Authors: Courtney Cole
Tags: #Fiction, #Fairy Tales; Folk Tales; Legends & Mythology
“Lesson learned,” I said calmly. “Do you know what the next challenge will be?”
Circes shook her ancient head. “No. I know not whether it will be announced or if it will be unexpected again.”
“I’m not that fond of surprises,” I said off-handedly. Not that it mattered. I knew that Zeus was going to do whatever he felt like doing. My opinion certainly wouldn’t be considered.
Branwyn burned on a pyre that lit up the night.
My half-sister lay in the middle of a sacred circle in the center of the stone altar. The priestesses murmured prayers and chants to my mother as they offered Branwyn’s soul to the gods. What they didn’t know was that Branwyn’s soul had already been taken…by me.
We had spent the day solemnly, in silent reverence, as each priestess had come to pay their respects to Branwyn. Each one offered her something, a trinket, a ring, a smattering of herbs. Each one had cried, each one had hugged her, each one had grieved. I had sat stoically, trying not to reveal my own sadness and despair at what I had done. But with each minute that had passed, my guilt grew.
“Are you alright?” Brennan whispered as he grasped my hand. I knew he could feel my pain, my grief. His fingers were warm and strong. For a moment, they reached the icy depths of my heart, but then fell away. I didn’t want to be reached.
“I’m fine,” I answered, keeping my eyes on the altar. I wasn’t fine. But there wasn’t anything Brennan could do to fix it.
As what was left of Branwyn continued to burn, I watched the dark tendrils of smoke curl towards the heavens. Idly, I wondered where her soul was now. If nothing else, her death just spurred me even more to win this game. Once my curse was reversed, Zeus would release all of the souls that I had ever consumed…from wherever they were being held.
The breeze was cold and it carried with it the scent of burning flesh. Both things combined made me shiver. Brennan wrapped his arm around my shoulders and drew me to his side. I tried to absorb his warmth, to draw strength from his, to ignore the reality that was in front of us lying on the stone.
A pale priestess that was kneeling next to the altar uncurled from her crouch to face me.
“Princess, Branwyn left a bundle for you. She instructed me to give it to you after she was gone.”
The woman’s face was calm and impassive, as though she didn’t know that I was the reason that Branwyn was dead. They all acted that way, calm and quiet, and completely oblivious to the fact that I had killed their leader. But they knew. I knew that they did. It was in their eyes.
“What is it?” I asked. “What did she leave?” I asked. I was tired, cold and emotionally drained. But this definitely piqued my curiosity.
The woman shrugged. “I do not know. I was instructed not to open it. It is only for you. I also need to reassure you that even though Branwyn is gone, you still have the complete cooperation and hospitality of this entire group. We are at your disposal, princess.”
“Thank you,” I murmured. I didn’t deserve it and their loyalty choked me up. It wasn’t for me, though. It was for my mother. And once again, I was thankful to have her. I’d been blessed in the maternal department. She more than made up for the fact that my father was a psychopath.
One by one, the women filed past Branwyn and within the hour, everyone had finished paying their respects and saying goodbye. Her pyre would burn into the night and throughout the day tomorrow, but weren’t going to stay and watch it tonight. I was so physically tired that I felt I might collapse.
The priestesses made their way back into the village while Brennan and I trailed behind them. The moon hung heavy and full in the sky and I lifted my face to it, soaking in its energy. Being a creature of the moon, its rays provided me with strength and I needed all of that I could get these days.
As the women broke apart to return to their individual huts, the one who had spoken to me about Branwyn’s package turned back to me.
“Come with me,” she instructed quietly. I glanced at Brennan and then followed her into the trees where the darkness enveloped us like a cloak. The temperature had dropped so much by this point that I could see my breath in the air. I cupped my hands over my mouth and blew on them as we walked further into the forest on the other side of the village.
“Where are we going?” I called to her. “And I’m sorry. I didn’t catch your name.”
“It’s Keelin,” she answered over her shoulder. “Just follow me. And don’t shout. It attracts the spirits. Samhain is drawing near. The spirits will be gathering.”
