Small Worlds Part 227

Athena threw out her hand and twisted Air, fire, and water. A superheated bubble floated from her hand and streaked towards the Scylla, slamming into her and bursting into a cloud of steam. The Scylla whirled to face Athena with an easy grace, dropping some of the arae she had clutched in her tendrils. She roared with unholy fury.

Instead of letting herself be distracted by the Scylla’s wrath, Athena threw more bubbles at the monster. None of them would be enough to even penetrate the Scylla’s hide – the goal was to maximize pain, nothing more.

It seemed to be working. The Scylla dove towards Athena, arms that ended in hands the size of Athena’s torso outstretched. Athena kicked upwards, her hands still outstretched to let loose a barrage of bubbles. Steam churned the water, pockets of gas forcibly collapsed by the pressure of the depths exploding into tiny bubbles that created a veil between the monster and the goddess.

The Scylla roared again, lunging with those massive hands to clutch blindly at Athena. It was far faster than its bulk indicated, striking with the speed of a shark. If he could see Athena, it would have had no problem wrapping its hand around Athena and snapping her like a twig.

Athena ducked under the next grasping hand as it came mere feet from her, kicking as strong as she could to escape the fingers as they closed. Any time now, Arachne, Athena thought, hoping her instincts about her former protegee weren’t wrong.

The Scylla’s hand closed around Athena’s ankle. Athena kicked frantically, trying to break that grip. The Scylla hissed in excitement, bringing its other hand forward to clutch at Athena’s waist.

Just as Athena was preparing to electrocute herself and the ocean around her before she would be torn in half, a blade of water shot from the depths and hit the thumb clutching at her leg. Scylla roared in pain as the appendage was cut loose, and Athena was able to kick out of the grasp. She glanced in the direction the water cutter had come from to see Arachne floating there, her hand outstretched.

Cutting it a little close, aren’t you? Athena thought. The Scylla was looking around for the source of that new attack, and Athena kicked a bit to gain some distance before it refocused on her. She opened her divine sight – and that’s when she saw what Arachne had been spending her time on while Athena had distracted the Scylla.

Dozens of those water blades had been woven in the water, arrayed in a mishmashed network around the Scylla and Athena, a constellation of deadly razors. Any individual one would not do much damage. Their cumulative effect…

Athena glanced back at Arachne. The goddess had grown gills on herself and they were working hard in the water. She’d been burning through a ton of power to create this many, enough where she was feeling her Hungers. Seeing Athena was watching, Arachne formed another water blade and rolled her hand at Athena – all but screaming “could you hurry up?”

That’s when Arachne’s plan became apparent. It was the same teamwork they’d used against the Typhon when exploring the ruins of Troy. Just as then, Arachne didn’t have the strength to defeat the monster. Athena still had far more raw power than Arachne.

So Arachne had given Athena an arsenal.

Athena reached out and grabbed onto threads of Water and Aether. It was the same principal she used for her hypersonic sword tosses, the same one she’d used to cut a hole in the Hecatoncheires all those weeks ago. Experimentally, she lashed one of the water blades and launched it at the Scylla.

The Scylla screamed as the blade punched into it and shot out the other side with the violence of a torpedo. Dark blood began to spill into the water.

It had accelerated to nearly two thousand kilometers per hour in a fraction of a second. The blade was moving so fast, it forced the water to supercavitation itself, so only the razor tip of the weapon was touching the surrounding water. The steam that formed from its passing had heated the water blade to the point where it would have boiled, if not for Arachne’s will holding it in place.

Will that Arachne had released upon impact, so the blade had cut into the Scylla before turning to a hypersonic, rapidly-expanding cloud of steam.

Athena began to whip her weaves around more and more of the blades, sending a constant hail sending towards the monster. The Scylla was able to resist or evade some, and others hit it in non-vital areas. But there were dozens, and Athena was relentless. Each time a blade struck the Scylla, Arachne released her will, and the violent expansion was like an explosion occurring beneath the Scylla’s skin.

The Scylla roared again, but the fury had faded. This war was full of pain and fear. Sight of the creature was lost behind the rapidly growing cloud of its own blood and viscera.

Athena didn’t cease the assault until the sounds had fallen silent. All sound did. God, monster, and other – all were staring at the cloud of the monster’s blood. Athena and Arachne had gone to engage a monster that had rampaged across the battlefield for hours, and in a under a minute had turned it to a bloody mess.

Arachne was nearly spent, and Athena was feeling her own Hungers strongly. It was usually a bad idea to burn through that much power so quickly. Athena and Arachne both would have to be very careful – Hungers overtaking you at any time was dangerous, but beneath the waves like this it would almost immediately be fatal. The pressure alone would crush her like a rotten fruit.

It was worth it. The plan required a display of power. Poseidon’s allies needed to know they had chosen the wrong side in this battle.

As she watched, Nereids began to appear among the distracted army. Athena smiled through the exhaustion already creeping into her bones.  Time for the second phase, kicking towards Olympian battle lines.

She just hoped it would work.

Small Worlds Part 226

Poseidon had dashed away from the blinded Kraken with the arrival of Athena and her cohorts. Athena had lobbed a few lazy twists his way, her usual air blades but woven with water instead. She didn’t expect them to hurt the master of the sea within his domain. It was just about getting some distance. “Artemis!” she said warmly. “I’m sorry we were delayed, Hermes passed out when-”

“Athena,” Artemis said in tones a few shade cooler than her usual, already cold voice. “You brought Arachne back.”

“Good to see you too,” Arachne murmured. “I’m so glad, it’s been so long.”

Artemis just ignored her, instead giving Athena a pointed look.

Athena held up a hand. “Can we discuss that later?”

There wasn’t any hesitation before Artemis gave her a curt nod. “We absolutely will. Right now, we need your help.”

The Kraken blood was beginning to clear out of the water, and Athena could see how correct Artemis’ assessment was. Blood churned with water. As Athena watched, a finned Ara was run through on a nereid’s spear. The underworld spirit clutched at the weapon, trying to free herself, only for a passing shark to casually tear off her head. Scenes like that were playing out across the battlefield. To make matters worse, Poseidon had more divine support than they’d been told.

Athena followed the flow of battle, her eyes rapidly scanning through the ocean. “Give me command,” she said to Artemis after a moment. “I know it won’t be popular, but-”

“You have it,” Artemis said. “We can deal with the fall out after you’ve won for us.”

Athena nodded curtly. “Anansi, get to the Olympian lines. Do whatever you have to. Then I want as  many illusionary nereids as you can conjure fighting alongside Poseidon’s forces. Make them as believable as possible – I don’t want everyone realizing that a hundred nereids just popped into existence.”

Artemis and Anansi both looked at her like she’d sprouted a second head that was vomiting bile and satanic curses. “Athena, don’t you mean arae and erinyes?“ Artemis asked.

