“What?” I heard Heracles repeat. He stood like a lump, weariness battling with confusion on his face.
“Somewhere familiar,” I said. “Come on. Do you really need me to be more specific?” My eyes stayed locked to his. A humorless smile played at my lips. “You’ve spent a lot of time beating down that ‘stupid’ reputation. Don’t ruin it now.”
“Mistress?” Alice said, creeping up between us. “What’s going on? Where are you-”
“It’s not a good idea,” Heracles said. “You know that, right?”
“Of course I do,” I said.
He pressed a hand to his face, turning away and continuing down the path. Demeter’s fields blossomed around us still in patches, lending an oddly zen atmosphere to the whole scene. Hell, if I lived through this, it’d be a damn fine place to come for a vacation.
Me surviving wouldn’t make the harvest goddess not a bitch, though. I sighed, trudging after Heracles - just in time to stop as he spun back to face me. “You’re sure,” he said.
“Yes. Lead on.”
His nose wrinkled. But he turned away without saying anything more, stalking forward.
A half dozen steps down the path, he stopped yet again. “You’re-”
“Dammit, meatboy, I’m sure,” I snapped. “I don’t know how many times I have to repeat myself. I get that this is a shitshow of an idea. But I don’t have anything better to go on.” I arched an eyebrow. “Do you?”
Heracles rocked back on his heels, his expression darkening underneath his waves of hair. “I just- I don’t think you understand. It’s not-”
“Would someone bother to take half a second and explain?” Alice hissed. Both Heracles and I stopped - and glanced down to the arbiter. She gave a tiny, irritated huff, straightening her glasses. “You’re being quite inconsiderate.”
“Zeus,” Heracles said. His voice was low, right on the edge of hoarse. “Your lady wants to go bring her crusade up with my father.”
“It’s only natural,” I said, desperately trying to ignore the way Alice’s eyes lit up, or the way she turned to her clipboard with a squeak. “We’re not having any luck here. I don’t- I just don’t know where else we should go.”
“And if it goes badly?” Heracles said, holding my gaze with his. “You saw how Poseidon reacted. You don’t truly believe he acted alone, do you?”
“Gaia and I agreed to this game,” I said simply, holding my wrist up. The golden chains emblazoned there flared to life with the motion. “I doubt very much that Zeus would break that deal.”
“He doesn’t have to kill you to get his way.”
That...That was fair. I had to give him that much, acknowledging the fact with a shallow nod. “Do you have a better idea?” I said.
Heracles fell quiet. He looked away, then, his expression unreadable.
“It’ll just be for a few minutes,” I said, my voice light and cheerful. “I’m going to have to ask him eventually. He’s kind of a big deal around here, right?”
“King of the gods,” Heracles said tonelessly. “You could say that.”
“Right, see? So it’s expected of me. Now lead on.” I reached out, patting Heracles’ arm. “It’s my own choice. I know what I’m getting into.”
“Do you?” I heard him mutter.
I chuckled. “I know enough to know it’s not a good idea, so your warning has been sufficient. Now would you hurry up and-”
The sentence devolved into a yelp as Heracles stooped, sliding an arm under my wooden knees. In an instant I was off the ground, floating against his chest. My head snapped around just as quickly as I regained control of myself, my gaze meeting his. “What the fuck are you-”
“Walking will take forever,” he said shortly. “Don’t make me lose my nerve.” His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. “It’s...His domain is mine as well. My divinity is his. I can get us there faster.”
“Okay, but give me a little warning next-”
Heracles shifted, like an avalanche starting to roll down a mountainside - and the world around us shifted with him. From the corner of my eye, I saw Alice dart forward, grabbing hold of his belt with her free hand.
And then the colors blurred out, melding together as Heracles transported us.
This wasn’t my doing, and I damn sure didn’t have control over any of it. I just clung to his chest, my fingers buried in his shirt and every muscle in my body tense. If there was anything standing in our way, if we hit another barrier...what would happen?
Nothing good, that was for sure. I turned my face toward his shirt, trying not to think about it.
Or about the fact that the last time he carried me this way, he’d been taking me to my death.
Before a shiver could roll across my skin, he lurched to a stop. The air around us steadied - and his arms tilted, lowering me carefully to the ground. “We’re here,” he murmured. He didn’t sound happy about it.
I staggered forward a half step, reaching out. Alice flinched as my hand settled to her shoulder, but offered me a dazed smile. Her hair was awry again, and this time, she didn’t seem to be making any moves to fix it.
“You good?” I said. Out of all the ways I’d prefer to get transported across the sleepless realms, getting yanked along half-attached to someone’s belt was pretty fucking close to the bottom of the list.
“Y-Yeah.” She drew herself upright, licking her lips. “Yes. I am fine. Don’t worry yourself over me, mistress, not when…”
Her eyes flicked over my shoulder to what lay ahead.
