Autumnal Equinox, 1732; the Austrian Alps
A stiff wind tugged at Zoë's hair as she pressed closer against the bare rock at her back.
The wind today was wild, eager and powerful and free, and it whistled through the trees and around her ears. She did her best to shut it out, trying to listen. Trying to pick out the subtle differences between the rustling of leaves in wind-tossed branches and the crunch of a hunter's tread. A saber of naked steel glinted coldly where she held it across her chest.
She knew the wolf could sense her.
Her own senses were not nearly so keen, and over the course of the past few hours she had been slowly giving up one advantage after another as the great silver beast maneuvered her up and down the pass. The setting sun would dazzle her even as it glinted off her bare sword, and the wind that deafened her would only swirl her scent towards it. The line between hunter and prey was swiftly blurring; this game could not go on much longer.
Still, she had a good position. The sun was at her back now as she flattened herself against a sheer rock face, backed into a crevice; a defensible position, if difficult to escape, but she could not afford to run any longer. A confrontation would be better forced now, while she still had the light and was not yet exhausted by the great wolf's battle of attrition. She was not worried about it sneaking up behind her, even if the dropoff had been less steep; the dying sun would silhouette her foe, give her the advantage if it came upon the ravine unexpectedly. The only other approach was straight up the crevice, where she was armed and prepared to strike.
Something shifted in the trees, and she flexed her grip on the sword hilt. Come then, beautiful creature, she thought. Come and finish it. We shall see who is the greater predator.
The trees shifted again, more violently this time, and she sighed as she realized that it was only an odd-shaped branch, catching as it was tossed in the wind.
She almost missed the flash of movement to her left, barely managed to twist her body around with a cry of shock. A liquid-silver blur half-ran, half-fell headlong into the breach, and in the brief moment between heartbeats Zoë had time to be incredulous at the sheer trickery of it, creeping just out of sight along the lip of the ravine to hide one's shadow and leaping on them from above and to the side.
She was still marveling at the wolf's cleverness and stealth as they fell together, its teeth clenched in her throat and three feet of steel buried in its chest.
For several long moments she lay there panting. Then the recently-impaled wolf chuckled.
“A draw again, then, dear one?” it asked, amused, and Artemis sat up and brushed auburn hair out of her face as it shifted back from thick silver fur.
Zoë gave a noncommittal groan and rubbed her throat. This game was all very well for Artemis, who couldn't even feel the mortal blade. Those wolf's teeth hurt, no matter that the wounds healed themselves before so much as a drop of blood was spilled. So did the lioness'. And the bear's, and the snake's, and the wild boar's tusks, and the eagle's talons, and the ridiculously sharp, durable antlers that one time she had decided to challenge her lieutenant as a stag. At least that time Zoë'd managed to get in a good solid kick to the face.
Zoë Nightshade was, she suspected, one of the few people who could claim the dubious honor of having held a fencing match with a deer and lost.
Still, the rush was exhilarating. She could only agree with Artemis' assertion that even for an archery goddess, too much time spent honing one skill to the exclusion of all else was dangerous; so, every so often, they would change the rules. Artemis still had a few matches on Zoë; but the gap was beginning to close, and the victories were harder-won every time.
Artemis' gaze turned sympathetic as she brushed her fingertips over Zoë's throat. “Are you quite all right?”
Zoë swallowed experimentally, then nodded. “I believe so, my lady. Though slightly less enthusiasm on thy part would be appreciated.”
Artemis laughed and pushed herself to her feet, offering her lieutenant a hand. Zoë took it gratefully.
“I wonder how you might fare as the challenger sometime,” Artemis mused with a calculating look. “A tigress, perhaps, or a wolf yourself...”
Eager to cut that line of thinking off, Zoë pointed out hastily, “I do not believe the presence of a tigress in the region would go unnoticed, my lady.”
Artemis scoffed. “And what of it? Let the mortals wonder. We have few enough opportunities to let ourselves be free.”
Zoë cleared her throat and glanced away. “It... could be interesting, my lady,” she admitted. It would be a lie to claim she had never felt a slight twinge of envy for the way Artemis slipped into forms of such ethereal grace with such ease, always perfectly at home in whatever shape she chose. To claim she felt no curiosity would simply be ridiculous. Nervousness, perhaps; transformation was her lady's favorite form of vengeance. But she trusted Artemis, and the thought of running along with the boundless endurance and lithe power of a wolf was... well, intriguing, to say the least.
Her hesitation, naturally, did not go unnoticed. Artemis' eyes softened, and she brushed a stray chunk of hair out of Zoë's face. “Someday, then, perhaps.” With a flash of mischief, she added in a purr, “Eager to sink your teeth into my throat for a change, my dear?”
Laughing and blushing fiercely in equal measure, Zoë swatted her with a smile. “If you think me fool enough to believe the Goddess of the Hunt can ever be made prey against her will, I am insulted.”
“Ah, but that would be assuming I had no wish to be caught.” She was surprised, though pleasantly, when Zoë's grin was accompanied by an eager kiss and not a bashful retreat. Her earlier words had been more than true; it was rarely more than once every few centuries that she could justify this kind of hunting trip with Zoë, and if she had perhaps been less than cautious the last few weeks, if the change in the air and humming through the earth excited her and made her want to run forever, grab her mate by the scruff and wrestle her for the sheer joy of letting their strength run free, challenge the skies themselves—well, so long as she didn't actually challenge the skies and start a war, what of it?
