Mortal Gods (Excerpt)

Ares, god of war, is leading the other dying gods into battle. Which is just fine with Athena. She’s ready to wage a war of her own, and she’s never liked him anyway. If Athena is lucky, the winning gods will have their immortality restored. If not, at least she’ll have killed the bloody lot of them, and she and Hermes can die in peace.

Cassandra Weaver is a weapon of fate. The girl who kills gods. But all she wants is for the god she loved and lost to return to life. If she can’t have that, then the other gods will burn, starting with his murderer, Aphrodite. The alliance between Cassandra and Athena is fragile. Cassandra suspects Athena lacks the will to truly kill her own family. And Athena fears that Cassandra’s hate will get them all killed.

The war takes them across the globe, searching for lost gods, old enemies, and Achilles, the greatest warrior the world has ever seen. As the struggle escalates, Athena and Cassandra must find a way to work together. Because if they can’t, fates far worse than death await.

Gideon Smith amazon buy linkMortal Gods, the second Goddess War novel by Kendare Blake, is available October 14th from Tor Teen.

 

 

1
SAND THROUGH HER FINGERS

The desert never changed. The same sun-dried sand, hard packed beneath Athena’s feet, and the same herds of saguaros strung out across the horizon, were programmed on repeat. And maybe that’s really how it was. Maybe it was the same five tumbleweeds, rolling through on the wind to fall off the edge and show up again back at the start.

Athena swallowed. Nothing in her throat today besides smooth working muscles. No quills, no itchy edges of feathers cutting into her windpipe to make her cough blood. Not today. Maybe tomorrow.

She wiped sweat from her brow. It was high noon in the desert. She’d timed the trip badly; she should’ve left when she could meet Demeter in the fading light of evening. But there was nothing to be done about it now. Her boots already tread lightly on Demeter’s skin, stretched out for miles, halfsunk into the sand. At any minute, Demeter’s wrinkled, blinking eye could show up between her feet. If she wasn’t careful, she might step on it.

It was the first time Athena had gone back to her aunt since finding her in the desert and learning about Cassandra. The girl was the key to everything, Demeter had said. And she had been. Three months had passed since they’d fought Hera, since Cassandra had laid hands on her and killed her. Since she’d turned Hera to stone. Three months since Hermes and Apollo had torn Poseidon apart in Seneca Lake. Since they’d laid Apollo to rest beneath the dirt.

Athena’s dark hair hung hot on her shoulders. Walking the desert the night before had practically turned her into an icicle, but under the sun she felt like a stick of softening butter. The plan had been to cover up the swirling tattoos on her wrists, to dress decently and avoid any of Demeter’s harlot jibes. But that wasn’t going to happen. She’d dropped her jacket shortly after hitting her aunt’s skin and hadn’t bothered to drag it along behind her.

“Back so soon?”

Athena spun at the sound of Demeter’s oddly disembodied voice, carried on the wind from all directions at once.

“What do you want this time?”

Athena didn’t answer. She scanned the wrinkled skin for the eye, broad and bleary. When she found it, she stood over the top and peered down. It swiveled over her body, blinking lashes longer than a camel’s.

“The goddess of battle returns,” Demeter said. “In torn jeans and barely a shirt.” The eye squinted. “The jewel in your nose is gone.”

“I took it out. You’re welcome.” Under her feet, the skin pulled and plumped: a set of pursed lips.

“If you’ve come to tell me your news, I’ve heard it. You found the girl.”

“The girl who kills gods,” said Athena.

The eye narrowed. “Does she? Does she really?”

“Don’t get excited,” Athena muttered. “I’m not going to drag her out to the middle of nowhere so she can take care of you. She’s a god killer, not a god euthanizer.”

“Careful, Gray Eyes. Don’t insult me. You at least die with some semblance of self. I’m a bare-skin rug. Vultures loose their bowels on my face, and I’m forced to snack on passing lizards.” Demeter took a breath. “Why’d you come all this way? Perhaps to gloat? To recount your victory? Tell me how my seaward brother died.”

