Strange Cosmology part 98

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I really should have expected this, Moloch thought with a snarl as he reached out to grip reality and twist it to his whims.

Angels were able to manipulate the fabric of reality with an ease no god could match. That lead lesser gods to believe that angels were unbeatable. The problem was, they were thinking in terms of raw power.

Moloch had plenty of raw power, but never ascribed to the believe it was the most important part of things. Not even back in the old days.

The world stopped besides Uriel and Moloch.

The problem with angels was that they were billions of years old. And that meant that if you studied them long enough, they became predictable. Uriel always opened by accelerating her temporal reference frame. If you weren’t prepared for it, you’d be diced to ribbons before you could react. It was how she had killed the first born of Egypt in a single night.  If you did the same thing at the same time, it just meant you had an uninterrupted fight.

Moloch grinned as Uriel’s eyes widened, their swords meeting mid air. “Impossible,” the angel whispered.

“Obviously not.” Moloch whirled under Uriel’s blade and thrust his sword towards her chest. With a flap of her immense wings, Uriel  launched herself away from him. The angel was glancing around. Moloch decided to take advantage of that uncertainty. Three bolts of dark green lightning raced from his fingers. Uriel’s sword sung through the air. She moved so fast she was able to catch two of the bolts, but the third struck home.

Moloch applied pressure onto those surges of power now racing from his fingertip to Uriel. “You angels think you’re so much better than us,” he hissed. “So holy, so righteous. You’re a bunch of hypocrites. Where were you when they burned, Uriel? Where were you?

Uriel screamed in pain.

Around them, the battle was still mostly frozen, everything moving like it was swimming through amber. A lightning bolt was starting to form above Moloch at a glacial pace, a twist of reality from that upstart Eschaton. Beside him, his sister’s form started to blur again. An Eschaton and a Protean. What are the odds? He could see Dianmu, raising a glaive to meet a lunging draconic head. Anansi and Athena were hidden by the chaos of the melee.

Worst of all, Crystal was nowhere to be seen.

“You speak of your creator,” Moloch spat at Uriel. “You speak of his plan. You preach his Glory. Your creator is gone, Uriel. Your creator has abandoned us! The only gods that matter are us. The only truth that matters is ours. The only world that matters is the one I’m going to see burn in the sun.”

Then Uriel flapped her wings, breaking herself free of the green lightning.

“Electricity made of mortal souls,” she gasped, her form smouldering. “You play in forces beyond you, godling.”

Moloch lashed out again. “Nothing is beyond me!” he screamed.

This time, Uriel was prepared for the bolts of lighting. She dodged all three with a deft sweep of her wings that carried her above the battlefield.  With a quick flick, her ascent turned into a dive straight for Moloch, her sword elongating to a hooked halberd. She swung the weapon below herself as she passed over Moloch.

Moloch parried the blow, but Uriel was now a whirlwind, rising and diving too quickly for Moloch to do anything but defend himself. No. Not after everything I lost. Not after everything that’s happened. I will not be beaten by an angel!

Uriel’s blade slipped past Moloch’s defenses, biting into his shoulder. His sword arm fell limp by his side. “Little god!” she said, her eyes burning with divine wrath, “you twist the powers of creation, the fabric of reality. “ She swooped down again, and Moloch had to duck this attack. He was already moving as fast as time would allow, he couldn’t heal. “Your powers are limited but your Hungers. I have no Hungers.” Uriel’s next strike sliced a line in Moloch’s thigh. “You manipulate laws, but those laws were put in place by my Creator.” Another dive, and Moloch screamed in pain as the fingers on his left hand were severed. “You forget that I. Am. Those. Laws.” Uriel landed and ran Moloch through.

Moloch slumped forward on the halberd. Oh. You are, aren’t you? Uriel was panting from the effort.

She dropped the halberd as Moloch started laughing, sliding forward on the weapon that was impaled through his chest. “You…you’re laughing. You’re going to die, Moloch. You’ve lost. What on Earth is possibly fun-uphg.”

Moloch’s hand shot up to cover her face. “Because, Uriel. You are made of the Laws.” Uriel started to struggle against the grasp, but Moloch was already twisting reality as he did. “You are woven into the fabric of reality as firmly as gravity. As firmly as light. And as I am their master…so I am able to master you.”

Moloch removed his hand.Time’s normal flow resumed. Ryan’s lightning bolt struck the ground where Moloch had been standing, and Isabel melted into the form of a wolf. A quick twist to reality allowed Moloch’s wounds to heal.

Uriel stood there, staring at her hands, backing away from him and gasping. Repeatly. “What did…you do to me.”

Moloch smiled. “Welcome to mortality, Uriel. You’re a living, breathing creature now. And do you know that means you can do?” Moloch gestured, forming the air into spikes of titanium he shot to punch holes in Uriel’s thighs, arms, and wings. “Bleed.”

Uriel went down. Moloch wondered if she’d ever experienced pain before, or if this was an entirely new sensation. I should finish her off now. End this all for good. 

Moloch shook his head. Crystal wasn’t here. He’d waited for so very, very long for this moment. Don’t rush it. Savor every moment. Let Uriel witness. 

It’s almost over. 

Moloch turned towards Isabel and Ryan. “I do love killing siblings,” he said, grinning on the pair. “The way you scream when one dies gives me chill. So…who do I get to hear scream today?”

Strange Cosmology Part 97

Ryan had been shot, shocked with lightning, punched, cut, and a variety of other injuries since ascending to godhood. He was getting good at distinguishing different types of pain. Having his kidney impaled on a sword was a fresh surge of agony that was its own distinct flavor. This one was…coppery. Wait. That means blood’s in my mouth. Did I cough up blood?

Moloch raised his foot to Ryan’s back, and kicked Ryan so he slid off the blade. That was also a new flash of pain, and Ryan couldn’t do anything but fall to the ground.

“Thousands of years living off of human sacrifice,” Moloch said, advancing on Ryan. In spite of the pain, Ryan managed to scramble away from Moloch. The murderous god didn’t seem frail or sickly anymore. He was strong and vital, his withered skin clearing up, his eyes blazing with a determination Ryan had never imagined they could hold. “Thousands upon thousands of years working through monsters and proxies and from the shadows.  It is so good to finally be at the endgame, wouldn’t you agree, Eschaton?”

Around them, sounds of battle raged. Anansi was flying through the air on a complex twist, baiting his draconic foe. Dianmu assaulted hers with fury and thunder. He couldn’t see Crystal or Athena. What he was most aware of was his own blood staining the grass below. Moloch was advancing on him at a sedate pace. Ryan reached down to his injures, sending a surge of heat with a twist. Moloch smiled and motioned for Ryan to get on with it. He wanted Ryan to heal himself.

Ryan wasn’t going to question why. He screamed again at the pain of the cauterized wound, but at least he wouldn’t bleed to death. “You’re sick,” Ryan hissed through gritted teeth, forcing himself to his feet. His sword was nearby, and a quick twisting of equations brought it flying to his hand.

“Then please, Eschaton.” Moloch spread his arms wide, the sword that still dripped with Ryan’s blood held out. It was still bright red. Ichor dries quicker. I’m still Nascent.  Real fear spiked through Ryan’s chest, as bad as when Enki had him by the throat. “Put me out of my misery. Cure what ails me!”

It was a trap. It was such a painfully obvious trap that Ryan almost fell for it, taking a half step before stopping himself short. “Nah,” Ryan said, “I’m not going to stab you today.”

Moloch frowned. “Pity. I was hoping that-“

Ryan reached behind his back and twisted reality the moment Moloch’s guard was down, reorienting gravity. As far as Ryan and Moloch and everything else on the battlefield was concerned, everything worked like normal.

Everything except the Tarasque’s corpse. Ryan twisted reality so that, as far as it was concerned, Moloch was down – and has a massive gravitational pull. It rocketed across the landscape at Moloch, shattering rocks and more monsters and soldiers as it plummeted towards Moloch.

With a laugh, Moloch turned around to disintegrate the corpse. The individual flecks of ash didn’t completely vanish, but they were robbed of their momentum and only ended up clinging to Moloch, coating him in a layer of grey soot, but their impact was almost nonexistent. “A good attempt. I especially like giving me the gravitational pull of Jupiter. Would have hurt quite a bit if it had -.”

Moloch’s words were cut off when Ryan buried his sword into Moloch’s back. “Changed my mind about stabbing you.”

To Ryan’s dismay, Moloch didn’t scream or gasp or do anything of the things you expected when stabbing someone with a large blade. Instead, he laughed again, and Moloch’s form ran like wax. To Ryan’s horror, Moloch managed to completely reorient his body so front was back and back was front. It was so sickening to watch, Ryan found he couldn’t do anything but stare dumbfounded.

