She sat, glum and dejected, on a warm rock by the cool wading pool.
How is it possible to be sad in paradise? she thought. Here I am, literally in the most perfect place in the world besides heaven, and yet I am moping? What is wrong with me?
All around her, other spirits were actually enjoying themselves, each just happy to have landed here, in Elysium. The spirits each did the thing that pleased them the most in the world, and altogether it was a beautiful sight. Zoe often loved to just sit here on this rock, or in that tree, or on that bench, and just watch as the people went by. It gave her surprisingly great pleasure. Creepy? Perhaps. But she supposed that the reason she loved being so vigilant was that it was the best possible reminder of her days as a Hunter of Artemis: always on the lookout, observing the things that usually went unnoticed and that seemed unimportant. It gave her a sense of purpose, as if she were still in some way useful to the world. She knew it was a pathetic way to spend her time, but she really did enjoy it.
The most entertaining spirits to watch were the young ones. Despite the stories of their deaths - protecting their younger siblings from death, not making it to Camp Half-Blood on time, starving from life on the run and a malnutritious diet- they did not act as though it was tragic. Although the children had lived the shortest amount of time, they were often the ones that lived the most now: they danced in the waterfall, leaped into the pool, sculpted sand castles, and wove flower crowns for each other, little girls often placing delicate blossoms into each other's hair.
She confessed she was not only a vigilant watcher of the children, but of the lovers she saw too. This was quite a popular spot too: a park that contained a forest, a waterfall, a pond, a river, the works; and from here Zoe could see it all. Two little kids, a blonde girl and a freckled boy, shared their toy Trojan horse as they skipped over the lush grass in the park. A couple, who she knew were just recently reunited after centuries of searching for each other, sat together on a wooden bench nearby, whispering fervently in hushed tones. An old man and woman, wrinkles lining their ancient faces, shuffled along a sidewalk as they held the other's gnarled hand and gazed at each other with such overwhelming love and adoration that Zoe thought she would burst. They walked in a surprisingly youthful manner, their faces old, but their eyes and auras young.
Zoe also enjoyed observing the young heroes that resided here. If she had been more of a fangirl, she may have been starstruck, but she failed to swoon or faint every time she saw one. Their tales of what they'd done in the life before never failed to fascinate her: the struggles, the scars, the sacrifices. It was all very relatable, and the connection was never lost on her when she met a spirit like that.
In fact, she swore that was Theseus, or perhaps another famous hero, passing her now. A young man crossed her line of vision on his way to the Roman bath house they had down here, which seemed rather ironic now: a Roman bath house in a Greek afterlife. He been carrying a towel and wearing a white robe with flip-flops like some kind of movie star.
Unsure who he was and dreadfully curious, she'd called out, "Who art thou?"
He turned, confused. When he caught sight of her, he cried "Why, do you not know me?"
She shook her head. "Thou dost look familiar, yet I am unable to place thy face. Pray tell, who art thou?"
"I am the most famous of all Greek heroes, the one that they once called Perseus, Slayer of the Gorgon Medusa."
Zoe immediately felt faint, her stomach queasy, and her head dull. "I thank thee. Pray thou wilt excuse me now." She rushed away in a mad dash, leaving a very stunned, and a very confused, Perseus to shake his head, turn, and stroll off to the bath house, whistling.
Meanwhile, still gasping for breath, Zoe stumbled away from the golden-haired man, leaning over a rock and crying as she felt the bile begin to rise up. Her hands were planted firmly on her thighs as she bent towards the ground, retching and gagging as the vomit flowed out of her mouth. She went on this way for several minutes, drawing the attention of several spirits nearby who quickly got up and left. When she was all done, she leaned against a nearby boulder for support and spit, the saliva that came out being a distasteful mix of blood and bile.
Her heart still beating rapidly, Zoe slid onto a bench that had been quickly abandoned by its disgusted resident. She sighed and closed her eyes, falling once again into her funk.
What is wrong with me? she thought to herself once again, giving her a major sense of déjà vu. She was supposed to be strong, a warrior, free from all emotion that might inhibit her. How had she been so happy one moment, and then been throwing up the next? All she'd done was talk to a spirit. Nothing wrong with that.
