Midsummer, 1103; Black Forest, Germany
This happened every year.
Zoë shifted, finding a more comfortable position propped up against her pile of cushions. Every year, the field reports from satyrs and Chiron's heroes would be neglected over the busy summer season, when monsters were plentiful and strong and they more than had their hands full already. Every year, the y would be all but forgotten once the wild song of the autumn rut began and no Hunter in the world could bear to sit still and fiddle with papers even if they'd had the time. Every year, she and Artemis would start out in late April perfectly on top of every single report and in a few months' time would have allowed themselves to lag, indulg ing in the warmth and confidence of summer—because, after all, it was so long until winter, when the nastiest of monsters began to stir, the others grew hungry and desperate, and the true Hunt began.
And every year, without fail, they would find themselves all but buried in months-old reports come late autumn, scrambling to organize and catalog them and going entire nights without sleep in a desperate attempt to prepare their schedule for the long winter. And of course, every year once they had finally managed to trawl through every last one of the hundreds of documents—some of them duplicates or updates on previous reports—they would collapse in exhaustion and swear they would never let themselves get so far behind again.
Every single year, for over a thousand years.
Not this time, however. This year she was determined to break the cycle. Zoë glanced down the half-legible scrawl of Latin; clearly a half-blood's work, she thought, as satyrs and nature spirits were raised knowing their own ancestral languages. She didn't envy Chiron having to teach his lowborn pupils to read and write in addition to imparting basic combat training. Most half-bloods were distinctly less interested in penmanship than swordplay.
Still, at least this one formed their letters reasonably well. She was fairly certain it was an update on a dragon nest that had been causing consternation among the mortals recently. Setting the report onto the slowly-growing 'finished' pile, she tapped her quill against the side of her inkwell and drew a single line through the heading of that particular subsection of her notes. CHB, she wrote in the margin. Diana (the Hunter, that is, not the goddess) would be disappointed that they hadn't gotten to fight the dragons themselves; but they had more than enough monsters to keep themselves entertained. Let the heroes blood their swords.
Yes, she thought determinedly. This year would be different. She was almost two-thirds of the way done with her half of this week's reports already. They were dull reading for the most part, but she kept reminding herself that a few hours of boredom now was better than three solid days of panic and stress later in the year.
If only it wasn't so difficult to focus. She had very pointedly positioned herself with her back to the open tent flap, tied back to allow the cool night air to circulate; but that didn't stop the intoxicating scent of pine and wilderness from swirling around her, whispering that it was Midsummer's Eve and the whole world was bursting with life and energy; that the beautiful weather wouldn't last forever, the moon was waxing, dew was forming on the grass and there were wolves on the mountain and stardust in her veins...
Realizing her eyes had been drifting closed in reverence, Zoë forced her attention back to the next report—a satyr's excited account of having seen a drakon in the woods, scribbled on a large and slightly singed leaf. Hopefully, that would make Diana feel better about missing the chance to fight a trio of dragons. Zoë leaned over to grab the red ink, shuffled her notes until she'd found their rudimentary map, and made a careful X at roughly the location the satyr had described. Only about forty-five more minutes' worth of tedious field reports left.
She sighed heavily.
Artemis chuckled, and Zoë lowered her knees so she could look at her goddess. “My lady?”
Artemis' lips twitched, and Zoë noticed with exasperation that her goddess had made no progress whatsoever on her own pile of field reports. “I've been watching you fidget for an hour,” Artemis said with a smile. “Restless, dear one?”
Zoë struggled with her tongue for several seconds, trying to find a way to refuse the invitation in Artemis' eyes without lying. Apparently her desperate desire to be somewhere in which piles of field reports didn't exist was plain on her face, because the goddess laughed again and set aside her own scroll of notes. Shifting over to her lieutenant's side of the tent, she nudged Zoe's 'finished' pile out of her way and stretched out next to her, curled against her side. “Have you found anything interesting?” she murmured, playing idly with Zoë's braid.
Zoë didn't turn her head, but managed to shoot her goddess an amused Look anyway. There was a very good reason they tended to fall so behind on their reports. The Goddess of the Hunt was profoundly patient but impossible to tame. She caught cabin fever like dogs catch fleas.
“A drakon two days north of here,” she responded evenly. “Hellhounds in the forests. Signs of a worrying number of dracanae to the east...” Zoë trailed off as she realized Artemis had stopped moving, and turned to face her against her better judgment. “...My lady?”
Oh, it had been a mistake to look. Artemis' body language was neutral, even calm. Her fingers were loosely wound in the tip of Zoë's braid, her head slightly cocked and her expression unreadable. Her free hand rested lightly on the bearskin beneath them. But her eyes were shining, white wine in sunlight, a challenge and an invitation; and they held Zoe pinned and breathless for long enough that the Hesperide lost track of her heartbeats.
“Come hunting with me,” Artemis said simply.
June 19th, 2005; Mount Olympus
“King me,” Becky said dully. Without opening her eyes, Diana placed one of her captured checkers on Becky's piece. Cynthia, who was leaning back against a worn armchair with Diana's head in her lap, sighed and ran her fingertips over her partner's hair.
“It's your turn,” she reminded her softly. Diana opened one eye and pushed at a checker.
It wasn't apathy or exhaustion. Tension filled the room as a physical presence, smothering and thick as they awaited Artemis' return. The smoke that tended to be a result of Ari being nervous and having no outlet for her energy didn't help matters, but they'd mostly aired out the room and Ari was sufficiently distracted by learning Cat's Cradle from Phoebe. Hunters did not respond well to cages; while they all understood Artemis' strict orders to remain within her main temple where they were safe from attack, understanding did not make the constant waiting more bearable.
They didn't have to be here; the Hunters at least had never been suspect in this, not even Ari. Unlike the minor deities, they were not under observation. They could have remained in the Sierras where they had been camped until a few days previous, waited there for news. But they had done what they could, scoured the country for the Master Bolt and come up empty-handed, and distance would not save them now. In two days, if the situation turned sour fast enough, Artemis might very well not be able to reach them with news until it was too late. They would remain with her, then. Until this was over.
Zoë had barely seen her goddess in the past six months; Artemis kept the Hunters away from Olympus for the most part, only bringing her lieutenant along during Council sessions because it was traditional each of the Twelve have a representative present in the city gathering. She had been too busy these last few months, trying in vain to help smooth ruffled feathers and avoid a war, to spent much time with her Hunters. Despite the fear permeating Olympus, the ominous thunder overhead and the heavy sense of dread hanging over them, Zoë was glad to be near her again. The goddess might still be unable to spend much time with the Hunters, but they were at least nearby if she needed them.
Tori shifted restlessly across the room, visibly fighting to stop herself from tapping her knee. “Do you have any sevens?” she asked distractedly.
Kim leaned over so Owen could see her cards. The wolf inspected them carefully, then whined and tapped her leg twice. Kim sighed. “Go fish. Alene, fives?”
Alene shook her head glumly.
There was a soft sound from Zoë's left as the door opened.
“I apologize for my lateness,” said Artemis. Closing the door quietly behind her, she acknowledged the Hunters' cries of welcome with a serene nod. “Hera is clamoring for a preemptive attack; I fear my support only makes her more determined to punish Poseidon, but I will not withdraw it. Luckily Athena remains firmly on the side of peace, and my father still respects her.”
The tension that had spiked when she entered the room began to fade back into muted anxiety. “Has there been any change, my lady?” Cynthia asked longingly. Diana squeezed her hand, sitting up to pay closer attention. Their expressions fell when Artemis shook her head. She smiled at Tori as she sat down on the corner portion of Zoë's couch, but there was something brittle about it.
Zoë cleared her throat. “Cynthia,” she said, quietly. “Sleep would do thee good.”
Cynthia took the hint gratefully. “I think all of us could use some sleep,” she said. “Nothing's going to change tonight. Come on, Alene. Ari?”
“One sec,” Ari muttered, attempting to wiggle her hands out of a tangle of faintly-glowing white yarn. “This shouldn't be harder than picking a lock. It's string.”