Moloch reached out as soon as he was facing Ryan and threw out his hand, striking Ryan in the chest with a pure equation of F=M*A. Ryan went flying backwards, leaving his sword in Moloch.

Ryan’s flight was interrupted by a group of Helhests and riders. They started to wheel to face Ryan, but Moloch held up a hand. “No! Not yet.”

Ryan’s only response was to moan into the dirt. Something in his earlier injury had torn open from that toss, and Moloch seemed to be only moderately inconvenienced by being impaled. Did he manage a double nanoverse? Ryan wondered through the pain. But that didn’t make sense. If Moloch had pulled that off, he wouldn’t waste any nanoverses on making monsters. Moloch could have used the entire Canaanite pantheon to far outstrip anything they could have fought. Then how is he so damn powerful?

It doesn’t matter. You’ve fought more powerful gods than you before. You nuked Enki. You can do this, Ryan. You can beat him. Ryan forced himself to his feet, feeling less certain than his pep talk indicated. Every fight with Enki had been a fierce battle. Even at the height of Enki’s power, he’d never seemed so lazy about it. Moloch was acting like a cat with a cornered mouse that he intended to play with before killing, and seemed even less threatened.

“Why not kill me, Moloch?” Ryan asked, trying to buy himself some time with banter.  If I can get keep him talking until the others show up, five on one odds favor us. Doubt flickered across Ryan’s thoughts. Right? Why isn’t he concerned? “You’re acting like I can’t hurt you. Why not just come at me?”

“Because,” Moloch said, “not everyone’s here. You don’t get to die until they do. But I don’t want you making it too easy on them.”

With a gesture, Moloch used the same trick Enki had used, so long ago on Crystal. Chains shot out of the ground and latched into Ryan’s skin. The pain was incredible, even though the damage was minimal. But they were barbed and hooked in ways that wormed into his skin and he swore he could feel them drilling.

So Ryan screamed. Moloch laughed. And the bear roared.

Bear?

The sound wasn’t what Moloch expected, clearly. Then again, there are very few situations where one expects to be charged by nearly two tons of enraged grizzly. It caught Moloch off guard with how fast it was. Ryan watched as the bear tore a series of lines into Moloch’s back, sending him to the ground. Moloch flipped over to face it, snarling, but the bear got another blow on the side of Moloch’s head. Why is there a bear?

Another part of Ryan added that, just like Moloch’s power source, it didn’t matter. The bear was there, and Ryan knew how to break these chains. It was one of the first things he’d ever managed to do. With a twist, the chains shattered as Ryan broke down the bonds between iron atoms.

As Ryan struggled to his feet, Beast and god wrestled. Before Ryan could dash to aid his savior, Moloch hit it in the chest with a single flat palm, a blow he accelerated with enough force to actually lift the bear off the ground and send it flying upwards.

Ryan couldn’t watch as the bear hit the ceiling above them. It was certainly moving fast enough. Instead he looked at Moloch, who was watching. Moloch’s wounds closing before Ryan’s eyes. That’s impossible. You can’t shapeshift away injuries. Ryan turned on his divine sight. Moloch was accelerating time around his injures like it was nothing, healing them in an instant.

Then, Moloch frowned, and Ryan risked a glance up. The bear had stopped moving, and a pair of enormous red wings jutted out from behind its bulk. “Uriel,” Moloch growled, almost in unison with Ryan. The two adversaries shared a glance of mirrored bewilderment. Who’s side is she on?

The bear was lowered to the ground in Uriel’s arms.

As Ryan watched, the bear’s form ran much like Moloch’s had, shapeshifting into something else. No, not something. Some one.

Uriel helped Isabel Smiths stand up. “Hey bro,” Isabel said, peering around Moloch. Her voice was strained, and her stance unsteady. That blow to the chest she received in bear form still hurt. “guess I still have to clean up after you.”

Moloch snarled and readied a bolt of lightning. Ryan started to try and lunge at him before Moloch could blast Isabel apart, but then Moloch hesitated and glanced at Uriel. The archangel was grinning. “You broke a compact with Hell, Moloch,” Uriel said, her voice dripping confidence.

“You agree to do no harm to Isabel Smith,” Moloch muttered.

Uriel nodded. “And you have violated that.”

To Ryan’s horror, Moloch didn’t seem at all disturbed. If anything, he seemed…excited. “I’m going to enjoy killing you, angel.”

And with that, angel and god charged each other.

Strange Cosmology Part 96

Ryan didn’t think the headlong rush toward Moloch deserved a name as dignified as a charge, or that the group of monsters should be called something as orderly as a mob. If he had to give the collection of beasts perusing them a collective noun, he would have called it a chaos of monsters. They were currently enraged chasing after Resheph’s drones, but as soon as they got scent of the divine they would be diverting their mass.

Ryan hoped that would be the case. The plan falls apart if they don’t. Granted, in Ryan’s opinion, if the attack on Moloch was too much to call a charge, if the monsters didn’t deserve to be called a mob, then calling “unleash the monsters and rush at Moloch and hope they kill him and his followers before they kill us I guess” a plan was a grave insult to the concept of plans.

At least it had accomplished one thing. Moloch did not look smug, or arrogant, or haughty. He certainly didn’t look like he was in control, bellowing orders at his followers and his monsters. His eyes were wide, his movements exaggerated, and kept shouting uncertain glances at the approaching horde.

Whatever else, Moloch was off balance.

“Get your targets, everyone!” Ryan shouted. The other gods didn’t need to be reminded, of course, but Ryan felt he should shout something. The situation was as dire as it got, the stakes as high as they could be, and his sister’s life hung in the balance on top of everything else. But part of Ryan was both terrified and thrilled to be fighting his target.

Crystal was peeling off from the group as soon as she spotted her target, the hydra that was under Moloch’s command. She dodged the Hecatoncheires hands, she can dodge the Hydra’s heads, Ryan thought to try and reassure himself. He watched for a moment as she launched herself into the air, but didn’t have time to see her first attack land before the next of their group spotted their target and split off to face it.

Anansi had spotted the ddraig goch, a dragon from Welsh mythology with an eagle’s beak. And so it went, Dianmu breaking off to fight the three-headed balaur, a creature that looked like it should be more at home in the water but moved across the land with serpentine grace, and Athena to fight her old nemesis in the drakaina, which looked to Ryan like the Medusa on steroids but thankfully lacked a petrifying glare.

Then Ryan saw his target, a creature from French mythology, and inspiration for one of his favorite creatures in roleplaying games.

The dread Tarasque.

It stood on all six legs – legs that bore more resemblance to a bear’s than anything else – with a massive shell covering its back that was dotted with spines as big as Ryan. As he approached the monster, it roared at him, revealing a mouth full of teeth fully in keeping with its leonine head.

I’m going to kill a Tarasque. Ryan thought as he propelled himself into the air by amplifying the force of his leap through twisting the acceleration his jump provided. As he came down towards it, part of him couldn’t help but add or die to one.

Ryan held off on twisting reality as he came down. They all were going to fight their monsters as much as possible with their weapons and wits and only minor alterations to reality. We have to save our strength for- ohgodspike!

Ryan twisted in the air to avoid impaling himself as he came down on the creature’s back. The result was that he had to roll instead of the sword-down landing he’d been aiming for, nearly falling off the Tarasque’s back before he managed to catch himself with one foot. Graceful, Ryan, he thought to himself.

Okay, you’re on the shell of a dragon-turtle-lion-bear hybrid, now what? Ryan considered trying to twist reality – the other part of the plan hinged on taking down the monsters before Moloch could empower them – but conserving power was more important.

Instead he started to make his way across the Tarasque’s back as it thrashed, trying to toss him into mauling range of those claws. It was like crawling across the roof of a bus on a bumpy road, when the bus was made of teeth and claws and malicious hate.

As difficult as it was, with each passing moment Ryan grew closer to the creature’s neck, holding onto his sword as best he could as he crawled along the slick shell of a beast that was large enough to bite Ryan in half  lengthwise.

A month ago you were trying to decide how many days you could hold off before you had to go to the Laundromat. The thought rose, unbidden, and once it was in Ryan’s head he couldn’t shake it. A month ago his concerns had been the laundromat, and if he was going to eat prepackaged noodles or splurge on fast food burgers. He was worried about getting progress reports done for his boss and – Holy crap I never quit. I forgot to quit my job.

Well, he’d been all over the news running around being the alleged Antichrist, so he was certainly fired by now. Not that it mattered. He’d only wanted the health benefits really, and he didn’t exactly need those anyway.

Ryan thought they were odd thoughts to have when crawling across the back of a beast that had terrorized fifth century France, but for the life of him couldn’t figure out what normal thoughts would be under these circumstances. The Tarasque’s neck was ahead. Ryan was almost in striking distance.

Then it rolled.

