“Every god will hunt you. They will not stop. There will be nowhere safe on the face of this planet. From now until the day you die, you will have to run.”
The words struck Casey as she woke from a violent nightmare.
Gasping for breath, she had to lock a hand over her mouth and push her fingers in as if her mouth was something foreign to her and she was trying to rip it from her face. She couldn’t connect with her own breath. It was like it was being pumped into her lungs from afar. The same far off place that had haunted her dreams since the incident yesterday.
She squeezed her eyes closed. Rolling over, she clutched up a pillow and pressed it into her face until she saw stars.
“It was nothing, Casey. You just tripped down the stairs and bumped your head or something. That’s all.” Even as she tried to convince herself of that, her voice wavered so badly, it sounded as if there was an earthquake going on in her throat.
“It was nothing, nothing at all.” She forced herself out of bed. Timidly, as if the carpet was made out of spikes, she placed her feet down. When nothing untoward happened, she rose. Her balance was unsteady. She might be trying to pretend nothing had happened last night, but her muscles were burning as if she’d run a marathon 20 times over.
“Just ignore it. Ignore—” she got halfway into planting a hand on her face and promising herself for the umpteenth time that this was nothing when she saw a pile of clothes on the floor. They were hers – the same simple black waitressing top, formfitting skirt, and sturdy high heels she’d worn yesterday. Heck, even the nylons with the ladders along her left ankle were hers. But you know what else was hers? The bloodstains.
Shuddering, staring at them and willing them to go away, Casey fell flat on her ass next to her bed. She tried to clutch the covers and pull herself back up, but all that did was drag most of her bedclothes back down onto her.
She couldn’t breathe fast enough, and she started to hyperventilate, all at the sight of those bloodstains.
“No way. There’s no damn way what happened last night was real. It’s not possible.” She started to stutter like a broken recording as the memories of last night sunk into her mind no matter how hard she tried to push them away. The fight, the fury. The bodies.
Casey shook her head so hard, she saw stars. You know what that changed? Nothing.
She finally found her feet. Staggering up, rather than heading over to her clothes and assessing the bloodstains, she ran for the door.
She grabbed it in a shaking hand, threw herself into the hall, and reached the kitchen. It was just in time. She hurled into the sink.
Washing it down, she turned, pressed the back of her hand against her mouth, and stared back in the direction of her room. Judging from her wary, fear-filled eyes, it was as if she expected the clothes would jump up, crawl out here, and cut her head off.
Cut her head off….
She trailed her fingers down her brow. If the incident last night had been real, then why wasn’t she injured? Why didn’t she have a laceration across her stomach? Where was the gash in her brow? To confirm that none of those injuries were there, she set her prying fingers dancing over her body in a frantic rush. Nothing. She was fine. So the blood… belonged to someone else?
As horrifying as that was to even consider, it was way better than the alternative. Grabbing a glass of water and downing it in one go, Casey gathered the gumption to go back into her room. There, exactly where she’d left them, were her clothes. Getting down on one knee, her body aching as she made the movement as slow as her muscles would allow, Casey laid her bloodstained clothes down in front of her. As soon as she saw the gashes that had torn the fabric in two as easily as someone slicing a scalpel down a ripe peach, she gave up. It was real. Last night, Casey Riley had met a god. In the coming days, she would become one.
“Really?” Melinda arched an eyebrow disapprovingly.
Casey ran her hands over the sturdy heel she’d just plucked out of her duffel bag. “What? This gig tonight is on a yacht. Last time I was on a yacht, I almost snapped my neck falling down one of the staircases. I am not going to sacrifice my frigging life for a job I intend to ditch as soon as I get enough money together to start my own catering business.”
“Yeah, well, if you want to keep this steppingstone job, I’d stick to the dress code. Here are your real stilettos,” Melinda said as she reached over, grabbed up the shoes that Casey had already rejected, and handed them over pointedly.
Casey shook her head and crossed her arms. “Nope. No way. I hate the ocean. There’s no way I’m going to traipse around a yacht balancing on the equivalent of needles.”
“You’re not gonna be on the ocean. The yacht is docked.”
“It’s still surrounded by water.”
Melinda threw up her hands. “There’s no reasoning with you, is there? Well, don’t blame me if you lose your job.”
“Why would I blame you? I’d blame my crooked boss.”
“Watch your mouth,” Melinda said sharply as she pushed hard to the side.
It was just in time. Cecile Flowers, head of Maximum Satisfaction Catering, walked in through the door. It was a brilliant, sunshine-infused day in late spring. It was the kind of breezy hot afternoon you’d get in the middle of summer. Seagulls were flying overhead, and though Casey could only see a glimpse of the ocean from here, she could tell that everybody who wasn’t shackled to their job was out on the beach or on the water enjoying the weather.
You tell that to Cecile. She was dressed in a thick Buffalo jacket that completely obscured her always expensive clothes, save for a pair of gold-heeled Jimmy Choos sticking out from under the woolen hem.
There was no way Cecile would usually get caught dead in a jacket like that, unless it was around her insignificant employees. It wasn’t like she had anyone to impress around these parts.
The eldest daughter of a rich venture capitalist, Cecile had acquired Maximum Catering from one of her husband’s ventures. The previous owner – the sweetest old guy in the world – had been forced to give up the company, despite creating it 30 years ago with his now-dead wife. Cecile’s husband – her father’s right-hand man – had given it to his wife to run rather than a competent manager. Frank Flowers fully intended Maximum Catering to lose money. He intended to use it as a tax break for his own income.
“You girls ready for tonight?” Cecile asked, clearly not giving one hoot about the menu and wine list as she quickly undid her Buffalo coat, grabbed up a set of pearls rimmed by gold and platinum, and twirled them around her fingers pointedly. “Because I am. And I need to be,” she added as she pursed her lips together and whistled. She was wearing a stunning ball gown under her coat, which she showed off with a little twirl.
Obviously, despite the weather, she’d worn the coat to hide her gown until the party.
Though Melinda was always good at playing Cecile’s game, Casey wasn’t. “I think I left something on in the kitchen.” She extricated herself from the conversation. She couldn’t remove herself from it completely. There was no door separating the main room from the kitchen, so Cecile’s inane conversation flowed through, nonetheless.
“That’s such a pretty necklace. And your dress is stunning,” Melinda said, dialing her charm up to 11. “Did you buy them for the party?”
“Early birthday present from daddy,” Cecile said with an entitled tone.
It was an unfortunate fact that rich people like her tended to think that the only way to get ahead was to extract more money from daddy and mommy. As Casey angrily placed her heels down onto the floor and pretended to check something in the oven, she was forced to tune in to the conversation. It wasn’t before she could point out one fact. Who cared if Cecile hadn’t done anything important with her life and didn’t have the capacity to earn her own way? It wasn’t as if Casey was doing that much better. She lived in an inherited house – a particularly nice one. It was a full bungalow, and it wasn’t that far from the richest parts of the city. It was in one of the old leafy suburbs. If you wanted to buy into her street these days, you’d have to have a cool 2 million to even get in the front door. You would think, based on that, that Casey was rich, and if she didn’t like this job, she should just up and quit and stop complaining already.
Yeah, the house wasn’t hers. She just lived in it. It was part of a trust her grandfather had set up and her cousins administered. While they got cash with no strings attached, Casey had gotten the house. But with major strings attached. She couldn’t sell it. It wasn’t hers, either – it belonged to the trust. Her cousins had structured it so that she could live in the house for two years rent-free. That hadn’t been her grandpa’s wish, but who cared? Two of her cousins were lawyers, and they knew exactly how to get what they needed in life.
Those two years were almost over. She had two months left. After that? Who damn knew?
Once or twice, Casey had considered legal action. She’d been devoted to her grandfather. She’d been the one who’d nursed him after his second bout of cancer. The rest of her cousins hadn’t done a thing. They’d barely even visited. One of them – the guy who’d benefited the most, Walker Riley – hadn’t even shown up to the funeral.
Despite Casey’s spiraling thoughts, she tuned back in to the conversation again as one name was mentioned.
“Stephen Halliday is going to be there. I shouldn’t need to tell you who he is,” Cecile said with a purr.
Melinda laughed. “No ma’am, you don’t need to tell me who the richest, most eligible bachelor in town is.”
Back in the kitchen, Casey rolled her eyes.
Stephen Halliday owned this town. Head of Jupiter Holdings, his company was into everything, from finance to mining to the service industries.
Hell, Casey worked for one of the few places in town that wasn’t owned by Jupiter Holdings. That would change if Cecile got her way. Casey could still see into the main room through the open door. Cecile did a twirl. “What do you think of the name Virginia Halliday? Just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? It’s time I get my little sister married. And I can’t think of a more appropriate match. She is out getting her hair done now for the party. So it better go off without a hitch.”
Casey tuned out. Melinda could deal with the boss, and Casey would do the real work.
It didn’t take long until the glorious afternoon turned into a particularly cold night. A fiendish wind had whipped up off the quays, and it brought with it an ominous whistling. It tugged at Casey’s hair as she pushed out of the back of the building and started filling up the catering van.
The wind was so biting, Casey had to grab her shoulders and try to desperately rub some warmth into them.
“You done? You forgot these.” Melinda leaned against the back door, the skyscraper heels in her hand. She jingled them up and down.
Casey rolled her eyes at them. “I didn’t forget them. I banished them.”
“Banished? You some kind of god now? Because you’ll have to be. Cecile made it pretty damn clear that we have to dress up. She wants everything to run smoothly for her little sister. So you’d better put them on.” Melinda actually growled.
Rolling her eyes again, Casey walked over, grabbed them up, then tossed them into the back of the van. “You coming?” She got into the front and drummed her fingers against the steering wheel.
It was Melinda’s turn to roll her eyes before jumping in. “Sweetness and light,” she said with no segue.
“Sweetness and light?” Casey frowned, shoved the keys into the ignition, and pulled out. The window was open a fraction, and the whistling wind roared as it chased in through the gap.
Shivering, Casey quickly closed the window, grabbed her arm, and tried to rub some warmth into it.
“Before Cecile left, she said she expected us to be sweetness and light tonight. She doesn’t just want to make a good impression on Halliday for her sister. She wants to snag him and bag him before the party is over.”
Casey let out a droll laugh. “Yeah, good luck with that.”
“Why the tone?” Leaning around, Melinda checked on the goods in the back then twisted her finger in a circle indicating that Casey should slow down.
She took the next corner as carefully as she could even though she wanted to slam her foot on the accelerator and shoot through.
“Why are you frowning so hard? Wait, you don’t know Halliday personally, do you?” Melinda couldn’t have sounded more enthused. It was as if she’d won the lottery. She had an influential gossip blog, and obviously she sensed a new story, because her gaze did not dim as she locked it on Casey.
“No. I don’t know him. I have seen him around, though. I worked a lot of catering gigs before this one. The bastard always seems to be there.”
Bored now, Melinda leaned back and crossed her arms tightly over her seatbelt, her cotton blouse rustling. “I actually thought it would be an interesting story for a while there.”
“You want interesting? What the hell is with the weather? It seems to only be windy around here.” Jamming a thumb out of the window, Casey indicated the trees to the left and right, then gestured forward. The massive pines that lined the boulevard down into the quays were as straight as arrows.
Melinda barely even glanced at them. “So what’s he like in person? I mean, you have met him, right? And I mean by met, you have personally served him drinks, right?”
“Yeah, I’ve served him drinks once or twice. He is oblivious,” she concluded as, still frowning, she paid the strange wind phenomenon the attention it deserved. This niggling sensation in her gut told her it was important. If she believed in omens – which she thoroughly did not – this would be one.
“Is he as handsome as the tabloid photos of him indicate?” Melinda leaned all the way in and bit her lip.
Casey just leaned in and shook her head pointedly. “Men like Halliday are assholes. They get what they want when they want. They do not deserve that look from you. You know better. We serve these pricks enough to know precisely what they’re like in the real world.”
Melinda pouted. “A girl’s gotta dream. I mean yeah, sure, all rich men are pricks, but it’s still nice to believe in fairytales.”
“Not around men like him. Now, we’re coming up on the dock.”
“Yes, we are. And this is where I should be telling you to put a smile on your dial. Though you managed to run away into the kitchen, I had to put up with Cecile. She’s going to be livid if anything goes wrong. Though she usually doesn’t give a hoot about this business and actively tries to make it fail, tonight will be different.”
Casey parked in one of the service areas, muttered that she would smile, got out of the car, and found the guy who would help them coordinate loading everything onto the yacht.
Though it was dark on the dock, around the yacht was well enough lit. It looked like it had its own nuclear generator in there. There were lights strung up along the sides, and they led the eye up to the sundeck at the top of the ship.
Frowning, Casey ran her hand through her ponytail. “Why did they even want catering?” she muttered under her breath as Melinda walked away.
A superyacht like this would have multiple kitchens. This wasn’t the usual yacht you’d get around the quays. This was the kind of thing you’d see in Forbes or impounded from some Russian oligarch.
It was massive – the biggest Casey had ever seen.
It looked like a floating city.
Yeah, so Maximum Catering had a great reputation in town – one that Cecile hadn’t been able to destroy in the two months since she’d acquired it – but Casey had to go back to the fact that it didn’t make any sense for a ship like this to order catering.
Telling herself to ignore it, she got on the ship, met up with the other staff who’d be waiting the gig, organized things, and got ready. By the time the party rocked around at 8:30, Casey had completely forgotten her skyscraper high heels.
They would be the least of her troubles.
Casey had worked yacht gigs before. She hated them. Yeah, so Melinda had a point. It wasn’t as if they were out on the ocean. That didn’t matter. There was something about water – especially large bodies of it – that Casey hated. It spoke to a real deep part of her – one she’d never understood.
Hell, who was she kidding? It wasn’t just water. All the elements bothered her. She hated fires, and she freaked out whenever one of the burners in the kitchen flared. As she’d already pointed out, she hated the wind. Whenever it raced and moaned, it made her spine tingle.
As for earth, she didn’t garden. Ever. She had a really weird fear of dirt. It didn’t matter that her grandfather’s house had a brilliant garden that she should’ve kept up. Casey barely went out in it.
The party was now in full swing, and Casey had to distract herself from the eerie sound of the water lapping against the hull as she smiled her hardest and handed out canapés.
There were four decks to the boat. There were more down below, but they were strictly off-limits. The main party was to be held around the upper deck and the sundeck above.
If Casey had been in the mood, she would’ve noted how stunning the view from the top was. You could see all of the glittering city to the right, then the bay with its various boats and yachts to the left.
Though Casey had waitressed some gigs on the roof of one of the tallest buildings in town, the view from here was better. She couldn’t put her finger on why.
The party went on and on. There was only so long that she could be distracted by the view. Soon enough, she saw Halliday himself.
She would give him one thing. He was larger-than-life. Though she wanted to put it down to the way he held himself – with a rigid back, a strong, warlike stance, and a gaze that could melt steel – there was something else, wasn’t there? Though she hadn’t been prepared to share this fact with Melinda, that something had captured Casey’s attention the last two times she’d served Halliday. This time, it captured it even more.
A raging bull could have come thundering through the yacht, and she wouldn’t have looked up once.
Halliday wasn’t alone. He was surrounded by an entourage of beautiful women and men. One of them she recognized from the other parties. He was a tall, lean man with sharp but still handsome features and a gaze that looked as if it could track you at 100 kilometers.
Right now, he was having a whispered conversation with Halliday as the two sipped champagne near the railing that looked out into the ocean.
Casey currently had a tray of smoked salmon and caviar on little fried slices of baguette. No one seemed to want any. She should go back down and get another tray. Instead, she just stood there and watched the show.
Soon enough, she heard the sound of clicking high heels, and her intuition – which was always bang on the money – told her that Cecile was here with Virginia. Sure enough, as soon as they strode up the stairs, Casey confirmed she was right.
Virginia looked stunning. She was far prettier than her sister. With these big blue eyes that made it look as if her face was studded with shimmering sapphires and bouncing blond hair that could have belonged to a China doll, there weren’t too many men who wouldn’t take a second look.
Except for Halliday, apparently.
“Oh, Mr. Halliday, I’m so glad I found you,” Cecile began.
“The mortals are at it again,” Halliday’s friend muttered. It was quiet, and Casey got the impression that he certainly didn’t mean for anyone else to hear, but Casey picked it up fine.
Asshole. Yeah, Casey got it – neither Halliday nor his friend had signed up for Cecile to corner them, but that wasn’t the point. Did they really think so much of themselves that they called anyone below them mere mortals? How arrogant could they get?
Halliday turned and curled his lips politely. Casey got the impression that he was much better at offering either angry snarls or triumphant smiles. He did not seem to be the kind who was used to having to be polite.
“This is my little sister,” Cecile began.
“We seem to be out of champagne,” Halliday cut her off at the pass. “Please see to this.”
Cecile stood there, dumbstruck for several seconds. “My husband is—”
“We seem to be out of champagne,” Halliday said louder as if the problem was that Cecile simply couldn’t hear him.
Though it was kind of nice to see Cecile cut down a peg or two, this wasn’t right. She looked horrified. As for her sister, she seemed crushed.
Though Casey was all for Cecile and her odious family getting what was coming to them, considering they wanted to run this business into the ground after acquiring it unethically, Casey felt her cheeks redden with anger.
When it seemed as if Cecile hadn’t heard, Halliday cleared his throat.
“I’ll go get it,” Virginia said in a soft voice as she turned hard on her heels. The movement was too quick, and she overbalanced and fell against the railing.
Halliday was close, but he didn’t make a single movement to help. He couldn’t have looked more bored – that was until the yacht shifted ever so slightly.
It was probably just a stray wave, but the way Halliday’s eyes lit up, you would think he’d just seen magic.
Though it was way too late, he reached out and grabbed Virginia’s arm as she went to straighten herself.
“Are you all right?” Halliday asked in a quick, flighty tone.
Stammering and clearly confused, Virginia muttered a quick, “Yes. I didn’t really hurt myself—”
“I’ve got a first-aid kit,” he said as he pulled her away.
Sorry, first-aid kit? For what? All she’d done was bump into the railing. What the hell was going on here?
Though it freaked Casey out to watch this charade, Cecile just looked triumphant as if she’d finally won. Clapping her hands together and smiling, she waited several seconds, turned, then snarled at Casey, “For God’s sake, get him some more champagne.” She quickly walked out of sight.
Casey got that the rules were different when it came to rich people. What they were scared of and what they were willing to put up with wasn’t the same as what ordinary folk dealt with. But seriously – had Cecile not seen how creepy that entire interaction was? Halliday hadn’t shown the slightest bit of interest in Virginia. Then all of a sudden, he was taking her away for first-aid when all she’d done was slightly rumple her dress?
If Casey thought for a second that anyone would notice how wrong this was, she was fresh out of luck. Cecile was already out of sight, and so was Halliday with the blushing Virginia.
As for Halliday’s friend, frowning, he grabbed the railing and stared down the side of the boat. What, did he think they’d been hit by a missile?
Though all Casey wanted to do was hang around and see what would happen next, Cecile growled from down the stairs that they needed more champagne now.
“Keep your shirt on,” Casey muttered as she walked down the stairs quickly.
It was when she was heading around the aft of the yacht to one of the service stairways that she heard something.
It was the strangest damn sound. Casey couldn’t place it. Even if she’d had days and a wealth of sound recordings to compare it to, she still wouldn’t have been able to figure out what it was. There was something… as crazy as it sounded, there was something unearthly about the sound.
It got her attention, all right. It grabbed it like hands shifting out of the darkness and locking around her throat.
It was coming from the stairs that led down into one of the private areas of the yacht.
Though the party was in full swing, and it seemed as if the yacht was at full capacity, there was no one around here.
Frowning and unable to get the creepy interaction with Halliday out of her head, Casey cleared her throat. “Um, is someone down there?” she called in a trembling voice.
The sound got louder. Was it claws scattering over concrete? Impossible. This was a yacht. There’d be no concrete inside – it was too damn heavy. Then was it nails scratching down steel? Or was it chair legs grating over the floor?
“Is anyone down there?” she called again.
Casey finally heard something.
It was a full-throated scream.
Once upon a time, Casey had come across a guy who’d just been mugged. She could remember the way he’d screamed – the way it had set the hair on the back of her neck standing on end; the way it had forced her adrenaline to pump through her as fast as it could.
This was worse.
Casey swore her heart was about to explode.
She went to run to get some help, but when the scream echoed out again, louder than ever, she realized other people would be able to hear it.
“Hold on – I’m coming,” she called down the stairs.
There was a little chain separating the stairs from the rest of the ship. It was there to indicate that this area was well and truly out of bounds.
Casey didn’t care. With sweaty, trembling fingers, she unhooked the chain, clutched the railing, and threw herself down the stairs as fast as she could. She almost slipped several times, and she would have if she’d worn those stupid heels.
By the time she made it down the stairs and across a short corridor, the scream was so much worse. It was bloodcurdling. Casey had heard that expression before, but she’d had no reference for it. Now she damn well did. She had never felt symptoms as wild as these. It felt like she’d swallowed an explosion that was ripping her insides out.
“Just hold on – I’m coming.” She reached a relatively nondescript door. The scream was coming from behind it. Without a care in the world, she grabbed the door, wrenched it open, and threw herself through.
She knew what would happen if she was caught snooping around this yacht – especially going past areas that were clearly marked as not accessible by the public. But the scream—
Casey stood there. Her whole body became as cold as ice.
There was a large, opulent bed. Hell, the whole room was one of the fanciest she’d ever seen. It had to be one of the biggest continuous spaces on the yacht – and that was saying something considering all the other places she’d seen today.
Surrounding the four sides of the room were recessed shelves. In them were antiquities. Everything from spearheads to masks to old sets of Roman armor.
As for the bed? It looked like it belonged to a king. A draped bedspread was resplendent with embroidered gold thread and decorated with strange symbols that made her skin prickle. But that was the least of her concerns.
The man covered in blood next to a set of armor displayed behind cracked glass meant everything.
Casey had been on the scene after a shooting once. It still made her skin crawl just to think about it. The blood… it had been impossible to describe. It had been everywhere.
Yet somehow there was more blood now.
“Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God,” she stammered as she staggered over to the guy.
At first he didn’t react. It was like he couldn’t hear her, or if he could hear her, as if she couldn’t possibly be speaking to him.
Though he looked weak, and he could barely sit up, when she reached him and placed a hand on his shoulder, his head whipped around so fast, it could’ve ripped clean off.
“Are you okay? What happened? Were you attacked?”
“What?” he stammered, his voice shaking.
“Are you okay?” She slowed her voice all the way down, realizing that if this guy was half as injured as he looked, he could be delirious.
“How… how can you see me?”
Casey didn’t immediately freak out at his question and conclude he had a psychiatric condition. She just smiled. “I’m going to get you out of here, okay? I’m gonna get help—”
She went to stand. He grabbed her arm in an cast-iron grip. She would never forget the way his fingers sank in. They shook, and yet they held her with the kind of strength that could not easily be broken.
Slowly, Casey turned her head around and stared at his hand. “What are you doing?”
“How can you see me?” he stammered again. His voice shook with more than fear now. Suspicion rumpled his brow. He pushed it all the way down until it made it look as if he was trying to push his eyes off his own face.
Casey brought her free hand up and opened it wide in a placating move. “You must be a little bit delirious. You’ve clearly lost a lot of blood—”
“Who do you work for?” he snapped. His fingers now locked around her so hard, shooting pain stabbed up her shoulder.
“Ow. You’re hurting me. Look—”
“Dammit, it’s coming back.” With no warning, he shoved her hard. She fell against the side of the bed. Scrabbling against the covers, she managed to grip them and turn sharply.
It was just in time as that spine-tingling scratching returned and echoed through the room again.
When she’d heard it earlier, she’d gone through plenty of possibilities. But there was one she hadn’t even considered.
Something started to push through the wall.
At first, Casey just sat there, darting her eyes about as she wondered if in falling against the bed, she’d somehow done something to her head. Then the sound got worse. It was so loud, she shrieked and clapped her hands over her ears.
The bloodied man jerked his head around and stared at her again, his gaze filling with suspicion tinged with confusion. Then the creature in the wall manifested completely.
It stood there, and Casey’s mind desperately tried to catch up.
It looked… it looked like some kind of ghoulish version of a Roman soldier.
It had the right armor, the right helmet, the right sword – just not the right body. Where she could see its skin – on its arms and around its face – it looked as if it was melted white plastic.
It reminded Casey of some kind of ghost.
Casey couldn’t move. She could barely breathe. All she could do was stare as the bloodied man pulled himself up.
He moved fast, despite his injuries. He quickly shoved a hand into his pocket and pulled something out.
If Casey’s mind couldn’t comprehend the sight of the ghost pulling itself through the wall, then she had absolutely no hope of tracking what happened next. At first, it looked as if the man had pulled out a pen from his pocket – nothing more than a relatively short, thin chunk of metal. But with a single muttered word under his breath, it grew until the next thing she knew, he was holding a sword.
Casey just couldn’t… she couldn’t understand.
She’d never been one for fantasy. She’d been rabidly against it, in fact. It had lost her friends at school. While everyone else had gotten drawn into the various fantasy worlds of the most popular movies at the time, Casey had always held onto the fact that none of that stuff was real.
Once or twice, she’d realized that her behavior wasn’t normal. It was almost as if she was holding onto the fact that fantasy worlds weren’t real to ensure they could never accidentally become so. It was as if she’d been trying to prevent a moment exactly like this.
The injured man grunted. He held the sword in front of him. If the situation hadn’t already been bad for Casey’s addled mind, it was about to get a hell of a lot worse.
After that muttered incantation, the sword began to glow. It wasn’t as if it had discreet diodes in it or anything. For the glow that it had was unmatched and otherworldly.
It sent shadows dancing through the room. For some reason, they collected, not over the bed or across Casey, but against the far walls, specifically along the various objects in the recessed shelving.
That creature – that ghostly legionnaire – hissed.
It was way worse than steam shooting out of a pipe. It brought to mind gravestones, the breath of the dying, and the hissing of a predator before it pounced to kill you.
If she’d experienced spine-tingling fear before, then now, her whole body just shut down.
The injured man growled then thrust forward. So did the ghostly legionnaire.
The ghost whipped his sword around in a strong grip. The sound of his metal fingers repositioning over it echoed through the room.
Both swords met. There was an unholy clang.
There was also a blast of energy. It shot through the room. It was so powerful, the bed moved several centimeters. As for Casey, she was thrown against it again. Her face impacted the covers hard. If it had been anything but a soft bed, she would’ve broken her nose.
Turning, trembling, she watched just in time as the legionnaire smashed his sword forward then switched its direction at the last moment. He slashed it over the injured man’s ankles.
Blood splattered everywhere. The man screamed.
Casey started to shake. From the tip of her head to her toes, her whole body was captured in paroxysms of pure fear.
