Small Worlds part 188

Athena raised her hand, putting a barrier between herself and Arachne. Here in her nanoverse, it wasn’t a barrier of anything. It was just a barrier, a spot in the universe through which matter could not pass. A fundamental law. Inviolable for anyone who was not Athena.

Which is why she was completely unprepared when Arachne tore through it like it was paper.

Anansi danced out of Arachne’s path, swinging for her gut with the butt of his flint dagger. Without even pausing, Arachne’s hand snaked down to catch his wrist and fling him aside. When Anansi struck the wall, the stone turned soft to encase him, leaving only his face exposed.

What? Athena thought as she teleported herself out of reach of Arachne’s hands. “Arachne, stop!” she commanded. She erected another barrier, this time encasing Arachne in it like a cocoon. She didn’t just let it stand as before, pouring her will into it.

Arachne strained against the bonds. Athena could feel pain build up behind her eyes, a headache from the effort of restraining someone within her nanoverse.

“No!” Arachne shouted. “You won’t kill me!”

“I’m not here to kill you, I’m here to free you!” Athena shouted.

The pressure against the barrier stopped. The headache began to fade. Athena’s heart did not stop pounding. For as long as she had lived, she’d never imagined anything threatening her in her nanoverse. “What?” Arachne asked, blinking.

“I’m here to free you,” Athena repeated. “It’s…it’s been too long.”

Arachne took a deep breath. “Then release me.”

Athena did so, and at the same time removed the stone barrier from Anansi. Arachne stood there, taking things in. She looked at her hands, flexing the fingers she had not known for trillions of years. “I haven’t had an endocrine system since you locked me in here. Emotions are stronger than I remember.”

Athena relaxed. “I understand.”

Arachne shot her a withering glare. “No, no you do not. Lock yourself as a base animal, one that can barely even reason, for several lifespans of a universe, and then you can say that. Know what it’s like for a single thought to take millennia upon millennia to form, and then you can say that. Endure one tenth of what you have done to me, and then you can say you understand.”

“I…” Athena started to say, and she was grateful for Arachne’s interruption, because she had no idea what she could possibly say.

“I had to relearn how to think, Athena. I have no idea how many millennia, how many universes, I spent as mindless beast. Even once I did figure out how to think, that brain was so weak, so pitifully dominated by instinct, cognition was an effort that took longer than you can imagine. How long has it been, Athena? How long did you lock me in hell?”

“Five millennia,” Athena whispered.

“Five millenia for you. Nanoverses need to be reset every few hundred years or so, don’t they?” Arachne took a deep breath. “Ten universe lifetimes, at least. Hundreds of trillions of years. And now…what? You want to release me? You want to let me go out there, live a mortal life for mere seconds of what I’ve endured, then die?”

“I preserved your nanoverse,” Athena said. “Locked it in temporal stasis in here. It’s unchanged over the time. You’ll still be a goddess.”

Arachne studied Athena, then looked over Anansi. “Who are you?”

Anansi bowed. “I am Anansi. I never was in your land while you were there.”

“And you’re friends with…her?” Arachne asked with a sneer, gesturing towards Athena. “You let her bring you into her nanoverse?”

“Yes,” Anansi said simply. “I trust her.”

Arachne sneered. “So did I. I hope you never learn how foolish that is.”

“I came in here knowing your fate, Arachne,” Anansi said calmly. “I came in here to provide support for Athena as she undid the crime done to you – and to chastise her if she wavered in doing it.”

Both goddesses looked at him in shock. “Chastise?” Arachne asked coolly.

Anansi shrugged. “In here, there was little else that I could do. But I am very good at chastising. I once lectured a python so thoroughly, it swallowed its own tail. I imagine I could have gotten Athena to at least taste her ankle.”

Arachne looked at him, her eyes widening, and then she let out a harsh laugh. “I’d like to see that.”

Athena was at a loss for words. Arachne glanced at her with a raised eyebrow. “I’m not done with you, Pallas Athena. But I am sick to death of this cave. Take me out of here.”

“Of course. My staging area is right outside this cave.”

“My nanoverse?” Arachne asked.

Athena gestured and summoned it to her hand. “Right here.”

Arachne snatched it out of Athena’s fingers and held it close to her chest, starting to walk out of the cave. “Why didn’t you kill me?” Arachne asked, not turning back to look at Athena. “Why this hell? You had every right to slay me permanently under the laws of Olympus. Why did you instead lock me away?”

“I couldn’t kill billions,” Athena said, watching the back of Arachne’s head. “I couldn’t kill all those innocent people in your nanoverse. They did nothing wrong. And…and I failed you. I didn’t believe you deserved death, because the fault was partially mine.”

“Death would have been a kindness,” Arachne said, her voice harsh. “Don’t you dare claim you did it for me. You did it to assuage your guilt.” She glanced down to the nanoverse in her hands. “And for them. I can believe that.”

“I’m sorry,” Athena said.

Arachne whirled on her, pointing a finger at Athena’s face. “No. Your guilt grew strong enough that it forced you to action. You didn’t do this for me. You’ve done none of this for me. I don’t want your apology, Athena.”

“Then what do you want?” Athena asked, her voice soft. “Revenge?”

Arachne glared at her. “And if I did, would you have any right to deny it to me?”

Athena shook her head.

“Good. At least we can agree on that. For now, I want honesty.”

“You will have that,” Athena said.

Arachne spun and talked out of the cave again, seemingly too furious for words.

In silence, Athena followed.

Small Worlds Part 185

Reverend Jeremy Howard pulled himself up, risking another glance out the window. Billy and Sally were still out there, heads closed together, having a whispered conversation. Whatever they were talking about it, it didn’t seem to be going well, not based off of the way Sally was gesturing towards the building that held the refugees or the firm shakes to Billy’s head.

“We’re going to die, aren’t we?” Someone said inside.

The Reverend turned to face the speaker. It was Nelly, sitting with her knees curled up to her chin, the shotgun resting across it. “We’re going to die,” she repeated. “We survived the goddamn mummies and the goddamn Antichrist and now we’re going to die to whatever these things are.”

