Fate doesn't work that way

It started with three drunk gods, and one drowning mortal. It snowballed into a quest for destiny with bound gods, sky prisons, mazes of death, and far too many disasters.

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22. A Heart of Stone

Kanat had to admit he was relieved to be back with the girl again. The time spent in Tith’s dungeon had given him way too much time to think. And with time to think came time to worry about the girl. He had spent hours in a smoky form, panicking, wondering in the girl was dying or not. When the pain had flared in him like an explosion, he had felt nothing but terror. And here she was alive!

“So Tith’s death maze, huh?” he grinned. “I love this place!”

“You kidding?” The girl demanded, ducking low under an axe that had swung out of the wall above her head. She yanked him to the left, practically dislocating his arm to avoid a bladed wall that slammed into the opposite side with enough force to shake the ground.

“Yeah!” Kanat grinned. “It’s unpredictable. It makes life exciting!”

“Near death experiences have a way of doing that!” she hissed as she leapt over a pit. He could tell she was starting to breathe hard. He was too, but one of them had to stay calm. He may not have been a god anymore, but this was still more familiar to him.

“There’s a simple methodology to this place,” he continued, pulling her out of the way of a column of fire. “All the normal tricks don’t work. Always turn right? Nope. You try and reverse it? Also nope. You just turn when you turn.”

“Is there a trick to it?”

“Yep! No matter how unpredictable it is, we have to be even more so. The maze is trying to herd us towards the heart. We can’t let it do that.”

“What’s at the heart?”

“Usually that’s where people die,” he shrugged. “The only way to escape is to navigate around the heart, which is really hard to do. But hey, a couple legendary heroes have done it.”

“In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not a legend.”

“Not yet, but we’re working on it. Duck.”

They both dropped low to avoid a cloud of poisonous gas hovering above their heads.

Despite his cheerful reassurances, Kanat found his heart racing. In this mortal body, any of these things could kill him. He could die any second, and that was frightening. He just had to focus. The girl was good at reacting quickly, and thinking fast. That was good. Maybe, just maybe, they’d do all right.

They kept running, their feet beating a drum rhythm against the stone ground. There was a fork ahead. Kanat did his best to clear his mind, to not think about which way to choose. Abruptly, fire flared up in the right passageway. That girl really needs to learn to control her thoughts in a god’s realm

“Cover your face!” he warned.

What?” She at least took the initiative and threw her arms in front of her face. He grabbed her, and jerked her to the right. Ducking his head down, they leapt through the fire.

The girl screamed as her jacket caught fire. She hit the ground, and rolled, frantically putting out the fire. Kanat was unharmed.

“You alright?” he asked, helping her up.

Don’t. Ever. Do. That. Again!” she snapped.

“Trying to help. I’ve been here before.”

“Just…” she sighed. “Okay, fine. Just warn me first!”

“You got it, boss.”

He studied the passageway. It was relatively normal, as far as death traps go. He looked around, evaluating the area. Then, above, he heard Jinea shriek.

“Lir, get moving! He’s trapped Nith, his focus is going to be on you now!”

Lir? That’s her name? Not a bad name, for a mortal.

“I’ve got Kanat!” she called back.

“Great! Now move!”

Lir grabbed Kanat’s hand again, and yanked him forwards. He could see the panic in her eyes, feet it in her rapid heartbeat. She was absolutely terrified. And honestly, he couldn’t blame her. They were trapped in a death maze, running for their lives. Eventually they’d either give out and collapse, get trapped in the heart, or find the exit. He was hoping against hope for a stroke of good fortune. He did not want to find out what eternal torture felt like. Besides, he had grown fond of the girl. There was certain amount of… charm to her, even when she was being irritating. At least her brain hadn’t exploded from all this new input. He had to give her credit for her toughness. Who knew mortals were so resilient? Tith would be furious that she wasn’t dead yet.

“What was that for?” she demanded as they kept running.

    “You’re still mad about the fire?” Kanat raised his eyebrows. “You’re fine. I was feeling a little too herded, so I took an unexpected turn.”

    “I’m not fireproof!” she protested.

    “You’re forgetting that I’m not either,” he pointed out. “Not a god currently, remember? I can die too. And if you die, I get to suffer forever. So really, everything I’m doing is to keep you alive in the long run.”

