Aug 7 2013 2:00pm
Check out Antigoddess, the first installment of the new Goddess War series by Kendare Blake, available Septeber 10th!
Old Gods never die. Or so Athena thought. But then the feathers started sprouting beneath her skin, invading her lungs like a strange cancer, and Hermes showed up with a fever eating away his flesh. So much for living a quiet eternity in perpetual health.
Desperately seeking the cause of their slow, miserable deaths, Athena and Hermes travel the world, gathering allies and discovering enemies both new and old. Their search leads them to Cassandra—an ordinary girl who was once an extraordinary prophetess, protected and loved by a god.
These days, Cassandra doesn’t involve herself in the business of gods—in fact, she doesn’t even know they exist. But she could be the key in a war that is only just beginning...
The feathers were starting to be a nuisance. There was one in her mouth, tickling the back of her throat. She chewed at it as she walked, grabbing it with her molars and pulling it loose. Warm, copper-penny blood flooded over her tongue. There were others too, sprouting up inside of her like a strange cancer, worming their way through her innards and muscle. Before long she would be essentially a girl-shaped, walking chicken, constantly plucking at herself.
She reached between her lips discreetly to take the feather out and twist it between her fingers. The movement wasn’t subtle enough; she caught the tilt of his head at the edge of her vision.
“Feathers,” she snapped.
“You should stop making out with your owls.”
“Shut up.” Neither of them wanted to talk about the feathers, any more than they wanted to talk about the way he was starting to look thin and gaunt in places. It was easier to ignore the afflictions than to talk about what they meant. So they just walked, in the same direction that they had been walking for three days already, under the damned sun, in the middle of a damned desert, looking for the last of she who used to be called the Mother of the Earth.
“We should stop,” he said. The distance of his voice told her he already had.
Her legs kept moving, dark denim hot against her knees, for another five paces just to make a point before she kicked at the dry sand, flinging up dust and small stones and probably pissing off a lizard somewhere.
“How do you know?” he asked. “I want water.”
She tossed him the leather cask without looking and lis tened to the slow slosh as he drank. He threw it back and she took a swallow, felt another owl feather making its way into her windpipe, a sore, fluttering spot when the water passed over it. The water was unpleasant too. Lukewarm and dust flavored. She stretched her arms and stared up into the sun.
“It’s a good thing we don’t sunburn.” When they left the desert they’d be the same shade they were when they started, despite yards of exposed skin. She glanced at his jeans, his tight t-shirt, and at her own tattooed wrists and thin black tank top. A shadow passed overhead: a buzzard. She snorted. “Look. He probably thinks we’re a couple of lost rave kids. A quick meal. Won’t he be disappointed.”
He turned shielded eyes to the sky and chuckled. “Will he? I wish we had come from a rave. Next time you drag me to the middle of a desert, it had better be for music and glow sticks. Not some goddess who’s probably not even here. Give me that disgusting water back.”
“She is here. Can’t you feel her? She doesn’t have the energy to hide.” She tossed the water to him and he crouched down to rest, the leather of water hanging loosely down to the dirt. When he shook his head, a cloud of dust fell out of his close-cropped brown hair.
“I can’t feel anything,” he said. “Except the blasted sun and weariness that shouldn’t be there.”
She watched him. Hermes, the god of thieves, an eternal seventeen year old bitching like an old man. It was almost funny. It would have been, if they weren’t both dying, and he hadn’t been so thin. The muscles in his arms were becoming sinewy, and his cheeks had hollows they hadn’t had before. He must’ve lost five pounds just since they reached the desert.
“You should eat something.” She knelt in the dirt beside him and took off her pack. There was dried beef inside and fruit.
“This is humiliating,” he muttered as she handed him the food.
“Death without glory always is. Of course, I never thought it would happen to us.” She swallowed again, and the pin of the feather poked her. She took another drink of water. In the old days, she would have been able to wish the feather right out of existence, to burn it up with a thought, into nothing but a hiss and a curl of smoke. It was still hard to believe that this would be her end, that it would be so quiet and slow, her lungs filling up with feathers. It would be like breathing through a pillow. She wouldn’t even be able to scream.
