Small Worlds Part 174

We’re going to the moon, we’re going to the moon, I’m going to be the first woman on the moon, Isabel thought, practically bouncing in her chair in Crystal’s staging area. She glanced at Crystal and amended that thought. I’m going to be the first mortal woman on the moon who cares I’m going to be on the friggin’ moon.

“Careful, love. You look like you’re about to bounce out of your seat,” Crystal said in a teasing voice. “Nervous?”

“Nervous? Oh hell no. I’m going to be walking on the moon. Are you kidding me? I couldn’t be more excited if it was Christmas, my Birthday, and Graduation all wrapped up into one.”

Crystal let out a chuckle. “I hope it doesn’t disappoint you.”

“Will I be able to see the Earth being massive overhead?”

Crystal glanced at her console, then nodded. “Anansi’s directions take us to the near side, not the far side, so yes. Earth should be right overhead when we step out.”

“Then I’m going to be perfectly happy,” Isabel said.

“You’re not worried about the lack of air?”

“I mean, you’re going to take care of that until we get to the sphynx and the mysterious moon base, right?” Isabel asked with a frown. “Should I be worried?”

“I’ll be maintaining a bubble of air for you, love, so it should be fine, but if something happens to me…” Crystal let that trail off. “Well, you’ll have a bloody short time to get back to the doorway.”

Isabel shrugged. “And if an astronauts suit gets punctured, they’re dead. Honestly, I think it’s safer than a space suit – instead of relying on materials and fabrics, I’ve got literal divine intervention holding me safe, so I should be fine.”

Crystal smiled at Isabel, and Isabel felt herself begin to flush. “Well, I appreciate the confidence in my abilities,” Crystal said.

“I’d be rude if I didn’t have confidence! You’ve survived for this long just fine, I’m pretty sure you could manage a trip across the lunar surface. Besides, you saved my life once before, and that was way more dangerous than this.”

“Don’t be so sure about that, love,” Crystal said, darkly. “We haven’t encountered moonworms yet.”

Isabel froze. “Moonworms?”

“Oh, bloody hell, did I not mention those? Yes, moonworms. They burrow through the Lunar dust, you see, and they’re attracted to sources of heat. It’s what they feed off of. For living things, they crawl up their legs and try to get as close to the warmth as they can.”

Isabel stared at Crystal with growing horror. “So they…hug your legs?”

Crystal shook her head grimly. “Oh, no, not at all. They have jaws that can cut through lunar regolith, they’ll absolutely try to go as deep into the warmth as possible. Bite. By. Bite.”

Isabel couldn’t contain a frightened “eep.” As soon as she let the sound out, Crystal’s frown vanished to be replaced with laughter. Isabel stared at her for a moment, then crossed her arms as realization settled in. “You were messing with me.”

“Of course I was bloody messing with you,” Crystal said, wiping away tears of laughter. “Moonworms. That’s…I’m sorry, love,  you should have seen your face.”

“That was just mean. How am I supposed to know Moonworms weren’t real? A few days ago I was kidnapped by an archangel and a crazy god from a pre-human race and you all were fighting dragons. Are you going to tell me moonworms are absurd when compared to that?” In spite of her annoyance, Isabel was also flushing. You “eeped.” You were being taunted by a goddess, and you said “eep.” Way to go, Isabel.

Crystal’s laughter began to die down. “Oh, come on love, just a bit of a joke, yeah?”

Isabel sniffed in annoyance. “It wasn’t very funny.”

Crystal held up a hand. “You’re right, you had no way of knowing they weren’t real. If it makes you feel any better, Selene fell for the same thing ages ago.”

Isabel blinked. “Wasn’t Selene a moon goddess?”

“Oh, yeah, absolutely. She was so pissed at me for the moonworms, she decided to stay up here for a few days to prove she wasn’t frightened. By the time she got back, everyone decided she was the moon personified.”

“Now that,” Isabel said with a reluctant smile, “that, I have to admit, is pretty funny.”

Crystal’s grin returned. “I know, right? Bloody brilliant, if I do say so myself.”

“So does your humor always involve telling people lies they couldn’t know were lies without some kind of precognition?”

Crystal shook her head firmly. “Do that too often, and people stop trusting you. Now that I’ve done it to you,  you’re safe for the next millennia. Maybe two, can’t be too predictable. Just do me a favor, yeah? Don’t tell your brother. Haven’t gotten him yet, either.”

Isabel snorted out a breath. “If you’re going to do it to Ryan, I’ll help.

Crystal’s grin returned. “I knew I liked you.”

Still a bit annoyed by the joke, Isabel found it easy to prevent the flush this time. “So, this is old hat for you, isn’t it? Going to the moon, I mean.”

“Kinda, yeah. I don’t come up here often, though.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s the moon. There’s nothing up here, love!” Crystal frowned. “Or at least, I didn’t think there was. Should have known a Trickster would have put something up here.”

“Ahh, so the great Crystal isn’t as omnipotent as she seems?” Isabel said.

“Love, if I was half as omnipotent as I seemed, I’d be twice as omnipotent as I actually am.”

“Did you just make a Tolkien reference?”

Crystal just winked at Isabel instead of answering. “Don’t let me being old and jaded spoil the moon for you though. I may have been here a few times, but I’d hate for you to feel like it was somehow less special. Decided what you’re going to be on the moon?”

“I’m going to start as a human,” Isabel said after a moment’s thought. “I want to see it with my own eyes.”

Crystal nodded approval. “Well then, we’re here. You ready?”

Isabel practically threw herself out of the chair, thrumming with excitement. “Yes, yes, please God yes.”

Crystal smiled and opened the door, waggling her fingers to – Isabel assumed – give her some air to breathe on the lunar surface. “Beauty before age, love.”

Isabel didn’t protest, didn’t even register the comment fully. Instead, she bolted out the door and took her first step onto the surface of the moon.

She didn’t pay attention to how light she felt. She didn’t worry about the temperature of the artificial air brushing against her skin. In fact, she didn’t focus on anything at all, instead craning her head up and looking at the sky.

There, above them, just over the Horizon like it was the rising sun, hung the Earth. It was blue and green and brown and swirled with white streaks, half covered by night. She couldn’t quite make out individual continents, not with the clouds covering part of it, but she didn’t need to. Some part of her recognized that multicolored sphere as “home.”

Isabel felt tears spring to her eyes. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

Small Worlds Part 173

Taking care of sleep had been easy for Horus. By the time he had dragged himself into his nanoverse, he was so tired he’d keeled over before properly forming a bed. Don’t think I’ve ever come that close to dying and survived, he thought, taking another bite out of a cold steak with the delicate refinement of a starving hound. Don’t think I want to ever again.

He swallowed the last bit of steak. That’s four Hungers down. There was just the fifth to take care of. Horus glanced over at his collection. Books he’d not gotten around to reading, movies he’d not yet seen, the standard ways to take care of that particular Hunger when there wasn’t companionship available.

Except there was someone who’s Company was available. Someone who was very close by, and someone who Horus dearly wanted to enjoy the company of. You should read a book, he told himself as he stood up. Or put in one of the movies, he thought as he walked out of his Nanoverse. They were good thoughts. They were rational thoughts.

Horus wasn’t feeling particularly rational at the moment.

Underneath those thoughts was a nastier line of thinking, an uglier one. One that had nothing to do with rationality, and everything to do with the primal, the base. A part of his mind that he was tired of ignoring, tired of letting slide.

He found her in what was once a clocktower, looking through the splintered glass and broken numerals to stare over the island. The wind was strong up here, whipping her hair back and pressing her loose fitting dress tight against one side as it billowed out on the other. She saw him coming, and with a gesture brought stillness to the air. “You recovered already,” Bast said simply. She took stock of him, glancing up and down, seeing the skin still red and white with burns and the way he swayed where he stood, still weak with the unfulfilled Hunger. “Or at least, you’re walking.”

Horus’ nostrils flared. “I nearly died, and that’s all you have to say to me?”

Bast laughed, a cold sound. He remembered her laughter once being warm, remembered it once set a shiver down his spine. Had her laughter changed so much? Or had the centuries of refusal soured his reaction? “What do you want me to say?” She brought a wrist up to her forehead dramatically, “oh thank you Horus, for saving me from the vile fiend!”

“I deserve something better than that!” Horus bellowed, and Bast’s smile faded, hard lines replacing mocker. “You’re not some fainting damsel, Bast, but you needed me to kill him for you!”

“Hardly,” Bast said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “I wanted assurance he would fall. Two on one are odds that are favorable, and you gave me an opening to land the coup de grace. If there had been a better option, I would have gone with that. Now, as always Horus, you are a tool.”

