The Dragon’s Scion Part 159

Sorry for the delay with this! Double update time! Read this part then click over to get part 160 right away. Patreons, part 160 and 161 are up over there. Thank you for the patience!

Armin kept the arcwand trained on Theognis as the Lumcaster clenched his fist. Tendrils of unlight were stretching across the wound. “Don’t move or the next bolt goes through your skull,” Armin said, spitting the words.

Theognis looked up at him, and although his face was twisted into a mask of pure hatred, he didn’t budge from where he was. Every line of his body was tight with tension, and the dark web didn’t stop its progress, but he didn’t move.

“Good. Glad we have an understanding.”

Haradeth was looking at him in disbelief. Synit’s mandibles were hanging open. Even the strange automaton had ceased her attempts to break free of the unlight cage to peer at him with narrowed lenses that Armin assumed must be her eyes, or at least function as them. He couldn’t see Ossman and Aldredia and Lorathor, but he could imagine they were giving him similar expressions. A single question hung over the room, one that no one was saying aloud. “How did you do that?”

Armin really hoped no one would ask it, because the truth was, he had absolutely no idea.

He played back the last few in his head, trying to figure out what had happened.

***

Lorathor didn’t need keys to the other cells. Now that he was more open about how far his shapeshifting prowess could be pushed, it was easy to watch him shove his fingers into the keyholes and let them run like wax before the door unlocked.

“I should go first,” Armin said quietly as the first door clicked open. “Ossman knows you, but Aldredia might respond poorly to an unknown person coming in.”

“I can’t imagine why,” Lorathor said, his voice thick with sarcasm, and he pulled the door open, stepping back to remain hidden behind the wood.

Aldredia screamed and lunged from the room, her fists raised. They hadn’t chained her to a wall. Armin leapt back, holding up his hands. “It’s me! It’s me!”

“Armin?” Aldredia asked, coming to a halt. “How’d you get out?”

“My friend behind the door. We have to move. We need to get Ossman free.”

“Just Ossman?” Aldredia’s eyes narrowed. “What about Guiart? And Clarcia.” Armin tried to find the words, but they were thick on his tongue. He settled for just shaking his head. Aldredia’s face collapsed inwards, like she’d been punched in the gut. “I see. You’re sure?”

“I saw Clarcia’s body,” Armin said. Lorathor stepped out from behind the door and moved to the next cell. He knew the urgency of the situation but let them have their moment in silence.

“Where?” Aldredia asked.

“I’ll…I’ll explain later.” Armin said. Aldredia gave him a sharp look, one that softened when she met his eyes. The horror he felt must have shown through, and Armin tried to suppress it. Don’t burden her with it. Not right now. After we’re done. 

Assuming he didn’t get anyone else killed.

Ossman and Lorathor were having a quiet conversation. Armin didn’t hear any rattling chains. It appeared Theognis had spared the only cell with a chain for Armin. Of course he did, Armin thought bitterly. He was probably going to kill them if he ever opened their cells again. 

“Any idea where our weapons are?” Aldredia asked.

Armin shook his head. “I’m an absolute failure, it seems. Maybe Lorathor-”

What he had been about to say was cut off. Aldredia stepped forward and raised her hand. For a moment Armin thought she was going to slap him. For an instant, it looked like she thought the same thing. Then she took another step forward and grabbed him by the shoulder. “You develop the ability to see the future when your eyes went weird?” she asked.

Armin blinked at the question and shook his head.

“Then you can’t blame yourself for not predicting the unpredictable. No one I’ve served under would have seen that coming.”

“Thank you,” Armin said. Ossman and Lorathor exited the other cell. Armin met Ossman’s eyes, and saw they glistened in the faint light provided by arcglobes. Lorathor must have given him the details. Everyone keeps telling you it’s not your fault. If you freeze right now, though…that would be your fault. “Alright. Lorathor, do you know where our weapons are?”

“I saw a few thrown in an unlocked cell on my way in. If they’re not yours, they’re still weapons.”

“Good enough. Let’s move. We’ve got a Lumcaster to send straight to the Shadow.”

They were their weapons; a stroke of luck Armin hadn’t expected to get. Re-armed, they followed Lorathor down the hallway towards where Theognis waited.

As they ran, Armin opened his eyes.

It was wrong. He knew that. Mortals were not meant to see the flow of Light. Such things were forbidden, in the same sense that attempting to fly by flapping your arms or breathing underwater or swimming through the ground were forbidden – no actual law was needed to forbid them, because natural laws made them impossible. It was blasphemous, something that perhaps the little gods could do, but not a mortal. Yet Armin could now, and he certainly was not a god. He knew he should keep this power locked away and never utilize it.

Yet if he had kept his eyes open, he might have seen the unnatural strands of unlight that signaled Theognis’s presence. He might have known sooner that they were coming.

That was the failure. That was what he could have done differently. He could have watched with his new sight, and if he had, Clarcia and Guiart might still be alive.

Never again would he shut himself off from their flow, and if he was damned to the darkest parts of the Shadow for his blasphemy, he’d accept that torment as a price for saving even a single life.