“We should have seen it coming. It’s not as though it hasn’t been foretold and written about. The twilight of the gods.” He scraped up a handful of dust and tossed it into the air. He arched his brow.
“Dust in the wind. Funny.”
“Everything born must die, Athena.”
“So says convention.” She pushed herself back up and squinted into the harsh light. For as far as she could see everything looked the same. Cactuses cropped up in strange little families. Tumbleweeds rolled along on their way to nowhere. It was flat, and barren, and the last place she wanted to be: dying in the middle of a desert.
She held out her hand and pulled him up.
“Everything born must die,” she repeated. “But I sprang fully formed from our father’s head. So that doesn’t exactly count, now does it?”
It was an odd little scene, a pocket of stillness in the middle of the cafeteria shuffle and noise: two boys at a corner table, watching a silver coin flip end over end. The girl across from them called it in the air, “Heads” or “Tails,” her voice indicating it was far less interesting than their bug eyes suggested. She’d called it correctly thirteen times in a row. She could’ve called it a hundred more.
“How are you doing this?”
“Magic,” Cassandra Weaver replied. The coin spun. “Tails.”
Aidan Baxter caught it and slapped it down against the back of his hand. He showed it, tails side up; the silver eagle shone under the glare of the fluorescent lights.
One of the boys held his hand out.
“Let me see it. Is it weighted?”
They studied it curiously, turning it in their fingers, scratching the edge, tapping it on the table. They flipped it themselves a couple of times. But it was just a quarter.
“There’s got to be something,” the taller boy muttered. He looked at Cassandra like it might be her. Something that she was doing.
But there was nothing special about her. No mystical tell, no ethereal eyes. Just normal, brown, blinking ones. He looked at her brown hair, hanging down around her shoulders. Too average. Not even a streak, no punk-rock pink or gypsy ribbons. He turned toward Aidan.
No one ever bought the magic. They always thought it was a trick, or an angle. Some boring explanation so their world could keep its dimensions and still be explained by the ABCs. By laws and math. That was the way they wanted it. If they learned the truth, they wouldn’t look at her with wonder. They’d be disappointed. Maybe even have her stoned to death.
“Seriously. What’s the trick?”
“Seriously?” She watched the coin spin and called it again. She could tell them she was counting the spins. That it wasn’t much different than scamming a game of poker. They’d believe that. “Seriously, I’m a genuine, bona fide psychic. Always have been.”
He smirked. “Right.”
She glanced at Aidan, and he smiled.
“It’s true,” he said as Cassandra called “Heads” almost be fore the quarter left his fingertips. “Pretty annoying, actually. I could never cheat on her and get away with it. And don’t get me started on the things she sees before they happen.”
Cassandra stifled a laugh. Mentioning her visions was farther than they usually went. But it wouldn’t matter. The skeptical muscles in the freshman’s face just clenched harder. They were muscles she knew well.
Aidan snatched the coin back. “So. Think you can beat her?”
For a second the boys’ mouths opened and closed like fish and Cassandra thought they might try. Sometimes they did. Once, a girl managed to call it right five times before she missed. Maggie Wegman. Just a petite blond girl who sang in the choir and played volleyball. Cassandra watched her sometimes in the halls, wondering if the five times had been a fluke, or if Maggie might be a little bit psychic too.
Might be nice if she was. We could start a club for freaks. I could be like Professor X.
She smiled to herself, and shook her head when Aidan gave her a weird look.
“Don’t waste your time.” Sam Burress winked at her from across the table, his brow arched beneath his black stocking cap. She hadn’t thought he’d been paying attention. “Nobody beats Cassandra. Half the school’s lost money to these two.” He gestured between her and Aidan with a carrot stick before biting through it. “Better just pay up. Get your friends to play and she’ll give you a cut.”
The boys opened their wallets and forked over ten dollars apiece.
“This isn’t hard-earned allowance money or anything, right?” Cassandra asked as she took it.
“Nah,” said one of the boys with a shrug. He had a sweet face and a mop of brown hair. “It’s a really cool trick.”
“Thanks. I stayed up for three days watching Criss Angel to figure out how to do it.”
His face lit up, relieved by the explanation. “I knew I saw this somewhere.” He picked up his plastic lunch tray and nudged his friend to leave, back to their own table. Before he left, he winked at her. No hard feelings, and now when they passed each other in the hall, they’d nod.
