Disclaimer: I do not own Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Smallville, the larger DC comics universe that I am drawing elements from, or any of the Mythology that I am about to mangle to suit my own twisted purposes. Frankly, if you recognize it, I don’t own it. This work may not be sold or used for profit in any way shape or form for that very reason. Please don’t sue me because I don’t have anything worth taking…
-== Chapter Two – Champion’s Test ==-
Princess Diana of Themyscira stormed out of the Queen’s throne room with the force of an enraged titan. In the nearly two millennia of her life so far she had only publicly lost her temper a handful of times, but this was by far the most angry she'd ever been. No other Amazon could have contained their outrage at the slight her mother had just handed her. To have been publicly forbidden from participating in Artemis' tournament, to have been treated like nothing more than an errant child ... it was beyond humiliating. Had it been done by anyone else, the matter would have been resolved simply enough, such insults were routinely settled within the dueling circle - but as Queen, her mother could only be challenged for rulership of Themyscira. Even if she made such a challenge and bested her mother, she would accomplish nothing since the Queen of Themyscira could hardly participate in the tournament.
Struggling to contain her still boiling rage, the Princess broke into a run. Her black countenance and steely gaze scattered those members of the palace staff and any others unfortunate enough to be in her path more effectively than a charge of heavy cavalry could. Within moments her fleet gait carried her out of the palace and down along the secluded footpath that the royal family used for their daily runs. Its circuitous route wound several miles through some of the island's rougher terrain and passed the royal family's private shrines to Artemis and Athena before looping back around to the palace. As Diana always did, she poured herself into her run, pushing the limits of her already formidable speed and endurance. Many times the Princess had been asked how it was that she achieved such speed and endurance, levels that were matched only by the greatest warriors on the island, women who had centuries if not millennia more experience than she. The answer was quite simple: she held nothing back. She never considered whether or not she could
finish a lap when she began, she merely ran until she could run no more.
The miles flew by as she ran and the world faded away from her. It was one of the reasons she took such joy in running. She could lose herself in the rhythm of her movements. She could quiet the storm of her emotions and forget about everything except the ground beneath her feet and the rush of breath in and out of her lungs. It was only as she began the third lap of her marathon length course that Diana became aware of a presence running beside her. Almost instantly, the Princess bristled at the unwanted company. If she had desired a companion, she would have sought one out.
As quickly as her ire arose, it faded as Diana recognized the nature of her unexpected workout partner. The being running alongside her was no mere Amazon warrior. She was clad in a gleaming breastplate and helm and yet moved with the silent grace of a bounding deer, as though her armored attire posed no more burden than a simple woolen tunic. Even the woman's presence felt different, as though she radiated a gentle, reassuring aura of calm. All these facts led the Princess to a single conclusion: her companion was clearly a goddess ... and not just any goddess. This was the Lady Athena, one of the principal deities of her tribe.
Her first impulse was to stop and offer the goddess a formal greeting but she instantly dismissed the notion. Her intuition told her if Lady Athena had desired such a greeting, she would have appeared in such a way as to make her presence undeniable rather than quietly joining her on her run. Instead, Diana merely accepted the deity's silent presence and drove on, pushing herself to her physical limits as she always did. She could almost feel Athena's approval as they pressed onward.
The duo was approaching the end of a fourth lap, when Diana's pace began to falter. It was a very respectable distance to have covered in the two hours she'd been running, but she refused to be pleased with merely
respectable. Gritting her teeth, the Princess pushed aside the burning sensation in her lungs and forced herself to ignore the leaden feeling that had begun to creep into her legs. It took the entirety of her effort and concentration, but she steadied her pace and opened her stride, even picking up speed ever so slightly in spite of the pain brought on by more exertion. Her world narrowed to nothing more than the burning rasp of air as it forced its way into her lungs and the faint, bruising jolt of her feet striking the hard packed earth. For nearly another ten miles, Diana held her pace before stumbling as her iron will reached an end.
Her body tried to tense as it plunged toward the ground, overtaken by her exhaustion, but lacked the strength to do so. The Princess closed her eyes, bracing herself for the hard impact as she tumbled bonelessly toward the ground, but the jolting pain never came. Instead, she found herself cradled in soft, yet impossibly strong arms as her goddess caught her. Instantly a warm glow of strength and comfort passed through her, rejuvenating her. The pain and exhaustion were washed away by Athena's caring touch.
"Peace, Diana," she heard the goddess say softly. "Have you outrun the demons of your righteous anger yet?"
