Golden Idols (Heir of Argos Part 3)
For the final challenge, we were told to write the climax scene of the story. It could be as long or short as we wanted and could be of anything. There were a few bonus points available which I did my best to include.
Sadly, at this point, my team had mostly stopped participating but I had a wonderful time writing up this scene for Daphne, Asterion, and Beroe.
I ended up writing the whole chapter (true over-writer that I am), and I was extremely pleased with how it turned out. I hope you enjoy!
a sea, an apple, and a goddess
The sea was like liquid gold, shimmering, waving, blinding. I reached out my hand to touch it, but hesitated. What if it burns me? I laughed at myself. How foolish. It was only water. But seeing my own reflection staring back at me in all gold, and being afraid of it as King Midas had been afraid to touch anything with his golden fingers, didn’t feel so foolish; gold, after all, I was sure, was the bane of mankind. It seemed I could no longer judge what was foolish or not. My adventures of chasing the golden apple of the Garden of Hesperides had shown me things I would’ve called myth only a year ago. Narrowing my eyes at my golden reflection, I slowly withdrew my hand. I had once been so bold, so ruthless, but the trickery of the Greek world had bred suspicion and caution in me. Where once I would’ve plunged my hand into the liquid gold waters without second thought other than that I was powerful enough to resist the burning I might receive, now I hesitated. Though I wrote down my reckless bravery on the long, long list of things I had lost on this journey, I wasn’t dumb enough to try and gain it back, at least, not now. Since the day I had cried myself to sleep in the rain under that scrawny olive tree after being expelled from my home, I had learned that caution bred survival and survival bred success. I resisted the urge to smirk at the lifeless water beneath me. No, the ocean wouldn’t have me today.
“You’re staring at the water again, highness.” A gruff voice called to me from the mast behind me.
An exasperated smile brightened my consistently brooding face. I had petitioned him so many times to not call me that but he persisted. I had grown fond of the beastly man and it had surprised me that I considered him friend enough to want him to drop formalities. It still even bothered me that Beroe never call me by a royal title and here I was letting a Minotaur of all creatures stand by my side. I stood and turned, looking up into Asterion’s bull face. “I was. You never know what you might find in waters that pour off the edge of the earth.”
His thick brows furrowed and he shook his head, his horns moving from side to side, making me glad he was nearly two feet taller than myself. “I thought you didn’t believe in the flat world.”
A soft murmur of a laugh left my lips. “I don’t, friend. It was a figure of speech.” I left him grunting and wondering, shaking his thick head and stepped up the stairs to the prow of the ship where Beroe stood, her wrinkled hands steadying her on the railing. Her soft, cloud-like hair trailed behind her in the soft wind. I joined her and stared off into the setting sun.
“You know, just because the world is round doesn’t mean you can’t sail right off the edge of it.”
I frowned at the old woman’s words and she cackled, clearly pleased with her own parable.
“Don’t you think that if the river Styx can lead souls to the underworld that the ocean wouldn’t be able to take souls to places much greater than that?”
“Perhaps,” I drawled quietly. Maybe deep down I believed her. After all, why not? Stranger things had happened to myself.
“One day you will understand, Daphne. One day.”
I narrowed my eyes at Beroe, searching for some clue, a secret maybe, or a truth in the old woman’s face but all I saw was ageless beauty and a few wrinkles in soft, supple skin.
“Ah. There it is.” Beroe extended her hand, a long slender finger pointing to a strip of land on the horizon.
My heart pounded in my chest as I rushed back down the stairs and shouted to Asterion to put the sails to full mast and steer more north.
The island of Hesperides where the Garden of Hesperides grew. The place I had sought after ruthlessly for nearly ten months. A place that should have only existed in myth and legend. A place that would give me back my home. As I readied our travel packs, it felt as if my heart were going to leap out of my chest and join the harpies in their loud, hypnotic drumming that I remembered so vividly from our time at sea. The ship rocked and groaned under me as Asterion steered her to the land. Any other citizen of the land-locked Argos would’ve swayed unsurely, maybe even lost footing, but after so many months on the seas, I felt as if I had become a part of it. As I climbed the stairs, I could hear Beroe singing, but for once I could hardly pay attention to it.
I was really here. Our journey had really come to an end. Despite all we had gone through, it seemed to fade into the past and I couldn’t help but wonder if it could really be this easy. But I couldn’t dwell on it. “Seize the moment. Live the moment,” my father’s words rang in my mind and pushed me on.
As I mounted the last few stairs to the top deck, our ship, the Muse, jolted as it ran aground with the soft sandy shores of the island
My eyes widened like gold drachmas when they rested upon the land I had been searching for.
‘A dream’ was all I could think. ‘It’s all just a dream.’
The air was so soft here, it was as if every breath were like drinking fine wine. I could almost smell the riches of the light that reflected from the colossal waterfall that rushed down a cliff towards the middle of the island, towering over the rest of the land around it.
Now I knew why the apples that grew here were gold. Everything was gold. There was no escaping it. It was if the sun itself lived here and possessed all that it touched.
In a daze, we each shouldered our own packs and waited for Asterion to jump out of the boat first. Then Beroe jumped and Asterion caught her before I did the same.
“Beautiful,” Asterion breathed as he released his arms from around me.
I looked up into his dark eyes and smiled. Gold reflected from his eyes too and his hands fell still at his sides. I don’t think I had ever seen him so happy or relaxed.
My gaze turned back to the island I nodded. “It is.”