But that name he'd spoken... Why, she hadn't heard that name in at least three years. Well, from a living person at least. In fact, it was coming up on her deathday in a few days- tomorrow, actually. How had she let that slip by? A spirit's deathday was like a living person's birthday: it was kind of hard to forget.
Except if you lived outside of Elysium, of course: those souls that resided in the Fields of Asphodel were mainly just faint shadows of what they had been before, while the poor souls who were sent to Tartarus still retained their memories and thoughts from the previous life, just so they would have something to compare their lives of torture to and to show how good their lives had been before they'd screwed up so badly. It was kind of similar to those who lived in Elysium, although these souls kept their memories so they could see how much better their lives were now. That worked most of the time.
Except for Zoe.
Her life as a spirit was so bad right now. Sure, she lived in what could be considered a pure paradise: sparkling lakes, snow-capped mountains, sandy beaches, bubbling brooks. There was a forest where spirits who had once been heroes or hunters could hunt in for a while with dummy monsters. Somewhere around here there was an archery range, she knew. They had indoor plumbing, with saunas, spas, and salons. When Zoe had first come in through the marble gates, she had seen a trampoline park and a movie theater. There was even a chocolate fountain- a concept that was still fairly new to her- that spirits would dip fruit like strawberries and bananas in, as well as marshmallows, she thought they were called. Pure paradise.
But a place only becomes perfect, a paradise, when you have those who you love with you. Otherwise everything- the beaches, the spas, the chocolate fountains- meant nothing. Why have something so enjoyable when you have no one to enjoy it with?
Zoe often craved for those she'd loved when she'd been alive: the Hesperides, her sisters, although stubborn, were still her sisters nonetheless; her fellow Hunters, like Phoebe, Naomi, Celyn, and Bianca di Angelo, who had died only a day before she, and even her old nemesis/rival Thalia; her ever-graceful lady, Artemis, who she would always respect and love. But most of all, she loved one boy more than anyone else. More than the others that she'd known for years, as opposed to the boy that she'd known only for a few days.
The mere thought of his name sent shivers down Zoe's spine, and she closed her eyes to enjoy the pleasure it brought her. She was exhausted, and the backs of her eyelids brought her such comfort, as well as the name on her lips that she continued to murmur as she drifted into a deep sleep, a memory that she would never forget as long as she had a heart.
Zoe first realized she loved Percy at an extremely inconvenient time.
They were racing through the Garden of the Hesperides towards the top of Mount Othrys. Zoe stared at the back of Percy's head as he held Riptide firmly in his hand, swinging it at Ladon, the dragon that guarded the the garden. So similar to Hercules, she thought. But, she realized, he really wasn't like Hercules at all. Whereas Hercules had lacked conviction and loyalty, Percy's problem was the exact opposite: he was too loyal- to his friends, to his family, to perfect strangers like her.
And that what was made her cry out as he tried to pull out Riptide to help. "No!" she shouted. "Run!" He barely knew her, yet he was willing to put his life in danger for her; she couldn't let anything hurt him. That was when she knew. She loved Percy Jackson. It was also the moment right after her realization that the dragon had bit her in the side, infecting her skin with lethal poison. Usually the bite would have just hurt and gone away in a few days instead of killing her, but as a Hunter of Artemis, the maiden goddess, the moment that she broke her vow to never fall in love, she was no longer a Hunter, and therefore no longer invincible to the bite's sting. Surprised and shocked at what this would mean, the pain of the bite made her cry out, but she was smart enough to know that she had to get out of there.
As they ran up the side of Mount Othrys, Zoe could feel Percy's vigilant green eyes on her, but she ignored him, trying to deny what she knew had just happened, until they got to the top, when he stopped her as she was explaining the past behind the mountain they were standing on. He interrupted:
"You're hurt." He pushed, "Let me see."
