The world had changed since he had last been there. He swooped across oceans, diving towards a single island. It wasn't hard to spot; a great column of smoke tumbled skywards, so dense and black that it looked like a great, roiling storm cloud was being emitted directly from the city below. This was an all-too-familiar scene to him, and his mind flicked back thousands of years;
Japanese lands pillaged and burned by rotting corpses, animated by an abominable forbidden miracle, swinging swords and axes into the soft bodies of their victims.
A Greek capital overrun by whooping, jeering Aztecs, men, women and children put to the sword or dragged away by the hair and chained together in herds.
A peaceful Celtic village pelted with fireballs and blasts of lightning, and buffeted by an unnatural storm.
He closed his eyes, tried to count the people he had been unable to save over the years, but could not. The figure was too high. Some gods thrived on warfare, whilst some saw it as a monstrosity which was to be avoided, but Lucian preferred not to be tied down with such commitments. War was unavoidable and to deny it was naïve: the very nature of humans and gods was to fight. Envy and Wrath went hand in hand on Eden, and every time he left the various tribes he commanded in a state of fragile stability, they would eventually collapse into fighting one way or another.
That said, of course, war was something which could be controlled, shaped and moulded into the results one wanted. War was not what he now saw below him: the cobblestone streets of the once-mighty capital were littered with corpses in the same, casual manner one might expect to see with litter. This was a massacre.
He swooped down towards the source of the prayer, a Cathedral of some majesty: situated atop a hill which overlooked the shattered cityscape. This building, at least, was intact. Behind it, a vast river flowed, spanned by twin bridges and on the far side, the small slice of the city which rested there was also mercifully untouched by the ravages of war. Closer he flew, and details began to filter through to his sleep-fogged mind: the roads leading to the Cathedral were blocked by burning debree and hastily-constructed barricades, and before its vast front doors stood a platoon of exhausted-looking troops in red coats and white trousers held their foes at bay with stuttering volleys of bullets. Muskets in hand, they were so intent on felling their tan-clothed rivals they did not even notice the meteorite of pale blue light skim overhead and phase through the upper windows of the building they defended.
Within, a woman knelt alone, before a great statue. She was unflinching at the clatter of shots outside. Her lips moved, emitting no sound as her energy was all but spent. However, her poise was strong, noble. She finished her prayer and her head bowed in sorrow. Her prayer was unanswered.
"My good lady" a voice echoed about the cavernous room "why must you despair so?"
She whirled; hood falling back to reveal hair grey as storm clouds and threaded about an elegant crown. Her cloak fell back to reveal an extravagant dress which could only belong to royalty. Her face, crumpled and paled by age, lit up and watery blue eyes widened.
"Y-you…" she whispered in awe "You are the god, Lucian!"
Before the elderly woman stood a man of indeterminate age. He was extremely tall, however; almost nine feet, and was clad in a simple brown robe, fastened by a belt which also held a ring of shimmering keys. His hair was short and his face was thin-cheeked and tired. Pale-blue eyes regarded her sadly.
"With whom, might I ask, do I converse?" His voice was loud and echoing: a cold bark which reverberated around the room, giving the impression that many voices spoke the words. The old woman bowed her head in respect.
"I am Queen Victoria." she told him "I have summoned you here in my darkest hour."
To her surprise, the god tilted his head back and laughed: a single peal of an almost musical nature. He then strode over to a vast granite pillar and ran his hand down the rough surface. It occurred to the queen that he had not walked upon this world for thousands of years, and simple sensations like touch, smell and sight would be almost overwhelming to him.
"Oh yes, ma'am. It's always in 'their darkest hour'." he chuckled "the changes I make to your society will be all but forgotten in a hundred years' time and your descendant will soon be sobbing his heart out, praying for someone like myself to help them out."
He turned back to her, his face serious.
"Why have you called me here? Specifically me? For two thousand years your tribe, or its predecessors, have coped with their human affairs without me. What could possibly have changed?"
She met his gaze now, confident she had made the right choice.
