To the End of the World and Back
Nighttime, above and below, with a luminous cosmic river floating somewhere in between, carrying myriad fine ships within its drift. Stars twinkled, serene as ever, obscured only by the luminescence of the finest ships of them all, carefully sculpted from cedar planks and radiating with the clear light of the sun itself.
A shadow slithered across the sky.
Bastet tracked the shadow with her eyes, her pupils narrowing to slits, her ears pointed forward, straining to pick up any noise, and her hands gripping, white-knuckled, on the railing of her barque.
“Turn around,” she ordered her ship. The ship began banking, far too slowly for Bastet’s taste. She never recalled its reaction time being this slow. But that concern would have to wait.
As the shadow passed below her ship, she quickly paced to the other side, anticipating its path, determined not to let it out of her sight. Restless growling and yowling echoed her mood. The countless felines that called her vessel home didn’t part fluidly for her as she expected. Had she not been a goddess, she would’ve tripped over them. There was no time for this!
“Out of the way!” she snarled. Finally they obeyed.
Halfway across the deck, a powerful vise of pain cinched around her, weakening her knees. She lurched forward but remained standing, shutting her eyes tightly, hands instinctively clutching her belly. After several deep breaths, the pain started fading. She opened her eyes and quickly finished her path across the deck, searching above and below intently for the shadow. Instead, what she saw was the Queen of the Nile’s prow pulling up beside her. It slowed to match the pace of Bastet’s vessel, and the docking ramp began to emerge.
The goddess wasted no time. She strode to meet the two figures – one robed in elegant white clothing and the other covered head to toe in jewelry that sent up a harmonic tinkling with every movement – who had only just set foot on the lush carpeting that coated her deck.
Bastet put a hand on Isis’ shoulder. “Mary, Apep is on the move. Warn everyone. I can hold him off for the time being.”
Isis shared a glance with Hathor. “The stars warned us Apep would act soon," she said. "Perpetua’s sons and mine are ready to ready to act at a moment’s notice.”
Hathor stepped forward, her eyes pointedly flicking to Bastet’s belly. “It looks like your son is too.” The edges of her mouth curled her snout a little. Bastet never understood how her sister could smile even in the most serious of times, though she knew that Hathor took this as seriously as she did.
“Nonsense. The contractions are still at least five minutes apart, and I’m closest to Apep. I have time.”
The cow-headed goddess turned to Isis, her smile turning a little helpless. “I told you.”
Isis nodded in concession. “You certainly know her.”
A spike of irritation lanced through Bastet, reflected in a brief growl of her feline entourage. “If you’re going to waste time speaking as if I’m not here, then I will proceed with the more important business of protecting the cosmos.”
“Easy,” Isis said. If Hathor’s statement sent a spike of irritation through Bastet, Isis’ attempts at soothing her turned it into a sharp new peak. “We three are all closest to Apep – and you aren’t the only guardian among us. Please allow me to take up arms this time, and allow Perpetua to accompany you to Benben.”
Bastet could feel the fur on her neck bristling. It was clear that Isis, in her usual deft manner, was stepping around directly giving her an order. That was worse than actually giving an order, because Bastet couldn’t call her on it. The cat goddess decided instead to lift her chin to make it clear that she wouldn’t be moved by Isis’ “plea.”
“As your aunt, Mary, I cannot allow you to—”
As if on cue, another vise of pain gripped Bastet, stealing away in an instant the poise and grace that she was so accustomed to displaying – that was so key to adding the proper note of command to her retort. The other two goddesses each grabbed an elbow to support Bastet.
“As your sister, Felicity, I cannot allow you to continue like this,” Hathor said, humor edging her voice.
The withering glare that the goddess of cats sent was not as effective when marred by pain. Not even the chorus of growls and hisses from the felines that surrounded her could change that.
Before Bastet could recover, Hathor and Isis nodded to each other. The cow-headed goddess helped escort her sister across the deck to the lush chambers that waited below. The other quickly crossed the gangplank to her own vessel.
“Ship,” called Hathor. “Please take us to Benben.”
As the barque began to turn once more, Isis’ vessel sped forward to meet the shadow in the sky.
Angela never imagined this would be her downfall. And yet, as she found herself falling to the ground, only able to hear the legion steadily gaining ground behind her, she could swear she saw her life flashing before her eyes. Flying off the bicycle and fracturing her femur at 10. Spraining an ankle hiking up Half Dome at 12. Breaking both wrists after falling off the roof of her school at 14. Concussion from running smack-dab into a lamppost in Ireland at 15. Being run through by a katana, savaged by a Filipino vampire, and hit by a Russian police car, all at 18. Wow, she sure was injury prone. Wait, why wasn’t she remembering good stuff? Like that gorgeous Irish nurse with the amazing accent, sharp wit, good sense of humor, and incredible hair, who made Angela realize that she could fall in love with women. Or like the first time she and Naomi held hands. Their first kiss. The first time they—
Every last bit of breath slammed out of Angela’s lungs as she hit the ground, hard.
