Small Worlds part 220

The Adriatic Sea was one of the most beautiful oceans on the world. As a girl, long before finding her Nanoverse, Artemis had enjoyed spending hours along its banks, hunting – sometimes alongside Apollo, sometimes alone. In that time, almost no humans lived along vast stretches of its shores, and she could go out there and be completely alone. Even after she had found her nanoverse and then scoured the globe to find one for Apollo, she’d come out there sometimes to enjoy the solitude. What had impressed her most back then was how clear the water was – it had felt like she could have stared straight to the bottom if there was only a bit lighter.

Today, that water was growing murky with the spilled blood of the god and monster alike.

Artemis’ bowstring thrummed in rapid succession, letting loose a trio of arrows that buried themselves in the chests of approaching Nereids. Blood began to leak into the water around them, and some of the shark mounts began to frenzy, turning on their bleeding riders. Artemis turned away from the sight – they weren’t threats anymore. “Fall back!” she shouted. Water rushed into her mouth, but the words came out clearly. She still found herself choking on seawater.

It took only a tiny portion of her divine power to allow a bow and arrow to work under water, but as long as the battle had been raging, Artemis was beginning to feel the strain of even that. Her body Hungered for air, a hunger that normally never bothered her. She shifted her body slightly, spouting gills along her neck and the sides of her ribcage. It was not the first adaptation she’d made for underwater combat, and she kicked away from the approaching horde with webbed feet. “Fall back!” she repeated. “Fall back or we’ll be overrun!”

Harpoons flew through the water around her, and one grazed her back. She gritted her teeth against the pain. Triton had lent some of his own ichor to all of these projectiles, and they sliced through divine flesh without problem.

Aphrodite spread her fingers, and bands of water wove themselves into a solid net between the retreating Olympians and Poseidon’s army. Hera flung out her hand and threw a web of fire into the net, boiling the sea between the bands.

Artemis saw the frustration on Hera’s face and knew it was mirrored on her own. On the surface, out in open air, that much heat would have incinerated a sizeable chunk of this army. Beneath the waves, it helped create a field of hot water and not much else.

Artemis landed on the floor of the ocean and held out her hand, grabbing threads of Air and Aether. She created a bubble of dry air on the ocean floor, and the other Olympians joined her. “We can’t keep this up!” Demeter said as soon as she entered the bubble.

“I can only hold this bubble for so long, and the Kraken or Scylla will find us soon,” Artemis growled as others joined them. “I need useful suggestions, please.” Already, Harpoons were being shot through the makeshift barrier and into the bubble of air. The difference between air and water meant they missed, but it would only before a matter of time before the Nereids drew near enough to open fire through the air.

“Hestia is dead,” Hephaestus intoned sourly, something small clutched between his fingers. He held it up to reveal her nanoverse.

“And you sent Hermes away,” Aphrodite sniffed.

“Enough,” Hera snapped, drawing all eyes to her. “We are also missing others. Artemis was chosen to lead. Shouldn’t we follow her?”

Artemis gave the older woman a look of pure thanks. Ever since Poseidon had turned on them, Hera had become Artemis’ staunchest supporter. It’s only because she wants you to vote to reinstate her once Zeus resurrects, Artemis reminded herself. At least, that was her best theory.

Either way, it worked in her favor.

“Fine,” Demeter said, wringing sea-water from her hair. “Then what’s your plan?”

The truth was, Artemis didn’t have one. This wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near this hard. Fighting Poseidon in the ocean was going to be difficult, but eight on one were odds that should have made it less of a fight and more of an execution. Even with Thalassa supporting him, they still would have outnumbered them four to one.

“We need to hold out till Hermes returns with reinforcements,” Artemis said. “The plan isn’t changed.”

“Hermes left before the others showed up!” Aphrodite said, the snap in her voice vanishing after a glance from Hera. “It’s not just Triton and Thalassa out there!”

Artemis didn’t need the reminder. On top of those three, on top of the Scylla and the Kraken, two other sea gods had joined the fray on Poseidon’s side. Ceto, the goddess of sea monsters – who was bringing in more creatures by the minute to reinforce Poseidon’s side – and Eurybia. Five gods, two monsters, and the gods and monsters arrayed against them were all in their natural habitat.

“It gets worse than what you know,” Aphrodite said with a scowl. “I saw my ex out there. Nerites. Nerites is commanding the Nereids.”

Make that six gods and two monsters. 

“All we have to do is hold out,” Artemis repeated, her voice firm. “Hermes will bring us back reinforcements. He’s never failed before.”

“Even if he does,” Apollo said, his voice calm, “what good would it do? That little mishmash pantheon Athena has been working on would-”

“Would almost double our numbers with fresh troops, and bring us two war goddesses, a Trickster, and a storm goddess. Under the waves. We need them.”

“There’s still an army,” Apollo objected in the same reasonable tones as before.

“Which is why Athena was not Hermes’ first stop,” Artemis said, meeting his gaze with level eyes.

Everyone looked at her. “What aren’t you telling us?” Hera asked, suspicion now in her eyes.

As if on cue – Artemis wouldn’t be surprised to learn the god in question had been waiting and listening to make a dramatic entrance – a bolt of fire split the air in the center of the gathered Olympians. Tiny hands, the color of a moonless night, grabbed onto the edge of the tear and tore it apart until it was wide enough to allow traversal.

Hand in hand, Hades and Persephone stepped out onto the sea floor. Hades was wearing a black suit, his bident resting on his shoulder. Persephone at least had dressed for the occasion, wearing a black wetsuit and had her hair tightly bound behind her head. “Well,” Hades said with an overly friendly grin, “I do hope I’m in the right place.”

“You could have arrived a little later. Maybe after we were all dead?” Artemis extended her hand, and Hades shook it. “Thank you for coming.”

Hades opened his mouth to answer, but Persephone cut him off. “They’re closing in. Hades and I will supply the army. You need to hold them off.”

Artemis nodded and turned to ready her bow as the water rushed back in around them.

Small Worlds part 219

 

Ryan gestured, grabbing equations that governed gravity around the cat thing, and set himself as ‘down.’ The creature began to scrabble along the ground as it slid towards Ryan, but the street as far, as it was concerned, was a perfectly horizontal wall. It flew off the ground when it got close. Ryan grabbed it by the throat and let gravity return to normal. The creature yowled and shifted back into a human. “I didn’t know you were him!” the man screamed in Ryan’s grip. “I didn’t know!”

Ryan looked at the man critically. He was in his late teens, maybe a young looking early twenty.  Aside from the blood on his face and shirt, he looked like a perfectly normal human. “What’s your name?” Ryan asked, the withheld fury making his voice sound dangerously calm.

“Billy. My name’s Billy.”

Ryan took in the new information with a level glare. “Hi Billy. You seem to know who I am.”

Billy nodded frantically, so hard that it almost slipped him out of Ryan’s grip. Ryan could feel the immense strength this man possessed. Against a human, it wouldn’t even be a fair fight. Billy would tear them apart with almost no exertion. Ryan didn’t want to try to arm-wrestle Billy, but it seemed Billy was too cowed right now to even realize that he could pose a threat to a god. “You’re the Eschaton.”

“That’s a pretty big word there, Billy. You know what it means?”

Billy nodded again. “It means…she said you’re going to end the world.”

“She?” Ryan asked quizzically, sure he knew the answer. “Who is ‘she?’”

Billy swallowed hard, and Ryan could feel the motion travel down Billy’s throat. “She’ll…she’ll kill me.”

