Small Worlds Part 238

Athena had shifted her lower body more fully than before, forgoing feet entirely to merge her legs into a single scaled fluke, just like a dolphin’s. She’d shortened her hair to reduce drag, and a wedge-shaped dorsal fin jutted from her back. Her hands were still hands, her arms still arms, but a pair of pectoral fins emerged from her ribcage just below her arms. She’d need her hands to twist reality, to fight – but every other part of this plan depended on her being able to outswim a water elemental, and for that, she needed as much agility as she could manage.

It wouldn’t be enough for long. She’d adapted herself as much as possible to the water. The elemental was the ocean, a maelstrom of hatred given unholy life and a hatred for everything organic. It was not a guided missile. It was a tornado unleashed and set in her general direction. There was a reason that, even against Enki, she’d never considered creating such a creature. Even Moloch, in the depths of his madness, would not risk making something so uncontrolled. It was an act of desperation. It was the actions of a cornered wolf, snarling and frightened.

Of course, in this case, the wolf had fangs that could savage the very fabric of reality.

Athena swam as hard as she could, steering herself directly towards the elemental. It was currently tearing apart a group of Arae and Erinyes, crushing them into a paste in its vortex arms. The moment Athena entered the rage of its senses, the water elemental whirled to face her, ignoring the prey directly in front of it. Come on, you monstrosity. Come on. 

With a roar like a crashing tide, the water elemental surged in her direction. Athena turned on a dime, kicking herself away from the approaching horror.

For a brief, wild, and useless moment, she wished that Isabel was here. Her ability to actually take on the true form of animals, gaining their instincts and skills along with their shape, would make her even better suited for this part of the mission. Of course, the water elemental wouldn’t be coaxed into chasing her. Athena had to do this herself.

The group of sea gods pointed at her approach. Poseidon was laughing at the futility of her attempt to escape. The water elemental was faster than her. It was gaining on her. The other oceanic gods seemed equally amused at her plight. They were grinning, laughing. All except for Eurybia, who was looking at Athena with a concerned frown.

Arrows streaked by Athena from around both sides of the water elemental. Demeter and Artemis. One of the arrows found its home in the distracted eye socked of Eurybia before she could warn the others of what she had seen, and the other caught Nerites in the throat before he could shout more commands to his troops.

Then the subtle weavings Arachne had woven onto the arrowheads detonated in a surge of Air and Flame. A tiny tornado of fire engulfed where they had struck, and Eurybia’s and Nerites’ headless corpses sunk to the bottom of the ocean floor.

That got the sea gods attention. Immediately they began erecting barriers they had neglected, wrapping themselves in a bubble of seawater that caught the next two arrows before they could pierce the skull of another of the sea gods. Two down, Athena thought with a fierce grin. Already the odds were evening, and so far, Poseidon and his minions were acting exactly as Athena had hoped.

Just as the water elemental was closing the distance between it and Athena, four more Athenas appeared, each one swimming in a different direction as Athena turned as hard as she could. The overall effect made the water elemental hesitate, trying to pick the real target.

Arrows still flew through the ocean, keeping the pressure on the sea gods as they detonated against their solid dome of seawater. Hera joined in the assault against their defenses, sending razor blades of stone breaking away from the seafloor and sticking into their barrier. Throughout it all, Arachne wove bands of Fire and Air onto the projectiles, turning them into explosive missiles.

They merely created ripples on the barriers that were protecting the sea gods. The intense pressure of their barrier was more than enough to hold back the assault without difficulty.

The intense pressure the sea gods were commanding would hold back this assault without problem. That was fine.

The plan just called for them to be distracted.

Athena risked a glance back over her shoulder. With their divine support distracted, with the water elemental focused on Athena, the Nereids and Icytocentuars were without support.

It left Hades, Persephone, and Charon unopposed as they began their slaughter. Green fire flew from the fingers of the underworld deities, flames that burned despite the water around them, searing wounds in the sea monsters Poseidon had arranged against them. The remaining Arae and Erinyes surged forward with their king and queen, tearing into the ones that managed to avoid the hadesfire that was being hurled among them.

Athena tore her eyes off the spectacle and surged forward, kicking her fins straight for the sea god’s barrier. Anansi saw her change course and dropped the illusions, once again giving the water elemental a clear target to pursue. It roared and surged after Athena.

Athena flicked her tail, sweeping down low directly over the sea gods and their barrier. Poseidon glared up at her, pointing a finger and shouting something to his companions. She couldn’t make it out through the press of water surrounding them – it was too heavily distorted.

The instant afterward, Athena’s muscles seized up from a sudden surge of electricity filling the water around her. Her jaw clamped shut so hard she swore her teeth would break. Her fingers dug into her palms so tightly, blood began to spill from them into the water around her. Sheer momentum carried her out of the lethal electricity field before it could stop her heart.

That…wasn’t part of the plan. Athena thought, getting control of herself again. Stars of Olympus, that had hurt! She flicked her tail hair, driving herself away from the secondary attack, water blades flying from the barrier and leaving trails of bubbles that barely passed her as they sliced through the area she had vacated.

It was close. She couldn’t avoid their assault for long. She certainly didn’t have the power to stand up to Triton, Poseidon, Ceto, and Thalassa all at once.

Then the blades of water stopped, and Athena glanced back with a fierce grin.

The water elemental had struck the barrier. The barrier the sea gods had woven out of pure water. A barrier the water elemental could tear apart in an instant as it absorbed the increased pressure into its own mass.

An elemental was something you set loose in a general direction, with a single target. It didn’t care who or what you put in its way.

Even its former masters.

The Burning Epoch Part 1

There are some events in history that everyone remembers where they were when it happened. Moments that define a generation, becoming part of their collective consciousness. For most of human history, that has been defined by assassinations, acts of war, and horrific disasters. For the last generation of the modern age, it was the moment the monsters came.

Kurt Weber was standing on his balcony, smoking a cigarette. It was seven in the evening, and monsters were the furthest thing from his mind. He was worried about the bills that were piling up and the fight he’d had with his girlfriend earlier that day. Jessica had texted him, letting him know she was going to bed and would talk to him tomorrow. Jessica never went to bed before ten, and he knew she was pissed.

It was the same old fight they’d had before, although this one had felt nastier, uglier. She didn’t like that he’d quit his job, not without having a backup plan. He got the anger, but if he’d had to listen to another entitled asshole scream at him because of corporate policies he couldn’t change, he would have gone to jail. He would have gone to jail because he would have been guilty of murder. Jessica had said he was being hyperbolic.

She was right, but it illustrated his point.

Today she’d asked him how the job search was going, and he admitted he’d spent the entire day playing video games. He’d tried to explain that he was streaming them, that he was up to two-hundred followers. He could make it as professional streamer, he’d already gotten his first donation! What harm was one day off from the job search? It’s not like there was a deadline.

They’d gotten ugly. She’d called him self-centered and lazy. He’d called her domineering and bitchy.

That’s when she said she’d go to bed, and he’d just responded with a single instance of the eleventh letter of the alphabet, a dismissive ‘k’ that showed how little he cared to hide how badly he’d cared.

