VI: THE PLATEAU OF MUSES
The king of the Olympians was giddy with the prospect of putting an end to Lycaon’s dynasty. Though he remained nude, he hastened his guests to dress and led them through his palace to the courtyard where he had promised to train Jo to use the knowledge he had given her.
Zeus led them along an open-air colonnade that girded the palace, one side looking down onto lands which had birthed Alexander and Hephaestion and the other a solid wall with great entryways cut into the stone. It was cooler than it had been in the balcony gardens and Jo stopped to pull her woolen wrap around her like a cloak. She became transfixed by the hills and valleys that blanketed the earth in every direction. A palace perched on the summit of a mountain seemed as impossible to her as her own presence in this strange world.
Josephine McKissic was a tired girl who had run from one end of the country to the other in an effort to escape the blank-faced ghosts of her youth. Somehow that journey had led her to Mount Olympus where she was embroiled in a conflict that was millennia in the making. It was as thrilling as it was terrifying, and Jo fought to maintain the fragile equilibrium that allowed her to marshal forward without crumbling beneath the burden she now carried. She heard the footsteps of the others growing faint and hurried on, leaving the torn scraps of clouds to sweep past Mount Olympus without a witness.
Zeus led them to a courtyard at the heart of the palace. The ground was covered in blue flagstones that gave Jo the impression she was striding across an expanse of the sky. Statues of great warriors, their bodies entwined in hand-to-hand combat, stood along the border of the space. The marble was carved with such care and expertise that the fighter's gripping fingers appeared to be sinking into muscle. Jo’s fingers ached to touch them, certain she would feel the warmth of flesh instead of stone.
“Zeus is going to allow you to shift. It’ll help you become accustomed to the change and how to fight as the wolf,” Evander said.
“Don’t I need the full moon?”
Zeus shrugged, “It is my curse. It obeys my commands.”
“Once you’ve changed, you’ll spar with Zeus,” Sam added. “He’s the only one who can transform into a bear.”
“A… bear?” Jo shouted. “Nobody said anything about a fucking bear.”
“She won’t be that much larger than you,” Vera said.
“Have none of you ever watched a nature show? Bears are huge. How is she able to turn into a damn bear anyway, I thought the Were-Curse turned people into wolves?”
“The curse creates the animal from the person’s nature. Wolves are common but so are bears and eagles,” Zeus said, eager to discuss his handiwork. “There was one fellow who turned into a wombat–”
Vera interrupted, “We need to focus on the fighting. We don’t have time for a primer on the inner working of ancient curses.”
“Yes, yes,” Zeus said and bowed to Jo, “Your wolf is strong, but you won’t be totally without reason. Trust your instincts. I’ve given you the knowledge, you just need to allow the wolf to act, do you understand?”
Jo grimaced. “I suppose. How do I start?”
Zeus placed his hand over her heart. There was a burst of heat from his palm and then he stepped away. Jo opened her mouth to speak but a surge of pain shot down her spine and forced her to her knees. A fever scalded her from within and her skin tore away, curling like paper set aflame, until it fell away from her body like flakes of ash. She tried to scream but the sound came out as a strangled whimper. Her spine cracked, the column of bone and sinew lengthening. She knew nothing but the suffering of transformation in that moment and clawed at her own throat, desperate to beg her friends for the mercy of a quick death. The agony was excruciating, but her mind refused to release her to unconsciousness. Each second was an unending trial of blood and bone. The pain ceased like the snuffing of a candle; one moment it was a living thing that suffused the entirety of her being and the next it was gone, leaving the wolf trembling and panting in its wake. The phantom of that agony burned within each muscle, like the memory of a song echoing in the listeners mind once the music has stopped.
The wolf smelled the sweat and blood of humans and heard the rush in their veins. She tried to turn, but her legs folded beneath her. Jo whined, scrambling back to her feet, and turned with slow precision. The senses she had sharpened in her human-form now struck her full force. Scent and sound were overwhelming, and it took the combined effort of her wolf and human consciousness to focus on learning how to move. The wolf stalked forward, careful of each footfall.
The woman, the wolf thought, she is Vera, my pack sister, and these are my brothers.
“Extraordinary,” said Vera as the wolf nuzzled at her palm and she combed her fingers through the wolf’s coat. Jo yipped once in pleasure and bent her head to scent her pack-sister’s neck.
“She’s enormous,” her brother, the one called Sam, said. The wolf went to him next, snuffling at his neck and licking a stripe up his cheek.
