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Neon Gods: Chapter 2

Persephone

The party continues around me, but I can’t focus on anything. Faces blur, colors meld together, the sound of gushing compliments are static in my ears. A scream is building in my chest, a sound of loss too big for my body, but I can’t let it escape. If I start shrieking, I’m certain I’ll never stop.

I sip champagne through numb lips, my free hand shaking so badly that the liquid sloshes around in the glass. Psyche appears in front of me as if by magic, and though she’s got her blank expression firmly in place, her eyes are practically shooting lasers at both our mother and Zeus. “Persephone, I have to go to the bathroom. Come with me?”

“Of course.” I barely sound like myself. I almost have to pry my fingers from Zeus’s, and all I can think about are those meaty hands on my body. Oh gods, I’m going to be sick.

Psyche hustles me out of the ballroom, using her voluptuous body to shield me, dodging well-wishers as if she’s my own personal security. The hallway doesn’t feel any better, though. The walls are closing in. I can see Zeus’s imprint on every inch of this place. If I marry him, he’ll put his imprint on me, too. “I can’t breathe,” I gasp.

“Keep walking.” She rushes me past the bathroom, around a corner, and to the elevator. The claustrophobic feeling is even worse when the doors close, trapping us in the mirrored space. I stare at my reflection. My eyes are too large in my face, and my pale skin is leached of color.

I can’t stop shaking. “I’m going to be sick.”

“Almost there, almost there.” She practically carries me out of the elevator the second the doors open, taking us down another wide, marbled hall to a side door. We slip into one of the handful of courtyards that surround the building, a little bit of carefully curated garden in the midst of so much city. It’s dormant now, dusted with the light snow that started to fall while we were inside. The cold cuts through me like a knife, and I welcome the sting. Anything is better than being up in that room for another moment longer.

Dodona Tower is in the very center of downtown Olympus, one of the few pieces of property that is owned by the Thirteen as a whole rather than any one of the individuals, though everyone knows it’s Zeus’s in every way that counts. It’s a grand skyscraper that I used to find almost magical when I was too young to know better.

Psyche guides me to a stone bench. “Do you need to put your head between your knees?”

“It won’t help.” The world won’t stop spinning. I have to… I don’t know. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I’ve always seen my path before me, stretching out through the years to my ultimate goal. It’s always been so clear. Finishing my master’s degree here in Olympus, a compromise with my mother. Wait until I turn twenty-five and gain my trust fund and then use the money to break free of Olympus. It’s hard to fight your way through the barrier that keeps us separate from the rest of the world, but it’s not impossible. Not with the right people helping, and my money ensures that will be the case. And then I’ll be free. I can move to California to do my PhD at Berkeley. A new city, a new life, a fresh start.

Now I can’t see anything at all.

“I can’t believe she did this.” Psyche starts pacing, her movements short and angry, her dark hair so like our mother’s swinging with each step. “Callisto is going to kill her. She knew you didn’t want any part of this, and she forced you into it anyway.”

“Psyche…” My throat feels hot and tight, my chest tighter yet. As if I’ve been impaled and am only now noticing. “He killed his last wife. His last three wives.”

“You don’t know that.” She answers automatically, but she won’t quite meet my gaze.

“Even if I don’t… Mother knew what everyone believes he’s capable of and didn’t care.” I wrap my arms around myself. It does nothing to quell my shakes. “She sold me to cement her power. She’s already one of the Thirteen. Why isn’t that good enough for her?”

Psyche perches on the bench next to me. “We’ll figure out a way through this. We just need time.”

“He’s not going to give me time,” I say dully. “He’s going to push the wedding through just like he pushed the proposal.” How long do I have? A week? A month?

“We should call Callisto.”

No.” I nearly shout the word and make an effort to lower my voice. “If you tell her now, she’ll come straight here and make a scene.” When it comes to Callisto, that might mean yelling at our mother…or it might mean taking off one of the spike heels she favors and trying to stab Zeus in the throat. There would be consequences either way, and I can’t let my older sister bear the burden of protecting me.

I have to figure my own way through this.

Somehow.

“Maybe making a scene is a good thing at this point.”

Bless Psyche, but she still doesn’t understand. As daughters of Demeter, we have two choices—play within the rules of Olympus or leave the city behind entirely. That’s it. There is no bucking the system without paying the cost, and the consequences are too severe. One of us stepping out of line will create a ripple effect impacting everyone connected to us. Even Mother being one of the Thirteen won’t save us if it comes to that.

I should marry him. It would ensure my sisters remain protected, or as near to it as is possible in this pit of vipers. It’s the right thing to do, even if the very thought makes me ill. As if in response, my stomach surges and I barely get to the nearest bushes in time to be sick. I’m vaguely aware of Psyche holding my hair away from my face and rubbing my back in soothing circles.