“Why’d you say that?” Aidan asked after they’d gone.
Cassandra shrugged. To make them feel better maybe. Or maybe just to get the wink. Some goodwill instead of wary glances later on.
Aidan shook his head.
“Your showmanship is slipping. Do I need to get you a crystal ball and a bunch of gold jewelry?” He slid closer to her on the bench, blue eyes dark and devilish, then picked up her hand and kissed it. “They’re going to start thinking it’s me. That I’ve got a trick to tossing it. Maybe you should breathe heavy, or roll your eyes back in your head.”
Cassandra snorted. “What am I? Some guy at a carnival?” She shoved him with her shoulder. “You really love this about me, don’t you?”
“I really do.” He kissed her temple, like that was where it came from. “Amongst other things.” He turned away to take a bite of bland lunchroom burrito and to scoop the cherries out of his fruit cup into Cassandra’s. The hood of his gray sweatshirt was over his head, covering his golden hair just like it always was at school unless a teacher made him take it down for class. He looked like a street urchin, sitting there with his knee tucked up, scarfing his food.
But a good-looking street urchin.
Cassandra reached to touch his cheek.
“No PDAs while I’m eating.” Andie Legendre swung her leg over the bench opposite, disrupting Sam and the rest of the table. They clucked and rustled like birds disturbed on the roost as they moved down. “You’ll appreciate that rule when I have a disgusting boyfriend of my own.”
“Yeah, we will,” Aidan said, too enthusiastically for Andie’s taste if her expression was anything to go by. “Besides, when are you ever going to get a boyfriend?”
“Whenever I find one who’s more manly than I am.” She threw a carrot at him.
“So never, then.”
Cassandra punched Aidan lightly in the shoulder, but he and Andie both laughed. It wasn’t exactly untrue. Andie had been named cocaptain of the varsity girls’ hockey team that fall, even though she was still a sophomore. And she was taller than most boys. And stronger.
“Trade you?” Andie scooped Cassandra’s burrito off her tray and deftly swapped it for a tri-cut potato. Half the burrito disappeared in one bite.
“Tuck your hair back.” Cassandra reached forward and slid Andie’s black hair behind her ears. “You’re going to eat it otherwise.”
Andie snorted. “So what? It’s clean. You guys been scamming freshmen again?”
“How’d you know? Are you psychic now too?”
“Yeah. I used my magical ability to see you from the lunch line.”
Cassandra’s eyes drifted through the cafeteria. It was always so loud. Pervasively loud. A constant, multitone buzzing interspersed with the clack and clang of trays and silverware and chair legs dragged against the floor. At least fifty conversations going on at once, and everyone had at least one ear or one eye on someone sitting at a different table.
Cassandra crunched through her tri-cut potato and tuned out the noise. There were worse things to be than psychic. A mind reader, for example.
“Hide me.” Andie ducked low.
Cassandra turned. An auburn-haired girl with a sprinkling of freckles across her nose and cheekbones was headed their way with an imperious look on her face.
“If she tells me one more time how captains need to set an example I’m going to fling rice in her hair.”
“Andie!” Christy called. “What are you wearing tomorrow?”
“My jersey,” Andie replied with a curled lip as Christy breezed past.
“Good. Because captains set an example.”
Andie’s spork hovered dangerously above the rice, but in the end she just threw the spork. It bounced off Christy’s shoulder harmlessly. She didn’t even acknowledge it. Captains set an example.
“You guys coming to the game tomorrow?” Andie asked.
Cassandra cocked her head regretfully. “History test Friday. I have to study.”
“I have to help her.”
“You guys are lame.” The roll of Andie’s eyes confirmed the point. Andie never studied. And not because she was a natural scholar, but because she couldn’t be bothered to give a shit.
Cassandra nudged Aidan. “Friday night’s open,” she said. “Bonfire party at Abbott Park?”
“That’s better.” Andie grinned. “I’ll spread the word.”
Studying might’ve been a mistake. Two hours in, it was clear that Cassandra already knew everything, and Aidan was bored. He reclined on pillows stacked against her headboard and slid farther down them by the minute. He was never really any more interested in studying than Andie was.
