Small Worlds Part 174

We’re going to the moon, we’re going to the moon, I’m going to be the first woman on the moon, Isabel thought, practically bouncing in her chair in Crystal’s staging area. She glanced at Crystal and amended that thought. I’m going to be the first mortal woman on the moon who cares I’m going to be on the friggin’ moon.

“Careful, love. You look like you’re about to bounce out of your seat,” Crystal said in a teasing voice. “Nervous?”

“Nervous? Oh hell no. I’m going to be walking on the moon. Are you kidding me? I couldn’t be more excited if it was Christmas, my Birthday, and Graduation all wrapped up into one.”

Crystal let out a chuckle. “I hope it doesn’t disappoint you.”

“Will I be able to see the Earth being massive overhead?”

Crystal glanced at her console, then nodded. “Anansi’s directions take us to the near side, not the far side, so yes. Earth should be right overhead when we step out.”

“Then I’m going to be perfectly happy,” Isabel said.

“You’re not worried about the lack of air?”

“I mean, you’re going to take care of that until we get to the sphynx and the mysterious moon base, right?” Isabel asked with a frown. “Should I be worried?”

“I’ll be maintaining a bubble of air for you, love, so it should be fine, but if something happens to me…” Crystal let that trail off. “Well, you’ll have a bloody short time to get back to the doorway.”

Isabel shrugged. “And if an astronauts suit gets punctured, they’re dead. Honestly, I think it’s safer than a space suit – instead of relying on materials and fabrics, I’ve got literal divine intervention holding me safe, so I should be fine.”

Crystal smiled at Isabel, and Isabel felt herself begin to flush. “Well, I appreciate the confidence in my abilities,” Crystal said.

“I’d be rude if I didn’t have confidence! You’ve survived for this long just fine, I’m pretty sure you could manage a trip across the lunar surface. Besides, you saved my life once before, and that was way more dangerous than this.”

“Don’t be so sure about that, love,” Crystal said, darkly. “We haven’t encountered moonworms yet.”

Isabel froze. “Moonworms?”

“Oh, bloody hell, did I not mention those? Yes, moonworms. They burrow through the Lunar dust, you see, and they’re attracted to sources of heat. It’s what they feed off of. For living things, they crawl up their legs and try to get as close to the warmth as they can.”

Isabel stared at Crystal with growing horror. “So they…hug your legs?”

Crystal shook her head grimly. “Oh, no, not at all. They have jaws that can cut through lunar regolith, they’ll absolutely try to go as deep into the warmth as possible. Bite. By. Bite.”

Isabel couldn’t contain a frightened “eep.” As soon as she let the sound out, Crystal’s frown vanished to be replaced with laughter. Isabel stared at her for a moment, then crossed her arms as realization settled in. “You were messing with me.”

“Of course I was bloody messing with you,” Crystal said, wiping away tears of laughter. “Moonworms. That’s…I’m sorry, love,  you should have seen your face.”

“That was just mean. How am I supposed to know Moonworms weren’t real? A few days ago I was kidnapped by an archangel and a crazy god from a pre-human race and you all were fighting dragons. Are you going to tell me moonworms are absurd when compared to that?” In spite of her annoyance, Isabel was also flushing. You “eeped.” You were being taunted by a goddess, and you said “eep.” Way to go, Isabel.

Crystal’s laughter began to die down. “Oh, come on love, just a bit of a joke, yeah?”

Isabel sniffed in annoyance. “It wasn’t very funny.”

Crystal held up a hand. “You’re right, you had no way of knowing they weren’t real. If it makes you feel any better, Selene fell for the same thing ages ago.”

Isabel blinked. “Wasn’t Selene a moon goddess?”

“Oh, yeah, absolutely. She was so pissed at me for the moonworms, she decided to stay up here for a few days to prove she wasn’t frightened. By the time she got back, everyone decided she was the moon personified.”

“Now that,” Isabel said with a reluctant smile, “that, I have to admit, is pretty funny.”

Crystal’s grin returned. “I know, right? Bloody brilliant, if I do say so myself.”

“So does your humor always involve telling people lies they couldn’t know were lies without some kind of precognition?”

Crystal shook her head firmly. “Do that too often, and people stop trusting you. Now that I’ve done it to you,  you’re safe for the next millennia. Maybe two, can’t be too predictable. Just do me a favor, yeah? Don’t tell your brother. Haven’t gotten him yet, either.”

Isabel snorted out a breath. “If you’re going to do it to Ryan, I’ll help.

Crystal’s grin returned. “I knew I liked you.”

Still a bit annoyed by the joke, Isabel found it easy to prevent the flush this time. “So, this is old hat for you, isn’t it? Going to the moon, I mean.”

“Kinda, yeah. I don’t come up here often, though.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s the moon. There’s nothing up here, love!” Crystal frowned. “Or at least, I didn’t think there was. Should have known a Trickster would have put something up here.”

“Ahh, so the great Crystal isn’t as omnipotent as she seems?” Isabel said.

“Love, if I was half as omnipotent as I seemed, I’d be twice as omnipotent as I actually am.”

“Did you just make a Tolkien reference?”

Crystal just winked at Isabel instead of answering. “Don’t let me being old and jaded spoil the moon for you though. I may have been here a few times, but I’d hate for you to feel like it was somehow less special. Decided what you’re going to be on the moon?”

“I’m going to start as a human,” Isabel said after a moment’s thought. “I want to see it with my own eyes.”

Crystal nodded approval. “Well then, we’re here. You ready?”

Isabel practically threw herself out of the chair, thrumming with excitement. “Yes, yes, please God yes.”

Crystal smiled and opened the door, waggling her fingers to – Isabel assumed – give her some air to breathe on the lunar surface. “Beauty before age, love.”

Isabel didn’t protest, didn’t even register the comment fully. Instead, she bolted out the door and took her first step onto the surface of the moon.

She didn’t pay attention to how light she felt. She didn’t worry about the temperature of the artificial air brushing against her skin. In fact, she didn’t focus on anything at all, instead craning her head up and looking at the sky.

There, above them, just over the Horizon like it was the rising sun, hung the Earth. It was blue and green and brown and swirled with white streaks, half covered by night. She couldn’t quite make out individual continents, not with the clouds covering part of it, but she didn’t need to. Some part of her recognized that multicolored sphere as “home.”

Isabel felt tears spring to her eyes. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

Small Worlds Part 171

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“Before I got your message, I was living in one of the poorest parts Guangzhou.”

“I don’t know the area,” Ryan said.

“It’s what’s euphemistically called an “urban village”. It would more accurately be called a slum. I’d been living there for about a hundred years.”

“People didn’t notice that you weren’t aging?” Ryan asked with a frown.

