There was much to take in as Proteus awed them with colourful visions of the future. The revelations were unrelenting in their intensity, showing them more than they wanted to see – they watched as Pisces fought with an older boy blow for blow, as Moon counselled Jupiter into passing the torch onto new rulers, with Neptune elected to lead the new Council. All of this they watched without interruption, though they found it impossible to keep their reactions to themselves.
Finally the images stopped and the environment moulded back into the airy room of the palace.
Proteus studied them all with the interest of an old scholar, his lively eyes sparkling with eager anticipation. Neptune still hadn’t figured out his reasons for getting involved though it was no use to try and extract information from his guarded expression. She paced across the room and looked over at Venus who was sitting while in deep thought. Triton, who had also been present for the revelations, was gawping with total disbelief.
“So there you have it,” Proteus said, fingering absently at the knots in his white beard. He looked amused by their reactions. “I have not shown you everything, as there is too much in the future to comprehend. There are many events that can also be changed, and I am not one to play with dice. But I have given you some insights into what may be, and what will be.”
“This is why I don’t seek out answers I don’t want to hear,” Triton said, shaking his head. “Why now, Proteus? After all these years! What mischief are you up to?”
“His motives are unclear,” Venus said. Her voice was low and hard to read. Neptune feared that something was playing on her mind. “We can trust that he isn’t working with Mercury, as there is no benefit in revealing his identity.
There is no reason to believe he is lying to us, either. It all makes sense. We are heading for many changes.”
“I have no love of your gods, but I do not wish to see the two realms collapse,” Proteus said. “I suppose sometimes it’s better the devil you know, and I didn’t mind Jupiter, all said and done. His time is coming to an end however, I am as sure of that as I am that life goes on. The Aquarian age will affect us all.”
“Moon lives, then?” Venus said thoughtfully. Her eyes were distant, as if she was making idle conversation to distract her own thoughts.
“He exists, that much I will say,” Proteus said, his mouth curling into a mischievous grin. “He has moved on – and so must you, Venus. Perhaps it’s because Sun failed us all so greatly, that Moon must now step in to light up the path.”
“What does he mean, Venus?” Neptune said, staring between the two of them with concern. “About moving on?”
“There’s a reason why I didn’t feature in his foretelling, Neptune,” Venus said softly. Her expression was restful; at peace, even. It was almost as if she had released all of her worries into the ether. “I have already played my part. It’s time for me to move on, too, into the other realms. Only, I don’t know how this will come about.”
“Soon, child,” Proteus said. For a moment Neptune thought she caught a glimmer of sympathy in the old hermit’s eyes. “There is still more for you to see,” he said, looking at Neptune with an intense expression. “You must meet with the keeper of memories if you want to help your son.”
“I didn’t even know he was still alive,” Venus said, looking between the three of them with animated eyes. “I thought he had moved on long ago…”
Proteus shook his head and said: “There is only one who can talk with all the realms, and hold onto our memories forever. But the strain is far too great…he needs a new bearer. He needs you, Neptune, to take over from Moon.”
“What do you mean?” Neptune asked.
“Moon agreed to keep onto the past and merge with an element of Time. That was his responsibility. There is no one else who can fulfil that role – no one but you. Everything revolves around you and Pisces. There will be more than just me who will step out of the shadows to help you now that the world is thinning.”
“He’s right,” Triton said, looking at Neptune with sudden pride. He placed his hand on her shoulder and smiled fondly. “All of us have felt some changes to a greater or lesser extent, my lady. If you’re to meet with him, well…we’re all in for something special.”
“For too long the gods have tried to nurse the realms with bandages,” Proteus said with an air of contempt. “No matter how much you try to cover it up, the wound will fester and grow if left untreated. There are…tears and fragments seeping into the realms that must be stopped. Pisces can challenge the Dark Ones because he can bring about spiritual evolution in the material world, and cut out the core of the disease. If he fails, the Dark Ones will grow and expand in consciousness throughout all of the realms.”
