Mornings were bullshit.
I leaned back against the hillside, scrunching up my face. The ocean stretched out as far as I could see, dancing across the horizon line in every direction. Spots of violet dotted the sky overhead, marking the first signs of sunrise.
My eyes were glued to those colors, counting off every second as the color started to spread.
I’d never been a big fan of mornings, mind. Mornings meant waking up and going to work. They meant rolling out from under the cozy warmth of my blankets and trudging out into the cold. They meant having to walk into work and be slammed with all of the hundred things my damn coworkers had left undone.
There, with the night fading away before me, I felt the injustice of it all worse than ever. Maybe nothing would change. Maybe I could lay there, and the black would continue forever, and I could just...exist.
I snorted. As if that was likely.
And then I pushed my torso off the ground to drape over my legs, shaking the fog of half-sleep from my eyes.
My hands ran across the freshly-formed wood of my new legs. Were they good enough? I’d spent so long tweaking my last pair. The last thing I needed was to have them fail in a critical moment, leaving me open to Gaia’s attack. My thoughts darkened as the whispers started in the back of my mind, murmuring that there was nothing keeping her from simply taking control of my legs for a second time.
That was a problem for the future. I lifted one leg higher, letting the wooden planes catch the first glimmers of morning light.
Shade? I whispered. Toby? You guys there?
The hum of voices at the edge of my hearing grew, swelling at the acknowledgement. I winced. Okay, maybe I didn’t need to talk to them. I started to clamp down, shuttering away my mind from the voices, and-
Mistress? Shade said.
I forced myself to start breathing again, letting out the air I’d sucked in. Shade. I was thinking-
Although one such as me will forever be inferior, I cannot restrain myself from making a prediction. The rising sun of my second life has approached her humble servant again. Dare I see her hand outstretched, palm up in request?
I rolled my eyes. Yeah. I need something.
Truly, I am shocked. My dismay runs deeper than the very oceans, burns brighter than the hottest of-
Do you have to keep doing that? I heard Toby mutter. Do you mind speaking like a normal person for, like...ten minutes?
Toby, I said. Awesome. Sweet. You’re up. I was worried it might be too early for you.
Y-Yeah, he said. I’m...up. Yeah. Totally just woke up. Bright and early.
Ahh, I have dutifully answered the call, and yet the scion of opulence turns away from me to converse with a dirty, filthy-
Who are you calling dirty? Aren’t you the zombie here? Isn’t this-
Children, I snapped. We’re not flush with time.
The voices in my head went quiet. Well, that was an improvement. Terra? Toby said.
Yeah, I said. Still here. Just...I wanted to… I groaned, dropping my face into my palm. My fingers squeezed at my temples, massaging the ridges in my skull as though that would ease the pain. It did not. I wanted to check in. Stuff is beginning to move here, so-
So it’s starting.
I nodded, then realized he’d never see it. Yeah. I’ve got a little more time, I think. So...in the meantime. Damn it, there was no easy way to broach this particular topic. Anything you guys can do to beef me up would be a big help.
Oh, Toby whispered. Y-Yeah. Uh. I’ll...maybe I can-
I’m not expecting miracles, I said. Just, if you’ve been holding anything in reserve, either of you...stop. We’re going into this thing balls-out.
Okay. He still didn’t sound confident.
I smothered another groan. No helping that - of the two, Toby had the harder job. And by ‘harder’, I meant ‘practically impossible’. Shade, I said, switching to my second prophet. Like it or not, I think you’re going to be carrying the heavy end of this, at least until...until I’m more godly.
Toby chuckled hollowly. It would definitely help if you could start pulling out some miracles of your own. You know. Just this once.
Stuff it. Shade. Do you think you can keep reaching out to the other Forsaken? Can you, uh...bring them into the fold? I scratched at my face, my nose wrinkling. That’s a thing, right? Is there anything you need me to do, or-
I shall be as a beacon in the gloomy morass of the mortal world. The gleaming splendor of my lady’s words shall sing out like an anthem, soothing the hurts of the wretched souls that walk this wretched land. Far will I reach, and with every mile I cross, more shall join the grand chorus of-
So you’re good, then, I said. Cool.
Deafening silence fell in my mind. For once, neither of them seemed to have anything to say. Anyway, I whispered. Yeah. That’s what’s happening.
You’ll keep us up to date? Toby said. Before...you know.