She pushed the girl up against the rock face with a lazy smile, leaned forward to catch Zoë's ear between her teeth and tug, and couldn't help a growl of pleasure at the gasp it drew from her. There was time enough for duty. She was a goddess, and Zoë was companion to a goddess, and they were in their domain, alone. A wild thing and her mate answered to no one and nothing on their own territory. Zoë's fingers wound boldly into her hair, a silent affirmation of her moment of fearless confidence, and she grinned and dragged her close again.
J uly 31 st , 1977; Santa Lucia Mountains, California
In Phoebe's defense, the werewolves had started it.
At least, that was what she claimed, and at the moment Zoë was slightly too preoccupied to question the statement, as there was an extremely large wolf attempting to disembowel her.
“Hey!” Ari shouted from somewhere up a pine tree. “Fetch!”
To the shock of no one, the moon-crazed werewolf ignored Ari's pipe bomb, growling and throwing itself against the tree in an attempt to shake her out of it. Alene yelped as the explosive sailed over her head, diving behind a tree just barely in time to escape the blast. The large gray monster she'd been facing off against was not so lucky.
“Nice shot, kid!” Phoebe called across the camp, twirling a dagger in her hand and grinning viciously. Her opponent was smarter than Alene's had been, feinting and dodging until it managed to swipe the dagger away. Zoë nearly shouted a warning, but Phoebe's grin only got wider as she drew a Swiss Army Knife from her pocket. The werewolf's red eyes glinted with satisfaction at the tiny weapon, and it lunged for her throat.
Moments later, Cynthia and Diana were willingly relieved of their small crowd of werewolves to a chorus of bewildered yelping as Phoebe, double-bladed battleaxe freshly coated with golden dust, leapt back into the fray.
“I love this thing!” she crowed.
Zoë ducked under the next wolf's guard, slitting its throat in the maneuver, and rolled to her feet to finish off the huge black beast harassing Ari. “Focus, Phoebe!” she snapped as another wave of snarling lycanthropes burst from the tree line.
Phoebe and Diana swore in unison as the Hunters tried to reestablish their scattered line. One of the werewolves yipped in confusion as a burst of blue light shot from one of the trees, struck it full on the chest, and left a very small puppy sitting tangled in its own feet on the ground. Two more of them suddenly went into a panic as opaque white mist covered their eyes, thrashing and managing to trip up one of their fellows; but others were still coming, and Becky only had so much power left to give.
“Zoë!” Diana shouted as they were forced back under the onslaught, frantically firing off arrows to slow the monsters down. “This is ridiculous!”
“There's too many of them!” Cynthia agreed. “We can't hold up under this—Tori! Watch out!”
Victoria dodged just in time, burying her dagger to the hilt in the shoulder of the werewolf that had nearly flanked her; it growled and spun away, taking her knife with it, and she retreated quickly.
Cynthia was right; wherever the seemingly endless army of werewolves was coming from, they were outnumbered and would soon be surrounded, and several of them were stranded in trees.
“Phoebe!” she shouted. Phoebe didn't answer her with anything but a grunt, but as she was grappling two werewolves at once with a battleaxe taller than she was, Zoë could forgive her fairly easily. “We need a perimeter. Now.”
“On it, Fearless Leader,” she growled, and gave a short “Ha!” of triumph as Diana turned briefly from covering Zoë's flank to shoot one of the wolves clean through the eye. With half her resistance suddenly gone, Phoebe dispatched her remaining enemy quickly and flicked the battleaxe back into its casing to fold out another attachment. “Fire in the—well, everything,” she said with a wild grin.
Ari whooped from her tree as Phoebe squeezed the fuel lever on her flamethrower.
It was July, in southern California. They were in a particularly brush-heavy portion of the woods.
A perimeter was established. Quickly.
“That's one way to do it,” Phoebe said happily, stowing the flamethrower back in her pocketknife as the werewolves fled west, yelping and on fire. “Hey, ankle-biters! You okay up there?”
“Ow. Ow ow. Hot,” Ari commented as she picked her way gingerly down from her tree. It was... well, technically not burned. Medium-well, perhaps. If Zoë was feeling generous. At least Becky's had avoided partial immolation; her biggest obstacle in getting down was the height of the lower branches, which was solved nicely when Phoebe caught her on the jump.
“Nice trick with the blinding,” she commented, thumping the girl on the back. Becky gave a shy smile at the praise.
The post-battle regroup was cut short as every Hunter in the burning circle of trees drew their bows again at the sound of footsteps, approaching at a run from the outside forest.
Artemis jumped through the flames like they weren't there.
“What happened?” she demanded.
The Hunters looked at one another awkwardly.
“...Werewolves?” offered Diana.
Artemis' eye twitched. “Zoë. Report. ”
Styx . “I, ah. I. Was not actually here, my lady.” She winced.
“I see. And you weren't here because...?”
“We drew straws for bath order, Zoë won, and the camp was attacked by werewolves,” Cynthia clarified calmly. Zoë shot her a relieved look. If she paid Cynthia, the girl would deserve a raise.
Artemis raised her eyebrows. “So I see.” At least she now looked more concerned than livid. “Wounded? Diana?”
“Probably some burns. Was anyone bitten?” There was a chorus of negatives. “Nothing serious, then, Lady Artemis.”
