Small Worlds Part 270

“I don’t like this, Ryan.” Isabel’s voice was coming in loud and clear through the radio device resting in Ryan’s ear.

“Really? You don’t? I wouldn’t have picked that up from the last dozen types you’ve mentioned it.” Ryan couldn’t help himself with the sarcasm. “Look, Isabel, it’s a risk, but it’s a calculated one. We can do this phase without the military cooperation we wanted. It’s just a couple dozen cities. Tomorrow we’re doing almost a hundred. We need the UN’s support. If Lakshimi’s on the level, her help will come in handy. If she’s not, this is the ideal time to stab us in the back, prove it, and convince the Secretary General that we’re the ones she should be trusting. Either way, it’s a win for us.”

“Except for the part where the backstabbing happens,” Isabel said. “You do get that’s a pretty big flaw in your plan, right? Also the part where she might not betray us today?”

“For the first part…we’ve done what we can to mitigate that risk.” Ryan looked around. He’d never been to Austria before. Prior to becoming a god, he’d never been out of America even. The Volksgarten in Salzburg looked like it would be a beautiful place normally. The park was well maintained, and the fountain in the center of the lake sent shimmering droplets dancing in the sun. He was certain it was normally a place of peace.

Normally.

“For the second part…with the portals today, we’re getting a hundred million people offworld. Tomorrow, we’re going to be close to five hundred million. Kali isn’t going to want to risk giving us that chance. If she has Lakshimi as some kind of, I dunno, double agent mole thing, she’s going to pull the trigger on it.”

It was hard to hear Isabel’s response over the growing shouts of the crowd, mixed in with the barking of dogs and the yowls of cats and the wails of children. Austria’s population was close to nine million. The easternmost part of the country would be evacuated tomorrow with Vienna, the westernmost part with Liechtenstein was going later when they evacuated Switzerland through Zurich. That had cut down the number of people significantly, closer to five million, but there were still five million people being held back from the park by what looked like every police officer in the country. The military was further out there, keeping order throughout the city. The crowd stretched back further than the eye could see.

“It’s a miracle we haven’t had a riot,” Ryan said, more to himself than to Isabel.

“Not a miracle. You can thank me for that.” Isabel said.

“Isabel, is that smugness I hear?”

“A bit,” she admitted. “Idea came to me at the eleventh hour, and Artemis was able to make it happen. We have Lotus-eaters, from the Odyssey, out there in the crowd. The sleep lotuses? They’re dispersing it as an aerosol. Low grade magic dispersed like that, muting everyone’s panic with a peaceful drowsiness. We’ll have to get more peace inducing creatures for the future, but for right now they’re at every wormhole.”

“You’re drugging everyone with magic flower people?” Ryan asked.

“What? Would you prefer that I let normal human nature take over and have a mass panic on our hands? Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures and all that.”

“No, no, I’m not mad. I’m impressed. I was kind of assuming the panic would happen at some point.”

Isabel laughed. “Well, I think of everything. Speaking of which, we have soldiers and police in place around the park with the scanners checking for culture icons. Assuming we operate at about three fours of our ideal speed, we should be able to process about seven thousand people every minute. That means we’re going to get everyone here through the wormhole in twelve hours. Are you ready to start?”

Ryan nodded, then reminded himself Isabel couldn’t see him. Feeling stupid, he said, “I’m ready. Are the others in position?”

“Yes,” Isabel said. “And…Ryan, are you sure about the other two?”

“I’m sure they’re on our side,” Ryan said. “Beyond that…no, not really. And since I’m not, that means no one else will be either. Right now, we need that chaos. It’s the one advantage we have left. Still, I’ll feel better when Crystal gets here with that wormhole.”

“Give it just a moment…” Isabel said.

At that moment, a second doorway opened in the park, and Crystal stepped out. The shimmering wormhole trailed behind her, bound to her movements by some simple twists. She’d already armed herself, a straight edged sword strapped her back. At the sight of the wormhole, the crowd surged forward against the barricade. If this was what happened now, Ryan didn’t want to imagine what would have happened if it hadn’t been for the Lotus eater’s calming influence.

