The Hunting Game
ON SILVER-WINGED MAGIC SANDALS, Artemis zoomed through the Forest of the Beasts, her feet gliding just inches above the mossy forest floor. “Come out, come out, wherever you are,” she singsonged under her breath.
Dodging tree trunks and ducking under low-hanging vines, she listened carefully for any unusual sounds. Her keen dark eyes searched the dense woods. Her favorite bow—its limbs made of curved, polished olive wood—was at the ready. A tooled leather quiver of arrows was slung across her back. She could pull one out and have it nocked and aimed in a split
second, as soon as it was needed.
Behind her, Artemis heard Athena whizzing along in winged sandals as well. And following her were Aphrodite and Persephone. All four goddessgirls wore ankle-length flowing gowns called chitons, and their skirts whipped in the breeze as they zipped through the forest of olive, fig, and pomegranate trees, their feet never quite touching the ground.
They had come here this afternoon for one purpose: to duel with some of the slimiest, smelliest beasts ever to roam the Earth. Armed with magic-tipped arrows, the goddessgirls had already defeated a she-dragon called Echidna and bested a goat-headed Chimera. Now they had only ten minutes left to find the third beast they were tracking.
Winning this one final battle of good versus evil was critical. Something very important hung in the balance.
The first Friday of every month, all the goddessgirls and godboys in their Beast-ology class left Mount Olympus Academy and came down to Earth. Here in this forest, for an entire hour, they played games of skill that Professor Ladon had created to test them. How lucky that she and her best friends were in the same class and that they’d all been assigned to this section of the woods!
Defeating three beasts today would mean an A for each of the four girls. Getting only two was a B, one a C, and coming up empty meant having to repeat the test until they got it right. Artemis had never ever gotten less than an A in the Beast-ology games, and she didn’t want this to be an exception. Today was her birthday, after all. Another A would be the perfect gift to herself.
As she entered a clearing, Artemis heard a snuffling sound. The gray-green leaves of a nearby grove of olive trees rustled, disturbing finches and warblers, which flew away in a great flutter of wings. She slowed, motioning silently to her friends to alert them that something was up.
“It’s lurking. Over there!” Artemis called softly as the others drew up beside her. Just then the wind changed direction, and she got a whiff of the creature. Ugh.
It smelled like swamp gas, wet dog, and cow patties all rolled into one.
Persephone groaned and fanned her hand in front of her naturally pale face, causing the bangs of her curly red hair to flutter. “Doesn’t exactly smell like flowers, does it?” A skilled gardener, she could make anything bloom at the touch of a finger.
Athena wrinkled her nose. “Maybe like skunkweed.”
“I hope it doesn’t turn out to be something that slings slime this time,” whispered Aphrodite. Flipping her long, shiny blond hair over one shoulder, she touched the gold braid edging the neckline of her chiton. “This outfit is new and I don’t want it ruined.” The goddessgirl of beauty, she liked to dress well. She had an outfit for every occasion. This one was a bright robin’s egg blue that matched her eyes. Circling her slender waist was a belt made of woven grapevines. Since Aphrodite set most fashion trends at Mount Olympus Academy, every goddessgirl at school would probably be wearing a belt just like it before the week was out.Stomp. Stomp. Stomp
. The ground shook as the beast lumbered closer. Goose bumps rose on Artemis’s arms. She’d rather eat a scarab beetle than admit it aloud, but she was scared. Because she was goddess of the hunt and was skilled at archery, everyone at school assumed she was brave. Her friends depended on her to lead them in these hunts. Even now the others were waiting for her to tell them what kind of beast they’d found. And she had a hunch she knew what it was!
Raising her left hand overhead, she held up one finger. Then, after a moment’s pause, two fingers. Another pause. Three fingers. And finally, four. Then, holding up her other hand she showed two more fingers to make six in all. This signaled to the others that they’d probably found a one-headed, two-armed, three-bodied, four-winged, six-legged beast. Just in case they hadn’t gotten the message, she silently mouthed the beast’s name: Geryon.
At the news, Athena got the determined look on her face that she always did just before taking a test she wanted to ace. Persephone pinched her nose closed, as if preparing for the worst smell ever to get even worse as their opponent came closer. And Aphrodite glanced down at her stylish blue chiton, looking more than a trifle concerned.
