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

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“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.

Small Worlds Part 160

“So Ra found a psychopath to give a nanoverse?” Cassandra asked.

Bast chuckled at the term. “You ate a human heart today,” she pointed out.

Cassandra flushed. “It’s different,” she protested. “I Hunger. I’m an anthophage now. What we do is no more psychotic than a wolf hunting a hare.”

“If you insist,” Bast said. “I’m certain Sekhmet had her reasons. But it’s been so long, I struggle to recall them anymore.”

“You knew her?”

Bast gave Cassandra a small smile. “I’ll explain, if you’ll allow me to continue.”

Cassandra closed her mouth and nodded firmly.

“Sekhmet did her job well. Too well. The mortals once again feared the gods, but the gods feared her. They caught up with her in Iunu, which the Greeks would later call Heliopolis, the city of the sun…”

There was no sun shining that day. It was hidden behind the clouds of smoke that rose from Iunu.

Ra approached Sekhmet, his hand holding a wickedly curved sword known as a kopesh. He was flanked by Neith, Thoth, and Horus, all similarly armed. “Sekhmet,” Ra said, his voice calm and reasonable. “It’s time to stop.”

Sekhmet stood up from her latest victim. He’d died slowly, consumed by the flames from the feet upwards. The burning carcass provided a backlight to Sekhmet’s blood-soaked form. “I’ve learned that with the right mixture of oil and sawdust, I can set clay and stone to flame. Why on earth would I stop now?”

“Gods have no needs of such tricks,” Horus counted with a glower, and Sekhmet gave him a broad smile.

“Of course we do not. But I’ve seen the whole of the world from high in the sky now. Peoples scattered across it. If we want, we could bring it all under our dominion. But our soldiers were need weapons to accomplish that.” Sekhmet gestured towards where the fires burned. “What force besides a god could stand against this?”

“It’s monstrous,” Ra growled.

“There’s that word again. As useless as it was before.” Sekhmet’s eyes narrowed. “You do love to call me a monster, Ra. Don’t forget who made me.” Sekhmet smiled at the confused glances that went between Neith, Thoth, and Horus.

“Enough!” Ra snapped.

“Oh, no, I don’t think so. Didn’t you tell them, Ra?” Sekhmet’s smile widened. “Of course you didn’t. You couldn’t let them know how desperate you were to retain the goodwill of mortals.”

“Shut your mouth,” Ra said.

“Actually,” Thoth piped up, turning his head towards Ra. “I’d like to hear what she has to say.”

“Iunu burns, and you want to banter with her?” Ra asked, his voice full of forced incredulity.

“No, but we do want answers,” Neith said. “Don’t you? Unless, of course, you somehow already know the answers.”

Horus, it seemed, was less interested in being coy. “What did you do, Ra. What in all the heavens did you do?”

“He made me,” Sekhmet said, after letting Ra squirm under their glares. “He gave me a nanoverse. He felt people didn’t respect him enough. Didn’t fear him enough. He created me to be his scourge against mortals. How did you put it, Ra? ‘f 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.’”

Silence reigned, silence that was filled with the background sounds of cracking fires and screams of agony. The three gods that came with Ra turned towards him. “You are the monster,” Horus finally spat.

“You believe her?” Ra asked, gesturing towards Sekhmet. “She’s insane!”

“Then why do you sweat, oh Ra?” Thoth asked, his voice firm. “Why do you wish so badly to silence her? Why did you want to face her yourself?”

“I…” Ra sputtered, then clenched his fists. “What was I supposed to do? They were turning on me, turning on us. You know what could happen if the mortals oppose us! It could be the end!”

“You’ve gone callous,” Neith said, turning her back to Ra. “You’ve gone insane, and you’ve gone cold. I’ll have no part in this.”

The others turned their backs as well.

“No…” Ra gasped, pointing at Sekhmet. “She’s still a monster. You still have to help me!”

“She’s a monster you created,” Horus said. “Put her down yourself. If you fail – when you fail – we’ll deal with her. She cannot defeat us together.”

