Every pantheon has a creation myth. A way that the world was formed from nothing. No one creation myth is correct because all creation myths are wrong and yet correct. All layers upon layers, existing under an infinite night sky lit by a billion consciousnesses.
The gods, all gods no matter the pantheon, are ancient and immortal. They have existed since the dawn of mankind. But the gods are also fragile, they too, fade when forgotten. But the essence of them, the raw power they tap into, that which gives birth to them, exists on a deeper level. A root which can never be dug out and burned. Instead, they sleep, waiting to be rediscovered, reborn with a new purpose.
Win stroked back Team’s hair. The younger boy sleeping peacefully after long hours of whispering and shaking. Tonight had been particularly rough, even for the sleep-deprived son of Hypnos. Team’s fingers tightened in Win’s shirt and he whimpered. Win looked over at Dean and Pete, his fellow siblings sleeping deeply, unbothered by Team’s plight.
“Shh…” Win smoothed a hand down Team’s back to comfort him. “It’s okay. I’m here. You’re safe.”
“They’ve gone…” Team murmured. “They’ve gone too deep…”
“Deep? Who’s gone too deep?” Win whispered back. Sometimes talking to Team had helped him rationalize his nightmares and ease back into sleep. “Too deep in the pool?”
“No… no don’t open… Don’t wake them…” Team twisted his body, a contortion Win normally associated with more pleasurable contexts. “Can’t… Shouldn’t…”
“Team?” Win put his hands on Team’s shoulders, not yet restraining, but trying to ground. “Team, talk to me.”
“It’s waking…” Team started to toss and turn. Win struggled to hold him. “They’re waking… Need to run…”
“Who’s waking? Run where? Team?” Win carefully shook Team to wake him. “Team, wake up.”
“Go, go… Tell hia…”
“I’m here!” Win ignored the way Dean and Pete stirred at his yelling. “Team I’m here! Hia is here! Tell me what?”
“I am thou. Thou art I,” Team’s mouth moved, but the voice was different, deeper, darker. “I’ll be waiting.” Team’s eyes snapped open for a minute, the irises a bright and wicked yellow before they shut again and Team went limp.
“Team? Team!” Win shook him, but Team didn’t stir. His breaths were deep, as if sleeping, but his pulse felt slow. “Dean! Pete! Wake up Chiron. We have an emergency!”
The cabin councilors were roused from bed to attend the emergency meeting. Win cradled Team’s sleeping body in his lap in the corner, barely listening.
Pete Phubodin sat at the ping pong table with Dean at his side, their expressions surly. Pete Pitchaya and Yo floated in, dressed in designer pajamas. Kao walked in and put a hand on Pete Phubodin’s shoulder only to earn a glance and a shake of the head. Kongpob was not far behind, having come to drag Arthit into the room. Ae and Tin followed soon after with Can clinging to Tin’s back, still snoring. Pha was next, immediately curling around Yo. Cha’Aim, Mork, Sun, and Pharm were next to last. Trailing behind them were Tutor and Fighter, there as representatives of Camp Jupiter.
The last to arrive was Good, representing Hypnos Cabin in place of Team. His gaze was sleepy, but serious as he looked at Team and Win in the corner. He headed over to whisper into Win’s ear and Win’s expression grew worse.
Outside the door, Chiron could see several other campers, milling about: Ming, Forth, Beam, Kit, Saifah, and Zon among them. All friends of Team’s and all concerned.
“Pha, tell Kit and Beam to see to Team,” Chiron said quietly. “And let’s begin.” After Kit and Beam started their checkup with Win’s help, Pete Phubodin started his report.
“Team was with Win, mostly asleep, and then Win says he started muttering.” Pete Phubodin looked at the pair in the corner. “Something about going too deep, waking up something that shouldn’t be woken up.” Pete Phubodin then looked down at Chiron. “Then he told someone to tell Win something, but then he said, ‘I am thou. Thou art I.’ And his eyes were yellow.”
“Woah, was Team playing video games?” Can asked as he lifted his head off of Tin’s shoulder. “That sounds like a video game.”
“What kind of messed up video game-”
“I am thou. Thou art I. From the sea of thy soul, I come,” Can recited.
Tin sighed. “Okay, explain.”
“Only if Good explains.” Can turned to his friend. “What did you Hypnos cabin people do?” Good blinked. “You guys didn’t…”
Good nodded. “They wanted… to see… if the … collective unconscious… is real.”
Ae frowned. “The collective what?”
“The Collective Unconscious, proper noun,” Kao said. “Carl Gustav Jung, a famous psychologist, found that myths from different cultures had a lot of similar imagery even though there was no record of them interacting.” Kao paused to think. “He hypothesized that there was a Collective Unconscious, a collective realm of imagery, thoughts, and archetypes that all mankind was tapped into.” Kao turned to Good. “You… You guys tried to find it?” Good nodded before gesturing to the door. Another camper, young and wide eyed, walked in.
“Oh, she definitely played the video game,” Can said, noting the keychains on her belt. “Sweet! You have a Yu Narukami one! Where did you buy it?”
“Cantalope,” Tin chastised.
Can got off Tin’s back at last and walked up to her. “So… Persona. Collective Unconscious. You Hypnos kids tried to go find it?”
“W-we were just curious!” she cried. “It… Everyone thinks us Hypnos and Somnus kids just sleep all the time… We thought if we could use our powers and sleep to find something new…”
Arthit walked over and led the camper to a chair. “Explain it to us slowly. What did you guys do and how was Team involved?”
“We Hypnos campers and a few Somnus campers… We decided to try to see if we could dream deep enough together.” She looked over at Team, still cradled in Win’s arms as Kit and Beam whispered amongst themselves. “Team told us not to try because sleep and dreams are our father’s realm, but it’s very dangerous to mess with. Many people have gotten lost in their dreams and wasted away.” She then twisted her fingers. “We decided to do it anyway tonight since Team was staying in the Poseidon cabin tonight. How could we know that he’d get pulled down deep with us? And that… And that we’d find what we did…”
“What did you find?” Pete Pitchaya came up on her other side and put a gentle hand on her shoulder, his voice carrying just the faintest echo of Charmspeak.
“Something sleeping, old and dangerous.” The Hypnos camper looked up into Pete Pitchaya’s eyes, irises trembling. “Titans. Gaea and Kronos.”
“That’s impossible,” Mork shouted. “The Great Prophecy took care of Kronos with Percy Jackson. The Second Titan War should have handled Gaea. And you said you didn’t go to Tartarus, you went somewhere else!”
“If, and I do mean IF,” Kao started, “They went to the REAL Collective Unconscious… Considering that it is the hypothetical root of all archetypes in humanity… Is it not possible that while the essence of Kronos and Gaea is scattered, the idea of them lives there?”
Chiron stroked his beard. “This is troubling… The gods have never told me of this and in all my years… I’ve never even considered…”
“So what do we do?” Cha’Aim asked, flickers of blue fire winking in and out of existence around her finger tips. “How do we help Team? What exactly happened to him?”
Everyone turned back to the camper. “Team… Team told us to leave. He… He dreamed up a wall, a door… Tried to hold them back…”
“The Titans could cause a normal mind to crumble if they wanted…” Chiron started pacing. “If Team really is holding them back, it must be because they’re still weak in the Collective Unconscious for now since their essences have been scattered.”
“That’s not always how the Collective Unconscious works in the game,” Can said. “In the Collective Unconscious, you’re as powerful as you think you are.”
“But this isn’t a game,” Pharm said quietly. “Team is in trouble. We need to help him, fast.” Pharm turned to Good. “Get us into the Collective Unconscious.”
Good shook his head. “It took… ten of them… dreaming together… to get in. We can’t… send just… three of you… to fight… the idea of Titans.”
“Who says just three of us are going?” Win said from the corner. Kit and Beam turned to face the counselors and nodded. “It might not be the usual way of things, but if we’re going to save Team and fight Titans, we’re going to need all the help we can get.”
“I can’t very well mobilize the entire camp,” Chiron said seriously. “We don’t know what we’re up against. And I can’t risk the entire camp for a threat we don’t know about.”
“Then who volunteers?” Win asked. “Who wants to go with me.”
“Who needs the entire camp, the Poseidon Cabin volunteers,” Pete Phubodin said.
“Don’t be so brash,” Kao said while smacking Pete Phubodin’s head. “You’re just mad because your brother is hurting.”
“So are you coming to keep my head on straight?”
Kao sighed. “Of course I am, Seaweed Brain.” Kao turned around. “Kong?”
