After a lot of coaxing and promises, the boy and his taller, older friend convinced her to ride in the back of the truck that they’d stolen. Someone needed to get rid of the evidence, so they cleared some of the cargo and rolled their car into the trailer, which was where Nayeli now lay. In the dark, all by herself. Completely alone. Maybe that was better.
She curled up on the seat in the fetal position, holding her trinket so tightly to her chest that it hurt the palms of her hands. Occasionally she would cry softly for a few minutes before running out of tears, and then she would wait until her eyes were ready to be wet again. She missed Olympus. She missed Auntie Athena and Uncle Hephaestus. She missed playing with Cerberus when she went to the underworld to visit Uncle Hades. But most of all, she wanted to see her father again, so she could ask him why he’d abandoned her in this horrible place and beg him to take her back.
A familiar presence filled the cabin. She looked up, searching for something she couldn’t see.
“Auntie Athena?” she asked, incredulous. “Artemis?”
Immediately a warm static feeling enveloped her from in front and from behind.
“Nayeli!” her aunt’s voice boomed in her ears and hers alone. “Oh Nayeli! Are you okay?!”
“Auntie!” she yelled back, crying. She tried to hug her, but as always all she grasped was air. Whatever. It’d do.
“Auntie!” she sniffled. “You were right, this place is horrible! These people, they… they…”
“I know, my child. You don’t need to speak of it if you don’t want to. I’ve been watching over you since you left.”
“H-Huh?” Nayeli sniffled, confused. “You have?”
“Yes,” her aunt said, sounding almost ashamed of herself. “I was… worried.”
“But then why didn’t you… couldn’t you have…” she stuttered, looking for the right words. “Why did you let that horrible man-?”
“Let him?!” Artemis roared in outrage. “Nayeli, that’s enough! You know I would never let him do such a thing to you. But your grandfather, he forbid Athena and I… forbid all of us from intervening in the affairs of mortals a long time ago. He said it was ’not time yet’. So I sent you that boy. And see? Didn’t he take care of the problem?”
“But the blood! And the way he… it smelled so bad! And he showed me his-”
She sniffled. The question she wanted to ask hung silently in the air, until finally she found the courage to give it voice.
Artemis paused, unsure what to say, a feeling that radiated throughout the truck. Athena picked up the slack.
“He’s… not coming, my child. He thought it would be better if he sent us instead. To comfort you.”
Father… wasn’t coming? She couldn’t believe it. Had he just forsaken her?! No. No, clearly that couldn’t be. He had still sent her aunts in his stead, so clearly he cared. But if he cared, why wasn’t he here?
“Why wasn’t I strong?” she asked. “I feel strong now! Why wasn’t I then? How could he do that to me?”
Her Auntie Athena sighed, a buzzing noise that reverberated in the center of her brain.
“Nayeli… you’ve been cursed.”
The word shot her through the heart like a poisoned arrow, filling her with fear. Cursed.
“I’m… what?” she asked again, hoping she’d heard wrong.
“Cursed. By our degenerate whore of a sister and her disgusting pet cripple-!” Artemis’ voice peaked with unimaginable fury before she took a deep breath and calmed herself. “Listen carefully, Nayeli. During the ceremony, do you remember the gifts you were given?”
“A blessing of luck in love from Aunt Aphrodite,” she said. “And this axe from Uncle Hephaestus. Father had him make it especially for me, remember?”
“Aye, he did. And I bet he regrets ever asking the deformed little monster for that favor. When you touched the handle of that axe for the first time, do you remember feeling a prickling sensation? Maybe feeling lightheaded or weak?”
“Yeah… yeah I do,” she told her.
“I thought so. Your strength didn’t leave you, Nayeli. It’s sealed in that axe. Your uncle placed a curse on it that would render you powerless unless you were holding it. That’s why that man could overpower you. Without that axe, the strength you inherited from your father is gone. You’re little more than a mortal without it. Just one that’s tougher to kill…”
“No…” Nayeli said, staring at the trinket dangling on her bruised wrists, wounded. “That’s impossible! Uncle Hephaestus would never do such a thing! He loves me!”