“I got her!” shouted Sofia.
Though Angela swore she’d put a good distance ahead of the other girls, she felt another and another and a final child tackling her to ensure that she wouldn’t escape. Another small pair of feet tapped on the lawn, this time at a walking pace, circling around her until they were right in front of the fallen Scion.
Angela felt a light hand on the top of her head.
“You’re it!” said Maureen, her voice filled with nothing but glee.
At once, the girls leaped off her, giggling raucously, and disappeared in different directions. Angela did not move from her spot, taking a moment to remember how to breathe and then another to wonder how little girls could develop such refined bait-and-switch tactics. What was a fun game became a terrifyingly coordinated hunt.
Yet another set of footsteps crunched on the grass.
“I can’t play anymore, I’m dead,” groaned Angela, her voice muffled by the ground.
“Looks like I’ll have to pay a visit to your uncle, then,” said Naomi.
Angela shifted her face from being planted in the dirt to looking at her girlfriend.
“You’d do that for me?” she asked, smiling like a doofus.
Naomi mirrored her smile—with that small, mysterious one that made Angela melt every time—and proceeded to help her up. “Good to see you having fun again.”
“You call that fun? I was running for my life. Those girls are scary.”
“You let them catch you.”
The tomato timer rang, signifying the end of recess. Naomi gathered the children up and ensured that they got to the Reading Room in time for Sustained Silent Reading. Lisa was in charge of the kids now, leaving Angela to take Naomi out for an early lunch.
Well, “out” was a relative term. Ever since the Olympics, their dates were limited now to somewhere in the vicinity of Professor X’s School for the Gifted to minimize the paparazzi and FBI agent encounters. In fact, the entire entourage was kind of stuck here—Abel, Jeff, Crook, Cyril, and even Rabbit. But there were a lot of woods in Woodside—predictably so—which meant there were plenty of places to have a picnic.
Wasn’t much else they could do. Liz had gone a little nuts and destroyed the satellite and televisions not long after the Olympics, muttering something about poisonous information infecting the brain.
So they sat among the branches of a tree (despite the fact that it was unusually windy), enjoying the view, quietly eating Chinese takeout. It wasn’t very fancy, especially when compared to the dinner Naomi had made for their one-year anniversary just last week, but Angela had blown most of her cash for the gold-and-turquoise necklace that Naomi currently wore. She was very good at deadpan, but Angela had gotten pretty good at reading her. And boy was she surprised. Angela had felt no deeper sense of satisfaction than watching her eyebrows quirk ever-so-slightly, her lips part just a tad, her body straighten just an iota more than it had been before. Well, no deeper sense of satisfaction, that is, until some time after dinner…
“I want to adopt Leanne and Maureen,” said Naomi.
Angela’s reverie was so suddenly broken that she started and, for a brief, vertigo-inducing moment, nearly fell off her branch. As it was, the spring roll she’d been idly nibbling on slipped out of her chopsticks and into her lap.
“Okay…” said Angela, gracelessly fishing for her fallen food. “Um… I guess there’s no legal system stopping you. Though we’re not leaving at all anyway.” Her mind, now currently engaged on the discussion at hand, began to kick into gear. “You’re here at the camp all the time, too. So isn’t it kind of just a formality at this point? What about the other kids? That’s, like, favoritism, which is kind of unfair to the rest, don’t you think? I mean, the twins really seem to have taken to you—”
“—so I guess I can understand, but what kind of message would this…” Angela halted in her tracks. The spring roll slipped, forgotten, from her fingers to make the rest of the journey to the ground. She faced Naomi directly, to ensure she didn’t just imagine things. “Wait, what?”
Naomi was already regarding her. Her expression was as inscrutable as ever, making Angela wonder if she really knew how to read her girlfriend.
“I’m not the only one they’ve taken to,” she pointed out mildly.
Angela could feel the blood draining from her face. “B-but I’m only 19—still a teenager! I’ve only been out of high school for, like, three years, and that’s only ‘cause I took loads of credits!” Uh oh, there it was… the verbal diarrhea was beginning… “You know me—I don’t have any of my shit together—I’m, like, the least shit-together-est person ever, I mean I was kind of a big wreck after Hayden—well, you know—and I was so awful to you and everyone else and how the hell am I supposed to even take care of kids when I don’t know how to take care of myself, plus I only just barely finished programming Oracle and it still needs a lot of testing—yeah, we’ve still got the Order to worry about if we can even manage to get a hold of Harry and the crew who kind of vanished out of nowhere and then if we manage to take the Order down and if I’m still alive at that point I might need to start thinking about what kind of goddess I’ll be and then—I mean this is thinking way ahead into the future but we aren’t even married yet—“
“Yet?” There was that small smile again.
