"You had no right. It was my power and I can take it back."
"A gift is a gift. You know that."
"Who do you think you are? You are as powerless as I am, more so since father expelled you all."
"You think to bargain with such as Morwen? She will kill you as soon as she returns. I would save you from yourself."
"Why? Why do you care?"
"For the good of this world, its continued existence. Morwen is the end of our time and I, for one, have a fondness for living."
Clint slowly surfaced, awareness coming into focus. He catalogued the aches and pains while lying perfectly still. Scrapes, bruises, nothing sharp enough to be a break; seems routinely jumping from exploding perches was good practice after all. He distinctly remembered hanging off the roof just after Dean had gone down beneath one of those bear things … right, Artemis, were animals, full moon, goddess of the hunt. At least that made sense.
"Don't pretend to be so magnanimous, Hyperion," Artemis said. "Suddenly you care about more than yourself? Ha. I don't believe that."
"Over time, even the most intransigent soul can learn new ways. We have to quit fighting amongst ourselves; there are enough believers yet to keep us all empowered if we shared." The titan sounded so reasonable, but the implications of that plan were scary. The gods fighting amongst themselves meant they had less time to mess with humans. A bored god was too much of a threat; working together would only make that worse.
"Consolidate and then grab it all for yourself is more like it." She didn't sound convinced. "At least Morwen is a force for the feminine. I tire of men's posturing."
"Chronos started this with his megalomania and appetites; it's a curse upon the whole family and will be our undoing. If you persist on this path, you will unleash the destruction of this world for what? The want of one man who never even knew you?"
"Orion is worth the whole lot of my supposed family. It is Apollo's fault he's dead and Apollo will know my pain when Morwen returns." Artemis was moving closer; Clint breathed deep and even, keeping up the pretense. "All I need is the chunk of my power you gave this human and I can rectify that."
"You'll kill him. It's bonded to his soul now, enhancing his natural abilities. He's a man after your own heart. An archer. Never misses. A hunter with eyes like a hawk. Are your followers so numerous you can afford to turn you back on one of your own?"
"He was your choice, not mine. He's no more mine than one of those damn Winchesters who call themselves hunters." Scuffing of boots on the floor and Clint steeled himself to not react if she touched him. "I'll deal with them shortly and be done with all of this."
"Silly girl. I wash my hands of you then. But know that I will stop you if you try to aid Morwen."
Clint heard a whoosh of air and then fingers brushed along his bare forearm.
"Stupid old man. Afraid of what could be." A breath stirred Clint's hair above his ear. "Don't you agree, little archer?"
"Personally," Clint said because, what the hell, the woman was bat shit insane, "I think he's got a couple of valid points like not killing me, for one."
Her laugh was high and shrill. "Of course, you'd agree with that. You humans always beg to live. But you have something of mine."
"Didn't ask for it, but you've got to admit, I've put it to good use." Clint opened his eyes and got his first up close look at Artemis. They'd met once before, only for a few minutes, and Clint had been a little distracted by the werewolf virus that had just been injected in his body. "Not exactly a virgin, though. Didn't know that was in the job contract."
"Oh, I could come to like you. I think I see why mother is so taken with the two of you. Struggling so hard last night to get to your lover. Surely you understand then how strong a connection true love can be." Her eyes were the color of summer leaves, shades of green that reminded Clint of the forest. Brown hair curled around her perfectly symmetrical face, long past her shoulders. She wore a green silk blouse and a brown leather jacket that fit her petite frame. Muscular, not thin at all, her body curved in all the right places.
"Sorry, but no. Aside from the whole ripping out my soul part, letting that psycho bitch loose in the world? Now, I don't know this Orion dude, but I'm assuming he had to be pretty super human to grab your attention. And I do know a little about people who are superheroes; I can safely say they don't take too kindly to aiding and abetting super villains." Clint used the trick of looking out of the corner of his eye while still maintaining eye contact with her. From what he could see, he was laid out on a bed in a hotel room, the generic décor and paintings of covered bridges in the fall.
"It tickles me when you play at being more than the fragile creatures you are. Like an antelope believing it's a tiger." She stood up and glared down at Clint. "I am the one who hunts the tiger; you are nothing to me."
"Wow, egotistical a bit? No wonder Orion chose to be a constellation instead of you." Clint knew he was pushing it, but she seemed poised to lose control and maybe he could take advantage of that. "Wait, I remember the story now. So anxious to prove you're the best shot, your loving twin got you to target something in the ocean. Tell me, would it have mattered at all if it hadn't been Orion, just a random innocent person? Would that have bothered you?"
