Step after squeaking step, I stalked away from the bowl.
"Shit," I whispered under my breath.
"It's all right, mistress," Alice said, hovering at my side. "We'll manage. It's not-"
"I get it," I muttered. "Let me sulk, okay?"
"O-Oh." She fell quiet, then.
Heracles had pushed out in front of me, a muscle in his jaw flexing. Why? Why was he so upset? Was it that he'd put his money behind the horse that now appeared to be dead last in the race - or was it that I'd totally and completely failed in front of all his peers? His father?
"Um," Alice whispered.
I sighed. "What?"
"Where...where are we going, exactly?"
I chuckled darkly, casting a glance up toward Heracles' back. Did he know? He certainly seemed to be charging off in a bold, decisive manner, so I had to assume he knew. "Like I said. We need to make this personal, if the whole group-presentation idea fell flat on its face."
"So we're going to have some one-on-one conversations," I said. "With anyone who will let us, that is." I took a deep breath. "Since she seemed willing to hear me out before, I was going to start with Athena."
Heracles didn't turn or alter his path at all. He'd figured it out too, then. But he did slow his steps just a hint, shooting me the quickest of glances over his shoulder. "She's reasonable," he said. "She listens."
"I know," I said. "We talked to her before. Remember?"
His shoulders drooped. He nodded once - and then kept charging forward, launching himself farther down the path.
My legs screamed at the sight. The man was tall, damn it, and each one of his strides was easily two of mine. Probably more. Marble-pillared buildings flashed by me on either side as I all but jogged after him.
The whispers followed in my wake. I tried not to hear them. In life, I'd always had a personal vendetta against gossips - why say something behind my back, when you could tell me face to face? It made the whole punching-you-in-the-teeth thing much, much easier. Shockingly, people had stopped gossiping about me so much after a few particularly nasty brats in high school had been shown the error of their ways.
And that was the thing - with people standing off to either side in groups of twos and threes, leering out at us from beneath the trees with sharp eyes and whispers on their tongues, it felt just like being in high school again. This time, they probably wouldn't appreciate me starting fights, which meant I was just going to have to tolerate it.
But I didn't like it.
Alice's hand slipped to my shoulder, as though she could see my frustration. She probably could. I just kept my eyes fixed to Heracles' back, hurrying through the mountaintop complex.
Part of me whispered that I should talk to Toby. Or Shade. Or both. They were my prophets, and I definitely should be keeping them involved. But talking to them would mean rehashing what had just happened. I couldn't quite bring myself to open that door again. Not until I had something more meaningful to show them, that wasn't just me having my ass publicly handed to me.
The anxiety in me swelled higher by the second. Toby...Toby would be fine. He'd grieve again if I vanished, I knew, and he didn't deserve that. If I'd brought myself back into his life just to vanish again...I didn't really know how I'd forgive myself. Thankfully, in the void, that probably wouldn't be an issue.
Shade, though? A weight settled over my shoulders, one that wouldn't quite lift. Shade was dead to begin with. I'd been his only damn chance at having an existence at all. If I slipped into the void, I'd drag him along with me - him, and all of the souls in his swarm. Which, thanks to me and my pushing him to collect the lost Forsaken, was far larger than it otherwise would have been.
I shook my head, making an irritated noise. This was whining. It wasn't helpful, because failure wasn't an option. So I wouldn't fail.
Focusing in on the burning of my legs and lungs, I hurried after Heracles.
Soon enough, the landscape started to shift. At first, temple after temple flashed past, adorned with statues of people I didn't recognize. Minor gods, like I'd guessed before, or heroes. They clustered in around the amphitheater, as though each was vying for a position of importance. The farther we got from the bowl, though, the fewer structures there were - and the too-familiar forest started to fill in the gaps between the buildings.
I breathed a sigh of relief as the boughs started to line the trails, and crystal-studded pillars appeared along the sides of the path. This, I knew. I trusted Heracles enough to have faith he wasn't leading us back to Gaia's Hollow, at least, no matter how much the forest looked the same. Besides. Athena's temple had had forests around it.
Eyes pricked, I watched the trees - and was rewarded by the sight of an owl statue ahead, half-hidden behind the mess of foliage. "About time," I muttered under my breath. "Um. We came straight from there. Will she-"
"She'll be there," Heracles said. "She's always on time."
I snorted. Yeah, that sounded about right. I nodded, picking up the pace a little until I was right on Heracles' heels. Watching a familiar stonework building slide out from behind the amassed trees was a physical, palpable relief.
Heracles came to a stop abruptly, right in the center of the trail where it widened. His gaze lingered on the temple's grand front door for a moment - then dropped to me. Back to the temple.
"Okay," I said, reaching up and letting my hand rest on his arm for a moment. "I got this. Don't worry."
"She'll listen," Heracles said, looking down at last. "I know she will."
