None could deny the glory that was the mountaintop home of the great gods, but to Artemis, not even Olympus could match the pleasures of the woods and wilds. The scents, the sounds, the feel of the wind in her hair: all of it brought her elation that precious little else could.
She sprinted barefoot over the foliage, crushing fallen twigs under feet much tougher than one might expect of a pampered child of Zeus. As she ran with her bow in hand, an errant doe fell into step beside her. She beamed as the creature matched her pace, soon followed by a gray hare and a small flock of sparrows. The Olympians were her family, but these, the creatures that roamed far from the cities of men, were her only friends. In life and in death, she guided their wild spirits. As the Goddess of the Hunt, she presided over their deaths all too often.
Skidding to a halt, Artemis eagerly sniffed the air. Her eyes darted every which way. Her ears perked and twitched. She snarled, then turned and leaped at the nearest tree, clinging to its mighty trunk and hoisting herself up with a squirrel's swiftness. The object of her present hunt was near: the one who had brought about the deaths of more of her beloved friends than any other.
Men would surely sing songs of Orion forever. The demigod son of Poseidon was a true champion of the wild, at once nature’s greatest friend and most dangerous predator, and a man after her own heart.
Artemis wore contempt on her face as she watched him stalking through the brush from her high perch, but her heart was all aflutter. She hated him for that more than anything else: that now, at last and against all sense of reason, there existed a man that could inspire in her those feelings which the vapid bride of Hephaestus called her domain.
In all the world, there was only one who knew of her affliction; she had not once succeeded in masking her mind before him, for they were born of the same seed and thought nearly as one. He knew her wild heart better than any other, so he easily knew that he would find her there.
"Stalking your newest quarry?” The question had left his tongue before he’d even fully appeared, arriving before her as the light that broke through the forest canopy and floating there to block her view. Her spiteful gaze only grew more caustic, and she swung her bow immediately to strike at her jovial twin.
"Careful, sister," he teased, an impish grin plastered across his face. "You are sure to scare it off making all that noise."
"Go away, Apollo!" she seethed. "I hate when you come here!"
"It is a brother’s job to look after his sister, is it not? Even if the Fates have seen fit to place your eternity a few seconds ahead of mine, it remains my sacred duty to keep you protected."
"I’m in no danger here."
Apollo pursed his lips and quirked a brow. "I find it offensive that you would seek to hide the truth from the God of Light and Prophecy, sister. Or perhaps you only seek to deceive yourself?"
With lengthy inhalation, Artemis forced herself into a more placid frame of mind. "I come here for relief from your mind games, brother," she spoke. "If you have any love for me, you will leave me in peace."
Tilting his head, Apollo appeared to consider the position for a moment, but a glance down at the man now pouncing on a mighty buck stalled the shifting of his opinion. He stroked his chin and furrowed his brow, and a heavy sigh escaped him. Slowly, his lips twisted into a devious smirk.
"Artemis, oh Artemis," he chanted. "Wherever have you gone?” Flitting to and fro like a feather on the wind, he engaged in a whimsical dance that mocked her with its grace, singing his original composition all the while.
"Oh, how I long to see your face,
To see you dance and watch you race
Across the fields of gold
As you did once in days of old,
Before your heart had grown so…soft."
He performed a quick twirl to escape the arrow that came soaring at him during his performance. He ceased the song, but continued to dance about like a fool, his erratic movements keeping him clear of the moon-kissed arrows his sister fired at him.
"I can speak only the truth, sister!" Apollo exclaimed between evasions. "You have lost the edge that once made mortals fear the hunt. I am sure the days are soon to come when any layabout can claim victory over one of the beasts you so admire."
"I’ve not softened!" Artemis snarled back, punctuating the sentiment with another arrow that this time managed to graze her twin’s tunic. "I’ll show you!"
Seizing on the opportunity, the God of Light spun to face the next shot and caught the arrow in the middle of its flight. He smirked again. "A challenge, then?" he suggested. "Yes. A wager: prove to me that you are still the Mistress of the Hunt, and I will concede and leave you be. Even further, I will let you carry my bow and wield my Arrows of Light for a full year’s time.
"On the other hand," he continued, the very bow he offered as the stakes of the wager materializing in his hand, "should I manage to best you in this test of mettle and skill, then I will claim your bow for the year. And with your bow, I will claim your title, your forests, and your beasts, that I might add the Hunt to my lengthy list of dominions." He chuckled, nocked the arrow he’d caught from her, and fired it into her wooden perch. "If only for the year," he added.
"Not fair," Artemis complained, her glare remaining focused on Apollo even as she reached down to pull the arrow from the branch. "You get more than I do."
"Oh? If you truly believe that, sister, than perhaps I have misjudged you after all." He reclined into the wind and let himself fall until he was near the ground, his fleshy visage fading into a form of scattered light that only a god could see. Such was his appearance as he hovered over Orion, who by then had begun to flay his catch on the spot.
"Then again," Apollo mused, "I think we both know that I have not."
"Fine!" Artemis’ hesitance was suddenly broken. She leaped from the tree, taking on an ethereal state of her own to keep the present mortal ignorant to the company he kept in her woods. "Fine! You’re on. But if I win, I get your bow for a year, and you swear to stay out of the wild unless I call you! Agreed?"
"Indeed! Let us not waste any more time on bickering. We’ll make the challenge appropriate to the stakes: whoever finds, hunts, and slays the most dangerous prey in this forest is the victor. No tricks or spells, only guile."
"Good," Artemis snarled. Apollo laughed and, in a flash of light, conveyed them to a far edge of the forest. He abandoned his intangibility to place his solid feet upon the earth, and Artemis followed suit. She flexed her toes against the dirt and leaves, breathing deeply the scents of her forest, her domain.
A light emerged from Apollo’s palm and took the form of an unblinking golden eye. "This Eye of Truth shall provide a record of our contest so that there can be no dispute when I win.” He gave her a wink that she met with a sneer and released the eye into the air. It came to rest high above the forest, seeing all and missing nothing.
"We begin on my mark," said Apollo, "and we will persist until tomorrow’s first light. May the truest, most merciless hunter win.”
For a moment, the two locked eyes, and Artemis saw in him the depths that he ever failed--or refused--to express: concern, longing, hope, fear, all locked behind a façade of cocksure mirth to rival the foolishness of Hermes.
In her eyes, though, Apollo saw only the heart of a woman smitten, and the sight introduced an element of ire into the mask he wore.
The long moment passed, the god’s hand lifted, and he dropped it to mark the start of the hunt. Bows in hand and arrows at the ready, the twin gods sprinted in separate directions to seek targets worthy of a contest between divinities.
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