HA! That's right, quick turnaround time on this chapter! Can't tell you it'll always be this quick, but I've been feeling inspired lately. Additionally, this chapter was mostly beta-read by DebatorMax. Thank you for agreeing to help me out with my most hated part of writing, which is grammatical editing!
Also, this story just passed two-thousand followers! That is an insane number to me, and I thank you all again for the support, reviews, comments, and suggestions that have been put forward.
The short walk back to the center of her hunt's campsite was full of trepidation, as she seemed to finish each footfall with time slowed all around camp. Artemis found her gaze falling on different members of the Hunt:
Phoebe, who was stretching outside her tent. Elizabeth, Victoria, and Kathleen all of whom were engaged in a conversation full of laughs and content smiles. Mara, who fondly kneeled next to a few wolves and was quietly giving them scratches behind the ears. Sarah, who was busily organizing ambrosia chunks and small nectar bottles in her leather waist bag. Emily, always up early, was cleaning out what must have been the pot that the hunt had already devoured during breakfast. Angelina, who was serving out the last few minutes of the morning watch on the far side of the clearing. Winifred, a hand on her healed wound, as Artemis imagined the figure of Jennifer sitting next to Winifred by the ashen remains of the Hunt's fire pit. Anna and Christina, chatting absentmindedly while carrying two bags of laundry over their shoulders. And Zoe, her always faithful friend, already looking her way from the center of camp. She stood at attention while talking with the new recruits Naomi, Celyn, Olivia at the same time. Artemis continued onwards, walking through the aisle of the camp, basking in the peaceful morning routine all around her, nodding approvingly at her maidens' work.
She looked at their faces. She looked at the bonds they had grown with one another. And she steeled herself for the stark reality that a lot of the faces that made the Hunt a place she adored, would be in Hades realm in the days to come.
"Hunters! Gather 'round, I have an announcement for everyone." Artemis called, turning to meet everyone's gaze within the campsite. Finally, her eyes landed on Zoe's onyx eyes. Seeing her expression, Zoe took up the call almost instantly.
"Thy heard Lady Artemis! Gather around the firepit, let's move it!"
Zoe galvanized the hunters into swift action, as the mood of the Hunt shifted into business-mode. Menial chores and tasks were quite literally thrown to the side as all of the hunters swiftly angled towards the hearth. Artemis noticed the buzz of excitement in the air around her, especially coming from her newest hunters, Naomi, Celyn, and Olivia.
Moments later, without slowing her pace whatsoever, Artemis arrived at the firepit faced with two rows of hunters formed up in a semicircle on the other side of the hearth. Some of the wolves, noticing the commotion, had ambled over as well, and Artemis smiled at Cinder's presence just in front of her feet. The alpha wolf was laying down, but with her head alert and triangular ears pricked.
"Alright, listen up," Artemis cut straight to business, lifting her gaze in a steely expression to the assembled Hunt before her, "I am aware that the Hunt has been somewhat inactive recently, with the acceptance of three new hunters into our midst. Seldomly do we remain in one area for so long, however, this is about to change for the foreseeable future. The prelude to what I can only describe as all-out war may be upon us in as little as a few weeks, perhaps even days. Having spoken to certain members of the Olympian Council, it is my belief that a Great Prophecy is due to pass and with all Great Prophecies comes death, destruction, and quite possibly an end to our very way of life."
"In my ignorance, I believed this was years, perhaps even decades in the making. And that may still be so. But in order to secure a future for mortals, the wilderness, demigods, dryads, nymphs, and even ourselves, it is necessary to act now. The Great Prophecy spells out the possible end of Olympus at the hands of one individual, a child of the elder Greek gods." Artemis paused, her gazes naturally falling to those who had heard her stories of the Macedonian Expedition, to those who had seen her heartbreak, to those who had heard the truth about Perseus's supposed rebirth. She closed and temporarily shrugged off her feelings, of guilt and confusion, to illustrate this wasn't about Perseus, but a vision she had of the world… one that Perseus happened to share.
"And due to that, our mission is as follows: There are two children of Hades that are rumored to be residing in Maine, due to our prolonged proximity in this area. Their auras will likely be strong, but monsters would have likely flinched from even daring to skulk so close to our campsite." Artemis paced back and forth in front of the firepit, "Our goal is to find these demigods and protect them. They represent two of the four known children of the elder gods who might be the right age for being potential candidates to fulfill this prophecy. Any questions?" Artemis paused, and pivoted back to the Hunt.
"My Lady," Zoe spoke, her posture the picture of tranquility, "When do we leave?"
Artemis smiled slightly, her heart warming at the loyalty Zoe displayed, never even hesitating to ask questions. "We leave at midday, after packing the camp. Our destination is the Maine coastline, it is a few hours from here by magical travel. We will work our way southwards from there."
"Any reason for choosing the coastline in particular? We've been there before in 54'. Not an easy place to navigate, looking for monsters or demigods alike," Phoebe joined in, as Artemis could see that her hardened gaze was locked in a familiar state of analysis.
"It is true that the rugged coastline is challenging. But I also have ulterior motives for searching the coves, caves, and oceans there. A beast called the Ophiotaurus very may well coincide with this Great Prophecy, due to its nature in bringing power to those who would wish to destroy Olympus. If I can find this creature, I might be better able to convince more Olympians and other minor gods and goddesses that war may be upon us. But if I am being honest… I hope my search amounts to nothing."
"But… you will be leaving us if nothing is found in Maine?" Elizabeth ventured, finishing Artemis's own thoughts on the matter.
"Indeed," Artemis sighed, as the prospects of so much travel and searching got the better of her for a moment, "Our mission revolves around rumors and murmurings. I cannot say anything with definitive proof. But if the two children of Hades are alive and well, they will most likely be here. If the Ophiotaurus is indeed in this world once more, it will be on the coastlines somewhere. I cannot stress enough the importance of this mission. Demigods that have the potential to fulfill the prophecies are targeted by many parties with many motives, and none of them are inclined to the betterment of the world's peaceful continuance."
There was a moment of silence following her words, as the gravity of the situation seemed to fully dawn on each and every hunter. Artemis gave a panning look over the assembled Hunt, seeing no more questions on their faces. There were a variety of emotions: fear, acceptance, excitement- but none who were wavering. Finally, her gaze fell onto Naomi, Celyn, and Olivia, who were all grouped on the right side of the firepit. Each was bursting with a nervous tension that reminded Artemis of a hare staring a fox in the face, ready to bound at a moment's notice. There was fear, yes, but also the sparks of adrenaline and that rush of being alive all bundled into their forms.
However, Artemis caught Zoe's gaze last, seeing a frown etched onto her face, admist her sisters worried expressions. If anything, Zoe looked as if she had more words to say and Artemis made a mental note to talk with her lieutenant as soon as she could, alone.
"Right then," Artemis nodded twice, "Break down camp. We leave at midday." It was time to get back into the world and make a difference.
The Hunt was nothing if not productive; therefore, setting and breaking camp was always a brisk affair. Tents popped out of existence like day blooming flowers. One minute they were open, the next, closed without warning. And because of that, packing magical tents into small beads that were stored in a single burlap sack was the easy part.
In just a half hour, all traces of the Hunt were gone from the clearing that had been home for a little over a full year. The fighting pit was disassembled, traces of the churned soil raked over perfectly. In the cold air, Artemis now looked over the Hunt, ready to travel.
Each girl was flanked by a wolf, save for Zoe and Phoebe. Each wore their standard silver hunting tunics, all armed with knives, quivers, and bows, freshly strung and arrows replenished. In addition, both due to the cold, and for added protection, each hunter had garbed themselves in their silver hunting parkas. Essentially weighted similar to slim jackets, each was rimmed with soft arctic fox fur, providing much needed comfort for winter missions.
"Everyone ready?" Artemis looked over the Hunt, noting that the day has only just reached midmorning.
Everyone nodded in assent, save for Olivia, who raised a shy hand, "I-I'm sorry for the slightly off topic question… but is this fur lining on our parkas real?"
