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When we left off, Fortune arrived on the scene of Terra and Gaia’s fight, and negotiated a temporary truce between them. While initially hesitant, Gaia was quick to agree to a grander match after Fortune offered her the prize of Terra’s head - without the looming threat of rebirth and a new fight after. With the deal agreed upon, Fortune departs - but not before first telling Gaia to keep herself and the other Greeks away from Terra before the match.
In and out. The sensation of air filling and leaving my lungs had never been so satisfying.
I leaned back against the stony crags of the cove, my head settling into a nook between two rocks. Comfortable, no. Passable, yes.
The stars filled the sky above me. I sucked down another breath, letting their gentle twinkle draw me in.
Someone tugged my arm, jerking it straight again. “I told you, daughter-”
“I’m not even moving,” I said with a sigh, refusing to look down. “Seriously. Have at it.”
Avani sighed, and I knew that if I met her eyes right then she’d me giving me that too-practiced disapproving glare of hers. Good lord, there were reasons I’d ran the fuck away from my actual flesh-and-blood mother just as soon as I could.
As disappointed as she chose to act, she didn’t say another word, and I didn’t look down. The sensation of my flesh slowly knitting itself back together was disturbing enough without having to look at it, too.
“You couldn’t have done this with my legs?” I said, still transfixed by the stars. “Would’ve been a lot easier.”
“It was different,” Avani said.
“Right,” I mumbled. Different. As in, if they gave me back my legs, I might not have been as willing to go all-in on the magic Gaia had given me. I might have been a bit grossed out by the fact I had a plant growing in my gut. I could see Avani’s point. That didn’t mean I agreed with it. Reforming my legs yet again had sucked - and the thought that Gaia could pull the same trick in our eventual fight was less than comforting.
I let a sigh hiss out between my teeth. “You could always heal them now, you know.”
“And take away all your fun?” Avani said, with laughter rippling under the words. “I’m afraid not. My children must learn to stand on their own. Most of all you, I’d think.”
“Oh, fuck off.”
Her laughter grew. “Besides,” she said, “I do believe if you show up to the grand event with two whole, hale legs, Gaia might suspect you had some...additional aid.”
“Do I look like I care?” I said, twisting. “Shit. She’s got-”
“If she believes I’m aiding you - actually aiding you, and not simply hastening your natural healing - she may believe herself justified in finding aid of her own,” Avani said, her tone darkening. I did glance down, then, to find her staring back at me. “Your estranged cousins would likely be only too happy to oblige.”
“They’re going to join in the mix anyway.”
I blinked, glancing over. Heracles stood farther down the shore, where the rocks met the sand. Alice hovered between us, her head twisting back and forth so fast I thought her neck might snap. Where Alice had a fearful look on her face, though, Heracles just seemed resigned.
“Know something I don’t?” I said holding his stare.
Heracles only wrinkled his nose, though, shuffling closer. As he moved, I could see the silhouette of Ebb beyond, ankle-deep in the waves. The ocean aspect was pointedly not looking our way. I flushed. Right. Then he’d-
Yeah. He’d definitely seen everything.
“This is a big deal,” Heracles said quietly, coming to a stop alongside Avani and I. Alice pushed past him, squeezing in alongside my seat as though needing to involve herself. He ignored her, still fixated on me. “This is...it’ll be like it was back then. With- With the others.”
With their Roman counterparts. I nodded slowly, a thousand questions I knew I couldn’t ask bubbling under my skin. “That’s fair,” I said. “I get that. But-”
“Fortune will set the stage,” he said. “She’ll make a show out of it. Like she said.”
“She always has been ostentatious,” Avani muttered. I flinched as her hands tightened about my elbow, and the prickling of my wounds closing increased.
“I’m expecting a show,” I said. “That’s the point. If Fortune can make this a one-on-one fight, I’ll happily sit here waiting for her to send word. As long as she’ll make sure it’s me against Gaia, without anyone else, she can-”
“It’s more complicated than that,” Heracles said, and I watched him lift his hands to rake through the dark waves of his hair. I hadn’t seen him look so uncomfortable since...well, since he signed up to join my motley team.
His discomfort was nothing compared to my discomfort at his words, though. “What do you mean?”
“Everyone’s going to want to be in on this fight,” Heracles mumbled. “All the others. They’re going to want- I don’t know. To bet, at the least, but to help where they can.”