“Oh, will she?” Ryan lifted Billy off the ground and with a single, fluid motion, slammed him into the asphalt hard enough to crack the black stone. Billy grunted with pain and brought his hands up to clutch at Ryan’s arm. “She’s not here right now, Billy. I am. You tell me, you might have time to run.”

Billy’s eyes widened as Dianmu and Nabu stepped into view. “I…it was Cassandra, okay? Cassandra?”

Huh. Ryan thought with the part of his brain that was still running logic under the outrage. “Cassandra?” He glanced sideways at Dianmu. “Any chance it’s the Cassandra?”

Dianmu shook her head. “She was mortal.”

Ryan glanced back at Billy. “Who the hell is Cassandra?”

“The first of us,” Billy whispered. “She was the first of us.”

“And what are ‘you,’ Billy?” Ryan asked. He was kneeling down, and lowered his face even closer so Billy could clearly see the rage that burned inside Ryan’s chest right now.

“Cardiophage,” Billy whimpered. “She said we were…Cardiophages.”

“Heart-eater,” Nabu supplied helpfully. “From the Greek Kardia, meaning ‘heart,’ and phagein meaning-”

“To devour,” Ryan finished for him, focusing on Billy. “So you eat hearts.”

“Y-yes,” Billy stammered. “Oh God please don’t kill me!”

“I’m not sure yet,” Ryan said. “Tell me, Billy, why the hell shouldn’t I kill something that eats hearts!?” The last two words came out in a scream, and flecks of spittle flew out of Ryan’s mouth and onto Billy’s face.

“Easy, Enki,” Dianmu said quietly.

The last word was like a bucket of cold water on Ryan’s head. He’d used the exact same trick Enki had used to pull Billy into range, and then was holding him up to his face and screaming in it like a monster. For the first time Ryan took a good look at Billy. This guy was a kid, and the blood on his face was mixing with tears and snot. Ryan felt sick at himself.

“Because…because,” Billy said, hiccupping with fear. “Because I didn’t want this, man! I just wanted to ask a girl out and then I’m…I’m being fed my own heart and…” Billy sniffed loud and deep. “I didn’t want this!”

Ryan leaned back and took his hand off Billy’s neck, replacing the grip with a twist to gravity just strong enough to keep the young man – the cardiophage – pinned to the ground. He rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Damnit. Thank you Dianmu.”

Dianmu gave him a small smile. “Crystal told me all about your encounters with him, in great detail.” Her smile faded. “It’s your first time dealing with this kind of horror, isn’t it?”

Ryan nodded, suddenly feeling hollow and empty. “I miss the days when the monsters were mummies or goblin-vampire-werewolf things. Hell, for that matter, I miss the days when there were no monsters.”

“Anthropophagi,” Nabu said thoughtfully.

“Man-eater?” Ryan said, looking at Nabu. “Are you okay, Nabu? Billy here said Cardiophage.”

“If a god turns into an anthropophagi, it’s always a unique kind,” Dianmu said, picking up where Nabu had left off. Ryan appreciated it – it saved Nabu the trouble of re-explaining what an anthropophagi was. “And they are always able to create spawn like themselves. It’s part of why the vampire myth is so universal.”

Ryan felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach and turned back to Billy. “Who does Cassandra serve?” he asked.

Billy looked at Ryan with wild eyes and mouthed a word. It was too low a whisper for Ryan to make out. Ryan knelt back down and leaned his ear near Billy’s voice.

“Look behind you,” Billy said, then snapped his rapidly shifted jaws down on Ryan’s ear. Ryan roared with pain and pulled away, clenching one hand to the side of his head. Blood poured between his fingers, and Billy was laughing, the previous fear vanished in an instant. Ryan whirled and snapped his fingers. Billy’s laughter ended in a sudden wet, sticky sound as the gravity on his chest increased to the power of ten.

“You shouldn’t have hurt my child,” Bast said. She was standing on a rooftop, flanked by dozens of the cat-things that Ryan had seen earlier. “Although I would have killed him for harming you, Eschaton.” Bast gave him a cruel smile. “We should talk.”

Ryan cauterized the bleeding stump where his ear had been as Bast leapt off the roof in a graceful bound.

 

The Burning Epoch Part 2

Candice Chambers liked turning her phone off now and then. It was good to unplug, to get away from it all for a bit. And after a long day working on cars, it was nice to have some actual silence going on for a change.

Well, not real silence. The television was going right now, turned to the news, a minor bit of background noise to go along with her workout. That would be her roommate roommates doing, Diane Crowe. Despite her insistence to always have the television going in some form or another, Diane was the perfect roommate, in Candice’s humble opinion. She worked the night shift as a security guard at a mall, meaning their schedules only really overlapped for about two or three hours a day. Diane also had about as much interest in dating as Candice had in underwater basket weaving, so there were no strange guys being brought into their apartment.

And Diane was perfectly content to not bother Candice during her evening workout. Candice had finished her sit-up and moved onto push-ups. By the time she was done, Diane would have left for work, and she’d be able to control of the apartment until it was time to sleep. No muss, no fuss, no distractions – and she only had to pay half the rent.

It was exactly what Candice needed after work, especially today. Some asshole had brought in an eighty-nine Volvo. The head gasket had blown and leaked antifreeze into the oil lines. He’d driven it for a week afterwards. The engine was shot, and for an eighty-nine, the repairs were going to be four times the value of the vehicle.

He’d taken the news poorly. Yelling, screaming, cursing, and threatening to put them on social media, leave bad reviews. He’d talked about reporting them to the BBC – and Candice hadn’t earned any points by reminding him the BBC was the British news channel, and he probably meant the Better Business Bureau. That had really set him off, and he’d demanded to speak to the owner, or a man who knew cars.

Candice had taken immense satisfaction in letting him know that she knew cars as well as any of the guys working here – he’d seemed to have trouble believing a penis wasn’t a prerequisite for understanding the inner workings of a shit car. When he’d balked at that and demanded for her manage, right now, it had been even more fun to watch his face when she got the manager, who had then turned and asked her what the status of the car was.

The customer had flipped out then, and the manager – Billy Goodell – had politely informed mister eighty-eight Volvo that he was required to run anything involving threats of legal or social media action by the owner of CC mechanics. Who happened to be one Candice Chambers. The woman he had insulted repeatedly for the last ten minutes.

Fortunately, the man had taken that as a cue to storm out. Leaving his car behind. Without paying his bill. It would be wonderful to charge him an overnight fee for leaving it in their lot. Candice smiled in satisfaction at the thought.

It hadn’t been satisfying then. She’d left Billy in charge and walked the thirty feet it was from her shop to her apartment complex. Now she was doing pushups and-

The Television began to make a loud, droning beep. The emergency broadcast system.

“Hey, Candice?” Diane said. “You might want to-”

Candice was already finishing her push-up and getting to her feet. In this part of the country, as high up as Candice and Diane lived – the 7th floor – you didn’t skip emergency broadcasts. They could be tornados. She heard a sound of crunching metal outside and ignored it. She paid premium to park her car in the garage, she didn’t have to worry about some asshole hitting her baby while she wasn’t looking.

The news was showing footage of sinkholes. Candice couldn’t hear them – they were muted by the Emergency Broadcast System. “Attention,” said an authoritative electronic voice. “We interrupt your programming. This is a national emergency. Important instructions will follow. The following message is transmitted at the request of the United States Government. Numerous seismic events have been reported across the country. Reports include: over two-thousand sinkholes opening in residential or commercial areas. A 6.5 magnitude earthquake along the San Andreas Faultline. A 4.7 magnitude earthquake near Saint Louis, Missouri. A 7.8 magnitude earthquake near Anchorage, Alaska.”