The guy was going to die, and then Casey would follow.
Ghosts were real, ghosts—
The injured guy tried to parry one more time, but the ghost struck his sword with such force, it spun out of his grip.
It fell beside Casey.
The world fell away. Nothing else mattered. The only thing that counted was the sword. The hilt was even turned toward her.
Thus far, the ghost hadn’t really made a sound. Now it unhinged its jaw and screamed. It was so loud, Casey’s ears started to ring.
“People will come. People will hear that. People will come,” she stammered to herself desperately.
The ghost leaned over and picked the guy up by his throat. The sound of the ghost’s fingers squeezing the guy’s esophagus made Casey want to hurl. Instead, she stared down at the sword. It was just there.
Casey had never used a weapon before. She’d never had a reason to.
When no help came, and the sound of the ghost’s fingers crushing the man’s windpipe took up all of Casey’s reality, she did it. Something possessed her, and she leaned over and grabbed the sword up.
The sword had lost a little of its glow since leaving the man’s hand.
Now it blazed. It was 10 times brighter than when the man had picked it up. It was so strong that even the ghost had to jerk its head away. It staggered to the side, and it dropped the man.
While Casey knew objectively that the glow was bright, it didn’t appear to affect her like it did the other two.
Casey expected the glow to subside, but it didn’t.
The ghost suddenly opened its mouth and screamed with all its worth. It was so loud that the only porthole that looked out onto the side of the ship shattered.
“Kill it. Use the sword – kill the Dismay,” the injured man screamed.
The ghost came at her.
Everything came down to a point. All she could do was feel the sword in her grip, feel its power, and see the ghost’s throat as it pulsed toward her, its own sword held high.
Air rushed around Casey. A wind roared far off – a long-forgotten force that now pounded through her ears.
Her feet felt as solid and as strong as the very earth. There was a fire in her blood, and she moved as fast as any raging river.
Just as the ghost met her, she sliced the sword to the side. It smashed into the ghost’s head and chopped it clean off.
There was no blood. There wasn’t even any bone.
As soon as the head detached, the ghost staggered down onto one knee and drifted into dust. It had a chance to lift a hand up and reach toward her before its fingers became nothing but dirt.
… It was over.
Casey dropped the sword. She staggered back.
“No,” the guy roared. “You haven’t exorcised it yet.”
It was too late. By the time Casey had jerked backward, the dust that had once been a ghost became a ghost once more. On fast forward. There was nothing she could do as its sword reformed in its hand and it came at her. She jerked and fell against the bed, but that didn’t stop the ghost’s blade from slicing across her stomach.
Casey screamed as blood splattered over her uniform.
She rolled to the side just in time, and the sword, rather than relieving her neck of her head, slashed her brow. It was just the very tip of the ghostly steel, but it was enough that blood splattered everywhere.
Casey rolled and hit the floor.
“Pick up the sword. Dispatch it. Slice the sword through its heart and chant with me.”
Casey couldn’t comprehend what the man was saying. But her hands knew what to do. Just as the ghost came at her again, she plucked the sword up.
The ghost held its own sword high, which meant its chest was open for attack.
Screaming for all she was worth, Casey sliced the blade forward.
It punctured the ghost’s chest. The sound of it moving through its armor paradoxically sounded like nothing more than a hand shifting through water.
“Repeat,” the man screamed, “Quod est ad finem.”
Casey was starting to shut down. She just managed to hold on long enough to open her lips.
“Quod est ad finem,” she stammered.
This time, the ghost didn’t disappear in a hail of dust.
This time, electricity shot over its form. It blasted up and down its legs. It drove it down onto the soft beige carpet.
The ghost’s whole body started to shake. Bits of it broke off. When they hit the floor, they turned to steam then disappeared in trailing wisps.
“That’s it. You’ve done it. Now hand me back my sword and listen as I tell you what you are.”
Casey just stood there, shaking on the spot. She stared at the point where the ghost had disappeared. Her mind kept tracing over and over the spot in a desperate bid to understand what the hell had just happened.
But there was no way….
“You need to come over here. I have to tell you what you are,” the man said. His voice shook.
That was enough to cut Casey out of her reverie.
Jolting, she turned around. She staggered over to him. She could barely see out of her eyes. So much blood was pooling down her face, it was as if she’d bathed in it.
The guy looked at her. She’d never seen a gaze that was steadier. It was as if his eyes had faced everything there was to face in this great world, and there was now nothing to turn away from.
“You need to listen and understand everything I say. Because there will be no one else to tell you when I’m dead.”
“Dead?” That lit a fire under her. Though all she wanted to do was succumb to her injuries, she pushed up. She wobbled badly, but she still managed to reach a hand out to him. “I’ll go get help. I’ll take you up to the main part of the yacht. There are people there. I don’t know why they didn’t hear that—”
“They did not hear because they do not inhabit the same world that we do.”
His voice seemed to travel a million kilometers on the word we. As for his gaze, it looked as if it reached back into antiquity.
Casey had to control her breath. “What do you mean we?”
“You’re a goddess. And not an ordinary one at that.” His gaze tracked back to where she’d dispatched the ghost.
One word kept playing through her mind.
One word kept pushing in and in. One word made it feel as if she was about to explode.
If Casey hated fantasy worlds, then mythology was worse. She didn’t understand why some people were so damn fond of it. What was the point? Mythology was nothing more than a stage in human development. Back when the world had been a chaotic, untrustworthy place, mythology had given humans something to strive for. It had given them the false sense that out there was something stronger than their problems.
None of that was true – not for a single frigging second.
Casey’s ears were ringing so badly, she could barely hear the man as he reached a hand up and locked it on her shoulder. His grip anchored her.
When it felt as if she would explode, he held her to the spot.
“You are a goddess. And not an ordinary one.” His voice dropped down and became immeasurably impressed once more.
“Gods… gods and goddesses don’t exist,” she finally spat.
“You are undifferentiated,” he said, awe shaking through his tone. “You are a true proto-goddess.”
“I don’t know what’s going on here, but—”
“You need to listen to me. I don’t have much time. I’m dying. I sustained fatal injuries.”
“No. I’ll get you some help. I’ll take you to a doctor.”
“Human doctors will not be able to do anything for my injuries.”
“I’m not gonna let you die—”
“Then listen, and my death will not be in vain. You are a proto-goddess. You are the rarest of all the mythological creatures. You,” he looked her up and down, “can become anything.”
Though she wanted to beg him to let her go to get help, something about that didn’t ring true.
“That’s not what a proto-goddess is—”
“Ignore everything you know about human mythology,” he snapped quickly. “Listen when I say that a proto-goddess is a singularly rare creature with the capacity to become anything she pleases. While all the other gods have differentiated power, you are like a stem cell. You can become anything. And before you choose what you can become, you can borrow the powers of any divine creature. There is no temple you cannot travel to. There is no god you cannot match. So for this fact, you must run.”
She wanted to fight him again, but she couldn’t ignore the way he said run. His voice shook with so much power, she swore the ground shook with it.
She almost fell flat on her face. She held herself up just in time. She shook her head once more. The move was unimaginably feeble. “I’m not a goddess. And I’m definitely not a proto-goddess. I’m just an ordinary woman—”
“From now on, you must ignore your every doubt. You must trust your intuition. And you must run,” he stammered again. “Every god will hunt you. They will not stop. There will be nowhere safe on the face of this planet. From now until the day you die, you will have to run.” He put so much effort into saying that, his voice cracked. He coughed, and blood splattered out of his mouth. As soon as it hit his chest, it evaporated.
Of everything Casey had seen, this impossible sight was the worst.
“My body is desperately trying to heal my injuries. But it cannot,” the man explained. “Your body,” he looked at her brow, “has already healed yours.”
Jerking back, she grabbed her brow with a shaking hand. She expected to feel the deep gash she knew would be there. Except it wasn’t. She dragged her trembling fingers over her stomach. Though she could feel the tear in the fabric, that was it. The damage was gone.
“This… this is impossible. It can’t be happening. It can’t damn well be happening,” she stammered repeatedly.
“You cannot afford to be afraid. Nor can you be distracted. You must leave this place, and you must flee. If you get into another fight with a Dismay, you must dispatch it quickly and leave.”
“Dismays? You mean ghosts. What… what was that thing?”
“A creature who comes from ancient cursed objects. There are other forms of Dismays, though. They can come from humans if they are impassioned and stupid enough to allow their emotions to infect powerful objects.”
Casey shook her head again. “None of this makes any sense. It can’t possibly be true.”
“Do not deny what your eyes are showing you. And do not waste time,” he spat before he spluttered up more blood. “Time is not something you will have. You must run,” he repeated. “Do not let any of the gods find you and use your powers.”
“Why… why would they want to use my powers?”
Though she didn’t want to believe a single word of this, she couldn’t deny her senses. This guy really was dying. Soon, his ability to tell her what was going on would die with him.
“You can stand in for any of the gods. There is no sacred temple you cannot access. Ordinarily, you must have the specific power of the divine creature whose abode you wish to enter to access it. That will not matter to you. You will be able to enter anyway. Your powers are almost unmatched, too. There will be no Dismays that you will not be able to dispatch. This will make you dangerous to the gods, for so many gods breach the sacred rule of protecting humanity to seek power and privilege in both the mortal and immortal realms. They will come after you. Everyone will come after you. So you must—”
“Run,” she stammered.
He looked right at her. No one would be able to deny the power of his gaze, nor the promise behind it.
She didn’t know what to believe, but it was abundantly clear that this guy believed what he was saying. She could practically see the horrifying future he could envision for her opening up within his gaze.
Weakly, she shook her head one last time. Even he could tell that it was nothing more than a reflexive move now.
“Do not allow yourself to be drawn into this world. Find out information. Take my wallet,” he stammered. He shifted his weight onto his left hip, allowing her access to his pocket.
Not knowing what else to do, with tears streaming down her cheeks, she finally grabbed up his wallet. It was covered in blood, and there was a long scratch along the side.
“What do you want me to do with this?” she stammered.
“In my wallet, you will find the location of my shrine. It isn’t much, but now it’s yours. Do not let people see you coming and going.”
“This… none of this makes any sense. It can’t possibly be true.”
“From now until the end,” he grabbed her hands and held them tightly, “do not deny your senses again. As a proto-goddess, you have powerful intuition. It will be the only thing that will keep you alive.”
He coughed, and this time it lasted for 20 seconds. So much blood splattered over his chest, it looked as if he wouldn’t have any left in his body anymore.
Casey held his shoulders.
She stared into his eyes. Briefly they became illuminated. Then that same glow started to disappear.
… He was dying.
“If you get drawn into this world, hide who you are. Take your secret to your grave. Because if you do not, you will be dragged into their war.”
With that, he died. Right there in her arms. He just flopped against her as if he was a flag that had been battered by the wind and ripped off its pole.
She didn’t even have a chance to brush her trembling fingers down the side of his face to confirm that he was real – he began to turn to dust. The dust didn’t swirl around her. It was caught on a sudden wind and chased away.
Casey had no clue how long she remained there on the floor.
She couldn’t move. She couldn’t hear anything other than the blood pounding through her head.
None of this made any sense, but… she cast her gaze back to where the fight had happened. Then she dragged her fingers over her top. It was still cut. There was blood all over the front, too. Her blood.
She staggered to her feet. She was still clutching hold of his wallet. Something tumbled beside her. Staring down, she realized it was a pen. It was the same one that had turned into a sword.
She wanted to run, dump the wallet, and never come back, but something made her lean down and pluck up the pen. As soon as it settled in her fingers, she felt its power. It sang to her. It promised her that all she would need to do was concentrate, and it would turn into a sword again.
“No, no, no,” she said pathetically. “This can’t be happening.” But it was.
By the time she made it out of that room, the party was all but over. That made no sense. It had been registered to go until 12:30 PM, but people were still leaving.
And so was Casey.
She managed to wait until the coast was clear, and then she walked out under the cloak of darkness.
She headed straight home. She collapsed in her bed after peeling her bloodsoaked clothes off and dumping them on the floor.
Casey slept. In the morning, her life would go to hell.
Casey sat on the floor in front of her rumpled pile of clothes.
It was real. What happened last night was real.
She briefly collapsed her hand over her eyes. When hiding didn’t change anything, she let it drop into her lap. She took an unsteady breath and let her gaze trace over the clothes again.
“This can’t be happening to you. You’re normal – painfully normal.”
The words were hardly out of her lips when Casey had to play her own Devil’s advocate. “Then why do you know when it’s going to rain? When it’s going to be windy? Hell, when there’s going to be lightning? Then why do you have a sixth sense for natural disasters? And why have you always been so freaked out by the paranormal?” She closed her arms around her middle, squeezed her eyes shut, and gritted her teeth. “This is real. It’s happening. I am a frigging goddess.”
As soon as the words goddess were out of her lips, she trembled. Worse than that? The floor shook slightly. It could have just been a tremor, but it wasn’t. Because as she freaked out even more at the prospect of what she was, two paintings on the wall nearest trembled while the rest of them remained perfectly still.
Casey repeatedly shook her head. “No way. There’s no way in hell this is happening. I have to be normal,” she stammered, and she put all her effort into the words have to be.
Casey just couldn’t conceive of a possible world where she was special like this – special in the kind of way where she wasn’t just some glitterati or celebrity – but she was one of the most powerful creatures from mythology.
Squeezing her eyes shut, she went to push up from her clothes. That’s when she saw the guy’s wallet. Obviously she’d been in such a hurry to undress last night that it had fallen out of her pocket.
It was just underneath her bed. And right there beside it was that pen that could turn into a sword.
Warily, Casey approached it on her hands and knees.
She sank her teeth into her lip. She bit it hard enough to send pain spreading down her jaw.
She finally plucked up the wallet.
“I don’t even know his name,” she muttered to herself as she leafed through the cards. “Thomas DiLorenzo,” she whispered as she plucked out one of the cards and ran her finger down it. She placed the card back into the wallet. Then she turned her attention back to that pen.
In a moment of courage, she plucked it up. Immediately, it reacted to her touch, and it extended into its magical form.
Casey screamed and dropped the sword. Instantly, the carpet started to singe. She plucked it up again. As her fear hit a crescendo, the sword reacted to it. The glow it sent through the room became brighter and brighter until it could rival the sun.
Her gaze became locked on the strange magical symbols that ran up either side of the blade. Trembling, she finally found the courage to touch them. They reacted to her grip. They changed, right in front of her eyes. She went to drop the sword again, but her latent courage finally caught up with her. She held it stiffly, her eyes wide as she watched those symbols change completely.
“It’s almost… it’s almost as if you’re changing your owner, isn’t it?” she asked softly. On the face of it, what she said was nothing more than a glorified guess, but it felt right. “And I have to trust my intuition, don’t I?” she repeated coldly as she thought of Thomas’s words from last night.
Placing the sword gently down on the carpet and willing it not to burn the plush pile, she went back to the wallet. She leafed through it until she found a business card. It instantly caught her attention. There was something about it that reminded her strongly of Thomas – so strongly, it was as if he was still here with her.
She plucked it out. She let her fingers trace across the gold embossed name. Then she turned it over. There was an address. It wasn’t that far from here.
Her breathing became shallow again. “Is this… is this where your shrine is?”
Hearing herself say that brought into sharp focus what was happening again, and she shook her head.
“There’s no way any of this is real.” Her voice couldn’t be emptier. Why fight reality? And why deny what was in front of her eyes? Thomas’s warning repeated in her mind.
She pumped her hands in and out, in and out.
She didn’t know what to do. Head to Thomas’s shrine? Or go back to bed and hope that all of this was some kind of fever-induced nightmare?
She desperately knew which one she preferred. If Casey could just sleep and wake up with none of this being real, she would. She would sacrifice an arm and a leg right now if only it would strip her of this horror.
But the more she wished for that impossible reality, the more Thomas’s warning swirled around her. She would not be able to ignore this anymore.
The other gods would come for her.
“But nobody saw you,” she tried, her voice so weak, you could’ve popped it like a balloon. “Nobody would have any clue what happened—”
She squeezed her eyes closed and grated her teeth. She hadn’t attempted to clean the room where the fight had occurred.
It would look like hell. Even if there hadn’t been dust from ghosts and gods, Casey would have left her blood all over the bed. Plus, from the singe holes in the carpet to the shattered glass, everything would look like hell.
“There’s no reason to believe that they’ll track it back to you, Casey. Hell, who are they?” She locked her trembling hand against her lips.
There were so many things she should have asked Thomas before he died. If she was… if she was somehow accepting this impossible reality, then she had to quickly accept how dangerous ignorance was.
An unknown, powerful enemy was out there, and she didn’t even begin to know what they looked like.
Did gods look like ordinary people?
… Tom had, apart from his sword, of course.
Could anyone be a god?
Casey stood. She started to pace around the room. Every now and then, she looked out of the French doors that led onto the little patio garden beyond. Every time she stared at it and confirmed no one was there, it just made her more fearful the next time she checked.
Though she didn’t want to admit this, her intuition was running wild. It was telling her to get the hell out of here while she still had the chance.
She ground her palm into her forehead. “What the hell do I do? What the hell—”
There was a scratching noise from the door.
Slowly, Casey dropped her hand. Her blood chilled.
As her heart pounded, the scratching grew louder.
It reminded her of one thing and one thing alone. This time Casey didn’t need to allow her imagination to skip through the possibilities. It was one of those ghosts. They’d found her. It was already too late.
Casey didn’t do anything for several seconds. Then in a rush, she grabbed up the sword. She didn’t go for her phone, which was sitting on the bedside dresser only a meter away. No, she went for the sword. Her behavior was already changing, but she didn’t have long to note that fact.
That scratching grew louder and louder.
Whipping her head over her shoulder, her blood-caked hair scratched around her neck.
She dragged her bottom lip in between her teeth and chewed on it hard.
As adrenaline pumped through her body and she got ready for the fight, she gripped the sword tighter.
Again it reacted to her fear. It glowed brighter, so brightly, it looked like it would be able to chase away every single shadow from Casey’s life.
If you concluded that would be a comforting thought, you’d be wrong. Because right now all Casey wanted to do was hide. Her light and the situation made it feel as if she was being dragged out of obscurity and dumped in front of her enemies.
The scratching became so loud, it shrieked in her ears until she had to turn her head sharply to the side. Then there was silence. It was so eerie, her back itched.
Casey pushed up onto the tips of her toes as she tried to make her footsteps as quiet as she possibly could. Shrinking forward, she reached her half-open bedroom door. She locked her fingers around it. Controlling her breath until it was nothing more than the quietest hiss, she pushed out into the corridor. The front door didn’t lead directly to this room. You had to get to a short corridor just beyond the lounge room first.
Casey heard footfall. No – that was entirely the wrong term. This was too heavy. If she had to guess, whatever was making that noise, it had to be metal boots. All she could do was think of that ghostly legionnaire from last night.
She had a thousand questions but no one to answer them.
She shrunk forward.
Casey had never been brave. She’d almost been mugged once. Rather than do anything proactive, she’d just fallen away from the guy and shuddered against a dumpster until a passing cop car had spotted the guy by chance.
She still remembered that incident. The memory was locked in her body. Whenever she tried to pretend she was brave, she called on it to prove that she was not.
Now it was as if that memory was burnt up. It was eaten by the same magical flames that continued to leap over her sword.
She stalked forward.
She could hear that heavy footfall pounding through her house. Then abruptly, it stopped. She didn’t think that the owner of the footfall had ground to a halt. Something told her he was still moving. Or it was, rather. She hadn’t gotten a full explanation of what these Dismays were last night, but she could only assume that they were dead.
They looked and felt like ghosts. But for that thought to make sense, Casey would’ve had to have a lexicon of ghosts to draw on. You see, the thing she’d fought last night was not the standard ghost you got from human culture. It wasn’t Casper-ish. It didn’t have this sense of being insubstantial. Quite the opposite. As she drew up a memory of that ghost, it was more solid than ordinary matter.
But… dammit, she just knew it was a ghost, all right?
Thomas had said something about the Dismays coming from powerful ancient objects or from the confluence of strong human emotions and modern objects.
Casey got the impression that the thing she was fighting was exactly like the one she’d fought last night.
She narrowed her focus. She continued forward. She was aware of even the slightest noise she made. When her footfall became far too heavy, she pushed right up onto the tips of her toes as if she was about to walk on her points like a ballerina.
She crept forward.
The legionnaire was now completely quiet. She couldn’t pick up even the faintest sound of it. But she could feel it. It was just in the lounge room. It was just to her left.
Come on, you can do this, she thought to herself as she gripped the sword tighter.
“No one else is gonna save you now,” she opened her mouth but didn’t make a sound.
It was that thought that solidified her will.
Casey jerked her foot back and kicked. The lounge room door exploded open. She shot forward. She had a chance to note that there was indeed one of those legionnaires like the one from last night, then the thing slashed at her. It had obviously been tracking her just as she’d been tracking it.
She ducked back, but not in time. The sword sliced across her shoulder. Her pajama top offered no resistance whatsoever. Casey’s blood splattered over the wall and the TV beside her.
She didn’t scream, even though she should. She bolted forward.
Power and energy blazed through her. Without them, she’d be that scared damsel who’d shrunk against the dumpster when she’d been mugged. With them, she went on the offensive.
The legionnaire jerked back. His heavy footfall made the entire room shake. He sliced at her again, but he missed, his sword smashing through the TV. It was chopped in half in a cascade of unholy sparks. Casey had to turn to the side as several caught her hair and cheek. They burnt like crazy.
While they stung, she got the impression she could take much, much worse.
The legionnaire had been silent. Now he unhinged his jaw and screamed.
Casey was certain that everyone down the street would be able to hear it, let alone her neighbors. They were retired, and they were always at home. They were exactly the kind of nosy people who would call the cops the second they heard a strange noise.
Casey had to get this done and get out of here.
Her fear bolted through her, and it sank into the sword. Its light became more powerful, more erratic. Just before the legionnaire could slice her through the middle, it had to draw up an armored hand and hide behind it. Seeing her chance, Casey thrust forward.
It was just then that her light dimmed. The legionnaire twisted its sword around. It caught her other arm. This time it was not a glancing blow. Blood splattered everywhere. Pain the likes of which she had never experienced blasted through Casey. Though she hadn’t been struck on the skull, it felt like it. She instantly became woozy. Just before she could drop her sword, the sword became sticky and locked into her grip. It saved her life as the legionnaire came at her and she weakly parried his blow.
While she didn’t have any strength behind the move, her sword was still inherently powerful, and it matched the legionnaire’s blow.
It opened its mouth again and screamed.
Hell, even if her nosy neighbors didn’t hear that, it felt as if the rest of the damn city would. It was so loud, she swore it shook through her bones.
The legionnaire came at her again. Once more, she managed to weakly parry the blow. Sparks and light erupted out at the move.
Casey could… she could feel the sword accessing her power. It wasn’t draining it, so much as complementing it. It was also discovering it. It was like a prospector’s pick tapping away at different parts of Casey until it revealed her inherent power beneath.
The ghost came at her again. This time as it screamed, it made several paintings fall off the wall.
The floor shook beneath Casey. It was so bad, she was sure that the house was going to fall down.
But it didn’t.
Somehow… somehow her house and the rest of the street remained standing even though she couldn’t. She was thrown to the side. She fell harshly against the couch. Immediately, the legionnaire was upon her. It snarled, opened its lips wide, and drew its sword up.
Casey’s sword acted of its own accord. It dug deep, accessed the purest realms of her power, and called on it all at once. A rush of energy escaped Casey. It shot up high, powered through the sword, and brought it swinging to the side. It matched the legionnaire’s blow. It smashed right through the ghost’s sword. There was an echoing crack that she was sure could be heard from the furthest reaches of the damn planet.
Then Casey bolted forward. A muscle memory of last night filled her. As blood coated her teeth from exertion, she sliced the sword forward with all her might. It skewered the legionnaire. Despite the confusion, she managed to get him straight through the heart.
The guy’s eyes changed. Maybe it had happened last night, but Casey hadn’t been with it enough to notice. Now there was no turning away. Whereas once they’d been this dull kind of dead blue, now they blazed.
The ghost staggered to the side. Before it could fall from her blade, she drew up the memory from last night. “Quod est ad finem,” she stammered. Then she screamed it louder and louder. She squeezed her eyes closed, and she pushed all of her force into repeating that term until finally something happened. The legionnaire shuddered once then twice, then disappeared.
He discharged in the same way as the other one had disappeared last night. It looked as if fundamentally the ghost was made out of electricity, and that same energy was now returning to the earth. The guy staggered down to one knee and had a chance to look up at her, then his face disappeared.
When it was over, all Casey could do was sit there and stare.
Maybe she was breathing. Maybe she was screaming. Maybe she’d blacked out. She had no way of knowing.
Everything came down to a point. And that was the point of her sword. Trembling, she brought it up and stared at it. Her gaze traced the symbols.
They seemed to be speaking to her without words. They promised one thing. The sword would now be her friend. Her only friend. And she would need one, because the walls were starting to close in.
It didn’t take long for Casey to find the right place.
She didn’t know what she expected, but it certainly wasn’t this. Maybe she thought it would be one of those expensive boulevard apartments, or one of the rare freestanding mansions down on the waterfront.
It was neither. In fact, it took her a long time to find the exact address, because it was down a hidden laneway next to a dumpster.
She stared at the back of Thomas’s card and frowned at the door she’d found. “22X Stanford. James Street. That’s this place. I guess,” she trailed off.
This quick wind had been chasing her ever since she’d left her house. She didn’t know if it was just the weather or her nerves. Or worse – her intuition.
Tom’s warning kept ringing in her mind. She had to trust her intuition to keep her safe. Which was crazy, as Casey had once been paranoid. She’d almost seen a psychologist for it as a kid.
“Maybe I need to see one right now. Maybe this is all some kind of paranoid delusion. It makes more sense than this,” she glanced from the card then back to the door, “being the shrine of a god.”
She shouldn’t have said that last bit. As soon as her lips formed around the word god, her back chilled, her heart skipped a beat, and her stomach rumbled.
It brought into sharp refrain the fight she’d had in her lounge room.
This was real. As real as anything, and if she just stood there staring at the door all day, she’d draw unwanted attention. That was the last thing she could afford.
Thomas had told her to be discreet.
“Here goes, I guess.” She went to knock on the door and instantly shook her head. Thomas was dead.
There’d be no one to answer.
Pressing her tongue against her teeth, she delicately placed her hand on the handle. She expected it to be locked – and it was, but the instant she touched it, something moved within the mechanism. It shuddered deep within the door then traveled into the wall. She had to stagger back and swallow a breath as the brick wall undulated.
It looked like it was right out of a sci-fi film.
Casey had to quickly remind herself that she was out on the street, and despite the fact that there was no one down this laneway if she shrieked, she would draw attention to herself.
Though she was starting to appreciate that those ghosts fought her in some realm that was hidden from humans, she wasn’t in that realm right now.
