Wednesday, June 8th, 2016

Story: District Apollo

Jesse’s story was a runner up in the Artemis vs. Apollo Contest. I loved the setup—a contest of superiority between brother and sister, with their personalities fairly jumping off the page. I laughed out loud in several places at Apollo’s attitude, and at Artemis’s interpretation of things as a kind of feral girl. Thank you for writing Jesse!

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District Apollo

by Jesse Campodonico

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The bleak morning sky roused Artemis, her yellow, catlike eyes blinking as she stared from her perch in her tree at the vast forest that surrounded her, stretching as far as the eye could see.

At least, as far as someone with the eyesight of a great eagle can see.

Artemis flexed her spine, stretching to loosen the kinks in her muscles. Slipping from the last dregs of sleep, she let loose a bestial howl that shook through the cool, damp air, echoing across the forest.

Within seconds, the returning howls of numerous beasts filled her ears with the music of the forest. Grinning in a fierce way, Artemis quickly set about nocking her bow, filling her quiver with arrows, and hefting her spear.

Then she leapt from the crook in the tree, soaring through the air. The cold wind rushed past her, filling her with adrenaline. A normal mortal would have died from fear, or else landing on the loose rocks near the brook below, but Artemis’ toes touched it lightly as a cat’s.

And then she was off, sprinting as if one of the great jungle cats through the ferns, the evergreens, the wilderness around her. The trickle of brooks, rustle of trees, howls of beasts—it was all familiar but at the same time new and different.

But Artemis forcefully tore herself from enjoying the scenery. Now, in the morning, was the least happy time of day. She needed to hunt. Artemis respected her siblings of the wild as they fell to her arrows, but she was of nature’s blood, and nature accepts that which might be cruel.

These thoughts ran around in her head, an uneven mantra that stilled as her heartbeats slowed down. Artemis slowed into a light jog as she neared the lake. Kneeling, she touched the ground lightly. Her senses lit up as the musky scent of deer, their heavy, shuffling steps, their soft snorts filled her mind.

There were five of them—a buck, a lesser male, two females and a doe. Artemis concentrated, pressing forward. The deer had gone around to the west side of the lake, maybe a half-mile away.

Pleased with her prey’s quantity, Artemis carefully stripped off her few clothes. Scooping from her bag a pouch of filmy, sticky mud, she smeared it all over her. The stench of dung filled her nostrils, but she ignored it. The smell would mask her scent to predators and prey alike.

After finally coating her shaved head with the muck, she started rolling in fallen leaves not yet brittle, but quiet and soft. They would be good camouflage for hunting.

Finally done, Artemis left her spear and retrieved her bow and her arrows. The worn, smooth feel of the yew was comforting in her hands, but as she sank into a panther’s gait, low and stealthy, her bow turned into a cold weapon, an extension of nature’s circle of life and death itself.

Stalking the deer for nearly two miles—she was angry with herself for miscalculating—Artemis finally approached the lip of a cliff. To her surprise, the family of deer stood near there, braying fearfully. Her gaze fell upon thick ropes tying them to stumps on the ground. Something was not right.

Artemis narrowed her eyes, letting her gaze play over the sparse trees and shrubs. These animals were frozen with fear. They had been forcefully brought up to the cliff—but by whom?

Flicking her tongue out to taste the air (her nose was clogged with the scent of dung), Artemis’s eyes widened with anger. The unmistakable scent of cold metal, hot oil, and that disgusting fragrance that men—human men—wore to attract females filled her nostrils.

The humans were here—poaching her forest, no doubt. They probably planned to capture wolves, and the deer were the bait. Artemis steeled her resolve. It would not be allowed.

Slinking forward, looping her bow over her shoulder, she quickly pranced forward, whipping out a thick bowie knife.

“Be calm, little one,” she rasped, her voice hoarse and husky from long weeks of no use. She quickly sliced away the ropes on the doe and set to work on the bigger ones. Just as she finally freed the female, she heard shouts and heavy footsteps.

“Go!” Artemis hissed to the deer. They snorted softly and flitted away, the doe hopping quickly past them.

Artemis waited just long enough to make sure that they were fine before she turned to leap into the brush. But before she could, the voices explode into clarity as several large, angry human men burst forth.

They were five of them—one was in a strange, hideously orange cloth with yellow stripes and a yellow shell on his head. The second was balding, plump, and dressed in a strange white, limp cloth with a red tail dangling from his chin. A cockle, perhaps, like the ones on the wild turkeys?