Athena crossed her arms. Victory, Demeter called it. When they’d lost Apollo. He died a mortal, and they buried him under a mortal’s name in a Kincade cemetery when he should’ve had a temple. But yes. It felt like a victory.

“I was sent to ask whether you know what became of Aphrodite,” Athena said.

“Sent? Who could send you?”

“Cassandra sent me.”

Demeter sighed, and the skin dropped Athena four inches. She wondered how the lungs were laid out over the acres. It would make for an interesting dissection, if any ballsy scientists ever happened across the corpse.

“The girl wants revenge,” Demeter said.

“Wouldn’t you?” Athena asked. Cassandra swallowed rage and tears like candy. Her guts would soon burst with it. “The pain burns her like fire. Aphrodite’s blood will put it out.”

“Will it? I think you know better.”

Maybe she did. But it was what Cassandra wanted, and Athena owed her that.

“What about your fight?” Demeter asked. “Your battle?”

“What of it? We found the weapon. We won the day. But we’re no closer to answers. We’re still dying.”

“What did you think would happen, Gray Eyes? That you’d destroy Hera and the feathers would dissolve in your blood? That Hermes would plump like a fattened cow? That I would spring up out of this dirt, soft and supple and woman-shaped?” Demeter’s eye closed, wearily or sadly or both. “Everyone wishes for answers, Athena. But sometimes the answer is that things just end.”

“Is that the answer here?”

“I don’t know. But I know you don’t think so. If you did, you would wander off and let yourself be torn apart by wolves. You’d dye more harlot colors into your hair.”

Athena snorted. She could be killed. They’d proven the impossible possible. But it wasn’t as easy as Demeter made it sound. Her bones would break those poor wolves’ teeth. A death like that would take months.

And she wasn’t ready. Who would have thought, after so much time, that she wouldn’t be ready.

“The point is,” said Demeter, “that you stay. Why?”

Odysseus flashed behind Athena’s eyes. His voice whispered in her ears. And Hermes, too. Her beautiful brother. Thinner and thinner.

“There are things, I guess, that I still need to take care of.”

Demeter drew in a rippling breath. “You are tired. Sit, child. Rest.”

Athena cleared her throat. “No, thank you.”

“Why not?”

“Hermes says…” She hesitated and rolled her eyes. “Hermes said that when he sat on you he could feel your pulse through his butt.”

Demeter laughed, hard enough to knock Athena offbalance. Her feet skidded apart, and she put her arms out to steady herself. Startled birds flew from wherever they’d been hiding moments before, squawking their worry at the shifting dirt.

“I wish you’d brought him,” Demeter said, quieting. “I miss his impudence.”

Athena smiled. Having finally reached her aunt she was no longer all that tired. Wind cooled the sweat on her shoulders and neck. The quest neared its end. Soon she could go home.

“Aphrodite,” she said. “What do you know?”

“Nothing.” Demeter recoiled innocently, stretching herself so thin that Athena could feel desert pebbles beneath her toes. “Without Hera to direct her path, Aphrodite will hide. So fast and so well that you’ll never find her.”

“We will find her.”

“Why do you ask if you aren’t going to listen?” Demeter snapped. “Why are you talking about a mortal girl’s revenge? Why are you fighting her fight, instead of yours?”

Athena looked away, across the sand. At first it was grief. The loss of a loved brother. And then it was guilt, too many days spent staring at Cassandra, at the shell of a girl Apollo left behind. She’d made a promise to look after them all. Cassandra, Andie, and Henry. Apollo had made her promise.

“I don’t know what it is,” she said softly. “I never… understood time before. It didn’t mean anything. I could never make a mistake. I don’t know how mortals do this. How they only live once.”

“You doubt your instincts.”

“Why shouldn’t I? Things just end. Isn’t that what you said?”

Demeter wriggled in the dirt. “I might be wrong. You beat Hera, but it wasn’t Hera who caused this. Whatever really did, you may be able to fight.” The eye bulged, scrutinizing. “Tell me. What you’re thinking.”

