Bloodcurdling screams and ragged, panting hisses echoed off the walls, piercing my eardrums with each reverberation. Screams of agony, not cries of terror. Because we no longer cried about fear.
We’d become dear friends with the sensation. Embraced it with open arms. Devoted ourselves to it like loyal, steadfast lovers. It had been the only way to stay sane. So we screamed when it hurt, and smiled the moment it stopped.
The source of the screams sagged limply, sucking in a deep breath. And then he began to laugh raucously. “That was better than awake water,” he admitted dryly. By awake water, Carl probably meant coffee. Our mental agility had hit a few speed bumps after a week of being tortured four times a day—more often than we had been fed and watered—so we frequently caught ourselves phrasing things in unique ways rather than wasting the energy needed to remember terms that had once seemed so important. Which was why I could remember coffee; nothing was more important than coffee, except maybe alcohol. Each night we had a rollicking good laugh about that day’s new additions to urban slang.
It was the simple things that kept us going.
Anyone listening in on our evening conversations might have declared us quite mad. But I wasn’t a brain fixer, so I reserved judgment. I frowned, tasting the phrase on my tongue. Not brain fixer. Therapist, I chided myself. I chuckled under my breath, cherishing the small joke so that I didn’t forget to tell Carl later. He would laugh and laugh and laugh.
The only thing keeping Carl upright were the chains extending from the thick metal manacles around his wrists to an empty spot on the ceiling. Magic of some sort held them there. The manacles matched my own, and they glowed with faint red runes, like tiny night lights.
I stared at the maestro of our morning’s misery with a cold, flat, emotionless look, ignoring the stiff feel to my skin caused by the dried blood caked across my face. I’d already taken my turn, after all. Well, my first turn.
It was early yet.
And our Olympian jailers were nothing if not workhorses. I had at least three more sessions in store over the course of the rest of the day. I’d have to save my brain fixer joke for after that.
The bastard with the knife glanced over his shoulder at me with an expectant smile.
I stared back at him, waiting, my face giving away nothing. “You finished yet, or do you need to take a break?”
The pale, bloody lizard behind him began to laugh in a low, rasping wheeze, lifting his head despite his agony. Blood dripped from his nostrils and ridged mouth—where humans had lips.
“Your mother hits harder than that,” Carl wheezed. Then he managed to thrust his hips lewdly. “And I hit Hera last night.” His impersonation of Elvis Presley’s loose hips made it abundantly clear that he’d had an entirely different definition for the word hit.
I let a slow, malevolent smile stretch across my lips as I stared at the god currently in charge of making us more…agreeable. “She also made Carl bleed more,” I said. “You know, when she was raking her fingernails into his back as he plowed her. I hardly slept a wink—”
Ares backhanded me, sending my weakened body tumbling. Unfortunately, my own chains were affixed to a ring in the center of the room’s floor, which prevented me from reaching the wall. As they snapped tight with a metallic clanking sound, my momentum stopped cold as my manacles—and the wicked thorns lining the interior of the metal cuffs—bit deeply into my already scabbed, bloody wrists, reopening old wounds. As I sat back up, I risked a look down to make sure Ares hadn’t dislocated or severed them.
Not that it would have really mattered, anyway. Our jailers had an elixir they forced down our throats if they went too far and accidentally killed or fatally wounded us. Ambrosia had brought me back from the brink of death more times than I could count.
I spat blood out, tonguing the tooth Ares had just loosened with his backhanded blow.
“Don’t kill the messenger,” I muttered. “It’s not my fault if Zeus’ power-grid had a blackout and Hera wanted to take a walk on the wild side.” I grinned. “It’s my turn tonight. I’m going to make that piglet squeal, son.”
He stormed my way, his eyes flickering with crimson light, and he lifted his massive boot, preparing to stomp my face.
I didn’t shy away. Instead, I stared up at him with a sinister smile on my face. He hesitated, studying my lack of fear with a flicker of unease. He slowly lowered his boot.
“Sooie!” I crowed, taunting him. Carl echoed the sound, cackling hard enough to send him into a coughing, choking fit.
Ares’ face contorted into a purple knot of rage and he lifted his boot again.
The door burst open and a large, older man immediately tackled Ares into the wall—right as Ares’ boot was flying for my face—and the two of them hit hard enough to make dust fall from the ceiling.
Zeus grabbed his son’s face like he was palming a basketball and slammed the back of his head into the wall. Stone crunched, crumbling to the floor. Ares’ eyes momentarily rolled into the back of his head before he regained focus, staring at his father with an incredulous look.