She turned the handle.
The door opened inward.
Casey was conversant enough with this street to know that directly behind this wall was a large department store. As she’d walked down this laneway, she’d tried to figure out how much space this so-called shrine would have.
It wouldn’t be much. Maybe a couple of meters – but that was it.
But that wasn’t it. As the door swung inward, Casey was treated to the sight of a long, dead-straight corridor. It cut forward a good 50 meters.
If it were real, it would drive right through the middle of the first floor of the department store.
Casey had seen a lot of crazy things in the past 24 hours, but this one for some reason took the cake. She stood there on the threshold, trembling.
It wasn’t until the bang of a car backfiring got her attention that she finally thrust forward. She didn’t have to turn around and close the door. It did it of its own accord. As soon as it shut, she heard some kind of mechanism moving, and she saw energy pulse across it.
It was locking itself.
Still staring at it, she staggered back.
She felt a slight breeze pushing through the corridor. It was clearly coming from the door on the opposite end.
Even from here, for whatever reason, she could see it clearly. It was covered in ancient symbols she couldn’t place.
Squeezing her hands in and out after she stowed the card in her pocket, she went to turn and get the hell out of here. This was just too much to take in.
But that would be when the door 50 meters down the corridor opened.
She froze. Slowly, she stared over her shoulder at it.
There was a soft, truly inviting glow coming from it.
She hesitated, teetering back and forth on her toes. Finally, she pushed forward.
“It’s not like you have anywhere else to go. That thing… it found you at home. Who’s to say that there aren’t more of its kind heading to your place now?”
That was one damn cold, sobering thought. It made her straighten. She walked with her head held high until she reached that door. It was only open a fraction. It was enough to see the light, but not what was within.
If it hadn’t been for the particular warming quality of that illumination, she would have turned and run again. As it was, it was the only thing that had soothed her since the fight last night.
She even managed a muddled kind of smile.
Casey finally reached the door. Closing her eyes, she pushed in.
She was done comparing what this space should be considering how close it was to the department store. Bit by bit, she was beginning to accept this world. But nothing could prepare her for the sight she saw next.
Gasping, she pressed her fingers against her lips.
It was a library. A massive one. It looked as if she’d just strolled into the Library of Congress itself.
“What the hell?” She twirled on the spot as she stared at the incredible sight.
The main room was massive – easily 50 meters by 50 meters. There were little sub rooms branching off it. The shelves went all the way up to the ceiling. The ceiling was also domed. Don’t ask her how the books were suspended in the shelves right at the top, but they were. And they were stunning. Instantly, Casey was surrounded by the sheer feel of knowledge.
She hadn’t asked Thomas something before he died, but now that question struck her. “Just what kind of god were you?”
The answer was obvious. Thomas had to be associated with knowledge.
It took Casey a long time strolling through that incredible, massive library shrine for her to appreciate that this was the only bit of good luck she’d received in the past 24 hours. If Thomas had been the god of wind or earth or fire, it would have been one thing. This way, she had a chance to find out what was going on.
Wrapping her arms around her middle, she shivered into them as she thought about that, then she found herself strolling through the side rooms until she found a sweet, small room right at the end of the shrine. Though there’d been couches and chairs and desks throughout the entire shrine, this looked more like some kind of quaint study you’d get in an old scholar’s house. It had that feel, too. It wasn’t as overwhelming as the rest of the library. This room was more personal. In all the other rooms she’d passed, she’d seen nothing but books. Here, there were journals, little objets d’art, and a long jacket flung over the back of one of the chairs.
Though she’d only met Thomas for a little under five minutes, she reached over and let her fingers trail down the soft fabric of his jacket. She tried not to cry. Maybe the tears weren’t for him – maybe they were for her old life.
Thumbing them away, she shook her head.
She sat down in the chair. She felt weak.
Just when she went to close her eyes, something vibrated in her pocket. Shoving a hand in and pulling it out, she quickly realized it was the pen.
Twirling it around her fingers, she gave it a rumpled half-smile.
“It makes sense now, doesn’t it? Pens are meant to be mightier than the sword. And you were clearly a god of knowledge, Thomas. Not that I’ll ever know your name—”
All of a sudden, a book fell out of the shelf to her left.
Startled, she stared over at it. Leaning over and not having to get out of her chair, she pushed it back into the shelf. But then she felt resistance. She shoved it harder into the bookcase, but when she let go, it fell out again. It dropped onto the floor, and it opened wide.
Frowning, she got down and picked it up properly.
It appeared to be a book on mythology.
The exact page it was open to spoke of the ancient Egyptian god of knowledge, Thoth.
Shaking now, Casey brought the book closer and read the page.
“Thoth?” she said warily. “That was your name, right?”
Another book fell out of the shelf. She should have been expecting it, but it was such a surprise that she startled badly. Warily, she leaned over and plucked it up. It was an exact copy of the book she already had, and it too had opened onto the page that contained the description of Thoth.
“What the hell is happening here?” she asked breathlessly.
Another book fell out of the library.
She had to get out of her chair and walk over to it. As she plucked it up and read what was on the first page, she gasped in surprise. It was an answer to her question. This was a shrine library. It could and would answer her every question if the knowledge of it was contained within.
Startled, she sat down hard. Shaking her head and pressing her lips between her teeth, she looked around. She had to think of a question.
Only one really mattered right now, didn’t it?
“Library,” she said carefully, scared of what she was about to say, “what is a proto-goddess?”
Thomas had already given her an explanation, but she needed to know more. She had to know every damn detail.
If this was her new life, and she would be on the run forever from the other gods, she had to understand why and exactly what she was worth.
A book right above her fell off one of the top shelves and came hurtling down. She jolted, expecting it to hit her head, but it didn’t. Right at the last moment, it fluttered down and fell into her lap.
With trembling fingers, she plucked it up and read it.
“The proto-goddess is the rarest of mythological creatures. She is also the most powerful. She possesses the capacity to change into any other god at will. If she remains undifferentiated, she can have every specific power of the divine.”
“I know that,” she sighed, not angry at the book, but angry at her cruel existence. “But where do I come from?”
“You were reborn,” the book supplied. “You have been reborn countless times, but in each of those lives, the gods did not find you. This time, they have.”
She shuddered. “So why did they find me now? Just by chance?”
“Unknown,” the book replied on an empty page.
She closed her eyes and squeezed them tightly until she saw stars. Rubbing her hand back and forth over her face, she peeked between her fingers, but the words hadn’t changed. “Unknown?” That wasn’t the answer she wanted. She wanted this to be random. Yeah, it would turn out to be awful misfortune if every other life she’d ever had her powers had never been revealed, but the alternative was something she did not want to face.
Squeezing her eyes closed again and this time locking her hand over them as if she wanted to press them shut for eternity, she finally found her breath. “Thomas – I mean Thoth – mentioned a war. He said that if the gods found out who I was, they would use me in it. What was he talking about?”
A new book fell off the shelf. It thumped onto the floor by her feet. It was open on a specific page.
She didn’t want to read it, even though she’d asked the question. It took a long time to gather the courage to lean over and pluck it up.
Her mouth became dry, and it was hard to swallow. She still managed to lock her gaze on the page.
“A war is coming between the gods. It has been building for centuries. It is prophesied.”
“What do you mean prophesied?”
“Precisely that,” the book replied. “This is a war that everyone has been waiting for.”
She really didn’t want to face that, but she couldn’t keep questioning what the book was telling her.
“What do I do? How do I get away from here? Where do I go? Is there anywhere on Earth where there are no gods?”
“Gods are everywhere,” the book answered.
She groaned. That was not what she wanted to hear. “How do I hide from them, then?”
“It may be impossible.”
She reflexively shook her head. “No, that’s not what Thomas said. He said I have to run and keep running. He said if the gods caught me, they would use me in this war.” As she spat her words out, they became more and more desperate.
“We detect that you have lost some of your blood.” The book fluttered to a new page that only had that phrase written on it.
She stiffened. “Blood?” She brought her arms wide and stared at them. She’d changed her clothes before she left her house. Her pajamas had been destroyed after the fight with the legionnaire. She had lost blood during that fight. The ghost had slashed her arms twice.
Frowning, she shrugged as if it was no big deal. Once upon a time, she’d always been freaked out about the slightest injury. She’d never liked the idea of losing even the smallest drop of blood.
Melinda thought that was funny, considering Casey worked in the catering business.
Casey? She’d never thought too much of it. Now she wondered if it had been an unconscious defense mechanism.
Psyching herself up, she closed her eyes as she asked, “Is my blood important? Will other gods be able to tell what I am based on it?”
“Yes,” the book revealed as it fluttered to a new page.
All Casey could do was think of last night. She’d left her blood all over that bed and carpet, and some had even gotten onto the walls.
She started to freak out. She began to hyperventilate, her heart pounding at a million kilometers an hour.
“We detect that you are distressed.”
That distracted her. Shaking her head wildly, she clutched the book tighter. “How can you possibly detect that I’m distressed? You’re nothing more than a book.” If she’d been thinking straight, she would’ve realized that it was clearly more than a book. It could answer her every question.
“This is now your shrine.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your power now sustains this shrine. Your magic also inhabits it. Your magic is powerful. There is little this shrine will not be able to do to protect you. And right now—”
“Information is everything,” she stammered. She clutched her chest. She dragged her fingers in and in. That changed absolutely nothing at all. She was still freaking out completely. But at least she had something to hold onto. She quickly switched her grip from her chest to the book. Leaning over it, her tight muscles protested. “What do I do? If I can’t run away… if the gods know who I am… what do I do?” Every question became more desperate.
Casey had never had that much of an imagination. Now she couldn’t turn it off. It was blaring at her in every visual language it knew, showing her precisely what would happen when the gods got hold of her.
“You must train,” the book replied.
“Train?” Despite the situation, her nose rumpled, and she let out a huff. “What the hell are you talking about? Train for what? Armageddon?”
“No. That is from the wrong pantheon. You will train for Ragnarok.”
“Ragnarok?” She had to search her mind, but she quickly realized why she knew that word. “Isn’t that the death of the gods in Norse mythology or something?”
“So are you telling me that I come from Norse mythology?”
“No. A similar concept occurs in many mythologies. It is simply known as Ragnarok by shorthand amongst most of the gods. That is the war Thomas warned you about.”
She became strangely cold – all at the promise of Ragnarok.
Inserting a finger into her collar and pulling it out as far as it would go, she slowly shook her head. It was one weak damn move. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but at Ragnarok, the good gods – if you could call them that – are overcome by evil, mischievous gods like Loki and his wolf Fenrir. Is that gonna happen now? Do I just have to get away from the evil gods?” she asked hopefully. She just needed a plan. She had to find some simple way to understand this world. The more complex it got, the more she was freaking out.
She went to pull her collar out again, but her fingers slipped. They fell into her lap, as limp as flowers that had fallen from a dead bush.
“It is not that simple. It never is when the Dismays are involved.”
Her lips pressed together hard. It took her a while to whisper, “Dismays? Those were the ghosts I fought, right? Those Roman soldiers.”
“Calling them ghosts is an accurate enough term. They are evil spirits who inhabit powerful objects. Though often they were created in antiquity, some of the most powerful Dismays are being created in the modern age as we speak.”
“Humanity is becoming more powerful every day, but that power is not tempered by wisdom. That power only feeds itself. Money is used to make more money. Land is used to acquire more land. Those who command resources use them to command even more resources. That is the modern equation of progress. But hand-in-hand with that equation comes dismay.”
She found herself frowning at that explanation. “You’re talking about the emotion dismay here at the moment, aren’t you? Not the creatures.”
“You’ll find they come hand-in-hand. Where strong fear, greed, and resentment occur, a Dismay can be created.”
“You said they were evil spirits, though. Do they come from… dead people?”
“Some come from dead people. Some come from the collective unconscious. Those are the most dangerous by far.”
She gave a shiver at his promise. She glanced around the room then back at the book.
This was all way too much for her.
She liked having a simple life. Okay, she had problems, but she would go back to those problems a million times over if they could protect her from this awful reality.
“You will train. Do not wallow in despair. We will assist you.”
“Training?” She whispered even though all she wanted to do right now was wallow in despair until this situation either died or she did.
“Stand up. Take this book with you. Follow these directions.”
She did as she was told. She was led through the shrine, which was even bigger than she’d previously concluded. She found several comfortable rooms, and one in particular caught her eye. At the back of her head, she realized it would have to be her new bedroom. Her grandfather’s house would be too risky now. She’d never be able to go back there, ha? This was her new home now.
She finally found the room the book wanted to go to. It was massive. While it was still a library – because every single room in this building had books – it had a massive wide-open space, and there were crash mats covering the floor.
Frowning, she turned on the spot. “What is this place?”
“It is where you will train.”
“Train for what?”
“Exorcisms,” the book read.
She had a chance to open her mouth and repeat the word exorcisms before a book fell off the wall. Despite the fact the room was large and the shelves were at the edges, the book still managed to make its way over until it tumbled by her feet.
She glanced down at it. There was an image of some kind of creature that looked like a jackal from Egyptian mythology but one that was made out of partially melted white plastic. “What the hell is that?” she had a chance to mutter.
A charge of magic rushed through the book. It stood on end, and the pages fluttered. Then the creature started to come to life. It pulled its way out of the book. Its claws indented the page and sounded like nails scratching down a blackboard.
Instantly, Casey staggered back and brought her arms up in defense. Though they shook, they weren’t nearly as bad as the last two times she’d fought.
“What’s happening? Where do I put you to keep you safe?” she stammered at the book.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the pages of her book flutter until it answered, “This is training. Drop this book, and we will guide you.”
“Guide me?” She just had a chance to spit that out.
The plastic jackal screamed. It was the most hair-raising thing she had ever heard. It made the skin around her cheeks tingle as if she’d just been slapped.
With no more warning, the jackal came at her, and it came at her hard. The sound of its claws scattering over the crash mats echoed loudly through the air.
Casey screamed and bolted back.
The jackal reached her, twisted its hand to the side, then sliced it down. It impacted Casey’s neck but stopped just before it could rip her head off.
Breathing hard, she froze until she finally screamed with all she was worth.
“You would have lost if this were a real fight,” the book revealed as it floated up from where she’d dropped it and opened right beside her face.
Jerking back, Casey grabbed her throat. When she realized her neck was still there, she shook her head. She went to run from the room, but the book got in her way.
“You must train. The gods will come after you. Even if they do not, you have an obligation – just as my previous master did – to protect people from Dismays. If you do not protect people from Dismays, Dismays will only grow, and as they grow, Ragnarok will come closer.”
The white, plastic jackal was just standing there. It appeared to be breathing, and it was one of the grossest sights she’d ever seen. Its chest would move up and down, but the skin around it was so tight that, with every inhalation, there was this awful creaking sound that reminded her of a tree about to snap.
She clapped her hands over her ears. It might’ve been pathetic, but she didn’t know what else to do.
The book was not about to let her get away with being pathetic, though. “You will turn, pluck up your sword, and fight. You must be able to defeat a level II Dismay. If you cannot, you will not be able to leave this shrine.”
When Casey confirmed that the softly breathing Dismay wasn’t about to lurch over and attack her, she opened her eyes fully. Pressing her hands in and out, she nodded. It took her several seconds to appreciate what she’d just done. She’d just agreed to train with this thing. Yeah, she’d fought two Dismays thus far, but not out of choice.
“Pluck the sword from your pocket. It will react to your energy. Should you wish to fight with it, it will allow you to do so.”
“This is crazy,” she muttered. She had no idea how many times she’d said that since last night, but it was becoming her mantra.
“This is not crazy. This is your world now,” the book answered simply.
With that cold promise, Casey shoved a hand into her pocket and reluctantly pulled out the pen. Sure enough, the book was right. Immediately, it reacted to her fear. It grew until it became the same pulsing, bright sword it had created only an hour previously.
“Approach the level II Dismay and dispatch it. Do you remember the exorcist prayer?”
“Quod est ad finem,” she said, and her voice rang out with authority.
It was the strongest emotion she’d shown thus far.
There was a pause. If a book could act proud, then that was precisely what it was doing. “You say it with passion. Good. Now exorcise this Dismay.”
That was easier said than done. When Casey blasted forward, seeing an opening, the level II Dismay showed her pretty damn quickly that there was no opening to be had.
It didn’t move like the legionnaires she’d fought. It was so much faster. It had the quick, jerking, lurching movements of a true predator. She swiped her sword to the side, but it ducked, rolled, and came at her from the left.
She swiped again, but it launched itself at her. Before she could duck back, it wrapped its powerful jaw around her arm.
As soon as the book had told her that this was just going to be training, Casey had relaxed. She’d assumed that, considering this was just a test, she wouldn’t be able to be hurt. That was a dangerous assumption indeed. As the jackal’s teeth sunk into her, pain – and blood – emptied out everywhere.
“You must not leave yourself open for an attack. It is important that you do not allow Dismays to access your blood.”
Though the last thing Casey wanted to do was have a complicated conversation with a book where she had to read its responses while fighting off an evil jackal, she didn’t have any choice.
Breathing hard and jerking away, she whispered, “Why not?”
“Because if the Dismay is operated by a god and the Dismay brings your blood back to said divine creature, they may be able to discern what you are.”
“How?” she managed to question as she dodged to the side once more.
“Your blood is a different color to other god blood. It is a translucent white. Most of the gods have blue blood.”
The jackal sensed an opportunity. It lurched down onto all fours then came at her.
She had to quickly stagger back.
It wasn’t quick enough, though. The jackal reached her, pushed its powerful paws into her shoulders, and forced her to topple over.
She had no idea how far this so-called training simulation would go, but considering she was already very injured, she wouldn’t put it past this book to take her to the point of death.
Her desperation gave her the energy she needed, and with a scream, she brought her knees up and kicked them into the jackal’s stomach before it could wrap its powerful teeth around her throat.
“Good,” the book said, actually speaking this time.
Casey powered up, rolled using agility she didn’t think she’d ever had, and ducked to the side with her sword. “Hold on, you can speak?”
“As I have already pointed out, I am an extension of your power. I could not speak with my previous master, but you are different.”
“If you could speak, then why didn’t you speak earlier? Why have you been making me read you during this frantic fight?”
“I do not make you do anything. It is important for you to discover your powers through use,” the book said.
Casey went to point out that was hardly fair, considering the injuries she’d already sustained, but the jackal came at her again, and it seemed more determined than ever to do some serious damage. Its jaw opened wide, and she could see real anger in its eyes.
It wasn’t as if Casey had led a sheltered life. Working in catering, Casey had seen some real assholes. There was something about the service industry that brought you up close and personal with the nastiest sides of humanity. It wasn’t just alcohol. It was privilege and that certain group of people in society who thought that no matter what they did, someone would protect them.
Why was Casey mentioning this? It wasn’t like it was relevant to her current situation. She really doubted that the jackal had some super powerful daddy jackal who would come to its aid if it ever did something wrong. That wasn’t her point. The point was that Casey wasn’t timid. She didn’t like confrontation, but she didn’t shrink away from the nastiest sides of humanity, either.
Yeah, she couldn’t always fight for herself, but she could face reality.
So she pulled herself up, and she damn well faced it.
Maybe the jackal sensed a change in her emotions, because it screamed at her, but at the same time, it moved backward, and either it was just her imagination, or it started to shake.
“That is it. That is the correct attitude,” the book encouraged.
She sliced her sword to the side. The jackal was too quick, but in a move she’d learned last night from the legionnaire, she ducked down to her knee then sliced the sword to the left. Though the jackal shifted out of the way, it couldn’t move away entirely, and she sliced her sword over the back of its left ankle.
Blood didn’t splatter out – this strange glutinous dusty liquid did. It looked like sand someone had suspended in corn flour.
“That is it. But you will need to use magic in order to defeat the jackal,” the book added.
Suddenly that weird glutinous blood shifted into the air then found its way back into the jackal. The injury to its ankle was sealed.
“What the hell?” Casey panted.
“This is a level II Dismay,” the book announced. “It will use sophisticated magic to heal any injury. You must deliver a significant enough blow to stop it from doing that. The only way to achieve this is through channeling strong magic.”
“I don’t have the faintest idea about how to channel strong magic,” she replied in a trembling gasp as the jackal came at her and she only just managed to dodge.
“You have done so intuitively until now. You can figure it out.”
“Just tell me how to do it,” she snapped, her breath getting harder by the second.
The jackal came at her again, but using her sheer luck and grit, she managed to land a blow. Unfortunately, once more, the injury simply disappeared.
If she kept this up, she would run out of energy, and the jackal would pounce. She knew precisely what it wanted to do with its teeth-lined mouth, and it wasn’t to recite poetry for her.
“To channel magic, you must access your power and allow the sword to travel deep into it.”
“Last night when I fought that legionnaire, I felt it accessing my energy. That’s what you mean, right?” She was already out of breath, and she could feel her stamina leaving her by the second. The jackal, on the other hand, looked as if it was fresh and ready to fight for hours.
“Yes, the sword would have accessed your power last night. But you must learn to direct it. If you rely on it automatically coming to your defense, it will fail when you need it most. You must understand your tools.”
“My old boss told me that,” she managed to quip as she danced away from the jackal again.
“Then your old boss must have been a wise sage,” the book replied.
That comment made her tick her lips to the side. “Sid was a lot of things, but I really doubt he’d call himself a sage. He swore more than a pissed off sailor.”
“It is not the specific language you use that matters as a sage, but the insights you wish to convey with it.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” she quipped again.
Once upon a time, she’d never been one for pithy one-liners. Her life hadn’t required them. Now she wondered if this would be her new normal. Though it was crazy to suggest, she was starting to get comfortable in this fight. Was she still freaked out? Absolutely, but not in the same way she had been when everything had begun.
She kept on her toes lightly and lurched to the side as the jackal brought its arm around and used it like a sword. It whistled through the air.
“Learn to channel your magic. Direct your sword to the heart of your power. That will allow you to produce far more devastating attacks. It is one of these that you will need to use to take the level II Dismay down. You must deliver a strong enough blow that it falls onto its back. You must then skewer it through the heart and repeat the exorcism mantra.”
“Got it,” she stammered. There were so many reasons why she didn’t have it. She was still freaking out – but that was at the back of her head. At the forefront of her mind, all she could do was concentrate on the task. Gritting her teeth, she strengthened her grip on her sword.
She no longer thought of it as a blade – even though all you would need was a functioning set of eyes to recognize that it was one. She remembered it as a pen. That felt more appropriate. She’d never been one for fighting, anyway. But had she been one for writing? Yeah – she’d always written letters to her grandfather, despite the fact he’d lived close by.
Her mind quickly skipped past the sword being a pen and settled on a stranger thought. She imagined it as if it were a chef knife. Casey had wielded enough in her life to have a tangible muscle memory of what it was like to hold one.
It wasn’t until Casey chanced upon that thought that the sword really started to settle into her grip. She felt this distinct change in the hilt. It shifted closer to her fingers, and its weight became reassuring yet light enough that no matter what move she envisioned, she would be able to pull it off.
“That is it,” the book assured her. “You are learning to channel your magic. In time, your ability to go deeper will increase. Now, dispatch the level II Dismay.”
“Onto it,” she quipped.
Letting her chef knife – or sword, or whatever – sink all the way into her grip, Casey slashed to the side.
The jackal tried to dance out of the way, but it wasn’t in time.
She managed to catch it on its arm. It was a strong, devastating blow. She didn’t just strike it with her muscular power. Charges of magic blasted over the sword and crackled through the air. They sunk eagerly into the jackal until it screamed, its pitching cry blasting through the air.
“One more blow,” the book counseled. “Make it count.”
She made it count, all right. Thrusting forward, the sword at head height, she let out a pitching bellow, and she sliced the sword right across the jackal’s chest. That gelatinous fluid filled with dust splattered everywhere. There was a moment when it lay there, suspended in the air. She could feel its eager desire to return to its master.
She had time to stop it.
She used every second.
Screaming once more, she barreled into the jackal, kicked it onto the floor, brought her sword up high, and skewered it through its chest.
“The exorcism mantra,” the book spat quickly.
“Quod est ad finem,” she screamed, her pitching cry echoing off the four walls.
When she’d fought that legionnaire in her lounge room, it had taken several repetitions of the mantra before she’d managed to dispatch it. Now her passion won out, and all that was required was a single recitation.
The jackal shuddered. Energy discharged over it. It sank into the floor and sang through the air with this strange, skin-tingling hum.
As Casey staggered up, the jackal reached a hand toward her then dissipated completely.
Casey stood there for several seconds, the tip of her sword indented into the crash mat as she leaned against it while she caught her breath.
“That was crazy.” She pushed her hand through her sweaty hair.
“Yes, that was. It took you too long to defeat that level II Dismay,” the book said quickly.
That all but took the wind out of her sails. Plucking up her sword, she turned to the book. It was still floating beside her. “Excuse me? I tried my hardest—”
“Then your hardest will not be good enough. Do not for a second discount what is after you.”
Shivering, she went to sit down.
All she had to do was think about the fact that she wanted to collapse into a recliner, then one scooted into the room from outside. She could hear the sound of it tracking across the stone floor as if someone was wheeling one frantically toward her.
It scooted in behind her, and she fell right into it.
“What the hell?” she stammered.
“As I have already said,” the book began patiently, though it was clear its patience was starting to fray, “this shrine is now yours. It will react to your every wish.”
“Every wish?” She touched the armrests fondly, then started to drum her fingers on them. She glanced over at where the creature had disappeared. “If that’s the case—”
“If you are about to say that you wish to change your fate, then do not bother,” the book said strictly.
“That’s not what I was going to say, believe it or not. I just want to sleep. Do you think the shrine can bring me a bed?”
“No. It is the middle of the day, and you have much to learn. If you do not learn it quickly enough, you will become a victim of your cruel fate. It has been many long years since one of your kind was seen. And it will be many long years until one is seen again. Every god will hunt you, and you must prepare or die.”
The book’s warning echoed in her mind as she got up and started to wander through her shrine.
Despite the fact it had told her that there wasn’t any time for a nap, she was still going to check out her room. After that… she’d train. And then after that, presumably she’d train some more. This would be her existence now.
She hadn’t bothered to think that far ahead. But as she walked back to the room she’d seen earlier, the weirdest thoughts filled her. She wondered if she would have to do a final tax return – you know, like people did for dead relatives. What about her house? Should she go back and get her stuff? Or would that be too dangerous?
The thing Casey didn’t have to worry about too much was her cousins. She didn’t have any close family anymore except for them. When they heard she’d disappeared, she knew for a fact that they wouldn’t search for her. They would relish that she was now out of the equation.
Her cousin Walker specifically had always wanted grandpa’s house. Well, now he could get it. It was, however, unfortunately possessed by ghosts.
“Though he won’t be able to see the ghosts, will he? And why am I even wasting my time thinking about this stuff?” she admonished herself as she pushed her hand against her brow and walked into the room she’d seen earlier.
