Pallid flames danced along the muddy coastline of the newborn island. The fires were celebratory in nature, kindled by the hands of hundreds of newly arrived pilgrims. Their vessels, whether junk, barge or cog, lay beached and forgotten on the shoreline. They had come from every corner of the world, drawn to this place by their dreams and the designs of their lord and master – dread Cthulhu had risen, and so his children must make obeisance amid the cyclopean stones of newly-risen R’lyeh.
The island shifted like an unsettled beast as a band of recent arrivals dragged their sea-battered long ship ashore. Clad in fur and mail more suitable for the icy seas of the north, they nonetheless bellowed in savage glee to have reached their destination. They were welcomed by their fellow pilgrims, and soon set to merry-making with the rest among the weeds and stones of the corpse-city.
Poseidon, chained to a high obelisk overlooking the shore, watched it all with resigned detachment, his rage long since spent. The fetters that bound him burned like cold fire against his battered limbs, and sapped his divine strength. It was all he could do to hold his head up, and ignore the vile whispers that crowded at his ears. He was not yet mad, he thought. Not yet, but soon.
He heard the voices of his nymphs, his kin, his worshippers – they called him coward; powerless; a false god. They rained scorn upon him. Though he denied them, the deluge was unceasing. The longer he resisted, the stronger it became. He shook his head like a tired bull awaiting the blade. “I am the King of the Seas,” he growled hoarsely. “I will not go mad.”
The voices laughed at his defiance, and renewed their assault. Broken; weak; forgotten…that last had the ring of truth. For where were his fellow Olympians now, when he needed them? He closed his eyes, head drooping. He had been forgotten.
An avian shriek pierced the air. Poseidon’s eyes snapped open. He craned his neck, searching the night sky. Something flashed across the black. Birds, with feathers like brass. They swooped low over the shoreline, and a rain of feathers fell like darts across the gathered celebrants. The screams and howls that arose from the mortals spoke to the lethality of these strange missiles. Poseidon’s eyes widened. “The birds of Ares,” he whispered, in disbelief.
Below, from the water, came a clash of steel. One of the newly arrived long ships shattered and sank as a tall, broad figure smashed through it and waded ashore. The mortals froze in shock as the newcomer stalked ashore, his armor gleaming in the firelight.
Silence reigned for a moment. Two. Then, before they could gather themselves, Ares was among them, his blade whirling in lethal arcs. There were more than a hundred of them, but it wouldn’t have been enough at three times that. Poseidon laughed as Ares rampaged among the stones of R’lyeh, and was laughing still when his nephew finally came for him some time later.
“You have looked better, Uncle,” Ares said. His armor no longer gleamed, Poseidon noticed. The island was silent. Even the fires had been doused. Poseidon grinned.
“And you have never been a more pleasing sight, nephew,” he croaked. He twitched, rattling his bindings. “My chains…”
Ares’ blade flashed, and Poseidon fell to the ground, free. Ares did not help him to his feet. Instead, he turned. “There is more work yet to do. If you can be of help, get up. Otherwise, stay out of my way.”
Poseidon rubbed his chafed wrists. “What do you intend, nephew?”
Ares started towards the heart of the corpse-city. Overhead, his birds swept past, shrieking joyfully. “Cthulhu despoils our temples. I will obliterate his.”
Poseidon blanched. “That will not stop him – it will only anger him!”
Ares paused, and glanced back. Within the shadows of his helm, his eyes blazed.
“I am counting on it.”
“He’s certainly effective, I’ll say that.” Olorun studied the shifting map of the world. Yemoja had conjured it from a pool of water, and she stood at his side as he observed Ares’ handiwork. Olympus echoed with the sound of preparation – the gods of many pantheons had gathered in its marble halls, readying themselves for the battle they were certain was to come.
In a mere matter of hours, the God of War had wiped out almost a third of Cthulhu’s worshippers. Ares had carved a path of destruction across Greece, China, Egypt, the lands of the Maya and the frigid north. Wherever he went, the makeshift altars of Cthulhu were toppled and his adherents scattered, or slain.
Olorun found such wholesale carnage distasteful, but it had the desired result. Following in Ares’ wake, the other gods pushed to reclaim their despoiled places of worship and reaffirm the faith of their surviving followers. The madness Cthulhu had inflicted upon the world was no longer as pervasive as it had been. Olorun felt as if a weight had been lifted from his thoughts, though he knew it was only temporary at best.
Unless Cthulhu was bound once more, these gains were only momentary ones. But as yet, they had not learned of a way to imprison the monstrosity – or even how it had been done in the first place. Even now, gods of knowledge and wisdom from every pantheon scoured the libraries of the world, seeking some hint that might aid them. Until then, they could only hope to delay and distract the creature.
“My son has always been skilled at causing havoc, if nothing else,” Hera said, joining him at the pool. “He takes after Zeus in that regard.”
“Speaking of whom…” Olorun looked at her. “Has there been any sign of him?”
