Small Worlds Part 181

“Shouldn’t being a god means my wrist doesn’t cramp up from writing?” Ryan said, breaking the silence after what felt like hours. He was getting to the bottom of his form, currently working on the “Urgent Request to Petition Specific Curator 834-G” which was different through forms A-F because of some arcane reason Ryan couldn’t divine. He’d still had to fill out forms A-F even though they didn’t apply to Nabu.

Dianmu grimaced. “If only. Repetitive motions are one thing we aren’t protect against, since it’s about our own strength. At least you’ll never develop a permanent injury from it.”

“Small favors,” Ryan grumbled, signing his name on the bottom of the form. “I think I’m done with my stack.”

“Same,” Dianmu said. She got up and walked over to Ryan’s desk, grabbing his papers off it and adding them to her own. “Now we just have to wait to be processed,” she said, sliding them in the “Insert Paperwork Here When Completed” doorway.

“At least it should be quicker since we’re not standing in line, right?” Ryan asked hopefully.

Dianmu gave him a flat look.

“At least it…won’t add any time since we’re not standing in line?” Ryan tried.

Dianmu’s expression didn’t waiver.

“Goddamnit,” Ryan muttered. “Why have us do extra paperwork if it doesn’t speed anything up in the long term?”

“Paperwork does not exist to make things quicker, Ryan, and certainly doesn’t exist to make it more efficient for the end user. Paperwork exists to do two things – to make things easier for the people at the top, and to make more paperwork. Haven’t you ever had an office job?”

Ryan sighed. “I did, but…I kinda hoped the Curators would be better?”

Dianmu shrugged. “So we’ve got some time to kill. Any Hungers bothering you?”

Ryan shook his head. “You?”

“Not at the moment. Which is probably for the best. You do not want to try to order food on Officium Mundi.”

“Sounds like you speak from experience.”

Dianmu sat back dwn, and wheeled her chair over so they didn’t have to talk across the room. “I do. I was here one time, not long ago, after a fight. I needed information, but I was Hungry. I decided to go to the food court.”

“They have a food court?”

Dianmu nodded. “A few levels down. I decided to get something simple, or so I thought. A hamburger. It required filling out Requisition forms. For the Hamburger as a collective unit. And the cheese. And the bun. And the ketchup. And the mustard. And the oil the burger was cooked in. And for the heat that was being put into the burger. Then I had to fill out a form to authorize assembling the ingredients into the burger.”

Ryan gaped at her. “You’re joking.”

“I wish I was.”

“But…if you already filled out the collective unit form, why the bloody hell was there a form to assemble the ingredients?”

“So they could make sure that what constituted a hamburger also was the same thing I was assembling. So that I couldn’t do anything unsavory with the ingredients and cause mischief. I ended up getting a lukewarm hamburger that I was too Hungry to heat up myself, and there was no way I was even trying to do paperwork for the microwave.”

Ryan shuddered at the thought. “I thought you admired their efficiency?” he asked.

“Oh, no. I just understand the purpose. But I’m still a human, deep under the divinity. You honestly thought I didn’t find it maddening?”

Ryan chuckled in agreement. “So what do you think? An hour? Or two?”

“If we’re luc-” Dianmu started to say, but was cut off by a knock on the door. Ryan and Dianmu shared a glance. “Who is it?” she asked.

“Nabu,” came the voice from the other side. “Mind if I come in?”

Ryan tried not to think too hard about how they were talking through the door when the same door lead to two hundred instances of the same room. “Please, if I don’t have to fill out a form giving you permission,” Ryan said.

Nabu chuckled and opened the door. “I wouldn’t make you do that, Ryan. I think I’ve put you through enough.”

Ryan’s returning laughter wasn’t nearly as warm as Nabu’s. “Thank you for seeing us,” he said, forcing himself to untense. You came here to see him, Ryan, he reminded himself. Why would you flip out the moment he arrived?

Of course, that question had a very obvious answer, at least to Ryan. He’d finally gotten used to Nabu not being there all the time. Not just gotten used to it, he’d started to love it. Some part of his brain was convinced now that, since Ryan was seeing Nabu again, he’d end up stuck with him. That Nabu would never, ever leave, and resume following Ryan silently for the rest of his life – only since Ryan was immortal now, it would be for hundreds or thousands or millions of years. He saw himself in the distant future, the last survivor, as old as Crystal, trying to explain to some new creature what being the Eschaton meant…and Nabu standing there, taking notes in one of those damn notebooks.

Dianmu must have noted his distress, and she took the lead. “Thank you for expediting our forms, Nabu.”

“Like I said, it’s the least I can do. What can we help you with?”

“We’re lost, Nabu,” Ryan said, finally finding his voice. “We don’t…we don’t know how we could possibly end the world without killing everyone on it. I was hoping you could tell us.”

Nabu went stiff. “Ryan,” he said gently. “You know we are expressly forbidden from interfering with that.”

