“Most goddesses. Standing, levitating, and astral projection room only.”
“How’re you liking my chances?” Nïx asked.
Riora tilted her head. “Nothing is impossible with you, which is why I’ve always liked you.”
Nïx nodded thoughtfully. “Aside from a few other deities, you’ve always been my favorite.”
Riora pursed her lips, and she and Nïx entered.
The focus of the room was a grand wooden table with three concentric rotating disks. One disk measured all times. The second was a perpetually changing map of the mortal world and connecting domains. The third monitored celestial acts taking place across all realms. The center of the table was hollow, with a dais in the middle.
A number of goddesses, or their dimensional likenesses, were in attendance. In the flesh were the witch deities Hekate and Hela; Lamia, the goddess of life and fertility; Wohpe, goddess of peace; Saroh, the goddess of the Jinn; and the Great She-Bear, protectoress of shifters. Among many more . . .
With a nod of encouragement, Riora left Nïx and took her saved spot at the table.
The legendary Skathi presided. She looked exasperated, not bothering to hide her feelings about Nïx’s petition.
The Valkyrie didn’t seem to notice the goddess’s displeasure. With that bat on her shoulder, she nonchalantly made her way toward the dais in the center of the rotating table. As she approached, a path opened up, the wood disappearing, then reappearing behind her, like a wake.
Atop the dais, Nïx turned to Skathi. It was known that if one gazed into that goddess’s eyes, he or she would experience all the fear and sorrow of Skathi’s prey over the ages; yet Nïx boldly met her gaze. Which appeared to surprise the goddess.
Clearing her throat, Skathi called the meeting to order, then took her seat. “We will dispense with formalities to limit the duration of this meeting. We convene because Phenïx the Ever-Knowing is petitioning to join our ranks in the pantheon of goddesses.” Skathi steepled her fingers. “Tell us in your own words: Why should we welcome you into our blessed number?”
Bright-eyed and breathless, Nïx said, “Well, I can mime”—she demonstrated as Riora dropped her forehead to the table. “I’m a mistress of keg stands”—Nïx looked around for a keg with which to demonstrate—“two of my three parents are gods, and I have a goddesslike power.”
Skathi raised her brows. “Your talent for mime notwithstanding, you have an obvious mark against you: human blood. One of those three parents of yours was mortal.”
“Doesn’t seem to slow me down.” Nïx hiked a thumb at herself. “After all, just this Accession, I orchestrated the death of Crom Cruach.” The god of cannibalism. “Hmm, Skathi, wasn’t he your curse to deal with? Right, then.” She brushed off her hands matter-of-factly. “We’ll settle up at the bar.”
Skathi glared, and the flames of her temple climbed higher. Yet then, a bout of thunder shook the mountain, seeming to soothe her. “A goddess is measured by the company she keeps. Yet you’re close to Loa, the voodoo priestess, a mere shopkeeper who grows to be a practitioner of the darkest arts?”
“Loa prefers to be known as the Commercenary.”
“You do realize the power she wields?”
Nïx sighed. “Counting on it.”
Seductive Lamia observed, “Under your direction, La Dorada the Queen of Evil has arisen.”
“Dora and I are like this.” Nïx spread her arms wide. “Now, I’ll be the first to admit she’s not without faults. Very grumpy when she wakes up. And with Dora, it’s always me me me, ring ring ring.”
“Why would you resurrect her?” Skathi demanded.
“No one else was going to do it!” Nïx said, just as her bat leaned in beside her ear. The soothsayer nodded to it, then murmured, “Meet me at the lightning bolt.” She gazed on fondly as the creature flew away with a screech.
“Your attention!” Skathi snapped.
“What were we talking about? Let’s be quick, then. It’s past Bertil’s bedtime.”
Jaws dropped at Nïx’s temerity.
Speaking to no one in particular, Nïx said, “And because we’re going to need her.”
“Who?” Lamia asked.
