I ran all the way back to the palace. I was honestly expecting the worst, so I needed to fetch my horse. I knew it was wasting time, but I could make up for it. Once she was all tacked up, I mounted and rode off into the forest. Erinys flew on ahead, leading the way. I slowed my horse down once the swamp came into view in the distance, bringing her to a halt. I hopped down from the saddle and ground tied her. There was no time to waste. I had to find Atalanta before she did something stupid.
By the time I got there, the sky had grown dark with clouds. Thunder boomed in the distance, followed by a flash of lightning. Wonderful.
I wasn’t foolish, even in my hurry. I was close to the hydra’s lair. I had to remain cautious. So I kept to the shadows, slowly making my way forward. I sensed that Erinys stayed above, keeping an eye out for any sudden changes. As I drew nearer to the swamp, I noticed the difference. It grew quiet—unbearably quiet. I couldn’t hear any birds. There were no animals. The wildlife steered clear of this place.
Honestly, I couldn’t really blame them.
So I did what I did best. I looked for tracks.
It wasn’t difficult to find. It was blatantly obvious that Atalanta wasn’t bothering to hide her path. I noted she was wearing sandals this time… and was very much alone. There wasn’t a single bear track around. Where was Argus then? This was so… odd. What in hades was she doing? I could understand not wanting to risk Argus, but…
I followed the tracks. They drew closer and closer to the swamp, the stench of decay making me want to retch. I hated swamps because they reeked of death. It wasn’t a pleasant place to be. But it was the perfect domain for a monster such as the hydra.
But as I made my way closer, I saw no signs of the creature. It must be deeper in the swamp... or at least I hoped so. Camouflage was possible. I stopped behind a tree, taking a moment to look around, hoping to spot my quarry.
And I found her.
Atalanta crouched at the edge of the swamp. With the time it took me to reach here, that meant she lingered. She was geared up for a fight, armed with a sword and a spear. She let out a sigh and stood up. She took a step forward, about to finally step into the swamp. I immediately moved out from behind the tree.
“Atalanta!” I hissed, trying to keep my voice low enough to not attract the hydra’s attention, but loud enough for her to hear me.
She whipped around, pointing her sword right at me. She tensed as soon as she saw me, but lowered the blade.
“What are you doing here?”
“I was about to ask you the same thing.”
She narrowed her eyes, scowling. “I’m here to kill the damned hydra,” she answered curtly, turning her back to me.
“Are you mad?” I retorted, walking up to where she stood. “This isn’t a giant boar. You’re going to get yourself killed.”
Like lightning, she jerked back around to face me. And the next thing I knew, the blade of her sword was at my throat. I froze, my eyes widening in shock. But I knew the look in her own eyes all too well—the look of a cornered wild animal. But along with that fear and panic, there was anger. Pain. Something was eating her up inside, something she worked so hard to hide from everyone else. Something I had caught a glimpse of earlier in the morning. Something… I saw now.
“Do not speak of that boar to me,” Atalanta growled. “It ruined my life.”
What in the gods’ names happened to her?
“And you think the hydra will make it any better?” I demanded. Sword at my throat or not, I wasn’t going to let her walk to her death. “This is madness, Atalanta.”
She snarled at me, bearing her teeth. “What do you care? You’re just like everyone else. You came here to see Atalanta the Hero just like the rest. We both know Artemis wouldn’t bother sending an emissary to a fucking race for my hand in marriage.”
Of course she would figure it out. She knew Artemis too, after all.
“I’m not your enemy, Atalanta,” I said flatly. “And I’m not here for ‘Atalanta the Hero’. I came here because Artemis is worried about you.”
“Ha!” She scoffed, pulling her sword away from my throat. “What a joke. Why in hades would she give a damn about me?” She turned away, tightening her grip on her sword. “Her perfect little huntress, faster than any mortal alive… whisked away by the pretty little lies of some hero, some man, who always wants more. She should have turned me into a bear. I wish she did. Gods, it’d be better than this.”
“Atalanta, please…” I took a step forward, putting my hand on her shoulder. “Just breathe. Whether you believe it or not, I’m here for you.”
