Moxie was the first to notice Nike was back. She wrapped her arms around her sister as Nike buried her face into Moxie’s neck.
“Wh-why? Why couldn’t I save her, Moxie? Not only didn’t I save her, I killed her!” Nike lifted her face and looked at Moxie with wild eyes. “I killed her. I killed our mother.” Nike gasped in pain and fell to her knees.
Moxie waved the boys off and they stayed in place, standing in silent vigil to Nike’s pain. Moxie held and rocked Nike until her tears finally slowed and she wiped her eyes. Moxie brushed Nike’s hair back and helped her up.
Moxie looked at the boys and nodded. “We’re ready.”
Hephaestus just grunted an acknowledgment and turned to push Ares through the newly opened doorway, but Ares was already almost through it, in a hurry to get away from the female tears.
The group followed Ares past another torch-light wall and around a corner to another chamber. They all turned and looked at Ares.
“What? Do I have something on my face?”
Nike, still raw from her ordeal, started to cry again. Hephaestus took a turn comforting Nike while Moxie walked up to Ares.
“It’s your turn, Ares. You’re the only one left. Hopefully, all that’s left to do to save our mamá is for you to go through your ordeal.”
Ares laughed. “Piece of cake! I’m the God of War. I say bring it on!” Ares spun on his heel and trotted into the open chamber, stopping a couple of feet from the pillar with the card that did indeed have his name on it. He turned to face the others and winked before walking the rest of the way to the pillar.
“Feel free to miss -”
Ares’s words were cut off as he gripped the card, the light in his eyes fading as his essence left his body. Hephaestus walked over to him, snapped his fingers and waved his hand in front of Ares’s face.
“That’s creepy. Did I look like that?” He waved his hand one more time for good measure, shrugged, and joined the girls on their vigil of Ares’ body.
Meanwhile, Ares tumbled end over end into the dark void. Colored lights flashed across his eyes and screaming noises assaulted his ears, disorienting him. Eventually, he was spat out into another dark space. It took a moment for him to focus his eyes, but once he did, he realized he was in a cave, the dark stone walls glistening in the moonlight.
There was a faint light ahead of him, so he started forward. As he got closer, he saw the cave opening shining with moonlight, a grove of trees just outside. Ares started to move towards the opening, but felt his way blocked by something.
He pushed against the invisible barrier, but it wouldn’t budge. He pushed harder. Still nothing. He growled and pushed even harder. Just as he was starting to see red, he heard laughter. He turned to see who was laughing at his expense and frowned when he saw his mother.
Mom? What are you doing here? Whatever, you’re coming with me and we’re getting out of here.
Ares reached for Hera and passed right through her. She laughed louder, her green eyes shining in the darkness. Ares reached for her again, only to miss again.
Dammit, Mom, hold still and stop that ridiculous laughing.
Hera just kept laughing, frustrating him even more. She finally stopped, took a deep breath and wiped her eyes. “You always were so headstrong, my son. So focused on what’s directly in front of you that you can’t see what’s around you.”
You’re talking nonsense, Mother, let’s go.
Hera just looked at Ares sadly and shook her head. “I’m not going anywhere with you, Ares.”
Don’t be ridiculous, Mother. I won’t tell you again. Let’s go!
He reached for her and felt his hand pass through her yet again. She sighed. “You are so self-absorbed that you don’t see what’s going on.”
Ares stopped at his mother’s words and looked around. He saw the rocky cave wall, covered with trickles of water and spots of moss. The cave itself wasn’t very high and in fact, he should be hunched over, but wasn’t. He looked down and was confused when he didn’t see any legs. His confusion grew when he looked for arms that weren’t there, either.
What in Hades is going on, Mother?
Hera sighed. “You never were the quickest to pick up on things, Ares. Fine, I’ll tell you. You’re currently a ball of golden light.”
That’s ridiculous, Mother. Why would I be a ball of golden light?
“Your essence went through a port-key and left your body behind.”
Wait, so this is what happened to the others, too?
“Yes, my son. Though none of them had any issue with acknowledging their form.”
Ares spat. Whatever, Mother. I know you love them more.
“Now is not the time to be spiteful, Ares. You’re running out of time to save me. Or do you even care?”
Of course I care, Mother! What do I have to do?
Hera rested her hand where Ares’ cheek would have been and gave him a sad smile. “Oh, my sweet, sweet boy. You just have to use your wits.”
Ares snorted. I’m the God of War, Mother. I have plenty of wits.
Hera just waved him forward through the cave entrance. “Of course you do, my dear.”