“Cheers, love!” Crystal said with a wave, detaching the wormhole. “Just dropped the other ones off.”

“And you’re sure this will work?”

Crystal squinted at the crowd. “There’s so many…”

Ryan waited for a moment. No response. “Uh. Crystal?”

“Sorry.” Crystal shook her head. “She’ll come here. I’m sure of it. The hardest part is going to be containment. This is…this is going to be ugly, Ryan. Even with Isabel’s clever little trick. We didn’t drug them so much they’ll just stand their docile when a divine fight breaks out, and Kali is not going to care about collateral damage. We’ll get plenty through before she figures out this is where you are, but it won’t take her twelve hours.” The crowd surged again, the shouts growing louder. “What about the people who didn’t come?”

Ryan sighed. “What I said earlier stands. Anyone who doesn’t come, we can’t drag out of their homes kicking and screaming. Even if we had the manpower, it wouldn’t be enough.”

Crystal studied him for a moment. “She’ll be here, Ryan. Her and her whole family. Even form the one time we’ve met, I got that impression. She’s stubborn and strong-willed, and she trusts us. Trusts you.”

“I know. It’s just…did I make the right call?”

“You don’t have many people out there you’re close to, love” Crystal said quietly. “At least, not humans, and we can’t spare Isabel. When people figure out you set this up as a bloody trap, there’s going to be backlash. Revealing you were willing to risk someone you care about…it’ll help mitigate the backlash.”

“Okay.” Ryan took a deep breath. “You ready?”

“Ready when you are.”

Ryan nodded. “Isabel, tell the police. It’s time.”

“Uh…you have Glossolalia, right? I’ll patch you through – I’ve been relying on gods to translate things. Do not want to risk any of this getting garbled by me doing a google translate attempt at austrian-accented German.”

“Go ahead,” Ryan said.

“You’re on in three, two, one, go.”

“Police of Salztburg,” Ryan said, doing his best commanding voice. “My name is Ryan. Please do not forget all citizens must be checked for cultural artifacts. Art, books, movies, technology – all of them must be left behind. Beyond that, we don’t care who comes through. Everyone gets one of the survival packets. Don’t waste time checking for IDs, or things are going to drag out. You can check them on the other side. I know you are sacrificing a great deal to be the last through. I promise you, no matter what, we will hold this portal until you are able to cross over. Start letting your families in now, then open the gates.”

It had been the best bribe they could offer for the police. Their families got to go through first. Well, not first. The first people through had gone through were a UN peacekeeping force, who had started approaching the portal the moment Ryan had started speaking. They nodded to Ryan as they passed, but they had a job to do. They were on crowd control on the other side – crowd control, and pacifying any immediate hostile lifeforms.

They were wearing kevlar, but armed with bows and arrows and swords. State of the art versions of each, but still – technology low tech enough Nabu didn’t believe they’d cause a huge risk. That, plus the survival packet that contained some basic supplies – similarly vetted by Nabu, food that would keep for long enough for the first crop to come in, and seeds that would provide that first crop, was everything they could safely bring.

It was the best they could do. It was everything they could do.

Now they just had to wait for Kali to show up.

Small Worlds Part 269

Hey everyone. First of all, thank you for your patience and understanding. Second, minor retcon to last post, because I realized it was a bit preemptive for Ryan to go straight to Salzburg. Last scene would instead end this way.

“So. Let’s get this party started. Where’s first?”

“Not so fast,” Isabel said. “I have a request that you stop by and speak to Secretary Rajan first. She wants to go over some things before she authorizes the drone access I’ve requested.”

Ryan grimaced. “Okay. That’s going to screw up our timetable, but okay. Crystal, let’s get the wormholes out of my nanoverse. Isabel, tell everyone they need to come here and pick up the wormholes, we can’t take them to everyone individually. Nabu can coordinate it. I…have to speak to the Secretary General of the United Nations.”

And now, onto today’s part. 

Compared to what Ryan had expected, the office of the Secrety General was a rather modest affair. Books lined the back wall behind the desk, the spines displaying text that was mostly in Hindi – it still disturbed Ryan that when he focused he could understand words in a language he’d never even studied – and the chairs weren’t particularly luxurious. They were the kind of chairs that one would expect in a normal office environment.