“I’m in,” Kongpob confirmed.
“Like hell you are!” Arthit tugged on Kongpob’s arm.
“Then… Why not come with me?” Kongpob gave Arthit a cheeky smile.
“Cocky bastard. Fine!”
“The Wild Doctors are in,” Pha said as he stood up. Kit and Beam nodded.
Ming and Forth barged in. “We’re going too!” Ming declared.
Pete Pitchaya and Yo gave each other a look. “We’re in,” they both said at the same time.
“If Pete’s going, I can’t let him go alone. I’m in.” Ae stood up.
“Me too!” Can said jumping up and down. “I wanna see the Collective Unconscious! I bet my Persona will be cooler than anyone else’s!”
Tin rubbed the bridge of his nose. “We just said this wasn’t a video game.” Tin looked at Can out of the corner of his eye, but Can’s enthusiasm hadn’t waned. “Well someone has to keep you alive.”
“I’ll come too.” Pharm stood up. “I can’t let Dean go alone, can I?” He turned and smiled at Dean.
“Well, if we’re sending in the equivalent of a legion…” Fighter looked at Tutor and wiggled his eyebrows. Tutor sighed.
“Fine, Camp Jupiter promises it’s support too. It was our Somnus campers that also got Team into this. We should take responsibility.” Tutor scrubbed at his face. “Go tell Saifah and Zon to get ready.”
“That’s…” Cha’Aim made a face. “Twenty-one of you going in? That’s insane. What about the camp’s safety?”
“As if Mork over there isn’t enough on his own to fight everything,” Sun teased. Mork shot him a look but Sun kept smiling.
“I really must advise against this,” Chiron said firmly.
“I heard your advice, but considering that you’ve never heard of the Collective Unconscious before tonight, I’ve elected to ignore it,” Win said as he got up. “Good, if we all dream together, will Hypnos cabin be able to guide us down to the Collective Unconscious?” Good nodded. “Okay. Then gear up. We’re going after Team.”
“Will any of our gear even come with us if we’re dreaming?” Yo asked as Pete Pitchaya led him away. “If so, does that mean I can finally wear my favorite One Piece t-shirt out on a quest and it won’t be damaged?”
Hypnos cabin was hardly small. But with so many large and comfortable beds, the cloying smell of incense floating through warm air, and the addition of 21 teenage boys with their weapons, the space suddenly felt minimal. Good and his cabinmates arranged the group to sit in a circle while holding hands. Interspersed between them were several Hypnos and Somnus campers to guide the dreaming. In the center of the circle lay Team.
“Breathe deep... and slow,” Good said as he walked around “Let them… guide you… pull you… down slowly. Don’t fight… falling asleep.”
Win had never understood the expression of falling asleep, but as he closed his eyes to welcome the darkness behind his eyelids, he soon felt wind rushing through his hair and past his body. Win’s eyes snapped open to the sound of Pharm’s screaming. Faces were dimly lit amid the twinkling lights so far away from them. Win looked over and Pharm was already in Dean’s arms as the two fell together, like binary stars falling through the void of space. Despite Pharm’s shout, Can was actively tilting himself forward to fall faster and Tin rolled his eyes before chasing after him. Ae had his hand around Pete Pitchaya’s waist as the taller boy hid his face in Ae’s neck. Everyone else was holding hands to some degree, although Win noticed how Tutor pointedly did not hold Fighter’s. Instead, Fighter had a fist full of Tutor’s sleeve.
“It’s okay!” the Somnus camper named Zen shouted over his shoulder. “You’re going to be fine! We’re almost there and we’ll start to slow down then!”
Moments or eternities passed and the group continued to fall closer and closer to a white dot in the distance. Then all at once, the dot in the distance expanded and swallowed them whole. The air turned humid, as if the group had been thrust right into the Mediterranean. But instead of a sunny blue sky, indigo clouds covered the dark sky speckled with lights they had fallen though. Below them, a gold and marble checkerboard ground sprawled into infinity, marred by black cracks. A large iron wall, lit by green Greek fire, steeped in mist, surrounded a multitude of temples, all in Greco-Roman style. Furthest back, behind all the temples, were two large mountains towering over everything, Othyrs and Olympus.
As they fell through the humid air, Zen closed his eyes and their speed began to slow, much to Can’s displeasure. At last, the ground came up to meet them and Zen managed the landing with a manner of grace, as did a few of the other Hypnos and Somnus campers.
Can required a bit of a hop from his attempts at acceleration, but stuck the landing. Tin was not far behind him performing a three point landing. Dean came to a stop with Pharm in his arms in a bridal carry, barely needing to bend his knees to brace the impact. Win rolled his eyes at his friend’s over the top antics as he landed on his feet lightly. Apparently Ae was up for the challenge and refused to be outdone by the Poseidon cabin and held Pete Pitchaya the same way as he landed. Ming attempted the same, but instead landed with a cheek turned red from a slap to his face from Kit. Forth landed normally, but snatched Beam out of the air despite Beam’s yelping and protests. Arthit landed with a bit of a stumble until Kongpob caught him and pulled him up. Pete Phubodin and Kao landed with no dramatics, although Kao was a fraction distracted, staring at everything in wonder. Yo and Pha came down walking, as if stairs made out of air were manifesting under their feet. Tutor and Fighter came down, shields at the ready, the regimented methods of the Romans as sharp as ever. Saifah and Zon, on the other hand, fell in a heap despite the slow descent because of their bickering.
Tutor sighed as he looked down at Saifah and Zon’s sheepish expressions. “Come on, you’re representing the Legion right now. Up!”
“Everyone else check in,” Ae and Pete Phubodin said at the same time. The two then glared at each other while Tin snorted and dusted himself off.
“We’re on a mission together. We don’t need to measure our dicks as children of the Big Three,” Tin said while pulling Can back into the group. “And you need to stop trying to run off for adventure.”
“BUT WE’RE HERE! I WANNA GET A PERSONA!”
“Would you actually have a Shadow?” Yo asked as he looked through his bag and handed a flask to Pha. “You’re pretty confident in yourself. Doesn’t a shadow manifest when you’re suppressing emotions?” Can fell quiet and Tin gave him a look, but no explanation was forthcoming.
“We’re ready,” Kit said as he prepared his bow and quiver. Ming nodded behind him, sword in hand as he loaded shells into the large revolver chamber in the hilt.
Pharm touched the lotus shaped pin on his lapel and nodded to Dean, who unsheathed his sword. Forth’s sword hung at his side while he helped adjust Beam’s quiver as Beam strapped on his arm guard. Pete Pitchaya checked the dagger on his hip while Arthit readied his spear. Kongpob adjusted the bracers on his arms as Kao scribbled in a notebook.
Win sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “First thing’s first, where is Team?”
Zen pointed to the wall which was much larger and darker than first anticipated. Even so, the twin mountains and all the temples towered over it, and so it’s ability to keep anything god or titan-sized inside was potentially laughable. The door looked heavy and was barred shut, Hypnos’s unimpressed gaze peering out from it.
“When we last saw him, he put that there.” Zen scratched at an ear slowly turning red. “I’m ashamed to say we don’t really know much else. Team yelled at all of us to get you and then the wall just appeared between us.”
“Will it open for us?” Pharm asked as he stepped up. Win smiled, glad to have someone else in Team’s corner. “If Team made it and asked for us…”
“We haven’t tried. No one was willing to stay behind and potentially mess up anything Team put in place until you guys got here,” Zen replied. “But if you’re ready, it looks like there’s nothing to stop you guys.” Zen smiled. “Us Somnus and Hypnos campers will stay here to take you guys back. Or provide back up if you guys send up a signal.”
Win looked over his friends, some still bickering, and sighed again. “We might need it.”
Pharm put a hand over Win’s. “Team will be okay. We’re going to find him and you know he’ll be eating a bag of dream chips or something.”
“Drinking dream soda?” Win asked with a small smile.
“Of course!” Pham smiled softly and tugged on Win’s hand. “There’s a lot going on, but don’t forget, Team is every bit a demigod as you are, as all of us are. He’s able to handle himself. We just need to lend him a hand, as always.”
Win nodded. “Thanks, Pharm.” He ruffled Pharm’s hair. “You’re too good for Dean.”
“He is amazing, isn’t he,” Dean said as he came up behind Pharm, hugging the shorter boy to his chest. Pharm slapped Dean’s arm, but the look on his face was pleased enough. “Everyone’s ready. Let’s go.”