"You can't understand. Loss of face in my world means being devalued; I had to take the challenge to prove I was the best." She clenched her fists, a clear tell.
"What I understand is you let your ego get the best of you and you'd do it again in a heartbeat." Clint pushed up on his elbows, winching to telegraph his pain. "What was the distance anyway?"
"750 meters." Even claiming Orion was the love of her life, she was proud of her accomplishment.
Clint shrugged. "Decent. Recurve, I assume?"
"My bow made for me by Hephaestus." Her brow knitted as she tried to follow Clint's line of thought.
"Ah, so magic then. Hmmmmm." He let the silence drag out.
"What? You think I couldn't do the same with a regular bow? That is without question."
"It's just that … 750 meters? … yeah, I shoot longer distances in battle all the time. Now, granted, sometimes I'm using the composite Tony enhanced, but there's nothing like hitting the mark with my classic wooden recurve."
"No. You are trying to confuse the issue. Even with my power, you couldn't do that." She practically stamped her foot in frustration.
"I can call up some footage on YouTube if you like from the Battle of New York or the one with the squid monsters just last month. You have a tablet?" Oh, yes, this was going to work; he could tell by the way her shoulders straightened and her nose crinkled.
"I am the Goddess of the Hunt. No man can outshoot me," she declared.
"Tell you what. I'm so sure of the outcome that I'll bet my life on it. A target, smaller than a man's head, at 750 meters. If I win, I get to live and you walk away from helping Morwen. If you win, well, you can have your power back."
"And if we both hit the target, we keep going out by 50 meters at a time until one of us misses." She smiled, and Clint could see why the ancients Greeks were terrified of their so-called gods.
"Done. But we'll need impartial judges and seconds."
"Agreed. We each choose a judge and the third is someone impartial."
"I know exactly who to call." The plan that was forming in Clint's mind was crazy … but then the best plans usually were.
"This is your plan? Get her?" Dean quipped, favoring his left side. He'd gotten scored across his ribs on the right and was bruised up and down where he'd slammed into the car, but, overall, things could have been much worse. After Clint had been captured, the black robed fighters and the werebears had retreated and Dean had been spared worse. "If she asks if you're a god, be sure and say yes."
"You're just pissed because I didn't ask you to be my second." Clint ran his hand along the elegant curve of the custom Bear Grizzly bow that Bill Oakes had brought. First thing Clint asked for was two brand new bows, exactly the same model, unstrung with added limbs. Since Tony was footing the cost, J.D. had brought a selection of the best the local shops had available with his aging father in his wheelchair. Stark had brought Clint's own modified compounds on the jet, along with Steve Rogers, Bruce Banner, and, yes, Thor. Sam blinked when the men walked down the ramp; Dean just shook his head. This whole thing was getting out of hand.
"If you build it, they will come," Dean mumbled. "And exactly why do you not want me to hold your shafts?" Okay, maybe he was a little annoyed.
"Because you distract me." Clint grinned. "A big crowd of onlookers? All we need is some pie and we're set. And maybe handcuffs. I might miss the target thinking about it."
"You're cocky." Dean shouldn't have been surprised at Clint's confidence, but, still, going up against a god could be tricky. They were lying little bastards to a toga.
"You'd know," Clint shot back. Damn, but the man was arrogant. Yeah, that turned Dean on; he was grinning as they bantered.
"Are you ready?" Coulson asked; as Clint's second, his job was to oversee the details of the wager. "If Hera pinches my ass one more time, I won't be held responsible for killing her."
"Hey, the woman has good taste," Clint laughed. "I can't believe Artie asked her mother to be her second. I thought they hated each other. You know Hera spread the news to the others."
It had been Crowley who made bleachers appear along the shore of Norris Lake and Bacchus was selling wine by the bottle or glass and an array of sweets and baked goods, including pies. Dean noticed. Gods and goddesses mixed with Titans – Hyperion had his daughter Selene with him – and Dean didn't know who all of them were, just that they gave him the heebie jeebies. Too many gathered in one place for his comfort.
