The story begins here!
Pallas woke in the shade of a plane tree to a panpipe’s gentle melody. He hadn’t expected to wake up at all. Frost had covered the bare ground when the nymph enchanted him, but now he was sweating. Must have been out for a long time. He yawned, stretched his arms, and rubbed the dirt from his eyes. He wished he hadn’t. A satyr stood naked over him, lacking modesty as gods do. He danced as he played, his horse-like ears and tail swishing in the breeze.
“What is it?” Pallas coughed through a mouthful of dry earth and spat mud.
“You have a guest and should not keep her waiting.” The satyr turned, flicked his tail, and danced towards the towering oak trees.
“A human?” No one knew Pallas was here. He hadn’t talked to anyone in so long.
The satyr vanished into the shadows of the forest, his song fading on the wind.
Pallas slipped his bare leg free from a vine that grew as he slept, careful not to cause it any harm. He reached a hand behind the tree and found his sword. The moss-covered scabbard held fast to the blade. He jerked it free with a pop. The bronze weapon still held an edge.
Twigs and leaves stuck to every inch of his cloak. He unfastened the broach on his left shoulder and let it fall away as he stood. Pallas fixed the scabbard on his belt and dusted off his chiton. He squeezed his fists and looked at his strong arms. Veins pressed against light brown skin. Still good. The long sleep didn’t seem to affect his physique. Pallas slipped his sandals on and walked toward the sacred grove.
Sunlight reflected off the nearby lake, lancing his eyes—another sign how even Apollo hated him. He squinted, thankful for the shade of the poplar trees.
Lips brushed his ear. Warm breath tickled his neck and made his skin prickle. “You are awake,” she said. “I did not know if I would see you before it was my turn to dream. I missed you.” Her laugh was sweet and gentle.
Pallas turned to look. Oak floated beside him, skin green as leaves, naked except for the bark that clung to her body and the knotted hair that fell to her waist. “What happened? Where’s your shawl?” he asked. Oak was never without it—her soul had been trapped inside.
She shook her head. “I will tell you another time.”
“A satyr woke me. Told me I have a guest? I’m going to check your shrine to make sure it’s safe.” Pallas took a deep breath. Did this stranger have her shawl?
“Safe for me, but trouble for you. Artemis favors her and hides her from our sight.” She floated to his other side. “I thought she was a doe.”
“Are you worried?”
Oak giggled and whipped around him in a tight circle. “She carries a powerful enchantment hidden deep inside, but I cannot see what it is. Someone else’s magic, so, she is twice blessed.”
“Is she here to kill me?”
“This is my domain. You are safe here, I promise.” She kissed his forehead. “Besides, I do not sense any evil in her.”
He sighed and walked to the lake, more anxious than before. Pallas had more experience fighting godlings than talking to mortal women. He knelt, dipped his head in the water, and scrubbed the twigs and leaves from his dark beard and short curly hair. The dirt from his arms and face. Looked good. He had tanned while he slept and was glad for it.
“You are beautiful.” Oaks eyes were emeralds. She tied a flower in his hair. “The girl is so pretty, I will not blame you for trying.”
He swallowed and walked toward the shrine. Try? Easy for her to say; Oak had countless lovers.
A simple stone slab sat in the middle of six ancient oaks. Every bit of ground was covered in vines and purple flowers. Oak vanished into a nearby tree and appeared again in the branches high above.
A girl knelt before the altar wearing an undyed chiton, frayed about the ankles, and an archer’s leather bracer on her left wrist. She stood as Pallas walked into the grove. Taller than he thought. Her posture was perfect. Long brown hair hung in a simple braid. Her golden-bronze skin spoke of a life spent working outside—strange for someone with the poise of royalty. An unstrung bow with thick limbs sat in its leather case by her pack. She had to be strong to bend it. Even from here, he could see the leanness of her arms, the lines of definition in her neck and shoulders.
