Scarlet Thread 3 New Chapters
Last night I finished 3 NEW chapters of Scarlet Thread and updated “part one” to “book one” – it now ends in a better place, and the adventure will continue in book two (The Golden Shears).
If you read part one already, here are the new chapters! If you haven’t read part one already, you should really read it first or this part isn’t going to make sense. You can get it on Amazon (it’s 99cents today but going up to 2.99 in a few days).
PS) These may be a little rough, if you spot any typos please let me know in the comments so I can fix them.
Sitri grabbed me and practically carried me back to my room. I tried to walk, but my legs were trembling—adrenaline was still pumping through my body. The smell of burning feathers seemed to follow me. I wondered if it was in my clothes, and the thought made my skin crawl.
“Stay here!” Sitri said, shoving me inside. He ordered four torches to guard my door. When I tried to leave, they crossed their long, dark swords and blocked my path. Was I a prisoner now?
I couldn’t stop thinking about Puriel. Why didn’t he kill me when he had the chance? Why had he caught on fire like that? I was desperate to talk to Sitri or Able—I knew they’d have answers. From the window of my room, I could see the torches begin cleaning up the wreckage from the house, and carrying out the bodies—long shapes wrapped in white sheets, with black stains I now knew was torch blood. I was most worried about Matt and Priya. The slash across Matt’s chest looked lethal, and the last I saw of Priya she was nearly unconscious. I wondered how many others were injured. Being stuck in my room was driving me crazy. I should be out there, helping.
An hour passed before I realized I still had Able’s invisibility cap—I’d stuck it in my pocket after confronting Puriel. Maybe it took that long to calm down after my near-death experience and start thinking clearly again. That’s when I realized the full significance of what had happened.
A few days ago I’d had a vision of Matt’s death. I saw the sword sticking out of his beastly chest, blood gurgling from his lips. The golden sword, glittering with blue jewels; the crown that symbolized Zeus’s kingdom shining like a beacon in the darkness. All of Zeus’s winged army had swords like that—hunters, created to rid the world of magic.
In the past, every time I had a vision of someone’s death, it came true. But this time was different. When hunters broke in through the ceiling like bolts of lightning, it was my death they were after. I couldn’t let Matt die for me. And I also couldn’t bring myself to use the shotgun and sword Sitri had given me, like I was supposed to. Not when I saw Puriel. His tall, muscular body. His amber eyes and nearly white hair. The shimmering mirrored wings behind him. How could I destroy something that beautiful? I didn’t want any more violence. I just wanted it to stop. I didn’t have a plan, but in that moment, I thought I was going to die.
Instead, Puriel burst into flames, and Matt lived. Which means, my visions don’t have to come true. Which means, I might not be the monster everyone always thought I was. This realization made my heart pound with excitement. My world seemed to grow larger with all the new possibilities. If what I saw didn’t have to come true, that meant I could warn people. Save people. Like I’d wanted to save my brother.
But I why did Puriel hesitate? Why not destroy me like Zeus ordered him to? He’d become a torch, cast off from Zeus’s favor. After serving obediently for thousands of years. How could that have happened?
I had to find out. I snuck through the bathroom into Sitri’s room and opened the door cautiously. With the cap on I stuck my head out to peek at the torches guarding my room. The floorboard creaked when I took my first step and I froze as two torches whipped their heads towards me. I thought my heart was beating loud enough for them to hear it, but after a moment they faced forward again like marble statues. I waited until their dark robes were perfectly still before walking down the hall and turning the corner.
Most of the mansion was empty. I was surprised there wasn’t more damage. It seemed the attack was focused only on the upstairs floors—as if they knew exactly where I would be. I heard voices and followed them to the second level, where I found Eligor addressing a small group of torches.
“The threat was neutralized quickly—ten hunters drew attention away from the main building by starting skirmishes around the defensive barrier, just as four breached the top floor. Two lost their lives immediately. Apparently they didn’t expect to find Stephanie there, or underestimated her power. The third was killed soon after. The fourth, captured.”
“Is it true the fourth hunter fell?” someone asked. There were murmurs when Eligor nodded. He held a hand up and continued.
“I don’t know what it means yet, nor should we be overly curious. We should also not assume, now fallen, he will join our ranks—the fate of the intruder will be decided by Able and the masters of Nevah, and we will accept their decision without question. For now, he’s being held in the dungeon until decisions are made. We should also not assume the threat is over. Zeus’s army didn’t get what they came for, this time. They will undoubtedly strike again soon with double the force. Be vigilant.”
What they came for… my skin prickled as I realized he was talking about me. It wasn’t over. They’d come back, and more people could die next time.
Eligor gave instructions and the torches left to carry them out. He hesitated when we were alone, his fingers reaching up for the hilt of his sword, and looked at the place where I was standing. But then he left and I was alone.
I wandered lower and lower into the house until I found a room I hadn’t been in before. In the corner was a descending spiral staircase made of large rectangular slabs of stone. I followed it down into a sublevel of the complex, which looked practically medieval. Furnaces and fireplace cast a glowing light between large sections of inky darkness.
I went down a long hall full of canned goods and emergency supplies. It looked like Nevah had enough food and supplies stockpiled to last a hundred years. I shuddered as I passed a room full of hooks, chains and complex devices I hoped weren’t tools of torture. Finally, after exploring a dozen labyrinthine passageways, I found a row of thick iron doors with tiny barred windows. I peeked in the rooms until I found Puriel.
I could barely see him in the dark. His pale, white body made him look like a ghost, surrounded by walls of solid concrete. Ash and soot stuck to his skin in dark patches, and he smelled like singed hair and burnt feathers. I heard the grating noise of heavy chains being dragged across the stone floor and noticed that the dark cuffs around his neck and wrists were fixed to the wall.
I gasped when he looked up. His eyes were black sockets—gaping voids of desolation and heartbreak. The beautiful creature Puriel had been was gone, and the figure before me was ruin incarnate. His eyes sparked like glowing coals—furious patches of bright orange that burned in the darkness of the room. He moaned, straining against his restraints, his muscles tensed as he reached towards the door. Towards me.
I choked back a sob at the thing he’d become.
I found a set of skeleton keys hanging on a hook several doors down, and turned each one until I felt the lock click.
“It’s you, isn’t it?” Puriel said as the door creaked open. His eyes darted across the cell. I realized he still couldn’t see me. I stepped into the far corner of the room, out of his reach, and removed Able’s invisibility cap.
“Come to torment me further? Survey your handiwork?” he said bitterly.
“I didn’t mean for this to happen to you. Whatever this is… I was just trying to save my friend.”
“And that’s exactly why I fell. A cruel trick. A mean trick. But so what, it’s over now. I’m here, a prisoner without purpose, without hope, condemned forever to waste away in suffering and darkness.”
“Why were you after me? I’ve never done anything to you. You chased me from JDRI. Then you followed me here,” I accused. “Why?”
“I don’t ask why. My Lord commands and I obey.”
“You mean Zeus?” I asked. Everything Able told me had been true.
““Zeus is his pagan name,” he spat. “We use his Latin name, Deus. The one true king. Pure goodness and perfection. My maker and master. Whom I have faithfully served since he gave me life. Until today, when I failed him.”
“Failed him, by not killing me?”
Puriel nodded, then sank his face in his hands. My fingers dragged against the rough stone wall behind me as I waited for him to speak again.
“I hesitated, because I thought I saw goodness in you, and it made me doubt. Now I understand that you are the worst kind of evil. The kind that thinks they are good, but doesn’t know any better. You lie so perfectly I saw no trace of deceit or malice in you. Only innocence, kindness, courage—”
“Zeus is the evil one,” I said. “He slaughtered his own family. Able told me all about it.”
“Able,” Puriel repeated with a sad smile, “has told you nothing but lies. Even the name he’s given himself, it sounds so ordinary. So innocuous. It hides the truth of what he really is.”
“And what is he?” I asked nervously.
“He has many names. Father of Lies. Prince of Darkness. Ruler of the Underworld. In French he’s called Le Diable.”
My knees trembled as the word resonated in the small cell. I’d heard those titles before… but they didn’t make any sense here. Those were names for the devil. What did that have to do with Greek mythology? My stomach twisted in knots as I realized Puriel was telling the truth. Le Diable—Able. I’d dined with the devil and didn’t even know it. Suddenly, everything clicked into place. The hunters could fly and had wings. They served their almighty lord with pure obedience.
“You’re an angel,” I said, breathlessly.
“Some humans call us that,” he said. “We prefer the term seraphim. We burn with the inexhaustible energy of Deus, like mirrors reflecting his power and glory.” He looked down at his hands in wonder, turning them over slowly. “I was seraphim. Now I am nothing. Cast out. Defective. A broken vessel. Yesterday I could have melted through these chains.”
I felt sorry for him, even though he had been trying to kill me. In a twisted way, he’d sacrificed himself to save me. Even if he hadn’t done it on purpose, and even if he was regretting it now, I still felt a twinge of responsibility. My head was spinning as I reached for the door handle. I was overcome with confusing emotions, and the stone walls of the cramped space felt like they were closing in. My throat tightened and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I had to get out of here.