I chuckled sourly. “Yeah. Got it. Message received.” Even still...I had to check. I’d gotten so used to the bullshit adventures we wound up in, but Alice seemed so fragile.
Turning on my heel, I let my face angle toward our destination. Heracles waited in front of me, visibly fidgeting.
The first thing I saw was...well, it was everything. My breath fell away. A few dozen paces out to the side, the rocky cliffs we stood on fell away. For the first time, I realized that Mount Olympus truly was a mountain. Open air filled the space beyond, with only flickers of green and white underneath us to show the temples we’d so recently languished in.
“It looked smaller from below,” I muttered, tearing my eyes off the view before vertigo could set in. We’d come up here for a reason, and the only thing that could be up here was-
Stairs. They lifted from the plateau directly before Heracles and I, ascending into the brilliant blue sky. Another of those damn Greek temples waited at the top. I glared at it, curling my lip back. They loved those things. And they loved stairs. Fucking assholes, the whole lot of them.
Something glimmered at the corner of my eye. I went still, then slowly lifted my gaze skyward.
Here, this high up in the air, the foggy shape of the great gods’ island was that much closer. I glared at it, narrowing my eyes and trying to see through the glare of it. All I earned for my trouble were spots in my vision.
“Time was, that was us,” a voice boomed from ahead.
I flinched - and then turned, blinking away my poor life choices and straining my eyes.
The dark-haired figure standing halfway up the stairs where I was sure no one had been moments before was familiar. I could say that he was familiar because I’d seen him an hour and change before, but really, that was only part of the equation. He was familiar because I’d seen his iconography plastered across movies and books and logos for the entirety of my human life.
Where his children had all adopted an odd mishmash of mortal and divine garments, Zeus seemed to have no such patience. The robe he wore was as classical as anything I’d ever seen, woven from pure white with a delicate black-and-gold trim around the edge. Only his hair was different from the paintings - dark and lustrous, like Heracles’, rather than the perfect snow-white curls from a hundred busts.
He smiled when I looked to him, but the expression didn’t reach his eyes. “The tip of our mountain was sacrosanct,” he said, more quietly. “But things were different, then. We’re different, and the times have changed.”
I waited, anticipating a dramatic entrance, but he didn’t so much as take a step. “Yeah, I get that,” I said. “But you gotta change with the times, old man. Not just sit up here and rot.”
Somewhere behind me, it sounded an awful lot like Heracles had stopped breathing altogether.
Zeus laughed. My heart started beating again. “And I suppose that for you, that’s enough,” he said. I waited, shifting from foot to foot, but he didn’t say anything else.
“You know why I’m here,” I said quietly, when it became clear he wasn’t leaping into things. “You know what’s at stake. I know it’s not what you want - but this is survival on the line. You should-”
“Come,” Zeus said, taking a step back.
I froze. “What?”
He cast a look back over his shoulder at me - and fixed his baleful, brilliantly yellow eyes on me. “This is not an appropriate place to have such a conversation. Come, girl.”
My mind raced. Heracles had been right before - it was not a great idea to be coming to Zeus. It was even less of a good idea to be having that conversation in his own domain. I twisted, raising a hand to the others, waving for them to follow. “Okay, then. We can-”
“Stay there, boy,” Zeus said, flashing a look at Heracles - who froze, his eyes flicking between Zeus and I. “You can wait here and keep an eye on the trash that got dragged in with you.”
Alice flinched, ducking behind Heracles. I couldn’t blame her. If the venom in Zeus’s eyes had been directed my way, I’d have hid, too.
Any worry I had for her was co-opted by the worry I had for me. “Excuse me?” I said. “You don’t really think I’m going to follow you up there and-”
“Come on, then,” Zeus said, turning away and starting to climb. “Unless you’re planning on walking away and letting things stand as they are, that is.”
As in, unless I was planning on letting him put his full weight behind Gaia. The god of the sky, who even Heracles seemed to fear and called a king. As much as I very much did not want to climb those stairs, I couldn’t very well stand by and let him put his support behind my opponent. Not without at least trying to change his mind.
Steeling myself for the impending aching of my non-existent calves, I pushed myself up the first set of stairs.
“Terra,” Heracles hissed from behind me. “Don’t. Just stay here, and-”
“I’ll be back,” I said, looking back over my shoulder. Damn it, the guy looked like I’d just kicked his puppy. I let a tight smile flash across my lips, holding his gaze for a moment before turning it to Alice. “Don’t do anything stupid. Wait right here.”
Alice crept forward, peering out from around Heracles’ arm. “Terra, please. Be careful.”
“Do you really think me that horrible?” I heard Zeus say from behind me. I didn’t turn, locking eyes with Alice.
“Let me handle this,” I said. “I’ll be right back.”
With nothing left to say, I started climbing again, following behind Zeus as we ascended.
But every step of the way, I felt their eyes on me.