“Come, little ones. The Garden is in the center of the island. Not much good we’re doing all the way out here.” Beroe was already trudging through the foot of water, the sand under her toes making it difficult to move very quickly.
I smiled fondly. “Of course. Come, Asterion.” I shifted my pack to my left shoulder and started off after the old woman.
Slowly, we made our way to the solid land and before we knew it, we were standing at the edge of a well trimmed stone path and a stone archway marking its beginning.
“This way.” Without hesitation, Beroe hobbled through the stone gateway and down the path.
I followed a bit more hesitantly and heard the familiar sound of metal unsheathing behind me, telling me that Asterion was just as warry as myself. “Asterion.”
“Retrieve for me the Theatis sickle. Please.” I stood still as he rummaged through the back on my back before it lightened significantly. Turning, I took the weapon from him, the feeling of it’s curved shape in my hands as comforting as a mother’s touch. I dragged the leather from its blade and for a moment was lost in its moonlight white blade. “The monster and god slayer,” I whispered and ran a hand down it’s curved blade. Memories of holding it to Asterion’s throat flashed before me and a shiver ran down my spine. I had been so close to slitting his throat with this very edge, so close to decorating it’s innocently white blade with his hot red blood. I wondered where I would be if I hadn’t learned compassion or that monsters were not all they seemed to be. Just because Asterion was half man half bull didn’t make him a monster. My stepmother however … my hand tightened against the blade and I felt its sharp edge dig into my skin. Rebottling that dormant rage and focused on taking in deep breaths of the sweet air, I forced my feet to move one after the other down the path. That is why I was here, to find something to prove my claim to the throne and take it back. I would gain nothing by loosing my head now.
The thick trees around us seemed to absorb everything except the golden light, including all sound. Our whispers fell flat and didn’t hardly travel farther than our own hearing.
“Wait,” Beroe suddenly hissed, holding up a thin hand.
I froze and felt Asterion move closer behind me, sheltering me with his huge frame. The warmth of his body behind mine was another thing I had gotten used to; it had softened me, caused me to let down my guard since I always trusted he would be by my side to guard me. Yes, I had changed a lot since that day long ago.
It felt as if the forest took a breath, air rushed past us from behind, drawing the golden light with it.
“The sunset nym—” before Beroe could finish, an explosion of burning, blinding light scorched our eyes and flooded our path. Laughter echoed around us hauntingly as if it came from the very light itself.
Silently praising my quick thinking, I moved my hand away from my eyes. They were mostly undamaged, though it was too bright to see much anyways. My skin hadn’t been so lucky and I could feel it tingling with the heat. I didn’t dare look down at my clothes least I be distracted with horror by their burnt state.
My eyes quickly scanned the area. It seemed three figures were moving, darting, in and amongst the trees around us, almost as if taunting, but though we were at the disadvantage, they did not attack.
Asterion roared in anger and pain and I instantly knew I had fared better than him. A stab of panic rushed through me. If Asterion wasn’t able to fight, then we would not only be at disadvantage but possibly already dead where we stood. I gripped Theatis, the god slayer sickle, tighter in my hand and readied my defense, the stances and moves Asterion had diligently taught me over the last few months raced through my mind as I weighed which one best to use. And yet in all the time it took, plenty of time to smite us all, the creatures still did not attack.
Beroe was right next to me, her soft, spindly fingers wrapped firmly around my left arm.
“Where are they? (Greek curse word) creatures! Put away your cowardice and fight me hand to hand!” He bellowed and roared, flailing blindly about. I dodged one of his massive hands, grateful it wasn’t the one holding his massive axe, and was narrowly missed by one of his horns as he swung around, seeking an opponent. His eyes were wide but blood shot and I knew he could see nothing. Yanking Beroe out of the way of his murderous flailing, I determined that he would kill us before our mysterious light opponents would.
“Be still you brute!” After dodging his horns again, I managed to slide close to him and grasp the thick leather straps which crossed along his chest, holding his axe sheath on his back. “I command you to be still!” With all my strength, I pulled down on the straps. Without his sight, he was taken by surprised and I was satisfied when he collapsed to his knees, hot air blowing out of his wet nose and into my face.
“Your highness,” he growled. “Forgive me!”
I nodded before remembering he was as good as blind. “Of course. Just keep in mind that you are becoming more of a danger to us than the light right now.”
He lowed and nodded, suddenly subdue. It never ceased to amaze me how such a monstrous beast could be calmed by a small human like myself.
The mocking laughter grew louder around them as the light grew hotter and brighter. The shapes dancing through the woods grew larger. They hadn’t posed an immediate threat yet, but I couldn’t help but wonder how much longer they would tolerate our trespassing before they became violent.
“Beroe. You nearly said what these creatures are. What are they?” I gripped Beroe’s thin shoulders firmly and gave her a little shake. She too had covered her eyes and could still see a small amount, but she seemed much more frightened than either I or Asterion. A pang of annoyance sweapt through me. “What are they?” I demanded my answer a little too harshly but it seemed to snap her out of her fright, if only for a moment.
“Sunset nymphs,” was all she whispered out before quivering and hiding her face from the light.
My mind raced through all of the mythical creatures I had come across in the past year and those I had learned about during my education years ago but I was drawing a blank. I had heard of tree nymphs and water nymphs but never sunset nymphs. I had no idea whether or not they were malicious at nature or if we were safe.
“My queen, please allow me to fight them. My sight is returning. I could protect us. Please let me.” Asterions’ pleading reached me but I hesitated yet again.