In front of the judging gaze of Hypnos’s face, the wall suddenly felt larger than before. Win reached out to touch the handle and nothing happened. The iron of the door felt cold to the touch and Win wondered if it felt cold because he expected it to or because it was cold on it’s own in the Collective Unconscious. But as he tried to turn it, Hypnos’s mouth opened.
“Have you come for me?” The voice sounded like Team, but it wasn’t Team. It was the voice that came out when Team’s eyes had turned golden yellow. Win felt a shiver work down his spine. “Has my hia come to save me? At last! Woe is me… I cannot seem to save myself!” Several sarcastic sobs echoed out. “Oh how hard it is to be me!”
“Where’s Team!” Win barked out.
“I’m Team! I’m here!” the voice said before laughing. “Come and see! I’m a much better version! But are you the hia that deserves me?” The temperature dropped as the door opened, several swarming black masses on the floor with teal masks on writhed before leaping at Win.
Win swung his sword, but the first blow glanced off with a clang like metal on metal. His second swing through another of the masses felt like sweeping his blade through molasses, thick and slow. To add insult, the monster didn’t seem phased at all. Instead it continued its trajectory, knocking Win onto his back.
Beam was quick on the draw and fired off an arrow, but just like Win’s sword, it glanced off. Ming fired off a round from the revolver in his sword, but the most it did was stun one for a second before it lurched and turned into a large black and neon purple striped sphere with a large mouth and massive tongue. The group of demigods descended into chaos as they tried to fend off the strange monsters.
Some transformed and stood like humans, strange and disjointed. Others turned into normal objects with masks on surfaces like books and tables. A few became strange balances with swords as the center point. As far as monsters went, they were hardly the most horrifying things that anyone at camp had faced, but the sheer vividness of their forms was even more disorienting.
“Wow, there’s actual Shadows here!” Can said in between swinging his dagger with a happy fervor despite how ineffectual it was. Despite his speed and accuracy, nothing seemed to phase the odd spiky shadow that looked like a six-sided die in front of him.
Yo ran past as Pha tried to pick off the several strange dolls joined in pairs with rods through their bodies chasing after him. “My Charmspeak isn’t working!”
“Pull back!” Pete Phubodin called out as he and Kao just barely managed to knock one of the strange tables away through a joint effort. “We can’t kill them!”
As the others moved to pull back from the gate, Pete Pitchaya tripped and a black blob with many arms and legs lunged for him. Ae whipped around and stabbed at it with his spear. Time seemed to suddenly stand still as Ae’s spear passed through it and the shadow continued it’s trajectory. Electricity crackled in the air, more ferocious with Ae’s growing frustration.
“You’re dead!” Ae roared before the Shadow burst in a blast of lightning. Ae continued to swing his now smoking spear, but it was clear the effort had winded him.
That was when the voice spoke in Pete Pitchaya’s mind. Similar to his voice or even Tutor’s but not quite the same. Something darker and deeper.
“You know who I am,” the voice said. “I am thou. Thou art I. We’ve had our conflict already…” A cold and dark chuckle followed. “The fear, the shame… You remember, don’t you?”
“Yes… I know it,” Pete Pitchaya said calmly.
“But since you’ve accepted me, accept my help, and I will help you save your friends.”
“I… accept…” Pete Pitchaya whispered. As the words left his lips, Pete Pitchaya felt a gust of wind lift him as something seemed to settle in under his skin, like a reinforcement of his body. Focusing on the feeling of a new strength within him, Pete Pitchaya uttered a single command. “Stop!”
The other demigods stood in wonder as the ripples of Pete Pitchaya’s charmspeak spread over the battleground, forcing the Shadows to stand still. The voice whispered another word in Pete Pitchaya’s mind and he found himself compelled to say it. The word escaped his lips and a burst of flame enveloped all the shadows as they writhed before bursting into nothing.
Feeling his new strength fade, Pete Pitchaya reached for Ae as he fell over in a faint. Ae caught him in time, staring at his boyfriend in wonder. Tutor ran over to hover over his twin as Fighter watched his back.
“Aww, no fair!” Can shouted as he stomped his foot. “I wanted to be the first with a Persona!”
As the group waited for Pete Pitchaya to recover, Pharm pulled out a box of snacks and passed it around. Pha, Kit, and Beam patched up anyone who had been hurt and Can and Zon scavenged arrows for them. Win stared at what awaited them beyond the door, cold stone corridors lit with green fire torches. And somewhere beyond them, Team was waiting.
Somewhere further, Gaia and Kronos awaited them as well.
Win only tightened his grip on his sword for all the good it did. If Pete Pitchaya was the only one who could defeat the strange monsters around them and it was taking so much out of him, how much harder would it be to save Team? Ae stepped up next to Win, his brow just as furrowed.
“How’s Pete doing?”
Ae continued to glare, as if his anger could ward off any more of the strange Shadows, as Can had called them. “Pha says he’s alright. Just tired. When he wakes up, he’ll be fine.”
“When will he wake up?”
“Soon.” Ae turned around to stare at Pete Pitchaya, laid out on a blanket and watched over by Tutor, Saifah and Kao as they tried to keep a now returned Can from bugging him. “I hope.” Ae turned back to Win and put a hand on his sword arm. “We’ll find Team. Don’t worry.”
“Ae!” Can yelled. “Pete’s waking up!”
Ae and Win ran over as Kao helped Pete Pitchaya sit up. He went willingly into Ae’s arms as the shorter boy checked him over. If anything, Pete Pitchaya preened under the attention. Tutor scoffed and rolled his eyes, but the relief in his posture was obvious before he walked off to tell everyone else Pete Pitchaya’s status.
“I’m okay, Ae. I feel fine now.”
“I want to be mad,” Ae said as he pinched Pete Pitchaya’s cheeks. “But I’m just glad that’s all over.”
“How did you even do that,” Win asked. “Was it what Can called a Persona?”
“I…” Pete Pitchaya looked to Can who seemed ready to vibrate out of his body. “Is it one?”
Can pouted. “Kind of? Depends on the game, but the ability Pete used is a Persona ability.” Can whistled. “One typically seen in the middle of the game. But I didn’t see a Persona come out when Pete used it.”
“I think… It’s not working exactly like you hoped it would,” Pete Pitchaya said as he looked at his hand. The reinforcing strength that he had felt before had returned, silently thrumming under his skin. “It feels… More like something living under my skin, something powerful that I can tap into.”
“So cool…” Can whispered in awe; however, Pete Pitchaya noticed something else lurking in Can’s eyes. It wasn’t envy, but something else he couldn’t pin down. “I guess… This means Pete has already accepted his Shadow or he doesn’t have any repressed emotions.”
“I know where the darkness is in me,” Pete Pitchaya said simply. “And I’ve already dealt with it a long time ago.” He took Ae’s hand and Ae squeezed it. “Ae knows that better than anyone.”
“So how do the rest of us do the same?” Win started tapping his foot. Kao stepped on it to hold it still, earning a glare from Win. “What? We need to get moving!”
Can stood up and looked at the wall turned labyrinth. “In one game, characters go through different dungeons and end up encountering their Shadows. Only after defeating and taming your Shadow do you get a Persona,” Can said before he shrugged. “Maybe we need to do the same.”
“Probably.” Win raised an eyebrow and Can pouted. “Okay, okay, highly likely!” Can threw his hands up. “The other option is something about the spirit of rebellion against authority or using an Evoker and confronting your fear of death but considering how Pete doesn’t have a special pistol suddenly on his hip and there’s no adults oppressing us, I’m going with fighty Shadow makey tamey Persona,” Can said with a huff.
“Sorry, Pete,” Win said while ruffling the younger boy’s hair, before glaring at Can who just stuck his tongue out at the older boy. “Until we find out if Can’s swallowed the right video game walkthrough, we’re going to have to rely on you.”
“I don’t mind,” Pete Pitchaya said as Ae helped him stand up. “You can depend on me.”
“Don’t push yourself,” Ae said as he brushed Pete’s hair back into place. “Do what you can. I’ll support you.”
“Ae always does.” Pete Pitchaya smiled. “I’m ready. Let’s press on.”
“Guys! Team meeting!” Arthit yelled as Zon held out a piece of paper looking particularly pleased with himself. “Zon scouted ahead and drew us a map.”
Saifah made a face as he ran over. “Zon! Why didn’t you take me with you?”
“Nobody is useful in a combat situation right now,” Zon said as he accepted a bottle of water from Pharm’s bottomless bag. “Taking more people with me would have just made it harder to sneak around.”
