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Small Worlds Part 264

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

I’ve missed this. Enjoy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So…you’ll help us?” Athena asked.

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

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

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

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

It would have to be enough.

Small Worlds Part 263

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course,” Artemis said. “Why?”

Athena gestured subtly to indicate the ice that surrounded them.

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

Athena blinked a few times and activated her divine sight.

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

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

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

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

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

Small Worlds Part 262

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was time to meet the Celestial Bureaucracy.

Small Worlds Part 261

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Does it have to be alive?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 178 (End of Book 2) (Resumes December 10th)

“An interesting theory Nicandros,” Poz said through the Songstone. Nicandros glared at the stone, trying to figure out how in the Shadow this was happening. “However, I think you have much bigger problems to worry about. See, you are correct about a number of factors, although you underestimate my injury.” That was a lie.

“Damnit, Nicandros, where’s that smithy?” Ashliel said.

“North of my position,” Nicandros said, but his words were cut off by Poz’s voice.

“He can’t speak. I’ve hijacked his song. Apologies, Nicandros, but I can’t have you speaking. Do you remember earlier, Ashliel, when Nicandros warned you there was a risk of a popular uprising incurring in Edgeminster?”

“I have nothing to say to you,” Ashliel began to fly towards Nicandros, and he waved to try to get her attention. Unfortunately, Poz’s voice was continuing in his taunting. As fast as Ashliel was, speech was faster.

“So you do recall. Well, then, did you know that the Alohym’s Songstones link perfectly up to the city-wide song network? Do you know that the Alohym’s Songstones link perfectly up to the city-wide song network? Of course you do, the Resistance used the same thing to broadcast Tythel’s message to the rest of this corner of the empire. But I don’t think that was the best use of that technology. I think it is far more interesting for the people to hear what the Alohym think of them.”

Ashliel crushed her Songstone in her fist, a childish display of frustration. “What does that mean, Nicandros? What is he doing?

Nicandros looked at the Songstone in growing horror. “Ashliel…these things. Do they listen at all times, in cast they are activated?”

Ashliel nodded. “Of course, why wouldn’t they…oh. Oh no.”

Before they could even begin to react, Ashliel’s voice came through Nicandros’s Songstone. Not just his, either. As Poz had promised, Nicandros could hear Ashliel’s words echoed a dozen times over.

“I’m not interested in questions of morality. These people are disposable. Our soldiers are slightly less disposable. The only three beings that matter, in this entire city, are myself, you, and the underfolk. There are millions to replace even the thousands that might die here. This isn’t a police action to protect the citizens, and I swear by my Father’s Holy name, if I must burn every living being in this city to ash to achieve victory, I’ll do so with a smile and a laugh.”

All around them, troops were beginning to slow down. People were staring up at the speakers in growing horror.

“These people are disposable. Our soldiers are slightly less disposable.”

“No, no no no,” Ashliel started to moan the words and took the air on buzzing wings. Shouts began to come from the ground as people spotted her rise into the air.

Nicandros slunk away from where she’d taken off.

“”If I must burn every living being in this city to ash, I’ll do so with a smile and a laugh.”

Somehow Poz was cutting parts out of the conversation as they had happened. Nothing changed the core meaning, however, and people were coming to realize that the flying thing above the city was the source of the words. People were pointing at her, shouting. Soldiers started to move towards the people, but Poz played another segment. Or maybe he had predicted what parts he’d need to play when, for maximum impact.

“Our soldiers are slightly less disposable. The only three beings that matter are myself, you, and the underfolk.”

The soldiers of the Alohym began to hesitate. The crowd began to mutter angrily. Someone shouted. Nicandros couldn’t make out what the shout was, it was too far away, but it began to grow. More people were gathering. Fury was building.

“We deserve to live!”

“She’ll kill us all!” Officers began to bark orders, telling their soldiers to disperse the crowd, shouting at the citizens to go home, adding more chaos to the clamor. Ashliel was circling overhead, and the crowd was pointing at her, their screams getting louder. Nicandros wanted to tell her to leave, to get out before the situation erupted, but she had destroyed her Songstone in a fit of pique and was too high to hear anything.

“Look at her!”

“Burn us to ash?”

“Disposable!”

Arcwands were levelled at the crowd, and Nicandros’s heart began to pound. No. Not this. Please not this. 

The motion only incited more anger from the crowd.

“They don’t care about you either!”

“You’re nothing to them!”

“You think you’re less disposable?”

“Who’s the other one?”

