Small Worlds Part 157

Ryan had always wondered who decided to put a graveyard across the street from a local pool. Or to put a pool across the street from a graveyard, since he wasn’t actually sure which came first. In the distance, he could hear children playing, screaming, splashing. Living. Isabel had worked there as a lifeguard. As a teenager, she had practically lived there, but now she didn’t even glance across the street. Instead, her attention was fixed on the small pile of leaves that had accumulated on the grave.

“Does no one ever keep this place clean?” she growled, clearing a space for the flowers.

Ryan put a hand on her shoulder. He didn’t think it looked that bad, but Isabel was displeased about something every time they visited.

“I miss them,” Isabel said. “More now than ever. Could you imagine if they were around for all this?”

Despite the sadness he always felt at the gravesite, Ryan grinned. “Assuming they believed it was real?”

Isabel wiped her eyes. “Yeah, assuming that. What would they say?”

“Mom would tell me that I shouldn’t let it go to my head. Dad would tell me I should pray for guidance. Assuming they didn’t think I actually was the Antichrist.”

“They wouldn’t,” Isabel said firmly. “You know better than that.”

“I don’t, though.” Ryan sighed. “I don’t think they ever really forgave me for ‘making up’ Nabu.”

They lapsed into silence as they stared at the grave. A long, low whistle blast floated over from the pool, followed by a splash. A number of other whistles joined in the chorus – a lifeguard had jumped into the pool to rescue someone.

Isabel’s hand went up to her neck, and then chuckled as she realized she had automatically reached for a whistle.

“Old habits die hard?” Ryan asked.

“It’s that damn pool. A foot deeper in the middle than the edges. I swear, jumping in to save someone became routine.”

“I remember all too well,” Ryan said. “You never stopped texting me about it on your breaks. ‘I just saved someone’s life, what did you do today?’ was my personal favorite.”

Isabel chuckled. “I used that one on mom when she caught me sneaking in after midnight one night.”

“What’d she say?”

“‘Good for you. I grounded my daughter today. For a week.’”

That got a long, hearty laugh from Ryan. “They never caught me sneaking in after midnight.”

Isabel rolled her eyes. “You had to leave the house to get caught sneaking in, Ryan. You were a boring teenager.”

“I’m not boring anymore?”

“Nope, still boring. Just not a teenager.” Isabel smiled at him, and turned back to the grave. “You know, there was another time I got caught sneaking in. I think it was like three or four a.m, senior year. I was pretty blitzed.”

Ryan smiled. “I’m sure mom was thrilled about that.”

“Worse. Dad caught me.”

Ryan winced in sympathy. “What happened?”

“He started laying into me about respect and truth and all that. Said if I couldn’t act like a responsible adult, maybe I should live at home my freshman year, and you know how much I was looking forward to living on campus. I…like I said, I was drunk. I shouted at him something along the lines of ‘Ryan lied to you for years about an imaginary friend, but I’m in trouble for having a life?’” This time, Ryan’s wince had nothing to do with sympathy. Isabel held up a hand. “There’s a point, I swear.”

Ryan motioned for her to continue.

“I’d never seen Dad get that red before. Not when he caught me with weed, not even when I told him Shelly had cheated on me. You know how you’d always know he was really mad because he stopped yelling?”

“Oh yeah, I remember that one all too well.”

“He told me we’d talk in the morning. That he wasn’t having this discussion when I was drunk. The next thing, first thing in the morning he woke me up, soon as Mom had gone to work.”

“And?” Ryan asked.

“He told me that I was never to bring that up again. Not with you, not with him, not with Mom, not with anyone. He was worried about you, Ryan. But he wasn’t angry with you, not anymore. He thought you were having problems, bigger problems than you’d ever talked about, and it scared him shitless. Scared me, too. Remember the time I randomly called you to tell you I loved you, and wouldn’t say why?”

Ryan nodded. It had disturbed him, and he’d called his dad immediately afterwards. “I thought you were in trouble. Or high.”

Isabel chuckled. “Neither. We’d just had that conversation. We talked about it again after I finished college. Dad told me he didn’t know what was going on, but he wasn’t worried anymore. That you were doing fine, so whatever was wrong – if it had been in your head or just something else – had to be dealt with.”

Ryan felt tears coming to his eyes, and gave Isabel a hug. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“That I used the biggest fight you ever had with Mom and Dad to deflect that I was drunk, and then Dad scared me with how worried he was about you?” Isabel broke the hug. “Why the hell do you think I didn’t?”

Ryan sniffed and then laughed. “Fair enough. Thank you. I…I needed to hear that.”

Isabel smiled, and there were tears in her eyes too. “You know, this might have been our last chance to come here and not cry.”

Ryan nodded. “I’m not sad that we blew it. Are you?”

“Nope.”

They took a moment to say goodbye to their parents one last time, and then turned to leave.

It was time to look after the living.

Small Worlds Part 156

“A god and a shapeshifter walk into a burger joint. The cashier says, ‘what do you think this is, a bar?’” Ryan gave his sister a wide grin.

Isabel rolled her eyes and punched him on the arm. “You are such a nerd, you know that?”

“Absolutely,” Ryan said as they stepped up to the counter. “I’ll have a Letter C with cheese fries and a small concrete.”

“And I’ll have the Letter D, Moon Size, with the chili cheese fries and a large concrete.” Isabel paused to think, “and a Moon Chicken Jr. sandwich,” she added, jerking a thumb towards Ryan. “He’s paying.”

Isabel’s order took up the majority of the tray. “You getting enough food there, Izzy?” Ryan asked as they snagged  table.

“Hey, this might be our last check to eat Moon Burger before the literal end of the world. I think I’m allowed to go a bit wild on the menu.” Isabel gave him a wide grin. “Besides, I don’t think I need to worry about weight gain anymore. No more fad diets, no more exercise bike. I eat what I want.”

Ryan shook his head. “Could we not talk about that right now?”

“Exercise bikes? I know you hate working out, Ryan, but I didn’t realize it had gotten that bad.” Ryan opened his mouth to protest, and Isabel held up a hand. “I know what you meant, Ryan. But it’s kind of hard to not talk about, you know?”

“Oh, I know.” Ryan sighed. “Izzy, I just want to get Moon Burger with my sister and pretend everything’s fine for just a couple hours. Can we do that?”

Isabel paused and looked at his face, then softened her joking expression into something closer to compassion. “Sure thing, Ry. So what do you want to talk about?”

Ryan waited until Isabel had taken a big bite of her chicken sandwich before asking, “So, you going to do anything about your crush on Crystal?”

He sat back and grinned at Isabel nearly choked on her sandwich, needing some time to get a coughing fit under control. “You asshole,” she rasped once she was able to breathe normally. “You did that on purpose.”

“Me?” Ryan widened his eyes in mock innocence. “Isabel Smith, I am shocked and appalled you would accuse me of such a heinous-” Ryan paused to grin as Isabel’s upraised middle finger. “C’mon, seriously though.”

“Nope, nuh-uh, no way. If you get to nix the end of the world as a topic, I’m going to nix my crush on a literal goddess. Find something else to talk about or things are going to get apocalyptic in here.”

Ryan raised an eyebrow. “You mean because you’re going to talk about it, or because you’re going to blow something up?”

Isabel pointed at him with a fry. “Test me and find out, I dare you.”

Ryan opted against it. “Fine, then…” He trailed off. “If that’s the case, I’m suddenly struggling to come up with conversation topics.”

“Then shut your mouth and stick a burger in it. You think better when you’re full.”

Very carefully, Ryan closed his mouth and pushed the burger against his lips. “This isn’t working very well,” he said after a few attempts. “Maybe I should try the burger first, then shutting my mouth.”

Isabel giggled. “You are such a nerd. I can’t believe we’re related sometimes. Also, you’ve got mustard like, all over your face.” Ryan grabbed a napkin and Isabel took advantage of his inability to speak. “Look, Ry, I know you don’t want to talk about it. I get it. I do. But we’ve always used these lunches to talk about the biggest things in our lives. I mean, we used to talk about school, even though no sane person likes school.”

“I liked school,” Ryan protested.

“Thus proving my point,” Isabel said smugly.

