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 213

“Let’s assume for a moment I’m okay with the idea of generating natural disasters to appease the sun or however this works,” Ryan said, breaking the silence after Nabu’s last proclamation. Also, “I’m not, for the record, but let’s assume that I do. I don’t even know how. I haven’t even touched my Zoisphere since Crystal first showed it to me, and that was before the fight with Enki. That was ages ago.”

“Three weeks is ages?” Nabu asked, raising an eyebrow.

Ryan stopped and stared at him. “Three weeks?” he asked, his voice sounding hollow even to him. Everything that had happened – the fight with Enki, the battle with the super soldiers, delving into the Labyrinth…all that had happened in three weeks? It didn’t seem possible, but as Ryan thought about it, he realized it was actually the correct length. “Damn. It feels like a whole lot longer.”

Nabu chuckled. “You’ve been rather busy, haven’t you?”

“And still getting used to not having the normal mortal time measurements,” Dianmu said. “No breaths as a subtle reminder of the passing of time. No sleep cycle to mark the days. Hopping between time zones in your nanoverse, so you can’t even rely on the sun. No biological reminders that time passes. It took me a couple decades before I really got used to it.”

“Fair,” Ryan said with a sigh. “Okay, so it’s been a few weeks since I’ve seen my Zoisphere, and I don’t even remember much about it. Mind giving me a primer?”

Nabu looked over at Dianmu. “The workings of a nanoverse are only academic to me.”

“I’ll be happy to help,” Dianmu said. She motioned towards Ryan’s console. “Do you recall how to bring it up?”

Ryan nodded, getting up and heading over towards the console. A few button presses and screen swipes, and the zoisphere appeared.

It was a massive globe, seven feet from top to bottom, showing the entire world in exquisite three-dimension detail, right down to the clouds rolling over the landscape. Ryan was certain, as he was before, that if he could somehow zoom in on it, he could see individual people walking about – probably even individual ants. It was the entire world recreated in miniature.

All across the land on the globe, tiny dots were appearing and vanishing. Most of them were blue or red. “Okay, I think I remember how this works,” Ryan says. “Blue dots are someone being born, red dots are someone dying, right?”

Dianmu nodded and motioned Ryan over. “Let’s say you wanted to start a hurricane over the Atlantic,” she said. “All you have to do is grab the Zoisphere and rotate it – go ahead and do so now, you won’t hurt anything until the last step.”

Ryan swallowed a lump of fear and reached up to touch the globe. He could feel the clouds and waves beneath his fingers, although his hands offered no resistance. It took a slight tug, but the Zoisphere rotated until the coast of Africa filled his view. “Now, you need to open your divine sight,” Dianmu said.

Immediately, Ryan could see the world. He could see the equations governing airflow, controlling currents, governing tectonic shift. “Holy crap,” Ryan said with the most reverent tone ever applied to those two words.

“That’s what the Zoisphere does,” Dianmu said gently. “It lets you access the things too big to normally see. You can manipulate them here, but will find it far, far harder to control all the variables than you do normally. If you want to make sure you’re hitting a particular location, you’ll want to start the devastation here.”

“Why devastate?” Ryan said, rotating the globe to the side until Northern California was under his view. “All this power…why would I destroy?” He focused on the equations governing condensation, air currents, and precipitation. They were immensely complex, but he didn’t need to understand them the way he did when normally twisting reality. Instead, he reached out with his hand and grabbed some clouds from Seattle, pulling them down and duplicating them.

When he pulled his hand away, clouds were beginning to gather under his fingertips. In a couple hours, they would form a rainstorm, one that would travel southwards down the state and bring rain to one of the most drought-stricken regions in the world. Ryan turned to Dianmu. “All that power…there’s so much good we could do.”

“And so little time,” Dianmu said quietly. “That storm will bring some relief to the region, yes. But that moisture had to come from somewhere. Seattle will miss its rain very little, but if you did it long enough to stop the drought in California, you’d have to create a new drought in the northwest. The fact remains in this, as in all things, is that destruction is easier. Our powers offer very little shortcuts to creation.”

Ryan sighed. “Oh well. At least I did something good.” He started to move the Zoisphere back into its original configuration.

“What’s going on in Texas?” Nabu asked.

Ryan felt his blood run cold as the echo of the words he’d said to Athena so long ago reached his ears. His eyes snapped to Texas. He didn’t even need Nabu’s outstretched, pointing finger to know where to look.

Grant, Texas. The same city that Bast and Moloch had devastated weeks ago was now, once again, a hotspot of rapidly flickering red lights.

“Bast,” Ryan said, hissing the name through clenched teeth. “It has to be Bast.” Ryan turned around and ran to the console.

“Ryan, what are you doing?” Nabu said, frowning. “You can’t be sure it was Bast!”

“Yes, I can,” Ryan said, working the controls furiously. “Because it’s where she struck before. She went back to finish the job she started!”

“Probably to draw you out,” Dianmu said, crossing her arms as she thought. “She’s probably trying to get you to do exactly what you’re doing!”

“The entire world is at stake, Ryan,” Nabu said, his voice level. “It would be foolish to-”

“No!” Ryan said, looking up from the controls. The fury in his voice wasn’t directed at Nabu, but Ryan didn’t try to contain it. “No, I am not sacrificing a town to get ahead. I’m not letting those people die so I can stay safe. I might have to end the world. I might have to throw hurricanes and brew earthquakes. I might need to let hundreds of people die to give the world enough time to survive, but I’ll be damned before I let a town die because I don’t want to take risks. I didn’t cower when Enki was hunting me. I didn’t skulk away from the super soldiers. I didn’t let Moloch have free run of the Elysian Fields, and I sure as hell won’t let Bast slaughter a small town. There’s no point in saving the world if I don’t do everything I can to save the people on it, and this? This I can do. Are you two with me?”

“Of course,” Dianmu said. Nabu just nodded.

“Good. Then get on your game faces because we’re going to go to Texas, we’re going to open a divine can of whoop ass on Bast, and then we’re going to figure out how to save the whole damn world.” Ryan hit the button to start moving his nanoverse. He strode back over to his Zoisphere and studied Grant. “And I think I have a plan. For once.” He reached out and swirled his finger over the town to get a storm brewing.

He could only hope that they weren’t going to be too late.

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.

Small Worlds Part 194

The heroic walk into the Hall of Curation was somewhat spoiled by the receptionist desk waiting for them. Ryan had quietly been hoping that he would be to stride directly to the Council and present his case. I should have known that the Curators wouldn’t allow people to go prancing in there without permission, he thought, forcing his expression to change from determination to something more affable.

The receptionist, a male Curator with short dark hair, glanced up at them. “Do you have an appointment?” he asked.

