Mulan ran her whetstone along her sword. The blade had not needed sharpening since her ascension to godhood, but it made her feel more at ease. She sat in an untended cemetery in the Taihang Mountains, listening to the soft whisper of the dead. They spoke to each other of their lives, their deaths, and more. When they fell silent, she smiled. “I was worried you would not come.”
“I almost didn’t,” Persephone said. She stood among the trees, her expression drawn, her eyes downcast. “Hades forbade me from coming. He feared a trap.”
Mulan frowned. “I would not betray you that way.”
“I know.” Persephone looked around. “You are the only one besides my husband who would not, I think.” She smiled sadly. “Perhaps it is no less than I deserve.” Before Mulan could reply, she went on. “I thought I had made my feelings clear, Mulan. I have done enough harm to the world.”
“Yes. But I believe you have not yet done all the good you are capable of.” Mulan stood and sheathed her sword. “Your power might be able to heal the World Tree -”
“It is too late,” Persephone interjected. “What has been done cannot be undone. Not by me.” She turned, as if to depart. Mulan crossed the distance between them in a single stride. She caught Persephone’s arm.
Persephone stiffened. Mulan released her, and she turned. “You should spend less time worrying about me and more time worrying about yourself,” Persephone said softly. “I have heard of the trouble among the celestial court, and how the gods of China war on each other as their temples burn…”
“That is why we need you,” Mulan pressed. “The Great Dreamer spreads madness wherever he goes. Not even the gods are safe from his malign influence. But if we can somehow repair the damage to the World Tree, we might be able to fix all of this!”
“And I told you – it is too late,” Persephone said. She stepped back, out of reach. “Unless…if you wished, Hades might be convinced to give you sanctuary…”
“No,” Mulan said. “I cannot abandon my people. Whatever comes, I will stand against it.” She gave a rueful smile. “I’d hoped you might stand with me.”
Persephone turned away. “I am sorry, but no. Hades has sealed the underworld. Whatever happens to the world, we will not be a part of it.” She paused. “Good luck, Mulan.” She was gone a moment later, as if she’d never been there at all.
“Good luck, Persephone,” Mulan said softly, to the empty air.
The great hall of Olympus echoed with the sound of dissension. A great table, made from a branch of the World Tree, sat at the center of the hall. Around it sat divine representatives from half a dozen pantheons. At the far end of the table rose a modest throne, carved from the molten heart of a star. Seated upon it, Olorun watched in solemn silence as his fellow gods bickered over their next course of action. He gave every appearance of listening to them with all due regard, nodding occasionally at some point or other.
Zeus, watching it all, seethed in ill-kept silence. He sat on Olorun’s left, and Hera, his wife, sat on the new king’s right. Zeus smiled when he saw that her features were tight with annoyance. She glanced at him, and her expression hardened. Zeus grunted and looked away. Ever since his return, she had seemed distant. As if something had changed. His gaze flicked to the throne, and the usurper seated upon it.
If Olorun noticed Zeus’ glare, he gave no sign. Instead, he leaned forward. “Athens has fallen,” he said. The assembled gods fell silent. Olorun continued. “As has Hermopolis. Bubastis is besieged, and Yax Mutal. The great cities of the world burn with the fires of madness. The servants of the Great Dreamer seek to desecrate our temples, and convert our followers to the worship of their foul master.”
“And what would you have of us, King of Olympus?” Rama asked, his blue fingers knotted atop the table. “Cthulhu and his followers are not an army to be met on the field – though some have tried to match them thus.”
Looks were traded around the table at these words. More than one god had tried to defeat Cthulhu in open battle. Hou Yi, Chaac, Bellona…all of them had failed. Some had merely been defeated, and driven from their lands. Others had suffered worse fates, their minds and souls broken.
“What of Hades, and Persephone?” Anhur demanded. “She is the cause of all of this, after all. Why is she not standing before us, to answer for her crime?” Zeus found himself nodded in agreement. Like him, Anhur had been held captive by his treacherous offspring.
Olorun gestured to Baron Samedi. The Baron rose and bowed to the assembled gods. “Lord Hades has sealed the underworld. The spirits of the dead gather on the banks of Styx, unable to enter the afterlife.” He shook his head. “Both Anubis and I tried to gain an audience with him but he refused to so much as acknowledge us.”
“Perhaps we should knock down his gates and take the witch by force,” Anhur growled. “There must be punishment for her crime.”