“Uh, Zoë?” said Ari.
Artemis held up a finger. “In a moment, Ari, unless you are injured.”
“Well, no, but—”
“In a moment, little one. Zoë, how exactly did you miss the werewolf army converging on the area?”
Zoë blanched. “I did not see any signs of large predators, my lady,” she said hurriedly. “Or of any significant groups moving through recently. If there had been hellhounds among them I would suspect shadow travel, but—I cannot offer thee an explanation, only swear that there was nothing to suggest their presence.”
After a long moment, Artemis nodded and placed a hand on her lieutenant's shoulder. “I believe you, dear one,” she said quietly. “Forgive me. If you saw nothing, I am inclined to believe there was nothing to see. I will investigate how this attack was able to be made.” Zoë inclined her head gratefully, reaching up to squeeze her goddess' hand. She brought the slim fingers briefly to her lips in forgiveness.
Ari pushed her way between them. “Um,” she said, pointing behind Zoë to where the hard wind that had rather slipped Zoë's mind (what with all the werewolves) was spreading the fire like lightning through the trees. “ Guys? ”
“...Oh dear.” Zoë winced as the goddess cleared her throat. “Zoë,” she asked with false lightness. “How long, exactly, were you gone from the camp?”
Zoë and Cynthia glanced at each other.
“I believe no longer than...”
“It was about.... five minutes? Four-ish?”
Phoebe thought about it and nodded. “Maybe four minutes, yeah.”
December 17, 2007; Camp Half-Blood, Long Island, New York
Zoë's fingers twitched.
Much as she might have liked to keep the Hunters sequestered safely in Cabin Eight, they very rarely had access to this kind of... relative safety, and she had duties of her own. The others would disperse naturally; Ari had already disappeared to wreak havoc somewhere, which meant Zoë would inevitably have to deal with the fallout. Hopefully this time it would only be figurative. Still, at least it would keep her busy. In the meantime Bianca was jogging anxiously at her side, tucking her hair behind her ears and hugging herself, and Zoë had responsibilities to the girl.
She smiled down at her in what she hoped was a reassuring manner. “I apologize for the hectic nature of the past few days,” she said, idly tugging on the near side of Bianca's hat to straighten it. “I assure thee, we are not normally in such a hurry.”
Bianca gave a shy smile. “I guess immortality does that.”
Zoë's lips twitched. “Quite. I... do not pretend to approve of Artemis' hasty departure,” she admitted. “I would have accompanied her if she had allowed it.” Unprofessional, perhaps, to say such a thing to such a new recruit; but she would never earn Bianca's respect with deception. Better she know that she would not be punished for speaking her mind, only for disrespect. The poor child was nervous enough already. Zoë forced herself to pause and set her worries for her goddess aside, for a little while. “Still,” she said. “Perhaps we have earned the break! It will do thee good to see this part of our world.”
Bianca still looked overwhelmed, but drew herself up bravely and nodded. Zoë squeezed her shoulder approvingly.
“It will get easier, Bianca,” she said softly. “You are far from the only Hunter to be afraid in the beginning.”
As she had hoped, Bianca lifted her head stubbornly. “I'm not afraid,” she insisted. “I want this. I really do. I just... don't want to make any mistakes.”
Zoë raised an eyebrow. “Ari once flooded the Sound with supernaturally radioactive waste.”
She sighed. “I deeply wish I were joking. You will make mistakes, Bianca. And we will help thee to make up for them, and you will learn, and you will be forgiven. That is what a family means.”
Bianca thought about it for several long moments, then took a deep breath and set her shoulders.
Zoë looked down at her again, and her smile this time came much more naturally. “I speak nothing but the truth. And now, as I believe we have a few hours until the dinner bell, perhaps we could—”
She was interrupted by an explosion of electricity and swearing from the basketball court.
Bianca coughed. “...Go see what that was?” she finished.
As it turned out, investigation was unnecessary; Thalia Grace came to them instead. Zoë suspected the daughter of Zeus believed she was dragging Phoebe by the collar, but having been forced to do that herself a handful of times was mostly amused by the complete lack of effort Phoebe was putting into resisting. If she had actually been averse to joining them, Thalia would have needed a lot more lightning to force the issue.
“Will you take her, please?” Thalia exclaimed, shoving the Hunter at Zoë. “You've been here for what, twenty minutes?”
Zoë sighed. “What happened?”
“She was trying to murder one of the Ares kids with a basketball,” Thalia snapped.
“Almost had him, too!” Phoebe shrugged carelessly at the look Zoë shot her. “What? I didn't like the way he talked about the kids. Nobody threatens my tadpoles.”
Zoë couldn't contain an indulgent smile, so she didn't try. “Fair enough.” Normally she would have at least added a stipulation to avoid starting any more fights, but she could tell her leniency was annoying Thalia. That seemed reason enough to be lenient. “Though I am quite certain Becky can take care of herself.”
Phoebe at least had the decency to look mildly abashed at that. “Yeah, well,” she muttered, rubbing her neck. “Guess I'm a little overprotective, but, you know. Pot, Kettle.”
Rolling her eyes good-naturedly, Zoë nodded towards the arena. “If you are so eager to test thy skills...”
“All right, I get it.” Phoebe held up her hands. “Think that's where the little ones went anyway. Alene said something about teaching Becky how to use a javelin. That I've gotta see. Thing's twice her size.”