Zoë glanced at Becky, whose fingers had the same subtle glow as Ari's yarn. She decided not to say anything. It was good that they could still play. They were children, really.
Phoebe managed to smile. “Come on, squirt,” she said gently, hauling Ari to her feet.
As the door closed behind them, Artemis gave a tired sigh. “Thank you, Zoë.”
Zoë fought down an urge to hug her, but didn't try to stop herself reaching out and taking Artemis' hand. The goddess squeezed her fingers gratefully.
They sat that way for several minutes before Artemis took a deep breath and pulled a pair of wine glasses seemingly out of nowhere. “Nightcap?” she asked, and her smile was much more natural.
Zoë raised an eyebrow as Artemis drew a bottle of Olympian wine from her jacket, but was hardly going to protest.
“A gift from my half-brother,” she explained, and poured half a glass of water into one of the glasses.
Zoë's lips twitched. “I thought as much, my lady.” Artemis very rarely drank outside of Olympian feasts, her sole exception being a gift directly from Dionysus' hands; as they were almost never on close terms, such occasions were few and far between. It wasn't sentiment on Artemis' part. She simply didn't trust her family. As capricious and unreliable as Dionysus could be, however, he would die several times over before tampering with a good vintage.
Artemis looked pained at the honorific. “Not tonight, Zoë. Please.”
Zoë inclined her head. “Artemis.”
Artemis gave a weak smile and lifted her glass to her lieutenant, settling back against the cushions. Zoë took a careful sip of wine. The scent alone was heady enough to make her dizzy, even cut two parts to one with water; wine intended for gods was nothing to be played with. If she hadn't been born of immortals herself, a single drop in the glass would almost have been overpowering. As it was, she couldn't help coughing. Artemis made a valiant effort not to laugh as she handed her the water bottle, but Zoë waved it off. The second sip was easier; still, she set the glass on the floor for now, shifting to lean against Artemis' shoulder. For some time they sat together in silence, enjoying the peace.
Zoë spoke first, barely over a whisper. “Will it come to war, then?”
“Yes,” Artemis said simply. “The child, wherever he is, is innocent; of that much I am certain, and I think you agree. He cannot return what he does not possess; Poseidon is not a thief, and Hades seeks primarily to be left alone. If they cannot listen to reason, then yes, Zoë, I fear it will come to war again.”
Zoë was suddenly much more grateful for the alcohol. “We have survived before,” she said.
Artemis turned to her with a genuine, if exhausted, smile. “Yes,” she agreed. She brushed Zoë's braid off her neck and put an arm around her, fingers running lightly over her scalp in a gentle caress. “Yes, we have at that. Do you remember Troy?” She frowned. “Less than an ideal example, perhaps.”
A smile spread across Zoë's face. “I remember that I was proud to be at thy side at Troy,” she said. “As I am today.”
“Flatterer.” Artemis kissed her temple, just below the silver band. “At least Athena may side with us this time. If we'd had that at Troy we would have been unstoppable.”
“Speak for thyself,” Zoë said mildly over the rim of her glass. “I do not recall seeing thee ensuring the walls were never breached.”
Artemis shot her a dry look that held unspoken volumes about wooden horses. “You did wonderfully, my dear.”
“Yes,” Zoë agreed, and toasted her.
Finally, Artemis laughed. “Well, with both you and Athena on our side we can hardly lose. And when the dust settles will I be paramour to the queen of Olympus, then?”
“If I decide to keep thee,” Zoë informed her.
Zoë leaned into her, nuzzling gently against her goddess' neck. Artemis slipped her almost-untouched wineglass from her fingers, set it aside and shifted to a more comfortable position, with Zoë lying against her shoulder. Their free hands intertwined, and Zoë closed her eyes and tried to fight back tears.
August 2nd, 1990; Camp Half-Blood, Long Island, New York
I hate vacations.
Zoë Nightshade was not an unreasonable person.
This, of course, went rather contrary to popular belief, but it was no less true because of it. Imperfect, to be certain; prejudiced, to that she would admit. But never unreasonable. She asked very little of the world; a bow she could trust, something to track and the freedom to do so, and weather that was only intentionally malicious when it had good reason. Also difficult to convince others of was the idea that she was an inherently generous person. It was not in a Titan's nature to forgive easily; but while she was disposed to carry a grudge, she was slow to pick one up in the first place. It raised blood pressure, led to mistakes, and was generally more trouble than it was worth. There were very few things serious enough for her to hold a lasting resentment over them.
Threatening her Hunters was one of them.
"Zoë!" Cynthia hissed. Zoë had to search for a moment before she saw her; Cynthia was making her way between the trees by climbing across branches rather than risk leaving tracks. "They're using the pegasi—Hermes cabin is running an aerial search pattern, they'll have us soon enough.”
Zoë swore darkly under her breath. "Where are the others?"
A dark figure quite literally melted out of the trees to her left. Zoë very nearly stabbed it before she recognized Tori's dappled skin and leaf-green eyes. Not even the lieutenant of Artemis could blend into the forest like a dryad.
"Diana's squad was pinned down by a dragon along the river,” Tori reported calmly, as if she had not come within inches of being skewered. “But given it's Diana—"
"They have dragons in these woods!" Diana exclaimed right on cue, leaping out of the undergrowth and climbing up Cynthia's tree to perch next to her. "We haven't had a chance to hunt dragons in years, the lucky swine!"
"They have Myrmekes, too," Tori informed the group as a whole. "A full colony. The dryads don't go there. If we could push the half-bloods in that direction—"
The rest of the Hunters stampeded past them in a chaotic rush of silver and trampled undergrowth; Cynthia threw her hands in the air at the blatant disregard for secrecy of movement. The new recruit—a girl named Kim, if memory served, who was surprisingly pleasant given her parentage—skidded to a halt when she saw Zoë sitting in the trees. "Get out of here!" she called frantically. "Charlie's right on our tail!"
Zoë blinked. "Who?"
A shout from the forest answered her question.
"There they are!"
Charlie Hale, son of Dionysus, came charging towards them with the entire Ares cabin on his heels, brandishing assorted weapons and bellowing madly. Zoë swore again before joining Cynthia in a rain of every kind of specialty arrow their quivers would provide. She questioned the practicality of having arrows that played Yellow Submarine when fired, but as long as Apollo was also willing to include explosive, net-firing, and sulfur arrows in the monthly package, she was willing to tolerate them.
I hate vacations!
This was supposed to have been a simple, week-long assignment—a way for the Hunters to relax and keep themselves out of trouble while Artemis was on Olympus for the summer solstice. A recruiting opportunity, she'd told Zoë in an attempt to get her to agree. The Hunters' numbers were sorely depleted and it had been far too long since they had combed Camp Half-Blood for potential recruits.
In the end, of course, what had convinced Zoë was not the opportunity to swell the ranks but the fact that her goddess was practically radiating her desire to celebrate the solstice properly; she hadn't taken her rightful place in the celebrations for decades. This was, by the River Styx, meant to be a vacation.
Why must all their vacations end in guerilla warfare?
It wouldn't have been a problem, she thought bitterly, if Lord Dionysus had been able to keep his hands to himself. Lady Artemis had made the point very clear, many years ago, that her protection of her Hunters would be absolute even were they threatened by Zeus himself. Tori as well had made her opinion of the god's advances clear.
Dionysus' attempt on one of their own was as clear a challenge as any; and, as the ancient laws stated, they now had every right to respond at full strength. And they had certainly done so, Zoë thought with dark pleasure.The first wave of retaliation had gone perfectly. Dionysus had been forced to retreat to the Big House by the sheer fury of his attackers, and then to escape to Olympus or watch the walls torn to pieces around him.
In retrospect, it might have been better to let them land a blow or two on his physical person. Robbed of satisfaction for their ire, the enraged Hunters had effectively begun a full-scale riot. Someone—most likely Ari, transformed from charming imp to red-haired demon with fear and anger at how nearly she had lost her sister, or else Phoebe—had thrown a Molotov cocktail through the window of Cabin Twelve, and someone had thrown a spear back, and from there…
It had escalated, somewhat.