“Yeah, I do. I just think it’s bullshit,” Ryan said, more bluntly than he intended to.

“What Ryan means,” Dianmu said, stepping in diplomatically, “is that while it may be against your regulations, you already did act by sending messages for Enki and Crystal at the beginning of Ryan’s tenure. It’s hard to believe you couldn’t make another exception.”

“Like I said,” Ryan repeated, settling back into his chair, “I think it’s bullshit.”

Dianmu shot him a glare before turning back to Nabu.

“I know it seems that way, Ryan, but that was to discharge a debt. One that you gave to Crystal.”

“She gave it back to me,” Ryan said smoothly. He actually couldn’t remember if she had, but he figured she’d be fine with the lie if she hadn’t. Crystal might have had more time to get used to the Curators than Ryan, but she didn’t seem to tolerate their particular brand of bureaucracy much better.

Nabu pursed his lips in thought. “Nonetheless, there are still limits. Even for that debt.”

“Bullshit,” Dianmu said, drawing startled looks from Ryan and Nabu. “You set precedent, Nabu. Not only that, but you started observing him far earlier than most of us ever had to deal with your kind, and it took him longer to find his nanoverse. That’s different.”

“Not always for the Eschaton. We usually identify candidates for that right at birth. It’s easier since there’s only one nanoverse left to find.”

“You were a lot more helpful last time I was here,” Ryan groused. Nabu regarded him impassively. Ryan frowned in thought. “I…somethings different from last time. What is it?”

Nabu smiled. “And that, Ryan, is the right question. I want to help you. I’m willing to stretch, maybe even break the regulations to help you. But…but I don’t have the answers you need. I don’t know how it’s possible. No sentient species has accomplished it in my sector.”

Ryan sighed. “Great. So we’ve come all this way for nothing.”

Nabu shook his head. “No, not for nothing. You have twelve hours.”

“Twelve hours for what?” Ryan asked, cocking his head in confusion.

Nabu reached into his jacket pocket. “I pulled every string I have left. Here’s all the relevant regulations. All of them. You two need to study them, try to find a loophole.”

“And then?” Dianmu asked, cocking her head in confusion.

“Then you get to argue your place with the High Council. If anyone can assist you, they can. But they won’t listen to pleas from the heart. Before you go and speak with them…we need to find a loophole.”

The stack of papers Nabu pulled of his jacket was impossibly large. Thousand upon thousands of pages. Ryan took a deep breath, and nodded. “It’s a good thing we don’t need to sleep. Let’s get to work.”

The three of them settled in to do exactly that.

Small Worlds Part 178

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Isabel’s version of the story was choppy and full of speculation. She hadn’t been there for most of it, and for most of the parts she had been there for, she’d been watching through a drone. The only part she could personally attest to from first hand experience was the battle with Moloch, and that Isabel glossed over.

She focused her story on Bast and everything she had been told about what happened with her.

“The first thing I know for certain she did was side with Enki. Unlike Athena and Tyr, she knew the full extent of Enki’s plan, including the fact that it involved stabbing Athena and Tyr in the back to get everyone who might oppose Enki out of the way – and get their nanoverses for him to merge.”

Ra yawned. “You do not know this mortal, but the merging of nanoverses is impossible. You’re repeating Ishtar’s lies.”

“My brother saw it with his own eyes,” Isabel protested hotly. “And destroying it corrupted Crystal’s nanoverse so badly, she…” Isabel frowned. Crystal had been less than forthcoming on the details of the corruption, just that it had happened and had caused her some problems. “She had serious problems, okay?”

Ra frowned. “Let’s assume I believe that such a thing is possible. I do not, but let us assume it.”

Isabel bit her lip. That wasn’t good enough, not to make their case. “Can you at least believe that Enki, in his madness, believed it? Can you at least believe that Bast believed him.”

Ra cocked his head, a gesture so naturally leonine that it almost made Isabel laugh. “I suppose I can believe that.”

Isabel nodded. “And Tyr has not respawned, so we know something bad happened to his nanoverse.”

Ra blinked. “Respawned? I do not know this word.”

“You speak English even though you have been on the Moon for millennia, but respawn is where you draw the line?” Isabel asked, incredulous. She looked at Crystal.

“May I explain, Ra?” Crystal asked.

Ra nodded assent.

“Being gods means we can speak and understand any language, but only it’s most technical version, as it is understood by the majority of speakers, love. It’s one of the last tricks we learn before we undergo Apotheosis. But we struggle with slang, especially niche terms. So something that’s only understood by, say, the video game community, is impenetrable to us. You might as well announce that you’ve met a sat-reteh.

Isabel frowned. She’d heard the word sat-reteh, but she’d also heard another word in there. It just wouldn’t come into focus. Ra was chuckling, like he understood a joke. “A what?”