More thunder rolled, much louder this time. Lightning lit up what parts of the sky that weren’t hidden by the canopy. And rain poured down from the heavens. We were drenched within seconds, even under the protection of the trees.
Atalanta pulled away from me. Even in the dim light, I could see her shoulders slump as her anger seemed to drain right out of her. “...Go home, Odessa. I’m going to fight the hydra. It’s the only thing I’m good for.”
Before I could say anything, she stepped into the swamp. Her sandaled feet sloshed into the water, splashing loudly as she ventured into the hydra’s domain. My stomach sank as I realized there was no way I could convince her not to do this. As she walked further away, I squeezed my eyes shut and took a deep breath, steeling myself.
I knew what Apollo’s vision was about now. It was true that there was a genuine threat to Atalanta’s life in the future—a series of events that would lead to the moment at the Temple of Kybele. But I could see a more immediate threat. A threat that was not the hydra.
Atalanta’s greatest enemy… was herself.
She didn’t need anyone to save her. She didn’t need a hero to swoop in and eliminate all of her enemies. She could save herself. No matter how much she hated the hunt for the Kalydonian Boar, it still made her a hero. She still saved people. She still had the power to make the world a better place.
What she needed… was a friend. Someone to stand beside her at the top—on the pedestal everyone put her upon. The men vying for her hand in this damnable race saw her as a trophy—a prize to be won. They would never be her friend. The man in the vision… Hippomenes… He could never be her friend, not until he let go of the idealization in his head. This would not end, not even after the race’s resolution.
Atalanta was alone. She felt cornered. And what do cornered animals do? They bite. And this time, she was biting the hydra.
I still didn’t believe I was a hero. I couldn’t save anyone. We honestly would probably both die today. But… Atalanta deserved a friend. She deserved someone to stand by her side just once in her life.
Every fiber of my being told me to leave, simply out of self-preservation. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t abandon her to this fate. Akantha was right. My heart was far too big for my own good.
I unsheathed my bow and followed after her.
The rain continued to pour, the thunderstorm raging on in the distance.
Atalanta had gotten farther ahead than I would have liked. She disappeared into the brush, so I had no choice but to search for her. I did my best to remain quiet, but it was hard while walking through water and trudging through mud and gods know what else. My stomach churned at the foul stench emanating from the waters. I wanted to get out of here as soon as possible… but I doubted I would leave alive.
The twisted, sagging trees began to open up. I spied a clearing in the distance. I immediately darted to hide behind one of the trees. I heard movement ahead of me—loud splashing. Cautiously, I peered around the tree.
There it was—the hydra.
It was as horrifying as I imagined… and more.
The hydra was a writhing mass of heads, even as it slumbered on a mound of moist dirt. I counted seven of them. It was covered in sickly green scales, which glinted with a layer of mucus. It had a thick, heavy set body, with a single tail that split off into two at the ends. Spiked fins lined its spine and the back of its legs. Fangs stuck out from under the top of its many lips, reminding me of a snake. And even as it slept, its chest rising and falling, its heads twitching as its many necks shifted, something dripped off its fangs into a smoking pool of green liquid underneath its chin.
A hot humid wind blew in my direction, sending a wave of putrid air right onto me. I barely was able to cover my mouth with my arm before I went into a coughing fit. I sat down behind the tree, the earth squishing beneath me. Gods… there was no way we would survive this thing.
I squeezed my eyes shut. Why did Atalanta want to do this? Why did she want to die so badly? Nothing I said had gotten through to her…
I didn’t want to die. I could still leave. I could turn around and run away. I would return to my clan a failure and a shame. But even that was less of a burden than the thought of just… abandoning her. I couldn’t give up on her. I needed to talk to her. And in order for that to happen, we had to both survive this.
What a daunting task.
But if the hydra was sleeping, what had been splashing? I stood back up, wiping my soaked bangs away from my eyes. I was cold and drenched to the bone, but I didn’t care.
Atalanta the hero might not make it out of here alive, but Atalanta the person would.
I barely knew her, yet… I cared. Something had happened the day we met on Artemis’s Hunting Grounds. I didn’t want her to die, not because it was my duty to protect her because of my quest... but because I didn’t want to lose her. I didn’t want to lose the chance to know this person who had come into my life like a whirlwind.