“Fine.” Ryan sighed, but it was more for effect than anything else. Even the small slice of normal that was Wednesday Moon Burger with Isabel was enough to calm him down. “Something in particular on your mind?”

“Well, for starters, how you’re going to end the world.”

“Oh, so nothing big then.”

Isabel laughed, then sobered. “I’m serious, though. We don’t know how long we have left, and this heat wave has me worried.”

“You think the sun’s already starting to go wonky?” Ryan asked.

“Wonky. That’s a fairly light term. Yes, I think the sun’s going wonky. It’s too warm out there, and the news says that’s happening everywhere.”

“Could be global warming?” Ryan said hopefully.

Isabel gave him a flat look. “It’s too quick, and too global. C’mon, Ryan. What else could it be?”

“No, you’re right.” Ryan shrugged. “I’ve got no idea. I mean, I have plenty ideas for how I could end the world, but all of them involve terrible things happening to pretty much everyone. Asteroids, plagues…the classics. And I’m not going to do that. I’d rather let the sun explode. At least then it’s not my fault.”

“You’re getting into the trolley problem there,” Isabel countered. “Not pulling the lever is still a choice. Not saying you should start summoning ebola, but…being passive might not be the best options.”

“I’m open to suggestions,” Ryan said.

“I wish I had some.” It was Isabel’s turn to sigh. “Isn’t there some old wise man on a mountain or a magic item that can answer all our problems? Or at least help out with them? If movies have taught me anything, it’s that there’s always a McGuffin of some kind we can count on. A ring to take to Mount Doom, an alien mothership, a really big drill…something.”

“I don’t think so,” Ryan said, then paused, frowning. “Actually…I don’t know. I’d assume one of the others would have mentioned if we had something we could pull out of a hat to save humanity, but…”

“But?” Isabel prompted after Ryan trailed off.

“But they’re all thousands of years old. Maybe they forgot. Wouldn’t hurt to try and jostle their memory. Worst case scenario, I get told I’m being stupid, and I’ve gotten that so much that I’m practically immune.”

Isabel beamed at him. “And you didn’t think there was a benefit to growing up with me. If I hadn’t been around to deflate your ego, Crystal and Athena would have torn you apart.”

“Ego? Isabel, it’s me. I’m the least egotistical man alive.”

“And the humblest.” She stuck out her tongue as Ryan sputtered, and then started crumpling up her wrappers.

Ryan gaped at her. “You’re already finished?”

“I was hungry. Unlike some people, I’m still mortal. I haven’t eaten enough lately. You barely touched yours.”

Ryan glanced down at his food and saw she was right. It smelled good, it had tasted good, but without any Hungers it hadn’t held is attention. “I got a taste of everything,” he said. “It’s good enough.”

“Your call, bro. Let’s get back to the others, then.”

“Not yet. There’s one thing I want to do before we meet up with the others. I know it’s a couple weeks early, but since we’re both in town…”

“Oh.” Isabel’s face turned serious. “Yeah. Might be our last chance, after all. Mind if we get flowers on the way? I forgot the flowers last time and it didn’t feel right.”

Ryan nodded, and together they went to visit their parents’ grave.


 

Don’t forget to, if you haven’t yet, to pick up book 1, Weird Theology

Strange Cosmology Part 107 – Epilogue

Gunkanjima Island had once housed the greatest population density in the world. Off the coast of Nagasaki,  the island had housed coal mines for most of the early twentieth century, and had been home to thousands of people on its only sixteen acres of land.

Then the coal had run out, and the island had been abandoned.

That was why Bast had come here. There weren’t supposed to be any humans on the island.

Bast couldn’t fathom why an abandoned and collapsing coal town would become a tourist destination.

“No, please, don’t!” the man screamed, holding up his hands. He was young, and prior to this moment, had his full life ahead of him.

Emphasis on had, Bast thought as her hand slammed down and shoved through the man’s chest with the sickening crunch of bone. She pulled the arm back, letting the man slump bonelessly to the ground, the man’s beating heart still in her grasp. She raised the organ to her lips bit into it like it was a pulsating apple. “As far as last words go, I’ve heard better,” Bast said as she finished off her meal.

“You do like playing with your food,” Vlad said, stepping out from behind the wall. Blood caked his lips and chin. “When I was as young as you, I certainly did.”

Bast ignored the barb. “Was that the last of them?”

“There’s one more your pet monster is hounding right now. Then that will be the last of them. Cassandra ate herself sick, by the way. You should encourage your underlings to exercise some restraint.”

“Please, spare me the lecture,” Bast said, stepping out of the room and into the courtyard. “There weren’t supposed to be people here,” she said as she stared up at the apartment buildings that dotted the island, vines winding up the walls.

“I’ve learned that if people can manage to stand in a place for a full day without immediately dying, they’ll spend time there.” Vlad chuckled to himself, “and if they cannot, they’ll find a way to stand there. We’re a tenacious species.”

Bast shrugged. She hadn’t warmed up to Vlad in the past few days. He was a useful tool, and she was certain he felt the same way. He was just better at idle chatter. “We can’t use this island,” Bast said, shaking her head.

Vlad growled at that. “What do you mean, we can’t use it? It’s perfect. So what if we had to eat a few tourists to clear it out? God’s Blood, Bast, there’s a mine right under the town we can use on top of the facilities we can repair! And now you want to abandoned it?” Vlad kicked the body of the tourist Bast had just killed. “Look, he’s Korean, not even Japanese! No one’s going to realize where he died.”

“You really don’t understand the modern world,” Cassandra said, approaching the two gods. She was wiping her mouth as she did. Bast made a mental note to ask Cassandra if she had been a fastidious eater in her past life, too, or if that was a habit that had been picked up more recently. You certainly weren’t a clean eater a few days ago.

Vlad scowled at her. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“The tour guide would have logged this tour, digitally. Maybe with the government, or may just in his books. The people who he took with him would have used credit or debit cards, leaving a record of who they were with. The harbor will note the boat didn’t return. A rescue party will probably be here in twelve hours, with a plane flying overhead even sooner,” Cassandra finished and looked at Bast, who nodded approval. Cassandra flushed at the gesture.

Before Vlad could respond, there was a sickening howl as Bridges’s found his prey and snapped the poor bastard in half.

Vlad dismissed the interruption. “The more food for us. We can face down an army if need be.”

“The whole point was to not, however,” Bast said firmly. “No. This place is no good to  us.”

Vlad growled wordlessly. “Then where do you suggest we go? We need a place with existing infrastructure, easily defensible, no humans that someone might look for – do you have such a place in mind?”

“We’ll figure something out,” Bast said. “There’s other places on our list.”

“No,” Vlad said with a snarl. “We’ve taken long enough. Next time is the last time. If we have to slaughter a thousand humans to hold it, so be it. We’re never going to find the perfect place, and there is still a ticking clock.”

“If the next place is inhabited, we’ll come back here,” Bast said firmly. “It’s the closest to what we’re looking for we’ve found, and the heat should have died down by then.”

Vlad glanced up at the sun and scowled. “The heat is precisely what I’m concerned about, Bast.”

“We’re almost done,” Bast said. “What about the others? Would they want us to take needless risks this close to the end of it?”

Vlad sighed. “Very well. But,” he held up a finger, “No more attempts. The location is hardly this important. If our next location ends up being a dead end, I’m going to tell the others you’re stalling.”

It was Bast’s turn to scowl. Her position was tenuous. Such an accusation could completely undermine her, see her cut out of the process. She glances at Cassandra. See us cut out of the process, Bast amended. “I assure you, Vlad, our next stop will be our last.”

Vlad gave her a curt nod and stalked back to his nanoverse.

“How can you be certain of that?” Cassandra asked, in the quavering tones she always used when questioning Bast.

Bast shrugged as the door to Vlad’s nanoverse closed. “Because he was right. I have been stalling.”

Cassandra gaped at her. “Why?”

“Because there’s too many things unaccounted for. We still don’t know where Athena, Ishtar, and that little shit vanished to. We still don’t know who’s side half the gods are going to come down on. I was using this as a pretext to buy myself time to get answers.”

“Did it work?” Cassandra asked.

“Oh yes,” Bast said, her eyes sparkling. “I know exactly what our next move is going to be. Come, Cassandra. We have work to do.”