Dianmu gave him a small smile. “Oh, they would have – if I wasn’t aging. However, I made myself age the entire time I lived there. I’d then start playing the role of my own daughter, and then fake my own death, living as my daughter until the cycle repeated. I got some comments about how much I looked like my mother, but never anything too strong.”

Ryan chuckled. “So no one knew you were different? Living a mere mortal.”

“Not entirely,” Dianmu said. “I got a reputation as a mun mai poh – similar to what you’d call a medium. People would come to me when things got…strange. When they believed they’d encountered ghosts or demons or monsters.”

“Did that happen often?”

“Believing they did? Of course. People everywhere are incredibly credulous when it comes to certain elements of the supernatural. Most of the time it was nothing, or had some rational explanation. In those cases I did my best to assure them they had nothing to fear. Sometimes, if the person was particularly frightened to the point where it was hurting their life, I’d fix the problem and then ‘banish’ the spirits. It put their minds at ease. Other times, more rarely, it was due to a disorder of some kind. Those people I helped get the attention they needed. And other times…do you have anything to drink?”
Ryan motioned to summon the refrigerator, offering her a choice of bottled water, soda, iced coffee, and beer. “You’re thirsty?” he asked, surprised.

“Oh, no. I’ve barely used any power today. But I find storytelling can still make my throat sore, and I prefer to head that off. Being a god does not make us immune to that, it seems. Or have you not noticed?” She selected a bottle of water.

“Honestly? I hadn’t. Then again, I haven’t done much storytelling since this all started.”

“Well, unless you are like Anansi, you’ll find it becomes tiresome. I don’t know how he does it.”

He’d probably just remind us he once held all the world’s stories.”

Dianmu smiled. “Almost certainly.” She took a drink. “Now, where was I? Oh, yes, other times, very rarely – not much more than once or twice a decade – it actually was something. A creature looking to prey on the poor, where it might go unnoticed.” Her eyes flashed with sudden anger. “Those I showed no mercy. Even when the monster was a human seeking easy targets.”

“That happened?”

Dianmu nodded. “Once.”

“What were they doing?” Ryan asked.

“In the 1950’s, it was a serial killer who preyed upon young women. I made myself appear as his ideal target to draw him out, then boiled his eyes in his skull.”

Dianmu’s voice was so calm, so matter of fact, it made Ryan shudder. “So nothing that could really pose a threat to you,” Ryan said, trying to change the topic back to the monsters.

“Not for the hundred years I lived there. Not until the very end.” Dianmu shook her head sadly. “People were going missing. In too great a number to be accounted for by normal means. It disturbed me, and then became extremely concerned when I realized they were all people living on the first or second floors of their buildings, or from the top two floors.”

“I’m not sure what that indicates,” Ryan said.

“Monsters that prey upon humans tend to avoid exposure. They know that if humanity banded together, enough of them would kill them. So they tend to attack from below the ground or from the air to minimize that risk.” Dianmu’s eyes shone with that hard, cold anger again. “This one was doing both.”

“What can do that?”

“Not many things. Even fewer that would risk hunting in a city. Most of them are anthropophages – the ones you’d know of best are vampires – that can pass as humans. The pattern didn’t fit one of their ilk. You know the old tale that vampires need to be invited in to enter someone’s home?”

Ryan nodded.

“It’s a myth, but like most myths, has some vestige of truth in it. Vampires do not require an invitation to enter your home, but they do prefer it – as do most anthropophages. It means they have your trust, that your guard is down.” She shook her head. “They would never need to focus on the ground floors, and would never, ever risk having to fight their way through a horde of panicked humans from roof to floor. I honestly was at a loss of what could be causing it. Anything more monstrous, and the risk of being caught is much greater. Even if mortals don’t target you, you risk drawing the attention of a god or goddess. Which, of course, this one had, but so far it was managing to utterly confound me.”

She took another drink. “Then the first body was found. It was labeled as a ritualistic gang killing, which is what urban police across the world use most often to describe monster killings.”

Ryan frowned. “I’ve seen what monsters can do. You’re telling me the cops write that off as being gangsters?”

“What else are they supposed to do?” Dianmu asked. “If they say it’s a cult, they’ll have a panic on their hands. If they say it was a wild animal, in a city a densely populated as Guangzhou, people will call them incompetent or liars – and they’ll still have a panic on their hands. If they blame it on gang activity, however, people can sleep safely. They can tell themselves ‘I never angered any gangs, nor do I know anyone in a gang. There is no risk to me.’ They might become frightened, they might cry out about the crime, but ultimately, it’s criminals killing other criminals. It’s a safe lie to cover the horror of what happened.”

Ryan scratched his chin. “I…wish I could find a flaw in that logic.”

Dianmu laughed, a sound utterly without mirth. “One thing I’ve learned over thousands of years – human nature never changes. We like our nice, comfortable lies more than the hard, brutal truth that we are as vulnerable as anyone else. When a civilization is exposed to that truth, panic always follows.”
Ryan shuddered.

“What’s wrong?” Dianmu asked.

“If you’re right…well, the entire world now knows that the mythological is real.”
Dianmu nodded. “I think when we find time to rejoin civilizations, it’s going to be a rather unpleasant sight.”

Ryan swallowed, hard. “So…a body was found?”

“Yes,” Dianmu said, not even flinching at the change of subject. “I was able to get my hand on the police report. The person’s brain and liver had been removed. That told me everything I needed to know. It was a Fangliang – a demon that feeds on those two organs from corpses. And when they cannot find corpses…well, they’re not above making fresh ones, then waiting for them to rot enough for the Fangliang to feed.

“They favor being below ground, fitting for their preferred food source, but they can fly through the air on transparent wings. It was the only thing that fit, although I was surprised they were operating in a city. The only way to kill them permanently is to bury them alive. Otherwise they keep reforming and coming back at every full moon.”
“So you had to take it alive and bury it?”

“Yes. And that was my plan, when I delved into the burrows they had dug in the foundation of a condemned building. Find it, capture it, and bury it.” Dianmu’s eyes flashed at the memory. “I wasn’t expecting an entire nest of the creatures. Over three hundred of them.”

Ryan let out a low whistle. “How did that go undetected?”

“They were spreading out their hunting, and focusing on poorer areas. They were organized, they were smart.

“So that’s how you died.” Ryan said. “Sheer numbers?”

“Oh, no.” Dianmu did smile here, a fierce expression on her face. “I don’t know if I could have defeated three hundred of the creatures in combat. But I didn’t need to. I had come to bury them alive, after all – and the building above us was condemned.”
Ryan stared at her, his mouth hanging open. “You collapsed a building on yourself to take them out?”

“Yes. One of the beams impaled me – I had to immolate myself so I could resurrect back at my nanoverse.”

“Holy shit,” Ryan whispered. After a few seconds to take in how casually Dianmu was talking about being buried, impaled, and immolated, Ryan let out a soft breath.

“Dianmu?”