Zoë considered it. “We may accompany thee,” she decided. “I need to speak with Cynthia about a schedule for the next few weeks.”
“Oh, she's not there,” Phoebe interjected. “She and Di were gonna check in on the pegasi. They think one of 'em might be pregnant or something, and you know Cynthia.”
Thalia snorted, earning a withering look from Zoë. “That oughta be good.”
“Oh?” Zoë said coolly. “How so?”
Thalia rolled her eyes and pulled a rumpled, tightly-folded schedule out of her jacket pocket. Working the square of paper open with some difficulty, she handed it over. “Aphrodite cabin's got equestrianism this afternoon. I doubt they'll appreciate having a bunch of Hunters around.”
“You mean all two of them?” Bianca pointed out. Zoë shook her head.
“In the eyes of the Aphrodite cabin, it will be two too many,” she said grimly. She handed Thalia her schedule back. “Thank you, Thalia Grace.”
“Don't call me that,” the girl snapped. “I don't use that name, will you get it through your thick head already—”
“Bianca,” Zoë interrupted curtly. Phoebe waved to them sarcastically as they walked away.
After a solid minute of fuming as they cut through the trees toward the stables, Bianca raised her hand nervously. “Um,” she asked. “Are you two always that rude to each other? Because I don't think she crashed the bus on purpose.”
Zoë took several long seconds to make certain she didn't snap at the girl. “Thalia,” she said carefully, “made several comments when we first met that I find it difficult to forgive. Perhaps I was wrong to respond in kind, but... I am far from perfect, Bianca, and my anger is easily pricked where Artemis is concerned. We all have flaws; if mine must be pride, there are worse ones.”
Bianca nodded as they left the tree line. She turned toward the main door of the stables, and stumbled a bit when Zoë ignored the path in favor of vaulting lightly over the fence. A red roan mare looked up and flexed her wings; Zoë patted her idly on the nose and gestured Bianca over the fence. Bianca followed, though much less gracefully. They let themselves in through an external stall door, and Bianca blinked as they found themselves, somehow, standing directly across the hall from the Hunters they'd been looking for. Zoë was not above smirking and tipping the younger girl a wink. One picked up a sense for these things over three millennia.
“We appreciate your concern,” Cynthia was saying. Zoë's hand drifted toward her knife at her second's tone; when Cynthia of all people turned cold and biting, something was very wrong. “I'm perfectly happy the way I am.”
The brunette standing across from her folded her arms with a dramatic sigh. “I'm sure you think that,” she said condescendingly. Zoë amused herself for a moment lining up imaginary killshots; she could take out the two girls at once from this angle, and their half-brother lurking to the side in the confusion. “But that's just because you haven't met the one yet! Someday you'll meet a nice guy—”
“Or girl,” her redheaded sister offered fairly. The brunette waved her off.
“Or both, if you're into that sort of thing,” she said dismissively “The point is, if your goddess didn't keep you all on leashes it probably would have happened by now. It's not natural to deny yourself the opportunity to fall in love! You're a young woman just like the rest of us. It's the universal human experience, it what separates us from, like, ants and fish and stuff. Love is what makes us human! Don't worry, someday you'll—”
Bianca flinched, then looked embarrassed, but Zoë was hardly in a position to judge; she'd jumped as well at Diana's shout. It was... unexpected, to say the least. Diana wasn't silent, precisely, not to the degree of quiet Becky, or little Alene who after two thousand years still rarely spoke above a quiet murmur to anyone but her unofficial adoptive parents. But she was notably laconic. If something needed to be said, she would say it unapologetically (a habit which had led to her being summarily barred from any and all diplomatic assignments) but she had never been one for unnecessary chatter or small talk.
She gave detailed reports and was a skilled storyteller, and always willing to spare a smile and a conversation with Cynthia or Alene—but their bond was of utmost importance to her, took precedence over everything else. Outside of those three essential duties, Diana kept her comments largely to herself, rarely minced words, and let Cynthia take the lead in conversations— without any exception that Zoë could recall, in all their years together.. The last time Zoë remembered her raising her voice for anything other than to be heard over the clamor of battle was... gods. She couldn't even remember. Centuries, at the very least.
But now there was fire in her eyes. While (thankfully) it was only figurative, it was a stark reminder of her heritage. Apollo's wrath could burn more fiercely than his sun—Diana was a daughter of the sun god from the ancient days of his full glory, with the full weight of ages behind her. She had seen the Roman Empire rise and fall, held the walls at Troy, kept pace with a goddess through changing eons.
The Aphrodite children fell silent.
“Shut up,” Diana hissed again. She didn't draw a weapon, as Zoë had half expected; her hands were clenched tightly at her sides, but her voice was low and even as she stepped forward slowly. “You know nothing about what makes people human. The only real human in this room is the one you just called broken, and she's not.”
“That's not what she meant,” the boy protested. He was ignored.
“You like talking about love,” Diana said, eyes blazing as the lead brunette stepped back warily. “With all your, what, fourteen years of experience? I've hunted at Cynthia's side for over three thousand. We've shared a bed for almost all of that, without any of what you would consider 'intimacy'. We've kissed four times in all those years, I remember every one, and I know she doesn't because they meant something different to her.”
