Venus had decided to stay at the golden palace to help Neptune to capture the great sea legend. She was intrigued by his reasons for seeking out Neptune and told her that this was an opportunity not to be missed.
Proteus had appeared to them in several more forms across the next day and was as evasive as usual. He was simply biding his time and making them feel wretched for his own amusement. On a few occasions he’d even been audacious enough to come within the walls of the palace and then quickly turn into a mouse whenever they came close to catching him. Venus listened to all of this with great interest while sipping her wine thoughtfully.
During the afternoon Neptune talked about alcohol and its use in the astral realm. After having had a few glasses Venus told her with delight that there were some cross-overs between worlds and that the gods had been sensible enough to keep alcohol. She told Neptune that it was much more difficult to get drunk but nor, she added, was it impossible.
They talked over different ways to hold onto Proteus long enough so he couldn’t get away and this took them well into the evening. Once, Venus claimed, he had been held hostage long ago when he’d made the mistake of falling asleep. This was centuries ago when his secret wasn’t known – now Proteus can stay away for many days before needing sleep. She doubted very much that he would be drifting off during the time they had to catch him.
Venus warned Neptune that they would have to resort to trickery and magic to reel the old sea god in and take his knowledge. She was a magician of sorts and had a number of spells that could draw Proteus to them like a magnet. All men, even the mythical legends, were still weak when it came to a woman’s cleavage. She would be able to lure him in with temptation and then pin him down before he could transform.
They were running out of choices and didn’t have many other options. Proteus was too cunning to be caught in normal ways and they were didn’t have much time. She agreed to Venus’s plan and hoped that he would fall for their trap.
Neptune walked outside and moved across the gardens with an anxiety that she hadn’t felt in a long time. This was the place she went to whenever she needed time to think and its peaceful, sweet aroma was always enticing enough to take her mind away from the daily grind. The gardens were split into rows and separated by single pathways which turned them into a small maze. Neptune had started watching the growth of the plants with great interest and had become more knowledgeable about their different names. Tonight, she paid them no mind.
It was the fourth day and they still hadn’t come close to catching Proteus. There were only three days left and if Venus’s plan didn’t work she didn’t have any other suggestions. He was almost impossible to catch with his cleverness and ability to change shape at will. Many times Neptune had written off this game of cat and mouse as futile until she remembered that Proteus had come to her first. Her instincts told her that he wanted to be caught.
There was no reason to believe this and Neptune didn’t see what he had to gain from being captured. He was also not making it easy for them which made her doubt these feelings even though they persisted and gnawed away at her with relentless intensity.
She stepped over a patch of soil and examined a group of statues at the bottom of the path. She had been so lost in thought that she had forgotten about her surroundings and was now in the very centre of the maze. On her first week she had come to this place and was awed by the craftsmanship. The statues were almost life-like and looked back at her with faces that had their own story to tell.
Her eyes settled on the statue directly in front of her, which showed a woman with her arms off. The marble sculpture was tilted to the left and appeared to be looking at Neptune with majestic judgement.
“Magnificent, isn’t it?” a voice said. Neptune turned and saw Venus standing closely behind with her eyes locked onto the statue. “There are some creations from the material world which we like to keep.”
“Her arms…why?” Neptune said, her voice faltering.
Venus sighed. “She was discovered this way long ago. You may have seen this before in ancient legends. This statue is Venus de Milo and represents the goddess of love. There has been much speculation over what happened to her arms.”
“So this statue is in fact another interpretation of you, m’lady,” Neptune said respectfully. Venus walked beside her and for a moment betrayed a look of vulnerability. Then she began to speak in a low voice.
“For many years I thought nothing of this statue. There are many references to me in different cultures, after all. Yet I have studied this one for quite some time now and whenever I see it, I am always left with an apprehensive, fated feeling. You know, I sometimes interpret this statue not as an old version of myself, but as a warning.”
“A warning?” Neptune asked.
“There were prophets in the material that could see the future in their dreams. No matter how much he tried to keep her safe, there was no protecting her and so she lost her arms. Every time I look upon this statue, I always feel cold.”
“You can’t possibly think this means anything more, Venus. This must’ve been created centuries ago.”
