When dawn came, and Aspen was up and ready, I went to untie our mounts. Artemis held her hand up to stop me. “We’re close enough, and I think we can get to the mouth of the cave.”
The snow up the mountain shifted and sent a wave of nausea through me. I trudged towards the cliff’s ledge.
“It’s about time we leave the stench behind,” I said, trying to see the cave’s mouth. “Maybe you can smell the way better.”
“That is enough,” Artemis marched over, pointing her finger at my chest. “You asked for my help, which I am giving to you, and yet you clearly wish I was not.” She glared into my eyes and lowered her voice. “If you have something to say to me, say it now before we go into battle. What have I done to make you so angry and distrustful of me?”
The snow shifted, and I felt an unsettled gust of the northwest wind. Skiron! He was up there! We were so close, and now she wanted to fight? She was still staring at me, her eyes like fire.
My irritation boiled over as her finger stayed aimed at my chest, her foot tapping impatiently.
“What did you do? Seriously? You’ve dragged me to every wrong cave around here, even if I’ve said otherwise. You’ve bewitched Aspen, made her your companion, and enjoyed my discomfort with yaks. I’ve seen those smirks! You made her lead me around like I’m a tag-along, like I’m insignificant.”
I swear her eyes rolled, and my resentment reached a new peak. I raised my voice, ice pellets of frustration forming in my eyes. “In fact, I must be insignificant in your eyes since you’ve managed to forget that not only did your damn arrow go through me and kill my friend’s mother, but you also nearly killed me in the process! You don’t even care what you took away from me.” Her eyes widened, and I kept going.
Rage spilled into tears as my anxiety and frustrations overwhelmed me. I raised my bandaged arms, which still had wounds from the Mahaha. “In case you haven’t noticed, thanks to my cold core, I heal incredibly slow, slower than even mortals. Your arrow, whatever it was tipped with, stayed in my system for fifty fucking years!” I was shouting now, and I lifted my grey sweater to reveal the triangular scar on my abdomen. “Your arrow pierced right here. Here! Do you know what you took from me? Do you? You took away any and all chances for me to have another child! That’s what you did!”
I felt my rage wane as her eyes widened, and her lips formed an O. Snow swirled around us as I fell into my grief, holding my side, my cold aura pushing outwards to cover us both in a layer of frost. Her hand lowered, hanging limp at her side. I broke down, the sobs escaping even as I tried to hold them back.
“And no one even cared to find out if I survived your deadly arrow. The gods were too distracted by Chione’s death and who would raise Autolycus and Phillammon. Your nephews. But I missed the chance to raise my only child, and now…I’ll never get another chance again,” I whispered as we stood face-to-face.
My only son, Eumolpus, had long given his life up in war, and I had been left alone, so entirely alone in this world.
The grief hit me like a truck, as I remembered when I found out I couldn’t have more children.
I was barren, my womb damaged. The arrow and poison had destroyed the organ inside, leaving scars that would never fade, never heal. I was broken forevermore.
And it was her fault.
The silence between us was deafening. Emotions crossed her face, and I watched, fixated as anger was replaced with recognition and then pain as the memories played in her mind. Sadness followed. Remorse. Her face twisted, and I saw it, the realization of self. I’d seen it before, in a cursed mirror. The realization of the horrific things a person could do. The guilt, the shame. She hadn’t known what she had done.
She had not abstained from apologizing out of spite or some revenge plan to finish me off. She had not apologized because she genuinely didn’t know the damage she had caused.
Artemis raised herself up, her head bowed towards me, not flinching away from my bitter cold frost. She seemed to hesitate slightly before looking me dead in the eye.
“I apologize for my actions, Khione,” she breathed. “There is no excuse for what I did to you, and I know I can never understand what it cost you.” I was taken aback by the direct apology. I’m not sure what I expected by spilling everything, but an apology was not it.
“I would like to try to help if you will allow me.”
I couldn’t respond, but I looked her in the eyes. The amber colours danced back at me. Her offer was sincere. I knew her background and what she had done for women.
I had years of anger and hurt to untangle. I was angry at her. I was angry at others too. The ones who abandoned me. The ones who disowned me. The ones who left me to suffer in silence and solitude. The ones who forgot. But she now remembered, and she wanted to atone. As my emotions wavered, the cold deepened around us.
Aspen had been tearing down the camp. When I sensed her footsteps, I drew in my aura, but the frost on the two of us was still visible.
“Oh my, Artemis, are you okay?!” she asked, running towards the stoic Huntress. “You’re all full of frost!” Aspen then spun towards me.
“What did you do to her? She’s trying to help you! The cave is just north of here. We should be working together. Shame on you both for fighting!”
I winced, and so did Artemis. How bold of Aspen to call us out. But of course, she was right. Uncle Skiron was just there, a few miles away. I had felt his presence, and I still needed her help. Composing myself, I spoke to the two of them.
