Strange Cosmology Part 99

“They’re fighting for their lives – and ours – right now. And you want to do nothing?” Artemis had to fight the urge to scream those last words, hissing them through clenched teeth instead. The megaron was in chaos. Everyone was clamoring to shout over each other. It was less a congress of the gods and more of an ill tamed mob.

“-tore Hermes apart, and you-“

“-don’t know what he wants, an agreement could be-“

“-fighting Athena, he can’t be that bad in-“

“-what about the human sacrifice, we can’t ignore-“

Poseidon sat in on the throne, watching and listening, although his attention was focused on Artemis.  “I didn’t say I wanted to do nothing. I just said that we should consider all options.”

“Our defenses won’t hold forever, Poseidon. You know that as well as I do.” Hearing the sea god over the din was hard enough. “And we have traitors in our midst. Moloch will get through, be it brute force or treachery. “

“I find your evidence for other traitors…lukewarm, at best. Hera was misguided, and by your own admittance, Ares only said he ‘talked to other gods.’ Assuming he was telling the truth, that doesn’t mean they agreed with him, or that they’ll go ahead with their plan absent Ares.”

“Fine!” Artemis couldn’t prevent herself from  snapping. Poseidon sounded so reasonable, so logical, so calm. He also sounded completely wrong. “He will still wear us down, Poseidon. Even if there aren’t traitors, which I disagree with, you can’t deny that. We don’t have the fields, our Hungers will claim us before Moloch wears out.”

Poseidon nodded. “Which is why I’m not suggesting we sit inactive. However, we cannot just blindly rush out to join in the fight.”

The general clamor behind them was getting louder. Artemis glanced over. Apollo was shouting directly in Heracles face. Demeter was gesticulating firmly as she tried to make her points to Hephaestus, whatever they were. Aphrodite was in a huddled conversation with Dionysus, being relatively quiet – which just meant they weren’t shouting.

“We aren’t blind,” Artemis growled. “There’s an army of horrors on our doorstep. We’re the opposite of blind, we can see them through the damn window! Why won’t you act?”

Poseidon frowned, and Thalassa leaned in, putting a hand on Poseidon’s shoulder.  “Artemis, we are not convinced we should be aiding Moloch’s adversaries. They are the ones with a stated goal of ending the world.”

Artemis took a deep breath. “One group brought an army to our doorstep. The other is fighting against that army. And you think we should be more worried about the latter?”

“There is the matter of Earth,” Poseidon began, but before he could continue Artemis cut in.

“Earth? You pretend we suddenly care about what happens on Earth? None of us have set foot upon our home in hundreds of years. We abandoned Olympus, we abandoned Earth. Only Hades and Athene remained free! Now you claim you care about Earth? It’s an excuse, Poseidon, and you know it.”

Poseidon sighed and looking over at Thalassa, who was frowning. Snippets of conversation began to reach Artemis’ ears in the silence.

“-die if we try-“

“-he’s crushing nanoverses out there-“

“-just felled an angel, how strong is-“

Artemis’ eyes narrowed as Poseidon and Thalassa sat there. “The do something. Anything! Just stop sitting there. Restore order!”

Poseidon nodded and stood up. “Silence!” he bellowed, his voice echoing through the megaron.

One by one, like the last drops of a passing rainstorm, the gods fell silent.

When Poseidon continued, his tone was calmer, more level. “I understand how hard this is. It’s a situation we’ve never faced before – we’ve never faced a foe where we could not be sure of victory. Even when we warred against the Aesir, we believed our victory was assured. Artemis and I both agree we cannot remain behind our defenses indefinitely.  Can all present agree with us on that?”

Artemis scanned the crowd as they hesitantly nodded. Now that they weren’t shouting at each other, Athena could see the looks on their faces. The furrowed brows, the clasped hands.

Moloch had managed to strike fear into the hearts of the gods of Olympus.

“Excellent,” Poseidon continued, stepping forward magnanimously. “Artemis believes that we should go out and aid Moloch’s aggressors. Athena. Ishtar. A man calling himself Eschaton, a man who willingly names himself the End Times, and others.” Artemis noted he had glossed over Dianmu, who had little to do with the gods of Olympus, and Anansi, who most of them at least liked. “It is a heroic goal. A noble goal. A goal worthy of Achilles.”

Poseidon paused for effect, and Artemis was sure she was beaten. Everyone remembered the death of Achilles. Poseidon was calm, rational, and eloquent. Everything the Olympians loved in a god. I can’t out orate him, Athena thought, searching the crowd for anyone seeing they were being played.

None showed it on their faces.

“I commend Artemis for her heroism. Especially since Artemis has long said she does not want glory. That she does not want power. Artemis has told you all how much she only wants to protect those who need it. It is noble for one whose goals are so altruistic to be willing to lead such a glorious charge.”

Artemis bit back the urge to roll her eyes. Surely the other gods could see though what he was doing. And yet…she noticed Hercules looking at her with narrowed eyes. Aphrodite tapping her chin. I know you all saw Shakespeare! We haven’t been gone for that long. Don’t tell me you’re falling for this!”

Poseidon evidently felt he’d made his point, and changed tactics. “Is it that hard to believe that those who come to fight the monster at our gates are here as friends? Even when they keep such distasteful company?” Poseidon nodded to himself. “And yet…I wonder. I wonder why Moloch has come to our gates. I wonder why he felt driven to attack us. I disagree with Artemis on one point. I do not believe that because we have withdrawn from the world, we should stop concerning ourselves over its fate.”

Mutters through the crowd, and all Artemis could do was clench her hands. That’s not what I meant. That’s not even close to what I meant! But if she tried to explain it away, it would just confuse matters.

