Strange Cosmology Part 62

Without their special toys stolen from her blood, and with them still being afraid to use heavier ordinance for fear of civilian casualties, dealing with the United States military had been simple. Relatively speaking. Bast stretched her shoulder, where a stray bullet had pierced her defenses. It hadn’t punctured – normal mortal arms fire wasn’t going to put down a goddess – but it had hurt.

In hindsight, she could have just waited for her unexpected visitor to make his way into the base on his own, but she hadn’t known who was coming for dinner. Thinking about it in that way made her laugh.

“Miss?” Cassandra asked at her side.

“Just a stray thought,” Bast said, shaking her head. “I need you to go see if Horus is still waiting or if he decided we are to be foes. If he is still there, let him know he has work to do. I have more important matters to attend to.” She handed Cassandra a paper with Horus’ orders scrawled on them hastily.

“I’m assuming I shouldn’t mention that last part?” Cassandra asked with a smile.

“If he’s still waiting, I suspect you could tell him I find him utterly loathsome and he would still remain, although to to be safe I suppose you shouldn’t.”

Cassandra let out a quick, amused breath. “I’ve known guys like him. This one in high school…never could take a hint. Just…” Cassandra trailed off, and then pursed her lips. “Sorry. It’s not for me to correct you.”

“Cassandra, as long as we are in private, I will never mind you drawing attention to a possible flaw in my thinking. If I wanted mindless agreement, I’d be talking to Horus.”

“Thank you. I was just going to say, be careful with him? Guys like that, if you manage to get through to them you have no interest, can turn into threats quickly.”

Bast regarded her, then nodded. “I will keep that in mind. Do you have an unsettled debt we’ll need to attend to?”

“Oh, no, nothing like that. He just spread nasty rumors, nothing that warrants any kind of payback. I hadn’t even thought about it in years, until this brought it up.”

“Good.” Bast unclenched her fist. “Once you’ve delivered the message to Horus or confirmed his absence, take over monitoring the army outside. But if nothing changes there, wait until I send for you. I think I’ll want to avoid unnecessary interruptions during this.”

Cassandra gave a slight bow and headed off to attend to her duties. Bast turned and headed to attend to her guest.

She’d put him in a conference room to wait for her. There hadn’t actually been a need for him to wait – she could have spoken to him immediately – but Bast believed strongly in the benefit of establishing relative importance. Her visitor had been a god for less time than her, but in other areas was far more experienced. He might get it into his mind that he was the superior in this relationship.

After Enki, Bast had no intention of allowing any other god to believe that.

So he’d had to wait for her, just for a bit. Not too long to be insulting, only a few minutes. “My apologies for the delay,” Bast said as she swept into the conference room, her tone clearly indicating that his acceptance of that apology was preferred but not necessary. “You are not the only being to come calling.”

He gave her a gracious nod, “Of course, Lady Bast. Such things must be handled carefully, especially in such trying times. Were you surprised to see me?”

“Just Bast, if you will. Mortals worry about such titles – I find them pretentious among our kind. And yes,” Bast sat in the chair opposite her guess. “To be perfectly frank, I believed you were dead.”

“As I wished it,” he said, a careful smile on his face. “You did, after all, try to kill me once before.”

“Different times, and different circumstances. I thought you were a monster then. I’ve gained…a newfound appreciation for your condition, Vlad.”

Vlad the Impaler, prince of Wallachia and progenitor of the vampires, lead forward and gave her a fully fanged smile. “I expected you would. How long did they starve you?”

“Weeks,” Bast said, keeping her voice level. “Although I don’t share your precise needs.”

“Oh?” It was good to see him look actually surprised. “I assumed that all others were like me. If not blood, then, what does Bast hunger for?”

“Hearts,” Bast said with a smile, baring her fangs as well.

“Ah. Rather messier than mine, it seems.” Vlad nodded in appreciation. “I wonder if…”

Bast didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of asking, but curiosity got the better of her. “Go on?”

“In my time, we believed strongly in the importance of blood as the source of life, health, and…well, everything that makes us human. Your people, long ago, held the heart in the same esteem. Perhaps that influence shapes our Hunger.”

Bast shrugged slightly. “We don’t have enough information to be certain of anything. It’s an interesting theory, of course, but hardly important.”

“Of course,” Vlad said, his smile dropping to a frown in an instant. “Well, then, to business?”

“Please,” she responded, her voice sharper than she meant. She took a breath before continuing to steady it. “I do have an army camped outside.”

“And you can’t open your doorway.”

She gave him a curt nod. “I assume that’s why you arrived by foot?”

“No. I wanted to approach carefully, to avoid an accidental conflict. It took me some time to relearn how to open my doorway, however. It is still possible, but difficult.” His frown began to fade, returning to the predatory smile from before. “I could teach you.”

“Go on,” she responded. It was her turn to frown. Even before finding his nanoverse, Vlad had been a butcher. After finding it, he had been a monster even before becoming an anthropophage.

“I wish to aid you, Bast. I want to make sure you prevail, and in the process stop the Eschaton from killing off. Or, at least, make sure a stable population persists after the end of the world.”

Bast relaxed. This motive, at least, she could believe. “You want to ensure a food supply.”

“Of course I do. As badly as you want to.”

If she was being honest, Bast hadn’t thought that far ahead yet. Now that the point was raised, however, she realized it was something that had to be done. If she failed to bring her plans all the way through, she would still have her Hunger, and if all humanity did in the process…well, seeing Vlad last time had shown her wat a starving anthropophage looked like. “I’m not a fool,” she said, by way of answer.

“Then an alliance. You help us secure a stable supply of humans, one we can sustain in the event of the Eschaton’s success, and we assist you in learning what you can do now and…whatever it is you’re doing.”

“We? Us?” Bast’s frown returned.

“Oh yes,” Vlad chuckled, a low, rasping sound. “Although I still need to recruit the others, I’m certain they’ll be willing to join in.”

Bast steepled her fingers in front of her face. Anyone Vlad was certain would aid him was likely as monstrous as he was. Then again, anymore, who are you to call someone a monster? She extended a hand. “It will be a pleasure working with you.”

Vlad took the proffered extremity and shook it gamely. “Wonderful. I hope this is the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership.”

“One question,” Bast asked, withdrawing her hand from that clammy grasp and resisting the urge to wipe it on her shirt, “how did you find me? My other visitor had to go to the Curators for the information.”

He gave her a slow smile. Bast took the opportunity as he chose his words to really study his face for the first time. She could see the man he had been in there, but his eyes were a tad too large, his mouth a bit too wide…it looked like his skin was stretched too tightly over his skin. Like a corpse. He really does look like a corpse. “Bast, I’ve managed to hide from the rest of you since before this nation was founded. I have eyes in every intelligence agency on the planet. Finding out what the Americans had here took time, but it was just a matter of time.”

Was it? Bast wondered, keeping her face still. Or did you want to make sure I turned into…this before you made your move? “That will come in very helpful,” is what she said, keeping her suspicions out of her voice. “I suppose you’ll be off to recruit the others?”

“Oh no, not at all. We still need to find out what, exactly you can do. Fortunately…there is an army at your doorstep, yes?”

Bast rose, a fraction of a second before Vlad could. “I want some alive.”

“Of course,” he said with a bow. “I’m sure we’ll have plenty to choose from. Shall we?”

“Oh, yes.” Bast turned and walked out of the room, Vlad right behind her.

I wonder if he trusts me as little as I trust him? Bast knew the question didn’t have an answer, not right now, but wouldn’t be surprised if the answer was he trusted her even less.

She pushed the thought aside. It didn’t matter right now. Dealing with the Army mattered, the plan mattered, Cassandra mattered…

And, first and foremost, her Hunger mattered.

Strange Cosmology Part 61

“I hadn’t had my nanoverse for long,” Crystal said, still standing but leaning against the wall. Although her voice was steadier now, each word seemed to come from a great distance, like she had to haul it out of a well before she could say it. “No much…not long. I think I was still Nascent.”