So, when they’d rounded the bend and seen Theognis closing in on Synit, unlight prisons trapping Bix and Haradeth, Armin had known what to expect. Theognis’s hands were wrapped in a cocoon of unlight, strands of it so densely packed the man’s hands were merely an outline. It was invisible to the naked eye, a pre-cast weaving that would activate if it was triggered. It was how he was absorbing the unlight, and any true light that was sent his way would be twisted into unlight before it reached his barrier and only strengthen it.

Even knowing it wouldn’t work, Armin had pulled the trigger. Pure instinct had driven the reaction. He had to do something, anything. And then he’d felt something. A sensation not unlight the buildup of light when he was charging an arcell, but somehow different. He’d pushed out with that sensation, and Theognis’s barrier had flickered out of existence.

It had lasted only a moment. It had given Armin’s blast all the time it needed. But now Theognis was protected again, and Armin had no idea how to replicate the feat.

He doesn’t know that. Light and Shadow, don’t let him figure it out. “Bring down the unlight cages, Theognis. Now.”

“I have to move if that’s what you want,” Theognis said, growling through the pain. The hole in his hand was now full of unlight.

“I know that’s a lie. You don’t need to use your hand to undo your own lumcasting.”

Theognis gave him a thin smile. “So, you did pay attention sometimes. I’ll admit to being surprised. Yet unlight is different.”

“You’re lying,” Armin said, pushing his finger against the trigger.

Theognis shrugged slightly. “You don’t know. You never studied it, Armin. Unlight requires the motion to undo, as it does to put in place.”

Armin hesitated.

That was a mistake. It gave Theognis a chance to think. “Hmmm…a question, before you kill me?”

“I don’t care-” Armin started to say, but Theognis wasn’t interested in his opinion on the matter.

“If you believe they work the same, then you would believe killing me would end the traps. Yet you chose not to. And now I’m forced to wonder…why?”

Armin pulled the trigger. Theognis’s hand intercepted the blast, and Armin didn’t feel that pressure this time. The arclight was corrupted into unlight and merged with the barrier. Theognis smiled cruelly.

Screaming in desperation, Armin started to fire again.

In this moment, he was certain this would be the last act of his life.

Small Worlds part 219

 

Ryan gestured, grabbing equations that governed gravity around the cat thing, and set himself as ‘down.’ The creature began to scrabble along the ground as it slid towards Ryan, but the street as far, as it was concerned, was a perfectly horizontal wall. It flew off the ground when it got close. Ryan grabbed it by the throat and let gravity return to normal. The creature yowled and shifted back into a human. “I didn’t know you were him!” the man screamed in Ryan’s grip. “I didn’t know!”

Ryan looked at the man critically. He was in his late teens, maybe a young looking early twenty.  Aside from the blood on his face and shirt, he looked like a perfectly normal human. “What’s your name?” Ryan asked, the withheld fury making his voice sound dangerously calm.

“Billy. My name’s Billy.”

Ryan took in the new information with a level glare. “Hi Billy. You seem to know who I am.”

Billy nodded frantically, so hard that it almost slipped him out of Ryan’s grip. Ryan could feel the immense strength this man possessed. Against a human, it wouldn’t even be a fair fight. Billy would tear them apart with almost no exertion. Ryan didn’t want to try to arm-wrestle Billy, but it seemed Billy was too cowed right now to even realize that he could pose a threat to a god. “You’re the Eschaton.”

“That’s a pretty big word there, Billy. You know what it means?”

Billy nodded again. “It means…she said you’re going to end the world.”

“She?” Ryan asked quizzically, sure he knew the answer. “Who is ‘she?’”

Billy swallowed hard, and Ryan could feel the motion travel down Billy’s throat. “She’ll…she’ll kill me.”

“Oh, will she?” Ryan lifted Billy off the ground and with a single, fluid motion, slammed him into the asphalt hard enough to crack the black stone. Billy grunted with pain and brought his hands up to clutch at Ryan’s arm. “She’s not here right now, Billy. I am. You tell me, you might have time to run.”

Billy’s eyes widened as Dianmu and Nabu stepped into view. “I…it was Cassandra, okay? Cassandra?”

Huh. Ryan thought with the part of his brain that was still running logic under the outrage. “Cassandra?” He glanced sideways at Dianmu. “Any chance it’s the Cassandra?”

Dianmu shook her head. “She was mortal.”

Ryan glanced back at Billy. “Who the hell is Cassandra?”

“The first of us,” Billy whispered. “She was the first of us.”

“And what are ‘you,’ Billy?” Ryan asked. He was kneeling down, and lowered his face even closer so Billy could clearly see the rage that burned inside Ryan’s chest right now.

“Cardiophage,” Billy whimpered. “She said we were…Cardiophages.”

“Heart-eater,” Nabu supplied helpfully. “From the Greek Kardia, meaning ‘heart,’ and phagein meaning-”

“To devour,” Ryan finished for him, focusing on Billy. “So you eat hearts.”

“Y-yes,” Billy stammered. “Oh God please don’t kill me!”

