Athena raised her hand, putting a barrier between herself and Arachne. Here in her nanoverse, it wasn’t a barrier of anything. It was just a barrier, a spot in the universe through which matter could not pass. A fundamental law. Inviolable for anyone who was not Athena.
Which is why she was completely unprepared when Arachne tore through it like it was paper.
Anansi danced out of Arachne’s path, swinging for her gut with the butt of his flint dagger. Without even pausing, Arachne’s hand snaked down to catch his wrist and fling him aside. When Anansi struck the wall, the stone turned soft to encase him, leaving only his face exposed.
What? Athena thought as she teleported herself out of reach of Arachne’s hands. “Arachne, stop!” she commanded. She erected another barrier, this time encasing Arachne in it like a cocoon. She didn’t just let it stand as before, pouring her will into it.
Arachne strained against the bonds. Athena could feel pain build up behind her eyes, a headache from the effort of restraining someone within her nanoverse.
“No!” Arachne shouted. “You won’t kill me!”
“I’m not here to kill you, I’m here to free you!” Athena shouted.
The pressure against the barrier stopped. The headache began to fade. Athena’s heart did not stop pounding. For as long as she had lived, she’d never imagined anything threatening her in her nanoverse. “What?” Arachne asked, blinking.
“I’m here to free you,” Athena repeated. “It’s…it’s been too long.”
Arachne took a deep breath. “Then release me.”
Athena did so, and at the same time removed the stone barrier from Anansi. Arachne stood there, taking things in. She looked at her hands, flexing the fingers she had not known for trillions of years. “I haven’t had an endocrine system since you locked me in here. Emotions are stronger than I remember.”
Athena relaxed. “I understand.”
Arachne shot her a withering glare. “No, no you do not. Lock yourself as a base animal, one that can barely even reason, for several lifespans of a universe, and then you can say that. Know what it’s like for a single thought to take millennia upon millennia to form, and then you can say that. Endure one tenth of what you have done to me, and then you can say you understand.”
“I…” Athena started to say, and she was grateful for Arachne’s interruption, because she had no idea what she could possibly say.
“I had to relearn how to think, Athena. I have no idea how many millennia, how many universes, I spent as mindless beast. Even once I did figure out how to think, that brain was so weak, so pitifully dominated by instinct, cognition was an effort that took longer than you can imagine. How long has it been, Athena? How long did you lock me in hell?”
“Five millennia,” Athena whispered.
“Five millenia for you. Nanoverses need to be reset every few hundred years or so, don’t they?” Arachne took a deep breath. “Ten universe lifetimes, at least. Hundreds of trillions of years. And now…what? You want to release me? You want to let me go out there, live a mortal life for mere seconds of what I’ve endured, then die?”
“I preserved your nanoverse,” Athena said. “Locked it in temporal stasis in here. It’s unchanged over the time. You’ll still be a goddess.”
Arachne studied Athena, then looked over Anansi. “Who are you?”
Anansi bowed. “I am Anansi. I never was in your land while you were there.”
“And you’re friends with…her?” Arachne asked with a sneer, gesturing towards Athena. “You let her bring you into her nanoverse?”
“Yes,” Anansi said simply. “I trust her.”
Arachne sneered. “So did I. I hope you never learn how foolish that is.”
“I came in here knowing your fate, Arachne,” Anansi said calmly. “I came in here to provide support for Athena as she undid the crime done to you – and to chastise her if she wavered in doing it.”
Both goddesses looked at him in shock. “Chastise?” Arachne asked coolly.
Anansi shrugged. “In here, there was little else that I could do. But I am very good at chastising. I once lectured a python so thoroughly, it swallowed its own tail. I imagine I could have gotten Athena to at least taste her ankle.”
Arachne looked at him, her eyes widening, and then she let out a harsh laugh. “I’d like to see that.”
Athena was at a loss for words. Arachne glanced at her with a raised eyebrow. “I’m not done with you, Pallas Athena. But I am sick to death of this cave. Take me out of here.”
“Of course. My staging area is right outside this cave.”
“My nanoverse?” Arachne asked.
Athena gestured and summoned it to her hand. “Right here.”
Arachne snatched it out of Athena’s fingers and held it close to her chest, starting to walk out of the cave. “Why didn’t you kill me?” Arachne asked, not turning back to look at Athena. “Why this hell? You had every right to slay me permanently under the laws of Olympus. Why did you instead lock me away?”
“I couldn’t kill billions,” Athena said, watching the back of Arachne’s head. “I couldn’t kill all those innocent people in your nanoverse. They did nothing wrong. And…and I failed you. I didn’t believe you deserved death, because the fault was partially mine.”
“Death would have been a kindness,” Arachne said, her voice harsh. “Don’t you dare claim you did it for me. You did it to assuage your guilt.” She glanced down to the nanoverse in her hands. “And for them. I can believe that.”
“I’m sorry,” Athena said.
Arachne whirled on her, pointing a finger at Athena’s face. “No. Your guilt grew strong enough that it forced you to action. You didn’t do this for me. You’ve done none of this for me. I don’t want your apology, Athena.”
“Then what do you want?” Athena asked, her voice soft. “Revenge?”
Arachne glared at her. “And if I did, would you have any right to deny it to me?”
Athena shook her head.
“Good. At least we can agree on that. For now, I want honesty.”
“You will have that,” Athena said.
Arachne spun and talked out of the cave again, seemingly too furious for words.
In silence, Athena followed.