The four of them were lost in their individual thoughts and startled a bit at the sound of vines and stones moving as the secret door revealed itself and opened. They each hoped and prayed to various Gods that this was the last of their search. None of them wanted to relive their ordeals.
As they walked out of the final chamber, the teens were heartbroken and soul-weary. Each one prayed that the ordeal they went through somehow saved their mother. They came upon a stone door with torches on either side, the flames casting flickering shadows and creating nightmares on the walls that surrounded the door. They stood in the torchlight frozen and afraid, guiltily wondering if it was really worth their sanity to keep going forward.
They stared at the stone doorway for a significantly long time. Moxie raised her head to try and determine how close to dawn it was, but couldn’t see the sky through the canopy. She knew in her bones that they were cutting it too close. She took a deep breath and grabbed Nike’s hand.
“We’re almost out of time.”
Ares shivered and unconsciously huddled closer to Hephaestus for reassurance. Hephaestus just tightened his grip on his brother. As the one furthest from their ordeal, Moxie was the quickest to pull herself together. Letting go of Nike’s hand, she walked up to the door, looking for some way to open it. Nike followed and flew up to the top to see if there was a way to open the door that way.
While the girls were looking for a way to open the door, Hephaestus kept his hold on Ares, helping him ground himself back into this moment and shake off the events of his ordeal. Ares looked around the narrow hallway and when he finally felt stable enough to stand alone, he roughly shrugged out of Hephaestus’ embrace, taking four steps to the left.
Ares turned to watch his siblings inspect the door for a secret lever, talking softly amongst themselves. He momentarily felt a sharp ache in his chest at not being a part of the group but, in typical Ares fashion, dismissed it by saying to himself that he was better off without them. This time, however, it was just a little bit harder to believe, so he just hid in the shadows, watching.
Ares stepped back to lean against the wall and hit something that almost made him fall flat on his back. The noise caused the others to stop what they were doing and look at Ares. Nike floated down in front of him.
“Are you okay, brother?”
“Yeah, I’m good. Just tripped over something in the dark.”
Nike cocked her head to the side. “Why are you standing alone in the dark?”
“Staying out of the way. You all were doing a fine job of looking, you don’t need me.” Ares cringed inwardly at the sarcasm in his voice. Nike raised an eyebrow but didn’t say anything. Ares turned away to see what he ran into and let out a small gasp. “Damnit.”
Nike walked up behind him and looked over his shoulder to see another card resting on a waist-high pillar attached to a dais. “Oh no, I thought we were done with that. Moxie! Hephaestus! Come quick!”
Not being that far away, Hephaestus grabbed a torch and he and Moxie joined the other two. “What’s going on, little one?”
Hephaestus grumbled under his breath. “Fuck.”
Moxie walked around Ares. “What does it say?”
Ares shrugged. “Dunno. Heph, gimme some light.”
Hephaestus brought the torch closer so Ares could read the card, which he made a point not to touch. “It just says children.” Ares frowned and pushed the card with his finger, but it didn’t move. He let out a relieved breath when he wasn’t sucked back into the void. Using his thumb and forefinger, he carefully picked the card up by its corner and turned it around.
“Huh. There’s like a rhyme thingy on the back.”
Nike flexed her wings with impatience. “Well, what does it say?”
Ares cleared his throat and read.
Well done, children
You’ve come this far.
But do you know who you are?
To save the Queen, you must test once more.
You’ve succeeded one by one
But this time, it’s all or none.
When he was done, Moxie just said, “Well, it seems pretty straight forward. We all just need to try to open the door together.”
Hephaestus and Nike just looked at each other and shrugged before turning back to the door. Moxie held out her hand to Ares, who tucked the card into his belt before placing his hand in hers. The four of them stood in front of the door and, as if they had choreographed it, took a deep breath and placed their hands on the door as one. Another breath. Another breath. Nothing happened and they got confused.
“Maybe you misunderstood, Moxie?” Hephaestus said as he looked around for movement of any kind.
Moxie shook her head. “No, I’m sure this is what it meant. We have to touch it together.”
Nike poked her head around Hephaestus. “Maybe we have to hold hands while we do it?”
Ares grumbled. “I’m not holding Hephy’s hand.”
“Don’t call me that. I don’t want to hold yours either, pretty boy.”
