Between my aunt and me, getting out of the Triangle was much easier than getting in. I was a bit confused as to why that happened, though. I couldn’t help but wonder if the reason she couldn’t get out was because she was so determined to find the Jepson boy, that she ignored all the signs. When I tried to ask her, I got a very chilly response, and decided to drop the whole thing. She would tell me what had gone on when she was ready.
Once we were back on the Long Trail, she gave each of us a hug, and then she was gone. I sent a message to Persephone to let her know that I had found her mother, and that she was on her way home. She was overjoyed, said thank you several times, and lots of heart emojis.
Kara and I walked back to Bennington. I thought it would be a good idea to check our supplies before we tried to find Alastor. We stopped at a little store on the edge of town. Kara stayed outside with Eirini while I went inside. There was a woman behind the counter who gave me a strange look as I passed her. I looked down at my clothes; they were a bit dirty, but that was to be expected after walking around the mountains.
I gathered some nonperishable items, along with some bottled water, and carried them to the counter. The woman picked up a pair of glasses, put them on, then looked me up and down. “Is there something wrong, ma’am?” I asked her, feeling a bit uncomfortable under her intense scrutiny.
“I was told to look out for some guy dressed all in black, carrying a backpack,” she said. “You certainly seem to fit the description.”
“And why were you told to look out for this guy?”
“I’m supposed to give him a message.”
“And what, pray tell, is that?”
“Well, now, just hold on to your socks, sonny boy,” the woman replied. “I ain’t got no idea if you’re the one I’m supposed to give it to. I was paid good money to make sure the right person got the message.”
I took a deep breath to calm myself. “Did this person give you a name?”
“Only name he gave me was a weird one. Didn’t give no last name, just the first name.” She got a thoughtful look on her face. “Now, what was it?” she said, scratching the side of her head. “Are…Aren’t…Ere…something like that.”
“Could you mean Ares?”
“Yes!” she said, giving me a big smile. “That’s it!”
“Well, hold on now. Keep your shirt on…well, you could take it off. I wouldn’t mind a peek at those muscles. You got a six-pack under there?”
“Excuse me a moment.” I walked to the door and opened it. “Kara, would you mind coming in here for a minute? Eirini, stay.”
Kara came in. “Everything all right?”
“Would you please tell this lovely lady what my name is?”
“Just trust me, it’s okay to tell her,” I assured her.
Kara shrugged and turned to the woman. “His name is Ares.”
The woman looked Kara up and down. “You his wife?”
“Definitely not,” Kara replied.
“He ain’t holdin’ you against your will, is he?”
“Just checkin’. Can’t be too careful nowadays, especially around the mountains. Creepy things happen around there.”
“I promise you that he is not holding me against my will. We’re traveling together, that’s all.”
The woman’s eyes flicked back and forth between the two of us, and then she nodded as if satisfied with our answers. “Good enough.” She reached under the counter and pulled out a white envelope. Holding it out, she said, “Here you go. The man said to make sure I gave this to you.”
“Do you know who he is or what his name is?” I asked.
The woman shook her head and started to ring up the food. “Stranger, just like you. Kind of dressed like you, too. But he had a mean, nasty look about him. Very rude. Didn’t like him at all. There was something evil about him. I didn’t want to have anything to do with him, to be honest, but he paid me good money just to hand you that envelope. Wasn’t about to turn it down.”
“Have you seen him since then?”
“Is there anything else you can tell me about him?” I said.
She thought about it a moment. “He had a scar across one cheek. Kinda jagged looking. It wasn’t an old scar, though. It was definitely a recent injury.”
I asked her a few more questions, but she didn’t have anything else to say. I paid her for the groceries, and we left. We walked over to a nearby park where I took a bowl out and poured some water for Eirini. She eagerly lapped it up.
“That was Alastor she was talking about,” Kara said as she grabbed a bottle for herself.
“Are you sure?” I said.
“Oh yeah, I’m sure. I gave him that scar myself.”
“He got a little too friendly,” Kara said. “I made it clear I didn’t want to be friends with him.”
“I’ll make sure and keep my hands to myself.”
She laughed. “You’re much nicer than he is.”
“Don’t let that get around. You’ll ruin my reputation.”
“Your secret is safe with me,” she assured me. “Are you going to read that letter?”
I took the envelope out of my back pocket, ripped it open and pulled out a sheet of paper.
Well, well, well, it’s about time you showed up. Certainly took your sweet time about it. Did you find your lovely Aunt Demeter? Was she still alive? The God of War, riding to the rescue once again. How noble.
Makes me want to throw up.
So you have that harlot Kara and now your aunt. That’s okay. Their purpose has been served. The most important thing was they got you away from Olympus. Makes it less like there will be someone to come to save you when I kill you. And I WILL kill you. Trust me on this. When I do, everyone will see that I am truly meant to become a member of the Pantheon. Anyone who kills the great God of War deserves a place there.
And I deserve to be there.
And I will belong there.
Over your dead body.
From here, you need to head toward the place where your worst enemy was adored and loved by the centaurs and the dryads. You know where that is, don’t you? I don’t think I need to draw you a map. I know how much you admire the strongest man in the universe.
Don’t take too long. I’m growing impatient.
“Do you know who he is talking about?” Kara said when I finished reading.
“Yeah, I do. A conceited, arrogant jerk that we don’t talk about in the family,” I growled.
“Geez, don’t hold back. Tell me how you really feel about him,” Kara laughed.
“Don’t get me started.”
“Do you know where we should be going next?”
“What do you mean we? I’m taking you home. We accomplished what we intended to: we found my aunt. It will become too dangerous from here.”
“Are we going to go through this again? I didn’t bring these weapons for a quick walk in the mountains, Ares. I’m a part of this fight now, and I’m going to see it through to the end, with or without you.”
Gods, give me strength. I looked down into her eyes and saw a fire there I hadn’t noticed before. A stray strand of hair had come loose and was hanging in her face. I reached up and tucked it behind her ear, letting my hand gently cup her face for a moment before pulling away. “I don’t want to see you get hurt,” I said quietly.
“And I don’t want you to die.”
“I’m immortal; I won’t die.”
“Everyone can die, even immortals. Two against one gives us better odds.”
I started to say something else, but the firm set of her jaw told me I’d be wasting my breath. Sighing, I removed the talisman from around my neck and placed it around hers. “This will protect you if I cannot. There is strong magic attached to it. Don’t lose it.”
“I can’t accept this,” she said, reaching up to take it off.
I grabbed her hands to stop her. “If you want to help me, then keep it. If you’re injured, it may keep you alive long enough for me to save you.” I gently stroked the back of her hand. “Do this for me…please.”
Kara looked down at our hands, then up at me. I couldn’t read the expression on her face. “All right, Ares, I’ll wear it.”
We held hands for a moment longer before she took a step back, breaking our contact. “Do you know where we’re supposed to go from here?” she asked.
“Yeah, we’re going back to Greece, to the Foloi Forest. Hopefully, we won’t run into the Jerk while we’re there. If we do, I can’t be held responsible for the beatdown I might accidentally give him.”