Small Worlds Part 209

In the chaos that erupted after Hermes arrival, Athena and the others used the ability to phase to exit the cafe before it completely erupted into a full blow riot. Three of the people at the cafe suddenly vanishing into thin air did very little to quell the panic, and the cafe emptied around and through them in a cloud of panicked screams.

“Is that who I think it is?” Arachne asked as Athena and Anansi picked up Hermes, Athena taking his shoulders and Anansi taking him by the knees.

“If you think it is Hermes, you are correct,” Athena said with a grunt. It was that Hermes was heavy, it was just awkward to carry him without grabbing onto any obvious existing injuries. Anansi seemed to be having a similar struggle carrying the unconscious messenger god. We can’t risk hurting him worse, Athena reminded herself.  If Artemis had sent him even through there was so much danger, the fight must be dire indeed.

“And he said he was battling…Poseidon?” Arachne’s eyes were wide as she lead them down the street.

Athena grunted again, and shifted her weight as she realized the shoulder she’d been using to support Hermes was fractured in no less than three places. A soft moan escaped from the unconscious god’s lips.  “A few centuries ago, the Olympians retreated to a paradise they’d built in the heart of Tartarus. Most of them, at least. Hades was trapped in his realm, and I was exiled.” She could see Arachne bite back a sharp comment at Athena’s exile, and appreciated the woman’s restraint. “A little over a week ago, we went into Tartarus to hunt down Moloch. Don’t worry about who he is, it’s not relevant right now.”

Arachne pursed her lips but let that go.

“Poseidon cut some kind of deal with Moloch. Artemis was dealing with it from within the Olympians retreat. He killed Zeus and Ares, possibly others. After Moloch was defeated, Poseidon fled with a few loyalists, and Artemis is in charge of the Olympians until Zeus resurrects.”

“Artemis?” Arachne asked, her forehead furrowing. “You mean your old friend Artemis, the hunter goddess that skulked about and told most people to leave her alone?”

“Yes,” Athena said. They were approaching a hotel, and phased straight through the door to the stairwell. There would be an empty room that could serve as a makeshift infirmary until Hermes woke up, or one of them was able to move their doorway.

“Things must be dire then,” Arachne murmured.

Athena didn’t bother trying to defend her old friend. Artemis wouldn’t care what Arachne thought of her – in fact, she’d probably be livid at Athena for having brought her out – and there was no benefit in contradicting the truth. Artemis was many things, but leadership was not a role anyone had expected from her. What you don’t understand is that Artemis gives any task she has everything she can. She’ll become adept at it because she has to. 

All of that Athena kept to herself, responding only with a grunt.

“Those are shark bites,” Anansi said, almost contemplatively as they climbed the stairs.

“It makes sense,” Athena said. “Poseidon is lord of the sea. It would be in his best interest if he’s angered all of Olympus to hide beneath the waves.”

“And makes engaging him infinitely more dangerous,” Anansi added.

Athena didn’t have an answer to that. Just like tricksters found illusions easier, storm gods could command the winds and lightning with more ease, and war gods were stronger and faster, sea gods could command any manipulation regarding water – or any fluid – as naturally as mortals found breathing. Fighting Poseidon in the ocean wasn’t as dangerous as fighting Enki or Moloch had been, but it was the best analogy for those things before Athena had learned dual nanoverses or millions of years of stored power were possible.

“We’ll be able to help,” Athena said. “By the time we show up, everyone will be deep in their Hungers, including Poseidon. We’ll be fresh and ready.”

“If we help,” Arachne said. Athena nearly lost her patience and barked out an argument – right before she saw Anansi nodding. That put a pause to her tongue.

“We have bigger things concerning us, Athena,” Anansi said softly. “We don’t know how long we have, and we don’t know how great the dangers could be. Wouldn’t it be wiser to conserve our strength until at least the others returned?”

Athena pursed her lips at the subtle barb Anansi had placed in the word “wiser.” Athena had once been regarded as the wisest of all Olympians, but the past few centuries Athena had felt like that wisdom was being eroded under a constant barrage of…well, of life. “No,” Athena said, her voice firm. “You two can do as you will. I won’t pretend it’s smart. I won’t pretend it’s wise. I certainly will not pretend it’s even a good idea. But I will not stand by while Poseidon reaches victory. I won’t lie and claim that I’m doing this because, if Poseidon wins, he could pose a real threat to us during the last days. I believe it, but that’s not why I’m doing it. I’m doing it because my gut tells me it is the right thing to do.”

Anansi nodded. “Then I will go with you.” Simple agreement, and if they hadn’t been carrying Hermes unconscious body up a flight of stairs, Athena would have hugged him.

“I wouldn’t miss it, in that case,” Arachne said with a small smile. “The only Olympian you ever let me meet was Artemis. I think it’d make a good impression if I meet them for the first time by coming to the rescue.”

At that moment, Athena could have hugged her former pupil too.

Small Worlds Part 208

Arachne sat across from Athena, tapping her fingers on the table in rapid, staccato bursts. Her lips were as thin as her eyes. “You honestly believe this?” she asked.