“We all received the Curators messages, from both Enki and Ishtar – though she called herself Crystal. Both spoke of the end of the world. In this, both sides are agreed. We decided to sit here, to wait, and to see what happened. We dismissed the warning as mere folly. So why, then, would Moloch turn aside from his course? Why would Moloch come all this way to attack us?”

Poseidon leaned forward. “I posit that Moloch misunderstood our withdrawal. I believe that Moloch took umbrage at us believing we could sit out the end of the world.  I think that the monster at our gate is not the one that attacked us who heard of the end of the world and did nothing, but that the monster is those that would seek to end the world! I posit that our best course of action is to treat with Moloch, and aid him against his foes.”

The mass of gods were nodding, and Artemis felt her heart sink. Poseidon’s points were flawed. Artemis knew that. But they were presented well, they were logically reasoned, and more importantly they took away that fear.

Poseidon stepped aside to allow Artemis to make her counterpoint.

Bastard. Artemis stepped forward. She couldn’t match him for wits. She definitely wasn’t his equal with words.

So she reached for the weapon she had always been best at and drew her bow. The Olympians gasped as she knocked an arrow and fired it at a statue at the back of the room, striking it in the neck. It stuck into the marble, quivering. “One arrow does nothing,” she said quietly into the silence that followed. In quick succession, Artemis drew and fired four more. Each one hummed to their target, quivering in the stone when they impacted. “Four arrows do nothing.”

Then Artemis began to empty her quiver, shooting as fast as she ever had before, each arrow striking the neck of the marble statue or driving another of the arrows deeper. All of Olympus watched in absolute silence as Artemis emptied her bow until finally, with her last arrow, the statue’s head was severed. They all held their breaths as it began to shake on the statues shoulder, a breath that was not released until the head fell to the ground and shattered.

We don’t even need to breathe, but old habits die hard. Artemis waited until the statue finished ringing. “With an entire quiver, even arrows can break marble. And we are not mere arrows. We are gods! We have not acted as one against a threat this great.”

“We shut ourselves away from the world. We do not know what is happening, why Moloch is attacking. In this, Poseidon is right. But you do not believe him because he speaks rationality. He speaks to your fear. He thinks you cowards, and wishes to prey upon that cowardice.”

“I am afraid too. I swear it by any and every oath you may wish me to swear. I. Am. Afraid. And yet if we go out there to fight the obvious evil, to fight the man who brought an army to our doors – ” Artemis gestured with her bow towards the headless statue, “we will have him by the throat.”

Artemis turned to Posiedon, and found it in herself to smirk, “And if you think I do this for glory, I do not expect to find any. After all,” she dropped her bow to the floor, “I’m out of arrows.”

Artemis waited for a few more seconds of silence, taking deep breaths as she did, an old habit that still calmed her nerves. I’ve done what I could. Before someone else could break the silence, she bowed to Posiedon. “I do believe it’s time for a vote, don’t you?”

This time, the hall remained silent.


Small Worlds Book 1: Weird Theology is now available for preorder. More information here.

Strange Cosmology Part 94

Ryan had already been awake, and as such the first to get to Athena, although the others weren’t far behind. The alarm still rung in his ears, a low bell she’d made by slamming two masses of air together in the exact right way. “What’s wrong, what is it?” Ryan asked, wiping his eyes as he did.

She just pointed by way of answer. She’d moved the lenses while keeping her watch, and they now magnified part of the base of the Elysian Rest. Two men lay dead near the foundation, their bodies twisted and broken by the fall. Ryan couldn’t make out too many more details, except that it seemed that one of them had been decapitated. Ryan felt his stomach churn. “Are those…”

Athena nodded as the others approached. “Ares and Eros.” Ryan thought better of asking how she could tell from the corpses laying at the base of a tower from this distance. She sounded certain, and pressing her wouldn’t get them anywhere. “I didn’t see what happened, I’m not sure how long they’ve been dead.” Her fingers tightened into fists, and Ryan considered reaching over to comfort her. He glanced at Crystal, who shook her head, and Ryan agreed. “Moloch breached their defenses,” Athena said.

“Hold on now,” Ryan said, his tone gentle as possible. “We don’t know what happened. It could have been some kind of internal conflict or…” Ryan blinked a couple times, and Athena gave him a hard look. “Actually, that’s the only other thing I can think of.”

“If you’re trying to calm me,” Athena growled through clenched teeth, “I think you could have done worse. Somehow.”

“Athena, love, we don’t know what’s going on,” Crystal said, stepping in. “Maybe it’s already over. Maybe there’s nothing to worry about.”

“Look at this and tell me there’s nothing to worry about,” Athena said, stepping aside to give the other gods access.
Everyone took a moment to look through the lense while Athena’s knuckles grew whiter and whiter. “I do not think Moloch has breached their walls,” Dianmu finally said, looking squarely at Athena. “There would be more chaos if he had gotten even a single monster in.”

Athena sighed and seemed to relax some, although her shoulders were still rigid with tension. “Then the Olympians are tearing themselves apart from inside. We can’t wait any longer, we have to help them. Otherwise this was all for nothing!” she gestured expansively back at the labyrinth with the last sentence, as if to draw attention to how much they had gone through and were squandering.

The other gods looked at each other for a moment before Anansi spoke up. “Athena is correct. Our primary objective here was to see if the Olympians needed aid. Even if they need aid from each other, we should try to proffer it.” He smiled broadly, “Besides, I see no reason to make things easier for Moloch.”
“I hope some brilliant plan has formed for how we can do that, then,” Dianmu said with a scowl. At least it’s not a refusal, Ryan thought with relief. “The five of us barely took down some outriders and a single dragon. He has four dragons, a goat monster, and dozens more outriders. It doesn’t exactly inspire hope to know the odds have gotten work.”

Athena glowered at her, but Crystal stepped in. “She’s right, love. We go in half-cocked, we’re likely to do nothing to help the Olympians besides give Moloch some fresh corpses.”

