Small Worlds Part 169

Horus didn’t bother trying to break the vampire’s grasp. There wasn’t time. He had burned through more than enough power where the need for air was burning at his lungs. Instead of entering a contest of main strength, Horus dropped himself backwards, pulling his legs up as he did. The motion caught Vlad off guard, and the two of them fell to the ground. Horus was able to bring up his feet into the vampire’s stomach and kicked as hard he could.

Vlad had no choice but to release Horus’ neck, not if he wanted his wrists to remain intact. Vlad turned to mist again to save himself impact with the ground, giving Horus’ time to gasp for air. Horus rolled away as Vlad reformed, slamming his heel down on where Horus’ head had been moment’s before.

Concrete cracked under the vampire’s heel. Bits of it flecked up and bit into Horus’ face. Even half burned, Vlad was unimaginably strong. Horus brought his leg up in a kick aimed at Vlad’s knee. Before he could connect, Vlad’s hand lanced down and grabbed Horus by the ankle. Vlad swung Horus over his body, slamming him into the concrete. Horus felt the world spin from the impact, and coughed up flecks of blood. Before he could try to break free of the grip, Vlad lifted Horus back up and swung him in an arc, slamming him into ground on the other side. “I’m going to drain you dry for this,” Vlad snarled, lifting to swing Horus again.

Horus threw his hands out towards the ground on the third swing, twisting reality to give the pavement the consistency of a feathered bed. He sunk into the now soft concrete, then kicked back towards Vlad, taking advantage of the vampire being off balance to free himself. Horus didn’t bother to try and rise, instead twisting to surround himself in a bubble of sunlight. Vlad hissed and recoiled from the field.

“You can’t keep this up forever,” Vlad growled from the doorway he had taken shelter within. “Your power is limited, and you’ve burned a great deal already.”

“I have enough to burn you, vampire,” Horus said, finally rising to his feet. “Your presence has been tolerated on this world for far too long.”

Vlad chuckled, the sound echoing through the courtyard. “Tolerated? You think you are the first god to have delusions about killing me? Please. I’ve survived far worse than you. Do you have any idea how many of our numbers I’ve killed over the centuries?”

Horus peered around, trying to pinpoint the vampire’s voice. Between the acoustics here and his own spinning head, he couldn’t quite place it. “However many it is, the number will not increase today, I can promise you that.”

“Endless void, did you read The Book of Bullshit Cliches? Is this the part where I tell you ‘we’re not so different, you and I’?”

Horus’ eyes flared. “We are nothing alike!”

“Of course we aren’t. You’re a pompous, self obsessed, neckbeard with delusions of grandeur. And I? I’m a survivor.

At that moment, Vlad finished the twist to reality he had been working on. Horus screamed as the ground beneath his feet turned into molten rock, causing his shoes to burst into flames that started to lap up to his ankles. He moved as quickly as he could, before the lava could completely incinerate his feet, but as he landed Horus screamed in pain. The soles of his feet were burned past the point of sensation – the pain seemed to be coming from somewhere around his ankles. The nerves below that had been seared away. Horus didn’t dare look at the mess of charred flesh he knew his feet had become. It was all he could do to maintain his balance, and keep up the field of sunlight that was keeping Vlad at bay.

“Which Hunger are you up to, Horus? I’m sure you’re thirsty by now.” Vlad’s voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. “Probably even feeling the need for food.”

A chunk of rock lifted off the ground and streaked towards Horus’ head. It took every bit of energy he had to dodge it before it could crush his skull. “You know why I always wear gods down before I kill them?” Vlad whispered from the shadows. “It’s not just because it’s safer to wait until they’ve drained all their power. It’s because I know that last Hunger is waiting for them. The need for socialization. The need for human contact.”

Horus saw his vision waiver, and the sunlight surrounding him dimmed as he dropped to one knee. Have to do something or he’ll kill me, Horus thought, frantically searching for a plan.

“It means that when you die, not only are you terrified, but so you’re painfully lonely. Isolated. I like to imagine that when my fangs sink into your neck, you’ll welcome it. Even though it’s killing you, it’s the last bit of human contact you’ll ever get before the grave.”

“Now…” Horus grunted, struggling to keep his eyes open. “Now who’s spouting the bullshit cliches?”

That actually got a laugh out of Vlad as Horus slumped to the ground, the sunlight going out. “I started monologuing. I am becoming a cliche in my old age, aren’t I?” In an instant, Vlad was on top of Horus, flipping him over with a kick to expose his neck. “At least I don’t sparkle. I hope someone kills me if I start to sparkle.” Horus raised his hand, and Vlad batted it aside. “Please. You have no power left. Accept this death, Horus.”

Vlad brought his fangs down towards Horus’ neck.

At that moment, Horus tapped into the last bit of power he had been holding in reserved as he faked his powerlessness, and erupted in sunlight. Vlad recoiled and howled in agony as his flesh began to fleck away. It was so bright it blinded even Horus.

