Well, wasn't that just fucking great.
I stared down the stonework stairs toward Gaia, my nerves singing with pent-up tension. Sure, things were supposed to be peaceful - but the last time we'd come face to face, it'd turned into another final-showdown shitshow. I was on Mount Olympus. Surrounded by other Olympians. She had to know that if she attacked me now, surrounded by her peers, she could kill me.
Fortune had been clear - the only way to condemn me to a permanent death without going through whatever rebirth cycle divines had was to play her game. Which meant that if Gaia charged me, I'd probably be okay. 'Okay' was relative, though, and I really, really didn't want to go through another death.
For a moment, we teetered on the brink of another clash. I saw her emerald-green eyes tighten. That delicate, picturesque jaw of hers ground from side to side, clamped down hard. Her fingers flexed - and then released. "Good," she said, and smiled at me. Actually smiled - although there were enough teeth in the expression that it didn't quite seem friendly. "I'm glad you've arrived."
She was? I opened my mouth, ready to fire back with one of my usual quips.
Alice elbowed me in the kidney before I could say a single word. I froze, wincing against the sudden flush of pain.
And there, in the moment of peace she'd earned me, I realized it - every set of eyes in the amphitheater was fixed on me. Watching. Waiting. If I acted like a spoiled brat now, then they'd all see it. Something told me they wouldn't put up with my usual bullshit the way Alice and Heracles and the aspects had.
"I wouldn't miss it," I said instead, flashing my best, most polite grin toward Gaia. "I was worried I'd be late. The invitation almost didn't make it in time, and all."
"Oh, I do so apologize," she said, laying her hand over her chest in certainly-mock horror. "But, you're here now. And I'm...grateful, for that."
She'd even dressed herself up for the occasion, I noted sourly. She'd swathed herself in a long, flowing white gown of gossamer fabric, the sort that shimmered and glowed in the morning light. Flowers hung from her hair, her wrists, from a garland of lilies around her neck. The bitch was trying to make herself look all sorts of innocent, I was sure. Fine. Let her play it up.
I had another moment of bitter frustration left to stare at her - and then she turned, sweeping her hand out toward me.
"Well?" she said, cocking her head. That same damn smile was on her face, cordial and venomous in one singular expression.
The eyes of the assembled gods and attendants bored into me. I flinched. "Well? By all means, sister, don't let me-"
"Such familiarity?" Gaia said with a tinkling laugh, her eyes throwing daggers at me. "I wouldn't dream of assuming such an intimate relationship with you. Why, we've only just met, dear."
"Fine," I said. "Keep going, then. I'm not going to-"
"In fact, it's unfortunate, isn't it?" Gaia said. Her brows pulled together, the corners of her lips turning down at last into a dramatic pout. She stepped forward, each long, luxurious step tugging the hem of her gown across the grass and stone of the amphitheater's center. And then she came to a rest at the very edge of the platform, extending her hand toward the now-vacant space. Her eyes glittered triumphantly. "I've really never gotten then chance to get to know you. And if you're still little more than a stranger to me, as my shade, then..." She shrugged, her pout deepening and her hand waving broadly toward the watching gods. "I'm afraid my fellows are at even more of a disadvantage."
Damn her. I stood rock-still, waiting at the top of the stairs. My friends didn't move, caught in place as surely as I was.
I knew what she was doing. She wanted me to speak my piece - the piece we'd agreed upon through our deal with Fortune. She couldn't tell me no.
So she'd force me to go first, instead - and leave her to come in after, whispering her arguments in their ears at the last. I'd have no real way to respond to anything she said, not without it becoming a debate, and I didn't put her past starting a fight if things turned heated.
I glared. She smiled sweetly at me. "Don't be shy," she purred.
"Fucking hell," I mumbled, shaking my head.
Stepping away from Heracles and Alice was...well, it felt like leaving behind the tiny measure of safety I'd found and diving headlong into a viper's nest. Which felt about as good as you'd expect. Step by step, I descended the narrow, smooth-worn stairs into the natural depression. In the brief moment of peace and quiet I'd earned, I tried to compose myself, to find my best face so I could put it forward.
As I went, my eyes swept across the crowd. Most of these assholes...there was no way to tell who they were. Hell, I didn't know enough Greek gods to have a fighting chance at identifying them. A jolt of adrenaline rippled through me as my eyes caught on a familiar sweater-clad figure sitting on the very edge of the benches.
Athena didn't outwardly acknowledge me, at least not in any fashion that might get her spotted by her peers. She just inclined her head the tiniest fraction of an inch, her silver-brown hair flowing out from under her plumed helmet.
Well, she was here. And she wasn't throwing a goddamn spear at me or anything, so that was a good sign. Somehow, having at least one ally in the crowd helped. It made it feel just a little less like I was about to get eaten alive.