“So that’s why Pisces is so special,” Neptune said aloud, mainly for her own benefit. There was a faraway look in her eyes that reflected her amazement. “He’s giving humanity a chance to cure the evil in their hearts. Very well, Proteus, I will meet with this keeper of memories. What must I do?”
“Follow me. I will take you to him.” Proteus said. He pointed a long gnarled finger towards her and gestured for Neptune to come. She held Triton’s hand on her shoulder and nodded at him with a look of determination in her eyes. Then she turned to Venus and, remembering what had been said between them, held her gaze levelly.
“When I came here against my will I had no one I could call a friend,” Neptune said, holding both of her hands with her own. “You have helped me in more ways than I can express. We will tell the gods together, Venus. I will stand by you.”
“Thank you, my lady,” Venus said warmly. There was a hint of a tear in her eye though she could not meet her gaze for long. “I will wait for you. You be careful with him, Neptune. He is…odd. I have never felt comfortable in his presence.”
“I will.” Neptune said with more courage than she felt. She held her hands for a moment longer and then straightened, standing tally. Neptune walked over to Proteus who was still holding his palm out behind a mask of mysterious knowing. She couldn’t tell what he thought underneath that facade.
“The end is coming, Neptune,” Proteus said, his voice leaded with warning. He grabbed her hand and moved slowly towards the door. “What you have learned from me and what you will learn from the keeper will be strong armour for Pisces. Maybe he will become the charioteer after all.”
“That’s what Saturn told me.” Neptune said, the memory of it lighting up her face. She had been told that Pisces would go through three stages. Her son would have to wrestle and master both realms if he was to succeed.
“Be prepared, mistress of the sea,” Proteus said. “What you will experience next will be your greatest challenge.”
Neptune nodded and held his hand for a time as they walked out of the palace. She held her head high and spoke with Proteus only a few times while they made their journey towards the keeper of memories. With luck, he would provide answers that she had been looking for since the very beginning – whether she would like them or not was a bridge that she would have to cross later.
A breeze bristled against Venus’s face while she stood atop a ledge, looking at the sea below that lapped along the edge of the beach. She looked at the crystal blue water that stretched for miles and miles into the mysterious beyond and watched while the waves soaked the sandy ground. There was no more meaningful sight for her than this peaceful place that she came to whenever she could in her dreams. Her eyes glistened just like the sea as she looked on with a thoughtful expression; reflecting over her long years in service to the two realms.
In the distance she could hear a church bell ringing noisily from the town near to the beach. She hadn’t heard that sound in such a long time, and had never heard it in her dreams before. It was enough to break her concentration and cause her to turn around, darting her eyes suspiciously around the rocky ledge.
There was nothing but emptiness with the exception of a few smaller rocks gliding from the ledge, stirring loudly against the cliff. She sighed and walked away from the view, knowing that it wouldn’t do her any good to delve too far into her memories. It was still painful for her to remember the place that both she and Pisces had visited together.
Venus returned back to the path and slowly made the descent back towards the town. Within her she felt awareness that this was a dream; though it was intense in its vividness. She came here often to remember those golden times when Pisces had made her feel like a woman. A part of her even smiled, something which nowadays she did far too little, and as she walked along the pebbled steps Venus wished that fate had been kinder to them both.
Eventually it caught her attention that the bell hadn’t stopped tolling and still banged relentlessly, drumming up anxiety in the pit of her stomach. Although the setting was the same there was something very different about her dream this time around. There was a fight or flight feeling in her body that made her feel like she was in the material realm, stalking along the ground as if she was being hunted by an invisible threat.
After reaching the final step she moved along another ledge that connected the highest cliff and the lowest level that led to either the beach or the town. She was about to move further downwards when suddenly there was a whimpering coming from behind a large boulder, a pitiful sound which propelled Venus away from her destination and towards the sobbing that tugged at her vulnerabilities.
