The barrier flashed by. The smell of burning hair filled my nostrils, gone just as quickly.
I prayed Avani was serious - and that Poseidon would listen to her. And Hermes. Poseidon belonged to Ebb, and I halfway trusted Ebb to keep a handle on things. But Hermes? No one here had a claim to him. That made him a threat I couldn’t quite dismiss.
The tip of Gaia’s whip flicked up, though. My eyes snapped to it - then to her. My desperate lunge slowed, my caution returning.
Cracking out as loud as thunder in my ears, she lashed out. The vine coiled like something alive, curling toward me.
Don’t get hit. Just don’t. I planted a foot, hurling myself to the side, and heard it split the thankfully-empty air. My palm was beginning to sweat, with the knowledge of what I was doing really sinking in.
She made a tiny, irritated noise. The length of her whip started to ripple again, gathering for another blow.
Hell, no. I’d let her get the first blow in. I had no intentions of giving up the second. My fingers clenched about the hilt of my knife, bringing it up to my chest. My eyes traced her steps, following every move she made.
And then I leapt in, exploding to motion.
She flinched, her arm still too low and too out-of-position to lash at me. The blade of my knife came up, far more ready. Maybe a knife wasn’t the best choice. Maybe I should go back to a spear, or a club like Heracles had. Maybe an axe would cut through her weapon like so much tissue paper.
I had a knife. And as I dashed in, I latched onto what I could - that I was faster than Gaia, and that I could close the gap. At a distance, she’d lash me to piece.
Two massive steps put me inside the reach of her whip. One more, and a satisfied grunt burst between my lips. She was right there in front of me, green eyes wide. My knife arm tensed, and-
Gaia screamed, either from rage or fear. Probably both. She twisted, stumbling away from my chop. She caught the length of her whip in her offhand, snapping it up between us.
Flowers blossomed along the vine between her hands - massive, white, and dripping with purple. My nose twitched. The smell of burning hair returned, along with an acidic tang.
Oh, that was not good. It was my turn to plant one wood-bladed foot against the sand, stumbling and staggering to stop myself. The knife in my hand shimmered, humming.
Splatters of something damp and warm coated my arm before I brought my new shield up. Something that burned. I gasped, biting down hard on a scream of my own. Acid. The bitch had sprayed acid at me.
You’re the bitch, the whispers in my head screamed in response. Don’t be a stupid one on top of it.
I should’ve been ready. I knew that much. Blinking away tears and trying to ignore the furious bellows of our spectators, I grabbed for my magic.
To my relief, I found it fresher and stronger than it’d been in some time. I was starting to get the feeling I’d need every scrap.
Blood was starting to course down my arm from the still-burning splotches when I exhaled, pushing Gaia’s very own magic out through my pores. Tendrils shot from my skin, twining together into the start of a barkskin layer.
Liquid kept striking my shield, like raindrops against a tin roof - and over the eerie patter of it rose the sound of Gaia laughing. Laughing, like this was the funniest thing she’d ever seen.
I sank lower, putting more of myself behind the shield. It stretched to meet my mental plea, transforming from a buckler into an outright tower. That damn laughter still rang in my ears, growing louder and louder with every passing second. I knew I couldn’t stay behind the shield forever. I knew I’d have to do something. But every time I tried to think of a way out, her cackle cut me off at the pass.
Maybe that’s why I stooped low, plunging my hand to the ground - and then rose again.
The rock I’d snatched up flew from my hand. Not my best throw, honestly. It had more anger than accuracy packed into it, but that just meant I threw it hard. And, hell. Gaia was only a few feet away.
Her laughter died in an ungainly squawk as the rock slammed into her cheek. She staggered back, raising a hand to the wound.
Chance. I hurled myself out from behind the tower shield, turning it back to a knife with a thought. If I was wrong, if she could recover faster than me, I’d take a face-full of acid. Probably. But, I’d found a workaround for the legs, hadn’t I? Sooner or later Toby and Shade would get to the point they could heal me, properly.
“Damned peasant!” Gaia shrieked, her eyes snapping back to open. “How dare you-”
As if I’d let her finish. I thrust out, nice and quick. Nothing fancy. The last thing I needed was to hurt myself and do her work for her.
Her whip cracked again. A blur of green crossed my vision.
I was the one to wind up screaming, staggering away from her. My arm. She’d- she’d flayed my arm all the way to the bone, cutting straight through the armor I’d made.
I clapped my hand over the wound, skittering back and putting as much distance as I could between her and I. I’d thought getting in close was the answer. Getting in close was, quite clearly, not the answer.
But I’d gone no more than a few steps when the sand started to overtake the rocks. I cursed silently. Ebb’s beach. Right. I had nowhere left to go. Somehow, some way, there had to be a trick I could pull out to get one over on her.
For a fleeting moment, I wondered if I could turn my divine arm into a gun.
Gaia stalked forward, though, her eyes flashing dangerously. “Leaving so quickly?” she snapped. “I thought you wanted a fight, brat. Why don’t you-”
I snapped my fingers, throwing my power wildly.
A hardy scrap of grass under her feet shuddered - and then exploded to life, surging forth into new growth. Vines shot from its rootball like spears, arching toward her legs.