Ares beamed at the insult. “I am, aren’t I?”
The girls just rolled their eyes and each grabbed the boys’ hands. Nike placed her left hand on the door, holding Hephaestus in her right hand. Moxie held Hephaestus in her left hand and Ares in her right. Ares pressed his right hand onto the door. They held their collective breaths.
The moment stretched out and nothing happened. Just as they were on the edge of giving up, the torches flared and the stone under their hands shook so hard their bones rattled. With no warning, the stone doorway crumbled into thousands of tiny pebbles, revealing a silver latticework gate. Moxie stepped up and traced her fingers over the shining metal. Giving little thought to her actions, she pushed the gate at its center point. Everyone startled when the gate split in the middle and opened, allowing them to enter.
Ares pushed everyone out of the way, causing Moxie to fall into Hephaestus, who just barely caught her. “Ares! What is wrong with you?”
Ares ignored her and looked around the new area. In each corner were marble statues of a different God. They weren’t normal statues, though. As Ares watched, the one closest to him shifted from a statue of his father to a statue of his uncle Hades. Trying to process what he saw, he looked to the statue on his other side and watched it turn from a statue of his uncle Poseidon to one of his aunt Hestia.
Ares looked around the open space, noting the wildflowers that grew in vibrant colors at the base of each statue. In the exact center, there rose a square platform a foot off the ground, surrounded by a thick canopy of curtains. Ares ignored it and instead walked its perimeter, seeing nothing but two more changing statues.
“Mother! Where are you?” The others joined him.
“Did you find her, brother?”
“Not yet, little one, but there is that thing there.” He motioned to the curtained area. Moxie let out an excited squeak at the thought of seeing her mother again and rushed to it, pausing only for a breath length of a moment as she remembered the destroyed state of the curtains in Hera’s chambers. When Moxie ripped the curtains aside, she cried out in anguish and fell to her knees, tears streaming down her face.
The others rushed over to see what had upset her. “Oh, my Gods!” Nike fell to her knees next to Moxie. Ares looked green, but he and Hephaestus managed to keep themselves upright.
“Mom?” Hephaestus whispered in disbelief of what he saw. In the corners of the platform were wooden poles that held the curtains and iron chains. He followed the line of the chains to the center of the platform and saw that they were attached to the wrists and ankles of a woman so bloody and disheveled she was almost unrecognizable. The chains held her horizontally, her arms and legs stretched to their limit towards the corners, her body hovering over the platform in midair.
With halting steps, he walked to the hanging body and gently brushed her hair back so he could cradle her face to look at him. His heart raged with a wave of burning anger hotter than any fire in his forge.
“Mom?” he whispered again. Her eyelids, crusted with blood, tears, and grime fluttered weakly. “Ares! Come help me!”
The girls stayed by Hera’s head, whispering reassurances to her and themselves as Ares and Hephaestus tried to pull the manacles from their mother. Ares strained and pulled to no avail.
“Heph, this isn’t working!”
Hephaestus growled. “I know!”
Moxie used her power to draw vines and foliage from around them to form a soft pallet under their mother, hoping to ease her pain even just a little. The boys continued their relentless attempts to break their mother’s bonds. Suddenly, the torches flared with dark red flames that reached out as if to grab the children. An eerie laugh echoed through the air.
“Who’s there?” Nike looked around, but didn’t see anyone else. The laughter got louder and deeper. The sound became thicker as it rolled in waves across the air. It gained form as a thick black ribbon and glided over Hera’s body, causing her to shiver and moan in pain.
The children were terrified, for they had never seen such a creature as this before. The darkness twisted around Hera’s body like a thick satin ribbon, tightening around her until she gasped for breath. It wound around her neck and then slowly unwrapped and floated to a space in front of the platform. The children couldn’t take their eyes off of the creature, their hearts pounding in fear, unsure of how they would save themselves, let alone their mother.
The laughter coalesced around the black ribbon as it twisted and turned, in a state of perpetual motion, forming itself into a vaguely humanoid shape. Two pieces of darkness formed where a mouth would be and the laughter finally stopped.
“You’re too late, children! Apollo has raced dawn across the horizon and the Queen belongs to me.”
“But we didn’t know how late it was!” Moxie begged.
Hephaestus walked as close as he dared to the writhing darkness. “We had no choice. We went as fast as we could.”