“Ryan Smith, Eschaton of Earth, with Dianmu, Goddess of Thunder, and Nabu, our Curator Representative.”

The receptionist tapped away on a computer. “I do see you are here. Excellent. Their last meeting is running behind schedule.” From the way the Curator said those last three words, one would think someone had rerouted a sewage outflow pipe directly into the Council chambers. “I have some paperwork you can fill out while you wait?”

Ryan fought back a sigh and held out his hand for the paperwork. Thankfully they still had pens so didn’t need to deal with a Temporary Pen Reallocation Form. Ryan fought back an urge to curse when he saw the headings on these forms. “Authorization Form For Wasting Time 19032-G?” he growled at Nabu. “We have to wait, and because of that we need to fill out forms?”

Nabu chuckled. “No. We Curators don’t do well sitting idle. These forms aren’t required, they’re just a way to pass the time.”

Ryan and Dianmu carefully put their clipboards aside. It earned them a disapproving look from the receptionist. Apparently the idea of someone sitting quietly without doing paperwork was alien to him. Then again, how often does someone get to speak to the Council? Ryan wondered. He thought to ask Nabu, but the Curator was engrossed in the Authorization Form For Wasting Time 19032-G, and Ryan didn’t want to disturb him.

They didn’t have to wait long at least. Not fifteen minutes later, the door was opened, and the receptionist motioned for them to head inside.

This room, at least, lived up to Ryan’s hopes for this excursion. The walls were hidden in shadows, and atop five podiums sat five hooded figures. Each one wore a robe of the plainest beige, which somewhat ruined the effect in Ryan’s mind. They looked like the grim reaper for people with no imagination.

Ryan decided to inspect them with his divine sight.

The pain was immediate and immeasurable. He didn’t scream. It was more like a paralysis struck him, like grabbing a live electrical wire, seizing up every muscle in his body. He blinked away tears as the final vestiges of that glance faded from sight, but what he had seen chilled him to his core.

The Council of Curators were beings fundamentally woven into the fabric of reality. They were forces of nature in the same way that gravity was, or electromagnetism. Ryan had seen exactly one thing like it before.

Uriel.

The Council of Curators were archangels. The Curators were angels.

Ryan felt a weight fall into the pit of his stomach. I really, really hope they don’t know about what I helped Arthur do… he thought, his palms suddenly sweaty.

“The Council of Curators will hear the argument of Ryan Smith, Eschaton of Earth, Slayer of Enki, Ally of Hell and Invader of Heaven,” they intoned in unison.

Oh…shitblossoms, Ryan thought as he swallowed against the sudden lump in his throat. []

Nabu coughed, and Ryan realized they were waiting for him to speak.

“Esteemed Council of Curators,” Ryan began. He could feel sweat beginning to condense on his forehead. You faced down Enki. And the Super Soldier. And Moloch. You can handle this. Ryan wiped his forehead and cleared his throat before beginning again. “Esteemed Council of Curators, I come to you today to request permission to read or learn in any fashion of your choosing the precise rules and regulations governing my duties as Eschaton. I seek to know exactly what parameters must be met to satisfy the criteria that the world has ended to prevent Earth’s sun from detonating.”

“And why do you seek this information?” said the Councilmember at the head of the semicircle. The voice was firm and powerful, with a slightly higher registered that Ryan assumed was feminine. Not that he could be sure with those beige robes and deep shadows obscuring all features.

“Because I have a job to do, and I want to do it right?” If Ryan was hoping for laughter from the lame joke, his hopes were doomed to be dashed. “Because I want to find a way to save the human race,” he repeated. “I don’t want to condemn them all to death to save a star.”

“If the star detonates, everyone on the planet will die,” said the Concilmember on the far right end of the table. “You do not care about saving humanity. You care about avoiding guilt.”

“That’s not true!” Ryan objected. “If I allow the star to detonate, I’m still guilty of the crime of letting humanity die! I want to know if there’s a third option.”

The Councilmembers shuffled in their seats, looking at each other. “Ryan Smith, do you understand why the cycle is so important?” the middle one asked. Even though Ryan couldn’t see her eyes, she could feel the intensity of her gaze upon him.

Ryan nodded. “I think so, at least. It keeps the universe young. In theory, it could extend the lifetime of the universe indefinitely.”

“Yes. In theory. However, every time Eschatons start arising, some clever Eschaton gets it in their head they can cheat the system. That they can save their people. Every time it happens, the star in question explodes. The Universe falls a bit more into Entropy.”

Ryan swallowed. “If you do this, if you give me this, you have my word that if I cannot save the people of Earth, I will not allow the sun to go supernova. I will end this.”

The far left Curator snorted sourly. “An easy promise to make. You believe you’ll find a loophole in the system.” His voice was unmistakably male, and unmistakably completely tired of Ryan already. “You’ll promise your own head on a plate, but when you fail? You’ll run.”

“I won’t!” Ryan objected.

The middle Councilmember pulled a book out of her robe. In gold letters across the front lead “The Pre-Divinity Life of Ryan Smith, Eschaton of Earth, Abridged.” Ryan glanced at Nabu, who was shifting in discomfort.

“You have, in your life, made three hundred twenty eight promises,” the Councilmember read. “In that time, you have violated a promise one hundred and eighty three times. This is a fifty-five point four nine percent failure rate of your promises, if we round up. The odds of a coin coming up heads are better than the odds of you keeping a promise.”

“I can’t…three hundred twenty eight promises?” Ryan blanked. He couldn’t recall anything close to that number of promises.

“April seventeenth, 2001. You swore to your parents you wouldn’t drink until you were twenty one. October third, 2005, got drunk you freshman year of college. Swore the next morning you would never drink again. October eight, 2005, got drunk again.”

“Oh come on, everyone-” Ryan started to object, but the Curator was relentless.

“November twenty sixth, 2006. Promises your sister you would still take her to Moonburger ever wednesday even though you were in college. December thirty-first, 2007, cancelled because you were “too busy.” spent the entire day watching the extended edition of Lord of the Rings and eating Pizza.”

“I had just broken up with-”

“February third, 2000. Confirmed in the Catholic Church. January 7th, 2018, lead an army to the gates of Heaven in service of the King of Hell.”

The sweat broke out again in earnest. “My parents made – “

The curator slammed the book shut. “Excuses. Always excuses. Your promises, Eschaton of Earth, are meaningless. We have agreed to hear your arguments, Ryan Smith. However, you will no longer waste our time with your promises.

Ryan stepped back and took a deep breath, trying to steady himself.

He had a very bad feeling this wasn’t going to work out.

