This a chapter of my completed novel, Summoning Persephone. I've posted several chapters before, which I've significantly revised and rewritten. My goal is to make this manuscript as publishable as possible. I'm hoping to start querying agents within a few months.
Brief recap of the previous chapters: Persephone, who goes under the alias 'Lena,' left her home in Greece to kill the legendary winter stag in the Slavic Lands. She did this in order to present the stag's head as an offering to the Goddess of War at the Summoning Ceremony in a few months. In the previous chapter, she was confronted by Artemis, the Goddess of the Hunt, to whom the winter stag is held sacred. She was rescued by Hades, the God of the Underworld, who intervened on her behalf. In this chapter, Persephone heads to the Summoning Ceremony.
I appreciate any feedback I can get on this, and just want to say thank you in advance for taking time out of your day to read this. I'm hoping to get your impressions on the readability and the voice. I'd love to get line edits, nits on typos, SPaG, syntax, and rewrite suggestions are all welcome and desired.
I hope you enjoy.
The roar of the crowd becomes muffled, as if I'm hearing them from underwater. Every face blurs away, while his comes into sharp focus.
Leaning against the wall, he looks down at me, his arms crossed over his chest. Those pure blue eyes are as vivid as I remember.
What is he doing here? Is he participating in the Summoning Ceremony? None of the three great gods have come in over four-hundred years. The Trinity—Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus—seek disciples on their own.
Seconds pass, and I forget where I am for a moment, staring up at Hades. Slowly, his lips curl up into a smile I can’t make sense of.
A rough hand falls on my shoulder.
“What. Are you. Doing?” Adam hisses at me through gritted teeth. When I look at him, he’s waving at the crowd, a false grin plastered across his face.
That’s when I realize I haven’t moved at all. Everyone is staring at me, waiting for me to join the others.
Adam shoves me onto the stage, and I put on a smile, walking forward as if nothing happened. I measure my steps with the beat of the war drums, trying not to think about what it means that Hades is here.
I join the others on the stage. All twenty of us form semi-circle facing a raised platform where a blue canopy has been set up. Before each of us stands a flat white pedestal where we will present our tributes.
The sun shines right in my face, striking me with a firm hand of heat. Balls of sweat rise from my skin and roll down my neck. I have to raise my hand up against the sun to see in front of me.
The canopy shades Athena and her disciples. My breath hitches a little when I see her, and I don’t know if it’s from the heat or how glorious she is.
She sits on a bronze throne fashioned with sun-spokes. She’s dressed in lightweight, fitted leather clothing. A blue cloak drapes her shoulders, clipped with a silver owl brooch. The bodice of her tunic is plated with elaborate metalwork. A fusion of battlearmor and regal finery. Her long, sleek legs are exposed under the blue skirt of her chiton. She’s wearing steel boots that reach up to her lower thighs and arch above her knees. Woven silver cuffs adorn each of her wrists as she rests her hands on the arms of her throne.
She’s as lovely as Apollo. Her skin is deep brown, smooth as satin. Her black hair is slicked back and crowned with a simple golden band, billowing out in a curly halo around her head. She has full lips, high cheekbones, and a hard square of a jaw. More beautiful than I even imagined.
She smiles warmly, but her intelligent eyes regard each of us with speculation. She raises a hand.
The war drums stop, and the crowd is silenced. She nods to the mistress of ceremonies, dismissing her from the stage.
Adam strides forward, sweeping his arm down dramatically as he bows.
“My Great Lady Athena,” he says when he rises. “I present your supplicants.”
She nods silently, eyeing the rest of us. Adam pulls out a scroll and begins to introduce us formally. While he’s doing this, I subtly glance over my shoulder at the top row.
There’s no one there.
Instead of relief, a wave of unease washes through me. I can’t shake the feeling that he’s still here. What could he possibly want?
“...Fan Yu, from the Lan village of Northern China. And last, but not least, Lena Soliman, from the Island Aphor of Greece.”
I bow on cue when he says my name. A high-pitched squeal bursts from the audience. Eleni.
“This year’s Supplicants were carefully selected for you by the merit of their tributes,” Adam says. “I present to you a diverse group of eager contestants, all of whom have something special to offer you, my Lady.”
Athena nods appreciatively. “Thank you.”
Adam turns around, facing us. “Supplicants, step forward. Stand beside your pedestals.”
We do as he instructs. I drag my chest beside me and stand next to the platform, waiting. Adam walks to the other side of the line, to the first Supplicant. An African man named Farai Obi.