“Oh my god,” Candice whispered, but Diane waved her to be quiet.

“All residents in the affected areas are advised to take the following actions. Seek refuge in a place that provides adequate structural support…”

Candice turned it out, turning to Diane. “We’re fine, we’re safe. We’re nowhere near any of that.” Minnesota may not normally qualify for the safest state in America – especially not in winters – but right now it was about far away from any of that. The Saint Louis quake was the nearest, although it certainly wasn’t a dangerous one for them right now.

Diane nodded. “I’m just…holy shit.” The news was backing up what the EAS announcer was saying, showing aerial footage over San Francisco. The highway had been split down the middle, and cars were falling into the crevice left behind. Tiny dots that Candice distantly realized were people were leaping out of vehicles, running away.

The broadcaster had moved on, another round of beeps signaling the end of the message. Except it wasn’t. “Volcanic eruptions near the following cities: Flagstaff, Arizona. Dotsero, Colorado. Reno, Nevada. Albuquerque, New Mexico. Brown Mountain, Oregon. Mount St. Helens, Washington. Mount Baker, Washington.”

Candice could feel her hands start to shake. It was starting to sound like the end of the world. Diane’s eyes were wide with fear, mirroring Candice’s own.

“A cause for these geological disturbances is unknown,” the voice continued. “The president will be speaking shortly on all stations. All stations will remain on air providing ongoing updates as the situation develops. Please stay tuned for further announcements.”

This time, the round of beeps did signal the end of the message. The news reporter’s voice took back over. “-only reporting sinkholes here so far. There have been unconfirmed reports of wild animals active around the sinkholes, and – one moment.” The screen shifted to show a sinkhole in a parking lot. “What you’re seeing now,” the reporter said, “is live footage of one of these sinkholes, being captured by a Minneapolis resident.”

The reporter went silent, letting the streamer speak. “As you can see…or rather, as you can’t see, this sinkhole is too deep to see the bottom.” Candice frowned at the voice. It was ringing a bell somewhere in the back of her mind. It was familiar, like it belonged to someone she’d talked to a few times, but she couldn’t quite place it. “It’s about seven pm here in Minnesota, but there’s a street lamp right next to the hole, so we should be getting some light, but…well, I’m turning on my phone’s light, and as you can see, it barely shows any deeper.”

Candice felt her jaw hit the floor. “Diane, is that…is that Kurt?”

Diane blinked for a moment and frowned. “I think…I mean, it sounds like Kurt.” Her frown deepened. “And…that does look like our parking lot.”

Both women shared a look, then got up and scrambled over to the balcony, fear of earthquakes and volcanoes momentarily forgotten in the desire to see what the hell was happening.

It was their parking lot. Kurt was out there, the little light on his camera phone unable to illuminate any deeper into the pit that had opened in the parking lot. Candice turned to Diane, ready to ask her if her car had been nearby but was cut off by the sound that came through both the television and out of the pit.

It was a terrible sound, an animalistic growl blown up to immense proportions. People from other apartments were running out onto their balconies. Four different buildings – 213, 214, 215, and the building she shared with Kurt and Diane and about a hundred others, 216 – overlooked this parking lot, and all of them were filling up with people staring down, trying to find the source of the sound. In the background, Candice could hear Kurt’s voice coming out of her television.

“If you’re…if you’re just joining us, a sinkhole opened up in the parking lot of my apartment complex. It swallowed my car. There’s a sound coming from the sinkhole and…oh my Jesus what is that!?”

Diane screamed next to Candice, drowning out the voice, joining a chorus of other screams as an immense, reptilian arm shot of the hole, dragging an enormous bulk behind it. A creature of proportions Candice had never imagined, larger than an elephant. It was like a dinosaur, and it was advancing on Kurt. “Run!” Candice screamed, although her word was drowned out by the monstrous roar and the screams coming from the apartments around them.

The some brave, beautiful, stupid motherfucker in 215 opened fire, the echoing pops of his handgun cutting over every other sound. Diane couldn’t take it anymore and ran back inside, but Candice held onto the railing and watched. She saw the creatures blood began to well up, a neon red that carried its own light. The creature whirled away from Kurt and began to stalk towards the shooter.

Then the tongue lanced out and dragged that brave, beautiful, stupid motherfucker into the creature’s waiting jaw. It roared triumph for its capture. Candice could barely breathe. Kurt was still standing out there, his phone held up.

“Run!” She screamed again. He didn’t seem to hear her. He bent down, picking something up – and then another claw emerged from the abyssal pit. That set Kur fleeing, running back into the apartment complex and slamming the door behind him. This new creature was even larger than the first, and its bellow was deeper, more resonant.

The first one turned to the new arrival and ducked its head submissively. The new arrival let out a chuff of air, then began to stalk towards 213.

Inside, Candice could make out the sound of the television again, cranked up to its maximum volume by a shuddering Diane. “We uh…there seems to be confirmation now of the reports of animal activity near the sinkholes,” the reporter said, his voice shaking. “The uh…I’m sorry. I seem to be at a loss for words. For those of you just joining us, the image on your screen is of a creature that has emerged from one of the sinkholes. We are just now getting reports of more creatures emerging. This is happening across the country – I’m sorry, I’ve just been informed these phenomena is happening globally.”

The creature that was approaching 213 sniffed the building as people inside screamed. Candice could hear their cries over all other sounds. It sounded, perversely, like the screams of a roller coaster going over a hill, a unified mass of shrieking humanity. Everyone had abandoned their balcony, at least on the lower floors.

“These creatures – these Kaiju, I’m being informed is the term being used – seemed to range in size from fifteen to fifty feet tall. They also don’t all look like the one we have footage of. We’re getting additional pictures, appearing on your screen now.”

Candice couldn’t resist looking back. Four images were being shown. The creature in her parking lot, currently sniffing at 213, was in the top right corner. In the top left was a brightly light photo of a creature surrounded by billboards with Korean littering. It was built like a hairless ape covered in turtle shells that were arranged along its arms and chest like medieval armor. Another, in the bottom right, was flying over the Eiffel tower. looked like an eyeless, bipedal wolf with bat ears and long, membranous wings under its forearms. The one in the bottom left was…there was no way around it. It was a dragon, it was just a straight up goddamn dragon perched atop the Sears tower.

Outside, the screams intensified. The kaiju was clawing at the building, tearing chunks of stone away. Someone inside tried to take the opportunity to run out the front door, but the first kaiju ran after him. In four steps, it was close enough for its tongue to cover the distance.

Candice couldn’t stop herself from screaming as the man was drawn back into the monster’s mouth. It didn’t bite down though. Instead, it walked over to the larger kaiju, the screaming man still dangling from the starfished tip of its tongue.

The larger kaiju bent down and, almost delicately, took the man into its mouth.

Then the man’s screams stopped.

Candice threw up over the side of her balcony, unable to contain it anymore. She sunk down into the chair behind her when she heard. “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.”

Small Worlds Part 208

Arachne sat across from Athena, tapping her fingers on the table in rapid, staccato bursts. Her lips were as thin as her eyes. “You honestly believe this?” she asked.

Athena nodded. After the battle, Arachne had a dozen questions, and they’d needed a place to talk. Athena would no sooner enter Arachne’s nanoverse than Arachne would enter hers, and Anansi had been the one to suggest they talk somewhere comparatively neutral. After discarding various divine realms for a variety of reasons, they had settled on a small cafe that overlooked the Mediterranean. Arachne had never had coffee, and Anansi had been eager to introduce her to this particular wonder of the modern world.

