The Burning Epoch Part 1

There are some events in history that everyone remembers where they were when it happened. Moments that define a generation, becoming part of their collective consciousness. For most of human history, that has been defined by assassinations, acts of war, and horrific disasters. For the last generation of the modern age, it was the moment the monsters came.

Kurt Weber was standing on his balcony, smoking a cigarette. It was seven in the evening, and monsters were the furthest thing from his mind. He was worried about the bills that were piling up and the fight he’d had with his girlfriend earlier that day. Jessica had texted him, letting him know she was going to bed and would talk to him tomorrow. Jessica never went to bed before ten, and he knew she was pissed.

It was the same old fight they’d had before, although this one had felt nastier, uglier. She didn’t like that he’d quit his job, not without having a backup plan. He got the anger, but if he’d had to listen to another entitled asshole scream at him because of corporate policies he couldn’t change, he would have gone to jail. He would have gone to jail because he would have been guilty of murder. Jessica had said he was being hyperbolic.

She was right, but it illustrated his point.

Today she’d asked him how the job search was going, and he admitted he’d spent the entire day playing video games. He’d tried to explain that he was streaming them, that he was up to two-hundred followers. He could make it as professional streamer, he’d already gotten his first donation! What harm was one day off from the job search? It’s not like there was a deadline.

They’d gotten ugly. She’d called him self-centered and lazy. He’d called her domineering and bitchy.

That’s when she said she’d go to bed, and he’d just responded with a single instance of the eleventh letter of the alphabet, a dismissive ‘k’ that showed how little he cared to hide how badly he’d cared.

He was just contemplating if their relationship of two years was at an end, if this fight was the final proof that they’d both changed so much since college that they weren’t compatible anymore, when the ground began to crack in the parking lot. Fractures spiderwebbed away from the initial spot. Oh shit, Kurt thought, his eyes bulging. It was right next to his car, and-

The cracks collapsed inwards, a sinkhole tearing open the earth. Kurt shouted a wordless denial as his car fell backwards into it, crashing against the sides with a couple others that were in the parking lot.

At first, he could only stare at it with his mouth hanging open. People started coming out of other apartments, and Kurt took out his phone and started to stream, some vague thoughts about having proof for the insurance company forming. “So, this is, um, my parking lot,” he said, struggling to find the words. “A sinkhole just, well, it just opened up. My car…my car fell into it. Oh Jesus. I could have been in it.”

A notification on the corner of his phone informed him his views were jumping. People were sharing this to social media. The only thing people liked more than watching someone play video games was watching someone freak out, and he was definitely doing that. “I…you can see that there are people around, looking…looking into the hole. It wasn’t just my car. Three…three cars in total. Yeah. You can see from, from here that the cars aren’t visible anymore. So, this sinkhole has to be…fifteen feet deep? Maybe more? I don’t know.”

He was up to ten thousand views, which didn’t quite register. He wasn’t being that interesting. Why the hell was this getting so much attention?

“Uh, so. I think I’m going to go out there, get a closer look for you all.”

Kurt turned around to go to his door and opened the sliding door with shaking hands. His phone was buzzing with notifications, but he ignored them. Instead, he stumbled through his living room, nearly tripping over the coffee table with legs that felt like they were made of gelatin. “I’m going to the hole,” he said, throwing open the door and running down the stairs. He only had one flight before he hit the ground level and burst out into the parking lot. A few other residents had appeared.

He glanced at his views. A hundred thousand, and the number was ticking upwards so fast the last digit was a blur. Excitement began to replace fear. He was going viral. He was going viral. It would be incredible. He’d start getting donations soon. If even a tenth of the people donated five dollars…he’d be able to replace his car. His poor, uninsured car. He could do more than that! He strode up to the edge of the hole with increased confidence.

“I didn’t see – all three cars that fell in were empty. I’m sure of it. No one was harmed in the collapse. If you could take a moment to donate, I’d really appreciate it. It would help me replace my car, which was – was swallowed by the sinkhole. I’m sure its totaled.” He leaned the phone forward, careful not to fall in himself.

“As you can see…or rather, as you can’t see, this sinkhole is too deep to see the bottom. 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.” He glanced at the phone. Almost a million views. He could imagine what they found so interesting about a hole in the ground. He still was ignoring the notifications that sent his phone buzzing, focusing instead on the stream itself.

He wasn’t seeing the people screaming at him to run. He didn’t know that these people weren’t here for him, they were here for the hole. He had no way of knowing he was the first one to capture live footage of one of these.

But he got an inkling when a sound came out of the hole. A deep, rumbling sound that struck something primal deep within him, the part of his brain that still feared predators and knew what one sounded like. “Oh Jesus, oh Jesus Christ,” he said, but he remembered the stream, and managed to force himself to do more than repeatedly violate the third commandment. “If you were able to hear that – I don’t know how you couldn’t – there was…a sound from the sinkhole. I’m sure it was just…that it was just the earth settling.”

The sound continued, like two blocks of granite being dragged across each other, low and rumbling and far too terrifying to be caused by settling rocks. Kurt swallowed hard, a lump in his throat beginning to form. “Yeah…it’s the earth settling.”

Don’t break, he told himself. Two million views and growing with every passing second. “If you could, while you’re here…donations are always, always appreciated.” He could be rich by the end of this if people donated. “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!?”

A shape was charging out of the hole, a shape that moved along the wall, climbing like some grotesquely large lizard. Its head was almost as large as Kurt’s torso. It heard his scream and answered with a roar of its own, that same deep rumbling sound he’d heard before.

All the money in the world couldn’t get him to stand there now. He backed away, still facing the hole, still holding up his phone. Other people in the parking lot that had come out to investigate were screaming too, screaming and running. Kurt wished he could say he was only backing away because of some kind of journalistic integrity, or at least some professional desire to still earn money.

The truth was, his brain had simply locked up with terror, and he couldn’t conceive of anything else than backing away with his phone’s meager flashlight still shining towards the horror that was crawling out of the earth.

It burst out of the hole, and Kurt captured the first ever clear picture of one of the creatures. It supported itself on arms that were long and solid, arms that ended in wicked claws that gleamed in the single streetlamp. It was covered in thick overlapping scales that formed black and blue stripes along its body, a body that was emerging from the hole to reveal it stood on its hind legs, powerful legs. It was built like a dinosaur, with four rows of great spines along its back.

The monster blinked for a moment and tilted its head back, as if registering how immense the world truly was, and let out another bellowing roar, a roar that shook Kurt down to his bones. It was a roar of defiance, a roar announcing to the world that Earth now had a new dominant species.

Then it turned its head toward Kurt, a narrow head like a lizard’s, a head full of teeth as long as Kurt’s fingers. It was easily four times Kurt’s height and twice a long, and a small part of Kurt realized he was perfectly bite-sized for this creature.

That’s when Kurt realized the truth of it. The now ten million people that were tuned to his stream had arrived to see one of these monsters. Many of them had wanted to warn him. They’d probably tried to warn him. But since he was ignoring it, they were content to watch him die. The monster took a step forward, its tail lashing the air behind it, and asphalt crumbled under its step.

The night air was broken by the sharp report of gunfire, a deep sound that echoed among the apartment buildings. Someone on a balcony was shooting at the monster. Most of the bullets bounce off its scales, but one managed to hit a weak point, and red blood that glowed with an unnatural light began to leak from the wound.

The monster shook his head, like a horse bitten by a fly, and turned in the direction of the shooter. It bellowed a challenge to this threat and began to stalk away from Kurt. The shooter was screaming, shouting in defiance or terror.

The creature reared back and opened its mouth, and Kurt expected it to roar again. It didn’t. Instead, its tongue lashed out of its mouth, shooting out like a harpoon, long enough to reach up to the third story balcony where the shooter was. The end of the tongue was like a starfish that wrapped around the man. He had time to let out a startled shriek and then-

-then he was dragged into the creature’s gaping maw. The crunch of bones was sickening, one arm dangling from the monster’s mouth.

The gun the man had been holding clattered to the ground, a few feet from Kurt. Still half paralyzed with fear, Kurt reached for it with shaking hands. In his mind was some vague ideas are about shooting the thing.

Then he found his legs and started to run, screaming, into the night. It wasn’t because the creature was sniffing the air, hungry for its next meal. It wasn’t because he could still feel the man’s blood, warm on the handle of the gun.

It was because a second pair of claws emerged from the pit, another creature emerging from the lightless depths below the earth.

The video would be shared over and over again in the coming days and months.

The day that the kaiju had come.

Small Worlds part 211

No one spoke on the walk out of Officium Mundi. Ryan couldn’t say what was going through Nabu and Dianmu’s heads, but for his part, it was a mixture of lingering rage at the Curators and shock at Nabu’s about-face. He didn’t know what to say to the man – if that was even the right word.