“I trust Fortune,” I said.
Alice’s face turned toward mine, her expression pained. “Mistress…”
“Don’t look at me like that,” I said, groaning. “I mean, I don’t trust her. But I trust her in this. This was the deal. She wanted a show - and what’s better than an underdog whooping the reigning champion’s ass?”
“The underdog ‘whooping the champion’s ass’ while the amassed forces of the Greek pantheon stand against her,” Heracles said without hesitation. “It would be a sight unlike any seen before.
I sighed. “Yeah, well, if I get myself killed then it’s no show at all, so I doubt she’ll let things go that far.” My fingers twiddled in my lap, twisting and twining about each other. “I guess...I could start thinking of plan Bs, though.”
“It’s a little late for that, don’t you think?” Heracles said, his voice going sharp.
I threw my hands up, earning an irritated noise from Avani. “I mean allies, okay? If other players start joining in this fight, maybe I can at least make sure I’m not totally alone. You’re here, after all. Athena didn’t seem all bad. Maybe…..maybe I can find some more.”
The silence after I stopped talking dragged on and on, broken only by the lapping of the waves against the sand. All of them stared at me, wide-eyed.
And then Alice bend double over her clipboard, madly scribbling.
“C-Come on,” I said, backing away. “It’s not that weird. I’m just being realistic here.”
Alice’s mad scrawling grew more feverish yet.
“Would you stop that?” I snapped. “Jesus Christ. It’s like you can’t-”
The hair on the back of my neck stood up - and my arms, when I glanced down. Something in the back of my mind screamed to move, to-
I leapt backward as my vision went white.
The stink of ozone filled my nostrils, along with the horrible smell of hair burning. My ears rang with the roar of it, impossibly loud.
And then the lightning faded, and I stumbled backward until finally I tumbled to the ground.
A single feather wafted down, drifting merrily on the ocean breeze. A note fluttered alongside it, tied by a piece of string.
Numbly, I reached up, snagging the feather from the air before it could fall to the charred, blackened ground. The slip of paper was thick and rich, beyond any I’d felt before. I pulled it closer, still trying to get my heart under control. Three words stared up at me, penned in elegant, looping cursive script.
Try me again.
My hands fell to my lap. They were only shaking a little. Alice and Heracles stared right back at me, eyes wide.
“Well, shit,” was all I could say.
Alice’s expression broke first - and I heard her snort. A second later, both of them devolved into laughter.
“You guys suck,” I said, but I was laughing too. Nervously, yes, but laughing all the same.
“I did- warn you,” Alice said, forcing the words out between gasps.
“I- Fine.” I licked my lips, tossing the feather aside. It dissolved to dust as it left my fingers, vanishing. My limbs were still quivering, with adrenaline pulsing through me, but I took a deep breath.
In and out.
The others froze as I groaned and pushed myself upright. “M-Mistress?” Alice said, her laughter fading. “What are you-”
“If finding allies is what it takes, I’ll do that,” I said quietly. “But that’s a problem for another day. Right now...I’m going to wait. That’s all.” I flexed my arms, reveling in the painless, wound-free movement. “Rest up, and all that.”
Heracles’ eyebrow arched. “Oh? Well, if you-”
“Alone, muscleboy,” I said, chuckling. “Save some of that for later.”
In the corner of my vision, I saw Ebb shudder - and then vanish in a spray of salt and mist.
Alice’s cheeks flushed gently, but she clutched at her clipboard. “That’s...wise, mistress,” she said.
I rolled my eyes. “Why does it sound like you’re surprised?”
“No reason,” she said, but a smile tweaked at the corners of her lips.
I held my hands up, shaking my head. “Fine. Whatever. I’m...I’ll be back.”
She pressed forward, eyes narrowing. “Where are you going? Mistress, the others might break the pact. You shouldn’t wander around when-”
“I’m not going anywhere,” I said. “Not really. That’s fine, isn’t it?” The last question was addressed to Avani, who stood watching me with amusement in her dark eyes.
She nodded, her skirts billowing about her. “I suspect we’ll have a bit of time before Fortune’s return. Do you have other business?”
“Something like that,” I said dryly. “Be back in a bit.”
Alice’s protests followed me as I turned, and I’d seen the way Heracles inched forward, but I paid them no mind. It was too much - there were too many eyes on me, too much sympathy and too much pressure. I needed somewhere to clear my mind, and I wasn’t likely to get it from there.