“As if you’ve gotten better marks for infiltration than I have!”
“I have because I don’t stick out like you do, you beanpole,” Zon fired back, but it lacked any heat, especially as Saifah pulled Zon into his side. Zon hesitated for a moment before slumping and leaning on Saifah properly. “I managed to look around and got the layout of the floor, very basic. Definitely does not extend further into the wall. It’s just one main structure.” Zon peeled away from Saifah to point at something. “But there are stairs. Floors higher up might be bigger or smaller. No telling how many floors there are either.”
“Anything interesting in any of the rooms?” Win asked as he looked over the map. The area behind the door was split into four rooms and one large main lobby. Zon had marked the single staircase going up at the end of the lobby.
“Maybe? There’s an awful lot of big pipes.” Zon pointed out the circles in each room that split off from the main one. “They had wheels on them, maybe as shut off valves?”
“What do they shut off?” Kongpob asked as he peered over Arthit’s shoulder. “If this is to scale…”
“Could be lots of things. Usually it depends on whose Shadow made the place,” Can said. “If this is based on Team then-”
“Water,” Win said without hesitation. “They’re pipes for water. Shut them off.”
“They’re guarded.” Zon pointed at several frowning, angry faces on his map. “The lobby is actually empty. I think the main rush we dealt with in the beginning was the force occupying it.”
Win frowned. “How tough do the guards look?”
“We had so much trouble fighting a table with a mask on it,” Zon said dryly. “I’m not really sure how much more difficult the cloaked thing with a spiky mask or the giant, really fat police officer with a keyhole for a face will be, but we might as well try.”
Everyone turned to look at Pete Pitchaya and he only smiled. “I think I can work something out.”
“You!” Pete Pitchaya pointed at the rotund police officer Shadow. “Attack the guard from the room across from this one!”
The Charmspeak took hold and the police officer lumbered out and charged out, starting a fight with the cloaked figure in a spiky mask as it also ran out of it’s room. As the two clashed, Ae, Tutor, and Fighter stood guard as Pete Pitchaya continued to encourage the brawl. Can, Tin, Zon, and Saifah were in charge of turning off the water pipes in the previously occupied rooms. The Wild Doctors monitored the situation in the third room while Kongpob, Arthit, Dean, and Win checked in on the fourth. The rest ran ahead to investigate the stairs.
Win looked back as the sounds of combat grew higher, culminating in Pete Pitchaya uttering a word and incinerating the victor. Pete slumped into Ae afterwards as Can and Saifah appeared in the doorways of their respective rooms and gave the thumbs up signals. Pete Pitchaya straightened himself out and nodded to Win and Pha.
“Pull the guard on three,” Win said to Kongpob.
“I knew you played MMOs,” Kongpob replied with a smile as he took aim with his bow. “No one who doesn’t even knows that term.”
“Save your snark and just shoot the monster,” said Arthit, clearly restraining himself from slapping Kongpob in the head to avoid messing up his aim.
Win looked over to the other side of the room and Kit gave him the thumbs up as Pha also took aim.
Twin twangs of bow strings resounded but only one monster charged out. Pha, Kit, and Beam were forced to run as the monster they tried to aggravate was content to throw waves of ice at them from a distance.
“It’s no good!” Beam shouted as Pha dived to the side to avoid being crushed by a massive icicle. “Pete needs to tell this one to fight!”
“Shadows!” Pete Pitchaya shouted. “Fight each other!”
Kongpob and Arthit lunged out of the way of the police officer as it barged past them and straight into a burst of lightning from the masked creature that Pha had fired at from the other room. Pete Pitchaya slumped into Ae’s side a bit more heavily as the fight progressed.
“Tired?” Ae shifted to make Pete more comfortable. Tutor and Fighter stepped forward to be the first line of defense if anything went wrong. “Should we take a break after this?”
“If the next floor is the end of it, I think I’ll be fine if I just rest for a minute.”
Just as the police officer Shadow burst into smoke and nothingness, Yo ran around the side to report to Win as Pete Pitchaya dispatched the last one.
“The next floor just has one long hallway and a door,” Yo said with a frown. “The door is locked though. There’s not even a keyhole or anything that we can use to pick it.”
From the sides, Dean and Kit offered thumbs up, indicating that the pipes in their rooms were also shut off. Win set his sight on the stairs. “I guess it’s time we meet our host then.”
After another minute to let Pete Pitchaya recover and another for everyone to climb the stairs, the group reached the locked door. Win had only touched the door when the lock clicked and the door swung open to reveal a large swimming pool. Standing in a center island was a large tank in which Team was completely submerged and unconscious. Sitting atop the tank was another Team, his golden eyes were condescending as he waved.
“Oh! Friends! And hia!” The yellow-eyed Team laughed. “You’re just in time!” He ran his fingers over the seal on the tank. “Soon, I’ll finally drown, just like I feared. But now that you’re here, you can saaaaaave meeeeeeeeeee,” Team said before laughing some more.
“Let him go!” Win brandished his sword and Dean and Pete Phubodin stepped up behind him.
“But I’m Team!” the Shadow said. “I’m the only Team you need! I’ll let hia protect me from my fears as much as he wants! I’m sooooo weak and helpless!” Another bout of laughter. “After all, who better to protect me from my fear of water than a son of the god of the sea! How painful it must be for a lesser person like this me,” the shadow knocked his fist against the tank, jolting Team awake, “To be so in love and afraid at the same time!” Team opened his mouth and realized his mistake as a large bubble of air left his mouth. He banged on the glass and Win only grit his teeth.
“You’re not Team!”
“Don’t say that!” the Shadow yelled. “I am Team!”
“No really, don’t say that,” Can said, peeking out from behind Saifah. “You really don’t wanna say that again.”
“I don’t have time for this bullshit. Let go of my boyfriend, you fake!” Win swung his arm in a wide arc and a blast of water from the pool rose up to smack the Shadow to the side. “Team!” Win jumped into the pool, swimming as fast as he could to get to the island, Pete Phubodin and Dean dived in after him. Before they could touch the island, large, muscular tentacles wrapped around their waists and pulled them down into the water. Win watched as more tentacles emerged from the Shadow’s body as it cried.
“I am the Shadow, the true self! Drown with me!” The Shadow’s body morphed and twisted until its bottom half turned into a giant squid. Around the Shadow’s head, a large bubble formed.
Win moved to exhale and inhale as easily as he normally did in water, a perk of being a son of Poseidon, but when he did, he found his nose filling with water. Win stabbed at the tentacle around his waist, Pete Phubodin went for slashes and Dean tried to create a bubble around them for a quick breath, but it never formed.
Above water, Saifah, Beam and Pha fired arrows down on the Shadow as Kit, Ming, and Fighter fired rounds at the tank, attempting to pierce the glass. Their shots glanced off, proving the tank was bulletproof and arrow proof. The Shadow also blocked the arrows fired at it with a tentacle, sending some more to harass the three firing at it.
Pete Pitchaya also ended up with his hands full as large taps in the corners of the room opened to dribble out very little water, but plenty of small Shadows to harass everyone else. The rest of the boys focused on keeping them at bay as Pete Pitchaya worked to pick them off.
“Try to hurt the boss!” Can yelled as he dodged a swipe from the massive tongue of a Shadow and went for the counter stab on reflex. Instead of puncturing it, Can’s dagger bounced off as if the Shadow was made of rubber.
“I tried! It’s not working! It must be the water in the pool!” Pete dived under Kongpob’s arm before lighting the Shadow he was fighting on fire. “I think it nullifies powers!”
“They’re gonna drown!” Pharm tapped his lotus pin, turning it into a staff and running for the pool, only to be held back by Yo. “Let me go!”
“If you go in there, you’ll drown with them!”
“Can, cover me!” Tin said before running towards the pool.
The strange conjoined dolls Tin had been fighting flew after him only to be knocked back by Can throwing the Shadow he was fighting at them by the tongue. Tin stood at the edge of the pool and gripped his sword before hefting it up and thrusting it into the floor at the edge of the pool. Slowly, a fissure formed and spread down the wall of the pool to the bottom of it. Groaning, Tin turned his sword and the fissure widened until the sound of water rushing could be heard.
“Yes!” Can cheered as he kicked a small Shadow in the shape of a golden glove with a tiny masked head on the wrist. “That’s my boy!”
“No!” Team’s Shadow cried as the water drained around them.
