Fury of the Gods
THINGS GO WRONG.
Sometimes it’s from a small crack that crumbles the foundations. Sometimes it’s just a string of bad luck that ties into a truly horrific end.
Today was definitely the latter.
I lay on my back and blinked rapidly against the rain pounding down on me and pooling in the crater beneath my spine. My left hand throbbed in agony, broken again. I curled my right hand around it and used my magic to heal the bones. I’d had to do that twice already in this fight alone.
I could hear Selena fighting the Crocotta on the hill above me--alone--after it kicked its cloven hooves into my chest and knocked me down a hill.
Getting close to a Crocotta was never a good idea, but I hadn’t been having many of those lately.
And bad habits were easy to fall into.
Get up, Derek, my internal voice demanded. Have an existential crisis later.
Exactly the kind of thing Liam would have said.
After clasping my wounded hand and swiftly healing it, I rolled onto my stomach. Water soaked through my armor. I grimaced as my bruises throbbed. This Crocotta had not wanted to be disturbed but would settle for us being a late-night snack.
Being devoured by a twisted stag/hyena hybrid was not how I intended to end my day. The cursed thing had imitated a man’s cry for help, and I ran into the Crocotta’s trap without thinking.
Now, my fingers clawed up the slope. The toes of my boots sank into the muck. I slipped my way up, clamping my lips shut so as not to swallow more mud and finally dragged myself to the hilltop.
Everything ached as I took a moment to catch my breath. A moment that ended as soon as I heard the Crocotta scream.
Instinct kicked in and I rolled through the mud as fast as I could. The hooves stabbed down inches from my head, splashing my back with muck.
I twisted to my feet and called Ki̱demónas back to me. The spear responded to my telepathic call and struck my hand a split second later. The monster twisted to face me.
The Crocotta was a ruddy brown stag with patchy fur and a knobby spine. It had a shaggy, lion-like mane and cloven hooves. Its beady black eyes glowered at me and my weapon. Saliva dripped from its frightfully wide mouth, filled with a jagged bone ridge instead of teeth.
It growled, a jagged hitching noise, like a hyena trying to cough. It was amazing—and horrifying—that the same animal could mimic a human voice and even call out names perfectly when they chose to hunt.
Which they did often.
It pounced and I Adapted, sidestepping to the left. I jabbed Ki̱demónas into its hind legs. The Crocotta screeched as the steel tip pierced its thick hide. It twisted, yanking Ki̱demónas from my hands, as its front hooves kicked out. I leaned back and watched the split in its hooves pass my chin.
The Crocotta’s rear leg buckled, causing it to stagger on its right side. Selena snuck out from behind the Crocotta and slashed her kukri along its flank once, twice, three times, doing as much damage as she could.
I couldn’t help but grin, my heart reveling at the graceful, effortless, and brutal way Selena moved.
The Crocotta roared and twisted, kicking at her. She nimbly jumped back and lifted her free hand. Flames spooled out from her palm and struck the Crocotta in the face. As it reared back from the intense heat, Selena darted forward and chopped at its foreleg. It howled and leaped again to catch up with her.
I ran straight for its back.
Selena hurled a blast of fire at the Crocotta. It hunched its shoulder and took the blast against its arm rather than its face. It swiped at her with its hoof. The kick missed her, but it bounded through the mud and rammed its head in her stomach. She toppled backward, striking a boulder before her head slammed hard against the stone. The Crocotta opened its sneering, sliced-open mouth, leaping at her slumped, dazed form––
I Adapted my weight a split second before I slammed into the Crocotta. I made myself heavier and swung into the beast like a wrecking ball. It jolted but I hooked my hand onto the stark ridges in its spine. It wasn’t going to dislodge me; I was ready to end this fight.
The Crocotta wrenched its head left and right, but my magically added weight kept me from rag-dolling against its body. I centered that weight while pressing my back against its rough hide. I jabbed Ki̱demónas into its ear, pushing deep. The Crocotta howled and thrashed, nearly throwing me off. I held on but my grip slipped from the spear. I cursed and filled my free hand with aether. Maybe I’d have luck with the second, more dangerous element.