Small Worlds Part 174

We’re going to the moon, we’re going to the moon, I’m going to be the first woman on the moon, Isabel thought, practically bouncing in her chair in Crystal’s staging area. She glanced at Crystal and amended that thought. I’m going to be the first mortal woman on the moon who cares I’m going to be on the friggin’ moon.

“Careful, love. You look like you’re about to bounce out of your seat,” Crystal said in a teasing voice. “Nervous?”

“Nervous? Oh hell no. I’m going to be walking on the moon. Are you kidding me? I couldn’t be more excited if it was Christmas, my Birthday, and Graduation all wrapped up into one.”

Crystal let out a chuckle. “I hope it doesn’t disappoint you.”

“Will I be able to see the Earth being massive overhead?”

Crystal glanced at her console, then nodded. “Anansi’s directions take us to the near side, not the far side, so yes. Earth should be right overhead when we step out.”

“Then I’m going to be perfectly happy,” Isabel said.

“You’re not worried about the lack of air?”

“I mean, you’re going to take care of that until we get to the sphynx and the mysterious moon base, right?” Isabel asked with a frown. “Should I be worried?”

“I’ll be maintaining a bubble of air for you, love, so it should be fine, but if something happens to me…” Crystal let that trail off. “Well, you’ll have a bloody short time to get back to the doorway.”

Isabel shrugged. “And if an astronauts suit gets punctured, they’re dead. Honestly, I think it’s safer than a space suit – instead of relying on materials and fabrics, I’ve got literal divine intervention holding me safe, so I should be fine.”

Crystal smiled at Isabel, and Isabel felt herself begin to flush. “Well, I appreciate the confidence in my abilities,” Crystal said.

“I’d be rude if I didn’t have confidence! You’ve survived for this long just fine, I’m pretty sure you could manage a trip across the lunar surface. Besides, you saved my life once before, and that was way more dangerous than this.”

“Don’t be so sure about that, love,” Crystal said, darkly. “We haven’t encountered moonworms yet.”

Isabel froze. “Moonworms?”

“Oh, bloody hell, did I not mention those? Yes, moonworms. They burrow through the Lunar dust, you see, and they’re attracted to sources of heat. It’s what they feed off of. For living things, they crawl up their legs and try to get as close to the warmth as they can.”

Isabel stared at Crystal with growing horror. “So they…hug your legs?”

Crystal shook her head grimly. “Oh, no, not at all. They have jaws that can cut through lunar regolith, they’ll absolutely try to go as deep into the warmth as possible. Bite. By. Bite.”

Isabel couldn’t contain a frightened “eep.” As soon as she let the sound out, Crystal’s frown vanished to be replaced with laughter. Isabel stared at her for a moment, then crossed her arms as realization settled in. “You were messing with me.”

“Of course I was bloody messing with you,” Crystal said, wiping away tears of laughter. “Moonworms. That’s…I’m sorry, love,  you should have seen your face.”

“That was just mean. How am I supposed to know Moonworms weren’t real? A few days ago I was kidnapped by an archangel and a crazy god from a pre-human race and you all were fighting dragons. Are you going to tell me moonworms are absurd when compared to that?” In spite of her annoyance, Isabel was also flushing. You “eeped.” You were being taunted by a goddess, and you said “eep.” Way to go, Isabel.

Crystal’s laughter began to die down. “Oh, come on love, just a bit of a joke, yeah?”

Isabel sniffed in annoyance. “It wasn’t very funny.”

Crystal held up a hand. “You’re right, you had no way of knowing they weren’t real. If it makes you feel any better, Selene fell for the same thing ages ago.”

Isabel blinked. “Wasn’t Selene a moon goddess?”

“Oh, yeah, absolutely. She was so pissed at me for the moonworms, she decided to stay up here for a few days to prove she wasn’t frightened. By the time she got back, everyone decided she was the moon personified.”

“Now that,” Isabel said with a reluctant smile, “that, I have to admit, is pretty funny.”

Crystal’s grin returned. “I know, right? Bloody brilliant, if I do say so myself.”

“So does your humor always involve telling people lies they couldn’t know were lies without some kind of precognition?”

Crystal shook her head firmly. “Do that too often, and people stop trusting you. Now that I’ve done it to you,  you’re safe for the next millennia. Maybe two, can’t be too predictable. Just do me a favor, yeah? Don’t tell your brother. Haven’t gotten him yet, either.”

Isabel snorted out a breath. “If you’re going to do it to Ryan, I’ll help.

Crystal’s grin returned. “I knew I liked you.”

Still a bit annoyed by the joke, Isabel found it easy to prevent the flush this time. “So, this is old hat for you, isn’t it? Going to the moon, I mean.”

“Kinda, yeah. I don’t come up here often, though.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s the moon. There’s nothing up here, love!” Crystal frowned. “Or at least, I didn’t think there was. Should have known a Trickster would have put something up here.”

“Ahh, so the great Crystal isn’t as omnipotent as she seems?” Isabel said.

“Love, if I was half as omnipotent as I seemed, I’d be twice as omnipotent as I actually am.”

“Did you just make a Tolkien reference?”

Crystal just winked at Isabel instead of answering. “Don’t let me being old and jaded spoil the moon for you though. I may have been here a few times, but I’d hate for you to feel like it was somehow less special. Decided what you’re going to be on the moon?”

“I’m going to start as a human,” Isabel said after a moment’s thought. “I want to see it with my own eyes.”

Crystal nodded approval. “Well then, we’re here. You ready?”

Isabel practically threw herself out of the chair, thrumming with excitement. “Yes, yes, please God yes.”

Crystal smiled and opened the door, waggling her fingers to – Isabel assumed – give her some air to breathe on the lunar surface. “Beauty before age, love.”

Isabel didn’t protest, didn’t even register the comment fully. Instead, she bolted out the door and took her first step onto the surface of the moon.

She didn’t pay attention to how light she felt. She didn’t worry about the temperature of the artificial air brushing against her skin. In fact, she didn’t focus on anything at all, instead craning her head up and looking at the sky.

There, above them, just over the Horizon like it was the rising sun, hung the Earth. It was blue and green and brown and swirled with white streaks, half covered by night. She couldn’t quite make out individual continents, not with the clouds covering part of it, but she didn’t need to. Some part of her recognized that multicolored sphere as “home.”

Isabel felt tears spring to her eyes. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

Small Worlds Part 171

I’ve published a free novella starring Crystal– click here to sign up for my mailing list for your free copy!

“Before I got your message, I was living in one of the poorest parts Guangzhou.”

“I don’t know the area,” Ryan said.

“It’s what’s euphemistically called an “urban village”. It would more accurately be called a slum. I’d been living there for about a hundred years.”

“People didn’t notice that you weren’t aging?” Ryan asked with a frown.