For the first time, something brought a smile to her lips. She reached out and pressed her fingers down the beautiful library-red painted wall. There was a sweet queen-size bed, two lovely leatherback recliners, and, of course, bookshelves everywhere. It was cozy, though – and right now she needed cozy.
Flopping down on the bed, she pressed a hand over her eyes. “A 10-minute nap will do, right?” she asked quietly, knowing that the book would presumably be close enough to hear. It was a part of this shrine, and while she was inside it, she imagined there wasn’t too much she’d be able to hide from it.
As soon as she flopped a hand over her face, something vibrated in her pocket. It took a long time to realize it was her phone.
She’d forgotten all about it. And heck, now it was like she forgot what a phone was, too. She plucked it out, and she frowned at it for several seconds before finally answering it.
“Hello?” Her confusion was obvious.
“Oh my God, it’s you. Where the hell have you been? You all right? I’ve rung every hospital in town.” It was Melinda.
Casey sat bolt upright. Her eyes widened as far as they would go.
She pressed her fingers over her lips.
“Hey, talk to me. Tell me what the hell happened last night. You just disappeared… then… where the hell did all that blood come from, Casey?”
“I…” Casey began but trailed off.
“You what? What the hell happened to you? Was that your blood?” Melinda stammered.
Casey jammed her thumbnail into her mouth. She jumped off the bed and darted into the corridor. Slicing her gaze around, she looked for the book. It presumably would know how to deal with this situation, but it was nowhere to be seen.
She walked back into her room and stood over the bed as she pressed the phone hard against her ear.
“Why aren’t you answering me? Did something happen to you? Are you in trouble?” Melinda’s questions got more and more desperate.
They tugged at Casey’s heartstrings and finally pulled away her defensiveness. “I’m fine. Kind of.”
“Was that your blood?” Melinda stammered.
“Blood?” Casey forced herself to lie. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Melinda sighed as hard as she could. “Well, that’s a relief. The craziest damn thing happened. Halliday came in this morning demanding to know what happened in one of his private rooms. Apparently, there was some kind of attack and someone left a massive amount of blood behind. He checked the entire guest list and the service staff. Because I couldn’t find you, I genuinely wondered whether it was your blood.”
“Were the police called? Did you tell Halliday that it could be my blood?” Casey stammered.
“I don’t think they called the police. And of course I didn’t tell them it could be your blood. I didn’t even mention that you were AWOL. I said I’d just double check with our employees. Cecilia doesn’t even know yet. So you’d better get your butt in here right now. Something weird is going down.”
Casey hated the way that Melinda said that. The exact vibration in her voice made everything so much realer.
Casey pinched the bridge of her nose. “I can’t actually get away at the moment.”
“What do you mean? You were scheduled to work today. What the hell is going on? Why did you leave the party early?” She fired off her questions in quick rapidity.
Casey’s imagination had to work on fast forward.
Melinda knew a little bit about Casey’s crappy family. It would have to do.
“You remember me telling you about Walker?” Casey jammed her thumbnail all the way into her mouth.
“Your asshole cousin who’s trying to cheat you out of every single cent your grandfather left you in his will? Yeah, I remember that prick. Oh no, what’s he done?”
“He’s coming after the house again,” Casey muttered. To be honest, it wasn’t a lie. Walker was always threatening Casey over the trust. At every opportunity he got, he pointed out she only had two more months to live in that house.
“It’s horrible,” Casey admitted in a constricted voice. “He wants to kick me out early. If I lose that place, I won’t have anywhere to go.”
“God, you poor girl. I had no idea. Still, you need the money from this job, don’t you? Don’t even bother to answer that, because I know the answer. You do. So you have to find some way to drag your ass over here. Plus, you need to get your shoes back.”
“My shoes?” She crumpled her brow down low as she desperately tried to figure out what Melinda was talking about.
“Your high heels. You left them on the ship.”
“What are you talking about? I didn’t take them anywhere near the ship. I banished them.” Her joke fell flat, especially considering since she’d said it last, she’d learned of a world of powerful gods who really could banish creatures great and small.
“I still brought them for you. I left them on the ship last night. Considering Halliday is on the warpath right now, you need to get your stilettos back. It will look suspicious if he finds them.”
“Why?” Casey’s breath immediately caught in her chest.
“Because I left them near the aft entrance to the service area. From what I gather, it’s pretty damn close to the room that got ransacked.”
Casey just froze.
“It’s pretty damn Cinderella – but not in a good way. If he finds your shoes, it’s not gonna take long to figure out that they belong to one of the wait staff – considering they’re clearly cheap and everyone last night was worth a million bucks. The shoes will lead him straight to us. Considering he’s so interested in Virginia,” Melinda put a lot of effort into saying that, “Cecile isn’t going to flinch at outing you.”
Casey tried hard not to freak out completely. She had to lock a hand on her chest and breathe against her fingers.
“You poor thing. You probably don’t want to deal with this considering all of the shit your cousin’s putting you through, but you still need to drag yourself into work. We still haven’t cleaned up from the gig last night. I was going to head out to the yacht to get the rest of our stuff. How about you do it? It’ll give you a chance to grab your shoes before anyone else finds them. I left them close to one of the aft platforms. I’m assuming they might’ve fallen down between some grating. Get them before anyone else finds them, clean up, and get back here. I’ll brainstorm with you to find a way to make Walker leave you the hell alone. My cousin Bonnie’s a lawyer – or at least she’s about to pass the bar exam. I’ll see if she’ll cut you a special deal.”
It took Casey a long time to smile. She only just managed it. “Thanks so much. I… I guess I’ll see you soon.”
She hung up. She fell down onto her knees in front of her bed. She stared at the phone then over to the door. “There’s no damn way I can go out there. This is so screwed. But I guess I just have to leave it—”
“That would not be recommended,” the book said, appearing over her shoulder.
She freaked out and tried to bat it away. “Where the hell were you? Were you listening during that entire conversation?”
“I am the combined intelligence of this shrine. I am always aware of what you are doing.”
She pouted and shivered at that. “That’s creepy.”
“Perhaps. But no other god would conclude that. They have direct, sacred relationships with their shrines. I will never use this information against you. I will only ever be here to protect you and lift you up to face your challenges.”
Despite the fact the book had specifically referred to challenges as if that was all she would face from now on, she still managed a smile. “Thank you. But go back to the bit about how I can’t ignore this.”
“I heard your friend refer to Halliday on the phone.” The book’s voice had been nothing but competent until now, but now it shook.
Casey warily stared at the book. “Yeah, she mentioned Halliday. Why?” Her nerves started to run wild. “He can’t be a god, right?” Her voice was way too high. “I mean, I always got the creepiest feeling off him whenever I was around him. But that was just my imagination—”
“That was not your imagination. Halliday is a god. He is one of the most powerful gods in the world, let alone the country.”
That floored her, literally. She fell flat on her ass. Fortunately there was soft carpet in this area, and it protected her butt, but nothing could protect her mind. Pressing her fingers over her mouth, she went to shake her head but stopped quickly.
Halliday was a god. Even before she’d known what a god was, she’d suspected that there was something strange about him. He had this energy that was impossible to describe – this righteous power. There was no way he was a mere mortal.
“Mortal,” she said, her gaze darting from left to right. “When I was on the ship and I was waiting near him, I heard his friend mention something about mortals. His friend was tall, and he had kind of sharp, handsome features,” she stuttered.
“That would be Mercury.”
“Mercury? As in the Roman god?”
“Then who does that make Halliday—” she stopped. “Jupiter,” she said in a choked tone.
“Correct. Your intuition is working well.”
“It wasn’t my intuition – just a solid guess. He’s the head of Jupiter Holdings. But he’s… he’s a god?” It was as if she was giving the book a chance to change its mind. It did not.
“Yes, and he is one of the most fearsome. Jupiter has a lot of the real power of old. Many of the other modern gods do not.”
Tingles escaped down her cheeks and pushed into her neck. Once she’d had an allergic reaction to shellfish. This felt a lot like that. It was as if her body was getting ready to fight this knowledge with everything it had, even if it would kill her.
It took her a long time to suck in a breath, and even as she did, it became trapped in her throat.
“You’re telling me that Halliday is the Roman god Jupiter. So… what does… what does that mean?”
“That you left proto-goddess blood all over his private bedroom.”
She gasped. It was a powerful move. It made it feel as if she would never breathe normally again.
“What… what the hell happens now? Will he know where I am? Wait,” she could barely push that out. “Will he be able to track me here? Will he realize that Thomas was the god that was killed last night?”
“Yes, Jupiter and his employees will be able to conclude that it was Thoth who was killed last night.”
“Then they’ll know that I’m here. I have to leave. I have to get the hell out of here before—”
The book did something surprising. It shifted close and opened wider as if it was trying to embrace her. It was enough to catch her attention.
“What are you doing?”
“Attempting to interrupt your spiraling thoughts in order to add reason.”
“No one will be able to track you here. No one can see the entrance of a god’s shrine except for the god who owns it.”
“But I have to stay here, right?” She pressed her hand into her chest and breathed against it. “I’ll never be able to leave again.”
“No. You will be able to leave. But I must first teach you how to create a disguise. It will take time.”
“Do we have time? Don’t I need to go on that ship and remove my heels? Isn’t there a chance that Jupiter hasn’t found them, and he won’t be able to track me down yet? Wait, is it even that important? Will he really find those shoes suspicious?”
“Yes, he will. If your friend left them near the aft access to the lower deck, then Jupiter will track down their owner. Understand that there is nothing a god like Jupiter wouldn’t do in order to get his hands on a proto goddess. He will not be able to track you down from your blood alone, so give him no other reason to come knocking on your door.”
She pressed her hand as hard as she could into her brow. She quickly dropped it, her skin chilling. “Hold on, how did that second Roman ghost find me last night, then?”
“You would have gotten microscopic shards of ghost dust on you after the fight on the yacht. It would have followed them to your abode.”
Freaking out, she started to wipe her clothes.
“Do not become dismayed – though that is a word I am uncomfortable using. When you dispatched the second ghost, did you see it disappear completely?”
“What? It… it became electrified and disappeared into the floor.”
“What was the color of its energy?”
She didn’t have to think too hard. “Yellow.”
“Then it was a full exorcism. It would have purged your abode – and anything in it, including your clothes – of any Dismay energy.”
She scratched her neck with her nails turned all the way in. “So… you’re saying I’m safe?”
“You must still return and claim your heels. In time, I’ll be able to teach you to disguise yourself. This next mission, however, will be perilously dangerous. You must still complete it, though.”
A buzzing echoed through her ears as her mind repeated the word perilously over and over again.
Flattening a hand harder against her chest, she stood. “Okay, I can do this. I can frigging do this. Book, will you be there with me?”
“Unfortunately, it would be unwise for me to come with you. If you utilize Thoth’s god magic on that ship and someone notices, they will conclude what you are.”
She squeezed her eyes closed. “I have to do this on my own. Right? I have no time to waste, do I?”
“No, you do not. You must act quickly, and you must act now.”
Casey couldn’t believe she was doing this.
She showed up to work to get the van. She didn’t think the yacht would let her in unless it was obvious who she worked for.
She was a nervous wreck, but somehow, she wasn’t letting it show. If she looked like she was here for something untoward, security wouldn’t let her in. Because there was security now. These two beefy bouncers were out the front of the docking platform.
She’d seen a lot of hired grunts in her time. It came hand-in-hand with working important catering gigs. These guys had an edge to them, though. She wondered if it was a godly one.
She nodded, gave them her security pass, and walked up the gangway. Her heels clanked against the metal like a drumbeat.
You’ve got to do this. Come on. Get in and get out.
One of the senior members of staff met her. “I’ll be quick,” she promised as they were quickly called away.
As they walked off, she tilted her head slightly and wondered if they too were a god. Was everyone who worked for Jupiter divine?
You’ve gotta stop asking yourself these questions or you’re going to go insane, she thought quickly.
Her hands were thoroughly sweaty. She didn’t make the mistake of trying to dry them on her pants. They were beige, and if people saw the sweat marks, they’d realize something was wrong.
All it would take was a single whiff of suspicion to set the crew off. They were clearly on edge.
There were so many people around that it took her ages to find her way back to the aft of the ship. Even then, she had to take a chance when several crewmembers ducked down into the lower deck.
Casey ran out. She got down on her knees near some of the rear grating and finally found her high heels.
“Thank God,” she muttered. Then she shook her head. Once upon a time, she’d said that a lot, but now it would take on a new meaning.
Casey went to leave. Now she had the shoes, she would go into hiding and never come out.
She wasn’t provided that opportunity.
She heard footfall. It was angry and hard.
Looking for a place to hide, she finally spied one, and she pushed herself into a recess squeezed between the doorway and the prefab plastic wall.
That footfall neared, and two men strode out onto the aft deck.
She had to squeeze herself all the way in against the wall to get out of their line of sight. Even then, she had to control her breathing so her chest didn’t become visible.
“We’re never going to get an opportunity like this again. Just find her. Do whatever you can,” a hard voice rattled out.
It took her precisely no time to figure out who it was. Halliday.
“We’re doing everything we can. We scoured the nearby hospitals,” someone else replied, and she quickly realized it was Mercury.
“Why would she go to a hospital? With power like that, her injuries would’ve healed almost immediately. Find me her now. No more excuses,” Halliday’s voice dropped down low.
Casey had to control her breath.
She had to concentrate, too.
If she accidentally called on her power, they’d feel it, right? She couldn’t completely stop her power from pulsing out a little, though, and she wondered if it was unconsciously helping her to hide.
But she couldn’t forget the book’s warning. Jupiter was one of the most powerful gods in the whole damn world.
At that thought, she almost broke down completely.
Fortunately Jupiter chose that exact moment to push away from the side railing and walk back through the open door. He wasn’t out of earshot, so she didn’t relax completely.
“The proto-goddess is out there destroying Dismays. She could destroy everything I have spent lifetimes building.”
“I know that,” Mercury said.
“Good. Then find her. You have until the end of the week.”
“Why, what happens at the end of the week?”
“The Hydra gem goes on display. I should not have to tell you what would happen if the Dismay within it was destroyed.”
There was a significant pause. “No, you do not.”
Both men walked off.
Casey couldn’t move for a long time. Eventually her body realized how serious that situation could’ve been, and she shuddered, her heels banging softly against the plastic wall.
Finally, she pushed off.
The conversation repeated in her mind over and over again.
Dismays. Hydra gem. The end of the week.
… As weird as it sounded, despite the strong reaction she’d had to Halliday, she hadn’t concluded that he was bad yet. This conversation destroyed any hope she had that he could possibly be good.
He was clearly one of the gods that both Thomas and her book had warned her about. Gods who used the power of the Dismays for their own ends.
Casey quickly found the duffel bag full of equipment she’d been filling, and she shoved her heels inside. She managed to hold it together until she got off the yacht, loaded the van, and drove off.
She almost made it past the gate that led out onto the main road, but someone jumped in her way and waved at her to stop.
With a pounding heart, she realized it was Mercury.
“God no, God no,” she whispered to herself. “They’ve figured out who I am.”
Mercury waved at her to wind down her window.
Grabbing the steering wheel in one hand until she could’ve ripped it off, she did it. He walked over.
“Sorry to bother you, but I need to ask you a question.”
“Question?” Her voice shot up high.
He frowned a little, but he didn’t immediately use his godly powers to drag her from the van. “I remember seeing from last night. I didn’t remember your face until you were off the yacht.”
She couldn’t breathe. Jesus Christ, had he seen her hiding in the corner?
It took a few god-awful seconds for her reason to win out. If he’d seen her, and if he suspected who she could possibly be, he wouldn’t have casually waited until now to bring it up. Also, his expression was relatively easy, not suspicious.
She tried to tell herself to calm down. It was no easy task, but bit by bit when he didn’t attack, she managed it. “What’s your question?”
“How many other people from your company were working last night? Were any of them injured?”
“There were only two of us from the catering company. The rest were hired from a waitressing place. I think I have their card.” She put the car into park, grabbed out her purse, leafed through it, and handed him the card.
Just as she shoved it over, she wondered if the godly equivalent of DNA could be on it. He went to take it from her, but her fingers tightened around it.
He looked at her.
“Sorry, can you copy the details down? This is the only card I have.”
“Sure.” He shoved a hand into his pocket, pulled out his phone, and took a photo. “Thank you.” He went to walk away, but he stopped. He turned. He looked at her, his gaze sharp. “You weren’t injured last night, were you?”
She fixed a smile over her lips. “No. I got a headache. I left early.”
“Sorry to hear that. That party will go down in history,” he muttered to himself. He turned, waved her off in what was a combination of a dismissive yet somehow charming move, then walked back toward the yacht.
It took Casey so damn long to realize that she was free. She had to stop herself from flattening her foot on the accelerator and shooting out as fast as she could.
As she drove away, the full enormity of the situation hit her, and she started to hyperventilate again. With shaking fingers, she loosened her collar. “That was insane. That could’ve gone so differently.”
Casey drove back to work, unpacked the car, then went to leave. She had to go back to the shrine and report what she’d experienced. She also had to burn these damn shoes. To think, the things had almost ruined her life twice.
She did not get the opportunity to leave.
Cecile was there. So was Virginia.
It was at the sight of Virginia that Casey changed her plans and decided not to run just yet.
Virginia had this look in her eyes. It was like she was Cinderella who’d been chosen by the Prince or something.
And hey, maybe that was an apt simile, because in a way, this whole situation was Cinderella-ish – but with a twist.
Casey had almost lost her shoes, but it wasn’t her shoes that Halliday was trying to track down to a mysterious goddess – it was blood.
“I can’t believe he’s actually asked you to come work for him,” Cecile said as she did a completely unnecessary twirl on the spot then shoved her thumb into her mouth and smiled around it. “You’re going to have to be nice to me for the rest of your life. I’ve got you in with the most eligible bachelor in town,” Cecile said rapidly as she patted her sister on the back.
Melinda, as always, was doing a good job of pretending to care. She leaned back, crossed her arms, and nodded. “It must be an amazing feeling.”
Virginia, who was a lot cuter than she should be, bit her lip. “I guess.” She rubbed her arm. She was wearing a long sleeve blouse, and there was something strange about the move.
Did she have an injury or something? Wait, what if Halliday had taken her blood? Is that how gods tried to find other gods?
Casey knew that her thoughts were becoming increasingly more paranoid, but she had absolutely no way to stop them.
Perhaps Halliday was taking blood specimens from everyone who’d been on the ship—
Virginia looked over at Casey. “You look kinda pale. You okay?”
Cecile ignored the question and spoke right over Virginia. “We need to figure out the perfect outfits for you to wear. You start tomorrow, right? I’m going to take you shopping.” She clapped loudly.
Virginia, for whatever reason, was still making eye contact with Casey.
At first, Casey thought nothing of it, but when it continued to occur, she frowned. Her gut kicked.
Playing the interaction yesterday over in her head, Casey remembered several key points. Halliday had only become interested in Virginia after the ship had moved without any warning. Before that, Mercury had made a dismissive comment about mortals. What if Virginia had somehow used some kind of godly power by accident and come to their attention? What if she was a hidden goddess like Casey was, and they’d only realized that when the ship had moved?
And what… what if Virginia could feel Casey’s power?
Again, Casey knew that her thoughts were getting more and more paranoid, but she couldn’t stop them.
“I’ve just got to go unpack things in the kitchen.” She turned quickly. When she made it through the open door into the large catering area, she glanced over her shoulder. Virginia was still looking at her.
Casey had to control the urge to run.
She might’ve only just met the book – which she was going to have to find a nickname for – but it was now her only comfort. It was time to go back to it and share every growing suspicion she had.
She didn’t get the opportunity to leave. None other than Cecile’s husband walked in through the back door into the kitchen.
Casey had just picked up a kitchen knife that had been dangling dangerously off the edge of a bench. At the sudden sight of Frank, she accidentally cut the tip of her finger.
Frank looked over at her disapprovingly. He growled, “Where’s my wife?”
“In the front room,” Casey said as she reached for the first aid kit. It wasn’t until she opened it and started leafing through the contents that she stopped.
Blood. She had to be so much more careful with her blood now. It was evident that it would lead any god worth their powers directly back to her.
She dressed her wound quickly, fixing several lengths of tape around her finger until it looked as if she wanted to squeeze it off. Then she ran around and cleaned even the faintest droplet of her blood that she could find. She even grabbed out a bottle of bleach.
When she was done scrubbing, she tuned in to the conversation in the other room.
Frank, as always, was being a complete dick. That seemed to be his thing. Casey would say that she had no clue why someone like Cecile would put up with behavior like that, but it went back to the fact that rich people had different thresholds. They might not like their clothes to be stained, and they might prefer their caviar to be Beluga, but when it came to acting like complete a-holes around each other, they seemed to be okay with that. That was the price of wealth, apparently.
“You need to do whatever you can to get us a foot in the door,” Frank growled at Virginia. “You’re the only business partner I know who’s been invited to the exhibition opening on Friday night. You will use that opportunity.” Frank’s tone went beyond dictatorial. He was – ironically – Jovian in his orders.
Though Casey couldn’t see Virginia, she could imagine how the poor girl would be looking. She’d been dragged into this by her sister, and now here Frank was getting involved.
It took Casey a few seconds to realize something. They were talking about the Hydra exhibition, weren’t they?
Now she stopped doing what she was doing and inched toward the doorway.
“It’s going to be such an important opportunity for our family,” Cecile said. “I’m even going to offer our services in catering. I think we made such a good impression at the party last night that he’s definitely going to use us. If only just to spend some more time with you,” she said as she patted her sister on the shoulder.
“I really don’t want to make too much of a fuss. I don’t think he invited me because—” Virginia tried.
“I have several financial clients who are interested in starting a relationship with Jupiter Holdings. You’ll use this opportunity to get closer to him,” Frank demanded.
“Maybe you can ask if he can extend the invite to us?” Cecile purred.
Casey had walked right up against the wall near the door. Her back was pressed against it. Her sweaty hands were clenched in front of her.
All she could do was repeat what she’d overheard Jupiter saying.
There was a Dismay in the Hydra gem. And he was worried about her dispatching it.
Casey didn’t immediately think that there was no way in hell she would be able to dispatch a Dismay like that. Hell, she was only assuming that it was powerful, but for it to be associated with Jupiter, it would have to be, right?
But she could put two and two together. If Jupiter was worried about her doing this, then he clearly was assuming that she knew what she was doing.
Wait. Didn’t that mean that he thought she knew how to use her powers? Obviously he was under the impression that when she’d trashed his room last night, it hadn’t been her first time fighting. Maybe… maybe that meant that Jupiter wouldn’t directly connect her to Thoth.
That was one thing. But the party at the end of the week would be something else.
“I really don’t think we should make a fuss about this,” Virginia said, her tone strange.
“Why not? Of course we should make a fuss about it. Our family’s star is finally starting to rise,” Cecile said pointedly.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea for any of you to come,” Virginia finally put her foot down.
There was a long pause. Frank was the first to react. Of course he was. He was a bully, through and through. “I’m sorry? You really don’t think it’s a good idea for us to make a fuss about this? Do you also not think it was a good idea for me to pay for your dress and makeup yesterday? How about those shoes? Did they pay for themselves?”
God, if this were any other circumstance, Casey would go out there and slap him. What an odious prick. He was the kind of jerk who thought he could control women with money. Cecile should’ve pulled him up, but she didn’t say a damn thing.
Even from here Casey could hear as Virginia let out a deep breath. “I just… I don’t think it’s a good idea for any of you to come, okay? It’s really not what you think.”
The way she said that made Casey’s back itch. Her intuition from before was right, wasn’t it? Virginia was magical. She was a goddess – or she was at least associated with this world. You might’ve thought that was a stretch on Casey’s part, but she had to remind herself of Tom’s promise. She needed to trust her intuition.
Grinding her eyes shut, she realized that it was time to do something brave. She walked back into the main room. Eavesdropping on this conversation would only get her so far.
She needed to look Virginia right in the eye.
If there was even the remotest possibility that Virginia knew who Casey was, then… what? Casey would have to run? She would have to confront her? Then what would she do?
Figure it out when you get there, she thought. It had been her old boss’s favorite saying. You couldn’t always predict every potential problem you would come across in the catering business. But you could have an attitude that, whatever happened, you’d be able to fix it if only you knew what kind of resources you had. While Casey didn’t have a tray of spare canapés to rely on, she had her magic, she had the book, and she had the shrine.
Cecile barely looked up as Casey walked in. Melinda was obviously too focused on playing the game she always did around her boss, and as for Frank, Casey could do a little dance in front of him, and he still wouldn’t glance her way, because she was ultimately insignificant to him. Virginia? Virginia looked at Casey with wide-open eyes that had just a hint of desperation in them.
This wasn’t the first time Casey had met Virginia. Cecile dragged her in here more often than not. But Virginia had never looked this way around Casey before. It was like Casey was Virginia’s only friend now.
Dammit, dammit, dammit, Casey thought quickly. Virginia definitely knew something was up.
But what? If she’d found out what Casey was, then Jupiter would’ve found out what Casey was too… right? No, not necessarily. What if Virginia had seen something? Maybe she’d glimpsed Casey going down the stairs to Jupiter’s room?
God, it was too much to deal with. Every new twist and turn was doing Casey’s head in.
“I think it’s a good idea for us to cater the function,” Virginia said, and for the first time, there was force behind her words. “But I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to try to get people invited who haven’t already been asked to attend. He said this was a closed function. It was only for his closest friends. Maybe we’ll get a chance later, but this is not our chance.”
Cecile looked surprised at the fact Virginia had put her foot down. Frank just narrowed his eyes and looked as if Virginia was getting in between him and the thing he loved most – money.
Virginia? She continued to look on at Casey pleadingly.
“Maybe you’re right,” Frank finally conceded. “We shouldn’t push the situation. But the first chance you get,” he warned, “you take it.”
Virginia looked down at her clasped hands and nodded.
Frank, clearly thinking that his intimidation had worked, turned and went to barrel through the door without even a single word to his wife.
When Casey didn’t move quickly enough, he shot her the kind of look that said he owned her and at any point he could end her employment and make her life hell.
Once upon a time, Casey had been intimidated by Frank. Hell – by any man like him. He reminded her a lot of her cousin Walker. They’d gone to college together.
Though Casey was usually good at diverting her gaze to the ground and scurrying out of men like Franks’ way, this time, she met his eyes for way too long.
She might’ve only fought two legionnaires and a level II dismay, but something was obviously sinking through her bones. Call it courage or stupidity – right now, it was suicidal.
“Do you have a problem, employee? There must be a reason why you are staring at me like that. Do you not agree with the privileged conversation you just heard? Need I tell you—”
“Just leave her alone, Frank,” Virginia said through a sigh.
