Authors: Courtney Cole
Tags: #Fiction, #Fairy Tales; Folk Tales; Legends & Mythology
I took it with shaking hands and held it for a moment before I opened it. I was scared to see the words, afraid that we would fail. Taking a deep breath, I studied the scrawling handwriting that sloped across the page.
After I had read each startling word, I looked back to Circes. “There is only one challenge listed here, yet it says there will be ten. Where are the rest?”
She shook her head. “They will be revealed to you one at a time. That is all I know, princess.”
“What is the first challenge?” Brennan asked grimly. He looked as apprehensive as I felt, but he was facing it bravely. Warmth flooded through me. He had no idea what we were truly facing, but he was willing to do it anyway. With me.
“Hubris,” I answered slowly. Brennan looked at me in confusion.
“Hubris? What is that?”
“Have you ever heard the story of Athena and Arachne?”I asked him. “It is in the history books of mortals.”
He shook his head. “If I read it, I have forgotten it. Back when I thought mythological stories were simply myths, they didn’t interest me. They take on an entirely new light now.”
“True. It’s amazing how perspectives change when something affects you personally,” I agreed. “Athena and Arachne is an interesting story…a story of divine justice and one that perfectly illustrates how petty the gods can be.”
He lifted an eyebrow. “Go on.”
“One time, long ago, a mortal named Arachne found her skills at weaving to be the best in the land. She boasted about them to those around her and even went so far as to say that she could outweave the gods themselves. Athena caught wind of this boast. This is the dreaded hubris, an affront that rarely goes unnoticed by the gods… it is when a mortal challenges or boasts about a god. It has never gone unpunished. In this case, Athena then challenged Arachne to a weaving contest. They both worked throughout the night on beautiful tapestries. But in the morning, it was clear that Arachne was the winner. Her tapestry was perfect. But Athena’s pride could not allow her to admit it, so in her rage, she turned Arachne into a spider, doomed to weave for all of eternity.”
“That seems a little harsh,” Brennan answered slowly. “And that’s how spiders came to be?”
I nodded. “Never underestimate the gods, Brennan. Not ever.”
“Point taken,” he answered. “So how does this hubris affect us in this challenge?”
I turned back to Circes and Branwyn. “Branwyn, apparently someone in your village has boasted about her magic, declaring it to be superior to even my mother’s. It did not go unheard. Zeus himself heard the words. Brennan and I are tasked with testing this girl’s magic and then meting out the appropriate punishment for her boasts.”
“Hubris,” Brennan said slowly.
“Hubris,” I confirmed with a solemn nod.
I could tell I wasn’t going to like this game in the slightest. For as long as I could remember, I had tried to live my life as though I wasn’t a goddess. And now, unless I could prove to the Olympians that I had the skill required to be one, I would die. The handling my abilities portion wouldn’t be so difficult. It would be the ‘acting like a goddess’ parts. They were at times cold-hearted and ruthless, two things I tried hard not to be. Sighing, I turned back to Branwyn.
“Who would it have been?”
Branwyn looked stricken. “I’m not certain, princess. I don’t know for sure who would have made such a wild boast.”
But I could see on her face that she had a good idea.
“You have a good feeling who it is,” I said firmly. “I need a name.”
Branwyn stared at her hands. “Kenna.”
“Thank you. Can you retrieve Kenna from her bed and bring her to me?”
“Now, princess?” Branwyn’s gaze shot upward and met mine.
Without a backward glance, Branwyn turned and left the bonfire. An owl hooted softly in the near distance and the night breeze rustled the grass around them. Moisture hung in the air, heavy and chilly, causing me to shiver slightly.
“Are you cold?” Brennan asked, moving to me instantly and wrapping his arm around my shoulders. His warmth was truly like the sun and I melted into his warm body as we waited for Branwyn to return. Circes stared sightlessly into the fire, not saying a word.
“What do you think?” Brennan asked softly, his lips very close to my ear.
“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. “I don’t see that we can win.”
“Why would you say that?” he asked in surprise. “We have as much a chance as our fathers do, don’t we?”
“We’re the ones being tested,” I reminded him wearily. “Not them.”
