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.

Small Worlds Part 260

Horus hung from the ceiling of an abandoned building, his arms stretched in a large Y shape, his legs chained to the back wall. They were bound too far back for him to stand or kneel. With great effort, he could support a bit of weight on his bare toes, but they’d long ago been worn down to bloody nubs that couldn’t bear it for long. He could barely breathe from how his chest was stretched, and his eyes were covered so he’d lost all sense of time. How long had he been here? Hours? Days? It couldn’t be weeks, he was certain of that. If it had been, he long ago would have succumbed to anthropophagic impulses.

No strange hungers pulled at him, yet, but it was only a matter of time. Would he become a heart-eater like Bast? A blood-drinker like Vlad? Or would he develop a stranger hunger, a need for human brains or lungs or something fowler? The thought of what he could begin to crave made him shudder, and the motion set him to groaning in agony. Every part of his body hurt. He could feel warm ichor begin to run down his arms as the scabs there were torn away from his motion. Even his fingers ached – while he was dead, Bast had shoved something thin under the nails, and he couldn’t heal enough to push them out.

As if in response to his anguish, Bast’s last words echoed in Horus’s ears yet again. “You’re going to resurrect. I promise you that. Over. And over. And over. I think I’ll feed your heart to Cassandra next time. A constant, never ending food supply. Won’t that be wonderful?” That and, as she ate his heart, her final bit of mockery. “It’s funny, in a way. In the end, you finally did get inside me.”

I was a fool. Those four words were a constant litany, alongside Bast’s mockery. What’s worse was that phrase was an incomplete torment. He’d been far worse than a fool.

Agony and the impending threat of either becoming a monster had a way of clearing the mind. For the first time in thousands of years, Horus was able to look objectively on his desire for Bast. He’d blamed her for it, but what had she done to encourage him? Been beautiful? That wasn’t something she’d done. It had just been what she as. She’d been everything he’d wanted – fierce, brave, intolerant of his arrogance, and at times kind. Yet she’d always rebuffed his advances in no uncertain terms. Still he’d pursued her, as if she was obligated to return his affections.

And where had that led him? Here. Battered, broken, and resigned to be nothing more than a constant food supply for Bast and her monsters. In a way, she had given him everything he wanted. He finally mattered to her, he was finally useful to her. She’d never ignore him again.

Or so he thought.

But time had stretched. He’d resurrected, and he certainly wasn’t in his staging area. Bast was nowhere to be found. Was she returning to feed on his heart? Or would she wait to see what kind of monster he became? She could still feed on him if he was an anthropogphage – she’d proven that with Vlad. Maybe she wanted to wait until he finally turned to begin feeding, so he’d have a sixth hunger to torment him between feeding. Maybe she’d decided to leave him here forever, until the world ended and he was consumed in solar flame or whatever apocalypse Ryan unleashed. Or perhaps…what if Ryan had succeeded? He might be the only intelligent thing left on this world, and the next few millennia would be his hungers tormenting him to madness and beyond, until finally his nanoverse underwent heat death and he died. The thought was beyond maddening. He was already near insensible with Hunger. What would it be like in a year? A century?

Horus felt tears welling in his eyes. He’d tried to escape. Oh, how he’d tried. But Bast had thought of everything. The chains dug into his skin, but they had been filed down to smoothness. Try as he might, his wrists would heal before he could sever them. A gag had been shoved into his mouth, so he couldn’t even use his teeth to try and gnaw though his own arm. He’d considered it, but the cloth was too thick for him to work his jaw enough to break it. If he strained his arms, he could lift his torso slightly – but he couldn’t do anything with it.

He could do nothing but suffer.

If I get out of this, if I’m still sane, I’ll be better. It was a laughable thought. What good was redemption if torment was the only motivation? And he’d never be allowed to be free.

In that moment, Horus was certain that Bast intended to wait until he was an anthropophage. So that even if he could get free, he’d never be anything other than a monster. No redemption. Just death everlasting at Bast’s hands.

He wondered if he’d come to enjoy the death. If Bast’s hand plunging into his chest would become something he welcomed, because it was contact with another living thing, because it would mean a temporary end to his torment. He thought of Dale, that wretched creature Bast had formed out of a once proud Admiral. Would he become like that? Eager to serve her every whim out of fear of what she could do to him? No. Horus knew he wouldn’t be that lucky. She wanted him for food, nothing more.

Horus passed out at some point. When he came to, he could hear footsteps. His heart started to pound in his chest, and he carefully listened to his Hungers. He felt the normal five, but no salivation at the thought of humans he could feed on. I’m not gone yet. A voice spoke, and Horus knew his torment wasn’t over. It belonged to Cassandra. “I don’t know what kind of state he’s in,” she said.

“Weak, we can be certain of that.” The second speaker was male, and although it sounded maddeningly familiar, Horus couldn’t place it. Was it another anthropophagic ally of Bast’s? Perhaps another one of her monsters? Maybe Cassandra had displeased Bast in some way, so Bast was punishing her by making her take another to feed on Horus.

Horus blinked to dry his eyes. No matter what, these monsters would not see him weak.

The sound of wood grinding along stone signaled the opening of a door. Horus could feel warm air streaming in. Sunlight touched his skin. The door must face either west or east, and it had to be either dawn or dusk. Something concrete he could grab onto.

“My God,” Cassandra grasped, and Horus had to fight back a chuckle. Who was she to swear by the Christian God? She only had one god now, and it was Bast. Footsteps began to sound on concrete.

“Is he alive?” the male voice asked, and again there was that maddening familiarity. Who was this? Not Vlad, that was certain.

“His heart’s beating,” Cassandra said. “I’m going to brace him.”

