When we left off, Terra left Ebb’s cave to find some space to clear her head. Immediately, though, she saw Ebb himself sitting on an outcropping, and decided she needed to thank him properly. Her thoughts turned darker, though, and immediately after thanking Ebb, she found herself thinking ahead to the next steps. And with everything still up in the air, the answers weren’t so easily spotted. Ebb vanished, though, as Heracles entered the cove.
A breeze wafted across me. My hair rustled, tickling at my cheek.
No. Getting up meant dealing with all the messed-up shit in the world. I clamped my eyes shut more tightly, savoring the soft feeling of fur underneath my cheek. Not yet.
The steady roll of waves continued somewhere behind me. All in all, the peacefulness of it all was...wonderful. Perfect. The only thing to break the calm was something screeching off in the distance, like a bird protesting whatever it was birds protest.
Something warm pressed against my back. An arm slid lower, wrapping around me and pulling me closer. I smiled, letting him press against me. Right. That had happened. Nothing I’d planned on, but nothing to complain about, either.
Just another thing to deal with when I got up. Eventually.
My breathing slowed, settling back into something close to sleep. My arm slid up, tucking against his. The sound of the wind rustling through hardy fronds faded, drifting away as I-
Water crashed over me. I yelped, stiffening and lurching away from Heracles. It dripped down me, receding as quickly as it’d advanced. My eyes snapped open, all of the almost-sleep I’d found vanishing in an instant.
Heracles roared from alongside me, twitching awake in the same moment. “What the-”
“Damn it,” I mumbled, glancing back. I’d been fairly sure we’d been safely back from the water’s edge when we began our, ah, encounter, but the tide must’ve-
I stopped, my thoughts slowing and fighting to get free of their drowsy chains. The water was still a safe distance away, and lapped at the sandy shore with docile waves. We were nowhere *near* it. But if we weren’t, then how the hell did we get soaked?
“Ebb,” I mumbled. Okay, yeah, we’d decided to bump uglies right in his backyard, and maybe that was a little much to ask of someone, but even still…
The screeching from afar continued, and as my mind started to resurface, I finally pieced it together - the important thing, the thing that’d slipped right by my dreaming thoughts.
That wasn’t a bird screaming. It wasn’t any sort of animal. It was a person. A woman. An angry woman.
“Shit,” I mumbled, my nerves electrifying. “Shit, shit.”
Given how low-key the sea aspect seemed to be, and how empty the place had been since we arrived, I didn’t think strange women coming and screaming on his doorstep was a normal occurrence. Especially not when I had a symbol still burned into my chest, blaring my presence for all of the divine world to see.
Heracles scrambled to his knees beside me, rubbing the sleep before his eyes. “You don’t think-”
“Two guesses who it is,” I snapped, stumbling away from the space we’d carved from the sand. “Doesn’t take a genius, muscleboy.”
My clothes lay scattered across the sand where they’d been tossed. I grabbed for them, my limbs quivering. I was not going to fight Gaia naked. No, sir. I had more pride than that, believe it or not.
She kept screeching as I pulled my shirt over my head, tripping over myself in my hurry to get my pants on. The goddess was stubborn, I’d give her that.
A quick moment to snap the waistband on my shorts closed, and I was good. Well, not good, but as good as I was going to get. I stooped, grabbing the lionskin cloak from the ground, and tossed it to Heracles. “You can have this back. Probably not going to do me a lot of-”
His hand lashed out, grabbing it from the air - and he stepped forward, grabbing my wrist with his other hand. “Run,” he said, his dark eyes gripping mine. “You’re not ready. We just got back. I’ll distract her, and-”
“Pass,” I said, and watched crows’ feet appear on his face. I smiled. It was sweet of him to be worried. Despite the last few hours - despite what we’d done - I hadn’t expected that sort of self-sacrifice from him. It’d been fun, but that was all.