“He said he was going to—”
“I don’t care what he said!” Zeus thundered, his fists crackling with fingers of lightning around his knuckles, zapping his son’s face on contact, and causing his entire body to momentarily spasm. “He’s chained up. If I wanted him dead, I would have killed him days ago. You keep this up, and I will lock you in here. You’ve gone through a gallon of Ambrosia. Do you have any idea how much those ingredients cost?”
Ares’ eyes smoldered with stubborn defiance. “Hermes can make more,” he grumbled.
Zeus leaned his head back and closed his eyes, muttering a curse under his breath. He wore a plain white toga with a dark leather belt, and leather sandals, but he radiated authority despite the apparent loungewear. He was a buff, older man with long gray hair and a prominent tan, looking like a wealthy, powerful man in the prime of his life. In short, he looked like a swell guy who owned a dozen successful companies and donated a lot to charities.
In my opinion, he was a sociopathic asshole.
“You shouldn’t need Ambrosia,” Zeus thundered. “What good is repeatedly killing him and then bringing him back? What does he have to fear if he knows he’ll wake up after, no matter what you do to him?” Ares frowned as if his father had spoken a prophecy. “And I don’t trust Hermes being in charge of anything they consume, not after he tried to help them with his damned coins. It is not his job to clean up your messes.”
I’d seen Hermes from a distance a time or two during my captivity, but he hadn’t been permitted to see us in private due to the whole coin thing. In my opinion, help was overstating it. He’d given me a coin to fight some dragons a few years ago, and then another coin that I’d recently used to break us free of our previous set of Olympian chains after Zeus had strung us up beside Prometheus. Hermes’ help had landed us here.
Ares clenched his jaw, glaring back at Zeus. “If you’re going to neuter me whenever I’m getting anywhere useful, I’m finished trying. Father.” He stormed past Zeus and left the room.
I sat down on my rear with a tired sigh, eyeing the Father of the Olympians.
The God of Lightning.
“Premium stock you got there,” I said, jerking my chin towards the cell door and Ares’ abrupt departure. “No wonder you fuck animals in your spare time. You’re a real goat-getter. Anything to spice up the gene pool, am I right?”
I knew I was wildly twisting the myths, but let’s be honest; there was no positive way to spin a story involving an animal and a woman having nonconsensual sex. The fact that you were the animal in the story didn’t make it any better.
Case in point, Zeus clenched his jaw so hard his thick beard rose up and down.
Zeus didn’t rise to my bait, unfortunately. He glanced over his shoulder at the bleeding Elder. He took a reflexive step back to find Carl flashing him a coldblooded, lizardly grin. Then Carl blew Zeus a wet kiss, flicking his tongue out at him. I chuckled.
Zeus snapped his fingers and Carl’s chains fell from the ceiling. The Elder collapsed to the ground with a wet splat, landing in a pool of his own blood. His chains suddenly attached to the other metal ring in the center of the room. There was enough slack in them for us to move about the room, but not enough for us to reach any of the walls.
I settled my hands in my lap, absently glancing at the glowing crimson runes on the chains and manacles. Those on the manacles seemed different—older—than those on the chains, but both were unbreakable. The runes prevented me from using my power, trapping us in this cursed cell on this cursed mountain high above the clouds.
Carl promptly—but painfully—propped himself up into a sitting position, obviously not trusting his legs to support his weight. He assessed his injuries in an idle manner, as if the warden wasn’t looming over us.
Two dirty, threadbare, lumpy cots rested near the extent of our leashes. We’d placed the refuse bucket as far away as possible from our beds. That was pretty much it. Well, my satchel and the puffer jacket Carl had borrowed from Chateau Falco—apparently, Ashley’s favorite coat—hung on the far wall, out of our reach. The once pink jacket was now filthy and sleeveless, and needed to be destroyed—and secretly replaced—before Ashley learned of it.
Zeus must have noticed me eyeing my satchel, because he calmly walked up to it, studying it thoughtfully. It hung on the wall, unmolested.
Mainly because they couldn’t figure out how to get anything out of it. Not for lack of trying. I’d watched as they’d spent hours reaching inside; in hopes that they might grab hold of one of my magical toys. They’d also thrown every imaginable magic at their disposal at it—all to no avail. So, it hung on the wall, silently mocking their impotence.