"I know," I said, offering him a smile. There was nothing else to say, there. She'd listen, or she wouldn't. And in the end, this was on my head, not his.
He didn't try to stop me when I stepped out in front of him, holding my head high and crossing the final distance to her door. His footsteps rang out behind me as he fell in line, though.
I hesitated when my fingers touched the time-worn wood of the temple door. And then I pushed hard, letting the oaken slab creak inward.
Some things hadn't changed. The interior of Athena's temple was every bit as dark as our last visit. One step over the threshold and I was blind, squinting and peering through the black as my eyes fought to adjust. Somewhere...somewhere around here...
Bookshelves stretched out the length of the long, expansive room. With the fog starting to clear, points of light shone from every end-table and wall-mounted brazier, showing-
I stopped, straightening.
Showing the woman who stood halfway into the room, a book cradled in her arms and her skirts swaying slowly around her.
"Athena," I said. "Okay. Yeah. You did beat us here." How? Fucking how? Heracles was a goddamn mountain of a man, and he'd rushed here as fast as his legs would carry him. Athena would have had to...
I gave up trying to reason through it. She was a damn goddess, and this was her temple. There were probably rules I just didn't know, because someone hadn't told me. The urge to kick Alice rose. I stomped it back down. Athena was moving, closing her book with a gentle whump and stepping closer. Every slow, measured pace was announced by the low thud of her boots against the stone.
"Terra," she said.
She sighed, lifting a hand. The plumes from her damn helmet dipped with the motion, waggling distractingly through the air. "I...can guess why you're here."
"The shitshow that just unfolded was enough of a clue?"
"You want me to back you."
I stopped, my retort freezing on my lips. "I...hoped that you would consider it, yes," I said, more slowly. "You helped me before. You at least heard me out, which seems to be head and shoulders better than anyone else has been willing to do. I...was hopeful that you could see your way to a repeat."
Athena stared at me, her lips pursed.
That...didn't seem like a great sign of things to come. "This is when you say, oh, yes, Terra, I can see that you are in fact not a raging bitch, and I'd be happy to support you," I said. "Your wording may vary."
"Do not...Do not take my silence as a lack of support," Athena said. She'd lifted her hand, settling it about her chin.
"But, I mean, practically speaking, it is," I said. "So...let's talk." My heart pounded in my chest. Damn it, this was Athena. I'd kind of counted on at least her backing me.
"You heard her reasons before," Heracles said, stepping forward. "You seemed to understand the situation then. So, what now? Why are you-"
Athena leveled a glare at him, her nose wrinkling. He stopped.
"As I said," Athena said with a sigh, her chin sinking more heavily into her hand. "It is not that I don't understand."
"Is it the speech?" I said. "I- I know it was shit, but they put me on the spot, and I'm not that good under pressure. I can try again. Maybe if-"
"It was not your speech, however...colorful," Athena said, turning her eyes to me. "I understand your position well, Terra."
I nodded, waiting, but she still said nothing. "Okay," I said. "Look. You're going to have to go ahead and spit this out at some point, Athena. I'm right here, I'm waiting. I'm a big girl. Lay it on me. You don't seem like you're racing out to help me." My blood rushed through my ears. "Why?"
Athena shook her head, her arms falling free at last. "Oh, you misunderstand," she said. "I do want to help you. And I shall."
I blinked. "W-What?"
"You will?" Heracles said.
Alice said nothing, but I felt her press against my back, as though trying to hide herself from the Olympian.
Athena made a face, letting her head rock back and forth. "It's...complicated." She ran a hand through the silvered-brown strands of her hair. I stared. Was she nervous?
"Take your time," I said.
"I do believe your cause is just," she said. "And I do want to help. But the question arises of how I can be the most help to you - me, specifically."
"Well, I...I don't know," I said. "I don't even know what the damn game is going to be. Maybe...maybe another token? You did that thing with Heracles' cloak before, didn't you? Something else like that? Maybe you could-"
Her glare flicked to me, just as sharp as with Heracles. I stopped.
"Fortune has not been outspoken as to what her plans are," Athena said with a groan. "She is a mysterious one. Not...Not my favorite of the aspects to deal with."
I snorted. "You're telling me."
"But I have it on good word that she was sighted near Daedalus's gate, prior to speaking with her other Olympian kin.”
Daedalus's gate? She said the name like I should know it, like it was something important, but... I cast a sidelong glance toward Heracles, and found him nodding solemnly. "Okay?" I said. "So what does that-"
"It means that there will likely be challenges before you," Athena said. "Fortune has said from the start that she intends on this being a grand event, has she not?"
"I mean, she said that to me and Gaia," I said. "I didn't know she'd said that to you."
Athena's smile twisted, going wry. "Word travels fast, Terra."
"Fair enough," I mumbled.
"If she wants to involve the other gods, then she'll ensure that they have an opportunity to...participate," Athena said, spitting the word out as though it deeply and personally offended her. "Together with the implications of her location....well." She shrugged. "The situation could easily spiral out of control, is how I see it."