But the last three men stood taller than the others. They were inside metal insect shells with two legs and two arms, whirring and shifting. Yellow and black stripes edged the joints, and a tinted piece of fake-solid-water covered their faces. But even through the material, Artemis knew who they were from.

They were from the great jungle of stone, metal, and solid-water-panels. They came from moving metal boxes on black circles, and flying metal birds.

They were the slaves of her brother, Apollo.

She bared her teeth. The plump one backed away fearfully.

“Get her! Apollo had a direct order fifteen-one on her!” he ordered, whipping out a heavy, black piece of metal and pointing it at her.

Artemis’ senses screamed danger, but she stared the man right in the eye. That useless piece of metal would do nothing against her. She snarled and flung her knife at him.

In an instant, the three metal warriors were upon her, forcing her back. The plump male ducked and did something to the black metal. With a dull THUMP, a pulse of soft white shot forward.

Artemis’ eyes widened as it slammed into her. Then, dizzy and dazed, she fell into darkness.

—2—

“Again.”

Apollo’s orders were short and cold. He stood inside his skyscraper, in the center of the city, watching through a one-way-mirror as a thin, bald girl—about twelve, perhaps?—was subjected to another round of electric jolts.

He smirked. Poor little Artemis. A savage, brutal, wild little girl. While Apollo’s father, the late Zeus, had raised him to be studious, industrious, and social, Artemis was uneducated and always going to the river to hunt frogs instead of doing her work.

“And here I am now, sister,” he murmured. “I have become the king of this empire in which I live and reign supreme, while you are but a dirty, haggard girl.”

He watched as Artemis—strapped to a chair, looking downright furious—spasmed briefly. Apollo sighed. The electric jolts were doing nothing. All he wanted to know was why his dear sister had been poaching near the fringes of his city again.

“Again, sir?” a technician inquired. Apollo shook his head.

“No, I think not. Open the door—let me try and persuade her,” he said wearily. He gestured for one of the guards to accompany him. Clad in a state-of-the-art A09 Man-o-War exoskeleton, the guard looked fittingly intimidating, especially given the nonlethal pulse cannon mounted on his forearm.

Apollo stepped into the empty room. Artemis visibly tensed. Her teeth gnashed, her fists clenched, her eyes widened angrily.

Smiling, Apollo stood in front of her.

“Hello, sister,” he said cheerfully. Artemis responded to him very bluntly. He sighed. “That isn’t quite how I imagined this. Where did you learn those words, anyway? On the fringes of my city, with the ruffians and scum?”

He let a little contempt seep into his voice, just enough to provoke her. Apollo had learned through long years that the best way to manipulate people was to get them emotional.

Artemis shot him a positively vile look. “Everyone in your city is scum, Apollo. Everyone,” she said hotly.

“Explain that, please?” He asked. “My kingdom has been created on all of my intellect and cunning. My people have used that intellect to better themselves. I am perfect, and so are they, then,” he said frankly. Modesty was just a lie. He had done away with it years ago, and where was he now? He was the king of the former District Columbia.

“You have marauded the wilds,” Artemis spat. “You have raided my lands time and again for meta, for oil, for wood. You and your humans in metal insects—“ she jabbed a head at the guard, “are nothing but thieves! You are all scum, for you have defied nature openly.”

“Well said,” Apollo yawned. “Now, this is the third infraction this week. Due to the DC laws set up around infractions and punishment ratios, and given your criminal history, you have easily gotten three times the death penalty. However, you have evaded me numerous times. I’d like to discontinue that course of action. I think that we’ll end it now, hmm?”

Turning to the guards, ignoring Artemis’ cry of shock, he said calmly, “Please set the electricity levels to four hundred point twenty-three. And make sure to do the job in one shot, thank you. The homeless want food tonight, and multiple shocks chars their dinner.”

—3—

Fear gripped Artemis’ gut. Her anger that had sparked since she awoke in one of the moving metal boxes on circles was now an inferno, fueled by fear.

“No!” she raged. “No! You cannot! I will not let you destroy my forest!”

“Mm-hmm,” Apollo said drily. “Very dramatic. Now, do sit still. Technician? Initiate first sequence—and preferably the last sequence, though I do understand if it’s not. Killing immortals takes a few tries, yes.”