“Where is your tribute, Farai?” Adam asks.
“I’m wearing it,” he says with pride. He steps in front of his pedestal and addresses Athena directly. He touches the long tusks hanging from his neck.
“Goddess, my tribute to you are the fangs of a lioness.” His broad lips curve up. “She put up a good fight, and I have the scars to show for it.”
Farai turns around. He’s wearing an open-backed tunic, and sure enough, three claw marks streak his left shoulder blade. A low, impressed rumble ripples through the crowd.
I watch Athena for her reaction. I can’t tell if she’s impressed or not.
“Thank you, Farai,” she says. Her voice is deep and vibrates like the echo of a warhorn. “Place your tribute on the pedestal.”
Farai bows and removes his necklace, laying them on the pedestal.
The next Supplicant is from Turkey. His tribute is a pair of paws from a particularly vicious breed of wolf he killed. Athena’s face is unphased.
Adam presents the next contestant, an Albanian man who forged a golden sword. Sunshine glares off the gorgeous weapon when he holds it in his hands. The hilt is encrusted with silver, glittering with rubies and emeralds. Not just a sword but a work of art. Father’s mouth would water if he saw it.
I look up at Athena, reading her face. She nods politely, almost bored. I swallow down the lump in my throat, rubbing my fingers against my sweaty palms.
Adam moves down the line of Supplicants, and I quickly forget their names as they’re introduced. I’m only paying attention to their tributes and gauging Athena’s response to them. Steel gauntlets passed down through generations of Bulgarian soldiers. An old warhorn retrieved from ruins in the mountains of Damascus. The helm of a Prussian soldier, given as a gift for years of loyalty.
I pay careful attention to Athena’s face as each of these gifts are offered. She's either completely unphased and unimpressed or hiding her emotions very well. My heart speeds up a touch faster.
The next Supplicant is Fan Yu.
“Come forward, supplicant,” Athena orders, a general commanding a soldier.
Fan Yu strides forward alongside her interpreter. She bows, her arms held straight on either side of her. She starts speaking to to Athena in a loud, clear voice, in Chinese.
“I am honored to present my tribute today, Lady Athena,” her interpreter says in Greek.
“Rise, Fan Yu,” Athena says courteously. “What have you for me?”
With a cool, businesslike expression, Fan Yu rises and turns around to open her box. She lifts the lid of the chest. I watch closely, tensed.
She reaches inside and pulls out a pelt. The fur is silver, with the unmistable white and black streaks of a tiger.
“I bring you the pelts of the moon tiger,” the interpreter announces as Fan Yu speaks, holding out the furs. “She was terrorizing my village for months before I killed her.”
At Fan Yu’s tribute, Athena finally shows response. She leans forward in her seat, her eyes widening slightly at the size of the pelts.
“How big was this beast?”
Fan Yu unfurls the pelt so it lay flat on the stage. Spread out on the ground like silver-streaked water, the pelt is big enough to cover the floor of a large room.
“As you can see, my lady, the moon tiger is about the size of two grown bears,” the interpreter says as Fan Yu talks. “She wasn’t an easy kill. She attacked and killed both men and women and small children. She and her litter.”
Fan Yu turns around walks back to the chest. She takes out another pelt.
Then another. And another. And another.
She lets all four of the other pelts fall in a pile next to the big one.
Five moon tigers.
“We killed her and her whole streak.”
“We?” Athena repeats, raising an eyebrow.
“Myself, and a few others from my village,” the interpreter explains. “I rallied them to fight with me. In fact, they are here with me.”
Fan Yu looks over her shoulder. A group of Chinese boys and girls, men and women, stand up from a section of the rows at the front of the audience. Together, they bow to Athena.
Fan Yu nods respectfully towars them, and turns back to Athena. “They convinced me to Supplicate to you this year. A humble army of my own.”
Everyone is staring at Fan Yu, her little army, and her tribute.
Except me. My eyes are only on Athena. Because she’s smiling.
“Thank you, Fan Yu,” she says. “You may place your tribute on the pedestal.”
Fan Yu bows and picks up her pelts and drapes them over the pedestal.
I feel a strange, sweeping sensation in my chest. I don’t know if I—if anyone—can compete with Fan Yu’s tribute.
Athena’s eyes fall on me, dark and pointed.
It’s my turn.
“Step forward, Supplicant.”
I don’t blink, I don’t breathe. I only put one foot in front of the other, keeping my shoulders high as I drag the chest behind me. Stopping before Athena, I bow.