And what a glorious thing it will be, Bast thought as they stepped into her nanoverse.


 

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Strange Cosmology Part 106

Weird Theology is on sale, other regions here. Already read it? Please consider leaving a review on Amazon or Goodreads.

Ryan woke up in a bed, trying to remember the last time he’d done so.

He didn’t count the cots they’d created in their improvised fortress, and he didn’t count coming back from being half dead after getting most of his face shot off. Eliminating those two…I think it was after Graham Island? It felt like there had been another time since then, but it eluded him.

No matter when it had been, it was nice to wake up in a bed. It was even nicer to wake up in a bed this fancy. It was like sleeping on a cloud, and Ryan had to fight the urge to burrow back under the covers. You need to get up, a treacherous part of his brain piped up. You’re in the Elysian Rest, and you have no idea who you can trust here.

That thought soured any attempt to relax, and Ryan through off the covers as a sudden wave of anxiety settled in.

The Olympians, or at least one of them, had provided clothes for him, his previous outfit being completely ruined between burns, cuts, holes, and his own blood. Unfortunately, it seemed they were out of anything that would fit modern styles. Or Medieval styles, for that matter.

It took far too long to figure out how to put on a toga.

When he finally left his room, feeling incredibly out of place wearing a garment that had been the exclusive domain of fraternities for at least a millenia, he found a man waiting for him. The visitor wore a toga as well, although he wore it like a fashion statement, as opposed to the rumpled cloth that was currently wrapped around Ryan.

“Ah, good, you’re up,” he said to Ryan, offering a hand. “I’m Hermes.”

“Nice to meet you,” Ryan said. “I’m Ryan. Although you probably already knew that.”

Hermes smiled brightly. “I would hope so, since Ishtar – sorry, Crystal – sent me with a message for you.”

Ryan blinked. “What’s the message?”

When Hermes spoke, a perfect imitation of Crystal’s voice came out of his mouth. “Tell that bloody wanker he’s slept enough. Time to wake up because I don’t want leave things hanging any longer than I sodding have to. Thanks, love, I appreciate it. Of course I want it verbatim, why do you ask? Yes, that’s the full message.”

Ryan laughed. “That’s pretty impressive,” he said. “How do you do the voice so well?”

“Selective shapeshifting of my vocal cords,” Hermes said with a bow. “I came back from the dead last night, so I’m glad to have a chance to show off.”

“I can imagine,” Ryan said. “Where are they?”

“She forgot to include that in the message,” Hermes said with a grin. “I’m sure you’ll find them if you wander around long enough.”

Ryan laughed, then realized that Hermes was serious. Well, not serious. He’s going to make me wander around for the sake of a joke. “Would you mind delivering a message to Crystal for me, then?”

Hermes asked, “What’s the message?”

“Here I am. And yes, that’s the full message.”

Hermes laughed. “So you can follow me to her?”

“Of course,” Ryan said.

“Oh, I like you.” Hermes motioned for Ryan to follow, and lead him to where the others had gathered. “Here I am,” Hermes said, speaking with Ryan’s voice, “And yes, that’s the full message.”

Athena rolled her eyes. “Good to know your sense of humor hasn’t changed, Hermes.”

“Ryan laughed,” Hermes said defensively.

“Ryan has only known you for a day. It gets old, fast.”

Hermes chuckled and headed off to leave the gods alone. In addition to Ryan’s group, Uriel sat at the table, as did Artemis, and a drone hovered over a seat. All of them still bore injuries from yesterday, except for Isabel, who’s injuries hadn’t shown in the first place.

“Good,” Crystal said. “Now that everyone’s here, we have some things to discuss. First order of business – Artemis, I wanted to thank you again for the save during the fight back there.”

Artemis shrugged. “Don’t mention it. I’m just glad I got there in time to make a difference.”

“As am I,” Athena said. “I’m hoping this means we can count on Olympus’ support?”

“I’m not sure,” Artemis said, leaning forward on the table. “Right now there’s an uneasy balance of power between Poseidon and myself. We still have a couple days before Zeus resurrects. Until he does, I have to keep that asshole in check.” Her lips curled down in a frown. “He wanted us to support Moloch. Against you. I still don’t know what to make of that.”

“He’s a traitor to your people,” Dianmu said.

Artemis shrugged again. “Maybe. Or maybe he just honestly believed he was doing the best thing for us.”

“You don’t believe that,” Anansi said.

“Of course not,” Artemis said with a diresive snort. “But I can’t prove it. So until Zeus is back on his feet, I can’t promise anything.”

“We came all this way and saved you, and you can’t promise?” Ryan asked.

“Well, I can promise I’ll help. Hercules too. The rest…” Artemis paused to sigh. “It’s complicated.”

“Two gods is still more than we had before, love,” Crystal said to Ryan, before turning to Artemis, “What do you think is likely?”

“Poseidon lost. His political cache is terrible right now. I don’t know who all really supports him, and who all was just acting out of fear, but it’s unlikely he’ll be able to regain any control. Zeus…if you asked me a week ago, I’d have said he’d be on your side.”

“And now?” Ryan prompted.

“I still think he will be, after everything that’s happened, but with the week I’ve had, I’d take my judgement on what Olympians would or wouldn’t do with a grain of salt. I can promise one thing, though – I’m going to use my political capital for being a hero to get us to head back to Olympus. We shouldn’t be walled off from the world.”

“Not to be rude,” Ryan asked, “but how does that help us? If you all side against us, wouldn’t it be better if you were still down here?”

“I think seeing the mortals again will help us remember the people of the world should matter more than the world itself,” Artemis said.

“It’s something, at least,” Athena said. “I wish you would reconsider and come with us.”

Artemis shook her head. “Much as I hate politics, I’m in it now, Gray-Eyes. I wish you would stay. I could use your expertise.”

Athena glanced at the others, then shook her head. “My place is on Earth, with these people. I was kicked out of Olympus. I’ve got a new Pantheon now.”

“Fair,” Artemis said with a sigh. “I’ll just muddle my way through it regardless.”

“You won your first political fight,” Anansi said with a grin. “I think you’ll do fine.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Artemis said.

Crystal cleared her throat. “Since that’s settled, second order of business. Resheph, we’ve recovered a few nanoverses from your people. We can bring them to you.”

“How many?” Resheph asked through the drone.

“Five,” Crystal said softly.

Resheph was silent for a minute. “Well…that’s better than I feared,” he said, his voice thick with emotion.

“I’m sorry,” Crystal said.

“Don’t be. It’s not your fault. In fact, I think I recall you killing the bastard who’s fault it was,” Resheph said.

“Yeah. Sorry to deny you vengeance.”

“Don’t be,” Resheph said. “I’m just glad he’s dead.”

There was an awkward silence before Uriel spoke up. “On another matter – Ryan, I believe you promised to discharge your bargain with Arthur?”

“I want to make sure we’re clear here,” Ryan said, “I’m going to give you information that will help fix your mortal status. You’re going to promise me that it will fulfill my debt to your boss. Is that correct?”

Uriel nodded. “So long as the information has a reasonable likelihood to help.”

“Agreed,” Ryan said. “We’re going to take you out of Tartarus.”

“And?” Uriel asked, then saw the expectant look on Ryan’s face. She frowned, then sighed. “And then reality should reassert itself, undoing the twist Moloch placed on me.”

“Exactly.”

Uriel looked both annoyed and amused, “I should have seen through that. My thoughts are more sluggish in this form.”

Ryan didn’t grin. “After the stunt your boss pulled, it’s probably best you didn’t. I’m going to deck him next time I see him.”

“Ryan,” Isabel snapped, speaking up for the first time. “Cut it out.”

Ryan sighed, and got a sympathetic look from Athena. He appreciated that, at least. Someone understands what I’m going through.

“It’s fine,” Uriel said, “I understand the anger, Ryan. Arthur figured it would piss you off. He decided the fate of the world outweighed your anger, and assumed that once you calmed down you’d agree.”

Ryan just glared at her.

“Anyway,” Crystal interrupted, “I think that covers most of the important details, loves.”

Everyone glanced around, then nodded, except for Resheph, who voiced his affirmation through the drone.

