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Chapter Seventeen

A brilliant white light illuminated the art gallery and made the paintings all the more luminous, which Sun enjoyed with great interest as he surveyed the room.

He had been an avid artist in the earlier years for more reasons than just being creative. It was practiced as an ancient custom that could give insights into the future.

Sun looked at the picture of two young men who were identical and had blonde, gelled hair. Their expressions were different with one holding his head as if in pain while the other grinned madly with unmistakeable madness in his eyes. A black mist was growing behind them which was menacing and was likely the reason why the trees in the background had all but shrivelled up. Sun gave a satisfied smile and moved onto the next painting.

This was an abstract painting with swirls and patterns moving loosely around in a circular shape. It was impossible to misunderstand its meaning, however, and Sun gazed into its features with passing regret. There was a man with spectacles walking through a boggy swamp and demonic figures sweeping in for an attack. Their faces were contorted and mutated, clearly deformed by their surroundings. Sun touched the corner lightly and sighed deeply. He knew the man was his twin, Moon.

Moon had always been an unusual and sickly man who often seemed out of place. He’d never really belonged on the Council and spent most of his time alone. Sun hadn’t been particular close to his twin but he did feel a connection with him and cared for his well-being. It was hard for him to know that he was a casualty in Mercury’s scheme. For a moment he had ever considered warning Moon about his fate but quickly decided against it – he didn’t want to draw any attention to himself.

He’d been to see Moon for the last time a few months ago to put his mind at ease. There weren’t many people Sun truly warmed to but he’d always felt the need to watch over his twin. He even admired his innocence and inoffensive nature that was so different to the rest of the Council. Yet his cleverness and inventive personality had been his undoing in the end. He’d been the only one to twig that something was going on right under their noses.

There was nothing that he could do anymore to help Moon and it was more than likely he’d already been corrupted by the lower realms. Sun had hoped for an easy and quick finish, but his twin’s resolve couldn’t be snatched away without a fight. It had been Mercury’s idea to banish him into a place in which he could never escape. Now all Sun could do was look at the painting and feel it tug on his conscience.

The other paintings hadn’t yet come to pass and Sun was very relieved that he didn’t appear in any of them. Nothing ever came to pass without it having been written or painted first, and Sun hadn’t featured in any of their predictions. He was like a shadow that travelled unnoticed through the ages and fate watched over him with indifferent eyes. Recently, though, he’d been visiting the old gallery every day and was always drawn here by nightmares, which left a darkness hanging over him and a sense of foreboding.

He was beginning to regret ever getting involved with this Pisces business.

His only concern was to keep his place on the Council, which had been threatened by the coming of the Fish. The Zodiac was an interesting invention when under the control of the planets, but without their nurturing they were more of a loose cannon. Mercury had warned as much in their initial meetings, and he’d been persuaded by his manipulations after looking at the paintings that warned of their defeat. He’d agreed to help Mercury hide Neptune and Pisces but had never predicted that they would both get away.

It would’ve been better if they had let destiny run its course but Sun hadn’t been so lucky. Mars had somehow got involved. He’d found out about Neptune and had other ideas – sending Pluto to his death instead. Sun might’ve been killed as well if he didn’t cooperate. Now he was on very thin ice with Mercury.

Still, the paintings didn’t show anything unusual and that gave him some peace of mind. There was no sense in them coming to find him when two members had already died. Jupiter would be able to track down the killer and both Mars and Mercury feared the old legend more than they cared to admit. Pluto had made the mistake of abusing his powers and corrupting the good name of the Council. There was no way Sun could be linked to their crimes without also naming the others, too.

He was determined to keep an eye out all the same. Sun had formed a night’s watch to be on the lookout for anything suspicious and his best defences were on the case. He was well protected from any threatening behaviour. This is something he reminded himself of whenever his imagination started to play tricks on him.

Satisfied, he moved towards the front of the room and exited the gallery. His artist would let him know if anything strange came through to him in his third eye. Then, knowing that there was still much to be done about Pisces, Sun walked over towards the staircase and climbed to the highest room. Eventually he reached the very top and came across a spacious room with high windows and white, padded flooring.

He stepped into the room and was almost blinded by the artificial sunlight that streamed through the windows. Sun didn’t hold any true affinity with the light, but he was responsible for his subjects’ egos. He was very much concerned with self and enjoyed delving into the minds that stemmed from human nature’s failings.

There was a large silver telescope in the middle of the otherwise empty room that allowed Sun to follow Pisces from the astral realm. This privilege was shared by his colleagues, much to Sun’s displeasure, and gave him no upper-hand in his dealings with the boy. He couldn’t play with the laws of fate without bringing about his own destruction. Even so, he couldn’t resist peering in on him and watching his progress with great interest.