“I have been thinking on this,” Anansi said, his voice slow and careful. “Although it assumes some things. Something Ryan said – what was it about the Lindworm and forms?”

Ryan had to frown for a minute to remember the line he’d said to Anansi as they were making camp. “Oh, yeah. I didn’t know Lindworms could pull a ‘this isn’t even my final form’ and go all one-winged angel on us.”

Anansi nodded, and Crystal grinned. Athena and Dianmu stared at them with perfectly mirrored expressions of confusion.

“It’s a reference to…you know what, it doesn’t matter,” Ryan said, not wanting to delve into the intricacies of video game and anime plots. “The point is, the Lindworm turned into something straight out of Dark Souls…” he saw even Crystal and Anansi’s forehead furrow and sighed. “Seriously, you all need to stay at least semi-up to date with pop culture. Something out of Lovecraft?” Confusion faded. “Great. My point is, if that’s not something Lindworms can normally do, how did that one manage it?”

“And you have an answer now, Ryan?” Dianmu asked, tilting her head.

“No, but I’m guessing he does,” Ryan said, pointing at Anansi.

“I do. Moloch has found a way to send his power into these monsters, give them a portion of divine power. Likely from human sacrifice, given how much he favors it.”

Crystal nodded. “I’ve never known Moloch to touch his nanoverse for power when dead humans could do the trick.”

“I feel the need to point out you were okay with us allying with him,” Ryan muttered.

Crystal rolled her eyes. “Well, love, we didn’t exactly have a dearth of applicants. We needed help.”

“Yes you did,” Anansi said, “but the point, if I may?”

No one objected, and Anansi continued, “It all comes back to Moloch. He is empowering the monsters. He is commanded them. He commands the Helhests. If he’s sufficiently distracted…well, he’s still only one person. We just need to get through to him. If we sneak-“

Dianmu interrupted him. “And if we’re caught, Anansi, what then? We need some way to sneak past an entire army! What on Earth could give us the chance to do that. We’d need one hell of a distraction. No, spider, we need an army”

Ryan was looking back into the fortress, frowning. “An army…” he muttered.

Athena followed his gaze, then glanced over at Ryan. “What are you thinking?”

“Hey,” Ryan said, loud enough to interrupt the growing argument. “What allows Moloch to command monsters? I mean, every one we’ve fought seems pretty intractable to me.”

“You have to be the one that created them, love, otherwise they’re going to run rampant.” Crystal joined Ryan in frowning.

“So…without a god to control them, monsters will just attack the nearest god?”

“Hah!” Dianmu barked a humorless laugh. “No, they’ll attack the nearest thing. God, mortal, machine – lacking one of those, they’ll even turn on each other.”

“So we give them a target,” Ryan said, his voice growing in excitement. “We give them something to chase, lead them into Moloch’s army, and let them run rampant! Hey Resheph, how good are you with drones now?”
Resheph’s response took a couple moments. “I can fly them pretty well. These voice controls are a bugger and a half, though.”

Which explained why he’s been so silent, Ryan thought, his frown turning into a smile.

“Lead who, Ryan?” Dianmu asked, her voice finally softening. “What are you thinking? We don’t have monsters, or an army.”

Ryan shook his head. “No, we don’t.” He raised one hand to point down the great broken doors than lead back into the Labyrinth. “But we know where to find a whole hell of a ton of them, don’t we?”

The other gods stared at him, then at each other. The silence was broken by Anansi, who started to chuckle. “Yes, we do.”

“You do know ‘just crazy enough to work’ isn’t meant as advice, right?” Dianmu asked, but she was tapping her chin as she did. Less denial, more concern.

“Well, my last plan involved a nuclear bomb, so really, this is a step up in sanity for me.” Ryan looked around. “Anyone have a better plan?”

No one spoke up. Athena looked positively eager. “From the outside…the walls should be vulnerable from the outside,” she said, nodding her head excitedly. “We never imagined someone would try to break in, only through or out.”
“Great,” Ryan said. “Let’s crack this thing wide open. If it works, we’ll finally get to talk with Moloch. If it doesn’t, well, it’s not like things were going well before.”

Crystal shook her head. “We really need to work on your inspirational speeches, love.”

They were past the point where speeches mattered. The die was cast. They set out to unleash the monsters of the Labyrinth.

And let’s hope this isn’t as crazy an idea as it seems, Ryan thought as he began to walk the wall, looking for where he’d begin his part in the destruction.

 

Strange Cosmology Part 91

Zeus sat dead on his throne. He looked almost peaceful, his head bowed, the great white beard stained red by the hole in his chest where his attacker had stabbed him. Artemis was doing her best to look at the situation with a detachment, even though it was hard seeing him like this. Zeus may have been a randy old bastard, but he’d guided the pantheon for as long as she could remember. He didn’t expect the attack.

That much was obvious. Zeus was as dangerous as they came, the rise of his divinity marked with the battles against the Titans and then followed by centuries of Theomachy to bring the rest of the old Olympians in line. He’d helped find divinity for both his brothers, even going so far as to find how to help an Underworld god ascend for Hades sake, something no one had understood – at least, as far as Artemis knew. He’d later gone to war with them and neither Hades or Poseidon were exactly pushovers. He’d survived the Bronze Age collapse, he’d survived the war against the Egyptians and the Persians.

The only warriors as skilled as him, and the only gods as powerful, were Hades, Poseidon, and Hera. Hades had remained in his realm instead of coming with them to the Elysian rest. Hera was currently screaming vengeance for this fowl betrayal. So where are you, Poseidon?

“Where is his Nanoverse?” Hera shouted, startling Artemis out of her thoughts. She was looking at Artemis as she screamed it, but Artemis didn’t think the question was directed at her, especially since Hera didn’t deem to wait for an answer before continuing. “He always had it on him, always. If we find his nanoverse, we find his killer.”

