Small Worlds Part 189

The trip back to the core world was done in silence. Anansi attempted a couple times to engage Arachne in conversation, but she just stood there, tensely watching Athena, not saying anything. Athena didn’t think she could blame the woman. Last time they had been in the staging area together, Athena had turned her into a spider and left her trapped. I can only imagine what she’s thinking right now, Athena thought.

“We’re here,” Athena said.

Arachne practically ran out of the staging area. Athena had brought them to Athens, feeling taking Arachne to the city that had once been her home was appropriate. Arachne took a deep breath, then immediately scowled. “What did you do to the air?” she asked, looking over her shoulder at Anansi.

The trickster shrugged and answered. “Assuming you mean ‘you’ in the general sense, a lot has changed while you were gone. Technology has advanced greatly. With it has come pollution.”

Arachne’s scowl deepend. “I’m familiar. It happened whenever a world industrialized in that hell. I just thought it was a reflection of how toxic the universe’s mistress was, not a natural phenomena.”

Athena winced but didn’t try to argue.

“I hear…vehicles?” Arachne frowned. “Yes, vehicles. Once that still burn fossil fuel, from the smell.” Arachne sighed, and shot Athena a glare. “You would bring me out during the worst era of a civilization’s life cycle. At least tell me vaccines are around?”

“Uh,” Anansi said, clearly thrown off his feet a bit by Arachne’s concerns. “Yes, although there’s a movement right now claiming they’re bad.”

“Of course there is. Of course.” Arachne sighed. “Good to know we humans are still capable of immense stupidity. Oh well. Maybe I’ll enjoy this era more being able to participate in it, as opposed to watching it from a web. Have we split the atom?”

Anansi nodded.

“Then we can’t be too far from cold fusion. Things always get better after cold fusion is discovered.”

“Well, we might not get to that point.” Anansi said with a grimace. “It might be the last age of the world.”

Arachne frowned. “Explain,” she said.

“The world is facing a unique apocalypse. The last nanoverse has been found, and the Eschaton has to end the world or the sun will explode. We’re trying to find a way to preserve humanity in the process.”

“You jest,” Arachne said quietly.

“I wish I did.”

Arachne turned her gaze to Athena. “It wasn’t just guilt,” she said softly, studying Athena. “You…you were worried you were out of time. You thought you might not survive, and didn’t want to die with what happened to me weighing on you.”

“And I didn’t want you to die if my nanoverse was destroyed,” Athena said between dry lips.

“Of course you told yourself. Stars of Olympus, is there anything you don’t do out of guilt?” Arachne asked.

Athena turned away, unable to meet Arachne’s gaze anymore. You didn’t do this because you thought it would be easy, she reminded herself.

“What did you tell people happened to me?” Arachne asked.

“I told them…” Athena took a deep breath. “I told them that you outwove me. That you challenged me and bested me, and for that I transformed you into a spider. I wanted to look like the arrogant one, the wrathful one.”

Arachne studied her for a moment, then shook her head. “I’m impressed. You’ve actually convinced yourself of that. Tell me, Athena, when people tell this story, is it a story of your wrath? Of your arrogance? Was the story told with the moral of ‘do not draw Athena’s ire, she’ll turn you into a spider’? Or was the story about my hubris. How I challenged a goddess and was punished for it?”

“I tried to keep the lesson-”

“You are a goddess! I refuse to believe you ‘tried’ to keep it anything and failed.” Arachne’s hands were clenched into fists, the knuckles turning white. The trembled in rage, and Arachne’s back was stiff.

Athena again looked away. Anansi was still nearby, watching with a neutral expression. He probably thinks I deserve this, Athena thought. He’s probably right. Why had it taken her so long to free Arachne? Why had she just left the woman to rot?

“Do you remember my Trial, Athena?” Arachne asked.

“Of course,” Athena whispered, her voice hoarse. “I wanted to teach you…I was trying to teach humility, so I gave you an impossible Trial, to defeat me. You found another way to win.”

Arachne gave her a nod. “I never completed my Trial. I want to, right now. I will not have any ties remaining between us. I will fight you, I will defeat you without any external aid. Then – and only then – do I want to hear more about this supposed apocalypse.” Arachne looked around. “We’ll have to go somewhere else. Are there still empty spaces in this world, where we can fight without collateral.”

Athena nodded. “There’s somewhere nearby. You won’t need to use my staging area to get there.”

“Where is it?”

“The same site of your first attempt. It was always too rocky to be worth building on.”

Arachne nodded and began to set off on foot in the direction Athena indicated. Athena turned to follow, but felt a gentle hand on her elbow before she could start to walk. “Are you sure this is wise?” Anansi asked in a low voice. “Arachne has every reason to want you dead. Or worse.”

Athena calmly shook her elbow free. “It probably isn’t. But it must be done. It’s only right I deal with the consequences of my crime.”

“As you wish.” Anansi turned to follow. “I’ll officiate this fight. Someone needs to. And you will give me your nanoverse to hold for the fight. I refuse to allow you to risk your life, especially right now.”

“And if I don’t?” Athena asked.

“Then I’ll shall chastise you until you eat your heel.”

That got a glimmer of a smile out of Athena. “Very well. Thank you.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out the black sphere, giving it one quick squeeze for power before handing it over to Anansi.

Then she left, heading to a battle that was five millenia overdue.

Small Worlds Part 185

Reverend Jeremy Howard pulled himself up, risking another glance out the window. Billy and Sally were still out there, heads closed together, having a whispered conversation. Whatever they were talking about it, it didn’t seem to be going well, not based off of the way Sally was gesturing towards the building that held the refugees or the firm shakes to Billy’s head.

“We’re going to die, aren’t we?” Someone said inside.

The Reverend turned to face the speaker. It was Nelly, sitting with her knees curled up to her chin, the shotgun resting across it. “We’re going to die,” she repeated. “We survived the goddamn mummies and the goddamn Antichrist and now we’re going to die to whatever these things are.”

