I paused in front of the coffee shop and looked at the guys. “I’m going to talk to Gaia. You lot can do whatever you like. I’ll meet you back at my place.”
Mikhail cocked his head. “Shouldn’t we go with you?”
“I think that would be ill-advised. Gaia doesn’t like visitors and she especially doesn’t like guests she doesn’t know.” I made a wry face. “In fact, I’m not certain she wouldn’t throw me out as well.”
“You’re going to see if she’s willing to let you bend the rules of the Pact, aren’t you?”
I nodded at Raphael. “Yes. I was one of the original contractors, so she might be willing to discuss it. Or she might decide to swamp me with molten lava. You never know.”
“I will go with you.”
“Thanatos. I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Why not? My interactions with her in the past have been amiable for the most part. In fact, if she could be said to like any of us lot, it would be me.”
“If I remember correctly, your last meeting with her didn’t go so well.” That was immediately after we’d made the Pact. I could still see the rage in his face when he realized what we did. What I did.
His eyes iced over. “You don’t know when my last meeting with her was, wife.”
That was true. He could have had tea with her on a weekly basis for all I knew.
“I will need to go as well. I’m your observer, remember?”
Mikhail raised an eyebrow. “So now it’s only me that gets left out? Ah, the joys and perils of being the junior member of the team.”
“At this point, if you really want to, we could drag the entire circus there. Not like one more person is going to tip her into magma levels of rage when there’s already three.”
“Ah, no. Thank you.” He gave a theatrical shudder. “I haven’t had the need to talk with our supreme overlord yet and I’d like to keep it that way. Alexandros always used to get stinking drunk when he went to see her and I think I’ll take a cue from that.”
“As you like. We’ll see you later then.”
He gave me a jaunty salute and disappeared.
I exhaled. “All right. Let’s go.”
“Gaia lives here?” Raphael looked around at the rainforest surrounding us and then at the cave entrance.
“Not exactly. This is just one of the many cave systems that lead to her. I just chose this one because South America is closest to home.” Interacting with Gaia was always an experience and I knew that a short teleportation afterward would be the difference between feeling like a truck or an eighteen wheeler ran me over the next day.
I pushed aside the trailing vines that guarded the entrance and walked in. Two steps in, the walls began to emit a faint blue glow. I trailed a hand over the rock face, leaving behind a brighter neon blue trail behind. The cave narrowed into a tunnel about five feet in. Stone steps were carved into the floor of the tunnel, a necessary feature as the passage sloped sharply down. Before Gaia relented and put in the steps, the only safe method of arrival was to use bring your own lube and use it as a slide as our powers was blocked here. It was messy and undignified. Then there was the inevitable frustration and pain when the lube ran out a mile from destination.
We walked down, single-file and silent. The faint blue glow lit at our approach and receded in our wake.
About an hour later, Raphael cleared his throat. “In the interest of curiosity, how long does this trek usually take?”
Thanatos’s laugh was mocking. “It depends on Gaia’s mood. If she wanted us there, three steps would have done. When she doesn’t want to see you, then it could take you a few lifetimes. Assuming you don’t give up.”
“Thanatos. I thought you said she liked you.”
“That wasn’t quite how I phrased it, my flower, and how do you know this isn’t because she doesn’t know Raphael?”
I sighed and trudged on. I liked Gaia, I really did, but she brought a whole new meaning to the concept of power tripping. Add in her propensity to act like a slighted mother and it made for very uncomfortable dealings.
“She’s probably punishing me because I haven’t come to see her the last two thousand years.” In my experience, it was better to admit to being wrong. “Maybe, if she doesn’t want to see me, you can go talk to her on our behalf, Thanatos. We’re only about an hour in. Raphael and I could go wait for you outside.”
My husband’s voice sounded amused. “And you don’t think it’d make her angrier if you showed such a lack of sincerity as to quit half-way through?”
“Considering we have less than twelve solar days to try and save her planet from a hard reset, I think she’ll eventually forgive me if I delay seeing her by two weeks or so because I’m trying to help.”