Hands touched his bare chest. They were soft, and Horus pushed his body against the touch, straining for human contact. He knew that, at any moment, those hands would slide through his chest and tear into him. His heart pounded with the knowledge that it would soon be liberated from his ribcage, and with excitement for having contact. He knew then he would come to crave being fed upon. It would be the only Hunger he would have filled, the need for human interaction in those brief moments of contact, and he’d come to love it. He clenched his eyes shut. They won’t see you weep. Not yet. In the months and years to come, they would. He could only fight so long. But for now he could hold on to his pride. It would be the last bit of him, something that would endure until-

There was the sound of metal wrenching. Horus slumped forward into those arms, and they wrapped around him. The warmth, the touch, was too much to bear. His hands free, Horus tried to reach for whoever was holding him, tried to wrap them in an embrace. A whimper escaped his lips, involuntary. “Shh,” a voice said, a feminine voice, and even knowing this was Cassandra Horus couldn’t make himself try to break away from her hands. He clung to her more tightly than even the cliché drowning man with the driftwood, because that drowning man was only holding on for his life. Horus was holding on for his sanity. Another wrench of metal freed his legs, and Cassandra lowered him to the ground, murmuring. “I have you.” She turned him to his back. Horus took deep, ragged breaths as another pair of hands worked the knot on his gag and blindfold.

He was laying in Cassandra’s lap, clinging to her arms, shaking. “Nabu, the water.” Something plastic was pressed to Horus’s painfully dry lips, and he suckled at it like a babe at its mother’s teat. “Slow down. You’ll make yourself sick.”

Horus heard the words, but couldn’t make himself stop. It felt so good to finally have something to wet his lips, and only Nabu – that’s where I knew the voice – pulling the bottle away stopped him. His stomach rumbled, and without prompting Nabu presented him with food. It was just bread, but it tasted sweeter than any feast Horus had ever been presented with.

Then, and only then, did he realize he was safe. Cassandra had, for whatever reason, decided to show him mercy.

This time, he didn’t try to stop the tears.

Small Worlds Part 259

I messed up and had to re-write this part. Sorry for any confusion!

 

“Do you know something I don’t?” Athena said as she caught up with Artemis.

“Probably. I’ve been in the Elysian Rest for three hundred years, and the currents of our pantheon are largely a mystery to you since your exile. I’m sure there’s a great deal about that I know that you are unaware of.”

Athena gave Artemis a sideways glance. When the archer was being so frustrating literal, it was hard to tell if she was deliberately joking or just being her. For her part, Artemis’s face was the picture of cool calm, and utterly unreadable. “I meant,” Athena said after deciding that asking Artemis if she was joking would be offensive if she wasn’t and too big a satisfaction if she was, “about what you said. About Kali gathering her own forces.”

“Ah.” Artemis considered for a second. “Well, since you are asking, I’m going to have to assume I do. Otherwise you wouldn’t need to ask.”

Athena pursed her lips. “Please tell me it’s bad news. That she reached out to the Jade Emperor and was rebuffed or something.”

Artemis shook her head. “I wish it was that simple. No, Kali has gone to Asgard. She met with the Aesir, and while we don’t know what they said, we know that they rebuffed our messengers while they welcomed her.”

Athena swore. “I thought Asgard had locked itself away from the world?”

“It was less a literal lock and more simply refusing to allow anyone to cross the Rainbow bridge.”

Athena sighed. She’d never had much cause to visit Asgard, so hadn’t known about That. Asgard was like Tartarus – once within the realm, doorways would not open, and twists would stay in place permanently. The Rainbow Bridge was the only way in and out of that realm, making it near impossible for a hostile force to breach their door. Athena caught a curious look from Artemis. “What?”

“I thought you were running with Tyr for some time. I figured you’d know more about what was happening there than I did.”

“It…wasn’t like that,” Athena said. “Tyr didn’t like talking about Asgard, any more than I liked talking about Olympus. We were both outcast, and we both didn’t talk about why. It’s what drew us together.” I should have asked him, Athena chided herself. I should have pushed. The ache of his death was still with her. It had been a wonder to find someone like her, someone outcast from their own pantheon, and after the disaster of Autolycus it had taken her time to start trusting again, but Tyr had never been anything but a loyal friend. She’d grieved him and moved on – the satisfaction of knowing Bast was dead had been wonderful, even if it was a disappointment that she hadn’t been able to be there to kill her – but it still hurt to think about.

“I see,” Artemis said. She gave Athena another sidelong glance. “I only ask because I’m bad at telling these things. Were you and he more than friends?”

Athena shook her head. “Everyone assumed we were, but neither of us were interested. We both needed each other. But there wasn’t anything there. We fed each other’s Social hungers sometimes, but that was just about taking care of a Hunger, nothing more.”

“I see. I am sorry for your loss. I never knew him well, but he was one of my favorites of the Aesir.” Artemis continued walking. It was one thing about Artemis Athena loved. She had no interest in romance or even sex, not even to fill her Social Hunger, and as such she didn’t leap to conclusions about relationships the way so many others did. She asked if she was unsure, and then she moved on either way.

“Thank you. When your emissary went to the Aesir, did they tell him anything?” Athena asked after a momentary pause.

“Not at first. I think Heimdall took some pity, or just wanted Heracles to stop shouting.”

Athena snorted. “You sent Heracles as an emissary?”

“Only because it was the Aesir. They respect battle prowess above all else, and the only war deity I know that has a functional brain was a bit busy helping me deal with the aftermath of Poseidon. I needed you there. Ares was dead and is too cruel for their tastes anyway, and Kratos has let his brain rot by playing those damn games about him. I swear, the ego on that man…”

“I’ll have to tell Ryan about that. He’ll get a kick out of knowing Kratos is a fan of a game series where he slaughters our entire pantheon.”

“I’m sure he will.” Artemis smiled, and Athena remembered Artemis’s earlier injunction about not waiting to speak to Ryan about her feelings and realized how painfully obvious it had to be if Artemis, of all deities, had noticed. “Anyway, Heimdall told Heracles that Kali had been there, and had met with Thor. Odin was away, apparently. It…does not bode well that they refused to meet Heracles.”

“No it does not.” Athena sighed. She detested Thor. The man was violent in a way that impressed Ares. At least Ares was able to sometimes restrain himself from going on murderous rampages when given a slight. Thor, on the other hand, didn’t just treat brute force as the first solution, but the only solution. “I hadn’t even tried to go to them.”

“I’m surprised they even met with her, given their history,” Artemis said.

Athena nodded. The human worshippers of the Deva remembered the Aesir as their own personal brand of demons, the Asura, while the human worshippers of the Aesir had remembered the Deva as Asgard’s oldest foes, the Vanir. This was because, in times long past, the two pantheons had gone to war. A violent, bloody war, right around the time of the Titanomachy. Although both sides spread so much propaganda it was impossible to know what the truth was for anyone that wasn’t there, Tyr had indicated it had been a clusterfuck of the highest order – and by indicated, she meant those had been her exact words. “Maybe they killed her behind our backs?” Athena said hopefully. “Or mean to betray her at a crucial moment?”

