Strange Cosmology Release Date, Preview, and Cover Art!

Strange Cosmology, the sequel for Weird Theology, releases on 09/10! The pre-order will go live on 08/16 – just in time for a MASSIVE 99 cents sale with 190 other books! Check HERE for the other books in the sale, click HERE for Weird Theology, click HERE for the free Small Worlds Prequel…or just keep scrolling down to read the sample chapter of Strange Cosmology!

And, since you’re clicking things, click HERE to go to my Patreon and find out how you can get Strange Cosmology a week before everyone else!

For long-time readers, everything in the preview is all new. The final draft of Strange Cosmology clocks in at around 130,000 words. This was originally the first act of Strange Cosmology, labeled right now at Strange Cosmology Part 1-50, and was only 79,000 words – so a TON of new and revised scenes will be in the book.

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The gorgeous cover art courtesy of Iris Hopp

A Debt Repaid

Ryan Smith thought that, as afterlives went, he had seen worse than Nav. The Slavic realm of the dead was not as oppressively dark as the endless war of Helheim, nor was it as imposing as the great caverns of Hades. Mostly, it was barren, the kind of empty, frozen expanse that could only have been imagined by people that had lived in Siberia and wanted to come up with something worse. 

Having visited seven other afterlives today, Ryan was developing some definite opinions. He preferred cold and ice to fire and brimstone. Quiet was better than howls and groans from the various inhabitants. And being able to enter without being attacked by an undead army was the biggest selling point of all. So far he was ok with Nav.

My life is so weird, he thought. Now, if I were a death goddess, where would I be?

The only break in the seemingly endless landscape was a bridge in the far distance, and Ryan supposed that would be the best place to start looking for the lady of this realm. Ryan reluctantly began walking away from the doorway to his nanoverse, leaving his exit point further behind with each step and resigning himself to what might be a long search. His bargain with the King of Hell would be fulfilled when he delivered eight death gods and goddesses to the battlefield, and he had hoped that this last one would be relatively easy, but had known better than to expect it.

After a half hour’s walk, Ryan finally drew close enough to see that the bridge didn’t seem to offer much of a clue. On the other side of the frozen river, everything looked exactly the same.

Maybe it’s some kind of mystical thing, he thought. I cross the bridge and suddenly I’m in Morana’s palace, where she’ll give me three wishes and a cup of hot chocolate.

He turned back toward his doorway, just to reassure himself that it was still there, and nearly jumped out of his skin when he heard a voice behind him.

 “So…you’re the delivery boy?”

 Ryan yelped and whirled around, his heart pounding. A woman had appeared on the bridge, looking over the river. She turned to face him as he took a deep breath and tried to get control of himself.

At first glance, Ryan actually felt comforted. The woman had a matronly look, her soft features suggesting that she actually might be the type to offer warm shelter and a cup of hot chocolate. Then he saw the hard, black pits of her eyes, and wondered if she’d be more inclined to warm someone by tossing them into a fire.

“Morana?” Ryan asked hopefully.

“Yes. And you are?” Her expression dripped contempt, and Ryan swallowed hard.

“Ryan. Ryan Smith.”

“Ryan…Smith,” Morana said, tasting the name. She made a face, as if it was a particularly bitter flavor. “My. They’re letting anyone have a nanoverse these days, aren’t they?”

Ryan reflexively reached into his pocket, closing his fingers around his nanoverse. You’re a god, too, he reminded himself. Sure, he’d only been one for a few weeks, but he still was a god. He’d battled a hundred handed giant, survived Enki’s various traps and tricks, and nuked a small island in Canada, so was he was going to let himself be intimidated by this random death goddess?

Her gaze narrowed, and Ryan realized the answer was absolutely yes. When her eyes flicked down towards his pocket, he felt a flicker of shame on top of the fear, realizing that grabbing for his nanoverse probably seemed weak and childish to her. Sometimes, being a new god felt a lot like being an uncool kid in high school.

“We should get going,” Ryan said gruffly, ignoring his pounding heart and reddening face as he pulled his hand back out of his pocket. “You’re the last one on my list.”

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Ryan realized they were a mistake, and Morana’s eyes flashed in fury. An icy wind rose around her, turning her raven hair into a storm around her face.

“If I didn’t need you to be free from this hell, I’d gut you for that insult,” she snarled. “You dare suggest that I am lesser? I, the bringer of winter, the killer of Yarilo, the mistress of death?”

Ryan swallowed again. He scrabbled for his nanoverse again, needing the reassurance. To hell with looking cool. If you have to fight her…crap. Death gods followed different rules from other gods. They weren’t reliant on their nanoverses, instead drawing power from the souls of the realm they claimed. Within that realm, they were not omnipotent, but they were far more powerful than anything Ryan had ever tried to face before. If Morana decided his insult was worth losing her chance at freedom, he’d have to…

…have to figure out why she was laughing. It took Ryan a second to fully process that Morena’s “angry goddess” pose had completely collapsed, and that she was nearly doubled over with amusement. Again, Ryan felt heat rising in his cheeks.

“I’m so sorry,” she gasped, wiping away tears. “It has been so very, very long since someone new visited my realm. Let alone someone I could mess with. Do you have any idea how boring it can get in here?”

Ryan let loose a deep sigh. “You really…you really had me going there for a bit. I thought you were going to kill me.”

 “Oh, oh no. My first chance to walk among the mortal world again? To gain worshippers? Freedom? You’re absolutely safe.” Morana chortled again.

Ryan shook his head. “Well, I know that Arthur has a pretty tight schedule for all this. Mind if we move along?”

Morana nodded and stepped off the bridge, joining Ryan on the frozen plain.

“How is the war in Heaven progressing?” she asked.

“Messy,” Ryan said grimly. “Very, very messy.”

As they trudged across the ice, he thought back to his last visit to the battle.

***

Ryan had completed his first six pickups as quickly as possible, barely glancing at the battlefield before darting back into his nanoverse. He had promised to free the captive death deities and bring them to join Hell’s army, but watching demons and angels do their best to destroy each other was definitely not part of the arrangement.

However, when he stepped out to deliver Hela, ruler of the Norse afterlife for the dishonorable dead, the demon Ashtaroth had caught his eye and beckoned him over, and it just wasn’t politic to ignore Hell’s general. Especially when they were, at least for the moment, allies.

Ashtaroth raised his sword in salute, and Ryan couldn’t help staring as blood dripped from the sword onto the once pristine fields. 

“You’ve barely stopped for an instant,” the demon rumbled. “We appreciate your diligence, but you can spare a few moments to rest, and to appreciate the battle. After all,” Ashtaoth’s eyes gleamed, “this has been millennia in the making.”

“I know, I’m just…” Ryan shook his head. The truth was that he didn’t want to see the battle, but saying so would probably be insulting.

“I thought Graham Island got you used to war,” Ashtaroth said, clearly intuiting the unspoken words.

“Can you ever truly get used to this?” 

Ryan glanced at the battlefield, focusing on a tower still holding out against the horde of demons, its defenders in gleaming plate and fighting with spears of light. They looked so proud, so noble, so glorious. Ryan’s allies, by comparison, were a mass of unholy flesh wreathed with hellfire. If this was a scene from a movie, it could not possibly be clearer which side was good and which was evil, not unless the director edited in labels over each faction.

When Ryan had promised to aid Hell in its war with Heaven, he’d been too focused on his own enemies, and his desperate need for allies, to think too hard about his end of the bargain. Now, he couldn’t help questioning his “the enemy of my friend is my enemy” situation.

“Get used to this?” Ashtaroth gave him a wide grin, revealing rows of teeth that gleamed in contrast to his crimson skin. “I was born for this. It’s like asking a wolf if they ever truly get used to the hunt. But I know how it affects you humans. What’s that your people are fond of saying? ‘War is hell’.”

“Puns. We’re standing in the middle of a battlefield, and you’re making puns. You really are a monster,” Ryan said, forcing a smile.

“You certainly didn’t complain when we were fighting for you.”

You were fighting other monsters then, Ryan thought. “I guess it felt different because it was my fight,” he said.

Ashtaroth’s expression turned serious. “And you knew the hows and whys of that fight, and believed it to be of great importance. In this fight, however, it is you who are simply offering support without knowing all the roots of the conflict.”

Ryan paused, considering. Arthur, the current King of Hell, wanted to turn it from a pit of evil and torment into a semi-respectable afterlife. Was this war about that, rather than a simple power grab? Was Heaven trying to force Arthur to take on the role of eternal torturer, maybe? One thing Ryan had learned since becoming a god was that all myths and religions were different-and more complicated-than he had believed.

“I should think you would be less quick to judge without full information. After all, Eschaton, I’m sure you are far from finished confronting those who misunderstand your desire to end the world.”

“It isn’t my desire,” Ryan protested, “it’s my job. And if I don’t do it, something much worse will happen.”

“Still, it will be hard to sit on that high horse, passing judgement, when you’re laying waste to Earth.”

