More stairs. My favorite.
This time, though, I had something to distract me. I barely had time to feel the burning of my thighs or wince at the awkward strain where my wooden legs met my flesh. On any other climb, I’d at least have enjoyed the view off either side of the staircase. With us up this high, I could probably even see Yggdrasil or some shit.
My eyes were fixed to the figure climbing in front of me, though - and my mind was totally and completely occupied with the notion that this might have all been a horrible, horrible mistake.
For his part, Zeus didn’t seem to notice my discomfort. Or if he did, well, he didn’t seem to care, which would probably be par for the course with these assholes. He continued, step after step, without even glancing back to me.
Before long, the quiet whispers exchanged between Heracles and Alice faded to nothing. They were still there, I knew. I trusted that neither of them were about to fuck off and leave me here, and it wasn’t like they had anywhere to go. And while there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot they could do from the base of the stairs, I still appreciated having them here.
My eyes drifted, rising to the temple that drew closer with every step. Demeter’s temple had melded into the fields around it, with skylights and gaps to let in the warm sun. Zeus’s temple, it seemed, was abandoning even that threadbare pretense. There was no roof at all - just a set of walls matched to the pillars, ending before any roof could take over. The sky shone through the narrow gap of the doorway.
I eyed it, my apprehension building - but there was no slowing down or going back. We were here. I was doing this.
I tried to repeat it to myself as the stairs leveled off. No, it didn’t help my confidence any.
And then we walked through the doorway to his temple, and Zeus waved his hand. White-clad attendants scattered this way and that, fleeing into passages hidden just out of sight.
“There,” he said, striding toward a corner. A couch lay there, padded with rich blue velvet. He dropped onto it, his eyes never leaving mine. “Make yourself comfortable, girl.”
“I’m not here for comfort,” I said, then promptly winced. Maybe just this one you could handle the situation with just a bit of fucking respect, Tara. “You’re busy, I’m sure,” I said hastily. “I’m already grateful for you hearing me out. I don’t- I’m not going to pretend my comfort is important in the slightest.”
His eyebrow arched - and his lips curled up into a tiny, lopsided smile. “A fair assessment,” he said. “I’d heard how direct you were. You shan’t offend me.”
“Then I’ll be direct,” I said, folding my arms. It kept him from seeing my hands quiver. So I hoped, anyway. “You heard what I had to say out there.”
“You want to replace the mistress of the Earth,” Zeus said. “That seems straightforward enough.”
“Right. Yeah.” I bit my lip, shaking my head slightly. “Pretty much. And as I said out in the amphitheater-”
“Gaia’s essence has corrupted.”
I stopped, freezing in place. He said it in such a damn matter-of-fact tone, like he was reading off his damn shopping list. “Yeah,” I said, starting to feel as though I was throwing words at him. Sure, maybe I was repeating myself, but sooner or later something had to stick. “That’s why I was brought into this. That’s why I’m here. Avani requested me. Ah. You know Avani, the-”
“The Earthmother,” Zeus said. “I’m king of the sky, girl.” His piercing yellow eyes held mine in place, but I saw him smile. “I think you’ll find your kind and mine have dealings often enough for me to be more than familiar.”
Dealings. Right. I sucked in a quick breath, clinging to the plan of attack I’d laid out. “Right. Of course. Sorry. Well...Gaia is sick. That’s what they both said. Alice and Avani.” My eyes widened, an idea springing to life. “Oh - I can show you, yeah? She left a bit of her magic in me.” While she was trying to turn me into a fucking tree. “I can amplify that. It’s subtle, since my own magic seems to be layered over the top, but you can feel the corruption in it still.”
Assuming he could sense something like that, you idiot. I twitched, raising a hand. “W-Well, I guess that might be a little hard to feel if you’re not me. B-But I can show you. She’s sick. Really. Hold on, and I’ll-”
“I know,” Zeus said.
A moment before he spoke, I’d been ready to plunge down into my magic, yanking Gaia’s signature up like a pee-stain I could rub Zeus’s nose in. Those two little words brought me screeching to a halt, until all I could do was gape.
“Huh?” I said. Peak intelligence on display, that.