“No.” Athena bit back a curse. She had a plan. She could win this. But it was going to be razor tight. “You gave me command. Trust me. I don’t have time to explain every decision. Anansi, I don’t have time to explain. We have moments before this battle is lost – just do it, please.” As frustrated as she felt, she forced her voice to remain level. Snapping orders just got you sullen soldiers, and sullen soldiers was just a fancy way of saying future corpses.

Anansi considered for a moment then nodded. He transformed his feet into a dolphin’s flipper and kicked off in the indicated direction.

“Artemis, where’s your bow?” Athena asked, moving on to the next item on her list.

“Shattered.” Artemis reached into her nanoverse and plucked out another. It didn’t have the same craftsmanship as her old one, created by Hephaestus specifically for her, but it would function.

“Unfortunate. Give Anansi covering fire until he gets in among the Olympians, then shift your fire. Any time one of Poseidon’s divine allies engages an Olympian in direct combat, turn them into a pincushion then get out. Don’t shoot Poseidon himself, though. Just his friends. Don’t bother with the nereids or ichthyocentaurs, either.”

Artemis drew an arrow and knocked her bow. “I dearly hope I didn’t just make a terrible mistake,” Artemis muttered.

“You don’t trust me?” Athena asked, frowning.

Artemis snorted. “Athena, I would trust you with my life. I just worry your battle sense has grown addled in your old age. You know the goal is to defeat Poseidon, yes?”

Athena’s frown turned into a smile. “You said the same thing when I suggested Odysseus gift the Trojans a horse.”

Artemis fired three more arrows at Nereids that were approaching Anansi. Each one found their mark. “And you remember what Poseidon did to dear Odysseus after that?”

Athena shrugged. “He got home. Eventually.”

Artemis just snorted again instead of dignifying that with a response. Arachne swam nearby. Somehow, even floating in the ocean, she was managing to tap her foot impatiently. “And what are we doing?”

Athena pointed through the water to a great, dark mass that was looming up towards the Olympians. “We’re going to kill a Scylla.” She shifted her feet into flippers. Athena glanced over at Artemis again. “If Poseidon gets near us, shoot him then. We can’t fight this fight on two fronts.”

Artemis just nodded in comprehension, loosing more arrows into the waves. Athena could see the bands of air and water the archer was weaving into each bolt to let them fly like they would though the air, and reminded herself that before look, the Olympian would be drowning on their hunger. We won’t let it get that far. Checking to make sure Arachne had shifted her form enough to accommodate aquatic movement, Athena kicked off in the direction of the Scylla.

“Any amazing plan for how we’re going to defeat this…thing?” Arachne asked beside her.

“Yes. We stab it until it stops moving, then scorch what’s left,” Athena said matter of factly.

“Oh, wonderful. So long as there is a detailed plan, I’m certain this will go fine.” Arachne didn’t bother hiding the vitriol in her voice. “Are you trying to get me killed?”

“I promise you, that’s the last thing on my mind.” Athena said. The dark shape that was the Scylla was gradually gaining definitions. Athena could see the tentacles gaining definition, could see the wolf heads around the waist of a giant woman with hair that flowed like tendrils and a jaw like a shark.

She twisted reality to send a quick message thrumming through the water to reach Persephone’s ears. “I understand,” were the only two words the underworld goddess could spare for Athena right now, but it was enough. Persephone and Athena had always gotten along. Exiles from Olympus tended to stick together like that.

“Let me draw its attention,” Athena said to Arachne. “Wait here, then join the fight after it’s focused on me.”

“That,” Arachne said, slowing her kicks, “sounds a bit more like a plan. Good luck.”

“You mean that?” Athena asked.

“Of course. If you die, the Scylla’s coming for me next.” Arachne shrugged. “Self-preservation.”

Athena chuckled to herself and kicked through the water.

It was time to poke the monster in her eye.

Small Worlds Part 225

“Bullshit,” Ryan finally managed. Bast was still standing there with that small, mocking smile on her lips. “You want to save humanity?”

“Is that really so hard to believe?” Bast asked. “I’ve lived among them for thousands of years. Is it really impossible that I want to spare the species that birthed me.”

“You want a food source,” Dianmu said, drawing both Ryan’s and Bast’s attention. The storm goddess held her glaive down and to the side, an angle Ryan had seen before. It was a relaxed stance that could become battle-ready with a flick of ehr wrist. From the way Bast’s eyes narrowed, she recognized the stance as well. “Quit playing games, Bast. You’re a humanitarian in the same way a vegetarian wants to save vegetables.”

“Well, it is hard to deny that.” Bast fixed her gaze back on Ryan, although she subtly shifted her stance to keep her guard up against Dianmu.. “You don’t know what it’s like. The anthropophagic hunger. Even if I don’t use my power, it still gnaws at me.”

“You want sympathy?” Ryan asked. “Don’t try to tell me your Hunger made you do all this!” He gestured to include the town. “You didn’t have to make these people into monsters.”

“No, I didn’t.” Bast said, almost quietly. Then her smile returned. “As I have stated, I needed to make sure I had your attention. You are going to save my people, Ryan – and in doing so, you’re going to save the human race. Or at least, it’s legacy – we will be humanities inheritors.”

“I wouldn’t even know how to, even if I was going to,” Ryan said. “And even if I did, what good would it do to you? You’d starve without humanity, right?”

“We can survive through other means,” Bast said. “Animal hearts aren’t nearly as filling as human hearts, but it’s preferable to extinction. Of course, that won’t be a problem when you’re done.”

Above Bast, on the rooftops, one of the cat creatures shifted back into human form. She was a young woman, probably in her late twenties, wearing a blood-spattered lab coat. She was mouthing something, and it took Ryan a moment to figure out that she was repeating Bast’s words to herself. Once she’d finished, she glared down at the assembled group, her hands balling into fists. Worry about that later, Ryan told himself. “I already told you, I don’t know how to save ‘your people.’

“Fortunately for both of us, I know the solution.” Bast’s smile took on a predatory tint. “You’re the Eschaton. You have a single manipulation that goes far beyond what anyone else can do. You’re going to use it to remove our Hunger. We won’t need to feed anymore.”

“You want me to  undo what you’ve done?” Ryan asked, frowning. “You did all this…just so I can undo it?”

“Oh, no,” Bast said. “Perish the thought! No, you are going to just remove the Hunger. Not the rest of it. Then I’ll create enough of my children to have a sustainable population after the world ends. We’ll go into my nanoverse, and I’ll take us to a nice, stable planet.”

“That would damn the entire planet,” Ryan snarled. It was his turn to clench his hands into fists. “You want me to sacrifice humanity just to save this handful?”

“Yes.” The response was simple and blunt. “I don’t believe you can save the planet, Ryan. Even if you could, I’m not sure you should. Even if you should, I’m certain I don’t care. I want a future for me and my children. The memory of humanity will live on in them, which is what you want, isn’t it?”

“I want to save humanity, not ensure their memory!” Ryan said.

