Sing, O Muse, of the fretful dance between the star-crossed Huntresses, the delight of Terpsichore and the dismay of Styx. Sing to me of an oath at last discarded, of the triumph of smile-loving Aphrodite; her grudge, relentless over aeons, at last laid to rest.
Begin at the end, where the Moirai's averted doom sowed a seed which dark-eyed Demeter never contrived. Begin where one life tragically lost was not joined by a second, where implacable Fate's hand reached down to rattle the bones of those brave heroes who released Leto's keen-eyed daughter from her frigid vigil, and was miraculously stayed.
O, Muse! That dark-eyed youth, son of the Sea Lord, he postponed the Titan-spawn's doom, returning what was lost, while stealing from Krios' vault a huntress unmatched by any who have not tasted of the divine nectar which forever removes the taster from the Moirai's sphere.
Begin, O Muse, at the end…
The heart of the goddess Artemis had become as lead and continued to compress as she delicately laid her lieutenant on the cold, grassy earth, densifying into something colder, harder… painful. As though the weight of the sky were bearing down on that singular organ – its unimaginable pressure squeezing from all directions.
"Can't you heal her with magic? I mean… you're a goddess."
A goddess, yes, but bound as thoroughly as any mortal by the laws laid down in the beginning, that the world would not be thrashed and broken betwixt their competitions and feuds.
"Life is a fragile thing, Percy. If the Fates will the string to be cut, there is little I can do."
It would not be enough…
Her face – her brave, beloved companion's face – twisted, her eyes glassy and distant, her breath hot and labored, fever and dragon's venom ravaging her as no monster had ever done.
"But I will try."
Her hand took Artemis' wrist before she could begin, cutting through the doubt, the frenzied pillaging of dusty memories spent idly listening to her brother's monologues – a trove of medical lore, some solely for the use of gods; once passed over, now more valuable than gold, than her precious bow, or her keen eyes and honed instincts.
She wished she had a healer's hands, now. Too late.
Her eyes. Zoë's eyes. She had learned long ago to read her lieutenant with but a glance, to know the cast of her thoughts by reading the shift of light hid in the liquid dark of her irises.
My time is come, my lady.
No. I refuse. I cannot lose you, not yet, not ever.
My lady… Artemis…
Desperation's throb turned into the dull, empty ache she knew faintly as despair.
"Have I… served thee well?"
"With great honor." The words were ash on her tongue. She could no more speak them louder than she could lift Ouranos' vault above her head. "The finest of my attendants."
I will never be the same without you at my side.
"Why aren't you healing her?" Perseus asked, bewilderment and something perilously close to reproach in his tone. "You said you'd try."
Her sister – father's latest misbegotten scion – touched him on the shoulder. "Percy, gods are bound by the laws… the prophecy—"
"Damn the prophecy!"
Artemis tensed, eyes painfully leaving Zoë's fading form to lock onto the boy, the sound of a blade registering as a warning to her godly senses.
But she knew he was no fool – she sensed…
Perseus knelt next to her lieutenant, Anaklusmos held out to her with both hands.
"Zoë." His voice was frantic, demanding. "Take it back."
Zoë's breath was growing thin, but her voice was steady. "It is thine, Percy Jackson… You spoke the truth. You are nothing like—"
"It can heal you!" he snapped. "You told me – him, whatever – that it held your immortal power. Immortals can't die! Take it back!"
Zoë blinked, her brow softly furrowed, clockwork slowly turning…
Incomprehension in her eyes.
She's too far gone to do it alone, Artemis realized.
It was a shot of… well, whatever passed for adrenaline in an immortal.
She grabbed the blade by the hilt and wrapped Zoë's hands around it. The heroes gathered around her shied away as her lieutenant's silvery aura began to shine brighter – Artemis had no time to lose; not in a footrace 'gainst the Fates.
"Fight, Zoë," she murmured, willing her power into the blade, willing her huntress to join her and reach for the power to save her own life.
"Stars. I can see the stars again, my lady."
Fight, damn you. Don't you dare leave me.
Her silver aura brightened – a full moon on a clear, windless night.
"They're beautiful, my brave one," Artemis whispered. "Fight, and you and I can look on them for eternity."
Zoë shuddered, and her next breath was deeper. Her hands tightened infinitesimally on Anaklusmos' hilt.
For thee, my lady… I shall.
The properties of the light began to change – ethereal silver joined by warm gold, brooding purple and lilac, evening shadow.
Anaklusmos began to dissolve.
"It's working!" Athena's daughter's hushed exclamation spurred Artemis further.
She poured more of herself – essence she seldom shared, and only with those who swore themselves to her service, always returned eventually – into the bond. She found plenty of resistance – from the blade, which had held its current form far longer than it had been a part of its creator, from her lieutenant, whose failing mortal shell feebly clung to life, from the Fates themselves, whose claws held Zoë's lifeline in a death-grip, 'till it ran threadbare.
Zoë's face drew into a grimace, her breath coming faster – stronger – at the cost of pain, mortality's loaf.
There they hung, suspended in the throes of time, precious seconds slipping by with the haste of molasses – sand grains suspended in the timepiece, yet ever falling.
Pain, residual from her cruel vigil under Atlas' burden and from the engagement of so much of her godly essence, pulsed through her, drawing out each second further.
Time was a cruel tyrant.
But she was immortal, and Mistress of the Hunt besides.
Artemis knew what it was to act with patience amidst chaos.
To wait, to persevere, to live, as few immortals deigned.
And so it was.
Anaklusmos shivered – and vanished – into the aurora surrounding Zoë, and Artemis snarled, success just within reach, and flexed her divine power, figuratively yanking her huntress back from the abyss with a final, terrifying heave.
Twilight and moonbeams intermingled as one aurora, brightening a final time, then sank deep into the huntress.
The bond between them snapped.
The lifeline mended.
'The hubris of Cronus' line knows no bounds, even so diluted.'
'Hsh. The deed is done, the toll paid. Defying prophecy shall cost thee dearly, Agrotera. The power thou gave'st to draw her back, in defiance of the laws bound to your immortal blood – shall be thy tithe, ne'er to return. It is sufficient. The debt is paid. We are placated.'
'Had the blade's power not been hers by right, or the boy's interference not goaded ye, we would not allow even this. It is a fool who thinks she is above the necessity of Fate, daughter of Leto. Be warned, we shall not tolerate further trespass.'
Time passed and Thalia settled into her new life as the left hand of a goddess, the beginnings of routine settling into her bones, a pattern of daily life emerging in her mind along with the old.
She paused, the familiar refrain rising once more.
'I pledge myself to the Goddess Artemis…'
Strange, she thought, that even months after the fact she could feel the oath on her tongue, reverberating in her bones. Strange, and unexpected – Thalia had never thought she would ever find herself in this kind of situation, bound to a promise and a lifestyle.
She was too much of a troublemaker, had too little faith. Oaths were for police. Politicians. Spouses. Liars.
In her experience anyways – her old experience.
But such was the power of a goddess, and the strength of her oath. A couple of months in and she was starting to change her mind.
Well. Kind of.
'It's terms are binding, anyways,' she mused idly. 'Haven't gotten any random urges to write a manifesto on the evils of the Y chromosome yet.'
Thank the gods for that.
She'd parked herself underneath an old, thunderstruck pine tree to sharpen her knives. It was a little bit hard not to roll her eyes at the sentimentality, or to admit that she got a genuine sense of wellbeing from it, smelling the sap and feeling the pine needles pressing into her skin beneath her leggings.
Hard, because she'd told herself she was never going to let herself feel that sort of connection again, not after leaving Sacramento behind and all the memories there – memories of exploring Capitol Park as a child and being dragged inside the Capitol building itself to visit the statues of Minerva ("Your sister, even if Jason's closer," Beryl'd murmured with gleaming eyes far away, certainly not on Thalia or her baby brother wiggling in her arms).
And only a little bit, because she was a decade older than the vulnerable, angry little kid that made that promise, and smarter, more honest, less afraid than she'd been.
Perspective was a hell of a drug – immortality was the ecstasy she'd never gotten the chance to try.
Thalia paused, her whetstone hovering halfway up her knife's edge.
'You are not brooding,' she informed herself flatly.
She didn't brood. Brooding was for weepy, sniveling complainers.
'You're thinking about unhappy things – that's brooding,' another voice in her head countered. 'That's the definition of brooding, in fact.'
The voice was beginning to sound like Annabeth. She'd never touched a dictionary in her life.
'And you know she's told you that because all you do is brood when you're not fucking around or distracting yourself with edgy shit or getting angry for the sake of being pissed at something besides yourself,' a different voice, crueler, more familiar (and maybe more honest) taunted. 'Maybe you should think about that a bit – might learn something about yourself.'
And now it was sounding like an asshole.
Fine. Maybe she was brooding a little bit. She was immortal now. It was bound to happen at some point.
She frowned and replaced the knife she'd honed to a fine edge in its sheathe, reaching for its twin. That was another strange thing.
The hardened metal – Ephesian Silver, a variant of Celestial Bronze consecrated millennia ago in her mistress' honor – hissed faintly as the rough stone scraped against it, mirror smooth where other metal would have scratched, and somehow never worn down by the countless hands that had maintained it over countless centuries.
No name to give it life, and just one of many siblings. It was hers, though, and would probably be others' too, eventually.
Much like her bow, in fact. They were Hunter's weapons.
Thalia had never been an awful archer like Percy, or particularly poor with a dagger. They didn't suit her, but she could kill a monster with them in a pinch. Before Athena gave her her spear Bouloni ('Bolt' in Greek, and a name she would never share with her cousin even upon pain of death), she'd carried whatever she could find to keep the monsters away, which at one point amounted to some scrounged kitchen knives and butcher's implements, as well as a repurposed cricket bat.
Being a demigod, she was used to making do with limited resources.
But then she'd found her weapons-grade version of Mr. Right. Bouloni and Aegis felt perfect in her hands – natural, like a well-fitted glove – and had since the moment she'd picked them up.
They satisfied something in her.
Direct action, in your face, run or die. No tricks, no cleverness, no artifice.
Her hands had slowed again. Thalia dropped her whetstone beside her thigh so she could stroke the silvery metal, part of her loving the way her hunter's aura made the blade gleam – how it seemed to extend past her skin to surround it as an extension of herself.
That felt right too.
Since accepting Artemis' blessing, she'd found herself looking to the long hunting daggers and her bow, not her old weapons. The movements felt like they came more naturally, her inborn traits passed down in her blood from her father the fallback tactics instead of her go-to.
A huntress didn't fight from the front, spear in hand and a curse on her lips for the enemy.
She took her prey by surprise as a whisper in the shadows, a moonbeam in the trees. She channeled her aggression, turned it into the precious gem of canniness instead of burning it for fuel.
A huntress wasn't a warrior. Not like Thalia had been. But a huntress she was becoming, even though she'd never made the conscious decision to reconsider.
It was unnerving – distressing, even – to feel herself losing those unique traits which made her Thalia, Daughter of Zeus.
She liked who she was – she'd fought tooth and nail for it against her mother and her father, the countless monsters that hunted her through the years as well as the ones her uncle sent after her, against Luke and his new master, against the Fates, and even against friends like Chiron, Annabeth and Percy.
Everyone wanted something from Thalia Grace, wanted her to become something – often something she just wasn't.
Yet now, every day she woke up to discover another way she was becoming Thalia the Huntress.
'And I don't know if I like her all too much so far,' she sighed. The jury was still out.
And, existential reservations aside, it didn't feel terribly punk, getting herded into the same box as everyone else.
Her second knife went in its sheathe and Thalia reclined back against the pine, sighing through her nose and allowing some of the tension building within her to drain away.
She would need to let the rest out in the training ring, sometime later today. Eimear would take her up on it, or Rowan, even if the nymph knew she was outmatched.
Both of them – and the rest of the hunt, really – knew by now that sometimes Thalia just needed to vent, and that since she wasn't very sentimental or talkative by nature, that meant she preferred it in the form of straining muscle and flashing blades.
They were good people. Thalia was proud to call each of them Sister.
That was the other side of the coin – the give to correspond to the take. What she'd lost – what she was losing – was counterbalanced by what she'd gotten in return.
Immortality was honestly the least of Artemis' gifts. To fight alongside her as her handmaiden and part of her small, insular little family was more than Thalia could have ever wished for. More than she would have ever found at Camp Half Blood and (part of her suffered for admitting it) more than she'd ever had with Annabeth and Luke when it was just the three of them together.
She would never grow old, but she would feel the ravages of time in other ways.
She would never find love, but she had found another kind of love among her sisters.
She would never start a family of her own, but she had joined a different kind of family in the hunt.
She would never get the chance to rectify the mistakes of her mother with her own kids, but she could care for the sisters who joined them in immortality.
She might be losing who she was, but she had who she would become to look forward to.
Someone less angry at the world and at herself. Someone capable of finding a sense of inner peace. Someone she might like better.