The cove fell away as I trudged up the hill I’d so-recently fought Gaia atop. Grassy plains stretched out to the horizon in every direction, marred with the faint shapes of each pantheon’s home turf. My eyes lingered on a particularly familiar mountain, studded with marble pillars and a hideously tall set of stairs.
The grass rose up to catch me. I hit the ground with a weary, satisfied sigh, rolling over and rubbing my shoulders into the plush softness of it.
The stars filled my eyes, blindingly-bright in this land that’d never known machinery or light pollution. It was beautiful, but it was also...inhuman.
My eyes slid shut, my breathing slowing to a crawl. The yearning in me grew, egged on by that too-perfect sight. Everything in the Sleepless Realms was inhuman - and the longer I spent here, the more I felt myself changing to match it.
Alice and the others were kind, and they cared in their own way, but they could never provide what I needed.
My eyes opened to darkness, dark skies with dark clouds pressing in low overhead. The roar of distant engines churned through my hearing, dotted with the occasional horn-blast.
His apartment building rose in front of me. One ponderously-slow step at a time, I trudged forward.
The light of day returns? I heard a voice whisper in my ear. Blessed are we who crawl upon the soil, for a being of such divine import to glance our way. If my mistress deigns to bestow me with the gift of her presence, perhaps she might-
Not now, Shade, I hissed back silently. His chuckle rang in my ears, dark and tolerant, but he fell quiet.
He didn’t leave, though - and here, Earthside, the voices of the other Forsaken rang out louder than every. I chuckled sourly, shivering as their whispers and prayers wrapped around me tighter and tighter.
Shaking my head and doing my best to ignore them, I hurried on my way.
Somehow, the city managed to feel...different. Colder, somehow. After so long spent roaming mythical plains and climbing the tallest damn mountains around, such mundane normalcy just felt out of place.
I couldn’t quite shake the notion that I didn’t belong here any more than I did the Sleepless Realms.
The stairs rose beneath my not-feet, carrying me up into the night. I drifted skyward, soaking all of it in.
And then the door was in front of me, and I pushed through into the familiar rooms beyond.
Lamps shone from every end table, casting the room into a dim but cheerful light. Toby sat in the corner, hunched over his desk - with Renata at his side, pointing something out. My steps slowed, my heart twinging faintly.
He looked...happy. Happier than I’d seen him in a long time. And there, in that moment, I knew I was jealous of it. Whatever he’d found...it was good. It was intrinsically different from the unstable back-and-forth we’d had, or the physical relief Heracles and I shared, and it was good.
There, several months and one speeding truck too late to the party, I realized how much I wanted something like that. Something more. And I knew that whatever moment the two of them were sharing, my presence would only interrupt it.
So I slipped away, flitting through the back of the room like a ghost. I saw Toby’s shoulders stiffen as I passed, and he looked up with confusion in his eyes, but I didn’t slow, didn’t show myself.
Alone in the quiet, I crossed to his window - and to the owl-shaped planter resting on the windowsill. The moonlight danced across its petals in delicate blues and purples, adding to the hazy glow of the lamps.
I reached out, stroking the violet’s leaves with one half-transparent hand. The voices of Toby and Renata-from-work filtered in from the other room, wrapping around me with a comforting warmth. It wasn’t quite normal yet, but it came close. I fixed the memory in my mind, etching it into my very being. More than anything, I wanted to remember what a night like this felt like.
Soon enough, I’d have to go back. I’d have to be Terra again. I’d have to fight and kill - although ‘fight and die’ was still on the table. Even if I won, nothing would be the same.
I smiled faintly, my fingers still grasping a single, soft leaf. Even if I wanted to, it wasn’t like I could just back out. Win or lose, live or die, the only way left was forward.
But I could do it. My fingers tightened, pinning the soft flesh of the violet between them. I’d come so close to ending Gaia once and for all - and claiming my own spot in the pantheon for good. I just needed a little more.
Renata’s shrill laugh broke the silence, and I jumped. The rest of the world flooded back in with light and color, soaking the air with the quiet noises of the night again. I exhaled, letting go of the flower.
And then I smiled.
Gaia was dangerous, yes. And something told me the fight to come would be more hellish than anything I’d faced thus far. Sure, I might die. Again.
But there, surrounded in both worlds by the allies I’d managed to find, I wasn’t afraid.