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.

Strange Cosmology Part 92

Poseidon slumped to the floor as Hera removed the complex elemental bonds she’d wrapped around him. His skin was seared where the burning stone had touched it, filling the air with a smell that put Artemis in mind of burned pork. Her stomach churned at the thought. “He’ll live,” Hera said with a dismissive wave of her hand.

If Artemis didn’t have so many questions, she would have loosed the arrow for that comment alone. “You were willing to subject him to that pain. You killed your husband. Why?”

Hera took a slow, deep breath. “You don’t understand, Artemis. You just can’t. You’re responsible for you, yourself, and no one else. You never wanted greater duty.”

“Your explanation starts with you telling me why I won’t understand it.” Artemis narrowed her eyes. “You’re not off to the best start.”

“Fine,” Hera nearly spat with the word, her face contorting into a scowl. “I did it to save us. My husband was growing tired of our siege. He believe that we should lower the defenses. Meet Moloch in honorable combat.” Hera let out a desperate, pained laugh, “As if Moloch would know the meaning of the word!”

Poseidon was riding to his feet, and while he was still gravely injured, Artemis felt some comfort in knowing she wouldn’t be facing off against Hera alone if this turned into a fight. “You killed Zeus for trying to do exactly what I was going to do?” A realization swept over Artemis, and the arrowhead wavered for a moment. “You were going to kill me, weren’t you?”

“Once you had killed Poseidon. Artemis, I promise you, it would not have been a permanent death. I would never have – could never have -”

“My Queen, I have no idea what you’re capable of anymore.” Artemis scowled at Hera. “So you frame Poseidon for murdering Zeus, me for murdering Poseidon – and Ares, I presume?”

“Of course. You snapped when Ares killed Eros. All of Olympus knows how you long for him, Artemis.”

Artemis wasn’t sure if she should laugh or scream. “That old rumor? Still? After all…if I…” Artemis settled on making a half strangled sound. “And you believe the others would have fallen for this?

“I had to improvise. Several steps got changed when Ares killed Eros.” Hera sighed a deep, weary sound that provoked no sympathy from Artemis, who was watching in her peripheral vision as Poseidon struggled into his chair with a gasp of pain. “I had no idea Ares had betrayed us. Had I known…”

“You would have what, Hera? What would you have done differently?”

“If I’m being honest, I would have sent someone who wasn’t in my camp. Apollo, most likely. One of them would have killed the other, and then things could have gone from there.”

Artemis wanted to be sick. It would have worked, the whole thing. That’s what she didn’t want to admit. Everyone believed that stupid rumor about her and Eros, and a god flying into a rage over a death that would be temporary was hardly unheard of, followed by finding Zeus’ body in a grief-filled state and then tracing it back to Poseidon…”It would have fallen apart the moment we resurrected, Hera. You know that, don’t you?”

“Of course I do. I’m not stupid.” Hera sneered. “It didn’t need to. Just long enough for Moloch to get what he really wanted. Then he would have left us alone.”

Artemis’ heart started pounding. “What does he want, Hera? What did he tell you?”

Hera chuckled like Artemis had just invented the very concept for bad jokes. “He didn’t need to tell me, archer. Isn’t it obvious? He comes here and throws his monsters against our defenses, but never attempts to undo them himself. Just throwing monsters and twisted humans at us, over and over again. He doesn’t want us, he wanted them.

“Them?” Artemis blinked. “Athena and her new pantheon?”

Hera nodded eagerly. “Don’t you see? If he truly was after us, he would have tried much harder to crush our defenses. He would have directed his own power against us, he would have had his monsters come as a mass, any number of things. But instead he sat there and he toyed with us like the cat that’s caught the mouse. We weren’t the target, we were the bait!”

Artemis lowered the bow, although she kept a wary arrow nocked. Hera wouldn’t move now, though, Artemis was sure of that. Poseidon was regaining his full sensibility, and while Hera could overpower Artemis, Poseidon was another matter, and they also had the numeric advantage. “Hera…you were so sure of this, you were willing to kill your husband to keep us safe?”

Hera’s nod this time was slow and steady. “It all makes sense, doesn’t it? But Zeus wouldn’t listen, so I had to eliminate my opponents before it ended up spilling out. Before we found ourselves with a civil war within these walls. Don’t you see that-”

“Hera, Ishtar is out there,” Artemis said, her voice quiet. Barely enough for Hera to hear, but more than enough to get her to stop talking.

“I know that,” Hera said with a bluster-laden shake of her head. “What is your point? She’s one of the one’s he’s here for, so it doesn’t matter.”

“Ishtar, who claims to be a million years old and has other beings from beyond the stars backing that claim up. Did it even cross your mind that Moloch wanted to kill Ishtar to get the monster that he could make out of her death? It would be…”

“…immense,” Hera finished, her bluster and bombast stripped away and fixed with sick terror and bone-deep disgust. “Enough to even shatter their way through our defenses.”

“You betrayed us without enough information, Hera. You’re scared, aren’t you?”

Hera gave a small, miserable nod. “I’ve seen what those soldiers can do as payback. You all saw what they did to poor Hermes. The defenses are the only things keeping us safe now.”

Artemis shook her head. “My Queen…you have proven yourself to be unfit to rule. As the ranking war deity, I am relieving you of your command.

Hera scoffed. “You think so, do you?” she sneered. “This hardly meets the requirements of that law. I would need to be seriously injured or dead for you t-”

Hera’s words were cut off as Artemis’ arrow slammed into the wall, inches from her head. A few strands of Hera’s hair fluttered down, trimmed by the arrow’s passing. “You have proven yourself to be unfit to rule. As the ranking war deity, I am relieving you of your command. Poseidon, will you be my witness?”

The oceanic deity was still too injured to speak, but he nodded his approval.

“Wonderful.” She stepped forward to clap Hera’s hands in shackles that would even hold a goddess. “Poseidon, I’m gambling on you. There’s a traitor, at least one, probably more within Elysian Rest. If we don’t find out who they are and then sally forth….?

“They’ll stab us in the back,” Poseidon managed with his ruined voice. “Why do they serve Moloch?”

Artemis gave him a brief summation of what had happened, starting with what she saw while watching and ending with their arrival into Poseidon’s room.”

Poseidon nodded. “Gather the others. Gather the gods in the Great Hall. We have much to discuss.”

Artemis headed out to do exactly to that, silently praying she was not leading her fellow Olympians into a trap as she did.

I promise you, Poseidon, if you’re Moloch’s servitor, you won’t survive your betrayal.