“It’s good to have things that you want.” Bast’s eyes hardened. “I don’t care, however. You can want to save humanity, but tell me something Eschaton – have you found a way to do it yet?”

Ryan froze. He didn’t want to admit the answer, but it was written all over his face. He’d been desperately hoping that Nabu would provide him the answer, but Nabu had only given him rules that seemed insurmountable. Their wasn’t an option.

“I didn’t think so.” Bast shook her head in a mockery of sympathy. “It’s time to grow up, Eschaton, and let go of childish dreams. Save my people. You’ll save a fraction of humanity, but you’ll be able to die secure in the knowledge that you did something worthwhile. As my immortal people span the stars, you will be remembered. What else could you ask for?”

That’s it, Ryan thought, a sudden surge of hope shooting through him. That was it. That was the answer. A pure, crystalized moment. “Thank you,” Ryan said simply.

Bast sighed. “I see. You think you’ve figured it out. Well, that’s just wonderful. Unfortunately, it doesn’t change the situation. I want my Hunger removed for myself and my children. You’re going to do it.”

“No, Bast.” Ryan shook his head, a smile forming on his lips. “I figured it out, and there is no way in hell I’m sacrificing the world to save a bunch of man-eating monsters. Even if they didn’t ask for it.”

“I was afraid you would say that.” Bast sighed again, an over dramatic sound laced with sarcasm. “Very well. Then let me incentivise your cooperation. As we speak, a dozen of my children are running towards nearby towns and cities. When they get there, unless I tell them to stop, they care going to start creating as many spawn as they can. They are also going to instruct their new spawn to do the same. I’ve seen the slowest of my children exceed one hundred miles per hour. We can create, each of us, about ten spawn per minute – depending on population density.

“Given time for adjustment and initial feeding, I expect the number will increase by a factor of ten every fifteen minutes once they reach a town or city – and the first wave will always be running to a new population center. America and Mexico will fall to my children in the next six hours. Canada and the northern parts of South America  in the twelve hours after that. It might take a bit to reach Eurasia and Africa, but once they do….Even your pet Curator won’t be able to stop them all. Either you cooperate, or humanity dies.”

“You’re a monster,” Ryan said, dread replacing the momentary spot of hope.

“Yes,” Bast said. “And I have all the cards, as they say. So, what will it be, Eschaton? Are you going to save my children, or are you going to doom the world?”

Ryan just stood there, completely frozen, trying to find a solution to an impossible problem. Then he felt a sudden weight on his shoulder. Nabu’s hand. “You and Dianmu take care of bast. She’s wrong. I can stop them all.”

The certainty in Nabu’s voice was unmistakable, and Ryan nodded. “Go.”

Nabu vanished in a flash of light, and Bast’s contorted with rage. “Leave the Eschaton alive,” she commanded.

The cardiophages surged forward.

Small Worlds Part 224

Bast landed in front of them with the grace of a cat. Fitting, Ryan thought, taking a deep breath to calm himself. “Bast,” he said, trying not to spit the name. He raised a hand, and Dianmu reached out to stop the motion.

“Ryan, think,” she whispered urgently. “If she wanted to fight, she had the element of surprise. She deliberately spoiled it. We need to find out what she wants before we instigate something.”

Ryan gritted his teeth. Dianmu’s right, damn it, he thought. Starting a fight with Bast right now would put whoever was still surviving in this town in danger, and if Bast wanted something, maybe they could at least get her out of the town before the battle erupted.

Bast smiled at the exchange and walked closer. “Oh good, you’re capable of saying my name.” Bast said. “Maybe I should try that?” Bast narrowed her eyes. “Ryan,” she growled, raising her hand, then dropping it with a peal of mocking laughter before they could take it as a threat.

“Very funny,” Ryan said, straining to keep his voice level. “I think you can understand why it’s a bit upsetting to see you at the moment?”

“I can think of a couple reasons, but given how boringly predictable you are, I’m assuming it’s what I’ve done to this town?”

“No, it’s your dress sense, it’s after Labor day and you’re wearing white – of course it’s the people you murdered.” Ryan’s careful hold on his temper finally snapped. “Why, Bast? What the hell did these people do to you?”

“To me?” Bast shrugged her shoulders casually. “Nothing, really. But they’re important to you. I’m glad you finally got my message. I was honestly wondering how many more of these people I would have to kill to get your attention.”

Ryan’s eyes widened, and he clenched his fists. For a moment he couldn’t hear from how hard his heart was pounding in his ears. After everything he’d seen, everything he’d witnessed in this town, he was certain she’d held some vendetta against these people for what happened before. The fact that she’d come back here just to draw his focus was even more infuriating. “You did this to get my attention?” he said, spitting every word.

“Of course,” Bast said, looking genuinely perplexed. Ryan was sure it was an act. It had to be an act. Bast was sick and twisted, she was cruel and callous, but she wasn’t stupid. She’s goading you, Ryan, he told himself.Knowing it didn’t help. He still wanted to leap across the street and…well, he hadn’t figured it out yet.

Bast continued, playing oblivious to his outrage as she said,  “You didn’t exactly leave me a phone number last time we talked, did you? What else was I supposed to do.”

“How about literally anything else?” Ryan said, taking a step forward. Nabu reached out and put a hand on his shoulder to stop him from starting the fight prematurely. Ryan shrugged off the Curator’s grip, but didn’t keep walking. Nabu was right, damn it. Starting a fight with Bast right now wouldn’t accomplish anything. “You could have sent a message through the Curators! You could have posted a video on the internet, or gone on TV! You could have done anything besides killing hundreds of people!”

Bast sighed. “Yes, I suppose you’re right. However, you’re missing a very important point. None of those options involved killing hundreds of people.” She grinned at Ryan’s fury. “I wanted an army, Ryan. I wanted you serious when you came to the negotiations.”

That last word stopped Ryan from unleashing a bolt of lightning right then, and helped clear his mind to think. There were dozens of the cadiophages that he could see right now, and likely more lurking in hiding. Three on one, he had no doubt they could defeat Bast. You don’t know what Nabu can do, Ryan reminded himself. That could work in their favor, but it could also be a terrible liability. Still, he and Dianmu could defeat Bast.

The Cadiophages changed the equation. Killing Billy had been easy because he’d caught Billy off guard, and already had him pinned. Dozens of them would prove far more difficult. He remembered that aweful strength under Billy’s skin. “Well,” Ryan said, his voice tight. “You have me here. You have my attention, and I promise you, I am deadly serious. So – what do you want, Bast?”

Bast made a sardonic tsk with her teeth. “You really should learn some manners, Eschaton. They would serve you well when dealing with your betters.”

Ryan didn’t respond to the taunt, just waited for Bast to get to the point.

“Fine. I see spending too much time with Athena has crippled your sense of humor.”

“Hundreds of people are dead, Bast. You’ve turned people into monsters. And you think this is a joke?” Ryan shook his head. “You’re sick.”