Zeus shifted, sitting up a little more forward. He still wore a smile, but his eyes were sharp. “I’m not so inobservant I’d miss the signs in my own pantheon,” he said. “I’ve seen the first traces in her for…” He sighed. “Ages.”
“W-What?” I said. “But then-”
“It’s hard to say when it began,” Zeus said, and his eyebrow twitched. I shut up. Nothing coming out of my mouth was worth a damn anyway. “Humanity’s to blame, at the core of it. That’s what I’ve always said.”
“Yeah,” I said, faltering. “I thought so too.”
He rubbed at his face, frowning. “They itched at her. Prickling. It was an annoyance at first, little more. Something to be brushed aside. They sustain all of us, after all.”
“At first,” I echoed.
Zeus nodded. His eyes dropped from mine at last, coming to rest at the stone-slab floor of his temple. “As your kind grew, they changed. Multiplied. They dug deeper and deeper, contaminating everything they touched.”
He...He wasn’t wrong. All I could do was nod along. How many times had I heard the speech from environmentalists? We’re killing the Earth, they said. They’d probably intended it to be an analogy.
Some impacts were rather more direct.
Zeus shook his head, then let his hand drop to his lap. “She was already weakened,” he said. “She tried her best to keep her head. And she was, for a time.”
“So what changed?” I said softly.
“The divide was the final blow, the one that left a crack through her,” Zeus said. His eyes flicked back to meet me, yellow and baleful. “Your predecessor.”
“Terra,” I said. Her face flashed through my mind, pale and half-hidden behind black waves.
He nodded. “It was...difficult. For all of us. No one with half a sense in the world seeks to kill their dual.” For an instant, his gaze sharpened further. I shrank back. He sombered again. “After they were gone...the rest of us tried to move on. As did she.”
“But you think-”
“I think the pressures put on her, to share her mind with an enemy like that…” He shook his head again. “It was likely too much. I believe she was unable to silence her specter, as is proper.”
To silence her, eh? I leaned against the wall behind me, my mind going quiet.
He’d given me a lot to work with. It was good to hear a confirmation from the mouth of a Greek god - that their counterparts had existed, and had been eaten during the transition. And...if he was talking about ‘silencing’ the old Terra…
“I can’t say anything for sure,” I said softly. “I don’t know how all of this works yet. But as I said, I’ve got a bit of Gaia’s magic inside me still. She planted it there with her own hands. And...through that, well, I can confirm-” I stopped, not quite sure how to put it into words. Terra’s alive still. Her ghost is still here. Gaia has spent the centuries haunted by an enemy she couldn’t kill, and a race of mortals whittling away at her skin one scrape at a time.
Jesus. I couldn’t blame the goddess for going insane, if that’s how things were.
But I didn’t know how to say it, and I didn’t know if I should say it. However much Zeus seemed to be honestly and openly engaging with me, he was still the head of Gaia’s pantheon. Maybe I should be holding onto this information, rather than throwing it at him.
When I looked back, though, he was nodding. “She remains, then. Even now.”
“Sorry,” I whispered. “That’s why I’m doing this.” Here we go - get this show back on track. I seized the conversational opening, dragging myself back to the damn reason I was here. “She’s ill - and she’s been that way for a while. A long time. Years. Centuries. Let me help, and-” I bit off the words, balling up my hands. And then I took a step forward, creeping closer to the god.
“You already know everything I have to say,” I said. “So that just leaves one more question.” Here it was - the make it or break it moment. I forced myself to stand tall, to hold his gaze, to keep my voice from wobbling.
“If you already know all of this, if you know why I’m here...will you help me?” I said.
Zeus stared at me for a long moment. His hands pressed together in his lap, his fingers twining and untwining. A breeze drifted through, billowing across the open-topped temple.
He hadn’t said a word. I didn’t have to be told that wasn’t a good sign.
Slowly, ponderously, he reached over - and patted the couch beside him. “Sit,” he said. His voice left no room for disobedience.
I came this close to moving, to obeying the pointed command. At the last, I stiffened, holding my ground. There was something in his eyes. A calculation, an intensity I found deeply unsettling. “I’m good, thanks,” I said.
He made a face, then stood with a groan. “The situation Gaia finds herself in is...unfortunate,” he said. “She is beloved indeed. It’s not surprising to me that you’ve seen the resistance you have.”