“Loosely translated, it means a baker’s daughter. But it was really just a kind way to call someone obese – like a child that grew up with easy access to bread at all times. You see how you didn’t understand that, even though you understood everything else I said?”

“I understand.” She turned back to Ra. “Respawn is a term from a form of entertainment we play on Earth now, where we control avatars in a box of moving pictures. If your avatar dies, you have to wait a short time before it comes back and you can play it again. The act of coming back is called respawning. I…kind of have been using it to refer to how gods resurrect.”

“I see. Tyr has not resurrected?”

“No. So if nothing else…”

“Bast destroyed his nanoverse.” Ra chuffed and frowned. “An abhorrent gesture.”

Isabel had been about to blame the destruction of Tyr’s nanoverse of Enki, but was more than happy to let Ra leap to the conclusion that benefited her stance the most. “Exactly.”

“That is one atrocity, but hardly enough to justify letting someone access the Staff.”

“She also unleashed mummies on a town!” Isabel said. “Dozens of people died. If it wasn’t for Athena and my brother, they could have killed hundreds. Maybe thousands.”

“Mummies?” Ra asked, leaning in with interest.

“Yes. The Mummies of Yes.”

“Ys, love,” Crystal corrected gently.

“Right, sorry. The Mummies of Yiss.” Crystal winced at Isabel’s butchering of the word, but Isabel forged ahead. “Surely the fact that she was willing to do something so…large would indicate she might be a threat to the world.”

Ra paused to consider. “Unleashing monsters sounds more like Moloch’s stratagem than Bast’s.”

“You know her better than anyone else. Has Bast ever worked through proxies before?”

Another long pause, during which Ra settled down more onto his paws, curling them in for comfort. The hallway was finally no longer being distorted to accommodate the Sphinx’s movement, and settled into its normal proportions, giving Isabel a chance to look at the surroundings.

The hallway was not, as Isabel had assumed, constructed purely of metal. Most of it was metal, but in places jagged lunar rocks had punched through it. Isabel could see what Crystal meant by the nanobots – the seam around the stones were so smooth, it looked almost like they had been intentionally placed in the walls. Remnants of some long forgotten asteroid impact, no doubt. There were wires and lights running along those walls as well, and in one place one of the jagged fragments of stone had cut right through the wires. Isabel could see where it had been cut off, but it had also been spliced to reroute the power to the facility around where the stone had penetrated.

Isabel felt some tension she hadn’t realized she was carrying drain away. If the auto-repair nanobots were so advanced they could reroute power, this place really would withstand anything short of a direct meteor hit. She knew the void of space still sat outside those walls, but it no longer was an oppressive presence on the back of her mind. If something happened, she’d only be in danger for a short time before the nanobots repaired the damage – and Crystal could surely keep her safe for that long. There’s always a Tardigrade, too, Isabel reminded herself. I could survive for long enough for the bots to do their work.

Assuming, of course, the cause of death wasn’t being mauled by the giant leonine creature that was now thinking. “What else has Bast done?” he finally asked, his voice slow and steady.

“That’s the worst part, we don’t know.” Isabel said firmly. “But we do know…” she glanced at Crystal then back at Ra, “or at least suspect that she’d been starved, her power somehow being routed to empower some soldiers with her…ichor? Is that the right term?”

Crystal gave Isabel an encouraging nod as Ra spoke. “Starved?” Ra asked. “Is she…did she develop a new Hunger?”

“We don’t know.” Isabel said, wondering why there was a quaver in Ra’s voice at the question. “What would that mean?”

“Anthropophage,” Ra hissed. He fixed his gaze on Crystal. “Do you believe it’s possible?”

Crystal nodded. “Possible? Absolutely. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s bloody likely.”

Ra considered again, and Isabel waited with baited breath. They had nothing else to offer Ra, no other true claims to what Bast had done. Speculation and fear was all they had. She made a mental note to ask Crystal later, if they survived this, what the hell an Anthropophage was, because it did not sound like anything good. If a Bacteriophage is a virus that preys on bacteria, and Anthro means man…I really hope it’s a colorful term for a vow of peace.

Isabel didn’t think that was particularly likely.

“I will allow you entrance,” Ra said slowly. “And will allow the remaining guardian to decide your fate.”

“Oh, c’mon, love,” Crystal said. “Can’t you-”

“I never imagined anyone would need access to the Staff. I cannot even enter the levels where the guardian lies. I have sealed it against my own power.”

“Can you at least tell us what we’re up against?”

Ra nodded. “I have set a Typhon to guard the Staff.”

Crystal swore, and Isabel looked over at her. “What? What’s a typhon?”

“You remember the Hecatoncheires, the big giant you saw on the news?”

Isabel nodded, feeling the color draining out of her face. “It’s…it’s one of those.”

“No, love.” Crystal sighed. “It’s what gives hecatoncheires nightmares. We’re in for a very rough time here.”

Isabel looked up at Ra, and saw it in his face.

Even he believed they were doomed.

