Cassandra's happiness continued to flow down her cheeks while she trembled from the wind running over her damp clothes. In time, her body's chill overtook the excitement from her unbelievable good luck, and she stopped crying to rub her hands over her arms. It did little to help.
"Cas...sandra..." A pitiful voice moaned. "Cassan...dra?"
As Cassandra approached the voice's source, guilt at not immediately assessing the damage done to Apollo after the danger had passed gripped her. She kneeled in the mud beside him and examined the mess before her. She gulped.
Oh, gods, he looked horrible.
The chimera's sharp claws had torn bone-deep scratches all over his torso, neck, and face; the loose skin of the cuts wiggled with the gusty wind. His hunting achiton resembled a shredded rag. Blood and saliva from the monster mixed with Apollo's own blood and clotted all his wounds.
His calf looked the worst, though. A chunk of skin and muscle was missing from the side. Stark white bone glinted at her through the gore.
The sight of it reminded her of the time she and Helenus, age eight, had climbed trees. Like always happened, a friendly competition had started between the two, and each one attempted to get higher than the other. Cassandra had been winning that day,
and in Helenus' riled desire to beat her, he hadn't paid attention to the thin branches above him.
Cassandra had noticed and cried out to her brother, but too late. Helenus had grabbed the wood and tried to hoist himself up, his tongue stuck out at her. A moment later, a loud snap had filled the air, and Helenus crashed to the earth.
A scream had followed and had Cassandra shimmied down the tree to investigate. She'd found Helenus on his back, his right arm underneath him in the most uncomfortable-looking position. A bone had broken through the skin, and though astonished, Cassandra had reacted quickly, and her brother hadn't had to suffer too long.
Cassandra summoned the strength she'd had as a child and attacked the situation. She tore the bottom of her soaked achiton and pulled away a nice-sized piece of material. Cassandra wrung out what water she could, then folded it to fit in her hand. She reached for the most terrible place on Apollo's face.
Apollo's fingers wrapped around her wrist and stopped her. His eyes blazed like miniature suns.
"The mon...ster? Where is...it?"
"Over there." Cassandra pointed at the unmoving carcass. "Don't worry. I killed it."
A smile stretched Apollo's bruised, puffy lips, and he dropped her wrist. "Really, you? That's incredible."
Cassandra shrugged. "I did what I had to."
"You had the option of running. You should have done so."
Cassandra frowned. "Then the chimera would have—You'd be a lot worse off than you are."
"I'd have deserved it for the way I treated you." Apollo grasped her hand in both of his and sat up; he expelled a pain-filled grunt. "Dear Cassandra," he whispered, then cleared his throat and forced the agony from his expression. "Can you forgive me for how I acted earlier? It had nothing to do with you. A small family matter set me on edge, and I was terrible to take it out on you."
His warm gaze brought a blush to Cassandra's cheeks. "You're not terrible." She looked at the piece of wool she held. "Everyone has days like that. I'm just glad to find out it was nothing too serious. I was worried about you."
Apollo brushed his fingertips against her chin. "You're an amazing mortal. I was blessed the day you shot me."
The heat of Apollo's touch and his gentle tone had Cassandra's heart pounding much faster than her encounter with the chimera. A strange fluttering erupted in her stomach. She rationalized it had to be left over nerves from the attack finally kicking in.
Of course, it was, Cassandra told herself. What else would have her emotions spiraling inside her?
Silence engulfed them, and Cassandra pulled away from him as politely as possible. Apollo sighed.
To end the quiet and Apollo's irked feelings, Cassandra pointed at his calf. The bleeding had stopped, and new muscle already hid the bone. "I'm so glad you're healing."
Apollo glanced at the fading wound and nodded. "It won't take long for me to fully recover. It'd be much faster if I had ambrosia."
"Too weak still?"
"No. The Council," Apollo pointed at the sky, "believes it's too dangerous for us gods to have it on us when we're around mortals. They're terrified one of you may steal it."
"Wouldn't it kill a mortal if they consumed it?"
"That was my point, but others couldn't overcome their paranoia, so they made a preposterous verdict."
Cassandra started to stand. "I should leave and—"
His outburst caused Cassandra to fall onto her rear in surprise.
Apollo took her hand. "Trust me, your presence is better than all the ambrosia on Mount Olympus."