The children of Aphrodite, woken from their beauty sleep, had rushed outside in curlers and face masks—succeeding in frightening Zoë for the first time in their existence. They immediately determined that the Hunters were to blame, and began screaming insults to that effect. Which, naturally, could not have been further from the truth. This was clearly Dionysus' fault.
Diana's perfect, arcing shot through their open window had been intended as a warning. How were they to know that over the years so much hairspray, perfume and air freshener had built up in the wood grain that a single flaming arrow would be enough to transform the whole cabin into a fireball impressive enough to rate an 8.2 on the Ari Scale?
Well, all right. Admittedly Diana's casual “Oops” was not the best possible response to the situation. It was still a situation they would never have been in if Dionysus had the self-control of a dog with basic obedience training.
The Apollo Cabin, at first, had been on their side; at least Zoë assumed they had been trying to help when they ran over with swords and bows and started shouting. By that time unfortunately the rest of Camp had been woken, and when the Aphrodite children saw the Apollo clan descending on them they assumed they were under attack and responded accordingly. Then the Ares cabin had stepped in to save them, and in an attempt to rescue their newfound allies (she would claim) from certain doom, Diana had fired into the Cabin Five minefield and set that one on fire, too. And then things had become, as Phoebe called it, a shitstorm.
Zoë spared a moment while running for her life to wish the Apollo cabin luck. The last anyone had heard of them, they were being systematically hunted down by the offspring of Athena. Nobody, as far as she could tell, had any idea how it had happened.
"Ari!" she called, diving below the lip of a dry stream bed as an arrow whistled above her head. "If there are any explosives on thy person I do not know of..."
A thundering BOOM shook the earth.
Growling expletives under her breath that Artemis would most certainly not have approved of, Zoë wiggled flatter on her back and managed to pull off a blind shot over her head without sticking any body parts out of the trench. There was a scream of pain from somewhere around the Hunters' front line. Luckily it sounded male.
"Zoë," said Cynthia as she slid into the makeshift trench. She was clutching her arm, and winced as she let go and found the shallow cut was bleeding. "I don't mean to alarm you, but Ari just said she's out of pipe bombs."
"Yes, I heard. We may need to make a tactical retreat.”
Diana somersaulted into the ditch on Cynthia's far side. “Big House?” she panted.
“On my signal.”
There was a sigh.
"Do I want to know what's happening, Zoë?"
"Hello, Lady Artemis," she said calmly, taking the sudden appearance of her goddess in stride. "No, I highly doubt it. There is a girl with us who would like to speak with thee, however. She shows promise. Did you enjoy the solstice?"
"Yes,” said Artemis. “It was lovely. Are you aware that the camp is in flames?"
August 24th, 1967; Rulo, Nebraska
“...Could it have been a dragon?”
Cynthia sounded as unconvinced as Zoë felt. The blonde knelt next to one of the many scorch marks lining the bridge, running ash between her fingers. Zoë reached out and tapped the truss with her knuckles, ran her fingertips along the burn mark to feel for warping; there was nothing. The steel was dented in places, the asphalt torn and pitted by claws with what could only be tremendously unnatural strength; it was a neon sign advertising monster activity. But a dragon... She shook her head. “A dragon's breath would have melted the bridge,” she said. “This is barely scorched, not a monster's work. Nor Greek fire.”
Phoebe squatted next to Cynthia, examining the blast marks. “These look mortal,” she said. “Like fireworks or grenades or something. It looks like there was some sort of gang war. Maybe they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time?”
Diana shook her head. “No bodies.”
“Maybe it missed them,” Kim suggested, stroking Owen the Timber Wolf's ears. “They might not have seen it at all.”
Zoë looked over at Artemis, who seemed to be considering the possibility. After a moment, the goddess shook her head decisively. “No,” she said. “A powerful monster fought here recently, and the burn marks are fresh. It cannot be a coincidence.”
“It may be wounded, my lady,” Zoë offered. “A monster of this strength desperate enough to hunt mortals...”
Artemis met her eyes seriously. “Wounded or sick, yes,” she said. “But I do not believe any of this was coincidental. We have tracked this beast for three days, and the pace it has set suggests it has been running a scent for far longer. I fear it found its prey here; I cannot sense any further trail.”
Tori placed a comforting hand on Kim's shoulder. “It must have been a half-blood,” she said quietly. “Chiron would probably know about who they were.”
Diana shook her head slowly. “But there's no blood,” she said. “No dust either, so the monster has to still be alive; but no blood, no dropped weapons. This can't have ended here.”
Artemis looked troubled. “It concerns me that I cannot sense what happened,” she confessed. “Perhaps it would be wisest to camp here for the night. We may find further signs of the beast's fate, or the fate of its prey.”
The Hunters glanced at each other uneasily. Zoë didn't much like the idea of spending the night in the area, either, but as usual Artemis was right; they had very little choice.
“We will begin setting up camp immediately, my lady,” she said quietly. Artemis sighed and gripped her shoulder, giving it an encouraging squeeze.
“Courage, dear one,” she said, kissing Zoë's forehead. “We have solved worse mysteries.”
So they had; still, by the time night came in earnest they were no closer to solving this one. There was no monster scent anymore, no clear signs of a half-blood and no nymphs or satyrs in the area who could give them further information; Zoë wondered if they were simply absent, or if they'd fled when they sensed a powerful monster approaching. Artemis had spoken to the river god, but while he'd felt the presence of both a resident of Tartarus and a half-blood he explained regretfully that it had only been brief, and he hadn't thought much of it. For the moment, they were at a dead end. She let herself into Artemis' tent feeling frustrated and irritable.
Artemis looked up as she entered. “Zoë. The sentries are doubled?”
Zoë melted into a pile of cushions with a low huff of relief. “Yes, my lady. And we have called in the falcons.”
“Good.” Artemis sighed. “I do not like this, Zoë, I will be frank. The only guess I can make is that either Cerberus has escaped or we have discovered some new form of hellhound. Neither possibility rings true to me.”
“My guess is worth less than thine,” Zoë said, hiding a yawn behind her hand. She, of all people, needed to stay alert tonight. “I had thought perhaps griffons if there were feathers on the scene, or Cyclopes if not for the talon marks....”
Artemis' expression turned sympathetic. “Rest,” she said, turning back to the arrows she had been fletching. “If anything happens, we will wake you.”
Zoë was certain she was too tense to sleep, but arguing with Artemis was very rarely worth the effort. She slid her quiver off her back largely to humor her goddess, curling up against a rough wolf pelt with her face toward the tent flap. She knew she wouldn't sleep, but perhaps Artemis was right; lying down for an hour might be worth it.
Three hours later, the sentries' shouts woke her.
Artemis was already disappearing through the tent flap as Zoë struggled to her feet, calling her bow and slinging her quiver over one shoulder. Outside the wolves were growling and pacing between the tents. Tori, Phoebe, and Diana—three of the night's four sentries—had arrows drawn, locked on Alene and the figure she held pinned beneath her.
“I'm sorry,” the figure rasped desperately, pressing into the dirt and not even trying to throw the wispy eternal eight-year-old off its chest. It had a child's voice. “I'm sorry! I'll go, I'll go, I promise!”
Zoë froze in shock as she made her way through the circle of wolves and finally saw Alene's captive. She was holding a knife to the throat of a filthy, red-haired child. The child's shoes were missing, though one hole-riddled and dirty sock still clung determinedly to their foot; their loose-fitting canvas pants were all bust shredded, and they wore an equally loose shirt that had once been white. Probably. It was difficult to tell through the dust and blood and river muck that caked what was left of it. There was a raw bite on the child's shoulder, puffy and inflamed, and their arm was clearly broken; large strips had been torn from the shirt and pants to tie the broken arm roughly in place, and the poor thing was shivering badly in the night air, eyes glazed with tears. There was a thin line of blood on their jaw where Alene's knife had grazed it.
She saw Artemis' jaw tighten to see a child in such a state. “I believe we've found our missing half-blood. Alene,” she said gently, waving the girl off. Alene stood up and sheathed her knife, backing up until she stood behind Diana. The sentries did not relax their bows. “What happened?”