Dianmu gave him a small smile. “Oh, they would have – if I wasn’t aging. However, I made myself age the entire time I lived there. I’d then start playing the role of my own daughter, and then fake my own death, living as my daughter until the cycle repeated. I got some comments about how much I looked like my mother, but never anything too strong.”

Ryan chuckled. “So no one knew you were different? Living a mere mortal.”

“Not entirely,” Dianmu said. “I got a reputation as a mun mai poh – similar to what you’d call a medium. People would come to me when things got…strange. When they believed they’d encountered ghosts or demons or monsters.”

“Did that happen often?”

“Believing they did? Of course. People everywhere are incredibly credulous when it comes to certain elements of the supernatural. Most of the time it was nothing, or had some rational explanation. In those cases I did my best to assure them they had nothing to fear. Sometimes, if the person was particularly frightened to the point where it was hurting their life, I’d fix the problem and then ‘banish’ the spirits. It put their minds at ease. Other times, more rarely, it was due to a disorder of some kind. Those people I helped get the attention they needed. And other times…do you have anything to drink?”
Ryan motioned to summon the refrigerator, offering her a choice of bottled water, soda, iced coffee, and beer. “You’re thirsty?” he asked, surprised.

“Oh, no. I’ve barely used any power today. But I find storytelling can still make my throat sore, and I prefer to head that off. Being a god does not make us immune to that, it seems. Or have you not noticed?” She selected a bottle of water.

“Honestly? I hadn’t. Then again, I haven’t done much storytelling since this all started.”

“Well, unless you are like Anansi, you’ll find it becomes tiresome. I don’t know how he does it.”

He’d probably just remind us he once held all the world’s stories.”

Dianmu smiled. “Almost certainly.” She took a drink. “Now, where was I? Oh, yes, other times, very rarely – not much more than once or twice a decade – it actually was something. A creature looking to prey on the poor, where it might go unnoticed.” Her eyes flashed with sudden anger. “Those I showed no mercy. Even when the monster was a human seeking easy targets.”

“That happened?”

Dianmu nodded. “Once.”

“What were they doing?” Ryan asked.

“In the 1950’s, it was a serial killer who preyed upon young women. I made myself appear as his ideal target to draw him out, then boiled his eyes in his skull.”

Dianmu’s voice was so calm, so matter of fact, it made Ryan shudder. “So nothing that could really pose a threat to you,” Ryan said, trying to change the topic back to the monsters.

“Not for the hundred years I lived there. Not until the very end.” Dianmu shook her head sadly. “People were going missing. In too great a number to be accounted for by normal means. It disturbed me, and then became extremely concerned when I realized they were all people living on the first or second floors of their buildings, or from the top two floors.”

“I’m not sure what that indicates,” Ryan said.

“Monsters that prey upon humans tend to avoid exposure. They know that if humanity banded together, enough of them would kill them. So they tend to attack from below the ground or from the air to minimize that risk.” Dianmu’s eyes shone with that hard, cold anger again. “This one was doing both.”

“What can do that?”

“Not many things. Even fewer that would risk hunting in a city. Most of them are anthropophages – the ones you’d know of best are vampires – that can pass as humans. The pattern didn’t fit one of their ilk. You know the old tale that vampires need to be invited in to enter someone’s home?”

Ryan nodded.

“It’s a myth, but like most myths, has some vestige of truth in it. Vampires do not require an invitation to enter your home, but they do prefer it – as do most anthropophages. It means they have your trust, that your guard is down.” She shook her head. “They would never need to focus on the ground floors, and would never, ever risk having to fight their way through a horde of panicked humans from roof to floor. I honestly was at a loss of what could be causing it. Anything more monstrous, and the risk of being caught is much greater. Even if mortals don’t target you, you risk drawing the attention of a god or goddess. Which, of course, this one had, but so far it was managing to utterly confound me.”

She took another drink. “Then the first body was found. It was labeled as a ritualistic gang killing, which is what urban police across the world use most often to describe monster killings.”

Ryan frowned. “I’ve seen what monsters can do. You’re telling me the cops write that off as being gangsters?”

“What else are they supposed to do?” Dianmu asked. “If they say it’s a cult, they’ll have a panic on their hands. If they say it was a wild animal, in a city a densely populated as Guangzhou, people will call them incompetent or liars – and they’ll still have a panic on their hands. If they blame it on gang activity, however, people can sleep safely. They can tell themselves ‘I never angered any gangs, nor do I know anyone in a gang. There is no risk to me.’ They might become frightened, they might cry out about the crime, but ultimately, it’s criminals killing other criminals. It’s a safe lie to cover the horror of what happened.”

Ryan scratched his chin. “I…wish I could find a flaw in that logic.”

Dianmu laughed, a sound utterly without mirth. “One thing I’ve learned over thousands of years – human nature never changes. We like our nice, comfortable lies more than the hard, brutal truth that we are as vulnerable as anyone else. When a civilization is exposed to that truth, panic always follows.”
Ryan shuddered.

“What’s wrong?” Dianmu asked.

“If you’re right…well, the entire world now knows that the mythological is real.”
Dianmu nodded. “I think when we find time to rejoin civilizations, it’s going to be a rather unpleasant sight.”

Ryan swallowed, hard. “So…a body was found?”

“Yes,” Dianmu said, not even flinching at the change of subject. “I was able to get my hand on the police report. The person’s brain and liver had been removed. That told me everything I needed to know. It was a Fangliang – a demon that feeds on those two organs from corpses. And when they cannot find corpses…well, they’re not above making fresh ones, then waiting for them to rot enough for the Fangliang to feed.

“They favor being below ground, fitting for their preferred food source, but they can fly through the air on transparent wings. It was the only thing that fit, although I was surprised they were operating in a city. The only way to kill them permanently is to bury them alive. Otherwise they keep reforming and coming back at every full moon.”
“So you had to take it alive and bury it?”

“Yes. And that was my plan, when I delved into the burrows they had dug in the foundation of a condemned building. Find it, capture it, and bury it.” Dianmu’s eyes flashed at the memory. “I wasn’t expecting an entire nest of the creatures. Over three hundred of them.”

Ryan let out a low whistle. “How did that go undetected?”

“They were spreading out their hunting, and focusing on poorer areas. They were organized, they were smart.

“So that’s how you died.” Ryan said. “Sheer numbers?”

“Oh, no.” Dianmu did smile here, a fierce expression on her face. “I don’t know if I could have defeated three hundred of the creatures in combat. But I didn’t need to. I had come to bury them alive, after all – and the building above us was condemned.”
Ryan stared at her, his mouth hanging open. “You collapsed a building on yourself to take them out?”

“Yes. One of the beams impaled me – I had to immolate myself so I could resurrect back at my nanoverse.”