“Deus does not explain himself to the seraphim,” he said quietly as I was leaving, “nor do we try to understand his will. But I can share what he called you, the name he used when he gave the order. Deicidium. From Deus, meaning god and cidium, which means cutting. In English, it would translate as godkiller. You should ask Able, when you see him again, why you’re really here.”
I retraced my footsteps until I found my way back upstairs. I wondered if anybody even knew I was missing yet. My head felt like it was going to explode. In every story I’d ever heard, angels were the good guys. And one just tried to kill me.
Able told me stories about the Greek Parthenon. He’d hinted that some of the gods of Olympus were still harbored at Nevah, rather than just heirs and descendants. But which ones? And who was who? Most importantly, whose house was I really in, and was I even safe here? After what I’d learned from Puriel, I wasn’t sure who I could trust anymore.
There was one room where I’d find answers. It took me awhile to find it—the house was a maze that almost seemed to shift around. But finally I noticed the gleam of blue light under a door at the end of a dark corridor, and entered the room where I’d seen the massive indoor temple. Inside, the giant statues stood just as I’d left them, surrounding the glowing tree. Only this time I looked closely at their faces.
The last time I’d been in here, I still thought of these as mythical archetypes. Imaginary legends. But if Zeus was real, not to mention trying to kill me, the other figures in this room could be real, too. I realized each statue had a small marker in glowing blue letters. I could have sworn they were in Greek the first time I was here, but now I could read them clearly.
Athena and Hera, I’d never met. Zeus’s head was missing but he wouldn’t be at Nevah anyway. Able said that Zeus had killed Poseidon and Apollo, and Athena had treacherously defeated Ares. I found their statues, and noticed this time that freshly cut flowers—roses and irises—had been placed in vases in front of them. The sweetly floral scent made me light headed.
Opposite Zeus, towering above the door I’d come through but hidden in shadows, was a statue of Hades that I hadn’t noticed last time. Though the statue was sporting luxuriously curled locks of hair and a heavy beard, it had more than a passing resemblance to Able.
To his right was Persephone, goddess of the spring, and the wife of Hades. A dead-ringer for Stephanie. Heph was Hephaestus, the smithing god, son of Zeus and Hera. Mist was Artemis, goddess of the moon and the hunt—twin sister of Apollo. Dion was Dionysus, god of wine; Tori was Aphrodite, goddess of love. I even found Sam—Zeus’s youngest son and Apollo’s little brother Hermes, messenger of the gods, with wings on his feet and helmet.
It was so obvious. I felt stupid for not figuring it out sooner. I didn’t see Alice or Sitri. The last statue was Demeter, with flowing robes and holding a cornucopia. From what I remembered of Greek mythology, she was a nature goddess and Persephone’s mother. So there they were. The gods of Olympus. Four were dead, three were out to kill me, and I’d been living with the remaining seven for the past week.
I felt the hair rise on my arms and I shivered. This room felt several degrees cooler than the rest of the house. I heard breathing and realized someone was behind me. I spun around just as Able started speaking.
“There were only twelve actual Olympians, as I’m sure you knew. Living on their holy mountain, cut off from the real world. They didn’t count Stephanie and I. We preferred to live among the humans. By the way, you can’t hide from me. It is my invisibility cap after all. Hand it back please.”
Able looked guarded, as if he was expecting me to refuse. I saw his muscles tense under his navy jacket. He looked flawless as always, with his polished black shoes and tailored white shirt—like he’d just gotten off a yacht somewhere. But after what I’d seen Stephanie do to those two torches, I knew I had no chance of resisting him. I slowly took the cap off and handed it back with trembling fingers. I tried to keep my face from betraying my fear. I knew challenging him was stupid, and I should keep my mouth shut… but I was tired of secrets.
“You lied to me,” I accused. “You’re Hades. Lord of the Underworld.”
“I’ve told you nothing but the truth since you got here,” Able sighed, running a hand through his hair. He seemed disappointed with me, like I was a slow student and he’d reached the end of his rope.
“Should I have used the name my enemy gave me, a name he spent thousands of years dragging through the mud, trying to turn me into something I’m not?”
“You deny it? That you’re the devil? Evil incarnate?” My eyes flicked to his forehead to check for horns. He noticed and rolled his eyes.
“Those are just words. I’m as much pure evil as Zeus is pure good—a myth he keeps trying to get humans to believe. Each individual is only as good or evil as the choices they make, and the people they hurt.”
“But why lie about it? Why not just tell me the truth from the beginning?”
“What would you do if people only referred to you in derogatory nomenclatures. Bitch. Slut. Whore. They’ve called Tori these and worse. Would you accept their opinions of you as truth? Or try to prove them wrong? I find it’s easier for people to get to know me if they don’t already have all of that propaganda in their ears.”
My lips moved but I couldn’t think of anything to say. I couldn’t believe this conversation was even happening. Able continued when I didn’t respond.
“Lord of the Underword? I never wanted that job. We drew lots. Zeus got the sky, Poseidon got the sea, and I got the earth, and what’s below it. And I’m pretty sure Zeus cheated. It’s been my job to care for humanity, both the living and the dead—but I did it my way. Quietly. When Zeus decided to clean up his image and wield universal power by destroying all other sources of magic, he turned me into a monster. All gods and heirs became devils and demons. All of our gifts became suspect. Miraculous healings, objects of power, special abilities—every time we tried to help the humans, Zeus’s hunters, or sometimes the humans themselves, would destroy our best work.”
“So you rebelled,” I said.
“If you mean, when Zeus tried to murder his entire family so he could become sole arbiter of power, I offered them protection and shelter, yes I rebelled. And I’d do it again in a heartbeat. One third of Zeus’s own army, which he’d built to have unquestionable loyalty, still turned away from him and sided with us. You think it would be anywhere near that number if there hadn’t been truth in our cause? His own army refused him.”
My temple was throbbing. The devil was defending himself to me, and I was starting to believe him. Able’s arguments made sense, but I was still wary. Under his carefully polished image, the designer clothes and trimmed beard, I could sense how powerful he was, and something else—how much he wanted me to trust him. He was practically desperate for my approval. But that didn’t make any sense. What would the devil need from me?
“Why did you really bring me here?” I asked. I realized too late I was repeating Puriel’s words exactly. “What do you want from me, from my abilities?”
There was a long pause as Able considered my question. The flickering blue lights in the room made his features slip around his face, like a mask that was about to fall off.
“Why do you think I brought you here?” he asked finally.
“Puriel called me Deicidium. Is that why I’m here? To kill Zeus?”
He looked confused for a moment.
“Puriel—you mean the hunter? You know its name? You spoke with him?” Able’s last sentence boomed in the cavernous space and the rivers of blue light crackled with energy. Able clenched his fist and took a deep breath.
“I need a drink,” he said, massaging his forehead. He spun and left the room, leaving me behind him. Without his presence, the marble statues seemed ominous and disapproving. I hesitated before following after him. I had the impulse to run, and get as far away from this place as possible. But I also needed answers. Able didn’t seem to have any intention of hurting me. Unlike Zeus, who was obviously not trying to be my friend. For the moment, I seemed safer here than anywhere else. I found Able in his office and watched him pour two glasses full of whiskey. He offered one to me, then drank the other in one gulp.
In Able’s cozy office my anxiety lessened. Able still looked like a handsome college professor, at home with his books. No horns, no tail, no pitchfork. I’d never believed in that kind of devil anyway, why start now?
Able sank into his leather couch and leaned back. I took a seat in one of the cushioned antique chairs with ornately carved armrests. The red leather felt cool against my back. I took a sip of the whiskey and it burned my throat. Suddenly I felt exhausted. I realized I’d been running on adrenaline for several hours. I was still wearing the hooded sweatshirt I’d put on to meet Stephanie, but it smelled like sweat.
“I brought you here,” Able said slowly, holding my gaze with his dark, stormy eyes, “because Zeus was trying to kill you. Just like he killed Poisedon, our brother; my nephews Apollo and Ares; and thousands of others. I brought you here so you’d be safe, just like all of the others I’ve taken under my protection. Am I also curious about you, about what you can do for us, about why my brother fears you enough to attack my household directly, for the first time in over a thousand years? Yes, obviously, and I won’t apologize for it.” He poured another glass of whiskey, and this time swirled the amber liquid in the glass before taking a sip. Then he took a deep breath and leaned back in his chair.
“I have a duty to all the inhabitants of Nevah, and having you here puts them in danger. For now, at the very least, I’m keeping you away from Zeus until we figure out why you’re so important to him. So I sincerely hope you’ll do us a favor, and next time they come for you, you’ll do as I say and stay hidden.”
“You think they’ll come back? Try again… for me?” I shuddered. First Zeus sent Puriel, alone, to JDRI. This time, according to Eligor, he’d sent at least fourteen hunters after me. What if next time it was one hundred? A thousand? I couldn’t imagine that kind of force tearing through Nevah.
