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CHAPTER 18 : THE MISPLACED
Panga was having difficulty comprehending what spread out before her in the valley below. She and Evan had reached Darnaxes’ army just after sundown. The number of campfires spoke volumes about the army they would encounter in the morning. What disturbed Panga most were the guards that ringed the camp. As she reached out with her empathy and found no emotions to connect with, it confirmed her fears. Shades. She had hoped they would not encounter them, but knew that would be impossible. Towards the back of the army were five enormous shadows. They seemed to blend into the darkness making their features difficult to make out. Above them circled four legged winged figures with eagle like faces. Griffins, Evan had called them. Interspersed between them was smaller, more bird like creatures. Panga wasn’t sure if they were part of Darnaxes’ forces or scavengers following the army.
“We can’t defeat a force like this alone,” Evan said. “Without the others I don’t know what we can do, but stay ahead of them and follow them until we can regroup.”
Panga closed her eyes as she reached out again looking out for any familiar emotions. A smile formed on her lips when she opened her eyes. “We’re not alone.”
“Eric, Trace, Jadin, Alectra, they’re here?”
“Not far. I can get them and bring them back here.”
“I’ll go with you.”
“No,” Panga said. She had mixed feelings about Evan’s tone. That he cared for her was obvious and welcome, but she didn’t need to be protected. “I can reach them faster if you stay here. Besides, I won’t be alone.” She looked over at her Pegasus who met her eyes his ears pricked in her direction. “I’ll have Snow Wing with me.”
Safer too, Snow Wing added.
“Ok,” Evan said. Panga knew he wanted to argue. “Be careful,” was all he added as she went to Snow Wing and mounted him.
She held onto Snow Wing’s mane as he took a series of galloping strides flapping his wings before taking off into the air. She had to fight back a scream. Not of fear, but of exhilaration. There was something freeing about flying, the feel of the wind blowing her hair in all directions.
Eric had been grateful for the warning. He and Trace had been on edge since they had arrived at the valley prepared to face some kind of attack. What they had not expected was to see their blond hair, blue eyed friend descending from the night sky on the back of a white flying horse. They had damped their respective charges and raced to her giving her a sideways hug as soon as she had dismounted.
“Where’s Evan?” Eric asked concerned. It only just occurred to him Evan wasn’t with Panga.
“He’s safe,” Panga assured him. “He’s a short distance from here waiting for us to get back to him."
The flying horse came up standing beside Panga and neighed toward their horses. When Eric looked back at them, he noticed their heads bowed low to Panga’s horse.
“Uh, what’s with our horses?” Trace asked confused.
“Snow Wing says that even horses recognize a Crown Prince of a Pegasus Herd when they see one,” Panga answered.
“Are you saying he’s our resident Mr. Ed?” Eric asked.
“He doesn’t get the reference,” Panga translated, “but he suggests that if you’re making fun of him you do it a little further from his teeth.”
Panga laughed softly as Snow Wing bared his teeth causing Eric to take a couple steps away from him.
“Evan’s about a half mile west of you. I didn’t see any scouts on my way here. We’ll regroup with you as soon as we get Jadin and Alectra,” Panga said.
Eric and Trace mounted their horses, watching Panga and Snow Wing disappear back into the sky, before beginning their last voyage on this quest.
Jadin just stared in awe at the brilliant flying horse as it came to a graceful landing a short distance away from them. As soon as Panga dismounted and she raced over to them, they embraced in a tight group hug, their arms entwined with each other. The Big 3, as Evan referred to them, back together again. Jadin wished they were going on a shopping trip to the mall rather than preparing for an inevitable battle. The horse came over shoving his head into Jadin’s chest breaking them apart.
“Oh right,” Panga said. “Snow Wing, this is Jadin and Alectra. Jadin and Alectra, this is Snow Wing.”
“You named him already,” Jadin cooed as she reached into her bag pulling out carrots for the horse as she stroked his forehead.
“Actually he says his parents named him,” Panga said.
Jadin didn’t think her eyes could have gone any wider than when she had first met Snow Wing. “Your horse talks?”
“Pegasus,” Panga corrected. “And only to me, which is getting annoying.”