When his vision cleared, Vlad was still there. He looked more like a corpse than a man now, his skin burned to a blackened crisp across his body. If he’d been a normal god, he would have died from his injures already. As it was, his movements were jerky, uncoordinated.

But he was still moving. Horus raised his hand to try another twist to reality, but he had burned through all his power. Nothing happened. He was, effectively, mortal.

Vlad’s power had to be mostly drained as well, but even with no divine strength left, he was still a vampire. He slammed his hand down onto Horus’ check, and Horus felt bones crack beneath the blow. Horus fell onto his back, and Vlad leaned his, his fangs coming ever closer to Horus’ throat. “Tell me, Horus – do you welcome this?” Vlad whispered.

“I do,” said a voice behind Vlad. The vampire started to turn, but before he could make it far into the motion, his chest bulged outwards. A hand shot through it, clenching the still beating heart of the vampire.

“Why?” Vlad asked, the unholy light in his eyes fading.

“I don’t answer questions from corpses,” Bast said, and then reached around – her arm still through Vlad’s chest – and brought the heart to her lips, biting into it.

Horus watched in as Bast shuddered at the bite, her eyes rolling back in her head in apparent ecstacy. He’d seen her feed since she became this horror, but it had never been like this. After that first bite, she devoured Vlad’s heart so greedily, Horus was certain she caught some of her own fingers in those bites. “I had no idea it would taste that good,” Bast whispered, shuddering in aftershocks of enjoyment.

Vlad, of course, said nothing. His body was falling apart, turning to bones and dust. Bast reached down with a bloody hand and patted Horus’ cheek. “You did well, Horus. Do you want to heal naturally?”

Horus nodded. The pain from his burned feet was pushing through the exhaustion, but the idea of waiting for a resurrection – of letting himself die after fighting so hard to live – sickened him.

Beneath that was a terror of what would happen if he was helpless in front of Bast right now, so close to the ecstacy of eating a divine heart. He didn’t believe she would feed on him, not really…but the hand that had patted his face had been missing bits of flesh.

That terror gave him the strength he needed to crawl his way back to his doorway as Bast watched with apparent amusement until he could seal himself inside.

Then, and only then, he allowed himself to pass out.

Strange Cosmology Part 91

Zeus sat dead on his throne. He looked almost peaceful, his head bowed, the great white beard stained red by the hole in his chest where his attacker had stabbed him. Artemis was doing her best to look at the situation with a detachment, even though it was hard seeing him like this. Zeus may have been a randy old bastard, but he’d guided the pantheon for as long as she could remember. He didn’t expect the attack.

That much was obvious. Zeus was as dangerous as they came, the rise of his divinity marked with the battles against the Titans and then followed by centuries of Theomachy to bring the rest of the old Olympians in line. He’d helped find divinity for both his brothers, even going so far as to find how to help an Underworld god ascend for Hades sake, something no one had understood – at least, as far as Artemis knew. He’d later gone to war with them and neither Hades or Poseidon were exactly pushovers. He’d survived the Bronze Age collapse, he’d survived the war against the Egyptians and the Persians.

The only warriors as skilled as him, and the only gods as powerful, were Hades, Poseidon, and Hera. Hades had remained in his realm instead of coming with them to the Elysian rest. Hera was currently screaming vengeance for this fowl betrayal. So where are you, Poseidon?

“Where is his Nanoverse?” Hera shouted, startling Artemis out of her thoughts. She was looking at Artemis as she screamed it, but Artemis didn’t think the question was directed at her, especially since Hera didn’t deem to wait for an answer before continuing. “He always had it on him, always. If we find his nanoverse, we find his killer.”

“Then I suggest we gather everyone. Check them. See who has two. We’ll have our killer then,” Artemis responded, trying to keep her voice as calm as she was her emotions. Hera didn’t need someone to rage with her right now. She needed someone who could stay calm.

Of course, now carrying around Ares nanoverse was a much bigger liability than it had been. Artemis still trusted her gut instinct to lie about that to Hera, but if the enraged god-queen found out that Artemis was carrying two now…I don’t think any amount of bold moves will save me then.

“Oh, you suggest that, do you?” Hera snapped, her voice dripping with vitriol so thick Artemis wondered if they’d need to mop it up before it tainted the crime scene. She opened her mouth to respond, but Hera wasn’t actually looking for an answer. “Don’t just suggest it, then! Go! Do it. I’m sick of councils, sick of talking. Give me action!”

“And what if I find myself against someone who could kill Zeus? Would you have me fight whomever killed your husband?”

Hera’s nostrils flared. Artemis had never understood how a marriage built upon so much mutual acrimony could contain so much love. Hera seemed to do nothing when it came to her husband except than complain about his infidelities, and Zeus rarely spoke of Hera except to grumble about her attempts to kill his ex lovers and children, but whenever they were together they were the perfect picture of a happy couple. Artemis had thought it was as sham, a show for the other Olympians, but seeing Hera’s rage now…you do love him.