“I can have Nike and Kratos escort you out,” Artemis said. “With the monsters gone, it should be an easy trip.”

“So eager to be rid of us?” Athena asked.

“Yes,” Artemis said simply. “I can’t guarantee the Eschaton’s safety, and as much as I’d like to extend hospitality to you…” Artemis gave another one of her small shrugs. “You saved our lives. We won’t forget that. I don’t want anyone thinking that debt is discharged because we made you guests.”

“I can live with that,” Crystal said. “Anyone disagree?”

No one did. Ryan least of all. He wanted nothing more to get out of Tartus and back to Core World to see what had happened there in their absence. Moloch was defeated, but Bast was still out there, and who knew what the Army had gotten up to while they were gone. Not to mention other gods emerging from hiding. They’d saved the Olympians, and at least won the allegiance of a few of them in the process, but there was a long way to go before the end of the world. Especially because they still had no idea how to save the people on it.

How’s that saying go? Ryan asked himself. The reward for a job well done is more work?

Ryan decided that, for now, he’d focus on the job well done, and let the work be a problem for the future.

Strange Cosmology Part 105

Note: Today’s part contains an important retcon for an earlier scene. The earlier scene will be changed later. For more details about the retcon and why, Click Here

“Hey Ryan. We won.” Isabel frowned in thought. “Or I think we’re winning?”

From the ground, Ryan raised his hand and gave Isabel a thumbs up. “You turned into animals,” he said, not wanting to risk pushing himself into a sitting position.

“Yeah, Arthur made me a stone full of animal souls. I can channel them to shapeshift, which is great. I can also burn a soul to prolong my life.” She leaned over Ryan. “Apparently this fulfills a deal you made with him on my behalf without asking me about it?”

“Yup,” Ryan said, ignoring the accusation in her tone. “How about the others?”

Isabel sighed. “Crystal’s alive and making her way over, Artemis – oh, Artemis showed up at the last second, by the way – is over with Athena, and Anansi and Dianmu are getting back to their feet. Everyone’s as beat to hell as you are.” Isabel put her hands on her hips and glowered at Ryan. “Although none of them can be killed as easily as you. Why the hell do you go into these fights? Why would anyone?”

Ryan shook his head. “I can’t ask them to fight for me.”

“Bullshit, Ryan. You totally could. Even ignoring worry about your own life, you still should worry what happens to the world if you died.”

Ryan smiled. “I was worried about you too, Izzy.” Isabel let out a huff of air, wincing as soon as she did. Ryan sat up. “What’s wrong?”

“Asshole cracked my sternum with that strong arm. And before you say something, yes, I apparently know exactly what bone he broke. Side effect or something.” Isabel offered a hand to help him up as Crystal strode into view.

“Hey,” Ryan said to Crystal, “you doing alright?”

“Love, I found out that my old mentor was a monster that had been powering himself on human sacrifice for years. I’m beat to hell, my sodding Hungers are in full force, and we’re still in the middle of a battlefield surrounded by angry Olympians and monsters, and I’m not sure which group wants me dead more. I’m not even on the same planet as alright.” She gave Ryan and Isabel a small smile. “Though I’ll admit getting all that out there does help with it, yeah?”

“Fair,” Ryan said.

“If you need anything,” Isabel started, and Crystal shook her head.

“Thanks, love, but right now we need to finish this battle.”

“Like hell we do,” Dianmu snapped, approaching with Anansi.

Anansi nodded in agreement with Dianmu, “the Olympians can take it from here. Moloch is dealt with, they’ll be able to handle his armies.”

“And there’s no point to any of us risking even a temporary death at this point,” Dianmu continued. She pointed at Ryan and Isabel. “Especially those two, since it wouldn’t be temporary. Besides, we have something else to take care of.” Dianmu glanced behind her. “Uriel survived.”

Ryan pushed past the others to walk over to the twice fallen angel. Uriel was struggling to her feet, her eyes wide with pain.

“God Almighty,” she gasped to Ryan as he approached, “He…he made me mortal.”

Ryan’s eyes narrowed. “Glad you survived it. Besides – you kidnapped my sister. You could have gotten her killed.”

“She wasn’t in any danger, Ryan,” Uriel said. “I was there, and the deal with Moloch let me get involved directly in the fight. If not for that, I couldn’t have-”

“So what was your plan for protecting her if you got turned mortal?”

Uriel sighed. “There was no way to foresee-”

“Yeah, of course not.”

“Quit being an asswipe, Ryan,” Isabel said from behind him. “She’s hurt, you’re hurt, and she was trying to help. She knew Moloch was King, knew you’d need backup. I’m mortal so she could tell me. Why do you think I agreed to go along with it?”

Ryan frowned. “Agreed?”

“Yeah,” Isabel said, “you think she just whisked me away?”

Ryan looked at Uriel, who nodded.

“Why didn’t you tell us, then?” he demanded of the angel.

“Me again,” Isabel interrupted. “Ryan, you have a terrible poker face. No way could we risk Moloch figuring out what we were up to.”

Ryan glowered at Isabel, then at Uriel, and then at the world in general. “Fine. I’m going to fulfill my debt to your boss, then.”

“You didn’t agree to choose the method of filling it,” Uriel said, carefully.

“Nope. But I saw what Moloch did to you. I can’t just undo it – I’m not him – but I definitely know a way to help. Think he’ll accept that?”

“I’ll persuade him if needs be,” Uriel said quickly.

“Great. I have you word on that?” Uriel nodded, and Ryan offered her a hand. “Come on, then. Athena is waving for us to follow, and it looks like we have a couple Olympians to escort us back to the Rest.”

Uriel took the hand, and Ryan helped her to her feet.

“Ryan, Isabel” Athena said as they approached, “I’d like you to meet Nike,” Athena gestured to a woman lounging with a massive shield and a spear nearly three times as long as Ryan was tall, “and Kratos,” she indicated the other god, a thin but muscular man leaning against a sword that was longer than he was tall.

Ryan’s eyes bulged at the two of them. “Nike and Kratos? You both are famous!”

“Come again?” Nike asked, frowning.

“You got chosen to represent a line of shoes. And Kratos, you’re in video games as the god of war.”

Kratos’ forehead furrowed. “That’s stupid. Ares is God of War. And what is a video game?”

“It’s…” Ryan stared at him, and at Nike, who looked equally perplexed. “Nevermind, it’d be hard to explain.”

“We’re famous,” Nike said, grinning at Kratos. “It may be for strange things, but we’re famous.”

“Never been famous before. Think I’ll get to replace Ares if he doesn’t resurrect?”

Athena frowned. “Why wouldn’t he resurrect?”

“Don’t know.” Kratos shrugged. “It’s been an odd few days.”

Isabel started tugging on Ryan’s sleeve. “Ryan, what is going on? Can you understand them?”

“Of course I can. Why…” Ryan replayed the last few minutes in his head and realized what he’d heard didn’t jive with what his brain had interpreted. “Holy crap, I understood Greek.”

Athena smiled. “Glossolalia. One step closer to Apotheosis.”

“But not there yet?” Ryan asked.

“Not yet.”

“Damn.”

“Enough chatter,” Kratos growled. “We have to get you all to safety, and I don’t want to miss the entire battle.”

“Neither do I,” Nike added.

Athena nodded, and they headed to the Elysian Rest.

Strange Cosmology Part 104

Earlier

Thirty in favor of aiding Athena and her allies, thirty in favor of aiding Moloch. Artemis wanted to rip her hair out. Cowards, she thought.

Poseidon looked smug. “It appears we have an even tie.”

“I’m perfectly capable of counting, Poseidon,” Artemis growled.

Then that means we take no action.”

Artemis could feel her hands shake with poorly suppressed rage. “You were counting on this,” she said quietly, leaning in so only Poseidon could hear her. “You knew that even in a tie, things would go your way. What did Moloch promise you? What did it take to get you to sell out our people?”
Poseidon glanced around to make sure they weren’t being overheard before leaning back in. “I would have vetoed anyway. Same as you would have vetoed me. Deadlock was guaranteed, with no third veto to break the tie.” His eyes flashed with anger. “But don’t you dare call me a traitor, archer. I did this to save us. Moloch just wanted the right battlefield to fight the others. He didn’t give a damn about us.”
“You’re a fool if you believe that,” Artemis said, shaking her head. “You’re a bigger fool than I ever could have imagined. Once Moloch wins, he’ll turn whatever monsters he makes from them against us.”