“Then I suggest we gather everyone. Check them. See who has two. We’ll have our killer then,” Artemis responded, trying to keep her voice as calm as she was her emotions. Hera didn’t need someone to rage with her right now. She needed someone who could stay calm.

Of course, now carrying around Ares nanoverse was a much bigger liability than it had been. Artemis still trusted her gut instinct to lie about that to Hera, but if the enraged god-queen found out that Artemis was carrying two now…I don’t think any amount of bold moves will save me then.

“Oh, you suggest that, do you?” Hera snapped, her voice dripping with vitriol so thick Artemis wondered if they’d need to mop it up before it tainted the crime scene. She opened her mouth to respond, but Hera wasn’t actually looking for an answer. “Don’t just suggest it, then! Go! Do it. I’m sick of councils, sick of talking. Give me action!”

“And what if I find myself against someone who could kill Zeus? Would you have me fight whomever killed your husband?”

Hera’s nostrils flared. Artemis had never understood how a marriage built upon so much mutual acrimony could contain so much love. Hera seemed to do nothing when it came to her husband except than complain about his infidelities, and Zeus rarely spoke of Hera except to grumble about her attempts to kill his ex lovers and children, but whenever they were together they were the perfect picture of a happy couple. Artemis had thought it was as sham, a show for the other Olympians, but seeing Hera’s rage now…you do love him.

“No, of course I won’t,” Hera said after she’d calmed down. “Of course you can’t fight them. You’re a good archer, but you’re no match for anyone who could do this. Especially because we know who it was, don’t we?”

“We do?” Artemis asked.

“Of course. Poseidon, and probably his cow Thalassa. He was always jealous of Zeus, and she always believed she’d be a better Queen than I. They’re using the opportunity of Moloch to seize power. It’s obvious.”

It wasn’t to Artemis. Poseidon and Zeus had gotten along poorly in the past, true, but betraying them to Moloch? That seemed beyond even him – if nothing else, he would be too proud to resort to trickery. Thalassa, meanwhile, had said she’d been a better Queen than Hera. That was true. But she always said it with the unspoken implication of “and if I’m saying I would do better, than you know how poorly I think she’s doing.” Comparing herself was a critique of Hera, not an actual desire. “We should check them first then,” Artemis said. If they found Zeus’ nanoverse it would answer the question, and put Hera’s paranoia to rest if they did not.

That, at least, Hera agreed to, and she stalked the halls of the Rest as Artemis followed. They wound through the great garden, where Ionian columns supported a garden tended by Demeter that was as lush as her power could manage.

Artemis hoped that once this whole business with Moloch was done, the gardens remained undamaged. They were slightly inspired by the hanging gardens that had once adorned Babylon, but Demeter had carefully given them a perfectly natural appearance, where it gave the impression that all this wonder and beauty had happened by accident – and at the same time was clearly sculpted by an expert hand. The flowers that grew here formed a perfectly contrasted rainbow of color, and from experience Artemis knew that from the sky above it looked like a kaleidoscope, especially at the artificial evenings they had created in here. During that time, they would open and close to create a swirling pattern that spiraled across the entire span of the garden.

So renowned was their beauty that as they wound through, Hera stopped her stomping to step carefully. It gave her a chance to calm down, and Artemis watched her as she did. Hera’s hands were shaking, her shoulders were slumped, her head was bowed. Artemis thought for a moment it was grief, but why would she be grieving her husband? He’d be back soon. Possibly even tomorrow, given the killer had only created a single hole.  And why didn’t the killer burn his body? Remove his head? Do something to delay his resurrection further?

It wasn’t adding up to Artemis. Something was wrong, she was missing a detail somewhere.

It was something to puzzle over later. They were arriving at Posideon’s chambers. The great sea god was in many ways his brother’s mirror, although his build was slighter and his beard was even more resplendent that Zeus’ “Hera! Artemis!” He asked in a jovial tone. “What brings you to my little corner of paradise?”

“Where. Is. It?” Hera snapped. Guess we’re not even attempting subtly, Artemis sighed.

Poseidon look puzzled. “Where is what, my queen?”

Hera didn’t bother answering with words. With a gesture, before Poseidon had time to prepare himself, she twisted reality. Poseidon was hurled by a complex weaving of all five elements. A burst of air wrapped him up and slammed him against the wall with such force the stone cracked under the impact. Poseidon started to reach out, but Artemis’ mouth went dry as the water was sucked out of the air to throw off his balance and force him to try and deal with the distraction of it flooding into his lungs, where Artemis could see it still swirled in miniature whirlpools. Bands of the stone rose to encase his wrists and ankles and face and crawling over his torso. Under those bands were strands of fire searing his flesh, and if not for the torrent in his lungs, Artemis was sure she’d hear him scream. Artemis had never even attempted a weaving that complex and Hera had done it like it was nothing.

She remembered something Ishtar had said, back when she was with Athena and somewhat welcomed on Olympus. That the elements were just their perceptions of the mathematics that underlies reality. Artemis had laughed it off, asking her if she’d been spending time with the Pythagoreans, but now that she saw what Hera could do, she wondered if maybe Ishtar had a point. Certainly that was no normal elemental work.

Hera strode over to Poseidon’s bed and began to tear it apart. Artemis thought to protest what was happening to Poseidon until his guilt was determined, but seeing the wild look in Hera’s eyes, she decided not to make herself a target of her Queen’s wrath. “A-ha!” Hera shouted, holding the nanoverse high. The one eye Poseidon had that was not covered with burning stone widened in shock instead of pain. “I knew it was you, Poseidon.” She glanced over at Artemis. “Execute this traitor. I want you to shoot him until your quiver is empty.”

