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Sacred Hunt

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“Beautiful.”

Kassandra whispered.

She crouched behind thick bushes, eyes never leaving her prey. It had taken several weeks of navigation to reach the Abantis Islands, braving stormy seas and pirates both. But Gods, was it worth it.

The Hind of Keryneia was not the first beast she’d hunted at Artemis’ behest, nor would it be the last. It was, by far, the fairest being she’d ever laid her gaze on. The others she’d tracked down so far were unique in their own right; the Kalydonian Boar was the epitome of brute strength - a might which had left a nasty scar along her ribcage -  and the Nemean Lion truly was the king of all its kind, but this…

I don’t know if I can carry out the task.

Under her awestruck gaze, the Hind pranced across the shallow, serene waters of the Artemision lake. It was accompanied by several of its kind, the other deers following it around like handmaidens would a priestess, but none of them came close to rival it in beauty. Towering above them all, its pelt as white as freshly fallen snow, the Hind almost glowed in the darkness. Its antlers and hooves glinted golden, marking it as favored by the Gods. None other than the Huntress herself could have crafted such a creature, and Kassandra wondered why she had been asked to put an arrow through it.

“Artemis forgive me.” She mouthed the words as she unlimbered her bow and drew it taut. “Artemis steady my hand.”

Holding her breath, she grew as still as a statue, bowstring pressed against her lips. The wind stroked a lover’s caress across her cheek and she exhaled, her eyes going from the polished arrowtip to the Hind and back again.

With a snap, Kassandra let it loose.

**************

The night was quiet but, then again, Daphnae didn’t expect any different. The temple had been built deep into the mountains, and those that had no business with the Daughters or the Goddess rarely found their way to it. Unless, of course, the Huntress wills it.

For many moons since coming to Phokis, Daphnae had lived alone, until even the memory of the sisters she had left in Malis had paled to something one could have mistaken for a dream. After some time she had began to doubt her task; perhaps what some of her sisters had muttered was right, and the search for one who could complete the Goddess’ Hunt a waste of time. Yet the High Priestess had spoken, the lots had been cast, and the watch had fallen on her shoulders.

If only my sisters could see me now! And meet Kassandra!

The same ones who had dared question Artemis’ commands, had commiserated Daphnae for her fate. To leave Malis was to be banished, cast from the Huntress’ forested domain and into civilized lands. At that thought her mouth turned in displeasure and she felt the need to scrub her tongue, as if she’d taken a sip of wine gone bad.

The watching, the waiting, everything had seemed fruitless and, while summer turned to autumn, Daphnae had fallen to despair. A will she’d though stronger than iron had wilted and rotted, much like the carpet of leaves covering the ground.

Until one morning the first hint of winter’s chill had brought along a worthy hunter.

The wind had whispered the newcomer’s name into her ear and Daphnae had known - with a certainty only her mistress could instill - that the misthios was the one she’d been watching for.

Daphnae was watching now, the same way she did each night with only the crackling of the fire for company. Two moons had passed since last she’d seen Kassandra, and the land slept uneasily under winter’s vicious rule.

The woods had grown still, the few deer she’d spotted around the temple rangy, with bellies hollowed out by hunger. Disquiet made her nights restless, and she flinched at the tiniest sound during her vigils.

“Perhaps this time she won’t return.” Her breath left her in white puffs as she spoke, giving substance to her fears. It was entirely possible of course - just because the Huntress had deemed the misthios worthy, didn’t mean she would succeed.

Her breath hitched, caught in her throat and Daphnae pressed a hand to her chest. Loss . The tortuous, rending pain of grief had stricken her, swifter than one of Artemis’ own arrows. And there is no actual cause. Just the possibility.

“I love her.” The words hung in front of her a moment, mixing with the vapor of her breath before a gust of wind dispersed them into the night

The realization had come slow at first, like a dream crawling at the edges of the mind. Kassandra was nothing short of striking. Her body was that of a warrior, lithe and strong enough to make Ares himself stare in begrudging admiration. Yet no ornate breastplate nor vambraces could conceal her femininity. Curves softer that the hills surrounding Athens, that even Aphrodite would envy.