“No, of course I won’t,” Hera said after she’d calmed down. “Of course you can’t fight them. You’re a good archer, but you’re no match for anyone who could do this. Especially because we know who it was, don’t we?”

“We do?” Artemis asked.

“Of course. Poseidon, and probably his cow Thalassa. He was always jealous of Zeus, and she always believed she’d be a better Queen than I. They’re using the opportunity of Moloch to seize power. It’s obvious.”

It wasn’t to Artemis. Poseidon and Zeus had gotten along poorly in the past, true, but betraying them to Moloch? That seemed beyond even him – if nothing else, he would be too proud to resort to trickery. Thalassa, meanwhile, had said she’d been a better Queen than Hera. That was true. But she always said it with the unspoken implication of “and if I’m saying I would do better, than you know how poorly I think she’s doing.” Comparing herself was a critique of Hera, not an actual desire. “We should check them first then,” Artemis said. If they found Zeus’ nanoverse it would answer the question, and put Hera’s paranoia to rest if they did not.

That, at least, Hera agreed to, and she stalked the halls of the Rest as Artemis followed. They wound through the great garden, where Ionian columns supported a garden tended by Demeter that was as lush as her power could manage.

Artemis hoped that once this whole business with Moloch was done, the gardens remained undamaged. They were slightly inspired by the hanging gardens that had once adorned Babylon, but Demeter had carefully given them a perfectly natural appearance, where it gave the impression that all this wonder and beauty had happened by accident – and at the same time was clearly sculpted by an expert hand. The flowers that grew here formed a perfectly contrasted rainbow of color, and from experience Artemis knew that from the sky above it looked like a kaleidoscope, especially at the artificial evenings they had created in here. During that time, they would open and close to create a swirling pattern that spiraled across the entire span of the garden.

So renowned was their beauty that as they wound through, Hera stopped her stomping to step carefully. It gave her a chance to calm down, and Artemis watched her as she did. Hera’s hands were shaking, her shoulders were slumped, her head was bowed. Artemis thought for a moment it was grief, but why would she be grieving her husband? He’d be back soon. Possibly even tomorrow, given the killer had only created a single hole.  And why didn’t the killer burn his body? Remove his head? Do something to delay his resurrection further?

It wasn’t adding up to Artemis. Something was wrong, she was missing a detail somewhere.

It was something to puzzle over later. They were arriving at Posideon’s chambers. The great sea god was in many ways his brother’s mirror, although his build was slighter and his beard was even more resplendent that Zeus’ “Hera! Artemis!” He asked in a jovial tone. “What brings you to my little corner of paradise?”

“Where. Is. It?” Hera snapped. Guess we’re not even attempting subtly, Artemis sighed.

Poseidon look puzzled. “Where is what, my queen?”

Hera didn’t bother answering with words. With a gesture, before Poseidon had time to prepare himself, she twisted reality. Poseidon was hurled by a complex weaving of all five elements. A burst of air wrapped him up and slammed him against the wall with such force the stone cracked under the impact. Poseidon started to reach out, but Artemis’ mouth went dry as the water was sucked out of the air to throw off his balance and force him to try and deal with the distraction of it flooding into his lungs, where Artemis could see it still swirled in miniature whirlpools. Bands of the stone rose to encase his wrists and ankles and face and crawling over his torso. Under those bands were strands of fire searing his flesh, and if not for the torrent in his lungs, Artemis was sure she’d hear him scream. Artemis had never even attempted a weaving that complex and Hera had done it like it was nothing.

She remembered something Ishtar had said, back when she was with Athena and somewhat welcomed on Olympus. That the elements were just their perceptions of the mathematics that underlies reality. Artemis had laughed it off, asking her if she’d been spending time with the Pythagoreans, but now that she saw what Hera could do, she wondered if maybe Ishtar had a point. Certainly that was no normal elemental work.

Hera strode over to Poseidon’s bed and began to tear it apart. Artemis thought to protest what was happening to Poseidon until his guilt was determined, but seeing the wild look in Hera’s eyes, she decided not to make herself a target of her Queen’s wrath. “A-ha!” Hera shouted, holding the nanoverse high. The one eye Poseidon had that was not covered with burning stone widened in shock instead of pain. “I knew it was you, Poseidon.” She glanced over at Artemis. “Execute this traitor. I want you to shoot him until your quiver is empty.”

Artemis reached back to her quiver, drawing an arrow, and unslung her bow. What had she thought earlier? I’m sorry, Athena. Unless I do something drastic, you’re on your own.

Artemis knocked the arrow, then whirled to face Hera. “Don’t. Move. If you even begin to weave reality, my Queen, I’m putting this between your eyes.”

Hera went stock still, her eyes narrowing. “Artemis. What is the meaning of this?”

“When I found you, you were half mad. Whoever killed Zeus couldn’t bear to destroy his body and delay his resurrection. The only way to manage something as complex as what you did to Poseidon was if you already came here and laid the groundwork for it.”

