“The War on Heaven” by Katelynn Gilbert
That night, the thunder that rattled her bones and deafened her ears was not caused by Zeus’s fury. It was the battle cry of the hundreds of mortals that had gathered together to lay siege to Olympus. Though somewhat muffled, the echoes could be heard through the layer of clouds that naturally obscured the palace of the Heavens from the sight of the multitudes below. The impact of their heavy footsteps upon the barren, craggy surface rattled the mountain to its core. While few had dared to trespass on that sacred site before, those same feet would leave deep impressions in the earth that would remain for eons as a reminder to those that doubted the effect of the raw force of humanity.
From her standpoint by the auriferous gates, Artemis could not pick out any individual faces within the expanse of the mob. Perhaps that had been part of their downfall, she reflected. They had become too complacent by assuming that mortals would be content to worship absent gods for all eternity. By becoming disinterested in the individual, the pantheon had underestimated the human race as a whole.
Long gone were the times of the gods’ champions: Hercules, Jason, Perseus, and Achilles; wasted away until all that was left was mere traces of their feats. They became stories, passed down through the generations by oral tradition, to become naught but myth and legend. To that same effect, the humans had forgotten the harsh punishments that the gods sentenced mortals to for committing such blatant hubris, such as Arachne, who had dared to challenge Athena, and then depicted the gods and all their imperfections. Now, instead of spinning lies, she would weave webs for the rest of her days. Artemis wondered just how many would suffer from the sacrilege of those before her, who even now tried to beat down the gates that they believed separated them from their justice.
Gone were the deep cerulean and indigo shades of twilight, replaced by the blossoming ink stain of night. This in itself told her that her brother had returned, even before she heard his low timbre that was more melodious than the works of musicians he patronized. After all these years though, what still caught her attention was his hair. It gleamed like the polished gold of his chariot and shone as bright as the sun he guided across the sky. Even though the sun had already set, he was as brilliant as if he still carried the light with him, to the point that he became a beacon of light in the pitch darkness of that somber night. She could tell the mortals had spotted him as well, given their rising cries of rage and bloodlust.
“Come away from the gate Artemis, it’s not safe for you here,” Apollo demanded.
He was so like Zeus in that way; never requesting or asking, always presuming that his orders would be followed. His intention was most likely to seem authoritative, but instead he came off as a child imitating his father.
“Is the burden of the sun so light that you would have the moon with you at all times too?” She taunted with sisterly affection.
She was his elder twin by only nine days, but she rarely missed an opportunity to remind him. After all, that was the time when she had been the only light to illuminate the world, before the soft haze of the moon was eclipsed by the sun.
“We have been issued an urgent summons from Father,” Apollo responded irritably. “However, if you’d prefer to wait for the humans to storm the palace, please feel free to do so. Far be it from me to prevent you from making yourself an object for their target practice.”
Artemis silently snickered at how easily her brother could be riled up. She was tempted to ask if Hermes had abandoned his post, and if that’s why Apollo had become Zeus’s errand boy. The threatening creak of the gates kept her from uttering her retort. Her slender, silver bow was propped up against the nearby marble pillar, and she bent over to retrieve it. Auburn locks fell forward to obscure her face and she patiently tucked the unruly strands back behind her ear, with the reminder to braid it back so that it wouldn’t be a hindrance in the heat of battle.
In the few moments it had taken to do this, Apollo had already grown impatient and began to march away. Inwardly, Artemis rolled her eyes in annoyance, but luckily the short tunic she wore allowed her to lengthen her strides and catch up to him easily. The doors were wide open as they approached, saving them the trouble of having to knock or make an elaborate entrance. When they crossed the threshold, Zeus was pacing furiously back and forth across the floor of the room (she was curious if the throw rug would last under the abuse, or whether it would be threadbare by the end of the night).
Waiting for him to acknowledge their presence, the contrast that she and her brother presented when they stood side by side struck her yet again. They were twins, and yet they couldn’t be more unalike. Beside her brother’s tall, broad frame which was covered in sun kissed skin, she quite literally paled in comparison. Apollo was like Zeus, in the sense that they were both passionate and expressive in all that they did. Artemis, on the other hand, tended to reveal little of what she was actually thinking or feeling. Just as the moon waxed and waned for the better part of its cycle, she kept parts of herself hidden from the scrutiny of others.
Also, there was the fact that the two men in the room with her exuded confidence as easily as they breathed. It seeped through their skin, giving them an otherworldly glow that superseded the presence they exuded before mortals. While she had no lack of self-confidence, she was much more quiet and reserved about it. Given consideration, she was more similar to her half-sister, Athena, than her father or brother. Both women preferred to organize their thoughts before voicing their opinions out loud. Thus, it was unsurprising that in this instance, Apollo was the first to speak up.
“Father, the hordes are practically breathing down our necks. Why have you yet to convene a war council?” Apollo asked briskly yet respectfully.
Zeus sighed wearily and Artemis noticed just how ravaged his appearance was. His clothing was in complete and utter disarray, his dark hair was disheveled from running his fingers through it one too many times, and there were hints of purple bags under his eyes.
“If only it were that simple.” Zeus finally stopped his pacing to sit down on the edge of the bed, and buried his face in his hands. “They have come prepared to end an era, and we have no tools in our arsenal to repel them.”
“All the gods in Olympus, and you’re telling me that not one of them is powerful enough to overcome a collection of mere mortals?” Apollo asked incredulously.
“They have destroyed the seats of our power. The temples have either been burned to ashes or reduced to rubble, the priests and priestesses hunted to extinction. Then there is what’s left of the faithful, who have been so suppressed by fear that they hardly dare to think of a prayer, let alone utter one aloud.” Zeus paused to laugh bitterly. “As if that were not enough, they have the very personification of War on their side, along with most of his progeny.”