Kassandra’s well-defined shoulders and strong arms had attracted her attention from the start - Daphnae was sure that any of her sisters would have felt the same way in her place - but she’d attributed the heat jolting her to the core to simple, primal desire. That was something she could ask Kassandra to take care of - after all fixing things was a misthios’ specialty - but she had not accounted for her emotions to become permanent .

The real depth of her feelings had hit Daphnae full force when, battered and bleeding from a gash along her ribs, the misthios had brought back the pelt of the Kalydonian Boar. Seeing Kassandra’s skin so stained with red had reminded Daphnae how easy it would be to lose her.

“i can’t be in love with her.”

As she argued with her heart, Daphnae circled the bonfire. She used the spear she carried as a walking staff, switching it from hand to hand in time with her steps. Perhaps there could be something between them: one shared night under the furs, precious moments snatched away through subterfuge the same way Prometheus had stolen fire from the Gods. Wishing for anything lasting though, would only serve to break their hearts.

Kassandra was coming ever closer to the last of Artemis’ trials, the beasts of legend she’d been sent to hunt falling one by one under her spear. Daphnae had laid more than a deer’s heart at the feet of the Goddess - offerings so fresh she could still feel life draining through her fingers along with blood - and prayed for her success. And yet, there was a part of her that hoped the misthios would give up and not return.

If she completes the Hunt…

Clouds raced overhead, and opened up to let the moonlight through as they were pushed towards the sea.   Oh, how foolish you are being, my child . The trees around her shook and groaned, the tallest firs bowing under the wind’s touch. As they rubbed against each other branches creaked, and the Huntress’ words dripped into her ears. Do you mistake me for my brother?

“Lady I…”

“Talking to yourself I see,” A sarcastic voice cut through the night, “I thought such ravings were best left to the Pythia.”

Daphnae blinked in surprise. Kassandra was staring at her from across the fire, a smirk stretched across her lips. Daphnae had been so absorbed in her own thoughts, she hadn’t heard the misthios approach. Huntress have mercy, but she’s making me grow soft.

Racking her brains for a rebuttal yielded no result, so Daphnae settled for a warm smile of welcome.  

“I’m glad to see you, Kassandra.”

The mercenary stepped fully into the fire’s orange glow and, for the first time, Daphnae noticed the pelt and gold-tipped antlers slung across her shoulder.

“So you’ve found the Hind.” She’d had the luck to see the beast herself when, newly inducted into the Daughters of Artemis, Daphnae had travelled with an older sister to witness the wonders placed on earth by the Goddess she had pledged her life to. What was left of the Hind was as awe-inspiring in death as it had been in life. The pelt shone with otherworldly light, flecks of bronze ignited by the fire among the silver-white.

“I have.”

Kassandra stopped in front of her and, going down on one knee, placed the pelt at Daphnae’s feet. Her movements were slow, but what could have been easily mistaken for tiredness, she interpreted as care.  

The misthios’ grin was still in place, but Daphnae wasn’t fooled. Badly hidden underneath it she detected a deep unease.

She knelt, leaves and twigs crunching under her weight as she mirrored Kassandra’s pose, and took  one of the misthios’ calloused hands in hers.

“You’re wondering why Artemis would ask you to slay such a beautiful creature, are you not?”

Kassandra nodded, gently stroking the deer’s hide with her free hand. She frowned at the pelt as if she could bring it back to life by force of will alone. Her gaze was lost in thought, and Daphnae would have gladly paid her weight in drachmae to catch a glimpse of what lurked behind those amber-tinted eyes.

“Nothing easy is worth doing.” Daphnae grabbed her wrist, stilling her movements. “The Huntress put the Hind in this world for a purpose, and now it is fulfilled. Can you see the beauty in that?”