The darkness released a wicked sound from its ribbon lips. “You knew the rules. You had until dawn. No exceptions.” Ribbons formed into eyes blacker than midnight, the red flames of the torchlight reflecting in the inky depths.
“The Queen belongs to me!” Each word had the ribbons expanding upward and out, encompassing more and more space. They absorbed every molecule of the residual night as well as the air that surrounded the children. They gasped, desperate for breath, but unable to find any. Lungs burning, they all stumbled towards their mother, seeking comfort in their final moments.
One by one, they realized that not only did Nyx have the Queen, she was also going to take them. Gods they may be, but nothing could stop the vengeance of a pissed off Primordial. The air got more and more oppressive, sliding down their throats and coating their lungs, strangling them from the inside. One by one, their bodies fell to the ground, their sight dimming to complete darkness.
Another voice sliced through the thick air. “ENOUGH!”
Nyx growled in response.
“I said enough, Nyx! You’re hurting my children!”
Nyx sighed and released the darkness, easing the air back into the children’s bodies. Slowly, carefully, hesitantly, they struggled to sit up and make sense of what happened. Hera rushed over to them and hugged each one, placing a reassuring kiss on their foreheads.
“Oh, my sweet, sweet, babies. Are you okay? I’m sorry about Nyx. She got a little too excited about her role as the bad guy.” Hera continued to make soothing noises at them as they regained their strength.
Moxie was the first to speak. “Mamá, are you okay? We were so worried about you.” She lurched forward and wrapped her arms tightly around Hera’s waist, crying tears of relief. Nike joined Moxie and Hera held both of the girls close.
“We tried to save you, Mother. Nyx said we were too late. Was she right? Are you a shade?” Hephaestus met Hera’s eyes.
Hera snorted. “I’m so sorry, my heart. Nyx has a bit of a flair for the dramatic. I was just planning on sitting here and enjoying a light meal with her while we waited for you to come through the gate. It was her idea to have me chained up like that. Though I have to admit, she was right. The looks on your faces were amazing, as if you were actually afraid for me.”
Ares stood up and sputtered, unable to form words while he processed what his mother said. “Wait. You’re okay?”
Hera nodded. “Of course I am.”
Ares’ anger rose. “You. Were. OKAY?”
“Come now, Ares, I didn’t stutter.”
He stalked over to his mother, barely restraining the violent anger he would soon be known for. “What the hell, Mother! We were worried sick about you. Terrified we’d never make it in time! We…we fought harpies, flesh-eating spiders, and evil vines! We could have DIED!”
Hera smiled, not in the least bit worried about her son’s anger, knowing he got it from her. “Oh, you all did so marvelously. The way you worked together to get past your obstacles was fantastic. I especially liked Nike’s flying as she saved you all from those vines.” Hera looked down to smile at Nike and found that both she and Moxie had let go, backed away, and were now looking at her as if they were going to be ill.
Hephaestus walked over and stood next to Ares, his hands flexing into fists. He grit his teeth together and forced words from his clenched jaw. “What about the other things, Mother? What about those things we went through alone?”
Hera stood, brushed off her gown, and shrugged. “I needed to test you. You each have the potential to be so much more than you know. In order to reach that potential, you had to face your fears.”
Ares took another step towards her, but Moxie blocked his path. Looking at her mother, she asked, “What fears, Mamá?”
Hera gave Moxie a soft smile. “Oh, Moo. You are so afraid of losing control that you bury your warrior so deep and I worry you’ll lose her. You had to know it was okay to use your power to destroy as well as create. One cannot exist without the other.”
Moxie frowned and Nike finally spoke up. “And me, Lady Hera?”
Hera walked to Nike and cupped the side of her face. “You had to know what it felt like to lose everything. Only then would you know true victory.” She kissed Nike’s other cheek and walked over to her sons.
“My boys. My heart. You are both so strong and passionate. And so alone. Hephaestus, you’ve created an island around yourself and wrapped your self-righteousness so tightly around yourself, no one can get close to you. You are always so alone, but so desperately wish to belong somewhere. And yet, even though you long to be loved, it is your biggest fear. You had to see that you are so very loved by so many of us. You are the one creating the chasm between yourself and everyone else.”