It wasn't as if she was giving up on all the parts of herself, after all. She was allowed to stay in contact with Annabeth and even occasionally Percy. She still had her abilities from her father. She still had Bouloni and Aegis. She might not dive headlong into battle as her first reaction, but necessity sometimes called for it.
Fighting in the Hunt wasn't the same as fighting as a demigod – not really – but it did satisfy, feeling her knives bite deep or an arrow sink down to the fletching for a clean kill. A rush that was better than sex or drugs.
She paused in her ponderings. Well, she figured it was better than that – It was hard to know without personal experience.
'Maybe I could ask someone… if there were anyone in the underage virgin club who'd know.'
There were other problems though; problems she was unwilling to bend for.
Really, it was just the boy thing.
It was less the eternal celibacy part of her new life – she'd never gotten any physical action before, and she wasn't particularly missing what she never had now.
Romance, at least as far as the male-persuasion went, was limited to a vague sense of infatuation for a traitorous dickhead she no longer even called a friend, and an even vaguer feeling of missed potential with her kelp-brained cousin, and it seemed like that ship sailed before she even got de-treeified if his willingness to throw himself into danger for Annabeth was anything to go by.
Again, not exactly a siren's call.
The misandry though, was an issue.
In all honesty, it wasn't that bad most of the time. Thalia knew that most of sisters just turned it up around outsiders in order to maintain the Hunt's reputation and deter anyone from getting any ideas.
After all, it wasn't exactly common to run across someone who both knew enough to comprehend what their oaths meant and had the nerve to try their luck and push, but it also wasn't rare.
Satyrs were degenerates as a rule, Thalia had learned, and Chiron just so happened to employ the few exceptions. They were far and away the worst offenders the Hunt happened to run into on a regular basis, and threats of castration were genuinely one of the few effective deterrents short of actual harm. Anything less gave them hope that they might be the first and only exceptions.
Gods, so many pathetic ingrates thought they were exceptional.
It made her appreciate Grover's gentle, humble nature so much more, now that she had others to compare him with. Even if he was still a bit of an idiot around the Hunt, at least it was a dopey sort of infatuation. His behavior was far removed from his disgustingly lewd kin.
Her growing appreciation for the pragmatic side of it beside though, Thalia wasn't exactly comfortable when her sisters' behavior started leaning into actual bigotry. A highly vocal minority of her sisters could be forgiven for taking their loyalty to their oaths a bit too far, and it was starting to worry her.
Well, it was starting to worry and piss her off. There was enough intolerance in the world without piling hypocrisy on top.
And Thalia certainly wasn't one to fall in line naturally.
As she chewed on the issue, a potential solution appeared as a tall, stern figure extricated itself from her tent.
Thalia smiled. Idea. "Hey, Zoë!"
"How do you fare, sister?" Zoë asked as she eased herself down beside Thalia moments later, contributing the faint odor of hide and wolf fur to the pine and Thalia's own hints of sweat and ozone, the respective remnants of their day's chores.
Thalia hummed, trying not to show her hand early. "I'm alright. Got a bit of a dilemma to ponder though, figured two would be better than one in making some headway on it. Got a few minutes?"
One of Zoë's slim, dark eyebrows rose. "I suppose I've some daylight to spare for thee, so long as the topic is worthwhile."
Zoë's ability to school her outward expression was second only to Artemis herself. The huntress' tone left little of what she thought of having her time wasted to the imagination, but revealed nothing else.
It might've even worked, had Thalia not been so dedicated to the pursuit of learning to read her.
Her aloofness was an act, Thalia knew now, at least when it was between sisters. More, it was an act designed to keep them on their toes and curb annoying habits… as well as possibly (probably) because the lieutenant thought it was funny to make others squirm.
They had all the time in the world, after all, and Zoë was a master of bequeathing – or inflicting – her presence exactly where she wanted, whether it was appreciated or not. It used to infuriate Thalia, but after seeing her ply her skills for a few months, she'd come to the sobering realization that it made her a good lieutenant and mentor alike.
She and Chiron were similar in a way – they had the timeless quality of skilled educators that made them easy to open up to and share.
Thalia had her undivided attention.
Secure in that, she felt comfortable pushing forward.
"I've been trying to think about how to get Kaya and Phoebe to lighten up about boys," she remarked, casually stretching out one of her shoulders. "Maybe a few of the others with them."
"I believe I stipulated—"
Thalia elbowed her. "I know what you stipulated. Let me finish," she admonished. "I want to figure this out – I get that 'frigid and unapproachable' is standard practice. It's what I signed up for, and it serves a purpose most of the time. Those two have been acting like bigots though, and so are some of the others, and it's bugging me. We're supposed to be better than that."
Zoë's lips thinned, and then shifted so she faced Thalia, leaning back on her hands, legs crossed beneath her.
She inclined her head, as if to say 'go on.'
Thalia smiled, glad she was being taken seriously.
"I don't have a dissertation or anything," she admitted. "I get that the Hunt's about getting away from men for some. And I know that some of our sisters have good reason to feel as they do, and that I'm lucky to have been born in the time and place that I was. But it's being taken too far."
Thalia sighed, running down the mental list from the last few weeks.
"Phoebe's been badmouthing Layla's brothers even though they're just six and she still cares about them. Layla's given up getting mad about it and won't fight back anymore even when she wants to. It's been digging into her morale and I'm worried she's having second thoughts. Family is family for some, oath or no oath."
She held up a hand and ticked off a finger.
"Phoebe also put Lynn on the spot when she started yelling at that guy in Helena for staring," Thalia continued, ticking off another finger. "And then nearly got them both arrested for assaulting him. That's not fair to Lynn, and frankly, it wasn't fair to the guy either. He apologized and tried to de-escalate. Staring isn't a crime, and we look fucking weird even with the Mist. Most people don't go to pick up coffee in bulk while heavily armed."
"Phoebe was reprimanded for that," Zoë observed neutrally.
Thalia nodded. "Yeah, but she didn't learn. She feels bad about putting Lynn out, not that she was being unreasonably belligerent to the dude. Because he was a dude."
Zoë nodded. "Fair. Continue."
"Last month, Therisse prioritized scavenging ammunition over checking on the mortals she was supposed to be rescuing, and one of them nearly bled out. I don't care if they were frat boys, that's beyond not okay." Another finger – that particular instance of apathy still made Thalia feel mildly nauseous. "And before that, Kaya scared off the dryad we were recruiting when she drew her knife on her satyr friend, and he wasn't even that bad."
Thalia paused, then stopped. She could continue – four fingers wasn't a ton, given they were spread over a couple months, but they were pretty significant events. Potential lost lives, and potential lost sisters, recruits and inducted alike.
And anyways, they were only the worst cases. The culture of misandry within the encampment was omnipresent. Thalia and Zoë didn't have enough fingers between them to count the number of times she'd heard an unwarranted, poisonous comment during her daily routine, or the conversations about family hastily shuttered to avoid a row with another sister.
She hadn't realized she'd lapsed into silence until Zoë sighed.
Her lieutenant looked tired – troubled. On her face, it wasn't a terrible thing; the features she'd inherited from Atlas were practically tailor-made for stormy, distant expressions.
Still, she was Thalia's lieutenant – Thalia's friend, against all odds – and she wasn't happy to be the cloud over Zoë's day.
She leaned close, clasping Zoë's shoulder. "You get what I'm saying, right? This kind of behavior isn't okay. Some of the recruits are seeing their older sisters get away with saying awful shit – doing awful shit. They're wondering if they'll have to start doing that too – whether they're in the right place after all – and they're not okay with that."
Thalia hesitated, then admitted, "I'm not okay with that."
Zoë's brow furrowed with faint alarm. "Art thou having second thoughts…?"
Thalia's lips quirked. Her friend had lapsed back into her old, archaic mode – a habit of hers when she was upset. Even her accent had subtly shifted.
And Thalia had spent so much time forcibly updating Zoë's lexicon, too.
"Kind of?" Thalia sighed. "Not really, I guess. I love this—" she gestured around her vaguely. "Being a part of this stupid crazy family. It's different from anything I've ever known. Different in ways that are challenging and amazing. But I'm honestly worried, Zoë. I'm willing to change for the Hunt – I am changing whether I like it or not, being here – but I refuse to become a bigot for it. My ethics and my self-respect aren't negotiable."
"This matter truly troubles thee."
"Yeah." Thalia withdrew on herself, bringing her knees up to her chest to hug them. Suddenly she didn't feel as comfortable under Zoë's scrutiny. "I haven't met a ton of guys worth my time, but I've met fewer worth hating." Luke. Her father. "Phoebe and Kaya hate as their first reaction. It's toxic and it's going to get people hurt. If they weren't in the Hunt, I'd never associate with them willingly."
Thalia frowned. Surely Zoë understood where she was coming from – she might've been hard on men herself once, but her judgement had softened since their quest. And she'd never been so bad as Phoebe – liked him though she had not, she'd offered the same shelter and aid to Luke as she had Thalia and Annabeth, years ago. "Zoë—"
Her lieutenant held up a hand. "I take thy point, sister," Zoë said firmly. "Thou need'st not argue it further. This behavior is neither in the best interest of the Hunt nor our sisters."
She hesitated, as if gathering herself. "I am shamed," she admitted. "That I have allowed matters to devolve so far. That I had not thought those moments worth remark. Such is my responsibility, to curb the worst of our habits, and encourage the best."
Thalia's discomfort suddenly came from elsewhere. Seeing Zoë castigate herself didn't bring the same pleasure it once would have.
"You've been getting better," she pointed out, willing her support into her voice.
It was still a weak protest.
"Yes," Zoë sighed. "And that is to say that I was a part of the problem, not so long ago. My tolerance for boys has always fallen far short of Milady's – she allows us a long leash, as long as we do not truly lapse."
"I'm not sure tolerance is the right word when talking about her."
Zoë snorted. "Perhaps not. It is true, regardless. This is not Archaia Hellas, where ours was the freedom to roam long decades without glimpsing civilization's borders, and those men who found us were the kind to avoid. It is not even the America of a century ago, where the wilds were still ours and such things were no true issue. We – I – have been slow to adapt to the times."
"You're improving your modern English."
"You have been a good teacher," Zoë smiled at Thalia drily. "I have needed reminding – I think I am not given to easy change, these days. Perhaps I never was."
Thalia returned the smile, glad to see the cloud lifting a little. "I'm happy to help – you're more fun when I can understand you, and easier to tease when you can understand me."
Zoë laughed – a beautiful sound, and better for its rarity – and suddenly the clouds were gone entirely.
"Indeed," she said. Her eyes were bright again, light reflecting sharp off volcanic black. "You—" Zoë poked her in the chest for emphasis. "Are good for me, Thalia. I am glad that you are my sister – I would have allowed the Hunt to stagnate without fresh eyes and a voice in my ear willing to speak up, and that is a rare thing to have. I will bring your concerns to Lady Artemis, and we will find a way to make it right."
Thalia nodded. "If you need my help…"
"We will ask," Zoë finished for her.
"'How to make the Hunt like boys.' I'll get to brainstorming."
Zoë adopted a comically disgusted expression.
Thalia rolled her eyes.
"Okay, how to make them hate boys less," she amended.
They laughed, and Thalia had another reason to know she was home.
Despite Zoë saying she'd engage Thalia's help after speaking with Artemis, they were soon spitballing ideas at each other.
"Urban excursions seem a fine idea," Zoë remarked thoughtfully. "We might couch it in the guise of a reward in the wake of a good hunt. Few would suspect an ulterior motive."
"Supervision might be an issue though," Thalia noted. "We don't want another Helena incident, and we've got a lot of girls to keep an eye on."
"Between you and I, we could convince Artemis to take a group. That would make three chaperones."
Thalia chewed her lip, then shook her head. "Not enough, we've got twenty-three girls to keep an eye on – it won't be much of a reward if they're not allowed to explore a bit. We'll want to get them interacting with people too, or they won't be getting exposure, and they won't do that if they're in big groups."
Zoë nodded, and there was a lapse as they pondered their options.
"We could bring Jannah into the fold," Zoë mused. "I trust her to do her best to see it through."
Thalia nodded. "Joline too. She's smart enough to wrangle a couple of our younger girls. She has problems stepping up though, she might not want to take charge of anyone."
"As you said, we could give her some of the recruits. Chelsea and Mia look to her already, and they have few enough objections to men to begin with. Group them with a few other new girls – perhaps Anette as well, for security – and they'll be fine."
"Yeah. And that would make five chaperones for twenty-one."
"That will suffice. I would not wish the groups to be any smaller than that."
"Agreed." Thalia hummed. "I wish we could prepare in advance for the kind of people they run into, but that's not really practical. This won't work if we run into a bunch of boors."
"Were we further East, I would've suggested messaging Percy," Zoë agreed. "Artemis would have little to object to, and he is as plain and guileless as we might hope for, as men go."
"You mean he's an idiot," Thalia deadpanned.
Zoë rolled her eyes. "You know what I mean."
"Sure," Thalia snorted. "I think he'd have something to say about being called 'plain' though. Kelp Head's lily white compared to Annabeth when it comes to pride, but he's not a total pushover."