“Holy shit,” Ryan whispered. After a few seconds to take in how casually Dianmu was talking about being buried, impaled, and immolated, Ryan let out a soft breath.

“Dianmu?”

“Yes?”

“I’m really glad you’re on our side.”

That got a genuine laugh out of her. “Thank you for the compliment,” she said.

“You deserve it. Did it work?”

Dianmu nodded. “When I resurrected, I learned there had been no new disappearances. I also got the message – but at that point, you had already tricked Enki into nuking himself, so I assumed things were over.” Dianmu looked up at him. “Speaking of which, I’m very glad I’m on your side as well.”

It was Ryan’s turn to laugh.

“So, I’ve told you my story. How about yours, Ryan Smith?”

Ryan shrugged. “Not much to tell, really. I was just a perfectly ordinary guy right up until I found the nanoverse. And you’ve heard that story.”

“There’s no such thing as perfectly ordinary. Everyone has something interesting happen to them, at some point.”

Ryan frowned in thought. “Okay, I have one,” he said after a moment. “And in keeping with the theme, it’s also about a time that I died.”

Dianmu arched an eyebrow. “Surely you mean almost died?”

Ryan shook his head. “No. Once before I found my nanoverse, when I was seventeen, I died for five solid minutes.”

Dianmu leaned in and motioned for him to continue.

Small Worlds Part 169

Horus didn’t bother trying to break the vampire’s grasp. There wasn’t time. He had burned through more than enough power where the need for air was burning at his lungs. Instead of entering a contest of main strength, Horus dropped himself backwards, pulling his legs up as he did. The motion caught Vlad off guard, and the two of them fell to the ground. Horus was able to bring up his feet into the vampire’s stomach and kicked as hard he could.

Vlad had no choice but to release Horus’ neck, not if he wanted his wrists to remain intact. Vlad turned to mist again to save himself impact with the ground, giving Horus’ time to gasp for air. Horus rolled away as Vlad reformed, slamming his heel down on where Horus’ head had been moment’s before.

Concrete cracked under the vampire’s heel. Bits of it flecked up and bit into Horus’ face. Even half burned, Vlad was unimaginably strong. Horus brought his leg up in a kick aimed at Vlad’s knee. Before he could connect, Vlad’s hand lanced down and grabbed Horus by the ankle. Vlad swung Horus over his body, slamming him into the concrete. Horus felt the world spin from the impact, and coughed up flecks of blood. Before he could try to break free of the grip, Vlad lifted Horus back up and swung him in an arc, slamming him into ground on the other side. “I’m going to drain you dry for this,” Vlad snarled, lifting to swing Horus again.

Horus threw his hands out towards the ground on the third swing, twisting reality to give the pavement the consistency of a feathered bed. He sunk into the now soft concrete, then kicked back towards Vlad, taking advantage of the vampire being off balance to free himself. Horus didn’t bother to try and rise, instead twisting to surround himself in a bubble of sunlight. Vlad hissed and recoiled from the field.

“You can’t keep this up forever,” Vlad growled from the doorway he had taken shelter within. “Your power is limited, and you’ve burned a great deal already.”

“I have enough to burn you, vampire,” Horus said, finally rising to his feet. “Your presence has been tolerated on this world for far too long.”

Vlad chuckled, the sound echoing through the courtyard. “Tolerated? You think you are the first god to have delusions about killing me? Please. I’ve survived far worse than you. Do you have any idea how many of our numbers I’ve killed over the centuries?”

Horus peered around, trying to pinpoint the vampire’s voice. Between the acoustics here and his own spinning head, he couldn’t quite place it. “However many it is, the number will not increase today, I can promise you that.”

“Endless void, did you read The Book of Bullshit Cliches? Is this the part where I tell you ‘we’re not so different, you and I’?”

Horus’ eyes flared. “We are nothing alike!”

“Of course we aren’t. You’re a pompous, self obsessed, neckbeard with delusions of grandeur. And I? I’m a survivor.

At that moment, Vlad finished the twist to reality he had been working on. Horus screamed as the ground beneath his feet turned into molten rock, causing his shoes to burst into flames that started to lap up to his ankles. He moved as quickly as he could, before the lava could completely incinerate his feet, but as he landed Horus screamed in pain. The soles of his feet were burned past the point of sensation – the pain seemed to be coming from somewhere around his ankles. The nerves below that had been seared away. Horus didn’t dare look at the mess of charred flesh he knew his feet had become. It was all he could do to maintain his balance, and keep up the field of sunlight that was keeping Vlad at bay.

“Which Hunger are you up to, Horus? I’m sure you’re thirsty by now.” Vlad’s voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. “Probably even feeling the need for food.”

A chunk of rock lifted off the ground and streaked towards Horus’ head. It took every bit of energy he had to dodge it before it could crush his skull. “You know why I always wear gods down before I kill them?” Vlad whispered from the shadows. “It’s not just because it’s safer to wait until they’ve drained all their power. It’s because I know that last Hunger is waiting for them. The need for socialization. The need for human contact.”

Horus saw his vision waiver, and the sunlight surrounding him dimmed as he dropped to one knee. Have to do something or he’ll kill me, Horus thought, frantically searching for a plan.

“It means that when you die, not only are you terrified, but so you’re painfully lonely. Isolated. I like to imagine that when my fangs sink into your neck, you’ll welcome it. Even though it’s killing you, it’s the last bit of human contact you’ll ever get before the grave.”

“Now…” Horus grunted, struggling to keep his eyes open. “Now who’s spouting the bullshit cliches?”

That actually got a laugh out of Vlad as Horus slumped to the ground, the sunlight going out. “I started monologuing. I am becoming a cliche in my old age, aren’t I?” In an instant, Vlad was on top of Horus, flipping him over with a kick to expose his neck. “At least I don’t sparkle. I hope someone kills me if I start to sparkle.” Horus raised his hand, and Vlad batted it aside. “Please. You have no power left. Accept this death, Horus.”

Vlad brought his fangs down towards Horus’ neck.

At that moment, Horus tapped into the last bit of power he had been holding in reserved as he faked his powerlessness, and erupted in sunlight. Vlad recoiled and howled in agony as his flesh began to fleck away. It was so bright it blinded even Horus.

When his vision cleared, Vlad was still there. He looked more like a corpse than a man now, his skin burned to a blackened crisp across his body. If he’d been a normal god, he would have died from his injures already. As it was, his movements were jerky, uncoordinated.

But he was still moving. Horus raised his hand to try another twist to reality, but he had burned through all his power. Nothing happened. He was, effectively, mortal.