In the dim light, I spotted a flash of red. I immediately turned to spy Atalanta at the edge of the swamp, to the right of me. Her hair hung heavy, laden with rain. Her bangs were plastered to her forehead, nearly getting into her eyes. She was not so far away that I couldn’t see how her eyes had dulled—the burnt ash of defeat. She looked exhausted. Weary. She no longer carried herself with pride. The fire inside her had died.
Atalanta had come here to die.
She raised her spear. And she charged.
A sickening crunch echoed throughout the clearing as the spearhead cleaved through the hydra’s flesh at the base of its neck. And suddenly all I could hear was roaring. The creature awoke with a fury, heads snaking out and snapping as Atalanta jumped back on reflex. She barely dodged out of the way, nearly losing her balance. Venom splattered everywhere, sizzling whatever it touched. The hydra’s hulking mass moved much faster than anything its size should.
It snapped at Atalanta. Again, she barely dodged. Without thinking, I nocked an arrow and let it fly. It streaked across the clearing, piercing the eye of one of the heads. It hissed in pain, black ichor splattering out. It jerked away from Atalanta, throwing all of its heads violently.
Atalanta looked toward me, scowling. “Odessa?! I told you to go!”
“I’m not leaving you,” I stated flatly, drawing another arrow to the bowstring. “I know what it’s like to feel alone. I don’t want you to feel that pain any longer.”
Atalanta faltered. Again, her anger faded, along with the stiff conviction she carried herself with. She stared at me, mouth hanging open like she had something to say, yet no words were spoken. But the hydra was regaining itself, so there was only a moment to spare.
“We are hunters,” I said, aiming at the monster. “Let us hunt together under Artemis’s blessing.”
Something gleamed above me—a brilliant silver light. Atalanta’s eyes widened as she looked at my forehead. But it was then that the hydra moved.
I jumped out of the way just in time to avoid being drenched in the foul green bile that it vomited at me. The wretched liquid splattered against a tree. The tree began to dissolve.
Well, good to know. Don’t get caught in its poison spit.
Atalanta dropped her spear. “Leave her alone!” She lunged at the hydra, swinging her xiphos.
The sword sliced through the hydra’s neck like butter. The head fell limply to the ground. Hissing in pain, the hydra slammed its tail right into Atalanta. She was sent flying back, crashing into the swamp water. It charged after her.
“No!” I cried.
Erinys swooped down from above. She darted at the hydra, clawing at one of its heads. That gave Atalanta time to roll back onto her feet. But just like the myths said, the stump began to bud. Layers of slimy skin began to convulse, growing larger and larger until it exploded, mucus flinging everywhere. And two more heads shook themselves free. Slime and bits of skin dripped off the freshly grown heads.
“So it does grow more heads,” Atalanta muttered, wiping some weeds off her leg. “Great.”
Nine heads instead of seven. Gods above, how were we supposed to do this?! If I recalled correctly, Heracles had to cauterize the stump every time a head was decapitated, or it would grow back twofold. Unfortunately for us, we were in the middle of a downpour. Fire was impossible.
I needed to think, I needed to plan, I needed to find a way out of this. But there was no time. Atalanta rushed out of the way of all nine heads lunging towards her. She deflected more with her sword. I quickly drew a few arrows and fired, pulling some of the heads’ attention off of her. But now the hydra lumbered towards me.
It went like this for a while. Atalanta avoided the heads, hacking and slashing at the hydra’s body to no avail, while I fired arrows to keep enough of the heads after me. But we could not keep this up. Already, my muscles burned from exerting myself more than I ever had before.
Then I accidentally got too close.
Three of the heads snapped at me. I managed to evade two of them. Atalanta leapt forward, slashing at the neck of the third with her sword. It screeched in pain, writhing away. Blood splattered onto me. It seared into my skin like fire. I cried out in pain, stumbling back. Atalanta let out an angry cry and sunk her sword into the beast’s chest, but it did nothing but anger it further. But she had no choice but to leave the sword there to avoid getting torn apart by all nine heads.