Secretary General Rajan was sitting behind the desk. Her hands were folded in front of her, and she gave Ryan a small nod as he stepped into her office. If she seemed surprised by the fact that the door into the hallway beyond seemed to now open into an endless expanse of stars, it didn’t show. “So good of you to meet me,” she said.

“Madam Secretary,” Ryan said by way of greeting. He debated if he should bow or offer his hand, and settled for twitching for a moment before thrusting his hand towards he. Two suited men near the door tensed up at the gesture, but the Secretary took the proffered hand  warmly, which at least told Ryan she had more grace than he did. “I understand you wanted to speak before we put things in motion?”

“Yes, Mr. Smith. It seems I’m not entirely comfortable turning over access to military drones offered by member nations without speaking to you personally. I can’t imagine why that might be.” Her tone was still warm, but her voice was a dry as sandpaper. Ryan found himself liking her.

“I guess I can think of a few reasons for that,” Ryan said, taking a chair. “And please, call me Ryan, Madam Secretary.”

“Understood,” she said, and Ryan noted the lack of reciprocal offer. “I’m confused about the placement of some of these portals. New York, Beijing, Mumbai, Tokyo, Lagos – the major metropolitan areas – those  make sense. They get the largest group of people through in the first wave. That is the reason, correct?”

“Mostly,” Ryan said. “We were also worried that if we only had one major city, it would pose a tempting target for Kali. By spreading out the big cities, we hope she’ll focus on the real target.”

“And what might that be?”

“Ma’am, begging your pardon, but I’d rather not say. We don’t know where she is and what she’s able to listen in on, so if I do say it aloud, I run a real risk of her – or one of her agents – overhearing what I’m saying.”

Secretary Rajan leaned forward, her eyes narrowing. “Ryan. You are asking me to take a great deal on faith. Access to the drone’s cameras. The fact that this other world is even accessible, let alone not a death trap. The very end of the world. Right now, I’m inclined to tell you to take that real and gaand ma ghal.

The blessing of glossolalia made sure Ryan knew that the Secretary General of the United Nations had just told him to stick it up his ass. Ryan blinked, activating his divine sight. The very real possibility that it was not secretary Rajan, but Kali herself, sitting across from him made his heart pound.

Thankfully, it was her. She was human, and there weren’t any bugs in her office Ryan could see. What there was however, was a twist to reality. One with an equation Ryan couldn’t read, but as large as a human, and sitting in the chair directly next to him. His blood ran cold. “I understand your concern, Madam Secretary,” Ryan said, moving his hand slowly. “But spies could be everywhere.”

With the last word Ryan lunged, drawing a sword from his nanoverse and thrusting it towards the twist on the chair next to him. The ring of steel on steel filled the room, and Secretary Rajan leaned back away from the sudden conflict. The men in suits reached for their guns, but with a gesture the Secretary stopped them from drawing.

It wouldn’t have done them any good regardless. Ryan twisted the blade, trying to get it past the defenses he couldn’t see, and the surface he’d struck shifted. He nearly fell out of the chair at the sudden lack of resistance, and his momentum brought his sword arm into the twist. He could have turned it into a slash, but not without bringing his blade around towards the Secretary. As large as this office was, it wasn’t quite large enough to allow for him to slash wildly. He went with the momentum instead, and a hand like  vice clamped around his wrist.

Ryan bowled himself towards the attacker, kicking off the ground and thrusting his free hand towards his attacker. He punched something solid and steel.

“Enough of this!” a voice said from within the twist, and it vanished. Sitting in the chair was an Indian woman with the sort of ageless appearance Ryan had come to associate with some of the divine. She let go of Ryan’s wrist, and he landed on the other side of her. “I’m not your adversary.”

“No, you’re just listening in to my conversations,” Ryan said, growling and rubbing his wrist.

“Lakshmi is here on my invitation,” Secretary Rajan said firmly. “I wanted someone to verify you were who you claimed to be.”

“I did warn you the moment he got suspicious, he’d see through it,” Lakshimi said, nodding to acknowledge Ryan. “Apologies for the deception.”