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Small Worlds Part 177

Of all the traits, rhinoceroses were not known for their keen vision. Quite the opposite, in fact – the Sphinx pushing its way into the room was initially as blurry as the optometrists bottom row was to someone with severe myopia. It was taking Isabel some time to sort out what she was seeing.

Fortunately, the rhino’s hearing and vision were working perfectly fine  Unfortunately, the Sphinx’s reeked of lion, one of the few creatures able to hunt and kill rhinos. Even worse, it didn’t scare the rhino’s soul Isabel was sharing this body with.

It just pissed it off.

Before Isabel was entirely sure what she was doing, she’d lowered her head and pawed the ground in a warning gesture. Back the fuck off or I’ll run you down, she thought, a moment before her rational brain was able to assert itself. You’re here to talk, not to fight!

She barely felt Crystal’s hand on her flank. “Easy there, love.”

“You…brought a rhino…to the moon?” the Sphinx said slowly, enunciating each word carefully. “Why?”

“Figured I could use some backup if you didn’t want to talk, love.” Crystal’s tone was calm, her scent confident, and although the rhino was skittish at the scent of human, it helped Isabel assert more control. “Which is what we’re here to do. Talk.”

Isabel knew that last word was meant for her, and her ears flicked at the reproach.

“That answers my second question. I assume you want to talk about your first – why are you here?”

Crystal took a deep breath. “We need the staff of Ra.”

The faint amusement Isabel had heard in the Sphinx’s voice vanished. “You need my staff,” he said flatly.

Crystal’s scent changed to confusion. “You still think of yourself as Ra?”

“Of course I do,” the Sphinx said dismissively. “Why wouldn’t I?”

“I just…I didn’t think any memories of who you were before remained. After dying and becoming a…I mean, after you turn into…”

“A monster,” Ra said. “If you thought you would offend me, Ishtar, you are sorely mistaken. You humans have thought as me for a monster for quite some time.”

The situation didn’t seem to be escalating. Isabel shifted back to her human form, then stood up from all fours and brushed herself off. “You know each other?”

“I met Ra once,” Crystal said offhandedly.

“But I’ve never met you,” Ra said.

Now that she could see him, Isabel had to fight the urge to stare. His body was all leonine, although the fur ran closer to gold than the tawny color of a lion. It almost shone in the light. Being a rhino had also blinded her to the sheer size of Ra. He was far larger than a lion had any right to be, almost as large compared to a lion as a lion would be to a housecat. The face that was staring at her was similarly sized, a regal human head sitting atop those shoulders. “Um…Isabel Smith, sir,” Isabel said, fighting the urge to babble.

Ra’s head turned towards Crystal. “You brought a Nascent here?”

“She’s not Nascent,” Crystal said, putting a hand on Isabel’s shoulder. “Just new at this.”

Ra studied Isabel for a moment lower, and nodded. Isabel felt a surge of relief. Crystal had worded that very carefully – it was easy for Ra to assume Isabel was a full fledged goddess, and not a mortal with some shapeshifting tricks. That relief was quickly obliterated when Ra spoke again. “You have yet to convince me I shouldn’t gut you both,” he growled. “The staff is too dangerous to be out in the world. I’m here to prevent it from ever leaving.”

“Begging your pardon,” Crystal said, “but there are things more dangerous than the staff.”

“Such as?” Ra growled.

“The end of the world.”

Ra studied her for a moment, then began to laugh, a deep sound somewhere between real laughter and a roar. “You still cling to that myth about the Eschaton, Isthar? Even after all these years?”

“First of all,” Isabel interjected, “her name’s Crystal now. Second of all…myth? The sun’s getting hotter, right outside your moon base.”

Ra returned his attention to Isabel. “I do not venture out of here often,” Ra admitted, “but I find that hard to believe.”

“Don’t take my word for it. Step outside and see for yourself.”

Ra cocked his head at her in a very cat-like gesture of confusion. “And I can tell a difference of a few degrees? I am not some kind of temperature gauge – if it was hot enough for me to tell without air, the Earth would be cinders by now.”

“I could make air for you,” Crystal said helpfully.

“And just heat the air to suit your story? I think not.” Ra’s jaw stretched open in a lazy yawn. “I never trusted you, Ishtar. How did you escape Enki’s wrath?”

“I ran like a bloody coward,” Crystal’s voice was too bright with forced ease. “Can you blame me? He was off his sodding rocker, yeah?”

“So you claimed. He claimed you were the mad one. That was why I stayed out of your little spat. Too much…back and forth. No way to divine the truth.” Ra huffed out a breath. “Much like right now. You claim extraordinary things, and you offer no proof.”

“I can’t bloody prove it if you want me to wait!” Crystal snapped. “Endless stars, Ra, what could possibly prove it to you?”

Ra considered for a moment, then nodded in acceptance. “I suppose that is a fair point.”

“So you’ll help us?” Isabel asked.