The amount of cream and sugar she’d used to make it palatable had horrified Athena, but she’d kept it to herself. Given that this was the first thing she’d had since returning to the core world, Athena was hardly going to judge.

“The sun’s been getting hotter,” Athena said in response to Arachne’s questions. “I think it’s pretty irrefutable at this point. I don’t know how long we have.”

“So, you brought me back to the core just so you could tell me the world was going to die?” Arachne sighed through clenched teeth, her fingers still beating out a frustrated rhythm. After the fight, Arachne had been more tolerant of Athena, though she still regarded her former mentor with a furious wariness.

“No. The impending destruction made me-”

Arachne cut her off with a frustrated wave of her hand. “Athena, I’m not even close to forgiving you, but this thing – if you’re telling the truth about it, and I see no advantage to you lying – is bigger than even what happened between us. You don’t need to explain yourself or apologize again every time I snap, so long as you understand it’ll be some time before I can stop snapping. Until then, just ignore me when I comment on it. Agreed?”

Athena considered for a moment, and then nodded. “As you wish,” she said. In truth it was a relief.

Especially given how frightening Arachne was to Athena. Athena and Anansi had beaten her to the cafe under the pretense of wanting to make sure that there would be no threat lying in wait, but it had given them a much-needed chance to discuss the fight. Once she’d convinced Anansi that she hadn’t thrown the fight deliberately – which had not been an easy task – Anansi had come up with a chilling hypothesis.

Arachne had been able to resist Athena’s power within Athena’s nanoverse, where Athena was supposed to be omnipotent. Somehow, the trillions of years had worked Arachne partially into the fabric of Athena’s reality. Athena’s power, directed against Arachne, would barely impact her, while Arachne’s power, directed against Athena, was able to cut through her defenses like they weren’t there.

In short, if Athena were to ever face Arachne in a battle to the death, Arachne would almost certainly triumph. Anansi had called Arachne Athena’s personal kryptonite, a pop culture reference that Athena had understood and dreaded.

The threat she posed to Athena directly was the primary motivation behind telling Arachne everything. If she understood, she’d hopefully agree to at least leave Athena be until after this was over.

“Glad we have that established,” Arachne said, taking another sip of her coffee. “So what are you all doing to prevent it?”

“We can’t,” Athena said, shaking her head. “At least, probably not. Ryan and Dianmu are in Officum Mundi right now, trying to get information out of the Curators-”

“The what?” Arachne asked.

“The Curators,” Athena repeated, fighting back again an urge to apologize, an urge to make amends for thousands of years of life stolen from Arachne. Athena had to remind herself that Arachne’s crime had been horrible, that she’d deserved punishment for what she had done. It helped her fight back the impulse. “A group of celestial beings that watch over knowledge and keep track of it. No one really knows what their true purpose is, but if anyone has the answer, they do.”

Arachne nodded and motioned for Athena to continue.

“So, if the Curators have a way to prevent it, we will. If the Curators do not…then we need to find a way to end the world without killing every person on it.”

“Seems a bit of a difficult task,” Arachne said. “How can I help?”

Athena gaped at her. “You want to help me?”

“Oh, stars of Olympus, no!” Arachne said with a bitter laugh. “But I just got the world back. I refuse to sit idly by while it burns around us.”

Athena glanced at Anansi, who had been silently observing Athena throughout the conversation. “We thank you for your aid,” Anansi said with a warm smile. “Right now, however? Athena and I are on standby. Another route is being sought by Crystal and Isabel, one that will hopefully yield other results.”

That was where they had drawn the line. Trusting Arachne to know about the end of the world was one thing. Trusting her with the knowledge of the Staff of Ra had been a risk too great. It would have changed Arachne from being a threat to Athena personally into a threat to the entire endeavor.

“I see.” Arachne chewed her lip in thought, a gesture that was so familiar to Athena it was almost like looking through a portal into another time, and a wave of nostalgia and regret struck her. “In that case, I suggest-”

Arachne’s suggestion was lost in a sudden eruption of screams from the cafe. The three gods stood and whirled, each of them preparing to face this new threat.

A bloody, badly beaten man had stepped out of the bathroom. His left arm was missing, and he only was not fountaining blood across the floor because someone had cauterized the wound. His body was covered in scratches and the unmistakable patterns of shark bites. He had a bandage wrapped around his head, covering one eye, and was so badly beaten that it took Athena a moment to recognize him.

“Athena!” he said brightly. “Hello. Poseidon is a right bastard. We’re in a bit of trouble at the moment.”

And then, his message delivered, Hermes collapsed into unconsciousness.

Small Worlds Part 207

Crystal blinked as her eyes clear and the robotic voice said “cleansing complete. Radiation neutralized.”

A lump formed in Crystal’s throat. Isabel… She’d believed this entire time that the security protocol to deal with the Typhon would be something rooted in divine powers, but the Lemurians who built this facility weren’t gods. They were beings of science and had found a scientific solution to the problem. One that killed every living creature within the chamber.

The dome retracted and Crystal wiped the tears burning on the edge of her vision. I never should have brought her here, she thought with a fierce anger. Crystal knew that was foolish – she would have died against the Typhon without Isabel’s help – but the fact remained that if Isabel had remained behind, she’d be alive.

Crystal forced herself to her feet again. She just wanted to sleep, sleep for years, but she wouldn’t let Isabel have died for nothing. I’m sorry, she thought, looking over the edge. If the staff of Ra didn’t hold the key to saving the world, then…then she’d deal with that later. It has to help, Crystal thought, knowing how irrational that conviction was. But she didn’t feel she had anything else to hold onto.

The Typhon’s body was unmoving, the tendrils that connected its head and snakes to its body laying discarded on the ground. Tumors had formed at the edges of the wounds. The radiation must have caused it to be unable to regrow. It was an effective method of control, Crystal had to admit. Irradiate everything to hell with neutrinos. The beam must have blasted out the far side of the moon, given how insubstantial the moon was, but at close proximity they would be dense enough to have killed pretty much everything not protected by one of those domes.

The Tyrannosaurus that had been Isabel was…Crystal’s forehead furrowed. Where the bloody hell is it? 

As if in response to the question, a lump began to form on the floor, a lump that grew rapidly until it was a young woman, looking tired and bruised, but very much alive. “Did we win?” Isabel shouted up to Crystal.

“Isabel?” Crystal asked, her jaw dropping. “How…what…how are you not dead?”

Isabel flashed Crystal a grin. “Water bear! I heard your warning and shifted to it. Expelled most of the poison too, although I cycled back through the woodrat to make sure.”

Crystal started to laugh, feeling the tears forming again. “You scared the bloody piss out of me!” she shouted.

“I thought those snakes got you!” Isabel countered. “Fair’s fair, right?”

Crystal could only laugh, right up until the shaking caused her arm to give her another reminder how very broken it was. It was hard to see through the tears, but it looked like Isabel was grimacing.

“How badly are you – you know, screw the shouting,” Isabel said from the bottom of the pit. “Can I get a lift up?”

“I couldn’t lift a piece of paper up here, love,” Crystal countered. “I’m completely drained.”

Isabel nodded and turned into a hummingbird, flitting her way up to the platform. Crystal watched the tiny jewel of a bird flutter up and hover in the air before shifting back to Isabel. “Damn…what happened?” She motioned to Crystal’s arm.

Crystal shrugged with only her good shoulder. “I kind of ran out of power while going forty sliding along the ground. Real physics weren’t particularly kind to me when the power dropped.”