A big mistake. Frank just turned his ire on her.
As he whirled, his expensive shoes squeaking against the polished floor, all Casey wanted to do was reach over and slap him.
In that moment, he summed up everything that was wrong with privilege. He also stood in for another man. Jupiter. Casey had seen that exact dismissive gaze in Jupiter’s eyes before he’d realized Virginia was a goddess. Did he hold the same contempt for all mortals?
He would have to if he was going to imperil them by keeping a Dismay in the Hydra gem.
Just before Frank could get started on Virginia, no doubt to berate her for not doing more to obtain Jupiter’s favors already, Virginia looked at Casey specifically and inclined her head over to the door. It was clear that she was giving Casey the time to escape.
Again Casey’s gut twitched.
Virginia was acting like a close friend. She’d never done that before. Hell, Casey wouldn’t be surprised if, before today, Virginia hadn’t even known who Casey was. She would’ve just been a background ornament in the office every time Cecile had dragged Virginia in here.
Though Casey didn’t want to back down from this fight, she still turned and exited back into the kitchen.
She reached out for something to punch. There was nothing, so she just curled her hand as hard as she could and ground her knuckles into the polished stainless-steel bench.
Frank quickly unloaded his unjustified, entitled anger, then left.
All the while, Casey just stood there, listening but not hearing, her mind circling around and around what she was and what her life would be now.
This, right here, would likely be the last normal interaction she’d ever have. Her shoes were gone, and there was no information linking her to Jupiter’s bedroom aside from her blood. It was time for Casey to go into hiding.
She still had a full day of work to do. That didn’t stop her from striding through the kitchen, grabbing open the back door, and lurching through.
There was a concrete platform leading down to the van. She was usually always careful to walk down the ramp. Today she just jumped off and landed with two echoing thumps. Her ankles didn’t even protest.
… Was her body changing? Did that even make sense? Had she always been… magical? Or were her powers only coming to the fore now that she was being asked to use them?
Those questions circulated in her mind, and she realized there was only one man – or book, at least – who’d be able to answer them.
It was time to—
Before she could stride off and finish that thought, she heard rapid footfall from around the side of the building.
It was Virginia.
She was out of breath. But as soon as she saw Casey, she flattened a hand on her chest and smiled. “I’m glad I caught you.”
Casey tried to stop her shoulders from stiffening on the term caught.
Were her worst suspicions about to be confirmed?
She just stood there, stiff, straight, and ready – but not sure what she was ready for.
Virginia pressed her lips in. It was a slow, awkward move, and it didn’t match her pretty face.
No, wait – that was a pretty lecherous damn thought. It was the kind of thing someone like Jupiter or Frank would think. Virginia’s face was Virginia’s face – and her body and her reactions were her own. No one got to decide what matched her but Virginia.
Still, it violated everything Casey thought she knew about the apparent rich brat.
“Do you want something?” Casey finally forced herself to ask. Her voice was terse. It felt like pushing a fist out of a narrow sleeve.
Virginia made no attempt to hide the fact that she was staring right at Casey. Her gaze didn’t deviate once. There could’ve been a category 10 earthquake and the road could’ve fallen into the sea, and she would’ve still stood there staring at Casey like there was nothing else in the world.
Casey’s stomach didn’t so much kick anymore as feel like it wanted to hurtle out of her gut, do a 360 around her throat, and string her up.
“I don’t want you to leave,” Virginia said abruptly.
Casey narrowed her eyes. “Sorry?”
“I… know – suspect,” she corrected herself, “that after that interaction with Frank, you’re going to quit. Don’t. You need to stay at this company.”
There was such emphasis behind the word need, it was like Virginia was reading out a checklist to stop a plane crash.
Casey could’ve tried to hide her suspicion – but it was too hard. It etched its way across her lips as they drove hard into her chin. “What are you talking about?”
“I can… see it in your eyes,” Virginia said, clearly searching for her words, either to find the correct way to phrase them, or because she was lying. “You’re about to get out of here. Please don’t. You need to stay at this company.”
Again there was clear desperation in Virginia’s voice. It almost – almost – tugged at Casey’s heartstrings. The very least it could do was keep her there, despite the fact her feet wanted to march her right past Virginia and never return to this place ever again.
Virginia pulled her hands up and squeezed them together. Maybe she was trying to rub her thumbs over one another, but her digits wouldn’t play nice. Her joints creaked as if there was so much tension in her body, the very idea of moving it was like moving several mountains at once. “I know he can be an asshole, but you really need to cut him some slack.”
This was where Casey had to at least pretend that she was a dutiful employee. She couldn’t, though. She snorted, and it would’ve put any charging bull to shame. “Frank Flowers is an asshole through and through.”
“Not him—” she began, but she stopped herself quickly. “You just need to give him a chance, all right?”
Casey had no damn clue what was going on here. There was one possibility – a distinct one. It made her skin crawl and her back arch. What if Virginia was just wasting Casey’s time? What if Jupiter was on his way, and what if this was a trap, after all?
Casey’s blood pounded harder. It boomed in her ears, shaking and echoing like far-off thunder.
It was when that specific thought settled that she heard an engine.
Casey was hardly a car expert, but around these parts, you got to know the difference between a car that was used to get someone from A to B and a car that cost as much as 20 people would earn in a year.
Though Frank owned a Porsche, it was not in the same caliber as whatever Casey was hearing.
Virginia turned her head over her shoulder quickly, staring in the direction of the noise. Then she locked her focus on Casey again, and somehow it was even more intense than before. “You should stay at this company. You should waitress the function on Friday.”
This was no coincidence. Virginia knew something. Casey had to leave.
She turned away. She didn’t get far. Virginia shoved out a hand and grabbed Casey’s arm.
Until this point, Casey had only been suspecting that Virginia was a goddess. As Virginia’s fingers wrapped around Casey’s arm, Casey felt power. This wasn’t ordinary human strength. This was something beyond.
As that roaring echoed louder in Casey’s ears, she slowly turned.
Her fear told her that this was it. It was over. Virginia knew exactly what Casey was, and the only way Casey was gonna get out of here was by fighting.
Maybe Virginia could see that promise sharpening Casey’s gaze and rising off her like burning hot steam, because she shook her head. “Please – I don’t wish you any harm. You should just stay here. There’s a lot of good you can do here.”
“This is a catering business,” Casey spat. Though she needed to get the hell out of here, she also wanted to know how far Virginia would go with this pretense. At some point would she just drop it, face Casey directly, and point out that she knew Casey was the rarest creature from mythology? Or would she keep playing around and around in this endless merry-go-round?
The bell above the front door jangled, and somebody walked in. Casey wasn’t quite sure how she could hear that from here. This was an old concrete and breeze brick building. So it was just as dense and unattractive as you would expect.
She still heard it. Someone with heavy, direct footfall had just walked into the front room.
Her intuition didn’t need to tell her who it was anymore. Her senses could do that. She could… she swore she could feel power. It wasn’t as if she’d developed the capacity to sense electricity running through overhead wires. This was real power – the strength it would take to reshape the world; the power needed, not just to change the hearts and minds of men, but to rip both right out of their bodies and pulverize them to dust.
Casey wasn’t careful. She took in several sharp breaths, and they pushed hard against her chest. Her catering top was a little too small for her. It had shrunk in the wash. The buttons protested as she breathed hard enough against them that they could’ve ricocheted off and pinged around the back entrance.
Virginia briefly turned her head back in the direction of the building. Then once more she locked her gaze on Casey as if there wasn’t a damn thing in all the universe that would be able to pull her away. “You should just give him a chance, all right? Nothing’s ever as it seems. And you need to stay here. You should waitress the function. Okay?”
No, not okay. Everything about this interaction was wrong. And Casey’s better judgment was finally screaming at her to get the hell out of here already.
She extricated herself from Virginia. She managed a polite smile. It was likely the last she would ever give. “Sure. Don’t worry about me.” She turned and went to walk off.
That would be when she heard a high teetering from the kitchen. The door opened. Cecelia bounded out like a golden retriever puppy. “Yes, Mr. Halliday. I’m certain she’s around here somewhere. Look, there she is.”
Halliday. That word could have driven a pillar right through Casey’s gut. For several seconds, she did nothing but stand there, her back to the door.
Slowly, as she heard that powerful footfall punch out, Casey turned.
Her gaze was initially locked on the chipped concrete of the loading bay, but eventually it drifted up until it settled on Jupiter’s handsome features.
No. Ordinary features were handsome. Nothing about Jupiter was ordinary. His face, just like his body, just like his every step and just like his every damn breath – did not belong in the world of ordinary people.
Casey’s every sense told her that Jupiter would drop the act, come at her with everything he had, and capture her.
… But that didn’t happen. He didn’t even glance her way. As soon as he saw Virginia, he narrowed in on her like a hunting dog to a fox. “There you are,” he said, his voice quick with something that sounded like worry. “I thought we agreed you would come to me.”
Virginia tried to smile, but there was only so much friendliness and mirth her sallow cheeks and bone-white lips could produce. “Sorry, I must’ve lost track of the time. I thought it was only 11.”
“It’s 12. Now come on. We have important things to do today.”
Jupiter walked straight past Casey without glancing at her once. They were like ships in the night.
She felt his power rising up in front of her. Then it just passed away as if she’d been some small fishing village that had been spared from the tidal wave of his presence.
Virginia pressed her lips together and nodded politely. Not once did she look Casey’s way again. She didn’t beg Casey once more that she had to keep working here. Hell, it was as if Casey had fallen into the same permanent backdrop where she usually belonged in this city.
“You two have fun,” Cecile called. If she was trying to hide her tone, she was doing an awful job. She sounded like some crazed matchmaker.
Virginia didn’t reply to her sister. As for Jupiter? It was damn clear he didn’t give a hoot about ordinary mortals.
It took until he’d walked all the way around the side of the building and the sound of his expensive car echoed out for Casey to realize one fact. He still thought she was an ordinary mortal.
She hadn’t been discovered. Yet.
Casey dodged back, hit the crash mat hard, managed to shove down with her sweaty fingers, and flipped back onto her feet.
“Can’t we call it a day already?” she stammered breathlessly as she went to fix her fingers harder around her sword but they slipped a few centimeters.
“You may call this day whatever you wish. However, you will not finish until you have successfully dispatched this level II.”
“But I’ve already dispatched three other level IIs since coming home. I just need to rest, okay? There’s too much to take in.” Her voice broke with emotion.
It hadn’t taken her too long after Virginia had left for Casey to extricate herself from the situation. She’d come straight back home.
Yeah – she thought of it as home now. How could she think of it as anything else? It didn’t matter that she hadn’t spent the night here yet. All that counted was that it was now the only safe place for her in the whole frigging world.
Though she’d debriefed with the book – which she was now going to call Brooker – he had almost immediately forced her to start training.
She pushed to the side, narrowly avoiding an attack by the level II.
The first thing she’d learned was that not all level IIs looked the same. She’d fought another of those jackal-like creatures – but the last two assailants she’d battled had looked like a ghastly confluence of a fresh corpse, a vulture, and an ibis. According to Brooker, they too were out of Egyptian mythology. She, suffice to say, had never seen their like in any history book.
The level II came at her again.
This time she was ready for it. She ducked back, tried to channel her magic, and sliced her sword to the side.
The ibis quickly called on its wings – these disgusting we-blike amalgamations of stretched skin and sun-bleached bone.
It flew several meters back, ducked down onto all fours, roared, despite the fact it had a bird’s head, then thrust toward her.
She managed to turn the sword around, slice to the side, and fall deliberately onto her knees in one swift move.
She collected the ibis on the side of its beak. As her sword slashed across it, she dislodged several sections of its flesh, and all of them turned into glutinous blood that lay suspended in the air.
“Now’s your chance,” Brooker roared, his voice not coming from the book but echoing from the four walls.
Casey knew that. This world might be completely new to her, but she understood that the moment she had after delivering a powerful blow was the most important in the entire fight. If she could push her magic into her sword – if she could let it access the depths of her power and call on it – then she could stop the level II’s blood from returning to the Dismay, and she could win the fight. If she couldn’t? The fight just continued.
She tried with all her might, but it wasn’t enough. The ibis was too quick. Its blood returned to its body. It flapped its disgusting wings, flew back, fell down onto all fours, and roared at her again.
“Once more, you have failed,” Brooker said in the kind of long-suffering tone that suggested he’d been putting up with her inadequacies for years.
It made her snort. It was not a pleasant sound. “This is my first day of training. I’ve already dispatched three of these. You call it failing – I call it succeeding. Sorry I’m not meeting your expectations quickly enough,” she quipped. “You’re not meeting mine,” she added with a snarl.
“I find it hard to believe that I’m not meeting your expectations. I answer every question you have.”
“You haven’t told me what to do with Virginia yet,” Casey said, and her voice became tighter as she remembered the strange interaction. “She definitely knows I am the proto-goddess. I saw it in her eyes.”
“Your suspicion cannot be correct. If Virginia was a goddess herself and she discovered what you are, you would not be here anymore, Casey. You would not have been able to leave your job. You would have been taken.”
Casey’s blood chilled at his certainty. It was clear he knew what he was talking about and there was no room for doubt in his mind.
Clenching her teeth, she pushed to the side, rolled, and came up sharply just before the ibis could sweep to the side and try to grab her up in its clawed feet.
“She knew something was up. You told me to start trusting my intuition – and so did Thomas,” she said in a confident voice. “Well, this is me trusting my intuition. You weren’t there. You didn’t see the way she looked at me. You didn’t see the way she pleaded with me to give Frank another chance.”
“Why would a goddess who knew about your powers plead with you to give your insignificant mortal boss’s husband another chance?”
Casey’s lips had opened to reply, but as soon as Brooker phrased it like that, her mouth wobbled shut. She pressed her lips together hard for several seconds. Then she shrugged. “I don’t know. But I know what I felt.” She tapped her chest hard, and the sound echoed around the room.
Then the ibis came at her again.
It was all fleshy feathers, beak, and glowing eyes.
Casey had never really liked birds. Now whenever she thought of them, she’d think of this thing.
Just as a frustrated scream split from her lips, Casey went on the offensive. She sliced the sword to the side, then quickly changed direction.
It wasn’t fast enough. The ibis opened its wings wide, brought them around, and clipped her on her shoulder. She went flying. It was hard as hell to keep hold of her sword as she tumbled, but she managed it. She pushed up, and the ibis came at her face.
Casey let all the day’s confusion flow through her. More than anything, she focused on the moment that Jupiter hadn’t seen her.
That was crazy, because that moment right there had saved her life. She was only here because of it, and yet, for whatever reason, it angered her.
She let a charge of that anger blast through her as she sliced the sword to the left, the right, then the left again. It swirled around her hand effortlessly as if she was doing nothing more than trailing a ribbon through the air.
The ibis had just tried to attack her. A big mistake. It couldn’t get away from her flurry, and she struck it on both arms.
It let out a pained wail.
She didn’t need Brooker to tell her to end this for Casey to see her opportunity. She powered in, twisted the sword around, then thrust it through the ibis’s chest.
It fell back.
“Quod est ad finem,” Casey screamed. Her voice actually shook the room.
Though occasionally she had to repeat her exorcism prayer, she didn’t have to this time. The ibis disappeared long before it even had a chance to reach a hand out toward her.
Rather than shove her blade into the mat and lean against the hilt as she caught her breath, she twisted it around and placed it on her shoulder as if she was a seasoned soldier. “Right. That’s done—”
“I will generate another.”
“No, you damn well won’t,” Casey said flatly. Though she knew that Brooker’s energy was in the entire shrine, she still jolted forward, grabbed his book, which was hovering in the air, and snapped it closed. She tucked it firmly under her arm. “I wonder what the hell is going on?”
“I have already told you many times. You are a proto—”
“You know what I mean. I want to know what Virginia is. I want to know why, if she knows what I am, she hasn’t told Jupiter.”
“You have made a series of assumptions. Though you have convinced yourself that this Virginia is a goddess, there are many other explanations.”
“You weren’t there – you didn’t see how interested Jupiter became in her at the party after the boat moved suddenly.”
“Even without being there, I can offer up more rational assessments than yours. There are other reasons for a god like Jupiter to be interested in a mortal other than the possibility they are a hidden goddess.”
Though Casey didn’t want to hear this and she wanted to believe that she was right, she had to listen anyway. Come on – it hadn’t even been a day yet of her living in the shrine and accepting this new reality. She had to appreciate that she knew barely anything at all.
… Wait. It hadn’t even been a day. Maybe it was just the distracting training – maybe it was something else rising from within Casey – but she was rolling with this better than she should be.
“You’re not paying attention. I suggest that whatever you are thinking about, you stop thinking about it. You will rapidly realize that your theory about Virginia being a hidden goddess is not plausible as soon as you listen to my explanation.”
“You want to know what I’m thinking about?” She planted a sweaty hand against her brow then twisted that same sweaty hand to the side as she envisioned a chair. “I’m wondering why the hell I am not freaking out more. It hasn’t even been 24 hours,” she said in a constricted voice as the chair came scooting through the room, stopped behind her, and gently scooped her up. She fell against it. She dropped her sword – but she didn’t lose her connection to it. It quickly became a pen and fell into her lap. She clutched it up fondly and rolled it through her fingers as she locked her other hand on the armrest and leaned all the way back until she could’ve fallen asleep in a wink.
“You were highly distressed when you came here—” Brooker began.
She laughed. It was half easy and half a constricted mess. “Yeah, thanks for pointing that out. But the point is, barely any time has passed. It feels like I’ve been training for weeks.” Uncomfortably, she ran her fingers over her tight ribs. She had put her body through more today than she had in 10 years.
“Unlike Virginia, you are a real hidden goddess,” Brooker counseled firmly. “The knowledge of what you are and what you can do has always been in your body. It has just been waiting for a chance to rise. Do not question how well you are taking this. Instead, as you humans might say, roll with the punches.”
She chuckled. “Firstly, where did you learn that saying? Secondly, I’m not human, remember? Not anymore,” she said with a flood of bitter disappointment.
“It is clear that you know more about being a human than about being a goddess, so for now, I will refer to you as one. And I will treat you as having the ignorance of one,” he added cruelly.
Casey had once been the kind to arc up at people who were needlessly officious and rude. She didn’t have the energy. Plus, it wasn’t hard to admit that the act was kinda cute when it came from a floating book. And hell, she also wondered if one of the reasons she was taking this so well was Brooker himself. If the book hadn’t been pushing her so hard, she would’ve had a lot more time to think about how screwed everything had become.
“What’s your theory, Brooker?” She started drumming her fingers on one of the armrests.
“There are many creatures who are not gods who nonetheless have mystical powers. Virginia may be one of these.”
Casey frowned. “What are you talking about? Creatures from mythology?” She had to search her memory. “Like the Kraken or a cyclopes?”
“I am clearly not referring to high-level monsters, am I? Instead, I’m referring to what you humans have termed the magical over the years. You’ve chosen to describe them as witches or mystics. Those humans who have powers that cannot be described by simple mortal minds.”
A frown could have taken over her entire face. “Sorry, you’re telling me witches exist in this world?”
“You may use that term if you wish to. What I’m trying to explain is that there are humans in this world with mystical powers. It is not impossible that Virginia is one of these.”
“And that changes what, exactly? Because what’s the difference between her being a full-blown goddess or just a witch? I still know she knows something about me.”
“A mystic would not have the ability to recognize a proto-goddess. I can only go back to the logical flaw in your entire argument. You claim that Virginia knows what you are. If she did, you would not be here.”
“I’d be with Jupiter instead, ha?” She got halfway through drumming her fingers, then stopped. An unpleasant sensation raced through her. She had to capture her wobbling lips in her teeth and hold them tightly. “And what exactly would that entail?” She could barely push her question out.
“Please rephrase the question. I have not followed.”
“What would it entail for me to be with Jupiter? I mean captured,” she explained quickly.
“You would lose your freedom—”
She rolled her eyes. She was too consumed by the question to react to Brooker being petty. “I mean what would happen next? What would he do with me? You promised me that the gods would use me at Ragnarok. How?”
“Jupiter would either use you to bolster his own powers, or he would send you out to fight his competition. With your unique capacity to go into a god’s shrine and mimic their skills, there is no one more skilled than you at killing gods.”
She hadn’t put two and two together before. But as soon as Brooker said the term killing gods, she sat up so quickly, her pen tumbled off her lap. It fell onto the crash mat by her feet and didn’t roll far, sticking to her side like a faithful dog.
It took her a long time to push a breath out of her trembling lips. “Sorry? I’m… a god killer?”
“No. You have not yet killed a single god. But you do have the ability to do so. You asked what Jupiter would do with you. That is what he would do with you.”
Though Casey’s imagination was getting better and better at painting the kind of horrible nightmare that this world could turn into, when it had come to what Jupiter would do with her, it had drawn up a blank.
Now she had a specific image that made her gut churn.
Wiping her hand over her suddenly sweaty top lip, she leaned down and plucked up her pen. She clutched it hard as if she suddenly expected an attack. “Why… why the hell is Jupiter this bad?”
“I cannot judge him morally. He is like any other powerful god. He exists to protect his power.”
On the one hand, it wasn’t much of an answer. It didn’t give her specifics. But maybe she didn’t need them. Because maybe that equation right there summed up everything that was wrong with the god world.
Despite the fact her body was still weary, Casey pushed up.
She played with the pen then shoved it back in her pocket. “I will find out more.”
“I commend your curiosity. However, I do not think that in your current mood it is a wise idea to fill your mind with the horrors of what Jupiter would do with you—”
“Not about that. I need to investigate. Even if you discount everything I’ve said about Virginia, you can’t ignore the Hydra gem.”
“You would have no chance in your current state of defeating the Dismay in the Hydra gem. If it belongs to Jupiter himself, then it will be powerful indeed.”
“I’m not going out to exorcise it. I just… I need to find out more information.” Casey let out a sharp, bitter laugh. She pressed her hand against her sweaty brow. “I can’t believe I actually said that. What the hell am I doing? Less than 24 hours ago—”
“If investigating the Hydra gem will stop you from spiraling down into your thoughts, then I am fully behind this plan. However, you will need a disguise.”
Casey didn’t react to the fact that he’d just given her another insult. She frowned. “That’s the second time you’ve mentioned a disguise. You spoke of one this morning when I trained for the first time. You also said it would take a long time for me to learn how to create one.”
“Ordinarily, it would. And after your display this morning, I suspected it would take some weeks for you to be able to gather the requisite magic to craft one. However, you dispatched that last Dismay well. I sense your growing power. You are obviously finding a way to channel it better. I suggest that whatever means you have found to assist you in accessing your power, you throw yourself into exploring it further.”
Casey just snorted.
She remembered precisely what she’d used – anger over Jupiter not recognizing her.
She did not share that fact. She clutched her pen. With a dismissive wave, she told her chair to skid back out of the room. Dutifully, it complied.
She drove a breath right down deep into her chest. “Okay, what do I have to fight?”
That got the exact reaction it deserved. She spluttered. “What?”
“In order to successfully disguise yourself, you must fight that part of yourself that currently holds onto your appearance.”
She shook her head. “Sorry, what the hell does that mean?”
“Your body and mind recognize you as having one current form. You must fight that recognition, change it, and embrace a new body.”
“Right. That all sounds a little esoteric. Have you got proper instructions for me?”
“Yes. You will not need your sword for this. Place it beside you. Then bring your arms out wide.”
She dutifully complied.
“Concentrate on your breath.”
She shoved her attention into her breath, practically ramming it down her throat.
Casey had never been one for meditation. She’d tried – but her mind never sat still long enough. Plus, meditation had always been too… weak, she guessed you could call it.
Though Casey had never thought of herself as having a direct, powerful will before, now she wondered if the reason meditation had never come to her easily was because she’d never been doing it how a goddess should.
“You will catch your breath in the equivalent of your mental hands. You will hold it, and you will start to access its power.”
This right here was when Casey should just throw up her hands and give up.
She wanted instructions like you’d get to bake a cake. You know, tangible directions. Capturing her breath in her mental hands? Yeah, this sounded like the mystical dribble you could scrape off the bottom of the Internet.
She still did it. She tried to envision her breath like a silver string that connected her abdomen to the rest of the world. That particular image just sunk in, and she didn’t bother to push it away.
“Good. You are connecting. Now, let your power rise.”
She tried to focus like she had every time she’d defeated a ghost. She could feel power, all right, and it certainly rose through her, but as soon as Brooker did the equivalent of clicking his book tongue, that same power sank.
“You do not have nearly enough energy. Perhaps you cannot do this, after all.”
“No. I want to head out on the town tonight. I need to see what’s happening.”
“I thought your intention was to investigate the gem?”
“It is. But I also… I just want to walk the streets and see the world that was always there, but the world I couldn’t recognize. I don’t want to do that with my own face.”
“Then I suggest you concentrate. Draw on the same power you used to defeat the ibis. You must let that power rise through you like an unstoppable wave.”
Though she didn’t want to, she thought of Jupiter. It pissed her off that she’d used the fact he couldn’t see her to energize her previous fight.
What was wrong with her? If Jupiter had recognized her, she wouldn’t be here. As Brooker had said in particularly unpleasant terms, Casey would probably right now be out there killing gods for Jupiter.
Still… she couldn’t quite describe why it hurt for him not to have recognized her. She held onto that passion, though. She force-fed it all of the angst, confusion, and horror of the past 24 hours. She rammed it right down that memory’s throat until she felt power like nothing else rise through her.
“That is it. You’re doing it. Now spread your arms wider. Concentrate. I will direct your form. All you must do is release power into me.”
“Do you know what you’re doing? I mean, do you have a disguise in mind—”
“Leave it up to me. You must concentrate.”
Concentrate. Fine. She focused like a frigging laser.
She wouldn’t let herself be pulled down by thoughts of how well she was taking this. She wouldn’t imagine the kind of life that waited for her if she was discovered by a god. She rose above all of that.
Soon enough, she felt magic circling around her. It was an impossible-to-describe sensation. It was as if someone had cut a path right to the heart of the universe and the greatest energy of creation. Right now, it was all pouring into her with every breath.
Brooker probably said something, but Casey couldn’t hear.
Her ears roared with power.
She was lifted off the floor. Then unceremoniously, she fell. She staggered, and her eyes opened of their own accord.
She stared down at her body as the last of the magic settled into her flesh.
“What the hell?” She brought her hands up. They were hers, but they weren’t. They were a lot longer, the fingers lean and bony as if they belonged to a pianist.
She grabbed her hair and pulled it over her shoulder. And she kept pulling it. In reality, she had shoulder-length mousy brown hair. Now, she had blond locks that tumbled right down to her tailbone.
She soon set her fingers against her cheeks and pushed in as hard as she could as if she was trying to ram right through to her real body beyond.
“You will not be able to dislodge this disguise until you return to me. In time, you will learn how to control the disguise yourself.”