“Oh no,” Ra said, stretching his back and extending his claws. “It just means the time for talk is past. I’d allow you to leave alive, but-”

Isabel glanced at Crystal, whose eyes were wide with sudden panic. If Crystal didn’t like her odds…how could they hope to fight Ra in these cramped quarters. She can’t fight because of me, Isabel realized. If she goes full power and Ra tears a hole in the wall, I’m dead.

“-know where I am. That cannot be tolerated, not-”

“We’re fighting Bast!” Isabel interjected with a wild shout. “She believes us, and she tried to kill my brother over it!”

Crystal stared at her. Ra stared at her. Isabel didn’t know what has possessed her to shout that specific warning. Some vague hope that a member of his own Pantheon would draw his attention, maybe. Or you just wanted to say anything to get him not to pounce.

Ra stared at her for a long pause, during which Isabel’s heartbeat spiked up to the point where it felt like it was going a thousand times a second. Then, slowly, Ra withdrew his claws, and settled back onto his haunches.

“Go on,” He said gradually. Crystal opened her mouth, but Ra shook his head. “No, Ishtar. You speak too quickly, and your words drip with the honey of your lies. I’ll hear this one. And then…then I’ll decide.”

“She knows more of the story than me,” Isabel said.

“I do not care,” Ra said, his voice empty of emotion. “I want to hear your version. Tell me the story, Isabel, and I’ll decide.”

Isabel took a deep breath and plunged ahead, praying for the best.

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! 

Small Worlds Part 166

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

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

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

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

Anansi smiled.

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

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

“Moloch,” Ryan hissed.

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

“The Titans.” Athena said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Anansi said.

“Then I’m going with Crystal.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Small Worlds Part 165

Everyone regarded Anansi. “Maybe you should start from the beginning,” Athena said slowly.

“That might be best.” Anansi sat up straighter, and Ryan settled into his chair. It seemed they had another story coming.

“I told you before of how Anansi battled the great metal scorpion that came from the secret cave upon the moon, the creature we now know was a szarmic.” Anansi looked at Crystal, who nodded to confirm the pronunciation. “This story takes place not long after that, at least not long as abosom reckon time. Only a few generations of mortals had passed, and Anansi felt the need to wander again. He had climbed to the moon, he had traveled through every continent and every nation of men, but that had been a few generations of mortals, and Anansi hoped that there would be new things to see.”

“And oh, how things had changed! In a land far to the east of his home, he found the peoples of Mesopotamia. They had their own abosom, but Anansi had met the abosom of Mesopotamia before, the Seven Gods who Decree, and he did not wish to meet them again. This was in the time before that land was ravaged by Lamashtu and the madness of Enki, which is not my story to tell, and it doesn’t involve Anansi, so it’s not a story for today.” Anansi’s eyes twinkled, and Crystal rolled her eyes with a laugh.

“While he was in the land of the Seven Gods who Decree, Anansi found many amazing things, things he resolved to bring back to the people. But among the things he learned, there was one thing Anansi had decided he would keep to himself for now. This amazing, wondrous thing had been invented by the priests of Ishtar. They used it to keep track of grains and cattle at first, but had begun to use it to keep track of ideas, of thoughts, of hopes and dreams – and most importantly to Anansi, they used it to keep track of stories. They called this thing writing, and to Anansi it was the finest invention mankind had yet come up with.”

“Having learned of writing, Anansi spent his time recording every story he had ever heard or even been a part of. This was, of course, a very long task, because Anansi had held all the world’s stories for a time, and was easily distracted. Yet he persisted, and in time, he had recorded all the stories he had ever heard or ever been a part of. When he ceased his task, he found that writing had spread to Egypt and further, all the way to his people, and they had their own writing and own words that Anansi would have to learn. This written language was forgotten and rediscovered and then forgotten again, and has not yet been recovered. Anansi was afraid that might happen, so he kept his tablets written in the language of Mesopotamia, and went searching for more stories to learn of or be a part of so he would have more to write.”

“Anansi started his search for new stories in the land of Egypt. Many things had happened there in his absence. Ra had created a new goddess, Sekhmet, and she had been a monster to rival Lamashtu. Ra had been deposed for his crimes, and the abosom of Egypt were choosing a new one to lead them. The choosing did not interest Anansi, who never had patience for politics, and he instead went in search of Ra, wondering what stories this abosom older than humanity’s oldest stories might be able to tell.”

“He found Ra far away from Egypt. Ra had gone to the north, hoping to find more of his people, whom he called the Urthigg, and whom those of Egypt called the Tah-nok, and what modern man called Neanderthals.”

“Ra was a Neanderthal?” Isabel blurted out, then covered her mouth and turned red.