“Yes?”

“I’m really glad you’re on our side.”

That got a genuine laugh out of her. “Thank you for the compliment,” she said.

“You deserve it. Did it work?”

Dianmu nodded. “When I resurrected, I learned there had been no new disappearances. I also got the message – but at that point, you had already tricked Enki into nuking himself, so I assumed things were over.” Dianmu looked up at him. “Speaking of which, I’m very glad I’m on your side as well.”

It was Ryan’s turn to laugh.

“So, I’ve told you my story. How about yours, Ryan Smith?”

Ryan shrugged. “Not much to tell, really. I was just a perfectly ordinary guy right up until I found the nanoverse. And you’ve heard that story.”

“There’s no such thing as perfectly ordinary. Everyone has something interesting happen to them, at some point.”

Ryan frowned in thought. “Okay, I have one,” he said after a moment. “And in keeping with the theme, it’s also about a time that I died.”

Dianmu arched an eyebrow. “Surely you mean almost died?”

Ryan shook his head. “No. Once before I found my nanoverse, when I was seventeen, I died for five solid minutes.”

Dianmu leaned in and motioned for him to continue.

The Dragon’s Scion Part 66

Tythel leaned back against a wall, looking over the Span of Hallith, an empty notebook in her lap. She wrote idly in it as the wind gently tugged at her hair.

Little is known about Hallith, and I hope to have time to delve into the unexplored parts of the ruins while we’re camped here. The Span itself is even more breathtaking than the books described. I wish I had the eyes of an artist – or I suppose I should say “eye” now – so I could sketch it.

She debated taking some time to describe it, and decided against it. If someone one day read her notebooks and wasn’t familiar with Hallith, they’d probably skip this section anyway. Even after a month holed up here, it still took her breath away.

Hallith had been a city-state that predated the Cardometh Empire by over two thousand years. Located on a plateau several miles wide, Hallith was surrounded on all sides by a canyon nearly six hundred feet deep. The only ways into or out of the plateau were two great bridges, each capable of being retracted into the city. Or at least, they had been retractable. The magic that powered that mechanism had long since faded, and the bridges were permanently open. Still, it only took a handful of guards to watch each approach, meaning they wouldn’t be taken by surprise. The barren scrubland that surrounded the canyons also provided plenty of open air to see any approaching Alohym ships.

She returned to her notes.

It’s no wonder Hallith never fell to outside invaders. Even with the benefits of arcwands and their technology, I doubt the Alohym will be able to dislodge us from here. Should they approach from the air, we are already prepared to delve into the ruins below. Armin and a few other Magi who have joined us are hard at work creating an exit point in the canyon below we can use if we have to retreat there. I help when I can, but the molten rock left behind by dragonflame creates fumes that make it too hard for anyone to breathe.

That particular memory gave her a reason to wince. None of them had expected the toxic gasses, although they shouldn’t have been surprised. One of the few things known about Hallith was how it fell – a horrid miasma, created by the Hallithian’s burial customs of tossing the dead into their lumwell, had choked every citizen in their sleep. It seemed that miasma still infused the very stones of the plateau, and burning them released it.

I’m supposed to be the one that knows better. Armin could have died that day. I could have died. She decided not to write that part down, instead pushing forward.

Duke d’Monchy has taken command of the army while Lathariel recovers. Lady Von Bagget has taken command of the civilians. Those that can fight she sends to Lord Devos for training. Ossman’s been working closely with Lord Devos. He’d probably join the Abyssals, if not for the headaches he gets ever since his close exposure to the lumwell. Eupheme watches him closely for any signs of madness. So far he seems to still be sane, but…well, we’re hiding in the ruins of a dead civilization from the creatures that have stolen our world, so ‘sane’ is relative these days.

Tythel heard footsteps approaching, and stifled a sigh. She got time to herself so rarely these days, it was hard not resent any interruptions. Especially this particular one. She had time to finish her final thoughts.

There’s one amazing historical find we’ve made already. The word “Alohym” originates from the Hallithian language. We’ve found Hallithian depictions of the ancient Alohym they worshipped. They look nothing like the invaders that came from beyond the stars, either in their insectoid outer form or their slug-like inner, true form. The Alohym depicted in the Hallithian artworks are wondrous beings. It’s final proof of a theory we had been debating – the Alohym of modern days were never worshipped by humanity. Just as they stole our world, they’ve been trying to co-opt our mythology. Of course, any proof we try to publish we be denounced as rebel propaganda, but it’s satisfying to at least know they are not the gods they claim to be.

“Your Highness!”

Tythel closed her notebook, satisfied to at least complete the passage she was on. “Baron Gobori,” she said, looking down at the man who had approached her. He was a couple years older than her, and despite his low rank claimed to be able to trace his ancestry back to nobel blood. He was handsome and knew it, with a broad grin full of white teeth and an easygoing attitude. At least, around most people. He often seemed uncomfortable around Tythel, which only partially confused her. Most people were uncomfortable around her, besides her close friends.

“Please, call me Tellias,” the Baron responded, flashing her that wide smile.

“As you wish,” Tythel said, as she always did when he asked her to use his first name. He gave her a slightly wide-eyed look that Tythel thought meant he was expecting something, but she was still  unsure what he was.

“So…on the walls again? Looking out for Alohym ships?”

“No. We have sentries that will spot them before I do.” That last bit was partially a lie – her good eye would likely catch the ship first – but since she’d been staring at a notebook it was also partially true. “I was writing.”

She slid off the wall to join Tellias on the ground. “Oh? A diary?”

“Essentially, yes. It’s important to keep track of what’s happening, and my thoughts and feelings during it.”

Whatever response he had been expecting, it hadn’t been that. Tellias  blinked in confusion, a gesture Tythel immensely appreciated since it took no thought to understand. Does he do that for my benefit? Or is it something people do? “Why is it so important?” he asked.

“Primary sources. If our rebellion succeeds, it will be a historic event. Or, if it fails spectacularly enough, it might also be enough. Future historians will be scounging for any record of the times they can find. If they find my notes, it will give them a primary source they can rely upon.”

“I…see.” Tellias recovered his footing. “Well, that’s certainly nobel of you, to provide them with a reliable and unbiased source.”

Tythel tilted her head, careful not to tilt it too far. Humans did tilt their heads to express confusion sometimes, she’d learned, but rarely to the extremes that she was used to. “Nobility has nothing to do with it. I’m a historian myself. I appreciate primary sources, so it’s important to pay that forward. And I’m hardly unbiased. I don’t understand why you would say that – unless you were mocking me?”

“No, no, perish the thought!” Tellias took off his hat and bowed to her. “I knew you were a scholar, and assumed you’d be trying to keep your account unbiased.”

“Oh.” Tythel blinked in thought. “I suppose I should be, but any halfway decent historian will assume I’m biased and account for that. I still will take notes of my own bias, though, for future readers.” She began to walk back to the camp.