Artemis held back a smirk and wasn't surprised to see other hunters grinning at the question, as she notably saw Angelina cough heavily to hide a fairly obvious snort of amusement.
"It's a fair question, Olivia," Artemis reasoned, pinching the fur of her own parka, which she wore over Athena's black leather breastplate, gifted to her so long ago, "But no. I conjured the parkas with each hunter's acceptance into the Hunt. Arctic foxes aren't quite endangered, but it would have been a crime to kill so many for purely aesthetically pleasing coat linings, wouldn't you say?"
"Uh yes…" Olivia paused, hearing the snickering of some of the Hunters around her, 'Sorry for the question, I didn't-"
"Don't be. I appreciate your candor and concern for earth's creatures," Artemis waved her hand dismissively before she continued, "As for your fellow hunters, I can embarrass almost all of them with some story, I'm sure, so I am curious to see them laughing at the moment."
"Nope, ok nope, I am sorry for laughing," Angelina's voice piercing the sudden silence, before the snickering and casual banter broke out once more:
"Hey, I saw that blush Kathleen, what does Lady Artemis have on you?" Elizabeth crowed to the slightly younger Victorian, who was indeed sporting a red face to match her hair.
"It's ironic, Lady Artemis told me I had to limit the Hunt's deer hunting, due to some reservations she had about eating too much venison, when Emily first cooked for us," Phoebe casually remarked to Zoe, Christina, Emily, and Mara.
"Phoebe! Why would you tell everyone that! You lot have branded me as the cook, and now you paint me like a venison crazed werewolf?" Emily cried out, desperately trying to swat Phoebe over the head as the Spartan easily avoided the younger hunter's half-hearted blows.
"Alright, alright!" Artemis called, content to see the levity permeating through the Hunt, even when she had given the hunters a rather frightening prospect of war and conflict for their latest upcoming mission. "Let's reign it in. For travel, I'll open us a portal through the forests to quickly arrive on the coastline. Once there, I'll scout ahead in the skies for any demigod or notable monster presence. Zoe, Phoebe, lead the Hunt along the coast. Don't take any unnecessary risks, but remember, the Ophiotaurus may very well reside in caves and coves along the coastline. You sense anything, you send me an Iris message, are we understood?"
"Of course, My Lady," Zoe nodded, settling her bow on the cold ground between her silver trimmed boots so that her hands rest atop of it just above her waist, "We shall not fail thy."
"Perfect," Artemis turned away from the Hunt towards the dark pine treeline and extended a hand forwards. She reached out with her very essence, connecting with the forest in a way that felt like she was becoming one with it: breathing its air, sinking her own roots through the winter soil, feeling the sun warm her core. Her eyes closed as she felt the soul of the forest and tugged on that essence. For a moment, nothing happened, but then, Artemis felt her magic strain and her godly strength tore through an invisible divide amidst the trees.
Artemis felt her eyes snap open and she watched as the trees before her shifted in a nonexistent breeze. The deeper forest was different from before, as the smells wafted over the clearing. The distinct smell of the sea permeated through the clearing, as distant gulls and waves beating against cliffs also rang out as if the Hunt stood next to the ocean itself.
"Follow me," Artemis ordered, as she ran forwards, towards the forest that stretched before her like a tunnel, with the forest smelling not of pine and earth, but of the sea. She heard the Hunt charging behind her as she passed the threshold of the clearing, and entered the forest.
This sort of travel wasn't unfamiliar to her, but her usual methods were by falcon, or flashing instantaneously to her destination. Artemis relished the opportunity to join the Hunt on this occasion, however, having missed the prior experience due to pressing circumstances on Olympus. That had been only a few years ago, when chasing Poseidon's errant son. And now, Artemis threw herself through the trees that melded into a surreal background of shapes and colors, on a mission to find demigods once more.
For a full hour, Artemis felt her face flush and her senses expand through the rushing atmosphere around her. All forests were connected, and she had learned long ago that tapping into that connection allowed for travel that was faster than sound itself. It was challenging, both physically and mentally, to conjure that sort of portal, and to run through it. But it was freeing, as she was goddess of the wilderness, and Artemis felt as if she was connected to her very domain in a way that was impossible to describe.
What's more, that feeling of freedom only intensified as Artemis could sense the Hunt was just behind her, rushing through the hundreds of miles of forest alongside her. Together, the Hunt in a blur that stood out from the muted greens and browns of the forest as specks of silver flying through the air like fireflies.
And finally, after a mere thirty more minutes, Artemis saw the destination ahead of them. With a burst of godly speed, Artemis propelled herself forwards, seeing a rapidly expanding view of a forest set against a high cliffside that overlooked the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. In the last second, her eyes flashed silver, and she felt her body involuntarily flash, having reached the speed one used to magically travel the world over in her eagerness.. With a few final strides, she burst through a shimmering wall of energy and skid a few feet forwards on soil… and then solid stone, her foot stopping against a gnarled root that bit into the rock itself.
Her breath came in ragged gasps that quickly turned into puffs as she tried to catch her breath. The exertion felt good, and the crisp ocean breeze that washed over her was quite literally, a breath of fresh air. Arms raised, Artemis walked forwards, surveying the sights around her.
She had been here before, hence why she had been able to twist through space to arrive on the wooded coastline with the Hunt. Just a few footsteps away, was the edge of a forty-meter-high cliff, that was covered in moss, underbrush, and roots of anchored pine trees. There was a brisk, salty breeze, and the thundering of waves that echoed up the cliffs and through the trees, creating a serene ambiance of nature; The ocean's expanse and the forest's hidden depths combined into a single point of wonder.
This was a place of meditation for her. A place where she had called her uncle Poseidon to before, to discuss worldly matters, both urgent business and peaceful social calls. There was no visible mortal towns or roads here, but Artemis knew that was the illusion of the wild. Nothing was here to disrupt nature, but that couldn't be said for a few miles down the coastline in either direction. In fact, while surveying the sights over the cliffs, Artemis spotted a fishing trawler bobbing in the whitecaps of the Atlantic Ocean, less than a mile offshore.
It was then that Artemis heard a cacophony of footsteps and groans erupt seemingly from nowhere behind her. 'Well, a few moments of silence was better than none at all,' she thought dryly to herself, as she turned to greet the Hunt.
The sight before her made her smile, despite the circumstances that Artemis had been running through her mind like a memory on repeat. Especially so when her eyes landed on the three newest recruits.
She hadn't seen a lazier picture of mortality in her immortal lifetime, as the recruits were slumped against the trunk of an old pine tree, seemingly having collapsed there at the end of the journey. Others were tired and panting from the exertion, except for Phoebe and Zoe, but none collapsed from the journey. The wolves seemed to find the hunters who were leaning on tree trunks to make great cuddling partners, as they too curled up around them for a rest, with their long tongues panting rapidly.
"Ah," Artemis briskly walked over, knowing that the first time traveling magically was taxing on the body. This mode of travel also was extremely physically draining, but they had made it through. "Sarah, you might need to assist Naomi, Celyn, and Olivia a bit. How was the journey, young ones?"
It seemed her observation about every hunter making it through the journey standing hadn't held up, as Naomi had passed out, most likely due to sheer exhaustion. Celyn and Olivia, however, were still conscious, their eyes looked on Naomi's unconscious form.
Celyn raised her head, as Artemis could see her trying to sit up against a tree, with her legs stretched out in front of her, with Olivia in the exact same position at her side. The efforts to move their legs were feeble at best, and both looked almost ready to join their sleeping companion.
"I'm sorry… My Lady," Celyn yawned, fighting off the exhaustion that was likely driving her into a hibernated state, "that was… tough." Celyn too, faded into a deep sleep, leaving Olivia at her side, her eyelids drooping downwards.
Sarah arrived at that moment, the picture of steady nerves despite the obvious signs of her own exhaustion, as she quickly kneeled next to Olivia and gave her a small vial of nectar, with a tiny cube of ambrosia from her satchel.
Olivia had looked like she couldn't speak before, but Artemis sensed a flare of energy rush through Olivia's body, as the girl gingerly began to reach down to massage the area just above the knees on her legs. Sarah instantly began checking the other two recruits, who were fine, as Artemis sensed. Sarah would be able to revive them momentarily.