Images flickered in Athena’s mind: she saw Demeter rise up from the earth and shake herself off, no longer a flat expanse of skin but a woman, with brown hair waving to her waist and deep dark eyes. She saw Hermes with muscle returned to his arms, a beautiful curve in his cheek when he smiled. She saw Apollo, Aidan, bright and perfect as ever, with Cassandra by his side.

She thought and she dreamed. Of wrongs put right. Things restored that would never be. Impossibility hovered like a light in her chest and made her want. To be a hero. To feel alive. As alive as she’d felt that day on the road above Seneca Lake, when she’d charged Hera with iron in her fist.

“We won,” she said quietly. “Hera and I both sought the oracle, but I found her first. The other side was stronger, and everything went wrong. Our side was scattered and made terrible choices, but we won anyway. We left Hera and Poseidon dead, and Aphrodite running for cover. And now I have the girl who kills gods. And I have Odysseus, who can lead me to the other weapon.”

She had Hermes, and capable soldiers in Henry and Andie. And she had herself. Goddess of battle.

“You have much,” Demeter agreed.

“I don’t want to put them through any more,” Athena said, and that was true. Hermes, Odysseus, and Cassandra had been through enough. But she couldn’t deny the urge that grew daily in her gut. She couldn’t deny the exhilaration she’d felt when Hera had fallen on the road.

“Going through is the only way to the other side,” Demeter said.

“The people I’ve endangered… I would see them safe. I dragged them with me before,” she said, and paused thoughtfully. “But always in the right direction.”

“Stop trying to make me say it for you,” Demeter said. “Spit it out.”

“I’m going to wage one more war.”

“Why?”

“Because we’re supposed to fight, and we’re supposed to win.”

“Ah,” said Demeter. “There it is.”

“Yes. There it is. I’m going to hunt down every rogue god and monster. I’ll tear their heads from their shoulders. Cassandra will turn them to dust. One last rush of heroes on the battlefield. It’ll be glorious. Something for the books.”

“And if you win, you’ll regain your immortality?”

“Even if we don’t, at least we’ll be the last to die.”

“You’re so sure,” said Demeter.

“I am, Aunt,” said Athena. She looked up at Aidan’s sun, blazing high and hot in the sky. “I well and truly believe the Fates favor us.”

“The Fates favor you,” Demeter said quietly. “And so. What is your first step?”

“The first step,” Athena said. She’d begun pacing back and forth across her aunt without realizing it. “Try to find Artemis. Save her from the beasts in the jungle and gain another soldier.”

“That’s not the true first step,” said Demeter. “When Hera came after you, she sought two things. Two weapons. You only control one.”

“The other can’t be controlled.”

“Then he must be eliminated.”

“Yes,” Athena said. “I need Achilles kept out of the other side’s hands permanently. The trick will be convincing< Odysseus to give him up. And once Achilles is gone… there’ll be nothing they can do against me.”

The eye blinked slowly. For something so sickly and close to death, it was clear as a mirror.

“Go, then, and try your tricks,” Demeter said. “None of this will really be over, anyway. Not until you are dead.”

 

 

2
SUN AND STONE

Snow never gathered on Aidan’s headstone. Other grave markers stood half-buried, with ridges of ice packed across the tops even after family members brushed them off. But Aidan’s sat bare. Snow and ice shrank from it. Out of respect? Or out of horror, maybe, at something buried beneath the ground that had no business there.

A god. A god lay dead at the feet of that granite slab. Apollo. Aidan Baxter. God of the sun.

Cassandra Weaver stood off to the side, as she had on every Tuesday and Friday afternoon since they’d buried him. Sundays were too crowded, and she hated the sound of other mourners, the ones who knew how to mourn and what to say. How to cry softly into a handkerchief instead of screaming until their noses bled.

Her fingers reached out and traced the air in front of his name. Aidan Baxter, Beloved Son and Friend. Every day in the cemetery she thought she’d say something that needed to be said, but she never spoke.

High on Aidan’s grave marker, above his name, was a carving of an enflamed sun. No one had told his parents to put it there. They just had. One more strange thing, working its will on the world, placing symbols for dead gods and keeping the snow at bay.

