A twig snapped beneath my foot. Swearing, I slapped at a mosquito. I didn’t care for forests, but this was where Artemis spent most of her time during hunting season. Apollo said she had a cabin out here . . . somewhere. I just needed to find it.
Another twig snapped. I frowned at my feet, but didn’t see any broken branches.
Something cold touched the base of my neck.
“Don’t move,” a gruff voice instructed.
I turned with a sigh, grabbing the gun out of the hunter’s hand before he could fire off a shot. Not that it would have hurt me more than that mosquito bite, but it could be damned uncomfortable, which made it at least as annoying.
The gun crumbled to dust in my hand, and I gave the stranger my least friendly smile. The blood drained from his face. Before I could comment on his predicament, a cry rang through the clearing.
“Diana!” The hunter spun on his heel and tore through the forest.
Diana? When Artemis’ pseudonym clicked, I swore and followed him, casting a shield as far ahead of us as I could see so our progress through the forest couldn’t be seen or heard. Before we reached a small clearing with a cabin, I threw a second shield at the hunter, freezing him in place.
I walked to the edge of the clearing. Beyond the shield, Zeus held a struggling woman just above his head by the throat. She pried at his fingers with both hands, legs kicking uselessly at the ground but finding no purchase.
“I can make this easy for you, or I can make it fun for me.” A grin spread across Zeus’ face. “Swear fealty now, and your death will be less interesting, but infinitely less painful.”
“No,” she gasped. Her body stiffened, muscles going rigid, and the smell of burnt flesh and ozone wafted through the clearing. Behind me, the hunter yelled, straining against the shield. Maybe I could sneak up behind Zeus and . . . no, shit, if he teleported with her, all bets were off. I closed my eyes, concentrating, and crafted a shield just above his head that took in the whole clearing, then dropped the shield between Zeus and myself out of necessity, but kept the one around the hunter. The last thing I needed to do was give Zeus more leverage.
Zeus started. “Hades. What a nice surprise.”
He lowered Artemis to the ground, spinning her to face me, looping his left arm around her neck, and gripping his right bicep. His right hand shoved her head forward. Grinning, he brought his elbows together in a tight chokehold. Sweat glistened against her caramel skin, plastering the dark wisps of hair that had escaped her ponytail to her face. Get me out of this, her eyes seemed to beg. I’ll owe you.
“You’ve got ten seconds.” Zeus gave me an expectant look. “When she drops, I’m gone.”
I inclined my head to the shield around him. “Unlikely.”
Zeus’ face twisted in a scowl. “We’ll see. Are you here to surrender your realm?”
“No.” My mind raced to find a way to trap him without Artemis getting caught in the crossfire. I could create an entrance to the Underworld and pull enough of my realm through to trap him in the same type of prison that held the Titans, but she’d be stuck with him.
It might be worth it.
“Then we have nothing to discuss.” Zeus tightened his grip around Artemis’ throat, and she slumped in his arms. “Except, I’ve been meaning to get this to you.” He took advantage of Artemis’ lapse in consciousness long enough to reach in his pocket and toss something to me across the clearing in a blur of pink. Artemis regained consciousness, sputtering for breath. She lurched forward, but he had her back in the chokehold in seconds.
I caught Persephone’s phone out of reflex. It took me a second to place the picture of the mangled mass of flesh on the screen as something humanoid, much less recognize it as my wife. My stomach lurched.
“There’s some great videos on there too,” Zeus informed me. “In case you need some incentive to change your mind.” As if on cue, Persephone’s screams burst from the phone’s tiny speakers.
I yanked on the power of the Underworld, ripping it through the earth in my rage. Artemis’ eyes widened as she realized what I was doing. “I swear fealty!” she cried as the ground split beneath her. Her dark eyes met mine, and before I could say anything to stop her she added, “To Hades.”
Her power flashed through me, knocking me off balance just long enough for the shield above Zeus to flicker. He growled and threw her to the ground.
“No!” I shouted as Zeus leapt into the air and vanished.
Artemis stood and faced me, movements slow and deliberate. “You were going to trap me with him?”
I pocketed Persephone’s phone and dropped the shield around Artemis’ boyfriend.
Artemis’ gaze didn’t even flicker in his direction. “Answer me!”
“You wouldn’t like what I have to say.”
“Diana!” The hunter ran to her, but she held out a hand, keeping him at arm’s length.
“I wouldn’t like what you have to say? You were going to trap me in Tartarus with that sadistic son of a bitch, and all you can say for yourself is that I wouldn’t like what you have to say!” Her dark eyes blazed with fury. “What the hell is wrong with you, Hades? We go back, way back. I thought we were friends, but you were willing to abandon me, for what, some slip of a girl you just met?” She held her chin up, using every inch of her five feet to try to make me feel small, but I wasn’t having it.
“You could have teleported!” I threw my hands in the air. “You could have escaped before he so much as touched you. What the hell were you still doing here?” Her gaze flickered to the hunter then back to me, the movement almost imperceptible and probably unintentional. I let out a dark laugh. “Protecting your latest human pet? I kept him out of the line of fire for you, but since you were so determined to swear away your sanity, I sure as hell wasn’t going to put my wife on the line to stop you. Here—” I stepped forward, grabbing her shoulder and shoving her powers back into her before breaking the bond of fealty with a snap.
She stumbled and suddenly a hand yanked on my shoulder. “Don’t touch her!” The hunter shouted, fist flying toward my face.
I caught it in a bone-crunching grip.
“Stop!” Artemis darted between us. “Oh, Ryan—” She took his hand, and I felt a pinprick of power flow between them as she healed him. He stared at her, wide-eyed.
“What the hell is going on?”
“It’s a long story.” Her shoulders slumped, and she returned her attention to me.
“He comes with us.”
“I’m not stupid, Hades. Zeus has your wife, and you want him dead. I’m one of the few people who can make that happen.” She tilted her chin up, eyes glittering with defiance. “If you want my help. He comes too.”
On Sunday, author Susan Sipal went into great detail on Artemis’ evolution through mythology so I’ll let that stand as the Mythology Monday for today. Hope you enjoyed the snippet from Iron Queen.