Twenty-four hours later, Kara, Eirini, and I were standing in the middle of Foloi Forest in southwestern Greece. The canopy of green leaves over our heads sheltered us from the sweltering late summer sun. Eirini immediately began sniffing the ground, her emerald green eyes scanning the area for any signs of danger.
Kara looked around her. “Wow, this is beautiful,” she said as her gaze took in the numerous oak trees surrounding us. “This must be breathtaking in the fall when the leaves change.”
“It is,” I agreed. “I could bring you back here if you’d like to see it.”
She smiled. “I’d like that.”
I heard Eirini growl before she started barking furiously. Drawing my sword, I ran toward the sound, Kara right behind me. We found Eirini walking in a circle, her eyes focused on the ground, her growl low and menacing. When we stopped a few feet from her, she looked up at me and sat down. I moved toward her cautiously, reaching out to gently rub the top of her head.
There were two sets of footprints in the dirt, and I knelt to examine them closer. One pair had a smooth surface, no discernable pattern on the sole of the shoe. They weren’t made for hiking or walking in the woods, so my guess is it was someone who had been forced to come to the Foloi Forest.
It was the other prints that caused the hair on my neck to stand up. They were two hoofprints, unshod, about the size of a large horse or bull. Side by side with the other footprints, it appeared that the first person was being shoved every few feet, as if they were reluctant to continue. The hoofprints meant only one thing: there was a minotaur in the woods.
I was a bit surprised. Minotaurs were rarely seen in the mortal world anymore. There were small groups in various mountainous regions, but I hadn’t heard reports of them being in Greece in several centuries. Had Alastor recruited some help in his imagined fight with me? This sent my concern for Kara’s safety skyrocketing.
As I stood up, I noticed she was staring at me. “What’s the matter?” she asked.
For a moment, I contemplated lying to her. The argument we had before we left Bennington had been intense. She had passionately made her case for staying with me, even calling me a chauvinist pig at one point. I knew that if I didn’t let her come along, all the women in my life would never let me hear the end of it, so I had reluctantly agreed. I sighed heavily.
“There are two different sets of prints. One is a man, size 10 or 11. They look hand tooled and expensive. The other ones, however…” I hesitated for a moment before continuing, “…are hoofprints.”
“Hoofprints?” Kara repeated. “You mean like a cow or a horse?”
“More like a minotaur.”
Her eyes widened in surprise. “A…minotaur? You’re joking.”
I shook my head. “I’m pretty sure about it.”
“But I thought those were just something you read about in fantasy books.”
“You don’t have a hard time believing I’m the God of War, yet you think minotaurs are made up?”
“Okay, okay, I should know better after everything that has been going on,” Kara admitted. “I just didn’t expect to come face-to-face with a real, live minotaur. So how do we handle it?”
Eirini stood up, growled, and ran off. We chased after her, dodging low-hanging limbs and jumping over fallen branches. Suddenly, she stopped by an enormous old oak tree, barked a couple of times, and sat down. We skidded to a halt next to her and looked at the tree she was focused on. It was my turn to be surprised. Tied and gagged to the tree was Reginald.
I used my sword to cut him free while Kara removed the gag. “Oh, thank god you finally showed up!” Reginald croaked as I cut the last rope. “I’ve been standing here for hours.”
Kara removed her backpack, unzipped it, and took out a bottle of water. She handed it to Reginald, who opened it and drank greedily. “How did you get here?”
“I was working in the office when I heard a noise coming from Ares’ office,” he said. “I didn’t get an answer when I called security, so I went to investigate it myself.”
“Carrying your trusty pink and yellow umbrella, I’m sure,” I said.
“It was the only weapon I had,” Reginald retorted. “When I walked into your office, there was someone bent over your desk. Moving quickly, I ran up behind them and hit them over the head with the umbrella. They stood up and turned around, and I screamed like a little girl on Christmas morning. It was this ugly, horned, furry…thing looking at me. It grabbed me and poof! The next thing I know, we’re standing in the middle of this forest.” He looked down at his shoes. “Look at my Berlutis! These cost me $2500! Who’s going to pay for them?”
I rolled my eyes and snapped my fingers in his face. “Reg, focus on me for a minute.”
“But my shoes!” he wailed.
“I don’t give a damn about your shoes!” I told him. “Did the minotaur say anything to you when he was dragging you out here?”
“Minotaur?” Reginald gasped. “Is that what that thing was? He’s an ugly bastard, and he really needs to learn some fashion sense.” He stopped talking when he saw the angry look on my face. “He muttered something about Alastor, and that he was looking forward to killing you.”
Kara frowned. “Did he actually say the word kill?” she asked.
“It was implied by the way he held his knife and made a slashing motion across his throat,” Reginald said. “Frankly, I was just hoping he wasn’t going to kill me first.”
“You need to transport us home now,” Kara said urgently. “We can’t stay here.”
“We can’t lead that minotaur back home, either,” I replied. “Too many innocent people would die.”
“Whereas, if we stay here, it would be just the three of us who are killed,” she said.
“You have a lot of faith in my fighting skills, don’t you?”
Eirini’s ears perked up, and she emitted a low growl. Reginald looked down at her. “What’s wrong with her?”
I motioned for him to be quiet while I stood still and listened. I could hear leaves crunching as someone walked toward us. Kara picked up her bag and slung it across her back. “We need to move,” I whispered. “Quietly, but as quickly as you can.”
“What’s going on?” Reginald said in his normal voice.
I grabbed him by the tie and pulled him toward me until we were face-to-face. “The thing that brought you out here is headed this way. We need to find a place to hide so I can come up with a plan of action.”
“Dude, you need a TicTac,” he said, waving his hand in front of my face. “I thought you normally punched first, thought things through later.”
I resisted the urge to tighten my grip on his tie; he was a good secretary, and I didn’t want to have to train someone new. “I’m trying a different approach,” I told him. “Come on, let’s move.”
Taking the lead, I moved further into the woods. Reginald was behind me, with Eirini running next to him, and Kara bringing up the rear. She was right. I could just transport us back to my office in Olympus. But I didn’t know if the minotaur was alone or if he had friends with him. It would be disastrous to lead them back to the city. Granted, there would be others there to fight with me, but how many innocent lives would be lost during the battle? It wasn’t a risk I could take. No, the fight would have to happen here.
I spied some cliffs off to the right and headed for them. Spying an opening in the cliff face, I pointed it out to the others. The entryway was narrow, but it would be easy for the four of us to get through. But a minotaur wouldn’t be able to follow us inside because of their horns and overall size.
We made our way down a short passageway that led us to an open cavern, with light streaming in from a hole above us. Kara looked around while Reginald loosened his tie and sighed. “Well, it’s not the Ritz-Carlton, but I suppose it will do,” he groused.
“Perhaps you’d prefer to wait outside?” Kara retorted. “I’m sure the minotaur would love to see you again.”
Reginald’s face turned white, and his eyes grew large. “Do you have anything to eat in that bag of yours?” he asked.
Eirini stationed herself in front of the passageway. I leaned over and scratched her head. “You’re a good girl,” I whispered to her. I gave her a couple of orders in Greek, and she huffed at me in response.
I stood up as Kara walked over. “What do we do now?” she asked me as she handed me some water and beef jerky.
“We make our plans for tomorrow, and we wait.”
“Are we going to live through it?” she said.
I looked down at her. “Yes, give you my sacred word as a god that we will.”
“We better, or I’ll make your afterlife miserable.” She turned and walked away.
She wouldn’t be the only one.