“I think it’s him! He was with her!”

A finger was pointed in Nicandros’s direction, and the crowd began to surge. Soldiers pulled out unlight shields and tried to move to intercept the crowd.

Then everything fell silent again, as Poz’s voice once again came over the Songstone, and now Nicandros knew he was listening in, monitoring the situation, and deliberately pushing things over the edge.

“What was it you said when you were brought before my father? ‘Burn the resistance, burn the princess, burn my very soul to ash if you have to. I know you offered that bitch her father if she served you. Give me back my son, and I’ll be your creature until my last breath.’”

Nicandros took a step back, but there was nowhere to run. The crowd surged again, their screams turning to pure fury, their taunts now aimed at him as well as Ashliel.

“Stop this at once!” The voice cut over the crowd, magnified somehow. Every head turned to look at the source. It was Ashliel, coming down to land on top of a watchtower. “Listen to yourselves! This is a cheap trick, designed to turn you against us. You think that we are the monsters here? We have given you food beyond what you had before us. Medicine that exceeds the greatest works you had. And have we been harsh? Have we been unfair? What have we done that would lead you to believe I would say such things – that I would believe these things? When we came to your world, we did not slaughter your innocent. We only fought the soldiers of the old regimes – the monarchies that forced you into serfdom. Are your lives not better under us? How could you turn on us, after everything we’ve done for you?”

Silence followed. Nicandros held his breath. That was it. That was what they needed. It would muddle the issue, confuse things. She could have sounded less indignant, could have been more conciliatory, but-

“Your resistance – apologies, your former resistance – relies heavily on support from the populace. Whenever their action results in the deaths of civilians, it reflects poorly on them. Their allies begin to withdraw. Their support begins to dry up. In the meantime, if we enforce quarantine, we are labeled as tyrants and dictators. By allowing the population to engage in normal activities, we are seen as the reasonable actors. If people die…it doesn’t make us look like the antagonistic force.” Ashliel’s voice, once again coming from the Songstones

“You put people’s lives at risk to win a popularity contest?”

It was Nicandros’s voice, and he winced, remembering what came after those words. Ashliel’s damning response.

“Yes. Revolutions aren’t won on battlefields or in back alleys. They are won in the hearts and minds of the people. And, by the same token, that’s also where they are lost.”

For a moment, it felt like time itself was holding its breath.

Nicandros would never forget that moment. That single, frozen moment, where it seemed like everything could still be salvaged.

Then someone threw a stone. It glanced off the helm of a soldier, sending him staggering. The soldier next to him, his comrade, possibly even his friend, snapped his arcwand back up.

Then he opened fire blindly into the crowd. A woman screamed.

And the crowd began to charge. More stones were throne. Soldiers screamed orders, and Arcwands began to fire again, and again, and again. The screams of rage began to mix with screams of agony of the wounded and screams of anguish from those standing near the dead.

Nicandros felt himself being lifted into the air. Ashliel had hooked her hands under his arms and was dragging him skyward. A stone flew in their direction, but she was able to block it with her carapace.

Someone threw a torch. A building caught flame.

Edgeminster began to burn, and the riot turned into a massacre.

And, Nicandros was certain, somewhere far below in the chaos, Poz was able to slip away with his prize.

It would later be called the Edgeminster Slaughter. It would be remembered as the day that seven hundred civilians were killed, and three times that many wounded, by Alohym in their attempt to catch a single individual. It would grow with each retelling as it spread from town to town like a wildfire, Ashliel’s words being twisted further and further.

By the time it reached Tythel and Eupheme, sitting at the bedside where Tellias was hooked up to machines that were his only chance of survival, Nicandros’s name was spoken of in the same tones as the foulest creatures spawned from the Shadow. Tythel hugged her friend, and together they wondered if their battle had somehow pushed the Alohym over the edge into slaughter.

By the time it reached Duke De’Monchy, they said it was seven thousand dead, and the entire city of Edgeminster burned to the ground. He knew that now, the citizens knew the Alohym were as terrible as he’d always feared, and the only window they’d ever have to fight back with a hope of winning was now. He swore a blood oath that those that died in Edgeminster would be avenged, and that tale was spread throughout the kingdom as well.

By the time it reached Poz, emerging from the cocoon in Lizardflesh, he knew he was responsible for the deaths, and wept for nearly three straight days. He too swore that the deaths would not be in vain, although his tale would not spread until far, far later.

