Olympus echoed with the sounds of preparation. Gods from many pantheons made ready for the battle to come. The last battle of the last war. Or so some among them hoped, Olorun included. As he followed Hera down the winding staircase that led into the mountain’s depths, he found himself wondering what might come after. If the Great Dreamer were defeated – what then?
He pushed the thought aside. Such questions were for after. He turned his mind to the matter at hand. War called for warriors, but the most preeminent warrior of the gods had not been seen in some time. Not since Hades had made his ill-fated stab at supremacy.
“He has been here all this time?” Olorun asked. “Why?” Around them, paths and caverns branched off from the stairs. Mount Olympus was honeycombed with secrets ways and hidden places. Some were inhabited, most were not.
Hera did not look at him. “I do not know. I have tried to speak to him many times, but he ignores me. I thought his father’s return might cause him to stir, but…still he sits in the dark.” She shook her head. “If I did not know better I’d say he was feeling sorry for himself.”
“Perhaps he is ashamed of the way he was manipulated.”
“Perhaps. Then, introspection was never his strong suit.” Hera turned. “Are you certain you wish to do this? Once unleashed, he will not be easy to control.”
“I do not wish to control him.” Olorun smiled. “I merely wish to speak to him.”
Hera shook her head again. “Much good it will do you.” She gestured with her sceptre to a ragged hole cut into the rock wall. “There. That cavern is where he lairs these days. Or it was the last time I came down here.” She paused. “Be wary.”
Olorun stepped past her without answering. The cavern was small, as such places went, and barren of decoration, save a few flickering torches. The rough floor was strewn with straw, and a fire-pit had been gouged in the floor. Racks of weapons lined the walls or lay scattered about, as if thrown in a rage and forgotten thereafter.
He made to call out, but froze as a sharp blade was pressed to his neck. “Who are you?” a voice rasped. “Why do you disturb me?”
“I require your aid,” Olorun said. Carefully, he pushed the blade away from his neck. The figure behind him stepped back as he turned. “Have you felt what has come into the world, since your exile?”
“I…yes. Yes, I have. There is slaughter on the wind. It calls to me, but I do not answer.” The figure turned away, sheathing his blade. Olorun made to follow, and his foot connected with something metal. He looked down and saw a gleaming helmet. He picked it up and dusted it off.
“That is why I have come, son of Zeus. Olympus is at war. And it needs every warrior if it is to survive. Including you…” Olorun extended the helm to its owner. “Ares.”
Ares was silent. Then, slowly, he turned. “Where is my father?” he asked roughly.
“He lives, but he no longer rules here,” Olorun said, firmly. “I am Olorun, king of Olympus. And I have come to ask for your pledge and your sword, son of Hera.” He waited, wondering if Ares would draw his blade anew and follow Zeus’ example. Every story he’d heard, every tale the others gods had told him of Ares’ ferocity and impetuousness had made him wary. But instead of attacking, Ares merely slid his helm over his head, and looked at Olorun with burning eyes.
“Very well. Tell me of this war.”
Elsewhere in Olympus, Amaterasu knelt before her sword with her eyes closed, trying to center herself. The curved length of the blade was braced horizontally on an ornate wooden stand, waiting for her to wield it. Hands braced on her knees, she envisioned herself humbling her treacherous brother, Tsukuyomi. Bringing him to heel, as she should have done the first time he overstepped his authority. Annoyed at him and at herself, she opened her eyes and released a slow breath.
“He learned nothing in exile,” Susano said from behind her.
Amaterasu gingerly pushed herself to her feet. “How did you know who I was thinking about?” She turned to face her other sibling. As she did so, the wound in her side pulled and she winced. Tsukuyomi had hurt her, but not as badly as he’d intended. She knew his game – he was following the examples of Set, Loki and others before him, though he would never admit it.
“Who else would it be?” Susano said.
Amaterasu smiled sadly. “True. And speaking of whom – have you found him?”
