The story starts here!
Ada stretched her fingers. The string of the sacred bow had dug into them painfully, scuffing her leather fingertab. In the silence of the forest, the only sound was Chloe’s sobbing. Ada wanted to cry too. Her stomach rolled at the memory of the arrow striking the cultist’s chest. How had her brother felt? He had done most of the work.
She knelt beside Chloe. “Hey, it’s okay,” said Ada.
Chloe wiped her cheek and nodded shyly. “You were beautiful when you used the bow. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“I’ve always been faithful to Artemis. I’m so thankful she helped.”
Chloe’s lips puckered in surprise. Did she not recognize Artemis? Chloe opened her mouth as if to speak but the words never came.
“What is it?” asked Ada.
“Nothing,” said Chloe. “It’s nothing. You were just beautiful.”
Sinis walked down the hill towards them, sword in hand. Ada waved to him, and he returned the gesture. “Is she okay?”
“She’s fine,” said Ada.
A shadow swept over Sinis. It seemed to bleed from between the trees. Darkness against darkness. He froze, staring into the sky. The sword wavered in his shaking hand.
“Run!” Ada stood and drew an arrow. “It’s here!”
Sinis’ jerked at the sound of her voice. The cloud of smoke and shadow curled around him as he ran, slashing right and left with his sword. The darkness parted. He came through the other side and turned to face it.
The formless demon took shape. Tendrils of smoke hardened into spears that hovered in the air. The first long shaft thrust at his heart. Sinis raised the sword, deflecting the hit. His blade shattered into a thousand shards.
Ada rushed a few steps closer, dug her feet into the ground, and nocked an arrow. She stalked to the right, but the demon kept her brother between them. “Duck!” She drew back as her aura lit the forest.
The demon was spilled ink, sucking in the light, and giving nothing back. It rushed like a wave and threw Sinis against a tree. He crumpled, unconscious.
She loosed the arrow, but the demon vanished into the ground. Eyes wide and wild, she nocked another arrow. The demon swept over the forest floor and circled her feet. She recoiled, narrowly ducking a spear that leapt from the ground. It moved like a living thing and lashed back to catch the string of her bow, snapping it in two.
The limbs of the sacred bow lurched straight, jarring her whole body. Ada gasped and held onto the weapon as she scrambled away.
And just like that, she was nothing again.
Ada looked between Sinis and Chloe. The end was near. Tentacles jumped at her from every side. They grabbed for her arms, her legs, her neck. She tucked her head down and ran for the cover of the trees.
Chloe stepped from the corner of Ada’s vision and stood between her and the puddle of shadow. Chloe reached her hands inside. By the gods, what was she doing?
Ada slid to a stop and waved her arms. “Run!”
“I can see your pain, and it breaks my heart.” Chloe’s hands moved as if she were weaving on a loom. “Let me help you find a new—”
Smoke billowed in her face and down her throat. Chloe went rigid and shuddered. Her head jerked, and her mouth opened so wide her jaw might break.
The shadow-like demon congealed into the shape of a man, with the head of a hawk and the legs of a dog. It was tall. Impossibly long arms ended in clawed fingers. “I will not be undone, but your death may free me yet.” Its voice was a chorus—men and women speaking together as one.
The shadow demon grabbed Chloe’s face and squeezed her cheeks. It forced a tendril of smoke down her throat. She went limp and dangled in the air, held only by its grip. Its free hand reached back and became a blade.
The demon’s head twitched between Ada and Sinis. She was a rabbit in the clutches of a cat, frozen with fear.
Helpless was a familiar feeling. Chloe was dying, but Ada couldn’t move. She stood, perfectly still, the tremors inside tearing her apart.
A flash of metal ripped through the trees and tore the arms from the demon. It dropped Chloe and staggered back. Smoke poured from its stubs.
Chloe collapsed, gagging and choking. Ada ran to her side and held her, using her body as a shield.
A tree to either side of the creature split as if struck by lightning. A ribbon of silver metal danced in the air, driving the demon back. It melted into the ground and slithered away.
Pallas stepped out of the shadows as the ribbon retracted to the silver sword in his hand. He unfastened the broach on his shoulder and dropped his cloak. Ada rose halfway from the ground, still holding Chloe’s trembling body. “You’re here!”
The Oracle was right! He came!
Pallas nodded. Another figure appeared behind him—a woman clothed in bark and vines and cloaked in a shawl the color of the moon. Her body curved and arched as she floated through the trees. She touched his shoulder and whispered something in his ear with a strange and mischievous smile. A halo of green light surrounded his forearms.
He advanced as the nymph vanished. More smoke rose from the ground and rebuilt the demon’s body, arms and all.
