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 166

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

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

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

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

Anansi smiled.

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

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

“Moloch,” Ryan hissed.

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

“The Titans.” Athena said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Anansi said.

“Then I’m going with Crystal.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Small Worlds Part 161

The group reconvened in Cipher Nullity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No one objected.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where?” Athena said, clenching her fists.

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

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

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

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

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

“Fair,” Athena said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strange Cosmology Part 106

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ryan blinked. “What’s the message?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hermes asked, “What’s the message?”

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

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

“Of course,” Ryan said.

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

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

“Ryan laughed,” Hermes said defensively.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And now?” Ryan prompted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How many?” Resheph asked through the drone.

“Five,” Crystal said softly.

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

“I’m sorry,” Crystal said.

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

“Yeah. Sorry to deny you vengeance.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Exactly.”

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

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

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

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

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

Ryan just glared at her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strange Cosmology Part 104

Earlier

Thirty in favor of aiding Athena and her allies, thirty in favor of aiding Moloch. Artemis wanted to rip her hair out. Cowards, she thought.

Poseidon looked smug. “It appears we have an even tie.”

“I’m perfectly capable of counting, Poseidon,” Artemis growled.

Then that means we take no action.”

Artemis could feel her hands shake with poorly suppressed rage. “You were counting on this,” she said quietly, leaning in so only Poseidon could hear her. “You knew that even in a tie, things would go your way. What did Moloch promise you? What did it take to get you to sell out our people?”
Poseidon glanced around to make sure they weren’t being overheard before leaning back in. “I would have vetoed anyway. Same as you would have vetoed me. Deadlock was guaranteed, with no third veto to break the tie.” His eyes flashed with anger. “But don’t you dare call me a traitor, archer. I did this to save us. Moloch just wanted the right battlefield to fight the others. He didn’t give a damn about us.”
“You’re a fool if you believe that,” Artemis said, shaking her head. “You’re a bigger fool than I ever could have imagined. Once Moloch wins, he’ll turn whatever monsters he makes from them against us.”

And we will win if he does,” Poseidon said with a shrug.

He has an entire pantheon’s worth of monsters out there, Poseidon! We will die.

It doesn’t matter, Artemis.” Poseidon reached out and clapped her on the shoulder. “You fought well. I didn’t expect it to be this close. But you’ve lost.”
Artemis took a deep breath, hoping against hope she wasn’t wrong. “No, I haven’t.”
Poseidon frowned as Artemis turned back to the assembled gods. “I invoke Eumenides,” she said in a clear voice to carry over the muttering.
Every head whipped towards her. No one had invoked Eumenides since…well, since Athena was banished. But it was one of their oldest laws. In the event of a divine deadlock, if even the veto powers could not reach an accommodation, the tie would be broken by a single vote.

What madness is this?” Poseidon demanded. “You cannot invoke Eumenides. The Furies are not here, they are in Hades’s realm.
Artemis nodded. “Yes, they are. Which means the vote falls upon the god or goddess of wisdom.”
Poseidon scoffed. “There has not been a goddess of wisdom since Athena was exiled.”
“Correct. However, I do not recall Athena ever being stripped of that title,” Artemis said cooly, looking around the room as she did. “Can anyone prove me wrong?”
Silence. Slowly, eyes started to turn towards Poseidon.
The gods of Olympus were a quarrelsome lot, but one thing they agreed on were their Laws. No one had said Athena was no longer the goddess of wisdom, nor had a new one been appointed.
“I deny it,” Poseidon growled.
“You cannot,” Artemis said. “Eumenides cannot be overruled by veto.”
Poseidon gnashed his teeth. Artemis started to grin. I didn’t know if I remembered the laws correctly, she thought.
“It’s impossible,” Poseidon spat, “she is outside our barrier. To go to her would be tantamount to declaring war on Moloch!”
Artemis shook her head. “Then I’ll go alone. You can deny me as a traitor if things go poorly. But I will get to Athena, and I will get her vote.”
“We all know what she’ll vote!” Heracles shouted from the back. “Let her vote happen without her, and let us go to her aid!”
“Our laws forbid assuming votes,” Poseidon said, clinging to the last hope he had left.
Artemis nodded. “He’s right. Do not worry, Heracles. I’ll get her vote.”

I’ll not allow anyone to go with you,” Poseidon muttered.
With a gesture, Artemis’s arrows flew from where she’d shot them back to her quiver.

“You won’t need to. I’ll report back with her vote soon.”
Poseidon could do nothing more than stare at her in silent fury as Artemis left.

