Thanks to thyrandomninja for betaing and just generally sorting the mess that was the first chapter of this chapter out! You rule!
The Minotaur's breath alone was enough to make Zoe gag. It plucked her from the ground with ease and held her up at eye level. Zoe's bow lay out of reach amongst the leaves, leaving her defenceless against the monster. She tried to calm herself. Panicking would get her nowhere, and if she was going to die, she would do so with dignity. She glared. The Minotaur responded with a deafening roar, making her wince.
Zoe and the Minotaur stared at each other for a long moment. Its cold eyes were black and soulless, obsidian pits boring into her. Having acquired its prey, the creature began to turn, moving away from the clearing. She found its behaviour baffling. All monsters tried to kill demigods and hunters as quickly as possibly, and the Minotaur was particularly infamous for it, yet it clearly had other plans for her.
The Minotaur had only taken six steps when it suddenly lurched and bellowed angrily again. Zoe covered her ears. Swinging wildly, the arm holding her tossed her aside. The figure of another hunter flashed into view before she ploughed into the patchy grass, landing in a crumpled heap in the dirt. For a moment, she couldn't move, and fear shot through her.
Leilani's voice called her name from a short distance away. Forcing her head up, Zoe spotted the tiny ginger girl squaring up to the Minotaur alone and her fears of paralysis were overridden by a fierce protective instinct. Leilani had placed herself between the beast and Zoe and was buying her friend time. Not long, but enough time to pick herself up off the ground.
"Over here, you half-witted buffoon!" Leilani yelled, retreating towards the trees.
The Minotaur didn't give chase immediately, but once she started launching small throwing stars, it gave in to its rage and charged. Leilani's eyes widened as she realised what she had done. She turned on her heels and ran with it close behind.
Leilani had many talents, but running was not one of them; Zoe knew it would catch her soon, and even as she rose on shaky legs, she saw it lower its horns ready to ram its target. Leilani was nimble enough to dive to the side before it could hit her full on, but it still caught her with an arm and sent her crashing to the floor before itself colliding with a tree.
After turning back, it approached her again, and she didn't regain her balance in time to move out of the way. The second swipe would've killed her instantly had Celesta not dropped down from a tree in front of it, summoning lightning as she moved. She barrelled into Leilani's side, taking the hit herself.
Celesta was not a small woman. She was stronger and more battleworn than Leilani, and while it crippled her for a short while, Zoe knew that her intervention had almost certainly saved Leilani from a fatal wound. She made a mental note to mention it to Artemis. Celesta's usual battle strategy was fighting alone, all guns blazing. Zoe was surprised she'd gone for a defensive approach rather than attacking it in a frenzy as she usually did.
Celesta stumbled to the ground, but she'd managed to shock the Minotaur hard enough to daze it for a few moments. Zoe had notched a trio of arrows. With a shout, she let them fly across the clearing where they buried themselves into the Minotaur's side. It turned yet again, settling its gaze on its latest target.
Artemis! Godspeed, my Lady!
Zoe's plea only summoned Helena. The teenager ran to her side, then saw the approaching monster and ducked away again. Zoe assumed she'd made her retreat, but she was proven wrong when she came in from the side and a knife sliced into the Minotaur's leg. Zoe leapt forwards as Helena struck.
The Minotaur was now in a complete rage. As Zoe finally reached her, it raked its claws across Helena's body in one fluid movement and sent her flying. The monster glanced down in irritation as Zoe flung herself at it, sending the monster reeling backwards from the force of the impact. Both she and the monster yelled out, and a crack sounded from deep in her arm, which had taken the brunt of the shock.
The others descended around her to defend the pair, burying arrows and blades into its hide. Zoe muttered something vicious under her breath, cradling her shattered arm. She allowed one of the girls to pull her out of harm's way as she recovered from her momentary burst of pain.
"Celesta!" Zoe called, voice rasping. "Seek out Elsa! Helena requires a healer immediately."
Celesta looked unimpressed by her dismissal from the fight, but slipped away into the trees nonetheless. As soon as she vanished, Zoe realised that sending the away strongest fighter had been a terrible idea, but she couldn't undo it. Instead of wasting time regretting her decision, she helped the remaining hunters re-establish their defence then turned her attention to the youngest of the group.
The girl in question was shivering violently, and curled up in a ball on the leaves. With the utmost care, Zoe gently prised her limbs apart so she could assess the wound. The gash was pulsing with the darkest blood she'd ever seen, matching Helena's dark skin. In the dimming light, it seemed like a metallic sheen was soaking across Helena's shirt. Zoe had to fight back a growing feeling of nausea.
The furious battle cries of the other hunters filled the air. The gravity of the situation had finally sunk in, and now all the Hunters wanted was to grind the offending party into dust. With an emotion that can only be described as pure rage, the small group of girls sent the injured monster into a hasty retreat.
"Hunters, fall back!"
Zoe let out an audible gasp of relief at the sharp voice; Artemis had finally arrived. A second later, she was doubly reassured as a second figure dropped from a tree and ran to her side. Elsa took one look at Helena's shaking form, and grimaced. Fear shot through Zoe.
"What is wrong? Can thee not heal her?"
Elsa didn't even look up as she replied. Her hands flew over Helena's body, checking how far the poison had gone.
"Oh, I can save her." She mumbled.
There was an implication in her words that Zoe didn't like. As Elsa put her hand on Helena to start her healing magic, Zoe stopped her.
"And what of thyself?" Zoe asked quietly.
Elsa pulled her hand away from Zoe's grasp.
"I've never done something as bad as this before." She said, looking into Zoe's eyes. "I can drain her wound; you know how my healing works. I'm just not sure if I can heal myself."
The world came to a standstill as Zoe realised what she was saying. "Elsa..." she started, but trailed off.
What could she say? She could never order Elsa to make that kind of sacrifice, but she knew Elsa wouldn't let Helena die either. She looked around for Artemis, silently pleading for the goddess to take this hellish responsibility from her shoulders.
Artemis flitted back into view amongst the trees, and Zoe's heart leapt. Artemis would know what to do. She always made the right calls. Zoe was about to call out to her when warmth swept over her, and a light appeared in the corner of her eye. She spun round, dreading what she was going to see.
Her fears were confirmed when she saw the light fading and Elsa Laureline collapse next to her friend's unmoving body, a rapidly darkening patch spreading across her spotted dress.
A/N - As usual, please review! There'll be spots for you guys to make appearances and I'm more likely to favour the people who have reviewed awesomely over those that haven't :)