Artemis laughed. “If she’d met with Loki, maybe. But Thor…he’s a bastard, but he has his honor. If he agreed to an alliance, he won’t turn on her. And if he didn’t like her, he would have flayed her body and posted it on the Rainbow Bridge for any visitor to see.

Athena shuddered at the thought. She’d seen the Blood Eagle that the Aesir had taught their followers to make out of those they wanted to suffer a terrible fate and had no desire to be reminded of it. “I can only hope then that they listened to her and then told her to go away.”

“We can hope,” Artemis said, although her tone made it clear how unlikely she thought that would be.

“You indicated you might have a lead on some allies?” Athena asked, trying not to sound too hopeful. Having Olympus on their side was an immense boon, but Kali had the advantage of being able to concentrate her forces. Athena and her allies had to defend every single one of the Wormholes, unless they could find some way to determine where Kali would strike. Athena had some theories, but none of them were particularly good. They would be too spread out to defend themselves. They could have ten times Kali’s number on paper and still find themselves outnumbered, and that was without counting any monstrous or human reinforcements either side had. Especially if Kali teaches them the secrets of Ichor. That was a sobering thought. If Kali wanted victory badly enough to risk that…

“I do, although they won’t meet with me. It’d be even harder with Zeus back awake. But they’ll meet you, Athena, and they’ll listen to your case.”

“That’s something, at least,” Athena said, her mind working furiously. “Who is it?”

“Chernobog. You should probably prepare.”

Athena halted in her tracks. “I must have misheard you. You meant Belobog, right?” The two gods were opposite sides of the same coin, with Belobog being the White God of light and day, and Chernobog being the Black God of darkness and night. Chernobog had actually been fairly decent back in the day, in spite of the associations, but millennia of being equated with Satan by Christian writers had led to him being frustrated, then bitter, and then finally saying “if they want me to be a villain, I’m going to be a damn villain.”

“No, Chernobog. Those are very difficult to confuse.” Artemis said, and again Athena found herself wondering if Artemis was having fun at her expense or was serious. “I’ve heard about how he’s changed, but Savrog spoke highly of you to him, so he’s willing to listen.

“Wait, Savrog spoke well of me?” Athena hadn’t seen Savrog since that meeting in Empyrean provocation, when Crystal had been waiting to resurrect. Savrog had been among a group of gods that had absolutely dismissed the idea of the Eschaton cycle.

“You made a good impression,” Artemis said, shrugging again. “I suppose you should get ready. I’ll let you know where and when to meet him.”

Athena took a deep breath. While Chernobog had stated he intended to be the monster they thought he ways, all his ‘evil’ acts were only told about in legend – there hadn’t been anything that Athena had ever been able to prove. Maybe this would go well. “Thank you,” she said to Artemis.

“You’re welcome.” Artemis smiled. “We can pull this off, Athena. Somehow. We’ll get there.”

Athena nodded, appreciating the vote of confidence. She believed her friend.

It just felt like there was a very long way for things to go.

 

Small Worlds Part 258

Artemis took a deep breath after Zeus left. “Think that will stay with him? Or are we going to be dealing with him in the middle of everything?” she asked, her voice low for Athena’s ears.

“Zeus loves being glorified. I think we won him over,” Athena said

Artemis sighed and glanced around. The area near the pillar had been completely vacated in the course of their argument with Zeus. He had a tendency to spread his wrath around when he was in a foul mood, and no one had wanted to be the one to catch the brunt of his displeasure. Seeing they were clear, Artemis sat down and started to rub her temples. “This is a mistake, Athena.”

Athena sat next her, folding her legs under herself. “What is?”

“I shouldn’t be on the Council.”

Athena had been wondering when this would happen. “You’re doing phenomenal work. You just survived your first clash with Zeus, you oversaw a rebellion by Poseidon and won, Hades is back…”

Artemis waved her hand dismissively. “I’ve gotten lucky. If you hadn’t been here for Zeus, I have no idea how I would have deescalated that. Poseidon just had inferior numbers – and again, I needed your help for that. Hades is only back because Arthur broke the locks on the Underworlds as part of his war with Heaven.”

“You also saved us after the fight with Moloch. You defeated Poseidon, I just helped. And Zeus…I’ve always been better at handling him than you, but you would have figured something out.” Athena reached over and put a hand on Artemis’s shoulder. “I feel much better about the Council knowing you’re on it. Imagine if we had faced this crisis with Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades in charge.”

Artemis groaned and pulled her legs up to her chest, wrapping her arms around her knees. “I’d rather no think about that. That would be a nightmare.”

“So far better you than them.”

Artemis shook her head. “I want to be away from Olympus. I want to be in the forest, hunting something suitably clever so I get a real challenge, or training a young hunter or two that are actually worth a damn. I don’t like people, and now I’m supposed to tell them what to do?”

Athena chuckled. She’d meant for the sound to be reassuring, but Artemis just buried her face against her knees. “Have  you spent much time on Earth since you left the Rest? Time that wasn’t spent in battle, I mean.”

“No,” Artemis said directly to her legs.

“They have this concept. It’s called imposter syndrome.”

Artemis looked up, an eyebrow quirked. “I’ve never heard of it?”

Athena smiled. “It’s a psychological phenomena where someone who has accomplished a great deal feels like they’re a fraud. Like everyone around them is giving them credit for things they didn’t deserve, and at any moment is going to realize they are a fake who has been pulling the wool over their eyes the entire time.”

“I’m so glad to know they have a name for it now,” Artemis said. She was being sarcastic, but there wasn’t any vitriol to the sarcasm. “But Athena, it’s more than just that. I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to be surrounded by people asking me what they’re supposed to do, and then having to yell at them until they actually do it. Why even bother asking if you’re just going to disagree?”

Athena sat back, thinking. Artemis had never been much for Olympus, as long as Athena had known her. She’d spent more of her time out in the wilds, doing whatever she wanted and enjoyed. The conflicts of the gods were something Artemis thought were petty and a waste of time. “Do you think you can hold on for another seven days?”