“Hold on …” I stalled, wishing the answer would arrive to me on Hermes’s winged shoes. Something about this decision felt more important than I knew or wanted to think about.
The nymphs still hadn’t attacked, but their laughter was morphing into screams.
Beroe’s lips moved rapidly with silent prayer to Hera.
My heart slammed against my ribs and bile rose in my throat.
I could almost see the shapes more clearly in the forest. They looked like women, only their bodies were made of lava and their hair was tongues of fire. Their mouths were open and angry and their eyes burned white. They drew closer, but I didn’t move. I could barely hear Asterion behind me demanded to be allowed to fight but I ignored him. I shook Beroe off my arm and stepped forward, holding (cool name thing) in front of me, my limbs posed and ready to attack or defend.
The nymphs eyes turned from our faces to the weapon in my hand. Fire exploded all around us and I could feel their rage burning through my skin.
I cried out to Hera before dropping to my knees. As the fire crashed down around us, I knew what I had to do.
I took Theatis and threw it as far as I could into the forest and away from the nymphs. Then everything around us went dark and I could feel no more.
I drifted in and out of what felt like a waking dream. It seemed like it was night for the sky above was dark, but there was so much red sunlight all around me it was hard to tell. Vaguely, I could fell Asterion beside me, his large arm wrapped around me, supporting me as I pushed something into my mouth. The food was impossibly sweet and melted like warm, sugar bread. The warmth spread to my stomach and a peace washed over me. As if I were looking through stained glass, I could barely see Beroe across the table from me, bathed in the sunset light. She looked so much younger, so much more alive than I had ever seen her, but before I could think much of it, I drifted back into the darkness.
When I came to again, I heard Asterion’s deep lowing voice singing something softly. My stomach was full of good food and I hear the voices of the sunset nymphs harmonizing with the minotaur. The music was unlike anything I had ever heard before. It was hypnotizing like the syrin’s song, and throbbed in my chest like their harpies’ drums, but it was as gentle as (whats the gods name) playing his lyre and I never wanted it to end. I had never felt so happy, warm, and safe in all my life. I couldn’t remember why I was here, or what it was that I wanted so badly to do, but I let it go, relishing in only what I could feel, hear, see, and taste in that moment. Asterion’s arms tightened around me as I pressed myself against his thick, warm chest and let my eyelids shut again.
“You will find your way to the Garden, little children of Argos. And when you do, the dragon will do what we did not have the heart to do.”
I distinctly heard the warm, musical voices speaking to me. I cracked open my eyes. I was sleeping next to Asterion and just on his other side Beroe was sleeping too. Fiery beings of sunset light hovered over us and I had to squint to even look next to them.
“Sweet little children.” A fiery hand reached out to me. I tried to move away, afraid it would burn me, but her gentle touch was warm. Perhaps not everything golden was evil after all.
“Thank you for visiting us,” the third nymph whispered. “We don’t get much company. Thank you for your songs and your stories.”
I say one of them pull something from their fiery bodies and I could barely recognize it as Theatis, the weapon I had thrown away to show them peace. They placed it next to Asterion.
“I hope you will pass into the world of heroes.”
“Good night, children. Good night.”
As her hand left my face, I succumbed back into the darkness.
“My queen. My queen, Daphne.”
Strong arms paired with a deep voice shook me awake. For a moment, only a moment, I was back home, in my bed of velvet, fresh sunlight streaming through the window and my father was waking me up. I smiled but then remembered that life was behind me, stolen from me, gone forever, and a bitterness filled its place.
“Ah you’ve awoken, highness.”
I recognized the low humming voice as Asterion. He sounded nothing like my father and I wondered how I could’ve mixed up the two. I mumbled something and his roaring laugh filled the air around us. I couldn’t help but smile as his chest shook under my head, jolting me awake whether I wanted to or not. I pushed myself up and stretched, catching a glimmer of disappointment in his eyes when I moved away. He quickly pulled himself to his hooves and instantly began shoving food towards me.
“Where did you get all this?” I mouthed around a large bite of the sweet, honey bread. It tasted like what I thought gold would taste like if you could eat it, and it didn’t surprise me.
Asterion shrugged as he watched me eat. He had always been extremely intent on making sure I was well fed. He thought I was too skinny, though I could heartily disagree, but I found it endearing that he cared enough about me to worry. I don’t think even my father, as much as I was sure he loved me, had ever thought that much of me. He had always left my health to the servants and maids. I tried to push the thought away from my mind. This was no time for emotions and I angrily chewed the bread and swallowed a bit too much of it with a gulp that drew a strange look from Asterion. Sometimes, it was hard to read his facial features, his head being that of a bull and all, but I used to love teasing him about it. At least, until that one day … shiver ran down my spine and I rubbed my arms.
“Are you okay?” One of his beastly large hands tenderly cupped my small bicep, his dark, large eyes moving back and forth between mine.
I nodded solemnly. Something about this food, about sleeping in this place, feeling the nymphs’ touch upon my skin, had awoken something in me that I had locked away a long time ago. I wasn’t sure I liked it, or even knew what it was but gods be damned if I would let it stop me when I was this close to all I had dreamed for.
“Of course,” I stated affirmatively and gave him what I hoped was a reassuring, but firm smile.
He cocked his head and lowed but proceeded to packing the rest of the supplies without question.
I heard Beroe come out from the bushes behind me and I looked back to greet her. For a moment, I didn’t recognize her.
She looked somehow younger, if that were possible for a woman her age. Her chiton was sparkling white as if it had been spun only yesterday. Her sandals were of new, fine leather, just worn in enough to be comfortable. Though her hair and skin had always looked soft and clean before, now they simply glowed.