“That twisted little freak doesn’t love anyone but himself and that whore!” Artemis roared. Athena soon stepped in with a calmer voice.
“Whatever love he had for you, it was a lie. He just wanted to use you to get back at your father.”
“What are you talking about?” Nayeli asked, confused. “Why would Uncle Hephaestus want to do that?”
They both became quiet. The air chilled.
“Nayeli,” her Auntie Athena said, speaking slowly. “A long time ago, in the ages before man, many of us lay with our brothers and sisters. Your uncle and Aphrodite, and your aunt and I included.”
“Aye. And she’s still the love of my life,” Artemis said, and Nayeli could feel the goddess’ gentle, loving caress on the crook of her aunt’s back.
“Ew!” Nayeli yelled, throwing up her hands in embarrassment. “Why would you tell me that?!”
“Because it’s important!” her father bellowed. Nayeli’s eyes lit up.
“Father!” she exclaimed. She tried in vain multiple times to hug the air where she expected he’d materialize, but found nothing. Surely he realized he was wrong and he was here to take her home now. Surely father would protect her and rescue her from all this!
“Oh? Back already, brother?” her aunt’s voice said doubtfully. “I thought convincing our father would’ve taken longer.”
“Bah! Why should I even bother? You know the old man won’t be moved. He despises me,” her father said casually, dismissing the question. “Anyway, you said you wanted to hear more about my youthful conquests, Nayeli?”
“What?! No I didn’t!” she adamantly refused. But when it came to bragging, whether it be about battle or broads, nobody could top her father.
“You see, I was a handsome young stud, and your aunt was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen.”
“But there was a problem. Despite my strapping good looks, prowess in battle and generally being better than your lame bastard uncle, Aphrodite was already engaged to him by decree of Zeus so she’d stop offering herself to every man who passed her. Neither she nor I were very happy about this, so we decided to have an affair in secret.”
“Like grandpa?” Nayeli asked timidly, hoping to get this conversation over with as soon as possible.
“Like grandpa, yes. Anyway, we made love in secret, but somehow Hephaestus found out about it and began plotting in that wormy little brain of his how to get back at us for it. When next we laid together, he set a trap and bound our feet together, then dragged us out in front of the rest of the gods to be laughed at and mocked.”
“It… doesn’t really sound like Uncle was the bad guy there, father…” Nayeli said.
“But apparently that wasn’t enough for the cripple bastard!” he continued, ignoring her. “Now he plots with my sister to turn my own flesh and blood against me!”
Nayeli’s blood ran cold.
“What do you mean, father?! What did Aunt Aphrodite do?!”
“The blessing she gave you, to find luck in love?” Aunt Aphrodite explained. “She only told you half the truth. ‘Luck’ has two sides to it, Nayeli. Her ‘blessing’ is actually a curse, meant to attract the worst kind of men. Rather than meaning to help you find love, she means to never let you find a partner who is not willing to abuse you for his own needs. Their impurities are amplified in your presence, and if they mean you any harm or ill-will, they will attack you like that man did. You must always be sure to have your axe with you at all times.”
Nayeli’s gaze shot uneasily to the thin metal wall separating her and the boy sitting in the cabin up front. If what they said was true, that meant she couldn’t trust him. Dammit. She should’ve thought of that from the beginning! I mean, what kind of child her age can kill a man in cold blood and not even blink?! This act of charity was probably all some sort of plot to get her to lower her guard again. Well she wasn’t going to fall for it this time!
Her grip on her axe tightened. She looked up at her aunts and her father.
“Why? Why would they do all this? Can’t you get them to remove the curses?! I mean, maybe Uncle Hephaestus isn’t the best man in the universe or even the man I thought he was, but he wouldn’t be so cruel as to just leave me here like this! R-Right? And neither would you, right father?”
Her aunt sighed, causing her heart to plummet.
“We already tried, Nayeli. They refused. So we tried making an appeal to Zeus, our father. He refused too. There’s nothing we can do.”