Artemis sighed. “I suppose if I say no, you’ll try to persuade me to stay with it?”

Athena shook her head. “You’re my friend, Artemis. I don’t want you to suffer. If you can’t stomach it, we’ll find someone else. I’ll help you. Maybe your brother?”

Artemis snorted. “Apollo is as bad as Zeus when it comes to being led by his pelvis, and doesn’t want to lead. He’d be worse than me if he tried.”

“That’s true,” Athena admitted. “Of course, if we’re looking at ‘worse than you,’ that covers a pretty broad range, because you’ve done very well so far.”

“Flattery won’t help you here,” Artemis said, but the beginning of a smile began to play on her lips. “You’re positive you won’t come back? You’d be much better at this than me.”

“No I wouldn’t,” Athena said. “At least, not with the current crisis. I take to long to think things through sometimes. I get stuck in debates and hearing and proceedings. I overthink everything. You have a knack for cutting through to the heart of the matter. Kind of like-”

“If you make a joke about archery here, I’ll push you off the pillar,” Artemis said.

“Like someone who knows what’s important,” Athena said without missing a beat. “And right now, that’s what Olympus needs. It’s probably was Olympus needs all the time, but at least for the next week.”

“Fine,” Artemis said. She straightened out and stretched her back. “I blame you if I spend the next century avoiding all of humanity though.”

“You were going to do that anyway after spending so long in the Elysium Rest,” Athena countered.

“Yes, but I’ll blame you for it.” Artemis stood up and offered Athena a hand. “Speaking of you overthinking things, you finally told Ryan about how you feel?”

If she hadn’t taken Artemis’s hand, Athena might have fallen off the pillar. “You are, as always, the master of terrible segues.”

“It’s a gift. And don’t change the topic. Have you?”

Athena sighed. “It’s that obvious?”

“I know you,” Artemis said. “You spend a tremendous amount of time dithering and waiting.”

“We’re dealing with the end of the world.”

“Yes,” Artemis said firmly. “So tell me…is that really the time to be waiting for the right moment? Because right now, it seems to me that there might not be too many moments left.”

Athena gaped at her. “That’s…I didn’t think you had an interest in romance. Even other people’s.”

“I don’t.” Artemis shrugged. “I have an interest in seeing my friends happy. So do something about it. Before you run out of time.”

“I will,” Athena said, moved by Artemis’s concern.

“Good. Now. Let’s get some more allies for you. Because Kali is gathering her own forces, and you’re going to be in for one hell of a fight.”

Artemis leapt off the pillar. Athena followed, wishing Artemis had chosen any other note to end the conversation.

Hey, guess what? On Patreon, Small Worlds is now two parts ahead. Soon it’ll be up to three parts. Check out part 259 and 260 here!

Small Worlds Part 257

It had been centuries since Athena had last seen Zeus. While seeing the rest of the Olympians had been a reminder of the unchanging nature of the divine, there had still been subtle differences. Their clothing styles had evolved. Their hairstyles had adapted. They all had looked like a mish-mash of the ancient Greek styles they were famous for and the seventeenth century, with a few of their own mutations that had happened over their centuries in exile in Tartarus, but that had been enough to make them seem different.

Zeus had none of that. He looked almost exactly like he’d stood of that throne where Phidias had captured his likeness in marble. His hair was long and curled and circled his face along with a beard that reached almost to his bare chest, wearing only an achiton off his shoulders and around his waist. The only difference was that in Phidias’ sculpture, he looked calm and regal.

Here and now, his face was contorted with fury.

“Artemis!” he bellowed when he saw them, stalking up to the pillar where they rested. “Get down here this instant!”

Just like that. A father scolding a disobedient child. Artemis’ face darkened, and Athena put a hand on her arm. “Careful,” Athena murmured.

Artemis gave her a curt nod to show she understood. “You missed some things in your sleep, oh King of Olympus.” Her voice was loud and clear, but pitched carefully with a twist of Air and Aether to make sure it did not carry farther than Zeus’s and Athena’s ears. “I need not leap because you say so. If you wish to speak, come up here and join me as an equal.”

The twist was likely the only thing that kept Zeus from lashing out in that instant. His face darkened like a thundercloud, and his eyes hardened. He muttered something that sounded a lot like “perfidious bitch,” but propelled himself up to the top of the column on a gust of air. “This is nonsense,” he growled as he landed, his voice full of animalistic fury. “You cannot be elevated by a council that was formed by my brother without me.”

“I can and I was,” Artemis said, her voice unyielding. No hint of deference touched her voice, and if not for Athena’s hand on Artemis’s arm she would have believed the archer to be every bit as calm as she sounded. It was only the slight tremble of her elbow that gave lie to her confidence, too subtle to be seen.

“Preposterous. It was only an act of desperation that elevated Hera without Hades, and even then-”

“You speak to me of desperation?” Artemis said, her voice low with fury. It was only then that Athena began to suspect that the tremble she’d felt wasn’t born of fear, but of rage. Zeus’s eyes widened and he rocked back. Athena wondered how long it had been since someone other than his brothers or his wife had the audacity to interrupt him. It was nice to see him off balance. “You dare? Olympus was beset on all sides with foes both from without and within. Moloch had laid siege to the Rest with an army of Godslayers and monsters. Your brother was trying to sell us to him to further his own selfish ends.

“The desperation that lead to your wife’s elevation was Hades’ absence and your own need to placate a woman whose marital bed you’d defiled time and time again. There was no threat. There was no army at the gates. There was no monster sitting on our council – or rather, we did not know there was a monster sitting on the council, holding the veto. Yet there were three. A man who would betray us to our greatest foe. A woman who would use a crisis to exact her revenge. And you, a coward who wanted us to hide away.”

Zeus did not explode in the silence that followed. His face darkened like gathering thunderheads, and Athena had to fight an urge to step back, to be out of the blast radius of that storm when it unleashed. “You forget yourself, archer,” he said, the words hissing between his lips like escaping steam.

“You forget what I know. What we all know now. You knew the cycle was coming to an end. You knew the Eschaton would be found. You knew Ishtar had the right of it all along, and instead of giving us centuries to prepare for what was to come, you hid us away in Tartarus so we might simply fade away. You led us to believe Ishtar was a madwoman who would doom us all.”

