The story begins here!
Chapter 6 Continued
Ada stopped at the base of a mountain trail after walking into the evening. Few people traveled from Nysa, other than the handful of merchants that represented the town. She found herself climbing the winding path alone more often than she liked. Today was no exception. Her fingers ran across the bark of an old oak tree that marked a game trail, leading to a hidden pond. She looked behind her, making sure she was alone.
The trail stopped at the edge of the deep blue water. It was so quiet, hidden among the fir trees. She threw her bag down by the remains of a campfire, unfastened her broaches, and undressed in the failing light.
She stood there, for a long time, staring into the waters.
Ada was alone, and that used to be fine, but not today. It would have been nice if someone was up here. Anyone really. Just someone to talk to.
The touch of Chloe’s fingers still lingered on her shoulder. Ada reached across, placed her hand there, took a deep, frustrated breath. Why did she have to like her so much? Why did Chloe have to be so nice? It would be a month until their next lesson. Thinking of being away from her for that long squeezed her heart.
Would she really end up having dinner with Heron? Her parents would like that. What a depressing thought.
She raised her hands to the sky.
“Artemis! You have protected me and guided me my whole life. You’re the only hope I have. The source of my freedom and my fortune. I vow not to ever be with a man, and when I die—I’ll serve you. In return, help me be free while I live.”
Help me not be so alone.
Her arms fell to her sides as she stepped into the pond. A quiver ran up her legs. After walking all day in the sun, the cold water was a shock. Ada rested back and closed her eyes, floating. Her vow would make her father sad. At least Sinis would have a child someday. That would have to be enough for him.
Even in the moonless night, Ada knew the road home well. Cool air chilled her damp hair. It was a welcome feeling after a day in the sun. Ada was starting to wonder if she would find her brother or if he already went home. She hiked to the next turn and found him sitting on a fallen tree, eating a piece of dried meat. He whistled to her.
She waved and jogged to him. “Hail! Sorry I’m so late. I had to stop and clear my head.”
“Gods, I was worried about you. I heard the Oracle sent you to see the demon.” Sinis wore an undyed chiton and cloak. His light brown hair was tied in knot on the crown of his head. He uncrossed his legs, stood, and gave her a hug, burying her face in his broad chest. “Where did you get all this new stuff? Did you find the Swordbreaker?”
“Yes, I met him.” She looked at the ground with somber eyes. “He wasn’t what he was supposed to be. Princess Chloe gave me the clothing… and the bow.” She pulled the sacred bow from its case and handed it to her brother.
“You aren’t hurt?”
“No,” said Ada. “Just tired.” Too tired to ask Sinis how he heard about the demon, but if it had hurt anyone back home, he’d have told her.
The bow looked like a child’s toy in his giant hands. He turned it over and eyed it, skeptically. “May I?” He took an arrow from the quiver by his feet.
Sinis faced a tree, not far down the road. He nocked the arrow, raised the bow, but stopped without drawing back. He shot her a curious look and tried to draw it a second time. His arms strained, but the bow didn’t bend. He laughed and handed it back to her. “It’s cute, but not very practical.”
“Are you joking?” Ada rubbed her thumb on the bow. It really wasn’t very thick. She hadn’t had a difficult time stringing it.
He smiled, sheepishly. Who knew what that meant.
She felt an impulse to try the bow herself. Either way, it was hers. Hopefully it wasn’t just decoration.
Ada grabbed an arrow and looked at the tree. She took a breath and let all her thoughts fall away—the tension in her mind and body, her fear of the creature, and her love for Chloe. The feelings vanished into darkness; only the target remained. With one smooth motion, she drew back and shot. The arrow seemed to vanish with speed.
Leaves shook loose from the tree as if it were caught in a storm. Birds fled into the sky. Ada stared in wonder. Her voice was a whisper. “What the…?”
She turned to Sinis. He scooted away on his ass, eyes wide with fear. At least she wasn’t the only one who thought it was strange. Ada walked to the tree, stroking the sacred bow with her thumb. The arrow penetrated to the fletching. She placed her palm against the tree and bowed her head regretfully.
“I saw her,” said Sinis.
Ada was herself again. A shiver ran through her. “Saw who?”
“Her.” He stood, walked over to the tree, and touched the arrow. “A woman appeared around you like an aura, made of light. I think it was Artemis. She helped you draw the bow.”
Ada held the bow reverently. “Chloe said it would help us deal with the creature. I knew the bow was special, but I didn’t know how.”
“Is it special, or are you?” He put his arm around her shoulder and forced her to walk beside him. “I know where the creature went. Let’s get it over with.”
She followed her brother’s gaze into the distant mountains. If Sinis had seen the demon, he wouldn’t be so anxious to confront it. But Chloe and Sinis had faith that with the sacred bow and Artemis’ protection, Ada could handle it—and that had to be enough. The Oracle didn’t see everything, and Pallas the Swordbreaker had turned her away.
Who else was left to save them?