“True,” he agreed. “But we have the most to lose. That makes us hungrier.”
“True,” I answered with a smile. Brennan was such an optimist. He saw the good in every situation. Sometimes, it was refreshing. Sometimes, it was annoying. Tonight, it was comforting.
Movement caught my eye and I looked up to find Branwyn entering the circle with a young woman. Kenna had a thick brown braid hanging down her back and was dressed in a white nightdress. The look on her face was set and mulish. I could see that Branwyn had explained the situation.
“We’re up,” I said to Brennan. He released me, his warm arms sliding from my shoulders. I instantly missed his warmth, but turned my attention to the two women approaching us.
“Kenna?” I asked, keeping my voice as even as I could. She had not personally affronted me. The Olympians were the ones who had paper-thin skin when it came to these things. Not me. But here I was, doling out an “appropriate” punishment. And what in the world would an appropriate punishment for a ridiculous offense be?
They stopped directly in front of me and I watched the girl. She wasn’t sorry for what she’d said. I could see that.
“Do you admit that you boasted of your magic, that you said yours was better than even that of the gods?”
Kenna stuck out her chin, her voice ringing through the night as her gaze met mine unflinchingly.
“You have no remorse?” I raised an eyebrow.
“No, princess. I would feel sorry for it if I had lied. But I did not. It is the truth.”
“While I personally admire your spirit, most of the gods would not. It is never wise to threaten them in any way,” I told her. “And to make sure your punishment fits the crime, we must first decide if your magic is in fact as good as you say. My mother is currently occupied and unable to be here. But you can match your magic against mine.”
Kenna’s gaze flew to my face, startled. It was clear she hadn’t expected to be tested and truly, it was a spur of the moment decision. It suddenly seemed the appropriate move to make. I wasn’t really sure what difference the outcome would make. And there was no way that a mortal would have stronger magic that me. It just wasn’t possible.
“Yes, princess,” she bowed her head slightly, still unafraid. I felt the slightest stirrings of resentment in my belly. This mortal truly believed she was better than I was? Besides having the blood of gods coursing through my veins, I had been alive for a thousand years.
“Careful, Emmie,” Brennan cautioned, reading my thoughts. “You’re sounding a little like them.” He was right and I quickly tried to shake such thoughts from my head. The last thing I wanted to do was become like the Olympians. They were arrogant and shallow, for the most part. I didn’t want that for myself.
“Come with me,” I told Kenna. I turned and I felt her following closely on my heels. I leaped onto the stone of the altar and stood squarely in the middle, my bare feet cooled by the stone. Kenna walked quietly to my side.
“What would you like for me to do?” she asked. She was no longer arrogant or brash, she was simply matter-of-fact.
“Do you realize that your magic comes from my mother herself?” I asked her. “As a mortal, all you can do is channel the magic of the gods. You do not have such magic of your own. And do you believe that my mother would allow more magic to flow through you than me in this situation?”
For the first time, Kenna looked unsure of herself. “I doubt it, princess,” she finally answered. “When I made those boasts, I was not thinking that I would ever be facing you in a challenge. Certainly in this situation, the outcome will be different.”
“Certainly,” I answered, smiling slightly at the girl. A little of her arrogance had seeped away and I felt a surprising amount of satisfaction from that.
“Empusa,” Brennan cautioned again. But this time, I didn’t check my thoughts. In this situation, I was right to feel the way I did. This girl had been arrogant.
“You must learn that you can never foresee situations that you might find yourself in,” I told Kenna. “This situation will serve as a lesson for you.”
Pointing my finger at her, I summoned goddess strength from deep within and channeled it out of me. It erupted in a rush, directed at Kenna. Kenna flew from the altar and crashed into the side of a nearby tree. She slid to the ground, but she was unharmed and quickly got to her feet. Her face was red and a vein thrummed in the side of her temple. She was embarrassed and angry.
Pointing back at me, a thin stream of light shot from her fingers and shattered the stillness of the night. But the light itself served as a warning. I saw it coming and deflected it back to her- forming a shield in my mind and hurling it at her. My magic smashed into hers, blocking it and reflecting it back to her. It collided into her and once again, she was thrown into the trees, this time by her own magic.