Athena nodded. After the battle, Arachne had a dozen questions, and they’d needed a place to talk. Athena would no sooner enter Arachne’s nanoverse than Arachne would enter hers, and Anansi had been the one to suggest they talk somewhere comparatively neutral. After discarding various divine realms for a variety of reasons, they had settled on a small cafe that overlooked the Mediterranean. Arachne had never had coffee, and Anansi had been eager to introduce her to this particular wonder of the modern world.

The amount of cream and sugar she’d used to make it palatable had horrified Athena, but she’d kept it to herself. Given that this was the first thing she’d had since returning to the core world, Athena was hardly going to judge.

“The sun’s been getting hotter,” Athena said in response to Arachne’s questions. “I think it’s pretty irrefutable at this point. I don’t know how long we have.”

“So, you brought me back to the core just so you could tell me the world was going to die?” Arachne sighed through clenched teeth, her fingers still beating out a frustrated rhythm. After the fight, Arachne had been more tolerant of Athena, though she still regarded her former mentor with a furious wariness.

“No. The impending destruction made me-”

Arachne cut her off with a frustrated wave of her hand. “Athena, I’m not even close to forgiving you, but this thing – if you’re telling the truth about it, and I see no advantage to you lying – is bigger than even what happened between us. You don’t need to explain yourself or apologize again every time I snap, so long as you understand it’ll be some time before I can stop snapping. Until then, just ignore me when I comment on it. Agreed?”

Athena considered for a moment, and then nodded. “As you wish,” she said. In truth it was a relief.

Especially given how frightening Arachne was to Athena. Athena and Anansi had beaten her to the cafe under the pretense of wanting to make sure that there would be no threat lying in wait, but it had given them a much-needed chance to discuss the fight. Once she’d convinced Anansi that she hadn’t thrown the fight deliberately – which had not been an easy task – Anansi had come up with a chilling hypothesis.

Arachne had been able to resist Athena’s power within Athena’s nanoverse, where Athena was supposed to be omnipotent. Somehow, the trillions of years had worked Arachne partially into the fabric of Athena’s reality. Athena’s power, directed against Arachne, would barely impact her, while Arachne’s power, directed against Athena, was able to cut through her defenses like they weren’t there.

In short, if Athena were to ever face Arachne in a battle to the death, Arachne would almost certainly triumph. Anansi had called Arachne Athena’s personal kryptonite, a pop culture reference that Athena had understood and dreaded.

The threat she posed to Athena directly was the primary motivation behind telling Arachne everything. If she understood, she’d hopefully agree to at least leave Athena be until after this was over.

“Glad we have that established,” Arachne said, taking another sip of her coffee. “So what are you all doing to prevent it?”

“We can’t,” Athena said, shaking her head. “At least, probably not. Ryan and Dianmu are in Officum Mundi right now, trying to get information out of the Curators-”

“The what?” Arachne asked.

“The Curators,” Athena repeated, fighting back again an urge to apologize, an urge to make amends for thousands of years of life stolen from Arachne. Athena had to remind herself that Arachne’s crime had been horrible, that she’d deserved punishment for what she had done. It helped her fight back the impulse. “A group of celestial beings that watch over knowledge and keep track of it. No one really knows what their true purpose is, but if anyone has the answer, they do.”

Arachne nodded and motioned for Athena to continue.

“So, if the Curators have a way to prevent it, we will. If the Curators do not…then we need to find a way to end the world without killing every person on it.”

“Seems a bit of a difficult task,” Arachne said. “How can I help?”

Athena gaped at her. “You want to help me?”

“Oh, stars of Olympus, no!” Arachne said with a bitter laugh. “But I just got the world back. I refuse to sit idly by while it burns around us.”

Athena glanced at Anansi, who had been silently observing Athena throughout the conversation. “We thank you for your aid,” Anansi said with a warm smile. “Right now, however? Athena and I are on standby. Another route is being sought by Crystal and Isabel, one that will hopefully yield other results.”

That was where they had drawn the line. Trusting Arachne to know about the end of the world was one thing. Trusting her with the knowledge of the Staff of Ra had been a risk too great. It would have changed Arachne from being a threat to Athena personally into a threat to the entire endeavor.

“I see.” Arachne chewed her lip in thought, a gesture that was so familiar to Athena it was almost like looking through a portal into another time, and a wave of nostalgia and regret struck her. “In that case, I suggest-”

Arachne’s suggestion was lost in a sudden eruption of screams from the cafe. The three gods stood and whirled, each of them preparing to face this new threat.

A bloody, badly beaten man had stepped out of the bathroom. His left arm was missing, and he only was not fountaining blood across the floor because someone had cauterized the wound. His body was covered in scratches and the unmistakable patterns of shark bites. He had a bandage wrapped around his head, covering one eye, and was so badly beaten that it took Athena a moment to recognize him.

“Athena!” he said brightly. “Hello. Poseidon is a right bastard. We’re in a bit of trouble at the moment.”

And then, his message delivered, Hermes collapsed into unconsciousness.

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 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

Weird Theology is on sale, other regions here. Already read it? Please consider leaving a review on Amazon or Goodreads.

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.