Ryan had to twist reality as it did to avoid being crushed by its bulk, pulling all the air around him into a thick cushion. As the Tarasque rolled onto its back, Ryan got glimpses of Moloch’s soldiers being crushed by shell and spines, then it was darkness as his hastily constructed air shield was buried into the ground. The Tarasque began to thrash above him, grinding him further and further into the dirt, and Ryan held onto the cushion of air for dear life.

After seconds that stretched into an eternity, it rolled off him. When Ryan came out of the ground, it was wheeling towards him. Upon seeing he was still alive, it bellowed and charged, its mouth opening to devour him whole. Ryan’s heart pounded. If you don’t get this right, you’re going to need a miracle.   

Ryan reached out and caused the air around the Tarasque’s face to release a sudden burst of photons, a face-first flashbang that blinded the beast. It still charged, it still bellowed, but that was enough for Ryan to roll forwards under that snapping jaw and raise his sword above him.

It was just high enough. The first half-foot of his sword buried itself in the Tarasque’s underbelly, and its mass was too great to stop itself. Ryan just had to stand there, sword raised above his head, and let the Tarasque’s momentum combine with his own divine strength to disembowel the creature from sternum to stem.

The stench was horrific as black ichor and monstrous viscera splattered free of its stomach to slosh on and around Ryan.  When it was done, Ryan looked like he had been doused in ink. He wiped his face, feeling his stomach churn.

A bit behind him, the Tarasque’s momentum ran out. Its body flopped lifelessly to collapse among Moloch’s army and the chaos of monsters, scattering both forces with its bulk.

Ryan dragged himself to his feet, looking for where in the chaos he was needed most. Already burned some power, and haven’t even started to bother Moloch yet. If I’m not careful-

Ryan gasped at a sudden, sharp pain in his side, and looked down to see the sword running halfway through his kidney.

“Oh, my,” Moloch whispered in Ryan’s ear, “I have so missed getting my hands dirty.”

Strange Cosmology Part 95

It’s so nice to have everything going according to plan. What was I thinking, working with Enki and Bast? It wasn’t the first time Moloch had wondered that, and he doubted it would be the last. Enki had been an unstable element. Moloch had admired his near obsessive focus on a single goal – he could relate to it – but his mad plan to merge nanoverses…if I had thought it could work, I never would have worked with him. Bast would have been fine to work with, but If she’d understood the full scope of Moloch’s ambitions, she would have stabbed him in the back faster than he’d betrayed Ishtar.

And I never planned to stay loyal to her. His hands twitched at the thought of Ishtar’s name, a gesture he was almost not aware of. Just a reflexive one, triggered by the thought of wringing her by the neck until it snapped it half. Letting her go to stop Enki had been galling. You’ve waited so long for that moment, he reminded himself. Just a little bit longer was for the best.

Especially because Enki might have been able to pull it off. Seeing what he could do with just two nanoverses, Moloch honestly thought Enki might have been able to hold the Sun back if he’d had enough of them.

And we can’t have that.

In a way, it was funny. Enki had become something so terrible, Moloch had been forced to allow defeat to make sure he was undone. Almost like the old days. Except for a few important details.

That thought made Moloch chuckle to himself, the raspy, wet sound he favored for how much it unnerved humans.

“Something amusing you, Moloch?” Uriel asked, crossing her arms across her chest. Moloch sighed at her voice. I preferred the last guy. Lucifer and his minions had been devious and manipulative and wholly focused on mortal sin and suffering, but they hadn’t been insufferable prigs about it. Uriel had somehow become more arrogant, not less, since her Fall.

“Just reminiscing, Uriel. About days long gone.”

“I know how long.”

That would have stopped Moloch cold if the fallen angel hadn’t been firmly leashed by their bargain. “It’s good to know things,” he muttered, turning back to Olympus. “I don’t recall part of our deal being you ruining the moment.”

“You should have specified in our deal, then.” Uriel gave him an impudent grin. “Since you did not, I can do as I please.”

Moloch turned away from her, not willing to let the insolence spoil the mood. Everything is going perfectly, he reminded himself. The gods of Olympus were turning on themselves. Even if they decided to aid Ishtar and her cohorts, it would be the remnant, the survivors. They were done, and would be ash soon. His real targets had taken the bait, and their first fight against one of his enhanced monsters had resulted in them needing to recover their hungers. They’d come to fight soon, and Moloch would crush them.

He could not wait to see the look on Ishtar’s face.

“Sir?” It was one of his cultists, enhanced by sacrifice and monstrous ichor. Moloch couldn’t remember his name. Or, more accurately, Moloch cared about this cultists name as much as he cared for the blades of grass he was currently standing upon. “Some of the others approach. Athena and Dianmu. They’ve stopped near the southern ridge.”

Moloch furrowed his brows. “Well, we should not keep them waiting, should we?” Moloch turned to head towards the barricade to the south.

As the cultist had stated, Athena and Dianmu stood there. Moloch couldn’t see the others, not from here. It doesn’t matter. They’d come, in time. Maybe these two had realized the folly of opposing him and were trying to get sanctuary. If they are, offer it. Until things are done. He doubted he’d be that lucky though. Athena was as steadfast as they came, and Dianmu had never betrayed a cause – not even when she herself was betrayed. I wonder if she’s still sore about that?

They were just far enough away Moloch didn’t bother ordering his outriders to hunt them down. Instead, he drew up to make sure he was clearly visible over the crude fortifications of bone and sinew.

“Moloch!” Athena bellowed, her voice amplified by Dianmu twisting reality as she spoke. “You have invaded the home of the Olympians. You have committed foul acts against both man and god. You have destroyed nanoverses for personal gain, ending trillions of lives to create monsters. You-“

Moloch twisted reality to amplify his own voice. The time to conserve power was almost at an end. “As much as I appreciate being reminded how incredible I am, Athena, I assume you have a point?”

If the interruption bothered Athena, she didn’t show it beyond rolling her eyes. “I’m giving you a chance, Moloch. Surrender, and we will imprison you in the Labyrinth. You’ll live your life there, but you will not face Real Death, and you will have a domain to shape to a degree.”

Moloch burst out laughing, and with the twisted amplification, his cackles echoed horribly throughout the entirety of Elysian Rest. “You are giving me a chance, Pallas Athena? I have every advantage. I have an army remade to kill gods. I have monsters that would rip you shreds. I have your dear Eschaton’s sister,” and here Moloch gestured, and Isabel was drug over to him by her chains. Moloch ignored her protests and lifted her high so Athena could see. Uriel tensed. Don’t worry, Uriel. I won’t harm her. I remember our deal. They don’t know of it, however. “I have an angel on my side! You have a few gods and…nothing else.”

Ryan, Ishtar, and Anansi were cresting the hill to join Athena. They exchanged some quiet words, and Moloch tapped his foot, waiting for a response. His fingers twitched again. He could reach out right now, direct his full power at the cluster. They’d never see it coming, they’d never imagine it. You’d never see the look on their faces. The plan, Moloch, the plan.

Besides, what could they possibly do to him?

As if they had senses the thought, Athena turned back to him. “Iacta Alea est!” The die is cast. As a group, the five gods raised their hands and lowered them.

That’s when the explosions started. Over and over, explosions along the sides of the Elysian Rest. All around them, the walls of the Labrynth were wracked with staccato burst of detonations that shook the ground Moloch stood on. Moloch looked around, wildly. Dust was filling the space the explosions had occupied.

And from behind the dust came dozens of roars. “What.” Moloch said. It wasn’t a question. He could tell exactly what was going on. He could already see the first creature emerge from the smoke and dust, a trio of Chimeras bellowing from all three heads. They were followed by a hydra, growingly and hissing as it slithered free. Scylla, the creature that had blocked Odysseus from his return to Greece, was the first Moloch recognized, a massive woman that crawled across the landscape on tentacles that ended in ravenous wolf-jaws.

The first what didn’t seem enough. “What.” Moloch repeated. This wasn’t part of the plan. This wasn’t part of any plan! “This is madness,” Moloch shouted across the pass at Athena.

She didn’t answer. She and her companions were already charging, trying to stay ahead of the wave of monsters they had unleashed.

In his grasp, Isabel stared laughing. “What is so funny?” Moloch growled. “What is so goddamned funny?”

“My brother…he used to play this nerd game with dice. And every time they were near the end of the game, people would…” She snorted and had needed a moment to collect herself. “would wonder what stupid-ass thing he was going to do next. No one could plan for it! Drove the head nerd, the DM, up the wall.” Isabel got her laughed under control and gave Moloch a defiant grin. “No one can plan for my brother.”

Moloch snarled at her and tossed Isabel aside, issuing orders to his troops. Isabel rolled with the throw as best she could, coming to a stop at Uriel’s feet.