“She’s still right here,” Sekhmet said crossly, considering blowing open one of their heads for their impertinence.

“What if she escapes before you do?” Ra pleaded.

“Set and Amun are guarding her doorway,” Thoth said. “She has nowhere to run to. We will find her – and you do not deserve our aid.”

With that, the three gods left.

Sekhmet gave Ra a wicked smile. “So…just you and me, it seems.”

“You…” Ra hissed. “You have ruined everything!”

“No, I did not.” Sekhmet said with a shrug. “Everything is going exactly according to your plan. The mortals fear the gods more than ever before. The other gods will now fear you more than ever before. Especially after you slay me.”

“How can you think…wait, after I do what?” Ra blinked in confusion.

“You’re going to slay me, in single combat. Right here, in the streets of Iunu. You’re going to burn my body to ash…and then, in a month, you’re going to find another young woman to give a nanoverse to.”

Ra’s mouth fell open. “You think they’ll believe that?”

“They’ll never believe I would do it willingly,” Sekhmet countered.

“The moment you start killing again, they will,” Ra said, his eyes narrowing. “Except…you know they’ll turn on you.”

Sekhmet nodded. “I’m interested in survival. I’ll happily play the part of the good little goddess, protecting the lands from the likes of…well, from the likes of me.”

Ra took a deep breath, then nodded. “Fine.”

“Excellent. When I see you next, make sure you use my new name.”

“You haven’t told me what that is yet,” Ra said, cocking his head.

Sekhmet smiled. “Why don’t you call me…Bast?”

Cassandra nearly fell off her chair. “You’re Sekhmet? You’re the…that was you?”

Bast nodded. “A long time ago. Hundreds of lifetimes ago, in fact.”

Cassandra shuddered. “So why did you – I mean, kill those people?”

“It was over four thousand years ago,” Bast said with a shrug. “I honestly don’t recall anymore. I became the good little defender after that. The other gods turned on Ra eventually. Then I served Osiris. After Osiris, I served Amun. Then Enki. Now, apparently, I serve Vlad.”

Cassandra frowned at her. “Then don’t,” she said hesitantly, as if afraid of Bast’s reaction. Bast quirked an eyebrow, and motioned for Cassandra to go on. “Don’t,” Cassandra repeated, with more confidence. “Why serve him?”

“I told you, the risks are too great.”

“And those risks grow less once he’s gathered his friends together?” Cassandra asked. “No. I’m sure you can figure out a way to minimize those risks, and it’s better than serving another.”

“You went from calling me a psychopath to urging me to strike out on my own rather quickly,” Bast said, giving Cassandra an amused grin.

Cassandra flushed. “I mean, that’s who you were. I’m not the same person I was ten years ago – and I would have said that before I changed. You’re a goddess, you cannot be held accountable for something that happened so long ago, it was ancient history by the time of the Roman Empire.”

“Thank you for that.” Bast reached out and patted Cassandra on the shoulder, enjoying the way the other woman flushed again. She stood up. “I still don’t see a way to destroy Vlad.”

“You’ll find it,” Cassandra said, with the confidence of absolute faith.

How long has it been since somehow had faith in you? Bast wondered. Centuries, surely. Millenia, most likely. It was true that faith didn’t provide any kind of real power, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t intoxicating. “I think I will,” Bast said after a moment, looking out the window. “Besides, it really is best not to risk that the Eschaton can only be used for one of us.”

“Thank you,” Cassandra said with a smile. “I hate to see you suffer under someone who should be grovelling at your feet.”

Bast chuckled at that, and then caught something out of the corner of her eye. A doorway, opening onto the island. Horus was stepping out, peering around. The gears in Bast’s head turned, and her smile grew. “I do not think I’ll have to much longer,” Bast said. “Thank you, Cassandra. I needed the reminder of what I am.”

Cassandra blushed again. “Do you really think Ryan can do it?”

