Small Worlds Part 266

Xuanzang lead them up an impossible bridge to one of the sections of the Heavenly Palace. There were people up here – other gods, Cassandra guessed, and probably some other beings that didn’t fit into the normal categories of God, Monster, or Human. She’d known from Bast that demons and angels did exist, and Nabu was a Curator – a concept she still didn’t fully understand – so these people were probably in a group like that. I’ll just think of them as Spirits until I get a better word. They couldn’t all be gods, that Cassandra was sure of – there were far too many of them. Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands.

It was a city contained in a palace, and Cassandra felt like she was an intruder among this sea of serene faces. Cassandra took a step closer to Dianmu, waiting for someone to see her, recognize what she was, and cause an uproar. How could they not know what she was? She could hear all their hearts, couldn’t they hear how her own was pounding. Try to relax she told herself. You’re being absurd. Dianmu wouldn’t bring you here to let you get torn apart, and if something happens, you’re not helpless…and Dianmu will protect you. 

Something in that thought rang a bit hollow, and Cassandra had to turn the thought over to contemplate it further. In truth, Cassandra was realizing she knew very little about the goddess she’d followed to this beautiful land of floating palaces and impossible bridges. Bast hadn’t mentioned Dianmu, and all Cassandra had really seen Dianmu do is annihilate a host of Cardiophages with sunlight.

Cassandra’s heart started to beat even harder. Ryan had promised her protection, but what if this was Dianmu’s way of getting rid of the Anthropophage? Bring her to the Heavenly Palace, out her to the other gods up here, let them tear her apart, and then go back sad to Ryan and say “So sorry, I did everything I could, but I was outnumbered?”

Stop it, Cassandra told herself. It wasn’t impossible, but if Dianmu wanted to do kill Cassandra, there were about a dozen better ways to do it – including having told Ryan he had to choose between helping Cassandra and Dianmu’s support, and then cutting her down when Ryan chose Dianmu. Why wouldn’t he? With the entire world at stake, every bit of aid mattered. The fact that they were going to work with Horus again, knowing what he was and what he had done, made that abundantly clear. There was no reason to believe Dianmu was that vicious or petty.

And yet, Cassandra worried. It must have shown on her face, because Dianmu gave her a curious look, and slowed down slightly to let Cassandra catch up to her. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“I just…feel exposed,” Cassandra said, after a momentary hesitation.

Dianmu’s forehead furrowed. “Because of your condition?”

Your condition. Such a delicate way of putting it. You have an insatiable hunger for hearts. It’s a condition. “Yes.”

“I understand. I think it’s good that we encountered Xuanzang first. He’s a very understanding sort. He spent centuries standing up for…him, after all.”

“Sun Wukong?”

Dianmu nodded. “He’s impulsive, reckless, and an absolute pain to deal with for any extended period of time. He aided Xuanzang on the Journey as a penance for everything he had done in the Kingdom of Heaven. Xuanzang made no friends defending him, yet he did anyway. He has this absurd belief that with patience and understanding, even the most monstrous being can be reformed.”

Cassandra’s heart sped up further. “Absurd belief?”

“Yes. Absolutely absurd that he holds onto it, in the fact of so many people insisting he is wrong. And yet he’s been proven right, time and time again. It’s almost like the belief is absurd not because of what he believes, but because those that refuse to believe it create self-fulfilling prophecies for themselves. Treat someone like a monster and watch them act like a monster. Treat them with respect, and they often live up to earning that expectation.” Dianmu gave Cassandra a level gaze. “I’ve never heard of an Anthropophage reforming. Yet I’ve also never heard of one trying. I’d have faith in any who attempted.” Her eyes slipped over to Xuanzang and back to Cassandra, and Dianmu winked. “If such a being existed, I’d like to meet them.”

“It would be…interesting,” Cassandra said, knowing how weak her voice sounded. Can she read my mind? Or perhaps thousands of years of knowing people had given Dianmu some insight into how people thought.  Given that Dianmu didn’t respond to Cassandra’s mental inquiry, it seemed like that was the more likely option. But one data point was hardly conclusive.

Cassandra gave Dianmu a smile, and very determinedly imaged the poised goddess shoving a finger up her own nose and rooting around. It was difficult to get the mental image to form, but once it did, she watched Dianmu’s eyes carefully. There was no reaction. If she’d seen what Cassandra had thought, she was impossibly good at hiding her reactions.

“Thank you,” Cassandra said, realizing she’d been staring blankly at Dianmu for the last dozen steps.

Dianmu cleared her throat and gave a nearby being a sideling glance before turning her gaze back to Cassandra. “For what? Idle speculation?”

Cassandra bit her cheek and nodded. “It’s an interesting intellectual exercise,” she said, a bit too loudly. Xuanzang didn’t turn around, but his head tilted to the side.

“Mind if I intrude into the discussion?” he asked.

Cassandra flushed, glad he couldn’t see them.

“Perhaps later,” Dianmu said smoothly. “Girl talk.” She winked at Cassandra.

“I see.” Xuanzang did look at them now, and there was a sparkle in his eyes. “Well, in that case, I suggest you table the discussion for now. We’re here.”

“Here,” apparently, was home that was comparatively humble to the splendor around them. Comparatively was a relative term – it was still a mansion in the Tang dynasty style, six smaller buildings that wrapped around an open courtyard with a four pointed pavilion in the center. But unlike the other buildings they’d seen so far, the walls were simple wood and relatively unadorned, the roofs green tiles and nothing fancier, and the jīnzhuān bricks were replaced with simple clay ones. It was still gorgeous, but it had a humble beauty.

Perfect, in fact, for the man that was leading them now.

Xuanzang led them to one of the buildings. There was a place where they could take off their shoes before entering, and inside were simple fabric slippers to cover their feet. Cassandra did so and sat on the floor next to Dianmu when Xuanzang motioned for them to do so.

“The Jade Emperor has concerns,” Xuanzang said, the human fading from his eyes, “about your recent activities, Dianmu. You are developing a reputation as being somewhat of a rogue, and there are…concerns.”

Dianmu leaned forward. “Tell me everything.”

Cassandra settled in to listen.

Small Worlds Part 265

I’m still alive. Apologies for the delays. It’s probably going to be erratic until the holiday season is over, and I appreciate everyone’s patience.

 

Cassandra knew she was staring with her mouth hanging open, but at the moment couldn’t bring herself to care. The Heavenly Palace of the Jade Emperor was beyond her wildest imaginings. It was built on a series of seven floating islands that rested within clouds, connected by vast arching bridges that spanned over a perfectly green field of grass below. The buildings were built in the style of the Forbidden City – or more likely, Cassandra expected, the Forbidden City had been built in the style of the Heavenly Palace – although on a scale no human builders could have managed with the technology on the time. Under the floating bridges were rivers that wound through the sky, flowing over nothing and filled with iridescent fish that glimmered in the sunlight.

Dianmu’s gateway had opened in a pavilion on that perfect field, paved with golden bricks known as jīnzhuān. This place is so magnificent, Cassandra marveled, even the entranceway is paved with gold. 

It was a far cry from the dark and terrible realms Bast and Vlad had shown her – his nanoverse is crawling citadels the size of planets, hers of twisted terrors transpiring under the baleful gaze of pyramids that housed hateful suns. This place wasn’t twisted and evil, it didn’t fill her with dread. It was the first place she’d since she’d gotten involved with these gods that was full of pure wonder, untainted by anything darker.

A being was descending from one of the islands, leaping off the edge and descending as slowly as a floating feather, his robes billowing out behind him. Dianmu squinted at the approaching form and smiled. “Tang Sanzang,” she said to Cassandra. “Better known in English as the Golden Cicada.”

Cassandra had to suppress a surprised gasp. She didn’t do very well at it, and Dianmu’s eyes twinkled. “The Golden Cicada?”

“You’ve heard of him?” Dianmu asked.

Cassandra nodded firmly. “I took a class where we analyzed The Journey to the West as for a literature credit. Tripitaka was the reincarnation of the Golden Cicada and we learned he was based on a historical monk, Xuanzang, and…wait. If gods are created by finding their nanoverses, does that mean that he is Xuanzang?”

Dianmu laughed. “Oh, he’s going to like you.”

“I mean…crap. Should I bow? Kowtow? What do I-”

Dianmu put a hand on her shoulder. “Follow my lead, Cassandra. Bow as deeply as I do, and slightly more. But do not worry – Cicada is friendly, and understands that you are showing respect, so long as that is what you are doing.”

“But…I’m an anthropophage,” Cassandra said, her voice small. Dianmu squeeze her shoulder reassuringly, but it was too late for her to anything else to put Cassandra at ease. Golden Cicada had touched to the ground and was approaching. “Dianmu,” he said.