Ryan, what the hell are you doing? Isabel wondered. Unleashing a ton of monsters was stupid. Or maybe it wasn’t. But Moloch had an army, Ryan had a mob. For all her bravado, she was not even remotely certain Ryan had any idea what was going on.

Isabel glanced at Moloch, making sure he was still focused on his army. He was out of sight. She reached down to her pocked as best as the chains allowed.

It was still there. Isabel glanced at Uriel, who nodded. Almost time, Isabel thought, her heart pounding. It’s almost time.

She just hoped that, if this was going to go badly, it would be enough to turn the tide.

Strange Cosmology Part 94

Ryan had already been awake, and as such the first to get to Athena, although the others weren’t far behind. The alarm still rung in his ears, a low bell she’d made by slamming two masses of air together in the exact right way. “What’s wrong, what is it?” Ryan asked, wiping his eyes as he did.

She just pointed by way of answer. She’d moved the lenses while keeping her watch, and they now magnified part of the base of the Elysian Rest. Two men lay dead near the foundation, their bodies twisted and broken by the fall. Ryan couldn’t make out too many more details, except that it seemed that one of them had been decapitated. Ryan felt his stomach churn. “Are those…”

Athena nodded as the others approached. “Ares and Eros.” Ryan thought better of asking how she could tell from the corpses laying at the base of a tower from this distance. She sounded certain, and pressing her wouldn’t get them anywhere. “I didn’t see what happened, I’m not sure how long they’ve been dead.” Her fingers tightened into fists, and Ryan considered reaching over to comfort her. He glanced at Crystal, who shook her head, and Ryan agreed. “Moloch breached their defenses,” Athena said.

“Hold on now,” Ryan said, his tone gentle as possible. “We don’t know what happened. It could have been some kind of internal conflict or…” Ryan blinked a couple times, and Athena gave him a hard look. “Actually, that’s the only other thing I can think of.”

“If you’re trying to calm me,” Athena growled through clenched teeth, “I think you could have done worse. Somehow.”

“Athena, love, we don’t know what’s going on,” Crystal said, stepping in. “Maybe it’s already over. Maybe there’s nothing to worry about.”

“Look at this and tell me there’s nothing to worry about,” Athena said, stepping aside to give the other gods access.
Everyone took a moment to look through the lense while Athena’s knuckles grew whiter and whiter. “I do not think Moloch has breached their walls,” Dianmu finally said, looking squarely at Athena. “There would be more chaos if he had gotten even a single monster in.”

Athena sighed and seemed to relax some, although her shoulders were still rigid with tension. “Then the Olympians are tearing themselves apart from inside. We can’t wait any longer, we have to help them. Otherwise this was all for nothing!” she gestured expansively back at the labyrinth with the last sentence, as if to draw attention to how much they had gone through and were squandering.

The other gods looked at each other for a moment before Anansi spoke up. “Athena is correct. Our primary objective here was to see if the Olympians needed aid. Even if they need aid from each other, we should try to proffer it.” He smiled broadly, “Besides, I see no reason to make things easier for Moloch.”
“I hope some brilliant plan has formed for how we can do that, then,” Dianmu said with a scowl. At least it’s not a refusal, Ryan thought with relief. “The five of us barely took down some outriders and a single dragon. He has four dragons, a goat monster, and dozens more outriders. It doesn’t exactly inspire hope to know the odds have gotten work.”

Athena glowered at her, but Crystal stepped in. “She’s right, love. We go in half-cocked, we’re likely to do nothing to help the Olympians besides give Moloch some fresh corpses.”

“I have been thinking on this,” Anansi said, his voice slow and careful. “Although it assumes some things. Something Ryan said – what was it about the Lindworm and forms?”

Ryan had to frown for a minute to remember the line he’d said to Anansi as they were making camp. “Oh, yeah. I didn’t know Lindworms could pull a ‘this isn’t even my final form’ and go all one-winged angel on us.”

Anansi nodded, and Crystal grinned. Athena and Dianmu stared at them with perfectly mirrored expressions of confusion.

“It’s a reference to…you know what, it doesn’t matter,” Ryan said, not wanting to delve into the intricacies of video game and anime plots. “The point is, the Lindworm turned into something straight out of Dark Souls…” he saw even Crystal and Anansi’s forehead furrow and sighed. “Seriously, you all need to stay at least semi-up to date with pop culture. Something out of Lovecraft?” Confusion faded. “Great. My point is, if that’s not something Lindworms can normally do, how did that one manage it?”

“And you have an answer now, Ryan?” Dianmu asked, tilting her head.

“No, but I’m guessing he does,” Ryan said, pointing at Anansi.

“I do. Moloch has found a way to send his power into these monsters, give them a portion of divine power. Likely from human sacrifice, given how much he favors it.”

Crystal nodded. “I’ve never known Moloch to touch his nanoverse for power when dead humans could do the trick.”

“I feel the need to point out you were okay with us allying with him,” Ryan muttered.

Crystal rolled her eyes. “Well, love, we didn’t exactly have a dearth of applicants. We needed help.”

“Yes you did,” Anansi said, “but the point, if I may?”

No one objected, and Anansi continued, “It all comes back to Moloch. He is empowering the monsters. He is commanded them. He commands the Helhests. If he’s sufficiently distracted…well, he’s still only one person. We just need to get through to him. If we sneak-“

Dianmu interrupted him. “And if we’re caught, Anansi, what then? We need some way to sneak past an entire army! What on Earth could give us the chance to do that. We’d need one hell of a distraction. No, spider, we need an army”

Ryan was looking back into the fortress, frowning. “An army…” he muttered.

Athena followed his gaze, then glanced over at Ryan. “What are you thinking?”

“Hey,” Ryan said, loud enough to interrupt the growing argument. “What allows Moloch to command monsters? I mean, every one we’ve fought seems pretty intractable to me.”

“You have to be the one that created them, love, otherwise they’re going to run rampant.” Crystal joined Ryan in frowning.

“So…without a god to control them, monsters will just attack the nearest god?”

“Hah!” Dianmu barked a humorless laugh. “No, they’ll attack the nearest thing. God, mortal, machine – lacking one of those, they’ll even turn on each other.”

“So we give them a target,” Ryan said, his voice growing in excitement. “We give them something to chase, lead them into Moloch’s army, and let them run rampant! Hey Resheph, how good are you with drones now?”
Resheph’s response took a couple moments. “I can fly them pretty well. These voice controls are a bugger and a half, though.”

Which explained why he’s been so silent, Ryan thought, his frown turning into a smile.

“Lead who, Ryan?” Dianmu asked, her voice finally softening. “What are you thinking? We don’t have monsters, or an army.”

Ryan shook his head. “No, we don’t.” He raised one hand to point down the great broken doors than lead back into the Labyrinth. “But we know where to find a whole hell of a ton of them, don’t we?”

The other gods stared at him, then at each other. The silence was broken by Anansi, who started to chuckle. “Yes, we do.”

“You do know ‘just crazy enough to work’ isn’t meant as advice, right?” Dianmu asked, but she was tapping her chin as she did. Less denial, more concern.

“Well, my last plan involved a nuclear bomb, so really, this is a step up in sanity for me.” Ryan looked around. “Anyone have a better plan?”

No one spoke up. Athena looked positively eager. “From the outside…the walls should be vulnerable from the outside,” she said, nodding her head excitedly. “We never imagined someone would try to break in, only through or out.”
“Great,” Ryan said. “Let’s crack this thing wide open. If it works, we’ll finally get to talk with Moloch. If it doesn’t, well, it’s not like things were going well before.”

Crystal shook her head. “We really need to work on your inspirational speeches, love.”

They were past the point where speeches mattered. The die was cast. They set out to unleash the monsters of the Labyrinth.

And let’s hope this isn’t as crazy an idea as it seems, Ryan thought as he began to walk the wall, looking for where he’d begin his part in the destruction.

 

Strange Cosmology part 93

The megaron of the Elysian Rest, the great hall of the gods, was perhaps the most lavishly decorated place in the entire complex. Artemis watched as the gods wound among the ornately sculpted columns, some of Hephestus’ finest work, every little detail showing off some victory of the gods throughout history. Dionysus was leaning drunkenly against one that showed the last battle against the Titans, when Zeus had sealed Chronus within the depths of Tartarus with the help of Heracles and Athena – although someone had come along and scratched Athena’s face out. Probably Hera, Artemis thought with a sigh.

Hera, for her part, was standing next to the throne that should have held Zeus. On the left, as opposed to her usual spot on the right hand side.

On the right hand side stood Thalassa. Artemis was keeping a careful eye on her, that was much certain. Thalassa had predated the Olympians, the consort of the deity Pontos that had been worshipped before even the Titanomachy. She’d later married Poseidon, and fought alongside the Olympians against the Titans, but Artemis didn’t trust the woman. She’d turned sides once before to save her hide, she’d do it again.