Horus nearly screamed in rage. “That’s not what you said beforehand! You said you needed me. Hours of Night, Bast, what will it take?”

“What will what take?” she asked, her voice level.

“You know what I want,” he nearly spat. “I want it even when I have no Hunger to drive me, but right now I’m half mad with want of you. With need for you.”

Bast pursed her lips. “Say it, Horus. If you want it so bad, say it.”

“I want you, Bast. I want you so badly it tears at me. I’ve wanted you for millennia, for countless centuries. You have spurned me at every opportunity, but today you gave me a quest. I fought the dragon for you. I stood against the monster. I was your knight in shining armor. And still you spurn me!

“So I owe you?” Bast said, gesturing to herself. “What is it of me you want, Hours? My mind, my heart, my body?”

“All of them,” Horus whispered, stepping closer. His voice was hoarse.

She didn’t step away. “And what do you offer?”

“My devotion,” he said, taking another step closer.

Again, she stood her ground, regarding him. “You have already given me that.”

Emboldened, he took another step. “My Hunger.”

She laughed, and now he found the sound warm again, warm and sweet and inviting. “You’re already begging me to fill that, Horus. Try again.”

“I will give you whatever you want.” They were almost face to face now, her peering up at him, close enough where he could practically feel her breath. He felt his hand tremble in anticipation. Yes. Finally, yes. “My love,  my live, my heart.”

Bast reached up and brushed her fingers against his chest. “Are you certain?”

“Yes,” Horus whispered.

“I accept,” Bast whispered, leaning in. Horus leaned towards her, his lips puckering, and just before they touched he had a moment where he and Bast plunged her fingers through his damaged skin. Horus let out a scream of sudden agony as he felt her shatter ribs and tear muscle with a single gesture, a scream that cut off in a ragged gasp as he felt her fingers close around his heart. She didn’t tear it out, not yet, instead holding it gently enough it could still beat. “What’s wrong?” she cooed in his ears. “Is this not what you meant?”

Horus could only gasp, flecks of blood flying from his lips.

“Don’t worry, Horus,” she said, her hand still halfway through his chest. The pain was immense, and Horus wasn’t sure how he managed to maintain consciousness. If he’d stopped to fill his need for Company, he would have had the power to fight this. With his Hungers not completely filled, however, he could do nothing. “You’re going to resurrect. I promise you that. Over. And over. And over. I think I’ll feed your heart to Cassandra next time. A constant, never ending food supply. Won’t that be wonderful?

Before Horus could speak, even to curse her name, Bast ripped his heart from his chest. The last thing he saw was her shudder with delight as she bit into it. Vision was fading but hearing remained just long enough to hear her mocking voice. “It’s funny, in away. In the end, you finally did get inside me.”

Then, darkness.

 

Small Worlds Part 172

“I was a huge nerd back in the day,” Ryan started with a grin. “I didn’t quite fit in with most people because I was constantly looking over my shoulder at Nabu, which got me a reputation for being just a little bit of a weirdo.”

“I can’t imagine why,” Dianmu said dryly.

“Right? So I made friends with some of the other outcasts. I’d say remind me to tell you about my goth phase, but we don’t ever talk about my goth phase. Eventually I settled in with the nerds. They thought I was a bit weird too, but they were proud of being weird so it was a natural fit. This was the early 2000’s, so there wasn’t the stereotypical 80’s bullying, but it also wasn’t at the widespread nerd culture adoption we have now.” Ryan paused. “I just realized, I’m never sure how much into popular culture you all are, and most of my reference frame is pretty American. Am I making sense so far?”

“Yes,” Dianmu said. “I’m a bit out of touch, but not completely ignorant of trends in popular culture.”

“Okay, good. Stop me if I start talking about things that don’t make sense.”

“Like, for example, a demonic creature called a Fangliang you’d clearly never heard of before I told the story?” Dianmu asked.

“Yes, exactly like that.” Ryan laughed. “Okay, point taken. So being in with the nerds means I got roped into the Alphabet Soup of hobbies – MTG, DnD, PnP RPGs, MMORPGs, the works.”

Dianmu rolled her eyes. “You did that deliberately, didn’t you?”

“Guilty,” Ryan said.

“Well, I know what some of those acronyms mean,” Dianmu said. “DnD is Dungeons and Dragons, yes? And MMORPG is some kind of video game.”

“Yup. Dungeons and Dragons is the one that really matters here. Are you familiar with it?”

“Not particularly. It never really caught on in China – at least, not among the people I lived among in Guangzhou. From what I’ve gathered, it’s some kind of satanic game for virgins?”

Ryan nearly doubled over from laughter. “No,” he said, wiping his eyes. “It’s…wow. I can see why you’d think that, but no. It’s a game where you roll dice to pretend to be elves and dwarves and wizards and such. It got a reputation for the satanic part back during the Satanic Panic in the 80’s, and the virgin thing is because of stereotypes about nerds.”

“I see. So you weren’t a satanic virgin?” Dianmu’s eyes glistened with amusement.

“I never worshipped the devil,” Ryan said primly.

Dianmu laughed, then looked at Ryan. “Wait, you’re serious?”

Ryan nodded. “Having a guy in a suit watching you twenty four hours a day, seven days a week is kind of a mood killer. I had girlfriends, but once it got to that point…I’d always wig out.”

“I suppose that makes sense,” Dianmu said after a moment’s thought.

“I thought it did.” Ryan shrugged. “Anyway, so it’s a game and it’s also a cooperative storytelling thing. It was a ton of fun. Jacqueline was our Dungeon Master, the person who oversees the game, and we played once a week at her house, every Friday after school.” He smiled at the memory. “I was a playing a Bard at the time. Merrick, the Mastiful Musical Magician. I had this whole speech that allterated off of M I’d do before performances.”

Dianmu’s forehead was furrowed. “I think I understand, although I’ll admit that I don’t see the appeal.”

“You know how fun it is to sit around sharing stories?” Ryan asked.

“You mean like we’re doing now?”

“Yeah, exactly. Now imagine that instead of one person was telling a story, everyone was telling the same story, and no one knew exactly how it would end because everyone was working together to get there.”

“It sounds chaotic,” Dianmu said.

“It is, but the rules and the dice help provide an order for the chaos, and the Dungeon Master tries to keep things structured.”

Dianmu nodded. “I suppose that makes some sense. So you almost died playing Dungeons and Dragons?”

“Not exactly,” Ryan said, leaning back into his chair. “We were over there one night in winter. It started snowing while we were playing. The other players – Mike, Bethany, Andre – they all went home early because the were worried about the weather. It was fine for the game because I’d wandered off from the group anyway, so Jacqueline and I decided to wrap up my solo adventure. I’ll admit I also stayed because I had a huge crush on her.”

“What happened to her?” Dianmu asked, noting the frown forming on Ryan’s face.

“We ended up dating the summer before college, and made it for a couple years before we broke up. The fact that I kept…well. It would have been fine, I think, if I’d said I wanted to wait until marriage or something. But since I didn’t want to, and she didn’t want to, but I kept backing off, and then refused to get help for what seemed like some kind of phobia eventually magnified the other flaws in our relationship until it broke us up.”

“You still miss her.”

“I was over it, over her. Honestly I was. Then in Cypher Nullity I stuck my head in the Reliquary and saw what would have happened if I’d told her. We would have been fine, apparently.”

Dianmu made a sympathetic sound. “Crystal took me there once. I put my head in too. I think the curiosity was too much to bear.”

“What’d you see?”

“What would have happened if I’d acted on my love for Leigong.”

Ryan blinked. “Wasn’t he your husband?”

Dianmu nodded. “What I saw there gave me the push to act upon that love.”

“Damn,” Ryan said. “Was kind of hoping to hear the Reliquary wasn’t always right about that kind of thing.”

“I asked Crystal about that later. She said it wasn’t – that the Reliquary always shows you the best case scenario. It’s a punishment, after all, or it’s meant to be. Think of it this way – had you stayed with Jacqueline, do you think you would have found your nanoverse?”

Ryan shook his head.

“Then it’s likely some other person would have your duty right now. But by the same token…well, actually, that’s another conversation.” Dianmu smiled. “I want to hear the rest of your story.”

“Fair enough,” Ryan said. “Although I’m going to ask you to circle back to that later.” Dianmu nodded in agreement, and Ryan continued. “So where was I? Oh yeah. I stayed late to finish my solo adventure. Had a great time. Almost worked up the nerves to ask Jacqueline out, but chickened out at the last second. Still, I was in a pretty good mood when I got in the car. I was even chatting at Nabu, for what ended up being the last time in years.”