Odysseus stepped up beside Cassandra and laced his fingers through her hair, drawing it over her shoulder like a brown curtain.

“It’s been an hour. Should we go?” His neck was tucked into his shoulders. Londoner. Unused to the cold.

She’d asked him to be her alarm clock. Time in the cemetery tended to stretch out, and she didn’t have hours to lose. Normally, the job fell to Athena. The goddess accompanied Cassandra practically everywhere she went. A faithful, and hated, hound dog. Looking past Odysseus, Cassandra could almost see her, standing quietly near the edge of the cemetery in the copse of bare winter trees. She’d used to lean against a monument of a weeping angel, looking bored, until Cassandra snapped at her and said she was being disrespectful. But Athena was hundreds of miles away, somewhere between New York and Utah, seeking another dying goddess, stretched out across the desert. Seeking word of Aphrodite.

Cassandra’s hands tingled and burned even at the thought of Aphrodite’s name. They’d spent two months looking, Athena and Hermes both. They threw lines out in all directions, and still Aphrodite was nowhere to be found.

Andie said it didn’t matter. That Aphrodite would die eventually anyway. But it wouldn’t be the same. It wouldn’t be enough, if it wasn’t at Cassandra’s own hands.

Odysseus sank deeper into his coat. His shaggy brown hair made for poor earmuffs. Cassandra flexed her fingers to drive the burn away, and to drive Aphrodite from her thoughts.

“Cold?” she asked.

“Of course I am. It’s beastly cold.” He stuffed his hands under his armpits. “But take your time. We’ve got a while before we need to nab Andie from practice.”

“We can go. Thanks for coming with me.”

“Anytime. But if we don’t go soon, I’m going to warm my feet on his gravestone. Think he’d mind?”

Cassandra looked at the marker. Aidan Baxter. She’d loved him from the minute she saw him, without ever knowing what he really was. Who was she to say what he’d do, or what he’d feel?

I knew him in two lives, and not at all.

She remembered what he’d done to her in Troy—driving her insane, cursing her to never be believed—and she hated him. But she also remembered the sound of his voice and the last look in his eyes. He was there, underneath the dirt, and she’d give anything to reach down and pull him out of it. Even if it was only to scream into his face.

Damn you, Aidan. You were never this infuriating when you were alive. Come back, so I can tell you so.

“‘Beloved son and friend,’” she read. “If they only knew. That it isn’t the half of it. That they’d have needed a gravestone a mile long to tell the whole story.” She shook her head. “Four words. It’s not enough.”

Odysseus put his arm around her and tugged her close. He took a deep breath, and kissed her head.

“I think he’d say it’s everything.”

 

Cassandra and Odysseus walked into the ice arena and found Andie waiting on the steps leading up from the locker room. Her hair stuck to her head, steaming with sweat from practice. It wasn’t that much warmer inside the arena than out, but Andie stretched her t-shirt-clad arms happily.

“First one done?” Cassandra asked, descending the stairs.

“As usual.” Andie cocked her head toward the locker room. Inside, the shouts and laughter of her teammates mingled with the noises of packing skates and pulling Velcro. She snorted. “I don’t know what they’re laughing about. They suck. We suck.”

“Still time to turn it around.”

But there wasn’t. February was upon them, and the hockey season neared its end. Andie waved at Odysseus as he talked to the girls running the concession stand. “Hey, heartbreaker! Get me a hot dog!”

The sheer booming volume of Andie’s shout made Cassandra squint. “You’re in a decent mood, considering how bad you suck.”

“Yeah. It’s funny, but I don’t really care that much. Did you know?” she asked Cassandra. “That the season was going to blow?”

Cassandra shrugged. Of course she had. The usual, runof-the-mill visions were still around.

“Well, anyway. What’s going on in the world of weird?” Andie asked. “Does Athena still want to look for Artemis?”

“So Odysseus says.”

“But you saw Artemis running to her death months ago.” Andie craned her neck and gestured for Odysseus to hurry up.

