Chapter 63
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The vines within me pulsed once, tensing.

Gaia froze, still standing tall over my kneeling form.  I lifted my head, a grin returning to my lips as the power I’d taken from her surged stronger.

Her eyes widened fractionally.

The rest of her expression was lost to the chaos as my skin erupted.  Root-twined spears shot from my skin, tearing free with tiny specks of gold and red.  

I had a single second to savor the wash of fear across her face as she saw her own attack coming home to roost.  Not so smug now, are you, bitch?

I saw her frame jerk as she threw herself backward, fighting against the grass entwining her legs.  But just as surely, I saw something spray from her shoulder as a vine-spear tore through it.

Somewhere off in the distance, Heracles started to laugh.

Ignoring him completely, Gaia swung wildly, whipping her weapon back into play.  I reeled, off-balance and slow from the weight of her magic in my limbs, but kicked away.

The tip of the vine lashed inches before my nose.  The flowers dotting its length quivered.  I tensed, anticipating another splash of acid.

My skin prickled.  My nostrils flared, shivering - and before I could stop myself, I sneezed.

Pollen flew from my skin, dusting the air between us.

Pollen?  Like some sort of fucking-

My eyelids drooped, adding an extra weight to my every movement.  Great.  Great.  It looked like Gaia had evolved and added some extra oomph to her moveset.

Staying near her had proven entirely unsuccessful thus far.  I pushed off, wobbling with every step but fighting to stay in motion.  Acid, and now sleep?  If I stayed farther back, I’d be at risk of her whip, but at this stage, getting cut sounded better than falling asleep and never waking up.

A tiny smile appeared on her face - but the show of confidence was wiped away when she pressed a hand to the gash I’d left in her.  Rivers of gold oozed from between her fingers, dripping down her arm.

Back to even, was it?  I shook my head, fighting to clear my thoughts.  It wasn’t even.  It couldn’t be even - because with every second that slipped away, her magic thrashed under my grasp a little harder.  It was mine now, and I was holding on, but...there were limits.

I couldn’t afford to have this be a “stand around and stare at each other” fight.  Besides.  Bitch got my legs cut off.

Letting a hiss of air slide between my lips, I narrowed my eyes.  The blade of my weapon shifted, stretching longer down the haft of the halberd.  My arms trembled under the weight of it.

A yawn burbled up through my chest.  I stifled it, my expression twisting.  Gaia’s cheshire-cat smile grew, stretching from ear to ear.  She clenched her hand more tightly about the wound in her shoulder.

The heaviness in my arms grew.  If I looked down, would they be turning to wood?  Did that even matter, with me and my new abilities.

Not that I could afford to risk it either way.  Gathering my strength and clinging to my weapon, I lunged.

The tip plunged toward Gaia’s midsection.  She staggered to the side, kicking free of the grass grabbing at her ankles.  I twisted, cutting the blade sideways.  She bent backwards, letting it sail through the air.

Back and forth we went - both so damned close, and both unable to break free of the other’s machinations long enough to finish the game.  No, we were left staggering around and around like dancing drunks, little more than a mess of flailing arms and kicking feet.

Sweat coated my face, pouring down my back as I gave up and shifted the halberd into a naginata.  I needed light.  I needed fast - I needed something, when the rest of me felt like iron and lead.

The murmuring from our watchers had stopped somewhere along the line, too.  I chuckled hollowly, my arms flexing as Gaia pivoted.  There.

My arms crossed before me, bringing the blade sweeping around.  Gaia shrieked, stumbling back, and a smear of gold shone across her chest.

I only swore, wrinkling my nose at the rent waves of her tunic and trying to regain my balance.  Too shallow.  Much too shallow.  If I left her like that, she’d-

With a screech of rage, Gaia snapped her arm out.

The flowers yawned before me - with purple simmering at their depths.

Shit.  Fucking-

I threw my arms up, my spine stiffening.  Something splattered into them a second later - something hot, that burned everywhere it touched.  A cry slipped out before I could yank it back.

Right on the edge of audible, I heard Alice cry out in response, her voice angry and tight.

