The guards led her away. Her long white dress sashayed around her legs as she strode with her head held high. She was being taken to her execution, but she didn’t once let her chin drop.
Her long black hair tumbled around her shoulders as wind raced along the side of the palace, its haunting cry shaking over the mountaintop. It rustled through the megalithic trees that stood beside the grand building and brought her attention to a solitary white bird seated on a swaying branch.
She stopped to stare.
Once upon a time, they’d called her a bird. The little white bird who always got away.
This time, there would be no escape.
“Move,” one of the imperial guards snapped as he shoved in close and jabbed the hilt of his golden spear into her back.
He didn’t measure his hand, and he hit her more than hard enough that she stumbled to her knees. The long golden chains that tied her to her guards jangled as they fell around her.
“Up,” the same guard said.
Move. Up. Stop. You’ll soon die, witch.
Those were the only words these men had deigned to share with her.
“Move faster,” the other guard snarled as he repeated his friend’s move and rammed the hilt of his spear into her already tender side.
She didn’t make a sound as she fell again and rose. She wasted no time in drawing her head up high and silently walking on.
The king’s chamber lay directly ahead. Squeezed between the palace and a sheer drop off the celestial cliff behind, it was the most sacred building atop Olympus.
It would be the last place she’d ever see. Once her sentence was carried out, she’d be thrown off the cliff.
And there, she would tumble into the mortal realm. Not technically death, but a fate far worse. Stripped of her power and, most importantly, her memories, she would never have a chance for revenge.
As they neared the king’s chamber, other gods strode from the palace to watch. Every one of them wore looks of rage, derision, and satisfaction.
To them, she deserved this.
“Broken queen,” one hissed.
Slicing her gaze over, she said nothing.
“Lying witch,” another snarled.
“Your wings will be torn from your back, little bird,” another whispered.
Every comment she ignored but the last. At that violent promise, the fear she’d been hiding exploded in her chest. It streamed through her body until it centered on her back.
Glowing symbols charged over her skin, becoming as bright as dying stars as they ate her magic. She wasn’t only trapped by chains – the tattoos that had been scorched into her flesh by Hephaestus himself were her true prison. They locked her power in her body, ensuring it could never come out.
“Your wings will adorn the new queen,” that same hateful voice whispered.
As more fear bolted through her like a charging horse, her body desperately tried to spread her wings. It couldn’t. Hephaestus’s magical symbols only burnt all the brighter as they channeled her power back into her body.
She felt like a bomb that could never explode. Like a fire that would never be more than a spark.
For no reason, one of the guards shoved her again. She fell, splitting her knee on the jagged path.
This only drew more gleeful jeers.
The crowd wanted blood.
They wouldn’t get it.
He wouldn’t kill her.
Zeus wouldn’t dare….
She closed her eyes as tears rimmed her lashes.
There’d been a time when she’d loved him, and in all her long existence, she had never loved before.
He’d be her first and last.
She would never trust again.
They reached the king’s chamber. Standing either side of the door were Eris and Phobos. They smiled. Tools of the war god, Ares, they knew precisely how to smile with death behind their eyes.
She stared past them.
The great golden doors opened, and there he was.
Zeus seated on his throne. Zeus, the god of thunder. Zeus, the king of Olympus.
Zeus, her ex-husband.
Zeus, the man who’d betrayed her.
Zeus, the man she would never forgive no matter how many lives she led.
The path leading up to the throne was carved from gold. Magic – the lifeblood of the gods – ran through it.
And that magic centered on Zeus. Everything did. There was a reason he was the king of the gods – he was by far the most powerful.
But power is one thing – the wisdom to wield it correctly another. There’d once been a time when she’d thought Zeus the wisest man on Olympus.
That time had ended.
She was taken to the foot of his throne. There, her two guards parted and walked out. They were no longer needed. Behind Zeus stood his brothers, Poseidon and Hades. At the front of his throne, just to the left, stood Ares.
In full ceremonial battle armor, the god of war looked like an apparition of death. His sword was slung at his side, but at the sight of her, he reached over and settled a large, powerful hand on it. Immediately, it reacted to his touch and started to burn a devilish red.
She stared at it, knowing what would come. Of all the weapons on Olympus, save for Zeus’s lightning bolt, Ares’s sword was the only tool that could cut her wings off. Zeus wouldn’t dare get her blood on his hands.
Ares would enjoy it too much, anyway. A fact he proved as a smile drove into his lips and tugged his left cheek up.
Footfall echoed from the side of the room, and a goddess pulled herself out of the lines of deities either side of the throne.
Hera. She’d always had eyes on Zeus. Now she’d be able to have him.
Hera smiled as she strode forward and stopped in front of Zeus. “You have made the right decision, my King. The witch Fos must be punished for betraying you.”
The witch. So that’s all they were going to refer to her as now? Once, she’d been queen. Once, she’d been Zeus’s one and only light. Now she was nothing more than a meaningless trickster.
But this witch still had wings.
And that’s what they were truly after.
“She must be made an example of. Fos tried to steal your thunderbolt, the very seat of your power,” Hera continued. “She tried to usurp your throne. This creature, this witch who isn’t even a god – she must be punished for all to see. Strip her of her power and send her to the humans. Let her live their meaningless, short lives in punishment for reaching too high.”
Zeus said nothing.
Fos hadn’t looked at him yet, and he hadn’t looked at her. She could tell this, as his chin was still level. Here she was at his feet – at his mercy – and he couldn’t even muster the courage to gaze at her.
There’d once been a time when he hadn’t been able to take his eyes off her. When he’d found her and protected her from those who hunted her wings, Zeus had watched over her with all his heart.
Now he didn’t glance her way once, and nor did he speak.
Hera smiled as she turned, her long purple dress sashaying around her legs. She stared down her nose. “You will reap what you have sown. You have angered the gods. It is time to pay the price we have set. You will be banished to the human realm, but not before your wings are cut from your back.” Hera took so much pleasure in the word cut, it could have sliced through the very air.
There was muttering through the room.
No one actually expected Zeus to cut Fos’s wings off. He’d done so much over the years to protect her and her unique power – it would be for naught if her wings were lost at his hand.
He moved. For the first time, he acknowledged her as he tilted his head down.
He stared at her.
She lifted her head up and stared at him.
… There was nothing in his eyes. They were dead. Zeus was nothing but a statue in that throne – nothing but a king in name only.
“What do you say, Fos?” he asked, his tone emotionless.
“What do I say? The only thing I’ve been saying since this hateful charge was brought against me. I did not try to steal your thunderbolt.”
“I saw it with my own eyes.”
“Your eyes were deceived.”
Hera took a quick step forward. She tilted her head back until her long hair played attractively around her face. “There is no need for this, Your Highness. We have heard her lies before. You saw her crime with your own eyes. She,” Hera pointed behind her in a vicious move, “is nothing but a deceptive witch. No one but you and your ex-wife has the power to wield – or touch – your thunderbolt. You saw it in her hands. There is no deception. She must pay for her crimes.”
Zeus turned his gaze to the ceiling. “The decision has been made.”
The room became quiet.
“For a love betrayed, you will be banished to the human realm,” he said, his voice even on the word love.
Hera took a step forward, her expression falling. Ares straightened too, the skin around his mouth becoming tight with worry.
It was clear they both feared that Zeus would decide to leave Fos’s wings.
They needn’t have worried.
He stared right at Fos and did not remove his gaze once. “And for a power betrayed, you will lose yours. I gave you the ability to touch my thunderbolt. I cannot remove that permission, but I can take your power. Your wings will be removed.”
He couldn’t even say the word cut.
Hera nodded adoringly at her king.
Ares smiled at Fos as he pulled out his sword in anticipation.
So this was it? After years of loyalty – and love – at Zeus’s side, it was over. After years of protecting her, he would be the hand to cut her down – or at least, the voice that ordered it.
“You’ve said your piece. It is time I say mine.” Fos stared at him. She didn’t let her hatred show. She showed something far more frightening – the cold indifference of someone who knows they are right. “One day you will learn you were duped, my king. One day, you will learn I am innocent.”
Ares opened his mouth to snarl an insult.
Zeus lifted his finger to silence him. All the while, Zeus never once dropped his gaze from her.
Was there still love somewhere in his stare? Was there even a grain of the loyalty they’d once shared?
There was nothing but cold betrayal.
Fos stiffened. She couldn’t open her wings, so she let her eyes show what little power she had left. “And when that day comes, when you finally understand what you’ve done, I won’t come for you. No matter how hard you try to find me, you never will. You have sealed your own fate, Zeus. You can rule without me, but you will never be happy again. I won’t be able to fly,” she voluntarily took a step toward Ares and his glowing red blade, “but you won’t be able to love.” She knelt down in front of Ares. As she tore her gaze off Zeus, she knew she would never gaze upon his face again. Every loving memory they had ever shared would be nothing but dust at her feet.
The feel of his hands, his heat, his power – the unique experience of being trapped in his otherworldly gaze – she would wipe all of them from her soul like someone washing paint from a once-great canvas.
Zeus made a sound. Without staring at his expression, she had no clue what it could mean.
Perhaps it was the only admission he would ever give that he could be wrong. Or maybe it was the sole tear he would ever cry at what he was about to do to her.
Zeus raised one of his fingers. Hephaestus’s seal broke across her back, tingles of power rushing through her body as her wings naturally unfurled.
With her face still turned to the ground, she watched the shadow of her wings play over the golden floor.
Ares waited no longer. She heard the wind whistling along his blade as he brought it down.
It sliced through her wings.
Her unique white blood splattered over the floor by Zeus’s feet.
He made a noise. She couldn’t discern it – all she could feel was pain eternal as it ripped through her body and blasted through her mind.
She only just stopped herself from screaming.
“Remove her from his sight,” Hera demanded, her shrill, strident tone the only thing that could make it through Fos’s pain.
Ares knelt down beside Fos. He would carry her to the cliff behind Zeus’s throne and throw her into the mortal realm.
No. She would do that herself. She no longer had magic without her wings, and blood pooled down her back, staining her already white dress, but that didn’t stop her from staggering to her feet.
She wouldn’t look at Zeus, not once as she pushed away from Ares and staggered toward the gaping open hole at the back of the chamber.
She tuned out every hiss and jeer.
Wrapping her arms around her middle, she made it to the hole. And there, she stared down at the mortal realm. It was visible as nothing more than a flicker of light at the base of the celestial cliff.
There was no climbing up that cliff. She would never reach Olympus again.
She would turn her back on it, and him, forevermore.
She staggered to the edge of the cliff. The wind sliced up it, moaning like a trillion lost souls. It brought with it the messy, bloody smell of humanity in all its murky glory. She swore she could even see them – trapped mortals with lives like flickering candles. They lived with no power, in the hands of the gods with no way to ever hold onto what mattered to them.
She took a step, one bare foot hanging over the edge of the cliff. Her toes tingled with the heat of summer and the frozen cold of winter. Her nose started to pick up the scents of pollution, of bodies, of food, of the dead – of a world beyond the clean beauty of the realm of Olympus.
Before she could step over the edge, she stopped. She’d decided not to stare at Zeus ever again, but just at the last moment, the remaining few flickers of her love for him rose.
Once, he had loved her. She’d felt it in every lingering touch, heard it in every soft whisper. And she’d seen it, over and over again as he’d protected her from those who would use her wings for evil.
… Maybe somewhere in Zeus’s heart, a flicker remained.
She went to turn.
Someone locked their hand on her shoulder, preventing her from moving any further.
She stared up into Ares’s hate-filled eyes. His cold blue irises were rimmed with flickers of fire. As his fingers squeezed her blood-covered shoulder, his magic sending sparks blasting over her dress, he drew close for one last word. “Don’t look back. There’s no need. He won’t ever find you again. But I will, Fos.” With that, he pushed her off the cliff.
She jolted out of bed. It took barely any time to realize that it had been a dream. Another damn dream.
Anna let out a sigh as she crammed her hand against her forehead. The slap echoed around her small single-room apartment. Pulling her legs up and pressing them in tight against her chest, she crammed her face against her knees as a begrudging smile spread her lips.
“… Another one for the dream diary,” she commented as she reached over, opened her bedside table with a forceful tug, and yanked out her tattered journal. Securing her tongue between her lips, she remembered every detail she could. It was always different. She might’ve been having a variant on this specific dream most of her life, but every time, different facts stuck in her head.
“He won’t come for you, but I will,” she said, repeating the last words she’d heard as she scrunched her lips between her teeth. “That guy called me something, didn’t he? What was my name?” Tapping her pen against her lip, she took several seconds to think it through, but when nothing popped into her head, she shrugged, finished off writing the details she could remember, then crammed the book back in her bedside table. Yawning and stretching, she jumped out of bed, then immediately curled in on herself. “Damn this apartment is cold. If only I could afford more heat.”
Anna enjoyed speaking to herself. It was kind of a requirement. She led a solitary life. Nobody lived with her, and her job cataloging rare books at the library was hardly a social one.
Dressing quickly, she grabbed a bite to eat and headed out the door.
She was immediately met by a cold, wintry blast of air. Huddling her arms around her middle, she clenched her teeth. “Seriously? It’s only mid-autumn. Why is it only freezing on the days I have to get out of bed early?”
She knew that answer. Ensuring no one was around her, she muttered to herself as she replied, “Because you are the unluckiest person in the entire world, Anna.”
It was a refrain she’d repeated to herself more often than she’d like. Because it was true.
If Anna had money, she lost it all as the world conspired to send her mysterious bills she hadn’t been expecting. If she had friends, they quickly became ex-friends as misunderstandings way beyond Anna’s control drove them away. As for family – there was no point. Her parents had died in a car crash when she was six. She’d been in and out of foster care since then.
Just before Anna could be pulled into those morose thoughts, she shook her head hard and clenched her teeth. “Remember what that fortuneteller told you? No more negative thoughts. You’re not the unluckiest person in the world, Anna Smith,” she said forcefully and a little too loudly as a guy striding beside her took his time to give her a suspicious once up and down before he walked to the other side of the street.
Anna just rubbed her hands, crammed them into her pockets, and tilted her head down so she didn’t have to see the world that had always conspired against her.
Once upon a time, she would never have dared to see a fortuneteller. She didn’t believe in that stuff. Anna might have a job cataloging rare, ancient tomes, and a lot of those might’ve been steeped in myths and fiction, but she herself only believed in things she could see and touch. There was no point in painting mystery over the world. It distracted you from its cold, harsh realities. And the more you did that, the more you left yourself open for a surprise when it inevitably kicked you in the gut.
Over the past several months, Anna’s so-called bad luck had turned into something insanely worse. She’d gone on three dates recently. Every single man had failed to call her back, not because they weren’t interested, but because each one of them had been struck by lightning.
She wasn’t making that up. Each damn guy had been hit by a lightning strike within 24 hours of meeting her. Hell, the guy who’d seemed keenest had been struck by dry lightning an hour after he’d kissed her.
“And that, Anna Smith, is why you will always be alone,” she commented to herself morosely as she ran to catch the subway. She was already late. She’d woken up with plenty of time, and she hadn’t wasted any when she’d had breakfast, and yet somehow time had slipped through her fingers.
She ran down the street that led straight to the subway only to find that it was closed off. Yellow barricades prevented pedestrians from getting on either of the sidewalks, and witches hats blocked off every lane of traffic.
“What the hell?” she muttered just as a construction worker walked past.
“Lightning damage,” the guy said gruffly as he took a sip of a steaming cup of coffee.
He jammed his thumb in the direction of the middle of the road. She could see a smoldering hole gouged out of the bitumen.
“I had no idea lightning could do that,” she commented as the guy strode past.
“Turns out it can. That one section of road was struck four times.”
Though she wanted to continue the conversation, the guy was already out of sight. A group of other construction workers joined him as a big truck rolled in further down the street.
Scratching her arms, a deep frown dug itself across her lips. It stayed there as she yanked up her watch and realized she was well and truly going to be late.
“Dammit,” she spat. She whirled on her flat ballerina shoe, almost fell on a hard lip of asphalt, and threw herself down the detour.
She eventually made it to a subway station and got on the train with no time to spare.
If she thought she was about to get lucky, she was fresh out of luck. There was a tunnel problem, and rather than take her to the correct station, she had to stop one station away from the library.
“This is insane,” she muttered to herself as she ran up and out of the station.
Turning her head up, she stared at the pristine, clean architectural towers of downtown. She never got off at this station. She never had a reason to. This was the business district. What the hell would an out-of-luck rare-book expert like her have to do with a place like this?
She had to run through it as quick as she damn could. She hit the street as fast as her little legs could manage, powering around several other late commuters as she got a head start. Glancing down at her watch, she realized she had all of two minutes to make three city blocks.
“You are so screwed,” she commented as she dashed down the road.
She rounded a corner and smashed into an immovable object. She wasn’t expecting it, so she didn’t have time to react. She fell flat on her ass with a hard, echoing thump.
“What the hell?” a man muttered.
It took her too long as she tilted her head up and stared at him to realize she’d hit a person and not an immovable brick wall.
As the guy turned, she was treated to the sight of one of the most handsome men she’d ever seen. Powerfully built, tall, and with features that would make any statue of a Greek God blush, he looked like a character out of some fantasy novel come to life. More than that, he was in one seriously expensive suit. She hardly worked for some boutique clothing store, but even she could tell it had to be made of the finest Cashmere wool. It was the way the light bounced off it. Or maybe it just bounced off him. One look at this guy, and it was clear nothing could touch him.
When she didn’t pull herself up, he reached down and offered her a hand. In a daze, she accepted it. As soon as his fingers touched hers, pain stabbed down her back. Located between the middle of her shoulders, it felt like someone had just picked up a sword and stabbed it through her spine.
She let out a cry.
Shocked, the guy stepped in close and locked a hand around the middle of her back as she staggered to the side.
“I didn’t realize you fell that hard,” he muttered quickly. “You okay?”
Anna almost couldn’t pick his words up. Her mind had shut down.
Her brain was taken far away to a place it felt like it would never return from.
Fortunately, her eyes didn’t roll into the back of her head. And just as fortunately, the guy took a step back. As soon as his hand fell from her back, the pain simply stopped as if it had never been.
Startled by the sudden change, she stood there and stared at him, even as an unsure smile spread his lips. “You okay?” he asked again in a much clearer tone you would use on someone who was hard of hearing.
Reaching an arm around and trying to touch the middle of her back but failing, she shrugged. “I’m really sorry about that. I think I must’ve just bumped my back,” she said. It made no sense – she’d fallen flat on her ass, not her spine.
“No need to apologize. Look after yourself,” the guy said with a beguiling smile as he turned and walked away.
She simply could not tear her gaze off him as he strode down the street. She walked off after him. It took her too long to realize she was following him. And it took her way too long to realize she didn’t have the time to be distractedly stalking some mysterious handsome man she’d seen randomly in the street.
She couldn’t stop herself. Something was in control of her body. The one thing she could be thankful for was that she wasn’t obvious as she ogled the guy. She stayed behind him, and considering a lot of people like her had gotten off at the wrong stop, she didn’t stick out like a sore thumb. If the guy had turned to look at her expression, however, he would have seen how broken and confused she was.
If there was one thing Anna could be proud of, it was that while she was unlucky, her mental health was relatively stable.
Apart from the fact she’d been dreaming the same damn dream her entire freaking life, Anna Smith didn’t have nightmares. Sure, she was unlucky, and terrible crap happened to her all the time, but she always had a relatively stable sense of her own sanity and self.
Now it felt like she was fraying on fast forward, all at the sight of that man and what his mere touch had done to her.
It didn’t take long until he pared off. A guy like that in a suit as nice as that would hardly be heading anywhere save for the business district. Sure enough, he quickly walked to the side and stopped in front of one of the most expensive towers in the city.
It had taken five years to build, and according to what she’d read in the paper, it was singularly the most expensive building in the country, let alone the state.
It had been a year since she’d walked down this street. The sight of that building and its sheer imposing glory was the only thing that could tug her attention off the mysterious man. But it couldn’t do it for long. The guy appeared to be waiting for someone, and rather than walk up the grand stairs that led to that tower entrance, he shoved his hands in his pockets and turned around. That brought him within line-of-sight of her again, and the guy looked right at her. Hiding her completely torn, confused expression was one thing when he wasn’t staring at her. As soon as he made eye contact, she knew she would’ve looked like a gaping fish out of water.
That didn’t stop him from giving her an affable nod and letting his lips tug into a tight, handsome smile that wouldn’t be amiss on the pages of any celebrity magazine.
That smile did something to her. It raced down her back, punched into her gut, and wiggled through her torso. It felt like somebody grabbing hold of her shoulders and squeezing hard.
She had no clue if it was a pleasant sensation or exactly the opposite, but what it was was powerful.
Aside from her dreams, Anna didn’t lead an interesting existence. Apart from her foray into fortune telling, she had no reason to believe in magical forces, but the sight of this guy was doing something to her…. It was enough that rather than walk on and hide her embarrassing surprise, she stupidly stopped in front of him. She didn’t want to, but there was absolutely nothing she could do to stop her treacherous body.
The guy shot her a confused smile and opened his mouth to no doubt ask what the hell she was doing. He didn’t get the chance. A crazily expensive car rolled up to the curb.
In slow motion, Anna turned her head. In a second she’d never forget, her attention – her full focus – locked on it. Even if an explosion went off behind her, she wouldn’t have turned. Even if an entire army had appeared, rattling their sabers over her shoulder, she wouldn’t have glanced their way. And even if she was struck by lightning, she would not have moved.
That mysterious man jumped off the first step that led to the tower, strode past Anna, and opened the door to the car.
Anna slowed down until she stopped like a puppet that had had its last string snapped.
It felt like her heart, her lungs, her brain – everything that made her up – just disappeared as she turned into an empty husk.
The car had tinted windows. It was a good tint, too. She couldn’t see through it. She had no clue who was inside until the passenger door opened.
She caught sight of the side of a man’s arm. He was in an expensive, dark, navy blue pinstripe suit. She couldn’t see the rest of it, but she could see his wrist and hand. A broad, strong hand with a single ring on his wedding finger.
It wasn’t a standard wedding band. It was made of a curious gold metal the likes of which she’d never seen. Even from here, somehow, despite the fact she was at least 10 meters away, she swore she saw an engraving on it. It depicted two wings.
Anna was the kind of girl who didn’t like to stick out. If people tried to smile at her on the street, she kept her head down and she strolled right past. Hell, she hated having her photo taken. She wouldn’t do anything to draw attention to herself. Yet here she was, standing in the middle of the pavement, staring all goggle-eyed at that car as if it were the chariot of a frigging god.
The guy finally got out of his car.
Anna couldn’t describe what was happening to her. She didn’t have the vocabulary to try. Her body was doing things it had never done before. Her mind simply couldn’t keep up.
If there was one thing she could be thankful for, she wasn’t the only person who stopped to stare. Either this guy was some rock star, or he was frigging royalty, because people even brought out their phones to take a snap.
It gave Anna the one thing she needed – anonymity.
If she hoped she could hide among the crowd, she was wrong. As soon as the guy stood, she let out a whimper. It wasn’t girly. She wasn’t like some starstruck teenager who’d just seen their idol appear in front of them. It was the kind of whimper you’d give if someone had just stabbed you through the heart.
It brought the guy’s attention to her. His eyes locked on hers.
His eyes were….
His eyes were memorable. They dug right deep down into her soul. They reached a place she hadn’t even known existed. And they shook her. It was like an earthquake going on inside her soul – all at one simple damn look from this man.
The guy she’d bumped into was unquestionably handsome, but this guy was…. He was something else. Something that spoke right to the deepest part of Anna. His looks went beyond handsome. It didn’t matter that he had a build almost exactly as powerful as his friend’s. It didn’t count that he had the bluest eyes she’d ever seen, or that his shoulder-length ebony hair and trim beard made him look like a knight from olden times. The only thing that counted was that he fit.
There was another reason Anna had never been lucky in love. It wasn’t just that every man she wanted to date was struck by frigging lightning. She’d always been looking for something – someone. Her perfect type. Until today, she’d never known what that perfect type looked like. As the guy made eye contact with her, her body recognized he was exactly what she’d always been looking for.
Anna shouldn’t have to tell you that she didn’t believe in love at first sight. It was far too fictional to be true.
Whatever this was, it wasn’t that, anyway. It was just a moment that would never end. Until it did end with a bang.
Somewhere out in the city limits, the clouds that had been gathering all morning finally coalesced into a storm. There was a single clap of far-off thunder.
The guy who’d taken her breath away crumpled forward and clutched his chest.
It brought Anna back into the real world with a snap.
That mysterious guy who’d knocked her flat on her ass jolted forward and grabbed his friend’s arm. “Zach?”
There was a collective gasp from around her. Other people rushed forward to help, but she was the only person who stayed exactly where she was.
Try as she might, she simply could not move.
“Zechariah?” the mystery man said again as he gripped his friend with an even stronger grasp.
When Zechariah didn’t move and continued to clutch his chest as if he was having a heart attack, his friend rapped his hand on the driver’s window hard. Then he shoved Zechariah back into the car.
The next thing Anna knew, the car sped off, presumably to the hospital. And she… just stood there.
There was a crowd around her by now, and everyone had their phones out.
Her mind was functioning just well enough to be able to tune into people’s conversations.
“What the hell is wrong with him? That looked like a heart attack.”
“They would’ve called the paramedics. Maybe he has some health condition.”
“Who was that guy with him?”
“You mean the man with the arms that could wrestle a cyclops? Adam Croft.”
Anna couldn’t help but shiver as if someone had just dumped ice cold water down her back.
Again, a slight pain picked up between her shoulders. It reminded her of the stabbing agony she’d felt only minutes before. If it hadn’t been for the sight of that man – Zechariah – she would never have forgotten pain like that. It was the kind your body held onto for the rest of its life.
“Try the rest of your existence,” she found herself muttering out loud at that thought.
The two people who’d been chatting about Adam turned and frowned at her. “What?” one of them asked.
Dropping her gaze, she shook her head. “Sorry, I was just reminding myself of something important. I really… hope he’s okay,” she forced herself to say. It was only polite to point that out. And Anna usually had absolutely no trouble being polite. She was the kind of person who would apologize even if something was patently someone else’s fault. But pushing those words out was like draining every last drop of blood from her body.
Shoving into an unsteady jog, she finally forced herself to leave.
Before she made it to the end of the block, she felt something on her cheeks. Bringing a hand up and wiping her thumb down them, she realized they were wet.
She stared at the sky. She might’ve heard far-off thunder earlier, but impossibly, the clouds were already clearing. Which meant her cheeks weren’t wet with rain. No, she was crying. And Anna Smith had no idea why.
“You got lucky,” Apollo said as he leaned in, stretched his fingers wide, and allowed crackles of magic to blaze over them. The god’s power was unmatched. When it came to healing, there was no one under heaven who could equal Apollo.
Or at least, that’s what legend claimed. And legend can be a fickle master.
Zeus leaned back against the plastic bedhead, brought up a hand, and secured his large palm flat against his brow. “Any idea what caused my attack?”
“First things first, you want to know what it is,” Apollo corrected him, “not what caused it.”
Zeus arched an eyebrow.
Apollo leaned back, his hospital scrubs scrunching around him as he grabbed a chart off the end of the bed.
They were in a private hospital – the penthouse room – somewhere where no one could disturb them. So Apollo felt free to show more of his magic as he opened his hand wider and let it crackle between his fingers. “I have two theories.”
Zeus waited to be told.
When Apollo didn’t immediately tell him what was going on, Ares snorted. He was standing by the door, his back to it. He was still technically in his human form, but that did little to hide his strength. Even if a bull tried to barrel through that door, it wouldn’t be able to get through. “Apollo, you might’ve only met our ascended king three months ago, but let me give you a hint—”
“He doesn’t like to be kept waiting,” Apollo finished for Ares before the guy could put another word in.
Zeus simply smiled. It was the kind of smile that gave nothing away – the kind of smile he’d been born to give. He still couldn’t recall his full memories from his time as a god, but there were certain things that came naturally to him.
“My best theory is that you’re suffering from symptoms related to the storm that’s coming tonight. I don’t need to be associated with the weather to feel that it will be a significant one,” Apollo informed him as he let his gaze trace over to the window beside Zeus’s bed.
Clouds were gathering on the horizon again. Briefly this morning, it had looked like they would coalesce into a storm. But as soon as Zeus had been whisked away to the hospital, the storm had died down. For now. He didn’t need to be the god of thunder to appreciate that it would come back. It was only a matter of time.
“What’s your second theory?” Ares asked as the god shifted his broad shoulders, blocking even more of the door. Now it would take a tank – or two – to get through.
Apollo looked wistful. He let his gaze shift around the windowpane before he stared at the city with nostalgia flashing in his deep blue gaze. For just a few seconds, it flashed to yellow, the god’s actual eye color.
“The other theory is that you ran into somebody,” Apollo revealed.
Zeus’s gut clenched. “Ran into somebody?” His voice was almost even, but right at the end, it ticked up with something that was uncomfortably close to worry. A certain memory struck him. A certain memory of a certain woman just standing there and staring at him, her brown eyes wide with an emotion he couldn’t begin to understand.
Zeus’s memories of what had happened when he’d gotten out of the car were sketchy – but that woman’s face was clear. She’d stared at him in a way no one else had. All the other gawkers had looked as if they’d just seen a celebrity. She’d looked like she’d seen a ghost.
Apollo rested back and drummed his fingers on his thigh. “It’s highly unlikely, but you might have run into somebody from your past.”
Zeus didn’t need to ask which past Apollo was referring to. It would be Zeus’s life atop Olympus.
Once upon a time, the gods had never dreamed of leaving Olympus. But times change. As the realm of man modernized, the gods had been forced to keep up. Sent to protect man, it had become harder to keep humanity from destroying itself as people had developed bombs, guns, viruses, and an insatiable desire to destroy the very environment they lived within. So decades ago, the decision had been made to integrate the gods with mankind to keep a closer eye on them.
Zeus had been the final god to come down from Olympus.
His integration with mankind was meant to bring about a new Golden Age. The same Golden Age his father Kronos had ruled over multiple millennia ago.
Suffice to say, that Golden Age had not yet arisen.
By coming down to the human realm, Zeus – and all the other gods – had taken a hit when it came to their power.
They could still take on any humans, but shepherding them into peace was another matter.
“I wouldn’t be too concerned by my second theory,” Apollo continued. “If you’d recognized someone from your past, you would have immediately felt their magic. Ares, did any gods appear this morning unannounced? Any cyclopes? Any fell monsters from old?”
Ares grinned and shook his head. “Not that I noticed. And I tend to have a pretty keen eye for things I can fight.”
“Yes. Considering you’re the God of War, not a lot gets past you,” Apollo continued as he turned back to Zeus. “So discard that theory. It would have been impossible for you not to recognize someone from your past, anyway.”
A pronounced frown marched its way across Zeus’s lips. “I don’t have all of my memories of my past.”
Apollo shrugged. “Some memories might still be hidden from you, but trust me when I say a memory like that would not be. If it had the power to induce symptoms like the ones you felt,” he pointed at Zeus’s chest, “then the person in question would have been extraordinarily significant to you. You might have forgotten a lot, my liege, but you would not have forgotten that.”
For the first time since Ares had rushed him here, Zeus started to feel at ease.
He stretched a hand up and locked it behind the back of his head as he tilted his gaze to the side and stared out the window. “It will be a significant storm tonight,” he commented to no one. Apollo was already associated with the weather. As for Ares, he’d be able to feel the sheer chaos in the air.
Apollo chuckled. “You don’t need to tell me that.” He arched his head over to the window. “I’ve been feeling this particular storm brewing for months. Hell, ever since you arrived in the city, it’s been on its way.”
Ares pushed off the door. “Enough talk about meteorology. Can Zeus get back to work? If the storm really is producing these symptoms, then maybe he should—”
Zeus didn’t give him the chance to finish. He brought up a hand and spread it an authoritative motion.
Zeus might not have all of his memories of his time atop Olympus, but he’d never had trouble displaying authority. “I’ll be fine. It won’t happen again,” he said with the kind of confidence he shouldn’t have. He still had no real clue what had struck him, and though he wanted to believe Apollo, something told him this situation could be more mysterious than the sun god was willing to admit to.
“I’ll continue with my usual duties,” Zeus proclaimed.
Apollo laughed quietly. “Said like a true king.”
“There’s too much to do.” Zeus hooked his legs over the bed, stood, and arched his shoulders. He immediately switched his attention to Ares. “Any luck finding the book yet?”
Ares brought his hands up as if in surrender. “No need to look at me like that. I haven’t forgotten my task.”
“So have you found it?” Zeus asked even though he already knew the answer. Once upon a time, Ares might’ve been a tricky character. Back on Olympus, he might’ve had a reputation for stirring up trouble when he wasn’t distracted by a convenient war, but the god had grown. Now he was one of Zeus’s most trusted confidants, save for his brothers Poseidon and Hades. If Ares had found the book, he would’ve told Zeus immediately. A matter of such importance would not have slipped the war god’s mind.
“I have a promising lead,” Ares revealed.
“Then hunt that lead down. Take whatever time you need today.” Zeus fixed his tie in his reflection in the window.
Ares frowned. “Don’t you have an important meeting today? I thought you’d need your trusty bodyguard with you. Especially considering one of those meetings is with a suspected demon sprite,” he growled.
Zeus finished fixing his tie and shrugged. “I told you, I’ll be fine. Just get the book. We’re running out of time.”
Out of the corner of Zeus’s eye, he saw that Apollo shot Ares a meaningful look. It was the kind of look Zeus had never seen back atop Olympus. There’d been no cause for anyone to ever give it. Because that look was the kind of worried glance you would shoot a friend you were deeply concerned about. In all of Zeus’s previous existence, no one had ever needed to be worried about him.
“Undue stress might not help your condition today,” Apollo said diplomatically.
Zeus fixed his cufflinks with quick, practiced sweeps of his fingers as he tilted his head over and stared at Apollo. “Stress?” He emphasized the S sound with a hiss.
Apollo sighed. “We know you’re looking for her, and we know you need that book to find her, my liege, but—”
“But I don’t have my full memories of her. But she betrayed me. But I was the man who cut her wings off,” he said, his voice becoming quieter, even though he wanted to remain strong. The strength came a second later as he yanked his gaze up. “But I still want to see her.”
Apollo said nothing. Ares was the only one to move as he took several steps away from the door. “And what exactly would you do if you found her, King? You cast her out of Olympus. Without her wings, she has no power. She’d be nothing more than a mortal.”
Zeus dropped his gaze and stared at the foot of the hospital bed. “And yet, I still wish to see her.”
“Need I remind you, my liege,” Apollo scratched his nose with a careful hand, “that you are engaged to Hera.”
“I don’t need to be reminded. That has not and will not change.”
“But he still wants to see Fos, one of the last angels,” Ares sighed. “Have you thought about what would happen if you brought her back into the realm of the gods?” he asked, for the first time, a harder note infiltrating his tone. “There is no creature who has ever fallen as far as she.” True anger twisted his words now.
It was an anger Zeus had heard all too many times before. It was anger he’d felt. Over and over again for millennia. He may not be able to recall all his memories of Olympus, but the fact of what Fos had done remained. One thing did not. Her face. He couldn’t remember it. Not a single detail. From her lips to her hair to her wings to the feel of her fingertips – nothing remained. It was as if it had been wiped from his memory like a human computer destroying its files.
That’s what he wanted to get back.
His feelings for her hadn’t changed. He simply wanted to replace that one missing memory of her face.
As for what the gods would do to her if they found her, a part of Zeus didn’t care. Sitting under the need to see her face one last time was the anger that had never gone away. She had betrayed him. She’d used him to get to his thunderbolt. And with his power, she would’ve usurped the gods and replaced his reign.
Even thinking about it brought up a well of anger – a knot of unresolvable pain. It sat in his gut, perpetually locked in his torso like a monster caged in his heart.
Apollo sighed. “This is all theoretical, anyway. It’s highly unlikely you will ever see her again, Zeus,” he said, dropping my liege as his voice became tight, either with concern or disappointment. “Even if you find that book and unlock the full powers of your thunderbolt, it is unlikely to be enough to track her down. You stripped her of all her powers when you removed her wings. Not a single scrap of magic would remain in her veins. There would be nothing for your thunderbolt to find.”
“Apollo is right. You won’t be able to find her,” Ares said. There was a certain look in his eyes as he said that – one Zeus couldn’t begin to place.
The only thing he recognized was the certainty behind Ares’s claim. It was as if he knew something Zeus did not.
Apollo stood. “Ares is right. You will never meet her, sir. You wouldn’t want to. Though you cannot remember this, her betrayal almost broke you.”
Zeus opened his mouth to say that he remembered, but he couldn’t push the words out. It was a lie. He remembered facts about Fos, but just like he could no longer recall her face nor the touch of her hands, his memories of the centuries after her banishment were closed off from him.
Apollo had told him multiple times that he didn’t want to remember. They were dark times in Zeus’s history. In many ways, they were the reason he was here now.
His grip on the gods and Olympus had slipped after her betrayal had hit him like a spear through his chest.
His power had never been the same since. His command over his thunderbolt had slipped until even on Olympus he’d only been able to draw up a fraction of its once-unstoppable power.
Her betrayal was also likely the reason that when he’d been reborn into a human form, he’d been incapable of recalling all of his memories. The other gods thought that was a good thing. It stopped him from spiraling into the depression he’d endured after Fos’s banishment.
“I’ll find that book,” Ares said, clearly changing the conversation. “Without it, you won’t be able to assume your full power in your human form, and we can’t have a king without a throne, can we?”
Zeus managed a smile. The movement was there, but there was precious little meaning behind it. One last time, he swiveled his gaze over to the view. He stared at the storm gathering on the horizon. He could feel it in his bones, in his blood, and in every scrap of skin and centimeter of flesh. Tonight, there would be lightning, thunder, chaos and power in the skies. If he’d still had a measure of the power he’d once had on Olympus, tonight would be his opportunity to change the destiny of humans. But without that power, all he could do was watch to see what would happen next.
“I’m really sorry. It won’t happen again,” Anna muttered in her most conciliatory voice as she shrunk down, scrunching up her already petite size as she hid behind her desk.
Her boss had just read her the riot act for being over 20 minutes late. “I just—” Anna began, about to launch into her excuse again.
Meredith Bishop brought up a hand, her old, wizened fingers catching the harsh down-light that adorned the basement of the library.
It was the kind of devilish fluorescent glow that would make even the best complexion look like the skin of a rotting corpse. Anna didn’t have the best complexion to start off with, and she never bothered with makeup. Whenever she caught a glimpse of her reflection down here, she’d be a shadow of herself. And that… for whatever reason, it had always been an appropriate image.
Though Anna had already pointed out that she had a relatively stable sense of self, there was one impression she’d never been able to shake – that she was half of something – some incomplete equation. A puzzle that had once been whole, but one someone had ripped to pieces and scattered until it was lost for good.
Bringing up a hand and shrugging into it, she pressed her fingers hard against her trapezius. “I’m sorry,” she said one last time. “Please don’t fire me,” she added in a weak tone.
It took several seconds for Meredith to snort. “Fire you? Who’s talking about firing you? You were late, and you deserve to be sorry for that, but I wouldn’t sack you over something so slight, especially considering you’re the best we’ve ever had in this job. Your command of ancient Greek and Roman is unsurpassed. You have a talent for protecting these books,” Meredith said as she shrugged over her shoulder, indicating the compact stacks and the rooms behind where the most valuable tomes were kept in hermetically sealed drawers. “And you have a talent for finding old books perfect for our collection. I’m not going to fire you, Anna,” she confirmed one last time. “But—”
Anna warily ticked her gaze up. “But?”
Meredith sighed. “I just wish you were more with it. Your work is one thing, but—” she began again without bothering to finish.