“You may rise, Lena,” Athena says graciously.
I stand straight, my heart thrumming against my chest.
“Please share your tribute.”
I feel everyone’s eyes on me, burning holes into me. With a brief look behind me, I see that the others are barely paying attention.
Turning back, I do my best to ignore them as I bend down and open the chest. Removing the top, I let the sides of the chest fall away to reveal my tribute.
A low whisper of voices echoes through the crowd.
The antlers of the winter stag gleam like gold in the hot sun, the skull a pearly bone white.
“My Lady,” I say. “I bring you the winter stag’s head, hunted from the wilderness in the Slavic lands.”
Athena’s face is blank, but she goes very still. All is quiet.
“You killed a winter stag?” she asks. “Alone?”
“Yes, my lady.”
“That is…quite impressive. The winter stag is rather elusive. How did you manage to find one?”
“It wasn’t easy, my lady. I tracked it for nearly a year, and there were times when I almost starved or froze to death in the process.”
Athena quietly assesses me, her dark eyes unreadable. I don’t know what to make of her silence. Her voice is low and contemplative when she speaks again.
“The winter stag is a rare animal. A sacred animal. Did you know that?”
I don’t let my nervousness keep me from speaking. “Not at the time, my lady. I only learned the creature was sacred when the Goddess Artemis came to me.”
Astonished gasps rip through the crowd. I hear one voice exclaim, “WHAT?” and I think it’s one of the gods.
Athena’s expression shifts so quickly it startles me. She leans forward in her seat, her eyes grave and serious. She raises a hand, and everyone quiets down.
“You say the Goddess of the Hunt came to you?” she asks.
I nod in affirmation. “I made her angry when I killed the stag. I didn’t know the animal was held dear to her.”
“Yet you’re still alive…” Athena’s tone is dubious. She looks over at the woman sitting beside her±Kwame, I realize when I pay attention. She gives a sharp nod to Athena, and Athena turns back to me, astonished.
“You speak the truth.”
“I would never lie to you, my lady,” I say, my tone steady and even. “I faced the Goddess Artemis, and by some miracle, I walked away.”
Athena’s eyes flash with severe disapproval.
“You dare to boast of invoking the anger of the Gods?” Her tone is so sharp and vicious it almost snaps my skin.
“My Lady, I never intended to anger the Goddess of the Hunt,” I say quickly. “I’m only telling you the truth. I faced Artemis, and I survived. That’s all.”
She stares at me, her eyes wide. She’s silent for so long I can feel the tension in the air. I sneak a look over at the other Supplicants. They’re looking at me as though I’m a completely different person than I was five minutes ago. Fan Yu is watching me, too, her interpreter conveying what’s transpiring in her ear.
“You’re not exactly modest, are you?” Athena finally says.
Confused, I blink. “No, I guess not.”
After a moment of consideration, she says, “Place your offering on the pedestal.”
When the disciples help me lift my tribute into place, I fall back in line, shaking.
What the hell just happened?
“Supplicants, I thank you all for your tributes,” Athena announces. “I will counsel with my disciples, and then I will choose the Supplicants ascending to the next round.”
A curtain falls over the canopy, shutting in Athena and her disciples.
No one speaks, each of us consumed in our own thoughts. I glance over at my mother in the second row, and her face is torn.
I never told her about Artemis or Hades. I give her an apologetic look. I wish I could do more, but I can’t walk off the stage and go to her. Instead, I look around at the audience. Searching for any sign of Hades. There is none.
When the curtain is rises, Athena has our attention again. She stands to her full height and steps out from the canopy. She’s incredibly tall and imposing on the raised platform, an avenging angel in shining armor.
“I have discussed in length with my disciples the offerings that have been brought to me today. I have selected two of you to ascend to the final round.”
I hold my breath, and wait.
“The first Supplicant I have chosen,” Athena pauses, and then says, “is Fan Yu.”
The crowd erupts into cheer. Fan Yu’s army members stand up from their seats, clapping and cheering. She steps forward to the center of the stage, a fire burning bright in her dark eyes.
“My second choice,” Athena announces.
I look at the others, all tensed. Waiting. My determination and single-mindedness is front and center in my mind. But as I watch the others, my self-doubt grows. Did I let my arrogance get the best of me? I can’t even consider that possibility.
My heart pounds in my head like thunder, drowning out all the voices but one.
Surprise burst through me like a dam. Numb with relief, I step forward to take my place beside Fan Yu.
