They followed the pathway around corners until they were presented with another choice – turn left or go forward. Ares looked at the others and they all moved through the opening on the left, an unspoken agreement that it would lead them to their mother.
Before too long, they were faced with an obstacle. Nike gagged and backed up. Ares walked closer to inspect it. Moxie buried her face in Hephaestus’ arm.
“Well, that’s just gross. Someone didn’t clean up their mess.” Ares held up a bloody leg bone and shook it so that the rat attached to the hanging muscle flew back into the pile.
Nike shook her head. “Gross, Ares! Put that down, you’ll catch a virus or something and your skin will rot off.”
Ares laughed and shook the fleshy bone towards Nike, splashing a bit of blood on Hephaestus.
“Put it down, Ares. It’s getting late and we need to keep moving.” Hephaestus wiped the blood with the back of his hand.
Moxie raised her head. “Nike, will you fly me over that, please? I don’t want to touch it.”
Nike opened her arms. “Of course, sister.” Moxie stepped into Nike’s arms. “Do you want a lift too, brothers?”
The boys just looked at Nike like she’d grown an extra head. Nike sighed, flexed her wings and rose up with Moxie in her arms. With a great push of her wings, she sailed over the pile of half-eaten bodies, pulling her feet up as the rats poked their heads out from between the bones. She landed on the other side, far away from the rats.
Ares just looked at Hephaestus and shrugged. “Well, shall we dance, brother?” A large grin spread across his face as he backed up as far as he dared. He let out a loud cry and ran at the bloody mess, leaping headfirst over it and tucking into a roll on the other side. He stood and spread his arms out for applause, but none came.
“You have bloody bones in your hair, Ares.” Nike gagged and Ares plucked the bone from his hair and tossed it back onto the pile.
Moxie looked over at Hephaestus and saw how uncomfortable he looked. “C’mon, Hephy, you can do it.” She urged the vines on the walls on either side to reach for each other in the middle, forming a bridge over the mess. Hephaestus looked grateful, but said nothing as he grabbed onto the rising vines and walked over to the other side.
They walked around another dark corner and faced a new opening and a choice, left or right. They looked at Ares.
Hephaestus sighed. “Go look around the corner to see if we should go that way. But don’t go too far! I don’t want to have to chase after you.”
Ares nodded and quickly walked around the corner on the left whistling loud enough that the others could hear him. After a few moments, he came back. “Dead end that way. Let’s go the other way.”
They followed along and soon came to another opening, which allowed them to see the doorway to another chamber. Everyone paused for a moment as if to gather their courage. When they walked into the chamber they saw, like the previous one, everything was the same except for the name on the card.
This time it said: Nike. Nike took a shuddering breath and looked at Moxie. “I’ll be okay, right?”
Moxie nodded at her and tried to give her a warm smile. “Of course you will. Hephy and I both did it and we’re okay. Besides, you’re the Goddess of Victory.”
Nike squeezed Moxie in a tight hug. Letting go, she looked to the boys and then walked over to the card. As she reached for it, she heard Ares joke, “Don’t worry, little one, we’ll just have a tea party while we wait for you.” She closed her eyes and gripped the card.
Like the others, but unknown to her, Nike floated in a dark void filled with wild flashes of colors and random sounds. Unlike the others, however, she was used to flying and was able to orient herself quickly. Moments later, the darkness was pushed away by the bright light of Apollo’s sun.
Nike blinked and looked around as her eyes adjusted to the light. She immediately knew where she was: the training grounds that she and her siblings practiced on. She heard voices and floated a closer for a better look. Nike took a moment to appreciate the lightness of her being and had a quick flash of jealousy because she was able to maneuver better in a deified state than she did flying.
As she got closer to the sounds, she recognized the scene. It was from earlier today, just before Moxie came and got her. Nike and Zelus were racing to a large mound of stones, her wings helping her gain the lead over him. Not a gracious loser, Zelus grabbed her ankle and yanked her backward into an awkward roll causing her to land hard on her backside.
“No fair, Zelus! That’s cheating!”
He laughed as he scrambled up the pile. Pausing at the top he looked at her with mischief in his eyes. “Everyone cheats, little one! That is life! You must learn to overcome the setbacks and claim your victory.” He cackled and slid down the rocks to the other side, gaining a huge lead over Nike in their race.