Ryan winced. “It’s different. It will be different.”

“Oh? And please, pray tell, how is that any better than what we’re doing here?”

As Ryan watched, Hela gestured towards the bastion. Swarms of half rotted corpses, the undead monstrosities known as dragur, followed the gesture to descend upon the tower. “It won’t be this horrible,” Ryan whispered.

He spoke so quietly, he wasn’t sure Ashtaroth heard him, until the demon began to laugh. “It’s the end of the world, Eschaton. It can’t be anything but horrible.”

“Right, but I’m…I’m going to do it in a good way,” Ryan protested, keenly aware of how weak the objection was.

“And how does one end the world in a good way?” Ashtaroth asked.

Ryan turned away, back to the battle. The dragur were forming a ramp of their own bodies, allowing the demons to clamber up the tower. He didn’t want to watch but couldn’t look away. You played a part in this, Ryan reminded himself.

Ashtaroth was still waiting for an answer, but Ryan didn’t have it. He had to end the world, or the sun was going to explode, not only ending all life on Earth but making all future life impossible. Ryan intended to find a way to end the world while somehow saving as much of humanity as possible, but so far he had no idea how to do that. “I’ll figure it out,” he said, as much to himself as to Ashtaroth.

The demon rolled his eyes. “As you will.” For a moment, Ryan saw something almost like sympathy cross Ashtaroth’s face. 

“I suppose you should be going,” Ashtaroth said after it became clear that Ryan had nothing more to contribute to the conversation. “We wouldn’t want anyone getting the impression this is your war. You have enough complications, and Morena was never known for patience.”

“I can’t argue with that,” Ryan said, turning his eyes away from the carnage. There were already two gods, Moloch and Bast, still at large and opposed to Ryan and his allies. Ryan was certain there would be others. The last thing he wanted was to add Hell’s adversaries to his own problems. With a nod to Ashtaroth, Ryan headed back to his nanoverse.

Soon, he would be done with this whole nasty business and able to get back to ending the world.

For some reason, that didn’t exactly put a spring into Ryan’s step.

***

 Ryan had only given Morana the barest sketch of the fighting, but it was enough to fill the walk back to his door. The stars spun around them as they entered his staging area, the landing platform from which Ryan could oversee his pocket universe, where he truly was omnipotent. The staging area was also where Ryan was able to move his nanovere through space and between realms, in a way he couldn’t begin to understand, any more than he could wrap his head around the fact that he was inside his nanoverse, but his nanoverse was also in his pocket. His friend Crystal constantly told him to stop worrying about understanding everything and “roll with it”, but sometimes it still gave him a headache.

 Fortunately, Morana was happy to provide a distraction in the form of a question. “So, Uriel wasn’t blowing smoke? There really is a new King on Hell’s throne?”

Ryan nodded as he walked over to the console that controlled his nanoverse’s movements. “Yeah, apparently. I’ve only met his representatives, but given that Hell’s armies are dancing to his tune, it seems pretty legit.”

“Fascinating. Do you think he’ll uphold his bargain with us?”

“Why would my opinion matter?” Ryan asked. “So far all you know about me is that I’m doing his bidding, and that I’m apparently really, really easy to scare.” He took a second to rearrange the staging area, summoning comfortable furniture, and even a few decorative elements. 

Morana chuckled and took one of the seats. “Truth. However, you’re also a god, and you’ve been free to roam about while I have been trapped in my realm. That gives you some credibility.”

“Fair enough.” Ryan said, setting the coordinates for the trip back to the battlefield. “I don’t actually know the terms of your deal. All I know is that my friends and I have to pick you up and drop you off, because that was our deal.”

“Our agreement was quite simple, really,” Morana said. “You see, most of the death gods have been imprisoned for some time, as the result of some nastiness that I’d prefer not to discuss. Any of your sort of god could have used their nanoverses to free us, but few were inclined to do so, and our freedom was always of limited duration. If Arthur breaches the gates of Heaven, he’ll have the power to free us permanently. In exchange for our help in the fight, he’ll free us to gain new souls and walk the world once more. The second, to be honest, was more appealing to me. Nav has become a lonely place.”

Ryan nodded thoughtfully “That’s a pretty good deal on both sides. I think he’ll come through. He upheld his end of our bargain.”

“Oh?” she asked. “And what was that?”

Finished at the control panel, Ryan took a chair across from her. “I needed an army. I had to deal with a bunch of…are you familiar with Varcolaci?”

Morana nodded. The Varcolaci were creatures out of Romanian mythology, a sort of middle point between werewolf, vampire, and goblin. They could tear a man apart like he was made from tissue and found death as inconvenient as an ill-timed nap.

“Arthur gave me a legion to fight the Varcolaci in exchange for transportation services.”

“I see.” Morana tapped her chin. “So, in your agreement, Arthur paid before you did?”

“Yeah,” Ryan said, then frowned at the implication. “You’re worried he’ll back out on you because it happened in the other order?”

“Wouldn’t you be?” Morana asked.

“Well, I’m fairly new to…all of this, really. I don’t know how infernal deals work and what he can and can’t back out of.”

“But surely…oh my. You’re still Nascent, aren’t you?”

Ryan grimaced at the reminder. It was true, he was Nascent, a god that uncovered a nanoverse and was still undergoing the transformation into full godhood. It sometimes felt like it meant he was a child – which, essentially, he was. He didn’t know half of what so many gods seemed to pick up on instinct, his divine senses were not as attuned as those of full gods…oh, and he could die without his nanoverse being destroyed. There was that little detail. 

Morana gave him a sympathetic smile. “Apologies. It’s been so long since I’ve met a Nascent, I’ve forgotten…” 

“It’s fine. I’m getting used to it.”

“I should try to make it up to you, though,” Morana said. “So, here’s a bit of advice. You might meet someone named Ishtar. She’s likely to try and convince you that you must end the world. It’s absolute-”

“It’s true,” Ryan said firmly.

“Oh dear, you’ve already been taken in.”

Ryan sighed. “I’ve had this conversation four times today. Sorry if I’m a bit short.” 

Everyone in the know agreed that Ryan was the Eschaton, the last god of an era. Unfortunately, opinions differed on what that meant. Some believed that meant there would be new gods, with different powers and roles. Others believed that no new gods would emerge. Ryan’s friend Crystal, formerly Ishtar, believed that this meant it was time to end the world. Ashtaroth believed the same, and Ryan was pretty sure that meant that Arthur was on board, but didn’t know for sure.

For his part, Ryan agreed with her. Mostly. Her explanation made sense, and several people had tried very hard to kill Ryan based on the belief that it was true, so Ryan took that as a bit of confirmation. Granted, it wasn’t much to go on, but…

Morana was giving him a wary look, and Ryan sighed. “Look, I’m not going to go crazy and start killing people. I promise. Right now, we’re trying to figure out a way to save people, and we won’t be doing anything rash when it comes to the apocalypse. Can we skip that part of the lecture, please?”

Morana sniffed. “I remember being Nascent. So sure I had all the answers, too.”

Ryan rolled his eyes at the condescending tone. Yes, Ryan, that will convince everyone you’re not a child. Roll your eyes. You should throw a tantrum if you really want to sell it. “So, once you’re free, what are you up to next?” Ryan asked, hoping to change the subject.

Morana sniffed. “Something other than ending the world, I’m sure.”

You walked right into that one, Ryan chided himself. “Oh, thank God, we’re here,” he said as the console started to flash.

“Odd choice of words,” Morana said with a rueful grin, and Ryan couldn’t help but agree with her. He opened the door for Morana, and they stepped out on the edge of the battlefield.

“Well,” Morana said briskly, “looks like there’s still plenty for me to do. Thanks for the ride.” A chilling wind gathered around her as she strode into the fray.

Ryan deliberately turned his back on the fighting, and came face to face with Athena. The Greek sculptors of ages past had done well mimicking her appearance, but no sculpture could have captured her energy and vitality, or her inherent grace. All the goddesses Ryan had met were beautiful, but Athena drew his eyes more than any other. 

“Is that the last of them?” she asked, her voice tight. Athena had agreed on the necessity of working with Arthur, but Ryan knew that she was just as conflicted as he was, if not moreso. He felt an urge to reach out to her and offer some sort of comfort, but held back, unsure if she would welcome the gesture.

He was glad he could at least give her good news. “Yup, as long as you and Crystal are done. Where is she?”

Athena jerked her thumb over her shoulder, and Ryan looked over to see Crystal perched on a rock and watching the battle. It was unusual to see her so still. A million years of life apparently left one with little patience for wasting time. 

When he and Athena reached Crystal, Ryan saw that despite her relaxed posture, her expression was stormy. “I’m bloody glad that’s over,” she said. “Please tell me you lot are through so we can get out of here.”

Ryan just nodded, and they turned to exit the field. It was time to seek different allies.

Small Worlds Part 176

“We have a problem,” Crystal announced.