Anna looked down at her frumpy clothes and her windswept hair. Her ballerina flats – which she’d bought new only yesterday – already had chunks of asphalt stuck to them. She hadn’t walked through wet asphalt, and she had no clue where it had come from. “But the rest of me is a mess,” Anna finally finished off what Meredith obviously wanted to say but was too polite to suggest.
Meredith let out a deep sigh. “Your words, not mine. You’re a smart girl, Anna, and you deserve better than the life you lead. I don’t know what one piece of advice to give you, just that you’re worth more than you get. Oh, and try not to be late tomorrow,” she added with a kind smile as she walked off.
She quickly disappeared through the stacks of ancient tomes, reached the elevator, and opened it.
Anna fully intended to wait until the elevator had swept Meredith away before she collapsed her hands over her eyes and cried.
Anna usually wasn’t one for tears, but today had been so disruptive, she couldn’t stop herself.
But Meredith didn’t disappear. The elevator doors opened, and she let out a startled noise. “Who are you, and how did you get down here?” she asked in the kind of officious tone that Meredith had perfected as the senior librarian over decades. It was exactly the kind of voice you could use on an unruly gang to get them to shut up and be quiet.
“Sorry. I got special dispensation to come down here. My boss has just bought another wing for your library. Maybe you know his name—”
“Zachariah Hope,” Meredith said, her tone and demeanor changing. “I apologize. I wasn’t aware that you were visiting today. I thought we’d arranged a meeting for later in the week.”
Anna froze. She recognized two things. The name Zachariah, and the precise timbre of the voice that said it.
It was the mysterious man from this morning. More than that, he was talking about him. The man with glossy black hair, the man with the bluest eyes she’d ever seen. And the man who fit what she had always been looking for. Yet the man who still terrified her to her very core.
“I don’t have the time to help you with your request today, but…” Meredith trailed off. “Our rare books librarian should be able to help you. Come and I’ll introduce you to her.”
“Thank you,” the guy – Adam, if Anna remembered correctly – muttered quickly.
Anna didn’t have the time to control her expression – or her thumping heart – as Meredith led Adam through the stacks. As soon as he appeared wearing the same perfect suit he’d been in earlier, Anna felt that same pain fleetingly stabbing through her back. For just a few seconds, it felt like someone shoved a knife right through the center of her spine and twisted.
As soon as Adam came into view, it was clear that he recognized her. A muddled half-frown, half-smile crumpled his lips.
“This is Anna Smith,” Meredith said with a polite nod Anna’s way. “I believe the book you’re looking for is ancient Greek. Her mastery of that language is unrivaled.”
This brought a particular smile to Adam’s lips, and he let out a quiet chuckle. “I’m pretty good at ancient Greek myself. It’s nice to meet someone whose mastery is unrivaled,” he said, being sarcastic without actually coming off as offensive. And that was a particularly rare feat.
For several startled seconds, Anna didn’t do anything but sit there behind her desk and stare.
Meredith was not the kind of boss to allow Anna to be rude to a patron. It wouldn’t matter to Meredith that Adam’s boss had bought a new wing for the library. Meredith expected all her staff to be kind and polite at all times unless someone was rude to them. Even then, you were only allowed to be professional and curt, but never out-right mean.
Meredith quickly cleared her throat. “Anna,” she said in a low voice.
Anna shook her head, trying to push her confusion away.
Adam walked over to her and reached out a hand. This was where Anna should just grab it. Her body didn’t let her.
Meredith cleared her throat.
“It’s okay; I won’t bite,” Adam muttered quietly, that confused, somewhat amused smile still crumpling his lips.
Anna just did it. With a swallow for courage, she reached forward and let him do all the shaking.
As soon as their skin touched, pain rippled down the side of her back. It wasn’t enough that she screamed out loud this time. She was thankful for the fact she was sitting, though. If she’d been on her feet, she would have staggered obviously.
She couldn’t hide the wince that crumpled her lips. Thankfully Meredith didn’t notice. Adam did. That half-frown half-smile turned into all frown. It didn’t last. He dropped her hand, and her pain fell away with it.
He quickly turned around and stared at the stacks of old books. “Quite a collection you’ve got here.”
“It’s not my collection,” Anna said awkwardly. It was stupid. The comment hadn’t been directed at her, and of course Adam would know that this wasn’t her private library.
Meredith shook her head slightly but didn’t comment. Thankfully, neither did Adam. He took one last sweeping stare at the room, then returned his attention to her. “I’m looking for a specific book. Maybe it’s in your collection, maybe it isn’t. Your boss seems to think that you have the resources to help me find it, either way.”
All levity was now gone, and Adam was clearly ready to get down to business.
“I will leave you two alone. Anna, if you need to, you can take time off today to help Adam find that book. If it isn’t in our collection, perhaps one of the rare booksellers downtown has it.” With that, Meredith strode off.
That just left Anna alone with Adam.
Anna didn’t even bother to say goodbye to Meredith. She couldn’t. Her full attention was locked on Adam as he gazed around the room then nodded at her with a certain smile crumpling his lips.
Anna’s stomach tied itself into knots.
“Should we begin?” he asked through that smile.
Anna took way too long to answer. Her lips didn’t want to work. Neither did her voice box. But eventually, she let out a soft, “Sure.”
Adam wasted no time in pulling his phone out of his pocket. He unlocked it and thumbed through images until he found one. He turned the phone around and handed it to her. “Have you got this in your collection? I looked online, but I’ve been told that not everything is registered there. Your boss didn’t recognize—” he began.
Anna couldn’t move. She couldn’t frigging breathe. Tightness spread across her chest, feeling like wires someone had wrapped around her heart. They dug in and in until she let out a strangled gasp.
She dropped the phone right on the table. Judging by the guy’s suit and solid gold cufflinks, it wasn’t a standard phone. The frigging case looked as if it was 14 karat gold.
Adam didn’t immediately snap at her for dropping it.
A suspicious frown marked his lips. “You okay? You’ve seen the book, then?” he concluded. It was fair enough. After a reaction that strong, anyone would assume she had some previous dealings with this book – an emotional one. But here’s the thing. She’d never seen it before. Not once.
It took too long for her to shake her head.
“What’s the matter, then?” Adam reached forward and plucked up his phone. He didn’t even bother to check it as if the fact she could have damaged it was irrelevant to him.
The last thing she wanted to do was react even more suspiciously, but she couldn’t stop herself from lifting her hand up jerkily and grabbing the collar of her shirt. She hooked her fingers in until she could’ve ripped the damn fabric in half. “I’ve never seen it, but—” she began. But what? She screamed in her mind. What the hell are you doing? You’ve never seen this book. You’ve never seen anything like this book. Stop acting like an idiot in front of him.
Anna might have screamed that to herself in her mind, but saying and doing it were two very different things. She continued to stare at his phone in his hand, even though she couldn’t see the picture of the book anymore.
Adam didn’t say anything. He turned around as if he was giving her space to pull herself together.
He shoved one hand into his pocket, twiddled his thumbs, then turned around again. “You’ve never seen it before, but could it be in your collection anyway?”
She was finally calming down. She let her hand drop from her collar.
Spreading her lips out then scrunching them in as she finally regained control of her mouth, she said, “You’re welcome to look through the collection, but I know every single book in it. I’ve never… seen this one,” she said. For whatever stupid reason, she paused as if she was lying.
She kept begging herself to get a grip, but a grip was the last thing she could get.
He smiled. She didn’t need to be an expert on body language to appreciate that there was a stiff edge to it.
He might look nice, but if she kept acting shiftily like this, he would suspect something was up.
“The book would be about 200 years old. It comes from an Italian Catholic Monastery—” he began.
“From Florence, yes,” she finished his sentence.
He’d been staring at the book stacks again. Slowly, his hand still in his pocket, he turned around. “How do you know it’s from Florence?”
That word had just popped into her head, and she’d said it without thinking. She managed to control her expression as she came up with a quick, plausible excuse. “I’m a rare books expert, sir. It’s the cover. I recognize the patina on the leather and the binding.”
Slowly, he nodded. “Of course. Can I look at your collection?”
“I’ll take you to our books from that period. They’re this way.” Shakily, she got out of her chair. She disappeared between the stacks, deliberately walking faster than him and taking a circuitous route to the right area. The further she got away from Adam, the more time she had to calm down and tell herself that this was just stress. She didn’t know why she was stressed, but it was the only conclusion that made any sense.
All these crazy feelings of déjà vu must have had something to do with her dream. Sure, she’d had that same dream her whole life, but maybe last night had been especially disconcerting. And heck, she hadn’t been eating well lately, had she? It had been several weeks since she’d exercise properly, too. There was a stack of biological and psychological reasons to explain what was going on with her.
Realizing that calmed her down enough that she finally acted like an ordinary human being when they reached the right section.
She said nothing and let Adam search as he meticulously pulled out every book. She’d already provided him with a pair of gloves, but she hadn’t needed to show him how to deal respectfully with the books. He was a natural. For a man with a body as powerfully built as his, he had the unnerving ability to act with gentle care.
It brought her attention to his hands. He was so absorbed in looking at the books that he wasn’t focused on her. She unabashedly stared at him.
His hands were just as broad and strong as you’d expect. But there was something about them… something that almost brought up a flicker of the dream she’d had this morning.
Once he was done, he turned and nodded at her. “You sure this is all you’ve got?”
“I am. We don’t have the book you’re after, Mr. Croft. I’m sorry.”
A muddled frown marked his lips. He appeared to look at her intently, but he didn’t look at her directly. There weren’t too many people who could pull that off. “Don’t be sorry. This means you get a day on the town. I’m going to take Meredith up on her offer. It’s critically important that I find this book as soon as I can. Do you think it could be somewhere in the city?”
“Yes,” Anna answered without thinking it through. She didn’t even pause.
She had absolutely no reason to believe this book could be in the city. She’d never seen it before today. Though a part of her had accurately recognized where it was from, that was not a reason to assume that she knew without a shadow of a doubt that it would be close-at-hand.
Adam didn’t point out that she had no reason to be so confident. He just smiled, his lips curling with clear satisfaction. “That’s good. All right, you lead the way. I’ve already been to most of the rare booksellers in town, but if you’ve got an inkling of where it could be, take us there.” He strode off between the stacks before she could put another word in edgewise.
Once upon a time, Anna wouldn’t have hesitated at following a handsome man like Adam around on a fun day trip. To her, there was nothing better than whiling away her time striding amongst old stacks of books.
This wouldn’t be a date, but it could still be one of the most enjoyable days she’d had in a while.
Except she couldn’t move. Fear rose through her. It told her not to follow Adam Croft. It told her to head home, settle her head on her pillow, and pretend this day had never happened.
But that fear did not win out.
“Come on, Anna. We need to get this done before that storm hits.” His voice shook down low on the word storm.
It made her gut clench as a tight wave of fear spread through it.
It reminded her of that far-off clap of thunder she’d heard this morning before Zachariah had crumpled.
As soon as his name hit her consciousness, her lips spread without another request from her, “Is he okay?” She hurried to catch up to Adam as he reached the elevator.
His hand still in his pocket, he frowned as he turned to her. “Who?”
“This morning, that… man,” she said, even though she knew Zachariah’s name. Her lips simply would not let her say it.
His mouth twitched in a strange move, then he managed a nod. “Yeah, he’s all right. Nothing serious. It happens to him sometimes. Don’t let the papers know that, though.”
She frowned at him, her confusion obvious. “Sorry?”
Adam laughed as if he thought she was cute. “You don’t know who that was, do you? I thought you did, considering,” He cleared his throat, “the way you stared at him.”
Anna felt her cheeks flushing. She scratched her brow and bit her lip.
This only made him laugh again. “No need to act bashful. A lot of people get like that around Zach Hope. He’s the closest thing this country has to royalty.” Adam spoke affably, but for whatever reason, she got the impression he was holding back.
She awkwardly scratched her brow and ran her fingers down the side of her face. “I’m sorry if I looked like I was an idiot. I had a weird morning. Strange dreams,” she added.
“You’re kind of cute, Anna Smith. And you don’t need to be worried. A lot of people get like that around Zach. Comes with the terrain. Now, you ready? It’ll be a long day.”
She was still stuck up on the fact he’d called her kind of cute. She rolled her bottom lip through her teeth, and this just made him chuckle once more.
“Let’s go, Anna. We’re running out of time.”
With that, the lift arrived, and he walked in.
Anna paused. There in the doorway of the lift, it took her several seconds before she followed.
A knot formed in her gut. It was one that gave way to another that rose through her chest, wrapped around it, and twisted around her back like barbed wire. And it was a knot that only got all the tighter as he leaned over, brushed his arm past hers, and pressed the ground-floor button.
Why did Anna feel as if she was still stuck in some version of her dream from this morning? But this time, it would be a dream that would never end.
Anna had never driven in a luxury car with a rich man before – especially not one who looked like Adam.
She should be enjoying this. Instead, she clutched the edge of her seat with one hand while she nervously played with the straps of her bag with the other.
“Did you study ancient Greek at university?” Adam asked, either drawing her into a conversation because the silence in the car had become downright oppressive, or because he wanted to stop her nails from perforating the expensive leather of his passenger seat.
“I’ve always liked it. Even when I was a kid.”
He chuckled. It was the kind of laugh that was impossible to place. She might’ve only just met this man, but she was starting to appreciate that it wasn’t just his laughs that were impossible to place. There was something… almost otherworldly about him.
At that thought, she found herself clutching the seat even harder.
“Do you have historians in the family or something?” he tried.
“Then your parents must be pretty proud. Most young kids are more interested in toys than long-dead dialects.”
“My parents died before I became interested in ancient civilizations.”
There was a short pause – exactly the kind you would expect if you’d been engaged in pleasant banter only for somebody to derail it like a bomb uprooting train tracks. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
She shrugged. “It was a long time ago. As for ancient Greek…” she trailed off and shrugged. The move was tight, especially around her shoulders. The center of her back began to itch again, and she reached a hand over her shoulder to scratch it.
Adam might have looked as if he was paying attention to a tricky intersection, but she still felt his focus on her. He kept it there for several quiet seconds until he nodded at the windscreen. “Quite a storm brewing tonight. It will be a chaotic one,” he said with certainty ringing through his tone.
This at least distracted her from her damn nervous mind. Pressing her lips together, she stared up and out of the windscreen. Her stomach clenched. As her gaze focused on those tumultuous clouds gathering along the horizon line, she knew Adam was right. She could feel it in her bones – tonight would hurl surprises with every strike of lightning.
She found herself letting out a dry chuckle.
“What, enjoy storms? Personally,” he craned his neck as they reached a red light, “I’ve always hated lightning.” His voice dipped low and hard. It would leave no one in any doubt that he was being honest.
“It’s nothing. Just remind me not to go on any dates tonight.”
That elicited just the kind of response it should. She hadn’t thought it through. To her, it was an off-the-cuff comment borne more on the wings of her nerves than insanity. To him – the handsome man in the 50-grand suit with a luxury car – it would be a really bad pickup line.
She immediately brought up her hands, her bag tumbling off her lap and into the feet well. “That’s not what it sounded like.”
He just laughed. “Then what did it sound like?”
She wasn’t sure if it was a leading comment. Before she could blush and start to kid herself that a man like Adam could ever be interested in her, she let her hands fall. “I’m just not very lucky in lightning storms, that’s all.”
The slightest smile tugged his lips down. “What do you mean? What’s that got to do with going on dates?”
Nervously, she pushed her hand over her head and smoothed her hair back. “I know this is gonna sound nuts and statistically impossible, but my last three dates have been struck by lightning. I’m that unlucky,” she added as she tried to lighten the tone with a light laugh of her own.
The tone stubbornly would not be lightened. That slight frown dug hard into Adam’s mouth, and a completely unreadable look narrowed his eyes.
She scrunched her lips together and started kicking herself. Why did she have to act like such a frigging idiot? She should have kept her mouth shut. She would come off as a raving loony.
Sucking her lip into her teeth and rolling it through her incisors, she shook her head. “Don’t mind me. You probably think I’m mad.”
“I don’t think you’re mad. A lot of people I know have been struck by lightning,” he said with one last wary look up through the windscreen.
The lights changed to green, and rather than slam his foot on the accelerator to beat the lines of traffic, he took several more seconds to stare at her.
She felt just as uncomfortable as she should.
They dropped into a thoughtful silence – one where Adam probably regretted bringing her along, and one where she wanted to crawl into the next crack and hide for the rest of her life.
Adam didn’t break that silence until they rolled up in front of an old, historic laneway.
She didn’t need to ask where they were to recognize that just a few buildings away was one of the best rare booksellers in town. Adam obviously knew these places off by heart. He hadn’t checked a map or GPS on his phone. Which meant he’d presumably been to every single bookseller in town. Damn it all to hell. She’d promised him they’d be able to find his book today. By the end of this, Adam wouldn’t just think she was mad – he’d think she was a liar, too.
He undid his seatbelt and got out of the car. With a hand on his door, the first thing he did wasn’t to swivel his head over to the bookshop – but up to the gathering storm. He stared at it with the kind of wary gaze you would use for an encroaching enemy.
When Anna didn’t immediately undo her seatbelt and jump up onto the curb, he nodded at her hard. “Come on, we want to get this done before the storm breaks. Trust me. The last thing we want to be doing is walking around town with that book in a thunderstorm.”
Frowning, she got out of the car. “I know Henry,” she shrugged in the direction of the bookshop, “and if he really does have the book you’re after, he’ll package it correctly. You don’t need to be worried that your wares will get damaged,” she said honestly.
This just forced a smile over his lips. “Come on.”
She trotted along after him as he crammed his hands into his pockets and gave the sky one last suspicious look.
Henry’s Rare Books was her favorite store in the city. She couldn’t count the number of hours she’d wiled away here. Ensconced among those rare books, she always forgot the rest of her life. It felt like every time she walked through the doors, she was transported to a place where she could just be herself. It was such a strong body-memory that she let out a happy sigh as she strode in. She pushed out a hand, and her fingers trailed over the closest stack of books.
“It makes sense that a librarian would like books,” Adam commented, reminding her that he was still there.
Fortunately she didn’t jump. She really would look mad if she’d forgotten he was here, despite the fact she’d just gotten out of the car with him a minute ago.
“Any idea where it could be?” Adam got straight down to business.
She opened her mouth but didn’t get the chance to reply. The sound of shuffling footfall shook through the old building, and Henry, the owner, came into view.
An old man in his seventies, his body and face might be wizened, but the look in his eyes still shone with the youthful glow she was so fond of. It was the gaze of a man who had devoted his entire life to preserving and sanctifying knowledge in all its forms. Henry collected everything. From ancient books of historical importance, to pulp novels from the fifties and sixties – he didn’t care. All books and all forms of the written word were sacred to him.
As soon as Henry clapped eyes on her, a genuine, warm smile spread his lips. It didn’t last. His gaze ticked over to Adam, and the slightest frown settled instead.
If Adam noticed that he wasn’t getting the same warm welcome she was, he either didn’t care or was too busy. He took a hurried, some would say forceful step forward. The soles of his expensive Italian calf leather shoes squeaked against the old, dusty floorboards. She happened to know that Henry took great care of his store. It was famous, too, so it got a lot of foot traffic. But it was in an old building, and above the store was an antique shop. No matter how often Henry cleaned, dust and debris hailed down from above to coat everything. Such was the life of an old building.
“I’m here to—” Anna began.
Henry brought up a hand. If Anna didn’t know better, it was almost dismissive. “I do not have your book, Mr. Croft. You have been here multiple times before.”
Adam smiled. Kind of. His lips curled, but that was all that could be said for them.
If Anna didn’t know better, Adam looked like he had a temper on him.
If he did, he hid it as he continued to smile. “I know, but Anna here thinks it’s worth having another look.”
Henry was a product of his time. Despite the fact he’d known Anna for years, he only referred to her as Miss Smith. She watched as his cheeks stiffened at Adam’s impropriety.
“You’re welcome to look,” Henry said. “But the book is not here.”
“Thank you,” Adam replied. He turned from Henry quickly. Anna could see the side of his face, and he pressed his lips together hard, tension twitching through his jaw.
“Ah, thank you, Henry. We won’t be long. Sorry to inconvenience you,” she muttered as she gave him a little bow.
Henry returned the nod. He opened his lips to say something, but with a darting look at Adam’s back, he seemed to think better of it.
Offering him a befuddled smile, Anna went to walk past. Just before she could, Henry muttered, “Don’t be going and getting yourself into trouble, Miss Smith.”
Shocked, she didn’t get a chance to reply before Henry scuttled off into the back of the shop. He trusted Anna enough to allow her to walk freely through his store without a chaperone. She knew precisely how to deal with books. Adam Croft, it seemed, did not. Several times, he grabbed a book at random, leafed through it vigorously, then shoved it back into the shelf.
“Got any idea where this book might be?” he asked after five minutes of fruitless searching.
“I don’t know, but maybe one of the reasons we can’t find it is because it’s been re-covered.”
“Ha?” He turned, an old book held inexpertly in a rough grip as a frown marched over his lips. “What do you mean?”
She scratched her neck and shrugged awkwardly. “Henry knows his stuff. So do the other booksellers in town. They know their stock intimately. I’m not sure when you got that photo from, but judging by the tones, it looked as if it had been taken in the seventies.”
He nodded. “Yeah. But why would someone rebind the book?”
She shrugged. “It would reduce the value, certainly, but perhaps it was damaged. Maybe someone didn’t have a choice.”
“Or maybe someone wanted to hide it,” he muttered under his breath as he leaned over and drummed his fingers hard against the side of an old, rickety bookshelf. Every movement of his nails disturbed layers of dust that wafted through the shop.
For a man who looked like a million bucks, he didn’t seem to care. He grabbed up another book from the same dilapidated bookcase, stared at the spine, then wiped the dust off onto his pants before shoving the book back into the case.
“If the book really has been re-covered, the only way we’re going to find it is by its contents. I’m pretty familiar with books of that period, but is there anything I should know about it?”
“It will appear blank to you,” he said offhand.
Her brow scrunched like a slinky tumbling down stairs. “Ah, sorry? The book is blank?”
“In a manner of speaking.”
“In a manner of speaking? If the book really is blank, why do you want it?”
“Value is measured in the eye of the beholder. Now, do you think it’s here, or should we move on to another bookseller?”
Stunned, it took too long to answer, but eventually she offered a stuttering nod, then shook her head half a second later.
“Is that a yes or no? Like I said—”
“You really want to find this book before the storm sets in. Yeah, I get it. But,” she inclined her head up and stared at the old rickety stairs that led to the second floor of the bookshop, “I have a good feeling about this place. Let’s split up. But first, let me get this clear. I’m looking for a blank book?”
“Right. Well, I guess it will stick out like a sore thumb in a bookstore, considering books are meant to contain words,” she said awkwardly. It was hardly a joke. She wasn’t sure she intended to be funny. Had this guy really dragged her out of work to look for a blank book? Why would he care? If he wanted examples of paper from that period, there were easier ways to get it. There could be no other intrinsic value to a book with no writing, especially if the cover had been ripped off long ago.
As they split up and she took to the stairs, her hand trailing over the dusty balustrade, it took her too long to realize that no one would re-cover a blank book.
By the time she reached the top floor, nerves were starting to form in her stomach. They twisted around and wriggled up her back and through her chest. They were the kind of darting, quick, flighty nerves that reminded her of one thing – lightning.
Speaking of which, as soon as she stepped onto the floor, far off, she heard a rolling peal of thunder.
It made the back of her neck itch as her palms became sweaty. It was such a visceral reaction, it seemed that someone had programmed her nervous system to react to even the mere suggestion of lightning.
“Come on. Get this done and get back to work. Can’t hear lightning in your basement, can you?” She trailed her fingers over a stack of old tomes, her touch careful and loving.
She adored this building. She’d often threatened Henry that one day, if she’d ever been able to afford it, she would buy it off him.
If it were her store, she’d move into this level and keep the ground floor for stock.
Up here, there was a sweet, old, rounded porthole window the size of a small car. With old brass fittings that had patinated over the years, it looked down onto the street and up into the clouds.
She found herself walking straight over to it, momentarily forgetting why she was here and why she wanted to get this done quickly. A pleasant smile playing over her lips like the first pattering of rain on a parched desert, she reached the window and drummed her fingers on the sill.
At that exact moment, the heavens opened up. They didn’t gush down as rain drenched the city stacks and winding streets. It was just a smattering.
Tugging her head up at just the right moment and staring through the thick bank of clouds, she watched as a sudden flash of lightning lit them up. It was as if she’d known it would happen a second before it did.
Thunder boomed through the skies, loud enough and close enough that it shook the building.
With a little gasp, she held onto the windowsill harder, her nails dragging over the old metal with a squeak.
From downstairs, she swore she heard Adam swear in surprise.
Pressing her lips together and forcing a breath through them, she tried to laugh. “Kind of nice to meet someone who hates lightning more than I do.” Pattering her fingers on the windowsill one last time, she turned away.
She got down to work and searched through the books.
She felt a magnetic pull to them. She’d always felt the same pull to Henry’s bookstore, and especially to this level.
She’d assumed it had something to do with her dream of owning a bookstore. Now she wasn’t so sure it was that simple. You see, that magnetic pull was stronger than ever. It was like she was walking through a dream as she moved slowly through the stacks.
She stopped in front of an old trunk.
There was a sign on the front written in Henry’s scrawled, well-intentioned but impossible-to-read handwriting. It read ‘Books Beyond Their Time.’
She’d rifled in here before. It was full of book scraps. Old covers, torn manuscripts, and pages that had long since fallen out of their original homes.
Most booksellers threw this junk out. She’d always respected Henry for keeping it. It allowed people to see the lifecycle of print. For every old, rare book that had been saved, there were thousands that had succumbed to age.
Getting down on one knee, she slid her fingers over the rusted catch of the old merchant trunk, unhooked it, and slowly opened the lid.
It creaked, and somewhere far off over the city, another peal of thunder rolled out.
Her stomach clenched, a blast of nerves racing up her spine in time with the rolling thunder.
Plunging her hands into the box, she started to search through it.
She felt something building inside her. It was like she was a volcano, but rather than getting ready to explode, something within her was getting ready to reveal itself.
Her fingers moved frantically as she dove deeper into the pile. She pulled out old pages and set them aside until finally, her fingers snagged hold of something.
Anna stopped. Her gaze jerked up and settled on the wall. She didn’t blink. She didn’t breathe. For several seconds, she remained there, frozen, as slowly, second by second, her fingers tightened around an old, smooth leather cover.
With another far-off peal of thunder that shook through the street, she plucked it out.
Anna Smith stared at a book. It had a plain, embossed leather cover that dated from around the late seventies. On that cover wasn’t a title – just one symbol. A question mark.
Shaking, and having no idea why, she opened the book. She expected to see blank pages staring back at her. Her intuition, for whatever it was worth, screamed that she’d found the book Adam was after. But as soon as that worn leather cover opened in her trembling fingers, her gut sank.
The book wasn’t blank.
It was full of ancient Greek. Symbols and pictures adorned every page. Despite the fact it was in a dialect she wasn’t familiar with, she was somehow certain she could read it nonetheless.
Her lips opened of their own accord with a lurching wobble. “To raise Zeus’s thunderbolt, you require the hand of light. The thunderbolt must be lifted to the heavens to bring about the Golden Age. But to lift it high enough, you must wield the light of strength to banish the true enemies of Olympus.”
Every word did something to Anna. But what it did, she could not tell. Forces unknown rushed and pounded through her. She felt as if her body had been transformed into the very storm that now raged above the city.
All day she’d been trying to calm herself down. Now the tension and stress that had welled within her since her dream this morning rose higher.
She turned the page.
And there she saw a picture.
It was a thunderbolt. Not one that had fallen from the sky, but one that had fallen from the heavens. A weapon, it was a hybrid between a sword and a movable bolt of pure power, and even drawn in old, stained and faded ink, she swore it glowed.
Anna might not have been able to breathe earlier – now she hyperventilated as tension unlike any she’d ever felt swarmed through her chest. Pressure flowed into her. It crammed its way down her mouth, plummeted into her gut, and shook through her heart. It filled her up, second by second. And second by second, it threatened to crush her. She felt as if she would explode and implode – like she was some great celestial body about to go nova.
Shaking, almost incapable of controlling her body, she turned the page.
And there was a drawing of her. Not the current Anna in her damaged ballerina flats, raincoat, and ill-fitting blouse – but the woman from Anna’s dreams.
Her brain stopped processing. Her body stopped working. The only thing she could do was stare.
Her gaze jerked down to the text underneath that picture. “The thunderbolt will only rise again on the wings of its true owner.”
Outside, lightning sliced down from the clouds and struck the streetlight beside Henry’s store.
It was right outside that portal window.
The bang ripped through the room, the window shattering and blasting inward.
Anna was knocked backward flat onto her ass. Her mind spun, and she fell onto her back with a thump as blackness swamped her vision.
The book flopped open onto her chest.
Just before she could pass out, she heard thundering footfall coming up the stairs.
“Anna? Anna?” Henry called from downstairs.
Someone reached her, but it sure as hell wasn’t Henry. Two powerful hands wrapped around her shoulders and helped her up.
She could feel something in those fingers – a potential she’d only ever experienced in her dreams. A promise she’d been waiting for her whole life but one that had always been kept at bay.
Before she knew what she was doing, a single word slipped out of her lips. “Zeus.”
Adam’s fingers froze around her shoulders. “What?” His voice was as tight as a wound-up spring.
Anna finally opened her eyes.
It took her too long to swing her gaze from the smashed window, out to the smoldering lamppost, then back to Adam. “What… what happened?”
Adam was frowning at her, and as he held her shoulders, he was more than close enough for Anna to see just how suspicious and confused he was. “What did you just call me?”
“What?” she shook her head, her mind finally catching up. “Lightning struck that lamppost outside, didn’t it?”
“What did you just call me, Anna?” he repeated, his voice slow but still impatient.
She shook her head one last time. She brought her hand up and pushed her fingers against her sweaty brow. “Did I call you something?”
He sighed. He let his hands drop, but he didn’t stand.
Henry was making his slow but determined way upstairs as his frail body moved as fast as it could. “Anna?” he bellowed.
“She’s okay,” Adam called out. “Just startled.”
He said that with such confidence, it was like he was a doctor who’d just checked her over thoroughly.
A bad doctor, though, because there was no way Anna could be fine. Glass surrounded her. When the window had exploded inward, it had done so with such force, shards had spewed through the room.
She brought up her hands, expecting to see cuts. She trailed her fingers down her cheek and neck, looking for even the smallest droplet of blood.
There was nothing. She really was fine.
“Come on,” he said as he helped her to her feet.
She was surprised by the fact she could stand. It felt like somebody had spent the last few minutes – or years – undermining her.
That hadn’t happened. The only thing that had happened to Anna, aside from lightning striking the pole outside, was that book.
Her gaze flooding with terror, she stared down at it. It was beside her feet. She went to grab it up, but Henry finally reached the top stair. He was out of breath by the time he rushed up to her. “Anna,” he clutched her shoulder and searched her face, “are you okay? Did you get hurt?”
She shook her head. Looking back at the damaged window, she winced. “I really hope you have insurance, Henry.”
“Don’t worry about that.” With a hand still on her shoulder, he led her toward the stairs. “I’ll call an ambulance.”
She waved her hands at him. “I really didn’t get hurt. I just fell over. I was startled, that’s all.”
“You’re my most cherished customer. I must at least give you a cup of tea to calm your nerves.” He slid his gaze over to Adam who was staring at the damaged window with suspicion flaring in his gaze, “and I will take you home afterward.”
“We’ve got a lot to do today,” Adam said, brushing Henry off as he reached down and plucked up the book by Anna’s feet.
“She has just been through an ordeal,” Henry bit back. “Whatever you need Anna for, it can wait.”
Adam wasn’t paying attention. Another lightning strike could have blasted into the side of the building, and he wouldn’t have noticed. Every scrap of his focus was riveted on the tome in his hands.
Anna wouldn’t have been able to pull her gaze off him for the world. The way his cheeks slackened, his eyes widened, and his jaw clenched drove down to her heart and held it in place.
“Come on, Anna,” Henry said as he began to lead her down the stairs with a hand still on her shoulder comfortingly.
Adam swallowed. He closed the book with a snap, hooked it against his chest protectively, and pressed his lips together.
She’d only just met the man, but she got the overwhelming impression that he was trying to swallow a smile.
… He’d just found the book he was looking for, hadn’t he?
No, she’d found it.
But it certainly wasn’t empty.
She opened her mouth to tell him he must be mistaken, but he brushed past Henry. “I’ll take this book. And you’re right – Anna probably should sit the rest of the day out. How much will this book be?”
Henry waved at him dismissively. “Just take it.”
“Obliged,” Adam said distractedly as he strode down the stairs without another look Anna’s way.
She stared at the back of Adam’s head as Henry helped her down the stairs.
Adam strode through the store, never letting go of the book but gripping it in a tight embrace. She couldn’t see his hands, but his shoulders were rigid as if he’d just picked up some heavy weight.
“Come to the back of the store. I’ll get you some sweet tea,” Henry said kindly.
Anna turned over her shoulder and stared through the street window just as Adam walked out of the door.
She watched as he casually opened the book, leafed to the third page, and ripped it out.
He shoved it into his pocket, secured the book back under his arm, looked up at the sky, and smiled.
He stood at the window of his penthouse office, his hands clasped uneasily behind his back as he stared at the brewing storm. Ever since the morning, it had been threatening to rise, only to fall back like an army taunting him. There’d been precisely 22 strikes of lightning so far. It didn’t matter how far off they were – he’d felt every one.
Now as evening settled in, his gaze traced the bank of clouds to his left, centering on them for several seconds until a violent flash erupted through their murky, gray-blue mass.
Usually, Zeus loved thunderstorms. They were an extension of his very purpose.
This one was far too chaotic to enjoy.
He turned as someone knocked hurriedly on his door.
Before he could tell them to come in, they barreled in any way.
He expected Apollo here to check on him again.
Though the sun god had a tricky past when it came to healing – considering sometimes he used that power to make people sick – Apollo had only ever served Zeus loyally.
It wasn’t Apollo. In strode Hera, her long, lustrous hair tied attractively in a wavy not behind her elegant neck. She was in a sumptuous silk blouse, a jet-black skirt, and black heels with gold accents.
Though she looked hurried, at his interest in her outfit, a smile curled her lips. “Does my Lord like what he sees?”
Zeus snorted. “We’ve discussed this. Don’t call me your Lord.”
She shrugged as she leaned against his desk, her tall form barely losing any of her startling silhouette as she crumpled forward and arched an eyebrow. “There are no humans around. Your door is locked.”
“And yet you managed to get through it easily.”
She shrugged. “I’m your wife. I’m also a goddess, if you haven’t noticed.”
“I thought we were just engaged?” he found himself commenting offhand as he turned his gaze back to the window.
He could see her reflection in the glass, and her shoulders stiffened, riding high up to her ears as a peeved expression flattened her lips.
This was where he should turn around and point out he hadn’t meant to insult her. What, with one thing and another – the storm and his strange symptoms this morning – he wasn’t in a frame of mind to speak eloquently.
“I came with news,” she finally got down to her reason for barging in.
Zeus should have noted the shaking, awed quality of her tone as she said that. On some level he did. On another, he couldn’t stop searching the clouds.
He’d faced many a tumultuous storm over the years. They came hand-in-hand with being the King of the Gods and the last stand in the war to protect humanity.
But the storm…. He couldn’t help but feel that it was hiding something from him.
Hera pushed off from the desk. He heard her heels as she strode over the floor, stopping beside him. She arched her head and stared through the window, appearing to be interested in the storm, but he knew she would never be able to see what he could.
Hera, for all her power, was not fundamentally linked to lightning.
“Aren’t you going to ask me what that news is, my…” she stopped obviously, “fiancé?” she corrected herself before she could say Lord.
He turned to her. “What is it?”
“He found it,” she said simply.
“Who found—” he stopped before he could say what. His cheeks slackened, and he took a surprised step forward, his eyes opening wide. “Ares? Ares found my book?” Every new word shook louder than the last.
Hera nodded once.
He grabbed her by her shoulders and stared into her eyes. “Are you sure?”
Hera brought up a hand and gently placed her fingers on his face. “I’ve seen it myself. The book is here. You can finally unlock the true power of your thunderbolt.” She inclined her head to the window and stared over the glittering city as dusk set. “And you can bring about peace. You can rule,” she turned back to him and let her fingers trail down his neck, “like you were always meant to.”
He just stood there, incapable of responding.
“Zeus, this is your destiny.”
He couldn’t help but laugh, the move somewhere between frustration, bitter confusion, and relief. “I’ve never believed in destiny.”
“I know. A curious trait in the legendary leader of the gods and the King of Olympus. You will one day. Your memories will return, but even if they don’t, your power will.” She pressed forward and locked her lips against his.
He just stood there.
What was power without memories? For how could you wield true strength if you didn’t know who to wield it against?
Hera leaned back, her lips quickly curling into a beguiling smile as she touched his cheek tenderly. “Ares will bring the book.” She pulled her gaze off him and locked it on the glass case behind his desk.
Until today, it had always been empty. One of the first things he’d done when he’d moved to this city and come down from Olympus was build that case in preparation of the day it would hold his book.
He pulled out of Hera’s embrace and walked over to it. He let his fingers slide over the polished glass. It was cleaned every day, sometimes twice.
“Do not worry, Zeus,” Hera said. For the first time, frustration tightened her tone. She strode toward him and looped her arms around his back. Pressing her chest against his shoulder, she hooked her chin close to his ear. “The legend will play out. You will bring about the Golden Age for man.” A blast of hot breath played across his cheek on the word will.
He didn’t draw his hands up and wrap them around her arms, securing her harder against his middle. He continued to let his thumbs slide down the side of the case.
“Zeus,” another note of irritation infiltrated her tone, “there is nothing to fear.”
“Except my numerous enemies,” he responded in a dead tone, never moving his hand off the case.
Her arms flinched as they pressed into his torso. “They are held at bay.”
“They were held at bay. For millennia, humanity has been defying the natural order and undermining the forces that keep it safe from the true devils at its door.”
“Humanity has its own demons to deal with. No one has seen a true monster for centuries.”
Zeus balled his hand into a fist and thumped his chest twice. “I see them in my dreams every night. And I’ve felt them – heard them. Faint whispers, broken shadows.”
She tried to tighten her grip around his middle, but he broke free. With a hand locked on the top of that glass case, he circled it as if protecting it from outside interference.
Hera sighed, backed off to the desk, leaned against it, and crossed her arms. “Even if the monsters have awoken, you have the book. Soon, you will unlock the power of your thunderbolt. Typhon himself could come to fight you, but you would win.”
Zeus stiffened on the word Typhon. The greatest enemy he’d ever faced, there was no one like that monster. Zeus had barely prevailed millennia ago. Without his full power….
“Typhon has not arisen,” Hera said, reading Zeus’s expression and seeing how distracted he’d become. “We would have been warned. His emissaries would be everywhere. Just relax. And enjoy this. You’ve finally found what you’ve always been looking for.” She smiled and reached a hand out to him, her engagement ring glittering under the downward lights.
This was where he should reach a hand out and grasp hers.
He’d been delaying their marriage until the time he found that book and ascended to his true power.
Now there would be no delaying it further.
At the promise he’d finally found what he was looking for, Zeus’s mind went to only one place.
Her. His first true love. The creature he would’ve done anything for once upon a time, but a creature who’d taken his loyalty and stabbed him in the heart with it.
He turned from Hera, making sure she couldn’t see his lips as he whispered, “Fos.”
Hera embraced him from behind one more time. She pressed her hot lips against the side of his cheek, letting them trail down until she locked another passionate kiss on his neck. “Don’t fear, Zeus. Everything is happening as it should. You will unlock the full power of your thunderbolt, marry me,” she slipped a hand around, grabbed his right hand, and slid her fingers over his ring, “and give me wings. And with those wings, we’ll rise up together, ushering in the new Golden Age.”