"Well, Olivia," Artemis remarked lightly, "How was your first experience of traveling via forest portal?"
The assembled Hunt, still recovering themselves, got the answer as Olivia caught her breath for the first time since exiting the portal.
Artemis felt that the Hunt deserved a small amount of rest before they would begin their canvassing of the coastline. But she wouldn't afford herself that luxury. The magical strain on opening the portal to Maine wasn't too taxing, but having been done so soon after the induction ceremony of Celyn, Naomi, and Olivia… it left her feeling a tad drained. Nonetheless, she would carry on. Other Olympians hoarded their power, their lifeblood that made them deities. She knew better having seen so much of the world, and its immortal powers.
She knew what it was like to feel powerless. Yet, she knew she needed to fight on, no matter the costs.
Most of the Hunt was resting, as a mere ten minutes had passed since the portal finally closed. Artemis stood on the edge of the cliffs, casting her sense out over the waves, and the forest floor all around them. Try as she might though, there was nothing. Deer, mice, voles, cod, salmon, and all the creatures in-between were present here, but no monsters.
And no demigods.
'Had this been a mistake? Athena and I had thought of this idea on the spot, but I never sat down to consider the idea that it was wrong. Monsters have intruded on us before and Hades could very well have his own places to hide his children.' But the first reaction of doubt fell away as she thought more on the mission. Maine was no small area. It would take at least a few days for her to cover all the territory where demigods may be in hiding. Expecting the lost demigods to be right where she had opened a portal was perhaps slightly too much of wishful thinking. She was a hunter. Where was the fun without a little chase, at least?
Yet, the one uncertainty that did stick around, was concerning what her role would be in the coming conflict. She had already been tasked before to find a child of the elder gods. And here she was again, this time of her own volition. It seemed that she was bound in some ways to help the child of the prophecy, even if they were to be the bane to Olympus.
'Ironically, I am also looking for the Ophiotaurus, another entity that leads to the doom of Olympus.' Artemis thought dryly to herself. Athena had approached her because idiots on the Olympian Council would not vote to seek conflict, despite the mounting pressure on the Great Prophecy. To her knowledge and understanding of the prophecy, she was not directly mentioned. But it didn't mean that she wouldn't be involved, goddess or not.
It felt like she was the stranger once more, surrounded by enemies from within the Olympian Council and abroad. But this time, all she had was memories of the man she loved, not the man himself, to confront these foes.
It seemed that she would need to travel farther afield to find answers. She hesitated one moment longer, feeling the brisk ocean breeze flit through her hair and rustle her tunic. She had always admired the ocean, having grown up with its waves never far away from the shoreline on Delos. There was a freedom to the smell and sight of the endless blue horizons, with whitecapped waves advancing endlessly. To be wedged in between the deep forest and the calming waves felt like… home. A peace of mind that she seldom could retreat into. In a flash of self-wondering, she imagined there would be no better place to fade away from this world than where she was standing right now. Surrounded with a quiet contentment and her own memories before the end of her time.
But the end wouldn't come today. Artemis set her gaze on the horizon, and felt her aura flare violently for a moment. While she still had a will, she would fight for this world, until she had nothing left to give. Perseus taught her that. And by the gods, she would honor it.
"Hunters!" Artemis whirled around, bounding back up some of the rocks and tree roots to where the Hunt was resting. Most were fully alert at this point, but all nonetheless looked ready to travel, regardless of any lasting fatigue. "We begin our search. I will fly south, looking for signs of these demigods. Zoe, lead the Hunt onwards along this shoreline. Stay on the cliffs if you can, but if you deem it necessary, investigate any possible alcoves for the Ophiotaurus that you may come across. I will be back by nightfall."
"Thy will is our own, My Lady," Zoe replied crisply, nodding once, before addressing the Hunt. In moments, Artemis watched as each hunter stood up, with some of the older hunters giving the recruits a hand. She could sense a nervous energy amongst most of them, likely due to a first-time mission and the lack of missions thereof in recent times.
This was it. For better or for worse, Artemis was ready to begin. And as she met the face of her lieutenant and the rest of her hunters, she sensed that very same resolve resting in all their hearts.
Similar to the sounds of the ocean waves, the feeling of flying through the air currents and cutting through the sky under feathered wings, was an experience that felt intrinsic to her inner self after several millennia. She had been riding the coastal Maine skies for a number of hours, flying Northwards first, towards the more densely forested regions, before she had begun to double back towards the coast.
So far, her senses hadn't detected much, save for the lone small hellhounds that were interspersed throughout the dark forests below. Troubling, yes, but their sparsity suggested a vastly reduced presence due to the Hunt destroying them over a year's time entrenched in Maine.
Artemis, in falcon form, clenched and unclenched her talons. So far, her inspirational idea to come to Maine hadn't proved fruitful. Over a few hours, her senses has likely reached just under half of the entire state. What's more, keeping her falcon form and actively casting out her godly senses this far was taxing, and Artemis already felt depleted. She had reserves of energy, but they were drying up and replenishing them would take years, if not decades.
Instinctively, she felt her body try to retain what energy she had left, but she pressed on, surging forwards in the air with a few powerful wingbeats. She briefly wondered if she would have had the strength of character to keep fighting, before she had experienced the Macedonian Expedition that had altered her worldly views. She didn't know a single Olympian who would risk their deific status, as all they had ever known was power and might. Even Poseidon, Athena… they didn't have the stomach or the resolve to survive what she had. After what she had been through… fought for… She would endure every hardship if necessary, to defend someone in need, regardless of the cost to herself.
And so, she flew. The clouds and blue sky blurred as the forest had earlier in the day, as she covered league upon league, searching in vain for the proof that she so desperately didn't want to find. She flew inland, above the verdant evergreen canopies of pines that were dusted with snow, through mortal farmlands, along roads and through small towns of innocent ambling folk that never thought to look above their heads at the world around them.
Intermittently, she felt out down along the ground below, like a bat using echolocation. With each pulse, she canvased the surroundings. And with each pulse, she came back with nothing to show for it. Frustrated, she angled south, and headed back from the coastline. Being a navigator with several millennia worth of experience, she estimated that she was much further south than the Hunt's approximate position, but still well within range of flight to reach them come sundown.
The daylight hours dragged by, as she now followed the rocky shoreline from one thousand feet in the air. The solid rocky cliffs and sheer drop to the ocean waves persisted, but she found that the shoreline was now curving inwards into a shallow bay. Offshore, three tree dotted isles were sprinkled along a wide channel that cut deep inland, as if a massive, clawed beast had carved channels into the earth that were miles in length.
In the middle of the shoreline, Artemis looked down and saw a small town, nestled near the mouth of the channel, with boat jetties and docks sheltered behind the rock, away from the treacherous Atlantic seas. A colorful menagerie of buildings, full of blues, whites, and greens, were clustered around the peninsula that lay at the heart of a small valley, as Artemis cast her gaze around the area. From the sea, the land spread outwards towards rising hilltops, crested with bare rock that almost served as a semicircle of mountains, enclosing this town by land and sea.
Artemis had never seen this place before, but the atmosphere here was serene. There was the calming effect of the ocean waves, the sweet smell of the forest, and the rocky hilltops emblazoned with the sun's rays in the background. As she flew closer, she cast her senses out. Her senses washed over the landscape like the sea mist of the ocean, intermingling with the buildings, the streets, and beyond into the outlying trees and soft meadows by the ocean cliff faces.
Her flight was calm, until a jagged spike of warning flared in her mind, searing through her leisurely exploration with the force of a lightning bolt. She faltered midair, spiraling down in a sharp corkscrew for about fifty feet before Artemis regained her bearings and leveled out, immediately sharpening her hawk-vision down over the source of danger. Her gaze had snapped over to the town below.
She cast her senses out once more, this time at her full power. Divine light gleamed in a soft white glow from her wingtips, as she traced through the sky, trailing shimmering moonlight. And sure enough, her senses reached out, casting her gaze beyond the town proper, up to a higher elevation building, bigger than the average house. Much larger, in fact, as Artemis got a good view of it.
