"We have to do what?" exclaimed Flynn.
"We have to go where?" exclaimed Nicholas.
"What are Manny and Ombric thinking? We're nowhere near ready for a mission!" blurted Rapunzel.
"Well, they think we've done enough training to go find the sword, at least. We clearly have a ways to go before we can search for any other relics," remarked Jack as he crossed his arms and eyed each person in turn.
"So, let me get this straight, we have to go through the forest, hope there are no monsters, find the sword, and get back home in one piece?" asked Katherine.
"Basically," stated Jack.
"Basically a suicide," muttered Emily.
"Manny and Ombric said this was the easiest mission, the easiest relic to collect because they know exactly where it is and what to expect. They wouldn't be sending us out to get it if they didn't think that we weren't ready enough."
"Well, we're still far from it."
"OK, we have a week to prepare. Let's get a move on," stated Jack with finality. The group sighed and followed him to the armory. They practiced some more, and pretty hard at that. More than half the time, it turned into a heated competition, but Jack was content with them doing anything at all at this point. Hopefully once they entered the forest, they might, just might consider working together as a team, but that was a pretty big if at this moment. Flynn and Nicholas really went at it with their fencing. If they weren't fencing against Jack or someone else, they were fencing against each other, and they would go for hours at a time, neither one wanting to give in. Rapunzel primarily stuck to the archery practice while Katherine took to throwing knives, both competing to see who would hit the target the most. Emily and Catrina dabbled in both fencing and archery, but mostly kept to honing their powers.
The day finally came for them to enter the forest, after a grueling, slow week of practice and competition. The practice was now over, but only the next level of competition was warming up. They were pretty cordial to each other as they approached the camp's force field, but that was mainly because the entire camp was watching them, with Manny and Ombric both there to send them off.
"You all have come a long way in your practice, and I am happy to hear that you have progressed as much as you have this past week. You will need everything you have to complete this mission, so always keep your wits about you. Do not argue or bicker with each other. You do, and the enemy will clean you off faster than a satyr can chew paper." The campers laughed somewhat at the simile, the imagery was funny, to be sure, but to be finished off by a monster faster than that? That was nowhere near as funny, much less any pleasant to think about. "I am giving complete authority to Jackson Overland, he will make the final decisions, and if any of you go against those orders, you will be severely punished upon your return. Understand?" The group gulped and nodded, Manny was not someone to trifle with. Sure, he was nice and all, but there were consequences for disobeying his orders. "Good. Head for the center of the forest, there you shall come across a large lake. The sword is at the bottom of the lake, and in order to retrieve it, you must get through several obstacles. Teamwork is essential, if you do not work together, you will all die."
"And us as well," mumbled Ombric.
"No pressure, huh?" quipped Flynn as he crossed his arms.
"No, we might just put all the pressure on you just so you can actually get this done," returned Ombric.
Flynn began to smirk, "Nice comeback."
"Thank you, I try, and with you lot, I have to try extra hard."
Flynn whispered to Jack, "I'm beginning to like this guy."
Jack grinned back, "So we just might have to work extra hard to protect this camp, huh?"
"Certainly looks that way."
"Good luck to you all, and may the gods bless this mission."
"Um, thank you," replied Jack, giving a slight bow.
"Be safe, all of you."
Jack smiled softly, "We will. Well, let's go." The group turned and walked into the forest, leaving the safety of the camp.
"Now, if only we could have had a blessing for our lives . . ." muttered Flynn as he stepped up next to Jack.
Jack rolled his eyes, "Yeah, no kidding." He glanced back, Katherine and Rapunzel were fairly close behind them, with Nicholas and Emily not far behind them, and Catrina taking up the rear. He sighed as he turned his head back to the front, at least they weren't arguing with each other, yet. He just had to hope that they could cooperate long enough for him to lead them in, and back out, alive and in one piece preferably. They trudged through the forest, keeping as close to each other as they could, or in a couple of cases, dared to. The forest was getting more and more spooky the further they went, low-hanging branches got caught on many shirts and jackets, forcing the group to unsheath swords to cut their way through. But besides them, there was no sight or sound from any other living creature.
"Everyone, wait!" called out Catrina.