He stiffened. He did that when anyone touched his ring. It was no mere adornment. Trapped in the engraving of two angel wings were Fos’s real wings.
Hera continued to trail her fingers over the engraving, her long nails grating over the smooth metal invitingly. “You’ve always looked for someone to share your power and your burden – I am she. Just let me in.”
It wasn’t his power; it was Fos’s. But it was his burden.
The almost incalculable power within this ring had never truly belonged to him. It had been chopped right off her back….
Hera lifted her hand and locked it on his chin, her fingers pressing into his cheek with passionate force. She turned his head to the side, pushed onto her tiptoes, and locked her lips against his one last time.
With her other hand, she secured her fingers tightly around his ring.
Zeus couldn’t wield Fos’s wings. He could, however, give them to another.
Though his memories were sketchy, he knew that atop Olympus, he’d never given Fos’s wings to another, though he had threatened to. According to Apollo, Zeus had become so broken by depression, he’d delayed his inevitable marriage to Hera and kept the wings for himself, though they were nothing but useless adornments to him.
Zeus shouldn’t feel guilty. The situation had been explained to him multiple times. He’d fallen for the deceitful Fos, when all along, she’d only been after his power.
As rightful King of Olympus and protector of humanity, he’d been justified in removing her wings. Just as he would be justified in giving them to another.
He still pulled his hand out of Hera’s greedy grip. When she went to clutch his fingers again, he locked them behind her head where she couldn’t reach them.
For the first time since she’d started kissing him, he kissed her back, his lips hard and forceful.
As he did, he slid his thumb up, locked it on his ring, turned the engraving around until the wings faced his palm, and clamped his hand into a fist.
He’d spent a lifetime protecting this ring. Something told him he wasn’t done protecting it yet.
She was back home. She hadn’t let Henry take her home after the incident – she’d gone back to work.
She hadn’t done any work – she’d uselessly stared off into space as she’d traced patterns on a legal pad.
She’d drawn the same thing over and over again. She’d scrunched up each attempt and thrown it in the wastepaper basket beside her desk, but now she was home, there was no need to hide her tracks.
Sitting cross-legged on her bed, her back pressed up against the wall as her gaze kept jerking from her drawing over to the window, she drew the woman she’d seen on the third page of that book.
Her. Anna. Except not Anna. The creature she was in her dreams.
Letting out a sigh and pressing the back of her knuckles against her head, she ground her teeth together. “It’s not you, you idiot. Let it go.” She lifted her arm up and clenched her pen as she threatened to chuck it across the room.
Her fingers dropped, she settled the nib of the pen on the paper, and she continued to scrawl her likeness.
She hadn’t shared a word of what had happened to her to Henry – and she hadn’t had a chance to tell Adam.
Neither men would believe her, anyway. Because what – if anything – had really happened to her? She’d seen a book, she’d read some words, and she’d freaked out. Oh yeah, and lightning had struck the streetlamp outside and knocked her flat on her ass.
The lightning bit was fact – the rest fiction.
She closed her eyes and massaged them shut, not caring as stars exploded over her vision.
Letting her hand drop, she stared at her window, glimpsing the slice of sky she could see between the apartment blocks that hemmed this building in.
Just as stars spread over her vision, lightning blasted through the sky. Each pounding vibration shook her to her bones.
She finally let the pen settle on her diary as she rubbed her chest in concentric circles.
“If there’s one thing you can be thankful for, you’re inside,” she tried to console herself.
More lightning flashed through the clouds, lighting up their dark underbellies, making them look like chaotic ships passing overhead.
“It’s only 7 o’clock, but you should get an early night,” she tried to convince herself.
Her words fell on deaf ears as she scrunched her arms around her middle and started pacing back and forth in front of her bed. It was as if she expected something to happen – someone to come knocking on her door, the phone to ring, or a surprise to climb through her 11th-floor window.
When none of that happened, she sighed, plucked up her book, and leafed through the drawings she’d done. She’d done 22. Hell, combined with the ones she’d already drawn back at the office, it seemed that for every strike of lightning today, she’d scrawled an image of her likeness from that book.
No, wait – the woman in the book didn’t look like her. Anna had different features, shorter hair, and – of course – no wings.
But as Anna trailed her fingers down the side of her face, the likeness, to her at least, was unmistakable.
“Oh God, Anna Smith, you are going mad. You need to drop this right now and get to bed. Who cares what time it is?”
She stared at her pillow morosely. She turned, didn’t get in bed, and continued to pace back and forth through the room. “If you go to bed, you’re just going to obsess all night and dream.” On the promise she’d dream, she shoved her fingers hard against her brow, her short nails scratching her skin and leaving two red trails down her left temple.
“You should just go out. Head to a bar or something. Hell, you haven’t eaten – just go get Chinese takeout.”
She often had two-sided conversations with herself. It came hand-in-hand with loneliness.
“But if you go out,” she turned her head over to the window and watched the flashing clouds, “then we’ll have to brave the storm.”
On the word storm, a clap of thunder echoed out close by. It had to be several streets away, because her windows shook.
She shrunk back and gasped. “That makes my mind up for me. I’m staying in.”
The phone rang. Startled, she jolted against her bed as she stared over at her mobile on her bedside table. It rang several more times until she plucked it up.
It was her boss. Frowning, she answered. “Meredith—”
She didn’t get a chance to ask what Meredith was doing calling her at night.
“We’ve had a break-in.”
Anna gasped. She locked her hands over her lips. “Break-in?” she whispered between her fingers. “What was stolen?”
“My office was trashed. My personnel filing cabinet was torn to pieces.”
“Sorry, what? Torn to pieces?” Anna couldn’t control her tone.
“The police don’t know what did it. Some kind of power tool, I guess.”
“Are you telling me no books were stolen?” Relief rose through Anna’s chest as if on wings. Sure, it would be bad if somebody trashed Meredith’s office, but there were some seriously rare and expensive books in Anna’s collection.
When Meredith didn’t answer immediately, Anna’s hope withered and died. “What did they take?”
“Virtually every book on Greek mythology that we have, Anna. I’m so sorry. I know you spent most of your tenure with us collecting and caring for those books.”
Anna lost the ability to stand. She fell hard onto her bed, her old mattress groaning under her weight. Tears trickled down her cheeks. “Who the hell would do that?”
“Those books were some of the most expensive we have in our collection. The answer is someone who knew what they were doing. They didn’t disturb any other books. It was as if they knew exactly where they were going.”
“This is insane.”
“Anna, I’m going to need you to come in. I’m sorry – I know it’s raining, but the police need to question you.”
It took several seconds for Anna to catch up. “What?” Her brow scrunched to the point where it looked like someone had drawn a picture of her face on paper then crumpled it.
“The police want to talk to you.”
“They think I did it?” Her tone fractured. “Those books were my life. Why would I—”
“Anna, Anna – of course you didn’t do it,” Meredith said with no hesitation. “I know how devoted you were to those books. The police simply have to investigate. It’s a formality and nothing more. You’re certainly not the only person who has access to those books, and you’re not the only person they’re going to question. As head of the collection—”
“They’re gonna start with me,” Anna accepted that fact as she rose.
She clamped an arm around her middle, pushed her lips through her teeth, and started to get dressed. “I’m on my way. I don’t know how long it will take. The subway always gets crazy when it rains. And if there’s still that detour because of track maintenance—”
“Just take your time. Call me when you get here.” With that, Meredith hung up.
Anna turned her gaze to the ceiling, closed her eyes, and breathed through a shaking sigh.
What a torturous day.
It wasn’t done with her yet.
At the very least, this distracted her from that book.
She quickly dressed, threw on a jacket, and headed out.
She didn’t bother with an umbrella. She could hear the howling wind, and if she was stupid enough to take an umbrella out there, it would end up in the Land of Oz.
She settled for a thick, waterproof coat, a hope, and a prayer. She hoped the storm wouldn’t hit in full when she was out. And she prayed – like crazy – that this would be the last lot of bad luck she’d get for a while.
As she raced to the subway, she couldn’t stop jerking her head up every time lightning flashed through the clouds. Not when it flashed – but seconds before it did. Though it sounded paranoid – though it was completely and utterly impossible – she knew where and when lightning would appear.
It was just another idiotic musing to add to her insanity. She’d once bragged that her sense of self was stable. Now it was as chaotic as the clouds above.
She reached the subway, but if she’d hoped the line would be fixed and she’d be able to take it all the way to the library block, she was wrong.
She got off on the exact same station she had this morning.
Dragging herself through it, she stopped before she clambered up the stairs that led to the street above.
The wind sounded far crazier than it had earlier. The one thing she could be thankful for was that it wasn’t drenching anything.
“Knowing your luck, it will the second you set foot on the street,” she muttered under her breath, ensuring no one was around her so the city didn’t have yet another reason to think she was mad.
She clambered up the steps, tension gnawing at her gut.
By the time she crested the stairs and arrived on the city street, her fear had twisted.
It felt similar to what she’d experienced back on the second floor of Henry’s before that lightning had struck.
It was like something was building, and no matter what she did, she would not be able to stop it.
Cramming her hands in her pockets, she begged herself to calm down.
“Come on, come on – just pull yourself together. If you act this freaked out, the cops will think it was you.”
She half jogged down the street.
She turned a corner, ready to head down the same detour she’d taken this morning. She stopped, memories of Zachariah Hope flashing in her mind.
She ground to a halt. An ambitious jogger who didn’t mind the mad weather was right behind her, and he cursed her as he ran around her.
“Sorry,” she muttered as she scrunched her lips in and stared down the street.
That massive, imposing building was still there. Of course it was – it wasn’t like it would’ve washed away with the rain. That wasn’t the point. The point was that her gut curdled like crazy at the mere sight of it. She didn’t want to go anywhere near it, because if she did, it would bring her closer to him, and the very last thing she ever wanted to do was set eyes on Zachariah Hope again.
Though it was perhaps the most paranoid thought she’d had all day – which was saying something – she just felt that everything that had happened to her today was down to him. From that book to lightning striking that lamppost – Zachariah had started all of this.
At that stupendously paranoid thought, she smoothed her hand over her head, pushing in so hard, she could’ve bruised her nose.
She went to take a step forward, to thrust away her insanity and walk down the street nonetheless, but her feet jerked to the side. Before she knew what she was doing, they took her back the way she’d come.
She wasn’t about to head home. Meredith was patient, and over the years, she’d cut Anna a lot of slack, but this had been a direct request to come in.
If Anna wanted a job – and if she didn’t want to be investigated by the police – she had to get to the library.
She’d just take a circuitous route.
Remembering a little laneway – a vestige of the old part of town – she headed straight to it.
It was darker than the brilliantly lit main streets, but that didn’t bother her. Nor did the fact that darkened dead ends branched off it, leading to one-way sidestreets and small nooks nestled between buildings where dumpsters were kept.
If sacrificing a little light meant she could avoid Zachariah’s building, so be it.
Plus, this was downtown, for God’s sake. No one was around, anyway. Sane people wouldn’t dare come out on a night like this.
She crammed her hands into her pockets as she reached the laneway and took it.
She watched cars dash past on the main road, honking their horns as they tried to beat the rain to get to wherever they were going. Though it hadn’t rained much yet, there were still filthy puddles of water clinging to the pavement like mold. She didn’t even measure her footfall as she strode through them, not around them. Car headlights reflected through them, playing up her legs, over the waterproof fabric of her coat, and under her face. As soon as she turned down the laneway, they stopped. There were parked cars, but none were moving.
Jerking her head up, she tried to calculate how far she would have to go along this road to get to the library. Was there a small side street that connected this one to the main boulevard?
She’d just have to find out.
As she walked, the storm built.
There was energy behind it – enough that it felt like a bomb was trying to arm itself above the city.
“No, Anna, for the love of God – that’s just your paranoid thoughts. It’s the weather. Nothing more than weather. Now, where the hell is that shortcut?” She turned instinctively to the left. She faced a narrow, darkened street that only had the reflected light of a nearby building to see by. There were two large dumpsters lined up inside, and she couldn’t see past them to check if this laneway connected to anything.
Not thinking as she yanked up her watch and checked the time, she walked down it.
She got halfway when she realized it was a dead end. She turned, her shoe splattering through an old, murky puddle beside one of the reeking dumpsters.
She heard something. Maybe it was scattering claws. Perhaps it was something sharp being dragged over metal.
The skin along the back of her neck prickled, and her hair stood on end. She jerked her head to the side, staring behind the dumpster, expecting to see a rat ambitiously trying to climb the metal.
There was nothing there.
She turned right around. “Hello, is there anyone out there?” she asked in a voice shaking with stuttering fear.
No one answered, and when the sound didn’t repeat itself, she just rolled her eyes at her own stupidity. She turned around.
She heard something.
This time there was no mistaking it.
It was footfall, and it was right behind her.
It appeared out of nowhere. But it would not disappear until it was done with her.
He was driving, his mind in a daze. The book was back.
It was actually back.
Ares had delivered it. Zeus had held it in his hands. But the most important damn page was missing.
Zeus yanked up a hand and smashed it hard against the steering wheel. A little harder, and he would’ve made the airbag deploy.
He knew the limitations of his strength when it came to the human world – and that was entirely his point. Even without the third page of the book, he would still be able to increase the power of his thunderbolt. “But you won’t see her face,” he muttered to himself aloud, thankful for the fact he was alone.
He’d ditched his driver, picking a sports car instead of a limo. Zeus needed to be alone right now with no one to tell him that it would all be alright.
It didn’t matter that the book wasn’t whole – the most important parts were there. But what was important to everyone else didn’t matter to him right now.
“Pull yourself together,” he snarled at himself through clenched teeth. “It’s just a face. She betrayed you. She poisoned your kingdom. It’s just a face.”
His voice was weak. With no one else around, there was no reason to make it strong.
“But it’s just a face you’ll never remember.” He shoved his fingers hard against his brow, forcing his short nails into his skin as if he wanted to pull his head right off.
His ring vibrated.
It did that whenever he got too hard on himself. It was only meant to vibrate when he was in danger – but over the years, despite his lost memories, Zeus had deduced that whenever his mood slipped too far, it was hazardous to his health.
If the stories of his time on Olympus were anything to go by, there was a good reason behind that. After Fos’s banishment, he’d slipped into an endless black depression because of his guilt. No, not his guilt. His actions against Fos had been justified, dammit. But he should never have trusted her in the first place. By bringing her into his realm, he’d endangered everyone.
He hit the steering wheel again. This time, he didn’t measure his strength, and he almost made the vinyl and plastic crack.
That didn’t stop him from balling a hand into a tighter fist and getting ready to do it again.
His phone ringing did stop him.
He pulled over to the side of the street.
“Zeus,” Apollo said, his voice shaking with a frustrated sigh. “What are you doing?”
“The book is back. You must go through the ceremony to marry Hera and return your power—”
“I will. Tonight. When the storm reaches its power.”
“So why aren’t you here?”
“I told you. Because I’m driving.”
Apollo sighed again.
“Ares told me that the third page is missing. Zeus… even if it had remained, what then?”
Zeus tightened his hand into a fist. He couldn’t answer.
“Even if it had depicted a drawing of Fos, she’s long gone. She’s human now, and that drawing would not have helped you recognize her.”
“I know that.”
“Then why are you out driving when you should be here preparing?”
“Because a god must check his chariots every now and then.”
Apollo half-laughed, half-sighed. “A sports car isn’t a chariot. Now return. The gods await. Hera awaits,” he added in a quiet tone. “And she has waited long enough. You have promised her marriage – and wings – for millennia.”
Zeus became quiet.
“She deserves both. Zeus?”
He opened his mouth, but no words came out.
There was a scream from out on the street.
Zeus had parked across the road from a darkened laneway.
He jerked his head around, settled a hand on the door, and thrust it open.
“Zeus?” Apollo demanded.
“A mortal is in trouble. I’ll call you later.” Zeus hung up, threw his phone onto his seat, and raced out just as another terrified scream split the air.
This wasn’t the first time he’d directly interfered in human affairs, but it was the first time his body had ever done this. As that scream tore through the night air, it felt like a knife being plunged into his heart and twisted.
As a god in human form, he hardly ever sweated. He did now. It slicked his brow and dripped between his shoulders.
There was one more scream, then it cut out.
Terror the likes of which he hadn’t experienced since he’d been reborn in human form engulfed him. It ricocheted up through his shoulders, into his brain, then back down his spine.
He reached the darkened mouth of the laneway and threw himself forward.
He expected to see one human attacking another. A criminal, a mugger, maybe even a murderer.
It’s not what he faced. His gaze flashed forward, easily accommodating for the dark, and he saw a naked woman with long, glistening jet-black hair that tapered down her spine. She had flashing, dark eyes and a darker smile pressed over her red lips.
To a mortal, every part of her would be perfect, save for her hands. Her fingers ended in long, razor-sharp claws.
“Empusa,” he hissed.
An Empusa was a monstrous being that hadn’t been seen for centuries. A creature not unlike a vampire, she was a female demigod who stalked the streets looking for wayward souls to feed upon.
He’d thought the last of them had been banished, and yet here one stood right in front of him.
Crumpled behind her was a woman in a long dark jacket that obscured her face.
The Empusa spread her lips, took a step forward, pushed her tongue over her teeth, and reached out a clawed hand to Zeus. “Stranger, have you lost your way? Would you like me to find it for you?”
“Empusa,” he snarled louder this time so she could hear.
Her eyes flashed wide, and that smile turned into a snarl. “You know what I am? Are you a demigod too?” Her gaze sliced up and down him.
He stood taller, authority and strength flowing into him as, far off, thunder blared. “No. I am a god.”
“And which god might you be? It has been a long time since I have supped on the blood of the divine.” Her lips curled into another smile as she curled her hand forward and appeared to walk her fingers through the air toward him.
“You would not have the power to feed on me,” he growled.
“You’d be surprised by my power.” She let her hand drop, then she curled her claws. Magic blazed over them. A deep ruby-red, it looked like blood burning in an eternal flame.
“You would be more surprised by my power,” Zeus shot back as he balled his hand into a fist.
Lightning smashed into the street right behind him. It was only a few mere centimeters away. Its force did nothing to him, even as the concrete ruptured beneath his shoes. He wasn’t blasted forward – his skin didn’t even tingle.
The energy of the strike didn’t discharge entirely and rather crackled over the ground until it reached him. It snaked around his expensive shoes, curled over his ankles, climbed his legs, and plowed into his fist.
There was only one god in all the heavens who commanded lightning.
The Empusa jerked back, falling flat on her ass, either from the power of the lightning strike or the realization of who he was. “Zeus,” she stammered.
“Correct.” He strode forward. He opened his fingers as more lightning pulsed between them. “I’m Zeus.”
She lifted her hands. The move was jerky and spoke of fear, but the look in her eyes didn’t match it. “You should be kind to me.”
“Why do you think that?” He raised his fist higher, ready to pound his electrified knuckles into her face to end this.
“Because even if you banish me, you’ll be seeing me again.” Her lips spread, all hint of fear leaving her as she took seductive pleasure in her words.
“When you’re banished by Zeus, you are banished for good.”
“Oh, Zeus. You have no clue what’s coming.”
He ended it. He smashed his fist into her jaw, and instantly his magic blasted through her. She didn’t scream. She didn’t have time. Her body turned to dust.
She would never be able to reenter the human realm.
Yet her words echoed in his mind as he stood there.
With one last strike of lightning close by that illuminated the alleyway, the rain began. It drenched him in seconds as he got down onto his knee next to the comatose mortal woman.
He locked a hand on her shoulder tenderly and turned her over.
She wasn’t unconscious.
She opened her eyes and settled them on him.
Zeus had a single second to recognize that it was the woman from this morning. Then pain stabbed his heart as if carried on the wings of a thunderbolt.
She had no clue what had just happened.
That woman – that thing – had tried to attack her, but just at the last moment, before it had wrapped its claws around Anna’s throat, he’d appeared.
The rest was a blur.
A blur of lightning, of magic, of dust.
As soon as Zachariah reached her, locked a hand around her shoulder, rolled her over, and stared at her, the blurriness ended. He came into sharp refrain. So sharp, in fact, the rest of the world fell away until it was just the two of them. Time could have – and maybe did – grind to a halt. Nothing at all mattered except for his wide, blue eyes. Even the drenching rain and close thunder became irrelevant.
Until he clutched his chest. She watched as pain pulsed through him. Usually, you can’t see someone else’s pain – just the way they choose to react to it. With Zachariah, it was different. She was there for every step of the way – every second as his body crumpled.
He clutched his sopping wet shirt and pulled it away from his torso, but he couldn’t even let out a gasp.
“Zachariah?” she stammered. She lurched forward and clasped his shoulders.
He buckled even more as if he was now in twice the pain he had been before.
He wasn’t the only one who was in pain. As soon as her fingers settled on his skin, something stabbed her between her shoulders. Her eyes widened, and she gasped. She was down on her knees, but she still fell forward, knocking into his chest as that pain only grew and grew.
Zachariah was in no position to help her. As she pushed into him, he lost all balance, and he fell hard to the side.
She fell on top of him.
Her mind started to fray. If the sum total of her beliefs and thoughts, memories and fears had been a tapestry, then falling against this man’s chest was like taking a knife to it.
She couldn’t begin to think. All she could do was feel as total pain tore through her body and psyche.
Zachariah gasped again.
Even while she was pinning him, he still clutched his chest. With a jolt, he became too weak to do even that, and his fingers crumpled against his torso.
Far off, the storm raged with ever more violence. As her mind struggled to comprehend what was happening to her, every single rolling clap of thunder made it through. Every vibration – all the energy in the air. That, and one other thing. Zachariah’s breath. It might’ve been strangled, and he might’ve had to push through every inhalation, but no matter how faint each was, she felt them right down in her blood and bones.
The rain became more violent. It pounded into her back, slid off her head, and fell against Zachariah’s pallid cheeks.
“What… what’s happening?” he managed.
If the question was meant for her and he thought she could answer, he was fresh out of luck. With every pound of far-off thunder, she became weaker.
The pain blasting through her back grew and grew like the storm had this morning. She was certain she’d be split in two by it. There was no way a mere mortal would ever be able to withstand agony on a level like this. The human mind simply was not programmed to process it.
“Try… try to call out,” Zachariah begged, either intending the words for her or him.
She couldn’t even move her lips.
“Dammit,” he spat. Though she had no clue what was wrong with him, it was clear he could barely find the strength to continue breathing, let alone moving. From somewhere, he gathered the force to twitch his hand. He pulled it out from underneath her then groped his fingers down until he found his pocket.
He’d be looking for his phone.
He didn’t find it. It wasn’t there. Her side was pressed up against his, and she certainly couldn’t feel an oblong metal object in his pocket.
He let out a curse, his chest thrusting forward into hers.
… There was something memorable about it. As the rain continued to drench her, and her body became perilously cold, her mind started to split apart. Far off, at the furthest edges of her psyche, she swore she’d been in this exact position before. The rigid, defined feel of his pectoral muscles – the specific tender touch of his fingers. And that look – that un-ending, always powerful stare. Right now, he might be blinking back his fatigue as he tried to hold onto his consciousness, but the power of his gaze was still there.
It wanted to speak to her of her past – but a past she’d never had. Until this morning, she’d never met this man.
“You need… you need to call out. I don’t… I don’t have the breath.”
She couldn’t move her lips.
“Human,” he said through a terrified hiss, “your heat is leaving you. You need to call out. I can’t… I can’t help you.”
Though her mind was frayed, one word still drove into her brain. Human.
It brought back what she’d seen – the impossible sight of that naked woman with claws for hands. Anna hadn’t had a chance to process that insane image yet, but somehow, she managed to tick her gaze to the side, and she saw a pile of ash. Despite the persistent rain, for whatever reason, it would not wash away, and for whatever reason, it didn’t even look wet.
She swore she could see faint crackles escaping through it even now.
She breathed hard as fear took her.
“Human,” Zachariah said again, though his voice became strangled as the word escaped his lips. “Miss, you need to call out. I can’t help you. You can’t die here.”
His voice broke on the word die. She’d never heard anything like it. She was used to people being scared for themselves and close loved ones. But the way terror gripped him now made it seem as if the prospect of her – a complete stranger – dying in his arms would somehow kill him too.
“Miss, you’re running out of time. You need to call out.”
He was right about one thing. She was running out of time. But there was no way she could call out. Even the mere suggestion of it made more pain blast through her body. At first, it centered between her shoulders, but as the seconds ticked by and more pain flooded in, it almost felt as if it left her body. Her sense of self became distorted until she swore there was something floating above her back. And that – that was what hurt like hell.
“Miss,” Zachariah said one last time as he managed to pull a hand up and flop it on to her shoulder, “you need to call out. You can’t die here.”
Die. Here? In his arms?
No… she couldn’t.
She would never die in his arms again. That resolution came from somewhere. It blasted through her heart, up her throat, and into her lips until they opened.
She screamed out.
… But no one heard her. At that exact moment, another strike of almighty lightning blasted close by across the street. The ensuing thunder would’ve blocked out an entire tribe of people screaming, let alone her.
Zachariah’s fingers tightened instinctively around her shoulders as the lightning struck.
The closer he got to her – the more of her he touched – the more her pain rose until it felt like a volcano she’d swallowed.
“Try… try to call out again,” he begged one last time. “You don’t have much time.”
He seemed convinced that she was dying, and to be fair, any normal person would be. Though she couldn’t feel how cold her skin was, she was in it. She was used to a little chill factor, considering she could rarely afford heat in her apartment. But this… this was the unending, unyielding cold of the end. This was like the pitiless, heatless expanses between galaxies. This was a force that could freeze your very soul.
All the heat she’d ever had felt as if it had been sucked out of her. All at this man’s embrace.
“One last time. Scream. Someone has to hear you.” His fingers twitched around her shoulders.
She didn’t scream. Something told her that even if she managed to bellow with all her might, another strike of lightning would sail down and muffle it.
Anna was in no position to think, but it felt as if something she’d been running from her entire life was finally happening.
Nothing would get in its way.
Unless she pulled herself away from this man.
It felt like there was a weight around Anna’s back – as if someone had chained the equivalent of a mountain to her shoulders. The mere thought of moving was akin to trying to hold the sky up with nothing more than her hands. She still managed to jerk one hand down and settle it on the pavement beneath her. It was close to Zachariah’s hand. His fingers twitched – either on purpose or instinctively – and they moved toward hers.
Her ring finger brushed up against something. A ring. The same ring he’d been wearing in his car this morning. Made from a metal she’d never seen, it had a single engraving on it – a pair of angel wings.
Zachariah suddenly gasped with renewed pain. It sounded as if it was twice as bad as what he’d been enduring previously. His chest shook, and she thought he would lose consciousness as his eyes started to roll into the back of his head.
The ring felt… felt like light.
As soon as she touched it, all her pain was taken away. It just flew from her as if on the wings of a bird. There was no more cold – there was no drenching rain. The far-off thunder couldn’t affect her. She was floating free above all her problems – and all it had taken was touching this ring.
Zachariah was not floating above his problems. He groaned like a man who’d just been shot through the chest. He tried to lift a hand to clutch his throat, but he couldn’t manage it, and his fingers fell flat against the pavement.
It was now raining so heavily, a virtual lake had formed underneath them. As his hand flopped back, his nails splashed through the murky puddle.
All the while, Anna couldn’t tear her fingers – or her mind – off that ring.
She swore she started to see things. Little flashes here and there, they soon sprawled like a dream filling up her psyche.
There was only one thing Anna Smith ever dreamed of. She saw that path leading to the King’s chamber. She heard the other guards jeering. Then she saw herself being taken in front of the King. And there, at his feet, her wings being chopped from her back.
Zachariah groaned. It had an edge of finality to it.
He was about to fall unconscious.
She didn’t need to question that – she felt it. It was as if she could hold his mind in the palm of her hand. As he started to slip backward, she almost fell with him.
The storm became even more chaotic. She was dimly aware of it as it seemed as if every strike of lightning there’d ever been came tumbling down from the enraged sky at once.
Anna saw flashes of the palace – of a bedchamber. She knew it belonged to the same palace of her dreams, though she’d never dreamed of this specifically before.
As her eyes rolled and fluttered, she was drawn further into the vision.
She took a step into the bedchamber, over to the window that stared out over the palace. Below, she could see a cliff reaching down from Heaven to Earth.
Before she could take another step toward it, someone moved behind her. They grabbed her wrist tenderly and slid their fingers down until they looped them through hers. She felt an arm press against her middle, then hot breath by her cheek.
She smiled. In all her life, she had never smiled like this. It was a movement of pure satisfaction – of total loving acceptance. It was the kind of smile you could only manage if you were truly happy.
She felt her lips open and one word slip out of them, “Zeus.”
Anna Smith was struck by lightning. It slammed down into her body with no remorse.
The flash blasted over the dank, close walls of the laneway, sending light and shadows scattering up to the storm above.
It struck her with its full power, but it did not harm her.
Zachariah’s arms reached up and locked around her, and he somehow channeled the force of the blow.
It sailed through her and into him without hurting her in any way.
As that boom echoed out, it didn’t even make her ears ring.
For a man who’d been on death’s door seconds before, somehow being struck by lightning reinvigorated Zachariah.
He sat up, the movement jerky but strong.
He might be reinvigorated, but she wasn’t.
That vision – and the cost of saying the one little word that had come along with it – had emptied her out.
She felt herself slipping back just as Zachariah pushed to his feet. He didn’t let her fall. He secured his arms under her and carried her away through the storm.
He stood with his back pressed against the door, his arms crossed in front of his middle.
He watched Apollo like a hawk.
The healing god had a frown pressed across his lips, and it wasn’t a move that set Zeus’s nerves at rest. “I just want to know if the Empusa fed on her?” Zeus snapped for about the tenth time.
Apollo stretched his hand up. There was a dismissive, authoritative quality to it. Exactly what you’d expect from a doctor who was working hard to save their patient and who didn’t need distractions. But not what you’d expect a lesser god to do to Zeus.
If Zeus thought he could pull rank, he was fresh out of luck. He couldn’t stomach it, anyway. Luck and nothing more had saved him back in that laneway.
If he hadn’t been struck by lightning when he had, he would’ve blacked out. He wouldn’t have died. He would’ve either eventually regained consciousness, or one of the other gods would have found him. That woman… she would have died.
He looked down at his feet, incapable of making eye contact with anyone as he remembered how close she’d been to death.
As a god, Zeus could feel when a mortal’s time was up.
Their life flowed through them like a river. When it came to the end, you could sense when that river was ready to empty out into oblivion.
She’d had seconds left.
“The answer is, I can only assume that the Empusa fed on her,” Apollo finally got around to giving a diagnosis.
Zeus jolted forward, his eyes widening. “How’s she still alive, then?”
Apollo shrugged. “I can only guess that you interrupted the Empusa before she could take too much of this woman’s life force.”
Apollo spread his hands. “I know you don’t want guesses right now, but that’s all I’ve got. It’s very hard to judge this woman’s original condition. She was struck by lightning while in the arms of Zeus himself. When you regained your magic, it flushed her system. It likely saved her life,” he conceded, “but it would have removed all evidence of what the Empusa had done to her.”
Zeus sighed, arched his head back, and closed his eyes. “I see.”
At the mere hint that the healing god wasn’t taking this seriously, Zeus’s eyes snapped open and his lips drew thin.
Apollo quickly opened his hands. “I wasn’t laughing at our patient here. Just the fact that you can allegedly see what’s going on. I can’t.”
Zeus looked at him seriously. “Are you telling me that was just a guess?”
“Of course I’m telling you it was just a guess.” Apollo gestured toward the woman. “Being struck by lightning in Zeus’s arms isn’t something your average human usually goes through. I lack experiential evidence here.”
Zeus slowly let his gaze slide toward her. He stared at her with all his worth – his eyes operating as if the mere sight of her was ambrosia and they didn’t want to miss a drop. He let one stiff finger trail down his chin. “So she’s an ordinary human… then?”
“Really? I tell you that I have no experience dealing with conditions like this, and you grab onto the completely irrelevant statement that preceded it? Yes, of course she’s an ordinary human, but that’s not the most important part of this. She was attacked by an Empusa, but now she’s been struck by lightning, we have no evidence—”
Zeus wasn’t listening. His gaze was still locked on the unconscious woman, his stare careful and thorough as it shifted down her face almost like an embrace. It started with her hairline, then trailed down the bridge of her nose, then finally stopped on her lips.
“Zeus, are you paying any attention to me?”
“Yes and no.”
“It really needs to be a yes right now. That storm,” Apollo jabbed a thumb over his shoulder indicating the tumultuous clouds beyond, “is only getting stronger. You need to find Ares and Hera, grab the book, and begin your ascendancy. This,” he gestured to the woman, “can wait.”
Zeus was used to the arrogance of the gods – he was one. But when it came to the different deities, Apollo was usually one of the kinder ones. Yet Zeus bristled at the mere possibility Apollo could be referring to this woman as a simple this.
Zeus had barely shared a word with this lady. What he had shared instead was something far more enduring. If he closed his senses off from the room for more than several seconds, he could feel her lingering touch; the weight of her dying form in his weak arms; the scent of her rain-drenched, cold skin. More than anything, the slow, failing beat of her heart.
“Zeus,” Apollo said in a much firmer voice designed to not just carry, but to make any mere mortal freeze.
Zeus shouldn’t need to tell you he wasn’t a mere mortal, but he still wrenched his gaze off the woman and took heed.
“You cannot let the storm go to waste. Especially not now you’ve seen an Empusa. Though I want to tell you that everything the Empusa said to you was nothing but braggadocio, we don’t know. You need to unlock the full power of your lightning bolt in order to find out. There could be more Empusas out there on the streets right now, hunting hapless humans down. It is your duty to stop them.”
Zeus opened his mouth. It was an automatic thing – something his body was in no way in control of – and it took him too long to realize what he wanted to say.
His treacherous, confused mind wanted to point out that his place was right here, beside this woman.
… But she was just an ordinary mortal.
If he’d never driven past her and heard her scream, presumably, their paths would not have intersected again.
Apollo crossed his arms, and his brows furrowed. “Why are you still here? I will keep good care of the mortal. I will also ensure that when she wakes, she remembers nothing.”
Zeus’s stomach twitched. It was such a visceral, powerful move, it felt as if he’d swallowed a cyclops. His lips parted with a jerk. “What if she has valuable information—”
That frown threatened to take over Apollo’s face. “You said it yourself – by the time you reached her, she was already pretty much unconscious at the Empusa’s feet. That tells us that the Empusa fed on her – in part. The only information she will have is a memory of her fear. And that will be irrelevant to us. Now go, my liege,” Apollo said, his voice vibrating low as a note of wary compassion infiltrated it. “I know you may have your misgivings about ascending to your true thrown on Earth, but,” he gestured toward the window and the raging storm beyond, “you must thrust them aside and rise for all.”
Misgivings. An interesting word. A weak word. Perhaps you had misgivings as a human when you left the house without an umbrella on a cloudy day.
The knot of fear and confusion forming in Zeus’s stomach went far beyond that mere, weak word.
What he felt was a fear deeper than any he had the vocabulary to describe.
He still managed to release his arms from around his middle. He turned. Before he could reach forward and open the door, he twisted his head over his shoulder one last time and faced her.
She was asleep. When she woke, Apollo would do as promised, and wipe her memory.
Whoever she was, she would return to her ordinary mortal life, unaware of what had transpired and who she’d met.
Or at least, that was the plan.
He stood in the middle of the chamber, his hands in the pockets of his expensive suit pants. Tilting his head back, he let his gaze drift over the ceiling.
Carved, beautiful, ancient, and beyond anything the hands of man could create, it was a vestige of Olympus. It was also a connection to that great mountaintop, for delicately interwoven in the mural above were the palace and its grounds. Zeus couldn’t help but let his gaze flick toward the King’s Chamber – his very own bedroom.
Though he couldn’t remember it, academically he knew that once it had been his.
… And hers.
Now was not the time to think of Fos. He couldn’t help himself. Thoughts of her ran through his mind as, his hand still in his pockets, he let his fingers trail over his winged ring. As his short thumbnail grated over the engraving, he swore he could feel its power within.
There would’ve been a time when he wouldn’t have had to imagine it. Before he left Olympus, and long before he lost his memories, he would’ve been able to access Fos’s power. Not use it, but at least… commune with it. Experience it – know that it was there with more than a wish and hope.
He couldn’t help but imagine how different he would be if only he could do that now.
There was a creak from behind him, and the ornate, 10-meter-tall doors opened.
Hera strode in. She was no longer in a designer pencil skirt and blouse. She wore a white silk toga befitting of her role as the wife of Zeus.
Even as he thought that, his teeth clenched. He’d been putting this off for years. But now the ceremony was minutes away.
They would be married – wed for the length of time itself. She would ascend to his side, claim Fos’s power, and rule all that which his fallen angel had once ruled.
Behind Hera, two other gods strode in. Zeus was expecting Ares – he had found the book, after all. A mighty feat considering all the gods who’d been searching for it for decades.
It was Zeus’s brothers, instead – Poseidon and Hades.
These days, Poseidon didn’t power around the ocean with a trident and a beard as long as a boat. He was still associated with the waves, though. He was a shipping tycoon who had a profitable, charitable side business in developing wave technology for sustainable energy.
As for Hades? You could never remove the kingdom of death from the hands of the Under Lord himself. Hades’s business interests were many and varied. But through everything, his role was to gather the souls of the dead and remove them from the gaze of the living.
Poseidon was in a white polo shirt and cream chinos, his closely cropped gray-flecked black beard glistening under the light of the ceremonial room. As for Hades, he wore black. A black suit, a black shirt, a jet-black tie, a black watch, and a black engraved skull ring on his pinky finger.
His hair had a single ray of gray that flared from the top of his skull down to his left temple. It was the only hint of detail in an otherwise remorseless outfit.
Zeus had always had a somewhat troubled relationship with his brothers – none more so than Hades. Hades was the second most powerful god in Olympus, and without Zeus, he would rise to the top. These days, however, he was too distracted to try.
Humans were killing each other at an ever-increasing rate. More than that, they were destroying the very planet they lived on. Hades didn’t simply command the underworld of man – every animal and plant that went extinct traveled through his gates, too.
While Hades was growing in power, Poseidon was growing ever more chaotic. His power would reduce suddenly, only to increase without warning. He responded to the very chaos the humans were putting their beloved planet through.
Right now, however, both men were on their best behavior. They were here to see Zeus rise.
Unconsciously, Zeus drove his hand into his pocket again, grabbed his ring, and covered its wings with his thumb. He pushed it in hard as if he honestly thought the mere flesh of his digit could hide the ring’s power and what he was about to do.
Poseidon arched an eyebrow as he reached Zeus. He had a blazer he was carrying over one shoulder. He let the jacket drop as he shoved a hand into his pocket. He pulled out a pearl. Almost as large as Poseidon’s hand, it was surely natural. If it ever hit the markets, who knew how much it would go for?
Zeus arched an eyebrow. “What’s this?”
“A wedding gift.” Poseidon nodded over at Hera. She stood dutifully off to the side of the room, her hands clasped in front of her middle, her head directed at the ground. Her hair looked like spun silk. It tapered over her shoulder, and it caught the light of the thousand flaming candles that lit the room.
While Poseidon appeared to be distracted by Hera’s appearance, Zeus wasn’t. He didn’t glance her way once as he stared instead at Hades. Hades had both his hands in his pockets. When Zeus stared at them obviously, Hades just chuckled.