Anansi seemed more pleased than annoyed with the interruption. “Oh yes, although he called them the Urthigg. They had all died, although Ra had heard rumors of a hidden tribe still in the north, hiding out of the reach of humanity. Humans had killed most of his people, and those that humanity didn’t kill had been married to the sons and daughters of mankind, so their legacy was fading away. Anansi did not know where Ra had heard rumors of a hidden tribe. Given how mad Ra was when Anansi found him – mad in the loss of sanity, not in fury – Anansi had to wonder if perhaps Ra had imagined those rumors of a hidden tribe, or invented them to handle being deposed for his crimes. Ra was very mad and very old, and rambled about many things.”

“In his rambling, he mentioned an artifact he had found, from a race that came before the Urthigg. This artifact was the shape of what would be called an Ankh, and Ra had placed it upon a staff, creating both Ankh and Staff of Ra. Ra was very mad at this point, and in his rambling he told Anansi what the staff could do – it would store the energy nanoverses normally bleed.”

Crystal let out a low whistle, and Dianmu frowned. Athena glanced at Ryan and Isabel, then back at Anansi. “Might I interrupt with an explanation?” Anansi nodded for her to continue, and she turned to face the two youngest members. “A nanoverse leaks power constantly at a steady rate. That energy is just lost – the normal side effect of entropy. Even when you draw power directly from it, a great deal escapes you and floats away.”

“How much power is lost?” Ryan asked, frowning.

Athena gave a small shrug. “No one knows the exact amount-”

“Seventy three point six six percent,” Crystal said. “Repeating, of course.” Everyone looked at her now, and she gave them a smile. “Before the end, Lemuria had found a way to measure nanoverse energy.”

“You’ve never mentioned that before,” Dianmu said.

“I didn’t remember until just now, love. It’s not something I really gave much thought to.”

“Wait…” Ryan held up a hand. “Almost three fourths of the energy of a nanoverse is lost?”

“Yes,” Anansi said, in his storyteller voice, commanding the attention of everyone in the room again. “Someone who possessed the staff of Ra would be more powerful than any god who had ever lived. Even now, this remains true – Enki would have lost most of the energy of his abominable nanoverse through the same process. The power scared Ra so much, he had never dared use it. Even when he created the monster Sekhmet to punish mankind for their failure to worship, he did not risk using the Ankh, for fear that power would drive him mad.”

“After creating the monster Sekhmet, Ra feared what he would do, feared the temptation of the Staff and Ankh. Before he had left Egypt, he had hidden them away in one of the great Pyramids his people constructed as tombs for their kings, but  now in his madness, he feared what would happen if it was eventually unearthed.”

“Anansi agreed, and after making sure Ra would be comfortable in his final days, set off to recover the Staff and hide it away, for Anansi knew of a place where none would think to look, where the Staff of Ra could be hidden safely until Anansi was as old and mad as Ra.”

“Little did Anansi know he was almost too late. Someone else was on the hunt for the Staff of Ra, and would stop at nothing to obtain it before Anansi could hide it away. This is a tale of a battle that time had forgotten, one that took place beneath the sands of Egypt, and much like the tale we now live in – the fate of the world was a stake, for the Staff of Ra possessed a power so terrible it threatened all that existed.”

Ryan settled in to listen.

Small Worlds Part 164

Bast fought back a curl of her lips as she saw the adoring look in Horus’ eyes. Pathetic. For a moment, she was tempted to tell him the truth, that she was Sekhmet. She wondered what he would do. Would it finally break the adoration from his eyes? Or would not even that extinguish a torch that had burned for millenia? Probably the latter. You once reviled me for being a monster. Now you ‘love’ me even though I’m more monstrous than I ever was. “Glad you could make it, Horus,” she said.

Horus stiffened at her tone. She’d considered hiding her contempt, but nothing she’d yet done had driven him from her. At least her scorn was honest. “Bast. Cassandra said you needed me?”

“Need might have been a strong term,” Bast said.

She watched the anger build behind his eyes. “What have I done to earn this contempt?” he asked, his voice hoarse. “For thousands of years I have done what I could to get something other from you. I have debased myself, I have broken oaths, I have turned my back on everything.”

Play the game, Bast, she reminded herself. There was nothing to be gained in antagonizing him. Instead of firing back, she turned away, letting her head dip down in faux vulnerability. “I never asked for that,” she said in a whisper.

“Had you asked for it, you would not be the woman I…I would not have done it.” He reached out to her, and she stepped away.

“Then you cannot hold it against me! How can you demand anything of me for things you have given freely?”

“You told me what I had to do to stay by your side. I wouldn’t call that entirely given freely.”

Bast turned away so he wouldn’t see her smirk. Took you a moment to notice the lie. “You assumed much, Horus. I never asked you to follow me. I never wanted it. You insisted.” Mortals of this era had a very particular term for this dance, once Cassandra had taught her about. Gaslighting. Telling someone blatant lies and letting their devotion turn those lies into truth. Bast didn’t think it quite applied here, since it was a mixture of half-truths, but she’d be the first to admit Cassandra was likely the expert.