Artemis’ mind raced. She had to do something. She would not stand for this!

“Wait!” she cried out. Apollo looked up, bored. Artemis struggled for something—anything—that would appease the egotistical, boorish ball of dung that was her brother.

“I—I challenge you!” she declared. Apollo stiffened, raised a hand. The technician saw it and hastily halted the electrocution process.

“Excuse me?” Apollo said.

“I challenge you to a duel of skill,” she said. Apollo narrowed his eyes.

“You dare? You think you can win back your survival?” he said.

“Not just my survival—but this city!” she said. “If I win, you must give me this city and leave this place forever!”

“And if you lose?” Apollo asked through gritted teeth. Artemis hid a smile. Despite himself, Apollo was already won over. He never could back down from a challenge.

“If I lose you may destroy every piece of land you wish to, and kill me,” Artemis said defiantly.

There was a moment of silence as the technicians and the guards looked to Apollo, wondering what he would do. Artemis grinned. How reliant this city was on Apollo. Once she defeated him, they would flounder like fish out of water.

This city was as good as hers.

“Very well,” Apollo said ruefully. “I will decide our tests. We will have three tests, one each of poetry, music, and archery,” he said confidently. Artemis knew what he was doing—he was making sure that he had the upper hand.

“Very well,” she said desperately. “When do they begin?”

“No time like the present, hmm?” Apollo said coldly. He snapped his fingers, and with a rush of colors and sound Artemis found herself sitting in a large, circular wooden hall, ornate and elegant. Fluffy poufs and couches decorated the room, and large bookshelves boasted hundreds of thick volumes.

“My personal writing office,” Apollo said lightly, sitting down behind a large desk. Artemis stood up as he gestured to an identical desk facing his.

“Now,” he said, as she sat down, grimacing at the lacquered, twisted imitation of natural wood. “The rules of our poetry contest will be simple, I think—I want this over right now, and I have nineteen meetings lined up after this.”

“What are the rules?” Artemis demanded. Nerves made her jumpy and irritated. Apollo smiled knowingly.

“We shall each compose an ode to each other,” Apollo said, “describing the best qualities of the other person. Is this acceptable?”

“Fine,” Artemis said through gritted teeth. She hated everything about this—being in this fake room, made from tortured, poor trees, being forced to gamble her freedom and her woods—it was all vile.

“Good. Then let us begin,” Apollo said. He slipped from a shelf a slim, shiny black wafer that lit up with symbols as he touched it. “My personal poetry touchscreen,” he said at her stare.

He began murmuring under his breath softly as he moved his fingers around the fake-solid-water panel. Artemis glared at him, but started to try and think up some lyrics. The minutes passed in silence, and Artemis grew restless, itching to leap from her seat and soar out the solid-water-panel in the room, out into the woods once more.

His…his face is…is as pale as snow, trying to forge an ode that would at least pass as acceptable. But while Apollo had been raised under Zeus’ strict educational regime, Artemis had always been in the forest with the plants and animals. Poetry was far beyond her. Perhaps she would do better in music, or at least archery?

“Are you ready?” Apollo asked.

“Yes,” Artemis snapped. “I am ready.”

“Wonderful.” Apollo stood up, cleared his throat, smoothed his strange silver cloths covering him, and let loose with his voice.

“Long has this maiden lived, within her deepest forests.

“Long has she called to the wilds, her precious kingdom, a land of green and blue; 

“Has this maiden forgotten, so sadly, her roots within? Her roots from which she has been freed, for her fire within her burns her free. This maiden, so fierce and powerful, a whisper, a shadow, always beyond one, but always truly within herself, for she is the forest, and the forest is herself.”

Apollo bowed and sat down, smiling politely. Artemis felt dread seep through her bones. She coughed roughly, cursing her hoarse voice compared to Apollo’s silken murmurs.

“He is a king among kings, creating from which none has been created,” she said haltingly, devising lyrics as she spoke. “As his gaze turns upon the horizon, so too does the horizon turn to your—his—mind’s gaze.”

She flushed angrily as Apollo smirked.

“Well done. However, I think that we had both better drop the charade, sister. Your words are weak, your form limp, your rhythm and pulse but a loose beat,” he sneered. “I have won the first contest.”

—4—

Artemis was roughly escorted away from a coldly triumphant Apollo to her temporary quarters. It was despicable—fluffy, fake fur and plushy, huge cloths, with a large pit that filled with warm, bubbly water that smelled of fake roses.