“He was trying to sneak out of Becky's tent,” Alene said. “He had a knife and a Hunter bag.”
The child curled into an awkward, terrified ball as Artemis knelt by their head. “'m sorry,” they whispered. “I wasn't gonna hurt anyone, I just—I thought you might have medicine—” They started crying again.
“Hush now, boy,” Artemis murmured, brushing a strand of red hair out of the little one's face and wincing at the angry purple bruise on their right cheek. “You'll not be harmed here.”
“'m a girl,” the child grumbled, momentarily distracted from her pain.
Interest joined the pity in Artemis' eyes. “Are you?”
The girl flushed and blinked fresh tears out of her eyes “Everyone says that,” she whispered. “Why's nobody ever believe me?”
Artemis looked intently at the girl for some time.
“I believe you, child,” she said finally. “Zoë?”
Zoë motioned to the sentries to lower their weapons, and Diana stepped forward with visible relief, already pulling a thermos of nectar out of her bag. “Cynthia, get me some water and rags,” she called over her shoulder, kneeling on the girl's other side. “Lady Artemis, can we move her to your tent? She needs somewhere safe and warm.”
“Of course.” Artemis gripped the girl carefully under her good arm and helped her stand. “What is your name, little one?”
“Ariana,” she whispered, and Zoë realized for the first time how deathly pale she was, how her eyes were glazed over with more than just fear. It was a miracle the girl was still alive; she only seemed able to stand because Artemis was holding her. “Ari. 'veryone calls me Ari.” Then, with a little spark of hopefulness in her eyes, she added faintly, “I'm ten.”
Zoë pulled the tent flap aside for the trio as they helped Ari inside, settling her down quickly near the fire. Artemis sat cross-legged nearby as Diana knelt next to the girl. Zoë propped her quiver up in the corner and sat on Ari's other side, where she was out of Diana's way but could still be close to the girl.
“Ari,” said Diana as she laid out her supplies. “You're a half-blood, right?”
Zoë frowned. “Surely she is too young to know—”
“Daughter of Hermes,” Ari murmured weakly. “Yeah. Is that nectar? I've never had...” Pain clouded her eyes as she turned to look and accidentally jostled her broken arm.
Zoë's blood ran cold. She swallowed with difficulty. “Ari,” she said carefully. “How long have you known thy parentage?”
Ari's hazy blue eyes focused with difficulty as she frowned. “F'rever,” she said. “My mom always told me. I thought she was joking when I was really little, but then weird things kept finding me. Like... big dogs,” she said with a shudder. “And one time a snake lady. A little guy with goat hooves stabbed her for me. I think he wanted to talk but I ran away instead. It was a big concert 'n I'm good at hiding so he never found me.”
“Look at me,” Diana ordered sternly, shining a penlight in the girl's eyes. After a few seconds, she nodded and set it aside. “Fever,” she muttered to herself. “No concussion. Bruised ribs...”
“They never attacked the van, though.” Ari still seemed confused, detached; like she was struggling to understand what had happened to her. Zoë took her tiny hand and squeezed it. “My mom said Hermes was the god of travelers and that's why she loved him, 'cause we were travelers too; so maybe that's why we were always safe while we were moving. They only found us when we stopped. She never saw them, though.” The little girl squeezed her eyes shut. “Only me.”
Zoë stared at the child in horror, unable to keep herself from glancing over her shoulder at Artemis. The goddess looked equal parts horrified and heartbroken. No ten-year-old child of Hermes should ever be cognizant enough of her powers that she attracted monsters already. Certainly not in numbers, and absolutely not because she was actively using her bloodline's blessing to escape them. This tiny little girl's aura was stronger now than it should have been in another three years. No doubt her mother had wanted her to feel loved and special, but she had almost sentenced the child to death.
Diana sighed and shook her head, voicing what all three of them were thinking. “Brave or stupid,” she said, pouring a mixture of cold water and nectar into a stainless-steel water bottle. “Raising a demigod on the road and telling them. Every monster in a hundred miles must have been able to smell her. Drink this,” she added, sticking a blue bendy straw in the sports bottle and setting it carefully beside Ari's uninjured cheek so that she didn't have to move. “All of it.”
“My mom's not very brave,” Ari said quietly. Zoë squeezed her hand again, and the little girl gave a wavering smile up at her.
“You are,” Zoë said firmly. “There is great strength in thee.”
Artemis shifted behind them. “Truer words were never spoken. Zoë, if I may...” Zoë pressed gently on Ari's hand one more time before switching places with her goddess so that Artemis could examine the raw, oozing bite mark that encompassed most of the girl's left shoulder.
“That's infected,” Diana said unnecessarily. She poured another measure of diluted nectar into the sports bottle. Ari obediently sipped at the mixture, and Zoë noted with relief that the girl's eyes were beginning to clear and some of the swelling on her shoulder was already going down. “I'm working on it. She's lost a lot of blood, Lady Artemis.”
Artemis examined the mauled shoulder with an expert eye. “Canine,” she said to herself. “Not deep enough to cause this kind of blood loss. Powerful enough to dent steel....”
It struck them both at the same time.
“Artemis,” said Zoë urgently. “It cannot be...” Artemis cut her off with a sharp look.
Luckily Ari hadn't noticed the exchange; Diana had begun carefully slicing her arm free of its rudimentary sling, and she was reluctant to let the girl examine it.
“It's all right,” Diana said. “This won't hurt. This is fractured in two places, but it hasn't broken the skin. Are you afraid of needles?”
“No,” Ari said stubbornly.
Diana smiled. “Good. I'm going to inject a small amount of nectar and painkillers into your arm. It's faster and more localized. No use wasting magical energy healing a scraped knee before your arm's done. Don't watch.”
Artemis cleared her throat, reclaiming their guest's attention. “What did this to you, child?” she asked, silver-yellow eyes kind but not quite able to hide her worry. Diana glanced up irritably, like she disapproved of asking her patient questions before she was fully healed; still, she let it stand, carefully examining her syringe in favor of replying.
Ari shrank back at the question, but swallowed and tried her best to answer. “I don't know,” she said. “I think it was a werewolf. It was big but it was a person first.”
“Most monsters are shapeshifters,” Zoë encouraged her.
“I thought it was my dad,” Ari admitted shamefacedly. “It looked like me.” She reached up with her good hand and tugged lightly at her hair.
“Red hair and gray eyes,” Artemis sighed. “And it called your name.”
Ari nodded once, refusing to look at the goddess. “It scraped on the side of the van and called me so I asked who was there. And then I saw him and he looked like me...”
“Hades,” Zoë breathed. She knew the description well, but it had been centuries since they'd seen one...
Ari frowned tiredly. “Hades is a werewolf?” Her eyes widened. “Wait, am I gonna be a...?”
“A vrykolakas,” Artemis corrected, passing a hand gently over Ari's forehead. “What attacked you was a form of undead lycanthrope. And no, to both questions. You will not become a werewolf; the nectar will take care of that. And the creature was not Hades, only a monster like any other. Though I thought we had eliminated them.” Unlike other monsters, there were ways in which a vrykolakas could be prevented from returning; Zoë had thought their plague ended many centuries before.
The creatures had always set Artemis' teeth on edge; they were a younger breed of monster, a mistake, inherently flawed and almost impossible to find when they decided to remain hidden. Their existence was a more than just a nuisance; they were darker, crueler, more intelligent than most monsters. Sheer bad luck had brought this one to Ari's door. Luckily it had not killed, or the plague might have begun again. For such a small child to have led an experienced killer on such a chase...
Artemis appeared to have been following the same line of thought. “A vrykolakas grow stronger the longer it is allowed to rest; it may be that this one has been in hiding for hundreds of years. I am more than impressed, little one. Even one of my Hunters would be hard-pressed to survive such a thing. How long was it following you?”
“Two and a half weeks,” Ari mumbled, then screamed in sudden pain. Artemis jumped; Zoë's knife was half out of it sheath before she realized they weren't being attacked.