“Then you don’t want me? Do you say that fully?”

“I’ve said it a thousand times,” Bast said, but she turned back towards him as she did, letting her eyes grow wide. Let him think she was afraid he would leave. Let him think he had a chance. Bast had never before done anything to encourage his affections. She knew now that it was vital he had a sliver of hope.

Especially with what she was going to ask him to do.

“Yet you’ve never run from me,” Horus said, stepping forward.

I was part of the same pantheon as you, you leering twat. And even if I had, you would have followed! “No. I never did.”

“Why, Bast? Why do you fight what is between us?”

Because it’s only existed in your own mind, Horus. It always has been a figment of your imagination. “What is between us? You’ve spoken of it often, but…what is it?”

“You know, Bast.”

Bast took a step forward, meeting his eyes directly. She checked to make sure she was out of easy arms reach – the last thing she wanted was the fool thinking this was an invitation to grab her and kiss her or some other nonsense. “Say it.”

“I love you, Bast. I’ve loved you for thousands of years, for as long as I’ve known you. I love you. What will it take for you to return my love? Why won’t you love me in return?”

Bast turned away again, walking back to the window. It fit the narrative she was helping Horus build, and hid her smile. You knew me before you loved me. Oh Horus, I cannot wait to tell you the truth. She reminded herself this next part was crucial. If she played it wrong, Horus could turn on her. “I don’t know if I’m capable of love now. Not like I am. Even though you are a god, my Hunger only sees you as food.”

Lub-dub. Lub-dub. Just saying it was enough to bring his heartbeat to her attention. “So…there’s no hope.”

That note in Horus’ voice was dangerous, but he hadn’t moved to strike yet. “No. Not unless…” She let the word hang there, waiting for the question.

“Unless what?” Horus asked, all too eager.

“The Eschaton is capable of a single twist to reality beyond what any god can manage. He’s supposed to use this twist to sacrifice the world. But this alternation is so powerful…it could free me of this Hunger, Horus. Me and Cassandra.” She turned towards him, forcing tears to her eyes. “Don’t you see? I could be whole again.”

“Then we have to make him do it.”

How easily your honor evaporates in the face of gain. You once were noble, Horus. “It’s not that simple,” Bast said, wiping her eyes, making a point to look embarrassed. Let him thing it was an error. Let him think she’d let her guard down. “Vlad told me. He wants us to work together to get the Eschaton to fix us both. But the rules…it’s a single twist. A single alteration. What if he can only fix one type of anthropophage?”

“I’ll convince him to fix it for you.”

Bast could hear the uncertainty in his voice. “You know the Eschaton, Horus. He was only an antagonist for me, but you know him. Given the choice, which would he save? A woman who worked with Enki and only has a single spawn, or all vampires that have ever existed, thus ridding humanity of a blight that has preyed on them since the Black Death? Tell me truly what you think he would do.”

Horus sighed. “He’d chose the latter.”

“You see my problem, Horus.” Bast sighed. “I have no more need of Vlad, but he’s much more skilled with these new powers than I am. I must work with him, I cannot betray him, so I am forced to risk losing everything. And without that…I don’t know if I can love.”

It took Horus only seconds to make the decision. “I think you will be free of him, Bast.”

“How can you be…no, I best not ask.”

Horus nodded. “Where is he?”

“We expect him back soon.” Bast looked up at Horus, wondering if he needed more goading, but she saw there the fire that burned would not go out during the wait. “Thank you,” she said.

Horus smiled at her, and the possessiveness in that smile made her skin crawl. “Thank me when it’s done. I must prepare for…well, what comes next.”

Bast nodded and watched him go. That’s right, Horus. You get to ‘save’ me. And if I’m really lucky, neither of you will survive.

It was as true now as it had been in the days Bast was Sekhmet, and likely as true as it had been when Ra was still a slope-browed Neanderthal. Likely as far back as that archean era Crystal heralded from.

There was no force more destructive than one sided affection.

Small Worlds Part 163

“Think on it, Horus. If you’re here when I get back, I’ll know you’re with me. If you’re not…if you’re not, then I hope I never lay eyes upon you again.”

Over a week had passed since Bast had said those words. Horus wished he could say it had been a difficult decision. He wished he could say he agonized over it, that it had torn him apart. If he was asked, he knew he’d lie and claim he had. I suppose the others know by now I am forsworn, assuming they survived plumbing the depths of Tartarus. Horus expected they had survived. Gods were even more infamous than cockroaches for their ability to survive the impossible, and in that category Crystal was a cockroach among cockroaches. Anansi was probably even more stubborn in that regard than Crystal.

He’d left a message for the others with the information he’d obtained from the Curators. If they returned to Earth, they would eventually receive his message, for what little it was worth, and be told that he was breaking from their pantheon to follow Bast’s trail. It’s technically true, Horus told himself. A cold comfort. He wondered what the legends and myths of this time would say of him, if humanity survived. One side would of course become the gods of the new age, the other would be the monsters and demons. And then there was Horus. He hung his honor on a technicality.