Despite everything, she smiles at me, and I find myself grinning back. Here we are, the only two women out of the group. The only two who were chosen to ascend.
Athena turns to the other Supplicants, kindly addressing them. “The rest of you have shown great promise today. I admire each one of you for your bravery. You should all be very proud, and your families as well. You do your communities a great honor by participating in this year’s Summoning Ceremony. Walk from this stage with your heads held high. I hope to see some of you at next year’s Summoning, if the Gods and Goddesses will it.”
They bow and retrieve their tributes, sauntering off stage one by one. Some join their families in the audience while others head back into the stone front.
Athena meets each of our faces, her hands clasped in front of her. Sunlight glints brightly off her silver-webbed bracelets.
“Fan Yu, Lena,” she begins. “Congratulations on ascending into the final panel. Both of you have demonstrated tremendous courage with your feats. Before I determine this year’s winner, I’d like to know more about each of you and what you have to offer me. Fan Yu, please come forward.”
Fan Yu strides forward, stopping in front of Athena. Her interpreter follows after her like a shadow. Her hands are held tightly behind her back, her shoulders steady and high.
“Tell me more about these moon tigers,” Athena questions. “For how long have they been hunting in your village?”
Fan Yu begins, and her interpreter speaks, “They come suddenly, my Lady. About a year ago. They roamed the mountains hunting their prey in other villages until they came to ours. Within just a few months, they’d killed over forty people. My neighbors. Friends. Even family members.”
Athena’s eyebrow arches with intrigue. “Go on.”
A haunted shadow passes through Fan Yu’s eyes. “My brother, Shang Fu, was killed by the mother. He led a small group from our village to fight the beast, not knowing she had a litter of four.”
“I’m sorry for your loss, Fan Yu,” Athena says solemnly, her voice dropping low.
Fan Yu nods, swallows, and I can see that she’s holding back tears. Her brother’s death must have not been so long ago…
I look down and away, thinking of my sisters.
“He died bravely,” she goes on, her voice strained. “...but he still died. That was when I decided to finish what he’d started. I didn’t want anyone else to lose another brother. A sister, a daughter, a son. The day after we buried Shang Fu, I rallied the people of my village in his honor. I led them to the mountain peaks to kill the moon tigress. We lost four more people during the hunt. But in the end, we prevailed. Together. I killed the mother myself.”
“Shang Fu would be very proud of you,” Athena says. She pauses to allow a moment of silence, then continues, “Why have you decided to appeal to me today? What do you hope to achieve by being Summoned?”
“My Lady, my brother, my father, and all the male members of my family before me were soldiers. All my life I’ve wanted to follow in their footsteps. To fight and to protect. To serve in the imperial army. I don’t know how it is for the rest of the world, but women are not allowed to serve in the Chinese army. After the battle with the moon tigers, my friends and family convinced me to appeal to you. With your guidance and your power, I would prove myself strong. I would not only serve my country. Given a position of power among your disciples, I would lead the way for other young women to be warriors.”
Fire ignites her declaration. I stare at her. Athena’s lips slowly curl up into a smile.
“I admire your passion, Fan Yu. And your mission is one that resonates with me. We need more strong young women like yourself on the battlefield. There’s no reason why mortal women shouldn’t be able to serve in the army. Thank you for stepping forward.”
Fan Yu bows deeply before stepping back to her place. My palms are sticky with sweat as I contemplate what Athena may ask me. How I should respond. My intentions aren’t exactly as noble as Fan Yu’s.
Athena turns her gaze onto me. “Come forward, Lena.”
I move to the center of the stage, facing her. One of her disciples takes my tribute and sets it beside me. As her dark eyes trace mine, my bare arm brushes against the winter stag’s antlers. The points scrape my skin in spite as I wait for Athena to speak.
“You’ve accomplished something very few in the world have the ability to do,” she says. “Winter stags are often written off as myth for how difficult they are to find. Your feat shows that you have an incredible will. You even say you survived the wrath of Artemis—a goddess whom no one easily walks away from.”
There’s a brief pause that makes my heart pound harder. But she quickly moves on.
“Why have you brought me this tribute today? What do you hope to gain out of being my disciple, if you are chosen?”
This is it. The factor that will determine whether Athena will Summon me or not.
I hold her steady gaze, and say, “My Lady, my sisters were murdered when I was eight-years-old. I want to avenge them.”
Athena is unmoved. “And why do you need my guidance for this mission?”
I look unflinchingly back at her. “Because I am a mere mortal, and it’s next to impossible for mortals to kill the monsters who murdered my sisters.”