Kassandra lifted her gaze, an adorable wrinkle creasing her brow as she pondered her words.

“I think so.” She said at last, her tone grave.

“Come help me place it on the altar, then.” Daphnae pretended not to notice the surprise flashing through the misthios’ face. She’d never asked Kassandra to join in the Daughters’ rites before, but the woman had proven time and time again that she was ready. “If you still feel like you’ve slighted the Goddess, here’s a chance to pray for her forgiveness.”

“Can’t hurt, can it?” Kassandra quipped as she gathered the pelt and antlers. “With the way my luck’s been running lately, the Goddess’ favor cannot hurt.”

They walked to the altar in silence and, as they drew close, Kassandra faltered.

“You know.” The mercenary lowered her gaze to her mud-encrusted boots, “I’ve never done much praying. I- I’m not sure I know how to.”

Daphnae placed a hand on Kassandra’s shoulder, drawing her close. Together, they arranged the sacrifice at Artemis’ wooden feet and lit the brazier that Daphnae always kept ready. It took only a few strikes of her flint for the fire to catch, the flames flooding the naos with light as they devoured the pine bark. White smoke gathered just under the rafters, filling the air with the sweet scent of resin and countless other herbs. In older times they would have gone to the heart of the forest for this, with a fallen trunk for altar and the stars to witness them, but the land had changed too much, raped at the hands of men who knew no better.

This altar’s weathered stone - stained black by the blood of all past offerings - would have to do.

Daphnae inhaled of the smoke until her eyes began to sting from it, watching intently as it gathered in swirls around Artemis’ face. Shrouded so, the statue came to life, the play of light and shadow tricking Daphnae into the illusion.

At her side, Kassandra gasped, obviously affected the same way.

“What now?” The misthios shifted, full of unease.

“There may be another way to appease the Huntress.” Daphnae paused, and chewed the inside of her cheek as she lost herself to furious thought. Doubt assaulted her, squeezing her chest until her ribs started to hurt: was she reading the Huntress will into the smoke, or simply voicing her own desires?

She met the statue’s frozen gaze, hoping for a sign with every fiber of her being and - just when it seemed her prayers would go unheard - a gust of wind found its way inside and killed the flames.

Only a sliver of pale moonlight remained, and that was when they both heard it. Crystalline laughter, like the gurgle of a flowing stream at thaw. Daphnae could scarcely see, but she perceived Kassandra turn in a tight circle as the mercenary tried to pin its source.

“Wha-?”

“You think you have slighted the Goddess with the Hind’s death.” The voice may be her own, but the words weren’t. Artemis had never spoken through her before, but Daphnae had heard from others what it was like. She felt it now; impossible heat, as if the moon and sun combined were trapped within her chest. “Perhaps you could repay her with your own death.” Kassandra’s mouth rounded into a surprised ‘o’, and Daphne threw her head back, her laughter echoing that of her Lady.

“Don't worry, misthios . I only mean for you to die a little .”

Kassandra’s eyes grew wide but, before she could say anything, Daphnae cupped her face, kissing her softly.

Part of her fretted, afraid that the misthios would pull back. The rest of her longed to explore, to push her tongue past Kassandra’s lips and plunder her mouth, taking everything she could. When the mercenary’s strong arms went around her waist, Kassandra’s tongue sliding, warm and welcoming against her own, Daphnae almost cried out her relief.

Something about the misthios called to her, and now that they were finally in each other’s arms, Daphnae had no doubt their encounter had been written in the stars. An old soul. One I’ve met many times, many lives before. That may well be true, but as familiar as the mercenary’s lips felt as they moved against her own, Kassandra was - for the most part - a mystery.

One that she was determined to unravel.

Wordlessly, never breaking contact, she tugged Kassandra to the corner of the naos in which she kept her furs. Pilgrims seldom visited, so when the weather was too cold Daphnae would sleep inside with the Huntress guarding her dreams.

