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A Debt Repaid
Ryan Smith thought that, as afterlives went, he had seen worse than Nav. The Slavic realm of the dead was not as oppressively dark as the endless war of Helheim, nor was it as imposing as the great caverns of Hades. Mostly, it was barren, the kind of empty, frozen expanse that could only have been imagined by people that had lived in Siberia and wanted to come up with something worse.
Having visited seven other afterlives today, Ryan was developing some definite opinions. He preferred cold and ice to fire and brimstone. Quiet was better than howls and groans from the various inhabitants. And being able to enter without being attacked by an undead army was the biggest selling point of all. So far he was ok with Nav.
My life is so weird, he thought. Now, if I were a death goddess, where would I be?
The only break in the seemingly endless landscape was a bridge in the far distance, and Ryan supposed that would be the best place to start looking for the lady of this realm. Ryan reluctantly began walking away from the doorway to his nanoverse, leaving his exit point further behind with each step and resigning himself to what might be a long search. His bargain with the King of Hell would be fulfilled when he delivered eight death gods and goddesses to the battlefield, and he had hoped that this last one would be relatively easy, but had known better than to expect it.
After a half hour’s walk, Ryan finally drew close enough to see that the bridge didn’t seem to offer much of a clue. On the other side of the frozen river, everything looked exactly the same.
Maybe it’s some kind of mystical thing, he thought. I cross the bridge and suddenly I’m in Morana’s palace, where she’ll give me three wishes and a cup of hot chocolate.
He turned back toward his doorway, just to reassure himself that it was still there, and nearly jumped out of his skin when he heard a voice behind him.
“So…you’re the delivery boy?”
Ryan yelped and whirled around, his heart pounding. A woman had appeared on the bridge, looking over the river. She turned to face him as he took a deep breath and tried to get control of himself.
At first glance, Ryan actually felt comforted. The woman had a matronly look, her soft features suggesting that she actually might be the type to offer warm shelter and a cup of hot chocolate. Then he saw the hard, black pits of her eyes, and wondered if she’d be more inclined to warm someone by tossing them into a fire.
“Morana?” Ryan asked hopefully.
“Yes. And you are?” Her expression dripped contempt, and Ryan swallowed hard.
“Ryan. Ryan Smith.”
“Ryan…Smith,” Morana said, tasting the name. She made a face, as if it was a particularly bitter flavor. “My. They’re letting anyone have a nanoverse these days, aren’t they?”
Ryan reflexively reached into his pocket, closing his fingers around his nanoverse. You’re a god, too, he reminded himself. Sure, he’d only been one for a few weeks, but he still was a god. He’d battled a hundred handed giant, survived Enki’s various traps and tricks, and nuked a small island in Canada, so was he was going to let himself be intimidated by this random death goddess?
Her gaze narrowed, and Ryan realized the answer was absolutely yes. When her eyes flicked down towards his pocket, he felt a flicker of shame on top of the fear, realizing that grabbing for his nanoverse probably seemed weak and childish to her. Sometimes, being a new god felt a lot like being an uncool kid in high school.
“We should get going,” Ryan said gruffly, ignoring his pounding heart and reddening face as he pulled his hand back out of his pocket. “You’re the last one on my list.”
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Ryan realized they were a mistake, and Morana’s eyes flashed in fury. An icy wind rose around her, turning her raven hair into a storm around her face.
“If I didn’t need you to be free from this hell, I’d gut you for that insult,” she snarled. “You dare suggest that I am lesser? I, the bringer of winter, the killer of Yarilo, the mistress of death?”
Ryan swallowed again. He scrabbled for his nanoverse again, needing the reassurance. To hell with looking cool. If you have to fight her…crap. Death gods followed different rules from other gods. They weren’t reliant on their nanoverses, instead drawing power from the souls of the realm they claimed. Within that realm, they were not omnipotent, but they were far more powerful than anything Ryan had ever tried to face before. If Morana decided his insult was worth losing her chance at freedom, he’d have to…
…have to figure out why she was laughing. It took Ryan a second to fully process that Morena’s “angry goddess” pose had completely collapsed, and that she was nearly doubled over with amusement. Again, Ryan felt heat rising in his cheeks.
“I’m so sorry,” she gasped, wiping away tears. “It has been so very, very long since someone new visited my realm. Let alone someone I could mess with. Do you have any idea how boring it can get in here?”