Bast nodded. “I’m certain. And once Vlad is dealt with…we’ll turn our attention to the Eschaton.”

Vlad would be returning soon. There wasn’t much time. She headed out of the ruined building to talk to Horus. I never imagined I’d have a use for him, Bast thought with a grin. Then again, I never believed I’d have a use for the Eschaton.

In the end, it would turn out both would serve her ends. And that suited Bast perfectly fine.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 62

Tythel slumped back to the ground after the burst of ghostflame.

You’re not done yet, Tythel reminded herself. Her vision in her good eye was blurred, but she could see Rephylon. The Alohym laid on its side, its spindly legs twitching spasmodically in the air. It was reaching out towards her, the hands clenching and unclenching.

More importantly, it was speaking, but its mandibles weren’t moving. The voice was coming from inside its chest. You heard this before, Tythel realized. Back in the prison. She’d heard the voice emanating from the thorax. It hadn’t registered at the time, not as anything important. Now that the Alohym lay dying, the voice coming from inside its chest took on a sick importance.

Tythel began to limp over to the Alohym. She could barely walk. The earlier cut in her leg was throbbing with each step, although it was a minor pain compared to the other ones. The ringing in her ear was beginning to fade, but she still couldn’t see out of her right eye. Her left arm was clutched to her chest at an awkward angle, and Tythel knew she needed to heal it at some point. Every step sent pain through that arm, pain that also radiated out to her shattered ribcage. She didn’t think they were actually broken – Tythel was certain she wouldn’t be able to walk if they were.

It didn’t matter. She had to finish this.

She could hear voices from inside the houses that lined their battle. Faces came to windows. People were whispering in confusion and shock. The song notes of those shells began to chime as the few who had the ability to communicate long distance began to share what they were seeing. Part of Tythel thought that might be important, but the rest of her was too focused on her next step to really think about it.

“Tythel?” a voice said. Tythel turned towards it. Eupheme stepped out of a shadow, her eyes wide. “Light and Shadow, you look…is that an Alohym?”

Tythel could only give Eupheme a cut nod. “The army?” Tythel croaked.

“On it’s way back.”

Tythel turned back to Rephylon and resumed walking. “Need to finish…not done.”

If Eupheme objected to Tythel’s course of action, Tythel didn’t hear it. Step by plodding step, she finally closed the distance between herself and the Alohym.

Now that she was close to Rephylon, she could almost hear the individual words coming from its chest. It sounded like it was railing at Tythel. “I’m sorry,” Tythel said to it, bending down to one knee, “I can’t quite make that out.” She slashed with the talons of her good hand to tear open the Alohym’s thorax. “You were saying?”

The last three words came out as a furious growl.

“You will not survive this.” Rephylon hissed through its pain. “Everything will collapse. Your people will call you a monster, a liar, a child, they will turn-”

The Alohym’s words reverted to its native language as soon as the final plate of the thorax was torn away.

Beneath the thorax was not a mass of internal organs. Instead there was a chamber, in which sat a creature not much bigger than a cat. It looked like a segmented, plated worm. One that had been badly burned. Metal cables connected it to the rest of the chamber, and with the thorax gone it began to scream wordlessly.

Tythel reached in, wrapping her talons around it, and yanked it from its chamber. It wiggled and writhed in her grasp, and the sensation was so disgusting, Tythel held the creature as far away from her body as she could.

Gasps began to sound from the houses around her.

“What is it?” someone whispered.

“Where did it come from?” another asked.

“It’s horrid,” a child’s voice said.

Tythel, for a moment, stood there dumbly. They need to see this. She could hear the army was returning – if not for the ringing in her ear, she would have heard them much sooner. They all need to see this. Tythel stood back up, carefully. Someone was at her side. Eupheme, one hand under Tythel’s arm. “Can’t have you passing out now, your highness,” Eupheme whispered. “It’s your first public appearance, after all.”

