Strange Cosmology Part 88

Once back inside the fortress, they took time tending to each other’s wounds, utilizing a combination of what little divine power they had left and normal bandages to make sure they were as ready to recuperate as possible. While Resheph would provide the bulk of the watch duties with the drones, it was decided they should take some time to be awake themselves, with Dianmu arguing that if Moloch managed to sneak something past the drones, someone needed to be alert enough to fight while the others were awoken.

No one said out loud that they also didn’t trust Resheph, not fully. It would have been easy for Moloch to spare him for exactly this purpose, and none of them wanted to risk a knife in the dark.

Crystal had to give her nanoverse an extra squeeze for a bit more energy so she could take first watch while the others slept. They each took a two hour turn to make sure everyone got a chance to feed that Hunger. Ryan was after Dianmu, who awoke him with a shake on his shoulder.

“Ugh,” he grunted as he peeled his eyes open, blinking away the sleep. “We didn’t bring coffee. Why did we not bring coffee?”

Dianmu gave him a small smile at the comment. “Because none of us are prescient. A shame. I think I’d fight a Hecatoncheires for a cup of coffee.”

Ryan could only grunt in agreement as he swung his legs over to the side and forced himself to his feet. He ran his hands over his face as he did. “I motion that we start treating caffeine as an actual Hunger going forward. Back me on that when everyone else is up?”

“Absolutely,” Dianmu said, stepping back. “I’m honestly surprised we didn’t start doing that ages ago. It’s the nectar of the gods, after all.”

A smile crept its way across Ryan’s face at that, and he pushed himself to his feet. “No movement?” he asked.

“Some. Nothing too concerning.” Dianmu shrugged. “It seems Moloch wants to take the time to focus his attack on the Olympian’s defenses. A small group has been set up as a rear-guard to be ready for an attack by us. Another dozen Helhests, with some form of goat-monster I haven’t seen before. A custom creation of his, I think.”

Ryan groaned at the thought. “That’s why he took the nanoverses, isn’t it? So he can kill of gods at his leisure, calling up new monsters as needed.”

“So it would seem.” Dianmu curled her lips into a grimace at the thought. “I should have killed him when I had the chance.”

That made Ryan sit up straighter, blasting away the last cobwebs of sleep from his brain. “You had a chance to kill him?”

Dianmu got a faraway look. “It was back in the second century of the Roman calendar, the year 2789 by how the Han Dynasty counted years. The general Ban Chao sent an envoy to the west. Gan Ying. I went with them, to ensure the trip was a success and because I was curious. We came across a small cult that was forming in the Parthian empire. One of the local gods, Anahita, had been killed, and I was asked by Ahura Mazda to help them root out the killer.”

Ryan tilted his head. “Why did…Ahura Mazda?” Dianmu nodded and he continued, “why did Ahura Mazda asked for your help? Couldn’t they handle it themselves?”

“They absolutely could have, yes. However, a goddess was dead, and they knew very little of this cult, so they were all suspecting each other. Ahura Mazda wanted an impartial judge, one who was not a suspect. They were also busy with a terrible Div that had arisen from her death.” Dianmu looked at Ryan’s expression and laughed. “I’ve lost you. Too many names you’ve never heard before?”

Ryan rubbed the back of his neck with a sheepish smile. “I’m going to go ahead and blame it on not getting my fill of sleep yet.”

“Fair,” Dianmu laughed. “Ahura Mazda was the head of his pantheon, when he had one. He was a wise ruler – Zeus without the propensity to perversion.”

“Was?” Ryan interjected, frowning as he did.

The laughter died on Dianmu’s lips. “He was the sole god of his faith for most of his history. By the time I left, he was again the sole god worshipped in his faith.”

Ryan sucked air between his teeth at the thought. “Moloch?”

“Yes. We tracked him down, and Ahura Mazda and myself did battle with Moloch’s creatures. For nearly twelve straight hours we fought against his monsters, to the point of utter exhaustion. He seemed to never run out of new creatures to throw at us. What we didn’t know was that was what Moloch wanted. We were never his real targets – the rest of the gods of the region were.” Dianmu sighed. “He’d thought, as many later did, that Anahita and Ishtar were one in the same. After he killed her, when he learned he was wrong, he decided to wipe them all out.”

“That’s…that’s pretty sick.” Ryan rubbed the back of his neck to try and push down some of the hairs standing on ends there. “I killed the wrong person, better kill everyone while I’m at it?”

Dianmu grimaced “It’s perfectly in line with the logic I’ve always known him to employ.”

“I…really need to ask Crystal why she thought we could work with him,” Ryan muttered.

“Because Crystal, for all the millenia I’ve known her, under any name I’ve known her by, will always give someone a second chance if they seem sincere. No matter what they’ve done, no matter how monsterous, she’s never not given that second chance.” Dianmu met Ryan’s eyes, “I can’t imagine, now that we know her full story, any reason she might be so forgiving.”

“Heh,” Ryan said without a trace of humor. “Fair. Sorry, I diverted the conversation. So you and Ahura Mazda were fighting Moloch’s monsters? You said you had the chance to kill him.”