It wasn’t her words that scared the Reverend. Nelly had always been prone to complaining. No, what scared the Reverend was the dull, flat tone. This wasn’t Nelly griping, this wasn’t even Nelly scared. This was Nelly utterly resigned to what was going to happen. Looking around the room, the Reverend saw more of that in the eyes of the huddled mass in the police station. Not fear, not anger, just a hollow look to their eyes. These people had been through hell, and had hit the limit of what the human spirit could endure.

“No, we won’t,” Jeremy said, his voice firm. Those hollow eyes all turned towards him.

“How can you say that, Reverend?” Nelly asked. The Reverend had hoped her voice would pick back up some of that fire at being contradicted, but it was still lifeless. “They’re picking us off that their leisure. We’re…we’re cows, Reverend. They’re keeping us alive because they’re not hungry yet.”

“Better die than become one of those things,” a voice said from the back of the room. There were nods around. The Reverend focused his eyes on the speaker.

“I’m not going to say you’re wrong, John, but you make it sound like there are only those two options.”

“What else can we do? We can’t fight those things, Reverend. We can’t even hit them.”

“We can have faith,” The Reverend said, his voice firm.

“Faith?” Nelly snorted in disbelief. “How can you talk about faith right now? We’ve had faith, Reverend. Lord knows how much faith I had. And look what it brought us!”

“We’re still alive,” The Reverend said.

“So, what?” Nelly snapped, and the Reverend felt relief in the face of her anger. At least she was caring. “You’re trying to say the people who died out there didn’t have strong enough faith? You’re blaming them?”

He shook his head. “No, Nelly,” he said softly. “I’d never dare suggest that. The Lord may be omnipotent, but he does not shield us so directly. We were granted free will, and that means men and women may choose evil.”

“These aren’t men and women!” Nelly stood up now, her eyes blazing. “These are monsters, Reverend. They’re supernatural creatures, they’re demons. They’re beyond us!”

“The Lord works-” Jeremy started to say, and Nelly cut him off with a harsh laugh.

“I swear to God, Reverend, if you say ‘in mysterious ways,’ I’ll shoot you myself.”

Jeremy shook his head. “No. You know I hate that line. It’s a preacher giving up on trying to explain, trying to mollify when no other words will do. The Lord’s ways may be mysterious to us mere men and women, but what I was going to say was that the Lord works through good men and women. The Lord works through our strength, our determination, our faith.”

“So, what are you suggesting? We go out there, guns blazing, and hope because we’re faithful a bunch of demon cat monsters that used to be our friends run away.”

Jeremy shook his head. “We can’t do that. What we do is we hold out, and we trust the Lord to provide the means of our salvation.”

“And what form do you expect this salvation to take? A chior of angles with holy swords? A bunch of knights in shining armor? A goddamn bolt from Heaven?”

“The last time we faced a supernatural threat, the Lord provided.”

That got a stir from the entire crowd. “You’re telling me that you expect the Lord to save us through a false god? Through the damn Antichrist?” Nelly asked.

Jeremy gave her a wide smile. “He did so before. Maybe not Ryan again. Maybe Athena this time. Or that friend of theirs, Crystal. Or maybe it will be another one of these false gods. Perhaps it will be a choir of angels with holy swords.”

The Reverend began to pace, the way he did when he was on the pulpit. “We may live in a time of horrors, unimaginable horrors. But we also live in a time of miracles. The ‘gods’ were men and women, once. The Lord absolutely can still work through their actions, even though they claim to be things they should not. And I don’t believe he’s the Antichrist. I don’t believe any of them are. If any of them were, I believe Enki was the most likely one, and he’s dead now.”

The Reverend began to lock eyes with some of them in turn. “John, when the mummies began to swarm our town, you were up in the bell tower on that old radio of yours, letting people know where the safe zones were. Nelly, you were right there with me. Jim, you held one of those things off with a carving knife and a frying pan. Karen, don’t think I didn’t hear about what you did with that chainsaw, that was mighty impressive and mighty stupid. We were able to hold off long enough for the Lord to send us help.”

“Well, they’re not here,” Nelly said firmly. “I’m not too keen on waiting around for the…for whatever they are to show up and save us. I don’t believe they were sent by the Lord, Reverend. I think we got lucky they showed up for the mummies, and didn’t show up for us. I think if we wait for the Lord to send help, we’re all going to die.”

The Lord helps those who help themselves, the Reverend thought, but didn’t say. He didn’t want to give Nelly the answer. He wanted her to say it herself. “Then what would you rather do?”

“Damnit, Reverend, I don’t know. But I know I’m not going to sit around and wait to die.”

Nods were going around the room, and the Reverend had to hide a smile. The fire was back in their stomachs. They weren’t waiting to die anymore.

He didn’t know if he believed the Lord would sent those false gods to save them. He didn’t know if there was any help coming. But he knew these people had hope again.

For now, that would be enough.

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Small Worlds Part 177

Of all the traits, rhinoceroses were not known for their keen vision. Quite the opposite, in fact – the Sphinx pushing its way into the room was initially as blurry as the optometrists bottom row was to someone with severe myopia. It was taking Isabel some time to sort out what she was seeing.

Fortunately, the rhino’s hearing and vision were working perfectly fine  Unfortunately, the Sphinx’s reeked of lion, one of the few creatures able to hunt and kill rhinos. Even worse, it didn’t scare the rhino’s soul Isabel was sharing this body with.

It just pissed it off.

Before Isabel was entirely sure what she was doing, she’d lowered her head and pawed the ground in a warning gesture. Back the fuck off or I’ll run you down, she thought, a moment before her rational brain was able to assert itself. You’re here to talk, not to fight!

She barely felt Crystal’s hand on her flank. “Easy there, love.”

“You…brought a rhino…to the moon?” the Sphinx said slowly, enunciating each word carefully. “Why?”

“Figured I could use some backup if you didn’t want to talk, love.” Crystal’s tone was calm, her scent confident, and although the rhino was skittish at the scent of human, it helped Isabel assert more control. “Which is what we’re here to do. Talk.”

Isabel knew that last word was meant for her, and her ears flicked at the reproach.

“That answers my second question. I assume you want to talk about your first – why are you here?”

Crystal took a deep breath. “We need the staff of Ra.”

The faint amusement Isabel had heard in the Sphinx’s voice vanished. “You need my staff,” he said flatly.

