Chapter 71
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When we left off, Terra and crew arrived at Athena’s temple. After meeting with the wise goddess, though, it became clear that they had a problem - while Athena supports Terra, and has been willing to hear her out thus far, she won’t be standing alongside her in this challenge. Instead, she offers herself as an adjudicator for the contest itself, sent by the aspect of justice.

The glowing lights and looming owls of Athena's temple slipped away. I stalked onward, trying to drive the sight of the elegant, stately pillars from my mind. "Some help that was," I mumbled.

"I-I'ts all right, mistress," Alice said. She stumbled along beside me, the act made more awkward by the way she kept trying to face me, and the fact she had to jog to keep up. "She's still on our side. It...It may seem like a loss now, but-"

"I get it, Alice," I said with a groan, tearing my hands through the mahogany waves of my hair. "I'm not- I'm upset. But not with Athena. Not...not really." Just a bit. But I'd get over it.

"Mistress, I know it's frustrating, but you must keep your spirits up. There are other deities. We can-"

"Thanks, Alice," I said. "Would never have guessed that. Appreciate your concern, really, but let me work."

"You're planning something?" Heracles said. Unlike before, he didn't offer me his hand, didn't try and give me even the slightest sort of physical reassurance. He was worried too, however much he was trying to hide it. "You have another plan? But then, what are you-"

"Fortune said it herself," I said, slowing enough for him to pull up even with me. "Gaia was going to start that shit off without me - until a few of the Olympians were convinced to speak on their aspect's behalf."

"Oh," he said. "So, then-"

"Demeter," I said. "That's my best guess. Fortune said Demeter and Dionysus. It might be a crapshoot, but I don't exactly have a better idea."

"Okay," Heracles said.

I came this close to tripping over my damn feet, so complete was my surprise. "What, that's it?"

"Mistress?" Alice whispered, tugging at my elbow. "Shouldn't we keep going?"

"That's all you've got to say?" I said. My eyes stayed glued to Heracles, one eyebrow arched.

He matched me stare for stare - but a glimmer of his old contempt seeped into the expression. "Do you know the way?"

Well, shit. "Um," I said.

"So, what," Heracles said. "You were just going to go charging around the mountain like a pachinko ball until you happen across her temple?"

"Well, I-"

"Do you even know what it looks like?"

"Probably another damn white marble eyesore," I muttered. "I'll figure it out."

"Just shut up and follow," Heracles said, shouldering past me with an exasperated grin and a glare.

I wrinkled my nose, returning the look, but couldn't offer up anything meatier as a retort. Bastard was right and he knew it. His smile grew as he stalked onward - but faded along with the last remnants of Athena's domain. By the time the forest pressed in around us again, thick and dense, his expression had gone entirely serious again.

It was easier, I had to admit. Easier to follow behind him, keeping my eyes on his back and blanking out any sound but the thumping of his heels against the path. Things had...I smiled thinly, shaking my head.

Things had gotten easier since I'd given up on the "going it alone" business. If Alice knew, she'd gloat. But it was nice to not be so lost, anymore.

I held my silence as we stalked through the forest, ignoring the figures that gawked at our passage. I held in all the bullshit I wanted to say, casting the occasional glance at the changing landscape - because it was changing again, morphing with our passage. The trees thinned out, giving way to copses and groves lined with white-stone benches and fountains of glowing water. Ahead...I perked up, straightening.

Ahead lurked a wall of light, the air itself glowing where the dark of the forest met the brilliance of...of somewhere not forest. Fuck it, I wasn't a damn poet. I sucked in a breath of air to steady myself, biting my lip.

Here we go again.

And then I was blinking back tears, shading my eyes against the sunlight. Heracles had come to a stop ahead of me, his face going stony again. I grinned, gathering up every last scrap of my trusty arrogance I could. Show time.

The forest waited behind us, sprawling out to either side - and in the distance, I could see the pearly-white structures of Olympus's various temples waiting along the horizon. I swore softly, making a face. However the cartography of this damn place worked, I did not understand it.

Between us and the temples, though, waves of grain sprawled along gently-rolling hills, rustling in an airy breeze. Trees bristled from the hilltops, teeming with fruit.

I hardly noticed the bounty of nature before us, though - not when the fields were parted by a marble temple, low and sprawling and open-topped in sections to let the wind through.

I chuckled sourly, glaring at it. "I told you it'd be another white-"

"Shut up," Heracles said with a groan, glaring back over his shoulder at me. "Would you stop mouthing off for long enough to do this? Just this once?"

"Can't," I said, deadpanning. "It's what I am. Come on."

Not waiting for a response, I pushed past him - but heard him chuckle, low and soft. Both him and Alice were right there behind me. Supporting me. For some reason.