She sighed and shook her head. “No. Not since he entered the lands of the Norse.” She studied the map for a moment, and then added, “He has ever been unpredictable. Sometimes, he is a storm that blows itself out in a few hours. Other times, he is a hurricane that rages for days.” She turned as Athena joined them, accompanied by Nike and Baron Samedi. “What news, child?”
“For a simple-minded brute, Ares has his moments,” Athena said. “We have retaken Athens and Heliopolis, thanks to his efforts.”
Nike nodded. “Cthulhu’s followers are disorganized – chaotic. Easy prey for someone like Ares. He strikes and is gone before they can recover.”
“And where is he now?” Olorun asked.
Baron Samedi cleared his throat, and shared a glance with the others. “R’lyeh,” he said, after a moment. “We tried to talk him out of it, but…”
“Ares is Ares,” Hera said. “Once he has his mind set on something, he sees it through. Regardless of the consequences.” She looked at Olorun. “Attacking R’lyeh was not part of our strategy. Who knows how that monster will react?”
Olorun frowned. “He might not care. He has not shown great regard for any of his places of power, at least not in any way we can determine.” He paused and glanced at Yemoja. “What do the rivers tell you?”
“Much,” she said. “They sing of red waters in Greece and Egypt – Ares’ work. The Severn murmurs that Arthur has called a gathering of those who rule in the lands of the Celts, to better deal with Cthulhu’s followers in their own lands. The Dnieper saw Baba Yaga’s chicken-legged hut heading away into the mountains near the Black Sea. The Shokotsu whispers of Tsukuyomi’s rampage…”
“What of Amaterasu?” Olorun interjected. The Goddess of the Sun had not been seen since her departure from Olympus some days previous. Olorun knew of her plan to combat Tsukuyomi, and had wished her well in it. Were circumstances otherwise, he’d have happily aided her. Tsukuyomi, like Zeus, was a distraction they could ill-afford at the moment.
“She was seen crossing the Uji Bridge by the Isuzu River,” Yemoja said. “The Ise Grand Shrine is there. Her place of power.”
Olorun nodded. “And what of our other prodigal gods? What of Set and his allies?”
Yemoja shook her head. “They were last seen near the Erythraean Sea, though what their purpose is, I cannot say. Horus might know, or Ra, but…”
“But they are not here,” Olorun finished. Horus and Ra were on the hunt for Set and his allies, blaming them for Cthulhu’s awakening. He shook his head. “We shall simply have to hope that they restrain themselves until our common foe is defeated. As it is, I – eh?” He looked up as a sudden peal of thunder shook Olympus to its bedrock.
“Zeus,” Hera said, softly.
Olorun nodded, but did not speak. He could feel the newcomer’s anger beating on the air. Zeus had obviously been unsuccessful in his scheme, and had returned to vent his frustrations. He turned as the great doors to the council chamber were smashed open by a crackling arc of lightning.
Zeus stood in the smoking aperture. “So,” he rumbled, arms crossed. “I see little has been accomplished in my absence. Still you dawdle, while the world burns. The halls of Olympus are empty of allies, save the weak and cowardly. The strong guard their own.”
“And where are your allies?” Olorun said, stepping forward to meet Zeus. “Where are the great and powerful gods you promised to sway to your cause?”
Zeus’ eyes narrowed. “They do as I should have done.” He entered the chamber, hands full of lightning. “They see to their own temples, their own followers. As I would have, if I had not let you blind me with talk of allies and strategy.”
“Husband,” Hera began. Zeus ignored her.
“Odin has fled Asgard,” he snarled. “Chernobog hides himself in dark holes. But I will not be like them. I will take back what is mine, and I will defy any to take it from me – god or monster!” He raised his hands, and Olorun tensed.
The sudden, winding call of a horn interrupted them. “That was Heimdallr’s horn,” Hera said, stepping between Zeus and Olorun. “Perhaps we should postpone this matter until a later date.”
“No,” Zeus said. “No more postponing, no more interruptions, no more hesitation – I will have my throne back now!” He thrust Hera aside and hurled a bolt of lightning at Olorun. Olorun’s hands slammed together, catching the crackling missile mere inches from his chest. Straining, he tore the bolt asunder, casting sparks of lightning in all directions.
Zeus gaped at him, but only for a moment. A new bolt shimmered into his grasp and he readied himself to hurl it, even as Olorun swept towards him. Light shimmered about him as he crashed into Zeus and carried him backwards, out of the chamber. They grappled, lightning and celestial energy bracing off of their forms to strike pillars and walls. Gods ducked for cover, or called out encouragement to one combatant or the other.
Olorun knew, even as he fought, that it was a mistake. A waste of time and energy that would solve nothing. Zeus would not surrender, and Olorun could not easily defeat the former ruler of Olympus, weakened as he was. But this confrontation had been brewing too long. He had endured insult after insult, and for what?