“You wish we were at the game?” he asked.
“A little.” Or a lot. Watching Andie’s game with a hot chocolate and a long piece of red rope licorice sounded ten times better than what they were doing. Notebooks and textbooks and loose-leaf handouts lay strewn around them in carefully organized circles and piles, the pages exposed so the words could whisper “U.S. History” into the air like a cloud. She glanced at the clock; it was too late to turn back.
“Are they going to win?” Aidan asked.
“Yes,” Cassandra replied sulkily.
Aidan took a drink of his soda and set it on the night stand. Then he started discarding books and papers, casually dropping her carefully ordered stacks onto the floor. Each moved pile opened up space between them on the bed. He shrugged out of his zip-up hoodie and crawled toward her.
“What are you doing?”
“Don’t worry. You’ll like it.”
“Are you sure?”
He paused. “Fifty, sixty percent sure.”
Laughing, she let him take the last notebook out of her hand and heard it hit the carpet as he laid her on her back. The room was quiet as they kissed, the bedspread and walls grown used to their antics. They’d been making out in her bedroom for almost a year. Sometimes, when he wasn’t there, the air seemed full of him still, imprinted with a thousand memories of things they’d done. Everything inside the walls was tied to him somehow, right down to the walls themselves. He’d helped her paint them white six months ago, when she’d finally had enough of the lavender of her girlhood. But they’d been lazy, and distracted, and they’d left roller marks. In a certain light, the lavender still showed through at the corners.
“My parents will be home any minute,” she said.
“Yeah. So disentangle your hands from my bra.”
Aidan smiled and rolled onto his back with a groan. “Ow.” He pulled a textbook out from under his shoulder and tossed it onto the floor. “We study too much.”
“You know why I study so much.”
He looked at her and held out his arm; she rolled closer and rested her head on his shoulder.
“The future, the future, I know. You don’t know where we’re headed. A little weird for a psychic.”
“Shut up.” She nudged him in the ribs.
“I’m kidding. But I’m telling you. It’ll fill in. It’s the only thing it can do.”
Cassandra said nothing. They’d talked about it before. The dark spot waiting up ahead, somewhere around her eighteenth year. The day when she’d no longer be able to foresee things. It was a strange thing to foretell, her own lack of foretelling. But she knew it, just as surely as she knew on which side a coin would fall. She wouldn’t be psychic forever. One day it would be gone, like a light going out.
It’ll fill in, he always said. And she supposed he was right. But since they wouldn’t be able to scam freshmen for cash forever, they’d better have a backup plan. Like college.
Cassandra listened to Aidan’s heartbeat, the hot rushing of blood so strong beneath her cheek. When she’d first told him she knew her gift would disappear, she’d asked if it would make her less. If it would make her boring, or ordinary. He said no, but sometimes when she made a prediction the look in his eyes was so intense. Almost proud.
“Do you think I’ll feel stupid?” Cassandra asked.
“After I can’t see anymore. Will it be like a blank? Like words on the tip of my tongue that I can’t quite remember?”
“No.” He kissed the top of her head. “I don’t think it’ll be like that.”
“What do you think it’ll be like?”
“I think it’ll be like… life,” he said after a few seconds. “Like other people lead. I think you’ll go to college, and I’ll go to college, and we’ll get a place together. That’s what you want, isn’t it?”
It was. Despite a few misgivings, most of her couldn’t wait. It might be nice to not know for a change. More of an adventure. Aidan said that some people would kill to have her ability, but she didn’t know why. It never came in any particular use.
“Yes, that’s what I want. That’s why I study.”
“Not a good enough excuse. I’m the richest orphan in the tri-state area. We don’t need scholarships.”
“You don’t need scholarships,” she corrected. “Not all of us get to live out a reversal of the musical Annie.” She remembered how curious she’d been three years ago, when she’d heard that Ernie and Gloria Baxter, neighbors for as long as she could remember, had adopted a teenage son. A trust-fund-rich teenage son.
Aidan grinned. “I guess it was a pretty hard-knock life. Living in all those group homes.”