“You accuse me?” Hera asked, her voice venomous. “Put down that bow now, Artemis. Put it down this instant, and we will talk about this.”

“I will, my Queen, if you can answer one question for me.” Artemis’ hands didn’t waiver. This bow was built for a goddess, with a one thousand pound draw. The arrows each weighed more than a sword. She couldn’t take Hera in a straight fight, but if she loosed the arrow in this close proximity she wouldn’t have to.

“Fine, then. I explain everything you’ve mentioned, so ask your question and then we can discuss overlooking your little-”

Artemis cut her off. “How did you know the nanoverse was in the bed?”

Hera’s mouth snapped shut, and she gave Artemis a look filled with hatred, terror, and grief. “I can explain,” the Queen of the Olympians said, and if the situation was less dire, Artemis would have found humor in Hera repeating the phrase Zeus had so often used on her.

“I can’t believe you’d serve Moloch,” Artemis spat.

“Don’t be ridiculous!” Hera almost stepped forward, then stopped before Artemis loosed the arrow. “Artemis, I didn’t do this to serve him. Lower the bow and I will explain.”

“No. Release Poseidon and talk,” Artemis said, not moving an inch. Which means that even after this, there’s still the traitors to deal with. Artemis fought back despair, focusing on the task in front of her.

Hera nodded.

Strange Cosmology Part 73

Vlad’s doorway was situated in the lower parts of the base. Unlike most doors, which blending into their surroundings, this one looked like the entrance of the mausoleum jutting out of the floor. “Subtle,” Bast muttered.

The vampire stepped out of his nanoverse just in time to catch the word, which he apparently found amusing. “I have no control over that, and will agree it is a bit garish. Yet I’m also fond of it.” He gave Cassandra a slight nod, and she gave a half curtsy, half bow to him. He seemed to approve, before his eyes panned over to Dale. “Oh my,” he whispered, looking at him then at Bast. “What do we have here?”

“An object lesson in the dangers of crossing me.”

Vlad studied the former Admiral closer, his grin exposing his fangs. “An exquisite work of art, Bast, truly. An utter debasement of the human form, a broken mind, a shattered spirit. I must compliment you.”

“Please, Vlad, spare me your approval. I’ll need another bath. Shall we?”

If her barb bothered him, Vlad didn’t show it. Instead he opened the door to his staging area. It slid slowly over the floor, the stones grinding as they moved. “After you.”

Bast stepped in first, Cassandra and Dale in tow. She glanced around, wondering what fresh horrors she’d find here.

The immediate interior of Vlad’s staging area looked like a great cathedral, one made in deliberate mockery of Christianity. Crucifixes hung from the walls, but they were inverted and instead of Christ hanging from them, skeletons screaming in agony were nailed to their boards. There was an altar, stained with blood. The pews were half rotted and chewed by termites, and in them sat even more skeletons, kneeling in a perverse mockery of prayer. The support columns were made of naked men and women engaged in carnal acts that would have made Marquis de Sade blush.

Part of Bast found the whole thing revolting, but on another level, a part of her mind that she associated with her new Hunger, she found its operatic levels of over the top macabre styling to be strangely compelling. I wonder if this is what is waiting for me in mine. Or if it’ll be more to my tastes?

Vlad was looking at her expectantly. Bast frowned. “Where are they stars?”

“Ahh, yes.” Vlad gestured, and the walls fell away.

For a moment, Bast almost struck at him in desperate panic. They were hovering over a green field, so close she was certain they had come into his nanoverse proper. Then, after a moment, she realized that it wasn’t the case.

Instead, this field made up his entire nanoverse.

It wasn’t exactly a field, but a forest. A impossibly vast forest that stretched as far as the eyes could see, with trees that rose higher than gravity could have ever allowed. Through that immense forest stalked castles. From the distance, the castles were the size of stars, and they moved about on spider legs with lengths that would have to be measured in astronomical units. If they were actually in the nanoverse, the movement would be maddeningly slow. Since they were not, time accelerated to allow the spider castles the size of stars move over the landscape at a brisk pace. As Bast watched, two of them crawled near each other.

Each one disgorged swarming masses the size of small planets, masses that Bast realized were armies. Entire armies that could have swarmed over a world and needed to stand on top of each other’s shoulders to have room. The planetary armies clashed together, until one side returned to its castle. Months of warfare played out in a heartbeat. The other side lay in a pool of blood that could drown oceans, and crows flocked to it. “You like it?” Vlad said in a voice like a dagger through silk.

“What did they win?”

“Victory.” Vlad spoke the word as if it should be more than enough. “Each castle is commanded by one of my spawn I felt deserved the reward. If you like, you can think of it as the afterlife for my children. Perhaps you’ll gift your scion here with something similar.”

Bast glanced at Cassandra, who was watching the movements of the castles with rapt fascination. Dale was crouching behind a pew, moaning in horror.

