Rot was an old god. One of the oldest, really. Younger than her parents, called either the Ancients or the Titans depending on the era; younger than the five elemental gods, born from unions of opposites; and older than the moon hanging in the mortal skies.
She was the eldest of the Ouza, the gods of death born from the Ancients. That didn’t mean shit though, since every Ouza was prone to arrogance and a drive for independence. It barely meant a thing to the demons she called her subjects, who coveted her position and power, though none of them would ever get close to it. She knew, because she had so many idiots try for it.
People underestimated gods. It was a strange thing to say, but there was a strange assumption mortals made that deities were easily handled. Sealable, killable, whatever. It was honestly hilarious.
But it also wasn’t because it was mortals that defeated the Ancients. A mortal, a half-god empowered by a weapon given by the so-called Elders, managed to defeat and seal Fathom. Then it happened again with Tempest, then with Stygian, and lastly with Rupture. So maybe, just maybe, mortals did have some power. Some irritating quality that made them capable of standing up to weakened Titans, barely at a fragment of their power. So there was at least a slight reason to be wary of mortals.
Still, even with that reason, Rot didn’t feel intimidated in the slightest when she spotted the tiny mortal that summoned her.
“Oh great White Mother, goddess of Sickness and Conquest, I beseech your attention to my cause,” the brat in the black cloak continued, her eyes closed as she spoke, her hands clasped together in prayer, “I pray for guidance under your empty gaze and aid in the endeavors I do undertake-”
“You should be wearing white.”
The brat paused. “…with the…with your blessing, and…” Rot raised an eyebrow as the brat pouted. “Dangit, lost track…”
“I’m already here, brat. You don’t need to keep up the call.”
“Yes I do.” The other eyebrow raised at the contradiction. “It said so.”
“What said so?”
“The book I read.”
“Did the book also say you should be wearing the wrong colors when trying to summon me? Black is Drought’s color. Or maybe a bit of Mordant’s, but she’s got her own shit going on with molten gold or whatever.” She scratched at her cheek, peeling a white scab. “Point is, wrong outfit.”
“…hn.” The brat opened her eyes. Gold eyes. One of those things, had some symbolism, called back to…Rot didn’t fidget, but she did roll her shoulders, burying the faint memory of scars on her back. “So do I need to change, ma’am?”
“…Ma’am. You’re addressing a god, brat.”
“Hn…what’s the proper form of address for a god, your holiness?”
The cheek on this brat… “Holiness works. Now what do you want, you little shit?”
She blinked. “You’re not supposed to swear.”
“…I’m a god. I can swear if I want to.”
“Yeah, but mom gets mad-…” The brat shook her head for some reason, then set herself and stared directly at Rot, who stood easily twenty feet taller than her, the room distorting around her to handle her presence. The plague god could almost appreciate the determination in her eyes. Almost. “Your holiness, White Mother Rot, I want-I request your power.”
“…My power?” She leaned, looming over the brat. Her blindfold kept the worst of her mutilation hidden, but the brat could now see the pale boils, sores, and lesions making a white patchwork of her skin. “You want my power, little girl?”
She didn’t flinch. “Yes.”
And Rot smiled, her lips curling up her cheeks as they opened, baring her pearly white teeth and ivory gums. Her blindfold crumbled away into threads, and maggots spilled free from her sockets, filling the pitiful little circle the brat tried to hide herself in. “My, you are an arrogant one. So young too. Such a shame, little morsel, that I must cut your ambitions short. Don’t worry though. I’ll let your dear mama know how you tasted~.”
“She won’t care.”
Rot didn’t blink. She quite literally couldn’t, because her eyelids eroded ages ago, but she was a little put off by how the brat wasn’t even reacting to the maggots crawling over her. She was just staring at her, a small frown on her face. She wasn’t afraid. “…”
Rot straightened, ignoring the maggots dripping down her cheeks. She didn’t actually know how to respond to that. She’d made grown men piss themselves with that routine. “…Then maybe I won’t be the one to eat you. Why don’t I let my pets have you?”
She smirked, and clicked her tongue. In an instant, the maggots twisted into swarming rats, pulling themselves up the girl’s robes and snapping at her body.
And the brat still wasn’t reacting. “I want your power, Mother Rot.”
Rot’s nose wrinkled and she sneered. Stubborn little shit didn’t think she could be hurt?
One of the rats bit straight at her cheek, tearing a strip of flesh–and the girl grabbed the rat and promptly bit its head clean off, glaring straight at Rot as its body dissolved into worms. She opened her mouth and let the white worms spill out, wiped her lips with a sleeve, and spoke for a third time, “I request your aid, Mother Rot. I want what power you will grant me, please.”