I should do this…but I can’t.

“I can’t do this.” Saying it aloud makes it feel more real. I wipe my mouth and force myself to stand.

“We’re missing something. There’s no way that Mother would send you into a marriage with a man who might harm you. She’s ambitious, but she loves us. She wouldn’t put us in danger.”

There was a time when I agreed. After tonight, I don’t know what to believe. “I can’t do this,” I repeat. “I won’t do this.”

Psyche digs through her tiny purse and comes up with a stick of gum. When I make a face at her, she shrugs. “No use getting distracted by puke breath while you’re making life-changing statements of intent.”

I take the gum and the peppermint flavor does help ground me a bit. “I can’t do this,” I repeat again.

“Yes, you’ve mentioned that.” She doesn’t tell me how impossible this situation is going to be to get out of. She also doesn’t list all the reasons fighting it will never go my way. I’m just a single woman against all the power Olympus can bring to the fore. Stepping out of line isn’t an option. They’ll force me to my knees before they let me go. Getting out of this city was already going to take every resource I had. Getting out now that Zeus has claimed me? I don’t know if it’s even possible.

Psyche takes my hands. “What are you going to do?”

Panic bleats through my head. I have the budding suspicion that if I walk back into that building, I’ll never walk back out again. It feels paranoid, but I’d felt weird about how furtive Mother was acting for days now and look how that turned out. No, I can’t afford to ignore my instincts. Not any longer. Or maybe my fear is clouding my thoughts. I don’t know and I don’t care. I just know I absolutely cannot go back.

“Can you go get my purse?” I left both it and my phone upstairs. “And tell Mother that I don’t feel so well and that I’m going home?”

Psyche is already nodding. “Of course. Anything you need.”

It takes ten seconds after she’s gone to register that going home won’t solve any of these problems. Mother will just come collect me and deliver me back to my new fiancé, trussed up if necessary. I scrub my hands over my face.

I can’t go home, I can’t stay here, I can’t think.

I shove to my feet and turn for the entrance to the courtyard. I should wait for Psyche to get back, should let her talk me down into something resembling calm. She’s just as cunning as Mother; she’ll come up with a solution if given enough time. But letting her get involved means running the risk that Zeus will punish her alongside me the second he realizes I desperately don’t want his ring on my finger. If there’s a chance to spare my sisters from the consequences of my actions, I’m going to do it. Mother and Zeus will have no reason to punish them if they had no part in helping me defy this marriage.

I have to get out and I have to do it alone. Now.

I take one step and then another. I almost stop when I come even with the thick stone archway leading out onto the street, almost let my rising reckless fear fail me and turn back to submit to the collar Zeus and my mother are so keen to put around my neck.

No.

The single word feels like a battle cry. I surge forward, past the entrance and out onto the sidewalk. I pick up my pace, moving at a brisk walk and turning south on instinct. Away from my mother’s home. Away from Dodona Tower and all the predators contained within. If I can just get some distance, I can think. That’s what I need. If I can get my thoughts in order, I can come up with a plan and find a way out of this mess.

The wind picks up as I walk, cutting through my thin dress as if it doesn’t exist. I move faster, my heels clicking along the pavement in a way that reminds me of my mother, which only serves to remind me of what she’s done.

I don’t care if Psyche is likely right, that Mother undoubtedly has some scheme up her sleeve that doesn’t put my head on a literal chopping block. Her plans make no difference. She didn’t talk to me, didn’t give me the benefit of the doubt; she simply sacrificed this pawn to get access to the king. It makes me sick.

The tall buildings of downtown Olympus do a bit to cut off the wind, but every time I cross a street, it barrels down from the north and whips my dress around my legs. It feels extra icy coming off the water of the bay, so cold my sinuses hurt. I have to get out of the elements, but the thought of turning around and walking back to Dodona Tower is too awful to bear. I’d rather freeze.

I laugh hoarsely at the absurd thought. Yes, that’ll show them. Losing a few toes and fingers to frostbite will definitely hurt my mother and Zeus more than it hurts me. I can’t tell if it’s panic or the cold making me loopy.

Downtown Olympus is just as carefully polished as Zeus’s tower. All the storefronts create a unified style that’s elegant and minimalist. Metal and glass and stone. It’s pretty but ultimately soulless. The only indicator of what kind of businesses are contained behind the various glass doors are tasteful vertical signs with the business names. The further from the city center, the more individual style and flavor seep into the neighborhoods, but this close to Dodona Tower, Zeus controls everything.

If we marry, will he order clothes for me so that I fit seamlessly in with his aesthetic? Supervise my hair stylist visits to mold me in the image he wants? Monitor what I do, what I say, what I think? The thought makes me shudder.