“There were five continents. Did I tell you this, Ryan? I think I told you this.” Ryan opened his mouth to respond, but Dianmu made a shushing motion at him, and he stopped himself. He saw her point – Crystal was on a tightrope right now, and if she fell off, she might lose whatever memory she was pulling on.

“Well, I didn’t tell you, Anansi. I’m sure of that. Lemuria, Atlantis, Mu, Hyperborea, Leng. Six different species, too. The Atlanteans, who were a lot like you lot. Autumn skin colors, only they tended more to the…the reds and golds, you know? Mammals, too. Hyperborea had mammals, but they were big. Probably about twice as tall as me, and dumber than…” She frowned, concentrating. “Dumber than tasz sot chal’tzanna. Means something like dumber than a drunk boulder. Only meaner.”

Ryan could swear there was sweat glistening on her forehead.

“Leng had the two races. One was like octopuses, but with skeletons and hands on the end. The other were like trees that could walk. Mu had..” She frowned, and hit her hand against her leg once. “I don’t remember the people of Mu. I’m the only person alive who saw them, and I can’t remember what they look like. Ain’t that a barrel of piss?”

She didn’t wait for an answer, which was good, because everyone was afraid of breaking the spell that allowed her to get even this much out. “The Lemurians, that was me. We’re…we’re kinda like bird people. I actually used my old shape when I was with a Mesoamerican culture that predated the Aztecs. It was weird walking around people wearing it. Like I was wearing a mask made to look like myself.”

A deep, ragged breath came from between her lips to steady herself. “I didn’t have a mini-pantheon like what we’re becoming. I just had one guy, the god that found me not long after I found my nanoverse, the one who told me what I needed to know. I don’t remember his name in our tongue, any more than I remember my own. But like I’m pretty sure my name meant Crystal, I’m pretty sure his meant King.”

“I was…I think I was fighting a…” She clenched her fists, to the point where her knuckles were starting to turn white. “Damnit damnit damnit. I just had the word. The thing you fought on the moon, Anansi.”

“Szarmic?”

She relaxed and let out a breath. “Right, a Szarmic. I think I was fighting a Szarmic.”

Crystal danced between the beams of the Szarmic for a long as she could, dodging and weaving and ducking. Each time it fired, she saw equations, rules and laws governing the refraction of light and diffusion of heat and firing angles. She’d learned that she could manipulate those equations, but doing so was hard when there were so many and they were coming so fast.

Plus, that wasn’t the point of this.

She landed on one foot (“no, it was a talon, I had talons back then.”) She landed on one talon as the Szarmic stopped its barrage of death. “Really, loves? That’s the best you can throw at me?”  (“I didn’t talk like that back then but I don’t remember how I did.”

“It doesn’t matter, we understand,” Athena reassured her.)

“Hardly the best, Crystal.” The figure behind the control panel was someone important. Someone Crystal cared about who was also important. His face was in shadow. “But we don’t want to hurt you.”

“I told you, I got” (“I died somehow and came back. I don’t…wait, that can’t be right. I would have been nascent. But…ahh, screw it. Bloody sodding screw it. You know the details won’t be all right because I’m not alright right now, right?”

Ryan was the first this time to pick up than she actually needed an answer. “Right. Just tell us what you can remember.”)

“I’ll be fine,” Crystal said. “I can destroy this thing with a thought,”

“But there are things you cannot,” said another figure. This one stepped out of the shadows and Crystal recognized him. King. She’d seen him around…(Crystal frowned, then suddenly spat out with visible excitement. “No, I knew King was a god. That’s right! The gods were open and out in Lemuria, part of life. King ruled the province! That’s how I got on his radar.) “You are the Eschaton, Crystal. You cannot be allowed to die. If you do, unless we are extremely fortunate, the world will die in solar fire.”

“Yeah, yeah. But why waste my time fighting Szarmics?”

“I don’t remember why,” Crystal continued. “I think it had to do with Mu maybe? But anyway, that was the first time I’d seen King. He was…beautiful. I remember that. And smart, and kind. I think things would have gone well with us. He had a family though. Children, fledglings, and they weren’t divine. He wanted nothing more than for them to…he wanted to save them.”

With those last five words, her eyes grew wider, and tears began to form in them again. Inch by agonizing inch, Crystal brought her hands up to her face as she slid down the wall until she was sitting. “Oh. Oh that’s right. I’m so sorry, King.” She looked at them, her eyes wide. “Don’t you see? He wanted to save them.”

The sun pulsed again. A wave of hot wind rolled across the land, fast enough where it nearly knocked even Crystal and King off their feet. Only quick twists to reality kept them both upright. A tree burst into flame nearby. It was a heat burst, and it was near fatal.

The buildings were made of stone with reflective roofs. They would withstand the heat. Their windows were quartz, and they cracked under the blast. The next one would shatter it, shredding the family that sheltered within.

“King! Look!” Crystal pointed at the sky.

The sun, a generally warm and stable G class Orange Dwarf, had swollen to a yellow G class. (“That’s how close it came, oh damn I remember that now. It’s normal now but the sun was smaller and cooler back then.”)

“We’re going to fry, King! It’s too late, we have to do it!”

The air was growing hotter rapidly now, the kind of rapid heating. “I need to find my family, Crystal! I need to find my children!” King’s eyes were wide and darting about madly.

“Your children are dead!” (“Oh no, I actually said that to him. I said that to him because I needed him to listen!”)

Instead of listening, King whirled on her, hitting her with a burst of wind that nearly shattered her ribs. “Shut your mouth, you hideous worm. Shut your damn mouth. You’re going to wait here, and I’m going to find my family.”

Crystal had to pause here to take another series of deep and rough breaths. They almost sounded wheezy, and the sheer desire to go over to comfort her caused him to pull Athena closer. Dianmu did reach for her, but Crystal swatted her hand away. “Need to finish. Can’t lose it.” She gasped, and took a few more breaths before looking around the circle. “What was I supposed to do? I couldn’t…I couldn’t consider his children above the world. I couldn’t consider him above the world. The habitable zone had shifted! I had to…I had to move the world at the same time I killed everyone on it, or no one would live again.”

She tore her gaze away from them, focusing on the fire. “I had to.”

The Globus Mundi pulled up in Crystal’s nanoverse. A map of the entire world. The lush greens of Lemuria and Atlantis, the beautiful icy blues and white of Hyperborea, the crimson jungles of Mu, the strangely beautiful purple plants of Leng. All of it lay out before her. The last eyes that would ever see the world like this.

She remembered what King had told her. The Eschaton has one power no other god has. One gift no other god ever got. They could, just once, twist reality over the entire globe. A single moment where they could change the rules for the entire planet.

She hesitated. (“I was sure…I was positive he’d be along any minute. That he’d come bursting through the door with his children and tell me to pull the trigger on it, yeah? Or even one, even just one sodding child, just so he could have that, so he could know he did everything he could. I would have even been happy if it was just him, realizing all was lost. Does that sound callous? Sod it, it’s what I wanted in that moment. I didn’t want to make the decision alone.”)

No one came. Outside, through the still open doorway, she could hear the screams of a dying world, heating up by a degree every minute she waited.

Any longer, and she’d be saving a boiling hellscape. She gave one last glance for King, but he was not visible, he wasn’t anywhere she could see with the tears fogging her vision.

She closed the door. She couldn’t do it anymore, couldn’t wait any longer.  The Globus Mundi called.

There was only one option left to save the world before it fried. If she accelerated tectonic shift, it would pull every continent under the ocean, down into the mantle, and force new ones up at the same time. The force should be enough to alter Earth’s orbit. If she did it at just the right angle, it would pull it away from the Sun.

“I swear,” she said, looking again once more at the world that lay out before her, greens and blues and white and red and purple. “I swear I’ll never forget you.”

And then, she shifted.

Crystal was pale and shaking at this point. The glisten of sweat Ryan had seen earlier was now beads, and they slid down to join her tears. “I swore I wouldn’t forget. But I did. Everyone…everyone got sucked down beneath the waves, beneath the crust. I think they drowned before they were crushed. I hope to whoever made this sodding universe that they did. But it was so fast…Earth went jolting into a higher orbit, spinning end over end. It’s a miracle the poles stabilized the way they did, although what’s north now was south then. Venus was a jungle world back in my time. There were colonies there, since there wasn’t any intelligent life. If I hadn’t waited…maybe they would have survived.”