“…” That was new. That was…very new. “…No one’s bitten the rats back before, brat.”
“I doubt that. You’re, like…seventy billion. Someone else would do that sorta thing. Like a crazy person.”
“…” Rot sat, folding her legs cross-legged, and propped her head up on a hand, ignoring the rats still tumbling down her face. “Alright, you’ve got my interest, you little freak. What do you want?”
“The thing I asked three times for, Mother Rot.” The girl paused, then sat too, mimicking her posture and ignoring the vermin still around her. “I want your power and support.”
“Sure, you have made that request. Three times too, yes, very smart of you, though you changed your phrasing on the last one.”
“I clarified what I meant, Mother Rot.”
“Sure you did. Anyhow, you want my support. Why?”
“May I speak my name?”
Rot sighed. “Yeah yeah, go ahead with it. Say your name, I swear I won’t claim it or take it or whatever you’re worried about.”
“I’m not worried.” Sure she wasn’t. Though she was, surprisingly, still not showing any fear. “My name is Claire Valondrac. I am the daughter of Lord Coredo Valondrac and Lady Antea Valondrac, and younger sister of Aubrie Valondrac. My parents have chosen to betroth me to Sir Dennis Claimond, a mining baron of great wealth and a personal friend to our liege lord, Count Percival Bleaksky. I request your power and support at my back before the marriage is to take place, Mother Rot.”
“…You want my power because you’re going to get married? What?”
“Sir Dennis is seventy-four, Mother Rot. I am ten. I am deeply concerned by my current situation, and would prefer to act before he gets his hooks in me.”
Rot frowned. She was pretty sure ten was childhood aged. Humans didn’t mature until later in life. And seventy-four sounded like…definitely some sort of adult. That was sixty-four years older, and that…hm. “Still. Why ask for my power? If you want this man dealt with, you would have better luck with Vitriol. She likes assassinations, and her poisons can be almost as subtle as any sickness I could give him. Or if you want vengeance on your parents, Mordant would be a far better choice.”
“I have miscommunicated my intentions, Mother Rot.” The girl, Claire, stared straight at her, her eyes furrowed with determination. “I want your power now because circumstances have forced me to move up my timetable. I was always going to contact you to be my first god, though I planned to do so when I turned eleven. Two ones would be more auspicious for the first god of the Ouza.”
“…” Rot tilted her head as the spilling rats turned to lice. “…Damn, you’re a real audacious little brat. Don’t try to lie to me though, it-”
“I’m not lying.”
Rot scowled. “Yeah, no, don’t give me that. You expect me to believe a little thing like you was always planning to summon-”
“I’m not lying and I was. It’s why I had the materials.”
“Alright seriously, don’t interrupt-”
“Don’t call me a liar-”
“Do not interrupt-”
“THEN LISTEN TO ME WHEN I SPEAK!” she snapped, glaring straight at Rot, who could actually feel the heat in her glare. “I picked you because you, Mother, are the God of Conquest! You are the patron deity of all conquerors, the goddess who gives the breeze to their banners and urges their blades forward while seeding sickness and ruin everywhere their feet march! And I am calling to you, Mother Rot, because that is my dream!
And now, she could feel Claire’s smile. Bright and wide, and mad. “I want the entire world! Everyone, from every part of the great, huge, beautiful planet of ours under my banner! Under my protection. A world where everyone knows who their ruler is and who they must bow down to. I want all of it. Every last bit, and you are the one I want to help me.”
Rot stared at the little girl. She stared with her empty eyes at this crazed child with a childish dream. Another maddened lunatic, dreaming of great heights and already bleeding from their fingers as they clawed their way up…
“…Damn it.” Rot sighed. The little brat had to be the exact type of person she was fond of. “Do you have an actual plan here?”
“Yup!” Huh. She brightened quick. “First I would get you when I’m eleven, but since I got you at ten I have to change things up a bit…then I would get Marrow, the god of war-”
“I know who Marrow is,” she muttered, which earned a frown from Claire.
“I’m sure you do.” Cheeky brat. “Anyhow, I would get Marrow at twenty-two, and then get Drought too at thirty-three, but since I had to get you at ten, I think I should do Marrow at twenty and Drought at thirty instead.”
“…You realize you can’t be the champion of three gods, right?”
“Yes I can.”
“No, you can’t. People die when they try that.”
“Then I won’t die. As long as I don’t die, I can do it. There’s no rule or law against it.”