She swallowed hard, flexing her fingers and blinking rapidly. Zoë got the distinct impression that Diana hadn't intended to reveal quite so much, and wondered how many centuries this confrontation had been building up, how long this kind of erasure had rankled and rasped at Diana's patience. Artemis had always known the nature of her bond with Cynthia; others, apparently, did not.
“That sounds—” the redhead started, but a flash of Diana's eyes silenced her.
“I love her,” she snapped. “I've had three thousand years to get to know what that means. And she's had three thousand years to figure out that she's never felt that kind of desire, not even before we joined the Hunters. I know I love her differently than she loves me. That kind of love—it's not—there are other kinds that are just as powerful. She's never felt any kind of romantic urge or—or physical desire, I have, and there are still days I think she loves me more than I can ever give back!”
Cynthia, who had if possible seemed even more stunned than Zoë up to this point, stepped forward and gripped her forearm. “That's not true,” she said gently, and Diana turned to look at her. After a quiet moment, some of the desperation seemed to drain from the dark-skinned girl, and her voice sounded much more like the Diana Zoë know as she turned back to her shell-shocked audience.
“She's the best mother I've ever seen and a better friend than I could ask for,” she told them, almost businesslike. “She knows I love her differently, and neither of us care, because I would never want anything from her she didn't want too.” A surge of defiance crossed her face as she continued more firmly, “That's what love is, you ignorant, pedantic child. We don't force you to follow our goddess, and we're not planning on following yours. So stand down. We've got a pregnant mare here in a delicate condition.”
“The arguing is stressing her,” Cynthia agreed.
The brunette blinked and frowned. “But she was the one who—”
“Brittany,” their half-brother hissed. “Shut up.” Brittany and her redheaded half-sibling reluctantly took his advice, leaving Cynthia to coo softly at a nervous palomino mare in the suddenly empty stable.
Zoë cleared her throat. “Diana?”
The girl wrapped her arms tightly around her stomach. “What?” she growled. Zoë paused at the aggressive undertone, but given the circumstances...
“That was well said.”
Diana shifted uncomfortably, looking away and back towards the pregnant mare. Cynthia was running her hands carefully over the animal's too-thin flanks; one of the rescue projects, then, which explained the concern over her pregnancy. “I shouldn't have said it,” Diana muttered. “I've been ignoring them since Olympus meant Olympus.”
“Than maybe it's a good thing you said it,” suggested Bianca. Diana blinked in surprise at being addressed by an unfamiliar voice, but didn't look displeased with it. “That was really cool. I, um.” She swallowed. “I can tell how important she is to you.”
Diana sighed, but granted the girl a tired smile. “It's worked so far. I'd appreciate it if you kept it to yourself, though.” Bianca nodded quickly, and Zoë squeezed her friend's shoulder.
“I look away for five minutes...” she said with a smile. “I do not believe I have ever heard that many words at once from thee. It was impressive.”
“Don't spread it around. I have a reputation.”
Cynthia cleared her throat as Zoë released her partner's shoulder with a fond eye roll. “Di?” she called. “Come and look at this, I hope we're not dealing with twins...”
If Zoë had blinked, she might have missed the transformation. At Cynthia's invitation, all the tension and insecurity went out of Diana's face and she was their healer again.
“I doubt it,” she said, letting herself into the stall. “All the signs are that the father is a hippocampus, the odds of conceiving even one foal are against them...”
“Come,” Zoë said to Bianca. “I do not believe we are needed here any longer. With luck, perhaps we can begin thy archery training before supper.”
There was a sense of relief as they stepped out of the stable and back into the open air, though Bianca pulled her jacket tighter around her as they moved back into the cold. Zoë liked stables; the smell of hay and horses was comforting. But she liked the open forest infinitely more. The walk to the arena was a pleasant one; she nodded to Tori as they passed her in the open field around it, sparring with staffs against Kim while Owen watched anxiously from the sidelines. Phoebe seemed to have settled in against a training dummy, while Ari was losing another wrestling match to Alene.
“We will start slowly,” she assured Bianca. “All Hunters have a natural affinity for the bow, but we do not expect thee to become a prodigy overnight. Do you have any experience with archery?”
Zoë summoned her bow, unsurprised. “Most do not. We will start with the basics. Take thy stance, and I will help thee.”
Bianca's stance was riddled with errors, of course, but it was a beginner's honest attempt, and Zoë was pleased with the effort at least. “You are right-handed? Good. Now: Relax. Balance thy weight—not that far back—and let the tension out of thy chest. Much better. Now, thy feet...”
That was, roughly speaking, the moment three Hermes boys gave identical screams of terror and came bolting out of the forest with glowing snakes wound around their chests. Zoë's eyes narrowed as she scanned the treeline and eventually located Becky, peering around the trunk of an oak.
There was always something.
December 22nd, 2004; Mount Olympus
“Lady Artemis,” Zoë whispered, then winced. A pained sigh from somewhere to her left was all the acknowledgment she received. “I am going to kill thy brother.”
There was a low moan of agreement, muffled by the pillow the moon goddess was holding firmly over her head. The window they'd left open last night to bathe in the moonlight had betrayed them, and was now streaming indecent amounts of sunlight directly onto the pillows. As if her head wasn't pounding enough already .
“What did Dionysus put in the wine?” Artemis muttered. Zoë, having used up all of her energy threatening the sun god, whimpered and rolled over to bury her face in the mattress. This had the unintentional side effect of tangling the covers in her legs and dragging them off her goddess.