Nike got up, rubbing her backside, mumbling, “I don’t cheat.” She flexed her wings out and was about to take off to try and regain her lead when everything froze. The sky turned red and crackled with lightning and the air roared with thunder. The ground shook so hard, Nike could feel it in her deified state.
At the far end of the course, Nike saw a giant glass box rise up from a crack in the ground. There was something in the box, but she couldn’t quite make it out. Curious, she floated down to it and would have screamed if she had a mouth in this form.
Frozen in the box was a very terrified, very haggard looking, very bloody, Hera. Her fists were poised by the glass as if she were caught in the momentum of banging them. Her eyes were so wide with fear all you could see where the whites. Hera’s chocolate brown hair, always so intricately done, was falling out of place, electrified tendrils stretching to the sky as if to escape. Her lipstick was smeared across her face, her lips jaggedly framing a horrified, but soundless, shriek, her face streaked with tears.
Nike saw that Hera was clearly afraid and in pain, but couldn’t see a way to set her free. At least, not in her deified state. Nike looked a little closer and saw an uncountable number of little bites crisscrossing Hera’s bare skin. Blood streaked across her pale arms, dripping into the hungry mouths of a tightly packed hill of snakes. Their drooling venom was all over, frozen as they twisted over and around each other and between Hera’s legs. One cobra had raised itself up behind Hera and had its head poised to strike, its demon red eyes burning a hole in the back of Hera’s neck, venom frozen in mid drip from its glistening fangs.
Nike was so terrified she didn’t know what to do. She floated herself around and over the glass cage looking for a way to get Hera out of there. However, it was sealed tight. In frustration, Nike flew at the glass to slam herself into it, but her deified state passed harmlessly through to the other side. She wanted to scream and rage, but didn’t have the capacity in this form so she looked around for something, anything, that would help her free her mother.
Nike paused as she saw her earlier self standing frozen in the middle of rubbing her backside, frown on her face.
I wonder if I can do what Moxie can do. I’ve got to try!
Nike rushed her deified form over to her earlier body. Just as she was about to jump in and claim it though, it disappeared!
“I’m afraid you have to wait a moment, Madame Victory.” Nike looked around to see where the voice was coming from, but saw nothing.
“Ahem, down here if you please.” There was a snapping sound and an arrow made of iridescent sparkles formed in front of her. She looked down and saw a strange little imp standing on a rock waving to her. He was wearing purple silk trousers and a bright yellow top, open up top but tied in a knot at the waist. He had numerous (for his tiny arms) bracelets on his wrists and a gold ring in his ear.
She floated down to get at his eye level. What did you do to my body?
He sighed. “What happened to common courtesies?” He put an arm behind his back and bent low at the waist. “It is a pleasure to interact with you, my Lady Victory. I am Sanflores. How do you do?”
Nike was frustrated beyond belief, but she always went out of her way to help people and make them happy, and she couldn’t stop now, no matter the rush.
How do you do, Sanflores? It is my honor to be here…wherever here is. Now please forgive my urgency, but I must help my mother.
Sanflores nodded wisely. “Indeed you must, Lady Victory. It seems she is in deep peril.” He looked over to the glass cage, sorrow overtaking his face. He took a deep breath and turned back to Nike. “I’m afraid there are rules though, my Lady.”
Rules? That’s ridiculous! Rules for what?
“For the race, of course.”
What race?Sanflores smiled brightly. “The race to save your mother!” He held his arm out to the side in a flourish, pointing towards the cage. A ray of pure white light pierced the red sky and illuminated the cage and everything in it. Now light usually chases shadows but in this case, it just made them worse.
Nike let out a pained cry. What are the rules?
“Oh my dear lady, the rules are simple. You just have to win.”
Sanflores nodded. “Yes. You must beat your brother, Zelus, to the lever at the end of the course.” He snapped his fingers and pointed and another slim shaft of white light illuminated an ivory lever with a black pearl handle. “Beat him to the lever and your mother will be transported safely and unharmed back to her palace. If you lose, however, the case bottom will open up and she will be consumed by the burning fires and torn apart by monsters so wretched your imagination can’t give them life.”
Nike looked at the imp. I will not lose.
Sanflores laughed in delight and clapped his hands. “Very good, my Lady. Let’s begin!” He spun around on his heels three times and Nike’s body came back to its position. She was about to ask another question when she found herself suddenly in her frozen body. She heard Sanflores’ voice in her head.
Remember, the only rule is to win.
