The rain fell in a constant drizzle and wouldn't have annoyed her if it wasn't bone-chillingly bitter. It coated Cassandra as she crept farther into the woods; the fantastic bow Apollo had gifted her in her hands. Before long, every bit of her dripped with cold water.
A few times she considered returning home to face the consequences for what she'd done to Larciss, but a mighty rage turned her thoughts away from the warmth of the palace and drove her into the forest's gloom.
Cassandra's eyes flickered over her surroundings, and she prayed to find a creature to hunt. It seemed all the animals had gone into hiding from the storm and she'd have no luck today. She lowered her bow and decided to instead take a stroll and let what little of the beauty of the forest could be seen calm her nerves and drain the fury and hate from her heart.
She climbed over slick fallen logs and damp foliage and found it hard, though, as Larciss' accusation played in her mind. It wasn't true, had never been and never would be. She had nothing but innocent love for Hector. Yes, she was affectionate with him more so than with most her other brothers, but the others had made it clear they were too old for hugs and kisses from her sister. Cassandra would gladly treat them like she did Hector if they only let her.
Thunder boomed and drew Cassandra's attention. Bright blue tendrils of lightning raced over the clouds, then abruptly changed course and grew toward the ground.
"I hope that finds Larciss."
When the intense light left behind by the lightning faded, Cassandra resumed her walk. The rain fell faster, harder. The trees' leaves protected her from the worst, but she still flinched when the large raindrops crashed against her skin. She shook as the wind picked up and danced over her exposed flesh.
Her justification for being in the forest vanished. She had to return home. If she didn't, she'd reside in the Underworld by the day's end.
After arranging her bow and quiver for her hasty retreat, Cassandra found her directional bearings and turned toward the path she knew would lead to the palace. She took one step, and thunder rumbled. The ground shook, and a blinding shock of brightness filled her sight. Dread gripped Cassandra.
She shouldn't have commented about Larciss. She'd angered the Fates, and they'd chosen to retaliate. Cassandra would meet the end she'd prayed her disgusting suitor would.
Cassandra shut her eyes, unable to face her demise with courage. Her teeth pierced her bottom lip, and drew blood, as she asked the gods to make her death painless. It was selfish and brash, but she couldn't help herself.
"Stop being a fool and look at me," a familiar voice demanded.
Cassandra's eyelids flew open. Though small dots of various colors blocked most of her sight, she had no difficulties recognizing the god standing in front of her.
"I thought you were lightning meant to strike me down."
"We're going to hunt." Apollo's voice held an edge that wiped away Cassandra's joy at his arrival.
"What's wrong, my Lord?"
"I want to hunt." He glared at her. "Neither you nor I will leave this forest until we each have taken down a bear."
"My Lord, that's a nearly impossible task, made even more so in this weather. Shouldn't we wait until better conditions to try something so daring?"
Apollo's outline glowed with the intensity of his anger. "We hunt now."
What he commanded was beyond her capabilities, and even if she excelled at hunting bears (which she'd never tried to do before), Cassandra would never hunt in this storm that raged around them. She opened her mouth to press her concern but thought better of it. Apollo's godly fury might drive him to lash out at her if she tried to influence his wishes.
She quelled her nervousness and bowed. "If that's what you want, my Lord."
Apollo snapped his fingers. A full quiver appeared on his shoulder, and a bow materialized in his skilled hands. The chiton and himation he wore changed into a drab and practical achiton that hung just below his knees and covered his head. The delicate sandals he wore became ones any hunting enthusiast would desire.
The sun god's fierce gaze swept over Cassandra, and with another snap of his fingers, her manner of dress transformed to mimic his.
The dry clothes, even if they would only remain so for a moment, lifted Cassandra's spirits. "Thank you, my Lord."
Apollo responded with a curt nod, then turned toward the western part of the woods. "We begin."
Cassandra followed him as they picked their way through the forest at a determined speed. The weather, as if offended by their task, grew more perilous. The rain came down in thick sheets, and Cassandra couldn't see far in any direction. The wind blew so hard she swore it wanted to knock her to her knees.
She opened her mouth to beg Apollo to show her mercy. This was pure lunacy. They wouldn't get a bear.
Good sense closed Cassandra's mouth. Apollo flickered like a candle flame, vibrant against the violent afternoon. Cassandra worried if she spoke, he might get so upset he burst into his true form and burn her mortal body to ash. In his current state, the sun god might not notice or even care.
Though scared, Cassandra also worried about her friend. Why had he sneered when he'd first arrived? And what caused him to mutter to himself now?
Twice she almost questioned him but thought better of it. If he wanted to confide in her, he would. And once his anger cooled, he might tell her; might need her mortal insight.
Not long into their hunting expedition, Cassandra was soaked once more. She shivered as they crept deeper into the trees. Her thoughts turned away from Apollo's mood to her current condition. If they didn't stop, if she didn't get to the safety of her home, she'd die.
Cassandra's lips thinned into an unimpressed line. She refused to go out this way, at least not without a fight. She summoned every ounce of her bravery and forced her shaking to end.
A nerve-shredding hiss cut her off.
Cassandra stumbled as her squinted gaze tried to locate the source of the noise. What had made it? Though it'd sounded like a snake, it couldn't have been one. They'd hidden from the storm like every other sane animal.