"The Americans were our allies: we two tribes fought alongside one-another many times: American and British together. I knew their President personally; a good man who knew how to make war and more importantly, how to make peace. But yesterday evening, American soldiers entered our land through a portal and attacked us. It was an unprovoked act of war, and they have a seemingly unlimited number of troops."
Lucian was decidedly unimpressed, leaning against the pillar and staring at the Queen coldly.
"…and they have a God."
"You are sure of this?" he asked.
"They pray to him. According to our colonies in other lands with the Americans, they have been constructing Temples and Shrines."
To her surprise, the formerly calm god sprung forward and seized her by the shoulders. His grip was strong, painful even, but she felt the strength behind his hands was even greater than what he exerted now; leaving red wields across her.
"What is his name? What do they call him?" he hissed.
"The Embodiment of Darkness." She whispered, her voice cracking with weariness "Nemesis."
Lucian's jaw opened and closed, and he released her, staggering back in horror.
"No." He stammered "Pray tell me he has not returned."
"You know this god?" she asked, taken aback at the terror she registered in his face.
"Know him? Oh yes I do. I know him too well."
"Oh what fool summoned that…fiend?" he whispered.
"My lord." the queen muttered "I am tired, my people are being massacred and my armies are all but spent. I ask unto you, what do we do?"
He closed his eyes and tilted his head back, before exhaling a long rasping breath.
"We flee. We abandon this place and we never, ever return."
The Queen stood to her full height (not an impressive 5 ½ feet when the god was almost 9) and glared at the heavenly being.
"We British will never abandon our capital! We will defend it to the last! I summoned you here to defend us! To beat off this invasion!"
"Then you shall die, and your tribe will slide forgotten into history."
Lucian turned away.
"You now have a choice, Queen. You surrender the control of your tribe to me, and allow me to lead you to salvation, or you fight your lost cause and watch your beloved people enslaved by these Americans."
There was a short silence, and then she spoke from behind him. She was very quiet at first, but her words were still audible.
"Save us. Please."
Lucian smiled, faintly, then turned back to her.
"Lead your people back across the bridges; to the areas untouched by this slaughter. Your remaining soldiers shall defend the crossing."
"But they will surely die!"
"Madam, if you know war as I do, then you will know that the very purpose of these men is to sacrifice themselves for the good of your people. They were always going to die, only now their deaths shall mean something."
Lucian turned back to her and she nodded to him.
"I shall do as you ask, my lord."
He took off without another word, soaring through the ceiling in his symbol-form, until he surveyed the entire city. He spotted a group of British soldiers, beset on two sides by Americans, who swarmed towards them with bayonets fixed. Without hesitation, he swooped down and changed to his human form in mid-dive: crashing amongst the charging soldiers and crushing two into pulp. His right hand pulled the bunch of keys free from his belt and, as it came away, their form blurred and distorted until he held not keys, but a sword of ivory and steel. As the men turned about, attempting to combat this new threat, he swept the blade in a long, bloody arc: killing six with a single blow. A bayonet plunged at him from one side, but he grasped it and tore the weapon from the hands of its wielder: thrusting once with his sword and then swinging the blade right again, killing three more American troops. The remaining five attempted to rush him; a hollow battle-cry escaping their trembling lips. He knocked aside their weapons and danced amongst them, slashing left and right until the last man fell to his knees before the god.
"What…are…you?" the brown-coated soldier rasped, clutching his bloodied stomach.
"I'm not sure any more." Lucian sighed. He struck down with the hilt of his weapon, smashing the angular face into pulp and knocking the corpse backwards. He then turned back to the remaining British soldiers, who gazed at him in wonder from beyond the barricade. In his mind's eye, he felt their little human minds like thin flags, flapping in the breeze. He found that of their leader; a burly brute in sergeants stripes, and plucked it, dropping it by the bridges behind the Cathedral. The squad drew back and began to march towards the designated point; not knowing why they headed that way, save on the whim of their officer. Lucian smiled and wiped the blood from his blade, sheathing it into his belt, where it became a bunch of keys once more.