Ryan let loose a deep sigh. “You really…you really had me going there for a bit. I thought you were going to kill me.”
“Oh, oh no. My first chance to walk among the mortal world again? To gain worshippers? Freedom? You’re absolutely safe.” Morana chortled again.
Ryan shook his head. “Well, I know that Arthur has a pretty tight schedule for all this. Mind if we move along?”
Morana nodded and stepped off the bridge, joining Ryan on the frozen plain.
“How is the war in Heaven progressing?” she asked.
“Messy,” Ryan said grimly. “Very, very messy.”
As they trudged across the ice, he thought back to his last visit to the battle.
Ryan had completed his first six pickups as quickly as possible, barely glancing at the battlefield before darting back into his nanoverse. He had promised to free the captive death deities and bring them to join Hell’s army, but watching demons and angels do their best to destroy each other was definitely not part of the arrangement.
However, when he stepped out to deliver Hela, ruler of the Norse afterlife for the dishonorable dead, the demon Ashtaroth had caught his eye and beckoned him over, and it just wasn’t politic to ignore Hell’s general. Especially when they were, at least for the moment, allies.
Ashtaroth raised his sword in salute, and Ryan couldn’t help staring as blood dripped from the sword onto the once pristine fields.
“You’ve barely stopped for an instant,” the demon rumbled. “We appreciate your diligence, but you can spare a few moments to rest, and to appreciate the battle. After all,” Ashtaoth’s eyes gleamed, “this has been millennia in the making.”
“I know, I’m just…” Ryan shook his head. The truth was that he didn’t want to see the battle, but saying so would probably be insulting.
“I thought Graham Island got you used to war,” Ashtaroth said, clearly intuiting the unspoken words.
“Can you ever truly get used to this?”
Ryan glanced at the battlefield, focusing on a tower still holding out against the horde of demons, its defenders in gleaming plate and fighting with spears of light. They looked so proud, so noble, so glorious. Ryan’s allies, by comparison, were a mass of unholy flesh wreathed with hellfire. If this was a scene from a movie, it could not possibly be clearer which side was good and which was evil, not unless the director edited in labels over each faction.
When Ryan had promised to aid Hell in its war with Heaven, he’d been too focused on his own enemies, and his desperate need for allies, to think too hard about his end of the bargain. Now, he couldn’t help questioning his “the enemy of my friend is my enemy” situation.
“Get used to this?” Ashtaroth gave him a wide grin, revealing rows of teeth that gleamed in contrast to his crimson skin. “I was born for this. It’s like asking a wolf if they ever truly get used to the hunt. But I know how it affects you humans. What’s that your people are fond of saying? ‘War is hell’.”
“Puns. We’re standing in the middle of a battlefield, and you’re making puns. You really are a monster,” Ryan said, forcing a smile.
“You certainly didn’t complain when we were fighting for you.”
You were fighting other monsters then, Ryan thought. “I guess it felt different because it was my fight,” he said.
Ashtaroth’s expression turned serious. “And you knew the hows and whys of that fight, and believed it to be of great importance. In this fight, however, it is you who are simply offering support without knowing all the roots of the conflict.”
Ryan paused, considering. Arthur, the current King of Hell, wanted to turn it from a pit of evil and torment into a semi-respectable afterlife. Was this war about that, rather than a simple power grab? Was Heaven trying to force Arthur to take on the role of eternal torturer, maybe? One thing Ryan had learned since becoming a god was that all myths and religions were different-and more complicated-than he had believed.
“I should think you would be less quick to judge without full information. After all, Eschaton, I’m sure you are far from finished confronting those who misunderstand your desire to end the world.”
“It isn’t my desire,” Ryan protested, “it’s my job. And if I don’t do it, something much worse will happen.”
“Still, it will be hard to sit on that high horse, passing judgement, when you’re laying waste to Earth.”
Ryan winced. “It’s different. It will be different.”
“Oh? And please, pray tell, how is that any better than what we’re doing here?”
As Ryan watched, Hela gestured towards the bastion. Swarms of half rotted corpses, the undead monstrosities known as dragur, followed the gesture to descend upon the tower. “It won’t be this horrible,” Ryan whispered.