Tellias had to step quickly to keep up with her, which gave Tythel a chance to think. Tellias confused her. He often sought her out to speak to her, but rarely in the company of others. She’d thought he was trying to form a friendship with her, but whenever she invited him to join them, he’d declined. What does he want from me?

She considered asking him directly, but thought that would be too blunt, even for her. Instead, she decided to change the topic. “Have Armin and the rest of the Magi returned from today’s excavations?”

Tellias frowned for half a second, the same way he did whenever she mentioned Armin or Haradeth. Do you not like them? Maybe I should invite him to join Eupheme, Ossman, and I without the other two around. He might appreciate that. “Not yet, your highness. Nor, if I may anticipate your next question, has Haradeth returned from the Sylvani lands.”

Tythel let out a huff of air. “He should have been back by now. Ideally with Lorathor and a small army of Sylvani in tow.”

“Your highness, if I may? I think ideally, he’d return with a large army of Sylvani.”

Tythel chuckled at the joke. “I like to temper my expectations.”

“A wise mindset for a ruler, your highness.”

“I don’t rule anything – and if we don’t get reinforcements, it’s very likely the only kingdom I’ll ever have a chance to rule will be within the Shadow’s embrace.”

That put a damper on the conversation, which hadn’t been Tythel’s intention. Still, it served to keep Tellias quiet for the remainder of the walk to camp. You’re being uncharitable. He’s not bad to talk to. He just confuses you and that makes you uncomfortable.

Before she could open her mouth to apologize, she saw someone walking towards them. Eupheme, who was waving her hands for attention. “Hurry up! Where have you been?”

Tythel picked up her pace, muttering an apology for Tellias. He couldn’t hope to keep up with her now that she was sprinting. “What’s wrong? Is it the Alohym? Is it-”

Eupheme cut her off with a shake of her head and a grin. “No, nothing bad! The Duke was looking for you. They’ve made progress on Theognis’ cypher, and he’s called a meeting. They think they might have a location on the Vacuity Engine.”

Tythel blinked in excitement, and turned to dash towards the center of camp. Tellias was left lagging behind, and Eupheme only kept up by leaping from shadow to shadow.

It was the first good news they’d gotten since the death of Rephylon. Tythel wasn’t going to risk missing it.

Read the rest of the story here! 

The Dragon’s Scion Part 65 (Beginning of Book 2)

In all of Drakan, there was no creature more wretched than Poz Torne, and if anyone had reason to doubt that, Poz would be happy to set them straight on the matter. He had thought he had reached the bottommost point of wretchedness the year before, when he’d been locked up for a little bit of looting. Not much looting, not in Poz’s estimation. They hadn’t been Alohym soldiers he’d been looting from – Poz knew that would mean the gallows for him – just rebels, and it’s not like they were using those boots anymore, on account of them being dead and all. “I was’t doin’ the harm to them, no I was’t,” Poz muttered to himself, crouched a cave with the lichen and the guano.

It darker in this cave than the Shadow’s anus, as near as Poz could reckon, which meant he had some time before he needed to worry about his pursuers catching up with him. Or at least, iffin my luck don’t be doin’ me the bad like what it does, he reminded himself. And since my luck be lovin’ doin’ me the bad, I be doing’ the think that it’s going to turn on me like what it always does.

It could have been worse, Poz reminded himself. He could have been caught looting Alohym soldiers, or committing one of their blasphemies. Looting rebels was just a plain old ordinary crime, as far as the Alohym reckoned, and Poz was glad that was how they reckoned it, else he would have been doing a merry little jig a few feet off the ground. Instead he’d done six months hard labor to set him straight, then gotten released and went right back to looting. Can’t be doing me a blame for looting, can you? Poz has to be doing the eat.

For one brief, shining moment, Poz had believed his luck had finally turned. He’d gone to loot a battle, like always, but this time, he hadn’t even needed to go to where the rebels would be laying dead with their boots just waiting for Poz to snatch them away. Instead, he’d found the packs the rebels had set aside, glorious packs of provisions.

Now, Poz had a rule. Poz had lots of rules, actually,  but the relevant one here was don’t take what will be missed. So he’d taken a bit of food from each pack, and a nice pair of socks, and a pair of new undergarments. He’d planned to check out the battle, see who all else had died, and if the rebels were all dead…well, if they were dead, there wouldn’t miss their packs, now would they?

Should have done a stick to the rules, Poz, he admonished himself. Should have done a Shadow-tossed stick to the rules. But in the last pack, he’d seen something too good to pass up. Something that shone greater than any prize Poz had ever imagined stealing. It was the kind of treasure they wrote books about being stolen, usually in great underground vaults surrounded by Light-infused constructs and deadly traps. The people who stole such things weren’t wreches like Poz. They were beautiful people, with perfect hair and teeth that gleamed when they smiled.

Poz should have known better than to steal the thing, but it had been so shiny, so bright, how could he resist?

There was a sound of footsteps near the entrance to his cave, and Poz pressed himself further into the floor, his ears twitching. Being an Underfolk meant Poz could barely see even in normal light, but he could click his tongue and bring himself an image of the world around him. He did that a few times, his heart pounding. His pursurers hadn’t seen the cave yet – or if they hadn’t, they weren’t near the entrance.

Should have done a leaving of the thing, he sighed to himself. But he hadn’t. He’d taken it from the pack and made a beeline for town, seeking out his Riki, his fence.

Riki was a hard woman who had lived a hard life, but she had a soft spot for Poz. Sure, she called him an ugly little bastard, but she always did it with a smile. Or at least, without a grimace. Usually. But when Poz had Sung her and told her that he had something worthwhile, Riki had come running. This had pleased Poz. He’d built up a reputation for whining and moping because…well, because he liked to whine and mope, but also because doing so meant that, when he said he had something good, people knew it had to be true.

“Where’d you find this?” Riki had asked when he’d shown her the thing.

“You don’t want to be doing a know of that, no you do not,” Poz had assured her, getting a smile out of Riki.

“I suppose I don’t. Poz, how hot is this thing?”

“I was doing a wait of a couple weeks before I did a song, yes I was. No one’s been doing a sniffing for it, I can tell you that.”

Riki frowned. “I’ll see what I can find, Poz. You might have just become the richest one of your people on the continent.”

That was when Poz knew something was very, very wrong. Things that good did not happen to Poz, no matter what else was going on. No matter where he went or who he spoke to, the best Poz ever hoped for was to break even.

Even if he did have an egg of solid gold with him.