Venus tensed and walked softly while still eyeing her surroundings with alert eyes. The crying grew louder and revived passions within her that she had repressed for a long time. Upon reaching the boulder, Venus peered around the old rock and failed to hide her surprise at the sight of a young man hugging his knees protectively, his body naked and as thin as a pole. He looked up at her and sidled backwards, holding his hands in the air and screaming violently.
Initially she moved to comfort him, but the sudden change in the wind led her to spring sideways instinctively. She turned around and lost her composure at the sight of Mercury standing opposite her, his broad smile failing to meet his eyes as they stared at one another like two enemies. He held his caduceus outstretched in his hand while the boy stopped his crying, though the terror remained fixed on his face.
She moved into a fighting stance and tried not to show the fear that burned through her insides. Deep down she knew that this day had been coming, but it was wrong that it should be here of all places.
“After everything we’ve worked through together,” Venus said, fighting to keep the emotion out of her voice. Mercury watched without losing his smile. “You’ve given away your own soul for power!”
“I’ve done no such thing,” Mercury said coolly. “You are nothing but a loved up doll that will do anything for her man, Venus. You cannot be trusted to make big decisions. Even now I am serving the realms by ridding them of useless parts.”
“It’s called loyalty!” Venus said firmly, causing Mercury to drop his calm exterior. “I should have seen it coming sooner. You were always clever and cunning, but once I thought you were honest.”
“I don’t need to explain myself to you. I won’t. We have ruled over two realms that are already morally bankrupt, Venus. We have given our unconditional love for far too long without thanks. They have caused their own illness. I mean for them to suffer because of it!”
“They need guidance. Our role was to lead the realms, like teachers to students. You have abandoned your oaths. If you disagreed with the direction of the Council, there were other ways to show it!”
Mercury let out a laugh and edged closer towards her, spinning the caduceus in his hand. Venus prepared to fight but didn’t think they were quite finished talking yet. His type always saw the need to justify their actions.
She was right. Mercury stopped abruptly and said: “I have served for as long as you. I know all about our oaths. For centuries I lived by them, believing in Jupiter and the higher realms. Living by the rules would have achieved nothing. I had to take action, and quickly! The material will not drag us down to its level.”
“You are far worse than they are, Mercury. Pisces will prove that to you, when he exposes the good in their hearts. Whatever happens, the truth will come out. Killing me won’t change anything.”
“I see that plainly enough. I didn’t plan to kill you at first, but you have found out too much. I will have to change my direction, that’s all. It’s what I do best,” Mercury said, his grin widening self-referentially. Then he looked at the young boy and said: “You did well, little Oliver. You will be rewarded.”
When Venus stared at the boy there was nothing but fear etched onto his face, though he didn’t look like he was looking at either of them. After studying him for a few more moments she realised that he was blind, which explained why he looked so out of sorts, though she couldn’t understand why he was lending his help to Mercury. He seemed to attract followers who were weak-willed and powerless.
She noted his whereabouts and considered using him as a tool against Mercury if she had no other choice. It wasn’t a tactic that she wanted to use but her options were far more limited than her opponent’s. He wouldn’t think twice about using underhanded tricks to catch her off her guard.
His grin grew even larger as he stepped towards her, almost like he had read her mind. Venus remained outwardly calm despite her mind racing with a stream of different thoughts and for the tiniest fraction of a second she even considered the fact that Mercury looked quite handsome when his face was flushed. Sometimes the ones who didn’t deserve your attention always did appear attractive, but that didn’t mean much when they were coming towards you with a large caduceus in hand.
She braced herself and ducked as the staff flew over her head, which had been intended as a killing stroke. Mercury quickly recovered and made a stabbing motion with his caduceus – forcing Venus to dodge with superhuman speed as the golden orb loomed over her with its great weight. He took advantage of its short reach and lunged at her with relentless brutality but Venus saw the pattern in his movements, moving one step ahead to avoid any contact.