Her initial categorization of a house felt quite mediocre as she took in the actual structure. There was a large stone foundation that looked as if it had been pasted there straight from the middle ages, with large stone walls and towers rising several stories over the edge of a massive sea cliff. In the middle of the castle-like building, was a high arched meeting hall, with stout wooden beams and elegantly carved buttresses. And in the middle of the structure, somewhere within the confines of those walls, were maybe a dozen glowing residues of monsters.
Most were faint, and Artemis instantly recognized them as some sort of dracaena. Dracaena were monstrous half serpent creatures. Their presence wasn't usually so uncommon in the seedier places of the world. But in addition to them, Artemis sensed a much more formidable threat… one that she knew all too well…
The feeling of sensing one of those ancient creatures alone almost sent Artemis into a rage. For these creatures were the worst of all monster-kind. They enjoy inflicting pain, they thrived on terror, and they had killed people Artemis cared about, when she could do little but watch from the sidelines, all those years ago during the Macedonian Expedition. Just the flashes of memories along the Euphrates, as she watched mere boys helplessly writhe in agony, before they succumbed to the Manticore venom, was enough to make her vision blur with divine fury, as flashes of white overtook her vision.
She forced herself back from the brink, away from diving down like a meteor into that castle, to eradicate their kind from the world for one reason, and one reason only.
For amidst the dracanae and the wretched manticore presence she sensed, nestled amongst all of them, were two faint auras of death. Auras that she knew too well from a war fought many decades ago. Auras of demigods, born from Hades himself.
'Dios immortales,' Artemis felt her mind freeze up, as the gravity of the situation before her unraveled. She had been right. But the cold reality hit her at the same time. 'These children are in danger. And the prophecy is upon us.'
Artemis glided down through the brisk air currents, which were hardily a worry to her, before she found a remote plot of trees on the far side of the bay, away from the literal castle seemingly packed full of monsters. The beach here was much less steep, and had a pebbled shore, with the odd large, jagged boulder sunken in the earth. The trees here were devoid of snow, yet damp and muddy in small pockets of the mottled green and brown forest floor.
Angling towards a gap in two large pines, Artemis soared down almost to ground level, before she forced herself to shift back into her mortal form. A moment later, Artemis hit the ground in a light jog, her feet pressing into the soft forest floor with each footfall. It felt amazing to stretch her muscles out after having been cooped up in falcon form for almost the full day. She also quickly adjusted to the view from the ground, instead the top down view from the skies. The perspective of the bay she had seen now shifted; Artemis slowed to a stop at the precipice of the forest where she had landed. Before her eyes was the muted greys of the pebbled beach, and the calmer quiet waters of the ocean bay. Off to her left, the beach extends down a ways before curving out of sight, the cliffs becoming increasingly more jagged, as the oceanfront lay in that direction.
In the other direction, the first sight was the somewhat distant sight of the town she had see from above. For this angle, she saw the docks, with a small collection of fishing trawlers and smaller sailboats nestled up against a curving waterfront of buildings. The rest of the down was orchestrated in a tiered layout that rose in a semicircle around the bay docks. And just barely visible, on the cliffs overlooking the mouth of the bay, was the dark grey structure where she had sensed the demigods and monsters.
Her objective, so close. And now, all she needed was to wait for the Hunt to arrive.
However, Artemis cursed lightly as she looked upwards to the sky. It was nearing sunset already, as the sun was rapidly disappearing in the winter skies. The only consolation was that the weather was seasonally warmer than she knew it should have been. Snow should have covered this area. Instead, there were only dustings, and brisk breezes to worry about.
She thought for a moment about summoning another forest portal, to bring the Hunt to her in a matter of minutes. But almost as soon as the idea came to mind, she let it slip away. The Hunt, especially the younger hunters, were likely tiring from the journey earlier in the day, along with their current mission heading down the coastline.
Artemis knew no matter how tired Zoe was, she'd never show it to the Hunt. And as skilled as her lieutenant was, no one was invincible. It was better to message them, and to tell them to forego the search for the Ophiotaurus for the time being, and come join her.
She stepped forwards, off the packed earth and bracken onto the wet stones and pebbles, striding to the dark blue waters of the bay. With the snap of her fingers, and a tiny tug at her powers, Artemis focused lightly on the Hunt, and on Zoe. Within every hunter was a spark of her own power, a silvery essence connected to their very being.
Artemis took a breath and felt her consciousness stretch outwards across the bay, and out further beyond, northwards along the coast. 'I need to speak with you, Zoe.'
The thoughts exited her mind as if they were whispered to the wind themselves, and Artemis stood in silence there on the beach for only about a minute before she saw a shimmer in the air before her, just three feet or so in front of her face.
At first, it looked as if her vision blurred in one small spot, but then the image consolidated into a misty hue and then, shifted into a small portrait of Zoe, with a deep green and white canopy of trees behind her.
"My Lady, thy called?" Zoe nodded, her expression neutral, displaying nothing but the professional attitude that Artemis recognized so well. Despite the fact that Zoe had laughed and smiled many times in the few years past, her lieutenant was a stoic individual, and she was showing it now while on mission.
"Indeed," Artemis responded, "I have located what I set out to find. Forego your previous mission and rendezvous with me as soon as possible. Head south until you find a bayside town, by the name of…" Artemis hesitated for a moment. She peered around the misty image right before her eyes and instead focused out across the bay. It was a long distance, but she was a goddess, and a keen sighted one at that. After a moment, her gaze sharpened and she swept her eyes over the waterfront until she found a storefront, with two metal benches accompanied by a large, suspended cast iron brazier arranged in front. Behind the seating and firepit, was a wide glass window imprinted with words that read 'Bay Harbor Antiques.'
"…By the name of Bay Harbor. I admit I am unfamiliar with the town, but I estimate that I am only a two-hour journey away on foot."
"That should be ample enough time, My Lady. We will make haste to rendezvous with thou before sundown," Zoe nodded once more, and the former Hesperide swiped a hand through the illusion before her eyes.
Moments later and all that remained was mist, that quickly vanished in the cold air.
Artemis nodded to herself, as in the back of her mind, she replayed the conversation once more to herself. She had mentioned this town's name, but not the objective. Zoe was bright enough to understand the importance of not saying their explicit mission. Iris messages, in design, could be listened in on. Iris herself was a known gossip on and off Olympus and while Artemis hadn't felt her presence on her end of the message, the goddess of rainbows, despite her normally cheerful demeanor, was no innocent being in her own right. In fact, Artemis recalled that Iris had once tried to make sure that her mother, Leto, would never give birth to Apollo and herself.
Just another example of the deep-seated convictions that Zeus and Hera had wrought on Olympus.
While she remained in solitude for a few hours more, Artemis set to patrolling the immediate area around her. She walked up and down the beach for a mile in each direction, eyes trailing over the woods and cliffs and waves. All the while, she thought deeply on Athena's words once more.
The Olympian Council was divided. And she was needed to break the deadlock, and convince the hard-hearted gods and goddesses to think of the larger picture for once. For a moment, she debated going up to Olympus herself, to find Athena or Poseidon, to update them on what she had found in Maine. But the idea of flashing to Olympus and back, just to deliver a report based on her senses alone was likely a bad idea.
So she would, for the moment, keep that information to herself and the Hunt. Hopefully, by the dawn of tomorrow, she would have the demigods safe and secure, on their way to Camp Half-Blood.
There was always the chance, after all, of news breaking, even though only telling trusted sources on Olympus, of the whereabouts of two children of Hades. That was a chance that Artemis wouldn't take.
Zeus would most assuredly, in his fear-mongering ways, make an example of the demigods, and send their souls to the underworld for good.
A familiar pang of anger rose up in her chest at the thought of her father once more. The Hunt had known, even before she had told them of her expedition with Perseus and the Macedonians, that she hated her father. They had likely assumed it was because of Zeus's womanizing and horrific acts throughout history, which was a reason. But they now knew her righteous anger and contempt for his lust for power. He was no better than Alexander. In fact, Zeus had nothing on Alexander's silver tongue and the small amount of humanity that the ambition driven king had clung to. She hated Alexander in the end, but she still saw a small measure of the man she had once respected. Zeus had nothing to redeem his divinity.
