I woke up when my face hit the hardwood floor next to my bed and was still processing the shattering of my cheekbone when I jumped up, grabbed my bow and arrow, and whipped around, ready to let fly. My breath heaved. My heart pounded within my throat. My face throbbed. But there was no one there.
On my bedside table, my cell phone vibrated so hard it shimmied toward the edge. That must have been the culprit. Not Artemis and Apollo bursting into my room, wielding hunting knives and whips and machetes. I saw my friend Wallace Bracken’s face smiling out at me from the screen, shoved the bow under my arm, and grabbed the phone.
“Hey, True,” he said. “I just wanted to tell you that me and Mia? We’re not gonna work out.”
I dropped the bow and slumped back down on the bed. A dart of white-hot pain shot from the crest of my cheekbone through my eye. I touched it gingerly.
“Huh?” Wallace asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “What happened with Mia? I thought you guys were having fun yesterday.”
“We were, but it turns out she’s a PC girl,” Wallace said. “And I cannot go out with a PC girl.”
“Wait, what? You mean she’s politically correct?”
Wallace laughed heartily. “No, no, no. She has a frickin’ Dell computer. And a Windows 8 phone. I’m an Apple guy. The two don’t mesh.”
I sighed. “Wallace. You can’t be serious.”
He was. Dead serious. The boy lived for his tech. And besides, he couldn’t have liked her much in the first place, if he was willing to let her go over something so trite.
“Okay, fine,” I said. “Well, you tried.”
“Yeah, I guess. Thanks for your help. Maybe I’ll stop by Goddess later and drown my sorrows in a peanut butter cupcake.”
“It’s on me,” I told him.
We hung up the phone, and my shoulders curled inward. Late last night, when I hadn’t been able to sleep, I had started to foster the tiny hope that Wallace and Mia might be my third couple. They’d looked so happy yesterday at the football game. Maybe they’d find true love, finally fulfilling my bargain with Zeus, and send me and Orion home to Mount Olympus to live happily ever after. But of course, it couldn’t be that easy. Nothing was ever that easy.
I got up and winced again as my cheekbone throbbed anew. It wasn’t fun, being the hunted. It wasn’t restful, either. Nor did it make one pretty, if the glimpse of my reflection in the nearest looking glass was any indication. I leaned toward the pedestal mirror on my desk, right next to the hulking sand timer, which was already mercilessly running, marking the time I had left to make my next—and final—love match. Among the details that greeted me were dark circles under my eyes, sallow skin, ratty hair, a sleep crease as deep as the Grand Canyon from my ear to my chin, and a small red bruise forming on my cheek.
But still, I’d made it through the night. Which meant that Artemis and Apollo, my two greatest nemeses who had shown up on Earth the previous evening with the purpose of stalking me like prey, had at least not been sent here with their godly powers. If they had, they certainly would have found me and annihilated me by now. That was something. And after my minor shopping spree at Murdoch’s Outdoors last night, I was now armed with a workable bow and several arrows. When they did find me, I’d be ready.
Suddenly the door to my bedroom flew open. I whirled around with an arrow set in the shelf, string drawn. My mother stood in the doorway, hand on her chest, her short blond hair grazing her perfect chin. Her blue eyes went from bright with concern to soft with relief, and her whole body relaxed. Apparently the fact that there was a deadly weapon trained on her heart didn’t register.
“Oh, good. You’re alive,” she said, dropping her hand. “Between you and your father, you’re going to give me a coronary.”
“My father?” I lowered the bow.
She sighed the particularly weary and yet indulgent sigh that she always reserved for Ares, the God of War, who also happened to be my dear old dad. “He’s downstairs. The brute whirled in five minutes ago with no warning, of course.” She angled herself toward the hallway, holding the door for me. “Come. He wishes to speak with you. And make haste. Hephaestus is sitting with him.”
I dropped my bow and arrow on the bed and pushed my long, tangled hair behind my ears as I slipped by her. My best friend Hephaestus, formerly the God of Fire and Smiths, was not a big fan of my father’s, nor my father of his. They had both been in love with my mother at one time, which normally wouldn’t be a big deal, because pretty much everyone has been in love with Aphrodite. But this was different. A couple of millennia ago, my mother and Hephaestus had been married, and she’d cheated on him with Ares.