“…” Hm. Claire wasn’t wrong, weirdly enough. There wasn’t a law against multiple gods sharing one champion, but considering how gods could usually be…though, that was the thing, wasn’t it? Rot was still pretty close with Marrow and Drought, since they were all direct sisters. The three of them were technically regarded as the upper echelon of the Ouza, especially with the Ancients sealed away, so… “Okay, you have a vague plan. Not a great one, but a vague one.”
“What? No, I can make it work.”
“You’ve literally only planned on which gods you’ll obtain the favor of. That’s not a plan, those are objectives.”
“And I can meet those objectives while working out the rest of it. I’m already thinking I’m going to use your power to make Sir Dennis so ill he can’t even touch me or do any work at all, so I can take over his estate and use that to get close to Bleaksky. I’m fairly certain he’s the one orchestrating this wedding, which means he’s violating inter-county Inrapaban law, so I could kill him and take his position.”
“And then what?”
“I’ll figure that out when I get to it.”
“…Brat, no, you need to have an actual plan in place.”
“Nope. Sure, I only have objectives right now, but that just means I can be really loose with the planning. I don’t need to commit to any one idea, and I can change things up and make new plans as I find out more stuff about the world. I don’t know everything right now, after all. I’m only ten.”
…She was a ten year old who summoned the Goddess of Sickness and Conquest. Rot didn’t know much about human ages, but she was pretty sure that was ridiculous. “How did you even summon me?”
“Our library has bibles from the different churches. I just found the plague bible and used it as a conduit.”
“…” Rot was pretty sure there was supposed to be more to the ritual than that. A lot more. Like, requiring sacrifices, more. “…Did you sacrifice anything?”
“Kinda? I offered my first husband, and the thing accepted it.”
“…You offered your first husband, who would be Dennis Claimond, with the full intention of having me kill him-”
“No no, I am going to kill him. I’m just using your power to do it. Like when a blacksmith sells someone a sword.”
“…” Her eye sockets dried up, and Rot just “stared” at the audacious brat. “But you offered him?”
“And you get his soul either way, yes. But this way, I get something too.”
“And what if I don’t want to give you anything?”
She frowned, considering it. “…Well, I want you first, since you’re the goddess of conquest. If you’re not willing to side with me at all, then I guess I need to stab him instead. You’ll still get his soul, sure, but you’ll also be forcing me to messily stab an old man to death, probably right after the wedding too, so you’ll also be ruining my dress and probably making the whole event super sad for everyone.”
“Yeah, that’s Plan B.”
“So? Are you going to make me stab an old man to death just so you don’t have to get your hands dirty?”
“…” Rot opened her mouth. She paused. She closed her mouth. She genuinely considered just getting up and leaving because the sheer audacity of this child was throwing her off badly, but also…it was weird, but she was…starting to like the little shit? “My hands are dirtier than yours could ever get, brat.”
“Is that a challenge?”
“Ka! Ka ha ha!” she cackled, then shook her head, grinning wide. “No, no, no challenge. I’m almost tempted to make it one, if just to see what you’d do, but no. You’ve interested me, brat. There’s not a lot of people who can say that. And I am currently down a champion, so sure, fuck it, I’ll give you a chance. Just one little thing though.”
“What is it?”
No hesitation, good. “I get your ‘husband’s’ soul either way here, since you offered it properly. So I figure you need a test. Something to show you’re actually up to the challenge and not just some crazed lunatic making demands you could never fulfill.”
“What do you want me to do?” Still no hesitation, but there was steel in those golden eyes. For a moment, Rot almost felt like the girl was judging her too. Seeing if she, a goddess, was actually worthy of her.
So it was with a grin that she offered her test. “Guess my first name.”
“…Huh? Wait, Rot is a surname?”
“No no, not like that.” She wagged her finger, smirking. “My first name. The first name I was given. Give me your best guess.”
“…” Claire stared at her, and studied her. Rot could tell. The girl’s eyes felt intense as they took in every bit of her putrid, pallid, emaciated body, from the loose, tattered white fabrics hanging off it to the alabaster sores and ivory boils trailing all across her chalky skin. “…You’re the daughter of Love and Dreams, right? Hallow and Stygian’s first child together.”
Not quite, but close. Her cracked lips twitched in her grin, but she didn’t speak yet.
“…You hold the domains of Sickness and Conquest, just like your sisters hold the domains of War, Blood, and Slaughter, and Starvation, Thirst, and…huh.” She frowned. “…Blood, War, Slaughter. War and Slaughter come from Blood? And Drought is the goddess of Starvation and Thirst, encompassed together in the concept of ‘Famine’, but she’s only the patron of the aristocracy because vampires hold her up as especially sacred. But how are Sickness and Conquest connected?”