Thankfully, once they were back in his nanoverse, Dianmu took over the silence. “What was that glowing orb you were given?” she asked.

Nabu gave her a small smile. “It’s all the power I had before, condensed. I can access it to a point, but I’m far more limited now – and it’s a finite resource. Once it’s gone, so am I.”

“Thank you,” Ryan said, finally finding the words. “I…I didn’t expect that. Or anything like that.” Ryan motioned to raise some chairs from the staging area floor for the three of them. “Thank you,” Ryan repeated, knowing how weak it sounded.

“I’ve been considering it for a few hundred thousand years,” Nabu said. “We – or I supposed when talking about the curators I should say ‘they’, now – lost our way at some point. I knew that protocol allowed for rules to change when the Council was in recess. When I realized that’s exactly what they were doing, it was the final straw.”

“And you didn’t warn us?” Ryan asked, careful to keep any accusation out of his voice. Nabu had just given up true immortality, beyond what even gods had, for their sake. The last thing he wanted to do was act like an asshole. Am I even still angry at him anymore? Ryan wondered.

Nabu shook his head. “I still had hope that I was wrong. I filled out the form to make sure I was ready, but I still held hope.” Nabu’s lips curled for a moment into a bitter grimace. “It was a foolish hope.”

No, I’m not, Ryan realized. Thirty years of being followed by Nabu had done damage to Ryan’s life, sure. It had cost him any chance at anything close to normality, and now Ryan had a terrible burden looming over him. But…but the later part hadn’t been Nabu’s fault. Nabu did nothing to guide Ryan to the nanoverse. And having a normal life wouldn’t have left Ryan any better prepared for what he was dealing with now.

“Well,” Ryan said, “foolish hope is pretty much our entire stock and trade, so you’ll fit right in.” He gave Nabu a lopsided grin.

Dianmu nodded and smiled. “I don’t think, since I’ve started working with Ryan, I’ve experienced any hope that wasn’t foolish. It’s worked out in the end each time in the end, though.”

“Thank you,” Nabu said, settling into one of the chairs. It was still weird for Ryan to see Nabu doing anything even remotely normal, like sit in a chair, or have his tie loose, or look tired. “Tell me. Is hunger a sharp pain in your stomach, followed by a rumbling sensation?”

Ryan couldn’t help but laugh. “Yeah, that sounds like it. I’ve got some emergency food for if my Hungers flare up – what sounds good to you.”

“I have no idea,” Nabu admitted. “I’ve never eaten anything before.”

“Never?” Ryan asked, freezing and looking at Nabu with incredulous eyes. “I mean…you have a cafeteria in Officium Mundi, right?”

“For visiting gods,” Nabu said, raising one hand to rub at his stomach. “The last thing we want is hungry gods running around Officium Mundi. You all can cause all sort of problems when you get up in your needs.”

“He’s not wrong,” Dianmu said.

Ryan nodded. “How about an Italian sub, then?”

“I literally have nothing to compare it to, so whatever you suggest,” Nabu said. “I do remember you enjoying those though.”

Ryan got up and went over to the console. Moments later, a refrigerator was rising out of the floor. “Go ahead.”

Nabu grabbed the sandwich and took a bite. His eyes widened. “Hmm. It seems there are unexpected benefits to mortality. Also, my tongue seems to be reporting pain.”

Ryan chuckled. “Peppers.”

“It’s an interesting sensation,” Nabu said. Dianmu motioned Ryan over while Nabu finished his sandwich.

“As amusing as it might be to watch Nabu learn about mortal life, we do have an objective here,” she said, her voice low.

“I haven’t forgotten,” Ryan said, shaking his head. “Was thinking about dropping into my nanoverse fully to give us plenty of time.”

“I don’t think that would be a good idea,” Dianmu said. “He’s not human, and his power source isn’t a nanoverse itself. We don’t know what it would do to him. He might not be able to exist in there – and even if he is, he just lost countless eons of power. Then you want him to give up what little he has left?”

Ryan pursed his lips. “Damn. Didn’t even think about that. But yeah, good catch. Although we probably should figure that out – otherwise we’ll have to know at the worst possible time.”

Dianmu laughed, a light and unamused sound. “I do wish I could tell you that was inaccurate.”

Ryan glanced back at Nabu, who had finished the sandwich in a horrifyingly short amount of time. “Hey Nabu, if we needed to drop into my nanoverse, would that…do anything to you?”

Nabu considered for a moment. “It probably wouldn’t be immediately harmful. Probably. I’d rather not experiment right now.”

Ryan glanced at Dianmu, who gave him the politest ‘I-told-you-so” look Ryan had ever received. “Fair enough. In that case, I hate to rush things, but…”

“But time is running short. You need to know the rules, and you need to know before the sun explodes next week.”

Ryan froze at Nabu’s words. “Next week? Next week?” Ryan shouted, his voice cracking. The old anxiety, so long absent, rose up in his throat like an unwelcome house-guest and threatened to strangle him.

Nabu nodded slowly. “Take a deep breath, Ryan. There’s things we can do to postpone, and I’m hoping that – once you know the rules – you’ll be able to figure out a loophole I’ve overlooked.”

Ryan walked over to one of the chairs and slowly slid into it, taking the deep breath that Nabu recommended. “Alright. Tell me everything.”

Nabu leaned forward and prepared to exactly that.

Strange Cosmology Part 78

After losing contact with Isabel and the others, Athena and Anansi had agreed the best course of action was to follow the drone Isabel had set to find Crystal. Neither of them particularly trusted the machine to know what it was doing, but it was a better option than wandering and hoping for the best.

“So, you mentioned there was a Trickster?” Anansi asked after a bit, giving her a small grin.

Athena turned towards Anansi without slowing her pace, her lips curling downwards at the question. “One of our companions is in possibly mortal peril, the other three are out of our reach, and you want that story now?”

“We have nothing else we could be doing,” Anansi said with shrug, “The first problem is beyond our ability to impact at this time, and the second problem is one we are currently doing everything we can to resolve. Or, if you would prefer, we could walk in silence?”

Athena didn’t respond at first, and found herself wondering if she would prefer silence right now. Concern for the others was grating on her nerves to the point of irritability, and Anansi even trying to distract her right now set her teeth on edge. On the other hand… he was right. Realizing that did nothing to lessen her irritation, but there wasn’t anything else that could be done right now. “Fine. So, I mentioned it was Autolycus.”

“The very wolf,” Anansi grinned wider.

Athena shook her head. “Yes, him. Autolycus,” she put a slight emphasis on the name, since if Anansi kept calling him ‘very wolf’ she’d never be able to finish the story with a straight face, “had been cast out of Olympus some time before.”

“Why was he exiled? I’m assuming he angered Hera somehow?”

“No, that would have probably been better for him.” She saw Anansi’s expression and chuckled. “Yes, that should tell you exactly how bad his infraction was. The myths, if anything, have undersold Hera’s anger. No, he was the one to uncover that Zeus had sired Heracles, and in an effort to avoid angering Hera, he brought it to her attention.”

Anansi frowned and stroked his beard. “So he angered Zeus?”

“He angered Zeus,” Athena confirmed. “Zeus had never before shown much care for his various bastard children, but Heracles was special. Zeus had even found a nanoverse he intended to give to Heracles when he was older. He actually did give it to him eventually, but because of Autolycus’ revelation, Heracles had to contend with his step-mother. Zeus was…unamused.”

“I imagine that’s quite the understatement.”

Athena had to give a small smile at that. “I thought he’d tear Autolycus in half right there. Instead he was banished, and I didn’t see him again until after I’d lost everything.”

Athena lapsed into silence after that, and Anansi maintained pace behind her while she found the words she was looking for. “I was like a drowning woman who had clutched onto a log. I was so desperate for a connection, I had no idea my log was a crocodile.”

He nodded in understanding, and Athena continued. “It was good at first, great even. He helped me get myself back together. I even met a man, a human, and fell in love again. I knew it wouldn’t last with Drahos , not unless I could find him a nanoverse, but I was able to enjoy it for what it was. He lived in a village in what would become Kievan Rus and later Russia. I set myself up as the protector of that village. They didn’t have a written language, and I didn’t teach them one. Autolycus thought I should, but most of my mistakes up to that point had been because I thought I knew what was best.”

“What about the local deities?”

Athena shrugged. “I was on the edge of their territories, and the Slavic deities back then interacted with Olympus and only rarely – at least in Europe, we were all fairly isolationist back then. It was just enough interaction where they wanted to avoid me to avoid angering Hera, but not so much that they were willing to tell me to leave. I even met Svarog a couple times back then, but he was always distant.”