“That’s rather opt—”
He didn’t finish the sentence because the ground opened up under us. The next moment, we were plummeting through a tunnel that led straight down. I bit back a yelp. Letting her know she got to me was simply a bad idea.
The bio luminescence followed us. It lit up as the air we displaced activated it. The speed at which we were falling meant we barely had three feet of lit space under us and an endless glowing above.
Darling. Well played. Thanato’s mental voice sounded like he was on the verge of laughter.
Thank you. I just hope she doesn’t take it out on us with a hard landing.
A blast of warm air surged up the tunnel. My free fall slowed. The air flow grew progressively stronger and I knew we must be close.
We were falling at a slow enough rate I could see further down the tunnel. The shimmer of a bio luminescent pool gave me just enough warning before the air cushioning us cut off. I took a deep breath and turned head-first. An icy chill assaulted my senses as I broke through the water surface. My chest seized up as all my muscles protested the abuse. I forced my limbs to move, to swim toward upwards and toward shore, but my movements were sluggish. My temples throbbed from the cold. Water filled my nose and mouth as I sank. My vision dimmed.
Pressure at my waist. A hand grasped hold of mine and pulled.
My head broke the surface. I gasped for air. Raphael wrapped an arm around my torso. Thanatos had his hand fisted on my skirt waist. Breathing hurt. Swimming wasn’t going so well either. My limbs sagged in the water despite my best efforts to move.
“You’re killing her.” Thanatos’ roar echoed in the chamber.
“Less rage, more swimming.” Raphael’s voice was calm and unruffled. He tucked me closer to his body and started the side stroke toward shore.
I closed my eyes and did my best to stay out of his way.
Minutes later, his grip loosened and I was swung up into another pair of arms. Thanatos carried me out of the water. A muscle ticked at his jaw. My eyes fluttered closed and I curled closer to his warmth. The cold sank into flesh and bone. I would have yawned if I had the strength to do so. So cold. So sleepy.
“She’s going to die of hypothermia if you don’t do something, you witch.”
Gaia snipped at him. “Do something yourself, Thanatos. I’m not one of your serving wenches.”
He growled under his breath. “You know very well I can’t.”
“Allow me, Thanatos.”
A warm hand settled over my forehead and another over my heart. Heat spread through my body. The cold was still there, hidden in my marrow, but I could feel my toes again. My clothing started to steam gently.
I opened my eyes and croaked at him. “Taking advantage of an old lady? Tsk.”
He smiled and sent an additional burst of warmth through me before lifting his hands. “Such gratitude, Amarantha.”
I reached up to pat his cheek. “Thank you.”
Thanatos set me down, careful not to release me until he was sure I could stand on my own.
Gaia stood in front of us. A toga of linen gauze was her sole concession to modesty. I was surprised to see it, as she usually didn’t bother, just as she often chose not to take human form. Her arms were folded across her chest and her expression was set in obstinate lines.
I sighed. It was going to be one of those days.
“Well met, Gaia.”
She sniffed. “It’d be better met if your husband had the courtesy not to shout at me.”
Thanatos growled. “You nearly killed her with your games, witch.”
“It’s not my fault she’s turned into a puny thing, Thanatos.”
My husband snarled.
The throbbing turned to pounding. I interrupted before he could get going again. “Gaia. Thanatos. Please.”
“I’ll let it go if he behaves.”
“Don’t forget I’m older than you, witch. Don’t you play the elder card on me.”
I raised my voice. “Could we possibly discuss the matter at hand?”
“What is there to discuss? It’s quite literally out of my hands.”
“I would appreciate it if you could release us from the Law.”
She tapped a finger on her chin. “No.”
“I don’t feel like it.”
“Could you please note that I’m only asking so I can help avert a hard reset to your planet? The last I checked, you didn’t particularly enjoy those.”
“I don’t particularly enjoy these humans either. Since it’s a tossup between one and the other, I might as well thwart you a bit as well.”
“What have I done lately?”
“Not much, other than never coming to see me. But thwarting you means thwarting that husband of yours, and that’s not something I get to do often.”
