The ground squelched beneath Rashida’s feet as her boots pressed on the wet mud road. It wasn’t much further; already could she see the meeting place atop the distant hill. The sea roared on her right, great waves crashing against the white rocks and lapping up the coastal path of the Isle of Bryher.
It always rained at the meetings of the Vessels. Rashida supposed it was Crnobog’s doing—but whether it was the Slav’s powers or simply because he was only available in the winter, she did not know. It didn’t matter; she was soaked through, and therefore she was angry. She could only hope that her fury didn’t affect her great host, when the time came.
The meeting place was more even ramshackle that it had been at the previous visit. The years had been cruel to it; the cold winds having pulled the gate from its posts, the wetness of the sea air having plastered algae to the damp wooden walls. Through the one window of the wooden hut, Rashida could see a lantern flickering, scattering silhouettes across the frosty panes.
The ground gave way beneath Rashida’s feet as she climbed, the mud made fragile by the torrential rain. She slipped forwards, placing her hands out on the ground in front of her to steady herself once more. The blades of grass around her bare hands faded from vibrant green to sandy brown as she stripped the life from them. After all these decades, she still couldn’t put her nose into the hearts of flowers, or feel the grass beneath her feet, or even accept a bunch of roses from a gentleman suitor. Not that many were lining up to meet her, at her rather advanced age.
With a sigh, Rashida heaved herself to her feet and continued the trudge onwards towards this desolate place. The journey would’ve been easier on horseback, she noted—but such a beast in an area such as this would only have drawn unnecessary attention. No, this meeting had to take place unobserved, unnoticed. Else their masters’ plans could be foiled.
The wooden door rattled against its frame as Rashida approached, a slave to the heavy gales billowing around it. From this distance, even through the roaring winds, Rashida could hear the raised voices of those inside.
It was Jacob—forever full of his patron’s rage—who was shouting. ‘You never think, do you? You’re just like your master.’
‘It was one night,’ came the reply, ‘Nobody saw me.’
Rashida swung open the door, and the wind slammed it against the interior wall. Jacob stood face-to-face with Celina, the great hulking warrior woman—the pair of them snarling and staring one another down. Vadik the drunkard and the ever-mysterious Ayla watched on from the chairs of a rickety wooden table, while Mori stood in the darkness of the corner, muttering to himself his usual whispered inanities.
The five other Vessels whipped their heads around to look at Rashida as she entered.
‘You’re late,’ Jacob spat at her.
‘Perhaps if we didn’t have to meet in the middle of fucking nowhere…’ Vadik replied, before Rashida could vocalise much the same sentiment.
‘There’s still time,’ Celina added. ‘The sun is not yet risen. What does it matter?’
‘It matters because our masters say it matters,’ Jacob replied. ‘It is not for us to question why.’
‘How long have you been Hades’s vessel, now, friend?’ Vadik called out. ‘Eighty years? Ninety?’
‘Eighty-seven,’ Jacob spat. ‘And don’t you dare speak His name.’
‘You’d think by now you’d’ve learned to stand up to him a little, wouldn’t you?’
Celina laughed—a great, forced bellow which echoed around the small cabin. ‘Eighty years and still just a vessel,’ the woman added. ‘Remind me, how long did it take the rest of us to become our masters’ acolytes?’
‘Fifteen years,’ Rashida offered.
‘Eight,’ Vadik replied.
Even the quiet Ayla leant forwards and gently whispered, ‘Three.’
Jacob snarled, stepping up once again to stare into Celina’s face. ‘The position is taken.’
‘By a traitor,’ Celina replied.
‘Hades gifted me immortality,’ Jacob said, ‘That’s more than I can say for some of you.’
Rashida felt the Man of Hades’s eyes gaze upon her, washing over her wrinkled skin. ‘I’m alive enough to make you hurt,’ she spat back at him.
‘Alright, enough!’ Jacob shouted, grown so full of rage that his typical black smoke began burning from his skin. The stench of sulphur didn’t much help his image. ‘We are here for our masters. Not to trade petty insults.’