Light flared, and Zeus reeled, cursing. Momentarily blinded, he slung lightning in all directions. Olorun slowed time and stepped quickly between the bolts. Again, he heard Heimdallr’s horn, its call distorted and drawn out. Something was coming. He felt it deep inside himself – as if the stars were suddenly crying out in horror.
Time snapped back into focus and Olorun’s fist connected with Zeus’ jaw, sending him crashing to the floor. Olorun sagged, suddenly tired. “Enough,” he said.
“No,” Zeus snarled, scrambling to his feet. “Not until I have my throne back!” Before he could lunge for Olorun again, Hera shouted a command and the hulking form of her guardian, Argus, suddenly interposed himself.
“He said enough, husband – and I say it as well.” Hera strode towards them, her face set in an expression of tranquil fury. “Idiots, both of you.” Athena and the others joined her as she gestured with her sceptre. “Heimdallr would not sound his horn save that some threat approached – and meanwhile you two brawl like children!”
“She is right,” Olorun said, shaking his head. “We cannot afford to waste our strength here. Not like this.” He paused, and then looked at Zeus. “Afterwards, though. After Cthulhu is defeated, we will settle this once and for all.”
Zeus hesitated, and then nodded. “Yes.” He looked at Hera. “I will not forget this, wife.” Olorun could not tell what he meant by those words, but Hera’s expression tightened.
“As I will not forget your foolishness, husband.”
Olorun hesitated, uncertain as to whether he ought to intervene. He caught Athena’s gaze, and she gave a slight shake of her head.
The horn sounded again. Olorun led the others towards the sound. They found Heimdallr on one of the great balconies that overlooked the rocky slopes of Olympus. He turned as Olorun stepped onto the balcony, and his expression was grim. “What do you see, Watchman?” Olorun asked.
“Ares has done his job too well.” Heimdallr pointed.
A sea of clouds surrounded Olympus. As Olorun and the other gods watched, those clouds were turning black, and something vast and monstrous was moving through them. Something as large as the mountain itself, a towering horror beyond any titan or monster.
Cthulhu had come, and Olympus shook at his approach.
“It seems we have caught our enemy’s attentions,” Olorun said. “And now we are out of time.” He looked at Zeus, and the other god nodded, a savage smile on his face.
“Then let us make these last moments count.”
Amaterasu stiffened as she heard the faint echoes of Heimdallr’s horn sounding. Every god knew that sound, and what it meant. She knelt at the heart of the Ise Grand Shrine, readying herself for what was to come. She looked down at the sword laying on the ground before her, and lifted it, partially unsheathing it. A part of her wanted to return to Olympus, to stand with those whom she had come to know as allies. But of what use would she be if Tsukuyomi claimed all of Japan for himself?
She stood. “None at all,” she murmured. Better to see this through, and then worry about Cthulhu. One enemy at a time.
Susano and the others were far from here, harrying Tsukuyomi’s followers with the last of their dwindling strength. The attacks were not meant to harm him, but rather to prick his ego – to anger him, and force him into a confrontation before he was ready.
From outside the shrine came the murmur of voices – the numbers of the faithful had been growing since her arrival. It had been too long since she last walked among the mortals, and she had forgotten how it felt to hear their prayers with her own ears.
It had been no easy task convincing the others of her plan. But with Susano’s help, she had been able to reassure them that it would not be a permanent change. Merely a temporary ploy to draw in their mutual foe. She hoped it would be enough. She felt stronger already, and her light shone like that of a caged star, filling the shrine and illuminating all those who approached it. Even those who would rather stay hidden.
She heard a whisper of sound and smiled faintly. “Hello, Tsukuyomi.” She spun, drawing her sword fully from its sheath as she did so. Three black shuriken fell at her feet, sliced apart by the stroke of her blade. “You tried that trick before,” she chided.
“Merely trying to get your attention,” Tsukuyomi said, dropping down before her. He squinted at her, as if unaccustomed to the light. Darkness flowed about him like a living shroud. “As you succeeded in getting mine. Figured out my plan, then?”
“Of course. You are hardly the master strategist,” Amaterasu said, goading him. “It was obvious from the start what you intended. And I have matched you.”
“So you have. A good trick, getting Susano and the others to convince their worshippers to venerate you instead. And with you sitting here, shining like a beacon, it is all the harder for the mortals to resist.”
“You were right about one thing – Japan must be unified, if it is to survive. But you will not be the one to do so.” She raised her sword. “Bow, and take your place at my side once more – or face my wrath.”
Tsukuyomi frowned. “An insult. I bow to no one, least of all one I have defeated before.” He grinned suddenly. “Still, I must thank you for making this so easy for me. With you beaten, my task will be completed and quicker than I expected.” He clashed his blades together and laughed. “You wish to fight, Amaterasu? Then come, let us do so.”
Amaterasu shook her head sadly. “If that is what you wish, Tsukuyomi.”
He was already racing towards her as she spoke.
His blades rose for a killing thrust.
Her sword snapped out to meet them.
A flash of light filled the shrine.