I got Micah back to Tori’s house and settled all three in the living room. It took gathering every blanket and pillow I could find, but I made a pallet on the floor for them. I wanted to keep a close eye on my beloved mortals. As soon as Micah removed his jacket, he was in the same state as the other two. I took his coat and settled him in, frowning at the weight of the statue in his pocket. Once they were all tucked in, I grabbed a kitchen towel to fish the statue out and placed it next to Tori’s. I did not want to touch it, even by accident. My fingertips were still reddened from touching it in Micah’s pocket before, and being burned from the trace magic of the missing stall was enough for me. I was done with that experience.
I’d actually been worried that they wouldn’t sleep, but when I turned around, they were all out cold. Of course, I panicked and quickly checked that they were all breathing and hoped that they’d wake in the morning. I wasn’t sure if they would be back to normal when they woke, but all I could do was think positive thoughts and wait it out.
While they slept, I wracked my brain for who I could seek for answers, but my thoughts were chaotic, and I wondered who would hate me enough to target my mortals. The list was long, but it became much shorter when I considered who knew about them. It just didn’t make any sense why they would be targeted. A god would have just killed them and a human shouldn’t have the power to create this kind of spell.
I sat curled up on an armchair with a cup of tea that I’d managed to make without burning down the house. I refused to leave my mortals, and so I watched the rise and fall of their chests the entire night. When the morning light crept through the windows, I groaned and set my empty mug aside. I stood and stretched, but nearly fell back into the chair when all three of my mortals abruptly sat up at the same time. My heart raced at the sudden change in them.
“Micah? Tori? Callie?” They didn’t answer me, but it was completely unnerving how all their heads slowly turned until they were staring at me with wide eyes. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d actually experienced true terror, but the sight of my mortals looking soullessly at me was definitely the most terrifying thing I’d experienced in a long time.
“Can all three of you not look at me like that? Please?” None of them moved. After a moment, I collected myself and knelt in front of Callie, gently checking her over. “No, honey,” I whined when her nose started to bleed. I wanted to look away, but I forced myself to inspect her because something was wrong. Or, rather, something else was wrong. It wasn’t red by any means. The blood trickling from her nostril was a deep black ooze, and I felt my chest tighten because there was nothing else to think other than it was indeed a curse on my mortals. The sight of the other two with similar afflictions confirmed it for me, and I wanted to scream out my frustration.
But I knew I needed to get to work on finding an answer to get them back to normal. That was all the hope I had, that they would be as they were before. I couldn’t lose them.
I’d seen in the mortal movies that when the characters had a dilemma, they would reach out to experts at universities. Since I’d rather not reach out to the other gods to fix my issues, mostly because I couldn’t trust that none of them were involved, I thought it better to try something that I’d always been curious about.
I’d barely gotten through a few questions before I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. The three mortals had been sitting in the same position for so long, I’d thought they’d remain that way until I could find an answer. My phone fell from my hand as they abruptly stood and went to grab the small statues, leaving me with more questions than answers. I’d already figured out that they caused my mortals’ afflictions, but it was nice to have it confirmed.
They abruptly turned and started for the door. They wrenched it open so hard it slammed into the wall and shook the hanging decorations. I followed after them, watching them walk past the parked cars and down the street. As much as my leg still stung, I couldn’t let them go alone. Hopefully, they’d lead me to whoever was behind their possessed states.
We walked for hours. My feet were screaming, and I could see the three of them were exhausted, but they wouldn’t stop. I wondered if they’d just walk themselves to death. But when my gaze moved from their backs to the ruins they were heading toward, my heart sank. It wasn’t accurate to call that temple ruins. It was in far better condition than most of our remaining temples. But it was one I had visited only once before and merely out of curiosity.
He can’t be behind it.
That was my first thought as we neared the structure. A vicious little voice in my mind told me that with all I had done wrong to him, he could’ve easily taken it out on my mortals. But I knew better. At least I hoped he hadn’t changed that much in all the years since I had last seen him.
I was pulled from my thoughts as the three of them broke into a run, rushing up the stairs and into the center of the temple. A groan escaped me as I hurried after them. I had used some of my powers since they first began failing, but I didn’t trust them outside of an emergency. That seemed to be the only time they’d worked properly.
When I caught up to them, my breath hitched in my throat. They were clawing at the ground and I couldn’t help wincing at the wounds it produced on their fingers. Through countless battles, I’d never shied away from blood or gore, but it was different when I cared for those being injured.
I screamed for them to stop, but my pleas seemed to fall on deaf ears. What else could I do but physically restrain them? Tori was nearest me so she was the first I grabbed, lifting her from the hard floor she was clawing her fingers bloody against. As soon as I had her over my shoulder, she screamed and kicked and clawed at me, trying to get free. Rather than wasting my breath, I moved to do the same with Callie. My heart sank as I watched Micah continue on his attempt to dig through the ground with his bare hands, unperturbed by my restraining the other two.
When they stilled on my shoulders, I frowned and slowly lowered them to their feet, hoping that it wasn’t a ruse to continue what they were doing before. But as I stood them up, I felt a scream climbing up my throat. They had the statues pressed to their throats, and I had a feeling that they’d do enough damage that I wouldn’t be able to save them. Holding my hands aloft, I took a step back, hoping they’d lower the small figures if I stopped trying to keep them from whatever goal it was they had. Tears clouded my vision, but I could make out the blurry shapes of their arms lowering. It was a relief, but short-lived as they continued clawing at the floor once more.
“That’s the face I was hoping for. It was much easier than I thought it’d be. How were you able to be such a heartless bitch for so long when you’re obviously just as weak as your followers?”
That voice was one I didn’t know, but I was grateful for that at that moment. Had it been the voice I feared, I would have truly been too late. “Who said I am not still a heartless bitch? Perhaps I weep at how pathetically simple it was for you to possess these mortals.”
“Lies? Now? Don’t desecrate this holy place with your manipulations. You’ve done that enough with your presence.” The woman stepped out of the shadows, finally, and I knew she was the one that Tori had described before. I just didn’t know who she was. Though I was getting an idea of why she was doing it. “Welcome to the Temple of Hephaestus. Aphrodite.”