She rushed to fetch her spear. But I couldn’t ignore my burning skin. Desperate, I dropped into the water, trying to find something to end the pain.
I couldn’t do this. I was too weak. I was no hero!
I trembled as I knelt in the vile swamp water, my skin still burning with the virulent blood. I couldn’t tell if I was crying or if it was the rain. I had no idea where Atalanta was; all I could hear was her fighting against the monster. I squeezed my eyes shut.
“Artemis, please…” I breathed. “If you can hear me… please help us. Please. I’m not strong enough. I’m not a hero, I’m not strong. I need your help. Please.”
A gentle breeze blew over me, bringing with it the familiar scent of the woods. A whisper danced at the back of my mind. Believe in yourself, Odessa. Your power is at your fingertips.
I opened my eyes. Silver light sparkled at the tip of my fingers. What on earth…
“Odessa!” Atalanta’s voice snapped me out of my daze.
I looked up at her to see her dart out of the way of the heads snapping at her. She only kept managing it because she was so damn fast. But her voice was strained. She was tiring. She could only do this for so much longer.
“We have to burn the necks! We have to finish this! I can’t-”
More heads came at her. She dodged six and deflected two with her spear. But a single head snaked through her defense. And the hydra sunk its fangs into Atalanta’s shoulder. Her eyes widened in pain. All color drained from her face. She crumpled to the ground, into the swamp water with a loud splash.
No… No… I couldn’t…
My skin still burning, I staggered to my feet. The hydra slowly turned towards me. The light on my fingers shined brightly and the gleaming from my forehead returned. I nocked an arrow and drew back. A beam of silver light consumed the arrow, like a ray of moonlight. It shone as brightly as the sun, raging as fiercely as the agony and fury that consumed my heart.
I let it fly.
Silver streaked across the clearing. It struck the hydra right in the heart. A brilliant flash of light erupted, blinding me. All I could hear was the deafening screech of the hydra grating against my ears. And then silence .
As the light faded away, I saw bits of ash slowly floating down to disappear into the water.
The hydra… was dead. I killed… I killed the hydra.
My knees gave out. I collapsed to the ground in a splash. But I heaved myself back to my feet, forcing myself over to where Atalanta had fallen. I sensed Erinys above, keeping close.
I found her on the other side of the clearing, nearly completely underwater. I dropped down to my knees, scrambling to get her head completely above the stagnant water. Trying not to panic, I took her pulse. Her heart still beat. Her chest still rose and fell with breath. She was alive.
“Thank you, Artemis,” I breathed, holding Atalanta close to me.
But she was hot. Her skin burned with a fever. Her breathing was ragged. Every now and then she twitched. Without a doubt, the hydra’s venom was coursing through her veins. It was a miracle it hadn’t killed her yet. I had to find something to buy us time—enough time to get her back to Lykosoura for magical healing. I doubted there was any natural antidote for hydra venom.
“Erinys!” I looked up towards the hawk. “Artemis’s Breath, hurry!”
She flew off at record speed. Artemis’s Breath was a rare herb considered sacred and magical among the Huntresses of Artemis. It was said to draw out most, if not all, poisons and venoms. If I could find some and apply it to Atalanta’s wound, that would buy us much needed time to get her back home. All I could do was pray that Artemis would leave this sacred flower close to us.
While I waited, I dragged Atalanta closer to soil, giving something more solid for her to rest on. And after that, barely a minute or so later, my hawk returned. She swooped down, dropping a plant in my lap. I quickly retrieved it. A wave of relief rushed through me as I recognized it as the herb I sought—Artemis’s Breath, with its soft silver petals that faded to white at the tips. I plucked off the petals and pressed them against the festering shoulder wound.
A second passed. Then another. And slowly, the color began to return to Atalanta’s skin. The fever began to fade. Her breathing steadied. And the rain began to relent until it stopped completely.
Thank Artemis… I had never been so relieved and grateful before in my life. I felt the weight lift off my shoulders. Now I was sure it was tears budding in my eyes. But I didn’t care. She was alive. I could save her. I had saved her.
I brushed her wet bangs away from her eyes. Now that the majority of the poison had been removed from her body, she rested… peacefully. She was even more beautiful like this, without stress or worry or anger etched into her features. She was finally at ease.