Cassandra lay quiet. He joked, but it was probably more true than not. Part of her still didn’t understand why he’d chosen to live in state-run facilities and group homes instead of with whatever remained of his family. A family as wealthy as his had to have surviving members. A drunk uncle, at least. But she knew better than to ask. He shut down whenever she brought it up. “You worry too much.” He sounded drowsy. She’d have to rouse him soon, or they’d wake to a vision of her dad’s extremely annoyed face. “You and I will be together, Cassandra. You don’t have to be psychic to see that.”
THE MOTHER OF THE EARTH
They walked for two more hours before he stepped on it. Or rather, before he stepped on her. Demeter. The one who used to be called the Mother of the Earth. It was much like stepping on the edge of a long-collapsed tent. Pebbles skittered across the leathery surface, making soft, echoless thumps. When they knelt to inspect the edge, they couldn’t find one. She simply disappeared into the dirt.
Athena ran her hand gently across the skin, because that’s what it was. Skin. Stretched as taut as a drum, dried out and tanned.
“Hermes,” she whispered. “I didn’t expect her to be like this.” She didn’t know what she had expected. Part of her had hoped that Demeter had escaped the fate of the rest of them, that her link to the fertile earth had kept her well. Instead she seemed to be suffering worse.
“Maybe you shouldn’t touch her,” Hermes whispered. When she looked at him quizzically, he shrugged. “It seems indecent, doesn’t it? We don’t know what part of her this is, and—well, honestly, what if she’s already dead?”
“She’s not.” Athena bit her lip on the question of why he couldn’t tell. Every god had different talents. Maybe Hermes couldn’t detect any of them. But the slight vibration that had been in Athena’s bones since they made it to the desert had grown to a dull yet soothing hum. Using her fingers, she traced the line of the skin a few steps to her right. Reluctantly, Hermes did the same to their left. When they were twenty paces away from each other, she stood and put her hands on her hips. Then she lifted her boot-clad foot and stepped down, pressing her weight onto the layer of skin. It didn’t move, but Hermes was at her side in an instant, dragging her back.
“What are you doing?”
“What we came here to do,” she hissed, and jerked away. “We have to speak to her, if she can even still speak. And the only way to do that is to find her mouth, which is obviously nowhere near here.” She looked around bleakly. The skin could stretch for miles. And even streetand centuryhardened as she was, she didn’t relish the idea of tramping around on it for what could be hours or days.
“Demeter!” Hermes shouted. They waited in the stillness. It was difficult to believe that the stretched skin at their feet was actually her, the summer goddess, lush and full of bounty. People had once made offerings of grain and grapes. They had danced in her honor.
“You don’t have to come,” Athena said finally. “I’ll understand if you don’t.”
“This is stupid.” He put a hand on her arm. “You should call an owl.”
“We’re in the middle of the desert.”
“Don’t play dumb.” When she continued to, he gestured to a patch of tall saguaros, their arms raised. To Athena, the cactuses seemed to be waving stupidly, traitorously. “There are owls here.”
Of course there were. She could see them. And hear them. There were close to a dozen tiny elf owls within calling distance, and every one would do her bidding. She rubbed her tongue against the roof of her mouth and felt the hardness of a new quill growing beneath the surface.
It isn’t their fault. We all go our own way. Hermes eats his own flesh, Demeter gets stretched to the point of tearing, and I choke to death on the inside of a bird cage.
Athena looked at her companion. They were both haggard and dirty. Hermes’ vibrant skin was caked with dust, and rings of armpit sweat grew larger on his gray t-shirt. She glanced down and brushed at dirt marks on the belly of her black tank top. Her hair hung down her back in dark, rough tangles.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I just got the idea that when we saw her, we shouldn’t look like… such punks.”
He laughed and flicked a lock of her hair over her shoulder. “Then you should’ve dyed over those purple streaks before we got here. It’s too late now. We look how we look.” Despite his words, he brushed at his jeans. “We’re really going to see her. Aunt Demeter. After so long.” He smiled. “And much sooner if you’d just call a damned owl.” His breathing was slightly labored, but hope lit up his eyes for the first time since they’d started their search for answers.
God of thieves, she thought fondly. Always looking for the easy way out. But this is only the beginning.
Still, he had a point about the owls.
“You win.” She lifted her hand toward the nearest group of saguaros.