Had it really been so long? Standing in the hockey arena, it felt like minutes, not months. Cassandra’s eyes clouded with memories of overgrown jungle leaves streaked with blood. The slim girl with brown and silver hair, chased down by a pack of ravenous who knew what. She could almost smell the blood and the rich black dirt. “Yeah,” Cassandra said, taking a breath. “But it’s the only vision we have to go on. And you know Athena. Any chance for another soldier is a chance too good to pass up.”

“Don’t be unfair,” Odysseus said, sneaking up behind them. “It’s about saving her sister as much as it is finding a soldier. And Artemis was Aidan’s sister, too, you know. His twin.” He handed Andie a hot dog in a cardboard shell.

“Finally. What took so long?”

“Sorry. Got caught chatting up Mary and Allie.” He nodded to the girls in concession, who leaned so far over the counter they were about to fall out of it.

Andie batted her eyes. “Odysseus is so witty. Odysseus is so charming! Don’t you just love Odysseus’ accent!” She took a huge bite of hot dog and talked through it. “Barf.”

Odysseus had enrolled at school a month earlier. An ancient Greek hero, matriculating at Kincade High so he could dog Cassandra’s footsteps. Athena’s idea, though she probably regretted it now, seeing how popular Odysseus had become with every girl in their grade. But no. Having him there served a purpose, and to a goddess that was the important thing.

“You headed to Athena’s place?” Andie asked, referring to Athena’s new house, a few streets over from Cassandra’s own, where she lived with Hermes and Odysseus. “I’ll come with you if you guys can stop off and let me shower.”

“When’s your car supposed to be fixed?” Cassandra asked.

“Dear god, soon,” Andie groaned.

 

Athena’s house was a pretty brown cottage with four bedrooms and two stories. A walk-out porch on the second level attached to the master bedroom, Athena’s. It probably made her feel like she could see things coming, but it seemed imperious. If she were home she’d be there now, looking down on them as they pulled into the driveway.

Behind them, tires crunched in the snow, and Andie turned in the backseat. A beaten-up hatchback idled behind Odysseus’ Dodge Spirit.

“Chinese delivery,” Andie said as the delivery guy jogged past their door holding two white bags the size of backpacks. “Did Hermes know we were coming?”

“He didn’t know you were coming,” Odysseus replied. “And I wouldn’t expect to get much of that Chinese, either. Athena’s got him on a ten-thousand-calorie-a-day diet. If I were you, I’d order a pizza.”

Ten thousand calories or not, it wasn’t doing any good. The boy who opened the door was painfully thin, the skin of his cheeks drawn, and the bones visible in his wrists and shoulders. Hermes’ light brown hair shone, and his skin was smooth. Everything about him looked healthy, even as his body ate his flesh away. He waved them inside.

“I can’t believe you’re going to eat all that,” Andie said as Hermes set white box after white box out on the kitchen countertop.

“Big sister’s orders.” Hermes dumped an enormous pile of sesame chicken onto his plate and placed six steamed pork dumplings around the edge. When he ate, he used a fork instead of chopsticks, to better shovel everything in.

“Is it helping?”

Hermes paused a fraction of a second before taking another bite.

“I feel better. And Stanley’s Wok has incredible pork dumplings.”

“It smells good,” Andie said. She eyed the boxes, and Hermes’ brow arched possessively.

“I told you,” said Odysseus. “Order a pizza.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Hermes pushed a box of dumplings in Andie’s direction. “Besides, if you ordered a pizza, I’d eat that, too.”

Cassandra snorted in spite of herself. Without Athena standing stone-faced beside him, Hermes was impossible to dislike. He was so much more fragile than Athena, and much more concerned about not being an asshole.

“That wasn’t there when I was here last.” Andie nodded toward the living room wall. A silver sword with a black handle was mounted above the fireplace. The blade glinted, long and thin, in a subtle curve.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Hermes said with his mouth full. “It’s brand new. Just a replica, though I imagine it could cut someone in half if I wanted it to. It reminds me of one I used to have during the Ming Dynasty.”

“Athena will like it,” Odysseus said. “It suits her, to have weapons all over the house.”

