The hill fell away before me. I stalked higher, picking my way up the packed dirt.
And then it was gone, and the Sleepless Realms sprawled out before us. Despite my worries, despite the anxiety and panic of that moment, I slowed, my lips parting.
There was just...so much of it. I’d seen it before, when I first entered, but...it’d been so long. My eyes followed the rolling slope of the hills, the long grasses and wildflowers that danced with the wind blowing across their curves.
Of course, the other pantheon’s realms were what drew my eyes the most - each distant shape unique, leaving the horizon full of mountains and towering castles and one enormous tree that loomed over the rest.
Chuckling softly to myself, I let my gaze rise further - and eyed the floating beacon of white that sat poised in the sky itself.
“Mistress?” I heard Alice say. Her fingers slipped onto my arm. “Is something wrong?”
“Oh, no,” I said. “Not at all. Just...thinking.” Thinking about how from here, I could almost feel the bastard’s eyes on me. A thousand different taunts of how he’d missed me with his electric ‘present’ ran through my mind - but I tossed all of them aside just as quickly, wincing.
Somehow, I didn’t think the second one would miss.
I turned toward the looming, distant peaks of Mount Olympus instead, licking my lips. “Let’s go.”
How had I done it, before? I bounced forward, stretching my feet out, and felt the ground beneath me start to blur. There. Just like that. My eyes stayed glued on the mountain, studded with pillars and half-visible statues and a long, winding staircase that I remembered far too well. The wind blew in my hair as I started to-
“What the hell are you doing?”
An iron weight settled about my arm, pulling me back to earth right before I could accelerate in full. I lurched, stumbling to a stop. And then I glanced back.
Heracles was smirking at me, one eyebrow arched.
I glared at him, trying to tug my arm free. “I’m trying to get to Olympus before I’m completely fucked. Do you mind?”
He sighed, pressing a face to his hand. “Sometimes, I forget how new you are.”
“What’s that supposed to-”
I froze, my eyes going wide as Heracles turned away from me, sliding an arm around Alice. She yelped, twisting, but he threw her over his shoulder without hesitation.
And then he held his hand out to me. “Come on. I’ll get us there a good bit faster. Unless you really wanted to walk?”
“No, thank you,” I said. “I’m all for not.” His skin brushed against mine as I took his hand, rough and calloused but warm to the touch, and I found myself smiling back at him. With the fear still swirling around me, the human contact was welcome, no matter how fleeting.
God, I was getting desperate, wasn’t I?
“But what are you-”
It was my turn to yelp, my limbs stiffening as the world twisted around us. His arm became a tow rope, pulling me into the nothingness that churned against my skin. I clung to him, eyes squeezing tight shut. If I lost hold - if I let my fingers slip free of his - would I fall forever? Would I tumble out there in the black, without anyone to-
A flash of brilliant gold, and a portal shimmered to life against the black. I had just enough time to ogle it, mouth agape, before we shot straight through.
We fell to rough-hewn stone, with the untamed grass billowing just a few steps away. I clutched the ground, licking my lips and trying to look more composed than I felt.
Heracles set Alice back down on her feet. “Ah...sorry, about that. I suppose.”
“I-It’s…” Alice shook her head, grabbing at her glasses and trying to set them straight. The fact they’d survived the trip at all was a minor miracle in and of itself. “It’s all right. Yes. I’m...I’m fine.”
I snorted. Fine, maybe, but with wads of hair torn loose of her braids. “Come on, Alice,” I said, testing my legs. They wobbled dangerously, but when I put my weight on them, they held. “I can’t take you anywhere, can I?”
Her eyes narrowed, and she opened her mouth - to chide me, no doubt. But Heracles started laughing, too. Her hands flew up to her hair. A mewling noise slipped from her throat as she started trying to tighten the braids back up.
I shook my head. “Ah...I don’t think it’s really going to-”
With a muted, furious cry, she ripped the tie loose from the main braid, sweeping her fingers through the blonde waves. We were in a hurry. That doesn’t mean I didn’t watch, stunned and amazed, as she pulled one after another of her braids free.
She jerked her head up, hair flying loose about her face, and glared at me. “What are you doing, mistress?” she snapped. “Do you not have places to be?”
“R-Right,” I said, swallowing one last chuckle. “Then, let’s just-”
“Something is wrong,” Heracles said.
I stopped. “Wrong? Oh, don’t start with that. I don’t need anything else to go wrong, meat-for-brains. So what the hell do you mean, something’s-”
“I set us to arrive in the very heart of Olympus,” Heracles said. “Right at the center of our temples. That’s where the rest of the pantheon should be, yes?”
“I mean, you’re the Greek here,” I said, glancing around. “But, ah…” My eyes settled on a marble landing - a massive hunk of smooth stone, right at the base of a set of stairs that climbed up the mountainside. My mood soured instantly. “We’re not there. You screwed up. Can we-”
“I wouldn’t screw up a simple relocation,” Heracles said, his expression darkening. “It’s not the most precise method of transportation, certainly, but it shouldn’t…” He glanced toward the stairs. “It shouldn’t put us this far away.”
“So let’s try it again, and-”
“Terra,” Heracles snapped. “I’m telling you, it didn’t work.” He rubbed at his nose, making a face. “Something’s wrong, but I don’t-”
“Ah,” I said softly. Heracles stopped. I smiled humorlessly. “Something’s getting in our way, is it?”
