The story begins here.
Dark clouds whipped across the sky, shrouding the moon. Thick shadows blanketed the forested valleys. Ada walked a little ahead of the others. Chloe and Pallas had been quick to point the way to the fetid pool but coming back they would have been lost. Sinis didn’t travel nearly as much as Ada, and when he did, it was never at night. Fortunately, she knew the way, or could figure it out without letting anyone know they were lost.
Ada let the stars guide her. A bright constellation near the horizon pointed the way west. Superstition warned against using the world-eating serpent as a guide, but she found scarcely little reason to believe in evil portents, at least until now.
Chloe followed on her heels, occasionally reaching out to take her hand. “Slow down, please, I can’t see the trail.”
Ada took her hand and pulled her along, feeling hopelessly lost. Watching the pyre burn should have broken the curse, shouldn’t it? After all, the demon’s plan was undone. Chloe’s eyes were still black marbles.
They stopped at a well-worn trail splitting the trees. Ada rested her hands on her hips, looking back and forth.
“Is this the Viros trail?” asked Sinis.
Ada nodded. “Must be.”
He gave her a half hug and squeezed her shoulders. “Way to go.”
Chloe paced a circle and sighed, nervously.
“Won’t you come see the Oracle with us?” asked Ada.
Chloe shook her head. “No. I… It told him I would see him today, and I will, but I need to go home and let everyone know I’m safe.”
But she wasn’t safe. Ada swallowed hard and pointed to a wandering red star shining through the clouds like an eye. “Histria is that way. Follow the star and you won’t miss it.” She took a knee. Sinis did the same. Pallas watched with folded arms.
Chloe raised her palm to stop them. “I don’t want that, not now,” said Chloe.
“Princess?” asked Sinis.
“Please, just call me Chloe.”
Ada took her hands in hers. “You swallowed that, thing. We have to get it out of you. Maybe the Oracle can help. Please, come with us.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll come see him soon.” Chloe’s threadbare fingers slipped away.
Ada’s stomach grew tight. Words ached to come flowing out, but she swallowed them back down. “Be well.”
Chloe forced a smile and transformed into a raven. Her dark feathers vanished into the black sky.
“You’re worried about her, aren’t you?” asked Pallas.
Ada stared after her. “I think that smoke is affecting her. Seeing the bodies probably didn’t help.”
Sinis laughed. “It’s funny. Her family has killed thousands of people, but a few bodies gets to her.”
“It’s not funny,” said Ada. “And she saved your life.”
Pallas paced behind them.
Sinis shrugged with his palms to the sky, crossed the trail, and walked towards the temple. “All I’m saying is maybe she’s getting what she deserves.”
“If we’re near your home, I’m going to go my own way,” interrupted Pallas. “I’m glad I could help you.” He cocked his head to the side as if listening to someone talking behind him.
“You should come meet the Oracle,” said Ada. Sinis looked back silently.
“Why?” asked Pallas.
“Maybe he can help you too,” Ada smiled and tugged with her head. “Come on.”
Pallas shrugged. His gaze always missed her eyes by a sliver.
“Alright.” He followed her into the forest.
And he did need the Oracle’s help. They all did. Sinis didn’t seem bothered at all by shooting those cultists. But Ada couldn’t stop thinking about how it felt. The snap of the bow. The dull thump of the arrow. The way his legs gave out…
Strangely, the demon didn’t bother her at all. Terrifying as it was, the way it had crumpled when her arrow struck drove away her fear. It was vulnerable. Terrible, but vulnerable. There had to be a way to drive it out of Chloe and destroy it. The Oracle must know.
They pushed through the forest to another dirt road and followed it up a mountain. Ada’s eyes were slits. She watched the ground at her feet, confident the darkness of the forest would protect them. Yawning split the dry corners of her mouth. If she stopped walking, she might get sick or pass out.
No way was she sleeping in the woods tonight, not after what she had seen. What she had done. Sinis trudged along ahead of her without complaint. She walked behind him. “Aren’t you bothered by killing all those people?”