The voice almost startled Isabel into jumping. She’d been waiting for Crystal to say something for what had felt like hours, although it had only been a matter of minutes. She’d considered doing something to break Crystal out of her deep contemplation of the door, but hadn’t been sure if it was worth breaking the goddess’ contemplation. So she’d stood there, fighting the jaguar’s instinct to curl up into a ball to wait. Although the moon dust was fine so far, she didn’t like the idea of getting even more of it embedded in her fur. It was starting to oxidize with the air bubble as well, and the smell of gunpowder was filling her lungs. It had the Jaguar on edge.

Isabel whimpered in concern when Crystal spoke.

“Sorry love, I know, you can’t talk. But this door…I can tear it open, but it’s an airlock. I don’t like the idea of leaving you that exposed to the vacuum out here. Remind me to ask Anansi how he managed it last time he was here.” Crystal sighed. “He probably just phased right through the door. Which I could do here too. Except…” Crystal frowned. “I don’t suppose that soulstone thingy means you can phase?”

Isabel shook her head. I should ask her to clean me off so we can talk. Except…crap, I wish we’d set up a signal for that.

“Didn’t think so. Bloody hell.” Crystal stared at the door. “I can open it, if I’m being honest. I just…I don’t particularly like what I have to do to manage it.”

Confused, Isabel cocked her head.

“I know, love, I know, I’m being ridiculous.”

No, I’m just confused.

Crystal glanced at Isabel, then shook her head in irritation. “Okay. I’ll do it. Just…try not to freak out on me, yeah?”

It took Isabel a moment to realize what the problem was. Crystal, the millions of years old goddess that had done some of the most amazing things Isabel had ever seen or heard of…was embarrassed.

Then Crystal began to shift her form. She stopped looking like a human. Beautiful green and red feathers sprouted from her head and arms and spread to cover her body. Her feet spread out into talons. Her face distended to form a beak. With a start, Isabel realized this was the kind of form Moloch had taken during the fight in the Elysian Rest, and had to fight the Jaguar’s urge to flatten her ears against her head. It’s not Moloch, it’s Crystal. You know Crystal.

Crystal bent down towards the door and spoke a few words, words Isabel couldn’t hope to have reproduced – not without shifting into a parrot, perhaps. No human throat had ever made sounds like that. It sounded like a complex series of squacks and caws to Isabel’s ears.

The door opened for the sound, and Crystal hurriedly stepped into the airlock. Isabel slunk after her. Inside there was a control panel that Crystal began to work as she shifted back into human form. “Sorry about that, love. We’ll have air in here in just a moment, then I can clean you off.”

It took a couple minutes, but at the end of it, Crystal and Isabel were both human and standing in a room lit by fluorescent lights, waiting for the air pressure to finish normalizing. “Why did you apologize? You got us in.”

Crystal flushed slightly. “I don’t like going bird around you lot. Nothing personal. It’s just…” Crystal trailed off and shrugged. “Anyway, had to shift so the scanners would recognize me and open the airlock.”

“I’m amazed this place still works,” Isabel said, changing the subject for Crystal’s sake.

Crystal gave her a look that said she knew what Isabel was doing, and appreciated it. “Lemurian technology. We got a bit further along than you all did, yeah? If you humans had been given another hundred years, you probably would have gotten there too.”

“But how does it work?” Isabel asked. “How’d it survive?”

“The solar panels. If they’re running with the base on minimum power, they can store it in cells down below. The cells were…your language doesn’t have a word for it. It exploits a…damn, another thing your language doesn’t have a word for.” Crystal tapped her finger on her chin. “The batteries that they store power in can store massive, massive amounts, and if we manage to save humanity so they can further develop their science, I’ll eventually have the words I need to explain how it works.”

Isabel laughed. “Fair enough. But what about micrometeors? Shouldn’t they have shredded this place? Or is that too much for my pitiful human language.” Isabel gave Crystal a wink to show she was joking.”

Crystal laughed and slapped the wall. “Thankfully, you do have words here. There’s nanites in the hull. They can repair and smooth over pretty much any minor damage. A big hole would have been too much, but those don’t happen as often as you might think. Back in the day-”

Crystal cut off at the sound of a heavy footstep approaching.

“Oh, right,” Crystal said, drawing a sword out of her nanoverse. “The Sphinx.”

Isabel hurriedly shifted into something to fight. In these cramped spaces, the jaguar seemed to be an imperfect fit – they tended to hunt from ambush. Instead, she went with something with some mass behind it.

When Isabel’s feet hit the ground, they were the stubby legs of an Diceros bicornis, more commonly known as the Black Rhinoceros.

“Good choice, love,” Crystal said, stepping to make sure she was out of the way if Isabel started to charge.

Well, there’s nothing more serious than a Rhinoceros about to charge your ass, Isabel thought, laughing to herself. It was probably for the best Crystal couldn’t hear her – the reference would probably go over her head.

Then the laugher died down as the Sphinx’s head turned around the corner. It dwarfed even the Rhino, and Isabel saw that the hallway was impossibly bending outward to accommodate its passage. His eyes narrowed when he saw the two of them.

“Explain why you are here, and why you have brought that beast with you,” the Sphinx said firmly. “And then explain why I shouldn’t gut you both.”

There was a cold finality in his tone that chilled Isabel to her bones.

That was the moment Isabel learned that Rhino anatomy, while incapable of speech, is perfectly able to gulp in fear.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 139

“They’re coming,” Tythel said.

The Skitter had been running for the last hour, an hour spent in tense silence, waiting for the very real risk that at any moment a patrol would intercept them. It was a chance worth taking, a risk they were aware of, but so far it hadn’t happened.

None of them had been speaking for that hour. It had stretched on interminably. On more than one occasion Tythel had considered breaking the silence, but the fear of making sound that would cover the sound of pursuit or a waiting ambush had kept her mouth shut. She could only assume the same held for Tellias and Eupheme.

Now, however, they were both looking at her with wide eyes. “What do you hear?” Eupheme asked.

“The sky is screaming,” Tythel said. She’d just picked up on it, and it did what it always did – took her back to the first sound her improved hearing had been able to detect as the Alohym’s tentacled ship descended from the sky to slaughter her father and her. “Screams of iron and cracks of rivulets. It’s one of their ships.”

“Flath. We weren’t expecting that,” Tellias said, spitting out the word. “This is a mistake.”

Tythel shook her head. She wanted to agree with him but had no better plan. The trio that hunted them was too dangerous to fight any other way, and the fact that they were bringing an entire vessel didn’t change that. “I was able to hide in the illusion over the valley after my father died. They couldn’t penetrate it then, and that was…a year ago.”

With a start, Tythel realized she’d turned seventeen a couple days ago. Or she would in a couple of days. Maybe a week in either direction. Dates had never been something she’d focused on too hard – Karjon had been the one to keep track of dates, but he’d used the draconic calendar. Between her sessions of unconsciousness, the long marches that seemed to stretch ahead endlessly, the dull months in hiding at Hallith, and the random days of panic that had each seemed like a week, she’d lost track of the human calendar in comparison.

“Who knows what they might have discovered in the last year?” Tellias asked, his voice thick. “What if they’ve uncovered a way to see through it?”

“Then we die,” Tythel said simply, looking out over the road ahead. She didn’t recognize this stretch of roadway. It was likely a couple more hours before they reached the point where Freda and…Tythel found she couldn’t recall her husband’s name. It didn’t matter. They’d soon reach the point where she’d been rescued.

“That’s all you have to say? ‘Then we die?’” Tellias’ eyes hardened. She could see his hands clench into fists in the arcplate. Would you be this angry if I hadn’t rejected you? Or would you have regretted my acceptance now if I had?

“Yes.” Tythel growled the word. “Tellias, we have a humanoid Alohym, an Umbrist who has been doing this longer than Eupheme, and a true Lumcaster after us. I’m a half-reborn half-dragon, you’ve got arcplate Armin threw together in a cave with a crate of scraps. Eupheme is the only one with a chance of escaping if this goes bad this time, and she’ll die before she escapes without me.”

Eupheme nodded to confirm what Tythel was saying, though she focused on steering the Skitter down the road.

“Light and shadow,” Tythel continued, “we’re massively overmatched. The presence of a ship just adds more Alohym soldiers, and we can cut through those easily enough. They’ll be a distraction, nothing more. If it has flathing Skimmers or weapons of its own, if it’s more than a transport vessel, then the illusion is the only thing keeping us safe. If they can suddenly see through it, we’re flathing dead, and we can’t do anything about that.”

Tellias gave her a stricken look, and Tythel felt immediately guilty. It was hard to remember that he had no more idea what he was doing in this than she did. They both had to go off their best instincts and their training – his in politics, her in history, neither of which was particularly well suited to battle strategies. History is probably better at least, Tythel thought. “I just…feel like we should have a plan other than ‘we die.’”