“Oh, so many more!” Venus said, smiling sadly. “Time is not always important in the land of dreams. To tell you the truth, Neptune, I would like to catch Proteus to know if there is anything I need to know about. I have learned to trust my feelings.”
They stood in silence and took in the scene around them as they thought about their future. The stars were shining brightly in the sky and the moonlight was shimmering onto the water.
“Those stars in the sky,” Neptune said. “And the moonlight. It’s all connected somehow, isn’t it? That’s what the Zodiac is all about, right?”
“I don’t know,” Venus said honestly. She looked at her and shrugged. “Some say the signs are simply expressions of Universal intelligence. You can’t have one without the others. I have lived for so long and I still don’t know the nature of our existence. All I know is that there is something else…”
“Something other than the astral realm?” Neptune asked.
“Oh yes. We’re just another stage in the process. I can’t begin to tell you what it’s all about or contemplate the sheer size of consciousness. But Pisces,” Venus stopped and gestured for them both to turn back. “He may shed some light on a few questions. And he may not. Maybe it’s not good for us to know everything though, when you think about it.”
Neptune’s attention was fixed on Venus when she caught sight of something scurrying through the grass. She ignored it at first until it swept behind them and brushed one of the pink flowers at their side. Then her eyes widened as she said: “I think he’s here.”
Venus nodded. “He’s been here for some time. I think he’s taken an interest in you, Neptune. This isn’t the first time he’s followed you around.”
“Well in that case why doesn’t he show himself and face me like a man?”
“Because he’s afraid,” Venus said. Her eyes turned into a purple hue and her expression turned gaunt. “He fears you. Remember, he knows what will eventually come to pass…”
“What do you mean?” Neptune asked. “What’s happened to your eyes?”
Venus put her finger to her lips and grasped Neptune’s hand tightly. For a moment there was blackness and then she could feel herself being pulled into a void. She suddenly felt lightheaded and although she was sure that she was still in her body, Venus’s touch had allowed her to see from a panoramic perspective. Now she could see a garden rat sitting upright in the grass with its tail moving from side to side.
There was stillness for a moment as the rat made no effort to move. It was touching its nose with its claws when suddenly its ears perked up and it stood frozen on the spot. Moments later there was a white flash and the rat was lifted into the air with an enchanting spell. It screeched wildly and flew sideways in their direction.
Neptune came back to her senses and took a moment to catch her breath after not fully understanding what had happened. Then she turned and watched as the rat was flying towards them while Venus remained motionless. It was within their sight when suddenly the rat transformed into a wizard and broke off the spell. Venus became conscious again and fired a charm at the wizard which shot like cupid’s arrow into the wizard’s stomach.
Proteus tried to block the spell but its impact was strong enough to disarm him. His body remained upright but stiffened while his eyes widened into a stupefied stillness. He was looking at Venus and his tongue hung out loosely. They moved towards the stunned figure when suddenly he kneeled and kissed the ground.
“My lady!” he cried. He started to sing and confess his undying love for Venus. She looked at Neptune for a moment with embarrassment and watched helplessly as Proteus began to move around in a circle with one leg. “You’ve come here at last! Oh, I’ve waited for so, so long!”
He was clearly taken with Venus and broke into different verses as they edged towards him. He was moving around in the grass and was the same wizard Neptune had seen during their first meeting. Proteus had fallen completely in love with Venus and after reaching him he began to kiss her feet.
“Oh saviour!” Proteus said in a dramatic voice. “I have been waiting for you for so long!”
“Indeed?” Venus said, amused. She picked Proteus up and he fell limply into her arms. The next moment Venus bear hugged him and said: ’Now you’re caught!”
Proteus didn’t seem to care. He looked up at Neptune with a peaceful smile and then tried to rest his head into Venus’s bosom. There was a quick whush! sound as Proteus fell backwards and rubbed his cheek. He was still staring at her with his mouth hanging open.
“You foolish old git!” Venus said sternly. She moved her palm in a circular motion and there was a flash of white light. Proteus looked back at them dumbly for a moment and then his situation dawned on him as his eyes grew larger.
“Blast it!” Proteus said. He was looking at them moodily and looked behind him as if considering a quick getaway.