“It does,” Cassandra agreed.

“I don’t think she’d care if I put up baskets of posies. She doesn’t give one whit about decorating or style. If you really want to make her happy, we should sell this place and hobo it down by the river.”

Andie stood, chewing dumpling, and walked closer to the sword. “So, you know how to use this? You studied it?”

“I did,” Hermes replied. “Though fighting and killing comes fairly naturally to gods. Except maybe for Aphrodite.” He glanced sheepishly at Cassandra, who shrugged, even as her hands burned. Any mention of Aphrodite’s name made her think of the glee on the monster’s face when she drove the broken limb through Aidan’s chest.

Cassandra rubbed her palms against her jeans and the burning disappeared.

After Aidan’s funeral, she had asked Athena what her power meant. Athena had blinked and replied that it was her purpose. That she killed gods.

She killed gods. Both intentionally and by accident. Hera. And Aidan.

But Cassandra couldn’t believe that. She was no loaded gun, to be pointed and fired. Yet her hands still burned, and her heart raged with a surprising ferocity. Feeling so angry was new, and she didn’t know what to do with it, besides murder Aphrodite.

And maybe Athena for good measure.

She felt Odysseus’ eyes on her as if he could read her mind. But her silent threat wasn’t real. Much as she hated it, Athena was needed.

“Did you get the maps?” Cassandra asked. Maps of every continent known to house a rain forest or jungle that might be the one Artemis ran through. Athena wanted her to use her sight on the maps to figure out which one it was. Probably a stupid idea. She’d never tried it before, and the only thing she knew about her “gift” was that it was generally disobedient.

“I did,” Hermes said. “Do you want to do it now? Or is my eating going to distract you?”

“Well, it looks like you might be eating for the next few hours, so I guess we should go ahead.” Cassandra smiled and took off her coat.

“The maps are in Athena’s room.” Hermes jerked his head toward the stairs. “On her desk.”

“Sure, I’ll go get them.” Odysseus crinkled his eyebrows. “Bossy.”

Andie plunked down on the sofa beside Cassandra.

“Do you want me to light some candles or something? Set the mood for the voodoo… that you do…” Andie trailed off. She sounded like Aidan. Always wanting Cassandra to play the part. Trances and smoke and mirrors. Magic words.

“It’ll either work or it won’t.”

Odysseus returned with the maps and spread them out on the coffee table. A few were rolled and needed to be weighted down with coasters. Cassandra breathed deep. Odysseus, Hermes, and Andie all stared expectantly, but the green splotches of forest stretched out across the maps were just green splotches. Nothing jumped out threedimensionally. Nothing moved.

“I don’t know what Athena thought would happen,” said Cassandra. “That I’d see a miniaturized Artemis X-ing her way through the Congo?” She looked up at Hermes. “You’re never going to find her. She’s probably dead, and how would you even know where to start?”

Odysseus pushed the maps closer. “Just give it a minute.”

She opened her mouth to say there was no point, but what came out was, “Taman Negara.”

“What?”

Cassandra didn’t know. The words meant nothing to her, but when she looked at the map again her finger struck the paper like a dart.

Hermes leaned in. “Malaysia.” He groaned. “Damn you, Artemis. Why not Guatemala? It would’ve been so much closer.”

“Have you ever been there?” Andie asked.

“I’ve been everywhere,” Hermes replied. “Though not for some time. We’ll have to fly into Kuala Lumpur. Get some guides. It’d be faster if I went by myself.”

“Everything would be faster if you went by yourself,” Odysseus said. “But you know how Athena feels about us going out on our own.”

Only Athena went anywhere alone. The others were guarded and watched, paired up in a buddy system like children. Cassandra, Andie, and Henry most of all. Odysseus and Hermes couldn’t leave until Athena returned to take over babysitting the mortals.

Cassandra watched Odysseus study the map. It was a wonder he was allowed to go anywhere. The way Athena looked at him when he wasn’t watching… telling people he was her cousin from overseas had been an idiotic choice. The minute anyone saw them together, they must’ve thought the pair were incestuous perverts.