So, no—the two of them alone together was not ideal.
When we walked into the kitchen at the back of the house, Hephaestus sat in his wheelchair at the small wooden table, drumming his fingers on its surface. My father stood with his feet planted in front of the sink, his massive arms crossed over his chest, eyeing Hephaestus beadily. Every muscle of his body was clenched, as if he was prepared to pounce at the slightest provocation. His dark hair stood on end, and tiny beads of sweat dotted his upper lip. He wore gray-and-black camouflage pants and a tight black T-shirt with a silver cuff on each wrist, the right one dented and deeply scratched. The other was spattered with dried blood.
“Father,” I said, by way of greeting.
“Eros,” he replied, relaxing only slightly.
I crossed to Hephaestus and sat in a chair next to him. His dark skin shone from his morning workout, and the white T-shirt he wore was soaked through with sweat. He still sported his weight-lifting gloves, which were grayed and torn from use, and his light eyes brightened considerably now that he had more company.
“Good morning,” I said to him.
“If you say so,” he replied, shooting a look past me at Ares.
My mother went right for the coffee, poured herself a cup, and then added some caramel-colored alcohol to it. My nose wrinkled, but I couldn’t exactly blame her.
“What news do you bring from the Mount, Father?” I asked, trying to appear casual and unaffected as I leaned back in my chair.
“You are aware that Artemis and Apollo are here,” he said gruffly. “You are aware they’re out for blood.”
I exchanged a glance with Hephaestus. “My sister Harmonia told us as much. She said Hera sent them here to retrieve Orion, and that the queen knows of our relationship.”
“Does the queen not comprehend that Artemis will kill Eros for this infraction?” Aphrodite asked. “She must realize that Artemis believes Orion to be her own property—that Eros has stolen him from her.”
“I believe the queen wants to see a fight and wouldn’t mind very much if one or the both of you wound up dead,” my father said darkly.
He may as well have grabbed a knife from the butcher’s block and gutted me with it. “What? What quarrel does the queen have with me?”
“She knows your powers have grown. Artemis’s as well. She sees the both of you as a threat to her throne, to her ultimate power,” my father explained. “What better way to deal with it than to let the two of you deal with each other?”
“And if the girls do that, she won’t have to answer to Zeus for the crime,” my mother said slowly. “They will have done the idiot deed themselves. It’s brilliant, really.”
“Thank you, Mother,” I said acerbically.
Aphrodite rolled her eyes to the heavens. “I didn’t say I approve!”
“You have to avoid them,” Hephaestus said. “Make your next match as quickly as possible. Then Zeus will bring you and Orion home, and this will all be over. Once you’re back on the Mount, you’ll have your entire family on your side. They’d be imbeciles to attack you living under Aphrodite’s roof, with the two of you and Harmonia at your full power.”
“No, no, no. You have to take the fight to them,” Ares said vehemently. “Go on the offensive. Surprise them. Hunt them down and take them out.”
“What a shock. The God of War wants to start a war,” Hephaestus chided, causing my father’s lips to curl.
“How dare you condescend to me?” my father spat. “I could smite you where you sit.”
“Boys, if you’d like to engage in a pissing match, I’d rather you do it outside,” my mother said wearily, rubbing her forehead with one hand. “You’ve already given me a headache with your mere presence.”
Hephaestus’s nostrils flared, but he kept his calm. Barely, if the fingernail marks on his armrests were any indication. “Is Zeus still willing to stick to the bargain he made with Eros?”
My father spoke through his teeth. “Yes. He fully intends to restore Orion’s memory and return you both to Mount Olympus if and when you are successful,” he said, bracing one hand against the side of the refrigerator. “If anything, Hera sending Artemis and Apollo after you has only heightened his resolve. There’s nothing those two like better than a battle of wills. She may wish to distract you and see you engaged in battle, but he wants you to succeed, and he’ll do everything in his power to make sure that you do. Then he gets to gloat.”
“The king does love to gloat,” my mother said under her breath before taking another swig. “Congratulations, my daughter, you’ve just won the role of pawn.”
