Strange Cosmology Part 88

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ryan nodded.

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

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

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

Ryan nodded again, unsure of what to expect.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strange Cosmology Part 71

“Hey, Athena, Anansi?” Isabel’s voice came over the speaker. “Sorry, missed this at first. There’s a four way intersection if you double back. Just turn around and hang right, it’ll be about two hundred yards down if the drone’s detectors were right.”

“Understood,” Athena said, looking up into the drone’s mechanical eye. “Thank you, Isabel. And the others are still alright?”

“Yup. Ryan and Dianmu have bunked down for a rest, and I’m keeping Crystal company. I’m going to power these down. Audio will be on, so shout if you need me.”

“Understood,” Athena said again, watching the drones float to the ground. Anansi grabbed a couple, and she did the same.

“You don’t trust them either?” Anansi asked, waving one of the drones to show what he meant.

Athena nodded as they headed back down the hallway. “I know it’s absurd. Technology advances, and these devices aren’t any stranger than others that have come before. But they fly without pilots and carry messages and can see. That’s too much like a living thing for my comfort.”

Anansi gave her a smile of agreement. “I take some comfort knowing young Isabel sits behind the controls, and can shut them down when she wishes.”

“Do you? Or are you just saying that because she can still hear us?” Athena’s tone was as light as she could manage.

“I see no reason those statements need be exclusive,” Anansi chuckled.

Athena gave him a smile and waited. When no response came from Isabel, she shrugged. “I guess she’s busy talking with Crystal.”

“Or just has the volume low. She did say to shout if we need her attention.”

“Fair enough.” They walked down the passage in silence for a bit.

As they came to the four way intersection, Anansi shattered the silence with the delicacy of the Minotaur. “So, Gray-Eyed Athena, why do you mistrust us tricksters and spiders so much?”

The question was so unexpected Athena nearly tripped over her own feet. “I…what?”

Anansi grinned at her. “Forgive my bluntness, but it has been weighing on me for some time. You never finished your story from before.”

“You do enjoy asking uncomfortable questions.” Athena frowned, and then shook her head as she settled onto a seat she wove out of Air with a dash of Fire to keep it warm. “Why do you want to know? Clearly we’ve passed my…well, my prejudice. “

“Clearly,” Anansi said with a grin, choosing to weave himself a seat like hers. Facing each other like this, they could see down all four corridors. “But it sounded like a good story. And I do love good stories.”

Athena sighed. “It’s old news now, but if you must know…they’re separate stories, but tied together.”

Anansi leaned forward, his grin unchanged, “Go on.”

“So I told you I was young and in love. Not young by mortal standards, but I’d only recently passed two hundred years. When I found them in bed…well, it was a bucket of frozen water. I hadn’t acted on my love, not yet. I’d waited too long, at least in my mind. Turning Arachne into a spider was a petty act of revenge for not only the theft of the heart of one I desired, but also for my defeat.”

“Hmmm,” Anansi nodded. “I’ve heard another version of the story. Where you did it as punishment for Arachne practicing unnatural arts, or that they had driven her mad.”

Athena looked down for a moment. “It was true she was delving into things a mortal should not know. The secrets of Tartarus, Cypher Nullity – the truth behind dead realms. When I learned she had been doing so, to hide my shame, I told my love that I had turned Arachne into a spider because of a madness from delving into such things. I’m…not proud of that.”

“We’ve all made mistakes.” Anansi said, sympathetically.

“True.” Athena shrugged. “Ever since then, spiders have made me uncomfortable. A reminder of one of the more regrettable things I did. Especially because she truly had done nothing wrong, not really.”

“Because you had not yet professed your love?”

“Yes. Arachne had no way of knowing. Ishtar didn’t even know. It was childish, and neither of them were to blame. I found Arachne later, still alive, and offered to turn her back, but at that point she had been a spider so long she preferred to remain that way. Still, I wonder if she truly was happy, or if she just had grown used to it. I wasn’t about to transform her back against her will,”

“You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself. You tried to make amends, and it was…” Anansi paused, then made a show out of cleaning out his ears with his fingers. “I beg your pardon, but my ears were clogged. It sounded like you said the object of your desire was Ishtar.”

