.
“Go on,” He said gradually. Crystal opened her mouth, but Ra shook his head. “No, Ishtar. You speak too quickly, and your words drip with the honey of your lies. I’ll hear this one. And then…then I’ll decide.”
“She knows more of the story than me,” Isabel said.
“I do not care,” Ra said, his voice empty of emotion. “I want to hear your version. Tell me the story, Isabel, and I’ll decide.”
Isabel took a deep breath and plunged ahead, praying for the best.