Thank you everyone for the patience. I think I was a bit optimistic in getting a new Staff Part out today, but at least I’m back to updating!
I’ve missed this. Enjoy.
Chernobog sat in shadows upon a throne of ice, being waited upon by the walking dead. Athena shuddered at the sight. They were the drekavac, and they were one of the punishments that awaited those who followed Chernobog and sinned when doing so. Their souls were forced to stay inside their bodies so they would arise after burial, and every moment they would feel themselves decaying. The sensation of the maggots that crawled beneath their skin, the way their flesh would burn and itch as it rotted away…it was said to drive them mad. In a way, allowing them to serve him here in a palace of ice was a kindness – they would freeze and their skin would crack, but no insects would infest their bodies, and the decay would be limited. On the other hand, it would prolong their punishment greatly…
“Do not waste your pity on them, Olympian.” Chernobog’s voice was a deep rumble. “They are the worst of the sinners. I could make your skin crawl far worse just by telling you of their crimes. Trust me when I say these men deserve far worse than the torment I give them.”
“I trust you on that,” Athena said, and she meant it. As disturbing as the sight was, Chernobog had once been considered a just and good god. He might have become bitter over the centuries, but having turned so cruel as to inflict such horror on innocent men? That seemed impossible to countenance.
“Chernobog, I present you Pallas Athena,” Artemis said. If there was more to her introduction, Chernobog waved it away.
“I know who she is. Although it’s odd you choose Pallas as the epithet. Named for a giant you slew. Is that how you come here, Athena? As Pallas Athena, the slayer of giants? Or are you someone else this time? Perhaps you are here instead as Athena Ageleia, the defender of your people. Or maybe I address Athena Mechaneus, the inventor of new tactics? Or perhaps,” and Chernobog leaned forward, his face emerging for the first time from the shadows that had hidden it, “I address Areia Athena, the warmonger.”
Chernobog had changed his appearance to match his reputation. The skin below his nose was completely gone, instead revealing only a grinning jawbone untroubled by muscle or sinew. His eyes were the color of blood that had soaked into a battlefield, and a crown of horns shaped like canines grew from his skull.
Athena met his gaze without a hint of hesitation. “I am none of these today. I come to you as Athena Soteira, the saving goddess, because the end of the world is at hand, and it desperately needs saving.”
Chernobog studied her closely. “Such brave words,” he said, and his voice was made unnaturally harsh by the lack of lips. Some of those sounds he shouldn’t be able to make even, but glossoliga was a skill that worked in both directions, so long as the god speaking had a mouth to form words. “Your companion scowled when she saw my face. You seem unimpressed.”
“Artemis is a goddess of the wildness. She is disturbed by the unnatural. I, on the other hand, am a goddess of tactics. The horse that allowed the Greeks to raze Troy was a monument to my ability to plan and react appropriately. I know a ploy when I see one.”
Chernobog threw back his head and laughed. As he did, the skin flowed on his face, covering his jaw, retracting the crown into his skull, and returning his eyes to a deep brown. Thick black hair sprung up on his head and a coarse beard stretched across his face. He was a handsome man, although after his monstrous appearance Moloch would have seemed attractive by comparison. “You’re the first person to figure that out in a century,” Chernobog said, and his voice was now like a roaring flame, rich and warm and full of life. “I’d begun to despair anyone noticed.”
Athena allowed herself a small smile. “Why the ruse?”
“I grew tired of people walking on their toes, pretending that I’m not seen by most as a monster. I thought it best to test and see if anyone could see past the external. Well done.”
Athena did her best not to look at Artemis, but couldn’t help but note her scowl. For all the progress Artemis had made, she still wasn’t the best at reading people’s intentions. “Thank you,” she said, relaxing slightly.
“But tell me, Athena Soteira. Did you truly see through it, or was that desperation driving you to hope?”
“If I’m being completely honest? Mostly seeing through it, but I won’t deny the desperation. We have powerful need of aid.”