“Yes, and soon,” Able said, confirming my fears.
“But why keep me here at all? If I’m putting people at risk, why not send me away?”
“Because,” Able said, “until we know exactly what you’re capable of or why Zeus is so interested in you, you may be more dangerous to us dead than alive.”
I gulped, trying to make sense of that statement. Able was keeping me alive because Zeus was trying to kill me—and if Zeus wanted me dead, that meant I was a threat to him, somehow. So Able was trying to use me. Keeping me alive until he figured out what I could do for him.
But so what? If I had to pick sides, shouldn’t I pick the side that was motivated to keep me alive? My brain was getting fuzzy as the whiskey relaxed me. Even my eyelids were starting to feel heavy and I blinked to keep them open.
“I’m going to sleep,” I said suddenly, putting my empty glass down on the table. “I need some time to process all of this.”
Able looked surprised and raised his eyebrows.
“You’re staying?” he said, appraising me with interest. “Even after knowing what I am? Most people would be plotting their escape.” There was a touch of sadness in his eyes. I imagined what it would be like, trying to protect and take care of humanity when they treated you like a monster.
“Am I a prisoner?” I asked.
“I won’t force you to stay, even though allowing you to leave could cost us the war.”
“But I’m safer here, surrounded by torches, than I would be out there on my own, right?”
“Then we can talk again in the morning.”
I stood up to leave but paused at the door.
“Why Able?” I asked. “Is it just because it’s short for Diable?”
“Partly. And also because it refers to possibility and action, being able to do something. But mainly, I chose it from the biblical story. Cain is usually called the first murderer, who killed his brother out of jealousy. Able is the righteous victim, who does nothing to deserve the violence against him. But in my relationship with my brother Zeus, he is the one who killed his brother, not me. Then he killed his own sons. He is more like Cain than I will ever be.”
The torches were still in front of my door when I reached my room. They nodded at me in acknowledgment, but their frowns let me know they weren’t happy I’d given them the slip. I hoped they wouldn’t get in any trouble for not keeping better track of me. The door to the bathroom was open and Sitri was in there, trying to wash his back with a damp rag.
“There you are,” he said with relief. “I went looking for you. I heard you talking with Able in his office so I figured you were safe. Are you okay?”
He put a hand on my shoulder and his blue eyes shone with concern. I wished I could melt into him and let him wrap his arms around me. At JDRI I’d always been the strong one—keeping my skin covered up. Closing myself off. Learning to push down the grief over losing my brother, and then being abandoned by my parents. I’d been strong for Jesse, for Sarah. But now I felt like I was unraveling.
I grabbed the damp rag from Sitri and wiped it across his back. I gasped when I saw the rag turn red—deep cuts marred his skin and there were bruises along his arms. I’d almost forgotten he’d been fighting today. Fighting to protect me.
“Can’t Alice heal you?” I asked.
“She’s got her hands full. Most of the beds in the infirmary are taken. I’ve been down there helping her patch people up.”
“How’s Matt? Priya? The other heirs? Did they attack the camp too?
“Injured, but they’ll heal. Most heirs heal quickly, using their own energy. The torches aren’t so lucky. Those that weren’t killed will need several days of rest before their wounds close. They have no energy to draw on, so Alice shares hers.”
“She can do that?”
“Alice is strong. Much stronger than me. Her Greek name is Aceso. Asclepius was her father. She’s Apollo’s granddaughter.”
I rinsed the blood out in the sink with hot water, then cleaned the deep cuts as gently as I could. I could feel the warmth of Sitri’s skin, and his scent was intoxicating. While Able smelled like whiskey, leather and cigars, Sitri smelled like pine needles, the earth after a summer rain and something exotic—like a spice I wasn’t familiar with. He’d brought some tape and bandages from downstairs, so I dried him off with a towel and started to cover his wounds. I blushed as I ran my gloved fingertips over his warm skin. Then I pulled away, before he realized I’d already finished bandaging him. When I glanced up I caught him looking at me in the mirror, and my blush deepened. I said goodnight awkwardly and returned to my room.
Even though I was exhausted, it took a while to fall asleep, especially with Sitri in the next room, and the doors open between us. My bed felt too large, the space beside me too empty. The scent of him was still caught in my nostrils. It grounded me. Thinking about Sitri kept me from thinking about all the other things that were fighting for my attention, like the fact that there was an angel in a cell downstairs that had tried to kill me… and how I’d destroyed him.
The next morning, the house was quiet and still. I’d washed my gloves and let them dry overnight. The leather felt soft and cool as I slipped them on. I grabbed a clean white shirt and a beige cardigan, and made my way to the dining room. The impressive breakfast feast looked like it had barely been touched. For the first time I wondered where all this food came from, and who prepared it. After two cups of strong coffee my head was clear and I felt more optimistic than I had last night.
Even though yesterday was a disaster, one thing gave me hope. Matt was still alive. Had my vision been wrong? Or, having seen it, had we prevented it? If so, could I prevent other deaths, by warning more people—by warning everyone? If Zeus was going to keep coming after me, I could at least give Able’s family a chance to protect themselves. Forewarned is forearmed. I couldn’t shake my conversation with Puriel, however. With the exception of Mist, most of the inhabitants of Nevah had been kind to me. But what if they were just using me for something? How could I tell whether I was on the right side of things? Was Able really protecting me? Or recruiting me?
It was still early. Outside the light was dim and there was a white fog surrounding the main house. I could barely make out the tall pine trees that led towards the camp. Since nobody else was around, I decided to go check on Matt. I heard laughter and the tinkling of water from the central fountain before I entered the infirmary. I felt uplifted as soon as I entered. Sitri was right, Alice was generous with her power—the whole room felt charged with energy. Sitri was telling a story, waving his hands, and Alice was laughing. She turned and smiled at me. Not for the first time, I wondered if they were together—then I felt guilty, remembering how I’d helped bandage him up yesterday. Even though nothing had happened, it seemed intimate. For me at least.
Priya was sitting next to Matt’s bed, reading a book. Her blue dress brought out the richness of her dark skin. Matt’s whole chest was wrapped in white bandages. He smiled when he saw me, and Priya turned her head in my direction. Then she jumped up and pulled me into a tight hug that took my breath away.
“Since he can’t hug you yet, I need to do it for the both of us. I was barely conscious, but I saw what you did. I’ll never be able to thank you enough.”
“I didn’t do anything,” I said. “You two were incredible, fighting with the torches. I could never have done that.”
“All we did was slow them down,” Priya said. “And I’ve got the bruises to prove it.” She lifted up her shirt and showed me ugly purple bruises around her ribs.
“But you,” Matt said, looking at me in wonder, “You made one fall.”
“I didn’t do it on purpose,” I said. “I don’t even know what I did, exactly.”
“If you figure it out,” Sitri said, joining us, “please let us know. We could really use it. Imagine if we could make more hunters turn away from Zeus. Or all of them.”
“But seriously, thank you,” Priya continued. “You were amazing. That moment, when you appeared out of nowhere, weaponless, palms open, putting yourself between a hunter’s blade and Matt… it was the bravest, most impressive thing I’ve ever seen.” Priya’s dark eyes were filled with emotion, and it made my own eyes water.
“It was also reckless, and incredibly stupid,” Sitri cut in, frowning. “Especially with everyone fighting to protect you.”
“And yet nonetheless heroic,” Alice corrected, coming up behind him and giving him a look with her gray eyes. “The whole camp is buzzing about it. I think Sam is already writing a song about it. The girl who, with her innocence and beauty, stopped the vengeful sword… or something along those lines.”
“We owe you a debt,” Matt said.
“If you’ll excuse us,” Sitri said to the others, “there’s something I’d like to show Kaidance.” He nodded towards the door and I followed him outside.
We turned right, down a well-worn path I hadn’t explored before. Instead of heading into the trees like the path to camp, this one led over the hill to a flat, rocky area and wove between some large boulders. As we climbed higher I could see Nevah spread out behind me—the massive mansion, the amphitheater, and what looked like a sculpted garden. It looked so luxurious and European, I had to keep reminding myself that I was still in Washington state. Somewhere past the tall pine trees that surrounded the estate were ordinary small towns. Gas stations and diners. Schools and hospitals. I felt like I’d fallen off the face of reality and gotten lost in history.
We pushed forward over the top of the hill. Sitri paused and let me take in the view of the other side. It took a minute to fully comprehend what I was seeing. The ground was flat and rocky, and spread out into a wide plain. But just below us was an enormous dark circle. At first I thought it was a lake, or the shadow of the moon. Then I figured out it was just a big hole. A perfectly round hole of epic proportions, with straight walls that disappeared into the earth.
“What is it?” I asked. “A sinkhole?”
“It’s where the torches live,” Sitri said. “They are sensitive to light. When they first fell, they lived in caves, which they dug and expanded. They became experienced miners and traded gems and gold with the humans. When Able moved his family here, he gave them this land and they built this.”