It was like pulling a string. A tiny, yellow-eyed bird dove out of the cactus and made a beeline for them. Athena lowered her hand and it flew around and around her in a tight circle, clicking its small beak. It would have liked to land on her. She could feel that. The owls were still her servants, and the fact that it was their feathers that were killing her would probably have saddened them more than it did her, if they had been able to know.
It isn’t the feathers that are killing me. The feathers are being used to kill me by something else. Some force. This damned Twilight.
In a flash of eyes, she told the elf owl what she wanted, and it zipped off across the expanse of skin. It would search for days until it found Demeter’s mouth. It would search until it died of exhaustion.
“Was that so hard?” Hermes asked, and plunked himself down in the dirt to wait. He squinted up at the sky, blazing so brightly it appeared white. “About five more hours of daylight, you think?”
Athena snorted. “I could do with less. The sun is making my nose ring so hot I might accidentally brand my face.” She lowered down to the sand and propped her elbows on her knees.
Hermes, always one step ahead when it came to relaxation, stretched out, arms crossed behind his head. “If Apollo was here, we could ask him to turn it down.” He turned to her. “Where do you think he is, anyway? Off in the jungle with Artemis, maybe. Twins of the sun and moon, hanging out in some Mayan temple.”
Athena smiled and said nothing. It was nice to imagine. But the truth was probably far uglier.
Hermes reached into his pack for some beef jerky. He wanted to ask a million questions; Athena could see that. But they’d been over most of them before, and she didn’t have new answers.
But Demeter might. She’s always given me wise counsel. She has to have heard something that we haven’t.
“Have you thought about what comes next?” he asked.
“One thing at a time, brother.” It was a stupid question anyway. She thought about it every minute. Where they were going, and what must be done. The thousand what-ifs and maybes, and finally what might be at the end. The ultimate end. Dying was a strange, almost invigorating feeling. She couldn’t remember ever feeling quite so desperate before.
The owl returned in the dark. Its yellow reflector eyes floated toward them, sinking slowly, and disappearing when it blinked. Hours had passed while the sun sank below the sand, and she and Hermes talked of idle things that had nothing to do with the task that literally lay before them.
As the bird dipped lower, she could feel the whisper of its exhausted wings. She gave it permission with a tilt of her head, and it landed on her shoulder in a soft, grateful clump. Hermes jerked. Cold came on quickly in the nighttime desert, and the two had taken to resting back to back, staving off the chill. He turned and regarded the drowsy owl.
There was no moon. The scene in the sand, two gods speaking to a bird at the edge of an expanse of stretched skin, was invisible to anyone else. But Athena could see into the owl’s eyes clearly.
“Where is she?” Hermes asked. “Er, where is her… mouth?” He didn’t ask whether the owl had found it or not. It wouldn’t have returned if it hadn’t.
“A few hours’ walk,” Athena replied. “That way.” She stretched her arm out and pointed southeast.
Hermes sighed. “A few hours. Everything used to be so much easier. Do you remember when I could fly?”
She laughed. “Of course I remember. It isn’t easy to forget someone running all over the place like the damned Flash. It was pretty geeky, frankly.”
He snorted. “Even when you’re dying, you’re still a bitch.”
“What are you complaining about anyway? You can still catch a bullet.”
Athena heaved to her feet; the owl on her shoulder gave a shudder. She glanced sidelong at it and whispered, “Rest now, little one. And be well.” It blinked and ruffled itself, then flew off into the black to disappear into its cactus. She held her hand out. Hermes took it, and she pulled him up.
We should be at the mouth by morning. The strangeness of the idea made her pause, but after a few seconds, her boot found its way back onto the skin. It sank down like the surface of a trampoline. She couldn’t feel the dirt or gravel beneath it, but couldn’t help imagining the grinding that had to be going on beneath her heel. Maybe Hermes’ idea of flying wasn’t so ridiculous after all.
She looked back. He lingered on the edge, looking guilty or anxious, she couldn’t tell which. Then he shrugged and carefully put his feet down until he was by her side.
“At least she’ll know we’re coming,” he said.
“We should be getting there soon. The sun’s coming up. What do you think she’ll say? Do you think she can hear us? Where are her ears?”