So he’d put his ear to the ground, as they said. He’d heard things that made him shiver down to his core. One of the Alohym, Rephylon, had met its end. Burned to death by a…by someone. Everyone agreed that Rephylon was dead, but not everyone agreed as to the creature that had killed him. Some said she was a monster, a half dragon, half human that wanted the Alohym gone so she could prey upon humanity freely. Some said she was a pure, true dragon from the old tales, the kind that kidnapped princesses and sat on their great hordes of treasure. Some said she was just a woman, able to weave dragonflame out of Light.  

All the stories, however, agreed on two things. One was her name – Tythel, a name stolen from the long dead princess of the old kingdom. Of course she is not being the princess, Poz thought. Only the very stupid be doing the believing of that. And they agreed she had survived the death of Rephylon, and was now building an army. Rumors said, in the month since Rephylon’s death, she’d been gathering all manner of cutthroats and brigands and all sorts of nasty folk to her banner, or that she was killing the nasty folk and…Poz clicked his tongue again, both to check his surroundings and to clear his head.

The truth was, Poz was sure it didn’t matter if she was wicked or good. Because Poz was increasingly certain that the egg he had stolen had belonged to this Dragon Princess. Which meant she wanted it back, and the Alohym wanted it for themselves. And what is poor Poz supposed to do? Do I be doing a go to the Dragon Princess and say “please don’t be doing a killing? I didn’t know it was yours when I be doing the take of it?” Hah! She’ll probably be putting the burn on me before I even finish a sentence! He’d been ready to give the egg to Riki and run to the hills, he really had. He’d gone to see her to be done with it and run, run far away, but when he’d gone to see her, Riki had been dead, impaled on the wall of her shop by a great sword as long as Poz was tall.

That’s when Poz realized that he was worried too much about the wrong people that wanted the egg. The Dragon Princess would burn him to a crisp if she could find him, but the Alohym…they knew he had it, somehow. They had sent something new after him, something terrifying. Something that fought like an Alohym but stalked like a man. It was what was out there right now, waiting for him.

Maybe if I be doing the leaving of the egg here, they’ll leave me alone, Poz thought, but dismissed the idea immediately. It was a nice, lovely thought, but it wouldn’t be what happened. They’d overlook the egg and hunt him down. Or they’d find the egg and still hunt him down. Or they’d find the egg and leave him be, but then the Dragon Princess would hear of it and she would hunt him down, and he wouldn’t even have the egg to bargain with.

Poz clicked his tongue again, and this time he had to fight back the urge to scream. The thing that was chasing him was in the cave’s entrance. It was as tall as a man, perhaps a bit taller, its form lithe and supple and covered with a rock-hard shell like the skin of an Alohym. Its head was wedge-shaped, like an Alohym, and it moved with preternatural grace.

Poz clicked his tongue a few more times, letting the new thing get further into the cave, then slowly skittering across the walls and hoping, begging the Shadow to keep him safe. He had one hope, as far as he saw it, one person who could set this straight. An old friend who would know what to do.  

A rock fell. The new thing turned towards Poz and started to raise its arm. The clawed hand was running like it was made of wax, forming some new appendage.

A beam of unlight shot from the newly formed tube at the end of its wrist, and Poz cleared the edge of the cave by mere inches before the blast struck. Then he was gone, fleeing into the night, with the new thing hot on his heels.

Just keep doing the running, Poz! Do the run and don’t ever stop! And once you be finding Nicandros, he’ll be knowing what to do with this.

Poz could only pray he would live that long.

Small Worlds Part 168

As soon as he stepped foot on the island, Vlad found himself face-to-face with Horus. “Oh, my, Bast’s pet falcon,” Vlad said with a sneer. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your presence?” Horus opened his mouth, and Vlad waved away whatever Horus was about to say. “Nevermind, I don’t actually care. Whatever words you’re about to say, I’d prefer hearing them from your mistresses lips.”

Horus glowered as Vlad brushed past him. “You would do well not to dismiss me, monster.”

Vlad whirled to face Horus. “Ha!” he said, a single sound with all the mirth of the grave. “You have the audacity to call me a monster? You?”

“What are you implying?” Horus said through gritted teeth. “You are what you are.”

“Yes, but I am not in denial. You, on the other hand…you make yourself a slave to someone who is as much a monster as I am. For nothing. You really have become a joke, Horus. When are you getting a fedora?”

Horus blinked in confusion. “I don’t see what hats have to do with this.”

“Nevermind.” Vlad turned to walk away. “You’d think being immortal would come with a faint obligation to keep up with the times, but…”

Before Vlad could take a step, Horus’ hand lashed out and grabbed the vampire by the wrist. “I wasn’t done with you.”

Vlad looked at the hand, then back up into Horus’ eyes. “But I, Horus, am done with you. Release me.”

“No. I’ve had enough of you, vampire.

Vlad blinked in puzzlement. “We’ve barely spoken before this. Had enough of me? You barely even know me.”

Horus reached out into his nanoverse, pulling out a dagger to plunge into Vlad’s chest. Something in his eye betrayed the strike, and before the dagger could strike home, Vlad turned into a cloud of mist. Horus’ dagger passed harmlessly through the space the vampire had been occupying.

“I see,” Vlad said as he reformed, a dozen feet away and crouched on the roof of a building like a giant, grotesque bat. “You consider me a rival for Bast’s lack of affections? I assure you, you have nothing to worry about. She still loathes you slightly more than she does me.”

“Cease your prattle!” Horus shouted, reaching out to twist reality. Lightning surged forth from his fingertips, filling the air with the smell of ozone and a crack of thunder. Vlad was already removing as Horus shouted, turning into another cloud of mist. The lightning passed through the air Vlad had just vacated, arcing wildly until it found the truck of a long dead tree. The tree exploded in a deafening shower of splinters.

Vlad reformed and wasted no time with banter. He reached out to twist as well. The twist he made seemed unnatural to Horus’ eyes, something fundamentally wrong to what the vampire was doing to reality. A bolt of black energy lanced from the vampires hand. Horus dropped into a defensive posture, but before it reached him the bolt of energy split into a dozen individual streams that veered away from Horus. Each one struck the shadows of the buildings and trees that surrounded them.

The shadows took on the shapes of wolves and leapt for Horus. He kicked off the ground, propelling himself into the air with an additional twist of Air to lift himself. Impossible, Horus thought wildly as the shadow wolves took the shapes of great bats and flew into the air. And it should have been. Divine power worked by manipulating natural laws, but beings made of living shadow weren’t a manipulation, they were a straight violation of how reality worked. An impossibility.

For the first time, it occurred to Horus that Bast might have been holding back the true extent of her – and the vampire’s – powers.

No time for that. Horus thought, dismissing the doubts. He pushed himself higher into the air, and let out another bolt of lightning, arcing it to strike all the shadow creatures. He knew he was burning through power at an alarming rate, but without knowing what these creatures could do…

The lightning flashed through them, and their forms temporarily vanished before reappearing. Realization crystalized. An illusion!