She shook her head and continued explaining, until they reached the summit of the mountain. There she suddenly spied Lady Artemis in chains, and she rushed forward to help her with a cry of shock. But to her surprise, Artemis stopped her with a strained voice, saying it was a trap. Only Zoe could see the realization in Artemis's eyes at what had happened to her. The others may not have noticed the lack of a faint shimmer on Zoe, but she knew the goddess wasn't stupid, and wouldn't be fooled. The disappointed but understanding expression on the goddess's face felt like a massive blow to Zoe, and she sallied forth to assist her without resisting the urge to cry. She tried to explain the situation to Artemis in a hushed tone while tugging at the chains that bound the young goddess, but it did no good- neither to tug nor to try to explain. Artemis just shook her head, but at which attempt on Zoe's part, she did not know.
Zoe turned away from her lady long enough to catch the tail end of the conversation that had been occurring while her back was turned:
"...as soon as I deal with this wretched girl," her father was saying. She assumed he was talking about her. Her eyes shone and her heart burst, though, at the sight of Percy stepping up to her father to defend her.
"You're not going to hurt Zoe. I won't let you." He said it with such determination, such strength, that Zoe almost believed that she wouldn't be hurt in the few minutes to come.
"You have no right to interfere, little hero," Atlas said with a mocking sneer." This is a family matter."
"A family matter?" Percy furrowed his brow in confusion, the way that usually made Zoe laugh, but that only pained her more for what she had to tell him. Apparently Percy didn't know the truth, and it was her duty to tell him.
"Yes," she said, strained. "Atlas is my father."
Percy's look of utter shock was so haunting, so shameful, that Zoe honestly zoned out for the minutes that followed. She was faintly aware of demanding the release of Artemis, a tense conversation between Thalia and Luke, and warning Thalia not to do something- join Luke, maybe? She was so caught up in the haze of the moment, that she only snapped out of her muddle when Percy's sea green eyes met her dark brown, nearly black, ones, and he spoke one word that sparked action into her lifeless body.
"Now," he said confidently.
Together, they all charged toward Atlas and his army. Zoe had only taken down a few monsters when she saw the raven-haired boy that she'd been watching out of the corner of her eye charge head-on towards her father, the Titan Atlas. What is he doing? she thought wildly. She pushed her way through the throng of fighting long enough to see Atlas raise his javelin and Percy his sword. She was able to call out a cry of warning.
"Percy!" she shouted, not sure if he'd heard her or not. "Beware!"
Whether or not he'd heard her was no longer important as the son of the sea god stepped up to the Titan, sword raised, and swung it at his opponent. Zoe sent off a volley of arrows, which Atlas easily swatted away, after he flung Percy against the brick palace that was slowly solidifying on the mountaintop. Her gaze stayed trained on the young hero as he struggled to a sitting position and was once again approached by Atlas.
"Die, little hero," she heard her father say in his powerful voice. Terror swept through her.
"NO!" she cried, rushing forward with another onslaught of arrows that lodged in the Titan's armor. He turned towards her with an angry roar and lumbered after her.
Good, she thought. Come this way, towards me, away from Percy.
She led him all over the mountaintop, doing her best to keep him away from the boy. Her arrows, although shot at ideal locations, did nothing but annoy her father. She was finally tiring out when her father's attention again switched directions, this time from her to a young girl who was firing magical arrows at him constantly. Artemis.
But if that is Artemis, she thought with a blurry confusion, then who is holding up the... oh no.
Her gaze landed with dismay on a lone figure supporting the weight of the entire sky, looking so fragile and broken that she wanted to crumble into bits and pieces and be swept away by the faint wind on the mountain.
Her mind whirled at a million miles an hour as it took in everything happening at the moment. Percy supporting the sky. Atlas focused on Artemis. Artemis leading Atlas towards Percy, or, rather, the sky. Artemis being swept off her feet by Atlas. Atlas laughing. Atlas raising his javelin, ready to strike for the kill. With no logical thought and only physical impulse, Zoe sprung forward with a mangled cry.
"No!" she heard herself say. She leapt between the fallen goddess and the smug Titan, launching an arrow into his forehead. He roared with an angry bellow and swatted her aside like a fly. She hit the black wall of rocks with a terrifying crunch and rolled to a stop. She looked towards Percy, saw his lips form her name.
Funny, she thought. Everyone always said his eyes looked like the sea, green and powerful, but right now, they were so bright and full of tears that they looked more like the stars, twinkling in the night. Twinkle, twinkle, little star...