“Just how much of a disguise is this? Will it hide that I am a proto-goddess?”
“If you receive a direct injury and you bleed, it will not hide your proto-goddess powers. I suggest you do not bleed.”
She let out a snort as she continued to set her fingers pushing and prying against her face.
She desperately wanted to look at herself, but it wasn’t as if there were any mirrors in here. It took her several more seconds until she rolled her eyes and clicked her fingers. She thought of a mirror. She heard that familiar scraping sound that indicated the shrine was fulfilling her every wish, and a mirror flew across the mats and pulled itself into the air just in front of her.
With a breath trapped in her chest, she stared at her reflection.
“God, I look completely different.”
“That, as I’m sure you can appreciate, is the point,” Brooker counseled her.
She pressed her lips together and nodded. “Yeah. All right.” She dropped her hands beside her legs, and she closed her eyes. “I’m going out. Can you come with me this time?”
“If you intend to investigate the Hydra gem, then it is unwise for me to accompany you. As I said previously, other gods may be able to sense my power. If they discover that Thoth’s shrine is currently in use, despite his recent death, they will conclude that you are here.”
She sighed. “That’s okay. I guess. All right. It’s time to head out.” She turned.
Her long blond hair tapered over her shoulders as her hands rounded into fists.
Casey kept searching for a reason why she was taking this so well. That reason was her curiosity.
What happened to her over the past 24 hours hurt – like crazy. The loss of her normal life would be grieved. But right now, something was pulling her out into the world she had just discovered.
In time, she would learn what that connection was – and she would come to fear it with all her heart.
It was already dark. Crap, it was at least 10 o’clock at night, if she was any guess. She’d been training for eight hours. She hadn’t eaten anything, and she expected her stomach would be grumbling, but it wasn’t.
Did gods eat? Didn’t the Greek gods consume something called ambrosia? Or was that just a fake myth? Thomas had told her to discount everything she thought she knew about mythology.
She was thankful for the fact that the entrance to her shrine was close to the middle of town. It meant she didn’t have to walk as far until she saw and felt interesting things.
As she strode down the street, her hair fluttering behind her like a cape, she saw a car pull up to the opposite curb. Two men got out.
Even from here, she could feel that they were different.
Maybe this was her paranoia – or maybe it was her vaunted intuition. They felt heavy – way too dense to be ordinary people. It was like they were rocks come to life – as if someone had breathed existence down a statue’s closed mouth.
Casey spent several seconds standing there and staring until one of them darted his head around and looked directly at her.
She quickly snatched her phone out of her pocket and pretended to be more interested in it. She half jogged until she was out of sight. She reached a narrow laneway and leaned against an air conditioning unit as she breathed hard.
Yeah, it was satisfying her curiosity to be out here on the streets, learning about the world of the gods, but she had to keep herself safe.
She continued on.
The Hydra gem was to be displayed at the museum in a private function hall. Casey made her way toward it. The museum was on one of the main boulevards. While the gem was to be private for a few functions, once they were over, it was going to be shown to the public. There were large posters up on poles outside the museum. They fluttered, despite the fact it was a still night.
With her hands in her pockets, she stared at them. She jolted and almost screamed as a car backfired further down the street.
“Keep yourself together, idiot,” she muttered.
The museum was closed.
… Of course it was closed.
It was 10 o’clock at night. Had Casey really thought this through? Was she just going to saunter up to the museum, knock on the door, and go see the Hydra gem? What was the alternative? Use her nascent powers to break in?
If Brooker were here, he’d give her hell for having not put more thought into this plan.
Just when she convinced herself this was a waste of time, she thought she heard something.
Was it fast footfall? Was it the patter of fine rain? Was it someone dropping a whole jar of nails? It was such a sharp yet indistinct sound at the same time.
It sent a frown marching all the way across her lips.
She had the chance to mutter, “What the hell?” before a scream broke the air.
Though it was night, this city never slept. Plenty of cars were driving past, and there was an expensive restaurant just down the way that had just shut its doors. So she wasn’t alone on the street.
As that hair-raising scream broke through the air like a thousand panes of shattering glass, not a single person looked up. As several taxis drove past and stopped at a red light, they had their windows wide open.
Nobody snapped their heads around.
Casey stood there, wondering if the sound had somehow been in her head until it rang out again, more desperate than ever. It sent terror pulsing through her stomach, bolting up her back, and shaking through her tightly clenched jaw.
Her instincts quickly took over, and despite the fact no one else was reacting, she found herself turning and throwing herself down the street to get closer to that aching scream. It wasn’t until she was halfway down the road that she realized one thing. The rest of the people around her weren’t being coldhearted bastards. They weren’t all drunk, either. They couldn’t hear that scream because it wasn’t occurring in the same world they occupied.
Casey ground to a halt. It was so sudden, she could have tumbled over and fallen into traffic.
It was one thing to come out here to observe the god world. It was another to throw herself into it without a care in the world.
But then the scream blasted out again. If it was possible, it was even more desperate than before. It brought to mind the image of someone standing right on the edge of a deep ravine, their feet almost all the way over it. The owner of that desperate voice clearly had seconds to live.
Something in Casey took over. Something she’d never known had existed before today.
She powered toward the direction of that scream, her arms pumping hard at her sides, her breath coming out in one determined wave.
If Brooker were here, this would probably be where he would scream at her to pull back. She was untrained. She had no idea what she was dealing with, and she had no backup.
She powered around a side street and into a laneway that shouldn’t be there. She knew the city like the back of her hand. This street did not exist – especially not in the most expensive district in town.
This laneway looked like it belonged around the back alleys of the industrial district. It was musty, and the brick walls looked as if someone had wept mold all over them. There was a dumpster overflowing with so much trash, it constituted a major health hazard.
Casey’s breath became trapped in her throat as she came to a shuddering stop.
What the hell was happening? She’d seen ghosts pull themselves out of walls. Today, she’d learned how to disguise her appearance. But was it really possible to magically transport a random laneway into the middle of the city without anyone else noticing?
Though the last thing she wanted to do was turn her back on this mysterious laneway, she still arched her head over her shoulder quickly and noted that several people were walking past the mouth of the laneway. Not one of them bothered to look over and note that a mysterious road had appeared out of nowhere.
Her skin started to crawl. Her heart pounded, and she clenched her teeth together until they shook like rocks in a jar.
Casey went to back away. Her fear was finally catching up with her.
Even if someone was in trouble, what would Casey be able to do?
She got halfway into throwing herself out of the laneway when something vibrated in her pocket. Despite the fact she knew that it was her pen, for a moment it felt like a hand was reaching out and holding her to the spot.
A specific memory rose in her mind. This morning, Brooker had told her that she would need to continue Thoth’s work.
Thoth had tirelessly scoured this city, saving people and dispatching Dismays. He’d only died in the end to a weak Dismay because he’d been working to hard, and he’d gotten unlucky.
She would not let his sacrifice be in vain.
She bit her lip, not caring as she chewed all the way in and almost bled.
The scream sounded out, and it was right behind her. There had to be some small branching dead-end behind the dumpster.
The victim – whatever the hell was happening to them – would be there.
Casey turned. There was nothing in this world that could stop her.
She found herself being pulled – completely compelled – as she ran down the lane, skidded past the dumpster, and threw herself into that cramped dead-end.
Right there was a guy in a suit down on his hands and knees. There was a massive gash from his shoulder down to his left hip. It looked like he’d been sliced with an industrial saw. The skin had puckered, and there was so much blood, it was practically raining around his hands and feet.
Though Casey’s first reaction was to scream and hurl, something inside her rose.
She couldn’t see an enemy – just the man.
She skidded down to her knees beside him and didn’t hesitate in clapping a hand on his bloodied shoulder as she drew her face close. “Sir, are you—”
She couldn’t finish her question. As soon as her gaze locked on his eyes, Casey almost passed out.
They were blood red. They were bulging out of his skull as if they were red balloons someone was pumping up.
So much horror gripped her, Casey couldn’t breathe.
The guy let out another scream, and at close range, it blasted through her mind like the ricocheting bang of a bullet.
Shuddering, she fell flat on her ass.
There was the sound of something growing.
No – it was the sound of skin peeling back. Though she was down on her butt, she could see just a glimpse of his back. His suit started to tremble as that wound along his back grew bigger.
More blood drained down. If Casey had been in her right mind – or anywhere near it – she would have realized that it was way too much blood. It was more than an ordinary human had in their entire body.
And that meant one thing. This man was not human.
Casey trembled so badly, she could’ve broken every bone in her body.
The guy’s eyes continued to bulge. They darted this way and that. Then they fully rolled around in his head as if they weren’t attached by their ocular nerves.
Casey couldn’t look away. She couldn’t jump up and run, either, and neither could she do anything – she had absolutely no idea what was going on.
This man was clearly in distress, and something was happening to him, but she couldn’t even begin to guess what that was.
The guy’s eyes rolled all the way around once more, then they locked on her.
In a jolt, Casey felt more fear than she ever had in the rest of her life.
The guy’s head jolted to the side with a sickening crunch. It sounded like he snapped every vertebrae in his cervical spine.
Still down on all fours, he lurched toward her. The movement was crooked and snapped, and reminded her of a spider scuttling across the ground.
Casey screamed. She couldn’t help it. The fear of the situation overcame her. She shrieked with everything she had as she jolted back.
At the back of her head, she knew no one would come to her aid. All the people out on the main street – less than 20 meters away – wouldn’t come, even if this guy started dragging her around by the neck.
Casey was done for.
She screamed once more just as the guy reached her. He yanked up one blood-covered hand with a snap that sounded like someone jumping on a twig.
His fingers almost reached her throat. She felt this wave of fearsome dark energy. It was hard to comprehend. It went beyond any Dismay she had come across thus far.
It froze her to the spot.
But just before the man’s blood-covered fingers could lock around her neck and snap it, Casey heard footfall.
It was heavy – heavy like a mountain crumbling into the sea. Heavy like a meteorite smashing into the earth. Heavy like a god of old.
Something latched onto the man and pulled him away just as his fingers brushed Casey’s throat.
The move was so hard, the man was thrown into the wall. There were more sickening crunches. It wasn’t so much like bone snapping now as someone shoving them into a blender and churning them at high speed.
Casey was so terrified and overcome by this dark experience that she could barely see.
But she could see one thing.
Standing in the mouth of the dead-end laneway was Jupiter.
She stared at him. He glanced at her once. Then he returned his attention to the man. He’d already fallen onto the ground. Still looking like a scuttling spider, he turned around, unhinged his jaw, screamed, and threw himself at Jupiter.
Jupiter rolled, his broad, powerful body somehow becoming compact. He was lithe – more than quick enough to leap up, twist to the side, and put several meters’ distance between him and the creature.
If Casey had ever thought the guy was a man, she was out of her mind. He became more and more insectlike as he threw himself at Jupiter again. Even the sound of his blood-covered hands dancing across the ground put her in mind of beetles scuttling over metal.
Casey still couldn’t move. If she’d been thinking straight – if she’d been thinking at all – she would have realized how perilous the situation was. Jupiter was right there. And she was right here.
She remained there, frozen as she watched Jupiter fight.
He didn’t attack the creature directly. He kept dancing back and putting distance between them and only attacking when the creature got distracted and tried to thrust toward Casey.
Casey had no idea what Jupiter was waiting for. It took a long time for one thought to strike her. What if he – even he – didn’t have the power to fight this thing?
“Who sent you?” Jupiter finally snarled, the first time he’d made a sound other than a throaty grunt.
The insect man started to climb the walls. Casey didn’t want to describe the exact adhesive squelch of his fingers locking against the brick only to release and scuttle further up. He turned his head all the way around – and she did mean all the way around. There was the snap of tendons and bone as his neck became nothing more than skin around loose cartilage.
“Who sent you?” Jupiter roared again, and this time his voice bounced off the walls. It pounded, ironically, exactly like thunder.
The insect threw itself at Jupiter again.
This time Jupiter was proactive. He thrust forward, skidded down to his knees, pivoted on his hip, and threw his leg up and out. He kicked the insect in its stomach. It was a powerful move that sent it careening out of the alleyway.
The insect didn’t stay out there for long. It put on a frightening burst of speed that made it look as if it was footage that was on fast forward.
It scuttled right up to Jupiter. Jupiter was now between the insect and Casey. If he dodged, the insect would scamper right over to her.
Either Jupiter was aware of that fact, or he was sick of dancing back.
He crunched down, rounded his shoulder, roared, and thrust forward with all his might. The ground shook with his power.
It made Casey’s hands tremble in her lap and her long hair sway around her back.
Jupiter met the insectlike creature, and power blasted out. It smashed into the walls, and several of the bricks cracked, becoming dust that fluttered around her.
Jupiter wrapped his arms around the creature’s back and started to grapple with it. Despite the inclusion of the insect man, the scene was almost Olympian. But that was the wrong pantheon, wasn’t it?
Jupiter let out a few more roars, and they almost sounded desperate, but just before the insect could open its mouth wide and sink its growing teeth into Jupiter’s throat, he managed to force it back. It fell onto its back.
“Finally,” Jupiter hissed. He pushed his hand into his pocket. He wrenched out a pen. Before Casey’s eyes, it became a jagged sword shaped like a thunderbolt.
Jupiter thrust it down into the man’s chest.
His eyes had a chance to boggle. They became wider than Casey had ever seen. Then the man’s head flopped back. His body jolted once then twice. Quickly, as if Jupiter didn’t want to hurt the man, he withdrew his sword and discarded it to the side. He got down on one knee and pressed his fingers into the back of the man’s neck as he pulled his head up gently. Though Casey didn’t have a direct line of sight, she could see Jupiter’s expression. It was tender. It was the look of a doctor who didn’t want to lose a patient.
“Fight, human. Push past the last of the Dismay’s energy. Hold onto this life of yours. Remember your form. Clutch it back from the dark side. Now concentrate.”
Casey wouldn’t have moved if she could have. This interaction was violating everything she thought she’d known about Jupiter.
That expression – the way his lips spread in clear compassion and his eyes widened as he searched for any sign of life – could not be mistaken.
Suddenly, the guy gasped. He still had the form of an insect – but now it looked as if it was imposed over him, as if someone had taken two photos and glued them over the top of one another.
“Fight, human,” Jupiter said, his voice echoing out in a deep bark.
The man’s eyes boggled. Second by second, they became human again. They no longer bulged like balloons getting ready to pop, and they paled until she could actually see the whites.
“Continue to fight it, human. I cannot do this for you. Push away the last power of the Dismay. Take back the life it tried to steal from you.”
The guy was becoming more and more human before her very eyes. She couldn’t see the injury on his back, but she wondered if it was healing, too. She thought she could discern the sound of skin re-knitting itself – not that she should know what that sounded like at all.
Casey remained there, trembling on the spot as the man pulled himself back from the brink of death.
As soon as his body became his again, and it lost the last hint of the insect Dismay, there was a hiss.
Casey was certain that even if you weren’t part of the god realm, you would be able to hear it. It felt like it echoed through all matter at once.
“That is it. You have done it,” Jupiter said with real pride and obvious joy punching through his tone.
He held the man’s shoulders as he flopped back. His eyes had a chance to widen – naturally – then he became unconscious.
“It is better that way,” Jupiter muttered. Tenderly, he placed the man down and rolled him over.
Casey had no idea what Jupiter was about to do. She did not expect him to suddenly wrench the guy’s expensive suit jacket right off his back. It wasn’t a hard move considering it was already in tatters.
With a disgusted expression, Jupiter discarded the jacket to the side. He pressed his index finger against his thumb then opened them dramatically. His sword, which was several meters away, shot into his hand. He grabbed the hilt, twisted it around, and stabbed the suit jacket.
Casey didn’t have a chance to wonder what the hell was going on. The fabric started to jitter and dance on the spot as if it were full of fire ants. It glowed red. It became more and more ominous until it burst into flames. The flames rose high, magic spewing off them. Then, just as abruptly, they disappeared.
Jupiter leaned back. He sighed. Twisting his sword around, it became a pen, and he quickly shoved it into his inside jacket pocket.
He checked on the man once more. Then he turned to her.
Casey hadn’t left when she’d had the chance. And now? Now Jupiter had her right where he needed her.
Casey kept screaming at herself to move. She had to get out of here and run while she still had the chance. She hadn’t used any magic, so maybe Jupiter wouldn’t assume that she was a strong goddess yet. But he would figure everything out. He would—
He stood. He walked up to her and reached a hand out to her. “You do not need to understand what just happened, mortal. I will wipe this memory from your mind. This is not your world, and you should not be dragged into it.”
Casey could do nothing but stare at that hand and replay his words over and over again in her mind.
Mortal. He… he still thought she was a mortal.
When she didn’t take his hand, he got down on one knee right in front of her. The same compassionate look he’d used on the man now crumpled his features. “Once you leave this laneway, you will not remember a thing. Do not worry. The Dismay – the ghost –” he qualified quickly, “has been dispatched.”
How… how the hell had he not recognized that she was magical? She’d heard the man scream. She’d clearly found her way into an alleyway that belonged to the gods.
She sliced her gaze back to where the man had been. Then she looked over at the jacket.
Jupiter followed her gaze. “It was a cursed object. The man is unfortunate. He became greedy and acquired that jacket at some moral expense. His desire to make the money to do so at any cost imbued the jacket with strong power. However,” Jupiter’s voice echoed down low with devastating power, “that creature was not solely his creation. An evil force impregnated the jacket with that Dismay in order to cause chaos.”
Casey had to shake her head and pretend she didn’t know what was going on. She managed it, but it was such a weak move, it almost didn’t count.
Jupiter smiled. And there he went again, looking compassionate. It wasn’t an act – or at least it didn’t appear to be one.
“I know this means nothing to you, human. And I know you will not remember it. But I thought you should be told, nonetheless. Now, rise. I can sense that you are not injured. I will escort you out of this laneway. As soon as you leave it, you’ll forget everything.”
Casey couldn’t control herself. Her lips parted with a shake. “How… how could I see that thing?”
“It selected you as a victim. It would’ve lured you in here. But do not worry. Nothing has happened. You are fine, and you will not remember.”
Jupiter no longer waited around for Casey to take his hand. He plucked up her fingers tenderly.
She didn’t want to admit to the fact that it was all too easy to release into his grip.
Though her primary fear of Jupiter discovering who she was had been allayed, the fear of what she had just witnessed was still raw in her body. The hard but reassuring press of his fingers held her as the fear began to wash away.
As promised, he led her to the mouth of the laneway. “You will not remember anything,” he promised again. “Live a full life, mortal, with no knowledge that there are gods who stand between you humans and the full dismay of this world.”
He let go of her hand. It was clear he expected her to rush out. She didn’t. She turned and faced him.
She couldn’t understand what the hell was happening.
Why would Jupiter help two mere mortals when he was hoarding Dismays himself?
“What is it, mortal?”
“Who… who are you?”
She knew the answer – a thousand times over. But she still asked the question.
“You will not remember in the morning,” he tilted his head to the side, “but I will still answer. I am the god Jupiter.”
“God?” she stammered. Her emotion was genuine. She could not conceive of why he was acting this way.
“Yes.” He looked away from her and stared up at the sky.
He took a long time gazing at the clouds before he darted his chin down again and locked his gaze on hers. “Though this is not knowledge a human should have – and not knowledge you will keep beyond that threshold,” he pointed at the laneway opening, “there are still gods who exist to protect humanity. There are not many of us, and our work increases by the day, but we are still here. And we will fight for you until the end.”
Casey, even though she wasn’t conscious of what she was doing, had reached a hand up. It was… as crazy as it sounded, it was as if she wanted to brush her fingers down his face to find out if this was real or just a dream.
Without hesitation, Jupiter reached over and grabbed up her hand.
He held it for several seconds. Then he pulled her right out of the laneway after him.
Immediately, he dropped her hand, turned, and walked back into the laneway.
The laneway disappeared. There was a strange hiss and a slight shudder – then it simply no longer existed.
Though all Casey wanted to do was stand there and stare, she knew she couldn’t. If Jupiter was somehow still keeping track of her, despite the fact he wasn’t in sight, if she stuck around staring at the laneway, he would know she had not lost her memory.
She turned. Though it was the hardest thing in the damn world, she flattened a completely neutral expression over her face, and she continued down the street.
She did not stay out much longer. She headed straight back home.
As soon as she got in through the front door of her shrine, she closed it, crumpled against it, and slipped down. She placed her head in a shaking hand.
She didn’t… she didn’t know why she was reacting so badly to this.
No, she did.
In order for Casey to take this new world in her stride, it had to remain still. If it kept shifting and every fact she thought she knew kept changing, then there was no way she could possibly stand tall.
She didn’t have long to remain there on her butt shaking against the door.
She heard a rush of wind, and the second door at the end of the long corridor opened. Brooker came rushing out. He raced right up to her. His pages fluttered. She didn’t have to read them. It was as if this was the book equivalent of a mother fussing over their injured child. “What happened? Were you injured? Did someone discover your blood?”
Casey opened her mouth. She went to explain what happened, but she stopped herself. She shook her head. She pulled herself onto her feet.
“Casey, what happened?” Brooker demanded.
“I ran into Jupiter.” She grabbed her hair and went to pull it through her fingers, but when there was way too much of it, she stopped. “Get me out of this disguise, Brooker.”
“What do you mean you ran into Jupiter?” Brooker’s voice shot up high and shook.
Casey turned back around and headed for the second door. She palmed her face and sighed. “Never mind. If you can’t get me out of this disguise, I guess I’ll sleep in it. Will it be like sleeping in dirty clothes? Whatever – I’ll find out.”
“Mistress.” Brooker shot around and stopped in front of her just as she reached the second door. “You cannot claim to have met Jupiter while you are demonstrably in distress and not share the details with me. Does he know who you are? Is he coming here? Though another god cannot enter this shrine, it would be wise for us to change our location.”
She sighed. She pushed past him. “Jupiter has no clue who I am. I met him… as a mortal. At least he thought I was mortal throughout the entire fight.”
Brooker had apparently calmed. His pages had stopped fluttering as violently. But on the word fight, it looked like someone was trying to tear his spine off. “What do you mean fight?”
Casey reached the main shrine. Immediately, despite the fact she was still in the corridor, she clicked her fingers and commanded her chair to appear. It scooted in behind her. “Can this thing take me to my room?”
The words were hardly out of her lips before the chair took its own initiative, scooted around, and shot her through the shrine.
It slowed down as it reached her room and stopped just in through the door.
Brooker had not left her alone. Neither did it seem that he would until she had spilled every bean.
“I heard a scream, okay? I… found this laneway in the middle of town – one that very much could not be there. I—” she abruptly stopped talking. The memory of that insect Dismay made her want to puke.
“I require every detail, Mistress,” Brooker counseled with genuine worry tightening his throat – or the book equivalent thereof.
“This guy was turning into a Dismay. Right before my eyes. He tried to attack me. I… lost my nerve. I’d never faced so much dark energy. Before he could attack me,” she closed her eyes, “Jupiter appeared.”
She wanted to control her tone – boy did she need to control it. She could not. It didn’t fluctuate so much as take her on a journey of total gut-wrenching confusion and fear.
She could remember Jupiter’s smiling face – his compassion, his promises. All were at odds with everything she thought she knew about the man.
She told Brooker the rest of what had happened. Brooker remained silent throughout the entire conversation. At the end, he fluttered once, and it was almost as if he was clapping. “Then this is excellent news, my mistress. You have not been discovered.”
She stared at him from underneath a hand she’d just collapsed over her eyes. “How could you say that?”
“Should I need to remind you what would occur if you were discovered—”
She put a hand up quickly. “How could you say this is excellent news?” There was a tight, accusatory note in her voice. “What the hell am I meant to think about Jupiter now? Why… why would he save me?”
“He believed you are a mortal.”
“You know that’s not my question. If Jupiter is evil and he is using Dismays for his own power, why would he bother to save two humans?”
“The Dismay was likely created by one of his enemies.”
“And? Why save the guy? You… you weren’t there,” she said for what felt like the hundredth time that day. She rubbed her brow. She caught a few strands of sweaty hair, and she just shoved them over her shoulder as if they were waste she was chucking into a bin. “He tried as hard as he could to nurse that human back from death. If Jupiter didn’t care about people like us, then why did he do that?” She looked at Brooker directly.
She expected Brooker to answer immediately – he always did. No knowledge was beyond him. Now there was a lengthy pause, and it confirmed that Casey really had no clue what was going on here.
“Though we cannot know why Jupiter behaved this way,” Brooker finally concluded, “it does not change anything. You still heard with your own ears that Jupiter is keeping a Dismay in the Hydra gem. He would only be doing this for personal gain.”
Casey opened her mouth, even though she didn’t know what she wanted to say.
After several agonizing seconds of trying to figure out what it was her lips wanted to form, she shook her head instead.
Was she really about to defend Jupiter?
… As hard as it was to admit, Casey was right. This didn’t change anything. Casey really had heard with her own ears that Jupiter was keeping a Dismay in the Hydra gem. Worse, she remembered the conversation he’d had with Mercury on the yacht only that morning. He would do anything to get his hands on her.
She closed her arms around her middle. She leaned all the way into them. It was as if her grip was the only thing that could hold her up now. “I’m tired, Brooker. I just want to sleep.”
“Then I suggest you sleep. I will watch over you, Mistress. No one will be able to penetrate the shrine, no matter what happens. As long as you remain within these four walls, you will be safe. So sleep well with that knowledge.”
Brooker fluttered away.
Just before he left, he opened to a specific page, and a charge of magic blasted out.
It sunk into Casey. The next thing she knew, she was pulled off her feet. Magic wrapped around her. It undid the ties of the disguise, and it just disappeared in a cascade of sparks. She fell onto her feet again. Glumly, she stared at her own hands, turned, and fell face-first onto her bed.
The covers were somehow intelligent enough to scoot around her, enfold her in their warm embrace, and pull the pillow right under her head.
Casey slept. It was an uneasy slumber. For her life from this point on would know no certainty, and with every new day, she would be drawn further into the violent mysteries of the divine.
The next morning, Casey awoke to a Dismay crawling into her bedroom – right through the wall.
Brooker, it seemed, wasn’t about to give her a day off.
Roaring – instead of screaming – Casey threw herself out of bed, landed without tumbling over onto her knees – which was something new for her – and thrust forward.
She didn’t even bother to call on her pen. Not yet. She dodged the Dismay – which was some amalgamation of a bird and a cat, pushed through her door, and pulled the fight back to where it belonged in the training room.
It was only then that she bothered to call on her pen.
She wasn’t surprised to find that it was in her pajama pocket. She was, however, surprised to find out that she was in pajamas. They were nice and silk, and they fit her perfectly. She hadn’t gone to bed wearing them.
“I am aware of that frown on your face, Mistress,” Brooker said as he fluttered into the room. “I believed you would find it more comfortable to sleep in those than your clothes.”
“Who the hell undressed me?”