“When you get back,” Andie said suddenly, “would you… I mean, do you think you could”—she nodded toward the sword—“teach me how to use that?”

“Since when do you want to learn?” Cassandra asked. “I thought you didn’t want anything to do with your old life.” Your old life. The words stuck to her tongue. Memories stuck in Cassandra’s head from thousands of years ago. She hadn’t had the choice to remember or not. Athena hadn’t given her one. But Andie was different. And she’d decided to stay herself.

Resentment tightened Cassandra’s throat, but she took a breath. What was done was done, and if she was honest, she wasn’t sure what choice she would’ve made if she had been given one.

“It’s not that I want to be another person. Or the old me,” Andie said. “It’s just that I feel different. Stronger. Almost like my arms remember”—she looked at the sword—“holding something like that.”

“Rumor had it you were better with a bow,” Odysseus said, and to Cassandra’s disbelief, Andie blushed.

“And,” Andie said, “I’m quitting hockey.”

“What?”

“It just doesn’t seem important.”

“Before any of this happened, it was all you thought about.”

Hermes and Odysseus traded a look, like they were about to be stuck in the middle of something uncomfortable that was none of their business. Only it was their business. It was their doing. Everything that had changed, and was changing, was their fault.

“Don’t get dramatic,” Andie said. “You’re still you, and there’s another you in you. All I want to do is learn to use a sword. What’s the big deal?” She stood and gathered her bag and coat.

“Do you need a lift home?” Odysseus asked.

“Nah. You guys still have stuff to do here. I’ll go to Cassandra’s and catch a ride from Henry.” She walked around the wooden partition and left without another word.

“I won’t teach her anything, if you don’t want me to,” said Hermes quietly.

“Why not? It’s her choice. I’m not her master.” Cassandra crossed her arms. Hermes raised his brows and gave Odysseus the “someone-is-TESTY” expression before shoving more Chinese into his mouth and wandering into the kitchen.

“Have you heard any more from Athena?” Cassandra asked.

“Nope,” said Odysseus. “It took me weeks to get her to carry the phone. But when she called she did say that Demeter sends her regards.”

“Whatever that means,” Hermes sang from the kitchen, apparently eavesdropping.

Cassandra looked down at the maps. The feeling she’d had about Taman Negara was gone, and they were just maps again. But if she did it for one goddess, she could do it for another.

Her palms tingled. She stared at the paper and thought hard.

Aphrodite.

Her fingers burned so hot she gasped, and the maps ignited. Orange fire shot up in a tower from the coffee table, inches from her face.

“Oh-kay!” Hermes shouted, there in a flash. He slapped the flames out and fanned away the smoke. “Let’s not do whatever you just did again, yes?”

“I’m sorry,” said Cassandra, eyes wide. “I don’t know how I did that.”

Hermes sniffed. “I smell burnt hair. It better not be mine.”

“Come on.” Odysseus pulled Cassandra off the couch and led her through the house until they stood on the rear porch that faced into the backyard. It was a bare rectangle of snow at the moment, but in the spring it would thaw and grow a pad of soft grass. With the privacy fence on all sides, it would make a perfect place to train Andie. And maybe Henry.

So they could die again. So someone could drive a spear through Henry’s chest again, while she and Andie watched.

“Well,” Odysseus said, “what was that about?”

“What do you think?” Cassandra asked sulkily.

“I think you were looking for Aphrodite, and you blew up the world.”

Cassandra looked, into the trees, where an owl perched in the high branches, waiting for Athena.

“She’d better come back with news, Ody.”

“Why?”

“Because she’s kept me waiting long enough already.” The backs of Cassandra’s eyes stung; she clenched her teeth hard.

“Feels like you hate everyone on the planet right now, doesn’t it?” Odysseus asked.

“Not quite everyone.” But it was close. She hated. Over the past months she’d hated everyone and everything at some point, from her mother to the guy who made her coffee at the mall.

Odysseus sighed.

“I wish I’d had the chance to know him better, Cassandra.”

