[A/N] And thus we reach the last chapter of this little yarn, I thank you for sticking with me and again cheers to my beta Shrrgnien for her work.
Chapter 4: Hunter's Moon
I thought I hated her.
That wasn't it…that was never it…
I was just looking for a way to offload the pain in my heart onto another person now that the pain in my body was gone. And so I turned my pain on the one person who probably deserved it the least…
I didn't even have the decency to die with the courtesy of not leaving a hindering mark on the world behind. I left a wound so deep that it would most likely never heal.
Perhaps Mother really was right about men…
She was just right about me. Perhaps I was just her expectations of males personified. In that case my self-hatred would be well founded. But I guess now I'll never know…
That would be the blood obstructing your windpipe, fool...
As I drifted on the edge of consciousness I wondered what would kill me first; the arrow that was embedded quite deeply in the middle of my upper torso, or the impact I was about to make on Fifth Avenue.
In my almost dreamlike state I couldn't help but calculate: nine point eight meters per second per second acceleration, at a height of about four hundred and fifty meters, looks like you've got less than thirty seconds.
That would be the wind and probably your blood losing oxygen…
Sad how much I knew my own physiology, but then when you live with Apollo for so long he inevitably crams in his own subjects.
Suddenly I was dimly aware of a warm sensation somewhere around my right arm and the feeling of it being stretched. Then the cold wind stopped and all went silent…
Is this death?
Thalia and the Hunters had gathered at the base of The Empire State Building, having followed after their goddess. With the help of a small pair of binoculars, Thalia could make out the shape of her mistress' chariot in the skies, along with a golden shape hovering not far away.
"What's going on Thalia? Does she have him or not?" Steff demanded.
"I think so, but I can't be- What?" her eyes widened as she observed the golden shape disintegrate. And as the daughter of the sky god she could feel something else too. "Something's falling…"
"What? What's falling?" Thalia took the binoculars away after a second, her eyes following the plummeting black dot coming from above.
"So Lady Artemis got him in the end, huh?" Aren spoke in an unsympathetic tone.
Thalia's eyes widened again. "No, I don't think that's it at all…" she said as she spied a brilliant silver streak spiraling down the building after the falling form like a shooting star.
They were getting closer, barely a hundred feet above the ground now. The blur intersected the nearly visible shape and both began slowing considerably. About twenty feet above the pavement both streaked to a halt and materialized into the form of Artemis' chariot. The goddess of the hunt herself was leaning over the edge, with both her arms grabbing hold of the dangling Armani Dove's right hand.
Thalia gasped as she saw the arrow protruding from the limp half-blood's chest.
She ran to the chariot as it descended to the ground, the people and cars continuing on around it as if it weren't there. Artemis had already pulled the boy in and was currently sitting over him, his head resting in her lap.
"Lady Artemis! What happened?" Thalia shouted as she reached her mistress. She paused in shock as she regarded the goddess in front of her. She appeared to be…trembling. "Lady Artemis, what's wrong?"
"I didn't-" she paused, as if not knowing what to say. "I swear it wasn't my intention…" she choked off again and only then did Thalia notice the occasional golden drop fall from the lady's face as she shook her head. Thalia crawled in next to her mistress.
"Lady Artemis, what do you want us to do?"
She shook her head as if trying to clear it and suddenly focused on the arrow in front of her. It shimmered and disintegrated into nothing. The goddess immediately pressed her hands down onto the wound. "Ambrosia…" she muttered after a second.
"Ambrosia, now!" she snapped angrily, rearing her tear stained face around to her gathered Hunters, who recoiled back in shock. None could remember the last time she had even come close to scolding one of them.
Thalia shook her head mutely, "We didn't bring any, we were in such a hurry when-" Artemis gave a cross between a gasp and a sob. "Wait!", said Thalia abruptly, spying the bag slung loosely over Armani's shoulder. She immediately began rummaging around in it. "Thank Zeus for well provisioned half-bloods," she said with relief as she withdrew a slice of ambrosia cake wrapped in cling film. She unwrapped it and handed it to Artemis, who immediately broke off a chunk.
The goddess placed some in his mouth and held it closed until he reflexively swallowed. She removed her hand from his chest as the wound began to heal under it. The goddess gasped as the boy coughed up a large amount of blood over her and immediately began gasping for air.
As the half-blood stabilized, Thalia observed her mistress' face change from fear to an unreadable blank expression, just staring between the child's face and the blood that stained her hands. The lieutenant decided it was time to speak. "Lady Artemis, what happened?"
She didn't take her eyes away from Armani, "He told me what I wanted to know…he told me everything."
Thalia gave pause at the way the boy was resting in her mistress' lap. That alone was a surreal sight, but if she didn't know any better she would've sworn it almost looked like Artemis was holding him.
"I need to…" Artemis began, pausing as if confused, still appearing totally shell-shocked, "I need to…go." she began to get up, lifting the half-blood into her arms as she did so, and turned to Thalia, "Here…"
Without a word of question the daughter of Zeus took the unconscious form from her mistress' arms. "What are your orders, my lady?"
She didn't answer for a moment, as if the words were having trouble reaching her. "Just...just look after him. Make sure no harm comes to him until I return," she said in a dull voice, her mind a mile away.
