(Content warning: violence, mild sexual content and humor, drug use, some ableist language, mentioned rumors of sexual assault.)
Chapter One: Trolling
The scouts opened fire before Vanth spotted them. She’d been occupied, watching the first drops of rain sparkle as they careened to Earth.
Weather didn’t affect a gunfight. Modern battles were less beholden to the skies than the ones of her youth, but Vanth liked the cool water pouring over her uniform all the same. She stood with her head to the sky and her rifle leaned against a railing. A circle of sun shined behind the clouds.
Bullets whistled past, white and red lines, with magic strong enough to kill gods; an end to the infinite in a spark of thoughtless fire.
Peace and rain would have to wait, Vanth had gotten into another war.
A bullet puckered the concrete in the road, tossing flecks of concrete. Terrible shots, but even a skilled marksman didn’t stand a chance of actually hitting her body. She sat across the bridge, invisible to all but the sharpest eyes, while a shadow of herself played with the shooters.
Mortals might have godly weapons now, but they never really stood a proper chance.
Her shadow flipped the Lewis machine rifle over and Vanth followed suit.
The .303 caliber weapon had been specially outfitted for walk and fire tactics with a heavy forward grip under the barrel shroud. Good for mid-range, but Hephaestus added a short-range brass scope for a few lucky soldiers. The Lewis Model-H Long Range, or Hurl, was top of the line in god and mortal tech, and the goddess cherished her own.
Vanth sighted the first one, a werewolf in human clothes. He’d carved holes in the helmet for his long ears.
Her crosshairs landed right on the center in the swirl of one long ear, and Vanth squeezed her trigger.
The bullet passed neat, catching her target’s soul in the wake, sparking like a star, and leaving another corpse for Pluto’s trenches. His buddy, a siren with hair too gorgeous to ruin, got one in the chest.
After a quick sweep of the opposite bank with her scope, Vanth put the gun down and sat against the wall. Her shadow followed, and took out a ghostly apple the goddess didn’t have.
The funny magical puppet started to take a bite, but paused and held out the dark piece of fruit.
Vanth waved the offer away. “Waiting for the chow runner.”
It shrugged and dug into the spectral fruit.
No more patrols happened by and Vanth didn’t mind at all. She liked the peace, even if the aching quiet sometimes grew tenser than working the forward listening posts on moonless nights.
Bullets punctuated her thought, putting a full stop on them, and tearing straight through her shadow in mid-chew. The apparition vanished in a flash of spent prayers that left gold dust on the sidewalk.
Vanth rolled and lifted her Lewis gun. Across the bridge, a soldier darted between buildings.
The being entered one door, Vanth aimed for the other side of the building.
And Vanth pulled the trigger twice. Her shots passed through and golden dust speckled the air.
A shadow? “Oh, fuck me.”
Just behind Vanth’s head, the hammer of a handgun clicked back.
“Weapon down,” a muffled voice ordered.
Vanth kept the weapon ready.
Moments passed with the pistol pressed to her neck. The British helmet stopped too high, but the old ones stood out to the mortals. She’d survive the wound, but the healing would take a while.
Long enough for the attacker to take her gun. She’d have some real issues then.
Vanth breathed deep and prepared to die.
After that, she could sneak up on this sonovabitch and beat the hell out of them. This body could really die even, long as her soul stayed whole she could work out a deal for a new meat puppet. Maybe get one from the soldier’s healing corps, Vanth didn’t read her contract real well.
“Bang,” the voice said, loud and clear.
Vanth recognized the thick Egyptian accent right away. “Oi, fuck off Sakhet. I almost pissed myself. If I’d gotten chow, I might’ve.”
Safkhet, Vanth’s commanding officer, smiled down at her and uncocked the weapon. Her black skin shined with reddish brown undertones. The other goddess had shaved her long braids recently, so a gasmask would fit, but Vanth rather liked the tight black curls she wore now. “Keeping my bridge troll sharp.”
“For what? Easiest duty I ever pulled. The shadow puppet spells are so new even the Fox doesn’t know them yet. He was pretty impressed with mine when he strolled through last week.”
Safkhet lifted a delicate eyebrow. “Who do you think taught me?”
Vanth shook her head and sat down. “A Myth being that fucking—”
“A fucking nine-titted whore of a Myth being that fucking clever with divine magic isn’t a good thing for anyone Safkhet.”
“He’s on our side.”
Vanth snorted. “He’s on his own side. I’ve run into Reynard before, he’s just not someone you should trust.”