“Your arm's set,” Diana informed her cheerfully.
“How did you escape it?” Zoë asked, shifting closer. Artemis put an arm around her waist; she was grateful for the support after a long several days. “It may help us find the beast if we know where you left it.”
Ari, eyes watering but successfully distracted from her arm, blinked in surprise. “It turned into dust,” she said.
All three of them stared at her.
“You... killed it?” Zoë clarified.
Ari nodded, looking suddenly worried. “Was... was I not supposed to? It was gonna eat me! I only made it this far 'cuz I figured out it didn't like fire so I was throwing pipe bombs at it. And then it caught up to me on the bridge and it grabbed my backpack, so I took the one I was holding and set the fuse and stuck it in the side pocket and let the thing eat it and they all exploded at once. 'cept it didn't die right away and it grabbed my hair when it fell so then we both fell in the water but it turned into dust on the way down.”
Artemis blinked. “That is... one way of doing it, yes,” she said.
Zoë cleared her throat; Ari still looked scared, like she was going to get in trouble. “It was well done,” she assured her, feeling a swell of pride for this terrified pint of a girl who responded to attacks by an undead vampire werewolf with homemade explosives. “You should rest now,” she added, noting with relief that the wounds on her shoulder were closing. “No harm will come to thee here. And...”
Artemis met her questioning gaze and nodded approvingly. “And,” she completed, “We will speak when you are well again. If you choose, you may stay as long as you please. Sleep here for tonight.” She handed Ari a clean white shirt and a pair of durable dark-gray cargo pants, which were gratefully accepted. The little girl was half-collapsing already, and fell asleep almost instantly upon being nudged toward a bedroll.
And the world was quiet again.
“Forgive me, my lady,” Zoë said later that night, with Ari curled in an exhausted ball in the corner and dead to the world. Artemis' fingers paused in the Hesperide's hair.
“Whatever for, my dearest?” she asked.
“I did not mean to invite her without consulting thee...”
She couldn't see Artemis' face, half-asleep in the goddess' lap as she was, but she could still feel the reproachful look. “I would question your judgment not to. She's a fine young half-blood. I hope she'll join us; I enjoy the younglings, and you need someone to keep you on your toes. Our recent Hunters have been far too well-behaved.”
Too lazy to crane her neck and glare, Zoë settled for jabbing her goddess in the side. Artemis laughed softly.
“Sleep, dear one,” she whispered.
June 3rd, 1951; Camp Half-Blood, Long Island, New York
“You look after your own, that's for sure.”
Zoë lowered her bow as she looked toward the new voice; the archery range here was a joke anyway, but she didn't bother to hide her irritation at being interrupted. “I beg thy pardon?”
The camper looked surprisingly non-confrontational, especially for a muscular girl leaning on a large pike. Her hair was dull black, close-cut and combed back, and her eyes were serious; but she had an easy grin and a comfortable aura. Zoë dismissed her arrow and rested a hand on top of her bow. She could speak with this girl, at least.
“Your witch kid,” the camper clarified. “Hecate, right? The one that got in a scuffle with a group of unclaimed when you first got here. Thought the whole group'd pass out when you shot Jerry and they saw you had 'em ranged. That was a good maneuver.”
“It was a simple shot,” Zoë replied with a slight smile. “The boy will live.”
The camper waved her hand. “What's a perforated liver among friends, right?” she said sarcastically, but winked when Zoë tensed. “Nah, I mean it. Sip of nectar, he's right as rain. Jerry's a bull, he can take it. If he didn't want to get shot, he shouldn't'a been roughing up kids. I'm Phoebe, by the way.” She extended a hand. “Phoebe Andrews. Ares.”
Zoë inclined her head. “Zoë Nightshade,” she said politely.
“No kidding.” Phoebe rolled her eyes good-naturedly. “Might try telling that to some of those unclaimed kids you scared half to Tartarus yesterday. Pretty sure most of them looked up and thought Artemis herself'd come to teach them a lesson.” She grinned again, clearly pleased by the shock on Zoë's face. “What? You might not be able to make them burst into flames with your eyes, but you sure as Hades looked like you could. I respect that—Nightshade, right?”
“Zoë, to thee,” said Zoë, relaxing into a more genuine smile. “The surname is more of a formality. We did not have them in my time.”
Phoebe got that serious look back in her eyes. “Yeah. Chiron mentioned that when I asked about you. You're a godling? Should I be bowing or something?”
Zoë laughed quietly. “I am no more a true immortal than any other Hunter. I have simply survived for longer than most.”
“Well I can see why!” Phoebe exclaimed, shifting her pike to her other hand with an eager light in her eyes. “You could've killed all five of those guys, don't think I didn't notice that. Appreciate you not, by the way. Pretty sure one of them's a half-brother.” She pulled a face. “Hopefully our counselor'll be having words with him if he ever gets claimed. I don't care how much you hate magic, you don't corner a kid like that. How is she, anyway?” The daughter of Ares sounded genuinely concerned as she nodded toward the bleachers surrounding the practice range. Becky was sitting alone on the steps, hugging a mug of hot chocolate close to her chest against the wet early-spring chill.
Zoë sighed. Becky was a very recent recruit. It had actually been her brother who approached them, in a startling twist; a mortal boy several years older but with many more remaining before he would be a man. He had also lacked the Sight, visibly struggled to speak with the goddess; but he had been determined, trusted completely in his sister's accounts of monsters and monster-slayers. He was only a child still, but explained that he could legally free himself of their father within a year and planned to do so, if it weren't for Becky. He would not leave her behind, and he could not bring her with him. He only wanted her to be safe.
Artemis had brought Zoë with her when she investigated the house in secret, and her eyes had been solemn at what they found. The father was not cruel and had never harmed his children or made them afraid; they saw no reason not to let him live. But the loss of his wife had led him like many good men before him to seek comfort in a bottle where there was no comfort to be found, and had left his house dark and his children essentially alone.
Becky had come with them quietly, a sad child with the tiniest spark of hope for her future. Her brother had promised to give her his telephone number, when he got one. In the meantime Artemis quietly supplied the girl with drachma to keep in contact with him; she knew well what it sometimes meant to have a brother. The young man was doing well now, and as his situation grew better Becky's spirits had finally begun to lift, but her tentative steps toward confidence had been set back worse than before by her recent confrontation.
“Poor little ankle-biter looks like she hasn't got a friend in the world, over there,” Phoebe said quietly. “Sticking close to you?”
Zoë ran a hand uneasily over her bow. “Yes. She does not want to stay in Cabin Eight for fear others will think she is hiding. She does not wish them to think her afraid, but I am reluctant to leave her alone. Your Jerry and his... friends, may want revenge.”
Phoebe growled under her breath and shook her head. “Well, you're good to her. Hell, I'd follow you anywhere seeing how well you look after those girls. Kinda freaks the others out how loyal you are to your goddess, but if she's anything like you I'd say she's earned it.”
“I...” Zoë swallowed. “Thank you, Phoebe.”
The girl nodded awkwardly, shifting her weight like she wasn't sure what to do with herself. “Right. Yeah. Just wanted to say that. I'll, uh, leave you to your bullseyes. And hey, if any of the Ares kids give you any trouble, let me know, I'll set 'em straight. I'm usually up here in the mornings, if you want a sparring partner or something.”
“That would end badly for thee.”
Phoebe rolled her eyes, looking oddly embarrassed as she waved a hand vaguely in the air and started walking away. “Yeah, whatever,” she called over her shoulder, smiling to herself. “I'd say you talk a good game but... hey, if there's anything I've spent my whole life learning that you can't kick my ass at, let me know.”
For a moment, Zoë watched her go. It took only a few seconds to decide to call after the girl.
She turned around in surprise.
Zoë cleared her throat. “We will be leaving again in two weeks,” she called. “I would welcome thee with us. Speak to Lady Artemis yourself. Perhaps you will find her worthy of thy loyalty.”
Even from some distance away, she could see the smile spreading slowly across Phoebe's face.
“Yeah,” she called back. “Yeah, maybe I will.”
