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Chapter Twenty-Five

Mercury moved gracefully through the crowds and despite their volume managed to slip by without making contact with them or slowing down his pace. He was taller than most and his silver silk coat earned much attention from the ordinary spirits passing by; though they didn’t try and distract him from his task. Occasionally their mouths hung open in shock, with Mercury failing to hide the amusement on his face. There were a few who even spoke with admiration as they walked past and Mercury always acknowledged this with warmth or a gesture of thanks.

The town was a hive of activity with all types of people swarming through its muddy pathways. Many were dressed as they might’ve been in their earthly lives, while also representing various different time periods to reflect the broad nature of life in the astral realm. Farmers, shopkeepers, midwives and doctors buzzed past him, hustling and bustling through the busy streets with a freedom that expressed itself on their bright, animated faces. Mercury smiled as he walked by and even enjoyed the fleeting attention he was given, leaving him feeling satisfied with his recent choices.

He had acted in their interests as well as his own, which was something he held onto as he passed the crowds. There had been a time when the material realm posed no threat to their equilibrium but their evolutionary cycle had become too free and unyielding; like a tide gathering its weight against an unsuspecting beach. He had worked for centuries to keep his place among the Council and was not willing to risk his status for the sake of stringent obligation to a foreign realm.

He walked swiftly through the suburban countryside that was nestled at the edge of the town and stepped over the small wooden gate. There were a few stray passer-bys whose eyes lit up at having seen him before he was travelling alone through the solitary hills. Lately he had been taking many walks to clear his head and soothe his guilty conscience, which made it almost impossible for him to sit still in his lodgings. This time, though, his instincts told him that change was coming – and not for the better.

There was another reason why he passed through the many miles that led away from his home. His biggest secret, the most well kept of them all, lived in a cottage within a mountain crop next to a riverside. He had been going there almost every day, not knowing the reasons for his visit, but needing the company all the same.

Mercury had always been a player in the game of wits but now he feared he had walked too long down that path. He had never expected Neptune to be freed or for Sun to betray his plan to Mars. There was no way he could sit back idly and watch the Pisces legend come true without throwing another roll of the dice. His luck had been boundless in the past and had never dried up. This time, however, even he might’ve finally overstepped the mark.

Chance had given him a helping hand with Mars’ imprisonment. It had been the perfect opportunity to use him as a scapegoat and get rid of Sun at the same time. Yet there was a marsh rising around him and he was in danger of the ground opening up and swallowing him whole. He only had to make one bad move and his schemes would be overturned, leaving him vulnerable against powerful enemies. Mercury was a master trickster but he had no desire to challenge Jupiter to a game outside of his ability to win.

Now he was heading back to the source that had begun all of his frustrations and need for vengeance against the gods. It was only fitting that he should return to the beginning and to the woman who had triggered his personal feud with Jupiter. In that moment his loyalty as messenger had been compromised.

There were winding paths that twisted their way towards the hills which sheltered the swift-flowing river gushing through the land. It was a peaceful place and calmed Mercury’s thoughts – the sounds of nature strong enough to make him want to let go of everything. He almost wished that there would be an end to game one way or another, though that kind of thinking was dangerous. There was no place for peace during a time when the stakes were so high.

It didn’t take long to reach the cottage after arriving at the first hill and descending downwards. He saw a brown shape in the distance and made his way towards it, moving faster now that his target was within reach.

He was within metres of the cottage when he spotted a woman in the distance, her black hair hanging loosely down her shoulders. She was sitting and dangling her legs over a ledge with a vacant expression on her face. Mercury sighed and walked silently towards her, not forgetting to check his surroundings with weary glances. She didn’t stir for him as he appeared at her shoulder, his shadow reflecting from the water.

“Oh, Larunda…” Mercury said, placing his hand on her shoulder gently. “You shouldn’t walk out here by yourself. Come, let’s go back inside.”

Mercury waited a few moments to see if she understood. She continued gazing into the water without a hint of awareness. Mercury had tended to her like a small babe for many years, keeping her company and safe as much as possible. Once, the two of them had been lovers, in a time that was forgotten to her and for him only a distant memory. There was no going back to those days now.

He held her hand and softly kissed her neck. For a moment their eyes met and Mercury hoped that the touch had sparked recognition in them; seconds later, however, her attention had returned back to the water. Mercury stared at the woman in his life with amazement and couldn’t believe that she was his biggest secret. Larunda was the centrepiece in his game, the woman whose existence had been kept hidden from the gods.

It was Jupiter that had been responsible for her gradual descent into madness. First he had cut out her tongue for having spread rumours that turned away loyal men from pledging away their lives in service. Mercury had accepted the punishment, knowing that Larunda was a gossip and a maverick, never knowing when enough was enough. Taking away her speech, however, had been like clipping the wings off a bird…and gradually, day by day, her mind had deteriorated into a mental illness which festered in her like a disease.

He had felt pity for her and taken it upon himself to care for her like he would a little lamb. For years she remained silent, never showing a glimmer of personality in their meetings, but there had always been at least a spark of recognition in her eyes. Now she was just a shell, empty and broken; a remnant of the woman he had loved.