It would be enough. I fixed my eyes on the archway of the temple, hurrying forward. I didn't run. I just walked very, very quickly, all but hurling myself into Demeter's domain.

Athena had beaten us to her temple, and we'd chit-chatted in her library for a while. There was no reason to believe Demeter would be any tardier than her.

Somehow, even with all of that, I managed to be surprised at the sight of the woman standing on the far side of the room, leaning over a table with her arms elbow-deep into a basket. An elegant green-and-gold tunic hung from her shoulders, completely at odds with the mudstained denim overalls that covered it. She glanced up, the wild curls of her brown hair bouncing across her ivory skin - and she didn't seem surprised by my presence at all.

No, she rolled her eyes, pulling her arms free and shaking kernels of grain from her skin. "Oh, wonderful," I heard her mutter.

"Demeter," I said, suddenly tongue-tied. Well, shit. How was I supposed to refer to her? The only Olympians I'd dealt with had all either known each other beforehand, or we'd through the process of them trying to murder me. Mistress Demeter? Miss Demeter? Goddess?

Out of all the options I had to choose from, jumping straight to assuming a first-name basis was just about the fucking worst of the lot. That realization slammed home far, far after it would have been useful.

She planted her hands on her hips, lifting her chin in the air as she glared. "Usurper." It wasn't an accusation. No, she said the word as casually as I'd said her name. Oh, goody. I was earning some titles of my own.

"Ah..." I mumbled, my eyes dancing about the pavilion. "I'm Terra."

"I heard."

This was just going fucking splendidly.

"I was hoping to talk," I said, taking a step closer.

Her eyes flashed dangerously. "You said plenty, I think."

"I was hoping to talk to you," I said. "One on one. Face to face. Person to person. Goddess to-"

"You're not a goddess," she said. Good lord, if she raised that nose of hers any higher, a damn bird was going to try nesting in her nostrils. "You're just a mortal brat, here to-"

"Okay," I said, raising a hand. "I can see we're not off to a great start. Maybe we could try this again, and-"

"We haven't gotten off to a 'great start', no," Demeter said. Each lash of her words was like a spray of acid tossed in my direction. "It might have something to do with you trying to murder my cousin."

Shit. Right. Goddess of the Earth...and if I remembered right, Demeter was some sort of harvest deity. Some shit like that. I raised a finger tentatively, cocking my head to one side. "Well, technically, if she's your cousin, that would make me your-"

"Do. Not," she spat.

"Oookay, then," I said, cringing back.

"Look," Heracles said - and stepped forward. He crossed to the space between Demeter and I, his hands outstretched. "She's an idiot. Feel free to hold it against her."

"Hey," I mumbled.

Alice drove her clipboard into my waist. I stumbled to the side, spluttering. By the time I looked over, she'd returned to her normal posture, just as casual as always.

"I won't pretend to understand what you see coming from this," Demeter said, her warm brown eyes glued to Heracles. The spite from moments before had vanished, hidden behind an odd, heavy sadness. "Whatever has come over you, nephew, I hope you awaken soon. Your betrayal saddens your father, and-"

"Our survival is on the line," Heracles said. "That's what I see coming from this."

Slowly, but picking up speed, Demeter shook her head. "Oh, child. Gaia is old. She was here long before you or I, and will remain for long after. This harlot’s story is just that - a tale to stir you to her side. Do not allow your mortal blood to sway your better judgement."

Demeter might not have seen it - but I saw the way Heracles stiffened, his limbs going straight. "Okay," I said, elbowing my way out front again. "That's about enough of that, I think." I shot Heracles a sidelong glance, kicking him in the shin. Get your shit together. Don't let her snipes get to you.

The harvest goddess sighed, flashing a look my way that'd cut through glass. "Anyway. If you've said your words, then-"

"You helped me already," I interrupted.

She blinked. Actually stopped and blinked. "Excuse me?"

"With Fortune," I said, holding a hand up. "When Fortune asked, you spoke on our behalf, and delayed matters. You've already helped me. So why would you do that, if not-"

"If my aspect asks for my aid, I answer," Demeter said. "It is as simple as that, mortal. But that is where my aid ends." Her eyes narrowed. "It would take more than your feeble arguments to convince me your claim to her throne is legitimate."

"So that's it,” I said. Like it or not, even I could hear the defeat in my voice. "You won't help. Period."

"I believe I've already answered that."

Alice's hand brushed against my back. Dammit, I don't need your pity. "All right," I said. My eyes locked onto Demeter's, holding her in place. She froze. "I won't waste any more of your time. Thank you for hearing me out, goddess." I smiled mirthlessly. "I pray that you're right. I pray that the decision you've made today was wise. I won't be back to ask again."