If I had been a betting man, I would have gambled that this was the reason for their torture—to try and get me to open it for them. They hadn’t even come close to breaking me. Because there was absolutely no chance I would give them what they wanted. I had too many dangerous things in there. My Horseman’s Mask, for one. Something about my manacles prevented me from accessing it. Another item out of our reach was Gungnir—Odin’s legendary spear, which also featured a Devourer. It was the blade prophesied to kill Fenrir, the giant wolf I had just saved from his own prison cell.
But I’d taped a Sensate to the spear so that Odin couldn’t sense it. Other than that, I wasn’t sure what they might want. And, to be clear, I had no idea if that was even the reason for the torture. They could have been trying to sell us a timeshare. Those guys were persistent.
Zeus turned back to us with an annoyed frown, watching us pensively as if considering his next steps. Carl and I were both beaten to hell, bloody, and covered in burns and cuts. Ares had a very hands-on approach to his visits.
Apollo had preferred extreme tanning, chaining us up outside to weather the elements. Carl—being an Elder—had fared that experience much better than me. But his realm had a sun that could boil the flesh from human bones, so Apollo’s best efforts probably felt more like a heat lamp in a lizard aquarium.
On the other hand, I was fairly certain I had some second-degree burns.
I glanced at Carl since Zeus seemed to have zoned out. He looked rough, but he’d looked worse in the last few days. He didn’t seem to need any Ambrosia. I almost gagged, imagining the thick, syrupy, strangely savory drink. I’d heard it called the nectar of the gods, and I was very leery about reading the ingredients label.
I hadn’t seen any other gods, monsters, demigods, or even pretty architecture of the fabled Mount Olympus. I was betting this Alcatraz like prison was on its own mountain, and far removed from the paved streets of their capital city.
It seemed fairly obvious Zeus didn’t want anyone knowing we were here. At least five times in the last few days, our torture sessions had abruptly ended in the middle of the fun parts, and any participating gods had disappeared with panicked looks on their faces.
Zeus had even stormed into the cell one time, looking frantic, and grabbed Apollo by the hair before they’d disappeared.
That had actually been the worst, because Zeus had left our prison cell door open. Carl and I had both strained against our chains, clawing for the opening, but too far away to do anything other than stare helplessly at freedom. Carl had even tried breaking his wrist to slip through the manacles.
He’d quickly fallen to the floor in a puddle of his own blood. Minutes later, Zeus had returned with an annoyed look on his face, muttering about nosy children. He’d taken one look at Carl, gasped in alarm, and then poured an entire vial of Ambrosia down Carl’s throat before the Elder succeeded in bleeding out.
As we’d waited for the unconscious Carl to recover, Zeus had lectured me on how the manacles worked. Titan Thorns, he’d called them. The thorn feature was the reason Carl had failed to rip his hand free of the cuffs without almost killing himself. The stronger we pulled, the deeper the thorns would dig into our flesh. The thorns were even angled so that any attempt at such a motion stabbed into the wrist in the opposite direction.
Basically, it was like slowly pressing your palm onto the tip of six blades and pushing towards them so that you were willingly impaling yourself.
We had also learned that it was impossible to purposely harm ourselves in any manner imaginable—which was comical since the gods spent as much time as possible harming us in every manner imaginable. Carl had vocally warned them that he would eat through his own wrists to get out of the Titan Thorns.
Turned out, he couldn’t.
Every time he’d tried, his teeth had clamped shut just shy of his flesh. From my perspective, it had been eerie to watch—to see him holding his wrist inside his gaping jaws, only to watch him bite down and find his wrist magically out of harm’s way.
So, after a few days of creative suicide and self-mutilation attempts, we’d actually found ourselves looking forward to the torture sessions with Apollo and Ares.
At first, the very real concern of permanent danger had held me back. What kind of wizard would I be if I broke out of here as a crippled wreck?
The handi-capable Horsemen of Hope didn’t have the same ring to it. But I’d passed the point of despair rather quickly. I looked forward to taunting my jailers, of course, but there was something more to it.
Knowing that they wouldn’t—at least for now—let me permanently injure myself, had allowed me to embrace the pain, much like an endurance runner added on another mile to their jog every day. Pushing to see how far they could go. It was all I had to look forward to. How much pain could I handle?
How long could I smile?
How close to insanity could I get without breaking?
How defiant could I be?
I soon learned that I was alarmingly talented at my newest venture—much to the frustration of Ares and Apollo.
Without a word, Zeus spun on his heel and exited our cell, slamming the door shut behind him.
Just like that, he was gone.
I turned to Carl, smiling. “I’ve got a new one. Brain fixer instead of therapist.”
Carl smiled faintly, but I could tell his heart wasn’t in it. That was not a good sign, but I kept the thought to myself.
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