16th Day of the 5th Cycle, 1926 AC
Percy jolted from her bed. Fire swept through the room and smoke billowed in from the hall. Merciless flames devoured everything in sight as they climbed up the walls. It took her a moment to process what was happening, her mind sluggish and hazy. She wanted to believe it was a dream, but heat singed her hair and radiated off her skin.
Percy rolled off her bed, hitting the floor with a hard thud as she attempted to untangle her legs from her sheets. For a few delirious seconds she lay there stunned; then her mind snapped into overdrive.
She reached up and blindly groped around her nightstand, until she grabbed the silver frame with her mother’s picture. This was all she had of her mother, and she didn’t want to lose it to the fire. Clutching the picture, Percy crawled toward the door, the inferno rising around her.
Her heart pounded against her ribcage. She pressed a trembling hand against the door and when she was sure it was safe, she used the hem of her chemise to turn the doorknob. The hall was a fiery cavern. Percy covered her mouth with her arm and called out, “Uncle Nicholai!”
She crouched, the floor warm beneath her bare feet, and hurried down the hall towards her uncle’s room. The flames crept along the walls and danced over family portraits, turning memories into ash. The ceiling groaned and splintered. If she didn’t hurry, the second floor would collapse.
Numbing fear threatened to seize her. She had to force herself to move, to not give into the desire to hide and pretend it was all a nightmare.
Percy tested the knob, once more using her chemise to protect her hand. When the knob didn’t work, she beat against the door and shouted, “Uncle Nicholai!”
Why was the door locked? It was never locked. Percy tucked the picture of her mother beneath her arm, stood up, and slammed her shoulder into the door. Pain flared down her arm. She hit the door twice before it gave and she stumbled into the room. A blaze rolled across the ceiling, turning the bedroom into a holocaust.
Standing over her uncle’s body was a dark figure. Percy’s eyes grew wide and she instinctively stepped back.
The figure looked up, raised its free hand, and mumbled something Percy couldn’t make out over the roar of fire.
For a few moments, Percy felt a pulse of strange energy radiate inside her, and then a ball of fire shot out at her. The fireball struck her arm as she leapt out into the hall. Her mother’s picture clattered to the floor. Percy cried out, tears pricking her eyes. She beat the flames down on her arm. When she looked up, the hooded man was gone.
“Uncle!” Percy cried and rushed to his bed, where her uncle lay in a pool of warm blood. She cupped his face, his graying beard scratching her palm. “Look at me! Please!”
He opened his green eyes, which normally glowed with life, but now were clouding over. Percy moved her hands to his stomach, pressing down to stop the bleeding. Blood gushed from the wound, appearing black and consuming beneath the fire. The blood was thick between Percy’s fingers and burned hotter than the flames around her.
“Percy,” Nicholai wheezed. Blood flecked his lips. “Percy, stop.”
Percy ignored him. She shook her head and tried to use the sheets to bind the wound. The flames could have descended upon her and she wouldn’t have felt them.
“It’ll be fine. We’ll get you to the doctor. We just have to get out of here.” The words came out on a single exhale.
Nicholai grabbed her wrist, and with a laborious breath, said, “Enough.”
Percy bit back a sob. “Lean against my shoulder.”
She refused to let go. She wouldn’t abandon him, not when he needed her the most. How could she? This was the man that raised her, the only father she had ever known.
The fires came in closer, filled her periphery. She squeezed her eyes shut. There was no time to argue. She would have to carry him. The idea of her weak arms bearing his hefty bulk would have made her laugh if she had a second to process it.
“Give me your damn arm,” Percy demanded.
“Find Leon Ferro.” A red rivulet trickled from the corner of Nicholai’s mouth. He coughed and crimson dripped down his beard.
“Please,” Percy pleaded. Her voice cracked.
“Go.” Nicholai released her arm. “Take Hades and find Leon, he will protect you.”
“Protect me from what?”
Nicholai drew in a deep, gurgled breath and his green eyes grew glassy. Percy grabbed a hold of his nightshirt, shaking his shoulders as if she could shock the life back into him, and screamed, “Uncle!”
Eighteen years of Percy's happiness lay on the bed. There would be no more good mornings and hearty laughs, which could fill a room with more warmth than a fireplace. Never again would there be nights of quietly reading together or family dinners.
Her uncle was gone, and she was left all alone.
An ominous creak filled the room, and she dropped Nicholai’s body and stepped back. She sucked in a breath, instantly choking on noxious smog, and looked around the bedroom. The world suddenly narrowed to the body stretched out in sanguine-drenched sheets.
A beam broke from the ceiling and crashed to the floor, creating a great chasm beside her uncle’s bed that opened to a drawing room.
The fire consumed White Sun Manor.
I have to get out of here.
She started to cough, barely able to breathe. Her head spun from the lack of oxygen, and her lungs burned as if a wildfire raged inside them. She raced out of the room, stopping only to grab the picture of her mother from its broken frame, before she blindly stumbled down the stairs.
