Mayari set her mouth in a grim line. "I'm done running." With a small twisting movement of her hands, the silver hair floating liquid-like around her cranium collapsed in on itself at a point behind her skull, leaving behind a kind of makeshift bun tugging at her scalp in a vortex of compressed physics.
“And not to speak ill of your family, but this sister seems worse than the last one. Leaving either of them running around unsupervised seems like -”
The rest of the sentence never arrived, no doubt due to the sudden presence of a sword deep in her gut. Blood seeped out around the edges of the wound, dripping into the cabin.
I hadn’t seen or noticed Kali move, but she was there nonetheless, clasping firm to the other end of the blade. A second weapon, a dagger, hovered centimetres from Mayari’s remaining eye.
The only reason it hadn’t landed was because Durga had intercepted the blow, the weapon pinned between one of her many thumbs and forefingers to arrest it in its tracks. I hadn’t noticed her move either. Apollo's underling looked stricken, eyes wide as her hands tore a piece of fabric from her sari and pressed it to the edges of the wound. Others wrenched at Kali's sword arm, forcing it back and away.
"Huh," I uttered, dulling my pain response in anticipation. "Efficient."
"Go!" Durga insisted. "Let me deal with her."
Mayari coughed, specks of blood spattering around her chin, but she wasn't down. She took hold of the makeshift dressing, clutched it to her body, and didn't move. "Three against one makes better odds," she wheezed. Untouched, the sword slid out of her stomach.
Kali hissed in displeasure and stepped back. In the instant I moved my head it was already back in her hand, without a whisper of a movement. Thor, who could only have dreamt of being so subtle, would have been mad with jealousy if he’d known his signature move had been upstaged.
That line of thought was interrupted by a thrum of resonating metal ringing in my ears. Very close to my ears. Turning my head, I made out a still-quivering blade vibrating at the side of my neck with two of Durga’s palms clasped against the flats, halting it in its journey. She was standing right next to me now, as was Kali. Once again by surprise. I still had no idea how they were doing it.
“Don’t hurt her,” Durga petitioned us. “This is just a - oof -” the ball of her foot landed on Kali's stomach, deflecting another incoming strike, "- terrible misunderstanding!"
"Misunderstanding my ass," growled Mayari. With a wave of her free hand the blue goddess was yanked from her feet to the ceiling, where she slammed into the low roof of the cabin, arms and legs pinned to the surface. The other hand continued to clutch the sari fabric, attempting to stem the flow of the bleeding. It was an inconsequential injury by divine standards, but if she hadn’t healed it by now she probably couldn’t. If she dropped into unconsciousness it would leave her at Kali's mercy, and I was guessing there was precious little of that to go round.
I, on the other hand, was significantly harder to damage. Which sounded useful, but really just meant my contribution on the average battlefield had tended to consist of getting hewn open a lot more often by people who were stronger, faster and more skilled than me. Which was most of them. It would have been different if Odin had let me shapeshift to any useful degree, but apparently seeing me in action was damaging to army morale. Mostly I’d opted out of the fighting like any sensible person and waited until everyone had sated their daily bloodlust, or watched from the sidelines and offered poorly-received unsolicited advice on what they were doing wrong.
A few more slams rocked the ceiling as Kali barrelled into it again, having attempted to warp out and finding herself still affected by Mayari’s gravity. Pain bloomed from one end of my chest to the other, even through the dulled nerves, and it was only when my vision started blacking out that I realised she’d scored a hit on me without my ever having seen it. So that was her gimmick; speed, skill and surprise.
Durga was already there too, of course, in an attempt to deflect the blow. She seemed horrified at the failure, but I waved it off, shifting away the damage before it consumed me. If anything, the effort Kali wasted on me was a boon.
Mayari proved it by using the moment to increase the intensity of the gravitational force on my assailant, causing the blue goddess’ screams of outrage to become muted wheezes as the air struggled to flow into her lungs. A bone cracked above my head, the sharp sound puncturing the cramped confines of the cabin. Fractures appeared along a couple of the skulls dangling from Kali's murder necklace. I found myself wondering, even as I ducked out of sword range, if she had to replace them after every skirmish or if she was just that good that she didn't have to.