“I think she’s bigger than you, when you’re in your hound-form.” Her other brother spoke, Evander, she remembered. He was tallest of the three, and she did not need to bend her head to greet him. He ruffled the fur on her neck and scratched behind her ear. The wolf allowed the familiarity before she walked to the other. He’s not of us, but he is not our enemy, she thought, but she still placed herself between the other and her pack.
“You are magnificent, child,” the other, Zeus, said. “It is fascinating that after thousands of years without our magic, there are still wondrous beings in the world of mortals.” The wolf barked and pranced in a circle, preening for Zeus. He tilted his head back and laughed. The wolf joined him, tilting her chin up and howling.
“Now then, my beauty,” Zeus said, becoming serious, “we do not have time for play if you are to be prepared to fight Kallisto tonight.”
A change swept across Zeus and within seconds a bear was standing in his place. Its coat was as brown as fertile soil. It grunted and huffed, swiping at the flagstones with fore-paws larger than a man’s head. The wolf dropped to a crouch, a snarl rumbling in her chest. The predators regarded one another. The wolf’s muscles quivered, rippling with strength. A bone-deep understanding of her opponent pulsed through Jo’s mind between one heartbeat and the next, and she attacked.
The Plateau of Muses was less than an hour’s walk north from Zeus’ palace. The four travelers bid Zeus farewell as soon as the sun touched the western horizon. The god spared a private word for Vera and then beckoned Jo to stand before him.
“Should your journey ever bring you back to my door, you will always find welcome here, young one, and if by chance your path leads you through death and along the great river Oceanus, do not stop until you have reached the White Island. Tell Kronos that I have sent you to rest on that far shore.”
“Thank you,” Jo whispered, struggling to keep her anticipation and fear in check.
“Fight well,” Zeus said and kissed Jo’s brow. His valediction filled Jo’s mind with light and sent a shiver along her spine.
The descent was easy, the greatest danger they faced was tripping on the loose stones that rattled beneath their feet. It gave Jo time to consider all she had learned while she wore the wolf’s skin. My skin, she thought. Zeus had treated her with the respect due to a warrior and had given her no quarter when they had sparred. It was astounding how the wolf’s instincts had ruled. The strangeness fell away when she learned to trust that the wolf knew how to move and when to strike.
The air was thin and cold. Jo missed the weight of the wolf’s fur and the warmth of her undercoat. The sun was gone when the path ended. The corridor of rock they had been traveling rounded a blind curve and then widened onto the Plateau of Muses without warning.
“This can’t be,” Jo said. The land sloped and rolled as it had in her dream.
“What?” Vera asked.
“I dreamt about this place. How…”
“Is it possible?” Sam finished, “This confrontation may have already been in Kallisto’s and Nicos’ thoughts, perhaps your animal nature gives you a measure of prescience. It’s hard to say, we don’t know the full extent of the curse’s effect on you.”
Jo shook her head and felt the wet heat of tears on her cheeks, “I, it’s…goddammit,” she whispered. Get yourself together, sister. You’ve got too much on the line to fall apart now. She breathed in a lungful of cold air, held it for a second, and then released it, “I’m good.”
“We’re going to get through this, I promise,” Vera said. “Please believe me if there was any other way…”
“I know,” and Jo did. Evander had explained the way that challenges worked in a world that was ruled by the old ways. The move was shrewd, but Kallisto was within her rights to call out Jo to settle Vera’s blood debt. If Vera refused to allow Jo to fight, then it would not just be a single person denying Kallisto her chance to stand up for her father, it would be The Mound of Gaia. Vera’s ability to rule as High Votaress and Queen would be weakened, her position and authority damaged.
“If I die, tell–”
“No. We’re not doing that.” Vera’s tone was commanding. “You’re going to live. If it looks like things are turning against you, I’ll kill the sow myself.”
“You have to promise me you won’t do that,” Jo demanded, “I want to do this, for all of you. You’re my family. If I die protecting you, then that’s my fucking choice, you can’t take that away from me.”
Vera clasped Jo in her arms. Jo could smell the bergamot and rose of Vera’s perfume and was comforted by the warmth it brought. It was the scent of home and she was prepared to fight for it, regardless of the cost. Jo clutched Vera to her and basked in her strength for an additional second, then released her friend. Sam and Evander embraced her together, their arms sheltering her from the wind. No words were needed. She knew they loved her and would honor her wishes.