“Dora.” As if speaking to a child, Nïx said, “You asked me why I’d resurrect her, and I’m answering your question.” She narrowed her eyes. “Are all of you inebriated?”
“Continuing on,” Skathi intoned. “You claim a goddesslike power, styling yourself ever-knowing, yet you can’t even find your sister Furie.”
“Find? As in bring to light?” she asked, leaving the pantheon to puzzle over her words.
Hekate said, “You’ve been working to ally factions of immortals for the Accession, assisting Loreans of different species to find their mates. From what I understand, we’re to have a rash of halflings in future generations.”
“Halflings are formidable,” Nïx pointed out. “Think of Queen Emmaline of the Lykae, Queen Bettina of the Deathly Ones, and Mariketa the Awaited, leader of your House of Witches. Plus, Valkyries have a soft spot for halflings, since we have three vastly different parents. I guess you could call us triflings.” Broad wink.
“Why are you tirelessly seeding halflings and renewing ancient alliances?” Hekate asked. “To battle what foe?”
Nïx breathed, “The Møriør.”
The other goddesses tensed at the mention of the Bringers of Doom. They didn’t speak of the Møriør lightly.
The Valkyrie seemed unaware of the stir she’d caused. “All the harbingers are there. They descend upon us. Though the Accession exists to cull the immortal population, mortals and gods alike should fear this one.”
Lamia offered, “Nïx would sense them first,” and earned glares.
Skathi’s flames grew and grew. “You took it upon yourself to plan a defense against the Møriør? You toy with the fate of the entire Lore, Valkyrie!”
“Not defense. Offense. Why come out of the dugout for anything less? I’m not interested in a farm league. Which is why I’m here. Only a divinity—with this pantheon’s resources—could unite all of the factions.”
“You believe you can lead the charge? Against them?”
“Review: transcript of this meeting. See: farm league comment.”
Skathi drew her head back. “All of your sarcastic—”
“—answers will not help your cause. You’re very flippant about these proceedings.”
Nïx’s playful demeanor vanished in an instant, her amber irises swirling, mercurial. “Because I’ve already seen the outcome.”
“And what is that?”
“You’ll move to dismiss my petition, telling me that I must have a cause—an area of power, a specialization of sorts. After all, you are goddess of the hunt, the Great She-Bear is goddess of shapeshifters, Lamia is goddess of some-some.”
When Lamia scowled, Nïx shrugged. “I calls ’em like I sees ’em.” Then she addressed all the goddesses: “You believe that this area of power must be a critical one. Since foresight has been taken—hat tip to the goddess Pronoea—you expect I’ll come up short. Yet, in fact, I’m going to reveal my specialization, and all of you will comprehend the inevitability of it.”
Skathi pursed her lips. “Thrall us, Valkyrie.”
Nïx paused dramatically. “I will rise from the ashes of the old ways to become Phenïx, the goddess of . . . accessions.”
In the belly of the beast, stygian darkness was interrupted only by glowing green filth.
Thronos had awakened to find himself trapped against a pulpy surface, held upright by meaty tentacle-like veins that snaked around his arms and legs.
Oozing cavities covered each vein; at that moment, one secreted green sludge onto his disintegrated clothing, his skin, his wings.
Pain flared, smoke rising. Acid! The putrid air was noxious, scalding his lungs. He thrashed—the need to fly surging inside him—but he couldn’t get loose.
Nïx had given him just four minutes to get himself and Melanthe free.
He darted his eyes to his right. Lanthe.
She was in the same predicament as he—attached to what looked like a stomach lining, surrounded by sizable glowing pustules. She remained unconscious, no doubt believing them still in Feveris.
Acid had eaten away parts of her skin as well, even most of her metal breastplate. The indestructible dragon gold around her neck had protected her to a degree.
A pustule burst beside her, thicker tentacles emerging from the sore to sweep up bits of her pale flesh.
To consume her.