“Don’t expect a present from me, brother. Far too busy to go hunting pearls and jewels. Instead, you can give me a present.” Hades switched his gaze up and stared at the domed ceiling. He didn’t do so with the same nostalgic serenity the other gods used whenever they saw this place. Hades had barely frequented Olympus in its heyday. He had his own realm. Which was entirely his point. As he tilted his head down, a strict frown pressed his lips hard together. “When you ascend,” he said, his voice firm on the word when, indicating there was no question in Hades’s mind that it would happen, “bring this world under control quickly. My gates are full. If they get fuller, I will be forced to let go of souls.”
Poseidon leaned over and clapped a hand on Hades’s back, the move ringing through the room. “Ignore him, brother. He does not know how to act around a wedding. Prefers to kidnap his brides,” he added with a chuckle.
Usually, this would get to Hades. He had a thin temper.
Today, it didn’t. Hades continued to stare at Zeus with a fire behind the God of Death’s gaze. It told Zeus Hades wasn’t playing a game.
“If you do not bring the humans under your hand quickly, I will not only be forced to abandon souls, but the prisons of Tartarus may open,” Hades warned, his voice dropping low. It might’ve been relatively quiet compared to the god’s usual fervor, but in a room as silent as this, it bounced off the walls.
No one needed to ask what would happen if the prisons of Tartarus were breached. The greatest enemies the Greek gods had ever known were within them. Including the Titans themselves.
Poseidon’s hand was still on Hades’s shoulder. Now the sea god let his fingers tilt in harder, the move less brotherly and far more forceful. “Hades, talk like that can wait. Let Zeus have his day. He deserves this. It has been a long time coming.”
This was presumably where Zeus should smile – perhaps even cheer – but he should definitely give some indication that this was indeed a day he’d been waiting for for millennia. Finally he would marry Hera, and finally he would put his disastrous first wife behind him.
So why did he feel so empty? Why did he feel like a man who’d been dragged to a cliff only to be let free by his captors? It was up to him whether he wanted to step off that cliff or flee.
Ascending, awakening the true power of his lightning bolt, and marrying Hera would be jumping off that cliff….
He shook his head, hiding it as he shoved his hands back in his pockets, turned, and surveyed the chamber. “The book will be here momentarily. Ares is bringing it – as well as the other items we require.”
“Then we have time to begin the more important ceremony first,” Poseidon said as he moved away from Hades and walked up to Hera.
Zeus’s stomach had been clenching all day. Now as Poseidon approached Hera, it felt like Hercules himself rose up and kicked Zeus right in the gut.
Poseidon had always had a thing for Hera. In many ways, they were a better match than Zeus was with her. Hera, though unquestionably powerful, was not in any way related to lightning. She was associated with fertility and emotion. The one element that bore emotion more than any other was water.
But Zeus’s stomach didn’t kick like a pack mule at the sight of Poseidon approaching his soon-to-be wife. It kicked because Zeus realized there was no putting this off anymore. In mere minutes, the ceremony would begin, and he would hand his ring over to her. In return, he would have the continued support of the gods and the power of his lightning bolt, but….
Poseidon grabbed up Hera’s hands and smiled deeply at her.
Any fool would be able to see the affection there.
Poseidon hadn’t, and would never, act on those emotions. He lifted Hera’s hands high, raising them toward the ceiling. The closer they got to that mural – and the ultimate power of Olympus – the more lines of light started to spread over her skin. It was the very energy of the divine. It flowed through the blood of every god on Earth. Their power in this realm was limited. The closer they got to Olympus, the more that power rose.
Hera showed her worth as one of the most powerful female deities as, within a mere minute, her skin blazed with light and magic.
No. Not light. The magic brought with it its own illumination, but light – the true force of the cosmos – was something very different. It was the first point of creation. The energy through which every world and galaxy, star and person was ultimately crafted. Hera could not access true light. Nor, technically, could Zeus.
Only the angels like Fos had been able to.
It was through his enduring connection to Fos that Zeus could still access lightning at will. If they’d never met, he would be half the god he was today.
Now he would give her power to another. It was the only way to bind him to Hera. True consorts were more than just lovers. Their power was connected. It would flow through one into another.
Hera had no power that Zeus needed. Fos’s ring would give her the light he required.
Yet he kept tightening his grip around that ring as if the mere thought of it being pulled from him was like his fingers being wrenched from their bones.
“You glow like the light of a thousand stars,” Poseidon said as he kept Hera’s hands lifted high above her head.
She wasn’t the only one glowing. In lifting her arms up, Poseidon’s hands were getting closer to heaven, too. Unlike Hera’s yellow-red power, Poseidon glowed a deep azure blue like the inviting water of some coral reef. Here and there, it flickered, mysterious pulses of light darting through it like creatures dashing through the depths.
Hades took a step up to Zeus. The God of Death still hadn’t removed his hands from his pockets. His gaze was locked on Poseidon and Hera, but that didn’t stop him from inclining his head towards Zeus. “Last chance to back out, brother.”
Still not bothering to stare at him, Hades let a slight smile tug his lips. “Poseidon might be too distracted to see what’s in front of him, and the other gods might not know you as well, but I can read you like an open book. Last chance to back out,” he added once more in a voice that wouldn’t carry even if it was picked up by a megaphone.
Zeus couldn’t reply.
“I know you, Zeus,” Hades continued. “And unlike the other gods under your rule, I won’t sugarcoat this. If you make the wrong decision today, it will haunt you. It will haunt you like that day millennia ago did.”
“Hades,” Zeus warned, though he couldn’t add anything but another low growl.
Hades finally flicked his gaze over to Zeus. “I know you,” he repeated, his voice quiet with regret this time. “You’re not over Fos. You never have been. You can push forward and marry Hera. It’s better for the world – it’s better for Olympus. But I know you,” Hades added one last time.
“So you know me – what’s your point?” Zeus managed. He tried for a smile, but his voice was far too weak. It fluctuated on the phrase you know me. For Zeus could not discount that statement. He didn’t have enough memories to know himself, let alone conclude that Hades was wrong.
Hades locked Zeus in his stare, and the powerful deity managed to narrow the world down until it was just the two of them. “No other god knows regrets like I do. For no other god must table the regrets of lost souls, judge their lives, and show them where they went wrong.”
Poseidon and Hera were far too distracted by the ceremony to stare over at Zeus. If they had, they would’ve seen Zeus’s cracked expression. It looked as if someone had fashioned his features out of water only to open a drain and let them all wash away.
“You can’t live in the dark,” Hades finally made his point.
Hades shot Zeus one last wistful, regretful smile. With a shake of his head, he broke eye contact and walked toward Poseidon and Hera, adding, “You can’t live in the dark, Zeus. So make sure not to give up the only source of light you still have.”
Zeus became riveted to the spot.
For just a second, he thought he saw a flash of something. Maybe it was a memory, maybe it was a dream – maybe it was nothing more than his overactive imagination reacting to Hades’s cold words. It soldered him to the spot as he stared at the future he was about to create.
Hera laughed, a smile driving her lips up toward her cheeks as more magic spilled down from Olympus, covering her form.
Poseidon began to chant. Ancient, powerful words – they were phrases and utterances of a time long past.
Every guttural syllable echoed through the room, driving up toward the ceiling. A small sphere began to open up above them. Magical light spilled over it. It crackled down the mural, momentarily bringing the pictures to life. It was like he had been transported right into the heart of Olympus. Zeus could feel a gentle breeze rustling the oak leaves that circled the palace. He swore he could see down the cliff that led to humanity. And there, in front of him, his own bedchamber. And a hand. One encased in light. No. One made from light. One you would be able to see even in the darkest night, even in the blackest pool, even beyond death itself.
The moment ended.
Zeus opened his eyes as Hera stopped in front of him.
The mural was now alight with so much magic, the very air crackled with it. It tingled over Zeus’s cheeks, tickled along his beard, escaped over his neck, and plunged down his shirt. It reminded him that deep down he was a god. And as a god, every decision he made would make or break this realm.
Hera clutched up his hands.
This wasn’t the first time she’d made bodily contact today, but this time, she was burning with power. It snaked around her wrists, zapped between her fingers, and danced over her skin. It crackled at the edges of her smile, plunged down her neck, and disappeared under the collar of her silk toga.
“I have waited for this moment for millennia,” she said in a soft but nonetheless powerful voice.
Poseidon was still chanting.
Technically, Hades should be joining in. As the second most powerful god, he was well-placed to bring true import to this ceremony. He remained still, his hands never leaving his pockets, that crumpled, regretful smile never shifting from his lips. Though Zeus could see it out of the corner of his eye, he didn’t dare turn toward it. Do that – actually acknowledge it properly – and who knew what it would do to his resolve?
Hades might’ve said a lot, but he’d also pointed out that Zeus had to do this for the benefit of the gods and humanity. He couldn’t put off ascending any longer. And if the cost was moving on before he was ready, so be it. As a god – as the King of the gods – there were burdens only Zeus could carry.
“Our connection will last for eternity,” Hera said, her voice becoming more strident as every syllable bounced off the walls. It magnified her words until they encased him like cages. “We will be written down in every myth. True consorts, true gods. A power that is intertwined.” She pushed her fingers through his, interlacing them until they were locked together like the links of a chain.
Pressed up against her palm, her power was unmistakable. It tingled over his skin, begging to be let in.
“Zeus, what say you?” Hera asked.
Silence set in.
Zeus was still aware of the storm beyond. It raged, even though it would never be able to reach this chamber. It could completely disintegrate the city with lightning strikes, yet the walls of this sacred room would never fall.
He tuned into the far-off blasts of thunder now, appreciating the power of the driving rain as it soaked the city.
Poseidon cleared his throat.
Hera tightened her grip on Zeus’s fingers, her smile fixing itself into her lips like someone screwing a picture to a wall.
As for Hades, he simply shook his head once.
Zeus lowered his gaze. “We will be bound for eternity,” he said, incapable of facing her as he finally pushed those words from his stiff, white lips. “The power I have will be yours. And the power you have will be mine. Together, we will rise up and do our duty. We will protect and shepherd humanity into another golden age. Hera, what say you?”
She didn’t reply with words. She pushed forward, like a horse let out of its stall or a bullet fired from a gun chamber. She locked her lips against his. Her power finally flowed through him. It felt like opening his mouth to a tsunami. It crashed into his body, blasted down his neck, smashed into his heart, and sat there, brewing like a storm.
He couldn’t help but shudder as she crammed her lips harder against his mouth, her passion as red-hot as any fire.
Above, he felt the mural glow with ever greater power. Around him, the chamber became insubstantial as, momentarily, they were transported back into the sacred chamber of the King atop Mount Olympus.
There, just in front of him was his throne. He could reach a hand out and trail his fingers over that sacred gold.
But Hera had no intention of letting him remove his fingers from hers.
Finally she could do what he’d stopped her from doing earlier today. Her hand shifted up, her fingers clasping his ring.
Dread rose within him. It marched through his body, counteracting Hera’s promised power.
It had a second to take hold, then Hera took his ring off him. There was no longer anything he could do to stop her.
It was hers now.
She kept her lips locked on his as she kissed him passionately. She secured one hand behind his head. With the other, she rolled the ring around her palm until she pulled it onto her ring finger.
The room glowed. Magic encased them. It blasted over his feet, twirled around his legs, marched over his chest, and bound him to Hera.
It was a chain that would never be broken again.
Hera eventually broke apart from him.
Immediately, she got down on one knee. While she kept one hand locked on her thigh, with her other, she twirled her fingers around her ring.
Crackles of magic started to escape from it. They were barely noticeable at first. But they would grow.
Slowly, she cast her gaze up. “My love, let us embrace the Golden Age together.” She reached her fingers out to him.
He just stood there.
He felt cold.
He felt alone.
And though this room blazed with the light of a thousand candles and the illumination of divine magic, he felt as if darkness was encroaching from every angle.
“Congratulations,” Hades said. “You sealed your fate, Zeus. And you will take the world with you.”
She woke with a start as a pain unlike any she’d ever experienced blasted through her chest. Immediately, it spread to her back and pushed its way out. It was as if it were creating an appendage she’d never had. Her pain expanded from her body, growing until it was twice as large as her.
Her eyes opened with a jolt, her mouth spreading wide in a silent scream she just didn’t have the energy to cry.
For several seconds, she could do nothing but lie there in that frozen agony as her mind threatened to shut down forever.
She was only vaguely aware of where she was. She had to be in some kind of expensive hospital room. There was no one in here with her. She could see a bank of equipment to her side, and she could discern a chart on the back of the door.
None of that mattered. Only one thing caught her attention. There was a large window to her left, and it stared out over the city.
The flickering night lights of downtown were irrelevant to her. The storm – that was everything.
The clouds owned the sky. They raged through it, marching on like a violent enemy that would never stop until it had drained every single drop of blood from its prey.
Anna’s mind didn’t usually take a turn towards the paranormal. Now she couldn’t help it. As she stared breathlessly at that sight, it felt like Hell itself was marching over the city, getting ready to burn everything in its path.
It took too long for Anna to take a solid breath – far too long for her to convince herself that she was still alive and that she could move.
It felt like a part of her had just died.
She was connected to some machine by her side. Electrodes were strapped onto her chest.
She thought nothing of grabbing them in a shaking hand and wrenching them off her.
Immediately, the machine beside her started to blare. She ignored it as she lurched out of the hospital bed. She didn’t have the capacity to control her body, and she fell hard on her knees. Another wave of aching pain stabbed her chest and back, but it didn’t stop her from crawling forward. She reached the window, locked a hand on it, and pulled herself up just as the door behind her opened.
A nurse rushed in. “What are you doing? You’ve been injured. You need to stay still.”
She grabbed Anna by the shoulders and tried to haul her back, but Anna used what little strength she had to remain locked against the window. She stared out at the storm as it grew, right before her eyes.
Its power was unmistakable. Even the nurse, who was distracted by getting Anna back into bed gasped as a massive blast of lightning struck the street outside the hospital. The force of it pounded up through the building and shook the windows.
The nurse kept trying to manhandle Anna backward, but when that didn’t work, she darted back to the door and called out for the other nurses to get the doctor.
Anna had no concept of how much time passed. Time was completely irrelevant as she watched the storm fly over the city, claiming it with no remorse and no reply.
Every violent strike of lightning drove down to her bones. She wasn’t scared of it – just the opposite. For whatever reason, it felt like it was the last bastion of good in this city – the only force that could hold back the growing chaos. But it couldn’t hold back hell forever. Its power was failing.
Right in front of the hospital, right in front of the very window she was staring out of, one last strike of lightning struck an oak tree.
It split the trunk in half, sending flames leaping up.
Another nurse had just grabbed Anna. She screamed and jolted back. Anna didn’t – even as the window shattered and glass spewed inward.
There was chaos out in the corridor as more nurses rushed in to see what had happened.
They tried to pull her back from the glass. She just stared out at the sky, tears starting to drain down her cheeks. Somewhere deep inside her aching bones, fear climbed her body. It told her that strike of lightning was the last she would see for some time. And without it, this city would fall.
She would’ve stayed there, frozen in her confused grief forever had a doctor not rushed into the room. He grabbed her by her shoulders, and though the only thing she wanted to do was resist, she couldn’t.
Whatever grip that man used, it pushed right past her every defense. Even if she’d had a weapon, she wouldn’t have been able to pry herself from his grasp.
“Get back into bed. You’re confused,” he said in the kind of voice anyone would trust.
She didn’t want to move. She needed to keep staring at the storm and the new reality it would bring, but he was too strong. He lowered her back into bed and dutifully reattached her electrodes. All the while, she could tell he was staring at the storm out of the corner of his eye.
He briefly walked out of the room to talk to a nurse. From the corridor, she heard him mumble, “I’ll just check her condition before we move her into another room.”
Anna had never been the kind to disobey a doctor’s orders. She understood how stressful and important their work was. It wouldn’t help anyone for her to act up. She couldn’t stop herself. As soon as he was out of the room, she wrenched the electrodes off her chest, got out of bed, and staggered toward the window, ignoring the glass that covered the floor beneath it. She didn’t make it. The doctor swept back in, grabbed her, and pulled her back.
For the first time, she caught sight of his face.
He had unmistakably regal features. There was something truly powerful about them. It reminded her of Zachariah Hope. And that? That just reminded her why she was here.
She clasped a hand over her mouth and gasped, the move so violent, it could have torn a hole in her lungs.
Though the doctor was pulling her back to her bed, he stiffened. “You survived an ordeal. You are safe, and there is nothing to worry about,” he said, though the tone of his voice was off. It was… leading. It had this quality she just couldn’t pin down.
“Where is he?” she asked, her voice so choked, it would’ve taken an algorithm to understand what she was trying to say.
Obviously this doctor was good enough to understand even the most mumbled question. “You remember him?” His brow scrunched in confusion.
“Yeah, of course I remember him. We almost died together. Where is he?” She didn’t know why, but with every word she said, her voice vibrated with ever-growing fear.
As the chaos outside increased, it had a proportional relationship with her terror, as if she would now be connected to that storm and its vicissitudes forevermore.
The doctor appeared to take his time to think through a response. “Zachariah is fine.”
“Fine? How could he possibly be fine? He was struck by lightning.”
There was a significant pause.
Several of the nurses had come in, obviously to help the doctor with his rowdy patient, but now he cleared his throat and waved at them. “I’ve got this. You should go check on the patient in Ward 3. That little boy admitted that he’s scared of lightning.” He cast his gaze over to the broiling clouds, “and I get the feeling we’ll have nothing but lightning tonight.”
“You’re wrong,” Anna said out of nowhere in a strident tone that brimmed with certainty.
The nurse in the doorway paused, a frown on his lips as he stared over at the doctor with the kind of look that suggested he thought Anna was mad. And fair enough. Even the most unskilled meteorologist would take one look at those clouds and the lightning that had been berating the city and conclude that more was yet to come.
The doctor didn’t seem to be so sure. As he helped her back into bed, a frown tightened his lips. “And why do you say that? Are you a meteorologist?”
She shook her head. “I don’t have to be. The lightning is gone. It’s not coming back,” she added, tortured fear rising through her tone.
The doctor made brief eye contact with the nurse. Anna didn’t have to stare in their direction to appreciate that they’d both be reevaluating her mental health.
She just didn’t care. She couldn’t wrench her gaze off the window. Even as the doctor moved in front of her, she simply tilted her head to the side to stare past him.
When he figured out what she was doing, he stood right in front of her. He gently secured his fingers around the edge of her bed, his broad, strong grip looking like it could snap the metal in half. “You’ve had an ordeal,” he said, that mesmerizing quality returning to his voice. “There’s no need to remember it,” he added.
On the word remember, his voice… there was no way to describe it. It extended. It was like it reached a hand up to heaven, claimed its power, and channeled it down through his every syllable.
She found herself staring dumbly at him, her mouth opening weakly.
“Zachariah is fine. He wasn’t struck by lightning. Nothing happened to you. You had an uneventful night. You slipped over in the rain and hurt your knee. You’ll be discharged with a medical certificate. Do you have any questions?” As he asked that, she got the impression that he didn’t expect her to answer, because, to him, it was inconceivable that she could reply.
She remained there, as if teetering on the edge of some cliff, until finally her lips took over for her. “Yes, I have questions. Where’s Zachariah? He was struck by lightning,” she repeated desperately.
A frown momentarily marked the doctor’s lips, but it didn’t last. He quickly turned it into a smile. A fixed one. “Zachariah is fine. He was not struck by lightning—”
“Yes, he was,” she rallied. “It happened right in front of me. That thing… it attacked me.” She remembered. She clasped her head in a shaking hand. Curling her fingers in, her nails scratched her brow, leaving long, painful lines down the side of her face as fear caught up with her.
Being struck by lightning was one thing. Now as Anna’s full memories of that incident flooded in, she started to shake.
The doctor leaned forward and wrapped his hands around her shoulders. It felt like his grip could secure her in place even if she was freefalling from an airplane.
“Nothing happened to you, Miss Smith. You just slipped over in the rain.” Whatever mesmerizing quality he’d been using on her earlier now doubled. If his voice had been chains, every single syllable could’ve held an elephant in place.
It almost worked on her, but she shook her head.
She cast her gaze back to the storm, darting her head to the side so she could see past the doctor. She’d been right. There hadn’t been another single strike of lightning across the city since her window had exploded.
The doctor stared at her, his brow scrunching with confusion. “I said—” he began, his voice feeling like an outstretched hand is it beckoned her to some mysterious place.
There was a knock on the door, and two security guards walked in.
“Doctor Andrews, are you all right?” one of them asked.
Doctor Andrews stood to the side of the bed and controlled his lips as he forced a smile over them. “Of course. I’m just calming the patient down before we move her,” he said clearly.
Though one of the security guards opened his lips to insist, he started to get a glassy look in his eyes. He brought a hand up, scratched his neck, shook his head, and walked out of the room. He closed the door quietly.
That just left Anna alone with Doctor Andrews.
She hadn’t felt fear. At least not related to Doctor Andrews – until now. As he turned his attention back to her, she stiffened.
His eyes narrowed. “There’s nothing to be scared of.”
She didn’t bother answering with words. She tilted to the side and pointed at the storm.
“Don’t concern yourself with the storm. It will stop eventually.”
“It’s chaos incarnate.”
He chuckled as he pressed his tongue against his closed lips. “This city has seen worse storms. Now, Miss Smith, I really need you to relax. Your medication won’t work unless you are relaxed,” he said, all his vocal emphasis on the word relaxed.
He wasn’t talking about medication, was he? He was talking about whatever the hell he was trying to do to her.
Anna couldn’t stop her paranoid thoughts anymore. Nor could she spare her imagination. Her mind ticked back to the way that surprised security guard had just wandered out of the room with nothing more than a mutter after a few simple words from Doctor Andrews.
Doctor Andrews reached over as if he wanted to grab her hand. She jolted back.
His eyes narrowed. “You need to calm down,” he tried again. “You’ve had quite an ordeal. Just take a breath and relax.”
“I don’t want to calm down. I want to see….”
“Who? Zachariah?” Doctor Andrews’ eyes narrowed even further. “Why? Did that Empusa say something to you? Did she put something into your mind?” Suspicion and the beginnings of hardened anger stiffened his jaw. “Is that why you’re resisting me?”
Anna’s lips opened with a wobble. “Empusa?” she said with a hollow, tortured voice.
Somewhere at the back of her head, Anna was still desperately trying to hold onto reason. It was trying to tell her that all of this was just a symptom of falling over in the rain. Maybe she’d been hit on the head. Maybe her stress was getting to her. Whatever it was, it wasn’t real – because it couldn’t be.
But she wasn’t making up what the doctor had just said – nor the hardened way he stared at her.
“Tell me what happened to you,” he said, and this time, there was no mistaking the control in his voice. It filled it. It sounded like the kind of power that could reach past any mere human’s defenses and claim them from within.
Again, Anna felt her lips wobble open. “I… was in the street… and I…”
“Tell me about the Empusa. What did it do to you? Did it set this up? Was the Empusa trying to reach Zeus? Why are you resisting Mesmer control? Did the Empusa give you some kind of ability?”
She couldn’t listen anymore. Even if the entire hospital started screaming, she wouldn’t have been able to hear. She was stuck on one word. It completely owned her mind, driving out every last thought, every last feeling, every last wish. Zeus. Zeus, the man in her dreams. Zeus. The man in her nightmares. Zeus, the man who had betrayed her, stolen her wings, and given them to another.
She started to shake – full-bodied, violent convulsions that shook her shoulders like a leaf in a gale. They were the kind of jolting moves that couldn’t be faked. Doctor Andrews might’ve looked suspicious before, but as soon as she began to lose it, he jolted forward, compassion slackening his features again. As he grabbed her shoulders, his mere touch managed to calm her mind somehow, but it couldn’t stop her from convulsing. Every shake only became more violent.
All on one little word – all at one little promise. Zeus. He was out there. More than that, she’d met him. Zachariah Hope was the Zeus of old.
She lost consciousness. When she woke, Apollo would make sure that she would not remember.
“I’m so sorry – I didn’t remember,” Anna stammered as she took a step back from her desk, her face awash with tears.
Meredith just stood there, her cheeks pasty white, not with compassion, but with controlled anger and disappointment. “How could you not remember, Anna?”
“I went to the hospital,” Anna tried.
“And your medical certificate says you came in for nothing more severe than a mild fall. No mention of a head wound. You hit your knee. How could you not remember, Anna? How could you not even call? I waited all night with the police.”
“That may be the case, but now you failed to show up, the police are more suspicious. You’ve become their primary suspect, Anna,” Meredith said. The way she said that spoke volumes. Anna hadn’t just become the police’s prime suspect. She’d become Meredith’s, too.
When Anna had woken up this morning in her bed, there’d been a hole in her head and her heart. It felt like over the course of the night, someone had whittled her down, taking apart everything that had once made her powerful and leaving nothing but a walking corpse. She was cold, no matter how many jackets she put on, and no matter how light she made the room, somehow it felt as if she was underground.
She was, being in the basement, and all. But that wasn’t the point. Ever since that storm last night, it felt as if a perpetual cloud was now looming over her.
Meredith took a hard breath. “You know that I need to suspend you, right? It’s not what I want to do, but the police have found other evidence,” she added. The cold look was back in her eyes. It told Anna that if Meredith had ever been on her side, she sure as hell wasn’t now.
Suspension would just be the first step. Anna would lose her job. And hey, maybe she’d go to prison, too. She hadn’t stolen those books, and she’d never spread information about the valuable items in the collection. She was dedicated to her task in a way few other librarians were. That wasn’t the point. Anna could feel her cruel fate catching up with her.
“The police will be in contact with you. You must comply with their orders, Anna. If you don’t, you will simply make it worse for yourself.” With that, Meredith turned and walked away without another word. She didn’t need to add anything. Her expression said it all. Anna had created this mess for herself.
With a belly-shaking, soul-destroying sigh, Anna turned and flopped down in her chair. Meredith stopped. “You need to clean your desk and leave, Anna. I’ll have one of the other librarians come down and check you out.”
“No, it’s okay,” Anna said in a choked gasp. She reached over and grabbed the only thing that mattered to her. It was a small book of ancient Greek poetry she always carted with her from job to job.
Meredith didn’t balk and think it was part of the collection. She knew very well that it was Anna’s.
As Anna walked past her, she tried her hardest to control her tears. “I’m sorry, Meredith. I don’t know why I didn’t call. I don’t know why I didn’t remember. But I didn’t do this.”
“Goodbye, Anna,” Meredith said. She waited there as Anna walked away, reached the lifts, and left the library.
Anna couldn’t make eye contact with any of her colleagues. They looked scandalized, amused, or downright angry.
Stealing valuable books was one thing. Nicking the files from the personnel cabinet, another. In their minds, if Anna really had set this up as a crime to hide her tracks, then bringing them and their personal lives into this was unforgivable.
She held onto her tears until she reached the street outside. It wasn’t raining. Yet. Hell, it wasn’t even cloudy. That didn’t stop Anna from getting the distinct impression that tonight, just like last night, the city would be drenched in a rage of rain. There’d be another epic storm. But unlike the last, there would be no lightning.
“That’s gone from your life now,” Anna found herself muttering.
She’d been muttering to herself all morning.
When she’d woken up, her head had felt empty. For the first time in her life, she hadn’t dreamed.
No Olympus, no goddesses, no nothing. Just a growing dark hole in her head.
She was jobless, under investigation, and didn’t have a single friend to call her own. Whatever Anna had done to deserve this existence, this new turn of bad luck was taking it a step too far. Even if you believed in rebirth, she had already had her run of dodgy karma. When the hell was she going to catch a break?
In a daze, she walked back home. More of the central city streets were closed off. Before the lightning had stopped before midnight, it had put on one hell of a destructive show.
She couldn’t remember much of what had happened last night. She certainly hadn’t remembered that call from Meredith. If she had, when she’d been discharged from the hospital, she would have run straight to the library…. But, honestly, she couldn’t even remember being in the hospital.
Her memories of yesterday blurred until she’d woken up in her bed this morning.
For the umpteenth time, she reached a hand up, grasped her brow, and pushed her fingers in. If she thought she could eke out her forgotten memories, she was fresh out of luck.
She kept walking down the city street, her mind elsewhere. This was where she should be desperately trying to plan what she should do next. She couldn’t afford to be suspended. She’d lose her apartment. She barely had any savings. She’d be out on the street. Instead, this was where she – for the tenth time that day – reached around, grabbed her shoulders, and let her fingers trail down them. She desperately wanted to touch the middle of her back. It felt like something was missing.
Though Anna couldn’t remember why she’d been taken to the hospital, she’d woken up with diffuse pain in the center of her back that would not go away.
As weird as it sounded, it felt like something was controlling a part of her body. It wasn’t trying to move her – she didn’t feel like some kind of automaton. It was just… like someone was using her as a resource.
“Just put it out of your head, Anna Smith. It’s not going to help you anyway.”
“Why? Need some help?” someone asked from her side.
She’d been paying absolutely no attention. Now, with a startled gasp, she turned to the side to see none other than Adam.
She blinked hard. “What are you doing here?”
He shrugged over his shoulder. “I work here, remember? You don’t look so great. Had a hard night?”
She curled her shoulders up. “I don’t know.”
A half-amused, half-confused smile spread his lips – a move those very same lips seemed made for. “You don’t know? You had that much fun, then?”
“No. I just got fired.”
His amusement ended. “Why?”
“Because last night the library was broken into. My boss told me to head there to talk to the police. I ended up in the hospital. I don’t remember a thing. Now she thinks I stole the books.” Anna had no clue why she was sharing this with Adam of all people.
He was handsome – she’d give him that. But he was clearly complicated. He was not the kind of man you opened up to with your life worries.
Someone cleared their throat from behind Anna. She turned to see that, in a daze, she’d ignored the man standing beside Adam. He… looked familiar somehow.
She scrunched her nose as she noted his regal features.
“You lost your job?” he asked, his tone unreadable.
“Ah, yes,” she said uncomfortably. Opening up to Adam was one thing. This guy was a complete stranger.
Perhaps she wasn’t a complete stranger to him, because the way he frowned at her had a familiar edge. “You failed to remember an important appointment?”
She just pressed her lips together and shrugged. She didn’t know why she was being interrogated by this guy.
She also didn’t know what was wrong with her proprioception today. Blame it on the pain that continuously climbed her shoulders, but she was only aware of what was right in front of her. It meant she had no clue when a man walked up and stopped behind her.
She might not have noticed him, but her body did. It stiffened as if someone had just placed a knife next to her neck. Slowly, like a marionette on a string, she turned.
She saw a man. At first, her gut kicked as if she recognized him, then something seemed to damp down on that recognition like a blanket covering a fire.
The guy – whoever he was – recognized her. His face slackened, his cheeks practically sliding down an inch. “How are you?” he stammered.
“I don’t know you,” she said. She forced the words out, but it was hard. It was like an invisible hand had reached up to cover her mouth.
She’d never clapped eyes on this handsome man before. She would’ve remembered. So why did her body freeze as if it knew him – personally and intimately?
Feeling even more confused, Anna took a step back. “It was nice to see you Adam,” she said, realizing it was best to just leave before the sight of that man with the jet black beard brought her any more pain. For whatever reason, in his presence, the agony arcing up over her shoulders was only doubling.
“Ah, not so fast. I realize you may not recognize me, but I am the doctor who attended to you last night. Doctor Andrews,” the second guy said quickly.
She stopped and turned around, a frown biting her lips. It had a real edge to it, because somewhere within her, a memory tried to rise.
She shook her head. “I’m sorry. I don’t know you. I need to leave.”
“It’s all right, Anna,” Adam said. “Andrews really is a doctor. He works at St. Helens downtown.”
She stopped. The words St. Helens rang a bell. She could almost remember being in a hospital gown as she stared out a window at the storm.
The pain eating a hole through her back got worse as the handsome man took a step up to her. Concern made his memorable blue eyes glisten.
She couldn’t stop it anymore, and she clutched her back, a tight groan cracking from her lips.
Andrews took a step up to her and competently secured a hand on her shoulder as he stared into her face. “That must be some sequelae from your fall last night. Perhaps I should look you over?”
Her mind told her to shrug him off. She fancied it was some vestige from last night – some part of her that remembered what had gone on. It was screaming at her to leave these men far behind, but there was something about Doctor Andrews’ touch that held her in place.
“Bring her inside,” the man with the ebony hair said.
She didn’t want to look at him, but despite the fact she stared steadfastly ahead, her treacherous peripheral vision still picked up every detail of his expression. The way his lips slackened and widened, the way his gaze locked on her, the way he immediately drew his hands out of his pockets and clenched them into nervous fists – all of it.
“Okay, Zachariah,” Doctor Andrews said, his hand still on her shoulder.
Zachariah. That was his name?
It didn’t feel right.
A man like him would have a shorter name, something more powerful, something that got down to the point and described precisely what he was and what he could do.
She found her gaze tracing his hands as Zachariah gestured forward quickly.
She stared at his right hand.
She’d never seen this man before, and yet she knew that something was missing.
Searing pain blasted through her shoulders. Doctor Andrews had been helping her forward, but she staggered. Gasping for air as if someone had stabbed her throat, the next thing she knew, Doctor Andrews picked her up without so much as a grunt.
As he hurried her inside, all Anna could do was watch Zachariah. At the side of another man picking her up, his cheeks twitched.
No. It couldn’t be that. Maybe it was the wind.
If Anna was even mildly with it, she would’ve appreciated that she was making a scene. Though she’d only met Adam briefly yesterday, she’d already ascertained that he was wealthy.
As soon as the three men strode into the atrium, the packed building stopped.
This was where Anna’s cheeks should turn bright red, she should extricate herself from Doctor Andrews’ arms, and she should run back home to hide under her covers.
She didn’t. Her shame and embarrassment were one thing. This building….
She shivered. It was a tight, frightened move.
Doctor Andrews reacted. He turned a smile on her. There was almost a guilty edge to it. “Don’t worry. You’ll be better soon.”
Her condition wasn’t what was making her worried. This building was having some unholy effect on her. The further they traveled through it – and the more she saw the sleek, clean, modern lines of the atrium – the more she wanted to turn and run. Despite the fact she knew very well that this tower was new, the atrium had a sense of age that made no sense. Maybe it was its grand scale leading the mind back through time – or maybe it was something she simply couldn’t put her finger on.
She felt like this building was somehow simultaneously realer than everything else in the city, and yet fantastical at the same time.
She’d never been in a temple before – she’d never had the money to go overseas. She got the distinct impression this was what it would feel like to walk through the grand ancient ruins of Greece.
It didn’t take long for Doctor Andrews to find a room off the main corridor.
Zachariah opened it and hurried him inside.
Adam? He was still there, following at a distance, his hands in his pockets, an unreadable look on his face. He didn’t rush in. Rather, he stopped outside, turned, and locked his back against the wall as if he was going to guard her.
Zachariah closed the door as Doctor Andrews took her up to a couch and rested her down on it.
“What happened? Last night you said—” Zachariah began.
Doctor Andrews brought up a hand quickly. “I will assess the patient alone. I will talk to you outside when I’m done.”
Zachariah didn’t look happy. He turned around, but then turned just as quickly as he stared at her. There was something about his gaze as it roved over her face. Something needy, something confused. And something that led her mind. If a person’s stare could ever act like a hand, then Zachariah’s was beckoning her forward. But to where, she couldn’t tell.
He finally extricated himself from the room.
She expected Doctor Andrews would start by talking about her condition. She was wrong. He reached up and settled his hands either side of her face. She had just a second to react as her lips parted, but she couldn’t say a word as she suddenly lost all control over her mouth and body.
“First, fall asleep,” he commanded. “I will assess your condition later.”
There was no way she could react. There was not a damn thing she could do. She felt herself falling back. Before her head could bang against the arm of the chaise longue, Doctor Andrews reached forward, locked his fingers around the back of her head, and gently nursed her down.
Her eyes fluttered closed.
He stood above her for several seconds until he turned and strode out of the room.
She couldn’t move. Not a damn centimeter. Her breathing slowed, too. Her body reacted as if it were asleep, but it wasn’t. Every time she threatened to nod off, a jolt of something shot through her consciousness like lightning over a dry plain.
It ensured that she was conscious long enough to hear Andrews walk out of the room.
He didn’t stay out in the corridor. He walked back in, Zachariah and Adam by his side.
Doctor Andrews sighed and sounded like he rubbed his head. “I don’t know what happened.”
“I thought you said you wiped this woman’s memories of the Empusa?” Zachariah’s voice was hard. “It sounds like you wiped away a lot more.”
“If that’s right, you just meddled in a human’s life,” Adam said, a note of warning in his voice.
“I know, I know,” Doctor Andrews replied, his stress obviously getting the better of him as he strode around the room. “I don’t know how that happened, though. I only wiped memories of the incident and of the businessman, Zachariah Hope.”
“That explains why she looked so shocked when she saw me,” Zachariah said.
… Why had Doctor Andrews referred to Zachariah as the businessman, as if he’d just met the man?
No, that wasn’t what it had sounded like. The way he’d spoken made it sound as if Zachariah Hope was nothing more than a front.
If Anna had possessed any control over her body, this was where her stomach would clench and nerves would race over her back and face. As it was, all she could do was lie there, incapable of moving but capable of thinking – and importantly – feeling.
Charges of emotion blasted through her like chunks of C4 someone had buried in her heart long ago.
It took Anna too long to realize she was missing something. Calling Zachariah a businessman and using his full name was one thing – Adam had just called her a mortal. Who the hell did that?
“This must have something to do with the Empusa,” Doctor Andrews said, a deep sigh reverberating through his voice. It spoke of tension, and even though she couldn’t see him, she could imagine it was climbing his broad shoulders like choking vines.
His tension was nothing compared to Zachariah’s. Even from here, he felt like he was on edge. She was so aware of him – even though she couldn’t open her eyes – that her whole body tingled when he took even the slightest step toward her.
“Ultimately,” Adam spoke up, his voice firm, “this isn’t your problem, Zeus.”
That one little word had a disproportionate effect on her. Out of nowhere, it felt like a storm reached up, smashed into her brain, and raged through her body. The sensations it left in its wake were indescribable. If she could have moved, she would’ve screamed, over and over again. As it was, she just remained there, frozen and rapidly getting colder by the second.
She had no clue what was happening to her, but her body appeared to have some inkling. As Adam said the word Zeus again, Anna felt anger rise through her in an unstoppable tide. It didn’t come with any specific memories – at least none her mind could access. But she could feel these visceral, deep sensations that were recollections of something hidden deep in her psyche. And they – to a T – spoke of pain.
“You should leave this to us, Zeus,” Adam sighed. “Apollo can take you back to the hospital. You need to start the first day of the rest of your life,” he said without a hint of irony.
Anna was only just aware of what they were saying. The horror of Zeus’s name kept ricocheting through her mind like a ball bearing smashing through a pinball machine. Every time Zeus breathed, let alone shifted closer to her, it felt like lightning blasting through her feeble form.
She wanted to scream with all her soul. All she could do was lie there in horror and listen.
Zechariah – or Zeus – let out a deep, belly-shaking sigh, but did not heed Adam’s advice and leave the room. He lingered close to the door.
Apollo appeared to walk in front of him. “Hera is waiting.”
“There is nothing left to wait for,” Zeus said in an unreadable tone. “We’re wed, and that cannot be changed. I feel responsible for this mortal woman, however.”
“You have to reveal your thunderbolt and your new position to the gods tonight, Zeus,” Apollo said in the kind of long-suffering tone you would use on someone who kept ignoring their duty, time and time again.
“You think I don’t know that?” Zeus snapped. “I’m ready. But this is a matter that deserves my attention, Apollo. We interfered in a human’s destiny. Whether that was by accident or by choice, we still need to make amends.”
“I will. I will take Miss Smith back to the hospital, ascertain what went wrong, and fix her memories.”
There was a pause. “Smith…?”
“It’s her name. Anna Smith.”
There was a longer, protracted pause. Anna didn’t know why, but it felt as if Zeus had frozen as if that name meant something to him.
“What is it, Zeus?” Apollo demanded, his patience wearing thin.
