“The Dogs of Athens” by Kendare Blake is a dark story set before the events of the Goddess Wars series for young adults during the twilight of the gods.
Greek goddess Artemis and her immortal companions have returned to modern-day Athens where a chance reunion with Actaeon, the mortal hero who fell prey to Artemis’ fatal wrath thousands of years ago, turns violent once again.
In Athens, stray dogs run free. The people have neutered and spayed them, taken away their instincts to fight and breed, and turned them into polite citizens. They roam in beggar’s packs and split the take in back alleys. They pant on street corners, waiting for the walk signal to cross. They ride the metro and count the stops and nobody bats an eye.
In the shadows of the Acropolis Museum, a young woman watches as people make their way up the hill road, tourists from every corner of the globe, most wearing wide-brimmed hats and Bermuda shorts. Sandals they bought at a shop in Plaka and paid too much money for. They are a constant stream, so many more than there used to be back when the marble wasn’t worn and pocked and sand-colored.
Barely twenty paces up the slope, a heavyset woman of around forty calls to her companions to stop. The day is hot and yellow. Sweat stains mar the back of the woman’s red cotton sleeveless top and darken the waistband of her khaki shorts. She stretches her arm out as if expecting to find the supportive grasp of her husband, but finds nothing and leans against the stone of the wall instead. In the shadows, the young woman watches the heat press down on the would-be pilgrim’s shoulders like so many weighted blankets.
“Go and help her,” the young woman says to the black dog sitting at her side, and the black dog flicks one pointed ear.
“Help her do what?” the dog asks. “You want that I should lick the sweat from between those pendulous teats?” She shakes her scruff. “I’m not about to let something that size try for a ride.”
The dog growls a growl that sounds like a grumble and trots away from the museum toward the ancient road and the distressed woman, whose husband and children stand farther up the hill, with hands on hips and impatient faces. They’ve come a long way, halfway around the world, to see the ruins and pretend to comprehend the age of the structures. To pretend to comprehend what the temples once meant. Who has time for a mother’s heatstroke or heart attack or dizzy spell? They have to get to the top, so they can snap smiling photos with their faces eclipsing the backdrop of statues and pillars. They have to get to the top, so they can come back down and eat Greek McDonald’s and swim in the hotel pool.
The young woman sees this, and knows this, but her face betrays not one ounce of distaste. Mortals are funny things. It’s unpleasant, how the children roll their eyes. How ashamed they are of their mother’s weight. It’s unpleasant, but it isn’t damning. Not when mortals can do so much worse.
The young woman crosses her arms, comfortable in the shade of the museum’s massive rectangle. It’s a strange design for a museum of classics. All those smooth curved statues locked up in science-fiction angles. But the people buzzing in and out of it don’t seem to mind. It’s air-conditioned, and there’s food to buy that’s wrapped in plastic. They walk past the young woman as if they can’t see her. Even though, despite her infinite years, the Goddess Artemis is still the most beautiful girl any of them will ever see.
On the ancient road, Daphne has nearly reached her target. She weaves through the legs of other tourists tramping up the hill and slinks down low, almost so low that her belly touches the ground. Her long curved tail wags excitedly back and forth. She bobs her head and creeps forward to nuzzle the woman’s hand.
The look on the woman’s face is sheer surprise. Daphne’s ears twitch. Her hindquarters wiggle.
Pet her, Artemis thinks. You will feel better, I promise.
“Get away, you filthy thing!”
The woman heaves up and pushes off the wall. She knees the dog in the ribs.
It isn’t hard enough to cause injury. A dog like Daphne, it doesn’t even hurt. But it was undoubtedly rude.
Artemis draws back the bowstring in her mind and lets an arrow fly into the fat woman’s heart. The woman snatches at her shoulder like she’s trying to tear off her shirt, and stumbles. Daphne hops out of the way. One black ear twists toward Artemis before she trots back to her in the shadows of the museum. The fat tourist’s family finally takes notice. They begin to squawk like chickens, shouting and fluttering their arms, wishing loudly that they were home where there are fast ambulances and clean hospitals.