She caught me staring at her and cackled in that familiar, almost unnerving way of hers.
“It wasn’t just me, child. Look at yourself.” She gestured to me and I couldn’t help but look down and gasp.
Tears of pure joy brimmed in my eyes as my hands ran down the sparkling, new chiton which draped in perfect folds around my body. My feet were free of the callouses and blisters I had come to resent, and then endure over the months. The burns on my skin from our first encounter with the sunset nymphs were completely healed and instead of my skin being a dark, sun burned brown, it was the soft, supple olive tone I remembered and loved so well—the skin of a true Greek.
“So pretty.” Asteiron’s deep voice rumbled pleasantly and I felt his fingers barely trace my hair down my back.
I froze, a shiver coursing through me. My hair was down my back. I drew a shaking hand to my head, twining a lock of my thick, dark hair through my fingers and ran my hand down, down, down, until my hand reached my hip. If I hadn’t been crying before then, I certainly was now. The nymphs had regrown my hair, my beautiful, lush, dark hair. Asterion was right. It was very pretty. Gratitude abounded within me.
“Why did they do this?” I turned to Beroe for answers.
She merely shrugged and rubbed her hands together before gathering her pack. “I do not know. I assume they expect us to die at the hand of the dragon guarding the tree and wanted us to pass on into Hades’ realm well off.” She held out her hand and twirled three, perfect gold drachmas between her fingers. “They were even so kind as to pay our passage.”
My eyes widened in repugnance but Beroe only cackled more wildly and tossed a coin each to Asterion and I.
“They meant well, really,” she defended the nymphs and I couldn’t help but reluctantly agree. After all, nymphs weren’t known to be well versed in the human ways of dreading death or wishing it away. Truly, they had thought they took fine care of us.
“And they even brought us where we needed to be.” Beroe gestured to behind Asteiron and the Minotaur and I followed her gaze. “The caves of the Garden of Hesperides!”
A surge of anxiety and elation surged through me as I faced the stone tunnels before us. Light streamed in through cracks in the rock above us, feeding an assortment of brush, ivy, and ferns. The cracks also allowed little streams of water to race down the sides of the cavern.
“Hera be praised. Let’s not waste another moment. I am eager to sleep in a bed of silk and velvet again. And be done with that harpy of a stepmother.”
Asterion grunted in agreeance and Beroe winked slyly.
I shouldered my pack, shoving the last piece of bread into my month, trying not to wish it had garlic and butter instead of honey, and lead the way. The last stretch of my journey lay before me. I just hoped I had enough strength left to finish.
My eyes never left the dragon’s sleeping from. He was a golden dragon, not surprising in the least, and though his size was relatively small compared to what I had imagined, he was still large enough to comfortably wrap around the sizable tree which grew at the center of its small island in the center of the cavern lake.
I could feel the presence of the golden apple as it grew from that tree amongst the impossibly pink blossoms. I could feel it pulsing, throbbing with power, life, greed, and desire. It called to me, but it repelled me. It was both mesmerizing and completely forgettable, both blessed and cursed. I resisted everything in me to stare at it and never look away. I was afraid if I looked at it too long, it would put a curse on me and I would rot away here, wishing I could have it but never wanting to move to gain it.
“How you find your way around this final obstacle will reveal to Hera if you are worthy of the apple.”
I bit back my impatient response. After all I had gone through, all the trials and obstacles I had tackled and prevailed over, and Hera was still unsure if I was worthy? It didn’t seem fair by I held my tongue. I had come too far to soil my good standing with the goddess.
“Use the god slayer.” Asterion tried to whisper, but his voice echoed loudly across the wet, shinny rock walls around us.
The dragon stirred and we held our breath, but the beast settled again and we sighed with relief.
“Another way may present itself to you. Remember what you have learned through the other trials before you.”
My brows furrowed and my nose crinkled. What had I learned? It all seemed to fade behind me, nervousness stealing it away from me. But I was determined to not let it show. I nodded confidently and my gaze moved from the dragon to the single boat on our side of the lake.
“I am ready,” I stated firmly though everything inside of me promised me I wasn’t.
Beroe nodded and winked, squeezing my hand in hers reassuringly. “Hera be with you.”
I thanked her and turned to Asterion. He held out Theatis to me, his eyes saying more than words ever could. I smiled warmly back and took the shinning sickle from him. I saw him relax when I held the weapon in hand and I knew he worried for my safety. Only one could cross the boat across the waters, and I knew he resented every second of it.
Slowly, almost afraid that the air was glass and that even a wrong breath would shatter its strange tranquility, I picked my way down the carved stairs towards the water, doing my best not to step on any plants or strange creeping creatures that moved as if they didn’t fully exist in the physical world. I remembered what Beroe said about the ocean being able to take you to places even greater then the Underworld and I almost thought for a moment I understood what she had meant, if only just a little.
And then, before I realized it, the boat was before me, floating still on the glass clear water, a single rope holding it to shore, a single oar in its cavity, and a single seat, all for a single sailor. It was obvious, painfully so, that one must go alone to seize the challenge, fight the dragon, and take the apple. There was no doubt about it.
It only took but a moment to step into the small boat, untie its knot and push off from the shore. A weight settled over me as I drifted away from the mossy rock and out onto the silent, and far too still waters. My eyes landed on my friends and my heart fluttered as I saw their smiles. We had been a good team … perhaps too good. I had come to rely on them far too much, even after I had promised myself I would never rely on any ever again. I guess the gods had their way with promises and irony, especially since I had to face this final challenge alone.