Crystal’s scent changed to confusion. “You still think of yourself as Ra?”

“Of course I do,” the Sphinx said dismissively. “Why wouldn’t I?”

“I just…I didn’t think any memories of who you were before remained. After dying and becoming a…I mean, after you turn into…”

“A monster,” Ra said. “If you thought you would offend me, Ishtar, you are sorely mistaken. You humans have thought as me for a monster for quite some time.”

The situation didn’t seem to be escalating. Isabel shifted back to her human form, then stood up from all fours and brushed herself off. “You know each other?”

“I met Ra once,” Crystal said offhandedly.

“But I’ve never met you,” Ra said.

Now that she could see him, Isabel had to fight the urge to stare. His body was all leonine, although the fur ran closer to gold than the tawny color of a lion. It almost shone in the light. Being a rhino had also blinded her to the sheer size of Ra. He was far larger than a lion had any right to be, almost as large compared to a lion as a lion would be to a housecat. The face that was staring at her was similarly sized, a regal human head sitting atop those shoulders. “Um…Isabel Smith, sir,” Isabel said, fighting the urge to babble.

Ra’s head turned towards Crystal. “You brought a Nascent here?”

“She’s not Nascent,” Crystal said, putting a hand on Isabel’s shoulder. “Just new at this.”

Ra studied Isabel for a moment lower, and nodded. Isabel felt a surge of relief. Crystal had worded that very carefully – it was easy for Ra to assume Isabel was a full fledged goddess, and not a mortal with some shapeshifting tricks. That relief was quickly obliterated when Ra spoke again. “You have yet to convince me I shouldn’t gut you both,” he growled. “The staff is too dangerous to be out in the world. I’m here to prevent it from ever leaving.”

“Begging your pardon,” Crystal said, “but there are things more dangerous than the staff.”

“Such as?” Ra growled.

“The end of the world.”

Ra studied her for a moment, then began to laugh, a deep sound somewhere between real laughter and a roar. “You still cling to that myth about the Eschaton, Isthar? Even after all these years?”

“First of all,” Isabel interjected, “her name’s Crystal now. Second of all…myth? The sun’s getting hotter, right outside your moon base.”

Ra returned his attention to Isabel. “I do not venture out of here often,” Ra admitted, “but I find that hard to believe.”

“Don’t take my word for it. Step outside and see for yourself.”

Ra cocked his head at her in a very cat-like gesture of confusion. “And I can tell a difference of a few degrees? I am not some kind of temperature gauge – if it was hot enough for me to tell without air, the Earth would be cinders by now.”

“I could make air for you,” Crystal said helpfully.

“And just heat the air to suit your story? I think not.” Ra’s jaw stretched open in a lazy yawn. “I never trusted you, Ishtar. How did you escape Enki’s wrath?”

“I ran like a bloody coward,” Crystal’s voice was too bright with forced ease. “Can you blame me? He was off his sodding rocker, yeah?”

“So you claimed. He claimed you were the mad one. That was why I stayed out of your little spat. Too much…back and forth. No way to divine the truth.” Ra huffed out a breath. “Much like right now. You claim extraordinary things, and you offer no proof.”

“I can’t bloody prove it if you want me to wait!” Crystal snapped. “Endless stars, Ra, what could possibly prove it to you?”

Ra considered for a moment, then nodded in acceptance. “I suppose that is a fair point.”

“So you’ll help us?” Isabel asked.

“Oh no,” Ra said, stretching his back and extending his claws. “It just means the time for talk is past. I’d allow you to leave alive, but-”

Isabel glanced at Crystal, whose eyes were wide with sudden panic. If Crystal didn’t like her odds…how could they hope to fight Ra in these cramped quarters. She can’t fight because of me, Isabel realized. If she goes full power and Ra tears a hole in the wall, I’m dead.

“-know where I am. That cannot be tolerated, not-”

“We’re fighting Bast!” Isabel interjected with a wild shout. “She believes us, and she tried to kill my brother over it!”

Crystal stared at her. Ra stared at her. Isabel didn’t know what has possessed her to shout that specific warning. Some vague hope that a member of his own Pantheon would draw his attention, maybe. Or you just wanted to say anything to get him not to pounce.

Ra stared at her for a long pause, during which Isabel’s heartbeat spiked up to the point where it felt like it was going a thousand times a second. Then, slowly, Ra withdrew his claws, and settled back onto his haunches.

“Go on,” He said gradually. Crystal opened her mouth, but Ra shook his head. “No, Ishtar. You speak too quickly, and your words drip with the honey of your lies. I’ll hear this one. And then…then I’ll decide.”

“She knows more of the story than me,” Isabel said.

“I do not care,” Ra said, his voice empty of emotion. “I want to hear your version. Tell me the story, Isabel, and I’ll decide.”

Isabel took a deep breath and plunged ahead, praying for the best.

Small Worlds Part 173

Taking care of sleep had been easy for Horus. By the time he had dragged himself into his nanoverse, he was so tired he’d keeled over before properly forming a bed. Don’t think I’ve ever come that close to dying and survived, he thought, taking another bite out of a cold steak with the delicate refinement of a starving hound. Don’t think I want to ever again.

He swallowed the last bit of steak. That’s four Hungers down. There was just the fifth to take care of. Horus glanced over at his collection. Books he’d not gotten around to reading, movies he’d not yet seen, the standard ways to take care of that particular Hunger when there wasn’t companionship available.

Except there was someone who’s Company was available. Someone who was very close by, and someone who Horus dearly wanted to enjoy the company of. You should read a book, he told himself as he stood up. Or put in one of the movies, he thought as he walked out of his Nanoverse. They were good thoughts. They were rational thoughts.

Horus wasn’t feeling particularly rational at the moment.

Underneath those thoughts was a nastier line of thinking, an uglier one. One that had nothing to do with rationality, and everything to do with the primal, the base. A part of his mind that he was tired of ignoring, tired of letting slide.