Now
Artemis rose to her feet, coughing up blood. Ishtar was staring blankly at the statue that had been Moloch.
The saber tooth tiger that was standing over the Eschaton shifted into the form of a young woman. “Did we just win?”
Artemis hissed in pain. “There’s still a war on. Where’s Athena?”
The shapeshifter pointed towards a crater. “Wait, I thought you gods could heal from anything? Won’t Moloch be turning back to flesh soon?”

He would anywhere else,” Artemis said, hobbling over towards the depression that held Athena. “What Medusa does to people is a manifestation of Athena’s power. It would take minutes, maybe, for that twist to fade on Earth. But we are in Tartarus. Changes to reality are permanent here.”
“So…”
“So now his army has no commander, and we are sitting in the middle of the largest brawl of monsters I’ve ever witnessed. We’re dead unless I get to Athena. Talking makes that harder.”
“Okay then,” the woman said, turning back to the Eschaton. “Hey, Ryan, we won. Or. I think we’re winning?”
Weakly, Ryan raised a hand from the ground to give the woman a thumbs up.
Artemis ignored the rest of their conversation, leaning over the edge of the crater. “Pallas Athena,” she said.
Athena looked up. “Artemis. Olympus is finally fighting?”
Artemis carefully sat on the edge of the crater. “No. Just me. There’s a tie in the Elysian Rest. I invoked Eumenides. We need your vote.”
A sly grin crept over Athena’s face. “You were paying attention.”
“Sometimes,” Artemis granted. “Your vote, then? Should we aid Moloch’s monsters or should we aid you and your allies?”
“I vote you all get off your asses and help us.” Athena said.
“Figured you might say that.” Artemis twisted to amplify her voice. “Athena has voted to fight the monsters of Moloch! Eumenides is fulfilled! Olympus, the time for inaction has passed!
At first, nothing happened. Artemis began to worry that Poseidon had done something terrible, broken their laws to force people to stay within.
Then Heracles came flying out of the Rest, holding a sword as long as he was tall, and threw himself into the mass of monsters. One by one, the gods of Olympus came charging into the disorganized mess. Had Moloch still commanded them, they could have rallied against the gods, even posed a threat. Without their master, most of them were just beasts.
Artemis looked back down in the crater to see Athena’s frowning face. “Artemis, wait. Only one who holds a veto can invoke Eumenides. How did you-”
Artemis stepped into the crater, offering Athena a hand. “You and your allies have been beaten bloody, old friend. Perhaps we should get you to safety before I fill you in on the last millennia of Olympian politics?”
Athena laughed, and the two women clasped hands. “Fair enough. Let’s gather the others, then. I have…many questions.”
“Of course you do,” Artemis said with a roll of her eyes. “Safety first. Questions later.”
To Artemis’s surprise and relief, Athena nodded in agreement.

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Strange Cosmology Part 101

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Ryan was screaming.

Athena was near the top of Tartarus, her battle with the ddraig goch having kept her away from the center of the fighting. Now, she gripped its back with one hand and drove her sword down with another, seeking to breach the beast’s scaley hide. It twisted and spun, slamming her into the rocky roof.  Athena bled from a dozen cuts and scrapes already, but so far had avoiding twisting.

Shouldn’t have wasted my time, Athena thought, gnashing her teeth in frustration. Something was going terribly wrong, and she had to get to the main fight. Better to face Moloch weakened than not to face him at all.

So she gestured, tearing the wind away from herself and the dragon. It beat its wings desperately, but found nothing flap against, and they both began to plummet. Athena continued the twist, keeping the two of them in an artificial vacuum as they fell from the top of Tartarus.

The ddraig goch arched its back in a quick, snapping motion, throwing Athena off. Damnit! Athena clutched her sword as the creature rolled around to claw at her. One of its talons slipped past her guard to add another line of blood to her growing collection.

Without air, the two of them fell at the same speed. They would reach the ground in a matter of seconds, but the dragon still had plenty of time to rip Athena to shreds. She raised her sword, ready to strike down at her adversary. Have to take the offensive or it will tear me apart.

Realization struck home. Since you’re twisting anyway, make it work for you. Athena changed her twist.

Air rushed back in around her, and with it Ryan’s screams. Air resistance started to slow her fall, pulling her and the ddraig goch apart. She kept the dragon in a vacuum as it lashed at her, but without air it could do nothing to arrest its fall. Monsters howled as the massive bulk of the creature slammed into them.

Athena held out her arms to slow her fall, twisting to give herself some lift. Where are they?