It didn't mean that she wasn't worried, however. The skies had been remarkably silent since she had seen her father last, when she had challenged him at the summer solstice a year past. Hestia had interrupted the feud, but Artemis knew better than anyone else about the grudges her family could hold. She had inherited that trait from him, at least.
In some ways, that errant thought scared her. She strode back along the beach, to where she had first landed as a falcon in the treeline. Perseus had changed her outlook of the world. For the better, she was sure.
But who would she have been without him?
She had done many things that she wasn't proud of before her time in the expedition. Acteon's death at her hands was just an example of the rashness she had displayed in her youth. While she felt that Orion, the 'Great' hunter deserved his fate, she questioned throwing a scorpion into the sky to hunt him for eternity was a mark of a just goddess?
She liked to think that Perseus would still love her, based on what she had done since returning from the Expedition. However, in the deep recesses of her mind, which she would never speak of, there was doubt there, because Perseus would have cursed her from Greece to Persia and back for having wallowed in despair over his death for so long.
He was the one person in her life who had treated her as an equal. While Athena and Poseidon had come in time to fill a similar relationship, Perseus saw her… for her, and nothing beyond that. Goddess or not, he had loved her. And she would hold on to that strength forever.
Zeus. Aphrodite. Hera. The Titans.
Wherever her enemies may lie, she would not break before them.
For the next hour, Artemis watched the sky darkened considerably, as the sun finally descended behind the jagged line of foothills on the western side of the bay. The sky was still painted with golden red light, but a noticeable chill seemed to sweep over the bay as soon as the direct sunlight was chased away by Selene's nightly chariot.
Artemis barely had time to ponder the years when she had that duty, when she felt a familiar presence loom nearby, down the beach from the direction of the sea.
And sure enough, there was the Hunt, clad in glimmering silver parkas and tunics. At their sides, the wolves familiarly weaving through their legs, as the dozen and a half girls trotted towards her from a few hundred yards away.
It was immediately apparent, even though the hunters were arrayed in perfect marching formation, that every one of them was exhausted. Only the wolves seemed to be in chipper spirits, the forest portal seemingly only getting them warmed up for the day's journey.
Finally, the Hunt reached where she waited, resting against one of the larger boulders that was jutting out of the pebbled beach.
The Hunt slowly gathered round, and Artemis instantly sought out her newest recruits. She was impressed to find their eyes looking back at her, determined and full of resolve. Celyn was leaning against Sara, but each was standing.
"It is good to see you all in one piece," Artemis remarked, "Zoe, I trust there were no difficulties?"
Zoe, ever hard to read, betrayed a small amount of guilt that creased across her smooth face. The former Hesperide raked a hand through her dark hair, "Everything is well, My Lady. We had a slight… incident, after thy had requested an Iris message, but it was no big trouble. While exploring a tidal cove, just after thy's message, a small Maeonian-like wyrmling attacked Celyn. She kept her composure, but was bitten."
Artemis cursed inwardly, looking over to the very young girl. What she had first thought was merely tiredness, Artemis saw the bandaged upper leg, and the ginger gait Celyn had was likely related to the injury.
"And what of the creature?" Artemis asked, looking back to Zoe. But her lieutenant just gestured back to the wounded recruit with one hand. Celyn, with her dirty blonde hair matted against her forehead, shifted her gaze around, before she spoke up in turn.
"Oh... I-uh… I stabbed it. Two-three times. Then it disintegrated. The bite still stings though," Celyn spoke, testing the weight of her injured leg a few times during her report.
"Well done then," Artemis smiled, "Thankfully, the relatives of the Maeonian drakon, while poisonous, aren't as potent while still in adolescence. I'm sure you'll be back on your feet in no time at all, considering your heritage."
The daughter of Hermes flushed at the praise just before the other hunters, Naomi and Olivia chief among them, offered the girl words of encouragement and praise.
Artemis let it persist for a few moments, before she spoke up, "Zoe, Phoebe, let's get camp set up in this treeline. Cinder, would you do me a favor and set up a perimeter in the woods. Mara, you can serve as the first watch. It'll be total darkness soon."
Galvanized into action, the Hunt quickly got to work, unpacking tents and clotheslines in a manner of minutes as night fell quickly. Only a few minutes more passed before flames erupted from a hastily dug fire pit, nestled in the center of six large tents. Already, the wolves have disappeared into the night air, likely prowling through the trees.
Artemis watched the process fondly, before casting her gaze at the artificial lights across the bay. The darkness had seemingly swallowed the castle on the cliffs, with only slitted windows of light that shone through the night air, which were the only faraway indicators of the building during the night...
Tomorrow would be the day. Artemis turned and walked into the middle of the Hunt's camp, already thinking over how to word the speech she would give to the hunters around the fire before they would set out in the morning.
The fire crackled loudly, as Artemis sat over a matted rug, shielding her from the damp undergrowth. It was a frozen night, as frost crept over the trunks and pine needles of the forest. A cold ocean wind swept over the bay, as scattered clouds raced across a third quarter moon-lit sky.
"From what I could see, there around over a dozen monsters holed up in a castle across the bay," Artemis reported, looking amongst her hunters. "Tomorrow, we will break camp, and head over to the outskirts of the property. I saw a small knoll of trees close by, next to some of the sea cliffs there."
"Any idea of what monsters we will face, Lady Artemis?" Phoebe asked, all the while running a whetstone over the side of one of her hunting knives.
"That is my concern," Artemis responded, remembering what she had sensed within the castle buildings. "There were many dracaena present. But one monster, in particular, worries me. I sensed the presence of a manticore. An old and powerful beast."
Instantly, Artemis caught many of the hunters eyes flash with alarm. None, not even Zoe and Phoebe had fought such creatures, but everyone recognized the monster from Artemis's recent tales. She hadn't pulled the horrific details from the stories she told, or the death that had been wrought by Manticore venom and claws.
Everyone knew of these creatures, that is, save for the newest recruits. The three girls looked uneasy, having somewhat recovered from the travel. They sat together; their hair so frazzled that each hunter had almost identical styles to Naomi's naturally curled brown hair.
"Uh… My Lady… what is a manticore?" Naomi spoke up, looking around the fire.
"I think it's a cat?" Olivia said slowly in response, "Maybe?" She too looked up to Artemis, her face carrying an uncertain expression.
Despite the circumstances, Artemis was impressed, "Right you are. A manticore is a great lion-like beast, that is armed with a large, spiked tail. They have a nasty poison in the spines on their tails, capable of killing a mortal in moments."
Seeing the worry wash over many hunters, Artemis continued, aiming to reassure them, "As hunters, you would not die to this poison in small to medium doses, but it would be excruciatingly painful. Equally as dangerous as their poison is their ferocity and intelligence. They are creatures capable of hatred, greed, and cruelty. Their hunger for mortals, demigods, and everything in between is without question, a facet of their arrogance."
"Wait, so what is one doing here then?" Angelina jumped into the conversation, "Dracaena are creepy, but a manticore?"
For once, the eager young hunter had followed Artemis's thought process fairly well.
"I do not know," Artemis admitted, "however, what I do know is that these monsters are within the same complex as the demigod children. Clearly the situation is more dire than I could have hoped for. Tomorrow, I need to stress the importance of recovering these children alive, whatever it takes. Zoe, Phoebe, break up the Hunt into two groups. One support team, one infiltration team. We might need to breach the buildings."
"No worries there," Phoebe responded, nudging Zoe with her shoulder, "We did something similar today during our search of the coastline. You don't mind me leading the investigative team again, do you, ancient one?"
There was a chorus of laughs and Artemis saw Celyn poke Naomi and Olivia, mouthing the words 'Ancient one?' to the other new hunters.
Zoe didn't look amused, but Artemis saw the tiniest twitch of Zoe's lips. She raised a perfect black eyebrow, her dark eyes narrowed at the spartan girl blonde haired girl, hair etched with firelight, "The game is afoot then? Thine should tread carefully, loiter-sack."