We walked down closer to the hole. It was so big I couldn’t have thrown a rock to the other side. Even when we were right at the edge, looking down, I couldn’t see the bottom. Four spiral staircases, carved into the walls of the opening, started from each quarter and spun downwards. Far below, lanterns lit up the dark abyss. Most of the walls were smooth, but there were patches of raised relief carvings and decorations. I guessed they were historical scenes, similar to Able’s skull carvings but on a massive scale.
“They live here?” I asked. “Isn’t it a bit… austere?” Compared to the over-the-top luxury of Able’s house, or even the camp’s comfortable forest village, this place seemed like a less than optimal choice.
“They live simply. Like monks, or a hive almost. Ants maybe. They practice restraint and moderation. They train and fight together. They consider their fall as a kind of rebirth, a baptism of fire. They seek purpose and meaning, through service to Able.”
Sitri started down the stairs and I followed him. We walked through cavernous hallways, magnificently sculpted out of the bedrock. They were lit up by flickering candles and oil lanterns.
Down further, the ceiling opened up into chamber that felt like a cathedral, with a high domed ceiling and meticulously painted walls. It was packed with torches, several hundred of them at least. Their ash-blonde hair stood out from their dark robes. It was a ceremony of some kind. I could smell incense, and heard the periodic chime of a very small bell, with a sweet, high-pitched ring.
Then I saw the bodies—laid out on tall slabs of rock. This was a funeral. The ceremony was conducted in silence. I watched as torches stepped forward and placed a flower, or a small keepsake next to the body in silence. Private remembrances. Eligor was standing in front of the chapel. When nobody else stepped forward, he nodded to several torches next to him. They pushed the slabs of stone into deep holes that had been cut straight into the rock, slid capstones over the holes, and then filled the seams with wet clay.
“Why did you bring me here?” I asked Sitri.
“It’s easy to forget, near Alice. Pain and suffering seem to disappear. People get better. They heal. Only torches died this time. For most of the heirs, the torches are expendable. Able keeps them around precisely for his purpose, to redeem themselves by defending Nevah. But they are also individuals. Each one unique, with stories from a thousand life times— roaming the earth to find pockets of magic, and protect them from Zeus’s hunters. They’ve fought hundreds of battles for what they believed in. What I mean is, just because it was a torch doesn’t mean their death doesn’t matter.”
His words hit me like a slap and I took a sharp intake of breath. “You think I don’t care about them? That I don’t realize it’s my fault they died? The hunters came for me. These torches died protecting me. I get it. But thanks for the reminder, I guess I wasn’t feeling shitty enough already.” I turned and started walking back the way we came.
“That’s not what I meant,” Sitri frowned, catching up to me. “I didn’t mean that this was your fault. It’s not your fault. I just wanted you to see them. The hunters are beautiful, powerful, strong. It’s easy to see them as good. Torches are just the opposite. With their scarred skin and smoldering eyes, humans find them monstrous. When a hunter and a torch approach a root—someone who is magic but doesn’t know it yet—the human will assume the torch is trying to hurt them, and the hunter trying to save them. Even when it’s the other way around.”
“That’s why you came for me,” I said, realization dawning. I wondered how I would have reacted if Eligor came for me first, his red-hot eyes glowing from the darkness. Sitri, on the other hand, looked human. Movie-star handsome, maybe, but not supernaturally distinct.
I looked again at the torches we passed. I’d gotten used to their appearance, but that didn’t make them less startling. We hadn’t seen many on the way down, but now they were on both sides of the path. Almost like they were lining up for us. I noticed several of them were staring at me. When I met their eyes, they gave me a slight nod. Almost a subtle bow.
“It’s because of what happened,” Sitri whispered to me. “They’re kind of in awe of you.”
“Of me? Why?” I picked up the pace, taking larger strides forward. Being underground was creeping me out. I needed to get outside.
“Hunters don’t fall very often. And never like that. Almost everyone here fell at the same time, when Zeus ordered them to kill his own family. Their faith stemmed from the belief that he was good. When his commands went against their conscience, they shorted out. But a few fall gradually. Some spend too much time with humans, or read too much literature, listen to the wrong conversations, or even enjoy music or food too much. It only takes a moment. A sudden realization, the smallest doubt. Some fall for love. They start families, and live a human life for a while… until they watch everyone they know grow old and die.”
“Hunters were formed to live forever—even without Zeus’s energy they hardly age. Eventually, when they’ve exhausted all human experiences, many make their way here and devote themselves to service, just for a sense of purpose.”
“Others give in to guilt, regret and despair. They refuse to serve any new master, and instead become desperados. Vigilantes. Hunting out what they consider to be evil, trying to get Zeus to forgive them and take them back. They continue the mission, unguided, unaided, hoping for redemption. Hunting out all magical creatures and killing them, because it was the last command they were given by their master. They take a finger as proof of their kill, and have necklaces full of the rotting bones of their victims.”
“That’s awful,” I said.
“It gets worse. Once close to a source of magic, many find the temptation too strong to resist, and take the magic for themselves.”
“Is that possible? How?”
“They eat their victims. Since hunters were made to be mirrors of Zeus’s power, they are unique in being able to store and channel the energy of other beings. Torches that continue to hunt are called reapers. But if they start eating their kills, we call them leeches. Feeding on their kills makes them stronger, but also warps their minds and bodies. They become monstrous. Deformed and hungry for more power. Some have been around for a long time, and are very powerful. These are what humans might call demons. Most supernatural creatures that humans fear are based on leech sightings… seeing them kill and eat their victims, sucking out the blood, gnawing on bones.”
We finally reached the mouth of the cave and emerged into the light, but I shuddered despite myself.
“Is that what will happen to Puriel?” I asked.
“Your hunter buddy?” Sitri said, shooting me a dark look. “That depends.”
“Whether Able lets him live that long.”
We went back inside and I followed Sitri to another room on the second floor that I somehow hadn’t discovered yet. The ceiling was high and the room was so wide it looked like a hotel lobby. I counted five dark leather couches, each with a coffee table and several comfortable looking armchairs. A handful of round tables were scattered throughout the room as well. The ceiling and far wall were inset with mirrors, which made the room seem twice as large. Bright light streamed in through the large windows, which looked out over the amphitheater. I wondered if I’d had an audience during my fight with Mist, and if so, who was watching.
A long table was up against the wall, filled with silver trays full of snacks and cookies, mugs, sparkling water, and tea and coffee in large hot water containers. Sitri poured himself a cup of coffee and I made some tea and piled up cookies on to a small dish. I felt uncomfortable with the idea of Puriel being put to death, but I didn’t want to bring it up in case it sounded like I was defending him. It was touching that Sitri cared so much about how the torches were treated, and I understood it—especially when he’d been living with Mist and the others who treated them like second class citizens. But I was still annoyed that he’d assumed the worst about me. At the same time, something still felt off about Nevah. Even this huge, empty room felt weird. Like it was built to be seen, but not used. Deceptive somehow. I didn’t want Sitri to think I was ungrateful, but I did want him to understand how I was feeling.
“Okay,” I said. “I get it. Looks can be deceiving, right? But it’s more than just that. Why does everyone here use different names? Why does it feel like everybody has been lying to me. Hiding from me? And come on, we’re basically talking about angels and demons here, right? Don’t you ever worry that we’re on the wrong side of things?”
“Good and evil is just propaganda, don’t you see that? Those torches fought for you. Died for you.”
“I didn’t ask them too!”
“But it should have at least made it clear who is on your side, and who is trying to kill you.”
“It did. I get that part. Hunters are dangerous. But in a war, both sides believe they are the heroes. And the hunters are just following orders, doing what they think is right—just like the torches. Are they even responsible for what they do?”
Sitri’s eyes were wide and he was looking at me in disbelief. I realized I sounded crazy, defending his sworn enemies. Enemies who had just tried to kill me, and killed several torches in the process. I was basically confirming his fears about me. But I wasn’t really thinking about all the hunters. I was just thinking about one. The one in the cell in the basement. Broken and miserable. Because of me. All of my arguments were really a thinly-veiled defense of Puriel, and I didn’t even know why I cared so much.
Sitri looked disappointed with me.
“Do you really think Alice is evil? Sam? Me?”
I bit my lip. “No, not evil. Of course not. But maybe, both sides have been fighting so long, have lost so much, that neither side can see the other clearly anymore. And also… most of you are guests here, but Able calls the shots, right? He’s Zeus’s brother. I just wish I knew exactly what he wanted from me.”
“I see,” Sitri said, rubbing his jaw. “This is about Able. He can be intimidating, even scary. Especially now that you know who he really is. It’s no wonder you’re confused. Humans have always misunderstood him. You think my loyalty is misplaced, that I’ve been deceived. So let me tell you my story. I was one of the first that Zeus turned his back on. Without his presence, his light, I was nothing. I roamed the earth for centuries before Able took me in. Gave me a purpose again. A mission. When Zeus came for Able, I defended him. They fought, and Able had the upper hand. He might have defeated Zeus, except Zeus used his own son Hermes—Sam—as a human shield. Zeus traded Sam’s life for his own freedom, and Able accepted. He chose to save his nephew, rather than land the finishing blow.”