Safkhet rolled her eyes and set a tin box on the sidewalk. “Lunch. Two bob for hot delivery next time.”
“I gave you a crown Tuesday morning,” Vanth said. “And I don’t think it’s ever really been all that hot Safkhet.”
She gave a long, hollow laugh. “Pull closer duty. Or volunteer for special. You know, be more than a bridge troll? And the money goes to the war.”
“Who pays me then?”
“Artemis is funding the soldiers, but we just can’t afford to feed and pay you and the pay system was in place before when we could afford to feed the smaller number of troops we had.” The goddess stretched. “Get the food out and I’ll be sure and bring a few of the rations with the fuel cakes next time okay?”
“And something to drink? Rum?” Vanth developed the taste in her privateer days and being without for too long felt odd. “More tobacco? Tuxedo, if they got any.”
“Vanth, you can buy that shit when you’re off duty.”
“Well, I had a plan to stay on duty for a while longer…”
“Well, I didn’t and I make the plans,” Safkhet told her. “You’re almost up for back row.”
“I don’t need the rest.”
“You sleeping okay by yourself up here?”
“I’m not just a goddess, I’m a psychopomp, too. I can stay up forever.” She stopped. “More or less.”
“Oh.” Safkhet looked around. “Are you gonna be dead if I come back through here?”
Vanth shrugged. “If I’ve got an extra shovel, I might as well dig a trench, right?”
Chapter Two: Light Tricks
Vanth’s soul sat atop the gaslamp.
She didn’t mind being dead. Her body lasted about a week on just one meal worth of rations. Vanth could still fight with her scythe in this form, or reoccupy the meat puppet for MG work. The key to staying dead, was to sit up high and watch over the corpse.
You might think being occupied by both the Germans, and a few gods in their own quiet war, would curb Belgium’s body snatching trade, but anything to earn a few marks.
Not to mention the perverts.
Besides them, and the occasional patrol, the city had been mostly abandoned since the French took it back. Two small skirmishes, but the Germans didn’t put much effort into the area, either. Nothing worth fighting over or leaving any men behind. According to the humans, anyway.
But the second of the three Fates thought the city worth a goddess. More specifically, the bridge over the river. Vanth literally jumped at the chance, leaping out of her seat and into the easy life. Days spent in blessed quiet, reading any book she could salvage. Solitude was the best a paid gunny could ask for in a war of this scale.
Vanth could handle a good number of mortals, and if things got hairy, she carried two full prayer doses in a flask. The boosters weren’t strictly on level with the Fates’ rules, but what the old bitches didn’t know, wouldn’t hurt them. Vanth never saw much use in rules anyway. She could follow whatever path lead her to where she needed to be. The Fate’s might bitch and moan, but they didn’t control things.
Until the Fated alliance could pull through, anyway. And then Artemis would keep the bitches in line.
If Tyr managed to uphold his end of the plan, of course, and Artemis held the line, they might be able to turn back the death march this war had been since the day Dionysus fell.
Being slain in a drunken brawl during an orgy would have been the way everyone’s favorite cousin wanted to go, but the Fated’s morale suffered heavily.
They weren’t losing, but the number of dead and wounded could never be considered truly winning.
Vanth herself taken a bullet to the thigh last year. Bottled prayer and her own magic healed the damage. A few inches over, she’d have bled out before healing. Luck had been a friend since the Balkans. Actually, he might be an in-law, Vanth didn’t keep up with the extended family these days.
After the Romans destroyed her pantheon, the rest of the gods mostly abandoned her. Besides the two other Etruscans left, and the occasional mortal wife, Vanth had wandered alone for centuries. She’d come to love the private life, but the opportunity presented by the war was unique.
If they won, Vanth would be truly free, finally. Able to build a worship, again, or just live wherever. No more hiding.
Stretching the spectral muscles did nothing, and that had never curbed the habit, so Vanth jumped in place a few times, before leaping from the pole and dropping into her body.
Pins and needles in every limb left the goddess shaking and giggling on the ground. Half the blankets rolled off her and hunger pangs sounded from deep within.
Soon as the ticklish pain subsided, she started working on lunch.
Vanth opened her rations kit and smelled the tea immediately, a nice blend actually. The rations were British, but good tea was hit or miss these days. Then again, she might just be getting used to the terrible stuff.
That’s a scary thought.
Two pieces of hardtack were included in the rations package, along with a jar of jam and two tins of bully beef. Mostly fat in the metal containers, but she’d eaten worse.
Vanth poked her steel spoon into the gelatinous mush.
