Everywhere I went, it was the same. The vague trails led me from one kidnapping to another. How is it I, The Goddess of the Hunt, had not been able to nail down the source of the murders? It was troubling how the trail eluded me. Magic had to be behind it all.
Lost in my thoughts, I barely heard the footsteps before she spoke, “Artemis. We are here.”
I looked up and grinned. “It’s about time. I called you twenty-four hours ago. Have you been getting your nails done?”
The Commander of the Maidens growled at me. I laughed and gestured for the twenty maidens walking down from the road to gather around. “Something is hiding in the woods. It’s wreaking havoc in all the towns in the area. It is taking people from their homes and vehicles. It tears them apart and eats them,” I explained.
“What are we facing?” one of my maidens asked.
I grimaced and admitted, “I can’t see what it is. That’s why I called you here. I’ve followed large hoofprints and human footprints. There are places where the prints have been wiped out or partially wiped out. I see things on my periphery, but I can’t look at them. The local hunters are somehow being prevented from tracking. They lose focus and end up somewhere else. It might affect their memory or deflect them away without them knowing it. You might encounter the same thing. Remember your training and stay focused.”
I pulled out a map of the area and laid it on the ground in the middle of the circle. “I have tracked it along these lines. The only time I get a better sense of the clues is when it goes into a cave or outcropping, but I lose them when I leave the area. I want you to split into groups and start tracking the rest of the area.”
“Wait a minute. You are having trouble with this thing, and you want us to track it?” Kalia said indignantly.
“Not to worry, ladies. You will have each other’s backs, and I trained you well. When the trail leads you to a cave or outcropping, I want one of you to call out what you see. Another of you will be outside and will write it down. Once you are off the trail, take a look at what was written and report to Commander Siva. Siva, if you can put something together, get in touch with me. I’m headed back to the museum to research this and see if I can gather more information on what kind of creature we are dealing with. Hopefully, my head will clear when I get further away. If not, my research will come up with something.”
I popped out of the forest and appeared in Olympus. It had been a long time since I had been there. Memories flooded my mind as I walked the rest of the way to the museum. This was not the time to go down that path. I shook my head and used the time to check in with the animals in the area, taking my mind off the last twenty-four hours. Hopefully, this would allow something in the back of my mind to come to the surface.
It was good to feel the minds of these animals again. They were old friends, and this was home even if I didn’t come back often. After the long night, all I wanted to do was wander through the park, check in on all the animals there, and relax past the waterfall. But, alas, I had work to do. The dusty path up to the museum was a stark contrast after the weight of the forest air. At least the walk was relaxing and put me in the mindset to work.
I entered the museum and immediately felt at home. I’m not what you would call indoorsy, but this place was different. These solid marble walls and crowded bookcases didn’t make me feel claustrophobic. The quiet was like no other. There was no hustle and bustle of people running from one place to another with their feelings intertwining in a tangled mess. There wasn’t even the chatter of animals in the woods. There was just the echo of footsteps. I felt focused and ready to go but unsure where to start. I stood in stacks of books, contemplating which creatures to look up first. This might take a while.
Back in the forest, Commander Siva stood on a trail deep in the woods. Even at mid-day, the forest canopy blocked most of the sunlight. Tracking a vague something with no idea of what it was, and this fog across her mind was infuriating. She understood why Artemis had left to try a different tactic.
Commander Siva was typing on a pad as one of the women in the cave was shouting at her. It was fuzzy, and she had to concentrate. She wasn’t sure if she was making any sense of it but had decided just to type and not focus on the words. When the women in the cave were done, they tumbled out, looking disgusted and angry. Siva had two of them wait on the trail for a few moments to let the fog settle on them again. She had the other two move fifty paces off the trail right away. After everyone had time to calm down, she had the two on the trail come down and join the others.
She observed her group for a moment and wrote down what she saw. The two who had stayed on the trail looked slightly annoyed but mostly ready for the next set of instructions. The two who had moved into the woods right away looked a little confused and a lot agitated. Their behavior was exactly what she wanted to see because it matched the reactions from the last cave they explored. It meant that it was best to stay as far off the track as possible, but they still needed to follow it. She could have one woman follow the trail and the others follow that woman while keeping their distance. This might keep their senses sharper.
Siva read out loud what she had written down. “The smell, oh Goddess, the smell. It’s vile and putrid. There is a rotten smell that’s different from the perfume smell we’ve been following. It’s coming from a person. That’s a leg. There’s the arm. The sides of the cave walls have finger marks and runes. Someone must have tried to get away. There are two sets of footprints but only one set of body parts. The torso has bits taken out of it. Wait, there are large hoof prints going out, but none are coming in. There’s no sign of a campfire, but this pattern in the dirt shows it may have slept here.” Siva took a deep breath and looked over the maidens.
“Well, that is a bit more coherent but not much different than we have gotten so far. The runes are new. Does anyone remember anything about the runes?” Siva asked. Her question was answered with silence. “Does anyone remember the runes at all?”
She sighed when they all just looked at her.
“All right, look for runes in the next cave. Concentrate on the thought as you go in and get a description. This time, only I will follow the scent. I want everyone else to follow me off the track. Keep your eyes and ears sharp for anything that should not be there. Follow me,” Siva commanded. Two maidens followed her on each side of the trail. The other maidens formed a triangle pattern behind them and searched the surrounding woods.
After an hour, a maiden on the left side of the trail whistled. Siva had the maidens on the right stop to take cover while she moved to the left to see what was found. This was the largest and clearest set of hoof prints so far. They were leading down to the stream. As the group followed them, the prints started to look progressively clearer as the odd scent they had been following morphed into a more familiar scent. At the stream, they found leaves bent toward the water. Siva was confident she knew the smell, but the creature’s name was a finger width too far away for her to grab onto it.
Then the leaves rustled. All heads snapped in the same direction. A bush up ahead and on the other side of the stream was still moving. Something had seen them. She gave the signal for chase and whistled to the maidens on the other side of the trail. She could feel her pupils dilate as the adrenaline kicked in. Finally, something to chase! They ran in formation. The trust in each other’s skill and knowledge of precisely what to do was solid in their chests. They moved like they were dancing through the terrain. Siva could feel the elation of her sisters at finally having something to do. They all wanted something real to hunt. They jumped over logs and flew through the heavy bush.
As they bore down on their prey, the scent was even more potent. The name of their target fluttered in Siva’s mind but, suddenly, there was only fog hanging in her mind again. They all stumbled at the same moment, almost losing their footing. They stopped and looked around in confusion. Siva shook her head and yelled at herself to focus. She looked around again and saw something out of the corner of her eye through the bush. She signaled the others to flank her. Slowly parting the leaves of a bush, she saw it clearly for the first time. The hoof prints turned into a man’s footprints. She wondered how that could happen, reaching for answers that were just out of reach. Then the fog snapped back on her mind, and it was all lost. She heard growling laughter across the clearing, and the maidens snapped into a run but could find no monster and no trail this time. Some of the maidens let arrows loose but hit nothing.
“Noooooooooooo,” she growled and punched the ground in frustration. What was doing this to them? The name had gone from her mind. The only thing clear was that it was having fun with them.