Ryan took a deep breath. “I lost control of the car. Skidded off the road. I remember I came to, and I remember begging Nabu for help and him just standing there, taking notes like he didn’t give two shits about it.” He felt his fist begin to clench, and forced them relax. “Some random person saw the crash, pulled over, called nine one one. I’d been cut pretty bad. Lost so much blood that they almost didn’t try a transfusion. If it hadn’t been for that out of town doctor…”

Dianmu cocked her head. “What out of town doctor?”

“Some visiting physician who was at the hospital for a conference. Doctor Arturo Cuban. He insisted they attempt it anyway. I was legally dead for minutes. According to the Doctors, I should have stayed dead. It was a medical miracle I’d come back. Apparently, after you’ve lost forty percent of your blood, death is pretty much guaranteed even with a transfusion. I’d lost closer to forty-five.” Ryan shuddered. “I was still in a coma for a couple days. Never got to thank the Doctor who saved my life. Just woke up to Nabu still standing there, taking notes. My parents came in later, but that stuck with me – if not for sheer luck the last thing I ever saw was Nabu standing there, taking notes. Maybe that’s why he feels guilty enough to help me now.” Ryan shrugged.

“Perhaps,” Dianmu said.

“Bit less interesting than your story,” Ryan said with a grin.

“More interesting than any story I have from before I found my nanoverse,” Dianmu countered. “I certainly never died before I became a goddess.”

“Well, thank you for that.”

“You’re very welcome.”

“So…what was it you wanted to ask me?” Ryan said after a momentary lull in the conversation.

“Oh. Well, quite simply-” At that moment, Ryan’s console gave a quick beep letting them know they’d arrived. Dianmu laughed. “It’s something that will have to wait till later.”

Ryan sighed. “Apparently. Alright. You ready to tangle with the Curator’s red tape?”

“As ready as anyone can be.”

With that, they headed to the door, ready to argue with the universe’s oldest bureaucracy.

Small Worlds Part 171

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“Before I got your message, I was living in one of the poorest parts Guangzhou.”

“I don’t know the area,” Ryan said.

“It’s what’s euphemistically called an “urban village”. It would more accurately be called a slum. I’d been living there for about a hundred years.”

“People didn’t notice that you weren’t aging?” Ryan asked with a frown.

Dianmu gave him a small smile. “Oh, they would have – if I wasn’t aging. However, I made myself age the entire time I lived there. I’d then start playing the role of my own daughter, and then fake my own death, living as my daughter until the cycle repeated. I got some comments about how much I looked like my mother, but never anything too strong.”

Ryan chuckled. “So no one knew you were different? Living a mere mortal.”

“Not entirely,” Dianmu said. “I got a reputation as a mun mai poh – similar to what you’d call a medium. People would come to me when things got…strange. When they believed they’d encountered ghosts or demons or monsters.”

“Did that happen often?”

“Believing they did? Of course. People everywhere are incredibly credulous when it comes to certain elements of the supernatural. Most of the time it was nothing, or had some rational explanation. In those cases I did my best to assure them they had nothing to fear. Sometimes, if the person was particularly frightened to the point where it was hurting their life, I’d fix the problem and then ‘banish’ the spirits. It put their minds at ease. Other times, more rarely, it was due to a disorder of some kind. Those people I helped get the attention they needed. And other times…do you have anything to drink?”
Ryan motioned to summon the refrigerator, offering her a choice of bottled water, soda, iced coffee, and beer. “You’re thirsty?” he asked, surprised.

“Oh, no. I’ve barely used any power today. But I find storytelling can still make my throat sore, and I prefer to head that off. Being a god does not make us immune to that, it seems. Or have you not noticed?” She selected a bottle of water.

“Honestly? I hadn’t. Then again, I haven’t done much storytelling since this all started.”

“Well, unless you are like Anansi, you’ll find it becomes tiresome. I don’t know how he does it.”

He’d probably just remind us he once held all the world’s stories.”

Dianmu smiled. “Almost certainly.” She took a drink. “Now, where was I? Oh, yes, other times, very rarely – not much more than once or twice a decade – it actually was something. A creature looking to prey on the poor, where it might go unnoticed.” Her eyes flashed with sudden anger. “Those I showed no mercy. Even when the monster was a human seeking easy targets.”

“That happened?”

Dianmu nodded. “Once.”

“What were they doing?” Ryan asked.

“In the 1950’s, it was a serial killer who preyed upon young women. I made myself appear as his ideal target to draw him out, then boiled his eyes in his skull.”

Dianmu’s voice was so calm, so matter of fact, it made Ryan shudder. “So nothing that could really pose a threat to you,” Ryan said, trying to change the topic back to the monsters.

“Not for the hundred years I lived there. Not until the very end.” Dianmu shook her head sadly. “People were going missing. In too great a number to be accounted for by normal means. It disturbed me, and then became extremely concerned when I realized they were all people living on the first or second floors of their buildings, or from the top two floors.”

“I’m not sure what that indicates,” Ryan said.

“Monsters that prey upon humans tend to avoid exposure. They know that if humanity banded together, enough of them would kill them. So they tend to attack from below the ground or from the air to minimize that risk.” Dianmu’s eyes shone with that hard, cold anger again. “This one was doing both.”

“What can do that?”

“Not many things. Even fewer that would risk hunting in a city. Most of them are anthropophages – the ones you’d know of best are vampires – that can pass as humans. The pattern didn’t fit one of their ilk. You know the old tale that vampires need to be invited in to enter someone’s home?”

Ryan nodded.

“It’s a myth, but like most myths, has some vestige of truth in it. Vampires do not require an invitation to enter your home, but they do prefer it – as do most anthropophages. It means they have your trust, that your guard is down.” She shook her head. “They would never need to focus on the ground floors, and would never, ever risk having to fight their way through a horde of panicked humans from roof to floor. I honestly was at a loss of what could be causing it. Anything more monstrous, and the risk of being caught is much greater. Even if mortals don’t target you, you risk drawing the attention of a god or goddess. Which, of course, this one had, but so far it was managing to utterly confound me.”

She took another drink. “Then the first body was found. It was labeled as a ritualistic gang killing, which is what urban police across the world use most often to describe monster killings.”

Ryan frowned. “I’ve seen what monsters can do. You’re telling me the cops write that off as being gangsters?”

“What else are they supposed to do?” Dianmu asked. “If they say it’s a cult, they’ll have a panic on their hands. If they say it was a wild animal, in a city a densely populated as Guangzhou, people will call them incompetent or liars – and they’ll still have a panic on their hands. If they blame it on gang activity, however, people can sleep safely. They can tell themselves ‘I never angered any gangs, nor do I know anyone in a gang. There is no risk to me.’ They might become frightened, they might cry out about the crime, but ultimately, it’s criminals killing other criminals. It’s a safe lie to cover the horror of what happened.”

Ryan scratched his chin. “I…wish I could find a flaw in that logic.”

Dianmu laughed, a sound utterly without mirth. “One thing I’ve learned over thousands of years – human nature never changes. We like our nice, comfortable lies more than the hard, brutal truth that we are as vulnerable as anyone else. When a civilization is exposed to that truth, panic always follows.”
Ryan shuddered.

“What’s wrong?” Dianmu asked.

“If you’re right…well, the entire world now knows that the mythological is real.”
Dianmu nodded. “I think when we find time to rejoin civilizations, it’s going to be a rather unpleasant sight.”

Ryan swallowed, hard. “So…a body was found?”

“Yes,” Dianmu said, not even flinching at the change of subject. “I was able to get my hand on the police report. The person’s brain and liver had been removed. That told me everything I needed to know. It was a Fangliang – a demon that feeds on those two organs from corpses. And when they cannot find corpses…well, they’re not above making fresh ones, then waiting for them to rot enough for the Fangliang to feed.

“They favor being below ground, fitting for their preferred food source, but they can fly through the air on transparent wings. It was the only thing that fit, although I was surprised they were operating in a city. The only way to kill them permanently is to bury them alive. Otherwise they keep reforming and coming back at every full moon.”
“So you had to take it alive and bury it?”

“Yes. And that was my plan, when I delved into the burrows they had dug in the foundation of a condemned building. Find it, capture it, and bury it.” Dianmu’s eyes flashed at the memory. “I wasn’t expecting an entire nest of the creatures. Over three hundred of them.”

Ryan let out a low whistle. “How did that go undetected?”

“They were spreading out their hunting, and focusing on poorer areas. They were organized, they were smart.

“So that’s how you died.” Ryan said. “Sheer numbers?”

“Oh, no.” Dianmu did smile here, a fierce expression on her face. “I don’t know if I could have defeated three hundred of the creatures in combat. But I didn’t need to. I had come to bury them alive, after all – and the building above us was condemned.”
Ryan stared at her, his mouth hanging open. “You collapsed a building on yourself to take them out?”