“The cultists? I didn’t kill anyone. They killed themselves when they broke Zeus’ law of hospitality.”
She took a deep breath. “Maybe you’re right.”
“Of course, I’m right.”
The feeling of the arrow tapping the cultists chest haunted her. She pushed the thought away. It’d be more useful to agree with Sinis, at least until she had time to sleep and think it all over.
“I’m really, really proud of how you handled yourself,” said Sinis. “You were amazing.”
She blushed. “Thanks.”
They walked through the night, climbing higher into the mountains. Sheer cliffs thrust from the earth and carved by the wind brought strange and beautiful images to Ada’s mind. She saw a field of flowers stretching into the night. Waves of color rolled over the rocks. The moon sailed through thick clouds, smiling at her.
As dawn broke over the hills, she found herself on the marble steps of the Oracle’s temple. She passed through the archway and into the courtyard. Three interior doors were left open, each a room lit by candlelight. She walked to the nearest and found a simple bed. Without a word, she collapsed into the sheets and fell asleep.
The sound of laughter woke Ada. She opened her eyes, not sure if it was real. Warm sunlight flooded into her chamber from the open door, reflecting off the polished stone. She stood up and smoothed out her clothing, yawned, and walked into the courtyard. A small table with olives, figs, and cheese sat near the altar. Pitchers of cucumber water waited beside half a dozen ceramic cups. A few of the figs and slices of cheese were missing, so Ada helped herself.
She nipped the end of a fig and paced around the fountain. Found Pallas sitting behind it in lotus. His eyes were closed, and his breathing was slow. A door opened across the courtyard. The Oracle stepped out and waved to her. His face was serious. “I have too much to do and too little time. I need your help.”
Ada swallowed the fig and hurried to him. “Anything, of course.”
“First, I need you to talk to Pallas. I have some questions, but he won’t talk to me. I want you to ask him how he came by his immortality.”
“Why does it matter?” asked Ada.
“Because there are things I want to teach him, but I have to know what I’m dealing with.” He tapped his foot and looked at the main door.
“Has Chloe made it back here?”
“Not yet.” He sucked in some air. Something was wrong. Ada watched his face for any sign of what it could be. He turned back to her. “But she will. When she does, I’ll need you to give her something for me.”
“I’ll tell you later.”
Ada’s hunger waned. Her stomach swam. She grabbed a cup of cucumber water and a handful of figs. Ate one and sat in front of Pallas. He breathed slowly and deeply. She coughed to get his attention, but he didn’t seem to notice. It’d be easy to let him sit here, but the Oracle was on edge. Something was wrong.
“Pallas, you home?”
“I don’t think I have one.” His eyes opened.
“How long were you meditating?”
“Since you went to sleep. The Oracle asked me to clear my mind,” said Pallas.
Ada’s eyes widened “That’s amazing? I’ve never heard of someone meditating for so long.”
“I don’t sleep, but my mentor taught me how to sit in ‘calm abiding.’ It helps me stay sane.” said Pallas.
Ada smiled at him. “Is that who helped you become an immortal?”
“Kheiron? No.” Pallas stood and turned to walk. “Goodbye. Good luck.”
“No, wait, I’m sorry.” Ada stood with him and grabbed his shoulder. “Please stay. The Oracle wants to help you. He asked me to ask.”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” said Pallas.
Ada pulled on his shoulder until he sat back down. She sat next to him, side by side. “Have you ever told anyone about it?”
“That must be really hard to carry. I don’t know what it’s like to be immortal but, I’ve seen some terrible things. Would you let me listen?” She locked her eyes with his, kept him looking at her. “Please?”
Pallas sat and watched his feet. She pressed her shoulder into his. He felt brittle.
“I’m just so ashamed.”
Ada scooted away and turned to face him. “It’s okay to talk about.”
He sighed as quietly as possible. His eyes shimmered in the sun. “I don’t remember being a kid very well. Just bits and pieces. I know I look like I’m about twenty, but I’m probably a lot older.”