He spoke so quietly, he wasn’t sure Ashtaroth heard him, until the demon began to laugh. “It’s the end of the world, Eschaton. It can’t be anything but horrible.”
“Right, but I’m…I’m going to do it in a good way,” Ryan protested, keenly aware of how weak the objection was.
“And how does one end the world in a good way?” Ashtaroth asked.
Ryan turned away, back to the battle. The dragur were forming a ramp of their own bodies, allowing the demons to clamber up the tower. He didn’t want to watch but couldn’t look away. You played a part in this, Ryan reminded himself.
Ashtaroth was still waiting for an answer, but Ryan didn’t have it. He had to end the world, or the sun was going to explode, not only ending all life on Earth but making all future life impossible. Ryan intended to find a way to end the world while somehow saving as much of humanity as possible, but so far he had no idea how to do that. “I’ll figure it out,” he said, as much to himself as to Ashtaroth.
The demon rolled his eyes. “As you will.” For a moment, Ryan saw something almost like sympathy cross Ashtaroth’s face.
“I suppose you should be going,” Ashtaroth said after it became clear that Ryan had nothing more to contribute to the conversation. “We wouldn’t want anyone getting the impression this is your war. You have enough complications, and Morena was never known for patience.”
“I can’t argue with that,” Ryan said, turning his eyes away from the carnage. There were already two gods, Moloch and Bast, still at large and opposed to Ryan and his allies. Ryan was certain there would be others. The last thing he wanted was to add Hell’s adversaries to his own problems. With a nod to Ashtaroth, Ryan headed back to his nanoverse.
Soon, he would be done with this whole nasty business and able to get back to ending the world.
For some reason, that didn’t exactly put a spring into Ryan’s step.
Ryan had only given Morana the barest sketch of the fighting, but it was enough to fill the walk back to his door. The stars spun around them as they entered his staging area, the landing platform from which Ryan could oversee his pocket universe, where he truly was omnipotent. The staging area was also where Ryan was able to move his nanovere through space and between realms, in a way he couldn’t begin to understand, any more than he could wrap his head around the fact that he was inside his nanoverse, but his nanoverse was also in his pocket. His friend Crystal constantly told him to stop worrying about understanding everything and “roll with it”, but sometimes it still gave him a headache.
Fortunately, Morana was happy to provide a distraction in the form of a question. “So, Uriel wasn’t blowing smoke? There really is a new King on Hell’s throne?”
Ryan nodded as he walked over to the console that controlled his nanoverse’s movements. “Yeah, apparently. I’ve only met his representatives, but given that Hell’s armies are dancing to his tune, it seems pretty legit.”
“Fascinating. Do you think he’ll uphold his bargain with us?”
“Why would my opinion matter?” Ryan asked. “So far all you know about me is that I’m doing his bidding, and that I’m apparently really, really easy to scare.” He took a second to rearrange the staging area, summoning comfortable furniture, and even a few decorative elements.
Morana chuckled and took one of the seats. “Truth. However, you’re also a god, and you’ve been free to roam about while I have been trapped in my realm. That gives you some credibility.”
“Fair enough.” Ryan said, setting the coordinates for the trip back to the battlefield. “I don’t actually know the terms of your deal. All I know is that my friends and I have to pick you up and drop you off, because that was our deal.”
“Our agreement was quite simple, really,” Morana said. “You see, most of the death gods have been imprisoned for some time, as the result of some nastiness that I’d prefer not to discuss. Any of your sort of god could have used their nanoverses to free us, but few were inclined to do so, and our freedom was always of limited duration. If Arthur breaches the gates of Heaven, he’ll have the power to free us permanently. In exchange for our help in the fight, he’ll free us to gain new souls and walk the world once more. The second, to be honest, was more appealing to me. Nav has become a lonely place.”
Ryan nodded thoughtfully “That’s a pretty good deal on both sides. I think he’ll come through. He upheld his end of our bargain.”
“Oh?” she asked. “And what was that?”
Finished at the control panel, Ryan took a chair across from her. “I needed an army. I had to deal with a bunch of…are you familiar with Varcolaci?”
Morana nodded. The Varcolaci were creatures out of Romanian mythology, a sort of middle point between werewolf, vampire, and goblin. They could tear a man apart like he was made from tissue and found death as inconvenient as an ill-timed nap.