Chernobog nodded. “Well, this is interesting. It’s been quite some time since anyone has come to me for aid. Especially ever since that damn musical show. The one where they painted me as a devil on a mountain, tormenting souls that came to me seeking succor.”
“I didn’t see that one,” Athena said, which was true of most films. She made a mental note to ask Ryan for more details – sometimes it felt like he’d seen every movie ever made. “But I had heard of you of old. Your reputation did not paint you as a monster, so I had hope that this was just an act.”
“Oh?” Chernobog said, settling back into his chair and resting his head on one hand. “So you’ve never known a god or goddess to turn foul from centuries of abuse?”
“I have,” Athena admitted. “Bast recently had to be slain for the horrors she had unleashed, and the horror she had become.”
“Bast?” Chernobog’s ears perked up. “I’d never imagined it. What did she do?”
“She became an anthropophage,” Athena said, spitting the word.
To her surprise, Chernobog yawned. “Anthropophage. That sort of thing isn’t someone changing. That is change being forced upon them. Hardly a case of-”
“She killed Tyr before that.” Athena didn’t mean to interrupt, but the words were out of her mouth before she could call them back, “as part of a ploy arranged by Enki. She gave his nanoverse to Moloch to turn into a Linworm. All of that lead to her death and antrophophagenisis. She had become a monster before she turned into one.”
Chernobog let out a hiss of air between his teeth. “That…is surprising. Do you know why she turned?”
Athena shook her head. “I wasn’t too interested in asking her questions. Tyr and I had grown close. I wanted her dead.”
“That I can understand.” Chernobog stood up. “Svarog tells me that you tried to warn him about the end of the world. You and this new god, this Ryan Smith. Ishtar’s mad ramblings turned out to be true – the sun grows warmer, and the end comes for humanity. Is that correct?”
So that’s what I did to impress Svarog. There was something to be said for speaking the truth before anyone else saw it. It hadn’t worked out well for Cassandra, but thankfully Athena hadn’t been given her curse. “It is.”
Athena’s eyes widened. “Good?” she practically growled the word.
“Yes. I said good.” Chernobog slumped in his throne. “Look at what humanity has done. Look at what humanity has become. They have enough weapons to end themselves a hundred times over. In our absence, they’ve invented things like genocide. They boil the seas and scorch the skies so they can arrive at a place slightly faster. Why are they worth saving? What gives humanity value?”
“You were one,” Athena said, fighting the urge to clench her hands into fists. “And most of them are innocent of any crime. Would you condemn them to death to punish the guilty?”
“If it’s happening anyway, why should I care?” Chernobog said. “I wouldn’t lift a finger to kill them, but nor will I lift a finger to spare them. There’s no purpose to it.”
Athena took a deep breath, ready to launch into a passionate defense of humanity…then caught herself, just before she spoke. “This is another ruse,” she said, choosing her words carefully.
Chernobog threw back his head in laughter. “I got you this time,” he said. “You have to admit, you believed it.”
“Why?” Athena asked, trying to wrestle her temper under control before she said something truly regrettable.
“Because,” Chernobog said, his face turning serious. “I had to know you cared. If you were able to meet my apathy with dispassion, I would have known you had hidden motives. The fear and anger I saw? Those were real. Those I can trust in.”
“So…you’ll help us?” Athena asked.
“I will gather the bog. We will help humanity escape from Kali’s wrath. But,” he said, raising a finger before she could speak, “We will not be soldiers in your war. We will protect humanity from the wrath of the Destroyer if she comes to us, but we will not hunt her down with you, and we will not march to war.”
“That is more than enough,” Athena said, though she had to fight disappointment for the words to come out. “It will be nice to have some of us focused solely on defense.”
Chernobog grinned. “See? Now I know I’m at last as good at seeing through lies as Athena the wise. No, don’t try to argue. I don’t care, and I won’t have us starting this alliance off poorly. Just tell me where to take my people, and we’ll be there.”
Athena decided to take the better part of Valor, and sat down at a chair that was brought to her by the tormented dead sinners so she could explain the plan.
It would have to be enough.