Tythel sighed heavily. “Well, we have the next few hours to come up with one. If we don’t, we can’t plan for every contingency. This was the best option.”

Eupheme, who had been silent so far, nodded in agreement. “We lead those three back to the others…can you imagine what they’d do? Especially if they came back with an army, and maybe an actual Alohym on the field as well, and a few Skimmers? We’d be slaughtered by the dozens, and Leora would cut our leadership to ribbons. We Umbrists aren’t best as front-line fighters. We’re our best as assassins no walls can keep out. It’d be a massacre, and it would be the end of us.”

“And if we die trying to stop them?” Tellias asked, his voice soft.

“Then we take Leora down with us,” Tythel said, coming to a sudden decision. “The Resistance has fought against Lumcasters before, and Catheon isn’t that much more dangerous than a normal Alohym. She poses the greatest threat – something they won’t know is coming or how to fight.”

Eupheme’s nod was grim, and Tellias could only shake his head – not in negation, but in disbelief. “Well, as long as we have a plan.” He grinned as he said it, but it was a sickly expression even to Tythel’s eyes, and he quickly put on his helmet before they could stare at his face too long.

Behind them, the rending steel sound of the Alohym vessel grew closer. Its progress was faster than theirs, but not by much. In a couple of hours, Tythel would be able to hear the hum of its unlight engine and weaponry. It might give her an idea of this was a gunship or one of their transports. Either would be bad, but the transport would likely be worse.

“I’ve never gone in with a chance the mission would be impossible,” Tellias said quietly. “I always assumed that there was some way out – that if I hadn’t thought of it, de’Monchy had, or my aunt, or Master Armin, or you, your highness. I’ve never known there was a chance it was hopeless.”

“There’s always that chance,” Tythel said, trying to make her voice as gentle as possible. “Have faith, Tellias. We made it this far when you didn’t see the flaws. Light and shadow, most of the time I don’t realize how large the flaws are until afterwards.”

“Well, I feel greatly comforted,” Tellias said, but he laughed after he did, so Tythel assumed it wasn’t meant in anger.

“What I mean is…just because you’re aware of it doesn’t mean it’s any more dangerous. We survived impossible odds before. Somehow. We can do it again. We will do it again.”

Tellias nodded, and his posture seemed to relax some. Tythel was grateful for that.

She wished she had the confidence she was projecting.

Small Worlds Part 241 – End of Book 4 – Small Worlds Returns September 2nd!

“Nabu, being renegade now, was able to explain to me exactly what the rules are. ‘An Eschaton must use the single surge of power by their granted Zoisphere to utterly destroy civilization on their world, including all physically preserved knowledge and records that could be used to prove a civilization previously existed there.’” He glanced over at Nabu. “Did I get that right?”

Nabu nodded. “Verbatim.”

“Excellent. So there’s a key phrase there. ‘On their world.’ I have to end civilization planet Earth. But…there’s a whole universe out there, right? And with our staging areas, we can go anywhere faster than the speed of light.” Ryan looked back to where the doorways stood and sighed. Still no sign of Crystal or Isabel.

Athena put a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sure they’re fine. Crystal hasn’t survived as long as she did to let things fall apart this close to the finish line.”

“Right,” Ryan said, snapping his attention back to the conversation.

“Ryan…” Anansi said quietly. “Even if we got every single god on Earth to fill their staging area with humans, we could only save maybe two or three thousand. That’s not enough.”

“No, it wouldn’t be,” Ryan said, then held out his hand. He’d had enough recovery time gather some of his energy back.

It would be simpler to explain, but a demonstration seemed like it would be in order. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

Reaching out, he began to grab onto strands of reality, twisting and pulling the equations. It was complicated, but not as hard as he’d been afraid it would be. He grabbed a sphere of air, forcing it into a ball around his hands – and then changed the nature of the matter. It wasn’t as simple as negating gravity around it. That he’d done before, it wouldn’t work here.

He had to change the fundamental interaction his matter had with gravity. It went from being normal matter to exotic matter.

It was repelled by gravity on all directions, pushing away normal matter so strongly, it even started to bend light that passed nearby it, giving the sphere a warped appearance like the gravitational lenses they’d used to safely observe Medusa back in the labyrinth. Reach up, Ryan split the exotic matter into two chunks and pulled them apart.

The effect was disorienting. Looking into the one over his right hand, you could see the view over his left hand, and visa-versa.

He’d created wormholes.

The energy needed to maintain them caused them to dissipate quickly. Everyone was staring at him, in varying degrees of shock. “You…you can’t maintain those for long enough,” Dianmu said.

“Normally I couldn’t,” Ryan agreed. “So I use the one big twist I get. One giant, massive twist. I create spheres of exotic matter – stable exotic matter – across the Earth. As many population centers as I can manage. We can fit hundreds of this into a single nanoverse. We have one god go and take them all to a new world. A habitable world. A place where humanity can rebuild and grow and expand.”

“I hate to be a problem,” Cassandra said quietly, “but aren’t you forgetting part of the rules? ‘Including all physically preserved knowledge and records,’ right?”

Ryan nodded. “You’re right, but I didn’t forget that part. Once humanity is safely extracted – or once it’s the last possible second – I let the wormholes go. Each one will have the potential energy of a nuclear warhead. If not more. It won’t wipe out all life on earth, but it…”

“Nuclear winter without the fallout,” Athena said, her voice soft.

“Exactly,” Ryan said, feeling sick at the thought. “A lot of the life on Earth will die, but not all of it. Enough to rebuild, evolve. Form a new intelligent species. They’ll get the chance they deserve after our departure.”

“We’ll lose Earth,” Dianmu said, her voice quiet.

“Maybe,” Ryan said. “Or maybe not. We’ll still have the information in everyone’s heads. Nothing in the rules says we can’t start writing it down as soon as we get to where we’re going. We won’t be starting from scratch. We’ll have no infrastructure, but we’ll have billions of people available as a workforce. We can bring materials with us too. Technology. 3D printers. Solar panels. Pre-cut wood. Nails. Seeds, farming equipment.”

Ryan took a deep heavy breath. His hands were curling into fists on the table, and he wasn’t sure if it was frustration or desperation. Terror, he decided. He was absolutely terrified that one of these gods, older and wiser and more experienced than him, would find some flaw in his plan, something he overlooked.

That he’d be back to square one. It shook him so much, his hands were trembling on the table.

“We’ll have a short time to create a sustainable food supply before we eat the new world dry, but…it’s possible. Especially if all of us gods lend all the power we can to making it possible. And then after that…well, we’ll have everything we’ve written down upon arrival. Every bit of science we could recover. Enough that maybe we could take this new world and…build something bigger”

“It could work,” Athena said thoughtfully.

“It’s…actually not a bad idea,” Arachne agreed, tapping her chin with her finger. “We’d need someone we can absolutely trust to go scatter the other ends of the wormhole around this new world. You…do have a new world in mind, don’t you?”

Ryan glanced at Nabu, his eyes wide with hope. It was the one thing he hadn’t been sure of.

Nabu nodded. “Kepler-442b, as humankind knows it. It’s a life-bearing world around a K-class orange dwarf. The local biochemistry would be compatible with human needs, although there would be a need to find a particular fungal-like organism that could be used to create antibiotics within three weeks – otherwise, the local single-celled organisms will start a plague that humans aren’t adapted too. Fortunately, I know how to cultivate it, and it grows quickly.”

Ryan waited for Nabu to continue with bated breath.

“No sentient life has ever arisen on that world, and its star has another ten billion years before it enters the next stage of its life cycle. Temperatures vary a bit more than is optimal for human life – it has a two hundred and seventy-three-hour rotational cycle – but it could work. Overall it’s a bit warmer than humans are adapted for during the long noon, but that will prevent too much freezing overnight. It’s a bit more massive, but not so large its gravity would be harmful to humans once they’ve adapted to the pull. It could work.”

Ryan waited. He thought it was going to throw up. He thought he might cry. Every other person at that table was sitting in silence, thinking, pondering. What did I miss? He asked silently. What is the flaw. Why is humanity doomed?

One by one, they nodded their heads. “It’s the best plan we have, and it’s a good one,” Dianmu said.

“We’ll want Crystal to weigh in,” Athena added.

“Where is she, anyway?” Ryan asked, looking again over his shoulders. “If she doesn’t show up soon, I swear I’m going to the moon myself and-”

A doorway appeared. Crystal’s doorway. Ryan let out a sigh of relief and stood up.

The door opened. Isabel stepped through it. At least, Ryan hoped it was Isabel. It could just as easily be a random gorilla carrying Crystal’s limp form, but given how concerned it looked…Ryan was certain that was Isabel.

“Hey loves,” Crystal gasped weakly. “We have a problem,”

Gorilla Isabell gently lowered her into a chair before shifting into Isabel. Ryan gasped. His sister looked badly cut and bruised as well. like she’d been through hell herself. “Kali,” Crystal said. “In her Destroyer aspect. She…she has the staff of Ra. And the super soldiers. And…and she had a message for you.”