“Your bed did.”
Casey didn’t have time to frown at that – nor remind herself that frowning was useless. This was a magical world. It was time to catch up to that fact. Beds changing her was the least of her problems right now
It was also time to end this and get some breakfast.
She didn’t even know what level Dismay this was, but she was in no mood to show it any quarter. She rolled, kicked her foot to the left, collected it on the knee, and forced it sideways. She grabbed her pen out of her pocket, twirled it around her fingers, sent magic into it, and forced it to form a sword – all in the space of several seconds. It sliced through the air, magic collecting along it as it whistled past her ear. Rather than cut a few stray strands of her messy hair, they just moved with it, buffeted by its magical force. She thrust it into the bird’s wing, and she cut the thing right off. It formed – as usual – a clump of gelatinous dust-like liquid. It hovered there, suspended in the air beside the Dismay. Before it could reenter the creature’s body, Casey thrust down to her knee, let out a grunt, twisted the sword around, and stabbed the Dismay right through its heart.
The thing shuddered, its eyes opening wide. For a second, it almost looked alive – as if it was more than just a ghost – then it immediately became dead at her feet. It scattered into dust that was quickly discharged into the crash mats in waves of electricity.
Sighing, Casey stood up. She turned her sword around and placed it on her shoulder. “Is that going to be my morning alarm from now on? A Dismay scuttling through the wall?”
“It is now more important than ever that you learn to train as quickly as you can,” Brooker counseled her as he fluttered beside her. She didn’t exactly know how Brooker worked, but she understood that the book was just a symbol of his power. He was all through this place, so it didn’t surprise her that, despite the fact his pages didn’t touch her, something managed to brush some dust off her shoulder. “You should take better care of those silk pajamas. They weren’t cheap.”
She arched an eyebrow. “Wait, you actually bought these?”
“You could say that.”
“What does that mean?”
“That we find ourselves conveniently located beside a department store.”
She’d reached the door. Now she stopped, her sweaty feet marking the blue crash mats and sending a high-pitched squeak through the air as she turned quickly. “Brooker,” she crossed her arms and frowned at him, “did you steal these pajamas?”
“They were taken from stock that was to be sent back to the manufacturer for defects. I believe what you can call my action is requisitioning.”
“They would’ve gone to waste. I simply diverted them to a greater cause. Now they cover the back of a goddess – one who is destined to save the world.”
She laughed – but there was a slightly uncomfortable edge to it. She hoped he was joking and just being grandiose to hide his crime.
“This is no laughing matter, Mistress. And it is why I have trained you so early in the morning. Last night, unless you have forgotten—”
She stopped in the doorway. Her arms became loose – far too loose to keep around her middle. They dropped beside her. She trailed her short nails over the sumptuous blue silk of her pants. She closed her eyes. Right there, right in front of her, she could see Jupiter – in all his glorious confusion. He was the same god – or asshole, she should say – that she’d met several days ago. But the smile had been so different. And the energy….
She shivered, collapsed her arms around her middle, and crouched forward a little as if she intended to fall to her knees.
“This is why you were trained,” Brooker said, the word this punching through the room. It even fluttered several of the books that were lying around the edges of the shelves, no doubt ready to be cataloged.
Warily, she opened one eye and stared at him. “Why?” She could hardly push that word out of a constricted throat. Hell, her lips would hardly play nice, either. They wobbled way too much as if they’d been turned into jelly. “You think he’s coming here? Do you think—”
“Before you spiral down into another paranoid stupor,” Brooker said unkindly, “as I have said before, if Jupiter knew where you were hiding, we would be surrounded. But even if we were surrounded, it would not be a problem. No one can enter your shrine apart from you.”
She scratched her neck. “But another proto-goddess could, right? What if there are more out there?”
“Because, as I have already said, the gods have been waiting centuries for you to be reborn. You are the only one, I’m afraid.”
Sighing hard, she finally walked through into the corridor. She stopped several steps down it. “Does this place have a kitchen?”
“This place has absolutely everything you require. What is it that you would like for breakfast?”
Scratching her arms, she ran her tongue around her teeth. “Something greasy.”
“There is an Indian restaurant that sells fried dhal sandwiches inside the department store—”
“I don’t want you to steal from them.”
“Then I can procure you one from the bin.”
She made a face. Her cheeks couldn’t have scrunched up higher. “Sorry? You’re planning to feed me from dumpsters?”
“Perhaps I should clarify something. Now you have discovered that you are a goddess, as you can already see, your body is changing. Your energy requirements will change also. As will your immune system. A slightly old sandwich pulled from a dumpster will not kill you. If it were that simple to do so, every god would be hammering at your door with picnic baskets.”
“I still don’t want to eat food out of dumpsters. Wait, are you telling me that I don’t need to eat at all anymore?”
“That is up to you. Your energy will come from different sources now.”
“What? Shrines or… sacrifices?” She shivered at that unwelcome prospect.
“No, sacrifices never energized the divine. They do, however, operate as a fantastic way to control society by deciding who can remain rich and who can remain in fear.”
“Thanks for the sociology lesson. Go back to my question. Do I need to eat now? What do I gain sustenance from?”
“A god’s biology – if you can use that term – is far more complicated than that of a human.”
“Why do you keep dodging around the question, Brooker? What do I use for sustenance? And more to the point, while I am a little hungry, I’m not massively hungry. I haven’t been hungry—”
“Since you consumed two Dismays?” Brooker cut in.
She’d been walking forward again, but now she stopped. That singular word – consumed – got to her. She turned slowly. She didn’t so much feel like a pig on a spit, as if she were the Earth itself, now completely incapable of setting her own pace. “What did you just say, Brooker? I didn’t consume the Dismays – I dispatched them. I exorcised them. Right?” Her voice punched out at the end. There wasn’t a hint of weakness in it. She couldn’t even conceive of what Brooker was suggesting. He had to be lying to her.
Considering his idea of a polite morning wake-up call was a Dismay crawling through the wall, then she wouldn’t put it past him to play a sick joke like this.
“You consumed their energy after you exorcised them,” Brooker finally said, no longer skirting around his point.
Casey just stood there. It took a long time for her to shake her head. “That can’t be true. Because if it were, that would make me some kind of… what? An energy vampire or something?”
“Do not think like that. The Dismays are aberrations. They are abhorrent monsters that are created through evil powers. If they are not exorcised, they go on to harm countless humans. They must be destroyed. It just so happens that proto-goddesses like you also use them as energy sources. It is a closed-loop.”
Casey didn’t know what to say. Her face knew what to do, though – it took on a gamut of various expressions, and all of them showed the depths of her disgust. “That’s so creepy. I eat ghosts now.” She slammed a hand on her stomach as if she wanted to pull it right out and throw it at the wall. “There’s no way that’s true.”
“It seems that your default reaction when you are dealing with information you do not wish to register is to claim that it is not true. You have no grounds to do this. I am afraid it is true, whether you want to believe it or not. You consume the excess energy of Dismays. The two legionnaires you dispatched recently were relatively powerful. They will be able to sustain you for some time. That being said, if you want a perfectly fine fried dhal sandwich that won’t be missed, I shall rustle you one up forthwith.”
Casey just closed her eyes. Again this world was moving way too fast for her to keep up with.
She didn’t want to face what Brooker had said, so she nodded. “If that’s the best I can have, then fine, give me a sandwich. But make sure no one sees you. And make sure it’s not covered in trash.”
“Trust me, Mistress, I have had multiple millennia worth of experience as an intelligent shrine master. I know how to keep my activities hidden.” With that, there was a light flutter.
Casey turned over her shoulder to see that the book was just floating there, suspended in the air.
Frowning, she poked it.
“Please do not do that while I’m concentrating,” he immediately chastised her.
Jolting, expecting his mind to have been gone, she stood there for several seconds until she smelled the delicious scents of fried bread.
“The kitchen is this way.”
Following him through the shrine, he led her to a beautiful open kitchen that looked as if it belonged in some mansion.
Did it have books? Of course it had books. Every single room in this shrine was full of shelves cram-packed with every book you could imagine. At least the kitchen had cooking themed books. Every single cookery book it seemed that had ever existed was neatly stacked into shelves that surrounded the kitchen and even covered the ceiling.
Casey walked in, a smile instantly crumpling her cheeks and pushing her nose up high. “I could really get used to a kitchen like this. Think of all the nice things I could make?” She turned on the spot, surveying it completely. It had everything she needed. Casey loved to cook. That was kind of required when you worked for a catering company. Though it was unusual for the chefs to wait functions as well, Sid had always been a can-do guy. He’d wanted anyone who worked for him to get a wealth of experience in case they ever needed to move on to another job.
“Need I remind you again,” Brooker said as he fluttered over to a cupboard and magically grabbed up a plate with a blast of energy, “that you do not need to eat, strictly speaking.”
“I don’t care if I don’t need to eat.” She turned around and jumped up onto one of the benches, sitting neatly as she placed her hands in her lap and continued to smile at the kitchen. “I like to cook. I like to eat. So from now on, try to get as many fresh ingredients as you can. Emergency dumpster sandwiches aside, of course.” She kept an eyebrow arched as he delivered her the plate.
The sandwich looked pretty good. And it wasn’t demonstrably covered in trash.
Casey took a bite. It was delicious. It was just what she needed. Something greasy and truly indulgent. She got the feeling that today would be even worse than yesterday.
That just made her think of Jupiter again.
And she’d been thinking of him all night.
Her thoughts had practically dragged her under. Though she couldn’t remember any of her dreams per se, she imagined that every single one of them had revolved around him.
As Casey crammed the sandwich into her mouth and finally finished it, discarding her plate to the side, she looked right at Brooker. “What happens next? There are too many mysteries stacking up. I need to be proactive and start trying to solve them.”
There was a long pause. “Sometimes I underestimate you, Mistress,” Brooker said out of the blue.
“What does that mean?”
“That at times like this you do not remind me of the damsel who wastes every breath to complain that this world is impossible.”
She tilted her head to the side slowly. It was a semi-dangerous move. “Did you just call me a damsel?”
“Perhaps my choice of words was not perfect – though the concept is similar. You have been waiting for someone else to save you from this world. I can promise you that no one can do that. But many will come to try to take your powers and use them for ill. It is only you and your own powers that will be able to stop them.”
With that sobering thought, Casey jumped off the bench. She went to wipe her hands on her silk pants, but quickly thought better of it. She washed up in the basin, found a hand towel, then turned to Brooker. “Maybe this is suicidal, but I think I should go back to work. I think I need to figure out what Virginia is and what’s happening. I also definitely need to go to that function on Friday.” Though she was certain of her plan, her voice still broke with emotion.
She wanted to pretend that she couldn’t place it, but she could. That emotion was solely directed at Jupiter.
She’d been so certain of who he was until last night. And it had been so much easier to deal with him when she’d known he was nothing more than a monster. Now?
Conflicted didn’t do her feelings justice. They were like black smoke that had filled her mind over the night and was now settling in to stay for good.
Scratching her face and pushing her hair out of her eyes, she nodded at Brooker. “I know you probably think this is a terrible plan, but I feel like I should go back to work sooner rather than later. I’ll take the morning off to do something else, but then I’ll go back there this afternoon.”
Brooker was silent for way too long.
It made her back itch. “Brooker? Is this where you’re going to tell me that this is a terrible plan and I should just stay home?”
“I must respect your intuition. But I must also question whether this is your intuition,” he asked seriously. “If you think this is the best thing to do, then do it. If, however,” his voice dropped ominously, and some of the water in the sink shook, reminding her of that scene from Jurassic Park with the approaching T-Rex, “this is not your intuition, then do not do it.”
Pushing a breath through her lips and ignoring just how dire his warning was, she thought through his words. Then she shrugged. “I don’t know why, but I feel like this is the best thing to do. And trust me, that’s unusual for me. I’m usually the first one to run away at the first sign of danger. I’m a bit of a hermit, too.” She looked at the beautiful kitchen. “I could easily stay here for the rest of my days doing nothing but cooking and reading and keeping myself safe. But…” she trailed off. All she could do was think of the way Jupiter had latched his hand around hers and pulled her back out onto the street last night.
Hoping like hell that Brooker wouldn’t know what she was doing, she brought her finger up and ran her thumb over her wrist.
“If this is your plan, then may I question why you are not going to go to work immediately? I do not completely understand your human world, but I do know that if you agree to begin work at a certain time, then you must show up at that designated hour.”
“There’s somewhere I need to go first.”
Casey closed her eyes. “Home.”
She was back.
She walked up to her front door without a disguise on.
She had a big duffel bag over her left shoulder. Inside was Brooker. Though she could never usually convince him to leave the shrine and come with her on a mission, he’d insisted this time.
Casey was hyperaware of her environment as she stopped in front of her front door. One of her neighbors could have dropped a bowl, and she would’ve heard. Hell, she was so sensitive, that as a car backfired two streets away, she jumped.
She felt Brooker fluttering inside the duffel bag, and the undulations pushed against her shoulder.
He didn’t need to speak to her for her to understand his message.
She needed to calm the hell down and control herself.
As Casey opened her door and walked through, she saw the curtains in the house opposite shift.
Up popped Julianne’s purple rinse curls and the frown that always adorned her elderly face.
Julianne did not. With a somewhat disgusted expression on her face, she closed the curtains hard.
She did not, however, leave.
Casey now couldn’t turn her senses off. They were so sharp, they could easily rival any technology the military had to track their targets. So she knew with utmost confidence that Julianne was standing exactly where she’d been, still peering through the small crack in the curtains as she monitored Casey.
Casey had always thought it was a drag having nosy neighbors, but now her back itched with worry. Nosy neighbors might see something they shouldn’t.
She walked into her home quickly and closed the door. She stood there for several seconds, checking on the house with her extended senses. When she closed her eyes for a full half a minute and didn’t hear a thing, she finally dumped the duffel bag and opened it, the sound of the zip echoing through the house. “Brooker, this is your all-clear. No one’s here.”
Brooker darted out. “I will be the judge of that. While I’m sure you now possess the ability to scan for humans, there may be hidden Dismays.”
Brooker darted off.
“No, wait.” Casey jolted after him. “You’ve got to be careful of the curtains. My nosy neighbor’s watching us. Don’t do anything too obvious. I don’t know how I’m going to explain having a floating book darting around my house.”
“I told you before, Mistress, I have spent a lifetime hiding from humans. Now remain where you are until I have given the all-clear.”
She stood there until, a good two minutes later, Brooker came back.
“Have you got anything?” She jammed her hands into her pockets.
“The house is clear. Though….”
“What do you mean though?” Darting, nervous energy shifted through Casey. It quickly turned into worry that marched up her back and sank into her hindbrain. She took a jerked step forward. She tilted her head this way and that. She focused her senses like lasers. They could’ve penetrated the walls and shot right down to the foundations.
“It may simply be because this is the first time I have entered this house – or it may be something else. But I cannot guarantee that someone has not been here in the interim since you have left.”
Casey didn’t like that possibility. It could’ve been her cousin.
She jolted forward. She went through every single room in her house. She stopped in the lounge for a long while. She stared at the point where she had fought with the Dismay.
All evidence of it was gone. Well, the Dismay, at least. The fight? Yeah, that was everywhere. The TV was still well and truly broken, the carpet was destroyed, and the wall looked as if it had seen not just better days – but better decades.
The only thing she could be thankful for was that she’d dumped her bloody uniform and pajamas in the washing machine before she’d left. It didn’t appear to be disturbed. She’s also cleaned her blood of the walls and carpet.
When she made it back into the lounge room, she was slightly out of breath – not from exertion, but from worry.
Pressing her hand against her head, she finally turned to Brooker who had maintained a close distance behind her.
“I don’t think anyone’s been here.”
“I’m afraid you must be far more certain, Mistress. If someone has been here, and they have ascertained that there has been a Dismay fight, it will not take them very long to conclude who you are. Ordinary humans do not fight Dismays. And they certainly do not defeat them. They will – as you often say – put two and two together and conclude that you are the proto-goddess.”
Casey had already been breathing fast – but now it kicked up a gear. She had to flatten a hand on her chest. It kept bumping up and down like a buoy out on a choppy ocean.
She closed her eyes. She did something funny. She sat down in the middle of her lounge. Pushing her knees against her chest and locking her chin on top of them, she concentrated.
Maybe that wasn’t clear, though, because Brooker fluttered right up against her shoulder and banged into it. “This is no time to lose your nerve. We must ascertain—”
“I’m concentrating, Brooker. I am trying to figure out if I feel any god or Dismay energy.”
“I have already searched for those. But as I have already concluded, I cannot ascertain whether anything has visited here in the interim—”
“Just let me do this, okay? I need to try.”
Strangely, Brooker became silent as if he honestly thought she had a chance of doing this.
As Casey had already pointed out, she wasn’t one for meditation. Calming her mind had always been like trying to stop a raging bull by doing nothing more than waving at it.
She didn’t have a choice anymore. But she didn’t calm her mind, per se. She directed its power like somebody carving a new riverbed for a raging torrent.
She pushed it into the room around her. It filled it up, cramming itself into every space, almost as if it wanted to take everything out, including every particle of air until there was nothing – nothing but her mind.
Pressing her lips together, she let out a long breath.
Finally, she opened her eyes.
“I don’t think anyone magical has come here. But I do think a human came here.”
“There is no way for you to be able to conclude—”
She smashed a hand onto her chest. She said smashed, because it felt as if she was pushing past one heck of a barrier to do so. Brooker questioning her abilities was one thing – but deep down, Casey questioned them way more herself. It was time she started to accept that she had powers in the first place. And it was nigh time she started to trust them. “I want to trust this feeling, Brooker. You keep telling me to trust my intuition – well, this is me doing that,” she growled. “I guarantee that my cousin’s been here.” Her voice dropped down and hit one hell of a dark note.
Brooker took several seconds to react. Then he fluttered around in the air as if he was happy at that conclusion. “Then this is excellent news. You have not been found out by a god.”
“I don’t know if it’s that good.” She pushed up and dusted off her jeans. Damn, looking around, it was a surprise that the whole house hadn’t caught fire after that fight.
“The affairs of mortals no longer concern you, Mistress.”
“Trust me, anything my cousin does concerns me. He’s a nightmare.”
“Speaking of a nightmare, Mistress, I placed discreet surveillance spells outside. A very expensive car has just pulled up outside your house.”
Casey paled so quickly, it felt like there was no blood left in her entire body. She turned fast. Sinking her teeth into her bottom lip, she left them there until she was aware of footsteps marching up the garden path. Someone hammered on her door.
She sucked in one heck of a deep breath. “Do you think he was watching the house—”
“Assessing all available data – it is most likely that your neighbor called him,” Brooker replied.
Casey clenched her teeth hard. “Wow, thanks, neighbor.”
Realizing she couldn’t just pretend not to be here, she shoved forward.
She wasn’t aware that her shoulders were unconsciously rounding. Nor was she aware of the fact that by the time she got to the door, her stature was cut by half.
Brooker noticed. “Mistress,” he said quietly in a tone that could not carry. “You’re not about to become a damsel again, are you?”
She didn’t splutter at his use of the pejorative damsel. But she did become aware of what he was pointing out.
God, despite everything that had changed in Casey’s life and the power that she had acquired, she was still acting small around Walker.
Why? Yeah, so he belittled her. Yeah, so technically he usually had more power than her.
But everything had changed.
She opened the door. And there was Walker. He was apparently handsome. She couldn’t see it, but she’d been told enough.
If you asked her, all he was was the kind of pretty boy who thought that he could get away with anything because of his face. He assumed that all women were stupid enough to take one look at his sharp jaw and piercing eyes and do whatever the hell he wanted, no matter how much he mistreated them.
He was in an exceptionally expensive suit. It kind of looked like the one she’d seen on the back of that Dismay last night.
That thought almost derailed her. And this wasn’t a good time to be derailed – because it was very clear that Walker was on the warpath. Without bothering to say hello, he shoved in. With his hands still in his pockets, he elbowed her and didn’t even say sorry. “Where have you been, cousin? And what the hell have you done to grandpa’s house? Do you understand the consequences of this? You don’t own this place. You just get to live here rent-free. Any damages will be coming out of your account.”
Brooker, thankfully, had become nothing more than a book on the hall stand. One Walker rudely grabbed up, leafed through, then shoved back down.
All thoughts of the fact that Walker was wearing the same jacket as the poor soul from last night disappeared from Casey’s mind.
She stomped after Walker. He strode straight to the lounge room.
He looked incensed. With his hands still in his pockets, he turned and walked backward into the room, maintaining deadly eye contact with her.
For the first time in her life, she matched that eye contact. She shoved her hands onto her hips. “Can I help you, Walker?”
He let out such a snorting, derisive laugh, it was a surprise he didn’t send his brains shooting out of his nostrils and splattering over the wall. “What the hell has happened to you over the past several days? Apparently you haven’t been home. You haven’t shacked up with some sad man, have you? I can’t imagine anyone worth their while would take you. Wait, that’s actually what happened here.” Walker turned around quickly, his expensive shoes transferring the soot further across the carpet. “Some guy told you he loved you – something you’ve no doubt never heard before – and you bent over backward for him. Who is he? A drug dealer? Someone who fences stolen goods—”
Walker was always like this. Yeah, he was a little more angry than usual – but he was always this insulting. It was damn clear that to him, Casey was nothing.
She still had her hands on her hips. A part of her wanted to back down and drop them.
That was an old program.
It wasn’t the Dismays she’d fought that were giving her a backbone. It was her deep desire to get back to work and start investigating Jupiter. That allowed her to take a strong step forward. She let her gaze drop down to his feet. Then it pulled up his body. It stopped on his eyes.
For the first time, Walker clearly noticed that there was something different about her. His eyes narrowed. He let out a shaking laugh. “What the hell are you doing, little Casey?”
“What the hell are you doing?” she spat back, pushing as much anger into her words as she could. “Using my neighbor to spy on me? Wow, that’s professional. How much do you pay her?”
“Now, you listen to me, cousin—”
“No, you listen to me. You have absolutely no right to come into this house when I’m not here. That,” she growled, “is trespassing.”
He finally pulled his hands out of his pockets. He laughed. He could’ve brought the roof down. What, did he think he was some kind of megalomaniac from a ‘50s B-grade horror flick?
She just stared him down.
“Not trespassing, cousin. This is my house.” He stabbed a finger at the floor.
She arched an eyebrow slowly. It was a move she had borrowed from him, weirdly enough. It was all in the pace of it. You had to get it as slow as you could without making it look ridiculous. It was a move of total intimidation.
“You don’t own this house, Walker. You never have. And you never will. The trust owns it. You might manage the trust, but what does that mean exactly?”
“But I’m the lawyer.” He slapped his chest hard. “And you’re nothing but a frigging waitress. I have every right to check on this house. It will be mine. You don’t know a lot about how trusts work.”
She snorted. “You’re right. But I know more about how you work. You won’t blink at doing anything illegal to get your hands on this house. I don’t know why. It’s not like you can’t afford a better place closer to town. Maybe you just don’t like the idea that grandpa wanted to give me this place.”
“Grandpa,” he stabbed a finger way too close to her face, “was confused in his old age. He should’ve left me this place as we agreed.”
She frowned. “When did grandpa ever want to give you this place? You’re delusional, Walker.”
He spluttered. He looked her up and down. “What the hell has gotten into you? What are you wearing, anyway?” He gestured to her leather jacket.
It was something that Brooker had picked out for her. And… yeah, it would probably have come from the department store next door.
Though Casey wasn’t comfortable with that fact, she’d needed some clothes to come home in.
Casey grabbed her leather jacket and pulled it out. “What? You the fashion police now, Walker? Are you going to launch a court case against me for my jacket? I wouldn’t put it past you. You think the law is your own personal bully squad.”
“I’d watch your tongue, cousin. I’ve been nothing but polite and kind thus far. If you keep digging yourself a hole, trust me when I say that I will happily push you into it. Now, I’ve come here to kick you out.”
“You failed to look after this property. You will no longer be able to live here rent-free. And you will also be paying for the damage. I’ve already looked into garnishing your wages.”
It was easy.
Though she’d been dreading this interaction, now she was having it, she realized it was a lot like fighting a Dismay. Except at no point would she be able to knock him over and stab him through the heart.
Walker watched her, and he frowned hard at her clearly disaffected laugh.
“You want this house so much, Walker, then—” she began.
Her phone rang.
It was so sudden that Walker jumped.
Casey, weirdly, didn’t.
She shoved a hand into her pocket.
“We are not done here. You will not waste my time by answering a call—” Walker began.
Casey just took a step away from him, frowned at the unknown number, and answered. “Yes?”
“Repeat what I say.” It was Brooker.
Casey didn’t bother to ask where Brooker was calling from. She also didn’t bother to ask how he could call, considering he was a book. Maybe he had a mobile phone stashed amongst his pages somewhere.
She just took a sharp breath.
“Who is that?” Walker demanded.
“Hand me over and tell him I’m your personal lawyer,” Brooker said.
Casey didn’t pause. She handed the phone over.
“Who the hell is this?” Walker began.
It took approximately four seconds until he started to pale.
“I don’t know who the hell you think—” he began, but he stopped abruptly.
Casey couldn’t overhear what was being said, but watching Walker’s reactions was priceless.
Yeah, so he was a lawyer. But he was a lawyer in the sense that he nominally worked for a firm and dealt with clients. He didn’t actually fight any cases. That was for the real lawyers below him.
Brooker, though he certainly wasn’t a member of the bar, would know every law in the land, literally. Hell, he probably knew every single law in the world. That’s what happened when your shrine master was devoted to knowledge itself.
Walker straightened so much that it was as if someone had pulled most of the vertebrae out of his spine and replaced them with a steel beam. He walked over to one of the chairs and flopped in it. “You’ll be hearing from my firm—” he spluttered, but there was no bite behind his words. He turned the phone off and just sat there. Slowly, he stared up at her. “You think I’m gonna take this lightly?” he asked quietly, all punch gone from his voice. That just made his threat all the more worrying. She could deal with the boisterous, over-the-top Walker. But when he was quiet like this, he was even more fearsome.
She still did not back down.
“I have no idea what you’ve done, Casey,” he said, uncharacteristically using her real name, “but you can’t win this.” He stood, unbuttoned his jacket, walked toward the door, then started to button it up again nervously. He looked over his shoulder at her in a calculated move of intimidation before striding off. “I’ll be keeping an eye on this place,” he stammered as he reached the front door, opened it, then slammed it so hard, something fell off the shelf beside Casey.
Using her godlike skills, she darted forward and grabbed it before it could break.
It was a little porcelain dog. It had been a favorite of her grandfather. Lovingly, she cleaned it of dust then placed it back where it belonged.
Several seconds later, she wasn’t surprised when Brooker fluttered in.
She bit her lip and smiled around it. “I didn’t know you were my personal lawyer now, too.”