It takes me three blocks before I realize my footsteps aren’t the only ones I hear. I glance over my shoulder to find two men half a block back. I pick up my pace, and they match it easily. Not quite trying to close the distance, but I can’t shake the sensation of being hunted.

This late, all the shops and businesses in the downtown area are closed. There’s music a few blocks away that must be a bar still open. Maybe I can lose them in there—and get warm in the process.

I take the next left turn, aiming in the direction of the sound. Another look over my shoulder shows only a single man behind me. Where did the other one go?

I get my answer a few seconds later when he appears in the next intersection from my left. He’s not blocking the street, but every instinct I have tells me to stay as far away from him as possible. I veer right, once again heading south.

The farther I get from the center of downtown, the more the buildings begin to break away from the cookie-cutter image. I begin to see trash on the street. Several of the businesses have bars on their windows. There is even a foreclosure sign or two taped to dirty doors. Zeus only cares about what he can see, and apparently his gaze doesn’t stretch to this block.

Maybe it’s the cold muddling my thoughts, but it takes me far too long to realize that they’re driving me to the River Styx. True fears clamps its teeth into me. If they corner me against the banks, I will be trapped. There are only three bridges between the upper city and the lower city, but no one uses them—not since the final Hades died. Crossing the river is forbidden. If legend is to be believed, it’s not actually possible without paying some kind of terrible price.

And that’s if I even managed to reach a bridge.

Terror gives me wings. I stop worrying about how much my feet hurt in these ridiculously uncomfortable heels. The cold barely registers. There has to be a way to get around my pursuers, to find people who can help.

I don’t even have my fucking phone.

Damn it, I shouldn’t have let emotions get the best of me. If I’d just waited for Psyche to bring me my purse, none of this would be happening… Would it?

Time ceases to have meaning. The seconds are measured in each harsh exhale tearing itself from my chest. I can’t think, can’t stop, am nearly sprinting. Gods, my feet hurt.

At first, I barely register the rushing sound of the river. It’s almost impossible to hear over my own ragged breathing. But then it’s there in front of me, a wet, black ribbon too wide, too fast to swim safely, even if it were summer. In the winter, it’s a death sentence.

I spin around to find the men closer. I can’t quite make out their faces in the shadows, which is right around the time I realize how quiet the night’s gotten. The sound of that bar is barely a murmur in the distance.

No one is coming to save me.

No one even knows I’m here.

The man on the right, the taller of the two, laughs in a way that has my body fighting off shudders that have nothing to do with the cold. “Zeus would like a word.”

Zeus.

Had I imagined this situation couldn’t get worse? Foolish of me. These aren’t random predators. They were sent after me like dogs retrieving a runaway hare. I hadn’t really thought he’d stand idly by and let me escape, had I? Apparently so, because shock steals what little thought I have left. If I stop running, they will collect me and return me to my fiancé. He will cage me. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that I won’t get another opportunity to escape.

I don’t think. I don’t plan.

I kick off my heels and run for my life.

Behind me, they curse, and then their footsteps pound. Too close. The river curves here, and I follow the bank. I don’t even know where I’m headed. Away. I have to get away. I don’t care what it looks like. I’d throw myself into the icy river itself to escape Zeus. Anything is better than the monster who rules the upper city.

Cypress Bridge rises up in front of me, an ancient stone bridge with columns that are larger around than I am and twice as tall. They create an arch that gives the impression of leaving this world behind.

“Stop!”

I ignore the yell and plunge through the arch. It hurts. Fuck, everything hurts. My skin stings as if being scraped raw by some invisible barrier, and my feet feel like I’m sprinting on glass. I don’t care. I can’t stop now, not with them so close. I barely notice the fog rising around me, coming off the river in waves.

I’m halfway across the bridge when I catch sight of the man standing on the other bank. He’s wrapped in a black coat with his hands in his pockets, fog curling around his legs like a dog with its master. A fanciful thought, which is only further confirmation that I am not okay. I’m not even in the same realm as okay.

“Help!” I don’t know who this stranger is, but he’s got to be better than what pursues me. “Please help!”

He doesn’t move.

My steps falter, my body finally beginning to shut down from the cold and fear and strange slicing pain of crossing this bridge. I stumble, nearly going to my knees, and meet the stranger’s eyes. Pleading.

He looks down at me, still as a statue draped in black, for what feels like an eternity. Then he seems to make a choice: lifting a hand, palm extended toward me, he beckons me across what remains of the River Styx. I’m finally close enough to see his dark hair and beard, to imagine the intensity of his dark gaze as the strange buzzing tension in the air seems to relax around me, allowing me to push through those final steps to the other side without pain. “Come,” he says simply.

Somewhere in the depths of my panic, my mind is screaming that this is a terrible mistake. I don’t care. I dredge up the last bit of my strength and sprint for him.

I don’t know who this stranger is, but anyone is preferable to Zeus.

No matter the price.


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