Dianmu bowed, and Cassandra imitated the gesture, following Dianmu’s advice and going lower with the motion than Dianmu did. Cicada returned the bow, and Cassandra noted his bow was not as low as either of theirs – it seemed that he outranked Dianmu. “Xuanzang,” she said as they all straightened, her voice warm. “It is good to see you again.”

Now that he was on the ground, Cassandra could get a better look at him. He was somewhat plain, a far cry from the beautiful and handsome gods Cassandra had grown used to, but that was offset by a welcoming warmth to his eyes that seemed almost grandfatherly. Remembering what she could of the mythology of Journey to the West, Cassandra thought that perhaps a Buddhist monk would consider the overblown beauty of most Gods as a vanity he wanted to avoid.

“I welcome your return as well,” Cicada said, and Cassandra had to wonder how she should think of him – was Cicada right? Or should it be the full Golden Cicada? Or Xuanzang or Tang Sanzang or even Tripitaka? She silently wished she’d been given more time to ask Dianmu questions, and decided to follow the storm goddesses lead and start thinking of him as Xuanzang. “You’ve been away from the Heavenly Palace for far too long. I’m glad you’ve returned to us in these trying times.”

“So you know?” Dianmu asked.

Xuanzang nodded. “We do know. And we know why you are here, what fear drove you to return.” The warmth in his eyes faded somewhat.

“Do you know the Emperor’s answer already?” Dianmu asked.

“I do not,” Xuanzang said. “But I do fear it will not be to your liking.” He smiled. “But we can talk of such dark things later. For now, we can celebrate your return. You and your guest – we have not been introduced.”

“Apologies for my lapse there,” Dianmu said. “This is Cassandra.”

“Cassandra,” Xuanzang said. “It is a pleasure to meet you. I have heard a great deal of your affliction, and I hope your burden has grown easier to bear.”

Oh crap he knows, Cassandra thought, her mind racing. How did he already know? Could he see it on her? Was she obviously an Anthropophage to everyone who saw her? Was he going to-

Dianmu was laughing politely, a hand covering her mouth. “Forgive me, I should have been clearer,” she said. “This is not the Cassandra. This is just a Cassandra. It has become fashionable on Earth to name children after some of the figures from myth, and Cassandra is one of the names that has endured well into modern times.”

Xuanzang smiled. “Of course, I should have asked.” He turned back to Cassandra. “It is still a pleasure to meet you. I understand this has become a more common greeting among your people?” He offered his hand.

Cassandra took it, her mind reeling still from the whiplash. “Thank you,” she said. “I’m a huge fan.”

“A…huge fan?” Xuanzang said, looking her up and down. “You seem to be human to me.”

“No, I mean…I…” But Xuanzang had a glint to his eyes, and Cassandra flushed. “You were making a joke, apologies.”

“No, my apologies,” Xuanzang said. “I think I spend too much time with Sun Wukong still – his sense of humor has rubbed off on me.”

Dianmu’s lips curled down in the barest hint of a frown. “Sun Wukong isn’t…here, is he?”

“Of course not,” Xuanzang said. “You know how much he dislikes spending time here. Last I heard, he was off on another adventure on one of the worlds orbiting Proxima Centurai. I doubt he’s even heard about what’s going on.”

Dianmu’s face relaxed. “I know he’s a friend of yours, and yet…”

“He can be trying,” Xuanzang said smoothly before Dianmu could finish whatever she’d been about to say. “I know that all too well, believe me.”

Cassandra realized she was staring, and shook herself out of it. “Sun Wukong is real. So that means you were Tripitaka?”

“Among other names,” Xuanzang said. “Allegory and myth and truth blend together in so much of the old literature. It’s hard to keep track of myself sometimes, and I lived it.”

“I can imagine,” Cassandra said.

“Perhaps you would like to dine with me?” Xuanzang asked, his glance indicating the invitation included Dianmu. “You’ve come a long way, and I’d love to answer your questions – while asking my own about Earth. It’s been some time since I was last there.”

“I’d love to!” Cassandra blurted out before Dianmu could speak, then turned red and glanced over at the storm goddess. “I mean…if that would be all right.”

“It would be,” Dianmu said after a pause. “I have questions about the Heavenly Palace of late, old friend – and why you think the Jade Emperor will reject my request.”

Xuanzang nodded somberly. “Then come with me. I hope I can answer some of your questions – and prepare you for the worst.”

As excited as Cassandra was, even she couldn’t miss the way that statement hung in the air.

Small Worlds Part 264

Thank you everyone for the patience. I think I was a bit optimistic in getting a new Staff Part out today, but at least I’m back to updating!

I’ve missed this. Enjoy.

Chernobog sat in shadows upon a throne of ice, being waited upon by the walking dead. Athena shuddered at the sight. They were the drekavac, and they were one of the punishments that awaited those who followed Chernobog and sinned when doing so. Their souls were forced to stay inside their bodies so they would arise after burial, and every moment they would feel themselves decaying. The sensation of the maggots that crawled beneath their skin, the way their flesh would burn and itch as it rotted away…it was said to drive them mad. In a way, allowing them to serve him here in a palace of ice was a kindness – they would freeze and their skin would crack, but no insects would infest their bodies, and the decay would be limited. On the other hand, it would prolong their punishment greatly…

“Do not waste your pity on them, Olympian.” Chernobog’s voice was a deep rumble. “They are the worst of the sinners. I could make your skin crawl far worse just by telling you of their crimes. Trust me when I say these men deserve far worse than the torment I give them.”

“I trust you on that,” Athena said, and she meant it. As disturbing as the sight was, Chernobog had once been considered a just and good god. He might have become bitter over the centuries, but having turned so cruel as to inflict such horror on innocent men? That seemed impossible to countenance.

“Chernobog, I present you Pallas Athena,” Artemis said. If there was more to her introduction, Chernobog waved it away.

“I know who she is. Although it’s odd you choose Pallas as the epithet. Named for a giant you slew. Is that how you come here, Athena? As Pallas Athena, the slayer of giants? Or are you someone else this time? Perhaps you are here instead as Athena Ageleia, the defender of your people. Or maybe I address Athena Mechaneus, the inventor of new tactics? Or perhaps,” and Chernobog leaned forward, his face emerging for the first time from the shadows that had hidden it, “I address Areia Athena, the warmonger.”

Chernobog had changed his appearance to match his reputation. The skin below his nose was completely gone, instead revealing only a grinning jawbone untroubled by muscle or sinew. His eyes were the color of blood that had soaked into a battlefield, and a crown of horns shaped like canines grew from his skull.

Athena met his gaze without a hint of hesitation. “I am none of these today. I come to you as Athena Soteira, the saving goddess, because the end of the world is at hand, and it desperately needs saving.”

Chernobog studied her closely. “Such brave words,” he said, and his voice was made unnaturally harsh by the lack of lips. Some of those sounds he shouldn’t be able to make even, but glossoliga was a skill that worked in both directions, so long as the god speaking had a mouth to form words. “Your companion scowled when she saw my face. You seem unimpressed.”

“Artemis is a goddess of the wildness. She is disturbed by the unnatural. I, on the other hand, am a goddess of tactics. The horse that allowed the Greeks to raze Troy was a monument to my ability to plan and react appropriately. I know a ploy when I see one.”

Chernobog threw back his head and laughed. As he did, the skin flowed on his face, covering his jaw, retracting the crown into his skull, and returning his eyes to a deep brown. Thick black hair sprung up on his head and a coarse beard stretched across his face. He was a handsome man, although after his monstrous appearance Moloch would have seemed attractive by comparison. “You’re the first person to figure that out in a century,” Chernobog said, and his voice was now like a roaring flame, rich and warm and full of life. “I’d begun to despair anyone noticed.”

Athena allowed herself a small smile. “Why the ruse?”

“I grew tired of people walking on their toes, pretending that I’m not seen by most as a monster. I thought it best to test and see if anyone could see past the external. Well done.”

Athena did her best not to look at Artemis, but couldn’t help but note her scowl. For all the progress Artemis had made, she still wasn’t the best at reading people’s intentions. “Thank you,” she said, relaxing slightly.

“But tell me, Athena Soteira. Did you truly see through it, or was that desperation driving you to hope?”

“If I’m being completely honest? Mostly seeing through it, but I won’t deny the desperation. We have powerful need of aid.”

Chernobog nodded. “Well, this is interesting. It’s been quite some time since anyone has come to me for aid. Especially ever since that damn musical show. The one where they painted me as a devil on a mountain, tormenting souls that came to me seeking succor.”

“I didn’t see that one,” Athena said, which was true of most films. She made a mental note to ask Ryan for more details – sometimes it felt like he’d seen every movie ever made. “But I had heard of you of old. Your reputation did not paint you as a monster, so I had hope that this was just an act.”