There came another clang as Durga deflected another strike meant for the moon goddess, followed by a subsequent crash back into the ceiling. It was obvious Mayari was trying not to hurt her assailant as per Durga’s wishes, but she also had to keep Kali contained. At this rate, if she could keep it up, she’d be able to suffocate her antagonist out.
If she didn’t pass out from her own injury first, or Kali didn’t switch tactics. Kali might not have been around for the last seven hundred years, but I knew her by reputation. Getting her to listen to reason wasn’t likely.
I found myself backing up against the ruins of the table Parvati had smashed, placing myself into a corner where any rear attacks would first have to make it through a solid wall. I had ways to shut most combatants down, but they needed me to be able to get in close. The problem with warrior gods was that they had an uncanny way of making this very difficult in direct combat. Or any physical attack. You could launch a thousand needles at them and not only would they somehow sweep them all out of the air, but chances were a good number of them would come flying back at their source of origin. You could turn into a leviathan and swallow them, but they would just warp out or worse, slice you open from the inside. Which had happened to me once and was exactly as unpleasant as it sounded. That Kali was getting some shots past Durga said something about the calibre of the foe we were dealing with.
The water seeping up through the damaged floor had accelerated in a matter of seconds, sloshing around my shoes. If the skirmish wasn’t over soon we’d have to take it outside where it was likely to cause a lot more collateral damage.
A yelp from Mayari drew my attention again – it had to be something making me look away just before one of the sisters moved – to find Kali had appeared under her, spearing the lunar goddess in the thigh while they both hurtled into the ceiling. Her aim was off, affected by the gravity, but she’d used the momentum to position herself to deliver a deep puncture in transit. Mayari warped out just before impact and re-emerged, wisely, just in front of Durga, which was probably the safest place in the cabin. Bright blood oozed down her leg into the water, turning it red. I didn’t think she’d last another blow at this rate.
I might not have fancied my chances against Kali, but I wasn’t useless. Janus being in my pocket made full shapeshifting a risky prospect, but I could still make partial changes.
“Use these,” I called out to Durga, and she extended a hand back towards me. I passed the jewellery I’d summoned directly onto her fingers, then did a few more rounds for subsequent hands. Hard, claw-like finger sheaths tipped with the same venom I’d used on the police officer back in the pope’s hotel.
“Thanks,” she said, stamping away another ambush from Kali. “Poison?”
“Painless, but it’ll take her out.”
“Good.” Rather than warping over or doing… whatever trick they did to blindside people, she crouched and leapt towards her sister, multiple arms rearing back to deliver such an obvious attack I assumed it had to be a feint.
I never got to find out. Instead, she froze midair, suspended motionless as if someone had pressed the pause button on reality. The folds of her torn sari lay rigid and inert, the strands of her hair the same; the plait curved and spring-like, flicked up at the end from halted inertia. The water pouring into the cabin was likewise frozen at ankle-height, ripples interrupted mid-glide, resembling glass. Most of the sound in the cabin ceased, becoming eerily quiet except for Kali’s wild laughter near the ceiling and the steady drip of fluid from Mayari’s thigh. Distant conversation reached my ears from a voice that sounded like the yacht captain’s, accompanied by the sound of something heavy being manoeuvred across the outer deck. So the phenomenon was limited to this room, at least.
Whatever exemption I'd been granted from the area of effect wasn't absolute. I could feel it weighing in on me, slowing my body and mind alike. Already I was finding myself slow to react to the events in front of me, my brain struggling to keep up with what my eyes were seeing. I stretched out mentally to Mayari and Durga but found them unreachable, my attempts at communication sliding off like glass. I wasn’t sure why or how I was faring better.
We are under attack, Janus informed me - only now - from my pocket, the fog clearing further from my head as he did. The ability to move at a more normal tempo seeped gradually back into my limbs.
It occurred to me I should have alerted him sooner. It was easy to forget I was carrying a powered god around in my outfit, after all, not a cheap mask from a costume parlour. Four against one, not three.
Are you protecting me? I queried.
I assumed you'd appreciate the help. Would you rather I didn't?
This was the person the suppressants hadn’t worked on, I reminded myself, and then had to bite my tongue to keep from ruining my cover in front of the suffocating goddess on the ceiling. The freeze, while impressive, had done nothing to negate the effect of Mayari’s snare. If this was the part of Janus resistant to suppressants, he could very well be the key to releasing other employees from Providence's worst chokeholds.