It wasn’t her words that scared the Reverend. Nelly had always been prone to complaining. No, what scared the Reverend was the dull, flat tone. This wasn’t Nelly griping, this wasn’t even Nelly scared. This was Nelly utterly resigned to what was going to happen. Looking around the room, the Reverend saw more of that in the eyes of the huddled mass in the police station. Not fear, not anger, just a hollow look to their eyes. These people had been through hell, and had hit the limit of what the human spirit could endure.

“No, we won’t,” Jeremy said, his voice firm. Those hollow eyes all turned towards him.

“How can you say that, Reverend?” Nelly asked. The Reverend had hoped her voice would pick back up some of that fire at being contradicted, but it was still lifeless. “They’re picking us off that their leisure. We’re…we’re cows, Reverend. They’re keeping us alive because they’re not hungry yet.”

“Better die than become one of those things,” a voice said from the back of the room. There were nods around. The Reverend focused his eyes on the speaker.

“I’m not going to say you’re wrong, John, but you make it sound like there are only those two options.”

“What else can we do? We can’t fight those things, Reverend. We can’t even hit them.”

“We can have faith,” The Reverend said, his voice firm.

“Faith?” Nelly snorted in disbelief. “How can you talk about faith right now? We’ve had faith, Reverend. Lord knows how much faith I had. And look what it brought us!”

“We’re still alive,” The Reverend said.

“So, what?” Nelly snapped, and the Reverend felt relief in the face of her anger. At least she was caring. “You’re trying to say the people who died out there didn’t have strong enough faith? You’re blaming them?”

He shook his head. “No, Nelly,” he said softly. “I’d never dare suggest that. The Lord may be omnipotent, but he does not shield us so directly. We were granted free will, and that means men and women may choose evil.”

“These aren’t men and women!” Nelly stood up now, her eyes blazing. “These are monsters, Reverend. They’re supernatural creatures, they’re demons. They’re beyond us!”

“The Lord works-” Jeremy started to say, and Nelly cut him off with a harsh laugh.

“I swear to God, Reverend, if you say ‘in mysterious ways,’ I’ll shoot you myself.”

Jeremy shook his head. “No. You know I hate that line. It’s a preacher giving up on trying to explain, trying to mollify when no other words will do. The Lord’s ways may be mysterious to us mere men and women, but what I was going to say was that the Lord works through good men and women. The Lord works through our strength, our determination, our faith.”

“So, what are you suggesting? We go out there, guns blazing, and hope because we’re faithful a bunch of demon cat monsters that used to be our friends run away.”

Jeremy shook his head. “We can’t do that. What we do is we hold out, and we trust the Lord to provide the means of our salvation.”

“And what form do you expect this salvation to take? A chior of angles with holy swords? A bunch of knights in shining armor? A goddamn bolt from Heaven?”

“The last time we faced a supernatural threat, the Lord provided.”

That got a stir from the entire crowd. “You’re telling me that you expect the Lord to save us through a false god? Through the damn Antichrist?” Nelly asked.

Jeremy gave her a wide smile. “He did so before. Maybe not Ryan again. Maybe Athena this time. Or that friend of theirs, Crystal. Or maybe it will be another one of these false gods. Perhaps it will be a choir of angels with holy swords.”

The Reverend began to pace, the way he did when he was on the pulpit. “We may live in a time of horrors, unimaginable horrors. But we also live in a time of miracles. The ‘gods’ were men and women, once. The Lord absolutely can still work through their actions, even though they claim to be things they should not. And I don’t believe he’s the Antichrist. I don’t believe any of them are. If any of them were, I believe Enki was the most likely one, and he’s dead now.”

The Reverend began to lock eyes with some of them in turn. “John, when the mummies began to swarm our town, you were up in the bell tower on that old radio of yours, letting people know where the safe zones were. Nelly, you were right there with me. Jim, you held one of those things off with a carving knife and a frying pan. Karen, don’t think I didn’t hear about what you did with that chainsaw, that was mighty impressive and mighty stupid. We were able to hold off long enough for the Lord to send us help.”

“Well, they’re not here,” Nelly said firmly. “I’m not too keen on waiting around for the…for whatever they are to show up and save us. I don’t believe they were sent by the Lord, Reverend. I think we got lucky they showed up for the mummies, and didn’t show up for us. I think if we wait for the Lord to send help, we’re all going to die.”

The Lord helps those who help themselves, the Reverend thought, but didn’t say. He didn’t want to give Nelly the answer. He wanted her to say it herself. “Then what would you rather do?”

“Damnit, Reverend, I don’t know. But I know I’m not going to sit around and wait to die.”

Nods were going around the room, and the Reverend had to hide a smile. The fire was back in their stomachs. They weren’t waiting to die anymore.

He didn’t know if he believed the Lord would sent those false gods to save them. He didn’t know if there was any help coming. But he knew these people had hope again.

For now, that would be enough.

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Small Worlds Part 184

Rear Admiral Dale Bridges was dead. The creature that inhabited his body now vaguely remembered who he had been before, a distant dream of a life spent serving an idea higher than himself. That was still true from the wretch Dale, but that ideal had changed. Now he served Bast, and he loved her with as much passion as he loathed her.

Dale couldn’t remember what the Rear Admiral had served. It was something…something big.

Someone screamed on the street below, drawing Dale’s attention. It was a male, somewhere in that awkward stage between boy and man. He must have been in bed when the assault had started, as he wore only a tank top and flannel pants. The pants were already ripped in places, and the tank top stained with flecks of blood.

The boy was running from some of Bast’s new children. Dale watched as they loped after the boy, swiping at him with claws that could tear flesh and bone with disgusting ease. The boy tripped, and the Children swarmed around him, snarling and biting. He whimpered and swung his hands wildly at them, trying to bat them away.

The Children backed off, letting their prey think it was having some effect. “Please,” the boy said, tears streaming down his face. “Guys, please. It’s me.”

“Guys, please, it’s me,” one of the Children repeated in a high pitched mockery. “That’s how you sound, Jimmy.”

Another one of the Children let out a gagging sound. “Fuck’s sake, Jimmy, did you piss yourself? You smell like piss.”

 

Jimmy’s face scrunched up, and tears began to stream down his face. “Greg, Sammy…c’mon. Don’t…please?”

The third of the Children laughed, a low, growling sound. “You know, Jimmy, we were going to turn you, but…I mean, you pissed yourself. Are we supposed to show you to Bast covered in piss?”