At Zoe's other side, Kathleen choked on a bag of trail mix as Elizabeth crowded beside her, "Oh gods, I don't need to know Shakespeare to recognize what that means!"
"Excuse me!?" Phoebe growled, "What on earth did you call me?"
Artemis could recognize the beginnings of an almost twenty-four-hundred-year-old game the two hunters played with one another. And before the other hunters could jeer the famous arguments between Zoe and Phoebe on, she had to step in.
"As much as I would enjoy the repeat performance tonight, I do need to speak with you Zoe," Artemis smiled, instantly coming to her feet amongst the Hunt, "Elizabeth, you riled up the argument, you get to replace Mara on her watch duty soon."
Seemingly placated for the moment, the hunt swiveled their attention to the Victorian hunter, who had her lips pursed in a pout. Artemis switched her gaze back to Phoebe though, and met her red eyes. She gave a simple nod to the girl, assuring everything was well.
And then, she nimbly stepped away from the firepit, watching as Zoe gave a simple pat to Phoebe's shoulder before her lieutenant joined her.
"To my tent," Artemis said quietly, as she padded away from the residual warmth of the fire. Zoe fell into step with her and they traveled the mere twenty or so feet to Artemis's personal tent.
Artemis slipped inside first, recognizing the familiar animal pelts that adorned every inch of the interior. Her cot was set up on the left side of the interior, with a familiar box of mementos slid underneath. The weight of Perseus's sword made itself known to her once more. But she pressed forwards, sitting down on the floor on one of the dull silver silk cushions that were scattered on the ground, around an empty golden bowl, that was usually alit with undying flame.
"My Lady," Zoe started, sitting across from her, the golden bowl reached up near chest height while seated, directly between the two of them, "What is on thy's mind?"
Artemis regarded her lieutenant for a moment, before she sighed, "I'm sorry Zoe. I've had a lot to think over in the last few days."
"You seem to forget that while thy is a goddess of great respect, thy cannot bear the world alone. Whatever you need, we will be there," Zoe spoke smoothly, the earlier amusement from her quips with Phoebe gone for the moment.
"Hardly the best time, with the solstice being a mere week away," Artemis murmured, her left hand tracing the pommel of Perseus's sword, "Ever since Athena spoke to me, I have felt something. A great awakening. It feels as if I failed to sense this conflict. I failed because I doubted myself."
"I spoke before regarding the fiend Heracles… and thine's own parallels with Perseus," Zoe said darkly, "yet any foregone conclusion thy hath made regarding 'failure' is untrue. Perseus… Perseus is important to thy. You are afraid of his incarnation, but nonetheless, thy hasn't shied away from your mission to protect him, or any other the other elder Olympian children."
"It's awfully close timing though, you have to admit," Artemis mused, shaking her head, "Thank you though, Zoe. I can always rely on you for what I seem to always miss right in front of my eyes. But there is another reason I wished to talk with you tonight."
"Anything for thy, My Lady," Zoe responded, and Artemis could see a hint of hesitation in her eyes. And Artemis was called back to the shelved memory of Zoe frowning, before the Hunt had begun this mission at the day's beginning.
"After tomorrow, should the mission go well, I will be leaving the Hunt," Artemis began, laying out her thoughts that had plagued her while exploring a large part of Maine to no success. "I admit that your mission to scour the rocky coastline today was something of a diversion. While the Ophiotaurus very well might have been there, I think it unlikely to be so lucky. I will have to travel fast, and further afield to track this monster. And I cannot do that with the Hunt."
"I see…" Zoe murmured, "thy wish us to go without thine's presence for a period of time?"
Artemis breathed deeply, recognizing the somber tone that Zoe had dropped into. Throughout the Hunt's history, they didn't have a good track record during the times Artemis left the hunt to their own devices for long periods of time. The Macedonian Expedition notwithstanding, it always left the Hunt vulnerable to arrogant monsters and outside threats…. And also represented the most likely times for hunters to die in battle.
"You know this isn't something I have decided on lightly, Zoe," Artemis pointed out, seeing Zoe's rebellious spirit fire up, "The Ophiotaurus attracts powerful foes, not just from Titans. I will not risk the Hunt chasing this monster if I still have my own strength."
"If thy wonders whether I am afraid of fighting the Titans, thou doesn't know me at all," Zoe seethed, shaking her head, "My Lady, the others can rest… in Camp Half-Blood, in Camp Jupiter… but at least… let me…"
"No Zoe, they need you. You and Phoebe both are the only ones who know the true destruction of what the Titans are capable of. And Phoebe, Phoebe has only seen the burning cinders of the conflict. She will need your help in guiding them forwards," Artemis ordered, frowning at Zoe's tone and defensiveness, "I could never think you afraid of anything, nor would I assume your loyalty lies anywhere else but to the Hunt."
Zoe bit her lip and looked down at the ground, her hands scrunched in one of the cushions near her thighs. Artemis could tell that she had struck a nerve, but she was also steadfast in her decision. It was a rare occurrence when Zoe disagreed with her, but the argument left an ashen taste in the back of her throat. She knew Zoe's fears. She shared them. But there was no other way. Traveling across the country on a whim was hard enough. Taking the Hunt with her? Impossible, especially with three new recruits.
"Zoe, we have three recruits, one of whom killed her first monster today. The other two are untested. It is hardly the time to risk the Hunt on what could be another war between Titans and Gods." Artemis continued, shifting her gaze back to the gathered hunters by the fire, visible through her tent flaps. Their conversation wasn't being given too much attention, at least.
"The recruits are ready, my Lady," Zoe argued, "I was no more skilled when I fought. It is thine's choice! Let those seeketh destiny, glory, or whatever thou may call it!"
"It is settled Zoe," Artemis set her jaw towards her decision. She would not risk more lives.
Perhaps she was being cautious, but the last war had taken too many lives, and ever since, dozens more had been lost. Through the ages, the Hunt had scoured the darkest places in the world, not just in Greece. They had sifted through Paris's catacombs, the Russian taiga, and the urban sewers of the United States, to name a few of the Hunt's battlegrounds. And in each one, lives had been snuffed out far too soon. There would be a time for the Hunt to fight once more in this age, in another full-scale war, but it would not take place on her watch until there was no other choice. Artemis would make certain of that.
"You should go, and tell the Hunt to rest. We very well might have a long day ahead of us tomorrow." Artemis continued, seeing Zoe's hesitation after a long pause in their conversation.
"Does thou not mean thyself? Since thy will be leaving us?" Zoe asked, a bite in her voice.
And before Artemis could respond, her lieutenant had already whipped around, stalking out of the tent, leaving her to sit in silence. Her gaze stayed trained on the flap of the tent, almost expecting Zoe to slink back in, with more of her heated argument spilling from her mouth, carrying all the rage and power of Ladon with her words.
But no one came.
There wasn't a more beautiful sight in the whole of the world. Not next to this. Artemis leaned up against the low railing of smooth tiled mudbrick, looking out over the torchlit city before her eyes.
Vines and flowers crept all along the peripheries of her vision, as she looked out into the city of Babylon, where she and Perseus had entered during midday. Laid out before her was the lower city, and the riverfront district, which snaked through the city, perpendicular to the great Ishtar Gate, the irony not lost on her as she proceeded to have a conversation with Ishtar herself not long after.
In the end, Artemis now found herself reluctantly housed with Perseus in one of the lesser rooms in the Palace of Nebuchadnezzar. Somewhere, distantly in the apex of the building, Alexander and most of the companions mingled with the city elite, alongside the two governors Mazaeus and Bagophanes. These were a class of people that Artemis had no interest in seeking out.
"You know, you've been pretty pensive ever since I met back up with you after working on the riverfront. Really, if you had wanted me at your side at all times, you only had to ask." A familiar warm voice said from somewhere in the chamber behind her.
Artemis rolled her eyes, hearing muted bare foots steps behind her, until they paused just behind her. She looked down, over her own simple dress tunic, and barefoot, seeing Perseus's arm reach around her waist, before hovering just over her stomach.
