That night, I stood guard at the cave entrance. Reginald had finally stopped complaining about his ruined shoes and was asleep near the fire.
Kara came over and sat next to me, leaning against the cold stone wall. “What is going to happen tomorrow?” she asked me quietly.
“You and Reginald will stay in here where you’ll be safe. I’ll go out to fight the minotaur, and whoever else is with him.”
“That is a rather male chauvinist attitude,” she retorted. “Me big strong man, go fight. You puny woman, stay here. I can fight. Not as good as you, but I can still do my part.”
“I don’t need the distraction. I can’t fight whatever is out there and worry about protecting you at the same time.”
She held up the talisman around her neck. “I thought you said this would protect me.”
“It will. But that doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want. I won’t have the death of another woman on my conscience! Just stay in here and protect Reginald.”
“Reginald told me about Cassie, what happened to her.”
“Reginald has a big mouth,” I replied. “He’s fired when we get back to Olympus.”
“He’s just concerned about you.”
I just shook my head.
“I’m not going to ask you to tell me things from your point of view.” She turned to her right, so she was facing me. “I’m not Cassie, Ares. I’m stronger than I look. You, of all people, should know better than to judge women by their appearance. Nike is a slender young woman, but she’ll slice a man’s heart out and not bat an eye. Artemis uses a bow and arrow better than any man—even you—and she’s the same size as I am.”
“Yes, I know, but…”
“Don’t finish that sentence,” Kara warned me. “Reginald can stay in here with Eirini. I will find a way to help you without getting hurt.”
The look on her face brooked no argument. I had a feeling if I tried to sneak away without her knowing about it, she’d just follow me. That would put her in more danger. If she worked with me, I could hopefully keep her safe — and alive. “You do exactly what I tell you to do, is that clear? You don’t go rogue and do your own thing.”
“Your way or the highway. Got it.”
I shook my head and sighed. She smiled, which lit up her whole face. “I knew you’d see it my way.”
“You’re an infuriating, complex woman.”
She shifted again until she was sitting on her knees, then leaned forward and kissed me. I broke the kiss, looking at her intensely. I saw a fire in her eyes, one I had once seen from Cassie. I pulled her closer to me, this time being the one to initiate the contact. My heart felt like it was going to jump out of my chest as she fell against me, wrapping her arms around me like she was holding on for dear life.
When we finally pulled apart, Kara looked at me, her eyes wide. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have…”
“I’m not complaining,” I said, giving her a wry smile.
I’m not sure how long we sat there, alternating between kissing and telling each other things that people say when they are in the first throes of love. She fell asleep with her head on my lap as I gently stroked her hair, eventually drifting off myself.
I woke up to the first rays of the sun streaming over my face. Kara was kneeling by the fire, mixing something on a rock. She smeared it on the tip of her spear, spreading it evenly on both sides.
Reginald stepped in front of me, blocking my view. “Kara told me the plan, what little there is of it. I think this whole thing is crazy. Why can’t you just transport us home?”
“We’ve been over this already, Reginald. I don’t want a minotaur running loose on the streets of Olympus. It would be a bloodbath. You want that on your hands, because I certainly don’t.”
“Just stay in here with Eirini, out of the way.”
“Well, you certainly didn’t think I was going to go out there and fight, did you? My shoes are already ruined; I’m not about to ruin my suit as well. I’m going to have to have it dry cleaned at least three times just to get the smell out of it.”
“Ares!” a growling voice called to me from outside the cave. “Why are you hiding behind the skirts of a woman and a coward? Are you afraid to come out and fight me?”
“I guess he’s awake,” Kara said, coming over to join us.
“Do we need to go over the plan one more time?” I asked her.
“No, I think the twenty times you told me last night were more than enough,” she chuckled.
“This is not a laughing matter, Kara. If you aren’t going to take this seriously, you can stay in here with Reginald.”
“Relax, Ares. I’m taking this as seriously as you are. Stop being so defensive.”
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Eirini, stay here and protect Reginald.” Eirini gave a quiet bark. I looked up at my friend. “Don’t let her run out after me, Reg. I mean it. She’s going to want to, but you’ve got to keep her in here.”
“I won’t let anything happen to her, I promise. You two be careful.”
“Aren’t I always?” I replied.
“I’m not even going to dignify that with an answer,” he said, shaking his head.
I strapped my dagger to my leg, then decided to take my sword and leave the scabbard. One less thing that the minotaur could grab and hold. “Kara, one thing: if the minotaur gets close to you, don’t hesitate to use your spear or knife. They prefer to fight close up so stay away from his horns. They file them to fine points and can be just as deadly as our weapons. Just stay up as high as you can, like you promised me.”
“I’ll do my best, Ares. I give you my word.”
I leaned down and gave her a gentle kiss. “I promise to take you on a real date when we return to Olympus.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she laughed, “this is a pretty exciting first date. I don’t know many men who take their girls to a forest to fight a minotaur.”
“I try to be original.” I grinned.
Another roar from the minotaur got our attention. I looked over her head at Reginald, who nodded at me. I bent down and stroked Eirini’s head, and she licked my hand, whining. “I’ll be back, girl. Don’t worry.” Straightening up, I grabbed Kara’s hand and headed for the cave opening. “Let’s do this.”
The minotaur had the head and tail of a bull, with the body of a well-chiseled man. He definitely worked out, given the six-pack abs he had and the bulging biceps on his arms. He held a mace in one hand, the spikes on it gleaming in the sunlight. “Hiding behind a woman? How unlike the God of War,” the minotaur growled.