After a brief exchange of displeased mumbles and apologetic noises that never quite reached coherence, they managed to rearrange the covers in an acceptable manner with minimal retinal exposure to the sunlight.
Zoë was never, ever drinking again.
This was not like all the other times she'd made the exact same promise. It didn't happen often, per se, no more than... oh, once every few centuries. But it had been such a tempting prospect. The Winter Solstice, with Olympus glittering and the festivities in full swing—even to her, such celebrations hadn't lost their magnificence or allure over time. And this time everything had just happened to line up perfectly. The Hunters had been mostly at peace with the visiting demigod councilors, behaving well (even Ari), and Cynthia had them well in hand and seemed to be rather enjoying overseeing the affair.
And, well, Artemis had invited her. Technically Zoë still had a right to attend any function the minor godlings were given access to; she was the daughter of a Titan and a goddess, despite her disinheritance, and chief attendant to one of the Twelve. But she was mostly mortal regardless, and greatly preferred to be out in the city where she was merely another reveler than surrounded by uncomfortable glances and noticeably powerless in defiance of her bloodline. She was not stupid; she knew the world to which she belonged, and it was not the realm of the gods.
But every so often Artemis would ask Zoë to accompany her—ask Zo ë , rather than Zoë as her lieutenant as was usually the case when they had reason to come to Olympus—and how could any mere mortal refuse that kind of offer? There were never stilted, overly-polite greetings on such occasions, no hastily-averted stares or outright mocking. Well, the mocking still happened. But after three thousand years one learned to tune out Hera's snide insinuations, Dionysus' less-than-subtle approval of Artemis' taste, and Ares'... well, existence, really.
Yes, fine. Perhaps she took a small amount of satisfaction from knowing that she was held high enough in her goddess' esteem that their bond was not only common knowledge throughout Olympus but established enough to have become an old joke. Perhaps she did take comfort in that sense of legitimacy. S he was treated something like a standoffish distant relation who never bothered to attend family reunions; deserving of a bit of light mockery and ribbing on the occasions of her rare visits, but nevertheless welcome and entitled to be there, at Artemis' side.
Or perhaps she merely imagined that, and the mocking was genuine. She wouldn't have noticed, really. Not when Artemis' eyes never left her, and she never went more than a few moments without a light touch at her wrist, her elbow, the small of her back. Gentle, reassuring contact; intimate but subtle, and entirely Artemis.
Zoë wouldn't notice the mountain crumbling around them in those moments unless her lady pointed it out.
As such, a mild overindulgence in Olympian wine was entirely justifiable and clearly Artemis' fault.
“I blame thee,” she rasped, then winced at the dryness of her mouth.
Artemis gave a faint laugh, then a long, low moan as she shifted and, presumably, dislodged the pillow from over her face. A hand patted the mattress blindly before settling around Zoë's waist. It would have been sweet if Zoë didn't suspect Artemis was doing it primarily so she could hide her face in her lieutenant's hair.
There was a light, airy sound that Zoë could only describe as “twinkling” from right next to her head. She growled something that resulted in a halfhearted jab from Artemis.
“Lady Artemis,” said Iris' voice cheerfully. Zoë resisted the urge to shoot at it largely because she wasn't willing to lift her head. No one had the right to be that perky the night after an Olympian festival. “I have an automated message for you.”
Artemis made a sound that was very nearly feral. “Declined.”
With another irritatingly loud twinkling noise, the messenger goddess left. With the room now blissfully quiet, Zoë shifted closer to her goddess and was rewarded with a pleased hum. She still felt like she'd been run over by Maenads, but at least she was fairly certain it couldn't get any worse. Artemis was warm and soft and comfortable, and there were worse things than to spend a few hours doing absolutely nothing in her arms.
The twinkling sound returned, louder and more insistent than before.
“Artemis,” Iris replied politely. “I still have an automated message for you. This time it's been flagged as essential.”
“Still declined,” Artemis snapped, then buried her head weakly against Zoë's shoulder and hissed at the spike of pain between her temples.
“It's not optional, I'm afraid. Olympus-wide message from the king of the gods. Unless you want me to tell him you're not interested. I can do that!”
After a pause in which Zoë suspected Artemis was seriously considering it, the goddess groaned and rolled over, pulling a pillow back over her face.
“Zoë,” she mumbled through the cotton. “Deal with this.”
“...I hate thee.”
“That was an order, lieutenant.” It would have sounded more commanding if it wasn't so pathetic.
Contemplating all manner of violent forms of revenge, Zoë braced herself and cracked open an eye.
“What is the message?” she whispered.
The image of Iris—who really had no right to be fully awake, dressed, and professional at... half past noon—cleared her throat. “Ahem: Emergency Council meeting in ten minutes. The Master Bolt has been stolen.”
There was silence for many long, stunned heartbeats.
Very faintly, from under two pillows, Artemis swore.
May 6th, 1985; Shoshone National Forest, Wyoming
The camp was peaceful.
Artemis smiled fondly at the scene. The waning moon glittered on the lake below, gentle ripples distorting the surface without disturbing the quiet. The air was still, but crisp and cool; the branches of the evergreens shifted just slightly in the faint hint of a breeze, wafting the calming scent of the forest around her.