I stepped past him, bringing him up short. “I’m guessing I know,” I said. “If something was going to be wrong, well…”
My fingers spread wide, I strode forward. The stairs waited in front of me - white and smooth and every bit as steep as I remembered. And if I remembered properly, then right in front of the stairs was-
Lightning crackled against my fingertips, spreading like a web. I winced, shying back and yanking my hand free.
“The barrier is up,” Heracles said. “Why? Why is-”
“Why do you think?” I muttered, staring down at my singed palm. “Both of us want Olympus’s help. One of us is an Olympian and one isn’t. I think even you can manage the math on that one.”
“Gaia closed the door?” Alice said. Her voice rose, going shrill, and I didn’t have to look to know she’d be clutching her clipboard to her chest. “B-But, Fortune said-”
“Fortune isn’t interfering,” I snapped.
“But they are,” Alice insisted. “You heard them. They spoke to Demeter and Dionysus, and...and so…”
“Apparently, Gaia’s still strong enough to overrule them,” I said. Behind the cool, calm facade I put up, my thoughts screamed at a hundred miles an hour. Damn it. What the hell was I going to do? If I couldn’t get up onto the mountain, I couldn’t very well convince any of them to help me - and if I couldn’t find allies, then Gaia was going to eat me alive.
Heracles coughed. I stopped - then glared sidelong at him. “What?”
“If the barrier itself is being brought to bear against you, then I doubt very much that this is Gaia’s doing,” he said quietly. “Or, at least, it’s not Gaia by herself.”
I stared at him, mute, while my thoughts raced to catch up. Not Gaia? But if it wasn’t Gaia, then who? Someone who could step in, who’d have the power and authority to-
“Oh,” I said.
He smiled wryly at me. “Oh, indeed.”
“Oh, shit,” I mumbled. “Uh. Okay. So, then, uh…”
I trailed off, my expression twisting. “What now?” I said finally.
Heracles pressed a hand to his face, rubbing hard. Furrows appeared in his forehead, betraying the tension simmering beneath those perfectly-formed muscles. “I’ll...I’ll have to talk to him,” he said. “Try and negotiate something. If he knows you’re here to talk, not to...well…” He made a face. “Not here to kill anyone, this time. Maybe he’ll be more okay with letting you come up.”
“Mistress?” Alice whispered, her tone fearful.
I kept my eyes on Heracles, trying to keep my scorn in check. “You’re thinking you can just wander up there and convince Zeus to let me in?”
Heracles shrugged. “He is my father.”
“When that fact is shared by half the damn mountain, it doesn’t mean that much,” I retorted. “Sorry. That’s just how it is.”
“But I could-”
“We don’t have time for that,” I said. My hands clenched into fists. “That’s all going to take time. You’d have to go up there, and find the bastard, and then start convincing him. Assuming it all goes perfectly, that could still take hours.”
Heracles’ eyes darkened, snapping back to meet mine.
I smiled mirthlessly. “We don’t have hours.”
“Do you have a better idea?” he said, beginning to scowl. “You’re the damn outsider here. What do you suppose we do? Do you think you can just-”
“Just...let me think,” I said, turning away from him to face the barrier. More to face the stairs, really. The barrier was just the faintest shimmer between me and the first step, a tiny shimmer of pale gold.
A barrier, huh? I stared at it, narrowing my eyes. I’d crossed it before - after a fashion. But I’d been a loosely Greek-shaped enigma, back then. Now it knew me. Now, things wouldn’t be quite so easy.
I paced closer, right up to the very edge of the thing. My hair swished out behind me with every step, crackling when it swung too far and hit the magic wall.
It was a barrier around the front of Mount Olympus. Clearly, they wanted to keep out anyone who shouldn’t be here - non-Olympians. I chuckled sourly. That’d do a thing or two to explain why Inari had kept his distance, at least. I could only presume this was a common thing, keeping each pantheon’s realm separated from the rest of the rabble.
I stopped, coming to a halt. Each pantheon?
My eyes swept up and down the stairs. I pursed my lips, latching onto the fleeting thought that’d shot through my brain.
It only let in Olympians, if I was reading the situation right. Which meant that all I had to do was look like an Olympian to it.
And I just so happened to have a piece of one still lodged in me.
“Terra,” Heracles said with a sigh. His steps rang across the stone. “Look, I know it’s not ideal, but...I think it’s all we’ve got right now. So let me-”
“Quiet,” I murmured, letting my eyelids fall shut.
The affront washing off him in nearly-palpable waves was enough to make me chuckle again, but I’d already turned myself inward. I’d claimed the name Terra - a Roman name at best, which I couldn’t expect to help me a damn bit. But Gaia? Gaia, I could use.
Her seed prickled as my magic brushed over it. It lay deep in my gut, embedded in my very flesh and spilling outward in vines and thorns. Gross. Really, really gross. But useful.
My mental fingers settled around it, pinning it in place. No coming alive. No trying to turn me into a tree again, damn it. The power underneath my skin rippled like a river, gathering in pools and reservoirs at my call. Ripples of wind danced across my arms, teasing at the hairs that stood upright.
There’s still time, the whispers in my mind cried. We could try Heracles’ plan. It might be slow, but it’s marginally less likely to end in your gruesome death. Isn’t that worth it?
Any other day, yes. Hell, yes. But I had places to be.
So be it.
Before I could second-guess myself or think of all the ways this was about to go really, really badly, I turned the floodgates loose, and plunged my magic straight into Gaia’s seed.