Ryan stiffened. “What was it?”

Crystal heaved herself up to a full seating position. Her eye was swollen shut. “Stop this silliness and do your job, Eschaton,” Crystal said, clearly repeating words that weren’t her own. “You are not above the cycle. You are not better than those that came before. Humanity’s time has ended. End it – or force me to finish your job for you.”

“This doesn’t change anything,” Ryan said in the silence that followed. “We’ll just have to deal with…with all of this while we evacuate the planet.”

From the looks everyone had, none of them believed it would be that easy.

Yet they had to try. They had no other choice. They were on the home stretch now. The final battle. A chance to save humanity.

Or watch the world burn in solar flame.

–End of Book 4–

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Small Worlds Part 240

The shifting, stained glass sky of Cypher Nullity danced overhead as Ryan stepped onto the obsidian soil of the long-abandoned afterlife. It was starting to feel almost homey, after coming here so often to regroup and recover and plan for what came next. He leaned against Nabu, one hand over the former Curator’s shoulder. “So…this is where we’ve been going.”

“I know,” Nabu said simply, helping Ryan as they walked towards the meeting hall they had been using. “It’s good to see this place being used again.”

Three other doorways were already open here. Anansi and Athena and, Ryan hoped, Crystal. Given that Athena had gone into her nanoverse to recover Arachne, though…it seemed likely that was who the third doorway belonged to. Which meant Crystal and Isabel weren’t back yet. Please be okay, Ryan thought, limping towards the meeting place.

A new doorway appeared, and Dianmu stepped out, similarly supported on Cassandra. The last Cardiophage. Dianmu didn’t look thrilled about supporting her weight on a woman that had been a monster just yesterday, but Dianmu had been the one to insist on keeping an eye on the dangerous woman. Cassandra, for her part, looked…thoughtful. Muted. If Ryan didn’t know better, he’d never be able to tell that this woman could turn into a killing machine at a moment’s notice.

“Ryan,” Dianmu said, cutting through his reflection. “Horus is alive. He went over to Bast’s side, right up until she got tired of him and ate his heart. He’ll resurrect in a few days. Cassandra told me where.”

Cassandra nodded eagerly. “I can take you right there. His body is chained so he can’t escape when he resurrects.”

Ryan frowned in thought. “After we’re done here, Dianmu, would you mind going and incinerating his body?”

Dianmu blinked in confusion. “Ryan…you want me to do what?”

“Incinerate his body.” Ryan sighed. “It’ll delay his resurrection. We can’t trust Horus. Not after he already sold us to Bast once before. I don’t want him coming back to life until after this whole thing is done. It takes a few days to come back from complete disintegration, right?”

“Yes.” Dianmu walked the next few steps in silence, pointedly not looking at Cassandra. “There are others we’re trusting that it seems…dangerous to trust?”

“Like Athena, who worked with Enki? Like Crystal and I, who worked with Moloch?” Ryan shook his head. “None of us made a promise to this group and then betrayed it. I’m trusting everyone we have here unless we have a reason not to. Horus crossed a line.”

Those last few words were intended for Cassandra, and from the way her eyes widened, she got the message.

“Harsh, but understandable,” Dianmu said. “As long as he hasn’t already resurrected, right?”

Ryan shuddered. “Absolutely. We’re not going to kill the guy. Just…delay him coming back. There’s no downside to that, right?”

“None I know of. We should probably ask the others to confirm.”

Speaking of the others….they were ahead. Anansi, lounging back in one of the chairs, looking like he just needed a good night’s sleep to be back at full strength. A pale woman Ryan didn’t recognize with long, dark hair and a wild look to her eyes. That must be Arachne, Ryan thought. Her long, considering look was aimed at Athena.

Athena was the only one that looked like she’d been in a fight. She still seemed to be in better shape than Ryan, but her body was covered in tiny wounds and her arm was wrapped in a sling. She stood up when she saw Ryan enter and walked over towards him, wrapping her good arm around him in a hug. “How did you…Nabu?” she asked, glancing finally at the man to Ryan’s left.

“In the flesh,” he said with an awkward smile. “Quite literally, in fact. I’m a fraction of what I once was, but I am free to act.”

Athena blinked a few times as if she needed a moment to process that. “Are you alright?” she asked Ryan.

He nodded. “I am. You?”

“Yes. Olympus will support us,” Athena said. “Artemis is running it. Zeus will resurrect soon. Demeter will probably take the third seat, although it’s chaos over there right now.” She gave him a smile, and for a moment there was an energy between them that was so thick it was almost palpable. A combination of them both having their pangs of Hunger in full force and relief for having been reunited.

“Suck each other’s faces or stop whispering so we can hear you,” said Arachne, rolling her eyes. “It’ll be annoying either way, but at least the first option means I won’t be missing anything important.”

Ryan leaned over Athena’s shoulder to glower at the spider goddess as Athena broke the half embrace. “Arachne, I presume?”

“Oh, it’s so good to know that keen power of observation is present. It will serve us well.”

Ryan fought the urge to grind his teeth. “You…we literally just met, and you have a problem with me already?”

“You come in here, still Nascent, bloody, battered, and bruised. The fate of the entire world rests on your shoulders, and you’re getting into scrapes that could get you killed. Yes, I have a problem with you already.”

Athena was, in fact, grinding her teeth, her hands clenched into fists. “You had the option of staying with the Olympians. If you wanted-”

“I want to make sure that someone had an eye on things here. Someone who isn’t prone to letting their temper rule their-”

“Enough,” Anansi said, his voice calm but firm. “Enough, Arachne.”

The spider goddess whirled to face him. “Excuse me?”

“While we were dealing with the aftermath of the battle, Artemis decided to tell me what you did. What crime caused Athena to seal you away. She thought someone should know who we were working with. Given the enormity of your actions, I am tired of you antagonizing Athena.” Anansi’s eyes blazed with fire the normally calm god didn’t show often. “What she did to you was wrong. What you did to provoke her in the first place was monstrous. Athena’s guilt will compel her to endure any abuse you hurl at her. You’re taking advantage of that. You can continue to do so. I will not try to stop you from doing so again.”

Arachne started to open her mouth, but Anansi wasn’t finished. “As soon as you tell everyone what you did in the first place. If you are comfortable owning up to your crime, then you’ve clearly moved past the guilt of it. You’ve made your peace with it. You have a right to wield it as a weapon. But if you cannot…perhaps you should consider the fragility of your own house before you hurl stones.”

Arachne clamped her mouth shut and glared daggers at Anansi, but did not continue to needle Athena.

“We’ll have to catch up on where we’ve been and what happened in a bit. I’m glad Olympus is on our side. We’re going to need more. A lot more.” Ryan took a deep breath. “Unless I start triggering catastrophes to delay the apocalypse, we have one week until the world ends.”

He settled into a seat in the silence that followed. “That’s the bad news. The good news is…I think I know how to pull it off.”

Ryan waited for everyone to take a seat before launching into his explanation.

Small Worlds part 239

The water churned with screams and divine power behind Athena. Poseidon and his companions were tearing into their own elemental, frantic weavings of Fire and Aether and Air to try to boil it into steam before it could tear them apart.

“Now!” Athena shouted, grabbing onto the bands of the same elements and adding them to the surge that was being poured into the water elemental.

Behind the water elemental, the remaining Olympians began to do the same. Green flame from Hades and Persephone and Charon, the unnatural soulfire of the underworld gods, joining and merging with the bright bands woven by the standard gods. Arachne used her power to weave channels of air for the Olympians flames to travel through, pushing away the water to give them a clear path.

And Anansi held the Water Elemental in place on top of the sea gods by giving it dozens of copies of Athena to destroy. As Athena watched, one of her facsimiles was captured in the vortex arms of the water elemental. She held up her hands, slashing out with her sword at the water around her. Her fins struggled to maintain her balance, but the current was too strong.

The illusionary copy died screaming as the water elemental crushed it into a red paste. The blood vanished as Anansi stopped maintaining the illusion, only to create a new Athena for the water elemental to capture and kill.

It was unnerving in a way few things Athena had ever experienced. Watching herself die over and over again.

But the water elemental was a simple thing. It couldn’t comprehend that Athena should have died with each illusion it killed. It couldn’t understand that the real Athena was floating nearby, pumping it full of pure bands of Fire. It didn’t realize that it was destroying the deities that gave it life.

Or maybe it did understand that last one. Maybe the hatred Ceto had spawned into it had been too much, or maybe the unrelenting fury of an unleashed elemental simply could not be contained.

Either way, it left the sea gods one choice. They were trapped within the water elemental. Because they were true gods and not mere illusions, they were not being crushed as easily as Athena’s duplicates. They were pouring their own Fire into their creation in a frantic attempt to save themselves, trying to turn it to steam before it could destroy them.