In the clearing where the Hunters had set up camp, a small fire was dying. Silver tents were scattered around the open space, most with the flaps tied back to let in the fresh air. If she listened closely, she could hear deep, even breathing from the sleeping Hunters inside.
She'd told Zoë she was overreacting.
It wasn't that she didn't understand her lieutenant's need to personally look after the Hunters—her devotion to her sisters was why Artemis had created the position of lieutenant in the first place. She found it admirable and endearing in turns, and often both at the same time. Still, she felt entitled to at least a small amount of exasperation at Zoë's stubborn insistence that whenever she left the Hunters 'alone' (or, more accurately, in Cynthia's capable hands) something awful happened.
She imagined it would be impolite to point out that disasters struck just as often when Zoë was there to handle them. Such was the nature of their world. Still, Zoë could not be separated from her duty to the Hunters; it was her core, her grounding purpose, and Artemis had no desire to cause her pain. If the price she paid for Zoë's happiness was to send her quietly home from a meeting on Olympus a few hours early every so often, it was not too high to pay.
She was almost reluctant to intrude on the scene. Zoë's back was to her, perched on a smooth boulder, the ankle of one leg crossed over her knee and a small pile of recently fletched arrows at her side as she worked at the next.
She'd kicked off her shoes; her bare toes dangled idly off the silver duffel bag on which she'd rested her foot, and she'd tied her jacket around her waist to enjoy the weather. The plain white t-shirt underneath was loose-fitting and utilitarian, as per usual, but seeing Zoë relaxed and utterly comfortable was a rare enough experience to make the sight precious to Artemis.
“Enjoying the evening, dear one?” she asked softly.
She'd been hoping to make Zoë jump, but couldn't complain when her lieutenant simply looked back with a smile like she'd been waiting the whole time. “I am glad the winter is over, my lady,” she said, and turned back to her arrows.
Artemis walked over to her rock, nudging her slightly to the side so she could sit down next to her. “I have fond memories of this past winter,” she protested lightly, putting an arm around her lieutenant's waist.
“You say that about every season,” Zoë pointed out.
“I have a talent for making fond memories.” She smirked as Zoë rolled her eyes. “A talent almost as refined as your unique gift for impertinence. I'm not one of your scouts, you know.”
Zoë laughed under her breath. “Welcome back, Lady Artemis, Goddess of the Hunt, Protector of Women and Children, Guardian of Troy. You honor me with thy presence.”
“Mmm.” Artemis leaned over to kiss her jaw. “I've heard better, but I suppose that will do for now.”
Zoë glanced down the shaft of an arrow before setting it aside. “I could bring up immortal seniority,” she said evenly. “Or are all Olympians so quick to disrespect their elders?”
Artemis gave a low chuckle and nipped at her lieutenant's neck. “I see. And are you planning on asserting that claim, Zoë Nightshade, daughter of Atlas, Guardian of the Tree of Immortality, Keeper of the Garden of Twilight—”
Zoë groaned and covered her face. “Fates, stop. How do you live with it, my lady?”
“Simple, really.” Artemis said with a smile, reaching out to brush Zoë's hair behind her ear. “Very few people feel a need to speak to me with excessive reverence, so I avoid them.” For some reason, this made Zoë blush; the goddess caught her chin, turning her head gently to kiss her. “Breathe, my dear one. I enjoy teasing you. For instance, I can see that you were entirely in the right to fear some cataclysmic event. Truly, the camp seems to have barely survived.”
Zoë flushed more, turning away and coughing awkwardly. “I was... being careful, my lady. That is all.”
Artemis shook her head fondly. “Come to bed, Zoë.”
Zoë set her unfinished arrows aside willingly. “I will join thee in a moment,” she said, brushing a kiss over Artemis' temple. “I would like to... walk the perimeter one more time.”
Artemis feigned a reluctant sigh. “If you must.”
Zoë stood by her boulder for exactly three seconds after the tent flap closed behind her goddess before kneeling and unzipping the duffel bag.
Ari McMurphy, expertly bound with strips of soft fabric (Zoë wasn't a barbarian) and with a piece of glowing duct tape over her mouth, glared up at her lieutenant.
“Do not look at me like that,” Zoë said flatly, carefully easing the tape off the little girl's mouth.
“Discrimination,” Ari grumbled. Zoë rolled her eyes. She would have felt slightly guilty, but it was obvious the only thing injured was Ari's pride—and, frankly, there were days she could do with less of it.
“Damage control,” she corrected.
“It's because I'm a child of Hermes, isn't it.”
“You were in there for all of five minutes. And I do not want to know where you acquired military ammunition.”
“Hate crime!” Ari insisted. “I demand due process.”
“This is not a democracy.”
“I protest the oppressive social structure!”
Zoë rolled her eyes as she undid the last of Ari's bonds. “Go to bed.”
Ari grumbled. Zoë would normally have ignored it, but she sensed a tiny hint of genuine hurt; and, as she had just hog-tied a ten-year-old and stuffed her in a duffel bag to maintain an illusion of order, she decided that she could probably relent a bit.
She sighed. “There is a bombing range near Ocala,” she said. “Next time we are in Florida, I will see if we cannot make a brief stop.”
Ari lit up. “Really?” she said gleefully. “You mean it?”
“If you agree to restrain the use of heavy mortars to appropriate venues, I will mean it emphatically.”