"And you called Tony who can't keep a secret to save his life." Coulson eyed the assembled Avengers. Tony had brought pizza from Big Ed's and was sharing it with Gabriel, among others. Good God, someone needed to separate those two. Dean felt the hairs on the back of neck standing up when Tony glanced his way. Natasha, Jessica Drew, and Bobbi Morse all sat together – the Scarlet Witch couldn't make it – and Steve, Bruce, Johnny Storm and Logan were polishing off two extra larges as they waited. Kali's back was ramrod straight and she glanced curiously at the red headed assassin; Dean saw Gabriel turn his attention to the elegant goddess beside him and wiggle his eyebrows Natasha's way. Oh, that was an even worse idea.
"I needed an impartial judge." Clint shrugged, nodding towards the judges' table. Predictably, Artemis had chosen Melikki, the Norse goddess of the forest, well, the Midgard version of the Melikki. Clint had asked Thor for his choice both out of his perverse sense of humor and the fact Thor would take this seriously. He'd declared himself honored to oversee a warrior's challenge, although he glared at the 'thing with his cousin's name' when he'd sat down at the table. For her part Melikki had the brains to look uncomfortable being near someone with even more god status than she had. Didn't stop Hera from trying to hit on the big blonde; he'd very curtly turned her away.
For the third, objective judge, Artemis had suggested Hyperion, but Clint trumped her with his pick … JARVIS. No one could argue with a computer A.I. measuring the distance and projecting real time video of the hits for the crowd. Accepting a program as a person was surprisingly easy for the quasi-divine types; they were comfortable with people being constellations and turned into trees, so JARVIS was an easy sell.
"Sam!" A female voice captured Dean's attention. Hecate walked across the grass, straight towards where Sam stood with Carol. Awkward … Dean nudged Clint and jerked his head his brother's way.
"Hecate." Sam's voice was pleasant, but that was his 'oh-my-god-what-do-I-do-now' look. Hecate sensed the tension, catching her bottom lip with her teeth to refrain from smiling. "It's good to see you again."
"I must say I'm excited to see Clint shoot without worrying about my own skin. Forgive me, I'm Hecate, and you are?" She held out her hand to Carol.
"Carol Danvers." Carol's blue eyes saw the blush staining Sam's face.
"Captain Marvel? It's a pleasure. I have a weakness for strong women," Hecate's gaze lingered on Carol's face before doing a quick survey along the lines of her body. "And I have no problem sharing as long as everyone agrees."
"Ah, um, yes, well, I …" Sam sputtered and tripped over his tongue in an effort to say anything resembling words. The two women looked at each other and burst out laughing.
"I think you broke him," Carol said, linking an arm through Sam's and tugging him towards the stands. "Come on. Let's sit down and discuss this like civilized adults."
"That was worth the price of admission," Clint said. "You owe me, bucko. I know you enjoyed that little scene."
"Poor Sammy. He has a way of picking them, doesn't he?" Dean laughed.
"Let me in on the joke, boys. I need some lightening up; my daughter is the biggest wet blanket in the world. How I gave birth to that virgin morass of emotional angst, I'll never know." Hera came up behind Phil; he jumped, grimaced, and swore under his breath. "We could blow this joint and have some real fun. I bet perfect suit here has a real daddy kink. You could be our bad boys who need punishing."
"Shall we get started?" Coulson asked. Dean smothered a laugh at the man's discomfort.
"All work and no play, little agent man. You good undercover? I bet you are." She laughed and copped a quick squeeze of Coulson's cock.
"With all due respect, ma'am, you touch me again and I will take you out." Coulson's voice was cold but full of promise.
"Paper clip? Oh, how about a peacock feather? I'm pretty sure Dean has a couple," Clint said.
"You don't have to ugly about it." Hera pouted, a dangerous glint in her eye. "Just say no."
"No." They all three spoke at the same time.
"Fine. Fine. The coin toss then. After the handsome young hunter sits down. No cheating."
Weighted balloons stood in for a human head; Tony and Hermes took them out 750 meters, dropping the anchors when JARVIS certified the distance. Clint lost first draw, winking at Dean as Artemis strung her bow with the string Phil handed her. She complained at the light weight and the quality as she took her stance, gauging the distance, the wind and the currents that made the targets bob up and down. Her form was perfect, a textbook example of how to shoot a bow, and with the tiniest curl at the corners of her mouth, she released the arrow with an audible twang, watching it arc over the water. On the screens, everyone could see it pierce the balloon in the center. A smattering of applause from the audience, mostly the non-human side.
