Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
The woman floated around the pond, that knowing smile on her face. “This is the first time your pantheon has taken a mortal two realms beyond her home?”
I stumbled in the water as I tried to step back and found myself flung halfway across the width of the pond. “Other pantheons have tried it?”
“Your kind must be young, for this to have been your first.” Her eyes sparkled as she assessed me. “Stand up.”
“This water is rather comfortable.” I patted the rippling surface and flashed her my own predatory smile. Let her see how she liked it.
“You want answers, you’ll do as I say. Stand up.”
I broadened my grin. “I don’t remember asking any questions.”
She scowled. “I can tell you’re pissing yourself. I’ve only a measure of patience left for your childish antics. Now stand up.”
Her last command stung a little, and not because I had an ego problem. Power laced her words, not enough to compel, but enough to hurt. And I still hadn’t mastered the dimensions of this place, because when I got to my feet and floundered backwards, my spine smacked against a tree at the edge of the clearing. A proper tree, not those willowy saplings I’d first seen.
“Good.” She nodded. “Now that we’re a bit more civilized, ask away.”
I rubbed at my shoulder. “Your manners suck, and I don’t care how much—”
“That wasn’t a question.” She folded her hands and blinked once.
“Fine.” I pushed off the tree, slowly, and managed to stay standing by the trunk. “Who are you?”
A shade of a frown flitted across her face. “Wrong question.”
I scowled. “What are you?”
“Closer.” Her eyes clouded, veiled by something. “I’m me, obviously. Try again.”
My joints croaked as I shifted my weight. So I had some of my old, skeletal self beneath this youthful façade. But this woman, she wore her mask skin-tight. She pranced about, proffering answers, yet taunted me at every question. Of course she was ancient, but she didn’t radiate power like my dream stalker had. I frowned. That wasn’t to say she couldn’t, though. And if she really was the Sybil’s sister, well. It was bad enough there was one of them running around. Just how big was their family?
“Fine.” She was obviously looking for a specific question to reveal her identity. And if she were a truly ancient being… “What’s your name?”
Her eyes lit up. “What a clever boy you are! I was beginning to have my doubts.” Laughing, she hid her smile behind her hand like a schoolgirl. “Unfortunately, you don’t have the constitution to survive hearing it.” Another giggle. “My turn. Which way did my sister go, when she left you?”
“You didn’t answer my question.” Folding my arms, I winced as my forearms slapped together a little too hard. I hid the grimace behind a scowl. “Perhaps, ‘What should I call you?’ would be a better way of phrasing it.”
“Ah.” Her eyes sparkled like crushed glass in an afternoon sun. “What a melody in my ears. Thank you, young one, for such an astute inquiry.” Parted lips revealed teeth unsettling in their perfection. “Time and tongues have forgotten our titles. Not that we’d hold that against you. But”—she held up a finger—“the closest surviving term would be ‘Prime.’”
“So are you more prime than your sister?”
“Sisters.” She hissed the word.
“Ah, yes, silly me.” I met her glare with my own bared-teeth grin. “How could I ever have guessed that there’d be more than one being capable of claiming such a preeminent title?”
The grass in this garden was soft. Its caress on my cheek was careful, loving. Strands of hair tickled my face as the Prime bent over me, the corners of her mouth quirked up in a satisfied smile. “Is the ground rather comfortable as well?”
I groaned and rolled away from her, nearly smashing my ear into a tree as I slid too far. Slowly, I got my knees under me without pitching over. “What did you do?”
“I took my mask off.” Head tilted, she beamed at me, a far too cheery expression. “Good thing you passed out before my face was completely revealed.”
“Yeah, yeah.” I waved her overbearing comment away as I got to my feet. If she and Malia got into a pissing contest, I didn’t know who would win, but everyone around them would lose because they’d flood the world stacking their egos against each other. And despite finding out what she was, I still didn’t have much useful information. “Are you done toying with me or what? I have things to do.”
“I told you I only had so much patience,” she said, frowning. “And I can’t show you what’s behind the curtains if you won’t enter the room to look.”
“Ask the right questions, you mean.” I sighed. “If you’re really old enough for time to have passed you on so completely, then you’ll have to forgive my not knowing the finer intricacies of your frame of reference.”
“Then start simple.” She turned her back on me and glided to the spot she’d been sitting at when I first arrived.
I watched her warily. “You said ‘sisters.’ How many do you have, exactly?”
“Three.” Her eyes glowed, giving the impression of a cat watching from the shadows. It was a strange sensation, given the bright sunlight that bathed the garden. “And, yes, the ‘Sybil,’ as you called her, is one of them.”
“What’s her motive?”
The Prime rolled her eyes. “I said simple questions, not stupid ones. I’ve already told you I’ve no idea, hence why we’re conversing now.”
“That doesn’t explain why you’re here though.” I folded my arms and stared down her annoyed glower. “Why are you trying to destroy her smoke and mirrors? Why help us? Especially if you don’t even know who we are.”