Tythel did her best not to lean too noticeably into the assistance until she was on her feet again, the Alohym still trying to escape her grasp with frantic struggles and cursing Tythel in that hideous, shrieking tongue. Or maybe it was begging. Tythel had no idea what the Alohym was saying, and didn’t care.

“What the flath is that?” Tythel heard. Armin’s voice. The army had returned. That’s good, Tythel thought.

She held the Alohym aloft, making sure everyone could see this pathetic, mewling thing. Making her voice as loud as she could manage through the pain, Tythel shouted, “People of Dawnchester! Behold your gods!”

Silence as realization settled in, silence only broken by the Alohym’s continued screeching.

Certain she had everyone’s full attention, Tythel ignited her hand in dragonflame.

Rephylon gave one last shriek and fell silent.

In the distance, alarms still blared. In the distance, fighting still raged. But right here, all was silent. If it wasn’t for Eupheme, Tythel would have collapsed right then. As it was, she stood there, leaning heavily on her friend.

“Light Shine on Princess Tythel!”

Tythel looked to the voice, and was shocked to see Haradeth had started the cheer. “Light Shine on Princess Tythel!” He repeated. This time, the chant was picked up by others. It began to spread through the army, and then through the people watching from their windows. They were cheering. The words “false gods” and “death to the Alohym” began to mix in.

You were just worshipping them, Tythel thought. Are you that fickle? Or were you just that desperate for a crack in their divinity? Another, uglier thought followed that one. Or do you just fear what could happen if you didn’t cheer?

It didn’t matter. They’d seen their gods bleed. They’d seen them die. They’d learned the truth – and thanks to Alohym devices, the whole kingdom would know soon.

Tythel tossed the charred remain of the Alohym to the pavement. The cheering surged again.

It’s a start, Tythel thought. Eupheme prompted Tythel to raise her hand for another round of cheers. “Now, your highness, I think you should rest before your people see you collapse.”

Tythel didn’t protest as Eupheme led her away.

Small Worlds Part 157

Ryan had always wondered who decided to put a graveyard across the street from a local pool. Or to put a pool across the street from a graveyard, since he wasn’t actually sure which came first. In the distance, he could hear children playing, screaming, splashing. Living. Isabel had worked there as a lifeguard. As a teenager, she had practically lived there, but now she didn’t even glance across the street. Instead, her attention was fixed on the small pile of leaves that had accumulated on the grave.

“Does no one ever keep this place clean?” she growled, clearing a space for the flowers.

Ryan put a hand on her shoulder. He didn’t think it looked that bad, but Isabel was displeased about something every time they visited.

“I miss them,” Isabel said. “More now than ever. Could you imagine if they were around for all this?”

Despite the sadness he always felt at the gravesite, Ryan grinned. “Assuming they believed it was real?”

Isabel wiped her eyes. “Yeah, assuming that. What would they say?”

“Mom would tell me that I shouldn’t let it go to my head. Dad would tell me I should pray for guidance. Assuming they didn’t think I actually was the Antichrist.”

“They wouldn’t,” Isabel said firmly. “You know better than that.”

“I don’t, though.” Ryan sighed. “I don’t think they ever really forgave me for ‘making up’ Nabu.”

They lapsed into silence as they stared at the grave. A long, low whistle blast floated over from the pool, followed by a splash. A number of other whistles joined in the chorus – a lifeguard had jumped into the pool to rescue someone.

Isabel’s hand went up to her neck, and then chuckled as she realized she had automatically reached for a whistle.

“Old habits die hard?” Ryan asked.

“It’s that damn pool. A foot deeper in the middle than the edges. I swear, jumping in to save someone became routine.”

“I remember all too well,” Ryan said. “You never stopped texting me about it on your breaks. ‘I just saved someone’s life, what did you do today?’ was my personal favorite.”

Isabel chuckled. “I used that one on mom when she caught me sneaking in after midnight one night.”

“What’d she say?”

“‘Good for you. I grounded my daughter today. For a week.’”

That got a long, hearty laugh from Ryan. “They never caught me sneaking in after midnight.”