"Good shot." Clint strung his own bow and took the brand new arrow offered him. His eyes still on Artemis, he drew and shot in one fluid motion, the arrow flying straight to its target. His form was shit, and he knew it; the man did learn to shoot in a circus. "A bit of a head wind, isn't there?"
A cheer from the other seats; Dean leaned over to Sam. "God, he loves a crowd."
"Are you mocking me, mortal?" Artemis's eyes flashed with anger, and Dean had to give Clint credit. He certainly knew how to drive people crazy. Of course, Dean liked that specific trait in a man.
"Just putting on a good show, ma'am." Clint swung out his arm in an overly dramatic bow. "Always leave them wanting more, that's my motto."
"Move the targets back 50 meters," Artemis demanded. "We keep going until you miss."
"You mean until one of us misses," Clint corrected her; she gritted her teeth and nodded.
When Clint hit the next one with ease, the goddess resorted to pouting. Then the next one she demanded be further out with more wind; Thor obliged, kicking up some clouds and whipping waves across the lake's surface. She took longer to make her shot; Clint stopped flirting with Dean long enough to wing an arrow out into the balloon without batting an eye. She stomped her foot, shouted for more wind and a better bow; they traded out for compounds that most men couldn't break, but Clint kept matching her, arrow for arrow, winning over the crowd with his witty comebacks and flourishes. Dean wondered how much of Clint's cheekiness she could stand before she blew completely. It didn't take long; one more round and she tossed the compound aside and pulled a bow made entirely of silver out of thin air.
"Let's end this. One last shot. The biggest storm your pretend god friend can muster. You use my bow and I'll use yours."
Clint pretended to consider it; the man was a born performer. Everyone around Dean was whispering, Stark talking in his normal voice about billing Clint as a demi-god if he won and planning whether Clint would have male or female priests.
"Done. Phil, let's go with Vera," Clint said. With a snort, Dean rolled his eyes at Clint's name for his high tech, Stark designed baby. Thor, however, looked unhappy as he stepped to the shore and spun Mjolnir above his head; he clearly didn't like Artemis' attitude.
The air crackled with electricity and Dean slid his hand into his pocket, palming the EMP pulse and exploding arrowhead he had tucked there. Taking her stance, Artemis curled her fingers around the string of Clint's bow with a look of intense concentration; she paused for a second, and Dean wondered if she was having trouble breaking it. Then she drew and fired; without JARVIS's abilities they wouldn't have been able to see the arrow hit the impossible small and wildly heaving target.
"Beat that," she said, smugly, tossing Clint's bow back to Coulson.
"I'll do even better." Clint said. "Light it up, gang."
Those in the know worked together in one smooth wave; Carol blasted plasma bolts, Tony's repulsors fired, Sam began chanting the spell, and Thor turned the storm up two more notches. All of them aimed their attention to a spot out over the water where a swirling cloud began to form.
"What are you doing?" Hecate asked Dean. "You'll bring her back!"
"And end her once and for all," Hyperion answered; he'd appeared n the seat behind them. "Although this may be overkill with the number of catalysts."
"Hey, go big or go home," Dean answered, then turned to Hecate. "Want to help out a little? Crossing the streams that is."
"You want to … that will …" The Goddess of Magic stared at him then a smile crawled across her face. "Oh, yes, smart men are so sexy." Touching Sam on the shoulder, she added her voice to his.
Dean jumped from his seat and ran over to where Clint and Coulson stood.
"What is the meaning of this? You are cheating!" Artemis shouted over the sound of the winds that were tearing at their clothes now.
"Did you know that the town of Loyston disappeared under the water here when they built the dam and made this lake? And that John Loy, the town founder, built the town on an old Cherokee trail that ran through the mountains? This is where the volunteers mustered for the Battle of King's Mountain; before that was Fort Wautaga, one of the first Forts on this side of the Appalachian Mountains. It was destroyed by Cherokee warriors in a fierce attack. Things get fuzzy but oral histories say the Great Thunder and his two sons lived here," Clint explained.
"What does that have to do with anything?" The Goddess of the Hunt demanded.
"It means this is a node, with close to thirty powerful beings to focus cosmic energy at the same time," Hera answered. "You clever, clever boy. I wish you were mine instead of this lovestruck idiot over here."
"Then you couldn't flirt with him," Dean said.
"You, however, need to read more if you think that would stop me." Raising her hands, she wove a spell so potent, Dean felt the hackles on the back of her neck rise.