It would not reach Armin for longer than the rest. He had the treasure horde of Grejax to deal with, using the Sylvani transporters activated by Bix to carry it where it could be moved to the resistance. By the time he heard it, rumor had been separated from fact, and the true number of dead was established at seven hundred and thirty four, with twenty thousand and ninety three wounded and thirty two soldiers dead.

It was the perfect time for him to receive the terrible news, because he could counter it with hope. With Synit and Bix’s help, he’d decoded Theognis’s ledger. He knew what the Vacuity engine was. He knew what they could do about it.

He did not yet know what to do with the two dozen golden eggs they’d taken from Grejax’s lair. He had questions about them, along with a great deal of other questions forming from what he’d learned in the lair of a long dead monster, questions that could only be answered by a woman who was now being called the Dragon’s Scion.

But that is all in the future.

For now, Edgeminster burned, and with it Nicandros saw hope turn to ash.

-END OF BOOK 2-

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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.

 

Dragon’s Scion Part 177

Poz could not accurately calculate how long he laid on the floor of the blacksmith, insensible with pain, the stench of his own burned flesh filling his nostrils. The smell should have filled him with revulsion, but instead reminded him of how long he’d been in Manflesh and how long he’d been without food. His stomach was rumbling at the smell of his own burned arm, and the knowledge of that was another fact that he put aside in a box in the back of his mind. When he left Manflesh, when his intellect was sooner, many of these facts and information he’d gleaned while in this flesh would be lost as his intellect diminished to the point where he could no longer make sense of them. He was certain that he would not lose the knowledge that, when desperate and on the border of death, he’d been hungry for his own arm. That seemed like the kind of knowledge that would linger, something he’d recall when he woke up screaming later nights.

For right now, however, he had to ensure those later nights would occur.

The loss of blood he’d suffered when his arm had been burned off was severe. It had left him weak and his thoughts unfocused and muddled. The weakness was something that could be overcome. The difficulty in thinking was a far more serious impairment, since his intellect was the only weapon he had left.

Why did the Alohym care what happened to Nicandros? 

That thought seemed like it might be critical to uncover, but Poz lacked sufficient data to make an accurate prediction. Alohym rarely cared for what happened to the humans under their command. Nicandros was a valuable human, but not so valuable as to be worth endangering whatever their primary mission was. The recovery of the egg. They needed to recover it. It was vital that they did, because if they were able to get the egg then the only hope left for the world would be a young woman more focused on anger and revenge than freeing world from Alohym rule. A young woman who they could control, because the egg would be a tempting prize.

Poz forced himself to stand. It was difficult, and his vision turned black from the effort and from lack of blood. He reached for the Songstone, only to remember it was on the side of his body that lacked an arm now, and all he was doing was waving a stump in the direction of his pocket. He reached across his body with his free hand, his only hand, and awkwardly worked the Songstone out of his pouch. Trousers with pouches sown into them. I must remember it. It is a vast improvement over the current designs.

He flicked on the Stongstone.

His earlier modifications had allowed him to listen in as if he were Nicandros, hear whatever Song Nicandros was being sung and to hear what songs Nicandros was singing. It had allowed for other things, including turning it into a weapon of last resort. Perhaps there would be some insight he could glean.

“You let him get away,” Nicandros said. His voice was thick with pain, but underneath it Poz did not hear anything that sounded like reproach. It sounded more like confusion and wonder.

“I saved your life.” Ashliel’s voice was hard to make out. In addition to its natural buzzing quality, there was also the sound of wind whipping past her, and the background thrummed with the sound of her wings. “Would you prefer I left you to die?”

Nicandros grunted. “Of course not. I just…why?”

How convenient, that they’re discussing the exact information I wish to know. Poz thought it was easy. Too easy. Poz tried to calculate the odds that he would turn on the Songstone at the exact moment to hear what he wanted to hear. They were minimal. He then calculated the odds that this discussion was a bit of theater for his benefit, if they suspected he was listening in. Those odds were still small, but they were more in his favor.

“I’ll explain later.” Ashliel’s voice was curt, and Poz breathed a sigh of relief. If it was theater for his benefit, there was no reason for her not to give a prepared answer. This seemed more natural. They didn’t suspect he was listening in. Of course they don’t. The Alohym don’t understand how dangerous I am to them. 

“Hold on,” Nicandros said. “I think I might have something.”