“What did you do to her?” Daphne asks.
“It’s nothing,” Artemis answers. “It’s angina.”
“That wasn’t really necessary.”
“I protect my pack,” Artemis says. “Even if my pack has become willful and learned to back talk.”
She looks past the crowd surrounding the fallen tourist, up the stone road to the crest of the hill and the golden Parthenon. Should they go to the summit, and walk through the ghosts? Like the others on the road and milling in and out of the museum, they too have traveled far to be here. But now the idea isn’t particularly appealing. What seems grand to millions of visitors seems only sad to her. The Parthenon is a monument stripped bare. It’s stood too long under the blasting Grecian sun. So long that it’s only bones now, and to gawk feels indecent.
“We shouldn’t have come here,” Daphne grumbles, meaning that they shouldn’t have returned to Athens. Too many memories, the pack had said. Too many other gods, and no god was to be trusted except for Artemis. But they had found no other gods. Artemis had found no other gods for almost three hundred years.
“I don’t like it here,” Daphne goes on. “There’s nothing good to hunt. These cats are too thin. Their bones stick in my teeth.”
“Leave the cats alone, then,” Artemis says. “You’re free here. Invisible.”
Daphne snaps her jaws.
“The pack needs a purpose, Goddess. We aren’t neutered terriers content to steal meat skewers from the market. We need to take down game. We need to shred.”
At night, Monastiraki glitters. All of Athens glitters, every ruin glowing as if lit from within. Walled gardens flash light from black-and-white movies, and the wide black sky settles over it all. Looking up over the hills, Artemis feels like a goldfish in a bowl.
Around her, music rings off the stone street. Vendors sell roasted cashews and fried dough as appetites return in the cool dark. Lovers walk together with their footsteps in sync, happy to experience the city. They have so little time, to see and do all the things they wish. It must be frustrating. Artemis could close her eyes, and they would be dead and dust when she opened them. She could stay in Athens for a hundred years and consider it brief.
But she won’t. There are no gods here. Only a graveyard of chipped marble cheeks and blank, all-seeing eyes.
Have others returned to this city, too? she wonders. Perhaps they thought too that it was the likeliest place to find one another. As if they had marked it. In the unlikely event of Olympus falling, all gods should meet in Athens.
She smiles, slightly. The others have all passed through. She’s certain of it. She can almost smell them on the wind, and taste them in the ocean. Perhaps it was her brother, Apollo. Perhaps he had been looking for her. She hasn’t exactly made herself easy to find, wandering the wilds with the pack. And she hasn’t tried very hard to find the other gods, either. If she doesn’t see Apollo for five hundred more years, it will only be her fault.
A laughing boy bumps up against her shoulder as he passes from behind.
“Oh,” he says, and touches her arm. “I’m sorry. Excuse me. Sig . . . signomi.”
“It’s all right,” she says in English.
For a moment they stare at each other. Then he blinks, and puts his hand to his cheek.
“I’m sorry,” he says again. “For a second, I thought I knew you.”
He’s a handsome boy. Tall, with yellow hair like her twin brother’s, and a straight nose. Looking, she thinks she might know him, too. His face is familiar. More so than most. She almost thinks,Orion, but then she places him correctly. Actaeon.
“Perhaps you do,” she says.
“But I couldn’t, could I? I would remember your hair. Is it brown or silver?” He almost reaches out to touch it. “It looks both. I’m sorry. My friends . . . they’ve gotten me drunk, and disappeared.”
“Stop apologizing,” says Artemis. “Be on your way.”
He bows his head and goes, obedient as if he really were poor Actaeon, whom she had once punished so severely, instead of only one of the millions of boys alive now who must resemble him.
Down the street, Daphne edges into view, her black snout emerging from an alley behind a restaurant. She sees Artemis and approaches, only pausing for a few moments to bark at a panhandler. One of the restaurant workers tries to reward her with a scrap of food. She sniffs it and turns up her nose.