Late Summer, 778 BC; Northeast Greece
“Gods of Olympus,” Diana moaned. “Lady Artemis, I could kiss you.”
Artemis' eyes sparkled with amusement beside her. “I do not believe that will be necessary, Diana, but thank you.”
Zoë blinked a bead of sweat out of her eyes and forced herself to climb the rest of the trail to reach them. Her head was pounding dully, and a glance at the others said the heat had been just as merciless to them as well. Summers could be unforgiving enough; with Lord Apollo hypocritically furious over his recent lover's infidelity and bearing a grudge against his sister for inadvertently bringing it to his attention, the Hunters were spent. They were lucky this region had been monster-free recently; if so much as a dracaena showed its face, Zoë was certain she would collapse.
All of them were faint, miserable, and sticky; Cynthia was beginning to burn,and Arethusa was nursing a twisted ankle. Zoë wanted absolutely nothing but for the insufferable heat to end, so when she came abreast of her goddess and saw where she'd led them, she could have cried with relief.
The mountain pool was cool and deep, clear as glass and sheltered by olive trees; a shy-looking naiad peeked out from behind a rock a short distance away, so there weren't even river gods to worry about. Zoë had shed her sandals and sweat-soaked chiton before she had time to realize it, and she wasn't alone. Diana tossed her clothes unceremoniously aside and simply fell into the water over Zoë's head, too exhausted by the heat to put energy into a graceful descent.Daphne hadn't even bothered to undress; she simply took a running leap, vaulted across a smooth boulder and somehow managed to send a wave of blissfully cool water over everyone except Artemis. Penelope did the same, jumping a bit further.
“Thank you for your permission, my dear,” Artemis told the naiad kindly, eyes closed as she leaned back into the water. The little nymph blushed at being addressed by a goddess, murmuring something about an honor and any time they wished as she hid again. Artemis' lips twitched, but she refrained from laughing in favor of meeting Zoë's gaze with twinkling eyes.
Diana burst out of the water with a contented gasp for air and a chorus of startled exclamations from the other girls, holding onto a rock as she tilted her head to dislodge water from her ears.
“Have you been holding your breath that whole time?” Daphne demanded incredulously.
“Yes,” said Diana, sounding profoundly pleased with herself. “Hey, Cyn, are you coming?”
Artemis looked over at the Hunters still on land and frowned. “Callisto, are you not joining us?”
Zoë craned her head to try to see them, finally moving away from her rock and pushing off the ledge so she was next to Artemis and had a better line of sight.Cynthia and Callisto were the only two still on land and fully dressed, though Cynthia was dangling her feet in the water and looking concerned. Callisto was seated near the edge of the pool. There seemed to be something wrong with her sandal strap; at least, it was taking a very long time to unfasten.
The girl flinched slightly when she was spoken to. “No—I, yes, my lady,” she stammered. “Of course, in a moment.”
Cynthia, Zoë realized, hadn't looked away from Callisto since they'd come across the pool. "Lady Artemis?” the mortal girl asked finally, seeming to have come to some sort of decision as Callisto finally removed her first sandal and moved slowly to the next one.. “I wonder, could I make a quick perimeter sweep? Only I have this feeling…"
Artemis' worried frown deepened, and she leaned forward. "Cynthia, is something the matter? If you believe there is danger, you should not go alone. Zoë, perhaps you should—"
"Oh, no, my lady," said Cynthia hurriedly. "I don't think it's danger exactly. But if you don't want me to go alone I'll gladly ask someone to accompany me."
Zoë most definitely did not want to leave the water, possibly ever again; still, if her goddess asked it, she would go. Diana seemed to share the sentiment, but Zoë was pathetically grateful when the other girl sighed and shifted first.
"I'll come, Cyn," she mumbled sleepily, stretching and tossing water over her shoulders. "Just a minute..."
Cynthia laughed. Zoë's eyebrows furrowed a bit at the sound. It was louder than the occasion warranted, almost forced; but Cynthia had never been anything but perfectly genuine in her experience. "That's okay, Di,” she said with a natural, fond smile that put some of Zoë's concerns to rest. “You look like you're about to fall asleep." She turned to Callisto. "I hate to ask, but…would you…?"
Cynthia nodded almost eagerly and shot to her feet. "No problem, Cynthia," she said quickly, and led the way back into the trees. Zoë thought to herself, with more than a hint of exasperation, that if she had ever managed to get Callisto's cooperation that easily half of her problems would be solved.
Though of course, that wasn't fair, she reminded herself. Callisto was a powerful personality, and had always been a favorite of Artemis for her skill and boldness; she was stronger than Zoë in that regard, had never needed to be what Cynthia called a “team player”. Perhaps Zoë had simply latched onto the Hunters as a replacement for her lost sisters. She could hardly fault the senior huntress for not cossetting her emotional vulnerability the way the others did. She had no right to expect it; Artemis and the Hunters had been too kind to her already.
A large splash of water to the face brought her out of her melancholy mood.
“Wake up, Zoë,” Daphne laughed, barely turning back to Penelope in time to fend off a ducking attempt. “Too slow!” she exclaimed, splashing her friend enthusiastically.
Zoë watched them for a few minutes, until a gentle hand brushed her elbow beneath the water.
“Unhappy thoughts, Zoë?” Artemis asked; softly, for her ears alone. “I so rarely see you smile. Will you never tell me what troubles you? I would help, if I can.”
Zoë offered her an attempt at a smile. “Forgive me, my lady. I am tired, that's all.”
She could tell Artemis wasn't fooled, but the goddess let it slide. “Of course,” she said. “Speak to me, when you're ready.” She leaned over to press a gentle kiss to Zoë's temple, then let them both lapse into a companionable silence.
Zoë wasn't certain how long it had been when Diana finally stirred. She'd been floating contentedly on her belly, arms folded against a rock so she could rest her head against them. For all intents and purposes, she was a corpse with a heartbeat.
Arethusa laughed. “The sleeper wakes!”
Diana stretched. “Yeah, yeah. Very funny. Lady Artemis,” she asked, blinking sleepiness from her eyes and seeming reinvigorated by her swim. “Shouldn't Cynthia and Callisto be back by now?”
Artemis nodded and sat up. “I had been thinking the same thing. Shall we go and find them?”
No one was enthusiastic about the idea of leaving their sanctuary, but now Diana had mentioned it they were all growing concerned. They thanked their new naiad friend politely (she blushed and hid again) before dunking their clothes in the water in an attempt to make leaving it slightly less miserable.
Zoë scanned the ground as they dripped their way into the forest. “This way,” she said; she doubted it was necessary, but sometimes it helped to remind each other that they had a plan. She saw Diana's shoulders relax infinitesimally at the verbal affirmation, and knew she'd been right to give it.
It wasn't hard to find them; within a few minutes they saw a flash of straw-blonde hair through the tress further down the mountain. Cynthia and Callisto were sitting close together, side-by-side and facing away from where the Hunters had been bathing. Diana gave a deep sigh of relief and seemed about to call out to them when Artemis raised a hand to silence her.
“My lady?” Zoë asked under her breath. Artemis shook her head and waved them forward slowly.
"I know you're scared, Callisto,” Cynthia was saying gently as they crept forward through the trees, careful not to disturb the undergrowth. “But you will be found out. You can't keep secrets from the gods, especially not ones like this."
"I know," Callisto muttered. "But I still have a few weeks—just to... to figure something out..."
"A few weeks spent in fear and dread, Callisto? Is that really what you want?" Cynthia asked. "Let the news come from you. It will hurt her so much less. If you lie to Artemis... Callisto, it will break her heart when she learns. I... listen. I can't guarantee how she'll react. But telling her the truth has to be better than lying."
Zoë had to fight to swallow silently. Cynthia... she trusted Cynthia, they all did. What could they possibly be planning? What secrets could they even have to be kept? And Callisto; she was indomitable, fearless (if abrasive) and unswervingly loyal to her goddess. Zoë may have been frustrated that the same loyalty was never extended to her sisters, but she couldn't possibly fault Callisto's devotion to Artemis. She glanced at the goddess in question; her expression was unreadable.
