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When we left off, Terra departed Ebb’s cover together with Heracles and Alice. Heracles took the lead, guiding them through a teleportation shortcut - but their plans were cut short when the barrier around Olympus rejected Terra. Short on options and with Zeus’s opposition laid bare, Terra dove within - and reached for Gaia’s magic.
I had a single moment for the realization that this was a really, really bad idea to flash through my mind.
And then I'd sunk deep into Gaia's seed, forcing my magic through it like water through a narrows. It was strange - something like that shouldn't have been a matter I was prepared to do. It wasn't any sort of muscle I'd trained, no rehearsed motion. I just gripped at the power surging beneath my skin and screamed at it to listen.
It worked. It worked a little too well, I think. Because there, in the quiet of my own mind and soul, I felt Gaia's seed come to life.
Shit. I held fast, gritting my teeth and refusing to open my eyes. I'd beaten the thing once. I wasn't about to let it win again. Not now, not ever.
It writhed, though, still embedded in my gut. Tiny tendrils wriggled free, spurred on to new life by the resurgence. My stomach roiled - but my heart leapt. There. There.
Quick as could be, I grabbed hold of the magic just beginning to waft off the seed, and pulled. Hard. That was the trick, I'd decided - if the barrier wouldn't let me through as Terra, then I just had to not be Terra anymore. Gaia was an Olympian. The bitch was already up there in her damn temple, hobnobbing with the other divines while I sat down here sweating and fighting with their damn wall. As usual, the whole arrangement was just wildly, wildly unfair.
But that was the same damn thing as usual, wasn't it? So tough titties. I held my breath, trying to ignore the strange magic building within me.
As my fear and distaste faded, though, something else rose up in the gap left behind - unease. Unease, and a sinking realization that everything I'd said about Gaia over the last few hectic days was perilously true.
It was Gaia's magic that swelled within me, ready for me to use and abuse in my own ways. But the thicker her aura built, without the raw anger and fury of Gaia behind it, the more I could taste the tainted nature of it. It burned at my skin, setting my insides to itching. My eyes watered, until I could only duck my chin and bear with the pain of it all. I'd been telling everyone she was crazy. That she was corrupted.
I hadn't realized just how right I was.
I sank into the burning miasma of it, shivering at the touch of it against my skin. More. I needed more - until her aura burned away all traces of my own magic and left me like her. I could do it. Just a little more, and I'd-
Something grabbed my elbow. A hand, large and calloused. "Terra," I heard Heracles say. His voice sounded...odd. Distant, like I was hearing it from the bottom of a well. "Terra, whatever you're doing, don't-"
"I've got this," I whispered, and let my eyes slit open.
He stood right before me, eyes wide and fearful. Why? Why was he-
I shifted, flinching at the sight of spots of red dotting my arms. Flowers. Flowers broke through my skin here and there, standing off against the otherwise-pasty white of my flesh. "Crap," I whispered, trying to fight the urge to rip them all back out. "Guess...guess it's working, then."
"I would say so," Heracles said, his voice stiff. "If...if you're done, then-"
"Right," I mumbled. "Look. Just- Just get in there, okay?"
I grabbed hold of his arm, pushing him toward the barrier. In retrospect, it was kind of like a fly trying to push around a grizzly bear. I was a tiny little white girl with a bad attitude, and he was Heracles. If he didn't want to move, there was little chance of me making him.
He shot me an amused-if-beleaguered look, though, and let me shove him toward the stairs.
For a moment, the ice in my veins wiped out my thoughts. Maybe I'd misjudged. Maybe this wasn't about me at all. Or maybe it was - and Zeus had chosen to take out his anger on his son as well as the outsider he'd chosen to bed. I could get myself across the barrier. If it was him that was the sticking point-
Heracles lurched forward - and passed through the barrier. The faintest gold glimmer flashed across his skin, like a holographic reflection, and then it vanished again.
"Okay," I said, grinning. "Okay, that's good. Yeah. Wish me luck, Alice."
"I don't believe any amount of wishing on my part will improve your luck, mistress," I heard Alice mutter.
As I took a step forward, though, something fluttered at the edge of my vision. I flinched - and then, suddenly, I understood the revulsion in Heracles' eyes.
Hair. Blonde hair, without any of the mahogany depth that'd always been mine. I hesitated, one foot half-raised, and let the strands blow around me. Good. Fucking good. "This better not be permanent," I mumbled, wrinkling my nose.
Pulling the stinging cloak of Gaia's magic a little closer around me, I threw myself forward. If I didn't go through, well, I'd just smash myself against the damn thing.