Instead of answering, Bast glanced upwards. Because there were lights in the sky, but they were not stars. They looked like moons, though each one was flat and the size of a galaxy – which would make them look the right size from the ground, Bast supposed. Clouds crossed them intermittently, and they changed through phases. New, waxing, full, waning. One of the moons turned the deep crimson of a moon in a lunar eclipse, and when it did a great rain of boiling blood began to fall on the part of the land its light reached. “Is it their heaven or their hell?” she finally asked.

Vlad chuckled. “For them, it is heaven. For the natives…I think they would find hell a release.” He strolled over to the organ and began to play. Bast realized as he did that this was his console.

“And where are we going?” Bast asked as the music began to die down, “I still don’t know who our next ally is supposed to be.” Bast tried to keep the annoyance out of her voice. As much as she hated to admit it, this place impressed her and made her vaguely uncomfortable. The last thing she wanted was Vlad to figure that out.

“Bah. Patience, Bast, patience.” Vlad smiled at her. “Besides, we have something more important to do. You have to learn how to summon your doorway. You did still want to learn that, yes?”

Bast could only nod in agreement at that. She didn’t like relying on Vlad to ferry her around, and she certainly didn’t like entering his nanoverse of gothic castles crawling along a forlorn forest under a thousand moons.

“Excellent. Then we are here.” The door to the outside world opened with a long, low scraping sound along the stone floor.

Bast knew better by now than to expect a direct answer from Vlad, so instead of asking where they were simply turned to exit. Cassandra and Dale followed her out. Dale seemed all too eager to leave, loping out like an excited dog.

Outside was an open field. The air was temperate, and an overall lack of distinguishing features made it impossible to even be sure what continent they were on. It was daytime, which put to rest myths about what the sun would do to Vlad. *I wonder if any of those are true.* Bast assumed at least some were – her new power had to come with some drawbacks.

“So how do we do this?” she asked, wondering how long her companion was going to drag out the process.

Vlad chuckled. “Do you remember the first time you opened your doorway?”

“Of course,” Bast frowned. “I just reached out and…it opened.”

“Exactly. This will be nothing like that.” He chuckled again, and Bast resisted the urge to wipe that smug chuckle off his face.

Off to the side, Cassandra seemed to be enjoying feeling the sun and wind for the first time since her transformation. Dale huddled near her, and it was hard to be certain, but he seemed the closest to happy he had been since Bast had taken him captive.

An ugly urge welled up in her to destroy that happiness, a sick and vile need to tear away even that glimmer of joy. She pushed it aside, instead focusing her attention on Vlad. “Then what, exactly, is it like?” she snapped.

“You must pull it from the earth. Don’t worry if you can’t get it on your first try, it took me over a cent…” Vlad trailed off, his eyes widening.

As soon as he had said the word Earth, Bast had shoved her hand into the ground beneath her feet. By the time he’d gotten to the word try, she’d found it. It was like groping in brackish water for something you knew was there but remained just out of sight, but as soon as her fingers felt stone she knew what she had found.

The doorway rose from the ground, causing the earth to shudder as it did. It wasn’t a mausoleum door like Vlad’s. The door was made of sandstone, like the ones Bast remembered from the days of her youth, and was flanked by pillars of the same. Heiroglyphs adorned the door, and it pleased Bast to recognize the poem. It was an old prayer, a long forgotten prayer, one that men and women had once made to her. A call for her protection and her guidance.

She took a moment to enjoy Vlad’s stunned expression. “Never forget, I was old before your entire kingdom was founded,” she said in a voice low enough to slide through the grass like a viper. “Do not presume what was difficult for you will be more than child’s play for me.”

“Of course,” Vlad said, and this time it wasn’t fear or anger she saw in his eyes, but satisfaction. “Are you going to inspect it?”

Bast didn’t bother answering such an obvious question. The doorway swung open in a wide arc, and Bast stepped through.

It was time to see what had become of the realm where she was supreme.

Next Page

Strange Cosmology Part 72

The Army was in retreat.

Bast finished her latest meal, watching the remaining vehicles pulling away. As she did her left arm, blown off at the elbow by an unlucky blast from an anti tank round, finishing reforming. Apparently, as they had learned over the course of the fight, completing a meal was enough to restore her body to full health. Vlad didn’t have that same protection, but the US Army didn’t have weapons that could injure mist, so it hadn’t offered them much protection.

For their troubles, dozens of soldiers were dead, several of which had provided food for the duo. Bast stood over the last she’d feed upon for now. “We should move,” she said to Vlad, stretching her neck as she did. It cracked audibly. “They didn’t know what they were dealing with, but they do now. They won’t be holding back next time.”

Vlad nodded in agreement. Unspoken between them was the fact that the US Government could eventually be rendered so desperate as to attempt heavy ordinance, up to and including eventually unleashing their nuclear arsenal. As far as they knew, nothing could destroy a nanoverse besides it being drawn into another gods nanoverse. By the same token, as far as they knew no god had ever attempted to place a nanoverse into an actual nuclear reaction to see what happened.