“There’s blood on your teeth,” Artemis says when Daphne smiles. “What is it?”
“Only a rat,” the dog replies. “But a nice fat one. Fatter than these flea-bitten cats.”
Artemis strokes Daphne’s long nose and ears, and Daphne’s tail thumps. She leans her large body against Artemis’ leg. Daphne is a tall dog, a hound, made for running down prey. She can gallop for miles and miles alongside a stag, make it as tired as she likes before leaping for its throat and bringing it to the ground, opening its veins to slick the grass. She’s fast enough, and strong enough, to take game by herself. But the rest of the pack loves tearing into things with her.
“Where is Iphigenia?”
“She and Erigone craved a swim,” Daphne says.
“Iphigenia doesn’t swim.”
“But she does bark at fish,” the dog says, and reaches around to gnaw at her hindquarters. “They’ll be back soon.”
Back soon, and smelling like sea salt. Erigone’s sand-colored fur would be stiff with it. Artemis doesn’t ask after Loxo or Phylonoe. They are somewhere in the city, or in the hills surrounding. Being dogs. Stealing and sniffing, and testing hands with wet noses and tongues. Artemis doesn’t worry about her pack. She chose them to be her immortal companions for a reason. They are clever enough to survive without her.
“I saw a boy,” she says instead, and her eyes drift in the direction that he went. He’s gone now, in some bar or restaurant with his friends.
“A boy,” says Daphne.
“He reminded me of someone.” Actaeon. He’d been a hunter, like her. He had spied on her while she was bathing, so she cursed him into a stag and set his own hunting dogs to tear him apart. So many hounds. Black and white and brown, with long legs and sharp teeth. They ripped out Actaeon’s stomach and savagely bit his face. They hadn’t known him, hadn’t recognized their master in his stag disguise. Artemis doesn’t remember now if that had been part of the experiment. She doesn’t remember if it was an experiment at all.
“Someone,” Daphne says, and snaps her jaws. “Who, someone? I don’t like your voice, the way it sounds, when you say that.”
“How does it sound?”
Daphne thinks. It has been a long time since she was human enough to decode the meaning behind every tone. She licks the backs of her fangs.
“Guilty,” she says, finally. “Regretful.”
Artemis frowns. It couldn’t be regret. She hadn’t thought of Actaeon in perhaps six hundred years. He was one small lesson amidst countless others.
“Every life bears regret,” says Daphne.
“Not mine,” Artemis says. “Not a life which isn’t measured in time. I am no mortal, Daphne, to have only one chance before I disappear to an uncertain end. I am eternal; I can kill a thousand of them and save a thousand more, and none will matter to me more than the first.”
“Why did we come here then?” Daphne asks. “Searching for scattered family and looking back to the past? You can’t lie to me, Goddess. I’m your dog.”
“I’m going back to the camp,” Artemis says. “Are you coming?”
Daphne stands and wags her tail.
Phylonoe has been escorting tourists through the park near the Temple of Olympian Zeus in exchange for scraps of food. She’s bloated on salty fries and bits of lamb. The ice cream gave her the trots; she keeps disappearing around corners to relieve herself.
“It serves you right,” Daphne scolds, and bares her fangs. “Swallowing so much city food.”
Phylonoe shakes out her pretty golden coat. Fattened up, she looks more like Erigone, except that the fur on Erigone’s tail is longer, and Phylonoe has white markings on her snout and feet.
The pack had finally come together again. Artemis had woken to find them lying at the edge of the camp. Iphigenia was stretched out across the ground. Loxo kicked at her long brown ears with a hind foot.
She didn’t know when they’d returned. Sometime after she’d gone to sleep, and she’d been awake almost to dawn, staring up at the fading stars and wishing it was winter so that she could see Orion. Wondering where the other gods were, or if she had somehow inexplicably become the last.