With a bellow, Thronos thrashed with all his might, yanking at his arms. As the tentacle trapping his right arm stretched, he gazed out, spotting thousands more immortals ensnared, unconscious. The stomach walls seemed to go on for miles.
In a rush of bile, the tentacle vein around his arm ripped open. He used his claws to slash another. At his legs, he hesitated, peering over his shoulders and then down. Hundreds of feet below him, a bubbling pool of green acid awaited his fall. How damaged were his wings?
Praying they could support him—and Melanthe—he freed his legs. He plummeted, unfurling his wings, grimacing in pain. But even in the dense miasma, he was able to ascend the wall back to her.
Though he heard eerie moans from a legion of beings, he couldn’t think about anyone but his mate. Nïx had told him that this stomach was too thick to slash through, that he’d be drugged again before he could fight his way free. She’d warned him he had only two hundred and forty seconds from the time he awoke until a poisonous mist would be dispersed, wiping away his memories and sending him back to the place of his most coveted dreams.
He darted a glance over his shoulder. On the opposite wall of the stomach, some kind of bulbous gland, at least twenty feet in diameter, was swelling. To emit the mist?
Running out of time! A portal was their only hope. He flew to Melanthe.
Thronos wished he didn’t have to wake her until he’d taken her from this place—he’d heard of Loreans faced with such horror that they never recovered their faculties—but he had no choice.
Gripping the tentacle vein coiled around her arm, he slashed at the rubbery surface, pointing the acid-dripping end away from her body.
Her eyes shot open. She sucked in a breath—then released it in an earsplitting shriek.
He redoubled his efforts, attacking another tentacle.
“No, no, this isn’t happening.” Her face crumpled. “Tell me it’s not eating my skin!”
“Melanthe, you have to calm yourself. You’ve got to create a portal.”
Her head thrashed against the putrid lining, searing strands of her hair clear away. “That’s why it felt like I was burning in Feveris!” Once he’d freed her and taken her into his arms, she latched onto him. “M-make this stop! I’ll do anything. Just make me wake up!”
“We are awake. But if we don’t leave this place, we’ll be here for eternity. In Feveris, you restored your power.”
“You said that wasn’t real!”
“Didn’t it feel real?” He wished to the gods it had been. “You have power, right now. I need you to use it. Remember, it’s a muscle.”
She darted her gaze at her surroundings, a series of cries bursting from her lips. That gland swelled, threatening to burst.
“No, look at me!” He pinched her chin. “I know you can do this.”
Her tears threatened to spill, wrecking him.
He rasped, “You can do this, lamb.”
At that, she said, “I-I’ll try.”
When her eyes began to glitter, he murmured, “That’s it.” He felt her tensing in his arms. Despite her terror, she called up her power; he could perceive it welling, unstoppable.
Could others? Unconscious captives moaned louder.
Sorcery sparked around her, growing and growing, blazing out from her like dawn—pure, pristine blue overwhelming rancid green.
Dimly, in the back of his mind, he wondered how he’d ever considered the light of her sorcery anything but . . . wondrous.
She sagged against him.
“I did it,” she gasped.
“Where?” He spun them in circles. No opening. The mist would come at any second.
“It should be here! I made a portal. I felt it happening.”
The gland erupted, spewing a green fog. “Damn it, no!”
Relaxation stole through Lanthe’s body. “This is better.” She grinned up at him as her eyes slid closed.
“No, stay with me!” Another turn. Nothing. “Where is the bloody portal?”
With dread, he looked down. A narrow tear in this reality lay waiting—one surrounded by piping acid.
When the portal started to close, he muttered a prayer, wrapped his wings around Lanthe . . .
As they plummeted through the rift, he realized some being had followed.
Lanthe woke to the resounding silence of the sea.
When she opened her eyes, she saw murky ocean pressing down all around her and Thronos. In the dim light, his face was set with pain as he struggled to hold on to her and get them to safety.
They’d been freed from that nightmare—only to reach another one.
She clasped him tighter, so he could use both arms to swim. The water was lightening. At least there was a surface!