When we left off, Terra pushed Gaia back - but the nature goddess wasn’t so easily quelled. Terra had the upper hand in direct combat, especially after ravaging Gaia’s whip, but Gaia still had a hand deep in Terra’s magic. With Gaia one blow from defeat and Terra on the steady slide downhill toward becoming a tree, the fight seemed too close to call. In the midst of all that, someone interrupted them - and both look up to find Fortune waiting.
I stared at Fortune, my eyes narrowed. Our fight was boring, was it? And she wanted it to be more-
The lightbulb went on in my head, springing to life alongside Alice’s tiny, hesitant grin. This was it, then? Fortune’s grand play? If she could’ve done that before I went and got myself cut up again, that’d be great.
I wobbled, caught in place by my suddenly-rooted legs, and glared at her. She didn’t seem to notice.
“How dare you interfere,” Gaia whispered, low and soft and dangerous. “Mistress, neither of us are yours. It’s not your place to-”
“Like I said,” Fortune said, rolling her eyes and dragging those hideously-long red nails across her shoulder. “She’s my debtor. I’m not uninvolved.”
Right. That. I grimaced, suddenly disgusted. Mostly with myself, if I was being honest. I’d just worked my way free of Fortune’s deals, and now here I was roped back into something else. Stupid Renata-from-work. This was all her fault.
“I don’t care what you want from her,” Gaia snarled. “My claim comes first. This is my fight, Fortune.”
The two abrupt words were enough to snap me back to awareness in an instant, and Gaia’s next retort died on her lips. She stared at Fortune, seemingly at a loss.
Fortune sighed, shaking her head and sweeping her fingertips through the luscious waves of her hair. “I told you, girl,” she said, cracking one eye to glare balefully at Gaia. “A fight such as this? A new uprising among the Greek pantheon?” Her lips curled back, baring her teeth in something sort of like a smile. “This deserves better than to be finished on some forgotten beach. Don’t you agree?”
“I don’t,” Gaia hissed, limbs stiffening steadily. “I don’t. Stand aside, and let me finish this. I’ll put an end to this once and for all, and then-”
“Really, dear?” Fortune said, and the humor lacing her voice started to fade. She turned away from my opponent.
A shiver ran down my spine at the feral, satisfied light in her eyes. For a moment, the shock of it was enough to overpower the hollow numbness sweeping through my limbs.
And then Fortune’s hand clamped down on my shoulder, and she swung around me. I froze, feeling more than ever like a piece of meat on display.
“You’ll put an end to this, hmm?” Fortune said.
“Y-Yes,” Gaia said, but the edge had fallen from her confidence. “In another few minutes, I’ll have ended her miserable existence, and then-”
“And then what?” Fortune said, still clinging to my shoulders. I flinched as she grabbed hold of my chin, twisting my face toward Gaia. “My lovely little debtor has been hard at work, can’t you tell? She’s different.”
Different. I swallowed hard. If that’s what Fortune wanted to call it, anyway. I was missing limbs...I had strange whispers lingering at the edges of my hearing...hell, I’d made bargains with the damned.
Different was one way to put it. All I knew was that with every step I took, I felt just a little less human.
Gaia faltered, though, her eyes flicking between Fortune and I.
Fortune’s laugh rippled out across the cove, then. “Don’t tell me you can’t feel it too,” she said, almost teasingly. “I daresay things have changed from your last bout. And now?”
Her fingers tightened, her nails digging into my flesh. She still clutched my chin, jerking me this way and that. My skin prickled at her touch, but I didn’t pull away. She was saving me, I knew. This was what I’d asked for. The fact I hadn’t planned on going back into her debt to *get* it was beside the point.
“I don’t believe it will be so simple as killing her, anymore,” Fortune said softly. “No, no. In her current incarnation, with new believers standing behind her, my little mistress stands a halfway decent shot at rebirth.” Her fingers tapped against my chin. “Perhaps not in...this form. Perhaps not as herself. But ask yourself, dear.”
Gaia rocked back on her heels as Fortune chuckled. “Does it matter?” Fortune said.
My opponent’s eyes flicked to meet mine again, her expression going wooden. “It doesn’t matter,” she said, more insistently. “I’ll kill the thief myself. As many times as it takes. If that’s the only way to eradicate this mongrel bitch, then I’ll-”
“Have you not been listening?” Fortune interrupted, with a note of true irritation slipping into her voice. “Really, child. It’s all fine and good if you want to waste your own time, but please don’t waste ours.”