I’ll tell you before this whole shitstorm begins. I chuckled. Maybe there’ll be another way you guys can help. Dunno. We’ll see.
Surely will my mistress rise, ever the victor, Shade said. For once, despite his words, his voice didn’t sound filled to the brim with disdain. For strong is she, and none are her match in determination.
...Thanks, I said, taken aback. I think.
And should she fall, doomed are all the forgotten souls who languish within her midst.
That’s enough of that, I snapped, shaking my head. Jesus. No fucking pressure. I...okay.
May luck favor your steps and guide your blade, he said, more quietly. Your loyal servant awaits your triumphant return.
Good luck, Terra, I heard Toby whisper.
I smiled, nodding. I could almost see them, with my eyes squeezed shut - Toby, standing in the middle of his no-longer-run-down apartment, and Shade striding down an unrecognizable city street.
Thanks, was all I could say. I think I’ll need it.
Their presence faded as I severed my connection and pulled free. I let my eyes slit open.
The sky loomed over me, resplendent in blossoms of gold and fiery orange. I sat there for a moment, still cradling my legs, and watched the light grow.
And then I cursed under my breath, shifting uncomfortably, and rose on unsteady feet.
I’d no sooner made it over the crest of the first hill when I saw them - Alice and Heracles, with Avani and Ebb lounging on a stony shelf behind them. My companions shifted, their limbs tense and tight-drawn.
Alice saw me first - and a bit of the tension left her eyes. “Mistress. There you are. Then-”
“I’m good,” I said, shambling closer. With every step, I tapped my not-feet against the ground, gauging the response. Could I make them lighter? Springier? Had they been more firm, before? If they failed me in the heat of the moment-
“You’ve prepared?” Heracles said.
“Kind of?” I said. My eyes lingered on him, drinking in the solid shape he presented. There was something reassuring about being followed around by two hundred and fifty pounds of pure muscle shaped into a human figure. His company had been a pleasant addition long before it became, well, a pleasure.
He smiled back at me, but the expression lacked any real joy. “Good. We have a bit of time remaining, I think, so you should-”
“Yeah, how’s this supposed to work, anyway?” I said. To my horror, I realized I was toying with a bit of hair from my ponytail, and pulled my hand free. God damn, the last thing I needed was to look anxious. My eyes snapped to Alice instead. “You were the one who went to find Fortune, right? So what’s the plan?”
“I-I’m afraid I don’t exactly know,” she said, gripping her clipboard more tightly. “I wasn’t privy to such knowledge, mistress.”
“Oh, come on,” I said, arching an eyebrow at her. “You’ve got to know something.”
“Really, I don’t-”
“Berating your poor arbiter already, girl?”
A voice rippled out across the cove, smooth and oily in the sort of way that wormed under your skin and made your hair stand on end. I shivered, glancing over my shoulder.
A man stood a few paces back, clad head to toe in a nondescript grey suit with a banker’s notepad hanging from one hand. He smiled at me - and the gold caps coating his teeth, together with his slicked-back brassy hair, told me everything I needed to know.
“Fortune,” I said with a sigh, turning to face him. “I...didn’t figure we’d see you just yet. Gaia’s ready to go? Should we-”
“I wouldn’t be so impatient if I was you,” he said, sidling forward with the same greasy ease that laced his voice. “Did I not say this when you last fought your sister?”
“She’s not my-”
“Such a transient match is boring,” Fortune said. “I want only the best. And the best takes time, missy.”
I stared at him, pursing my lips. “Fine,” I said at last. “So what now? If you’re so set on this being some grand fiasco, shouldn’t you be off working on that?”
“Worry not,” he said, and his grin widened. Sparkles of gold reflected across the cove. From the corner of my eye, I saw Heracles wince and half-turn away.
“I’m not worried,” I said. “I just think-”
“The arena will be set in plenty of time,” Fortune said, crossing his arms. “All that remains are the players.”
That made me stop. “What?” I said. “We have the players.” I held up my arm, where faint patterns of gold still glowed from my skin. “Gaia and I are in. You’ve got me by the short hairs, so it’s not like I can run.”
He made a tsking noise, lifting his banker’s pad. “Such coarse language does not befit a goddess-to-be,” he said, shaking his head. “And someone with-”
“Oh, don’t go on about my debts again,” I snapped.