Cassandra wiped her eyes. Already, Odysseus knew her well. He was the only other person on the planet like she was. The only one who remembered another life.

“Yeah,” she said. “Me, too.”

“I’m not going to say anything stupid, like how time heals all wounds.”

“Good. Don’t.” She tucked her hands under her arms and tried to ignore the way he looked at her. But it was difficult. Odysseus had eyes that could make even unfeeling, bitchy goddesses blush.

“What?” she snapped.

“I was just remembering what they said you were like. Back then. In Troy.”

“I don’t care,” she said. “But what did they say?”

“That you were full of fire. They talked about you like a prize horse to be tamed.”

“Nice. Livestock. Very flattering.” But horses weren’t only livestock to the Trojans. They were revered partners. Her brother Hector carried them in his name. Hector, tamer of horses. Maybe that’s why Henry had insisted on another Mustang after they’d totaled the last one.

Odysseus reached out and touched her hair. “It made me want to meet you.”

“Stop it.” She swatted him away. “I think you wanted to meet everyone. Weren’t you married? You must’ve made a horrible husband.”

“You’re right,” he said. “I think I did. But I only ever loved one girl at a time. Or at least, that’s what it feels like now.”

He looked so sad suddenly. Almost regretful, and Cassandra took a breath and relented.

“People change,” she said. “They change in two years, let alone how many have passed since you and I were last alive. I didn’t mean to make you feel guilty.” She chewed her lip. “But I did mean what I said. I don’t care what they thought of me then.”

“But?”

She crossed her arms and tried to seem disinterested.

“But now that you’ve met me, are you disappointed?”

“Not sure yet,” he said. “I do wonder what you were like before we came to town.”

“I was ordinary,” she said. “I blended in.”

“Impossible. With Aidan? You can’t blend in with something that pretty on your arm.”

“Don’t call him ‘pretty.’” Her knee knocked into his. “And you weren’t here. You didn’t see how well he hid.”

“Okay. But then why aren’t you thanking us? If everything was so boring and ordinary.”

“I like ordinary. People only wish for adventure until they’re stuck in the middle of one. Haven’t you ever seen The Fellowship of the Ring?”

“Sure. Lots of times. But I’ve been both hero and zero, and make no mistake—”

Cassandra exhaled. “Look. The difference between you and me is that you slid into your old life like it was a pair of old shoes. Mine has toes filled with razor blades.”

Odysseus pushed off the wall.

“The difference between you and me, Cassandra, isn’t our old lives,” he said. “It’s that I know who I am in this one.”

“I know who I am in this one,” Cassandra said. “The same as I was in the last one. A small fish caught in a big stream. Full of sharp rocks, gods, and assholes.”

Odysseus laughed. “Assholes?” He pushed her hair off her shoulder, a gesture she was getting very used to. “But I cheered you up a bit, didn’t I?”

“Distracted, maybe,” she said. “But the fact remains. This is the only thing I can do now.” She held up her hand. “What I was made for, Athena says. So she’d better not try to stop me from doing it.”

“Just Aphrodite though, right?” Odysseus asked. “What about the others?”

“What?” Cassandra asked, and dropped her hand.

“Other gods,” he said. “Major and minor. Ares and Hades. Hephaestus. Good old drunk Dionysus. Will you be able to point that thing in their direction, when they haven’t murdered the love of your life?”

Cassandra looked down and said nothing.

“You hadn’t thought that far ahead, had you?” he asked.

“I killed Hera.”

“Because she was trying to kill you. You’re not a murderer, Cassandra. You’re not a hunter. And when it comes down to it, you might find it not so simple. Even with Aphrodite. When you look into her eyes. When you understand. It might not be so easy.”

“Then I hope I’m too angry to hesitate,” she snapped. But she wasn’t angry now. Only exhausted, and more than a little scared to really think about what Odysseus said.

“I just want him back, Ody. There has to be a way, doesn’t there? There has to be a way to go and bring him back.”

Odysseus hugged her and rested his chin on her head.

“I don’t know. But if you find a way, I’ll be there. Right to the end of the earth and over it.”

 

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