"Mother!" Artemis protested. "You'd do it for father, I know you would."
"Oh, darling, all you had to do was ask and I'd have moved heaven and earth to help you. Breaks my heart to see you conspiring with that witch," Hera said, standing in her own little pocket of calm, looking as lovely as ever. "Now shit or get off the pot, dear."
"I sort of like you right now," Dean told the older goddess. "And that scares me."
"Dude, take the smokin' hot red head instead. I'd pay to watch the threesome of you and her and Robin Hood." Gabriel only raised an eyebrow when Dean gave him a 'what the fuck' face; Dean had long ago learned not to bother being surprised by Gabe's entrances. He snapped his fingers and the cloud solidified. "Seems my girl doesn't like competition, and what makes Kali happy …"
The crack began as the faintest glimmer, then a zig zag of light that shifted in spectrum, lengthening before it started to crack open. Orange light spilled out and the storm exploded; like fireworks that rattled the ground under their feet, stars flared and Morwen stepped through, incorporeal, body made of the cosmos, hair strings of glowing molecules that made up the universe.
"Artemis, dear, you brought me so much more than I asked for." Her eyes were twin black holes surveying the scene; her gravity pulled on the power of the gathered beings. "Such a good little girl."
"You promised." The goddess had Clint's bow aimed and ready to fire. "I want my power and Orion."
Peals of laughter that sent waves of meteors shooting across the sky, slamming down and digging furrows across the ground. "You want power? Oh, my child, I will give you so much more than you can imagine."
She expanded, tendrils curling out to grab Artemis and sink into her skin. With a violent shudder, the goddess cried out as Morwen took her body, implanting herself into the powerful frame. Dean reached out, trying to pull Artemis away, but he was too late.
"Boys, boys," Artemis/Morwen said, tossing the bow aside and spreading her arms. "I knew you were insanely sacrificial, but this is so far beyond that. You let her bring me back to do what? Cast me out once again? I hate to break the news to you, but where Strange sent me? The very fabric of time and space itself all mine to play with."
"Well, you got us. We decided to invite you over for beer and pretzels. Oops." Dean went with whatever came out his mouth. "Come on, now, bet the cappuccino wasn't that great over there. Don't you want to hit one of those high priced coffee shops and get an espresso?"
"Oh, I am going to let you live, you and your little friends. I'll need someone to be my slaves. I bet you'll be excellent in bed." She paused, ran a hand down the curves of her hips. "A virgin? Oh, yes, this will be enjoyable."
"See, now, there's one problem with that plan. We're not going to let you do it," Hera spoke. "Give me my daughter back, you bitch and I'll kill you quickly."
"You can try, but remember where your power came from in the first place." Artemis/Morwen pointed her finger at Hera and the older goddess stumbled back, crying out as a glowing fist squeezed her tight.
"Conditions are at optimal, sir." JARVIS' voice carried through the storm and then all hell broke loose. Everyone who could aimed their weapons – blasts, bullets, spells, thunder – at the opening between worlds.
"What are you…" Artemis/Morwen scoffed, but bits of her started to break free and tumble back towards the rift that was beginning to waiver. "Never going to work. I'm too powerful."
"Filled with wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff, right?" Clint shouted to be heard over the tumult. "Like calls to like, bitch. Right here, at this nexus point with all these catalysts?"
"No!" More and more, pulled into the gravity well of the event horizon, pieces were dragged back into the fluctuating gap. "I will take this form with me!"
"And the downside is?" Dean shrugged.
"I'll just come back again. Find another way." They could see them both now, Morwen's shimmering figure a shadow, floating over the waves, tethered by strands of magic to Artemis' physical form.
"Oh, you're not going through, babe," Dean took out the arrowhead and tossed it to Clint. Coulson passed Clint an empty shaft and in seconds, he had the arrow notched, string drawn on the magical silver bow. "Let's show this prehistoric bitch how we do things downtown."
"I curse you, all of you, you hear me! I am the primal goddess, the forces of all that is …" She broke apart completely, the stuff stars are made of streaming into the rift. Clint's arrow flew straight and true, mixed with all the other energies. Just as Morwen's face dissolved and lost its form, the explosion blinded Dean. He covered his eyes with his arm, bracing himself against the backwash that rolled over them. Confusion reigned for a few seconds, and then an eerie silence fell.
"We came, we saw," Dean said before anyone else spoke.
"We kicked her ass." Clint finished the quote.