Artemis tore the room apart in a rage, yearning to escape her bonds and flee back to her wilds. But the fake-solid-water panels were really just solid stone with pictures of the city below on them, and the heavy fake-wood doors were locked with something that the guard had called “electromagnetism.”

So she wreaked havoc on the room, shredded her clothes that she had been force into when she was brought to this tower, and splattered the numerous flowery bottles of liquid across the carpet.

It seemed to take years for night to come. Artemis had given up destroying the room and was slumped against the wall when the door clicked and hissed open. In came Apollo, holding a tray. He set it down on the floor and looked at the wreckage.

“Well,” he muttered. “I’m pleased you’ve gotten acquainted with your room. Enjoy your meal—unless you’d rather fling it on the wall and scrape it off.”

Then he left, and the door closed. Despite herself, Artemis crept  closer to the tray. Hunger gnawed at her stomach. On the metal panel was a strange not-metal container with soft, mushy pudding the was yellow, two pieces of strange white bread with thin, pink circles inside, and a fake-solid-water container with real water.

Artemis tentatively scooped up the pudding with her fingers, disregarding the round metal thing that sat next to it. The pudding was sweet and sugary—too much so. Still, Artemis was suddenly ravenous, and she ate every piece of food. She washed it down with the water, ignoring the metal taste to it.

Exhausted before she even set the glass down, she slumped off into sleep.

—5—

Seconds later, however, or so it felt, she was woken by Apollo nudging her with his foot.

He looked at her with raised eyebrows. “It is already noon,” he said. “You will eat, and then we will commence with the second contest—music, I believe.”

“No—I want to do it now!” Artemis insisted, scrambling up, eyes wide, all exhaustion gone. Apollo shrugged.

“Very well.” He waved a hand like he was brushing aside an irksome fly, and once more Artemis felt a storm of colors and sounds before it vanished. They were in a beautiful glade, filled with green trees and grass tinged yellow by the golden sun. The trickle of the nearby river made her heart ache.

“I thought it a nice spot for music,” Apollo said casually. Artemis bit back a surge of anger. She knew what Apollo was doing—making her angry, emotional, sloppy.

“What are the rules for this?” she asked.

“Merely choose a song you know and sing it. There will be an impartial judge who will decide who has won,” Apollo said.

Artemis narrowed her eyes. “Very well.”

Apollo took a deep breath and began to sing. Where his poetic ode had been majestic, his music was beautiful and soft, like the sunlight that streamed through the trees. He wove rhythm and pitch with words, honeyed with comfort and soft, delicate taints of bejeweled sounds.

His final note broke off after a trailing lilt, and he looked expectantly at Artemis. She looked coldly back, but broke into her own song as well.

Apollo brought to the mind thoughts of sunlight, warmth, and sunny glades like the one they were in. Artemis wove visions of white moonlight, trickling, cold rivers, and the beautiful darkness of night. Long had she sung at night in the forest, attracting animals to her. Music was no stranger to her as poetry was.

Artemis poured her frustration, her anger, her fear into her words. In a moonlit forest, they would have been perfect. In a sunny glade, they were off in some way—beautiful, yes, but not fitting.

She realized this as soon as she stopped singing. Apollo narrowed his eyes.

“Bacchus,” he said. With a rush and the scent of grapes, a plump, cherubic man with rosy red cheeks and leaf-like clothes appeared.

“Apollo,” he said warmly. “I do ask, why have you summoned me?”

“You listened to us sing—decide whose was better,” Apollo insisted. Bacchus nodded, lips pursed dramatically as he stroked his goatee.

“Both of yours were splendid, I must say. However, the circumstances in which Lady Artemis sang were not fitting to her song. Therefore, I most regrettably must declare Apollo the winner,” he said apologetically.

Angered, Artemis turned on her brother. “You made this so! You—you cheated!” She spun around towards Bacchus. “And you know that! You will pay—like this!”

She flicked out a hand, and Bacchus wailed as a sharp snap sounded. From his hindquarters sprouted a furry tail, and from his head two short, bristly ears. He turned and sprinted off, screaming curses and undignified yelps.

“Now,” Artemis said coldly, turning to Apollo. “I want to end this—now. We shall begin the last contest immediately.”