"Perhaps you just have a way of bringing out his assertive side."
Her lips quirked. "Assertive side is one way to put it. Pissing off my cousin is an art form. I take pride in my ability to be a royal-tier pain in the ass."
Zoë's voice was deliberately neutral. "Indeed."
Thalia shoved her.
Zoë allowed it, chuckling. "You make it easy, sister."
"Yeah, fine," Thalia grumbled. "Why're you so eager to see him again anyways? I didn't realize you two were so chummy."
"Perhaps I appreciate his ability to 'piss you off' so effortlessly. It is a rare skill to come by so naturally."
"I'm being serious!" Thalia complained. "You're like, the one person here I can talk about my friends outside the Hunt with. Sue me for being interested."
"Fine, fine," Zoë sighed dramatically. "I can allow you that, I suppose. Yes, to answer your question. I would not mind speaking with Percy again. He is a good friend, and I owe him much. I have not felt as centered as I have in the time since our quest for a long time indeed. Part of it is the company—" her eyes smiled at Thalia. "But I cannot deny the peace of mind I've gained since then, thanks to his actions."
Thalia nodded, her eyes wandering to find the glinting silver in Zoë's dark hair, just beside the circlet woven into her braid.
She didn't know what weapon Percy had chosen to take up since that fateful night. Riptide – Anaklusmos to Zoë, who never referred to it as anything but – was back with its creator, and the change it elicited in her lieutenant was extraordinary.
Thalia wasn't an immortal – not really, anyways. She had Artemis' blessing keeping her alive for eternity, as long as she didn't get herself killed in the meantime, but it wasn't the same as true immortality. She'd learned since the quest that in creating Anaklusmos, Zoë had bound up a lot of her immortal essence and, as a result, left herself awfully vulnerable.
She wouldn't have aged – even without Artemis' blessing – but the loss meant that she'd been as functionally mortal as the rest of the Hunt. Before Heracles came along, if she'd been struck down her essence would have scattered like any other immortal and eventually reformed. Not so after.
Reclaiming her essence hadn't only returned a treasured memento of her mother, along with the connection to the ocean that was her right as a daughter of Pleione; it meant she was once again fully immortal.
There was no point of common reference, but Thalia could see the effect that had on her friend. Zoë felt lighter now than she had before, the tranquility felt by every huntress seemingly magnified in her, as though a great burden had been lifted off of her shoulders (Thalia tried not to think about the appropriateness of that comparison).
It was like how Thalia imagined she'd feel if she found her brother, long-since given up for lost.
She might've felt jealous once, but now Thalia could honestly only feel happy for her. It was a good thing Thalia's cousin had done for Zoë.
She didn't know if she could've been so selfless, given the same choice.
Zoë noticed the look on her face, and her brow furrowed. "Is something wrong, Thalia?"
"Nothing." She said too quickly.
Thalia's lips pursed. "Nothing at all."
Zoë's tone held a warning. "Thalia…"
Thalia was uncomfortably aware of the stormclouds rolling in on Zoë's visage. Her shoulders began to tense in anticipation of the thunderstorm.
She wasn't ready to have this conversation. Not at all.
"We were talking about boys, weren't we?" Thalia asked hopefully, keeping her voice light by force of willpower alone.
"That was not what we were talking about."
And now there was affront, as though Zoë couldn't believe Thalia could think she'd be so easily distracted.
Thalia felt a thin trickle of adrenaline entering her system, readying her – for fight or flight, even she didn't know yet. "I candidly disagree."
Zoë matched her posture – Thalia could see her muscles beginning to coil like a restless cat's. "You are not avoiding me on this, Thalia."
"Au contraire—" Thalia made to stand, hands beginning to tremble. It was flight, then. Not talking about this now. "I have no idea what you're talking about. We were talking about boys. In fact, I think if we went to Artemis, we could even figure a plan out by the end of the day!"
She could feel her walls rising, her expression closing off, the trickle becoming a stream, a river – was she Percy, to feel like a flood was trapped in her veins, threatening to burst forth like a split dam?
" Contrairement à mon cul, sœur," Zoë snapped, her accent flipping somewhere between her natural Greek and acquired French. "Stop equivocating and talk to me!"
The momentary surprise and hitch in her brain as it tried to decrypt Zoë's linguistic detour – she didn't know French – held Thalia for a second, but only a second.
She was on her feet the next. She needed to be anywhere else.
Zoë shattered the moment.
"Thalia," she pled, eyes bright and confused – where had the anger gone? "Please."
Thalia hesitated – the nervous energy building in her calves, energy that demanded she move, this place wasn't safe – she was compromised – was arrested.
'She's your sister now,' the calm, analytic voice in her brain reminded her, cutting through the haze of flight instinct. 'Family. She cares about you. Have some faith.'
Where was faith when she pled for her father's aid all those times Beryl came home shitfaced and violent? Where was it when Jason vanished and no amount of pleading, begging, raging for his return gave him back to her?
Where was faith when the forces of literal hell nipped at her heels, when she'd made her last stand? When she'd looked her best friend in the eye and asked him to come home with her?
What use had she with faith?
'You had faith in them—' Eyes stormy grey, shifting sea green, earthen brown. Her devil's advocate was wrenchingly patient. 'Family, Thalia.'
Zoë's gaze bore into her, imploring, soft.
The colder voice touched her. 'Are you a coward, Thalia?'
She felt her heart stutter through its vicelike stranglehold.
She didn't realize she'd turned and run until she registered the cold laughter in her brain – whether it was Luke's or some manifestation of her own self-loathing, she didn't know. Didn't care.
'Evade us at thy peril, Daughter of Zeus.'
'Act not the churl, Sister. The girl flees the specter of her ambition, not our reach, as is her right. One wandering thread will not alter the course of the whole.'
'Another is left to take her place. Her right or no, she must live with that knowledge.'
It was a week before Thalia and Zoe spoke again, and that soon only because Thalia wasn't paying enough attention to her surroundings.
She was sparring with Nadia, a hunter longer with Artemis than Thalia by three years, yet still inexperienced in the finer points of hand-to-hand combat, and as usual, Thalia was winning.
It was expected; the girl had a solid foundation – more than enough to keep up with Thalia's deft, aggressive strikes, but she was unsure in the melee and allowed Thalia to direct the pace of combat and maneuver her wherever she wished. Too much time in reserve, picking off opponents from range, left her woefully unprepared to judge positional advantages that were so vital for this style.
'Like now,' Thalia thought as she backed Nadia against the edge of the training ring, leaving her no avenue of retreat without surrendering the match.
Her sister-student's eyes betrayed her uncertainty; Thalia's gut blood surged, and she stepped into the next thrust.
Nadia leaped to the side – fast as one of Artemis' hinds – and made to take Thalia at the flank.
Thalia, anticipating that, twisted Bouloni and directed a jolt of electricity down its haft just as the butt swept around and struck Nadia in the ribs.
She wasn't the first to forget that a spear's head wasn't its only strength.
Nadia went down, twitching.
Thalia's instruction could be called bullying, but frankly, it suited her mood, and it served its purpose well enough.
She was a better teacher than she would have given herself credit for, a year ago.
She enjoyed it, for one; more than she'd expected to. She liked seeing her sisters improve by degrees, slowly but surely learning from their mistakes and the many, many times Thalia mercilessly laid them out on the hard earth.
And she felt pride – fierce, exultant pride, like she hadn't felt since she (and she alone) got to see Jason toddling along his first steps, or stumbling through his first word ("D'alia!").
That pride was unalloyed and unconditional. Under her watch, her sisters were becoming formidable. Now, she felt anticipation for the day she wouldn't be so sure they would be the ones leaving the ring cloaked in defeat.
And it was an outlet; one she sorely needed right now. If dominating her sisters taught them how better to survive, all the better.
Smiling and breathing evenly to Nadia's exerted panting, Thalia offered her sister her empty hand.
An Ephesian Silver arrow slammed into her spear from short range, the shock of it rattling up Thalia's arm, forcing her to drop it.
Thalia barely had a moment to turn, to think, before her opponent was on her, the offending bow abandoned for two long, shining hunting knives.
Thalia felt a thin line trace across her bicep as instinct compelled her to dive aside.
Zoë's knife came back trailing red.
A beat. A hushed silence, as nature held breathless the elements themselves in check.
Realizing she was suddenly the third wheel in the ring, Nadia scrambled backwards in a flurry of limbs, looking for all the world like the next big viral crab-walking video hit, eyes wide and mouth slightly agape.
Idly, Thalia noted that she would have to take her aside later; they'd been working to correct a few flaws in her fighting style and hadn't quite gotten there.
In the moment, however, Thalia had other matters to deal with.
Her momentum took her back to her feet. Her knees bent. Stance evened. Breathing heightened. Senses wide and alert. Hunting knives unsheathed, held loosely yet firmly in both hands.
All that, without conscious thought.
She'd locked eyes with her lieutenant, taking her measure. Zoë's face was unreadable, but her attention was focused and uncompromising; eyes slightly dilated like a cat on the prowl.
Another beat. The outer world was forgotten, and they began to circle each other.
Had Thalia been in any other headspace, she might have had questions. She might have demanded to know what Zoë was thinking; interfering with Nadia's training and shooting at Thalia as if one errant twitch of her wrist wouldn't leave her open to serious injury.
She might've yelled, barked and snarled like one of their wolves.
She might've run, as she had every other time Zoë tried to confront her over the previous few days.
She was not in another headspace, though, and thus not in a position to accept that perhaps that had been entirely the point.
No. She was hopped on adrenaline and battle-high from several hours of fighting and saw only an opponent before her.
It was fitting, since Zoë already opened up the fight with an ambush, that Thalia led the next several moves.
Like her ethos with the spear, Thalia's strategy was blistering, fluid, efficient, and aggressive.
Unlike her spear, her knives required a different kind of execution, and so the two hunters were swiftly caught up in a dance of flashing silver.
Thalia lunged with knives outstretched, Zoë melted away like morning dew.
And returned like autumn's frost, swift and ever-underestimated – a cold snap Thalia forced away with brute strength, pinioning her lieutenant's knives between her own until she could thrust the slimmer girl away.
Thalia gave a few steps as Zoë lashed out with clean, efficient jabs, then sidestepped and forced Zoë back with a swipe.
Around them, their sisters gathered.
They clashed in the center of the ring, crossguards locking the others' weapons in place. Thalia was the stronger of the two, and had the immediate upper hand, pressing hard, but she'd been working all day, and Zoë was hardly a slouch.
Her bow had a draw weight of sixty pounds. Her biceps were like corded steel. Thalia could feel that muscle straining against hers, her advantage diminishing until fatigue forced her to give ground.
First one step.
Her teeth clenched, and the world blurred further.
She sucked in a breath. Her heel touched the hard earth and stopped. She could almost hear sinew creak, muscle strain.
Liquid, chemical heat flooded her arms, and she pushed.
Zoë gave a step.
Her dark eyes bored into Thalia's.
A beat. A step.
They were beautiful eyes – Thalia had known so many, at this point. Immortal ichor carried incredible gifts.
Sky blue. Cat-like amber. Stormy grey. Sea-green.
They halted in the center of the ring again, and this time Thalia didn't have it in her to take control of the inertia again.
Her arms burned, lactic acid exacting its toll in miniscule shudders and trembling flesh.
Zoë watched her, gaze like a raptor's, waiting for Thalia didn't know what.
A star flared in Thalia's bicep. She flinched, gave a fraction of an inch, form faltering.
Zoë's eyes flashed and she twisted.
Something in Thalia's side pinched and she flew, Zeus' daughter, free of gravity's influence for all of a second before she met the same dusty earth she'd spent her day throwing her sisters onto.
She lay there, still, and then her chest heaved as the air Zoë knocked out of her rushed back all at once.
Her heart continued to dance out the staccato rhythm of their frenetic confrontation.
It was beginning to hurt, and left her light-headed and dazed.
Thalia shook it off and forced herself to look up.
Raptor's eyes. Tilted head. Zoë didn't need words to ask:
Is that it?
Thalia had one of her knives – the other lay nearby, neatly disarmed when Thalia was thrown.
Bouloni waited impatiently, a few feet out of her immediate reach.
Her battle lust deepened.
Zoë caught her gaze – her own eyes narrowed.
Thalia drew back and hurled her knife.
Zoë parried and the silver weapon was ejected from the ring, but that moment was all the opening Thalia needed to throw herself at her spear and come to her feet in a complete somersault, just in time to ward Zoë away with the electrified point.
The circle was joined once more.
This time, there was no pause to measure the opposition.
By the furrow of Zoë's dark brow, Thalia could tell her lieutenant was as deeply enmired in the fight as she was.
Parry, shove, twirl to come back 'round and ward her away.
They were each forced to fight at their best, now. Thalia was incredibly skilled with her hunting knives, but broke limits with spear in hand.
Zoë had experience most gods couldn't compete with.
It ended quickly this time.