Through the haze of pain and fear, though, my eyes slid open.  I was tired of playing around.  I was tired of her.  Gaia.  And if this was her game, I’d-

Gaia was still cackling, still lashing her acid-laden whip at me when I lunged forward, ignoring the fires that lit across my face, my chest.  Toby and I were going to have words about him and the lack of fabric shielding me right now.  I called what bark I could onto my skin, but it too burned away.

Alice’s voice raised again - shaping my name.  Sorry, Alice.  Let me be reckless this once.

My eyes watered as I plunged through the veil of acid coursing off her weapon, my fingers twitching in barely-contained agony.  It was only pain, I told myself.  I was a goddess.

I’d heal.

I was rewarded by the sight of Gaia’s mouth falling open, her eyes going wide.  She’d shift in another moment, I knew, darting back out of reach before I could accomplish anything.

In that frozen moment of her shock, though, my hand whipped out.

A single still-spewing flower crumpled under my hand as it closed about her vine.  I stumbled backward, burned and dazed and with the smell of burning hair filling my nose.

Her whip came with me - the end of it, anyway.  She clung to the hilt, digging in her heels as I tugged.

Fine.  Fucking fine.  If she wanted to play those games-

Gritting my teeth, I swung my right arm wide, my divine arm still clutched in my hand.

The naginata shape it’d taken on blurred, fading away in snowflakes of gold as it flashed through the air.  You did good, I whispered to it silently.  Exhaustion seeped through me.  Keeping up the weapon’s appearance was...difficult.  Way more difficult than I’d have guessed, but maybe it was because I was *still* having to fight the spell she’d planted in me.

No, the cunningly-worked weapon disappeared, leaving a knife behind.

But it had a blade, didn’t it?

Gaia’s lips parted, forming a perfect O as I twisted, bringing the knife down.

If I stopped to actually think about it, I’d probably have thought the whole plan as pants-on-head crazy.  I didn’t know if the things could be damaged.  All the evidence I’d seen so far said no.  And if this didn’t work, well, then I’d just hurled myself through an acid shower for fuck-all nothing.

But part of me cried that it was possible.

My vision narrowed, the edges going gray as I zeroed in on the green-brown strand of her whip suspended between us.  Just one vine.  I could do it with a kitchen knife, and this was a tool of the heavens.

I wasn’t just a nature goddess.  I repeated that to myself, letting it fill my mind in that eternal instant.  I was worth more than just plants and flowers.  I was Terra, goddess of self-determination and darwinism and not letting other people kill me.

If something stood in my way, I’d make it move.  I’d do whatever it took.

Even if that meant changing myself.

In the fraction of a second before the knife struck home, I saw it - I saw the very edge of the blade sear to life, burning like a tiny, ribbon-shaped sun.

And then the vine between us sheared apart, and both Gaia and I stumbled back.

She stared at the rent weapon for a long moment, gaping.  She shook it once or twice, even, watching the end flop limply.

I could see the cut I’d made - brightly glowing with gold as pure as the divine blood pouring from her shoulder, her chest.  If I really squinted, I could see leaves and roots starting to bud from the gash again.

So it’d heal, then.  Damn.  I licked my lips, staring at her and trying to muster enough gumption to keep going.  The knife in my hand hummed.  Could I make it reform into a spear again?  Did I need to?  If she didn’t have a weapon, she’d be left to her magic.  I wasn’t really afraid of that, but...I ground my teeth together.  Getting stabbed didn’t feel good, even if I was fairly sure it wouldn’t kill me anymore.

And so I swept my knife out to the side, kicking the ground with one-

My feet wouldn’t move.  It was like shackles had been put around my ankles, pinning me down.  My eyes snapped down.

The wood I’d so carefully shaped….it warped, melting and twisting into roots that sank into the dirt and sand.

“You’ve...saved me some effort,” Gaia said, lifting a hand to wipe at her face.  “I apologize, brat.  I’d thought you might make a nice addition to my temple’s decor, back then, but I’m afraid here…”  She sneered at me, still sweating.  “Between the rocks and the salt of the sea, I daresay you’ll be driftwood before long.”