Gaia flushed, her shoulders rising.
Fortune only sighed, letting her hand fall free of my chin to settle on my shoulder again. “As I’ve told you,” she said, her voice silky-smooth. “The little mistress owes me. And if I choose to collect it?” Her laughter rang out like bells pealing. “I don’t mind throwing you a bone, if I get a show out of it.”
I didn’t dare move. This was the moment. If Gaia thought we were setting a trap for her, she’d never agree to it. Which was why this had to look plausible.
Of course, it wasn’t much of a trap if I didn’t have a secret weapon up my sleeve. I wasn’t even wearing sleeves, and I damn sure didn’t have any grand plans.
I’d figure something out. I always did.
Gaia’s expression darkened, her eyes lidding. Her lips pressed together into a thin line, pensive.
And she said nothing.
Fortune held her pose, still flaunting me like a prized possession. When the seconds ticked by and Gaia said nothing, she shifted. “Well?”
I saw Gaia lick her lips. “What...did you have in mind?” she said slowly.
I didn’t have to look to know Fortune would be smiling at that. “Oh, I’m glad to hear I’ve piqued your interest,” she said, squeezing my shoulder with her murder-nails again. “It’s simple, girl. You need a quick, one-and-done end for your rival. I need a nice flashy display. A Roman revival, up against a Greek divine?” Again, she chuckled. “I don’t have to tell you how appealing that would be to watch. A fair bit more entertaining than the coin-flip this has turned into, if you don’t mind my saying.”
Fortune - complaining about a ‘coin-flip’. I snorted. Her fingers lanced into my shoulder, sharp enough to draw blood. I stopped.
I looked up, locking eyes with Gaia - and the look she wore wasn’t quite so guarded anymore. No, if anything, the raw greed in her eyes shone brighter than ever.
“Was that enough to interest you?” Fortune said, just shy of a croon. “Well, you know how it is.”
I jumped as her nails dragged across my throat. “If I choose for my debt to be repaid in blood, such is my right,” I heard her say.
Gaia’s chin came up, her eyes widening. “A deathmatch.”
“Oh, such an uncouth way of saying it,” Fortune sighed. “Consider it a spectacle. A grand display. A chance for the Greek pantheon to once again show its dominance over the Roman usurpers?”
Her voice changed, going sly in a flash. “Or a quick way to dispose of a menace, perhaps.”
I’d known what the deal would be, damn it. I’d gone into this whole arrangement knowing that in the end, it’d be my neck on the chopping block again. I’d been the one to bring the idea to her, damn it.
Still, I couldn’t pretend to be comfortable standing there with so many eyes on me and Fortune’s fingers wrapped around my windpipe. I tried to look small, weak. Gaia’s gaze lingered on me, her brows furrowing heavily.
Silence hung over the beach.
Take it, I willed, fighting to keep my face expressionless. You icy bitch, this is what you wanted. So just shut up and-
Fortune’s fingers tightened gently. “If you have no interest, darling, then-”
“Deal,” Gaia spat.
Adrenaline coursed through me, turning my blood to ice. I blinked, reeling, as she took a single furious step forward. “Soon,” Gaia hissed. “Soon, I can hang your skull from my temple and-”
“Yes, yes,” Fortune said, stepping away from me and clapping her hands. “Be dears and shake on it, will you?”
It was a question, but something in her voice dared us to defy her. I wobbled, caught between confusion and fury. Touch? Her? Hell, no. Out of all the things I wanted to do, there was no way I’d-
Fortune’s head snapped over, her beaten-gold eyes glaring at me sidelong. I flinched - and tried to take a shambling step forward.
Something grabbed at my feet instead, like iron binding me to the ground. I glanced down.
Right. Roots. Gaia had turned my legs back into fucking trees, the psychotic bitch.
“Ridiculous,” I heard her mutter. She stalked forward, thrusting her hand out.
Well, I might have to cut the hand off afterward, but I’d kinda-sorta figured feet out. Hands couldn’t be that much harder. I lifted my hand, scowling at her as she approached.
She seized my hand without another word - and golden light flared from between our palms. I jerked, shying back, but we might as well have been glued together.
“Two goddesses,” I heard Fortune say, over the sound of our audience’s gasps. “And one name between you. One life, to even the scales.” She stepped in from the edge of my vision, her golden hair afire with light and her dress too brilliantly red to so much as look at. She lifted a hand, holding it palm-down over ours. “Such has the agreement been penned.” Her lips lifted in a smile. “Do the players agree?”