The first, the one Jimmy had called Greg, snorted. “Bryce, you haven’t gotten to eat yet, have you?”

Jimmy turned towards the third Child, the one called Bryce. “No…is that you?”

Bryce shifted, turning into a human. He was well muscled and wore only a pair of boxers, and looked to be four or five years Jimmy’s senior. His skin was wet with blood. “Yup. You were so busy running while these two were eating mom and dad, you forgot to shout a warning to me, Jimmy.”

“Bryce…” the boy sobbed, “Bryce, I didn’t…I was scared, and…”

“I was scared,” the remaining Child, Sammy, repeated in another mockery. “Oh no I was scared. I’m so scared I’m going to piss my pants like a baby.

“Shut up,” Bryce growled, his voice a sharp snap. “I’m talking to my brother.”

Sammy and Greg backed off so Bryce could walk closer to Jimmy. The child looked up at his brother, eyes wet with tears and wide with hope. No, you fool, Dale thought. “Bryce?” Jimmy asked in a voice that waivered.

“You’re my brother Jimmy. I’m gonna give you a choice. You can join us, or you can keep running.”

Jimmy’s eyes widened. “You’ll…you’ll let me run?”

Bryce nodded. “Absolutely, little brother. You can run. It’s night. No one’s on the highway. Other Children might find you. But you can try.”

“Uh…Bryce?” Greg asked, his voice full of confusion. “This isn’t what She want-”

Bryce snarled at Greg, and the feline creature backed down. Even though Bryce was the youngest of the group, it seemed that social bonds from their previous life still held. “It’s my brother. He gets to choose.”

Jimmy stood up to shaky feet. “I’m gonna…thank you.”

Bryce pursed his lips. “You sure about this man? You have no idea how good it feels.”

Jimmy nodded again, tears streaking down his face.

Dale stared at Bryce, shaking with rage. How dare he? It wasn’t just the defiance of Bast. It wasn’t just the gall to believe he knew better than a goddess. This was not supposed to happen. If the boy got to the highway, he might be picked up. He might get to a phone. These days, someone would absolutely believe the boy’s wild claims about monsters in Grant.

Jimmy started to run. Sammy and Greg looked up at Bryce with feral, furious eyes. “She won’t be happy,” Sammy growled.

“I don’t care. I’m not going to eat my own brother.”

Dale didn’t listen to the rest. He pushed his legs against the roof, propelling himself into the air, hurtling like a cannonball. The three Children gaped at him as he flew, but they took no action. Jimmy didn’t even know Dale was coming, not until Dale landed on the pavement in front of him.

Jimmy screamed as Dale reached out and clutched him with fingers far longer than they had once been. Inhuman hands that Dale didn’t recognize anymore.

“I said to let him go!” Bryce shouted.

“Yes,” Dale hissed, holding Jimmy close. “Damn you. Damn you. I didn’t want to this. I didn’t have to do this!”

“Do what?”

With a quick twist of his hands, Dale snapped Jimmy’s neck. The boy fell to the ground, and the three Children looked at him with eyes wide with shock. “What the hell!?” Bryce snarled, stepping forward and shifting into his animalistic form. “He was my brother.

“Yes,” Dale said, his voice quiet. He reached down to brush Jimmy’s hair. “You can still hear his heartbeat, Bryce. I know you can. He’ll live for a few hours before fluid build up kills him…unless you save him. Or feed.”

“Who the hell do you think you are?” Bryce snarled.

“I am our mistress’s favorite chew toy,” Dale spat out, not trying to hide his bitterness. “She’ll never forgive you for killing me.”

“He speaks truth,” said another voice, a voice Dale knew, a voice Dale loathed and loved as much as he did his goddess. Cassandra. “This one is off limits.”

The three cowered before her. She did not look half feral as they did. Cassandra had been a Child so long, and in many ways was something else. Something greater. Her bestial form was as beautiful and terrible as Bast’s. They knew where they stood relative to her.

As Cassandra passed Dale, she patted him on the head like a favored dog.

“Chose, Bryce. Does your brother recieve Her gift, or is he your first meal?”

Dale didn’t wait to see what Bryce chose. Dale didn’t care. He loped off on all fours, horrified at what he had done, horrified at what he had become.

As he ran through the streets, he saw something blowing in the wind. A piece of cloth, red and white stripes with a blue field of stars, attached to a pole. It tugged at some memory, a memory of the Rear Admiral’s, a memory that Dale forced to back to the back of his mind.

Bast had ordered this town be turned or dead, and had ordered that it not be allowed to happen to quickly. Dale would see it done. He would serve. He would obey.

And maybe, if he was very good, Bast would finally grant him the release of death.  

Small Worlds part 183

“Are they still out there?” Ron asked, crouched down beside the window. “Are they still out there?” he repeated, his voice more frantic, not even giving anyone time to answer the first question. The shotgun he held between his legs shook with fear.

Nelly pulled herself up to peer out the window. “Yeah,” she said through gritted teeth.

Ron just moaned in fear. The interior of the Grant, Texas, police station looked like a war zone. Filing cabinets had been pushed up against windows, desks had been moved to bar doors, chairs shoved to the sides. The people inside had hollow, sunken eyes. Reverend Jeremy Howard couldn’t blame them. They’d endured an unimaginable horror earlier this year, the dead rising and razing the town in a war between gods. Just when things were starting to get back to normal, just when people were starting to heal, the horror had come back.

And I don’t even know what it is this time, he thought through gritted teeth. The first time he hadn’t known, not really, but it had been something that he had seen in movies and on tv before. The dead rising and attacking the living. That was a thing that you could think about, something you could understand. This? Whatever it was, it was something worse. He crept closer to the window and peered out.

Two shadows stood under a street lamp, regarding the building. “Come out, come out, wherever you are…” one of them said in a singsong voice.

A voice that the Reverend knew, a voice the Reverend had heard singing Hymns every Sunday. It was Sally. He could almost make her out from here, although it was hard to be sure with the front of her shirt stained with blood, hard to be sure with the massive wound in her chest where something had been torn out of her.