Athena walked on in silence. After six hours of traveling on the skin, it didn’t feel any less unnatural beneath her boot heels. She wished Hermes would shut up. But he was nervous, and when he was nervous, his tongue moved as quickly as his wings used to.
“You’re lucky I’m stretched flat.” Demeter’s voice was a rasp, thin as the wind that raced across her leathered body. “If I had any decent lung left, I would’ve sucked in your bird and you’d never have found me.”
Athena scanned the skin beneath them. Hermes had zipped to her side and was doing the same.
“We’d have found you eventually, Mother of the Earth,” she said. “We would have just had to put more boot prints into your hide first.”
Demeter laughed, and when she did there was more air to it, more force. Athena wondered briefly if the goddess wasn’t sandbagging, and the pun almost made her snort. But the idea that Demeter was stronger than she seemed, that the skin could snap over the top of them at any moment, trapping them like a great bat’s wing, kept her quiet. She and Hermes both carried small pocketknives, but she didn’t want to think about what it would take to slice their way out should Demeter decide to try and keep them.
“Sit, children,” Demeter said.
Hermes did so immediately. The walk had been long, and his gray t-shirt was black with sweat. But after only a few seconds, he stood back up and looked at Athena with an odd expression.
She paid him no mind. She was still looking for the mouth, an eye, anything. Had all of Demeter’s features been spread out as she was stretched?
“How did you come to be this way?” Athena asked, stepping slowly toward the sound of shallow breathing.
“I am used as the earth is used,” Demeter replied. “Pulled thin across the land and consumed. Sucked dry, bleached white. And so I have been laid thin for decades. For centuries.”
“Why didn’t you seek us out for help?” Athena asked. She saw what looked like a ragged wrinkle in the skin, like an elephant’s kneecap. And then it opened, revealing a glassy, dark eye, which swiveled sickly toward her and fixed her with a sharpened pupil.
“We are not all like you, Gray Eyes,” Demeter whispered. “Goddess of battle, fighting through the millennium. Unable even now to lie down and accept your fate.”
Hermes walked to the eye and peered down at it. “We’re immortals,” he said loudly. “Why should we have to accept this?”
“Immortal doesn’t mean forever, Messenger.”
Hermes scoffed. “We shouldn’t have even come here. She’s as useless as that old turtle from The Neverending Story. Nothing but riddles and double-talk.”
Beneath their feet the skin quickened, tightening like the muscles of a snake before a strike. They were lifted three inches, and Athena cast him a sharp look. He was always impatient, always twitchy. Someday it would get them into trouble they couldn’t get out of.
“You say I am the goddess of battle, and so I am,” Athena said, careful, unlike Hermes, to keep the modernity out of her voice. “But wisdom was also my charge. And I can’t understand this. That is why I come to you. To learn what you know.”
“I know many things with my ears pinned to the dirt. They walk across me and spill their secrets into the sand. But you cannot escape this. You shouldn’t.” Demeter’s voice was low, spoken through tense lips and teeth. Her eye swiveled up and down the length of Athena’s body. “Look at you. Ink marks your skin. You bear a whore’s jewelry in your nose. Why should you escape when my daughter is already gone?”
“Persephone,” Athena whispered. The queen of the underworld and Demeter’s daughter, stolen from the summer lands and dragged below to be the bride of Hades. It made sense that she had died faster than the rest. She was halfdead already, one side of her an ageless, golden-haired maiden, and the other a rotted, sagging corpse. When Athena closed her eyes, she could see Persephone’s demise: the black skin slowly consuming the peach, the blue eye becoming cloudy, then milky, and finally falling into her skull. She swallowed and frowned, unsure whether the vision was true or just the product of her imagination.
“I’m sorry,” Athena whispered. “I was sorry the first time she was taken from you. You know that. I wanted to get her back.”
Demeter sighed, and the skin moved them with an uneven rattle. “What do you want, Athena? Why have you come, dressed like a harlot, asking stupid questions?”
“It’s high noon in the desert,” Hermes snapped, blowing sweat off of his upper lip. “Was she supposed to come wearing a high-collared robe?”
Athena placed a hand on his arm. Demeter’s words didn’t bother her. They didn’t feel insulting so much as grandmotherly, and she regretted not covering her tattoos and taking out her nose ring. It was lucky that the purple streaks in her mahogany hair had mostly grown out.