“Your magic is good,” I called to her. “I’ve never seen a mortal channel such power. But you will not beat me. Do you wish to continue?”
I was confident and slightly annoyed that this girl still had the arrogant spirit that she had when she started. Her eyes spit fire as she once again climbed from the ground. Her braid was coming apart now, her clothing torn and dirty, her hands smudged. Meeting my gaze determinedly, she raised her hand once more.
And then quickly turned it toward Brennan. Her power coursed from her fingers into Brennan, ripping a hole in his chest. He flung backward and fell, his arms and legs splayed unnaturally around him, his eyes widened in surprise.
I gasped and before I could stop myself, I killed the girl with one blow. One single thick thread of energy left my fingers in an instant and sliced cleanly through Kenna, ripping her apart. I heard a sickening, loud pop as her rib-cage cracked. She slid to the ground, her eyes staring sightlessly at me. I had done it without thinking, in a quick reaction to her attack on Brennan. She had attacked the man I loved and I had killed her for it.
Divine justice had been served.
As I rushed to Brennan, I glanced at Circes and she nodded, releasing an inky black raven from her hands. It flew screaming into the trees and into the night beyond. She nodded once more to me and I knew.
I had passed this first test.
Brennan got quickly to his feet and I stared in surprise before I remembered. One of his gifts was healing more quickly than normal. It was a gift he had inherited from Apollo. Even now, the gaping hole in his chest was closing up as though the wound had never happened at all. I expelled a long breath of relief as I rushed into his arms.
“I’m sorry,” I hurried to tell him. “I wasn’t expecting that. I had no idea she would turn on you like that. I was focused on what she would try to do to me. I didn’t know she would be ruthless.”
“You must think more like a god,” Circes interjected firmly. “A god wouldn’t have hesitated to use any advantage, something that Kenna was inclined to do as well. Never let your guard down, princess.”
I nodded. “It has been hard-learned, but I will remember that.”
Branwyn was kneeling at Kenna’s lifeless body and I rushed to her, laying my hand on her shoulder.
“I’m so sorry, Branwyn. I didn’t mean to hurt her. I truly did not.”
She turned to look at me, her eyes filled with pain.
“What do you mean, Empusa? Of course you had no choice. She attacked Brennan. I still weep for her, however. Aside from her arrogance, she was a good girl.”
I nodded, a lump forming in my throat as I watched her fold Kenna’s arms over her torso. She stepped back as Brennan bent and picked the girl up.
“Tell me where to take her,” he instructed Branwyn.
If Branwyn looked surprised that Brennan would carry the girl who had just tried to kill him, she didn’t show it. She simply led the way out of the clearing and back toward the village. Brennan strode behind her, his shoulders wide and strong. I stayed with Circes.
“Circes,” I began uncertainly. “Can we win this?”
Circes looked at me with her unnerving eyes.
“I know not,” she said quietly. “Your mother also does not know. But you must try, princess.”
“Have you not seen the outcome?”I asked in disbelief. “Nor my mother?”
Circes shook her head slowly. “No. The outcome is darkened to us. We cannot see it. We have seen many different outcomes, but we cannot tell which is the true ending to this story. Perhaps because it has not yet been written. It is entirely dependent on you.”
“And Brennan,” I added. “He plays a role as well.”
“Yes, he certainly does,” Circes acknowledged. “And never forget what I saw awhile ago, princess.”
“You saw that Brennan would be a threat to me- that his very existence would threaten me and that I would risk everything for him.”
“Yes,” she answered simply. “Remember that.”
“How could I forget it?” I asked painfully.
“If you are wise, you will not,” Circes said before closing her eyes and warming her hands by the fire. “My old bones are weary. I’d like to rest.”
“Of course. We’ll find Branwyn and get you settled into a hut for the night.”
Circes didn’t answer, instead she remained still by the roaring flames.
“I worry about you, Empusa,” she said softly, her eyes still closed. “Medea and I have watched you grow, watched you change into the woman that you have become. I worry that you are making rash decisions now, that you aren’t considering your own well-being. Instead, you are placing your concern within someone else. The sun god’s son will likely be the death of you. Can you not see that?”