Thrust, pull. Thrust, follow through and overhead swing—
Zoë ducked Thalia's strike and surged past, drawing a stinging line of red across her ribs, through her parka.
Thalia faced the edge of the ring, back turned to her opponent, frozen in the last motion of her sequence.
A beat, wherein she felt the twinge of the cut – deliberately nonlethal, yet undeniably a kill.
Bouloni's tip lowered. Thalia breathed, hard.
Her head was beginning to hurt. Her eyes watered through the blur of the fight, struggling to reconfigure, stuck in the ring.
Zoë waited patiently for her, head tilted. Arrogant.
Is that it?
Thalia breathed, limbs trembling.
Slowly, deliberately, Zoë smirked.
Thalia's temper snapped.
Celestial Bronze and Ephesian silver rang against each other in this third, final duel.
Thalia's world narrowed to Zoë's eyes and the unceasing blur of metal and muscle, rational capacity for strategy discarded in favor of the lust in her veins and the pull of her gut guiding her arms.
Weighed down by training and two exhausting duels, nonetheless her blood sang ruddy and fey in her veins.
Zoë was a silver dervish with her knives, faster than Thalia, better rested than Thalia, more experienced than Thalia, possibly angrier than Thalia, yet far more disciplined than Thalia could hope for in similar state.
But Thalia was lightning unchained.
For a time, it was enough, and they kept each other at bay, each by a hairsbreadth.
But a time only – eventually there was a mistake.
As it happened, this time it was Zoë's.
Fatigue was its own kind of monster. With Thalia's superior reach, eventually she managed to catch Zoë when she overextended and counter with a punishing sweep.
Zoë, legs cut out from under her, crashed to the ground in a heap and immediately found herself on the business end of Thalia's spear.
Thalia panted. Zoë panted.
The battle lust drained like a sieve from her veins, leaving her tired and hollow.
A final heartbeat. The fight left Thalia like a departing spirit abandoning its mortal shell. Would now her immortal flesh decay, swallowed up by earth and worms and the ravages of eternity? Would her spirit find rest in the beyond without an anchor to ground it, or feet to carry it far, far away?
Zoë pushed herself up onto her elbows and Thalia offered her a hand, as she had Nadia.
They spoke to each other without words, without fear.
We must speak.
Artemis is away.
Zoë took her hand.
A few minutes later, Thalia gingerly lowered herself onto a cushion, allowing her shoulders to sag with exhaustion now that she was away from the eyes of the others.
No weakness in front of them, where possible.
Not so, with this sister.
Zoë sighed, shucking her gear onto the small pallet afforded to her – not so different from Thalia's, except that it was designed so it stood a foot off the ground, and built of dark, heavily worn acacia wood.
Zoë noticed her inquiring glance and smiled. "A relic of an ancient hunting expedition," she explained. "Artemis has always been the furthest-ranging of any of the Olympians, even when it takes us beyond the boundaries of what is known. Once, she took it in mind that we sojourn to the Southern Plains, upstream of the Nile, seeking the edge of the world and new quarry."
Her smile turned wistful. "We did not find the former, but we did hunt many new beasts, and learned somewhat from the people there. It was even worth the lecture from Athena afterwards – Eratosthenes's calculations weren't yet widely known at the time. Certainly not to us."
She tapped the wooden frame of the pallet, which Thalia realized now must be at least two millennia old. "It is – was – customary there to sleep off the ground to avoid scorpions and the like." She laughed quietly. "I've never quite lost the habit."
Thalia stared, aware but unable to stop herself. It was sometimes easy to forget that Zoë and Artemis both were fantastically ancient. Stranger still, that Zoë was technically the elder by a few centuries.
She recovered fast though – and there was a response crowding her tongue anyways. She didn't know the philosopher Zoë mentioned, but she could intuit. "Artemis was a flat earther?"
Zoë blinked, then snorted. "Yes, I suppose, and I with her, until Athena found out and scolded us. In our defense, the shape of the planet was never much of a factor in our lives before then – neither of us had ever thought to ask."
"But she's the moon goddess!" Thalia protested. "And Apollo is her brother! They drive their chariots in the sky!"
"Selene and Helios had not yet faded at the time!" Zoë retorted, cheeks darkening. "And it made sense! Father holding the sky would not work – not rationally – if it was wrapped around a sphere!"
"But horizons, Zoë!"
The lieutenant groaned dramatically, and Thalia grinned.
This was more her speed; she could tease and taunt with broken ribs and a concussion (and had proven it on one occasion). For her, it was cruise control.
Sadly, it didn't last.
Watching Zoë, Thalia saw the moment her smile faded, how she turned away to tuck her gear underneath the pallet to hide it.
She'd known her lieutenant for long enough to not need to see her face to know how to read her mood. Zoë's eyes would be dark and thoughtful, lines faintly tracing the downy skin of her brow, too endowed with the gifts of youth to properly wrinkle.
Thalia sighed imperceptibly.
She'd had a few days to prepare herself for this, but she'd regret losing that moment of shared levity. It was rare enough for Zoë to let her guard down.
Leap of faith, Thalia.
'Be proud of me, Annabeth. Percy.'
"You don't need to worry about me running off again," she informed Zoë, proud that her voice came out calm and steady. "I'll talk now. Just… ask."
Zoë paused, in the middle of rewrapping her tinder kit in oilcloth. "I propose a trade," she said. "You answer my questions, I'll answer yours."
Hers? Thalia's brow furrowed. "What makes you think I have questions for you?"
"That would be one already." Zoë's cheek twitched. "But I will excuse it. It's easy enough to answer."
She tucked the last of her gear away – an unused kerchief and sewing kit – and turned to face Thalia fully. Her eyes held wisdom that penetrated Thalia's casual mien.
"There are always questions." The nymph said. "Let's make this a conversation, not an interrogation. Two questions of mine for one of yours – I beat you two bouts of three. It is fair. I'm sure you'll think of something to ask me."
Thalia hesitated, then nodded. That was acceptable.
"Good. Why did you run away from me?"
Thalia breathed in. Deep end first, then.
That's your thing, Percy. Give me some strength. "I was afraid."
Zoë frowned at her. "You know I would never hurt or judge you for that, yes? We're sisters in arms now. We all face fear in our own time."
Thalia thought of her mother. Luke. Of the other Hesperides. Of Bianca leaving Nico. The gods at large.
"Families hurt and judge each other all the time."
She looked away. "Yeah, I get it. I know."
Zoë 's voice was pained. "Why, then?"
"Because—" Thalia struggled. "I wasn't afraid of you, Zoë. I'm just…"
'Afraid of me,' she wanted to say. 'Afraid of what I almost became, what I almost did for power. Afraid of what I almost did to the people I love. Afraid of looking in the mirror too long and not liking what I see.'
She couldn't say it.
"…Is this about the quest?"
Zoë was too good at this.
"Thalia…" Zoë made to stand, eyes concerned.
Thalia stopped her, still determinedly look away – at anything. Zoë's gear. The tinderbox. The heavily patched woolen blanket. The stitching and patches in the weave of the tent. The ancient, scored cot.
When Zoë sat down beside her anyways, one strong, calloused hand on her shoulder as silent support, Thalia realized she'd been holding her breath. It came out in a single, long exhale, like a smoker letting out a big, carbon monoxide drag.
The next breath felt like ambrosia after a concussion. She could think more clearly. "That's four questions, y'know. You owe me two."
"You didn't answer the last one."
Another breath – this was feeling like a duel, each heartbeat marking the next step in a dance.
But it wasn't.
'You can trust Zoë – she isn't backing you into a corner. You don't need to fight or run from her. She wants to help you.'
Her Reason was getting a workout today.
Shut up, me.
"Yes, it's about the quest," Thalia admitted quietly.
Relief followed as Zoë only looked at her steadily, knowing already, but wanting to hear it from her.
She waited for the follow-through – it was only a beachhead, Zoë would have more questions waiting to strip Thalia bare, plumb her mind, and understand.
Gods, she didn't want this…
"It's your turn, sister," Zoë said mildly, hand squeezing her shoulder sympathetically.
She understood. She offered a reprieve.
What could she ask?
Thalia thought of the last few days – she'd been too busy to think of her lieutenant. Training sisters in the ring, standing watch on the perimeter. Striking out for the trapline to reset snares and collect their bounty.
Drawing water from the nearby creek. Purifying it. Tending to her gear. Tending to a rip in her jeans – the ones she wanted whole, instead of the black pair she ripped intentionally for style – putting to use sewing skills she'd never thought she'd need after leaving the Grace household for good.
The thousand and one chores rotating daily around the hunt, plus however many more she needed to fill up all the processing space her ADHD brain had available, so she wouldn't need to face anything else.
She thought back further. The past few months. She'd been so preoccupied learning her place, her limits. It left little room to really think about other things.
She was Zoë's lieutenant, alongside Phoebe. Left hand of Artemis, third in the pecking order of the Hunt. That had been daunting.
She'd thought she would face anger and resentment – Iphigenia had been a hunter for millennia, nearly as long as Zoë! Phoebe grew up during the Renaissance! Odessa had seen Ravenna when it was capitol of the Roman empire! Surely, they had more right to the position than an adolescent daughter of Zeus!
Thalia was just projecting her pride onto everyone around her. Nobody wanted the responsibility. Nobody wanted to give orders when a bad call or hasty decision would cost a sister's life.
She'd assumed they would feel slighted, because if she were passed over for the rookie for a promotion, she would feel slighted.
No, she'd be pissed.
Thalia's mouth went dry. She swallowed.
You're getting sidetracked.
When she settled into her position, it had been weeks of crash courses on management and organization. Bureaucratic stuff. Forward thinking and planning.
She'd surprised herself; she was really good at it.
When she knew the welfare of others depended on her, she found that even logging resources and tracking expenditures – budgeting – wasn't so bad. When she realized it, Zoë shifted more of the workload onto her, trusting her with what she trusted few others.
It allowed the nymph to spend more time planning with Artemis – strategy, politics, priorities, recruitment, and agendas. All things Thalia was interested in – again, to her own surprise – but not something so easily taught when planning a war.
She sat in on those deliberations, listening with half an attentive ear while going over columns of Greek letters in a notebook.
She worked better with the ancient Greek system of mathematics as well, she'd learned. No zero to be seen, which had initially been strange, but the logic of it parsed better in her brain.
Quiet voices, loud voices, arguments and reconciliations. Zoë and Artemis weren't like an old, married couple; they were like loud, belligerent friends at market haggling over grain, who'd slap each other's shoulders in good cheer at the end of it.
Thalia was good at logistics. She was better still at reading people. Sometimes they weren't even like two friends at market.
They were both graceful creatures. It was self-apparent to anyone who'd seen them, their every movement lithe and fluid.
Yet Thalia noticed how sometimes they would lapse and become strangely clumsy around each other, eyes meeting and voices falling hush after a flash of intense emotion.
The slightest of stammers. Zoë slipping back into her mutt accent. Artemis' eyes flickering, fingers twitching for a bowstring. The formalities – plenty of Lieutenant's and My Lady's to go around; Strategos and Kyria if the conversation was in their native Greek.
Tics and tells. Thalia filed them away for future consideration, not pondering the implications until now.
She remembered thinking that the behavior was odd, but not that odd; Artemis was an Olympian and Zoë was her handmaiden and lieutenant. It was inevitable that they would sometimes forget that in the heat of the moment, and that those moments were a remembrance, when boundaries re-raised themselves.
She wasn't so sure now – in fact she was sure she wasn't sure.
Thalia fixed Zoë with a look, wondering. "What's up between you and Artemis?"
Zoë blinked; Thalia briefly wondered how long she'd kept her in suspense.
"What do you mean?" the huntress asked, browed furrowed.
"I mean…" Thalia pulled from the skein of thoughts in her brain. "You've been acting funny around each other. Kind of skittish. What's up with that?"
Zoe stared. "I do not—"
Thalia stopped her. "You have."
Zoë's mouth clacked shut.
"It's like…" Thalia paused, thinking.
An image bloomed in her mind, and she snorted.
Thalia schooled her grin into a softer smile, knowing herself well enough to know that it would come across as mocking when she was the furthest from right now.
"You look at her like my two oblivious friends look at each other when they think nobody's watching them," she said. "And you act like them. Sometimes you're so in-synch it's scary, but then you notice, and it all falls apart because you don't know what to think about it."
And that wasn't a lie. Thalia barely had an opportunity to see much of Percy and Annabeth around each other – only a month, really, before they all left camp for school. It had still been more than enough time to see the beginnings of what would definitely become a hilarious and infuriating dance around each other in the years to come.
This, though, felt different.
This dance almost felt choreographed; practiced until it required no thought. What Thalia was seeing was a disruption to the natural order.
Something had thrown them off of that natural rhythm, and they had yet to find a balance again.
And now, Thalia felt the kindling sparks of fresh curiosity. She wanted to know more.
"I had not realized," Zoë said finally, quietly. "But looking back… Yes. We do, don't we?"
Thalia wondered if Zoë had had time to see what she'd seen in Percy and Annabeth or if she was able to fill in the blanks herself. Maybe she'd gleaned it from the half of the equation that travelled with them.