“I get that,” I said, but quieted at his look.
“And yet, our pantheon is on the decline,” he said. His sandaled feet padded across the slab of the temple floor as he walked. “We’re a shadow of what we once were, and even that withers. We’re sustained more by folk tales and stories than we are belief.” His expression darkened. “That cannot be allowed to continue.”
“The mouse has definitely helped you guys,” I said dryly.
He chuckled. “Yes, but such tales are not enough. We need more. But...you, my dear.”
His eyes settled onto me again. My skin prickled. That shrewdness was back, and stronger than ever. “You’re mortal,” he said. “Odd, but...we brought my son into the fold. Any number of heroes have been canonized. It is not an impossible task.”
“Glad to hear it,” I said. I found myself creeping backward, so slowly I almost wasn’t sure I was moving at all. But - underneath the anxiety filling my very being, hope blossomed. “I want to help. Help me help you, and all that.” More like I didn’t want to die, but he didn’t need to know that.
Again, he chuckled, his face creasing in a grin. “I believe you can. With your mortality comes youth. It’s a connection. You bring more to the table than your sharp tongue, I believe.”
I hardly saw him move, so fixated was I on his stare. I jumped as his hand settled onto my shoulder, warm and rough.
“And you’ve come farther than that,” Zeus said. “You’ve tamed the Forsaken. I’ve heard of your swarm - and the way it grows. That, I’ve never seen anything like.”
“J-Just a gamble,” I said. Damn it, he was touching me. Not cool. But when I tried to wriggle backward, brushing him off as casually as I could, he didn’t let go. If anything, his fingers squeezed all the tighter.
“And now you have strength,” he said. “Strength that will continue to grow without end. This road you’ve picked is strange, but powerful, girl.” The corners of his eyes crinkled as his smile grew, turning satisfied. “You have much to offer indeed. And I do want that power under our banner.”
There. There it was - as tacit a statement of alliance as I’d gotten thus far. I exhaled, my shoulders dropping.
And then I stopped.
My eyes swept across his face - the smile that still had a hint of reservation to it, and that gaze that still seemed more cunning than warm. “I think I hear a ‘but’ in there,” I said. “I don’t like that. Spit it out.”
His eyebrow arched up, his head cocking gently to one side. “Direct indeed,” he murmured.
“Don’t give me that. Just-”
“As I said.” His eyes stayed glued to mine, pinning the both of us in place. “Your power is...strange. It’s unknown. As are you. You don’t like my hesitation?” His expression darkened, like stormclouds crossing over the sun. “I don’t like mysteries. And I don’t like the thought of turning a wild dog loose among my kin, their sister’s blood on her teeth.”
Irritation sparked in my chest. “Are you calling me a bi-”
“I would welcome you to our number,” Zeus said. His fingers tightened against my shoulder - and a shiver rolled down my spine as his thumb slowly started to trace out a circle. “In your proper place, knowing your proper position.”
I stared at him, the seconds ticking by as his words sank through my skull. It was thick, yes, but even I could understand the gist of what he was saying. I knew Zeus, after all. Even the few legends I’d heard had been rather...explicit, so far as he was concerned.
“I see,” I said, my voice dry. “Um. Well, I wasn’t...I hadn’t figured on anything like that.”
“As I said earlier,” he said, towering over me. Damn it, the bastard was taller than he’d seemed. “You are a goddess of the earth. I am a god of the sky.” His lips curled up. “It would not be hard to amend the legends.” The mirth bled from his expression, leaving his eyes cold and hard. “And a mortal upstart could not be allowed to rule unchecked. I’m sure you understand.”
Did I understand? Unfortunately, yes, I damn well did. Only when this all started, I’d been promised a divinity of my own. Not a place as his fucking bedwarmer.
I flinched as his other hand settled on my hip. He didn’t push or pull, didn’t maneuver me at all. But he knew that I knew that he could. I didn’t have to see his smug little smile to know that much.
“Consider carefully,” was all he said, still staring down at me.
Oh, I was considering. I was considering a lot of responses I could give to his ‘generous offer’, some more wise than others.
And yet...despite myself, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was a way out - possibly the last one I’d get. With Zeus by my side, everything would change. The other gods would fall in line along with him. Even if they didn’t openly declare their allegiance to my cause, surely they’d reconsider throwing their name behind Gaia.
