Tzuyu spoke first, signaling for her soldiers to back down. “Yeri? What are you guys doing here, I thought you were on a quest?”
“We technically still are, I guess? Look, there was a whole thing with the Labryinth, a chimera, a Hydra, We met Joohyun-unnie’s dad and he’s kind of an asshat—” Yeri scratched her neck uncertainly.
“You were in the Underworld?” Tzuyu interrupted her, relief flashing across her face. “Thank the gods, that explains it.”
Seulgi noticed for the first time that the daughter of Athena looked utterly exhausted. Dark circles hung under her eyes and underneath her armor she could see that her left shoulder had been wrapped in bandages. Something had clearly happened since they left. “Explains what?”
“Tzuyu, we’ve got another reading coming!” Nayeon broke through the ranks, handing a tablet over to the daughter of Athena. Seulgi knew whatever transpired had to be serious if Athena and Ares kids were working together with no animosity between them. “They must have sensed a spike in energy.”
“Damn it,” Tzuyu swore, putting her helmet back on and turning back to her soldiers. “We’ve got another wave incoming, I want everyone on alert!” She turned back to Joohyun, “I hate to ask this of you after you’ve just come back, but we need all the help we can get at this point.”
Joohyun’s face immediately took on that of her leader persona. “Of course, what are we fighting?”
A strange clacking sound reached their ears, and through the trees on the other side of the clearing a single shadowy creature appeared. Jet black with wickedly long claws attached to spindly fingers, the creature leaped out into the clearing, mouth clacking like mad. Its body was similarly thin, and as it began running towards the gathered demigods its movements were jerky, as though an invisible puppeteer stood behind it, guiding its steps.
“Fire!” Came Tzuyu’s order, and a second later the creature collapsed, its body riddled with arrows. The clacking sound stopped, and a second later its body disintegrated, the shadows melting back into the ground.
“Well, that didn’t look too bad,” Yeri said, sheathing her daggers.
Tzuyu shook her head, her eyes still trained on the woods where the creature had emerged from. “That’s only the beginning.”
Seulgi watched in abject horror as the trees began to rustle and at least fifty of the same creatures came into view. The clacking sound surged and then the wave charged for them.
Tzuyu sighed, readying her sword and shield. Beside her, Nayeon roared a challenge. “I have no idea what those things are, but they’ve been attacking us every few hours since you guys left.”
Seulgi fell back, wiping the sweat off her brow and breathing heavily. Those damn shadow creatures were a lot more resilient than she thought. She’d lost count of how many arrows she had sunk into their forces; at the tail end of the fight she’d been forced to take out her knives to finish off the last few but one thing was for certain. They weren’t here to play.
“We’re never gonna catch a break, are we?” Seungwan panted.
“I thought this was bad, I can’t imagine having to fight them every few hours,” Seulgi agreed. Nayeon walked over to them, carrying a couple of fresh canteens in her hands and offering them to Seulgi and Seungwan. The daughter of Ares had waded directly into the fight and had come out of it with only a single gash down her leg where one of the creatures had scored a lucky hit in-between her armor plates. Seulgi took a long drink, thankful that the battle seemed to be over for now. “Are you okay?”
Nayeon nodded her head, limping slightly to avoid putting too much pressure on her injury. “I will be. This attack wasn’t the worst we’ve had, but every time we fight them they’re a little harder to kill. It’s almost like they’re learning from their mistakes.”
Tzuyu beckoned them over, “Our readings are clear for now, so let’s head back to camp and rest before the next spike shows up. With any luck we’ll be able to get a little time off.”
“How is everyone at camp?” Seungwan asked, getting to her feet and brushing the dirt off her pants.
“A lot has changed since you guys left, and none of it for the better.”
Walking through the campgrounds again felt almost surreal to Seulgi. Was it really only a couple of weeks since she’d found out about demigods? Their group had quickly separated, with Sooyoung and Yeri taken by their siblings and Yuri dropping by to ask if Seungwan could help her down at the stables. Even Procyon had been co-opted by a group of Ares kids, who fawned over the Labrador and convinced Joohyun to let them play with him. As Procyon bounced away with his tail wagging cheerily Seulgi couldn’t help but smile. A love for dogs must be an Ares trait.
The grounds looked worse for wear, Seulgi noticed as they walked. Defensive palisades had been hastily erected at strategic intervals throughout the camp, with demigods patrolling the area on high alert. She noticed Felix running around one of the forges with a group of his siblings as he barked out orders. Even the volleyball court had been jerry-rigged into a triage zone, with Tzuyu explaining that their infirmary had been running on fumes since the attacks began. They were well stocked for one or two attacks but they were not prepared for a prolonged assault.
“It doesn’t help that Solar’s gone missing. Even Mr. D up and left a few days ago, although that second part isn’t nearly as worrying, he’s a god after all, they do things on their own timetables.” Nayeon winced, adjusting the straps on her armor so it didn’t chafe against her latest battle wound. “The vacuum in leadership was something we really didn’t need, though.”
Seulgi stopped in her tracks. “Wait, Solar’s missing?”
Tzuyu nodded somberly. “A couple days after you left a squad of Apollo campers were on patrol. They didn’t come back. That’s when the attacks really started to pick up.”
Joohyun closed her eyes, “How many?”
“Four. Solar, Somi, Jihyo and Hoseok.” They all fell silent, nobody wanting to bring up the likely truth that they’d never see them alive again. The sentiment was there though, and Seulgi’s heart sank. She didn’t know Jihyo or Hoseok very well, but Somi had been one of her very first friends at camp and Solar had gone out of her way to make sure Seulgi settled into their cabin after getting claimed. These were her siblings, and something told her that their sudden disappearances weren’t a coincidence.
“We send out a patrol every day to look for them,” Nayeon said, her voice uncharacteristically quiet. She sniffled, turning around so no one could see the single tear that rolled down her cheek. Seulgi had always thought of the Ares campers as fiery, ambitious and confident in themselves and their abilities. Seeing Nayeon in such a state really drove home the importance of their mission.
They walked in silence for a while, leaving Seulgi to think about their next steps. Hades had told her that she’d find answers back where she began. Of course he’d neglected to tell her any specifics, so it left her at a loss.
Joohyun spoke up, “We’re still technically not done with our quest, but my father told us we’d find some answers here. I don’t know how long we’re going to be sticking around, but while we’re here is there anything we can do to help you guys out?”
Tzuyu nodded, “I’ll take you guys to see Mina, she’s been heading our research effort into these shadow creatures. Poor girl’s been holed up in our library for days now, her girlfriend has to bring her food every evening.”
“Athena kids,” Nayeon scoffed good naturedly. “Once they get hooked on an idea they chase it until they come out victorious. Bunch of nerds.”
“Alright that’s enough out of you,” a voice said, causing Nayeon to freeze up. “Get your to the volleyball court for triage before I make you.”
Nayeon turned around to face her very irate girlfriend with an embarrassed smile on her face. “Hey babe.”
“Don’t ‘hey babe’ me