“Are you a god?” asked Pallas.
“I will be,” said the demon.
Pallas’ face twisted. He lunged with a roar.
Ada scooped Chloe under her arms and dragged her from the fight. Her body convulsed as she coughed up more of the smoke. Thank the gods she was breathing.
Pallas moved like a cat. He jumped and turned in the air. His sword extended and split through trees and earth as spears of darkness flew at him from every direction. The sword opened like a fan to shield him. One spear struck his verdant bracer and vanished in a shower of green sparks.
The smoke thrashed and twisted through the air. It jumped from shadow to shadow, but the forest provided no cover against the godly sword. Darkness became many forms—arms, hands, swords, tentacles. Pallas rushed through the trees, lunging at each thing that appeared and crushing it back into smoke.
Maybe there was hope.
Chloe rested back against a tree, panting. “I’m okay. I’m okay.”
“We have to help.” Ada turned and ran up the hill towards her brother. The flash of silver tore through the darkness on either side. Pallas’ angry cries made her shiver. He sounded like an animal. Worse even than the screaming chorus of demons.
She found Sinis unconscious but breathing. Ada turned him on his side and pulled him behind a large stone for cover, not that it would do much good.
His bow had landed nearby. Ada dashed to grab it and returned to cover behind the rock with her brother. She planted one end against the base of the rock and stood, gripping the top. Ada pulled her feet off the ground and hung. The bow bent slowly. She held on with one hand and slipped the string off the end, gently touched her toes to the ground, and let the bow straighten without snapping.
Her fingers quickly worked the knot loose, making it easy to adjust the string’s length. She fixed the sacred bow against her foot, bent it firmly, and strung it. A little extra string hung loose, but that was fine.
The demon dipped under Pallas like a mirage and changed into a cyclone. It lifted him off his feet. His sword slipped from his grip. He cursed and thrashed at the darkness without effect.
Blades and spears made of shadow rose from the cyclone and whipped into his body, breaking against him. Pallas flailed, seemingly uninjured. Maybe he was immortal. The blades fell away and became tendrils of smoke. They pushed into his nose. He coughed uncontrollably, eyes wide with pain.
Ada nocked an arrow. “Artemis, help me.” Her aura shined like the sun. She drew back on the bow with a smooth motion and loosed the arrow. It vanished into a beam of white light that split the cyclone. Pallas dropped to the ground, gasping for air. Half of the smoke dissolved, while the rest formed back into the demon.
Pallas rolled back and forth, retching, and clutching his chest.
“Soon,” its voice echoed, “you will suffer as I have suffered.”
Ada loosed another arrow, but missed as the demon sank into the ground. Spears jumped from the puddle and descended on her from every direction. She covered her head and screamed.
Chloe appeared before it. She reached her hands into the demon and let it jerk her down. The spears vanished into wisps of smoke. “Let me help you.” Again, her hands moved like a weaver’s. She opened her mouth, breathed deeply, and let the smoke pour in. Her eyes became black marbles as the demon entered her body. The last of the smoke vanished, and she fell to the ground.
“No!” Ada ran to her side and cupped her face in her hands. “What happened? What did you do?”
She blinked a few times, but the darkness remained in her eyes. “I made it a promise…” Chloe looked at her hands and whispered. “You can have me, just not today.”
Ada clenched her fists. She’d never let this thing have Chloe. It was hard to look at her or meet her glossy eyes. It was Ada’s first chance to do something that mattered, and she failed in the worst way.
Chloe’s smiled warmly, as if nothing mattered.
“What?” asked Ada.
“I’m just glad you’re okay.”
Ada’s throat tightened. Her words came out as a whisper. “But are you?”
Chloe pulled her feet under her and sat, resting heavily with her arms on her legs. “I don’t know. I think so.” She didn’t look okay.
Ada helped her to sit and knelt beside her. “What did you promise it?”
“That I’d give up my crown.”
“No.” Like her black eyes stole all the hope from the world.
“I couldn’t let it hurt you,” said Chloe, with no hint she cared what it did to her.
Sinis staggered down the hill, holding his head.
Ada met his gaze. “Are you—”
Pallas picked himself up, grabbed the sword, and walked over. His wide eyes were full of questions. “Thank you.” He dusted off his cloak and fastened the broach. “I might have underestimated that thing.” As if he didn’t care what happened to her.
Ada stroked Chloe’s hair and gave Pallas a respectful nod. “We would have been dead without you. Thank you for getting here.”
Pallas shrugged. “So, it’s over?”
Chloe shook her head and exhaled a little black smoke. “Almost. I know where the bodies are.”
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