As the water pulled away, Win hacked at the tentacle again and was at last released. Swimming close, Dean and Pete Phubodin grabbed Win and with a burst of water, threw him on to the island. Team hammered on the glass as Win placed a hand on it. The water inside began to churn. Team shook his head, but Win met his eyes and nodded. Team closed his eyes and stopped moving.
“It’s hopeless! He’s going to drown!” Team’s Shadow yelled as it swiped with its tentacles wildly, forcing Pete Phubodin and Dean to jump back and those firing arrows to abandon their posts.
“No, he won’t,” Win said as he clenched his fist and punched the tank. The water inside suddenly expanded outwards and the tank burst at the seams, sending water, glass, and metal into the empty pool below. “Team!” Win knocked away more glass before pulling Team, still coughing and sputtering, out.
“Hia,” Team coughed out.
“Are you alright?” Win ran his hands over Team’s body checking for injuries and Team shook his head and clung to Win’s shirt.
“I think…” Team said as he spat out some water. “I’m going to avoid baths for a while.” Team looked up with a rather pitiful look while he shivered. “And maybe swimming. And sleeping.” Win stroked the back of Team’s head as the battle raged on around them. “And maybe large glasses of water too. Is that okay?”
“Of course it’s okay. Because I’ll be there with you.”
“Ha!” Team’s Shadow yelled as it pulled itself up onto the island by its tentacles. “You’ll always be afraid! Who cares who’s with us?!”
Team buried his face in Win’s chest and took a deep breath before turning around to face his Shadow. “I know,” he said as his body trembled. “I know I’ll be afraid.”
“And what good is knowing!?” The Shadow wrapped a tentacle around Team and pulled him closer. Win moved to slash at it but Team was pulled away before he could reach.
“Because this fear...” Team took in a shuddering breath, his eyes wide, and his mouth running faster than his thoughts. “Our fear. It’s not something to be ashamed of.” Team placed a hand on the tentacle. “But you know what? There’s one thing we both don’t have to fear. And that’s hia. ” The tentacle pulled Team even closer so that he could look his Shadow in the eye. “You are me. We…” Team clenched his free hand into a fist. “We’re allowed to be afraid. Like hia said, he’ll be here. Hia didn’t let us drown.” Team took another deep breath, even though his chest was tight. “He will never let us drown.” Team unclenched his hand and extended it to his Shadow despite how it shook. “Okay? Let’s believe in hia. Let’s believe in us.”
Team’s Shadow accepted his hand and dissipated in an unfelt wind into golden particles that swept around the room, destroying all the other monsters before concentrating in Team’s body. Team hung in the air for a moment before slowly floating down. Win rushed under him and caught him.
“Team!” Win gently shook Team’s body. “Hey, stay with me.”
“M’jus tired hia,” Team said softly. “But… we need to get out of here…” No sooner had Team said that did the room start trembling. First a slow rumble but then came a rapid quake. Team sat up with a jolt. “It’s disappearing…” Team said with sudden clarity. Win could see it in Team’s eyes, an anxious energy overriding his exhaustion. “The wall… They’re waking up faster…” Team turned to Win. “We need to get out! Now!”
“Which way?” Win asked as Kao and Forth helped Pete Phubodin and Dean get out of the pool.
Team pressed a finger to his own forehead before pointing to a wall. A segment of it fell away revealing a passage with stairs. Team also glanced at the pool and the floor rose up, making Kao and Forth groan. “Everyone! Go! Quickly!”
“Really? Team was able to do that the entire time and he didn’t get Pete and Dean out for us?” Forth groused as he ran.
“Less griping, more running,” Beam said as he passed him.
The gang emerged out the other side of the wall into a sprawling courtyard of temples, all topped with a marble and gold statue of a god or goddess. The mountains Othyrs and Olympus set the backdrop and between them, a valley from which light rose, dim, but growing brighter bit by bit. If Win had been more idealistic, he would have asked if it was the sun rising. One look at Team’s expression told him that he should be hoping for eternal night instead.
“First, thank god you’re okay.” Pharm ran up behind Team and hugged him. Team lurched forward for a second before turning around and hugging Pharm back. Win scoffed, but his smile was pleased as he saw the way Pharm and Team jostled each other.
“Second, feed me, Pharm.” Team was smiling, but it was a little weak.
“Third, duh.” Pharm produced a box out of his bag and pushed it into Team’s hands, his smile gentle. “Your favorite.” Team made a pleased sound that caused Win to stroke his head again. Pharm looked away from the pair to give them privacy and turned to the rising light. “Are we too late?”
Team looked up from stuffing his face under Win’s encouragement and swallowed before saying, “No. They’re not awake yet.” Team closed his eyes briefly and what felt like a ripple in reality flowed out from him. “But soon.”
“Team has a lot of power here, doesn’t he?” Can said as he tried to poke Pharm for snacks.
“Hypnos is the God of Sleep. I that makes the Unconscious something I have a little more power over,” Team said with a shrug. “But you guys need a boost too. You noticed it, the things here, we can’t fight them like we normally do.” Team turned to face everyone. “That includes Gaea and Kronos. They’re not Titans, not here. They’re archetypes now, the collected ideas of what Gaea and Kronos should be.”
“So are we really in the Collective Unconscious? Are we all going to get Personas?” Can tugged on Team’s sleeve despite Win’s glare.
“Yes and no?” Team’s gaze turned distant. “The Collective Unconscious is influenced by the thoughts and perceptions of those within it. When my cabinmates came looking for it, their idea of it was colored by the video games, same as you.” The corner of Team’s lip twitched. “And maybe me.” Team nudged Can. “But some things work and some things don’t, I guess. So don’t get your hopes too high.”
“That’s not a noooooo….”
“Cantaloupe.” Tin’s voice was chastising enough and Can pouted and pulled back.
“So how do we do this?” Ae asked as he helped Pete Pitchaya sit down to rest. “If only you and Pete are effective against these things…”
“There’s a way.” Team looked at the temples. “But we don’t have time for everyone to go one at a time. We’re going to have to split up.”
“Isn’t that usually the bad idea?” Yo said as he started stretching his arms and legs all the same.
“We don’t have a choice. If we tried to go to several temples linearly, Gaea and Kronos might wake up before you guys finish. This isn’t a video game where the boss waits for you at the end.” Team turned to everyone. “I’ll stay here and help you guys as best I can.” Team did his best to stand firm, but there was still a faint tremor in his hands and legs. No one complained about Team’s choice. “If I stay here and focus, I can probably help support you guys a bit, or pass messages between teams in different temples. For now.” Team sat down and Win hovered over him.
“Do you want me to stay?” Win asked.
“Hia, if you don’t go, how will you fight too?”
“Then… have Pete stay with you.”
Team turned to Pete Pitchaya before casting his gaze at Aphrodite’s temple. “No… Pete really should go with Tutor and Yo.”
Tutor scowled and said, “I think I can handle my inner demons without my twin making them worse.” Pete Pitchaya shot Tutor a dirty look.
“And that mentality is exactly the reason why Pete needs to go with you,” Team said before slumping some more. “Just trust me, okay?”
“You can tell something is there, can’t you?” Win whispered.
“Yeah. And it’s Tutor’s,” Team replied while rolling his eyes. “One day, his repressed issues are going to kill him. And Pete will kill me if today is that day.” Team looked up at everyone, now standing at the ready. “Time to get moving. Don’t delay and if you need help, just think of me. I’ll be listening.”
“Don’t you see? I’m the only one who understands.” Tin’s Shadow’s voice echoed around him in the dark and cold halls of Hades’s temple. Small torches lit with blue flame flickered against the walls. “I’m the only one who knows we deserve this darkness.” Tin froze as a cold breath cascaded over his ear. “I’m the only one… Who knows we’re so selfish and cruel…”
Tin lashed out, but all he got was mocking laughter.
“The darkness… The loneliness…” Tin closed his eyes and listened to the whispers carefully. “Aren’t they my reward for being what I am? A fake, sussed out and betrayed by the one we called brother.” Tin raised his sword. “A fake born of a cheating mother!” Tin lashed out again and this time was rewarded with a cry of pain.
“I am what I am,” Tin said as he walked deeper into the darkness to chase his quarry. “Even if I accept Tul’s grudge, even if I accept the darkness, I won’t be defined by it. Tul can die mad. And...” Tin gripped his sword a little tighter, causing a charm on his camp bead necklace, wrapped around his wrist, to flash in cold light. “Someone important to us is waiting for me to stop being so mopey.” Tin rolled his neck and sighed. “So get over here and let’s hash this out. Time is wasting.”