"But what about you?" Steff spoke up, fear in her voice. She had served with Artemis for nearly two centuries and never before had the goddess seemed so fragile and disturbed.
The look on the goddess' face turned dark for a moment as she finally focused, "There's someone I have to see." And with that she shook the reigns of her chariot and it disappeared in a flash of silver moonlight.
Without another word Thalia carried the boy into the lobby of the building, the other six Hunters following in silence.
I'm still alive?
I stirred and could feel uncomfortable leather creaking under my back. The hum of an air conditioner and the muffled sounds of traffic were the only things I could hear. I was clearly indoors somewhere, and judging by the light coming in through the windows it must have been evening already.
I risked opening my eyes. Straight above were florescent lights. I arched my head around. My view was obscured by a pair of denim clad legs. I glanced upwards to see a pair of stormy blue eyes staring down at me, "Thalia..." I mumbled. I immediately began attempting to pull myself up, and immediately regretted it. "Jeez!" I snapped, a sharp pain shooting through my abdomen. I suddenly remembered what had happened and a different sort of pain emerged.
Oh gods…what have I done?
She sighed then reached down to assist me into a sitting position. "You really shouldn't be trying to move yet, Lady Artemis only gave you enough ambrosia to pull you back from the edge. You're still injured."
"Please, when has anyone in history ever heeded the words 'you shouldn't try and move yet'?" I grunted as I glanced around. I spied a plaque by the doorway and knew then where I was; the lobby of the Empire State Building. Dotted around were the remaining six Hunters of Artemis.
"Here, you should eat the rest of this," she said and I found the chunk of ambrosia from Apollo's condo thrust into my hands. I wordlessly accepted it and began munching, my pain easing with each bite. I did my best to ignore the half-dozen pairs of eyes now burning into me. If there was dislike before, it now radiated sheer murder, and I didn't really blame them.
I leaned back and breathed a sigh, and just stared listlessly at the ceiling, not saying a word.
To be honest I was quite happy to just sit there and let death claim me, but then a voice spoke up I couldn't ignore. It was the annoying blonde one whose nose I had broken earlier with Apollo's front door. "What did you do… to Lady Artemis?" she had to pause in the middle to hold in her temper.
I lowered my head down to regard her, and instantly recognized the emotions in her eyes: rage and fear. They were the eyes of someone who just witnessed the centre of her universe begin to crack apart. She also looked like she wanted nothing more than to wrap her fingers around my throat and squeeze the life out of me. She deserved an answer, however. "I did something terrible"
I watched as she inhaled a shuddering breath and only then noticed the other hunters were in a similar way. Most looked terrified, one even appeared to have been crying. The only one who appeared to be in a slightly better way was Thalia. I only now realized just how important my mother was to these girls.
She obviously didn't like the silence I had fallen into. Apparently the pain of not knowing what had happened was the worst part. "Well?"
I inhaled a deep breath and spoke again, "I felt she had hurt me, and so I hurt her back. I have hurt her so badly that she may never recover."
"Don't be ridiculous, boy! There's no way scum like you could hurt Lady Artemis!" The redhead interrupted.
I didn't have the heart to meet her eyes, "I could, and I did. I used the only weapon I had available."
"And that was?" Thalia spoke up.
"My identity. I revealed to her who I was, and then used my pain to try and destroy her with that knowledge. I don't know why she didn't just let me die."
"Who are you then? How could something like that hurt Lady Artemis?" Thalia demanded. She appeared to be the only level-headed one left; the others had fallen silent lest their emotions take them over.
"It's best that you don't know. Trust me, you wouldn't like the answer. Should your lady ever deem you fit to know, then it will be her secret to tell, but I will take the pain that knowledge will bring you to my death which, incidentally, shouldn't be too far off now."
"You're right. It's not." Aren said in an emotionless voice. Then, with a cry of rage, she lunged at me with her dagger drawn. I didn't move; it was her right should she choose to exercise it.
A flash of blue light shot from Thalia's hand and sent the Hunter flying backwards through the air and crashing into the seats opposite.
The black haired girl strode pointedly across, grabbed the spasming blonde, and yanked her up until her face was inches from her own, "Listen, I know you're upset and frightened, but that is not the way to solve this! And more importantly, if you ever disobey Lady Artemis' orders again, Aren, I will put you down permanently, got it?" The blonde merely averted her now teary green eyes in shame. Thalia sighed and strode back toward me.
This is all your fault, too.
"You shouldn't have stopped her" I mumbled.
Thalia reared around to face me, "Listen! I didn't save you because I wanted to, only because Lady Artemis ordered me to stop anything from happening to you! Care to explain to me why that is? And why did she save you right after shooting you?"
I breathed a weary sigh, "Firstly the arrow was my fault; my own arrow caused her to accidentally loose her own. And as for saving me, well, I guess she just isn't that bright."
Thalia raised her hand to strike me. I didn't move, but she paused as her eyes met mine. She shook her head in disgusted confusion, "Just what is wrong with you? The way you act, you're practically begging us to kill you! Does your life mean so little to you?"
So many demands for answers, where to begin? "After what I've done, Thalia, my life is even more worthless than it was before, and as for wanting to die…well, it doesn't matter one way or the other. The logic of your lady saving me escapes me. After reading my mind she must know the truth of what's going to happen well enough, especially after summoning my bow. Her saving me was an exercise in futility."