To make matters worse, he hadn’t actually spoken to Bast since he’d stayed. Bast had never actually come back, instead sending her newly created creature, Cassandra, to relay orders to him. It was insufferable to receive commands from an anthropophage that had so recently been just a mortal, but Horus endured it. She’s testing me. That much a child could figure out. So Horus endured dealing with an underling while being sent errands. Scouting abandoned islands. Reporting on the comings and goings of Hell’s Heresiarch. Putting hard drugs in the possession of a reporter that had interviewed the Eschaton and then making an anonymous phone call to the police.

That last one had particularly galled him. If Bast wanted to use him for petty revenge, he would do so. I would have killed her! Why something so needlessly petty?

Horus feared he knew the reason. It would make it easy for Bast to find the reporter when she decided to claim the woman’s heart.

Horus wished it had been a difficult decision to follow Bast. Maybe then he would have less doubts .

The whole situation conspired to put him a foul mood, a mood that was not improved by the greeting he received upon arrival on Poveglia Plague Island. It was, of course, not Bast. Nor was it Cassandra. At least she had all her facilities.

No, he was greeted by the pathetic mutant that had once been an Admiral in the United States Navy. “Ahhh, he’s back! He’s back! The would be paramore returns,” Dale hissed through lips that wouldn’t quite close from his wounds, and clapped together his wasp stinger finger tips in a series of disturbing clacking sounds. 

“Where is your mistress, beast?” Horus snapped at him, though he frowned. Paramore? Bast had left the man half-brain damaged, or so Horus had thought.

“Oh, she is around. Or perhaps she is not. I doubt she wishes to see you, even if she is here. Don’t you have errands to run?”

Horus ground his teeth. “I will speak with her, you craven wretch.”

Dale let out a wet, phlegmatic sound that was a laugh in the same way a dead rat was a meal. They might be related, but it would only appeal to jackals. “You will do whatever Bast wishes. You’ve proven that time and time again.”

“You think yourself better than I?” Horus asked.

“I never claimed divinity,” the creature that had once been Dale said with a chortle. Horus felt his fingers twitch at his side. How angry would Bast be if I killed him?

“Don’t you have something else to do?” Horus growled through clenched teeth.

“I was set to watch the shores of this isle for any unwelcome visitors. It seems I found one.” 

“Your mistress has accepted my aid.”

“Yes, you are a welcome tool. But how often does the falconer dine with the falcon?” Dale’s grin grew horribly suggestive. “Or for that matter, how often does she bed her bird?”

Horus raised his hand, grasping elemental strands around Dale. I’ll accept her punishment. “You go too far,” Horus growled.

A voice cracked out of the darkness behind him. “No, you do. Lower your hand, Horus, or suffer Bast’s displeasure.”

Horus ground his teeth. “Cassandra.”

“I was worried you’d forgotten me.” The one time scientist gave Horus a dazzling grin. “You may think you can escape Bast’s wrath for killing Dale. You may even be right. You will not, however, like what happens if you harm me.”

After a moment to glower, Horus lowered his hand. “Where did you get such confidence? You speak to a god!”

Cassandra rolled her eyes. “I eat hearts. It’s hard to find anything intimidating at this point. Certainly not an ally. You are an ally, aren’t you Horus? I would hate to report to my goddess that you had betrayed yet another fledgling pantheon, especially when she was ready to speak to you.”

“She’s willing to finally see me?” Horus snapped.

“Perhaps.” Cassandra gave him a sad smile. “My goddess gave me leave to determine if you were in a fit state to be in her presence. So far I am not impressed. You were going to kill Dale.”

“Surely it would be a mercy, after what was done to him!” Horus said.

Cassandra took a moment to meet his eyes, more directly than any mortal ever had. “Yes, it would be,” she said, her voice soft. “However, she has decreed he does not deserve that mercy.”

Horus took a deep breath. “Very well. I will speak to Bast.”

“Only if I decide you do,” Cassandra countered. “Bast was very clear about that.”

Another test. If I raise my hand to her… “How might I persuade you?”

Cassandra considered him for a moment. “Honestly, I doubt you ever could. It doesn’t matter. She needs you.”

She needs you. Those three words dispelled Horus’ annoyance and cut through his anger. “Where is she?”

Cassandra pointed over her shoulder to the building behind her. Horus brushed past her, ignoring her protestation. It didn’t matter. Bast needed him. Nothing else could distract him.

It wasn’t the same as Bast returning his affections. It wasn’t what he truly wanted. But it was progress. Maybe there is hope, Horus thought, his doubts fading away as quickly as his rage.

There’s no dishonor in action taken from love. There is no crime here.

As he entered the building and saw Bast at the top of the stairs, beautiful and deadly and full of fire, he could almost believe it.