“Oh?” Chernobog said, settling back into his chair and resting his head on one hand. “So you’ve never known a god or goddess to turn foul from centuries of abuse?”

“I have,” Athena admitted. “Bast recently had to be slain for the horrors she had unleashed, and the horror she had become.”

“Bast?” Chernobog’s ears perked up. “I’d never imagined it. What did she do?”

“She became an anthropophage,” Athena said, spitting the word.

To her surprise, Chernobog yawned. “Anthropophage. That sort of thing isn’t someone changing. That is change being forced upon them. Hardly a case of-”

“She killed Tyr before that.” Athena didn’t mean to interrupt, but the words were out of her mouth before she could call them back, “as part of a ploy arranged by Enki. She gave his nanoverse to Moloch to turn into a Linworm. All of that lead to her death and antrophophagenisis. She had become a monster before she turned into one.”

Chernobog let out a hiss of air between his teeth. “That…is surprising. Do you know why she turned?”

Athena shook her head. “I wasn’t too interested in asking her questions. Tyr and I had grown close. I wanted her dead.”

“That I can understand.” Chernobog stood up. “Svarog tells me that you tried to warn him about the end of the world. You and this new god, this Ryan Smith. Ishtar’s mad ramblings turned out to be true – the sun grows warmer, and the end comes for humanity. Is that correct?”

So that’s what I did to impress Svarog. There was something to be said for speaking the truth before anyone else saw it. It hadn’t worked out well for Cassandra, but thankfully Athena hadn’t been given her curse. “It is.”

“Good.”

Athena’s eyes widened. “Good?” she practically growled the word.

“Yes. I said good.” Chernobog slumped in his throne. “Look at what humanity has done. Look at what humanity has become. They have enough weapons to end themselves a hundred times over. In our absence, they’ve invented things like genocide. They boil the seas and scorch the skies so they can arrive at a place slightly faster. Why are they worth saving? What gives humanity value?”

“You were one,” Athena said, fighting the urge to clench her hands into fists. “And most of them are innocent of any crime. Would you condemn them to death to punish the guilty?”

“If it’s happening anyway, why should I care?” Chernobog said. “I wouldn’t lift a finger to kill them, but nor will I lift a finger to spare them. There’s no purpose to it.”

Athena took a deep breath, ready to launch into a passionate defense of humanity…then caught herself, just before she spoke. “This is another ruse,” she said, choosing her words carefully.

Chernobog threw back his head in laughter. “I got you this time,” he said. “You have to admit, you believed it.”

“Why?” Athena asked, trying to wrestle her temper under control before she said something truly regrettable.

“Because,” Chernobog said, his face turning serious. “I had to know you cared. If you were able to meet my apathy with dispassion, I would have known you had hidden motives. The fear and anger I saw? Those were real. Those I can trust in.”

“So…you’ll help us?” Athena asked.

“I will gather the bog. We will help humanity escape from Kali’s wrath. But,” he said, raising a finger before she could speak, “We will not be soldiers in your war. We will protect humanity from the wrath of the Destroyer if she comes to us, but we will not hunt her down with you, and we will not march to war.”

“That is more than enough,” Athena said, though she had to fight disappointment for the words to come out. “It will be nice to have some of us focused solely on defense.”

Chernobog grinned. “See? Now I know I’m at last as good at seeing through lies as Athena the wise. No, don’t try to argue. I don’t care, and I won’t have us starting this alliance off poorly. Just tell me where to take my people, and we’ll be there.”

Athena decided to take the better part of Valor, and sat down at a chair that was brought to her by the tormented dead sinners so she could explain the plan.

It would have to be enough.

Small Worlds Part 263

In modern times, most deities had chosen one of two places to reside, at least before the current crisis had forced the divine back into the sunlight. Some lived among humanity, spending time with the people who had once worshipped them and their descendants, trying to do what they could to help without attracting too much unwanted attention. Others had retreated to the realms that were beyond human reach, removing themselves entirely from the world and its affairs so that they could spend time with other immortals. Athena had been part of the former group, and while she had hated how it had happened – exile from Olympus had been a miserable experience – she had long ago decided that if she’d been given the choice, a chance to do what little good in the world she still could would be the option she would have chosen.

Chernobog, it seemed, had chosen a third option. He still lived on Earth, but had taken over one of the tiny, desolate islands that dotted the arctic circle. The Sergey Kirov Islands were north of Russia and part of that country’s holdings in the arctic circles, but this particular island – Isachenko Island – was only part of Russia as far as cartographers and governments were concerned. In reality, no mortals lived on this island, nor was there one of the polar or wildlife research stations that dotted these islands. Not even the Russian military had use for placing an installment here. It was barren and cold, part of the world but untouched by modernity.

In other words, it was the perfect place for a god to withdraw without completely leaving the Core world.

As Athena stepped onto the island, she was reminded most of Graham island, where the final battle with Enki had taken place. It was colder here, and ice covered a greater portion of the ground than that battlefield, but aside from that, the island was bitterly cold and a mixture of grey and white, swept by winds that cut to the bone.  The primary difference was the thick bank of mist that blanketed much of the island, a mixture of fog and snow being pulled from the ground by the churning winds.

“Are you sure this is the right place?” Athena asked.

Artemis nodded. “You know the bog. They love their atmosphere.”

Athena thought of the fact that Olympus was a realm built on an impossible mountain that seemed to literally look down on Earth and was about to point out that hypocrisy to Artemis when the wind began to die down. The snow and ice pulled into the air settled to the ground, and the fog parted like a curtain. First Athena saw what looked like a great ice sheet that had been cracked with countless tiny fractures. As the fog cleared further, those fractures revealed themselves to be bas reliefs, and the ice sheet was revealed to be a wall, stretching up hundreds of feet into the air. There were creatures moving atop the wall, ones Athena couldn’t quite make out, but their twisted forms revealed that whatever they were, human was not the answer.

It seemed Chernobog’s self-imposed exile wasn’t as complete as Athena had thought. The bog, the deities of the Kievan rus before the coming of Christianity had branded them as demons or saints and sent them into withdrawal as had happened across much of Europe, hadn’t forgotten that Chernobog was not the satanic analogue scholars had portrayed him as, and he still held court here.

“You sure he wants to see us?” Athena asked, moving her feet despite how imposing the structure was.

“He wants to see you,” Artemis reminded her, emphasizing the last word. “I’m just here to make this official. I don’t see Chernobog being particularly happy with me saying much more than ‘I brought Athena, now I’ll just chill.’” Athena snorted, and Artemis raised her eyebrow. “Did I say something funny?”

“I thought you were making a pun with chill.”

Artemis blinked. “Don’t be absurd. I don’t like puns.”

Before Athena could respond to that any further, they’d reached the unbroken sheet of ice that was the wall. The scurrying figures atop the wall began to point and rush about, then the ice sheet began to crack down the middle. Slowly, that crack extended and split, ice sliding across stone as it opened a massive pair of doors. Beyond those doors, Athena could see a courtyard of frozen spires lining a road of solid ice that lead to a palace, carved out of great blue blocks of the same material. It was all frozen. The amount of divine power needed to maintain it made Athena shudder. How many gods were here? How many were pouring their powers to the point of Hunger deprivation just to maintain this structure?

“Artemis…are you sure these are going to be safe allies?” Athena asked, though she didn’t stop her forward momentum. It was too late to turn back now – doing so would just risk angering Chernobog and turning him to Kali’s side.

“Of course,” Artemis said. “Why?”

Athena gestured subtly to indicate the ice that surrounded them.

“Oh, I worried about the same thing.” Artemis nodded in the direction of Athena’s gesture. “Look a different way.”

Athena blinked a few times and activated her divine sight.

Instantly the entire courtyard lit up. The ice wasn’t just solid blocks of frozen Water, like she had expected. It was mixed with tiny grains of Air, Fire, and Earth – the exact same mixture that made up wood, but far too small to be support beams. Realization began to dawn. “Pykrete?” Athena asked.

Artemis nodded. “I had to have it explained to me by one of the Nereids that stayed in the core, but once they did…”

Athena nodded in understanding. Pykrete. Ice mixed with sawdust or wood pulp, giving it a much better melting point and increased strength and durability. Only the outer layer of these structures was traditional ice, which would be a paltry thing to maintain in air this cold year round. It was an elaborate bluff – if Athena hadn’t been told to look, she would have assumed she was staring at an impossibility, the kind of thing only possible for gods to maintain in a static realm like Tartarus. And, if she had come here a hundred years ago, before Pykrete was known to the rest of the world, she never would have known what that mixture meant.

Chernobog had, it seemed, at least become somewhat of a deceiver in recent years. Athena made a mental note of that. The kind of being that would build a place like this was not one she should underestimate. On the other hand, Athena thought, it’s someone I’d very much like Kali to underestimate. 