“No, you just don’t see the big picture.” Bast’s smile widened. “I made them immortal. People die all the time, Ryan. By the thousands. I’ve sent a few more to their underworlds early. It means nothing in the grand scheme of things. In a dozen years, there will be no one to weep for them. In a hundred, their memory will be ash. In a thousand, this will be completely forgotten. And that was even if you weren’t going to end the world. But my children? They are immortal.” Bast gestured to the cardiophages.

Ryan ground his teeth. “And everyone else you killed?”

“They’d be dead anyway when you kill the world. Honestly, Ryan, I’m just making use of the trash you’re about to throw away anyway, I don’t see why you are so fussy about a few dead humans.”

“Hundreds!” Ryan shouted.

“Fine,” Bast said with a roll of her eyes. “A few hundred dead humans. Your priorities are terrible.”

“What. Do you. Want?” Ryan asked through clenched teeth.

“I want to do what you can’t,” Bast said with a small smile. “I want to save the human race.”

For the moment, Ryan could only stare at her in complete disbelief.

Small Worlds Part 223

Isabel ground to a halt when Kali landed in front of her. The goddess gave Isabel a considering gaze. “You’re something new, but I can taste the stink of Hell on you. One of that new King’s creations?”

Isabel chuffed air.

“You can shift if you wish to speak, child. I want to talk. I want to convince you to stop this. I don’t wish to kill you.” Kali’s voice was calm, cool, and collected. More than that, it sounded honest. 

Isabel decided to take the risk. She shifted back into her human form. “I’m not a creation of his. I’m a human.”

Kali blinked in surprise. “My my. What will they think of next? I’ve never heard of a soulstone being used for something like this before – very creative of him.”

“What are they normally used for?” Isabel asked, fighting for time. Every second she could buy was another second for Crystal to save her, or for her to figure out how to beat the goddess in front of her.

“Giving people the powers and abilities of long dead fighters. Heaven and Hell have both employed them from time to time.” Kali’s grin was almost friendly, conspiratorial. “You really think a peasant girl gained that much fighting prowess that quickly? The Maid of Orleans had some angelic aid in the form of one of those from Michael himself.”

“Good to know I’m in such esteemed company,” Isabel said.

“Well, I wouldn’t say that. Your souls do come from a different direction.” Kali shook her head. “You know you can’t defeat me, don’t you? You’re still, at the end of the day, only mortal.”

“You’re probably right,” Isabel said, “but the entire world is at stake.”

“The stakes are far larger than you know,” Kali countered. “You are playing with things you don’t understand, child. Stand aside. Let us handle things.”

“Nah,” Isabel said.

Kali’s gaze narrowed. “My forbearance only goes so far.”

“Yeah, you know what? Screw it.” Isabel gave Kali her most insolent grin. “I fought against Moloch the same day I got this thing. I just fought and beat a goddamn Typhon. You might be uber-scary goddess, but I think I can hold you long enough for Crystal to take you down.”

Kali gave Isabel a look that was full of sorrow. “No, you cannot. I warn you-”

Whatever warning Kali was about to give was interrupted by an explosion and a blinding flash of light from behind Isabel. Something had happened during Crystal’s fight, and it threw the entire room into an overwhelming brightness. Kali was caught off guard, and threw up her hand to cover her eyes.

Isabel took advantage off the distraction. She shifted into the Tyrannosaurus and, as Kali tried to blink her eyes clear, lunged down with jaws that had torn the Typhon’s head from its shoulders.

Her jaw didn’t clamp shut. There was something in her mouth, something strong enough to hold open a Tyrannosaurus’ jaw, the most powerful bite force of its era. Something that felt, to Isabel, suspiciously like hands.

Gunfire rang out from behind Isabel, and she tried to force her jaws closed. Kali resisted her, pushing against the roof and bottom of the Tyrannosaurus’ mouth. Desperate to distract her, Isabel began to bat at Kali with the Tyrannosaurus’ tongue, slapping her across the face with it.

Kali continued to push. Isabel felt, against all odds, her jaw slowly being forced open. “I tried to be reasonable,” Kali said. Isabel could hear her straining from exertion, but she maintained that calm, cool demeanour she’d exhibited before. Isabel whacked her in the face with the monstrous tongue of the Tyrannosaurus again, but Kali seemed undisturbed. “I don’t want to hurt you. This is your last warning, child.”

Isabel opened her jaw and stepped back. Kali crossed her arms behind her back. Isabel shifted again. If brute strength wasn’t going to work here, she’d have to for something more flexible.

When she landed, she’d gone from the most dangerous dinosaur to ever walk the earth to the most dangerous mammal to ever walk the earth – the Giant Short-Faced Bear. Nearly two tons of prehistoric fury filled Isabel’s mind, and when this monster saw Kali, it saw food. Isabel charged and slashed with a blow that could knock a man’s head from it shoulders.

Kali leapt over the attack, but Isabel kept coming. This bear form was immense, and far more agile than the Cave Bear it had shared a continent with. She lunged again and again for the goddess, swiping with immense paws and every bit of fury in the bear’s mind.

This creature had hunted and killed humans in an era where humans had figured out some of their more dangerous weapons. It had stood against spears and arrows and slain men.

And yet, Kali had yet to remove her arms from behind her back. Her dodges seemed almost lazy, as if she was just getting a work out in. Isabel roared in fury, and Kali barely blinked. Then the goddesses’ back hit a pillar.

Isabel seized the opportunity, lunging for Kali with a strike that should be fatal.

Kali raised her hand and caught the oncoming paw with a simple, open-palmed block. Isabel was so shocked, she could only stare at Kali in a moment of panicked confusion. “I warned you,” Kali said, then held out her other hand.

A bolt of lightning struck Isabel directly in the heart.

Small Worlds Part 222

Crystal threw up her hands, forming a barrier between herself and the super-soldiers before they could open fire. Ichor-laced bullets bounced off the invisible barrier. “Isabel!” Crystal shouted as the three began to reload in eerie unison. “Get the staff!”

Isabel nodded and shifted form, turning into a rhinoceros and charging across the ground towards where the staff floated. Crystal thought she understood the logic – Isabel was hoping she could tank any traps that might be sprung – but didn’t have time to worry about it. She had other problems.

“Deal with this,” Kali said, gesturing towards Crystal. “I’ll get the staff.” She shrugged out of her lab coat. Underneath she was wearing simple, utilitarian clothing – a shirt and pants, both black, that were loose enough to allow movement but not so loose they’d get caught on things.

“Kali!” Crystal said, her voice tight. “You don’t understand. The world is going to end. We’re trying to stop it, we’re trying to-”

The trio of super soldiers began to twist equations. Flame roared at Crystal from the left, a rush of wind shards from the right, and a bolt of lightning lancing down from the ceiling of the room. Crystal bent the air barrier into a semicircle to deflect the attacks.