At first, all Athena could see was chaos. Monstrous flesh writhed and clashed together, the unleashed hordes of the labyrinth tearing into Moloch’s creations. Two Lamia had trapped something that walked like a man but had the head of serpent and were tearing it apart. Three of Moloch’s Helhests were hounding a herd of centaurs. Growls, hisses, and chirps of fury and pain filled air. I can’t find them, Athena thought, fighting panic as she surveyed the battlefield. If she couldn’t get to them in time…Ryan’s howls were cutting over the din, taking on an inhuman quality, and she could only imagine the what pain could cause those screams.

There.

A spot of open field, kept clear by Moloch’s minions. An avian humanoid held Crystal by her neck. Some kind of form Moloch’s adopted, Athena hoped. She didn’t want to try and imagine what else could be manhandling Crystal so effortlessly. A sphere of thorns and steel surrounded Isabel, and it seemed to be shrinking around her. And Ryan…chains and bands of light covered his arms and legs, pulling and stretching his body. Moloch’s trying to draw and quarter him, Athena realized with a sick lurch.

As much as she wanted to immediately act to save Ryan, Athena took a deep breath and thought furiously. Crystal is the least restrained. If I free her, it evens the odds. Athena drew back her sword and threw it, twisting air to accelerate it to hypersonic speeds. It was the same trick that she’d used to sever Bast’s arm on Graham Island.

Without even looking in her direction, Moloch thrust his free hand to the side. The sword was travelling at nearly fifteen thousand kilometers an hour, but Moloch caught it with no apparent effort. Stars of Olympus. Athena paled, letting the lift carry her higher. Moloch tossed the sword aside. This is worse than Enki. We had a plan then! We don’t have a plan for this!

Then Athena noticed that small red drops were running from Moloch’s hand, beginning to puddle on the ground. He can be hurt. He can be killed.

Steeling herself, Athena reached out and began to twist. She threw herself at Moloch, one leg extended in a hypersonic flying kick aimed directly at his head.

Moloch reached out and  grabbed Athena mid flight. She lost much of her speed, but his bloody hand couldn’t completely stop her momentum. Her foot slammed into his head, snapping his beak back. Moloch  grunted in surprise and pain, and his grip on Crystal slipped slightly.

The instant Crystal was free, Athena electrified her skin.

Moloch’s hand clasped down on Athena’s leg, an involuntary response to the electricity. Athena felt her bones crack under his grip and almost lost control of the twist, but forced herself to concentrate on keeping Moloch frozen by the electricity.

Then, still holding her by her broken leg, Moloch swung her in an arc over his body, slamming her into the earth. She barely had time to register the pain before he  did it again. And again. After the fourth hit, Athena’s head was swimming. “You. Aren’t. Part. Of. This.” Moloch growled, every word punctuated by another slam. Athena could barely maintain consciousness, let alone a twist, and her electricity went out.

Through the pain, she noticed that Ryan had stopped screaming. No, she thought. Oh, please, no.

Moloch leapt up, and, with a final swing, sent Athena rocketing towards the ground. “Stay,” Moloch snapped as Athena lay in a crater left by her own battered body. “Stay right there, Olympian, and I’ll make your death quick.”

Over the lip of the crater, behind Moloch, Athena saw Crystal freeing Ryan and Isabel from their traps. They’re alive. Oh, thank the Fates, they’re alive. Keep him focused on you. “What do you mean, I’m not part of this?” Athena’s voice came out slurred through a broken jaw. She started to flex her toes. The bones in her leg hadn’t broken, she realized, just cracked. Bad enough, but could be worse. There was worse: Her stomach growled, her mouth parched, and panted for breath – she was facing three Hungers, and her enemy seemed barely inconvenienced.

“It’s between me, Crystal, and the Eschaton. I still have to wipe your kind out – can’t have the rest of you making more humans – but I don’t get anything from tormenting you.”

Moloch glanced over his shoulder, and Athena followed his eyes to see that Crystal had freed Ryan from the chains. Moloch snapped his fingers, and an explosion sent Ryan and Crystal  flying apart and tumbling through the air.

He looked back at Athena. “So you’re not going to distract me. Stay. Right. There.”

Moloch turned to his real targets. Pain coursed through every part of Athena’s body. You are not going to lie there and take this, she shouted at herself as she managed to rise to a sitting position. Dozens of hairline fractures screamed at her. Give up, part of her whispered. You can’t beat him. No one can. It’s hopeless. He’s too strong. Too aware. He can crush you without even trying.

Athena pushed those traitorous thoughts down, forcing herself to her feet. She collapsed, her injured leg giving out, and dropped to one knee to prevent herself from falling completely. Moloch was stalking towards Crystal and Ryan.Isabel was nowhere to be seen. It’s you, Athena. It’s up to you. She began to crawl towards the edge of the crater.

