Artemis looked awful. Singed. Slightly smoking. Blackened with shocks, hair somehow equally frizzy and wet, matted to her scalp with rain. But that was just the problem…she should look perfect.
Goddesses were the essence of perfection. Shiny hair. Bright eyes. Lithe yet ample figures, dressed to the nines in luxurious silks–how Artemis always had looked. Until now.
She was torn to shreds…and more human than ever before. Because of the Huntsman.
Artemis had saved him. For no gain of her own. For no discernible reason other than true affection; was that even possible for an immortal? True affection for a human–not even a king or noble: a human distinctly beneath her status, one more love-sick mercenary blinded by devotion. She hadn’t just changed…I looked into her eyes and saw a true metamorphosis.
Yet the perfect symmetry of her cheekbones reminded me of her alienness. And my memory reminded me of the friend I had never known, dead in the road. Zara.
“I don’t know what’s changed in you, Artemis. I can see–but it doesn’t change what I have to do. I think you know what I mean,” I stated. A final invitation of mercy. Artemis didn’t waver; I sighed with resolve. So it had to be said.
“Surrender Olympus. Or we will have no other choice.”
Our chain of power unlinked, each girl raising a palm to the clouds. Elements exploded into the air, bonded by an invisible force. It was like a row of fireflies igniting at once–flame, water, starlight, storm. Even the earth groaned, dirt kicking up in flurries around us. Watching the dust clouds twirl up from the soil, a phenomena I would have previously attributed to wind became a sign that Zara’s spirit lived on. Somewhere in the great beyond, she was on our side.
Artemis seemed to consider the scene. Orion, healed, just barely stirring the soot. Our line of glistening power, banded together like a strand of stars.
And all the while, I saw her shoulders rise and fall in a way they never had before, just one more inhuman detail I had missed before. Artemis was breathing now. Like me, or Daria, or any other living person.
But even I would not confuse the presence of humanity for a lack of pride. Before she even said the words, I knew.
“Olympus will never be surrendered.”
My mercy condensed into anger. I beckoned starlight down from the heavens, opening myself to accept the surge. Bitter as frost. Hot as fire. Intensely painful and blissful, coating my veins and burning my tongue with a buzz I could only describe as transcendence. I was higher than the sky itself, whirling in a sea of energy, soaring on the wings of a cosmic beast.
And then I fell.
Snatched back down through the bliss. Reality crashed in. My hand caught on a ledge as my feet slid out from underneath me, swinging forward and smashing my body against the cliff. Cliff? Shrieking, my pinkies slipped on the grass, roots sprayed dirt into my eyes.
“Selene!” Kenna cried out. I couldn’t think to respond. Looking down, I saw a gaping maw of darkness, descending through the bowels of the earth. Dirt morphing from light to dark to stone, down and down into the abyss.
I clawed out, screeching, throwing my right shoulder to gain purchase on the ground above. My nails scraped the ashy dirt–there was nothing to pull myself up. And no one to help me. Artemis’s face appeared above me, sarcastically grim. As though she couldn’t effortlessly help me to safety. As though my life couldn’t be spared, as though she couldn’t simply bend over and lend a hand.
“You disgust me,” I spat, gritting my teeth. A few more fingers slipped, catching on jagged rocks. Blood trickled down into my eyes along with the dirt, fat, viscous drops warm as they splattered my forehead.
Another face appeared. Orion. He drew his bow, arrow pointed directly at my forehead. I refused to conjure an innocent expression. Beg for mercy. Weep and cry. There was no point, just as there was no way out of this…so how did I get into it at all?
Artemis may be incredibly powerful–maybe even omniscient–but the earth wasn’t her domain. She couldn’t split it any more than I could. So who did?
I didn’t have time to ponder the question. A figure flew over my forehead, tackling Orion to the ground. Fire erupted across the grass. I was yanked up by two strong, tan hands. Kenna. Turning to the ravine, I saw Daria leap across the impossible gap, boosted by a gust of wind I assumed was Talia’s doing. She herself flashed across, flying so deftly it seemed like a second nature; in fact, I guess it was her undiscovered first nature, one she could have been using since she was a kid. How helpful that would have been during the chase…
A few figures emerged through the gloom, fog dissipating as they came into view. It was impossible to ignore them. Impossible to fight.
Kenna’s flames dissolved where they had been scorching Orion’s hair. Talia dropped unceremoniously to the dirt. Daria’s water projectiles splashed uselessly back into puddles.
The Olympians were here. Suddenly it became all too clear to me who split the ground as Hades himself stepped forth, black robes trailing in the rubble. Zeus, tanned, donning a gold and white toga. Apollo clad in a laurel crown, hyacinths tucked in his buttery hair. Demeter, beautiful, draped in vines, Poseidon hefting a silver trident. Hermes with winged shoes. Aphrodite, the vision of perfection, shifting through super model forms in a dizzying display of beauty. Hera. Athena. Ares. Hephaestus. Dionysus.