Artemis reached back to her quiver, drawing an arrow, and unslung her bow. What had she thought earlier? I’m sorry, Athena. Unless I do something drastic, you’re on your own.

Artemis knocked the arrow, then whirled to face Hera. “Don’t. Move. If you even begin to weave reality, my Queen, I’m putting this between your eyes.”

Hera went stock still, her eyes narrowing. “Artemis. What is the meaning of this?”

“When I found you, you were half mad. Whoever killed Zeus couldn’t bear to destroy his body and delay his resurrection. The only way to manage something as complex as what you did to Poseidon was if you already came here and laid the groundwork for it.”

“You accuse me?” Hera asked, her voice venomous. “Put down that bow now, Artemis. Put it down this instant, and we will talk about this.”

“I will, my Queen, if you can answer one question for me.” Artemis’ hands didn’t waiver. This bow was built for a goddess, with a one thousand pound draw. The arrows each weighed more than a sword. She couldn’t take Hera in a straight fight, but if she loosed the arrow in this close proximity she wouldn’t have to.

“Fine, then. I explain everything you’ve mentioned, so ask your question and then we can discuss overlooking your little-”

Artemis cut her off. “How did you know the nanoverse was in the bed?”

Hera’s mouth snapped shut, and she gave Artemis a look filled with hatred, terror, and grief. “I can explain,” the Queen of the Olympians said, and if the situation was less dire, Artemis would have found humor in Hera repeating the phrase Zeus had so often used on her.

“I can’t believe you’d serve Moloch,” Artemis spat.

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Hera almost stepped forward, then stopped before Artemis loosed the arrow. “Artemis, I didn’t do this to serve him. Lower the bow and I will explain.”

“No. Release Poseidon and talk,” Artemis said, not moving an inch. Which means that even after this, there’s still the traitors to deal with. Artemis fought back despair, focusing on the task in front of her.

Hera nodded.

Strange Cosmology Part 88

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ryan nodded.

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

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

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

Ryan nodded again, unsure of what to expect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strange Cosmology Part 82

“There’s a force approaching us,” Anansi said, perched atop a hill near the entrance to the Labyrinth.

Ryan walked up next to the spider good and squinted. Anansi was using an air lens, like what they had done so long ago on Graham Island. So long ago? It was last month, Ryan. He shook his head at the thought. It felt like a lifetime ago, but now that they were here it also felt like yesterday.
Behind them, Crystal and Dianmu were preparing a molten fortress. Apparently, the thunder goddess had been the one to invent the trick and shown it to Crystal, so together they could create a much more elaborate fortification. They were building it over the entrance to the maze, both so they could use the wall as part of their structure and to make sure anything that came out would have to go through them. A great idea, right up until we get caught between Moloch and the Medusa. Or something worse.
“You’ve become quite the cynic,” Anansi muttered, moving so Ryan could see through the lens.
“Did I say that out loud?” Ryan asked, frowning as he did. The last thing they needed right now was for him to start talking to himself.
Anansi shook his head. “But your face was quite loud,” he said with a grin.
Ryan snorted and peered into the lens.
Even days of war hadn’t managed to scar the beauty of the Elysian Rest. It was a vast field dozens of miles wide, coated in tall grass. Spotted throughout were patches of thicker vegetation, fruit bearing trees that sat among clumps of red and blue and yellow flowers. It put Ryan more in mind of the Savannah of Africa instead of anything from Greece, especially the way the trees flared out to shade the patches below them. The cavern roof above them was festooned with flowering vines that hung down low enough where, in spots, they almost brushed the ground.
At the center was the actual structure that housed the Greek gods. It sat on a rocky hill, the closest approximation to a mountain they could manage. It was a structure right out of mythology, with columns supporting the lowest level, and the upper levels made of solid stone broken up by balconies that were supported by statues of smiling guardians, all painted in bright colors. It would have been breathtaking, if it wasn’t so dire.
Ryan wished he could spend more time enjoying the view. The focus of the lens, however, was more than sufficient to remind him why he could not.
A group of people were riding across the grass towards them, armed with assault rifles and falchions, dressed in modern day camouflage with bulletproof vests. Their steeds were black horses that, instead of two hind-legs, had a single powerful leg in the center. With each exhalation, small gouts of flame erupted from their nostrils. “What are they riding?” Ryan asked.
“Helhests,” Anansi said, grimacing at the word. “They helped spread the Black Plague. Omnicidal maniacs, the lot of them.”
“Perfect friends for Moloch then. But doesn’t look like anything we can’t handle.” As soon as the last word was out of his lips, the white scales of the linnorm that had once been Tyr emerged from behind a tree, slithering along just behind the charging steeds. “Oh son of a…”
Anansi nodded. “Any drake-kind is dangerous enough, but linnorm are particularly troublesome.”
“It’s not just any linnorm,” Ryan said, stepping away from the lens. “That used to be Tyr. I need to talk to Athena.”
“I’ll let you know if anything changes,” Anansi said, and Ryan thanked him and headed down the hill.
Athena was busy preparing some armor from them out of spare clothes in their packs, twisting the material to be woven titanium chains covered by the same Kevlar/graphene hybrid Ryan had used to protect the drones. She looked up as he approached. “Ryan, what’s wrong?” she asked.
“We’ve got incoming. Athena, I’m sorry. Moloch sent Tyr with them.” Ryan took a deep breath and watched her face carefully.
It slid back almost immediately into the emotionless mask she had worn when they had first met, an immediate wall rising up to block any entrance and lock up any emotion from slipping loose. “Good. That monster should be removed.”
“Athena…” but she was shaking her head before he could continue.
“That monster isn’t Tyr. It’s a byproduct of his death, and it carries no more of him than the grass that grows over a grave carries of the person that is buried beneath. Once it is dead, that’ll be the last taint of his death removed from the world.”
He wanted to believe her, but he saw the way her knuckles whitened on the shirt she was clutching, and he knew better. Their eyes met, and the message in them was clear. Don’t push me on this.
“Okay, fair enough,” Ryan said, answering both her spoken and unspoken comment. “They’re a couple miles out, so we’ve only got a few minutes.”
Athena gave him a curt nod and tossed the shirt she was holding to him, followed by a couple others. “You, Crystal, Dianmu. I’ll finish Anansi’s and then my own before they arrive. Bring the other two their garments.”
Ryan wanted to hug her, but though she might punch him if he did. She certainly didn’t seem to want any comfort right now. “Okay. Back in a bit.”
He went to find Crystal and Dianmu and give them the news. They reconvened on the hill, meeting up with Anansi and Athena. Without much time left to plan, it was decided that Anansi and Ryan would draw the riders away from the group, letting the trio of goddesses focus on the linnorm. “Remember, loves,” Crystal added, “They may be technically mortal, but those people are going to be resistant to us, yeah? Try to go for indirect attacks.”
Ryan and Anansi nodded and wished the goddesses luck before splitting up. Ryan quickly lost sight of the other god as the riders came between them. They didn’t seem to have noticed either himself or Anansi yet, which gave them the perfect opportunity to get the drop on their attackers.
Ryan, heeding Crystal’s advice, opened with an indirect attack. Instead of twisting reality directly at the riders and the Helhests, he created an imbalance in electric charges above and below them.
There was, he had to admit to himself, something absolutely primal in summoning bolts of lightning. Three of the twelve riders were struck, and one slumped over, both horse and rider dead. The other two started to turn to face Ryan, and four more of their group followed. The other half turned to charge at Anansi, who had called stones out of the ground they stood on to hurl at the riders at ballistic speeds.
Before the Tyr linnorm could reinforce either of the groups, Athena hurled her sword at it. A familiar twisting of reality instantly accelerated the weapon to supersonic speeds, and although it slithered away before the blade could strike home, Athena now had its full and undivided attention.
Ryan’s heart pounded as the riders lowered their assault rifles to take aim at him, and he broke into a sweat. Sudden visions of the barrel of the gun that had blown half his face away filled his vision, and before Ryan’s eyes, the Helheist he had already felled struggled back to its feet as the rider ripped off his own face to reveal a grinning skull. Ryan shuddered at the sight and realized that he had to ignore the others for now.