“I can sleep if Oak helps me. I’ll sleep for months. Maybe years. When I wake up, I’m like a new person. I forget things.”
Ada leaned in, resting her arms on her legs. Sometimes people talk more, just to fill a silence. She smiled at him, looked at the door, and wondered where Chloe was. With a shake of her head, she turned back to him. He was watching her, waiting.
When I was a kid, I lived in a town on the southern coast. It was probably smaller than Histria, but we had walls and a big port where ships from all over docked. Stone buildings and thatch roofs. An agora with food, musicians, and merchants selling anything you could imagine. The sun peeked over the horizon, and the smell of fried meat was making me hungry. My father was a fisherman. Every morning I’d help him get the boat ready. Hundreds of people worked alongside us, preparing their ships, and bringing goods ashore.
I stood on the pier, watching my father raise the sails. He was a tall, thin man. I think we were poor. He only ever wore an undyed chiton. Even so, I was proud of him. Back then, owning a ship was the mark of a man, and it was his ship.
A horn sounded. Sailors gathered on the pier all around me. Way out on the horizon, a fleet of ships appeared against the rising sun. There had to be a hundred of them. Big triremes. The wind drove them fast towards us.
People panicked. Men were in the streets, shouting for everyone to arm themselves. My father jumped down, picked me up, and carried me all the way back to our apartment. We didn’t even have a door—just an open archway in the middle of a huge stone building. We ran inside. He sat me on the rug next to my mother. My brother and sister were crying. My mom was crying.
He came back out of the bedroom wearing a leather cap and carrying his bow and javelins. Somehow, I knew I’d never see him again. He kissed my mom and told me to stay with her before joining the mob heading back to meet the ships.
The dock must have been overrun quickly. Not an hour later, men fled towards the city gates. I watched for my father, but he never came. Smoke rose all over the south end of town. My mom pushed a bag of food and clothes in my hands and told me to go to our friends’ farm up north. She said she’d meet me there. I ran, and I never saw her again.
When I think back on it, I don’t think she could have kept up. She would have had to carry my sister. I had a better chance alone, and she knew it. Even so, I should have stayed, but I was so scared.
“You were just a little boy,” said Ada. “That’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“Isn’t it? I was old enough to hold a knife. I knew cowardice was evil.”
I ran as fast as I could. The city burned behind me. People passed me on either side, so faster I ran, but I couldn’t keep up. I threw my bag down and kept going. I ran and ran until I was alone. Until the sun was low in the sky. Until my legs gave out. Past the farms and fields, near the first rocky hills, I found a creek and followed it to a cave. I crawled inside, hid in the water, and prayed to the gods to save me.
The sun set. Storm clouds blew in. I was wet, cold, hungry. I sat there, sobbing, crying out for my mom.
A woman appeared from behind a tree. She was tall and beautiful. Naked beside her long, golden hair that seemed to glow with its own light, covering her breasts. She beckoned me to follow her. I did.
We traveled on a road of purple light, high up into the mountains. The wind and rain beat against me, but I kept going. We came to a log cabin. Firelight bled through the gaps in the walls. The woman gestured for me to go on without her. I didn’t want to. I just stood there, crying. She patted me on the head, kissed my forehead, and pushed me towards the door. I turned back to see if she was following me, but she was gone.
The door was unlocked. Furs covered beautifully carved furniture. The fireplace burned with a small, warm flame. An oak table with log benches dominated the main room. Four places were set, and I took one of them. There was lamb, cookies and pastries, venison, and pork. Each seat had a curved drinking horn filled with a golden liquid. I thought it was beer, but it tasted like honey. I took another horn from the seat next to me and drank it as well.
I finished and fell asleep on the furs in front of the fireplace, filled with warmth and happiness like I had rarely known.
A woman’s voice shouted in my ear, waking me up. “Run,” she said. I sat up and looked for her, shaking and scared. “Run!” she cried again. I stood up and pushed my way through the door, breaking it off its hinges.
