The air stank of smoke and death.
The Parthenon burned, and Athens burned with it. The city was aflame with madness. Baying crowds filled the streets, driven into a frenzy of despair by the coming of a new god – and the absence of the old. The skies wept oily rain, and the fires blazed higher. Not natural flames these, for they were of no color known to man, and could burn stone as if it were wood. Throngs gathered in the squares, chanting the name of Cthulhu – the Great Dreamer, whose dreams were now hideous reality.
From the roof of the Acropolis, Zeus watched it all and felt something in him give way. With a gesture he called the lightning to him – it crackled and sparked in his grip, eager to be about its business. He prepared to cast the writhing bolt at the heretical crowds below, but a hand caught his wrist.
“No,” Olorun rumbled. “You will not do this.”
“Who are you to tell me what I can and cannot do, here of all places?” Zeus snatched his arm free of Olorun’s grip, and rounded on the new King of Olympus. “Athens is mine – Greece is mine. They are mine to save.. and mine to punish. Or would you take that from me as well, usurper?” Zeus bared his teeth as he spoke, and felt a strange joy as he contemplated unleashing his lighting against the other god.
“No one disputes your rights, father,” a new voice intruded. “But while Greece might be yours, Athens is mine. Or have you forgotten?”
Zeus glanced at his daughter. Athena stood nearby, not looking at either of them. The Goddess of Wisdom looked haggard and beaten. Her white robes were stained with soot and blood, and her golden shield was cracked – a testimony to a brief, but savage encounter with their foe. Zeus and Olorun had arrived in time only to witness their foe’s departure.
“I have not forgotten, daughter,” he said, after a moment. “Though I question why you stand here looking sorry for yourself. Where is the great strategist who sprang fully grown from my skull?” He gestured about them, to the thick columns of smoke that rose high into the night sky. “Your city burns, child. Will you not defend it?”
Athena turned. “I tried, father. We tried.” Athena had not met the enemy alone – others had joined her, including her uncle, Poseidon, and Nike, the Goddess of Victory. Despite the presence of the latter, they had been defeated. Injured, Poseidon had fled to the safety of the seas, and Nike lay broken and humbled somewhere in the ruins. Even now, Heimdallr searched for her. “But where were you, when I needed aid?”
Before Zeus could reply, she swung her spear up, pointing it towards Olorun. “Or you? What sort of king cannot defend his subjects?”
To his credit, Olorun did not flinch from her accusations. “If we are to have any hope of defeating this abomination, we must stand together. All of us – not a few, but all the pantheons. Whatever disagreements we might have had, whatever conflicts, it is in the past. It must be. Else we will not succeed.”
“Fine words,” Zeus said, mockingly. “But that is all they are.. words.”
Olorun turned. “If you have counsel, I will listen.”
Zeus shook his head and turned away. “My advice is the same as it has been – we find him and we smite him.” He made a fist. “We are the mightiest of our pantheons, save perhaps the Allfather. What can stand against us?”
“Cthulhu is no Titan, father,” Athena said. “He will not be felled by brute force.”
Zeus laughed. “Would you suggest strategy then, child? And how well did that work out for you?” He gestured dismissively. “I know how to fight monsters. They must be met tooth to tooth, and claw to claw.”
Before Athena could reply, there was a sound like tearing metal and kaleidoscopic rift opened in the air nearby. Heimdallr had returned. “I found her,” he called out as he stepped through the shimmering, multi-coloured portal, the unconscious form of Nike in his arms. The winged goddess was singed and battered, as if she’d flown through an inferno. “They’ve gone mad down there,” he continued gravely. “Almost every mortal in Athens has become a gibbering lunatic. And not just here.” He twitched his head, reminding Zeus of a ram annoyed by a fly. “I can hear them.. all across Midgard.. they chant his name. They pray to him.”
“Not for long,” Olorun said.
Zeus had to admit, if somewhat grudgingly, that the usurper was not a coward. He did not flee from his failings, like Hades. The so-called lord of the underworld had retreated into his deepest citadel with his broken consort and sealed the gates behind them. His hands clenched as he imagined battering down those defenses and venting his wrath upon his treacherous sibling.
But that was a pleasure best saved for later. He had foes aplenty in the meantime. His eyes strayed once more to Olorun, and he wondered, not for the first time, how his queen could have allowed the throne to go to another. If she had taken it for herself, he would have understood – angry, yes, but it would have made sense. But to invite an outsider – a god who had no temples, no clergy – and gift it to him?
Perhaps she had been mad with grief. The thought pleased him somewhat, though he knew it was unworthy of him. It was the only way to explain her actions, her desire to build an alliance of pantheons. As if there could ever be peace between beings such as they. When ranged against a greater threat, possibly.
Even then, some gods saw only their own advantage.
As if hearing his thoughts, Olorun turned and met his gaze with one of serene equanimity. As if he were the lord of all the Earth, and the rest of them merely subordinates. Zeus bared his teeth. The Titans had looked upon the world in much the same manner, and he had broken them for their hubris.
As he would break the usurper.
Olympus was his, by right.
And he would take it back, one way or another.
In Olympus, the gods of many pantheons gathered and readied themselves for the storm to come. Some prepared for war, others to flee. And still others sought only their own advantage. Amaterasu wondered which of these she was, or whether it mattered at all.