I swung my aether-filled hand up toward the Crocotta’s face. My palm brushed its bony fangs, leaving a trail of black, corrosive smoke along its snout. The dark magic crawled up its face, the smoky edges digging in like hooks. It howled in agony, twisting guilt into my heart, but I couldn’t let it live. With our friends vanished, Selena and I were each other’s only backup.
The Crocotta roared again, its face now engulfed by the thick black smoke. I sent a command to Ki̱demónas. Burn.
The spear, still embedded in the Crocotta’s ear canal, exploded to life. My flames brushed harmlessly against me. With my free hand, I closed my fingers against the Crocotta’s throat and summoned aether––
My left hand, the one I was using to hold onto the monster, exploded with pain. Invisible glass shards splintered through my flesh. I hissed and let go reflexively. My right hand scrambled to get another hold on its spine, just as the Crocotta kicked me in the side. Pain exploded through my hip and ribs. Something cracked uncomfortably.
Clapping a hand to my side to at least set the rib, I sent another quick thought to Ki̱demónas. The spear tore from the creature’s ear and flipped end over end. Seven feet of bronze and steel stabbed through the monster’s leg. I reached for Ki̱demónas again and watched as the Crocotta closed its ridged, bone-filled mouth over my arm.
Ridged bone crunched down on my elbow, crushing the joint and breaking skin. Blood gushed from the wound. A little more pressure, a little more tearing, and the arm was coming off.
I didn’t think about what I was doing. I slipped my broken left hand up and set it inside the Crocotta’s mouth. I pushed a block of aether into its throat and hardened it in place, cutting off its air. Every push of magic sent waves of pain onto my shattered fingers, but I couldn’t lose my arm.
My left hand turned slippery from saliva and blood. The creature widened its jaws, freeing my right arm. I commanded Ki̱demónas and whip quick, it flipped from my hand and smashed through the Crocotta’s skull, puncturing deep. The monster’s coal-colored eyes rolled into the back of its head. I jumped away from the Crocotta as it collapsed.
I tucked my broken hand into my chest, trying not to think about the jagged pain within it as I looked at the monster. It had fallen on its side, its one undamaged eye glazed and lifeless, and its body entirely still. Even the rain seemed lighter now.
We survived, remained mostly unharmed, and were absolutely filthy. A winning outcome, all things considered.
Selena stumbled through the long grass toward me, one hand pressed against her skull. I covered my left hand with my right––wincing at the pull of raw cuts at the fold of my arm––and healed it again.
“Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” she muttered, wincing when she moved her hand. There didn’t seem to be any blood or swelling, which I was grateful for. She looked more angry than pained. Her eyes turned to me, noting the blood on my arm. “Gods.”
“Looks worse than it feels,” I half-lied.
She hurried over to me and pressed her fingers to my arm just below the wound. It stung, but my arm swiftly filled with soothing, healing magic.
“Thanks. Didn’t expect a Crocotta to be here.” Though to be fair, we’d wandered into the wilds of Yosemite National Park. Artemis’s region. A huge risk for anyone, given how many creatures roamed free in that verdant territory, but more so for me, since Artemis likely wanted me dead for a crime I hadn’t––
My hand splintered again. I hissed.
Finished with my arm, Selena wrapped her fingers around my hand and healed it again. Her eyes flitted to the creature.
I tilted forward slightly to peer into her face, seeing the shadows on it. Her ponytail, soaked and caked in mud, rested heavily against her back. Her pale face glistened under the coat of rainwater, and her silver-blue eyes were just as stormy as the clouds above us. She’d dropped her kukris somewhere and didn’t seem to care about the smears of mud and grime on her neck, chin, and leather combat uniform.
“It’s not here,” she finally muttered. “All of this, crossing paths with a Crocotta that nearly concussed me and almost maimed you, and it’s not godsdamned here.”
It being the Helm of Darkness—the last of the three Trinity Weapons we had been tasked to find by the Olympians. There were still two more Cronus Shards to find, but we figured that finding the Helm took priority. Recovering the last key to Tartarus was the best way to ensure that the mad Titan himself, Cronus, couldn’t escape his prison.
