The six demigods stand in stunned silence for a moment, and then all of them move at once.
Valka charges forward toward her axe, which rests on the sand of the Arena floor. Orfeo lunges for it too. Neferu calls for her undead dragon and leaps onto its back. Selena nocks an arrow and waits, keen-eyed, for her moment. Lysander stands to block Valka’s way with his spear, his back to Orfeo. Pallas casts a spell.
For Pallas, Lysander, and Selena, time slows to a crawl.
Valka’s foot thunders down in slow motion, sending up a spray of sand that arcs through the air. Orfeo creeps closer to the axe, his silver chain unwinding behind him. The wings of Neferu’s dragon strain against the air, pushing itself into the sky. Selena’s bowstring oscillates in the sudden breeze. All of it is as quiet and inexorable as sand running through an hourglass.
Pallas strolls calmly over to Lysander, and motions for Selena to join them.
“What have you done?” asks Selena.
“We need to talk,” says Pallas, looking paler than usual. “But quickly. This spell, in this place, over this wide an area, is extremely taxing. Even for a demigod, it seems.”
“Why us?” asks Selena.
“Because I trust you,” says Pallas. “And I need your help.”
“Go on,” says Lysander.
“Elyrian wanted this,” says Pallas, gesturing to the frozen gods. “The God of Magic, the keeper of all knowledge, weighed his options and decided to support this wild plan to chain the gods.”
“As did the Lord of Light,” Lysander replies, his face clouded.
“Yes,” says Pallas, holding up a finger, “but he did so on false pretext, apparently hoping to become some kind of God of Everything. And you helped him. Why?”
Selena’s keen eyes fix on Lysander.
“I—” says Lysander, then stops. “In that moment, bathed in the Light, it seemed inevitable. In this moment… I don’t know. I honestly don’t.”
“Aeona didn’t want this,” says Selena. “And she doesn’t trust Elyrian.”
“I know,” says Pallas. “Despite that, I hope that you can trust me. Thaeriel’s plan has failed. Let us act on Elyrian’s wisdom instead, and assume that the current circumstance will, or at least can, avert some cosmic cataclysm.”
Lysander blinks. Valka’s foot lifts. The dragon’s wing begins its upswing.
“You talk like a sophist,” says Lysander.
“So I’m told,” says Pallas.
“You’re saying we should leave the gods chained?” asks Selena. “You think we can sort this out?”
“I don’t know,” says Pallas, leaning on their wand for support. “But it seems that Elyrian believed so—believed it strongly enough to chain himself along with the others. At least let me look into it before we free them to possibly destroy all of creation!”
“No!” says Selena. “The gods are wise. They wouldn’t risk the entire cosmos.”
“Thaeriel just betrayed the others,” says Lysander. “Do you really think they’ll set him free? Or accept it peacefully if we do?”
“…No,” says Selena. She takes a deep breath. “Fine. What exactly are you proposing?”
“I need time,” says Pallas, their breathing labored. “Time right now, to cast a spell that will lock in the gods against Valka’s interference. After that… Time to study what Elyrian saw in the stars. Once we know that, we can decide whether to release the gods.”
“And who’s we?” asks Selena. “You? The three of us?”
“All of us,” says Pallas. “The gods are freed when all six of us will it.”
“No way,” says Selena. “Then you can just say no forever.”
“Majority then,” says Lysander. “Four of us. If you can get the other three onboard, you can overrule Pallas and myself. Pallas? Is that doable?”
“Doable?” says Pallas, frowning. “Yes. But if it only takes four of us, what’s to stop them just freeing their own gods?”
“All or none,” says Selena.
Pallas cocks their head.
“Any four of us can decide to free the gods,” she says. “Until they do, the gods stay chained. And when they do, all six gods go free.”
Pallas thinks for a long moment, biting their lip.
“Agreed,” they say finally. “Majority decides, and it’s all or none.”
“Swear it,” says Selena.
“I swear!” says Pallas.
“What do you need from us?” asks Lysander.
“For now,” says Pallas, nodding at Valka, “keep her busy. If she frees Auros before my spell is finished, I won’t be able to put him back.”
Valka’s charging form still moves forward, inexorable as a glacier.
“Busy,” says Selena. “Sure.”
“Lysander,” says Pallas. “Wait for my signal.”
“To finish… the spell,” gasps Pallas. “Oaths. Bindings. That’s your domain, not mine.”
“But I don’t know—”
“Time’s up,” says Pallas. “You’ll know. Good luck.”
Pallas sinks to the ground in the center of the Arena. The flow of time resumes, noise and motion crashing back into being around them. Selena falls back, an arrow nocked. Lysander points his spear at Valka.
“Stop!” says Lysander, “or I’ll—”
Valka slaps the spear aside, then slams into Lysander with her shoulder and knocks him to the ground.