This would demand everything he had.

 

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Strange Cosmology Part 78

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

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

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

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

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

“The very wolf,” Anansi grinned wider.

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

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

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

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

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

“I imagine that’s quite the understatement.”

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

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

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

“What about the local deities?”

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

“Very different from how we were.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Strange Cosmology Part 76

Cut off from the others, Dianmu and Ryan followed the drone in tense silence for some time. Ryan wasn’t sure how long – with Isabel gone, they didn’t even have her biological clock to give them reminders of the time. His leg still hurt, and the pulses of pain provided a bit of a ticking clock for their walk, but wasn’t enough to really ground him in reality. Not with the fear pulsing an entirely different beat the entire time, a rapidfire drumline of panic underlying every step.

For once, though, Ryan was certain his decreased sense of time was making it seem far longer than it actually was. Each time the drone did anything even remotely odd – paused, dipped, turned, anything – his heart leapt hoping it would be Isabel saying she’d passed out or finally fixed the computer issue or reconnected the cable or something. Each time the drone continued along silently, his heart sunk again.

“Ryan,” Dianmu said finally, her tone far softer than Ryan was used to. “You need to stop. You’re going to drive yourself stark raving mad before the next challenge even arises at this rate.”

“What am I supposed to do?” he snapped, and then shook his head, moderating his voice. “I just…there’s nothing else to think about right now. I can’t help thinking about what’s happened to her. Or happening.”

“You have to try. We will do what we can as soon as we can. Until then, we cannot control it.”

Ryan actually let out a laugh at that, prompting Dianmu to cock her head and raise a confused eyebrow. “It’s not funny, not really, it’s just…when I found out what having a nanoverse meant, what I could do, I thought that it meant I’d never be powerless again. I didn’t think that meant I’d never lose or never be overpowered, but I thought I’d always be able to do something.”

Dianmu gave him a small smile. “The realization there’s some things even we can’t do anything about is a hard one to face. I think it is good you are doing so early, when the memory of what it was like as a human is still fresh.” Ryan smiled bitterly at that, and Dianmu continued with a slight bow of hear head in acknowledgement, “of course, I wish it was for a better reason.”

“Thanks. Me too.” Ryan trudged along, clenching his fist open and closed as he walked. “So I know you’re not the labyrinth expert, but we should be nearing the end, right? The test of Body were the deathtraps, the test of Mind was the riddles, the test of Soul was the infighting.”

“Maybe. It depends on if we passed the last test.”

Ryan barked out a chuckle, then saw how serious Dianmu’s face was. “Wait, you think we might have failed it? I mean, we broke free of fighting each other before things escalated, that’s gotta be a win.”

Dianmu shook her head. “It depends on how Tartarus is interpreting what happened. What you said is correct, yes, but we also had outside help calming down, and then an external threat to unify against. The fact that those mitigating factors were needed might have invalidated our victory.”

Ryan reached up to rub his temples as he walked. “So, what? We might have to do that again?”

“Not if I understood Athena correctly.” Dianmu tapped her chin. “Passing the tests expedited our trips through this maze. Failing any results in more difficulty further down the line, but she did not specify what that meant. So we’ll likely have some more challenges to overcome, but it’s not clear on what that means.”

Ryan grimaced. “And it’s just the two of us. At least Crystal isn’t moving solo. Hopefully.”