“Over the years I’ve watched Able open Nevah to thousands of refugees from around the world—Zeus’s forgotten creatures and progeny, torches and human descendants from former deities, anyone or anything that was in danger from Zeus’s magical genocide.” Sitri drained his coffee and set down the cup with a clatter. His brow furled and I could see that he was getting worked up.
“And don’t forget who Zeus chose to keep as his companions. Aphrodite was cast out and shamed, while Athena was kept. She’s a vicious monster. All brain, no heart. Hera disowned Heph because of his
‘deformity.’ Zeus tried to get Athena to marry him but she refused, disgusted by him. Aphrodite agreed to marry him, even though she was in love with someone else, because otherwise he would have been thrown out of the family. And after all that, Zeus picked them, over everyone else.”
“Why are you yelling at me?” I asked. Sitri’s voice had been growing louder until it practically echoed in the cavernous room. “Besides I know this already. And I’m not saying Zeus isn’t a major jerk. It’s just—this is all really new to me, and I don’t want to just blindly accept what people are telling me.”
“Did you also know that Dion is Stephanie’s son? Zeus was abusing her, even as a child, and got her pregnant. His own daughter. Able saved her, by removing her from Zeus’s reach and bringing her into the underworld. After many centuries, they fell in love, united by their mission to save innocents from Zeus’s reach.”
This was new—and a little different from the story Stephanie told me. I wondered which was really true. I bit my lip but didn’t say anything.
“If you already know all of this, and you still don’t know which side you want to be on, maybe you should decide whether or not you really belong here.”
Sitri said this quietly, but his words rang in my ears as he stormed out of the room. He was upset, obviously, but I don’t think I’d done anything to deserve being treated like that. And I didn’t choose to be here. Able said I was free to go, but also that I’d probably die out there on my own. Not much of a choice.
I felt like I’d pushed Sitri away from me. And for what—I’d never convince him to change his views. I just wished he could understand what I was feeling.
By the time I reached my room, I felt miserable. Sitri had been one of my closest friends here. And the way my pulse raced when I was around him, I can’t say I wasn’t hoping for something more. His loyalty was admirable, and I longed to have as much certainty. But I just didn’t. Something about Nevah didn’t feel right.
I jumped off my bed when someone knocked in the evening—I was hoping it was Sitri. My face fell when I discovered Alice instead. She was wearing a simple navy dress that looked classic, and holding a basket.
“I have something for you,” she said. “I know it can get lonely in the house. We’ve lived together a long time; sometimes we go days without speaking. I thought you could use some company.”
She reached into the basket and pulled out a kitten—the gray one with blue eyes, the same one Sitri had given me at JDRI. It seemed like ages ago now. At first I pulled back, remembering the vision I’d had last time. But he was so adorable. I checked to make sure my gloves were on before reaching out for him. I’d hardly thought of him since that first day, when I’d met Sitri and my whole life had changed. But I was glad to see he was alright. I wondered if Alice had sensed that I was having a bad day, or whether Sitri had asked her to deliver the kitten to cheer me up, as an indirect apology. But that was probably wishful thinking.
“Dinner’s in twenty minutes,” she said, coming into my room and rifling through my closet. She pulled out a black dress with a floral pattern stitched into the fabric and laid it across my bed. “I think this one would look amazing on you,” she said, looking me over. I was wearing the same dark jeans I’d worn yesterday but they were dirty from my hike. Alice looked flawless by comparison, almost casually royal.
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll meet you at dinner.” I let the kitten down to explore the room and stripped off my dirty clothes. In the shower, I couldn’t stop thinking about the graphic death I’d witnessed last time. Was this kitten still in danger? If he was, maybe I was too? I came out of the shower with a towel wrapped around me. When the kitten approached me and rubbed up against my bare leg, I flinched, but didn’t pull away. I was afraid I’d see the same vision, but didn’t. I only saw a gray fog, an emptiness. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Not every death is violent. It’s only the sudden and tragic ones that I pictured so vividly. That I experienced. But that meant that, like Matt, this kitten’s fate had been changed. It was more confirmation that my visions weren’t set in stone, that the future was flexible. Despite the argument I’d had with Sitri, I felt a burst of optimism.
“I’m going to call you Ghost,” I said, picking him up with my bare hands. It felt good to be so close to something warm and living. I didn’t realize how starved I was for physical contact. Ghost seemed to feel the same way; he purred and snuggled up against me. Then I set him down again and got ready for dinner.
The black dress hugged my body. I was self-conscious, but also impressed by my reflection in the mirror. The soft fabric felt smooth and cool against my skin. I was sure I’d never worn anything as expensive as this. With the black gloves up to my elbows, I looked like a movie star from another age. I noticed for the first time that my appearance had changed slightly—my skin looked smoother, and seemed to glow. My eyes, which had always been striking, now seemed unnaturally green, almost iridescent, like shallow water in a mountain lake. My hair was darker and shone with luxurious curls that spiraled down to my shoulders. I hardly recognized myself. I’d felt out of place in this house full of gods and goddesses, but I realized now I was starting to look more like them. Maybe it was a benefit of being surrounded by this much power and energy.
The only thing out of place was the block of colored legos around my neck. In the desk drawer I found a dozen expensive looking necklaces that sparkled with gold and gemstones. I reached instead for a simple, elegant strand of pearls. It was cold against my bare collarbone. It completed my outfit perfectly, but at the last minute I put it back and grabbed my chunk of legos instead. I wasn’t going to change who I was for their approval.
I didn’t understand why we had formal dinners anyway. There was always plenty of food in the kitchen. Sitri usually just made his own dinner and ate in one of the reading rooms, or sometimes outside to watch the sunset. That sounded a lot better to me than sitting through another stuffy dinner. Besides, as Mist kept bringing up, I wasn’t family.
Everyone was already seated when I walked in. Dion’s eyes travelled down my body, and his smirk made my skin glow. He jumped up and pulled a chair out for me. When I sat down, he whispered “You look ravishing.” Even though I’d never go for a guy like him, it was nice to be appreciated—especially in the same room with Tori. At a table full of girls that could all have been supermodels, it was easy to feel inadequate. Tonight I almost felt I could hold my own. Or at least that I wasn’t the ugly duckling.
The table was unusually quiet. Everyone seemed preoccupied with their food. I realized I hadn’t talked to most of the family since what happened yesterday, when I did the exact thing Stephanie had warned me against in our last conversation. While the heirs and torches seemed impressed by me, the immortals were basically pretending I didn’t exist. At least Mist was keeping her mouth shut. After Sitri’s meltdown, I didn’t think I could handle anyone else yelling at me today.
To fill the silence, I tried to keep track of how everyone was related. I wondered who was the most powerful. Artemis, Persephone, Dionysus, Aphrodite, Hermes and Hephasteus were all half-siblings. Zeus was their father, and he’d abandoned them. More than that—he’d betrayed them. And killed people they loved. Maybe Sitri had a point. These weren’t the bad guys.
Through the ceiling I could hear pounding noises, and realized it was probably torches repairing the hole in the roof. Somehow it made the silence even more awkward. I refilled my glass of wine from the bottle on the table just as dessert was brought out—raspberry sorbet with flakes of white chocolate. As if on signal, Able tapped his glass to get our attention, even though nobody was talking.
“Yesterday’s events were surprising, but we’ve learned two things,” Able said. “One, Kaidance accurately foretold an attack on Nevah that we did not expect. We didn’t handle it well. They should never have gotten into the house. And to get that near to the accomplishing their mission—that was inexcusable. Heph and I will be working on new defenses to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
“And the second thing?” Sam asked.
“Kaidance is more powerful than we thought,” Able said, looking directly at me.
“From what I heard, she didn’t really do anything.” Mist cut in, rolling her eyes. “Besides nearly throwing her life away and ruining everything.”
“I agree, Kaidance was reckless. But she’s young, and it’s our responsibility to take care of her. The power I was referring to, however, is the power to change fate. She had a vision of Matt being killed by the hunter, but she stopped it from happening. Now Matt’s recovering.”
“You want to use her gift for battles,” Stephanie guessed, eyeing her husband critically. “Giving the soldiers foresight, in order to avoid their deaths.”
“Possibly,” Able said, folding his fingers together.
“That’s not what we discussed,” Stephanie said, pursing her lips.
“It’s all we have at the moment. Maybe with more training she’ll be able to unlock more abilities. But for now, we’ll use any advantage she can give us.”
“Maybe you should ask her first,” Alice said quietly. Heads turned toward me. Sitri said I needed to decide whether I wanted to be here, but he didn’t say I’d have to decide today. Was I really going to help Able wage his war against Zeus? I still didn’t trust him, but I did trust Sitri. I was pretty sure he wouldn’t intentionally hurt me. And I considered Sam, Heph and Alice as friends, even though I hadn’t known them long. If I was forced to pick sides, I’d choose this one. But I also wanted to know what I was getting into.