Pallas stared for a long time. Twice, he opened his mouth, but the words froze inside. She was strangely beautiful. Her small breasts and broad shoulders were boyish compared to the voluptuous nymphs and dryads he was used to, but there was something striking about her big, brown eyes and freckles—her humanity.
Finally, she stepped forward and extended her hand. Her grip was firm. His own, shaking.
“My name is Ada, and I came a long way to find you. Are you Pallas the Swordbreaker?”
“I am.” His voice trembled. He took a step away, unsure if she was mortal, or Artemis herself.
“You don’t have to be afraid.”
“I’m not.” His voice snapped. The idea of an Olympian’s sympathy disgusted him.
Her eyes flashed wide and she stepped back with a start—maybe not a goddess after all.
“Forgive me. I’m not used to talking to humans,” he said.
“I understand.” Ada looked over her shoulder into the trees. “Is the nymph really here?”
“Her, and others… What do you want?”
“May I sit?” she asked.
Pallas nodded and knelt in the flowers as she did. Her shoulders slumped. She closed her eyes for a moment; the fatigue of her journey etched across her face.
“Tell me, who sent you?” asked Pallas.
“The Oracle told me about you,” said Ada. “He said you would help us.”
“There’s a demon killing people and stealing their bodies.” She met his gaze. “It’s made of darkness, and it moves almost too fast to see.”
What a strange girl. She didn’t seem troubled or scared. “Who has the demon taken from you?”
“No one, but I was there when it was created.” She closed her eyes for a moment. “A cultist’s children were murdered by a Histrian. I tried to stop it, but I wasn’t fast enough. They made the demon out of anger to bring pestilence to Histria, but it started killing its makers.”
“You are not related to either the killer or the victim, and I guess not from either Histria or the victims’ town?” asked Pallas.
“Then it’s nothing to you.” Pallas stood. “It is of the gods. Leave it to the gods.”
“We need to stop it before the King sends his men. They will kill more of my people than the demon ever could.”
“If the creature is as you say, soldiers are no match for it. The King will know as much.”
“There is someone I care about in Histria, and I am scared to death the demon will fulfill its task and bring pestilence to her.”
Pallas stood and folded his arms, stone-faced. “Histria belongs to Ares and Athena. I care not what happens there.”
Ada crossed her legs and rested her arms on her knees. She smiled and wiggled into the soft ground. “The Oracle told me you would refuse, at first. I am going to sit here until you change your mind.”
No one gave of themselves like this—like her. She wasn’t simply beautiful on the outside. Artemis and the Oracle favor her, and for good reason. Pallas’ stomach fluttered. Her eyes shimmered in the sun.
He didn’t need to be an Oracle to see her fate. If he left this sacred grove with her, helped her, Apollo’s arrows would fall without number. Hades’ would have her soul. Artemis’ favor be damned, the gods hated Pallas beyond measure, and he couldn’t protect her from their wrath.
Wind swept through the grove carrying flower petals and dry leaves. Pallas looked back the way he came. “I wish I could. You shouldn’t have bothered coming here.”
“I heard about your trials and all the people you saved.” She touched her face. “I know you can help us.”
If she thinks that, then she hasn’t heard everything.
He shook his head and turned away. “If I help you, the gods will destroy you, just to spite me. They tear down everything I build.”
The fluttering in his stomach turned to nausea. He held his breath to stop from throwing up. Her words were knives, and if he pulled them free, he might bleed and die. “If you want to save yourself, leave me alone!” Pallas leaned toward her. His face contorted with rage and his eyes flashed with the yellow flames of immortality. “Get out of here!”
She sprung to her feet, turned, and ran, fast and far.
Pallas collapsed to the ground and sat with his face buried in his knees. He didn’t look up until her footsteps were long gone. The first human girl he’d seen in a lifetime, fleeing with the last shred of his honor. He gagged painfully. How could he abandon her when she was nothing but selfless?
Ethereal arms wrapped around him from behind. Oak became solid enough to touch. “She will not come back.”
She sat next to him, holding a sparkling mist in her palm. One touch and he would dream for ages. “Do you want to sleep again?”