Ari snapped to a military salute. “Scout's honor, Fearless Leader.”
“You are not a scout.”
Ari shrugged. “My dad's the god of thieves, you really want me to swear anything on my honor as a Hermes kid?”
“...You make a fair point,” Zoë conceded. “Now, go to bed.”
Ari hugged her happily and ran off toward her tent, brief kidnapping apparently forgotten. Zoë nodded to herself, satisfied, and went to join her goddess.
Autumnal Equinox, 1732; the Austrian Alps
She woke alone.
The mountaintops across the valley were bathed in sunlight, but Artemis was still in shade and would be for hours yet. The pass itself was almost glittering, swimming with pink and orange mist in the early dawn. The dew and beginnings of a fall chill aside, it would have been perfect, if Zoë hadn't been missing.
Stretching, she rolled to her feet. She wasn't concerned. Zoë was more than capable of taking care of herself, and certainly had the right to go where she wished—especially during these rare hunting trips with no responsibilities to speak of. It wouldn't surprise her if her lieutenant had decided to hike higher up and greet the dawn. No, she wasn't concerned.
Curious, however, that was another matter. Even after all this time, Zoë Nightshade still managed to surprise her.
Briefly, she considered shapeshifting again. A hawk would do the job well, or... she was partial to her wolves, and the form would certainly help her track her wayward lover. She quickly dismissed the idea. No, that was all well and good for the kind of wild games they liked to play when they were alone, but at the end of the day they met as themselves. As equals.
And it wasn't as if she needed Olympian tricks to track a single nymph threw dewy grass. That would just be cheating .
Zoë wasn't hiding; her trail was bold and clear down the mountain, and Artemis followed it easily. She took the time to be equally amused and impressed with the path her lieutenant had chosen to take. It was efficient, for the most part, following the path of least resistance like any good forester; but every so often she would go out of her way to find a more interesting route. For almost three whole seconds, Artemis lost the trail completely; it seemed to stop in the middle of a sharp dropoff for no apparent reason, until she realized that instead of follow the trail fifty feet to where it turned back on itself Zoë had instead chosen to leap out, catch herself on a birch branch, and swing into a nearby pine to shimmy down it.
It was utterly ridiculous, and yet entirely Zoë. Artemis couldn't help grinning as she copied the maneuver.
Once she reached the ground, the trail turned toward a nearby stream, following its bank until Artemis came around a bend and spotted Zoë just downstream.
She was sitting cross-legged on a log, near a place where some large boulder had impeded the stream until it spilled over the top, forming a small waterfall that generated just enough spray in the early-morning sunlight to send an Iris-message.
“...but Diana says it's just a regular cold, and she'll be over it in a week,” the shifting image of Cynthia was saying as Artemis approached. “Oh, by the way; Anna thinks she's improved the net arrow design. It looks promising; we may test it once she gets the materials to build a prototype. I'll let you know how it works.”
Zoë smiled and shifted to a more comfortable position. “As long as you are careful.”
“We always are, Zoë,” Cynthia assured her. “I promise everyone will still be in one piece when you get back. Seven more weeks, right?”
Stepping deliberately on a patch of dry leaves, Artemis pulled herself onto Zoë's log. The girl only jumped a little, and seemed embarrassed until Artemis reached out and touched her elbow gently. “Give or take a few days, yes,” she answered. “We will send a message before we leave.”
“Hello, Lady Artemis,” said Cynthia. It occurred to Artemis suddenly that it must be unfairly early for the poor girl; if the sun was barely rising in the Alps, it must be the middle of the night in the Appalachians. “Take your time, everything's quiet in the colonies. We do miss you, though. It's not the same when you two are away.”
Artemis smiled. “Give my love to the Hunters.”
“Thank you for speaking with me,” Zoë added. “I know it is early.”
Cynthia waved off her concern. “I can take third watch one a week to keep you informed. It's not a problem. How are the Alps?”
Zoë leaned comfortably against Artemis' side. “Invigorating,” she said, and Artemis toyed with her braid as she continued. “I adore the Hunters, but I will admit I have enjoyed not having to worry about running a camp. Two together travel with much more freedom than seventeen.”
Cynthia's smile was almost wistfully nostalgic. “I remember. I hunted with just Diana for almost a century before you, if you recall. I wouldn't go back to it, of course, but they're still some of my favorite memories.”
Artemis hummed. “Perhaps the two of you might take a few weeks next spring, if nothing urgent comes up.”
Cynthia beamed. “I'd like that, my lady.” She couldn't quite hide a yawn at the end of the sentence, however.
Zoë's lips twitched. “Get some sleep, Cynthia,” she said. “Thank you, again.”
“Any time,” the blonde replied. “Enjoy yourself, won't you? Gods know you deserve it.” She waved her hand through the connection, and left Zoë and Artemis on their log.
“Worried, dear heart?” Artemis murmured, tucking Zoë closer against her side.
The girl thought about it for a moment, and a wide smile spread slowly across her face. She hopped off the log and into the rushing stream, paying no attention to the water soaking her trousers, and took Artemis' hands to pull her onto her feet as well. Whether she'd planned the kiss, or planned for it to be as hard as it was, Artemis had no idea; but she cupped a hand behind Zoë's neck anyway and pulled her as close as she could.
“I am not,” Zoë answered breathlessly when they finally broke apart. “Not today.”