Neither of them wanted to be the first to help test nanoverse indestructibility against nuclear annihilation.

“Even if it doesn’t go that far,” Vlad said, as if he could read Bast’s mind – a trait Bast wouldn’t put past time – “This was a small force. They’ll be back in greater numbers and higher caliber weapons. I don’t fancy resurrecting strapped a table, yes?”

Bast scowled at him, but instead of rising to the bait, headed back into the commandeered base. “I still don’t know how to enter my nanoverse, Vlad. I don’t suppose you’d be willing to give us a lift?”

“Us?” Vlad said, frowning at her.

Bast nodded. “My first scion and one other. Where I go, she goes.” Seeing the speculative look on Vlad’s face, Bast whirled on him. One of her newfound powers allowed her to move, in short bursts, without motion – instantly transitioning from an action to its follow through without any apparent motion in between, like something filmed and then the intervening frames removed. Twisting reality to allow action to no longer need motion. She’d noticed in the battle that this particular gift had greatly unnerved the old vampire, and decided it was time to make a point.

From Vlad’s perspective, Bast had been standing there, and then in an instant had her hand around his throat. “I saw that look, Impaler. You are thinking that perhaps Cassandra could be used against me, a tool to keep me in line, yes?”

Vlad regarded her with a cold glare by way of answer, but Bast saw a glint of fear in his eyes.

“I want to be clear about something. Should you attempt that, it will fail. I will allow you to carry out your threat against her. But afterwards…” her eyes narrowed. “I will destroy you, unmake you so utterly that the end of the world will be a blessing. For millennia people will sing songs of your folly, and nothing else will be remembered of you than that you once dared cross me. Am I clear?” She tightened her grip to emphasize those last three words.

“As crystal,” Vlad responded, and Bast released her grasp. The vampire’s pride was wounded, but Bast didn’t think he was overly angered by the threat. She didn’t care. It was important he believed the threat.

She wouldn’t risk allowing anything to happen to Cassandra.

Back in the base, Cassandra caught her up on what had transpired with Horus. Bast was just glad to have him out of her hair for now. “And our other guest?” Cassandra asked, glancing at the vampire at the end of the room.

Bast reached out and fondly touched Cassandra’s arm. “Do not worry about him. Our interests intersect for now, and he can be trusted as long as they do.”

“And when they don’t?” Cassandra frowned with the question.

“Then we allow him to choose if we will part amicably or disagreeably.” Bast smiled as Cassandra, who relaxed somewhat.

“I don’t mean to question you, of course. I just worry. Is he really…?”

Bast nodded. “The progenitor of the vampires, as I am the progenitor of you. There is quite the story there, and one I will tell you another time. In the meantime, we’re leaving. Go to the cells and glut yourself, since I do not know when we’ll feed next. Except the Admiral – bring him to me.”

Cassandra nodded and headed off. Vlad was watching the exterior screens, waiting for some sign of the military.

It was a truism in modern warfare that an army typically perfected the best way to fight one war just in time to fight the next one. Trench warfare was finally optimized in time for the rise of highly mobile combat to become the norm. These guerilla wars were perfected in time for the battlefields to switch to urban centers and foes hiding deep within natural fortifications. And urban combat was getting fully nailed down, just in time for the return of mythological creatures.

So the next move would be to try their current tactics. Instead of risking soldiers, they were looking at precision aerial strikes from UAVs. “Vlad.” He turned to look at her. “Can you still call up storms from your nanoverse?”

“Yes,” he said, raising an eyebrow at her. “Do you have a plan?”

She nodded. “Call up an ice storm around us, as potent as you can muster. The drones they’ll be sending don’t function well in such climates. I would do so myself, but…”

“I assure you, Bast, once we are safe I’ll show you how to access your nanoverse. It’s quite…fascinating what becomes of them. But in the meantime, I go.” He gave her a mocking bow and turned.

At least there doesn’t seem to be any bad blood. Or he’s a skilled liar.

Bast was alone. She took a few deep breaths, then shifted her hands into claws. With a bestial scream she began to rake and tear the table, sending chunks of wood flying until splinters surrounded her. Once finished, she stood still for a moment, panting with exertion. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” she hissed to the air.

“Mistress?” Cassandra said in a quiet voice from the doorway. Bast made a mental note to remind her not to use such titles, but right now there was the small matter of the Admiral…

The Admiral was in bad shape. His clothes were tattered rags hanging off his body, a body that was covered in sores dug by parasitic insects. His back was covered in scourge marks, a whip that was tied to the wall of his cell. When it was placed in his hands, he felt an overwhelming compulsion to lash at himself until he passed out from the pain. His legs had been broken and re healed repeatedly until he could barely walk. The first knuckle of each finger had been removed and replaced with the stingers of a tarantula hawk wasp, so that if he tried to comfort himself with even pressing his face into his hands he would endure unimaginable agony. Bast had curved his spine painfully, giving him a hunched back. A carefully placed aneurysm had slightly impaired his cognitive abilities, just enough where he remembered how sharp his mind had once been and could feel dread at what he had become. Every moment he was fighting tears of anger and pain, fighting them because his tears now contained tiny shards of glass that tore at his eyes when he wept.