Snow Wing met Panga’s eyes as he nibbled Jadin’s carrots as if to say, Hey, I don’t make the rules.
“But he says he will forgive you if you keep the carrots coming.”
Jadin reached into her bag and pulled out another handful of carrots as Panga continued, “Trace and Eric are on their way to Evan now. Snow Wing and I will fly low enough that the two of you can follow us there.”
Snow Wing finished his carrots, turned his head to Panga, and nickered before nodding toward Jadin.
“Yes, that would be better,” Panga said to Snow Wing before turning to the girls. “Snow Wing says he can carry us all back.”
Shortly after Jadin was sandwiched between Panga and Alectra as Snow Wing galloped forward struggling as he rapidly flapped his wings as he worked to gain altitude and they were on the way to join the boys.
CHAPTER 19: EVAN
Evan paced around his campsite. One of the worst things about being in the lands he and the others had been journeying through is there was no reliable way of telling time. Panga could have been gone for ten minutes or an hour. He extended and retracted his claws. When he couldn’t take it any longer, he released Mercury into the sky to seek her out. Falcons weren’t nighttime hunters, but his mystically enhanced senses would allow him to track Panga.
A short while later Mercury returned, but it wasn’t Panga he was leading back to the camp. As Mercury landed back on his perch Eric and Trace rode up on horseback. As they dismounted, they joined Evan firmly shaking his hand.
“It’s good to be back together,” Trace said.
“Your order is my command,” Eric said as he gave Evan a salute. “Do we have a story to tell.”
“Maybe wait until the others get back,” Evan interrupted him.
The waiting was a little easier now that Evan had company, but not by much. It was another hour before Snow Wing swooped down landing gracefully before them. As soon as Snow Wing came to a stop, Jadin dismounted and raced to Evan almost knocking him down as she embraced him in a hug.
“I’m happy to see you too,” he said gently as he looked over to Alectra.
She gave him a small nod which he returned as Alectra and Panga joined the group. Everyone back together again and safe. Jadin released her hold on Evan and turned to Trace and Eric.
“You couldn’t have just left him somewhere?” she asked Trace.
“I missed you too, my little spitfire,” Eric said as he tousled Jadin’s hair.
“Now I think it’s time we tell you what we know. There are some things we need to share before we face that army,” Trace said.
Evan listened carefully as Eric told their tale. Trace interrupted occasionally to refocus Eric who had a habit of being more dramatic than necessary. He knew about the Griffins, of course, but those birds that flew with them were no simple scavengers. Stymphalian birds would rip the flesh from their bodies in minutes if they were allowed to. That the Shades were vulnerable to their magic weapons explained much. Panga had told him after he recovered how the Shade vanished in a flash when she had slashed him with her dagger. The hellhounds would be the biggest challenge. Just three of them had exhausted both Eric and Trace. There were five to contend with in the valley below. Last, they would have a full army of mortal Persian soldiers to defeat. Hundreds of enemies against just the six of them. Yet Dionysus expected them to carry the day. When he looked over to Panga, the steely look in her eyes conveyed a clear message. Trust yourself, we trust you.
“Ok, the first thing we have to do is soften the base of the army. Alectra, we’re going to need you to use your emotion manipulation arrows against them. That should cause some confusion to break up their formation.”
“I can help with that,” Panga said.
“Our abilities don’t work together,” Alectra reminded her.
“No, not directly, but if you cause enough of a disturbance, I should be able to influence the emotions of the unaffected soldiers and spread some real chaos.”
“When we advance against the army Eric and I will confront the Persian soldiers,” Evan said as he turned to face Alectra and Jadin. “The two of you are the only ones who have weapons that can defeat the Shades. Just stay close and work together. All it takes is one cut for them to make you a Shade. Panga, you’ll be in the air. Mercury will be with you to help with the Griffins and the Stymphalian birds.”
Snow Wing snorted and stamped his hooves in defiance.
“That will be fine,” Panga said as she turned to Snow Wing. “Yes, we do need the help. We can’t deal with them all by ourselves.”
“Trace, help them as best you can, but conserve your energy. We need you to reach the hellhounds. Don’t try to fight them directly, just keep their attention until the rest of us can join you.”