He was just contemplating if their relationship of two years was at an end, if this fight was the final proof that they’d both changed so much since college that they weren’t compatible anymore, when the ground began to crack in the parking lot. Fractures spiderwebbed away from the initial spot. Oh shit, Kurt thought, his eyes bulging. It was right next to his car, and-

The cracks collapsed inwards, a sinkhole tearing open the earth. Kurt shouted a wordless denial as his car fell backwards into it, crashing against the sides with a couple others that were in the parking lot.

At first, he could only stare at it with his mouth hanging open. People started coming out of other apartments, and Kurt took out his phone and started to stream, some vague thoughts about having proof for the insurance company forming. “So, this is, um, my parking lot,” he said, struggling to find the words. “A sinkhole just, well, it just opened up. My car…my car fell into it. Oh Jesus. I could have been in it.”

A notification on the corner of his phone informed him his views were jumping. People were sharing this to social media. The only thing people liked more than watching someone play video games was watching someone freak out, and he was definitely doing that. “I…you can see that there are people around, looking…looking into the hole. It wasn’t just my car. Three…three cars in total. Yeah. You can see from, from here that the cars aren’t visible anymore. So, this sinkhole has to be…fifteen feet deep? Maybe more? I don’t know.”

He was up to ten thousand views, which didn’t quite register. He wasn’t being that interesting. Why the hell was this getting so much attention?

“Uh, so. I think I’m going to go out there, get a closer look for you all.”

Kurt turned around to go to his door and opened the sliding door with shaking hands. His phone was buzzing with notifications, but he ignored them. Instead, he stumbled through his living room, nearly tripping over the coffee table with legs that felt like they were made of gelatin. “I’m going to the hole,” he said, throwing open the door and running down the stairs. He only had one flight before he hit the ground level and burst out into the parking lot. A few other residents had appeared.

He glanced at his views. A hundred thousand, and the number was ticking upwards so fast the last digit was a blur. Excitement began to replace fear. He was going viral. He was going viral. It would be incredible. He’d start getting donations soon. If even a tenth of the people donated five dollars…he’d be able to replace his car. His poor, uninsured car. He could do more than that! He strode up to the edge of the hole with increased confidence.

“I didn’t see – all three cars that fell in were empty. I’m sure of it. No one was harmed in the collapse. If you could take a moment to donate, I’d really appreciate it. It would help me replace my car, which was – was swallowed by the sinkhole. I’m sure its totaled.” He leaned the phone forward, careful not to fall in himself.

“As you can see…or rather, as you can’t see, this sinkhole is too deep to see the bottom. It’s about seven pm here in Minnesota, but there’s a street lamp right next to the hole, so we should be getting some light, but…well, I’m turning on my phone’s light, and as you can see, it barely shows any deeper.” He glanced at the phone. Almost a million views. He could imagine what they found so interesting about a hole in the ground. He still was ignoring the notifications that sent his phone buzzing, focusing instead on the stream itself.

He wasn’t seeing the people screaming at him to run. He didn’t know that these people weren’t here for him, they were here for the hole. He had no way of knowing he was the first one to capture live footage of one of these.

But he got an inkling when a sound came out of the hole. A deep, rumbling sound that struck something primal deep within him, the part of his brain that still feared predators and knew what one sounded like. “Oh Jesus, oh Jesus Christ,” he said, but he remembered the stream, and managed to force himself to do more than repeatedly violate the third commandment. “If you were able to hear that – I don’t know how you couldn’t – there was…a sound from the sinkhole. I’m sure it was just…that it was just the earth settling.”

The sound continued, like two blocks of granite being dragged across each other, low and rumbling and far too terrifying to be caused by settling rocks. Kurt swallowed hard, a lump in his throat beginning to form. “Yeah…it’s the earth settling.”

Don’t break, he told himself. Two million views and growing with every passing second. “If you could, while you’re here…donations are always, always appreciated.” He could be rich by the end of this if people donated. “If you’re…if you’re just joining us, a sinkhole opened up in the parking lot of my apartment complex. It swallowed my car. There’s a sound coming from the sinkhole and…oh my Jesus what is that!?”

A shape was charging out of the hole, a shape that moved along the wall, climbing like some grotesquely large lizard. Its head was almost as large as Kurt’s torso. It heard his scream and answered with a roar of its own, that same deep rumbling sound he’d heard before.

All the money in the world couldn’t get him to stand there now. He backed away, still facing the hole, still holding up his phone. Other people in the parking lot that had come out to investigate were screaming too, screaming and running. Kurt wished he could say he was only backing away because of some kind of journalistic integrity, or at least some professional desire to still earn money.

The truth was, his brain had simply locked up with terror, and he couldn’t conceive of anything else than backing away with his phone’s meager flashlight still shining towards the horror that was crawling out of the earth.

It burst out of the hole, and Kurt captured the first ever clear picture of one of the creatures. It supported itself on arms that were long and solid, arms that ended in wicked claws that gleamed in the single streetlamp. It was covered in thick overlapping scales that formed black and blue stripes along its body, a body that was emerging from the hole to reveal it stood on its hind legs, powerful legs. It was built like a dinosaur, with four rows of great spines along its back.

The monster blinked for a moment and tilted its head back, as if registering how immense the world truly was, and let out another bellowing roar, a roar that shook Kurt down to his bones. It was a roar of defiance, a roar announcing to the world that Earth now had a new dominant species.

Then it turned its head toward Kurt, a narrow head like a lizard’s, a head full of teeth as long as Kurt’s fingers. It was easily four times Kurt’s height and twice a long, and a small part of Kurt realized he was perfectly bite-sized for this creature.

That’s when Kurt realized the truth of it. The now ten million people that were tuned to his stream had arrived to see one of these monsters. Many of them had wanted to warn him. They’d probably tried to warn him. But since he was ignoring it, they were content to watch him die. The monster took a step forward, its tail lashing the air behind it, and asphalt crumbled under its step.

The night air was broken by the sharp report of gunfire, a deep sound that echoed among the apartment buildings. Someone on a balcony was shooting at the monster. Most of the bullets bounce off its scales, but one managed to hit a weak point, and red blood that glowed with an unnatural light began to leak from the wound.

The monster shook his head, like a horse bitten by a fly, and turned in the direction of the shooter. It bellowed a challenge to this threat and began to stalk away from Kurt. The shooter was screaming, shouting in defiance or terror.

The creature reared back and opened its mouth, and Kurt expected it to roar again. It didn’t. Instead, its tongue lashed out of its mouth, shooting out like a harpoon, long enough to reach up to the third story balcony where the shooter was. The end of the tongue was like a starfish that wrapped around the man. He had time to let out a startled shriek and then-

-then he was dragged into the creature’s gaping maw. The crunch of bones was sickening, one arm dangling from the monster’s mouth.

The gun the man had been holding clattered to the ground, a few feet from Kurt. Still half paralyzed with fear, Kurt reached for it with shaking hands. In his mind was some vague ideas are about shooting the thing.

Then he found his legs and started to run, screaming, into the night. It wasn’t because the creature was sniffing the air, hungry for its next meal. It wasn’t because he could still feel the man’s blood, warm on the handle of the gun.

It was because a second pair of claws emerged from the pit, another creature emerging from the lightless depths below the earth.

The video would be shared over and over again in the coming days and months.

The day that the kaiju had come.