He found her in what was once a clocktower, looking through the splintered glass and broken numerals to stare over the island. The wind was strong up here, whipping her hair back and pressing her loose fitting dress tight against one side as it billowed out on the other. She saw him coming, and with a gesture brought stillness to the air. “You recovered already,” Bast said simply. She took stock of him, glancing up and down, seeing the skin still red and white with burns and the way he swayed where he stood, still weak with the unfulfilled Hunger. “Or at least, you’re walking.”

Horus’ nostrils flared. “I nearly died, and that’s all you have to say to me?”

Bast laughed, a cold sound. He remembered her laughter once being warm, remembered it once set a shiver down his spine. Had her laughter changed so much? Or had the centuries of refusal soured his reaction? “What do you want me to say?” She brought a wrist up to her forehead dramatically, “oh thank you Horus, for saving me from the vile fiend!”

“I deserve something better than that!” Horus bellowed, and Bast’s smile faded, hard lines replacing mocker. “You’re not some fainting damsel, Bast, but you needed me to kill him for you!”

“Hardly,” Bast said with a dismissive wave of her hand. “I wanted assurance he would fall. Two on one are odds that are favorable, and you gave me an opening to land the coup de grace. If there had been a better option, I would have gone with that. Now, as always Horus, you are a tool.”

Horus nearly screamed in rage. “That’s not what you said beforehand! You said you needed me. Hours of Night, Bast, what will it take?”

“What will what take?” she asked, her voice level.

“You know what I want,” he nearly spat. “I want it even when I have no Hunger to drive me, but right now I’m half mad with want of you. With need for you.”

Bast pursed her lips. “Say it, Horus. If you want it so bad, say it.”

“I want you, Bast. I want you so badly it tears at me. I’ve wanted you for millennia, for countless centuries. You have spurned me at every opportunity, but today you gave me a quest. I fought the dragon for you. I stood against the monster. I was your knight in shining armor. And still you spurn me!

“So I owe you?” Bast said, gesturing to herself. “What is it of me you want, Hours? My mind, my heart, my body?”

“All of them,” Horus whispered, stepping closer. His voice was hoarse.

She didn’t step away. “And what do you offer?”

“My devotion,” he said, taking another step closer.

Again, she stood her ground, regarding him. “You have already given me that.”

Emboldened, he took another step. “My Hunger.”

She laughed, and now he found the sound warm again, warm and sweet and inviting. “You’re already begging me to fill that, Horus. Try again.”

“I will give you whatever you want.” They were almost face to face now, her peering up at him, close enough where he could practically feel her breath. He felt his hand tremble in anticipation. Yes. Finally, yes. “My love,  my live, my heart.”

Bast reached up and brushed her fingers against his chest. “Are you certain?”

“Yes,” Horus whispered.

“I accept,” Bast whispered, leaning in. Horus leaned towards her, his lips puckering, and just before they touched he had a moment where he and Bast plunged her fingers through his damaged skin. Horus let out a scream of sudden agony as he felt her shatter ribs and tear muscle with a single gesture, a scream that cut off in a ragged gasp as he felt her fingers close around his heart. She didn’t tear it out, not yet, instead holding it gently enough it could still beat. “What’s wrong?” she cooed in his ears. “Is this not what you meant?”

Horus could only gasp, flecks of blood flying from his lips.

“Don’t worry, Horus,” she said, her hand still halfway through his chest. The pain was immense, and Horus wasn’t sure how he managed to maintain consciousness. If he’d stopped to fill his need for Company, he would have had the power to fight this. With his Hungers not completely filled, however, he could do nothing. “You’re going to resurrect. I promise you that. Over. And over. And over. I think I’ll feed your heart to Cassandra next time. A constant, never ending food supply. Won’t that be wonderful?

Before Horus could speak, even to curse her name, Bast ripped his heart from his chest. The last thing he saw was her shudder with delight as she bit into it. Vision was fading but hearing remained just long enough to hear her mocking voice. “It’s funny, in away. In the end, you finally did get inside me.”

Then, darkness.

 

Small Worlds Part 168

As soon as he stepped foot on the island, Vlad found himself face-to-face with Horus. “Oh, my, Bast’s pet falcon,” Vlad said with a sneer. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your presence?” Horus opened his mouth, and Vlad waved away whatever Horus was about to say. “Nevermind, I don’t actually care. Whatever words you’re about to say, I’d prefer hearing them from your mistresses lips.”

Horus glowered as Vlad brushed past him. “You would do well not to dismiss me, monster.”

Vlad whirled to face Horus. “Ha!” he said, a single sound with all the mirth of the grave. “You have the audacity to call me a monster? You?”

“What are you implying?” Horus said through gritted teeth. “You are what you are.”

“Yes, but I am not in denial. You, on the other hand…you make yourself a slave to someone who is as much a monster as I am. For nothing. You really have become a joke, Horus. When are you getting a fedora?”

Horus blinked in confusion. “I don’t see what hats have to do with this.”

“Nevermind.” Vlad turned to walk away. “You’d think being immortal would come with a faint obligation to keep up with the times, but…”

Before Vlad could take a step, Horus’ hand lashed out and grabbed the vampire by the wrist. “I wasn’t done with you.”

Vlad looked at the hand, then back up into Horus’ eyes. “But I, Horus, am done with you. Release me.”

“No. I’ve had enough of you, vampire.

Vlad blinked in puzzlement. “We’ve barely spoken before this. Had enough of me? You barely even know me.”

Horus reached out into his nanoverse, pulling out a dagger to plunge into Vlad’s chest. Something in his eye betrayed the strike, and before the dagger could strike home, Vlad turned into a cloud of mist. Horus’ dagger passed harmlessly through the space the vampire had been occupying.

“I see,” Vlad said as he reformed, a dozen feet away and crouched on the roof of a building like a giant, grotesque bat. “You consider me a rival for Bast’s lack of affections? I assure you, you have nothing to worry about. She still loathes you slightly more than she does me.”

“Cease your prattle!” Horus shouted, reaching out to twist reality. Lightning surged forth from his fingertips, filling the air with the smell of ozone and a crack of thunder. Vlad was already removing as Horus shouted, turning into another cloud of mist. The lightning passed through the air Vlad had just vacated, arcing wildly until it found the truck of a long dead tree. The tree exploded in a deafening shower of splinters.