Feeling paradoxically less wary but more on guard, Athena strode into the great hall of Chernobog.

Small Worlds Part 262

Eating the heart of a sleeping pig took the edge off Cassandra’s Hunter. It didn’t quite eliminate it. “I’ve got a bad feeling that I’m going to need to eat more animals than I did human. It’s just not the same,” she remarked to Dianmu once she had cleaned the viscera off her face and hands.

“How so?” Dianmu asked, her voice carefully guarded.

“It’s not…not some kind of awful thing. It’s like eating a salad when you’re craving steak. Not quite as fulfilling, leaves you wanting more. But it still takes the worst of the Hunger off. Maybe I’ll just need to learn to adapt.” She studied Dianmu’s face and sighed. “I swear, I’m not looking for an excuse to kill and eat people. I just am struggling with it right now.”

Dianmu’s eyes softened. “Apologies, Cassandra. I believe you are trying. But it’s hard to believe that it will be this simple – Anthropophages are not named because they eat animals. They’d be Zoophages or, more simply, carnivores. I worry that you’ll find, eventually, that the temptation of human hearts is too great to resist.”

Cassandra sighed and rubbed her temples. “Then I’ll ask Ryan if I can be the chief executioner in his new regime. Lord knows he’ll need one.”

“Regime?” Dianmu asked, her eyebrows going up. “I wasn’t aware Ryan was going to be starting anything that deserved that word.”

“But he is,” Cassandra said. “Even if he didn’t mean to. He’s been on the news, he spoke in front of the entire United Nations, and humanity will remember him as the man who brought them to a new world. If they don’t worship him as a god like in olden times – which I imagine in a few generations they will, whether they want to or not – he’s the man with the plan. People will be looking to him for guidance. He’ll become a leader by default – because if he doesn’t, humanity will tear itself apart.”

“Explain that last sentence, please,” Dianmu said, her expression once again cautious, but this time it didn’t have a judgmental tone to it that Cassandra could detect. It just looked wary, but not of her.

“About humanity tearing itself apart? Isn’t it obvious?” Cassandra said. “The plan calls for Uriel to carry the portals over to Emergency Backup Earth. Then Ryan and the rest of the gods are going to distribute them across the globe tomorrow. No part of that plan allows for Uriel to know where what portals go to where on Earth, or visa versa. Humanity is going to get mixed up in a way that it never has before. We’ll have gods to provide translation as languages merge, which will help some, but people will start splitting up on lines from point of origin. You could have Parisians next to New Yorkers next to Tokyo…ians? Tokyoites? People from Tokyo.

“Add to that,” Cassandra said, holding up a finger to tick down, emphasizing her point with the gesture, “existing power structures aren’t going to like it. Let’s ignore dictators because that’s a whole different kind of problem – even in normal governments. America’s government is going to want to retain control over Americans. China’s government is going to want to control Chinese. But they’ll be spread out across the globe – a globe we won’t have any maps for – with no real long range communication, besides messages carried by gods. People are going to be scrambling to hold onto the power they had before, and others will be scrambling to grab what power they have. Without a clear authority figure, it’s going to get messy. Sure, some people will turn to the gods of their region, especially in areas where polytheistic faiths are still actively worshipped, but they’ve got to be asking right now ‘Where were you when X happened?’ with X being whatever the greatest disaster in recent memory is for that culture.

“It’s going to be an absolute shitshow, and the only person with any hope of unifying it is Ryan. He’s a new god, so that ugly question doesn’t hang over him. He’s been heard across the world. He’s the one who saved us from disaster. He’s basically going to be the one unifying element we have left, as cultures drift to merge with their new neighbors and rebuilding begins. If he doesn’t act on that, he’s a damn fool, and this whole ‘save humanity’ deal he has going on is just going to turn into ‘let humanity die later and slower from infighting.’ And on top of that, the rest of this little pantheon is going to be in the spotlight too. You all stood by his side at the UN. People noticed. You’re part of this regime. Like it or not.”

Dianmu looked around and nodded to Cassandra slowly. “I was wondering if anyone else would see it.”

Cassandra let go of the tension that had begun to form in her shoulders as she spoke. “I was worried you thought I was crazy.”

“No. In fact, I happen to think you are right. I just haven’t brought it up yet.”

“Why not?” Cassandra asked. “Wouldn’t it be better if we were prepared for it? If he was prepared?”

Dianmu motioned for Cassandra to follow her as they walked away from the building where Nabu and Anansi saw to Horus. “I wondered about that, truly,” she said, clearly choosing every word with deliberation. “And ultimately decided against it. I think you’re right, but I think it will never work if Ryan is aware of what he needs to do.”

“Explain that last sentence?” Cassandra said, hoping her mimicry would come across as teasing instead of disrespectful.

From Dianmu’s smile, Cassandra had hit the mark there. “From what I’ve seen with Ryan, he is always going to address a problem someone brings to him if he can, and if he can’t, he’s going to try and find the solution. He doesn’t look at a problem and say, ‘I need to fix this, how do I?’ He looks at a problem and just says “this needs to be fixed, let’s do it.’ The difference is subtle, but I’ve seen it before – leaders who work best because they use ‘us’ instead of ‘I’, because they think of the collaborative effort before their personal glory. They are often the best kind of leader, because it keeps their ego in check. However, the more you confront them with the idea that they are in charge, the more they freeze up.”

“I’m not sure that follows,” Cassandra said. “Wouldn’t a leader need to know they’re running things?”

“Of course, on some level. But collective leaders, those that draw their strength from collaboration over individual effort, hate the knowledge that their choices are going to directly negatively impact people. Especially ones like Ryan. If he addresses problems as part of a group, he can tell himself that – when things eventually go wrong – that he can’t shoulder sole guilt for what happened because everyone agreed. It frees him to function without that weighing him down.”

“I…see,” Cassandra said, and in a way she did. It was an odd concept, but Cassandra was more than willing to defer to the woman who had thousands of years of experience and for all Cassandra knew had personally known Sun-Tzu and a hundred Emperors. Speaking of which…”Are you heading to the Jade Emperor?”

Dianmu nodded. “Why don’t you come with me? You might find it interesting.”

“He won’t have a problem with an Anthropophage?” Cassandra asked.

“If you were an Anthropophagic god, absolutely. Since you’re still mortal, as long as I vouch for you, you’ll be fine. And I will vouch for you.”

Cassandra nodded, and smiled her thanks. “Then I’d like that.”

Dianmu nodded and motioned for Cassandra to follow her into her Staging Area.

It was time to meet the Celestial Bureaucracy.

Small Worlds Part 261

“Jesus,” Cassandra whispered. Horus had passed out after crying, pressing his face against her stomach and holding onto her so tightly s he’d begun to worry he’d break her in half. “That…was horrible.”

Nabu nodded, standing up. “We were in time. He’s shown no signs of anthropophagenesis. It was close – Bast had left him in the worst possible position.”

Cassandra was careful not to shiver at the thought. She didn’t want to wake Horus. He looked so peaceful now. It was impossible not to feel sympathy for him right then. “He didn’t deserve that,” she said.

“Oh?” Nabu asked. “I thought you hated him.”

“I do,” Cassandra said. “Or at least, I did. It’s hard to hate something that pathetic.” She shook her head and shifted slightly, trying not to wake Horus. “I’ve known guys like him before. Guys who act all kind and noble, but the moment you let them know you don’t want to date them, start turning nasty. The idea of someone like that having the power of a god is…terrifying. Imagine if he’d fixated on a mortal woman instead of Bast. I loathe that type.”

“Yet you are comforting him,” Nabu said, cocking his head in thought.

“He’s still human,” Cassandra said. “He was an asshole, but no one deserves what he just went through. Not even the worst monster deserves torture.”

“Odd argument from an acolyte of Bast’s,” Nabu said. “Didn’t you allow what she did to the admiral?”

Cassandra looked up at him sharply, but there was no trace of mockery in Nabu’s face. He seemed to be genuinely curious, his expression just thoughtful. “I was…trying to harden myself,” she said after a moment’s thought. “I thought I was a monster. I thought I had no choice but to be a monster. So I was trying to become one. I thought it would make what I had to do to feed hurt less.”

“Do you think you are a monster now?” Nabu asked.

Cassandra started to nod, a motion that turned to a shake of her head, and then she sighed. “I don’t know. I’ve done terrible things. I allowed terrible things to happen. Right now, part of me is screaming that Horus is vulnerable and weak, that I should reach down and pluck out his heart for a quick snack.” Nabu tensed, and Cassandra shook her head. “I won’t. I’m not that Hungry, though I think I’ll need to find something to eat after this. It’s like smelling a good steak. But…I still did those things. Regardless of how much I was doing it because Bast manipulated me, I still did them. Doesn’t that make a bit of a monster?”