The blood surged back to Angela’s face with a vengeance. “Well, I-I mean… h-hypothetically speaking, of course, we’ve only been together for a year and I’ve only given it a little thought and—”
Naomi put a finger under Angela’s chin and shut her up with a brief kiss.
“You’re right, there is a lot to worry about first,” she said once she could get a word in edgewise. “I’m not in any hurry. I just want you to think about it. Okay?”
Angela nodded dumbly. Naomi paused, her expression shifting from amused to stony.
“We need to get back,” Naomi said. “Now.”
Danger. Her charges were in danger. It was like an alarm in Bastet’s mind, cutting through the pain that clouded her thoughts. She had to get to them. She began drawing her power forth—it would only take a little to get there—
“You need to start bearing down now, Felicity,” said Hathor. “Deep breath in…”
“My name’s not—” Bastet couldn’t finish her statement.
Sofia had called Dad, just like she’d been told. And then she punched a lot of monsters to make sure everyone got out okay. She kinda lost track of exactly how many after about 20 or 30. There were monsters pretty much everywhere. But that was okay because no one was hurt too bad, Miss Simon and the baby inside her were safe, and Dad was on his way.
She wished Harry was here, though. And Sanura. And Victor. And Malif.
A big bad wolf snapped at her. She put her metal arm up and let it hurt its teeth on that, then picked it up and threw it over the trees. It flew away until it was a speck in the sky—it was probably gonna land, like, a mile away. Maybe a little more because it was super windy and she threw it in the direction the wind was going. Two miles was her record, according to Harry, but that was with a football.
But there was a dent in her arm. Weird, because bigger and badder things tried to hurt it and didn’t even scratch it. That wasn’t good. At least it didn’t hurt.
“Shiiiiit,” said Jeff as he looked in the direction the wolf flew. “I think I’ll stick with you.”
Abel nodded, tucking the rabbit cage under his arm.
“Now that you all have your Relics, everyone to the bus, please,” said Miss Simon. She was good at keeping a cool head, as Dad liked to say. Sofia noticed this helped the others keep a cool head, including the grown-up people like Carmen and Lance and Susan. “Stay with your buddies.” She looked at Sofia. “Are you okay, Sofia?”
“Yep!” the girl chirped. “Don’t worry about me.” To prove her point, she stomped the ground. The dislodged dirt collected around her and hardened to her special armor, even though the wind was blowing harder and taking a lot of the dirt away with it.
Miss Simon nodded, then glanced at Naomi, who was holding her magic bow, and Angie, who didn’t really have any weapons. They nodded and then everyone started walking calmly to the bus.
A long shadow crossed over the group. Sofia looked up… and up… and up…
There was a giant colorful snake flying in the sky, headed straight for them, even though its eyes were looking somewhere beyond them. It must’ve been a mile long and a mile around. And the wind was growing more and more powerful as it came closer.
She knew this monster. This was the Great Coatl, the daddy of all evil coatls. It wasn’t supposed to be here, in the World. Which meant that something very bad was happening in the Titan Realms, which meant that something very bad was happening with the gods.
Dad wasn’t here yet. He couldn’t protect them from this monster if he wasn’t here. And they wouldn’t get to the bus in time. Everyone—Angie, Naomi, Jeff, Abel, Miss Simon and her baby, all of Sofia’s friends, even Sofia—could die if nobody did anything about it. But, if Sofia could challenge and fight the Great Coatl… maybe all her friends could escape…
… And only Sofia would have to die.
Sofia got scared.
She knew she was going to end up in the Underworld, where Uncle Hades lived. And she knew that it was underground and that Charon probably wouldn’t take her across the river because she didn’t have any money. Maybe if she made it across the river, Cerberus might let her in. Or she could ask Hecate to let her in. Or maybe she could find Persephone’s Grove and stay there a while. All that was okay. That wasn’t the scary part.
The scary part was she didn’t know how she was going to die. Was she going to be squished by the Great Coatl’s tail? Was her head gonna be bitten off? Was she gonna be swallowed whole and digested over a thousand years? Whatever it was, it was probably gonna hurt a lot. Or worse: what if that didn’t save her friends? She wasn’t a superhero. She knew that. She hadn’t been able to save Hayden, and there wasn’t even a big evil monster to fight there. She wasn’t sure her punches would hurt the Great Coatl. What if it killed her in just a second and then went to kill everyone else?
But if she didn’t fight, they’d die anyway. So it was kind of silly to let her scared-ness get in the way.
“Mr. Jeff, Mr. Abel,” said Sofia, as serious as she possibly could while still having to shout over the wind. She slowed to a halt.
They turned towards her. Abel looked like he was asking her a question. Jeff actually asked the question.
