It had been a week since their arrival and the Temples of the Undying Flame were spreading. Many were the worshipers who adored the new physical deities who were able to casually shatter planets and fly and be in multiple places at once. Many miracles had been performed, deserts bloomed. Some of the Immortals had ignored the existence of cars and walked into them only for the cars to buckle and fly into the air, and then they performed a second miracle in restoring the messes that they themselves had made.
Indeed, some among the mortal men and women of the world whispered that perhaps the very Gods were walking among them themselves. These whispers were the stronger when the Immortals found bodies torn and mutilated by the works of mortal minds, asserting their power and then light surged out. Limbs torn and severed re-stitched themselves, hearts began to beat, minds to think, lungs to gasp. Signs and wonders were performed in those days, and many whispered that the Sons of God had descended, while the worship of the Undying Flame began to spread.
Images spread too, a great and splendid armored being on a throne sometimes carved from a monstrously oversized skull, or of a figure in a red sari seated on a great silver throne. Images of splendor and wonder that led people to fall to their knees in awe, and hints of terror and horror that lurked, strange blurriness and often the greatest fear when the god on the throne smiled and leaned forward, her dishlike face and crystalline-irised eyes burning into the souls of worshiper and skeptic alike.
The spread of these phenomena led to something that had once been hypothetical but was now less so. Members of a group, descendants in a sense and inheritors in another of the classical Taliban, had with the full approval of the Pakistani government seized control of a nuclear weapon. A high-yield kiloton device they were arming for a strike against these false prophets and heresiarch godlings. Not merely unbelievers but advocates of a dark deity glad in dark green, dark even though its manifestations were shrouded in light and the gleaming silver throne was like the flame that drew moths. Dark even though the only overtly malicious elements seemed to be that the Sari was as though someone had woven blood into cloth.
The missile left its silo, fully armed. The power that set stars alight, the greatest of the weapons of science against the dread power of sorcery, against the manifest might of dark gods and dark dreams and foul worship from beyond the veil. It was launched with a prayer:
In the name of God, the most merciful, the most compassionate,
all praise to God, master of all the worlds,
most merciful, most compassionate,
owner of the day of Judgment,
you alone do we worship, to you alone we turn to help,
guide us on the right path,
not the path of those who have angered you or fallen astray.
The missile fired. An arrow of righteousness and light.
The Monk gazed at the streak of fire, the arrow from the foolish ones. He smiled, at last relishing the challenge.
Then a disembodied voice boomed in the Temple:
My sons and daughters, they seek to unleash against you the power of the atom, but you are the children of the Undying Flame. A weapon of forty tens of thousands of tons of death concentrated, fire to burn. When the flame subsides, depopulate and sterilize a forty thousand square mile radius, killing anything that lives. Show yourselves and the power that burns within you.
You are my angeloi, my messengers, with your scythes over the Earth, and the first harvest is come due.
The arrow fell and for a moment it seemed that a strange manifestation occurred, the sky briefly turning dark and stars appearing. Those few who took pictures with their phones realized something very strange, wrong. The stars were not the stars of Earth, the gleam was wrong. The sky was wrong and it seemed animate, almost. But then the missile erupted.
A brilliant ball of light rose, gleaming from white to red to blue to pink, and then a shockwave followed. Fire and smoke began to rise in the form of an enormous mushroom, lighting infusing from it. The most powerful and the most dreadful weapons in the arsenal of mankind. Nothing could live beneath the blast, and yet when the blast cleared, the Temple of the Undying Flame was unharmed, and not one of the Immortals had a single burn or cinder of soot or trace of harm.
Instead their robes were changed for lesser variants of the dark green armor with the crudely stylized light blue dragon, their hands equipped with strange devices neither gun nor crossbow, glowing and gleaming tunnels of light in their sides. The Monk stood at their head.
"Nothing lives in forty thousand miles. Not the least of the lifeforms or the greatest. A crow flying over this radius shall have to carry its own provisions."
The blur began and in less than a standard minute forty thousand square miles were transformed into a blasted heath of rubble and ashes. Armor barely had a time to register the presence of foes before blasts of light and then bare hands and laughing madness seized them though the crew's awareness of what assailed them was mercifully short.
THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION:
The aftermath of the nuclear strike was one that was immediately prevalent. The world had gone ballistic and then calmed down, and then a climate of paranoia and fear followed. The new Gods that walked among men had been directly hit by the power of the atom and that power had failed. The moment the strike had hit, there had been a strange moment in the Space Station. A sinister laughter that came from everywhere and nowhere, a low contralto with a reverberating undertone.