Small Worlds part 213

“Let’s assume for a moment I’m okay with the idea of generating natural disasters to appease the sun or however this works,” Ryan said, breaking the silence after Nabu’s last proclamation. Also, “I’m not, for the record, but let’s assume that I do. I don’t even know how. I haven’t even touched my Zoisphere since Crystal first showed it to me, and that was before the fight with Enki. That was ages ago.”

“Three weeks is ages?” Nabu asked, raising an eyebrow.

Ryan stopped and stared at him. “Three weeks?” he asked, his voice sounding hollow even to him. Everything that had happened – the fight with Enki, the battle with the super soldiers, delving into the Labyrinth…all that had happened in three weeks? It didn’t seem possible, but as Ryan thought about it, he realized it was actually the correct length. “Damn. It feels like a whole lot longer.”

Nabu chuckled. “You’ve been rather busy, haven’t you?”

“And still getting used to not having the normal mortal time measurements,” Dianmu said. “No breaths as a subtle reminder of the passing of time. No sleep cycle to mark the days. Hopping between time zones in your nanoverse, so you can’t even rely on the sun. No biological reminders that time passes. It took me a couple decades before I really got used to it.”

“Fair,” Ryan said with a sigh. “Okay, so it’s been a few weeks since I’ve seen my Zoisphere, and I don’t even remember much about it. Mind giving me a primer?”

Nabu looked over at Dianmu. “The workings of a nanoverse are only academic to me.”

“I’ll be happy to help,” Dianmu said. She motioned towards Ryan’s console. “Do you recall how to bring it up?”

Ryan nodded, getting up and heading over towards the console. A few button presses and screen swipes, and the zoisphere appeared.

It was a massive globe, seven feet from top to bottom, showing the entire world in exquisite three-dimension detail, right down to the clouds rolling over the landscape. Ryan was certain, as he was before, that if he could somehow zoom in on it, he could see individual people walking about – probably even individual ants. It was the entire world recreated in miniature.

All across the land on the globe, tiny dots were appearing and vanishing. Most of them were blue or red. “Okay, I think I remember how this works,” Ryan says. “Blue dots are someone being born, red dots are someone dying, right?”

Dianmu nodded and motioned Ryan over. “Let’s say you wanted to start a hurricane over the Atlantic,” she said. “All you have to do is grab the Zoisphere and rotate it – go ahead and do so now, you won’t hurt anything until the last step.”

Ryan swallowed a lump of fear and reached up to touch the globe. He could feel the clouds and waves beneath his fingers, although his hands offered no resistance. It took a slight tug, but the Zoisphere rotated until the coast of Africa filled his view. “Now, you need to open your divine sight,” Dianmu said.

Immediately, Ryan could see the world. He could see the equations governing airflow, controlling currents, governing tectonic shift. “Holy crap,” Ryan said with the most reverent tone ever applied to those two words.

“That’s what the Zoisphere does,” Dianmu said gently. “It lets you access the things too big to normally see. You can manipulate them here, but will find it far, far harder to control all the variables than you do normally. If you want to make sure you’re hitting a particular location, you’ll want to start the devastation here.”

“Why devastate?” Ryan said, rotating the globe to the side until Northern California was under his view. “All this power…why would I destroy?” He focused on the equations governing condensation, air currents, and precipitation. They were immensely complex, but he didn’t need to understand them the way he did when normally twisting reality. Instead, he reached out with his hand and grabbed some clouds from Seattle, pulling them down and duplicating them.

When he pulled his hand away, clouds were beginning to gather under his fingertips. In a couple hours, they would form a rainstorm, one that would travel southwards down the state and bring rain to one of the most drought-stricken regions in the world. Ryan turned to Dianmu. “All that power…there’s so much good we could do.”

“And so little time,” Dianmu said quietly. “That storm will bring some relief to the region, yes. But that moisture had to come from somewhere. Seattle will miss its rain very little, but if you did it long enough to stop the drought in California, you’d have to create a new drought in the northwest. The fact remains in this, as in all things, is that destruction is easier. Our powers offer very little shortcuts to creation.”

Ryan sighed. “Oh well. At least I did something good.” He started to move the Zoisphere back into its original configuration.

“What’s going on in Texas?” Nabu asked.

Ryan felt his blood run cold as the echo of the words he’d said to Athena so long ago reached his ears. His eyes snapped to Texas. He didn’t even need Nabu’s outstretched, pointing finger to know where to look.

Grant, Texas. The same city that Bast and Moloch had devastated weeks ago was now, once again, a hotspot of rapidly flickering red lights.

“Bast,” Ryan said, hissing the name through clenched teeth. “It has to be Bast.” Ryan turned around and ran to the console.

“Ryan, what are you doing?” Nabu said, frowning. “You can’t be sure it was Bast!”

“Yes, I can,” Ryan said, working the controls furiously. “Because it’s where she struck before. She went back to finish the job she started!”

“Probably to draw you out,” Dianmu said, crossing her arms as she thought. “She’s probably trying to get you to do exactly what you’re doing!”

“The entire world is at stake, Ryan,” Nabu said, his voice level. “It would be foolish to-”

“No!” Ryan said, looking up from the controls. The fury in his voice wasn’t directed at Nabu, but Ryan didn’t try to contain it. “No, I am not sacrificing a town to get ahead. I’m not letting those people die so I can stay safe. I might have to end the world. I might have to throw hurricanes and brew earthquakes. I might need to let hundreds of people die to give the world enough time to survive, but I’ll be damned before I let a town die because I don’t want to take risks. I didn’t cower when Enki was hunting me. I didn’t skulk away from the super soldiers. I didn’t let Moloch have free run of the Elysian Fields, and I sure as hell won’t let Bast slaughter a small town. There’s no point in saving the world if I don’t do everything I can to save the people on it, and this? This I can do. Are you two with me?”

“Of course,” Dianmu said. Nabu just nodded.

“Good. Then get on your game faces because we’re going to go to Texas, we’re going to open a divine can of whoop ass on Bast, and then we’re going to figure out how to save the whole damn world.” Ryan hit the button to start moving his nanoverse. He strode back over to his Zoisphere and studied Grant. “And I think I have a plan. For once.” He reached out and swirled his finger over the town to get a storm brewing.

He could only hope that they weren’t going to be too late.

Small Worlds part 211

No one spoke on the walk out of Officium Mundi. Ryan couldn’t say what was going through Nabu and Dianmu’s heads, but for his part, it was a mixture of lingering rage at the Curators and shock at Nabu’s about-face. He didn’t know what to say to the man – if that was even the right word.

Thankfully, once they were back in his nanoverse, Dianmu took over the silence. “What was that glowing orb you were given?” she asked.

Nabu gave her a small smile. “It’s all the power I had before, condensed. I can access it to a point, but I’m far more limited now – and it’s a finite resource. Once it’s gone, so am I.”

“Thank you,” Ryan said, finally finding the words. “I…I didn’t expect that. Or anything like that.” Ryan motioned to raise some chairs from the staging area floor for the three of them. “Thank you,” Ryan repeated, knowing how weak it sounded.

“I’ve been considering it for a few hundred thousand years,” Nabu said. “We – or I supposed when talking about the curators I should say ‘they’, now – lost our way at some point. I knew that protocol allowed for rules to change when the Council was in recess. When I realized that’s exactly what they were doing, it was the final straw.”