"Then, to answer your question, I know not."
She frowned. "Well, what goes through your mind when you get like that? I can keep a secret."
Zoë was silent.
The huntress twitched.
"I swear I won't say—"
"I know not!" Zoë interrupted her fiercely, voice pained. "I am thinking of then, when I and she were in congress with each other, and in my memory, there is a void."
She'd regressed to her mutt accent. It would take a dedicated linguist to trace the polyglot patchwork to its roots, Thalia was sure.
Her frown deepened. "Like… someone tampering with your memory void?"
Zoë was already shaking her head. "Nay. A void as if… as if all thought had deserted me, a wind carrying it away into the recesses of my psyche, that I would see only her and know nothing else of the world."
"And you felt…?"
"As if galvanized," Zoë whispered, gaze distant. "Alive. Cast adrift. As though a veil was lifted, and I could see what before had been denied to my view, if I could only act."
Thalia let that sit for a long moment, her brain connecting the dots for her, though she didn't want it to.
She'd lived in fear of being smitten long enough already – Thalia had a feeling that suggesting Artemis' lieutenant had it bad for her mistress would be just as perilous as playing bluff with her father's paranoia.
Zoë cleared her throat uncomfortably. "It is my turn, no?"
Thalia swallowed. "Yes. Yeah. Go ahead."
"The quest?" Zoë ventured.
"Yeah." Thalia sighed. "You know I don't know if I would have done it?"
Thalia gestured vaguely. "Turned. Sacrificed the sea cow. Become the prophecy child for Kronos. That."
Zoë opened her mouth, but Thalia didn't let her speak – she had to get this out in one go, or she'd clam up and never speak again.
"I didn't know." Thalia stood and began to pace anxiously in the confined space. "Not until I was there, and I saw Luke for myself, and what he did to Annabeth, and the way he looked at Percy. Like he hated him."
Luke, who'd been her only friend in the world; who'd blaspheme his dad to give her the courage to do the same with hers. Who'd taken in a ratty little kid with her while their supplies were low, and gave her one of their only precious magical weapons.
Luke, who'd looked at Percy like he'd smile while sticking a knife in his ribs.
Like a monster.
Like how she'd look if she let herself give into the hate.
"—And I knew then but it took me so long," Thalia croaked, bile rising in her throat. "It was all I could think about for months when they told me. Getting back at the gods – my dad, Luke's dad – was the dream. We'd tell each other how we'd do it and how we wouldn't fucking hesitate if we got the opportunity. But that would mean turning on you – on Annabeth, Percy, Grover, Chiron, Artemis, everyone. And I considered it."
Thalia paused, a sob catching in her throat unexpectedly. "What is wrong with me?"
Zoë instantly stood and caught Thalia in a crushing hug – and suddenly she was a child again in the middle of a dream, held by warm, solid arms in a way no mother ever held her.
Between choked breaths and Zoë's attempts to hush her, sorrow, anger and self-loathing mingled in a poisonous cocktail, and Thalia ranted.
"I was a fucking coward! I was going to turn sixteen – I could have ended it! If I was stronger, I could have killed Luke and Kronos like I was supposed to – like everyone was counting on me to – but I fucking ran and took the oath and dumped the prophecy on Percy—" her voice cracked.
Percy, her reckless idiot of a cousin, who now had the weight of the whole world on his shoulders because she was too chickenshit to stick it out herself.
Who was falling in love with her best friend.
Who she'd left to take the bullet meant for her.
Thalia throat tightened until she couldn't speak. Guilt was an overpowering wave crushing her against the immovable ground.
She'd put on a face of confidence for him on Olympus – on the pegasi flight she'd managed to convince herself that he would be the better choice anyways – stronger and incorruptible, unlike her – but time had only eroded her certainty.
He'd travelled to the Underworld and the Sea of Monsters and took the sky for them.
Now, because of her, he was going to get hurt, probably die.
Guilt wasn't a wave; it was a noose. She couldn't breathe. Couldn't count the beats of her heart.
In her cradle of arms, she allowed Zoë to coax her through the motions of life – breathe, in and out, breathe, Thalia—
And weathered the storm until it passed.
Zoë anchored her until her tears ran dry. Thalia's sobs eventually dwindled into sniffles and hiccupping, and she found herself able to speak again.
Their deal was forgotten this time around, the questions flowing freely across both sides.
"Are you okay?" Zoë asked, eyes bright. "What can I do?"
"Just hold me awhile," Thalia muttered into her shoulder, reluctant to surrender this rare comfort. "Do you hate me?"
"Never." The answer was instant and firm. "You chose us in the end, no matter what came before."
"When you talked about Riptide, I thought about what I would have done. If I could have given it up, if I was in his place. He loved that sword – it was the only one that felt right to him."
Zoë gave her a lingering look. "You would have."
Thalia sniffled. "Am I a good person?"
Zoë pulled back to hold Thalia's gaze, uncaring of the puffy, discolored state of her face. "You have been a great hero, an able teacher, a caring friend, a proud warrior, and number among the best of companions I have known in this company, Thalia Grace. Yes, you are a good person."
She curled against herself. "I fucked up so bad."
"You are sixteen, Thalia, if that," Zoë growled. "A child by all considerations, and you have already seen more than enough suffering in your lifetime. You are not responsible for the entire world. What mistakes you've made – what mistakes you think you've made – you can grow from them. That is what it is to be a good person, and that is why I do not fear what you will do in the future. Grow, and do better next time, and stop punishing yourself for the ships that have already left harbor."
"I left them behind. They have to clean up what should have been my mess."
"Annabeth Chase and Percy Jackson are capable." Zoë's hand rubbing her back made Thalia want to melt into her. "They have friends and allies of their own – we are not out of this fight either, Thalia. You will be there for them as well when the time comes."
"I'm getting snot all over your shirt."
Thalia felt Zoë's smile against her scalp. "So you are."
"You can take my laundry duty for this week, if it would comfort you."
A watery chuckle escaped her.
"Okay," she said. "I can do that."
The questions became less one sided, then, as Thalia regained some equilibrium. Some were simple – was she sure she was okay? Did she need some time alone?
Some were less so.
"Could you have loved him?"
It was amazing how a question that would have been voiced full of scorn just a few months before could be so devoid now. Zoë was merely curious now, and Thalia felt relieved that after her confession, her friend wasn't doubting the strength of her vow.
"I have no idea," she answered distantly, thinking about it. "I barely know Percy, and I pretty much gave up the chance to get to know him going forward."
"Not wholly," Zoë observed.
It was true. Thalia bowed her head. "Maybe, then. He's a good guy, even if we clash a lot. I'm glad Annabeth has him... well, will have him, once they get over themselves."
"Could you have loved her?"
Thalia drew up short; she hadn't considered it.
She did now.
She was silent a minute. Two.
"…Maybe," she said finally. "I dunno. She was kind of like a little sister sometimes, but I tried not to think of her that way. I… I've had bad experiences. With siblings, that is."
She thought about it more. "Maybe."
If the world ended, it would obviously be a non-issue, but if it didn't, Thalia might wonder more in the future what else she'd given up besides her place in the prophecy and her ability to age.
She remembered the pain when Jason vanished, and how small and helpless she'd felt; how impotent in the face of powers so far beyond her.
She remembered the agony of indecision she'd felt when she fought Luke, and how her heart had torn as she chose… chose, and gave up on him. The moment he twitched, and she obeyed her first instinct to throw him down to shatter on the rocks below, Thalia surrendered her reckoning with the wayward brother she'd had too little time to know.
Two brothers denied to her, sundered from her destiny by the Fates and her own decisions.
Compared to the threat of reliving those moments, as well as the looming threat of outliving her loved ones, giving up the possibility of romantic pursuits seemed like both a small sacrifice and the least of her problems.
But, however small the concern, it was still a ship vanishing over the horizon without her on it, and she was left wondering, what if?
Zoë, sensing her resurging distress, rumbled deep in her chest and pulled Thalia closer. "Adelphí neótera mou," she murmured.
My little sister.
A fresh wave of tears trickled down Thalia's face, warm and salty, a mirror to the warmth and security blooming within her. She turned her head into Zoë's shoulder to keep the painful, secret smile hurting her cheeks a secret, even if only for a moment.
They forgot about their bargain that evening. Instead they fell asleep on the ancient cot, Thalia's fingers curled into Zoë's shirt like the child she'd never been allowed to be.
When they rose to greet the dawn the next day, they were again equals, and set about putting the camp in good order in preparation for their expedition north, into Alberta, the following week.
But they didn't forget.
'They blaspheme us, those children.'
'We keep our own counsel, and divulge nothing of our intentions, though it leads them oft to injury. Will you grudge them thus their acrimony? I do not. We are cruel and we are just; to love one is to hate the other. No matter the side of the obol they favor, the sum of their distrust is the price of our work.'
'Oh, be not so obdurate, Atropos! It is not ours to decide whether to accept, nor to decide what choices they make. We may only prepare the road, and betimes right the scales.'
'Nothing is free. Not even suffering.'
'In this, we agree. We have stinted our tithe.'
Time passed, and under Zoë's watchful eye, emboldened by Thalia's blooming leadership, Artemis' handmaidens journeyed north into Alberta, Canada, beyond the reach of the Olympian gods, seeking the Hyperborean Giants, who Kronos was known to be courting in anticipation of his war on Olympus.
They found the first colony in the Caribou Mountains in the north of the province, nestled into a cozy valley thick with timber and a dense blanket of March snowfall.
Being too simple to directly negotiate with, the Hyperboreans were nonetheless hospitable according to their nature, offering them space to encamp and pointing them to where the wild game was thickest, and what areas to avoid.
Too large to reasonably hunt by stealth, the giants were instead deceptively skilled trappers, devising snares that would tangle the feet of caribou and elk and concealed pitfalls capable of trapping bear. Though the Hunters had good eyes for picking out detail in forests crowded with visual noise, Zoë still had her sisters avoid those areas where the giants' traps were layered thickest.
Best to be safe rather than lose a sister to negligence.
But, though the game was thinner off the hopelessly trampled track, the Hunt ate well, and with a peace offering of several coffers of spice – a custom oft overlooked in the modern day, but one Zoë still found effective in such situations – they bought the ear and goodwill of the Hyperborean leader.
As much as that mattered anyways. Gorm, son of Gorm, who swiftly learned to enjoy spicing his roasted bear with cinnamon, didn't need much convincing to stay out of Kronos's war against the Olympians.
"Game taste better than demigod," the Hyperborean told them, as philosophical as any of his kind was capable. "And better, now we have sin-mun and pepper. It is long walk to God-Home. Time-Father offers little for troubles. We stay, I think."
It was more than enough, and in high spirits, when the giant petitioned her to engage in proper Hyperborean diplomacy, Zoë caved and assented. Thalia's begging look might have had something to do with it.
It was a fun snowball fight.
They found further success in slaying a Thespian Dragon that had been tormenting the colony in recent years. As a sign of goodwill, Gorm and his clan found it almost as delightful as being subjected to the Hunt's overdeveloped competitive drive and a three-day protracted siege in their improvised, yet impossibly sophisticated snow forts.
How or why the dragon wandered so far north when its kind traced its origins to Boetia, in central Greece, Zoë hadn't a clue. Like many dragons, though, it claimed the gift of tongues for its own, and had chosen to wield scraps and excerpts from the works of Christopher Marlowe as an additional weapon to augment its wicked talons and poison.
Strangely, it seemed to hate Zoe in particular. Something about her voice sent it into a fury, and it was both liberal and verbose in its expression of that fact. She paid it little mind and instead used its recklessness to draw it into a nearby Hyperborean trapline, where she and her sisters were able to finally fell the beast.
Its death was too melodramatic to have not been rehearsed.
They chose to travel westward after that. Gorm informed them of the three other Hyperborean colonies he was aware of – one in Nunavut, two others in Alaska and the Yukon. Zoë picked the Yukon colony as their next stop, with the possibility of travelling even further west to the Alaskan colony open should their visit be as successful as the first.
The journey tested them more than the first as temperatures dropped further and further below zero the further they travelled. Zoë was never more grateful for her parka and Thalia's logistical ability than she was then – they had ample stores, allowing them to minimize foraging for food, and she'd ensured everyone was supplied with more than enough extra layers to keep warm.
Zoë made sure the fires were piled high at night and ensured those on watch knew to look for the signs of frostbite, and to get up and move regularly to keep the blood flowing. Within the Hunt, she was one of the few born to a land that did not see bitter winters, and had to employ every trick in the book to stave off the cold that leeched feeling from her skin and fire from her blood.
At night, she shivered alone on her cot, drowsing while thinking about warm arms wrapped around her, until sleep wiped those fantasies from her mind.
The trek to their destination – Ivvavik National Park, almost as far north as the coast, well into the Arctic Circle – took two weeks.
When they arrived, they found an abandoned camp, permafrost, and signs of battle.