“Very different from how we were.”

“I’ve heard.” Athena chuckled. “Before my exile, I envied you all for how comfortable you were with each other. Even if your peoples went to war, you remained amicable. After my exile…I was grateful for how we hid ourselves away.”

Silence returned for a bit, and stretched so long that Anansi almost broke it first, but then Athena spoke in a low and furious voice. “Then I made an adversary, a monster that threatened the town. A monsterous spawn of Baba Yaga, or so he claimed. His name was unknown to me, but he had a particular hatred for me and Autolycus. Never got bold enough to attack when we were together, however. After a time, however, he did grow bold enough to kill my Drahos .”

Anansi made a sympathetic sound, the quick inhalation of air that often came with learning of bad news. Athena gave him a slight nod of appreciation. “I was hunting for a nanoverse by that time. I didn’t want him to die. Losing him…I flew into a rage, went hunting down my adversary with Autolycus. We searched across all of the tundra, I made demands of the Slavic pantheon I had ignored, I even made deals with underworld gods to try and find my love’s soul, so that I might resurrect him. Yet strangely, none of them could find it.”

Long forgotten rage furrowed Athena’s brow, and she found herself clenching her hands without thinking. “Finally I made a deal with Lucifer, since angels often can know what is hidden from us. I would give him the location of Pandora’s box if he could find me the name of the creature that had taken my Drahos  from me, or if he could tell me who had Drahos’ soul. He agreed to do both.”

She actually paused to spit here. “It was one name, Autolycus. Autolycus the Protean, one of those rare gods who learned shapeshifting before they learned to warp reality.”

Anansi pressed his lips together into a thin line in reflected rage. “He’d been your adversary the entire time, and somehow captured Drahos’ soul?”

“No. Even worse.” Athena had to take a deep breath to calm the rage. “He was my adversary, and he was Drahos. The man I loved? Never existed. The monster? Never existed. The only person in the world I considered my friend? Was a fiction. And do you know why he did it, why he spent a decade toying with me, comforting me, pretending to both love and hate me?”

“I assume some kind of elaborate revenge for his exile?”

Athena shook her head. “I could have understood that. I could have maybe even, eventually, forgiven him for it. But no. He did it because he was a Trickster. He said he thought it would be funny. The sick bastard honestly didn’t understand why I wasn’t laughing.

Silence returned for a bit, and this time, Anansi did break it. “Well, I certainly understand now why you might be mistrustful of Tricksters.”

Athena chuckled bitterly at that. “I know it’s unfair, and I’m sorry to have painted you with the same brush. I shouldn’t distrust Tricksters for that, I should just distrust assholes.”

“I always find it is wise to distrust assholes. They’re full of shit.” Anansi grinned, and Athena snorted out a laugh. “So what did you do to him?”

“The worst thing I could think of, the nastiest, cruelest thing I could do to one like Autolycus.” She smiled at the memory. “I ignored him. Completely. Refused to respond to his presence in any way except self defense when he tried to touch me – and even then I did the bare minimum. Eventually he went away, having lost the only person in centuries to give him even slight notice, let alone friendship.”

Anansi let out a long, low whistle. “I imagined he took that poorly.”

“Very. It was a couple hundred years before I stopped assuming everyone I met was Autolycus in disguise. I started to make friends again, and pulled myself back together. I won. He eventually ran afoul of Hades who dragged him away – I don’t know what Hades did with him. And, anymore, I don’t care.”

Anansi smiled. “Thank you for telling me the story. I’m glad that you have recovered yourself so much after those two tragedies.”

“It took a while. But now, I think you owe me a story. I’ve been dominating the…the conversation.” Athena trailed off, and they both stopped in their tracks.

Ahead of them, the hallway was littered with bodies. Fresh bodies, hundreds of them, their throats slit and their stomachs ripped open, covering the floor and wall with gore and viscera and the stench of death.

The guiding drone hovered, trying to push further down the hallway.

“I believe,” Anansi said slowly, “That my story will have to wait till after we’ve passed that.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Athena said, drawing her sword from its scabbard, preparing to face whatever lurked in this hallway.

Next Page

Strange Cosmology Part 77

There was no time to hesitate or coordinate. With the Medusa creeping in from behind the statues, Ryan and Dianmu knew they had to act or they would perish.

Dianmu went slightly ahead of Ryan, her motions swift and sure as she reached out to twist reality. A small part of Ryan’s brain wondered what she was seeing – interweaving elements, perhaps? Fire and Air and Metal twining together into a strand she plunged into the ground that spread out to engulf each of the suits of armor?

What Ryan saw, on the other hand, was the equations change around each of the suits. Each individual piece of each of the suits of armor gained a strong magnetic field that increased in strength over the course of a heartbeat. The set of a dozen sword strikes that had been heading towards the two gods suddenly became halting and uncoordinated as the suits had to pull against their own limbs to try and move.

Ryan couldn’t afford to take time to admire Dianmu’s twist, however. He brought up his sword in a quick parry of the one blade that was still striking true towards him, a level strike that had been aimed at his neck. He brought up the flat of his blade to force the slash to angle over his head, and then reached out to twist reality himself.

Gravity was quickly becoming Ryan’s favorite toy, and the fundamental force he understood and could manipulate best. Ever since he’d sent Enki flying though a hotel roof all those weeks ago, back when it had been Crystal and him against Athena, Tyr, Enki, and Bast, he’d felt that he could understand how it worked better than almost any other force. This twist was a trick he’d had in mind ever since he’d realized he could manipulate the force, and a small part of him overcame his fear to thrill at finally getting to use it.

The search for Exoplanets had fascinated Ryan for a time, utterly capturing his imagination the way that few things ever managed to. He’d spent hours poring over the latest findings from the Kepler mission, reading about the fantastic worlds they had found and the ingenious methods that had been used to find them. One of the most interesting to Ryan had been gravitational microlensing, where the bending of light from gravity allowed for subtle differences that could be used to spot planets hundreds of light years away.

So, reaching out with a burst of divine strength just as the Medusa was about to fully enter his view, Ryan duplicated the effect on a much smaller scale. Hundreds of gravity bubbles erupted around them, the strongest gravitational effects Ryan had ever attempted. If they had been impacting all forms of matter and energy like gravity normally, Ryan didn’t believe for a second he could have maintained anything close to that many.

These gravity bubbles only influenced light. The result was that the air around them exploded in to a kaleidoscope, hundreds of images distorted and reflected and warped into a multifaceted rainbow like light through a glass made of water droplets.

Outside the shell of bent light, Medusa let out a symphony of hissing. Like Ryan had hoped, she couldn’t be sure it was safe to look into any more than Ryan and Dianmu could look out of it. The end result was a stalemate, one that allowed Ryan and Dianmu to focus on their animate adversaries.

It was good that they could focus now, because Ryan had gotten a bit too distracted creating a hundred bubbles of lensed light with gravitational waves. One of the suits of armor used that distraction to drive a sword into Ryan’s shoulder, and he let out a pained bellow.

Dianmu whirled at the sound, her glaive coming up to sever the gauntlet of the suit that had stabbed Ryan. It dropped its weapon with its hand, and seeing Ryan’s injury, Dianmu didn’t waste any time.

With a quick sweep of her leg, she dropped Ryan to the floor where she could stand over him and fight properly while he recovered. The suits moved in, their attacks powerful but still flowing awkwardly from her earlier manipulations. She met their thunderous blows with her glaive, letting it flow like a river. Each attack was batted aside by blade or haft, every strike driven to ground or empty air or even into their fellow suits. The air sang a cacophonous chorus of steel on bronze, humming with the energy of each impact.

Twelve on one they came, and Dianmu danced over Ryan to fight them. In these numbers, it was too much for her to be able to defeat – not when she could not make her foes bleed, nor wear them down. By the same token, however, they could not reach her or Ryan.

On the floor, Ryan reached up to feel his shoulder. The cut had been deep, but he could still use the arm. He waited for an opening in Dianmu’s dance and rose to his feet, bringing his sword up in his good arm to shove through the helmet of one of the suits.

Now the odds favored the gods, two fighting against twelve. Back to back they spun, and with each cut and hack the suits of armor fell into chunks that did not animate again, until finally they stood alone surrounded by a shell of reflected light and chunks of armor.

The bubbles meant they could still somewhat see outside of their immediate area, the main reason Ryan had chosen that instead of plunging them into darkness. There was still movement outside – Medusa was circling, but not entering. “I smell her on you,” she said from outside, the sibilants drawn out.

“Who?” Ryan wracked his brain for fragments of myth that would help him here. He remembered something about Ovid, and how Medusa and her sisters had been cursed by…oh come on.