Especially when I could already see Poseidon from the corner of my eye, bare-chested and glaring at me. He sat right down in the front row, his feet planted on the amphitheater's bottom. He'd even brought his trident, which he'd stood on end between his massive, muscled legs. Slowly, he turned it in his grasp, around and around and around.
Not at all threatening. I forced my eyes forward, refused to give him the gratification of acknowledging him. But...if he was here, then, well, it only stood to reason…
I was no mythology expert. I'd muddled my way through the few courses I'd had that applied to it, and that had been just about enough. But I'd seen the requisite Disney movies, and Greek gods showed up often enough in modern media for me to have picked up a bare minimum amount of lore. Poseidon was important. Something about Lord of the Water and all that bullshit, at least in their canon. But he wasn't the only one that was important.
With the seemingly-endless steps still sprawling out before me, I let my eyes drift right. Poseidon sat on the left side of the bowl. Another figure sat on the right - and where Poseidon was seated alongside another god and two figures who were human-shaped but for their translucent, shimmering blue skin, the man on the right sat alone. He stared at me, wordless and blank-faced from behind a loose sprig of his carefully-smoothed-back head of ashy black hair.
Something about that stare...I found myself stepping away almost instinctively, sliding to the left side of the stairs as though those few feet were going to protect me. The man was skeletal, his limbs thin and the skin drawn tight over them. And those eyes...they burned from within, as though Shade's shockingly-subtle balls of green fire had been stained blue and trapped within otherwise normal-looking human eyeballs.
I wasn't stupid, despite any potential evidence to the contrary. And I knew for a fact I didn't want to be anywhere near someone like him. My eyes darted away, desperate to find somewhere else to rest.
And settled on the man sitting in the center, The man watching me, his dark hair falling in a mess of waves and curls about his head. If the thin man's eyes had been sharp, this man's expression was hovering right on the verge of predatory. He didn't carry a weapon - he just sat on the bench, his hands resting on his knees over the smooth-woven white fabric of his belted robe.
My mind was starting it add it all up. I didn't like the conclusion it presented me.
But whatever my reservations or questions, I was running out of stairs. I'd figure it all out. Later. They probably wouldn't attack me outright.
I staggered to a stop, licking my lips nervously and turning in a slow circle. Standing in the heart of the bowl, I appreciated the sheer scope of it for the first time. And there, with however many dozens of pairs of eyes on me, I realized that I was going to have to come up with something to say.
"Um," I said.
Somewhere in the rows of benches, someone sniggered. High at the rim of the bowl, I saw Alice's head droop forward into her hand.
"Okay," I said, fighting to collect myself. "Sorry. I wasn't prepared for a speech right now. I..."
Gaia sighed, long and indulgent.
Fuck her, and fuck this. "I know none of you are going to like me," I said, raising my voice and turning until my back was to her. Sure, it risked getting stabbed from behind, but at least I wouldn't have to look at her. Fair trade, in my book. "I'm here to do something unpleasant. You're not happy about that. I get it."
Dozens of stony faces stared down at me, wordless. I groaned, ducking my face and scrubbing at my forehead. "I don't *blame you," I said at last. "I don't like me either, sometimes. I don't like having to do shitty things. But sometimes those shitty things just have to get done, and someone's got to do it."
I let my hand fall away, pulling myself upright again. You're in it, now. Don't slow down. "Gaia is old," I said. "Maybe that's why things are going badly. Maybe it's humans that have driven her to this. I don't fucking know. But something in her has broken, damn it."
Oh, I really wasn't going to turn around, anymore. Even without looking at her, I could feel her gaze laser-sharp on the back of my neck.
"As things stand, she's losing herself," I said, calling the words out a little louder still. "She's corrupted. That's why I'm here. I didn't want this job, but, well." I grinned humorlessly. "We don't all get what we want. I was sent here to set things right, and fuck me, I didn't see it at first, but I do now."
"Are you about done?" I heard Gaia simper from behind me. She still had that sickly-sweet tone to her voice, but the cheery facade was wearing thin.
"You've all seen it," I snapped, refusing to turn. "You've seen her madness. Don't fucking lie to me and say you haven't. It was easier to pretend you didn't, and leave the problem to resolve itself in the future. But it isn't just about her anymore. If Gaia falls, what happens to Earth?" I slapped my chest, refusing to break eye contact with the crowd. Refusing to so much as blink. "Y'all fuckers depend on humanity, like it or not. If she goes, and humanity goes, you go. I don't want that."
Whatever insanity had come over me passed as quickly as it'd arrived, leaving me numb. "So let me do what I need to," I said, more quietly. "Let me undo her. If not for support of me, do it to protect yourselves."
The last of the words fell away from me, then. I searched the crowd, looking for anything - any sign of recognition, any inkling that my words had sunk home.
If they'd been stony before, well, I might as well have been surrounded by statues right then.
A hand brushed against my shoulder. "Yes, yes. That was lovely, I'm sure. Quite nice, dear."