Dianmu sighed. “I suppose it was a bit of an overstatement to say we could have killed him. The two of us were overmatched, too many of Moloch’s creatures, backed by the Div he’d created from Anahita’s death. But I’ve often wondered, if we had pushed harder, if I’d gone and gotten backup from my own people – even just brought my husband into it – if maybe we could have won.” She met Ryan’ gaze again, more firmly than before. “It’s a game you’ll find yourself playing over the centuries, Ryan. ‘What if I had…’ Take a piece of advice from an old goddess?”

Ryan nodded.

“Stop playing the game as soon as you’ve learned your lesson for next time. No one has the power to change the past, not here in the real world. You’ll go mad thinking you can undo what you have wrought.”

“I…” Ryan had to lick his lips, finding his mouth feeling dryer all of a sudden. “I’ll try.”

“That’s all anyone can ask.” Dianmu smiled and patted him on the shoulder. “One more piece of advice, since you’re in a listening mood?”

Ryan nodded again, unsure of what to expect.

“Life is not eternal, even for us. We go tomorrow to fight against monsters lead by a worse monster.” She glanced over to where Athena lay, snoring gently, then back at Ryan. “Do not wait too long to act on things you could lose.”

Ryan cleared his throat, feeling his face flush. Dianmu smiled at him, and Ryan groped for a new subject. “Hey, something your story reminded me of that I’ve been wondering about that.” Ryan asked, scratching his chin as he did. “Athena and I fought dozens of mummies and manticores. Moloch’s got dozens of Helhests out there, and there was a whole army of Varcolaci on Graham Island. Were those all dead gods?”

Dianmu’s eyes sparkled with amusement at the topic change. “No. The death of a god creates a monster. Varcolaci, Helhests, manticores, demons, undead? Those are all born from the death of a mortal being.”

Ryan frowned. “How do you tell the difference?”

Dianmu gave him a wry grin. “A single creature doesn’t stand a chance against a god. A single monster does…well, would you rather face a lone Helhest, or a lone Lindworm?”

“Fair enough.” Ryan said with a shudder at the thought. “Anyway, I should go take my watch. And you should get the rest of your sleep.”

Dianmu nodded. “I do hope you consider my advice, Ryan Smith. Both of them.” And then, before he could speak further, she got up and headed towards her bed.

Ryan could head to join Resheph and the drones on watch. It would be his turn to wake up Athena in two hours. Plenty of time for you to chicken out of doing anything, he thought to himself with another sigh.

Strange Cosmology Part 64

Every other time Ryan had slept since becoming had becoming a god, it had been a dreamless sleep. If he had been asked before this night, he would have said he didn’t think gods dreamed.

Tonight put that belief to rest.

He was in a lecture hall, one from his old college, and awkwardly holding his nanoverse – which was thankfully the size of a basketball – in his lap. This was a very good thing to have in his lap at that moment, because it was the only thing concealing any part of his body. Snickers were coming from the students nearby him. They were, he realized, Dianmu and Bast, Dianmu on his right and Bast on his left. Isabel was behind him he realized glancing around, her eyes focus on the instructor as she seethed with anger at her brother embarrassing her like this. Two people sat to her left and right that Ryan didn’t recognize – an Indian woman to the left, and an older man, dressed in some kind of military uniform to the right.

Ryan thought it was terribly unfair that everyone was laughing at him, although the Indian woman was looking more judgmental than amused. But still, shouldn’t someone point out the military guy had empty sockets for eyes that were currently dripping blood? Surely that was more embarrassing that being naked.

Athena sat in front of him, and hadn’t noticed he was naked yet. This was probably a good thing. What would she think? Crystal and Anansi sat to her left and right respectively, and they hadn’t noticed yet either.

The teacher had. Those tiny, beady eyes gave him a sneer. “Mr. Smith. I see you couldn’t bother to properly fucking dress for class.” The three in front of him turned to look at him. Crystal burst out laughing, Anansi rolled his eyes and muttered something about “needing attention,” and Athena looked like she wanted to throw up.

Suddenly, everyone stared straight ahead and clapped as one, a deep and thunderous sound. There were others in the lecture as well, dozens and dozens. After the clap, the turned back towards Ryan and resumed laughing. Ryan felt himself turning red.

It was even worse when he realized he’d never attended this class before. He had no idea what the subject even was.

“Settle down, setting the fuck down,” Enki shouted, and the laughter slowly drifted away. Only it wasn’t Enki alive anymore, it was a charred skeleton of him, pulsing with cancerous masses of nanoverses that oozed along the skeleton. “Now, we have a guest lecturer, yes we fucking do.” The skeleton, impossibly, smiled wide. “Moloch?”

Moloch stepped onto the podium, leaning into it. Enki stepped back, now the handsome visage he had worn on camera. He leaned over to whisper in Tyr’s ear, who was apparently over there, and they both gave Ryan grins as their teeth fell out and blood began to pour from their pours.

“Now then, everyone,” Moloch said, drawing attention. “Today’s lecture is quite simple.” The Power Point slid into place, and a photo of Ryan standing there with a huge hole in his head slipped into place. “How to kill this idiot. Everyone look to the center of the room, yes dears, that’s it. You can see he’s sitting there naked and completely oblivious. Mr. Smith. Can you tell me what class this is?”