Ryan surreptitiously rubbed his wrist. “Sorry for lashing out.” Under his divine sight, he could see that Lakshimi was not actively shapeshifting – she was exactly what she appeared to be, which meant she wasn’t Kali. “Why the game though? Just wanted to catch me off guard?”

“In a manner of speaking.” Lakshimi gestured, righting his chair with a twist. “I wanted to see how you’d behave if you weren’t aware of my presence.”

“So it was a test,” Ryan said, taking his seat.

“That is what I just said, yes.” Lakshimi quirked an eyebrow at him.

Just when I thought I was done with this kind of crap… Ryan sighed. It was to be expected, he supposed, but he’d gotten used to the idea that he was going to be taken seriously. In hindsight, he had no idea why he’d gotten that idea in his head in the first place, but Lakshimi had handily debased him of that notion. “So, did I pass?”

Lakshimi nodded, then looked at Secretary Rajan. “I don’t think he’s a threat to you, or to us. As best as I can tell from the brief interaction, at least. He had an opening, but if he’d taken it, it would have turned his blow towards you. He chose against that.”

Secretary Rajan nodded. “Lakshimi had kindly been advising me on matters of the divine. Including how to deal with you.” Ryan wasn’t sure what to say to that, which was for the best, because the Secretary continued as if his response was irrelevant. “Lakshimi has assured me that this conversation is private. So, I ask you again – where are you trying to draw Kali?”

Ryan shifted in his seat and looked at Lakshimi. “Forgive me, Madam Secretary, but it’s not that simple. Lakshimi, your pantheon hasn’t yet declared where they will fall in the conflict. I believe that Kali isn’t listening, but I don’t know what side you’re on.”

Lakshimi gave him a small smile. “Consider this. If I was on Kali’s side, I would not have waited for you here alone. I would have waited with a small group of gods, and we would have subdued you the moment you arrived and brought you to her.”

“Maybe.” Ryan shrugged. “Or maybe you’re playing a deeper game. You’re millennia old. I don’t know you. More importantly, I have no idea if I can trust you.”

Lakshimi’s smile soured. “That does make things difficult,” she said.

“Yeah, it does.” Ryan sighed. “I don’t mean to be a pain in the ass, but if I make a bad judgement call, we’re all doomed. The entire human race. I’m the one holding onto the wormholes. Kali gets a hold of them, she can use them to end the world preemptively. She gets the end of the cycle she wants, and humanity? It’s gone.”

“Then how do you propose we resolve this dispute?” Lakshimi asked.

Ryan leaned forward in his chair, a smile tugging at his lips. “You know what? I think I know exactly how you can.”

Small Worlds Part 268

Ryan woke up to a mouth full of ash and a stomach that begged for food. He could feel tears trying to stream out of the corner of his eyes, but in the grips of his dehydration, all they could do was form little flecks of salt on the edges.

Crystal was there in an instant with a bottle of water. “The Hungers from that are the worst,” she said, a sparkle in her eyes. Ryan barely nodded in agreement as he sucked down the water with desperate greed. The water was sweet on his tongue, even sweeter than dehydration could account for. “It’s sugar water,” Crystal said, presumably seeing the way his forehead creased, “it’ll help take the immediate edge off the hunger. Usually not needed, but given how I remember that twist affecting me, I figured it would be a good call.”

“Thanks,” Ryan said, finally finishing the bottle. She was already handing him a stick of beef jerky, and he shoved it into his mouth with the dignity of a small child. “Did it work?” he asked between bites.

“See for yourself,” Crystal said with a wink, and for a moment Ryan was struck with how beautiful she was, and he wanted to reach out and hug her, hold- stop it. Ryan chided himself. That’s just the social Hunger speaking. The shame of the thought helped drown the fleeting feeling, and to distract himself, Ryan looked in the direction of the wormholes.