“Yes. One of the beams impaled me – I had to immolate myself so I could resurrect back at my nanoverse.”

“Holy shit,” Ryan whispered. After a few seconds to take in how casually Dianmu was talking about being buried, impaled, and immolated, Ryan let out a soft breath.

“Dianmu?”

“Yes?”

“I’m really glad you’re on our side.”

That got a genuine laugh out of her. “Thank you for the compliment,” she said.

“You deserve it. Did it work?”

Dianmu nodded. “When I resurrected, I learned there had been no new disappearances. I also got the message – but at that point, you had already tricked Enki into nuking himself, so I assumed things were over.” Dianmu looked up at him. “Speaking of which, I’m very glad I’m on your side as well.”

It was Ryan’s turn to laugh.

“So, I’ve told you my story. How about yours, Ryan Smith?”

Ryan shrugged. “Not much to tell, really. I was just a perfectly ordinary guy right up until I found the nanoverse. And you’ve heard that story.”

“There’s no such thing as perfectly ordinary. Everyone has something interesting happen to them, at some point.”

Ryan frowned in thought. “Okay, I have one,” he said after a moment. “And in keeping with the theme, it’s also about a time that I died.”

Dianmu arched an eyebrow. “Surely you mean almost died?”

Ryan shook his head. “No. Once before I found my nanoverse, when I was seventeen, I died for five solid minutes.”

Dianmu leaned in and motioned for him to continue.

Small Worlds Part 170

Ryan and Dianmu stepped into his staging area. “You sure you don’t mind taking mine?” Ryan asked her for what had to be the fifth time.

“Of course not. I was interested to see it – and you need the practice navigating yours, anyway. Crystal tells me you have mostly been riding with her or Athena.”

“Yeah,” Ryan said with a sigh. “Honestly? I have no idea how to get us to Officium Mundi. I’m good for navigating around the globe, that’s pretty straightforward, and Tartarus made sense with the directions Crystal gave me.”

Dianmu gave him a small smile. “I suspected as much. Did you ask her about Officium Mundi?”

“Wasn’t enough time.” Ryan knew how defensive he sounded, and by the look Dianmu gave him, she wasn’t buying it. The truth was, he had just forgotten that he didn’t know how to do it yet. You didn’t mind looking dumb in front of Crystal or Athena, Ryan reminded himself. But that had felt different. In part because it had been the early days, when everything was chaos and it felt like any mistake Ryan made could lead to not only his death, but the death of the entire world as well. The other part of that was…well, it was who they were. Crystal had seemed to be easygoing, constantly telling him to roll with it, and Athena had given the impression that Ryan had no hope of ever impressing her, so there was no point trying not to.

Now, Ryan felt like he should know these things, and even though he’d been working alongside Dianmu for weeks now, he felt like he barely knew her. No time to fix that like the present, Ryan reminded himself. “Could you give me a hand?” he asked.

“After a fashion. Let me get settled in first,” Dianmu said, sitting in one of the chairs. She took a moment to lean back and gazed up at his nanoverse. He followed her eyes.

The stars weren’t quite as bright as they had been at first. More and more of the most luminous supergiants had fallen into supernovas, and many of even the G class stars – stars like Earth’s sun – had burned up, growing into giants and then collapsing into white dwarfs. The orange and red dwarfs were becoming dominant, although there were still other G class stars out there, they were now the brightest stars in the universe. We’re coming to the end of the stelliferous era, if I remember the term correctly. Probably have a few billion more relative years before that’s completely done, and it’s just dwarf stars for the next trillion. Then…nothing. “Feels like I went from a young and bright universe to this pretty quickly.”

Dianmu nodded. “The first cycle is always like this. Your universe is going through time much more quickly than most gods. You’ll probably need to do a Crunch in a century or so. After that it will smooth out, but it seems everyone burns things up more quickly while they undergo apotheosis.”

“That makes sense,” Ryan said, motioning to raise a chair out of the floor and sit across the table from her. He opened his mouth to say something, but couldn’t think of anything.

Dianmu seemed to take pity on him, and swung around to face him fully. “Let’s get the navigation set up, shall we?”

“That would be great,” Ryan said with a surge of relief. He stood up and walk over to the console. “Okay, so for places on Earth I know I pull up the Zoisphere and select where it is. For Olympus, we went to where it connects to Earth. For Tartarus, Crystal told me to select her doorway’s location and I’d basically auto follow her.”

Dianmu nodded. “A good way to handle a ‘quick and dirty’ instruction.”

“Yeah, but it means I’m lost when it comes to other realms.”

“The problem is, you’re thinking too linearly.”

Ryan looked at the console and frowned. “I’m not sure I understand.”

“Ryan. My nanoverse looks like one of my old temples, and I navigate it by arranging a jade dial. Athena’s is done through touching letters in ancient Greek. With so many different ways of travelling, how do you think we can all go to the same places? Anansi went to the moon long before space travel was even imagined – long before we even knew what ‘space’ truly was, and he did it without anyone to teach him how to use a nanoverse. How can we all do these different things with such different mechanisms?”

Ryan’s frown deepened. “I guess…I have no idea.”

Dianmu gave him a reassuring smile. “Think, Ryan. How does everything else here work?”

“It follows what I…” Ryan’s frown began to fade. “It follows what I think should happen.”

“Exactly. So. You tell me. How do you travel to another world?”

Ryan looked at the console, chewing his lip in thought. Then, carefully, he reached over to the map of the Earth on the touchscreen and swiped to the right.

It brought up a map of Olympus.

Dianmu grinned. “Well done. But surely there is an easier way to select a specific world, isn’t there?”

“Of course there is,” Ryan said because the moment she said it, the moment she put the idea in his head, he saw three horizontal lines on the top corner of the touchscreen. Lines he was certain weren’t there before. He reached over to tap them, and it brought up a menu with dozens of options – the first and foremost of which was search. He tapped it again, and a keyboard appeared. “Does Officium have one F or two?” he asked.

“Two, although I’d be surprised if it mattered.”

Ryan tapped out the words Oficium Mundi, deliberately using one F to test the theory. Did you mean Officium Mundi? With a nod to Dianmu, he tapped the link, and brought up a map of the homeworld of the Curators. It had one central point, a green circle labeled “Arrivals.” He tapped it, and the image on the screen dissolved to show a timer. “Oh, wow. That was easier than I expected it to be.”

“It’s something you must remember Ryan, something I think you struggle with because you’re from a time when ‘magic’ is believed to be myth, and myths are just stories we tell each other. You’re from an age of rationality and complexity, and that means you expect everything to be logical and complex. The fact is, perception shapes reality, and here in your nanoverse, your perception is reality. Intuition rules logic here. Let that guide you.”

“So, in other words, roll with it?” Ryan asked her.

Dianmu chuckled lightly. “Precisely. I think that might be what Crystal was trying to teach you with that catchphrase – that you needed to let things happen a bit more.”

“I think she just didn’t want to spend hours telling me everything.”

“Oh, that most certainly was part of it – she has a habit of doing that.”

“You two go back, don’t you?”

Dianmu nodded. “We’re old friends. I would have come when you both first asked for help, if I hadn’t been busy with coming back from the dead.”

“You were coming back from the dead?” Ryan asked, his eyes widening. “What happened.”

“It’s a long story,” Dianmu said.

Ryan checked the console. “Well, we’ve got an hour until we get to Officium Mundi. Think that’s enough time?”

Dianmu smiled. “Plenty.”

They headed to the table as the nanoverse hummed around them.

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Small Worlds Part 169

Horus didn’t bother trying to break the vampire’s grasp. There wasn’t time. He had burned through more than enough power where the need for air was burning at his lungs. Instead of entering a contest of main strength, Horus dropped himself backwards, pulling his legs up as he did. The motion caught Vlad off guard, and the two of them fell to the ground. Horus was able to bring up his feet into the vampire’s stomach and kicked as hard he could.

Vlad had no choice but to release Horus’ neck, not if he wanted his wrists to remain intact. Vlad turned to mist again to save himself impact with the ground, giving Horus’ time to gasp for air. Horus rolled away as Vlad reformed, slamming his heel down on where Horus’ head had been moment’s before.

Concrete cracked under the vampire’s heel. Bits of it flecked up and bit into Horus’ face. Even half burned, Vlad was unimaginably strong. Horus brought his leg up in a kick aimed at Vlad’s knee. Before he could connect, Vlad’s hand lanced down and grabbed Horus by the ankle. Vlad swung Horus over his body, slamming him into the concrete. Horus felt the world spin from the impact, and coughed up flecks of blood. Before he could try to break free of the grip, Vlad lifted Horus back up and swung him in an arc, slamming him into ground on the other side. “I’m going to drain you dry for this,” Vlad snarled, lifting to swing Horus again.