“I’m not sure yet,” Ryan said. “Tell me, Billy, why the hell shouldn’t I kill something that eats hearts!?” The last two words came out in a scream, and flecks of spittle flew out of Ryan’s mouth and onto Billy’s face.

“Easy, Enki,” Dianmu said quietly.

The last word was like a bucket of cold water on Ryan’s head. He’d used the exact same trick Enki had used to pull Billy into range, and then was holding him up to his face and screaming in it like a monster. For the first time Ryan took a good look at Billy. This guy was a kid, and the blood on his face was mixing with tears and snot. Ryan felt sick at himself.

“Because…because,” Billy said, hiccupping with fear. “Because I didn’t want this, man! I just wanted to ask a girl out and then I’m…I’m being fed my own heart and…” Billy sniffed loud and deep. “I didn’t want this!”

Ryan leaned back and took his hand off Billy’s neck, replacing the grip with a twist to gravity just strong enough to keep the young man – the cardiophage – pinned to the ground. He rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Damnit. Thank you Dianmu.”

Dianmu gave him a small smile. “Crystal told me all about your encounters with him, in great detail.” Her smile faded. “It’s your first time dealing with this kind of horror, isn’t it?”

Ryan nodded, suddenly feeling hollow and empty. “I miss the days when the monsters were mummies or goblin-vampire-werewolf things. Hell, for that matter, I miss the days when there were no monsters.”

“Anthropophagi,” Nabu said thoughtfully.

“Man-eater?” Ryan said, looking at Nabu. “Are you okay, Nabu? Billy here said Cardiophage.”

“If a god turns into an anthropophagi, it’s always a unique kind,” Dianmu said, picking up where Nabu had left off. Ryan appreciated it – it saved Nabu the trouble of re-explaining what an anthropophagi was. “And they are always able to create spawn like themselves. It’s part of why the vampire myth is so universal.”

Ryan felt a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach and turned back to Billy. “Who does Cassandra serve?” he asked.

Billy looked at Ryan with wild eyes and mouthed a word. It was too low a whisper for Ryan to make out. Ryan knelt back down and leaned his ear near Billy’s voice.

“Look behind you,” Billy said, then snapped his rapidly shifted jaws down on Ryan’s ear. Ryan roared with pain and pulled away, clenching one hand to the side of his head. Blood poured between his fingers, and Billy was laughing, the previous fear vanished in an instant. Ryan whirled and snapped his fingers. Billy’s laughter ended in a sudden wet, sticky sound as the gravity on his chest increased to the power of ten.

“You shouldn’t have hurt my child,” Bast said. She was standing on a rooftop, flanked by dozens of the cat-things that Ryan had seen earlier. “Although I would have killed him for harming you, Eschaton.” Bast gave him a cruel smile. “We should talk.”

Ryan cauterized the bleeding stump where his ear had been as Bast leapt off the roof in a graceful bound.

 

Small Worlds Part 205

“Login successful,” the touchscreen read in a bright, cheerful font. “Please select your operation: Facilities Maintenance, Current Schedule, Contact Supervisor, Policies and Procedures, Union Messages, Contract.”

Crystal blinked at the screen as a sudden pang of familiarity struck her. She was certain she’d never been to this place, but clearly whatever she’d done before the end of the world, she’d worked for the same organization that had owned this place. Contact supervisor? What was I?

If time had permitted, Crystal would have spent hours exploring the menu. She wanted to, but Isabel’s life was in danger. Her hand flicked over to Facilities Maintenance and tapped that icon. Behind her, she heard a series of deep crashes and a bellowing roar that couldn’t have possibly come from the Glyptodon’s throat. Isabel had shifted again. Crystal fought the urge to glance over her shoulder to see what new form was tearing into the Typhon. Focus.

“Facilities Maintenance: Please select your operation: Life support. Fire control. Climate control. Incident Reports. Open Tickets. Pending Tickets. Closed Tickets.”

Crystal stared at the screen, her forehead furrowing. None of those seemed to cover what she needed. She could turn off Life support, but she’d only kill Isabel if she did. Fire control, perhaps? Crystal reached out and tapped that icon.

“Fire control: Please select your operation. Extinguisher Health Check. Sprinkler Health Check. Emergency Suppressant Health Check.”

Nothing that actually lets me control anything, Crystal thought, her frustration deepening. Behind her, the Typhon’s continued laughter took on a deeper, more resonant note. He’d managed to reattach his throat. It was cut off with a sickening crunch of bone and tearing of flesh, but Crystal didn’t need to look to know Isabel was lagging behind. If he reforms…Hurridly, Crystal tapped the back arrow and selected Life Support.

“Life Support: Please select your operation. Carbon Scrubber 1 Health Check. Carbon Scrubber 2 Health Check. Carbon Scrubber 3 Health Check. Carbon Scrubber 4 Health Check. Inorganic Waste Disposal Unit Health Check. Organic Waste Disposal Unit Health Check. Bodily Waste Disposal 1 Health Check. Bodily Waste Disposal 2 Health Check…”

It went on like that, listing health checks for various subsystems needed to maintain the life support. Desperate for some answers, Crystal tapped on Carbon Scrubber 1.