She was your friend, Artemis! Are you suspecting everyone now?

The problem was, all these people were her friends. Heracles was laughing at some joke with Demeter, and from the expression on the goddess’ face she’d only found it a tenth as funny as the boisterous son of Zeus. Angelia sat against a pillar near the back of the room, nervously rumpling her toga in her hands. With Hermes still awaiting resurrection, Angelia had confided in Artemis that she feared she’d be called to fulfill her duties as a messenger, and was terrified she’d be sent out to be torn apart by Moloch and his monsters. So on and so forth, people who were Artemis’ friends, her family. None of them could have betrayed them!

And yet, some of them were planning to do exactly that. The only ones alive Artemis could be certain of were Hera, who was already exposed as a different kind of traitor, and Athena, who was outside the wall and likely still recovering from yesterday’s battle.

“You seem tense, sister,” said a voice behind her, causing Artemis to jump. She whirled around and almost smacked Apollo across the face.

“Where have you been?” she hissed. “I was looking for you and-“

“And I was enjoying Aphrodite’s company,” Apollo said with a mild shrug. “Or she was enjoying mine. It was a mutual enjoyment.”

Artemis sighed. “Apollo, there’s things going on. Where is she, anyway? And don’t cut me any crap about tiring her out, I’m not in the mood. I know how divine stamina works, and you haven’t been burning power.”

“So says the universe’s oldest virgin.” Apollo laughed. “I don’t know where she is, Artemis. I am not my lover’s keeper. “

Artemis snorted and rolled her eyes. At least Aphrodite won’t throw themselves off a cliff. “Well, I’m glad you’re here. I’m not sure who I can trust anymore. And I was worried that…” Artemis bit her lip. This entire time, she’d not let the idea cross her mind that she’d be finding her brother’s body, broken or beheaded or speared like Zeus’. Now that she was here with him, she basked in the relief .“I’m just glad you’re alright.”

Apollo laughed. “Artemis, what in all the chthonic realms has gotten into you? Honestly.”

“We’ll be hearing more soon, Apollo. Once everyone gets here. But short version – Ares, Eos, and Zeus are all dead. Hera nearly killed Poseidon and me. People are talking about selling us out to Moloch to save their own hides!”

Apollo’s joking demeanor vanished with every word. “Ares is dead?” he whispered, “and the others? I mean…even Zeus?”

“Yes. So glad something finally got through to you.” Artemis rolled her eyes. “Do you need a moment to catch up?”

Her response was a frown as Apollo mouthed through what she had said. It’s not that he’s dumb, Artemis thought was a smile. Apollo had spent much of his time with his head in the clouds, and had the attention span of  gnat. He’d remember in just-

Hera tried to kill you?” Apollo hissed, casting a venomous look at the woman beside the dais. “I swear by all the-“

“-That you’ll do nothing,” Artemis responded firmly. “Apollo. There’s enough going on. We have to think about this carefully. Now is not the time to further our divisions. Nanoverses are intact. No one has committed the ultimate act. Hera wasn’t going to. Calm your temper.”

Apollo took a few deep breaths and did seem to get himself under control, just in time for Posideon to step up to the throne. A hush fell over the megaron as he did. Zeus belongs there, the hush seemed to say. That is Zeus’s place, Zeus’ throne, the silence muttered. Why is his brother there? What is going on?

“No,” Poseidon said in whisper that carried through the silence so all could hear it, “this is not my throne.” He whirled to face the crowd. “Fellow Olympians, I come bearing grave tidings!” Poseidon gestured, and the massive hearth that dominated the center of the room burst into flames. “Zeus has fallen.”

The silence that seemed to generate its own whispers now was filled with true murmurs. Zeus hadn’t died in millennia. For most of the gods here, they had never seen him die, or even heard of it happening in their lifetimes. The idea of him dying was abhorrent, it was unthinkable. Poseidon held up his hand for calm, and for a moment a line from Shakespeare crossed Artemis’ mind.

I’ve come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.

Artemis blinked as the crowd calmed itself and Poseidon continued. “It’s to Artemis we owe the discovery of the truth behind this murder, and it’s to Hera we owe the blame for it.” This provoked another mutter in the crowd. Everyone had known their marriage was acrimonious – it was practically their defining trait – but the idea it had escalated to murder was unthinkable. Artemis caught a few glances and frowned. No, I’m not the other woman, she wanted to say, but knew that denial right now would only strengthen those rumors. “As such,” Poseidon continued, quieting the crowd before he repeated as such, “As such, we have some votes to consider. All such votes will, of course, only be made permanent after the dead have been resurrected so that all voices can be heard. First of all, I am calling for Hera to be removed from her position, stripped of all rank, and for her vote to be removed until the present crisis is over!”

This caused an uproar, an outright shouting match of the gods. On the one hand, removing Hera’s ability to vote was unheard of. Rank and status, that was expected. But her vote? That was unimaginable. On the other hand…Artemis scanned the crowd. Heracles, who Hera had tried to kill when he was a mortal. Dionysus, whom she had killed once for getting Zeus drunk and encouraging him into an escapade. Aphrodite, who had finally arrived, and whom had been Hera’s oldest rival. Hera had been as likable as a hungry crocodile, as warm as a marble statue, and as welcoming as a mother bear standing over her cubs. She’d made enemies all the time, relying on her status to keep her untouchable. And now?

Now she’d gone too far.

The vote carried quickly. A few holdouts existed – Apollo was one of them – but for the most part it was uncontested. Hera practically fled the dais.

“Now,” Poseidon said, another hand raised. “There is a question. Without a vote, we’ve also lost a veto.” This, at least, settled the crowd down.  Of course Poseidon would call for a vote to pass it to Thalassa. His wife would hold the second veto.

“To hold that second veto, to keep us honest through this difficult time, I propose Artemis.”

If the earlier vote had caused an uproar, this one was bedlam. Not because she was a controversial choice- Artemis was beloved by no one but hated by few – but because of how unexpected it was.

Artemis wasn’t watching the crowd, though. She was watching Poseidon, who was smiling at her. And Thalassa, who was smiling beside him.

You played me. Her eyes widened. Now that she had the veto, any move she made would look like a grab for power. Like she was taking advantage of Zeus’ death. Having one of the three vetoes meant that she’d have more theoretical power than any other god save Poseidon, and it also meant she’d be even more powerless than before.

And if she turned it down, it would cause chaos.

“I accept the nomination,” Artemis said when silence fell, and approached the dais, her stomach sinking with every step.

“Thank you, Artemis, for your service. And now!” Poseidon bellowed. “Now comes the most important issue of all, one that calls for debate because it is not a mere choice. What to do about Moloch?”

If the last vote was a bedlam, this one was a cataclysm.

And, Artemis thought with growing dread, there’s no guarantee it will be over in time to help Athena and the others.

Strange Cosmology Part 92

Poseidon slumped to the floor as Hera removed the complex elemental bonds she’d wrapped around him. His skin was seared where the burning stone had touched it, filling the air with a smell that put Artemis in mind of burned pork. Her stomach churned at the thought. “He’ll live,” Hera said with a dismissive wave of her hand.

If Artemis didn’t have so many questions, she would have loosed the arrow for that comment alone. “You were willing to subject him to that pain. You killed your husband. Why?”

Hera took a slow, deep breath. “You don’t understand, Artemis. You just can’t. You’re responsible for you, yourself, and no one else. You never wanted greater duty.”

“Your explanation starts with you telling me why I won’t understand it.” Artemis narrowed her eyes. “You’re not off to the best start.”

“Fine,” Hera nearly spat with the word, her face contorting into a scowl. “I did it to save us. My husband was growing tired of our siege. He believe that we should lower the defenses. Meet Moloch in honorable combat.” Hera let out a desperate, pained laugh, “As if Moloch would know the meaning of the word!”

Poseidon was riding to his feet, and while he was still gravely injured, Artemis felt some comfort in knowing she wouldn’t be facing off against Hera alone if this turned into a fight. “You killed Zeus for trying to do exactly what I was going to do?” A realization swept over Artemis, and the arrowhead wavered for a moment. “You were going to kill me, weren’t you?”

“Once you had killed Poseidon. Artemis, I promise you, it would not have been a permanent death. I would never have – could never have -”

“My Queen, I have no idea what you’re capable of anymore.” Artemis scowled at Hera. “So you frame Poseidon for murdering Zeus, me for murdering Poseidon – and Ares, I presume?”

“Of course. You snapped when Ares killed Eros. All of Olympus knows how you long for him, Artemis.”

Artemis wasn’t sure if she should laugh or scream. “That old rumor? Still? After all…if I…” Artemis settled on making a half strangled sound. “And you believe the others would have fallen for this?