“We should just go in,” the other figure said, a lower, gruffer voice. It had taken a bit longer for the Reverend to identify the voice. Billy, he thought sadly. He’d baptised both these children, and having them standing out there in the night, taunting the figures inside…

The sound of gunfire sent everyone to the ground. Everyone except Ron, who had been the one to shoot. The panicked shot had gone horrendously wild – the Reverend couldn’t even see what he’d managed to hit, but it certainly wasn’t Billy or Sally. “Get down, you idiot!” Nelly said, pulling on the back of Ron’s shirt.

“It’s not right,” Ron said through tears. “It’s not right!”

The reverend tuned him out. Ron was barely holding it together. His wife was still at home, and as far as anyone in town knew, everyone outside this little police station was already did. God, please, if you grant me nothing else ever again as long as you live, please grant that it’s not so, he prayed quietly.

“They’re trying to shoot us,” Billy said to Sally. “We need to,”

“No,” Sally snapped, a harsh note to her voice that the Reverend had never heard before. Sally was a kind girl, a gentle soul. She didn’t snap, and she certainly didn’t sound like that when she was angry. “We wait for her.”

“But I’m hungry,” Billy whined. “You already got to eat, Sally. I still haven’t.”

“And I promised you food, did I not?” said a new voice, prompting the Reverend to peer up over the window again. A woman had joined the two. The Reverend couldn’t make out much about her. Her hair was up in a bun, and she wore some sort of coat, but that was about all he could clearly make out. Her voice, though – it didn’t have an accent the Reverend associated with anyone he knew. It was more Midwestern, with a bit of a clip to it. Somewhere up north, then.

“Who the hell is that?” Nelly asked, peering through the window.

“How the hell are we supposed to know?” Ron snapped. “Some psycho bitch, what else matters?”

“Calm down, Ron,” The Reverend said, motioning for him to lower the gun. “We don’t know what’s going on out there.”

“Calm down?” Ron shouted. “Calm down!? They ate Chaz’s heart, Reverend, and you’re telling me to calm the fuck down!?”

If the figures outside heard or cared about Ron’s outburst, they gave no indication. “Yes, Ron. We can’t do anything for him.” Or for the others. The Reverend had seen the corpses, seen the way their chests had been torn open. He wondered what made Billy and Sally special, why they were still up and walking around. There were others like them, he was sure of it. There were also many more dead.

“You can have one,” the woman outside was saying, causing the Reverend to tense up. “The rest, let them run.”

“We have a whole town to eat, Cassandra,” Sally said. “I don’t know why we have to be careful.”

“Because She commands it.” The Reverend could hear the emphasis on the pronoun. That was why he kept everyone holed up, why he was encouraging them to wait. There was someone else out there, someone behind all this. Just like the Mummies. Why did they have to come back?

“Of course,” Billy said reluctantly. “But…I can get one?”

The woman – Cassandra – nodded. “Only one.”

“Get ready!” The Reverend said firmly. “Billy’s coming.”

The idea that those two words could cause a ripple of fear through the people inside would have caused the Reverend to laugh once upon a time. Billy was about as intimidating as a wet kitten. Or at least, he had been.

When the Reverend glanced up to the street, Billy was gone. “Where is he?” Ron asked. He turned the gun inwards, pointing it around. “He could be anywhere.”

“Jesus, Ron, don’t point that shit at us,” Nelly hissed, ducking when the barrel swung her way. “You want to kill one of-”

A thump came from the roof above them. Ron jerked the shotgun up and fired into the ceiling. Everyone inside screamed and ducked. Ron’s hand shook as he began to reload. “Did I get it? I think I got it! I think-”

Two hands burst out of the ceiling above Ron’s head. They barely looked human – the fingers were too long, and the tips of them ended in hooked claws like a cats. The skin was tight and gaunt. Half of the figure they were attached to came with them, and although the face was grotesquely distorted, like someone had stretched a human face over a cat’s skull, the Reverend recognized Billy’s green eyes.

The hands latched into Ron’s chin, and Ron screamed, a high pitched sound. Several people inside opened fire now that they had a target. Bits of the creature that had once been Billy blew away, and Billy hissed in pain, but he didn’t let go of his prey. Instead, he flew back into the ceiling, dragging Ron by his face.

A few more gunshots were fired, but there was no more target. No one knew where Billy was. Ron’s screams cut off.

In the silence, they could all hear terribly suggestive sounds of something being chewed. “Oh God in heaven,” Nelly said, crossing herself.

Another series of thumps, and more gunfire erupted from the panicked people of the town. They needn’t have wasted the ammo.

It was just Ron’s body, being thrown back into the room. He stared up at the ceiling, his face a wordless scream of pain, a gaping hole torn into his chest.

Billy was back in the street, shifting back into something recognizably human. “They shot me,” he growled at Cassandra.

“And you were able to feed. Don’t worry. We’re not going anywhere anytime soon.” Cassandra reached over and gave Billy an affectionate pat on the shoulder. “She has a plan.”

“It still hurt.”

“Let them hurt,” Cassandra said. “Let them thrash, let them howl, let them scream. They can’t do anything to us, not permanently. Not as long as She protects us. And when this is done…we can finish off the lot of them.”

“What do you want us to do for now?” Sally asked.

“Keep them in there for now. Wait for your new siblings.”

“And if we get hungry?” Sally asked.

“They’ll eventually try to run. You can eat some then.” That last sentence Cassandra said a bit louder. She wanted the people inside to stay right where they were, to know they were safe so long as they didn’t try to run.

Yeah, the Reverend thought grimly, as safe as a lamb in the slaughterhouse.

Backing away from the window, the Reverend started to pray again. It was not right for a man to ask the Almighty for a miracle, but he still did.

Right now, it was their only hope.

Small Worlds Part 182

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There are stretches of highway across America with relatively few rest stops. Places where you can drive for miles upon miles and, if you missed your opportunity to stop, you’d have to wait for quite some time before your next chance arrived.

Grant, Texas, had been home to one such stop. A gas station at the side of the road, one with pumps so old they didn’t even have credit card machines. You had to go in and pre-pay, or you could pump before you paid. A large, red and white sign warned that failing to pay would be met with prosecution.