Cassandra blushed again as she repositioned herself into a
better sitting position; Apollo continued holding her hand. "What about medicine? You should know a remedy that will help you."
"I do. Several, in fact."
"Use one, please. I don't like seeing you in so much pain."
Apollo shook his head. "I can't."
"Is that forbidden as well?"
"No, but I don't believe in using my abilities meant for others on myself. I figure whatever I've done that requires aid was caused by me being foolish." The god chuckled. "To date, I've yet to find fault in my logic."
Cassandra smiled, yet her concern remained. "Will you be all right until you return to normal?"
"In no time and with hardly any discomfort, I'll be fit to be ambushed by whatever other monsters want to challenge me. Maybe next time I'll put up a decent fight."
Cassandra laughed. "I'm sure you will."
Apollo dropped Cassandra's hand and leaned back on his palms. "So, what brought you out into this weather? Looking for a thrill?"
"I was angry, too." A pang of hatred jolted through her as she recalled Larciss' vile words.
"I had my first suitor today."
Apollo studied her. "Did he harm you in any way?"
"Not really, no."
"He just implied something horrible about me but forget it. I'm trying to. What he said isn't true, and that's what matters."
Rage flickered in Apollo's eyes. "What's this mortal's name?"
"Please, Apollo, let the issue go."
Cassandra watched him battle his urges and prayed he'd choose the logical outcome. While she wanted unpleasant things to happen to Larciss, she didn't want to unleash a vengeful god on him. She didn't want to be responsible for his death.
A glow engulfed Apollo. Cassandra made to defuse his anger, but before a word escaped her, she sneezed. Violent shaking possessed her body as a bitter coldness spread throughout her limbs. She wrapped her arms around her chest what little heat she could muster.
Apollo's expression changed to concern and his color returned to normal. He pressed his wrist to her forehead. "You're freezing."
Cassandra's teeth chattered. "I'm...I'm just a little c-cold."
"No, you need to go home."
"I want to stay with you until y-you're better."
Apollo pointed at various wounds, now closed and fading into scars. "I am better. You're going home. Don't argue with me."
Cassandra's mind latched onto the promise of warmth home offered. "Yes, my Lord."
Apollo stood. "I wish I could escort you like I should." He wobbled. "I don't trust myself right now, though, to make the trip without collapsing. Do you know your way back?"
He offered his hand to her. Cassandra took it, and he helped her to her feet. She thought he'd release his hold and went to take a step backward, but in less than a heartbeat, he embraced her.
The places where they touched jolted with small pulses. The sensation astonished Cassandra by their pleasantness, and she couldn't resist pressing herself nearer. Apollo's scent engulfed her then, as spicy and fresh as the air at dawn. She breathed deeply, committed his smell to memory.
Just as quickly as he'd hugged her, Apollo placed a firm kiss on her forehead, right above her eyebrows. A searing pain spread from the spot and crawled toward her eyes. Cassandra gasped as she tore away from the god. Terrifying blackness replaced her sight.
She pawed at her eyes. "What did you do to me?"
Apollo offered no reply.
A scream built in Cassandra's throat when the blackness dimmed. She made out a distinct shape which she latched onto. As she focused, the shape became a shadowed figure holding an
object—a bowl, maybe a ball—away from itself. A dazzling white dove, a small, yet fierce-looking owl, and majestic, rainbow-painted peacock appeared before the figure. The figure swung its cupped hands back and forth between the birds.
Dread flooded Cassandra's veins as the scene faded and her opened eyes could see the gray woods once more. Nausea overcame her, and her heart pounded. Somehow, she knew she'd just witnessed a dramatic future decision, one with a disastrous fallout.
"What did you see?"
"I...I don't know exactly." Cassandra fixed her squinted gaze on him. Unexpected anger consumed the sickness and horror brought on by the recent episode. "What did you do to me?"
Apollo wouldn't meet her eyes. "Don't be upset with me." He spoke to his feet. "I couldn't stop myself. You deserved something grand for everything you did today."
Apollo raised his head and met Cassandra's hot glare. "I've given you a great gift."
Oh, no, Cassandra thought. Whatever he'd done to her had instantly and irreversibly changed the course of her life.
"What is it?"
A tentative smile crossed Apollo's almost healed lips. "The gift of prophecy."