“I had to improvise. Several steps got changed when Ares killed Eros.” Hera sighed a deep, weary sound that provoked no sympathy from Artemis, who was watching in her peripheral vision as Poseidon struggled into his chair with a gasp of pain. “I had no idea Ares had betrayed us. Had I known…”

“You would have what, Hera? What would you have done differently?”

“If I’m being honest, I would have sent someone who wasn’t in my camp. Apollo, most likely. One of them would have killed the other, and then things could have gone from there.”

Artemis wanted to be sick. It would have worked, the whole thing. That’s what she didn’t want to admit. Everyone believed that stupid rumor about her and Eros, and a god flying into a rage over a death that would be temporary was hardly unheard of, followed by finding Zeus’ body in a grief-filled state and then tracing it back to Poseidon…”It would have fallen apart the moment we resurrected, Hera. You know that, don’t you?”

“Of course I do. I’m not stupid.” Hera sneered. “It didn’t need to. Just long enough for Moloch to get what he really wanted. Then he would have left us alone.”

Artemis’ heart started pounding. “What does he want, Hera? What did he tell you?”

Hera chuckled like Artemis had just invented the very concept for bad jokes. “He didn’t need to tell me, archer. Isn’t it obvious? He comes here and throws his monsters against our defenses, but never attempts to undo them himself. Just throwing monsters and twisted humans at us, over and over again. He doesn’t want us, he wanted them.

“Them?” Artemis blinked. “Athena and her new pantheon?”

Hera nodded eagerly. “Don’t you see? If he truly was after us, he would have tried much harder to crush our defenses. He would have directed his own power against us, he would have had his monsters come as a mass, any number of things. But instead he sat there and he toyed with us like the cat that’s caught the mouse. We weren’t the target, we were the bait!”

Artemis lowered the bow, although she kept a wary arrow nocked. Hera wouldn’t move now, though, Artemis was sure of that. Poseidon was regaining his full sensibility, and while Hera could overpower Artemis, Poseidon was another matter, and they also had the numeric advantage. “Hera…you were so sure of this, you were willing to kill your husband to keep us safe?”

Hera’s nod this time was slow and steady. “It all makes sense, doesn’t it? But Zeus wouldn’t listen, so I had to eliminate my opponents before it ended up spilling out. Before we found ourselves with a civil war within these walls. Don’t you see that-”

“Hera, Ishtar is out there,” Artemis said, her voice quiet. Barely enough for Hera to hear, but more than enough to get her to stop talking.

“I know that,” Hera said with a bluster-laden shake of her head. “What is your point? She’s one of the one’s he’s here for, so it doesn’t matter.”

“Ishtar, who claims to be a million years old and has other beings from beyond the stars backing that claim up. Did it even cross your mind that Moloch wanted to kill Ishtar to get the monster that he could make out of her death? It would be…”

“…immense,” Hera finished, her bluster and bombast stripped away and fixed with sick terror and bone-deep disgust. “Enough to even shatter their way through our defenses.”

“You betrayed us without enough information, Hera. You’re scared, aren’t you?”

Hera gave a small, miserable nod. “I’ve seen what those soldiers can do as payback. You all saw what they did to poor Hermes. The defenses are the only things keeping us safe now.”

Artemis shook her head. “My Queen…you have proven yourself to be unfit to rule. As the ranking war deity, I am relieving you of your command.

Hera scoffed. “You think so, do you?” she sneered. “This hardly meets the requirements of that law. I would need to be seriously injured or dead for you t-”

Hera’s words were cut off as Artemis’ arrow slammed into the wall, inches from her head. A few strands of Hera’s hair fluttered down, trimmed by the arrow’s passing. “You have proven yourself to be unfit to rule. As the ranking war deity, I am relieving you of your command. Poseidon, will you be my witness?”

The oceanic deity was still too injured to speak, but he nodded his approval.

“Wonderful.” She stepped forward to clap Hera’s hands in shackles that would even hold a goddess. “Poseidon, I’m gambling on you. There’s a traitor, at least one, probably more within Elysian Rest. If we don’t find out who they are and then sally forth….?

“They’ll stab us in the back,” Poseidon managed with his ruined voice. “Why do they serve Moloch?”

Artemis gave him a brief summation of what had happened, starting with what she saw while watching and ending with their arrival into Poseidon’s room.”

Poseidon nodded. “Gather the others. Gather the gods in the Great Hall. We have much to discuss.”

Artemis headed out to do exactly to that, silently praying she was not leading her fellow Olympians into a trap as she did.

I promise you, Poseidon, if you’re Moloch’s servitor, you won’t survive your betrayal.

Strange Cosmology Part 91

Zeus sat dead on his throne. He looked almost peaceful, his head bowed, the great white beard stained red by the hole in his chest where his attacker had stabbed him. Artemis was doing her best to look at the situation with a detachment, even though it was hard seeing him like this. Zeus may have been a randy old bastard, but he’d guided the pantheon for as long as she could remember. He didn’t expect the attack.

That much was obvious. Zeus was as dangerous as they came, the rise of his divinity marked with the battles against the Titans and then followed by centuries of Theomachy to bring the rest of the old Olympians in line. He’d helped find divinity for both his brothers, even going so far as to find how to help an Underworld god ascend for Hades sake, something no one had understood – at least, as far as Artemis knew. He’d later gone to war with them and neither Hades or Poseidon were exactly pushovers. He’d survived the Bronze Age collapse, he’d survived the war against the Egyptians and the Persians.

The only warriors as skilled as him, and the only gods as powerful, were Hades, Poseidon, and Hera. Hades had remained in his realm instead of coming with them to the Elysian rest. Hera was currently screaming vengeance for this fowl betrayal. So where are you, Poseidon?

“Where is his Nanoverse?” Hera shouted, startling Artemis out of her thoughts. She was looking at Artemis as she screamed it, but Artemis didn’t think the question was directed at her, especially since Hera didn’t deem to wait for an answer before continuing. “He always had it on him, always. If we find his nanoverse, we find his killer.”

“Then I suggest we gather everyone. Check them. See who has two. We’ll have our killer then,” Artemis responded, trying to keep her voice as calm as she was her emotions. Hera didn’t need someone to rage with her right now. She needed someone who could stay calm.

Of course, now carrying around Ares nanoverse was a much bigger liability than it had been. Artemis still trusted her gut instinct to lie about that to Hera, but if the enraged god-queen found out that Artemis was carrying two now…I don’t think any amount of bold moves will save me then.

“Oh, you suggest that, do you?” Hera snapped, her voice dripping with vitriol so thick Artemis wondered if they’d need to mop it up before it tainted the crime scene. She opened her mouth to respond, but Hera wasn’t actually looking for an answer. “Don’t just suggest it, then! Go! Do it. I’m sick of councils, sick of talking. Give me action!”

“And what if I find myself against someone who could kill Zeus? Would you have me fight whomever killed your husband?”

Hera’s nostrils flared. Artemis had never understood how a marriage built upon so much mutual acrimony could contain so much love. Hera seemed to do nothing when it came to her husband except than complain about his infidelities, and Zeus rarely spoke of Hera except to grumble about her attempts to kill his ex lovers and children, but whenever they were together they were the perfect picture of a happy couple. Artemis had thought it was as sham, a show for the other Olympians, but seeing Hera’s rage now…you do love him.

“No, of course I won’t,” Hera said after she’d calmed down. “Of course you can’t fight them. You’re a good archer, but you’re no match for anyone who could do this. Especially because we know who it was, don’t we?”

“We do?” Artemis asked.

“Of course. Poseidon, and probably his cow Thalassa. He was always jealous of Zeus, and she always believed she’d be a better Queen than I. They’re using the opportunity of Moloch to seize power. It’s obvious.”

It wasn’t to Artemis. Poseidon and Zeus had gotten along poorly in the past, true, but betraying them to Moloch? That seemed beyond even him – if nothing else, he would be too proud to resort to trickery. Thalassa, meanwhile, had said she’d been a better Queen than Hera. That was true. But she always said it with the unspoken implication of “and if I’m saying I would do better, than you know how poorly I think she’s doing.” Comparing herself was a critique of Hera, not an actual desire. “We should check them first then,” Artemis said. If they found Zeus’ nanoverse it would answer the question, and put Hera’s paranoia to rest if they did not.

That, at least, Hera agreed to, and she stalked the halls of the Rest as Artemis followed. They wound through the great garden, where Ionian columns supported a garden tended by Demeter that was as lush as her power could manage.