Trace nodded, but didn’t say anything. Just as when he had asked Eric to contend with Mordred alone Evan knew he was asking a lot of Trace.
“For now let’s get some sleep. I’ll take the first watch. We will rotate in two-hour shifts. We’ve got a big day tomorrow.”
CHAPTER 20: THE MISPLACED
Trace stood behind Alectra and Panga as they worked together to disrupt the Persian army below. Alectra fired a series of arrows into the army affecting soldiers they connected with with fear, anger, and envy. Officers worked to get their various units into lines while looking out for the unseen enemy. Panga focused her empathy influencing more of the soldiers that she could reach.
“That’s the best we can do,” she said.
“It’s enough, Evan said as he shifted into his wolf form. “Let’s get this started.”
Trace flew off into the sky joined by Panga on Snow Wing and somewhere behind them, he heard Mercury’s cry of challenge to the Stymphalian birds. The falcon may have been the only one of them who was happy. He was finally being asked to do what he was born for, to hunt. Trace glanced down watching Evan and Eric confront the main army. Eric’s concussive blasts opened a pathway into the disoriented army as they knocked soldiers to the ground unconscious. Jadin and Alectra rode the horses into battle against the Shades, some of which were bursting into flashes of light as Alectra’s arrows found the chinks in their armor. Trace returned his attention to his opponents as he and the Griffin’s and the birds surrounded his fellow flyers. He released a series of lightning bolts that broke up the flock of Stymphalian birds some of which burst into flame as a lightning bolt found its mark. He heard the roar of Griffin as it flapped its one good wing trying to steady its decent to the ground. As much as he hated to leave Panga and Mercury, Trace focused on the hellhounds at the back of the army. They couldn’t be allowed to join the battle. Even one hellhound would tip the balance in the favor of the enemy. Trace dove through the Stymphalian birds, his daredevil act shocking the birds into dispersing around him rather than confronting him. As he broke through the crowd, he unleashed five low charge lightning bolts against the hellhounds that hit each one between the eyes. It would take far more than that to defeat the hellhounds, but it served its purpose. Each of the hellhounds turned their attention to him, surrounding Trace on every side as they swiped up at him with their paws attempting to knock him out of the sky. Trace unleashed another series of lightning bolts that only served to infuriate the hounds. One of them leaped into the air forcing Trace to roll out of its path barely avoiding disappearing into its open jaws. Trace considered his options. Just flying out of reach of the hellhounds wouldn’t work. Evading the hellhounds and fighting a defensive battle may not deplete his energy reserves, but it would exhaust him physically. Engaging them directly wouldn’t be any less risky, perhaps more so, though he may be able to defeat a hellhound or two before his friends could join him. Trace shot upward at the last second as two hellhounds lunged at him together. He turned midair and unleashed a high voltage lightning bolt at one hound that yelped in pain and rage as it reached up swiping a paw at Trace. Trace weaved between paws and teeth as the hounds continued their relentless attacks. A holding pattern wouldn’t work. The hounds would tire him long before the others would join him. He turned to face the hounds and channeled his most intense charge through both his hands into the nearest hound. The hound’s lips curled into a snarl as it fought against the current running through its body before crumbling to the ground. Trace wobbled in the air. As he struggled to keep his eyes open and evade the attacking hounds, his body felt like concrete. As he put as much distance between himself and the hounds as possible, he turned and channeled another charge into a hound. Through blurry eyes, he watched as the hound collapsed. One less to challenge the others. He hoped it would be enough as his eyes closed and he felt his body go limp. The last sensation he was aware of was the feel of the wind against his body as he plummeted to the earth below.
Panga thrust her dagger into the side of a Griffin just as Snow Wing dove to avoid the attack of another. The Griffin’s had strength on their side, but they weren’t as agile in the air as Snow Wing was. Snow Wing darted around their teeth and claws leaving Panga just close enough to deliver a killing blow with her dagger that sent them careening to the ground asleep. Mercury dove out of the sky impaling his talons into the neck of a Stymphalian bird. As soon as it went limp, he would release it and soar back into the sky the other birds screeching in anger as they engaged him in a futile pursuit. There was nothing, mythological or otherwise, as fast as a peregrine falcon in the air. Snow Wing darted to the side avoiding another Griffin attack. Panga reached out slashing its paw and then a wing with her dagger deadening both as Snow Wing flew past it. The Griffin rapidly flapped its good wing as it struggled to control its decent. She and Mercury continued their dogfights with the Griffin’s and bird’s until Panga caught Trace falling from the sky out of the corner of her eye.