His eyes looked like a feral animal as they slipped into a game of cat and mouse. His expression reflected the madman behind the evil schemes and revealed the darker side of Mercury. She made a perfect match against him because of her inhuman speed, but she wouldn’t be able to maintain her unnatural reflexes for as long as Mercury could continue his bloody assault.
Venus rolled away from him in an attempt to buy more time and think over her options. She ruled the realm of beauty but her powers were useless against another god. There was no place that Mercury couldn’t travel to, even her dreams, though he couldn’t stop her from using her own weapons to defend herself. Several knives flew in her direction and missed her by an inch – the next moment, however, Venus leapt onto a higher ledge and conjured up an arrow made of light magic, which fired directly at Mercury’s heart.
He spun his caduceus and summoned snakes to dive into the air and absorb the arrow. They slung their bodies forward and snarled as their mouths opened to swallow the energy whole. Mercury stood with his eyes closed; his attention totally fixed upon controlling the reptiles while they flew upwards. Then the two watched with anticipation as the forces collided, generating a small puff of smoke that fell away into the ether – but not without its impact propelling Mercury backwards into the ground. Venus smiled, knowing that she had taken him by surprise, and formed a new set of large arrows that materialised and hovered threateningly above.
Mercury was already back on his feet while Venus loomed above him with her arrows in hand. He hadn’t fought someone with her abilities for centuries and would never have challenged her under normal circumstances. He ’d been forced to throw caution to the wind and go against his methodical and calculating mind; which had always helped him to predict his enemies movements. Now he had no choice but to engage in a power battle. In spite of himself, he smiled.
Venus saw the sudden change in his expression and said: “All it takes is one of these arrows and you won’t be getting up again.”
“You want to end it already, then?” Mercury said, buying his time. He had stepped into her dream and as an outer influence could control elements of the environment that was naked to her own consciousness. She wasn’t even aware that he was weaving perfect replicas of himself that was made possible through the medium of illusion.
The arrows circled in a clockwise motion to gain momentum while Mercury watched with eagle-eyed attention. He jilted forwards with the palm of his hands formed together like a pyramid and the next moment Venus was surrounded by an entourage of identical shapes that resembled Mercury with crystal clear clarity. Her arm fell slightly as she looked on with a crestfallen expression, though the arrows maintained their energy.
There was no time to react as the figures burst out of their reticence and paced towards the ledge. Venus slung her arrows and pierced through the closest targets but they still swarmed towards her from all sides, leaving Venus with little opportunity for escape. She scouted while standing near the ridge, darting her eyes around while her arms moved out protectively, and then channelled her powers into her beauty as a goddess. She couldn’t make Mercury himself fall in love with her through Cupid’s arrow, but his spawn wasn’t made from the same source.
One grabbed hold of the ledge and pulled himself up while another landed onto the ground close to her after leaping from a higher place. They were gaining on her but before they had time to attack were blinded by a flash of light that emanated from her aura – moments later they were shielding their eyes against the bright bulb of energy that flowed from her body. The real Mercury watched from a distance and scowled impatiently, knowing that his reflections wouldn’t survive the spell.
If she had been beautiful before the transformed Venus now looked as radiant and enticing as the light goddess Selene. She stood atop the ledge naked and gleaming as if being bathed by the richest source of ocean imaginable; her long hair flowing freely down her shoulders as she stood like a beacon among lesser beings. Her assailants remained vacant and motionless, their bodies no longer their own. Venus stepped forward and sliced the air with her hands, firing a powerful vibration that flew forwards and dispersed the Mercury behind her into tiny fragments.
It was enough to stir life back into the others as they returned to their hunt, though their eyes were more cautious and fearful. The Mercury that had been holding onto the ledge rushed towards Venus and evaporated almost as quickly, disappearing after the slightest touch. Moments later Venus descended from the ledge and cracked open another Mercury’s skull while dodging the swing of a caduceus. She collided with the next two with ruthless readiness and connected with their hearts, palming at their chests with so much force that they imploded with immediate effect. Satisfied, she spun around and stared directly at the only Mercury left standing.