Where she led, the misthios followed, not resisting but simply deepening the kiss. Kassandra’s hands were strong and nimble, and the way she delicately threaded her fingers into Daphnae’s hair - unraveling her braid in the process - completely disarming.

Daphnae almost lost her purpose there and then, but swiftly remembered what she had intended. With what resilience she had left, she broke from the hold and the kiss, tripping Kassandra and tumbling her onto the furs.

Ow!

“Sorry.” She wasn’t in the slightest. The mercenary made to pull her down on top of her, but Daphnae swatted her hands away, making quick work of the woman’s cuirass instead,

The armor was heavier and more complicated than what the Daughters used, but Daphnae hunted every buckle and worked it loose. Flicking her gaze up to silent Artemis, she spared a moment to thank that she was trained in war as well as prayer.

Of course, the mercenary didn’t make things easy. She squirmed and  stole what kisses she could and, when Daphnae had to pull back to catch her breath, sneakily unpinned  the front of her tunic. The cuirass fell away with a clutter, but so did cloth, and Daphnae shivered, her breasts exposed to the chill.

“I could warm you up.” Kassandra whispered in her ear.

“I’m sure you’d like to.”

Her reply was almost lost amid the howling of the wind.

In the brazier, flames that had seemed dead reared up and whipped the air, searing bright after the darkness.

Even tears couldn’t hide how beautiful Kassandra was, and Daphnae stared enraptured, her mouth working without noise.

She felt as Ikaros must have while he plummeted to the ground, blind and burned by wax. Kassandra was perfection; her breasts high and firm, capped with dusky brown nipples Daphnae yearned to pull into her mouth. It was rumored that the sculptures crafted by the artist Phidias could elicit such intense emotion that battle-hardened generals wept at their sight, yet should one compare his creations to the misthios , they would be found lacking.   

“You’re beautiful.” Kassandra raised a trembling hand and stroked her cheek. They drank each other in with shared intensity, the mercenary’s amber-flecked eyes swirling with lust.

Daphnae swallowed.

“So are you.”

“No more talking.” Kassandra’s voice was the growl of a wolf ready to strike and this time, when she pulled Daphnae on top, she went more than happily.

They surged forward at the same time, two different currents colliding. This time the kiss was heated, savage. Daphnae couldn’t tell whether it was she who pinned the mercenary in place by the lips, or if it was Kassandra who was ensnaring her by irresistible allure.

The combined heat of their bodies was like that of an open furnace, and the chill receded, forgotten and unimportant.

Kassandra may have trapped her, but Daphnae’s hands were free to roam and she took advantage of the fact. She mapped every inch that she could reach: the highs and softer valleys of the mercenary’s body, the multitude of scars - a few of which she’d come to know the story of. After an eternity, her hands came to rest atop Kassandra’s breasts, the hardened nipples poking into her palms and straining for attention.

“I think Artemis would be jealous.” She murmured, bending forward with the intent to take one in her mouth.

“Oh?” Kassandra’s voice was strained, her breathing labored. “It’s funny you’d say that, because I look at you and cannot help but see her.”

At a loss for words, Daphnae buried her face against the misthios chest, blushing all the harder when her lover ran a hand over her head, ruffling her hair. She’d taken others to her bed before, but none had managed to make her blush as effortlessly as Kassandra did.

The misthios’ skin was soft against her cheek, and tempting. Turning her face, Daphnae kissed her way up the side of Kassandra’s left breast, before biting sharply, right above the heart.

Her lover’s hand fell away and she moaned, back leaving the furs as Kassandra arched, desperate for contact. Feeling the misthios writhe under her so was enough to make Daphnae lose the last of  self-control. She became a wild thing, unsheathing the curved knife she carried at the waist to rid her lover of the leather-studded skirt that she still wore. Kassandra’s boots and vambraces joined the growing pile of discarded clothing, followed by the loud, ripping sound of her own tunic being torn apart.