Footsteps that echoed and made the station jerk without warning. Strange lights that shone, the very stars seeming to go out. Intermittent communications with Earth. Strange breathing sounds, nightmares that left the crew screaming in the late hours of their sleep, reaching out against.....something....that wasn't there.
That contralto, low and echoing with malignance that defied the human imagination, rooting into souls with the kindness and mercy of a bore that sought to maim and dismantle with the greatest and most pitiless of cruelty. Intermittent reports and strange visions from the Station and elsewhere on the Earth of an anomaly that would come and go and last for greater and lesser intervals.
One by one the stars would dim until a great and total blackness came and in that blackness there was an awareness of something greater, something horrifying. A diabolical force beyond reckoning searing into souls with a gaze of pitiless contempt and arrogance. The contralto incanting different phrases:
I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the eldest and the fatherless. Firstborn among the Four, voice of death.
Or at times this, a phrase that echoed in waking and in dreaming:
Now, now I say to you I am come to light a fire in the universe, and even now it is already kindled. Your galaxy burns at my embrace though this is but a tiny portion of what it is that I unleash.
They didn't know what was happening, nor could anyone explain why the stars seemed to go out, nor the paranoia and violence that broke out whenever the strange gaze from the void of space bored down into their souls.
At times the station lurched to invisible footsteps and there were impressions of a strange entity standing on the floor, unaffected by zero gravity, breaking out in a vicious smile with malice aforethought, ten gleaming rings shining brightly.
One of the cosmonauts actually tried to kill himself at one point, screaming that the voice in his head wouldn't go away, the mocking voice of a woman whose undertones of reverberation were like those of some damned demon of the abyss. And when he'd said this, shouting "Fuck the Devil's grandmother" in Russian a mocking cackle was audibly heard by the rest of the crew. When he registered their fear he became placid, realizing he was not after all insane.
Once, the station seemed to literally ooze and rain blood, which formed the face from their visions which spoke these words:
Mine the hands that heal, mine the hands that kill,
mine the hands that still the wine-dark sea.
Then the blood seemed gone save on the hands of two of the astronauts who'd tried to seize the face which fell apart with that same sinister laughter. Things changed at one point when what people woefully mislabeled the anomaly happened again. A veil fell, absolute darkness covering the stars. A veil seen across the world, darkness falling in daytime as the Sun, a star like all the rest, seemed to go out though the world seemed to still register their presence. A light began to glow within the stadium, but the light shone in the station even when the stars had gone out. A rumbling breath echoed, laughter everywhere and nowhere. But it seemed the force, the strange things that had been happening since the Cult of the Undying Flame appeared, since the direct nuclear strike might finally be appearing.
Low carnosaur breathing, a rumbling sound that should not have existed. Then a sudden primordial foghorn-shriek like the murder of the Sun, and the light began to change and to form into a figure of towering proportions. Dark green armor emblazoned with a bright blue crudely stylized dragon, oversized gauntlets and boots, ten rings gleaming on the gauntlets.
A monster, many times the size of a normal human, with a dish-like face, two eyes that burned like suns, hair of gold. The creature smiled.
The Undying Flame that spreads, that defied the power that sets stars alight......
The voice was a strange one. Undeniably the voice of a woman with a low contralto, almost to the point of sounding like a man's yet with an echoing rumble that seemed to reach into their souls. Their eyes hurt, they couldn't fully grasp what they were seeing. Not the massive cape that appeared, but only one detail. One that caught them in horror.
It was space, zero gravity.
The thing stood on the ship as though the rules of physics did not apply and was walking toward them like it was an ordinary day, a monstrously wide and inhuman smile forming on its face. They, hovering, saw the entity striding, heard the ship lurching with each footstep.
One of the cosmonauts gasped. Little strands of gold were spreading in a spiderweb fashion, parts of the ship pulsing in a visceral sense as the ivory and gold spread through the ship.
The monster strode toward them.
You have found your God, O sons of mankind. The Gods walk among you, Eldest and Fatherless.
The eyes glowed again with light and as the golden and ivory threads transformed the station, the astronauts gasped to see the new environment. The calmness with which the Dark God defied the laws of physics, striding in zero gravity as though it was but an everyday occurrence.
Then the creature began to blur and the screaming started, and as it phased out, armor splattered with blood and offal, it smiled at the sight of the careening station in the atmosphere, the fire kindled upon the Earth.
It looked to the veil and the stars began to burn again as it withdrew it.
Then the monster looked down and laughed audibly in the void of space which seemed to cringe and move away from it, as though it recognized the plague that was emanating from it and lancing through the very material fabric of existence. On the Earth, men and women alike were beginning to grasp their own powers, and each alike misunderstood what occurred.
This would be amusing theater, the monster reflected, insofar as it cared about mortal concerns at all.