Nu Wa, the Guardian of Heaven, spoke up. “Perhaps she has paid enough.” She looked around the table. “I have spoken to my new sister, Mulan, and she swears to Persephone’s regret…”
“And is her treatment of her fellow gods included in that regret?” Zeus asked. He pushed himself to his feet. “Is she sorry for the torment I and the others endured at her hands?” He gestured sharply before Nu Wa could reply. “It is of no importance. Persephone’s punishment can wait until we have dealt with the Great Dreamer.”
“Which is why we are here,” Olorun said. “We must come to some agreement on a course of action and soon, else –”
“You are a fool, Olorun!” Zeus’ fist struck the great table like a crack of thunder, startling those present. “Would you talk while the world burns?”
“I would talk until we have a plan, at least.” Olorun rose from the throne, his eyes shimmering with celestial light and – eagerness? Yes, Zeus thought. The almighty Olorun was not so imperturbable as he appeared. Good. Olorun continued, “I know patience is not your strong suit, Zeus, but our foe is not one to be overcome by mere physical force.”
“There is nothing mere about the force I can bring to bear.” Lightning snarled about Zeus’ clenched fists as he struck the table again, cracking the ancient wood. “This creature is but one more titan, waiting to fall before me. Let us call together the strongest warriors of the pantheons and strike – before the creature topples any more temples.”
“We have seen that a frontal assault will not work, husband,” Hera began.
“And who was part of that assault? Athena? My brother, the king of fishes? No.” Zeus slammed the palm of his hand down. “The strongest, I said. Where is Odin the Allfather? Where is the Destroyer of Mountains, Cabrakan? Or Pele, She of Volcanoes and Violence?” He looked around. “I do not see the mightiest among us here.”
“Save yourself, of course,” Heimdallr said, from farther down the table. Zeus turned his crackling gaze towards the Watchman of Asgard. Then, a slow smile crept across his face.
“Yes. Save me.” Zeus turned to Olorun. “When I sat in that throne, I did so secure in the knowledge of my own strength. I raised an army and slew the titans, as I will slay the Great Dreamer, if you but heed me…”
Voices rose in protest at this disrespect. Olorun raised a hand for silence. He did not flinch from Zeus’ gaze. “Hera warned me of your stubbornness, and now I see it for myself. You would risk all in the name of pride…” He shook his head and Zeus felt a surge of anger. With a roar, he shattered the table in a single blow. Startled, Olorun staggered back, and Zeus leapt, reaching for the other god’s throat.
Olorun narrowly avoided his lunge, stepping aside, his eyes burning like twin stars. “You dare?” he thundered. Celestial light swirled about him as he gathered his strength.
Zeus rounded on him, his fists full of lightning. “I dare this and more. Olympus is mine. And neither you, nor Cthulhu, will stop me from reclaiming my throne!” The lightning spread, crawling up his arms and wreathing his head. It licked out wildly, striking nearby columns in its fury and forcing the gathered gods to retreat.
“Husband.” Hera’s voice cracked like a whip across the air. Both Zeus and Olorun turned to face the Queen of Olympus. “You have always been the most impetuous of us, even more so than Ares,” she continued. “Is your brain so full of thunder and lightning that you cannot hear what we are saying?”
Zeus lowered his fists. “I hear, and I disagree. Is that no longer allowed in this new Olympus you have built in my absence?” He sneered at the assembled gods. “Look at you – you might as well be mortals the way you quibble and cower.”
“If you find this course so objectionable, then perhaps you should depart,” Olorun said, his stoic mask restored. Zeus looked at him. For a moment, he’d hoped they’d finally come to it. Whatever else happened, there could be only one ruler in Olympus. But as ever, Hera had played peacemaker.
“Yes.” Zeus nodded. “Yes. I shall go and gather those who see the wisdom of my path, and we will break the Great Dreamer on the altar of my might.” He pointed at Olorun. “And when I have done so, you may feel free to step down, usurper, and return all that which is rightfully mine.”
Zeus’ departure was a thing of sound and fury. A rush of air, a rumble of thunder. Olorun watched him go with a mixture of relief and regret. “I lost my temper,” he said, softly. He glanced at Hera. “I do not know how you put up with such obstinacy all these centuries.”
“You learn to pick your battles,” she said with a thin smile. “Once, there was a good heart beneath the bluster. But his time in the Underworld has hardened him. Made him as ill-tempered as his father, Cronus.”