Horus threw his hands out towards the ground on the third swing, twisting reality to give the pavement the consistency of a feathered bed. He sunk into the now soft concrete, then kicked back towards Vlad, taking advantage of the vampire being off balance to free himself. Horus didn’t bother to try and rise, instead twisting to surround himself in a bubble of sunlight. Vlad hissed and recoiled from the field.

“You can’t keep this up forever,” Vlad growled from the doorway he had taken shelter within. “Your power is limited, and you’ve burned a great deal already.”

“I have enough to burn you, vampire,” Horus said, finally rising to his feet. “Your presence has been tolerated on this world for far too long.”

Vlad chuckled, the sound echoing through the courtyard. “Tolerated? You think you are the first god to have delusions about killing me? Please. I’ve survived far worse than you. Do you have any idea how many of our numbers I’ve killed over the centuries?”

Horus peered around, trying to pinpoint the vampire’s voice. Between the acoustics here and his own spinning head, he couldn’t quite place it. “However many it is, the number will not increase today, I can promise you that.”

“Endless void, did you read The Book of Bullshit Cliches? Is this the part where I tell you ‘we’re not so different, you and I’?”

Horus’ eyes flared. “We are nothing alike!”

“Of course we aren’t. You’re a pompous, self obsessed, neckbeard with delusions of grandeur. And I? I’m a survivor.

At that moment, Vlad finished the twist to reality he had been working on. Horus screamed as the ground beneath his feet turned into molten rock, causing his shoes to burst into flames that started to lap up to his ankles. He moved as quickly as he could, before the lava could completely incinerate his feet, but as he landed Horus screamed in pain. The soles of his feet were burned past the point of sensation – the pain seemed to be coming from somewhere around his ankles. The nerves below that had been seared away. Horus didn’t dare look at the mess of charred flesh he knew his feet had become. It was all he could do to maintain his balance, and keep up the field of sunlight that was keeping Vlad at bay.

“Which Hunger are you up to, Horus? I’m sure you’re thirsty by now.” Vlad’s voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. “Probably even feeling the need for food.”

A chunk of rock lifted off the ground and streaked towards Horus’ head. It took every bit of energy he had to dodge it before it could crush his skull. “You know why I always wear gods down before I kill them?” Vlad whispered from the shadows. “It’s not just because it’s safer to wait until they’ve drained all their power. It’s because I know that last Hunger is waiting for them. The need for socialization. The need for human contact.”

Horus saw his vision waiver, and the sunlight surrounding him dimmed as he dropped to one knee. Have to do something or he’ll kill me, Horus thought, frantically searching for a plan.

“It means that when you die, not only are you terrified, but so you’re painfully lonely. Isolated. I like to imagine that when my fangs sink into your neck, you’ll welcome it. Even though it’s killing you, it’s the last bit of human contact you’ll ever get before the grave.”

“Now…” Horus grunted, struggling to keep his eyes open. “Now who’s spouting the bullshit cliches?”

That actually got a laugh out of Vlad as Horus slumped to the ground, the sunlight going out. “I started monologuing. I am becoming a cliche in my old age, aren’t I?” In an instant, Vlad was on top of Horus, flipping him over with a kick to expose his neck. “At least I don’t sparkle. I hope someone kills me if I start to sparkle.” Horus raised his hand, and Vlad batted it aside. “Please. You have no power left. Accept this death, Horus.”

Vlad brought his fangs down towards Horus’ neck.

At that moment, Horus tapped into the last bit of power he had been holding in reserved as he faked his powerlessness, and erupted in sunlight. Vlad recoiled and howled in agony as his flesh began to fleck away. It was so bright it blinded even Horus.

When his vision cleared, Vlad was still there. He looked more like a corpse than a man now, his skin burned to a blackened crisp across his body. If he’d been a normal god, he would have died from his injures already. As it was, his movements were jerky, uncoordinated.

But he was still moving. Horus raised his hand to try another twist to reality, but he had burned through all his power. Nothing happened. He was, effectively, mortal.

Vlad’s power had to be mostly drained as well, but even with no divine strength left, he was still a vampire. He slammed his hand down onto Horus’ check, and Horus felt bones crack beneath the blow. Horus fell onto his back, and Vlad leaned his, his fangs coming ever closer to Horus’ throat. “Tell me, Horus – do you welcome this?” Vlad whispered.

“I do,” said a voice behind Vlad. The vampire started to turn, but before he could make it far into the motion, his chest bulged outwards. A hand shot through it, clenching the still beating heart of the vampire.

“Why?” Vlad asked, the unholy light in his eyes fading.

“I don’t answer questions from corpses,” Bast said, and then reached around – her arm still through Vlad’s chest – and brought the heart to her lips, biting into it.

Horus watched in as Bast shuddered at the bite, her eyes rolling back in her head in apparent ecstacy. He’d seen her feed since she became this horror, but it had never been like this. After that first bite, she devoured Vlad’s heart so greedily, Horus was certain she caught some of her own fingers in those bites. “I had no idea it would taste that good,” Bast whispered, shuddering in aftershocks of enjoyment.

Vlad, of course, said nothing. His body was falling apart, turning to bones and dust. Bast reached down with a bloody hand and patted Horus’ cheek. “You did well, Horus. Do you want to heal naturally?”

Horus nodded. The pain from his burned feet was pushing through the exhaustion, but the idea of waiting for a resurrection – of letting himself die after fighting so hard to live – sickened him.

Beneath that was a terror of what would happen if he was helpless in front of Bast right now, so close to the ecstacy of eating a divine heart. He didn’t believe she would feed on him, not really…but the hand that had patted his face had been missing bits of flesh.

That terror gave him the strength he needed to crawl his way back to his doorway as Bast watched with apparent amusement until he could seal himself inside.

Then, and only then, he allowed himself to pass out.

Small Worlds Part 168

As soon as he stepped foot on the island, Vlad found himself face-to-face with Horus. “Oh, my, Bast’s pet falcon,” Vlad said with a sneer. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your presence?” Horus opened his mouth, and Vlad waved away whatever Horus was about to say. “Nevermind, I don’t actually care. Whatever words you’re about to say, I’d prefer hearing them from your mistresses lips.”

Horus glowered as Vlad brushed past him. “You would do well not to dismiss me, monster.”

Vlad whirled to face Horus. “Ha!” he said, a single sound with all the mirth of the grave. “You have the audacity to call me a monster? You?”

“What are you implying?” Horus said through gritted teeth. “You are what you are.”

“Yes, but I am not in denial. You, on the other hand…you make yourself a slave to someone who is as much a monster as I am. For nothing. You really have become a joke, Horus. When are you getting a fedora?”

Horus blinked in confusion. “I don’t see what hats have to do with this.”

“Nevermind.” Vlad turned to walk away. “You’d think being immortal would come with a faint obligation to keep up with the times, but…”

Before Vlad could take a step, Horus’ hand lashed out and grabbed the vampire by the wrist. “I wasn’t done with you.”

Vlad looked at the hand, then back up into Horus’ eyes. “But I, Horus, am done with you. Release me.”

“No. I’ve had enough of you, vampire.

Vlad blinked in puzzlement. “We’ve barely spoken before this. Had enough of me? You barely even know me.”

Horus reached out into his nanoverse, pulling out a dagger to plunge into Vlad’s chest. Something in his eye betrayed the strike, and before the dagger could strike home, Vlad turned into a cloud of mist. Horus’ dagger passed harmlessly through the space the vampire had been occupying.

“I see,” Vlad said as he reformed, a dozen feet away and crouched on the roof of a building like a giant, grotesque bat. “You consider me a rival for Bast’s lack of affections? I assure you, you have nothing to worry about. She still loathes you slightly more than she does me.”

“Cease your prattle!” Horus shouted, reaching out to twist reality. Lightning surged forth from his fingertips, filling the air with the smell of ozone and a crack of thunder. Vlad was already removing as Horus shouted, turning into another cloud of mist. The lightning passed through the air Vlad had just vacated, arcing wildly until it found the truck of a long dead tree. The tree exploded in a deafening shower of splinters.

Vlad reformed and wasted no time with banter. He reached out to twist as well. The twist he made seemed unnatural to Horus’ eyes, something fundamentally wrong to what the vampire was doing to reality. A bolt of black energy lanced from the vampires hand. Horus dropped into a defensive posture, but before it reached him the bolt of energy split into a dozen individual streams that veered away from Horus. Each one struck the shadows of the buildings and trees that surrounded them.