Half the original number remained. Each one was a white ring hovering in the air, and in the center of the bubble they left behind Ryan could see the impossible. Plants that looked akin to trees but with leaves that splayed out like stretching fingers and bark that shimmered like steel, dotted with tiny colorful patches that blossomed like stars. They grew above vast green fields of grass that ended in miniscule ferns, each blade as tall as a man’s waist. Through one portal he could see a mountain range that stretched far higher than any ever seen on Earth, with snow forming a middle ring around the slopes and the peaks barren from being so high they jutted out of the planet’s atmosphere. On the other side of that range was another portal, this one on the very edge of a vast desert formed in the mountain’s shadow. Another portal was near cliffs that were coated in emerald-green lichen that stretched off into the horizon over an ocean that was the purest blue.

Yet another was situated on a grassy field on the edge of a badlands that were crossed by a complex maze of hundreds of stone arches, a natural field of doors carved by some ancient and long-dried up river. Still another was at the edge of a forest, only these trees had no leaves, just a single solitary leaf that spread out like the head of a mushroom. They hung close to the ground, and small strands of some amber-gold organism stretched from the leaf’s underside to the forest floor below.

The only things that moved were the waves and the plants in the wind. There were no insects buzzing about, no birds overhead, no creatures creeping through the underbrush. It was a world teaming with life, but with no animals for mankind to displace from their natural environments. There was only the vast, primeval wilderness of this world, dominated by analogues to plants, fungi, and other, simpler forms of Earth life.

“It’s beautiful,” Ryan said, wrenching his eyes from endless rolling hills of amber grass that was dotted with incandescent seeds floating in the air to where they would grow next.

Crystal nodded in agreement. “A new home for humanity. Let’s hope you lot don’t wreck it too hard. But…the world’s got a better land to sea ratio, and it’s a bit bigger than ours anyway. I think you’ll do fine.”

Ryan winced at her words, and Crystal raised an eyebrow. “Something bothering you?” she asked.

After a moment’s consideration, Ryan laughed. “You know, I guess there is. I know this is stupid, but…I kind of feel like a pig. I’m looking at this new world and practically drooling, and outside the door is the world I’ve known my entire life. Can you feel like you’re cheating on an entire planet?”

Crystal looked like she was about to laugh, her lips curling up at the edges, and Ryan was glad that gaping at the natural beauty of this new world had helped take the edge of his Social hunger. Instead of feeling that annoying surge from earlier, he just waited for her to share in the joke. Instead, however, the laugh was strangled before it ever escaped her throat, and only half her lip curved upwards, turning amusement into a wistful smirk. “I know what you mean, really. If we could stay, if we could fix Earth, we’d be terrible for just packing up and leaving. But…the only thing we can do to save Earth is to leave. She’ll be better off without us, anyway – we were pretty terrible to her at times.”

“Yeah,” Ryan said. “Let’s hope whoever comes after us treats her better, you know? If it’s the crows or the elephants or the racoons, let’s really hope they do right by her.”

“Who knows,” Crystal said. “Maybe someday it’ll be safe for us to send messages to whoever comes next. We can check up on her, make sure they’re treating her well.”

Ryan looked at those alien vistas and shook his head. “Maybe. But…we’ll probably just have to trust it. I mean, would you ever send messages to your ex’s new significant other to make sure they’re less of an asshole than you were?”

At that, Crystal did throw back her head in an earnest laugh. “No, I suppose no,” she admitted, wiping at her eyes. “A million years trying to save this world, and at the end it comes down to a bad break-up metaphor. That’s bloody perfect. Come on,” she said standing up before he had to figure out how to respond to that. “You got some actual sleep in there, so you should be good for that Hunger. Social’s all you’ve got left, and we can finish filling that with some planning.”

Ryan nodded and followed her at. Isabel was still at the computers, studying them furiously. “What’s the good news, Izzy?”

Isabel turned and shrugged, and Ryan sighed. “What’s the news, Izzy?”

“It’s not all bad,” she said, and Ryan couldn’t help but notice the way her eyes lit up when Crystal followed him out. “The Shinto deities aren’t willing to fight, but they’re more than happy to go through early and start setting up structures for people. Same goes for a lot of individual deities. Hephestus, Ptah, Tvastar, and Ikenga are going to coordinate with Kagu-Tsuchi – all of them are forge gods  and help with overseeing it and working on some of the more complex bits, like doors and windows. Neith is going through as well with Mama Ocllo, and Zhinü to start setting up some weaving stations so we can start making clothes, and Thoth, Anahit, Wenchang Wang, and Ogma are going to be working on getting libraries going so we can start working on preserving knowledge. Kuebiko is going to be working with the agriculture deities we’ve got as well, trying to get some basic farmland figured out.”