The truth was, he did. Pallas exploded to his feet, pushing her away. “No, I don’t want to sleep. I want to do something. Damn the gods.”
“What if you could?”
He stared at her, looking for a smile, a wink, a joke. “How could I? I’m nothing.”
“Oh no, you are something.” She touched his face. “Without Zeus’ magic and Hephaestus’ tools, they would be like you… like us.”
“Then tell me what to do.”
Oak floated on the wind. “You need a weapon.” She ground her teeth and circled the grove, blinking as if something were caught in her eye. “What god hates you most of all?”
She winced as if stung. “Hades stops my mouth. I can tell you no more.”
Pallas’ eyes grew wide. “He has your shawl!”
She nodded. “And that is not all.” Oak gasped painfully and glided to the ground, landing sidesaddle like a feather. Flowers bloomed and died all around her.
Pallas knelt and took her hand. “What else does he have? What weapon?”
“I cannot say. Go see Kheiron. He will know what to do.”
“I’ll get your shawl back, I swear it.”
Oak’s grove sat at a crossroads. The phoenix roads were invisible to most, but Pallas could see them. He closed his eyes and cleared his mind. With each breath, a charge traveled from the base of his spine to the crown of his head. The darkness was awash with shifting, pastel colors. He opened his eyes. The phoenix roads—blue ribbons of light, flowed high in the air.
It didn’t matter which way he went; all roads led to Olympus. Pallas walked under the phoenix road and watched the stars. The ribbon pulsed with his breath, fading with each exhalation.
He walked throughout the night. The mountainous trails and dark forests would be dangerous for anyone else, but his senses were sharp. He could see every root, every rock.
A vine of wild grapes clung to a fallen tree. Pallas picked the ripest and savored the taste. “Thank you,” he said—even vines had spirits. He didn’t need to eat, sometimes he liked to.
The image of Ada running away filled his mind. Pallas pictured her fleeing, sometimes as a girl—sometimes as a doe. The daydream grew stronger until he was standing in Oak’s grove. Ada’s feet crunched dry leaves. The sun burned hot. “I am sorry,” he whispered, stomach tightening in shame. She didn’t seem to hear him. Of course not, this wasn’t real. He shook his head, rubbed his eyes, and realized he was still walking under the phoenix road.
Sleep was impossible without Oak’s magic, but sometimes he needed to dream.
Bushes and vines broke free of the rocky trail leading to a jagged hill. Large boulders rested against one another, forming a roof. It was the perfect place to meditate. Pallas walked toward the rocks and let the shimmering ribbon fade from view.
Lightning crashed on dry, flat ground. A figure appeared in the flash as thunder rolled over. He was broad chested and held a long spear in one hand. Stars shone across his armor and shield like the night sky. A red plume sprung from his helm. Pallas stopped and rested his hand on his sword. Beyond the protection of Oak’s grove, the gods could find him.
“Whoa there, thief.” The stranger’s deep voice boomed.
Pallas stood firm. “I’m no thief. Apologize.”
“You will learn humility. I will teach you.”
“Are you threatening me?” Pallas’ anger was the talons of a hawk, digging into his shoulders. No man or god had the right to talk to him that way. He drew his short sword.
“Come on then,” said the stranger.
Pallas charged across the field. With no thought of defense, he roared and lunged. The stranger leveled the point of his spear at Pallas’ chest and raised his shield.
He threw himself on the spear and smiled at the fleeting pain. Light flashed from the impact, turning the sky blue. The spear ripped from the stranger’s grip. Without hesitation, Pallas hammered down on the shield. Each blow dulled and bent his sword, showering him with sparks.
“Wonderful! Give me more.” The stranger laughed under the onslaught as Pallas drove them toward the rocks.
Pallas swung hard in a wide arc and shattered his sword against the shield. Typical. He threw the broken weapon aside and drove his shoulder into his enemy. The stranger grunted in pain. Pallas reveled in the encouragement, grabbed the stranger’s shield in both hands, and wrestled it toward the ground.