Percy bypassed the front door at the bottom of the stairs and took the hall to the lower west wing. The fires had yet to reach her uncle’s study. She ran to the empty fireplace across from Nicholai’s desk and the rows of overstuffed bookshelves.
Maddeningly she began to search the hearth mantle. Which knob was it? She had seen her uncle press it hundreds of times, but standing there now, on the cusp of death, she couldn’t remember. She pushed at the intricate suns carved into the marble.
Was it on top? She shoved the figurines out of the way. They crashed to the hardwood floor, some shattering on impact. Percy ran her trembling fingers over the back of the mantle, feeling for a latch.
The painting above the mantle burst into flames. Percy spun around and stumbled back into the fireplace. Her mouth dropped open, and the fear she had been fighting slammed into her gut like a fist.
The hooded man stood across from her, a glowing ball blooming in his hand. Percy blindly groped the mantle carvings until she felt a sun give against the weight of her fingers.
The fireball streaked towards her like a raging comet. She dropped to the ground, losing her mother’s photo, and scrambled away from the fireplace, which gave a great shudder. The marble hearth receded and opened to a stairwell.
Percy dodged another renegade blast. She grabbed a heavy bronze figurine from the floor and hurled it at her attacker.
Taking the chance, Percy darted for the stairwell. She made it a few steps before her assailant jerked her back by her long hair. Percy screamed, and slammed her elbow back as hard as she could. Pain sparked up her elbow as she hit something, but she didn’t stop to see what. The man’s grip released and she escaped down the secret passage.
She fell the last few steps and collapsed against the rough stone wall. Her lungs ached, two great weights in her chest. As she straightened, her attacker came down the stairs.
Percy ran, her feet slapping against cold stone. It was futile. He——whoever he was——would continue to pursue her. She didn’t know why. She didn’t care. All Percy knew was that she didn’t want to be a body on the bed surrounded by blood.
She could feel him at her back, closing in. The numbing chill of fear rose inside her, and beneath her terror, hummed a low level of energy, tingling through her veins like an electrical current. It was the same strange energy that had passed through Percy before.
Her assailant grabbed her by the back of the neck and hurled her into the wall. Her head cracked against the wall. A bolt of pain shot through her temple. Percy gasped, stunned for a moment.
Run, you idiot! Even screaming the words in her head didn’t make her feet listen. She was tired. Her legs ached from running and her arm throbbed from the burn.
Percy turned, pressing her back against the wall. He loomed over her, a great shadow ready to descend. He raised his arm, and Percy knew what came next. He’d rain fire down on her, and she’d be another charred corpse for the townspeople to find.
No! She wasn’t ready to die. She had to get to Hades. Percy lunged at him, shoving him as hard as she could. He fell back and Percy didn’t wait. She darted down the hall.
He would keep coming. She had to do more. There had to be something else she could do. Percy slid to a stop, her feet scraping against the pavement.
She felt it, a spark of life, the call of the planet, Pangaea. It was always there, a voice that sang in the silence. It existed all around her, around everyone; but now she could feel the song singing through her bones.
This was the essence of life, the energy of zoi. She had heard stories of people who could feel zoi, but she never felt it herself——a deep connection to the planet, as if Pangaea moved through her, tethering her to the life force.
She was one with Pangaea, and all the terror she felt faded into nothingness.
Percy drew in a trembling breath, swallowing the lingering ash. The man picked himself up from the ground.
A strange and wondrous voice from deep inside Percy’s soul called out to her, whispering a single command in her mind.
“Earth,” Percy echoed, before she could even realize what she had done.
The word filled the narrow hall, and there was a great, seismic concussion. A tremor rocked the passage, and a moment later, part of the hall caved in. The passage between herself and her attacker was blocked.
Slowly Percy sank to the ground shivering. As the warmth of energy faded, the cold set in. The voice that had whispered to her fell silent, and she was left with only the aches of her body.
Percy stared at the crumbled passageway, trying to make sense of what happened. It was almost like magic.
No, it couldn’t be. Magic… magic no longer exists.
That wasn’t entirely true. Magic had never left Pangaea, Percy knew that. But it was forbidden——a crime punishable by death. No one had used magic, an act of manipulating zoí, in centuries. Not since the Warlocks War.
Percy wanted to pretend it wasn’t magic, but there was no other explanation. The ethereal voice could only have come from the planet, and Percy had felt at peace with it.
She shook her head. She didn’t have time for this. As much as she wanted to curl up in a ball and sleep, she had to keep moving. She had to reach Hades.
Find Leon Ferro.
Percy shoved the fresh memory of her uncle from her mind. I have to go.
She forced herself up on shaky legs. It felt like hours had passed since she had first woken up to the fire.
With a hand on the wall to guide her, she continued down the darkened pathway. She walked for what felt like a mile; eventually the path led to a second flight of stairs that went lower into the bowels of Pangaea, taking her to the pantheon her uncle built to store Hades. It was colder, below the earth, where the dampness seeped into her bones. She swiped the back of her hand across her nose and drew in a hiccupping breath.
Percy came to the room and felt around for a switch by the entrance. Lights hummed to life with pulse energy, illuminating the empty pantheon. She had only been down in the pantheon a handful of times as a girl. Back then it had all been a game, a place for her to sneak into when her uncle wasn’t looking.