She didn't say a word - but when I turned for the archway, her image lingered at the edge of my vision. Her skin was even paler than before. Good, I whispered silently, savoring the moment of fear in her eyes. Think about the choice you've made. Really stew on it.

It might not blossom today, or tomorrow. It might not even blossom before my fight with Gaia came to an end. But I'd planted another seed.

I stalked from the pavilion.

"Well, shit," I mumbled, wincing again as the fierce sun blasted down straight into my eyes. The crop fields still swayed cheerfully, rustling and scraping softly. Instead of being comforting, it was like the plants themselves were taunting me.

"It's all right," Heracles said softly, striding heavily out alongside me. "She's too connected to this. That was always going to be a tough argument. It's- It doesn't mean anything."

“Right," I said, my words toneless and blank. "Of course it doesn't." Of course it meant something - we were zero for two, now. Those odds fucking sucked. My not-feet sank into the soft soil of Demeter's domain with every step I took. I yanked them free, my frustration surging higher. "Okay. Okay. We can still work with this." I stared at the ground, my mind whirling. "Next, uh. Next, we can try-"

Someone snorted. I stopped. Heracles and Alice had both gone very, very still, watching me. As I stared straight ahead, I saw Alice pull her clipboard in close to her chest defensively.

Slowly, I turned, glancing back over my shoulder. "Is something funny?"

Someone was sitting outside Demeter's temple, I saw - a man, broad and wholesome, like the American Dream idealized. He didn't have Heracles' muscles, but, well, Heracles didn't have the warmth to his demeanor like this man did, either. He was grinning at me from the ground, leaning against a white-stone pillar - with a tall, narrow bottle clutched in one hand.

He winked at me, when he saw me turn to face him. "Hey. How'sit going?"

"Je- God damn it," I muttered. "I don't have time for this. Let's-"

"I'm talkin', girl," he said, his brow furrowing. He reached down to push off the ground, levering himself up a little higher. A wine-stained tee hung from his frame, draping over a pair of breeches. "It's....It's..." He made a face. "It's rude to ignore a fellow when he's talkin'."

"Are you saying anything worth my listening?" I said.

Heracles hand appeared on my shoulder in an instant, latching on as though he could drag the words back out of the air and jam them down my throat. "Maybe you should let Dionysus speak," he said, spitting each syllable out carefully.

Well, shit. I groaned, scrubbing at my forehead. My own words from before hung right in front of me - Fortune had gone to speak to Demeter. Demeter, and Dionysus. I was already zero for two, and if the past few seconds were any indication, it was about to be zero for three.

"Okay, then," I said, when I mustered up the will to look him in the eyes again. He grinned at me, still propped up against his pillar. "You've got something to say? Fortune went and talked to you too, right?" I folded my arms. "I'm assuming you heard my 'conversation' with Madame Dim in there. How about you? Am I going to be able to convince you that I'm not some murdering, sadistic, evil bitch?"

His grin never faltered. "Nope."

"Fucking fantastic. And are you going to help me?"

Eyes glued to mine, he lifted the bottle to his lips. Wine splattered down across his shirt, adding to the collection of discolorations already tie-dying its surface. A disgusted noise ripping from my throat.

"Nope," he repeated.

I threw my hands up, already hearing Heracles and Alice groan. "That's awesome," I said. "Perfect. At least we got that out of the way fast."

"Wouldja- would...would you..." Dionysus hiccuped, leering at me from behind red-stained teeth. "Wouldja like some advice?"

"From you?" I drew back from him with a snort. "I think I'm good. I've already gotten plenty of advice from the rest of you assholes."

He chuckled, raising his bottle again. "Suit yourself."

"Fucking hell," I muttered, already turning. With every step, I sank into the muck - and with every step, I pulled my feet free a little more furiously, until at last I was accelerating down the path away from Demeter's temple.

"Shouldn't we go back?" Heracles said. "Shouldn't we at least try to convince him?"

"You heard him," I said. "He's not interested. I don't have time to waste on him." I came to a stop at last, once I was far enough away I didn't think either of the Olympian dickbags I'd left behind would overhear.

Heracles loomed closer, filling my vision. "Don't be an idiot. We can go back, explain things. Something..." He shook his head. "I feel like we should keep trying. With him in this state, we can-"

"I need you to take me somewhere else," I said slowly, enunciating each word carefully. A pit was opening in my stomach with every syllable, deep and dark and ready to suck me in at a moment's notice.

Heracles froze, then frowned. "What? Where?"

I smiled grimly. "Somewhere I think you'll find familiar."