"Why?" Thalia breathed desperately.
I answered in a plain and level tone, "Because, daughter of Zeus, I've used up so much of my time, it's more than likely that I'll be dead by dawn. My life is now dangling by a single thread."
Thalia's blue eyes widened. "What?"
"Weren't you listening when Artemis told you I was dying?"
"Yeah, but I thought that meant…you know…"
"That I had some kind of illness that would take years to kill me?" I offered.
Thalia just nodded slightly.
"Unfortunately, I had less than a month left in me when you caught me that time; my time is used up more every time I use my power as a half-blood, especially when going on a hunt. Can you see where this is going?"
"We hunted you…"
"And in doing so drew all but the last few grains of sand from my hourglass. True, I forced a large portion of them out myself, but…" I simply trailed off at that.
"But why? Why the hunt, what's so special about it to you?"
I laughed weakly, "Because, Thalia, I've become far too much like my mother and I'm just too different from my uncle."
"I don't understand. Does this have to do with your Olympian parent or something?"
I inclined my head, "Something like that. Like I said, I won't tell you…but neither will I stop you from working it out yourself. All the pieces are there. Your mistress' reaction to that truth is just the last piece you needed to figure it out."
I could see the cogs turning in her head as she just stared into my eyes. I sat still, hoping she wasn't as stubborn as she appeared and would give up after a moment. I hoped this was the case as her face froze mid frown and all emotion drained from it. She simply stood there, staring at me.
"How? It's impossible…" she breathed, clearly afraid to ask.
"Worked it out did you?" I asked, averting my eyes.
Suddenly I was yanked to my feet by the front of my top, but I still didn't meet her eyes, "How?" she repeated in an enraged hiss. She was doing this under her breath now, obviously not wanting the others to hear.
"Don't tell them. Until Artemis is back you're the leader, and you should know what's best for them until then."
"What's he talking about, Thalia?" the blonde asked, walking up and glancing between us.
I turned my head to the short blonde, "Let me ask you something..." I paused, realizing I didn't catch her name (I imagined 'annoying-blonde-one-with-broken-nose' would only antagonize her further).
"-Aren" Thalia interjected.
"Aren, can you remember back to a night sixteen years ago, the night of the 1994 annual eclipse?"
The hate in her eyes changed for a moment to confusion. Obviously her memory wasn't that precise. "Why?"
"On that night your Lady was attacked by the shade of King Midas, ring a bell?"
Her eyes narrowed in suspicion, clearly only entertaining the conversation because it was taking her mind off the present for a second. "Yes, I do remember that. He hit Lady Artemis with some kind of light and she killed him. What about it?"
"Well this all has to do with that one night."
"What happened?" Thalia suddenly demanded, still staring at me but obviously no longer talking to me. I would've been offended had I the right to be.
"Thalia?" Aren asked.
"On that night, what happened, Aren?"
She frowned in thought as if trying to recall correctly, "He said he had some kind of gift for her, a crystal. He shattered it and it turned into this blue light and he hit Lady Artemis in the chest with it. There was this blinding gold and blue flash and next thing I knew I was on my back. Midas was dust and it was over."
"No…" Steff interrupted, "…I saw more, I remember it because it was the closest I had ever come to daring to look at Lady Artemis in her true form, if only to protect her. At the end he pulled free some kind of large orb of silver light from her chest, I heard some strange murmuring and it disappeared. Next thing you know Lady Artemis cut Midas' head off."
"Why is any of this important?" Aren snapped.
"The light…" Thalia said, staring right at me again.
"What?" Steff asked.
"That 'silver light', what happened to it then?"
Steff shook her head, "Gone, it disappeared into the night, we never saw it again. Look, this is pointless! We shouldn't be standing here talking about some dusted shade when we should be twisting this filthy vermin until he tells us exactly what he did to Lady Artemis so we can find a way to help her!"
I sighed, "Are you going to hold me by the scruff of my neck all evening?"
Thalia grunted in frustration and tossed me back into my seat.
Suddenly something did occur to me that I had to ask, "Where is she, anyway?"
"Who?" she asked. I could tell by the look in her eyes she didn't know quite what to make of me anymore.
That's what you get for being too intuitive.
I raised an eyebrow, "Who do you think?"
Thalia sighed. "Lady Artemis said something about having to go and see someone. She seemed suddenly… angry when she said it, though."
"Oh dear…" I muttered.
Thalia's head whipped back round to me, "What? Do you know where she went?" suddenly all the Hunters were paying attention.
I laughed incredulously, "Oh, I know exactly where she went, that also explains why she left you all behind."
"Where is she, Armani?" Thalia demanded in a dark tone, ozone starting to saturate the air around her.
"She had…what's the phrase? Ah yes, I do believe she had a bone to pick with a certain someone."
"A bone to pick?" Thalia echoed.
I smiled weakly, "A bone the size of one of Typhon's toothpicks. What is it they say about the wrath of women scorned? But worry not; I'm sure Lady Artemis will return in due course. I, on the other hand…" with that I began to push myself up, grabbing my bag in the process and covertly retrieving a small orb from it as I slipped the strap over my shoulder.
Thalia moved to intercept me as I turned for the door, "You're not going anywhere until Lady Artemis states otherwise." The other Hunters were moving too.