Athena had thought that it would take the combined might of all of Olympus to destroy the elemental, break it apart into steam. She’d been right – she’d just needed to find a way to get the sea gods to join in the destruction.

Now they were, and the process, allowing their adversaries to boil them alive.

The water that made up the elemental began to grow cloudy from the immense heat pouring into it. New streams were added as the Nereid’s numbers were thinned. Dionysus joined, cackling drunkenly, his hand still shoved through the spine of the Nereid he had just killed. Bubbles began to form in the water around the elemental, and the temperature of the Adriatic Sea began to rise.

The elemental knew no pain. It knew no weakness. It was merely deific rage given an elemental body and unleashed upon the world. It didn’t understand that it was being harmed. Ceto hadn’t programmed it with a sense of self-preservation. Poseidon hadn’t seen a need to order her to do so.

“How could you!” Athena shouted, her own rage boiling over. Poseidon somehow heard her words over the boiling elemental around him. It shouldn’t have been possible. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe he just wanted to glare at the one responsible for his torment. She didn’t care. “You betrayed us! You betrayed your family! You created a monster!” she poured the emotion into her weaving, and from her force alone the steam boiling off the water elemental began to cause the vortex to break down in its torso. The Olympians saw the weakness she was exposing and added their own heat to the mix. “You betrayed everything you were sworn to protect! How could you dare?

Poseidon’s face was turning red and blistering from the boiled water. His eyes were wide with fury and fear. He was pouring his own weaving into the water elemental, at the same time it sucked him deeper into its mass, pulling him inexorably to the point where its mass was a bubble of pure steam.

Just before he hit the steam, Poseidon managed to look at her one more time. He mouthed something. A single word, but one Athena could not make out through the torrent around him.

Then he was pulled into the mass at the center of the water elemental, and his screams echoed through the ocean.

The water elemental evaporated in a burst of steam, the bubbles boiling to the surface of the sea and blanketing the water above with a dense fog of steam. Athena hoped any humans that were in the area had vacated at the churning their battle had created. If they hadn’t…

Athena glanced upwards. No shadows of boats darkened the sea above. They were safe.

The Olympians began to close in on the sea gods. Ceto had half her face torn away from being drug along the seabed. Thalassa was bruised and battered but seemed more concerned for her husband’s fate than her own. Triton’s arm was broken in three paces, and he panted with the pain.

And  …Poseidon was standing. His skin was a mass of blisters, his face and skin seared. But he still stood, still breathed. “I wish to negotiate a truce,” Poseidon said, his voice raspy.

Athena shifted back to her fully human form, remaining wary. This could still be a trap. “You don’t need to negotiate with me, lord of the seas,” she said, her voice firm. “Artemis commands Olympus.” Athena raised her hand to hail her friend. “Artemis! What do you say to Poseidon’s truce?”

In response, an arrow erupted from the back of Poseidon’s throat. Thalassa screamed as he collapsed down to one knee, clutching at the arrow with desperate hands. Artemis finished her swim towards him, landing just above his writhing form. “We’ll negotiate when you resurrect, you son of a bitch,” Artemis spat. Underwater it had an interesting effect, bubbles floating away from her lips, but the contempt was clear. “The rest of you lay down your weapons, or I might rethink the idea that no one’s nanoverses will be ended today.”

That was a bluff. Athena knew her friend well enough to know that she could never bring herself to end trillions of lives to settle even a matter of treason. Or at least…she had known her. Even gods can change a great deal given millennia. She wouldn’t. 

Thankfully, the sea gods didn’t test her patience. Hastily, they tossed aside their weapons. “You’ll really allow him to resurrect?” Thalassa asked, her eyes wide with hope.

“Of course I will,” Artemis said, rolling her eyes. “We have a world to save, you ninny.”

“Then…why did you kill him?” Thalassa asked.

“Because,” Artemis said, slinging her bow back over her shoulder, “he really, really pissed me off. Come on you three. Gather your dead. You’re all under arrest.”

Athena caught the archer’s eye, and for a moment, they shared a rare smile.

Small Worlds Part 238

Athena had shifted her lower body more fully than before, forgoing feet entirely to merge her legs into a single scaled fluke, just like a dolphin’s. She’d shortened her hair to reduce drag, and a wedge-shaped dorsal fin jutted from her back. Her hands were still hands, her arms still arms, but a pair of pectoral fins emerged from her ribcage just below her arms. She’d need her hands to twist reality, to fight – but every other part of this plan depended on her being able to outswim a water elemental, and for that, she needed as much agility as she could manage.

It wouldn’t be enough for long. She’d adapted herself as much as possible to the water. The elemental was the ocean, a maelstrom of hatred given unholy life and a hatred for everything organic. It was not a guided missile. It was a tornado unleashed and set in her general direction. There was a reason that, even against Enki, she’d never considered creating such a creature. Even Moloch, in the depths of his madness, would not risk making something so uncontrolled. It was an act of desperation. It was the actions of a cornered wolf, snarling and frightened.

Of course, in this case, the wolf had fangs that could savage the very fabric of reality.

Athena swam as hard as she could, steering herself directly towards the elemental. It was currently tearing apart a group of Arae and Erinyes, crushing them into a paste in its vortex arms. The moment Athena entered the rage of its senses, the water elemental whirled to face her, ignoring the prey directly in front of it. Come on, you monstrosity. Come on. 

With a roar like a crashing tide, the water elemental surged in her direction. Athena turned on a dime, kicking herself away from the approaching horror.

For a brief, wild, and useless moment, she wished that Isabel was here. Her ability to actually take on the true form of animals, gaining their instincts and skills along with their shape, would make her even better suited for this part of the mission. Of course, the water elemental wouldn’t be coaxed into chasing her. Athena had to do this herself.

The group of sea gods pointed at her approach. Poseidon was laughing at the futility of her attempt to escape. The water elemental was faster than her. It was gaining on her. The other oceanic gods seemed equally amused at her plight. They were grinning, laughing. All except for Eurybia, who was looking at Athena with a concerned frown.

Arrows streaked by Athena from around both sides of the water elemental. Demeter and Artemis. One of the arrows found its home in the distracted eye socked of Eurybia before she could warn the others of what she had seen, and the other caught Nerites in the throat before he could shout more commands to his troops.

Then the subtle weavings Arachne had woven onto the arrowheads detonated in a surge of Air and Flame. A tiny tornado of fire engulfed where they had struck, and Eurybia’s and Nerites’ headless corpses sunk to the bottom of the ocean floor.

That got the sea gods attention. Immediately they began erecting barriers they had neglected, wrapping themselves in a bubble of seawater that caught the next two arrows before they could pierce the skull of another of the sea gods. Two down, Athena thought with a fierce grin. Already the odds were evening, and so far, Poseidon and his minions were acting exactly as Athena had hoped.

Just as the water elemental was closing the distance between it and Athena, four more Athenas appeared, each one swimming in a different direction as Athena turned as hard as she could. The overall effect made the water elemental hesitate, trying to pick the real target.

Arrows still flew through the ocean, keeping the pressure on the sea gods as they detonated against their solid dome of seawater. Hera joined in the assault against their defenses, sending razor blades of stone breaking away from the seafloor and sticking into their barrier. Throughout it all, Arachne wove bands of Fire and Air onto the projectiles, turning them into explosive missiles.

They merely created ripples on the barriers that were protecting the sea gods. The intense pressure of their barrier was more than enough to hold back the assault without difficulty.

The intense pressure the sea gods were commanding would hold back this assault without problem. That was fine.

The plan just called for them to be distracted.

Athena risked a glance back over her shoulder. With their divine support distracted, with the water elemental focused on Athena, the Nereids and Icytocentuars were without support.

It left Hades, Persephone, and Charon unopposed as they began their slaughter. Green fire flew from the fingers of the underworld deities, flames that burned despite the water around them, searing wounds in the sea monsters Poseidon had arranged against them. The remaining Arae and Erinyes surged forward with their king and queen, tearing into the ones that managed to avoid the hadesfire that was being hurled among them.

Athena tore her eyes off the spectacle and surged forward, kicking her fins straight for the sea god’s barrier. Anansi saw her change course and dropped the illusions, once again giving the water elemental a clear target to pursue. It roared and surged after Athena.

Athena flicked her tail, sweeping down low directly over the sea gods and their barrier. Poseidon glared up at her, pointing a finger and shouting something to his companions. She couldn’t make it out through the press of water surrounding them – it was too heavily distorted.

The instant afterward, Athena’s muscles seized up from a sudden surge of electricity filling the water around her. Her jaw clamped shut so hard she swore her teeth would break. Her fingers dug into her palms so tightly, blood began to spill from them into the water around her. Sheer momentum carried her out of the lethal electricity field before it could stop her heart.

That…wasn’t part of the plan. Athena thought, getting control of herself again. Stars of Olympus, that had hurt! She flicked her tail hair, driving herself away from the secondary attack, water blades flying from the barrier and leaving trails of bubbles that barely passed her as they sliced through the area she had vacated.