“We’ve caught you Proteus. You know the rules.” Venus said.
“I know that!” Proteus said impatiently. He dusted himself off and transformed from a wizard into an old mermaid. His white beard tumbled down to his topless chest. “I knew that you would catch me in the end. I told you that I could see the future.”
“You didn’t expect to see me, did you?” Venus said. Her eyes flashed for a moment and Neptune was suddenly very thankful that they were on the same side.
“You were not supposed to intervene, but I suppose it can’t be helped. I can’t turn up from out of nowhere and expect to go unnoticed. Now, I don’t suppose we can go inside and talk?”
Venus studied him suspiciously and then she broke into a grin.
“I thought you let me get you a bit too easily. You didn’t want to get away.”
“I’ve burdened myself with the future for centuries,” Proteus sighed. “It’s about time I shared my insights with someone else. And I’ve seen so much about you, m’lady, that I thought I’d come to you first.” He looked at Neptune and broke into a mischievous smile.
“Let’s go to the lounge and find out what we need to know,” Neptune said. She was still shocked that they had managed to catch him.
Proteus slumped into the armchair next to the fire and watched them with beady eyes. They didn’t strictly need the fireplace but Triton had insisted on lighting it to give the place some character. Neptune and Venus took their place opposite him while Triton stood a little way behind. He was still baffled and was struggling to express his shock.
It was assumed that Proteus had transformed into his real form after turning into the old mermaid but none of them were completely sure and they didn’t feel the need to ask. Venus had questioned him about his disappearance but Proteus refused to give away his secrets and the issue wasn’t pursued any longer.
“You came here to speak with us for a reason, Proteus,” Venus said after they were seated. Her eyes were burning into his. “Something must have caught your eye for you to come out of your long hibernation.”
“There have been a lot of changes since your friend appeared on the scene,” Proteus said. “And naturally, there are many more still to come. How could I stay away?”
“Well get on with it, won’t you!” Triton said with an impatient gesture. Neptune shot a warning glance at him. “We haven’t got all night, and we need to be getting on with our lives!”
“That’s quite enough, Triton,” Venus said. “We have caught you Proteus and now you need to play up to your legend. Why did you seek us out?”
“Before I show you the future, perhaps I should shed some light on your past!” Proteus said, clapping his hands together for effect. Neptune watched with awe as the room around them changed into a campsite with a river flowing along in the distance. She was taken aback by the sight of her old home.
“This is just an illusion. We’re not really here.” Venus said, patting Neptune’s leg gently.
“Do you remember when your son, Pisces, was taken away?” Proteus asked. They were sitting on a hillside that was situated a little further away from the campsite and Pisces was kneeling next to a rock. He looked younger than the rugged teenager Venus had met months ago.
Neptune looked at Pisces and could feel the knot spinning around in her stomach. He was studying the ground with interest and didn’t appear to know that there was a man standing behind him. Then the man spoke and Neptune recognised his voice almost immediately.
“You’ve come a long way away from your home, son,” Saturn said in the distance. His emerald eyes were glimmering despite the fog which had settled in from the mountains. Neptune’s stomach churned at the sight of him.
“I come here often,” Pisces said. He’d spun around in shock but looked back at Saturn more with curiosity than outright fear. “I like my own space. Who are you, mister?”
“Who, indeed. I’ve travelled many miles to meet with you, Pisces. Do you not know who I am?”
“Nope,” Pisces said. He picked himself up from the ground and beamed a smile at Saturn. The man didn’t smile back but was stunned that he hadn’t reacted more strongly to his burnt features. He thought he might be dealing with a special kid after all.
“It seems like you have forgotten a lot over the years,” Saturn said. He moved towards him but kept his hands knitted together near his chest. Pisces stood there and scratched the back of his neck shyly.
“I’ve not been alive all that many, I think. Say, are you here to talk with the rest of the tribe?”
“There are a lot of people who are interested in you, my boy,” Saturn said. His voice was gentle yet commanding. Neptune watched on with helpless eyes. “Have you ever been beyond your own home?”
“Can’t say I have!” Pisces said. He picked up his book from the ground and then added: “I really should be getting back, so…”
“There’s no going back, Pisces. You are coming with me. Oh, you have a lot to do!”