“N-n-no,” Ryan stammered.

Everyone turned straight ahead and let out a single clap again. It wasn’t so much a sound as something Ryan could feel. Like nothing happened, Moloch sneered. “Of course not. It’s How to End the World Without Being a Monster. 101. Yet another class you’ll fail, I’m sure. Now, Ms. Crystal, you failed last semester. Perhaps you can tell us how to kill an Eschaton?”

Crystal stood up and turned around to face Ryan. “Oh, it’s easy love.” She pulled out her nanoverse and threw it at Ryan, bouncing it off his head.

“Ow!” Ryan growled, rubbing at the impact point.

“You just,” she bounced it off his head again. He tried to catch it this time, but his hands were sluggish and wouldn’t move. “Keep on,” another bounce, this one harder. “Hitting him until,” yet another, and Ryan felt an anger welling up in him. “He wakes up.”

Wait, that doesn’t make sense.

There was another bounce, followed by one more instance of everyone staring forward and giving a monstrous clap. “Wake up,” Crystal whispered. “Wake-“

The dream ended. Ryan was awake, although barely, and a drone was bouncing off his head. “Up,” Isabel finished the dream sentence though the speakers of the drone that was coming down for his skull again.

He raised a hand to catch it, trying to get his mental bearings. “What the hell,” he almost shouted, but before he could go further Isabel was speaking again.

“Shhhhhh. Quiet. There’s something coming. Wake the others.”

Slowly, Ryan got off his soft stone and began to go from god to goddess, shaking them gently with a finger pressed to his lips. They gathered up their packs as quickly as possible, hearts pounding. He could hear a slow, rhythmic sound in the distance, growing steadily closer. A monstrous sound, almost like a clap. No, not quite clap. They’re more like…

CLOP.

Athena went white when she heard the sound. “We have to move,” she said in a hushed tone, motioning for the other gods to follow. Going back the way they came was out of the question – those little daggers had reappeared in the ground while they slept, and dealing with them while fighting with whatever made that immense sound and had Athena so afraid was out of the question.

CLOP.

“To the right,” Isabel whispered through the speakers. “I checked ahead.”

“What is it?” Ryan hissed back. Another sound had joined the repeated and slow clopping. A deep sound like a shovel being dragged on concrete, but slowed down and magnified.

“Quiet,” Crystal growled, glancing at Athena. Apparently, Crystal knew what it was as well. From her concerned look, so did Dianmu. Anansi wasn’t smiling, so Ryan supposed he and Isabel were the only clueless ones right now.

CLOP.

They barely ducked into the narrow passageway to the right before the thing rounded the corner. Ryan gestured as they did, pulling in the stone walls shut behind them. He felt the Labyrinth resist him, and knew he’d need to focus to hold this in place. Especially because he left himself a small vertical slit to peer through.

Behind him, everyone else raised their weapons.

CLOP.

The source of the clopping stepped into view. It was smaller than Ryan expected. The waist of the brute ‘only’ came up to Ryan’s eye level. It had four arms, and was dragging a pair of halberds behind it with each step. It was covered in thick, brown fur. All of that crossed Ryan’s mind in an instant, but his gaze lingered on its head. It looked like someone had shoved a hyena’s jaw into a bull’s skull and replaced the horns with those of a goat, one pair curled back and another pair curled forward. Three human skulls hung from each of those horns from lose twine, and it wore a necklace of ears.

CLOP.

That next step carried it back out of sight. Ryan held the walls of the Labyrinth, which apparently did not agree with modification, as long as he could. No one dared move until the next disproportionally loud footstep sounded. Then, Anansi tapped Ryan’s shoulder. “You can let go, but stay silent,” he said, almost in Ryan’s ear.

Ryan let the walls snap back into place, letting out a long and slow breath as he did. He wiped sweat off his forehead and glanced at the others.

CLOP. Pause. CLOP.

This one was further. It had rounded the corner.

“The minotaur?” Ryan muttered then, getting nods from the other four. His eyebrow furrowed. “We’ve taken on…lots of things. Shouldn’t we just, y’know, blast it?”

Crystal’s hands flew to her mouth like she was trying to fight laughter. For an irrational moment Ryan’s brain, still clearing off the cobwebs that hadn’t been blasted away by adrenaline, wanted to demand she stop laughing and help him find some damn pants. “No,” Dianmu said, her voice quiet. “This is its domain. It cannot be simply outfought like the skeleton.”

“I wouldn’t call that simple,” Ryan said, glad to hear the clops receding.

Dianmu met his eyes. “Nor would I.”

Ryan swallowed hard. “Well, at least it’s past-“

Suddenly, the Minotaur let out a roar. The sound was low and powerful, reverberating with primal fury that echoed through the hallways like a physical force.

“It has our sent,” Athena said, her face tight. “We should move. The Minotaur is slow – we can get a good lead.”

The clops began to grow slowly louder, and needing no more encouragement, the gods turned to run down the hallway, crossing their fingers no traps awaited them further along.

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