Unable to focus anymore on Beroe and Asterion, I turned my attention to the island in front of me, the steady thrum of the oar dipping in and then out of the water, shoving the craft further along, almost hypnotizing me. My eyes strayed to the water below. It was unnervingly clear, as if I were sailing on liquid glass. This water was not golden, and I wasn’t fearful that I would be burned if I touched it, but somehow this water felt so much more sinister. Shapes moved below me, almost mockingly. Though I could see down, down, down to the bottom of the lake as if it were only inches beneath the surface, I got an unsettling dread that told me it went down for an eternity.
One of the shapes moved closer and I hissed in surprise. It was like the face of a woman on a horribly mangled fish body. It stared up at me with glassy, blue eyes, its ruby mouth open, displaying too many rows of sharp teeth. It blinked once, and then turned down to the depths. I bit my lip but couldn’t force my eyes away from the water. A shinning silver creature floated out from under my boat. It had no such demonic face, but rather had no face at all. I could see no eyes, or even a mouth. It looked as if someone had discarded lace made of fine silver and it grew little fins like wings to forever swim in the waters. So these were the creatures Beroe had warned about. She had promised they would not harm me as long as I was the only one who crossed the waters, but I was sure I could feel them spell binding me, almost like the sirens of the deep oceans. Just then, when I felt as if it would be impossible for me to look away, my small boat ran aground.
The jolt snapped me out of whatever daze the entrancing waters had put me in and it was with great relief that I jumped out, holding Theatis close to me for comfort.
Before me lay the tree, the apple, and the dragon.
I had thought that if I were standing here, at the edge of everything I had worked for, hoped for, dreamed for, fought for, that it would feel more real, but it was quite the opposite. Instead, I felt as if I had stepped further into a dream that seemed to have no end.
Everything was impossibly quiet. I couldn’t hear the sound of my own breath or footfalls as I drew closer. I couldn’t even hear the pounding blood coursing through my veins, but I felt it. I felt its steady thrumming, throbbing, pounding, and I felt it beat in time with the apple as it hummed from its pink branches. I struggled to pull myself out of the dream, but was fruitless.
Everything had been so quiet, so still for so long, that when the peace finally shattered around me, I was unable to react, or even think at all.
The dragon uncoiled himself and roared, fire pouring from his mouth. With a great breath in, he swelled in size until he was taller than the tree, far taller than me, and towered about, his jaws open, ready to consume.
I could almost hear Beroe yelling something and Asterion yell, but still I could not move. My eyes moved from the dragon’s burning eyes to the apple hanging from the tree. I was so close, but still so far. If only I could reach closer. I extended my hand to it. If only I could—
The dragon’s claws caught my arm and shoulder, spinning me to the ground. My head hit something hard and everything went black for a moment until I heard Asterion roaring and bellowing and Beroe screaming for me to look out. Instinctively, I rolled to the side. Where my head had been moments before, the dragon’s claw pierced through the rock like it was potter’s clay.
I scrambled to my feet. I could hear everything now, the roaring, the yelling, the sound of breaking branches under my feat, the sound of my heart slamming against my ribs, possibly for the last time.
Everything inside of me screamed with protest as I dodged the dragon’s tail and dove behind a rock as his fire engulfed the stone. I felt the edges of my chiton singe and smelled the hair smoldering on my head.
No. I will not die today. Not today!
With a cry of rage, I unsheathed Theatis and leaped from behind the rock, running towards the dragon. Asterion’s words rang through my head. “Use the god slayer.” The weapon hummed in my hands, as if eager to spill blood, but Beroe’s voice suddenly rang louder. “Another way may present itself to you. Remember what you have learned through the other trials before you.”
I staggered back as if someone had thrown me away from the dragon. Time seemed to stand still. Memories flashed before me of the blade held against Asterion’s throat, begging for blood, and of when I held it in the forest yesterday, ready to split open the sunset nymphs. Then I remembered what I had learned—monsters are not always what they seemed.
The dragon roared and spat fire to the top of the cave before his gapping jaws came plunging down at me.
I knew I could slay it. All I had to do was rush forward and dig the sickle’s blade into its soft underbelly, and by all the gods from Hera, to Zeus, to Hades I wanted to because I didn’t want to die. I was afraid to die. But I something inside of me was more afraid of something else—failure. With all the strength I could muster, I forced my hand open and let the blade fall from my hands. A deep breath swelled my chest and I closed my eyes, accepting my fate.
I expected to feel the heat of fire consume me, or razor sharp teeth tear me apart, but I felt nothing, and for a moment, I thought I was already dead.
“Why do you not fight me?” The voice was low, powerful, gravelly as if it had not been used for many, many years.
I dared not open my eyes, unsure if I wanted to face this new and confusing reality, but he repeated the question with less patience.
I fell to my knees, and opened my eyes, though I did not look up at him. My voice sounded small: for once sounding as I felt. “I do not see the need.”
He roared and a rock next to me shattered into dust as he smashed his claws through it. “Have you not come to take the apple from me? From the tree to which my very life force is sustained?”
I shook my head. I had come to take the apple, but I had never seen it like that. In that moment, it all became clear. I whispered a prayer to Hera and drew myself to my feet, confidence flooding me.