Isabel winced in sympathy. “Stay there, let’s get you a sling.” She pulled off her shirt.

Crystal’s Hungers were in full effect, and she had to fight the urge to stare as Isabel ripped a strip off the bottom of the shirt before replacing what remained of the garment. “We’re going to need to move your arm back up,” Isabel said, flushing faintly as she noticed Crystal’s gaze. “It’s going to hurt.”

“Right,” Crystal said, getting her focus back on the task at hand. “Can you help with that?”

Isabel nodded and stepped forward, looping the strip of cloth over Crystal’s neck and shoulder. “You’re going to need to get it properly set when we get back to Earth. If it heals badly…” Isabel looked up and met her gaze. It seemed she was as aware of how close they were as Crystal was. “Well, you’ll probably be fine. Divine everything, right?’

Crystal smiled. “Too bloody right, love. Let’s get this over with?”

Isabel nodded and gently placed her fingers on Crystal’s injured hand. “Clench your good first. It’ll help.”

The blinding pain of having her arm lifted to be placed in the sling completely killed whatever mood had been building. Crystal threw her head back to scream at the agony, and following Isabel’s advice caused her hand to clench so hard it dug deep furrows of blood in her palm. “Sorry, sorry,” Isabel said repeatedly, pushing Crystal’s arm into the sling and then giving it a careful tug to make sure it was straight. “Sorry,” she said again as Crystal’s pain levels went from unbearable and wound down to agonizing.

“It’s alright,” Crystal panted. Sweat beaded her forehead, and she felt like she was about to pass out. Against everything her body wanted to do, she forced herself to smile. “Just need some food, some drink, some sleep, and some fun. Then it’ll heal right up.”

Isabel nodded and gave Crystal a mirror of her reassuring smile. “Absolutely.” She pointed down towards the bottom corner of the room. “We should get down there. I saw a doorway when I was fighting the Typhon. It’s the only other door I’ve seen in here, so it has to lead to the staff of Ra.”

“Right,” Crystal said, tearing her eyes off Isabel to follow the direction of her point. “Any idea how to get down there without me blacking out? I can’t lower myself, and I don’t look forward to riding you with a broken arm.”

Isabel flushed at the choice of words and coughed. “I’ve been thinking about that. I’ve got a T-Rex, so I’m guessing I have some kind of sauropod. I can get my head up to the bottom of the platform, you step on, I lower you down.”

Crystal nodded. “That makes sense. But first?”

Isabel looked at her, and Crystal reached out to take Isabel’s hand. “Last time things were desperate, and I didn’t ask. But I’m Hungry, and if anything’s waiting, I need any kind of strength, and beyond that I’d bloody love to kiss-”

Before she could finish the sentence, Isabel leaned forward, carefully avoiding Crystals arm.

There in the Typhon’s chamber, on a platform built by a species thirty million years gone from this earth, they kissed – and for a moment, Crystal forgot about everything else that surrounded them.


 

I’m making a big push to do this full time. Click here for more information – including getting Monday’s post right now, and previously unreleased King of Hell artwork!

Small Worlds Part 206

Crystal felt a tug on her hair as one of the serpents managed to find purchase. She yanked her head forward and felt tearing in her scalp as a chunk tear loose in the snake’s maw. Crystal stumbled from the pain and the tug. The stumble turned into a fall, and Crystal saw the ground rushing up to meet her. The snakes surged forward in anticipation of her hitting the ground, fangs dripping with venom.

Crystal dropped the coefficient of friction in the tube into the negatives. She could feel reality push back hard at the violation of every law of thermodynamics, but she held the twist in place. Instead of skidding to a halt, she accelerated as she slid across the tube of air.

Her face pressed into the clear air gave her an excellent view of Isabel and the Typhon. Isabel had bitten into the Typhon’s neck stump and was now rolling with the body. Monstrous flesh shredded at the motion, and the Typhon shrieked at her in blind fury. New tendrils worked to reattach the parts Isabel shredded as quickly as she could tear them apart.

Isabel also bled from dozens of places where the fangs had managed to work their way past her scales, the anticoagulant venom making each pinprick as ticking clock towards her death. Crystal could still feel ichor running down her arm from the earlier bite, hot and sticky. It bounced oddly on the unnatural friction Crystal had created.

The effort of violating so fundamental a law was wearing on Crystal as she sped towards the end of the tunnel. Her mouth was painfully dry, and she could feel her lips cracking from the need for moisture. The pain in her stomach far exceeded the other injuries from the battle, and a heavy tiredness was settling in around her joints, so intense she almost feared she’d collapse before reaching the end of the tube.

On top of it all was a loneliness so crushing it brought tears to her eyes, a desperate need for some kind of contact. A tiny voice whispered in the back of her mind that she could get that contact – all she had to do was let the serpents catch up. She wouldn’t feel alone anymore then – and shortly afterwards she’d feel nothing at all.

She pushed the treasonous thought aside and focused on the platform growing closer in her vision.

Then her divine power winked out. Immediately, the normal friction of the air tube resumed. Her slide had increased to nearly forty miles per hour when the power vanished. It was falling out of a car at those speeds onto a fairly smooth road. Crystal was sent tumbling end over end, flopping along the tube in an undignified roll. Divine resilience left her as well, and she felt something snap in her arm. The pain was more than enough to draw a scream from her lips.

She’d left the snakes behind as she slid, and as she skidded to a halt, mere feet from the platform, they surged forward with ravenous anticipation. Crystal could barely move. So close, love, she thought, glancing at Isabel’s slowing form. Isabel would probably last another few minutes before the Typhon overcame her, then she’d die. Crystal would find herself the Typhon’s plaything, dying and reviving over and over, until her nanoverse collapsed from heat death.

We tried, she thought at the snake heads opened.

They halted mere inches from sinking their fangs into into her face.

Crystal stared at them, dumbfounded, as the serpents began to scream and were dragged out of the tunnel. Slowly, Crystal lowered her eyes to Isabel and the Typhon.

Isabel had turned back into the Tyrannosaurus Rex, and her massive jaws were wrapped around all of the Typhon’s serpents on one shoulder – the ones that had been chasing her. Instead of severing them, Isabel was dragging them back through her own immense weight and size.

It came at a cost. Virtually every other serpent on the Typhon’s back were now latched onto Isabel, pumping their venom into her. Isabel’s footsteps were growing weak, and she stumbled slightly with every footstep. She’d be dead soon.

Don’t waste this opportunity, Crystal thought fiercely, forcing herself to her feet. She was able to take two steps, just enough to get onto the platform where the control panel waited, before another lance of pain from her broken arm sent fracture lines of darkness across her vision, and she stumbled to her knees. Moments later, a massive crash signified that Isabel had collapsed. Don’t waste her sacrifice! Crystal screamed internally. She risked a glance back as she rose to her feet.

Isabel had managed to sever the serpents before her legs gave out, and now the Tyrannosaurus lay on the ground, barely breathing as blood pooled beneath it. The snakes were coming for Crystal again, moving at impossible speeds she couldn’t hope to match – but they had a ways to travel still. Crystal had to only move another four feet.

Crystal brought one leg up under herself, planting the foot firmly on the ground. Another wave of pain, this one accompanied by nausea, and Crystal fought down bile that rose in the back of her throat. Everything in her body was screaming at her to surrender, to lay down and accept it.

Instead, she forced her other leg forward and rose to her feet. The serpents were halfway to her now, hissing in excited fury. Crystal could see the emergency button, red and yellow.