Horus attempted to turn around, but he felt painfully slow. Vlad had materialized behind him, a sword in hand, and brought it down across Horus’s side. It would have been a decapitating strike if Horus hadn’t moved when he had. As it was, Horus howled in pain as ichor flowed from the wound.

Gravity reasserted itself over the two gods, sending them plummeting to the earth. Vlad struck again in a series of blows that Horus desperately attempted to parry, steel ringing out against steel.

Neither combatant managed to land a decisive blow before they impacted the ground. Horus hit hard, feeling worn pavement crack beneath him. Vlad turned into mist just before the impact, his form spreading across the ground. Horus scrambled to his feet as Vlad coalesced a few feet away.

“I forgot to say ‘nothing personal, kid.’” Vlad muttered as he eye Horus warily. “I had one chance to do that properly, and I completely blew it.”

“You’re insane,” Horus countered.

Vlad shook his head. “No. I just let the internet rot my brain sometimes. It’s good to know what kind of things my food finds interesting. Like how a farmer studies what feed his cattle prefers.” He watched as Horus struggled to stand. “I’m willing to let this go, you know. Bast will be annoyed with me for breaking one of her toys, and you’re already halfway beaten. Surrender, and I’ll consider this even.”

Horus waved his hand over the wound in his side, radiating intense heat to cauterize the wound shut. He growled in pain as he did. Vlad rolled his eyes.

“Or you could do the stupidly masculine thing and continue fighting. I hope you know I’ll have no qualms shattering your nanoverse once you’re beaten. You do realize that, don’t you? When I win, your death will be permanent.”

“Then why aren’t you doing it, vampire?” Horus asked, starting to grin. “Why the tricks, the cowardly tactics? Why not fight me head on?”

“I told you, Bast will be annoyed if I break one of her toys. I prefer her agreeable.”

“No.” Horus stood up straight. “I think you’re afraid of me.”

“You’re leaking ichor from a dozen cuts, and you had to burn yourself to stop one of the leaks.” Vlad sneered. “Why on earth would I be afraid of you?”

“Because your kind has few weaknesses. Holy relics of the Judeo-Christian god. Garlic. And, most importantly, the thing I was once the god of.” Horus opened his eyes, and they glowed with golden light. “The Sun.”

Vlad didn’t answer with words. Instead he hissed and lunged at Horus.

Horus held out his hand and, with a twist of reality, sent a beam of pure, unfiltered sunlight streaking towards the vampire. “Burn, monster.”

Vlad screamed as he continued to advance through the light, bits of his flesh flying away and turning to ash, but he didn’t suffer the instant annihilation Horus was hoping for. The vampire was injured, that much was without doubt, but it didn’t stop him from closing the distance between the two.

The artificial sunlight vanished as Horus felt the skeletal, clawed hands close around his throat.

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 105

Note: Today’s part contains an important retcon for an earlier scene. The earlier scene will be changed later. For more details about the retcon and why, Click Here

“Hey Ryan. We won.” Isabel frowned in thought. “Or I think we’re winning?”

From the ground, Ryan raised his hand and gave Isabel a thumbs up. “You turned into animals,” he said, not wanting to risk pushing himself into a sitting position.

“Yeah, Arthur made me a stone full of animal souls. I can channel them to shapeshift, which is great. I can also burn a soul to prolong my life.” She leaned over Ryan. “Apparently this fulfills a deal you made with him on my behalf without asking me about it?”

“Yup,” Ryan said, ignoring the accusation in her tone. “How about the others?”

Isabel sighed. “Crystal’s alive and making her way over, Artemis – oh, Artemis showed up at the last second, by the way – is over with Athena, and Anansi and Dianmu are getting back to their feet. Everyone’s as beat to hell as you are.” Isabel put her hands on her hips and glowered at Ryan. “Although none of them can be killed as easily as you. Why the hell do you go into these fights? Why would anyone?”

Ryan shook his head. “I can’t ask them to fight for me.”

“Bullshit, Ryan. You totally could. Even ignoring worry about your own life, you still should worry what happens to the world if you died.”

Ryan smiled. “I was worried about you too, Izzy.” Isabel let out a huff of air, wincing as soon as she did. Ryan sat up. “What’s wrong?”

“Asshole cracked my sternum with that strong arm. And before you say something, yes, I apparently know exactly what bone he broke. Side effect or something.” Isabel offered a hand to help him up as Crystal strode into view.

“Hey,” Ryan said to Crystal, “you doing alright?”

“Love, I found out that my old mentor was a monster that had been powering himself on human sacrifice for years. I’m beat to hell, my sodding Hungers are in full force, and we’re still in the middle of a battlefield surrounded by angry Olympians and monsters, and I’m not sure which group wants me dead more. I’m not even on the same planet as alright.” She gave Ryan and Isabel a small smile. “Though I’ll admit getting all that out there does help with it, yeah?”

“Fair,” Ryan said.

“If you need anything,” Isabel started, and Crystal shook her head.

“Thanks, love, but right now we need to finish this battle.”

“Like hell we do,” Dianmu snapped, approaching with Anansi.

Anansi nodded in agreement with Dianmu, “the Olympians can take it from here. Moloch is dealt with, they’ll be able to handle his armies.”

“And there’s no point to any of us risking even a temporary death at this point,” Dianmu continued. She pointed at Ryan and Isabel. “Especially those two, since it wouldn’t be temporary. Besides, we have something else to take care of.” Dianmu glanced behind her. “Uriel survived.”

Ryan pushed past the others to walk over to the twice fallen angel. Uriel was struggling to her feet, her eyes wide with pain.

“God Almighty,” she gasped to Ryan as he approached, “He…he made me mortal.”

Ryan’s eyes narrowed. “Glad you survived it. Besides – you kidnapped my sister. You could have gotten her killed.”

“She wasn’t in any danger, Ryan,” Uriel said. “I was there, and the deal with Moloch let me get involved directly in the fight. If not for that, I couldn’t have-”

“So what was your plan for protecting her if you got turned mortal?”

Uriel sighed. “There was no way to foresee-”

“Yeah, of course not.”

“Quit being an asswipe, Ryan,” Isabel said from behind him. “She’s hurt, you’re hurt, and she was trying to help. She knew Moloch was King, knew you’d need backup. I’m mortal so she could tell me. Why do you think I agreed to go along with it?”

Ryan frowned. “Agreed?”

“Yeah,” Isabel said, “you think she just whisked me away?”

Ryan looked at Uriel, who nodded.

“Why didn’t you tell us, then?” he demanded of the angel.

“Me again,” Isabel interrupted. “Ryan, you have a terrible poker face. No way could we risk Moloch figuring out what we were up to.”

Ryan glowered at Isabel, then at Uriel, and then at the world in general. “Fine. I’m going to fulfill my debt to your boss, then.”