I turned my head up to the dragon and met his eyes with mine. “No. I did not come to take. I came to receive. I was promised that apple by Hera herself, and now I have come for it to be given to me. I have had everything I loved and cared for taken from me and I do not wish to do the same. I wish to make those things right. I wish to undue the wrong that was done to me, not return it in kind.” I could barely believe the words I was saying. When I had been cast out of my home, I had determined to make my stepmother suffer for all that she had done. But now, as I stood here and heard the words with my own ears, I knew this was the right way and that I had been wrong all along.
The dragon’s startling blue eyes gazed down oppressively but I did not look away, and I did not back down.
Suddenly, he sighed and his eyes softened. Within moments, he had shrunk down to a much smaller size and walked over to me, his head only three or four feet above mine.
“I see that your heart is pure.” He sounded confused. “I have met many humans who have come seeking the golden apples of Hera and not one came with a motive as pure as yours. But you were not always this way?” He stalked around me like a tiger and its prey. “You were once corrupt like them, but somehow you have changed.”
I nodded. “I understand things now I did not when my quest first began. I have come to see the world of man and monsters much differently than I used to. I was promised this apple by Hera herself and I will wait until she herself gives it to me.”
His eyes shown with a hunger, but not one for flesh. “So it is possible for greed to diminish.”
“It would seem so.” It was true. I had once lusted for the power I would hold over the people of Argos if I had been Queen, but now I understood the hearts of mankind and of monsters and myth and I felt an obligation to them, to care for them and shepherd them as I had been cared for my Beroe and Asterion.
The light in his sparkling eyes dimmed and turned dark. His voice lowed to a whisper and he moved his scaly head close enough to mine that I could smell the old blood on his breath. “You must leave, child of Argos. Take your friends with you. This apple is not one of purity and healing. It will tear you and your kingdom apart. You do not belong with an evil such as Hera. You have been betrayed. You must leave.”
Dread welled in my heart. “What do you mean? How is she evil? How have I been betrayed?”
Beroe’s voice echoed through the cavern. “Daphne! Daphne don’t listen to him! He’s trying to turn your heart against your goddess! If he succeeds, you will not be able to take the apple. You must kill him, Daphne, Hera commands it done!”
I shook my head and reached for Theatis but its sheath was empty. Horror filled me. What had I done? But the dragon did not attack me. In fact, huge golden tears rolled down his scaly face from his sapphire blue eyes. I could see Beroe and Asterion rushing to the edge of the water, but they were unable to cross; he creatures of the deep wailed and swarmed to the surface of the water where my friends were stranded, creating an impassible barrier.
“Please, little human. You must understand. Hera is a goddess of the first creation. She does not care about the humans. They worship her and it is from them that she draws her power but she does not truly care for them. They are pawns to make her look better than her fellow gods. You must understand this. She took my family from me, and chained me to this cursed tree and forced me to fight humans to protect her greed.”
“Don’t listen to him, Daphne! He will eat you like everyone else! Think of everything you need to live for! The apple, your people …” Beroe started wailing and sobbing and Asterion took up the plea, but I couldn’t move.
My legs trembled beneath me and I collapsed to my knees. I could hear all of them yelling, pleading, screaming at me, but I couldn’t think, I couldn’t understand anything that was happening. I trusted Beroe with my life. She had been my guide and mentor since I had met her on the beach like Hera instructed me. She had taught me all I knew, and had never once before led me astray. But something felt so wrong. She had never once encouraged me to take up arms against the mythical creatures. In fact, it was she who had planted the seeds of mercy that had eventually grown to save Asterion and the sunset nymphs. So why, why did she want this dragon dead? Beroe would never do this … unless she was …
“Please, little human.”
I could barely hear the dragon through the throbbing in my head and the ringing in my ears as a horrible realization slowly came over me.
“You know the gods. You have heard their stories. Tell me it is not true. They exist to rule man, though man has no need of them. They feed off of greed, wars, suffering. They are no less evil and depraved than man himself. So why, why do you bow your knee? Why do you not make your own path? Why do you let them chose what is right and wrong when you already know it in your heart?”
I turned my teary face up to him, our eyes locking, his last words repeating over and over in my mind. He was correct. I knew what was right in my heart. But could I be brave enough to do what was right? Could I be brave enough to stand up to a goddess?
The dragon saw the change in my eyes and he nodded, a fang showing as he smiled as much as he could.
I turned to the other side of the lake and locked eyes with Beroe. I slowly shook my head. Her mouth dropped open. I pushed aside all of my fear, my anxiety, my uncertainly and shook my head again. A knot tied itself in my stomach as I spoke the words I knew to be true. “I will not kill this dragon. It isn’t right.”
Then as if I had broken a dam, everything changed in a split second.
Screams rent the air. An explosion knocked me off my feet. Light flashed around me. A terrible voice rose.
“Daphne, Heir of Argos, how dare you defy the queen of the gods. You will pay for this.”
I pulled myself to my knees and looked into the glaring light just in time to see Beroe twist and change. Her old body fell away in sheets of light as she grew larger, and younger, and terrible. In moments, I was no longer staring at the old woman who had been like a grandmother to me, I was staring into the eyes of Hera herself—the golden goddess. Everything about her was gold: her skin, her eyes, her clothes, her hair. And it was then I knew what I had always—that gold was the bane of mankind, and so were the gods.
Hera raised her hand and I braced for the imminent death I knew would come. How could I get away with disobeying a goddess? I had known this would be the only end to this, and so I took a deep breath and accepted it with spite and rage, my eyes never leaving hers.