“And you didn’t warn us?” Ryan asked, careful to keep any accusation out of his voice. Nabu had just given up true immortality, beyond what even gods had, for their sake. The last thing he wanted to do was act like an asshole. Am I even still angry at him anymore? Ryan wondered.

Nabu shook his head. “I still had hope that I was wrong. I filled out the form to make sure I was ready, but I still held hope.” Nabu’s lips curled for a moment into a bitter grimace. “It was a foolish hope.”

No, I’m not, Ryan realized. Thirty years of being followed by Nabu had done damage to Ryan’s life, sure. It had cost him any chance at anything close to normality, and now Ryan had a terrible burden looming over him. But…but the later part hadn’t been Nabu’s fault. Nabu did nothing to guide Ryan to the nanoverse. And having a normal life wouldn’t have left Ryan any better prepared for what he was dealing with now.

“Well,” Ryan said, “foolish hope is pretty much our entire stock and trade, so you’ll fit right in.” He gave Nabu a lopsided grin.

Dianmu nodded and smiled. “I don’t think, since I’ve started working with Ryan, I’ve experienced any hope that wasn’t foolish. It’s worked out in the end each time in the end, though.”

“Thank you,” Nabu said, settling into one of the chairs. It was still weird for Ryan to see Nabu doing anything even remotely normal, like sit in a chair, or have his tie loose, or look tired. “Tell me. Is hunger a sharp pain in your stomach, followed by a rumbling sensation?”

Ryan couldn’t help but laugh. “Yeah, that sounds like it. I’ve got some emergency food for if my Hungers flare up – what sounds good to you.”

“I have no idea,” Nabu admitted. “I’ve never eaten anything before.”

“Never?” Ryan asked, freezing and looking at Nabu with incredulous eyes. “I mean…you have a cafeteria in Officium Mundi, right?”

“For visiting gods,” Nabu said, raising one hand to rub at his stomach. “The last thing we want is hungry gods running around Officium Mundi. You all can cause all sort of problems when you get up in your needs.”

“He’s not wrong,” Dianmu said.

Ryan nodded. “How about an Italian sub, then?”

“I literally have nothing to compare it to, so whatever you suggest,” Nabu said. “I do remember you enjoying those though.”

Ryan got up and went over to the console. Moments later, a refrigerator was rising out of the floor. “Go ahead.”

Nabu grabbed the sandwich and took a bite. His eyes widened. “Hmm. It seems there are unexpected benefits to mortality. Also, my tongue seems to be reporting pain.”

Ryan chuckled. “Peppers.”

“It’s an interesting sensation,” Nabu said. Dianmu motioned Ryan over while Nabu finished his sandwich.

“As amusing as it might be to watch Nabu learn about mortal life, we do have an objective here,” she said, her voice low.

“I haven’t forgotten,” Ryan said, shaking his head. “Was thinking about dropping into my nanoverse fully to give us plenty of time.”

“I don’t think that would be a good idea,” Dianmu said. “He’s not human, and his power source isn’t a nanoverse itself. We don’t know what it would do to him. He might not be able to exist in there – and even if he is, he just lost countless eons of power. Then you want him to give up what little he has left?”

Ryan pursed his lips. “Damn. Didn’t even think about that. But yeah, good catch. Although we probably should figure that out – otherwise we’ll have to know at the worst possible time.”

Dianmu laughed, a light and unamused sound. “I do wish I could tell you that was inaccurate.”

Ryan glanced back at Nabu, who had finished the sandwich in a horrifyingly short amount of time. “Hey Nabu, if we needed to drop into my nanoverse, would that…do anything to you?”

Nabu considered for a moment. “It probably wouldn’t be immediately harmful. Probably. I’d rather not experiment right now.”

Ryan glanced at Dianmu, who gave him the politest ‘I-told-you-so” look Ryan had ever received. “Fair enough. In that case, I hate to rush things, but…”

“But time is running short. You need to know the rules, and you need to know before the sun explodes next week.”

Ryan froze at Nabu’s words. “Next week? Next week?” Ryan shouted, his voice cracking. The old anxiety, so long absent, rose up in his throat like an unwelcome house-guest and threatened to strangle him.

Nabu nodded slowly. “Take a deep breath, Ryan. There’s things we can do to postpone, and I’m hoping that – once you know the rules – you’ll be able to figure out a loophole I’ve overlooked.”

Ryan walked over to one of the chairs and slowly slid into it, taking the deep breath that Nabu recommended. “Alright. Tell me everything.”

Nabu leaned forward and prepared to exactly that.

Small Worlds Part 209

In the chaos that erupted after Hermes arrival, Athena and the others used the ability to phase to exit the cafe before it completely erupted into a full blow riot. Three of the people at the cafe suddenly vanishing into thin air did very little to quell the panic, and the cafe emptied around and through them in a cloud of panicked screams.

“Is that who I think it is?” Arachne asked as Athena and Anansi picked up Hermes, Athena taking his shoulders and Anansi taking him by the knees.

“If you think it is Hermes, you are correct,” Athena said with a grunt. It was that Hermes was heavy, it was just awkward to carry him without grabbing onto any obvious existing injuries. Anansi seemed to be having a similar struggle carrying the unconscious messenger god. We can’t risk hurting him worse, Athena reminded herself.  If Artemis had sent him even through there was so much danger, the fight must be dire indeed.

“And he said he was battling…Poseidon?” Arachne’s eyes were wide as she lead them down the street.

Athena grunted again, and shifted her weight as she realized the shoulder she’d been using to support Hermes was fractured in no less than three places. A soft moan escaped from the unconscious god’s lips.  “A few centuries ago, the Olympians retreated to a paradise they’d built in the heart of Tartarus. Most of them, at least. Hades was trapped in his realm, and I was exiled.” She could see Arachne bite back a sharp comment at Athena’s exile, and appreciated the woman’s restraint. “A little over a week ago, we went into Tartarus to hunt down Moloch. Don’t worry about who he is, it’s not relevant right now.”

Arachne pursed her lips but let that go.

“Poseidon cut some kind of deal with Moloch. Artemis was dealing with it from within the Olympians retreat. He killed Zeus and Ares, possibly others. After Moloch was defeated, Poseidon fled with a few loyalists, and Artemis is in charge of the Olympians until Zeus resurrects.”

“Artemis?” Arachne asked, her forehead furrowing. “You mean your old friend Artemis, the hunter goddess that skulked about and told most people to leave her alone?”

“Yes,” Athena said. They were approaching a hotel, and phased straight through the door to the stairwell. There would be an empty room that could serve as a makeshift infirmary until Hermes woke up, or one of them was able to move their doorway.

“Things must be dire then,” Arachne murmured.

Athena didn’t bother trying to defend her old friend. Artemis wouldn’t care what Arachne thought of her – in fact, she’d probably be livid at Athena for having brought her out – and there was no benefit in contradicting the truth. Artemis was many things, but leadership was not a role anyone had expected from her. What you don’t understand is that Artemis gives any task she has everything she can. She’ll become adept at it because she has to. 

All of that Athena kept to herself, responding only with a grunt.

“Those are shark bites,” Anansi said, almost contemplatively as they climbed the stairs.

“It makes sense,” Athena said. “Poseidon is lord of the sea. It would be in his best interest if he’s angered all of Olympus to hide beneath the waves.”