The lightning-crackle of it brushed against my nose, my cheeks. I shivered, wincing as it pushed against me.
Like Jell-O, it parted before me, but slowly. Static popped against my skin - and I fell through into the space beyond, hitting the ground hard.
"Terra," Heracles said, grabbing my shoulder. "Good. You made it. Quick. Let loose. Don't let her-"
"I'm good," I said, brushing him off. "I got this. I'm fine."
"Stay safe, mistress," Alice said, her voice soft. I looked up. She stood on the other side of the barrier, her clipboard pressed against her stomach and her blue eyes sad. She smiled, ever so faintly. "You'll win. And I'll be waiting until-"
"You're not coming?" I said, my brow furrowing. "What the hell?"
She shook her head. "It's not allowed," she said. "This is the space of the divines, and it is not for one such as I to-"
"Don't fucking give me that now," I snapped, rising. "You came this far. You're supposed to babysit me, aren't you?"
"Yes, well, it's not such a simple-"
"Leave her be, Terra," Heracles said, turning away with a sniff. "The arbiters are hardly Olympians. This is not their mountain."
Oh, hell no. I grabbed onto the fleeing scraps of Gaia's magic, thrusting it back around myself. For an instant, my hair hung caught between our two shades, like teenage frosted tips taken way, way too far. "You don't get to play it like that," I said, leering across the barrier at her.
And then I thrust my hand back across the gap, latching about her wrist.
She squeaked, stumbling forward at my tug. "T-Terra, don't. I shouldn't-"
"If you're going to keep following me around making snide little comments, the least you could do is follow through," I said. "I need every ally I can get. That includes you."
Before Alice could utter another word, I planted my back not-foot, heaving her toward me.
Lightning crackled as Alice hit the barrier - but thin and fleeting, like the leftover static charge on an old-fashioned tube television. She went straight through as though she was no more substantial than a shade, slamming into me with a very-real weight. I lurched backward, but caught myself, and grinned down at her.
A gust of wind shrieked across the mountain slope, sudden and sharp enough to bite to my core. I shivered, hunching my shoulders higher, but it passed as quickly as it'd arrived. The air settled back around us, calm if noticeably colder.
"Are we done?" Heracles said, glaring down at us. "We've got places to be. So if we're done playing around-"
"We're good," I said, steadying Alice until she shook her head and straightened. "We're kosher, now. No big."
Alice raised a hand to brush a stray bit of hair behind her ear She didn't say a word - but her face had gone even paler than mine. With the last traces of blonde fading from my hair, she lifted her face to me - and smiled shyly. Something had set her eyes alight, leaving a triumphant glow to her. "I'm here, mistress," she murmured.
I clapped her shoulder, chuckling. "Yep. Congratulations, Alice. Now you get to come along on this shitshow of a ride with me. So-"
"We're on a damned schedule here, if you remember," Heracles snapped.
I sighed dramatically. He was right. He was always right, it seemed, which was infuriating when coming from him. But, well, I very much valued staying alive, and that meant not wasting time on useless bullshit. I stepped away, tugging Alice along with me, then turned and followed on Heracles' heels.
Together, we bolted for the stairs.
"We could- teleport again," I said, starting to mount the ascent. Damn it, it'd only been a few steps up and already my thighs were burning.
"Risky," Heracles said, charging up the stairs as though he didn't even notice they were there. "If they've set any other traps, then we could get kicked right back down the slope. Better to climb ourselves and face the defenses head-on."
"Easy for you to say," I mumbled, fighting to keep from wheezing. This was Zeus's creation. I knew it. He probably hadn't intended for it to be a special-made present for me in particular - even I knew enough about Greek lore to know that Olympus was a mountain. But, it was starting to feel a little personal - and even if it wasn't custom-made for me, I just didn't see why you'd need to put your front door at the top of a fucking stairmaster.
Every second I delayed, whinging about how little I liked physical activity, Heracles put another foot between us. Even Alice edged out in front of me, shockingly agile despite her pencil skirt and office-ready kitten heels. Gritting my teeth and banishing the complaints from my mind, I bounced after them.
The unease that'd taken root in me lingered, though. I'd purged it all. I swore I had. But with every blink, with every breath I took, I could still taste a hint of that acrid tang from her magic. Was this how it was going to be? Her seed wasn't going away anytime soon. Even if I could remove it, I didn't know that I wanted to, not when I was drawing my own abilities off of it.