“What’s up, mini She Hulk?”
“I’m going to fight the Great Coatl.” She tried to sound like her Dad because he had a way of stopping arguments by just the sound of his voice.
“That thing?” Jeff shook his head. “No way. I mean, you’re fuckin’ awesome, but you can’t possibly hope to even scratch it. You should stay with the rest of us.”
“No, there’s not enough time,” said Sofia. “I’m gonna fight it and everyone’s going to get away. Except me.”
Abel’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped a little.
“I said no way, missy. Mr. X would kill us, anyway.”
Sofia crossed her arms. “No he won’t. You can’t stop me because I’m way stronger than both of you combined. And I’m stubborn too. Dad knows all that. So he can’t blame you. I’m gonna go now. Make sure everyone gets on the bus.”
“Shit.” Jeff stared at her a moment. He looked like he didn’t know what to do. Abel looked like he knew he couldn’t do anything. They were gonna be sad. But at least they would still be alive to be sad.
The girl hesitated, then added, “Tell Daddy I love him to the end of the world and back.”
She then turned and, with a single bound, leaped on top of the tallest building she could find nearby that was right where the Great Coatl could see her.
After that, she cupped her mouth and shouted at the top of her lungs, “HEY UGLY! I BET I COULD BEAT YOU UP!” She learned a lot from watching Victor.
The Great Coatl looked like it was beginning to slow down, the winds dying around it, the rest of it coiling behind, its scales shimmering in the sun like a bunch of little rainbows. It was actually kinda pretty. For a monster.
“YEAH! YOU DON’T LOOK SO TOUGH! I’LL TIE YOU IN A KNOT!”
Its snout drew closer and slowed until it was not so far away. Then its nostrils widened and it sniffed her. So she coiled up and then jumped forward to punch it in the nose as hard as she possibly could.
It seemed to take forever. Her heart pounded as she flew in the air, but she felt strong, really strong. Stronger than ever. Even though she knew she didn’t stand a chance… maybe she could hurt the Great Coatl after all.
Its head snapped back. She landed back on the rooftop.
“HAH! SEE!? I WASN’T EVEN TRYING!”she jeered. Idly she wondered if the Great Coatl could tell if she was lying like Dad could.
It shook its head and hissed angrily at her. Then it pulled back. She knew it was getting ready to strike. And she wasn’t sure if she could dodge it, or parry it like Victor taught her. But whatever happened, she wasn’t going to close her eyes. Because you never ever close your eyes to your opponent. Dad taught her that one.
And then suddenly Dad appeared.
He shoved her back with his left hand, bringing his right arm around, without thinking, to block the Great Coatl.
And it bit his arm off.
Sofia had barely even heard her Dad raise his voice. But now he was screaming in pain, holding his stump as if that would keep all the blood in. And the Great Coatl was pulling up and circling around to get ready to strike again.
She didn’t see much more after that. She was too busy screaming and crying. She wanted to tie up that that stupid Great Coatl in dozens of knots, to bash its head against a rock over and over until its brains spilled out, to go to its nest and stomp on all its eggs so that no coatl could ever hurt her Daddy ever again.
Someone very strong pulled her back before she could hurt the Great Coatl.
“Sofia,” whispered this person in her ear, his voice a deep, low purr like some kind of big cat. It was weird, but she felt herself beginning to calm down. She didn’t really want to kill the Great Coatl anymore. “It’s finally time for us all to meet our Fates.”
The man released her and stepped forward. He looked a lot like Dad, except meaner.
“A worthy sacrifice, my Ichtaca… my secret.” He didn’t look at all like he was worried about Dad not having an arm. “Are you ready to serve your family?”
Dad looked up at the man, looking angry and hurt and sad all at once. “I am.”
He rose unsteadily, fumbling in his coat with his only hand for something. But then he glanced over the man’s shoulder at Sofia. The man did too, but didn’t turn all the way.
“Sofia, whatever happens, remember that I love you to the end of the world and back.”
The other man raised an eyebrow. “Now run along, girl. Your friends need you.”
Her friends! This man was right! Maybe they got to the bus by now! But wait—Dad was hurt! She couldn’t just leave him! Except protecting her friends was something she could do now, probably without dying. And maybe this man would help her Dad fight the Great Coatl. He did say it was time for everyone to meet their Fates.
She turned and hopped off the building.
Danger. Her charge was in danger. It was like an alarm in Athena’s mind, cutting through the tactics and battle plans that flicked through her thoughts. There was someone who needed her protection right now—she had to get to her. She began drawing her power forth—it would only take a little to get there—
Hermes appeared to her, shining in his full glory, his wings holding him aloft.
“Jeanne! Bad news! Cronus has breached the Underworld! We don’t have enough time! Think you can hold him off?”