She took a step, her uninjured arm outstretched. It shook with the effort, and Crystal felt like she was walking through molasses. She started to stumble again, and the button began to rise above her head.

With a lethargically frantic flair of her hand, Crystal managed to press the button and collapsed to the ground.

A dome sprung up over the platform, and the snakes broke their fangs against it. A few had been past the barrier, and they were cut in half as it rose. “Isabel!” Crystal shouted with the last of her strength as the walls of the chamber began to glow with sudden light.

“Cleansing initiated,” a robotic voice said.

Then the world went white as the energy of a star going supernova only quarter of a light year away flooded the chamber.


 

I’m making a big push to do this full time. Click here for more information – including getting Thursday’s post right now, and previously unreleased King of Hell artwork!

Small Worlds Part 198

Crystal was lost in a sea of math.

Typhon was focusing one hundred and nineteen heads on her right now, a tangled mass that she could barely sort out. If she’d tried to watch the heads themselves, she’d get distracted in short order.  Based on previous attack patterns eighty nine point three percent probability of strike on lower left side in next point two seconds shift stance nine point three degrees clockwise and lower left blade and –

The calculation didn’t need to finish. Crystal could feel the impact of the serpent’s snout as it impaled itself on her blade. She flicked her wrist to bring the sword up to catch the next attack, this one from the upper left, while swinging her right sword in a wide arc to catch the merged strikes that were coming from that side.

Three more serpents reared back, bloody and confused. At least, the math told her they were reared back, and the impact up her arms told her she’d cut into their flesh. She did her best to only watch the math directly.

It was less distracting than the writhing mass of serpents surrounding her.

Ninety one point seven percent probability of strike from directly above. Crystal raised her sword and was rewarded with a snake bifurcating itself along the point of the blade. She was immediately leaping to take her path over another snake coming for her ankles, swinging her sword to free it from its gory sheathe. A quick spin in the air caused a serpent head that would have plunged its fangs into her midsection to snap shut on her hair. She had to jerk her head to tear a few strands loose.

She’d lost sight of Isabel some time ago, but the occasional shrieks of a bird of prey told her that her companion was still alive and fighting.

Above it all, Typhon was still bringing the massive dragon heads to bare on Crystal. He moved with agonizing slowness when he wasn’t relying on the serpent heads. That’s for the best; Crystal reminded herself, ducking beneath two incoming heads and managing to decapitate one with a quick scissoring of her twin swords. If he was fast, we’d already be dead.

Of course, the problem was they weren’t even coming close to accomplishing their goal. Typhon – even though it technically was just “a typhon”, Crystal struggled to not think of it as a name – was barely even winded, and had Crystal and Isabel fighting for their lives. One point seven percent chance you are not struck within the next ten seconds. That particular probability had been dropping steadily throughout the fight.

And right now, she still had no way to strike at Typhon directly. Come on Crystal, she urged herself. Think. Think of something!

Before she could, a pair of fangs sunk into her left arm. Crystal grunted in pain and tore away, swinging the sword wildly to decapitate the head. It fell to the ground with an audible thump, and ichor began to flow freely from the wound. The toxin’s an anticoagulant, Crystal realized with a start. That was in some ways better than it could have been. It meant she wouldn’t have to contend with a neurotoxin attacking her brain.

It also meant a clock had been put onto the fight. Crystal could cauterize the wounds, but the fangs had sunk deep. Cauterizing would only stop the bleeding on the surface.

Nothing like your impending death to get the mind going.

Crystal grabbed onto threads of reality and twisted. A dome of air sprung into existence around her, and with another twist to reality, she set it up to fling all negatively charged particles out into the mass of snakes. One of the serpent heads struck towards it, and was met with a blast of electricity. It convulsed and hissed in pain as it withdrew.

She’d bought herself a reprieve, but it was a brief one. If she stayed in here for too long, Typhon would shift his attention to Isabel, and this hastily erected barrier would do nothing to stop those intense flames from the dragon heads. At least they’re so slow…too slow.

Typhon was playing with her and Isabel with its snake heads. Otherwise they’d have been surrounded and completely consumed by now. But if it didn’t want to kill them, it wouldn’t have bothered with the dragon heads at all. So why was it moving so damn slowly?

The answer presented itself as Crystal opened up her divine sight. The pillars that were built into the room were buried into the largest masses of Typhon’s flesh. Complex equations ran through them, too complex for Crystal to figure out exactly what they were doing to him, but their broad purpose was clear enough. They were inhibiting Typhon, weakening him. This entire moon base was a prison for the creature, not one built with divine power, but with Lemurian technology.

Crystal launched herself into the air, orb of lightning still surrounding her. Snake heads reeled back from the onslaught, hissing in agony. Typhon himself roared in agony. Enough charge had built up where he could feel it coursing up his body.

“Impudent little godling!” he bellowed in that voice that shook the room like an earthquake. Moonquake. Don’t waste time pondering correct terminology, Crystal told herself.

Those pillars were her primary focus. In the last days of Lemuria, her people had made a concentrated study of the mythological creatures spawned from the deaths of gods and their offspring. Typhon was still alive because he’d been a research project. But her people would have put fail safes in place. A way to permanently put the monster down if it managed to break free.

“Pathetic worm!” Typhon bellowed. He spoke in the tongue of long forgotten Mu, which told Crystal how old the being was. Enough divine energy still lingered in his massive form to where even Isabel would be hearing it in English. Crystal kind of regretted that was true. At least she wouldn’t have to understand the creature’s inane taunts.

Why’s he keeping us alive? That question still tugged at Crystal’s mind, but she put it aside. As important as it seemed, there would be time to ponder it when he was dead.

“I will feast on your flesh,” Typhon growled as the snake heads closed in on Crystal’s field again. Enough of them to overload the electric charge and push through. She reached out and twisted equations again. The field exploded in a sudden burst of increased electricity. Typhon’s roar this time carrier real pain.

She’d turned the air surrounding herself into plasma, which combined with the earlier equations had sent every electron flying outwards. The resulting electricity had carried millions of watts of power, and she’d only managed to just hurt the creature. “You will suffer for your impudence!” Typhon roared.

“You need a bloody dialogue coach,” Crystal shouted back.

Some of the snake heads following Isabel broke off their pursuit and started to chase Crystal. Typhon had heard her taunt and was not amused. It had bought Isabel a bit of breathing room, but made Crystal’s job harder. Worth it, Crystal thought. She just had to hope the kill switch was still working and figure out how to activate it.

If not, she and Isabel would suffer everything Typhon promised and more.

 

Small Worlds Part 197

Isabel watched as Crystal threw her hands out, arresting her fall midair. Before Isabel could even think about what form she was going to shift into next, Crystal twisted reality to raise the ambient light seeping into the room.

Isabel nearly fell out of the air at the sight. The chamber was immense, easily the size of a football field, and circular. Wires and electronic devices hung from the ceiling, of a make and purpose Isabel couldn’t begin to deduce. Five immense pillars, arranged in a pentagram, jutted down from the ceiling, covered with walkways and more electronic gadgets.

At the bottom of the pit was the Typhon. It was so immense that, at first, Isabel’s mind refused to believe it was a single coherent creature. It covered the entire bottom of the chamber, a sprawling mass of tentacles that writhed maliciously. In the center was the creature’s torso, one that looked almost like a giant torso of a man, although covered with red scales. It turned a head that was eerily human upwards to look at its new visitors, and Isabel realized that each of its eyes were as large as Crystal. It was slowly raising its arms, two immense masses of flesh that ended in dragon heads the size of school buses. Along its back were another series of tentacles, each of these ended in a serpentine head like the one that had pursued them into the pit.