Isabel rolled her eyes. “You had to leave the house to get caught sneaking in, Ryan. You were a boring teenager.”

“I’m not boring anymore?”

“Nope, still boring. Just not a teenager.” Isabel smiled at him, and turned back to the grave. “You know, there was another time I got caught sneaking in. I think it was like three or four a.m, senior year. I was pretty blitzed.”

Ryan smiled. “I’m sure mom was thrilled about that.”

“Worse. Dad caught me.”

Ryan winced in sympathy. “What happened?”

“He started laying into me about respect and truth and all that. Said if I couldn’t act like a responsible adult, maybe I should live at home my freshman year, and you know how much I was looking forward to living on campus. I…like I said, I was drunk. I shouted at him something along the lines of ‘Ryan lied to you for years about an imaginary friend, but I’m in trouble for having a life?’” This time, Ryan’s wince had nothing to do with sympathy. Isabel held up a hand. “There’s a point, I swear.”

Ryan motioned for her to continue.

“I’d never seen Dad get that red before. Not when he caught me with weed, not even when I told him Shelly had cheated on me. You know how you’d always know he was really mad because he stopped yelling?”

“Oh yeah, I remember that one all too well.”

“He told me we’d talk in the morning. That he wasn’t having this discussion when I was drunk. The next thing, first thing in the morning he woke me up, soon as Mom had gone to work.”

“And?” Ryan asked.

“He told me that I was never to bring that up again. Not with you, not with him, not with Mom, not with anyone. He was worried about you, Ryan. But he wasn’t angry with you, not anymore. He thought you were having problems, bigger problems than you’d ever talked about, and it scared him shitless. Scared me, too. Remember the time I randomly called you to tell you I loved you, and wouldn’t say why?”

Ryan nodded. It had disturbed him, and he’d called his dad immediately afterwards. “I thought you were in trouble. Or high.”

Isabel chuckled. “Neither. We’d just had that conversation. We talked about it again after I finished college. Dad told me he didn’t know what was going on, but he wasn’t worried anymore. That you were doing fine, so whatever was wrong – if it had been in your head or just something else – had to be dealt with.”

Ryan felt tears coming to his eyes, and gave Isabel a hug. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“That I used the biggest fight you ever had with Mom and Dad to deflect that I was drunk, and then Dad scared me with how worried he was about you?” Isabel broke the hug. “Why the hell do you think I didn’t?”

Ryan sniffed and then laughed. “Fair enough. Thank you. I…I needed to hear that.”

Isabel smiled, and there were tears in her eyes too. “You know, this might have been our last chance to come here and not cry.”

Ryan nodded. “I’m not sad that we blew it. Are you?”

“Nope.”

They took a moment to say goodbye to their parents one last time, and then turned to leave.

It was time to look after the living.

Strange Cosmology Part 106

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Ryan woke up in a bed, trying to remember the last time he’d done so.

He didn’t count the cots they’d created in their improvised fortress, and he didn’t count coming back from being half dead after getting most of his face shot off. Eliminating those two…I think it was after Graham Island? It felt like there had been another time since then, but it eluded him.

No matter when it had been, it was nice to wake up in a bed. It was even nicer to wake up in a bed this fancy. It was like sleeping on a cloud, and Ryan had to fight the urge to burrow back under the covers. You need to get up, a treacherous part of his brain piped up. You’re in the Elysian Rest, and you have no idea who you can trust here.

That thought soured any attempt to relax, and Ryan through off the covers as a sudden wave of anxiety settled in.

The Olympians, or at least one of them, had provided clothes for him, his previous outfit being completely ruined between burns, cuts, holes, and his own blood. Unfortunately, it seemed they were out of anything that would fit modern styles. Or Medieval styles, for that matter.

It took far too long to figure out how to put on a toga.

When he finally left his room, feeling incredibly out of place wearing a garment that had been the exclusive domain of fraternities for at least a millenia, he found a man waiting for him. The visitor wore a toga as well, although he wore it like a fashion statement, as opposed to the rumpled cloth that was currently wrapped around Ryan.