“Yes, Milord,” Athena said, bowing her head in reverence before drawing her sword and guiding her horse towards her army. Her prayers of protection would have to be enough for her charge for now.
Jan had to admit it, that girl had guts.
Through her scope she watched the little girl jump on the roof in front of the Great Coatl and challenge him directly.
It would be so easy to shoot her right now. Jan might have to empty half her clip, but that little girl would go down fast enough, without even knowing what hit her.
But that would almost be an injustice.
Besides, the girl would be dead shortly anyway. Jan had watched her, sized her up along with the rest. There was no way she would survive even the first blow. She might get one lick in, and might even make a nice little fist-sized bruise on the Greal Coatl somewhere, but she wasn’t going to survive to tell the tale.
Anyway, Jan had a job to do.
She turned her scope back to the other group, which was heading toward the bus. Jan considered slashing the tires… but no one would get that far anyway.
“Happy and Sneezy, circle around front. Lazy, Doc, you’re in the back. Scatter ‘em. Kill whoever I don’t, but leave the mortals. They can’t get very far.” She felt the shifting of air, heard their steps on the dirt as they wove their way through the trees on the ground below. “Dumbass, Shyguy, I want you to get Hermes’ girl—the twitchy blonde one. And her girlfriend.”
Jan gave no shits as to whether that was sporting or not. That was different. That was personal. Panaretos had shown her what really happened, ripped it straight out of the minds of the people who’d been there. But he wouldn’t allow her to take out her vengeance on that Mercury bastard. She could’ve killed Panaretos right then and there. But then he told her that he had a job for her—a job that just so happened to feature Hermes’ other brat—and he’d let her do anything she wanted.
She watched through the scope as her boys picked their way through the tree, surrounding the unsuspecting group. A couple kids were growing twitchy, like that ginger boy, and that snooty Latina. Not like they could do anything about it. But Blondie’s girl… Jan kept an eye on her. She wouldn’t be denied her vengeance, not again.
The boys revealed themselves. Panic swept through the group.
“Stay calm, everyone, stay together!” That one, the teacher, had guts too. Between her and Poseidon’s son… their kid was really going to be something. Probably why Panaretos wanted her alive. Lucky her.
“I’m on it, Miss Simon,” said Ares’ boy, putting on his armor.
The redhead drew his sword, basically conveying the same thing as his peer except without the same bravado. Jan could see it on his face. He was prepared to die. Raven’s girl squared herself for battle, summoning her bow. How quaint.
Hermes’ girl, though, knew something was off. Of course she did. Jan was hoping she would. Quickly, she lined her scope up.
“Wait, I recognize these—”
A breath. A squeeze. An echo of a harsh whisper of gunfire. A spray of red. A body collapsing to the ground.
It was surprisingly easy. Jan simply held her rifle in place for a moment, staring into the scope, watching in slow motion the utter surprise that overcame the remaining twin, the surprise that slowly morphed to horror. Her sister was already dead, but it took longer for that fact to drive home than the death itself.
Jan had never killed a kid before.
She lowered her rifle a moment as she realized this. She’d crossed over some threshold, stepped into some new territory that felt… harsh and barren. She was most at home in the forests and jungles that filled her consciousness—this was entirely foreign to her. She was a hunter, one to whom the laws and etiquette of the natural world came as easily to her as breathing… and yet here she was, killing almost defenseless children. Bile began to rise.
I name you Wrath, Jan Diva.
Her insides froze as Panaretos’ words echoed in her mind, clear as if he’d just whispered them in her ear.
At first she’d thought it some silly formality on Panaretos’ part. She didn’t care. She was being paid to hunt, which was what she loved most. The prey had never really mattered before.
But now… Jan realized that Panaretos had looked deep into her and seen something she hadn’t. He knew exactly what she was made of, and arranged to show it to her with just one simple job. She wasn’t a noble hunter of worthy prey. She was the shadow cast by the moonlight, the cold, passionless killer. A chill went up her spine, but she didn’t shiver.
Her name was Wrath.
She put the scope back up to her eye. Chaos had ensued, as predicted. The kids had scattered to the four winds, and her boys were keeping them in check.
Breathe. Squeeze. Gunshot.
Dionysus’ boy down. Two.
Erzulie’s girl down. Three.
Frigg’s girl down. Four.
Reload. Aim. Fire.
Baron Samedi’s girl down. Five.
The air shifted beneath her, and the loose leaves on the forest floor crunched underfoot.
“B-boss?” said Shyguy. “She’s quick, but I got ’er.”
Jan dropped from her position in the tree, landing smoothly and silently on the dirt below to face her captive prey. Hermes’ girl was bound up by Shyguy, but still very much awake. Good boy.
The sight of the bitch sent anger burning through her. It brought her back to the forests and jungles that she was used to traversing in her mind.
“Remember me?” Jan asked. “Because I remember you.”