Looking down, Daphnae found that Kassandra’s hands still clutched shreds of what had been her clothes. No matter, she could always trade for more. And failing that, she can be my blanket during the cold months. The misthios grinned, unbridled hunger written on her face, and Daphnae was sure she’d read her thoughts. And shared the sentiment.

Determined to regain the upper hand, Daphnae moved her lips lower, drawing a puffy nipple into her mouth. She sucked it harshly, then soothed the bruise she knew she’d left behind with tight swirls of her tongue around the hardened peak.

“Daphnae!” Kassandra sang her name into the night, and the sound was echoed tenfold in the sighing of the wind. They were skin to skin now, no barriers left between them, the final prize at hand.

Consumed by a lust that had grown sharp in the time she had spent pining after her lover, Daphnae chose not to draw things out. She couldn’t have regardless, Artemis clamoring for the offering they’d promised her. It was a good thing then, that they all had but one goal in mind.

Letting a hand fall between them, Daphnae cupped it between Kassandra’s thighs. Her touch was met with flowing wetness and a jerk of hips, Kassandra pushing greedily into her palm in search of contact. The act left the mercenary wide open, helpless as Daphnae found her clit with ease. She tormented the exposed tip, savoring the pleading yelps and whimpers that filled the night.

“Gods…” Kassandra’s hips canted upwards again, and she tossed her head from side to side, exposing the corded side of her neck to the sting of Daphnae’s teeth. In a way, it was another offer, and perhaps she would accept it later, but for now she was intent on something else. Her fingers left Kassandra’s clit and stroked lower, her lover’s moans growing in intensity the closer she came to her overflowing entrance.

There Daphnae paused, meeting Kassandra’s desire-clouded eyes long enough to gather her assent. The mercenary was at the most unguarded when she nodded, her gaze open. Vulnerable. Daphnae smiled and kissed her forehead; they were honoring not just the Goddess as it was proper, but each other as well.

Sliding inside her lover was easier than she’d anticipated, slick completely coating her fingers without her trying. Daphnae had meant to start with just one, but Kassandra was so ready, so open for her, that she effortlessly fit two. The moment she was completely inside, Kassandra’s muscles gripped down with almost crushing force, making it impossible to move.

“Gods…”

The misthios said no more, too overwhelmed to put her her wit to use. It was just as well; Daphnae was more interested in ripping other kinds of sounds from her.

She waited a moment longer, allowing her lover to adjust, then she began to thrust. Hesitant at first, she soon found herself trying different approaches, intent in finding the one spot which would send Kassandra flying over the edge. She discovered that prolonged, focused pressure against Kassandra’s front wall earned the loudest moans of all, so she teased her with each pass, her fingers curling in time with the rise and fall of her lover’s hips.

The rhythm increased, until it was Kassandra who controlled the pace, fucking herself on Daphnae’s fingers with abandon.

“Please!”

Sweat pooled onto her flexing stomach, the muscles rippling under her skin in a mesmerizing dance. Daphnae could not tear her gaze away - she wanted to spend hours kissing Kassandra there - but something far more urgent demanded her attention. Kassandra’s pleas had turned to garbled whimpers and throaty moans, and she trembled on the brink of her release but not quite there.

Daphnae knew just how to help her.

Thrusting her fingers as deep as they would go, she pressed the flat of her thumb to her lover’s throbbing clit. Kassandra spasmed once and sucked in a breath, tension locking her body into place. When it still wasn’t enough, she cried out in frustration, one hand clawing at empty air in search of some relief.

“Please! Daphnae...oh Gods, please !”

Daphnae’s mouth closed around Kassandra’s racing pulse and she bit down.

The bite was shallow, but hard enough to send Kassandra’s walls crashing down around her fingers. Her lover’s grinding lost its rhythm, hips stuttering and giving one last jerk before she stilled completely. Her hand weakly grasped the back of Daphnae’s head, what energy she had left quickly draining away from her as her peak washed over her, stronger than the ship-sinking tides of Delos.