She sniffed, wiping at her face. “I keep saying I’m a million years old, but I don’t know how long ago this was. I left, you see. I had to. There were…there were bodies in the ocean. I couldn’t face what I had done. I found a world that was around a black hole. Some place where I told myself an Eschaton hadn’t made the choice I did. A lifeless place. I don’t know how long I was there in my time, and I have no idea how long I was there as far as the rest of, of the universe was concerned. It was so close relativity got me, yeah? I just..” She stared into the fire with hollow eyes, “I wanted to…to fling myself…I killed the world!”

That was it.  She could fight it no longer, and she began to openly weep. Ryan didn’t know which of them moved first, but in an instant they were all with her, hugging her and holding her, and reassuring her.

It took her some time to let the tears dry up, and when they had she thanked them as they withdrew. “That’s why I came back, you see. Long before humans ever started walking this world. Because I knew it was going to happen again, and…and I wasn’t going to let anyone else go through that.” She fixed her gaze on Ryan. “You are not going to go through that, Ryan. You’re going to, to be able to be okay with the choice you make. Promise me. Promise me.

“I promise,” Ryan said, and even though they both knew that it was a promise he couldn’t guarantee, it was enough. Crystal wiped her eyes again, and looked at all of them. “Oh, stop it, all of you. Don’t look at me like I’m some…some fragile little thing. I’ll be fine, once it goes back into memory. I’m just raw right now.”

“I certainly cannot understand how anything in that story would make you feel anything,” Dianmu said, with dryness so intense, it got a choking laugh out of Crystal.

“Ryan didn’t get a turn,” Crystal said, and shook her head. “I hope you won’t be offended if we skip it for now? Or at least I will, loves. I think…I think I need some sleep.”

Anansi looked at Ryan, “Final rule. Your turn to speak, your turn to pass.”

“Huh?” Ryan had almost forgotten the rules of storytelling, so it took him a second to process Anansi’s words. It didn’t take any time at all to decide. “Oh, hell yes, totally. I didn’t have any good stories you all weren’t there for anyway that you haven’t already hear. I was over here wondering how I was going to make the tale of the time I got scared during a play in third grade and I shouted “fuck” at the entire school anywhere near as interesting as those stories. I’m happy to give a pass.”

Crystal’s laugh this time was a bit less strangled. “Thanks, love. All of you…I don’t know how much of that I’ll remember in the morning. I’m…I’m forgetting some of it already. Maybe the parts I made up to fill the gaps. I’m not sure. But…don’t forget it, yeah?”

Ryan pointed to the drone that still hovered nearby. If he listened carefully, he could hear Isabel’s snores over the speaker. “It’s been recorded. We’ll write it down after we’re done here.”

“That’s…that’s good.” And with that, like a marionette with cut string, she slumped the rest of the way to curl into a ball and go to sleep.

Dianmu reached over, gently lifting Crystal’s head and sliding her pack under it.  “She’ll be alright,” she said, as much to herself as to the group.

“Yeah. I guess we should all follow her example and get that last Hunger filled, right?” Ryan asked. Nods came all around, and one by one the gods settled onto the stone floor and fell asleep, after making a last alteration to make the stone beneath them and Crystal as soft as a mattress.

Ryan couldn’t fall asleep right away. He stared at the ceiling above him, feeling the aches of the earlier injuries in full without the distraction.

He couldn’t help but wonder if he would have been able to do it. If it had been Crystal out there, and he was in the nanoverse, and the world needed to end. Or if it had been Isabel. Or Athena. Any of those thoughts made him want to cry himself.

One final thought drifted across his mind as sleep finally claimed him.

I hope I never need to find out if I can keep that promise.

Strange Cosmology Part 60

“It was the time before story, the time before myth,” Anansi began, his voice gaining rich undertones that seemed to resonate in Ryan’s bones. He leaned in to the fire, and Ryan felt himself draw in as well. “There were a people who hunted and gathered across the world, for back then the world was much smaller than it is now.”

“The people did not have a name, because they did not know of other people. They were just ‘the people.’ They would later become the Akan, and they would found the kingdom of Ghana, they furthers west of the great kingdoms noted by Bilad el-Sudan. Their descendants number twenty million, not counting those taken to the New World. But in this time, these were just the people, and their number was only a thousand.”

Athena leaned in and rested her head on Ryan’s shoulder. He leaned back to rest his head on hers as Anansi continued.

“Among the people, there was a young man. As is common with young men, this young man believed he was invincible. Unlike other young men, he did not seek to prove his invincibility with feats of strength or by hunting the great and dangerous beasts of the world or by engaging in combat to show his might. This young man knew he was not the best in any of those. What he was best at,” and here Anansi gestured, and the fire began to change shape, rising until it looked like a tree, “was climbing.”

“This young man could climb like no other, and sought to prove that at every chance he got. Every tree they saw, this young man would challenge any and all to climbing. He would race of the trees and gather eggs to feed the people, and so was often taken on hunts, even though he was a poor hunter. While the other young men hunted, he would climb the trees and gather eggs, and if the hunt was poor, he at least would always have food.”

“Then one hunt, the people went further than they ever had before, chasing a herd of…” Anansi frowned for only half a moment, and with a gesture he shaped the fire again, this time forming it into the appearance of something like the cross of a hornless rhino and a giraffe, with thick skin and legs but a neck almost as half as long as its body. “I do not remember what they were called, and modern man has not yet found their bones to give them names. They were dangerous prey and had to be worn down, but a single one would feed many of the people.”

“Their hunt took them to something the young man who climbed had never seen before. It was a vast slab of stone on its side that rose high into the sky, higher than any tree could ever hope to reach!” Anansi chuckled. “Truly, the young man had never seen anything higher than that. He had to climb it. The other young men egged him on, but they didn’t need to. As soon as the young man saw it, he knew it must be climbed. In your tongues, you call them cliffs, but at the time the people had no word for them. When the people became the Akan and spread far enough to live beneath the cliffs, the young man made his home there.”

“So he did, climbing rock and stone as swiftly as he could. For the young men below, they could not see many of the hand holds he grabbed, so to them it looked like he was sticking to the rock face. By the time he was halfway up, he had been given a new name, a name that would stick with him the rest of his life.”

“That name was Ananse, which later became Anansi. In the language of the people, it meant spider.”

Ryan smiled at the warmth in Anansi’s voice. The story had a familiarity to it in his voice, and watching Anansi tell it was like watching someone settle into a comfortable, familiar chair after a long day on their feet. For once, Ryan didn’t want to ask any questions. “On top of that cliff, the young man found a stone. That stone was also an egg and it was also a universe. As soon as the young man stared into the stone, he could see the stars envelop him, and with that he became something more, although he wouldn’t learn of what he truly was until much later, when the Akan were visited by a goddess of love and war.”

Crystal nodded her head in acknowledgement of the reference.

“With the stone, the young man could open a hole to a field that could take him anywhere on the world. He sought the highest places there were. Cliffs like what he had climbed before. A great canyon on a land across the sea. A mountain so high, the young man learned he did not need air when he reached the top. During his travels, he learned he would not age, and that even if he fell he would heal from any injury, even death. The young man realized he was, in fact, invincible. He would always return to the people, however, and he would tell them stories.”

“The people noticed the young man never aged, and they met others like the young man who were eternal. They called these men and women abosom. The people believed the universe was created by a god they called by many names, one of which was Nyame. Since this young man was the first of the abosom the people had met, they honored him by making one of the names of Nyame to be Anansi Kokuroku, the great spider.”

“The young man, in his travels, met other abosom. They went by other names in other lands, and they fascinated the young man, who at this point was not so young. He told the people, who at this point were the Akan, stories of these distant people and these strange abosom. Because the young man told so many stories, they named him keeper of stories, and at one point he memorized all the stories of the Akan and of every culture he met. He held all the stories in the world.”