That sign was now hanging drunkenly off one of the pumps. It hadn’t been fixed, not since it was torn off by one of the Mummies of Ys rampaging through the town. The pumps were dead, and wouldn’t be fixed for months most likely, the hoses torn to shreds by the same mummies and then the wires fried by the Eschaton throwing around balls of lightning that should have, by all rights, burnt the town to the ground.

The military had been through here, some fancy pants Admiral promising to pay to make sure things got rebuilt. Billy remembered that promise well, and had remembered at the time thinking that it was a bunch bullshit. The military didn’t pay for small towns like Grant, and the Government sure as hell didn’t. The town was going to be fine – there’d been enough tourists playing lookee-loo and reporters chasing that Gail woman’s coattails for  a scoop on the gods to bring in hundreds of times the tourism money the town had ever seen – but it was going to be a long time before anyone did any rebuilding here.

At least they’ve gone away, Billy thought. News about these ‘gods’ was the biggest thing to hit the country in his eighteen years of life, and everyone wanted a piece of the action, but most people weren’t willing to drive way out to the Texas sticks to look at the aftermath of the destruction they could wreak when they went all out.

It suited Billy just fine. Damn tourists had trashed the town almost as bad as the damn ‘gods’ and mummies had. And while the gas station wasn’t making any money these days, Billy was still working there, and still making honest money helping get the place cleaned up. “Evenin’ Carl,” he said as he came in. “Any business today?”

Carl shook his head, his face fixed in his perpetually mournful frown. It did seem a bit longer these days. When the tourists had started showing up, Carl had done a brisk business with getting the generator hooked up to keep the fridges running, and selling a bunch of random scraps of cloth as being “genuine” fabrics worn by the Mummies of Ys. Billy hadn’t told anyone that any actual artifacts of the mummies had turned to dust alongside the creatures they’d been attached to, and Carl had given him a dollar an hour raise for his silence. “Looks like the boom’s done, Billy,” Carl said with a sigh.

“Yeah, but between that and the insurance, it wasn’t all bad, right?” Billy’s heart began to skip with sudden fear. “You’re…you’re still gonna be rebuilding, right?”

“Don’t worry, Billy, we’ll be back up and running soon. In fact-” Carl cut out as the bell over the door – an actual brass bell – rang. Sally walked in, and suddenly to Billy, it wouldn’t have mattered if Carl was telling him that the gas station was literally on fire at that exact instant.

Sally Newman, the prettiest thing to happen to Grant Texas – at least as far as Billy was concerned, but he believed it with a fervent passion fueled by teenage hormones.  “Hey Sally,” he said, swallowing a lump in his throat. The door swung open behind her on a gust of wind, and Billy stepped in and caught it before it could catch Sally in the back of the head.

“Thank you, Billy,” she said, giving him a smile that was pure friendship. Some dust blew into the gas station, and a small part of Billy noticed it and knew he’d have to sweep it up later, but for the most part he was fixated on that smile. It was so…dispassionate. Sally, as always, thought of him as nothing other than another nice boy in town. “Daddy, did we get in any of the new magazines?”

That was the other reason things with Sally were difficult, besides Billy being the redundancy that is a socially inept teenage boy around teenage girl. Her dad was Carl, and Carl did not like the idea of any boy from town sniffing around his baby girl. As far as Carl was concerned, Sally was going to be the first Newman to leave Grant and never come back.

Billy might only be eighteen, but he didn’t think that was likely. No one left Grant. Oh, sure, there were exceptions, but they were few and far between.

“Not yet, sweetheart,” Carl said, his face lighting up in warm grin. He only ever seemed to light up around his daughter.

Sally gave an over dramatic sigh. “The cell’s down again. I need something to read.

Somehow, to Billy, she managed to complain prettily. He pulled out his phone to see what she was talking about, and fought back a swear. The attack on Grant had left only one cell tower fully functional, and it wasn’t supporting the load of even a small town particularly well. It went down at least twice a day, sometimes for hours. NetWall was still providing internet to individual homes, although their fiber lines had been badly fried by the electrical storm summoned during the fight, so it was spotty all around.

“Have you tried the bookstore?” Carl asked.

Sally rolled her eyes, and Billy agreed in his soul. Grant’s only bookstore had fallen on hard times with the rise of online books, and Kathy, its owner, was a bitter old woman who did not much care for people who came to browse and not buy. “I’d rather not,” Sally said.

“My truck’s working,” Billy interjected with unexpected boldness. “The Walmart is still open, we could go there.”

“Oh really?” Sally asked with sudden excitement. Billy tried to ignore the daggers Carl was glaring his way as Sally stepped forward. “That’d be amazing.”

“Hang on now,” Carl said in a firm voice. “I think I might have something in the back.”

Billy fought back a sigh as Carl went into the back of the store. He wouldn’t have anything, Billy was sure of that, at least not for Sally to read. He would absolutely have something to keep Billy busy late into the night.

“Well, maybe another time?” Billy said hopefully.

Sally smiled. “Oh, that’s sweet of you. I’d still like to – it’d be nice to get out there anyway.”

Billy felt his heart start to pound with excitement. Was it his imagination, or was her smile a bit less ‘just friendly’ than before? “You think so?”

Sally laughed. “I mean, what else is there to do around here?”

Billy couldn’t argue with that logic. Grant was a boring town. It had gotten pretty exciting for a little bit, but now it was back to normal. At least, as normal as it could after an invasion of mummies swarmed the town.

The silence stretched between them, and in that silence wormed something dark. It happened quite a bit these days. Sally had lost her mother when the mummies had swarmed across the town. Billy had lost his brother and his best friend. No one in town was really processing it, really grieving. In a town of twelve hundred people, a hundred of them dying was too much to process. “So, uh…” Billy started to saying, trying to push back that yawning blackness.

Carl came to the rescue. “Hey, Billy, I…”

His voice trailed off. Billy turned around to look over his shoulder at Carl, and Sally gave her father a curious look.

Carl was standing in the doorway to the back of the station, holding a box. He’d stopped mid speaking, and his mouth hung slightly open, his skin looking ashen and pale. The box was trembling in his hands. “Daddy?” Sally asked, a note of fear in her voice.

Carl’s mouth was moving, like he was trying to form words. A tear formed in his eye, and began to make its way down his cheek, where it joined a thin droplet of blood that was flowing from the corner of his mouth.