“Snow Wing!” she called aloud to her Pegasus.
Hold on! Snow Wing answered her. Panga clutched his mane tight as he swept his wings back and dived after Trace.
Evan reached out, ripped a spear out of the hands of a Persian, and then brought the flat of the blade down on the side of the soldier's head, shattering the spear and dropping the soldier in the same motion. His wolf form was his maximum strength level, as such, Evan had to be aware of the intensity of his actions. If he wasn’t careful, he could easily kill one of the soldiers, but he couldn’t afford not to be in this form as it offered him the greatest resistance against their swords and spears protecting him from harm. Beside him, Eric fought with other units of the army. Using his concussive blasts to shatter spears, disable soldiers and when necessary putting up a force field and using it to put distance between him and the Persians. They were aided in part from the results of Panga and Alectra’s combined efforts. Some soldiers had deserted in fear of something seen or unseen, others were fighting with each other. Generals still struggled to get their units in line. As they continued the battle with the Persians, Evan saw the scene unfold. Trace falling from the sky, Panga and Snow Wing diving to intercept him. He heard Snow Wing’s cry of pain as Trace landed on his back. Snow Wing buckled on the impact flapping his wings as he struggled to control his decent. Evan watched it all until they disappeared behind the mass of the remaining hellhounds.
“We have to get to them!” Evan called out to Eric, unable to control the panic in his voice.
“Get behind me. I have an idea,” Eric said, concussive energy glowing in his fists. He dropped to a knee slamming them into the ground. The concussive energy erupted out in waves, flowing through the Persian army throwing the units to each side leaving Evan with a clear path to reach Panga, Trace, and the hellhounds.
“Go!” Eric said. “I’ll mop up here.”
Evan ran down the path with tunnel vision. Any Persians that encountered him was met with a solid punch from Evan’s fists. He no longer had a care if they would be getting up from them. The hellhounds parted just enough to give Evan a view to the other side. Trace lay on the ground unmoving, Panga stood in front of him dagger drawn, her face an image of determination and fear. Beside her stood Snow Wing, his wings spread wide and his teeth bared. A hellhound swiped at Panga with a paw. Panga thrust her dagger into the pad, the paw going limp, but as it did, the claws came down slicing at Panga leaving her with an assortment of cuts throughout her body. Evan cried out in rage and pain as she fell to the ground covered in red.
Alectra nocked one of her light arrows into her bow and sent it sailing toward a Shade who blocked it with his shield. The arrow disappeared with a dull flash. Before Alectra could fire another arrow, a group of the Shades lofted their spears in her direction. She tightened her grip on her bow as she clutched the reigns and guided Eric’s horse around the spears. Some sailed over her head, others fell short, the rest landing on either side of her as she worked her way through them. Jadin rode ahead of her on Trace’s horse engaging the Shades with her sword. Alectra could hear the sounds as Jadin’s sword slashed through spears, rattled against shields or parried sword strikes. Shade’s disappeared in bright flashes of light whenever Jadin’s sword found its mark. Alectra rose, nocked another light arrow into her bow, and fired it into a Shade removing it from the battlefield. Three of the Shade’s broke free from the formation and advanced on Alectra. Alectra sent another arrow into a Shade on the left as they closed around her, but the one in the middle thrust his spear into her horse’s side. As her horse stumbled and fell it threw Alectra over his head landing hard on her back, all the air expelled from her lungs. Before Alectra could recover, the same Shade drove his sword into her chest.