“If you seek to stop this, then leave me out of it,” Demeter said. “I want to lie here until I tear. I want to rip into leathery ribbons and be carried away by birds.” She laughed another low, papery laugh. “If you want answers, go to the Oracle. She will guide you.”
“The oracle? The oracle at Delphi?” Hermes scoffed. He looked at Athena. “There’s nothing there but a half-ruined temple and mushroom-induced hallucinations. There never has been.”
“She didn’t say anything about Delphi,” Athena muttered. Of course she’d never considered going to the oracle. There was nothing mystical about that temple in Greece. The only thing that had once made it wise was the fact that Apollo had deigned to imbue it with knowledge. But he hadn’t hung around there for centuries. He hadn’t hung around anywhere that she knew of. They had all scattered across the globe, becoming hermits and nomads, and maybe it was that as much as anything that had spelled their doom. They had lost one another. She hadn’t seen any of them, save Hermes, for over a hundred years, unless you counted the dreams and flashes. And now she was looking for them all, scrambling around to save them, when she hadn’t really cared for most of a millennium.
“Please,” she said. “Just tell me what you know.”
“You can’t stop it, Athena,” Demeter said. “I see the feathers blooming under your skin. You’ll be weak. You’ll be too late.”
“But there is a way to stop it.”
“I don’t know. Not without great cost. There are tools that might help.”
“What kind of tools?” Hermes interjected, impatient as usual.
“Those that you have known before,” Demeter said. “Some of them walking are nearly as old as you are. They are threads that were cut, and then rewoven.”
Hermes turned to Athena. “What is she blathering on about?”
“Reincarnation,” Athena said thoughtfully.
“Oh,” Hermes snorted. “So we’re Buddhists now, are we?”
“What would they be good for?” Athena asked, ignoring him.
“What they were always good for,” Demeter answered. “They still are, fundamentally, what they were.”
Hermes stepped closer to the eye. He seemed to hesitate to speak to it, but in the absence of a mouth, there were few other options. “I still don’t understand,” he said awkwardly. “How will humans, even reincarnated ones, help us to stop… whatever this is?”
“You still don’t know what this is,” Demeter said.
“This is the twilight of the gods.” The skin shook as the goddess laughed. Pebbles bounced on her surface at the vibrations. Athena and Hermes shifted their weight uncomfortably. It was like standing on a drum.
“The twilight of the gods,” Demeter said when the rumbling had stopped. “But not all of the gods. Some of us are the bitches of fate and will persevere.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean you’re not fighting our deaths. You’re fighting a war. A war against your own. And you will lose.”
“A war against our own?” Hermes asked. “Why would we fight each other? We’re dying.”
Athena swallowed. Some of them would fight for exactly that reason. Dying wasn’t something gods understood. It certainly wasn’t something many would do well.
“You’ll kill each other now, because you can. What was impossible is now possible. And if that wasn’t reason enough to try, you are the Titan’s children. You’ll kill each other. Consume each other, to survive.”
The skin shifted softly from side to side. It took Athena a moment to realize that it was Demeter settling into the dirt, ruffling her skin like she was pleased with herself and ready to drift back to whatever sleep she had, stretched across the desert.
“Go and find the Oracle,” the tired voice of Demeter said, drifting off. “If you can, and if she’ll help you, after what you did to her. You three. But maybe you’ll be lucky, and she’ll hate the others more than she still hates you.”
“Enough riddles. Who is the Oracle? What can she do?” Hermes stomped his foot and Demeter gave an “Oof!” Athena gave Hermes a stern look. It was rude to stomp your aunt, no matter how dire the situation.
“The Oracle is a prophetess. Find her. Make her remember, and she’ll be much more than that.” The eye fluttered shut.
“You won’t help,” Athena whispered.
“Do I look like I’m in any position to help?” Demeter snapped, and the skin coiled back to attention. “And you, with your whore’s jewelry and pathetic knife. Are you in any position to fight?”
Athena walked to the eye and knelt. Gently, she placed her palm above the lid, and the tired eye drifted shut. “Perhaps not yet. But I will be soon.”
Antigoddess © Kendare Blake 2013