“You… you murdered Leanne,” said Blondie.
Jan paused. Ice started forming again.
How dare the hypocritical bitch look so horrified? Jan drew close and smacked her across the jaw with the butt of her rifle. Her face snapped to the side with the force of the blow. The cry of pain she made, the blood that flew from her split lip, that was all very satisfying, like a nice, hot meal after camping in the snow.
“You murdered Grumps,” Jan spat. “You and your brother. The girl… that was work. This… this is play.”
The blood drained from Blondie’s face. She struggled, so Jan slammed her in the gut, hard. Blondie doubled over, puking. Shyguy made a face, but he held fast to her. Good boy.
“Wh… what did you do… with Harry?” Blondie asked, still slumped forward, but making an effort to regard Jan.
This girl was either very clever or liked to make long jumps to conclusions.
“What makes you think I did anything?” Jan asked.
Blondie panted and drooped. She was fading already. Pathetic. “More… high profile than me. Easier to find. Disappeared.”
A bitter smile twisted Jan’s lips. “Nothing. I wasn’t allowed to do anything to him. I was just told to bag him and take him in. But I can do whatever I want to you. You aren’t important enough.”
Blondie was such an easy read. That was a wound right there, not being important enough to warrant recognition from her enemies. She knew it, and she hated it. Jan smirked.
Then she frowned. A sharp shifting of air, a quick whistle. Jan shifted to the side. The arrow whistled past her with room to spare, but thumped right into Shyguy’s arm. He yelped and let Blondie go, clutching at his arm where the arrow that was still vibrating on impact. Another slammed into his leg.
Anger set Jan’s blood a-boil. She brought her gun to bear, quickly tracked the arrows to where they were fired, and began to scan the landscape for the archer.
More shifting of air, behind her, where Blondie was lying collapsed on the ground. Jan whirled.
There was the archer—Raven’s daughter—swooping down from the sky to scoop Blondie up and make a clean getaway. Blondie’s eyelids flickered.
“Hey, you finally learned how to fly,” murmured Blondie blearily. “Agh, my face hurts.”
Jan snarled and brought her gun up. The wind whipped up around Blondie and her girl as they rose. No, she would not be denied her vengeance!
Breathe. Squeeze. Gunshot.
That should’ve hit them! It was a point-blank shot! The air around them shimmered with the impact of Jan’s bullet. They were speeding fast away. Not even Jan would be able to keep up with them.
Breathe. Squeeze. Gunshot.
Another direct hit, deflected by that shimmering shield. But Jan had seen these shields in action before. They came down, with enough force. And she had one round left before she had to reload and lose her opportunity. So it had to count.
Breathe. Take aim. Quickly she intuited the pull of the wind, poured ever last inch of divine effort into the shot. Don’t be in a hurry. Wait for the opening.
The Great Coatl screeched in pain, sending flurries of wind buffeting Blondie and her girl off-course.
Hit. Right in the head. And just like that, Blondie’s girl was dead. Like Grumps. And Jan got to see the life flee her body, brain-down, like a power outage in a city.
They dropped, tumbling through the sky.
Six and seven. Two birds with one stone.
Playtime was over.
Jan turned her scope back to the chaos ensuing near the bus.
And there she found all the remaining kids gathered together, running into the bus in a mad dash. Still alive. Happy, Doc, and Lazy where nowhere to be seen. Sneezy, on the other hand, was being held aloft by a little girl who should’ve been dead, coated in some kind of rocky carapace. And then he was promptly launched away.
Looked like Jan would have to shoot her after all. She quickly reloaded, snapping the clip in place, and then took aim.
Breathe. Squeeze. Gunshot.
Her head snapped back with the impact of the bullet. But she wasn’t dead. Concussed… but not dead. Take two.
Breathe. Something’s wrong. Squeeze. Whistle.
Once more Jan listened to her instincts. She ducked even as she fired her gun, just in time to see an arrow miss her head and embed itself in a tree trunk right beside the bus. Dammit! It couldn’t have been a better shot! She’d put a hole right through the archer’s head, she’d seen the blood spray, seen all the life go out of her!
One instant Jan was on the ground, facing her attacker. The next… Viselike grip around her throat. Trunk at her back, yellow in the corner of her eye. Rifle clattering to the ground. An arrow sticking out of her chest. Blood painted the entire shaft and matted the fletching. Her blood.
Blondie’s face was contorted in rage, her teeth bared and eyes wild like some kind of beast. It was smeared with blood and dirt and leaves from a couple nasty gashes. A raven’s feather was tucked behind her ear, and her girl’s bow was in her other hand.
And then the pain hit. Jan tried to cry out, but her voice was strangled by the hand that tightened around her throat. She tried to pry herself free, but Blondie tossed the bow away, which disappeared into a line of light, and brought her other hand around. Black faded around the edges of Jan’s vision.