As her hand started to come down, I heard a bellow and a flash of black. Hera was knocked to the ground and her screams of anger mixed with Asterion’s furious roars. Bile rose in my throat but before I could process what was happening, I felt the dragon wrap his tail around me and gently throw me to where I had dropped Theatis. My hand wrapped around the familiar blade as Asterion’s roars decended into pitiful lows of pain before Hera screamed in anger and his cries fell short.
I threw up as I staggered to my feet and watched as she tossed Asterion’s body as if it were no more than a dead gutter rat. In only a few steps she had cross the lake, her eyes burning hotter than the sun.
All I could think was how much I loathed everything gold.
“After I slay you today, you will never leave the darkest pits of Tartarus, Daphne, Heir of Argos, so I swear on the River Styx!”
Before I could think, I felt the heat crash down upon me and I did the first thing I could think and threw the godslayer as hard as I could.
Horrific, bloodcurdling screams rent the air along with the unmistakable tearing of flesh. Gold flashed in front of me and, for a moment, I thought the dragon had sacrificed himself to save me, but all I saw was Hera and Hera’s blood which sprayed golden all across the lake. The sickle was lodged in her throat, and half of her neck was severed. She sputtered and choked, coughing on her own blood, her eyes wide with pain and disbelief before she threw back her head and groaned, her body shattering into a thousand sparkling gold leaves which drifted to the glass water and sank to the bottom.
My head swam and I dry heaved. Splatters of her blood decorated my face and burned my skin. I staggered back, looking down at my empty hands. I had killed a goddess. I had killed a goddess. I killed Hera. Sharp rocks dug into my knees as I sank to the ground and let the darkness overcome me.
“Little human? Little human.”
A gravely voice shook me awake along with a long, thin, scaly appendage. I groaned and rolled over. Where was I? Shinning light blinded me as I squinted into it. I could vaguely hear the dripping of water on rock around me and everything came flooding back to me. I sat up with a gasp and came face to face with the dragon’s blue eyes.
“You’re not gold anymore,” I rasped, my voice lost.
“I was never gold.” He smiled as best as he could but then laid his now blue head back down and groaned.
“What’s wrong?” I moved to his side, but then remembered something else. A pit opened in my stomach. “By Zeus.” Slowly, I turned my head to the other side of the lake. I saw Asterion’s hulking form laying unnaturally still. I sobbed and covered my mouth, unable to look away but wishing I could see anything but him.
I didn’t answer.
“Little human, you must listen to me.”
I shook my head and choked on my sobs.
“Listen to me!” His tail lightly smacked me and I turned to him, burying my face in his scaly chest and sobbed. I hadn’t cried like this since that day under the scrawny olive tree. Everything had changed since that day, and now, under another tree, everything had changed again.
“Listen to me, little human. Not everything is lost, but you must act quickly. I need you to be strong like you once were so many years ago.”
I pulled away from him. After everything that had happened, I didn’t know if I still had that strength.
It seemed he could read my mind for he said, “You must find it again if you want to save your friend.”
A spark of hope flickered in me and I nodded, drying my tears.
“You must take the golden apple.”
I turned to the tree next to us and took a sharp breath in. The tree was dying. All its pink blossoms had fallen and its bark was turning an ashen grew and falling off it like dust. Only the golden apple retained it’s color, though it seemed to get more dull by the second.
“Quickly now!” He pushed me towards the tree and I staggered over to it, hastily jumping several times before successfully plucking the apple from its home. It was extremely heavy and unduly akin to holding a small world in my hand. It had once been so enrapturing, so pleasing to the eye, but now I hated the look of it.
“Why is it dying?”
“Everything here is dying. Hera is dead and everything that she created is dying with her. Including myself.”
A pain stabbed through me but I didn’t have time to ruminate on it. Hera was really dead. I was a god slayer. I shook my head. “How will I help Asterion?”
“You must feed him the apple.”
Everything in me froze. The apple was supposed to be what bought me back my kingdom, my home, my people. It was supposed to be proof that I had Argos’ matron goddess’ blessing—Hera’s blessing. It was everything I had sought after for so many months. It was all I had been living for. And now I had to choose between Asterion and my kingdom. My throat tightened. If I saved Asterion, I would be giving up on everything I had fought so hard to protect, to earn back. But if I let him die, I would be giving up the only thing that made everything worth enduring. Deep down I already knew what I had decided, but I couldn’t bring myself to say it.
“Now, human. You must decide now.” His eyes pierced mine. He knew how hard this was for me. For some reason, he had known everything about me since he lay eyes on me. And now he waited, just as Asterion and my kingdom waited. And I only wished I could turn back time so I could try it all again, as if there had been something I missed, something I could change the second time around.
My eyes landed on Asterion’s twisted, still body. My mind remembered my kingdom, my murdered father. My hand clutched the apple tighter.
“I choose …” I bit my lip and a tear rolled down my cheek as I stared into the reflection of a girl I barely recognized through the apple’s gold sheen. “Asterion.”
The dragon sighed and his eyes brightened. “When I die, you will take my teeth. You will return to your kingdom and you will sow the ground with them. An army will rise from the earth, one so terrible your enemies will flee without a sound of protest. You will take back your kingdom with mercy and without blood shed, and you will do so with your friend at your side.”
My eyes widened as I listened to his words. I hadn’t lost everything. I hadn’t lost anything. Tears poured down my face as I nodded.
He lay his head down quietly, his eyes drifting shut. “Thank you, Daphne, heir of Argos, for showing me the humans can live on without the gods. Thank you for setting me free.” And with one last breath, he was gone.