Ada sat down with her back against an olive tree under a cloudy sky. The bare rocks provided little cover from the town below, but the night hid them. Sinis stood beside her, looking down the cliff. It seemed unlikely the demon had come from here. The town was so ordinary, and so far from either Helena’s town or the river valley where it had been born. Simple houses of unworked stone and thatch sat between rows of olive and fig trees—looked a lot like home. A patchwork of gardens hugged the surrounding hills where the rocks gave way to soft earth.
“Do you know how many of the cultists live here?” Ada stretched her aching toes and yawned.
Sinis shrugged. He kept his voice instructively quiet. “No idea. They may not be cultists at all, but I heard that the demon often appears here.”
“So, what’s the plan?” He always had a plan.
“Watch and wait,” he said. “If the people from this village really do have something to do with the demon, it will show up.”
Ada straightened her back but tried to relax. Hunting required patience, no matter the quarry. She’d wait as long as needed.
He knelt beside her and dropped his pack, unfastened the buckle, and pulled out a wineskin and a hunk of bread. “We should toast the Earth gods before anything happens.”
Ada shook her head. He was always so formal. “The only thing that matters is that I hit my shot, so I’m going to pass. I trust Artemis for that.”
“I know you love Artemis, but the moon isn’t out. I think it’s a bad sign. Besides, you should worry more about your soul than your shot,” said Sinis.
Ada came up on her knees. “I trust Artemis with my soul. For you though, I’ll break bread with the Earth Gods.”
Sinis smiled at her. “Thank you.” He sat on his knees and faced her, holding the bread in both hands. He pulled a piece off and set it to his right. “To you Dionysus.” He pulled another hunk and set it to his left. “Thank you, Demeter.” Sinis picked up the wineskin, opened the top, and poured some out on either side. “Thank you for keeping us.”
Ada picked up the loaf and tore two more pieces. She put one in her mouth, then one in her brother’s. They passed the wine back and forth twice, taking small sips.
Silently, Sinis turned and watched the town. He hugged a knee to his chest and seemed to relax. Ritual never did much for her. The only time she felt close to the gods was when she was hunting. Sitting here, waiting to shoot a demon with a sacred bow, let her feel one with the goddess even without the light of the moon. And if Artemis was helping her draw the bow, she knew she couldn’t lose.
“Look there,” said Sinis.
Ada walked to the edge of the cliff and looked to the trail leading south from the town. A man walked ahead of two children. His long, black beard was tied. The linen of his chiton was dirty from the road but not out of the ordinary. He carried a doe across his shoulders and held a longbow in his hand. At first, she didn’t know why Sinis pointed them out, but something was off.
“Ah.” Ada squinted at the hunter, biting her lip. “Disgusting. He didn’t field dress the deer?” If he didn’t clean the organs out, it was already rotting.
Sinis nodded. “Something weird is going on. Come on.”
Under the cover of darkness, she followed him towards the town. They walked silently on rocky earth, covered in pine needles. The town was unusually quiet. Few fires burned. No children cried. She drew the sacred bow and grabbed a handful of arrows. The hunter had stopped outside the town and shooed the kids inside. They ran into one of the houses without argument and slammed the door.
Ada stopped at the edge of the trees, not ten meters from the hunter, and watched him pace and turn, keeping his eyes high in the air.
“What’s he looking for?” whispered Ada.
She sighed, frustrated, but stayed still and listened.
A cloud of smoke and shadow rolled out of the trees opposite their hiding spot. Ada held her breath and covered her mouth. The air chilled around it.
She wished she could get closer.
The hunter turned to face the demon, winced, and took a fearful step back.
Sinis looked at her questioningly.
Against the darkness of the forest, the demon was a blot without edges. It shifted and rolled. Worse, the hunter was in the way. She shook her head at him, not wanting to loose an arrow. Not yet.
“Take it,” said the hunter.
The shadow jumped beside him. He shrank away as the deer lifted off the ground. The creature fled into the forest, moving like the wind and carrying the doe with it.
Ada stepped out of the trees. Sinis followed her.
“Hail,” she said, grabbing the hunter’s attention. “By the gods, what is going on?”
He looked back and forth quickly. “You shouldn’t have come here.”
“Answer the question,” said Sinis.
A couple of people emerged from the nearby houses, men and women, some wearing dark himations with the hoods pulled wide like a snake. The Cult of Set.
“Run,” whispered the hunter. “Get out of here.”
Ada backed up, ready to take cover behind a tree. “I thought the demon was killing people. What was that? Were you feeding it?”
Two of the hooded figures stopped next to the hunter, looking at her and her brother skeptically. The closer of the pair was a young woman holding a knife. She waved it at Sinis. “Who are these people?”
The hunter shrugged, a blank look on his face. More people came out of the houses. The moon peaked from behind the clouds and glinted off their blades—Artemis’ warning.
“Run,” whispered Ada. Sinis looked at her, about to speak. “Run!”
“Grab them,” shouted the young woman.
The cultists lit torches and tore through the forest after them.
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