“What exactly are you asking me to do?” I asked, putting down my fork and holding Able’s gaze. “I can accept that Zeus is a jerk. He did try to kill me after all. If you want me to help you defend Nevah, I can do that. But it sounds like you’re hoping for something else. Something more.”
Able swirled the wine in his cup and chose his words carefully. His gold rings sparkled.
“The truth is, we’ve been at a stalemate for thousands of years—ever since the Fates hid the golden shears. We can slow down Zeus’s purge, by trying to save a few of the heirs before the hunters get to them, but we can’t stop him. If you can see the threads of life, however, you must have some connection to the Fates. Maybe you can discover where they are or where they hid the shears. Maybe you can get them back.”
“And if I do?” I asked.
“Then you can cut Zeus’s thread,” Stephanie interrupted, her eyes gleaming. Her youthful beauty contrasted with the terrifying look in her eyes. “End all of this. The tyranny, the bloodshed.”
I looked at Alice, then at Sam. Neither of them flinched at Stephanie’s words. Which meant, this is what they all wanted from me. What they expected me to do. Puriel was right. They want me to become a deicidium—a godkiller.
I told Able I’d do whatever I could to help, without explicitly agreeing to murder anybody. Then I excused myself for the night. A lot of conditions had to be met before any of this mattered anyway. Finding the shears, figuring out how to use them… maybe we’d never even get to that point. For now, I’d stay and train, and help defend my new friends and Nevah however I could. With that decision made, I felt calmer than I had since arriving, and fell asleep with Ghost curling up next to me in bed.
I woke up hours later to scratches on the door. I checked the clock next to my bed—it was past three in the morning. The room was nearly pitch black but I could see Ghost’s light-colored body at the door, trying to push it open with his tiny paws.
“What is it?” I asked. After dinner, Sam had dropped off a sandbox in the corner of my room for Ghost to use, and I’d already given him some scraps of food.
“What do you want?” I asked again. I picked him up and tried to calm him down, but he squirmed away from me and went back to the door. I was curious—what was he after?
When I opened the door, Ghost scampered down the hall. At first I thought he just wanted to stretch his legs, but his path was direct and straight. I followed behind him quietly. My heart raced as we started descending. Towards the dungeon. Towards Puriel. I sighed in relief when he turned left and went in a different direction. When he reached a closed door at the end of a hall, he waited and looked back at me.
I pushed the door open and held my nose. It smelled in here. Like blood. There was a wide wooden table in the center of the room, and gleaming utensils hanging on the wall. Large knives, saws and other items I couldn’t identify—a butchery, I guessed. For a house this large, and this isolated, it would make sense to butcher their own meat. It would be easy for Mist to bring down wild boar or deer.
But then I heard movement and turned around. My eyes widened when I saw the cages. There were some live chickens, but it was the cage full of kittens that drew my eye. Some looked like Ghost, and I wondered if he had family in there.
What were they doing down here, in a room like this? I looked again at the sharp blades hanging on the wall, gleaming in the darkness. My skin crawled as I tried to imagine what they could be used for. That’s when I saw the hammer. The same hammer I’d seen in my vision.
My blood ran cold and I shivered. I picked Ghost up and squeezed him to my chest protectively. Somehow he’d avoided the fate I’d seen for him, but apparently he wasn’t the only one I needed to worry about.
I reached out with trembling fingers and touched one of the other kittens in the cage. I pulled my hand away like I’d been burned. My eyes started watering as I touched another kitten, and another.
It was all the same. Every single one met the same horrible death. Their tiny skulls crushed by a hammer. Probably in this very room. Held down by a pair of strong hands.
As I touched the kittens, I realized my visions were getting clearer. Usually I jerked away immediately. I’d never really tried to see visions like this, through prolonged contact. But this time, I wanted to know more. If someone in this house, someone I was living with, could be this cruel, I wanted to know about it. I put Ghost down and picked up a small black kitten and concentrated. Even though seeing the mangled body on the table was horrifying—watching his tiny limbs spasm as he clung to the last seconds of life—I held on.
My stomach twisted and my eyes filled with tears, but the scene became clear in front of me. No longer a fragmented flash of the future, but a living scene, a loop playing on repeat. It was almost like I was there. Watching the hammer come down, the kitten squirming against those big strong hands. A flash of light caught my eye and I focused in on the hands, which were sporting several sparkling, jeweled rings. One of them was engraved with symbols and had a black star sapphire, with six gleaming rays that slid across the surface.
I woke up suddenly, my heart pounding and my sheets damp from sweat. My fingers were wrapped tightly around my blankets. Last night I’d grabbed Ghost and returned to my room. I wore myself out, thinking in circles, until I fell into a dreamless sleep.
But now everything came flooding back.
So many kittens, all with the same horrible future. How long had Able been looking for me? How many times had he used this test on other heirs or roots, hoping to find someone who could help him defeat his brother? He’d been planning this for a long time, and he wasn’t afraid to kill innocents to get what he wanted. And now he had it.
Ghost jumped on my stomach and stretched out. I stroked his soft fur absently, wondering how many kittens had been sacrificed for this one project. To find me. Hundreds? Thousands?
I shuddered at the thought of a kitten cemetery somewhere on the grounds, filled with a small mountain of tiny bodies. My stomach growled loudly and Ghost perked up, looking at me with surprise.
“Guess we better eat breakfast, huh? I’ll bring you back something good.” I put on a clean pair of jeans, a long sleeve shirt and my all-stars.
My adventures of last night seemed far away in the daytime. The house was as bright and luxurious as always. The dining room was filled with the scent of bacon, strong coffee and freshly baked bread.
I thought about grabbing food and returning to my room, but I wouldn’t be able to avoid everyone from now on—they would know something was up. So I sat down and pretended that everything was fine.
I was halfway through breakfast when Sitri came in the room. He was wearing a dark shirt that clung to his chest and his skin was damp—like he’d been out running. He hadn’t shaved in several days, and there were circles under his eyes like he hadn’t been sleeping well. Even so, he looked amazing. His scent was so strong it seemed almost more delicious than the bacon.
“Hey,” he said awkwardly, rubbing the back of his neck. My mouth was full of toast, so I just nodded to him. He piled his plate up with scrambled eggs and sat down next to me.
“Listen, I’m sorry about yesterday,” he said. “I know you just got here, and this is all new to you. I can’t expect you just to take our word for everything. You’re right to be hesitant, to make sure you’re on the right side of things. It just proves what a good person you are. I was mad yesterday, because the torches and Able try so hard to earn trust and loyalty, by doing good things, saving people, and almost everyone still treats them like villains. I’ve watched it happen, over and over again, for centuries. I was just hoping you’d be different.”
I almost choked on my food. Somehow Sitri had a way of saying the nicest things, and then ruining it with something hurtful. I stared at him, but he didn’t seem to notice that he’d said anything wrong. I wanted to defend myself, or say that I was different. I wanted to tell him what I’d seen last night—but I knew he would just defend Able.
Sitri was too loyal to see the truth: Able wasn’t doing all this out of the goodness of his heart. Saving heirs and roots. He was building an army. A perimeter defense. And weapons. If Stephanie was right, I was the most powerful weapon of all, in Able’s hands. The only thing that could kill Zeus.
That’s when I realized I had to leave. If I stayed here, Able wouldn’t stop until he found his golden shears, and then he’d try to make them use them. On the most powerful of the Olympians… a god who has been alive for thousands of years. Me.
For most of my life people have seen me as a killer. And I’ve tried to prove them wrong. I tried to show I was normal. Nice. Or at the very least, not homicidal. Able wanted to reverse all that, and turn me into the one thing I swore I’d never become.
And it seemed like neither Zeus nor Able cared who got hurt in their quest for victory. Able may not be the devil, but who’s to say if we defeated Zeus, Able wouldn’t become just as bad? Or Worse?
But I couldn’t expect Sitri to understand that. Besides, I didn’t have to leave right away. I should stay longer, keep training, and work with Stephanie to unlock my powers. Maybe until I was strong enough to defend myself. Then at least I’d have a chance of surviving on my own, and protecting those I cared about.
“I’m going to the armory,” I said suddenly. “To train. Want to come?”
Sitri raised an eyebrow at me and the side of his lip curved into a smile.
“I’d love to, but I’ve got some things I need to help Able with. I’ll see if one of the torches is available, or send Sam down if I see him. Heph is probably down in the forge already. He can set you up with some practice dummies.”
I stopped in my room to give Ghost some bacon. My eyes fell on the bag with the sawed-off shotgun and my sword. I’d brought it back with me after the attack. I thought about returning it, but decided to leave it in my room. It was nice to know I had weapons available if I needed them. And it’s not like they would miss them, with the hundreds of items in the armory.