She stood in an isolated garden, overlooking the eastern slopes of Mount Olympus. The sun had set, and unseen servants had lit torches throughout the home of the gods. The stars above had contorted themselves into unrecognizable patterns and it hurt her eyes to look upon them. Instead, she studied the horizon, and the distant orange glow of a thousand conflagrations. Greece was burning, and the rest of the world would soon follow.
From where she stood, her back to the doors, she could hear divine voices raised in anger. They had been arguing for days, and there was no sign of a resolution. The fragile peace conceived by Hera and established by Olorun was swiftly crumbling as pantheons abandoned any thought of unified action and retreated to their own fiefdoms. Amaterasu understood, for she had been weighing that option herself. This despite knowing that it was perhaps the height of foolishness given the threat they faced.
There was something in the air. A miasma that seemed to enfold the whole of the world. She could sense it – they all could, every god and goddess, whether they admitted it or not. Their worshipers were falling silent, their temples were burning, and all that they had once taken for granted was being rapidly stolen from them.
She heard a soft tread behind her. Her grip tightened on the hilt of the Grass-Cutting Sword, in its sheath by her side. A smell like that freshly fallen rain reached her nose and she relaxed. “What news, brother?” she asked, not looking away from the horizon.
Susano joined her. The God of the Summer Storm looked tired. He had been to every corner of the world in the past few days, gathering what information he could. “War has broken out in China.”
Amaterasu looked at him. “Cthulhu?”
Her brother shook his head. “No – though I have no doubt it is his doing. A civil war, and one that has spread to the Heavenly Court. Guan-Yu and the new goddess, Mulan, are trying to hold things together, but I fear their efforts are in vain.” He sighed and stretched, his exhaustion evident. “Foolishness, all of it.”
“Not simply that,” she said. The Great Dreamer’s mere presence exacerbated the worst tendencies of those who might hope to stand against him – mortal and god alike. She had begun to notice it even in herself. A gnawing doubt, one she had always felt, but now growing stronger since the creature’s arrival. Others suffered similarly, their darkest impulses becoming harder to ignore. The world was going mad around them, and a part of her feared that they were going mad with it. “What news of the south?”
“The lords of the underworld have decided now is the time to rise up again,” Susano said. “With Kukulkan and Xbalanque distracted, Chaac was left alone to face Cthulhu..”
He shook his head again, but did not reply. Amaterasu frowned. She had spent fruitless hours trying to find the pattern in their foe’s movements. But there was none. His cults called to him, and he went. It was as simple as that. Cthulhu was more a force of nature than a god. Where he went, madness reigned and the world changed itself to suit him.
“It might be best if we left,” she said, softly. “He will turn towards our lands soon enough. And if Izanami or Kuzenbo should decide to seize the opportunity..”
“Kuzenbo, at least, will not,” a new voice intruded. Amaterasu turned to see Hachiman enter the garden, his ornate armor stained with the dust of hard travel. “I can find no sign of the king kappa or his followers. They have fled to the deepest rivers and lakes, to wait out the crisis.”
“Small favors,” Susano said. Amaterasu waved him to silence.
“What of Egypt?” she asked.
“Egypt burns,” Hachiman said, his voice echoing hollowly from within his helm. “Horus has become obsessed with hunting down his uncle, and neglects everything else. Ra seems to share this mania for he has done little to mitigate it.”
“He has gone into hiding.”
“Cowards all!” a heavy form bellowed as it crashed down into the garden, nearly uprooting several trees. Amaterasu and the others were nearly knocked sprawling by the sudden arrival of the newcomer. “Cowards,” Raijin, Master of Thunder, bellowed again as he beat his drums with obvious fury.
“What news, Raijin?” Amaterasu asked loudly.
Raijin’s grotesque features twisted into an expression of annoyance. The hulking thunder god seethed with impatience. “A useless waste of my time, Amaterasu. The Norse hide in their halls, or worse – they scheme and plot, like the weaklings they are.” He fixed with her with a meaningful glare. “The time for talk is past.”
“Maybe so,” Amaterasu said, soothingly. “But every war requires a strategy.” She looked to the others for support. “Isn’t that so, Hachiman?”
“Yes,” the Lord of the Eight Banners replied. He pointed at Raijin. “And you would do well to calm yourself, thunder-lord. We have no time for your pointless tantrums.”
“Tantrums,” Raijin growled. He glared at Hachiman. “Match your strategy against my drums, warlord, and let us see what you think of my tantrums then, eh?”
“And how will you fare against the pair of us, oh blustery one?” Susano said. He tapped the hilt of his sword. “Why my sister invited you to join our council I cannot imagine. You contribute nothing save hot air and bruised eardrums.”
Raijin swelled with fury. But before he could reply, Amaterasu stepped between the three of them. “Be silent, all of you,” she said, sharply. More sharply than she’d intended. “Fighting amongst ourselves serves only the enemy. We must-”
She broke off, even as she heard the hiss of steel parting the air. She spun, the Grass-Cutting Sword springing from its sheath into her hand even as she turned. The keen blade intercepted something, slicing it in two before it could strike Raijin. The thunder god roared in surprise as what was left of the shuriken fell to the ground.
“What?” Susano began, his sword half-drawn.
Before Amaterasu could reply, a sudden gust of wind snuffed the torches, plunging the garden into darkness.
And with the darkness came laughter.