"You shouldn't deem to predict the future like that, Thalia, you might just end up jinxing yourself," I said and, without another word, smashed the orb in my hand on the ground, closing my eyes just in time as a blinding flash of light erupted from it, accompanied by a tremendous cloud of smoke. The Hunters gave a collective cry of shock and I weaved past them and shot out of the doors and back onto Fifth Avenue.
There was somewhere I wanted to be when it all ended. I immediately took to the back alleys; in the city the buildings were your trees, and the alleyways were the paths through that forest. I instinctively knew the way to go and realized with a start that my destination wasn't that far from New York City. But there was no time to stop and marvel at my good fortune (if it can be called that). I knew I had seconds before the Hunters were on my tail again. And I had the suspicion they wouldn't be so gentle in trying to bring me to a halt this time round.
Time for one last run, I wonder if I can make it…
Apollo sat alone in the darkness of his condo/temple. He had seen the devastation upon his approach and knew what it meant; the day he had been trying to put off for sixteen years was here, and that meant she would be coming for him soon.
He sat on his sofa, staring straight ahead, and didn't even flinch as a deafening CRASH echoed from the front door. The entire frame cracked and barely held up.
The charm that protected Apollo's domain came into place reflexively as the golden shimmer descended around the building.
Despite the barrier, the structure shook and some plaster dust came down through the cracking ceiling.
The golden light pulsed madly as something smacked against it repeatedly. There was only so much a simple defense charm could take.
He didn't even flinch as the last deafening SMASH echoed through the apartment and the golden light literally shattered…along with the entire door frame. The door flew right off what remained of its hinges, across the room, and right through one of the French doors on the opposite side of the building.
A cloud of plaster and dust concealed the gaping hole as Apollo stood up silently and turned towards the entrance, his hands at his sides.
The only thing visible through the cloud was a pair of blazing silver orbs, "So, you're here. I've been exp-" he was cut off however as Artemis exploded out of the dust, leapt through the air and, with a sickening crack of breaking ribs, hit Apollo with a brutal roundhouse kick that sent him flying back through the remaining French door, the shattering glass tearing open his suit as he passed through.
He hit the ground with another crack, a cloud of golden blood escaping as he coughed in pain. Artemis began slowly advancing through the devastation, growing as she walked, and when she hit the ceiling of the condo she simply tore out through the roof until she stood in the giant Olympian form usually reserved for when she was at her seat of power. She kicked her way through the doorway, cleaving the back part of the building off in the process.
Apollo still made no move to resist, but did raise one objection. "Mist sister! Mist!" In her enraged state she wasn't even concealing her presence from mortal eyes, and so what were the mortals seeing? A giant 12 year old girl rampaging on the coast Godzilla-style, of course. But, he realized, if anyone saw her it's not like they'd report it to anyone.
The goddess bent down and grabbed the prone sun god, dragging him up like a rag-doll and bringing him to her face. "How long?" she demanded after a moment, her voice shaking with primal rage.
Apollo noticed the golden stains on his sister's face, "You've been crying sister…" her response was to squeeze him with enough force to crush a corvette. Had he been mortal he'd have been pulped. One of his arms groaned and snapped right out of its socket.
"HOW LONG HAVE YOU KNOWN?"
Apollo took a steadying breath, "All along. I knew he was yours from the instant I laid eyes upon him, and that his creation was also fundamentally flawed."
"Why? Why didn't you-" she demanded again, this time trailing off with sorrow in her voice.
"Why didn't I tell you? Because I couldn't be sure. I couldn't tell just what you might do when you found out."
"What I might do? What are you saying?"
Despite his situation, Apollo answered calmly, "I think you know what I'm saying. We are gods, you and I. We live by a natural order; never changing; we resist change. His life was a change in one of the fundamental laws that govern you. The Goddess of the Hunt can have no children, and yet, against the order, he was brought into being in a way that circumvented the natural laws. I couldn't be sure to what extent you would go to in the process of restoring that order."
Artemis' hands opened and Apollo fell to the ground, the huntress herself returning to her normal size. She was staring off to the side wordlessly, "You thought that I would kill my own child…" she swung her head back around to her brother, eyes blazing. "I'm the goddess of childbirth, brother!"
"Exactly!" Apollo snapped, not getting up, "And he was born wrong! How was I supposed to know that you wouldn't see his life as some error that needed to be corrected?"
"So..." she began, walking slowly towards him. "…You simply did not trust me. And because of that you took from me something that was so fundamentally mine that I now experience a pain so deep I didn't know it was possible to feel it."
"I had to make a choice, both as the god of healing and as your brother, and so I made one. His life was a tragedy, like those of so many countless half-bloods and heroes throughout time. In a way, the tragedy of his life is part of that order. Just look at history: be it Hercules, Perseus, Orion-"
Apollo didn't get past that third name.
A look of utter, indescribable rage flashed across Artemis' face as her brother unwittingly opened up another old wound to add to this one. In a flash she was on him, savagely punching the sun-god with blow after blow. Her knuckles bled gold as she punched once so hard she felt several of her brother's back teeth shatter in his mouth. She stopped to breathe, tears of rage and anguish flowing down her childlike features. "You are right, brother. You never change. Always taking from me the things that are most precious." She turned and began to walk away.