Vlad’s power had to be mostly drained as well, but even with no divine strength left, he was still a vampire. He slammed his hand down onto Horus’ check, and Horus felt bones crack beneath the blow. Horus fell onto his back, and Vlad leaned his, his fangs coming ever closer to Horus’ throat. “Tell me, Horus – do you welcome this?” Vlad whispered.

“I do,” said a voice behind Vlad. The vampire started to turn, but before he could make it far into the motion, his chest bulged outwards. A hand shot through it, clenching the still beating heart of the vampire.

“Why?” Vlad asked, the unholy light in his eyes fading.

“I don’t answer questions from corpses,” Bast said, and then reached around – her arm still through Vlad’s chest – and brought the heart to her lips, biting into it.

Horus watched in as Bast shuddered at the bite, her eyes rolling back in her head in apparent ecstacy. He’d seen her feed since she became this horror, but it had never been like this. After that first bite, she devoured Vlad’s heart so greedily, Horus was certain she caught some of her own fingers in those bites. “I had no idea it would taste that good,” Bast whispered, shuddering in aftershocks of enjoyment.

Vlad, of course, said nothing. His body was falling apart, turning to bones and dust. Bast reached down with a bloody hand and patted Horus’ cheek. “You did well, Horus. Do you want to heal naturally?”

Horus nodded. The pain from his burned feet was pushing through the exhaustion, but the idea of waiting for a resurrection – of letting himself die after fighting so hard to live – sickened him.

Beneath that was a terror of what would happen if he was helpless in front of Bast right now, so close to the ecstacy of eating a divine heart. He didn’t believe she would feed on him, not really…but the hand that had patted his face had been missing bits of flesh.

That terror gave him the strength he needed to crawl his way back to his doorway as Bast watched with apparent amusement until he could seal himself inside.

Then, and only then, he allowed himself to pass out.

Small Worlds Part 164

Bast fought back a curl of her lips as she saw the adoring look in Horus’ eyes. Pathetic. For a moment, she was tempted to tell him the truth, that she was Sekhmet. She wondered what he would do. Would it finally break the adoration from his eyes? Or would not even that extinguish a torch that had burned for millenia? Probably the latter. You once reviled me for being a monster. Now you ‘love’ me even though I’m more monstrous than I ever was. “Glad you could make it, Horus,” she said.

Horus stiffened at her tone. She’d considered hiding her contempt, but nothing she’d yet done had driven him from her. At least her scorn was honest. “Bast. Cassandra said you needed me?”

“Need might have been a strong term,” Bast said.

She watched the anger build behind his eyes. “What have I done to earn this contempt?” he asked, his voice hoarse. “For thousands of years I have done what I could to get something other from you. I have debased myself, I have broken oaths, I have turned my back on everything.”

Play the game, Bast, she reminded herself. There was nothing to be gained in antagonizing him. Instead of firing back, she turned away, letting her head dip down in faux vulnerability. “I never asked for that,” she said in a whisper.

“Had you asked for it, you would not be the woman I…I would not have done it.” He reached out to her, and she stepped away.

“Then you cannot hold it against me! How can you demand anything of me for things you have given freely?”

“You told me what I had to do to stay by your side. I wouldn’t call that entirely given freely.”

Bast turned away so he wouldn’t see her smirk. Took you a moment to notice the lie. “You assumed much, Horus. I never asked you to follow me. I never wanted it. You insisted.” Mortals of this era had a very particular term for this dance, once Cassandra had taught her about. Gaslighting. Telling someone blatant lies and letting their devotion turn those lies into truth. Bast didn’t think it quite applied here, since it was a mixture of half-truths, but she’d be the first to admit Cassandra was likely the expert.

“Then you don’t want me? Do you say that fully?”

“I’ve said it a thousand times,” Bast said, but she turned back towards him as she did, letting her eyes grow wide. Let him think she was afraid he would leave. Let him think he had a chance. Bast had never before done anything to encourage his affections. She knew now that it was vital he had a sliver of hope.

Especially with what she was going to ask him to do.

“Yet you’ve never run from me,” Horus said, stepping forward.

I was part of the same pantheon as you, you leering twat. And even if I had, you would have followed! “No. I never did.”

“Why, Bast? Why do you fight what is between us?”

Because it’s only existed in your own mind, Horus. It always has been a figment of your imagination. “What is between us? You’ve spoken of it often, but…what is it?”

“You know, Bast.”

Bast took a step forward, meeting his eyes directly. She checked to make sure she was out of easy arms reach – the last thing she wanted was the fool thinking this was an invitation to grab her and kiss her or some other nonsense. “Say it.”

“I love you, Bast. I’ve loved you for thousands of years, for as long as I’ve known you. I love you. What will it take for you to return my love? Why won’t you love me in return?”

Bast turned away again, walking back to the window. It fit the narrative she was helping Horus build, and hid her smile. You knew me before you loved me. Oh Horus, I cannot wait to tell you the truth. She reminded herself this next part was crucial. If she played it wrong, Horus could turn on her. “I don’t know if I’m capable of love now. Not like I am. Even though you are a god, my Hunger only sees you as food.”

Lub-dub. Lub-dub. Just saying it was enough to bring his heartbeat to her attention. “So…there’s no hope.”

That note in Horus’ voice was dangerous, but he hadn’t moved to strike yet. “No. Not unless…” She let the word hang there, waiting for the question.

“Unless what?” Horus asked, all too eager.

“The Eschaton is capable of a single twist to reality beyond what any god can manage. He’s supposed to use this twist to sacrifice the world. But this alternation is so powerful…it could free me of this Hunger, Horus. Me and Cassandra.” She turned towards him, forcing tears to her eyes. “Don’t you see? I could be whole again.”

“Then we have to make him do it.”

How easily your honor evaporates in the face of gain. You once were noble, Horus. “It’s not that simple,” Bast said, wiping her eyes, making a point to look embarrassed. Let him thing it was an error. Let him think she’d let her guard down. “Vlad told me. He wants us to work together to get the Eschaton to fix us both. But the rules…it’s a single twist. A single alteration. What if he can only fix one type of anthropophage?”

“I’ll convince him to fix it for you.”

Bast could hear the uncertainty in his voice. “You know the Eschaton, Horus. He was only an antagonist for me, but you know him. Given the choice, which would he save? A woman who worked with Enki and only has a single spawn, or all vampires that have ever existed, thus ridding humanity of a blight that has preyed on them since the Black Death? Tell me truly what you think he would do.”

Horus sighed. “He’d chose the latter.”

“You see my problem, Horus.” Bast sighed. “I have no more need of Vlad, but he’s much more skilled with these new powers than I am. I must work with him, I cannot betray him, so I am forced to risk losing everything. And without that…I don’t know if I can love.”

It took Horus only seconds to make the decision. “I think you will be free of him, Bast.”