“Isn’t that too easy?” The voice came from behind Tin.
“I won’t apologize.” Tin closed his eyes again. “I can’t control the unfortunate manner of my birth.”
“But I want to!” Tin froze. “Everyone looks down on me despite how if I had my way, they’d be looking up! What a joke!”
“I can’t control everyone. I can’t control what they say.” Tin’s breathing grew more agitated despite his attempts to slow it. “I know this.”
“Who cares! Wouldn’t it be better, if we controlled everything? We’re more qualified than anyone else!” A cold hand gripped Tin’s shoulder and trailed down his arm before disappearing. “That’s why we’re so cruel and selfish. We want everything.”
“It’s okay to want.” Tin sheathed his sword and put his hands up, ready to grapple.
Tin slowed his breathing. “It’s… it’s okay to desire too.”
“Are you trying to justify our greed?”
“I’m not greedy.” Tin lashed out with his hands and caught his Shadow. “I want these things, but I won’t scheme to get them. Not in the wrong way!” A few twists and turns later, Tin had pinned his Shadow on the floor. “I will earn respect. I’m going to show everyone my worth. I won’t let my birth weigh me down.” Tin scoffed. “You’re no different to the demons I tackle every day.” Tin let go of his Shadow and dusted himself off. “Now get over yourself and let’s get to work.”
Huffing, Tin’s shadow dispersed and collected itself within Tin as Tin walked out of the temple.
The sound of crumbling stone echoed as Tutor was slammed into a pillar by his Shadow.
“How weak!” Tutor’s Shadow mocked. “You’re so worried about how weak love might make you, you’re weak already!”
“I’m not!” Tutor lurched back onto his feet and charged back in. The legion training had been stripped away and Tutor was fighting like a caged animal which only served to increase the mockery he received from his Shadow.
“Weak, sloppy, messy!” The Shadow said as it parried each blow before kicking Tutor in the chest again. “We really are only fit to do our hair and talk about boys! Just. Like. Mother.” Tutor suffered another kick to the chest which sent him flying. “Now get out of my way! I’m going to pursue my love!”
Pete Pitchaya ran in the way and caught Tutor, grunting with the effort as they both fell to the floor before concentrating his Charmspeak. “Stand still!” Pete Pitchaya commanded, but Tutor’s Shadow continued moving anyway.
“That won’t work on me! Because I’m Tutor, and I can’t be swaaaaaayed by emoooooootion.”
“Team,” Pete Pitchaya thought. “What am I supposed to do?”
“I didn’t tell you to go with Tutor for combat ability,” Team replied in Pete Pitchaya’s mind. “I told you to go, because you know Tutor better than anyone. You knew what his Shadow might be.” Pete Pitchaya looked up at Tutor’s advancing shadow. The way its hair was arranged, the soft sweater and designer khakis, even the dagger it used instead of a gladius and shield. It wasn’t a resemblance that could be explained just by being Tutor’s opposite or because of being twins.
“In your head, I resemble the way you view everything you repress,” Pete Pitchaya said softly.
Tutor’s body stiffened in his arms. “Pete-”
“I’ve told you before, love doesn’t make us weak.” Pete Pitchaya let go of Tutor and stood up. Tutor’s Shadow continued advancing. “Do you know the origins of Aphrodite and Venus?” Pete Pitchaya stood still. The Shadow sneered and lashed out. “Our mother was born from seafoam and the testicles of the castrated Ouranos or Uranus. Mother is one of the first of the Olympian gods, old and powerful,” Pete Pitchaya said as he dodged blow after blow. After getting close, Pete Pitchaya’s hand touched the Shadow’s chest and the Shadow flinched and froze.
“Love is old and powerful. Love is necessary. Love can be gentle, can nurture others, can care about beauty inside and out. And that is me,” Pete Pitchaya said as his body began to glow, the twitching of Tutor’s Shadow increased. “But love can also protect, can punish, or can drive men to war.” He turned to face his twin. “And that can be you.” Pete Pitchaya turned back to Tutor’s Shadow and calmly said, “Freeze.”
The glow from Pete Pitchaya finally seeped into Tutor’s Shadow and it’s expression turned blank for a second before it stopped moving, as if made of stone. Pete Pitchaya stepped away and sighed with relief.
“You…” Tutor struggled to stand. “Do you honestly think…”
“You are strong, Tor.” Pete Pitchaya turned back to his twin and offered him a hand. “And you’re worthy of love. You deserve love, to be loved.”
“Don’t bring up that bullshit now!”
“Accept the fact that you want love,” Pete Pitchaya insisted. “Accept the fact that love is a part of you.”
Tutor’s shoulders rose up to fight before they slumped and Tutor accepted his twin’s hand. “So what if it is?”
“If it is, then you should also do what your Shadow says. Go get your love.” Pete Pitchaya smiled. “It doesn’t mean that you’ll suddenly change into something you’re not or like things you’ve never been interested in. It means you love yourself and you love someone. That’s all.”
At that Tutor’s Shadow seemed to snap out of it, limbs returning to motion, ready to confront Tutor. Tutor charged forward as well and waited for the last second to bat his Shadow’s dagger out of its hand before tossing his own weapons to the sides and hugging it. The Shadow struggled in his arms but Tutor held firm.
“Okay,” Tutor said softly. “I’ll try it.” Tutor’s Shadow seemed to growl in his ear, but Tutor pressed on. “I… I want this. I want to love…” A tear slipped down Tutor’s cheek. “I want Fighter,” Tutor whispered. “So I’ll try it.”
Tutor’s Shadow seemed to hug back before it glowed and disappeared. The glow returned around Tutor and Tutor inhaled sharply. Strength returned to his arms and legs and Tutor retrieved his sword while Pete Pitchaya handed him his shield. The twins then turned to Yo’s struggle. They needn’t have bothered. Yo came in whistling from the side, tossing his knife up and down.
“What? Like taming your inner demons is hard or something?”
“Why!” Can’s Shadow cried out between thrusts of its dagger. “Why must I be the one to bear this burden!?” Can listlessly parried and dodged the blows and Zon could only helplessly look over at him while avoiding his own Shadow’s attacks. “Why doesn’t he understand how much pressure it is?!”
“Can! You have to fight back!” Zon yelled before rolling away from his Shadow.
“Do you have time to worry about someone else?” Zon’s Shadow lunged at him. “All that anxiety we carry… Do you have time to be anxious over someone else? Do you dare to carry that burden along with others?! Do you have time...” Zon’s Shadow leered and licked its lips. “When you know the story you believe is fake?” Zon froze which was enough of a chance for his Shadow to smash into him with one of the many books circling it like planets around a star.
“It hurts,” Can’s Shadow moaned. “It hurts how Tin relies on us so much to drag him out into the light. How we have to be so trustworthy all the time. How could he do this to me…”
Can’s grip loosened just a bit and his dagger was knocked away with the next swing.
“Can!” Zon moved to help him but had to jump to the other side to avoid being hit by another book.
“Tin does rely on me,” Can said softly, lowering his arms. His shadow lunged and Can’s hands snapped out, grabbing its wrist with one hand and the shoulder with the other. “But right now, it’s all about me!” Can ducked under the arm he’d caught, twisting it behind his Shadow’s back before kicking out its knee. “And I won’t let myself down either!
“Tin has his problems. Everyone does. And…” Can tightened his grip on his Shadow’s arm. “It’s hard. It’s hard to deal with them. It’s hard to want to be both bound and free. You really are me,” Can said as his hands shook. “I resent him. But… I know it’s hard for him too.” The Shadow stopped growling and turned to look at Can over its shoulder. “It’s hard for him to deal with his bullshit. And… He asks for so much but so little…” Can let go of his Shadow’s arm. “We have a lot, you know? We’re rich in the way he's not. We shouldn’t be so miserly.” Can offered his Shadow a hand. “We should love him. And be loved in return, right?”
As Can’s shadow took his hand, Zon’s Shadow had cornered Zon. The books revolving around his Shadow all opened to a page, differently colored energies swirling around each.
“One thousand lives, one thousand worlds, one thousand words. And in each of them, your story-”
“Is yours!” Can shouted as he threw his reclaimed dagger. It landed with a thunk into a book, knocking it out of position. The glow around Can grew stronger as he rushed forward. “Zon, don’t overthink it!”
Zon found the energy to make a face as he shoved himself up and out of the way. “That’s really rich coming from you, Can!”
