*This is a continuation of a series. Find the rest in the archives under the Elemental series.
Crisp daylight fell in choked slivers through the cracks in the crypt door. Dust danced in the bright white light, falling and settling restlessly down onto the hard concrete slab of the tomb. The cloying stench of death and decay stifled the air as he hastily sucked in a breath, prying the door open with a resounding creak. The thick layer of dust stirred on the concrete coffin as a cold wind howled into the damp chamber for the first time in years.
His calloused fingers hesitated on the lid of the tomb. A deep chill permeated the air as though a faint whisper of the tortured soul imprisoned within the crypt still lingered, seething at the injustice of her death long ago.
The huntsman had slaughtered innocents in the name of his mistress Artemis, tracked prey around the world, stared into the wide eyes of a poor man and slit his throat because of a simple accident when he had stumbled upon Artemis in the bath.
All of it in her name; just to see satisfaction light the goddess’s cold yellow-hazel eyes that he loved so much, just so he could hear the barely perceptible hint of admiration in her voice, sinning endlessly to earn a love he knew she would never give.
But at least those innocents had been sacrificed at the request of his lady, for some greater heavenly purpose. This task was his least sinful on paper, but as he stood still in the light-flooded secret crypt, he felt chilled to his bones. Every fiber of his being tingled and shivered with a cold as deep as the ninth circle of hell. Please forgive me.
Orion lifted the cover of the stone tomb and immediately recoiled. Pungent aromas of blood and decay exploded into the crypt. A body lay crumpled in the confined stone case, barely recognizable with the rotting skin and glassy eyes: Inara Nightlock. Dried brown blood stained her forehead in a nasty wound, her fingernails caked with grime from fighting back against her kidnappers, ebony hair matted and tangled.
Orion thought of the Earth girl, of the brief moments he’d seen her jetting across the waves with his captives, hope still tangled in her heartstrings that her long-lost sister was out there somewhere when all the while she’d been here. An innocent murdered and dumped in a dusty crypt, her name engraved into the cement lid by the sick, twisted killer that had left her here. A man Artemis killed years ago! She has already been avenged, and my lady Artemis using her to weaken the rebel goddesses is nothing more than a way to honor Inara. I have already failed my lady, and now she has sent me here to do a simple job. I can’t fail her again.
Even as he thought it, he knew what he was about to do was vile in his culture. In any culture. The very marrow in his bones shuddered with cold now, the harsh daylight doing nothing to warm his shivering frame. With Artemis’s cruel, ethereal face hovering in his mind, he resealed the lid. Dragging the chisel out of his pocket with a quaking hand, he brought down a mighty slash straight across her name. In a spray of grit the meticulously etched letters were scarred beyond recognition.
Orion was still for a second, his uneven breath rasping in the death-like silence. It felt as though his heart suffocated in his stomach as the realization of what he’d done set in: he’d just desecrated the tomb of an innocent, even if that tomb had been sealed by a murderer.
Out of the blue everything went dark along with the screech of the crypt door being shut. He heard a muffled heartbeat faster and faster, reminiscent of the Tell Tale Heart. Artemis’s tinkling laugh bounced off the walls, becoming more and more demonic each second and all the while the tick of the heart raged on. A young woman’s scream sounded from the dark, echoing around the huntsman from every side.
“Please! Let me out!” Orion groped blindly for the door. Sobs tore his throat, darkness swallowing the room whole like he was in the damp maw of a beast. He found no knob, no handle. Each limb of his fine-tuned body shook uncontrollably from a bone-rattling fear that sent him spiraling into hysteria.
“Your sins have caught up to you, huntsman. Did you think I would not judge you because you have some convoluted love for a maiden goddess? You will perish as you have made others perish: slowly and without a shred of dignity.”
A sharp sting pricked his throat, fire spreading through his muscled neck. His eyes bulged as the memory came back to him in flashes as though it was trickling slowly through a leaky faucet. Beady black eyes of the scorpion. Artemis, an avenging angel above him. The crunch of the scorpion under her boot. Sic itur ad astra. But before that, something that the world was sure Orion had long forgotten under a haze of ambrosia and ebbing pain.
“I love you too.” Artemis. His one true love. On some level, he knew that memory was Death’s last gift to him before the pain of all his sins caught up to him all at once. Yet he still extended one final reach for life.
“Artemis! Please, have mercy!” The deep cold dragged him into the darkness with the force of the undertow pulling a sailor into the depths. With his back plastered to the cold crypt wall, Orion screamed, his head splitting, and prayed for the sliver of light to reappear. It was time. After years and years, he knew it was time. But he couldn’t let go. Could she?
Inara ducked down another side street, her shadow flitting out of view. The pound of her boots pummeled her legs with each thumping step. Time was an amorphous deity, dragging on at seconds where each bounding stride was a shot of pain and then racing ahead like a bullet train; one moment she was on the street, Inara just a spot on the skyline, and in the blink of an eye Zara found herself in an alley with her long-lost sister directly ahead of her.