“You didn’t agree to choose the method of filling it,” Uriel said, carefully.

“Nope. But I saw what Moloch did to you. I can’t just undo it – I’m not him – but I definitely know a way to help. Think he’ll accept that?”

“I’ll persuade him if needs be,” Uriel said quickly.

“Great. I have you word on that?” Uriel nodded, and Ryan offered her a hand. “Come on, then. Athena is waving for us to follow, and it looks like we have a couple Olympians to escort us back to the Rest.”

Uriel took the hand, and Ryan helped her to her feet.

“Ryan, Isabel” Athena said as they approached, “I’d like you to meet Nike,” Athena gestured to a woman lounging with a massive shield and a spear nearly three times as long as Ryan was tall, “and Kratos,” she indicated the other god, a thin but muscular man leaning against a sword that was longer than he was tall.

Ryan’s eyes bulged at the two of them. “Nike and Kratos? You both are famous!”

“Come again?” Nike asked, frowning.

“You got chosen to represent a line of shoes. And Kratos, you’re in video games as the god of war.”

Kratos’ forehead furrowed. “That’s stupid. Ares is God of War. And what is a video game?”

“It’s…” Ryan stared at him, and at Nike, who looked equally perplexed. “Nevermind, it’d be hard to explain.”

“We’re famous,” Nike said, grinning at Kratos. “It may be for strange things, but we’re famous.”

“Never been famous before. Think I’ll get to replace Ares if he doesn’t resurrect?”

Athena frowned. “Why wouldn’t he resurrect?”

“Don’t know.” Kratos shrugged. “It’s been an odd few days.”

Isabel started tugging on Ryan’s sleeve. “Ryan, what is going on? Can you understand them?”

“Of course I can. Why…” Ryan replayed the last few minutes in his head and realized what he’d heard didn’t jive with what his brain had interpreted. “Holy crap, I understood Greek.”

Athena smiled. “Glossolalia. One step closer to Apotheosis.”

“But not there yet?” Ryan asked.

“Not yet.”

“Damn.”

“Enough chatter,” Kratos growled. “We have to get you all to safety, and I don’t want to miss the entire battle.”

“Neither do I,” Nike added.

Athena nodded, and they headed to the Elysian Rest.

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 103

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Crystal opened her divine sight as she ran, equations whirling around herself and Moloch. King. Crystal still couldn’t process that it was really him.

She slid under Moloch’s first blow, her sword flying out to cut him across the calves. Moloch hissed in pain, bringing his talon up to kick Crystal away. She rolled away from the blow, bringing her sword around in another frantic slash. He leapt over it, and she redirected her cut upwards. She felt it bite into Moloch’s skin, but he whirled away before it could get purchase. He’s still just a god, Crystal reminded herself. This wasn’t like Enki. Moloch’s reserves of power may be vast, but if she could just get in a fatal hit she could-

Moloch managed to hit her in the chest, hard enough to send her flying back. “So you figured out how to watch the equations too,” he said, walking over to her.

“King…” Crystal gasped. It felt like he’d broken one of her ribs. “You don’t have to…I didn’t have a choice.”

Moloch shook his head. “There’s always a choice, Crystal. You chose to end the world. You chose to kill my family, my friends.”

“The sun…”

“There was still time!” Moloch roared, and he reached out to strike Crystal with bands of lightning. “There was still a chance! You couldn’t wait. You were so damn eager. I think you were looking forward to it.”

“I hated it.” Crystal spat as the lightning dissipated. “I never wanted to do it.”

“And yet, you did, and here we are.” Moloch sighed. “You did it, Crystal.”

“There was no other-“

Moloch kicked her . “It’s just a rock, Crystal. You saved a damn rock. Maybe you’re right. Maybe there was no hope left! Who gives a shit?”

Crystal looked up at him, her eyes wide with more than pain. “What?”

“If everyone dies anyway, what’s the point of saving the damn rock everyone lived on? What does it matter? All you accomplished was killing everyone slightly earlier than scheduled!”

Moloch’s next kick sent Crystal flying. She felt something else break when she hit the ground. Get up, get up…”Humanity still-“

That was the wrong thing to say. Moloch leapt the distance between them, landing on her back, his talons digging in. “You don’t get credit for that, Crystal. You killed an entire world to allow another to possibly exist, and got lucky.” Moloch leaned down and grabbed Crystal’s head, forcing her to look at the others. “Look at them, Crystal. Look at these apes you sacrificed our people for. You love them so damn much?”

“Yes!” Crystal shouted, “Bloody hell, yes.”

“Then you get to watch them die. The same gift you gave me.” Moloch opened his mouth to say something else, but his words were cut off by a gargle. An arrow erupted from his open mouth, having punched through the back of his skull to shoot out between his teeth.

Moloch whirled around. “You talk too much,” Artemis said.  She fired three arrows in rapid succession, hitting Moloch in the chest, right where the heart would be. “And I’ve spent centuries locked up with the gods of Olympus.” Another two arrows, one to each knee. “I’m somewhat of an expert in talking too much.”

Moloch began to slump over. Artemis strode forward.

Crystal’s felt hope fade. “Artemis!” Crystal shouted. “His heart is on the other side!”

The warning came too late. Moloch stood up in a swift motion, pulling the arrow out of his mouth and ramming it into Artemis’ chest. The goddess managed to twist so it only hit her in the shoulder instead of puncturing a lung.

Frantically, Crystal scanned the Elysian Rest for some sign, any sign, that Artemis was part of a vanguard of Greek gods, that the rest were coming.

The halls of the Elysian Rest sat silent. The defenses Artemis must have lowered were back in place.

No more help was coming, and Artemis couldn’t shoot anymore.

Without her bow, Artemis posed as much threat to Moloch as any of the other gods had so far. She had drawn a gladius, but Moloch just reached out and twisted, hitting her with several walls of force, each stronger than an onrushing train.

Artemis was bowled over and sent rolling back across the landscape with each blow. “Poseidon was supposed to keep you all occupied,” Moloch muttered as his mouth healed, then looked around. “Anyone else?” he shouted at the raging war of monsters around them. “Does anyone else think they can fight me!”

Crystal caught a glance of something in the melee, between the legs of a Cyclops and a twisted monstrosity made of teeth and claws and little else. She kept her eyes on Moloch and hoped she was right about what she dare not look at.

“There’s one other,” Crystal gasped, managing to raise herself to a seating position.

Moloch frowned at her. “Why would you tell me that?”

“I’ll show them to you, Moloch, if you promise me something.”

Moloch scoffed. “What do you think I’ll give you?”

Crystal glanced at Ryan. Isabel had managed to reappear and had taken the form of a saber toothed tiger, standing over Ryan protectively. Crystal turned back to Moloch. “I know you want me to suffer. I deserve that. He didn’t do anything to you. Don’t kill him.”