Dianmu nodded. “She won’t. The smartest plan is to stay still, and without Isabel, she won’t have an efficient way to feed her social hunger. She needs to conserve her strength and she knows it.”

“I didn’t even think about that.” Ryan’s frowned deepend. “If we don’t get to her soon, and she has to use her power, do we need to worry about her?”

“No. She brought a book, I believe, and even if she didn’t, she’s unbound and free. If nothing else, she’ll have the option to create art to satisfy that hunger.”

Ryan relaxed some as his frown turned thoughtful. “I didn’t know that was an option.”

“It’s not the most efficient option, which is why it probably wasn’t mentioned. But really, at its core, isn’t all art just a way to communicate through time?” Dianmu smiled with that.

“You know, when you put it that way…I guess you’re right.” They walked for a bit longer, and Ryan noticed he’d stopped grasping at the air in frustration. “Thanks, Dianmu.”

“Think nothing of it. I know how frightening this can be, but everything about the situation says that she is alright. The best thing I can do for both of you, right now, is make sure you stay calm and relaxed so you survive to get to her.”

Ryan managed at least a half smile a that. “Thank you for that. Anything I can do for you?”

It was Dianmu’s turn to laugh. “Make sure you stay calm and relaxed so I don’t have to get the rest of the way lugging your body until you regenerate.”

Ryan snorted. “Okay, point taken.” They rounded the next corner, and Ryan stopped in his tracks “Yeah, I think I’m going to need my wits.”

Dianmu tensed as she saw it. Suits of armor lined the walls of this hallway, at least a dozen on each side, armed with swords and shield. They were full plate, but their styling was distinctly Greek, with the spartan helmets and round hoplon shields that were covered in silver and shined to a mirror polish.

“So, you think those are going to come alive and attack us?” Ryan turned to Dianmu and asked with a grin.

“Almost certainly. You seem…quite thrilled at the prospect.”

Ryan unsheathed his sword and rolled his shoulders. “Yeah. I’ve got a bunch of pent up aggression to work out, and these would probably be perfect to let it loose.”

Dianmu drew her glaive as well. “I understand. Just don’t lose track of your own safety.”

They began to walk down the hallway, moving as slow as they could manage. As they started passing the armored figures, they rotated until they were walking back to back, trying to cover each other on every possible angle. Their reflections stared back at them, slightly warped by the age of the mirrored shields to the point where, to Ryan’s eyes, it almost looked like they were mocking the caution.

Halfway now, and Ryan’s excitement for the battle was fading. The suits of armor were becoming oppressive, looming over them. “Dianmu?”

“Nothing over here.” Her tones were short and clipped. “I am beginning to think they are not the challenge we face.”

Ryan nodded, figuring she’d catch the motion in one of the mirrors. “Then what is-”

“Silence!” Dianmu snapped. Ryan heard it as soon as he shut his mouth. A low hissing sound, like dozens of hungry snakes. Oh no. They met each other’s gaze in the reflective shields, and both leapt to grab one out of the grasp of the nearest suit of armor.

The suits of armor, naturally, chose that moment to come to life, resisting the gods’ attempts to steal their shields and raising their swords high. Out of the corner of his eye, Ryan caught a shape uncoiling from the ceiling and slithering down the wall.

Medusa.

He averted his gaze as the suits of armor moved to make sure their mirrors didn’t reflect back upon their mistress, and Dianmu and Ryan pressed their backs closer together. 

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Strange Cosmology Part 75

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nabu turned and walked through the wall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

No response from the drone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As was usually the case, it did not.

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Strange Cosmology Part 73

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead, this field made up his entire nanoverse.

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

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

“What did they win?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Strange Cosmology Part 72

The Army was in retreat.

Bast finished her latest meal, watching the remaining vehicles pulling away. As she did her left arm, blown off at the elbow by an unlucky blast from an anti tank round, finishing reforming. Apparently, as they had learned over the course of the fight, completing a meal was enough to restore her body to full health. Vlad didn’t have that same protection, but the US Army didn’t have weapons that could injure mist, so it hadn’t offered them much protection.

For their troubles, dozens of soldiers were dead, several of which had provided food for the duo. Bast stood over the last she’d feed upon for now. “We should move,” she said to Vlad, stretching her neck as she did. It cracked audibly. “They didn’t know what they were dealing with, but they do now. They won’t be holding back next time.”

Vlad nodded in agreement. Unspoken between them was the fact that the US Government could eventually be rendered so desperate as to attempt heavy ordinance, up to and including eventually unleashing their nuclear arsenal. As far as they knew, nothing could destroy a nanoverse besides it being drawn into another gods nanoverse. By the same token, as far as they knew no god had ever attempted to place a nanoverse into an actual nuclear reaction to see what happened.

Neither of them wanted to be the first to help test nanoverse indestructibility against nuclear annihilation.

“Even if it doesn’t go that far,” Vlad said, as if he could read Bast’s mind – a trait Bast wouldn’t put past time – “This was a small force. They’ll be back in greater numbers and higher caliber weapons. I don’t fancy resurrecting strapped a table, yes?”

Bast scowled at him, but instead of rising to the bait, headed back into the commandeered base. “I still don’t know how to enter my nanoverse, Vlad. I don’t suppose you’d be willing to give us a lift?”

“Us?” Vlad said, frowning at her.

Bast nodded. “My first scion and one other. Where I go, she goes.” Seeing the speculative look on Vlad’s face, Bast whirled on him. One of her newfound powers allowed her to move, in short bursts, without motion – instantly transitioning from an action to its follow through without any apparent motion in between, like something filmed and then the intervening frames removed. Twisting reality to allow action to no longer need motion. She’d noticed in the battle that this particular gift had greatly unnerved the old vampire, and decided it was time to make a point.