“Nothing. I just feel personally responsible. For all we know, that Empusa was waiting for me and only attacked Miss… Smith,” he managed, “to get to me. That means she was drawn into the business of the gods. It is on my shoulders to make amends.”
“She’s nothing more than a distraction,” Adam said out of nowhere. “You need to focus—”
“I am focused, Ares,” Zeus snapped. “I assure you. I know exactly what I’ve done and what I’m about to do.” Bitterness infiltrated his tone on the words what I’ve done. “Tonight, I will reveal my new bond with Hera, my thunderbolt, and my plans. But—”
“There can be no buts, Zeus,” Ares interrupted. “Both Hera and the future of this world require your full attention. Leave this matter to us.”
Zeus didn’t leave the room. It sounded like even wild horses – or cyclopes – wouldn’t be able to drag him away.
“Simply offer her a job,” Zeus said out of nowhere.
“What?” Apollo’s voice shook with confusion.
“Offer her a job,” Zeus repeated, his voice faster now, his resolve clear. “We both interfered in this mortal’s life, we both changed her destiny, and we both are responsible for that. If she lost her employment because of your mind-wipe yesterday, Apollo, then we’re obliged to reset her fate. So offer her a job.” This time when Zeus said that, there was unmistakable authority behind his tone. He hadn’t exactly acted weak until now, but he had been reticent. Now, he spoke like a god.
“Zeus—” Apollo began.
“I’ve made my mind up. I don’t want the fate of one more mortal on my conscience as I prepare for the next wave. When she wakes, offer her a good job.”
Adam chuckled. “Doing what, my liege?”
“Find something. Ensure it’s well-paid. It will make up for the misfortune we inflicted on her. She also mentioned something about a police investigation. Find out if she is guilty. If she isn’t, dismiss the investigation.”
Ares began to clap. They were low, slow movements, and it wasn’t clear whether it was genuine or sarcastic. “Zeus is finally taking charge. You are quite the force to reckon with, my liege.”
Zeus turned and settled his hand on the door handle. “I never wasn’t a force to reckon with.”
“Indeed,” Adam conceded.
“Aren’t we forgetting something?” Apollo interrupted before Zeus could leave.
“And what could that be?” Zeus asked.
“What if this mortal’s fate was already panning out exactly as planned?”
“What?” Zeus asked.
“What if losing her job and this police investigation are both parts of her original fate?” Apollo explained. “Our interference in her life was otherwise minimal. By offering her a job and bringing her into your company, you could in fact be going against her original fate.”
Zeus didn’t pause for long. “I’ll take that responsibility. Now, you have your orders.”
Zeus left. And Anna? Part of her left with him. Her shock at this was simply too great to fathom. Her body was still reeling at the word Zeus, let alone at all the things she’d just overheard. If her brain had been functioning normally, and her reason had been at the fore, she would’ve discounted every single thing she’d just learned. Gods and mortals, golden ages, thunderbolts and the Fates – not a single word of it made any sense. But denying it based on reason was impossible as her body did things she couldn’t understand. At every new revelation, it twisted in on itself, feeling like a cage desperately trying to keep Anna trapped from her real self.
But that cage was finally breaking down.
She started to see glimpses of her dream. Ever since she’d woken up this morning, the nightmares that had haunted her her whole life had started to dim. She couldn’t remember who she’d been and what had happened to her – just a cliff she’d fallen down.
As her dreams gave way, her new reality settled in their place.
Fear jolted through her, borne on the wings of flashes of memories. Each new one blasted through her mind as she muttered Zeus’s name in her thoughts.
The flashes gathered speed. They felt like they were fighting against an invisible barrier in her mind – something someone had placed between her and her memories of yesterday.
In a blast, fear climbing her back like a hungry spider darting toward her face, she remembered last night. That… thing – the Empusa.
Its glistening ebony hair, its ruby red lips and dripping, blood-covered claws. It had grabbed her by the neck. It had wrapped its claws around her throat, and it had whispered something in her ear.
Though she threw her mind into remembering exactly what it had said, the memory slipped as another rose – no, it thrust into her like lightning.
Zeus had found her. He’d wrapped his arms around her, and she’d fallen onto his chest. And there, in the drenching rain, they’d remained until a single bolt of lightning had slammed into him.
It was the memory of that lightning more than anything else that chased away the remnants of the fog infecting her psyche.
Earlier in the current conversation, Zeus had used the words mind-wipe. Apollo had somehow wiped these memories from her consciousness as easily as someone cleaning muck off a window.
But now they were back.
Anna was rocked by every memory. But there was nothing she could do – she remained there frozen as Adam walked from the room and Apollo sat down beside her. The next thing she knew, he settled his palm on her forehead, and Anna slipped into unconsciousness. She couldn’t stop herself. There was one thing she could do, however. It was the greatest thing of all. She could hold onto that bolt of lightning pulsing through her body – the very same energy that had thrust back Apollo’s mind control.
If she held onto the lightning tightly enough, when she awoke, she would remember.
And that would change everything.
She sat in the recruitment office on the third floor of Zachariah Hope’s tower.
Apollo hadn’t taken long with her. He’d placed his healing hands either side of her head, and he’d whispered unknown words into her mind. At first, she’d been certain that they would overcome her and leach away her memories once more, but she’d held on with the grip of lightning itself.
She’d held on more than long enough to hear him insert memories into her mind.
Obviously they’d quickly ascertained that she hadn’t stolen those books from the library, and as promised, the charges had been dropped. Apollo had whispered that fact right into her ear in a way any ordinary mortal wouldn’t be able to ignore. His syllables were like prepackaged memories that would simply drift into place, find a new home in your mind, and take up root like a weed. Even now as she sat there alone, her legs jumping up and down with barely subdued terror, she could feel those false memories trying to take root.
They promised her that two hours ago she’d got a call from the police, dropping the investigation into her. One hour ago, she’d been invited back to Hope Tower, and she’d received a job offer.
None of that had happened. Apollo had finished his magic, and he’d led her to this room himself.
As she closed her eyes, crammed a hand over her face, and tried to breathe, she folded up in on herself like a house of cards collapsing.
“This can’t possibly be happening,” she whispered. There was no one in the room, but she still wouldn’t let her voice echo out too loudly. She didn’t think anyone would hear – the main reason she wanted to be quiet was that she knew her words were wrong.
She hadn’t just cracked. This wasn’t insanity. This was happening.
This was too real to ignore – all because he was too real to ignore.
Her lips froze, her expression hardening with them. “Zeus,” she uttered. She didn’t dare let her voice blast out, even though she wanted to angrily scream his name at the top of her lungs. If she did that, he might hear.
Even if he didn’t, other gods could pick up her cry – and this tower was packed with them – Apollo, Zeus, and Ares weren’t alone.
When she’d been seen to buy Apollo, two goddesses had walked in and helped him with the process. She knew they were goddesses, because she’d felt their power.
It hadn’t leaped over their skin, but its effects on her mind were undeniable. Stronger than any human drug, as they’d settled their hands around hers, it had felt like someone carving a hole right into the middle of her head – one they could conveniently pour new information into like a builder placing new foundations for a wobbly building.
Those goddesses were one thing. Apollo’s insane power was another. Zeus? Yeah. He was everything.
It wasn’t the suit – it wasn’t those memorable, captivating eyes. It wasn’t the power displayed in his every movement. It wasn’t even the glimmer of a smile visible under his beard.
It was him – all of him and everything his presence promised.
She sat there, her legs getting ever more jittery as she bounced them up and down, up and down. She kept mouthing his name. Every time she did, it hardened her will.
Anna had never had a particularly strong personality. She hated confrontation. Hell, she barely screamed even when provoked. But as she kept repeating his name, over and frigging over, it felt like there was concrete setting within her once soft insides.
Before her anger had a chance to do anything, the door opened, and in walked the last person she expected to see. Adam. No, sorry – Ares.
As the door swung to, she saw someone behind him. It was the recruitment agent who’d been talking to Anna only minutes ago. Now the woman walked away as if she’d been dismissed.
Ares smiled. Once again, it was that same curious half-frown half-grin that seemed to mark not just his lips, but his personality.
It was as if he was perpetually half angry with the world, but half amused by it at the same time – and he found no one more amusing than her.
As he sat down, flattening his tie with a forceful brush of his hand, the left side of his lip kinked up into a smile. “I’m sure you have a lot of questions.”
She’d stopped bouncing her legs up and down the second he’d walked in.
Now she sat there, not moving, barely thinking as she drove one fact into her mind. This guy was Ares.
Anna knew Greek mythology. She didn’t need to look it up on her phone. Ares was the God of War. A complicated, violent character, he featured in some of the bloodier myths of Greek legend. Now he was right in front of her, smoothing down his tie again and smiling like they were long-term friends.
She blinked hard. If she thought by blinking, the world would reset and make sense again, she was way out of luck.
Ares just smiled harder. “I was impressed,” he said without a segue. “Yesterday, you managed to get that book in a single try.” He clicked his fingers for emphasis, the sound echoing around the well-appointed room.
“Ah, thank you.”
She wanted to remain silent and still like prey before a predator, but at least she managed to force those words out.
“When I heard about your troubles with the library, I knew we couldn’t pass up this opportunity.”
“Opportunity,” she said, parroting the term and the way he said it as if she was nothing more than an automaton now. She’d be able to repeat orders, walk, smile, and engage in polite conversation, but every other faculty would be closed off from her as she struggled to come to terms with the fact the Greek gods were real.
“Yes,” Ares said as that broad grin threatened to take over his face. So much for that half-frown. Ares didn’t appear to have any reason to frown anymore. A fact that was evidenced further as he leaned forward, steepled his fingers, and fixed his gaze on her like ropes around a wild horse. “Zachariah is a prodigious collector. In fact, in many ways you could say that all this,” he opened his hands, clearly indicating the building and the business it supported, “is simply there to support his collecting.”
She paused. Reluctantly, she forced her lips open. “I see.”
“Yeah. And so do I. I see that I can’t possibly pass up someone with your skills. I have my own,” he shrugged, “but I’m not an established collector. We need someone who knows what they’re talking about and, importantly, someone who can secure what Zachariah wants. And from now on, that will be you.” There was no hesitation in his tone. There was no question, either. It was clear that in Ares’s mind, the deal was done.
He rested back and smiled, obviously waiting for her to gush at the possibility he’d just offered her.
She just sat there. Her mind ticked back to the fact this couldn’t possibly be happening. It had to be some kind of joke.
Maybe she was currently strapped to a hospital bed, undergoing some deep psychosis.
… Or maybe the smiling man in the suit before her was the modern equivalent of one of the most dangerous gods in Greek mythology. As her back chilled and her skin prickled, she knew which one her body believed.
At Anna’s lack of response, Ares cleared his throat. “You feeling okay?”
Anna blinked. She got the impression that if she answered that she wasn’t feeling okay, Ares would just get Apollo. If Apollo kept poking around in her mind, next time, Anna might not be able to remember.
She sat straighter. “Yes. Sorry if I’m acting a little strangely – I had a long night. I didn’t get much sleep.”
Ares grinned in understanding. “I get that. You probably won’t get much sleep tonight, either, though.”
Her stomach tightened. “And why is that?”
“You’re invited to the function,” he said without any explanation.
“The function?” She put her emphasis on the word the like he had.
Ares leaned back and pointed one stiff finger up above them. “It’ll be held on the roof. It’ll go all night. And I promise you – you will never have been to a party like it.”
Her lack of enthusiasm just made him laugh, the deep chuckles vibrating through his chest and bouncing around the room. “Not into parties? I promise you, you will be into this one. Everyone will be there.”
“Celebrities, politicians. Everyone who’s anyone.”
He just laughed harder. “Really? That’s all you’ve got for me? This party will be an opportunity for you to rub shoulders with the best of the best.”
She looked away from him. “I guess I don’t really see people who are rich and famous as necessarily being better than anyone else,” she muttered. If her goal was just to get out of here without Apollo messing around in her mind again, she should just shut up, say yes to everything Ares said, then run at the first opportunity. She couldn’t stop herself making a comment, though. It was crazy. Anna had never been particularly brave. Okay, that was a lie. Remove the particularly from that statement. She’d never been brave at all. She kept her head down because of the way life had treated her. The last thing she’d ever wanted to add was more conflict to her already wretched, unlucky existence.
You tell that rule to her addled mind as she sliced her gaze up to him. “Parties aren’t really my thing. Especially when they’re not celebrating anything other than someone else’s wealth.”
It took him several seconds, but a broad smile flicked over his lips. “I would never have picked you for someone who spoke her mind so freely.” Before he could berate her, he leaned forward, steepled his fingers again, and smiled.
That smile did something to Anna. It sent a jolt of nerves burrowing up her back. It wasn’t unpleasant so much as… there.
She waited for him to say something, but he simply leaned back and stared at the ceiling. When he tilted his head down to face her, it was as if he was looking at her with a new set of eyes. His gaze flicked down her then up her, and – though it was probably her imagination – she swore it lingered over her shoulders as if there was something important hovering around them.
She cleared her throat after his pause became uncomfortable. “But you still want me to go to this party, ha?”
He nodded. “It will be good for you. You’ll find out a lot about Zachariah’s world.”
Her gaze locked on him.
Mere minutes ago, the last thing she’d wanted to do was find out anything about this world. What she’d experienced so far was enough. She wanted to crawl home, hide her head under her covers, and try to reknit the fraying edges of her sanity.
Hell, if she were really smart, she’d just leave the city and get as far away from this mess as she could. Yet as Ares leaned back and offered her a window into Zeus’s world, she stopped. Something inside her started to rise.
Last night when that… thing had attacked her, there hadn’t been anything Anna had been capable of doing. She’d frozen in fear, and the Empusa had grabbed her with no remorse.
Fixing on the image of that Empusa – reminding herself of how real it had been – made Anna realize one pertinent fact. This world would still be out there. She could run as far as she could, but if the gods truly existed, then there would be nowhere she could go to get away from them. Creatures like that Empusa could hunt her, and there’d be nothing she’d be able to do.
No. There was always something you could do. Anna might not have led an adventurous life, but in keeping her head in tomes of antiquity, she’d learned some very important lessons. Books – and most importantly the information they were based on – were the difference between life and death. Civilizations rose and fell on their capacity to disseminate factual knowledge.
She couldn’t count the number of times she’d read of foolish philosophers and politicians who’d chosen to put their heads in the sand and ignore some growing threat, all to their peril.
The more you ignore reality, the more it will hunt you down relentlessly.
Ares frowned. “You sure you’re okay?”
… Was she okay? No. Her world was crumbling, but finally she could see a little glimmer. All she had to do was go to the party tonight and find out who Zeus really was. She needed to understand this world. And when she understood it, maybe then she could finally escape. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I should give this party a go. It’ll help me decide if I want to work here.”
Ares arched an eyebrow. “I thought you already decided that you wanted to work here? As far as I’m aware, you don’t currently have another job, do you?”
“No. But I still want to find out more about this place before I make my decision.”
He shrugged. “Fine. But do you want to see it first?” He locked his hands together, grinned, and leaned forward.
“Do I want to see what?” Suspicion infiltrated her tone, though she tried to subdue it. She couldn’t ignore that this guy was Ares, the God of frigging War. For all she knew, he could take her out to a war zone.
“His collection,” Ares finally explained.
Anna didn’t need him to expand on the word his. It was clear he was talking about Zeus.
Her cheeks paled, and there was nothing she could do to hide that fact.
Ares laughed as he took that as a yes. He rose and nodded at the door. “It’s up on the penthouse level. It’s next to his office. He’s busy now, but I can take you there myself. There are books you would never even have dreamed of.”
She pressed her lips together. She could’ve laughed at the word dream – she’d had some pretty wild nightmares in her time. Instead, she rose. As she did, something rose within her.
It was a promise from long ago. One she had forgotten, but one her body had never let go of. It held her together even as she wanted to freak out at this new world. And it would keep holding her together until finally she could act.
Central Library, basement level, ancient civilizations collection
The elevator doors opened with a ping.
Meredith looked up from the catalog she was working on, a frown digging hard into her lips. “Hello, Jaclyn, is that you?”
No one answered.
Meredith was out past one of the last stacks, right at the edge of the room.
There was no clear line of sight over to the elevators.
Her voice could get lost competing amongst the massive cases of books, so she cleared her throat. “Jaclyn, is that you?” she asked louder, her voice bouncing off the old breeze block wall behind her.
When Jaclyn didn’t answer, Meredith rolled her eyes. “Can anything else go wrong today?”
She marched out of the stacks, an old tome held lovingly in one hand.
She was doing an audit of the things that had been stolen.
It could take the collection years to recuperate.
Somewhere at the back of Meredith’s head, she told herself this was all her fault. The day she’d hired Anna Smith, an alarm bell had gone off in her head. At the time, she hadn’t thought Anna would be the kind to organize a robbery, but the point was, she should have trusted her instincts.
Something had always been off about Anna.
Meredith had charitably thought it was just her luck. Anna couldn’t seem to catch a break.
The thing about people who can’t catch a break, though, is sometimes they’re forced into making desperate decisions.
With a sigh, Meredith brushed a speck of dust off one of the stacks by her side and reached the elevators.
They closed, and as she stared at the little electronic panel beside them, she saw the lift was headed back up to the ground floor of the library again. She paused. “Is there anyone out there?” she asked at top volume. Before she’d worked in libraries, she’d done a few stints doing theater after college. She had the kind of vocal projection that wouldn’t just carry, but would bounce off the damn walls like an earthquake. If someone was out there, they would reply. When there was no reply, she shrugged her shoulders. Leaning forward, she tapped the electronic panel beside the door with the tip of her fingernail. “Maybe somebody typed in the wrong floor. You better get onto security,” she muttered to herself as she turned and walked back through the stacks. “This collection is meant to be protected, after all.” She got halfway down the line of books before she heard a rustling.
She looked up at the air conditioner unit above her. The vents in this section were too large. She often complained to the maintenance staff. In winter, when the heat was on high, if they didn’t program the vents right, they would blast hot air out all over these precious volumes.
She waved a hand up, pushing onto the toes of her kitten heels as she tried to feel any undue currents of air.
She couldn’t detect anything.
A frown settled hard into her lips. She took a step to the left, intending to head back to her stack, but she heard another rustle.
She turned sharply.
She headed straight to Anna’s old desk. She was back, wasn’t she? Perhaps Anna was being well-intentioned – maybe she’d left something behind – but dammit, she couldn’t be down here without supervision. “Anna—” Meredith barked as she walked around the final bookcase and stopped in front of Anna’s tiny, homely little desk.
Though Anna couldn’t exactly be classed as a neat soul, she loved this library as if it were her own child.
Though the desk was small, it was usually packed neatly with stacks of ongoing projects, information on new catalog items, and sets of old white gloves used for the handling of particularly fragile tomes.
Now every single thing that had once been on Anna’s desk was on the ground.
Meredith gasped as she shot toward it.
She knelt down, her knees crunching as she swept up an old book on Greek poetry that had been translated by French monks in the eighteenth century.
Meredith had placed it down on Anna’s desk, intending to take it out back to the fragile books archive later.
Now she riled, her cheeks turning red hot as she held it carefully. “How did this happen?” Meredith demanded. Turning over her shoulder, she jerked her slicing gaze through the lines of library stacks, searching for the perpetrator.
“Anna, is that you?” she barked. “What are you doing?”
She heard something tumbling over. It made such a racket, it blasted through the room.
Meredith bolted toward it.
She knew what she expected to see.
Anna had clearly cracked. She’d be trashing the library as final payback.
Meredith shoved a hand into her pocket, ready to pull out her phone. When she turned around a stack only to face the devastating sight of a pile of old books spread chaotically over the floor, she didn’t see Anna.
There was a naked woman with long, glistening black hair that tapered over her shoulders. Her hands were clasped behind her back, but that was the only thing that could be said for her modesty. She made no embarrassed attempt to hide her figure as she flicked up two glossy almost black eyes. She spread her wide, red lips and smiled.
Meredith shook her head, taken aback. “Who are you? What happened? Are you okay? Where are your clothes?”
“I don’t wear clothes,” the woman said proudly, her voice somehow simultaneously far off and yet sharp like a knife to your throat.
Meredith’s gaze became hard as suspicion formed in her gut. “Did you do that to the desk back there?” She jammed her thumb over her shoulder. “Just what do you want? I will call security,” she added as she plucked her phone out of her pocket.
The woman stared at the phone. She tapped her fingernails against something. Meredith couldn’t tell what. The lady was standing about a meter in front of the closest metal stack, so she couldn’t be grating her nails against that. Yet she couldn’t be clicking them against each other, either. The sound was too loud.
“You can’t be down here,” Meredith snapped. She didn’t get another word in.
The woman raised one finger. She swept it around the back of her narrow waist and held it in front of Meredith.
And Meredith’s world shut down. Because it wasn’t a finger. It was a pointed claw. It glistened with a single slick of blood that trailed down her porcelain skin, escaped over her wrist, twisted around her arm, then splashed onto one of the upturned spines of the books covering the floor.
Meredith couldn’t move, until in a snap, she screamed.
That scream didn’t get a chance to punch out with all of Meredith’s admirable vocal force. It was cut short as the woman reached forward and wrapped her clawed hand around Meredith’s throat. Instantly, those claws perforated her skin, and she gasped for air as a violent surge of fear and pain torpedoed through her. “Who are you?” she stammered. “What are you?”
“I’ll answer the last one first. Because that answers everything. I am an Empusa.”
Meredith’s mind might not be working, but she’d spent her life studying ancient civilizations, and that knowledge rose to the fore now.
An Empusa was a creature from Greek mythology known to hunt lost travelers. It attacked them and drank their blood.
Perhaps the Empusa could read minds, because as that thought thundered through Meredith’s head, the creature smiled and brought its perfect porcelain skin close to Meredith’s face. It took in a long, hissing breath that would make anyone appreciate that this woman couldn’t be human. It sounded more like the hissing whisper of a snake. “I want your help, mortal. Will you give it to me? Or will I have to force your hand?”
Meredith shook. “What the hell is happening?”
“I told you. I am here to request your help. Now, will you give it?”
“What do you want?” Meredith hissed. It was a stupid move, because as she pushed that low, guttural cry out, it brought her throat closer to the Empusa’s relentless grip. More slicks of blood trailed down Meredith’s throat and stained her once perfect bleach-white collar.
There was a rustle as the Empusa appeared to grab something out of nowhere from behind her back. It brought around a manila file. Where it had grabbed it from, Meredith had no clue.
As her gaze locked on that file, she instantly recognized what it was.
It was a personnel file. Specifically, it was Anna’s. She could just see Anna’s name written down the side.
A new wave of fear struck Meredith.
“What have you done with her?” Meredith might have been ready to write Anna off earlier, but she would never wish her ill.
The Empusa smiled. It was the kind of vicious move that would make anyone’s blood chill, and Meredith wasn’t immune.
She tried to jerk back, her body giving in to the kind of violent terror you only ever got on the edge of death. The Empusa simply tightened its grip around her throat until Meredith started to cough up blood.
“The answer is I haven’t done enough to her yet. I was rudely interrupted last night. Now tell me, where is she?” She gestured with the file, one of her long, perpetually bloodsoaked claws trailing over Anna’s name greedily as if she could pluck her out of the words and spirit Anna to her side.
“I don’t know where Anna is,” Meredith managed. At least it was the truth.
But the Empusa didn’t seem to like the truth. It tightened its grip around Meredith’s throat until stars blasted over her vision, each more violent than the last.
The monster brought its face close to Meredith’s and hissed in her ear – one long exhalation that sounded like the final breath of the damned. “Then bring her to me.”
“What?” Meredith had dropped her phone along with her book of Greek poetry.
Now the Empusa pushed the mobile with her barefoot, the metal case rattling against the side of one of the shelves beside them. “Bring me Anna Smith, and I’ll let you live, Meredith.”
“It’s incredible,” Anna said under her breath as she walked into the room. She’d never seen anything like it. Not even in her wildest dreams – and they had been pretty darn wild.
She would’ve preferred to be alone as she checked out Zachariah Hope’s personal collection of ancient artifacts and tomes, but she wasn’t. Adam – or Ares – was right behind her.
Coming up here and walking into this room hadn’t distracted Anna enough that she’d forgotten what was happening to her.
In many ways, it had only solidified her will. As soon as she’d stepped foot in this massive, 20-meter long room, she’d known the man who’d collected these artifacts had to be a god. There was no way a single, ordinary human would be able to find them all on his own without divine intervention.
The room didn’t have any windows. It was off the penthouse floor, behind Zachariah’s office.
She hadn’t seen Zachariah, though his door had been open a crack. She almost fancied she’d heard his voice. As distracting as it had been, this room was something else entirely.
She reached a hand forward to trail it over a glass case in front of her, but she held her fingers in at the last moment, Ares taking a step up close to her side.
“You can touch any case you want to. It’s not like you can do any damage. This place is protected by the best security money can buy.”
Anna looked over her shoulder at him. “Why do they need so much security? Isn’t this already one of the most secure buildings in the city?”
Ares chuckled. “There are certain objects in here that are literally priceless.” His gaze tracked forward, focusing on something on the other side of the long room.
The room had mood lighting, she guessed you could call it. It wasn’t romantic or anything – it was just to accentuate the cases with their own individual illumination.
With the polished, dark concrete floor reflecting the navy-blue walls and ceiling, it gave the room this dreamlike quality. Those cases with their antiquities within were like flashes of visions you might get on the edge of sleep.
Speaking of visions, she found herself drawn toward the case Ares had glanced over at. It felt like something had tied a tether around her middle, and there was nothing she could do but follow it, one step after another.
Before she knew what she was doing, she reached the case and shoved out her slightly trembling hand to slip her ring finger down the glass.
Inside, there was a sword.
Adam shifted forward and quickly collapsed his fingers around her wrist.
It brought her back to the here and now, wrenching her gaze – and every scrap of her internal attention – off the sword and onto Ares. She might’ve just been calling him Adam, but for the love of God, this guy was the embodiment of war.
She stiffened, her cheeks paling several shades.
Ares just chuckled. “You know that rule I said before – about you touching whatever you want? Doesn’t include this one.” Still holding her hand, he turned his attention to the case that held the sword.
She could see the side of his face, and his neck muscles were taut like densely woven rope. His jaw looked hard enough to crush diamond, and there was a flashing look in his eyes she just couldn’t place.
Ares was irrelevant compared to the sword. She might not be staring at it directly, but that didn’t matter. She could feel it. Feel as the light from above glistened along its long, sharp blade. Feel as the strange, golden hilt sat against the metal unit holding it. Even feel as her eyes traced the strange symbols that ran from the hilt all the way up to the tip of the blade.
Anna had gone through a lot these past two days. It was too much to count. Now as her attention was drawn ever further into that sword, she realized she hadn’t had an experience as intense as this yet.
It felt like she was being reborn, all in the presence of this blade.
At first, she barely heard him until he chuckled louder, the move low enough that it echoed through the dimly lit room.
She jerked her head around to stare at him. “Sorry.”
“What do you have to apologize for?” Ares dropped her hand.
Because, crap, he’d been holding it all this time. She’d just tuned him out. She hadn’t noticed the rough grip of his thumb and fingers. Now as he dropped her wrist, she felt the lack of his warmth like someone stamping out a fire by your side.
She shivered. “I’m simply tired.”
“I’m not judging you, Anna. Plus, you’re not alone.”
“Most people have reactions they can’t describe around that.” He tilted his chin up and nodded at the sword.
She could still see his taut neck muscles. They were tighter than a docking rope. They looked woven, not just with rage, but with something far deeper.
Again she had to remind herself that this man wasn’t some rich playboy. He was a deity of pure menace.
… Except he wasn’t off waging wars, was he? And neither was he brandishing a sword, calling for the blood of mortals.
He was just standing here looking almost vulnerable.
You wouldn’t ordinarily assume bottled rage was vulnerability – but as she’d already said, there was something deeper about the way Ares looked as he stood there, staring at the blade, a truly far-off look in his eyes.
It drew her in. Though it didn’t seem like her body was capable of it, Anna turned away from the sword. As she’d already said, she’d never had such a visceral, powerful reaction to anything in her life – including Zeus himself. That didn’t matter. She still turned away and faced Ares completely.
That far-off look in Ares’s eyes ended, the slightest smile marching over his lips as he turned to her. “What, can I possibly be more interesting than the most precious object in my liege’s collection?”
Her lips pushed down. “My liege?”
Ares chuckled. “Just something I call Zachariah every now and then. Answer the question, though. Can I possibly be more interesting than that?” He gestured to the sword with a stiff flick of his wrist.
She didn’t want to answer his question; she had no idea where that leading look in his eyes would take her.
She shrugged, briefly glancing back at the sword before shrugging again. “I guess I have to take your word that it’s the most important part of this collection. But,” she let her eyes shift to the left as she surveyed the long bookcases that trimmed the room, “those look a lot more interesting to someone like me.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she could see that his face crumpled all on one term – someone like me.
He took several seconds to regain his composure. He shifted his tongue up into the side of his mouth as if he was trying to hold it from saying something he didn’t want to reveal. “It’s true. There are a lot of important books in this collection. But—”
It was clear he was about to say something else about the sword. Before he could, Anna walked away from it. And in striding away from it… weirdly, it felt good. Before the events of yesterday, Anna would’ve feared that she was going mad at the sight of that blade. Now she couldn’t discount her body’s reactions. That sword, whatever it was, was important to her somehow, and it obviously had something to do with the gods. Yet here she was, walking away from it.
It felt so damn symbolic, like she was turning her back on all the troubles that had conspired to ruin her life.
It took Ares a whole minute to turn away from the sword and catch up to her. By that time, she was already surveying the books kept behind sealed glass units that were lodged in the sides of the walls. Some of them she recognized. A lot of them she didn’t. The tight sensations crawling up her back and sinking into her hindbrain told her that even if she didn’t academically know what these books were, they had to be associated with Zeus and the rest of his clan.
Who knew what secrets were in them? Speaking of secrets, she turned abruptly to Ares, just as he took a step up behind her. It was clear from his expression that he hadn’t expected her to turn. She caught the strangest look in his eyes. It was one she couldn’t place. It wasn’t reverent, but it had an edge of awe to it. More than anything, it spoke of some hidden desire.
It didn’t last. The second she turned, he wiped it off his face and replaced it with that same damn half-smile, half-frown.
She jammed her thumb in the direction of the books. “Will I ever get a chance to handle any of those?”
“That would be up to him,” Ares said, his tone subdued.
“As in Zeu—” she forced herself to cough as she realized she’d been about to call Zechariah Zeus. “Zachariah?”
“Yes. Like I said, all of this collection belongs to him.”
“I see. Well, that was all very interesting. Do you have anything else to show me?” She turned and walked to the door. It was a serious door. Even before Ares had noted that this room had the best security money could buy, she’d suspected as much when they’d walked through that monstrosity. It was the kind of contraption you’d get in a bank that held the sacred possessions of the rich and famous. She shuddered to think how much it would’ve cost.
Ares looked at her askance. His hands were back in his pockets. She no longer suspected that he was hiding some weapon in there – just his true intentions. She might have only just met this man – and she might’ve only learned that he was Ares this morning – but she got the impression that he only revealed half as much as he hid. He was like an iceberg. And just like an iceberg, if you didn’t know what you were dealing with, he could sink you.
He brought his hand up and wiped it down his chin in a long, thoughtful move. “I thought you’d be more interested in this place, Miss Smith.”
It was her turn to arch an eyebrow. “Since when did I become Miss Smith?”
He grinned. “Zachariah is a stickler for tradition. Now, I thought by taking you here,” he spread his arms wide, “you would take one look at this collection and decide to join us in a heartbeat. But look at you. This collection hasn’t even made a dent in your resolve.”
On the accusation that this place hadn’t made an impression on her, she could tell Ares was speaking about something else. The question was, was he referring to himself, or was it the sword?
“I may not have seen a collection as extensive as this before, but if I can’t get my hands on it—” she didn’t finish her sentence and just shrugged.
A smile spread Ares thin lips. There was no longer even a hint of a frown. “I wouldn’t have taken you to be such a tactile person.” He ran his eyes down her figure, but it didn’t last.
There was a knock from the door. Anna hadn’t even heard anyone approach. She let out a surprised but thankfully subdued splutter as she turned. There, in the doorway, was… a woman. As stupid and pathetic as it sounded, Anna just didn’t have the vocabulary to describe her as anything else. She was tall, slender, and stunning in every way. With long, dark, glossy hair that tapered over her shoulders in an attractive knot, she looked as if she’d just swept off some catwalk in Milan. Her clothes matched that look. They were designer down to the last seam.
Though she shot Anna a curious look as she walked in on pencil-thin heels, she kept all of her attention for Ares. “What are you doing here? There’s too much to plan. Who is this, anyway?” She ticked her gaze back to Anna.
This woman, whoever she was, had to be a goddess. It wasn’t just her impossible good looks, and nor was it how she was holding herself. It was this unstoppable sense of certainty that rose through Anna and wrapped around her throat like hands.
Of all the reactions Anna had gone through over the past two days, this one was the closest to pure anger. She might not have ever met this woman, but something rose up from Anna’s past promising her that they had a history, and it wasn’t pleasant.
Before Anna could give away her feelings, she turned politely, clapped her hands behind her back, and pretended to be more interested in a ring in a case to her side. All the while, she locked her attention on every sound that woman made.
“She’s a new employee. Specialist in ancient books. She helped me acquire that tome for Zachariah,” Ares explained.
The woman cleared her throat lightly. “I see. I thought we had enough antiquities specialists already. But I’m clearly mistaken,” she said in the kind of tone that made it clear to anyone that she wasn’t mistaken. “Anyhow, I need your assistance. Something’s come up.”
“Can’t it wait?” Ares tried.
“No. Send your new employee off for further instruction or something and come with me.”
Anna couldn’t take it anymore, and she turned over her shoulder to glance at the woman. Imperious didn’t do her justice. She wasn’t so much a queen, as an empress of everything and everyone.
From the little Anna could go on, this woman could only be one goddess. Hera. Wife of Zeus.
As that thought settled, Anna had to turn right back around and fix all her attention on the case in front of her, lest she chew her teeth right out of her jaw. Waves of anger struck her, each more paralyzing than the last.
All on the promise that this woman was Zeus’s wife.
“It can wait,” Ares said in a long-suffering tone as he walked over to Hera.
Together, they took several steps into the room. That brought Hera too close to Anna, so Anna pushed off again. She started walking as far away from Hera as she could get. That took her right down the middle of the room back to the sword.
She stopped in front of it. Ares and Hera were still talking on the other side of the room. For the first time, Anna was alone.
She stared at the sword, letting her gaze trace along the blade once more until her eyes locked on the symbols. One by one, she let her stare move along them like the tips of her fingers across the pages of a book.
When she reached the last symbol, something happened. A flash. It didn’t flare through the room. It simply shot through her mind. It was like lightning striking the base of her very personality. It didn’t blast her off her feet, and thank god, she didn’t scream, either. She just stood there as she swore the sword changed right in front of her eyes. It was no longer a blade – it was a pulsing, solid strike of lightning.
“Don’t get too close to that,” Hera called out from the other side of the room.
It jolted Anna out of her reverie, and as she turned back to the case… it was a sword again. All hint of that living bolt of lightning was gone.
The effect it had on Anna remained.
Hera quickly got her way, and Ares dismissed Anna, sending her back to HR for an introduction.
Anna walked through the penthouse level past Zeus’s office in a daze. She didn’t even bother to try to duck her head in past the half-open door. He was the last thing on her mind somehow. That sword or lightning bolt – whatever it was – was the only thing that could capture her attention now.
She muttered to herself a few times that this was insane, but when that changed nothing, she just gave into this experience. As she sat on a couch outside of the recruitment office, she indulged in closing her eyes. Every time she did, a perfect image of that sword would transplant itself into her consciousness like a hand reaching through her frigging forebrain and melding with her flesh.
Clenching her teeth and bouncing her legs up and down, for the first time in a long time, the slightest smile spread Anna’s lips. She’d always been different. But in a bad way. She’d always been weak.
Now, for the first time in her life, the very first few hints of mystery – and power – were chasing through her veins.
The door to the recruitment office opened, and Sarah, the woman who’d initially dealt with her, walked out, a practiced smile on her lips. “I’m ready to give you a tour—”
Anna’s phone rang out of the blue. “Sorry,” she said as she grabbed it. “I’ll just turn it off—” she began. She stopped when she saw it was Meredith who was calling her. She winced.
Sarah just chuckled. “You can take it. I have something to do anyway. Come knock on my door when you’re ready, okay?” With a smile, she walked away.
Anna thumbed the call button, but before she could even press the phone against her ear, Meredith had already taken an emotional, shaky breath. “Anna,” she said in a tone Anna had never heard her use in all the time she’d worked at the library. Meredith was categorically the strongest woman Anna had ever met. She knew her mind, but more than that, she was righteous. She was fair. And she always did what her conscience told her. It meant she very rarely got scared. Disappointed, yeah – maybe all the time. But not terrified like this.
Anna bolted up from the couch, the edge of her heels snagging the wooden leg of the old, beaten Chesterfield. “Meredith, what’s the matter? I thought the police called and told me that they’d dropped the investigation into me? Did something happen?”
“Anna, I need you to come to the library immediately. There’s something I need your help with.”
“What is it? What happened? Is it about the stolen collection?”
Meredith gave an odd pause. “I need you to come here immediately. No delay.” With that, Meredith hung up. Meredith wasn’t just a strong woman. She was a competent boss. Sure, sometimes she got busy – okay, she was always busy – but she never gave you muddled instructions. She ensured you knew exactly what she wanted you to do.
As Anna played over the conversation in her head, all Meredith had asked for was help. She hadn’t even mentioned whether this was anything to do with the investigation.
Anna stood there, staring at the wall, her heart thumping in her chest as she wondered if this was all a game after all. Maybe Zeus hadn’t managed to get the charges dropped, and maybe Anna would walk right into a prison sentence. Or maybe she didn’t have the time to question. Yeah, her relationship with Meredith hadn’t ended on a good note, but Anna was still loyal.
She quickly ducked her head into Sarah’s office. “Um, Sarah, I’m really sorry, but something just came up with my old boss. I need to help her out with something. Is that okay? Or will I get fired?”
Sarah burst into laughter. “Fired? It’s your first day. You haven’t even started. Go do whatever you have to. I’m aware that Adam wants you there for the function tonight. How about you have the rest of the day off? Come back at,” she pulled up her sleeve and glanced at her smartwatch, “six. That will give us enough time to go through the building for your orientation before the party at eight. How does that sound?”
Anna grinned. “Perfect. Thank you so much.”
Anna walked out of the door wondering if Sarah could be the goddess of good luck.
But Anna was a fool if she thought she was lucky. By the time she made it outside, the clouds – and rain – were back. This morning it had been as clear as a blank canvas – but now it looked as if a storm had appeared over the city in the click of someone’s fingers.
She stood on the last step that led up to Hope Tower and stared at the sky, and she shook her head. “You were right,” she muttered under her breath. “That storm wasn’t far away, after all.”
With that haunting promise ricocheting around her mind, she ran through the rain to the library.
She didn’t know what she expected. Maybe the police – maybe Meredith begging for Anna to come back. She walked in to an accusatory stare from her ex-colleague, John. He was working at the front desk, and as soon as she approached, he just brought his hands up. “Really, Anna? You know you aren’t welcome here. Meredith has told us—” he didn’t get halfway through that irritable sentence. His phone rang. He grabbed it up. “Mary, just in time. Guess who the cat dragged in?” John glared Anna’s way.
His lips froze before he could let out another insult. He looked right at Anna. “Okay, got it.” He hung up. “Seems you’re the golden child again. Meredith wants you down in the basement. For what it’s worth, you were always a bad pick for this job. Trouble follows you like lightning follows a storm.”
