The battlefield Arachne had chosen had changed a great deal in the last five thousand years. Wind swept over rocks that had once been towering spines, but were now smooth and worn from millenia of rain. Oddly enough, humanity had largely left this field untouched. As close as it was to a city as large and old as Athens, Athena had assumed there would be some sign of modernity – a road, a sign, something that showed that this place was still part of the modern world.
In hindsight, it shouldn’t be too surprising. The field was far too rocky to ever be used for farmland, and there were easier places to build a road. Still, it was somewhat unnerving seeing Arachne here in this field out of time. If Athena had been been wearing a peplos and chiton, like Arachne was, it would have been almost like their last fight had happened just days ago.
But time had passed. Athena was wearing jeans and a black t-shirt, the rocks had been worn down, and Arachne’s eyes burned with a determined hatred that Athena had never imagined seeing in her former student’s eyes. “We don’t need to do this now,” Athena said, her voice quiet. “You just got your nanoverse back. You can take time to acclimate to it.”
Arachne’s eyes flared. “I have watched worlds worn to dust in stellar winds. I have wept without the tears you denied me as stars went cold and died, all light and heat lost. I have seen entire solar systems consumed to build spheres bound around singularities, syphoning off the last bit of energy in a dying universe. I have shuddered as the pathetic remnants of civilization tossed what matter they had left to feed the rotational energy of those spheres to extend their existence for a few more eons. And then I have watched everything compressed so it could happen again. And again. And again.”
Arachne thrust her finger against Athena’s breastbone in accusation. “I have waited more years than you can possibly imagine, and the only reason I am even slightly sane is because I imagined this moment. As the universe turned black around me, as entropy reigned supreme, this moment, this battle, was the last bastion of my sanity. I will not delay it for one more attosecond, do you hear me?”
Athena nodded mutely.
“Good.” Arachne turned and counted off ten paces. “The Trial’s rules were quite clear. Twenty paces apart when we started. Count your ten. The battle ends when one of us yields.”
Athena began to count off her steps.
“Oh, and Athena?” Arachne said when Athena reached her destination. Athena turned to face her. “If you don’t give this your all, if you think to ‘let’ me win, I will kill you. I’ll kill you, and I will wait for you to resurrect. Then I will drag you into my nanoverse, and you will spend an eternity as a lizard. I’ll be kinder than you, I’ll turn you into a vertebrate, but you will endure what I endured. And, incase you decide to allow that because you believe you deserve it, because you still arrogantly believe you get to choose what you deserve, I’ll do it to whoever you love most in this universe.”
That last line cut through Athena’s guilt. She clenched her hands into fists. “I thought you didn’t want to wait another attosecond. Or do you intend to taunt me into submission?”
Arachne nodded, as if satisfied with that answer, and then raised her hands and reached out to grab hold of the elements. Athena plunged her hand into her nanoverse to draw a sword, only to find that a thin band of air had clamped around her wrist. How – Athena started to think, but there was no time. Arachne had reached into her nanoverse, pulling out a Gladius, and was charging her.
The weaving Arachne had around her wrist was impressive. It barely used any power, but had Athena firmly clamped in place. Athena was forced to draw a shield from her nanoverse with her free hand to parry Arachne’s blow. Sword clashed against wood bare instants before impact, ringing out with a dull thump in the cool air. Athena stopped trying to break free of the ring around her wrist and instead pulled herself up by it, bringing both her feet off the ground for a double-heeled kick to Arachne’s chest.
Arachne stumbled back, rolling to take some of the impact from the blow. Before she could get her footing back, Athena hurled the shield like a discus at Arachne’s chest. Arachne deflected it with another delicate weaving of air, hardly using any power to create a weak ramp for the shield to ricochet and fly into the air.
It bought Athena the time she needed to break out of the initial clamp on her wrist, freeing her hand and pulling out a sword of her own. It was clear what was going on now. Arachne had barely any raw power, but eons upon eons of running over the lessons she had learned before being locked away. She was like a frail old master who had studied the martial arts for years, no longer able to overpower those younger than him, but knowing exactly how to use what strength he had to maximum effect.
Athena charged Arachne, trying to force this into a melee battle. Arachne could have mentally prepared herself to weave, but wouldn’t have the muscle memory for hand to hand combat. That was the only place Athena would have an advantage.
Arachne had thought of that, however. With a delicate twist of her wrist, she tugged bonds of earth and flame. Athena threw up a barrier of air as the rocks at her feet exploded. Athena felt stone shrapnel bite into her legs and arms – her barrier was weak and hastily formed. It took the brunt of the force, but still sent her staggering to the side. Athena rolled with the impact as best she could, but Arachne kept tugging tiny threads, causing more stones to explode. Athena was battered by the impacts, and couldn’t stop herself from crying out when a splinter of stone embedded itself in her kneecap.
Mere seconds into the fight, and Athena was already falling behind. The fury Athena had seen before in Arachne’s eyes was gone. There was still hatred, but Arachne was not acting out of rage. This was coordinated, controlled. “Get up,” Arachne hissed, stopping the explosions of stone. “You cannot lose this easily. Get up, stop playing games, and fight me.”
Athena rose to her feet. “I am fighting,” she spat.
“When I was studying under you, you fought harder than this. Don’t you dare try to tell me this is the best you have.”
Athena reached down and pulled the stone out of her knee, fighting back a cry of pain. “Arachne-”
“Fight me properly or accept the consequences,” Arachne spat.
Athena’s eyes narrowed, remembering Arachne’s threat. Without bothering to continue the banter, she reached out and grabbed threads of Earth and Flame and Fire. Lightning streaked out of the clear sky to strike Arachne, using her sword as a focal point. The flare of light blinded Athena for a moment. “As you wish,” Athena hissed.
Her vision cleared. Arachne stood where the lightning had struck, her free hand raised towards the sky. Between her fingers sat a ball of lightning, the same energy Athena had hurled at her. “That’s better,” Arachne said as Athena gaped in shock. She just caught lightning. How is that even possible?
Athena lept to the side as Arachne hurled the electric sphere. It streaked to the side, passing through the space Athena had just vacated, before it curved through the air and struck Athena in the back. She couldn’t hear her own scream of pain over the thunderclap that followed.
A realization began to settle in as the pain faded. In Athena’s mind, there had been no risk that she would die here. Arachne had never been close to her equal, and even if she was, Anansi would easily be able to step in before things went bad.
That was before she had learned Arachne was fast enough to catch lightning.
Athena rose to her feet and charged with a ferocity she hadn’t expected to feel. As badly as she wanted to atone for what she’d done to Arachne, she realized she wasn’t willing to die for it.
Let’s hope it’s not too late for you to have a choice in that, Athena thought as their swords rang with the clash of steel on steel.