Hephaestus was overcome with a myriad of emotions, most of which made him want to cry. He searched inside of himself and found a small flame of burning anger deep in his gut and latched onto that instead.
“That is the biggest lie you’ve ever told me, exceeded only by the lie that you love me.” He spat at Hera’s feet and stalked away, desperate to get as far away from his mother’s lies as possible.
“Fight it all you want, Hephaestus. Everything I showed you was true. Ask your siblings if you don’t believe me.”
Nike, Moxie, and Ares all looked at him. “What did you see, brother?” Nike asked him.
Hephaestus growled. “Lies, little one. Nothing but lies from a wretched old hag who can’t stand to not be the center of attention.” He stalked further away and in typical Hephaestus fashion, turned away from his family. Hera’s face fell in disappointment.
“You forgot my explanation, Mother.”
Hera cleared her throat and gave Ares a smile. “You, my heart, needed to learn to accept that rushing in without all the information is not always the best action. You needed to face that you will sometimes have to accept help from others and that the world doesn’t revolve around you and your problems. Everyone has value, even if you can’t see it.”
Nyx snorted from the corner she retreated to. “Whatever, Hera. I just enjoyed scaring them. We should do this again.”
Hera looked at her children: Nike and Moxie, still looking so confused and pained; Ares, struggling with his anger; Hephaestus, already isolating himself again. “One day you will understand.”
Hephaestus spun around to face her on his good heel, vitriol consuming his face and words. “Never, Mother. I will never understand why you would put your children, whom you claim to love so much, through such pain.”
He turned away from Hera and addressed Nyx. “Lady Nyx, I know my mother made you join her in this ridiculous plan of hers. Would you please open the way out of here so we can leave?”
Nyx raised an eyebrow in amusement. “Of course.” She held her hand out in front of her face and blew. A black smoke flowed from her mouth, shaping itself into a vertical portal next to Hephaestus. “Step through and you’ll be back in the field near your forge.”
Hephaestus bowed. “Thank you, Lady Nyx.” He turned to his siblings. “I saw how each of you looked as you came back from your ordeal. Not a single one of you can say that this romp through the woods was ‘fun’. Our mother lied to us from the beginning and put us in danger. A real mother wouldn’t do that to her children.” Before he stepped into the smoke, he sneered at Hera and said, “She is no mother of mine.”
Ares looked like he was fighting a war in his heart. He wanted so badly to understand why his mother would put them through all of this but in the end, all he felt was heartbreak. He gave Hera and the girls a tortured look and then followed Hephaestus through the smoke.
Hera looked at Nike and Moxie. “Surely you girls understand why I did what I did.”
Nike walked over to Hera, wrapped her arms around her in a tight hug and whispered, “I’m glad you’re safe, Lady Hera.” With a quick glance at Moxie, Nike followed the boys.
“Moo…you understand. Don’t you?”
Moxie just stood there for a long time, staring at Hera in silence. Finally, she took a deep breath and shook her head. “No, Mamá, I don’t understand. I know you love us. I feel the truth of it, but what you did here could have broken us. Mothers are supposed to protect their children, not put them in harm’s way.” Moxie gave Hera a quick kiss on the cheek and walked through the smoke.
Nyx waved her hand and the smoke dissipated. “Well, that went swimmingly.” Her sarcasm was not lost on Hera.
“I don’t need it from you too, Nyx.” Hera sat down on the edge of the platform and chewed her lower lip. “I just don’t see how I was so wrong. I thought I knew my children. I thought they would appreciate the lesson and grow from it.”
Nyx’s laugh vibrated through the night. “There is one thing I know without a doubt, Hera. No matter how much you think you know your children, they will always surprise you. You just have to keep up with them.”
Hera sighed. “I’m afraid they’ll never forgive me for this and I don’t know how to make it right.”
Nyx pulled Hera up on her feet and grabbed her chin, forcing Hera to look into her black eyes. “They are your children. Given enough time, they will forgive you. Just give them space to sort through their feelings and come to terms with the lessons you tried to give them. They will come back to you.”
“Are you sure?” Hera asked, hopefully.
“As sure as I know every molecule that creates the night.” She draped her arm around Hera’s shoulders and waved her hand to create another portal. “Come, let’s go have some of your sister Demeter’s special brew and bitch about your husband. That always makes you feel better.”
Hera laughed and followed Nyx into the night.