How can we possibly kill this thing? Isabel thought in despair. It was too big, too powerful. It was too much for them to destroy.

“Move!” Crystal shouted, startling Isabel out of her reflection. Isabel banked to the side just as the snake head that had reached all the way up into the shaft above snapped its jaws shut. It caught a couple of her tail feathers, but missed ending her life in a single bite. The dragon heads were now aimed firmly at Crystal, and each of them took a deep breath. Oh no, Isabel thought, flapping to get as much distance between herself and Crystal. Crystal’s eyes widened and she allowed gravity to reassert its hold on her.

The dragon heads let loose a torrent of fire. The temperature in the chamber leapt like a blast furnace. Even the creature’s own snake head broke off pursuit of Isabel.

When the flames cleared, Crystal had landed on one of the walkways of the pillars. Typhon bellowed a laugh that shook the chamber like peals of hateful thunder. “Good. I have not killed anything in far too long. I look forward to this, little thing.”

Before Isabel could fully process that this monstrous thing could speak, let alone speak English, The serpent heads hissed and struck towards Crystal and Isabel. Isabel lost sight of Crystal in the mass of attacking snakes, and was forced to duck and weave. Each one was large enough to kill Isabel with a snap of those jaws; even ignoring whatever poison they had dripping from those horrid fangs.

The parrot brain offered little guidance in how to avoid this many incoming attacks. It had spent its entire life around humans, and the closest thing it had ever encountered to a predator was when its owner was cat sitting. Isabel’s erratic, panicked flapping made her a wild enough target to keep her safe, but she knew that couldn’t last long.

If she was going to survive, she needed something that could handle this. I can’t even try to land! Isabel thought in panic. The snakes were swarming around her, forming a web of scaled flesh that threatened to envelop her even if she managed to avoid being bitten. The parrot was panicking now, which didn’t help at all. It knew they were in danger, it knew it was going to die, and all it wanted to do was to fly away, a frantic thought that would make them sitting ducks for the serpentine heads.

Another one snapped shut just above Isabel’s head. She could actually feel the scaled mouth of the serpent brush through her feathers.

That was too much for both Isabel and the parrot. In desperate fear, she began to flap furiously, trying to put as much space between herself and the viciously hungry heads.

A gap opened in the mess surrounding her as the snake heads began to pursue her. Crystal was down below. She’d drawn a pair of thin sword out of her nanoverse and was fending off the Typhon’s attempts to bite her with preternatural grace. Isabel had never seen anything like it. Crystal seemed to be reacting to threats before Typhon even knew where the next attack would come from, like the monster was fighting with two seconds of lag behind the goddess.

It also was apparent that it wasn’t enough. Crystal was drawing thin lines of blood from the scales of the monstrosity, but she was just cutting the hundreds of snake heads. She couldn’t pause to hurt Typhon directly.

And right now, I’m no help to her, Isabel thought. If anything, she was a distraction. She had to do something. She had to not just evade. She had to fight.

Isabel pushed the parrot’s body to fly downwards, away from the serpents that struck all around her. The parrot didn’t want to. The parrot wanted the freedom of the open sky. Isabel just wanted space to shift.

The moment she had it, she banked as hard as she could. The next snake that came striking towards her was met with talons that sunk into its neck.

Isabel let out an instinctive and triumphant shriek.

The harpy eagle was native to the rainforests of the Amazon, and was built to fly in between the thickly packed branches of those tropical environments. It was perfect for flying between the grasping snakes heads Typhon was throwing at Isabel, and its talons were more than strong enough to actually puncture the thick scales of the serpents’ hides.

This particular harpy eagle’s mind was strong in the back of Isabel’s brain. It was confused by the threat they were against, but it wasn’t frightened. It was an apex predator in one of the most dangerous places on the planet. It was an apex predator that shared its dominion with jaguars and anacondas.

So, with Isabel’s heart pounding and her brain demanding that she choose between fight and flight, the harpy eagle strongly felt that the second option was for prey. He was not prey. He was the predator.

Isabel went along with that instinct, hoping that the harpy eagle’s soul would have a better idea how to survive what came next than she did.

 

Small Worlds part 188

Athena raised her hand, putting a barrier between herself and Arachne. Here in her nanoverse, it wasn’t a barrier of anything. It was just a barrier, a spot in the universe through which matter could not pass. A fundamental law. Inviolable for anyone who was not Athena.

Which is why she was completely unprepared when Arachne tore through it like it was paper.

Anansi danced out of Arachne’s path, swinging for her gut with the butt of his flint dagger. Without even pausing, Arachne’s hand snaked down to catch his wrist and fling him aside. When Anansi struck the wall, the stone turned soft to encase him, leaving only his face exposed.

What? Athena thought as she teleported herself out of reach of Arachne’s hands. “Arachne, stop!” she commanded. She erected another barrier, this time encasing Arachne in it like a cocoon. She didn’t just let it stand as before, pouring her will into it.

Arachne strained against the bonds. Athena could feel pain build up behind her eyes, a headache from the effort of restraining someone within her nanoverse.

“No!” Arachne shouted. “You won’t kill me!”

“I’m not here to kill you, I’m here to free you!” Athena shouted.

The pressure against the barrier stopped. The headache began to fade. Athena’s heart did not stop pounding. For as long as she had lived, she’d never imagined anything threatening her in her nanoverse. “What?” Arachne asked, blinking.

“I’m here to free you,” Athena repeated. “It’s…it’s been too long.”

Arachne took a deep breath. “Then release me.”

Athena did so, and at the same time removed the stone barrier from Anansi. Arachne stood there, taking things in. She looked at her hands, flexing the fingers she had not known for trillions of years. “I haven’t had an endocrine system since you locked me in here. Emotions are stronger than I remember.”

Athena relaxed. “I understand.”

Arachne shot her a withering glare. “No, no you do not. Lock yourself as a base animal, one that can barely even reason, for several lifespans of a universe, and then you can say that. Know what it’s like for a single thought to take millennia upon millennia to form, and then you can say that. Endure one tenth of what you have done to me, and then you can say you understand.”

“I…” Athena started to say, and she was grateful for Arachne’s interruption, because she had no idea what she could possibly say.

“I had to relearn how to think, Athena. I have no idea how many millennia, how many universes, I spent as mindless beast. Even once I did figure out how to think, that brain was so weak, so pitifully dominated by instinct, cognition was an effort that took longer than you can imagine. How long has it been, Athena? How long did you lock me in hell?”

“Five millennia,” Athena whispered.

“Five millenia for you. Nanoverses need to be reset every few hundred years or so, don’t they?” Arachne took a deep breath. “Ten universe lifetimes, at least. Hundreds of trillions of years. And now…what? You want to release me? You want to let me go out there, live a mortal life for mere seconds of what I’ve endured, then die?”

“I preserved your nanoverse,” Athena said. “Locked it in temporal stasis in here. It’s unchanged over the time. You’ll still be a goddess.”

Arachne studied Athena, then looked over Anansi. “Who are you?”

Anansi bowed. “I am Anansi. I never was in your land while you were there.”

“And you’re friends with…her?” Arachne asked with a sneer, gesturing towards Athena. “You let her bring you into her nanoverse?”

“Yes,” Anansi said simply. “I trust her.”

Arachne sneered. “So did I. I hope you never learn how foolish that is.”

“I came in here knowing your fate, Arachne,” Anansi said calmly. “I came in here to provide support for Athena as she undid the crime done to you – and to chastise her if she wavered in doing it.”