I spent years wandering the edge of the spirit world. It took me a long time to figure out how to use the phoenix roads to travel where I wanted to go. I didn’t need to eat or drink and couldn’t sleep. Dreams plagued me constantly. I lived in other times and places, relived memories, and made up new ones. Little of what I saw or felt was real.
I was like a ghost. I thought I had died. Maybe I did.
No clue how long I roamed, but I had outgrown my clothing and given up on it since I hadn’t seen another person or spoken a word in years. Eventually, Kheiron the Centaur found me. To this day, I’m one of three people he’s let ride on his back, and the only one from this world. He took me to his cave and taught me about medicine and sword play. He helped me learn to meditate, and eventually to enter a state of consciousness where I could dream.
I traveled for a few years after that, looking for a home. People took me in, but war and sickness always found them. Kheiron had tried to warn me the gods hated me for eating at their table, but I didn’t listen. Eventually, I gave up and tried to evade the gods, traveling the phoenix roads to stay ahead of them. Ares still sent war. Apollo’s arrows of disease fell around me. Even Aporia tried to drown me in a river.
But I somehow always managed to get away.
I found my way back to Kheiron’s lair. He wasn’t home, but Oak was there waiting for me. I’ve been with her, ever since.
Ada blinked a tear from her eye. “That sounds really hard. I’m sorry.” She leaned hard into him and gave him a hug. He didn’t cry, but the cracks in his mask were enough to let the light out. He was older than her, solid, and had killed countless people, but right now he reminded her of a child. She held him, stroked his hair, let him melt in her arms.
The mountain’s long shadows fell over the temple courtyard. Candles left burning night and day swam in seas of wax. The Oracle opened a door behind the stoas opposite the main entrance, revealing an altar to strange gods with many arms or the heads of animals, too much fat, or too young to take seriously. Idols carved from wood or shaped with gold were draped in garlands and surrounded with fruit and candles. The only two she recognized were those her brother worshipped. Demeter holding her sheaves of wheat and Dionysus with a cup of wine.
He gestured to the cushion set before it and asked Pallas to sit.
Pallas folded his arms. “So, what’s this?”
“Kheiron taught you to meditate, and powers of focus are beyond anything I’ve seen. The mental realms you travel, the states you enter, are truly extraordinary,” said the Oracle.
Pallas laughed. The bitter sound in his voice made Ada recoil.
“You don’t know me,” said Pallas. “I shut out my thoughts because sometimes I think I’m going crazy. I’m no monk. I’m not Kheiron.”
Ada gently rested a hand on his shoulder. Some of his tension eased at her touch. He had been alone for so long. She would be angry too.
“And you didn’t answer my question,” said Pallas.
The Oracle stepped out of the altar room and again gestured at the cushion on the floor. “This altar is dedicated to the gods and goddesses of every realm who seek to cure the suffering of the world. I want to help you get in touch with the power you carry inside, but it will help you to know that you are not alone.”
“I’ve been alone for a long time.”
“Maybe some of that changes for you today.”
He turned to Ada, his expression blank, but tension growing in his shoulders. She squeezed and let go. “It couldn’t hurt, could it?” From the corner of her eye, she caught a frown momentarily bend the Oracle’s mouth.
“I guess not.” Pallas sat in lotus on the cushion and looked back at the Oracle. “What do I do?”
“The ambrosia you drank all those years ago is still in you, and it made you strong, but you aren’t using it the way the gods would. Not really.”
Pallas folded his arms. “So, what?”
“It’s untouched potential. You have suffered much for taking it. It should be yours,” said the Oracle. “Visualize a golden ball of light but know that it rests behind your navel. When your focus is perfect, I want you to touch it.”
Pallas seemed to deflate. He unfastened the broach on his cloak and let it fall.
Ada didn’t know what to say. “Good luck.”
He turned and gave her a half-hearted smile. He needed more than luck. She turned and followed the Oracle to the far side of the courtyard, hoping Pallas would find what he needed here.
I hope you enjoyed this chapter. Let me know what you think.
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