The shadows took on the shapes of wolves and leapt for Horus. He kicked off the ground, propelling himself into the air with an additional twist of Air to lift himself. Impossible, Horus thought wildly as the shadow wolves took the shapes of great bats and flew into the air. And it should have been. Divine power worked by manipulating natural laws, but beings made of living shadow weren’t a manipulation, they were a straight violation of how reality worked. An impossibility.

For the first time, it occurred to Horus that Bast might have been holding back the true extent of her – and the vampire’s – powers.

No time for that. Horus thought, dismissing the doubts. He pushed himself higher into the air, and let out another bolt of lightning, arcing it to strike all the shadow creatures. He knew he was burning through power at an alarming rate, but without knowing what these creatures could do…

The lightning flashed through them, and their forms temporarily vanished before reappearing. Realization crystalized. An illusion!

Horus attempted to turn around, but he felt painfully slow. Vlad had materialized behind him, a sword in hand, and brought it down across Horus’s side. It would have been a decapitating strike if Horus hadn’t moved when he had. As it was, Horus howled in pain as ichor flowed from the wound.

Gravity reasserted itself over the two gods, sending them plummeting to the earth. Vlad struck again in a series of blows that Horus desperately attempted to parry, steel ringing out against steel.

Neither combatant managed to land a decisive blow before they impacted the ground. Horus hit hard, feeling worn pavement crack beneath him. Vlad turned into mist just before the impact, his form spreading across the ground. Horus scrambled to his feet as Vlad coalesced a few feet away.

“I forgot to say ‘nothing personal, kid.’” Vlad muttered as he eye Horus warily. “I had one chance to do that properly, and I completely blew it.”

“You’re insane,” Horus countered.

Vlad shook his head. “No. I just let the internet rot my brain sometimes. It’s good to know what kind of things my food finds interesting. Like how a farmer studies what feed his cattle prefers.” He watched as Horus struggled to stand. “I’m willing to let this go, you know. Bast will be annoyed with me for breaking one of her toys, and you’re already halfway beaten. Surrender, and I’ll consider this even.”

Horus waved his hand over the wound in his side, radiating intense heat to cauterize the wound shut. He growled in pain as he did. Vlad rolled his eyes.

“Or you could do the stupidly masculine thing and continue fighting. I hope you know I’ll have no qualms shattering your nanoverse once you’re beaten. You do realize that, don’t you? When I win, your death will be permanent.”

“Then why aren’t you doing it, vampire?” Horus asked, starting to grin. “Why the tricks, the cowardly tactics? Why not fight me head on?”

“I told you, Bast will be annoyed if I break one of her toys. I prefer her agreeable.”

“No.” Horus stood up straight. “I think you’re afraid of me.”

“You’re leaking ichor from a dozen cuts, and you had to burn yourself to stop one of the leaks.” Vlad sneered. “Why on earth would I be afraid of you?”

“Because your kind has few weaknesses. Holy relics of the Judeo-Christian god. Garlic. And, most importantly, the thing I was once the god of.” Horus opened his eyes, and they glowed with golden light. “The Sun.”

Vlad didn’t answer with words. Instead he hissed and lunged at Horus.

Horus held out his hand and, with a twist of reality, sent a beam of pure, unfiltered sunlight streaking towards the vampire. “Burn, monster.”

Vlad screamed as he continued to advance through the light, bits of his flesh flying away and turning to ash, but he didn’t suffer the instant annihilation Horus was hoping for. The vampire was injured, that much was without doubt, but it didn’t stop him from closing the distance between the two.

The artificial sunlight vanished as Horus felt the skeletal, clawed hands close around his throat.

Small Worlds Part 167

“I’ve told a few different versions of what happened with Arachne over the centuries,” Athena began, “but never the truth. It’s known to only one other goddess – Artemis. That’s how I knew Hermes message was truly from her.” Athena sighed. “In ancient times, the Olympians employed a sort of…of mentor program when a new god found a nanoverse, throughout their Nascency. Always in pairs.”

“Always two there are,” Isabel muttered to Ryan, who had to fight back a grin.

Athena apparently heard the comment and gave Isabel a puzzled look. “Yes. That is what pairs means.”

“It’s…never mind.” Isabel shook her head. “Sorry, please go on.”

“Pop culture reference, love,” Crystal said primly. Once again, Ryan found himself wondering if Crystal had actually understood the reference or was just good at spotting and rolling with references as they happened. Of course, if I asked her, she’d say something vague and leave me more confused.

“Ah. Well, it had been time for me to take an apprentice. I was given charge of a young Goddess named Arachne. Back then, we didn’t think of it as twisting reality – that’s a more modern convention. We thought of it as weaving the elements. And Arachne…she was one of the most gifted weavers I’d ever seen. She had a natural affinity for the elements unrivaled by any other Nascent. An affinity that every bit as great as her ambition.”

“To complete their apprenticeship and be fully considered an Olympian, a god or goddess had to complete a Trial. You’ve heard myths of some of these – the twelve labors of Heracles are the most famous of them. I set Arachne’s trial as one that was both simple and impossible – she had to beat me in a challenge of weaving.”

“I was hundreds of years old at this point. I’d fought in the Titanomachy, and was one of the finest warriors on Olympus.” Ryan couldn’t fight the smile this time. I wonder if I could say that with so little arrogance. “It would be decades, maybe even centuries before Arachne could best me in combat.”

“Why’d you give her an impossible task?” Crystal asked, frowning.

“Because the real trial wasn’t to actually beat me. It was for her…she needed to prove she could get past that arrogance.” She fixed her gaze on Crystal. “You saw what the Titanomachy did, Crystal.”

“What did it do?” Isabel asked.

“Did you study the Bronze Age Collapse?” Athena asked.

Isabel nodded, then her eyes widened. “That was the end result?”

“Yes. In our war with the Titans, we destroyed them. Not the Titans – we did. Because we were reckless, because we were so damn arrogant. That was why we made hubris the highest sin among our followers – because it was a reminder to ourselves what could happen if we fell into arrogance. I needed Arachne to prove she could get over that arrogance.”

Athena lapsed into silence for a moment. “What happened?” Ryan asked.

“She took another path. She did…she did a terrible thing to overcome me.” Athena shook her head. “Don’t ask me what it was. I’ve kept her secret for millennia. The story became a parable of the follies of arrogance.” Athena took a deep breath. “I turned her into a spider.”

“How did you manage to make that stick?” Anansi asked. “She was a goddess, it should have been simple for her to learn how to change herself back.”

“Yes, it would have been. Had I not taken her first to a place where my will was absolute, a place where she held no power.”

Dianmu looked sick. “You took her into your nanoverse?”

“Yes.” Athena took a ragged breath. “I made her immortal. I’ve preserved her existence through even collapses of my nanoverse. She goes into hibernation during the beginning and end of each cycle, awakening anew when intelligent life forms and slumbering again when she would otherwise be isolated.”

Silence returned to the table.

“So…you want to let her out?” Ryan asked finally. “After…what, hundreds of thousands of years for her? Millions?”

“Yes,” Athena said simply. “I know she’ll likely hate me. She’ll likely become a thorn in our side. But…I cannot let her suffering continue any longer. If I were to suffer true death…” Athena let the thought trail off.

“Love, I understand wanting to right past wrongs, but there’s no way she isn’t completely bugnuts by now,” Crystal said, as gently as she could. “And even if you brought her out, you’d be condemning her to a mortal life. Her nanoverse had to undergo heat death long ago.”

“I left her nanoverse. She’s been able to reset it, although not draw power from it. I couldn’t bring myself to condemn her to death, I certainly couldn’t do it to the innocent people in her nanoverse.”

“So let me get this straight,” Ryan said. “You want to go into your nanoverse and pull out a woman who is also a millions of years old spider that will have access to the full power of a goddess and literally every reason to hate you.  You want to do this now, right before we are moving into the last days of the world, and any distraction could mean the end of the human reason. On top of all that, your only reason for doing so is because it’s the ‘right thing to do’?”

Athena gave him a careful look. “Yes,” she said, tensing up.

Ryan smiled. “That’s…that’s great, Athena.” She was still studying him, looking for any signs of sarcasm, and Ryan shook his head. “I mean it, really.” It surprised him that he did. Every part of his brain was screaming that this was a terrible idea, except for a little voice in the back of his head that was screaming fuck logic, this is wrong. Just as Athena started to relax, Ryan went on, “But I don’t think you should go in there alone.”

“Excuse me?” Athena asked, the tension returning.

“No, he’s right.” Dianmu said after a moment. “It’s not safe.”

“It’s in my nanoverse,” Athena protested. “How could it possibly be dangerous?”

“Well, besides the fact that I recently got an abject lesson in how dangerous a nanoverse can be?” Crystal asked. “Athena, you could barely tell us the story of what happened. Bloody hell, it’s still full of holes, and that was you coming clean. Do you really think you’re ready to face Arachne, have a sit down?”

