Poseidon slumped to the floor as Hera removed the complex elemental bonds she’d wrapped around him. His skin was seared where the burning stone had touched it, filling the air with a smell that put Artemis in mind of burned pork. Her stomach churned at the thought. “He’ll live,” Hera said with a dismissive wave of her hand.
If Artemis didn’t have so many questions, she would have loosed the arrow for that comment alone. “You were willing to subject him to that pain. You killed your husband. Why?”
Hera took a slow, deep breath. “You don’t understand, Artemis. You just can’t. You’re responsible for you, yourself, and no one else. You never wanted greater duty.”
“Your explanation starts with you telling me why I won’t understand it.” Artemis narrowed her eyes. “You’re not off to the best start.”
“Fine,” Hera nearly spat with the word, her face contorting into a scowl. “I did it to save us. My husband was growing tired of our siege. He believe that we should lower the defenses. Meet Moloch in honorable combat.” Hera let out a desperate, pained laugh, “As if Moloch would know the meaning of the word!”
Poseidon was riding to his feet, and while he was still gravely injured, Artemis felt some comfort in knowing she wouldn’t be facing off against Hera alone if this turned into a fight. “You killed Zeus for trying to do exactly what I was going to do?” A realization swept over Artemis, and the arrowhead wavered for a moment. “You were going to kill me, weren’t you?”
“Once you had killed Poseidon. Artemis, I promise you, it would not have been a permanent death. I would never have – could never have -”
“My Queen, I have no idea what you’re capable of anymore.” Artemis scowled at Hera. “So you frame Poseidon for murdering Zeus, me for murdering Poseidon – and Ares, I presume?”
“Of course. You snapped when Ares killed Eros. All of Olympus knows how you long for him, Artemis.”
Artemis wasn’t sure if she should laugh or scream. “That old rumor? Still? After all…if I…” Artemis settled on making a half strangled sound. “And you believe the others would have fallen for this?
“I had to improvise. Several steps got changed when Ares killed Eros.” Hera sighed a deep, weary sound that provoked no sympathy from Artemis, who was watching in her peripheral vision as Poseidon struggled into his chair with a gasp of pain. “I had no idea Ares had betrayed us. Had I known…”
“You would have what, Hera? What would you have done differently?”
“If I’m being honest, I would have sent someone who wasn’t in my camp. Apollo, most likely. One of them would have killed the other, and then things could have gone from there.”
Artemis wanted to be sick. It would have worked, the whole thing. That’s what she didn’t want to admit. Everyone believed that stupid rumor about her and Eros, and a god flying into a rage over a death that would be temporary was hardly unheard of, followed by finding Zeus’ body in a grief-filled state and then tracing it back to Poseidon…”It would have fallen apart the moment we resurrected, Hera. You know that, don’t you?”
“Of course I do. I’m not stupid.” Hera sneered. “It didn’t need to. Just long enough for Moloch to get what he really wanted. Then he would have left us alone.”
Artemis’ heart started pounding. “What does he want, Hera? What did he tell you?”
Hera chuckled like Artemis had just invented the very concept for bad jokes. “He didn’t need to tell me, archer. Isn’t it obvious? He comes here and throws his monsters against our defenses, but never attempts to undo them himself. Just throwing monsters and twisted humans at us, over and over again. He doesn’t want us, he wanted them.”
“Them?” Artemis blinked. “Athena and her new pantheon?”
Hera nodded eagerly. “Don’t you see? If he truly was after us, he would have tried much harder to crush our defenses. He would have directed his own power against us, he would have had his monsters come as a mass, any number of things. But instead he sat there and he toyed with us like the cat that’s caught the mouse. We weren’t the target, we were the bait!”
Artemis lowered the bow, although she kept a wary arrow nocked. Hera wouldn’t move now, though, Artemis was sure of that. Poseidon was regaining his full sensibility, and while Hera could overpower Artemis, Poseidon was another matter, and they also had the numeric advantage. “Hera…you were so sure of this, you were willing to kill your husband to keep us safe?”
Hera’s nod this time was slow and steady. “It all makes sense, doesn’t it? But Zeus wouldn’t listen, so I had to eliminate my opponents before it ended up spilling out. Before we found ourselves with a civil war within these walls. Don’t you see that-”
“Hera, Ishtar is out there,” Artemis said, her voice quiet. Barely enough for Hera to hear, but more than enough to get her to stop talking.
“I know that,” Hera said with a bluster-laden shake of her head. “What is your point? She’s one of the one’s he’s here for, so it doesn’t matter.”
“Ishtar, who claims to be a million years old and has other beings from beyond the stars backing that claim up. Did it even cross your mind that Moloch wanted to kill Ishtar to get the monster that he could make out of her death? It would be…”
“…immense,” Hera finished, her bluster and bombast stripped away and fixed with sick terror and bone-deep disgust. “Enough to even shatter their way through our defenses.”
“You betrayed us without enough information, Hera. You’re scared, aren’t you?”
Hera gave a small, miserable nod. “I’ve seen what those soldiers can do as payback. You all saw what they did to poor Hermes. The defenses are the only things keeping us safe now.”
Artemis shook her head. “My Queen…you have proven yourself to be unfit to rule. As the ranking war deity, I am relieving you of your command.
Hera scoffed. “You think so, do you?” she sneered. “This hardly meets the requirements of that law. I would need to be seriously injured or dead for you t-”
Hera’s words were cut off as Artemis’ arrow slammed into the wall, inches from her head. A few strands of Hera’s hair fluttered down, trimmed by the arrow’s passing. “You have proven yourself to be unfit to rule. As the ranking war deity, I am relieving you of your command. Poseidon, will you be my witness?”
The oceanic deity was still too injured to speak, but he nodded his approval.
“Wonderful.” She stepped forward to clap Hera’s hands in shackles that would even hold a goddess. “Poseidon, I’m gambling on you. There’s a traitor, at least one, probably more within Elysian Rest. If we don’t find out who they are and then sally forth….?
“They’ll stab us in the back,” Poseidon managed with his ruined voice. “Why do they serve Moloch?”
Artemis gave him a brief summation of what had happened, starting with what she saw while watching and ending with their arrival into Poseidon’s room.”
Poseidon nodded. “Gather the others. Gather the gods in the Great Hall. We have much to discuss.”
Artemis headed out to do exactly to that, silently praying she was not leading her fellow Olympians into a trap as she did.
I promise you, Poseidon, if you’re Moloch’s servitor, you won’t survive your betrayal.