"Is this ok?" Perseus murmured, his breath hot against the back of her neck and left ear.
Artemis felt her core flood with warmth at the hesitation he still showed, always careful and always asking. As he even needed to at this point.
She grabbed his wrist and wrapped it around her waist, drawing him close so that his chest pressed up against her back and his head instinctively nestled into her neck. Artemis laughed lightly, feeling Perseus huff at the movement, his arm tightening around her, and his stubble scratching against her cheek.
"You are still a fool, Perseus," Artemis murmured, twisting her neck to look him in the eyes.
"As long as I'm the only fool in your life, I think I'll manage," Perseus quipped back. Artemis regarded him for a moment, taking in the cleaned-up face, the tousled black hair, and the beaming green eyes, with worry lines etched around them.
She kissed him then, keeping her arm over his. She melted into the contact, closing her eyes as Perseus' other hand reached up, burying itself into her hair. A long moment stretched onwards into many more, before Artemis nipped at Perseus's lip, while blinking her eyes open.
Perseus got the signal, and she met his gaze, their foreheads pressed together.
"You know, hiding here with me won't earn you any favors with the Companions, or Alexander. You told me you'd be up there mingling for at least half the night," Artemis sighed, turning to look over the city once more. Her face was flushed, cooling in the night air, as she glanced away from Perseus. The man was insufferable enough- he certainly didn't need to know how much she enjoyed kissing him.
At the same time though, she felt at peace. Perseus's presence was still there, as he rested his head against hers.
"I have… good news, Artemis. I spoke with Alexander while at the party," Perseus broke the silence that has permeated through the balcony and into the chamber behind them, with the only sound having been the city below them.
Artemis turned, almost shouldering Perseus's jaw, "I see…" Artemis studied Perseus's face, looking for any signs of what he had discussed.
Unfortunately, the man didn't betray anything, despite her usually good read on him.
"Alexander was talking heatedly with Parmenion," Perseus explained, smiling at her scrutiny, "I overheard some of the conversation. Alexander wants to keep moving East. Parmenion wants to consolidate new forces here, raised from some of the conquered territories of Anatolia and even Persia. Alexander was reluctant, but I stepped into the conversation."
"…And?" Artemis prompted, seeing Perseus pause looking down at her slightly.
"Guess which two ill-favored advisors are going to stay in Babylon, to train Alexander's new forces?" Perseus grinned.
"Wait… what?!" Artemis smiled, pushing against Perseus's chest, making him stumble back a few feet, "how… how on earth did you manage that?!"
"You are asking me! I must've caught him in a benevolent mood," Perseus laughed, the light on his face chasing the long encroaching shadows, "He… may have said a few disparaging words against the both of us, but at least you didn't have to be there when he said them. I'm to coordinate with Parmenion for the training of ten-thousand-foot soldiers, trained as phalangites. The Expedition will leave around five hundred Greek and Macedonian infantry behind as well, to help with the process of recruiting the men necessary to create this army."
"Perseus… this is…" Artemis broke down, and stepped forwards, wrapping her arms around him and a tight embrace. She felt him laugh and his arms encircled her in return. She could almost feel the tension dissipate from Perseus's body. And then it struck her. A quiet realization turned into a full body paralysis, as the full meaning sunk in.
Their war was over.
"Do you think it'll be an issue staying in Babylon?" Perseus said, once again, his voice muffled against her neck.
A foreign, melodic voice sang over to them in response, "Oh, I don't think so. I'm rather excited to welcome you both into the city."
Artemis froze, as the voice's owner rung around in her head. A vaguely familiar voice. One she had encountered when she entered the city.
Artemis turned once more from Perseus, and looked over the balcony where she had stood moments ago. Sure as moonlight, there was the beautiful woman, languidly leaning against the decorated tile, dressed in the deepest crimson silk dress, with a plunging neckline that almost came to the naval, accenting her perfectly smooth caramel skin.
"Cleoxene… who is this?" Perseus moved to stand at her side. Artemis watched his gaze flick over to where his armor and sword were laid, next to two large beds.
"Oh that is lovely, you still try to maintain her disguise when in the presence of a goddess," Ishtar purred, "I must say, I'm rather put off that Artemis didn't mention our encounter to you yet, Perseus."
"Your… encounter?" Perseus cocked his head to hers, an eyebrow raised.
Artemis felt her nose twitch, "I was getting to it. Perseus, this is Ishtar, one of the Babylonian deities. She and I had a conversation when I passed through the Ishtar Gate." She glared back over the to Babylonian goddess, who still leaned over the balcony railing like an elegantly perched cat, her gaze flicking between the two of them with calculating eyes.
"Like I told Artemis, I merely want to assure you both that you will find no trouble coming from my family. We are," Ishtar pushed off the balcony railing, sashaying into the chamber, her eyes flicking over the room, before her gaze lingered on the two beds within, "eternally grateful, after all."
As the goddess stepped within the chamber, Artemis felt the familiar strain of this deities' mere presence wash over her, her eyes drawn to Ishtar like a moth to a flame. She heard Perseus take the same step backwards, his muscles locking as he experienced the same sensation.
Gritting her teeth, Artemis pulled with all her might and wrenched her gaze from the goddess before her, tearing her gaze outwards over the city, "What do you want?"
Ishtar's laugh wrung out over the chamber, "That my dear, is an excellent question. My father has never been the revealing sort of person." Ishtar padded back over to the balcony, as Artemis jostled Perseus out of the goddess' thrall.
"Your… father, I'm sorry, Ishtar?" Perseus panted, his face covered in a sheen of sweat, "Are you not a Persian goddess… like Anahita?"
Ishtar's words sent Artemis's thoughts for a whirl ,as she quickly tried to recall any information on the Babylonian pantheon. However, much like her knowledge of the Persian Pantheon, it was limited. Beyond the tales and whispers of the primordial sky deities of the East, the Babylonians stayed to their own. Ishtar had mentioned a few of her kind before, but the names were fleeting into their importance to her at the moment.
"Oh no," Ishtar turned back to the two of them, seemingly remembering something. The goddess waved a hand across her body almost as an afterthought and in an instant, the enthralling aura around Ishtar seemed to fade away, allowing Artemis to finally catch her breath.
"I do apologize for that, but you do understand the benefits of mere mortals being cowed before you, don't you Artemis?" Ishtar grinned, moving as she had earlier at the city gates, like a circling jackal eyeing its prey. Her gaze then switched to Perseus, who was recovering alongside her. "You see, young man, Anahita was a usurper, who thought that clinging to borrowed worship would keep her in power over these lands. You did an admirable job in wounding her. My family… well… they finished what you started."
Artemis felt her eyes bulge, as she whipped her gaze back over to Perseus. He had still neglected to tell her what happened at Gaugamela. No matter how hard she pressed him.
"Perseus…" Artemis ground out, her fist clenched, "You what?"
"I-" Perseus floundered gesturing to her, then to Ishtar, who was regarding the both of them with a smirk, her arms crossed, "You didn't tell me that you met with a Babylonian goddess today! That seemed pertinent, seeing as I just told you we will be staying in this city for the foreseeable future!"
"We will talk about this…" Artemis sighed, her burst of anger subsiding, "When a love and war goddess isn't standing in our bed chamber." She felt her neck flush as the words spilled out and she realized what she had actually said. Perseus coughed lightly, his eyes meeting hers and his brows raised. Perseus, as annoying as he was, seemed to be enjoying this conversation, despite the circumstances.
And her knives were resting next to his own weapons, across the room, so she couldn't run him through.
"Oh, by all means, continue," Ishtar laughed, with one hand resting on the fine silk that hugged her curved hip, "But I have been told to tell you that your presence is requested at the Temple of Sin, on the eastern edge of the city. My father does not like to be kept waiting. With that, I bid you both… a pleasant night. Though I am afraid I simply must change one thing about the room."