Vlad reformed and wasted no time with banter. He reached out to twist as well. The twist he made seemed unnatural to Horus’ eyes, something fundamentally wrong to what the vampire was doing to reality. A bolt of black energy lanced from the vampires hand. Horus dropped into a defensive posture, but before it reached him the bolt of energy split into a dozen individual streams that veered away from Horus. Each one struck the shadows of the buildings and trees that surrounded them.

The shadows took on the shapes of wolves and leapt for Horus. He kicked off the ground, propelling himself into the air with an additional twist of Air to lift himself. Impossible, Horus thought wildly as the shadow wolves took the shapes of great bats and flew into the air. And it should have been. Divine power worked by manipulating natural laws, but beings made of living shadow weren’t a manipulation, they were a straight violation of how reality worked. An impossibility.

For the first time, it occurred to Horus that Bast might have been holding back the true extent of her – and the vampire’s – powers.

No time for that. Horus thought, dismissing the doubts. He pushed himself higher into the air, and let out another bolt of lightning, arcing it to strike all the shadow creatures. He knew he was burning through power at an alarming rate, but without knowing what these creatures could do…

The lightning flashed through them, and their forms temporarily vanished before reappearing. Realization crystalized. An illusion!

Horus attempted to turn around, but he felt painfully slow. Vlad had materialized behind him, a sword in hand, and brought it down across Horus’s side. It would have been a decapitating strike if Horus hadn’t moved when he had. As it was, Horus howled in pain as ichor flowed from the wound.

Gravity reasserted itself over the two gods, sending them plummeting to the earth. Vlad struck again in a series of blows that Horus desperately attempted to parry, steel ringing out against steel.

Neither combatant managed to land a decisive blow before they impacted the ground. Horus hit hard, feeling worn pavement crack beneath him. Vlad turned into mist just before the impact, his form spreading across the ground. Horus scrambled to his feet as Vlad coalesced a few feet away.

“I forgot to say ‘nothing personal, kid.’” Vlad muttered as he eye Horus warily. “I had one chance to do that properly, and I completely blew it.”

“You’re insane,” Horus countered.

Vlad shook his head. “No. I just let the internet rot my brain sometimes. It’s good to know what kind of things my food finds interesting. Like how a farmer studies what feed his cattle prefers.” He watched as Horus struggled to stand. “I’m willing to let this go, you know. Bast will be annoyed with me for breaking one of her toys, and you’re already halfway beaten. Surrender, and I’ll consider this even.”

Horus waved his hand over the wound in his side, radiating intense heat to cauterize the wound shut. He growled in pain as he did. Vlad rolled his eyes.

“Or you could do the stupidly masculine thing and continue fighting. I hope you know I’ll have no qualms shattering your nanoverse once you’re beaten. You do realize that, don’t you? When I win, your death will be permanent.”

“Then why aren’t you doing it, vampire?” Horus asked, starting to grin. “Why the tricks, the cowardly tactics? Why not fight me head on?”

“I told you, Bast will be annoyed if I break one of her toys. I prefer her agreeable.”

“No.” Horus stood up straight. “I think you’re afraid of me.”

“You’re leaking ichor from a dozen cuts, and you had to burn yourself to stop one of the leaks.” Vlad sneered. “Why on earth would I be afraid of you?”

“Because your kind has few weaknesses. Holy relics of the Judeo-Christian god. Garlic. And, most importantly, the thing I was once the god of.” Horus opened his eyes, and they glowed with golden light. “The Sun.”

Vlad didn’t answer with words. Instead he hissed and lunged at Horus.

Horus held out his hand and, with a twist of reality, sent a beam of pure, unfiltered sunlight streaking towards the vampire. “Burn, monster.”

Vlad screamed as he continued to advance through the light, bits of his flesh flying away and turning to ash, but he didn’t suffer the instant annihilation Horus was hoping for. The vampire was injured, that much was without doubt, but it didn’t stop him from closing the distance between the two.

The artificial sunlight vanished as Horus felt the skeletal, clawed hands close around his throat.

Small Worlds Part 166

“After Anansi had made sure Ra would be comfortable as he fell into twilight, his nanoverse undergoing final heat death, Anansi headed to Egypt. It pained Anansi to leave Ra alone in his final hours, but the threat of the Staff of Ra being found was too great to wait however long it would take for Ra to die.” Anansi pursed his lips and shook his before continuing. “To be honest, Anansi had also not yet seen an abosom die, and also left because he was frightened to watch such a thing.”

“Upon arriving in Egypt, Anansi headed to the court of Amun, who would later be known as Amun-Ra. Anansi did not intend on seeking the aid of Amun in locating the Staff, for Anansi did not want to risk the Staff finding in anyone’s hands. There a celebration was thrown for Anansi’s arrival, for he was the first abosom to come to Egypt since the terrors of Sekhmet, and the pantheon there desperately wanted to show the world they were safe to visit again. There was a week of celebration for Anansi’s arrival, and he celebrated with the gods and Pharaoh of Egypt and learned more of their stories.

“The abosom of Egypt had found a great treasure of nanoverses, which they gave to the greatest of their mortal Pharaohs before their death, allowing them to become Nascent. A new Pharaoh was approaching the end of his life, one who’s name history has forgotten and is now known only as Scorpion the First. Since this Pharaoh had acknowledged Amun’s supremacy over Ra, it was doubtless Scorpion would be given a nanoverse, which meant another week of celebration. He died before finishing his Nascency, so even Anansi has forgotten his name, and it is of little importance to this story.

“Anansi excused himself from the second celebration, saying it was because he did not wish to intrude upon such a momentous day. In truth, Anansi excused himself because he knew the week of celebration would give him time to find the Staff of Ra without discovery.”

Anansi smiled.

“Anansi’s attempt to remain undetected was uncovered in just three days by Neith, goddess of the forge and – more relevantly – of the hunt. She suspected Anansi was up to his trickery, for tales of Anansi’s trickery had spread even to Egypt. Neith found Anansi preparing to break into a Pyramid and demanded that Anansi tell her what he was doing. Anansi tried every trick he knew to persuade Neith to leave it be, but Hunter Goddesses rarely fall for such ploys. Under pain of being taken before Amun – which would have resulted in a great deal of pain – Anansi told her what he was here for and begged her to keep silent.