His grip on me tightened. “Terra. Nothing has changed. You’re still too- If she kills you, you’ll-”
“I know,” I said, more quietly. Her voice pitched higher off in the distance. Bitch was not used to people making her wait. “Appreciate it. Really.”
Maybe Heracles was right. Maybe I could ask Ebb to make me another exit. I’d dart back into the depths of the Sleepless Realms and find somewhere to hide. Maybe another pantheon would shelter me. If Olympus had a barrier, after all, it stood to reason others would too. Or I could go back to the mortal world, lead them on a chase until they gave up.
Heracles was clearly working along the same train of thought as me. His eyes turned somber, intense. “You don’t have to-”
“I’ll still have Hermes’ mark on me,” I said, lifting a hand to brush my fingertips against the golden wing. “He’ll still be able to find me, and so will they. The longer they have to undermine my progress, the more danger I’m in.” I chuckled softly. “Besides. I’ve been trying to find a way to get her off that damn mountain.”
“Terra!” With his hiss ringing in my ears still, I pulled free, straightening myself and stalking toward the entrance to Ebb’s cave.
Alice hadn’t returned. Neither had Avani, and Ebb was nowhere to be found. I passed through the cave in a blur, hardly seeing the rocky outcroppings and shallow, misting tide pools. With every step, the shrieks grew louder.
“Get out here!” I heard her cry, the words twisted with fury. “How dare you try and edge into my domain - and then you run and hide?”
My steps quickened, matched by a nervous shiver running down my spine. She sounded...mad. I remembered how it felt the last time she’d been that mad.
At least Ebb’s domain was a bit too rocky for trees.
No turning back. I bit my lip, hurrying until I hovered right on the edge of running, and strode toward the cave’s mouth.
“Why, I’d always thought you a treacherous, slimy outsider, but now you’ve-”
“Give it a rest,” I said, raising my voice - and crossed over the threshold.
I never left the sand. I made sure of that much. The ocean stretched out at the edge of my vision, lined with picturesque beaches. His cave opened at the bottom of a hill, with a narrow path leading up the slopes toward the rest of the Sleepless Realms. I knew it already - if I left the strip of sand that remained to me, I’d be outside his space.
A trio of figured glared back down at me. I recognized all of them - the icy blond fop, who somehow managed to look bored. The Aquaman-looking bastard who’d come this close to skewering me.
And, of course, the flower-laden bitch standing out front, her thorn whip already in hand and murder in her emerald eyes.
I raised a hand, letting myself settle to one side. “Hey.”
Her expression twisted, her chin lifting. Her lips pulled back, exposing the gritted, bared teeth underneath. Not a pretty look for her, all things considered.
Poseidon made an irritated noise, lifting his trident and stepping forward. My blood chilled. Again? He was going to try this again?
The air around me thickened, misting with a fine layer of spray. My skin prickled at the brush of...something, within the tiny droplets. Magic, or something like it.
Ebb hadn’t vanished after all. Despite the Olympian bearing down on me, the knot in my chest eased just a little.
Footsteps clattered out behind me. “No!” Heracles snapped, surging from the cave. “You can’t-”
I got a shoulder in front of him, glaring tight-lipped back at him until he stopped.
“You’re in too deep, hero,” Poseidon said, his voice eerily cold and even. He stalked closer, his hand tightening about the haft of his trident. “Back away and let me-”
“So you’re a coward as well as a bitch, huh?” I cried, raising my voice. It hurt to do it, but I tore my eyes from Poseidon and zeroes in on Gaia. “Damn. Should have figured you’d sit back and let other people clean up your shit.”
Her face darkened, her eyes narrowing to slits.
Poseidon only sighed, beginning to frown - and lifted his trident.
“I see how it is,” I continued, bellowing as confidently as I could all things considered. “I mean, you are just about gone. I probably wouldn’t even have to lift a finger. Wait another few centuries and-”
“Stop talking like you understand anything!” Gaia screamed, her face turning splotchy with red. “I don’t need him. I don’t need anyone.”