Orfeo’s hand closes around the haft of Valka’s axe, but it is burning hot, answering Valka’s fire with its own. He yelps and tosses it aside, and Valka shifts to aim for it. As she passes Orfeo, he snatches something barely visible from her belt—the cloak of shadows she brought back from the Cave of Lethenon. He wraps it around himself and vanishes.
Valka ignores him, and doesn’t even notice that the cloak is missing. She dives for the axe, grabs it, and rolls back up into fighting stance. Lysander is back on his feet too.
Orfeo is gone. Neferu and her dragon have taken flight. Pallas is sitting in the sand muttering. Selena stands at Aeona’s feet, waiting. Only Lysander faces Valka, standing between her and the chained form of Auros.
“What is happening?!” she yells at Lysander. “Your god did this! Why?!”
“I don’t know,” says Lysander. “But Elyrian and Ludia agreed. They cooperated with Thaeriel to chain all six gods.”
“And he betrayed them!” shouts Valka, advancing. “He chained them and freed himself!”
“He is the Lord of Light,” says Lysander uneasily. “He must have a good reason for such drastic action.”
“Tyrants always do,” says Selena, loud enough for the others to hear.
“Enough talk!” yells Valka.
Valka charges straight toward Auros, the Crownbreaker, who topples kings. Auros will know what to do about Thaeriel’s treachery.
Lysander sets himself, and she prepares to body-check him again, but at the last minute he drops to the ground. She stumbles over him, sprawls into the sand, gets up, and keeps running.
Pallas keeps sitting, keeps muttering. A glowing glyph takes shape, hovering above the ground in front of them.
Neferu’s dragon slams into the sand in Valka’s path and knocks her aside with one huge, taloned hand.
“The gods will remain chained!” shouts Neferu.
“What?” spits Valka, rising to her feet again. “Your goddess didn’t want this!”
“No,” says Neferu, smiling. “But I do.”
Valka tries to sprint past the dragon, but it shifts into her path. She swings her axe and splits its head down the middle in a spray of rotten gore, and the creature’s body flails wildly. Neferu jumps off to land in the sand and draws her khopesh.
“I don’t care about Malissus,” says Valka. “But I will free Auros.”
“As though he would leave his favorite sister in chains.”
“Get out of my way,” growls Valka.
“Make me,” says Neferu.
“Alright,” says Valka, and charges.
Neferu kicks sand in Valka’s face, but Valka keeps coming, snarling and inexorable even half-blinded. She slams into Neferu and knocks her to the ground.
Then Lysander is on Valka’s back, his spear haft around her neck. Valka can’t get a clear shot with her axe, so she drops it and flips Lysander over her head. She tosses his spear aside and puts him in a headlock. Lysander claws at her arm, but can’t get free. Neferu stays between Valka and Auros, but doesn’t intervene.
“Lysander! Now!” shouts Pallas, their voice wavering, still focused on the glyph.
“Now what?” grunts Lysander, straining against Valka’s arm.
“Take your spear and—” Pallas begins, then turns and sees Lysander’s predicament. “Oh.”
Pallas looks around helplessly, and their eyes settle on Neferu.
“Help him!” yells Pallas. “If you want the gods to stay chained, I need him!”
Neferu looks at Pallas for a long moment, then lunges forward and sweeps her khopesh toward Valka’s head. Valka’s eyes go wide and she rolls away, but her grip on Lysander loosens. He slips free of her arm as she rolls and looks to Pallas.
“Your spear,” says Pallas, and points to the glyph in front of them. “Your will. Seal the lock.”
Lysander stumbles forward and grabs his spear. Behind him, Valka picks up her axe and rises. Lysander slams his spear into the center of Pallas’s glyph, and the whole glyph goes golden-white. Now he sees the shape of the thing, and Pallas was right. He does know what to do.
Light and Magic ripple outward from the glyph, outlining the chained forms of the gods. The Arena goes quiet.
Valka shoves past Neferu and swings her axe at Auros’s chains, but it bounces off the light that surrounds them. She whirls and advances on Pallas.
“What did you do?”
“Reinforced the gods’ chains,” says Pallas wearily. “It was Elyrian’s will that the gods to be chained, and I want to know why.”
“Free them,” growls Valka.
“I can’t,” says Pallas. “Not alone.”
“The gods will stay chained until four of us agree to free them,” says Lysander. “And when we do agree, the spell will free them all.”
“How dare you?” demands Valka, stabbing a finger at Lysander. “Your god is the one who sought to exempt himself! He’s the one who ought to be locked away!” She glances at the other champions. “Fine. I agree to free all the gods but Thaeriel. Let them decide what to do with him.”
“All or none,” says Lysander.
“The spell’s been cast,” says Pallas. “I can’t change it.”
Valka’s eyes turn red.
“Then die!” she screams, in the voice of War.
Valka raises her axe above Pallas’s prone form. Lysander dives to tackle Valka, but he will be too late.
With a stinging thwack, an arrow knocks the axe out of Valka’s hand. Lysander slams into Valka, and the two of them go sprawling.