Dianmu gave Anansi a brief smile of thanks. It seemed she’d been as curious about that as Ryan had been.

“The young man Anansi was almost as happy as he could be. He even taught other abosom the wisdom of the people, the Akan, although since he preferred to teach with games he had rigged to win, they often did not appreciate it, and called him trickster for it. But that was not why the young man was not as happy as he could be. There was one thing that he lacked.”

“Among the other abosom, the young man Anansi was not the strongest. He was not the cleverest, although he was very clever.” Athena interrupted with a snort of laughter at the lack of humility, “He was not the wisest, although he was very wise. And before too long, there were too many stories for him to hold them all, so he could not be the abosom who held all the stories in the world. There was nothing about the young man Anansi that was unique. There was nothing he could claim that another abosom could not claim.”

“So the young man Anansi sought something no other abosom had done. Some feat that would set him apart from all others. And after travelling as far as he could, after speaking to ever abosom he could find – from the Aesir to the Tuatha Dé Danann to the Yaoi to the Kami to the Deva to the First Spirits – and among them all he found one task none had completed.”

“None had ever climbed to the moon. So the young man Anansi decided that would be what made him unique, that would be what would set him apart. He would be the first of the abosom to climb to the moon.”

“Using his magic field he was able to make it easily. It almost disappointed the young man to step onto the lunar plain. It was grey and lifeless and empty of even air. He had done it, but what use was it? There was no story here on this grey and lifeless world without even air. Or so he thought.”

“Then he saw a tree.”

Ryan looked at Crystal, who shrugged, and at Dianmu, who didn’t notice as Anansi leaned back. The flame shifted again, this time taking the form of this tree Anansi had found. Only it wasn’t a tree, although Ryan could see how you’d think so without a frame of reference. 

“This tree was like no other tree the young man Anansi had ever seen. Its leaves were as black as obsidian and flat and shone in the sun. Its branches were great bowls with tiny, thin branches coming out of them. Its bark reflected light. The young man Anansi would later learn the bark was called metal, and much later would lean the bowls were called antenna, and much later after that learn the black leaves were called solar panels.”

“But at the time, the young man Anansi could only see it at as a tree. And at the base of that tree, a great beast slumbered. This great beast was, like the tree, unlike Anansi had ever seen. Its skin was the same as the bark of the tree. Its legs numbered eight, like the spider Anansi was named for. It had four heads. The great beast awoke as young Anansi approached, and it spoke to him, but the tongue it spoke was not the tongue of any of the peoples young Anansi had spoken to. Anansi tried to greet it in the language of the Akan.”

“The great best did not like the speech of the Akan, or perhaps it did not like young Anansi. It answered young Anansi by belching bolts of sunlight so powerful they fried the head of young Anansi, and he died on the moon.”

Anansi shifted his hand again and the fire shifted with it, taking the form of the monster Anansi had described. Crystal let out another gasp, and Ryan thought there was a word in that sound. “Szarmic.”

Anansi paused to look at her, but Crystal motioned for him to continue, muttering, “Later,” as she did. He nodded and continued. “Young Anansi would later learn these heads were cannons, and much later would learn this sunlight was called laser. Because young Anansi could not die, not even from having his fool head burned away by sunlight. He returned to the people, for he was powerfully Hungry after regrowing his fool head. But young Anansi could not let himself be defeated. So he returned to the moon, and to the tree that shone in the sun, and the great beast that could fire sunlight from its four heads.”

“He died again, of course.” He grinned at the laughs that got.

“Young Anansi was stubborn, so he returned after feasting again. And again. And again. And yet again, until his deaths numbered seven. The elements young Anansi knew were uncooperative on the moon. Anansi realized that on the moon, in the great beast’s lair, he could never win. So he became clever. When he went back to the moon next, he did not try to fight the great beast. He did not even answer it when the great beast spoke that strange tongue. Instead, he stole the great beasts tree, and he ran. He ran back to Earth and there he planted the strange tree of the great beast, and then he waited.”

“As young Anansi thought, the great beast was protecting the tree that shone in the son, and it chased Anansi. Instead of chasing Anansi through his great plain that he got from his black stone, it chased him by leaping into the empty sea between the moon and Earth, and it flew across that void by spitting its sunlight at the moon.”

“They battled when it got to the world, but here young Anansi was with his elements. Nature sung with him, and Anansi was able to draw the great beast to a lake. Young Anansi lured the great beast to spit the sunlight at him when young Anansi dove beneath the waves, and a great cloud of steam emerged.”

“This is what young Anansi wanted. He had thought of how mist makes sight harder, and since sight needs sunlight, mist must block sunlight. The mist also blocked the spit sunlight of the great beast, and with that shield the beast’s own sunlight had made for him, young Anansi was finally able to fell the great beast, spilling its guts that sparked with lightning.”

“And that is the story of how young Anansi, who was never a great hunter, defeated his first great beast, the creature that hid on the moon and guarded the tree that shone in the sun. From that story, the Akan learned that there would always be someone stronger than even the abosom, but none would ever be cleverer than Anansi.”

He gestured at the flame, letting it turn back into a ball, and leaned forward with a smile. “For you see, young Anansi did not tell the Akan of his seven deaths on the moon.”

Even with another bout of laughter, it took a moment for Ryan to realize the story was over, and he had to shake himself awake. It was like he was coming out of a dream. Athena sat up a bit straighter, although when Ryan went to move his arm she leaned back into it. “Wow,” he said after a moment.

“And thus you learn another rule of storytelling, Ryan: the greatest compliment is not question or applause, but the silence of thought.”

“I…can’t argue that,” he said, glancing around. Dianmu, who hadn’t spoken yet, was looking at Crystal.

Crystal was crying, silent tears that shone in the firelight. Anansi followed Ryan’s gaze and saw Crystal, frowning. “Crystal…” Anansi said, his voice low and comforting.

“The szarmic. I remember it.” She looked at Anansi, blinking away the tears as she did. “I remember. It was a war machine, one of Lemurian design.” She took a deep breath. “I’d like to go next, Anansi. I think I have a story. One I had forgotten. Forgotten so thoroughly I’m not even sure how true it is. But I think it has truth to it, yeah?”

Anansi nodded, and Crystal wiped her face, standing as she did. Her voice cracked as first as she spoke, although it gained strength with every word. “This is a story I knew I had but I’d lost long ago. I’d lost it so long ago I stopped caring that I couldn’t remember the story, because I had the important details. I thought. But now that I remember it – or a version of it – I have to tell it before it’s forgotten again.” She looked around the circle, until her gaze reached Ryan, where it stopped. The look in her eyes…Ryan had never imagined those eyes could hold such pain, and in that instant Crystal looked to be every one of her million years.

“This is the story of how I killed the world.”

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Strange Cosmology Part 59

“Mine doesn’t go back nearly as far as Athena’s,” Dianmu said. She still stood, her gaze not focused on the fire but going from person to person around the campfire. “I’d like to instead tell a story from not that long ago. It begins in nineteen thirty-seven.”

Ryan involuntarily sucked in air, drawing Dianmu’s attention. “Not a great year,” he said, his voice low.

Instead of looking annoyed, Dianmu gave him a small smile. “No, it was not. Although it was paled by far darker years to come. I wasn’t unaware of the conflict brewing in Europe, but I was much more focused on events far closer to home.”  She shrugged slightly. “I think, if I had known what was going on in Europe truly, I would have joined the theomachy going on over there.”

“Theomachy?” Ryan asked.

She nodded. “A war among gods, the last big one. One fought with more secrecy than previous ones, a war that started in Europe and spilled out into the planes beyond.”

“It kept us busy for most of the second World War,” Crystal added, giving Dianmu a curious look. “I always wondered where you were during all that, love.”

“Well, allow me to remove that wonder. I was in my homeland, during the second Sino-Japanese war. But I wasn’t fighting a war, not in the normal sense. I was avenging a murder.”

“Who?” Athena asked, quietly.

“My husband, Lei Gong. His long standing feud with Raijin across the Sea of Japan had finally come to blows. Again. But this time, Raijin was not satisfied with winning the fight. Upon Lei Gong’s death, he took his nanoverse…and shattered it.”