And so much better…
Last a long time on a small amount, though, if she pushed the envelope. Still get paid, too, being dead saved a lot of cash.
Vanth’s didn’t even mind the long hours, she read quietly, using bits of chthonic energy to lift the books, and ignored the world at large as best she could. The typical tour was twenty-one days in slow rotation, front to back. Vanth’s ninety-day guard plan put her outside the norm, but she did like forging her own path.
Or my own bum groove in the concrete. Least the view’s nice.
For a few dozen cold breaths, Vanth watched the tired Meuse river and thought of the rain and the pretty flowers that had begun growing over the villagers’ mass graves.
Ghosts were ten a penny, of course, but psychopomp duties had been suspended for the war. She could give advice to the few ghosts that wandered near, but little else.
Vanth had been around for centuries, and while this was a different style of battle, the old realities never left the art. War cost too much, regardless of the means and certainly exaggerated by them, in this new era of wholesale bloodshed and brass leavings.
Shaking her head, the goddess set up her tin stove and lit the small cake of fuel with a wooden match. Safkhet didn’t bring this ration, she only filled in when needed, so Vanth’s rum didn’t make the trip.
But she’d found a tin of tobacco and pipe nestled deep in the bag. A hot pipe warmed the soul on frigid nights. Even out of body, somehow the cold always got to her. Warm not so much, but even her ghostly form didn’t care much for icy nights.
Lighting a bowl of the fragrant smoke, she put the water to boil and took a long walk around the small encampment. The latrine crew never made it this far up, but the half-frozen river served. Making her way back to the hideaway, the goddess huddled into the corner of the stone building. She could barely be seen from this side, between the first building and the end of the bridge rail.
Best she could manage.
Her kettle boiled and she filled the canteen before adding a few more cups to the pot. Two servings of tea went into the container and while that steeped, she went to work on her stew.
Using her pen knife, Vanth sliced up the vegetables, a carrot, a tiny potato, and some brown onions, then dropped them into the water. She drank half the tea before they were soft. Draining off the water, she added her beef and the salt and pepper pouches. All of them, the Maconochie stew needed it.
Needed to be tossed in the river, too, but she didn’t want to piss off the local water guardian. Shoveling the mess in with her camp spoon seemed to be the only proper route.
Ideally, Vanth would survive to eat the other can next week, but truth be told the idea of skipping off to Hades for a lifespan or so held some wild appeal.
Or Duat. The war hadn’t even touched them, not their war anyway. The mortal one was more a world type, Vanth heard. The Great War and The Last War, they called it. Some humans thought the world might not see 1920.
Considering the Eleventh Oracle of Delphi told Vanth that should she survive until the 21st century, she’d become horribly addicted to something called Sweet Smasher—and micro-transactions would break her because self-control had never been Vanth’s strength—the goddess had her doubts.
Also, Vanth looked forward to having some extra candy to crush up. Right now, she’d shoot a sibling for an English breakfast and a few pieces of decent shortbread.
That not being an option, Vanth turned back to the rations. Jam was a bit of misnomer for the congealed syrup and part of her tea went to making the biscuit edible—hardtack needed to be soaked and the jam had to be spooned on in globs—but she finished her meal with dessert.
Of sorts. I miss proper Victoria sponge. A nice Battenburg wouldn’t be terrible, either.
The goddess started a second pipe, but even through the smell of fine tobacco, cooking sausage caught her nose. Something hearty and spiced.
Vanth stood and looked for sign of a fire.
In the recesses of a shelled out house, a single flame capered with the night wind.
Suspicion tap danced naturally around the scene, the dead town was creepy enough on its own, but beyond that, the tiny light shouldn’t have been visible at all. The mirror it reflected off shouldn’t have survived, or at least, it would be filthy with bombing dust.
Vanth moved everything to a bag and kicked the remaining fire to the river. She hung her gear off the side of the bridge, away from animals and out of sight.
Slinging the rifle over her back, Vanth carried a colt 1911 in one hand. The pistol would stop most weaker enemies. She had the rifle for tougher enemies and distance work, but a power house wouldn’t have lured her in with the smell of sausage, or even attempted to.
She took the long way and wondered what tricks might be playing through the cool winter air.
The north bridge didn’t survive the Belgian resistance, so Vanth hopped between the larger pieces of ruined stone, and clamored over the last onto dry land. On the way back toward her own bridge, and the mystery smell, she took care to stay low and quiet.
The wind started to howl and the smell of sausage faded.
Vanth approached a back window first, pistol up and safety off. She could only see to the kitchen, but the light didn’t reach the room at all. Her eyes pierced the shadows, but they didn’t see everything.