“She will!” Zeus bellowed, the storm finally breaking. “She thought she could prevent the cycle. The Eschaton will destroy this world. I was warned of this by Athena’s own oracle-” Athena didn’t know how to feel about the fact that Zeus was finally acknowledging her presence with a gesture, and decided that this was a case where discretion was, indeed, the better part of valor, “-and I had it confirmed by a Curator. There is no saving this world. I set up the Rest to be a last refuge. There were enough of us where humanity could have been reborn there, from the loins of the gods.”

“Of course your plan would stem from loins,” Artemis spat the words. “Have you ever ever taken an action that wasn’t guided by your cock? For millennia the only thing that prevented our entire Pantheon from being led towards whatever hole you wanted to shove your member into was Hades and then Hera.”

Zeus began to gather threads of Flame and Earth around himself. “You go too far,” he said, each word heavy with spite.

“I do not go far enough,” Artemis countered, shifting her stance slightly. “There is worse I could say about you. But the most important of them is simply that you were wrong. The Eschaton does not seek to end the world. He is creating Gates that will take humanity from this world to another. He will fill his destiny and ‘end’ our world, but he will do so without bloodshed, without chaos.”

The threads Zeus had gathered stopped there, and his eyes narrowed. “What?”

“He is ending Humanity’s reign on Earth, as the cycle demands he does, but he is doing so in a way that spares the species. There will be no more civilizations built by human hands on this world, yet humanity will endure.”

“If a single thing goes wrong, the Sun will consume the world.” Zeus said.

“Yes.” The word was blunt and simple. Artemis had never been one to spare words when they weren’t needed – this argument was the most Athena had heard her speak in a single conversation in centuries. “But the bulk of humanity will not be here to see it. Even if the worst happens, even if we cannot spare Earth, we will endure, and enough animals will be brought where extinction will be minimal.”

Zeus looked less than pleased. “The others know of this?”

Artemis nodded. “I knew you’d object. I made sure that if you did so publically, you’ll be known for what you are.”

Zeus’s face darkened. “Humanity forgot us. In the Rest, they would have known who they owed their lives to. Who they owed their world to.”

“And they still will,” Athena said, speaking for the first time. Artemis looked ready to launch into another tirade, one that would be satisfying to watch, but at this point Athena judged appealing to Zeus’s ego to be the wiser course. “Ryan – the Eschaton – spoke publicly before a union of the world’s nations that exists. He warned them of what was coming. He did so flanked by gods, myself among them. When we go to this new world, Humanity will come fully aware of why they were spared. Of who spared them. Gods. You think that won’t ignite a new wave of worship?”

For the first time since he’d screamed Artemis’s name, Zeus looked thoughtful. Artemis didn’t looked pleased with the change and direction, but she knew how to take an opportunity when it presented itself. “Of course, any gods that stand against us will be remembered poorly by humanity. Their names will be spoken in the same tones Humanity used to reserve for its great foes. Enki. Moloch. Bast. Kali. They’ve added their names to that list already, as will any who join them. Will you have the name Zeus be spoken in such company? Or will you cast aside the fact that it was not your plan that saved the world, and instead make sure your name is counted among those who shepherded humanity into this new era?”

Zeus stared at them both, his eyes hard, and he stroked his beard in thought. Artemis glanced at Athena, and in that glance Athena saw gratitude, and realized she’d played perfectly into Artemis’s plan. Artemis had styled herself a protector of virginity, eons ago, owing to her own disinterest in carnal pleasures. That had put her firmly opposed to Zeus, and Zeus never would have believed an offer for glory if it had come from Artemis. By being the one to offer it, Athena had allowed Zeus to actually consider it. Of course, Artemis couldn’t have predicted what Athena would do to mollify Zeus – only trusted that Athena would offer something to mollify Zeus

“You play a dangerous game, Archer,” Zeus growled.

“The game became dangerous in spite of my efforts,” Artemis said, the fire in her own voice dying down. “But the game still favors us. Which side of the board are you on?”

Zeus sighed. “Hera will be furious I allowed you to keep your seat.”

“She did kill you,” Athena said.

“Oh, yes. It’s been a few centuries since she last did that.” Zeus shrugged, and looked almost sheepish. He’d gone so quickly from raging fury to the abashed husband, Athena was worried her neck would snap from whiplash.  But that was how Athena remembered him. Constantly mercurial in his moods. “Her timing is usually better than this.”

“She’s killed you before?” Artemis asked.

“It’s part of how we handle things.” Zeus shook his head. “Fine. We’ll go with this plan, Artemis. For now. But I will be watching carefully.”

Artemis didn’t slump with relief, but Athena could see how badly she wanted to.

“Now. Make amends for your tone by telling me what all I missed before I resurrected.”

Athena bristled at his tone, but Artemis had used the fire she needed. For now, mollifying Zeus seemed to be where Artemis wanted to go, and Athena did not seek to undermine her. Instead, Athena helped by filling in gaps in Artemis’ story, and trying to figure out when her friend had become so adept at manipulating her fellow Olympians.

At least her timing couldn’t have been better.

Small Worlds Part 256

Athena stepped out of her staging area onto the entrance to Olympus for the first time in over three hundred years. She’d been here just weeks ago with Crystal and Ryan, but she’d had to climb the mountain like a mortal petitioner. Now she could arrive from her staging area, a proper arrival for a goddess that she’d been denied for far too long.

This wasn’t Olympus as she’d last seen it either. Then, it had been a forlorn place, a hollow shell of what it once had been. Now, however, it swarmed with activity. Gods walked its streets again, dressed in their finery and talking amicably. It was still in ruins – the brief time the Olympians had been back on their mountain had not been enough to repair the damage – but seeing it full of her kin again made the ruin feel less oppressive. More temporary. This was a place that was damaged by the ravages of time, but it was a place that would be rebuilt.

Of course, they’d have to move the entrance. Earth would be devoid of all human life soon, and that had to include the Olympians. As she walked the streets, marvelling in the joy of seeing it teeming with life again, she could hear Hephestus and Hades talking about moving the entrance to Hades’ realm as an interim solution, something to keep them clear of the temptation of Earth until a suitable place could be found on this newly habitable world.

