There was a sharp crack behind me.
Wild-eyed, I whipped around, my bow notched and loaded before I had even rolled to my feet.
Before me stood a young girl – an Artemisian Hunter – one whose spirit seemed to have been claimed by the wild huntress long before she had even yet reached a marrying age. The glint of the silver crescent insignia on the cross strap of her quiver seemed to confirm my suspicions. Yet I could not relax my bow, for even as I took in this young mortal-but-not's features, her eyes remained as round an alert as ever, as if transfixed by some horror.
Perhaps it's the idea of the innocent Goddess of Springtime with a hunting bow, though somehow I had a feeling that my hands still bearing the blood another goddess's handmaiden probably garnered a bit more attention.
Well isn't that just my luck.
"Arathusa," the girl whispered. Her eyes hardened. Her bow curled listlessly in one hand as the other dropped to the ram's horn bugle by her side, wresting it from its straps and slowly placed it to her lips.
Time seemed to stretch and slow in that moment. I couldn't afford to stop and explain my predicament, and although this girl was hardly immortal, she was one of Artemis' handmaidens, which meant she was barely mortal too. Artemis had made her deadly, but I needed to stall for time; catch her off guard without actually getting either one of us getting maimed in the process. So I did the last thing any sane archer would expect a fellow bowman to do – I launched myself directly at her.
The girl squeaked in surprised, but by then I had already shoved her to the ground and bounded past her before she had a chance to recover.
Crashing through the thickets, I hedged around the outside of the clearing and back the opposite direction of her approach. Surely, there would be more with her. Overhead, I could hear the hunting horn, long and mournful, dissipating into the mists above. After a pause, another responded to its lament, this one echoing all around me as more and more answered its call.
For me, the woods held a special kind of horror. Visions of deadly silver danced in my mind's eye as I imagined them streaking through the trees and burying themselves in my back and neck, heralding the reappearance of the demonic entity from the clearing before. Even now, it was as if the shadows and the trees were conspiring against me, each taking turns twisting at my feet and tearing at my tunic. Behind me, a telltale zing of a bowstring caused me to stumble to my feet, just missing the fickle silvery shaft which just only moments ago had planned to bury itself in my skin. I grit my teeth and kept running. It was my own surreptitious horror turned waking nightmare.
As I passed under another open patch of sky, I could see the silver moonlight slipping through the trees, signaling the approaching night. Once the last of the light of dusk had shaded in and out of twilight, the Huntress Goddess herself would surely come for me, at which point my immortality could go happily to hell in a hand basket for all the good it was going to do then.
I burst out of the forest, thinking that I was to find myself in another clearing, but the forest had suddenly just, well, stopped. Collapsing onto a large, grayed rock, I surveyed my surroundings. Before me, the trees thinned away significantly, giving way to a rolling sea of colorless wheat before my eyes. Beyond that? Nothing. It was as if here the God Pan had suddenly given up, surrendering treasured soil to the whims of chance. I didn't like it. It felt… unnatural, otherworldly.
"Why have you come here?"
A voice swathed in velvet and silver broke me from my uneasy reverie. I rolled clumsily off the rock into a defensive stance. Before me, a silver-haired apparition dressed in pitch black armor held my gaze. "I could ask you the same," I replied evenly, though I was desperately trying to keep my bow arm from quivering.
"What's this? The little Goddess of Springtime trains an arrow at my heart? Oh, the Fates have a sense of humor indeed!" the figure responded, his laugh low and rumbling. It was a curious sound, one that made me yearn to hear another strand of its melody. Almost. Goddess of Springtime or no, this goddess does not like being laughed at.
"And what's so amusing about that? An arrow is still an arrow, is it not? And it is a weapon that may surely draw its victims' mortal blood, regardless of whose hand stays its company," I replied haughtily. To my frustration, this only made him laugh all the harder. I couldn't take it any longer. Springtime wasn't renowned for its patient temperament.
"What the Hell is the matter with you?!"
Instead of answering in anger, he stopped. "What in Hell, indeed," he murmured enigmatically; with such sincerity that it was all I could do to keep my mouth from popping open. Then, just as fleetingly as it had gone, he was back. He fixed me with a wolfish smile.
"Well, well, my dear Persephone, It appears you have reached an impasse. "
"Wherefore say you this?" I replied, keeping my speech formal; I did not like the idea that my options were now limited just because some overly-pompous - albeit extremely dangerous - stranger said it was to be so.
He gestured grandly about the area. "Surely you hear the hunting horns getting closer? By the nightfall, even Artemis herself shall pursue you through these woods. To your back, approach the hunters. Before you, you will not be able to make it one league before the Goddess herself pierces you with her vengeful arrow and brings you forth for judgment before the Council of the Gods. Demeter holds no power in their court; she is little more than a symbol there. Your Father –"
"My father is Zeus, you miscreant." So much for formalities.
"Your Father—" he continued silkily, "—will not dare to raise his voice against the Divine Huntress should his queen, Hera, take her side. Do not forget that your mother is not his queen, my dear."
I felt myself flush; whether from anger or shame, though, I know not which won out as the stronger of the two.
"Now, there is, of course, a third option." My eyes whipped toward him in surprise, watching the curious stranger before me for any signs of untruth. Spying ill-masked suspicion upon my expression, he smirked cajolingly at me.
Yet his next words, serpent soft, did not seem to match his previously candid expression.
Two words: It was both a petition and a plea, a demon's enticement and a Hail-Mary wrapped into one, irresistible compilation. An ultimatum. Trust him.
He held out a single iron and leather clad palm beseechingly, his red eyes burning feverishly with that wolfish confidence of his and something else – concern? Fear? Of what? That I might say no? I had no options left.
Besides, I was already powerless to resist.
2 down, more to come! R&R - please and thank you!