I collapsed at his side, a numbness spreading through me. For a moment, I could do nothing but stare at his still blue scales and the golden apple in my hand. Then realization and purpose flooded me again. I had fulfilled my quest. I had finished what I came to do, and I had become a better person through it all. Even if Hera had only wanted me to succeed for her own greed, she had taught me many things, and I would not let a single one of them go to waste. Despite Beroe’s trickery, her words of wisdom, even if they had been in deception at the time, flooded through me. “You cannot let a single moment in the past define you. You cannot let a single person from your past change your entire life. You must be the master of your own fate. You must tell the Fates themselves where and when to cut and you must never, ever, regret your decisions or actions. Your life is your own; live it.”
With deft and sure fingers, I pried out the dragon’s teeth with a sharp rock I found and stuffed them into my torn and burnt pack. Quickly, I slipped into the boat and rowed confidently back to shore. The mystery of the cavern was fading around me. The tree of the golden apple had turned to dust and the dragon’s body to stone. The waters under me swirled and clouded up, but not before I saw Theatis lying at the bottom of the deep lake; the mud covered it and I could see it no more. I would not miss its innocently white blade which pleaded for death. It seemed only right that it stayed here after taking a goddess’s life.
The boat came to a stop as it crunched against the rocky shore and I left from the boat and ran to Asterion. His body was covered in blood and parts of his flesh had been ripped away. I blanched and forced back the tears, focusing only on his torn and bruised face.
I took a bite out of the apple, careful to not swallow any of it, and chewed it quickly. I placed my lips to his, trying not to blanch at his wet nose, and forced the mash into his mouth before tilting his head back. When I was sure most of it had gone down his throat, I repeated the process over and over until only the seeds and core of the apple were left. For a moment, I considered keeping the seeds and growing my own tree, but Hera’s greed filled eyes flashed before me and, in a fit of horror at myself and rage at her, I flung the core into the lake behind me.
I focused my eyes on Asterion and cradled his head in my lap as best I could despite his massive horns. I stroked his fur and tried to clean away some of the blood. I prayed to no god in particular, more out of habit than faith and wept onto his still face. Nothing happened. He was well and truly gone. After everything I had done, after everything I had sacrificed, I had still lost everything. Finally, I cried myself to sleep.
“My queen? Wake up, your highness.”
I heard his gruff, mooing voice but, for a moment, I didn’t believe it was real. I thought I was still dreaming, or perhaps I too had died. But I felt his warm breath on my face and his strong arms around me and I knew there was no mistaking it.
“Asteiron!” I flung my arms around his thick, hairy neck and held him as hard as I could.
He hummed with contentment and confusion, and hesitated a moment before wrapping his arms around me. I was grossly smaller than he was and his big ears and horns made him ever so slightly difficult to embrace, but I had never enjoyed a hug more in my entire life. “Thank the gods you’re not dead.”
He lowed and gently pulled me away. If he could’ve blushed, I’m sure he would’ve been. “I don’t know if I would be thanking Hera, or Beroe,” he frowned with betrayal and grief. “Or any gods for that matter, after all of that.” His bull face looked as confused as it could seem and I couldn’t help but laugh. He seemed surprised of that.
“I have never heard you laugh.”
I winked at him and got up to gather our packs. “I think you might hear it more often now.”
He got up with me and shoved a piece of bread at me which I took and quickly ate.
“I would like that,” he grunted solemnly and I grinned widely.
“Where is the apple?”
I could see the worry in his eyes when he couldn’t find the apple amongst our belongings and saw the tree was gone.
I quickly told him everything that had happened as we made our way out of the caves.
“You were very wise, Daphne. Maybe not the gods, but something does smile down upon you.”
I grinned up at him. “Maybe. Maybe they do.”
At the mouth of the cave, we discovered fresh clothes and food for the journey, presumably from the sunset nymphs. I couldn’t help but wonder if they too had been chained to this island for Hera’s enjoyment.
As we walked through the forest, it was impossible not to notice the change. Everything seemed so … normal. There was not gold light, or gold sheen. The sky was blue, and the waterfall was white and clear with a rainbow shinning over it. The light shone green through the leaves and even the sand was a dull tan. After all, it was only a regular island—one that a regular ocean could take you to.
We waded out to the Muse and, after Asterion boosted me into it, he dug his hooves into the sand and groaned, heaving against the ship. After a few minutes, the ship began to move, slide off the sand, and glide into the sea. Quickly, he climbed aboard and helped me fix the sails and the heading.
Then, when all was taken care of, he helped me make the dragon teeth into a necklace for me to wear around my neck so I would never forget them or the dragon who gave them to me.
And that night, as the sun set on the horizon, I sat staring into the blue ocean waves, my hand trailing inches above its cool surface.
“You’re staring at the water again, highness.” Asterion sat down beside me and I laughed.
“I was. You never know what you might find in waters that pour off the edge of the earth.”
“No, I guess not.” He held his hand out next to mine and stared deep into my eyes. “I don’t think it will burn us this time.”
A smile tugged my lips and I shook my head. “No, I don’t think it will. Because these waters will take us home, and I no longer fear the journey.”
Then, together, we plunged our hands into the ocean.
Thank you so much for reading! I really hope you enjoyed it. Like I said, I'm hoping to turn this into a full length novel some day so make sure to follow me on Instagram or subscribe to my newsletter for exciting updates!
This was an extremely fun contest to do, even if I did end up doing most of the work.
Maybe one day I'll host my own!
May the suns smile upon your presence
—Effie Joe Stock