“Athena,” she responded as soon as Ryan thought the name, almost like she could taste it on his thoughts, and Dianmu winced in agreement with Ryan. “She’s here, is she not?”

Ryan picked up one of the mirrored shields. “Why don’t you come in and find out, huh? Should be fun!”

Dianmu did the same with another shield as the Media hissed out laughter. “Oh, yes, allow me to wander directly into one of those mirrors. Shall I sever my own head while I’m at it?”

“If you would be so kind,” Ryan said, and Dianmu reached up to touch his arm. Stop toying with it. Drop the illusion and her see herself. He heard the words in his mind and nodded to Dianmu, lowering himself down to one knee.

As soon as he was in placed, he shattered the gravitational lenses. He heard a brief, shocked hiss. Then silence. Dianmu and him were once again back to back, shields facing outwards. “How do we know when it’s safe to look?” Ryan whispered.

To answer, Dianmu glanced sideways until her eyes caught one of the other shields. With a gesture she lifted it up and swung it in a wide arc, so they could scan for Medusa by its reflection.

They did not see the serpentine woman, nor did they see her stone statue. It took Dianmu several minutes of moving the shield around before finally she was satisfied their foe was gone.

“I don’t like it,” Ryan said, hoisting the shield as he stood up. His shoulder protested loudly, joining the pain in his leg. “She could be around any corner at any moment.”

Dianmu shook her head. “She could, but I don’t think she will be. If Medusa withdrew, it’s for a reason. Most monsters aren’t able to communicate as rationally as she did. If she’s that clever, I think she can come up with something more devious than ‘pop up as they round a corner.’”

“I wish I could say you were wrong.” Ryan sighed and shifted the shield until it was comfortable. “You think she’s waiting for us to get back to-“

“Yes,” Dianmu said, not wanting Ryan to say the name in case she was listening. “Whatever transpired between Medusa and her, it seems that hatred runs deep.”

“Lovely. Well, let’s add that on our ‘to worry about’ list and get moving?” Dianmu agreed, pausing only to grab a second shield ‘just in case.’ Together they began to head deeper into the Labyrinth.

Unlike before, however, they could not shake the feeling of being watched.

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Strange Cosmology Part 75

“Okay assorted gods and goddesses. Everyone have a good night’s rest?” Isabel’s voice came in over the speaker, bright and chipper.

Ryan gave one of the cameras a thumbs up, and Dianmu nodded beside him. Isabel didn’t respond right away, presumably to give the others time to confirm they were ready to go. “Great, awesome. So right now you each have four drones, except Crystal, who has two. Not that I’m telling you anything you don’t know there.”

“And yet you felt the need to point it out.” Ryan muttered, and Dianmu had to stifle a laugh. He gave her a smile and a shrug. Isabel, when she got into her Ms. Bossy McBosspants mode, was best left uninterrupted.

“Because I’m collecting my thoughts,” Isabel said irritably, and Ryan gave the camera and innocent look. Either the microphones on those drones were more sensitive than he thought, or she just knew him well. “Anyway. Ryan, Dianmu, do you see that one of your drones has blue lights now?”

Ryan checked each one before nodding. “Yeah, the bottom light changed.”

“Great, awesome. And Athena, Anansi, same for you?” While Ryan and Dianmu waited, Dianmu recharged the other drones fully.

“Great,” Isabel said. “So here’s the deal. The blue light drones are each keyed to try and find one of Crystal’s drones. They won’t get more than twenty feet from the bracelet you guys are wearing – Dianmu, you have the one for you group, and Athena, you have the one for yours. It’s not perfect, but they’re going to be running a program to try the most efficient path. You’ll probably end up backtracking some, but it’ll get you guys together quicker than if we all guess randomly.”

“Wow,” Ryan said, giving the camera an impressed look. “I didn’t know you could do that.” Isabel had always been good with computers, but something on this level was impressive.

“Yeah, I wish I did. No, it’s a built in feature in the drones, I just figured out how to make it work. Which, since we’re dealing with military software which isn’t exactly designed for use, means  you should still totally be impressed.”

“Fair enough,” Ryan said, shaking his head with a laugh. “What about Crystal?”

“Woah, Stereo from Athena and Ryan there. Kinda creepy actually.” Isabel laughed into the microphone. “Anyway, she and I did some talking this morning, and she thinks she’s should hunker down where she is, throw up some defenses. Her wandering around makes things more difficult, and you guys might end up running in exhausted and need her to be able to kick and-slash-or save ass. For what it’s worth, I agree.”

“Okay, awesome.” Ryan scratched his chin, glancing at Dianmu, who nodded her agreement. “Anything else?”

“Hold on Ryan. Go ahead Athena.” Dianmu shrugged at Ryan, who returned the gesture with a grin. No constant Minotaur sounds, a plan to get the group back together – things were really starting to look up.

He’d dreamt again last night, and like the previous dream, it didn’t fade with wakefulness.

He was back in that alley, the one where this all began.

“I told you, only one question. But I’ll give you some free advice.”

Ryan took a deep breath to steady himself. “Okay.”

“Don’t put it in a drawer and forget about it. You’ve got a pretty amazing thing there, Ryan. And in spite of the fact that I kind of accidentally turned you into a nervous wreck…I think you’re going to do some pretty amazing things with it.”

Nabu turned and walked through the wall.

In reality, he’d only gotten a few seconds before the gun had been cocked, before Enki had said “Put down the nanoverse and you might get out of this alive.”

In the dream, however, he’d just stood there, holding the nanoverse but not looking directly at it. He hadn’t yet, in the dream, hadn’t had that field of stars fill his vision. He’d been plain and ordinary Ryan Smith. Instead of looking at the Nanoverse, he’d turned around and walked out of the alley, the black stone stuck in his pocket. He’d gone home, called Isabel and told her the delusions were gone.

He didn’t take Nabu’s advice. He stuck the nanoverse in a drawer. Called Patty, the woman he’d dated for two years before she finally couldn’t handle his intimacy issues, even if they stemmed from his imaginings of a man in a suit following him around. They’d tried getting back together. They were actually making it work this time!

A few months later they were on a double date with Isabel and some guy, and Ryan had been planning to tell his sister he was going to propose, when the sun had exploded and he’d watched a wave of fire engulf everyone he loved.

He’d woken up gasping, but at least he’d been alive. And now…

Hang on. He’d just replayed the entire dream in his head, perfectly, and Isabel still hadn’t spoke through the drone. “Isabel?” he said, looking at Dianmu.

No response from the drone.

“Isabel? Earth to Isabel, can you hear me?”

The drone hovered mutely, it’s only a response a gentle whirring of its engines.

“Maybe it’s something with the drones?” Dianmu asked, but Ryan was already shaking his head, panic seizing at his chest. He hadn’t felt fear like this since Enki had grabbed him by the neck back on Grant Island.

“All four drones fail at once? No, something happened, something’s wrong. Isabel!” The last time wasn’t a question, but a demand. Someone would answer him, and they would answer *for this*, or so help him he’d…

He’d do nothing. He could do nothing as the drone continued to silently float there.

“Back,” he half-said, half-hissed to Dianmu. “I have to go back. Make sure she’s okay. Make sure she’s…” He couldn’t finish the sentence, instead trailing off and giving Dianmu a look of wide-eyed panic.

“Ryan, it’s two days back, assuming you don’t rest. Maybe more. And that’s assuming you don’t get lost.”

“I don’t care, Dianmu. I have to get to her before it’s too late!”

Dianmu folded her arm and looked at him, clenching her jaw – not in defiance, but in thought. “Fine. We will go back, together,” Ryan started to perk up, but she held up a finger. “If, and only if, you can tell me which of these four paths we came down last night. If not, we press forward to find the others and come up with a plan.”

Ryan glanced down the paths. They all were the same, each one leading to a T intersection that had no distinguishing features. Some were longer than the others, but he couldn’t tell from here which one was the right one.

“She’s my sister,” he half screamed, half begged Dianmu.

The goddess was unyielding. “Yes, Ryan. And we will do everything we can to help her. But panic is not the right way to do that. It could easily be some kind of mechanical issue or something with the software. Right now, we press forward, and once we find the others we decide what to do next.”

Ryan took a few deep breaths. They did nothing to calm him down, and certainly did absolutely nothing to shake this dread that something terrible had happened to Isabel, but they did prevent him from hurling several choice words at Dianmu. He couldn’t find any words to say to her instead, just favoring her with a furious glare. “Reshaph. We left her alone with him. It has to be him.”

Dianmu frowned and drummed her fingers on her arms as she considered. “Maybe. But if it was, that would be the quickest any god has reformed from complete destruction ever. I think the mechanical problem is the more likely one.”