It had been almost impossible to serve Jupiter after that, but at that time he had still cared for the oaths he had sworn during his inauguration. Jupiter had taken him under his wing, caring for him like he might a son, which had fostered a loving bond between them. Mercury hadn’t sought to avenge her because he still held Jupiter in high regard, and had resisted the small voice in his head that longed for vengeance. Gradually, however, he had found himself drawing further and further away from his old master. He would have to take matters into his own hands.

Mercury couldn’t simply challenge the old goat without losing his own head, that much was certain. He had needed to work in the shadows, using his cunning and ability to move seamlessly between realms as powerful weapons. Now the Council was beginning to collapse around them and their whole order reduced to anarchy. All he needed to do was watch the dominos fall one by one.

Yet there was still the issue of Larunda, who was lost beyond his reach. He couldn’t bring her back to her senses anymore than he could grow two heads, and it was like a dagger in his heart whenever he visited her at the cottage. The time had come for him to finally release her from her suffering, and for himself to be freed in the process.

He leaned in to kiss her on the lips and held onto the feeling, bringing with it an old memory from the past. His eyes opened in time to catch the faint look of wonderment on her face, the type of expression you might have after having a flash from your previous life, or a moment of de ja vu. Then it was gone again, leaving nothing but a slight fear in her eyes. She didn’t know where she was, but suddenly she was afraid.

“It’s time to go, my dear,” Mercury said softly, his voice a soothing sound against the silence. Larunda started fidgeting and became irritable as she slapped the ledge with the palms of her hands, perhaps frustrated about being away from the cottage. She let out a small howl as Mercury grabbed the back of her head and with her lunged headfirst into the shallow stream.

After diving in the water barely touched his knees but it was enough to drown a babe that was weak and defenceless. Larunda struggled for a time against the ripples, thrashing her arms and legs in an effort to break free, but all the heart had already been sucked out of her. Her resistance was a simple act of going through the motions, devoid of any real passion, like the tentacles of an octopus that keep coming at you even after its heart had stopped.

Her body stiffened and then there was nothing, the final flame of her consciousness flickering out for good. There were other realms, of course, but Mercury knew nothing of those and wondered if Larunda would ever reclaim her being someplace else. He hoped so. Now, though, his eyes resembled a frozen lake with not even the hint of a teardrop. More than anything he felt as if a great burden had finally been lifted from his shoulders.

“Goodbye, Larunda, and may you travel peacefully…” he said, in a tone that he might’ve used when they were lovers. He released his grip and watched as the energy of her spirit moved swiftly downstream, slowly fading into an ethereal shape which would carry her somewhere into the ether. In this action, at least, he felt no tug at his conscience – his killing her had been an act of mercy.

Mercury took a moment to reflect on their time together but didn’t slip too far into sentiment. Instead, he grabbed onto the ledge and pulled himself back onto dry land, eyeing the cottage with lively eyes. There was still someone else he needed to see. He started pacing towards the door when suddenly his senses awakened in time to feel a change of temperature, the air now becoming thick and toxic. He turned on his heel and craned his neck upwards to see a dark portal forming in the otherwise cloudless sky.

The Dark Ones, Mercury thought, his eyes fixed on the black rings of energy swirling above him. There were shapes merging and then disappearing as they flew into one another, circling the portal while it grew larger and larger. It’s never good news seeing them…that must mean they are getting desperate. A smile formed on his lips at the thought of them being shook by his actions.

“Messenger of the gods – that is what they call you, is it not?” a voice bellowed from within the portal, spewing flames out of its mouth like a hot furnace. “We are disappointed in your progress…”

Mercury didn’t like the sudden change from anger to calm, but managed to keep his own voice steady. “I have kept to my part of the bargain. Aren’t you taking a bit of a risk coming to see me, oh dark one?” he said mockingly, triggering an implosion from the portal as the shadows burst into flames.

“Do not test me, Hermes!” The voice said with vehemence. Mercury winced at the name he had abandoned long ago. “You serve me, now, and I will not take kindly to your insolence. You haven’t proven your worth to take on such a daring stance. The Gemini boy has failed, and Pisces still lives.”

“Yes, I have underestimated his resilience,” Mercury said. He had taken a gamble in his decision to use one of the descendants as a puppet. “You are not seriously concerned, are you? I will kill him one way or another. It’s only a matter of time.”

“For you, time is of the essence!” There was testiness in the voice that Mercury didn’t much like; mimicking the sound of a madman whose last bit of sanity had finally cracked. “Your usefulness is crumbling, Mercury, and I am beginning to lose my patience.”

“The Council is failing – soon there will be nothing left at all. Pisces will not survive your relentless hounds biting away at his heels. I am surprised that you have lost your nerve so easily,” Mercury said, though he didn’t try to push him too far.

“It’s over, Mercury! There are no more games to play. Jupiter is already beginning to suspect you, and it won’t be long before he reigns you in. I know, Mercury. I know that you are not committed to me. A part of you still wants to forgive Jupiter, to repent for your sins. That will be your undoing, unless you pledge yourself to me wholly!”