The demigods look up to see Selena standing there, with another arrow already nocked and drawn, bowstring pressed against the corner of her mouth.
Valka shoves Lysander off of her and stands up, her eyes back to normal, breathing hard.
“You too?” she says to Selena. “I wouldn’t have thought you’d take their side.”
“I’m not taking sides,” says Selena. “None of this should have happened. We should still be mortals. The gods should be unchained. But not just some of them. A cosmos without Light is little better than a cosmos with only Light.”
Valka studies the other champions. Her expression hardens.
“If you won’t free the God of War,” she says, “then in his name I will wage war without end.”
She stalks over, picks up her axe, and shoves it in her belt, and finally she notices that the cloak of shadows is gone.
“Orfeo!” she yells. “My Valknir will sweep down on the free cities! While you cower in the shadows, we will pull your Guild rats from their sewers and slaughter them in the streets!”
In his hiding place by Ludia’s feet, Orfeo’s fists clench.
Valka stabs a finger at Pallas.
“We will raze your Academy and put your precious knowledge to the torch, and as it burns we’ll warm ourselves by the fire and tell our stories, true stories, the stories we remember forever because we don’t entrust them to fragile, flammable paper.”
Pallas’s face has been home to many expressions, but no one has ever seen it contort, as does now, in plain, simple hatred.
Valka steps toward Lysander, looming over him.
“And finally,” she says, “one by one, we will reduce the great cities of Olympia to rubble. We’ll save Parthon for last, and we will leave no stone upon another. We will take everything, build nothing in its place, until all that remains is an unremarkable patch of rocky coastline haunted by the ghosts of the slain.”
“We’ll fight you,” says Lysander. “Every one of us.”
“Then you’ll die,” says Valka. “Every one of you.”
“What about Anubia?” asks Neferu. “Surely I’ve earned a reckoning as well.”
Gripped by rage, the towering demigod of War stomps out of the Arena and is gone.
Lysander turns to Neferu.
“Thank you for your help,” he says. “Whatever your reasons.”
Neferu’s sudden laughter is cold and disquieting, like a knife sliding from its sheath.
“You know nothing of my reasons,” she says. “I wanted Malissus to remain chained because she took me from my purpose. She sent me running off through the desert on pointless errands for Thaeriel when I should have been commanding my army.”
“Red Sands…” breathes Pallas.
“With Malissus gone, I’m free to finish with the Olympian colonies on the coastline,” says Neferu. “And Valka’s given me something even better. While she burns Olympia’s back yard, I’ll knock down your front gate. And who knows? Maybe she and I can meet up in the ruins of Parthon and she can try to give me that trip back to the Underworld. That would be fitting, I think.”
“Why would you start a war with Olympia?” asks Lysander, stunned.
“You clueless colonizer,” says Neferu. “We’re already at war. Have been for centuries, ever since Olympian ships arrived to conquer Anubian land and rule Anubian people. Parthon has its comfort and its high ideals, but your wealth was ours first. And it’s been so long you don’t even think of it as stolen.”
She smiles a predatory smile.
“I’m not going to start a war, Lysander. I’m going to end one.”
With that, the demigod of Death turns on her heel and departs.
Pallas rises, unsteadily, to their feet.
“Well, that could have gone better.”
Selena approaches Pallas and Lysander.
“Thank you for saving my life,” says Pallas quietly. “Unless you’d like to declare war on us too?”
“Not at the moment,” says Selena, her face grim. “But I can’t promise help, either. Unlike those two, I don’t command an army. I have to go warn my people that war is coming, and I don’t know what they’ll do after that.”
She turns to leave, then hesitates.
“You said four of us have to agree to unchain the gods?”
“That’s right,” says Pallas.
“My will is that the gods be unchained,” says Selena, and a portion of Pallas’s glyph glows vibrant green. “There. For whenever the rest of you come to your senses.”
She looks Pallas in the eye.
“I hope you’re right,” she says. “About everything.”
“Me too,” says Pallas.
The demigod of Nature leaves the Arena without fanfare, and Pallas and Lysander stand for a moment in silence.
“Thank you,” says Lysander.
“For what?” asks Pallas.
“For giving me another chance to do the right thing.”
“Did we?” asks Pallas. “Do the right thing, I mean?”
“It’s done,” he replies. “What matters is what we do next.”
“I suppose so,” says Pallas. “You and I have some dire warnings to deliver.”
“We do,” says Lysander. “And I have defenses to prepare. What will you do?”
“After that… Well, after that I expect I’ll play around with my new powers a bit, figure out what all I can do with a shard of divine power. You should too. We’re demigods now, Lysander, and the gods only know what that really means.”
Lysander glances around at the gods, frozen statues beneath a darkened sky.
“The gods only know,” echoes Lysander. “Let’s hope we figure it out quick.”
Beneath a black sun, the demigods of Light and Magic part ways.