She was already panting for breath. She’d barely had time to recover from the fight against the Typhon. And these three were fighting with a degree of unity they’d never shown before. Why do those expressions look so familiar? Crystal wondered.

“I know exactly what you’re trying to do, Ishtar,” Kali said, and Crystal felt a chill. She’d known Kali for millennia. She’d met her during the long trek from the ruins of Carthage to China, when she’d passed through India, refusing to use her nanoverse. They’d talked a few times, and while they hadn’t been friends, Crystal had never considered her an adversary either.

But Kali was a woman of extremes. Protector and Destroyer. The last time Crystal had seen Kali, she’d shifted into her full Destroyer aspect and had nearly crushed her beloved Shiva under her heel. Like all destroyer deities, she possessed immense power.

She’d kill Isabel without even trying. “Kali, please!” Crystal begged.

“I’m sorry,” Kali said, and Crystal thought she heard a trace of remorse in the word. “You believe you’re doing the right thing. I know that. I even commend it. However…you are, unfortunately, painfully wrong.” Kali shook her head, then leapt after Isabel.

Crystal whirled to try and intervene, only to be struck in the back by three simultaneous bolts of lightning. The sudden surge of electricity locked her up, and Crystal could barely even think, let alone move. “No going anywhere, Crystal,” Evans said.

“We have unfinished business,” Munoz added.

“And some things cannot be ignored,” Arnold finished.

They weren’t just taunting her. They were taunting her in unison. The whole situation was so familiar that Crystal experienced a terrible sense of Deja Vu and took a deep breath and reached into her nanoverse, drawing out a pair of swords. “You three,” she said, “are really making a mistake. You don’t even have a power source anymore. I will dismantle you, and you won’t resurrect from it.”

Evans chuckled. “I seem to remember you saying something like that last time we fought, Crystal.”

“You sure did a good job fooling us,” Arnold said, reaching into his own nanoverse and drawing out a sword. Wait, what? These three didn’t have nanoverses.

“Okay, now you’re just crazy,” Crystal said. She kept one ear open for Kali and Isabel. There wasn’t sounds of battle – she could distantly hear Kali’s voice. It meant she had time. She had to stall these three. “I didn’t fight you before. When that whole mess went down, I was in my nanoverse dealing with…”

All three of them smiled at her.

A horrible, sinking fear began to creep into Crystal. “…with…the corruption Enki left behind…”

“And?” Munoz prompted.

“And the three goddesses it spawned,” Crystal whispered. “No. That’s impossible.”

Evans laughed. It was almost a perfect mirror Crystal’s normal laugh, but it was twisted. Wrong. Like a funhouse version of Crystal laughing. “The woman who is a million years old claims things are impossible,” he said, only it wasn’t his voice. She knew that voice. “Potentia,” Crystal whispered in growing horror.

Evans nodded. He pointed to Munoz and Palmer in turn. “I’m sure you remember Inedia and Litura?”

Crystal didn’t bother with answering. Instead she gathered her power and flung out a panicked twist to reality. It was the nastiest twist she knew, one she’d never dare use if the situation was less dire.

She turned the nitrogen into astatine, and the astatine immediately turned the air into fire.

Astatine is one of the most reactive elements a god could produce in large quantities without violating the loophole that created  nuclear weapons. It broke down so rapidly and so radioactively that, in the quantities Crystal had produced, it was just short of an actual nuclear detonation. A pillar of superheated gas arose from around the three impossible gods, a pillar of hellfire that stretched rapidly towards the ceiling of the lunar base. It blinded Crystal with the flash, and even at this distance she could feel her skin blister with second degree burns.

A slight twist to reality kept the radiation contained, or Crystal would have killed all of them – but especially Isabel – with radiation poisoning. Instead, that radiation reflected into the super-soldiers turned impossible gods.

They didn’t even scream.

Crystal was panting at the effort. It was impossible to get more energy out of a twist than you put into it, and she’d poured a ton of energy into that. Not so much that she was drained, but enough that Kali…that she’d have to rely heavily on Isabel to finish Kali. In fact

Crystal felt the bullets impact her stomach before she heard the staccato burst of machine-gun fire. Ichor-laced rounds ripped through her, and Crystal screamed at the sensation of them punching out the back. She clutched a hand to her stomach, a reflexive reaction to keep her guts from spilling out the new hole in her torso. She started to immediately burn some of her  meager power reserves accelerating time around the wound, trying to at least get a day’s worth of healing in before she bled out.

“You really did think it was going to be that easy,” Evans/Potentia said.

“Poor little Crystal,” Munoz/Inedia said.

“But we already know your trick,” Palmer/Litura finished.

As one, they stepped out of the radioactive flame. Their skin was covered in blisters and burns. They hadn’t been completely untouched by the astatine detonation.

But they were in far better shape than Crystal was. She gritted her teeth as her bleeding began to slow.

The three of them took aim again.

Small Worlds Part 221

Pale women with hair of green flame, swimming with black leathery wings better suited for the air, poured out of the portal to the Underworld. They were the Arae, Hades’ favored foot soldiers. As they entered the water, their wings shifted to resemble something closer to fins. Each wielded a spear of black steel. Charon came out after them, his boat maintaining a shell of air over itself. They met the Nereids, clashing with the aquatic children of Poseidon in a violent clash. Behind them were Persephone’s servants, the Erinyes, with coal black skin and hair the color of molten rock. Their wings also shifted to turn to fins in the waves.

The water distorted the sound of steel upon steel. Artemis kicked herself ahead, trying to spot where her arrows would have the greatest effect on the battle.

“You!” Bellowed a voice beneath her, and Artemis turned just in time to catch Poseidon’s trident between its prongs. She held against it as he swam like a torpedo, a funnel of water whipping them ahead and propelling them through the water. “You have ruined everything!

“It was your idea,” Artemis grunted. She glanced over her shoulder to see where he was leading her.

The caste, Poseidon’s fortress in the Aegean – the Coral Citadel. It was an immense structure, built of green stone. Spires off the top of it reached high into the air, far larger than could have been supported without divine intervention – they stretched from the seabed to where the very tips of it poked out of the water and into the open air above the sea. Artemis had no idea how mortals had never found it, but that hardly mattered right now.

He meant to skewer her against the wall. Artemis couldn’t even begin to push back against him as they travelled – not beneath the ocean like this. “You were supposed to fail!” Poseidon roared as the wall of the Coral Citadel loomed ever closer. “You are socially inept huntress. You never should have been able to out maneuver me!”

“Watch me,” Artemis said. The wall was only feet away. With all her strength, Artemis pushed up on the trident. It didn’t budge Poseidon in the slightest, but it did force her downwards. They came so close to the Citadel that her back scraped against the stone. It looked smooth, but like a shark’s skin, it was coarse and inflamed the injury from the harpoon earlier.