Anna had always been intimidated by John. It wasn’t just the fact that he felt so comfortable bitching at people. He ran headfirst into conflict. He lived for it.
Though it was truly pathetic to admit, too many times, Anna had almost been brought to tears by him. Now? She shrugged. “Lightning doesn’t follow a storm, John, it follows me.”
The words were out before she could think them through.
John spluttered – but not immediately. Initially, he looked too impressed at her sassy come back. “That doesn’t even make any sense, Anna. You can’t have lightning without a storm.”
“Yes, you can.” She strode past him. She walked to the back of the library, reached the elevators, then paused before she stabbed her finger into the call button.
What the hell did Meredith want? If Meredith was really going to offer Anna her job back, then should Anna take it? On the face of it, there was only one answer to that question – a resounding yes. This job had always been Anna’s oasis. While the rest of her life had screwed up, this library had given her purpose. The books had been her haven. Surrounded by all that ancient knowledge, she’d felt safe from the storm. But now the storm was right outside. Literally.
It was a short trip down from the ground floor to the basement level.
She spent the 20 seconds slowly dragging her fingers down her face, her nails lightly scratching over her eyelashes.
The door pinged. It opened. She walked out and froze.
It might’ve just been one day, but Anna remembered her sanctuary well enough. She knew exactly how many stacks there were, precisely how many books there were, and how everything was arranged down to a T. She could navigate it in the dark.
That’s why this sight was so confronting. Almost every stack had been pushed over, and books lay torn at their spines at the side of the room.
She heard a hiss from across the room.
She was standing close to the electronic panel of the elevator. She could jolt forward in under a second, cram her finger against the ground-floor button, and get out of here. She didn’t.
For the first time in her life, she thrust forward into danger, not away from it.
“Meredith? Mary? You here? What happened?”
Not every single stack had been destroyed. The ones at the edge of the room were still standing. Anna’s little desk was just visible behind one. She swore she could see a heel underneath it. She shot toward it. “Mary—” the words died on her lips as she rounded the corner to see Mary slumped against the desk, a long line of blood trailing down her throat.
Anna screamed at the top of her lungs. She shoved a hand into her pocket to get out her phone. That’s when something rounded on her from behind. She could only just pick up the whistling of air, then something smashed into her shoulder. She went flying. Her body got airtime, and she fell 2 meters away. It was luck alone that saw her tumble into a pile of books and not the broken shards of a metal shelf.
As her back smashed against the books, she was still winded, and a few stars escaped over her vision.
She shoved up. She didn’t care that pain blasted over her back and down the side of her face.
A naked woman with long ebony hair and blood dripping off her claws sashayed into view.
“Empusa,” Anna snarled, the words spat from clenched lips.
The Empusa had taken a step toward her, her glossy hair sliding around her thin waist. Now the creature paused, one side of her lip kinking high into her pale cheek. “How do you know what I am, mortal? I would’ve assumed that Zeus and his cronies would have wiped your memory. Why did they choose to retain your knowledge of our world?”
Warily, Anna stood. Her gut lurched as her heels skewered several irreplaceable pages of the books scattered around her.
She didn’t turn her back on the Empusa to pluck them up. She didn’t close her eyes once. “What have you done? Is Meredith—”
Meredith answered for Anna as she let out a choked, garbled gasp. Several splatters of blood spilled from her lips and covered Anna’s messy desk.
Horror filled Anna until it felt like she would explode. Rather than run screaming, she clenched her hands into fists.
The Empusa noted that as she tilted her head to the side. “Don’t you remember last time? Don’t you remember how you screamed for mercy and begged for your life? Don’t you remember,” she raised a hand up and clicked her claws together, each sound more spine-tingling than the last, “how easy it was for me to make you cry, dear Anna Smith?”
Anna’s cheeks twitched, her lips spreading harder over her teeth. “Is this about me? Did you do this to Meredith to bring me here?”
“Yes. Does that make you quake, Anna?” She took a step toward Anna, every movement languid and yet full of threat.
If you could take the imposing promise of a lion and mold it into the body of a slim, young woman with hair like obsidian, then you’d get this Empusa. Hell, what was Anna thinking – a lion wasn’t nearly as terrifying.
She still didn’t scream, and she still didn’t let a single tear trail down her cheeks. A strength Anna had always suspected was within her finally started to rise.
It meant she could take a step forward and not back.
This just made the Empusa laugh. “Has little Anna forgotten her place?”
“Why aren’t you calling me a mortal?” Anna snarled. “Isn’t that what your people refer to us mere humans as?”
The Empusa tilted her head all the way to the side now. There was a sickening crunch that sounded like bone, and yet she didn’t break her own neck. She just tilted it further until she chuckled with god-awful menace. “Whoever said you were a mere mortal, Anna? Have you not figured that out yet? Why would I be so interested in you – and why would he,” her voice expanded like an explosion, “want you if you were just a mere mortal?”
Anna got the urge to recoil, but she held onto it at the last moment. It was all on the promise of him wanting her.
It was her turn to snarl. “If Zeus sent you—”
The Empusa really did laugh now. “Zeus? What would I possibly have to do with Zeus? He destroyed the last of my kind, imprisoning us in Tartarus. He killed my sisters, my mothers. He took pleasure in banishing us with his godforsaken righteous rage. Why would I,” the Empusa took one last solid step in front of Anna, “have anything to do with that monster?” She trailed her fingers through Anna’s hair.
Anna didn’t shove her off. Her growing anger might be a pleasant surprise, but she still had no capacity whatsoever to fight off this legendary fiend.
“Zeus is nothing, little Anna Smith. He is everything.” Her eyes widened, practically pulsing with reverence.
“And who is he?”
“A second chance for all.”
The Empusa now grabbed Anna’s hair, securing it in a tight-knuckled grip. She wrenched Anna forward.
Anna couldn’t hold herself up on that pile of books, and she tumbled. In a flash, she remembered what had happened last night. The Empusa’s sheer power and physical prowess – her greed and unstoppable vicious need. It all summed to see Anna conclude one fact. There was no damn way she was going to get out of this this time. Luck had seen Zeus find her in that alleyway. This time, she was on her own.
The Empusa wrapped her other hand around Anna’s face. Anna expected the creature’s claws to perforate her skin, sink into her neck, and end this.
But instead the Empusa lightly brushed one of her claws down the side of Anna’s temple.
The sound was unmistakably eerie. It was like someone scratching a nail ever so lightly down the hide of a leather couch. It was all threat and no affection.
“He needs to see you. Now come with me. It would’ve been so much easier if we’d done this last night.”
The Empusa let her hand dart down and secure around Anna’s wrist. Anna was pulled harshly to the side.
Anna yanked her head to the left and stared at Meredith. More blood oozed out of the fatal wound to her neck, draining over Anna’s once clean desk.
Anna pushed everything she had into her knees as she tried to stop herself in place. When that didn’t work, she hooked her hand around one of the last surviving shelves and held on until the metal cut her fingers. “No. Please. You have to save Meredith. You can take me. I’ll come with you, but you have to save Meredith.”
The Empusa paused and laughed, appearing to take genuine pleasure in Anna’s misplaced compassion. “How quaint. She sold you out, little Anna Smith. She brought you here. All to save her own life. So I wouldn’t worry.”
The Empusa flicked her hand to the side suddenly, and Meredith jolted up. Right before Anna’s very eyes, the long cut across her throat fixed itself. A few droplets of blood splashed onto the desk, but that was it.
Meredith’s eyes strained with spine-wrenching fear, but she didn’t scream.
“Meredith.” Anna tried to jolt toward her, but the Empusa tightened her grip.
“Mortal,” she spoke to Meredith, “your deal is done. Now clean this up,” the Empusa gestured at the ransacked mess around her, “and leave us alone.”
Meredith bolted up. She couldn’t even look at Anna.
Anna, for the first time, let tears stain her cheeks. They washed down her neck, drenching her collar. “Meredith, Meredith?”
Meredith didn’t dart her gaze up once as she scurried away.
“Oh, Meredith,” the Empusa called out in a singsong tone. “You should change your clothes before you rush into public. You’re unfortunately covered in blood.”
Meredith paused, then she rushed away. That just left the two of them.
The Empusa returned her full attention to Anna. She got the kind of look in her eye you might get if you’d been waiting to win the lottery your whole life and now the winning ticket had just wandered in front of you.
The Empusa paused, lifted her hand, trailed her fingers back and forth through the air as if she was a conductor signaling an orchestra, then finally let them drop against Anna’s face again. “My Lord has waited a long time for you to rise.”
Anna tried to jolt back, but there was nowhere for her to go. She settled for letting anger break her lips apart. “And who the hell is your Lord?”
“Typhon,” she said, that word rolling off her lips with the power of an explosion. Magic marched over the Empusa’s face, down the sides of her arms, and into her clawed appendages as they locked Anna to the spot.
Anna didn’t even react to the sight of that power. That one word – Typhon – started to burrow into her head.
Powerful waves of confusion struck her, and she staggered as the Empusa lurched to the side, dragging her toward one of the old breeze block walls at the edge of the room.
“Is his name giving you a headache, dear little Anna?” the Empusa asked in a singsong tone as she dragged Anna faster.
Anna couldn’t hold herself up. She kept tripping on broken sections of shelves and old, torn-apart books.
Images started to flash through her mind, but just before they could set, the Empusa tightened her grip on Anna’s hand, her grasp not just vicious, but complete somehow. It was like the Empusa was holding on, not just to Anna’s body, but to a part of her mind. Pain bled through Anna’s psyche, more agonizing than any fatal blow.
Her eyes began to flutter into the back of her head, and she swore she could almost see flashes of old memories blasting through her mind.
The Empusa raised a hand up and trailed her claws down Anna’s face again.
Anna screamed in unholy agony.
“We’ll have none of that. Don’t try to remember anything until you meet him, Anna. Wait for Typhon to explain your true destiny first, my dear.”
They reached that wall. It was solid. Anna knew that. While the rest of the library was beautiful old sandstone architecture with wrought iron windows, stained glass, and old-world charm, the basement had been rebuilt after foundation damage due to an earthquake. When it had been rebuilt, it had been built to last. It was made out of solid, thick bricks that could probably withstand a blitz.
That didn’t stop the Empusa from marching right up to the wall in front of her. Still holding onto Anna with one clawed hand, she reached forward, flattened her palm against the brick, and pushed.
Anna didn’t know if she expected the wall to crack or just disappear. It did neither. Magic – or whatever it was – began to leap over the Empusa’s body. It concentrated in her hand and sunk into each brick. The next thing Anna knew, the bricks shifted to the side as if they were politely getting out of her way.
Anna knew better than to scream. She knew better, because screaming would get her nowhere.
There was nothing she could do. Because there’d never been anything Anna could do.
Her fate had been written long before her birth.
He stood on the roof, staring at the preparations for the event.
Everyone from Hera to Apollo kept calling what would happen tonight a party.
There’d be no celebration for him.
This wasn’t a birthday. And hell, though he had been married yesterday, that wasn’t the point. Tonight, he would claim his thunderbolt in front of the other gods, and he would take on the forces that threatened humanity. Tonight, he would rise to his true responsibility.
Yet he didn’t feel as if he could. It wasn’t that he didn’t want this duty. Though Zeus couldn’t remember who he’d been in the past – save for small factual details – that wasn’t the point. He resisted this because he just didn’t feel like anything could lift him up anymore.
Fortunately he was alone. Apollo wasn’t here to tell him to pull himself together. Hera wasn’t here to distract him with her lingering touch.
That meant he could stare with detached melancholic unease at the city before him. He was standing behind the railing that skirted the large roof. Wind should have battered him, but it didn’t dare. He heard it moaning all around, but it didn’t even touch a hair on his head.
The storm had returned.
Last night, he’d been certain that, though it was powerful, it had discharged all that force into his wedding ceremony.
Tracing his gaze over the clouds as they threatened another deluge, he wondered where all this power was coming from.
“Don’t distract yourself,” he commented, his lips barely moving over his teeth. “Hades was right. There’s no turning back now. You just have to embrace this.”
His gaze jerked down and locked on his fingers on the word embrace. He thought of Hera. She’d stayed with him for centuries, always by his side, always waiting for this day. There had been no other fixture in his life who had been as powerful. And yet—
“It still doesn’t feel like anything can lift me up anymore,” he commented to the sky itself as he tilted his head up. His body naturally went to curl his right hand in and rub his thumb down his ring. As soon as he tried, he felt nothing, for his ring now adorned another’s hand.
“Don’t react,” he tried to tell himself. “It was the right thing to do. Hera will soon learn to use her powers. She will lift you up. And the Golden Age will finally be within reach.”
With no one else around, Zeus thought nothing of reaching his fingers out and lifting them toward the sky.
He tried to remember Olympus in all its glory, but the memories were stuck. His brain felt porous as if, all night, the storm had been blasting holes in him with every strike of lightning.
“Trying to pull the sun from the very sky, my liege?” Ares said from behind.
Zeus managed not to jolt as he turned. He hadn’t even heard Ares approach.
If Zeus ignored his melancholic thoughts long enough, he would appreciate that this was precisely why he’d gone through the ceremony last night. His power was ebbing. He needed to reclaim it if humanity was to have a chance.
Ares strode up with an unreadable look on his face. “Hera is looking for you.”
Zeus managed a smile.
Ares snorted. “One would assume you could muster a little bit more enthusiasm, considering you waited millennia to marry her.”
“It was centuries,” Zeus corrected even though he didn’t have functioning memories of that time.
“Hera waited for you even when the other one was by your side – that’s all I meant.”
Ares might not have said Fos’s name, but that didn’t matter. Even the words the other one set Zeus’s nerves raging through his body.
He jolted forward, quickly collapsing his hands around the railing as he stared at the phenomenal drop down to the street below.
If Ares noted Zeus’s intense reaction, he didn’t let on. He strolled up to the side of the building. Without a second thought, he jumped onto the railing, shoved his hands into his pockets, and stared down at the street below. “You’ll have a lot on your plate after tonight. Just enjoy the moment. Stop thinking, my liege. It will all work out.”
Zeus said nothing.
“Should I tell Hera you’re up here?” Ares looked Zeus right in the eye.
Zeus looked away. “She’s busy. I’ll come down to her when I’m ready.”
“And what is it exactly that you’re doing here, King of the Gods?”
“I’m watching my flock.” He turned his attention to the street below. It didn’t matter that they were 200 meters up. He could see every mortal walking past. If he tuned in, he could even hear their conversations.
And if he so desired, he could call on lightning to smite them down.
At that thought, he curled one of his hands in, and without bringing it up obviously, he stared at the grooves around his knuckles. His human form was young, but somewhere within Zeus, he could feel age.
It was the age of someone who’d lived a life more full of pain than joy.
“Why are you really up here, Zeus?”
Though Zeus could easily order Ares not to push, he took another approach. “I want to know where that Empusa came from.” That, at least, wasn’t a lie.
Ares frowned. “You already banished her. There are no known other cases of Empusas. I would not fear, Zeus. It would’ve been an isolated incident. Somehow she survived the purge centuries ago. We know the rest of them were banished. Don’t fear.”
“I’m not sure what I know anymore,” Zeus admitted. The words scarcely had a chance to leave his lips when lightning energy started to charge over his hands. He didn’t choose to make it happen – it rose from within him, unstoppable.
Ares jolted forward. “Zeus, what’s happening? Why are you charging?”
“I don’t—” A jolt of energy shot through Zeus and smashed into the concrete floor beneath him. Fortunately, it didn’t rupture the concrete and tear a massive hole in the roof of his tower. It did sink eagerly through the floor as it traced its way further down each level.
Ares lurched back and jerked his head in the direction of the door that led down from the roof. “What’s happening? Is the tower under attack?”
Zeus clutched his chest, but though pain fleetingly blasted into his sternum, it disappeared in a blink. It left him breathless.
“Zeus,” Ares demanded again.
Zeus finally reacted. “I don’t know what that was. Something just called on my power.”
“The thunderbolt. Come on. Someone could be attacking it.”
Together, they raced down from the roof.
Anyone who worked on the penthouse level was a god, so no one looked up as Zeus and Apollo came charging through the hallways without an explanation.
As Zeus approached the massive vault doors that led into his collection, they parted for him without command. A biometric scanner didn’t identify his approach. A magical one did. It let out a melodic beep, recognizing his authority as the doors swept to.
Together they ran over to his thunderbolt.
When it wasn’t in Zeus’s hand, it was a sword. Only he could wield it as a thunderbolt. To anyone else, if they picked it up, it would remain as a blade.
Hell, no one else would even be able to see the thunderbolt within unless he chose to let them.
As they both stopped in front of the case, Ares let out a sigh. “It’s fine. So what happened?”
Zeus clutched his chest. As his eyes locked on his thunderbolt, his gaze tracing it to ensure that it was fine, he shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Ares turned briefly, hiding his face as he stretched his back. “Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that you’re now rising, my liege. Your thunderbolt will require more energy from you. Maybe it thought now was the time to take it.”
It was a kind of explanation. It wasn’t a satisfying one, but with nothing else to go on, Zeus half nodded.
He turned from his thunderbolt, but abruptly, he stopped. He shifted, pushed his hand over to the glass, and tapped it once. The glass melted back, moving like tiny invisible ants that had been instructed to get out of his way.
He opened his hand wide, and the thunderbolt shot into his grip.
He ensured that, to Ares at least, it remained visible only as a sword. There was power in the thunderbolt’s true form. If you could see it, you could predict its moves.
It could also allow you not just to read its power, but to read the weather itself. For the thunderbolt was a direct pathway into Zeus’s own abilities.
Ares looked shocked that Zeus had called it to his hand, but he said nothing as Zeus twisted the thunderbolt around. To Ares, he would’ve heard a blade whistling through the air. To Zeus, there was nothing but a perpetual underlying crackle. The promise of power. The promise of destiny.
He wielded the thunderbolt, bringing it close to his face, never shrinking back, even as it started to smart his skin. This wasn’t the first time he’d grasped his natural weapon since losing his memories and becoming Zachariah Hope. He often did so when he needed to think. With it in his hand, it reminded him of his birthright.
Now, it grounded him, promising him it would be there in his times of greatest need.
It would watch his back and keep his ultimate interests safe even when no one else would.
“Zeus?” Ares asked after a long pause. “Have you ascertained what’s going on? Did the thunderbolt call on your power?”
Zeus shrugged. Without taking his gaze off his sacred weapon, he wielded it one last time, then opened his hand. It left his grip, floated back to the case, nestled down on its holder, and locked itself in place. A second later, the glass case regrew around it.
He took a step back. “I don’t know what happened, Ares. But… I don’t think it’s too dangerous.”
“So the building isn’t under attack, then?”
Zeus shook his head definitively. “No. The thunderbolt called on my power for some reason. You’re probably right. It would be getting ready to help me do what I must.” With that resounding statement echoing through the room, he left. For the first time since the storm last night, he felt a renewed sense of purpose and power. It saw him march right out of the room and not turn back to his thunderbolt once. If he had, he would’ve seen the unusual glimmer of light that traced along its hilt as a symbol, never before seen by him, appeared out of nowhere.
There was nothing she could do. The Empusa was simply too strong.
After she made the wall disappear, she dragged Anna through the city streets in the driving rain. No one reacted. The Empusa was now holding Anna tightly enough that her clothes were stained in blood that trailed down her wrist, curled around her fingers, and dropped onto the pavement. But not one person looked up.
The few times Anna tried to scream, she realized no one could hear her. They kept bustling around her as if she wasn’t even there.
“There there, my pet,” the Empusa said. “You will soon understand the vagaries of mortals. They often do not look, and therefore cannot see.” She demonstrated as she stopped in front of a guy selling hot dogs. She waved her hand in front of his face, smiled, then sliced her finger down the side of his cheek quickly. A long cut appeared down his flesh.
The guy reacted, giving out a low, startled cry as he pressed his fingers against his cheek. Rather than see the Empusa and scream, he just looked up and around, and then shrugged as if people could randomly be cut out of nowhere.
“Where are you taking me?” Anna tried.
“I’ve already told you, Anna my dear, that I am taking you to him. Typhon.” As the Empusa said that word, reverence filled her.
Anna could only see a slice of the side of her face as she was dragged along behind the Empusa, but that didn’t matter. Reverence flooded off the woman.
It made Anna sick to her stomach.
She still reacted every single time she heard the word Typhon. These awful jolting, blasting ripples of fear shifted from her heart, up her sternum, across her throat, and into her lips. They made her want to scream in total fear – all at the promise of that one man. No, not man – Typhon, the final tool of the Titans.
Devilish creatures, the Titans had never cared for humanity. They’d used them for their own purposes and entertainment.
Though the Olympian Greek gods hadn’t exactly been that nice, those who had ruled under Zeus’s reign had at least not actively tried to destroy humanity.
That much could not be said for Typhon and his creators.
“I can feel your fear, you know. I can smell it,” the Empusa said as she licked her lips with a long, pointed, black tongue. “But it is misplaced. Typhon wishes to help you. And you, of all creatures, deserve help. You have only ever been used. Typhon will give you what you always have sought.”
“And what’s that?” Anna said through stiff lips.
The Empusa lifted a finger and waggled it in front of Anna’s face. “Now now. I told you. I can’t share too much information with you until we reach Typhon. He will be able to tell it better than I can. He will be able to help you understand that we are only here to help.”
“If you were only here to help,” Anna snarled, “you wouldn’t be dragging me down the street and dripping my blood all over the pavement. You wouldn’t have attacked me last night. And you wouldn’t have done that to Meredith.” Anger bridled her tone, riding it as hard as it could.
There was nothing Anna could do. Common sense suggested that she should just shut up and try not to anger the Empusa any further. Common sense could go hang.
The Empusa turned around as they reached a busy intersection. Rather than waiting for the lights, she just walked through. Anna knew better than to freak out at the possibility she could get hit by one of the semis barreling down the road.
She watched in wonder as the Empusa, still encased with magic, strode right through the passing cars like a bird darting between planes. “My actions were necessary, Anna. You will understand that in time. We must employ the same weapons and tactics our enemies use. Otherwise we will never have a chance of winning this war.”
“Oh, Anna, how much you have forgotten. The war of the gods. A war that has been raging for millennia. A war that will dictate the fate of humans and this precious planet.”
“And you’re trying to make me believe that you’re on the side of right, ha?”
The Empusa stopped, right in the middle of the bustling intersection. “Yes. We are. Zeus offers patriarchal control. We offer choice. Zeus punishes anyone he sees fit. We allow the world to do as it sees fit. He ruined your life, Anna. You’ll remember that in time. We will give you one last chance to take back what he stole.”
Anna wanted to remain strong, but her heart started to thunder in her chest.
She opened her mouth to say that everything the Empusa was saying was a lie, but the words just wouldn’t come out. One word did. “Zeus.”
“Yes, Zeus. Do you remember now? He destroyed everything you ever loved. He stole from you, and then he banished you, punishing you with a life of perpetual misfortune. Look at you, Anna.” She slid her gaze up and down Anna’s form. “Everything that has ever happened to you is down to him. No matter what you did in your life to try to change your fortune, it would never have worked. For he wrote your broken fate with his own hands.”
Anna couldn’t breathe. She shook her head, but the move was weak as if her body simply wouldn’t let her go through with it.
“Anna,” the Empusa clasped Anna’s face again, all as they stood in the middle of passing cars, “you will remember. He took everything you had then changed your fate. All because he wanted one thing.”
“My wings,” Anna said, the words coming from nowhere.
The Empusa froze. Anna could feel the strong muscular twitch that ran through the creature’s claws, up into her spindly fingers, across her delicate wrist, and into her shoulder.
Hell, even if she hadn’t been able to feel it, she would’ve seen it. The Empusa’s already white skin became as powdery as snow. “Do you remember?” she asked in a falsely light tone as if she didn’t care if Anna could.
Anna went to nod, but she shook her head. “He stole my wings, didn’t he?” she asked, indecision and confusion shaking through her tone.
Appearing to be satisfied that Anna hadn’t remembered fully, the Empusa shrugged. “Typhon will tell you everything. Now come, little Anna. There’s so much for you to learn.”
The Empusa dragged her forward until they finally reached the other side of the intersection. She didn’t look back at Anna once, and Anna could guess it was because the monster was trying to hide her confusion. Anna was a relatively good student of psychology. Though she could only assume that her understandings could be generalized to a mythological Greek monster, it was clear the Empusa had been trying to hide her reaction to the mention of Anna’s wings. Though Anna’s dreams were becoming dimmer by the minute, she still remembered one thing. Her wings, whatever they’d been, had been powerful. Zeus had taken them for that power.
By the time the Empusa dragged her down a darkened set of stairs into some kind of basement that ran along the side of the street, Anna just wasn’t thinking anymore.
Horror filled her, all at the promise that he had done this. Zeus had orchestrated every single episode of misfortune in her life. Anna, despite her best intentions and despite her most heartfelt actions, would never have been able to change her destiny. Because it was in his hands.
As soon as they clambered down that darkened set of stairs, the storm gave way again, and a thunderous, torrential downpour assailed the city streets above.
She had no idea where this set of stairs led to – even less of an idea of how it could possibly be here. Though Anna was legitimately in a daze, she still knew enough about this area of town to appreciate there would be no dirty sets of underground stairs leading down to darkened corridors. This was prime real estate. Yet she couldn’t deny her eyes.
She knew better than to open her lips and ask where this place was.
The Empusa was too focused, anyway. They were clearly nearing their destination.
Though Anna had too much to think about – and every thought of Zeus was like a knife someone was stabbing into her heart – a new wave of terror rose up to strike her. Several meters ahead around a tight corner was a door.
It was truly dank down here. There were puddles of water that were dripping from broken pipes. Everything was covered in mold, and there were long cracks in the concrete suggesting no one gave a hoot about this place’s structural integrity. The wall to her left had once had a painted sign on it, and she could see just a few details of the remaining letters. All it was now was a faint outline – kind of like her own damn forgotten memories.
The Empusa let out an expectant breath that hissed in time with a broken steam pipe to her side. Greedily, she clutched her hand into a fist, sliced a claw down her own palm, released a few drops of blood, then turned the claw up and out. A single drop of crackling blood beaded on her fingernail. She sliced it forward, dragging it down the door.
Within, some mechanism disengaged, and with a deep shudder that ran through the corridor and disturbed the murky puddles, it opened.
Anna’s breath became trapped in her chest. This was it. She was about to see Typhon.
The fear that should have been there every single step of the way smashed into her at light speed. She started to shake.
“Don’t fear,” the Empusa cooed. “This is where you will be set free.”
Anna didn’t have any witty comebacks now. She squeezed her eyes closed as the door opened. She’d never forget the specific way it creaked as it swung to.
With her heart in her throat, she opened her eyes.
Anna walked into a new world. One right under the city she’d once known. There were interconnected basements, forgotten corridors, and old subway tunnels all visible before her like a kingdom arranged at the feet of its queen.
The view was… impossible. The door opened to some kind of mezzanine corridor that was open on one side. From it, you stared down into… the underworld. Not of man, but of the city. Somehow it looked like every basement and unused subway tunnel had been twisted together into a maze.
Until now, she’d been alone with the Empusa. Standing just beyond the door with their hands clasped in front of their jet-black suits were guards.
Or gods, she added a second later as one of them pulled his hand out of his pocket, magic dancing between his fingers. “Is that her?” the guy asked with a guttural growl that sounded far more like the cry of an animal than the words of a man.
The Empusa curtsied. “This is her. Now take her to Typhon. He has waited long enough.”
The Empusa shoved Anna in the small of her back, propelling her right into the chest of that man. His grip, suffice to say, was not accommodating. His hard, unyielding fingers wrapped around her shoulder, shoved her to the side, slid down her arm, and collapsed around her wrist with the kind of grip that would tell anyone she would never get away. The other guard nodded at the Empusa, reached into his pocket, grabbed a small cube, and handed it to her.
The Empusa’s eyes widened with unmistakable greed. She slid her long, jet black tongue over her teeth, bit her lip until she drew blood, then backed away with another bow.
The door was closed behind her.
“Where are you taking me?” Anna demanded.
Neither god answered.
Anna cut her gaze to the side, staring down to the maze of tunnels and basements below.
She couldn’t make heads or tails of what she was staring at. It was a confusing jumble of interconnected rooms and tunnels. It was like someone had taken pictures of every subterranean area in the city and then just jumbled them together in a mess.
It made her head ache.
When she slowed down to drag her thumb down her temple, the guard holding her growled. “Don’t resist.”
She sliced her gaze up to him. “Why? What happens if I resist?”
Anna knew the first rule of interacting with a bully. She’d faced enough in her life. It was plain suicide to defend yourself. The more you acted up, the more they attacked.
This guy didn’t smash his fist into Anna’s face with a cruel chuckle. He just turned away and dragged her with him.
“Where are you taking me?” she asked needlessly, even though she already knew the answer.
“No words,” the guard who held her spat.
“Where is this place? What is this place?” she stammered as she jerked her head to the side and stared at that impossible view again. No matter what angle she stared at it from and no matter how hard she tried, she just couldn’t understand what she was gazing at.
How could every single basement in this city, tunnel, and old section of subway all be crammed together as one?
Maybe the guy reacted to her total confusion, but he let out a chuckle. Suffice to say, it wasn’t nice. “Learn to open your eyes, mortal. Then you will see what is really there.”
“I thought I wasn’t a mortal?”
The guy chose not to answer. He shoved her in the small of her back again.
As they traveled along that long mezzanine tunnel, she tried to see. It was pretty hard attempting to retrain your eyes to see something that wasn’t there, but as she narrowed her gaze and put her all into it, she swore she could see something underneath that confusing jumble of images. It was almost like… a path. One that connected every subterranean room. One that if you strode along it, you could go anywhere into any basement in this city without walking through a door or entering a building.
It was distracting enough that she didn’t pay attention until they reached another door.
“If you can’t see, don’t look,” the guy said with a cruel smile. “If you do, it could split your pretty little head in two. That’s the last warning I’m going to give you.”
He opened the door. He did the same thing the Empusa had done previously. He didn’t have long claws, but he did have a knife holstered around his hip. He quickly reached over, snatched it out, and sliced it across his hand. He dislodged long lines of blood. His blood was viscous. It looked more like strands of silken liquid. As it settled on his fingertip, he smoothed it down the door’s old, black-painted surface.
She heard a mechanism slip out of place, and the door jolted to the side.
She didn’t heed the guy’s advice, and as she stared across through the door, she screamed as pain stabbed through her cranium.
If she thought the view from above had been confusing, then this was plain crazy. Rooms were placed on top of one another, as if they forgot what they were second by second. She swore she was in a subway tunnel, then she was in someone’s cellar, wine arrayed around her, then she was in some kind of maintenance tunnel. The more she saw, the more she wanted to hurl. When she clutched her mouth and the guy shoved her through the door, she swore she was going to get a nosebleed.
He laughed once more, but didn’t let her stop walking.
Though it was hard as hell, she tried to see that path again, and she caught just a fleeting glimpse. If she focused on it, it would chase away her pain.
“These rooms – they’re not really here, are they? It’s just a representation of them. That path,” she brought up a shaking hand, pointing it forward, “connects them. And that path is the only thing we’re traveling through,” she added.
The guy didn’t answer with words. Twisting her head to the side, she watched his lips stiffen, all satisfaction gone. It told her she was right.
Come on, Anna, she begged herself. Just focus until you can see what’s really there.
He dragged her forward. It was impossible to say how far they traveled. Worse? It was impossible to say where they traveled.
Though Anna still wanted to hurl, she appreciated this was one hell of a security system. So much for blindfolding someone as you took them to your secret headquarters – she could travel through this confusing experience thousands of times, but she’d never be able to remember her route home.
After about 20 minutes, when Anna’s brain felt like total mush, they stopped. There was another damn door. This one was unassuming. It looked like some kind of maintenance door you’d get in a power station. Solid enough, it was chipped here and there from wear and tear, but otherwise was nothing special.
You tell that to the guard. Reverentially, he plucked out his dagger again, but this time, he didn’t just lightly slice his hand. Oh hell no. He sunk the blade into the tip of his middle finger then dragged it right down around his wrist to his elbow. Anna gasped as long slicks of blood trailed out like the flesh of some stringy fruit.
If she thought the guy was gonna bleed out because he’d just slit one of his wrists, she was fresh out of luck. As he grabbed a handful of blood and smeared it down the wall, his wound healed itself right in front of her eyes. And right in front of her eyes, the door swung to.
Anna saw the room. It was dark. She couldn’t see the edges. But the edges of the room were irrelevant compared to the only thing that adorned it. Right on the other side was a chair. No, it was too large to be defined as a simple seat. What it was was a throne. It lacked gold or jewels and detailed accouterments. It wasn’t ostentatious like the throne she’d always seen in her dreams.
It was made out of some kind of black metal, and though it was hard to see details, as the metal didn’t reflect light but stored it up, she swore strange symbols were carved into its surface. Those symbols caught her attention and held it. They held it so well, she didn’t recognize until far later that there was someone seated in the chair. They weren’t invisible. They were just… half there. It was like they were made out of wisps of smoke. No – more like someone had painted a picture then erased half of it.
Anna jolted, but the guard still held her by her wrist. Without another word, he let her go, turned, walked out of the room, and closed the door.
Anna took a trembling breath. “Are you… are you Typhon? Why can’t I see you?”
“One question at a time,” the guy said. His voice sounded like death come to life. The wisps of smoke started to solidify. They didn’t form a face, hands, and feet. What they formed was a suit of armor.
It glistened with an eerie silver glow that reminded her of moonlight.
She stood there, close enough to the door to make a run for it, but smart enough to know it wouldn’t make a difference.
With a deep rattling breath, her lips parted. “Who are you? Typhon?” She could only just spit that word out. “Why don’t you show me your face?”
The chest piece of the armor shifted a little to the left, indicating that the wearer was tilting his head to the side – but she still couldn’t see his body.
No matter how much she peeled her eyes and stared through the dimly lit room, it didn’t make a difference – his body just wasn’t present.
His voice, somehow, was.
“Yes, I’m Typhon. And you – do you know who you are, Anna Smith?”
She hated the way he said Anna Smith. Those words dripped off his lips like blood.
Her body was already trembling with fear. As another of his hissed breaths hit the air, it felt like her hindbrain would explode. She settled for crunching her fingers in and sinking her nails hard into the flesh of her palms. “What do you want with me?”
The armor tilted forward. The sound of the metal grating over the throne echoed through the air, but she couldn’t discern hands slipping over the armrests or feet moving over the floor. It was almost as if while the armor was real, the invisible body within it was now nothing more than an impression.
“I’m not going to—” she began.
The armor unit lifted its left gauntlet. “Before you say that you will not help, listen first as I tell you who you are.”
Those three words – who you are – echoed through her mind. She took a step back and another. Her back banged against the closed door. Desperately, she locked a hand around the handle, but her slippery, sweaty fingers slid off.
She turned, grabbed it with her sleeve, and tried to wrench it to, but it was locked.
Desperately, she pounded on the door. From behind her, the armor clanked as it rose. Whipping her head over her shoulder, she watched it walk toward her.
The next thing she knew, she felt a hand settling on her shoulder – except the hand wasn’t there. Just as she’d experienced when she entered this strange mazelike labyrinth of underground dwellings, the feeling of the hand was interposed with nothing. Second from second, she would feel real fingers only for them to be replaced by air.
Pain snaked through her head at the sheer confusion of it all.
Whimpering, she turned, locking her back against the door. “I don’t want to know who I am,” she barked. That was possibly the truest thing she’d said all day.
Looking back, she had no clue how she’d kept it together long enough to tour Zachariah’s building.
Back then, the reality of this god-awful situation hadn’t struck home. As Typhon took another step closer, his invisible hand fixing harder against her shoulder until she realized he really did have the strength of a Titan, she closed her eyes, screwing them as tightly shut as she could.
“Fear is not your natural state, Anna Smith. It is a foul gift he gave you. He took away everything that made you strong. Don’t you wish to seek your revenge?” His voice bottomed out low on the word revenge, shaking until it felt like it would disrupt the foundations, gather speed, and punch right through the very core of the Earth.
Slowly, she opened one eye.
Though the lighting in this room was still gloomy, that didn’t account for how much the armor before her glistened. It had its own light source. As Typhon shifted ever so slightly to the side, the whole chest unit lit up like a star being born. It fixed her attention, momentarily distracting her from her fear as her lips parted. “What?”
“Every misfortune you have ever experienced in this life was written by his hands. He took your power, he took your fate, and he changed them.”
The whole armor unit rattled as if the invisible man within had just shaken with rage. “Yes,” he said darkly, “Zeus. Do you remember him now?”
She went to shake her head, but she stopped halfway through. “I used to dream,” she found herself muttering. Not once in all her life had she ever admitted her dreams to anyone else. Was she really now about to admit them to a man who’d kidnapped her at the hands of a violent creature who’d almost killed her boss?
Reason couldn’t stop Anna as her lips trembled open again. “He was always in my dreams.”
“And what did those dreams show you?”
Anna squeezed a hand up between Typhon and pressed it against her brow. She dug her fingers in, securing her nails against her forehead as if her grip was the only thing keeping her mind intact. “I can’t… I can’t really remember. They’ve been so vivid for most of my life. But now they’re fading….”
“Someone is making you forget. That will be at his hands, too.”
She swallowed. “So he knows who I am?” Fear the likes of which she’d never experience owned her. It shook through every part of her. She felt like a city that was about to come crashing down at the hands of the most violent earthquake the planet had ever known.
It was all on the promise that Zeus could know who she really was.
Typhon laughed. It was a truly grating sound. It reminded her of a sword being sliced over stone. Every rattling, high-pitched, tremulous note climbed her spine and made her shake.
“If Zeus had realized who you were, he would’ve imprisoned you.”
She recoiled, the back of her head striking the door and letting out a sickening thump. Slowly, her lips parted. “Imprisoned?”
Typhon lifted one gauntlet, the empty finger units spreading with creaks. “That is what he does to things he does not comprehend. He lets his righteous anger decide the fate of all those he does not agree with. And he takes,” the chest unit tilted to the side, the invisible head within seemingly fixing its attention on an area a meter above her shoulders, “what he covets.”
“Wings,” she found herself muttering.
There was a long pause. “Yes. Do you remember?” Typhon’s usually controlled tone was tight. Whether it was with fear or anticipation, she couldn’t tell.
She opened her lips but soon enough shook her head. “I just know it has something to do with wings. He… he has a ring. There were engraved wings on it. I—”
“They are yours. When he chopped them off your back, he distilled their power into that ring. Now, he has given it to another.”
She couldn’t speak, let alone breathe. Tension welled within her, blossoming through her throat like an explosion.
She went to open her lips, but every muscle leading to them became so stiff, it was like someone had injected them with botulism.
Eventually, she gasped, but that was it. The words wouldn’t come.
Because no part of her could understand this.
Zeus… had stolen from her. Worse than that – he had now given her power to another.
She still had her hand on her head. Now she turned her fingernails all the way in, not caring as they cut her skin.
Typhon was still holding her shoulder. He let his hand drop down to her wrist. Gently, he pulled her fingers back. Though his grip was still confusingly present and yet absent, this time it didn’t give her a headache. She locked her gaze on where his head should be. “Why did he do this to me?”
“Because he wished for your power.”
She shook her head. It was a compact, contracted move. It felt like the bones of her neck had calcified, and a single centimeter was all she could move. But her range was nothing compared to the tension she filled the move with. It felt like she was going to snap like a spring. “There… there has to be some other reason. I… I can’t remember my dreams anymore. But there has to be some reason.”
“You were falsely charged. Zeus and the other gods conspired against you. They have always sought your power. She who stands behind Zeus sought it more than most.”
“She who stands behind Zeus? … You mean Hera, don’t you?” Her voice twisted. Anna Smith usually didn’t have room in her life for violent hatred. You tell that to the torrent of emotion that flowed through her now.