When Callisto still hesitated, Cynthia's expression could have made stone cry. "Callisto,” she said pleadingly. “Callisto, none of this is your fault. You have nothing to be ashamed of. The longer you keep this to yourself the more it's going to hurt. It's like setting a bone. It hurts more in the short-term but if you don't do it you'll never heal.”
Callisto was shaking. Personality clashes aside, Zoë's heart went out to the poor girl. Whatever trouble she was in, whatever secret she had been hiding, Zoë was certain she didn't deserve this kind of misery.
Cynthia studied Callisto's face. “Come on,” she said, warmth and unconditional love in her voice. “You're going to be just fine. I'll come with you; we'll go tell Lady Artemis now, all right?” Callisto hesitated; then, slowly, painfully, she nodded.
Artemis' patience reached its end. She cleared her throat loudly.
"Tell Lady Artemis what, precisely?" she asked.
Callisto gave a stifled shriek. Cynthia leapt to her feet and whirled around. "Lady Artemis!" she gasped. "I…we didn't…how…how long have you been standing there?"
"Long enough," said Artemis sharply, "to realize the pair of you have been keeping secrets from me." Zoë didn't say anything, but her eyes flicked to Diana. The healer looked terrified, but more confused than any of them; her fear was not for herself in being revealed as part of some conspiracy, but rather simple concern that her love had been caught up in something dangerous.
Cynthia held up her hands placatingly. “Not keeping secrets from you, Archeress,” she said. “The opposite, actually. She wants to tell the truth so much it hurts; she's been afraid to. I was trying to help her.”
Artemis raised an eyebrow. "This, of course, means that you know what she's been keeping from me, but for the moment we shall focus elsewhere.” Zoë was relieved to see that, while Artemis was distinctly not happy, she wasn't angry either. Disappointed, perhaps, in their lack of trust in her and at Cynthia's lie, but if she had to guess her goddess' mood Zoë would have said that she was mostly relieved to find them safe. “Very well, then. Callisto, what was it you wished to tell me?"
Callisto looked faintly green as she glanced at the damp Hunters arrayed behind the goddess. "Lady Artemis," she said shakily. “I... I... I wasn't... I didn't...”
She looked like she was about to faint. Zoë took half a step forward. “My lady—” she protested, only to be silenced again with a gesture.
“Breathe, Callisto,” Artemis said evenly. “Tell me what has happened.”
Callisto seemed incapable of speech, but her hand drifted to her abdomen. Zoë heard stifled gasps from some of the Hunters, and Callisto cringed.
For a moment, Artemis' shock showed on her face, but she quickly brought it under control.
“I see,” she said mildly. “That surprises me, but you are not the first. I am disappointed you didn't come to me in good faith sooner, but your service to me has always been exceptional. I can overlook it. May I ask after the father?”
Callisto flinched like she'd been struck and pressed closer to Cynthia. Her throat worked for several seconds before she managed a shaky answer. “The baby,” she said finally. “It will be a brother. To you. My lady.”
It took a heartbeat for the meaning of the words to sink in. Every Hunter flinched when a pulse of furious silver light rippled under Artemis' skin.
Cynthia's grip tightened on Callisto's wrist. “It wasn't voluntary, Archeress,” she said carefully.
A brighter, more dangerous flare of light, before Artemis closed her eyes and breathed deeply.
“I assumed as much,” she said finally. “Breathe easy, Callisto; my anger is not with you. Cynthia, sit down. I will deal with your deception in a moment.”
Callisto looked miserable. “Lady Artemis, it's not her fault, really—”
Artemis held up a hand. “Peace.” She motioned the nymph forward. Pale and trembling, Callisto stepped reluctantly away from her guardian, and Cynthia sat back down on the fallen log she had just recently vacated. Zoë could feel Diana straining, clearly longing to be beside her; taking pity on the poor girl, she glanced over and gave the smallest nod she could manage. Artemis didn't even seem to register Diana as she slipped past her with relief to put an arm around Cynthia's shoulders. Her focus was on Callisto.
“Did he force you?” she asked quietly.
Callisto shook her head.
A great deal of the sympathy vanished from Artemis' face. “I see,” she said, sending an icy glance across the clearing to where Cynthia sat.
Callisto hugged herself. “No,” she said quickly, “It's not... he was transformed.”
Artemis sighed. “Knowing my father, I am not surprised—”
“Into you, my lady.”
There was dead silence in the clearing; Callisto was shaking like a leaf in autumn, staring at the ground as she stood before her goddess, while the rest of the Hunters stood slowly drying in the heat in a half-circle in front of her. Finally, Artemis spoke.
“...I see.” Her voice shook, just barely, but Zoë could hear it. “Callisto, I wish I could take that pain from you.”
With the confession finally lifted from her chest, Callisto looked up, and he tears began flowing freely. “I'm sorry, my lady,” she whispered. “I should have known—I should have realized you would never—”
Artemis took her hands, holding them steady. “Hush,” she said gently. “You have suffered enough. Your nephew's family lives in Athens, I believe?” When Callisto closed her eyes against a new wave of tears, the goddess faltered. “Dear one, I'm sorry; if I could keep you with us I would do so, but...”
Callisto shook her head and smiled bravely. “No, my lady, I understand. I never wanted to ask you to hide me or... anything like that, I only wanted...” She swallowed. “Forgiveness?”
Artemis shook her head. “I cannot offer you that.” Callisto's expression was just beginning to shatter when the goddess pulled her into a hug. “There is nothing to forgive. Now...”
Callisto clung to her for a moment before stepping back. “My nephew lives in Athens,” she confirmed, taking a deep breath to steady herself.
“You will have safe passage until you reach him. Every wild thing in your path will guard you. And, Callisto... if anyone asks, you may tell them I sent you away in disgrace after an affair with a shepherd. It will keep you safer.”
Zoë cleared her throat. “I will go with thee,” she offered. “As far as Athens, with my lady's permission.” She knew why Callisto looked surprised; she'd surprised herself with the offer. Still. “You are my sister,” she said quietly, and for the first time she saw the nymph fully understand that she meant it.
Callisto looked at her with new respect. “Thank you, Zoë,” she managed. “But... I think I'll be all right. I'd... I'd like to go now, please.” Her voice was starting to crack again.
“You'll not be alone,” Artemis assured her. “Or forgotten, Callisto. At least take one of the dogs for the road; he will guide you.” She gave a short whistle, and a fawn-colored hunting hound leapt lightly out of the bushes. “There. Good luck to you both, and healing.”
Callisto bowed her head. “My lady.” She held her hand out to the dog, who licked it happily and bounded into the trees. Callisto hesitated for a second, then nodded to the Hunters and ran after it.
“It's not fair,” Penelope whispered after a moment.
Artemis stared after the vanished huntress.
“No,” she said shortly. “It is not.” Then, after a short pause: “Cynthia.”
Cynthia stood slowly. Diana looked as if she would rise with her, but Cynthia placed a hand on the demigod's shoulder and, reluctantly, she sat down again. She didn't tremble as she approached the goddess, but Zoë could see her breathing was shallow. "Yes, my lady?" she whispered.
Artemis studied her for a long minute. Then, without warning, she lashed out with her right hand and struck Cynthia across the face—a vicious backhanded blow that knocked her off her feet. None of the Hunters, not even Zoë, could stop themselves from taking a step back, but Artemis took no notice of them.
"How long have you known?" she asked in a frigid, emotionless voice.
Cynthia, taken aback, could only gasp, "I…I don't…"
Artemis raised her hand again, and Cynthia said hastily, "Roughly three weeks, I don't know! I suspected for longer, but she didn't tell me anything until she knew she was pregnant and needed someone to talk to. I was a midwife's apprentice before I met the Hunters," she said quickly. “I recognized the signs and I was worried for her, so I asked, and about three weeks ago she answered.”
Artemis lowered her hand slowly, scorching fury beginning to replace her cold detachment. "Three weeks," she repeated. "Three weeks. And you never thought to tell me?"