Artemis hoped that once this whole business with Moloch was done, the gardens remained undamaged. They were slightly inspired by the hanging gardens that had once adorned Babylon, but Demeter had carefully given them a perfectly natural appearance, where it gave the impression that all this wonder and beauty had happened by accident – and at the same time was clearly sculpted by an expert hand. The flowers that grew here formed a perfectly contrasted rainbow of color, and from experience Artemis knew that from the sky above it looked like a kaleidoscope, especially at the artificial evenings they had created in here. During that time, they would open and close to create a swirling pattern that spiraled across the entire span of the garden.

So renowned was their beauty that as they wound through, Hera stopped her stomping to step carefully. It gave her a chance to calm down, and Artemis watched her as she did. Hera’s hands were shaking, her shoulders were slumped, her head was bowed. Artemis thought for a moment it was grief, but why would she be grieving her husband? He’d be back soon. Possibly even tomorrow, given the killer had only created a single hole.  And why didn’t the killer burn his body? Remove his head? Do something to delay his resurrection further?

It wasn’t adding up to Artemis. Something was wrong, she was missing a detail somewhere.

It was something to puzzle over later. They were arriving at Posideon’s chambers. The great sea god was in many ways his brother’s mirror, although his build was slighter and his beard was even more resplendent that Zeus’ “Hera! Artemis!” He asked in a jovial tone. “What brings you to my little corner of paradise?”

“Where. Is. It?” Hera snapped. Guess we’re not even attempting subtly, Artemis sighed.

Poseidon look puzzled. “Where is what, my queen?”

Hera didn’t bother answering with words. With a gesture, before Poseidon had time to prepare himself, she twisted reality. Poseidon was hurled by a complex weaving of all five elements. A burst of air wrapped him up and slammed him against the wall with such force the stone cracked under the impact. Poseidon started to reach out, but Artemis’ mouth went dry as the water was sucked out of the air to throw off his balance and force him to try and deal with the distraction of it flooding into his lungs, where Artemis could see it still swirled in miniature whirlpools. Bands of the stone rose to encase his wrists and ankles and face and crawling over his torso. Under those bands were strands of fire searing his flesh, and if not for the torrent in his lungs, Artemis was sure she’d hear him scream. Artemis had never even attempted a weaving that complex and Hera had done it like it was nothing.

She remembered something Ishtar had said, back when she was with Athena and somewhat welcomed on Olympus. That the elements were just their perceptions of the mathematics that underlies reality. Artemis had laughed it off, asking her if she’d been spending time with the Pythagoreans, but now that she saw what Hera could do, she wondered if maybe Ishtar had a point. Certainly that was no normal elemental work.

Hera strode over to Poseidon’s bed and began to tear it apart. Artemis thought to protest what was happening to Poseidon until his guilt was determined, but seeing the wild look in Hera’s eyes, she decided not to make herself a target of her Queen’s wrath. “A-ha!” Hera shouted, holding the nanoverse high. The one eye Poseidon had that was not covered with burning stone widened in shock instead of pain. “I knew it was you, Poseidon.” She glanced over at Artemis. “Execute this traitor. I want you to shoot him until your quiver is empty.”

Artemis reached back to her quiver, drawing an arrow, and unslung her bow. What had she thought earlier? I’m sorry, Athena. Unless I do something drastic, you’re on your own.

Artemis knocked the arrow, then whirled to face Hera. “Don’t. Move. If you even begin to weave reality, my Queen, I’m putting this between your eyes.”

Hera went stock still, her eyes narrowing. “Artemis. What is the meaning of this?”

“When I found you, you were half mad. Whoever killed Zeus couldn’t bear to destroy his body and delay his resurrection. The only way to manage something as complex as what you did to Poseidon was if you already came here and laid the groundwork for it.”

“You accuse me?” Hera asked, her voice venomous. “Put down that bow now, Artemis. Put it down this instant, and we will talk about this.”

“I will, my Queen, if you can answer one question for me.” Artemis’ hands didn’t waiver. This bow was built for a goddess, with a one thousand pound draw. The arrows each weighed more than a sword. She couldn’t take Hera in a straight fight, but if she loosed the arrow in this close proximity she wouldn’t have to.

“Fine, then. I explain everything you’ve mentioned, so ask your question and then we can discuss overlooking your little-”

Artemis cut her off. “How did you know the nanoverse was in the bed?”

Hera’s mouth snapped shut, and she gave Artemis a look filled with hatred, terror, and grief. “I can explain,” the Queen of the Olympians said, and if the situation was less dire, Artemis would have found humor in Hera repeating the phrase Zeus had so often used on her.

“I can’t believe you’d serve Moloch,” Artemis spat.

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Hera almost stepped forward, then stopped before Artemis loosed the arrow. “Artemis, I didn’t do this to serve him. Lower the bow and I will explain.”

“No. Release Poseidon and talk,” Artemis said, not moving an inch. Which means that even after this, there’s still the traitors to deal with. Artemis fought back despair, focusing on the task in front of her.

Hera nodded.

Strange Cosmology Part 90

There was exactly one person in the Elysian Rest Artemis was sure she could trust. Unfortunately, it was the person she least wanted to speak to.

She found Hera lounging by the Pool of Beauty, filled with the same waters that had held the entrancing reflection of Narcissus. Hera had one finger trailing in the still waters, distorting her reflection with every ripple they caused.

“Artemis,” Hera said, her voice soft and sad. “I’m glad Eros relieved you.”

Artemis straightened her back. “Hera. Eros is dead.”

The finger gliding through the water stopped as if Hera had just been turned to stone. “And his nanoverse?” she asked, her voice as warm as a glacier.

“Gone out the window, along with Ares’ body.”

Hera finally met Artemis’ eyes, and the younger goddess saw a fury in them that she hadn’t seen since Athena had been exiled. She rose in a single, languid motion, a lion stalking out of the brush. “Artemis. I hope there is a very good explanation for why you killed two of our numbers.”

“I – no,” Artemis had to swallow. Stars of Olympus, it was easy to forget how imposing the woman could be when you’d earned her displeasure! “Hera, I didn’t kill Eros. Ares did. Decapitated him in a single strike. I killed Ares both for that crime and to save myself from him.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” Hera said with that same deadly calm to her voice. “Why would Ares kill Eros? And why would you need to save yourself? He was your ally in wanting to attack Moloch.”

Artemis shook her head. “No, Hera. That had stopped. He’d talked to Moloch. They’d cut a deal. He meant to betray us all, let down the defenses, to spare those that joined him!” She took a deep breath, feeling her nerves rattle further under Hera’s emotionless gaze. “Hera, he talked to others before he spoke to me. There are traitor within these walls.”

Hera gave her a slow nod. “Impressive.”

“Excuse me?” Artemis said after a momentary stare, blinking and hoping Hera would continue that statement into a sentence.

“In two full responses, you managed only a single truth.” Hera reached behind her and drew her sword, pointing it at Artemis with an accusatory frown. “There is a traitor in the Elysian Rest. You. You killed Eros and Ares, then invented this tale to try and get us to sally forth to save Athena. You’re in league with her!”

Artemis nearly dropped her bow. “Hera…Athena isn’t our enemy! Moloch is. Have you gone mad?”

“There’s no madness here, Artemis. Only treachery. Where are their nanoverses? Do you intend to give them to Athena to create monsters of her own?”

“But…Moloch-”

Hera interrupted her with a wild scream of rage that caused Artemis to jump back. “Moloch. Is. Nothing. He will never breach these walls, he will never slay a single one of our number. You, however, want us to die to save a traitor! If I wouldn’t have to lower the defenses to do it, I’d exile you right now.”

Artemis licked her lips, finding them suddenly dry. Hera was serious. She honestly believed…”Hera, this would be a stupid lie!” Artemis had to convince the queen of the Olympians or all was lost. “The moment Eros and Ares resurrect, they could prove me a liar!”

A flicker of doubt flitted across Hera’s eyes, but they hardened again as soon as it did. “How convenient, then, that you want to sally forth before they could resurrect. Before you lie could become known!” Hera’s eyes were wild. “Confess, Archer. Admit to your guilt!”

She really means to kill me. Artemis took a deep breath, and stepped forward, reaching into her pouch as she did. What she was about to do was a gamble, but if she couldn’t convince Hera to go alone with her, all was lost.

Hera watched her approach with wary eyes. Artemis took the object out of her pouch and tossed it to Hera, who caught it on pure reflex.

Her nanoverse now rested in Hera’s hands. Artemis stopped her approach in front of Hera, and then gently pressed her neck against the point of Hera’s sword. “If you truly believe me a traitor, Hera, cut me down now. Slit my throat wide open and leave me to bleed out here. Because I’m dead either way, and I’d rather die by my Queen’s hand than a traitor.”