Athena opened her mouth to protest, but Isabel stepped in. “No one but you can speak for your own mental state, Athena. But do you really think Arachne wouldn’t appreciate an intermediary? Nothing personal, but if it was me and you showed up after millions of years, I don’t think I’d be able to say anything other than various swear words while trying to claw your eyes out.”

Athena sat there for a moment, clearly struggling. “Who would go?” She finally asked.

Crystal tapped her chin. “Gee, if only we had someone here who already had to sit out of both of the active missions we were planning.” She gave Anansi a pointed look.

He smiled at Athena. “I’d be honored to aid you. I know a thing or two about talking to spiders, anyway.”

Athena slumped in what looked to Ryan like a combination of relief and defeat. “Fine. But it’s just into my nanoverse – we could still join you afterwards.”

“Oh no,” Crystal said in unison with Dianmu. Crystal motioned for Dianmu to continue. “Athena, if Arachne is hostile when she gets out, the last thing we want to do it dangle Ryan in front of her. Or any of us, for that matter. You and Anansi will need some time to assess her mental state, make sure it’s safe for us to be around her.”

“I…yes, that makes sense. I don’t like leaving you shorthanded.”

“Don’t worry!” Isabel said brightly. “Crystal and I just need to have a chat with a Sphinx, and Ryan and Dianmu are just having a chat with the Curators. It’ll be-”

“Don’t you dare say ‘it’ll be easy,’” Ryan interrupted.

Isabel gave him a broad grin. “I didn’t. You did. That means if this goes pear-shaped, it’s your fault now.”

Athena let out a small snort of laughter, the tension beginning to fade from her shoulders as she did. “Do you always run circles around him?” she asked Isabel.

“Oh no, absolutely not. There was a time when he could run circles around me. Then I learned to walk.” The ensuing laughter was exactly what they needed to break the tension.

Ryan just wished he could shake the horrible feeling that they were forgetting something important.

 

Small Worlds Part 166

“After Anansi had made sure Ra would be comfortable as he fell into twilight, his nanoverse undergoing final heat death, Anansi headed to Egypt. It pained Anansi to leave Ra alone in his final hours, but the threat of the Staff of Ra being found was too great to wait however long it would take for Ra to die.” Anansi pursed his lips and shook his before continuing. “To be honest, Anansi had also not yet seen an abosom die, and also left because he was frightened to watch such a thing.”

“Upon arriving in Egypt, Anansi headed to the court of Amun, who would later be known as Amun-Ra. Anansi did not intend on seeking the aid of Amun in locating the Staff, for Anansi did not want to risk the Staff finding in anyone’s hands. There a celebration was thrown for Anansi’s arrival, for he was the first abosom to come to Egypt since the terrors of Sekhmet, and the pantheon there desperately wanted to show the world they were safe to visit again. There was a week of celebration for Anansi’s arrival, and he celebrated with the gods and Pharaoh of Egypt and learned more of their stories.

“The abosom of Egypt had found a great treasure of nanoverses, which they gave to the greatest of their mortal Pharaohs before their death, allowing them to become Nascent. A new Pharaoh was approaching the end of his life, one who’s name history has forgotten and is now known only as Scorpion the First. Since this Pharaoh had acknowledged Amun’s supremacy over Ra, it was doubtless Scorpion would be given a nanoverse, which meant another week of celebration. He died before finishing his Nascency, so even Anansi has forgotten his name, and it is of little importance to this story.

“Anansi excused himself from the second celebration, saying it was because he did not wish to intrude upon such a momentous day. In truth, Anansi excused himself because he knew the week of celebration would give him time to find the Staff of Ra without discovery.”

Anansi smiled.

“Anansi’s attempt to remain undetected was uncovered in just three days by Neith, goddess of the forge and – more relevantly – of the hunt. She suspected Anansi was up to his trickery, for tales of Anansi’s trickery had spread even to Egypt. Neith found Anansi preparing to break into a Pyramid and demanded that Anansi tell her what he was doing. Anansi tried every trick he knew to persuade Neith to leave it be, but Hunter Goddesses rarely fall for such ploys. Under pain of being taken before Amun – which would have resulted in a great deal of pain – Anansi told her what he was here for and begged her to keep silent.

“Fortune smiled on Anansi that day. Neith had been seeking the same artifact, for she hoped to find it before her quarry did. She was hunting Apophis, the enemy of Ra, who had long sought Ra’s staff. Apophis was a monstrous being said to be far older than Ra and far madder than any other being alive. He was an abosom, and he sought the staff, so he might restore a long-lost world.”

“Moloch,” Ryan hissed.

Anansi shook his head. “By the end of my story, you’ll see why I’m certain it was not. But I now believe that Apophis also hailed from that same ancient era that birthed Moloch, and our dear Crystal, and perhaps other beings. Ones that acted like monsters but had the power of gods.”

“The Titans.” Athena said.

Anansi nodded. “Among others.” He glanced at Crystal. “Is such a thing possible?”

Crystal shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “I thought I was the only one to survive, and the only monster I dealt with that meets that description is Lamashtu. Knowing what we know now…” Crystal shrugged helplessly. “I figured they had all died permanently. They could have been from a race that came between my people and humanity. Bloody hell, they could have been gods from another world that had undergone its own Eschaton.”

“All of these make sense,” Anansi said thoughtfully. “I suppose we may never know. Apophis was certainly not one for speaking. He had taken a great serpent and was worming deep beneath the Earth to try and find the pyramid that Ra had hidden the Staff within. Neith and Anansi had both searched different pyramids, and that left them only one to search.”

“They arrived as Apophis burst through the Earth to claim his prize.”

“The battle was a fierce one. Neith moved like lightning and struck like the hammer upon the anvil. Anansi used all his greatest tricks, trying to ty the great serpent in knots of its own coils. Apophis was screaming and rambling the entire time – so close to its prize, it had gone even madder than it had been for most of existence. The serpent managed to bite Anansi, and he was dying of its poison. It reared up for one last strike – and that was when Neith stepped between the serpent and Anansi. She drew a great kopesh from her nanoverse and drove it into the serpent’s mouth and brain.

“Apophis fell dead, but it had bitten Neith as well. She and Anansi both perished from its poison deep beneath the sands of Egypt, side by side.

“Of course, they were abosom. They were resurrected once their bodies had healed and purged Apophis’ venom. Apophis had not resurrected yet, since Neith’s kopesh was still lodged in his brain. Anansi took the Staff, and they both agreed it was best that Neith did not know where he hid it. Neith burned Apophis’ body and then took his nanoverse into her own. As terrible as the crime of destroying a nanoverse can be, it would have been far worse to allow Apophis to return to life.

“Anansi returned to Ra, only to find that the old god’s death was coming far swifter than Anansi expected. They had only minutes left. Anansi worked with Ra to use the power of the staff once and only once.

“When Ra died, he arose as a monster, but one with a noble heart and pure intentions. He would sit as the guardian of the Staff for the rest of time. That monster was the first of the Sphinx, and Anansi took both Sphinx and staff to a place where no one would think to search for it – to that hidden cave of metal hidden upon the moon.”

“It’s on the moon?” Ryan asked, feeling his eye widened out. “How are we ever going to get to the…moon.” He trailed off and started to flush. “No, no need to point out how dumb that was.”

“The moon part isn’t why I’m giving you the bug-eyed look, Anansi,” Crystal said. “A Sphinx? A sphinx that used to be Ra?”

Anansi nodded. Isabel raised a hand. “Someone fill me in, so I can join you in freaking out?”

“Sphinx are one of the few monsters that retain the full intelligence they had in life, and retain some of their divine powers,” Athena said with a grimace. “They’re not as powerful as a dragon, but much harder to outwit.”

“They can be reasoned with,” Dianmu added, turning to Anansi. “Do you think you could talk him into letting you have the artifact back?”

“No. As a precaution against shapeshifters, we agreed if he ever sees me again, he’ll kill me on the spot. If anyone claiming to be me shows up, he’ll likewise kill them, regardless of who they appear to be. My presence would destroy any chance of negotiations.”

Athena tapped her fingers on the table. “It can’t be Ryan either.” Ryan shot her a confused look, and she elaborated. “Nabu owes you a debt. You need to go speak to the Curators. Find out what happened to Horus, and if they can offer any other aid.”

Ryan sighed. “Okay, that makes sense. So, you all go deal with the Sphinx-formerly-known-as-Ra, and I’ll go to the Curators.”

“No offensive, love, but there’s no way I’m sending you alone to the Curators,” Crystal said. “Anyone besides Anansi and myself done any Lunar fighting?” No one raised their hand, and Crystal sighed. “That’s what I thought. I’ll go up to the moon base and talk to the bloody Sphinx.”