Poseidon struck the side of his own citadel, his trident burying itself in the soft stone. Before he could fully register where she had gone, Artemis had drawn two arrows from her quiver and shoved them upwards towards Poseidon’s stomach, weaving bands of fire and earth.

The arrows hit an impossibly compressed barrier of water and stuck there, inches from Poseidon’s chest.  Artemis kicked away, trying to get distance between herself and the enraged sea god. She held out her hand, calling bands of Water to bring her bow to her grasp.

She should have known better to try that in the ocean. With a flick of his wrist, Poseidon snapped her bow in half. Artemis whirled to find him flying at her. The arrows still stuck to the barrier of water.

Artemis let go the weaving she had put into the arrowheads when she’d tried to stab Poseidon. They exploded violently, and the shockwave sent her and Poseidon both tumbling. I’d been hoping to set those off inside of him, Artemis thought with dissatisfaction. She’d been further from the sea god and braced for the explosion. She frantically started kicking, trying to get distance between them.

In front of her, the Kraken’s tentacles emerged from the water. Artemis was second to none when it came from avoiding attacks on the land, but beneath the waves these tentacles could move far quicker than she could hope to. They wrapped around her wrists and legs.

Poseidon approached, keeping pace with her as the Kraken dragged her towards its waiting maw. “You should have just let me win, archer.” Poseidon growled. “You’re not a leader. You were never a leader. I would have let you keep up the pretense though. You would have been second to me as we ruled the seas.”

“Is that what this was about? Ruling the seas?” Artemis couldn’t believe her ears.

“Aye. When the Eschaton ends the world, why would he bother eradicating any life beneath the waves? We will be perfectly poised to shape the next wave of life for this world.”

“And you couldn’t just say that?” Artemis practically shrieked. “If you believe the end of the world is inevitable, then…oh, Stars of Olympus. Zeus shot you down. That’s why you manipulated Hera into killing him finally. And Moloch…”

“Moloch was a complication I had to adapt to,” Poseidon explained, almost apologetically. “I was still figuring out where he fit into my plans.”

Artemis had to laugh. “You’re an idiot, Poseidon.”

He glared at her and then looked ahead. “And you, Artemis, are a snack.” The Kraken’s beak clacked behind her.

She took a moment to look bat on the battlefield. The numbers were more equal, but it was clear the hastily modified underworld spirits were still outmatched by the aquatic servants of Poseidon. She saw an Ara torn apart by a pair of ichthyocentaurs, and a pair of Erinyes skewered on a single harpoon shot from a Nereid. There has to be something. There has to be a way out of this! 

Then she saw them. On the sea floor, right next to the Kraken’s head.

Three open doors.

“You made a mistake, Poseidon,” Artemis said. “You made a mistake, and it’s too late for you to fix it.”

The taunt worked. Poseidon held up a hand and stopped the Kraken just as it was about to devour Artemis. “And what mistake would that be?” he asked, his voice dangerously soft.

“You managed to alienate anyone who you could have made common cause with. Stars of Olympus, if you had gone to the Eschaton and offered to preserve some of humanity beneath the waves, he probably would have helped you. But no. You couldn’t do that. You had to be an ass.”

Poseidon’s eyes narrowed. “Chew her slowly” he commanded the Kraken.

In response, it wailed in sudden pain and let grow its grip on Artemis. Great clouds of blood billowed up from its eyes, which had been carefully detonated.

“What now!?” Poseidon bellowed, turning towards the new attack.

Athena was swimming out of the cloud of blood, and Artemis wanted to cheer to see her. She was followed by Anansi, which was a relief. And then, behind those two, came a third. A woman Artemis had never expected to see again. Arachne, she thought.

At that instant, for entirely different reasons, both her and Poseidon’s blood ran cold.

Small Worlds part 220

The Adriatic Sea was one of the most beautiful oceans on the world. As a girl, long before finding her Nanoverse, Artemis had enjoyed spending hours along its banks, hunting – sometimes alongside Apollo, sometimes alone. In that time, almost no humans lived along vast stretches of its shores, and she could go out there and be completely alone. Even after she had found her nanoverse and then scoured the globe to find one for Apollo, she’d come out there sometimes to enjoy the solitude. What had impressed her most back then was how clear the water was – it had felt like she could have stared straight to the bottom if there was only a bit lighter.

Today, that water was growing murky with the spilled blood of the god and monster alike.

Artemis’ bowstring thrummed in rapid succession, letting loose a trio of arrows that buried themselves in the chests of approaching Nereids. Blood began to leak into the water around them, and some of the shark mounts began to frenzy, turning on their bleeding riders. Artemis turned away from the sight – they weren’t threats anymore. “Fall back!” she shouted. Water rushed into her mouth, but the words came out clearly. She still found herself choking on seawater.

It took only a tiny portion of her divine power to allow a bow and arrow to work under water, but as long as the battle had been raging, Artemis was beginning to feel the strain of even that. Her body Hungered for air, a hunger that normally never bothered her. She shifted her body slightly, spouting gills along her neck and the sides of her ribcage. It was not the first adaptation she’d made for underwater combat, and she kicked away from the approaching horde with webbed feet. “Fall back!” she repeated. “Fall back or we’ll be overrun!”

Harpoons flew through the water around her, and one grazed her back. She gritted her teeth against the pain. Triton had lent some of his own ichor to all of these projectiles, and they sliced through divine flesh without problem.

Aphrodite spread her fingers, and bands of water wove themselves into a solid net between the retreating Olympians and Poseidon’s army. Hera flung out her hand and threw a web of fire into the net, boiling the sea between the bands.

Artemis saw the frustration on Hera’s face and knew it was mirrored on her own. On the surface, out in open air, that much heat would have incinerated a sizeable chunk of this army. Beneath the waves, it helped create a field of hot water and not much else.

Artemis landed on the floor of the ocean and held out her hand, grabbing threads of Air and Aether. She created a bubble of dry air on the ocean floor, and the other Olympians joined her. “We can’t keep this up!” Demeter said as soon as she entered the bubble.

“I can only hold this bubble for so long, and the Kraken or Scylla will find us soon,” Artemis growled as others joined them. “I need useful suggestions, please.” Already, Harpoons were being shot through the makeshift barrier and into the bubble of air. The difference between air and water meant they missed, but it would only before a matter of time before the Nereids drew near enough to open fire through the air.

“Hestia is dead,” Hephaestus intoned sourly, something small clutched between his fingers. He held it up to reveal her nanoverse.

“And you sent Hermes away,” Aphrodite sniffed.

“Enough,” Hera snapped, drawing all eyes to her. “We are also missing others. Artemis was chosen to lead. Shouldn’t we follow her?”

Artemis gave the older woman a look of pure thanks. Ever since Poseidon had turned on them, Hera had become Artemis’ staunchest supporter. It’s only because she wants you to vote to reinstate her once Zeus resurrects, Artemis reminded herself. At least, that was her best theory.

Either way, it worked in her favor.