“I hear word that you challenge the Olympic thrones,” Zeus’s guttural voice boomed, crackling on the air like electricity. I quivered as the shockwave slammed through the ground at my feet—it took every drop of my will not to fall to my knees. “I would suggest you abandon your plight. It would be a shame if such potent talent was wasted.”
Kenna was the first to snap out of our collective trance. Here I was, gaping at them like an idiot, and she was already stepping forward. Vigor lit her eyes. Fire licked her shoulders.
“You sicken me. These earthquakes and wildfires devastating our cities, tsunamis that rock the waters, storms that slaughter innocent children…all your fault. Under your control! Whether you’re enraged by some helpless servant who drops your dinner or just bored while sitting on your throne, human people die.
Mothers. Fathers. Sisters and brothers. Future doctors. Your own children lose their lives for your enjoyment! In a fit of your petty rage!” Kenna screamed. The flames on her shoulders shifted from red to orange, lighter, brighter, hotter and hotter. The smell of burning cloth filled the air, mingling with the ash—
Something flickered white among their ranks. Apollo was on the ground in a flash, gold body slammed from behind. Hyacinths crushed on soot. Laurel wreath flung off into the ravine. A lithe figure kneeled on his back. He thrashed. Other Olympians swarmed the form, but it clung on even tighter, ripping at bare skin, thrusting a dagger forth with reckless abandon.
I shot a glance at my friends. Each wore a mask of confusion. All were accounted for. Then what–who–was attacking?
Yet I saw it, the willowy build concealing strength as it pocked Apollo’s skin with holes.
Artemis was attacking her own brother.
I didn’t have time to question it. This was my shot. I surged forward, tackling Demeter. Her head slammed a rock and bounced back without cracking. Vines sprouted from the earth at my feet, entangling my ankles and circling my torso. I was trapped.
The harvest goddess lunged at me. Faster than I could summon the starlight to blind her, she was struck down by a crack of lightning. Breaking free of the plant’s thorny grip, I saw Talia sweep her arm towards the abyss. Demeter’s blackened body swept over my head in a monstrous gust of wind and rammed the cliffside.
The Olympic goddess fell. Spiraled. Clawed at empty air. Down she plummeted into the milky black, ink hair and singed dress melting into nothingness.
I waited five seconds, ten. No figure emerged. The pit was deathly silent.
Silent…and begging for more food.
Shock struck even more powerful than Talia’s lightning: we could use Hades’ own weapon to dethrone them.
I surveyed the chaos. Apollo was unmoving, face a mask of shock; betrayed by his own sister. Immobilized by her dagger. Talia was simultaneously locked in a war of lightning with Zeus and trading blows with Dionysus. I couldn’t see Kenna or Daria in the blur of figures. I prayed their disappearance was because they were in the throws of battle, not lying in the ashes.
I bolted for Apollo. Artemis’s weapon stuck out on his back like a poison thorn. Powerful enough to incapacitate the sun god…I was certain it would incinerate me if I touched it. As for the god himself, I wasn’t sure I could lay a hand on him without devastating burns. So I didn’t. Calling back that icy-hot light, I let it fizzle through my fingertips and materialize in the air. A lasso of white-hot starlight snaked around his toga. With a flick of my wrist it pulled tight.
The god stared up at me in horror. His life was in my hands…yet I felt no guilt when I searched his face. The stunning perfection which had enchanted so many mortal girls showed me inhumanity. The scorched earth I saw in Kommetjie showed me disregard for life, carelessness with his all-important task. Crops had wilted. Families had starved. And it was all his fault.
I wound up the rope and cast him into the ravine. Before I could watch him fall I was knocked off my feet. My tattered dress was immediately soaked through by a tide of rushing water.
Sputtering, I righted myself, suddenly floating in a rising river. Floundering for a hold, I found a crumbling tombstone and latched on, fighting the hungry current. A body shot towards me as a new wave crashed over my head. Dionysus–purple robes soaked black–fumbled for a grip on the grave.
Two fingers latched on. Side by side, we struggled with the suction of the abyss. I shrieked, lashing the spike of my heel at his calf. With a yowl of pain, he disappeared over the frothy edge.
Squinting into the roiling water, I saw one more form devoured by the pit. She was beautiful as she fell, perfectly coiffed hair somehow unwetted by the tide. The despair in those bright eyes wrenched my heart. My gut grew suddenly warm, a fever dawning over my head. In the millisecond that my squinting eyes locked with her amber-gold gaze, I was entranced.
So I let go. The tombstone rushed away in a haze of sea spray, my body thrown back into the racing current. Aphrodite’s spell was broken at once. What have I done? I thrashed in the water, but the tide was too strong. My gut was cold with the nearness of impending death. She wanted to take me out with her.