‘Ah,’ Vadik said, sipping from a flagon of ale that Rashida wasn’t sure had been there a moment earlier. ‘The words of someone who knows they’re losing.’
Jacob turned to the Slav and opened his mouth to speak, but Vadik threw his hands up in the air to protest his innocence.
‘The small man is right,’ Celina said. ‘We should begin. Our masters have much to discuss.’
The mood grew solemn and a quietness swept over the interior of the hut. Even Mori stopped voicing his strange and incomprehensible ramblings. Each of the six Vessels sat, cross-legged, on the floor—and this was far more difficult for Rashida than it had been at the last meeting only a decade earlier. With her body deteriorating as it was, it could even be her last. With their eyes closed, each of the Vessels reached for the patron that dwelt inside their souls and willed them forth.
Hades, as ever, was the first to arrive, his beautiful yet terrifying visage appearing in ghostly form over Jacob’s head. Each of the Vessels bowed their heads in reverence.
Then the spirit of Tyr arrived above Celina, his great hulking presence putting even his acolyte’s to shame. One by one, the Gods appeared—Crnobog from Vadik, Sekhmet from Ayla, Adro from Mori, and, the finest of them all: Seth, from Rashida.
‘Welcome,’ Hades said.
God and Vessel alike nodded their heads to return this greeting.
‘It is time?’ Crnobog asked.
It was unlike him, of all the Gods, to be in a rush.
‘It is,’ Hades replied. ‘The board is set. The pieces are in position. There is just one missing piece of the puzzle.’
‘Anansi,’ Adro spat.
‘Yes,’ Hades said. ‘We find him, then we can begin.’
‘Is there a plan?’ Seth asked. ‘Where do we find the traitor?’
‘We find his Acolyte. Only they can lead us to him.’
‘Easy enough,’ Tyr said. ‘We find the mortal, we squeeze them, we make them wail.’
There was an eerie silence as the Gods expected Hades to speak.
But Sekhmet spoke first. ‘I suspect, considering we are having this meeting, that it is not so simple?’
The beautiful vision of Hades shook his head. ‘You would be correct. Anansi has taken the smart decision to—’
‘Stop!’ Ayla suddenly screeched, the white of her eyes turning to a deep, infinite black.
All faces turned to her.
‘Sekhmet, dear cousin,’ Seth muttered, ‘Control your subject. We Gods are talking.’
‘Stop,’ Ayla muttered again, her mad eyes scouring the faces of each Vessel and God present in the room.
‘Find another,’ Hades told Sekhmet, ‘Jacob: kill this one, won’t—’
‘There is a spy among us,’ Ayla said, completely unaware of Jacob’s arm stretching towards her.
With those few words, the attention was diverted away from the imprudent acolyte towards the other presences in the room.
‘Who?’ Hades demanded.
‘A false visage,’ Ayla muttered, her eyes blank, vacant, ‘A false god hears our schemes. An imposter fools us all.’
‘Sekhmet?’ Seth asked. ‘Is this true?’
The goddess nodded. ‘I feel it too.’
‘And we’re supposed to take her word for it?’ Adro asked.
‘She would know about false guises,’ Seth answered. Rashida understood his meaning—it wasn’t always that Sekhmet had been her name. Once, it had been Hathor, and she would have fought against them, not with them.
Tyr placed his one hand over the pommel of his sword, his eyes fixed on Adro, his fingers wrapped tight. ‘I can think of only one reason you might want to cast doubt on this assumption.’
‘A fine point,’ Crnobog said, and he too turned his attention to Adro.
‘Celina,’ Tyr said, and the uttering of her name was instruction enough.
The acolyte of Tyr rose to her feet and pulled the axe from over her shoulder, her eyes fixed squarely on Mori.
‘Tyr,’ Adro said. ‘If you kill my acolyte, I’ll kill ten of yours. Is that what you want? I know your supply runs low.’