A list of readouts appeared. Filters. Power capacities. When the last manual check had been done – this one showing a date in a calendar format Crystal hadn’t seen in countless eons – and when the last automated replacement had occurred. That, at least, was last week. A red icon informed her that she was thirty million, two hundred and twenty three thousand, one hundred and seventeen years, three lunar cycles, one interval, six days, sixteen hours, three minutes, and nineteen seconds behind schedule, and accordingly, her pay would be drocked by a two hundred and seventeen million percent.

That last bit of information, that detail she’d be docked pay for being behind schedule, put the final piece of the puzzle into place, and memories started flooding back. She had worked for this company. She’d been working on their facility in the Blasted Desert when she’d found her bloody nanoverse in some new excavations. She’d left that day without even quitting.

She’d been working in maintenance, but not of the equipment. Not in a technical role.

She’d been a janitor.

Isabel roared behind her, and Crystal snapped back to the present. Celebrate knowing what you used to do later, she thought, backing out of the menus. She knew this system like the back of her hand, and with the memories back at the surface, it wasn’t hard to know exactly where to go. Policies and Procedures, then the big red icon she knew to expect: Emergency Procedure. A second tap brought up a holographic map of the room, with several points labeled. Fire alarms. Life support failure alarms. Ozone alarms. And one, clearly labeled: “Subject Containment Breach Response.”

It was on the other side of the room. Crystal didn’t bother with trying anything even remotely fancy. Instead, she wove a bridge of pure air between her platform and the switch’s location. Without even a glance back, she dashed across the bridge.

It gave her an excellent view of the fight. The Typhon had mostly reassembled, although Isabel was doing an admirable job of keeping its head from reattaching fully to its neck. She’d transformed herself into an immense crocodile, easily forty-five feet from nose to tail.  Sarcosuchus imperator, the largest crocodile to have ever existed. It’s scales were far too thick for the Typhon’s fangs to easily penetrate, and it offered the bite strength Isabel needed to keep the monster at bay.

The Typhon’s face had flipped over at some point, and his face was a mask of frustration and rage. Several of the snakes were trying to wind their way around Isabel. Whenever they got a secure grip, she’d start to trash and roll, and they would be ripped from their moorings on the Typhon’s back. It was a stalemate for now, but the Typhon showed no signs of tiring, while Isabel’s movements were increasingly sluggish.

Unfortunately, his face being turned upwards gave him a perfect view of Crystal running across the air. His frustration vanished to be replaced with cruel amusement, and dozens of snakes broke free to lunge for her.

With a quick flicking of equations, Crystal wove the bridge into a tunnel. Snakes battered against it and began wrapping around it, constricting tightly. Hunger rumbled in her stomach, and she didn’t dare try the electricity trick again.

Come on, come on…just a bit bloody further. Crystal’s feet pounded on the platform. Her heart pounded in her chest, and she could feel her breath hitch with every step. Behind her, she heard a hissing sound as the the snakes began to force their way through the ultra-dense air, and the tunnel filled with the sound of scales sliding against the smooth surface.

The sound of hissing grew louder with every step.

Small Worlds Part 194

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ryan decided to inspect them with his divine sight.

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

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

Uriel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I won’t!” Ryan objected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I had just broken up with-”

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

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

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

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

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

Small Worlds Part 191

Athena and Arachne’s swords rang out in the warm Mediterranean air. Arachne was fast, but all those years had a spider had done nothing to teach her better swordplay. With each blow, Arachne was forced back, step by step. Athena pressed forward, not relenting. A high blow met an angled parry, a low blow forced Arachne to leap back to avoid the sword rising up to meet her stomach. Come on…Athena thought, egging herself onward. Maintaining the anger at Arachne to drive herself to not hold back was hard. Arachne’s threats were terrible, but to really get the most of them, Athena had to believe she would really do it. Would she?

That distraction gave Arachne an opening. She pushed downward with a weaving of Air, propelling herself up and back away from Athena. Athena tried to counter by pushing herself into the air, but Arachne deftly wove a correcting twist in Athena’s attempt. Reality, as if glad for the excuse to return to normal, struggled against Arachne.

Athena rolled to the side as Arachne hurled a lightning bolt across the battlefield. “That’s more like it!” Arachne shouted. “Come at me with everything! No more games, Athena!” Stones began to explode again near Athena’s feet, forcing her to take to the air or be impaled on splinters of stone. This time, Arachne didn’t risk the high power cost of breaking Athena’s manipulation, instead magnetizing the spines of rock she’d already created to come flying after Athena as she rose into the air.

With a flick of her wrist, Athena threw an air bubble between herself and the stones. A few punched through, and Athena fought back a shout of pain as one embedded itself in her calf. She saw her opening here, however. Reaching out, she grabbed bands of Air and Aether.

The sky grew dark, and Arachne looked up in confusion – just in time to see the sunlight gather into a shaft of pure light to come streaking out of the heavens towards her.

The old trick of Tyrs was one of his favorite battle enders. Being struck by the concentrated power of the sun had a way of making opponents simply stop existing. It had one major weakness – the way the sky went dark before it struck, alerting its target that the laws of physics were about to break down in a very lethal way.