No one made a sound, but the sympathy that came washing from them had a near audible force. Ryan could see on the faces of the others that, even though he did feel for Dianmu’s loss, it struck them much more personally. Dianmu nodded. “So, even though for four thousand years I had let my husband have his personal war and stayed out of it, Raijin had proved he would commit the ultimate act. I couldn’t let him live after that. So I sought him out.”

The other gods settled back to listen.

In four millenia, Dianmu had never known pain like this. She’d suffered loss, she’d endured injury, she’d mourned friends. But though it all, there had been one constant. Lei Gong had been by her side every step of the way. No other divine marriage she had heard of had lasted as long as theirs.

And now he was gone. She didn’t even have his body.

She had gone to the Jade Emperor and made her case. She had pointed out that Raijin had violated an ancient taboo, and he must be punished. She’d appealed to his logic, to his reason, to his sense of honor. She’d even appealed to his heart at the end, breaking down in tears of rage and all but begging him for justice.

Ane he had been unmoved. The pantheons stood on the edge of a Theomachy, and the Jade Emperor would not grant her aid for fear of it being the catalyst that set all out divine war in motion.

She would get no aid in hunt.

The one boon he had granted her, the only consolation, was that he would not forbid her from seeing justice herself.

I wonder if that was because he honestly believes I should, she thought with a bitter note to the thought, or if he doesn’t think it’s worth the effort to stop me.

It didn’t matter, not really. What mattered more than anything else was finding Raijin and making him pay. Somehow. The problem was, in their four thousand years, she and Lei Gong had always been equals. And Raijin had never lost to Lei Gong, not once in four thousand years.

“As I hunted, as my grief began to ebb, I realized that I couldn’t best him, not in brute strength. That was why Lei Gong had always lost to him – their battles were always in terms of raw power. I had to be smarter than him.”

Dianmu fell quiet for a moment, her gaze at the fire having turned sad some time before. “That’s why I initially appealed to the Jade Emperor for aid. If any of the other deities would join me, even one, I’d be able to take the fight to Raijin and win.”

“So you weren’t looking for an honorable fight?” Athena asked, her voice without judgement.

Dianmu sniffed. “Raijin had murdered my husband. I wanted his head on a spear that I could shove into a pile of cow shit until it lost its humor value.”

Athena gave her a savage smile. “I understand completely.” Ryan glanced at Crystal, who nodded in agreement. They both were certain she was thinking of Tyr.

“It sounds like you faced quite a problem,” Anansi commented, leaning forward. “If you could not best him in direct confrontation, it sounds like your options are limited.”

“I mean – if I can interrupt for a second? There’s something I don’t understand,” Ryan asked, glancing at Dianmu.

She smiled, and Ryan noticed the damp glimmer to her eyes. “Since Anansi is insisting you learn each lesson as it comes, that is the third rule. A story should always be interrupted if comprehension is lost.”

“Alright. How can you be certain you couldn’t beat Raijin? We all operate pretty close to the same power, right?”

“Normally, yes. But Raijin frequently engaged in sacrifice. That’s how he got his reputation for eating children, you see.”

“Ah,” Ryan said, wincing at the thought. “Okay, fair enough.”

Dianmu checked his face for comprehension, then continued. “So I needed to find a way to beat him, but I couldn’t rely on overpowering him. I needed a plan. And on my way to finally confront him, I thought I had one.”

The cliff where Raijin made his home would have been nightmarish for a mortal. For Dianmu, twisting reality slightly as she climbed when her divine strength wasn’t enough, it was merely annoying.

Raijin’s castle atop the mountain was a testament to his arrogance. It was balanced precariously on the edge of a cliff that should have buckled under the castle’s weight. Only modifications made using Raijin’s power allowed it to stay in place.

“Raijin!” She shouted once it was in sight, amplifying her voice to the point where it shook the valley below. “We have business, and I have a grievance that must be addressed.”

A howl of wind answered her, and Raijin can soaring out of a window, riding a cloud made solid so he could stand on it. He was hideous in appearance, which hadn’t always been uncommon, although these days it had faded into irrelevance. But once upon a time, many gods loved to wear monstrous or demonic forms to make sure mortals knew exactly what they were.

Raijin had not abandoned that tradition. He was, in many ways, old fashioned like that. Keeping a monster form, living in a castle on a cliff in a secluded valley,

“Dianmu,” Raijin hissed. “I’m not surprised. Although you could have knocked.”

“You murdered Lei Gong. You murdered my husband. You destroyed his nanoverse. Did you think I would show up asking for your hospitality?

“I suppose not,” Raijin sighed. “So this is it, then? You and me, a battle to the death? Seems very…unnecessary. My battle was with your husband, not you.”

“I have a dispensation from the Jade Emperor. A chance for you to balance the scales. Not a battle to the death. A competition. Three tasks. If I win all three, you will allow me to slay you. If you win all three, my life is yours to do with what you will. Should either loose any one task, we will try all three again the next day, until there is a winner.”

Raijin scratched his chin, studying her for a moment. “And should I decline this generous offer?”

“Then the forces of Heaven will descend upon you for your transgression and the destruction of a nanoverse.”

“Ah. Well, when you put it that way…shall we begin?”

“The first task was to snatch a gnat out of the air. A simple one, but one I had practiced on the way to his home. The second was a dance, perfectly done, and one I had memorized long ago. Two tasks I was sure I would win at first. The third was a race to the end of the valley. This task I had no hope of winning, because he was more powerful. He could simply bend time to favor him and would never fail in this one.” Dianmu stretched her shoulders as she continued.

“For twenty one days we did these three tasks. By the end of the first week, he could best me in catching the gnat. By the twentieth day, he could do the dance without error.”

“On the twenty first day, I made an error in the dance. He had already caught the gnat first, and then it was time for the race, the one I had never won. That day, we both twisted time as we ran, but he was more powerful. He bested me easily, reaching the end of the valley before I did. He turned around, ready to gloat, to boast how he had won.”

She paused here, and Ryan couldn’t help himself. “And then?”

Her face broke into a satisfied smile. “And then the artillery batteries that I had moved into position opened fire. After twenty one days of manipulating time, with no rest to recharge his hungers. Raijin was absolutely spent, had no energy left to defend himself, and was unfamiliar with artillery. I will forever savor the look of surprise on his face as he was blown to pieces.”

“Ha!” Crystal said, her voice glowing with reflected triumph. “Oh, that’s bloody brilliant. Well done.”

Ryan opened his mouth, then closed it again. Dianmu gave him a raised eyebrow. “Almost violated the rule. I’m supposed to let you choose when the story ends.”

“Well remembered, Ryan. But it’s fine, I know the question. I did destroy his nanoverse, gave him the same fate he had given Lei Gong. And after that, I retreated from the world to grieve. By the time I learned what was happening in the world, it was over.”

“Well, I’m glad you did. He had it coming, and it sounds like Raijin would be working with Moloch if he was still alive.”

Dianmu laughed at that. “Oh yes, he would have. The world was much better off without him.”

The laughter died down, and Dianmu settled back into her seat. “Now then. You delayed before, old spider, but I would like to hear your story next. Whichever one it might be.”

Anansi gave her a seated bow. “Then I will be happy to share, after that lovely tale of revenge.” He leaned forward, taking his turn to stare into the fire for a moment.

“My story begins long ago, before mankind had built cities or farms. My story is of the first monster I ever slew…”

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Strange Cosmology Part 58

Injuries were bandaged and food was passed around.  Isabel had gone to sleep, but made them promise to leave one of the drones running so she could hear the stories later on.  With a gesture Athena created a ball of flame that hovered just above the floor, crackling in a good facsimile of a campfire. “It didn’t seem right to tell stories without one,” she said, a ghost of a smile crossing her face as she did.

Anansi folded his legs into a lotus position as he did. “You are absolutely correct. And I am a bit of an authority on the subject.”

“Why’s that?” Ryan asked, leaning with his back against a wall next to Athena. The warmth of the fire washed over him, tickling a memory of hot dogs and s’mores around the fire pit in his parent’s back yard.