Phoebe, less fond of the giants than many of their sisters, suggested – snidely – that perhaps the Hyperboreans gotten too involved in hypermasculine competitions of power and killed themselves in the resultant melee.
Thalia countered – shutting Phoebe up with a look as cold as the Firth river nearby – that rather than a dick-measuring contest gone wrong, maybe they'd had their own monster troubles, without the benefit of a band of huntresses to take care of it.
And so on.
Others contributed their own theories to the litany, as much from frustration for their wasted journey as anything else.
Zoë, still examining the camp, heard it all with half an ear. She trusted Thalia would handle things, allowing her time to put her vast experience to work and draw her own conclusions. Nearby, she saw a few of her trackers disinterested in the debate doing the same.
Near the colony's central firepit, almost hidden in the shadow of the huge, rough-hewn stones, she found a tattered, white flag of truce on the ground under a layer of fresh-fallen snow. On the ground nearby, Zoë carefully scraped away the same layer and found old, dried and frozen blood.
It was brown – had once been red. Neither Hyperborean, whose blood ran blue, nor monster, who did not bleed.
Tracks led away from the site, past the edge of the clearing, distinct from the characteristic tread of the giants and the churn of the battle. The standard bearer?
She followed them.
A corpse frozen in the initial stages of decomposition waited for her at the trail's terminus a few dozen yards from the clearing, hidden from its allies and enemies by brush. A boy. Brunette. Stocky, powerful build. No weapon, but callouses to match a spear or pilum. Demigod, no older than fifteen. The look of a son of Ares, or possibly Nike.
Around his neck, a pendant – a scythe charm etched in silver in the hollow of his throat.
A picture formed in her mind:
The delegation, not prepared for the childish incomprehension of the giants they sought to recruit, became frustrated. Impatient tempers flared – possibly driven by the fear of what they would find, should they return empty-handed. Demands were made, weapons drawn, and threats turned to action, taking the colony by surprise.
There would have been losses on the colony's side, until shock turned to grief turned to rage and the delegation was itself massacred by the prodigal strength they sought to make their own.
Zoë found more tracks on the edge of the colony, leading west. The shattered undergrowth, yet to recover from the giants' incautious ways, showed their passage, and completed the story:
Traumatized by the attack and finding their numbers reduced, the giants abandoned their home to join their kin in Alaska, trusting in the safety of numbers and distance.
It made sense – in lean times, Zoë had made similar choices.
Rising to her feet, she sighed, feeling strangely melancholy for the plight of the Hyperboreans, and went to share her findings with the others.
Consulting with Thalia and her other advisors, they decided that following the refugees was likely to only provoke them, and that they had lingered too long beyond their mistress' reach already.
They left the colony otherwise untouched and began the journey back south.
By night, Zoë dreamed of Gorm, son of Gorm, tossing aside a coffer of spice and declaring demigod flesh the only tribute he would accept, before freezing her and her sisters in blocks of ice, to be savored later.
'Only good to come from fickle gods,' he would rumble, an idiot's cunning in his eyes as he raised his hammer to shatter Thalia's ice-block into smaller chunks. Zoë was powerless to stop him.
Then he would reach for her to repeat the process.
She awoke from those dreams suddenly – always suddenly – and shivering, though she slept under several layers of fleece and wool.
Her dreams of death were now colored by personal experience.
She clutched Anaklusmos to her chest those nights, reminding herself of her lifeline and the golden blood flowing once again flowing through her veins, and would eventually fall back into troubled slumber.
With the coming of April, Demeter's grief began to weigh less on the land, making way for the spring thaw. They saw the first hints of green peeking through the snow, trudged through endless marshes of new mud, woke to the twitter of birdsong, and began to mark the sun's rising ever earlier.
The cold gradually became less of an omnipresent entity in their lives, and Zoë slept better for it.
They returned to Olympian lands just over two months after they left them, crossing the border into Montana a week into May. That same evening as they made camp, each of them breathing a sigh of relief to be back in familiar territory once more, their mistress returned to them in a flash of blinding silver.
A weary cheer rose around the camp, and though their gazes connected only for the briefest of moments before her attention was monopolized by dozens of eager girls, Zoë was able to glean brief, genuine happiness to see her from her mistress.
Indeed, looking on Artemis for the first time in weeks, words – as they often did – failed her.
'What can I say to thee that has not been said a thousand, thousand times already?' she asked, safe within the confines of her mind. 'Thou hath known me. All of myself known to myself, laid at your feet. But now I know one secret more than thee, and I am afraid to speak, lest it be the last.'
Afraid as she had not been even when her mistress had been the captive of her father, no. It was a different breed of fear that seized her now in a strangling vice, stilled her hand, silenced her to one she unreservedly trusted with everything.
Then, she had not experienced the soul-hemorrhage of a sundered life-string.
Then, she had thought herself ready to die, if only to save her mistress the pain.
Then, she had not been in danger of breaking faith.
It was different, now.
Such was her mood that she drew a concerned glance from Thalia when she rose from her space at the fire, her lieutenant's bright eyes finding hers through the waggling tongues of flame.
Are you okay? Her friend asked without words.
Zoë gestured toward the tree line. I need a minute.
Thalia's expression softened. Take your time, I'll cover for you.
Zoë inclined her head gratefully and quietly faded into the lengthening shadows, never so grateful for her heritage as a Hesperid as when the fading golds and purples of twilight seemed to reach up to guard her from curious eyes.
There were no streams nearby that she could lose herself in thought beside, which Zoë considered a shame. Her heritage returned had brought with it a connection with water so long missing she'd forgotten the hollow it left within her was anything but a natural part of her soul.
Water – especially running water – soothed her like a blanket on a chill day, or the golden light of the sunset which was as much at home in her soul as the thrill of the hunt.
Twice now, she had had to be roused from a trance by a bemused sister when she let herself drift off near a river at the close of the day. It was easily forgotten that she was a nymph; that the Hunt's call to action was a goad as well as a gift, and that she had once spent decades at a time doing little beside engaging in dance and play with her sisters on the mountain unaware of the passage of time.
Those days had been good, she could admit that much to herself.
'But those times are past, and I am not who I was,' she reminded herself as she passed beneath the canopy, silent as a vision and obscured by the dappled twilight peering between the leaves and needles overhead.
Privacy – fickle and precious, seldom gotten in so close a band a sisters. To have their constant regard lifted a weighty mantle from her shoulders and left her as she was – merely Zoë, no more and no less.
It left her room to consider her situation.
Her problem: she was in love with Artemis, and it had taken her the better part of multiple millennia to realize it.
In a just world, she would not experience these feelings. She would continue to be the perfect lieutenant and handmaiden to her goddess. They would hunt together, recruiting sisters into their family until the breaking of the world. Each morning they would wake, and Zoë would ask if M'lady slept well that night? And Artemis would answer that she had, you are kind to ask.
And she would smile at her – a warm, intimate smile reserved for her and her alone that gently eased the mantles of Goddess and Lieutenant from their shoulders for a few, precious moments. Zoë would return it – dumb with affection and unbearably happy – and find herself slipping ever further into the pitfall, so enraptured she never realized the ground opening beneath her feet.
A nearby squirrel chittered angrily at her as she hurled a fist-sized rock deftly plucked from the ground high into the pine-bough canopy. It glanced off a trunk and clattered to the ground, taking old, grey lichen and a few evergreen needles with it.
Zoë locked eyes with the animal. Such fury for such a little thing! She raised her voice that it would hear her: "Do you know that I have hunted kin of thine beyond number, little one? Your kind make for ample fare, with the right herbs."
It screamed at her some more, venting its frustration.
She tilted her head. "A place in the communal pot would do for thee, I think. You are too small to roast alone."
The squirrel shook a tiny fist at her, then turned tail to flee back to its den.
"Would that I had my bow," Zoë sighed. She thought better while at work. Introspection was unhealthy for immortals without moderation.
She walked instead, letting the lion's share of her attention focus on navigating the rough, sloping terrain, pushing herself to take larger, more powerful strides until a familiar strain began to emerge in the muscles of her thighs.
To the share of the sheep, she gave the matters of her heart.
Her second problem: she knew Kallisto.
The nymph who had been Artemis' lieutenant before Zoë had been a friend – a sister – when Zoë was only just learning the meaning of the word. She had been among those to teach her that the censure of blood need not be the end of joy.
…She had been what Zoë hoped to be to Thalia. Had hoped to be for Bianca.
She had been elder sister to them all. First among equals. Artemis' closest confidant. Fierce as a wildcat to those who would threaten the family she had found in the Hunt. A true huntress.
And she had loved, and was used, and for fear and lack of faith, erred.
Zoë panted slightly as she crested a small rise, reaching to pull herself up and over a protruding shelf of rock.
Her heart pumped harder in her chest, filling her ears with the sound of her own pounding lifeblood. Far from what it would take to truly tire her, the exertion still made her feel more alive, less suffocated by her predicament.
There was more to climb before her – a rock face a few dozen cubits high, craggy and worn by the elements.
She paused, her rational side taking over.
Scaling it would be reckless to attempt without a spotter and equipment. A hunt ceased at a cliff's edge, for Artemis' blessing did little to protect from the inexorable pull of gravity. Going around was the wiser decision, the responsible decision, and what she would counsel as lieutenant.
…But her fingers itched and she was feeling reckless.
She stepped forward and grabbed the first stone outcropping, hauling herself upwards by her arms until her feet found solid footing.
To the sound of scrabble and falling scree, Zoë continued to agonize.
To speak or not to speak, which was Kallisto's error? Artemis had matured with time, as had all the gods, but even then, surely she had not condemned her best friend for simply loving her.
'She is an Olympian,' the part of her mind reared by a Titan reminded her neutrally. 'We are what we are, as are they. Have not her kin turned when faced with even the merest slight?'
Zoë scowled and stretched above her head for the next handhold. It gave the moment she tested her weight and she was forced to shift back down and search anew while showering in dust and pebbles.
"I know her well," she grumbled to herself, ashamed to think of her mistress in this way. "Artemis is neither capricious nor so petty to condemn someone for mere feelings."
'But she acted.'
"In good faith."
'She came to her oath-sworn mistress and knew her as no other.'
"She had every reason to believe it was consensual!"
'Even so, would they not have profited further by silence? Even had it not been a trick, she would have spun a fine web for her goddess to escape. How many would have fled, oaths ash on their tongues? Would you have stayed with a goddess proven faithless?'
Her fingers were bleeding, she realized through the haze she'd conjured in her mind. She'd scraped her knuckles against some outcropping.
'You would have left. Any but an oathbreaker. You would have fled and suffocated on your own misery before committing to Asphodel.'
The advocate in Zoë's mind continually shifted. One moment it was Atlas, stern and dispassionate, then Hesperia, Aegle; her own disdainful, cutting honesty.
"She kept it a secret," Zoë murmured, pushing off the balls of her feet to reach a new handhold. "Artemis would have forgiven her anything, as long as she kept faith."
'And yet silent you remain – you, who lack the seed of a treacherous god to betray you. If you are confident you know her so well, why do you fear?'
Zoë reached up for the next crag when suddenly both her footholds crumbled at once. Her shoulder jerked in its socket as suddenly she was left hanging by the one hand high above the stony earth.
The shock of it stole the breath from her lungs, and dazed both from it and the cant of her thoughts, Zoë hung there for several precious seconds.
Emotionally fraught rock climbing was a bad idea. Artemis would be so disappointed – and confused – if Zoë fell, injured herself, and forced her sisters to track her down.
The thought of what Artemis might think of Zoë disappearing even for just a few hours with no word kick-started her thoughts. She lunged for another handhold just as her fingers began to shake with fatigue. Her feet scrabbled for purchase, sending cascades of debris down below.
She was lucky and soon recovered, though she was left clinging to those new holds for a minute while she shook out her trembling fingers.
Breathing shaky, Zoë leaned her forehead against the stone. Without permission or prompting, her mind conjured an image of the squirrel from earlier, its nest beneath her assaulted by a distracted huntress, and the insulted screams it would level her way. Pull yourself together, heathen! It demanded.
It was an absurd image, and the adrenaline leaving her made her feel slightly giddy. She giggled, and the action left her feeling lighter, even as she despaired of the mess she was making of herself.
'What have I to fear?' she thought. 'Only the undoing of the most precious bond I ever shall have. I know her well, but I may not know all of her, as she knows not all of me.'
Thalia's face swam in her mind's eye, at once solid and penetrating.
'You don't believe that,' her voice informed her.
Zoë's frowned, eyes shut tight against the world.
'You know her. All of her. She will not judge you if you come in good faith. You know it. What you fear is different.'
"I do not understand," she insisted.
'No, that's not true. You know, and that's the crux. You fear that in knowing, she'll change. That what you have will change. You fear what everyone fears when they fall in love with a friend: that the moment you unseal your lips, she will look at you differently and see a stranger. You fear you're being led astray by longing; that you'll become a new Pandora, alone to blame for the ruin you sowed in the fields of your happiness.'
Zoë shivered, though the evening air was pleasant.