“Arthur gave me a legion to fight the Varcolaci in exchange for transportation services.”
“I see.” Morana tapped her chin. “So, in your agreement, Arthur paid before you did?”
“Yeah,” Ryan said, then frowned at the implication. “You’re worried he’ll back out on you because it happened in the other order?”
“Wouldn’t you be?” Morana asked.
“Well, I’m fairly new to…all of this, really. I don’t know how infernal deals work and what he can and can’t back out of.”
“But surely…oh my. You’re still Nascent, aren’t you?”
Ryan grimaced at the reminder. It was true, he was Nascent, a god that uncovered a nanoverse and was still undergoing the transformation into full godhood. It sometimes felt like it meant he was a child – which, essentially, he was. He didn’t know half of what so many gods seemed to pick up on instinct, his divine senses were not as attuned as those of full gods…oh, and he could die without his nanoverse being destroyed. There was that little detail.
Morana gave him a sympathetic smile. “Apologies. It’s been so long since I’ve met a Nascent, I’ve forgotten…”
“It’s fine. I’m getting used to it.”
“I should try to make it up to you, though,” Morana said. “So, here’s a bit of advice. You might meet someone named Ishtar. She’s likely to try and convince you that you must end the world. It’s absolute-”
“It’s true,” Ryan said firmly.
“Oh dear, you’ve already been taken in.”
Ryan sighed. “I’ve had this conversation four times today. Sorry if I’m a bit short.”
Everyone in the know agreed that Ryan was the Eschaton, the last god of an era. Unfortunately, opinions differed on what that meant. Some believed that meant there would be new gods, with different powers and roles. Others believed that no new gods would emerge. Ryan’s friend Crystal, formerly Ishtar, believed that this meant it was time to end the world. Ashtaroth believed the same, and Ryan was pretty sure that meant that Arthur was on board, but didn’t know for sure.
For his part, Ryan agreed with her. Mostly. Her explanation made sense, and several people had tried very hard to kill Ryan based on the belief that it was true, so Ryan took that as a bit of confirmation. Granted, it wasn’t much to go on, but…
Morana was giving him a wary look, and Ryan sighed. “Look, I’m not going to go crazy and start killing people. I promise. Right now, we’re trying to figure out a way to save people, and we won’t be doing anything rash when it comes to the apocalypse. Can we skip that part of the lecture, please?”
Morana sniffed. “I remember being Nascent. So sure I had all the answers, too.”
Ryan rolled his eyes at the condescending tone. Yes, Ryan, that will convince everyone you’re not a child. Roll your eyes. You should throw a tantrum if you really want to sell it. “So, once you’re free, what are you up to next?” Ryan asked, hoping to change the subject.
Morana sniffed. “Something other than ending the world, I’m sure.”
You walked right into that one, Ryan chided himself. “Oh, thank God, we’re here,” he said as the console started to flash.
“Odd choice of words,” Morana said with a rueful grin, and Ryan couldn’t help but agree with her. He opened the door for Morana, and they stepped out on the edge of the battlefield.
“Well,” Morana said briskly, “looks like there’s still plenty for me to do. Thanks for the ride.” A chilling wind gathered around her as she strode into the fray.
Ryan deliberately turned his back on the fighting, and came face to face with Athena. The Greek sculptors of ages past had done well mimicking her appearance, but no sculpture could have captured her energy and vitality, or her inherent grace. All the goddesses Ryan had met were beautiful, but Athena drew his eyes more than any other.
“Is that the last of them?” she asked, her voice tight. Athena had agreed on the necessity of working with Arthur, but Ryan knew that she was just as conflicted as he was, if not moreso. He felt an urge to reach out to her and offer some sort of comfort, but held back, unsure if she would welcome the gesture.
He was glad he could at least give her good news. “Yup, as long as you and Crystal are done. Where is she?”
Athena jerked her thumb over her shoulder, and Ryan looked over to see Crystal perched on a rock and watching the battle. It was unusual to see her so still. A million years of life apparently left one with little patience for wasting time.
When he and Athena reached Crystal, Ryan saw that despite her relaxed posture, her expression was stormy. “I’m bloody glad that’s over,” she said. “Please tell me you lot are through so we can get out of here.”
Ryan just nodded, and they turned to exit the field. It was time to seek different allies.