The line went silent, and Poz tensed. What did Nicandros suspect? What had he seen? Was he outside the door right now, ready to burst in? Poz tried to figure out his chances of survival if he did. They were minimal. Poz walked over to where the anvil was and took out the egg, placing it on the anvil. While Nicandros investigated whatever he’d heard, Poz wrapped his fingers around the blacksmith’s hammer. What he was contemplating was monstrous, but no more monstrous than letting the egg fall into Alohym hands.

“He’s in a smithy about three blocks from me,” Nicandros said. “Or he was. You took off his arm with that last blast. I doubt he’ll have gone far.”

There’s still time. Poz lifted the Stongstone to his lips. It was time for his final gambit.

“An interesting theory Nicandros,” Poz said, setting the hammer back on the floor. “However, I think you have much bigger problems to worry about. See, you are correct about a number of factors, although you underestimate my injury.” That was a lie.

“Damnit, Nicandros, where’s that smithy?” Ashliel said. Three blocks could mean any direction.

“He can’t speak. I’ve hijacked his song. Apologies, Nicandros, but I can’t have you speaking. Do you remember earlier, Ashliel, when Nicandros warned you there was a risk of a popular uprising incurring in Edgeminster?”

“I have nothing to say to you,” Ashliel spat, but Poz could hear the undertones of fear in her voice. He smiled.

“So you do recall. Well, then, did you know that the Alohym’s Songstone link perfectly up to the city-wide song network? Of course you do, the Resistance used the same thing to broadcast Tythel’s message to the rest of this corner of the empire. But I don’t think that was the best use of that technology. I think it is far more interesting for the people to hear what the Alohym think of them.”

He pressed another button, one that would silence Ashliel. Well, it would silence present Ashliel.

The city of Edgeminster would hear what Ashliel of the past had to say. And in the chaos that would follow, Poz would be able to escape.

Ashliel’s voice was harsh when it came across the entire city, broadcasted so loudly no citizen could hope to not hear it.

“I’m not interested in questions of morality,” Ashliel said, her buzzing voice clearly the product of an Alohym throat. “These people are disposable…”

Poz tucked the egg back into his pouch and waited for the riot to begin.

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!

Dragon’s Scion Part 176

“Give up, Poz,” Nicandros growled from the darkness.

“Question,” Poz said, pressing his back against the stone he’d taken cover behind, his heart pounding in his chest. Keep him talking. It would give Poz time to think, which even with his enhanced intellect he desperately needed. He’d already found an appropriate means of egress from his predicament, but it would high a high probability of resulting in his dismemberment, with a slightly lower risk of death. Slightly. He tore off part of his shirt and wrapped it around the knives to prevent bleeding. “In your experience, how often has demanding someone give up work at this point?”

“At this point?” Nicandros said.

Poz could hear him moving to circle around his cover, but the acoustics of this place made determining his exact location extremely difficult. Perhaps if I were to fashion some sort of amplification device, perhaps utilizing a series of horns linked to spider-web to detect faint vibration, I could pinpoint. The designs were half formed in his head before he reminded himself that doing so would be impossible. He lacked spider-webs, horns, and time. “At the point where it’s certain that defeat means death. What incentive do I have to surrender?”

Nicandros’s movement halted, and in the darkness, Poz could hear a low chuckle. It didn’t sound amused. It sounded more sad than anything. Nicandros was likely feeling sentimental about their time together before. “I forget how much of a pain in the ass you are like this. How long have you been in Manflesh? Clock is ticking, right?”

“Ah, yes. I fully intend to provide you vital intelligence in the middle of an armed conflict.”

“I suppose not. Can’t blame me for trying.”

Poz sighed. “No, I suppose not. I guess I should reward the effort. I have thirty one days, seven hours, and eleven minutes left in Manflesh.”

Nicandros’s movement halted. “You’re lying, Poz. You told me you’d burn out after, at most, half a day.”

“Perhaps I am. Or perhaps I solved that problem already. Perhaps I’ve be sandbagging. I suppose you’ll need to let me survive to test that hypothesis.”

“Sorry, I can’t do that, Poz. If you wanted to survive, you should have handed over the egg when you had the chance.”

“I suppose so,” Poz said, making sure his voice sounded with a bitter irony he didn’t feel. Right now, his only hope of survival depended on Nicandros’s human side. Fortunately, Poz knew exactly where he was most vulnerable. “Can’t blame me for trying.”