“And makes engaging him infinitely more dangerous,” Anansi added.

Athena didn’t have an answer to that. Just like tricksters found illusions easier, storm gods could command the winds and lightning with more ease, and war gods were stronger and faster, sea gods could command any manipulation regarding water – or any fluid – as naturally as mortals found breathing. Fighting Poseidon in the ocean wasn’t as dangerous as fighting Enki or Moloch had been, but it was the best analogy for those things before Athena had learned dual nanoverses or millions of years of stored power were possible.

“We’ll be able to help,” Athena said. “By the time we show up, everyone will be deep in their Hungers, including Poseidon. We’ll be fresh and ready.”

“If we help,” Arachne said. Athena nearly lost her patience and barked out an argument – right before she saw Anansi nodding. That put a pause to her tongue.

“We have bigger things concerning us, Athena,” Anansi said softly. “We don’t know how long we have, and we don’t know how great the dangers could be. Wouldn’t it be wiser to conserve our strength until at least the others returned?”

Athena pursed her lips at the subtle barb Anansi had placed in the word “wiser.” Athena had once been regarded as the wisest of all Olympians, but the past few centuries Athena had felt like that wisdom was being eroded under a constant barrage of…well, of life. “No,” Athena said, her voice firm. “You two can do as you will. I won’t pretend it’s smart. I won’t pretend it’s wise. I certainly will not pretend it’s even a good idea. But I will not stand by while Poseidon reaches victory. I won’t lie and claim that I’m doing this because, if Poseidon wins, he could pose a real threat to us during the last days. I believe it, but that’s not why I’m doing it. I’m doing it because my gut tells me it is the right thing to do.”

Anansi nodded. “Then I will go with you.” Simple agreement, and if they hadn’t been carrying Hermes unconscious body up a flight of stairs, Athena would have hugged him.

“I wouldn’t miss it, in that case,” Arachne said with a small smile. “The only Olympian you ever let me meet was Artemis. I think it’d make a good impression if I meet them for the first time by coming to the rescue.”

At that moment, Athena could have hugged her former pupil too.

Small Worlds Part 206

Crystal felt a tug on her hair as one of the serpents managed to find purchase. She yanked her head forward and felt tearing in her scalp as a chunk tear loose in the snake’s maw. Crystal stumbled from the pain and the tug. The stumble turned into a fall, and Crystal saw the ground rushing up to meet her. The snakes surged forward in anticipation of her hitting the ground, fangs dripping with venom.

Crystal dropped the coefficient of friction in the tube into the negatives. She could feel reality push back hard at the violation of every law of thermodynamics, but she held the twist in place. Instead of skidding to a halt, she accelerated as she slid across the tube of air.

Her face pressed into the clear air gave her an excellent view of Isabel and the Typhon. Isabel had bitten into the Typhon’s neck stump and was now rolling with the body. Monstrous flesh shredded at the motion, and the Typhon shrieked at her in blind fury. New tendrils worked to reattach the parts Isabel shredded as quickly as she could tear them apart.

Isabel also bled from dozens of places where the fangs had managed to work their way past her scales, the anticoagulant venom making each pinprick as ticking clock towards her death. Crystal could still feel ichor running down her arm from the earlier bite, hot and sticky. It bounced oddly on the unnatural friction Crystal had created.

The effort of violating so fundamental a law was wearing on Crystal as she sped towards the end of the tunnel. Her mouth was painfully dry, and she could feel her lips cracking from the need for moisture. The pain in her stomach far exceeded the other injuries from the battle, and a heavy tiredness was settling in around her joints, so intense she almost feared she’d collapse before reaching the end of the tube.

On top of it all was a loneliness so crushing it brought tears to her eyes, a desperate need for some kind of contact. A tiny voice whispered in the back of her mind that she could get that contact – all she had to do was let the serpents catch up. She wouldn’t feel alone anymore then – and shortly afterwards she’d feel nothing at all.

She pushed the treasonous thought aside and focused on the platform growing closer in her vision.

Then her divine power winked out. Immediately, the normal friction of the air tube resumed. Her slide had increased to nearly forty miles per hour when the power vanished. It was falling out of a car at those speeds onto a fairly smooth road. Crystal was sent tumbling end over end, flopping along the tube in an undignified roll. Divine resilience left her as well, and she felt something snap in her arm. The pain was more than enough to draw a scream from her lips.

She’d left the snakes behind as she slid, and as she skidded to a halt, mere feet from the platform, they surged forward with ravenous anticipation. Crystal could barely move. So close, love, she thought, glancing at Isabel’s slowing form. Isabel would probably last another few minutes before the Typhon overcame her, then she’d die. Crystal would find herself the Typhon’s plaything, dying and reviving over and over, until her nanoverse collapsed from heat death.

We tried, she thought at the snake heads opened.

They halted mere inches from sinking their fangs into into her face.

Crystal stared at them, dumbfounded, as the serpents began to scream and were dragged out of the tunnel. Slowly, Crystal lowered her eyes to Isabel and the Typhon.

Isabel had turned back into the Tyrannosaurus Rex, and her massive jaws were wrapped around all of the Typhon’s serpents on one shoulder – the ones that had been chasing her. Instead of severing them, Isabel was dragging them back through her own immense weight and size.

It came at a cost. Virtually every other serpent on the Typhon’s back were now latched onto Isabel, pumping their venom into her. Isabel’s footsteps were growing weak, and she stumbled slightly with every footstep. She’d be dead soon.

Don’t waste this opportunity, Crystal thought fiercely, forcing herself to her feet. She was able to take two steps, just enough to get onto the platform where the control panel waited, before another lance of pain from her broken arm sent fracture lines of darkness across her vision, and she stumbled to her knees. Moments later, a massive crash signified that Isabel had collapsed. Don’t waste her sacrifice! Crystal screamed internally. She risked a glance back as she rose to her feet.

Isabel had managed to sever the serpents before her legs gave out, and now the Tyrannosaurus lay on the ground, barely breathing as blood pooled beneath it. The snakes were coming for Crystal again, moving at impossible speeds she couldn’t hope to match – but they had a ways to travel still. Crystal had to only move another four feet.

Crystal brought one leg up under herself, planting the foot firmly on the ground. Another wave of pain, this one accompanied by nausea, and Crystal fought down bile that rose in the back of her throat. Everything in her body was screaming at her to surrender, to lay down and accept it.

Instead, she forced her other leg forward and rose to her feet. The serpents were halfway to her now, hissing in excited fury. Crystal could see the emergency button, red and yellow.

She took a step, her uninjured arm outstretched. It shook with the effort, and Crystal felt like she was walking through molasses. She started to stumble again, and the button began to rise above her head.

With a lethargically frantic flair of her hand, Crystal managed to press the button and collapsed to the ground.

A dome sprung up over the platform, and the snakes broke their fangs against it. A few had been past the barrier, and they were cut in half as it rose. “Isabel!” Crystal shouted with the last of her strength as the walls of the chamber began to glow with sudden light.

“Cleansing initiated,” a robotic voice said.

Then the world went white as the energy of a star going supernova only quarter of a light year away flooded the chamber.


 

I’m making a big push to do this full time. Click here for more information – including getting Thursday’s post right now, and previously unreleased King of Hell artwork!