Athena had been counting on that. Arachne had throw herself to the side with a powerful burst of air just before the light struck stone with enough energy to vaporize it into plasma. Arachne stared at where the beam had impacted, sweat running down her face. “Now…now I believe you’re taking this seriously.”

Athena gave her a grim smile as she settled back onto the ground, throwing forth a wave of fire that rolled along the ground. Arachne countered with a pressurized jet of water, powerful enough to sear flesh to the bone and easily dousing the flames in front of her. Athena threw up a stone pillar between herself and the jet of water, then – with a twist to give it direction – punched the back of the stone. It went flying at Arachne, slowed by the water jet but given added strength by Athena’s additional twists. Arachne easily leapt out of the way when it got too close to her, and swung down at Athena with a whip of molten rock.

Athena lurched to the side as the whip seared the earth she had just vacated. Coming up from the roll, Athena used one of her newer tricks, one Arachne hadn’t seen before.

She threw her sword. A quick twist gave the blade the mass of an elephant and hypersonic speed. It was the same twist she’d used to punch a hole in a hecatoncheires. Even divine reflexes weren’t enough to save Arachne completely. She started to dodge, but the blade still drew a thin line of blood from her cheek. Arachne’s hair whipped about in the in the shockwave of its passing.

Arachne grinned fiercely and threw her hands towards Athena. Another wave of lightning crackled from her fingertips. Athena twisted Earth, grounding the lightning before it could reach her. She dashed past the lightning to close the distance between herself and Arachne. Swords clashed again, but Athena could tell she was slowing down. Arachne barely seemed tired. The sound of steel on steel rung through the air, each of them putting everything they had into the blows. This was the kind of battle that had made mortals once fear gods, the kind of clash that created the rumors of gods with swords of lightning, bellowing thunder. The each had to weave Earth into their blades to prevent the steel from shattering under the repeated impacts.

Even those couldn’t hold forever. With one final downward strike from Athena, the swords shattered against each other. Arachne was quicker, and with a twist of Air she sent a hail of steel shards flying into Athena’s face.

Athena screamed as the splinters cut into her cheeks and forehead. An upraised hand saved her eyes from being pierced, letting steel embed itself in her palm. Before she could even begin to recover from that. Arachne’s knee shot up to meet Athena’s stomach. It hit with enough impact that it sent a shockwave cracking through the air. Athena rode the impact and the shockwave into the air.

Before she hit the ground, Arachne hurled a bolt of lightning from the sky, drawing it to the metal in Athena’s face.

Athena was too far past pain to scream then. Her vision went white, and her body seized up as white hot electricity lanced through her veins. She collapsed to the ground, the distant sound of thunder echoing in her ears.

Arachne was walking towards her with a slow deliberation. She’d pulled another sword out of her nanoverse, one that trailed the ground at her side. “So, Athena, this is how it ends.”

Athena held up a hand that twitched with the leftover pain from the lightning. Before she could speak, another bolt of lightning flew down from the sky, again drawn to the metal in her face. This time Athena did find the pain the scream. When her vision cleared, Arachne was standing over her, the sword raised and ready to bring down.

“I…yield,” Athena managed to croak out.

Arachne’s face hardened, and she brought down the sword. Distantly Athena could hear Anansi cry out, but he was too far away, too late to prevent it, too late to stop from Arachne from driving the sword through Athena’s heart.

The sword struck the earth next to Athena, sinking into the ground without even touching her. Arachne regarded her coolly as she stared at Athena. Then she nodded slowly. “I accept your surrender.”

Then, with careful deliberation, she turned away from Athena. “Get up.”

Limbs trembling from repeated electrocution, Athena did.

Small Worlds Part 189

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

“We’re here,” Athena said.

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

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

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

Athena winced but didn’t try to argue.

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

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

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

Anansi nodded.

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

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

Arachne frowned. “Explain,” she said.

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

“You jest,” Arachne said quietly.

“I wish I did.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I tried to keep the lesson-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where is it?”

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

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

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

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

“And if I don’t?” Athena asked.

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

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

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

Small Worlds part 188

Athena raised her hand, putting a barrier between herself and Arachne. Here in her nanoverse, it wasn’t a barrier of anything. It was just a barrier, a spot in the universe through which matter could not pass. A fundamental law. Inviolable for anyone who was not Athena.

Which is why she was completely unprepared when Arachne tore through it like it was paper.

Anansi danced out of Arachne’s path, swinging for her gut with the butt of his flint dagger. Without even pausing, Arachne’s hand snaked down to catch his wrist and fling him aside. When Anansi struck the wall, the stone turned soft to encase him, leaving only his face exposed.

What? Athena thought as she teleported herself out of reach of Arachne’s hands. “Arachne, stop!” she commanded. She erected another barrier, this time encasing Arachne in it like a cocoon. She didn’t just let it stand as before, pouring her will into it.

Arachne strained against the bonds. Athena could feel pain build up behind her eyes, a headache from the effort of restraining someone within her nanoverse.