The sky cleared to its normal blue and she heard Zelus laughing as he raced down the other side of the stone pile. “Great, he’s already cheating,” she grumbled. Nike flexed her wings and took off on foot after Zelus. As she approached the stone pile, she leapt at the base and dove over the top, her wings giving her altitude and distance. She landed in a roll just past the stones.
As she glided to her feet, she growled. Zelus still had a significant lead. She dashed after him headfirst into a thick forest that manifested itself around her. “Not fair! The path was clear.” Nike raised her face to the sky as she danced around the random animals that appeared in her path to block her.
“This is not fair! Zelus had a head start and no obstacles!” She heard laughter and then Zelus’ voice repeating, “Life isn’t fair, little one!” She picked up her speed, letting her wings pull her forward through the forest faster.
Eventually, her path cleared and she was close to catching her brother when he glanced behind him. Frowning at her nearness, he flicked his fingers over his shoulder and the ground opened up underneath Nike. She shouted as she fell, quickly stopping herself with a powerful snap of her wings. As she was just about to clear the hole, a vine wrapped around her ankle, jerking her back down.
Nike shrieked in frustration and reached for the sword on her back only to remember she didn’t have one on this body. A second later, she pulled her foot up and grabbing her ankle in both hands, she leaned down and ripped the vine apart with her teeth. As the vine fell to the ground, she jetted off, pumping her golden wings and speeding over to catch up with Zelus.
Sweat was pouring down her face but she didn’t waste a movement to wipe it. She stretched her arms as far as they would go and with just one more push of her wings, was able to grab a hold of the back of Zelus’ tunic.
Nike slammed him backward, kicking his face with her heel as she continued past him. She heard him roar behind her, but could see that the lever was almost within grabbing distance. She spared a glance over at Hera in the cage. Thankfully, she was still frozen. Nike allowed herself to feel relief. However, just as she was about to reach for the lever, a glass box formed around her, encasing her in her own cage.
“What is this? What is going on!?” She spun around to see Zelus grinning evilly at her, his once golden eyes now pure black, his teeth and nails lengthening into fangs and claws, and a thick black tail forming behind him. His white wings turned blacker than night as he stretched them to their full expanse.
Nike was so confused. “Zelus, brother, what is going on? Let me out of here so I can save Lady Hera!”
Zelus’ rich baritone voice cackled. “Now why would I do that, sister?”
“Because it is the right thing to do! Look at her. We have to save her!”
Zelus laughed louder. “I am saving her…for my dinner!”
Nike gasped and fell backward against the glass. She watched helplessly as Zelus strode past her to the lever. “Please, Zelus, please don’t hurt Lady Hera! I’ll do anything you want!” Nike’s face was covered in tears. Never before had she ever felt so helpless. She was Victory, so why wasn’t she winning?
Nike looked over at Hera and saw the snakes start to slowly move one by one, slithering up Hera’s legs, wrapping around her waist, weaving in and out of each other. Smaller snakes started sliding their smooth underbodies around Hera’s arms, covering them to her wrists like the golden bracelets she would wear. Two snakes were working their way up her body to her neck.
Hera still hadn’t moved, but Nike saw a new level of terror on Hera’s face. Nike banged her fists against the glass and started screaming wildly. Zelus just stood there and laughed, his clawed hand on the black pearl handle.
Nike’s anger raised to levels she yet to experience in her young life. She was mad at herself for failing. She was mad at the imp for setting this up and tricking her. She was mad at the demon Zelus. She was even mad at Hera for letting herself get captured.
Nike’s ire grew with every new inhale of Zelus’ laughter until her body couldn’t contain it anymore. A white light grew from her center and consumed her body from the inside out. It grew bigger with every cell, every molecule, that it ate. When the light got to her wings, it turned to her signature, victory gold, color, pulsed in on itself for two heartbeats and then exploded outwards, consuming everything in its path – Zelus, the forest, the training grounds, stray animals, the clouds, the snakes, and yes…even Hera.
After everything burned, there was a heavy silence in the world. Nike was numb to what she had done. All she knew was that, not only didn’t she win but, she killed her mother. As Nike sat in her paralysis, she found herself back in the blackness of the void. Eventually, she ended up back in her body with her siblings in the chamber, but she was so numb she couldn’t move. The only way they knew she was back was with the soft sound of her breath leaving her lungs in a despairing shudder.