“He is in the cave ahead. I felt his winds earlier when I moved away from the yaks. The snow is shifting unnaturally around here. It’s been driving me crazy and throwing me off balance pretty much since we set foot on this mountain,” I answered Artemis’s unasked question. She turned her eyes at me, understanding that I was suffering in silence—well, irritated mutterings notwithstanding.
She set her features and nodded. We would not get into our issues now. We didn’t have time. I shouldn’t have blown up and dumped that on her, but what’s done is done. Our internal battles would have to wait. We would need our wits about us for this looming battle.
“The snow shifting kept throwing me off balance, which you noticed when I was riding the yak. His smell overwhelms my winter senses and makes me nauseous,” I explained. “But your tracking matches my own suspicions. That cavern to the north is the epicenter of the weird sensations I keep feeling. I’m guessing you feel it, too.” I looked back at Artemis.
Her eyes searched mine as if she was seeing me for the first time as capable, as an asset, and not just an inconvenience.
She nodded and straightened her back, changing back into the stoic Huntress.
“The plan I have so far is simple. We will port to the outside of the cave. There is a walkway that is not being used. From there, we can make sure the entrance is clear before going in.”
She picked up a stick and drew in the frosty dirt as she spoke. “There is a narrow pathway that winds its way back to a couple of larger rooms. The pathway has two walls at some points and, at others, a deadly drop to one side. Alcholoë must be using something to protect her safe house because there is a roaring wind the length of the path.”
I was confused. I could sense the winds and snow, but I didn’t think she could see or sense the caves. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have explored so many wrong ones.
“How do you know all of this? You said you found the cave, not that you went inside.” I questioned as a thought spilled out before I could stop. “Did you find my uncle and leave him behind?!” She wouldn’t? Would she? Did she purposely set me up?
“Pallas’s cat,” she interrupted my thought spiral, and I blinked back at her.
“What does that mean?”
“A Pallas’s cat is an indigenous feline that roams the mountain regions in this part of the world,” she said in a know-it-all voice.
“I know what Pallas’s cat is, but what do they have to do with the cave?”
“Ah, I asked one, and she did a little scouting for me. That is how I know there are three people in this cave. One leaves by foot, one leaves by wing, and one stays in the cave. The cat identified the scent on the feather and the scale you gave to me.”
Aspen leapt up in a bubble of excitement. “You asked her? Like she talked to you? Did she actually talk? Was it interpretive moments? Do you understand meowing? How does—” Aspen literally bounced as her thoughts spilled out.
I smiled at her enthusiasm, her naivety.
“Whoa, Slow down,” Artemis told her. “Yes, I asked the cat. No, she doesn’t use words. I opened my mind to her, let a part of myself flow into her, and she showed me.” Aspen nodded and calmed. But I could still see the excitement in her eyes and her idolization of the Huntress.
“The bird that led me to the cave saw her tracks, so I followed them to her den. I stayed at the den while she took a trip to the cave and let my mind tag along.”
I watched Aspen’s mouth fall open in awe. I kind of wished Aspen would look at me with the same adoring gaze.
“Could I, maybe, learn to talk to kitties?” Aspen stuttered out, her eyes big and pleading.
“It’s a god thing. The Pallas’s cat could not make it through the wind tunnel but had seen the layout in previous trips. Other trilobites confirmed the presence of three people and identified their smell in the back of the cave.”
Artemis met my gaze as she finished describing the layout. “Once we see the entrance is clear, I would like all three of us to go in. Can you do something about the wind?”
“I should be able to divert the winds using my own, but I can’t take control of the winds themselves.” It was going to be a lot, and I’d need to keep my emotions in check.
“Aspen, I want you to stay close to me and be as silent as you can. Once we get to them, you can talk to Sybil while Khione goes for Skiron.” Artemis was all out professional now, being the leader, and us her maidens. Maybe she actually saw me as capable.
“I don’t know what condition he will be in, but you should know, the smell of blood is in the air. If we need to fight, can you get everyone out of the cave who is not fighting?” she asked.
“Hey, I can fight,” I responded, taken aback by the plight to run.
“Yes, you can,” she said, smiling as she pulled a piece of ice from her coat and tossed it to the ground. “And you might have to. I’m not worried about your ability. I am worried about getting the others out. Alcholoë may not respond to reason, and I want to be able to concentrate on her if it comes to that.”
Aspen had stopped bouncing and listened with rapt attention as Artemis gave her directions.
“Agreed?” Artemis asked us both. I ran through the plan in my head and nodded, as did Aspen. This has to work. We have to work together.
Artemis held out her hands, one to each of us, and there was no hesitation. I grabbed it, and together we ported to the mouth of the cave.