“Yes,” Gaia snapped, her eyes still glued to mine. They narrowed, the corners tightening. “You won’t escape me again.”
Fortune looked to me, then, cocking an eyebrow.
Well, it wasn’t like I could run away. I tore my eyes off Fortune, returning to Gaia.
All of this had been because of Alice. Because of Avani, and their request. It seemed like just yesterday when the worst of my worries was trying to get out of another closing shift, when the highlight of my evening was curling up on the couch with Netflix and a beer.
But I was here, and things had changed, and crying about it wouldn’t change anything. If Gaia was the wall standing in my way, I’d break through. I’d break her.
“Yes,” I whispered.
The light between our hands exploded, burning bright and hot. I winced, throwing up my other hand, and saw Gaia repeat the motion.
But I didn’t miss the golden chains that flowed from our palms, wrapping around and around our wrists before bursting into brilliant motes that fell like snow.
“The dice have been cast,” Fortune said, her smile growing. She withdrew her hand, folding her arms across her mostly-exposed chest. “I look forward to your participation in the games.”
Well, that didn’t sound ominous at all. I rocked back as Gaia whipped her hand free, though, bringing my arms up reflexively into a defensive position.
Fortune held a hand between us, though, pale and laden with rings. “Now, now,” she said, a laugh dancing between her words. “You play by my terms, now. And this is not a proper setting for such a match.”
“I agreed to your damn game,” Gaia snapped. “So let me-”
“Patience, daughter of Avani,” Fortune said, rolling her eyes. “Really, sister, if you cannot control your own kin, then-”
“Fine,” Gaia snapped. She wrinkled her nose, but kicked herself back a few paces. “I await your message, then. And don’t take too long.”
“Do not order me,” Fortune said mildly. “And, nature-keeper?”
Fortune only smiled lazily, letting her head tilt to one side. “I would be most upset if something…unfortunate were to befall either of you, before your contest gets its day.”
Gaia straightened, a mask sliding over her face. “That’s- I wouldn’t dream of-”
“See that your fellows receive such a message, will you, dear?” Fortune said, smiling as cheerfully as if they were chatting about the weather and not a life-or-death battle.
Gaia flushed again, bobbing her head in a quick nod. “Very well,” she muttered.
Without another word, she turned on her heel and stalked away. Poseidon and Hermes lingered by the road, joining her as she hurried up the hill.
Within moments, all three of them vanished into the in-between.
I exhaled. My legs quivered, ready to give out from underneath me. Footsteps rang in my ears. I turned my gaze downward, unwilling to look up at my friends.
My lovely, artful blade-feet had been warped into saplings. I sighed. Fixing them would be more effort than it was worth - and truth be told, I didn’t really want them back after she’d manipulated them.
I cut my ties with a hiss instead, savoring the feeling of the wood parting ways with my flesh.
Of course, that left me wobbling, perched on top of useless wooden stilts. My arms pinwheeled desperately, trying to steady me, but-
“Mistress!” Hands latched onto my shoulders as I tumbled. It took a bit of the pressure off, making sure I just sort of splatted onto the stone and sand rather than faceplanting.
Alice’s face appeared in my vision, hauling me back upright. Heracles crept closer over her shoulder, his tanned face ghost-white.
“There,” I whispered, licking my lips and trying to force moisture back into my suddenly-dry mouth. “I-It’s done.” I laughed, shaking my head. “Or, it’s starting. One of the two.”
Alice’s arm slid around my shoulders. She grinned down at me, all beaming blue eyes and platinum hair. “Just a little more, Terra,” she murmured. “Just a bit more, and it’ll be done.”
I glanced to Heracles. He didn’t look quite as convinced as her, with a scowl painted across his face and every muscle in his body tight. But he nodded, forcing a more cheerful expression onto his face.
So be it. I let my gaze wander to Avani, who stood in the shadows alongside a misty, half-formed figure. It was hard to see her face amidst the murk, but I think she was smiling too.
Why not? It wasn’t them that had to fight like some kind of throwback gladiator.
The wounds I’d taken ached, though, and more than anything I just wanted to lay down and have a nap. And so I nodded, giving up the fight, and let them close in around me.
Only trouble would follow, I knew. Already that much was obvious.
But that was a problem for the future. Today, I was still alive, still breathing. The whispers of my followers echoed in my ears, with Toby and Shade’s voices rising over the rest. I had allies. Somehow, against all odds, I had friends.
For today, that was enough.