“My followers like to say it’s natural,” Rot spoke up, still grinning wide, “That illness is a natural form of conquest, where the body is invaded by outsiders. Bacteria, parasites, viruses, all coming into the mortal body to conquer it for their own ends-Ah, wait, do you people know about those terms yet?”
“Er, yes? They’re basic medical terms.”
“Okay, good, I’m supposed to make mortals actually pay prices for forbidden knowledge, so, yeah.”
“…Alright. So…no. That doesn’t make sense though. Why would Conquest lead to Sickness? Sure, you could make that interpretation, but they don’t inherently follow one another. If someone thinks of Conquest, they’d think marching armies, sieged castles, things like that. Not little monsters infecting people.”
Rot shrugged. The brat was close. Closer than most got. She should interrupt, but she almost wanted to hear the girl figure it out.
“…” Claire looked at her again. Really looked. “…You were born as the Goddess of Sickness, not the Goddess of Conquest. Right?”
“…Your name was…Virus.” She said it with confidence.
And she was close. So very close. “What’s your logic?”
“Bone marrow is the source of blood. Droughts cause hunger and thirst. Viruses cause disease.”
“Rot causes disease too, brat. Rotting bodies carry pathogens.”
She blinked. “Ah, wait, pathogens?”
“Ah shit, that wasn’t forbidden knowledge, was it? It’s a term for what I listed earlier, things that cause disease.”
“Um.” Claire shifted slightly, looking a bit embarrassed. “I’m still ten, Mother Rot. I didn’t know that word.”
“…But you know bacteria, virus, and parasite?”
She frowned. “Yes, because yeast is a bacteria and that’s what you make bread with, and you need to stay away from the deep marshes or else parasites will get in you. And, yeah, viruses, those cause sickness. So, yes, I know those.” She nodded firmly, then paused. “Ah, was it Pathogen? Is that your name?”
“…” Rot sighed, putting her head in her hand. Then she started to chuckle.
“Ah-Hey! Don’t laugh! I-I just didn’t know that one!”
“Keh heh…no, brat, my name wasn’t Pathogen. It wasn’t Virus either, though good guess, so you still pass.”
“I did? But, I didn’t get it?”
“I asked you to guess, not be right. You gave a good guess, so you win my patronage.”
“…But I didn’t get it right.”
Rot raised an eyebrow. The brat looked frustrated. “You won’t always get things right, brat. If it bothers you that much, try to guess again later. Maybe when I introduce you to my sisters in ten years.”
“…Mh. Fine-Wait, your sisters? Both of them?”
“Yup. No brat of mine is going to be a pansy and wait twenty years just to hit up that dry bitch. We go for two on your twentieth, you got it?”
“Uh…yeah, yeah!” Claire nodded hard, beaming. “Yeah, two on twenty!”
“Good. Now, you practice your stuff in the meantime. Study whatever books you got, and I’ll help out with a little extra mojo.” Rot tapped Claire’s head with a finger, grinning as the girl blinked up at her in confusion. “And if that fucker Dennis or whatever tries shit, I’ll rip his intestines out with my teeth.”
It did her old heart good to see the little brat light up at her declaration. Though it didn’t take long for a pensive look to show on her little face. “…hey, um…if you were born the Goddess of Sickness, where did the ‘Conquest’ part come from?”
“Now that…is a good question.” And Rot snapped her fingers, promptly dissolving her physical body into a swarm of flies, which all rapidly popped out in flashes of smoke.
Aside from one, which stuck around on the ceiling as the room shifted back to its normal dimensions and Claire blinked in shock at her sudden disappearance. “Wha-Hey! Don’t just leave without answering! That’s just…That’s rude!”
Rot watched as the brat glared at the empty air, before she finally pushed herself to her feet, muttering under her breath about her legs falling asleep. The brat patted said legs, waiting for the feeling to return to them, then left the room with calm and measured steps. She went to a smaller room–a bathroom–and to a sink, where she finally let out a relieved gasp as she held herself, shuddering for only a moment. “I-I did it. I did it. I-It’s fine. I did it.”
Rot watched as the girl started washing out her mouth, almost desperately scrubbing at the inside with a small brush, before she let the fly fade and returned, fully, to her ivory castle, perched at the top of her world on a massive, rotted tree. Her sight faded, and she was back to normal.
“Keh…she was good at hiding her fear, I’ll give her that…”
Rot sighed, and slumped back on her throne. Somehow, she had a feeling that brat was going to make her life very…complicated.