Nayeli’s blood ran cold. “But why?!”
“What you need to understand, Nayeli, is that gods are always going to be stuck in their ways. We’ve lived too long, done the same things for too many years to change. Human grudges rarely last more than a lifetime, and most fade away in years. This one has been brewing in your uncle since the rise and fall of the Hellenic empires. Your aunt as well. Though Hephaestus tried, her trysts with your father never completely ended. She was just as jealous when your mother gave birth to you. Couldn’t believe he’d chosen a mortal woman over her. She doesn’t understand what’s at stake to your father.”
“What’s at stake?” Nayeli asked impatiently.
“Honor! Honor and glory!” Her father’s loud, booming voice invaded the truck. “The kind of glory in battle that the gods haven’t seen in over a thousand years!”
“Brotherrrrrr…” Artemis warned. “This is not what she wants to hear right now.”
“You’re right. It’s what she needs to hear. If I left this all to you, you’d just fill her head with silly lies. She needs to know what’s at stake,” her father said.
“I thought you said you wanted to leave this to us,” Auntie Athena said tersely. “To comfort her.”
Her father continued, ignoring them.
“I may be barred from performing my duties on Earth, but she’s not. You were supposed to descend to Earth and remind them of me,” he said, locking gazes with Nayeli. “Tales of your strength and valor were meant to spread across the globe like wildfire, and all would kneel at your feet and know my power! But now the cripple has crippled you. He has insulted me. Turned my own flesh and blood against me!”
He sighed, grunting.
“But it may not be too late.”
“What?!” her Aunt Artemis exclaimed.
“Brother!” Auntie Athena yelled.
“What… what do you mean by that, father?” Nayeli asked, smiling uneasily.
“These curses are a burden, certainly, but nothing deal-breaking! Nothing that will prevent you from fighting at least! We can still make this work! It’ll just take a little bit of extra effort, and then we-”
Nayeli felt her father’s withering gaze focus on her. She started to sweat but held her ground anyway.
“I said no! I don’t want to be your champion, father! I want to go back to Olympus! At least there it’s safe! At least there I won’t have to worry about getting run over by cars or strange men assaulting me! Olympus is my home! Why won’t you let me go back?!”
“Nayeli,” her father said in a dangerous tone. “Think carefully before you say anything. Do you really think you’d be welcomed back to Olympus? Do you really think that’s an option? You’re going to stay here, and-”
“And what? Fight for the rest of my life just because you can’t anymore?! I’m not like you, father! I don’t want that! This isn’t about wanting what’s best for me! You’re just being selfish!”
“How dare you!” her father roared. “You are my child-”
“Yeah, fat lotta good that’s done me!” she yelled back.
“Nayeli, stop it!” her aunt warned her, her voice stern.
“In fact if it wasn’t for you doing… t-that with your own sister, I wouldn’t be in this mess right now! This is your fault!”
“Why you ignorant, ungrateful little-”
“I hate you, father!”
A sound like freshly cooked wishbones being broken cracked throughout the car like a lightning bolt, the sound comparable to a gunshot, as Nayeli’s ribs burst forward from her chest in a grisly shower of blood and tissue. Nayeli gurgled, choking on blood as rapidly draining arteries emptied into her punctured lungs. Artemis and Athena stared, struck dumb by what their brother had just done. Her father, equally surprised, turned his head in shame and fled the scene.
“Nayeli!” Artemis yelled, racing to heal the wounds. Athena whipped around to face her brother, but found him gone.
“Brother…” she muttered, frowning, before turning back to Nayeli.
“Artemis!” she yelled. “How is she doing?”
“Not good!” the goddess yelled back. “All the energy he poured into these wounds is making it hard to close them! Damn him! Why would he do this? To his own daughter?!”
Athena did not know. But Nayeli’s pained moans and incomprehensible gurgles made it plain to see they had other priorities to deal with first.
“Hold her still…” she instructed Artemis. Then she placed her hands on Nayeli’s chest and got to work, raw magic coursing into the wound.