The goddess raised a slender hand, devoid of any golden adornments and snapped her fingers. There was a dull purple flash of light behind Artemis and Perseus. Upon looking, where there were two beds a moment before, there was now only one large bed positioned in between where the two used to be. Artemis stared for a moment, the meaning dawning on her rather slowly, before she pivoted back to Ishtar, a hot retort on her mind. However, Ishtar was nowhere to be seen: All that remained in her stead saw was a small cloud of golden dust that was already being blown away, through the vines and flowers that surrounded the balcony.
She and Perseus were left standing there for a few moments before Perseus looked over to her, his expression serious, despite the mischief dancing around in his green eyes.
"I think we need to have a long talk."
The dream faded from her mind, dissolving away as she blinked her eyes open. Her gaze took locked onto the roof of her tent, as well as the hanging animal skins around her. She didn't feel tired or have any of the morning disorientation that being a mortal had taught her of long ago, as she sat up from her cot, breathing in the fresh, crisp morning area that had permeated throughout her tent in the night. Artemis allowed herself a few more moments of quiet of sitting on her cot, savoring the memories that she had replayed over the course of the night. It was a liberating feeling, to reminisce on what had been, without the pain that had accompanied all of her memories of that time with Perseus.
Her hunters would probably never realize what it meant to her, to have listened to her story that had allowed her to say his name again, without feeling overwhelmingly powerless against the reality of his death right in front of her eyes. Their support had brought her back after she had learned that Poseidon's own son was a carbon copy of the man she loved, without his memories of her and the life they had shared.
Artemis finally rose from her cot, not hearing anyone else within the came rising yet. She quickly slipped on her leather armor, and tightened Perseus's sword and belt across her waist. The motions comforted her and now acted as a ritual for her mornings. Her bow and hunting knives, the latter having usually also been on her person during her time in the Macedonian Expedition, were weapons that Artemis reserved for magical summoning, arrows included.
Her black leather breastplate, vambraces, and greaves fully tightened, Artemis snapped her fingers and the familiar weight of her bow and quiver appeared on her person, completing the ensemble. She was ready.
Striding out of the tent, Artemis watched as her first breath puffed out into the air in a small white cloud. The temperature had dropped from yesterday and all around her, the trees and forest floor were covered in a fresh layer of frost. Only the waterproofed tents emerged unscathed from the overnight chill, as even the firepits cold charcoal had fallen victim to the cold.
Over by the fire pit, Artemis saw a single Hunter bundled up in their parka, bending over to give one of the wolves a head scratch.
It was Victoria, easily recognizable by her golden curls and porcelain skin. Artemis had to assume she was the last on watch for the night, due to the fact that the rest of the camp was eerily quiet.
"Victoria," Artemis called over to her, already making her way over to the girl, "Last watch, I presume?"
The girl snapped her head up, as did the wolf at her feet. "Ah! Good morning, Lady Artemis," Victoria stood up and straightened her parka, "Elizabeth took great pleasure in waking me in the middle of the night, yes. But at least I escaped Kathleen's snoring."
"You have my permission to go flip your friend out of bed then," Artemis laughed, "And everyone else for that matter. We are going to get moving now."
"Of course, Lady Artemis!" Victoria's face was covered in a mischievous grin before she bounded away into one of the tents that was clustered around her own lodging.
Artemis was already walking towards the treeline, looking out across the bay. The barest hints of fog crept over the still waters, lightly obscuring the town across the way. Accompanied with an overcast early morning sky, it felt ominous. However, the silent grey atmosphere quickly unfolded into chaos, as a muffled curse pierced through the still air.
A similarly muted cackling laugh floated over the small camp not a moment later, signaling the beginning of the hunters rolling out of their cots… some probably having done so quite literally, in Kathleen's case.
In the midst of the noise of hunters waking up, and the normal sights and sounds of the camp being hurriedly taken down in mere moments, Artemis whistled out over the beach, sending a call out the wolves of the Hunt. A few moments later, Artemis watched their grey and black forms dart through the trees, along the beach, and even through the rapidly disassembling camp, over to her side.
Cinder was the last to join her side, the alpha she wolf padding over slowly, her ears cocked back towards the muffled conversations of hunters finishing up their routine.
"Listen to me, Cinder," Artemis said, getting the she wolf's attention, "We go into battle today. Make sure that our younger hunters are well looked after."
The old wolf yawned, huffing a couple of times as she stretched out, before nudging some of her pack members. But as Artemis met the wolf's intelligent dark eyes, there was an understanding there. Protect the newest pack members first. With that worry stated for the moment, Artemis switched her mind over to the revelation from yesterday, regarding the manticore.
It's very presence was still bothering her. She hadn't encountered the beasts since the Macedonian Expedition. She had made sure that they stayed in the East, never to plague her thoughts ever again, after what she had witnessed. And if this one were to be leading the dracanae that she had also sensed… there would be a fight.
"Lady Artemis!" Phoebe bounded over, her silver parka unfastened, revealing her well worn armor underneath, "Zoe is making a final check, but we should be ready to leave whenever you see fit." The older hunter had a shield slung over her back alongside her bow, with two hunting knives on either side of her waist. All were stowed for the time being, as the spartan carried a long spear that acted as a walking stick.
"Very well," Artemis replied, looking over to Phoebe, "Who is on your team for entering the building?"
"Me and Zoe sorted that last night," Phoebe responded, looking back over to the Hunt, "I have Mara, Sarah, Angelina, Winifred, Anna, Elizabeth, Christina, and myself as the forward team. Zoe has Kathleen, Victoria, Emily, Celyn, Olivia, and Naomi with her. Along with you, Lady Artemis, in reserve." Artemis recognized that Celyn had been on Phoebe's team the day before, but with her injury, it seemed that Celyn would sit back with the other recruits.
"Phoebe, I know you have been whipping the Hunt into shape for the past few years, but I want you to make sure to be careful," Artemis said, thinking over the countless times Phoebe had been drilling the Hunt with combats specifically against dracaenas.
"Manticores are no easy foes. Do not engage, if at all possible. Draw it out to me and I will confront it."
Phoebe had a wry smile on her face, "Zoe said you'd probably say something like that."
"I would expect nothing less… but the sentiment remains," Artemis sighed, thinking over the conversation with her lieutenant the night before.
"It's the first time she had broken down and ranted to me in a while," Phoebe continued, not mentioning Zoe by name, but Artemis recognized Phoebe all the same. "She tries to take the stress she sees you under upon her own shoulders, in a twisted familial legacy. I talked to her. This is hardly the worst time you two have been at odds. She is my oldest friend, but she never has learned that being selfless at all times gets old."
Artemis felt her mouth twitch at Phoebe's blunt conversation, which was a refreshing change of pace, before she asked a similar question that Zoe had posited to her, "What do you think of the recruits?"
"Another topic of the rant," Phoebe laughed, striking her spear down into the pebbled ground, "Had you not mentioned a Manticore, I would have made the argument to include Naomi or Olivia on the breaching team. I'd have personally looked after whichever recruit had come on. But, seeing as none of us have seen, let alone fought a manticore before, I agree with your decision to steer them from the thick of the action."
At that moment, Cinder padded over to Phoebe, and nudged the older hunter on the upper thigh, huffing slightly. The other wolves padded back towards the treeline, finding their own marks an esoteric manner, beyond Artemis's commands.
"Im glad you agree at least," Artemis muttered so that no one could hear her, as she looked over behind Phoebe, seeing the Hunt ready to move out. All wolves had intermingled and chosen hunting partners, with only a few hunters having no wolves besides them, notably the recruits and Zoe.
Zoe wasn't meeting her gaze at the moment.
But there was no sense in dwelling on that matter for now. They had a mission at hand.
"Marching formation, we set out across the bay!" Artemis called out, before she turned and led the hunt down the beach, in a roundabout route towards the mortal town of Bay Harbor, and the demigod children that were under the noses of a powerful monster.
Tensions were running high, and Artemis could feel the charged air around her as if the air was ionizing for a lightning strike. Like it or not, today would likely begin a conflict that may very well escalate into war.
Sorry for the cliffhanger! (But not really!)
It was a hard decision to cut the chapter here, but the good news is... you might see the next chapter coming sooner than you think... ;)