The hilt of her sword gleamed just over the lip. She reached out, aching fingers closing on the familiar grip. Hand over hand, she pulled herself back onto the grass, and reached out to twist.

Without turning around, Moloch clenched his fist. Lightning arced from a dozen points in the cavern, all of them converging on Athena. For an instant, all was searing agony, and then a clap of thunder threw Athena back into the pit.

She lay there, smoke rising from her skin.

Athena saw lightning forming above her, gathering power.  Gasping she tried to brace herself to survive the next onslaught.

Something arced out of the air behind her and buried itself in the ground beside her. The lightning lanced down, but instead of striking Athena, it caught the object. Athena closed her eyes against the blinding flash of light, but not before she recognized what had saved her. Dianmu’s glaive. Moloch whirled around.

Suddenly, Anansi and Dianmu were there, standing protectively over Athena, who nearly wept in relief.

Moloch sneered. “Distractions. More pitiful distractions. Well, then, come on. I’m going to kill you all anyway, so you might as well attempt the fight.”

Dianmu pulled her glaive out of the ground and charged toward Moloch as Anansi reached out his hand to twist.

Athena wanted to cheer, but the pain was too much. The pain, and the fear. I don’t think it’s going to be enough. How can we possibly beat him?

Athena didn’t have an answer to that question. She didn’t think anyone did.

 

Strange Cosmology Part 97

Ryan had been shot, shocked with lightning, punched, cut, and a variety of other injuries since ascending to godhood. He was getting good at distinguishing different types of pain. Having his kidney impaled on a sword was a fresh surge of agony that was its own distinct flavor. This one was…coppery. Wait. That means blood’s in my mouth. Did I cough up blood?

Moloch raised his foot to Ryan’s back, and kicked Ryan so he slid off the blade. That was also a new flash of pain, and Ryan couldn’t do anything but fall to the ground.

“Thousands of years living off of human sacrifice,” Moloch said, advancing on Ryan. In spite of the pain, Ryan managed to scramble away from Moloch. The murderous god didn’t seem frail or sickly anymore. He was strong and vital, his withered skin clearing up, his eyes blazing with a determination Ryan had never imagined they could hold. “Thousands upon thousands of years working through monsters and proxies and from the shadows.  It is so good to finally be at the endgame, wouldn’t you agree, Eschaton?”

Around them, sounds of battle raged. Anansi was flying through the air on a complex twist, baiting his draconic foe. Dianmu assaulted hers with fury and thunder. He couldn’t see Crystal or Athena. What he was most aware of was his own blood staining the grass below. Moloch was advancing on him at a sedate pace. Ryan reached down to his injures, sending a surge of heat with a twist. Moloch smiled and motioned for Ryan to get on with it. He wanted Ryan to heal himself.

Ryan wasn’t going to question why. He screamed again at the pain of the cauterized wound, but at least he wouldn’t bleed to death. “You’re sick,” Ryan hissed through gritted teeth, forcing himself to his feet. His sword was nearby, and a quick twisting of equations brought it flying to his hand.

“Then please, Eschaton.” Moloch spread his arms wide, the sword that still dripped with Ryan’s blood held out. It was still bright red. Ichor dries quicker. I’m still Nascent.  Real fear spiked through Ryan’s chest, as bad as when Enki had him by the throat. “Put me out of my misery. Cure what ails me!”

It was a trap. It was such a painfully obvious trap that Ryan almost fell for it, taking a half step before stopping himself short. “Nah,” Ryan said, “I’m not going to stab you today.”

Moloch frowned. “Pity. I was hoping that-“

Ryan reached behind his back and twisted reality the moment Moloch’s guard was down, reorienting gravity. As far as Ryan and Moloch and everything else on the battlefield was concerned, everything worked like normal.

Everything except the Tarasque’s corpse. Ryan twisted reality so that, as far as it was concerned, Moloch was down – and has a massive gravitational pull. It rocketed across the landscape at Moloch, shattering rocks and more monsters and soldiers as it plummeted towards Moloch.

With a laugh, Moloch turned around to disintegrate the corpse. The individual flecks of ash didn’t completely vanish, but they were robbed of their momentum and only ended up clinging to Moloch, coating him in a layer of grey soot, but their impact was almost nonexistent. “A good attempt. I especially like giving me the gravitational pull of Jupiter. Would have hurt quite a bit if it had -.”

Moloch’s words were cut off when Ryan buried his sword into Moloch’s back. “Changed my mind about stabbing you.”

