The island shuddered, as if in agony, but Ares paid it no mind. He had enemies to fight and a war to win. The mortals were little challenge, but the creatures they had summoned to their aid were proving more entertaining. Monstrous, ichthyic abominations – the worst of man, frog and fish combined into one.
They poured out of the strangely-angled structures that covered R’yleh like barnacles, croaking and snarling. Dozens at first, then hundreds. Poseidon had called them ‘deep ones’, but Ares did not know whether that was a title or merely a description – nor did he care. They fell before him all the same. As their master would fall, when Ares at last deigned to meet him in open battle.
Before coming to R’yleh, he had toppled every desecrated altar and corrupted temple that the Great Dreamer had claimed, in an effort to weaken the creature. Like all gods, Cthulhu drew some measure of power from mortal worship, and Ares intended to deny him that resource before they met in battle.
Above him, the skies roiled and wept red rain. It stained his armour and flesh, painting both he and his surroundings crimson. It mingled with the oily ichor of the frog-things and sent up a nauseating odor. Ares trudged on, battering his opponents with blade, shield and chain, leaving a trail of carnage across the odd contours of the island.
Somewhere behind him, Poseidon followed, but more slowly. Warily. His uncle was broken in body and spirit, but Ares knew that, like the sea, he would soon renew himself. It was only a matter of time. But he had no intention of waiting for the other god to catch up. Not when his destination was at hand – the great temple-fane of R’yleh. The sepulchre of Cthulhu himself, where he had slumbered for time of mind.
When Ares at last stood before the towering bronze doors, now burst from their hinges, he found an army waiting for him. Or, rather what was left of one. Mortal and otherwise, they had drawn themselves up into crude phalanxes. He stopped at the top of the obsidian steps that led up to the doors and surveyed the last of his opposition.
“Is this it?” he said, finally. “Is this all you have for me?”
At the sound of his voice, a ripple of unease passed through their ranks. He could almost smell their fear, and he found it pleasing. They should be afraid. Was he not the God of War? He struck his shield with the flat of his blade and started towards them. They charged to meet him in a gibbering horde. He picked up speed, ready to strike the centre of their line like a battering ram.
But at the moment of impact, the world gave a sudden, inexplicable lurch. Earth and sky seemed to switch places for a moment, and there was a great wash of light that blinded him. Suspecting some trick of Cthulhu’s, he paused – and in that instant, his war was finished. The light faded and before his astonished eyes, the ranks of his foes crumbled away like windblown ash. Mortal and monster alike were wiped away as if they had never been at all. Uncreated by some alien force. Ares lowered his sword.
Anger flooded him and he rounded on Poseidon, as his uncle climbed the steps towards him, leaning wearily on his trident. “Gone,” Ares snarled. “All of them!”
“Something has happened,” the God of the Sea said. “Something has changed. It feels as if…something new has come into the world.”
Blue fire limned the heights, and the island was beginning to convulse. Great blocks of stone tumbled down, turning to dust before they struck the ground. Like its inhabitants, the island was being obliterated. Ares watched it for a moment, and then looked at his uncle, eyes burning. “Whatever it is, it stole my victory. And for that, I will have answers.”
On one of the many garden-balconies of Olympus, Olorun stood and looked up at the sky. Blue and clear now for the first time in months. He could even feel the stars – faintly, but they were there and calling out to him. He sighed, feeling more at ease than he had since he’d descended from the heavens.
Olympus was as it had been. Restored to its former glory, by a power he did not yet understand – and the world with it. Gods from every pantheon now scoured the globe, searching for any sign of corruption.
There was a hiss of displaced air and he turned to see Zeus and Hera striding towards him. The former king of Olympus smiled. “Gone,” he boomed. “All trace of him – every speck of filth and madness, washed away as if it never had been. His followers have crawled back into their holes, and good riddance to them.”
“You are certain?”
Zeus frowned. “Even now you cannot smile. We have won a great victory.” Hera laid a hand on her husband’s arm.
“Olorun is right to be cautious,” she said. “Though he defeated the beast, we must truly certain it is gone.”
“That is just it – I did not defeat Cthulhu,” Olorun said. Those last moments were still a blur for him. He’d felt another presence thrust itself into the conflict
“I know what I saw,” Zeus said. He caught Olorun by the shoulder in what was meant to be a friendly gesture. “You met that creature in battle in a way I could not, and your strength proved the greater. For that, I am willing to put aside our grievances – at least for now.” He said the last with a smile. He had yet to acknowledge Olorun’s kingship, but neither was he actively attempting to suborn his rival’s authority. For the moment, it was enough. There had been enough conflict of late, Olorun thought.
He returned Zeus’ smile. “Have you heard from Ares?”
Hera nodded. “R’yleh is gone. Ares is returning to Olympus, with Poseidon.” She looked up at her husband. “And Heimdallr has received word from Odin and the Aesir – the World Tree is healthy once more. Somehow, it is as if some power…undid all that had been done in these past months.”