It was Nabu’s turn to be silent as he thought. “Perhaps. But there’s a truth of humanity that cannot be ignored. If you convince someone they aren’t responsible for what they do, they will do the worst things and justify it as it wasn’t their fault. Now that you know you are responsible for your actions, what you do next is a truer test of your character than anything else. You know what you’re capable of. You know what you’re culpable for. What will you do with that knowledge?”

Cassandra looked down at Horus’s sleeping from, and had to wonder if he’d had the same thought process. Had he believed his actions were justified by what he thought was love? That didn’t excuse what he did, any more than falling for Bast’s lies excused Cassandra’s actions. “I’ll be better,” she said quietly, a promise to herself more than to Nabu. “I won’t be a monster. Well, I mean, technically I am, but…”

“But a monster isn’t about what you are,” Nabu said firmly. “It’s about what you do. You have the powers of a monster. But if you use them for others, if you use them to help instead of harm…well, I think humanity has a term for someone with powers who does good. I believe the term is hero.”

Cassandra let a small smile spread across her lips. It was the first smile she’d given that wasn’t tainted with a bitter edge or pathetic devotion since Bast had turned her. It felt good. “Maybe. We’ll see if I deserve the term.”

Horus shifted and murmured in his slips, wrapping his arms around her waist. A terrible thought occurred to Cassandra. “Bast explained to me how the Hungers work. Is he going to wake up and try to screw me?”

Nabu chewed his lip. “I can’t be certain what Horus will do. He’ll want his social hunger filled, but he’ll be in control of his actions. He can’t claim he was driven mad with lust or anything of that nature.”

Suddenly, the sleeping Horus looked much less pathetic and far more threatening. Cassandra was acutely aware of how powerful a god was compared to her. If he woke up and tried to push her…”I don’t think I should be here when he wakes up,” she said, her voice quiet for an entirely different reason now.

“I won’t allow anything to happen,” Nabu said.

“I don’t want anything to start,” Cassandra said. “I know what kind of guy he is, and…no. I’m not dealing with it, even if you can stop him. Help me get up?”

Nabu nodded and stood up. He detangled Horus’s hands from her back, and braced the sleeping god so Cassandra could get free of him without waking him. Cassandra felt herself start to relax once she wasn’t trapped anymore. “Thank you. I just…I know he didn’t understand the concept of No when it came to Bast, and while she never implied he tried to be forceful…”

“You don’t need to explain,” Nabu said. “I’ll keep vigil over him.”

Cassandra nodded her thanks and stepped outside just in time for Anansi and Dianmu to leave their staging areas. “Did you find him?” Dianmu asked.

“Yes,” Cassandra said. “Bast had him strung up so he could barely even breathe. We saw to some of his Hungers. He’s asleep right now – Nabu’s in there with him.”

“Didn’t want to wait for him to wake up?” Anansi asked.

“No. I understand your Hungers well enough to not want to be around when he wakes up, desperate for socialization.”

Dianmu and Anansi shared and look, and Dianmu nodded in understanding. “We have some books if conversation isn’t enough,” she said. “Although I imagine he’ll feel rather talkative.”

“I can tell him a story, too,” Anansi said. “If that helps more. It’s delicate sometimes, feeding the social hunger with someone who has been that long deprived. They often want the quickest fix.”

Cassandra’s lips curled at the thought. “I’m glad you came with other solutions,” she said primly.

“Hope for everything to go well, but be ready for every disaster that could happen. It’s always better than the alternative,” Anansi said. “I’ll go check on Nabu.”

Dianmu watched him go. “Are you Hungry?” she asked Cassandra.

“God, yes,” Cassandra said, hating the admission. “I can hear all of your hearts. I damn near asked Nabu to leave so I could Horus a chance to reboot by killing him again. It was a cheap justification, but it was so damn tempting.”

“I can get you an animal, if you need it” Dianmu said.

“Thank you,” Cassandra said. “Please.”

“Does it have to be alive?”

Cassandra considered the question, and nodded. “I…yeah. I think so. I thought about eating a dead heart, but it didn’t do anything for me. I think Bast was telling the truth about that, at least. Damn.”

“You seem unhappy,” Dianmu said, hesitating before turning back to her doorway.

“I don’t like the idea of tearing out something’s still beating heart. It almost feels worse with an animal.” She saw Dianmu’s eyes harden, and shook her head. “I don’t want to eat humans, but when I did it before, they were people who were our enemies. Or, at least, Bast had convinced me they were.” She thought of a young man in Grant, screaming in terror and crawling along the ground. His legs had been broken. He’d been no threat. Cassandra shuddered at the memory – and at the memory of how excited she’d been to feed like that. “I think it just feels worse now that I’m acknowledging it’s a terrible thing. You think you could drug the animal or something so it’s not awake when I feed? That feels…less awful.”

Dianmu’s expression softened. “That I can understand. And I can do better than drug. I can slow it’s heartrate enough it will fall asleep.”

“Thank you,” Cassandra said, the gratitude entirely unfeigned. Dianmu stepped back into her staging area, and Cassandra sat on the ground to wait.

There were undeniable realities of what she was now. But Cassandra was determined to be the best version of the monster she’d become.

Maybe she’d even earn what Nabu had called her.

Small Worlds Part 260

Horus hung from the ceiling of an abandoned building, his arms stretched in a large Y shape, his legs chained to the back wall. They were bound too far back for him to stand or kneel. With great effort, he could support a bit of weight on his bare toes, but they’d long ago been worn down to bloody nubs that couldn’t bear it for long. He could barely breathe from how his chest was stretched, and his eyes were covered so he’d lost all sense of time. How long had he been here? Hours? Days? It couldn’t be weeks, he was certain of that. If it had been, he long ago would have succumbed to anthropophagic impulses.

No strange hungers pulled at him, yet, but it was only a matter of time. Would he become a heart-eater like Bast? A blood-drinker like Vlad? Or would he develop a stranger hunger, a need for human brains or lungs or something fowler? The thought of what he could begin to crave made him shudder, and the motion set him to groaning in agony. Every part of his body hurt. He could feel warm ichor begin to run down his arms as the scabs there were torn away from his motion. Even his fingers ached – while he was dead, Bast had shoved something thin under the nails, and he couldn’t heal enough to push them out.

As if in response to his anguish, Bast’s last words echoed in Horus’s ears yet again. “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?” That and, as she ate his heart, her final bit of mockery. “It’s funny, in a way. In the end, you finally did get inside me.”

I was a fool. Those four words were a constant litany, alongside Bast’s mockery. What’s worse was that phrase was an incomplete torment. He’d been far worse than a fool.

Agony and the impending threat of either becoming a monster had a way of clearing the mind. For the first time in thousands of years, Horus was able to look objectively on his desire for Bast. He’d blamed her for it, but what had she done to encourage him? Been beautiful? That wasn’t something she’d done. It had just been what she as. She’d been everything he’d wanted – fierce, brave, intolerant of his arrogance, and at times kind. Yet she’d always rebuffed his advances in no uncertain terms. Still he’d pursued her, as if she was obligated to return his affections.

And where had that led him? Here. Battered, broken, and resigned to be nothing more than a constant food supply for Bast and her monsters. In a way, she had given him everything he wanted. He finally mattered to her, he was finally useful to her. She’d never ignore him again.

Or so he thought.

But time had stretched. He’d resurrected, and he certainly wasn’t in his staging area. Bast was nowhere to be found. Was she returning to feed on his heart? Or would she wait to see what kind of monster he became? She could still feed on him if he was an anthropogphage – she’d proven that with Vlad. Maybe she wanted to wait until he finally turned to begin feeding, so he’d have a sixth hunger to torment him between feeding. Maybe she’d decided to leave him here forever, until the world ended and he was consumed in solar flame or whatever apocalypse Ryan unleashed. Or perhaps…what if Ryan had succeeded? He might be the only intelligent thing left on this world, and the next few millennia would be his hungers tormenting him to madness and beyond, until finally his nanoverse underwent heat death and he died. The thought was beyond maddening. He was already near insensible with Hunger. What would it be like in a year? A century?

Horus felt tears welling in his eyes. He’d tried to escape. Oh, how he’d tried. But Bast had thought of everything. The chains dug into his skin, but they had been filed down to smoothness. Try as he might, his wrists would heal before he could sever them. A gag had been shoved into his mouth, so he couldn’t even use his teeth to try and gnaw though his own arm. He’d considered it, but the cloth was too thick for him to work his jaw enough to break it. If he strained his arms, he could lift his torso slightly – but he couldn’t do anything with it.

He could do nothing but suffer.