To Ryan’s dismay, Moloch didn’t scream or gasp or do anything of the things you expected when stabbing someone with a large blade. Instead, he laughed again, and Moloch’s form ran like wax. To Ryan’s horror, Moloch managed to completely reorient his body so front was back and back was front. It was so sickening to watch, Ryan found he couldn’t do anything but stare dumbfounded.

Moloch reached out as soon as he was facing Ryan and threw out his hand, striking Ryan in the chest with a pure equation of F=M*A. Ryan went flying backwards, leaving his sword in Moloch.

Ryan’s flight was interrupted by a group of Helhests and riders. They started to wheel to face Ryan, but Moloch held up a hand. “No! Not yet.”

Ryan’s only response was to moan into the dirt. Something in his earlier injury had torn open from that toss, and Moloch seemed to be only moderately inconvenienced by being impaled. Did he manage a double nanoverse? Ryan wondered through the pain. But that didn’t make sense. If Moloch had pulled that off, he wouldn’t waste any nanoverses on making monsters. Moloch could have used the entire Canaanite pantheon to far outstrip anything they could have fought. Then how is he so damn powerful?

It doesn’t matter. You’ve fought more powerful gods than you before. You nuked Enki. You can do this, Ryan. You can beat him. Ryan forced himself to his feet, feeling less certain than his pep talk indicated. Every fight with Enki had been a fierce battle. Even at the height of Enki’s power, he’d never seemed so lazy about it. Moloch was acting like a cat with a cornered mouse that he intended to play with before killing, and seemed even less threatened.

“Why not kill me, Moloch?” Ryan asked, trying to buy himself some time with banter.  If I can get keep him talking until the others show up, five on one odds favor us. Doubt flickered across Ryan’s thoughts. Right? Why isn’t he concerned? “You’re acting like I can’t hurt you. Why not just come at me?”

“Because,” Moloch said, “not everyone’s here. You don’t get to die until they do. But I don’t want you making it too easy on them.”

With a gesture, Moloch used the same trick Enki had used, so long ago on Crystal. Chains shot out of the ground and latched into Ryan’s skin. The pain was incredible, even though the damage was minimal. But they were barbed and hooked in ways that wormed into his skin and he swore he could feel them drilling.

So Ryan screamed. Moloch laughed. And the bear roared.

Bear?

The sound wasn’t what Moloch expected, clearly. Then again, there are very few situations where one expects to be charged by nearly two tons of enraged grizzly. It caught Moloch off guard with how fast it was. Ryan watched as the bear tore a series of lines into Moloch’s back, sending him to the ground. Moloch flipped over to face it, snarling, but the bear got another blow on the side of Moloch’s head. Why is there a bear?

Another part of Ryan added that, just like Moloch’s power source, it didn’t matter. The bear was there, and Ryan knew how to break these chains. It was one of the first things he’d ever managed to do. With a twist, the chains shattered as Ryan broke down the bonds between iron atoms.

As Ryan struggled to his feet, Beast and god wrestled. Before Ryan could dash to aid his savior, Moloch hit it in the chest with a single flat palm, a blow he accelerated with enough force to actually lift the bear off the ground and send it flying upwards.

Ryan couldn’t watch as the bear hit the ceiling above them. It was certainly moving fast enough. Instead he looked at Moloch, who was watching. Moloch’s wounds closing before Ryan’s eyes. That’s impossible. You can’t shapeshift away injuries. Ryan turned on his divine sight. Moloch was accelerating time around his injures like it was nothing, healing them in an instant.

Then, Moloch frowned, and Ryan risked a glance up. The bear had stopped moving, and a pair of enormous red wings jutted out from behind its bulk. “Uriel,” Moloch growled, almost in unison with Ryan. The two adversaries shared a glance of mirrored bewilderment. Who’s side is she on?

The bear was lowered to the ground in Uriel’s arms.

As Ryan watched, the bear’s form ran much like Moloch’s had, shapeshifting into something else. No, not something. Some one.

Uriel helped Isabel Smiths stand up. “Hey bro,” Isabel said, peering around Moloch. Her voice was strained, and her stance unsteady. That blow to the chest she received in bear form still hurt. “guess I still have to clean up after you.”

Moloch snarled and readied a bolt of lightning. Ryan started to try and lunge at him before Moloch could blast Isabel apart, but then Moloch hesitated and glanced at Uriel. The archangel was grinning. “You broke a compact with Hell, Moloch,” Uriel said, her voice dripping confidence.

“You agree to do no harm to Isabel Smith,” Moloch muttered.

Uriel nodded. “And you have violated that.”

To Ryan’s horror, Moloch didn’t seem at all disturbed. If anything, he seemed…excited. “I’m going to enjoy killing you, angel.”

And with that, angel and god charged each other.