Poseidon slowed, then stopped. The points of his trident wobbled in midair, still too raised for my comfort. His head turned the tiniest amount - just far enough to let him shoot a look back toward his companions.
The mists swirling around us slowed too, but didn’t fade away. I offered a silent prayer of thanks to sea gods who didn’t know when to butt out.
Score. “You don’t need anyone?” I said, forcing out a scoff. “Like I’m fuckin’ gonna believe that. Not when you show up with two bigger, stronger gods to come take me out.”
“How dare you imply I-”
“And from everything I can see?” I said, and let my lips twist into a crooked grin. “You need the help.”
The flash of pain that crossed over her face was all the confirmation I needed that my barbs had sunk in.
Because that was the truth, I knew, the reality of the situation. Gaia’s position as a goddess was fucking tenuous. Hell, the fact she was even worried about me as a competitor made that much very, very clear. There were damn few people actually worshiping the Greek pantheon these days. Some of them were clearly doing better than others. I’d be willing to bet that Poseidon was looking after Rick Riordan very, very closely, and the Mouse had undoubtedly changed Heracles’ entire existence.
But Gaia? Who the fuck cared about Gaia?
“Lying, filthy snake,” I heard her whisper, her eyes glowing with fury. Flowers blossomed along the length of her whip, and I saw tendrils start to weave through the blonde waves of her hair. “Your deceitful, cursed tongue will be the death of you.”
I laughed, then, more openly. “Big talk for someone who’s-”
Her skirts whipped about her legs as she took a step forward, and then another. “You’re dust beneath my heel, girl,” she said, her chin lifting higher. “Just the dregs of a mortal soul, unfit to so much as wash my feet. I crushed you once, and I’m happy to crush you again.”
Down the hill she came, with flower petals billowing in her wake. She did cut a nice figure. If I didn’t know she was a psychotic, sadistic bitch, I’d probably have thought the whole scene beautiful.
My nerves shrieked to run as she stepped closer, unblinking. I kept my hands at my sides, ordered my limbs to stay steady. I wasn’t afraid. Or if I was, I damn sure wasn’t going to show it.
And then she stood a dozen paces ahead of me. She raised a hand.
Fog thickened about her fingertips, pushing back at her touch. “What of you, outsider?” she snarled, pushing harder. “Are you not cowering behind another’s skirts at this very moment? Come out here and-”
“There are three of you assholes,” I snapped, ignoring the angry noise Heracles made. “If I step out there you’re going to jump me. Tell your friends to fuck off.”
Gaia rolled her eyes, curling her lip back. “Unlike you, my compatriots and I have honor and courtesy. If I tell you I’ll fight you, girl, then-”
“Fuck that,” I said. “Don’t expect me to give a single ounce of trust to someone who gets off on torturing their opponent. I’m not ending up fishbait for you lot.”
Maybe I was pushing too hard, when I’d been the one to demand Gaia fight me - but the way Poseidon wrinkled his nose did not comfort me. No way in hell was I stepping out there without something better than that.
Gaia’s face twisted, her rage sinking deeper into every line. I expected her to continue arguing - or at least continue firing insults at me.
“Earthmother!” she screamed instead, her hands balling up tightly.
The wind blowing across the sandy shoreline was the only sound. Gaia waited, then scowled. “I know you’re listening,” she snapped. “You abandon your daughter? I stood by your side when this interloper was only a smile on her scum of a mortal father’s face. You choose her over I? When I-”
“Really, girl. I believe I’ve earned a bit more respect out of you than that.” At the dry, amused words, Gaia Turned.
Avani stood behind her, halfway up the slope of the hill. I exhaled, my hands relaxing at the sight - and the tiny, satisfied smile on her face.