On alert, she slowed her pace and took an arrow from her quiver and listened. Heavy, quick footfalls broke branches and overturned rocks somewhere to her right. Cassandra turned in time
to watch a towering figure leap from the coverage of the tall trees. It sailed toward the glowing god in front of her.
The sun god spun on his heel so fast he blurred. He met the creature head-on and slammed into it so hard, when the pair fell to the muddy ground, the earth trembled. They rolled around, broke trees, and uprooted large bushes as each opponent attempted to land a deadly blow.
Cassandra kept as safe of a distance from the fight as she could. She could hardly believe what she saw. The storm obscured much of the spectacle, but Cassandra could identify the monster's enormous lion head and matted chest, its white goat hindquarters, and the scaled tail that ended with a bulbous snakehead. In the middle of the chimera's body, a ferocious-looking goat head swung back and forth; it nipped Apollo every chance it got. The god couldn't avoid the goat head as well as the attacks from the lion head delivered, and holes appeared in his achiton.
As the fight continued, the chimera's tail remained focused on Cassandra. The snake's dull red eyes never left her face. Its yellow tongue flicked out of its mouth, and she swore it smiled as she gaped in horror.
It shamed her to stand in place while Apollo battled the chimera, though she'd never seen a monster before and didn't know how to act. Nothing had prepared her for this.
While she tried to work past her terror, she could only think about the snake's fangs and the venom that dripped from them. She wondered if it'd kill her right away. Or would the venom set her body aflame like she'd always heard?
The chimera's brown snake tail remained content on glaring at her and, in a moment of sheer idiocy, Cassandra's gaze drifted to Apollo and the rest of the monster. The god had freed himself from under the chimera and now danced around it. A blood-covered sword had replaced his bow. The chimera moved with the god and growled while its lion and goat heads snapped at him.
Apollo let out a yell loud enough to rival the storm's thunder and charged the monster.
Cassandra believed the sun god would vanquish his foe. He looked strong and defiant, and the glow radiating from his body was no longer harsh but as welcoming as the moon on a black night. Nothing existed he couldn't defeat.
With quick feet, the chimera pranced out of Apollo's reach. Before he could recover and attack again, the chimera's lion head swung around with mouth wide open and found Apollo's calf. It clamped down, and the god cried out with a mix of agony and fury.
The optimism that had surged through Cassandra's body receded as the chimera dragged Apollo closer and, while the lion's teeth still clutched his calf, raked its front claws over the god's chest and arms. Apollo stabbed the monster when he could, but the
chimera was merciless in its purpose and didn't allow him many opportunities.
Apollo's shrieks lost their angry undertone as the assault raged on and the monster stripped his flesh from his bones. His sword faltered. Ichor stained the ground.
Cassandra didn't know if monsters could kill gods. From specific stories, it appeared they could, but nothing had ever been made clear. If they could, though, it wouldn't be long before the god she'd befriended died. Then the creature would turn on her, and what could she do then? Cassandra was a mere mortal, with a weapon that—
Could kill men, beasts, monsters, and gods.
She readied her bow with the arrow she'd forgotten she held. For the first time since the chimera had attacked, she thought clearly. Cassandra noticed the rain had stopped. The sky still looked gray and cold, but the storm had ended like the gods had decided to give her a real chance at destroying the chimera.
She sent a prayer of thanks as she took aim at the snakehead. The head hissed and drew back. Cassandra ignored it, and when she had an exact shot, she let the arrow go. It flew at its target and embedded itself into the snake's skull. It died the next instant.
The other two heads screamed, and the entire monster whirled around—dropped its current prey—to face Cassandra. She
already had another arrow prepared and didn't allow herself to hesitate as the beast advanced on her. She sought the goat head, and a moment later the arrow shaft jutted out of the head's left eye. The head howled once before it convulsed and went limp.
The final head roared, and the chimera's body crouched low; its hind legs quivered. Murder glinted in its wild eyes. Cassandra would die if she missed her next shot.
The pressure of succeeding threatened to overwhelm her, but Cassandra forced her mind to blank. She adjusted her form and remained calm as she waited to slay the monster for good.
Time slowed to a halt as a stalemate raged between the two, and Cassandra grew worried. If the chimera didn't make a move soon, she'd be forced to reevaluate her plan of attack; she couldn't hold her position forever. Cassandra wished she had a hunting knife on her, but Apollo hadn't given her one, and she never carried one on her at the palace. Any stick she picked up wouldn't be sharp enough to pierce the chimera's flesh, though she wouldn't have time to wrap her fingers around a stick before the creature attacked.
What desperate thing could she do—?
In her peripheral vision, she saw Apollo's battered body jerk, and he groaned. The chimera tensed but its attention stayed on her. Inspiration hit Cassandra. She turned slightly like the god's sudden movement distracted her.
The chimera bought the trick and threw back its lion head to roar and gave her the advantage she needed. Cassandra wasted no time. She fixed her aim, then fired. The monster had no chance to utter another sound before the arrow struck its neck. It severed a main artery, and blood gushed from the wound. A look like surprise contorted the chimera's lion face, and it collapsed in a heap.
Shock stunned Cassandra, and tears leaked from her eyes. For reasons she didn't dare question, the Fates had seen fit when spinning her life's thread to have her overcome the most challenging ordeal in all her years.
"Thank you," she sobbed. "Oh, gods, thank you!"