He shook his head and tugged at his neatly trimmed beard. “He is adept at hiding. And as we grow weaker, it becomes ever more difficult.” He sighed. “He refuses to face us in open battle, and why should he when he can simply outlast us? If we do not fade away first, we will go mad and war amongst ourselves. It is getting more difficult to keep Raijin and Hachiman from each other’s throats.”
She nodded, knowing he spoke the truth. As their shrines fell, either to the cults of the Great Dreamer or to Tsukuyomi, the strength of the gods faltered and became frayed. Soon they would be no threat to either of their foes, and the fate of Japan and its people would be decided by others. “How many shrines so far?”
“Four at last count. Four large ones, I mean. Dozens of smaller ones. Hundreds of worshippers. He has taken from all of us, save you.”
“He is leaving me for last.” Amaterasu looked away. “As much as it pains me to admit it, he might be right.”
Susano grunted. “What do you mean?”
“The Great Dreamer’s influence over our lands – it wavers. Can’t you feel it?” She looked at him. “It is like…a clearing of the air. If only temporarily.”
Susano nodded reluctantly. “Maybe. But what does it matter, if Tsukuyomi is the only one to profit from it?”
Amaterasu paused. “Perhaps he does not have to be.”
Susano frowned. “What are you saying, sister?”
She looked at her hands. “As you say, we wane as he waxes. But what if one of us were to do the same as he? What if our remaining worshippers gave their prayers to but one of us, rather than all? Could we not then match him, and perhaps even defeat him?”
Susano paused and nodded reluctantly. “Possibly. But who?”
“Me,” she said. “It must be me.” It only stood to reason. Her shrines were the greatest, and it was to her the people would naturally turn, as darkness encroached.
Her brother was silent for a time, and she feared he might refuse. But all he said was, “Do you truly think you can best him this time, sister?”
“I must. I am the only one who can.”
Susano nodded. “The others will take some convincing. As will their followers.”
Amaterasu picked up her sword and half-slid it from its sheath. “Then let us be about it. The longer we argue, the harder it will be.” She slid the weapon home and turned.
“It is time for the sun to rise.”
Dark clouds gathered over the silent halls of the Aesir. Thunder growled and lightning snapped. Trees bent in a sudden wind, their boughs rattling like spears. Snow whirled up from the ground to be cast in all directions. A storm had come to Asgard.
As the whirling snows cleared, Zeus stepped forth. He had expected a challenge of some kind, but there was no one, Aesir or otherwise waiting for him. The halls were dark, the great city as quiet as a grave. Zeus recalled that Heimdallr had said little about the Aesir – or about their plans for dealing with Cthulhu. Odin had despatched him to Olympus, but beyond that Allfather had played little part in the great conclave of the gods.
Irritated now, he strode past the burnt remains of Glasir, the great golden tree, and up the steps to fling open the doors of the Hall of the Slain. “Odin,” he bellowed. “Where are you, Allfather? The lord of Olympus demands your presence!”
Silence was the only reply. The hearths were cold, the benches empty. The great hall was populated only by shadows. Zeus shook his head, irritation turning to cold anger. Had all of them lost their nerve?
He’d saved Odin for last, hoping that the Allfather at least was made of sterner stuff than the others. Pele had refused to see him, as had Chernobog. Cabrakan, at least, had made an ill-fated stand against the Great Dreamer at Tajumulco, and the reverberations of the battle had broken the land for miles in all directions. Zeus had arrived too late to do more than watch as an entire mountain range collapsed, burying Cabrakan – possibly for good.
He took a deep breath and stormed into the hall, lightning clinging to his muscular frame like a second skin. He called out for Odin again, casting his voice ahead of him like thunder. But the Allfather did not appear. Nor did any other Aesir.
Zeus looked up at Odin’s throne, with its gilt and furs. He snorted and made to turn away, but paused – something had caught his eye. A sudden twitch of movement, a soft chuckle. With a roar, he spun back and cast a bolt of lightning at the throne. Something – a shadow – leapt away, laughing. The bolt struck the throne, reducing it to smouldering flinders. Zeus was already turning as the shadow-shape landed lightly behind him. Steel flashed and lightning erupted from Zeus’ hands.