A flush of embarrassment colored her cheeks as Diana realized that Athena had obviously witnessed her confrontation with her mother. It troubled the Princess to think that her goddess might think of her as a selfish and ungrateful child in the wake of such a tantrum. "I... I have, my Lady," she answered haltingly, unsure of how to justify her anger or if she should even try. "My mother..."
"Cannot see the woman you've become, only the child she pled for so many centuries ago," the Goddess of Wisdom finished for her. "It is never easy for any mother to let go of their child but even less so for your mother." Athena set the Princess back on her feet and offered a warm smile to the surprised Amazon. "You seem surprised by my words, Diana. You did not expect me to be sympathetic to your pain?"
"I mean no disrespect my Lady," the Amazon began tentatively, "but I did expect you to side with my mother in this dispute."
"Your request her hurt deeply, Diana, and I do understand the pain that sparked her reaction," the Olympian answered sadly, "but that does not mean that you were wrong to ask."
The Princess snorted indelicately, "Unfortunately, she'll never accept that and it's a moot point anyway. She forbade me from participating in the tournament."
"And you mean to obey her command?" Athena asked bluntly.
"What else could I do? She is the Queen of Themyscira, her word is law," Diana protested. "To flaunt her command is to risk imprisonment, exile, or even death. And no mask on the island could hide my identity from my mother."
The goddess smiled slyly for a moment. "Your mother is a good warrior and as wise and noble a queen as any nation could wish for - but she cannot fully comprehend exactly what is at stake. This tournament ... it is crucial that all of Themyscira's best participate."
"Why?" Diana asked curiously.
"The fate of the entire world depends on it," Athena answered bluntly. "For the first time in millennia humanity's destiny is being placed in its own hands. The winner of this tournament will play a pivotal role in guiding humanity toward its greatest potential, but that path requires more than merely a great warrior, it requires a true champion."
A thoughtful silence descended on the pair as Diana considered her goddess's words. "If it's such an important task, then why use a tournament to choose?"
"The reason is twofold," the goddess replied with a smile. "First, the only way that the Amazon nation would accept a chosen champion is the public display of their strength, skill, valor, and honor. Only by proving their worth in the trials of a tournament will the choice be honored. Secondly, it will quell any doubts in the champion's heart about her own worth."
Understanding seemed to explode into the Princess's consciousness. "You've already chosen a champion!" She declared accusingly. "The tournament is merely a formality!"
"You are not entirely wrong," Athena acknowledged. "There are no more than a handful of potential champions on the Isle. There are a handful of Amazons who could fill the role adequately, but only two who could surpass even our greatest expectations. We know that our champion will be drawn from that handful of participants and none other." The Olympian chuckled wryly, "And even among ourselves we cannot agree who is most likely to prevail."
"Then why should I defy my mother's will?" The Princess asked bitterly. "If there are but a handful of warriors capable of winning, why should I risk the wrath of the Queen?"
"I would have thought the answer was obvious," Athena's voice hardened slightly as she answered. "However, if you are so willing to indulge your doubts, perhaps your mother is right. Perhaps you don't deserve the right to participate after all."
Automatically the young woman bristled at the scorn lacing Athena's voice. "Even if I did attempt to defy her, it would do me no good," Diana reiterated. "Mother would recognize me the instant she saw me and have me barred from competing!"
A flicker of emotion passed over the Olympian's face, too fleeting for the Princess to identify. It was instantly replaced by a vaguely disappointed look. She made a gesture as if tossing something at Diana's feet and a silver mask landed in the dirt before her. "If you find the courage to step from beneath your mother's shadow, wear that mask. It would prevent her from recognizing you for as long as you wish it."
Before another word could be spoken, the goddess vanished, leaving the Princess to consider her words alone. Unseen by mortal eyes, Athena smiled softly as the young woman bent to retrieve the mask, knowing that her chosen champion would make the right choice.
* * * * *
Diana stared intently at the silver mask in the softening light as day gave way to dusk. The mask was crafted in the likeness of an owl, Athena's sacred bird, but was otherwise unremarkable to the eye. If not for the magick she could feel thrumming beneath her fingers when she held it, she would have thought it naught but an ordinary ceremonial mask like any of a dozen others she had worn over the years. However, she had no doubt that the mask would do precisely what Athena said it would, thereby making it possible for her to compete unrecognized.
Still, the gift troubled her. Diana had been handed a way to fulfill her deepest desires and had been challenged by one of her people's chief deities to do just that. And yet, if she had truly understood what the goddess had told her, the victor of the tournament would have to be far more than merely a great warrior. They would have to be of the highest moral fiber. Wouldn't use of such deceitful methods to participate prove, in and of itself, that she was unfit to be a champion?