“Then perhaps it truly is over,” Olorun said, trying to ignore the seed of doubt nestled deep within him. He thought again of what he’d seen as he battled Cthulhu – a divine immensity unlike anything he’d ever encountered. A god, he thought, but one he did not recognise. As it – she? – had touched him, he had seen flashed of another age, another world. Glimpses of times long past, now forgotten.
He had seen another god, as well. Or maybe a mortal. A king, at least, from his garb and bearing. Running through a cedar forest. Towards a battle – or perhaps away from one; Olorun could not tell. He had not mentioned these visions to Hera and the others. He would not, until he knew more of what the visions might mean.
“That’s the spirit,” Zeus began, laughing – but it was cut short by a sudden pall of darkness. It was as if night had come, all at once and without warning. He heard Zeus curse, and the winding of Heimdallr’s horn from elsewhere in Olympus.
Olorun turned, eyes widening. A mountain rose over Olympus. A mountain that had not been there a moment before. And at its top, a ziggurat. A shimmering palace of a size and grandeur greater even than Olympus. Something about it reminded Olorun of his visions. He made to speak, but before he could do so, the air was split by a crack of thunder – no.
He looked up, just in time to see a blaze of blinding blue light. When the light faded, it revealed a gigantic serpentine shape hovering over the heart of Olympus. Wings made of light thrummed, holding the great form aloft. Scales that seemed to be every colour and none gleamed as the fearsome head dipped – her head, Olorun knew. It was a her. The newcomer’s gaze burned with a chill radiance that reminded Olorun of the stars themselves.
Heimdallr, Athena and the others arrived then, weapons at the ready. Olorun gestured sharply, stopping them before they did anything foolish. Silence fell as the newcomer studied the gathered gods, and was studied in her turn. Even Zeus seemed awestruck by her, though Olorun had no doubt that his normal bellicosity would reassert itself.
“Good morning,” she said, in a voice like the crashing of water. Olorun winced at the volume, and the newcomer lowered her voice. “Forgive me,” she said. “I forget how sensitive your ears are.” She swept her burning gaze across the assembled gods. “And how interesting – look at you.” Her eyes fixed on Zeus. “You remind me of someone.” She leaned close to Zeus, and he summoned a crackling bolt of lightning into his hand. She gave a rumble of laughter and drew back. “No. Too young. All of you…so young.”
Olorun cleared his throat. “Who are you?”
“Someone who has been asleep for a long time. Too long, by the looks of things.” Her gaze fixed on him, and he felt – just for an instant – as if he were looking into the dark places between the stars. “What have you been up to, to awaken that squirming parasite, Cthulhu? He nearly tore this world apart.”
Olorun frowned. “It was a mistake. It will not be repeated.”
“I should hope not. If I hadn’t awoken when I did – well. I shudder to think of what might have occurred had I not cleansed the land of his taint.” She rose to her full height. “I spent too long creating this world to see it destroyed in so cavalier a fashion.”
“You created –” Olorun began, and heard other gods, Zeus among them, react similarly. He gestured sharply. “Never mind. How did you come to…awaken?”
Her great tail uncoiled, depositing the limp figure of Ra onto the ground. “You have this one to thank. His fire awoke me from my slumber. Though he appears to have suffered for it. In my day, gods were somewhat sturdier.”
Olorun gestured and Yemoja emerged from the crowd of gods to kneel beside Ra. He would have questions for the Sun God when he recovered, but for now he focused on their guest. “Who are you?” he asked again. “I feel as if I should know you, but I cannot recall ever having met you.”
The newcomer bent until her face was level with Olorun’s. “I have as many names as there are stars in the sky. But you may call me Tiamat. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, young one.”
“Young one?” Olorun paused, somewhat taken aback. “I am called -”
Tiamat stretched languidly, interrupting him. “It is no matter. I am sure I shall learn your name in time.” She looked around. “You are more modest than the gods I remember. This palace is quite small.”
Zeus’ eyes flared with lightning, and Hera caught his arm. Her expression was shrewd – calculating. Olorun gestured to the newly appeared mountain. “And is that one…yours?”
“Oh yes. At least for now.” She shook herself, her scales vibrating with almost musical resonance. “I am used to something grander, I admit, but one must make do when one is pressed for time.” She cocked her head. “I hope you do not mind?”
“Of course not,” Olorun said, carefully. He wondered if this were a test of some sort. “All gods are welcome in Olympus.”
“As they are welcome in my hanging gardens,” Tiamat said. She stretched, wings extending with a harsh crackle of mystical energy. “I think there is much we can learn from one another, little god.” She paused, and looked at him knowingly. “I would rather not repeat the mistakes of the past, if I can help it.”
Olorun hesitated as she threw his own words back at him. She was gone before he could reply, her wingbeats shaking Olympus to its foundations. “Well,” he said. “That was unexpected.”
“That was a dragon,” Zeus growled. “And an arrogant one.”
“A goddess,” Hera corrected, mildly. She had a thoughtful look on her face. “Tiamat – I know that name, though I do not know from where. It is like…”
“The ghost of a memory,” Olorun said. He shook his head. “Something we once knew, but have forgotten.” He looked towards the distant mountain.
“And I, for one, would like to know more about our new neighbour…”