The box went tumbling out of his grasp. In the center of his chest, previously hidden by the box, was Carl’s heart, held in the grasp of a blood soaked hand. Billy stared helplessly as the owner of the hand stepped forward, pushing Carl’s body with her, and brought the hand up to her lips. In growing horror, Billy watched as the woman behind Carl took a huge bite out of his heart, her arm still shoved through Carl’s chest cavity. “Oh my,” she whispered as she swallowed the fight bite. “So sweet.”

Sally started to scream.

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Small Worlds part 180

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Officium Mundi was exactly the sort of organized chaos Ryan remembered from his last visit. As he and Dianmu left his nanoverse, they had to step quickly to avoid being struck by a filing cabinet that ambled along on its own, chased by a curator in the brown suit they seemed to favor. Another curator, almost the mirror twin of the one that had just dashed by, stepped up to them. “Paperwork?”

Ryan and Dianmu shared a glance. Last time Ryan had been here, they had not asked for paperwork as soon as he arrived. From Dianmu’s expression, this was an entirely new concept to her as well. “We don’t have any?” Ryan said, his voice rising up on the last word, turning it into a question.

The curator nodded briskly and pulled a stack of papers out of the air. “Temporary regulations. Initial paperwork must be filled out before any mortal, immortal, demon, non-Euclidean entity, post-mortal being, or quasi-divine being can petition for questions, knowledge, or investigation. Do you need a pen?”

Ryan patted his pockets and realized, to his chagrin, he had forgotten it. Just as he was about to ask for one of those damn Temporary Pen Allocation forms, Dianmu reached into her pocket and pulled out two black pens with a small smile. The Curator nodded in approval. “You can use room 235x, instance 67 to fill out the requisite forms.” He pointed to indicate a bank of rooms. Ryan peered at them, and on instinct, activated his divine sight.

It hurt his brain to look at. The rooms were a hallway that stretched on for seventeen miles, stacked three deep, like a bank of motel rooms. However, each room was also, at the same time, two hundred rooms. Each one was slightly out of phase with the others, allowing them to occupy the same physical space while also permitting multiple people to enter without ever seeing each other.

Ryan felt warm liquid on his upper lip, and the tangy, coppery taste of blood on his lips. He turned off his divine sight and brought two fingers up to his nose. Blood. He’d given himself a damn bloody nose looking at that. The Curator gave him a sympathetic look and pulled out a tissue from his pocket. “Should have warned you. You’re still Nascent, right? Divine sight and things like that don’t mix well until after Apotheosis.”

Ryan reached for the tissue and dabbed at his lip, then twisted the tissue into a small sphere he could put in his nostril to stem the flow. As a child, Ryan had dealt with almost daily nosebleeds until getting a humidifier. They’d last for hours at times, and this trick had been his favorite to allow him to do school work or play with friend. It made him look absurd, a tail of white tissue sticking out from one nostril, but it at least would leave his hands free to fill out the damn forms. Like the one the Curator was now adding to the top of the stack. “Acceptance of Celluloid Based Self-Cleaning Product used to clean Blood, Mucus, or Other Bodily Fluid, 20-G (For Nasal Bleeding if Product Offered Prior to Form.)”

Dreading the answer, Ryan asked, “Can I borrow a few more in case I need them?”

The Curator smiled and pulled a few more out of his pocket in a clear plastic wrapper. He offered them to Ryan, along with a new form, “Acceptance of Celluloid Based Self-Cleaning Product used to clean Blood, Mucus, or Other Bodily Fluid, 20-B (For Nasal Bleeding after Initial Blood Flow Staunched.)”

Ryan did his best to accept the aid and paperwork graciously, the he and Dianmu were off to their room. They had to weave in and out of ambulatory cabinets and rushing Curators. “Can’t they do anything without a form?”

Dianmu laughed as they stopped to let a filing cabinet zip past their heads. “Not here. They have a bit more freedom to act outside of their home plane, but here everything is done with forms. Can you imagine the chaos if they didn’t have paperwork?”

“We do it just fine without that much paperwork,” Ryan protested.

“We don’t have an office the size of a planet,” Dianmu countered. “Ryan. Look at them. Really look at them.”

Ryan stopped and watched, trying to see what Dianmu was pointing out. Two curators crossed each others paths, one handing a file to the other without even looking. Another walked directly under one of the floating cabinets without ducking as it passed millimeters over his hair. Ryan compared that to Dianmu and his own path, stopping for curators that bustled by, stepping quickly to avoid being struck by a filing cabinet… “They know where everything is going to be. At all times,” he whispered in awe.

“Exactly,” Dianmu said, resuming her walk with a satisfied smile. “The forms make sure that’s possible. It’s almost beautiful in its efficiency, isn’t it?”

“I was going to say creepy,” Ryan said as he followed.

“If humans were doing it, I’d agree with you,” Dianmu said. “Or gods, for that matter. But Curators don’t operate on the same logic that we do. Free will…it’s a concept they understand, and it’s a thing that they have, but they view it the way most humans view having an anus. Something that they’d rather not think about.”

Ryan let out a shocked laugh at the analogy. They reached their room, and Dianmu pushed a button labeled I-67.

The room itself was what Ryan should have expected from a private office in Officium Mundi. Two desks, facing each other, each adorned with a single lamp and no other decorations. The desks were made of some kind of metal – Ryan considered looking at it with his divine sight to figure out what kind, but decided that opening it up inside one of the impossibly ‘stacked’ rooms would be even worse than looking at them from a distance – and the lamps were utilitarian shades of white canvas. At the back of the room was a small metal door that looked like it belonged to a dumbwaiter with a simple sign proclaiming “Insert Paperwork Here When Completed.”

Dianmu headed over to one of the desks, taking a stack of paperwork from Ryan. “Hey, question for you,” Ryan asked as he sat down. “Crystal said, back when this all started, that she couldn’t explain some things to be because it would fry my brain unless I’d undergone Apotheosis. Later on, Athena said that Crystal was probably just deflecting questions with that. But now…I mean, just looking at this gave me a bloody nose. Do you have any idea which one it is?”