The pantheon was deep underground, with a ceiling that seemed to have no end. At the northern end of the room sat a giant robotic suit of armor. The Eidolon: Hades. A small flight of stairs led up to the unit.
Percy had never piloted an Eidolon. In fact, she had never been inside one of the enormous mobile units. She had only watched her Uncle use Hades a few times, and the sight of him controlling the mecha had always mesmerized her.
Percy’s heart raced as she mounted the stairs and approached the mechanical knight. He was beautiful. Sleek in design, the deepest black, shot through with bejeweled lines of midnight blue and silver. His arms were powerful, not weighed down by overbearing guns; he looked like a king ready to take fight. A great emblem of a three-headed dog was in the middle of his chest, with an enormous ruby in the center. Upon his head was a helmet with a long wing extending from each temple.
She came to a stop at arm’s length from Hades and stared up at the grandiose Eidolon. Percy sucked in a shuddering breath. He was all she had left in the world.
A buoyant light, which glowed from deep within, swelled inside her. She drew away from Hades as the ruby pulsed.
Percy had never seen zoí, but on one or two occasions she had felt the life force passing by her. What happened in the tunnel was unlike any experience she had ever had. And now, she felt her own zoí writhe inside her soul. It sang out, calling to the energy that spun above her head in a tangible effervescent cloud the color of indigo.
Hades’ ruby beat again; it was a heart pumping. Percy took a cautious step back. The cloud swirled down and something inside her lurched, as if her soul were trying to escape.
“What in the three moons?” Percy stumbled farther back. Despite her surprise, she felt no fear. It had washed away with the light that built inside her.
Percy remained where she was the second time the cloud approached. The cloud wrapped around her arms and slithered up her body. She gasped and the cloud vanished inside her mouth, spreading through her body and melding with her bones.
All the toxins inside her from the smoke were wiped away. She wrenched forward, bowing at the waist and coughing. Her heart sped up at an alarming rate and her vision blurred.
A sharp, skull-splintering ringing penetrated Percy’s mind. Percy covered her ears and tried to block out the sound.
Over the noise, an ethereal male voice whispered: do not be afraid, little one.
Percy froze. Apprehensively, she lifted her head, and a dark brown veil of hair fell in front of her face. She pushed to her feet, one hand fisted in her chemise.
Come, Persephone. The voice called to her.
She swallowed a lump in her throat and stepped towards Hades. The catwalk gave Percy access to the large jewel in Hades’s chest. The ruby was almost double her height, and if Percy were to stretch her arms out, she wouldn’t even be able to touch the ends of the stone.
The ruby pulsed again.
Percy’s hand lifted of its own accord. She laid her palm flat against the stone. The jewel was neither hot nor cold, and while it was solid beneath her touch, it felt like water. A vibrant corona radiated from the ruby. Percy pressed her fingers against it.
A ripple spread across the ruby and a concussion of air erupted. Percy’s long hair flew back. She pressed on, sinking her hand through the stone, down to the elbow, and then before she could question herself, she walked straight through.
Percy slid into the seat of the cockpit and a harness immediately locked into place around her chest. The weight of the straps compressed against her, but it wasn’t uncomfortable.
Percy didn’t know what to do. While she had seen Eidolons, she had never been in one. She had no interest or need. Eidolons were for bounty hunters and for the Gondwana military, and she was only a girl from a desert town.
You are safe now.
Even with the ringing gone, the order hummed through Percy’s mind. Was it Hades? Mech units, no matter how advanced, did not speak.
“Who… what… are you?” Percy asked.
I am Hades.
She clenched her fingers and Hades gave a great shudder. Percy looked up, her breath stilling in her chest. There were no buttons or levers, nothing to drive Hades forward. There was only the harness to secure her and a large red window from which she could see outside the suit.
Could others see her inside the ruby?
“Now what?” Percy wondered.
Now we move.
Percy blinked, mind still dizzy from the phantom voice. Before she could process the words, Hades rose to his feet. The catwalk oscillated from the sudden tremble that rocked the chamber. Overhead the ceiling parted and revealed an ocean of stars.
In that moment, Percy wanted to float through the stars, to reach the beaches of the galaxy, and drift past the edges of the universe. She wanted to escape the fire that raged above ground.
As if sensing Percy’s thoughts, Hades shot into the sky.
“Whoa!” Percy’s stomach dropped. She clamped her mouth shut and stared down at the distant land below. She couldn’t gauge how high they were, but the trees were just specks beneath her. Hades came to a stop above her home, which had become cinders.
Not yet. She couldn’t cry yet.
Villagers had begun to flood the path that wound up from the town of Rooison. What would they say when they found the house master burned in his bed and Percy gone? She shook her head to dispel her thoughts. She just wanted out of there. She couldn’t think.
Hades began to move, cutting across the star-spangled sky. Percy couldn’t feel the wind as it rushed past her. She kept her mind blank as they flew. Thoughts were not her friends.
It’ll be okay, little one. I am here.