And we will win if he does,” Poseidon said with a shrug.

He has an entire pantheon’s worth of monsters out there, Poseidon! We will die.

It doesn’t matter, Artemis.” Poseidon reached out and clapped her on the shoulder. “You fought well. I didn’t expect it to be this close. But you’ve lost.”
Artemis took a deep breath, hoping against hope she wasn’t wrong. “No, I haven’t.”
Poseidon frowned as Artemis turned back to the assembled gods. “I invoke Eumenides,” she said in a clear voice to carry over the muttering.
Every head whipped towards her. No one had invoked Eumenides since…well, since Athena was banished. But it was one of their oldest laws. In the event of a divine deadlock, if even the veto powers could not reach an accommodation, the tie would be broken by a single vote.

What madness is this?” Poseidon demanded. “You cannot invoke Eumenides. The Furies are not here, they are in Hades’s realm.
Artemis nodded. “Yes, they are. Which means the vote falls upon the god or goddess of wisdom.”
Poseidon scoffed. “There has not been a goddess of wisdom since Athena was exiled.”
“Correct. However, I do not recall Athena ever being stripped of that title,” Artemis said cooly, looking around the room as she did. “Can anyone prove me wrong?”
Silence. Slowly, eyes started to turn towards Poseidon.
The gods of Olympus were a quarrelsome lot, but one thing they agreed on were their Laws. No one had said Athena was no longer the goddess of wisdom, nor had a new one been appointed.
“I deny it,” Poseidon growled.
“You cannot,” Artemis said. “Eumenides cannot be overruled by veto.”
Poseidon gnashed his teeth. Artemis started to grin. I didn’t know if I remembered the laws correctly, she thought.
“It’s impossible,” Poseidon spat, “she is outside our barrier. To go to her would be tantamount to declaring war on Moloch!”
Artemis shook her head. “Then I’ll go alone. You can deny me as a traitor if things go poorly. But I will get to Athena, and I will get her vote.”
“We all know what she’ll vote!” Heracles shouted from the back. “Let her vote happen without her, and let us go to her aid!”
“Our laws forbid assuming votes,” Poseidon said, clinging to the last hope he had left.
Artemis nodded. “He’s right. Do not worry, Heracles. I’ll get her vote.”

I’ll not allow anyone to go with you,” Poseidon muttered.
With a gesture, Artemis’s arrows flew from where she’d shot them back to her quiver.

“You won’t need to. I’ll report back with her vote soon.”
Poseidon could do nothing more than stare at her in silent fury as Artemis left.

Now
Artemis rose to her feet, coughing up blood. Ishtar was staring blankly at the statue that had been Moloch.
The saber tooth tiger that was standing over the Eschaton shifted into the form of a young woman. “Did we just win?”
Artemis hissed in pain. “There’s still a war on. Where’s Athena?”
The shapeshifter pointed towards a crater. “Wait, I thought you gods could heal from anything? Won’t Moloch be turning back to flesh soon?”

He would anywhere else,” Artemis said, hobbling over towards the depression that held Athena. “What Medusa does to people is a manifestation of Athena’s power. It would take minutes, maybe, for that twist to fade on Earth. But we are in Tartarus. Changes to reality are permanent here.”
“So…”
“So now his army has no commander, and we are sitting in the middle of the largest brawl of monsters I’ve ever witnessed. We’re dead unless I get to Athena. Talking makes that harder.”
“Okay then,” the woman said, turning back to the Eschaton. “Hey, Ryan, we won. Or. I think we’re winning?”
Weakly, Ryan raised a hand from the ground to give the woman a thumbs up.
Artemis ignored the rest of their conversation, leaning over the edge of the crater. “Pallas Athena,” she said.
Athena looked up. “Artemis. Olympus is finally fighting?”
Artemis carefully sat on the edge of the crater. “No. Just me. There’s a tie in the Elysian Rest. I invoked Eumenides. We need your vote.”
A sly grin crept over Athena’s face. “You were paying attention.”
“Sometimes,” Artemis granted. “Your vote, then? Should we aid Moloch’s monsters or should we aid you and your allies?”
“I vote you all get off your asses and help us.” Athena said.
“Figured you might say that.” Artemis twisted to amplify her voice. “Athena has voted to fight the monsters of Moloch! Eumenides is fulfilled! Olympus, the time for inaction has passed!
At first, nothing happened. Artemis began to worry that Poseidon had done something terrible, broken their laws to force people to stay within.
Then Heracles came flying out of the Rest, holding a sword as long as he was tall, and threw himself into the mass of monsters. One by one, the gods of Olympus came charging into the disorganized mess. Had Moloch still commanded them, they could have rallied against the gods, even posed a threat. Without their master, most of them were just beasts.
Artemis looked back down in the crater to see Athena’s frowning face. “Artemis, wait. Only one who holds a veto can invoke Eumenides. How did you-”
Artemis stepped into the crater, offering Athena a hand. “You and your allies have been beaten bloody, old friend. Perhaps we should get you to safety before I fill you in on the last millennia of Olympian politics?”
Athena laughed, and the two women clasped hands. “Fair enough. Let’s gather the others, then. I have…many questions.”
“Of course you do,” Artemis said with a roll of her eyes. “Safety first. Questions later.”
To Artemis’s surprise and relief, Athena nodded in agreement.

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Strange Cosmology Part 103

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Crystal opened her divine sight as she ran, equations whirling around herself and Moloch. King. Crystal still couldn’t process that it was really him.

She slid under Moloch’s first blow, her sword flying out to cut him across the calves. Moloch hissed in pain, bringing his talon up to kick Crystal away. She rolled away from the blow, bringing her sword around in another frantic slash. He leapt over it, and she redirected her cut upwards. She felt it bite into Moloch’s skin, but he whirled away before it could get purchase. He’s still just a god, Crystal reminded herself. This wasn’t like Enki. Moloch’s reserves of power may be vast, but if she could just get in a fatal hit she could-

Moloch managed to hit her in the chest, hard enough to send her flying back. “So you figured out how to watch the equations too,” he said, walking over to her.

“King…” Crystal gasped. It felt like he’d broken one of her ribs. “You don’t have to…I didn’t have a choice.”

Moloch shook his head. “There’s always a choice, Crystal. You chose to end the world. You chose to kill my family, my friends.”

“The sun…”

“There was still time!” Moloch roared, and he reached out to strike Crystal with bands of lightning. “There was still a chance! You couldn’t wait. You were so damn eager. I think you were looking forward to it.”

“I hated it.” Crystal spat as the lightning dissipated. “I never wanted to do it.”

“And yet, you did, and here we are.” Moloch sighed. “You did it, Crystal.”

“There was no other-“

Moloch kicked her . “It’s just a rock, Crystal. You saved a damn rock. Maybe you’re right. Maybe there was no hope left! Who gives a shit?”

Crystal looked up at him, her eyes wide with more than pain. “What?”

“If everyone dies anyway, what’s the point of saving the damn rock everyone lived on? What does it matter? All you accomplished was killing everyone slightly earlier than scheduled!”

Moloch’s next kick sent Crystal flying. She felt something else break when she hit the ground. Get up, get up…”Humanity still-“

That was the wrong thing to say. Moloch leapt the distance between them, landing on her back, his talons digging in. “You don’t get credit for that, Crystal. You killed an entire world to allow another to possibly exist, and got lucky.” Moloch leaned down and grabbed Crystal’s head, forcing her to look at the others. “Look at them, Crystal. Look at these apes you sacrificed our people for. You love them so damn much?”

“Yes!” Crystal shouted, “Bloody hell, yes.”

“Then you get to watch them die. The same gift you gave me.” Moloch opened his mouth to say something else, but his words were cut off by a gargle. An arrow erupted from his open mouth, having punched through the back of his skull to shoot out between his teeth.