Moloch sighed. “The sun is going to destroy the world, Crystal. You have to fail. It’s only just.”

Crystal nodded. “Fine. Then…promise me you won’t make him suffer.” C’mon, you arrogant bastard, let me do this…

Moloch paused to think, then nodded. “Agreed,” Moloch said. “Now. Who else is going to get in my way?”

“I’ll show you,” Crystal reached out and began to twist, moving slow so Moloch could see what she was doing, know it wasn’t a trap. She was just making a series of lenses. Moloch stared into them, his forehead furrowing.

“Her name,” Crystal said in triumph as the lenses fell into place, “is Medusa.”

Moloch brought a hand up to cover his eyes as he found himself staring directly into the gorgon’s face.

As Crystal watched, Moloch’s hand started to turn grey.

“No!” Moloch shouted, “No!” He looked around the battlefield wildly. He locked eyes with Crystal, and in that instant, he looked exactly like he had so many years ago, right before he dashed out to save his children.

The grey crept up his arms, reaching his face, and that expression became the one Moloch would make for eternity.

Strange Cosmology Part 102

Dianmu leapt for Moloch, her glaive held high over her head, howling a battlecry. Moloch flicked his wrist and hit her with a gust of air before she could get within reach. He raised his other hand to counter Anansi’s twist. The spider god sent of bolt of lightning streaking towards Moloch, but Moloch stopped it by raising a stone wall from the ground. “What is it going to take for you to stay out of my way?” Moloch asked.

Moloch knew they were as likely to do that as he was spare the life of the Eschaton or Crystal. This is my victory, my triumph. I’m not going to let these upstarts ruin it.

Dianmu lowered her glave and charged. Moloch whirled to face her attack, slamming his fist into the ground. He added a twist and his fist’s impact generated a wave of molten rock that shot out and streaked towards the approaching goddess. Her charge interrupted, Dianmu leaped over, momentarily lit red by the lava beneath her.

No. Not that easy this time. Moloch flicked his hand again, increasing her gravity at the apex of her leap, pulling Dianmu sharply towards the molten rock. She managed a last second twist of her own, freezing the rock beneath her. Her impact with the ground was brutal, but it didn’t incinerate her. Moloch sighed as she started to rise and increased the gravity again, holding her in place.

When Moloch turned to face Anansi the trickster was gone. Moloch glanced back to Dianmu. “It appears only one of you has the sense to-”

Dianmu was gone as well. Moloch scanned the battlefield. Two of his Helhests were feasting on the last of the centaurs, and the sweet melody of a faun being torn limb from limb filled Moloch’s ears. His monsters were gaining the upper hand against the disorganized chaos of the creatures of the unleashed Labyrinth. Yet either of his opponents were nowhere to be seen.

He was caught completely off guard when they phased out of the ground on either side of him. Dianmu’s swing was aimed at Moloch’s neck, Anansi’s sword was coming for his back.

Moloch twisted time as the blades closed in, slowing the two of them to a near stop. Too close, Moloch thought, stepping aside. The motion forced him to take a breath. Too close, and I’m starting to feel Hungers. Moloch kept the alteration up for a few more seconds, just enough to rush behind Dianmu and kick her forwards.

Normal time resumed. Pushed ahead, Dianmu’s glaive bit into Anasi’s shoulder, and Anansi’s sword caught Dianmu in the side. Before they could pull away from each other, Moloch struck them with a bolt of lightning. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have worried about Enki,” Moloch said as he clenched his fist, striking them again. “You two weren’t even there, and the other three managed to defeat him.” Moloch went for a third strike, but Anansi and Dianmu had managed to separate and leap apart. Anansi’s skin was smouldering, and Dianmu’s eyes were turning red from burst blood vessels. “I can only imagine what I could have done with his power,” Moloch said, stepping back so he could see them both.

“And yet you did not,” Anansi said, “Why is that? Was Enki smarter than you? How did he figure out what the great bird man did not?”

Moloch snapped, “I reject the notion that a mere human god could have come up with something beyond me.”

“And yet, a mere human did,” Dianmu countered from the other side, “perhaps you’re not quite as intelligent as you pretend to be, Moloch? Or do you just need to feel superior to us to justify genocide to yourself?”

That’s right, Moloch thought, let them think they’re goading you. “Enki was a fool with power he didn’t comprehend. I could have crushed him at any time, I just did not want to waste my strength.”

“Lies,” Anansi said, “Enki had more power than you ever held.”

“Power is nothing without the knowledge how to use it. Allow me to show you.” Moloch flung his hands out and began to manipulate the chemicals in the air.

The air around Dianmu and Anasi caught fire, a pair of raging infernos. Anansi was the first out of his fireball, his skin seared into black and red patches. Dianmu was not emerging. “Dioxygen Difluoride,” Moloch crowed. “Your skin is now catching on fire at these temperatures, spider. I doubt there’s much left of Dianmu. You, Anansi, are lucky enough to witness the end of humanity.”

Anansi started to rise to his feet, and Moloch struck him with lightning. Let’s not repeat the mistake I did with Athena. Moloch had known the effort of setting up high electron density points before the fight had been worthwhile. The ability to call lightning with minimal twisting helped him look even more impressive than he already was. Did it even occur to them, he asked himself, that I had weeks to prepare the battlefield? Weeks where any twist made would stay in place?

Moloch doubted it. If they had thought of it, they certainly didn’t seem to have prepared at all. I wonder if they honestly think they chose this battlefield? “Dianmu is immolated,” Moloch growled, turning back towards Crystal. “And I’m about to stomp the spider. I was going to make you watch the Eschaton die first, but since I had to kill one of them already, I suppose Athena should be next.”

Crystal’s eyes were full of hate. That’s right. She and Dianmu are friends. Moloch wished he’d made the thunder goddess suffer more before her death.

Then he sensed something behind him, a twisting of equations. The inferno surrounding Dianmu was dying down.

Dianmu crouched in the center of the fire, encased in a whirling bubble of air. She rose to her feet and charged, her glaive lowered.

Impressive, Moloch acknowledged. She’d more dangerous than I had thought.

Moloch threw out his hand and turned a tiny number of the air molecules in front of Dianmu into antimatter. The explosion sent her flying backwards, the force of a grenade going off in her face.

Then again, so am I. Under normal circumstances antimatter would be a stupid waste of energy – Moloch thought he might have burned a full millenia of power on that – but it was worth it. Moloch cracked his neck. “I’m barely even Hungry,” he said to Crystal. “You cannot win. You never could. You need to accept that.”

The hatred in Crystal’s eyes hadn’t abated and she rose, standing protectively over Ryan. Her throat was an ugly purple color, and Moloch wondered if she could even speak through the damage. It doesn’t matter.

Moloch held out his hand, and gestured for her to come to him. Crystal started to charge.

And so it ends.


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