“Fine,” Demeter said, wringing sea-water from her hair. “Then what’s your plan?”

The truth was, Artemis didn’t have one. This wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near this hard. Fighting Poseidon in the ocean was going to be difficult, but eight on one were odds that should have made it less of a fight and more of an execution. Even with Thalassa supporting him, they still would have outnumbered them four to one.

“We need to hold out till Hermes returns with reinforcements,” Artemis said. “The plan isn’t changed.”

“Hermes left before the others showed up!” Aphrodite said, the snap in her voice vanishing after a glance from Hera. “It’s not just Triton and Thalassa out there!”

Artemis didn’t need the reminder. On top of those three, on top of the Scylla and the Kraken, two other sea gods had joined the fray on Poseidon’s side. Ceto, the goddess of sea monsters – who was bringing in more creatures by the minute to reinforce Poseidon’s side – and Eurybia. Five gods, two monsters, and the gods and monsters arrayed against them were all in their natural habitat.

“It gets worse than what you know,” Aphrodite said with a scowl. “I saw my ex out there. Nerites. Nerites is commanding the Nereids.”

Make that six gods and two monsters. 

“All we have to do is hold out,” Artemis repeated, her voice firm. “Hermes will bring us back reinforcements. He’s never failed before.”

“Even if he does,” Apollo said, his voice calm, “what good would it do? That little mishmash pantheon Athena has been working on would-”

“Would almost double our numbers with fresh troops, and bring us two war goddesses, a Trickster, and a storm goddess. Under the waves. We need them.”

“There’s still an army,” Apollo objected in the same reasonable tones as before.

“Which is why Athena was not Hermes’ first stop,” Artemis said, meeting his gaze with level eyes.

Everyone looked at her. “What aren’t you telling us?” Hera asked, suspicion now in her eyes.

As if on cue – Artemis wouldn’t be surprised to learn the god in question had been waiting and listening to make a dramatic entrance – a bolt of fire split the air in the center of the gathered Olympians. Tiny hands, the color of a moonless night, grabbed onto the edge of the tear and tore it apart until it was wide enough to allow traversal.

Hand in hand, Hades and Persephone stepped out onto the sea floor. Hades was wearing a black suit, his bident resting on his shoulder. Persephone at least had dressed for the occasion, wearing a black wetsuit and had her hair tightly bound behind her head. “Well,” Hades said with an overly friendly grin, “I do hope I’m in the right place.”

“You could have arrived a little later. Maybe after we were all dead?” Artemis extended her hand, and Hades shook it. “Thank you for coming.”

Hades opened his mouth to answer, but Persephone cut him off. “They’re closing in. Hades and I will supply the army. You need to hold them off.”

Artemis nodded and turned to ready her bow as the water rushed back in around them.

Small Worlds part 219

 

Ryan gestured, grabbing equations that governed gravity around the cat thing, and set himself as ‘down.’ The creature began to scrabble along the ground as it slid towards Ryan, but the street as far, as it was concerned, was a perfectly horizontal wall. It flew off the ground when it got close. Ryan grabbed it by the throat and let gravity return to normal. The creature yowled and shifted back into a human. “I didn’t know you were him!” the man screamed in Ryan’s grip. “I didn’t know!”

Ryan looked at the man critically. He was in his late teens, maybe a young looking early twenty.  Aside from the blood on his face and shirt, he looked like a perfectly normal human. “What’s your name?” Ryan asked, the withheld fury making his voice sound dangerously calm.

“Billy. My name’s Billy.”

Ryan took in the new information with a level glare. “Hi Billy. You seem to know who I am.”

Billy nodded frantically, so hard that it almost slipped him out of Ryan’s grip. Ryan could feel the immense strength this man possessed. Against a human, it wouldn’t even be a fair fight. Billy would tear them apart with almost no exertion. Ryan didn’t want to try to arm-wrestle Billy, but it seemed Billy was too cowed right now to even realize that he could pose a threat to a god. “You’re the Eschaton.”

“That’s a pretty big word there, Billy. You know what it means?”

Billy nodded again. “It means…she said you’re going to end the world.”

“She?” Ryan asked quizzically, sure he knew the answer. “Who is ‘she?’”

Billy swallowed hard, and Ryan could feel the motion travel down Billy’s throat. “She’ll…she’ll kill me.”

“Oh, will she?” Ryan lifted Billy off the ground and with a single, fluid motion, slammed him into the asphalt hard enough to crack the black stone. Billy grunted with pain and brought his hands up to clutch at Ryan’s arm. “She’s not here right now, Billy. I am. You tell me, you might have time to run.”

Billy’s eyes widened as Dianmu and Nabu stepped into view. “I…it was Cassandra, okay? Cassandra?”

Huh. Ryan thought with the part of his brain that was still running logic under the outrage. “Cassandra?” He glanced sideways at Dianmu. “Any chance it’s the Cassandra?”

Dianmu shook her head. “She was mortal.”

Ryan glanced back at Billy. “Who the hell is Cassandra?”

“The first of us,” Billy whispered. “She was the first of us.”

“And what are ‘you,’ Billy?” Ryan asked. He was kneeling down, and lowered his face even closer so Billy could clearly see the rage that burned inside Ryan’s chest right now.

“Cardiophage,” Billy whimpered. “She said we were…Cardiophages.”

“Heart-eater,” Nabu supplied helpfully. “From the Greek Kardia, meaning ‘heart,’ and phagein meaning-”

“To devour,” Ryan finished for him, focusing on Billy. “So you eat hearts.”

“Y-yes,” Billy stammered. “Oh God please don’t kill me!”

“I’m not sure yet,” Ryan said. “Tell me, Billy, why the hell shouldn’t I kill something that eats hearts!?” The last two words came out in a scream, and flecks of spittle flew out of Ryan’s mouth and onto Billy’s face.

“Easy, Enki,” Dianmu said quietly.

The last word was like a bucket of cold water on Ryan’s head. He’d used the exact same trick Enki had used to pull Billy into range, and then was holding him up to his face and screaming in it like a monster. For the first time Ryan took a good look at Billy. This guy was a kid, and the blood on his face was mixing with tears and snot. Ryan felt sick at himself.

“Because…because,” Billy said, hiccupping with fear. “Because I didn’t want this, man! I just wanted to ask a girl out and then I’m…I’m being fed my own heart and…” Billy sniffed loud and deep. “I didn’t want this!”

Ryan leaned back and took his hand off Billy’s neck, replacing the grip with a twist to gravity just strong enough to keep the young man – the cardiophage – pinned to the ground. He rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Damnit. Thank you Dianmu.”

Dianmu gave him a small smile. “Crystal told me all about your encounters with him, in great detail.” Her smile faded. “It’s your first time dealing with this kind of horror, isn’t it?”

Ryan nodded, suddenly feeling hollow and empty. “I miss the days when the monsters were mummies or goblin-vampire-werewolf things. Hell, for that matter, I miss the days when there were no monsters.”