Ryan gave her a wild eyed stare. “I…Dianmu, I brought her here, if anything happens to her-”

“Then we will punish whomever was responsible, because it falls on their shoulders, not yours. I specifically remember you, Ryan Smith, telling her you did not want her here. You did all you could to keep her away. But right now…right now, the best thing you can do for her is press on.”

Ryan didn’t agree with that, not really. But without knowing the way back, it was the only thing he could do. They turned to follow the blue-lit drone, which had already chosen a path.

Please let her be okay, Ryan silently thought, hoping that the universe would give him some answer.

As was usually the case, it did not.

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Strange Cosmology Part 74

Bast stepped into her staging area, glad that the others were behind her so they couldn’t see how she held her breath as she did. After seeing the plain of eternal war between crawling castles of Vlad’s nanoverse, she wasn’t sure what to expect from her own.

The staging area itself was, at first glance, much like it once had been. Like many of the older deities, Bast’s staging area resembled one of the temples she’d been worshiped in, when gods were worshiped the way they should be. Sandstone pillars surrounded the edge of the platform, each one inlaid with symbols once used to praise her. A raised dais in the center served as both a command console and altar. It was disappointing and a relief to see how similar it was, right up until she started noticing the differences.

Set into the pillars were inserts that housed upright sarcophagi. Each one was open, the mummified body within laying in rest with their hands crossed over their chests. It meant that, to stand at the command console, you would be standing in the center of the stares of dozens of empty eye sockets. The lids to the sarcophagi were set into the pillars higher up, on runners, so they could be closed if she so wished. The central dais, meanwhile, was lined with canopic jars. She could hear a faint beating coming from within them, the gentle lub-dub, lub-dub she’d become so used to.

Something told her she couldn’t eat their contents. It was just a sound, but one that filled the staging area the way a good home cooked meal would fill a house with wonderfully comforting and enticing scents.

“Vlad, wait outside please. Dale too. I’m going to be Hungry until I adjust.” Vlad bowed and did not enter, Dale grunted and slunk away from the vampire, keeping his gaze firmly fixed on the vampire’s face. Even in his current state, Bast thought the Admiral resented being referred to as a work of art.

She closed the door, leaving her and Cassandra on the platform.

“I don’t mean to question, but what if Vlad decides to kill Dale?”

“He won’t have time,” Bast said, walking over to the dais and twisting the stone, dropping them into her realspace. For a moment, she worried about the risks it would pose to a mortal to enter into her nanoverse like this…but Cassandra was hardly mortal anymore. “We’re fully in my nanoverse now. Days can past in a second outside.”

Cassandra nodded, then her eyes brightened. “You weren’t worried about our Hunger at all, were you? You wanted us to have a chance to converse.”

Bast smiled and walked over to give Cassandra a pat on the shoulder. “Yes, Cassandra, exactly that. There’s much you don’t understand still.”

Cassandra smiled, pleased with herself for figuring it out. “In that case…” Cassandra’s eyes wandered upwards towards the sky, “…mother of God.”

Bast had so far managed to avoid looking outside her staging area. With Cassandra’s gaze, she couldn’t help herself.  Like the staging area, at first glance, it appeared as it always had, a field of stars and galaxies lazily drifting through an endless void.

But they were different. Most obviously, they were closer together, stuck together more tightly than she’d ever seen them. The stars were all red, like her nanoverse was getting close to needing a Crunch, which was impossible since she had done one just before joining with Enki. More importantly were the red tendrils that stretched from star to star, connecting them like a massive network . The stars twinkled along this network, which should have been impossible without an atmosphere. She frowned as she looked more closely at the stars.

No, Bast thought, as realization began to slowly dawn on her. Not twinkling. Beating.

The *lub-dub* from the canopic jars grew louder.

The stars had become hearts, hearts of blood and flame, and they were passing material between each other in a massive circulatory system stretched across the center of her nanoverse. With each pulse, the stars were being drawn inexorably together.

Her nanoverse, the way it had been, was dying, and she found herself wondering if Vlad had found his nanoverse drowning in blood when he first became what he was.

“Why isn’t it a plain, like Vlad’s?” Cassandra asked, frowning.

“As I said, there’s much you don’t understand. Most nanoverses look more like the real universe. It appears mine is being remade into something like Vlad’s.”

“Could you stop it?”

Bast let out a weary sigh as she stared at the network. “Perhaps. I am nigh-omnipotent here. I’ll try before we leave. But I doubt I’ll have any success. Much as my omnipotence cannot counteract the decay of entropy, I think this process in inevitable. This is what happens when a goddess starves.”

“I…” Cassandra stopped herself with a laugh. “I was going to say that makes sense, but I’m so far outside any rational frame of reference sense is a concept I think I abandoned. But I understand, I think.”

Bast gave her a warm smile as she began to steer her staging area closer to one of the star-hearts. As she got closer, she could see a web of veins and arteries branching off the pulsing organ, eventually branching into capillaries that reached to the nearby worlds. One such world was in the habitable zone of this particular heart, and Bast brought them into the atmosphere.

The capillaries wove themselves into and through the ground, spreading through the crust and down through the core. Near where they met the ground, humanoid entities crawled out. They were about a eight feet tall, or would be if they stood upright, and had sharp teeth and pointed ears. Their head was flat, allowing no room for eyes or a brain. Their skin was a deep crimson, and they dripped blood as they moved.

Cassandra shuddered at the sight. They were running across the world, grasping at any living thing they could find and shoving into into their yawning mouths. Bast saw a couple that had gorged themselves so much that they couldn’t move, their bellies distended to near bursting, and still they reached vainly for any life that they could sense.

Standing between the blood fiends and the living people were soldiers. They wore white and gold, and wielded khopeshes and assault rifles. Some had shields fitted with crystals. As Bast watched, a pair of them cut at the hamstrings of one of the blood fiends, bringing it to the ground so they could hack at it – only for another one to slide forward and grab them, one in each hand, and shove them into its mouth in a single swallow.

The soldiers were failing. For every one of the blood fiends they felled, a dozen more crept out of the world capillary, and the soldiers did not have infinite numbers.

“It’s awful,” Cassandra whispered, but Bast heard in her voice the same feeling that had wormed its way into her breast.

True, it was awful to watch, but part of Bast thrilled at it, delighted in it. She wanted to disembark and join in the battle, not to aid the soldiers but to join in the feast, shoving hearts into her mouth with the same abandon the blood fiends were using to devour them whole. The sight had Bast literally quivering with anticipation, and she involuntarily licked her lips.

“Can you do anything to help them?” Cassandra asked, and here the second meaning was clear. If Bast couldn’t help them, why shouldn’t they go down and join and feast and feast and feast and-

Bast put a hand on the woman’s shoulder, drawing Cassandra’s gaze to her. The woman’s pupils were dilated to their fullest extent, her breathing coming in harsh and ragged gasps. “When we leave, I can grant them a quick death. I’ll collapse the nanoverse and allow it repair normally. Then it’ll be more like Vlad’s, I think. Before I can, however, I need to explain things to you. Can you hold it together.
Cassandra nodded at the same time a disappointed growl escaped from her throat. Bast looked down one more time. People on the ground could see them and they began to reach up to the floating ship, begging to be freed from this nightmare. Their screams were silent, but Bast could feel them echo in her soul.

With a gesture, she granted their wish, stripping away the planet’s atmosphere. It was a matter of minutes before they had all suffocated. “You’re free now,” she whispered, before heading back to the console to pilot them away from this world.

“Now, Cassandra. Sit. There’s much you need to understand for the coming days, and I brought you here so I would have time to teach you.”

Cassandra took another hitching breath and nodded, her pupils beginning to return to her normal size.

“Good. Now listen carefully…”

It took two days in Bast’s nanoverse, but at the end, she was convinced that she had prepared Cassandra as much as was possible.

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Strange Cosmology Part 73

Vlad’s doorway was situated in the lower parts of the base. Unlike most doors, which blending into their surroundings, this one looked like the entrance of the mausoleum jutting out of the floor. “Subtle,” Bast muttered.

The vampire stepped out of his nanoverse just in time to catch the word, which he apparently found amusing. “I have no control over that, and will agree it is a bit garish. Yet I’m also fond of it.” He gave Cassandra a slight nod, and she gave a half curtsy, half bow to him. He seemed to approve, before his eyes panned over to Dale. “Oh my,” he whispered, looking at him then at Bast. “What do we have here?”

“An object lesson in the dangers of crossing me.”

Vlad studied the former Admiral closer, his grin exposing his fangs. “An exquisite work of art, Bast, truly. An utter debasement of the human form, a broken mind, a shattered spirit. I must compliment you.”