The fingers tensed, driving their razor-sharp nails into my flesh. I bit back a yelp, stiffening - and lurched as Gaia pushed me toward the far side of the platform. Poseidon's side of the platform. I skidded to a stop, torn between the urge to mutter something dark and foul and the urge to flee back up the amphitheater's stairs.
"You've heard her side, then," Gaia said. I twisted, caught trying to stem the trickle of blood I could feel rolling down my spine but unwilling to miss her response. She stood in the center of the platform, her eyes dark and serious and her lips curled down in a mournful frown. "As I've said earlier. I've done nothing - nothing - to warrant such treatment. You've all known me for...how long is it now?" She chuckled softly to herself. "Too long by far."
To my frustration, I heard her chuckle repeated by more than a few voices throughout the audience.
"Her accusations are just that - accusations, with little more than hysterics and supposition behind them. We've stood together this far," Gaia said, clasping her hands together in front of her. "We've been divided before, and I never want to face such a world again. This girl..." She cast a sidelong look at me, and I could tell in that moment just how much she wanted to call me something besides for 'girl'. She allowed herself the tiniest grimace instead. "This girl comes to us, a mortal, and speaks as though she's an all-seeing oracle. She claims to know me better than you, when all she's known has been the existence of a mundane." She shook her head sadly. "She's out of her depth, and for that, I pity her."
Oh, go to hell.
Gaia glanced over at me again for the briefest of moments, and the smug satisfaction in her eyes nearly drove me to do something I knew better than. "She's an outsider, here to drive a wedge between us. I weep to say she already has, tempting the weaker-willed of us in using her mortal sins. Despite all of that, truly, I wish no harm on her," Gaia said.
"No harm my ass," I muttered. "What about my legs?"
Poseidon's trident clanged against the stonework. I shut up.
Gaia didn't glance my way, this time. "But she has claimed a place as my specter, and thus, she has made herself impossible to ignore. I wish to end this - quickly and seamlessly, so that the poor naive girl does not suffer, and to protect our own family." She bowed her head, perfectly serene. "I ask for your support, and your aid. Do not allow an outsider to tear us apart." A smile played at her lips, and for the first time, it didn't seem malicious. More than anything, it looked sad. "Never again."
Her blonde hair splayed through the air as she bent forward, sweeping into a bow. "That is all."
The low rumble of leather against stone rose. I looked up, eyes going wide. All around the bowl, the other Olympians were rising, moving out of the rows in a mass of inhuman bodies. Gaia's final line seemed to be all the dismissal they needed, and all they were waiting for. I swallowed hard.
There, right before my eyes, all of my potential allies were leaving - and I couldn't pretend that I'd come out of this the winner. Not when they'd responded to her the way they had - and ignored me totally and completely. No, unless I could turn things around in the aftermath of that little shitshow, it was looking more and more like I was straight up shit creek.
And from the corner of my eye, I could still see Poseidon leering at me. Jesus Christ, what had I done to piss him off? Was he really taking it that personally that I'd holed up in Ebb's place.
Do the math, my thoughts screamed. He belongs to Ebb in the same way you belong to Avani. And if the rest of the Greeks wanted you, then Ebb was the thing standing in their way. They probably trusted him to handle you, after you went and hid under his master's salt-stained skirts.
Instead, I'd outlasted his onslaught - and his master had put a stop to the Greek god's attempt at ending me the quick and easy way. I grimaced, tearing my eyes off him. Okay, it really wasn't a mystery why he seemed to be holding a grudge, I supposed.
If not Poseidon...I turned, my heart thumping in my chest. Poseidon was a big deal, but if anyone here was going to be a bigger deal-
To my horror, though, I twisted to the center row only to find the dark-haired, robed man stalking off down another set of stairs. I could do the damn mental math. I knew who he was.
Unfortunately for me, it was starting to seem like Zeus had already made his mind up too. I stared after him, my heart sinking.
What then? What next?
I turned, all but alone amidst the rapidly-clearing amphitheater. The skeletal man had vanished somewhere between my ogling Poseidon and Hades. I grinned mirthlessly. What else was new? Everyone else was gone.
All that remained, aside from a few stragglers still hurrying from the bowl, was Alice and Heracles staring down at me from the lip. Alice was even paler than usual, which wasn't surprising. Heracles just looked resigned, with his arms folded across his chest and his dark eyes unreadable.
I'd do whatever it took. I let my gaze drop to the stony ground, taking in a deep breath of air. I was going to live. And if living meant I had to put a knife through that bitch of an Earth goddess's heart, so be it.
Talking to them en masse hadn't worked. I'd handle things...more personally, then. Athena certainly hadn't seemed so against me. Maybe, once I talked to more of them one on one, they'd be more willing to hear me out.
And if not...My hands balled up, my fingers stroking against the silvered scar on my palm. I'd fought before. I could fight again. If going it alone was my task, then so be it. I'd win.
My steps were heavy, though, as I turned toward my friends and began the long, slow process of ascending out of the bowl.