The teens crested the hill and stopped, staring across the field of flowers to the forest ahead. They were all appropriately nervous, as none had been into these woods before. The older Gods called it the Deep Wild, and warned the younger Gods of the horrors they might find if they got lost inside.
Nike flexed her wings. Moxie rubbed her palms over her arms and took a deep breath. Ares gripped his sword and furrowed his brows together. Hephaestus flexed his hands and steeled his jaw. Without comment, the four of them started walking again, stopping once they reached the entrance.
The sky had darkened to almost full night by now, and the only light they could see was the moonlight shining through the branches of the overhanging trees that bent together to form an archway. There was nothing to see beyond the light, but there was definitely a chill in the air. Even though they were racing the clock, none of them seemed anxious to move forward.
Finally, Hephaestus grunted and pushed past Ares. “Well, if we’re going, let’s go. I don’t have all night for this foolishness, I’ve got weapons to make.”
Nike followed behind Hephaestus and Ares motioned for Moxie to go ahead of him as he took up the rear. Walking through the archway felt like they were pushing through a dimensional membrane. There was a force that tried to push them backward, to discourage them from entering, but they pressed forward. Once the four of them were on the other side of the archway, vines sprouted from the edges and grew to meet each other in the middle, effectively forming an airtight barrier that no one could breach.
“Damnit, Mox, why’d you do that?” Ares pushed against the vines, trying to find some give to them.
Moxie just wrapped her arms over her chest and shook her head. “It wasn’t me, I swear.”
Nike put her hand on Moxie’s shoulder to comfort her while Hephaestus pulled Ares away from the entrance.
“We don’t have time for that, Ares. Let’s just go get our mother and get out of here.” Ares reluctantly stepped away from the entrance.
Nike stared at the high walls of thick trees and vines in front of her, craning her head up, not seeing any light, only seeing the canopy that had grown over the pathway. She looked to either side of them. “Which way should we go?”
“There’s a corner just over here. Let me see where it leads. Hang on.” Before any of them could say anything, Ares took off to the left and rounded the corner. They froze as they watched their brother disappear into the unknown. Hephaestus was the first to move to follow Ares, but just as he came to the corner, Ares came back.
“Nah, that’s just a dead-end there. Let’s go the other way.” Ares walked past everyone and proceeded down the pathway, trying to ignore the thick hedges and trees that had grown together so tightly that it was hard to not get claustrophobic.
Eventually, the four of them started to loosen up. There didn’t seem to be anything truly scary in the Deep Wild except for the darkness. Of course, everyone knows it’s not the dark that’s scary, but what is in the dark that terrifies. They followed the path as it turned left and paused briefly, trying to see into the darkness that lay ahead.
They continued on, with Ares leading the group and Hephaestus bringing up the rear. After a while, Moxie shivered. “I don’t like this place, guys. It’s full of some really bad energy.”
Nike wrapped her arm around Moxie. “Don’t worry, Moxie, we won’t let anything happen to you. I promise.”
As the last word left Nike’s mouth, the air shifted and seemed to part in front of them. There was a loud piercing shriek and the beat of wings from above. Ares cried out in surprise and barely lifted his arm in time to block the attack. Claws ripped through his shirt and skin as if it were paper.
Ares switch his sword to his other hand and spun to follow his attacker as it flew past him to the others. “Down!”
Nike pushed Moxie to the ground and spread her wings over the two of them. Hephaestus rushed forward with hammers in each hand. As he got closer, he saw sharp talons reaching for him from out of the darkness. He swung with his hammer and hit a wing, causing the thing to roll and let out another loud screech.
Moxie tried to look around Nike’s wings to make sure her brothers were okay, but Nike kept pushing her down. “Let them handle it, Moxie. Please.” Moxie wrapped her arms around Nike’s waist and shivered in fear.
Hephaestus placed his feet to steady himself for the blow and he turned to meet the creature. Ares finally got a good look at the creature as it descended towards Hephaestus. “Careful, Heph, it’s a harpy!”
Ares ran forward, landed one foot on Nike’s back and, using her as a springboard, sailed through the air towards the harpy. As he got closer, he pulled his legs in and swung his sword as hard as he could. The harpy’s head went flying in the other direction and blood sprayed all over the boys and Nike’s wings. Ares barely got his sword out of the way as he fell to the ground into an awkward heap.
Hephaestus wiped the blood from his face with his hand. “Damn, why’d it have to be a harpy?”
Nike stood and released Moxie, who ran to Ares as soon as she saw the claw marks on his arm. “Ares, are you okay? Does it hurt?”
Ares tried to push her away. “It’s fine. I’ve gotten worse sparring with Dad.”
Moxie huffed under her breath, tore a piece off the bottom of her dress, and wrapped it around Ares’ arm. “We can at least try to stop the bleeding.”
Ares grumbled while Moxie tended to him and Nike walked over to Hephaestus. “Are you okay, Hephy?”
“Don’t call me that, Nike.” He looked over at Moxie and Ares and then turned away. “We should get moving. We don’t know if there are more harpies nearby or not, and I don’t want to do that again.”
This time, Hephaestus took the lead and the teenagers wandered on. They came to another turn and another decision. “Left or right?” Nike looked to the others for an answer.
Ares looked to the right at what seemed to be a partial barrier. “Let me check this corner.” Before anyone could stop him, he was off again.
Nike grumbled. “He’s going to get himself hurt worse if he keeps doing that.”
Moxie took a couple of steps closer to Hephaestus as he frowned into the dark after his brother. “Show off.”
A few moments later, Ares rejoined the others. Nike let out the breath she was holding. “Did you find anything, Ares?”