The haunting song and the sight of Percy's eyes played over and over again in Zoe's mind as she sensed Artemis rush over to her broken form. The goddess's eyes were filled with tears, but she sounded strong when she spoke softly to Zoe. "I know what happened, Zoe." As shattered as it felt, Zoe's heart filled with a deep dread. "I know that you have fallen for the young hero. Percy Jackson." Zoe only blinked in response. Artemis continued on with a sigh.
"I also know about what happened in the Garden of the Hesperides, as I could see down the mountain from my position in holding up the sky. That dragon poison from Ladon would not have poisoned you so badly if you were not in love. You have broken your maiden vow, and are no longer a Hunter." Zoe's heart seemed to burst, and she didn't try to hide the tears forming in her eyes. But then the young goddess smiled softly at her. "I could not have chosen a better lover for you if I had done it myself. I am guessing that the others in your quest group, even the son of Poseidon, do not know of your affections, nor of your broken vow. Once they see how badly the poison has infected you, they will most likely assume it is because you fell in battle: a warrior's death. I do not intend to tell them otherwise." Although her words were reassuring, her face was so grief-stricken that Zoe knew she was not taking this lightly. Zoe's vision began to cloud, becoming foggy and hazy.
Others began to rush over now: friends, she hoped, for she could not see them too well, but she assumed they were not dangerous, as Artemis made no move to get up. Zoe could only faintly hear the conversation above her. She mainly focused on Percy's words, tethering her to this life.
"Atlas poisoned her?" he questioned. With some satisfaction, Zoe recognized concern in his voice. Artemis and the others continued to talk, but she became anxious and nervous with fever as she realized she could no longer see Percy's face, his eyes that looked like stars.
"The stars," she murmured. "I cannot see them."
Only Artemis seemed to realize what this meant. Zoe allowed herself to go into a slight concussion for the next few minutes. Or perhaps it wasn't a concussion, so much as death calling her. Somehow, it was saying, she was not quite ready, although she had very little time left. She dimly felt herself being lifted, more frantic voices, and a strange buzzing noise. The entire experience was very surreal.
As she was slowly set onto the ground, Zoe seemed to finally come out of her trance. And realization hit her like a bang.
She was dying. She was slowly but surely dying.
Percy didn't love her. He loved Annabeth.
She could never be with Percy. She would be dead, and he would be with Annabeth.
The conclusion was so devastating, so terrible, that Zoe stopped Artemis from doing what she knew she would try to do: heal her. Zoe gripped her wrist lightly as the goddess tried to place her hand on the gaping wound at her side. She looked deep into the young maiden's eyes, and her eyes sent out a silent plea. Please, let me die.
Although she didn't elaborate, Zoe knew that Artemis understood why she'd made the request. Any life without Percy was not a life worth living. Besides, she was the chosen one to die in the prophecy by a parent's hand. There was no other way, no way to change the Fates' design. Trying to show her undying- or, rather, dying- gratitude, she whispered a quiet question.
"Have I... served thee well?" she asked.
Artemis nodded solemnly. "With great honor. The finest of my attendants."
Zoe felt the pull of death tugging at her soul, whispering that rest was coming soon. Very soon. "Rest. At last," she said in an eery manner. She turned to Thalia, mustering an apology. Finally she smiled quietly at Percy, the effort paining her immensely, and asked, "Do you still have the sword, Percy?" When he brought it out silently and showed it to her, she sighed, "You spoke the truth, Percy Jackson. You are nothing like... like Hercules. I am honored that you carry this sword." And my heart, she thought. She shuddered as death's icy hand closed around her heart.
"Zoe-" Percy started, but she held up her hand weakly, and gazed into his eyes. They twinkled so brightly, sparkled like the stars above. She wanted to die looking into his eyes.
"Stars," she whispered. "I can see the stars again, my lady."
Artemis smiled and allowed herself to cry, knowing what the words truly meant. Zoe saw her glance at Percy, strong and loyal, and said, "Yes, my brave one. They are beautiful tonight." A final stamp of approval from the goddess that she was not angry at Zoe. She sighed with relief, and stared into Percy's twinkling eyes once more. Her gaze drifted to the sky above, saw the stars, and she registered no difference between the stars above in the night sky and the ones fixed on her, right beside her.