“Fortune smiled on Anansi that day. Neith had been seeking the same artifact, for she hoped to find it before her quarry did. She was hunting Apophis, the enemy of Ra, who had long sought Ra’s staff. Apophis was a monstrous being said to be far older than Ra and far madder than any other being alive. He was an abosom, and he sought the staff, so he might restore a long-lost world.”

“Moloch,” Ryan hissed.

Anansi shook his head. “By the end of my story, you’ll see why I’m certain it was not. But I now believe that Apophis also hailed from that same ancient era that birthed Moloch, and our dear Crystal, and perhaps other beings. Ones that acted like monsters but had the power of gods.”

“The Titans.” Athena said.

Anansi nodded. “Among others.” He glanced at Crystal. “Is such a thing possible?”

Crystal shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “I thought I was the only one to survive, and the only monster I dealt with that meets that description is Lamashtu. Knowing what we know now…” Crystal shrugged helplessly. “I figured they had all died permanently. They could have been from a race that came between my people and humanity. Bloody hell, they could have been gods from another world that had undergone its own Eschaton.”

“All of these make sense,” Anansi said thoughtfully. “I suppose we may never know. Apophis was certainly not one for speaking. He had taken a great serpent and was worming deep beneath the Earth to try and find the pyramid that Ra had hidden the Staff within. Neith and Anansi had both searched different pyramids, and that left them only one to search.”

“They arrived as Apophis burst through the Earth to claim his prize.”

“The battle was a fierce one. Neith moved like lightning and struck like the hammer upon the anvil. Anansi used all his greatest tricks, trying to ty the great serpent in knots of its own coils. Apophis was screaming and rambling the entire time – so close to its prize, it had gone even madder than it had been for most of existence. The serpent managed to bite Anansi, and he was dying of its poison. It reared up for one last strike – and that was when Neith stepped between the serpent and Anansi. She drew a great kopesh from her nanoverse and drove it into the serpent’s mouth and brain.

“Apophis fell dead, but it had bitten Neith as well. She and Anansi both perished from its poison deep beneath the sands of Egypt, side by side.

“Of course, they were abosom. They were resurrected once their bodies had healed and purged Apophis’ venom. Apophis had not resurrected yet, since Neith’s kopesh was still lodged in his brain. Anansi took the Staff, and they both agreed it was best that Neith did not know where he hid it. Neith burned Apophis’ body and then took his nanoverse into her own. As terrible as the crime of destroying a nanoverse can be, it would have been far worse to allow Apophis to return to life.

“Anansi returned to Ra, only to find that the old god’s death was coming far swifter than Anansi expected. They had only minutes left. Anansi worked with Ra to use the power of the staff once and only once.

“When Ra died, he arose as a monster, but one with a noble heart and pure intentions. He would sit as the guardian of the Staff for the rest of time. That monster was the first of the Sphinx, and Anansi took both Sphinx and staff to a place where no one would think to search for it – to that hidden cave of metal hidden upon the moon.”

“It’s on the moon?” Ryan asked, feeling his eye widened out. “How are we ever going to get to the…moon.” He trailed off and started to flush. “No, no need to point out how dumb that was.”

“The moon part isn’t why I’m giving you the bug-eyed look, Anansi,” Crystal said. “A Sphinx? A sphinx that used to be Ra?”

Anansi nodded. Isabel raised a hand. “Someone fill me in, so I can join you in freaking out?”

“Sphinx are one of the few monsters that retain the full intelligence they had in life, and retain some of their divine powers,” Athena said with a grimace. “They’re not as powerful as a dragon, but much harder to outwit.”

“They can be reasoned with,” Dianmu added, turning to Anansi. “Do you think you could talk him into letting you have the artifact back?”

“No. As a precaution against shapeshifters, we agreed if he ever sees me again, he’ll kill me on the spot. If anyone claiming to be me shows up, he’ll likewise kill them, regardless of who they appear to be. My presence would destroy any chance of negotiations.”

Athena tapped her fingers on the table. “It can’t be Ryan either.” Ryan shot her a confused look, and she elaborated. “Nabu owes you a debt. You need to go speak to the Curators. Find out what happened to Horus, and if they can offer any other aid.”

Ryan sighed. “Okay, that makes sense. So, you all go deal with the Sphinx-formerly-known-as-Ra, and I’ll go to the Curators.”

“No offensive, love, but there’s no way I’m sending you alone to the Curators,” Crystal said. “Anyone besides Anansi and myself done any Lunar fighting?” No one raised their hand, and Crystal sighed. “That’s what I thought. I’ll go up to the moon base and talk to the bloody Sphinx.”

“Is there air in this moon base?” Isabel asked?

“Yes,” Anansi said.

“Then I’m going with Crystal.”

“Didn’t you just get done saying you were interested in being the tech girl behind the desk?” Ryan asked.

“Yeah, but that was before we were talking about going to the goddamn moon.” Isabel flashed him a fierce grin. “Besides, the Sphinx is smart, it’s probably spent its time preparing for a god to come along. No way it prepared for me.”

“Isabel-” Ryan said, but she cut him off with a quick shake of her head.

“Ryan, if you were about to point out how dangerous this is and I can die because I’m a mortal blah blah blah, I’ll remind you that you’re still able to permanently die and are more important for what we’re doing than I am, so I’ll only be missing out on the Moon if you agree to be stuck in a nice safe spot until it’s time to end the world.”

Ryan snapped his mouth shut and glared at her. “Fine. Then who’s coming with me to Officium Mundi?”

“I will,” Dianmu said. “I learned a great deal about the Curators when I was in the Jade Emperor’s palace, and nothing prepares you for dealing with them quite like the divine bureaucracy.”

Ryan nodded. “Okay, so Dianmu, Anansi and I to the Curators, Athena, Crystal, and Isabel to the…oh what now?” Both Athena and Anansi were shaking their heads.

“I stole a file of tales from the Curators three thousand years ago,” Anansi said with a bit of pride, “they would not welcome me.”

Crystal gave an affectionate sigh. “Of course you did. Athena, love? You’ve got something else to do than go to the moon?”