“No!” Arachne shouted. “You won’t kill me!”

“I’m not here to kill you, I’m here to free you!” Athena shouted.

The pressure against the barrier stopped. The headache began to fade. Athena’s heart did not stop pounding. For as long as she had lived, she’d never imagined anything threatening her in her nanoverse. “What?” Arachne asked, blinking.

“I’m here to free you,” Athena repeated. “It’s…it’s been too long.”

Arachne took a deep breath. “Then release me.”

Athena did so, and at the same time removed the stone barrier from Anansi. Arachne stood there, taking things in. She looked at her hands, flexing the fingers she had not known for trillions of years. “I haven’t had an endocrine system since you locked me in here. Emotions are stronger than I remember.”

Athena relaxed. “I understand.”

Arachne shot her a withering glare. “No, no you do not. Lock yourself as a base animal, one that can barely even reason, for several lifespans of a universe, and then you can say that. Know what it’s like for a single thought to take millennia upon millennia to form, and then you can say that. Endure one tenth of what you have done to me, and then you can say you understand.”

“I…” Athena started to say, and she was grateful for Arachne’s interruption, because she had no idea what she could possibly say.

“I had to relearn how to think, Athena. I have no idea how many millennia, how many universes, I spent as mindless beast. Even once I did figure out how to think, that brain was so weak, so pitifully dominated by instinct, cognition was an effort that took longer than you can imagine. How long has it been, Athena? How long did you lock me in hell?”

“Five millennia,” Athena whispered.

“Five millenia for you. Nanoverses need to be reset every few hundred years or so, don’t they?” Arachne took a deep breath. “Ten universe lifetimes, at least. Hundreds of trillions of years. And now…what? You want to release me? You want to let me go out there, live a mortal life for mere seconds of what I’ve endured, then die?”

“I preserved your nanoverse,” Athena said. “Locked it in temporal stasis in here. It’s unchanged over the time. You’ll still be a goddess.”

Arachne studied Athena, then looked over Anansi. “Who are you?”

Anansi bowed. “I am Anansi. I never was in your land while you were there.”

“And you’re friends with…her?” Arachne asked with a sneer, gesturing towards Athena. “You let her bring you into her nanoverse?”

“Yes,” Anansi said simply. “I trust her.”

Arachne sneered. “So did I. I hope you never learn how foolish that is.”

“I came in here knowing your fate, Arachne,” Anansi said calmly. “I came in here to provide support for Athena as she undid the crime done to you – and to chastise her if she wavered in doing it.”

Both goddesses looked at him in shock. “Chastise?” Arachne asked coolly.

Anansi shrugged. “In here, there was little else that I could do. But I am very good at chastising. I once lectured a python so thoroughly, it swallowed its own tail. I imagine I could have gotten Athena to at least taste her ankle.”

Arachne looked at him, her eyes widening, and then she let out a harsh laugh. “I’d like to see that.”

Athena was at a loss for words. Arachne glanced at her with a raised eyebrow. “I’m not done with you, Pallas Athena. But I am sick to death of this cave. Take me out of here.”

“Of course. My staging area is right outside this cave.”

“My nanoverse?” Arachne asked.

Athena gestured and summoned it to her hand. “Right here.”

Arachne snatched it out of Athena’s fingers and held it close to her chest, starting to walk out of the cave. “Why didn’t you kill me?” Arachne asked, not turning back to look at Athena. “Why this hell? You had every right to slay me permanently under the laws of Olympus. Why did you instead lock me away?”

“I couldn’t kill billions,” Athena said, watching the back of Arachne’s head. “I couldn’t kill all those innocent people in your nanoverse. They did nothing wrong. And…and I failed you. I didn’t believe you deserved death, because the fault was partially mine.”

“Death would have been a kindness,” Arachne said, her voice harsh. “Don’t you dare claim you did it for me. You did it to assuage your guilt.” She glanced down to the nanoverse in her hands. “And for them. I can believe that.”

“I’m sorry,” Athena said.

Arachne whirled on her, pointing a finger at Athena’s face. “No. Your guilt grew strong enough that it forced you to action. You didn’t do this for me. You’ve done none of this for me. I don’t want your apology, Athena.”

“Then what do you want?” Athena asked, her voice soft. “Revenge?”

Arachne glared at her. “And if I did, would you have any right to deny it to me?”

Athena shook her head.

“Good. At least we can agree on that. For now, I want honesty.”

“You will have that,” Athena said.

Arachne spun and talked out of the cave again, seemingly too furious for words.

In silence, Athena followed.

Small Worlds Part 187

 

The locals called the island that housed Arachne Hina’ka’nati, the Island of Broken Night. As they drew close, Athena could get a feeling for how it had earned its name. It was about as large as Sicily. Some ancient meteorological event, a comet or asteroid that had slammed into the island, had carved it into a large crescent. Fitting, Athena thought with a grim expression. The island that had driven Athena to make so many mistakes with Arachne had also been carved by forces powerful enough to crack the land. Those had come from within the earth, though, and this had come from above.