“Another already-answered question.” She slid her feet through the grass, tugging blades through her toes. “It’s been…well, not even I remember how long it’s been since my sister’s taken it upon herself to do anything.” She pinched off a blade with her big toe and passed it to her hand. “You did manage to stay my hand, however lightly I might have swung it, though.” Twisting the leaf around her fingers, her eyes took on a distant look.
This was going nowhere. Opening my senses to the magic of the clearing, I felt for my portal, and immediately jerked back. The earth was nothing but magic, the whole realm an artificial construction that grew from a network of roots. And the trunk at the base of the roots was the Prime, sitting pretty and giving me a look like she knew what I’d just discovered. I had a moment of feeling like a cornered animal before I turned the emotion off. It wouldn’t do me any good to let my feelings cloud my judgement. When I opened my eyes, she was staring me down with the most annoyed look, her fingers pinching the air next to her ears.
“You think this whole event redundant. That my words, and even my person, have no purpose.” She snapped her fingers, and the air rippled. “Well, everything happens for a reason, so I’ll leave you to reason it out for yourself. But before we part, tell me. What gift did she give you?”
A laugh slipped out at the sudden change. “What makes you think she gave me anything?”
“She wouldn’t have left you with nothing.” Her brow pinched as she frowned. “There’s no way she moved herself, only to leave you empty-handed.”
“If you call a vaguely foreboding prophecy something, then that’s the extent of it.”
The Prime massaged the wrinkly folds between her eyebrows. “Of course. Fittingly dramatic.” She cocked an eye open. “Metaphoric nonsense you’ve yet to unravel, yes? Repeat it to me.”
“Forgive me for not particularly trusting a member of her family.” I flashed a smile as I planted my feet. No way did I need more layers of complication added to this already messy pile.
She sighed in disgust. “It’s no doubt about your wretched tantrum with that other pantheon, but if you detest enlightenment, I won’t force it upon you.” She wasn’t looking, so she didn’t see me flinch, or at least I hoped so. Still glaring at nothing in particular, she raised her hand. “I’ll leave you with a choice, then. The first, to return to your mistress and aid her against the coming assault.” She swept her hand, and an image of Malia, wings shrouding Hasda from the witches, shimmered into existence.
“That’s my wife,” I said, a growl in my voice.
“I’m not finished,” the Prime snapped. A flick of her hand, and Jade’s mountain materialized, the goddess herself standing uncertainly in the mouth of her mine. Although the vision showed nothing that would cause her distress, I felt unease creep into my gut. The Prime gave me a wicked smile as she cracked her wrists. “And, the third.” Fog seeped from her palms, colors bleeding into the cloud until I saw an aerial view of Palmyra. As with the view of Tingid, I didn’t see anything immediately alarming, but the fact that the Prime had chosen these three specific locations had my hackles up.
“Those are destinations, not decisions,” I said. “If you’re quite finished ‘parting the curtains,’ I’m rather eager to return to my wife.”
When she squinted her eyes at me, her face changed. The shift was subtle, but the hint of her true power was enough to send shivers down my spine. Intellectually, I knew she was powerful, if she were on the same level as the Sybil, but she hadn’t terrified me in that inarticulable way like her sister had. Until now, that is. She smiled at my fidgeting.
“Each of these places has merited the ire of both the elder goddess and the pantheon whose feathers you’ve ruffled.” Although her eyes still flashed, they’d shed the bone-chilling power of her previous gaze. “One is the focus of the former, one of the latter, and one is pivotal to the three.”
“And because you’re so enlightening, I have to work out which is which on my own.” I squeezed my arms to keep from betraying any more emotion. I had a really, really bad feeling that each of those locations was under attack, although I couldn’t have said why other than the coincidence that the Prime had chosen each.
She frowned. “You really are an ass. Very well, I’ll tell you plainly what you already should've known.” The pictures floated towards me, slowly converging. “Malia leads your child into an ambush. She’s already failed.”
My heartrate spiked, but I said nothing. If she were trying to get a rise out of me, it wasn’t going to work.
“In the mountains you call Tingin, the Sea Mother seeks her slumbering mate. She’ll twist his Warden to her will and couch herself within her new Vessel.” Her smile was sickly sweet. “Quite the entertaining route, that. Far too many mysteries would come to light, and not a few hearts crushed along the way.”
Fog filled the forest, sweat beading on my skin. Images blurring, the overlapping edges of the clouds swirled together. I coughed as my body struggled to breathe around the breath I didn’t realize I’d held.
“And the third.” There was a finality to her voice that grated on my nerves. “More than one deception conducted there, a dance of misdirection so well-executed that not a one stumbled upon the other.” She chuckled. “For a sea-faring people, are you truly so ignorant of its true significance? That’s a port you can’t afford to lose.” Folding her hands, she smiled, taunting me. “So, pompous child, which shall you choose? The lady, the tiger, or the other?”