Daphnae let herself be held, ear pressed to Kassandra’s chest as she listened to her heart. At first it beat louder than war drums, but then it quieted down, along with the mercenary’s slowing breath. Still, it was some time before Daphnae could pull out, a dull ache settling into the bones of her wrist when she did.

With a contented hum, Daphnae admired her handiwork. Kassandra’s sex still dripped, her labia glistening and swollen from her attention. She was sure that - given a little time to rest - her lover would not turn down a second round. The thought made her grin, as did the realization that Kassandra’s slick had ran almost all the way down to her forearm. A pity if it went to waste.

Aware that the misthios was watching her every move, Daphnae lifted her hand and, popping her soaked fingers into her mouth, she licked them clean, one by one. Kassandra groaned, a pretty shade of red crawling up from her bosom to spread across her entire face. It was cute to see her so completely flustered, but she may very well object at the description.

The taste that spread across Daphnae’s tongue was a heady mix of salt and sweetness akin to the pure water one could drink from the springs of Mount Othrys, where Poseidon had been born.

“It occurs to me,” she said once she’d regained use of her voice, “that I haven’t really tasted you yet.”

At that Kassandra lifted on one elbow, interest peaked. “I thought you said one death?”

Daphnae smirked, and forced her back onto the furs.

“I thought you weren’t counting.”

**************

They had been cuddled under the furs for some time, limbs heavy and pleasantly sore, when Daphnae presented her with a gift.

“A silver bow?” Kassandra’s fingers followed the weapon’s elegant curves, breath hitching in reverence. The bow wasn’t entirely made of silver of course – rather birch chased with silver inserts at the grip – but the craftsmanship of it was like nothing she had ever seen. Wood and metal seamlessly merged, as if one was simply the natural continuation of the other.

“Something to protect you on your travels.” Daphnae regaled her with a smile that was mysterious and sad at the same time. It made Kassandra ache, and she had to turn her gaze away. Gods, I’m growing soft.

“I know that, come morning, you’ll be gone.” The Priestess continued. Then, so low Kassandra almost failed to catch the words, she added, “Huntress knows, I wish you didn’t have to.”

That way lay attachment and love, things that a mercenary seldom could afford. Kassandra even less than most, considering her entanglement with the Cult and its agents. Still, she had to say something . Wanted to.

“I promise to be careful.”

Daphnae placed a hand over hers, squeezing lightly.

“As if.” Amusement made her eyes glint and Kassandra could not help but lean in and kiss her again. It was soft this time, their passion having simmered down to banked embers after burning bright enough to consume them both. On the whole, the kiss turned out to be much too fleeting for her liking.

Both of them lingered long after their lips had parted, their foreheads barely touching as they breathed each other in with every gulp of the night’s cool air.

“Instead,” Daphnae stroked her cheek, and Kassandra shivered, “promise me you will return? I believe that the Huntress isn’t done with you. I, for one, certainly am not.”

Something inexplicable prompted Kassandra to look around. The temple was shadow-filled and empty. Quiet.

Only the two of us. As all the other times I completed one of the Goddess’ tasks.

Nonetheless, she scanned the chamber with care, ingrained diffidence taking over. Just us and the Huntress. Kassandra amended when her gaze found Artemis’ face.

The statue was not the biggest one she’d seen inside a temple, its lines unrefined if compared to the rich, smooth marble adorning the Acropolis. Yet, Kassandra found beauty in its simplicity. There was something savage about the way the nameless sculptor had captured Artemis mid-stride, bow half- drawn and arrow nocked in the frenzy of her hunt. Something indomitable.

The flickering light coming from the brazier at the statue’s feet cast the polished wood of her features in warm orange and deep shadows, giving the impression that Artemis’ expression changed with each fickle turn of the flames.

The more Kassandra looked, the more she felt that the Huntress was smiling down at them, the curve of her lips amused one moment, and parted - as if on the verge of a kiss - the next.

“I promise.” The vow spilled unbidden from her lips, and she was not sure to whom it was addressed, the prowling Goddess or her Priestess.