A flurry of knives, their blades melted to white-hot slag, clanged against the floor. Zeus caught his attacker by the throat and propelled him backwards against a pillar. “Backstabber,” he growled, tightening his grip. “Is this how the Aesir greet their guests?”
“Depends on the guest,” his captive gasped, clawing at Zeus’ forearm.
“Loki,” Zeus said. He smiled fiercely and lifted Loki higher, until his feet dangled clear of the floor. “I have long dreamt of getting hold of you, trickster. You were among those who trapped me in the underworld. It was only my anger that sustained me, in my captivity…”
“You’re welcome,” Loki hissed. A second blade appeared in his hand as if by sorcery, and he made to plunge it into Zeus’ eye. Zeus caught the trickster’s wrist and squeezed. Divine bone cracked, and Loki cried out as the knife fell from his grip. Zeus pivoted, hurling the other god to the ground with enough force to crack the floor.
Loki rolled onto his hands and knees, shaking his head. Zeus gave him no time to recover. He caught Loki by the back of his jerkin and wrenched him into the air. He turned and sent Loki hurtling into one of the great feast-tables that lined the hall. It shattered under the impact, and Loki lay groaning in the debris.
Zeus stalked towards him, summoning a bolt of lightning into his open hand as he did so. “Any last words, trickster?”
“Wait – wait – wait,” Loki coughed, trying to clamber to his feet.
“I have waited long enough.” Zeus kicked Loki in the chest, sending him skidding backwards into the wall in a cloud of splinters. “Odin is nowhere to be seen. But I will get some satisfaction while I am here.”
“I know where he’s gone – where they’ve all gone,” Loki said desperately. “I’ll tell you everything.” He held up his hands. “That’s why I’m here! To help you!”
Zeus paused, lightning bolt cocked and ready to throw. Then, he laughed. The sound shook the hall to its foundations. “I need no help from a creature such as you.” He hurled the bolt, but the moment’s hesitation was all Loki needed. The Trickster God vanished an instant before the bolt struck the wall.
Roaring in rage, Zeus whirled, searching the shadows for his opponent. He saw nothing. But pained laughter drifted down from the heavy oaken beams above. “You need all the help you can get, I think. A king without a kingdom, and soon a god with no worshippers. You might well wish you were still in Persephone’s garden, then…”
Zeus hurled a bolt straight up, tearing a hole in the roof and sending hundreds of golden shields clattering to the floor. “Come down here and face me, Aesir,” he snarled, summoning another bolt to his waiting hands.
“I think not. Set warned me that you’d gone mad, but I had to take the chance you might see sense. Old grudges mean little in the face of – awp!” Loki’s words were interrupted by the second bolt. It nearly smashed him from his perch, and he hastily leapt to another beam. Below, Zeus paced after him.
“Set, is it? And Bellona perhaps? Who else, then?” Zeus gestured, and lightning coalesced in his palm.
“Many,” Loki replied, tauntingly. “You think you are the only one to see the way things are going? Madness rides the star-wind, Zeus. Only those who understand chaos – true chaos – have any hope of defeating him!”
Zeus paused. “You have some scheme in mind,” he said. “Some way of defeating the Great Dreamer that Olorun and the others have not considered…what is it? Tell me, and maybe I will let you live.”
“No, no, I think ignorance is bliss all around.” Loki bowed mockingly. “You are as obstinate as your dear wife, and I leave you to a well-deserved fate.” He was gone even as Zeus loosed his third bolt, leaving behind only the echoes of mocking laughter.
Zeus stared up at the ceiling, rage coursing through him. With a howl of frustration, he unleashed his full fury, filling the great hall with lightning. And as the ancient wood began to burn, he turned and departed.
If he could not find allies, then he would meet his enemy alone.
And to the victor, the spoils.