Just before she was overtaken entirely, Shyguy’s fist came down hard on Blondie’s head. Her eyes rolled up to the back of her head and she dropped like a stone.
Unfortunately, so did Jan.
It was ultimately a war of attrition.
Athena’s armies could keep Cronus from gaining ground, but, no matter what she did, she couldn’t push him back to the Underworld. So they wore each other down. But she had to hold out long enough to buy enough time for the others to prepare their forces. This attack had caught them completely off-guard. Not to mention the uneasiness that had gripped them all.
Something fundamental had shifted, not just in the Titanrealms, but in Fate itself. And, for all her deftness of mind, mastery of strategy, library of tactics, Athena could not even begin to figure out how to combat the weavings of Fate.
Hermes appeared again in the air before her, blazing bright. “New orders, Jeanne: we must fall back. Olympus is overwhelmed.”
“Yes, milord,” said Athena.
Sofia watched the battle going on in the sky for a moment. The Great Coatl had flown up really high, so high that the wind hardly reached down on the ground anymore. Dad was just a little speck, but she could see him jumping and slicing across the Great Coatl. Or maybe that was the other man. It was hard to tell, because he was so far away.
If she hadn’t gone to fight the Great Coatl, then maybe so many people wouldn’t be dead. Still, she wanted to help her Dad. But she hurt a lot, even just breathing, and was afraid that Jan might still be around. It was way too quiet, and Sofia wasn’t sure if she could survive being shot for a third time, even with her rock armor on.
“Put her down here, Sofia,” said Susan. “Gently.”
She did, as gently as she possibly could. Still, the back of a school bus wasn’t a very comfy place.
Susan looked at Angie up and down and frowned.
“Is she o—?” Sofia stopped herself. Adults always asked this question and it was stupid. Of course Angie wasn’t okay. “How is she?”
“A ruptured spleen, a hairline fracture in the jaw and a fractured skull. Nothing I can’t fix.” Susan sounded a lot like a robot. She didn’t sound at all like Susan. She gave Sofia the same look she gave Angela. “You’ve got… I think it’s a concussion. A couple of your ribs are cracked. And your arm is… dented.”
“I’m okay,” lied Sofia.
Other people filed on the bus. Mark, who took the driver’s seat because he didn’t need to sleep ever anymore. Lance, hanging between Carmen and Benji, with Ahi the crocodile not far behind. Susan said both Lance’s legs were broken. One of his legs was cut pretty bad, and there was blood everywhere, but Carmen had tied Lance’s shirt around it to keep him from bleeding too much. Susan said he was bleeding inside too. Jeff and Abel, who were holding on as much as they could to Maureen, who was covered in dirt and screaming and kicking and crying. Aida, who was okay except for a black eye, and Amanda, who had blood all over her face, helping Brendan, who didn’t look too good. He was so white that Sofia couldn’t even see his freckles, but he didn’t say anything or even moan in pain. He held on real tight to his sword with the arm that was over Aida’s shoulders. He was limping and holding his other arm to his chest. His arm bone stuck out of his skin.
She knew she should’ve been grossed out. But she still remembered the bathtub that was filled up with blood. And she also had seen Leanne’s brains spilled out on the ground, with bits of white stuff that was probably her skull…
Sofia wanted her Daddy. He could hug her, and she could tell him that she felt even less like a superhero and more like a useless pile of dirt, because, despite her amazing powers, a bunch of her friends were dead and the rest were hurt really bad.
Finally, Miss Simon walked on the bus, with Rabbit’s cage. Sofia saw her eyes counting the people on there, because that’s what she always did when they entered the bus. And then she saw her almost cry. Miss Simon put a hand up to her mouth and closed her eyes, her face scrunching up. It made Sofia want to cry too, because Miss Simon never cried.
But she took a couple deep breaths and then said, really calm, “Everyone’s here. Let’s go.” And then she set down Rabbit’s cage in the front seat and helped carry Lance to where Susan was.
Miss Simon was just a mortal, but she was way tougher than Sofia. Sofia wanted to call for her Daddy like a little baby because a bunch of her friends were dead, and Miss Simon—even though she wanted to cry and maybe even wanted her daddy too—sucked it up and started helping the ones who were still alive.
If a mortal could do that, so could Sofia.
Mark started the bus and drove as fast as he could outta there. The road was really bumpy, making Sofia hurt even more as she was shaken around. But she sucked it up and helped bring Lance and Brendan to Susan. And then she helped Susan take care of everyone who wasn’t hurt as bad. And then she stood guard at the front of the bus to make sure that she would be the first one to stop any monsters that tried to attack them.
Sofia may not be a superhero, but she was going to do her absolute best at keeping her friends alive.
It was all but over.