“That all sounds like good news,” Ryan said, not wanting to admit he didn’t know who the majority of those gods were.

“It is, but it’s kind of being overwhelmed by the bad. No word form Aesir, but it sounds like they’re probably going to giving Kali a helping hand. Something about not wanting to ruin Ragnarök. The Canaanite deities aren’t willing to risk getting into direct combat. Same with the Slavic deities, although they’re at least going to protect the innocent, so that’s something. The Jade Emperor has decided they’re sitting it out, although if we win they’ll be happy to help with building on this new world. The Aztec pantheon has made it abundantly clear they intend on joining in the fight, but Quetzalcoatl wanted to make sure I understood they were still debating the proper side. So that’s a coin toss.”

“You spoke to Quetzalcoatl?” Ryan asked.

Isabel rubbed her eyes. “Yeah, he called me. I have been trying very hard not to think about how he got my number. Arthur called too. Uriel is absolutely wiped out from ferrying the wormholes. She’ll join in if she can, but our one angel is out. And none of that’s the worst of it.”

Ryan swallowed hard. “What is the worst of it?”

“Michael has said we’re interfering with the Creator’s plan. Kali is going to have some angelic backing. Arthur said that since the angels are going to be getting involved in the Eschaton cycle, they are going to be majorly depowered for going outside their mandate, but he doesn’t know how depowered they’ll be.”

“Well…I mean, we’re going to have some allies, right?” Ryan asked.

Isabel sighed. “Some. Papa Legba is willing to join the fight, and he’s talking to the other Loa. We’ve got the Slavic gods on defense, which is something, but it might not be enough. Dianmu and Cassandra are going to meet Sun Wukong, and Dianmu does not sound happy about that. We can’t count on Arthur’s demons, either – the moment they enter the field, the angels get their full power, and we’ll be overrun. Anansi is taking Horus to the Egyptians, and Horus thinks it’s likely the ones that haven’t spoken up yet will join in our side, but…we’re going to be spread thin, Ryan. Really thin. The upside is, as far as anyone who knows her is saying, Kali is probably going to spreading herself thin too. She won’t want to let any portal go unattacked. But even if she goes wide, we’re badly outnumbered.”

“Okay,” Ryan said, taking a deep breath. “That is bad. But we could still get the Aztecs, and you didn’t even mention the Hindu deities. They might still join us.”

“Might,” Isabel admitted. There were dark circles under her eyes. “Ryan…we have to be ready for the worst. We might not be able to save everyone.”

Ryan took a deep breath, steadying the surge of anger. “If we don’t, it sure as hell won’t be because we didn’t try.”

Isabel nodded.

“Loves,” Crystal said, finally speaking up. “You’re forgetting one thing.”

They both looked at her.

“Twenty-four hours ago, we weren’t sure we were going to save anyone. No matter what, as long as we get people to the other side, enough people that humanity will be able to keep going…we win. That’s all it takes. Enough people to get to the other side, and us closing the door before Kali gets through. We do that…and we stopped humanity from being wiped out. So stop being all doom and gloom. We have one job, and we’re going to get it done.”

From her smile, it at least made Isabel feel better. Ryan was too nervous to hope right now, but that was a personal problem. “You’re right,” he said with cheer he didn’t feel. “So. Let’s get this party started. Where’s first?”

Isabel checked her computer. “You two are meeting Athena and Dianmu in Salzburg. Let’s get some Austrians to space!”

And hope Kali doesn’t kill us in the process, Ryan thought, forcing himself to keep the thought off his face.

Small Worlds Part 267

“There are concerns,” Xuanzang said, “about the Eschaton Cycle.”

“About the cycle as a whole?” Dianmu asked, leaning forward and resting her elbows on her knees. She fixed Xuanzang with an intense gaze. “I was expecting you to say this is about me.”