The stranger’s right hand looped over the top and stuck Pallas across the jaw. It didn’t hurt, but the impact lit a fresh wave of anger. Pallas turned his other cheek and grinned, baiting the stranger to strike again. He did. His fist smashed into Pallas’ right eye. He rolled with the punch and wrenched the shield free of the stranger’s grip. They staggered apart.
Now Pallas laughed. He jumped and brought the edge of the shield down on the stranger’s helmet. A universe of stars shifted against the hollow darkness of his armor. Pallas grabbed the stranger’s cuirass with one hand and struck with the shield, hard and fast, like waves crashing against stone.
Seemingly unfazed, the stranger backhanded the shield. It jumped from Pallas’ grip and vanished into the sky. The stranger’s fist burst into flames. He ducked into an arrow-straight punch, slipping between Pallas’ arms and striking his chest. Pallas winced at the heat of the fire. Before he could counter, the stranger landed an uppercut, catching Pallas under the chin. A column of flame jumped from the ground under Pallas’ feet and threw him across the field.
His clothing singed, but the fires didn’t burn his skin. A needlelike pain stabbed through his chest where the first hit landed. Hopefully, the stranger couldn’t tell he was hurt, however so slightly.
They circled each other. Pallas dropped into a wide, low stance with one hand nearly touching the ground. The stranger mirrored him. Pallas relished the thought of choking the life out of this creature.
“Some other time,” said the stranger. “I will break you.”
“Are you Ares?” Pallas stared the god in the eyes.
“I am. What idiocy brought you out of hiding?” A sharp pain tore through Pallas’ head as the knowledge was ripped from his mind. Ares smiled. “The doe was a woman? Fascinating.” He vanished in a flash of lightning.
“Coward!” Pallas looked at the sky, knuckles white.
He paced until the moon floated above the trees, holding onto his anger like treasure. Every step of the fight with Ares played out in his mind. Using the sword was a mistake. Taking Ares shield should have been priority. Oak was right—he needed a weapon.
Pallas’ head spun, and he sat on the ground. Colors washed across the night sky. His body was awake, ready to move, but a fog settled on his mind. He had to meditate and make a space to dream or he’d lose himself.
Spirits moved between the trees. Wisps of darkness jumped over the beams of moonlight. He had followed the phoenix road for a long time. The world must be thin here.
He wished Oak was with him. Her voice was like the rain. It had been years since he left her shrine and now, he missed her. She was above the horrors of the gods. Cut from the same cloth, bound to the earth, and older than them all. Hades was a bastard. If he really had her shawl, he’d pay for taking it. Then, there would be time enough to find Ares.
This was no time for weakness. Pallas returned his thoughts to his breath and let his mind empty. He thought of his home burning. Of Oak and Ares. Of Ada running away. He let his mind work over all that happened. Strange dreams played through the night.
The first light of the sun cracked the horizon. Specks of prismatic light flickered across the sky, while orange and green auras pulsed in the trees. Their light ebbed and flowed in time with the breathing of the phoenix road. Pallas stood, rubbed his eyes, and looked at his hands. Red light stained his yellow aura, no doubt from how he raged at Ares. He had thought the hours of meditation left him in an altered state, but no, he was fully present. The spirit world was near.
Pallas walked for what seemed an eternity. Mountains in the distances never got closer, while the noonday sun froze in the sky. The clicking of spirits and the howls of otherworldly creatures replaced the ordinary sounds of birds and insects.
He came to a creek. Fresh water ran down a mountain. Little blue and purple frogs rested on the rocks. The place was familiar. Pallas climbed the wooded hill and found a cave halfway up. Kheiron stood in the shadows, taller than Pallas remembered. The upper half of a man on the body of a horse. His long beard was tied in a braid. His hooves were shod in silver, no doubt the work of Hephaestus.
“I wondered when you’d return.” Kheiron’s judging gaze fell on Pallas.
“I need your help.” Pallas swallowed hard. Kheiron had to understand; who else could?
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