Thankfully, the wind stopped when Alcholoë locked our prison. I could see the wind raging against Alcholoë, Khione, and Skiron. In comparison, the stillness in our chalk outline was eerie. Aspen and Sybil were on the ground, and I managed to catch Aspen’s eye. I tilted my head toward Sybil, hoping Aspen would understand what I wanted. She crawled to Sybil and started talking quietly. The smart girl had placed herself directly between Sybil and me.
Sound was muted behind the magic barrier, but I could hear Skiron scream. Khione had snapped the cord holding the keys by throwing an icicle at the harpy’s neck. The sound of the keys hitting the floor covered my whispered plea for an icicle. Khione conjured another icicle and tossed it toward me. It skidded to a stop directly on the chalk outline, stopped by the invisible barrier.
Happy that it did not bounce off the barrier, I blew warm air on the ice to melt it. Water would wash the chalk away, breaking the enchantment. Khione’s scream pierced the air, and I knew I would not be fast enough.
Aspen begged Sybil to let us out, but Sybil’s eyes were fixed on her mother torturing Khione. She winced when bubbles formed on Khione’s burned skin. Perhaps being cut off from the keys would allow Sybil’s mind to work on its own. While everyone was distracted, I took a breath and felt for the life I knew would be hiding in the cave.
Heartbeat after heartbeat appeared in my mind. I could feel the cave dwellers surrounding us. It was not long before I found a family of salamanders willing to help. Alcholoë was on the ground, searching for the key she wanted. She was oscillating between frantic to find the key and cackling with madness. My little friends had no trouble weaving between the keys without being noticed.
The keys were reaching out to their minds and whispering various instructions. The salamanders did not understand, but I did. They ran from one key to another, telling what each key wanted. When I heard something useful, they would drag a key to me. By the time the ice melted enough to break the chalk circle, I had weapons waiting.
Alcholoë ranted and argued with Skiron, revealing just how insane she had become. Aspen’s expression ranged from shock to outrage at the sight of Khione being burned. Sadness filled her as she explained to Sybil the reality that Alcholoë had kept hidden. There was no way the power transfer would do anything but kill Sybil.
Sybil and Alcholoë yelled at each other through the barrier as Sybil realized her mother had lied her entire life. The abrupt personality change Sybil displayed reinforced the knowledge of how powerful the keys’ magic was and how quickly their influence could fade. With my help, Aspen got Sybil to question her own actions. Sybil pulled a black key from a cord hidden beneath her shirt. A tear rolled down her cheek as she fought with herself to give it up. Her hands shaking, she held it out and let go. I was able to pull out the box in my pocket and shove it under the key before it hit the ground. Sybil almost fainted from separation shock.
I had to leave Aspen to take care of her because the ice finally melted enough to smear the chalk, and the barrier to our cage disappeared. I scooped up the keys my friends had brought me and shot an arrow at Alcholoë. The key preventing me from hitting her had fallen, but she felt my movement and brought a wing up to block her head.
Skiron had convinced Alcholoë to stop torturing Khione by promising to transfer his powers to his daughter as Alcholoë commanded.
“I, Skiron, Corus, Argestes, Anemoi, God of the North West Wind, willingly offer up my powers to be transferred,” he paused, and Khione stumbled with the effort to stop him. “to Khione, the Goddess of Ice and Snow, to be wielded until she returns them to me.”
Alcholoë screamed in rage and tried to lunge at him, but my arrow held her wing to the ground.
Skiron turned the key. Storm-grey clouds appeared above him, warping into long arms that scooped up Skiron and Khione. They disappeared as the clouds twisted into a small tornado. The roar of the storm and the rush of wind down the tunnel of the cave kept me from hearing anything.
The harpy pulled the arrow from her wing and staggered to the tornado. She was blown back. I looked back at the girls and held up my hand for them to stay put. I volleyed another set of arrows at her. This time, they hit their target, but she did not go down. Instead, she searched the ground for a specific key. I searched my stash of keys.
The tornado spun itself out as quickly as it had spun itself up. Only Khione tumbled out, and she now had wings. “Uncle Skiron is gone,” she told us.
The girls behind me gasped. His disappearance did not phase Alcholoë. She immediately demanded that Khione transfer her new powers to Sybil. The harpy still had the key that set Khione on fire and tried to use it. Nothing happened this time. Somehow, Khione’s new power prevented it. Instead, a gust of wind knocked the harpy over with a simple flick of Khione’s wrist.
“Take the girls and leave,” I told Khione.
Alcholoë tried to go for Khione, but I held her back. She wasn’t fighting me, just trying to get away. I held her until I could feel everyone had exited the cave.
The key in my right hand tried to snake its way into my brain, but the key in my left hand blocked magic from affecting me. I tossed Alcholoë up against the wall and made a locking motion. “You will tell me what you know about the magic placed on the keys,” I said.
Alcholoë jumped up and tried to fly, but my arrows had done their damage. She dragged herself toward the exit as she started to tell me about the keys. I pinned her to the wall with a hand around her neck. “They are gone. Skiron’s powers are gone. Everyone has left you.” She screamed with rage and turned a key that failed to affect me. “You will tell me what you know.”