“Athena!” Artemis shouted. She was standing atop a pillar, directing a trio of nereids who were carrying a single finger from a downed statue. Athena smiled and waved at Artemis, picking up her pace to reach the archer goddess.

“How is everything coming along here?” Athena asked, leaping on the pillar alongside Artemis

Artemis grimaced and shook her head, dropping her voice. “I’m keeping everyone busy with reconstruction so they don’t think too much about what’s coming. Only took the remainder of the Twelve I can trust with me to guard the UN meeting. Tensions are high right now.”

Athena looked around. “It doesn’t feel like it.”

“I know,” Artemis sighed. “Everyone’s pleased to be back. Everyone’s even gladder to be out of Tartarus, and looking forward to going back to Earth. It’s keeping things from boiling over, but that last bit is the main problem.”

“Going back to Earth?” Athena asked.

“Yes. The knowledge that it won’t be around for much longer is weighing on people.” Artemis stopped herself to yell at the nereids, who had started to slack off in her inattention. They leapt at the sound of her voice and started to move quicker. “I’d be more worried if there was anyone claiming the end wasn’t coming. Right now the worst that would happen is some more people will slip away.”

“Slip away?” Athena’s forehead furrowed.

“Leave. Abandoned Olympus. They’ve gone to Earth to see what’s new, or get drunk with mortals, or screw themselves silly.”

“That’s imbecilic. Two of those will still be present in the new world.”

Artemis shrugged. “I’m not wasting my time stopping them. We have too much to do instead of wasting time wrangling waste. So far no one of much import has left, save one.”

Athena didn’t ask this time, instead just giving Artemis a raised eyebrow.

“Eris,” Artemis said.

Athena swore, and Artemis nodded in agreement. Eris, goddess of strife. “Did anyone ever find where she hid her children?” Athena asked, dreading the answer.

Artemis shook her head. Eris’s ‘children’ weren’t her actual descendants. They were mortals that Eris had experimented on, playing with divine power to infuse them with energy. They’d created new people that were related to mankind, but also alien and unnatural – and able to breed true. “If she gets them out…”

“Then she’ll find herself trapped on Earth when the world ends, one way or another.” Artemis said grimly. “Or she’ll join forces with Kali, and we’ll have a whole new type of problem. Stars of Olympus, we’ll have that problem if she joins forces with Kali even on her own.”

“She won’t be the only one,” Athena said, slumping down to sit on the pillar. “I can think of at least a few gods who, if they hear of this, will follow Kali straight into hell for their own reasons.”

“I can think of a few as well,” Artemis said. “You really thought you’d be so lucky as to avoid her gathering allies of her own?”

Athena shook her head. “That was a downside of Ryan’s announcement. Battle lines are being drawn. We’re going to be looking at a full on war, unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. It will make the Titanomachy look like a skirmish.”

“Then I’m glad we have you,” Artemis said, glaring at a group of satyrs that had wandered drunkenly into her line of sight. They decided to stagger out of the range of her glare. “We’ll need war leaders.”

“We’ll have them,” Athena said. “It’s been a long time since I lead armies.”

Artemis snorted. “Let mortals have their armies. We need people to command gods. And when it comes to that, few names are more respected than Pallas Athena.”

“A lot has changed in your absence,” Athena said. “I’m not sure how much cache my name carries these days.”

“Then you’ll make them listen. Or is the goddess of wisdom and war going to allow herself to be pushed around?”

Athena laughed. “Hardly. But a leader without followers is just going for a walk.”

“They’ll follow,” Artemis said. Athena turned to ask her what she meant, how she could possibly know when she’d been in Tartarus for three centuries, but Artemis wasn’t looking at Athena. She was looking at where Nike and Kratos were talking with Ares, who was gesturing towards Demeter. Tyche was nearby, rolling her eyes at Dionysus’s antics, and Apollo was leaning against a pillar, eating some fruit. “They know Hera’s exile of you was unjust now. They know that you rescued them from Moloch. That, if not for you, the others that came with you would never have arrived. They know your plan turned the tide against Poseidon. They’ll follow, Athena.”

Athena found herself unable to speak, a sudden lump in her throat obstructing her speech. She smiled at Artemis warmly, then had to sniff and wipe her eyes.

“You’re absurd,” Artemis said, shaking her head. She gave Athena a sideways glance. “I don’t suppose that means you’re reconsidering my offer?”

Athena shook her head. “You have Hades back now. He and Persephone will help you with the parts you hate.”

“I know you won’t take the Veto,” Artemis said. “I meant about coming back here. Rejoining.”

Athena looked again at the group of gods. Kratos had gotten Dionysus in a headlock and was laughing while rubbing his knuckle’s against the wine god’s scalp. Dionysus looked more amused than frustrated, which was a blessing – he was a terror when his blood was up. “If you’d asked me a couple months ago, I would have disemboweled myself if that’s what it took.”

Artemis’s nose wrinkled. “Graphic,” she said dryly.

Athena ignored the comment. “But I’ve found a new Pantheon. One that took me in after I opposed them, just because I said I’d chosen poorly. I’m not going to abandon them, not after everything they’ve done for me.” Athena smiled slyly at Artemis. “Besides, there is always my offer to consider. We only have a few members, and no goddess of archery yet.”

“When I inevitably have a complete breakdown from the burden of leadership and being expected to govern in peacetime, I’ll consider it,” Artemis said. Her voice was so flat, Athena was only somewhat sure she was joking. “Besides, there’s always the-”

“Where! Is! Artemis!?”

The voice cut over the sounds, cut through the air, and shook the halls of Olympus. It was monstrously loud, and full of fury. Artemis’s face went tight, and Athena felt her balling her hands into fists.

Whatever Artemis had to say would have to wait.

Zeus had resurrected, and he sounded furious.

Small Worlds Part 255

Crystal had warned Ryan that it would be an intense sensation. That had been an understatement, in Ryan’s estimation. Being stabbed was an intense sensation. Being set on fire was an intense sensation. This wasn’t either of those. It really wasn’t that the sensation itself was intense – it was more that every single one of his senses was intensified. He could hear the sound of Crystal’s heart, pounding in his ears as loudly as if it’d been shoved against his eardrum. He could hear the gentle hum of his staging area, a sound he didn’t even know it made. He could hear an almost imperceptible series of rapid dop sounds, and slowly he realized that it was the sound of air molecules bouncing off each other.