Athena gave him a small smile. “It’s good to see you don’t know everything, old spider. Yes, it was Ishtar.”

“Our Ishtar? The one that now goes by Crystal?” Anansi’s expression of surprise was still comical enough to get a smile out of Athena.

“I prefer to pretend they’re two different people. And you met Ishtar back when she was the goddess of love and war. They *are* different people, in so many ways.”

Anansi nodded thoughtfully. “I prefer the woman we know now to who she was before too. So this ties into your mistrust of Tricksters?”

Athena nodded. “Sometime later, I confessed my feelings. She reciprocated. We had a wonderful couple of centuries together. It was the happiest I’d been in some time…until it wasn’t.”

“What happened?”

A long moment passed before Athena spoke. “She is a different woman now. Ishtar is, as far as I’m concerned, long dead. But things between us ended in a spectacular and ugly fashion. I’d prefer to let the details stay buried, to not color your opinion of either of us. Can we leave it at we were both terrible people to each other at the end?”

Anansi nodded.

“Thank you. But the fallout of that breakup was the Punic War. Over a hundred thousand men dead and Carthage burned to the ground and salted because of my spite. ‘Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam.’ I whispered those words in the ears of Cato the Elder.”

“And I think, also, that Carthage must be destroyed.” Anansi said, frowning.

“They’d become Ishtar’s pawns. Some of her old pantheon was there – Bel, Isimud, Ningal, Shamash, a few others. They followed Ishtar gladly. I wanted them broken.” Athena frowned before she continued. “In my rage, I didn’t think about the fact that Carthage was also the land of Hera’s birth. She was beyond enraged. Even though Cartage opposed Rome, she didn’t want them annihilated like that.”

“What did she do?” Anansi asked.

“I was exiled from Olympus. That would have been bad enough, but Hera wasn’t done. Immediately afterwards Hera helped Rome conquer all of Greece. She wanted to take Athens from me. Destroyed Corinth to show what she intended for the city, and then let me wait for the hammer to fall. In one fell swoop, I had lost my family, the first woman I had ever loved, and the city that was my proudest creation. All I had accomplished was death and death. I couldn’t even blame Ishtar for it.”

Athena reached into her bag, pulling out a bottle of water, and took a long drink before handing it to Anansi to do the same. Her throat had grown somewhat raw. “Tell me, trickster. Have you ever loved something so much that losing it destroyed you?”

“Oh yes.” Anansi gave her a bitter grin. “As painful as it is, I think I would mistrust anyone as old as us who had not.”

Athena let out a semi-amused huff of air. “I think I agree with you there. Well, I loved all three that much. It took decades for me to pull myself back together.”

Anansi handed the bottle of water back to her. “I’m glad you were able to.”

“Me too,” Athena smiled. “You know, my people considered me a goddess of wisdom, but I don’t think I really earned that title until long after they gave it to me.”

Anansi stretched back in his chair. “Thank you for telling me.”

“You’re welcome.” Athena yawned. “Although I realize I never really answered your question about Tricksters.”

“I thought it would be rude to point out,” Anansi said, his grin returning, “but I assume it connects?”

Athena gave the slow nod of the sleepy. “During those decades when I was pulling myself together, I met another god who had been cast out of Olympus. A Trickster. Autolycus.”

Anansi raised an eyebrow. “His name was ‘very wolf’?”

“It loses some poetry in translation,” Athena said with a laugh that turned into a yawn halfway through. “Perhaps best a story for our walk tomorrow?”

Anansi nodded. “You seem to be struggling more with that Hunger than I. I’ll take first watch?”

Athena nodded and rolled over on her couch of Air and Fire. She meant to tell Anansi to wake her when he was ready, but exhaustion claimed her before she could even form the words.

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