From Vlad’s perspective, Bast had been standing there, and then in an instant had her hand around his throat. “I saw that look, Impaler. You are thinking that perhaps Cassandra could be used against me, a tool to keep me in line, yes?”

Vlad regarded her with a cold glare by way of answer, but Bast saw a glint of fear in his eyes.

“I want to be clear about something. Should you attempt that, it will fail. I will allow you to carry out your threat against her. But afterwards…” her eyes narrowed. “I will destroy you, unmake you so utterly that the end of the world will be a blessing. For millennia people will sing songs of your folly, and nothing else will be remembered of you than that you once dared cross me. Am I clear?” She tightened her grip to emphasize those last three words.

“As crystal,” Vlad responded, and Bast released her grasp. The vampire’s pride was wounded, but Bast didn’t think he was overly angered by the threat. She didn’t care. It was important he believed the threat.

She wouldn’t risk allowing anything to happen to Cassandra.

Back in the base, Cassandra caught her up on what had transpired with Horus. Bast was just glad to have him out of her hair for now. “And our other guest?” Cassandra asked, glancing at the vampire at the end of the room.

Bast reached out and fondly touched Cassandra’s arm. “Do not worry about him. Our interests intersect for now, and he can be trusted as long as they do.”

“And when they don’t?” Cassandra frowned with the question.

“Then we allow him to choose if we will part amicably or disagreeably.” Bast smiled as Cassandra, who relaxed somewhat.

“I don’t mean to question you, of course. I just worry. Is he really…?”

Bast nodded. “The progenitor of the vampires, as I am the progenitor of you. There is quite the story there, and one I will tell you another time. In the meantime, we’re leaving. Go to the cells and glut yourself, since I do not know when we’ll feed next. Except the Admiral – bring him to me.”

Cassandra nodded and headed off. Vlad was watching the exterior screens, waiting for some sign of the military.

It was a truism in modern warfare that an army typically perfected the best way to fight one war just in time to fight the next one. Trench warfare was finally optimized in time for the rise of highly mobile combat to become the norm. These guerilla wars were perfected in time for the battlefields to switch to urban centers and foes hiding deep within natural fortifications. And urban combat was getting fully nailed down, just in time for the return of mythological creatures.

So the next move would be to try their current tactics. Instead of risking soldiers, they were looking at precision aerial strikes from UAVs. “Vlad.” He turned to look at her. “Can you still call up storms from your nanoverse?”

“Yes,” he said, raising an eyebrow at her. “Do you have a plan?”

She nodded. “Call up an ice storm around us, as potent as you can muster. The drones they’ll be sending don’t function well in such climates. I would do so myself, but…”

“I assure you, Bast, once we are safe I’ll show you how to access your nanoverse. It’s quite…fascinating what becomes of them. But in the meantime, I go.” He gave her a mocking bow and turned.

At least there doesn’t seem to be any bad blood. Or he’s a skilled liar.

Bast was alone. She took a few deep breaths, then shifted her hands into claws. With a bestial scream she began to rake and tear the table, sending chunks of wood flying until splinters surrounded her. Once finished, she stood still for a moment, panting with exertion. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” she hissed to the air.

“Mistress?” Cassandra said in a quiet voice from the doorway. Bast made a mental note to remind her not to use such titles, but right now there was the small matter of the Admiral…

The Admiral was in bad shape. His clothes were tattered rags hanging off his body, a body that was covered in sores dug by parasitic insects. His back was covered in scourge marks, a whip that was tied to the wall of his cell. When it was placed in his hands, he felt an overwhelming compulsion to lash at himself until he passed out from the pain. His legs had been broken and re healed repeatedly until he could barely walk. The first knuckle of each finger had been removed and replaced with the stingers of a tarantula hawk wasp, so that if he tried to comfort himself with even pressing his face into his hands he would endure unimaginable agony. Bast had curved his spine painfully, giving him a hunched back. A carefully placed aneurysm had slightly impaired his cognitive abilities, just enough where he remembered how sharp his mind had once been and could feel dread at what he had become. Every moment he was fighting tears of anger and pain, fighting them because his tears now contained tiny shards of glass that tore at his eyes when he wept.

Seeing him filled her with horror and the pride of an artist admiring their magnum opus. “Dale. How are you today?” She walked over and gently, caressed the side of his face.

Every day she did this, though usually she came to him. Every day of his torment she personally had brought him food and water and provided a small dose of comfort. A caress on the face. A kiss on the forehead. A soothing balm for a single open sore. He gave her a sneer with hatred burning in his eyes, yet he pressed his face into that hand like a cat with its master’s touch. He hated her more than anything in existence, and loved her more than life itself.

Bast resisted the urge to look at Cassandra. The caress turned into a strike.

“We’re leaving, Dale. It’s not safe here anymore, not for us. And I’m going to give you a choice.” He looked up at her in spiteful adoration. “You can stay here. The army will be quite interested in what I did to you, I imagine. Maybe, in time, they’ll be able to somewhat restore your body, make you something close to what you once were. Or they might finally put you out of your misery.” She caressed his face again, right over where his face still glowed red from her blow. “Or you can come with us. I’ll not promise to end your suffering, but I’ll allow you to weep again, and remove the remaining eggs.”

“Why you want me come?” The broken English made tears begin to well in his eyes, and he shuddered at the pain they brought.

“Because I have one last thing I wish to attempt to do with you. One last horror to inflict. If you come, when it is time, you will accept this horror. Once it is done, if you survive it…you will be allowed to choose your fate. You will no longer be my toy.”

Dale, for the first time since his defeat, met her eyes. Slowly, he nodded.

Bast smiled and gave him a pat on the head. “Wonderful. Cassandra, are you fed?” She nodded. “Then let us go. We have a great deal of work to do.”

Together they headed to meet Vlad. It was time to start gathering their own allies.

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