Apollo spat out some shards of teeth and pulled himself up, "I'm can't say I'm sorry sister. You may never forgive me, but all I can say is-" his eyes suddenly widened, staring off into the distance, "Oh, no…"
Artemis froze. Wiping her bloodied hands on her tunic, she turned around. "What?"
"I can't feel my imprint on him anymore, it just vanished…"
"He's escaped your Hunters again, but he has paid the price."
Artemis' eyes widened and went back to her brother, grabbing him by his suit lapels. "Where is he?"
Apollo smiled weakly (very weakly). "What does the lone wolf do when he can no longer hunt? He goes to find a place to die."
"Where?" Artemis breathed, a note of desperation in her voice.
"You tell me; where would you go when your hunt came to an end?"
She dropped her brother back to the ground, "I would return to the starting point…"
"Well, there you are. I suppose there is one thing you can do; the one thing I could never do as the lord of healing."
Artemis' eyes narrowed at her brother, "And that is?"
"Simple. You forcefully separate his soul from his body before both are pulled into oblivion. If you do that then there's at least a chance his soul will survive, although I cannot guarantee it. At least that way he would have a chance at the Underworld."
"And how do you suggest I do that?"
Apollo shrugged one shoulder, "I suppose a sword would be your first port of call."
Artemis' jaw dropped slightly, "Are you suggesting now I kill him?"
"Oblivion or the Underworld, it's your decision, sister."
The goddess gritted her teeth and answered her brother by kicking him square in the chest and sending him skidding into a sand dune. She swung around and ran for her chariot. She wasn't sure what choice she would make, but she knew she had to start moving.
Apollo rolled onto his back, groaning in pain, as his face settled into a small smile, "All in your hands now sis…"
He yearned to return to Mount Olympus and recover, but there was still one thing left undone. Pulling himself up, he turned as his chariot descended to the earth beside him. He staggered over, pulled open the door of the red sports car and all but collapsed into the driver's seat. "Sure as Hades not driving stick tonight…" The engine fired up and he streaked off into the night sky.
"I'm not dead yet," I grunted, pushing myself up. The Hunters couldn't be far behind. I could sense them coming. They would be reaching that last clearing right about now, that should stop them about a second, but I myself had fallen; a wave of nausea and weakness had swept over me and sent me tumbling over my own feet. The bash to my forehead wasn't pleasant either and my bangs were caked with mud and my blood. Then I saw what had made me fall.
There, on my left shoulder, was a small string of golden light trailing off me. It held there for a moment and then snapped free. I noticed its tailing end wasn't gold, but bright silver…
Drawing on willpower alone I staggered on into the clearing. I collapsed to my knees and felt a tingling in my shoulder, which was now trailing a blaze of silver light which in turn was steadily spreading down my arm and across my torso.
Using a tree I dragged myself up with my still-intact arm and surveyed my surroundings. I was there; the clearing where, sixteen years ago, I was born...
A patch of dead earth was noticeable as if someone had spread salt over it, and I knew immediately that it was the spot Midas had been felled by my mother's blade.
The skies were clear and the moon was still full from the previous night. I limped up the small hill towards the altar. The ocean below was quite beautiful, the large moon reflected in its surface. Needless to say it was a perfectly picturesque night to die.
I wasn't in pain. If anything I felt quite euphoric. For the first time in my memory I was entirely myself, with no sun god mixed in. I intended to enjoy the feeling for the few moments I had left before it killed me.
The light coming off me in itself was quite lovely as I stared at the surface of my glowing arm; like swirls of smoky moonlight drifting off a pool of glowing mercury.
My reverie was cut short as an even greater wave of weakness hit me and I staggered backwards, collapsing over the altar. It took all my strength not to fall all the way over.
I straightened myself out and laid back, it seemed as good a place as any to go. It's not really like I had a choice either, as my entire right side was now glowing brilliantly and spreading down my left leg.
I simply stared up at the moon as my peripherals filled with silver light. I heard a rustling in the undergrowth and managed to find the strength to turn my head to the right.
I felt a genuinely warm smile spread across my face, "Ahh…I've been expecting you…"
The Hunters of Artemis emerged into the clearing. Their prey was nowhere to be seen. The tracks led straight ahead and they stopped to pause and examine them briefly. Thalia wouldn't put it past him to double back or covertly change course.
Once the direction was confirmed Thalia waved the others ahead. His speed was unnatural; it was the pace of someone who had nothing more to lose.
All, however staggered to a halt just in time as a line of flame erupted in their path. It spread out until the entire circular clearing was surrounded by a huge wall of flame. "What?" Thalia gasped, as the Hunters backed up together in a defensive circle, drawing their weapons.
Some of the flames gathered together and from within them a shape emerged; Apollo's sun chariot. The flames parted around it until the sports car was resting directly in the path of the hunters. Its engine revved once then cut out.
Thalia didn't sheathe her sword as the sun god emerged. His appearance however, did give her serious pause. "Lord Apollo! What…What happened to you?"
Apollo grunted and leaned back against the hood of his chariot, only smiling once he was sure he had materialized some teeth into place in his mouth. But that didn't hide the swollen eye (which wasn't black thanks to the color of his blood), the limp arm or the golden blood that caked his clothes. Once he was sure he looked cool and nonchalant enough he spoke, "I got into a minor debate with my sister. She won."
"Please step aside, Lord Apollo, we must keep moving."