A gleam of blonde hair peered out from behind her, all done up in familiar braids. Alice. The relief in me blossomed. Alice had come back. And if she’d come back, then she had answers. She’d-
Alice smiled. It was a fleeting gesture, fading away before I was quite sure what I’d seen. She nodded to me once, just the barest flicker of motion. Before I could react, let alone say anything, she vanished back behind Avani.
The sight of her solidified things for me, though - this was happening. More was going on here. And, more than likely, this was the chance I needed.
Gaia stiffened, twisting to face Avani. “There you are. Earthmother. I insist you-”
“Now, now,” Avani said, sweeping forward. “Sisters should not fight.”
My opponent’s face turned stormier than Poseidon’s. “That tramp is not my sister. Do not ever-”
“But I do suppose every family has quarrels, do they not?” Avani said, flashing a lazy grin in her direction. “I do not cherish the sight of my sweet, pure daughters bickering. I would like to make that clear.”
Sweet and pure, eh? I schooled my face to neutrality, biting back a laugh that threatened to spill out. As though either of us could be called either of those terms. Yeah, right.
“I demand arbitration,” Gaia spat, glaring at Avani. Her eyes flicked to meet mine. “Is that sufficient, interloper?”
Suddenly, all eyes were back on me. I flinched. “Arbitration?” I squeaked out, then swallowed. Damn it, don’t fall apart now. “Look,” I said, more firmly. “I want to settle this. I don’t want to get speared the second I turn my back on Mr. Deadliest Catch, here.”
Poseidon’s scowl deepened, and he turned toward me.
“If a fair fight is all you desire, then let me assure you of that,” Avani said, and her gaze drifted to the other two Olympians. “These children belong to me, and this land belongs to my counterpart, Ebb.”
The mist coalesced into an iridescent sheen, somewhere between me and the crashing waves. Ebb’s outline hovered within, his arms crossed. His expression was impossible to make out, but, well. He wasn’t leaping into the fray. I had to assume that meant he was throwing his nonexistent voice behind Avani.
“That’s fine," Gaia said, cutting off Poseidon’s attempts to speak. Her smile spread wider, her eyes glowing with an insane light. “Well, filth? If you’re so pleased to toss around claims of my incompetence and your own bravery, why not-”
I stepped forward. The motion was enough to shut her up, at least, which I was more than a little grateful for. Another few steps, and I’d be out of Ebb’s shelter entirely.
Poseidon eased back, still visibly unhappy. Behind him, I saw Hermes grown, dropping to sit on a boulder. Bastard. If he was so bored, maybe he could just leave. But his eyes lingered on me - and then darted to Heracles. A grin tugged at the corners of his mouth. The bastard winked. Again.
If I survived this, damn it, the messenger and I were going to have words.
“Don’t worry,” I said, returning my stare to Gaia. “I’ve been ready for a while.”
That was a lie. That was a damned, dirty lie. I brought my hand up, though, grasping at the blade within. The knife flashed into existence, glimmering faintly before settling into its familiar shape.
I didn’t hurt so much, anymore. That was something. Maybe it’d been the sleep, maybe it’d been the, ah, rest of my recuperation. Not to say I was totally back to full strength, but I wasn’t bleeding, either. All in all, a win.
Another step. My not-feet creaked gently. I didn’t stumble, didn’t wobble. Fortune’s game was clear to me, by then. She’d given me her chores, yes, but they’d been more than chores. They’d been a chance for me to learn, to grow. To find myself, and become comfortable in my own skin.
And, in the end, to find a place in something bigger than myself.
I could feel their minds, when I reached out - Toby and Shade both. In that moment, Shade shone brighter than my once-lover, but the whispers of prayer flooded in around me. I hesitated a moment, letting it fill my mind.
They gave me life. All of them. And I wouldn’t fail them here in this moment.
Put your money where your mouth is, I whispered to myself, tensing.
And then I lunged, and the barrier fell away from around me, and the only thing left in my way was her.