Bastet was sweaty, exhausted, and achy. There was nothing in the world that made her feel less like a goddess than having to be in human guise and feel this feeling. She would rather have spent an eternity fighting Apep.
Hathor, also in her human guise, shined her big, bright smile to the bundle in her arms as she approached.
“He’s perfectly healthy. And so handsome, too!” Hathor’s smile turned to Bastet. There were few times Bastet had seen her sister happier than when she held a baby in her arms. Exhausted as Bastet was, there was no resisting that smile, as much as she would’ve liked to.
Wordlessly, Hathor handed the bundle over to Bastet. Wordlessly, Bastet accepted the bundle. She shouldn’t, she knew. It only made the parting that much harder.
But there was nothing in the world that made her feel more like a goddess than holding her handsome baby boy.
“What’s his name, Felicity?” prompted Hathor.
Bastet’s impulse to correct her sister was such a weak fluttering of an idea that barely had enough momentum to carry through. If Hathor was going to be so forgetful, Bastet would be sure to remind her in the most certain terms possible.
“Senbast,” said Bastet, a smile coming to her face. The Son of Bast.
Her body felt ablaze. An exhausted Susan had tended to her and taken care of the worst of it. But it would take another few days or so for her body to finish up the healing while Susan rested. In the daylight hours, while everyone was mourning, her diagnoses thrummed in time with her aches: ruptured spleen, fractured jaw, fractured skull.
Her blood boiled. She could still feel Jan’s throat in her hands, could still smell her blood. She should’ve squeezed harder, smashed her head against the tree trunk, beaten her with her own gun and shot her right between the eyes. She should have rounded up all of Jan’s precious cyclopes and executed them in front of her, one by one, while Jan was pinned to the tree. Over and over Angela pictured all the ways she could’ve killed Jan, made her suffer, made her pay for taking away Harry, for slaughtering Leanne, for murdering Naomi.
Her heart was ash. For a while, Angela could forget. But, as night fell and brought silence inside and outside the moving bus, Angela felt the endless, empty expanse of the universe around her and through her. And every time sleep beckoned and she closed her eyes, she felt the weight of the void pressing and snapped her eyes open again. She would never again awake to Naomi beside her: it was a fact, a cold fact that threatened to snuff her out. So she decided not to sleep, instead accepting and settling into endless immolation.
The silence was broken by stifled crying and sniffling. It was as if Angela had been woken suddenly, snapped free of her almost sleeplike trance. But it was quickly suppressed. For a while, the silence pressed on Angela’s senses, long enough for her to let it go.
But then it started again. Though it was quiet, to Angela it was almost as if it echoed across the void.
Angela rose with a small groan as her aches reasserted their protests. She passed by window after window, the dark landscape speeding by, at odds with the slower-moving scenery within the bus. Still, it wasn’t long before she reached the source of the crying.
Maureen looked up at her with a startled little gasp, eyes wide.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’ll be quiet.” Her face scrunched as she tried to suppress her spilling tears.
Angela just stared at the little red-headed girl. She didn’t even take up half the bus seat. Usually Leanne and Maureen took up every last bit of space afforded to them because Leanne could hardly sit still whenever they went on a field trip. Now, though… Maureen looked far too small for an entire seat.
I want to adopt Leanne and Maureen. With you.
The words hit like taking a rifle butt to the stomach. She shouldn’t have hesitated. That was Naomi’s last request, and Angela had all but told her ‘no.’
But now… now it was clear Angela wasn’t the only one missing her other half.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I can’t sleep either.”
“I hurt too much,” whispered Maureen.
“Me too.” Angela paused. “Can I sit here with you?”
Maureen averted her gaze and slowly nodded. Angela scooted in beside her.
The seas rose. The skies roiled. The sun burned. Nature turned against its inhabitants. Cities fell and millions died. Spirits spilled forth into the world to wander unseen and unheard but for those who shared death’s eyes.
Apep wrapped his coils around Iteru. Cronus conquered Mount Olympus once more. The Overworlds fell one-by-one as the gods abandoned their homes in favor of a single defense, a place where they could unite under the banner of their Creator.
The apocalypse had begun.
Only Acopa still stood. A lone shadow of a figure trudged across its sky, his whole body tilted forward with the strain of dragging the sun behind him using the Great Coatl as a lash. The stench of the corpse scared away most of those that would assail him, and he fought the rest viciously and without mercy. The Fifth Sun had to go across the sky, lest it fall into darkness and end the world once and for all.
His flesh was singed almost completely black by the sun’s heat and his sweat steamed instantly from his skin, for he was not worthy of carrying the sun himself. Only his right arm seemed of whole, tanned flesh, and his left foot, which gleamed white—pure, like the one who crafted it for him an eternity ago.
He felt a cool rag press against his brow. Numbly he looked up.
“I love you to the end of the world and back, mijo,” his mother’s spirit said.