A circle of torches flared to life when they resumed their journey across the plateau. Vera and Jo led while Evander and Sam followed a few paces behind. Jo heard a muffled snap as they approached the spot that Kallisto had selected for their combat. Sam, cloaked in his hound-form, raced past them and Jo took a moment to appreciate his beauty. He was a lithe creature with silver-black hair that glinted in the torchlight. Sam barked to announce himself as he circled the torches one way and then the other, before loping back toward his friends.
Vera stopped walking, holding Jo back with a hand on her shoulder, and waited for Sam to rejoin the group. He neared them and the wolfhound guttered in and out, like the flicker of a candle caught in a draft, and changed mid-stride from beast to man. Sam jogged, quickening his pace to close the remaining distance.
“It looks like there aren’t any traps,” he said, “At least she’s honoring the rules of combat.”
“What about Quinn,” Jo asked.
“She brought him. He’s bound with magic. It’s why you can’t hear him, and it’s keeping him from shifting.”
“Is he okay?”
“He looks pissed off and he’s been knocked around a bit, but otherwise he seems unhurt,” Sam offered Jo a conciliatory smile.
The four walked abreast, stepping up to the torches without entering the circle.
Jo was not sure what she had been expecting, but it was not the diminutive woman standing at the center of the torches. Jo had thought Kallisto would be a woman of Vera’s stature. A queen whose royalty was obvious in her bearing, but Kallisto looked more like the daughter of a beggar than a king. Her face was pinched, like she had been drawn by an artist with no care for balance. She wore a dress of thick wool with a patched mantle of thin fur draped over her shoulders. Quinn knelt before her, a bruise of florid purples and reds extended from his left temple to his cheek. Jo could feel the wolf howling to be released. She stifled a growl.
“That is far enough,” Kallisto called out, raising a blade above Quinn’s head. “If anyone besides his whore steps inside this circle, he dies.”
Jo started to step forward, but Vera held her at bay.
“We’re here,” Vera said. “You can end this now, Kallisto, before any more blood is spilled.”
Kallisto laughed, “End it? When you have yet to answer for my father’s murder? No, my lady, we have yet to begin.”
“Your father was once an honorable man. He chose to forfeit that honor when he sought to destroy the Sacred Passage.”
Kallisto roared, burying her fingers in Quinn’s hair and yanking his head back to bear his throat. “Lies. You know nothing. You butchered him like a dog because he dared to defy you, and what of Nicos? He came to you as my emissary and you destroyed him. It is you who must pay for your treachery. You will learn the pain of my loss while you watch your little whelp torn limb from limb as they were.”
Jo frowned. Quinn had told Jo the story of King Lycaon’s bid for power and his treachery. The great white wolf had negotiated surrender, and then lashed out at Vera, attempting to murder her before Evander and Sam could strike him down. She saw Evander’s eyebrows climb toward his hairline. She was not alone in her surprise.
Vera allowed the shock that Kallisto’s words elicited show. “What you’ve been told is untrue. If you’ll lay down your blade, we’ll travel to the Temple together. Nicos will be glad for it, and then we will take you to the Seers, who will show you what happened.”
“Trickery. You think I don’t know that you killed him as soon as he delivered my terms.”
“He’s alive, Kallisto. Injured, but alive. Whoever is feeding you information is lying to you.”
Kallisto’s eyes darted from Vera’s face to Jo’s. “No. Nicos knew he was going to his death and it was his honor to die avenging my father’s murder. I refuse to bend my knee to your deceptions, witch. I will have the blood of your house as recompense.”
“Then fight me, or one of the men who struck your father down. What honor will be satisfied by spilling the blood of an acolyte who knows no more of our ways than what she has learned in the day since she woke from your man’s attack?”
The hand Kallisto was using to hold her blade faltered. Jo saw Quinn’s lips move and heard him as if he had whispered the words into her ear, “If you won’t lay down your rage and listen to reason, take me for your blood debt. I’ll die at your feet without complaint, if you’ll let the others go.”
“No,” Jo shouted and stormed into the circle. The moon had risen above the horizon, her face shining, washing the world that surrounded Kallisto’s circle in silver light. Jo’s skin tingled, the wolf scratching at her consciousness, eager to fight. “I’m here. Let him go and I’ll fight you.”
“Jo,” Quinn cried out.
“This is my choice,” she looked at Kallisto, “I’m ready, just, please, let him go.”
Kallisto released her hold on Quinn and pushed him forward, “Get out.”
He stumbled to his feet, his momentum propelling him toward Jo. They collided in a desperate embrace, his lips meeting hers in a bruising kiss. Quinn pulled away and held Jo’s face between his palms. Jo allowed her fingers to trace the line of his jaw, his lips, and the arch of his brow.