The echo of Nicandros’s earlier words drew him up short, and Poz could hear him hesitate again. Poz took the opportunity to pull the two daggers from his arms, clenching his teeth against the pain and moving quickly to staunch the bleeding. Battlefield treatment dictated a puncture wound should not be re-opened like this, but Poz was running low on options. Now, he at least was armed. “It didn’t have to be like this,” Nicandros said. “Light and Shadow, Poz, you could have just given me the damn egg.”

“Yes. And if it had been just you to ask, I would have given it. But you didn’t want it for yourself. You wanted it for the Alohym.”

“I wanted it for Tomah,” Nicandros growled. He was angry now, and his footsteps came quickly.

There’s the opening. Poz rose up, the daggers in his hands. “Then I hope you tell Tomah that Uncle Poz died on his feet.”

Nicandros was in the open, as Poz had predicted, and he stumbled at the words, the reminder of the bond Poz shared with his son. Poz flicked his wrists. The first dagger missed Nicandros by a hair, tumbling past his ear, driven off course by a spasmodic twitch in his injured arm. However, the motion brought Nicandros’s hands up to his face reflexively.

It left him exposed for the second dagger to sink into his gut.

Nicandros doubled over with a quiet grunt of pain. Poz frowned. The plan would not work with just a quiet grunt. He leapt over the barrier. Nicandros lunged for him, his hands outstretched, but the motion was rendered clumsy with pain. Poz wrapped his fingers around Nicandros’s wrist and moved past his bod, twisting as he did. Nicandros’s arm bent so it was stretched behind him, his elbow facing up, and Poz applied pressure to the wrist to drive Nicandros to the floor. “Scream,” Poz said.

“What…” Nicandros gasped. “You’re a sadist now?”

“No. However, the Alohym saved you from the explosion of the bell tower. She has an interest in your survival. Your screams will draw her attention.”

“Never,” Nicandros said, growling the word.

“Then I promise, when I’m back in a more empathetic flesh, I’ll feel terrible about this.”

He drove his free palm into Nicandros’s upturned elbow, bending it almost a perfect forty-five degrees in the opposite direction. To Nicandros’s credit, he didn’t scream at first, not until Poz continued to apply pressure to bend the arm further. However, Nicandros was only human. He couldn’t withstand too much abuse before instinct took over.

At the point his forearm was almost perpendicular to his back, Nicandros started to scream.

Now. Poz released the pressure and dove towards the entrance. The top of the bell tower was being torn apart by some force, a plurality of ink black arms rending stones from stone. “Leave him alive or your screams will echo across a thousand worlds!” Ashliel screamed as she ripped the top of the tower off with greater speed than Poz had calculated would be possible.

She descended towards Nicandros like a comet, one of her arms forming a protective dome to drop around his prone form. Her other arm extended towards Poz, forming an unlight cannon.

Poz dove through the door. The unlight cannon fired. Poz felt something tug on his arm, but he was in the street and running, and Ashliel was sure to waste time checking on Nicandros before she pursued. A simple brace will repair the damage, so long as the stomach wound does not go septic. Alohym medication will likely prevent that. Poz felt lightheaded, and as he ran through the street, people screamed and ran from him.

That surprised him. Humans tended to react with the least fear to his Manflesh form. He glanced at his arm, trying to see what the Alohym had hit him with. Perhaps some brand that marked him as a target, or…

“Oh,” Poz said aloud.

The arm ended in a stump just above the elbow. Shock was the only thing preventing him from keeling over in agony.

Several new variables raced through his head, although he had to remind himself that he couldn’t trust his own calculations. He’d lost a lot of blood already. Have to find Gecko when I’m out of the city. That Flesh can let me regrow the arm. Maybe. He’d be dumb for days, barely better than Grubflesh, but he’d survive if he could get it in time.  The regrowth was uncertain, but worth the risk.

Poz saw a smithy and dove through the open door. The huge man behind the counter bellowed in surprise, and Poz hit him in the throat with his remaining hand to silence him as he vaulted over the counter.

The man had an apprentice, one who raised a hot iron in a defensive pose when Poz burst in. “I’ve crushed your master’s trachea,” Poz said, not certain if he’d actually managed that. “If you get him to a healer in time, you can save him. If you give me that hot iron, I’ll let you go. What is more important, his life or his wares?”

The young man couldn’t have been more than fourteen. He blanched at Poz’s words, and although he likely didn’t understand what a trachea, he understood enough. With a curse, he tossed the hot iron to the ground and ran to the front of the store.

Poz shoved his stump against the red-hot metal. No amount of shock could spare him from the pain of cauterization, and his screams chased the blacksmith and his apprentice into the street.