It helped that he could see them now. Individual molecules whirring through the air, bouncing around, ricocheting off each other and solid objects. Somehow they didn’t interfere with his vision – he could see them and at the same time see through them, a dichotomy that he was struggling to process.

The sound of screaming reached Ryan’s heightened ears, and dimly he was aware that it was his own voice making the sound.

“Hold on to it, love!” Crystal shouted over his voice. “Focus, remember?”

Have to…have to…Ryan repeated the phrase over and over again in his head, not even sure what he had to, just sure that he had to whatever it. Do it, be it, beat it, claim it, use it….have to. 

The human mind wasn’t meant for nigh omniscience. Ryan was still mostly human. Equations were swirling around him now, billions of them. Some were the vectors for the individual air molecules, some were electron probability distributions for individual atoms, others were the very math of the quantum field that filled the space between everything and also made everything. He could see the formulas that made up individual quarks and their interactions. It was the most fundamental level of reality, deeper than anything Ryan would have ever dared to even attempt to manipulate.

“I…can’t…” Ryan growled. “Too…much.”

“Remember the phrase!” Crystal shouted.

If a Minkowski spacetime contains a compact region Ω, and if the topology of Ω is of the form Ω ~ R × Σ, where Σ is a three-manifold of the nontrivial topology, whose boundary has topology of the form ∂Σ ~ S2, and if, furthermore, the hypersurfaces Σ are all spacelike, then the region Ω contains a quasipermanent intrauniverse wormhole. It popped into Ryan’s head the moment Crystal spoke, and immediately equations began to make sense.

The problem was matter. Matter couldn’t form the necessary topology to generate the sigma hypersurfaces needed to create the omega region that would result in the wormhole. At least, no matter in its normal form. The quarks that were the fundamental building blocks of reality had mass, and what Ryan needed was antimass that wouldn’t have the annihilative properties of antimatter.

In short, he needed matter that would repel gravity, warp space time the way gravity did but push it away instead of bringing it in. And he needed to do it without causing his staging area to be consumed by an antimatter explosion that would kill him, Crystal, and probably his nanoverse as well.

He started with holding out his hand and twisting the quantum fluctuations that surrounded him to spontaneously generate a black hole with the mass of a human body. Such a thing was theoretically possible but had a less than one in ten to the power of six hundred chance of happening at any given instant. Ryan was able to collapse that odds down to one in two chance of happening – he didn’t have the strength to get it down to a certainty, even with the immense power flowing through him – and then waited for the black hole to manifest. If he couldn’t see the equations, he wouldn’t have seen it happen. The black hole was smaller than the air molecules it occasionally added to its mass as they flew by.

The equations that governed it were absolutely fascinating. Ryan had to keep adjusting the number for how long the black hole had existed so it wouldn’t evaporate and explode with hundreds of megatons of force. Hawking radiation was pouring out of it, and Ryan realized he could set it in a loop to have it pour back in, stabilizing something that shouldn’t be able to continue existing.

From there, it was a simple as changing every single quark that made up the singularity at the heart of the black hole into a new type of quark that Ryan invented on the spot. An exotic quark, with a negative mass.

The effect was immediate. Ryan was pushed back and to the ground as the singularity stopped trying to explode constantly, instead distorting spacetime with incredible force. When Ryan righted himself he could see it there. It was pure white light in the center, radiating out with the colors of a rainbow. At first he thought he’d made a mistake, that this wasn’t working…and then he realized he’d just forgotten a step. With a gesture, he pulled apart the two ‘ends’ of the wormhole, letting one rotate behind his body.

When he stared through the one in front of him, he could see the back of his own head.

Crystal started to cheer in excitement, and Ryan felt himself smile. Each end of the wormhole was about three meters across, large enough for people to walk through easily. It was emitting its own radiation, similar to the Hawking radiation the black hole had been creating. In a few days, it would shrink to nothing and evaporate from that impact. It would last long enough. I don’t think the radiation will be harmful to humans… Ryan thought, then realized he didn’t need to think. He could just look and see how the radiation interacted with the atoms that made up his own DNA, and confirmed that he didn’t need to worry about creating a world dying of radiation poisoning or destined for cancer.

The immense power still coursed through him, but now that he knew what to do it with, it was less overwhelming. He sent the two wormholes he created sliding to alternate ends of his staging area, kilometers across…and then he started to do it again. And again. And again. A thousand times. Two thousand times. He was starting to feel the power drain at two thousand and five hundred times. He fell to his knees at three thousand and five wormholes.

And then, exactly three thousand, three hundred and thirty three wormholes later, Ryan felt the power of the Eschaton wink out.

Crystal rushed to his side as he collapsed fully onto the floor, his vision spinning, his heart pounding. Darkness was creeping in, the way it had back when he’d first gotten his powers and pushed himself too far.

“I got you,” Crystal said. “You did it, Ryan. You did it. Uriel will be here soon, and I’ll take care of that.” She was smiling, and there were tears of joy in her eyes. “For now, rest.”

Unable to even nod in agreement, Ryan did exactly that.

Small Worlds Part 254

Ryan was staring at his Globus Mundi, the three dimensional globe he could conjure in the center of his nanoverse, when Crystal walked in. He’d been looking at it for several minutes while she talked to Isabel. It gave him the ability to impact the weather on a massive scale, incite Earthquakes, and even conjure volcanoes. Small dots appeared and disappeared across the surface of the globe – some indicating a human birth or death, other indicating a divine being opening a doorway. “I’ve never really used this for anything other than seeing what was happening,” Ryan said.

“Not an accident,” Crystal said. “Most of us don’t use it anymore, love. It was great when we needed to awe people back in the day, but these days it’s really just useful for recon.” She pulled up a chair Ryan had already summoned for her.

“But why not? I mean, you could have stopped hurricanes, earthquakes, saved thousands of lives, right?”

Crystal sighed. “Ryan. After all this, you’re still optimistic about how much power we have.” She didn’t sound condescending, although there was a hint of amusement in her voice. Mostly she sounded…almost proud.

“So…you can’t?” Ryan asked.

“Well…no, we can. But it’s also not that simple.”