Seeing him filled her with horror and the pride of an artist admiring their magnum opus. “Dale. How are you today?” She walked over and gently, caressed the side of his face.

Every day she did this, though usually she came to him. Every day of his torment she personally had brought him food and water and provided a small dose of comfort. A caress on the face. A kiss on the forehead. A soothing balm for a single open sore. He gave her a sneer with hatred burning in his eyes, yet he pressed his face into that hand like a cat with its master’s touch. He hated her more than anything in existence, and loved her more than life itself.

Bast resisted the urge to look at Cassandra. The caress turned into a strike.

“We’re leaving, Dale. It’s not safe here anymore, not for us. And I’m going to give you a choice.” He looked up at her in spiteful adoration. “You can stay here. The army will be quite interested in what I did to you, I imagine. Maybe, in time, they’ll be able to somewhat restore your body, make you something close to what you once were. Or they might finally put you out of your misery.” She caressed his face again, right over where his face still glowed red from her blow. “Or you can come with us. I’ll not promise to end your suffering, but I’ll allow you to weep again, and remove the remaining eggs.”

“Why you want me come?” The broken English made tears begin to well in his eyes, and he shuddered at the pain they brought.

“Because I have one last thing I wish to attempt to do with you. One last horror to inflict. If you come, when it is time, you will accept this horror. Once it is done, if you survive it…you will be allowed to choose your fate. You will no longer be my toy.”

Dale, for the first time since his defeat, met her eyes. Slowly, he nodded.

Bast smiled and gave him a pat on the head. “Wonderful. Cassandra, are you fed?” She nodded. “Then let us go. We have a great deal of work to do.”

Together they headed to meet Vlad. It was time to start gathering their own allies.

Next Page

Strange Cosmology Part 62

Without their special toys stolen from her blood, and with them still being afraid to use heavier ordinance for fear of civilian casualties, dealing with the United States military had been simple. Relatively speaking. Bast stretched her shoulder, where a stray bullet had pierced her defenses. It hadn’t punctured – normal mortal arms fire wasn’t going to put down a goddess – but it had hurt.

In hindsight, she could have just waited for her unexpected visitor to make his way into the base on his own, but she hadn’t known who was coming for dinner. Thinking about it in that way made her laugh.

“Miss?” Cassandra asked at her side.

“Just a stray thought,” Bast said, shaking her head. “I need you to go see if Horus is still waiting or if he decided we are to be foes. If he is still there, let him know he has work to do. I have more important matters to attend to.” She handed Cassandra a paper with Horus’ orders scrawled on them hastily.

“I’m assuming I shouldn’t mention that last part?” Cassandra asked with a smile.

“If he’s still waiting, I suspect you could tell him I find him utterly loathsome and he would still remain, although to to be safe I suppose you shouldn’t.”

Cassandra let out a quick, amused breath. “I’ve known guys like him. This one in high school…never could take a hint. Just…” Cassandra trailed off, and then pursed her lips. “Sorry. It’s not for me to correct you.”

“Cassandra, as long as we are in private, I will never mind you drawing attention to a possible flaw in my thinking. If I wanted mindless agreement, I’d be talking to Horus.”

“Thank you. I was just going to say, be careful with him? Guys like that, if you manage to get through to them you have no interest, can turn into threats quickly.”

Bast regarded her, then nodded. “I will keep that in mind. Do you have an unsettled debt we’ll need to attend to?”

“Oh, no, nothing like that. He just spread nasty rumors, nothing that warrants any kind of payback. I hadn’t even thought about it in years, until this brought it up.”

“Good.” Bast unclenched her fist. “Once you’ve delivered the message to Horus or confirmed his absence, take over monitoring the army outside. But if nothing changes there, wait until I send for you. I think I’ll want to avoid unnecessary interruptions during this.”

Cassandra gave a slight bow and headed off to attend to her duties. Bast turned and headed to attend to her guest.

She’d put him in a conference room to wait for her. There hadn’t actually been a need for him to wait – she could have spoken to him immediately – but Bast believed strongly in the benefit of establishing relative importance. Her visitor had been a god for less time than her, but in other areas was far more experienced. He might get it into his mind that he was the superior in this relationship.

After Enki, Bast had no intention of allowing any other god to believe that.

So he’d had to wait for her, just for a bit. Not too long to be insulting, only a few minutes. “My apologies for the delay,” Bast said as she swept into the conference room, her tone clearly indicating that his acceptance of that apology was preferred but not necessary. “You are not the only being to come calling.”

He gave her a gracious nod, “Of course, Lady Bast. Such things must be handled carefully, especially in such trying times. Were you surprised to see me?”