Moloch whirled around. “You talk too much,” Artemis said.  She fired three arrows in rapid succession, hitting Moloch in the chest, right where the heart would be. “And I’ve spent centuries locked up with the gods of Olympus.” Another two arrows, one to each knee. “I’m somewhat of an expert in talking too much.”

Moloch began to slump over. Artemis strode forward.

Crystal’s felt hope fade. “Artemis!” Crystal shouted. “His heart is on the other side!”

The warning came too late. Moloch stood up in a swift motion, pulling the arrow out of his mouth and ramming it into Artemis’ chest. The goddess managed to twist so it only hit her in the shoulder instead of puncturing a lung.

Frantically, Crystal scanned the Elysian Rest for some sign, any sign, that Artemis was part of a vanguard of Greek gods, that the rest were coming.

The halls of the Elysian Rest sat silent. The defenses Artemis must have lowered were back in place.

No more help was coming, and Artemis couldn’t shoot anymore.

Without her bow, Artemis posed as much threat to Moloch as any of the other gods had so far. She had drawn a gladius, but Moloch just reached out and twisted, hitting her with several walls of force, each stronger than an onrushing train.

Artemis was bowled over and sent rolling back across the landscape with each blow. “Poseidon was supposed to keep you all occupied,” Moloch muttered as his mouth healed, then looked around. “Anyone else?” he shouted at the raging war of monsters around them. “Does anyone else think they can fight me!”

Crystal caught a glance of something in the melee, between the legs of a Cyclops and a twisted monstrosity made of teeth and claws and little else. She kept her eyes on Moloch and hoped she was right about what she dare not look at.

“There’s one other,” Crystal gasped, managing to raise herself to a seating position.

Moloch frowned at her. “Why would you tell me that?”

“I’ll show them to you, Moloch, if you promise me something.”

Moloch scoffed. “What do you think I’ll give you?”

Crystal glanced at Ryan. Isabel had managed to reappear and had taken the form of a saber toothed tiger, standing over Ryan protectively. Crystal turned back to Moloch. “I know you want me to suffer. I deserve that. He didn’t do anything to you. Don’t kill him.”

Moloch sighed. “The sun is going to destroy the world, Crystal. You have to fail. It’s only just.”

Crystal nodded. “Fine. Then…promise me you won’t make him suffer.” C’mon, you arrogant bastard, let me do this…

Moloch paused to think, then nodded. “Agreed,” Moloch said. “Now. Who else is going to get in my way?”

“I’ll show you,” Crystal reached out and began to twist, moving slow so Moloch could see what she was doing, know it wasn’t a trap. She was just making a series of lenses. Moloch stared into them, his forehead furrowing.

“Her name,” Crystal said in triumph as the lenses fell into place, “is Medusa.”

Moloch brought a hand up to cover his eyes as he found himself staring directly into the gorgon’s face.

As Crystal watched, Moloch’s hand started to turn grey.

“No!” Moloch shouted, “No!” He looked around the battlefield wildly. He locked eyes with Crystal, and in that instant, he looked exactly like he had so many years ago, right before he dashed out to save his children.

The grey crept up his arms, reaching his face, and that expression became the one Moloch would make for eternity.

Strange Cosmology Part 102

Dianmu leapt for Moloch, her glaive held high over her head, howling a battlecry. Moloch flicked his wrist and hit her with a gust of air before she could get within reach. He raised his other hand to counter Anansi’s twist. The spider god sent of bolt of lightning streaking towards Moloch, but Moloch stopped it by raising a stone wall from the ground. “What is it going to take for you to stay out of my way?” Moloch asked.

Moloch knew they were as likely to do that as he was spare the life of the Eschaton or Crystal. This is my victory, my triumph. I’m not going to let these upstarts ruin it.

Dianmu lowered her glave and charged. Moloch whirled to face her attack, slamming his fist into the ground. He added a twist and his fist’s impact generated a wave of molten rock that shot out and streaked towards the approaching goddess. Her charge interrupted, Dianmu leaped over, momentarily lit red by the lava beneath her.

No. Not that easy this time. Moloch flicked his hand again, increasing her gravity at the apex of her leap, pulling Dianmu sharply towards the molten rock. She managed a last second twist of her own, freezing the rock beneath her. Her impact with the ground was brutal, but it didn’t incinerate her. Moloch sighed as she started to rise and increased the gravity again, holding her in place.

When Moloch turned to face Anansi the trickster was gone. Moloch glanced back to Dianmu. “It appears only one of you has the sense to-”

Dianmu was gone as well. Moloch scanned the battlefield. Two of his Helhests were feasting on the last of the centaurs, and the sweet melody of a faun being torn limb from limb filled Moloch’s ears. His monsters were gaining the upper hand against the disorganized chaos of the creatures of the unleashed Labyrinth. Yet either of his opponents were nowhere to be seen.

He was caught completely off guard when they phased out of the ground on either side of him. Dianmu’s swing was aimed at Moloch’s neck, Anansi’s sword was coming for his back.

Moloch twisted time as the blades closed in, slowing the two of them to a near stop. Too close, Moloch thought, stepping aside. The motion forced him to take a breath. Too close, and I’m starting to feel Hungers. Moloch kept the alteration up for a few more seconds, just enough to rush behind Dianmu and kick her forwards.

Normal time resumed. Pushed ahead, Dianmu’s glaive bit into Anasi’s shoulder, and Anansi’s sword caught Dianmu in the side. Before they could pull away from each other, Moloch struck them with a bolt of lightning. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have worried about Enki,” Moloch said as he clenched his fist, striking them again. “You two weren’t even there, and the other three managed to defeat him.” Moloch went for a third strike, but Anansi and Dianmu had managed to separate and leap apart. Anansi’s skin was smouldering, and Dianmu’s eyes were turning red from burst blood vessels. “I can only imagine what I could have done with his power,” Moloch said, stepping back so he could see them both.

“And yet you did not,” Anansi said, “Why is that? Was Enki smarter than you? How did he figure out what the great bird man did not?”

Moloch snapped, “I reject the notion that a mere human god could have come up with something beyond me.”

“And yet, a mere human did,” Dianmu countered from the other side, “perhaps you’re not quite as intelligent as you pretend to be, Moloch? Or do you just need to feel superior to us to justify genocide to yourself?”

That’s right, Moloch thought, let them think they’re goading you. “Enki was a fool with power he didn’t comprehend. I could have crushed him at any time, I just did not want to waste my strength.”

“Lies,” Anansi said, “Enki had more power than you ever held.”

“Power is nothing without the knowledge how to use it. Allow me to show you.” Moloch flung his hands out and began to manipulate the chemicals in the air.

The air around Dianmu and Anasi caught fire, a pair of raging infernos. Anansi was the first out of his fireball, his skin seared into black and red patches. Dianmu was not emerging. “Dioxygen Difluoride,” Moloch crowed. “Your skin is now catching on fire at these temperatures, spider. I doubt there’s much left of Dianmu. You, Anansi, are lucky enough to witness the end of humanity.”

Anansi started to rise to his feet, and Moloch struck him with lightning. Let’s not repeat the mistake I did with Athena. Moloch had known the effort of setting up high electron density points before the fight had been worthwhile. The ability to call lightning with minimal twisting helped him look even more impressive than he already was. Did it even occur to them, he asked himself, that I had weeks to prepare the battlefield? Weeks where any twist made would stay in place?

Moloch doubted it. If they had thought of it, they certainly didn’t seem to have prepared at all. I wonder if they honestly think they chose this battlefield? “Dianmu is immolated,” Moloch growled, turning back towards Crystal. “And I’m about to stomp the spider. I was going to make you watch the Eschaton die first, but since I had to kill one of them already, I suppose Athena should be next.”

Crystal’s eyes were full of hate. That’s right. She and Dianmu are friends. Moloch wished he’d made the thunder goddess suffer more before her death.

Then he sensed something behind him, a twisting of equations. The inferno surrounding Dianmu was dying down.

Dianmu crouched in the center of the fire, encased in a whirling bubble of air. She rose to her feet and charged, her glaive lowered.

Impressive, Moloch acknowledged. She’d more dangerous than I had thought.

Moloch threw out his hand and turned a tiny number of the air molecules in front of Dianmu into antimatter. The explosion sent her flying backwards, the force of a grenade going off in her face.