Apollo merely shook his head. "No, Thalia. I think both the Hunters and I have interfered quite enough in this little tale. This time it's a personal matter for Artemis to deal with alone. Your pursuit ends here."
"If it's a matter personal to Lady Artemis, that's all the more reason for us to be with her!" Steff objected.
Apollo shook his head slightly, "This has nothing to do with you, and I will not argue, either."
"Is it true?" Thalia asked simply.
Apollo didn't need to request clarification; the look on her face said it all. "It is true," he replied with a nod.
"I didn't want to say anything unless I was sure, but I was right then, Armani is-"
Apollo nodded. "-As usual you're as sharp as a tack, Thalia. Yes, Armani Dove is the one and only, immaculately conceived and immaculately born…" he trailed off with a smile, daring Thalia to finish.
She, being Thalia, dared. "…Child of Artemis."
"Bingo!" He regarded the Hunters. Only Thalia looked like she had taken it in. The others just stood frozen, unsure what to think. He may as well have said that the sky was really green.
"You're lying…" Aren said in a small voice after a moment.
Apollo merely narrowed his eyes, "Care to repeat that, Hunter?" It was more a threat than a question.
"He's not. Step aside Apollo, Lady Artemis may want us by her side tonight," Thalia said, having regained some composure.
"I will not, the only way I'm moving is if you make me. Would you care to try, Daughter of Zeus?" It was another dare and she knew that, even in his weakened state, he could incinerate them all with less than a thought. "You know as well as I that this is something Artemis has to deal with alone."
Thalia gripped her sword hilt so hard it hurt, but after a moment reluctantly lowered it, shoving it angrily into its scabbard.
"So what happens now?" she asked of the sun god.
The flames began to die down around them, "Now we wait. Artemis has a choice to make, and it is not one you or I should have any say in. Just wait, Thalia. It's almost over."
"I knew you'd come…" I said, still smiling as Artemis stood, regarding me sadly. The bronze sword in her hand was trailing down by her side as she slowly began walking towards me. I didn't speak as she walked about the alter and wordlessly stepped up onto it, never once taking her eyes off me until she stopped, kneeling silently over me.
"Will you let me pity you now?" she asked after a moment of silence.
"Yes... yes, I think I'd like that" I said, barely above a whisper, and could feel I was still smiling.
I felt something warm around where I supposed my arm was and I realized she was holding my hand. I glanced down to watch as she held it gently in her own. It was almost totally transparent now. I could feel myself starting to drift away. I had no strength left to go on. I had seconds left, but there were words I had to say, my last words, and I knew if I had to erase my entire past up to this point to say them then I would.
"I'm so sorry, mother…"
I felt her tense and then squeeze my hand slightly. How she did that I'm not sure, as it was practically nonexistent by now. I saw the movement of her blade as she raised it up behind her.
"Close your eyes," she whispered with a tenderness I had never heard in the voice of another.
She gripped my hand tightly as I began to comply and felt the darkness of oblivion start to close in around me. Just before closing them, I caught the sight of her lowering her blade towards me…
That was when she thrust my hand into her lower abdomen.
The effect was, to say the least, quite spectacular.
Imagine the moon, for one blinding instant, erupting with such brilliant luminescence that the entire western world was bathed in impossible silver daylight.
The Hunters covered their eyes in shock, "There isn't enough Mist in the world to cover something like this up! What in Hades is going on, Apollo?" Thalia called over the roaring sound that blanketed the countryside. A column of intertwining gold and silver light was visible over the trees.
Apollo just smiled wistfully as he stared, unhindered, at the blinding moon. "It looks like the choice has been made…"
I collapsed to the earth with a thud; the wind was totally knocked out of me. It was odd that there was anything for the wind to be knocked out of.
My eyes moved left and right. I was in a crater. The altar I had been lying on had been reduced to rubble, and in fact the entire small hill it had been resting on had been flattened as if hit by a bomb.
So much for my infallible instincts. I glanced down at myself, as I felt the weight on my chest had to be addressed.
And now I faced a dilemma as several facts became clear.
1. I appeared, oddly enough, to be alive. (This was good.)
2. I didn't have the energy to move. (This was bad.)
3. Lady Artemis was sprawled out on top of me. (This was very bad.)
The dilemma? Well, there are many unsafe places in the world for a young man-balancing on the back of a Griffin in a lightning storm, flying down a freeway at breakneck speeds on a motorcycle-but let me tell you this: neither came even remotely close to how terrifying it was to be in this position.
"Do you really think I'd kill you after I just went through all that trouble to save you?" the prone form suddenly muttered sarcastically, her voice muffled by my shirt.
I raised an eyebrow, "I cannot be sure…but on a related note can we consider it rude to read my mind without my permission in future?"
My mother pushed herself up and into a sitting position; she glanced down, regarding me with those silver eyes.
"I'm alive?" I just wanted to be sure.
"You are," Artemis said, inclining her head, the barest hint of a smile on her face.
"H-how? What did you do?"
"To put it simply, I completed your birth. That is, I rebuilt you and then completed your imperfections. Your physical and fundamental ones, at least. As for your personality…well I'm afraid that was just beyond economical repair," she said with a sigh.
Was I just insulted?
"Can you move?" she asked, still regarding me inquisitively.
"I'll give it a go…" I said and did my best to push myself up. With a helping arm from my mother, I barely found my balance.