Can moved from a run into a flying side kick into the face of Zon’s Shadow. Zon winced as he watched. “I overthink a lot of things, but I’ve never once doubted if my life is my own.” Can combat rolled after his kick and came back up in a fighting stance. “Who cares what the Fates said? Who cares what discarded yarns you found?”
Zon froze. “Who told you-”
“Natee has a really big mouth, you know that,” Can said in between exchanging hand-to-hand blows with Zon’s Shadow.
“I can’t believe he told you about that quest. I paid him to shut up!”
“The point, Zon!” Can’s hands were getting faster, but it was clear that his movements were getting sloppy.
“Okay, fine! I’m terrified that this is just another yarn that will get discarded by the Fates!” Zon shouted. “I’m terrified that everything I know could just one day be discarded and over-written!” Zon’s Shadow froze in place. “And the more I think about it, the more terrified I get. What about all the other things that could have been?
“What about all the things I want? Are they going to end up in the cutting room floor of the Fates? How much of this is their will and how much of this is me?”
“There’s no need to think that much. Even I could tell you that,” Can said as he disengaged from Zon’s Shadow. “One day at a time. That’s all we demigods have got, anyway.”
Zon scrubbed at his hair before sighing. “You make it sound so simple.”
“Sometimes it is that simple!”
“And sometimes you’re that simple.”
Zon slowly walked up to his Shadow. “One thousand worlds. One thousand lives. You’re right. I’m terrified. ” He put his hand on his Shadow’s shoulder. “I don’t think… I’ll ever be less terrified.” Zon sighed. “So let’s try it. One day at a time.”
Just as Zon’s Shadow had disappeared and the glow around Zon’s body had begun to fade, Ae ran into the entryway of the temple with Pharm not far behind him. “Oh good, you guys are done.” Can and Zon shared a look before looking at Ae who seemed completely unruffled from his fight. Pharm was pouting, but not too much worse for wear. “Come on. Let’s go help the Hephaestus boys. Team says Arthit’s shadow is piloting a giant mech suit and it’s giving everyone else trouble.”
“WHAT?!” Can’s jaw dropped. “THAT’S SO FUCKING COOL!”
In separate wings of the temple of Athena, as Kongpob fended off his Shadow with relative ease, Kao found himself struggling on a different level.
“Holding back… How foolish!” Kao’s Shadow said. “Yes… This is torture!” Kao kept silent as he endured the flurry of blows that followed. “Why not cut loose! After all, we know his history don’t we? We know it so intimately now…”
“Please…” Kao said as he stood at the ready again. “Please stop…”
“We know how easily Pete gets tired… We’ve seen all his conquests at camp.”
“No…” Kao stumbled back. “They weren’t-”
“Mint? Apple? Fongbeer?”
“Even you know… How quickly those came and went… Months? Weeks? Days? Ha! His relationship with Berry lasted two hours!” Kao stumbled over his own feet and fell as his Shadow pressed on and loomed over him. The scrape of the Shadow’s sword against the floor grated on Kao’s already frayed nerves. “That’s right. We’ve only lasted this long because we deny him. And we deny ourselves. But what’s the point? Relationships with him are so fleeting! Let’s just enjoy it! Take what we want! And we want it, don’t we?”
“I don’t! That’s why I-”
“We crave it.” The tip of the sword pressed delicately under Kao’s chin. “We want it like air when we’re with him under water. We want it like water after a run.” The smile on the Shadow’s face turned cruel. “And if you won’t indulge, I’ll just have to take your place and do it for both of us!”
The press of the tip of the sword turned firm. Kao found his mouth moving before he knew it. “...Fine.” Kao looked up at his Shadow with clear eyes. “Fine. I admit it.” Kao moved to stand and his Shadow only moved with him instead of running him through with the sword. “I want him. I want more. But… Only after listening to you do I realize how stupid I sound.
“How much sex we have isn’t going to change anything.” Kao took a step and his Shadow stepped back. “Pete didn’t even have sex with Berry. He barely dated Fongbeer for a few days and they didn’t have sex then either.” Another step. “Pete is not very bright. He’s my own Seaweed Brain, dumb enough to make Percy and Annabeth proud.” A third step. “So I also know. That if he was going to be bored of me, he’d have been bored already. We’ve been together for years now.” A fourth step. “And… He still looks at me the same.” A fifth. “So I will let myself go.” A sixth. “I will indulge.” A seventh. “And I…” An eighth. “I’m going to trust in Pete. I’m going to trust in us.” Kao finally smacked his Shadow’s sword away and pointed his own with the ninth step. “And I’m going to make it work.”
With a smile and a nod, Kao’s Shadow dispersed and Kao fell to his knees before gasping for air.
“Woah, are you okay?” Kongpob ran over to help Kao stand up again.
“I’ll be fine. That was just…”
“Putting it lightly,” Kao muttered as he stood. “Any news about everyone else?”
“Uh… Team?” Kongpob said aloud.
“What’s up?” Team’s voice sounded rather laid back in their minds, but with the wrong side of cheerful.
“What’s the status of everyone else,” Kao asked.
“You guys are the last ones to finish up. The Poseidon boys just wrapped up and Pharm came back and gave me more snacks.”
“Is that why you sound like you’re in a good mood despite the potential destruction and chaos,” Kongpob asked with a frown on his face.
“Hey! I’m recharging! Recharging!” Kao and Kongpob could almost see Team’s pout in their minds. “I had to imagine a giant Gundam for Arthit, you know!”
“Wait.. really?” Kongpob nearly dropped his sword. “You imagined… a Gundam. For Arthit?”
“Yeah… And Saifah asked me to imagine him an electric guitar. Pha needed a ballista. Ming wanted a battering ram… Oh, and Dean needed a Nissan Almeira.”
“Don’t tell me anymore,” Kongpob insisted. “We’re heading back.”
“Oh! The best part was that Pharm asked me to make him-”
“Please stop and focus on keeping the archetypes of the most powerful Titans a demigod has ever faced from waking up and emerging in the Collective Unconscious.”
The second Kongpob had finished his thought, the ground trembled, more powerfully than last time.
“Are we too late?” Kao asked as he ran out of the temple with barely renewed strength.
“Head straight for the valley between the mountains,” Team instructed in their minds. “They’re not fully awake yet! We still have a chance before then! I’m sending something to speed you guys up!”
Kao and Kongpob emerged into the courtyard of temples to see several race cars and motorcycles zooming off into the distance. Can’s whoops of joy were the most obvious. Looking down the stairs to the temple of Athena, Kongpob raised an eyebrow at the twin Razor scooters waiting for Kongpob and Kao.
“You cannot be serious,” Kongpob thought at Team.
Kongpob blinked and a sleek red racecar was waiting for them instead. “Much better.”
While the valley between Othyrs and Olympus was large and open, the light that pierced the sky came from within a circle of elegant and fantastic classical archways. The further in the group drove, the less refined and ornate the archways became, but the brighter the light. The last circle between them and the light were made of only just cut stone stacked on top of more stone. It was there that the group stopped to collect themselves.
Zon and Can ran off to scout the perimeter of the stone circle. Team rested against a pillar, trying to regain his strength after making so many vehicles. Pha, Kit, Beam, Saifah, and Kongpob regrouped and redistributed their remaining arrows, unwilling to ask Team to make more. Tutor drew out a rough map to begin planning a strategy once Zon and Can returned. Fighter murmured suggestions in his ear, arm around Tutor’s shoulders. It was telling that he hadn’t been shoved off already.
Win came up and sat down next to Team. Despite the smell of saltwater hanging over him since he’d returned from the temple of Poseidon, Team leaned into Win’s body, hands curling into fists in Win’s shirt. Win put his arm around Team without thinking.
“Hey… You’ve done well to get this far.” Win rubbed Team’s back. “I know it’s been hard. We finish this, we go home, and… I’ll buy you a bunch of chips and stay up with you for a week until you are remotely interested in sleeping again.” Team laughed, but it was strained. “Or being near large bodies of water.”
“I’ll be fine,” Team said as he tucked his face into the curve of Win’s neck. “I promise. Just give me another minute to-”
“No one is going to judge you for needing time.” Team tightened his grip and Win continued stroking his back. “No one is going to say anything.”
“You can’t know that, hia.”
“But I know us. I know our friends.” Win scratched at Team’s scalp before kissing his forehead. “Trust in them. Trust in me.”
“We’re back!” Can announced as Team nodded into Win’s body. “No sign of any Shadows!”