“Don’t ever do this to me again,” I whispered, even though I knew she couldn’t hear me.
And then I kissed her on the forehead.
By the time I got us back to the palace, it was late afternoon. I was exhausted, every muscle and burn protesting as I led my horse through the forest and city. It had taken all my strength to carry an unconscious Atalanta to my steed. She was heavier than she looked. I didn’t bother retrieving our weapons. If they were that important, they could be fetched later.
When we arrived at the palace, chaos ensued. I could scarcely process what happened other than Atalanta and I were both whisked away to be separately treated by healers. Argus went with Atalanta, wherever she was taken. Queen Klymene was the first to come see me as the healer tended to my burns. She was very kind and was relieved that both of us were safe. She thanked me for going after her daughter. Unfortunately, Iasus was not so kind. He was furious over what happened—that Atalanta disobeyed a direct order to go after the hydra.
It all blurred together. Or maybe I passed out. I wasn’t entirely sure. I think I might have hallucinated at one point, because I could’ve sworn I saw Artemis the one time I woke up from my daze and tried to leave my room to find Atalanta. The goddess had shaken her head at me, pushed me back down on my bed, and I blacked out again. I wasn’t sure how long I slept after that.
When I came to, I was still in bed, in my room. I blinked blearily, realizing it was dark, save for the torchlight seeping in from under my door. My body ached as I moved, fumbling to find a match to light the lantern that I knew sat on the short table beside my bed. But I struggled, because I found that my hands and arms were bandaged up past my elbows. My hands shook, but I finally managed to light it.
The lantern illuminated my room with a soft glow. I noticed Erinys nested in the window. Right, she had built the nest last night. I let out a shaky breath, looking down at myself. I was back in my night chiton; I spied the tattered and burned chiton I had worn to the battle tossed aside in a corner. My circlet was set down on another table… which meant that whoever tended to my wounds had seen my divine-mark. Oh well… I ran a hand through my hair, finding tangles and knots. I took a moment to untangle my hair, taking it out of the updo I always wore.
I was… alive. Somehow. I had been burned by the hydra’s blood not only on my hands and arms, but on my chest and shoulders. My upper body was completely bandaged up. The burns protested in pain when I moved. Gods… it would be awful waiting for them to heal. And with how my arms kept shaking, I wasn’t sure how useful I’d be to anyone. I’d have to finish this quest in a weakened state.
It had only been a day since I had first arrived and yet… so much had happened.
But I needed to see Atalanta. I needed to know she was okay.
I hauled myself onto my feet, wincing in pain as my burns disagreed with the movement. Shivering in the cool night air, I fetched my black himation and slipped it on. Once I had strapped on my sandals—which I saw had been cleaned of swamp muck—I left the room.
It was late, but not late enough for everyone to be asleep. I spotted some servants going about with their work. When they saw me, they hastily bowed and hurried along to do their duties. As I walked down the hall, the door to Atalanta’s room opened and out stepped Queen Klymene. She quietly closed the door behind her. As she turned to continue on her way, she noticed me.
“Ah, Odessa.” She gave a gentle smile as I approached. “It is good to see you up on your feet. How do you feel?”
“Awful,” I told her. There was no point in hiding. “Everything hurts… especially the burns.”
Her smile grew sad. “The healers did the best they could. They saved your skin, but said you will have scars.” She sighed, closing her eyes. “I never imagined that the hydra’s blood would be so caustic.”
“I have the lesser wounds,” I said, shaking my head. “How is Atalanta?”
Klymene winced, wrapping her arms around herself. “She rests now, but… she first awoke when her father was present. Iasus and Atalanta… do not have the best relationship. She never forgave him for leaving her on a mountain to die. Not that I can blame her—I myself have struggled with that for years. But awaking to his fury… was not what she needed, I am afraid. She…”
I tensed. “What happened?”
Klymene reached up to wipe a tear from her eye. “Atalanta always sleeps with a dagger under her pillow. Iasus upset her so much, she… tried to stab herself with it. The guards stopped her, but… she is now under their constant watch.”