“Stuff it,” I said, weariness filling my voice.  I sank my fingers into her magic, trying to work free of whatever she’d done, but it wasn’t so simple.  All the while, the aching tired continued to spread through me.  “Just...Just come over here, if you’re so tough.”

She didn’t move - but a bit of the humor dropped from her face.

She was fucked too, was the thing.  I could see it in the way she leaned back, right on the verge of retreating.  If her spell kept working on me, well, Ebb would have himself a particularly attractive wooden sculpture to keep him company.  But if I won, if I broke free first…

The knife gleamed in my hand.  I gripped it more tightly, my arm shaking.

If I got free first, I’d stick my knife right through her eye - and she knew it, which was why she’d stopped her gloating.

What’d started as an all-out battle would end as a time trial.  How sad was that?  I wet my lips, wrapping my mental fingers around Gaia’s seed more tightly.

No way in hell I was going to sit here and twiddle my thumbs for the next three hours, waiting to see which one of us burned out first.  Power was power.  There were faster ways to settle this.

The air rippled around me as I keyed my magic to life.  The stink of flowers and blood filled my nose, pungent in its strength.

Gaia stiffened - but then I saw her wicked grin return, her teeth somehow more...pointed.  More feral.  So be it, I saw her lips shape, although the sound was too low to hear.

Her blonde hair fluttered out behind her, crackling with barely-contained energy.  I ignored the flickers of worry building in my chest, my fingers around my knife and my eyes pinned to hers.

I was strong enough.  If her spell stood in my way, I’d break it apart.  She’d stop me, or she couldn’t - and if she couldn’t, then I had nothing to fear.

It was just a gamble.

Squeezing the tiny, root-laden seed more tightly, I sucked in a deep breath of air and-

Something cracked across the rocky-studded shoreline, bringing me up short and leaving me spluttering.  A noise, sharp and slow and rhythmic.

Clapping.  Someone was...clapping.

Still entwined in the grass, Gaia looked every bit as surprised as me.  Her hands tensed, but when I tore my eyes off her to look, I saw her turn as well.

A woman stood at the edge of our battlefield, right at the edge of the rocks.  A red gown fell from her shoulders to her ankles, embroidered in gold and leaving nothing to the imagination.  That was enough for me to tell - but more than that, the smug, knowing grin painting her crimson lips was the centerpiece.

“Now, now,” Fortune said, stepping forward.  How she managed to walk across a sandy path wearing, well, those heels, I’d never know.  But she did it, and she even made it look easy.  When I was standing there, covered in blood and acid and sweat, trying to keep from falling down.

The afterlife sucked.

“You interfere?” Gaia spat, her legs shaking.  “Mother, you swore to-”

“Oh, now, now, don’t go crying to her,” Fortune said, flapping a hand at Gaia and making a face.  In the backdrop, I saw Avani fold her arms, a tiny smile at her lips.

But Fortune came to a stop between us before I could make out any more, dropping her hands to her hips and shooting the both of us irritated looks.

Behind her, Alice leaned forward, catching my eye - and winked.

Oh.  Oh, that* made me feel *much* better about all this.

“I do so hate to see sisters fight, you know,” Fortune said, pouting.  “It’s so sad.  And with this one still owing me a debt...I do so hate to let you turn her to kindling.”

“A debt?” I said, my heart sinking.  Crap.  Renata-from-work.  I’d forgotten.

“A debt?” Gaia snarled at the same time, her face twisting in rage.  “Mistress, this whore owes me a-”

“Now, now,” Fortune said, her eyes hardening even if the smile never left her face.  “That’s not very polite, Earthmother.  I am aware of your conflict, naturally.”

“And?” Gaia snapped.  “If you know, then leave us to-”

“This is just so boring,” Fortune sighed, pressing a hand to her face.  “Such a grand battle.  Yours is a dramatic pantheon, is it not?  It’s been so long since a proper conflict took root.”

“I don’t understand what you-”

“This battle of yours is boring, darling,” Fortune repeated, bringing Gaia up short.  She leaned back, brushing the brassy waves of her hair off her shoulder.  

And then she returned her stare to us, grinning.

“Let’s make it exciting, shall we?”