Typhon was still holding onto one of her hands. With the other, she balled it up into a stiff fist and smashed it twice against the door.
“Yes, I mean Hera. She wished for your position beside Zeus, but more than anything, your power.”
“I don’t get it. How could he just give my wings to someone else?” As her voice trembled, she wasn’t sure what question she was asking. Whether she wanted to know how the process worked, or how Zeus could do something so coldhearted.
“The result is imperfect. Hera will never be able to use your full powers. She will be able to adorn herself with your wings, and she will be able to draw on a little of your light. But without your blood,” his voice hit the lowest pitch yet, “she will never truly be able to command the light.”
Something about the word light struck her – front and center. It felt like she’d been hit in the middle of the head then someone had followed up with a vicious kick right to her heart. She didn’t know how long it took for her lips to open, but finally, they parted with a quiet gasp. “Light. That’s… that’s what’s inside me?”
“No.” She fancied Typhon smiled. “That’s what you are. You are one of the last angels. You are Fos – you are light.”
If it had felt like something had struck her before, then now something exploded inside her. Stars marched across her vision, and her gaze turned inward as blackness spread around her. She became so dizzy that she collapsed against the door.
Typhon still held her wrist and wouldn’t let her fall. He pushed her arm against her stomach and pinned her against the door until her balance returned.
Woozy, her eyes rolled into the back of her head until finally she opened them. “What… I’m… Fos.” As she said that, that word came raging back through her memories.
She’d heard it in her dreams, over and over again, but that detail had always been forgotten upon waking.
“Yes, Fos. Whatever questions you have, I will answer them.”
She started to shake.
Before, when she’d tried to run from the room at the prospect that she would find out who she was, she’d been trying to prevent this. This total dislocation of her personality as her mind fell apart before her very feet.
Everything she’d thought she’d ever known about her life was wrong. Every hope and dream she’d ever had – they’d all been fruitless.
Because Anna Smith wasn’t human. Anna wasn’t even Anna. She was Fos.
As she thought of herself as Fos, pain snaked through her head. She screamed as she clutched the side of her temple.
Typhon tugged her wrist lightly. “There will be some pain. Push past it.”
“It’s not some pain – it’s agony,” she spat. “What’s going on? Why… why does it feel like someone’s drilling through my head?”
“Because your fate is attempting to stop you from remembering. Your fate,” he spat that word out of a constricted throat, “does not wish for you to rise up and claim what was yours. Because your fate is in his hands.”
She let her hand drop. She felt a little drop of wetness on her nose. Wiping her thumb across it, she realized it was blood.
She shuddered as she wiped that blood over her knuckles. “Is this gonna kill me?”
“No. You’re stronger than that. You must simply find the strands of your fate and snap them. Wrench them back from his grip and use them to strangle him.”
She’d been following Typhon every step of the way – but she recoiled on the word strangle. “What?”
“He has destroyed everything you have ever been. He lured you to his side, Fos. He promised you protection. When all he really did was make you vulnerable. He brought you under the dictates of the other gods, then he falsified a crime. And together, those same gods stole your power and threw you to the mortals. Now he has given your power to another. Ask yourself this – what do you think he will do with that power?”
“… I don’t know.”
“I do. He calls it the Golden Age. Trust me – it will only be a Golden Age for him and his fellow gods, but not for anyone else. Zeus has always sought control. He believes he is the grand master of not just his destiny, but the fates of all. Any who get in his way will vanish, be killed, or simply be pushed aside. He will refashion the mortal world in his image. Don’t you care for your fellow people?”
“Once upon a time, the gods only ruled from atop Olympus. They kept the majority of their actions for their own realm. That time is no longer. The gods have descended from the mountain. They now live among humans. For Zeus plans to rule among humans. When he ascends unchecked, he will rewrite every power structure on Earth. Sovereign governments will fall, democracy will collapse, and he will rise alone.”
She shuddered back and shook her head.
Another droplet of blood trickled out of her nose, but she ignored it. “Why won’t the other gods stop him? I thought they were there to protect humankind?”
“Don’t believe in legends. Myths are simply stories that are told to benefit heroes and heroines at the detriment of antagonists. It is the heroes and heroines who get to decide what is good and what is right. The gods of Olympus are nothing more than parasites. They harbor power for themselves, and they wield it to create more power for themselves. Left unchecked, they will swallow this planet whole.”
She had to close her eyes as another blast of pain smashed through her skull. If it kept happening, she was sure her brains would rattle through her nose and fall to her feet.
As a woozy pang of nausea shifted through her, she fell against the door.
Typhon wouldn’t let her go. “It doesn’t have to be this way, Fos.”
“What do you mean?”
“Reclaim your fate.”
“By reclaiming your power.”
Her eyes snapped open. “You mean my wings?” Her throat constricted, and her voice trembled.
“Yes. But first, there is something else you must claim.” His voice tightened with clear anticipation.
Her lips were already open, but before she could say anything, they froze.
A single image shook through her head. That sword that sat in the middle of Zachariah’s vault room. The sword that, underneath, held a solid lightning bolt.
“Only two people can lift it. You and Zeus. It doesn’t matter that he has given Hera your wings. She is not the goddess of light. And to wield the light, you must be light.”
“I can… lift that thunderbolt?”
Typhon had taken a breath, but now it froze in his throat. “You’ve seen it?” True excitement owned his tone.
Anna went to reply yes, but she stopped.
Her conscience hadn’t gotten in the way of her revealing anything to Typhon. Now, she couldn’t push a single word from her lips. Something was rising through her body, and it held onto her as tightly as it could.
“Have you seen his thunderbolt?”
She shook her head.
“No matter,” he said bitterly. “It will be in his tower. He will keep it close by. You must find it. You must wield it, and you must bring it to me.”
“Because Zeus is nothing without his thunderbolt. His power is within it. Without it, he is nothing more than a mere god.” Typhon spat the word mere with force.
Anna swallowed. “What will you do with the thunderbolt?”
“Nothing. I cannot wield it. You can.”
Her eyes widened as he repeated that.
“Fos, your power was stolen from you. Do you remember why? Do you remember the allegation he made against you?”
She shook her head.
“It was claimed that you tried to steal his thunderbolt.”
As Typhon revealed that, something snapped into place, and another stab of total agony blasted through her mind.
If it weren’t for the door behind her, she would’ve crumpled to her knees as her body turned to jelly.
“The allegation was false. But it need not be false this time. Because you now know his true colors. He took your power – and it’s time for you to take his.”
“He stole your wings, cut them right off your back, and gave them to his new wife. We both know how he will use that power. Take his thunderbolt. In many ways, it is yours anyway. You are far closer to light than he is.”
“He used you, Fos. By wedding you, by bonding with your power, he increased his own. You are the light that fuels his lightning.”
She went to shake her head, but she stopped halfway through. “You really want me to steal his lightning bolt?”
“I want you to claim it. I want you to take back what’s yours. Don’t let him do this to another soul. Don’t let him banish people,” Typhon spat, “or destroy the fates of anyone else. Your future is now within your hands.” Typhon abruptly stepped back.
Anna expected to fall. She didn’t. She was still propped against the door, but she didn’t need support. She pushed away from it.
Her shoulders were hunched in, but soon enough, she straightened. She stared at her hands.
Typhon walked back to his throne. He sat.
“Why can’t I see your face?”
“Because I am not fully here yet.”
“What do you mean?”
“A part of me remains in prison.”
“Prison?” she asked. “You mean Tartarus?”
“Then how is a part of you here?”
“Because I have fought against Zeus’s control, and I am finally winning.”
“If I take his thunderbolt… Tartarus will break apart, won’t it?”
“Because I will not let it. Though there are many innocents in Tartarus, there are some fell creatures that cannot be allowed to march across the lands of the Earth again. They will be kept imprisoned. For the good of humanity, the gates of Tartarus must remain closed.”
“But you will bring some people back, won’t you?”
“No, Fos. We will bring them back.” He leaned forward on his throne. “There is something you have failed to appreciate.”
“And what’s that?”
“No one can truly rule without you. Zeus tried. He found you an inconvenience, so he invented an excuse to cut your wings off. I am no fool.”
“So what are you saying? That I’ll rule by your side?” She almost couldn’t push those words out.
“Yes. No one will be removed from Tartarus without your permission. And no action will be taken against the gods without your help. Remember your true power, Fos. Shrug off the fear Zeus has burdened you with. And rise.”
Typhon became still.
Hesitantly, she took a step up to him. “Typhon?”
He didn’t answer.
She took another step toward him. “Typhon?”
His chest unit shifted. “Return to his tower. Find the thunderbolt. Remove it from Zeus’s grasp. And break his hold on your fate once and for all.” With that, Typhon became still.
Slowly but surely she walked up to him, and slowly but surely, she shifted her hand out and tapped it on his gauntlet.
It didn’t move. She plucked it up carefully. It was deceptively light and yet felt as strong as a thousand condensed mountains.
He didn’t move. There was nothing inside it.
She placed it down. Then Anna Smith turned. She closed her eyes, and she reeled.
The enormity of what she’d just learned smacked into her like a semitrailer barreling down a highway.
Cramming both her hands over her eyes, she didn’t know if she wanted to cry, scream, or just whimper.
She… she finally knew who she was.
But far worse than that, she finally remembered what he’d done to her.
He stood in front of the case of his thunderbolt, his gaze tracing down the middle of the sword.
All he had to do was blink – think – and it changed into his thunderbolt before his eyes.
Leaning forward, he pressed his grip against the glass, sliding his thumb down its smooth surface as he let the thunderbolt appear.
He shifted between both of its solid states several times, but it didn’t change anything.
Ares was long gone. Zeus had been working in his office for the past two hours, but every 20 minutes, he’d left and come in here.
You see, Zeus had lied. He had no clue why his body had charged with lightning earlier that afternoon. He might have dismissed Ares’s worry, but Zeus could no longer hide his own.
As he stared at his thunderbolt, he tried to figure out what had happened, but nothing came to mind.
“What are you trying to tell me?” he asked, knowing he wouldn’t get an answer.
He let his thumb slide harder over the case, and the glass started to react to his touch. It shifted, grouping together as it parted like someone dragging their finger through glue.
Before he could reach through and grab up his thunderbolt again, he heard footsteps behind him.
He expected Ares. He got Hera.
She sashayed in wearing a stunning ball gown.
It was three hours until the function began, but that didn’t matter.
Her designer purple satin dress trailed from a high collar down to her ankles, golden heels peeking out from beneath. They matched the armlets, rings, and necklaces that practically dripped off her.
There was a jewel-encrusted comb in her beautifully knotted hair. It glinted, even under the dim light of the vault room.
She stopped several meters from him, locked her arms around her middle, tilted her head to the side, and smiled playfully. “Are you ready for tonight? Are you practicing wielding the future?” She nodded at the thunderbolt.
Self-consciously, he pulled his hand away from the case.
“We should practice,” Hera said meaningfully as she took a step toward him. She opened her hand, fixing her attention on her ring. Then she turned it on. Gripping it with her other hand, she squeezed magic into it.
Zeus watched, transfixed, as magic curled around her body and produced wings out of her back.
She laughed, turning as she brought her hands up. She couldn’t touch the wings – they were stiff, acting more like ornaments carved from magic then living appendages. That wasn’t the point. They were now hers.
“What do you think?” She laughed as she spun again. “I learned how to do this this morning. I’ve finally got wings.”
Zeus opened his mouth to correct her, but he stopped just in time. He’d been about to say that Hera didn’t have wings – they weren’t hers. She was wearing someone else’s power.
He shook his head, but he couldn’t pull his gaze off the wings. They were still transfixing him.
Hera let her arms drop, and she walked deliberately over to him. She rested her hand against his lips, and she gently dragged her fingers down. Then she kissed him.
He could feel her power. It was double what it had been yesterday – all at the inclusion of Fos’s wings.
Biting, darting scraps of magic sunk into his skin, tickled down the side of his jaw, and twisted around his throat as Hera locked her lips against his all the harder.
It took several seconds for her to pull away. Inclining her head, she smiled with wide, ruby lips. “This is what we’ve been waiting for, Zeus. Now I can control these wings,” she gestured to them, “the Golden Age is here.”
He knew he should remain silent, but he couldn’t. “You can’t control them yet, Hera. You can only make them appear.”
Her joy – and passion – were derailed in a second.
She took an angry step back from him. “I managed to make them unfurl in a single day, and this is what you say? You’ve worn that ring for centuries, and you’ve never managed to use these wings. They have connected to me.” She patted her chest hard. “They’re mine now. They recognize my power. Maybe it will take weeks – maybe it will only take days – but I will be able to call on their full force.” Her voice shook through the room on the word will.
Zeus didn’t know what to say, so he said nothing. He shoved his hands into his pockets and walked around her as if he was far more interested in staring at the rest of the room.
She took an angry step up to him but stopped. She let out a sigh. “Zeus, I know this is hard. There’s a lot of responsibility on your shoulders. But I’m here to help you. Together, we will rise up. Now, there’s no height I can’t lift you up to.”
He didn’t dare glance over at her wings. Hell, he didn’t dare face her at that comment. Because that’s what he’d been dreading all day long. Yes, Hera could access the wings, but no, she would not be able to lift him to the heavens.
He now felt heavier than he ever had in all of his existence.
He walked toward the door.
Hera quickly caught up and locked a hand on his arm. She pulled him around. “Zeus, please—”
She didn’t get a chance to finish her plea.
He heard footsteps. He brought a hand up as he focused his senses.
He recognized who it was based solely on their light steps and the delicate way they interacted with the world.
“It’s just another god,” Hera began. “Let them see our affection for each other.” She reached around and latched a hand on his cheek, intending to pull him into another kiss.
He pulled back. “It’s a human. The mortal, Anna Smith.”
He took a solid step away from her, whipped his head over his shoulder to ensure that his lightning bolt was back under solid glass, then nodded pointedly at Hera.
Hera rolled her eyes. “Why on earth did you hire a human and give her access to this level?”
Fortunately, she didn’t protest further, and as she twisted her ring, her wings disappeared. She did, however, take a pointed step up to Zeus’s side.
Anna stopped outside of the vault door. “Um, hello, is anyone in there? Adam, is that you? The secretary told me you are here. I’ll just wait outside.”
“Adam isn’t here—” Hera began, her voice full of righteousness.
Zeus cleared his throat and hurried over to the door.
There was a spring in his step he couldn’t quite explain.
No, he could explain it. Ever since that incident in the alley last night, he’d longed to have some time alone with Anna Smith.
A mortal, yes, but a mortal he’d shared a moment like no other with.
Being a god, he sometimes forgot the vagaries of human mortality – the importance of life and death; the fragility of existence.
He’d felt her fragility last night as she’d almost perished in his arms.
He’d held onto the very candle of her existence as it had been seconds from flickering to nothingness in his hands.
“Zachariah,” Hera called after him angrily.
There was no way he was going to turn back.
He exited the room to find Anna standing politely with her hands clasped in front of her middle.
She had a truly far-off look in her eyes as she stared out of the windows on the opposite side of the hallway.
She turned, obviously expecting to see Adam. She jolted when she saw Zeus instead.
And that jolt shook through her whole body.
Her eyes widened to the point of snapping.
Her cheeks paled, and her hands tightened into fists.
All at the sight of him.
Though Apollo would’ve wiped her memories, her body would presumably still recognize the experience Zeus had shared with her.
“I’m sorry,” he said, a broad smile spreading over his lips, “but Adam isn’t here. He just stepped out. Can I help you?”
It took her a long time to answer. Her gaze was fixed on him – totally and completely locked.
It wasn’t a stare he was unused to, frankly. Both in the god and mortal realms, he was famous. But there was something about her stiff cheeks and white lips—
The thunderous click of heels heralded Hera’s approach. She spun around the side of the half-open vault door and locked her gaze on Anna.
Anna blinked in surprise. There was an edge to it. Whatever that edge was, she hid it well as she slid her gaze off Hera and onto the floor. “I’m sorry. I’ll wait for Adam somewhere else.”
“In future, you must ask permission before—” Hera began.
Zeus set himself bodily between Anna and Hera. “I heard you were the one who found that book yesterday. Is that right?” He’d discovered that fact earlier today. It only added to his intrigue around Anna Smith.
Perhaps it also added to his responsibility. There was a high possibility that the Empusa had only attacked Anna because she’d found that book. Adam had requested her assistance, and in doing so, had inadvertently brought her trouble.
Yet another reason for Zeus to intervene in Anna’s fate.
“Ah… yes,” Anna said.
Her voice was stiff.
She wouldn’t look at him, either.
“Is there something interesting on the floor?” Hera asked pointedly. “Why are you staring at it?”
She often policed the way other gods interacted with Zeus, ensuring they gave him the deference she believed he required.
Usually she was a little more subtle with mortals, but not around Anna, apparently.
Anna shifted uncomfortably to the side but didn’t raise her gaze once. “I’m sorry. I will wait for Adam—”
“I’m not sure where you were brought up. But making eye contact is polite and required—” Hera began.
Zeus expected Anna to continue staring at the floor meekly. She didn’t. Her gaze flashed up, and it was hard. Hard like diamond, hard like the heart of a mountain. Hard like a woman who no longer wanted to be trod upon. “I was brought up in foster care. You learn a different set of social rules when you don’t have trust,” she added. “So no, I wasn’t taught to look people in the eye.”
The situation had rapidly turned on its head.
Hera, suffice to say, was not the kind to ever back down. Few had the gumption to push her.
Before she could open her mouth, Zeus turned to her and settled a hand on her wrist. “I need you to go and check the guest list for the function tonight. It’s on my desk. Andrews requires a copy.”
Hera sliced her gaze over to Anna then back to Zeus.
Zeus didn’t move once, and nor did he blink, making it clear that this was an order.
Hera walked away, but with every step, she let her stare drill into the back of Anna’s head.
Anna did not drop her gaze.
“I’m sorry about that. It’s a stressful time for her,” Zeus tried.
Anna didn’t say anything. She turned to the window.
“I’m glad you decided to join our company. Someone with your skills will be greatly appreciated. How did you find that book, anyway?”
“It found…” she trailed off. It sounded as if she was about to say that it had found her. She tucked her hair behind her ears. “I guess you can say it wanted to be found.”
A curious smile spread his lips. “Sorry?”
She shrugged. “It depends on your definition of luck.” Her lips were strangely white as she pushed those words out. “If you believe in free will, then probabilities aligned and I got lucky. If you believe in fate,” she spat that word out, “then something wanted me to find the book. Me? I don’t know what I believe.”
The conversation had taken an odd turn. He found himself nodding. “Then we can only thank the Fates.”
Her gaze narrowed. “So you believe in fate, then?”
He felt strangely put on the spot. He locked his fingers around his mouth and let them drag down his beard. “Yes. Perhaps not as it is classically viewed, though.”
“What do you mean?”
“I believe there is a path set out for us, but every step we take upon it is our own to take or to stop taking.”
“If there’s only one path, and someone else decided where it leads, then that’s fate. If your only options are to walk to the end or check out early, that’s hardly free will.”
He shrugged. “Reality is mysterious.”
She turned back to the window.
He wasn’t sure if she was just nervous or somehow mad at him.
Her body was stiff, her lips were white, and she appeared to be holding something in.
It didn’t take a genius to realize she was likely angry at the way Hera had treated her.
He looked at his hands. “I really am glad that you joined this business. It will be good to you,” he promised.
She looked at him once. “How did you acquire your collection, anyway?”
“Over many… years,” he corrected before he could say millennia. “Its crowning glory will be the book you found yesterday. I can’t thank you enough.”
“I thought the crowning glory would be that sword back there.” She shrugged, her shoulders lifting up high as tension rose through her body. She tilted her head back in the direction of the vault.
Zeus stiffened. “How—”
“Adam said I could touch any of the cases, but he grabbed my wrist when I tried to touch that case. He said it was the most precious thing you have. What is it, anyway? Some kind of ceremonial sword? It didn’t even look that old.”
He got stuck up on the fact that Adam had grabbed her wrist.
His stomach churned and didn’t ease off until he grabbed his jaw and manipulated it with a stiff grip. “It’s old,” he concluded without going into any details.
“I may not be an antiquities expert, but it didn’t look like the most notable thing in your collection. There was a vase back there that looked as if it was 2000 years old. And some of those books—” She pressed her lips together and whistled tightly. All the while, she locked her hands behind her back. From the tension racking her shoulders, she was gripping him as tightly as she could. She didn’t look at him, either. She let her gaze trace along the storm outside.
He turned toward it. “I suppose the storm came back,” he commented, knowing that talking about the weather was always safer where mortals were concerned. They were obsessed with it. It dictated their fates more than anything else. Or at least it had in the old days.
“I’m not surprised,” she said flatly.
Another curious smile spread his lips. “The meteorologists did not predict the return of the storm. Why are you not surprised?”
“Because it’s not done.”
That curious smile stiffened somewhat. His eyes narrowed slightly. He found them tracing up and down her face and over the side of her body as she continued to stand stiffly and stare at the windows.
“There won’t be any lightning, though,” she commented as she stiffened. “There’s been none since last night. I wonder why?”
It was Zeus’s turn to stiffen.
He flashed his confused gaze back to the storm as he appreciated what she’d just said. Throughout the course of the day, though the clouds had opened up multiple times, there hadn’t been any lightning.
The storm was powerful. In any other circumstance, lightning would be chasing across the sky like chariots.
But not today.
Anna shrugged. “Thank you for employing me. I’ll see you tonight.” She went to walk away.
He acted long before he could think it through. He grabbed her wrist.
He wasn’t a tactile person at the best of times – especially with mortals. The movement was uncalled for and inappropriate, and yet as his fingers fixed around her wrist, he felt something.
It wasn’t just a flash of what he’d gone through last night when she’d almost died in his arms. It was….
Her whole body became rigid at his touch, and she took a step back.
His mind caught up with him, and he released his fingers. “I’m sorry. I apologize,” he repeated. “But there’s no need to leave. Did you get to see the full collection with Adam this morning? I can show you myself.”
She half turned away.
She appeared to take several seconds to compose herself.
Shoving her hands into her pockets, she rubbed the wrist he’d held up and down against the fabric of her jacket as if she was trying to erase his touch. “It’s fine. I don’t want to take your time. I know you’re a busy man. Plus, your wife,” she said, her lips white as she spat that word, “seems to think I was interrupting. It’s only my first day. I don’t want to get on her bad side.”
“It’s all right. Don’t worry about her,” he said quickly. “I love sharing my collection. So please come have a look.”
She shook her head stiffly. “There are only three hours until the function, right? I need to have an introduction to the business, find out what I’m doing, and get ready. See you around, Zachariah.” She turned and walked away from him without another word.
He stared at her. As his gaze traced down her back, then up again, it took him several seconds to realize he was far more transfixed than when he’d stared at Hera’s wings earlier.
There was something about Anna Smith.
Something about the way she made him feel, something about the way she acted, and something about her specifically.
It was something he would not learn until it was far too late.
She stood in front of her small bathroom mirror, clutching the cracked ceramic basin, her fingers dragging down it until she snapped one of her nails. It broke close to the nail bed, and a few droplets of blood pooled along her hand.
She ignored it as she continued to grip the sink as hard as she could. Slowly she tilted her head up, and she stared at her face in the mirror.
Her eyes were hooded with shadow, wrinkles marked the sides of her mouth, and her messy, windswept hair hung around her face like a rat’s nest.
That instantly brought up the perfect picture of Hera.
She looked as if she hadn’t worked a day in her life. Her face wasn’t lined with worry. It was lined with power.
“Because she is in a position to take what she wants,” Anna spat.
She balled up a hand and went to strike the mirror, but she stopped.
Shocked at what she’d been about to do, she let her hand drop. She staggered back until her knees banged up against the bath. She sat on its edge, secured her hands over her face, and went to cry, but the tears wouldn’t come.
Flashes of her chaotic day blasted through her mind. They unsettled everything she thought she’d ever known. And every single thought came back to him.
“Zeus, why did you do this to me? Why did you cut my wings off? Why did you seal my fate?” Her voice shook on the word fate as snippets of the conversation they had earlier that day flowed through her psyche.
To Zeus, fate was a path made by someone else you could walk along. The choice was ultimately yours. If you did not wish to walk it, you could just stop.
“And what, die? Are those the only options you gave me? Play your cruel game, or kill myself? How dare you. How dare you,” her voice rattled out loudly.
She brought her hands down, balled them into fists, and smashed them against the hard side of the bathtub.
Pain shot up through her wrists, but she ignored it as she repeated the move.
Finally a few tears trailed down her cheeks.
Clutching her singlet in a shaking hand, she brushed them away with her thump.
She brought it down, and she saw just a tiny fragment of dried blood encrusted under the nail.
It was from before when she’d spoken to Typhon.
“Fos,” she said that name experimentally.
A new wave of pain stabbed her mind, but it was nowhere near as agonizing as the first few times she’d spoken it.
Squeezing her eyes closed and rocking forward until her whole body was taut like a spring, she let her lips slip open again, “Fos. Fos, Fos,” she spat. With every word, it became less painful until she could finally say that with her eyes open.
She pushed up, staggered over to her bathroom mirror, clutched hold of the sink, and looked herself right in the eye. “You’re Fos,” she said one last time definitively.
She didn’t reel, and blood didn’t spill from her nose.
“You’re a goddess. No.” She reminded herself of what Typhon had said. “You’re an angel. One of the last. So what happened to the rest of your kind?” There was no one to answer, but she imagined she could answer satisfactorily for herself. If her wings really were that powerful, then the gods would’ve hunted the rest of her race down.
That’s what happened with power.
If you could take it, then you took it. If you didn’t have to treat the person who held it with respect and basic dignity, then you didn’t.
It was just human nature, right?
She shook her head. “That’s just the nature of the gods. Unchecked, they do whatever they want,” she said, parroting what Typhon had said to her. She locked a hand on her brow and slipped her fingers over her face. They reached her matted hair. She tugged it harshly through the knots.
When she was done, she turned on the tap and splashed water over her face. This time when she stared up at her reflection, she didn’t note the shadows under her eyes or the wrinkles. All she saw was the intensity behind her gaze.
All her life, she’d been weak – because her life had been perfectly orchestrated to make her that way.
“Screw weak,” she spat, her lips barely moving around the words. “Screw the destiny you carved out for me.”
She turned harshly toward the door, her mind made up for her, but when she reached it, she slowed down. “So what are you really going to do, Anna? Are you gonna march into that party tonight, break into the vault, steal that thunderbolt, and take it to Typhon? That Empusa tried to kill your boss, for God’s sake. You can’t possibly trust him.”
Anna pulled her lips in and bit them harshly until the pain distracted her.
She turned back to the mirror. She stared at her gaze out of the corner of her eye. “What if he’s right? No, he is right. You don’t need anything else to conclude that Zeus stole your wings. He did it for power. And left unchecked, he’ll….” There was nothing to add to that. She turned away from the mirror.
She walked to the door, but there she stopped. Her lips parted. “Information.”
Information was the one thing that could change anything.
She’d lived her life in books, and goddammit, she’d already remembered the lesson of their knowledge today.
Finding out facts was the only way to go forward in a confusing situation.
“But to do that, Anna, you need to go back there. You have to face him,” her voice became tortured. “And you have to face the thunderbolt.”
She breathed hard. She closed her eyes. She locked her arms around her middle, turned, and shoved her back against the door jamb.
She tried to think this through.
She had no powers. How the hell could she just swan into the vault room and steal that thunderbolt?
What happened if she tried but she failed?
“Worse, Anna Smith, what happens if he finds out who you truly are?” That thought alone sent terror the likes of which no ordinary mortal should feel blasting into her. She had to clench her teeth, squeeze her eyes closed, and grind her nails into her palms just to hold on.
Honestly, being thrown into Tartarus wasn’t nearly as scary as Zeus looking her in the eye and saying that one little word. “Fos.”
She shuddered again. She turned, intending to walk back to her bedroom, flop down into her bed, and just ignore everything.
She got halfway through the hallway but stopped. “You can’t ignore this,” she muttered as she rubbed her eyes. “Typhon knows who you are. He will come for you.”
She ground to a halt. She let her feet fall out from underneath her. She curled into a ball, locked her back against the wall, and pressed her eyes against her knees. She didn’t stop until she saw stars.
“Hold onto your anger,” she whispered. “If Zeus took your anger, then hold onto it. It’s the only tool you have right now.”
She slowly told herself that as she slowly unwound her grip on her legs. She let her knees drop, and she sat cross-legged.
“You have to go back. You have to face him. You have to find out what’s going on. You have to,” she lifted a hand and spread her fingers, “find out if you really can wield that thunderbolt.”
As Anna said that, she realized there really was no other way.
Glancing at the clock above her kitchen sink that was just visible at the end of her hallway, she realized she had half an hour to get to the function. She’d already missed her so-called introduction with Sarah. It wouldn’t matter. It wasn’t like Anna was actually gonna work there. Tonight, she would try to steal that thunderbolt. If she couldn’t… she’d go back to Typhon. Or she’d just run.
“You’ll cross that bridge when you get to it.” She rose, walked into her room, rattled around in her closet, and picked the only dress she owned. She didn’t care that it had been all of five dollars in a sale.
It was completely irrelevant to her that she had to match it with a pair of scuffed black heels that were at least 10 years old.
She shoved on her clothes. She brushed her hair. But she didn’t bother to put makeup on.
She wasn’t here to look good.
Grabbing a jacket and shoving her clutch into her pocket, she finally walked out into the night.
Owing to Anna’s chronic misfortune, she’d never liked traveling after dark. She’d been mugged too many times to count.
Now as she strode down the street, her heels kicking up the muddy puddles that covered the pavement and splashing muck onto her bare toes, she ignored her fear.
Maybe she’d get mugged, maybe she wouldn’t. How could she stop it?
If her fate dictated that she would be attacked, then she could stay at home, but someone would just break in.
Her whole life, Anna had tried to fight this right here – what she was experiencing now. Hopelessness. She hadn’t needed a psychologist to tell her that hopelessness was the worst thing you could let yourself experience. It sapped your motivation, ground away your self-confidence, and left you wondering why anything was worthwhile.
So despite everything that had ever happened to her, Anna had held onto hope.
Maybe that had been her only true act of resistance – because the life Zeus had curated for her had been perfectly calibrated to destroy her hope like someone crushing a bug underfoot.
She passed a lamppost and kicked it viciously. She dented the front of her shoe and bruised her little toe, but she didn’t care. “Monster,” she muttered out loud. “What gives you the right to punish others?”
As she thought that, she conjured a perfect image of his smiling face.
As much as she didn’t want to admit this, there didn’t seem to be a great deal of malice behind his deep blue eyes.
“That doesn’t mean anything. You know what he did to you. So face him,” she snarled. “Make him show you who he really is.”
She traveled the subway in silence. By the time she made it out onto the right street, of course the heavens had opened up. She walked in the rain, her hands in her pockets, her body cold, her mind elsewhere.
When she made it to Hope Tower, she saw floodlights illuminating it from the bottom. It made it look like some kind of event from the 1930s. Long lines of traffic were paused outside, and red-coated valets took people’s expensive cars as guests walked up the steps to the open glass doors.
As Anna rounded the street, she stopped. “Last chance to turn back,” she muttered to herself.
“Why would you want to turn back?” someone said from behind her.
Anna was usually the kind to scream if she was startled. Now she just turned and sliced her eyes over to Adam.
He was standing behind her, one hand perpetually in his pocket, that curious smile back on his face. He looked her up and down. It wasn’t a lecherous move. He was just noting how drenched she was. “Forget your umbrella?”
She shrugged. “Even if I had an umbrella, I would’ve gotten wet anyway.”
“Do you need a lesson in how an umbrella works? You have to open them – you know that, right?”
“Do you need a lesson on how bad luck works?” she shot back.
His grin twisted into a frown. “Didn’t have a good day, ha?”
“I thought that thing with the library got sorted,” he said opaquely.
“The police aren’t investigating me anymore.”
“So things are looking up. You’ve got a new job. You’re going to a party. And you’ve got a whole new future ahead of you. I promise you, Anna, your fortune is about to change.”
She’d looked away distractedly, but now she looked back.
Typhon was one thing. Ares was another. She couldn’t forget that he had removed the third page from that book.
And that third page had spoken of her.
Was he working for Typhon, or was he just being mischievous?
“I’m not sure if I deserve that stare. Do you think I’ve contributed to your bad luck?” He patted his chest.
The rain had paused. Maybe it didn’t dare hail down upon a god.
“Ignore me. I was trying to decide something.”
“And have you decided to join the company?”
“I’ve decided to give it a go. I need more information, though,” she said honestly.
“Well I’m a fount of information – so you can ask me anything. What do you want to know?”
“Why….” She stopped before she could spit why Zeus had cut her wings off.
“Why?” he prompted.
“Zachariah’s wife doesn’t like me,” she settled for saying.
Ares actually snorted. Realizing it was too strong a reaction, he neatened his tie politely. “Helen? You’ve met her, then?”
“Yeah. She’s a real barrel of fun. Treated me like I was some kind of bug that had dared to crawl in front of her.”
“Helen is…. Just stay out of her way.”
“Is there anyone else I need to stay out of the way of? This world of yours seems like a pretty dangerous place.”
His lips stiffened on the words this world of yours.
Before he could get too many ideas, she shrugged. “I’ve never interacted with the rich and famous before,” she tried to explain.
It was his turn to shrug. “You won’t have anything to do with Helen.”
“Who am I going to work for, then?”
“Okay as in you accept the job?” A grin marched across his face.
“Just okay.” She turned and continued to walk down the street.
They reached the line of guests with their gold-embossed invites out.
Dutifully, she stood in line behind the last guest.
She got more than a few stares for her dilapidated jacket, mud-stained shoes, and soaked hair.
“Are you sure you’re at the right place, dear?” An old lady asked after she pointedly looked Anna up and down.
“Pretty sure,” Adam said as he slipped in beside Anna, wrapped his arm through hers, and pulled her out of line. He marched right up to the bouncers, grinned, and walked past them with nothing more than a courteous wave.
It took until they were through the grand entrance for Anna to even realize that he was still holding her arm.
Why? Was his touch that forgettable?
No. It was just… there.
That wasn’t to discount it. It was just to say that it was materially different from when Zeus had touched her. When that jerk had grabbed her wrist, she’d felt everything. Heat, fire, ice, coldness. It had all raged through her.
Ares just felt like an ordinary man.
He let go of her arm, took a step back, neatened his hair back, and gave her a pointed look. “I like your outfit. But it would be even better if it was dry. Do you want a new one?”
“Don’t care what you look like compared to the rich and famous?”
“I’m realistic. I can’t compete anyway.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. You can compete with them any day of the week,” he said, and there wasn’t a hint of irony in his tone.
Anna looked at him.
Did that mean something? Did the way he kept being friendly with her hide some other intention?
Had Adam figured out that she was Fos?
For the first time, she seriously considered that possibility.
But when Adam turned and smiled at a pretty lady who walked past, she shrugged off her suspicions.
He walked away, and Anna became distracted staring at the atrium.
It was quite a feat to stare at the building and not the people who were staring at her. She stuck out like a sore thumb. Hell, she stuck out like a bunch of sore thumbs.
Compared to the hoi polloi, she was a rain-soaked, mud-splattered rat that had dared to wander up from the sewers.
There would’ve once been a time when their negative attention would have horrified her.
Now she shrugged off people’s gazes as she walked over to the left wall.
There was a sunken-in case that held an old, half-broken vase.
As her gaze locked on it from several meters away, she recognized it was Greek.
From the glaze to the particular paint used – and finally to the man it depicted.
With his thunderbolt in hand, he was going after a cyclops.
As she stared at it, the rest of the world broke away behind her like a sheet of ice getting ready to be swallowed by the ocean.
“You’re like a heat-seeking missile for antiquities, ha?” Ares said from behind her.
She didn’t jolt. She didn’t turn, either. She pulled her hand from her pocket, and despite the fact it was dirty and wet, she trailed a finger down the glass, leaving a long mark.
This time, Ares didn’t snap her hand back.
“If you play your cards right, you can handle that vase if you’d like to. I mean, preferably after you wash your hands and put some protective gloves on, but you know what I mean.”
“I don’t want to touch him.”
She cleared her throat. “I’ve never liked pottery, to be honest,” she said quickly. “Especially not anything that depicts characters from myth.” She shrugged. “I’m more of a books girl.”
“Right. Anyway, books girl – you sure you don’t want to get some dry clothes?”
It was her turn to let her gaze slide up and down him.
Ares looked amused by the move, and as soon as her stare hit his shoulders, he stretched them. “What, you want my clothes?”
“I don’t think I’d fit. Unless you’ve got some curtains we could fashion into a toga, I’ll have to stick with this.”
The comment about a toga had been pointed. And sure enough, her bait worked.
Ares reacted but quickly ignored her comment.
It was hardly an admission that she was a goddess. Togas were about the only functioning clothing you could create out of a curtain.
“I’m not even sure if we have any curtains in the entire building. I can find you something to wear, though. Come this way, books girl.”
He strode in front of her, and she found herself smiling behind him.
That smile stopped swiftly.
As she fell into step, the gazes of all the guests locked on her again.
Some of them would be gods.
And some of them would have stared at her like this before.
They would’ve judged her as she’d been led to Zeus’s chamber. And they would’ve judged her as she’d been thrown into the mortal world.
With her hands back in her pockets, she grated her nails back and forth across her palms, back and frigging forth.
They reached the elevator.
An extraordinarily attractive woman was about to walk into it when she saw Ares. “There you are. I’ve been meaning to find you. I have something to share,” she said flirtatiously.
“Maybe later,” Ares commented. “Come on, Anna,” he added. It made it clear that he was with Anna and that she wasn’t just some bedraggled puppy dog following him around.
The woman looked at Anna as if she simply couldn’t understand what she was staring at.
Anna didn’t even bother to make eye contact as she dripped her way into the elevator.
She leaned back against the railing as Ares selected a floor.
He turned around, hooked one foot behind the other, tilted back, and fell against the railing beside her. “I guess in your head you’ve already joined.” He looked her up and down, “because you’re treating this place like your own.”
“What, isn’t a girl allowed to lean against an elevator railing without indenturing herself to the owner?”
He chuckled. “Zachariah isn’t one for indentured slaves.”
Her banter stopped. She looked at the electronic panel that signaled what floor they’d reached.
Soon enough, it pinged. She pushed forward.
The doors opened.
She strode through.
She expected to see other guests, and she got ready to raise her defenses so she wasn’t disheartened by their stares.
The floor was pretty much empty, though.
“Behold my realm,” Ares said as he gestured forth.
“It’s an amazing realm. Well done. Do you have this entire level of the building to yourself?”
He chuckled. “Not exactly. But my office is on this level.”
“Well, I’m still pretty impressed.”
He took her down the long, clean corridor until he reached an office at the end. It was in the corner of the building.
She expected it to have a fantastic view, but as he opened the door, there weren’t even any windows.
She frowned obviously at where they should be.
He shrugged. “If I want someplace to look at the city, I can go outside.”
“Don’t want anyone to see you, then?” she surmised.
He stopped as he settled a hand on his desk. “Casting aspersions on me, employee? Are you implying that I have something to hide?”
“No. I kind of like the fact there are no windows. It means I don’t have to put up with seeing that storm.”
He made a confused face, reached his chair, pulled it out, and sat.
She stood in front of his desk. She looked over it. “Are you going to make me a dress out of paper?”
His lip ticked up. “You know, I think you’d look good in a dress made of paper.”
“Might not be appropriate for a wind and rain swept roof. What are we going to do about the storm? Is the party going to be moved inside?”
Ares shrugged. “It won’t rain.”
“What, the heavens won’t dare open up over Zachariah Hope?”
Ares didn’t answer.