Also, unlike the island Athena knew so well, this one was densely forested. The world being broken up into constant island allowed for a high degree of speciation, and on this particular island a different kind of tree life had evolved. The leaves weren’t green, like on much of the world, but a deep blue bordering on black. They were also covered with spider webs. Huge white strands that stretched across every branch and wrapped every tree. Athena could see spots where the webs were clumped together, holding some meal for later. “There,” Anansi said, pointing to a spot on the island. Athena glanced where he was pointing and nodded.

A cave of dissolved limestone. Webs encircled the entrance, leaving a yawning black hole in the center. It looked like an eye, with the thick circle of strands forming a teardrop shaped iris.

Athena landed her staging area outside the entrance. “Look at those,” Anansi said, his three eyes widening in surprise.

Athena followed his gaze. There were several spots where stones had been deliberately stacked, eight high, and food had been placed at their bases. The stones were painted, and simple wooden designs had been put atop each one. They looked like stylized spiders and were woven with some of the silk from nearby trees. “They’re altars,” Athena said softly.

Anansi glanced at her. “Arachne is just a spider, isn’t she?”

“I thought she was,” Athena sad. “Last I checked she was. But…that was several crunches ago. Things might have changed a great deal.”

“Well,” Anansi said, rubbing his hands together. “This promises to be even more interesting than I expected.”

Athena shot him a dirty look. “I think you should stay here,” she said. “You could be in danger.”

“Oh, I very much doubt that. I’m walking with the literal goddess of this reality.”

“And you go to meet a woman who’s spider form may have gone beyond my supposed omnipotence.”

“Yes.” Anansi’s face grew grim. “One who has a great deal of reason to lash out at you. I think it would be best if you two had an intermediary for your reunion.”

Athena grimaced, but didn’t see a flaw in his argument. “Fine. One thing before we go…” she blink, and Anansi’s clothes changed. He was now garbed in the armor of a warrior from the nearest group to their location, sheets of wood from these black leaved trees that, when shaped and treated with the blood of a fish that swam in the nearby seas, became almost as hard as iron. A flint dagger was strapped to his side.

Anansi nodded in appreciation, unsheathing the dagger from the carapace that contained it. “You are fairly paranoid about this meeting.” he said.

“I’m paranoid about a lot of things. This is one of them.” Athena willed similar armor in existence around herself. “Shall we?”

Anansi answered by heading to the door.

The air outside was crisp and warm, a pleasant breeze keeping the temperature just short of creeping into hot. Waves lapped at the beach in the background, hidden from sight by the webs and unnaturally dark foliage. There was a disconnect to the scent and sounds with the scenery. There won’t be down there, Athena thought, looking at the cave. Now that they were closer, she could see it wasn’t as pitch black as it had seemed from above. There was a bioluminescent blue light emanating from deeper within. It would have been too faint to provide much light to human eyes, but the Skabin had better vision in the dark. Athenea nodded to Anansi, and they headed into the cave, ducking through the teardrop hole in the webbing.

The floor of the cave was covered in additional silk. Athena could feel the way it clung to her feet with every step, individual strands tearing away with every step to follow her feet. The bioluminescence was coming from a moss that was growing in patches along the ceiling, winding its way down stalactites. And on the walls…

…on the walls was art. Not the early art that Athena expected from the Skabin, but beautifully woven pieces of multicolored spider silk. The details were far more fine and intricate than anything Athena had seen before. That wasn’t what made her stop to stare at them.

It was what they depicted.

Here was one that showed the Titanomachy, the moment when Zeus made the final leap that would drive his spear directly through Chronos’ eye. The details were beyond what Athena thought possible to accomplish with mere silk. She could see the mingled pain and rage on Zeus’ face, she could perfect make out Chronos’ astonished fury. The silk behind them even implied the great windstorm that had been raging during that battle, its subtle lines evoking a sense of movement to the air. It was gorgeous, and it shouldn’t have been here.

Athena was so engrossed in it that it wasn’t until Anansi tapped her arm that she realized they were no longer alone in the depths of these caves. A chittering sound came from deeper in the cave. A single chitinous leg emerged from the shadow, a glossy black covered  in fine hairs and as wide as Athena’s leg. A second one followed, and behind them emerged the spider that had once been Arachne, her eight eyes gleaming with an inhuman malice. Venom dripped from her mandibles which clacked together as she drew closer.

“Now would be a good time-” Anansi said, a note of concern creeping into his voice.

He needn’t have bothered with the warming. Athena gestured, and the spider stopped, its eyes widening in surprise. Exoskeleton began to melt away, dissolving into human flesh, human legs emerging from the monstrous ones that had crept out of the darkness.

The whole process took less than a second. Standing there now was Arachne, exactly as Athena remembered her all those millenia ago.

“It’s been some time,” Athena said awkwardly, changing her shape back to one Arachne would know. “Welcome back, Arachne.”

The woman took a deep breath when she saw Athena. Then, with a shriek of primal rage, she hurled herself at Athena’s throat.

Small Worlds Part 186

Stars danced as Athena and Anansi stepped into Athena’s staging area, the doorway clicking shut behind them. “There’s something I don’t understand,” Anansi said as they wove between the pillars. “If Arachne has been in here since the age before even ancient Greece…well, haven’t you had to reset your nanoverse since then?”