“Ah, good, you’re up,” he said to Ryan, offering a hand. “I’m Hermes.”

“Nice to meet you,” Ryan said. “I’m Ryan. Although you probably already knew that.”

Hermes smiled brightly. “I would hope so, since Ishtar – sorry, Crystal – sent me with a message for you.”

Ryan blinked. “What’s the message?”

When Hermes spoke, a perfect imitation of Crystal’s voice came out of his mouth. “Tell that bloody wanker he’s slept enough. Time to wake up because I don’t want leave things hanging any longer than I sodding have to. Thanks, love, I appreciate it. Of course I want it verbatim, why do you ask? Yes, that’s the full message.”

Ryan laughed. “That’s pretty impressive,” he said. “How do you do the voice so well?”

“Selective shapeshifting of my vocal cords,” Hermes said with a bow. “I came back from the dead last night, so I’m glad to have a chance to show off.”

“I can imagine,” Ryan said. “Where are they?”

“She forgot to include that in the message,” Hermes said with a grin. “I’m sure you’ll find them if you wander around long enough.”

Ryan laughed, then realized that Hermes was serious. Well, not serious. He’s going to make me wander around for the sake of a joke. “Would you mind delivering a message to Crystal for me, then?”

Hermes asked, “What’s the message?”

“Here I am. And yes, that’s the full message.”

Hermes laughed. “So you can follow me to her?”

“Of course,” Ryan said.

“Oh, I like you.” Hermes motioned for Ryan to follow, and lead him to where the others had gathered. “Here I am,” Hermes said, speaking with Ryan’s voice, “And yes, that’s the full message.”

Athena rolled her eyes. “Good to know your sense of humor hasn’t changed, Hermes.”

“Ryan laughed,” Hermes said defensively.

“Ryan has only known you for a day. It gets old, fast.”

Hermes chuckled and headed off to leave the gods alone. In addition to Ryan’s group, Uriel sat at the table, as did Artemis, and a drone hovered over a seat. All of them still bore injuries from yesterday, except for Isabel, who’s injuries hadn’t shown in the first place.

“Good,” Crystal said. “Now that everyone’s here, we have some things to discuss. First order of business – Artemis, I wanted to thank you again for the save during the fight back there.”

Artemis shrugged. “Don’t mention it. I’m just glad I got there in time to make a difference.”

“As am I,” Athena said. “I’m hoping this means we can count on Olympus’ support?”

“I’m not sure,” Artemis said, leaning forward on the table. “Right now there’s an uneasy balance of power between Poseidon and myself. We still have a couple days before Zeus resurrects. Until he does, I have to keep that asshole in check.” Her lips curled down in a frown. “He wanted us to support Moloch. Against you. I still don’t know what to make of that.”

“He’s a traitor to your people,” Dianmu said.

Artemis shrugged again. “Maybe. Or maybe he just honestly believed he was doing the best thing for us.”

“You don’t believe that,” Anansi said.

“Of course not,” Artemis said with a diresive snort. “But I can’t prove it. So until Zeus is back on his feet, I can’t promise anything.”

“We came all this way and saved you, and you can’t promise?” Ryan asked.

“Well, I can promise I’ll help. Hercules too. The rest…” Artemis paused to sigh. “It’s complicated.”

“Two gods is still more than we had before, love,” Crystal said to Ryan, before turning to Artemis, “What do you think is likely?”

“Poseidon lost. His political cache is terrible right now. I don’t know who all really supports him, and who all was just acting out of fear, but it’s unlikely he’ll be able to regain any control. Zeus…if you asked me a week ago, I’d have said he’d be on your side.”

“And now?” Ryan prompted.

“I still think he will be, after everything that’s happened, but with the week I’ve had, I’d take my judgement on what Olympians would or wouldn’t do with a grain of salt. I can promise one thing, though – I’m going to use my political capital for being a hero to get us to head back to Olympus. We shouldn’t be walled off from the world.”