That explained why Zeus appeared so haggard, Artemis realized, the betrayal of Aries had convinced him that he was defeated before the battle had even begun. Aries was a formidable warrior, not to be underestimated under the best of circumstances; what made him even more dangerous though, was the fact that he had little consideration for the repercussions of his actions. The prodigal son had essentially engineered the destruction of all that Zeus had built, and Artemis pitied the man before her. To say that he hadn’t been a diligent father to her would be a gross understatement; he had never disguised the fact that she wasn’t the preferred sibling, let alone favored among his many offspring. Still, it was difficult for her to gaze upon the aged visage before her and not feel an ounce of sympathy.
“So it is not to be a victory for us, but rather hope for preservation,” Artemis stated bluntly.
“What is it that you’re suggesting?” Zeus questioned.
His voice still contained a hint of fatigue, yet he had found the motivation to lift his head once more, so that his electric blue eyes met her silver ones. He gazed at her as though she were their last chance at salvation, which gave her no small amount of satisfaction.
“We must make ourselves a drop in the ocean,” she explained. “If we shed our immortal bodies, and allowed ourselves to be reincarnated as mortals, we would be virtually undetectable from the rest of the human masses. They would never expect us to willingly relinquish that which substantially defines us as gods.”
“That is because it is madness!” Apollo erupted. He deferred to their father, but he had no such policy when it came to her. “You’re asking us to throw ourselves from one disaster into another.”
“No. I’m giving us time, which is what we desperately need right now, more than anything.” Artemis continued. “These immortal bodies are no asset for our survival if they are simply the vessels we choose to die in.”
Apollo opened his mouth to no doubt yell at her again, but was silenced by Zeus’s response. “She is right. As much as I hate it, at this point it is our only option.”
For once, Apollo didn’t capitulate to their father’s decision. “Humans are weak; there are some among the pantheon who will die in this endeavor. Not to mention the fact that there is no guarantee we’ll even remember our past lives.”
Zeus backhanded her brother across the face for his insolence. “I am the King of Olympus, and I am the only one who shall make this decision for us! Whatever happens, I will accept responsibility for it, so long as we survive long enough.”
Even among the gods it is only the strong who survive, Artemis mused. The flush of red marring Apollo’s otherwise flawless features, was a reminder of how Zeus had kept his throne for so long. Artemis wished she could comfort Apollo, but did not want to further encourage Zeus’s sudden rage. He was as ruthless, if not more so, than his son Aries when there was something that he wanted. A long list of defiled maidens and wronged husbands could attest to that much. Her brother fell silent and would not meet her gaze, no matter how desperately she tried to catch his eye.
Together, the three of them had just enough power left to lay the groundwork for the spell. It was rough, and lacked some of the intricacies that could alleviate problems down the line, but their time was at an end. The crash of the gates of Olympus collapsing, under the weight of the mortals’ hatred and despair, resounded throughout the palace. After that, it was as though a nightmare from the gaping depths of Tartarus had escaped, and had emerged on their very doorstep.
In unison, Artemis and Apollo drew their bows and positioned themselves into an archer’s stance. Artemis was glad that she had her hunting knives with her as well. Just the fact that they were indoors put them at a disadvantage, coupled with the limitations of bows in close combat. When Artemis turned to ask Zeus for assistance, he had already disappeared. Trust the King of the Gods to be content to let others fight his battles for him. She cursed the elder god, and returned her attention to the entryway when the slight rustle of cloth warned them someone was nearby.
That moment of inattention cost her dearly, as a spear cut through the air and impaled itself in her side. The force of the impact knocked her to the ground, where she could only stare in horror at the shaft of wood that skewered her body. Strange, foreign symbols were carved along it. Weakly, she gripped the smooth wood of the spear, and tugged at it helplessly. The shaft would not budge; it was too firmly lodged within her. Apollo shouted her name and immediately rushed to her side, where ichor flowed freely from the wound and stained the tiles beneath her. With a single wrench he ripped the spear from her side, and she gasped at the renewed onslaught of pain that assaulted her. Tearing a strip of cloth from his tunic, he quickly balled it up and stuffed it in her abdomen to try and plug up the gaping hole.
A shadow fell over their huddled forms, as her attacker stepped forward to finish them off. She couldn’t see the man’s face since Apollo was blocking her view, but she caught the scent of crisp cinnamon that seemed to dance around them. Artemis willed her brother to turn, to defend himself from the man that was determined to exterminate them. It was too late for her, but she couldn’t bear to watch him be cut down in front of her. He was her little brother, she should have been able to protect him. She could not master the breath to speak, and no matter how much she pleaded with her expression he kept gazing at her with melancholy, sapphire eyes.
Sapphire eyes that widened in surprise when the assailant stabbed him from behind with a bronze sword. Apollo stiffened momentarily, but collapsed next to her when the man withdrew his sword and promptly departed. If only he had taken the scent of cinnamon with him, for she felt it practically choking her. She searched for her brother’s hand frantically, so that he would at least know that she was still there. At last, she was able to grasp the calloused palm, and she felt a measure of relief when he clenched back briefly to acknowledge her.
“You brought me into this world Artemis. You were the first face I saw, and now you’ll get to be the last.” His voice was so soft that she had to strain with every fiber of her being to hear him.
Her soul wept at these words, and she could only reply silently and hope that he heard her. In the next life I may not be your sister by blood, but I will love you no less than the moon, who yearns to be with the sun she never sees.
That night, the thunder had no end. Artemis, goddess of the hunt and the moon, fell. It was not long after, that the rest of the Greek gods followed.
That night was the night of my birth, as Neoma Andronikos.