“Yes.” Athena looked down at the table, like she didn’t want to meet their eyes. Is she embarrassed?” Ryan wondered, not sure how to square that emotion with the woman he’d come to know over these past few weeks. Athena continued, “The fight with Moloch…was the closest I’ve come to true death. Ever. I realized…if I had died, I would have left behind unfinished business. I’ve done something I regret, and I must set it right before throwing myself headlong into danger again.”

Everyone looked at her, stunned. Ryan finally found his voice. “What do you need to do?” he asked, softly.

“I need to confess a lie to you all. A lie I’ve been telling for over four thousand years. And then…” she looked up, and Ryan realized it wasn’t shame that had driven her to look away, but it’s close cousin, guilt. “And then I need to free Arachne from the prison I made for her.”

For a full minute, the only sound was the winds of Cypher Nullity.

“Maybe you should start from the beginning,” Ryan said slowly.

 

Small Worlds Part 163

“Think on it, Horus. If you’re here when I get back, I’ll know you’re with me. If you’re not…if you’re not, then I hope I never lay eyes upon you again.”

Over a week had passed since Bast had said those words. Horus wished he could say it had been a difficult decision. He wished he could say he agonized over it, that it had torn him apart. If he was asked, he knew he’d lie and claim he had. I suppose the others know by now I am forsworn, assuming they survived plumbing the depths of Tartarus. Horus expected they had survived. Gods were even more infamous than cockroaches for their ability to survive the impossible, and in that category Crystal was a cockroach among cockroaches. Anansi was probably even more stubborn in that regard than Crystal.

He’d left a message for the others with the information he’d obtained from the Curators. If they returned to Earth, they would eventually receive his message, for what little it was worth, and be told that he was breaking from their pantheon to follow Bast’s trail. It’s technically true, Horus told himself. A cold comfort. He wondered what the legends and myths of this time would say of him, if humanity survived. One side would of course become the gods of the new age, the other would be the monsters and demons. And then there was Horus. He hung his honor on a technicality.

To make matters worse, he hadn’t actually spoken to Bast since he’d stayed. Bast had never actually come back, instead sending her newly created creature, Cassandra, to relay orders to him. It was insufferable to receive commands from an anthropophage that had so recently been just a mortal, but Horus endured it. She’s testing me. That much a child could figure out. So Horus endured dealing with an underling while being sent errands. Scouting abandoned islands. Reporting on the comings and goings of Hell’s Heresiarch. Putting hard drugs in the possession of a reporter that had interviewed the Eschaton and then making an anonymous phone call to the police.

That last one had particularly galled him. If Bast wanted to use him for petty revenge, he would do so. I would have killed her! Why something so needlessly petty?

Horus feared he knew the reason. It would make it easy for Bast to find the reporter when she decided to claim the woman’s heart.

Horus wished it had been a difficult decision to follow Bast. Maybe then he would have less doubts .

The whole situation conspired to put him a foul mood, a mood that was not improved by the greeting he received upon arrival on Poveglia Plague Island. It was, of course, not Bast. Nor was it Cassandra. At least she had all her facilities.

No, he was greeted by the pathetic mutant that had once been an Admiral in the United States Navy. “Ahhh, he’s back! He’s back! The would be paramore returns,” Dale hissed through lips that wouldn’t quite close from his wounds, and clapped together his wasp stinger finger tips in a series of disturbing clacking sounds. 

“Where is your mistress, beast?” Horus snapped at him, though he frowned. Paramore? Bast had left the man half-brain damaged, or so Horus had thought.

“Oh, she is around. Or perhaps she is not. I doubt she wishes to see you, even if she is here. Don’t you have errands to run?”

Horus ground his teeth. “I will speak with her, you craven wretch.”

Dale let out a wet, phlegmatic sound that was a laugh in the same way a dead rat was a meal. They might be related, but it would only appeal to jackals. “You will do whatever Bast wishes. You’ve proven that time and time again.”

“You think yourself better than I?” Horus asked.

“I never claimed divinity,” the creature that had once been Dale said with a chortle. Horus felt his fingers twitch at his side. How angry would Bast be if I killed him?

“Don’t you have something else to do?” Horus growled through clenched teeth.

“I was set to watch the shores of this isle for any unwelcome visitors. It seems I found one.” 

“Your mistress has accepted my aid.”

“Yes, you are a welcome tool. But how often does the falconer dine with the falcon?” Dale’s grin grew horribly suggestive. “Or for that matter, how often does she bed her bird?”

Horus raised his hand, grasping elemental strands around Dale. I’ll accept her punishment. “You go too far,” Horus growled.

A voice cracked out of the darkness behind him. “No, you do. Lower your hand, Horus, or suffer Bast’s displeasure.”

Horus ground his teeth. “Cassandra.”

“I was worried you’d forgotten me.” The one time scientist gave Horus a dazzling grin. “You may think you can escape Bast’s wrath for killing Dale. You may even be right. You will not, however, like what happens if you harm me.”

After a moment to glower, Horus lowered his hand. “Where did you get such confidence? You speak to a god!”

Cassandra rolled her eyes. “I eat hearts. It’s hard to find anything intimidating at this point. Certainly not an ally. You are an ally, aren’t you Horus? I would hate to report to my goddess that you had betrayed yet another fledgling pantheon, especially when she was ready to speak to you.”

“She’s willing to finally see me?” Horus snapped.

“Perhaps.” Cassandra gave him a sad smile. “My goddess gave me leave to determine if you were in a fit state to be in her presence. So far I am not impressed. You were going to kill Dale.”

“Surely it would be a mercy, after what was done to him!” Horus said.

Cassandra took a moment to meet his eyes, more directly than any mortal ever had. “Yes, it would be,” she said, her voice soft. “However, she has decreed he does not deserve that mercy.”

Horus took a deep breath. “Very well. I will speak to Bast.”

“Only if I decide you do,” Cassandra countered. “Bast was very clear about that.”

Another test. If I raise my hand to her… “How might I persuade you?”

Cassandra considered him for a moment. “Honestly, I doubt you ever could. It doesn’t matter. She needs you.”