"Would someone just take a second and explain what-"
"Master Justice is concerned," Athena said.
The way she said it, combined with the reverent notes in her voice...this was someone. Someone in particular. This was a person - or a person-like figure, I realized, a moment before Alice said "Justice has involved himself?"
"Only tangentially," Athena said, her eyes settling on my arbiter. Her brow furrowed for a moment, her gaze darkening, but she continued on without comment. "My Lord has expressed...concerns, to me. This situation has a great deal of potential for abuse."
"You don't say."
"Normally, he would..." Athena made a noise, her nose wrinkling. "He might be willing to overlook matters, we'll say. He wouldn't be pleased, but he'd tolerate the situation."
"And he won't, here?" I said guardedly.
"It's not just about you, is all," Athena said. "You're right, you know. Gaia is on the decline, and...maybe she's having an influence on the world she represents. Maybe the world she represents is influencing her. I don't know." Her eyes returned to mine, just as sharp as before. "It's a matter you'll have to be careful of yourself, daughter of Avani."
"She's not my mother," I whispered, with no real venom in the words. Athena's message rang a little too true for me to brush aside. Humanity had basically been shitting on the planet for centuries, and they weren't nearly as religious as they had been. If Gaia was collapsing, what really stood in the way of me winding up down the same road?
"Gaia is not the only earth goddess," Heracles said. "Just to be fair, here."
"Of course," Athena said. "Regardless." She nodded again, her gaze dropping. "Master Justice cares very much that this is seen through. Properly."
"Not enough to come say so himself," I muttered, before I could stop myself.
"Mistress!" Alice hissed. "He's an aspect. He's busy."
"He put an idea to me," Athena said, folding her hands neatly in front of her. "And...I do believe that there is wisdom in it. And thus...I will help you, Terra, but not in the way you're asking for."
"Great," I said, my heart sinking. "That's great. Really. So-"
"The others are angry," Athena said. "Furious. You're an outsider, and like it or not, Gaia's words carry a credibility yours cannot. Their participation in this is all but guaranteed - but it's equally likely that some may try and play tricks."
That much, I couldn't argue with. I nodded, wincing. "Ah...probably, yeah."
"And thus my role will be to ensure that they cannot." Her lips curled up gently. "Or at least, not so openly. Master Justice has suggested I take the roll of arbiter for the challenge. I agreed."
"Will that be allowed?" Heracles said. "I thought it was Fortune who-"
"They're both aspects, idiot brother," Athena said, casting a scathing glare his way.
"Precisely that," Alice murmured, her voice little more than a whisper.
Heracles looked away, color blossoming in his cheeks. "O-Oh."
"An arbiter, huh?" I said, letting my eyes fall to Alice. "Sounds familiar."
Alice smiled shyly. "It's the language they're familiar with," she murmured.
"Exactly. An arbiter," Athena said, as if she hadn't heard Alice speak. "The others might not like it, but I believe they'll accept it. Mostly. And as such..." She took a step back, her skirts swishing about her legs. "I'm afraid I cannot help you today, Terra."
"I see," I said, trying to keep the disappointment from my face. Plans A and B were both lying in shambles at my feet, then. Fucking great. Good to see we were off to a good start. "Then...thank you, Athena."
Her smile went sad. "I just said I couldn't help you."
"I know," I said. "But you're helping me down the road. And you heard me out. So thanks." It wasn't much of a bow, but I inclined my torso just a few degrees in her direction. "I do appreciate it. And, uh...with that, I think I should be going."
"Yes, I do believe so," Athena said. "Be quick, mistress of nature. Fortune has allowed you this slice of time, but I don't believe she'll wait forever." Her smile was still there, but with a hint of sadness in it. "Hurry."
I straightened, lifting my hand in a wave - and turned for the door. As I passed over the threshold again, I saw flickers of movement from either side of me - masked and cloaked figures, emerging from wherever they'd hidden and returning to their work.
Athena's sigh followed me out.
My not-feet clacked against the stone-lined path as I accelerated out into the sun.
This time, it was me who pushed out front, my thoughts racing. Where? Where then? I'd tried speaking to all of them. That hadn't worked. I'd tried talking to Athena, and that was a partial success at best.
"Mistress?" I heard Alice ask from behind me. I slowed fractionally, just enough for Heracles and her to pull up alongside me.
"We'll keep trying," I said, trying to convince myself as much as them. "Athena was my best shot, not my only one. I've got a few other options in mind. I'm not down yet."
"Of course," Alice said softly.
A hand wrapped around mine, the fingers interlacing in a comforting wall of warmth that rippled through my skin.
Heracles still didn't say anything. He just stared straight ahead - and squeezed my hand.
I smiled. And then I turned back to the path leading us away from Athena and her temple.
Into the forest we went.