Fortune dropped the pad back to his side, but never stopped grinning. “Just so. In any case, well…” He shrugged, slow and broad “We have the primary contestants, yes, but the sides have yet to be drawn up. After all-”
“Wait,” I interrupted. “Sides?”
“I told you,” Heracles said. I stopped, and glanced back to him. He had the decency to look ashamed, at least, his eyes not quite meeting mine. “This is kind of a big deal. Everyone’s going to want to have a part in this.”
“You should listen to your, ah...companion,” Fortune said. I stiffened at the smugness that filled every word, whipping back around to face him, but his expression hadn’t changed. “Such a matter as this is of pivotal importance to the Greek pantheon. It would be unfair to keep it to only two divines to decide the matter.”
“So you’re bringing them into it?” I snapped. “Jesu-” I clapped a hand over my mouth, biting down on the word before it could escape.
It was hard to tell, over the crashing of the waves, but I thought I could hear Ebb sniggering.
“I’m afraid it’s more than likely,” someone said - someone new, someone who’d been pointedly silent thus far. I lifted my gaze, and found Avani striding closer. The untamed waves of her hair drifted to and fro with every step, but her eyes never left mine.
“Do you know what this is about?” I said. “If so, please. Explain. By all means.”
She rolled her eyes, settling back onto her heels. “I’ve heard enough whispers from my daughter,” she said. “She does intend on currying favor with her peers.”
“Your peers as well,” Fortune said, looking between Heracles and me.
“Great,” I said, my mouth going dry. “Oh, that’s great.”
A hand brushed my elbow. A figure crept past me. “You said it before, didn’t you?” Alice said, looking up at me. “You just need to find allies. Here, I wrote it down and everything.”
I refused to look down at the clipboard she thrust in my direction. “That’s fine and dandy,” I said. “But how? How the hell am I supposed to tell my side of the story to...Damn it, however many of you assholes are there?”
“A lot,” Heracles mumbled.
I laughed. “Right. Fuck. Of course there are. And I stand fuck-all chance of-”
“If you would prefer to remain here, whining and wallowing in your own misfortunes, that is acceptable as well,” Fortune said mildly. “I can depart, and summon you when it’s time. But I do believe that will leave your sister with sole claim to their ears and minds.”
“She’s not my-” I stopped, glaring at him. “Okay, then, asshat. If you’re going to say it like that, what’s the other option? I’m waiting.”
He rolled his eyes, shaking his head sadly. “So impatient. If you’d have allowed me to finish, then-”
“If you wish to speak your piece, then there is a window of opportunity remaining to you,” Fortune said. “I have spoken to Demeter, and to Dionysus. They have counseled on my behalf.”
“You’re interfering?” I said, a jolt of ice running through my veins. “But I thought-”
“Do not be mistaken, debtor-of-mine,” Fortune said, waving a hand dismissively. “I am not aiding you. Merely ensuring a proper return on my investment.” He smiled, again revealing those horrible studded-gold teeth. “It would be unseemly if you perished too quickly, after I’ve chosen to exercise your debts in such a fashion.”
“So what’d you do,” I said flatly.
“As I have said,” he said. “There is a window of opportunity that remains - a chance to speak your side and be heard. A meeting of the minds, as it were. A council, a conclave, a-”
“There’s a meeting?” I said, my eyes widening. “What? When?”
Painfully slow, Fortune lifted his arm, tugging the sleeve of his suit back and checking a tiny gold-and-diamond pocketwatch on the underside of his wrist. “Oh, quite soon,” he said. “But I believe you still have time to arrive.” Those damn sparkles glittered off his grin again. “If you hurry.”
“Fucking hell,” I swore, spinning on my heel. “Heracles. Are you-”
“I’m coming,” he said, and his hand settled onto my shoulder.
I glanced up, nodding at him, and for a moment the corners of my lips curled up into what certainly wasn’t a smile. “Avani!” I called in the next second. “Thanks. And, Ebb?”
The salt-stained man looked up as I said his name, surprise coloring his expression.
My smile wasn’t so hidden, this time. “Thanks again. Hopefully we won’t have to keep hiding out here for much longer.”
“That would be most appreciated,” he said.
I didn’t bother checking with Alice. I could already feel her clinging to my side like a tumor, there if I wanted her or not. I turned away, pulling free of Heracles’ hand, and stalked up the hillside away from Ebb’s domain.
“Then let’s get this started.”