It’s not her… her brain hissed. Instinct was riding high– her whole body itched with the wrongness of the figure she chased. It’s not her… They always said you can’t trust your eyes. You have to trust your gut. And her gut? It felt like a hurricane was ripping through it, flurries of fears and false hope funneling into a roiling vat of searing frustration. Frustration… frustration that Inara was just beyond her reach around every turn, that her whole village, destitute and droughted, wanted to burn her at the stake for bringing prosperity to the land, at the reality that she had been traveling with a mysterious stranger for the past day and would probably never see her family again.
The girl paused for a fraction of a second in the middle of the intersection, looking back. Zara’s breath hitched at her sister’s pale jade eyes staring back at her. Inara. Ebony skin dashed with off-white flour, long hair loose and flowing as though it had been hastily tied back and then had fallen out again.
“Zara? Is that… is that you?” Her musical voice carried on the rustling breeze. Zara’s knees were weak, legs shaking like the jello her family never could afford from the “big-city” markets of Kommetjie. The words that left her lips next were a blubbering string of emotion-choked sounds.
“Yes–I–can’t believe you’re alive! Where have you–do you own a bakery now, like you dreamed? Why haven’t you contacted us? Inara, it’s been…”
“Years?” She offered with a strained laugh. A funny look crossed her face, an unbecoming blankness, emotionless as shards of ice: lips set in a hard line, glazed eyes, perfectly smooth brow. It melted away as quickly as it arrived. Zara took a careful step closer, just feet from her sister. The traffic light above them flickered uselessly… the street was eerily quiet for a few long seconds.
“Are you okay, Inara? The police searched years for you! You ran away, I could have sworn you were dead–”
“Where are your friends?” Inara blurted.
“What? How could you–” Her sister’s shoulders tensed, the delicate gold flecks in her jade eyes brightening wildly. They had always been a light tone but with each passing second, it seemed to Zara that the gold was taking over Inara’s soft eyes.
“Answer the question,” Inara hissed, ripping away her flour-dusted jacket to reveal a tank-top. Crimson bloodstains darkened the white fabric. Scars marred her arms in poorly-healed-over pink gashes. A cloud passed over the sun abruptly, throwing shadows over the intersection.
“Talia is with the others, helping Daria. She’d been shot with an arrow… please, Inara. Stop. You need to see a doctor right away. This,” she gestured vaguely to the sky, the air, the world itself, “can’t be real. I’m mixed up in something bad, Inara. And it looks like you are too.”
Inara’s eyes were solid gold marbles in their sockets, not a trace of the pale jade. The perfect skin of her forehead was peeling away in grotesque layers to reveal a bloody gash, the smooth ebony facade on her wrists falling away to reveal rope burns. She didn’t look like Inara, the aspiring baker that loved the city. She was a blunt-force trauma and kidnapping victim reanimated. She was a demon.
“Little sister, you’re wrong about one thing. This is real. Even if I’m not.”
Zara stepped back, tripping in a pothole and plummeting, black hair flying. Panic mounted in her heart. Nausea barraged her stomach in hot waves like her gut saying a huge “I told you so!”, bile searing her throat.
“Who are you?” She gasped. “Where is my sister? Why are you doing this?” The bleeding girl cocked her head, an uncanny portrait of Inara painted with blazing gold eyes.
“Lots of questions, little goddess girl, all with easy answers. My name is Artemis, huntress and eternal maiden. Your sister is dead.” Before Zara had time to gasp, Artemis laughed, flakes of the facade falling and taking to the breeze. “And why am I doing this? Well, two reasons. One: I wanted to crush your heart. Like mine has been for thousands of years. You’ll find eventually that you prefer it that way… it hurts more at first but you will never feel another pain. For who can break what is already shattered?”
Those last words hung on her lips as though they were meant to be a rhetorical question, but she had discovered an answer. Eyes flitting to the sky, Artemis tensed, suddenly on high-alert. It reminded Zara exactly of the feral look on a wolf’s face when they catch a whiff of a rival pack. Artemis had undoubtedly heard some kind of signal, one that answered her own question. Whatever it was, it was from something or someone that could break her heart for good. With a decisive motion, she slammed her shoe down onto Zara’s shin. A sickening crack sounded.
“Second reason? To lead you away from your friends. The plan is simple, really. Break all of you pathetic goddesses down one-by-one, luring each one away until all that is left is my target. Selene, my best friend.” A cat-like grin spread over her face, one that didn’t linger.
“There’s nothing you can do to find them. I led you miles away, and you followed as willingly as a gullible puppy dog. Goodbye, Zara. It’s a shame I won’t get to see you die.”
Artemis disappeared, taking with her the only trace of Zara’s long-lost sister. Crumpled on the ground, her shin wasn’t the only thing shattered. For her sister was dead… and Zara would never visit her grave. Just as she summoned the strength to cry out, a bus hurtled through the intersection. The wheels screeched like a banshee, in perfect harmony with her screams. The world. Went. Dark.