Artemis counted twenty-seven heartbeats as Hera regarded. Twenty-seven heartbeats as her life balanced on a razor’s edge, an edge that was exactly as sharp as whatever sanity remained to the Queen of Olympus. If Hera was truely as mad as Artemis feared she was, Artemis would die here, and Moloch would kill them all after he finished Athena and her new pantheon. Artemis could see the murder in her Queen’s eyes, could see the weight of trying to keep the Olympians from falling upon each other, and realized then it wasn’t madness. Hera hadn’t lost her mind, she’d fallen to terror. She’s every bit as lost as I am.

Hera lowered the sword. “‘I’d rather die by my Queen’s hand?’ You always were such a drama queen, Artemis.”

Artemis took a deep breath. “I always thought you liked that about me.”

“In times long gone, I did. Those times are over.” Hera frowned. “Still, the strength of your conviction lends your words credence. Ares recruited others to aid Moloch?”

“Yes. He didn’t tell me who, though. I just knew it couldn’t be you – he’d never be so stupid as to take it to you directly.”

Hera nodded. “My husband as well. Zeus may be getting surly without mortals to boff, but he wouldn’t help Moloch even if it meant remaining faithful for the remainder of his life.”

It was an effort not to laugh at the phrase, but Artemis managed. “Hera…we should consider going on the offensive. If we-”

Hera silenced her with a glance. “Do not press your luck, Artemis. We will root out this treachery within our resting place. I remain unconvinced anything more is needed.”

Artemis met the withering glare Hera was giving her…and found herself looking away first. Hera was too determined. I’m sorry, Athena. Unless I do something drastic, you’re on your own.

Considering what that something drastic might be, Artemis followed Hera to find Zeus and hopefully figure out who Ares had turned to Moloch’s side.

Strange Cosmology Part 89

Ryan had been a nerd through most of high school. Comic books, collectible card games, video games – if it was about something that fell into the broad category of “geek culture,” Ryan was into it. Sometimes he wondered if being followed by a figure no one else could see had lent him a predisposition to the hobbies of the socially awkward, or if had just been his father reading him the Hobbit almost every night before bed.

Either way, he had found himself in the nerd clique at his school, and around Sophomore year they had roped him into the penultimate of nerd hobbies, tabletop gaming. (Eugene, the dungeon master, had explained that it was penultimate because LARP existed, and that “LARP is to tabletop gaming what tabletop gaming is to watching Footballers score home runs.” Ryan had tried to explain how football actually worked, and Eugene had threatened to remove XP if he didn’t stop.)

An important element of tabletop games, at least the ones they played, was the day and night cycle. Spells, hit points, and many special abilities recharged overnight, so groups frequently found themselves having to sleep in dangerous areas for extended periods of time. Because they were camping in the middle of a dungeon full of monsters or cultists or demons or horrible things called Mind Flayers or Beholders, someone had to keep watch. Eugene had always had them roll spot checks whenever they kept watch to see if they saw anything, and he would roll on a chart to see if something horrible attacked them.

Each watch was two-four hours in universe depending on how big the party was. In the real world, however, for the people that were playing the game, it was usually about a minute: they rolled a die, Eugene rolled a die, Eugene confirmed they saw nothing for those two hours, and it was the next person’s turn. One time it had been Jacquelin’s turn to run, and she had made them also make will saves to stay awake. When they’d challenged her on that, claiming that Eugene never did, she’d mollified them with a tiny bit of bonus XP if they failed the roll since, “it’s just more realistic, honestly.”

Now that Ryan was really keeping watch after being battered into exhaustion by a full day of fighting, having just gotten barely enough sleep and food and water to fill his Hungers – after a day where he had actually commanded the elements like his old level 16 Druid, Charibmor – Ryan realized how absolutely correct Jacquelin had been.

Moloch and his army were camped. The Olympians were holed up behind their barriers. Ryan’s motley group was asleep behind him. Tartarus didn’t even have any native wildlife to keep him engaged. Reshaph was watching the drones, but they were needed to cover angles Ryan couldn’t see – including the passage back to the Labyrinth, since the Medusa was still at large. He found himself wishing he had brought a book, or his phone, or pretty much anything to keep him distracted.

All he was certain of was, once this was all over, if the world was intact enough for tabletop gaming to still be a thing, he’d make sure to give Charibmor a hobby to do on watch. Wood carving, or, giving that at sixteen Ryan had though a Neutral Evil druid was the most clever and subversively edgy thing ever, maybe bone carving would be more appropriate.

He pursed his lips as he looked at Molochs motley mob of monsters. Maybe not Neutral Evil. Maybe I should retire that character and play something on the Good spectrum. Evil’s kinda lost its appeal.

He was drawn out of his reflection by approaching footsteps and glanced over his shoulder. Athena was walking up, and gave him one of her ghost smiles that Ryan couldn’t help but like. “Couldn’t sleep?” he asked.

“No, just had slept enough.” She sat down on the battlement of the lavaforged castle next to him, folding up her legs to rest her hands on her knees. “Anything interesting happen?”

“I had some deep reflections about my misspent youth fighting Kobolds in the forest of Dragonfall. Other than that, nothing interesting.”

Athena raised an eyebrow at him. “You fought Kobolds before you found your nanoverse? That is something I thought you would have brought up before…” She noticed how hard Ryan was trying to hold back his laughter and frowned. “I’m missing a joke, aren’t I?”

Ryan nodded, having to wipe away tears of suppressed laughter. “It was a game. If I had actually tried to fight Kobolds, I would have been dead long before you met me.”

“That, I can’t argue.” Athena grinned to take the sting out of the barb, then cast her gaze over to the Elysian Rest at the other end of the battlefield. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

Ryan didn’t take his eyes off of her. “Yeah, beautiful,” he said softly. Athen glanced over at him and rolled her eyes, though Ryan detected a hint of a blush in her cheeks.

“Very funny.” She turned her gaze back to the massive structure, one of intricately woven columns and gleaming domes. “Hephaestus’ work, the designs. He’s remembered for his skill at the forge, but he was always a talented builder of almost anything. I went into his nanoverse once. Seeing what he could build without constraints was something magnificent.”

Ryan actually followed her gaze this time, nodding. “I can only imagine, just based on that.” He glanced sideways at Athena. “You’re worried about them, aren’t you?”

Athena nodded. “They were never cowards. I can’t figure out why they’re not fighting back! Everything hinges on us being able to pin Moloch between us and them.”

“They’ll come out,” Ryan said, his voice firm. Athena looked at him, her eyebrow once again raising. “It’s the only way we win, right? So it’ll happen. Somehow, something will change. We’ll get them to come out, we’ll save them and my sister, and we’ll kick Moloch’s crusty old ass halfway to Mars and back.”

“That’s not how the world works,” Athena said, and then she chuckled to herself.

“What’s so funny?” Ryan asked.

“Just remembering the last time we sat on a battlement before a huge battle. On Graham Island. I was reassuring you that everything would go alright.” She gave him a half-smile. “Now here we are, in another fortress, overlooking another battle, and you’re telling me it’s going to be okay.”

“We’ve almost come full circle,” Ryan said, feeling his heart begin to speed up.

“Almost?” Athena asked, and her smile took on a playful note.

“Yeah.” Ryan leaned forward and kissed her. She laughed slightly into the kiss, reaching up and putting her hand on the back of his head and holding him into the kiss to prolong it. They spent a little bit of time sitting there, side by side, kissing in the sourceless light of the Elysian Rest.

Athena gently broke the kiss, leaning her forehead against Ryan’s. “What was that about?” she asked, her voice husky, sparkling with a smile that Ryan could hear even though he couldn’t see.

Ryan caught the echo his words from that first kiss on Graham island, and decided to return her words as well. “Maybe nothing. Maybe something. Maybe it’s just another reason to survive tomorrow.”

She laughed and leaned back a bit, breaking the moment. “Is that the case? Or just repeating my words to complete the cycle?”

Ryan chuckled. “Just repeating your words. In reality? It’s…it’s something. It’s definitely a reason to survive tomorrow.”

Athena gave him the same half-smile she’d given him on Graham Island after that first kiss, the one that set his heart pounding. She reached over and put a hand on his. “Then let’s survive tomorrow. After that? I think we should find out what that something is, don’t you? No excuses this time.”

“Absolutely,” Ryan said, feeling his smile turn into a bigger grin.

“In the meantime,” Athena said, “I think it’s my turn to take over the watch.” She leaned in, putting her hand behind Ryan’s head. He thought she was going in for another kiss, but instead she leaned in to his ear. “After that,” she whispered, “I still have a Hunger to take care of.”

Ryan had to lick his lips, his throat suddenly dry. “Yeah, me too.”

“Then get some sleep. I’ll be by after my watch.” She leaned back just enough to give him another kiss, and broke it before it could go on too long.

Ryan got up and smiled at her one more time. “I’ll look forward to it.” With that, Ryan headed back to bed, trying to get more sleep.

Unsurprisingly, it eluded him, which meant he was still wide awake an hour earlier when Athena raised the alarm.