Small Worlds Part 200

Ryan walked back into the Council’s chamber with leaden feet. The sensation was similar to what he’d felt in high school, when he’d finally worked up the nerve to try weed, and the next day had been called to the principal’s office. Every step had been torture, and he was certain he’d be expelled or arrested. For a few wild moments, waiting in the office, sweating and shaking with anxiety, he’d been certain that somehow Nabu had rattled him out.

It had turned out someone at the school had found his angsty LiveJournal and wanted to set him up with a counselor. Since he’d still been seeing a psychiatrist at the time, it had been a short visit. He’d never touched any kind of drug again after that. Every time the opportunity had arisen, he’d felt that same sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.

This time, the stakes were infinitely higher, and he didn’t see any chance of a last minute misunderstanding saving him. Jegudiel believed it was humanity’s time to die.

He’d talked about it with Dianmu and Nabu before going back in. Dianmu had grimly agreed it was unlikely the Council would relent after that discussion. “It’s still worth trying. Anything is worth trying. The worst case scenario is we are no better than we were when we came here.”

Ryan had nodded and looked over at Nabu. The curator looked worse than Ryan felt, like he might be sick at any moment. After decades of seeing him placidly observe everything, up to and including Ryan’s near death in a car accident, the idea that he was shaken so badly was the last thing Ryan’s nerves could handle at the moment. Nabu had excused himself and left. Ryan hadn’t resented him for that.

No one wants to watch hope die.

“Esteemed members of the Council,” Ryan asked, his voice clear in spite of the sick pit of worry that was gnawing at his stomach. “What did you find with the discrepancy in documentation?”

The robed figures were silent for a moment. Jegudiel had replaced her hood, and Ryan wanted to scream at her for that, call her a coward for refusing to look him in the eyes as she condemned an entire species to death because of the rules.

“Upon careful review of the documentation,” Jegudiel said, “we find that the six hundred and sixty seventh edition of The Handbook for Handling Requests from Fiends, Devils, Daemons, and other Infernal Entities…contained a misprint that leads to this confusion. Per the Thirty Eighth Edition of Documentation Errors, and the Handling Thereof, misprints are not grounds for policy changes so long as intent is clear. The Handbook for Handling Requests from Fiends, Devils, Daemons, and other Infernal Entities clearly meant to refer to the archangel Lucifer, not the human King of Hell Arthur. Therefore, no discrepancy exists.”

“Objection!” Dianmu shouted from where she stood. “The most recent edition of Documentation Errors, and the Handling Thereof, was the Thirty Seventh edition. I reviewed it extensively during our research process. There was no mention made of misprints!”

“I’m unsurprised you were unable to locate the Thirty Eighth edition,” Jegudiel said smoothly. “It was only recently published. But as I’m sure you are aware, the most recent edition holds precedent, regardless of publication date.”

By the way Dianmu’s face fell, Ryan knew that she was aware. “When was it published?” Ryan asked, a terrible anger forming alongside the dread in the pit of his stomach.

Even though Ryan couldn’t see her face, Ryan was certain the look Jegudiel was giving him was sympathetic. “Seven minutes and eleven seconds ago.”

“That’s absurd!” Ryan shouted. “You made changes to the rules halfway through a hearing to make sure you got the desired outcome.”

“Yes,” Jegudiel said simply. “There are policies outlined for doing exactly that.”

“It’s unfair,” Ryan said, hoping he sounded more righteous than petulant.

“The universe often is, Ryan Smith, Eschaton of Earth.” While there was still a hint of sympathy in Jegudiel’s voice, there was no sign of yielding. “We do not exist to make sure that loopholes can be exploited. We exist to make sure things run smoothly. You are commended for bringing this error to our attention, and your name will receive credit in the next forty editions of the Documentation Errors, and the Handling Thereof.

“You can take that book, turn it sideways, and shove it so far up your ass you choke on it,” Ryan said, spitting the words between clenched teeth. The council members began to murmur at his outburst, but Ryan was unrelenting. “You wasted twelve hours of our time –  more – so you could change the rules at the last minute just to fuck us. You could have at least bought us dinner first.”

“Technically, you declined our offer for food by not filling out the required forms,” Jegudiel said.

“Seriously?” Ryan shouted, his voice full of sarcastic fury. “That’s your defense? Damn you all to hell. I know the guy in charge, I’ll ask him to make it especially nasty for you.”

“Your outbursts are out of line,” one of the other Councilmembers said, his voice firm.

“This council is out of line! This whole damn situation is out of line! You know what?” Ryan pointed an accusatory finger at Jegudiel. “Humans may be average. We may be unexceptional. We may be just another species in your eyes. But we are better than you in one important way. We would never sentence an entire species to death because of paperwork.

“Perhaps you would not,” Jegudiel did. “But we are not doing that either. We do not issue the death sentence. Time and the Creator do. We simply ensure the rules are followed.”

Ryan sunk back, fury fading to be replaced by despair. It was over. The Curators would tell them nothing. They had only managed to lose time. I still have no idea how I’m going to pull it off…oh god, I can’t kill humanity!

The door burst open behind Ryan. Nabu stood there, his tie undone, his hair wild, and a piece of paper in his hand. “Esteemed council!” he shouted. “I have one more form to submit.”

Nabu strode forward and slapped the paperwork in front of Jegudiel. Ryan saw the title on it, and he felt a sudden surge of hope he had been certain was dead.

“Statement of Intent by a Class 3 Curator to Go Renegade, 23-P”

 

Small Worlds Part 198

Crystal was lost in a sea of math.

Typhon was focusing one hundred and nineteen heads on her right now, a tangled mass that she could barely sort out. If she’d tried to watch the heads themselves, she’d get distracted in short order.  Based on previous attack patterns eighty nine point three percent probability of strike on lower left side in next point two seconds shift stance nine point three degrees clockwise and lower left blade and –

The calculation didn’t need to finish. Crystal could feel the impact of the serpent’s snout as it impaled itself on her blade. She flicked her wrist to bring the sword up to catch the next attack, this one from the upper left, while swinging her right sword in a wide arc to catch the merged strikes that were coming from that side.

Three more serpents reared back, bloody and confused. At least, the math told her they were reared back, and the impact up her arms told her she’d cut into their flesh. She did her best to only watch the math directly.

It was less distracting than the writhing mass of serpents surrounding her.

Ninety one point seven percent probability of strike from directly above. Crystal raised her sword and was rewarded with a snake bifurcating itself along the point of the blade. She was immediately leaping to take her path over another snake coming for her ankles, swinging her sword to free it from its gory sheathe. A quick spin in the air caused a serpent head that would have plunged its fangs into her midsection to snap shut on her hair. She had to jerk her head to tear a few strands loose.

She’d lost sight of Isabel some time ago, but the occasional shrieks of a bird of prey told her that her companion was still alive and fighting.

Above it all, Typhon was still bringing the massive dragon heads to bare on Crystal. He moved with agonizing slowness when he wasn’t relying on the serpent heads. That’s for the best; Crystal reminded herself, ducking beneath two incoming heads and managing to decapitate one with a quick scissoring of her twin swords. If he was fast, we’d already be dead.