‘Who are you?’ Tyr demanded of him, completely ignoring the threat without giving it a second thought. This was typical of him. He was certainly not the spy. ‘Who are you really?’
‘I am Adro, from when the sun sets until the sun rises,’ the African god replied. ‘Just as I have always been.’
Celina strolled slowly over to Mori, and with every step, the acolyte of Adro’s eyes grew wider and his mutterings grew louder.
‘Are we sure that—’ Seth began to ask, but He trailed off when Jacob summoned a blade from the shadows and held it to Celina’s neck.
‘We do not kill until we are certain,’ Hades proclaimed.
Tyr spat onto the floor, but offered up no more opposition.
‘Sekhmet?’ Seth prompted. ‘Do you see?’
The Egyptian goddess shook her head. ‘They are strong. They blind me to the truth. But…’
‘What is it?’
‘But my Acolyte sees through it.’
All attention was drawn to the quiet Ayla, who was sat, her eyes wide, staring at Vadik.
‘Ah,’ the vision of Crnobog muttered. ‘Guess you went and caught me, didn’t you?’
‘Who are you?’ Tyr demanded, his mouth warped into a snarl, apparently having completely forgotten about his threats to Adro already.
‘Well, my handsome Norse friend, that’s for me to know... and you to find out,’ Crnobog and Vadik gloated, simultaneously.
‘Rashida?’ Seth asked, his voice reverberating around his acolyte’s skull.
‘Yes, my lord?’ Rashida mentally replied.
‘Kill the traitor, won’t you?’
‘Yes, my lord.’
Rashida rose to her feet.
‘Who are you?’ Tyr said again, his acolyte storming forwards, axe in hand. Celina swung her weapon towards Vadik, pulling it to a stop a mere half-inch from his neck.
‘Now, boy,’ the man we’d thought was Vadik replied, ‘I know you had a rough childhood. But you wouldn’t go killing your father, would you?’
‘Odin?’ Tyr replied.
Celina’s eyes grew wide with Tyr’s, and dropped her axe to the floor, causing an almighty clatter to ring around the room.
Vadik and Crnobog laughed. ‘Oh, you don’t still think that know-it-all is your father, do you?’
‘Tyr,’ Hades said, ‘Have your servant pick up her axe and finish the job she started.’
But Tyr shook his head.
‘You defy me?’
‘“Defy” supposes that I serve you,’ Tyr replied. ‘I do not.’
‘We entered this agreement on equal terms,’ Sekhmet added.
‘And that means you agree with the Norseman?’
With all the distractions, there were no eyes on Rashida. It was effortless, then, for her to sneak up behind Vadik and place her hand on the back of his head.
Using the powers granted to her by her master, Rashida began to suck the life force from the man’s body. With every second that passed, Vadik grew older, more decrepit, while Rashida regained her youth—so nourished as she was by the soul of an acolyte. She could feel it returning to her—strength, agility, power.
And then Vadik’s body warped into something else. It shrank until it was no larger than a fist, grew wings and a beak, and flew towards the window, shattering it as it passed through.
‘Nice try,’ chuckled the God they’d thought of as Crnobog, before disappearing—his vessel fluttering off into the distance, across the turbulent seas.
Hades roared with rage.
‘A shapeshifter?’ Tyr asked, his voice shaky.
‘What did he learn?’ Hades asked.
‘He knows who is involved,’ Seth replied. ‘But little more than that. It matters not.’
‘It depends who he was,’ Adro added.
‘A shapeshifter?’ Tyr repeated. ‘My real father…’
‘He exercised no real power,’ Sekhmet said. ‘Shapeshifting is little more than the trick of a minor deity. Nothing to trouble ourselves with.’
‘And yet he feels comfortable surrounding himself with us,’ Seth replied. ‘I can think of no minor god with such confidence.’
‘It matters not who they are,’ Hades said. ‘They know little more than our names. They know not what we plan. They will not stop the Rending.’
Rashida had little doubt that this was true.