The trip back to the core world was done in silence. Anansi attempted a couple times to engage Arachne in conversation, but she just stood there, tensely watching Athena, not saying anything. Athena didn’t think she could blame the woman. Last time they had been in the staging area together, Athena had turned her into a spider and left her trapped. I can only imagine what she’s thinking right now, Athena thought.
“We’re here,” Athena said.
Arachne practically ran out of the staging area. Athena had brought them to Athens, feeling taking Arachne to the city that had once been her home was appropriate. Arachne took a deep breath, then immediately scowled. “What did you do to the air?” she asked, looking over her shoulder at Anansi.
The trickster shrugged and answered. “Assuming you mean ‘you’ in the general sense, a lot has changed while you were gone. Technology has advanced greatly. With it has come pollution.”
Arachne’s scowl deepend. “I’m familiar. It happened whenever a world industrialized in that hell. I just thought it was a reflection of how toxic the universe’s mistress was, not a natural phenomena.”
Athena winced but didn’t try to argue.
“I hear…vehicles?” Arachne frowned. “Yes, vehicles. Once that still burn fossil fuel, from the smell.” Arachne sighed, and shot Athena a glare. “You would bring me out during the worst era of a civilization’s life cycle. At least tell me vaccines are around?”
“Uh,” Anansi said, clearly thrown off his feet a bit by Arachne’s concerns. “Yes, although there’s a movement right now claiming they’re bad.”
“Of course there is. Of course.” Arachne sighed. “Good to know we humans are still capable of immense stupidity. Oh well. Maybe I’ll enjoy this era more being able to participate in it, as opposed to watching it from a web. Have we split the atom?”
“Then we can’t be too far from cold fusion. Things always get better after cold fusion is discovered.”
“Well, we might not get to that point.” Anansi said with a grimace. “It might be the last age of the world.”
Arachne frowned. “Explain,” she said.
“The world is facing a unique apocalypse. The last nanoverse has been found, and the Eschaton has to end the world or the sun will explode. We’re trying to find a way to preserve humanity in the process.”
“You jest,” Arachne said quietly.
“I wish I did.”
Arachne turned her gaze to Athena. “It wasn’t just guilt,” she said softly, studying Athena. “You…you were worried you were out of time. You thought you might not survive, and didn’t want to die with what happened to me weighing on you.”
“And I didn’t want you to die if my nanoverse was destroyed,” Athena said between dry lips.
“Of course you told yourself. Stars of Olympus, is there anything you don’t do out of guilt?” Arachne asked.
Athena turned away, unable to meet Arachne’s gaze anymore. You didn’t do this because you thought it would be easy, she reminded herself.
“What did you tell people happened to me?” Arachne asked.
“I told them…” Athena took a deep breath. “I told them that you outwove me. That you challenged me and bested me, and for that I transformed you into a spider. I wanted to look like the arrogant one, the wrathful one.”
Arachne studied her for a moment, then shook her head. “I’m impressed. You’ve actually convinced yourself of that. Tell me, Athena, when people tell this story, is it a story of your wrath? Of your arrogance? Was the story told with the moral of ‘do not draw Athena’s ire, she’ll turn you into a spider’? Or was the story about my hubris. How I challenged a goddess and was punished for it?”
“I tried to keep the lesson-”
“You are a goddess! I refuse to believe you ‘tried’ to keep it anything and failed.” Arachne’s hands were clenched into fists, the knuckles turning white. The trembled in rage, and Arachne’s back was stiff.
Athena again looked away. Anansi was still nearby, watching with a neutral expression. He probably thinks I deserve this, Athena thought. He’s probably right. Why had it taken her so long to free Arachne? Why had she just left the woman to rot?
“Do you remember my Trial, Athena?” Arachne asked.
“Of course,” Athena whispered, her voice hoarse. “I wanted to teach you…I was trying to teach humility, so I gave you an impossible Trial, to defeat me. You found another way to win.”
Arachne gave her a nod. “I never completed my Trial. I want to, right now. I will not have any ties remaining between us. I will fight you, I will defeat you without any external aid. Then – and only then – do I want to hear more about this supposed apocalypse.” Arachne looked around. “We’ll have to go somewhere else. Are there still empty spaces in this world, where we can fight without collateral.”
Athena nodded. “There’s somewhere nearby. You won’t need to use my staging area to get there.”
“Where is it?”
“The same site of your first attempt. It was always too rocky to be worth building on.”
Arachne nodded and began to set off on foot in the direction Athena indicated. Athena turned to follow, but felt a gentle hand on her elbow before she could start to walk. “Are you sure this is wise?” Anansi asked in a low voice. “Arachne has every reason to want you dead. Or worse.”
Athena calmly shook her elbow free. “It probably isn’t. But it must be done. It’s only right I deal with the consequences of my crime.”
“As you wish.” Anansi turned to follow. “I’ll officiate this fight. Someone needs to. And you will give me your nanoverse to hold for the fight. I refuse to allow you to risk your life, especially right now.”
“And if I don’t?” Athena asked.
“Then I’ll shall chastise you until you eat your heel.”
That got a glimmer of a smile out of Athena. “Very well. Thank you.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out the black sphere, giving it one quick squeeze for power before handing it over to Anansi.
Then she left, heading to a battle that was five millenia overdue.