He was about to take off again, when he felt the tug of a small, fragile life nearby; pain and fear stinging at the soul. He turned and to his dismay, spotted a small pink hand protruding from beneath a fallen brick wall. With a flick of his hand, the stones tumbled from the civilian, and Lucian observed that it was a child: a small boy with freckles and long brown hair. The child regarded him with eyes of green, trembling in fear, and wincing from his wounds.
"There there, child, I shall get you to safety." Lucian's tone became gentle and he knelt beside the boy, to lift him.
"You shall surely perish if I leave you here, and we can't have that."
"No… why did they attack? The Americans? Why do they hate us so?"
Lucian was silent for a moment, but before he could reply, the child exhaled in a slight rasp of air, and was still. The god knelt by the dead kid for a moment, and realised that this one little death had affected him more than any death had for a long time. Eventually he stood, and turned his back on the body, whispering a faint:
"Rest easy, child."
Airborne again, he gazed down on the vast city. He could feel those spirit-flags which were human minds; soldiers approaching in huge numbers. The Americans marched on the fleeing British; determined to exterminate them. Lucian felt the nauseating tang of hatred emanating from the enemy forces. Not just normal hatred which a god may observe soldiers feeling in war, but true disgust at the very existence of the British. It was in this monstrous perversion of human emotion that he felt the presence of Nemesis for the first time since his arrival.
He swooped again, landing on the British-held segment of the city, and it was there that he found the Queen, wavering where she stood. Beside her, a pair of soldiers levelled their muskets at him as he landed, but she dismissed them with a gesture.
"How do we escape this land, lord?" the elderly commander asked "you have but backed us into a corner."
Lucian smiled again, genuinely this time.
"This land was not left undefended by supernatural powers, Queen. The last time I was here, at the height of my power, I placed a curse on the Cathedral (it was a temple back then). When any hostile force approaches it, an ancient self-defence mechanism will activate."
The old queen nodded her thanks, then turned back to the riverside view of the rest of her capital: crumbling before the massive horde which swept through it.
They reached the Cathedral, some soldiers bursting inside to search it and finding nothing, whilst the rest assembled on either side: preparing to cross the bridge. Sweating and terrified, the remaining redcoats of the British took up positions; preparing to sacrifice themselves for the huddle of thirty civilians and their queen, who cowered behind them.
Then it happened.
There came a great creaking sound; like the hull of a ship in a storm, and the Cathedral exploded. It didn't collapse or crumble, it literally exploded in a burst of flame and shower of masonry which showered the invaders and scattered them. At exactly the same time, the Bridges simply sank into the river, swept away by the suddenly swelling floodwater which was running through it.
Behind them, an orb of blindingly white light dropped from the sky like a pebble into a pond. Where it touched the cobblestone streets, it swelled and began to whirl about until it was a vortex ten metres wide. The light faded until it was just bearable to look at directly, and the air was filled with the moan of a hurricane-like wind.
"Inside! Get everyone inside!" Lucian hollered at the Queen. She shook her head and turned to him, eyes brimming with tears.
"I grew up in this land, and it was my responsibility to protect these people." She declared, cloak whipping about her frail, elderly form.
"You can't stay here, you'll die!" Lucian exclaimed. His eye fell upon the far bridge, or what was left of it. He cursed as he realised that it had not completely been destroyed. A thin segment still spanned the river; wide enough for two men to walk abreast, and even as he watched, the browncoats began to hurry across it; muskets dangling from their straps as they struggled to balance.
"I know that, my lord. Please, my final request is that you lead my tribe to glory, and that you allow me to die here: so that they may forget my failings."
Lucian was silent, but he knew that he must honour her request. He nodded, then turned to the crowd of tearful civilians.
"Go! Into the light! You shall be safe there!"
As he set off after the townsfolk, he heard the Queen shout, her voice crisp and clear over the howling wind and clatter of musketry.
"Redcoats! To me! Show them that the British die well!"
A faint shout went up, a half-hearted cheer as the handful of remaining soldiers prepared to meet their end, but then it was gone as he stepped into the portal. Suddenly he was falling…
…down, down, down…
…the tunnel he fell through became pitch-black, then suddenly a new light was rushing to meet him, and he felt a breeze on his skin.
His first challenges awaited him beyond the gate.