“At one point, I held all the world’s stories.” Anansi winked at Ryan.

“Right,” Ryan said, rolling his eyes with a smile. “I know how what we can do works, and somehow holding onto the concept of “stories” isn’t in our abilities.”

“No, it is not. And yet, I still did.”

“Sounds like we have our first story, then.” Dianmu was settling into her spot next to Crystal. She folded her legs like Anansi had. Crystal was leaning back against the wall, too engrossed in her protein bar to comment yet.

“I’m not sure that’s the story I want to tell yet,” Anansi said, his eyes sparkling. “Besides, I’ve long wished to hear one of the stories of Pallas Athena.” Athena raised an eyebrow at her name and Anansi continued, “So many stories about you, yet I’ve never heard one by you.”

“Well, in the interest of not passing responsibility for starting, I guess I will go first.” She leaned forward, pulling up her knees so she could rest her hands on them. “However, If you think I’ll be telling a story you’ve already heard, but from my point of view, then I’ll have to disappoint you.”

“Drat,” Ryan said, “I was half hoping for the truth behind the Iliad or the Odyssey or something.”

“We do want time to get some sleep in, love,” Crystal chimed in, finally swallowing the last bite.

Athena smiled. “True. Perhaps another time.” Although her gaze was fixed on the fire, it seemed to see far past the flames. Her voice started hesitant, although it gained strength as she spoke. “It was just after the rise of Julius Caesar, so I was going by Minerva then.” Around her, everyone settled in to listen. “It was a rough century – Athens had been sacked, Rome had lost its republic – I always believed in democracy, so watching it fall apart again was hard. And there had been the Punic Wars which had ended not one hundred years before-”

“Sorry about that, love,” Crystal interjected.

Athena shrugged. “It is past. But I needed a change of scenery; I needed to get a fresh perspective. So I went to Empyrean Provocation, with every intention of meeting some god or goddess from another world to head elsewhere in the universe for a bit. Instead…I met Thoth.” She smiled at the fire and continued.

Minerva sighed in relief as she stepped onto the platform overlooking Empyrean Provocation, stretching her shoulders as she did. “Athena!” Someone shouted, and she had to remind herself that most beings here wouldn’t know she’d changed her name. Her eyes found the speaker.

“Thoth!” she said, making her way towards him. In truth, had he not being wearing his hieroglyph as a necklace, she wouldn’t have recognized him. Not without his ibis head. And I’m so glad the fashion of shifting to have the head of an animal fell out of fashion. “It’s Minerva now, by the way.”

Thoth smiled. “Noted. Well, Minerva – it’s been some time.”

“It has been,” she said, frowning as she did. “In fact…I honestly don’t recall ever actually meeting you. Seeing you, of course, but not actually meeting.”

“Well, I’m honored you remember me,” he responded with a bow. “Especially because you’re just the kind of goddess I’m looking for.”

Minerva felt her smile tighten. “Unfortunately, Thoth, you’re not the kind of god I’m looking for right now.”

“Too Egyptian?” he asked, nonplussed. Ever since the conquest of Egypt by Alexander and the installation of the Polemic dynasty, the gods of Egypt and those of Greece had undergone some strained relations.

“Too Earthly,” she correct with a shrug. “I’m looking to get away for a while, and don’t want to get drawn into…whatever it is you’re looking to draw someone in to.”

“How can you be sure before I’ve even told you what I want to do?” Thoth said, his smile returning.

“Does it involve humans in any way, shape, or form?” her voice was cool.

“It does, but-“

“Then unless the humans are on another world, I’m certain I’m not interested.” She studied his face, watching his smile grow even wider. “It does involve humans on another world, doesn’t it?”

Thoth nodded and leaned in to explain…

“You see,” Athena continued, still giving the fire that small smile, “there were a group of gods that had survived their world’s last Eschaton. Without their people to keep them busy, they’d gone a bit mental, and started abducting members of races from across the cosmos to put onto a hodgepodge world they’d built together. Sort of a…” she groped for the term.

“…a people zoo?” Ryan prompted, and Athena chuckled.

“Not quite. More like a people preservation. They wanted to save members from every species from the end of their respective worlds, whenever that came.”

Anansi shrugged. “That doesn’t seem too bad, no.”

“Oh, it wasn’t. They had one problem, however.” Athena shook her head in the fire. “They’d put two dozen races on it…and then left with no explanation. It had fallen to war pretty much immediately.”

“So Thoth wanted to, what, rescue the humans?” Crystal asked.

“I actually asked him almost the same thing.” Athena said, “but that wasn’t the problem. The problem was, they were conquering the other species, and the gods that had brought them there thought that maybe human gods could get them to stop.”

The world was a bit cooler than the Mediterranean climates the two gods were used to, and Minerva drew her robe tighter around herself as they wound through a mountain pass. “I don’t still don’t understand why they need us for this, Thoth. Surely they have the power to put a stop to it.”

“Ahhh, that’s where the confusion lies. It’s not about power – they don’t want to use brute force. They don’t believe in causing harm any more. Even to prevent harm to others.”

Minerva sniffed at the thought. “Strange gods, then. But really, how bad could it…oh my.”

They’d round the bend and before them stretched the Valley of Humanity. Or, as the other species had begun to call it, the Valley of Terror.

In the few generations they’d been here, the humans – who had been gathered from around the globe – had overcome their language barriers and built a thriving city. The city was made out of a black stone unique to this alien world, and its walls were carved with a pidgin script that had arisen from their native tongues. The warnings were clear “We are Humanity. Bow Before Us or Break Upon Us.”

Humans walked freely in and out of the gates of that great city, but other species passed through it in chains or on carts. The ones that passed on carts were not moving.

“Hubris,” Minerva said as she began to stride forward, drawing a staff out of her nanoverse, “pure, unadulterated hubris. Shall we teach them the error in that?”

Thoth cracked his neck and reached into his own nanoverse, pulling out a staff of his own. “By all means, lead on.”

Minerva did, reaching out to bring an earthquake into existence under the city’s battlements as she did.

“What’d you do?” Ryan asked, leaning forward.

Athena chuckled. “We cracked their walls and then…just stood there. For five days, we let them throw everything they had at us. Catapults and ballistae bolts and arrows and spearmen and anything they could muster. We just stood there and defended, not taking a single life, until finally they sent out an emissary to ask us what we wanted.”

“Did they listen?” Dianmu had mostly been silent during the story, but she had her own half smile at the thought.

“Oh yes. For the two hundred years Thoth and I were together, we would check up on them regularly to make sure they were behaving. No more conquest or war except for defense or to protect an ally. They declared us the gods of their city, so I can say I’m one of the few of us to have been worshipped on two words simultaneously.”

“That’s quite an accomplishment,” Anansi said, and gave Athena a slight bow. “Thank you for that. I never expected a story that I had not only not heard, but never imagined.”

Athena preened a bit, and Ryan smiled as he asked, “So what are they up to now? Formed a big egalitarian society of multiple species?”

Athena shook her head. “Sadly, the gods that made that world eventually gave in to age and let their nanoverses undergo heat death. Without their powers to maintain it…” she shrugged. “The world hadn’t had an atmosphere before they did their work. Without them, the sun stripped it away in a matter of months.”

“Damn,” Crystal said, frowning. “Shame about that.”

Ryan winced slightly. “Sorry for ruining the mood there.”

Athena shrugged and Anansi smiled at Ryan. “The first rule of a story circle. Always let the teller choose where the story ends.”

“There are rules?” Ryan said, glad that the topic had been changed from that rather depressing epilogue.

“Oh yes,” Anansi nodded, and Ryan could see the others agreeing with him. “But I think it is better for you to learn them by experience.”

“You would,” Ryan said without rancor, then looked around. “Alright then, since I’m learning the rules, who goes next?”

“Second rule,” Anansi said, directing his attention towards Athena again, “She told last story, so she gets to choose next to tell.”

Athena scanned the group, her eyes settling on Dianmu. “I feel like I barely know you. I’d love to hear one of your tales.”