It was close. She couldn’t avoid their assault for long. She certainly didn’t have the power to stand up to Triton, Poseidon, Ceto, and Thalassa all at once.

Then the blades of water stopped, and Athena glanced back with a fierce grin.

The water elemental had struck the barrier. The barrier the sea gods had woven out of pure water. A barrier the water elemental could tear apart in an instant as it absorbed the increased pressure into its own mass.

An elemental was something you set loose in a general direction, with a single target. It didn’t care who or what you put in its way.

Even its former masters.

Small Worlds part 237

Ryan panted heavily as his eyes cleared from the beam of light. I got her, he thought, taking a deep breath with every moment.

The town was oddly silent in the wake of the sunbeam. Part of that was because the way the clap of thunder had filled his ears, burying the sound of rain beneath a ringing. But there was something else to it too.

This town was dead. Empty.

Ryan stood up and straightened his back. Dianmu was standing as well, covered with dozens of cuts and scrapes from her injuries. She gave him a weak thumbs up, and Ryan sighed with relief. The idea had been to trap Bast in a prism of sunlight. Ryan had liked the poetry of using Tyr’s favorite twist to kill her. Adapting it to kill the Cadiophages had been inspired, in his opinion. When Nabu got back he would-

A fist slammed into Ryan’s face. He could hear his nose shatter under the blow, feel the sudden welling of tears to his eyes and blood come pouring out his nostrils. He couldn’t see, his eyes wouldn’t respond, and before they would he felt a hand slap him across the face with a force that could crack concrete, followed by a backhand that would have bent a light pole in half. A knee to the gut finished the series of blows, sending Ryan flying almost perfectly straight into the air.

His arm broke when he hit the ground, and he screamed in pain.

His vision started to clear. Bast was approaching him, walking unsteadily. His beam of light had caught her in the right shoulder, burning away a huge chunk of her torso and that arm. The intense heat had cauterized the wound shut, but had also burned away much of the skin on that side. Her face was half a skull, even the eyeball burned away, revealing her fanged teeth.

She was dead. But she might survive long enough to take Ryan with her. “Just had to….just had to give up,” Bast coughed. Ryan started to force himself to his feet, gritting his teeth against his pain. Bast gestured, and a chunk of rock rose from the ground to strike Ryan directly in the break on his arm. He wasn’t sure if he screamed again. Lances of agony blocked out all senses. His throat was raw when his senses started to come back.

Dianmu was scrambling to reach them, throwing balls of pure lightning at Bast with what little energy she had left. They struck the heart-eating goddess but bounced harmlessly off her. Dianmu had burned through so much power generating the lenses needed to finish the anthropophages, and Bast was so far past pain that they had no effect aside from searing her already roasted hide.

“I told you…” Ryan gasped, trying to rise to his feet. His arms and legs weren’t wanting to obey him. The only Hunger that hadn’t settled in yet was the vast, yawning loneliness that would indicate he’d burned through all his divine power and had been left helpless. If that happened, he was dead. So long as he didn’t have that, he still had a tiny amount of power to fight on. “…I don’t give up.”

Bast sneered with the remaining half of her lips. “Subjugation is always preferable to death.”

“And that is why you’re thousands of years old and miserable,” Ryan said. “Because you stand for nothing.”

Bast raised her remaining hand and clenched it. A torrent of fire erupted from the ground beneath him, searing him and sending him flying into the air. When he landed, he could feel that desperate need for human contact settling in, and his divine sight winked out. He was lost. Dianmu was spent as well.

It was over. Bast raised her hand. “You didn’t do your job, Eschaton. You didn’t kill me. You didn’t save me. You didn’t end the world, and you didn’t save it. You have done nothing, save give me a heart to sustain myself. Goodbye.”

The hand came streaking down towards Ryan’s chest. He raised his own in a futile gesture of resistance.

Bast’s hand stopped inches from Ryan’s chest. A third hand had appeared from seemingly nowhere and caught Bast by the wrist. Ryan followed the hand up to its owner.

Nabu stood there, holding Bast in place with an iron grasp. The cadiophage in the lab coat from earlier was sliding off his back. Bast’s eye followed her movement. “Cassandra?” Bast asked, and there was a crack to her voice. Not one of rage or fear, but of a deep and horrific pain. “I thought-”

“You said we could eat animal hearts,” Cassandra said, not meeting Bast’s eye. “You said…you just said. We could survive off the heart of animals. I didn’t have to be a monster. You didn’t have to be a monster. We didn’t need to…we could have endured!” She turned her head up, and there were tears in her face. “You didn’t make me a monster. I let you make me into that. I had to…I had to be better than what you wanted of me.”

Bast howled and tried to lunge at Cassandra. Nabu held her wrist firm and held out his free hand. Words began to form in the air, glowing letters that coalesced into a blade that glowed with a pale blue light. Bast now started to kick at him, but Nabu was uninjured from his earlier fight with the cadiophages.

She had no more chance against him than Ryan had moments ago of surviving her assault alone.

With a swift strike, Nabu cleaved Bast’s head from her shoulders. It landed on the ground with a sickly wet sound and rolled away. Before Ryan’s eyes, both her body and her head began to flake like they had been set aflame, only there was no heat, only ashes rising up in defiance of the rain that still pounded the town.

In seconds, what remained of Bast had turned to dust and been washed away. Nabu’s foot shot out, stopping her blood-red nanoverse from rolling away with the rest of her form. “We’ll have to destroy this,” he said.

“I’m fine, really,” Ryan grunted, trying to rise to his feet again. “Thanks for asking. Don’t…worry about me. I just hurt everywhere. Couple broken bones. Been set on fire a couple times. You know…Tuesday stuff.”

Nabu gave him a long, curious look. “Ryan. It’s a Thursday.”

“Oh. Well. In that case, I’m going to do what I do on Thursdays. Just give me a minute. Uh…help me get back to my nanoverse. And…and help Dianmu get to hers. We’re both…not doing so hot right now. Cassandra, right?” he said, pointing to the cadiophage in a lab coat.

Cassandra nodded, though her eyes didn’t pull up from the ground where Bast had vanished. “I couldn’t let her…”

Ryan didn’t wait to make her finish. “I know. You did the right thing. Really. Saved my life. And the world. I’m going to buy you a hundred pigs so you can eat their hearts or whatever. A thousand. You need to stick with Nabu. Tell him everything you know.” Ryan took a deep breath. It was a painful mistake, and Ryan shuddered at the surge of agony.

“I’m still confused on one thing,” Nabu said, glancing down at Ryan. “What do you do on Thursdays?”

“On Thursday?” Ryan said, black tendrils creeping across his vision. “On Thursdays, I pass out.”

As soon as the words were past his lips, Ryan let go of the frantic battle to maintain consciousness, and did exactly that.

Small Worlds part 236

Bast leapt across the distance she’d kicked Ryan, landing at the base of the car. With a quick twist, she flipped the car, sending Ryan tumbling through the pouring rain and landing hard on the wet grass outside of a home. He rolled aside just as the car impacted the spot, he’d been occupying with a wet squelch that was accompanied by the sound of tearing metal.

Bast made a ‘tisk’ sound between her lips. “All this struggling, and for what? To get you a chance at a cheap shot?” Her lips curled into a malicious grin. “All that, and in the end…it failed. You have failed, Eschaton. Just give up?”

Ryan pushed himself up just to his hands and knees. “You honestly think I’m going to…give up?”

“Of course,” Bast said, raising an eyebrow. “Why don’t you just acknowledge you are beaten and surrender.”

“I will never, ever surrender to you, Bast.” Ryan managed to spit out. Blood was running from the corner of his mouth. He thought he had at least one broken rib, possibly more. That last blow had nearly been enough to turn his chest concave, it was amazing he was still standing. She wants me alive. That’s the only reason I can do this.

Bast sighed. “Not particularly, but I’m certain you’re going to want to tell me at great length anyway. You know, this really gets much easier once you stop fighting back.”

Ryan took a deep, painful breath, and lightning cracked down from the sky. Not summoned by either deity, just a natural side effect of the storm Ryan had summoned. It illuminated the entire street as it hit the roof of a diner, and in the illumination, Ryan saw exactly what he was looking for.

Bast licked her lips. Not in a taunting way, but a reflexive gesture. The kind of thing humans did when they were thirsty enough their lips were going dry.

Ryan gritted his teeth against the pain, shoving his hands onto the wet mud beneath him. Thunder rumbled in the clouds above, the storm Ryan had set in motion finally getting ready to unleash its torrent. Slowly, pain lancing through every motion, Ryan forced himself to his feet. “You think I’m going to stop fighting you?” Ryan asked, rising to stare directly at Bast.

Bast rolled her eyes. “I just said that I do. Did I rupture your eardrums? Or did I just knock the sense out of you?”