    She nodded, breathing hard. He couldn’t help but admire her courage. What a girl! She was incredible at holding herself together. She could take near death experiences, gods, monsters, and make it part of her life. He wished he’d met her sooner…

    Not now, Kanat, he reminded himself. Not a good time or place. You want to get back to being a god, you’ve got to stop crushing on her, and fast. They’ll punish you more if they think you’re having an affair with her.

    He turned back to her, and saw a single tear slip its way out of her left eye, running lightly down her cheek. He reached out and, almost subconsciously, brushed it away.

    “How do we beat this?” she whispered. “It’s impossible. We’re going to die.”

    So many she wasn’t as together as he’d thought.

    “Nah, we’re doing alright. You just have to blank your mind. Always run forwards. I’ll pull you out of the way of any traps. You can’t think. This place will use your thoughts against you.”

    “Okay…” she started humming.

    “What are you doing?”

    “Blanking my mind. Let’s go.”

    Kanat was tempted to ask what a random song was going to do to help her, but they needed to get moving. Now wasn’t the time for asking stupid questions. After all, he had a girl to protect. And if Tith had pinpointed Nith…

    I’m sorry, Nith… she was going to kill him for this. She always got pulled into his conflicts… At least Jinea did so by choice. Nith just ended up getting stuck in trouble whether she liked it or not.

    The girl must have been doing a better job of blanking her mind. The traps were slower. More uncertain. He pulled her left, then right, then right again. Three lefts. Another right. They were both tired. Kanat stumbled numbly forwards, following no specific path. They were nearly killed countless times. The jolt of terror that accompanied a new trap was fading, replaced by numb determination. His heart pounded in his ears. He couldn’t keep going like this. He’d die.

    He nearly didn’t hear the girl’s voice until it was too late. “Demon! DEMON!

    He blinked, numbly keeping running.

    STOP!

    Her order caught him mid step, and he froze. She jerked him backwards, and he blinked, finally registering where they were.

    Stretching ahead of him was a massive field of colored tiles. Counting, he saw at least ten different colors.

    “This ought to be good…” he muttered.

    “Come on, we can backtrack-” the girl began. Even as the words left her mouth, walls slammed shut around every exit. Her eyes widened, and her grip tightened on her arm. “Demon! What do we do?”

    “Don’t bother,” he found himself saying. “Welcome to the heart of Tith’s death maze.”

    Her eyes widened. “I thought we were doing well!”

    “I’m an idiot,” Kanat cursed. “I thought I was following my instincts… Tith must have put a pull on us.”

    “A what?”

    “It feels like your instincts, nagging you and directing you towards the right place. Gods use it to get their favorite heroes to the right spot. Tith uses it to guide mortals to the heart of his death maze. I’m such an idiot! I forgot I was susceptible as a mortal!”

    “Kind of a big mistake to make!” she pointed out.

    “I know. I’m… I’m sorry,” he found himself saying. “I should have done something. It’s my fault we’re here.”

    A flash of white drew his eyes to the sky. He looked up, and saw a black and white bird circling overhead. It looked… familiar. Was that a mockingbird? Those were Jinea’s sacred birds, right? Was that Jinea?

    “Kanat!” the bird called.

    Definitely Jinea.

    “Morning beautiful!” he called to her, trying to keep his tone light for the girl’s sake. Lir. I really need to start calling her that. “Lovely day to be dying in a death maze!”

    “Don’t ‘beautiful’ me, Kanat!” she yelled back. “Focus on keeping yourself and Lir alive!”

She sounds so much like Nith when she yells at me he thought with a smile. “On it!”

He turned to look at the heart again. He wasn’t sure what the tiles meant, but whatever it was, it would be nothing good. Tith wanted them dead, after all.

The air around them suddenly got very quiet. Kanat looked up, to see a luminescent bubble covering the top of the heart. In seconds, it hardened into a stonelike material. The area around him got darker, but light still filtered in from above. He could no longer hear Jinea. He could no longer hear the explosions of traps off in the distance. He was alone with the girl. And honestly, he wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

“Well, if there’s any time Tith’s going to make his move, it’ll be now,” Kanat said, lowering his voice to a whisper. He wasn’t sure why, but the silence seemed to call for it. “Stay close.”

“Okay,” she whispered back.

“You still have your knife?”

Her face paled visibly. “I dropped it when I fell off Nith. It’s probably back at the temple.”

Kanat sighed. “Are you trying to make my life difficult, girl?” He smiled. “No, don’t answer that, it’s not that big of a deal. Just as long as we keep together, we should be fine.”

“Do you have a weapon?”