If I get out of this, if I’m still sane, I’ll be better. It was a laughable thought. What good was redemption if torment was the only motivation? And he’d never be allowed to be free.

In that moment, Horus was certain that Bast intended to wait until he was an anthropophage. So that even if he could get free, he’d never be anything other than a monster. No redemption. Just death everlasting at Bast’s hands.

He wondered if he’d come to enjoy the death. If Bast’s hand plunging into his chest would become something he welcomed, because it was contact with another living thing, because it would mean a temporary end to his torment. He thought of Dale, that wretched creature Bast had formed out of a once proud Admiral. Would he become like that? Eager to serve her every whim out of fear of what she could do to him? No. Horus knew he wouldn’t be that lucky. She wanted him for food, nothing more.

Horus passed out at some point. When he came to, he could hear footsteps. His heart started to pound in his chest, and he carefully listened to his Hungers. He felt the normal five, but no salivation at the thought of humans he could feed on. I’m not gone yet. A voice spoke, and Horus knew his torment wasn’t over. It belonged to Cassandra. “I don’t know what kind of state he’s in,” she said.

“Weak, we can be certain of that.” The second speaker was male, and although it sounded maddeningly familiar, Horus couldn’t place it. Was it another anthropophagic ally of Bast’s? Perhaps another one of her monsters? Maybe Cassandra had displeased Bast in some way, so Bast was punishing her by making her take another to feed on Horus.

Horus blinked to dry his eyes. No matter what, these monsters would not see him weak.

The sound of wood grinding along stone signaled the opening of a door. Horus could feel warm air streaming in. Sunlight touched his skin. The door must face either west or east, and it had to be either dawn or dusk. Something concrete he could grab onto.

“My God,” Cassandra grasped, and Horus had to fight back a chuckle. Who was she to swear by the Christian God? She only had one god now, and it was Bast. Footsteps began to sound on concrete.

“Is he alive?” the male voice asked, and again there was that maddening familiarity. Who was this? Not Vlad, that was certain.

“His heart’s beating,” Cassandra said. “I’m going to brace him.”

Hands touched his bare chest. They were soft, and Horus pushed his body against the touch, straining for human contact. He knew that, at any moment, those hands would slide through his chest and tear into him. His heart pounded with the knowledge that it would soon be liberated from his ribcage, and with excitement for having contact. He knew then he would come to crave being fed upon. It would be the only Hunger he would have filled, the need for human interaction in those brief moments of contact, and he’d come to love it. He clenched his eyes shut. They won’t see you weep. Not yet. In the months and years to come, they would. He could only fight so long. But for now he could hold on to his pride. It would be the last bit of him, something that would endure until-

There was the sound of metal wrenching. Horus slumped forward into those arms, and they wrapped around him. The warmth, the touch, was too much to bear. His hands free, Horus tried to reach for whoever was holding him, tried to wrap them in an embrace. A whimper escaped his lips, involuntary. “Shh,” a voice said, a feminine voice, and even knowing this was Cassandra Horus couldn’t make himself try to break away from her hands. He clung to her more tightly than even the cliché drowning man with the driftwood, because that drowning man was only holding on for his life. Horus was holding on for his sanity. Another wrench of metal freed his legs, and Cassandra lowered him to the ground, murmuring. “I have you.” She turned him to his back. Horus took deep, ragged breaths as another pair of hands worked the knot on his gag and blindfold.

He was laying in Cassandra’s lap, clinging to her arms, shaking. “Nabu, the water.” Something plastic was pressed to Horus’s painfully dry lips, and he suckled at it like a babe at its mother’s teat. “Slow down. You’ll make yourself sick.”

Horus heard the words, but couldn’t make himself stop. It felt so good to finally have something to wet his lips, and only Nabu – that’s where I knew the voice – pulling the bottle away stopped him. His stomach rumbled, and without prompting Nabu presented him with food. It was just bread, but it tasted sweeter than any feast Horus had ever been presented with.

Then, and only then, did he realize he was safe. Cassandra had, for whatever reason, decided to show him mercy.

This time, he didn’t try to stop the tears.

Small Worlds Part 259

I messed up and had to re-write this part. Sorry for any confusion!

 

“Do you know something I don’t?” Athena said as she caught up with Artemis.

“Probably. I’ve been in the Elysian Rest for three hundred years, and the currents of our pantheon are largely a mystery to you since your exile. I’m sure there’s a great deal about that I know that you are unaware of.”

Athena gave Artemis a sideways glance. When the archer was being so frustrating literal, it was hard to tell if she was deliberately joking or just being her. For her part, Artemis’s face was the picture of cool calm, and utterly unreadable. “I meant,” Athena said after deciding that asking Artemis if she was joking would be offensive if she wasn’t and too big a satisfaction if she was, “about what you said. About Kali gathering her own forces.”

“Ah.” Artemis considered for a second. “Well, since you are asking, I’m going to have to assume I do. Otherwise you wouldn’t need to ask.”

Athena pursed her lips. “Please tell me it’s bad news. That she reached out to the Jade Emperor and was rebuffed or something.”

Artemis shook her head. “I wish it was that simple. No, Kali has gone to Asgard. She met with the Aesir, and while we don’t know what they said, we know that they rebuffed our messengers while they welcomed her.”

Athena swore. “I thought Asgard had locked itself away from the world?”

“It was less a literal lock and more simply refusing to allow anyone to cross the Rainbow bridge.”

Athena sighed. She’d never had much cause to visit Asgard, so hadn’t known about That. Asgard was like Tartarus – once within the realm, doorways would not open, and twists would stay in place permanently. The Rainbow Bridge was the only way in and out of that realm, making it near impossible for a hostile force to breach their door. Athena caught a curious look from Artemis. “What?”

“I thought you were running with Tyr for some time. I figured you’d know more about what was happening there than I did.”

“It…wasn’t like that,” Athena said. “Tyr didn’t like talking about Asgard, any more than I liked talking about Olympus. We were both outcast, and we both didn’t talk about why. It’s what drew us together.” I should have asked him, Athena chided herself. I should have pushed. The ache of his death was still with her. It had been a wonder to find someone like her, someone outcast from their own pantheon, and after the disaster of Autolycus it had taken her time to start trusting again, but Tyr had never been anything but a loyal friend. She’d grieved him and moved on – the satisfaction of knowing Bast was dead had been wonderful, even if it was a disappointment that she hadn’t been able to be there to kill her – but it still hurt to think about.

“I see,” Artemis said. She gave Athena another sidelong glance. “I only ask because I’m bad at telling these things. Were you and he more than friends?”

Athena shook her head. “Everyone assumed we were, but neither of us were interested. We both needed each other. But there wasn’t anything there. We fed each other’s Social hungers sometimes, but that was just about taking care of a Hunger, nothing more.”

“I see. I am sorry for your loss. I never knew him well, but he was one of my favorites of the Aesir.” Artemis continued walking. It was one thing about Artemis Athena loved. She had no interest in romance or even sex, not even to fill her Social Hunger, and as such she didn’t leap to conclusions about relationships the way so many others did. She asked if she was unsure, and then she moved on either way.

“Thank you. When your emissary went to the Aesir, did they tell him anything?” Athena asked after a momentary pause.

“Not at first. I think Heimdall took some pity, or just wanted Heracles to stop shouting.”

Athena snorted. “You sent Heracles as an emissary?”

“Only because it was the Aesir. They respect battle prowess above all else, and the only war deity I know that has a functional brain was a bit busy helping me deal with the aftermath of Poseidon. I needed you there. Ares was dead and is too cruel for their tastes anyway, and Kratos has let his brain rot by playing those damn games about him. I swear, the ego on that man…”

“I’ll have to tell Ryan about that. He’ll get a kick out of knowing Kratos is a fan of a game series where he slaughters our entire pantheon.”

“I’m sure he will.” Artemis smiled, and Athena remembered Artemis’s earlier injunction about not waiting to speak to Ryan about her feelings and realized how painfully obvious it had to be if Artemis, of all deities, had noticed. “Anyway, Heimdall told Heracles that Kali had been there, and had met with Thor. Odin was away, apparently. It…does not bode well that they refused to meet Heracles.”

“No it does not.” Athena sighed. She detested Thor. The man was violent in a way that impressed Ares. At least Ares was able to sometimes restrain himself from going on murderous rampages when given a slight. Thor, on the other hand, didn’t just treat brute force as the first solution, but the only solution. “I hadn’t even tried to go to them.”

“I’m surprised they even met with her, given their history,” Artemis said.

Athena nodded. The human worshippers of the Deva remembered the Aesir as their own personal brand of demons, the Asura, while the human worshippers of the Aesir had remembered the Deva as Asgard’s oldest foes, the Vanir. This was because, in times long past, the two pantheons had gone to war. A violent, bloody war, right around the time of the Titanomachy. Although both sides spread so much propaganda it was impossible to know what the truth was for anyone that wasn’t there, Tyr had indicated it had been a clusterfuck of the highest order – and by indicated, she meant those had been her exact words. “Maybe they killed her behind our backs?” Athena said hopefully. “Or mean to betray her at a crucial moment?”