Not that we needed to look anymore, to be honest. I was on the outs with the Olympians. They believed I murdered two of their own: Poseidon and Apollo. Sneaking into Artemis’s territory had been a huge risk—if we were caught, she would have my head on a spike.
Never mind that my forefather had lied to her—possibly even mentioned I was the Bringer of Shadow and Fire, the leader of an army bent on destroying the world when the Titans were released.
Olympians only saw things their way. Half their legends were born from their stubbornness and pettiness. The myths had been true.
But I couldn’t say these things out loud. I could barely think them, because Ares had hexed me. Every time I tried to speak the truth, my left hand would break.
At first, it didn’t seem like a debilitating curse. Painful? Absolutely. I’d had more than a few broken bones in my twenty-five years of life, so I was accustomed to pain and could use magic to heal.
But the hex was changing. My hand would break on its own at completely random times, and that sharp explosion of pain would drastically hinder me in combat. I was ambidextrous, but the pain caused a split second of distraction and hesitation. A split second meant the difference between surviving and maiming. The hex was becoming slow poison putting mine and Selena’s lives in danger.
And I wasn’t the only one who’d been cursed.
Selena had endured a two-thousand-year-old curse because she did not want to bed Apollo. At the time, Selena had been known as Cassandra, Princess of Troy. Not only were her visions doomed to never be believed, but he cursed her with immortality. Everything she Saw became muddled and skewed. It led us into situations like these, where she was certain she had Seen the Helm’s hiding spot, only to be greeted by a hungry Crocotta instead.
Selena blamed herself for the position we found ourselves in, but I never had. How could I, after the choices I had made?
“We’ll find it,” I promised her. We had to, because what else were we going to do? We couldn’t get our friends back, and there was no way to exonerate me, even if I had an extremely powerful Farseer and two goddesses on my side. Zeus’ decrees were law and he would never admit to making a mistake.
Selena’s gaze stayed on my hand, our intertwined fingers. My broken bones were long since healed. I wondered at her thoughts. Before I could ask, she sighed.
“We should go.”
I didn’t argue with her. Since learning about her past and how Athena tricked and betrayed her, Selena had become closed off. It didn’t help that her friends––and mine––were missing. We trusted and cared for each other, but I told her the truth about my feelings. Namely, that I loved her.
We hadn’t spoken about it, and neither of us seemed keen to. We talked as friends, and we didn’t touch unless we had to. When we needed healing or brushed against each other quickly turning around a corridor. I wouldn’t push for anything, either. Finding a way to clear my name and help my captive friends mattered more than finding a girlfriend.
But my memory so often betrayed me, and I thought about those moments back when things had been normal and Selena lived with Liam and me. We’d watched movies until she fell asleep against my chest. She’d curled her fingers around my arms or chest when I stood in the way of something she wanted to reach. She grinned as we sparred, eyes bright with challenge and ambition.
She kissed me to save my life.
I wanted to go back to those things, to feel her comfortable against me, curling my arms around her so we could be closer. I wanted to use my height to tease her until I could kiss her frustration away. I wanted to make her laugh and kiss her for the sake of it, not just because I was charmed or dying.
One day, we’d have to face this question. And if she wanted to remain friends, I would step back.
Right now, I just missed normality. Things were different now between us, distant and unsure, but I could no sooner change my feelings than I could tell the Olympians that Ares was manipulating them.
“Yeah,” I conceded, glancing at my blood- and mud-soaked body. “I’m ready for a shower.”
Selena just nodded and followed me as we trod through the forest, saying little.
It had been this way for three months, both of us silent and moving straight forward, trying not to think about the four people missing from our lives.
The nervous transporter. The wealthy and flirtatious heir to Zeus. The ex-con-turned-sea-goddess. The sharp-witted, loyal little brother.
We hadn’t heard anything about them, making these past three months agonizing. Even my blood bond with Liam remained silent. I only heard updates through Athena’s spies in the Zeus region.
They were alive. But they were with the Council of Clouds.
If anything, they were in more danger than we were.
Fighting monsters was one thing. Fighting gods…?
It would take a miracle to win. And the Olympians rarely traded in miracles.