I found Heph in the forge, sharpening a long, wicked looking axe. Sparks shot out around his body. He was framed by the orange glow of the forge and the bluish light coming in from the side door. I waited until he noticed me, then smiled when he looked up.
“What can I help you with?” he asked.
“Just wanted to play with some sharp objects,” I said.
“We’ve got plenty of those,” he said. “Take whatever you like.”
“And maybe some help on how to use them?”
He set down the axe and pulled a shirt on.
“Sure. I can help for a while, until someone else shows up. I’m more of an artist than a fighter.”
“Well, I’m basically useless, so I’m sure you’re way ahead of me.”
I picked out a short sword that was similar to the one in my room—not quite as pretty, nor as lightweight. But functional. My eye was also drawn to a small dagger with twin golden snakes spiraling down the handle. Rubies were used for the snakes’ eyes. Not exactly practical, but walking around the house with a big sword at my side seemed silly. I could conceal this in my sleeve or tuck it into the back of my jeans.
“You want to start with that?” Heph said, nodding at the dagger.
“Don’t you just… point and stab?” I asked, gesturing lamely in front of me.
He smiled and his eyes sparkled. He put down the sword he’d picked out and gestured towards the practice mat. I followed him.
“Keep the sheath on,” he said, smirking. “I may heal quickly but I’m not fond of pain.”
He showed me how to hold the knife, where the major arteries were, and how to deflect a punch so that the attacker exposed a vital organ.
“The problem with this is, hunters are way faster than you. And stronger. And they wear armor.”
“So I’m screwed,” I said.
“Not necessarily. Your best bet is the element of surprise. Take them down before they know you’re a threat. Jab the blade up through their jaw, slash it across their neck, or drive it straight into their ear. Those will slow them down, and maybe give you a shot at running away. Or if you have a sword or the shotgun we gave you last time, you could blast their head off, or pierce their heart. It’s not easy, with the armor, but if you get just the right angle, below their armpit, you can reach it.”
“Great,” I said, without enthusiasm. I couldn’t see myself doing any of those things.
“Maybe we should work on defense instead.” He took the dagger from me and taught me several ways to block a knife without injury and disarm an attacker. I doubt I could actually use them in a fight, but they were fun to learn.
“You try again. Attack me, then try to strike something critical.”
I lunged at him, but he slapped my hand away every time I got near him. Soon my arms were red from all the times he’d hit me, and I hadn’t landed a blow once. He wasn’t moving quickly, he just seemed to easily shift his body weight away from my attacks. Half the time I stumbled forward from my own momentum.
“You’re too direct,” he said. It’s obvious where you’re headed. Your eyes give you away first, then your feet. Way before your hand ever gets close to me. You need to look like you’re going to strike in one place, then change last minute and strike with another dagger.”
“I don’t have another dagger,” I said.
“That’s your main problem. Always have a backup weapon.” He pulled a tiny device from his pocket. It looked like a keychain with a garage door opener attached. When he clicked the red button, the serpentine dagger ripped out of my hand and flew towards the wall. It stuck there, halfway up the wall, held by some invisible force.
“What the hell was that?” I asked, rubbing my palm.
“A powerful electro-magnet,” Heph smiled. “I put it up once because Tori was always complaining about how weak I was, and that I needed to learn to fight. She got the point. Why fight when you can just disarm your enemies? Why risk your life when you can build an army of robots to do it for you?”
“You have an army of robots?” I asked, my eyes wide.
“I could have one,” he said. “The point is, always use the right tool for the job. Archimedes said, ‘Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.’ Basically, find the right tool and the right place to apply pressure, and there’s nothing you can’t do.”
“Still cheating, I see.” Matt was crossing the armory with a smug smile.
“It’s not cheating,” Heph said with a frown. “It’s called using your brain. You might still have one if you stopped ramming your head into things.”
“Whatever. A giant magnet to disarm your opponent? It’s sneaky.”
“It’s effective. Would you rather fight fairly and die with honor?”
“Absolutely,” Matt said with a wide grin.
“Great. You can teach her then. Teach her how to overwhelm an enemy with brute force. See how well that works for her. I’ve got work to do.”
“Hold up, I was just teasing. Plus I need your help with something.” Matt held up a gold nugget as big as my thumb. “Got this from a torch in exchange for some chocolate cake. Seems like not all of them are as tough as they pretend to be. Think you can turn it into a ring?”
Heph took the nugget and squinted at it.
“Sure, what size?”
Matt looked at his fingers for a minute, then grabbed my hand and held it out. “About this size,” he said, pointing to my ring finger.
“Wait, is this for Priya?” I asked. Heph raised his eyebrows and smiled.
“Wow man, about time. Congratulations.”
“I know, right?” Matt grinned. “I just—after what happened… life’s short, you know?”
“I’ve got some spare diamonds in the back,” Heph said. “Took them out of some broken swords I recycled. Four carats should be big enough?”
My mouth dropped open. “Um, I don’t know Priya that well, but personally I wouldn’t want a rock that big on my finger.”
“What would you get?” Matt asked.
“Something understated. Classic. A simple gold band with one or two carats. Probably set in the band, rather than a solitaire—otherwise it would get caught in everything.”
“Were you a jeweler or something?” Heph asked. I shrugged. No need to tell them that Jessie and I spent weeks planning our weddings when we were twelve, after we found a catalogue of engagement rings in the trash bin.
We headed back into the forge. Heph moved the axe out of the way and brought out smaller tools to work on the ring.
“What’s that for?” Matt asked, nodding at the axe.
“The hunter they caught,” Heph said. “He’s being executed tomorrow.”
I practically raced down the stairs to the cellar. This time, there were two torches outside. I wondered if they were the same ones who were outside my room earlier, then felt bad that I couldn’t tell them apart. But that didn’t matter right now. I knew Able and Sitri wouldn’t want me talking to Puriel again, but I couldn’t stay away. I had to see him.
“Let me talk to him,” I demanded, when the torches crossed their dark swords in front of the door. “Please,” I said. “One last time.” One of them put away his sword, and the other followed. I was a little surprised they listened to me. I wondered if it was a courtesy to me—or Puriel.
I gasped when I entered the room. Puriel looked like shit. His whole body was bruised, and he was bleeding from several deep cuts that looked like they’d been made with precision. His lip was split and he had a black eye.
“It’s interesting…” he said, raising his head slowly.
“What is?” I asked.
“Pain. I’ve never really felt it before. I don’t think I’ve ever really been injured before—with Deus by my side, skin, flesh and bone were just resources. Cut them out, and they’d regenerate. These wounds…” He reached down and put his finger in one of the cuts. “Just sitting there. Oozing blood. It makes me feel… limited. Finite.”
“I am sorry,” I said.
“At least it will be over tomorrow,” he said.
“You’ve heard then?”
“The torches outside told me. It was kind of them. I always saw them as traitors and fools, and now I’m one of them. Death will be a relief.”
I frowned. I didn’t like seeing him like this. I’m glad he was calm about it, but I hated that he was so miserable he’d prefer death to sticking around.
“Being a torch isn’t that bad,” I said. “Some torches get married. Raise children. Fight for a cause.”
“Worthless attempts to fill the gaping holes in their hearts left by Deus’s omnipotence.”
“He’s not exactly all-powerful,” I said, frowning. “I mean, he sent you here to kill me, right? And you failed.”
“Do you think Deus hasn’t thought of this? Hasn’t accounted for everything?”
“Don’t tell me you meant to fall.”
“Of course not,” Puriel said bitterly. “I had no idea what was going to happen. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t. Actually he sent us to capture you. That was the mission. But in that moment, when you appeared in front of me out of nowhere, willing to die for that heir—his command was to kill. And I didn’t strike.”
He hung his head sadly. I didn’t know what to say, so I moved closer to him and put my hand on his arm. He looked up at me in surprise.
“You don’t belong here, you know. With them. You’re different. It almost makes me think that I was right to hesitate. Maybe Deus meant for me to refuse. Maybe he still has plans for you. And if that’s what he wants, maybe I served him after all.”
He sounded hopeful, but I could tell he didn’t really believe it. I turned to leave. I didn’t say anything. What could I say? See you later? We both knew there would be no later. Not for him.
I was halfway out the door when I heard him mutter, “I’m sorry about your friends.” He said it so quietly I almost didn’t hear him. I turned back and stared at him.
“Which friends?” I asked cautiously.
“The other girls, from the institution where I found you.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, my heart pounding in my chest. Puriel raised his eyebrows, but then confusion gave way to understanding and he shook his head.
“I assumed they would have told you. But now I can see that they haven’t. If this plan failed, which it did, we were supposed to regroup and meet back where I first found you. For your friends.”
“Jessie and Sarah? But why?”
“For leverage. For bait. I don’t know exactly, those were the orders. Get you, or get your friends.”
I clenched my fists so hard my fingernails dug into my palms.
“And you told Able this?”
“He can be very persuasive.”
“I have to save them.” I said.
“They’ve probably been taken already.”