“What do you mean?”
“I can’t tell you that. Not yet. But I don’t want you to think I mean you any harm. I’ve been brought to you by the will of karma, my child.”
They watched as Pisces looked around in dazed confusion and made no effort to get away. One moment he was watching the man with inquisitive eyes – the next he was laying on his back unconsciously. Saturn had flicked his wrist and cast a sleeping spell on the boy. Neptune turned and moved to speak but Venus held her hand in the air.
The scene around them changed and this time they were back at the campsite with a younger version of Neptune. She didn’t look all that different except that her hair was shorter and the dress she wore was less elegant. The sky was black with no light in sky except for the moonlight which was concealed by a fading cloud.
She stalked off into the night and moved off into the broken pathway that led towards the river. The Neptune who was watching all of this remembered needing some time alone to think about her son who had disappeared mysteriously a few weeks before. She had forgotten what happened next.
Proteus grinned and raised his finger to the two men that were moving to the right. The younger Neptune hadn’t noticed them yet and when they came into sight Venus gasped. It was Mercury and Sun.
They were standing on the hill above the path and camouflaged by the trees. Mercury stuck his head out and looked hungrily towards Neptune. Sun was hugging himself in the cold and didn’t seem too happy to be there.
There was a flash and then Neptune fell to the ground. Mercury walked down and checked her pulse. Satisfied, he gestured for Sun to come down and began to talk in a low voice.
“You must keep her hidden, and for all time,” Mercury said. His eyes were wide and menacing. Venus watched and mouthed his name several times but couldn’t seem to take her eyes away from the two men.
“Why don’t you just kill her now and be done with it?” Sun said timidly. Mercury turned and grabbed him by the chin, pressing his fingers into the man’s fat skin tightly.
“And risk being found out? What do you suppose will happen when she passes over, you fool? How can I be certain that she won’t pass onto another realm? You will bury her in a place where she can never be found!”
Sun squirmed and whined while Mercury looked at Neptune with curious eyes. Eventually he released his grip and threw her over his shoulder.
“We’ve already failed to get to Pisces first. I never expected them to act so quickly.”
“What do you think will happen next?” Sun asked. He was dressed in a sombre black shirt and wore jeans.
“Nothing!” Mercury hissed. “You will put a spell on her and leave her as good as dead. Put her in the scorched sand or drown her for all care, but make sure that you put enough magic on her to keep her alive! I want her to have just enough consciousness to not pass onto another realm. She must never wake up!”
“And what happens when the others start getting suspicious?”
“They will raise questions and I will be as innocent as they are,” Mercury said. He began to walk along the path. “I will pray for her life and feel at a loss over the future of the council. They will have no reason to suspect either of us and will never found out the truth. And Sun,” he turned towards him and his iron-like grip tightened around the small of his back. “If you ever think about betraying me, I will kill you for good.”
“I would never think it!” Sun said in a high-pitched voice. Mercury smiled in satisfaction. There was a clapping sound and the scene at the river faded away with the room coming back into sight.
“And there you have it,” Proteus said. His expression was serious as he studied them all with interest. “You all know what this means. What happened and what is to come doesn’t concern me but I believe there are many who will be affected by what will come to pass. Now you know who took you away from your home. Do you know who brought you back?”
“Pluto,” Neptune said absent-mindedly. She was still trying to process what she had seen. “Not intentionally, of course. But there was something that happened and I took his life.”
“Oh, not at all! You have Mars to thank for your awakening. He knew you’d been buried in the ground after talking with Sun. You see he change sides when his life is threatened.”
“This is a lot to take in,” Venus said. She was sat upright and no longer in her usual cross-legged pose. “I feel as if I’m the only one who doesn’t know what’s going on.”
“Not quite. I’m the only one fortunate enough to have a birds-eye view of the past and future,” Proteus said. “Now, I can see that you want to confront your peers right away, but I would urge caution.”
“I need to find Sun and find out what’s really going on. He will pay for what he’s done.”
“Ah, I think you’ll find he’s already a dead man. You won’t have the time to interrogate him,” Proteus said, grinning devilishly. “Now that we have some context, I still need to tell you what could happen next…”