Now, normally, a person who had just been brought back from the brink of death would probably want to dance for joy and shed tears of happiness. I, on the other hand, just felt the urge to go out and kill something then eat it over a roasting fire…it's a me thing.
I realized she was still staring at me. I exhaled a breath, "I suppose we should talk?"
The goddess inclined her head curtly, "That would be prudent."
I suddenly felt immensely uncomfortable. She really was much easier to talk to when I thought she was trying to kill me. "Like I said…"
Artemis shook her head, "There was no need for you to apologize. I looked into your heart, remember; your feelings were more than justified."
"Regardless, you didn't deserve the things I said to you."
Artemis frowned in thought and began walking slowly around me, her hands clasped in front of her. "As far as I know, it is occasionally a mother's place to bear the pain of her child, is it not?"
I didn't meet her gaze, "There are limits, though…"
She paused, regarding me again. "You still feel unworthy about yourself."
I had no answer.
"You evaded me, weakened and dying, for two days with the full might of my hunt against you. You caused me no end of grief and were a great frustration the likes of which I have not felt in many centuries. I'm not sure how you will always feel about yourself, but with all that in account, I, at least, think you are good enough for me."
I turned to her in shock and realized she was smiling again. "Mother…" there was a mischievous glint in her eyes as I noticed they were drawn to a point above my head.
"I think that should be proof enough, should it not, my child?"
I frowned and glanced up. "Oh, what now?" I sighed at the glowing silver bow and arrow slowly rotating in the air above my head. It was one of the strangest and most eerily pleasant things I had ever seen. My eyes were inevitably drawn back to my mother, who was staring right at me again, "What…was that?"
"A sign that, now and forever, you are mine, Armani Dove."
I swallowed a lump in my throat, I was getting dangerously close to becoming emotional again and so I averted my eyes. My eyes turned to the moon while she stood there, observing me silently. Suddenly I realized the moon's position and glanced at my watch for confirmation. "Huh. Well look at that."
"It's my birthday in just a moment." I smiled, watching as the hands ticked away.
I glanced up at my mother who was rubbing a finger through her caramel hair in thought, "Is something wrong?"
She blinked. "No, it's just, something occurs to me, Armani," she began, and once again started walking back and forth with her hands clasped together. "…It is traditional for an Olympian parent to present a gift to their child upon their coming of age. Whether it be a magical item or weapon or such…"
I smiled, "You've already-"
She carried right on as if not hearing me, "…I have no such gifts to give you" she said, frowning as if unsatisfied, "…In fact there is only one gift I am really adept at giving…"
I raised a hand, waving off her concern with a laugh. "Honestly mother, I'm fine, you've done more than enough already," I said, but I got the feeling she really wasn't paying attention. She was like Apollo in some ways after all.
She nodded, as if deciding on something, "Yes, that will do nicely."
I suddenly felt oddly uncomfortable. She had, after all, just held a whole conversation about me entirely with herself. "W-what will?"
Suddenly she turned those silver eyes back to me, and I found them burrowing right into my own.
And then the strangest thing happened. You may recall my mentioning the song of the hunt that echoed in my head, especially on full moons, especially around her. Well, imagine that as a gently murmuring Gregorian choir suddenly exploding into the chorus of Ode to Joy, right inside my skull.
The force was so shocking it brought me to my knees as a strange power surged through me. My weariness evaporated, replaced by a surging, charging energy. Suddenly the urge to rush out on the hunt, to run and run and never stop, became near unendurable...
Adrenaline surged through me and I gasped for air. The shock slowly wore off and I carefully got back up on trembling feet. "W-what in Hades was that?" I gasped.
My mother just regarded me with a curiously raised eyebrow, "Fascinating. I've never seen a reaction quite that strong before, perhaps I should have warned you. But no matter."
"A reaction to what?" I asked incredulously.
She just smiled that small smile of hers and then waited for me to collect myself. "Are you all right?" she asked after a moment.
"Yeah…I'm okay." This was a lie. I felt great, insanely so. But I didn't say it.
Suddenly she looked sad, and this time it was she who was not meeting my gaze. "Armani, I claimed you and I have accepted you as my child and in my heart, but…"
I smiled warmly; I knew what she was getting at. "I understand."
She looked at me uncertainly. "Truly?"
I nodded, "Trust me; I really don't work well in groups anyway. I've always been more of a lone wolf... If you'll forgive the cliché. Plus I'm quite sensitive to animosity and amongst your Hunters I would find it a bit distracting. So don't worry about me feeling excluded mother. To be perfectly honest, I would've respectfully declined had you offered anyways…" I glanced away at the ocean in thought, "Perhaps our hunts will join for a time in the future, but I think it would be best if we parted company for now. You have many others in your charge who need you…especially now. I think they deserve an explanation for everything that's happened lately."
She looked both immensely grateful and relieved, and nodded. "Then in that case I feel the gift I gave you will at least serve to keep you safe in my absence."
"Yeah about that, what exactly was that?"
She just laughed a small sweet laugh, turned about and started to walk away, "Good hunting, my child…"
I know it was petty, but I had to have the last word. "What, no hug?"
I saw her shoulders tense and I could've sworn she winced as she continued off, muttering, "I can sense motherhood is going to be painful…"
"See you, mom!" I called after her with a laugh, waving as her small form disappeared into the green of the forest, and then she was gone.