“I belong to no one!” Mercury roared. He ignored the beams of dark energy that came swarming towards him. “I worked with you out of self-interest, and for no other purpose!”

“I would expect no less,” the voice said with a laugh that chilled Mercury to the bone. “I do not breed honest men, but I do choose useful ones. Very soon, there will be a gathering. That will be your final opportunity to kill Pisces, for good. You carry a chain in your hands, Mercury, be careful that it doesn’t wrap around your neck!”

Mercury tittered in spite of himself. He didn’t need to be told that he was walking a tight rope. More flames coming out from the shadows told him that the Dark One wasn’t done with him yet.

“That sentimental luminary of yours slipped away, too…” A shape resembling a man with tousled black hair and spectacles appeared within the portal. “Be very careful where your loyalties lie, Mercury. Soon you will not have a choice either way.”

“Moon got away on his own merits,” Mercury said, feeling somewhat relieved that the old fool had used his cunning to find an escape clause. He had always held a soft spot for him, despite his eccentric beliefs, and hadn’t enjoyed laying the trap that enslaved him. “You keep talking in riddles. What else have you come to tell me?”

“The painter,” the voice said in amusement. There was enjoyment in it now. “Go and see for yourself. Think fast, Mercury. One poor move and it’s checkmate.”

A hundred different thoughts whizzed through his head as he tried to figure out what the Shadow might mean. There wasn’t much time to think over his question, however, as the shadows pulled back involuntarily into the vortex. He watched as the darkness began to retract and disappear into nothingness, as if it had never existed in the first place. Mercury couldn’t help but let out a sigh of relief.

Then he remembered about the painter and returned his attention back to the cottage, which housed the blind prophet. He had kidnapped the artist before killing Sun and intended to use him so that he could pre-empt any attack against him. Mercury walked along the pathway and moved hurriedly towards the door, his usual calm now shaken and forgotten.

The fireplace was crackling in the main room with the painter sitting next to it, hugging his knees for comfort. His body shook at the noise of the door slamming while his eyes widened with fear. Mercury wasted no time in trying to appease him and rushed with urgency towards the boy, grabbing his attention with a loud command.

“What have you seen, boy?!” Mercury said impatiently. He shook his shoulders, causing the artist to clutch his head protectively with both hands. “Tell me what you have drawn!”

“I-I can’t see!” the boy wailed, his sobbing hammering across the room.

“You can see in your mind!” Mercury said. He composed himself and kneeled next to the boy instead. “You must not keep secrets from me, Oliver. I will know. Come, what have you seen?”

“I saw…I saw a woman,” Oliver said. His face was still pallid but soothed by Mercury’s more gentle approach. “She was meeting with the gods and told them…secrets. Secrets you don’t want them to know. I couldn’t make out what it all meant, but the gods were angry. They were coming to find you.”

Mercury’s eyes brimmed with intensity. “As I feared. Mars is locked away, but there is a woman who knows. Which?”

“I don’t know, but she was beautiful…” Oliver said, his voice faltering. He didn’t like telling Mercury the truth, but telling lies would only lead to suffering.

“That hasn’t happened yet, but it won’t be long. Oliver, there’s no need to be afraid. You have done well,” Mercury said. He didn’t see the need to threaten him further, now that he had served his purpose. “Show me the painting. I will do the rest.”

“It’s in the corridor, I hadn’t quite finished…” Oliver said sulkily, with the perfection of an artist. “You won’t hurt her, will you?”

“I will do what is necessary.” Mercury said, eyeing him with feral eyes. It would not do for the boy to question his actions. For the time being he let it slide and walked towards the corridor, allowing the painter to leave his thoughts almost as quickly. There were other paintings resting against the skirting, ones that he had already seen. He smiled fondly at the image of Sun being cornered by Mars – that had been one that he had kept so that the fool couldn’t see it for himself.

Then his eyes fell upon the latest portrait, the oil painting still thick and wet from the brush. He took in the scene; his attention fixed as a hawk, and felt a quiet rage bubbling underneath. Venus stood before Jupiter and Saturn with her hands outstretched, while the other two looked outraged by her confession. In the background there was Mars grinning like a madman, holding a key to open the prison cell. For Mercury, it wasn’t hard to interpret the outcome.

Venus knows, but how? I will have to kill the bitch before she has chance to tell, Mercury thought. He would have to silence her in the same way as he had Sun, though it might force him into a dead-end in any case. With Mars imprisoned the gods would naturally point the finger at him, unless they believed Neptune was responsible. Regardless, there was no escaping the fact that his scheming was walling in around him. It was only a matter of time before the confrontation.

Mercury felt comforted that there was no other alternative. If he let Venus live, she would tell them anyway. Killing her would at least grant him an element of satisfaction, and then he would have to work on an exit plan. Finding shortcuts was part of his role as a messenger, so he would have to use his resources to his advantage.

Despite his foresight he hadn’t been able to dodge the laws of Fate after all. He would be damned if he’d give himself up without a fight, though. The dice hadn’t stopped rolling for him yet.

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