Still, it would be very easy to do just that. To don the mask on the day of the tournament and damn the consequences. After all, she had practically been given Athena's blessing ... surely that counted for something? It wasn't as if she hadn't tried to be the dutiful daughter and give her mother permission to allow her to participate. It wasn't her fault that her mother had been obstinately unreasonable and refused.
And yet, were these merely feeble attempts to rationalize her defiance? As she considered her quandary, she recalled the words of one of her many teachers.
"Diana," the woman had told her on more than one occasion, "there's an easy way to do things and a right way to do them, and only rarely are they the same. You are a Warrior-Princess of the Amazon nation and the example you set will be emulated, consciously or not, by many of your sisters-in-arms. You, above all, most *always* choose the right path, no matter how difficult it seems."
Sighing softly, the Princess realized what she had to do, despite the impossibility of the task. Turning away, she headed back toward the palace to confront her mother once more.
* * * * *
The Princess paused outside of her mother's throne room and took a deep breath to compose herself. This was not an argument she could win if she allowed her emotions to control her the way she had earlier. Storming in and making demands would accomplish nothing. Instead, she drew herself up regally and waited for the Court Herald to announce her properly before she strode purposefully into the Hall.
As she approached, the Queen spoke warningly, “Daughter, do not try my patience, I will not discuss your desire to participate in the tournament again."
Carefully restraining her temper, she responded coldly, "We have yet to discuss it at all, mother. Instead, you dismissed my request out of hand with no more consideration than you would spare for an errant child. I am no child, mother. I am an Amazon, a Warrior-Princess of Themyscira." She smiled tightly as she spoke, knowing that the words would at least force a confrontation, "You cannot deny my right to be heard."
Her mother stiffened ever so slightly at the formal words. She had indeed backed her into a corner that she had not expected, leaving Hippolyta only two choices: she could either hear what her daughter wished to say or she could face a challenge from a skilled and powerful warrior. She had spent centuries grilling her daughter to eventually take her place and rule the island but Diana had yet to fully master her emotions. If the Princess displaced her as Queen now, the consequences could be devastating to the island. Worse yet, Hippolyta wasn't entirely sure she could best Diana in single combat if it came down to it, as whether the Princess truly realized it or not, she was by far one of the most skilled and cunning warriors on the island.
"I will hear you, daughter," she conceded coldly after a moment, committing herself to a path she deeply dreaded. If Diana could keep her temper in check and present a reasonable argument her advisers might well overrule her decision and force the Queen to give the girl permission to compete.
Diana's smile softened. She had feared that her mother might call her bluff and deny her right to be heard. One thing of which Diana was certain was that she was not ready to battle her mother for the rights of leadership. Now she had merely to make her case. "I spoke this day with the lady Athena," she began in a clear and superficially calm voice. "We spoke at great length about the coming tournament and the importance of our champion's role in things to come. It is critical to the fate of not only Themyscira, but the entire world, that all of our best warriors participate in the tournament." She paused to allow that to sink in.
"And you would count yourself among our best, despite the presence of warriors with thousands of years more experience?" The Queen questioned with a faint smile, believing in that moment she had found a way to win the argument. "Such a statement reeks of arrogant presumption, daughter."
"I would not presume such a thing, mother," Diana countered with a smile of her own. "However, since the lady Athena gave me a mask that would magically obscure my identity so that I could participate without your permission if need be... it would seem that She does."
A shocked hush filled the throne room as Diana proffered the mask in question to her mother, who recoiled as if struck. "If you were given such a gift, why not use it and forget about our argument at all?" The Queen demanded stiffly.
"Our champion will represent everything that is Themyscira: our strength, our honor, our faith, everything. To use deceit to participate would sully everything that our nation stands for," she replied pouring all of her belief in that statement into her words. "Therefore, I will not use it. Instead, I beg of you ... give me your blessing, mother, or if you cannot, at least do not oppose my participation in the tournament."
Hippolyta sat dumbstruck in the wake of her daughter's words. In her entire life, she had never been so effectively outmaneuvered. She could not deny Diana's assertion that Athena countered her among the best warriors on the island because she knew that the goddess was right. She also could not fault her for bringing the matter before the court either since she had already conceded the Princess' right to do just that. There was no valid reason she could use to deny Diana's participation.
"I cannot give you my blessing, Diana," she began reluctantly after a long pause. "You have never left our island, never been exposed to the atrocities that men are capable of. As your mother, I cannot condone a course of action that has the potential to expose you to such things." She paused and swallowed hard before continuing. "However, as Queen I have a responsibility to ensure that our goddesses’ commands are carried out. I will not prevent your participation. I only hope that you can forgive me for hoping that you do not triumph."