Evan pushed himself to close the gap between himself and the hellhounds. Snow Wing was doing his best to keep the hounds away from Panga. He reared up lashing out with his hooves and lunged at them with his teeth. Evan barreled into the nearest hellhound stunning it as he pushed through it with all the weight and strength his wolf form provided. Without losing any momentum, he raked a second across its muzzle with his claws balling his hands back into fists as he turned to face off against the third. As the hound attempted to bring its claws down on him, he delivered a punch to its chest knocking the hellhound onto its back. His breaths came in deep gasps as he enjoyed a moment of respite as he stood between the hellhounds, Panga, and Trace. Evan’s neck moved on a swivel taking just a brief glance at the hellhounds. As the hellhounds resumed their attack Evan caught one by the ankle and flung it away from him as he rolled away to escape the swiping paw of another. The last hellhound lunged mouth open wide as it brought its teeth down on Evan. Just inches from his face, the hound’s body was rocketed away from him by a concussive blast. Eric stood a short distance away from Evan pummeling the hounds with repeated blasts of energy. Getting back to his feet Evan leaped up and delivered a punishing blow to the hellhound just as Eric hit it from the opposite side with a concussive blast. The combined effort was too much for the hellhound who fell at their feet. The remaining hellhounds regrouped and faced off against them snarling with rage.
“You take the one on the left. The right one’s mine,” Evan told Eric.
Eric delivered a volley of concussive blasts against his hellhound and Evan moved towards his own opponent. As the hellhound slashed at him with his paws, Evan slashed at it with his own claws shattering the hellhound’s claws breaking them off at the base. He pressed his advantage by delivering a flurry of punches to the hound’s forelegs. The hound whimpered in pain as it fell under its own weight. Evan delivered blow after blow to the hound’s head until it dropped. Nearby Eric’s concussive attacks brought the last of the hellhounds down.
With the hellhound’s defeated Evan heard the booming sound of a horn being blown. The remaining troops gathered their weapons and ran from the battlefield. As Evan looked up to the hill where the sound was coming from he saw what could only be Darnaxes himself. He stood on the back of a chariot his body decorated in golden chains and body piercings. His eyes met Evan’s as he placed a fist to his chest in salute. The intense glare in those eyes told Evan that he and his friends had made an enemy this day. The Persian king would not forget nor forgive this insult. He clicked the reigns, turned his back, and rode out of sight.
CHAPTER 21: THE MISPLACED
With the battle over and the Persians in retreat, Evan turned his attentions to Panga. He dropped beside her and took a blood soaked hand in his. She clutched her dagger in her other hand. Snow Wing stood beside them stamping his hoof, shaking his head, and snorting. He clearly blamed Evan for Panga’s injuries. Behind them both, Trace lay asleep, but otherwise unharmed. Panga turned her head weakly to Evan, her eyes half closed, her words barely a whisper. Evan was able to make out one word. “Asclepius.”
Yes. Panga had told him about the bread that had cured him from the Shade injury. He reached for her purse hoping that he would be able to pull the bread from the bag. They had never had reason to make use of another’s food source before so he wasn’t certain the enchantments surrounding them weren’t somehow specific to each of them. He gave his own prayer of thanks as he pulled the bread in the wrapping from the bag and fed one slice to Panga. Instantly her wounds began to close up and her eyes became more alert.
“Evan! Panga! Help! Alectra’s been hurt!” Jadin’s panicked voice echoed across the field.
“Take this and go. It will help,” Evan said as he placed another slice in Eric’s hands.
Without hesitation, Eric turned and ran toward the sound of Jadin’s voice. Evan watched him briefly before turning back to Panga who was steadily improving.
“You still trust me?” he asked her.
She placed her hand on his cheek. “With my life.”
Eric knelt beside Jadin who cradled a pale unresponsive Alectra in her arms.
“Feed her this,” he said as he handed her the Asclepius bread.
He stayed with her while Alectra began to recover. Only after Alectra was able to sit up with little help from Jadin did he see his horse laying a short distance away from where Alectra had fallen. Tears filled Eric’s eyes as he went over stroking him between his ears. The horses breathing was labored, his coat had faded to a ghostly white, the star on his forehead barely visible, and its eyes were clouded gray.
“I’m sorry,” Eric whispered. “You helped on my journey home, I won’t be able to the same for you.”
He didn’t know if the Asclepius bread could help his horse or if there would be time for him to return with it before the horse completed its change into a Shade. Jadin had come over to join him and he looked to her sword.
“Please, Jadin. Don’t let Hades take him.”