Athena pursed her lips. “Yes.”

Anansi waited for Athena to elaborate. When she did not, he sat down on one of the chairs and rested his head on his hands. “How is such a thing possible? I’ve seen and created plenty of impressive life forms in my nanoverse, but never one that could survive the Crunch.”

Athena approached the altar that served as her console, running her hands over the lettering. Ryan had told her that she should modernize the display, take advantage of familiarity with videos and touch screens and keyboards to give her a more flexible control option. He hadn’t understood. Athena had been using this method for controlling her staging area for thousands of years. Trying to learn a new system was like trying to believe a river would flow uphill without a twist to manipulate it.

“I made her existence a fundamental law of reality. She was woven into the fabric as intrinsically as gravity. When the Crunch happens, her experience stops, and it begins again as soon as life has evolved.”

Anansi let out a low whistle, watching the stars begin to move around them with more purpose as Athena navigated them. “That would make her as much as part of your nanoverse as you are.”

Athena nodded. “Before we can recover Arachne, I’ll have to change that. It will be…delicate work. I was very careful to make sure she lived.”

“As a spider this entire time?” Anansi asked.

“Yes.” Athena was glad she could look down at the console to avoid her companion’s gaze. “It’s been…trillions of years from her perspective. She’s lived through dozens of Crunches. A spider’s mind was a filter, a way to keep her mind from snapping. If I hadn’t she would have gone mad.”

“Of course,” Anansi said, and Athena was relieved to note there was no judgement in his voice. No agreement either, just a calm statement of fact. She’d take that right now. “Is that the planet?” he asked as one zoomed into focus.

Athena nodded. It was a beautiful world, a paradise. It always was. This time the world was a mostly oceanic world, peppered with hundreds of islands covered in dense forests. Carefully laid out currents in the oceans carried warm water across the globe, keeping the tropics from becoming too hot and the rest from being too cold, with a few vertical currents carrying cold water down to thermal vents deep in the sea where it would be heated back up. Single biome worlds were the hardest to maintain, but every iteration of her Nanoverse, Athena made sure there was at least one where the entire globe was perfect for spiders.

“Local sentients haven’t developed too far technologically,” Athena said, “although their boating is far ahead of where humanity was at the same technology level. Unsurprising, I suppose. We shouldn’t need to interact with them much, however.” Athena dropped the ship into real space, and the planet’s orbit slowed as they synced up the time streams. She pointed to a tapestry on one of the pillars, that was now showing a vaguely humanoid form with purple skin, long prehensile tails, and a third eye in the center of its forehead. “This group is the dominant ethnic group of them. The Skabin. I’m going to adopt one of their forms.”

“Change me into one, too?” Anansi asked. “I’d like to blend in.”

Athena nodded and changed them both with a simple thought. She could still see hints of Anansi’s features in the three eyed face, and had left traces of her own in her adaptation of the shape. “I’ll also translate for you if we need to interact with them.”

 

Anansi nodded in thanks. “So what do you need to do to…unfix Arachne from the fabric of your nanoverse?”

Athena gave a shaky laugh. “Honestly? I need to be ready for what comes next.”

She earned a sympathetic look for that comment. “Athena. You did a terrible thing to Arachne. You know that.”

“Thanks for that, Anansi.” Athena said with a frown, unable to keep the sarcasm from her voice. “I feel so much better now.”

Anansi held up a finger. “I started that poorly, but wasn’t finished. Yes, you did a terrible thing. But you’re here to make it right. You’re here to correct the error that you made. There is an honor in that.”

Athena drew a ragged breath. “What was I thinking?” she said quietly. “Why did I think this was just?”

“Did you ever, truly?”

Athena paused to consider, then shook her head. “I suppose not. I didn’t think it was just, but after what she did I was supposed to kill her. I couldn’t do that to her, and I couldn’t end all those lives in her nanoverse. This seemed like the gentler option.”

“Then you did it with a good reason, and you did it to protect the innocent. There are worse choices one can make, Gray-Eyed Athena.”

Athena stared at the world, a tropical paradise she’d created over and over again in a variety of forms to ease her guilt. “I don’t think I get to say what I did was okay. I think only Arachne can decide that.”

“I think there is wisdom there,” Anansi said with a kind smile. “However, you have every right to decide that you will not be haunted by what you did, so long as you improve.”

Athena nodded and took another deep breath. “Let’s go planetside.”

 

“Don’t you need to correct how she’s woven into your Nanoverse?” Anansi asked, then nodded in sudden understanding. “No, of course. You just wanted to make sure you had time if you weren’t ready.”

 

“Yes,” Athena said. “I fixed that the moment we entered. Are you ready?”

 

“As long as you are.” Anansi said.

 

“I’m not. I don’t know if I’ll ever be. But I’ve made her wait for aeons for this. I’m not willing to wait any longer.”

 

Anansi nodded in approval, and they headed into the atmosphere to find the lair of a spider who had been a goddess.  

Small Worlds Part 185

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For now, that would be enough.

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