Ryan furrowed his forehead. “I don’t under…wait, no. Let me think about this for a moment.” Crystal gave him an encouraging nod and Ryan looked at the map, trying to reason through the downsides. “Well…okay, so if you were to disperse a hurricane, that energy would have to go somewhere, right? So doing so could result in a bigger hurricane later, or tornadoes, or something else worse somewhere else?”

“Got it in one, love. We did things like that more often back in the day, when there were great bloody swaths of land with no humans we could divert the storm to – or when we were trying to point the energy at our enemies. But even then it was bloody dangerous, yeah? Nature snaps back against twists harder than anything, and on a scale that big, it could be a nightmare when it reasserts itself. Back in seventy-nine, someone stopped a volcano from erupting in Southeast Asia. A week later, that energy settled back in…and Vesuvius blew its top.” Crystal shuddered. “That was one of the worst things I’ve ever seen. It’s much safer to conjure disasters than to stop them.”

Ryan stared at the Globus Mundi, his heart sinking. “It feels like that’s always the case with us. We’re all like Kali – great at destruction, but when it comes to creating things, we’re useless.”

Crystal stood up and walked over to Ryan. “Listen to me. We’re not useless for creating things. We’re damn good at it, because we have thousands of years to work on it. We can take the long view so much better than mortals, and we can try and preserve knowledge over generations. We are great at creating. However, destruction is easy and quick. Building something takes time and patience. But when we do take that time and patience, the thing we create endure for centuries.”

“I hope so,” Ryan said, biting his cheek. “We’re building a whole new world, after all. And we don’t exactly have time, regardless of how much patience we have.”

“We’ll also have billions of people working on it. Man-hours count for something, right?”

“Fair point.” Ryan took a deep breath. “So, did you work up the nerve to ask my sister out?”

“You’re just stalling,” Crystal said sternly. “It’s time to get this whole thing started.”

“It’s a legit question,” Ryan protested, but Crystal was having none of it.

“I’ll answer after we’re done then. But right now, you need to get to work.”

Ryan sighed and looked back at the Globus Mundi. Crystal had been right – he was stalling. “Okay, what do I do?”

“Normally when using a Globus Mundi, you put some of your power into the Earth. The globe magnifies it and enhances it,” Crystal said, walking around the spinning, holographic Earth. “But we’re not trying to directly impact the Earth with this twist. You’re creating wormholes. So, first of all, you’re going to need more space – go ahead and expand your Staging area.”

Ryan blinked. “I didn’t know that was possible.”

“There was a lot I didn’t get around to telling you. Never got full enough to be needed.” Crystal motioned him towards his console. “Come on, love, you know what to do.”

Ryan walked over to his console. The touch screen, as always, responded partially to his thoughts – a new icon had appeared, one Ryan had never seen before. A gear icon, the kind so many apps and devices used for their Settings menu. He tapped it. A list of options appeared – Staging Area Gravity, Staging Area Atmosphere, Staging Area Temperature, Staging Area Dimension, Staging Area Time Relative to Core, Staging Area Speed – the list went on and on, full of things Ryan had never even considered altering. He tapped the icon for dimensions and was rewarded with a slider. He took it and dragged it across the screen.

The floor of his staging area stretched out away from him, expanding from the size of a small apartment to the size of a house to the size of an office building. He kept going until it was two square kilometers wide – plenty of room to house the wormholes and their opposite ends. “That’s…wow.” Ryan said. “I could make an entire city in here.”

“You could, but why bother? No one’s going to want to live in your staging are.” Crystal laughed at the thought.

“I thought you said we couldn’t take people to this other world with our staging areas,” Ryan said. “Couldn’t I just make this big enough and bring a city’s worth of people with me?”

“I said we couldn’t take the entire Earth to another world in staging areas. Even if we get every single god and goddess currently active on board with the plan – which we wouldn’t – we’d need to take twenty to forty million per god- and we’d have to worry about them getting there, spreading out, about bottlenecks forming, about sanitation for the days the first people came through, about feeding them, about so many things. It would be an absolute disaster, and the entire time if any of us got even a single little setting wrong, we could wipe out every person in there. And on top of that, it’s draining to keep your staging area that large without dropping into your nanoverse’s time stream. Half of us would succumb to Hungers before we even left, the other half would fall to them before we got there.”

Ryan shuddered at that possibility. “Okay, okay, I get it.”

“Thought you would. Now, come on back over here.”

Ryan did.

“The thing you can do as an Eschaton that no one else can do is draw energy out of the Earth – specifically, out of the radioactive isotopes at the core. They get replenished after the world resets, so don’t worry about taking too much. In fact, since you only get to do this once, take all you can. Any excess energy you can just disperse into your nanoverse. Once you do that…things are going to happen fast. You’ll actually feel omnipotent and omniscient. You won’t be either of those, but it’s a heady experience. Don’t get lost in it. Drag the power into line, start churning out the wormholes. I’ll be standing by your console and expand the staging area if needed. Remember the line you memorized?”

“If a Minkowski spacetime contains a compact region Ω, and if the topology of Ω is of the form Ω ~ R × Σ, where Σ is a three-manifold of the nontrivial topology, whose boundary has topology of the form ∂Σ ~ S2, and if, furthermore, the hypersurfaces Σ are all spacelike, then the region Ω contains a quasipermanent intrauniverse wormhole.” Ryan said, choosing the words carefully to make sure he had it exact. It was a line from Lorentzian Wormholes, and he’d memorized it off of Wikipedia. “I did excellent in math, and that still only makes a kind of sense.”

Crystal’s eyes sparkled. “Of course it’s confusing, love. Hell, I don’t know what it means at all. But it gives you enough context to recognize the math when you see it, and since you can see the math, you’ll be able to make it happen. Just, well…” and here Crystal gave him a grin full of mischief. “Roll with it.”

Ryan laughed at the old catchphrase, a laugh he desperately needed. “Okay. Thank you. You sure it’s safe for you to be in here while I do this?”

“I’m sure I’m not going to sit outside and wait to see what happens. Should be safe though – worst that happens is I get stuck between two wormholes and bounce back and forth until you move them far enough apart I can land.”

Ryan nodded and stepped up to the Globus Mundi, taking a deep breath. “Okay. Then…here goes nothing.”

He held out his hand, and the unimaginable power of the Earth’s core poured into him.