Artemis laughed. “If she’d met with Loki, maybe. But Thor…he’s a bastard, but he has his honor. If he agreed to an alliance, he won’t turn on her. And if he didn’t like her, he would have flayed her body and posted it on the Rainbow Bridge for any visitor to see.

Athena shuddered at the thought. She’d seen the Blood Eagle that the Aesir had taught their followers to make out of those they wanted to suffer a terrible fate and had no desire to be reminded of it. “I can only hope then that they listened to her and then told her to go away.”

“We can hope,” Artemis said, although her tone made it clear how unlikely she thought that would be.

“You indicated you might have a lead on some allies?” Athena asked, trying not to sound too hopeful. Having Olympus on their side was an immense boon, but Kali had the advantage of being able to concentrate her forces. Athena and her allies had to defend every single one of the Wormholes, unless they could find some way to determine where Kali would strike. Athena had some theories, but none of them were particularly good. They would be too spread out to defend themselves. They could have ten times Kali’s number on paper and still find themselves outnumbered, and that was without counting any monstrous or human reinforcements either side had. Especially if Kali teaches them the secrets of Ichor. That was a sobering thought. If Kali wanted victory badly enough to risk that…

“I do, although they won’t meet with me. It’d be even harder with Zeus back awake. But they’ll meet you, Athena, and they’ll listen to your case.”

“That’s something, at least,” Athena said, her mind working furiously. “Who is it?”

“Chernobog. You should probably prepare.”

Athena halted in her tracks. “I must have misheard you. You meant Belobog, right?” The two gods were opposite sides of the same coin, with Belobog being the White God of light and day, and Chernobog being the Black God of darkness and night. Chernobog had actually been fairly decent back in the day, in spite of the associations, but millennia of being equated with Satan by Christian writers had led to him being frustrated, then bitter, and then finally saying “if they want me to be a villain, I’m going to be a damn villain.”

“No, Chernobog. Those are very difficult to confuse.” Artemis said, and again Athena found herself wondering if Artemis was having fun at her expense or was serious. “I’ve heard about how he’s changed, but Savrog spoke highly of you to him, so he’s willing to listen.

“Wait, Savrog spoke well of me?” Athena hadn’t seen Savrog since that meeting in Empyrean provocation, when Crystal had been waiting to resurrect. Savrog had been among a group of gods that had absolutely dismissed the idea of the Eschaton cycle.

“You made a good impression,” Artemis said, shrugging again. “I suppose you should get ready. I’ll let you know where and when to meet him.”

Athena took a deep breath. While Chernobog had stated he intended to be the monster they thought he ways, all his ‘evil’ acts were only told about in legend – there hadn’t been anything that Athena had ever been able to prove. Maybe this would go well. “Thank you,” she said to Artemis.

“You’re welcome.” Artemis smiled. “We can pull this off, Athena. Somehow. We’ll get there.”

Athena nodded, appreciating the vote of confidence. She believed her friend.

It just felt like there was a very long way for things to go.

 

Small Worlds Part 258

Artemis took a deep breath after Zeus left. “Think that will stay with him? Or are we going to be dealing with him in the middle of everything?” she asked, her voice low for Athena’s ears.

“Zeus loves being glorified. I think we won him over,” Athena said

Artemis sighed and glanced around. The area near the pillar had been completely vacated in the course of their argument with Zeus. He had a tendency to spread his wrath around when he was in a foul mood, and no one had wanted to be the one to catch the brunt of his displeasure. Seeing they were clear, Artemis sat down and started to rub her temples. “This is a mistake, Athena.”

Athena sat next her, folding her legs under herself. “What is?”

“I shouldn’t be on the Council.”

Athena had been wondering when this would happen. “You’re doing phenomenal work. You just survived your first clash with Zeus, you oversaw a rebellion by Poseidon and won, Hades is back…”

Artemis waved her hand dismissively. “I’ve gotten lucky. If you hadn’t been here for Zeus, I have no idea how I would have deescalated that. Poseidon just had inferior numbers – and again, I needed your help for that. Hades is only back because Arthur broke the locks on the Underworlds as part of his war with Heaven.”

“You also saved us after the fight with Moloch. You defeated Poseidon, I just helped. And Zeus…I’ve always been better at handling him than you, but you would have figured something out.” Athena reached over and put a hand on Artemis’s shoulder. “I feel much better about the Council knowing you’re on it. Imagine if we had faced this crisis with Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades in charge.”

Artemis groaned and pulled her legs up to her chest, wrapping her arms around her knees. “I’d rather no think about that. That would be a nightmare.”

“So far better you than them.”

Artemis shook her head. “I want to be away from Olympus. I want to be in the forest, hunting something suitably clever so I get a real challenge, or training a young hunter or two that are actually worth a damn. I don’t like people, and now I’m supposed to tell them what to do?”

Athena chuckled. She’d meant for the sound to be reassuring, but Artemis just buried her face against her knees. “Have  you spent much time on Earth since you left the Rest? Time that wasn’t spent in battle, I mean.”

“No,” Artemis said directly to her legs.

“They have this concept. It’s called imposter syndrome.”

Artemis looked up, an eyebrow quirked. “I’ve never heard of it?”

Athena smiled. “It’s a psychological phenomena where someone who has accomplished a great deal feels like they’re a fraud. Like everyone around them is giving them credit for things they didn’t deserve, and at any moment is going to realize they are a fake who has been pulling the wool over their eyes the entire time.”

“I’m so glad to know they have a name for it now,” Artemis said. She was being sarcastic, but there wasn’t any vitriol to the sarcasm. “But Athena, it’s more than just that. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to be surrounded by people asking me what they’re supposed to do, and then having to yell at them until they actually do it. Why even bother asking if you’re just going to disagree?”

Athena sat back, thinking. Artemis had never been much for Olympus, as long as Athena had known her. She’d spent more of her time out in the wilds, doing whatever she wanted and enjoyed. The conflicts of the gods were something Artemis thought were petty and a waste of time. “Do you think you can hold on for another seven days?”

Artemis sighed. “I suppose if I say no, you’ll try to persuade me to stay with it?”

Athena shook her head. “You’re my friend, Artemis. I don’t want you to suffer. If you can’t stomach it, we’ll find someone else. I’ll help you. Maybe your brother?”

Artemis snorted. “Apollo is as bad as Zeus when it comes to being led by his pelvis, and doesn’t want to lead. He’d be worse than me if he tried.”

“That’s true,” Athena admitted. “Of course, if we’re looking at ‘worse than you,’ that covers a pretty broad range, because you’ve done very well so far.”

“Flattery won’t help you here,” Artemis said, but the beginning of a smile began to play on her lips. “You’re positive you won’t come back? You’d be much better at this than me.”

“No I wouldn’t,” Athena said. “At least, not with the current crisis. I take to long to think things through sometimes. I get stuck in debates and hearing and proceedings. I overthink everything. You have a knack for cutting through to the heart of the matter. Kind of like-”

“If you make a joke about archery here, I’ll push you off the pillar,” Artemis said.

“Like someone who knows what’s important,” Athena said without missing a beat. “And right now, that’s what Olympus needs. It’s probably was Olympus needs all the time, but at least for the next week.”

“Fine,” Artemis said. She straightened out and stretched her back. “I blame you if I spend the next century avoiding all of humanity though.”

“You were going to do that anyway after spending so long in the Elysium Rest,” Athena countered.

“Yes, but I’ll blame you for it.” Artemis stood up and offered Athena a hand. “Speaking of you overthinking things, you finally told Ryan about how you feel?”

If she hadn’t taken Artemis’s hand, Athena might have fallen off the pillar. “You are, as always, the master of terrible segues.”

“It’s a gift. And don’t change the topic. Have you?”

Athena sighed. “It’s that obvious?”

“I know you,” Artemis said. “You spend a tremendous amount of time dithering and waiting.”

“We’re dealing with the end of the world.”

“Yes,” Artemis said firmly. “So tell me…is that really the time to be waiting for the right moment? Because right now, it seems to me that there might not be too many moments left.”

Athena gaped at her. “That’s…I didn’t think you had an interest in romance. Even other people’s.”

“I don’t.” Artemis shrugged. “I have an interest in seeing my friends happy. So do something about it. Before you run out of time.”

“I will,” Athena said, moved by Artemis’s concern.

“Good. Now. Let’s get some more allies for you. Because Kali is gathering her own forces, and you’re going to be in for one hell of a fight.”