“You were right about this place,” she’d said to the dogs upon waking. She’d drawn her knees up and picked a dry twig from her hair. “We should go.”
The dogs hadn’t paid much attention. They’d yawned and regarded each other with shifting brows until Daphne muttered with her snout in the dirt. “Soon,” she said. “Now we rest. And tonight we hunt.”
The dogs woke in the afternoon and slipped away in pairs until Artemis was alone again. Since they’d arrived in Athens, they’d been so scattered. It’s a surprise to find them together in the Monastiraki market, near sundown.
Phylonoe returns from her latest bathroom break and stretches her hind legs. The pack stands out here, amongst the tourists. If they linger too long, someone will wander over to the beautiful girl and her handsome hounds, and want to pet them.
“We thought you’d never arrive,” Iphigenia says. “Where were you?”
“Wandering,” Artemis says.
“Wandering. Looking for lost gods? This place is full of lost gods. Fallen gods and old ghosts. The sand doesn’t smell the same. Nothing is sacred.”
Artemis looks at them with pity. They are irritable, and—except for Phylonoe—poorly fed. There hasn’t been much meat on whatever they’ve been catching, and they’re stretched so thin that they almost look taller.
“You’re right,” Artemis says. “This was futile. I can hardly remember why I wanted to come. Why I wanted to see them.”
“Haven’t we always taken care of you, Goddess? Are we not your immortal companions?” Daphne asks, and flashes her teeth.
“There is a house,” whispers Loxo, “on a southern hill. It’s filled with death. I passed it two days ago, looking for dogs to eat.”
“Dogs do not eat dogs,” Artemis says sharply.
Loxo’s ear twitches. “The house belongs to Hades,” she says. “But he is not in it.”
Hades. King of the underworld. How do you know it is his? For how long has he not been in it? Have you not scented any others?
Artemis wants to ask these things, but the hounds wouldn’t answer. They don’t like the change that they sense in her. She, who has been changeless since the beginning.
“You said we would hunt,” she says instead. “Where? In the hills?”
Something ripples through the pack. Something that not even Artemis can hear.
“Stay,” Daphne says. She goes around the corner of the building. The other dogs whine. But it is only a moment before she returns, a human.
Artemis holds her breath. It has been a long time since she’s seen Daphne as the girl she once was, the white-armed, raven-haired beauty in a short tunic and sandals. Daphne spares the pack a glance, and then moves off into the crowds.
“What is she up to?” Artemis asks. But the moment she sees Daphne slide into the center of the group of boys, she knows. The boys are drunk and excitable. It will not take long for them to rise to the bait.
“We could go north,” Artemis says softly, “and fell bear. We could run them down and cling to their shoulders and dodge their claws.” In the center of the boys, Daphne has her hands everywhere, running along their jawlines and tracing their chests. There are five of them, and they are perhaps twenty or twenty-one, but they are still just boys, not men like they would have been once, at that age.
“We could go south, after antelope. We could tumble a dozen and carve up the best cuts. We could eat beside lions and jackals.”
The pack does not listen. Their eyes and ears are on Daphne, and their prey. Iphigenia growls.
“We should not have come here,” Artemis whispers.
The boys are loud; easy to track around the corners of the darkening Athens streets. Artemis doesn’t know what Daphne has promised them; a party, perhaps, or some grand adventure; but they laugh and hoot innocently, casting pale, open-mouthed shadows on the walls.
These boys have done something, she thinks. Committed a crime, or a sin to be punished for.
Haven’t they all? Haven’t all mortals offended in some way? And isn’t it always her pleasure, to dispatch them?
But there is something different about this hunt. It’s in the hunch of her dogs’ shoulders and the eager foam on their lips. They look savage. They tremble, and look mad.
The pack darts around the corner at some unknown signal from Daphne. There is a gentle, collective gasp. The boys are surprised, but not afraid. They’ve seen many packs of roving, friendly strays. They don’t start to scream until they see the teeth. Some don’t scream until they feel them.