He just shook his head. “Nothing but more darkness and more forest.” He looked off to the left path. “Honestly, either way could be the right one.” Everyone turned and looked at Moxie.
Nike looked around and shuddered. “Well, you have that feeling thing, Moxie. Do you know which way to go?”
Moxie snorted. “I’m not an oracle, Nike.”
“Well, I mean, I know you’re not, but can’t you feel the energy or something? Which way feels better to you?”
Moxie sighed and closed her eyes. She was still strengthening her powers and wasn’t really sure this would work, but she tried. She reached her feelings out in front of her, following the path that Ares took, but only felt the darkness. She reached her feelings out down the path behind her and felt nothing. Wait. She reached a little further and there was a faint whisper.
Opening her eyes, Moxie said, “I don’t really know, but I felt something alive back that way.”
Hephaestus groaned. “That’s not helpful, Moxie. Alive can mean more harpies, snakes, or a chimera.”
Moxie put her hands on her hips and stared Hephaestus down. “I know that, Hephy, but it could also mean our mother. Besides, it’s the only clue we’ve got.”
Hephaestus looked away and grumbled under his breath, “Don’t call me that.”
Ares adjusted his belt. “Okay, then that’s the way we’re going. After you, ladies.” He held out his hand for the girls and Nike took the lead this time.
Eventually, they turned another corner, and soon came upon an opening on their right. “Should we go through it?” Moxie tried to see through the opening but it was too dark.
Ares looked further down the path and with a shrug, took off at a quick trot. “Be right back!”
“ARES!” They all yelled his name, but he just winked over his shoulder and waved before the night enveloped him.
Hephaestus growled. “That’s it. I’m gonna kill him.”
Nike patted Hephaestus on the shoulder. “It’s okay, Hephaestus. Ares will be fine…I hope.” She looked worriedly after her brother, but heard a faint rustling sound on the other side of the opening. “I hear something.”
Moxie and Hephaestus followed behind Nike as she walked through the opening, running into the back of her when she stopped suddenly.
“Nope. No, no, no. A whole lot of nope right here.” Nike attempted to back up and ended up pushing the others into each other. Moxie grabbed a hold of Hephaestus to keep from tripping. Hephaestus managed to lean against a nearby hedge to hold himself up.
Hephaestus gently moved Moxie aside. “What’s up, Nike?”
Nike crossed her arms. “Spiders. A lot of spiders. Like a whole nest of really big, gigantic, flesh-eating spiders.” Hephaestus looked at her in disbelief. “Well, okay, maybe they’re not flesh-eating spiders, but there’s a lot there.”
Hephaestus moved Nike behind him and looked around the hedge. His muscles tensed and he eased back to stand next to the girls. Ares still hadn’t returned. “Look, I don’t know when Ares will come back, but in my experience, if something is blocking the path, that’s probably the way you have to go.” He frowned in thought. “There’s really too much of them to try to attack with my hammer or a sword.” Hephaestus ran a hand through his hair. “Hey, Mox? Can you do something to tell these spiders to leave us alone?”
“I should be able to. Let me try.”
Hephaestus walked through the opening in front of Moxie and Nike followed close behind. Moxie saw the nest of large tarantula spiders and focused on a few in the front. She sent them images of bugs in their web behind them and after a brief moment, they scurried off in the opposite direction of the children.
“Keep going, Moxie. You can do it.” Hephaestus laid an encouraging hand on her shoulder and offered a lopsided smile. She smiled back and went back to focusing on the spiders. Slowly but surely, the nest of spiders wandered off in the same direction as the first group. Not used to focusing this hard before, Moxie started to shake a little.
When all the little spiders had gone and all that was left was the queen, Moxie took a deep breath and concentrated harder. All of a sudden, they heard a noise behind them and Moxie spun around, losing her concentration.
“Hey, why’d you guys leave? Whatever, there’s just another dead end that way, so you’re going the right way.” Ares sounded quite pleased with himself.
Just at that moment, the queen realized that there were large bodies of prey in front of her and she started scurrying towards them.
“No, no, no, no! Damnit, Ares, why’d you ruin it?” Nike started backing up the way they came.
Hephaestus pulled his hammers out and Ares drew his sword. Hephaestus looked behind him. “Moxie, can you fix this?”
She shook her head and followed Nike. “I don’t think so. I’m too shaken up to concentrate enough for her.”
“Hmph. Fine.” Hephaestus banged his hammers together over his head. “Come here, ya big, ugly thing!” He maneuvered so that he was through the opening and away from the girls. Ares followed.
The spider scuttled towards the noise, its mouth opened wide enough that they could see the fangs covered in drool. It reached Hephaestus’ knee and he managed to spin out of the way on his good leg and slam one of his hammers on the spider’s head. It let out a pained shriek, and Moxie covered her ears and huddled into herself.
Ares waited until the last moment and then slid himself under the spider, swinging his sword out and cutting off its legs. The spider shrieked again.
Ares stood, covered in spider blood, a smile on his face. He bowed elegantly at Hephaestus. “Go ahead, brother. This one is yours.”
Hephaestus took two steps to the bleeding, shrieking queen, raised one of his hammers and swung it down onto her head with all of his strength. There was a sickening crunching sound as the hammer forced its way through her exoskeleton. Blood and bile flew everywhere.
Moxie was kneeling on the ground, her hands tightly against her ears. Nike stood over her and rubbed her back. “It’s okay, Moxie. It’s done.”
Ares wiped his bloody hands on his pants and went to help Moxie up. “C’mon, let’s get out of here before her babies decide to eat us for killing her.”