“We need more time,” he said, “I don’t even know your favorite movie or how you like your coffee.”
“Blade Runner, the original, cream and no sugar, and we’ll have it, I promise,” she brushed his lips with a chaste kiss, “You owe me dinner.”
Quinn laughed, his eyes bright with tears. “I love you.”
Jo smiled. “I love you, too. Now get out of here so I can kick her ass.” She faced Kallisto allowing the wolf within to rage at the injury done to her mate. The tingling became a steady scorching heat that Jo welcomed as it burned away her fear. “One last chance, sister. Someone has played you and whoever it is doesn’t give a shit if you live through this. Come with us. No one is going to hurt you.”
Kallisto spit at Jo’s feet. “You have been a member of that order of witches and mongrels for but a moment and already they have corrupted your heart. Yet, I am not without mercy, kneel and I will make your death swift.”
The moon cleared the horizon and the last daylight was leached from the sky. Jo shuddered when the moonlight touched her skin and she felt the pull of the change begin to ripple through her muscles. She braced herself, determined to maintain her awareness through the pain of her transformation. It would do no one any good if Kallisto tore her apart while she was insensate with agony.
Jo felt the elongation of her spine and the cracking of her bones, but the pain never came. She knew that what she was experiencing was excruciating, but it was as if the nerves had been muted, the pain contained.
Zeus’ kiss, she thought and allowed her wolf-consciousness to assert control.
The cold that had assaulted her when she was in her human body could not wheedle its icy fingers beneath her fur. Kallisto had borne her transformation with silence, but once complete she stood her ground, huffing and clacking her teeth. Her coat was thick and dusty brown, like the land surrounding them. The wolf paced and a growl rolled through Jo, her ears attuned to the hum, resonant and low, emanating from Kallisto. Each watched the other, bodies tensed, prepared to fight and die. The bear’s lowing ceased and for a moment the only sound that could be heard was the flap and roar of the torch flames.
The bear lowered its head and bellowed, primitive and savage. One of Kallisto’s massive paws slapped at the ground, sending a clod of dirt spraying into the air and charged the wolf at a loping run. Kallisto rose to her hind legs at the last moment, intent on pinning her opponent, but Jo had been prepared for the attack. She dodged out of the bear’s reach and darted around to smack at Kallisto’s back legs with her paws. The bear bellowed and spun toward Jo, but the wolf kept moving. Grappling head on would mean death, even if they were matched in size thanks to the Were-curse. There was no way that Jo could equal the commanding force of Kallisto’s front claws.
They prowled around one another, the bear’s frenzy increasing as the wolf continued to elude her attacks with ease. The bear grunted and charged again, swiping at Jo’s flank. Kallisto’s claws caught her, tearing at her flesh, and sending her sailing across the circle. Jo hit the dirt with a strangled yelp. A human cry erupted from beyond the torchlight and the wolf scrabbled to her feet. The bear barreled toward her and she sprung to the side, avoiding Kallisto’s next attack by a hair’s breadth.
Jo was panting. The rush of blood thundered in her ears. She hunkered down, head sinking between her shoulders, and bared her teeth in a vicious snarl. Kallisto stalked toward Jo, swatting at the earth. The wolf sprung and caught the bear in the chest as it rose. The bear stumbled back, losing its footing on a patch of loose earth. Jo launched herself at Kallisto again, clamping her powerful maw around the bear’s neck. She tore at the bear’s thick fur until her teeth sunk into flesh.
The wolf’s mouth flooded with blood and it sparked a wild abandon. Jo ripped the unprotected skin apart, heedless of Kallisto’s claws shredding her side. The bear was blinded by pain and ran in circles to shake Jo off, but the wolf refused to be pried loose. When Kallisto’s efforts failed, the bear reared and fell flat in a vain attempt to crush the wolf beneath her weight. One of Jo’s back legs snapped, but she held on while the bear weakened. Kallisto panted and rolled to her side, exhausted. Jo plied her advantage and tore at the bear’s throat. The sounds of ripping and cracking were followed by the wet smacking of Kallisto fighting for her final breath. A high whine rose from the dying animal, a final heaving cry that faded into the night like the distant shriek of a gull as it flies out to sea.
Anne Stagg's 'Mound of Gaia' series is a Bellesa exclusive.
Anne Stagg writes sex-positive, affirming erotic fantasy fiction and advocates for creating healthy, sex-positive, affirming sexual spaces for the LGBTQIA community and women.