Dianmu gave her a slight nod of acknowledgement. “Then I’ll be happy to be the next to speak.” She stood up and stretched, wincing at her injuries as she did. Then with a gesture, she turned Athena’s flame blue.

“And I know exactly what story I should tell.”

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Strange Cosmology Part 57

Isabel covered her mouth to stifle a yawn. The last several twists and turns in the Labyrinth had been uneventful – mostly chatter between the four gods and her brother. Five gods, Isabel. He counts as one too. She strongly suspected that, if she got her own nanoverse and lived to be ten thousand with him, it would never feel natural to think of him as anything other than her brother.

During the last two hallways, the chatter had died down till all five were walking in silence. Isabel flicked on the radio. “Everything okay down there?”

Ryan raised a thumbs-up. “Just wondering when we’re going to get hit next. How’re you holding up?”

“Starting to drift,” Isabel said, rubbing her eyes. Bouncing back and forth between all the screens was more draining than she had expected it to be. “The drones have another two hours of battery life before they’ll need you all to recharge them, but I don’t think I have quite that much left. Might lay down for a bit and get some shut eye soon.”

Crystal turned to face one of the cameras. “Fair enough, love. We’ve got an intersection coming up though – think you can hold on long enough to check down both paths a bit?”

Isabel nodded, then realized that none of them could see her. “Sure thing.” They didn’t want to do it on every intersection, it would be a waste of time, but they’d started having her check ahead every third or fourth turn.

She grabbed the joystick she was using when manually piloting the drones and selected a pair. Their controls would be inverted, so right for one would be left for another, letting her fly them both with a single push of the stick. The left hand path, in this case, was another long stretch of empty hallway. The right hand path, on the other hand…was also a long stretch of empty hallway. She returned the drones to their follow mode. “Nothing. Again. I don’t suppose that boredom is one of the tests you all have to pass?”

Anansi chuckled at that. “Oh, if only. Then we’d just need time to get through it.”

“Yeah, we should be so-“ Isabel cut herself off, halting drone four. “Wait, hang on. I’ve got something to the right. Missed it on the way out.”

“What is it?” Dianmu asked.

“Flying in for a closer look.” She slowly guided the drone down closer to the floor. “It’s a blade in the floor. But if I fly the drone around to the other side of it, it’s gone. Like it’s only visible from one side.” She panned the camera further down the hallway. “There are a lot of them,” she added.

“That would have been…unpleasant” Dianmu said, as Ryan shuffled his feet at the thought. “Well, Athena, you are the expert – should we head that way?”

Athena considered the question, chewing her lip in thought. “Yes,” she said. “The correct path always covers dangers, so the more we face, the more likely we are to be going the correct way.”

“And this one’s easy to bypass, yeah?” Crystal said, waving her hand. The gods nodded to each other, although as far as Isabel could see she’d just made a gesture.

“Alright,” Isabel said, her head drooping as she did. “I’m gonna…I’m gonna be a mortal for like eight hours, take care of those silly mortal needs and such. You all be safe, okay?”

Ryan gave her a thumbs up and then stepped on invisible steps of air, walking down the hallways a good six feet above it. Isabel pulled back from her monitors and went to take care of the pesky side of being mortal, fighting to stay awake as she did.

Crystal had set up facilities for her in her staging area, and Isabel made use of them. She started to head towards the bed…and then was abruptly pulled awake as she saw what lay in it. Fear gave her a jolt of adrenaline as she raced out to the monitors.

Isabel screamed and raced back towards the monitors. “Guys! There’s a skeleton! In Crystal’s nanoverse! In the bed!”

They all froze, looking at the drones…and suddenly Crystal started laughing. “Oh, bloody hell. I completely forgot. I’m so sorry Isabel!”

“You forgot about a skeleton in your bed?

The question only made Crystal laugh harder. “Crystal, are you alright?” Ryan asked, his voice tight with worry.

“It’s…sod it. It’s Reshaph, reforming! I left his bloody nanoverse in my staging area.”

The other gods starting grinning as well, except Ryan, who was frowning, and Isabel, whose heart was still pounding. “Well, where am I supposed to sleep then?”

“You can use my nanoverse,” Ryan said. “I think there’s still a bed formed.”

“Sorry about that, love,” Crystal added, finally getting her laughter under control. “It’ll still be a few days since he’s all in one piece. You might want to put a sheet over him before he gets to the organs and muscles and gross parts.”

“Yeah,” Isabel said faintly. “I will. But not now…I’m up for the next couple hours after that fright. How’s the air-walking going?”

“About halfway done,” Ryan said. “Just a matter of-“

Whatever it was a matter of, Ryan was cut off after Anansi let out a shout of pain as his foot began to sprout a red fountain.

Ryan had been looking at the drone while talking – it seemed rude to not try and make eye contact – so he didn’t immediately register Anansi’s shout. He did, however, notice the drone start to wobble, and felt something tug at his sleeve where a nice neat slit had formed.

“Run!” Crystal shouted, leaning down to grab Anansi under the arm. Ryan went for the other arm and the group as a whole began to dash down the hallway.

The razor sharp blades were shooting out of the floor, only glinting when behind them and therefore visible. The drones were taking a beating, although it seemed Ryan’s alterations were holding.

The actual people, however, were faring worse for it. Anansi was not the only one to take a blade through the foot – Dianmu and Athena got caught there as well, and Ryan took one directly through his free hand, drawing a hiss of pain. Crystal managed to avoid getting hit in hand or foot, but one of the blades went through her bicep and all of them were getting grazed along their skin.

“Not much further!” Isabel shouted over the speakers. “Just another ten feet!”

They were slowing down. Ryan stumbled, almost dropping Anansi in the process, when another blade embedded itself in his heel. The barrage was relentless, and the slower they went, the more cuts they took.

“C’mon!” Crystal was shouting, tugging on Anansi to pull them along. One of the blades had lodged itself in her calf now, and it glinted as she moved.

Dianmu rolled the last four feet in a single motion, whirling around as she did. Ryan glanced over his shoulder to see what she was looking at – the blades were turning in the air, moving to come down on them. The adrenaline of that sight gave him the push he needed to pull across the last few steps, and Athena limped across at the same time he, Crystal, and Anansi stumbled through.

With the blades mere feet away, Dianmu raised her hand and made a rapid twist. The air between them and the oncoming blades collapsed into a wall of iron, and although the blades struck it – at several points punching halfway through – none of them came all the way pass to cut them to ribbons.

That being done, Dianmu joined them in collapsing to the ground as Isabel guided the drones over the top.

“Damnit!” Ryan shouted to the air, pain and frustration mixing in his voice. “Is this going to be the whole thing! Damn ‘gotcha’ traps we couldn’t have possibly expected!?”

No one answered right away, although they were starting to rise and bandage their wounds.

“I don’t think so,” Athena said, after a moment. “I think that we’ll see less of that as we get deeper. I think the entire first segment has become the test of Body – the skeleton tested our battle prowess, the blades tested our reflexes.”

Ryan nodded at that. “Good. I’m ready to be done with the bullshit.” He sat up and started dressing his own wounds with scraps of his shirt.

“Good thing you reinforced the packs,” Crystal said with a laugh. “I don’t fancy finishing this maze in rags.” She looked at the tatters they were all wearing, “Hell, at this point, we’d be lucky to end in the nude.”

A few weary chuckles came at the thought. “We should take care of some Hungers,” Anansi said, “and rest for a time to give our wounds time to heal.”

“I’m down for that,” Ryan said, glancing around. “Although if you’re suggesting we take care of the Social one the quick and dirty way, I’m gonna want Isabel to turn off the drones.”

“Oh my god ew,” Isabel said over the speakers, and Ryan could practically see the disgusted face she’d be making.

Anansi laughed through his pain at that. “I think, if nothing else, we shouldn’t leave ourselves vulnerable like that.”

“Then what did you have in mind?” Dianmu asked, finishing wrapping cloth around her last cut and turning to aid Crystal.

“Once we’re patched up? I think we should fill the Social need in the second oldest way there is. Telling stories.”