“Please, Vlad, spare me your approval. I’ll need another bath. Shall we?”

If her barb bothered him, Vlad didn’t show it. Instead he opened the door to his staging area. It slid slowly over the floor, the stones grinding as they moved. “After you.”

Bast stepped in first, Cassandra and Dale in tow. She glanced around, wondering what fresh horrors she’d find here.

The immediate interior of Vlad’s staging area looked like a great cathedral, one made in deliberate mockery of Christianity. Crucifixes hung from the walls, but they were inverted and instead of Christ hanging from them, skeletons screaming in agony were nailed to their boards. There was an altar, stained with blood. The pews were half rotted and chewed by termites, and in them sat even more skeletons, kneeling in a perverse mockery of prayer. The support columns were made of naked men and women engaged in carnal acts that would have made Marquis de Sade blush.

Part of Bast found the whole thing revolting, but on another level, a part of her mind that she associated with her new Hunger, she found its operatic levels of over the top macabre styling to be strangely compelling. I wonder if this is what is waiting for me in mine. Or if it’ll be more to my tastes?

Vlad was looking at her expectantly. Bast frowned. “Where are they stars?”

“Ahh, yes.” Vlad gestured, and the walls fell away.

For a moment, Bast almost struck at him in desperate panic. They were hovering over a green field, so close she was certain they had come into his nanoverse proper. Then, after a moment, she realized that it wasn’t the case.

Instead, this field made up his entire nanoverse.

It wasn’t exactly a field, but a forest. A impossibly vast forest that stretched as far as the eyes could see, with trees that rose higher than gravity could have ever allowed. Through that immense forest stalked castles. From the distance, the castles were the size of stars, and they moved about on spider legs with lengths that would have to be measured in astronomical units. If they were actually in the nanoverse, the movement would be maddeningly slow. Since they were not, time accelerated to allow the spider castles the size of stars move over the landscape at a brisk pace. As Bast watched, two of them crawled near each other.

Each one disgorged swarming masses the size of small planets, masses that Bast realized were armies. Entire armies that could have swarmed over a world and needed to stand on top of each other’s shoulders to have room. The planetary armies clashed together, until one side returned to its castle. Months of warfare played out in a heartbeat. The other side lay in a pool of blood that could drown oceans, and crows flocked to it. “You like it?” Vlad said in a voice like a dagger through silk.

“What did they win?”

“Victory.” Vlad spoke the word as if it should be more than enough. “Each castle is commanded by one of my spawn I felt deserved the reward. If you like, you can think of it as the afterlife for my children. Perhaps you’ll gift your scion here with something similar.”

Bast glanced at Cassandra, who was watching the movements of the castles with rapt fascination. Dale was crouching behind a pew, moaning in horror.

Instead of answering, Bast glanced upwards. Because there were lights in the sky, but they were not stars. They looked like moons, though each one was flat and the size of a galaxy – which would make them look the right size from the ground, Bast supposed. Clouds crossed them intermittently, and they changed through phases. New, waxing, full, waning. One of the moons turned the deep crimson of a moon in a lunar eclipse, and when it did a great rain of boiling blood began to fall on the part of the land its light reached. “Is it their heaven or their hell?” she finally asked.

Vlad chuckled. “For them, it is heaven. For the natives…I think they would find hell a release.” He strolled over to the organ and began to play. Bast realized as he did that this was his console.

“And where are we going?” Bast asked as the music began to die down, “I still don’t know who our next ally is supposed to be.” Bast tried to keep the annoyance out of her voice. As much as she hated to admit it, this place impressed her and made her vaguely uncomfortable. The last thing she wanted was Vlad to figure that out.

“Bah. Patience, Bast, patience.” Vlad smiled at her. “Besides, we have something more important to do. You have to learn how to summon your doorway. You did still want to learn that, yes?”

Bast could only nod in agreement at that. She didn’t like relying on Vlad to ferry her around, and she certainly didn’t like entering his nanoverse of gothic castles crawling along a forlorn forest under a thousand moons.

“Excellent. Then we are here.” The door to the outside world opened with a long, low scraping sound along the stone floor.

Bast knew better by now than to expect a direct answer from Vlad, so instead of asking where they were simply turned to exit. Cassandra and Dale followed her out. Dale seemed all too eager to leave, loping out like an excited dog.

Outside was an open field. The air was temperate, and an overall lack of distinguishing features made it impossible to even be sure what continent they were on. It was daytime, which put to rest myths about what the sun would do to Vlad. *I wonder if any of those are true.* Bast assumed at least some were – her new power had to come with some drawbacks.

“So how do we do this?” she asked, wondering how long her companion was going to drag out the process.

Vlad chuckled. “Do you remember the first time you opened your doorway?”

“Of course,” Bast frowned. “I just reached out and…it opened.”

“Exactly. This will be nothing like that.” He chuckled again, and Bast resisted the urge to wipe that smug chuckle off his face.

Off to the side, Cassandra seemed to be enjoying feeling the sun and wind for the first time since her transformation. Dale huddled near her, and it was hard to be certain, but he seemed the closest to happy he had been since Bast had taken him captive.

An ugly urge welled up in her to destroy that happiness, a sick and vile need to tear away even that glimmer of joy. She pushed it aside, instead focusing her attention on Vlad. “Then what, exactly, is it like?” she snapped.

“You must pull it from the earth. Don’t worry if you can’t get it on your first try, it took me over a cent…” Vlad trailed off, his eyes widening.

As soon as he had said the word Earth, Bast had shoved her hand into the ground beneath her feet. By the time he’d gotten to the word try, she’d found it. It was like groping in brackish water for something you knew was there but remained just out of sight, but as soon as her fingers felt stone she knew what she had found.

The doorway rose from the ground, causing the earth to shudder as it did. It wasn’t a mausoleum door like Vlad’s. The door was made of sandstone, like the ones Bast remembered from the days of her youth, and was flanked by pillars of the same. Heiroglyphs adorned the door, and it pleased Bast to recognize the poem. It was an old prayer, a long forgotten prayer, one that men and women had once made to her. A call for her protection and her guidance.

She took a moment to enjoy Vlad’s stunned expression. “Never forget, I was old before your entire kingdom was founded,” she said in a voice low enough to slide through the grass like a viper. “Do not presume what was difficult for you will be more than child’s play for me.”

“Of course,” Vlad said, and this time it wasn’t fear or anger she saw in his eyes, but satisfaction. “Are you going to inspect it?”

Bast didn’t bother answering such an obvious question. The doorway swung open in a wide arc, and Bast stepped through.

It was time to see what had become of the realm where she was supreme.

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Strange Cosmology Part 71

“Hey, Athena, Anansi?” Isabel’s voice came over the speaker. “Sorry, missed this at first. There’s a four way intersection if you double back. Just turn around and hang right, it’ll be about two hundred yards down if the drone’s detectors were right.”

“Understood,” Athena said, looking up into the drone’s mechanical eye. “Thank you, Isabel. And the others are still alright?”

“Yup. Ryan and Dianmu have bunked down for a rest, and I’m keeping Crystal company. I’m going to power these down. Audio will be on, so shout if you need me.”

“Understood,” Athena said again, watching the drones float to the ground. Anansi grabbed a couple, and she did the same.

“You don’t trust them either?” Anansi asked, waving one of the drones to show what he meant.

Athena nodded as they headed back down the hallway. “I know it’s absurd. Technology advances, and these devices aren’t any stranger than others that have come before. But they fly without pilots and carry messages and can see. That’s too much like a living thing for my comfort.”

Anansi gave her a smile of agreement. “I take some comfort knowing young Isabel sits behind the controls, and can shut them down when she wishes.”

“Do you? Or are you just saying that because she can still hear us?” Athena’s tone was as light as she could manage.

“I see no reason those statements need be exclusive,” Anansi chuckled.

Athena gave him a smile and waited. When no response came from Isabel, she shrugged. “I guess she’s busy talking with Crystal.”

“Or just has the volume low. She did say to shout if we need her attention.”

“Fair enough.” They walked down the passage in silence for a bit.

As they came to the four way intersection, Anansi shattered the silence with the delicacy of the Minotaur. “So, Gray-Eyed Athena, why do you mistrust us tricksters and spiders so much?”

The question was so unexpected Athena nearly tripped over her own feet. “I…what?”

Anansi grinned at her. “Forgive my bluntness, but it has been weighing on me for some time. You never finished your story from before.”

“You do enjoy asking uncomfortable questions.” Athena frowned, and then shook her head as she settled onto a seat she wove out of Air with a dash of Fire to keep it warm. “Why do you want to know? Clearly we’ve passed my…well, my prejudice. “

“Clearly,” Anansi said with a grin, choosing to weave himself a seat like hers. Facing each other like this, they could see down all four corridors. “But it sounded like a good story. And I do love good stories.”