“Well, it’s a relief, at least, to know the king is on my side,” I said, absently pushing at the puffy spots under my eyes. “But still. Maybe Ares is right. Maybe I should fight the twins and get it over with. If I can best them, then perhaps I can sleep again.”
“What?” Hephaestus said. “True, you know how psychotic the twins can be. And there are two of them and one of you. I will fight the best I can, but without my powers or the use of my legs—”
“But I have my powers and they don’t,” I replied, glancing at my father for confirmation. I was still unsure of why my powers were returning to me, but I was glad they were.
“We don’t know that for sure,” he admitted. “Just because they haven’t found you doesn’t mean they don’t have their strength, their telekinesis.”
“Plus, as your mother mentioned, they must be righteously pissed off,” Hephaestus reminded me. “It’s bad enough she knows you rescued him when she couldn’t for all those years, but if she has any clue that the two of you are in love . . .”
“Were in love. He doesn’t currently have any clue who I am, remember?” I said bitterly.
“Is that really what you want to focus on right now?” Ares demanded.
“Of course she does! Orion is the love of her existence!” my mother said. “Or have you forgotten what love means to those of us who can actually feel it?”
“Don’t get on me about that right now, woman! I’m just—”
I stood up, knocking my chair back against the wall. My chest heaved as I fought for breath. I was already so tense I could scarcely see straight. I didn’t need to listen to their bickering on top of everything else. My mother and father stared at me, surprised. It wasn’t often I stood up to them on their own, let alone both of them at once. My fists clenched at my sides as I fought to control my emotions and thoughts. I had to focus.
“Hephaestus is right. If I can make one more love match, this will be over. As far as I’m concerned, I still have a mission to complete.”
I strode past them, out the kitchen door and toward the stairs.
“Where are you going?” my mother asked.
“To work,” I told her. “I’m supposed to be there in half an hour.”
Her jaw dropped, and she set her coffee mug aside. “How can you even consider going out there with the twins on the loose? Powers or no powers, Artemis can still set a trap. She can still stage a sneak attack.”
“She’s right, you know,” my father said from the kitchen. “You must be prepared for anything.”
“What would you have me do?” I asked, throwing up my hands. “Hide here for the foreseeable future? Wait to see what happens if the sand timer runs out and I’ve yet to complete my mission?” My mother and I stared into each other’s eyes, both wishing the other had the answers. “Don’t you want to go home?” I asked quietly, appealing to her most precious desire. My mother hated it here. She had resented me every moment since our arrival for being the one who got us banished to Earth.
“Of course I do. But not at the expense of your life,” she said, reaching out to tuck my hair behind my ear.
I smiled, tears shimmering in my eyes. It was rare that Aphrodite had a maternal moment, and I relished it. Hephaestus wheeled up behind her.
“I’ll go with her,” he offered. “Keep an eye on things.”
“Thank you,” I said, then lifted my chin as I gazed as confidently as possible at my mother. “If we want to go home, I have to complete my mission. One more couple. How hard could it be?”
I jogged up the steps with her on my heels and went to my room. My father decided to follow as well. I could hear his heavy footsteps straining the ancient stairs. I pretended neither of them were there and went to my closet. When I whipped open the door, it gave off a soothing sort of breeze. My eye went directly to a red cotton dress, and I yanked it off the hanger, grabbing a black-leather laser-cut belt that was carved to look like a string of flowers. Couldn’t hurt to dress the part.
“And what will you do if Artemis and Apollo storm your little cupcake bakery?” my mother asked, coming up behind me.
The thought sent a chill right through me. If there was one thing I knew about Artemis and Apollo, it was that they gave little value to human life when it stood in the way of something they wanted. I reached back into the closet and tugged a black duffel bag off the bottom shelf.
“This should do,” I said, unzipping it.
I tossed the dress and belt onto the bed, lifted up my bow and a few arrows, and stuffed them inside. I’d simply have to tell my boss that it was full of workout gear for after my shift. The very thought of having a bow and arrows nearby considerably lightened my mood. There wasn’t much in the heavens or on Earth that could best me when I was armed with my most trusted weapon. I glanced over my shoulder at Aphrodite and my father behind her, giving them a wry smirk.
“Better safe than sorry.”
My father grinned from ear to ear. “That’s my girl.”