“Because you’ve repeatedly ignored imperial decrees to cease your activities among Humanity and return to the Jade Palace?” Xuanzang smiled, but this time it didn’t quite reached his eyes. “While  your actions there have been a source of consternation, no one was really prepared to fault you for what you were doing there. You were quiet, you were discreet, and you were helping people. And you were in mourning, and that is something everyone believed afforded you a great deal of leeway.”

“Believed?” Dianmu asked. “I’m not sure I like the implication of the past tense there.”

“I’m telling you what others are saying,” Xuanzang held up a hand in a placating gesture. “You are not without allies here. I count myself among them. But you need to know of your reputation. I just ask that you don’t shoot the messenger.”

Dianmu settled back some. “Apologies.”

“None needed.”

Someone – or, Cassandra assumed, something that was humanoid – came in with a tray containing a pot of tea and three cups. Xuanzang smiled up at the figure, and conversation paused as drinks were poured. The aroma was heavenly, and Cassandra did her best to enjoy it. It was hard. The way this conversation was going had soured her appetite.

“Now, where was I?” Xuanzang said as he placed his tea on the table. “The view now is that you have become somewhat…erratic. Your refusal of past summons does you no favors there. Working with…Crystal, I understand she calls herself now?” Dianmu nodded in response to the question, and Xuanzang continued. “Well, working with Crystal has made things worse. Her reputation is still that she is a source of trouble, a destabilizing influence on her fellow gods.”

“We’ve been friends of millenia,” Dianmu said, and Cassandra noted the defensive tone.

“Yes. Tell me, Dianmu, how often have you wondered about my judgement when it comes to Sun Wukong because of our friendship?”

Dianmu nodded in assent of the point. “It is different, I’d argue, but I imagine you’d say the same if our positions were reversed.”

“Oh yes. Quite loudly.” This time, the smile was more genuine.

“I don’t understand why that’s still a problem. We know now that the Eschaton Cycle is real. Or is that still in question?”

Xuanzang shook his head firmly. “No, I know of none here who still doubt that it is real. The world is coming to an end. The age of Man is drawing to a close. That is now seen as inevitable. The problem now, however, is if it’s something we should or could avoid.”

“It can be avoided,” Dianmu said. “We’ve uncovered a way.”

“Yes. This plan to create portals, evacuate the entire planet. I have to admit, it’s an inspired choice. Meeting the letter of the law while absolutely violating the spirit. I have a friend who would approve a great deal of that course of action.”

Dianmu’s lips tightened into a thin line. Cassandra didn’t need to wonder who Xuanzang was talking about. Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. While Cassandra knew that time and retelling had probably distorted the story a great deal, it seemed Sun Wukong’s reputation for being a troublemaker had not been inaccurate.

I want to meet him. Cassandra had fallen in love with Journey to the West in college, and had read the entire thing when the course had only required selected readings. Given that she’d been working on her pre-med program, sparing time to read that much had been a luxury she really shouldn’t have been able to afford. She’d been so engrossed though, it had just been a matter of sacrificing some nights when she would have been drinking instead. She’d considered that time well spent. Something in the impulsive Monkey King had spoken to her in a way most fictional character’s didn’t. However, they weren’t here so Cassandra could fangirl over one of her favorite characters in literature. No matter how much she wanted to.

Besides, Dianmu might actually kill her, given how unhappy she was at any reference to Sun Wukong.

“It’s a solid plan,” Dianmu said, her voice firm. “It even has a curator’s blessing.”

“A fallen Curator,” Xuanzang said politely.

“He filed the proper paperwork to fall,” Dianmu countered.

“And I am glad to hear that. Yet…” Xuanzang held up a hand to forestall Dianmu’s counterargument. “Dianmu. I’m trying to prepare you for what’s waiting for you.”

“Then can we focus on that?” Dianmus said. “I’ve dealt with attacks on my character before.”

“Of course. Your domain has made you enemies, and many of them are taking this opportunity to speak against you.”

“Storm goddesses aren’t popular here?” The words were out of Cassandra’s mouth before she could stop herself, but now that they had cleared her lips she was glad to have spoken. The two gods seemed to have forgotten she was there, or at least that she might not understand everything they were talking about.