“How can you be…no, I best not ask.”

Horus nodded. “Where is he?”

“We expect him back soon.” Bast looked up at Horus, wondering if he needed more goading, but she saw there the fire that burned would not go out during the wait. “Thank you,” she said.

Horus smiled at her, and the possessiveness in that smile made her skin crawl. “Thank me when it’s done. I must prepare for…well, what comes next.”

Bast nodded and watched him go. That’s right, Horus. You get to ‘save’ me. And if I’m really lucky, neither of you will survive.

It was as true now as it had been in the days Bast was Sekhmet, and likely as true as it had been when Ra was still a slope-browed Neanderthal. Likely as far back as that archean era Crystal heralded from.

There was no force more destructive than one sided affection.

Small Worlds Part 162

After Herme’s abrupt departure, Dianmu turned to Ryan. “You were just about to ask a stupid question?” she asked.

“Right,” Ryan said with a wince. “Seems even more of a long shot now – I almost think we should just forget about it.”

Isabel shot him a glare, and Athena shrugged. “A stupid question is better than staring at each other, wishing we had a plan. Who knows, we might get one from it.”

“Thanks for that,” Ryan muttered, and sighed. “I’m just…I mean, I was wondering if…” He gave Isabel a helpless look.

“Oh good Lord,” Isabel said with a roll of her eyes. “We were wondering if there was any magic fix we’d overlooked. A wise old man on a mountain, a mystic artifact, some way we could get an easy fix to the whole end-the-world problem that Ryan and I overlooked because we’re not millenia old and don’t know everything.”

Crystal snorted a laugh, and Isabel flushed, shooting Ryan yet another glare. “I would have said it,” Ryan said with a grumble.

“Not before the world catches on fire,” Isabel shot back.

Ryan held up his hands in defeat, then looked at the assembled gods. “I know it’s a long shot. But we figured it wouldn’t hurt to ask. So…anything?”

For a moment, there was nothing but silence, and Ryan could feel himself joining Isabel in blushing. “There are the Curators,” Dianmu said slowly.

“Come again?” Crystal asked. “They won’t do anything to intervene. It’s not their style.”

“It hasn’t been their style,” Dianmu corrected. “However, you and Ryan have already gotten more from them than anyone else in the cosmos I’ve ever heard of. Certainly more than they’ve ever given me.”

“Or me,” Anansi added.

“I can third that,” Athena said.

“We sent Horus to talk to them already,” Crystal said, although her forehead was furrowed in thought. “And we never did hear back. Maybe something happened and he got waylaid after leaving Officium Mundi.”

The other three long-term gods nodded. Ryan raised an hand. “Why are we talking like that’s a good thing?”

“Love, you saw what happened when Nabu felt he owed you a debt. If someone used seeing Horus on Officium Mundi against us, we could probably convince Nabu that increased his debt. Might be able to get some answers out of him.”

“But what would we ask?” Athena said, leaning forward to rest her elbows on the table. “We won’t get many questions – probably only one – and I don’t think we should waste it on a magic artifact that probably doesn’t exist.” She gave Isabel and Ryan a small grin. “No offense.”

“None taken.” Ryan replied, glad that the question had at least produced something productive. “And I think the question is obvious – if someone’s pulled it off before. If someone, somewhere, managed to stop their sun from exploding without wiping out all life on the planet.”

Anansi shook his head. “I think you’re on the right track there, but we run a very real risk that the answer will be ‘no,’ and we’ll be right back where we started. Perhaps instead asking how Nabu would end the world without genocide?”

“Better,” Dianmu said, “but still leaves room for a useless answer. The answer could easily be ‘I don’t know,’ and again, we’re back where we started.”

“I know the question,” Crystal said, leaning forward in excitement. “I know exactly what bloody question we need to be asking that wanker. We ask him exactly what the rules are. Right now we’re trying to base our plans off my half remembered concept of the rules, but if we know exactly how it works…then we can find a loophole.”

“I like it,” Isabel said with a smile. “I like it a lot – it actually gets us somewhere. Although, and maybe this is because I’m just a dumb mortal, but it seems like there’s a follow up question we should ask.”

“What’s that, love?”

“If they’re consider getting off their asses and doing something.” Isabel said. As she saw everyone’s dubious looks, she held up a hand for patience. “Look, I know the Curators don’t do that. But they also don’t take sides, and Nabu did. Lucifer doesn’t quit being King of Hell, but he did. Gods don’t live more than twenty or thirty thousand years, but both Crystal and Moloch managed it. It seems like there’s so many things you all don’t do because you’ve got it ingrained in your heads that it’s the rules, but they aren’t as binding as you think they are.”

Ryan watched the faces of the other four gods, noting that, while they seemed uncomfortable, none of them could exactly refute Isabel’s point. “It doesn’t hurt to ask,” Athena finally said.

“Damn right it doesn’t,” Ryan said. “Okay, so that’s one thing. But we don’t need all six of us to go talk to the Curators.”

“We definitely don’t,” Dianmu said, giving Isabel a gentle smile. “They would not react well to us brining a mortal with us, even one as unique as you.”

“What, they’d kill me?” Isabel asked, a slight tremor in her voice.

“No,” Dianmu said, “they just wouldn’t allow you to see them. As far as you’d be able to see, you’d be standing with us in an empty plane.”

“Oh.” Isabel relaxed some.

“Besides,” Crystal said, “it’s not like there’s not other things we have to deal with. Horus is still missing. We might want to consider aiding the Olympians against Poseidon, since at least Artemis knows she can trust us. Bast is somewhere out there still, although I’m hoping she went to ground once Enki got a bloody nuke to the face. When it’s time for the endgame, I want as many pieces off the board as possible.”

“So that’s a no on the magic artifacts, I guess?” Ryan said with a grin.

It got a few smiles in return. “No,” Athena said. “As much as it would be, I know of only one artifact that could have helped us, and it’s been missing for almost four thousand years.”

“What was it?” Ryan asked.

“The Staff of Ra.” Athena sighed. “If we had that…but there’s no point to getting into that. No one know where it is.”

Anansi cleared his throat, drawing everyone’s attention. “So, and lets just be clear here…if one of us happened to know where the Staff of Ra was, we’d consider using it?”

“Yes, love” Crystal said slowly. “Why would you ask?”

“Hold on, we’ll come back to that.” Anansi said with a wave of his hand. “But I want us to make sure we’re on the same page. As dangerous as the Staff of Ra could be if it fell into our enemies hands, we’d be willing to risk it?”

“Absolutely,” Athena said firmly. “The entire world is at stake.”

“Yes,” Anansi said, “and the Staff of Ra could put whatever comes after the end of the world in danger.”

“Even if it does, at least we’ll have an after,” Dianmu said.