“Anthropophagi,” Nabu said thoughtfully.

“Man-eater?” Ryan said, looking at Nabu. “Are you okay, Nabu? Billy here said Cardiophage.”

“If a god turns into an anthropophagi, it’s always a unique kind,” Dianmu said, picking up where Nabu had left off. Ryan appreciated it – it saved Nabu the trouble of re-explaining what an anthropophagi was. “And they are always able to create spawn like themselves. It’s part of why the vampire myth is so universal.”

Ryan felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach and turned back to Billy. “Who does Cassandra serve?” he asked.

Billy looked at Ryan with wild eyes and mouthed a word. It was too low a whisper for Ryan to make out. Ryan knelt back down and leaned his ear near Billy’s voice.

“Look behind you,” Billy said, then snapped his rapidly shifted jaws down on Ryan’s ear. Ryan roared with pain and pulled away, clenching one hand to the side of his head. Blood poured between his fingers, and Billy was laughing, the previous fear vanished in an instant. Ryan whirled and snapped his fingers. Billy’s laughter ended in a sudden wet, sticky sound as the gravity on his chest increased to the power of ten.

“You shouldn’t have hurt my child,” Bast said. She was standing on a rooftop, flanked by dozens of the cat-things that Ryan had seen earlier. “Although I would have killed him for harming you, Eschaton.” Bast gave him a cruel smile. “We should talk.”

Ryan cauterized the bleeding stump where his ear had been as Bast leapt off the roof in a graceful bound.

 

Small Worlds part 218

Ryan had expected a battlefield.

It was night in North America when he set foot in Grant, a town he’d never thought he’d returned to after the encounter with the mummies of lost Ys. It had been almost a blip on his radar, noteworthy to him mainly as the first time he and Athena had fought side by side. Mainly, it had been a reminder of how little regard Bast and Moloch held for human life.

Now that he was back here, he expected to walk into another war zone. Whatever horrific monsters Bast had conjured running through the streets, the civilians of Grant shooting from windows and stores. He hadn’t expected the silence.

It wasn’t the normal silence one associated with a sleepy small town in rural America. That silence was comfortable, like a warm blanket on a cold night. This silence? It had a harsh, metallic edge to it. The silence that came after a car crash or an explosion, like a ringing in your ears that’s hiding the screams. “Are we too late?” He said.

Dianmu shook her head next to him. She’d already drawn a glaive out of her nanoverse, and was giving the empty street a suspicious gaze. “There were still flashes on the Zoisphere. There are people still alive here.”

Nabu stood on the other side. He looked as calm and composed as Ryan remembered, and it was both comforting and deeply disturbing to have Nabu back again. If he pulls out a notebook, I might scream, Ryan thought, then pushed the thought aside. It wasn’t important. He had to manage. He could deal with his old trauma after he saved whatever was left of this town. “Come on,” he said and started to walk down the empty street.

There were signs something had happened here. The McDonald’s the passed had its windows shattered, and a strong smell of offal wafted from that building. Grant’s one Cafe also had a broken window, and through the window Ryan could see a hand stretched out from under a table, the rest of the body hidden by the booths. He turned on his divine sight to confirmed what he already suspected – whoever that hand belonged to was dead, and had been for some time, their body cooled down to the same temperature as the floor beneath them. Dried blood had pooled there, attracting flies.

The next store, the town’s lone bookstore, had a dead body propped up against the door. Ryan walked over to the corpse. This man, whoever he had been, looked like he was in his late thirties, early forties. He might have been handsome in life. It was hard to tell. Death had not been kind to him. His mouth and eyes were both opened wide, frozen in the terror of his final moments, and someone – or some thing – had torn open his chest and ripped out the heart.

Ryan stepped back, fighting a wave of nausea. He’d fought against gods and monsters, but he’d never been so close to a dead body when there wasn’t an immediate threat. It was something different entirely than seeing one in the moment of a fight. There was a silence, a stillness. Like a burnt out house, once full of life and joy and hope, now broken and shattered and charred. “What the hell could have done that?” Ryan asked.

Dianmu and Nabu stepped closer to see what he meant. “His heart’s been taken,” Nabu said, with the dispassion of someone who had seen countless dead bodies.

“An ammit?” Dianmu asked, leaning down to inspect. Ryan took both of their focus on the dead body as an excuse to look away and watch for any encroaching threats.

“Unlikely,” Nabu said after a moment’s consideration. “They usually only feast after the person’s already dead. This man’s heart was removed still beating. Perhaps a loup garou?”

Ryan heard a squelching sound from behind him and forced himself not to look. It was bad enough to imagine what they were doing in their investigation of the man’s body. Seeing it would have been even worse. After everything you’ve been through, you’re squeamish about this? Ryan wondered.

But it was different. There was something strange and unnatural about it, without adrenaline pumping through his veins and keeping his mind focused on the immediate threat. This was something different, something colder. It was frightening in a way he couldn’t quite put his finger on.

“No,” Dianmu said after a moment. Her voice wasn’t quite as collected as Nabu’s – there was a hint of underlying sorrow to it. She, at least, was aware of the tragedy that this man’s life was cut short. “There’s no other injuries on his body. Have you ever known one of them to just eat the heart if their victim was capable of running. Besides – Bast hates canines.”

Nabu made a thoughtful sound, but didn’t argue. “How about an aswang? I know they eat more than just the heart, but if they only had time to eat one organ…”

“It’s possible,” Dianmu conceded. “But I don’t think it’s likely. We’d smell it if an aswang had been in this town in the last month. You never forget a stench like that. I think we’re dealing with something new.”

“You might be right. But what could have arisen so quickly-”

Ryan lost track of their conversation. Someone was coming, running towards Ryan. Whoever he was, he was unmistakably human, wearing a t-shirt with some dark pattern on it and jeans. Ryan raised his hand and motioned the man over.

The man turned and dashed towards Ryan, passing under a street lamp as he approached. The harsh light threw the man into sharp relief. That dark pattern on his shirt was blood, and it ran up his neck to his chin. The man’s eyes were wild. Oh damn it’s a zombie it’s a goddamn zombie. Ryan raised his hands, reaching out for the equations that governed reality.

As if in response to Ryan’s threat, the approaching man dropped to all fours, taking the shape of a loping feiline.

You’re responsible for this, Ryan thought, and with a sudden shout of rage he didn’t realize he’d been holding back, Ryan threw out his hand and let a bolt of lightning arc from his fingers into the charging creature. It through the thing back and drew both Nabu and Dianmu’s attention to the threat.

“Any of you know what runs like a man and can turn into the ugliest panther you’ve ever seen?” Ryan asked as the cat-thing struggled to get back to its feet.

“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” Dianmu confirmed.

“Me either.” Ryan began to stalk forward. “Let’s ask it what it is.”

He was so focused on the threat in front of him, he didn’t notice the other eyes drawn by his attack.