The small smile that spread across Dianmu’s lips told Ryan he’d just revealed his ignorance. It had been awhile since a goddess had to explain something to him that she found to be a basic concept, however, so it didn’t sting the way it used to. “There’s nothing that can’t be explained to you that would hurt your brain, Ryan. However, until you undergo Apotheosis, some concepts – like how this room is made – are difficult to understand, let alone perceive. So in a way, they were both telling part of the truth.”

Ryan thought about it and nodded in acceptance. “Why couldn’t Crystal have just said that, then?” he groused.

“Because she was probably just deflecting questions,” Dianmu said.

Ryan chuckled in agreement and sat down at the other desk. Paperwork, Ryan thought as he looked at form “Request to Petition Curator for Information 119-C.” Why did it have to be paperwork?

With a sigh, he began to write.

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Small Worlds Part 179

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Bast smiled as, in the background, another section of stone wall collapsed. Something metallic fell with it, landing with a deep brass note that rang like a gong in the still air of the island. These structures had endured decades of neglect. They had withstood storms and hails and winds. They probably would have endured for another fifty years without interference.

They had not been built to withstand two gods clashing.

I didn’t even have to break anything, Bast thought, stepping outside to see what had collapsed. It had been the clocktower, which explained that ringing sound. Bast glanced back indoors to where Horus’ corpse lay. She considered making a joke about the bell tolling, but without anyone to hear it, it seemed overly indulgent.

Footsteps reached her ears. If only you had been thirty seconds earlier. That would have been perfect. Bast shrugged aside the whim. “Cassandra.”

Cassandra started at hearing her name. She reached for a skirt she wasn’t wearing to start a curtsy that Bast had told her wasn’t needed, and caught herself. Progress, Bast thought with a smile. It wouldn’t do for her children to bow and scrape for her.

That was for mortals.

“Is it done?” Cassandra asked.

Bast motioned into the building. “See for yourself.”

Cassandra stepped forward to look inside. She saw Horus’ corpse, of course, and smiled in agreement with Bast’s treatement of the insufferable pig. Then she noticed the other details, and her smiled turned to a confused frown. There were chains driven through Horus’ wrists and staked into the ground, a collar wrapped around his neck and dug into his skin, and four sections of rebar driven through each of his legs. “You…aren’t planning to destroy the body?” Cassandra asked.

Bast shook her head. “He should resurrect in a couple days. I’ve tasted a divine heart Cassandra – it’s like nothing you can imagine.”

“I couldn’t have imagined the way it tastes to eat a regular heart,” Cassandra said, glancing over at Bast. “Is it like that?”

“And so much more,” Bast said, her voice low. “Once he resurrects, if you haven’t had the chance to feast on one before then, I’ll be sharing it with you.”

Cassandra did bow slightly here, and Bast didn’t bother to correct her. While Bast didn’t believe Cassandra should be bowing and scraping in her mere presence, she should be acknowledging when Bast did something worthy of respect. “You honor me.”

“You were the first of my daughters, Cassandra. I’ll never forget that.” Bast put a hand on her shoulder. “And since you’re still frowning, let me assure you – he’ll never get out of that. Until he can fill his Hungers, he’ll never have the strength to free himself.”

“I remember we once through that about you,” Cassandra said softly. “Forgive me for even mentioning it, but-”

Bast cut her off with a dismissive gesture. “Forgiveness has been given, Cassandra. I’ve taken steps to ensure that won’t happen here. And even if he started to gain strength…” Bast’s smile took on a predatory edge, “I don’t intend on letting him live long enough to recover.” Bast reached into her pocket and pulled something out. “Worst comes to worst, I have the option to end him permanently.”

Cassandra looked down to the black stone between Bast’s fingers. “Can those things truly be destroyed? Nothing we could come up with could even scratch it.”

“Because you were trying to destroy it within this universe,” Bast said. “It’s impossible save for an act of omnipotence. Which means if I take it into my nanoverse, I can crack it like an egg.”

Cassandra did seem to relax some at that reassurance. “Then…what is our next move?’

“The Eschaton,” Bast said, taking her hand from Cassandra’s shoulder and sweeping down the street. Cassandra hurried to keep up on her. “We need to locate him, draw him out, and force his hand. He has one twist that can alter reality on a fundamental level, beyond what even Enki could have done at the peak of his power. Beyond what I can do now after eating the hearts of two gods.”

“You’ve mentioned this before,” Cassandra said delicately, choosing her words with extreme care. “Can I know…what, exactly, do you want him to do?”

Bast stopped and looked at Cassandra, one eyebrow quirking in confusion. “Why, isn’t it obvious?”

“I would not presume to know your mind. You’re a goddess, and you see more deeply than I do.”

That got an appreciative chuckle from Bast. “That is true, but in this case, it’s quite simple. My motives are exactly what you suspect – he’s going to cure us of this Hunger. Of all Hungers, Mortal, Divine, and Phageous. We will need nothing, ever again. All of us.”

Cassandra had been nodding eagerly, but it cut off at the last three words. “All of us?” she asked.

“Yes. I’ve been thinking about it. Even with everything that’s happened, I cannot defeat Ishtar, Athena, and the Eschaton. I would not dare to try.”

“You’ll have me,” Cassandra said, her voice firm. “And Dale, for whatever that wretch is worth.”

“I know I do.” Bast turned and continued walking with Cassandra in tow. “And yet, that will not be enough. Not by half. It’s time, Cassandra, for you to have some siblings.”

Cassandra’s face fell. “You mean to spread this Hunger?”

“Only until the Eschaton can cure us,” Bast said. “Besides…after I’m done, we’ll be the only immortals left. It will be better with more of us, won’t it?”

“Of…of course.” Cassandra bit her lip. “It’s just…what if the Eschaton can’t cure us?”

Bast looked upwards where the sun beat overhead. “You feel how hot it is?”

Cassandra nodded.

“If the Eschaton can’t do what’s advertised, this world is doomed. Burned to a crisp in solar fire.” Bast shrugged.

“And if he helps us, won’t the world be doomed regardless?” Cassandra asked. “You said he only has one twist that can permanently alter reality.”

“Yes.” Bast sighed. “And if he does not use it to cure us, then they will hunt us to the end of the cosmos. I promise you, Cassandra, we’ll save as much of humanity as we can – and we’ll take them to a new world. A paradise, where they will worship us as they should. Humanity gets to live – and so do we.”