“I can be many things, Mistress. That is the role of a shrine master.”
She laughed. “Well, you saved my life today, Brooker. So thank you.”
“Though it is hard to say what your odious cousin would have done without me, I do not believe that he would’ve killed you. Though perhaps that is a possibility. I have never met a more unhinged, arrogant man. And trust me when I say that I have a depth of experience. I have met Dismays and gods that would make your toes curl. Still, he’s an exceptional example of a distorted soul.”
She laughed. It was kind of empty. She walked over to the chair and flopped down onto it. She pushed her hand against her face. “Was that the right thing to do, though? He’s just going to ask questions. He’s going to want to know where I got a lawyer from. He’ll know I can’t afford one.”
“I have constructed a sufficiently sound excuse. I have also claimed to be from out of town. I’m sure he will look up my credentials, but by the time he does, I will fabricate a suitable identity.”
“Is there anything you can’t do, Brooker?”
“Save the world, Mistress. I’m afraid that is on your shoulders.”
She laughed. It was uneasy. “That’s the second time you’ve said I have to do that today.”
“Because you must. Perhaps you have failed to register the severity of Ragnarok. But, if it were to come about and there was no one to push back the dark gods, this world would be no more. You would have no need for a lawyer. You would have no need for a house. No one would. Life as you know it would be gone forever.”
She shivered. Crunching forward, she pressed her lips together and swallowed slowly. “What do we do now? And why did you keep this house? Wouldn’t it have just been easier for him to kick me out?”
“He was far too intent on having it. So I decided not to let him get his way.”
“That sounds remarkably petty for a shrine master.”
“Perhaps. I do not get a good vibe, as you might say, from that man. I believe the less sway he has over you, the better. Perhaps I have not made the right decision – but perhaps time will show that I have. Now, I suggest you grab what you need. And I also suggest that you clear your mind.”
“Because I am going to teach you a very complicated spell indeed.”
“It is now important to keep up appearances. I should’ve done this earlier, I admit. As it is clear your neighbor spies for your cousin, we must ensure that it at least appears that you’re living here.”
“How are we going to do that?”
“By creating a hidden gate between this house and the shrine.”
She was with him all the way until reality struck and she shook her head quickly. “Isn’t that remarkably dangerous? What if someone discovers it? If there’s a gate leading from this house to the shrine, then everyone is going to know what I am.”
“The same ancient magic that ensures only the correct god can enter a shrine will ensure that only the correct goddess can find this gate. Trust me. No one will be able to discover it.”
“I trust you.”
“So do exactly as I say.”
Casey spent the next half hour doing precisely as Brooker said.
She was starting to get used to his dictatorial tone – so used to it, in fact, it felt as if he’d been with her for life. But he hadn’t. He’d been with Thoth for life. And now his master was dead.
At the back of her head as she worked, she wondered if Brooker was grieving – or if he was even capable of grief.
Even if he was technically just the shrine come to life, by the end of the process, she was certain he had a personality of some sort. And she was certain that under it, he was hurting.
She decided to be much nicer to him from now on once the spell was done and she stood in her living room, surveying it.
Her living room now had a hole in the wall that led directly to her shrine.
“And you’re sure no one will be able to see this?”
“Even if Jupiter came into your house and he sat right there,” Brooker fluttered over to the couch, “he would not be able to recognize this gate. I will also fix the damage to your house forthwith so as you do not draw further suspicion.”
“That’s a relief. That means I don’t have to give up all of my stuff. Though I am still going to be kicked out of here in two months.”
“We shall see. I will immediately work on your legal defense.”
She laughed. “I’ve been looking for someone to give me a hand with my cousin for years. I’ve finally got that. Thanks, Brooker,” she said with all her heart.
“The only way to truly thank me, Mistress, is to save the world.”
Though the situation didn’t really dictate it, she still laughed. “I’m not sure if that’s a fair deal.”
“Those who can, must,” he counseled seriously. “Now, you must go to work.”
“So you agree that I need to keep an eye on that place?”
“I agree that right now we do not know enough. We must discover what is occurring together.”
“So you’re going to come to work with me?”
“No. I am going to stock the fridge.”
“Though I do not possess the ability to go to the supermarket and purchase things, I can of course make an online delivery here. I can also, shall we say, take a tax from your neighbor for snooping.”
“Tax?” Her lips wobbled around that word.
“It is dishonest to spy on your neighbors. It is also unjust.”
“So you’re going to steal her groceries?”
“If we require a cup of sugar, rather than knock on her door and ask for it, yes, I will simply take it from her cupboard.”
This was where Casey had to tell Brooker that wasn’t okay. Instead, wondering if he was just joking, she shook her head with a grin marking her lips. “It’s time to get to work.”
It felt a lot more normal to leave from her house than from the shrine.
As she walked down the street to the closest bus station, she almost managed to convince herself that the last two crazy days hadn’t occurred at all.
As soon as she made it to Maximum Satisfaction Catering, all those thoughts went out the window.
Virginia was there. Sorry, she was just leaving. And who was she leaving with? Jupiter.
Casey stopped on the side of the road and stared at him.
He wasn’t driving fast enough yet that she couldn’t see him through the open window of his Corvette.
He didn’t glance at her – not once.
He was back to being the same asshole she was so used to. But as time practically slowed down, she saw something just around the corner of his lips. Tension. It reminded her of the hand he’d reached out to her last night.
Her back shivered. It took a long time to pull herself from that position, and it was only when Melinda leaned out of the main door and waved her over that she hurried up.
“Holy crap, you just missed something crazy.”
Frowning, Casey dumped her bag on the floor and walked up to Melinda. “What are you talking about?”
“What do you think I’m talking about? I saw you ogling his car as he drove past. I’m talking about the city’s most eligible bachelor. Or at least I should say the city’s ex-most eligible bachelor? Or the city’s most eligible ex-bachelor? Whatever.”
“What do you mean?” Casey’s voice became tight.
“He’s not letting Virginia out of his sight. It’s wild. She came to see us – actually, she came to see you. Literally within five minutes of her getting here, he just appeared out of nowhere and took her away. She said it was her lunch break. It’s like they are glued together at the hip.”
Casey didn’t say anything. Her mind ran through a whole host of possibilities, though, and none of them were nice.
Why would one of the most powerful gods in the entire world be stuck to Virginia’s side like glue?
She had to be a goddess. Brooker was wrong.
Casey suddenly tuned back in to something that Melinda had said. “Wait, you said that she was here for me?”
Melinda turned, opened a drawer, and pulled something out. She handed it over. “Since when did you become friends with Virginia? She keeps asking after you. Speaking of which, where were you this morning? At least you called in sick this time.”
“Believe it or not,” Casey said as she turned slightly and started to pry open the letter carefully in case there was any magic within, “I was dealing with Walker.”
“That asshole? Don’t tell me he’s trying to kick you out again?”
“That’s it, I’m gonna call my cousin – the lawyer I was telling you about.”
“It’s okay. I finally got one myself.”
“Can you afford one?”
“I know this guy.”
“Since when do you know any lawyers?”
“He’s got my back,” she said confidently. She pulled out Virginia’s letter when she confirmed that there wasn’t a scrap of magic in sight.
She knew what she expected – a message repeating what Virginia had said yesterday. That’s not what she got.
She got a symbol. That was it. It was just a blank piece of paper with a strange symbol in the middle.
“What is it?” Melinda started to walk around the counter.
Casey quickly folded the letter, shoved it into the envelope, and stuffed it into her pocket. “It’s an apology,” she lied, having to come up with something quickly.
“An apology? What the hell does Virginia have to apologize for? She is the least psychotic of her family.”
“Frank. She was worried I was going to quit yesterday because of Frank’s behavior.”
“God, she’s such a sweetie. That’s probably why she’s bagged the most eligible man in town. I’d be happy for her, but now Frank is going to become even more intolerable. Though maybe at least that means he’ll get bored with this business and sell it off. Even if he sells it to a conglomerate of rats, it’s got to be better than working for him and his wife.”
Casey laughed and joined in on the joke.
She quickly got to work.
The day went by in a flash.
Soon enough, she was home, showing that strange symbol to Brooker.
She was surprised as hell when he admitted that he’d never seen it before. Surprised, and slightly sickened.
“Why would Virginia be sending me a symbol that even the most knowledgeable shrine master in the world has never seen before? What does it mean?”
“Though I still do not accept your proposition that Virginia is a goddess, it is becoming far more likely that she has some kind of mystical power.”
Casey closed her arms around her middle. “So she knows who I am, right? This is some kind of warning—”
“I can only repeat what I have told you many times before. If—”
Casey closed her eyes. “If Virginia knew who I was, I wouldn’t be here anymore. I would’ve been captured. So what the hell happens next, Brooker? What do I do?”
“You train and prepare, Mistress.”
“Your first real job on Friday night.”
It was here.
The time was now.
Casey had remained at Maximum Satisfaction Catering, even though half of her wanted to run away with all her heart.
The rest simply could not push away her curiosity. With every day it grew. And all of it – absolutely every scrap of it – was directed at Jupiter.
She hadn’t seen him again since he’d driven by in his car. She’d heard about Virginia’s exploits, though – Cecile was in whenever she could between hair appointments, luncheons, and charity gigs to wax effusively about her sister’s good luck.
In approximately 10 minutes, Casey wouldn’t have to hear about Jupiter secondhand anymore.
The party was just starting up.
She was at the back of the museum, being directed by staff to unload her gear carefully.
Casey had never done a waitressing gig at a museum before. She didn’t exactly understand how it was possible. There was a lot of expensive rare, irreplaceable gear in here.
She would claim that she had no idea how this function could be held here – but that was stupid. Even to humans, Jupiter was a formidable character. If he wanted something, all he had to do was click his fingers, and he would get it.
Casey walked in after a museum staff member as she carried a box full of expensive cutlery.
“Just through here.” The guy waved her into the function hall.
It was beautiful – she’d just never been to this part of the museum before. She’d come to exhibitions multiple times as a kid. But this part looked a hell of a lot newer than what she remembered. She hadn’t heard of any developments, though.
Immediately, rather than question whether she just hadn’t kept her ear to the ground, she started to wonder if it was magical. She crammed her tongue against the roof of her mouth and dragged it back and forth as if she was disturbing sand on a beach as she looked for buried shells.
She didn’t find anything. That didn’t put her mind at ease.
She hadn’t slept a wink last night. She’d trained. That hadn’t been by design. She just hadn’t been able to calm her mind.
It might’ve only been a week since she’d discovered what she was, but Casey was exponentially stronger.
She’d thrown herself into the task of learning her powers – even after she’d understood that she didn’t just exorcise ghosts – she absorbed them for energy.
Every time she tried to back away from her skills, she drew up a single image. It wasn’t even Jupiter and his crumpled smile. It was that poor man with the suit jacket. She would close her eyes and stare at a mental representation of his face – the crumpled horror, the bursting pain.
It would remind her to stay on track.
Casey had learned so much over the past week, that Brooker was singing her praises. Yeah, she hadn’t known him long, but it was more than long enough to appreciate that he would sing no one’s praises usually. For someone with so much knowledge under his belt, he was as hard to please as a gold bar.
Casey unpacked all the gear and got ready. As the minutes drew on, and the function neared, her heart became unsteady. It didn’t just pulse hard – it felt like it was rattling around unattached in her chest.
She couldn’t shake the impression that something big was going to happen tonight.
It just better not be her being discovered.
But that wouldn’t be so bad, would it? A treacherous thought rose in her mind. She quickly dismissed it. That thought was centered solely on Jupiter. It grew out of the gentle way he’d held her hand.
But holding someone’s hand and not using them to take over the world were two different things. She didn’t have enough information to conclude that Jupiter was good based solely on his interaction with that Dismay.
… But if she didn’t have enough information to conclude that he was good – then that also meant she didn’t have enough information to conclude the opposite, right?
“Put it out of your head and just concentrate,” she whispered to herself aloud.
Melinda appeared over her shoulder and patted it fondly. “You’re thinking about the house, aren’t you, sweetie? If you need another lawyer, you just let me know. Now, eyes on the prize. I’ve started to see the guests coming in. Damn – I thought I knew all of the glitterati in the city, but clearly I don’t. There is so much money and power on display, it’s like we’ve walked onto Mount Olympus.”
That could have just been a throwaway comment – no, it was a throwaway comment – but it made Casey’s back arch.
As the guests started to arrive and she was handed a tray full of drinks, she had to concentrate not to let them shake off.
Some of the guests she recognized – some she didn’t. But nearly all of them felt a certain way.
Power surrounded her. Not the power of muscles and the strength of bodies. Not even the power of wealth and prestige.
The power of old.
There were gods in this room. Some of them, she was dead sure were divine – others, she just suspected. But there were so many, she started to wonder if this town was full of them.
Though it had been Casey’s idea to word this function in order to find out more about Jupiter, right then and there she wondered if this would be the mistake of her life.
This felt like a trap.
The function wound on.
The feeling that she was surrounded just got worse and worse until finally something was revealed.
There was an open glass case in the middle of the room. It wasn’t just any ordinary display case. The glass looked as if it was ballistic grade, and she could see the tiny sensors embedded in the base. As for the base, it appeared that you could drive a car into it, and it wouldn’t budge.
There was nothing in it. But when someone walked in with a red velvet cushion and the entire room became silent, Casey had to crane her neck to stare. She had to – because her entire body became compelled. Fortunately, she was holding an empty tray. There was nothing to drop as her muscles began to twitch.
Sitting there on the red velvet cushion was a gemstone about the size of a small egg. A lot of people gasped. Those were the humans.
The other guests – they just stared on as if the thing being displayed wasn’t a pretty gemstone, but a gun.
Casey… her chest became tight. Her brow became sweaty. She could barely stand.
She’d never been able to detect cursed objects before – but maybe that was because she’d never encountered one like this before. Now as she stared, she knew – she just knew that within that gemstone was a powerful Dismay.
Though she’d fought a couple of level IIIs over the past week, she had only defeated one – and that had been through luck.
She couldn’t even begin to guess what level the Dismay inside the gem was.
Though Casey hadn’t come here to dispatch it, maybe her body had other plans, because despite her fear, she found herself getting closer and closer to it.
It was being carried in by a man who was flanked by security guards. She didn’t have to stare at them twice to know that they were gods or mythical in some way. Even ordinary humans would question why they were so large and powerful looking. They were either escaped genetic experiments or demigods in disguise.
The gem was taken straight to the display case and placed inside. Then Jupiter appeared. He hadn’t been there for the entire party thus far.
As he walked in, Casey locked her every sense on him. Breathing became so hard, she was worried that she was going to keel over.
Fortunately no one was staring her way. Hell, even if she had succumbed to unconsciousness, she doubted anyone would’ve torn their attention off Jupiter.
He took up the entire room. She’d never met someone with more presence. It was as if even the air was recognizing that it ought to get out of his way to offer him more space.
He cleared his throat, approached the gem, and started to give a speech about one of his charities.
She tuned right out.
Being this close to the gemstone…. It was starting to do things to her.
Her body wasn’t just compelled now – it was getting harder and harder to control. She kept getting a little closer to the case. She was standing right at the edge of the other guests. Another few steps, and she would come right up against those demigods.
She had to… she had to get out of here.
In a move that made it feel as if she was using every single scrap of her will, she forced herself to turn.
Awkwardly, shaking from head to foot, she pushed through the guests.
She didn’t even walk out of the service exit. She just chose the closest door. As soon as she was out, she pushed it closed, and she pressed her back against it.
She just stood there. She….
She turned over her shoulder. She dropped the tray on the floor with a clang. She went to open the door. She didn’t know what she would do, but her body was prepared for a fight.
Before she could push back through and reveal her powers to a room full of people and gods, she heard a scream.
It cut through the air. It did the one thing she needed so much. It focused her attention and pulled it off the gemstone.
She didn’t know what door she’d walked through, but there was no one about.
“Hello?” she asked, her voice shaking. “Is anyone out there?”
There was another scream.
Casey waited for the sound of security guards. The shriek had been damn loud, after all. It would have made it through the door easily. But when security didn’t come, Casey paled.
What if only she could hear it? What if she’d gotten it wrong, and those bodyguards weren’t gods, after all? What if Casey was the only one who would be able to do anything?
Casey was pulled forward.
In the past few days, she’d found out more about Thoth. He had taken it upon himself to trawl the city streets looking for Dismays. According to Brooker, no other god had ever been as proactive as him. Perhaps because no other god had understood the true threat of the Dismays as much as Thoth had. That was the price of having too much knowledge. You could not ignore evidence as it mounted around you. Thoth had known that Ragnarok was coming and that it would be precipitated by more Dismays taking root amongst the humans. So he had given up his life in his hunt for them.
Casey felt obliged, now that she’d inherited his shrine and its master, to continue Thoth’s work.
Or maybe, deep inside her, she simply could not ignore what she was and what her body wanted to do.
She ran as fast as she could.
If she’d been paying attention, she would’ve realized quickly that she started running down a corridor that simply could not exist in the museum. The museum was boxlike. It had multiple levels, but it was constrained in its size by the fact that it was squeezed between two old sandstone buildings on either side.
This corridor was far too long. It cut down in an unending straight line that would’ve led her right through the wall to one of the old town halls on the left.
As Casey ran, all she could focus on was the scream as it split the air again.
Whoever was screaming, it was a woman, and she was rapidly losing some fight. The pitch of the shriek made the hair on the back of Casey’s neck stand on end and her heart beat twice as fast.
“Hold on – I’m coming,” Casey screamed once more.
The shriek bellowed out, and it was right beside Casey.
But there was nothing beside Casey. Just a thick wall.
Casey came to a skidding stop and stared at it.
The scream cut out.
Whoever was giving it was on the edge of death.
Casey started hammering on the wall. “What’s going on? Is anyone there? What the hell is going on?”
Casey took a jerked step back. She stared at the wall.
She had to get through it. As her hand impacted it, she felt something behind it – strong, dark magic.
There was a Dismay beyond there.
She clenched her teeth. She’d fortunately discarded her tray long ago when it had fallen outside the function hall. There was nothing to stop her from bringing a foot up. She went to cover it with magic – then she froze.
She was still in her original form.
If she broke through the wall and saved someone, Casey would lose the ability to walk around town like herself.
She still hadn’t learned to disguise herself. Brooker had been trying to teach her – God knows he had – but Casey hadn’t been able to do it on her own yet.
She stood there, curling her hands into fists hard enough to rupture the skin, and she closed her eyes. “Come on. Come on. Disguise me. I can do this. Please.”
The scream cut out halfway through again.
Casey’s eyes blasted wide open. “No. Just hold on,” she shrieked.
She started to pound on the wall. She called on her magic.
The wall began to shake.
It didn’t move like an ordinary wall. It undulated as if it were merely an illusion made out of water.
As she pounded on it one last time and she drew her foot back, she put as much magic into the move as she could.
It finally worked. The wall buckled. Casey threw herself through.
She entered what looked like a storage room at the base of the museum. They were on the second floor. Casey didn’t even blink at the fact that she’d somehow magically transported to another part of the museum. She skidded down to the floor.
There was Virginia.
Casey hadn’t even noticed that she hadn’t seen Virginia during the party. She’d been so focused on waiting for Jupiter to arrive.
Casey’s eyes blasted wide open. “Virginia? God, are you okay?”
Virginia looked unconscious – at least until Casey pressed a hand against her shoulder.
Virginia grabbed her hand and turned.
Casey jolted back but didn’t remove her grip from Virginia’s shaking shoulders.
Virginia’s face was covered with tears. There was also blood splattered across her front.
“You’re here. You need to stop the Dismay. You need to exorcise it before it gets a chance—”
There was a scuffling from behind boxes to Casey’s right.
Her eyes opened wide. She shoved up, but Virginia wouldn’t let her go. She kept a hold of Casey’s hand. “You can’t look like that. You need to alter your appearance, or they’ll find out who you are.”
Those words washed over Casey.
It didn’t matter that they confirmed everything she’d suspected about Virginia – Casey’s mind was being drawn into the fight.
There was something out there.
It moved quickly, remained hidden, and yet deliberately let out several hissing, spitting snarls every now and then, just to intimidate her.
Casey moved away from Virginia. Virginia tried to hold onto Casey’s leg. “You must disguise yourself. You can’t be found out yet. Disguise yourself.”
Casey jolted forward.
So much had just happened – so much had just been revealed – but the only thing her mind cared about was the fight.
She threw herself forward, and she shoved a hand into her pocket. She went to grab her pen. But it wasn’t there.
She hadn’t brought it. She’d left it at home. It wasn’t as if she’d planned to exorcise anything tonight.
Screaming in frustration, she darted to the side just as something leaped off one of the crates to her left. It moved so quickly, there was nothing Casey could do. It pinned her.
She caught a glimpse of its face just as she brought her knee up and sunk it into the thing’s chest.
It had the head of a jackal but with a much longer, more powerful body. It looked like one of the level II Dismays she’d fought – just on steroids.
She managed to push it off with nothing more than desperation. But she couldn’t push it far. It twisted to the side, landed on all fours, and came at her.
Virginia gasped and tried to push to her feet.
If she attempted to get involved, all she would do was make the situation worse.
Casey bolted to the side, heading toward the door. She had to lead this Dismay out of here.
That was all she could think of – saving Virginia’s life. This right here was when Casey should have been paralyzed by the fear that she’d been found out. The fear could come later.
Saving had to happen first.
“You can’t leave the room. It’s bound in here,” Virginia spat.
It wasn’t in time. Casey had reached the door. She tried to kick it open. Despite the fact she put magic behind her move, it didn’t matter. The door remained steadfastly closed. Casey was forced back. The jackal was 30 seconds behind her – but that 30 seconds quickly became no seconds as it put on a massive burst of speed and reached her. It grabbed her from behind and sank its claws into her shoulders.
Casey screamed as she was thrown to the side. She was smashed against the wall.
She almost lost consciousness.
A ringing blasted through her ears, and she flopped against the ground. Immediately, the jackal was upon her. It pinned her by the shoulders. It brought its snarling face close. Just before it could wrap its mouth around her throat, Casey heard the sound of scattering heels. Virginia reached the monster and tried to wrap her arms around it.
It was an unwise move.
The jackal turned its head all the way around as if it was one of those clowns at a fair.
Casey knew what would happen – the future just emptied out in front of her like a picture book someone had ripped up and thrown into the air.
The jackal would wrap its teeth around Virginia’s throat and kill her instantly.
A blast of desperation sailed through Casey.
It ignited something inside her.
It was something that you couldn’t get to through training alone. You could learn how to parry – you could learn how to throw – you could learn how to use your sword and repeat an exorcism mantra – but the real world was always different. It was messier, darker, and far more dangerous.
As the jackal pounced on Virginia and pushed her onto the floor, Casey roared.
She didn’t have the pen – but she didn’t need it.
She looped her arms around the jackal’s back and threw it off Virginia. It smashed into the floor so hard, a hole was driven down a meter. The concrete all around them shattered and buckled.
Casey bolted forward.
The exorcism mantra echoed in her mind. It pounded over and over again as she skidded down to her knees.
Just as the jackal reached up, grabbed her wrist, and pushed its talons in until blood splattered out, Casey pushed down. She rounded a hand into a fist and smashed it forward. It sunk into the jackal’s face with all Casey’s might. Her power just leaped out of her, burning like a thousand suns.
It forced the jackal back. Its head bounced against the floor and became still.
Even without a sword, Casey could still penetrate the jackal’s chest. She desperately grasped to the side and picked up a long section of steel beam that had been disrupted from the concrete floor. She twisted it around and began the mantra. She stabbed it down. “Quod est ad finem,” she screamed at the top of her lungs.
The jackal shuddered once, then twice. It tried to fight against her. She kept it pinned with the steel beam as she screamed once more, “Quod est ad finem.”
The jackal sliced its claws over her face. Her blood splattered everywhere. The creature bucked against her grip. It almost threw her off, but Casey would not be thrown.
“Quod est ad finem,” she screamed. She channeled all the angst of the past week. Critically, she took her mind back to the moment she’d found out what she was. She saw Thomas there, dying in front of her.
“I will not let your death be in vain,” she muttered before screaming one last time, “quod est ad finem.”
The jackal exploded. It was far more violent and powerful than any exorcism she’d encountered thus far. The room shook for several seconds before falling still. Then the jackal disappeared in a hush of sand. It struck the floor, scattered, jittered, then turned into wisps of smoke that were quickly carried away on a sudden wind.
It… it was over.
No. It was just beginning.
Casey jerked her head up and stared over at the door. It was locked, but it was starting to shake. Because someone was trying to break through.
Casey jolted up. Even without running over and checking, she knew that Jupiter himself was trying to burst through.
Breathing harder than she had during the entire fight, she staggered back. She almost fell over Virginia’s prone form.
The fear that should’ve been there all along finally hit Casey.
Holy crap, this was a trap. And she’d wandered into it like a fool.
Virginia could obviously see what was happening with Casey, and she shook her head. “It’s okay. No one knows what you are. And I won’t tell anyone. Now get out of here,” she stammered desperately. “Before he comes.”
“Yes. Jupiter. Get out of here.”
“I’m not gonna leave you alone with him,” Casey decided as she got down to help Virginia.
Virginia pushed her back. “He wouldn’t hurt me. But you have to get out of here.”
“I can’t leave you alone—”
“You’re not ready to face him. And trust me when I say that he’s not ready to face you. Get out of here. Now.” Virginia shoved Casey.
Now the fight was over, Casey’s body was rapidly giving in to post-adrenaline fatigue. She wobbled and actually fell onto her ass.
Virginia just reached over, grabbed her up, and pulled her to her feet.
Virginia could barely stand herself, but that clearly didn’t matter. She stared at Casey. “You can’t face him like this. You just need to leave. Even if you could disguise yourself, you still couldn’t face him. Not yet.”
“Why? What will the bastard do to me?”
Virginia twitched on the term bastard. “He’s not your enemy.”
“If he’s not my enemy, then—”
“You’re just not ready to face each other. Trust me. Now go. You’ve got a minute.” She stared back at the door and made a calculated decision based on how hard it was shuddering.
Casey started to back away.
She had to go – but a large part of her wanted to stay.
She needed to hear why Jupiter wasn’t her enemy.
“Please, get out of here. He can’t see you like this. He’ll try to fight you.”
“Then he is my enemy—”
“No,” Virginia screamed. “But he won’t understand that yet. Please, just go.”
She could see the hole in the wall she’d made to get in here. She ran up to it. She stopped just as the door gave such a violent wobble, it looked as if it was going to be blasted to smithereens.
Virginia shook as she stood there. “You’ve got to go, Casey. I’ll explain everything one day. I won’t tell anyone who you are. Thank you for saving me. Now get the hell out of here.”
She closed her eyes. She threw herself forward.
But she would not be able to run forever.
The end of God Given Book One. This series is complete. There are five books in total. God Given Book Two is currently available.