Of course, the problem was they weren’t even coming close to accomplishing their goal. Typhon – even though it technically was just “a typhon”, Crystal struggled to not think of it as a name – was barely even winded, and had Crystal and Isabel fighting for their lives. One point seven percent chance you are not struck within the next ten seconds. That particular probability had been dropping steadily throughout the fight.

And right now, she still had no way to strike at Typhon directly. Come on Crystal, she urged herself. Think. Think of something!

Before she could, a pair of fangs sunk into her left arm. Crystal grunted in pain and tore away, swinging the sword wildly to decapitate the head. It fell to the ground with an audible thump, and ichor began to flow freely from the wound. The toxin’s an anticoagulant, Crystal realized with a start. That was in some ways better than it could have been. It meant she wouldn’t have to contend with a neurotoxin attacking her brain.

It also meant a clock had been put onto the fight. Crystal could cauterize the wounds, but the fangs had sunk deep. Cauterizing would only stop the bleeding on the surface.

Nothing like your impending death to get the mind going.

Crystal grabbed onto threads of reality and twisted. A dome of air sprung into existence around her, and with another twist to reality, she set it up to fling all negatively charged particles out into the mass of snakes. One of the serpent heads struck towards it, and was met with a blast of electricity. It convulsed and hissed in pain as it withdrew.

She’d bought herself a reprieve, but it was a brief one. If she stayed in here for too long, Typhon would shift his attention to Isabel, and this hastily erected barrier would do nothing to stop those intense flames from the dragon heads. At least they’re so slow…too slow.

Typhon was playing with her and Isabel with its snake heads. Otherwise they’d have been surrounded and completely consumed by now. But if it didn’t want to kill them, it wouldn’t have bothered with the dragon heads at all. So why was it moving so damn slowly?

The answer presented itself as Crystal opened up her divine sight. The pillars that were built into the room were buried into the largest masses of Typhon’s flesh. Complex equations ran through them, too complex for Crystal to figure out exactly what they were doing to him, but their broad purpose was clear enough. They were inhibiting Typhon, weakening him. This entire moon base was a prison for the creature, not one built with divine power, but with Lemurian technology.

Crystal launched herself into the air, orb of lightning still surrounding her. Snake heads reeled back from the onslaught, hissing in agony. Typhon himself roared in agony. Enough charge had built up where he could feel it coursing up his body.

“Impudent little godling!” he bellowed in that voice that shook the room like an earthquake. Moonquake. Don’t waste time pondering correct terminology, Crystal told herself.

Those pillars were her primary focus. In the last days of Lemuria, her people had made a concentrated study of the mythological creatures spawned from the deaths of gods and their offspring. Typhon was still alive because he’d been a research project. But her people would have put fail safes in place. A way to permanently put the monster down if it managed to break free.

“Pathetic worm!” Typhon bellowed. He spoke in the tongue of long forgotten Mu, which told Crystal how old the being was. Enough divine energy still lingered in his massive form to where even Isabel would be hearing it in English. Crystal kind of regretted that was true. At least she wouldn’t have to understand the creature’s inane taunts.

Why’s he keeping us alive? That question still tugged at Crystal’s mind, but she put it aside. As important as it seemed, there would be time to ponder it when he was dead.

“I will feast on your flesh,” Typhon growled as the snake heads closed in on Crystal’s field again. Enough of them to overload the electric charge and push through. She reached out and twisted equations again. The field exploded in a sudden burst of increased electricity. Typhon’s roar this time carrier real pain.

She’d turned the air surrounding herself into plasma, which combined with the earlier equations had sent every electron flying outwards. The resulting electricity had carried millions of watts of power, and she’d only managed to just hurt the creature. “You will suffer for your impudence!” Typhon roared.

“You need a bloody dialogue coach,” Crystal shouted back.

Some of the snake heads following Isabel broke off their pursuit and started to chase Crystal. Typhon had heard her taunt and was not amused. It had bought Isabel a bit of breathing room, but made Crystal’s job harder. Worth it, Crystal thought. She just had to hope the kill switch was still working and figure out how to activate it.

If not, she and Isabel would suffer everything Typhon promised and more.

 

Small Worlds Part 189

The trip back to the core world was done in silence. Anansi attempted a couple times to engage Arachne in conversation, but she just stood there, tensely watching Athena, not saying anything. Athena didn’t think she could blame the woman. Last time they had been in the staging area together, Athena had turned her into a spider and left her trapped. I can only imagine what she’s thinking right now, Athena thought.

“We’re here,” Athena said.

Arachne practically ran out of the staging area. Athena had brought them to Athens, feeling taking Arachne to the city that had once been her home was appropriate. Arachne took a deep breath, then immediately scowled. “What did you do to the air?” she asked, looking over her shoulder at Anansi.

The trickster shrugged and answered. “Assuming you mean ‘you’ in the general sense, a lot has changed while you were gone. Technology has advanced greatly. With it has come pollution.”

Arachne’s scowl deepend. “I’m familiar. It happened whenever a world industrialized in that hell. I just thought it was a reflection of how toxic the universe’s mistress was, not a natural phenomena.”

Athena winced but didn’t try to argue.

“I hear…vehicles?” Arachne frowned. “Yes, vehicles. Once that still burn fossil fuel, from the smell.” Arachne sighed, and shot Athena a glare. “You would bring me out during the worst era of a civilization’s life cycle. At least tell me vaccines are around?”

“Uh,” Anansi said, clearly thrown off his feet a bit by Arachne’s concerns. “Yes, although there’s a movement right now claiming they’re bad.”

“Of course there is. Of course.” Arachne sighed. “Good to know we humans are still capable of immense stupidity. Oh well. Maybe I’ll enjoy this era more being able to participate in it, as opposed to watching it from a web. Have we split the atom?”

Anansi nodded.

“Then we can’t be too far from cold fusion. Things always get better after cold fusion is discovered.”

“Well, we might not get to that point.” Anansi said with a grimace. “It might be the last age of the world.”

Arachne frowned. “Explain,” she said.

“The world is facing a unique apocalypse. The last nanoverse has been found, and the Eschaton has to end the world or the sun will explode. We’re trying to find a way to preserve humanity in the process.”

“You jest,” Arachne said quietly.

“I wish I did.”

Arachne turned her gaze to Athena. “It wasn’t just guilt,” she said softly, studying Athena. “You…you were worried you were out of time. You thought you might not survive, and didn’t want to die with what happened to me weighing on you.”

“And I didn’t want you to die if my nanoverse was destroyed,” Athena said between dry lips.

“Of course you told yourself. Stars of Olympus, is there anything you don’t do out of guilt?” Arachne asked.

Athena turned away, unable to meet Arachne’s gaze anymore. You didn’t do this because you thought it would be easy, she reminded herself.

“What did you tell people happened to me?” Arachne asked.

“I told them…” Athena took a deep breath. “I told them that you outwove me. That you challenged me and bested me, and for that I transformed you into a spider. I wanted to look like the arrogant one, the wrathful one.”

Arachne studied her for a moment, then shook her head. “I’m impressed. You’ve actually convinced yourself of that. Tell me, Athena, when people tell this story, is it a story of your wrath? Of your arrogance? Was the story told with the moral of ‘do not draw Athena’s ire, she’ll turn you into a spider’? Or was the story about my hubris. How I challenged a goddess and was punished for it?”