Both goddesses looked at him in shock. “Chastise?” Arachne asked coolly.

Anansi shrugged. “In here, there was little else that I could do. But I am very good at chastising. I once lectured a python so thoroughly, it swallowed its own tail. I imagine I could have gotten Athena to at least taste her ankle.”

Arachne looked at him, her eyes widening, and then she let out a harsh laugh. “I’d like to see that.”

Athena was at a loss for words. Arachne glanced at her with a raised eyebrow. “I’m not done with you, Pallas Athena. But I am sick to death of this cave. Take me out of here.”

“Of course. My staging area is right outside this cave.”

“My nanoverse?” Arachne asked.

Athena gestured and summoned it to her hand. “Right here.”

Arachne snatched it out of Athena’s fingers and held it close to her chest, starting to walk out of the cave. “Why didn’t you kill me?” Arachne asked, not turning back to look at Athena. “Why this hell? You had every right to slay me permanently under the laws of Olympus. Why did you instead lock me away?”

“I couldn’t kill billions,” Athena said, watching the back of Arachne’s head. “I couldn’t kill all those innocent people in your nanoverse. They did nothing wrong. And…and I failed you. I didn’t believe you deserved death, because the fault was partially mine.”

“Death would have been a kindness,” Arachne said, her voice harsh. “Don’t you dare claim you did it for me. You did it to assuage your guilt.” She glanced down to the nanoverse in her hands. “And for them. I can believe that.”

“I’m sorry,” Athena said.

Arachne whirled on her, pointing a finger at Athena’s face. “No. Your guilt grew strong enough that it forced you to action. You didn’t do this for me. You’ve done none of this for me. I don’t want your apology, Athena.”

“Then what do you want?” Athena asked, her voice soft. “Revenge?”

Arachne glared at her. “And if I did, would you have any right to deny it to me?”

Athena shook her head.

“Good. At least we can agree on that. For now, I want honesty.”

“You will have that,” Athena said.

Arachne spun and talked out of the cave again, seemingly too furious for words.

In silence, Athena followed.

Small Worlds Part 187

 

The locals called the island that housed Arachne Hina’ka’nati, the Island of Broken Night. As they drew close, Athena could get a feeling for how it had earned its name. It was about as large as Sicily. Some ancient meteorological event, a comet or asteroid that had slammed into the island, had carved it into a large crescent. Fitting, Athena thought with a grim expression. The island that had driven Athena to make so many mistakes with Arachne had also been carved by forces powerful enough to crack the land. Those had come from within the earth, though, and this had come from above.

Also, unlike the island Athena knew so well, this one was densely forested. The world being broken up into constant island allowed for a high degree of speciation, and on this particular island a different kind of tree life had evolved. The leaves weren’t green, like on much of the world, but a deep blue bordering on black. They were also covered with spider webs. Huge white strands that stretched across every branch and wrapped every tree. Athena could see spots where the webs were clumped together, holding some meal for later. “There,” Anansi said, pointing to a spot on the island. Athena glanced where he was pointing and nodded.

A cave of dissolved limestone. Webs encircled the entrance, leaving a yawning black hole in the center. It looked like an eye, with the thick circle of strands forming a teardrop shaped iris.

Athena landed her staging area outside the entrance. “Look at those,” Anansi said, his three eyes widening in surprise.

Athena followed his gaze. There were several spots where stones had been deliberately stacked, eight high, and food had been placed at their bases. The stones were painted, and simple wooden designs had been put atop each one. They looked like stylized spiders and were woven with some of the silk from nearby trees. “They’re altars,” Athena said softly.

Anansi glanced at her. “Arachne is just a spider, isn’t she?”

“I thought she was,” Athena sad. “Last I checked she was. But…that was several crunches ago. Things might have changed a great deal.”

“Well,” Anansi said, rubbing his hands together. “This promises to be even more interesting than I expected.”

Athena shot him a dirty look. “I think you should stay here,” she said. “You could be in danger.”

“Oh, I very much doubt that. I’m walking with the literal goddess of this reality.”

“And you go to meet a woman who’s spider form may have gone beyond my supposed omnipotence.”

“Yes.” Anansi’s face grew grim. “One who has a great deal of reason to lash out at you. I think it would be best if you two had an intermediary for your reunion.”

Athena grimaced, but didn’t see a flaw in his argument. “Fine. One thing before we go…” she blink, and Anansi’s clothes changed. He was now garbed in the armor of a warrior from the nearest group to their location, sheets of wood from these black leaved trees that, when shaped and treated with the blood of a fish that swam in the nearby seas, became almost as hard as iron. A flint dagger was strapped to his side.

Anansi nodded in appreciation, unsheathing the dagger from the carapace that contained it. “You are fairly paranoid about this meeting.” he said.

“I’m paranoid about a lot of things. This is one of them.” Athena willed similar armor in existence around herself. “Shall we?”

Anansi answered by heading to the door.

The air outside was crisp and warm, a pleasant breeze keeping the temperature just short of creeping into hot. Waves lapped at the beach in the background, hidden from sight by the webs and unnaturally dark foliage. There was a disconnect to the scent and sounds with the scenery. There won’t be down there, Athena thought, looking at the cave. Now that they were closer, she could see it wasn’t as pitch black as it had seemed from above. There was a bioluminescent blue light emanating from deeper within. It would have been too faint to provide much light to human eyes, but the Skabin had better vision in the dark. Athenea nodded to Anansi, and they headed into the cave, ducking through the teardrop hole in the webbing.

The floor of the cave was covered in additional silk. Athena could feel the way it clung to her feet with every step, individual strands tearing away with every step to follow her feet. The bioluminescence was coming from a moss that was growing in patches along the ceiling, winding its way down stalactites. And on the walls…

…on the walls was art. Not the early art that Athena expected from the Skabin, but beautifully woven pieces of multicolored spider silk. The details were far more fine and intricate than anything Athena had seen before. That wasn’t what made her stop to stare at them.

It was what they depicted.

Here was one that showed the Titanomachy, the moment when Zeus made the final leap that would drive his spear directly through Chronos’ eye. The details were beyond what Athena thought possible to accomplish with mere silk. She could see the mingled pain and rage on Zeus’ face, she could perfect make out Chronos’ astonished fury. The silk behind them even implied the great windstorm that had been raging during that battle, its subtle lines evoking a sense of movement to the air. It was gorgeous, and it shouldn’t have been here.

Athena was so engrossed in it that it wasn’t until Anansi tapped her arm that she realized they were no longer alone in the depths of these caves. A chittering sound came from deeper in the cave. A single chitinous leg emerged from the shadow, a glossy black covered  in fine hairs and as wide as Athena’s leg. A second one followed, and behind them emerged the spider that had once been Arachne, her eight eyes gleaming with an inhuman malice. Venom dripped from her mandibles which clacked together as she drew closer.

“Now would be a good time-” Anansi said, a note of concern creeping into his voice.

He needn’t have bothered with the warming. Athena gestured, and the spider stopped, its eyes widening in surprise. Exoskeleton began to melt away, dissolving into human flesh, human legs emerging from the monstrous ones that had crept out of the darkness.

The whole process took less than a second. Standing there now was Arachne, exactly as Athena remembered her all those millenia ago.

“It’s been some time,” Athena said awkwardly, changing her shape back to one Arachne would know. “Welcome back, Arachne.”

The woman took a deep breath when she saw Athena. Then, with a shriek of primal rage, she hurled herself at Athena’s throat.