She crept around to the front, exchanging her pistol for the long bayonet on her hip.
The mortar left a three-yard crater in the road and destroyed the front of the house. A broken mirror against the blackened back wall stood witness to the smashed remains of a life before the world built madness into an industry.
Vanth stepped over cracked bricks and old toys. A knife near the couch looked newer than the bombing, but older than this evening. Dust covered the handle and blade. Old blood and forming rust.
Bits of flower print fabric caught on the hilt. Vanth leaned closer and wondered.
Hardly matters, honestly.
Not like innocence ever slowed a blade. Or stopped a bullet.
She headed to the kitchen and found a stove with a pan of blackened sausages on top. Months old, at least since the bombing. The family might have evacuated during dinner.
Really hope they did.
Vanth crossed her bridge, the last whole bridge in the area and set herself up for another long wait.
She turned for a last check of the house and the small orange light glowed once more. Breathing deep, Vanth picked up the sage and pepper scent again, as she jogged back across the bridge.
Lewis rifle across her chest, she rolled forward and into a crouch to aim into the dark building.
Not a hint of light or caress of cooked meat. She put the gun back and drew her pistol again. The wind’s rush died as she stepped into the old building.
Nothing changed that she could tell, same blown up junk: old sausages that might be tempting if they weren’t so burnt and broken mirrors.
Vanth checked the upstairs, but the only whole room just held a family of suicidal pigeons that might make a good meal if she wanted to risk the shooting. And use her pistol, the Lewis wouldn’t leave much of the stringy birds.
The goddess stepped gingerly into a crumbling bedroom. White bones molded on the other side of the bed. She didn’t bother checking it, corpses weren’t anything to get excited over in a war zone. As a death goddess and psychopomp, Vanth had seen more than enough.
Across the road, in the leftover half of a shop’s front window, an orange light shined brightly from the front room of the ruined house. The smell of sausage returned on a cool breeze.
Now that’s something to get a little worked up about.
Vanth drew her bayonet and held the long, thin blade toward the floor.
Sneaking along to the hole, she looked down into the ruined gap and the smell of cooking sausage overwhelmed the space again. Vanth aimed away from the tin stove, to spare the cooking food, and dropped to the lower floor.
Holding the blade in one hand, she drew her pistol and stuck the barrel into a familiar face.
“Oh. Hello, Fox.”
He winked up at her, a smile flashing in his amber eyes. “Reynard is fine.”
Vanth could think of a few other names for the cocky git right now. Instead of running through them, she holstered her weapon and stepped back. “So you got free time to fuck with people actually working or what?”
He smiled and winked at her. “Always time for a good fuck, if you want to be blase about it. But no, I’m on a very important mission for Lady Artemis. I’ve gotta make Paris tonight and be back at our main camp by Christmas eve tomorrow.”
News to Vanth, she’d been dead quite a few days. Felt more like November, really. “You officially joined the war then?”
The Fox lifted the lid from his frying kit and stirred the sausages. Thick links sizzled in their own butter—nothing like the sad, little barkers Vanth got normally.
He dropped the lid back down. “No, but she doesn’t have to know she sent me on a mission for me to be on one for her, always.”
“Ah. Sneaking around then.”
“I wouldn’t say that. My version makes me sound noble.”
Vanth would have laughed if he wasn’t probably selling them out. Not much funny about that. “Doesn’t mean it’s not true.”
“Semantics,” Reynard said with a dismissive wave.
Vanth brushed off a patch of couch and sat down. “Why are you sneaking around my bridge?”
“Just resting. On a long hike and I’ve got a lot of funerals to go to next week.” Reynard pulled a silver cigarette case and a clock-sized mechanical match from his pocket. “Smoke?”
She leaned forward and took one. “Nice of you.”
“All on the same side, right?”
“What we wonder. A lot.”
Reynard gave her a dose of his big puppy eyes, then clicked the match. Flame jutted high from the top before settling down. Vanth lit her cigarette and leaned back.
“I imagine you do,” Reynard said. “Trust and me are often at odd angles. But I am damned good from any angle.” He flipped the sausages again and lit his own cigarette.
“Who died?” Vanth asked.
She rolled her eyes. “The funerals?”
“Oh, right. No one. Yet. Come five tomorrow though…”
“Fine then, who will die?”
The Fox took out two steel plates, then removed a kettle and a second pan of already steamed vegetables from behind a chair. With culinary skill Vanth hadn’t witnessed since pre-war Paris, Reynard plated the food and served up coffee.