Ares felt his essence push through the membrane at the entrance with an audible pop and he tumbled out into the moonlit grove. He was not as graceful as he normally was and ended up kicking himself in the back of his head.
“Ow!” He slowly stood, rubbing the back of his head. He took a few steps and stumbled, no longer familiar with the gait of his body.
“W-what?” Ares slapped a hand over his mouth, horrified. He hadn’t stuttered since he was ten. Slowly, he held his hands out in front of him and turned them over, shaking in disbelief at their smaller size.
“N-no w-way!” Ares looked around the grove and then quickly headed off towards the sound of water. He broke through the trees and found a brook. Kneeling down, he looked into the water at his reflection and groaned. He was in his nine-year-old body. How the hell was he supposed to save anyone at this size?
He roughly ran a hand through his hair, causing it to stick up all over. He needed to maim, kill, or fuck something to release his frustration and quite frankly wasn’t sure how to do any of that in this body. He leaned down and grabbed a rock, chucking it as hard as he could, huffing out an angry breath as it landed with a thunk in the brook mere feet from him.
Ares tipped his head back and screamed into the night, causing birds to fly away in fear. Mildly satisfied with that reaction, he turned to walk away and almost ran into a young female centaur.
“W-Woah, s-sorry, I d-didn’t s-see you th-there.” Ares gave his best hot boy smile, one that he’d perfected over the years and knew got the ladies to lift up their skirts for him. However, on his younger face, it just looked like he was constipated, and the girl burst out into tears.
Ares shifted awkwardly on his feet. He’d never been good with crying females, preferring to pass them off to his sisters instead. He looked around, desperately hoping another female had magically appeared, sighing when there was none. He walked closer and awkwardly patted her shoulder.
“P-please d-don’t c-cry.” The young girl just buried her face in her hands and cried louder. Ares was getting extremely uncomfortable. Eventually, her tears slowed enough for her to talk.
“I’m sorry. It’s just that poachers took my mother, and the oracle said I would find a strong and powerful warrior alone by the brook, but there’s no one here but you, and now my mom’s gonna die.” She wiped the snot from her nose with the back of her hand.
Ares bristled at her unintended insult. “I’ll h-have you know, I’m th-the G-God of War!” He puffed out his chest in pride. The girl stared at him, frozen with disbelief for several long seconds and just as Ares was about to be uncomfortable under her stare, she burst out into laughter. She laughed so hard she bent at the waist, tears again flowing down her face.
Ares was not amused and crossed his arms, waiting for her to finish. She hiccupped and wiped her eyes. Seeing the frown on his face she said, “Oh, you were serious?” Ares just nodded. “But you’re so…little and you stutter. I mean, you’re cute, I suppose but I thought the God of War was supposed to be big and brawny and I don’t know, scary.”
Ares huffed. “W-well, Th-this isn’t m-my n-normal b-body, okay? And I am sc-scary!”
She broke out into tiny giggles and Ares just threw up his hands, disgusted by his whole situation. “W-whatever. I have t-to find m-my m-mother.” He turned and stalked out of the grove, not really sure where he was going, just sure he had to get away from this girl and her nonsense.
He paid no attention to the animals scuttling out of his way as he entered the forest. He needed to find a way to help his mother and get back to his body. He was so wrapped up in his problems that he didn’t hear the centaur girl as she caught up with him or notice that she now walked beside him. Almost an hour passed with the two of them walking side by side, Ares grumbling under his breath about his situation, the girl silently following beside him.
Eventually, though, she rested a hand on his shoulder to get him to stop. Ares was so lost in his own thoughts that he shrieked loudly in surprise and jumped, tripping over a fallen log and landing flat on his back.
“Oooph!” He raised his head and saw the girl standing by the log, eyes wide. He dropped his head back to the ground and stared up at the dark sky. “Are y-you f-following m-me?”
Ares groaned. “W-why?”
“Because I need you.”
Normally, Ares would preen about being needed by a female, however, nothing about this situation was normal. “Wh-what c-could you p-possibly n-need from m-me?”
Her lip quivered. “My mother and I were out gathering flowers and she was taken by poachers. All the men of our village were out hunting for dinner and our oracle told me I’d find my savior by the brook. You were there, so she must have meant you.”
Ares snorted, debating on whether or not to get up from the cold forest floor. “L-Lady, I’m n-not g-gonna be anyone’s s-savior like th-this.”
“Of course not. You have to get up first.”