I practically ran up the stairs. At first I was heading to confront Able, but changed my mind and went straight to my room to calm down. I felt like the sky had fallen. I was furious at Able for not telling me my friends were in danger, but challenging him now wouldn’t help. He’d probably decided my friends weren’t worth saving, that I was more important, and that if I knew the truth I would try to leave. I wondered if Sitri and him had discussed this together, and whether Sitri had argued at first, but ultimately agreed with Able. Like he always does. He hadn’t told me about Puriel’s execution this morning; maybe he was keeping this from me as well. I’d been hanging on to the slim hope that maybe he’d be on my side, that he’d choose me—but that was ridiculous. He’d just met me, and he’d been working for Able for millenia.
I’d already decided to leave, but I thought I had more time. I wasn’t ready to go out on my own, but I didn’t have a choice. If Sarah and Jessie were in danger, I needed to save them. I wasn’t going to beg or ask permission—I was leaving, no matter what.
Able and Sitri said I was free to leave, but I’m pretty sure if I asked, they’d try and talk me out of it. Based on how methodically Able had been searching for me, it didn’t seem like he was just going to let me go. And of course if he really wanted to keep me here, he could just throw me in Puriel’s cell after they killed him.
I didn’t think Sitri would let him do that, but I also knew if I told him I was leaving, he’d run to Able. Which meant I had to leave on my own. The problem was, if I did run into a bunch of hunters trying to kidnap Sarah and Jesse, I couldn’t really do anything to stop them. What happened with Puriel was a fluke—I couldn’t count on it to happen again. I needed a guardian. But all of the torches here were too loyal to Able… except one. I could only think of one idea, but it was a bad one.
I must be crazy.
But I packed anyway. I grabbed a backpack and stuffed it with some practical clothes. I also dumped out the jewelry drawer and filled my pockets with expensive-looking necklaces. I could pawn them later. I didn’t exactly have a plan, other than to grab Jessie and Sarah and run off to Bermuda or something. Why not?
I’d kept the golden dagger with the twin snakes after leaving the armory, and tucked it into the back of my jeans. I also grabbed the bag with the shotgun and shells, and the sword Sitri had picked out for me.
Then I left a note for Sitri in the bathroom.
It’s too much. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I thought for a minute, about what I was about to do, and wrote: And I don’t want anyone to hurt, because of me.
I left Ghost in a basket outside the infirmary with a note for Alice to take care of him, and snuck into the kitchen for some granola bars. I wished I could take Hades’ invisibility cap but I didn’t dare sneak into his office.
Then I crept back to Puriel’s cell downstairs. This time it was unguarded. I grabbed the large iron skeleton keys and opened the door to the cell. Puriel looked up at me, his eyes cautiously curious, but he didn’t say anything when I held my finger to my lips. I crept closer to him and whispered.
“Did you mean what you said earlier? You don’t regret what happened?”
“I don’t think I said I don’t regret it…”
“Whatever, I mean—can I unlock these cuffs or are you going to strangle me with your chains?”
He looked confused, then his eyes widened.
“You want to let me go? Go where? I have no home, no purpose, no friends. Where would I go?”
“But they’ll kill you.”
“What do I have to live for? I failed to serve him with my life. It would have been glorious to die in battle for his service.”
“Listen carefully. I forbid you to die. I don’t want to listen to your pity party right now, and if that seems insensitive, it’s because the only two people I care about in the world might be in danger. From your former comrades. I should just leave you in here, except… I can’t just let them kill you. Plus everyone keeps telling me that if I go out there on my own, I’m pretty much dead meat.”
“You want me to go with you,” he said slowly. He was obviously questioning my sanity. I thought I even saw the corner of his lip turn up in a smirk.
“I get it. Stupidest idea ever. I thought if I let you go, you’d be grateful or something. But forget it.”
I turned to leave, then said over my shoulder, “have fun at your execution.”
“Wait.” He said it quietly, but with decision. He held his wrists out to me.
This time it was my turn to hesitate.
“I promise I won’t kill you, okay?”
“You don’t want to redeem yourself to Zeus?”
“I’ve been around a long time. I’ve never seen a torch get redeemed. It’s an urban legend, a fairy tale torches tell their human children. To try and explain why they should be good, when their own fathers had fallen. Some torches live remarkably noble lives, trying to find meaning in kindness and generosity. Others indulge in more carnal pleasures, hoping to feel anything other than the constant shame and bitterness of being cast out. Most live long enough to spend centuries doing both. But it doesn’t matter. Once they’re gone, Deus doesn’t notice them at all. He’s blind to them, and all their striving, and efforts to please him. Seraphim joke that wanting to be redeemed is the torch’s curse. It causes them to become reapers. Which is a nice thought. I mean, even if Deus doesn’t notice, they’re still doing our job for us. Only one problem: seraphim weren’t built to be alone. When we hunt, we hunt in packs. We give our prey a clean death. And even when the kill is hard, we know that we are right. Because we are doing Deus’s will. And because we’re doing it together. But reapers hunt alone. They have doubts, and fears. They don’t know if killing magical creatures without Deus’s command is justified. Plus, the glow of magic is similar to Zeus’s power. Seraphim don’t need it, we have an inexhaustible supply of energy. But when we lose it… it’s like our heart has been torn out. We have an aching hole inside, hungry to be filled. We were built that way, to be dependent on an external source of energy.”
“Few reapers can resist feeding, and becoming leeches. Disgusting. Reprehensible. They lose all sense and reason. They grow black and vile, crusted over with the blood of their victims.”
“So you see, even though I can’t sense much magic coming from you right now, I couldn’t be sure there wouldn’t be more of it. And I couldn’t be sure that I’d be able to resist it, and turn into the thing that is every seraphim’s worst fear. A fate much worse than the death that awaits me tomorrow.”
I blinked and shook my head. I still didn’t know if he’d help me, but I was pretty sure he wouldn’t kill me. Plus what choice did I have?
“I’m convinced,” I said, unlocking his restraints. Puriel’s sword was on a table outside the cell. I wondered it hadn’t been taken to the armory yet. He reached for it slowly, then grabbed the handle and lifted it up. The silver gleam on the sword’s edge told me it was razor sharp, but it didn’t glow with fire like it had before.
“It’s heavy,” Puriel said, half to himself. “It always felt light to me before, as easy as raising my arm. Now I can hardly swing it.” Puriel’s white shirt was soiled from his time in the cell. I look around for his armor but couldn’t see it.
“It’s better than nothing,” I said. “You’re lucky they left it down here. Maybe they were planning on using it on you tomorrow. Can we go now?”
I found a door that led outside and we crept across the grass in the shadows. To our left, a large bonfire was burning, surrounded by silhouetted figures. Two of them were swinging a large bundle into the flames.
“They’re burning the bodies,” Puriel said. “The fallen seraphim.”
“At least they’re distracted,” I said, keeping my eyes forward. As we neared the edge of the property, I started to feel good about my decision. This was the right choice. I don’t want to be a pawn in some supernatural war. Even if I do nothing, by being at Nevah I put everyone at risk. Without me, it would go back to being a stalemate, a cold war. Hunters, reapers and leeches, killing heirs and roots. A whole supernatural world I knew nothing about. A world I was deliberately turning my back on. Once I got Jesse and Sarah back, Puriel could go his way and I’d go mine. We’d hide out somewhere. We’d get fake identities. We’d have a normal, human life. Maybe learn to surf. Zeus and Able could keep fighting for another thousand years.
I breathed a sigh of relief when we crossed the park and entered into the trees at the edge of the property. I thought Able would have a perimeter detail up or something. Or Heph’s would have picked us up on his high-tech surveillance systems. But maybe we were unremarkable—they were looking for magical beings, full of energy. We were just two shadows in the dark, without much of our own magic. Through the trees and the mist, I caught a glimpse of the road up ahead. We were going to make it. That’s when I heard the roar behind us.
Puriel whirled around and pulled out his sword as a dark figure tackled him to the ground. I heard a yell, and the sound of blows being landed. Then there was a slicing, gushing sound. I cried out, grabbing at the dark shape and rolling him off Puriel. My face lit up with relief when I saw that he was breathing. The sword had gotten pinned on the ground behind him when he fell, plunging into the body of the attacker. He was large, with some kind of horned helmet… but one horn had been broken off.
“No!” I cried, leaning over the dark shape. I turned his head into the light so I could see his face, and I choked back a sob when Matt’s features were visible. Blood bubbled up from his lips. My vision clouded with tears, but I still recognized the familiarity of the scene. Matt on the grassy soil, his blood spreading out like a cape beneath him. The gleaming sword in his chest, with its golden handle, the glittering blue gemstones, the symbol of a crown. Outside, at night. Just like my vision.
I felt dizzy and gulped down air. I tried to stand up, my arms reaching out for balance, but my knees buckled and I fell to the ground next to the body, sobbing into his chest. I hadn’t saved Matt at all. I’d ensured his death. I was exactly the monster everyone thought I was.
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