He leaned forward, plucked up his phone, and made a call.
When he ended it, he leaned back again. “You’ll have your dress in 10 minutes or so.”
“You don’t even know my dress size.”
He took one look at her. “I do now.”
She wasn’t sure if Ares was hitting on her or just bantering for the sake of it.
She was sure of one thing. If he ever found out who she really was, all banter would end.
She still couldn’t remember her dreams, but she’d made a point of reading through her journal. One fact had jumped out at her. It had been Ares who’d chopped off her wings. It had been at Zeus’s request, sure, but Ares had wielded that blade.
This – their friendly interactions – could never last.
She turned away from him, not wanting him to see her expression. If there’d been windows, they would’ve given her a convenient thing to stare out of. Instead, she looked at the objects arrayed on plinths around his room.
Ares soon rose. “Nothing can take your attention for too long, ha? Not even me.”
She ignored him as she stared at an old arrowhead glistening under a well-placed downlight.
Ares sat again, crumpled his hands on the green leather insert of his desk, and leaned forward. “You know, this is probably where you should ask me what you’ll be doing in your job.”
Despite her better judgment, she turned and faced him. “I thought I was employed to hunt down rare books?”
“That will be included.”
She frowned. “So what will I really be doing, then?”
“Making a difference,” he said without pause.
“You mean to Zachariah Hope’s collection?”
He shook his head. “No. You’ll be making a difference to the world.”
She narrowed her eyes. Before, she’d concluded that there was no way Ares could know who she was. Now she wasn’t so sure. Something had to account for the strange, intense way he was looking at her.
“And how exactly is finding old books going to help change the world?”
“Knowledge,” he said, his lips moving somehow stiffly and yet freely around the word. It was counterintuitive, but while the muscles of his face were rigid, his lips still moved with quick freedom.
“You never know what you can find in old books. Gems that have been forgotten. Facts that, if known, could change everything.”
He was looking right at her now.
Before she could reply – before she could even let his point settle in – there was a knock on the door.
“That’ll be your dress. They got it quicker than I thought they would. I’ll leave you in the room to change.” He strode up, opened the door, and revealed a guy holding a dress. He handed it over to Ares, and Ares didn’t even glance at it once before he passed it on to Anna. This wasn’t some pretty-woman-esque encounter. Ares wasn’t dressing her up to ogle her.
This… who knew what this was?
As he handed the dress over, he smiled pointedly. “Remember what I said. Stick by me, and you don’t know what you’ll find out.” With that mysterious comment, he turned around, grabbed a pair of heels off the guy, settled them on the floor inside his office, then closed the door without another word.
Anna just stood there. “Does he know?” she whispered.
She turned around and stared at his desk.
Everything she thought she knew about the situation told her if Ares really did know who she was, he’d go straight to Zeus.
But he’d ripped those pages out of that book, hadn’t he?
Realizing she couldn’t stand here all day thinking this through, she dressed.
The dress was exactly what you’d expect. Expensive. She wasn’t certain if that made it good, but it did at least mean the fabric was a lot more pleasurable to wear compared to the wet, stained fabric of her five-dollar bargain.
She thought nothing of getting dressed in Ares’s office.
If she’d undressed in Zeus’s office, it would be a completely different experience. She’d be able to smell him everywhere, feel his presence lingering in every scrap of carpet, in every wall, in every window, in every pen.
Thinking of him made her lips clench and her fingers freeze as she went to trail them down the sumptuous silk of her long, white dress. It had a collar that was tied up into a bow around the back of her neck. It swept down, hugged her hips, then flared out. It looked vintage, but at the same time, classic. It was the kind of outfit that would never age.
“Yeah, but you can age,” she said as she dragged a finger down her face, poking her nail into the wrinkles around her mouth.
She thought of Hera again. But she didn’t let it last. She forcibly dropped her hand, grabbed up her heels, shoved them on, and opened the door.
Ares was standing there, his back against the wall, his head tilted to the side as he watched the storm. “It’s putting on quite a show out there.”
“Maybe it will rain on Zachariah Hope, after all,” she commented churlishly.
He didn’t reply – he just chuckled and nodded forward. “Now, my lady, let me go introduce you to this new world. Let’s see if I can change your mind about joining it.”
“Actually, I was wondering if we could take a detour first.” She tried not to let her voice tighten, but it did anyway.
He frowned. “Detour?”
“Honestly, the only thing that’s going to change my mind about working here is the collection.” She tried to ensure her voice wasn’t tight, but a few notes of tension wound their way through it.
Ares frowned. “You want to see the collection now?”
“Yes, if I can.”
He shook his head. “That’s not possible.”
“Oh, I just—”
“Later, Anna. You’ll get a chance for that later. For now,” he walked up to her and secured his arm through her elbow again as he looked her right in the eye, “let’s go show you off.”
She didn’t pay nearly enough attention to the way he looked at her as he said that. If her mind had been anywhere other than on Zeus’s thunderbolt, it would’ve noted the precise look in his eyes. It was the stare of a man who’d finally attained something he’d always reached for.
It was here.
The hour was upon him. And there was no damn turning back now.
He stood on the roof, off to the side as he watched the guests arrive.
Some were gods – but most of them were mortals. The humans wouldn’t stay for the whole function. They were just here symbolically to prove that this was the moment Zeus would take their destinies into his hands. He was ultimately doing all this for them.
So why was he standing off to the side, behind one of the catering tents, his head directed at the view rather than the people he’d hand-picked to enjoy it?
“You’ve been uneasy all day,” he whispered to himself. As he ran his hand over the knuckles of his other hand, he thought only of his thunderbolt. Though he’d managed to ignore it most of the afternoon, the question of why it had accessed his power earlier was haranguing him now more than ever.
“Put it out of your head,” he tried. “Reach for the sky,” he added.
“You don’t have to reach on your own,” Hera said from behind him as she walked up.
He turned. She’d changed out of the stunning purple dress she’d worn earlier, and she was in a white one instead.
Ordinarily, anything suited Hera. This dress didn’t. It was silk, and it was tied around the back of her neck in a bow. It bunched around her hips and fell elegantly around her legs. Either it was the color or the style – but she didn’t look as glamorous as she usually did.
“You like it?” She turned around. “I wanted something to match the rest of my outfit.” She trailed her fingers pointedly over her ring.
Though Fos’s wings could change color, primarily, they were white like the essence of light itself.
Zeus turned away and stared at the view.
She shifted in close behind him, curled an arm through his, and placed her head against his shoulder. “I can feel the storm’s power. There’ll be lightning tonight,” she added in a low, sultry voice.
As Zeus’s gaze searched the clouds, he frowned. Anna’s warning raced into his head from nowhere.
If she hadn’t pointed it out, he wouldn’t even have realized that despite the storm’s power, there hadn’t been any lightning since last night. It was as if it had gone on strike.
His knuckles naturally tensed at that thought.
“You should put on a show now,” Hera purred as she wrapped her arms tighter around his. “Make the sky light up. Though, that being said, that will likely worry our human guests. They won’t be so comfortable being outside in a lightning storm on a roof when the sky god himself is showing his power.”
“Maybe later,” he muttered.
“Indeed, later.” She distractedly stroked her ring again.
Zeus couldn’t even look at it. To look at the ring would be to acknowledge how empty his right hand felt. Now he’d taken the ring off, it ached.
He distractedly pumped his hand in and out.
“The function is about to begin. Our king should go and greet his guests.”
“Don’t call me king,” his voice dropped down low in warning.
“It is nothing more than a term of affection. And face it, even to the humans, it’s justified. They’ve never met anyone like you.”
“Still don’t call me king,” he repeated.
“As you wish, my Lord.”
Reluctantly, Zeus pushed away from the railing. He walked around the catering tent and faced the rest of the party.
He passed several guests who were noting how the roof was completely dry and the wind barely reached them.
He passed several gods who did nothing but make eye contact and bow their heads ever so slightly at his approach.
He walked into the middle of the roof, Hera still on his arm. The other guests who’d already assembled faced him, realizing he was about to give an introduction.
He cleared his throat, the first words of welcome on his lips, but he stopped when his gaze sliced to the side. The door that led down to the rest of the building opened. His attention locked on it long before Ares walked through with someone on his arm.
Zeus’s focus narrowed in. The rest of the world – the roof, the gods, everyone and everything – just fell away as his heart and mind locked on the woman beside Ares.
It took Zeus no time whatsoever to realize it was Anna. She looked different in the sumptuous white silk dress she wore, but that didn’t matter. His body would’ve been able to recognize her, even if she’d come wrapped in a carpet.
Zeus wasn’t even aware of the fact that Hera was still on his arm. Until she spluttered. “What’s she doing in my dress?”
Zeus turned back and realized Hera was right. Both women were dressed in the same clothes. But whereas Hera’s dress didn’t look right, on Anna…. She looked resplendent. He couldn’t wrench his eyes off her.
Ares walked Anna up to Zeus and Hera. He stopped in front of Hera. “How did this happen? I thought you were wearing purple?”
“I changed my mind. I thought white would be more appropriate. Now how on earth did you—” Hera began sharply as she turned to Anna.
“Anna’s dress got ruined. I found this one for her. Who knew that you two would be wearing the same thing? But if anyone can pull this off, it’s you, Hera,” Ares said mischievously.
This was probably where Zeus should pull him up, but he didn’t. He couldn’t stop staring at Anna. There was something about the way she looked….
Ares cleared his throat as he turned back to the rest of the guests. “I think they’re expecting a speech. Come on, Anna,” he said as he led her away.
Anna hadn’t locked her gaze on Zeus since she’d walked in, but as she walked past, she did.
The look she shot Zeus….
Zeus yanked a hand up and clutched his heart. Fleeting pain shot through it. While it didn’t last, it left something in its wake he hadn’t felt for a long time. The uneasy, crippling sensation of guilt.
Hera was far too focused on the fact Anna was wearing the same dress as her to notice him clutching his chest.
He soon let his hand drop anyway.
It was a lot harder to tear his attention off Anna. But as the gods and guests assembled, he had to.
He didn’t want to give a speech. One clunked out of his mouth nonetheless. He spoke of his company, of his plans for the future. Most importantly, of his dreams for humanity.
All of it was couched in terms the mortals wouldn’t understand but the gods would appreciate was a rallying cry. No more would the gods of Olympus stand and watch humanity fall. They would take the evil swallowing this planet in hand. The Golden Age would rise again.
By the time he finished his speech, the party had filled. The roof was large. The building was massive, so as he tilted his head from side to side, it wasn’t immediately apparent where Anna was.
Even as he pushed off to find her – not knowing why he cared so much – other gods waylaid him.
This was a moment they’d been waiting for for centuries.
He had no chance of escape.
Hades was right. Last night Zeus had made his decision. Now, for better or worse, he would live through the consequences of what he had done.
Ares had finally left her alone. He hadn’t wanted to. He’d seemed determined to display her on his arm like a trophy. No. That was cruel. His intention hadn’t been that base nor that obvious. But there had to have been a reason he’d dressed her up in this specific dress and walked around everyone with her on his arm. That reason was probably Hera. God, Anna was wearing the same damn dress as the wife of Zeus.
A fact she rued as she plucked the fabric up in one disgruntled hand then let it slip back against her skin.
She was standing off on her own, her hands clasped against the edge of the railing that ran around the building as she stared at the city. No. She glanced at the city once or twice. She stared at the storm. It was being held back. For now. It would rage again.
She thought she was on her own. She’d found a nice place behind one of the catering tents where few people bothered to go. It was far away from the music and the pretty lights. But as she turned, she heard someone approaching. Before her gut could clench and tell her it was Hera here to push her off the side of the building, she saw a man wearing black. A black tie, a black suit, a black shirt, even black cufflinks.
He nodded at her.
“Good evening,” he said as he came to a stop beside her. He was nursing a flute of champagne. It didn’t look as if he’d taken a single sip.
“Ah, good evening,” she managed sheepishly.
The guy was technically handsome. He was also very imposing. It wasn’t just the fact he was wearing all black. There was something about him that, if you saw him on a cold, dark night, you wouldn’t scream – you wouldn’t dare. That wasn’t to say she got the desire to flee. It was to say that almost instantly, she recognized he had to be a god.
“Are you enjoying the function?” he asked.
“I will take from your lack of enthusiasm that you aren’t.”
Surprised that he put her on the spot, she shrugged stupidly. She let her gaze trace back to the storm. Though she hadn’t wanted to face it all day, now she couldn’t turn away. “I guess I am a little distracted.”
“By that.” He shrugged forward with one of his large, broad shoulders, indicating the weather that was somehow held back from the roof.
Anna could bet that the moment this so-called function ended, that storm would rage. Whatever magic Zeus was using to keep it at bay wouldn’t last forever.
“Yeah, by the storm. I’ve never… been particularly lucky in them.”
He didn’t shoot her the curious look that comment deserved. He didn’t look at her at all. He became just as transfixed by the storm as she was. Silently, they watched it together for several seconds until he nodded at her. “I hear you’re a new employee.”
“Technically, I haven’t decided to join yet,” she felt the need to clarify.
“I see. What makes you sit on the fence?”
“I don’t know this place. I don’t know anyone here. And it… seems too good to be true.”
“Lack of familiarity would not appear to be a problem for someone like you,” he said as if he’d known her for life.
This brought just the kind of frown it should marching across her lips. “Ah, you’ve clearly never met me. I am not the kind to take risks. Life,” she said through clenched teeth, “has always taught me that when I take risks, I get kicked down. Then again, even when I don’t take them, I get kicked down.”
“I may not know you, but I’m an excellent judge of character. I’ve always believed that I can see a person’s soul where others only see their actions.”
If Anna hadn’t just been introduced to a world of gods and unimaginable power, she would’ve laughed her ass off at that comment. Now her hackles rose. If this guy was right, and he could see her soul, what if he knew who she really was?
“You are the kind who never backs down from a fight. The kind who will run headlong into danger, for she is not afraid of the dark,” he added, his emphasis subtle and yet there on the word dark. It might not have had the power of every word that Typhon had uttered earlier that day, but what it lacked, it made up for in sheer presence.
While Typhon had felt like he could make a mountain crumble at his mere words, this god didn’t need to make a mountain fall. He could just wait until it did so naturally.
Unhurried didn’t do him justice. Indomitable did.
It took Anna too long to actually appreciate what he’d said. She couldn’t help but snort. “Then you really don’t know me. Not a single thing you’ve just said is true. Hell, I wish I were that brave, but I’m really not.”
“You’re not doing yourself justice.”
Throughout the whole conversation, he hadn’t looked at her – he’d kept his gaze for the storm. By the way his eyes traced over every bulging cloud, it was clear he could feel the same power that had been haunting her all day.
“Whether you appreciate this or not, you are ultimately afraid of little,” he noted cryptically.
“You’re wrong. Fear,” her voice became tremulous, “has always defined my life.”
“One emotion cannot define your life. It can be present, and it can follow you on your journeys, but you cannot become it. Emotions are nothing more than momentary representations of our capacity to understand existence.”
He’d just said a lot of fancy words, and while Anna was in no mood to follow them, this time she did.
A part of her wanted to believe what he was saying. It didn’t damn well matter how she’d led the rest of her life. The meek, terrified Anna Smith would now crumble away as Fos rose.
It was a testament to how much work she’d done that she could now think of herself as Fos without any pain splitting her head.
The man still didn’t take a sip of his drink. It was as if he was only nursing it so it wasn’t lonely.
Yeah, lonely. That word right there summed this guy up.
It wasn’t just the fact he dressed like a mortician. There was something about the way he stared at the clouds. It was like he was there to give things unseen solace, but in turn, no one could give him the company he required.
“Who are you?” she asked through a swallow.
“Zachariah’s brother. One of his two brothers,” he added.
Anna’s mind didn’t need to work on fast forward. Zeus had two brothers in mythology – the God of the sea, Poseidon, and the God of the Dead.
Hades. Dammit, this guy had to be Hades. Every impression she’d had so far – plus the sharp black suit – confirmed that.
Before fear could pulse through her at the fact the very God of the Dead was standing by her side, he turned. He made eye contact – direct damn eye contact. It looked as if he really could see into her soul. “Every moment you are alive, you have the chance to redefine what you are.”
“So… you don’t believe in fate, then?”
“No. But I do believe in obstacles.”
“Others may define obstacles as fate. I see them simply as those things which get in your way as you attempt to climb the mountain of life.”
“So you think only one mountain exists for everyone? There’s only one path—”
“No. Choice exists. Without choice, there would be no life. Take it from me.”
“But choice doesn’t exist if someone with more power than you controls your existence,” she said bitterly.
Crap, she had to check everything she said around Hades. Especially if he was right, and he could see right through her. But… if he did know who she was, he wasn’t running to tell Zeus. He just stayed by her side, giving her company when she needed it most.
“Say there is one metaphorical mountain, but it has many angles from which it can be viewed. That is what I believe.”
A frown etched its way across her lips as she struggled to understand what he meant.
“Your struggle is to find another way to view your struggles.” He looked right at her. “It is then, when you rise above how your troubles have always tried to define you, that you will be free. I think you’ll find,” he briefly let his gaze tick to her side as if something was hanging over her shoulder, “that when you do so, there’ll be no height you cannot rise too.” With that, he nodded and turned away.
Anna reeled. His advice was pointed. It hadn’t just been random. He’d also glanced above her shoulders as if he’d expected something to be there.
He had to know she’d once had wings.
He had to know who she was.
Terror engulfed her as she watched him walk back to the rest of the party. He didn’t make a beeline for Zeus. He walked to another silent section of the roof and stared back out at the storm as if nothing else could ultimately hold his attention.
Anna’s heart pounded.
It told her to run. Before she could comply, Hades turned and made eye contact one last time. He nodded. There was something deferential about the move. Something that couldn’t be faked. And that something told her that even if Hades knew who she ultimately was, he was on her side.
Anna almost couldn’t deal with that possibility.
There was just too much to take in. From Typhon, to Ares, now to Hades – there were too many people who could know who she was. At some point, the truth of her existence would slip. And when Zeus found out—
“I’m glad you came,” someone said from behind her.
All her thoughts stopped. They ground to a halt as terror – and unbelievable anger – gripped her.
It was him.
She couldn’t turn. That didn’t mean he left her alone. He slipped in beside her and glanced at the storm. “I’ve never met someone as fascinated by the weather as you. It’s a relief,” he said opaquely.
She didn’t want to engage him. For the love of God, she just wanted him to leave. But leave he did not. He continued to rest there beside her as if he honestly thought he was welcome.
She clenched her teeth. She wanted to curl her fingers in, drag them across her palms, and cut herself until she bled to death. Maybe then she’d have a shadow of a chance of dealing with his presence.
Him being so close made her whole body ache. And it brought into sharp refrain what she would soon do. Images of the thunderbolt filled her mind. His thunderbolt. No, hers.
She breathed hard through her teeth.
“You look…” he stopped abruptly, and he jerked his eyes to the left as if, despite the fact he’d been nominally looking at the storm, his attention had still been on her.
“I look what?” she pressured, though she really didn’t want to know the answer.
“That dress suits you,” he said diplomatically.
They drifted into silence. All she could think of was everything Typhon had shared with her.
Everything that had ever happened to Anna was down to the monster by her side.
His placid smile, his gentle presence – they were nothing but an act. No, they were worse than an act. They gave you the impression that he was a good man, when deep down, the only thing he would do with your trust was use it to strangle you with.
She went to walk away. His hand jerked toward her as if, once more, he wanted to grab her.
At the last minute, he thought better of it. He sighed. “I didn’t mean to chase you away.”
“You’re not chasing me anywhere,” she said, her voice way too hard.
She had to reel her anger in. She couldn’t give up the game too early. If she honestly thought she could go through this and steal his thunderbolt, then she couldn’t give him any reason to be suspicious of her.
Reluctantly, feeling like she was chopping off her own damn arm, she turned, fixed her gaze back on the storm, and remained by his side. They drifted into an uneasy silence. She could feel his attention all over her.
God, if she hadn’t known who Zeus was to her, she would’ve fallen for attention like that. It was all-encompassing. It held her, not with hands – with something far more important. It gave her the impression that even if she traveled halfway across the world, he wouldn’t lose hold of her.
For just a flickering second, she almost gave in to it. Though she still couldn’t remember her life as Fos, something deep within her wanted to fall into Zeus’s embrace once for old time’s sake.
That desire didn’t last long.
She crunched forward, her whole body as tense as a spring as she settled her elbows on the railing.
“… You seem… tense around me,” Zeus noted quietly.
“You are the boss of this company.” She deliberately didn’t say that he was her boss.
After tonight, he… who knew what would happen after tonight? If she honestly intended to give the thunderbolt to Typhon, then Zeus would… what, die?
Typhon had claimed that he wouldn’t do anything without Anna’s permission, but if his legend was anything to go by, then the monster wouldn’t put off getting his revenge on Zeus.
… So she’d just steal the thunderbolt for herself.
And then what? Take on the gods? Zeus would come for her. This – his friendly presence, his prying attention – would never last.
Hell, it was just an act to begin with.
She couldn’t remember how or when he’d lured her to his side on Mount Olympus, but his feelings now must be just as fake as they’d been back then.
She went to walk away.
“Adam said that you had reservations about accepting this job. Is that true?”
She stopped. “I will see what direction I want to take first.”
“You seem to have a talent for finding rare books. You should always go with your talents – they’ll lead to a happy life.”
She laughed. It was bitter as hell.
“What, you don’t believe in talent like you don’t believe in fate?”
“I’m starting to have less tolerance for things that get to decide how my life goes without my permission.”
Did he? Because if he did, he’d attack.
Friendly Zeus would turn vicious. Or hell, maybe he’d just set his new wife on her.
Anna couldn’t take this anymore.
She went to walk away, but she stopped.
There was something she wanted to know.
She turned. Though the thought of confronting Zeus had haunted her all day, she looked him right in the eye. “Do you believe in second chances?”
An expression took over his face. He was surprised that she’d turned and stayed – and maybe happy. But he was confused by her question. “Yes,” he said without further pause. “Everyone deserves a second chance.”
“Do you actually believe that?”
“I did hear about what happened at the library. You were cleared—” Zeus began.
“I’m not talking about the library. I’m talking about second chances. I’m talking about someone wronging you. I’m just interested, that’s all. Can someone like you,” she spread a hand toward him then shifted it to the side as she indicated the opulent building and the party beyond, “believe in second chances? Because you’re in a position to give them. And those who are in a position to give tend to take.”
He was clearly flawed now. Any relief he’d had that she’d stayed turned into confusion. “I’m sorry if I came across—”
“I’m not accusing you of anything. I’m just interested. I already told Adam I don’t know enough about this world.” She didn’t bother to couch that in terms of the rich and famous. As she said the word world, she conjured up every single image of gods and monsters that had haunted her for the past two days. “And to me, information is key. I don’t want to move forward if I don’t understand. That way I can be sure I’m minimizing my chance of making a mistake. So, does a man like you believe in second chances?”
Relief let his shoulders sink down several centimeters.
She got the impression that Zeus was no stranger to confrontation – with other people, at least. For whatever reason, around her, he seemed meek.
Typhon had reassured her that Zeus couldn’t possibly know who she was. So maybe deep down on some level, his body recognized her. And deep down on that same level, it knew to feel guilt at her very presence.
Anna still couldn’t remember the events around why Zeus had banished her and removed her wings, but she knew one thing – she’d been innocent.
“Yes, I believe in second chances. I believe when you’re in a position of power, like I am, it’s more important that you give them.”
She couldn’t reply. This was where she wanted to scream at him that he was a hypocrite.
He’d never given her, his very own wife, a second chance, so why should she believe that he would give one to anyone else?
He became distracted by his hands. He turned them over, trailing his thumb down the side of his ring finger. It stopped when it reached a gold wedding band. It had replaced the ring with her wings on it.
He didn’t seem to want to touch his wedding band. “I haven’t always made the correct decisions – I’ll admit that. But your principle is correct.” He turned and faced her.
She got drawn in by his eyes.
“You must always seek more information. When you’ve done something wrong, find out what’s right, and attempt to do it, no matter the cost. Is that the answer you wanted?”
Something suddenly hurtled over the roof. It whistled so sharply past her ear, it felt like a slice of a samurai sword.
The wind didn’t just attack her. It smashed into the catering tent, dragging it a meter to the side, despite the fact it was held down by heavy metal bolts.
“What?” Zeus spluttered. He dropped his wine. It clanged onto the concrete, the delicate champagne flute shattering into a thousand pieces.
Further behind the catering tent, screams erupted as the wind continued to wreak havoc.
Up on a roof like this, you always got wind. It was part and parcel of the height of the building.
But this was the building of a god, and until now, the storm had been held back.
Now it flooded in.
Zeus bolted to the side, getting ready to run around the catering tent to check on the rest of his guests. Another blast of wind sailed over the side of the building. As Anna’s face tingled and a shot of nerves jolted through her heart, she knew it was directed at her.
Just at the last second before it could slam into her, drag her over to the railing, and throw her down the side of the fatal drop, Zeus pivoted on his shoe. He threw himself at her. All she could see was a blare of his determined gaze and the line of his strong arms.
He reached her, wrapped his biceps around her, and pulled her to the side.
The wind slammed into them.
Then the rain came.
There wasn’t a crack of lightning. There wasn’t some great shake or boom that heralded what was about to come. No. The rain just came down at a million miles an hour.
As Zeus lay there, pressed against her chest, she realized it was a reversal of what had happened back in the alleyway.
Her mind became stuck on all those details – the memorable feel of his arms, his weight, his heat, his gentle breath, and the power always trapped within.
She didn’t have long to revel in those facts.
Zeus bolted to his feet. “What—”
He came to a sputtering stop.
Anna tilted her head to the side.
That’s when she saw something climbing up the side of the railing.
It was the faint blue outline of some creature. It flickered, then shifted, jumping into the wind. It turned into wisps that trailed along with the howling gale, then dropped out, reformed, and ran along the roof.
Out of the corner of her gaze, she saw that Zeus’s eyes boggled as he stared at it, and his lips opened as he mouthed, “Sprite.”
Tingles escaped over her skin. They rushed over her body, charged over her face, plowed into her heart, and spread into her fingertips.
They amassed around her eyes, and for whatever reason, she got the impression that no mere mortal could see what she could now.
Though she didn’t dare wrench her gaze off those sprites, as Zeus reached a hand toward her, she had to. She couldn’t let him know that she could see them.
She clutched her face, deliberately pinning her palm over her eyes so she couldn’t dare stare at another one of those sprites that landed on the railing of the roof. “What’s going on? Where did the gale come from?” She could barely speak past the driving rivulets of rain that smashed into her head and washed down her face.
Her dress was well and truly sopping. It felt like Poseidon himself had lifted up the sea, brought it into the sky, and dumped it on the city.
Zeus held her in a determined grip, heat quickly transferring from his rigid fingers into her skin, despite the fact he too was cold and drenched. “Come on, Anna.”
She let him pull her.
As he did… somewhere right at the edge of her memory, something almost rose.
She got the impression that he’d done this before.
Long ago, Zeus had saved her – over and over again. He had kept her safe from those who hunted her.
And this one last time, he was doing it again.
She let him pull her all of a meter toward the battered catering tent before reality caught up with her.
He wasn’t saving her. He was saving some confusing mortal he felt obliged to.
Nothing had changed between them.
She dug her heels in.
He jerked his head around, his ebony hair whipping around and slapping into his cheeks. “What—”
One of the sprites loomed up beside Anna. It suddenly dropped down from the clouds. It happened so quickly, all she could do was suck in one terrified breath.
She watched Zeus’s cheeks slacken with fear.
He had one second to react, and he took it.
He shifted her to the side, spinning with her in his arms as he put his back between her and the sprite.
The sprite attacked.
As it brought around its wispy arm, it smashed it into Zeus. It wrenched her from his arms and sent her tumbling meters away.
Her lips cracked open, his name ready to blast from her throat, but she didn’t get a chance to scream.
She heard something behind her.
She turned her head over her shoulder to see another one of those sprites dropping down from the storm.
Zeus was clambering to his feet. He wouldn’t reach her in time.
The sprite opened its mouth wide, its toothless, amorphous throat nothing more than lines of quickly dancing blue light.
“Get down,” Zeus blared.
As the sprite shot toward Anna, Zeus opened his palm. Zeus charged with lightning, and it was a moment she would never forget. It sailed around his fists. It captivated her – the way his power surged around his body; the way pure potential shone through the air.
It didn’t light the whole roof up, but it didn’t have to. It made every last cell within her shake.
Before that sprite could attack her, opening its wispy mouth wide and slicing through her with a blast of wind, Zeus let lightning smash into its side.
It didn’t blast the sprite off the side of the roof. It just made it implode. The air filled with potential, and there was an earsplitting crack, then the sprite was gone.
Zeus spun to the side, opened his hand wide, and sent another blast of lightning smashing into the other sprite who’d knocked him off his feet.
Before he could stop to turn and face her, more screams echoed out from the rest of the party.
Anna was down on her ass, her hands shaking as they locked on the sodden concrete beside her. Her hair was a mess over her face, and she could only just see Zeus through slices of her scrappy fringe.
Seeing was one thing – feeling another. For in this moment, she felt him like she never had before.
“You can’t stay here. Come.” He reached a hand out to her.
The moment was symbolic. Right down to the lightning still crackling over his hands and face, right down to the beating storm, and right down to her pounding heart.
Just as she lifted her hand up, despite her better judgment, and reached toward him, something struck Zeus.
A huge object unwound itself from the slicing gale. It was a sprite, but it was massive. It looked more like a cyclops someone had chopped up and thrown into the wind.
As it landed behind Zeus, he had a second to turn his head, then the massive monster struck him across his chest. Zeus went flying. He struck the railing around the roof, his head smashing into it with a sickening crack.
“Zeus,” she finally screamed his name.
He didn’t get up.
That massive sprite turned its wispy head toward her, opened its unique mouth, and screamed.
Wind blasted out everywhere. It struck her, and she had to bring her arms up and hide behind them, lest her eyeballs were cut.
It sent her hair whipping around her body, and she felt her dress rip up the side of her leg as the flaps buffeted against her like whips.
The creature took a shaking step toward her but didn’t reach her.
Two men raced around the side of the catering tent.
One she recognized as Hades. The other had to be Poseidon.
Poseidon rushed over to Zeus as he snapped at Hades to deal with the sprite.
The sprite roared in fear as it took a step back from Hades’s approach.
Hades sliced his gaze over to Anna.
She didn’t move.
“Ignore the mortal. We’ll wipe her mind later. Deal with the sprite. Zeus has been knocked unconscious,” Poseidon snapped.
“Run,” Hades told her.
Anna jolted to her feet. Fear bolted through her. It smashed into her legs, until the next thing she knew, she sprinted around the side of the tent.
The move hadn’t been hers. As she reached the rest of the roof, she felt magic escaping from her. All Hades had done was whisper one simple word, and he’d controlled her body from afar.
The control didn’t last.
Nothing could at the sight of the destruction before her.
The party, which had once been one of the most opulent damn things she’d ever seen, was sheer chaos. All the tables had been overturned, guests were limping toward the exit, and those she’d already identified as gods were taking up strategic positions around the roof.
Ares and Hera were off to one side, their backs to Anna. Apollo was there, too. Hell, every god she’d seen so far was up here.
… Which meant there’d be no one down near the vault.
Anna had no clue what was going on. She couldn’t even begin to guess how Zeus’s magic had failed and those water sprites had attacked. But she did know she would never get an opportunity like this again.
Apollo clapped eyes on her. “Run,” he said, and he pointed at the door.
Just as had happened with Hades, she felt magic sail into her, but unlike Hades, it was nowhere near as strong. Perhaps it was the fact she’d already fought past Apollo’s mind control magic before, but she only received the faintest spark.
She didn’t need any encouragement, anyway. She ran, letting out a scream for appearance’s sake.
She reached the door, grabbed the door jamb, and pushed herself down the stairs.
There were guests in the corridor, and staff members were dealing with them.
Anna ran past everyone.
She didn’t head to the elevators.
She waited until she reached an empty corridor. Then she slipped down the fire escape.
She took it down one level to the penthouse.
Anna stopped in front of the door that would lead to Zeus’s level.
Above, she could still hear the storm.
She fancied she could even discern Poseidon and Hades’s cries.
“This is the only chance you’re going to get, Anna. Take it. Goddammit, take it.” She pressed forward, pushed her sopping wet forehead against the door, clenched her teeth, then finally let her hand slip around the handle. It wasn’t locked. She rattled it, her hand shaking as she opened it and pushed in.
This floor was utter decadence compared to the chaotic roof.
She paid no heed to the water dripping off her as she ran over the polished marble floor.
She felt cold all over, but she didn’t collapse her arms around her middle. Slowly, with a kind of detached determination welling within her, she walked down the corridor.
There wasn’t a soul around. She reached a section of hall that opened out into windows.
She stopped and stared.
Even from here, she could see the sprites inhabiting the clouds.
Trailing a hand over her eyes, she closed them then opened them, but the sprites were still there.
Anna had seen some crazy shit, but this took the cake. It reminded her she couldn’t be human.
None of the other guests had screamed in total terror at the appearance of those magical, impossible sprites.
“Just do it. Make him pay for what he did to you,” she muttered in a deathly cold tone as she finally reached the vault door.
It was closed.
As stupid as it sounded, she hadn’t even thought this through. Of course it would be closed. It—
She’d taken a shaking step toward it, ready to bang her fist fruitlessly against the heavy-duty metal, but all it took was a single step, and it opened. As it let out a reassuring beep, it was as if it recognized her.
Her cheeks paled. “What?” she stammered as the vault door opened all the way.
The lights within every case flickered on, and Anna took a single step in.
Even from here in the gloom she could see the case right at the end.
And even from here in the gloom, she could see the thunderbolt, not the sword.
She took a step. She stopped. She shook her head then took another step.
With every movement, she fought herself. Waves of her conscience rose up, but she fought them back. They tried to tell her she shouldn’t do this – she needed more information before she stole Zeus’s primary power from him. But then anger at what he’d done to her fate rose like an unstoppable firestorm.
He had sealed her fate, so it was only fair that she seal his.
She finally reached the case.
She couldn’t describe how hard her heart was thumping. It felt as if it were going to pull right out of her chest and splatter at her feet.
“Come on, Anna. Just do it.” She balled her hand into a fist. She lifted it above the case, not knowing if she intended to punch it, slap it, or just crumple around it.
Something struck the building, and even in this protected room, the walls shuddered.
She lurched to the side, and the next thing she knew, she fell forward onto the case. Both her arms wrapped around it as she stopped herself from headbutting the sharp corner.
As her hands touched it, she felt the glass shift. It, just like the door, appeared to recognize her. And it, just like the door, got out of her way. With a shudder that trembled through her chest and up her throat, the glass melted before her very eyes and shifted out of her way.
Anna froze, her arms in exactly the same embracing position as she stared down at the thunderbolt.
Even if she tried, she couldn’t see the sword anymore.
Her gaze locked on that static bolt of power, and her breath came to a stuttering stop.
The building shook again, but she managed to hold onto the case just as it reformed in her grip. It felt like it was simultaneously holding onto her. The floor could give way, but it wouldn’t let her drop.
Pressing her sweaty cheek up against the smooth glass, she squeezed her eyes closed and waited out the thunderous shaking until, abruptly, it stopped.
A few lights flickered on and off throughout the vault room. Scraps of dust filtered down from the ceiling above, covering her sopping hair, cheeks, and shoulders.
Slowly, she opened her eyes and shifted back.
The thunderbolt glistened invitingly. It begged her to reach in and pluck it up.
Without a single command from her, the glass shifted again, just melting around the sides of the thunderbolt as if it had never been anything more than an apparition.
She shook her head. “You can’t do this, Anna. You can’t possibly….” The thing she couldn’t possibly do was finished the sentence. She went to spit out the words that she couldn’t take the thunderbolt, but her throat and lips, mouth and tongue betrayed her. They captured that concept, locking it in tightly so she couldn’t even think it, let alone say it.
The building shook once more. This time, Anna somehow managed to hold her own. It didn’t matter that everything around her pitched and trembled, more dust filtering down from the ceiling – she stood right in front of that thunderbolt, her gaze locking on it, never to be removed again.
Her mouth opened. She went to say that this was insane, but she said something else entirely. “This is your destiny, Anna.” The words were out before she could stop them. As soon as they struck the air, they did something to it. From the first second Anna had walked into this vault room with Adam earlier that day, she’d felt the power. Now, she swore that very same power felt her. It reacted to her presence in a way that was now unmistakable. The very air began to crackle like growing lightning. It concentrated around her. She swore she could detect eddies of power. Surging around her legs, climbing her back, tickling the sides of her cheeks – for the first time in her life, she wasn’t scared by the promise that she was different. She was invigorated. The fear, complete confusion, and downright horrendous pain she’d been experiencing all day were thrust back – all at the promise of the potential gathering around and within her.
“Just do it,” she snapped.
She thrust her hand forward, her fingers stopping just above the base of the thunderbolt.
She couldn’t really describe the way it looked. It was like someone had taken a moment of pure power and paused it. At any time, if you knew how to wield it, you could unpause it. Until then, you were holding the equivalent of concentrated potential in your hand.
But she wasn’t holding it yet – and that was the point. Her fingernails were barely a millimeter away from the base of the lightning bolt, but she just couldn’t reach forward and grab it.
She clenched her teeth. “What’s wrong with you? You have to. Your life will go to hell if you don’t. Every god will hunt you. And Zeus? He’ll just continue to ruin your life.”
She had no idea why she was engaging in this verbal conversation, right here in front of the thunderbolt as the building went to hell. It was a waste of time. But it had to be said. Whispering these words, even if they weren’t in front of Zeus himself, felt like the only act of defiance Anna had ever made against him.
The building shook once more. This time, it was so violent that it shifted the walls. There were bookcases sunken into them, and their glass cases cracked. An unholy shattering sound filled the air, and Anna winced as she jolted forward. Though her body banged against the plinth holding the lightning bolt, her fingers were still frozen in mid-air, micro millimeters away from the hilt of that great weapon.
If she plucked it up, everything would change.
If she plucked it up, she’d take the first steps toward finding out who Fos had really been. And critically, she would take the first real step toward destroying her fate.
From further out on the penthouse level, she heard the unmistakable sound of a window breaking. There was an almighty crack, and it was followed up not just by the whistle of wind, but by the sound of heavy footfall striking the polished concrete floor.
Anna’s eyes widened, rounding like two perfect saucers of pure fear. She whipped her head over her shoulder, her hair slapping into her cheeks and neck.
As her breath caught in her chest, and she prayed that footfall would head elsewhere, it came toward her.
She no longer had any choice, for she no longer had any time.
Anna Smith closed her eyes.
She wouldn’t let any images infiltrate her mind – not of her dreams, not of Zachariah Hope, not of the other gods she’d met, not even of Typhon.
With a completely blank psyche, she closed that remaining minuscule distance between her and the lightning hilt. As soon as her fingers touched it, she felt.
She didn’t just feel power – she felt as if she had never truly felt before. Emotions, sensations, the blood of life itself – all of it ran through her.
Her head jerked back, and she gasped. She could feel her eyes rolling into the back of her head, but just before she feared she could fall unconscious, her hand knew what to do. It gripped the lightning bolt, and Anna lifted it.
She was right. It was paused potential. It was the power of a lightning strike – a million damn lightning strikes – all bottled into one captured moment. And all of it was in her hands.
She gripped it, letting her fingers slide around the unusual surface of the base. It felt like she was holding water and fire, earth and air – every classical element with all their power right at her fingertips.
She finally forced her eyes open, her lips parting with a lurching jerk. She stared down at the lightning bolt as it shimmered in her grip.
She’d done it. She’d made her choice.
That footfall reached the vault door.
Anna looked up.
It was time to live with the consequences of her decision.