Then again, so am I. Under normal circumstances antimatter would be a stupid waste of energy – Moloch thought he might have burned a full millenia of power on that – but it was worth it. Moloch cracked his neck. “I’m barely even Hungry,” he said to Crystal. “You cannot win. You never could. You need to accept that.”

The hatred in Crystal’s eyes hadn’t abated and she rose, standing protectively over Ryan. Her throat was an ugly purple color, and Moloch wondered if she could even speak through the damage. It doesn’t matter.

Moloch held out his hand, and gestured for her to come to him. Crystal started to charge.

And so it ends.


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Strange Cosmology Part 101

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Ryan was screaming.

Athena was near the top of Tartarus, her battle with the ddraig goch having kept her away from the center of the fighting. Now, she gripped its back with one hand and drove her sword down with another, seeking to breach the beast’s scaley hide. It twisted and spun, slamming her into the rocky roof.  Athena bled from a dozen cuts and scrapes already, but so far had avoiding twisting.

Shouldn’t have wasted my time, Athena thought, gnashing her teeth in frustration. Something was going terribly wrong, and she had to get to the main fight. Better to face Moloch weakened than not to face him at all.

So she gestured, tearing the wind away from herself and the dragon. It beat its wings desperately, but found nothing flap against, and they both began to plummet. Athena continued the twist, keeping the two of them in an artificial vacuum as they fell from the top of Tartarus.

The ddraig goch arched its back in a quick, snapping motion, throwing Athena off. Damnit! Athena clutched her sword as the creature rolled around to claw at her. One of its talons slipped past her guard to add another line of blood to her growing collection.

Without air, the two of them fell at the same speed. They would reach the ground in a matter of seconds, but the dragon still had plenty of time to rip Athena to shreds. She raised her sword, ready to strike down at her adversary. Have to take the offensive or it will tear me apart.

Realization struck home. Since you’re twisting anyway, make it work for you. Athena changed her twist.

Air rushed back in around her, and with it Ryan’s screams. Air resistance started to slow her fall, pulling her and the ddraig goch apart. She kept the dragon in a vacuum as it lashed at her, but without air it could do nothing to arrest its fall. Monsters howled as the massive bulk of the creature slammed into them.

Athena held out her arms to slow her fall, twisting to give herself some lift. Where are they?

At first, all Athena could see was chaos. Monstrous flesh writhed and clashed together, the unleashed hordes of the labyrinth tearing into Moloch’s creations. Two Lamia had trapped something that walked like a man but had the head of serpent and were tearing it apart. Three of Moloch’s Helhests were hounding a herd of centaurs. Growls, hisses, and chirps of fury and pain filled air. I can’t find them, Athena thought, fighting panic as she surveyed the battlefield. If she couldn’t get to them in time…Ryan’s howls were cutting over the din, taking on an inhuman quality, and she could only imagine the what pain could cause those screams.

There.

A spot of open field, kept clear by Moloch’s minions. An avian humanoid held Crystal by her neck. Some kind of form Moloch’s adopted, Athena hoped. She didn’t want to try and imagine what else could be manhandling Crystal so effortlessly. A sphere of thorns and steel surrounded Isabel, and it seemed to be shrinking around her. And Ryan…chains and bands of light covered his arms and legs, pulling and stretching his body. Moloch’s trying to draw and quarter him, Athena realized with a sick lurch.

As much as she wanted to immediately act to save Ryan, Athena took a deep breath and thought furiously. Crystal is the least restrained. If I free her, it evens the odds. Athena drew back her sword and threw it, twisting air to accelerate it to hypersonic speeds. It was the same trick that she’d used to sever Bast’s arm on Graham Island.

Without even looking in her direction, Moloch thrust his free hand to the side. The sword was travelling at nearly fifteen thousand kilometers an hour, but Moloch caught it with no apparent effort. Stars of Olympus. Athena paled, letting the lift carry her higher. Moloch tossed the sword aside. This is worse than Enki. We had a plan then! We don’t have a plan for this!

Then Athena noticed that small red drops were running from Moloch’s hand, beginning to puddle on the ground. He can be hurt. He can be killed.

Steeling herself, Athena reached out and began to twist. She threw herself at Moloch, one leg extended in a hypersonic flying kick aimed directly at his head.

Moloch reached out and  grabbed Athena mid flight. She lost much of her speed, but his bloody hand couldn’t completely stop her momentum. Her foot slammed into his head, snapping his beak back. Moloch  grunted in surprise and pain, and his grip on Crystal slipped slightly.

The instant Crystal was free, Athena electrified her skin.

Moloch’s hand clasped down on Athena’s leg, an involuntary response to the electricity. Athena felt her bones crack under his grip and almost lost control of the twist, but forced herself to concentrate on keeping Moloch frozen by the electricity.

Then, still holding her by her broken leg, Moloch swung her in an arc over his body, slamming her into the earth. She barely had time to register the pain before he  did it again. And again. After the fourth hit, Athena’s head was swimming. “You. Aren’t. Part. Of. This.” Moloch growled, every word punctuated by another slam. Athena could barely maintain consciousness, let alone a twist, and her electricity went out.

Through the pain, she noticed that Ryan had stopped screaming. No, she thought. Oh, please, no.

Moloch leapt up, and, with a final swing, sent Athena rocketing towards the ground. “Stay,” Moloch snapped as Athena lay in a crater left by her own battered body. “Stay right there, Olympian, and I’ll make your death quick.”

Over the lip of the crater, behind Moloch, Athena saw Crystal freeing Ryan and Isabel from their traps. They’re alive. Oh, thank the Fates, they’re alive. Keep him focused on you. “What do you mean, I’m not part of this?” Athena’s voice came out slurred through a broken jaw. She started to flex her toes. The bones in her leg hadn’t broken, she realized, just cracked. Bad enough, but could be worse. There was worse: Her stomach growled, her mouth parched, and panted for breath – she was facing three Hungers, and her enemy seemed barely inconvenienced.

“It’s between me, Crystal, and the Eschaton. I still have to wipe your kind out – can’t have the rest of you making more humans – but I don’t get anything from tormenting you.”

Moloch glanced over his shoulder, and Athena followed his eyes to see that Crystal had freed Ryan from the chains. Moloch snapped his fingers, and an explosion sent Ryan and Crystal  flying apart and tumbling through the air.

He looked back at Athena. “So you’re not going to distract me. Stay. Right. There.”

Moloch turned to his real targets. Pain coursed through every part of Athena’s body. You are not going to lie there and take this, she shouted at herself as she managed to rise to a sitting position. Dozens of hairline fractures screamed at her. Give up, part of her whispered. You can’t beat him. No one can. It’s hopeless. He’s too strong. Too aware. He can crush you without even trying.

Athena pushed those traitorous thoughts down, forcing herself to her feet. She collapsed, her injured leg giving out, and dropped to one knee to prevent herself from falling completely. Moloch was stalking towards Crystal and Ryan.Isabel was nowhere to be seen. It’s you, Athena. It’s up to you. She began to crawl towards the edge of the crater.

The hilt of her sword gleamed just over the lip. She reached out, aching fingers closing on the familiar grip. Hand over hand, she pulled herself back onto the grass, and reached out to twist.

Without turning around, Moloch clenched his fist. Lightning arced from a dozen points in the cavern, all of them converging on Athena. For an instant, all was searing agony, and then a clap of thunder threw Athena back into the pit.

She lay there, smoke rising from her skin.

Athena saw lightning forming above her, gathering power.  Gasping she tried to brace herself to survive the next onslaught.

Something arced out of the air behind her and buried itself in the ground beside her. The lightning lanced down, but instead of striking Athena, it caught the object. Athena closed her eyes against the blinding flash of light, but not before she recognized what had saved her. Dianmu’s glaive. Moloch whirled around.

Suddenly, Anansi and Dianmu were there, standing protectively over Athena, who nearly wept in relief.

Moloch sneered. “Distractions. More pitiful distractions. Well, then, come on. I’m going to kill you all anyway, so you might as well attempt the fight.”

Dianmu pulled her glaive out of the ground and charged toward Moloch as Anansi reached out his hand to twist.

Athena wanted to cheer, but the pain was too much. The pain, and the fear. I don’t think it’s going to be enough. How can we possibly beat him?