Emily growled, "What is it this time?"
Catrina didn't reply with a snazzy remark, she replied with a foreboding tone, "Listen, what do you hear?" Everyone paused and listened.
Flynn shrugged, "I'm not hearing anything. Did you hear something?"
"No, that's the point, you should be hearing a lot of insect this time of year."
"And do you know that? Have you been shadow-traveling into the forest?"
"And your point is? It's none of your concern if I set out to find some peace and quiet, but right now, believe me when I say this, something is wrong, very very wrong." Everyone stopped and glanced at each other worriedly. Now that Catrina had mentioned it, she was right, there were no signs or sounds of insects, squirrels, or birds.
"Alright everyone, stay close, this just might be the first test to get to the lake." The others nodded at Jack's suggestion, and began to huddle a little closer than they had been ten minutes ago.
"So, anything in particular we should be looking for . . ."
"Not now, Flynn, I'm concentrating on keeping an eye out for anything that would say trap."
"But didn't the old man tell you anything about the traps?"
"He only said that there were some, not where exactly, or what to look for, so, everyone, be careful. And keep a sharp eye out for anything," ordered Jack. The group began to get closer together as the eerie silence of the forest seemed to close in around them. They walked forward somewhat slowly and cautiously, weapons drawn. They glanced around as they pressed forward, but nothing seemed to show up.
"OK, so, maybe all of the traps are at the lake shore?" ventured Flynn.
"Maybe, Nicholas, I'm going to need your expertise on this."
"What?" exclaimed both Flynn and Nicholas.
Jack looked Nicholas in the eye, "Yes, your dad is Hephaestus, right?" Nicholas nodded. "So, correct me if I'm wrong, but your dad is great at building traps, right?"
Nicholas smirked, "You got it. So, if you don't mind," he glanced at Flynn, "I'll need to take the lead."
Jack nodded, "Of course." He stepped aside and let Nicholas take the lead.
"Be ready to stop at a moment's notice," stated Nicholas.
"OK," chorused the group before following him. Rapunzel and Katherine got even closer to Flynn and Jack, with Emily and Catrina trying to stay as close to the group as possible without getting too close to each other. Nicholas went rather slowly, but no one complained, they understood that he had to scrutinize every single thing before declaring it safe to cross.
"Halt! I think we've come across our first trap." The others crowded around him.
"Where?" asked Jack. Nicholas pointed at a thin string, something Jack would have easily walked into.
"Nice catch," muttered Flynn in awe.
"Thank you, but like Jack said, my dad's kind of the expert on these things."
"Right, everyone, step over the string very carefully."
"Something's not right. A piece of string is a very common tool in activating traps, for something like this, there should be something else, something far more discreet. Let me check this area completely, just to be on the safe side. None of you make a move, or a sound."
"OK," whispered the group. Nicholas nodded and stepped over the string carefully. He made sure he was clear of the string before continuing his investigation. They watched and waited for what seemed like hours as Nicholas carefully went over every square inch of the forest floor.
"Have you found anything?" whispered Flynn.
"It's only been a couple of minutes! And don't say another word until I say so, we don't know if there's anything that can be set off by sound!" Nicholas whispered back.
"Sh!" The girls all put their fingers to their lips, making Flynn somewhat annoyed. He glanced at Jack, who simply shook his head as if to say, not now, dude. Flynn let out a huff and sat against a tree. A few more minutes passed, and Nicholas continued his search, which led him out of sight of the others.
"Hey, Nick? Nicholas!" called out Jack when they couldn't see him. "Don't go far from the group!"
"Jack!" A soft twang reached his ears and he glanced down in shock, but he wasn't touching the string. A shadowy tentacle was, and it was already retreating back into the forest. A yelp from Flynn caused him to turn around, just in time to see his friend being swallowed up by the tree.
"Jack!" shrieked Rapunzel. The girls were grabbed by vines and dragged to a tree where they got swallowed up.
"No!" shouted Jack as he let loose a stream of ice at the trees. Malicious laughter met his ears.
"The tree didn't eat up your friends. I just separated you, that's all, making it easier for me to take you out." Jack swiveled around, trying to find the source of the voice, but a vine grabbed him and tossed him into a tree.