“Artemis,” Zoë breathed, at the same time Diana protested weakly “That's not fair.” The healer was silenced with a frigid glance from her goddess; Zoë was simply ignored.
Silver light flickered across the goddess' skin, and the Hunters took another involuntary step away as she hooked her foot under Cynthia's belly and threw her onto her back.
Zoë's grip tensed on her bow. It was so obvious, at least to her, that the goddess was in too much pain to think rationally. Callisto was more than blameless, her father was untouchable, and Artemis was desperately searching for a target at which to direct her rage. She had never before seen this kind of aimlessly destructive grief from her, would have sworn that her goddess was not capable of it; but Artemis was an Olympian, and she had a quicker and more vicious temper than perhaps she was willing to admit of herself. Zoë wasn't certain what she would do if it escalated. She did know she couldn't let Cynthia be hurt again.
"I thought it would hurt less coming from her," Cynthia pleaded. “And she had the right to decide how she told you—”
"That," snapped Artemis, "is irrelevant. But to guard Zeus' secret so willingly—"
Diana couldn't stay seated at that, but she froze dead when Artemis' bow appeared in her hand, arrow nocked and drawn point-blank at Cynthia's heart. The goddess rippled with silver.
At that, Zoë sprang forward. “Artemis,” she said again, and shocked herself with how determined her own voice was. With half of her wondering how she dared, she gripped the goddess' arrow over her hand. “No.”
The look Artemis gave her suggested that, were she not too shocked by Zoë's impudence to move, she would have slit her throat.
Zoë swallowed and tightened her grip. Wildfire was dancing behind Artemis' eyes, and she guessed that her life span was measured in seconds now; but there were the barest beginnings of tears there, too, almost a child's confusion as to how the world could be so cruelly unfair. If this was how she died, then... well, so be it. Artemis had saved her life once; if she chose to take back that gift, she had the right. But Cynthia deserved better. “Please, my lady,” she stammered. “She has done nothing wrong. You know that. You must.” I want to kill Zeus for this too, she thought but didn't dare say. Fighting against her own tongue, she managed to choke out instead, “Hurting an innocent will not undo his crimes. Please.”
Slowly, Artemis lowered her bow and relaxed the string. Zoë did not feel any safer, but she very carefully released the goddess and stepped back. Artemis did not move.
“You are very bold, huntress,” she said finally.
Unable to form coherent thought anymore, Zoë simply dropped to one knee and lowered her eyes.
There was a very long silence.
“Diana,” Artemis said finally, and all the fire and steel had drained from her voice. She sounded ancient, sad, and tired now, and Zoë fought the urge to rush back to her side. “Tend to her.” Then, hesitantly, “Please.”
Unable to stop herself any more, Zoë looked up. Diana was already at Cynthia's side, offering her a vial of nectar and whispering furiously that she was an idiot, fighting to control her own trembling. Artemis looked... uncertain. Her eyes were tight with regret as she hovered beside them, unsure of what to do.
She cleared her throat. “Cynthia,” she said carefully. The blonde looked up; Diana did as well, angling herself between Cynthia and her goddess as she shifted.
It wasn't lost on Artemis, and there was genuine remorse in her voice as she offered the girl a hand. “I am... sorry, Cynthia,” she said. “You have earned better from me, and I could not have asked you to act with more honor and compassion than you have. Forgive me; I have treated you unfairly. It will not happen again.”
Cynthia took the offered hand without hesitation, but there was still fear echoing in her eyes. One hand came up unconsciously to brush her jaw, where Diana's nectar was hopefully repairing whatever teeth had been knocked loose. “I'll miss her too, my lady,” she said quietly.
Was it Zoë's imagination, or did Artemis' gaze flick to her, just for an instant?
She rested her hand on Cynthia's shoulder. “I will not punish my Hunters for the gods' wrongdoings again,” she said evenly. “That, I can swear by the Styx.”
Cynthia's eyes went wide as a slight tremor shook the earth, marking the oath. Then she smiled, genuinely smiled, and all the betrayal was gone from her face. “Archeress,” she said with a slight bow, and then she had pulled Diana to her feet and gone to join the rest of the Hunters.
Zoë stayed where she was until Artemis approached her and motioned her silently onto her feet.
“I very nearly killed you today,” she said in a low voice. “That was brave.” She sighed. “And that saddens me. I should never have been a threat to those I am sworn to protect; certainly not to a young woman protecting an innocent, and least of all to a friend. If I am to demand the loyalty of maidens hand-chosen to be independent and courageous, I can at least make an attempt to be worthy of it. I fear I am more like my father than I pretend.”
Zoë hesitated. “I do not believe you would have done it, my lady. I know thee to be better than that.”
Artemis' eyes clouded. “I wish I shared your conviction. I honestly have no idea what I might have done.” She studied Zoë's face. “You stopped me. That will not be forgotten. Spilling the blood of an innocent maiden out of anger at my father... No.” She shook her head sharply. “No, I would not become that kind of Olympian. Thank you, Zoë. Perhaps all the gods would benefit from being questioned more often.”
Midsummer, 1103; Black Forest, Germany
“Come hunting with me.”
Mouth suddenly very dry, Zoë somehow managed to force her eyes back to the battered report propped against her knees. It had something to do with hellhounds. Probably.
“There's a spring nearby,” Artemis murmured next to her throat, fingers running delicately along the inside of Zoë's wrist. “And the fattest rabbits you could hope to see.”
Zoë made a noncommittal noise and jotted down a note about the hellhounds.
“South, dear,” said Artemis. Her lips brushed just under Zoë's ear.
“The hellhounds that quest group saw were traveling south, not north.” She smirked slightly as Zoë corrected her notes. “Are you having difficulty focusing? A walk might clear your head.”
At that Zoë's couldn't hold back an exasperated smile. She turned back to her goddess to kiss her; it was perhaps not quite as brief as she had intended, but she was mortal and Artemis was... well, Artemis. “Perhaps it would,” she allowed. Artemis' eyes flashed with victory, which turned into a faint growl when Zoë promptly turned back to her stack of monster-sighting reports. “When these are finished.”
Artemis nipped at her earlobe in revenge. “You,” she muttered, “are far too responsible for your own good.”
Zoë fought back a smile as her goddess continued pressing tantalizingly light kisses along her neck. “You will thank me for it this winter.”
“The cheek. Telling an Olympian goddess what to think.”
Zoë very pointedly stretched one leg and settled back firmly against her pile of cushions. Dracanae, she thought, glancing over the scrap of parchment. She was very proud of herself for being able to hold that word coherently in her mind when Artemis' teeth were scraping against her skin. After several moments she realized that conversations required verbal responses at some point. “Even goddesses recognize seniority,” she managed faintly. “Perhaps you should respect thy elders.”
There was a pause, and then Artemis burst out laughing, muffling the sound by burying her face in Zoë's shoulder. “Impertinent little nymph,” she said, smiling as she kissed the corner of Zoë's mouth. “Very well, then. I shall behave myself.”
She was as good as her word; she shifted ever so slightly to the side, giving Zoë just enough space that their bodies no longer touched except for Artemis' fingers in her hair, and went respectfully still and quiet, reading Zoë's reports over her shoulder. It was roughly the exact atmosphere Zoë had been trying to create for herself all night; close, comfortable, and absent of distractions.
Zoë had never been more distracted in her life.
Artemis couldn't possibly be doing it on purpose. But that tiny space between them seemed almost to be humming; it was the full moon, Zoë thought, the midsummer energy of life and wildness thrumming throughout nature, carried on the wind that swirled mischievously around the camp. The utterly clear sky, clean wood smoke from the remnants of their dinner fire mingling with the scent of trees and moss and hidden wild spaces deep in the forest, the untamed joy barely contained in the goddess at her side....
Almost gasping for breath, she set her reports aside and rolled to her feet. Artemis had taken her hand in an instant and pulled her out barefoot into the grass; and somehow she had absolutely done this on purpose but Zoë was all but glowing with reckless delight, and for once she had no responsibilities, and she couldn't bring herself to care.