Athena sighed. “It’s old news now, but if you must know…they’re separate stories, but tied together.”

Anansi leaned forward, his grin unchanged, “Go on.”

“So I told you I was young and in love. Not young by mortal standards, but I’d only recently passed two hundred years. When I found them in bed…well, it was a bucket of frozen water. I hadn’t acted on my love, not yet. I’d waited too long, at least in my mind. Turning Arachne into a spider was a petty act of revenge for not only the theft of the heart of one I desired, but also for my defeat.”

“Hmmm,” Anansi nodded. “I’ve heard another version of the story. Where you did it as punishment for Arachne practicing unnatural arts, or that they had driven her mad.”

Athena looked down for a moment. “It was true she was delving into things a mortal should not know. The secrets of Tartarus, Cypher Nullity – the truth behind dead realms. When I learned she had been doing so, to hide my shame, I told my love that I had turned Arachne into a spider because of a madness from delving into such things. I’m…not proud of that.”

“We’ve all made mistakes.” Anansi said, sympathetically.

“True.” Athena shrugged. “Ever since then, spiders have made me uncomfortable. A reminder of one of the more regrettable things I did. Especially because she truly had done nothing wrong, not really.”

“Because you had not yet professed your love?”

“Yes. Arachne had no way of knowing. Ishtar didn’t even know. It was childish, and neither of them were to blame. I found Arachne later, still alive, and offered to turn her back, but at that point she had been a spider so long she preferred to remain that way. Still, I wonder if she truly was happy, or if she just had grown used to it. I wasn’t about to transform her back against her will,”

“You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself. You tried to make amends, and it was…” Anansi paused, then made a show out of cleaning out his ears with his fingers. “I beg your pardon, but my ears were clogged. It sounded like you said the object of your desire was Ishtar.”

Athena gave him a small smile. “It’s good to see you don’t know everything, old spider. Yes, it was Ishtar.”

“Our Ishtar? The one that now goes by Crystal?” Anansi’s expression of surprise was still comical enough to get a smile out of Athena.

“I prefer to pretend they’re two different people. And you met Ishtar back when she was the goddess of love and war. They *are* different people, in so many ways.”

Anansi nodded thoughtfully. “I prefer the woman we know now to who she was before too. So this ties into your mistrust of Tricksters?”

Athena nodded. “Sometime later, I confessed my feelings. She reciprocated. We had a wonderful couple of centuries together. It was the happiest I’d been in some time…until it wasn’t.”

“What happened?”

A long moment passed before Athena spoke. “She is a different woman now. Ishtar is, as far as I’m concerned, long dead. But things between us ended in a spectacular and ugly fashion. I’d prefer to let the details stay buried, to not color your opinion of either of us. Can we leave it at we were both terrible people to each other at the end?”

Anansi nodded.

“Thank you. But the fallout of that breakup was the Punic War. Over a hundred thousand men dead and Carthage burned to the ground and salted because of my spite. ‘Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam.’ I whispered those words in the ears of Cato the Elder.”

“And I think, also, that Carthage must be destroyed.” Anansi said, frowning.

“They’d become Ishtar’s pawns. Some of her old pantheon was there – Bel, Isimud, Ningal, Shamash, a few others. They followed Ishtar gladly. I wanted them broken.” Athena frowned before she continued. “In my rage, I didn’t think about the fact that Carthage was also the land of Hera’s birth. She was beyond enraged. Even though Cartage opposed Rome, she didn’t want them annihilated like that.”

“What did she do?” Anansi asked.

“I was exiled from Olympus. That would have been bad enough, but Hera wasn’t done. Immediately afterwards Hera helped Rome conquer all of Greece. She wanted to take Athens from me. Destroyed Corinth to show what she intended for the city, and then let me wait for the hammer to fall. In one fell swoop, I had lost my family, the first woman I had ever loved, and the city that was my proudest creation. All I had accomplished was death and death. I couldn’t even blame Ishtar for it.”

Athena reached into her bag, pulling out a bottle of water, and took a long drink before handing it to Anansi to do the same. Her throat had grown somewhat raw. “Tell me, trickster. Have you ever loved something so much that losing it destroyed you?”

“Oh yes.” Anansi gave her a bitter grin. “As painful as it is, I think I would mistrust anyone as old as us who had not.”

Athena let out a semi-amused huff of air. “I think I agree with you there. Well, I loved all three that much. It took decades for me to pull myself back together.”

Anansi handed the bottle of water back to her. “I’m glad you were able to.”

“Me too,” Athena smiled. “You know, my people considered me a goddess of wisdom, but I don’t think I really earned that title until long after they gave it to me.”

Anansi stretched back in his chair. “Thank you for telling me.”

“You’re welcome.” Athena yawned. “Although I realize I never really answered your question about Tricksters.”

“I thought it would be rude to point out,” Anansi said, his grin returning, “but I assume it connects?”

Athena gave the slow nod of the sleepy. “During those decades when I was pulling myself together, I met another god who had been cast out of Olympus. A Trickster. Autolycus.”

Anansi raised an eyebrow. “His name was ‘very wolf’?”

“It loses some poetry in translation,” Athena said with a laugh that turned into a yawn halfway through. “Perhaps best a story for our walk tomorrow?”

Anansi nodded. “You seem to be struggling more with that Hunger than I. I’ll take first watch?”

Athena nodded and rolled over on her couch of Air and Fire. She meant to tell Anansi to wake her when he was ready, but exhaustion claimed her before she could even form the words.

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Strange Cosmology Part 70

“Athena’s arm is patched up. Anansi was able to do it. They said they’re going to stop in the next hour. He’s fine too. Crystal’s alright, although she’s alone.” Isabel’s voice over the speaker sounded strained, and Ryan tried not to look worried. Things could definitely be worse, Ryan. Be glad they’re as good as they are.

The corner she had said would be a good stop was ahead. Ryan could see why wide open intersection, plenty of paths to run down if the Minotaur showed up. “Nah,” Ryan turned towards the camera and put on his best smile of brotherly reassurance. “She’s got you. Let us know if anything changes, squirt. We’re going to get some rest.”

“Will do. Take care, dickbutt. You guys are wiped so I’m going to shut down the cameras on these drones to conserve power – I’ll keep audio going.”

“Thanks. Catch you later on.”

Dianmu was giving him a furrowed brow and half grin as he turned away from the drones that began to settle onto the ground.  “Dickbutt?” she asked, the word sounding odd in her prim tones.

“I started calling her squirt to get a rise out of her awhile back. We were little, so the best insult she had to come back with was dickbutt.” Ryan grinned at the memory – their parents had been trying so hard to stay angry at the use of bad words, but in hindsight they were fighting back laughter. “We got older and forgot about it, until later on this drawing started going around the internet of…well, a character called dickbutt, who was exactly what the name said. She immediately started calling me it again, I started calling her squirt, and the rest is history.”

Dianmu let out a huff of laughter. “I’m shocked you needed Anansi to push you to reach out to her. Seems like you are fairly close.”

Ryan gently lowered himself to the ground with Dianmu’s help. The leg twinged, but the cut was already healing. “Things got rough for a bit after our parents died. That plus not being sure about drawing her into the craziness on top of being just caught up in everything… you lose track of things.”

“I remember my Nascancy,” she said, settling down on the opposite wall. “Even though it was some time ago. It was…chaotic, to say the least.”

“I’d love to hear about it,” Ryan prompted. It struck him as the words came out of his mouth that he didn’t really know anything about the woman sitting across from him. She was calm and collected, could fight well, and had a good head on her shoulders…but it suddenly bothered him that they were fighting together for the fate of the world, and he’d never really asked her much about herself.”

“Another time, perhaps,” Dianmu gave a sad smile. “It would make a good campfire story.”

Ryan nodded. “Fair enough. But I’d still want to chat to take care of that social Hunger, if that’s alright with you.”

“I would love that,” Dianmu’s smile brightened. “And I appreciate you didn’t immediately go for the carnal option. I don’t fill that Hunger in that way with companions unless life or death depends on a recharge. Tends to make things messy.”

“I can see that. For me…I guess I haven’t really decided on a personal rule like that yet. Seems like I’m behind everyone else.”

“Oh, you’ll catch up.” Dianmu reached out to conjure up a small ball of flame like they had before. “Give it a century or two. At that point, you’ll be a bundle of habits and tiny little rituals you barely even notice, and they’ll change slowly, if ever.”

“Yeah? Such as?”

“Crystal and that ridiculous accent, or the fact that I need an open flame nearby if I’m going to sleep. I thought Anansi and his climbing were like that, but apparently he had that back when he was mortal.” She shrugged. “Everyone has them, even mortals. They just become more pronounced over the years.”