I breathed out a calm breath as I sensed the warm presence behind me; like the warm light of dawn running over your back, I could feel him there. After all these years I could always feel when he was there…
I smiled despite myself, turning around as I spoke. "Hello uncle, I thought you'd might decide to-Ares' armpits! What in Hades happened to you?" I gasped with my jaw hanging open.
He summed it up with one word. "Guess."
I glanced in the direction my mother had strolled off. "Right, right, I forgot she went to pay you a visit."
Apollo dropped with a pained grunt onto his backside. "So, still alive, huh?"
"It would seem so." Suddenly a spark of suspicion flared up in my mind. "Did you know?"
"Did I know what?"
"What my mother would do, did you know?"
"Are you insinuating that this whole thing was some brilliantly ingenious master plan by me to twist events to turn out this way and ensure my nephew's survival?"
"No, that would be far too smart for you; I just wanted to know if you knew how this would turn out."
He seemed a bit dejected by my answer, "No, I had no idea what my sister would do, and so I took a chance and trusted her in the end."
"Why how uncharacteristic of you, uncle."
Apollo nodded. "I suppose it was, and what are you going to do now?"
Suddenly my brow furrowed in thought, "I hadn't thought of that, I've never really had much thought for the future."
"Well it will take some time to rebuild my temple, which I plan to dedicate to my beloved sister in penance, so you can return there once it's finished. That will take some time, though."
My eyes narrowed. "How much time?"
Apollo shrugged, "As soon as I get around to it."
I had a feeling that was going to be his answer.
"Until that time I would recommend you do your best to lay low, go hunting for a while, but that little stunt your mother pulled won't go unquestioned by the others for long."
I glanced away in thought, "Lord Zeus probably knows already."
Apollo scoffed, "You and Artemis just lit up the entire damned sky, so I'd be surprised if he didn't."
I shook my head, "No, when I was talking to Artemis above the Empire State Building, I'm pretty sure he was listening in."
Apollo nodded, "Well I would leave that up to your mother, I'm sure she'll just break out the puppy dog eyes and dad will melt. But I would suggest you stay out of the skies until she can. And in the meantime you'd best find somewhere neutral to lie low for a spell."
I got that sinking feeling again. "Neutral?"
Apollo nodded. "Yup. In fact, I know just the place"
I raised an eyebrow, "Oh really?" I asked sarcastically, but, like usual, he couldn't tell.
He nodded with a smile, "Uh huh, a great place where you can stay as long as you like, where you can make loads of friends and-"
"NO!" I interrupted suddenly.
Apollo looked suddenly put out, "B-but I was just saying-"
"Oh, I know what you were saying!"
"But you'll be safe at Camp Half-Blood!"
"I am not going to that lunatic asylum! And there's not a thing you can say or do-"
"-Where's my motorcycle, Armani?" Apollo interrupted suddenly in a deadly calm voice.
I froze mid argument, my index finger in mid-stab and mouth open. "… Camp Half-Blood you say?" I enquired, plastering the biggest smile on my face I could muster, "I. Am. THERE!" I said, nodding enthusiastically.
Apollo smiled tensely, "I'm so glad you could see it my way. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to Olympus and sleep all this off like a baaad hangover."
"At least promise to get me out of there before I reach the upper age limit for the place."
Apollo's brow creased into a frown, "What do you mean?"
I rolled my eyes, "Well you can't very well have me still living at a summer camp when I turn thirty, can you? I would look a bit silly."
Apollo just shook his head. "Why would you look silly?"
"You don't really expect me to still be sitting around a summer camp with a bunch of hyperactive teenagers when I'm starting to worry about grey hairs, do you?"
I couldn't help but notice a small smile peak at the corner of my uncle's mouth, and suddenly I felt extremely uncomfortable, "She didn't tell you, did she? I mean, you didn't figure out what she just did to you? Although it's not surprising…after all, normally she makes people take an oath before she does that to them."
My frown became a scowl, "Does what?"
Like his twin, he just carried right on as if not hearing me, "Although I guess it would sound silly; having you swear not to fall in love with any boys and all. That is unless, of course you don't, you know, find me attractive, do you?"
"No, as a matter of fact, I do not! What in the name of Persephone's-" and right in the middle of making up my latest Olympian-related expletive it hit me with the force of one of my mother's arrows. My head turned slowly to the direction she'd left and then snapped back around to Apollo, "What in Hades did she do to me, Uncle?"
The sun god just smirked, "Enjoy your sixteenth year Armani; you're going to be living it for quite some time."
I barely had a second to glance away as he reverted to his immortal form and was gone, his boisterous laughter resonating about the clearing along with his echoing voice. "Off you go, nephew! I expect you know the way!"
Honestly, you destroy a god's temple, steal some of his stuff and wreck an insanely expensive motorcycle...oh, who am I kidding? I had it coming.
I myself turned and headed for the trees, wondering idly if I had been better off facing oblivion.
[A/N] And thus the tale comes to a close, if you've read all the way and stuck with me to this point I say well done and pass my final kudos to my readers, my beta and all those who've reviewed and supported me up to this point. What else… Ah yes, I'd best add the mandatory:
To be continued in Broken Bow (Book 2): Shadows of the Hunt
See you then!