Every breath Ryan drew felt like his chest was under tons of pressure. The need for Breath was an intense, sharp thing, gnawing at his lungs. He was gasping between his broken ribs, but Bast…Bast was thirsty. She’d burned through a great deal of her divine power.

Ryan had yet to throw a twist of reality in the fight. He threw out his hands and grabbed onto the equations in the storm. “You betrayed Tyr and Athena!” Ryan screamed. He threw his hands together, pulling the equations along with him.

Bast’s eyes narrowed, and she pointed the gun at his leg. “What are you doing?” she demanded.

Before she could pull the trigger, a sound began to fill the empty air. A sound like two trains rushing towards them from the air. Bast turned her eyes upwards just in time to see the twin funnel clouds Ryan had pulled from the sky. “You killed Crystal in front of my eyes!” Ryan shouted.

“What?” Bast said, her voice dripping with disbelief, as the tornadoes closed in around her. Ryan was already working the equations, gritting his teeth against the pain, ready for the next assault. Bast held out against the storm. While Ryan couldn’t read the twists to reality she was making, it was clear she was starting to buckle against the forced Ryan was unleashing.

Then Bast came flying out of the funnel clouds, her hair whipped around her face, a khopesh gleaming in her hand. She was slicing towards Ryan’s arm, a blow that could have severed the limb clean from his body.

“You unleashed monsters on this town!” Ryan shouted, clenching his fist as the next twist to reality he’d woven crashed into place. Spines of solid stone began to erupt out of the ground around Bast, one impaling her leg, another slamming through her hand.

“What!?” Bast screamed, this time pain and rage mingling with the confusion. She struggled against the stones, and they shattered under her hands, but they’d slowed  her enough.

“You killed these people to get my attention!” Ryan bellowed, and he raised his hand up and brought it down in a sweeping gesture. An arc of lightning leapt from the clouds above, piercing Bast before she could fully break free of the stone spines.

It struck her with a blinding force, an electrical bolt from a storm Ryan had created. Bast’s muscles seized up from the onslaught, and she stumbled forward.

“What…is…happening?” Bast asked, and now it was her turn to grit her teeth against the pain, her turn to look up at Ryan with a mixture of confusion and fear and hatred. The emotions warred on her face, dancing about, and Ryan felt immense satisfaction knowing she had no idea what was about to happen.

“And most importantly!” Ryan said, raising his hands towards the sky. The equations he’d woven at the beginning of the battle, the ones that had needed the cloud cover to hide their true purpose, fell into place.

The thunder rumbled one last time, and then the clouds were blown apart as a beam of sunlight, all the sun that was coming through the sky for over ten kilometers, streaked from the heavens. It had just been dawn when the battle had started, but it had been building for the entire fight, several seconds worth of solar energy gathered into a single beam.

Ryan didn’t focus the beam on Bast directly. Instead, in came down on top of him, and when it reached his fingers the sunlight began to pool between his hands. A sphere of light, a miniature star of his very own, began to form in Ryan’s hands. “I’m going to fight you because it’s the only good thing I can still do!”

Bast’s eyes were wide and twitching with disbelief. “What. Is. Happening?” she asked again, struggling with each and every word.

“You wanted my surrender, Bast?” Ryan said, his own rage, and his pain, and his fear whipping together to make his voice raw. “Then it’s time to see if you can earn it!”

And with that, Ryan threw the star of condensed sunlight at Bast.

It streaked across the battlefield, warping from a sphere of energy into a beam that had the raw power of a solar flare condensed into a point only a foot wide. Nearby cars exploded from its passing as it tore across the street, heating the gasoline in their tanks in an instant. The rain turned to steam, a sudden plume rising and then falling back to earth. Ryan couldn’t see what happened to Bast as the light engulfed her. He could see what happened to the light on the other side, though.

Dianmu had, throughout the course of her fight with the cadiophages, been keeping a careful eye on Ryan, and maneuvering the battle as needed. Ryan’s screaming had alerted her that it was about to happen.

When he threw his attack, Dianmu had dove to the ground. The beam hit the gravitational lenses she had woven into the air and fractured, lancing outward in dozens of individual beams.

Each one was aimed at a Cadiophages. They had only moments to look surprised before the fractured beams of raw light struck them and turned them into clouds of ash.

A clap of thunder rocked the air as air rushed back in to fill the channel Ryan had cut with sunlight.

Small Worlds part 235

Ryan cried in agony as he felt his nose shatter under Bast’s foot. She brought up the heel, and Ryan’s hands went to his face. Blood poured from his broken nose, running between his fingers. He couldn’t see through the pain. “You can’t win this, Eschaton,” Bast said, her words cutting over the pain. “You had time to trick Enki. I won’t repeat his mistakes.”

It took time for Ryan’s vision to clear. Bast stood there, allowing him to blink away the tears and stand up. With his hands on both sides of his nose, Ryan snapped his nose back into place. It caused another lance of pain to blind him for a moment, and he almost dropped back to the ground. Instead he stood there, his vision slowly fading back into reality.

“You won’t repeat his mistakes?” Ryan asked with a sniff, wiping away the blood from his mouth. “Then why the hell are you just standing there, gloating?”

Bast sighed. “Because I’m hoping you see reason. I’m hoping you realize that this ends poorly for you. I don’t want you dead, Ryan. I want you to fix what’s broken in us.”

Ryan shook his head. “I’ll die before I do, Bast.”

Bast didn’t bother retorting. Instead, she gestured. A wind surged up from around her hand and roared towards Ryan like a freight train, tearing chunks of pavement up as it travelled towards him. Ryan didn’t even try to stand up against the immense force. He instead curled into a ball, letting his elbows and knees take the brunt of the bouncing along the ground.

Ryan crashed along the street like a human bowling ball, tumbling end over end. Splinters of pain raced through his body from wherever he impacted, radiating out from his hands as they protected his head, spiraling up from his sins when he ricocheted off a car, and getting a hiss of pain from his throat when his elbows slammed in the pavement.

It was hardly the most dignified thing a god had ever done, but it was effective. When he finally stopped, his hands and knees were scarred, and he felt like he’d been thrown into a tumble dryer, but he was alive and able to stand.

Everything’s still going…according to plan, Ryan told himself. And, in a sense, that was true. It missed the very important caveat that Ryan had not expected the plan to hurt so damn much.

He could see Dianmu dancing among the Cadiophages behind Bast. She kept them at bay with her glaive, the blade flashing in the momentary bursts of lightning that illuminated the ever-darkening sky. She had dozens on her, and like Ryan she was withholding using any of her divine power.

At least, in a way the Cadiophages could detect. All I need know is – ooof!

The last thought was also expressed vocally. Bast had flown down the street and impacted Ryan with her knee raised high. He’d been so off guard; he’d taken the blow directly into his solar plexus. She grinned as he tumbled down the street again, this time lacking the presence of mind to curl himself protectively.

Ryan gasped for air. She’d driven the wind straight from his lungs, and with the Hunger for Air starting, he needed to draw breath. Bast gave him a lazy gesture.

This time Ryan was able to dodge. A bolt of lightning lanced down from the storm Ryan had summoned, splitting the concrete he had just vacated. The sheer force of the thunder this close still sent him rocking back, and his ears filled with a high-pitched ringing sound.

For a terrible moment, Ryan thought he’d been deafened by the explosion so close to his head, and he had to imagine trying to save the world with his ears still fill of that constant ringing. Then another bolt of lightning joined the first. This one struck him directly, and the sound of his own scream filling his ears assured him he was able to hear just fine.

Ryan slumped to his knees. Even with the rain cooling him, steam was rising from his arms and back from the lightning bolt, a cloud forming around him for a moment before the rain washed it away in a stream.

Bast was approaching him at a lazy, sedate walk. “You really did rely on Ishtar and Athena to defeat Enki, didn’t you? I knew you were no warrior, but I never imagined you’d be this-”

Ryan reached into his nanoverse to draw out his sword, and in a single fluid motion swung it directly at Bast’s neck. It was a perfect strike. She’d been lulled in to such a state of overconfidence, he managed to catch her completely off guard. He’d end this right here, the sword striking her head clean from her body.

Bast held up two fingers and caught the edge of the blade against the middle finger. A line of blood emerged from where the blow had struck, but Bast had somehow hardened her hand. Ryan’s sword barely even broke the surface. Bast smiled at him. “-pathetic. Apparently, though, here you are. Anything you want to say for yourself?”

Ryan looked at Bast’s hand, then back at the sword. His mind tried to process what he was seeing. He’d been so sure that the sword was going to land home, buy him room to recover…and there she was, standing there and blocking it like he’d swung a particularly thin twig at her.

“Oh. Um. Shit,” Ryan said.

Bast’s smile widened. “That’s what I thought.”

This time, when her knee struck his stomach, it sent him flying upwards in a lazy arc that ended with him crashing into the roof of some poor soul’s car, collapsing the metal beneath him.

In the aftermath, Ryan could only lay there in the rain, staring at the clouds, letting out a low wheeze of pain.