'What mistake did Kallisto make, Zoë? She was silent, until it was too late. You'd trust her with everything, don't be forsworn now.'
"I am afraid," Zoë whispered.
'We won't abandon you.'
It was like a punch to the gut. Zoë felt tears seeping out of the edges of her eyes.
Was this the only way she could confront herself? Through the faces and voices of others? "I don't know that. You are not Thalia."
'Does that matter? You don't question yourself when you line up a shot, Zoë. You just know. Why is this different?'
"This is not an archery range. This is a fool's target."
'The mother of all trickshots. Think of how you'll feel if you pull it off.'
"I am too busy thinking of how I'll feel if I fail."
'Nobody will hold a grudge against you for trying.'
The voice fell quiet after that. Or perhaps Zoë simply allowed her thoughts to still. Her hands still bled and her fingers were beginning to tremble again, but she clung there, separated from injury on the rocks below by instinct and emotion.
What would Artemis say, if Zoë told her? No – rather, what could she say? If the goddess did not reciprocate her feelings, they would remain friends, and nothing more would come of it.
She had spoken of love with Thalia not long before, after all. It was no sin to feel, to reflect on loves lost or potential, only to act. Zoë had contravened no part of her pledge, there was no crime to condemn.
If Artemis turned her down, they would remain friends, as so many had, and so many would, and Zoe would tame her feelings. The romance genre (an admittedly neglected part of her literary repertoire) always seemed to present living with an unrequited love as an unendurable affliction; experience watching those around her had taught her otherwise.
And maybe Artemis would look at her differently. Maybe she might distance herself, hoping Zoë's feelings would subside. She quailed internally at the thought, but then, if it came to that, eventually she would prove herself anew and their bond would resume its previous intimacy.
They had nothing but time now. With her heritage reclaimed, she would not pass the gates of Hades to dwell among the numberless dead. No matter how long it took, she would reclaim whatever she lost.
Would that be so bad?
Her brush with death had stripped a veil from her eyes that had endured near as long as her sundered existence. Made whole, she could not run, nor did she wish to.
The truth might hurt, but it would cut clean.
'Take the shot, Zoë.'
Several long seconds passed.
Then she exhaled slowly. "Okay," she said, her voice loud in her ears. "I will. I will. Fates, be kind to me, I'll tell her I love her."
She would be honest, and if that proved ruinous… she would find a way to make it right again. This was worth fighting for.
With resolution came clarity. As she would when on a hunt, she allowed herself to fade into a familiar mindset: stop, assess, act.
Clinically, she took stock of her situation and, seeing the foremost issue at hand, decided she had lingered far too long in one place. She breathed in, then out, then stretched a leg out to a lower hold and began as swift and careful a descent on aching limbs as she could manage.
She needed to speak with Artemis. Immediately.
'It is done. Iacta alea est.'
'You know he quoted the playwright, Clotho. Will you too play into the mortal's habit of heedless mistranslation?'
'Is it not the fate of all that is of Hellas to be thus mangled? I feel it mote. Only look to Herakles; conquered, settled, and domesticated by Rome. Now few remember his true name and he languishes ever closer to obscurity. Dubious though her gift for languages may be, I think the girl would appreciate the irony that she has gone forward where he has stagnated, untranscendant and unfulfilled.'
'Or perhaps she is merely glad she needn't hear the name of her bane bandied about unceasing.'
'You two cluck like hens at gossip.'
'And you are humorless, sister. Go back to your shears.'
Her hike had taken her further than she'd reckoned. Night fell by the time she regained the security of two feet on terra firma and retraced her steps to the camp, and the full moon was visible high in the light-speckled black above by the time she saw the flickering light of the dying campfire against the trees again.
It was just long enough for nerves to set in.
Zoë waved to the sister on first watch of the night, stolidly ignoring the slight shake in her hands. "Chaire, Barbaros."
The sister – Alisaie – eyed her lazily, playful insolence in her lax posture as she greeted her lieutenant from a protruding oak branch high above. "Diex beneï toi, Prolixe. What has kept you so long?"
Zoë snorted, craning her neck to face her properly, speaking softly to avoid disturbing the others. "You don't believe in God."
"A fact that no doubt spins Maman in her lonely grave," Alisaie responded blithely, similarly hushed. "Nonetheless…?"
"I would speak to Artemis. Is she about?"
Alisaie shook her head. "I should have guessed. No, she went on a stroll herself. To the reservoir. Is it anything I should beware of come morning?"
"No, it is a personal matter."
"Good," her sister sighed. "My feet ache more than enough already without another expedition. We are due for a respite."
Zoë quirked a brow in concern. "Ella is taking over your watch soon, is she not?"
"I thought to let her rest. She's earned it these last few weeks, working as hard as she has."
Zoë's concern morphed into disapproval. "Do not. I am glad to see you looking out for her, but we assign shifts for a reason. Rest is too valuable to squander lightly."
"I am aware," Alisaie rolled her eyes.
"She doesn't need the coddling, either."
"You nag like my mother."
"Your mother tried to have me exorcised."
Alisaie smiled nostalgically. "Just a sign she cared for even the most obstinate of pagans."
Zoë levelled a glare. "Just do it, sœur."
"Dieu, your accent is still terrible," Alisaie groused. "Alright, Medre. I'll wake the girl and see myself to my bedrest. Will you be by later to tuck me in and quench the candlelight?"
"No, I will be in my bunk. Resting."
"Yes. Old women like you do need your rest."
Zoë threw her hands up and turned away, leaving the smug girl to her watch.
'Old woman,' she thought, shaking her head when she was out of sight. Alisaie hadn't been young since Charlemagne was freshly moldering in his grave, and with a mouth like hers, she would have probably lived to be a wrinkled, grey-haired spinster herself, had the Hunt not plucked her from her backwater village in rural Francia.
Her sister seemed determined to never let them forget it, even after all these years.
Despite herself, Zoë couldn't help but feel amused.
It was her right, in a way. She had miraculously weathered the years with most of her humor intact, which was never a surety for their lifestyle. Living so long afflicted her – afflicted them all, eventually – with the same problems that Zoë faced daily… that every mortal made immortal faced.
The world they knew was quick to leave them behind.
After all, Zoë spoke French about as well as she did English… which was to say that she was fluent in many dialects that had long since faded into antiquity. Alisaie grew up speaking what modern mortals now called Old French – what Zoë knew as Frankish – and over the years it, as the modern version deviated ever further from its roots, it had become their personal parlance of choice when they were alone together.
Unlike Zoë, she didn't have a lexicon of over a dozen other languages cluttering her brain, and thus spoke perfectly fluent English when she liked. Still, she took pains to retain her mother tongue in its original form, eschewing the modern, and in Zoë found comfort in having someone else to speak with.
It fit a pattern among Artemis's handmaidens, each hailing from their own personal, far-flung corner of the world.
Esta, the second oldest after Zoë, had fewer qualms than Alisaie and had – over Zoë fervent protestations – long since replaced her Avestan mother-tongue with its various descendants as they evolved over the centuries.
Nicola, plucked from Hispania, still wrote her poetry and after-action reports in Latin and Castilian, but chose to adopt Greek for speaking after her second centennial year as a huntress.
Phoebe's Macedonian Attic clashed with Artemis and Zoë's positively archaic bastardization of Arkadian and Doric, but they'd long since learned to make it work.
The list went on – a trail of tangled tongues leading up through the ages.
Bowing to pragmatism, most conversation in the hunt was conducted in a mixture of various Ancient Greek dialects or whatever the modern parlance happened to be, which for the last few centuries meant modern English. It was, in all honesty, probably the best system they could hope for in so diverse a group, but as they ranged further and further, Zoë always seemed to find herself outpaced. She just didn't have it in her to update at this point.
She had lived too long and learned too many tongues. She was fluent in nearly fifteen, not including the Mykenaean she had as a child at the knee of Atlas, and scores more dialects of dubious practical worth. Many of those tongues had since died or evolved so thoroughly that her skill was rendered worthless.
It was too much of a headache to keep up.
No, Zoë understood the fine skill of making herself understood – no more – and that was enough for outsiders or recruits. For Alisaie and the other sisters who shared her plight, the bond retained through tongues condemned to antiquity was a pleasure she could find in no other place on the planet. Anyone else could deal with it.
Thalia would learn in her own time as well, once her precious slang made its way out of the zeitgeist. And if she didn't, Zoë would teach her. She had more than enough 70s slang squirreled away in her brain from Apollo's disco phase to scandalize her sister with once the time came to—
Her train of thought – a distraction from her shaking hands and the adrenaline pumping through her veins – came to an abrupt halt as she came to the reservoir and caught sight of her mistress. The goddess stood by the shoreline, illuminated by her moonlight, which set her auburn her agleam with silver and gold.
Would that she could make this easier; Zoë felt her pulse spike.
'I can do this,' she reminded herself when her legs refused to obey her, leaving her frozen on the edge of the tree line. 'I will do this.'
She stepped forward.
Artemis twitched, hunter's instincts alerting her of a new presence.
She relaxed a moment later, a smile ghosting over the edges of her lips as she gestured for Zoë to come stand by her. "Zoë. I missed you earlier amidst all the excitement."
Zoë felt a rush of affection bloom as Artemis spoke in their private dialect. "Kyria," she said, the honorific comfortable on her tongue. "I took a walk. I apologize."
"No need." The goddess returned her gaze to the lake, and the dam that was its genesis. The waters were calm and dark that night, only disturbed by the occasional gust spent from the mountainous crags above. Lit by the stars overhead, the little wavelets made canvass for thousands of merrily dancing lights.
The tapestry was interrupted only by the artificial glow of the lights off the dam, which hunkered like a troll over a bridge at the canyon's mouth; blocky, grey, and out of place.
Artemis was silent – thinking what, Zoë knew not – so she was the one to break the silence. "It is a beautiful night," she said.
'As are you,' she longed to add, but even in the safety of her mind it rang crude and obvious.
"It is," the goddess murmured. "Though Aries is brighter tonight than it ought be. To mock our fortunes, no doubt."
The comment struck Zoë as odd, as did the bleak expression hidden in Artemis' eyes.
Artemis seemed to startle out of a thought, for she shot a sidelong glance Zoë's way.
"I forgot, you would not have known yet," she muttered, surprised and annoyed at herself for it. "We learned of it not a month past. Krios has sprung his bonds."
Zoë's felt the blood drain from her lips where they pressed tightly together. The Lord of the South, though among the weakest of his siblings, had been, to her knowledge, considered neutralized by Olympus.
Artemis' comment made sense, then; though his domain encompassed the entire starry vault, the dour Titan's personal sigil remained the ram.
"Who broke his shackles?" she demanded. "A demigod?" Surely Kronos had not the strength to harrow the black pit for allies… not yet, at least. It was too soon for his power to have waxed so rapidly.
Artemis shook her head. "We do not know. I aided my siblings in their assessment of our prisons while you ventured north and found his cage empty. His was southwest of here, near the summit of Bald Mountain. Though Father cast all of Grandfather's siblings into the black pit with him, a few were granted the mercy of a window, that they might grow circumspect with time. His has always looked out where the skies are clearest."
She paused, then exhaled slowly, her powerful fingers flexing hard in her palms.
"His cell was empty, the walls left intact scrawled with calculations. Athena believed he was predicting the shape of the heavens of ages to come." Artemis shivered, memory black on her face. "They looked to me like the convolutions of a madman. Tartarus' echo was heavy in that cell, and the skies through the window-slit did not feel… right."
"As I said, that was a month past. I followed the trail, but lost it further west where it vanished into the mortal cities. I can confirm nothing," she said, looking at Zoë apologetically. "But it does seem likely he was accompanied by at least one demigod. Perhaps even Hermes' traitorous son, if he is not still recovering from his fall. Few monsters would have the wit to use the noise of mortals to mask their movement, or the skill to do it properly."
Indeed, she thought. The Manticore could have done so, and a few others Zoë could name, but most of that number were accounted for, or too recently returned to Tartarus. The most the majority of monsters understood of the Mist was how to devise their own crude disguises among mortals. To hide a Titan even from abilities of the goddess of the Hunt was another endeavor entirely.
It was a sobering confession on Artemis' part, and given her mood, certainly cost her something to speak of it.
Yet another sign of their quickly unravelling world.
Though Zoë gave the goddess a moment to recollect herself anew, her fingers itched to reach over and take the woman's hand and give it a comforting squeeze.
She stopped herself painfully when her wrist twitched to do just that.
Artemis sighed, ignorant to the conflict brewing in her lieutenant. "I was a fool to pursue him alone in the first place. Especially so soon after the last time."
Zoë prickled. "You would not fall for the same ambush twice. And if they were foolish enough to try, they would find a predator, not prey."
"No, Zoë." Artemis' voice was flat. "My great-uncle is free and has probably already declared for Othrys. His strength is fresh, whereas mine only now begins to return. In Kronos, he will find allies beyond even my capability to meet in battle. Not now. I know this. I know this!" Her voice suddenly rose, fury flashing like lightning in the dark. "You nearly paid the price of my failure to know it before, and yet still I cannot seem to tame my damned hubris!"