“I tried to keep the lesson-”

“You are a goddess! I refuse to believe you ‘tried’ to keep it anything and failed.” Arachne’s hands were clenched into fists, the knuckles turning white. The trembled in rage, and Arachne’s back was stiff.

Athena again looked away. Anansi was still nearby, watching with a neutral expression. He probably thinks I deserve this, Athena thought. He’s probably right. Why had it taken her so long to free Arachne? Why had she just left the woman to rot?

“Do you remember my Trial, Athena?” Arachne asked.

“Of course,” Athena whispered, her voice hoarse. “I wanted to teach you…I was trying to teach humility, so I gave you an impossible Trial, to defeat me. You found another way to win.”

Arachne gave her a nod. “I never completed my Trial. I want to, right now. I will not have any ties remaining between us. I will fight you, I will defeat you without any external aid. Then – and only then – do I want to hear more about this supposed apocalypse.” Arachne looked around. “We’ll have to go somewhere else. Are there still empty spaces in this world, where we can fight without collateral.”

Athena nodded. “There’s somewhere nearby. You won’t need to use my staging area to get there.”

“Where is it?”

“The same site of your first attempt. It was always too rocky to be worth building on.”

Arachne nodded and began to set off on foot in the direction Athena indicated. Athena turned to follow, but felt a gentle hand on her elbow before she could start to walk. “Are you sure this is wise?” Anansi asked in a low voice. “Arachne has every reason to want you dead. Or worse.”

Athena calmly shook her elbow free. “It probably isn’t. But it must be done. It’s only right I deal with the consequences of my crime.”

“As you wish.” Anansi turned to follow. “I’ll officiate this fight. Someone needs to. And you will give me your nanoverse to hold for the fight. I refuse to allow you to risk your life, especially right now.”

“And if I don’t?” Athena asked.

“Then I’ll shall chastise you until you eat your heel.”

That got a glimmer of a smile out of Athena. “Very well. Thank you.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out the black sphere, giving it one quick squeeze for power before handing it over to Anansi.

Then she left, heading to a battle that was five millenia overdue.

Small Worlds Part 186

Stars danced as Athena and Anansi stepped into Athena’s staging area, the doorway clicking shut behind them. “There’s something I don’t understand,” Anansi said as they wove between the pillars. “If Arachne has been in here since the age before even ancient Greece…well, haven’t you had to reset your nanoverse since then?”

Athena pursed her lips. “Yes.”

Anansi waited for Athena to elaborate. When she did not, he sat down on one of the chairs and rested his head on his hands. “How is such a thing possible? I’ve seen and created plenty of impressive life forms in my nanoverse, but never one that could survive the Crunch.”

Athena approached the altar that served as her console, running her hands over the lettering. Ryan had told her that she should modernize the display, take advantage of familiarity with videos and touch screens and keyboards to give her a more flexible control option. He hadn’t understood. Athena had been using this method for controlling her staging area for thousands of years. Trying to learn a new system was like trying to believe a river would flow uphill without a twist to manipulate it.

“I made her existence a fundamental law of reality. She was woven into the fabric as intrinsically as gravity. When the Crunch happens, her experience stops, and it begins again as soon as life has evolved.”

Anansi let out a low whistle, watching the stars begin to move around them with more purpose as Athena navigated them. “That would make her as much as part of your nanoverse as you are.”

Athena nodded. “Before we can recover Arachne, I’ll have to change that. It will be…delicate work. I was very careful to make sure she lived.”

“As a spider this entire time?” Anansi asked.

“Yes.” Athena was glad she could look down at the console to avoid her companion’s gaze. “It’s been…trillions of years from her perspective. She’s lived through dozens of Crunches. A spider’s mind was a filter, a way to keep her mind from snapping. If I hadn’t she would have gone mad.”

“Of course,” Anansi said, and Athena was relieved to note there was no judgement in his voice. No agreement either, just a calm statement of fact. She’d take that right now. “Is that the planet?” he asked as one zoomed into focus.

Athena nodded. It was a beautiful world, a paradise. It always was. This time the world was a mostly oceanic world, peppered with hundreds of islands covered in dense forests. Carefully laid out currents in the oceans carried warm water across the globe, keeping the tropics from becoming too hot and the rest from being too cold, with a few vertical currents carrying cold water down to thermal vents deep in the sea where it would be heated back up. Single biome worlds were the hardest to maintain, but every iteration of her Nanoverse, Athena made sure there was at least one where the entire globe was perfect for spiders.

“Local sentients haven’t developed too far technologically,” Athena said, “although their boating is far ahead of where humanity was at the same technology level. Unsurprising, I suppose. We shouldn’t need to interact with them much, however.” Athena dropped the ship into real space, and the planet’s orbit slowed as they synced up the time streams. She pointed to a tapestry on one of the pillars, that was now showing a vaguely humanoid form with purple skin, long prehensile tails, and a third eye in the center of its forehead. “This group is the dominant ethnic group of them. The Skabin. I’m going to adopt one of their forms.”

“Change me into one, too?” Anansi asked. “I’d like to blend in.”

Athena nodded and changed them both with a simple thought. She could still see hints of Anansi’s features in the three eyed face, and had left traces of her own in her adaptation of the shape. “I’ll also translate for you if we need to interact with them.”

 

Anansi nodded in thanks. “So what do you need to do to…unfix Arachne from the fabric of your nanoverse?”

Athena gave a shaky laugh. “Honestly? I need to be ready for what comes next.”

She earned a sympathetic look for that comment. “Athena. You did a terrible thing to Arachne. You know that.”

“Thanks for that, Anansi.” Athena said with a frown, unable to keep the sarcasm from her voice. “I feel so much better now.”

Anansi held up a finger. “I started that poorly, but wasn’t finished. Yes, you did a terrible thing. But you’re here to make it right. You’re here to correct the error that you made. There is an honor in that.”

Athena drew a ragged breath. “What was I thinking?” she said quietly. “Why did I think this was just?”

“Did you ever, truly?”

Athena paused to consider, then shook her head. “I suppose not. I didn’t think it was just, but after what she did I was supposed to kill her. I couldn’t do that to her, and I couldn’t end all those lives in her nanoverse. This seemed like the gentler option.”

“Then you did it with a good reason, and you did it to protect the innocent. There are worse choices one can make, Gray-Eyed Athena.”

Athena stared at the world, a tropical paradise she’d created over and over again in a variety of forms to ease her guilt. “I don’t think I get to say what I did was okay. I think only Arachne can decide that.”

“I think there is wisdom there,” Anansi said with a kind smile. “However, you have every right to decide that you will not be haunted by what you did, so long as you improve.”

Athena nodded and took another deep breath. “Let’s go planetside.”

 

“Don’t you need to correct how she’s woven into your Nanoverse?” Anansi asked, then nodded in sudden understanding. “No, of course. You just wanted to make sure you had time if you weren’t ready.”

 

“Yes,” Athena said. “I fixed that the moment we entered. Are you ready?”

 

“As long as you are.” Anansi said.

 

“I’m not. I don’t know if I’ll ever be. But I’ve made her wait for aeons for this. I’m not willing to wait any longer.”

 

Anansi nodded in approval, and they headed into the atmosphere to find the lair of a spider who had been a goddess.