I would survive. I would be safe.
I rocked on my wooden heels, my head starting to spin. For so long, I’d been careening down this path. Alice had plucked me right out of death’s jaws, forced me onto the attack without so much as a damned minute to think about what I was doing. With the memory of being turned into a meat pancake still fresh on my mind, hell, it hadn’t even sounded so bad. Almost-certain death was still better than dead-dead, right?
Now, with Zeus still gazing down at me and a chance at almost-guaranteed-survival laid bare...it sounded good. I couldn’t even try and argue that with myself. It sounded real good.
His smile grew. His fingers spread across my lower back, tugging me in closer. I stumbled forward - and his other hand took my chin, angling my face up toward his. “You’re no fool,” he said, his voice low. “We can both benefit. Entrust yourself to me, dear, and we’ll forge a new future for us all.”
Not a fool? Me? I nearly burst out laughing - but as he pulled me against his chest, leaving me to cling to the soft fabric or fall to the ground, it was his final words that echoed through my mind.
My future. The rest of my thoughts fell away, until only that remained. I’d come into this with no future at all - and even if Alice had set me with a task, I’d claimed it as my own. I’d bled for it. I’d suffered a second death for it.
Why? What did I want for myself? Not for Alice, not for Avani, and damn sure not for the fucker currently trying to get a feel of my ass.
I’d wanted a better life. I’d wanted something more than the piss-poor excuse of an existence I’d had.
And I wasn’t going to get it playing side bitch to a god well past his expiration date.
His lips brushed against mine.
My magic rose at my call, more instinctive than any sort of conscious decision. A thousand points of fire lit across my skin. I pushed out hard in the same instant, twisting.
Bark exploded from my skin, driving his hand from my back. Roots twined between each crack, writhing in a slippery mess of vines and tendrils.
For a moment, I felt his grip hold - and then I pulled myself free, stumbling back.
Zeus lurched, overbalanced. He caught himself, jerking his head up with a muted snarl. “Come, now,” he said, taking a step toward me. “You cannot expect me to surrender my pantheon to some uppity mortal stray.” His eyes flashed. “If you want to survive, come to heel.”
“Sorry,” I said, still staggering backward. Each step wobbled dangerously. These feet were not meant for this - and yet, I knew that I needed to get the hell out. Now. “I’m pretty sure I can beat your musty old mistress with my own two hands. Don’t really need to fuck my way to victory.”
His face was beet red, by then. I knew mine was no better, with my veins still full of adrenaline and my heart racing at a hundred miles an hour. “You’ll come crawling back,” he spat, stalking closer. “Don’t think we’ll let you waste this power you’ve been given on yourself. One way or another, girl, you’ll wind up-”
I turned and ran. Not my strongest moment, certainly, but I was well beyond pride. Somehow, I knew that Zeus catching me before I made the door would be very, very bad.
So I bolted toward the opening in the white-marble walls, seizing his moment of fury-wrought inattention.
His bellows echoed in my ears. Somewhere under my feet, the stone was rumbling, shifting. My pulse accelerated further.
The doorway shuddered. Something appeared from the shadows alongside it - another slab. A door. I tensed, pushing off hard, and-
A flash of shadow as the wall slipped by me, and I sailed out into the light. My heartbeat thundered in my ears. I skittered to a stop, coming to a halt right before the edge of the temple’s stairs. A pair stood at the bottom, straightening at the sight of me.
I took a deep breath, my eyes glued to them. Good. Safe.
Hearing footsteps echo across the plaza, I turned. Zeus stalked out of his temple, fury etched into every line of his face. Before he could say a word, I bowed.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t agree to those terms,” I said. My eyes were fixed down at the stone beneath me. Silence pressed in around the temple, thick and heavy. “If you would like to pull your head out of your ass and try again, you know where to find me.”
I turned, refusing to look up at him - but I heard the tiny, furious noise he made. You knew he wasn’t going to be helpful, I hissed to myself, forcing myself to stand straight, to start moving again. Just get out of here and keep moving.
When I started walking, started descending the almost-endless staircase down to my friends, my legs didn’t shake. I was proud of that.
But I felt his eyes lingering on the back of my neck the whole way down.