Zoë was rendered speechless for a long moment… long enough for the flash of temper – rare, for her mistress – to subside, as quick in departure as it was in arrival.
Seeming to sink back into herself, Artemis shook her head, frustrated and bitter. Her face changed, suddenly shadowed with lines, her auburn hair streaked grey. An old face. A midwife's face. Shadowed, waxen, waning. Usher to birth and death alike. "The Moirai mock me."
Her heart aching in its too-tight mortal shell, and a little bit frightened of her mistress in that moment – of what, she knew not – her resistance gave way. Zoë reached out and took one of Artemis' hands in her own, acutely aware of suddenly-brittle bones and frail skin. She squeezed it tightly as she dared, and hoped it would be enough.
Holding the immortal's aged hand with her own was like holding a bird. Fragility and vitality were locked in one, breathing coil, inseparable, a pulse fluttering against her palm.
The forest breathed. The wind raised tiny, ruffled waves on the lake. An owl hooted nearby.
Artemis' eyes closed and she sighed, squeezing Zoë's hand back.
"I am afraid, Zoë," Artemis whispered. "It seems no matter where I turn, I see myself diminished and unfit. My father's father rises to avenge himself on us, bringing with him the wrath of all those my family have foolishly spurned. Our influence on the world wanes as we fade ever further from the memory of the mortals."
"The war will be hard, my lady, but we will endure it as we have all those before," Zoë interjected, making her voice resolute. "We have had lean times. Sword years. You have seen us through them all."
"And the mortals?" Artemis smiled bleakly. "Even if we duck oblivion by my grandfather's hand, my spheres erode by the year. What girl but looks on her maidenhood as aught be a state to be amended, rather than retained? How many think the world cares for who they are – what choices they've made – when every image plastered on every building and screen tells them otherwise?"
Artemis' voice rose with passion.
"What hospital employs any but a handful of midwives? And who even thinks to ask for them? My forests are cut down for land and timber. My animals are culled. My mountains are mined for coal. My rivers are blocked by these accursed dams!"
She shot a look of pure thunder at the incriminating concrete monolith, scant miles away from them, as if by will alone she could shatter stone and send an unstoppable deluge cascading downstream.
"My wilderness is suffocating, Zoë." Artemis' voice cracked under the force of her misery and impotent rage. "You've seen it as well as I. You remember what this world used to be. Only pockets remain, each waiting to be trampled by the industrial machine. The mortals will exploit it until there is nothing left. All of it. Even now, their eyes turn skywards, planting their flags on my moon for their petty political victories and searching for 'helium-3' and 'rare earth minerals' to exploit because there's never enough."
The goddess deflated. "And I am powerless to stop them."
She had regressed closer to her usual age – no longer a woman clinging to the threadbare edges of middle age, but rather an exhausted young adult, fresh out of adolescence, way in over their head.
Words rose in Zoë's throat, but she held them in check. She hadn't seen this side of Artemis before, this rawness, this doubt, not in all their years together. But the part of her that filled the role of missing maternal link in so many lives told her to wait, and listen.
Even though it pained her to see her goddess brought so low.
A gentle breeze swept by them, pulling a few flyaway strands of hair from behind her ear.
"I fear," Artemis said, very softly. "That I will go the way of Pan, and fade away quietly into the night, my moon a grey face in the light-polluted void. Is that the fate the Moirai have wrought for me? I will fail all of you, who have been faithful these long years."
Zoë felt a sliver of grief for the faded Wild God, who she knew had been a mentor to Artemis in her youth. Twice in recent months had she been reminded of his loss more keenly than she'd felt in centuries, first during the quest, and now…
No. She caught herself. Now was not for her.
"My lady… Kyria Artemis," Zoë spoke into the silence, turning capture Artemis' gaze and tugging her hand so she wouldn't pull away. Faced with each other, the surrounding wilderness seemed to fade and the night air became confined to only the space between them.
"You do not see," she said with unwonted compassion. "So I will remember for you what all you have wrought on this earth."
"No," she said firmly. "You will listen."
A moment, then the goddess acceded.
"When you found me, I was alone, and though you took me in without hesitation, it was alone that I remained for many years. Do you know when that changed?"
"I could guess."
"We were hunting – I remember the quarry, even." A faded image of a stub-tail and silver-dark fur rose in her mind. "One of your hinds, that we would learn to be fleet of foot even as we honed our eyes and hands on bowstring and target. I was fast even then – faster even than I am now, I think – and got ahead of the others, and was set upon by a boar."
Artemis stared past her, eyes distant. "I remember. It was old, and grey, and lame… missing a tusk and patches of fur where a mortal hunter scarred it before."
Zoë smiled. "Yes. I nearly died in the first seconds. My leg was cut, and I fell." She remembered the split instance of ravaging fear – would she never see her sisters again? Her father? Would she never reclaim her mother's precious gift? "Had aid not been so swift at my side…"
She remembered the silver arrows sprouting from the boar's flank like daffodils in spring, planting their death in the beast before it could bring about her own, and the beast's heavy weight dropping on her like bricks of lead, pinning her to the ungentle earth.
"I could not understand it!" she said. "I thought I had learned what family meant when my father and sisters disowned me, or when my mother ignored my pleas at the seaside to restore what I had lost. Had it been them, I would have been left to my fate – a hasty daughter is her own doom. But I was wrong."
The story of her life had begun in that moment – all before a hollow prelude. As the river runs ahead of the spring, who she would become in the centuries to follow had its genesis in the moment she accepted and found acceptance with her new family.
"You, and them." Zoë squeezed Artemis' fingers. "You taught me what family is. You taught me to live again. To love. What it means to have faith, and how to place my trust in others unreserved."
"You are not as you once were, Artemis, for none of us are," Zoë let go her hand and reached up to touch Artemis' cheek, feeling the skin cool and familiar. "We have weathered war and famine and mortal overreaching before, and we shall again until the day the scales right and the lean times pass."
"Life is not always so fair," Artemis murmured, ache in her voice. "Not all are given time to see their fortunes reverse."
"We have all the time in the world, if only we endure," Zoë countered firmly. "In you, Artemis, we find refuge. Many mothers still pray that you will be their midwife. Women and girls will fight for their empowerment and continue to choose their own paths. And more mortals by the year learn the value of the wild places they have exploited. And move to halt the advancing ruin. They all – we all – still need our patron, for we know you will fight for us where others turn away."
Zoë thought she could see moisture welling up in Artemis' eyes, and felt the message delivered, but for one last thing.
"We live in uncertain times, my lady. In many ways, we always have. But this too shall pass. If your spheres have come to this, then we will adapt with you." Zoë felt heat rise in her; something born of fire, something fierce. "You will never be alone if I have anything to say about it."
"Is that an oath?" Artemis asked distantly.
The goddess and she were but a breath's-pace away, Artemis' silvery eyes blazing with desperate doubt as it warred with hope, with need. She needed to hear it, Zoë realized. Something had changed irrevocably without her notice and it had wounded her goddess to the core.
Knowing it was to know failure, and to know purpose.
With a leap, she could heal the wound.
"It is. It is, Kyria, I swear it."
She felt Artemis' pulse quicken in her hands through the bones of her wrist, the channeled power of a thousand suns churning through a shell not designed for it.
Artemis looked away suddenly. "Why? Why me? I don't deserve you! All I gave you, you have repayed! Innumerable times over! Why…?" Her voice broke. "I… I don't…"
Zoë leapt. "Because I love you."
The world held its breath.
She did so as well without choice, all motion seeming to cease with her uttered confession, until the stagnant air in her lungs threatened to burst screaming from her lips and draw her back into the mortal coil by force.
But for a moment, they were two, and between only them there was silence and rumination.
Artemis hadn't flinched when she spoke, but something in her eyes had closed off, leaving Zoë in the dark as to what direction her goddess' thoughts ran.
It sent a thrill of fear through her – that she had seen Artemis at her most vulnerable, laid bare for the merest minutes, and had now banished herself from that confidence forever.
She tamed the fear, pulling it back on its leash until it heeled, and waited.
Immortals didn't change.
At heart, Artemis had known – almost from the day of her birth – that she would not follow the path laid down for so many women in similar condition.
She would not marry, she would not birth. She would take no lover, not one with ichor in their veins she would never escape, nor one with earthy mortal blood who would fade and forget. She would not settle.
She chose, so early that she had been loudly and quietly convinced that it would be so until the world broke and took her with it into the maw of oblivion.
She should have learned by now that even immortals were subject to the whims of Fate.
'Because I love you.'
Those words sundered her existence. They rattled in her skull like a seer's dice, turning new futures with each throw. They sank like stones into a pond, leaving the rest of her rippling, unsteady, unsettled.
'But why would you love me?' she thought, her father's thunder shaking her from within, though her lips refused to form her furious, incredulous demand.
She was Artemis; the huntress who could neither track nor take her quarry; the voice of protest consumed by hubris; the patron who could not protect her charges. What of her was there to love?
Her huntress held her through her stillness and distraction,
Artemis could read her – she would know Zoë's mind even if they stood together at the end of time and all other knowledge had faded from her thoughts like parchment left to the sun.
She read her then – hungry, desperate for an answer, but…
What she saw, what answer she found in those liquid-dark eyes…
She could not—
'She loves me. She has faith in me. She…'
Immortals didn't change – they couldn't. They would be obliterated if they allowed themselves the luxury of transience. She had seen it herself; watching with horror as her mentor condemned himself to the slow death of self-awareness. He had seen the writing on the wall and gave his spheres into her hands to keep until a time even he could not foresee. Selene, similarly, passed to Artemis her burden when at last time and mortal indifference called their toll, and she faded into the night like the stars at morn.
And they had not been the last.
Her family didn't change. They couldn't. They had seen what happened to those who partook of it – had been witness to the fading of a dozen neighboring pantheons less luckily afforded the luxury of diligent rhapsodes. They had learned that to persist meant holding to who they had always been, even when it threatened their own annihilation by more conventional means.
Artemis felt her hands shake, her power churning within her, screaming for release.
Change was death for gods. Perhaps it was different for mortals, but for those with heady ichor in their veins the Fates had already illuminated the final destination of those who wandered too far down that lonely road.
'Because I love you.'
She was stilled at a crossroads.
She remembered holding her huntress in her arms, different from the countless other times she had done so, for those times it was not Zoë. Not her bravest, closest companion.
She felt the pluck of her own life-string that day – not a threat, but eternity's promise for the stagnant. You will lose this too, one day. They who do not walk will be left behind.
Defiance! She had raged against the cage woven for her – for them. Not this one! Not her!
And she won.
'And changed,' she realized faintly.
Who else would she have given of herself so fully for? None. It had taken Zoë's brush with death, but she had found an abyss on the road laid for the immortal she could not pass, would not bridge. She had chosen, and in choosing left for herself only one direction to go… back to the crossroads.
'Because I love you.'
To change or no.
Artemis' heart thrummed, yet her churning blood quieted; unstoppable motion transfigured into sudden stillness.
'I must choose,' she thought.
She blinked away the haze that clouded her eyes and looked at her huntress, at Zoë, and asked if she could love her, the question a prayer from herself to herself, begging a secret of the soul only answerable by divinity.
'I already do.'
Zoë knew it would take Artemis time to successfully wrestle her thoughts, but she was surprised when it only took a minute for her goddess' eyes to clear and peer back into her with a clarity so sharp that she wondered if it would cut her.
"Zoë," Artemis said, her voice startling after the long silence. She seemed to taste her name on her lips. "Zoë."
Artemis mouthed something nameless. Her throat flexed. Confusion rose in her silver irises – that she, an Olympian, could be so stymmied by mere words!
Zoë wanted to respond – to ask – but fear stilled her. Consequence loomed taller and darker than any Titan, than even her father and his incalculable burden.
Artemis suddenly smiled, amused and rich in irony as they enacted a perfect mimicry of each other in bewilderment, better matched than they were at chase.
Zoë felt a foreign, heavy object in her chest thud.
The goddess reached up and pulled Zoë down to meet her lips.
It was beautiful, her first kiss.
Never thinking there would come a time that she would be party to such a thing, Artemis marveled that she had gone so many centuries without the experience.
…No, that wasn't quite it.
It was kissing Zoë that made it beautiful, made it right.
Her huntress' hands found themselves at Artemis' waist, still respectful even as her eyes fluttered shut and they lost themselves in each other. Wanting touch – to be close to – to this perfect other.
Obeying the sudden flutter of giddy joy and oneness within her, Artemis pulled away and grinned brilliantly up at Zoë – at some point she had found herself again; the mortal shell which best reflected her, though it left her a few inches shorter than her huntress.
Zoë smiled back, profound relief radiant in her eyes even as it competed with the happiness suffusing her.
She looked alive.
She was alive!
"I love you," Artemis whispered, the words sacred on her tongue. "I love you. I will love you forever."
Zoë leaned in again and their faces touched at the hairline, hands clasping together beside them. "For eternity, my lady."