“No, but that’s not important. If we survive, he’ll drop the maze, and we can get Nith out of here. She’s going to be really irritated.”

If you survive?”

Kanat spun, instinctively shoving the girl behind him. She muttered a few words that it would be best not to repeat, but he ignored her, staring Tith in the eyes.

He was in human form again. For all his scorn towards humans, he seemed to like staying in their form. The only hints of his divine state were his eyes, which glowed dangerously. Kanat felt his very soul shrinking away from his terrible state, but he ignored it. He had to stare Tith down. He hadn’t fallen that far yet.

“Well well well,” Tith crossed his arms, smirking. “Looks like Kanat’s finally lost all his optimism. What happened to your overconfidence? Is the truth finally beginning to settle in? It must sting you terribly.”

“Eh, it’s not so bad,” Kanat shrugged. “So we found your heart. Go us?”

“You were led here,” Tith corrected. “Pulled along like a couple pathetic puppets on strings.”

“Yeah, well we made it, so if you’d just drop the maze now-”

“And risk freeing our dear Nith? I think not. It’s best that she’s where she is right now.”

What did you do to Nith,” Kanat growled. “Where is she.”

“You have your own problems,” Tith replied, smiling darkly. “As you know, it’s customary for those who reach the middle to pass a final trial. For the girl, of course, her adversary is already picked out.” He flicked his hand, and abruptly the girl vanished from his side.

“Girl?!” He panicked, turning. She had just… vanished. Was she invisible? Had Tith transported her away? There was no burn in his chest. So was she close?

“Don’t bother,” Tith replied smugly. Kanat spun. When had Tith gotten behind him? “She’s gone. But don’t worry, she’s close enough that you won’t be doing any transforming into smoke anytime soon.”

“We’re together,” Kanat said stiffly. “I should be helping her.”

“She was the one who accepted the challenge, not you,” Tith replied. “You’re simply an extra who found his way here. Therefore you’ll be dealt with like an extra.” He gestured at the field of tiles. “This is for you.”

“Uh huh,” Kanat nodded, doing his best to look unimpressed. “A bunch of pretty tiles. Really, I appreciate the art, but some of the colors clash-”

“It’s an obstacle course,” Tith interrupted. “Simply in two dimensions. All you have to do is make it across.”

“That doesn’t sound too hard. What’s the catch?”

“I was hoping you’d say that. Certain tiles have certain effects. And, of course, should you stand on a single tile for too long, it will incinerate you.”

“Okay, that’s ridiculous,” Kanat rolled his eyes. “I’m not doing some weird obstacle course just to amuse you. This is just so you can laugh at me, isn’t it?” Tith only smirked. “Bastard,” Kanat added under his breath.

“You won’t have a choice,” Tith replied. He began to glow, and Kanat looked away as Tith transformed, shielding his face with his arms. Seconds later, he felt hard talons close around his wrists and yank him into the air.

He opened his eyes, and found himself in the grip of a giant raven. It really hurt, and he wasn’t sure if his arms would stand the strain. Of course, Tith wouldn’t care. He’d want Kanat to run this stupid little course either way, like a rat in a maze. Honestly, since when had his life become some massive reality show?!

Tith dropped him abruptly, and he fell, landing face down on a wide circle of clear tiles. He rolled over, looking up at the raven reproachfully.

Ow.”

“You’d best hurry. In a few moments, those tiles will be heating up.” Tith vanished, leaving Kanat alone with the maze. He knew he was being watched, and he couldn’t decide if it was worse to see Tith, or be given the illusion of being alone.

He groaned. His arms hurt. His legs were sore and exhausted. He was also sick and tired of being played with. So far, pretty much everyone he’d met had used him like a piece in some extravagant game that everybody knew about but him. And now here he was, lying on the ground in Tith’s death maze, about to run a two dimensional obstacle course. And for what? Tith’s entertainment? What was the point?

He felt the tiles beneath him begin to heat up. He jerked to his feet, jumping away as they burst with a bright white light.

    Okay then…

    He took a step back, towards the edge of the clear circle. Each tile he stepped on began to glow.

    Seriously? Frustration burned inside of him. What was Tith’s game? Did he want Kanat dead or not? This seemed more like playing with him, less like an actual challenge.

    All he cares about is the girl. Kanat reasoned. If she lives, chances are I’ll live too.

    He took another step back. He was now directly at the edge of circle. All around him were different colored tiles.

    Okay, here we go… he took a deep breath. Let’s see what these colors do.

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