In spite of myself, goosebumps formed along my arms at her words and I glanced at Brennan. He rolled his eyes and I felt a flash of annoyance. How could he dismiss her statement so easily? He’d seen firsthand lately that reality wasn’t what he once thought it was. Many, many things were possible. Ghosts were real. I’d seen them myself all of my life.
“You’re right,” he apologized to me, having read my thoughts. “I’m sorry. I’m still getting used to all of this.”
“I know,” I answered. “And it’s a lot to get used to. You’re doing a fantastic job. Really.”
He reached up and grabbed my hand. “Anything for you,” he reassured me, jokingly. But I knew that he was serious and his words warmed me more than the sun ever could.
Keelin abruptly stopped in front of us and knelt in front of a massive and imposing oak tree. Its roots bubbled to the surface of the ground, gnarled and twisted. I stepped over them and stood behind Keelin, waiting. She reached into a small hollow in the tree and withdrew a package, wrapped in cloth and tied with string. Rising from the gound, she turned and offered it to me with shaking hands.
I could swear that the wind died down when my fingers touched it and that realization raised the hair on the back of my neck.
“What is this?” I whispered. My fingertips were cold where they touched the cloth.
“I know not,” Keelin answered. But her face was pale and drawn. She might not know, but like me, she sensed the importance and the darkness that the packaged contained.
“I don’t like this, Em,” Brennan said quickly, stepping forward and laying his hand on my arm. “Just put it back. We don’t need it.”
“It won’t matter if you put it back or no,” Circes voice penetrated the small clearing. I turned to find her creeping toward us, her cloaks swirling around her with an unseen wind. “It will not matter. That package contains knowledge and the knowledge exists whether you read it or not. A wise person would want to know what they are up against.”
Within a second, she was at my side, her yellowed teeth flashing in the dark as she spoke. “Open it, Empusa,” she instructed with fetid breath. “This is something that you need to know.”
My fingers trembled and I ached to drop the package and run. It felt icy cold and ominous in my hands and I desperate wanted to release my hold on it, to drop it to the ground and stomp on it. But I resisted the urge and turned toward the old woman instead.
“You know what it is?” I half-asked and half-demanded.
“Your mother left it for Branwyn for safe-keeping, until it was time to give to you. She felt you should know.”
“You should know why you shouldn’t sacrifice everything to save Apollo’s son. He is doomed anyway.”
My heart, already cold in my chest, froze into a block of ice as my fingers ripped apart the strings that bound the package. The cloth fell away and revealed a rolled parchment. With trepidation mounting in my stomach, I unrolled it and held my breath as I read.
As I read the last word, the parchments slid from my fingers and fell to the ground. I couldn’t speak, couldn’t breathe.
“Em?” Brennan asked, alarmed. I could only shake my head, my eyes wide.
He snatched up the papers and read through the words quickly. I watched his face and I knew the moment when he read the most relevant words. He went completely still and his beautiful golden eyes met mine.
“So, it doesn’t matter what we do. I’m going to die anyway.”
I refused to move from that very spot until Circes started talking and explained the words that had just been seared into my heart. Her voice, solemn and ancient, did nothing to allay my fears.
“Your mother saw this long ago,” Circes explained to me, her voice low. Brennan gripped my hand tightly while the old woman spoke. “Your mother helped Hades and the Fates imprison the gods in an effort to protect you. They promised that if she did as they asked, you would be released your father’s curse. As you know, that is not how things worked out. Your mother has seen that Zeus will soon decide that he is annoyed, very annoyed, with the behavior of the mortals during the two millennia that he and the Olympians were imprisoned. The mortals forgot about the gods and that is not wise. He will lean toward eliminating them completely because he is tired of their ungrateful ways.”
“But my mother wrote that Brennan will offer his life in exchange for the mortal world. That if he offers his life to save them, Zeus will forgive the mortals for their indifference to the absence of the gods.”
Circes nodded. “Hecate saw this long ago. Zeus himself doesn’t even realize that he will consider this as an option. Brennan must make the suggestion… he must offer himself in lieu of the mortal world. Zeus will find the gesture graceful and worthy.”