“Just Bast, if you will. Mortals worry about such titles – I find them pretentious among our kind. And yes,” Bast sat in the chair opposite her guess. “To be perfectly frank, I believed you were dead.”

“As I wished it,” he said, a careful smile on his face. “You did, after all, try to kill me once before.”

“Different times, and different circumstances. I thought you were a monster then. I’ve gained…a newfound appreciation for your condition, Vlad.”

Vlad the Impaler, prince of Wallachia and progenitor of the vampires, lead forward and gave her a fully fanged smile. “I expected you would. How long did they starve you?”

“Weeks,” Bast said, keeping her voice level. “Although I don’t share your precise needs.”

“Oh?” It was good to see him look actually surprised. “I assumed that all others were like me. If not blood, then, what does Bast hunger for?”

“Hearts,” Bast said with a smile, baring her fangs as well.

“Ah. Rather messier than mine, it seems.” Vlad nodded in appreciation. “I wonder if…”

Bast didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of asking, but curiosity got the better of her. “Go on?”

“In my time, we believed strongly in the importance of blood as the source of life, health, and…well, everything that makes us human. Your people, long ago, held the heart in the same esteem. Perhaps that influence shapes our Hunger.”

Bast shrugged slightly. “We don’t have enough information to be certain of anything. It’s an interesting theory, of course, but hardly important.”

“Of course,” Vlad said, his smile dropping to a frown in an instant. “Well, then, to business?”

“Please,” she responded, her voice sharper than she meant. She took a breath before continuing to steady it. “I do have an army camped outside.”

“And you can’t open your doorway.”

She gave him a curt nod. “I assume that’s why you arrived by foot?”

“No. I wanted to approach carefully, to avoid an accidental conflict. It took me some time to relearn how to open my doorway, however. It is still possible, but difficult.” His frown began to fade, returning to the predatory smile from before. “I could teach you.”

“Go on,” she responded. It was her turn to frown. Even before finding his nanoverse, Vlad had been a butcher. After finding it, he had been a monster even before becoming an anthropophage.

“I wish to aid you, Bast. I want to make sure you prevail, and in the process stop the Eschaton from killing off. Or, at least, make sure a stable population persists after the end of the world.”

Bast relaxed. This motive, at least, she could believe. “You want to ensure a food supply.”

“Of course I do. As badly as you want to.”

If she was being honest, Bast hadn’t thought that far ahead yet. Now that the point was raised, however, she realized it was something that had to be done. If she failed to bring her plans all the way through, she would still have her Hunger, and if all humanity did in the process…well, seeing Vlad last time had shown her wat a starving anthropophage looked like. “I’m not a fool,” she said, by way of answer.

“Then an alliance. You help us secure a stable supply of humans, one we can sustain in the event of the Eschaton’s success, and we assist you in learning what you can do now and…whatever it is you’re doing.”

“We? Us?” Bast’s frown returned.

“Oh yes,” Vlad chuckled, a low, rasping sound. “Although I still need to recruit the others, I’m certain they’ll be willing to join in.”

Bast steepled her fingers in front of her face. Anyone Vlad was certain would aid him was likely as monstrous as he was. Then again, anymore, who are you to call someone a monster? She extended a hand. “It will be a pleasure working with you.”

Vlad took the proffered extremity and shook it gamely. “Wonderful. I hope this is the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership.”

“One question,” Bast asked, withdrawing her hand from that clammy grasp and resisting the urge to wipe it on her shirt, “how did you find me? My other visitor had to go to the Curators for the information.”

He gave her a slow smile. Bast took the opportunity as he chose his words to really study his face for the first time. She could see the man he had been in there, but his eyes were a tad too large, his mouth a bit too wide…it looked like his skin was stretched too tightly over his skin. Like a corpse. He really does look like a corpse. “Bast, I’ve managed to hide from the rest of you since before this nation was founded. I have eyes in every intelligence agency on the planet. Finding out what the Americans had here took time, but it was just a matter of time.”

Was it? Bast wondered, keeping her face still. Or did you want to make sure I turned into…this before you made your move? “That will come in very helpful,” is what she said, keeping her suspicions out of her voice. “I suppose you’ll be off to recruit the others?”

“Oh no, not at all. We still need to find out what, exactly you can do. Fortunately…there is an army at your doorstep, yes?”

Bast rose, a fraction of a second before Vlad could. “I want some alive.”

“Of course,” he said with a bow. “I’m sure we’ll have plenty to choose from. Shall we?”

“Oh, yes.” Bast turned and walked out of the room, Vlad right behind her.

I wonder if he trusts me as little as I trust him? Bast knew the question didn’t have an answer, not right now, but wouldn’t be surprised if the answer was he trusted her even less.

She pushed the thought aside. It didn’t matter right now. Dealing with the Army mattered, the plan mattered, Cassandra mattered…

And, first and foremost, her Hunger mattered.

Next Page