Anansi looked around the table, and sighed. “Then…it’s entirely possible I know where it is. Or at least, where it was lost.”

“How would you know that,” Athena asked, her eyes wide.

Anansi gave her a wide grid. “Well…it’s entirely possible I was the one to lose the thing in the first place.”

The other three older gods stared at Anansi. Ryan raised a hand. “Just so Isabel and I can join you all in looking at Anansi like he just grew a second evil head…what’s the Staff or Ra?”

“It’s a magic artifact,” Crystal said, not taking her eyes off Anansi. “It’s a magic artifact that’s powerful enough to give us a chance to actually pull this off, love.”

Ryan felt hope leap into his chest, but looking at Anansi’s face, he couldn’t help but still worry.With something that Crystal clearly held in such high regard in play, it didn’t make sense for the Trickster to look so sad.

Small Worlds Part 161

The group reconvened in Cipher Nullity.

“Still haven’t heard from Horus,” Dianmu said as they took their seats. “I’m starting to worry something went wrong for him.”

Anasi frowned in concern. “We can go to Officium Mundi and check with the Curators, see if he at least made it there.”

“Love, as much as I’d like to, I don’t know if we have time,” Crystal said, throwing down a newspaper on the table. For a moment, Ryan had to grin – he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a physical newspaper outside of a story. That grin faded as he saw the headline. “Global Temperatures Rising more Rapidly Than Models Predicted.” Crystal tapped the headline to make sure none of them missed which story she was worried about. “It’s already started.”

“Is this what happened last time?” Athena asked.

Crystal gave them a grim nod. “I don’t remember how long we had after the heat started. But it was when things started to get close.”

“Does that mean we need to do something right away?” Ryan asked, his voice cracking with alarm. It’s too soon, I’m not ready yet.

“Not yet,” Crystal said, reaching over to pat him on the shoulder. “It just means we have to keep an eye on things. We’ve got a bit to go still before things become urgent, and once that happens you can start using you Zoisphere to slow things down.”

“That’s an option?” Dianmu asked. “Why didn’t you mention it before?”

“I hadn’t remembered,” Crystal said with a sigh. “Seeing…I mean, that whole mess with…” Crystal took a deep breath. “I can’t make myself call Moloch any other name, yeah? The man I knew died a million years ago, and can we leave it at that?”

No one objected.

“Okay. So the whole thing with Moloch jarred some more of my memories loose. Nothing,” she said hastily to Ryan, “that gives us a magic answer. But I do remember that when things started getting bad, I used my Zoisphere to slow things down. Hurricanes, Earthquakes, Floods – local disasters, but not apocalyptic. The more creative things got, the more it helped.”

Ryan let out a long sigh. “So…you’ll know when it’s time to start that?”

Crystal nodded. “And we’re not there yet. But we need to keep an eye on the news.”

“I’m on that,” Isabel said. She’d brought a laptop, and had it on the table in front of them. “I don’t suppose any of you could give me wifi access here?”

“A bit outside of even our power,” Athena said gently. “We don’t have the advantages of permanent twists to reality that we did in Tartarus.”

“No worries, I don’t need it right now, as long as we can keep it working in nanoverses like before. But, since I’m the IT girl, I’ll set up some alerts for rapid temperature rises, climate change, other apocalyptic signs. Anything else I should be looking for?”

Crystal went over some of the other signs they were getting closer to the Sun’s explosion. “But you’re just the IT girl? Won’t be joining us on the battlefield?”

Isabel shook her head. “I got my first taste of gods battling and nearly died. If there’s something that absolutely requires me to join in the fight, I’m there, but other than that…I’m basically an Animorph on steroids, and the stuff you’re fighting is a bit more dangerous than Yeerks.”

Ryan laughed. Everyone else gave Isabel blank looks. “What’s a Yeerk?” Athena asked.

Isabel flushed slightly. “Probably should have gone with a better known reference. They’re…never mind, it would take too long to explain. My point is, I’m in over my head against gods. I think I can do more with the drones and tech support than I can anything in the field.”

Tension seemed to leave the faces of Athena, Dianmu, and Anansi. Ryan felt an urge to defend his sister rising, but he was as relieved as them to have Isabel not in the fights. She can’t resurrect. Not until we get her a nanoverse, and that won’t happen till after the world ends at earliest.

Ryan decided to ignore the fact that he had not guarantee of resurrection yet either. “Well, then I have a question, and stop me if this is stupid-“

Apparently whatever capricious force governs timing decided it was a stupid question, since at that moment a seventh doorway opened in Cipher Nullity. The gods leaped to their feet. Please be Horus, please be Horus, please-

It wasn’t Horus, but it also wasn’t a threat. Hermes stepped out of his nanoverse, blinking at them. “Relax, everyone. I’m bringing word from Artemis.”

“How did you find us?” Crystal said, righting her chair with a wave of her hand.

“My little secret.” Hermes smiled. “Don’t worry, Crystal, it’s not something anyone could replicate. Especially not Bast.”

Crystal frowned at the lack of an explanation but didn’t press Hermes. “So what’s the word?”

“Poseidon has fled.” Angry muttering rose from the table, and Hermes held up a hand for attention. “Artemis doesn’t know who helped him, but once Zeus resurrected, he clearly figured out things were about to go very poorly for him and decided to go to ground.”

“Where?” Athena said, clenching her fists.

“We don’t know yet. Artemis is hesitant to start the search. He had assistance, that much is certain. She’ll be happy to help you all, but with Poseidon being a looming problem…she’s going to be a bit busy for now.”

“She can’t send us any help?” Dianmu asked in clipped tones.

Hermes shook his head. “Artemis has precious few people she can trust right now, and she needs them close until Poseidon is dealt with. Excpet for me, apparently.” Hermes tapped his chin in thought. “Or perhaps she doesn’t trust me, I’m not sure.”

Athena snorted. “She trusts you with this message.”

“Everyone knows I can be trusted with those.” Hermes looked offended.

“Fair,” Athena said.

Hermes nodded. “And with the message done, I must return and see if I have more to carry.”

“Hey Hermes,” Ryan said at the retreating god. “Why didn’t you do your whole ‘repeat her exact words’ thing?”

Hermes smiled, and when he spoke this time, it was with Artemis’ voice. “And don’t repeat what I said verbatim. I hate my voice coming out of your mouth. If they doubt that it’s a legitimate message, tell Athena I never broke her trust on the weaver.”

Athena’s eyes widened. “The message is from Artemis,” she said slowly.

“Then may I depart?” Hermes asked, not waiting before stepping back into his nanoverse.

With that, Hermes was gone. And there’s no way to know when we’re going to be getting help. We’re on our own, Ryan thought bitterly.