My eyes widened with shock. I knew she wanted to die, but… to that extreme… I did not expect it. I thought after our survival, perhaps she would want to live. I supposed that was a naive wish.
Klymene squeezed her eyes shut. “I wish I had been there instead.”
I bit my bottom lip. “...May I see her?”
The queen opened her eyes, the bittersweet smile returning. “Of course you may, my dear. You are forever a friend to our family, after everything you have done for Atalanta. You will always be welcome here.”
She took my fingers, the only unburned part of my hand, gave a gentle squeeze, and then went on her way. Queen Klymene was such a kind woman… I could only imagine the pain she felt, seeing her daughter in such a horrible place, and being powerless to help her. I watched her for a moment, my heart aching for her. For Atalanta. For this insane situation I was now far too deep in.
I turned to the entrance to her room. I lightly knocked and then opened the door, peeking in. Indeed, just like Klymene said, two guards were stationed in the room. When I stepped inside, the guards nodded to me and left. Thank the gods. I wondered if Klymene had told them to give us privacy. Regardless, I was grateful.
Atalanta’s room was… cozy. Every piece of furniture in the room, from chairs to couches, were covered in furs. Trophies hung on the walls—the head of a stag, a lion, and a leopard to name a few. There was a weapon rack, heavy with a longbow and a number of spears, the spot where her xiphos must have rested blatantly empty. There were a couple of windows, with the same thin curtains as in my room. Unlike mine, there was a fireplace, where untouched logs sat. Under one of the windows sat the bed. And propped up by a few pillows, laying under soft furs, was Atalanta.
A wave of relief rushed through me, as I finally got to see that she was alive. Unlike the one in my room, her bed was more like a kline. Thankfully, there was a stool nearby that I grabbed so I could sit down to be at her level, without invading her space.
“Chaire,” I said. “How are you feeling?”
Atalanta turned her head to look at me. She appeared much better than when I last saw her. The color had returned to her skin, no traces of the sickly venom remaining. Her shoulder was bandaged up. Her hair was pleated in the usual braid, to keep it out of the way. But the fire had not returned to her eyes. Despite appearing healthier, it was obvious she was exhausted. I knew that look anywhere—the look of defeat.
“Odessa.” She turned away. “What do you want?”
“I…” I hesitated. “I came to see how you were doing.”
“Don’t bother.” Her voice was laced with bitterness, as her hands clenched into fists on her lap. “I’m sure there are plenty of other people more worth your time.”
“Don’t say that-”
“Why do you care?!” Atalanta suddenly snapped, sitting up straight. “You just came into my life, spouting bullshit about Artemis that I couldn’t care any less about, and now you’re still here?! Is this more of my punishment? Does she have to make my life any more of a living hell?!”
“What? For gods’ sakes, I care because you’re my friend!” I snapped, scowling. “Do you still think I did all of that because of hero worship? Contrary to what you may believe, I saved you because I see you as a friend. This has nothing to do with Artemis or a stupid quest. I don’t want you to die, Atalanta.”
She glowered at me. “You don’t even know me.”
“Then let me get to know you!” I sighed in exasperation. “Look… I understand, okay?” I took a breath to steady myself, to calm the anger now burning inside me. “I understand… that you’re in pain.” I reached out, my hand still shaking, to take one of her enclosed fists. I forced my fingers under hers, making her open her hand so I could hold it. “It’s true that I have no idea what has pushed you to feeling so… hopeless. And it’s true that I can’t fully understand how much agony you’re in, to wish your own death. But I can see it with my own eyes. You think Artemis has no heart, so her followers must not either. But that is far from true. My… My heart aches for you.”
Atalanta stared at me for a moment, before looking down at our fingers. Her hand was calloused in a similar way as mine—as an archer would have. She ran her thumb over my fingers, letting out a sigh.
“I never wanted any of this.” She tightened her grip on my fingers, still careful not to touch the bandaged part of my hand. “I was on the top of the world. I was a hero. I had everything I wanted. But everything that I thought I had turned out to be a lie.”
“I promise you…” I let go of her to cup her face in my hands, leaning closer to her without really realizing it. “None of this is a lie.”
And I leaned forward to kiss her.