“I came to help save our girl,” Reginald said, helping me to my feet.
Another man rushed toward us, and I shoved Reginald aside with my bloody left hand while swinging my broadsword with my right. The man’s head flew off and rolled away. I heard the sound of vomiting behind me, and I chuckled. “I thought you came here to help me?”
“Perhaps I didn’t think my plan through very well,” he replied, wiping his mouth.
“You’re a little late,” I replied, wiping the blade of my sword on the dead man’s shirt. “She’s already on her way back to Olympus.”
“Then why are you still here? Let’s get out of here.”
Theo trotted over to us and noticed the blood on my shirt. “How bad is it?” he asked, removing his backpack. He pulled out some gauze and tape while I lifted my shirt. “Nothing serious. You’ll heal in no time.” It only took him a couple of minutes to patch me up. “So, what’s the plan now?”
“We’re going into the cave and find the rest of the women Kara mentioned,” I said, pulling down my shirt.
“What’s he doing here?” Theo said, jerking his thumb in Reginald’s direction.
“He’s here to help.”
Theo snorted and made a rude comment in Greek, causing Reginald to get in Theo’s face. “I will have you know that I am perfectly capable of fighting in battle beside Ares. I’ve done it before, and I saved his life.”
“Um, no, that was Kara. You cowered on the ground in fear.”
“I most certainly did not!” Reginald retorted hotly.
“Guys, we don’t have time for this,” I interrupted. “Reginald, I want you to gather up as many horses and pegasi as you can find. We’re going to need them to transport any survivors we locate there.”
He nodded. “I can do that.”
“Theo, give me a status report.”
“Their men are inexperienced and no match for ours.. Those that we didn’t kill ran into the cave to hide.”
“Then we will just flush them out and finish them off.”
The echo of a loud bang came from the cave opening, followed by several more in rapid succession. Theo and I looked at each other for a moment, then sprinted toward the sound. Reginald yelled at us, but we ignored him and kept going.
Running through the opening, it took a moment for our eyes to adjust to the low lighting. Torches in sconces along the walls flickered as we rushed by. The first thing I noticed was the metallic smell of blood. Screaming, followed by more gunfire, echoed throughout our location. My heart skipped a beat, and my blood ran cold.
They were murdering those women.
“Surely they wouldn’t…” Theo whispered.
We stumbled into a large, open area, where our worst fears were confirmed. A dozen women, perhaps more, lay dead on the sandy floor, rivulets of blood stretching like long, thin fingers in all directions. But there were also men dead beside them, taking their own lives rather than being captured.
There was a gasp from behind us, and I turned to find Reginald, one hand over his mouth as tears streaked his face. “Perhaps you should go back outside, Reg,” I said gently.
He shook his head. “I’m…I’m okay,” he replied.
I didn’t have time to point out that he looked, as the mortals liked to say, green around the gills. It wasn’t as if I was going to call η αστυνομία (the police) to investigate, so he was free to throw up if he wanted to. But he didn’t. He swallowed hard, threw back his shoulders, and said, “What do we do now?”
“We take the girls home to their families, so they can be buried properly,” I replied.
“Do you think there’s anyone left?” Theo asked.
I sighed deeply and shook my head. “We need to talk to Kara. We know there is a human trafficking ring running through the area. There’s bound to be more hideouts like this around. Kara might have information that we can use to hunt them down and stop it.”
“This isn’t something you can stop, Ares,” Theo said. “It’s been going on for centuries. You know that better than any of us do.”
“Well, we can at least cut off one arm of it!” I snapped. “Young girls shouldn’t have to worry about being snatched off the streets and sold to the highest bidder. They should be able to go out with their friends and enjoy life.” I glanced at their faces, recognizing the anguish and sadness as a reflection of my own pain. I took a deep breath and placed my hand on Reginald’s shoulder. “I need you to go outside and find the rest of our men. We’re going to need their help here. Call base and get them to send some transportation so we can take these girls home.”
Reginald nodded and left.
“What about the men?” Theo asked.
“We’ll bury them, no markers. Let them fade into obscurity, with their families wondering their fates. It’s more than they would have done for those girls.”
The clean-up took twelve hours. While some of the men dug graves and buried the suspects, Theo and I explored the cave to see if we could find any information. However, there wasn’t a single scrap of paper that we could use to help us. “Didn’t Kara mention something about a clearing or a house somewhere?” Theo said as I threw down another stack of trash.
Theo pointed to a spot behind me. “There looks to be a doorway of some kind right there.”
I turned around and looked. He was right. I drew my sword as I approached the door. While the possibility of someone hiding on the other side was small, I wasn’t about to take any chances. I grabbed the knob and threw the door open. No one was there, but we did see a small building about 200 yards away. Theo drew his own sword as we made our way over. We split up and circled the area but didn’t spot anyone. I looked in a window. There was some furniture in there — a bed, dresser, table, and two chairs — but thankfully, no bodies. Theo tried the door and found it unlocked.
It only took a few minutes to search the small room, and we located a small journal in one of the dresser drawers. I opened it up and found a list of names, dates, and cities written in Greek. After looking at it for a few minutes, I realized there was also some kind of code that would have to be broken. Luckily, I had a program back at the office that could break the code in five minutes.
I stayed at the clearing until the final body had been loaded onto the truck. My men solemnly, and with gentle care, carried each stretcher to a vehicle. They formed an honor guard, treating each girl as if they were their own family member. There wasn’t a dry eye among them by the time they were through.
Theo approached me as the men got into the trucks for the long ride back to Olympus. “Are you going to ride with us, Ares?” he asked.
I shook my head. “I’m going to pop back to check on Kara. She needs to be told what happened.”
“She’s going to take this hard,” he replied.
“Yes, she will.”
“This wasn’t your fault.”
“Who says I’m blaming myself?”
“You are,” Theo said. “It’s written all over your face. It’s hard to win a battle — or a war — when you don’t even know what it’s about. We don’t know what happened here. Oh, we can surmise what went down, but we don’t know for sure. We may never know. Fighting is good, as long as everyone knows what the stakes are. These poor girls were innocent victims. That’s what bothers you more than anything else. Even the God of War wants to win a battle fair and square.”
“I’m not sure I would go that far,” I chuckled.
“We’ll make this right, Ares. I give you my word.”
I glanced at the back of the last truck, my eyes resting on a small, sheet-covered body. “Yes, we will.”