She told me everything. It was disjointed and painful to witness. Her mind would not be fixed by being separated from the keys. Far too much magic for far too long had warped her mind. There was little information I could use to find the person who had stolen and tainted the keys, but there were a few bits of information I could take to Hestia. What Alcholoë did know was how to track them down, which would be very useful.
After some time, I started to wonder what to do with her. She was a victim who had stumbled across strong magic that possessed her, but she would never recover. Suddenly, everything went black. I felt her slip from my hand, and she cackled again.
“The great huntress has lost. I have escaped you. How pathetic a goddess you are to allow a wounded little harpy to get away.” She circled me as she taunted.
The key I had been using to keep the rest of the keys from affecting me had slipped out of my hand. What Alcholoë did not know was that sight was only one of the ways I could find prey. She was getting closer and closer. The keys on the ground were searching for a host to sink their teeth into, and I could hear them all calling out. The only one I could not hear was the key that burned Khione. She must have it and surely would be preparing to use it on me.
I waved my hands in the air, pretending I did not know exactly where she was. Alcholoë must not feel the pain from the arrows or her broken wing. She kept trying to fly up, probably out of habit. As crazy as she was, she was still quick. I waited until she was close enough to grab, and her good wing was half raised in front of me.
“You will pay for this, you albatross side piece,” I screamed in the wrong direction. When she laughed at me, her wing moved a fraction of an inch closer to me. I grabbed it with one hand and pulled her into me. She collided with the dagger in my other hand, and her life force spilled to the ground.
She was still under the influence of the key, so she was still telling me all she knew about the keys. “You could have used the one with the rounded third prong to keep me from moving and the one with the thin second prong to stop my heart.”
“Yes, but I needed to know that you were free of this burden. That meant using my own tools.” I laid her down on the ground and searched for the keys.
A Pallas’s cat’s meow came from the ground a few inches from my hand. “Thank you, friend. Your cave will be cleaned out quickly.” I picked up the key beside its paw and unlocked it. My vision came back with a jolt. I blinked from the brightness of the light that had seemed dim moments before.
I collected all the keys that were scattered across the cave. Each time I found one that felt in use, I used the unlocking motion and dropped it in a bag. Hopefully, anyone who had been affected by this magic was now free of it. I could feel the magic fading from Alcholoë.
Her eyes were no less crazed, but at least I knew she would not wander the depths of the river Styx compelled by something she could never reach. When I was sure I had all the keys and she was free, I sat beside her. “You were a worthy opponent, Alcholoë. Sleep well,” I said as I ended her torment.
Khione, Aspen, and Sybil were waiting for me outside the cave, looking up at me expectantly when I walked out. I would not go into detail in front of Sybil. “She is defeated, and I have found all the keys except one.”
“Skiron has it. He will be back when he recovers, and I will give him his powers back. I must carry them for now, and then we will give you the key,” Khione said.
I nodded and held up the flimsy bag of insidious keys. “Can you encase these in ice? I hoped a thick layer of ice would block them until I could return them to Hestia.” I also hoped Hestia would be able to break the spell or at least have something that could better contain them.
As Khione worked, I examined the wound on Aspen. “Hold still and stay quiet.” I poured healing energy into my new child and let it flow over and into her. Healing always worked better for me when I let it find the wounds. Within moments, the hole from the harpy’s talon sealed, and her skin smoothed.
Sybil examined Aspen and looked up at me hopefully. “Can you fix my skin?” She sounded far more innocent than she had in the cave.
I took her arm and looked at the scales. “I cannot cure you fully, as the scales are a part of you, but I can make your skin smooth,” I offered.
She nodded. I placed my hands on her shoulders and let the healing energy wash over her. This time I did guide it. The scales faded and left only a white outline, giving the impression of a tattoo. I also guided the healing to her mind, which swirled in chaos. Making sure she understood what I was doing. I pushed the obsession for the key out so she would not have to deal with addiction and calmed some of the confusion caused by the death of a parent who had been a tormentor.
“You need rest before I do more, but you need more,” I said as I laid a hand on her cheek.
Dread and relief danced on her face. Aspen grabbed her arm. “Sybil, that looks so cool!”
“I hear Aphrodite is taking counseling clients again,” I suggested.
Sybil and Aspen looked shocked. Khione said, “This has nothing to do with…love.”
“A child’s love falls well under Aphrodite’s expertise, but if you feel more comfortable, this is also a specialty of Hestia’s.” I winked at all of them.
“Kia, I would like to help you if I can. You can call on me anytime for any reason. But I know it will take time for all that has happened to you and between us to heal.” I offered her a card with Oorvi’s name on it. “When you need help, use this. Oorvi is one of my best fighters, and she has a lot of experience helping women learn to control their emotions. That might be needed while you are learning a new set of powers.”
Khione took the card but looked skeptical. “Just hold onto it, in case,” I said and handed her another card for my favorite OB/GYN. “A lot has changed in the last 1000 years.”
From the look on Khione’s face, I might have gone too far. Time to bob and weave. “The white streak really suits you, Frosty.”
Khione pulled a section of her hair over her shoulder and stared at it. “Damnit.”