“Dianmu also have dominion over hidden crimes,” Xuanzang said, when Dianmu motioned for him to explain. “It’s made her less than popular among those whose secrets she’s brought to light. Although it has made her excellent at rooting out Anthropophages and other monsters that dwell among humanity.”

Cassandra was very grateful for the tea at that moment. It would have been difficult to avoid fidgeting without something to distract her from the conversation going down this path. “I see,” Cassandra said, once the tea had given her adequate time to cover her discomfort. “No one likes a cop.”

Xuanzang barked out a laugh. “Something like that, yes,” he said, his eyes still sparkling with amusement. “Very well,” he said, turning back to Dianmu. “Allow me to speak plainly then.”

“I certainly wasn’t stopping you,” Dianmu murmured.

Xuanzang waved away the reproach. “Kali has sent messages to us, and to other pantheons. She acknowledges the Eschaton Cycle, and insists that it is a natural part of the universe. That it staves off Entropy. Is that true?”

Dianmu grimaced.

“I feared as much. There are many among the Heavenly Court that do not believe we have a right to try and change something so fundamental to the order of the cosmos. If, as long as the Eschaton Cycle is allowed to continue, the universe will endure forever, who are we to place humanity above the rest of the Universe?”

“We aren’t, though,” Dianmus said. “This plan will fulfill the requirements of the cycle. Human civilization as we know it will end. The sun will be restored, and Earth will continue and, eventually, evolve new sentient life to repeat the process.”

“And in that time, the knowledge stored in human minds will be re-created. We are on the verge of, in just a few generations, leaving our Solar System. This will set humanity back, but it will still allow them to reach that before the next step in the cycle. We will spread across the stars, and in the process disrupt the natural order of things. What if that is the catalyst for the march towards Heat Death, or for Dark Energy to accelerate to the point where it will eventually overcome gravity and even the bonds within atoms? What if, in doing so, we sentence the universe to death?” At Dianmu’s expression, he shook his head. “This is not what I believe. If we are not meant to save Humanity, I believe we will fail in attempting to do so – but that does not mean we should not attempt. Even the gods are not stronger than Destiny, so there is no risk in trying.”

“But…”

“But the Jade Emperor disagrees. Given the source, given that it is you coming here, and given that there is a risk of sentencing the universe to a slow death…he has forbidden anyone to aid you.” Xuanzang put down his tea. “I’m sorry, Dianmu. So long as the fundamental order of reality is threatened, we have been forbidden from helping.”

Dianmu sighed. “His decision is final?”

“It is possible his mind could be swayed, given enough of the one thing you are soley lacking.”

“Time,” Dianmu said.

“Time,” Xuanzang agreed. “The only ones who would follow you…well, they’d have to be someone who would defy the Jade Emperor. Someone who has proven they care little for the decrees of Heaven. Someone who is a bit of a rebel themselves.”

Dianmu rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Please…please tell me you are not going to suggest what I think you are going to suggest.”

“I am not fond of lying,” Xuanzang said, and Cassandra had to fight back an urge to smile as Xuanzang continued. “So tell me. How desperate are you?”

Dianmu sighed. “Very. Fine. Tell me…how do I reach Sun Wukong?”

Cassandra couldn’t contain her smile any longer.

Small Worlds Part 266

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sun Wukong?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cassandra flushed, glad he couldn’t see them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dianmu leaned forward. “Tell me everything.”

Cassandra settled in to listen.

Small Worlds Part 265

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve heard of him?” Dianmu asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you know?” Dianmu asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can imagine,” Cassandra said.

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

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

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

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

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

Small Worlds Part 264

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

I’ve missed this. Enjoy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So…you’ll help us?” Athena asked.

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

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

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

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

It would have to be enough.

Small Worlds Part 263

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course,” Artemis said. “Why?”

Athena gestured subtly to indicate the ice that surrounded them.

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

Athena blinked a few times and activated her divine sight.

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

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

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

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

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

Small Worlds Part 262

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was time to meet the Celestial Bureaucracy.

Small Worlds Part 261

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Does it have to be alive?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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