He moved across the room and looked into the eye of the telescope. At first there was only blackness but after a while shapes were beginning to form and he could see that Pisces was walking along a grassy verge. He’d escaped the shootings and grown into a young man who attended University. There was barely any resemblance to the boy who’d once served as an apprentice cook on Sagittarius’s ship. Pisces had almost escaped them for good.

Mercury didn’t give up so easily, however. Sun had managed to buy himself back into his good books by using his own powers to manipulate someone close to Pisces. He’d suggested using the twins to get rid of him once and for all. Influence, he believed, took a while to grow and fester but patience always paid off in the end. Now he was keeping tabs on him and waiting for the right moment. Then he would make his move.

“Keeping busy, are you?” a voice tittered from behind. Sun didn’t need to look to know who it was. He closed his eyes and sighed.

“Mars,” Sun said. He turned around and saw the bald-headed warlord leaning at the entrance. His expression was unreadable. “By all the seven seas, what are you doing here?”

“Come now, Sun!” Mars said, his mouth breaking into a grin. His teeth were a mixture of white and gold. Sun took a step backwards and held onto the telescope for support. “You’re everyone’s favourite double agent and meddling in other people’s affairs once more. Why wouldn’t I be here?”

“I’ve already helped you!” Sun said urgently. His eyes fell onto the spear Mars was holding and he felt a brief moment of fear. Then he relaxed. It wouldn’t do much harm to him in this place. “There’s nothing else I can do for you.”

“Don’t undersell yourself. I’ve heard you can be quite…resourceful!” Mars said, flashing with a shark-like grin again. He moved across the padded flooring while his eyes burned into Sun’s. “It was you who helped to wipe away the boy’s memories. And now you’re plotting to have him killed.” Sun noticed this was told as a statement and not a question.

“I’m caught between the both of you! I’m still in debt to him."

“No need for secrecy between us,” Mars said. He was standing a few feet away from the telescope. “I know who you’re working for, Sun. It wasn’t that hard to figure out after a while. I warned you before that I didn’t like anyone interfering with my plans.”

“What does it matter!” Sun cried, losing his composure. His hand trailed down to his belt and lingered there for a moment. He could feel the hilt of his knife resting on his fingers. “You have no loyalty to the boy. Who cares what happens?”

“Indeed, I have no love for any of them! It’s no concern of mine whatever the outcome may be, but I have an interest in serving the ways of old. There is no fair trial without war, and I will not have our fates ruled by the will of a coward! By all means, kill. But there are other ways to bring about fear and death.”

“Then why don’t you take it up with Mercury!” Sun said. He instantly regretted what he had said. “I don’t care what happens. I’d be happy to never see either of you again!”

“Oh, relax!” Mars said as his laugh filled the room. There was nothing funny in it. “I’ve not come to kill you for a second time. Where would the fun in that be? You’d just appear somewhere else. No, I’ve come to tell you that I will be telling Jupiter very shortly. I don’t think he will take kindly to your games. Only, I’m giving you a chance. I need you to tell me what you plan to do with Pisces.”

“I can’t! He will kill me if he finds it. I can’t tell you anything.”

“I thought you might be more forthcoming. You were very helpful last time!” Mars raised his spear while his other hand began to glow a deep red. Sun looked on helplessly. “Do you remember what happened to Pluto? I can keep you locked away for a long, long time.”

“Look, I-I haven’t got all that much to tell you,” Sun said. “All I know is that there is someone with a mental illness who is being used as a medium for the two realms. He’s the one who will kill Pisces.”

“Whispers and shadows? Of course, that’s how Mercury would operate, isn’t it? You can’t possibly think that’ll be enough. There will be plenty of protection around him.”

“I promise you that is all I know! I’m the one who suggested it. There’s nothing else.”

“You are a contemptible little worm,” Mars said flatly. He looked at the telescope and laughed. “You will say anything to keep ahead, won’t you? I had no intention of touching a hair on your head, Sun. There’s already so few of us left. Do you really think I’d risk being found out?”

“So, what’s all this about?” Sun said, his palms hanging out defensively near his chest. “You wanted to frighten me?”

“Not so hard, really!” Mars said. He was already walking towards the door. “I just needed some information, that’s all. There might be something else up your sleeve, but you’ve told me more than enough to act on it. I should think Jupiter will be dealing with the both of you very shortly.”

Sun watched him leave with unbelieving eyes before taking a moment to take in what had happened. He didn’t feel safe enough to move but eventually he allowed his hands to fall down to his sides.