“Is there air in this moon base?” Isabel asked?

“Yes,” Anansi said.

“Then I’m going with Crystal.”

“Didn’t you just get done saying you were interested in being the tech girl behind the desk?” Ryan asked.

“Yeah, but that was before we were talking about going to the goddamn moon.” Isabel flashed him a fierce grin. “Besides, the Sphinx is smart, it’s probably spent its time preparing for a god to come along. No way it prepared for me.”

“Isabel-” Ryan said, but she cut him off with a quick shake of her head.

“Ryan, if you were about to point out how dangerous this is and I can die because I’m a mortal blah blah blah, I’ll remind you that you’re still able to permanently die and are more important for what we’re doing than I am, so I’ll only be missing out on the Moon if you agree to be stuck in a nice safe spot until it’s time to end the world.”

Ryan snapped his mouth shut and glared at her. “Fine. Then who’s coming with me to Officium Mundi?”

“I will,” Dianmu said. “I learned a great deal about the Curators when I was in the Jade Emperor’s palace, and nothing prepares you for dealing with them quite like the divine bureaucracy.”

Ryan nodded. “Okay, so Dianmu, Anansi and I to the Curators, Athena, Crystal, and Isabel to the…oh what now?” Both Athena and Anansi were shaking their heads.

“I stole a file of tales from the Curators three thousand years ago,” Anansi said with a bit of pride, “they would not welcome me.”

Crystal gave an affectionate sigh. “Of course you did. Athena, love? You’ve got something else to do than go to the moon?”

“Yes.” Athena looked down at the table, like she didn’t want to meet their eyes. Is she embarrassed?” Ryan wondered, not sure how to square that emotion with the woman he’d come to know over these past few weeks. Athena continued, “The fight with Moloch…was the closest I’ve come to true death. Ever. I realized…if I had died, I would have left behind unfinished business. I’ve done something I regret, and I must set it right before throwing myself headlong into danger again.”

Everyone looked at her, stunned. Ryan finally found his voice. “What do you need to do?” he asked, softly.

“I need to confess a lie to you all. A lie I’ve been telling for over four thousand years. And then…” she looked up, and Ryan realized it wasn’t shame that had driven her to look away, but it’s close cousin, guilt. “And then I need to free Arachne from the prison I made for her.”

For a full minute, the only sound was the winds of Cypher Nullity.

“Maybe you should start from the beginning,” Ryan said slowly.

 

Small Worlds Part 165

Everyone regarded Anansi. “Maybe you should start from the beginning,” Athena said slowly.

“That might be best.” Anansi sat up straighter, and Ryan settled into his chair. It seemed they had another story coming.

“I told you before of how Anansi battled the great metal scorpion that came from the secret cave upon the moon, the creature we now know was a szarmic.” Anansi looked at Crystal, who nodded to confirm the pronunciation. “This story takes place not long after that, at least not long as abosom reckon time. Only a few generations of mortals had passed, and Anansi felt the need to wander again. He had climbed to the moon, he had traveled through every continent and every nation of men, but that had been a few generations of mortals, and Anansi hoped that there would be new things to see.”

“And oh, how things had changed! In a land far to the east of his home, he found the peoples of Mesopotamia. They had their own abosom, but Anansi had met the abosom of Mesopotamia before, the Seven Gods who Decree, and he did not wish to meet them again. This was in the time before that land was ravaged by Lamashtu and the madness of Enki, which is not my story to tell, and it doesn’t involve Anansi, so it’s not a story for today.” Anansi’s eyes twinkled, and Crystal rolled her eyes with a laugh.

“While he was in the land of the Seven Gods who Decree, Anansi found many amazing things, things he resolved to bring back to the people. But among the things he learned, there was one thing Anansi had decided he would keep to himself for now. This amazing, wondrous thing had been invented by the priests of Ishtar. They used it to keep track of grains and cattle at first, but had begun to use it to keep track of ideas, of thoughts, of hopes and dreams – and most importantly to Anansi, they used it to keep track of stories. They called this thing writing, and to Anansi it was the finest invention mankind had yet come up with.”

“Having learned of writing, Anansi spent his time recording every story he had ever heard or even been a part of. This was, of course, a very long task, because Anansi had held all the world’s stories for a time, and was easily distracted. Yet he persisted, and in time, he had recorded all the stories he had ever heard or ever been a part of. When he ceased his task, he found that writing had spread to Egypt and further, all the way to his people, and they had their own writing and own words that Anansi would have to learn. This written language was forgotten and rediscovered and then forgotten again, and has not yet been recovered. Anansi was afraid that might happen, so he kept his tablets written in the language of Mesopotamia, and went searching for more stories to learn of or be a part of so he would have more to write.”

“Anansi started his search for new stories in the land of Egypt. Many things had happened there in his absence. Ra had created a new goddess, Sekhmet, and she had been a monster to rival Lamashtu. Ra had been deposed for his crimes, and the abosom of Egypt were choosing a new one to lead them. The choosing did not interest Anansi, who never had patience for politics, and he instead went in search of Ra, wondering what stories this abosom older than humanity’s oldest stories might be able to tell.”

“He found Ra far away from Egypt. Ra had gone to the north, hoping to find more of his people, whom he called the Urthigg, and whom those of Egypt called the Tah-nok, and what modern man called Neanderthals.”

“Ra was a Neanderthal?” Isabel blurted out, then covered her mouth and turned red.

Anansi seemed more pleased than annoyed with the interruption. “Oh yes, although he called them the Urthigg. They had all died, although Ra had heard rumors of a hidden tribe still in the north, hiding out of the reach of humanity. Humans had killed most of his people, and those that humanity didn’t kill had been married to the sons and daughters of mankind, so their legacy was fading away. Anansi did not know where Ra had heard rumors of a hidden tribe. Given how mad Ra was when Anansi found him – mad in the loss of sanity, not in fury – Anansi had to wonder if perhaps Ra had imagined those rumors of a hidden tribe, or invented them to handle being deposed for his crimes. Ra was very mad and very old, and rambled about many things.”

“In his rambling, he mentioned an artifact he had found, from a race that came before the Urthigg. This artifact was the shape of what would be called an Ankh, and Ra had placed it upon a staff, creating both Ankh and Staff of Ra. Ra was very mad at this point, and in his rambling he told Anansi what the staff could do – it would store the energy nanoverses normally bleed.”

Crystal let out a low whistle, and Dianmu frowned. Athena glanced at Ryan and Isabel, then back at Anansi. “Might I interrupt with an explanation?” Anansi nodded for her to continue, and she turned to face the two youngest members. “A nanoverse leaks power constantly at a steady rate. That energy is just lost – the normal side effect of entropy. Even when you draw power directly from it, a great deal escapes you and floats away.”

“How much power is lost?” Ryan asked, frowning.

Athena gave a small shrug. “No one knows the exact amount-”

“Seventy three point six six percent,” Crystal said. “Repeating, of course.” Everyone looked at her now, and she gave them a smile. “Before the end, Lemuria had found a way to measure nanoverse energy.”

“You’ve never mentioned that before,” Dianmu said.

“I didn’t remember until just now, love. It’s not something I really gave much thought to.”

“Wait…” Ryan held up a hand. “Almost three fourths of the energy of a nanoverse is lost?”

“Yes,” Anansi said, in his storyteller voice, commanding the attention of everyone in the room again. “Someone who possessed the staff of Ra would be more powerful than any god who had ever lived. Even now, this remains true – Enki would have lost most of the energy of his abominable nanoverse through the same process. The power scared Ra so much, he had never dared use it. Even when he created the monster Sekhmet to punish mankind for their failure to worship, he did not risk using the Ankh, for fear that power would drive him mad.”

“After creating the monster Sekhmet, Ra feared what he would do, feared the temptation of the Staff and Ankh. Before he had left Egypt, he had hidden them away in one of the great Pyramids his people constructed as tombs for their kings, but  now in his madness, he feared what would happen if it was eventually unearthed.”

“Anansi agreed, and after making sure Ra would be comfortable in his final days, set off to recover the Staff and hide it away, for Anansi knew of a place where none would think to look, where the Staff of Ra could be hidden safely until Anansi was as old and mad as Ra.”

“Little did Anansi know he was almost too late. Someone else was on the hunt for the Staff of Ra, and would stop at nothing to obtain it before Anansi could hide it away. This is a tale of a battle that time had forgotten, one that took place beneath the sands of Egypt, and much like the tale we now live in – the fate of the world was a stake, for the Staff of Ra possessed a power so terrible it threatened all that existed.”

Ryan settled in to listen.