Jadin’s own eyes were full of tears as she brought her sword down and Eric’s horse flashed out of existence.
The remaining part of the day was uneventful. Evan only left Panga’s side long enough to gather Alectra and carry her back to their makeshift camp. Jadin reported that any remaining Shades had faded and disappeared from the battlefield when the horn sounded. In time, the hellhounds had dissolved into black smoke and were blown away by the wind. The Griffins and Stymphalian Birds had parted company and flown off in opposite directions. Mercury had chased the birds until they had flown out of sight before returning to Evan. Trace had recovered, but still weak from his battle with the hellhounds he stayed awake only long enough to share a meal with the group before drifting back to sleep. Evan was awoken the next day by a familiar voice.
“Well done, heroes. Olympus is in your debt.”
Evan looked up to see Dionysus standing at his head with his arms crossed and a satisfied smile on his face. As Evan sat up and his eyes cleared, he realized Dionysus wasn’t standing on the ground, but his feet hovered about a foot above it.
“I assume that sending us home is part of that debt?” Evan asked.
“Yes, yes, of course,” Dionysus said as if this were an unimportant condition. “But first, I believe a feast is in order.”
Dionysus waved his hand and a large dining table appeared before Evan loaded down with a large variety of foods. Ham, turkey and roast beast formed the centerpiece. Trays of vegetables and fruits formed a circle around them. At each place setting was a goblet of wine that Evan felt certain would go untouched, except perhaps, by Eric.
“As for these Persians.” Evan looked out to the battlefield where Trace and Eric were gathering up any weapons from the soldiers who had remained unconscious from the battle a day earlier. Another wave of Dionysus’ hand and the Persians were removed from the field, though the stack of weapons remained.
“Now I must return to Olympus and join the party. Pheme could not wait to share the news of my victory. Today no God’s will take part in the battles at Troy. I shall return at sunset to see you on your way.”
With that, the God was gone. Evan looked around their makeshift campsite. Jadin and Alectra remained asleep. Panga stood further out on the plains with Snow Wing, running her hand through his coat as she stood beside him engrossed in their own private conversation. Evan strode out onto the former battlefield to summon Eric and Trace to the feast. He imagined the smells emanating from the table would awaken Jadin and Alectra and if not he could wake them when he returned. Panga would join them when she was ready.
“So I guess this is goodbye,” Panga said to Snow Wing privately. Even this far away from the others she didn’t see the need for speaking aloud. Her hands continued to brush along his coat. She ran her fingers through his mane affectionately.
It doesn’t work that way, Snow Wing answered her. Where you go, I go.
“Well, where I’m going is nowhere near here. Besides, who will be King if not you?”
My brother Henry will make a great King.
Panga rolled her eyes at this revelation. “You have a brother named Henry?”
We can’t all get the good names.
With full bellies, Panga and the others awaited Dionysus’ return. Trace had made use of their free time by absorbing the Persian weapons to recharge his system. The God didn’t disappoint, arriving precisely as the sun began to set. Evan had mentioned that Dionysus was attending a party on Olympus and apparently, he had been drinking freely. His eyes were even more bloodshot than usual, his crown of vines was crooked on his head, and his speech was almost incomprehensible.
“I see all of you are here. Very well, off you go. Farewell.” The God made a simple gesture with his hand as opposed to his usual elegant wave and Panga found herself thrown back into the familiar darkness of departure.
When her vision cleared again, Panga did not find herself on the paved city streets of Haven, but on a hill overlooking a valley. A river snaked its way through the valley as far as Panga could see in any direction. When Panga turned away, a familiar figure stood in front of her. He looked older, a wreath of ivy crowned his head, his belly was more portly, and he wore an elegant purple robe. His bloodshot eyes, however, were unmistakable.
“Dionysus, you said you were sending us home. Why did you bring us here?” Evan asked. His voice carried a tone of anger Panga rarely heard, but she was sure it echoed in the thoughts of them all.
“You are here because I have need of you,” the God said. His voice was as slurred as ever, but Panga noted a more commanding tone to it. As if the God was not accustomed to being challenged, and those who did so should do so with care. “If you must address me, you should do so properly. My name is Bacchus.”