But I didn't like the idea of her corruption, however far removed, lurking deep in my core. I bit my lip, giving my head a quick shake, and kept climbing.
"Shit," I moaned, just a hair shy of a wheeze. And then I crumpled, half-falling to the ground. The stairs dead-ended into a landing, just like I remembered - after a climb that left me more tired than I'd been in ages. I rocked back and forth, turning my eyes to the spectacular cliff face we perched beside. "Can...Can we just teleport, next time?"
"We're still not out of this yet, Terra," Heracles said. "There's no time to be lying about."
"Don't sound so smug about it."
He rolled his eyes and looked away, but not before I heard him chuckle.
"Come on, mistress," Alice said, patting my shoulder. "We're nearly there. Just a little more."
I let out a wheezing, gasping laugh, glaring at her. "What, s-so I can go in there covered in sweat and muck. Gee, that sounds appealing. Yeah. Great plan." My eyes narrowed. "And w-why the hell do you look so damn pristine, still?"
Alice leaned back, adjusting her glasses. "Well, it wouldn't be proper for one such as me to-"
"Bullshit," I mumbled. "Y'all are bullshit. Magic is so goddamn unfair."
"Yes, yes," she said, and I could hear her trying not to laugh. "Come along, mistress. We've got places to be."
"Fucking fine. Whatever. Jesu- damn it."
"See?" she said, and I could tell from the ripple in her voice that she was grinning at me. "You're learning."
"Go to hell." I took a deep breath, though, pushing off the ground hard. My legs wobbled dangerously, revolting at the idea of walking anywhere, but I was up.
A shiver ran down my spine.
When I'd climbed Mount Olympus before, I'd wound up at the edge of a forest. I could still remember the narrow paths lit by crystals, the divines and attendants walking the trails clad in all manner of garish approximations of modern garb.
Things had changed in my absence, it seemed. I licked my lips, letting my wide-eyed gaze sweep over the assembled structures. Buildings of white marble and grey stone sprawled out before me, dotting the landscape. Some seemed marked with the icons of various gods - minor gods, I could only assume, if they were here and not in a grand central location like Gaia's Hollow. If I really squinted, straining my vision and leaning forward, I could make out the distant branches of a forest. The forest, I figured. It was safest.
Heracles was moving, I realized, stalking forward and away from me. "H-Hey," I mumbled, casting another look around. "Uh."
"Is something wrong?" he said, looking back to me.
I wet my lips, feeling more and more like an idiot with every second. "Uh...this is...different?"
He arched an eyebrow. "This is a divine's home plane, Terra."
"Y-Yeah, I get that, but-"
"We're right where we need to be," he said, and offered me a tiny, wry smile. "Just trust me with that much, all right?"
"I suppose," I mumbled. And this time, when he walked forward, I followed, Alice at my elbow.
Another difference showed itself almost immediately. During my first ill-fated ascent of Mount Olympus, I'd burst in like a thief in the night. I'd crept through the forest, ducking away from anyone who approached and hiding in bushes. This time, we walked in tall and proud, glowing under the midday sun. And...people were starting to take notice.
All around us, whispers cropped up from the bystanders - who were slowly stopping, turning to face us. They're just watching Heracles, I tried to tell myself. That's all. He's kind of a big deal. And he was. But it didn't change the fact that more than a few eyes were passing to me instead.
And it didn't change the fact I saw people darting away here and there, murmuring to each other in quiet whispers. "We should hurry," I said, keeping my voice low and creeping closer to Heracles like a human-sized meatshield. "I don't like the looks of this. If they go find friends, stronger friends, then I think I'm probably fucked. Wherever we're supposed to meet, let's-"
"Calm down," Heracles said, coming to a stop. I flinched away from him, right on the verge of stumbling, and he turned. His hand spread out, beckoning.
"...Oh," I whispered.
Because without him in the way, the landscape took on a new, pointed purpose. A bowl spread out before us, deep and carved with low benches. Grass studded every scrap of land that wasn't stone, bristling with flowers. That more than anything should have been my warning.
In the quiet haze of my mind, all of the details shone like fires. The benches. The myriad people sitting on the benches - and standing around them, and lining the edges of the bowl. Some might as well have been normal. Some were clearly not, with strange, inhuman features. Something that could only be a satyr grinned at me from the topmost edge of the rim, his eyes yellow and sharp.
More than any of that, though, I saw the blonde-haired woman standing in the very heart of the bowl, flowers tucked in her hair and one hand spread wide for emphasis.
And I knew that she could see me, too.