For now, a blind, deaf and immobile ally didn’t look helpful on paper, and I had a strong suspicion Janus was clueless as to who he was defending against, but I’d take it. We had bigger concerns, such as subterfuge. If Kali realised I wasn’t affected, this small advantage would be for nothing.
Taking care to exempt Janus, I hardened my form, calcifying it like stone down to my hair and clothes while maintaining the appearance of normality. Any movement at this point would give me away. As my regular vision faded I gave myself a smattering of small insect eyes to pick up the slack. From a distance, they would be hard to tell apart from blemishes.
I had been watching Kali the whole time, and still missed the moment she moved, even though I couldn’t look away and by this point could see everything within a 360-degree radius. Somehow, she was now in front of Mayari with her dagger, still crumpled in the Tagalog goddess’ thrall. That changed when the blade went through Mayari’s chin on its way up to the ceiling. It made an unpleasant wet noise.
Mayari fell back to the floor with a watery thud, her body released from the freeze. She didn't move.
Kali landed next to her in an effortless splash, normally for once, chest heaving a little as she drew in much-needed oxygen. Dagger in hand again, she stepped towards her sister still hanging in mid-air. Where her bare feet touched the water, it rippled and sloshed only to harden again once the foot left its immediate vicinity.
Not just a murderous warrior god. Parvati had unleashed on us a murderous warrior goddess of time. And one with localised control at that.
Kali glanced at me as she passed, sniffed, and moved on. I couldn’t help but feel insulted, even though I would have done the same thing in her place. Mayari had been the immediate threat. Durga, the obstacle. My contribution had amounted to target practice, poor reflexes and the occasional spot of backseat driving. That meant I got to die last, according to the unofficial code of common sense triage.
Anything you can do about a killer time shaper? I asked Janus hopefully.
I can separate her from her other selves, he responded, but it would only delay her.
And then we’d have multiple angry gods on our tails. Lovely.
The situation was relying on me, then. Sedna’s waves.
I was only going to get one chance at this, and I had to get it right. I had to assume she could counter anything I threw at her. That warranted lots of contingency, very quickly, without warning.
The moment Kali’s head was turned, I began snaking out silent tendrils under the surface of the water, a hundred or so hose-like tubes packed with an assortment of nasty surprises. Venom made up the bulk of it, but some produced flesh-eating acid; others the sticky resin I’d used on the pope, or the anaesthetic I’d just used on Janus. Others were for entrapment and drawing attention; solid muscle on the interior and plated with razor-like serrations on the exterior, tipped with the kinds of multi-tiered, many-teethed mouths generations of B-grade horror movies had been training me for. With luck they’d be the first to be targeted, by which point the real threats should have done their job. Some of my limbs would bite and latch on. Others, spear like syringes. Others still would hang back, dip above the water and puff enough deadly spores into the air to incapacitate via a single breath.
Not that I had any illusions it would kill her. Wrong pantheon, for one thing. But once she was down, I could keep her that way until we figured out a better long-term solution.
I might not have had a power like Gungnir up my sleeve, but I’d had a lot of time to think about deathtraps.
The bloodstained water was helping me out, concealing my movements while I got everything into position. It should be enough. Overkill, if anything. But I’d seen more infallible situations than this go south before.
Kali had stopped beside her sister, her head level with the latter’s chest. She reached up, casually plucked a poison claw off Durga’s finger, and placed it on her own.
I released an initial wave of acid, venom and powerful anaesthetic into the water and readied myself to pounce.
Instead, Mayari stood up.
Kali turned, and I took advantage of the distraction to loose a second dose of the concoction near her feet. She didn’t appear to have noticed yet, which either meant the anaesthetic was working as intended or she had some kind of countermeasure in play leading up to an epic failure on my part.
Mayari was appearing very much the worse for wear as the time pause hit her again. Her hair and most of her clothes were soaking wet and stained red, the fluid having a mild egg-like consistency which reluctantly dripped back into the cabin. Other parts were coloured a much brighter red, including the new line of thick smeared blood under her chin. She looked intensely pissed off. Her movements were slow, and not just because of the injuries. She advanced sluggishly through the tug of the time pause, becoming swifter the longer I watched.