“Not to be rude,” Ryan asked, “but how does that help us? If you all side against us, wouldn’t it be better if you were still down here?”

“I think seeing the mortals again will help us remember the people of the world should matter more than the world itself,” Artemis said.

“It’s something, at least,” Athena said. “I wish you would reconsider and come with us.”

Artemis shook her head. “Much as I hate politics, I’m in it now, Gray-Eyes. I wish you would stay. I could use your expertise.”

Athena glanced at the others, then shook her head. “My place is on Earth, with these people. I was kicked out of Olympus. I’ve got a new Pantheon now.”

“Fair,” Artemis said with a sigh. “I’ll just muddle my way through it regardless.”

“You won your first political fight,” Anansi said with a grin. “I think you’ll do fine.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Artemis said.

Crystal cleared her throat. “Since that’s settled, second order of business. Resheph, we’ve recovered a few nanoverses from your people. We can bring them to you.”

“How many?” Resheph asked through the drone.

“Five,” Crystal said softly.

Resheph was silent for a minute. “Well…that’s better than I feared,” he said, his voice thick with emotion.

“I’m sorry,” Crystal said.

“Don’t be. It’s not your fault. In fact, I think I recall you killing the bastard who’s fault it was,” Resheph said.

“Yeah. Sorry to deny you vengeance.”

“Don’t be,” Resheph said. “I’m just glad he’s dead.”

There was an awkward silence before Uriel spoke up. “On another matter – Ryan, I believe you promised to discharge your bargain with Arthur?”

“I want to make sure we’re clear here,” Ryan said, “I’m going to give you information that will help fix your mortal status. You’re going to promise me that it will fulfill my debt to your boss. Is that correct?”

Uriel nodded. “So long as the information has a reasonable likelihood to help.”

“Agreed,” Ryan said. “We’re going to take you out of Tartarus.”

“And?” Uriel asked, then saw the expectant look on Ryan’s face. She frowned, then sighed. “And then reality should reassert itself, undoing the twist Moloch placed on me.”

“Exactly.”

Uriel looked both annoyed and amused, “I should have seen through that. My thoughts are more sluggish in this form.”

Ryan didn’t grin. “After the stunt your boss pulled, it’s probably best you didn’t. I’m going to deck him next time I see him.”

“Ryan,” Isabel snapped, speaking up for the first time. “Cut it out.”

Ryan sighed, and got a sympathetic look from Athena. He appreciated that, at least. Someone understands what I’m going through.

“It’s fine,” Uriel said, “I understand the anger, Ryan. Arthur figured it would piss you off. He decided the fate of the world outweighed your anger, and assumed that once you calmed down you’d agree.”

Ryan just glared at her.

“Anyway,” Crystal interrupted, “I think that covers most of the important details, loves.”

Everyone glanced around, then nodded, except for Resheph, who voiced his affirmation through the drone.

“I can have Nike and Kratos escort you out,” Artemis said. “With the monsters gone, it should be an easy trip.”

“So eager to be rid of us?” Athena asked.

“Yes,” Artemis said simply. “I can’t guarantee the Eschaton’s safety, and as much as I’d like to extend hospitality to you…” Artemis gave another one of her small shrugs. “You saved our lives. We won’t forget that. I don’t want anyone thinking that debt is discharged because we made you guests.”

“I can live with that,” Crystal said. “Anyone disagree?”

No one did. Ryan least of all. He wanted nothing more to get out of Tartus and back to Core World to see what had happened there in their absence. Moloch was defeated, but Bast was still out there, and who knew what the Army had gotten up to while they were gone. Not to mention other gods emerging from hiding. They’d saved the Olympians, and at least won the allegiance of a few of them in the process, but there was a long way to go before the end of the world. Especially because they still had no idea how to save the people on it.

How’s that saying go? Ryan asked himself. The reward for a job well done is more work?

Ryan decided that, for now, he’d focus on the job well done, and let the work be a problem for the future.