He was immune to her newfound appearance and held her gaze with unyielding intensity. Venus had made mincemeat of his trap without breaking a sweat. They studied one another from across the plain with strong emotions, knowing that this confrontation would be their last. Her resilience was surprising and he couldn’t help but feel a reluctant admiration for her defiance. In this dream, however, Mercury’s presence stretched far into omniscience – he had full sway over her imagination and psyche.
Venus sensed the battle was lost when Mercury closed his eyes, losing none of his composure. That it was a dream made no difference to the reality of her environment, which was alive and lucid in its vividness. He had been made messenger because of his ability to travel through places others could not, even the realms of the subconscious, leaving Venus vulnerable to his enchantments.
Then the memories came and streamed into her like acid, breaking her concentration. She screamed as she remembered everything that had been forgotten, her past harrowing down upon her with overwhelming vigour. All joy was snatched away from her and replaced by feelings of hopelessness. Every image of suffering and loss weaved around her with graphic realism and she could do nothing but relive each moment as if they were happening all over again.
Venus fell to her knees and clung onto the ground as the world around her thinned, becoming shapeless and disorientated. In her mind’s eye she watched while her mother was impaled with a spear and felt the overpowering grief flooding through her body. Like an orbit the memories came, spanning through her consciousness with unrelenting evil – the next image she saw was her baby wrapped in a blanket, unmoving and lifeless. She cried and howled, begging for the images to stop, but instead they shimmered and grew larger.
It was impossible to know how long she was burdened with her past, but by the end she lied flat on the ground with exhaustion. She experienced many painful moments that loomed within her and encompassed every fibre of her consciousness, leaving nothing but the hollowest of emotions. She even watched as Pisces, the man who she had loved for many years, ended their relationship and vanished. Gradually she became aware again and heard Mercury laughing from nearby. The bastard was enjoying it.
That she had lost the fight for survival was obvious. There was no way she could retaliate against a man who could manipulate all she held dear so easily. Yet as Mercury’s footsteps hammered loudly against the ground she felt a sudden need to not let him get his own way. Against all logic there was a strength that surged through her and pulled her onto her feet, her body straightening as if she was a thread. She eyed Mercury with so much hatred that for a moment he paused, taken aback by her surprising revival, and watched her with renewed caution.
She looked at him coming towards her and then tilted her head – it hurt to move it was so painful – to the side. There she spotted the cliff’s edge that was a level lower than the one from before but still high enough to tower above the sea. Venus closed her eyes and felt suddenly calm, despite the inflammation that ravaged her body. Her end was coming, that much was certain, but there was also a chance she may have new beginnings, too.
Whether Mercury had sensed her intentions it was impossible to tell, because Venus didn’t give him any time to turn her into his plaything. She stood there, trying to look braver than she felt, and then paced as quickly as she could towards the cliff’s edge. Mercury stopped for a moment, shocked that she was willing to go to such lengths, and chased after her in pursuit. Seeing him act so ruffled gave her a bittersweet pleasure.
He screamed at her heels and she was sure that there were hissing sounds coming from behind, but they didn’t have time to reach her as she reached the very tip of the cliff. Venus took one moment to look behind and saw Mercury’s frustrated and tense expression. It hurt to smile but she forced herself because it felt so good.
“You won’t kill me, Mercury. I won’t fit into your little plans. Now, I may die, but I know that I’ll come back again – in someplace, some other time from now. When your end comes, I don’t think you’ll be so lucky!” Then she jumped without another thought and tumbled into the apparent bottomless depths of the sea. Her final moments were not spent being afraid, like she had done throughout most of her life. There was a strange feeling of calm that swept through her and when she hit the water there was no pain; in the end all that came was silence.