Vanth sliced into the greasy meat. Lamb. She knew the thick texture and taste right away. The chef was good with spices. Just enough of everything and still tasted like the meat itself. Hot, fresh buttery veg was rather lovely, but nothing compared to that crackle of cooked sausage.
She focused on the meal and let Reynardine build the tension if he wanted. Clearly he couldn’t be in that much of a hurry if—
“Should I start with the brass or the soldiers?”
“What?” Vanth shoveled in some more sausage and chewed fast. She’d seen enough trouble in her long life to know this little break wasn’t meant to last.
“The people who will die tomorrow. Dozens of soldiers, too many to name. Gods, creatures, what gets in the way gets killed. Pluto goes first, then Djehuty, Ares sets the call out, but falls alongside Artemis. Or maybe they finally kill each other, but I imagine it’s the first. The war’s over. Not the human one, but our little hope is pretty well stamped out.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
The Fox looked up and tears shined in his amber eyes. “Exactly what it sounds like. An attack that breaks all the way through to HQ. A single wave that decidedly decimates our forces. Hades and Vulcan are working with the Germans. They shipped the new war machines toward the front in exchange for some divine weaponry. I’m working on getting more details now, maybe even find out where they’ve stashed the power source, but the Fated have to survive until then.”
“And you know all of this how?” She finished her meal and dropped the plate on the couch.
Reynardine pulled out another cigarette and lit the mechanical match. “You still using those sulfur sticks? Here, keep this one. I’ve got another.” He passed over the round device. “Might not want to show it off much.”
Vanth looked at the brass case. Jupiter was emblazoned on the front in old Roman. The leader of the opposition’s lighter. “Oh. You really are playing both sides…”
“Yeah, slipped into my pocket during our meeting. I’m a spy, Vanth, it’s what I do. Bit of help from an Oracle set me on the trail. But, the problem is, Jupiter trusted me to deliver a message, Vanth. I have time to eat, but if I’m not in Paris by tomorrow, I’ll never find out who the mole is on our side.”
“But this is more important.”
“They’re absolutely equal,” Reynard told her. “The spy can bring us down, if force doesn’t.”
“So I’m the messenger then? Who do I tell?”
“Ares. Artemis will probably be with him.”
Vanth shook her head. “I don’t get on with the Greeks all that well. Denied me asylum when Rome took over Etruschi. I had to run clear to Britain.”
“Why did you join Artemis’ war?”
Vanth sighed. “I’m a suffragette soldier. Artemis and the Fates in charge will be better than Jupiter, Zeus, and all the other old dudes.”
“They will,” Reynard said, absolute certainty in his voice. “Just get to Ares and they will. Tell him that Reynard still longs for Athens and then wink.”
Vanth stared. “Wink? At him?”
“Yes. He’ll know what it means and vouch for you.”
“I can guess what it means. Are you serious?”
“Always,” Reynard said and then coughed. “Ouch, that lie almost hurt. Okay, mostly always tonight. At the moment.”
Vanth’s jaw dropped. “No, really, are you serious? And what is this war machine we need to watch out for?”
“There’s a bunch. Hard to describe… think like bronze animals. Just be sure and tell Artemis that Vulcan and Hephaestus had the same idea, but the first is faster. She’ll know.”
“Any more coded messages?”
“If Hestia asks, tell her I said hello.”
“I’m not a dating service.” Vanth looked out into the night. “I don’t know if I can catch a ride to the front this fast—”
“No time.” The Fox started to pack up his kit. “You really think Safkhet will give you a horse on my word alone? Better to run.”
Vanth looked close at the Fox. “Is this for real? I’m not going to race all the way to Verdun and be laughed at am I?”
“I can’t promise that, Vanth. But the war machines march for our line and we need to bolster it. If we fail here, the Entente falls in spring. I don’t want to sound dramatic, Dollface, but that really will be the end of the world.”
Vanth shook her head. “I don’t think I can run a hundred kilometers in a day.”
“I do. And you have to. I can’t do both.”
Vanth rolled her eyes, but still said a fast and unsure goodbye before she jogged across the bridge. Her stuff was hidden enough, but she wanted the tobacco and pipe. Gloves and gas mask, too.
Reynard rode past on a horse, with a loud call of good luck, and Vanth considered shooting the beast and riding his steed to the front.
Instead, she stowed the rifle tight against her back and started the long run. Her helmet rocked around, and the gun thumped with every step.
Soon enough, the ruined town fell away to burned fields and shelled trees.