Apollo smirked. “If it pleases you. It surprises me that you go rushing to your death. But fear not—your bloated, pale corpse will make a fine addition to the city aquarium.”

Artemis narrowed her eyes. What was an aquarium?

Apollo clapped his hands together, and the familiar blast of color and sound enveloped Artemis.

—6—

All of a sudden they stood in a massive, oval arena of stone. The rows and rows of seats were filled to the brim with roaring audiences, all shouting and cheering. The sky above was a pale gray.

“Our last test will be viewed, if you don’t mind,” Apollo murmured. He gestured to three archery targets along the arena—one at the midpoint, one halfway to the end, and the last pressed up against the far wall.

“Take your weapon,” he declared. From the ground rose smoothly a long rack filled with hundreds of different bows and quivers filled with arrows. Apollo casually selected a mechanized composite longbow, filled with gears and dials and small mechanical pieces, as well as a quiver filled with metal arrows.

Artemis quickly chose a bow made from a live tree branch, the string a thin fiber, and several similar arrows formed from thinner branches.

“Audience!” Apollo’s roaring voice echoed. “I invite you to watch as we contest each other in a match of archery. In the balance is the fate of our city! May the better archer win.”

The crowd exploded into noise, urging them on.

“The rules for this will be simple,” Apollo said, “as were the others. I will fire at the first target, as will you. We will do the same for all the targets. Whoever has the best array at the end will win. Good luck,” he grinned.

Artemis narrowed her eyes. She watched as he nocked an arrow. The crowd fell silent as Apollo aimed the robotic monstrosity he called a bow before, finally, he let it loose. The arrow whistled forward and stabbed into the bullseye.

The crowd burst into cheer. Artemis shoved forward brusquely. All her life she had been one with the wild. She slipped now into the familiar skin of the huntress, the predator. She moved the arrow back, senses sharper than an eagle’s.

Then she fired, and the arrow split through the remains of Apollo’s. The crowd’s disgruntled rumbles were clear—they wanted Apollo to win. Artemis held her chin high as she stepped back.

“The first round has ended,” Apollo said lightly. “And so begins the second.”

This arrow he fired once more hit the dead center. The crowd’s cheers were ignored by Artemis. She, too, fired her arrow, and it as well hit the center.

Only one more round, she realized, before she was free.

Apollo looked disgruntled as the crowd muttered and shot nasty looks at Artemis. “Very well—the last round has commenced!”

Once more he nocked an arrow, aimed, and fired it into the center. And despite the crowd’s outrage, Artemis matched him blow for blow.

Apollo gnashed his teeth as he struggled to calm the crowd. “Fear not! We will have an immediate test of skill to determine the winner!”

He pulled out a shiny, red apple.

“If Artemis can shoot this off my head, then she will be free!” he declared. “If she fails, I will strip the flesh from her bones and use it to decorate the halls of the palace I will build in her precious forests!”

The berserk crowd howled with eagerness.

Apollo stepped back, pressed against the wall a hundred feet away. He carefully perched the apple on his head and stood there, face a mask of taunting triumph. The crowd egged Artemis on, and she obligingly nocked an arrow and lifted it.

Her temples pulsed with blood as adrenaline surged through her. This was the last thing she would have to do, and she would be free. She licked her dry lips, tensing as she prepared to fire—

But…

Artemis hesitated. If she won, she would be free. Apollo would be banished forever, would he not?

Deep down, Artemis knew that her brother would stop at nothing. He would simply return and disregard her victory, destroying her forests. The problem would not cease.

The crowd yelled for action, for entertainment. So Artemis decided in that instant to obey them. She aimed, squinted down the shaft of the arrow, and as the crowds roared, let the arrow fly.

The arrow stabbed through Apollo’s head, spearing into the wall behind him. A vile spray of bodily fluids accompanied a choked, gurgling squelch. Apollo spasmed, going still as the gleaming vermillion apple tumbled from his head.

The crowd was as still and silent as a statue. Artemis walked calmly towards the body of her brother, dropping the bow and arrows as she did so. In full view of the thousands of assembled people, she knelt down and picked up the apple.

“Nature will always win, dear brother,” she said. “Whether through brute force and savagery, or through guile and trickery, nature will always win.”

She bit into the apple. Victory had never tasted sweeter to Artemis the huntress.

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© Copyright 2016. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means without prior written permission of Jesse Campodonico.

 

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