“And why is that?”
Another heavy pause fills the air. Kwame is watching me with the eyes of a hawk.
Athena’s mouth shifts in response to my pause. She looks at Kwame.
“She is withholding something,” Kwame says to Athena.
God damn it. Athena turns back to me, her eyes hard.
“Well?” she presses.
I can’t lie. I have to say the truth.
With a tight breath, the words surge out of me: “Because they are disciples of another god.”
Astonished gasps fly left and right. Fan Yu looks at me with shock, her mouth hanging open. Whispers hiss from the audience, and I can’t make myself look over at my mother. I’ve all but revealed my plan to her, and I can’t turn around to face her. Can’t face the outrage and pain I know I’ll see if I do.
Athena is perfectly still, her face a cool, carefully composed mask. The only indication of a reaction from her is the way her hands tighten on her throne.
The cries from the audience fade into silence. A light breeze tugs at the skirt of my dress. Pigeons hoot from the upper ridge of the stonefront.
At last, Athena speaks, her eyes taut. “You want me to Summon you…so you can wage war against another god?”
“I don’t want to wage war, my Lady. I only want justice. A piece of your power so I can put things right for my sisters. For my family. And everyone else who has suffered at the hands of this god.”
“You are playing a very, very dangerous game, girl.” Her tone is vicious and dragon-like. “First you anger the Goddess of the Hunt. And now this. Which god is it now that you dare to provoke?”
“I haven’t provoked anyone,” I respond quickly, the heat of my own anger overcoming me. “They killed my sisters. Am I supposed to stand down and accept that, just because it was a god who did it?”
“Hold your tongue!”
I bite down on my lip so hard my teeth crack through skin. A slight tinge of blood coats my tongue. My anger doesn’t subside. It just keeps building, and I don’t know if I can contain it if I open my mouth again. So I keep it shut.
A moment passes, then Athena demands, “Which. God?”
Another quick pause as I weigh my options. I can’t let my emotions get the best of me this time.
“I can’t say,” I tell her carefully. “If I do...my family will be in danger.”
After a second of deliberating my words, she nods once in acceptance. She’s silent again, and when she stares at me, it’s only me and her in the arena.
“I must confess, I don’t know what to make of you, girl. You’re...brash. Brave, too, I admit.” She looks at her disciples beside her, and each of them give her perplexed looks. Clearly, they don’t know what to make of me either.
Athena turns back to me. “But your motives are entirely self-serving and hypocritical.”
“It isn’t self-serving to stand up to bullies.”
Her jaws clench and her nostrils flare, and I swear I feel the ground quake.
“That’s what we are to you? Bullies? Yet you’ve come to the Summoning Ceremony to ask for the guidance of one.”
“I’m not talking about you, my Lady.”
“What makes you think you have the right to challenge a god’s disciples? You, a mere mortal? When we hold the power to grant you the gifts you covet?”
This time, I carefully choose my words, and when I speak, it’s with an unwavering conviction.
“Don’t mortals have the right to live free from the brutality of gods and kings?”
She leans into her throne, apalled by my candor. The question leaves her reeling. She shakes her head vigorously, her teeth clenched, and she has no words.
“This is blasphemy!” someone shouts from the audience. “Just kill her and be done with it, Athena!”
Stunned, I look over at who spoke. It’s one of the gods, seated in a separate section of the audience. I can’t remember his name. Some of the other gods echo their agreement. I stand there, quiet and angry. Afraidd. Helpless. If Athena wanted to kill me now, she could.
“Order!” Athena shouts, and they all quiet down. “There will be no murder in my city.”
My chest swells with relief. Athena turns back to me, her face hard. She does not speak in the quiet that follows the gods’ outburst. I count the seconds as they fly by. A quarter of a minute passes before she speaks again.
“You may resume your place.” Her tone is more subdued.
I bow, completely numb, and turn my back to her. I cast my eyes down, unable to meet anyone’s gaze, least of all my mother’s. I know she’s watching me. I stare at my sandaled feet each time they make contact with the stone with every step I take. Silent, I take my place beside Fan Yu.
Athena composes herself again and rises from her throne to address us.
“Thank you, Supplicants. You have each given me much to consider today.”
She nods to her disciples, and as she turns her back to us, the curtain falls, and we are left to ourselves.
I grit my teeth together. I’d not counted on Kwame being present for the actual Summoning Ceremony. What a nasty way for things to play out.
Clenching my hands, I don’t feel or think anything.
Either Athena will Summon me, or not.