Seconds later a giant creature jumped out of the woods into the clearing. At the sight of it, goose bumps rose on top of the goose bumps Artemis already had. The Geryon was big. It was bad. It was beastly. It looked just like the one whose features she’d memorized from her Beast-ology textscroll.
Although she loved to hunt, she wished they’d shoot at regular targets. Sometimes the beasts Professor Ladon designed for these tests seemed so . . . so real.
She had a hard time remembering they were fake.
“You called this one right as usual,” confirmed Athena from behind her. “Watch out, the class textscroll says they have particularly vicious talons and wily ways.”
“And bad breath,” added Aphrodite, holding her nose now along with Persephone.
The Geryon licked its green lips, eyeing them each in turn. Then it turned and waggled its three rear ends so its trio of long tails swept back and forth in the leaves. “Nah nah nuh nah
nah,” it taunted softly. All the while, its blazing red eyes watched them over its shoulder to see if they’d take the bait and move closer. When they didn’t, it held a hand toward them. It poked one foreclaw out and curled it over and over, beckoning them to follow it into the intricate maze of bushes beyond it known as the labyrinth. There was rumored to be some sort of fantastical beast-making machine in the center, which Professor Ladon had specially designed to spawn their opponents for these games.
“Ye gods,” Athena whispered. “Does it really think we’ll fall for that?”
“No way we’re following it into that maze,” Artemis agreed, her voice shaking. Then, worried that her words might have sounded cowardly, she added in a confident voice, “Let’s try to lure it closer. I’d like to get a good shot at that big green patoot.”
Persephone giggled, but with her nose pinched tight, it sounded more like a snore.
“Okay, but not too close,” said Aphrodite, glancing nervously down at her chiton again. The beasts couldn’t harm the goddessgirls, who were immortal, after all. Still, these horrible creatures had ways of making students . . . uncomfortable. Artemis had had her hair singed once in third grade and had gotten a rash from a poisonous dart shot from a serpentine tail in fifth.
“Let me try something,” said Persephone. With that, she bent low to a bed of weeds, then blew across it. Seeds encased in fluffy puffs of white whooshed toward the beast. As if on cue, the creature began sneezing. And with each sneeze, it bounced a little closer to them.
Persephone grinned. “Dandelions. Geryons are allergic to them. Works every time.”
Suddenly the beast stopped sneezing and let out a huge triple snort from its three giant, hairy nostrils. It planted both hands on its hips. Its eyes flashed red and beady on each of the goddessgirls in turn, as if it was trying to decide who to gobble up first.
“Uh-oh,” said Athena. “Somebody looks annoyed.”
“Quick! Fan out. As a group, we’re too easy a target!” Artemis told them, trying to keep the panic she felt out of her voice. Not seeming to notice how breathless she sounded, the others took her direction and fanned out around the beast in a semicircle.
Persephone, who’d probably seen far more fearsome varmints when she visited the Underworld with her friend Hades, kept her cool. “Got this one?” she called softly to Artemis.
Hovering just inches above the ground in her magic sandals, Artemis’s fingers trembled as she slipped an arrow from her quiver. “Yeah, under control,” she murmured with her usual show of bravado. She nocked the single arrow in her bow but didn’t pull back the string quite yet. She didn’t want to shoot one of her friends by accident! “C’mon, just a little
closer,” she crooned, eyeing the beast.
The Geryon’s eyebrows bunched together like angry caterpillars. It gnashed its five green teeth and pawed its clawed hooves in the grass. But because they’d spread out, it couldn’t seem to decide who to attack first.
That is, until Aphrodite piped up. “It’s going to charge!” Even when she was terrified and shouting, her voice as beautiful as she was. Drawn by its lovely sound, the Geryon’s frightful gaze focused on her. Its lips curved in a gruesome grin. It gnashed and pawed a little more, but this time it was just for show. Clearly, it had chosen a victim. With a mighty lunge, it charged toward Aphrodite. She shrieked again, so scared that she dropped her bow. “It’s c-coming!”
Artemis zipped toward her, moving sideways, always facing the Geryon head-on like ...