“Please don’t say it’s not a fitting final boss fight,” Zon said as he caught up. “We really don’t need a massive rush right before the fight.” Zon pointed at a few spots on the map Tutor had drawn. “If the archers are at these points, they’d be able to cover most of the field and still be within range. Anyone who’s going to be in the melee needs to be careful. It’s like a crater in there. The sides are steep. You could get out, but I wouldn’t want to do it in a rush for a retreat.”
“Do we even need to bother?” Forth asked. “Just make Pete and Yo Charmspeak them back to sleep.”
“Charmspeak sleep will only last so long. Even Piper McLean only did it to Gaea so that they could blow her up,” Yo pointed out. “I would say, if you wanted to ask Pete and I to do that, it should be just to buy you guys time to get out.”
“Yo is right,” Team said as he got to his feet with Win’s help. “Disperse them again here. That will definitely make sure neither of them comes back again any time soon. Here or in the real world.” Team put his hand out and twenty-one hands were immediately piled on top of it. “Gentlemen, it’s been an honor and a trip.”
“Get sentimental when we get back to camp,” Arthit said before everyone cheered and began to move into position.
The group of twenty-two demigods spread themselves out and slowly began to advance on the glowing bodies in the bottom of the clearing. Team noted the prone bodies laying there, but the light was so bright, it was impossible to tell which was which.
“Thirty meters,” Team projected into everyone’s heads before a twinkle of a light in the sky caught his eye. “Wait!” A shooting star flew across the sky before it seemed to grow bigger and bigger. “Something else is coming! Stay behind cover!”
The star fell, but instead of crashing to the ground, it seemed to sprout a large body, dressed in robes of all colors of the blue sky. Team’s complexion paled.
“It… There’s a third Titan!”
“What?! What’s the status of Gaea and Kronos then?” Tutor hissed.
“They’re still close to waking,” Team replied. “But… This… Could it be… Ouranos?” The third Titan opened cupped hands and smokey essence escaped and seeped into Gaea and Kronos’s bodies. “It is! He’s been collecting their essences and trying to speed up their awakening!”
“Ouranos… He’s been dead for so long, it is possible that he recollected here,” Kao said. “So… Maybe we just need to get rid of him. If Gaea and Kronos aren’t ready to wake up yet, who knows how much longer it will take if we stop Ouranos from continuing to collect their essences in the Collective Unconscious?”
“The Titans were killed by working together with the gods. Fine, maybe we could kill an incomplete Gaea or Kronos, but do we need a god to help us kill Ouranos?” Saifah asked.
Team bit his lip and noticed a burst of color out of the corner of his eye. A brilliantly red poppy had bloomed next to him. Team smiled. “Don’t worry. We’ve got a god here that’s paying attention.” Team picked the flower and looked back over to Ouranos. “Go!”
As Tutor burst out of cover to lead the charge with Fighter right behind him, Ae stepped out and pointed his spear into the sky. A bolt of lightning descended and arched off his spear tip and right into Ouranos’s chest. Ouranos staggered back a step only to find more than a dozen demigods advancing on him.
“How dare you?!” Ouranos’s voice boomed around them. “Do not interfere!”
Saifah and the Wild Doctors rained down arrows which Ouranos swatted away without blinking before drawing out a sickle and parrying Tutor’s first swing. As Tutor’s blade rebounded off, Fighter circled around to the other side to stab at Ouranos’s side. Ouranos turned to face him only to get Arthit’s spear into his back for his troubles followed by Ae’s in his front. However, Ouranos remained unbothered and the two were swung around as they held on while Ouranos turned to continue blocking sword swings from Ming and Forth.
“Pete, Yo, start now!” Team ordered as he slowly made his way closer, the poppy clutched in his hands.
Pete Pitchaya and Yo joined hands before singing. Ouranos’s movements began to slow, but his blows were as powerful as ever. Dean and Win were now on the front line as Zon and Can ran circles around Ouranos, slashing at his legs. Kongpob and Kao had been tossed to the side while Pharm watched over them as they regained their bearings. Ae and Arthit had been forced to abandon their spears and were waiting for a clear moment to get back into combat. Tin thrust his sword into a spot Pete Phubodin pointed at, creating a fissure that burst with water that Pete Phubodin used to blast Ouranos off kilter once more. Tutor took the opportunity and slashed at Ouranos’s hamstring.
But instead of ichor, black ooze dripped from Ouranos’s wound. The ooze coalesced and suddenly a mask came up to the surface.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Beam muttered as he moved to start firing arrows at the blobs developing on the ground as Ouranos stomped around. “He’s making Shadows?!”
“I don’t think he’s doing it on purpose!” Kit shouted as he also fired as fast as possible to clear out the Shadows before they could interfere in the melee.
“Could he have made himself out of Shadows?” Pha asked Team. “It might explain how he was able to develop his body so much here!”
“If he did,” Team said as he circled closer, “Then that makes everything easier. Your attacks are working! Keep up the pace!”
The wounds on Ouranos began to pile up. More Shadows emerged from his body. Larger and more powerful. Pharm had moved on to join Pete and Yo by using abilities their Personas whispered to use. Fire, lighting, and gales of wind battered Shadows about under their efforts. Tin and Can joined forces to fight the ones that didn’t fall to elemental attacks, instead calling down pillars of darkness and light in between slashes and cuts, turning their enemies to dust.
It was Win that took the most dangerous chance and swung for Ouranos’s head, sword swing enhanced by the power he had unlocked as well. But when his sword was about to strike, Ouranos roared and everyone was blown back.
“Do not underestimate me!” What felt like the weight of the sky fell upon everyone, pressing them into the ground in an instant.
Team strained himself to lift up the poppy. “Father…. Grant us your blessing…”
A beat of silence. Ouranos lifted his sickle and turned to Win. “Your blood will feed my traitorous wife and son. And I will have a new chance to educate them in following me properly.”
A loud crack resounded in the crater before hundreds upon thousands of poppies sprouted, swallowing the sleeping bodies of Gaea and Kronos and restraining Ouranos.
“What?! A god?! Here?!” Ournaos struggled against the flowers and the weight of the sky lifted.
“Everyone! Hold hands!” Team yelled.
In a massive circle surrounding the bound Ouranos and still sleeping Gaea and Kronos, the gang of demigods quickly gathered and Team pulled on their collective strength. Indigo clouds parted in a swirl and a giant pillar of energy descended into the crater, enveloping the Titans and Shadows alike.
Over the roar of the explosion, the screams of Ouranos could hardly be heard.
When the smoke cleared, the crater was empty but for a pile of red poppy flowers. Team wobbled in place and Win moved to support him. Team passed out to the sounds of cheering and the sight of Win’s mouth moving, but Team couldn’t make out what he was saying.
Team awoke to the gentle murmur of voices all around him, feeling stiff linens under him and the slightly humid and sticky air of camp around him.
“Welcome back,” Win said as he helped Team sit up. Team looked around to see everyone around him. “We took over the infirmary for a few days while you were out. Having the head medics under our thumb helped.”
“Poseidon cabin owes Apollo cabin and we’re taking payment in the form of an alliance for Capture the Flag,” Kit announced.
“Which means Ae and Tin have to continue to be on the same side. Again,” Ming said with a grimace.
To their credit, Ae and Tin pointedly did not look at each other and nodded at Team instead.
“We did it? We stopped Ouranos?” Team asked.
“We did,” Win said as he pat Team’s head. “You worked very hard. Chiron says the gods are impressed. And confused.”
“Well, can’t expect everything,” Team mumbled before Win put a bag of chips into his hands.
“And Hypnos… has put up a boundary. None of his children will be able to delve into the Collective Unconscious again.”
“Hah?!” Team sat up properly instead of leaning against Win. “He did?!”
“I thought you’d have been happy about that,” Pete Pitchaya said. “Especially after all the trouble that happened.”
“Well…” Team bit down on a chip with vigor. “It was nice… To feel so powerful for once.”
“You are powerful,” Yo said with a smile as he pat Team’s shoulder. “You’ve carried a lot of burdens on your own.” He produced another bag of chips and placed it in Team’s lap. “So I hope you’ll come rely on us, all of us, a bit more from now on.”
Team looked up from the bag of chips Yo and given him to see everyone else thrusting a bag at him. Win smiled and nodded.
“Just this once since you’re recovering,” Win said. “And then… We work our way back to swimming.”
Team took Win’s hand. Win pretended to make a face because of the oil from the chips on Team’s fingers. “If hia is there, I think I’ll be okay. Hia won’t let me drown.”
“Yeah… I won’t.”