Athena didn’t have an answer to that question. She didn’t think anyone did.

 

Strange Cosmology part 100

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Crystal remembered when the hydra was the single most feared monster to roam the Earth. If it hadn’t been for Iolaus giving Heracles the bright idea to sear the stump shut before more heads grew, they probably would have retained that title.

What bothered Crystal was that it put people in the mindset of “oh, fighting a hydra is easy, you just cut the head off and cauterize it shut.”

Because severing one head of a creature with a dozen heads, searing it shut before it could grow two more heads, and doing so while evading the other heads, all of which were still trying to bite you, was no more difficult than walking the dog.

If it’s so bloody easy, I’d like to see you try it. Crystal rolled along the ground as the Hydra lunged at her, each mouth snapping shut mere inches behind her as she dove. It was down three heads, the stumps waving blindly in the air, but that left Crystal with nine to go – and Moloch had just beaten Uriel.

We’re missing something, Crystal thought, sliding under the Hydra’s blow to shove her sword up into its gut. The hydra screeched in pain and the mouths flew at her. She grunted as she blocked one of the heads with her sword, headed to white-hot with a simple twist. The head hissed and retreated before it could become a killing blow. How the hell did Moloch beat Uriel?

It didn’t matter right now. What mattered was that Moloch was advancing on Ryan and Isabel, and Crystal still didn’t know if Ryan could come back to life. Isabel definitely won’t, Crystal thought, and can’t gamble on Ryan.

Of course, that had to take a secondary role to the massive Hydra that was currently trying to reach around its bulk to bite at Crystal.

She dove out of the way of another head that snapped down in the space she had just occupied. This bite actually managed to catch her shirt, tearing off a chunk of the sleeve. Okay, focus, she chided herself, her heart pounding at the close call. Hydras were inhumanly fast and could bite through a god’s arm with those jaws.  Decapitation was the only way to kill them – even cauterized wounds below the neck would heal.

Crystal spun again as the Hydra lunged for her. This time she spun inwards, getting the two heads of the Hydra to collide mid-bite. Good to know that still works, she thought, enjoying the momentary shelter the two tangled necks provided.

Hydras couldn’t coordinate their attacks, not the way a single organism usually could. Each head functioned independently, and didn’t seem to grasp that food all went to the same stomach. It was the only reason the creatures could be beaten, even with the fire trick.

A gap opened in the necks above her. Another head lunged down.

Crystal started a twist, giving her speed a boost, and dashed out of the way. The third head snapped shut in what would have been a perfect, waist-high bite. Crystal couldn’t help but picture the way her legs would have kicked out of the creature’s jaw before it swallowed her whole.

She kicked back in, bringing the white-hot sword around. The blade bit into the Hydra’s neck, but it was able to rear back before she could finish severing the head. Damnit, it’s too mobile. That head at least was out of commission with its throat slit, but it would only be a matter of seconds before it had fully healed and was rejoining its brethren in trying to bite her.

Heracles seriously undersold how hard this was, Crystal thought with a frown, flipping away from another three bites. Her heart was racing. She didn’t have time to sever the other nine heads. She could barely sever one of them, and she couldn’t even see what was happening between Moloch and the others right now, let alone impact it.

Crystal looked up at the creature as it reared, the heads hissing, and saw what she needed. Don’t sever nine heads. Sever one.

The Hydra started to strike again. This time, Crystal didn’t try to back away from it. She went upwards with each bite, kicking off the Hydra’s heads to propel herself forwards and over the Hydra. It caught the creature off balance. No being had ever tried something so stupid before, it didn’t have the instincts to handle it.

Fine by me, love. Crystal landed on the hydra’s back, and with a swipe of the sword, cut off three heads at the base. She leapt away from the Hydra’s retaliatory strike, but she needn’t have bothered. The creature was too busy roaring in pain.

Five to go. Crystal started in towards the back, but the Hydra wasn’t just hungry now. It was frantic and cornered, and the heads had stopped caring about which one ate her. They instead just wanted her dead.

Which meant their strikes were a bit more thought out, trying to avoid tangling each other. Still not the way it would have been from a single being, but each head was watching how the last head’s lunge went before going in on its own. Correcting for her dodges, shifting the body away each time it missed.

The bites were getting closer.

Crystal tried pushing back in towards the body, but it had learned from that trick. She couldn’t get close. It’s going to slow me down too long. Moloch is going to-

The thought was cut off as Crystal screamed. One of the heads managed to close in on her arm, and it reared her up into the air. Her sword arm was free, and she started hacking at the neck, but the angle was terrible. She couldn’t manage to sever it. No, not like this. No bloody way am I going out like this!

Another head came around and closed on her leg. Another lance of agony. The two heads started to pull away from each other, and part of Crystal wondered if she’d be pulled in half or if it would just pull the limbs off.

No!

Crystal dropped the sword and used the free hand to twist. The force the Hydras were applying as they pulled was zeroed out. It could tug all it wanted, but the sensation of being ripped apart faded. The bites were still agony, but she could push through that. She had to push through that.

The other three heads were coming in. If they got her, it would be over.

The sword was still falling. Crystal grabbed the sword with another twist, and send it spinning upwards. Whirling so fast it looked like a white-hot disk more than anything else, she steered it into the base of the Hydra’s necks. One of the jaws opened up right near her head, and she could stare down the throat that would be her last sight.

Then she was falling. She landed amid a series of crashes as the Hydra’s heads slammed into the ground around her. It worked! Bloody hell, that worked!

Before relief could settle in, she was being dragged along the ground towards Moloch. “No, Crystal,” he growled, somehow being heard over the din of battle, “You get to see this. You are going to watch them die.”

Ryan and Isabel had not fared well against Moloch. Isabel was trapped in a cage of metal covered in thorns that was slowly closing in on her. She kept shifting her form to something smaller as they got closer. Ryan was held in the air by bands of solid light that were pulling against chains digging into his skin. His mouth was hung open in a wordless scream.

Bands of light? Crystal frowned. She knew that twist. But from where? “Moloch…” Why hadn’t he killed them yet? Keep him talking, love, or no one’s getting out of this alive.  

“I’ve been waiting for this for so long, Crystal. So damn long. You have no idea how badly I’ve wanted to see the look on your face.” Moloch was grinning at her. “I tried to kill you at first, but I’m glad you survived when I sent the monsters on Sumeria. I’m glad you made it out of that. I’ve realized since then that it was better this way, to wait till you got to the finish line.”

Crystal’s mouth fell open. “Lamashtu,” she whispered.

Moloch nodded. “One of the names I’ve worn over the millenia. It was when I first came back, you see. I’d been floating in the Earth’s mantle for so long. Dying. Being reborn. Dying again. The others didn’t try to crunch their nanoverses. They all gave up, welcomed death. I didn’t. I never did. I knew I would get out.”

“You…what?” Crystal shook her head, still trying to figure out why those bands of light were so familiar, as well as what the hell Moloch was rambling about. “What are you talking about?”

“Everything!” Moloch bellowed. “Everything I’ve done was for this. This moment. Didn’t you ever wonder why I sacrificed humans for power, why I never used my nanoverse? It was so I would have a million years of divine energy stored up for this moment. So I could battle for days without getting Hungry. Everything I’ve done has been just so I can kill the woman who murdered the world.”

Crystal couldn’t help but let out an involuntary gasp. Moloch’s form was starting to shift, but he didn’t need to. Those bands of hard light had been a favorite trick of-

“You finally figured it out,” Moloch said as he finished his shapeshift, his form coming together to form one that was still humanoid, but covered in feathers. He was glorious like this, the most beautiful being Crystal had ever known.

A man Crystal had buried in a sea of molten rock.

King,” Crystal whispered.

The man who had guided her while she was Eschaton gestured, and Crystal flew into his outstretched talons. His claws tightened around her throat. “Yes. King. I held on, Crystal. Because I wanted you to witness this. I want you to watch.” He leaned closer, “I want to see the look in your eyes as I extinguish the world you killed my family to save.”

With his free hand, Moloch gestured, and Ryan started to scream again.

“No more Eschaton, Crystal,” Moloch hissed. “ And then…no more Earth.”