“But why Brennan?” I persisted. “Why is Brennan the one that must die? Did my mother actually foresee this happening or is this wishful thinking on her part? I worry that this is a trick- that she is simply trying to eliminate him as a problem. If I don’t fight to stay with Brennan, then my issues here with Apollo are over. The game would be over.”
“You cannot see it?” Circes asked me, her cloudy eyes fixed upon with laser precision. “Zeus will find the gesture fitting because it is so appropriate. Your mother conspired with the Fates to imprison him in order to save you. She chose your well-being over that of his. Zeus will find it a just punishment that your very well-being will be decimated with the death of your soul mate. If Brennan dies, it is likely that you will never recover. And Zeus will feel that in that way, justice will be served.”
My heart seemed to slow to such a pace that I could feel each individual beat thrumming one by one in my ribcage. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t think. I stood numbly staring at the ancient witch in front of me.
“What is the purpose of this game, then?” Brennan asked in frustration. “Why have we been asked to participate in this evil, twisted game if we can’t win anyway?”
Circes rocked on her heels, appraising him. “It is because, young boy, Zeus has not come to this decision yet. Hecate foresaw it long prior to the thought even passing through Zeus’ mind. It will happen. It just hasn’t happened yet. Hecate wants you to have this knowledge now, so that you can stop this game. You have the ability to appear in front of Zeus and make this offer. You will prevent the destruction of the entire mortal world. And you will save Empusa’s life. The choice is yours.”
“And what a choice it is,” Brennan murmured. He still held my hand, tightly enclosed within his.
“Why did my mother not tell us this herself? Why did she leave it on a scroll with Branwyn?” I demanded. “That makes no sense.”
“It makes perfect sense, princess,” Circes argued. “Your mother knew that it was not something you would wish to hear. She knew, however, that after you saw the brutality of this game, you would see for yourself the lengths that Zeus will go if he so chooses. He
end the mortal world. He will not hesitate. He has no human compassion, princess. You have seen that for yourself.”
“I know that is true,” I told her, resignation bowing my shoulders like a heavy, heavy weight. “I’ve never denied it or doubted it. Zeus has lived a very long time, always looking over his shoulder to make sure he is not overthrown. That has to do something to a person, even a god such as Zeus. But I am not allowing Brennan to do this. I will not sacrifice Brennan for the mortal world. I’m sorry. That’s just something that I cannot do.”
Circes, Keelin and Brennan all stared at me. Circes in consternation, Brennan thoughtfully and Keelin in absolute horror. As a mortal, I’m sure my words struck both terror and anger in Keelin. But none of it mattered. The only thing I could think of was the vast sense of loss that was already welling up in me at the mere thought of losing Brennan. It was suffocating and I suddenly felt like I couldn’t breathe.
Spinning, I ran as fast I could, blurring into immortal speed. I didn’t know where I was going… all I knew was that it needed to be far, far from here.
The scenery around me, the trees, the sky, the waving grasses, all blended together into one big swirl of color. The cold wind washed over me as I ran and it was only then, as I left everything else behind me, that I could take a deep breath. I could smell the heather in the air, I could taste my fear in my mouth, I could feel the despair in my chest. Everything culminated in one big overwhelming feeling.
And then I was tackled from behind.
Before I could even see Brennan, before I could focus my eyes on his face, I could smell him. He brought the smell of sunshine with him wherever he went and I would know the scent anywhere.
“You can’t run from this,” he told me as he held me gently to the ground. “I know you want to. I know you want to hide and hope that if you do, it will go away. But it’s not going to happen. This is something that I need to face.”
The ground was wet beneath me, small stones poking into my back. I stopped squirming and lay still, staring up at the man that I loved. At one point, seemingly forever ago, I had thought he was a boy. His mortal age was 18, his body was 18. But his soul… his soul was a thousand. Ageless. Timeless. Beautiful.
I reached up and stroked his cheek and my eyes instantly teared up, blurring my vision. I brushed the tears away impatiently. Brennan grasped my hand gently.