Kara went off to the left, searching for higher ground. I scanned the area, but I didn’t see anyone else around. “It takes a brave…man to face the God of War alone,” I replied. “Aren’t you afraid you will die alone?”
“If I die, it will be for a greater good,” the minotaur said. “Sacrifices are a necessary part of any war; you know that better than anyone.”
“That’s not the first time I have heard the word sacrifice mentioned. If you think any of the gods still require them, you are sadly mistaken. We haven’t asked that of anyone for centuries. I’m not even sure why you’re here.”
“We all have our orders, Ares.”
“And what orders are those?”
“To kill you, of course.”
“Why does everyone seem to forget that I’m immortal?”
The minotaur, obviously tired of talking, charged at me instead, the mace above his head. When he got close enough, he swung the weapon at me. I sidestepped it just in time, but I could still feel the air rush by me as it came down. I took a fighting stance as he spun and charged at me again. As he brought the mace down again, I swung my sword up, aiming for the middle of the handle. It sliced in two, the spiky head falling to the ground.
The minotaur threw the handle at my head with a growl, and I ducked just in time. As I lowered my head, he rammed his body into me, throwing me backward. I hit the ground, the air leaving my lungs for a moment. There was a sharp pain on the left side, and I was sure I had cracked a rib. But I didn’t have time to worry about that. I took a few deep breaths, ignoring the discomfort, and got to my feet.
When I stood up, the minotaur was a few yards away from me, and now he was holding his own dagger. The odds were still in my favor, as I was still holding my broadsword. He came for me once again, thrusting his blade toward my stomach. I batted his hand away and slashed his left leg. He roared in anger and punched me in the chest. I swung my sword again and sliced him on the right leg, moving around him as I made the cut.
Spinning around, the minotaur stopped and stared at me. Wait, he wasn’t staring at me. He was staring beyond me. I didn’t dare turn around to look; that would open me up to a jab to the gut, or worse, the heart. But I heard a growl from behind me and knew it was Eirini. I saw a flash of red fur as she ran past me, heading straight for the minotaur. She jumped and latched onto his forearm, trying to drag him down and throw him off balance. And she almost succeeded, too. But the minotaur threw his arm out to his side, and Eirini went flying, hitting the ground with a sickening thud.
“Eirini!” Reginald yelled. I did turn at that moment to see where he was, and the minotaur charged. I spun back in time to see him lower his head, the sharp points of his horns aimed right at me. There was no time to move out of the way. He hit me full force, and I screamed in pain as one of his horns pierced my right shoulder and went out the other side.
Unfortunately for both of us, the minotaur couldn’t pull the horn out. We did an awkward dance, arms and legs tangled together. He took advantage of the situation and stabbed me in the side with his dagger, and I returned the favor, shoving my sword deep into his stomach. Pulling it out, I raised it as high as I could and brought it down on the embedded horn, slicing it off near the base.
The minotaur, now free, roared in pain and anger. As he pulled back, I lost my balance and fell to the ground, dropping my sword. When he saw the weapon on the ground, he started to lunge for it, but suddenly stopped and looked down at his chest. My gaze followed his, and I saw the metal tip of Kara’s spear protruding from the front of his chest. He dropped to his knees, then fell over on his side.
He turned his head so he could see me. Then he laughed. “Well,” he said, “I knew it would come to this, and I am at peace with dying. But there is one thing you should know before I die, God of War.” He coughed and gasped for air. “You’ve been chasing…the wrong person.” He laughed again.
“What do you mean, the wrong person?”
“Alastor is not the one who is after you.”
Kara appeared next to me, picking up my sword before walking to the minotaur. She put the tip of the blade at his throat. “Who kidnapped me and left me in the Bennington Triangle?”
“Oh, that was Alastor, but he was just following orders. I wouldn’t bother trying to find him, however. He’s served his purpose. We got rid of him weeks ago.”
She pushed the blade just a tiny bit into his throat. “Kara,” I said, stopping her. I looked at the minotaur. “Who is responsible then?”
“I’m not about to tell you. But as the mortals like to say, ‘the fox is in the henhouse.’ This whole quest of yours served its purpose. We got you away from Olympus. You really should stay away from mortal women, Ares. They are your weakness.”
Kara raised the sword into the air and swiftly brought it down on the minotaur’s neck, decapitating him. “Well, I didn’t expect you to do that,” I told her.
She walked behind the body and pulled out her spear. “He was annoying.”
“Remind me not to annoy you when there are sharp objects around,” I replied, struggling to my feet.
Eirini came over and licked my face. Using my left hand, I checked her to make sure she was okay. Reginald walked over and shoved the minotaur’s body with his leather-clad foot. He took the sword from Kara and thrust it in the scabbard before slinging it over his shoulder. “Well, we did a great job killing this beast.”
“We?” I retorted. “You damn near got me killed!”
“Please,” he scoffed, “you’re immortal. You can bleed,” he glanced at the ichor running down my injured arm, shivering at the sight of the horn still in my shoulder, “but you can’t die. Can we go home now? I’m starving, and I desperately need a lavender bubble bath.”
Kara came over to look at the horn. “I can’t pull this out, Ares. Someone’s going to have to cut it out.”
“I know.” I nodded. “There will be plenty of help at home.”
“Do you have the strength to transport us there?”
“You’ll have to hold Eirini, but I think I can manage.” She bent over and picked up my dog, who licked her face. “By the way, what did you put on your spear this morning?”
“Just some things I happened to have to make a little poison.”
“Executioner and poisoner. You are not a woman to be trifled with.” I laughed.
“And don’t you forget it.”
I looked down at the headless minotaur, thinking about what he said. I wondered what I was going to find in Olympus. This wasn’t over by a long shot.