Ryan finished applying a cloth to a cut that had come dangerously close to his femoral artery. He shuddered at the thought of what would have happened had it been slightly to the right. “I think,” he said, turning to assist Anansi, “that would be an excellent idea.”

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Strange Cosmology Part 56

Bast stretched as she woke up. As far as military beds went, this one was fairly comfortable, if utilitarian. Much like the room; the walls lacked any kind of adornment, the rug was a light grey that was only distinguishable from dirty because it was so uniformly colored. It was larger than where less important people than the Admiral had slept, but beyond that it wasn’t all that different. She clambered to her feet, rubbing the back of her neck as she did.

It had been literal millennia since she’d needed to sleep except to fill a Hunger, but just like the need for hearts was now omnipresent, so was a lethargy that crept in with time. She hoped the effect was temporary, but remembered Vlad’s daytime torpors. For now, drawing power directly from her nanoverse could delay that, but she didn’t want to push herself unless there was an active crisis.

A burst of gunfire came from outside the complex, and Bast rolled her eyes. A crisis actually deserving of my attention, she amended.

Apparently, the United States Navy became concerned when it lost contact with a top secret facility for a full day. It became downright alarmed when their initial attempts to send people in had resulted in further lost contact. So outside her new base of operations was now a force of US Marines, trying to figure out how to punch through the barrier she had erected around the complex.

Since the entire stock of ichor bullets was within these walls, Bast didn’t like their chances. She’d used a trick Enki had learned from Crystal on that damn island in Canada, manipulating lava flows into a solid stone dome. She’d added her own twist to change the chemical composition of the stone into iron, and the result was sturdy enough to keep the military at bay for now.

Eventually they’d grow impatient, start using explosives to punch through, but right now not knowing how many survivors were in here was keeping them from risking innocent lives. Cassandra had done an excellent job playing the captured damsel to convince them of that risk.

Bast finished dressing. The fact that there was gunfire was concerning, at least partially. It meant something outside the walls had become worth firing out. She needed to find out was, but it wouldn’t do to rush. Even if they get through, they can’t possibly harm you. You can just phase, detonate the ichor-laced gear, and move on. So long as Cassandra gets into your staging area, there’s no risk to anything that matters.

The lack of urgency lead to her spending some time brushing her hair in the mirror, clearing away the night’s tangles. She could have just shifted the hair short and then long again to remove the tangles, but ever since had been a small child she’d enjoyed the simple act of running a comb through her hair. It was a calming ritual that helped focus her for the day, and even when she’d ascended to divinity she’d kept that habit up.

Today, that meant she was still in the Admiral’s bedroom when the door leading to the hall changed into a staging area’s doorway and opened.

Bast’s reaction was immediate and violent. With a flick of her wrist, she sent a dagger forged out of air condensed into a solid and transmuted into iron towards the entrance. Whoever was on the other side let out a grunt of pain as the dagger struck home.

“Wait! It’s me!”

Of all the reactions Bast had expected after the strike, that one had not even made the list. Her eyes narrowed. “I can’t tell who it is with you gasping in pain.”

The figure inside stumbled towards the entrance, the dagger clearly embedded in his forearm. As soon as she saw who it was, Bast bit back a curse. “Horus. What in all the hells are you doing here?”

He winced at her tone, and Bast found it easy not to care. “I’m…here to rescue you.”

“Do I look like I need rescuing?” Bast responded, rolling her eyes and turning back to her mirror. Him. I’d rather Ishtar, Athena, and the Eschaton stumbled through ready for war than deal with this.

“No, but I had no way of knowing that!” His tone was harsh, offended, and Bast seriously considered testing out her new gifts in killing Horus. If it wasn’t for the risk of a military breach, she would. But right now, Horus wasn’t worth the effort.

“Well, now you do. If you could take your leave, that would be wonderful. If you can’t, then I’ll be happy to help you.”

“Damnit Bast! I’ve been worried sick about you for weeks. Ever since I saw you on television. You were working with Enki, of all people. Then you vanished from that island fight, and Athena said she’d killed you. I went to the Curators to find you! You at least owe me-“

Bast whirled on him, her eyes flashing. “I owe you nothing, Horus. I have never owed you anything. How many centuries will it take for you to realize this?”

Horus’s fist clenched, and Bast thought it would come to blows right there. Hoped it would. She readied herself to meet his attack…and then noticed something that had been at the edge of her awareness, slow and steady.

Lub-dub. Lub-dub.

His heartbeat had undertones unlike any human’s ever had. She wasn’t sure if it wanted that heart or not.  But if she didn’t deescalate this, she’d have to kill him before she could find out. And he talked to Athena. He knows things, useful things.

Bast took a deep breath, holding up her hand in a placating gesture. “It has been a trying week, Horus. Can we perhaps try this again?”

Slowly, Horus got his temper back under control, and nodded.

Inside, Horus was still seething. I came to rescue you! She wasn’t supposed to be treating him with contempt, with scorn. They were supposed to be past that. She was supposed to be thanking him, letting him past the warrior façade and melting into his arms, not trying to poorly contain her own anger! And yet, there she was. How dare you?

But maybe this could be salvaged. Only she knew the horrors she had endured over these weeks. “I’m sorry,” he growled, as apologetically as he could manage.

Bast didn’t return the sentiment, but gave him a nod to acknowledge he had given her what was owed. “Apology accepted. I regret worrying you,” the closest to an apology he expected to ever get.

“Can I sit?”

She motioned towards the edge of the bed as she turned the chair she was in around. “You look well, in spite of the dagger.” Horus’ anger had masked the injury, but at the reminder the pain came swelling back. He pulled a bandage out of one of his pockets and removed the weapon. Bast watched with an odd fascination as he patched the injury, and for once, her scrutiny made him feel vaguely uncomfortable.

“How did they manage to hold you?” He looked her up and down, calming himself by drinking in her beauty while at the same time noticing how in control she seemed. “Did they hold you?”

“They did.” Bast gave a small shake of her head. “I’d rather not talk about how. Suffice it to say it was unpleasant, and it won’t happen again.”

“I’m glad for that last part at least. And glad that you are free. When the Curators told me…”

She laughed slightly, and for a moment it was like old times, when they had been friends. “You must have been truly desperate to seek them out. I remember how little patience you had for their scrolls before.”

“I was desperate. I was worried something had happened to you! Why were you working with Enki?”

Bast cast her eyes down and reached with one hand rubbed the elbow of the over. “He knew where it was, Horus.”

“It?”

“The Ankh of Ra, Horus. The same one we used to end Sekhmet’s rampage. The same one that…” Bast trailed off, meeting his eyes. “Do you know what we could do with it?”

Horus’ mouth dropped. He remembered Sekhmet, driving half-mad with bloodlust. He remembered the Ankh flaring with light and power. He remembered Bast, at the time Sekhmet’s high priestess, emerging from rubble that should have killed her. “If you used it on the Eschaton…”

Bast nodded eagerly. “He didn’t even know what it could be used to accomplish – he never would have offered it to me if he did. You see why I had to work with him. Why I had to get it. Or would you rather have left our fate in the hands of Ryan Smith?”

“I…I don’t know if I agree, but I can definitely…” Bast gave him a disapproving look, and Horus felt the wind go out of him. “Of course I can see,” he corrected, and Bast beamed at him.

“I’m so glad you understand, Horus. We’re going to get through this. Together. We’re going to be the ones to save the world. If you’re with me, that is.”

Horus leaned back in his chair, biting his cheek. On the one hand, this was everything he had wanted. On the other, it meant betraying the group. He thought about Ryan, a young man who dismissed his council. Ishtar, who was too preoccupied with her own concerns. Athena, who heaped scorn upon him at every turn.

“I…” The low rumble of gunfire from outside drew his attention. “What was that?”

Bast sighed. “An annoyance I was going to deal with before you arrived. Think on it, Horus. If you’re here when I get back, I’ll know you’re with me. If you’re not…” She gave him a small frown, and continued in a voice so low he could barely hear it, “if you’re not, then I hope I never lay eyes upon you again.”

And with that, Bast was gone, walking through the wall to deal with some unknown threat, leaving Horus to decide if his love was more important than his honor.

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