Dog kills are noisy. They’re full of movement: paw pads and claws scratching across the stone of the alley, the sound of snapping jaws growing wetter with blood. Clothing pulled until it tears. Flesh pulled until it rips. Shouts for help. Cries. A growl so deep that it is almost a purr.
When it grows quiet, Artemis rounds the corner. Whether the boys tried to stand together she can no longer tell. They’ve been dragged apart and lie shredded, faces slack and eyes already glazing. One boy for each dog, and perhaps that was the only reason they were chosen in the first place.
Artemis glances at two dead faces before she sees him. He’s still alive, facing her, and facing Daphne, who stands with fingers hooked into talons, unable to decide in which of her forms to kill him, maiden or dog.
“It’s you,” Artemis says. “The boy who looks like Actaeon.”
His hands shake, useless, at his sides. Loxo stops tugging at his friend’s intestines and growls at him with a red muzzle.
“This one is mine, Goddess,” Daphne says. She sinks back down onto all fours. Her fangs return with her shiny black fur. They are longer, and sharper, than Artemis has ever seen them.
“Oh,” the boy whimpers, and Artemis sighs. The boy is not Actaeon, but that doesn’t matter. All Artemis knows is that she cannot stand in an alley of corpses and watch that face be torn again to pieces.
“Come, Daphne,” she says. “Leave him.”
She gives the command, and Daphne’s hackles rise. The muscle of the big hound’s haunches stretch beneath her skin.
“Daphne,” Artemis says, and the disbelief in her voice is plain.
Daphne snarls. She lunges, straight for the boy’s throat.
Artemis has no bow, or arrows. Not even a knife. She’s come unarmed into the city, except for her fists and her wits. She leaps and gets hold of Daphne around the ribs. The dog scratches and snaps. She twists in Artemis’ arms, the two of them rolling and kicking up dust. Artemis hears her own breath. She hears the whines of the pack as they watch nervously. She was never as good at hand-to-hand as her older sister Athena, but she manages to kick out and send Daphne rolling.
Daphne strikes the wall of the building beside them and yips. She lies still in a dusty black heap. Artemis rises. The pack looks unsure. Iphigenia’s wide, yellow eyes move back and forth between the goddess and the fallen dog.
The boy is gone. He cleverly used the commotion as a distraction to escape, and Artemis is thankful. If he’d been standing there shivering, she wouldn’t have saved him twice. She walks to Daphne and kneels, stroking her soft black fur.
“Daphne. Are you hurt?”
The fur beneath her hands trembles. The black dog twists around and bites. Her fangs sink deep into Artemis’ hand.
Artemis jumps back. Dark red blood wells in the holes and runs out onto the ground. Daphne licks it off of her teeth. The pack laps it out of the dirt. The wounds do not heal.
Phylonoe’s tail is low, but wagging. One of the dogs growls but Artemis cannot tell which. They sniff at her blood as it continues to run.
“It’s not healing,” Artemis says.
Daphne shoulders through the pack and lowers onto her belly. Her ears are tucked, and her tail thumps the ground, contrite.
“Forgive me, Goddess,” she says. “I don’t know what came over me.”
The pack edges closer, their noses twitching. A voice in Artemis’ head says, Run.
It sounds like Apollo.
“You were overtaken by the hunt. It was my fault, for keeping you out of the wild.”
Daphne’s tail thumps harder. Her brown eyes are soft. She licks her jaws, and her fangs are long.
The pack shoves red noses into her hand and licks the wounds. Their tails wag excitedly.
“We’ll go after game again,” says Artemis. “We’ll go to the jungle.”
But she cannot run. She strokes their sweet heads, and scratches Erigone’s lopsided ear. She could never run from them. They are her companions. They are her dogs.
In the back of her mind, the voice comes again, the one that sounds so very much like her long-lost brother.
They are not your dogs anymore, Artemis.
They are beasts.
By: Kendare Blake
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