Sword and dagger were already flying from Kali’s hands, but imploded before they reached their target, crumpling to the floor with a sound halfway between a whoosh and crack. More appeared in her hands moments later, only to join the first in a rain of metal pellets. Some of her fingers were missing, gone along with the weapons, but only for a moment. Arms vanished and reappeared, injuries replaced with pristine skin, new and unharmed. She roared and lunged forward towards her opponent, only to stumble forward unbalanced on feet flayed by acid.
Having fallen to her hands and knees, Kali lifted a hand from the water and stared in surprise at the already tattered palm. I used the moment to strike with everything but the spores - still under the water's surface - but she blinked out and reappeared on top of the smashed glassware, crouched in the small cabinet alcove. Her limbs were healed but she seemed unsteady, my venom already deep enough in her bloodstream to work its magic. Even so, she was holding out for longer than I'd expected.
Daggers flew at Mayari's back but bounced off at a certain threshold, recoiling in a rapid spin and flying out towards the ground at an angle with audible splashes. One hit me in the leg with a somewhat revealing clang but at this point had all the physical impact of a wayward frisbee.
“Way past the point of ‘no one gets hurt’,” the moon goddess croaked at half speed, turning, her decimated voice barely recognisable. I was amazed she could speak at all. She took a laboured step forward, past the wreckage of what had once been half of the table. One twitch of her finger and it too collapsed in on itself.
Kali’s lip curled, and she lowered her hands. The pressure to fall under the sway of the time well increased, evidently outweighing Janus' capacity to resist. To my eyes, she appeared to quicken, with Mayari back to normal speed again. It didn't last long, though. Mayari was catching up to her aggressor, and fast, even as I could see myself falling behind.
Thanks to the time pause affecting the water, the spread of my handiwork was curbed. It was a small cabin, however, and Mayari was venturing perilously close to the area I’d laced. Water's poisoned, I warned her, before the time difference disrupted my ability to communicate. Don’t step forward.
If she was surprised I was still in the game, it didn’t show. But she stopped, and a buffer of dry floor appeared around her feet, pushed out to all sides. Her eyes didn’t leave Kali, whose struggles were obvious now. One cobalt hand reached out to the corner of the cabinet to keep herself from toppling over, followed by another.
We had this fight in the bag at this point, but we didn't have Kali contained. If she fled somewhere the venom could run its course, it was a loose end that could come back to bite us.
Fortunately, she appeared to have read the standard goon instruction manual. Specifically the chapter I assumed heaped stigma on those considering backing down, which hadn't been updated since its initial release in we-didn't-know-any-better BC. The next thing I knew, she had blindsided her way past Mayari's invisible buffer, getting in close enough to kiss, daggers bristling from a forest of limbs even as some of the fingers lost their grip and sent their contents clattering to the floor.
Mayari, for her part, had somehow ended up with her hand around the other woman’s throat. She had the warrior goddess suspended mid-air, her toes dangling just above the water.
Not that there was any need. Kali’s arms were bent at painful angles, curled as far as they would go before threatening to break, each bent around their own dedicated miniature gravity well. Her torso writhed and struggled; her face burned with wild anger, but it was clear who had the upper hand. The effect of the time freeze faltered, losing its impact and allowing the poison to spread again.
More blood dribbled down Mayari’s chin as she addressed her captive. “Listen up, Kali,” she snapped. It wasn’t in Sanskrit, but the intent she was broadcasting into the room was clear. “I'm Mayari. Goddess of revolutions. I was born to depose tyrants. I’m done with being chained. Tell Parvati I don’t have time for her imperialist nonsense. I’ve already got one parasite on my list to topple, and it isn’t her. But it could be. If this is who she is, or who you are, you’re no better than him. And I'll have no compunctions whatsoever about dropping you both into the heart of a neutron star. Got that? This is your official warning. Pass it on.”
Withdrawing her grip from the other's throat (which did nothing to make her drop to the ground), the moon goddess grimaced. She brought both of her hands together, squeezing against some kind of invisible resistance. Eventually it burst, and with it Kali’s form imploded in on itself, like the weapons and the cabin furniture before her. A flash of blue glinted in the air where she’d been.
Mayari staggered forward and snatched it out of the air before it could hit the water.