Artemis leapt off the pillar. Athena followed, wishing Artemis had chosen any other note to end the conversation.

Hey, guess what? On Patreon, Small Worlds is now two parts ahead. Soon it’ll be up to three parts. Check out part 259 and 260 here!

Small Worlds Part 257

It had been centuries since Athena had last seen Zeus. While seeing the rest of the Olympians had been a reminder of the unchanging nature of the divine, there had still been subtle differences. Their clothing styles had evolved. Their hairstyles had adapted. They all had looked like a mish-mash of the ancient Greek styles they were famous for and the seventeenth century, with a few of their own mutations that had happened over their centuries in exile in Tartarus, but that had been enough to make them seem different.

Zeus had none of that. He looked almost exactly like he’d stood of that throne where Phidias had captured his likeness in marble. His hair was long and curled and circled his face along with a beard that reached almost to his bare chest, wearing only an achiton off his shoulders and around his waist. The only difference was that in Phidias’ sculpture, he looked calm and regal.

Here and now, his face was contorted with fury.

“Artemis!” he bellowed when he saw them, stalking up to the pillar where they rested. “Get down here this instant!”

Just like that. A father scolding a disobedient child. Artemis’ face darkened, and Athena put a hand on her arm. “Careful,” Athena murmured.

Artemis gave her a curt nod to show she understood. “You missed some things in your sleep, oh King of Olympus.” Her voice was loud and clear, but pitched carefully with a twist of Air and Aether to make sure it did not carry farther than Zeus’s and Athena’s ears. “I need not leap because you say so. If you wish to speak, come up here and join me as an equal.”

The twist was likely the only thing that kept Zeus from lashing out in that instant. His face darkened like a thundercloud, and his eyes hardened. He muttered something that sounded a lot like “perfidious bitch,” but propelled himself up to the top of the column on a gust of air. “This is nonsense,” he growled as he landed, his voice full of animalistic fury. “You cannot be elevated by a council that was formed by my brother without me.”

“I can and I was,” Artemis said, her voice unyielding. No hint of deference touched her voice, and if not for Athena’s hand on Artemis’s arm she would have believed the archer to be every bit as calm as she sounded. It was only the slight tremble of her elbow that gave lie to her confidence, too subtle to be seen.

“Preposterous. It was only an act of desperation that elevated Hera without Hades, and even then-”

“You speak to me of desperation?” Artemis said, her voice low with fury. It was only then that Athena began to suspect that the tremble she’d felt wasn’t born of fear, but of rage. Zeus’s eyes widened and he rocked back. Athena wondered how long it had been since someone other than his brothers or his wife had the audacity to interrupt him. It was nice to see him off balance. “You dare? Olympus was beset on all sides with foes both from without and within. Moloch had laid siege to the Rest with an army of Godslayers and monsters. Your brother was trying to sell us to him to further his own selfish ends.

“The desperation that lead to your wife’s elevation was Hades’ absence and your own need to placate a woman whose marital bed you’d defiled time and time again. There was no threat. There was no army at the gates. There was no monster sitting on our council – or rather, we did not know there was a monster sitting on the council, holding the veto. Yet there were three. A man who would betray us to our greatest foe. A woman who would use a crisis to exact her revenge. And you, a coward who wanted us to hide away.”

Zeus did not explode in the silence that followed. His face darkened like gathering thunderheads, and Athena had to fight an urge to step back, to be out of the blast radius of that storm when it unleashed. “You forget yourself, archer,” he said, the words hissing between his lips like escaping steam.

“You forget what I know. What we all know now. You knew the cycle was coming to an end. You knew the Eschaton would be found. You knew Ishtar had the right of it all along, and instead of giving us centuries to prepare for what was to come, you hid us away in Tartarus so we might simply fade away. You led us to believe Ishtar was a madwoman who would doom us all.”

“She will!” Zeus bellowed, the storm finally breaking. “She thought she could prevent the cycle. The Eschaton will destroy this world. I was warned of this by Athena’s own oracle-” Athena didn’t know how to feel about the fact that Zeus was finally acknowledging her presence with a gesture, and decided that this was a case where discretion was, indeed, the better part of valor, “-and I had it confirmed by a Curator. There is no saving this world. I set up the Rest to be a last refuge. There were enough of us where humanity could have been reborn there, from the loins of the gods.”

“Of course your plan would stem from loins,” Artemis spat the words. “Have you ever ever taken an action that wasn’t guided by your cock? For millennia the only thing that prevented our entire Pantheon from being led towards whatever hole you wanted to shove your member into was Hades and then Hera.”

Zeus began to gather threads of Flame and Earth around himself. “You go too far,” he said, each word heavy with spite.

“I do not go far enough,” Artemis countered, shifting her stance slightly. “There is worse I could say about you. But the most important of them is simply that you were wrong. The Eschaton does not seek to end the world. He is creating Gates that will take humanity from this world to another. He will fill his destiny and ‘end’ our world, but he will do so without bloodshed, without chaos.”

The threads Zeus had gathered stopped there, and his eyes narrowed. “What?”

“He is ending Humanity’s reign on Earth, as the cycle demands he does, but he is doing so in a way that spares the species. There will be no more civilizations built by human hands on this world, yet humanity will endure.”

“If a single thing goes wrong, the Sun will consume the world.” Zeus said.

“Yes.” The word was blunt and simple. Artemis had never been one to spare words when they weren’t needed – this argument was the most Athena had heard her speak in a single conversation in centuries. “But the bulk of humanity will not be here to see it. Even if the worst happens, even if we cannot spare Earth, we will endure, and enough animals will be brought where extinction will be minimal.”

Zeus looked less than pleased. “The others know of this?”

Artemis nodded. “I knew you’d object. I made sure that if you did so publically, you’ll be known for what you are.”

Zeus’s face darkened. “Humanity forgot us. In the Rest, they would have known who they owed their lives to. Who they owed their world to.”

“And they still will,” Athena said, speaking for the first time. Artemis looked ready to launch into another tirade, one that would be satisfying to watch, but at this point Athena judged appealing to Zeus’s ego to be the wiser course. “Ryan – the Eschaton – spoke publicly before a union of the world’s nations that exists. He warned them of what was coming. He did so flanked by gods, myself among them. When we go to this new world, Humanity will come fully aware of why they were spared. Of who spared them. Gods. You think that won’t ignite a new wave of worship?”

For the first time since he’d screamed Artemis’s name, Zeus looked thoughtful. Artemis didn’t looked pleased with the change and direction, but she knew how to take an opportunity when it presented itself. “Of course, any gods that stand against us will be remembered poorly by humanity. Their names will be spoken in the same tones Humanity used to reserve for its great foes. Enki. Moloch. Bast. Kali. They’ve added their names to that list already, as will any who join them. Will you have the name Zeus be spoken in such company? Or will you cast aside the fact that it was not your plan that saved the world, and instead make sure your name is counted among those who shepherded humanity into this new era?”

Zeus stared at them both, his eyes hard, and he stroked his beard in thought. Artemis glanced at Athena, and in that glance Athena saw gratitude, and realized she’d played perfectly into Artemis’s plan. Artemis had styled herself a protector of virginity, eons ago, owing to her own disinterest in carnal pleasures. That had put her firmly opposed to Zeus, and Zeus never would have believed an offer for glory if it had come from Artemis. By being the one to offer it, Athena had allowed Zeus to actually consider it. Of course, Artemis couldn’t have predicted what Athena would do to mollify Zeus – only trusted that Athena would offer something to mollify Zeus

“You play a dangerous game, Archer,” Zeus growled.

“The game became dangerous in spite of my efforts,” Artemis said, the fire in her own voice dying down. “But the game still favors us. Which side of the board are you on?”

Zeus sighed. “Hera will be furious I allowed you to keep your seat.”

“She did kill you,” Athena said.

“Oh, yes. It’s been a few centuries since she last did that.” Zeus shrugged, and looked almost sheepish. He’d gone so quickly from raging fury to the abashed husband, Athena was worried her neck would snap from whiplash.  But that was how Athena remembered him. Constantly mercurial in his moods. “Her timing is usually better than this.”

“She’s killed you before?” Artemis asked.

“It’s part of how we handle things.” Zeus shook his head. “Fine. We’ll go with this plan, Artemis. For now. But I will be watching carefully.”

Artemis didn’t slump with relief, but Athena could see how badly she wanted to.

“Now. Make amends for your tone by telling me what all I missed before I resurrected.”

Athena bristled at his tone, but Artemis had used the fire she needed. For now, mollifying Zeus seemed to be where Artemis wanted to go, and Athena did not seek to undermine her. Instead, Athena helped by filling in gaps in Artemis’ story, and trying to figure out when her friend had become so adept at manipulating her fellow Olympians.

At least her timing couldn’t have been better.