There was no getting away from the seriousness of the situation. Mars had enough evidence to turn them both into suspects. He had to tell Mercury quickly.

He was still in shock and moved slowly as he limped out of the room. He didn’t feel much like hurrying to tell Mercury the bad news. No matter how much he turned around the different scenarios in his mind he couldn’t see a good ending for him.

There was of course blatant denial which might work if the twins hadn’t already acted out against Pisces. That wouldn’t do much good in the long run, however. Once you’ve derailed a train it’s very hard to put it back on track, no matter how much you try.

There was another alternative. He could try and distance himself away from Mercury, and claim that he’d told Mars about what had happened because he was being used as a prisoner. That might work…

It was a no brainer that Jupiter was far more dangerous than Mercury, even though he didn’t fancy getting on the wrong side of either of them. If it came to it, he would have to switch sides. Mercury would swear his revenge but it would be empty words if he was stripped of all his power. As Sun walked down the stairs another possibility hit him and his eyes lit up with hope. He could go to Jupiter first.

There was no way that anyone would question him if he told Jupiter about his suspicions. That would guarantee his safety and his innocence. He might even be able to save Moon in the process.

A sudden lethargy came over him which made the idea of sleep so tempting. He hadn’t rested properly in days and after what had just happened, Sun needed all the energy he could get. He resolved to tell Jupiter in the morning before Mars would make his move. There was no way that he would tell him straight away. Mars needed the time to get his case together, first.

Sun reached the second floor and he stumbled into one of the bedrooms, content with his plan. He only needed to recharge his energy which would take a few hours. Then he would be able to put all this behind him. It would be risky, of course, but there was no other way to handle both Mercury and Mars at the same time.

It would have to do.

His eyes were heavy and his legs felt like jelly. He was asleep the moment he put his head down to rest.

He’d expected the first sight he saw to be the room around him. It surprised him when he found himself in pitch blackness with nothing but a lone chair and a table. For a moment that’s all there was when suddenly a man with a caduceus appeared. The snakes were no longer drawn onto the staff but instead very much alive, hissing with evil intent.

Mercury was sitting with his legs crossed and a mad look in his eye. He was grinning like a Cheshire cat and didn’t seem at all affected by Sun’s betrayal.

“Hello,” Mercury said calmly. He had a pot of tea on the table and sipped his cup serenely. “Don’t look so surprised! I’m sure you knew we’d be meeting face to face again.”

“This is a dream…” Sun said. He was floating with nothing but space flying around him. “Just my overactive imagination.”

“Oh?” Mercury said, amused. “Might you explain the tea?” he gestured to the china pot. “I don’t think you’ve ever seen me drink from this. Though I do grant you, it is a dream.”

“So you’re not real!” Sun said, allowing himself a moment of relief.

“I never said that. I’ve just not taken the time to come and see you in the other realm, that’s all. I thought I’d fly right into your subconscious and make an impression. Looks like I’ve succeeded!”

“Listen, Mercury…” he pleaded. His own voice echoed into the nothingness as if they were talking from many miles away. There was nothing real about the dream. He couldn’t move over to the table and felt as if he was watching his own nightmare.

“No need,” Mercury said. He placed the cup gently on the table and rose from his chair. The caduceus loomed largely in his hand. “I know everything I need to know. There’s no information I require. You see what I’m doing, don’t you?”

Sun couldn’t take his eyes away from the winged staff in his hands. He hoped to fumble around for his knife but he couldn’t move at all. There was nothing left of him but consciousness. He only wished that he had no awareness of what was happening.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“What happens to a man who dies in his sleep? I wonder…” Mercury took a step forward. His grin was still visible in the darkness. “I didn’t mean the word die, of course. I’m not going to kill you. I’m going to do far worse. And you know the genius behind it all? There won’t be a trace left of you!”

Sun looked on with fear until understanding finally came through him like a bolt from the sky. He started to scream and begged for his forgiveness. He even promised to tell Jupiter that he had been behind it all, but Mercury simply waved away his cries and moved the caduceus into a striking position.

“Enough, Sun. I planned to be done with you, anyhow. I’m just speeding up the process. You will be absorbed into this staff for all of Time with no trace that you ever existed. And best of all? Only Mars will be linked with your disappearance…” Mercury made a sweeping motion with the staff as the snakes unravelled and flew into Sun’s consciousness. It might have looked strange to an outsider if they hadn’t heard the tortured howl that followed the reptiles suffocating their prey with their enormous bodies. Mercury watched with delight while the scream travelled for miles and miles through the blackness, never to be traced again.

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