Gaia flinched, her expression twisting. Her eyes drooped. “What juvenile trick are you-”
I’d darted forward again before she finished the sentence, my weapon shifting again. I needed big. I needed long. And this time, Heracles wasn’t going to be helping me.
When I swung the weapon back around, it was a halberd that stood between Gaia and I. My arms shook - but I slashed down as hard as I could, falling into a half-crouch.
She didn’t yelp, exactly - but a tiny squeak slipped from her throat. She yanked her vine-whip back before it could get caught in the mix.
So I could damage her weapon. I filed the note away for future use, right alongside the fact that even if she looked more angry than hurt, she had been hurt by my vine-attack.
It was her own magic, in a way. Even if I’d turned it back on her, it was hers. I hadn’t been quite sure it would do anything.
Her eyes followed the tip of the halberd as I stabbed out, and she didn’t look so cheerful. With every jab, she backpedaled, climbing the hill they’d just come down. Each time, she twisted out of the way just in time. So long as she’d stopped laughing, I considered that a solid win.
I just had to make it hit. “Damn it,” I snarled, my makeshift feet slipping on the unsteady ground.
Gaia’s eyes dropped to my feet.
One more time. I hauled myself upright, gaining every scrap of height I could over the other goddess and then bringing the halberd down over my head. The blade came down like an axe, singing faintly with speed.
Her limbs twitched. She stumbled away, coming dangerously close to falling herself.
Grass. There was grass behind her, and if there was grass, I could use it. Which probably meant she could too, yes, but it at least gave me more tools to work with. Feeling my shirt soak through with sweat, I pushed forward.
“Enough,” Gaia hissed.
My best-laid plans died, with her heels still on the very edge of the grassy field. I lurched, my eyes widening. My gut twisted, churning from within. I remembered this feeling. I remembered how this went, last time.
No. Not now.
Clinging to control, I stabbed ahead wildly, driving the length of the halberd out before me. Gaia fled before the razor-sharp steel tip, going a bit pale.
But the churning, burning pain in my core never let up.
Stumbling, I fell. Fingerlike tendrils spread through my arms, my legs, making me feel like my limbs were stiff and slow to move. I couldn’t catch myself. Couldn’t stop falling.
I hit the sand, keeping on my knees through sheer stubbornness. Gaia’s damn implanted seed. It was in full blossom at her touch, filling my limbs with writhing, snakelike vines. It...it didn’t hurt. Or, it did, but not as much as it should have. Not as much as it had. But it was wrong, and I did not like it at all.
“You continue to waste my time,” I heard her hiss. The sand crunched beneath her feet. She was stepping closer, slowly but surely. “You survived last time because of a traitor’s aid.”
I lifted my head, feeling her roots tightening about my neck. She crept closer, her green eyes venomous and a grin on her face. “Rest assured,” she said. “He will not come to your aid this time.”
Off in the distance, I could hear him arguing with someone. Avani, probably. Or Poseidon. Who the fuck cared, in the end. Gaia was right. He wouldn’t come help me.
And someone like me couldn’t wait around for a savior.
Shit or get off the can, Tara.* My eyes fell to my hands, hanging limply by my sides. The halberd had fallen from my numb, strengthless grasp somewhere in the chaos of the last blow.
A vine wormed down my arm, wriggling under my skin like a parasite. My stomach rebelled at the sight. But I reached out an invisible finger of power, brushing against it.
The tendril wiggled in response to my touch.
There. Shock washed through me. I’d done it. But if I could do that, then-
“You had to keep trying,” Gaia muttered, stepping closer still. Her hand tightened about the handle of her whip.
I saw it coming. But there was no way for me to move. I sucked in a lungful of air, tensing.
Fire tore across my cheek, hot and burning like a brand. My head snapped to the side, my breath catching.
Her vines turned my head back to her. That same smug viciousness had returned to her eyes. “So sorry, mortal,” she purred. “You didn’t move, so I thought you might need a nudge to wake you up.”
Blood dripped down my face. The warmth of it spread, rolling down my neck and starting to soak into my shirt. The feeling of something moving under my skin grew worse by the second. I quashed the uneasiness within me as best I could, my eyes glued to her.
I’d have to time this perfectly. Too soon, and the surprise would be lost.
Too late, and she’d tear my throat out and leave me to choke.
“And you found allies,” Gaia whispered. “You seek out the damned?” She shook her head once, blonde waves flying. “You’d corrupt the whole lot of us with your own greed. No. If others won’t handle it, I will.”
Her hand came up, the whip now weeping petals from its flowers. Purple dripped down with it. Fucking great. Because that’s what I needed.
Even if I couldn’t move outwardly, though, I turned my efforts inward. As carefully as I could, I joined root to tendril, coiling her seed’s foliage into larger and larger vines. I’d gotten my powers from Avani. Maybe the others had told her about me, maybe they hadn’t. But like it or not, she’d given me the only weapons I needed.
I just had to use them.
My vision narrowed, zeroing in on Gaia as she took another step. One more, I willed. She was right on top of me - almost. One more, you slimy, decrepit-
“Good riddance,” I heard her whisper, bringing her hand up over her head. The tip of her weapon wobbled dangerously, soaked with acid.
She took that one, last step.
Steeling myself, I let go.