She needs you. Those three words dispelled Horus’ annoyance and cut through his anger. “Where is she?”

Cassandra pointed over her shoulder to the building behind her. Horus brushed past her, ignoring her protestation. It didn’t matter. Bast needed him. Nothing else could distract him.

It wasn’t the same as Bast returning his affections. It wasn’t what he truly wanted. But it was progress. Maybe there is hope, Horus thought, his doubts fading away as quickly as his rage.

There’s no dishonor in action taken from love. There is no crime here.

As he entered the building and saw Bast at the top of the stairs, beautiful and deadly and full of fire, he could almost believe it.

 

Small Worlds Part 159

“Ra! Save me!”

Sekhmet bent down, a dagger in her hand. It was a simple tool, one of sharpened stone, but it had proven more than enough to allow her to disembowel the man in front of her. His innards spilled out over the brick floor of Sekhmet’s dwelling. The bricks would need to be remade – this much blood always caused them to turn to mush. “Interesting. Your entrails spill out of you, yet you still have the strength cry for Ra.”

“Please…” he whispered, blood running from his mouth. “Please, grant me a swift death.”

Sekhmet reached forward and brushed the man’s hair back from his face. She saw hope swell up in his eyes. “No,” she said, standing up and stepping backwards.

“Why?” the man asked.

“You deserve death,” Sekhmet said, stepping away to wipe the knife clean, momentarily turning her back to the man as she did. “You agreed that. However, I’m interested in seeing how long a man can survive with your injuries.”

When Sekhmet turned back, the man’s eyes were glossy, his chest unmoving. “Ah. Not very long at all, it would seem.”

“I could have told you that,” said a voice from behind Sekhmet.

She whirled around, stone knife coming up as she dropped into a defensive posture, certain the Pharoh’s men had finally found her.

It was not the Pharoah’s men. It was a shirtless man with the head of a falcon, regarding her with a curious expression.

Ra. God of the Sun. Was in her home. Sekhmet stood up, her heart pounding, putting the dagger back in her belt. The weapon would do nothing against a god, and Sekhmet was not in the mood to bow and scrape. “If you came to answer his prayers,” Sekhmet said with a gesture, “you’ll have to fetch him from Duat. He’s no longer of this world.”

A being without lips should not be able to smile, yet somehow Ra managed. “You respect me as little as the rest of the people of this city,” he said.

Sekhmet shrugged. “To be honest, I assumed you were here to slay me for my transgressions. I was not interested in pressing my forehead to the floor before my heart was weighed.”

Ra didn’t seem certain what to make of that. He looked down at the man again. “What did he do?”

“He died,” Sekhmet said, furrowing her forehead in confusion.

“I can see that. Before I revealed myself, you said that he deserved death. Why did he deserve death.”

Sekhmet shrugged. “I didn’t ask.”

“Then how did you know that he did?”

“He admitted it after I held his feet to hot coals for an hour.” Sekhmet sniffed. “If you’re not here to punish me, Great Ra, might we take this conversation outside? The stench of death isn’t my favorite.”

Ra strode out, motioning for her to follow. Irritation flared up in Sekhmet – she had invited him outside – but she followed.

Sekhmet’s dwelling was outside the walls of Nekhan, away from the prying eyes of civilization. She had a tiny oasis that provided her fruit and water. The men of the city would sometimes come to her, asking her to read the future in the entrails of a goat. She couldn’t see the future, but she could tell convincing lies that were vague enough that the men of the city would come back frequently, bringing with them meat and grain.

Sometimes, they would not return from those journeys. The roads outside of Nekhan are treacherous, after all.

“Why do you do it, Sekhmet? Why did you kill him? And the others, for that matter?”

“Does it matter?” Sekhmet asked, walking over to the oasis to scoop out a cup of water. She offered it to Ra, who declined. “Why do you sail under the world every night? Why bear the sun across the sky? We are what we are.”

“I actually do neither of those,” Ra said with a rumbling laugh. “Yet you kill so coldly. I ask again, why?”

Sekhmet frowned, “I do it to learn,” Sekhmet said, “There is so much that happens in the human body we do not understand. The only ways to understand is to open them up and look.”

“Then why make him admit he deserved death? To salve your conscience?”

Sekhmet shook her head. “No. Because I wanted to see if enough pain would cause a man to admit a terrible thing. Since he would only admit to deserving death, I presume either it would not, or he had no terrible thing to admit.”

“I see.” Ra sounded somewhat repulsed, and he turned back towards the city, as if steeling himself. “You’re a monster,” he said.

“I find that distinction irrelevant,” Sekhmet countered. “I am also a woman. I am also a scholar. I am many things that are more quantifiable than monster.”

Ra nodded slowly. “As you say. I wish to ad one other thing to that list. You are a woman, and you are a scholar, and you are – indisputably, in my eyes – a monster.” He looked back to the city one more time, then turned to Sekhmet. He raised his hand and opened it, revealing a small black stone within. “I’d also like you to become a goddess.”

Sekhmet stared at the stone. She could see stars swirling within, and felt a pull to gaze deeper into it. Ra closed his fist before she could. “And what would you want in exchange for that?” Sekhmet asked.

Ra tilted his head. “I offer you untold power, and you ask about conditions?”

“Why else would you make someone you consider a monster a goddess, unless you had a  need?”

Ra nodded, then pointed back to the city. “The people of the city have forgotten my worship. I wish to see them punished for it. You would be my instrument in doing so.”

“I’m not interested in wholesale slaughter,” Sekhmet said. “I work personally.”

“If I wanted the city destroyed in an instant, I would do it myself. I want them to have time to think, and to beg for my aid. I want them to remember why they need me. You have the…personal touch I require.” Sekhmet frowned, still thinking. “Think of how much you could learn if you had millenia of life. Of how much knowledge there is to gain. All for the price of making one city know what it means to fear my wrath.”

“I want you to know I know you’re manipulating me,” Sekhmet said, stepping forward and holding out her hand. “You aren’t even trying to hide it. And yet…I will do as you ask, because you are right.”

Ra placed the stone in her hand. Sekhmet stared into it, and the stars filled her vision.

“Then go, Sekhmet. Show them what it means to anger the gods.”