Olorun nodded. “He is that. But he is not wholly wrong, I think.” He paused, as a thought occurred to him. “Speaking of ill-tempered braggarts – have we located Tsukuyomi?”
Hera shook her head. “Not yet. He’s fled somewhere, likely back to his own lands.”
“She will recover, according to Yemoja. Susano and the others are planning to hunt Tsukuyomi down and repay him in kind. Over Amaterasu’s objections, I might add.” Hera frowned. “I foresee trouble there.”
“What’s a bit more trouble, added to the pile?” Olorun took a deep breath. He looked at the broken table and shook his head. “I left the stars so that I might bring an end to such foolishness. I wonder if I am doing more harm than good…”
Hera looked at him. “Such thoughts help no one, and are not worthy of a king.”
Olorun forced a smile. “Maybe.” He looked at Rama, Anhur and the other gods, and came to a decision. “I have a plan,” he called out, and they fell silent. “But it will require coordination and trust. We must be united, else we will fail.”
“Speak,” Anhur growled. Rama and the others nodded or murmured in agreement.
“Cthulhu strikes at our places of worship, in order to weaken us. So we must do the same, and more. We must defend our temples, our peoples, but we must also dislodge his worshippers from our lands.” Olorun paused, surveying the assembled representatives. “We must cast down his abominable idols and scatter his worshippers. We must take the war to our enemy on all fronts…” He raised his fist and let his light shine forth.
“We must strike so that the stars themselves tremble at our fury.”
From a rooftop, Tsukuyomi watched as the horde of robed and scarified cultists advanced across the covered bridge towards Usa Jingu. The wooden fences would not be enough to keep them out of Hachiman’s shrine, and the torches they carried would easily set the thatched roofs alight. And the war-god’s faithful, huddled within, begging his protection, would be of no use against the hardened fanatics in their crudely carven masks. He settled back on his haunches, considering his next course of action.
If he did nothing, Hachiman – and by extension, Amaterasu – would be weakened. But honour demanded action. What the Great Dreamer’s supplicants planned was desecration and that was an insult to all the gods, not just Hachiman. And worse, to conduct such blasphemy beneath the light of the full moon – madness. Utter madness.
“Nothing for it, I suppose,” he murmured. He clashed his tonfa together and straightened. “Standards must be maintained, else what is it all for?”
Decision made, he leapt gracefully from his perch, spinning out across the face of the moon to plummet downwards in a shaft of silvery light. He landed lightly, between the advancing cultists and the gates leading to the inner shrine.
Tsukuyomi straightened, smiling. The cultists had paused, a murmur of consternation running through their ranks. They were not wholly blind to his divinity, despite the madness that gripped them. He spread his tonfa.
“I’d run,” he said.
They did not. Then, he hadn’t expected it. Instead, they came in a howling, gibbering rush of bodies. He swept his silvery tonfa out, casting gleaming caltrops across the bridge. The front ranks faltered and fell with agonized howls. The caltrops were followed by a hurricane of black shuriken that streaked through the night to strike their targets with lethal accuracy. Bodies tumbled into the river as the advance was slowed – and finally halted altogether. But they were not yet broken, not yet humbled.
Tsukuyomi gave a great shout and slammed his tonfa together over his head. As the blades struck, moonlight surged about them for a moment before lashing outwards in incandescent beams of cold fire. The moonlight hammered into the cultists, burning their flesh and casting them back in broken heaps.
Even as the light faded, Tsukuyomi was charging towards them, faster than a mortal eye could follow. His tonfa sliced out, dealing graceful death to the reeling cultists. When at last he slid to a halt, only the dead were left in his wake. And those few who remained in the land of the living had already fled, back the way they’d come, all thought of desecration forgotten. Tsukuyomi laughed loud and long as he turned back to the shrine.
When he reached the gates, the mortals were already kneeling in welcome. They, at least, knew how to show a god the proper respect. Tsukuyomi entered the shrine and looked around, already envisioning the changes he would make. It would take much work on the part of the mortals to make this place worthy of its new master.
A small price to pay, he thought, given that he had rescued them. As he would rescue all Japan, one shrine at a time. He looked down at the trembling mortals and said, “This place is mine now. Hachiman could not bestir himself to defend you, so I will do so. You may now show your gratitude through prayer and proper worship.”
He looked up at the moon. Soon, its perfect, silver light would illuminate all of Japan. He turned his attentions back to the temple – his temple, now.
“Yes, I think this will do nicely.”