Ryan finally remembered to twist the equations that governed the hardness of the stone he was sitting on, giving himself a nice cushion. He conjured up some extra cushioning of air behind his back, since actually deforming the wall would probably have gotten pushback, and he was tired. “So glad this place let’s twists stay without maintenance,” he said as she settled into his new seat. “So why do they get more pronounced?”

Dianmu nodded in firm agreement with the first statement before answering the second, “I can’t speak for all of us, but for myself, they’re tied to memories. The fire, for example,” she gestured towards the ball of flame. “I met Lei Gong when I came across a strange fire. He was still mortal then, and didn’t realize I was a goddess. It was the first normal conversation I’d had with a mortal in…centuries, at least. I’m too jaded to believe in love at first sight, but it was…infatuation at first meeting. Small fires remind me of that conversation, and because of that I can recall every detail.”

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

Dianmu gave him an appreciative bow of her head, but that smile returned. “It took me a decade to find a nanoverse for him. In that time, I thought I’d only have a mortal lifetime with him. I mourned him when we were apart. Then when I got him his nanoverse, I thought we might have a few centuries before we drifted apart, as divine couples usually do. I instead got four millennia with the greatest man I ever knew. I appreciate your sympathy, but I consider myself one of the most blessed gods to have ever walked this Earth, in this age or any other.”

Ryan smiled at the passion in her voice. “That’s a great way of looking at it.”

“I thought so.” She turned her face back to the fire. “That’s why I’m here, you know. Crystal told us, long ago, that this would come. The world would have an Eschaton, and it would need to end or the world would burn in solar flames. She didn’t tell many people back in those days, and although she was my friend, I thought it was some of her madness. But Lei Gong believed, and he insisted we try to find some proof that she was right.”

Ryan leaned forward, frowning. “Did you?”

Dianmu shook her head. “Nothing definitive. Some small things, faint evidence that showed that perhaps she was telling the truth – tectonic stresses, odd twists that lingered, the silver tree in Africa that I finally know came from Anansi – but nothing we could prove with certainty. But Lei Gong believed. I realized I didn’t need proof, just his belief. That and my friend’s word.” She gave Ryan a smile. “The good news is, if Crystal is wrong or crazy, there’s no harm.”

Ryan blinked. “Uh…I never thought she was, but why would it be okay if she was?”

“Because, Ryan Smith, she told us how you end the world. With a power no other god has, one directly channeled in your staging area. If she’s wrong…it won’t work. I just wish she remembered how it worked sooner – I honestly believe those who oppose us do so out of disbelief and fear what we might do. But if they knew you ending the world depended on a power that only could exist if Crystal was telling the truth…” she trailed off, letting Ryan finish the thought.

“Then why bother fighting us?” he smiled. “We can tell everyone though! Now that she remembered, now that we know, we can…” he saw Dianmu’s frown. “We can’t?”

“They’d think it’s a lie to lure them into complacency. Maybe some will believe, but…” She shook her head. “I think that ship has sailed.”

Ryan slumped back into his air and soft stone seat. “Damn. They do realize that if we’re right, they’re going to be inside the sun, right?”

“And if we’re not, then we are a bunch of zealots who want to end the world for a doomsday prophecy.”

When she put it that way, Ryan couldn’t find a reason to argue. He sighed. “Guess we’ll just keep on going the way we are.”

Dianmu smiled. “All we can do.” She took out a protein bar from her pack, and tossed one to Ryan. “Hungry?”

“Yes.” He opened it up. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to hear how you and Lei Gong met.”

Dianmu’s eyes lit up, and she finished her bite quickly. “Well, like I said, it was a campfire and he was alone…”

Ryan leaned back for the story. It was the most animated he’d seen Dianmu yet.

He hoped the others were having it as easy as they were right now.

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Strange Cosmology Part 69

The best part about being King of Hell was the parties.

Okay, that was a lie. Pretty much everything about being King of Hell was the best part, but at that moment, as far as Arthur was concerned, the parties were the best part. Not that he was taking part in this one. His office overlooked it, and he really wanted to go down and join the revelers, a swelling crowd of demons and Fallen and mortals with a couple gods mixed in. Give me another century, and this place will put Empyrean Provocation out of business.

Unfortunately, he didn’t have another century. Uriel sat on the other side of the desk, a pair of glasses on her nose. They served no purpose but appeal, and Arthur appreciated the effect they had combined with the tight ponytail and framed by her red wings and black dress. “That’s all the time we have?” Arthur asked, frowning.

Uriel nodded. Arthur clenched a fist, though he was careful not to direct his anger at her. She was Queen of Hell in all but name – something Arthur wanted to fix before the end of this age of the world – and even putting aside the fact that he loved her, Arthur didn’t like shooting the messenger. “The Mayans accurately predicted the year that the Last Nanoverse would come into being. Since it wasn’t found until five years later, we lost a good deal of time.”

“Wait, the Mayans had the prediction? You knew this was coming?”

Her wings bristled at his tone. “You forget I am an angel sometimes, I think. I’ve witnessed the rebirth of the world every time it happened. I’m as old as creation. Of course I knew.”

“Then why…” he took a deep breath, calming himself. Putting himself in her shoes. “Because we can’t directly interfere in it, right? One of those stupid rules we’re stuck with. So there was no point talking about it until we were actually involved.”

Uriel smiled as her own tension faded. “Down here, we have the loophole of being able to make deals. Michael and the forces of Heaven can literally do nothing that impacts the outcome of this.”

Arthur walked over to his seat and leaned back, pressing his fingertips together as he did. It was a comfortable leather swivel chair these days, although it had once been a throne of skull and bone. Unlike the last person to sit in it, Arthur wasn’t the self-flagellating sort. “So we need to be very careful with how we fulfill any contact made with Ryan.”

“Yes.” Her forehead furrowed, and she bit her lip. It was her thinking face, and it also drove Arthur wild. “You have a thought about our outstanding contract?”

Instead of directly answering, Arthur swiveled his chair so he was looking back out the window again. Even in profile, she could see the thoughts turning.

Between them on the desk sat her find – a pristine, untouched nanoverse, the first of the new era.

“Uriel,” he asked slowly. “Hypothetically speaking, what would happen to us if the Eschaton loses?”

“We’d have a massive influx of new souls, for starters. Every one of our followers, and every sinner of Michael’s faith.  And then we’d become static. Other angels and faiths and gods handle other worlds – our dominion is only of Earth. If the world ends, we have no more say in what transpires in the universe.”

Arthur’s frown deepened, and he tapped his chin. “What about humans on other worlds?”

Now it was Uriel’s turn to take time to think. “We’d be able to make a claim for dominion. The Curators would be the final arbiters of that, but I see no reason for them to rule against us.”

“Bureaucrats and rules are our specialty.” Arthur snapped his fingers, and a copy of Ryan’s contract appeared in his fingers. They hadn’t actually signed a contract, not in the physical sense, but once they had shaken hands it had become reality. “’We are to deliver this new nanoverse,’” Arthur read, “’the first of the Next Age, to Isabel Smith. In return, Ryan Smith or – in the event of his death – Pallas Athena will owe us a favor of magnitude equivalent to the gift of immortality and divine power.’ There’s a lot of wiggle room there.”

Uriel frowned. Arthur had a feeling she wouldn’t like this plan. “My liege?” The bite in her tone made it clear he was right. She only called him that when she was pissed or playful, and it certainly wasn’t the latter.

“Well, it doesn’t say anything about where and when we are to deliver it, or whom is to deliver it.”

“I did notice that, yes.”

Arthur sighed. “Uriel, love, we got into this for the same reason. We both want what’s best for humanity, right?”

“Yes,” Uriel shook her head. “Arthur, the problem isn’t that your plan is likely underhanded and duplicitous. You promised. No more secrets, not between us. Spit it out.”

“Oh.” Arthur sat up straighter. “Sorry about that, old habits. You can travel pretty much anywhere in reality, even Tartarus, right?” Uriel nodded, leaning forward. “So you’re going to go there, find Moloch, and offer him a deal…”

He laid out the plan for Uriel.

Ryan, Crystal, that whole group? They might never forgive Arthur for this. As Uriel got up and vanished to carry out his orders, Arthur realized he didn’t care. He reached over to roll the unclaimed nanoverse back and forth on his desk.

Sorry about this, Ryan, he thought, but I’m going to end up on the winning side, no matter what.

He just had one more call to make before he could join the party. He grabbed the ‘phone’ and pressed a few runes.

“Michael, buddy, how’s it going? So I know you’re still a bit peeved about how things went down, but I have an opportunity I’d like to run by you…”

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