Cassandra nodded with less certainty than before, but it was enough. Bast knew she’d never fully sell Cassandra on this plan. Even the most dedicated carnivore turns up their nose at the slaughterhouse, and Cassandra still identified with the cattle. That will change. Bast intended to keep her promise to save some of humanity – what was the point of being a goddess if you weren’t going to be worshiped, after all? Cassandra would come to see that this was the best way, the only way, that things could end.

“But how will we draw him out?” Cassandra asked.

“Ah. That, Cassandra, is going to be the easiest part of this whole thing.” Bast opened the door to her nanoverse. “Gather Dale, then meet me back here.” She motioned to pull up her Zoisphere, showing her a map of the world, and rotated it to center on the United States.

“Of course. What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to send the Eschaton a message he cannot ignore,” Bast said, her lips curling in a smile that was full of Hunger.

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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 176

“We have a problem,” Crystal announced.

The voice almost startled Isabel into jumping. She’d been waiting for Crystal to say something for what had felt like hours, although it had only been a matter of minutes. She’d considered doing something to break Crystal out of her deep contemplation of the door, but hadn’t been sure if it was worth breaking the goddess’ contemplation. So she’d stood there, fighting the jaguar’s instinct to curl up into a ball to wait. Although the moon dust was fine so far, she didn’t like the idea of getting even more of it embedded in her fur. It was starting to oxidize with the air bubble as well, and the smell of gunpowder was filling her lungs. It had the Jaguar on edge.

Isabel whimpered in concern when Crystal spoke.

“Sorry love, I know, you can’t talk. But this door…I can tear it open, but it’s an airlock. I don’t like the idea of leaving you that exposed to the vacuum out here. Remind me to ask Anansi how he managed it last time he was here.” Crystal sighed. “He probably just phased right through the door. Which I could do here too. Except…” Crystal frowned. “I don’t suppose that soulstone thingy means you can phase?”

Isabel shook her head. I should ask her to clean me off so we can talk. Except…crap, I wish we’d set up a signal for that.

“Didn’t think so. Bloody hell.” Crystal stared at the door. “I can open it, if I’m being honest. I just…I don’t particularly like what I have to do to manage it.”

Confused, Isabel cocked her head.

“I know, love, I know, I’m being ridiculous.”

No, I’m just confused.

Crystal glanced at Isabel, then shook her head in irritation. “Okay. I’ll do it. Just…try not to freak out on me, yeah?”

It took Isabel a moment to realize what the problem was. Crystal, the millions of years old goddess that had done some of the most amazing things Isabel had ever seen or heard of…was embarrassed.

Then Crystal began to shift her form. She stopped looking like a human. Beautiful green and red feathers sprouted from her head and arms and spread to cover her body. Her feet spread out into talons. Her face distended to form a beak. With a start, Isabel realized this was the kind of form Moloch had taken during the fight in the Elysian Rest, and had to fight the Jaguar’s urge to flatten her ears against her head. It’s not Moloch, it’s Crystal. You know Crystal.

Crystal bent down towards the door and spoke a few words, words Isabel couldn’t hope to have reproduced – not without shifting into a parrot, perhaps. No human throat had ever made sounds like that. It sounded like a complex series of squawks and caws to Isabel’s ears.

The door opened for the sound, and Crystal hurriedly stepped into the airlock. Isabel slunk after her. Inside there was a control panel that Crystal began to work as she shifted back into human form. “Sorry about that, love. We’ll have air in here in just a moment, then I can clean you off.”

It took a couple minutes, but at the end of it, Crystal and Isabel were both human and standing in a room lit by fluorescent lights, waiting for the air pressure to finish normalizing. “Why did you apologize? You got us in.”

Crystal flushed slightly. “I don’t like going bird around you lot. Nothing personal. It’s just…” Crystal trailed off and shrugged. “Anyway, had to shift so the scanners would recognize me and open the airlock.”

“I’m amazed this place still works,” Isabel said, changing the subject for Crystal’s sake.

Crystal gave her a look that said she knew what Isabel was doing, and appreciated it. “Lemurian technology. We got a bit further along than you all did, yeah? If you humans had been given another hundred years, you probably would have gotten there too.”

“But how does it work?” Isabel asked. “How’d it survive?”

“The solar panels. If they’re running with the base on minimum power, they can store it in cells down below. The cells were…your language doesn’t have a word for it. It exploits a…damn, another thing your language doesn’t have a word for.” Crystal tapped her finger on her chin. “The batteries that they store power in can store massive, massive amounts, and if we manage to save humanity so they can further develop their science, I’ll eventually have the words I need to explain how it works.”

Isabel laughed. “Fair enough. But what about micrometeors? Shouldn’t they have shredded this place? Or is that too much for my pitiful human language.” Isabel gave Crystal a wink to show she was joking.”

Crystal laughed and slapped the wall. “Thankfully, you do have words here. There’s nanites in the hull. They can repair and smooth over pretty much any minor damage. A big hole would have been too much, but those don’t happen as often as you might think. Back in the day-”

Crystal cut off at the sound of a heavy footstep approaching.

“Oh, right,” Crystal said, drawing a sword out of her nanoverse. “The Sphinx.”

Isabel hurriedly shifted into something to fight. In these cramped spaces, the jaguar seemed to be an imperfect fit – they tended to hunt from ambush. Instead, she went with something with some mass behind it.

When Isabel’s feet hit the ground, they were the stubby legs of an Diceros bicornis, more commonly known as the Black Rhinoceros.

“Good choice, love,” Crystal said, stepping to make sure she was out of the way if Isabel started to charge.

Well, there’s nothing more serious than a Rhinoceros about to charge your ass, Isabel thought, laughing to herself. It was probably for the best Crystal couldn’t hear her – the reference would probably go over her head.

Then the laugher died down as the Sphinx’s head turned around the corner. It dwarfed even the Rhino, and Isabel saw that the hallway was impossibly bending outward to accommodate its passage. His eyes narrowed when he saw the two of them.

“Explain why you are here, and why you have brought that beast with you,” the Sphinx said firmly. “And then explain why I shouldn’t gut you both.”

There was a cold finality in his tone that chilled Isabel to her bones.

That was the moment Isabel learned that Rhino anatomy, while incapable of speech, is perfectly able to gulp in fear.