I turned to stare at Thanatos. “I thought you said that most of your interactions with her were amiable. You even implied that she liked you.”
He crossed his arms. “I have not the slightest as to what has her in a snit.”
“So what you’re saying is that you’d rather let a bunch of gods who think they’re superior to you and know better than you decide what to do to your planet just to spite me and Thanatos.”
She sighed. The mask of frivolity dropped and she pinned me with a fathomless gaze. “I will allow it provided you agree to what Grace asked of you.”
My shoulders slumped. I should have known.
“You know it’s necessary once the gods get their act together again, which they will need to do if they are to mobilize to avert this situation. If I allow them their Voices, then what is to prevent them from running amok again? The humans get to enough hijinks on their own with their cults and political parties and so forth. To add Voices to the mix would simply be a recipe for disaster.”
“But why me?”
She smiled. It wasn’t a nice smile. “Because you care. For some reason or the other that I cannot fathom, you still care. Who else would I entrust the world to? Thanatos would just let it burn were it not for you.”
He shrugged. “And well you know it.”
If this was amicable, I didn’t want to see animosity.
“So. Will you or won’t you?”
“What exactly did you have in mind?”
“A guild, a consortium, a council, a judiciary branch, enforcers, rules, rewards, punishments — you know, the usual.”
“And in return, I get my Voice back?”
“Oh, I’m willing to be generous. You can return the Voice to anyone you deem worthy. Of course, if they then fail to meet expectations, you will have to hunt them down and retrieve it.”
“I’m quite overcome with gratitude, Gaia.”
“Sarcasm ill becomes you, young lady. Now, if you give me your word, you can be on your way.”
I closed my eyes. The last time I gave her my word to do something, I lost my child, my husband, and most of my godhood.
“What will it be, Amarantha?” Her voice was soft, as if she recalled the same memory I did.
“Did I really have a choice?”
Her tone was hard and cold when she replied. “If you have to ask that, then you haven’t learned a thing. You always had a choice. You have one now. You’re the one you need to answer to as regards whether or not the price you pay for something is too great. If you consider the price too great, then perhaps you should either consider not paying it or letting go of your hubris long enough to save yourself and others more pain and see what’s been in front of you all along.”
My gut cramped as a sense of betrayal washed over me.
“Don’t look at me that way, Amarantha. You know I consider you a daughter. How do you think I felt when I knew you lost your child, a being I would have considered my grandchild, because of my request and your foolhardiness? I know you blame me for it and I can accept that blame. However, never forget that there was a choice somewhere along the way where you didn’t need to carry as much weight as you did and instead you chose your damnable independence and pride over asking for help.” My breath choked in my chest and pain lanced through my heart.
She flicked a glance at Raphael and Thanatos. “Mikhail would call forth his army if you asked him to. Raphael appears to have at least a vested interest in not letting you die. You don’t need me to detail what Thanatos would do for you. Lucifer would offer up his demons to you in a heartbeat if you only hinted that you might welcome aid. Grace and her godlings are yours to command if you would only take up the reins. You have an embarrassment of riches and yet you disregard them like so much trash.”
The truth of her words swept over me. Heat flushed my cheeks. Just as quickly, ice prickled my skin as what what she said sank in. Realization dawned. If she was right, then I had single-handedly sentenced my child to death — for nothing at all.
“No.” I backed away. “No. No no no.” I tripped over a loose rock and nearly went to my knees. Thanatos caught me by the arm. His touch was the stick of dynamite that blew up all of my denial and grief.
Pain raged through my body. My heart felt afire and my breath sawed at my lungs. I killed my child. Our child. And there was likely to never be another. Not that any could replace the one we’d lost, but knowing that I would never have the chance to cradle life in my arms and it was my fault slayed me.
“Amarantha.” His voice was soft and pained.
I closed my eyes and clapped my hands over my ears and shifted. It shouldn’t have worked. I didn’t question how I was able to. I just needed to be away. Away from the god who looked at me with such horror in his eyes. Away from the disappointment in my mother’s eyes. Away from the husband I’d so cruelly betrayed.