Ares laughed at the absurdity of his situation. “You’re r-right.” He got up and dusted himself off. “L-Let’s g-go s-save your m-mother. After all, m-mine is a G-Goddess, sh-she c-can wait.” His sarcasm was lost on the girl, though, and she just looked relieved.
“Thank you. I know where they took her. It’s a little ways from here though, so get on my back and I’ll run us there.” She turned and presented her rump to Ares, who took a quick moment to appreciate the woman she would grow into. He shook his head and climbed onto her back.
“Hold on!” She took off so quickly Ares almost fell off. He leaned forward and tightened his thighs against her flank. “Wh-what’s your n-name?”
She glanced back over her shoulder. “It’s Niamh. What’s yours?”
She giggled. “You’re named after the God of War. No wonder you said that.”
Ares growled under his breath. “I am th-the G-god of War.”
After running for almost half an hour, Niamh finally slowed down. Ares heard a bunch of loud laughing and lewd singing. Niamh stopped behind a large boulder and started crying again.
“What if I took too long, Ares? What if she’s already dead?” Niamh started to hyperventilate.
Ares grabbed her chin and made her meet his eyes. “Listen.” She opened her mouth to say something but he shook his head. “Listen.” After a moment she heard it. There were men grunting and laughing, and the sound of a woman cursing and spitting at them, calling them cowards for tying her up.
Niamh let out a shaky sigh. “She’s okay!” She wrapped her arms around Ares and squeezed him tightly against her body, relief flowing through her.
“C-can’t breathe!” Ares choked out.
Niamh let go quickly. “I’m so sorry, Ares. I’m just so happy she’s alive. We have to get her!” She walked around him, set on storming the camp and demanding the men release her mother. Ares grabbed her, yanking her back behind the boulder. “Let me go! I have to get my mother!!”
“St-stop it, N-Niamh! As m-much as I appreciate your b-boldness, w-we c-can’t just ch-charge in and d-demand th-they g-give us your m-mother. Th-the least th-they’d d-do is laugh. Th-the worst th-they’d d-do is t-tie us up with your m-mother. N-Neither result is p-productive.”
Niamh let out a frustrated cry. “But she’s so close!”
Ares hugged her. “I kn-know. T-trust m-me, I kn-know. N-now sit d-down and let m-me th-think.” Ares had a private chuckle at himself, knowing Hephaestus would laugh at the situation. Ares was not a planner; he usually bullied his way in with his charm or rushed in with swinging swords. He never stopped to make a plan. That was something Hephaestus would do and Ares would laugh at him for. Plans were for people who didn’t have his skill.
Ares looked down at his smaller body and grimaced. A plan it would have to be then. “N-Niamh, c-can you wait here for j-just a m-minute? I’m g-going to g-get c-closer and see where th-they have your m-mother.”
Niamh nodded and chewed her lip. “Just be careful, okay? You’re all I’ve got.” Ares nodded and headed off towards the campsite. He was careful to stay in the shadows on the edge of the camp. It sounded like the men were all drunk, but that didn’t mean they didn’t post sentries. Halfway around the camp, he saw a narrow trail and followed it in until he could finally see Niamh’s mother. They had tied her hands and hooves to a long pole that was supported high between two trees. She looked like a hog on a spit.
Ares cringed at the blood dripping from ankles that were rubbed raw from the rough cording they used to tie her up with. He slowly backed away from the camp and picked his way around the perimeter, looking for guards. He counted fourteen men, but let out a relieved breath when he finished his recon and found no sentries.
Walking back to the boulder, Ares wondered how he was going to get past the men. Even though they were drunk, they still sounded like they had a lot of life left in them and Ares was running short of time. His eyes caught a moonbeam shining on a patch of wild herbs that looked familiar.
“Oh, th-thank Z-Zeus.” Ares smiled and pulled two handfuls of the herbs, tucked them into his pockets, and ran back to the boulder. Niamh rushed him, grabbing his thin shoulder in her hands.
“Did you see her? Is she okay?”
Ares gently peeled her fingers from him. “Sh-she’s f-fine.”
“Really?” “R-really, r-really.”
Niamh sat down in relieved exhaustion. “Oh, thank the Gods! So what are we going to do?”
“We aren’t g-gonna d-do anything.”
Niamh opened her mouth to object, but Ares raised a hand to stop her. “I h-have a p-plan.”
“Great, what is it?”
Ares sat down next to her and explained his plan in detail. She asked a few questions, complained about her limited role, but ultimately agreed to go along with it. They waited another hour to allow the men to get even drunker, and then the two of them made their way back to the camp.